A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, August 10, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Matthew 14:22-33 and Psalm 69:1-3, 13b-18
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

From our friends at Unvirtuous Abbey.

From our friends at Unvirtuous Abbey.

There’s a story about Mark Twain that, if it didn’t actually happen, it should have. He was visiting the Holy Land and the visit included a stay in Capernaum. On a moonlit night, so he decided to take his wife on a romantic boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. Twain asked a man in a rowboat how much he would charge to take them out on the water.  The man saw Twain’s white suit, white shoes, and white hat and supposed he was a rich Texan.  So the boatman said the cost would be twenty-five dollars (which, in Twain’s day, was a substantial amount of money).  Twain walked away saying, “Now I know why Jesus walked.”[1]

There are two stormy seas stories in the gospels. One is repeated in Matthew, Mark and Luke.[2] In this story, Jesus and the disciples are out in a boat, Jesus falls asleep, a storm kicks up, Jesus awakens and still the storm.

The other is repeated in Matthew, Mark, and John.[3] In this story, the disciples are in the boat without Jesus when the storm kicks up. Then Jesus comes walking out to them on the water. In John’s and Mark’s versions, the story ends there. Matthew includes Jesus’ invitation to Peter to step on out of the boat, Peter sinking, Jesus saving him, and the stilling of the storm.

Sudden storms like this are not uncommon on the Sea of Galilee. Think about how on hot summer days here in the Bay Area, the wind will often pick up as the air begins to cool. I like to call them “sunset breezes.” Galilee Lake is almost 700 feet below sea level. The surrounding hills reach 2000 feet.[4] The temperature differences between the elevations in the day and at night can draw the air down across the water, and sudden windstorms can kick up.

A boating industry for pilgrims thrives on the Sea of Galilee. I assume it did in Mark Twain’s day, too. Boat owners take pilgrims on a tour. Some pilgrims are lucky enough to experience one of these sudden storms. At least they think they’re lucky. The boat owners might not feel the same way.

Author and Jesuit priest James Martin writes about the stormy sea stories from the gospels. “[T]he disciples would not have felt any pleasure [in a storm on the lake]. In Jesus’ day storms were terrifying, and water held rich symbolism: it symbolized life and a means of purification, but it also held out the potential for death and was an occasion of danger. The psalmists speak of God’s power over the seas and use water as a symbol of peril: ‘Save me, O God,’ says the psalmist, ‘for the waters have come up to my neck’ (Ps 69). Raging seas and bowling storms would have represented to Jesus’ contemporaries chaos and danger. Jewish belief was that the sea could also be the abode of demonic forces.

“On a less theological level, sea voyages were simply dangerous, as St. Paul would attest. A storm at sea could be frightening even for experienced fishermen. Far worse is the storm at sea at night.”[5]

Consider contemporary responses from people on land to threats of water. I remember descriptions of water rushing up streets in New York and New Jersey from Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge – and the terror the inundation wrought. Over the past 72 hours, I’ve watched nervous Facebook posts from friends in Hawaii turn to relief as Iselle dissipated and Julio started tracking north. The videos of the tsunami in Japan three years ago tossing cars around like toys haunt my memory. And I can still see a white clapboard farmhouse being pushed off it foundation whole and then crushed into flotsam by a river that overflowed its banks in the Midwest years ago.

Water is powerful. A cubic meter of water weights over a ton.[6] Imagine a big wave crashing over the side of your 25 foot long fishing boat. No wonder there are a number of Psalms that talk about God’s power and the power of the raging sea, Psalms that connect the waters and the power of God.

A common struggle in the spiritual life is recognizing the presence of God in the midst of life’s storms. When life is devastated – by natural disaster, betrayal, loss, violence, medical news – it can and often does feel as if God has abandoned you. I wonder if his disciples, ordered by Jesus to get into the boat and to row to another village, felt abandoned by Jesus as the storm arose. I know the feeling of wanting to grab the sleeping Jesus by the collar and yell at him, “Don’t you care that I’m at the bottom of this pit.” I know the feeling of wanting to scream out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?!”

But, interestingly, it’s not the storm that makes the disciples afraid in today’s story. In the first set of storm at sea stories, it’s the storm that scares them. In this story, it’s the appearance of Jesus in the midst of the storm, walking out to them on the water, that scares them. “Troubled” is the word the King James Version uses here. You may remember that word from the KJV translation of the story of the Magi. Upon hearing the news of the baby’s birth, King Herod “was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.”[7] These are the only two times Matthew uses this Greek word in his gospel.

Laurel Dykstra points out, “For those of us who would follow [Jesus] and for those who oppose him, Jesus comes to us powerfully in dangerous times, and we are troubled.”[8]

Jesus response to the disciples on the boat and to us is reassuring: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”[9] “Jesus warns against fear in the spiritual life,” Martin reminds us. “When it comes to God’s activity, fear is dangerous because it turns us away from God. Rather than focusing on what God can do, we’re tempted to focus on what it seems God cannot do – that is, protect us.…

“A healthy fear may remind fishermen to guard against contingencies like a storm, but in the spiritual life fear can lead to the inertia of hopelessness. It can paralyze us, destroy our trust, crush our hope, and turn us inward in unhealthy ways. Unchecked, it can lead us into despair – if we conclude that only woe can come out of the present situation, which is an implicit denial of God’s ability to do the impossible.”[10]

I mentioned earlier that only in this version, Matthew’s version of the story, does Jesus invite Peter to step on out of the boat. Douglas Howe says that this story “graphically depicts what it means to be a Christian caught midway between faith and doubt.”[11] Peter steps out of the boat in faith. And in his doubt, he starts to sink. He calls out to Jesus, proclaiming who Jesus is: “Lord, save me!”[12] He makes what may be the most basic proclamation of faith.

“Even though Jesus chastises Peter for this, it seems that this moment of sinking doubt is what strips away Peter’s illusions and allows him truly to see Jesus,” Julie Polter points out.

And then she asks this cutting question: “Without this doubt would Peter and the rest, now worshiping at Jesus’ feet, believe so deeply?”[13]

The boat is an ancient symbol representing the church. There are plenty of storms that rock the boat that is the church. Some come from outside; some from within. This story is about external storms that toss the church about.

Today, I think about the continued violence in Israel/Palestine. I think about violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I think about the ebola crisis. I think especially about the horror taking place in Iraq as one group in the name of religion kills another group because of their religious identity.[14] The storms rage. And Jesus invites us to step on out of the boat.

Is he nuts? It may not be completely safe in here, but it’s a lot more dangerous out there!

And still, he invites us to step on out of the boat.

In the story, the disciples are in the boat because Jesus told them to be there. He called them to that location. We are here because we have been called into a community. And rowing this boat that is the church takes a lot of energy as we seek to move it across the sea. Still, it is not enough to only row the boat. Jesus calls us to step on out, to step into the storm, at least for a while. Jesus calls us to have faith and to step on out.

Honda CB 750 Four

I recently read about Wes Seliger, an Episcopal priest who loves motorcycles.[15] One day, he was in a motorcycle shop, drooling over a Honda 750, which is a midsized, classic road bike. I guess he was wishing that he could buy it. A salesman came over and began to talk about the bike. He talked about speed, acceleration, excitement, the attention-getting growl of the pipes, racing, risk. He talked about how the good-looking girls would be attracted to anyone riding the bike.

When he discovered that Wes was a minister – well, I can tell you: it always happens. Immediately the salesman changed his language and even the tone of his voice. He spoke quietly and talked about good mileage and visibility. It was indeed a “practical” vehicle.

Wes observed: “Lawnmower salespersons are not surprised to find clergypersons looking at their merchandise; motorcycle salespersons are. Why? Does this tell us something about clergypersons and about the church? Lawnmowers are slow, safe, sane, practical, and middle-class. Motorcycles are fast, dangerous, wild, thrilling.

Then Wes asks a question: “Is being a Christian more like mowing a lawn or like riding a motorcycle?” I think there are really two questions there: (1) Do we treat being a Christian more like mowing a lawn or like riding a motorcycle? and (2) And which way does Jesus want us to treat it?

Is the Christian life supposed to be safe and sound or dangerous and exciting?

Yes, taking the church out on the open road, giving it the gas, and seeing what the old baby will do is risky. But Jesus is asking us to step on out. And Jesus is there to grab our hand when we need it. Jesus is there to save us. At least that’s what the story would have us believe.

Douglas Howe reminds us, “To believe in the saving power of Jesus is to take a risk – Faith is not a possession but an activity – like a song that disappears when we stop singing.”[16]

Keep singing.

Step on out.


[1] Attributed to David Leininger, “Stay in the Boat!” quoted in an email from Sermons.com dated 5 August 2014.

[2] See Matthew 8:23-27, Mark 4:35-41, and Luck 8:22-25.

[3] See Matthew 14:22-33, Mark 6:45-52, and John 6:15-21.

[4] James Martin, “From fear to calm,” Christian Century 16 April 2014, 31.

[5] Ibid.

[6] A cubic meter of water weighs 1,000 kg, which is roughly 2,200 lbs.

[7] Matthew 2:3, KJV.

[8] Laurel Dykstra, “Here Comes Trouble,” Sojourners, http://www.sojo.net/preaching-the-word/here-comes-trouble (accessed 5 August 2014).

[9] Matthew 14:27, NRSV.

[10] Martin, op. cit., 33.

[11] Douglas Howe, Matthew, Interpretation, quoted by Kathryn Matthews Huey, “Sermon Seeds,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/august-10-2014.html (accessed 6 August 2014).

[12] Matthew 14:30, NRSV.

[13] Julie Polter, “Sinking Doubt,” Sojourners, http://www.sojo.net/preaching-the-word/sinking-doubt (accessed 5 August 2014).

[14] The violence being perpetrated by ISIS (aka ISIL) is rocking my boat enough to make me questions some sincerely and long-held beliefs.

[15] This story is attributed to King Duncan, from a sermon, “Don’t Look Down,” quoted in an email from Sermons.com dated 5 August 2014.

[16] Howe, op. cit., quoted by Huey, op. cit.