Sermon: We're Gonna Need a Bigger Boat

This is a sermon I preached at Northminster Presbyterian Church in Slidell, LA on August 3, 2014 (Esther Day).

We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat

Text: Matthew 14:22-33

Happy Esther Day.

I said “Esther Day,” not “yesterday.” Yesterday was Saturday. Today is Esther Day.

And for you religious scholars out there, it’s not Purim either. It’s not about the Esther in the Bible.

I do love these “sub-culture” holidays. I enjoy filling my calendar with days that mean something special to people who often feel like they’re just too weird for the normal world.

It’s OK if you don’t know what Esther Day is. I didn’t know what it was until a little more than a week ago, and then Emily increased my awesome and told me about it. In a bit, I’m going to increase your awesome too.

But first, let’s talk about Peter.

The “walking on water” story is in Mark and John too, but the story is quite a bit different here in Matthew. For Matthew, it starts with Jesus sending the disciples away. God had just fed thousands of people with very little food, and Jesus orders his friends, his disciples, to get into a boat and leave him.

Now, while it could be that Jesus just needed a moment, I think Jesus had something else in mind: Jesus put all twelve of his closest disciples into a boat and sent them offshore. Now, Matthew says he ordered the disciples to get into “the boat”, like we know which boat he’s talking about. But the only other boat mentioned is back in verse 13: quote “Now when Jesus heard [about John the Baptist’s death], he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. “ So Jesus puts his twelve disciples in  a boat that was small enough that Jesus could apparently manage it all by himself. Sounds like a crowded boat. (It might have been even more crowded: I’m never sure about the women who might have been following Jesus too.)

I think Jesus meant for them to process what just happened together. If he’d had them just camp out or walk with him, they probably would have broken into smaller groups, (factions, if you will) but with all of them in one small boat, they would be forced to talk this out as one big group. In communion.

Jesus tells them to proceed across the water, even though that doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense (What’s Jesus going to do? Walk for miles around the shore?) It looks like the disciples tried their best to obey anyway. They set sail across the water.

But it seems like they couldn’t do what Jesus asked. The winds and waves blow them back out, away from shore. I'd always thought that the wind and waves described a storm and that the disciples were afraid, but the text doesn't say that. It says that the boat was far from land because the wind was against them. They would have reached the other side, done what Jesus told them to do, but they couldn’t.

I know what that must have felt like.

Peter, one of the fisherman, knows boats and sailing. He’s also a take-charge kind of guy, so, while the other apostles are all sitting around, talking about what they just saw Jesus do (feeding the five thousand), I imagine Peter manning the oars and the sails and the rudder, with Andrew and John and the other fishermen helping.

Only, the winds and the waves are against them.

After a while, one of the non-fisherman, a landlubber like, say, Matthew, says, “Uh, Peter? Shouldn’t we be reaching shore about now? It looks like we’re drifting…”

“I’m taking care of it,” Peter says, a little annoyed.

A few minutes pass, and then someone else asks why that they can’t even see the shore yet.

‘’Look,” Peter says, “this isn’t easy! Maybe you’d like to take over?”

“No,” Matthew says, “but maybe Andrew can make this work.”

“No,” Peter says, “I got this!”

I’ve SOOO been there. I should have a membership card. So often, I’ve been doing something I do well, something I want to be known for doing well, only to have it not work out right. Worse yet, people who I want to trust me are watching. I look and feel like an idiot.

And so often, I try to be faithful, wanting to do something I think Jesus is leading me to do, only to have circumstances or commitments or even illness intervene, and I feel powerless and frustrated and angry.

So as the apostles struggle to do the simple thing Jesus told them to do (cross the water and wait for him), they aren’t afraid. Not yet. They are frustrated. They are annoyed. They spend a long night struggling to be obedient to their Lord. They spend hours in a pointless effort to be faithful.

And none of it is working.

Then they see something coming toward them on the water.

Now, they are afraid. They don't know what’s going on, and the most probable thing in this impossible situation is that this thing headed for them is some kind of phantasm, some terrifying visitor from the underworld.

But it isn't. Jesus's voice calms them. Jesus effortlessly deals with the fear as a parent might calm the fears of a child: with just a gentle word.

And then Peter opens his big mouth and says something stupid.

I know. Most Sunday school classes say that Peter is the hero here, at least until he looks away from Jesus. Peter walked out of the boat, trusting in Jesus. He left his comfort zone, dared the wind and waves to walk to his master. Things only go bad for Peter when he looks away from his Lord.

Only nobody was afraid of the wind and the waves. They were afraid of the ghost, and the ghost wasn't real. And they all knew it. Nobody’s afraid when Peter talks to Jesus.

Except maybe Peter. Maybe Peter’s afraid that he’s not as competent and faithful and eminent as he thought he was.

I think Peter messed up the moment he spoke. It wasn't enough for Peter just to look at the wonderful thing Jesus was doing; Peter had to do it too. And Peter wanted to be the one to do it.

Peter doesn't say, "Command US to come to you on the water."

He says, "Command ME to come to you on the water."

Peter was probably tired and frustrated and more than a little angry. He was probably feeling kind of bad about himself, having spent hours doing something he does well, and doing it badly. That makes what he says understandable, and it’s forgivable, but it’s not any less a mistake because of all that.

Peter wants to be special. Peter wants people to know his name. Peter, the Water Walker. Peter is tired of all those men (and maybe women) in the boat. Peter wants Jesus to tell him he’s not just special, Peter wants to be the only one who’s special.

So Peter wants to walk away from the boat, while Jesus walks toward it.

I understand. I do. I like the idea of people knowing who I am. I think I’d enjoy it if people would say to me, “You’re not THE Tim Ruppel???”

I mean, come on! I deserve it, right? US World Cup soccer goalie Tim Howard and I are the two coolest bald guys named Tim in the world, right?

We deserve it too! We’re the best church in St. Tammany Parish. We might just be the best church in Louisiana. It’s just that people don’t know it. We’re way better than those other churches. We’re the best kept secret in town!

All we need is for Jesus to command us to do something spectacular so that we stand out from those Baptists and Catholics and Lutherans and Pentecostals. You know, like cure cancer. Or maybe end hunger. Or solve homelessness. Or something. And Jesus just needs to do it magnificently so that we’re on WWL and CNN and so that #NorthminsterRocks is trending worldwide on Twitter.

When Peter asks Jesus to command him, and only him, to walk on the water, Peter builds a wall between Peter and the others in the boat. Peter wants special power and a special relationship with Jesus.

And Jesus does something that I don’t think is particularly nice. (Maybe Jesus was a little annoyed at Peter for saying “IF it is you…”) Jesus, knowing how this is going to play out, tells Peter to do it. To walk on water.

It is only God's grace that keeps Peter on the water. Peter walks despite Peter’s faith, not because of it.

But when you start separating yourself from people, it's hard to stop. And Jesus had to know that.

Peter finds that once he's tried to stand above the other disciples, once he’s built a wall between himself and the boat, he can't even keep his relationship with Jesus together. He looks away from Jesus as the wall he built expands. Peter finds his fear again, begins to sink.

You see, Peter misses the point the others didn't. While he was busy defying physics, walking away from the others, walking away from the boat, Jesus was walking toward the boat, toward the others. Jesus is going to the place Peter wants to leave.

Jesus walks toward the others. Peter tries to walk away.

Jesus is walking toward the boat where those people Peter left behind were waiting on him, and trusting in him.

Matthew and John and Thomas and Andrew and the others weren't getting in the water, or on the water, but not because they were weak in faith, but because they were happy to be together and be with Jesus. They’d rather be faithful than important.

I know, the Sunday school lessons say that this is a story about keeping your eyes on Jesus and doing the miraculous.

But you don't have to do miracles.

Really, you don't.

And, even when it feels like everything in the world, every blasted thing, is pushing you away from where you know you want to be, even when it feels like you can't do anything, because the winds and the waves are against you, don't worry.

And even if you take your eyes off Jesus, don't beat yourself up. Don't be afraid, don't feel ashamed, and don't worry.

Christ will find you. You aren't disappointing Jesus. You aren't screwing everything up. Just look for Jesus, and look after each other.

And if you do like Peter and start breaking relationships because... well, the reason doesn't matter. Christ won't let you go then either.

Look how Jesus treated Peter: When Peter started trying to stand out rather than serve, Jesus let him walk out.

Jesus knew what was going to happen.

Jesus did what Peter asked, commanded Peter to come to him, knowing full well what Peter was doing to the others, knowing what he was doing to himself, knowing full well how this was going to go very bad. Jesus let Peter screw up, maybe to show Peter that it really wasn't about him.

And then, Jesus put Peter where he belonged: back in the boat.

And then, the winds and waves stopped.

Does that mean we all have to be the same? That we all have to shave off our differences and become nameless, faceless, featureless people.

Not at all. John, Matthew, and the others who stayed in the boat weren’t all the same, and they didn’t always get along. However, they chose to be different together.

Two real-world examples of what I mean:

First: John and Hank Green are pretty unusual people. John is the author of the best-seller The Fault in Our Stars. Hank is his biochemist rock musician brother. They are young, smart, funny, and profoundly popular. They could have used their popularity to raise themselves up, erecting a pedestal on which they could stand. They could have walked on water.

But instead, they stayed in the boat. Together, they started a movement of sorts called the Nerdfighters, nerds who fight to make the world better. Quoting from the wiki: Nerdfighters are “people who are made of awesome instead of bones and organs. It is their mission to decrease worldsuck and increase global awesome. Essentially, if you want to be a Nerdfighter, you are one. Own your nerdiness.”

The Greens stayed in the boat and met a young nerdfighter named Esther Grace Earl. Here’s her picture.

In 2010, the Green’s told Esther (then 15 years old) that they were going to turn her birthday (August 3) into a holiday called Esther Day. They asked her how they should celebrate it. They’d do whatever she said.

Think about that: these two men decided to use their immense influence to do whatever their friend wanted. They didn’t have to do that. They could have done what THEY wanted. They could have used Esther. They could have walked away from Esther. But they didn’t.

How often have you told anyone, EVER, that you’ll do whatever they ask of you?

If she told them to dress like a gorilla and eat nothing but bananas every August 3, they would have done it.

The Greens could have walked on water, but they stayed in the boat... with Esther.

So, the Greens are our first example. Esther is the second.

Esther told the Green brothers (after much consideration) what she wanted Esther Day to be. She could have said that it should be about shouting her name or telling stories about her life, or reading her writings, but she didn’t get out of the boat either. She stayed in the boat with, well, all of us.

Esther Day, today, August 3, is a day to tell people that you love them. Not necessarily your romantic partner; this isn’t Valentine’s Day or your anniversary. (I actually hope you tell your romantic partner you love them more often than that, but whatever.)

Esther wanted her day to be a day where everyone told a family member or a friend that they love them. Those words: “I love you.”

Asked by two very popular and influential people how she wanted her birthday to be celebrated, and that’s what Esther Earl said.

You probably didn’t know it, but thousands of people have been spending every August 3 since 2010 telling their brothers and sisters and parents and children and uncles and aunts that they love them. People are proclaiming their love to their best friends and their good friends.

Esther died of cancer weeks after the first Esther Day in 2010. She was 16. Life is too short, and people are too precious to try to leave the boat, even if you think you can walk on water.

And now we come to you.

Celebrate Esther Day. Tell someone you love them (those words), especially if it’s someone you rarely or ever tell. It’s a very hard thing, even a risky or demeaning thing, but don’t try to look strong and important. Tell someone you love them. Be vulnerable for their sake.

Things or people aren't nearly as important as love. It's not Tim Ruppel, or John Green, or Hank Green, or Esther Earl, or even Northminster, or the Presbyterian Church (USA) who are particularly important. What's particularly important is the way we touch each other, the way we treat each other, the way we value each other, the way we love each other.

We don’t need to be in such a terrible hurry to stand out, to do miracles, to walk on water, to get out of the boat. Northminster doesn’t need to be the Best Church in Slidell. We don’t need to be a church everyone talks about. We can risk our life together at Northminster to strengthen our life together in Christ.

Each of us needs to look beyond ourselves, and even beyond our close friends. We need to discover all the stupid, frustrating, irritating, wonderful people God has put in this world with us.

We don’t need to get out of the boat and walk on water.

In fact, we’re gonna need a bigger boat.

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