Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Bazzi Rahib, Ilyas Basim Khuri. Jesus Walks on Water, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55906.
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’
Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’
Recently, Tasha and I watched a scene in a tv show that has stuck in my mind over the last several weeks. In the scene, the stakes are very high: like, fate of the entire universe high, and two regular humans are trying to figure out what to do. One character, Dr. Jurati, who has been making some questionable and destructive choices, is in the midst of her redemption arc and is working with Jean-Luc Picard, our hero. It’s just the two of them on a spaceship and they don’t quite yet have a plan to hold off more than 200 enemy ships while they wait for reinforcements. Dr. Jurati is noticeably and reasonably concerned. She says: “So, how do we hold off two hundred and eighteen warbirds ‘til Starfleet gets here. If they get here. Are you not answering to build suspense?” Picard, sitting in the captain’s chair and trying to figure things out says: “At the present moment, Dr. Jurati, I'm trying to pilot a starship for the first time in a very long time without exploding or crashing. If that is all right with you.” Dr. Jurati says: “Totally. Good call. One impossible thing at a time.” One impossible thing at a time.
She had heard Picard and maybe his old friend Raffi saying that. When looking at a huge and terrible thing, it is too easy to get overwhelmed by all of it. Better not try to figure it all out at once. Better not get ahead of yourself. Every piece of it might be impossible, but, if you’re lucky and work hard, the piece right in front of you might be more possible than you first imagined. In another series, in another time, Picard said, “Things are only impossible until they’re not.” He’s a little playful, you see, even in times of great stress. This idea of “one impossible thing at a time” is both a plea and a plan. Please, only one impossible thing. Yes, I can manage one impossible thing at a time. Let’s get to work.
I remembered this bit of Star Trek: Picard when I read this impossible story from the book of Matthew. While they were not facing down 200 enemy ships, Jesus and the disciples’ world was getting increasingly dangerous. Jesus’ cousin John, the one who had baptized him and ushered him into public ministry, had been murdered by a powerful, cowardly, and cruel king. The tension around Jesus’ ministry is mounting, too. Jesus’ popularity had been growing. In the verses before today’s reading, the crowds were so big, so desperate, with so many people in need of healing and wisdom trying to get close, that they practically crush Jesus. They even follow him to the deserted place where he has gone to mourn John’s death. Jesus would have been in his rights to tell them to back off and give him some time. He needed to grieve. But, he saw their desperation. He had compassion for them. He began to heal people. This is the first of the impossible things in this chapter.
As the chapter and the day went along, the people didn’t look they were going anywhere and the hour was getting late. There was no Hannaford and no Peppers and no Fast Eddie’s. It was not easy to find food, much less food for scores of people. Jesus, who loved the people, even as he was overwhelmed by them, knew that they’d need to eat. The disciples, noticeably and reasonably concerned, did not know how that many people were going to find that much food. “How are we going to feed all these people?” they said. It looked impossible, like defeating 200 star ships impossible. And, then, Jesus, breaking down the big impossible task into something smaller, asked for the food they had to share. It didn’t look like a lot: five loaves and two fish, but, it was enough. More than enough. They fed everybody, a job that was impossible until it wasn’t. They even had leftovers.
That all happens right before today’s story. Today’s reading is the next impossible thing. Jesus still needed some space to mourn and pray. He sent his friends off in the boat and headed up the mountain to be by himself. He went to the mountain for fortification. But, notice, he rarely does his ministry by himself. He needed coworkers, disciples. When it came time to be with the disciples again, they were far out in the water, having been driven out by a storm. Jesus didn’t need to be alone anymore, so he started walking. Typically, walking is not the way that one crosses water. Jesus is not typical. And, besides, things are only impossible until they’re not.
The disciples, having spent the night on a stormy ocean are terrified by what they behold. They even think they are seeing a ghost. After the overwhelming last few days, I do not blame them for being afraid. In fact, I’m surprised that even one of them could muster a response to such a vision. I think I’d have been huddled around the mast, waiting for the storm to be over. But, Peter was watching and listening. He heard Jesus counsel to not be afraid. And, he decided to do something about it. Maybe he was able to see something hopeful in the moment. Or, maybe he’s trying to test what he thinks might be a ghost. Whatever the reason, he called out, offering to do the impossible... to meet Jesus part way.
He had watched Jesus heal people and feed people from almost nothing. Walking on water might just have been the next impossible thing that will become possible. And, for a moment, it is. Peter is doing it. He is walking on the water. And, then, he is not. Dr. Mitzi Smith put it this way in a commentary on this story: “Peter soon discovers that it is one thing to be battered by strong winds while in the same boat with others. It is a whole other matter to be on the water surrounded by strong winds and all by yourself, without others who share in the same vulnerability.” Peter, whose name means the Rock, sinks like a stone. “Lord, save me” he yelled.
Faith is a curious thing. Peter had faith enough to step out into the water. That is no small feat. Nobody else thought to do it. Lisle Gwynn Garrity wondered in her meditation on this scripture for the Unraveled devotional if we weren’t seeing Peter trying to convert some desperation into courage. Remember, it had been a rough couple days capped off by a stormy night that may have left him in fear for his life. Maybe he felt like he had to get across that water to get back to Jesus in order to get through everything that had been going on. But, that initial desperation wasn’t enough to keep him walking. You can’t build your faith entirely out of desperation, even if it’s what gets you off of the boat in the first place.
Mitzi Smith wondered if Peter didn’t actually just need to stay in the boat and wait for Jesus. If Peter needed the presence of Christ, all he really had to do was be patient. Jesus was on the way to the boat. Had Peter waited, he would not have been alone and he would have soon been back in the soothing presence of Christ. Peter didn’t have to walk for this to be a miracle. A beautiful, impossible thing still would have happened, whether or not Peter stepped out of the boat. Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. That’s how the apostle Paul put in in Romans. The storm would not have stopped Jesus. Nor would the grief. Nor would the cruelty of unscrupulous rulers. Peter didn’t have to do the impossible. Jesus was going to do it for him. But, in that moment, he wanted something impossible to help him know that what he was seeing was true, to help experience faith in Jesus in a way that overpowered his fear in the moment.
Jesus loved Peter like he loved the hungry crowds earlier in the story. So, he reaches out to save him. He wondered about the paucity of Peter’s faith. Is this Jesus castigating Peter for falling in the water or for even getting out of the boat in the first place? It’s not clear. What is clear in the story, is that Jesus’ arrival in the boat brings calm. The wind no longer buffeted them about. Suddenly, with him there, this whole impossible ministry seems manageable again. It says they worshiped him there, because they knew he was the Son of God.
I imagine that you are looking at some impossible things coming up. I also imagine that you are noticeably and reasonably concerned about the decisions that you will soon have to make. Maybe you are praying this plea and plan: One impossible thing at a time. I pray that you will have faith enough to walk toward Christ and also to ask for help if you fall. Remember, even if you sink, it’s possible for Jesus to lift you up, into his calm. This is a time of impossible choices. But, they are only impossible until they are not. And, Jesus still specializes in the impossible. May you see him coming towards your boat.
Resources mentioned in this sermon:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.