Monday, June 3, 2013

Treading Water, Or Walking on It

Preached on Sunday, June 2, 2013
Scripture readings: Psalm 104:24-26; Matthew 14:22-33
Photos from Southern California, June 2012
I love the ocean. My only problem with the ocean is that I know about it the same way I know about most things in life: by reading a lot about it, by looking at it from the shore and by wading in no deeper than my waist. I have never been on the ocean.
That being said; I love the ocean. I lived about a mile from it for over five years during the time I served my first church on the south coast of Oregon. But I don’t seem to manage to get to the ocean any more than once a year, or once every two years.
If I love the ocean so much, why haven’t I been on the ocean? It’s almost embarrassing. I don’t think it is because I am afraid. It is because I have either been too poor, or too cheap to go. And (just as truthfully) I have not gone out on the ocean because I have been too busy, too preoccupied, too distracted with other things.
The sea that the people of the Bible liked the best was the Sea of Galilee. That is probably because it is not an ocean at all, it’s only a great big lake. The people of Israel were awestruck by the real ocean. It was majestic. It was huge, and it reminded them of the power of God. But they were afraid of it.
It meant danger. It represented chaos and death, and all the uncontrollable and the undependable in life. The ocean was the place where you could lose everything, including yourself.
The ocean means a lot to me. It’s one of the most serene and restful places to be. And then, I have stood on the shore of the ocean in times of storm and seen the trunks of huge trees tossed in the air by the raging surf. I have seen waves break on the cliffs and send plumes of spray over a hundred feet up and over the tops of those cliffs.
I once spent hours in an emergency shelter in my small, coastal town, waiting for news of an approaching tsunami. The emergency point where everyone was waiting was, as we all knew, only ten feet above sea level. We waited there as we were told, but we felt strangely vulnerable.
So I have watched the ocean and had some experience of its majesty, its power, and its fearsomeness.
I have never counted them, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that half the mentions of the ocean, in the Bible, are negative ones, fearful ones. They are full of the notions of all the things that could go wrong.
The people of the Bible knew that God made the ocean. They knew that God rules the ocean. They accepted the fact (technically) God should be able to take care of them out on the ocean. But it gave them the shivers and they didn’t want to go there.
Very few of the people of the Bible would have been capable of putting the ocean in a song of wonder and delight like the Psalm we read. Very few could write words like the psalm we heard, which I am going to read in a paraphrased version, “O, look --- the deep, wide sea, brimming with fish past counting, sardines and sharks and salmon. Ships plow those waters, and Leviathan, your pet dragon, romps in them.” (Psalm 104:25-26, “The Message” by Eugene Peterson)
The difference with this writer was attitude. You could call it mental attitude, but the writer says that it comes from God; and that makes the attitude spiritual. It’s a thing called faith.
There was a high school kid named Ralph Asher who wrote about his experience in track. He wrote, “Running is a mental sport. You have to be insane to do it.”
He wrote how, in just a few months he trained to run in a half-Marathon. He grew from barely being able to run three miles to making the 13.1 miles of a half-Marathon. He said that there were some words by the apostle Paul that meant a lot to him in his running. Paul wrote: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race: I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:7) (Ralph J. Asher, in “Devo-zine, Sept.-Oct. 2003, p. 53)
It isn’t just running that is mental, or spiritual. If life out there is like an ocean, what does that mean to you? Is life out there about joy, and beauty, and even fear?
The matter of making the ocean a thing of joy and beauty is partly mental but (much more than that) it is spiritual. It is a matter of faith. Life as an ocean is not just a mental problem. It is a gift: a matter of faith. This is how it is with life. This is how it is with the future. It is a matter of the confidence we call faith.
When Peter stepped out on the water of the stormy Sea of Galilee, in the middle of the night, to walk with Jesus, and Jesus said to him, “O, you of little faith,” I think Jesus was joking. Peter had dared to do a daring thing because Jesus said, “Come!” He did it for Jesus. He wouldn’t do it for anyone else.
The Sea of Galilee had always been Peter’s life. But he would never dream of walking on it, without Jesus, so he dared to do a daring thing, and it looked a lot like faith.
There are a lot of things about Peter, and about this part of the story, that loving parents would not want their kids to imitate. It does seem that Peter is a person who is reckless and takes unnecessary risks. Just like his walking on the water, on more than one occasion Peter got in way over his head. Parents don’t want their kids to imitate that.
Just being a fisherman could be (and still is) dangerous. You kids! We don’t want you to do dangerous things, not unless they are great, good things, and not unless you believe that these great, good things are the very things that you are really and truly called to do.
One thing you can say for Peter is that he was always willing to stretch. He was always making mistakes, and he was always learning from them (although it took some time for that learning to show). Sometimes it might seem that he had little faith, but he was always growing in faith.
Parents might want me to point out that Peter made a mistake when he thought that he would be in no danger at all if he went out on the water with Jesus. He seemed to think that there would be no risk to his risky behavior if Jesus was with him.
Peter found, by experience, that this was not true. Going with Jesus was often risky behavior. Faith could mean taking a risk that was a real risk.
In Jesus we see the behavior of a God who did the daring and dangerous deed of going from heaven, to earth, to hell (to hell, at least for a visit, after his crucifixion). He did this daring and dangerous deed for the world he loved, and for each one of us. In Jesus, God did not make safety or comfort his priority. He did not take his own glory seriously.
Although he was God, he became human in Jesus. He became a servant who died for the sins of the world. He died as a daring deed to win you and give you life: live abundant and everlasting. So what would it mean to follow him? What does it mean to have faith in a God like that?
You might follow Jesus and sink. But again, I believe, that although you may sink with Jesus, with Jesus you will never be sunk. That’s how it went with Peter. That makes the difference. Faith means knowing that (with Jesus), whatever happens, you are not sunk.
Something worth doing has been done and, from that point, there is always a next thing that can be done. Faith has a clear head to assess what that next thing is, that you will do with Jesus.
Peter grew as a result of his adventure. His growth went two ways. He understood himself better; that is, he had a clearer idea, now, of what he was made of. And, secondly, Peter knew Jesus much better.
Self confidence is very helpful, but self confidence can sometimes make you forget yourself. Peter grew, and his life ripened, when he discovered his own limitations. He knew what he could do and what he probably couldn’t do, and he dared to do a thing worth doing anyway. In this way he grew in his confidence in the Lord. Peter grew in that gift called faith.
There is a self confidence that comes when you begin to learn (as Peter was only beginning to learn) that his life was a miracle and he could live in the joy of what Jesus gave him to do. That was something he could have confidence in.
Peter, I think, wanted his life to be a miracle. It was the very thing Jesus offered when he told Peter, “Come, follow me.” Peter wanted to be extraordinary. And I hope you do too.
We see, from the story, that the ambition of being extraordinary is a scary ambition. Some people have handled it far worse than Peter. This is often because they don’t understand that life is a miracle. There is a book by Wendell
Some people seem to never know this. Sometimes the curse of growing up is losing the ability to see that you are a miracle in the making, and that everyone else is too.
People get bogged down, and stressed out, and burdened. They misunderstand the purpose for which God has made them. People lose their sense of wonder and the lights go out. This is a horrible mistake. It is a thing that God does not intend for human life; for the lights to go out.
Peter was often foolish, and reckless. He often wildly overestimated himself, and overestimated his faith; but, on the waves of the Sea of Galilee, Peter did something that no other human being has ever done. Having so little faith, he did walk on water with Jesus. And Peter went on to make many other mistakes and learn from them, too. Maybe that is what made him a miracle.
The Bible does not tell us to be optimists or pessimists. It tells us to be people of faith. Just as true athletes know that sports is not just physical but mental, some actually know that sports can be spiritual.
So it is with life. Nine people out of ten may see no wonder out there, or in themselves. They might accomplish a lot of things. They might make a lot out of themselves, but they are doing this with the lights out. They are still only dog paddling, staying afloat, treading water in the ocean of God; in the ocean of faith.
What I hope and pray for you is this: that you know for yourself that the world is God’s ocean and you are God’s child called to launch out on the waves, or walk on them. Don’t just tread water. Have faith, and keep walking, and maybe you’ll wind up walking on water. Someday, I believe, that you will look back and see that this is exactly what you have done.

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