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August 7, 2017

“Grits” Matthew 14:13-33 Ordinary 18A © 8.6.17 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

There’s a scene in the old movie Bruce Almighty where Jim Carrey as Bruce and Morgan Freeman as God are talking as they stand on water in the middle of a lake. When their conversation is finished, God glides away without making a ripple, while Bruce, now endowed with divine abilities, sloshes toward the shore, but still without sinking.

The film assumes we know the gospel story of Jesus walking on water. It’s a divine thing to do or at least something we might expect from a superhero or a person in command of incredible technology. Even my first college roommate Charles, who was not a believer by any stretch of the imagination, knew the claim about Jesus. He denied it, though, thinking that the text must have been corrupted. Instead of Jesus walking on the sea, it really said he walked by the sea. Well, where would have been the miracle or the display of divine power in that?

I would guess that those who know the story of Jesus walking on water also may recall that in this gospel, unlike in Mark and John, Peter got out of the boat and hydro-ambulated for a little while himself. His experience has become a favorite metaphor in classic evangelical Christianity. The chaotic sea becomes sin that threatens to suck us down to death. The wind and the waves are the troubles of life that distract us from gazing steadily at Jesus. Our Lord reaches out his hand to rescue us in our fear and distress from the dark and threatening deep, and all is suddenly well. Peter is held up as a model believer because of his willingness to risk having nothing solid under his feet if that means he can be with Jesus and attempt great things in his name. There was even a Christian self-help book published at the beginning of this century titled If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat (John Ortberg, 2001). Since then, a participants’ guide and DVD have become available, in addition to the original work. For the author, water-walking is “a picture of doing with God’s help what I could never do on my own.” Get out there, do mission, focus on Jesus, and he will take care of you!

There’s just one problem. As an Episcopal priest friend once reminded me, Jesus doesn’t commend Peter.

Yes, our Lord bids the disciple come to him on the waves. And he rescues him when he begins to sink. But remember why Peter wanted to get out of the boat to start with.

Despite our Lord’s assurance that the disciples were really seeing him and not an astral projection or some other apparition, a phantasm, Peter didn’t buy it. He refused to believe what he was seeing was really Jesus walking on water.

I’m not saying Peter isn’t an example of faith. He is, and Matthew means him to be so. The apostle went against all his natural instincts and his experience as a fisherman and sailor when he stepped out of the boat in the middle of a storm without any means of flotation. He believed that if Jesus called him to come, then that same Jesus would sustain him no matter what.

So it’s true that God invites us sometimes to get out of our comfort zones and act in a way that to others may seem even a little crazy. We step out into the waves without a life preserver and change careers because the current one is not fulfilling. We undertake some project that looks impossible, and we have no idea where the resources will come from. We attempt to do something we never imagined doing. We make a commitment, while our friends and family think we should simply be committed. All because we believe this is what God wants us to do. With such assurance, we climb over the gunwale and put our feet on the fluid surface of the future, not knowing whether we will sink or saunter.

But Peter’s call and experience are extraordinary, not the everyday model of faithful living. We wish it were otherwise. I suspect we’re thrilled and inspired by Peter’s gutsy take-charge attitude, his readiness for adventure, and his focused devotion. And this little vignette tracks well with the I-come-to-the-garden-alone, victory-in-Jesus individualistic spirituality that dominates American Christianity these days. It’s what retired seminary professor Kathleen O’Connor calls a “Jesus-and-me duo” (Vantage, Summer 2011: 9). We like to think we’re saved by ourselves, for ourselves, and it’s just Jesus and us on a happy journey to heaven, rescued from the cares of the world and from Hell later as we stare lovingly into his eyes. As a favorite hymn of my youth put it: “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face. And the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.”

But again the problem. Jesus wasn’t going to let Peter drown, but when he was plucked from the waves, he got a talking to, what we now call a “come to Jesus talk.” “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” The Greek is singular, addressed to him personally, not as leader of the disciples. In other words, why did you get out of the boat in the first place? Why did you create this situation? Why did you leave the others to struggle and worry while you went adventuring? Eugene Boring, a wonderful commentator, observes that while Peter uses the right title for Jesus and displays great personal faith, “he leaves the boat and the community.” He shouldn’t have left his companions to seek proof of the presence of Christ (Interpretation, Vol. XIII: 328). And even his faith is portrayed as vacillating, going back and forth between options. Matthew uses a rare Greek word for “doubt” that tells us Peter isn’t skeptical, but indecisive and unsure.

So it’s not Peter who’s an example of everyday faith, but the disciples who stayed in the boat. They are all afraid, but they find comfort and courage in the word of Jesus. They keep on with their hard task of keeping the boat afloat knowing that their Lord is near, even when their craft, which is an image for the suffering church, is being “tortured” by the waves, as the literal Greek has it. Indeed, Jesus speaks to them two key sentences that still sustain his followers in any day.

One is “It is I.” In the Greek of the text, that’s “I am.” You may recall that “I am” is the name of God from the Old Testament. In two little words, Jesus claims for himself power over wind and wave and worry. Like Yahweh in the Old Testament, he “walks on” the water, a symbol of his conquest of chaos. He reassures them as the one who was, who is, and who is to come. He is no ghost, but there is something eerie and awesome about him. He’s Mystery in the flesh.

So Jesus reminds his followers that in him, God is present. But then he commands and reassures them and us: “Do not be afraid.” That is the key message of the gospel, appearing here and over and over in the Bible as a whole. It’s the gift and the demand of Jesus to us all. “Do not be afraid,” spoken immediately on their expression of fear. “Do not be afraid,” as he assures them of his real presence. “Do not be afraid,” as circumstances threaten to overwhelm them. “Do not be afraid.” “Do not be afraid.”

I’ve said it before: any message claiming to be a gospel word that is based on fear is not from God. Our Lord is the one who gives assurance and calm and blessing. He brings people together in a community of trust and care. He imparts the peace of God, so that the raging tempest ceases, and God is given glory.

No doubt the church needs bold leaders who take risks and get out of the boat. But mainly our Lord works through faithful people who keep on rowing and bailing and conquering their fear to do what needs to be done. He values those who take him at his word and know that he is indeed here and coming. It is not those kinds of people he chides for little faith and for their doubt, but the ones like Peter who insist on following him all by themselves, going it alone on their own private pilgrimages, leaving others behind. The lone apostle may be the kind of brash, take-charge hero we’ve gotten used to and crave in our culture, but he’s not the ancient, classic sort. Those kinds of men and women, as someone has noted, instead “go the distance,” whatever that takes, and serve the common good, not just their own curiosity or need for assurance or recognition (Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: 20).

There’s an old story about a guy from the north who came down here for a business meeting. This was back in the day before hotels offered free breakfasts, so he went to the local diner nearby. When his eggs, toast, and sausage came, there was a dollop of buttered white stuff on his plate as well. “What’s this?” he asked the server. “Grits,” she said.” “What’s a grit?” said the man. “Honey,” the waitress replied, telling him what we all know, “grits don’t come by themselves” (see Martin Thielen, “Marketing Plan,” ).

The church is a pot of grits. We don’t come to Jesus, to faith, to the Table, to our times of crisis or of death by ourselves. We belong in community; we serve in community; we are saved in and for community. And we are as diverse and adaptable in our life together as grits, which can be stone ground or creamy, garlic or cheese or buttered, served in a cake with shrimp Low Country-style or with ham and red-eye gravy like on my grandma’s table back in the day. We aren’t all the same, but to return to the metaphor of the text, we all pull on the oars in the boat together; we are all buffeted by the torturous waves; we all need Jesus to be with us. Again with Eugene Boring: “Faith is not being able to walk on water—only God can do that—but daring to believe, in the face of all the evidence, that God is with us in the boat, made real in the community of faith as it makes its way through the storm, battered by the waves” (330).

Sometimes a situation calls for people to step out as Peter did, and take risks that inspire the imagination and embolden hearts. But mostly we need folks who stay in the boat, work faithfully whatever the circumstances, and trust that Jesus is truly with them. They’re the real heroes.

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