Sermon: Swimming in the Deep End

I Kings 19:1-18 and Matthew 14:22-33
Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 10, 2014
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

Listen to the Podcast.

A postcard of the YMCA in Flint, MI. I took swimming lessons here in the 1970s.

I’ve shared some stories in the past of my taking swimming lessons when I was growing up.  I would take lessons sometimes at the local YMCA and at the YWCA which was just down the street.  Most of the time we took lessons, we practiced in the shallow end.  Being seven or eight meant that the shallow end was already a challenge.  But at least I could touch the bottom of the pool.

What scared me was trying to swim in the deep end.  I can remember treading water out towards the middle of the pool feeling the pool’s floor slipping away from me.  At some point, I couldn’t touch anything other than the water that was surrounding me.  It felt like I was like an acrobat; working without a net.

Then there would come that day when we would work at the deep end, learning how to dive into a pool.  I would make my dive, scared that I wouldn’t be able to get to poolside fast.

But I was able to do my dives on the deep end. Albeit with me probably bawling up a storm.

As much as I hated swimming in the deep end, I had to learn this skill.  I had to learn this because the reality is that we will spend a good majority of our time in waters that can be very deep.  We have to stop clinging to the pool floor and step out in faith.  You have to believe that the skills you have learned will keep you afloat will be enough.

Our main text in Matthew talks about the disciples in a boat during a storm.  In the midst of this bad weather, Jesus shows up walking on water.   Peter sees this and asks Jesus if he could join him.  Jesus says yes, and now Peter is moving from the shallow end to the deep end.  And it works- Peter is walking on water.  But the Peter’s faith weakens and he begins to sink (actually the Greek word used here relates to drowning, not sinking).

Our secondary text comes from First Kings and it features the prophet Elijah.  He has just won a tournament of sorts between himself and the prophets of Baal, the god of Queen Jezebel.  Even though things went well, he is on the run because the Queen wants him dead.  We see the prophet not acting like a prophet.  Instead he is scared and is without any hope.  He truly believes his days our numbered.

These two stories have a lot to say about being church in this day and time.  What does it mean to have faith in troubling times?  What does it mean to be a small-d disciple? What place does doubt have in our Christian faith? What does this all mean for the church?

There is a lot of symbolism in the story of Jesus walking on the water.  In the ancient world that Jesus lived in, water represented danger or chaos.  Water was viewed as something that was powerful and deadly.  In some ways, we haven’t changed some of our views on water.  Living as many of us do in and around the Great Lakes, we have heard stories of shipwrecks up and down the lakes.  The most famous story is about the Edmund Fitzgerald, an ore carrier that left Duluth on November day in 1975 bound for Detroit.  Lake Superior, the biggest of the Lakes is known for a its big storm and one such storm sank the ship with all hands lost.  Gordon Lightfoot’s song on the wreck notes the bell at Mariner’s Church in Detroit tolled 29 times on November 11, 1975 in respect of the crew that died.  Water is still dangerous.

The other symbol is Jesus walking on water.  There were other stories of people walking on water and it mean that this person was a of the gods or a god.  When Jesus says, “Take heart, it is I,” he is telling the disciples that he is the Son of God.

Peter does something strange.  He decides to ask Jesus if he could join him on the water.  Jesus beckons him to come and Peter does.  He is walking on water- at least for a while.  When he starts to sink, he asks for the Lord’s help and Jesus pulls him up and saves him.

There is another symbol in this story and that’s the boat.  One of the earliest symbols of the church was a boat.  Since this passage was written decades after the events took place, maybe this story was addressed to a church that was bruised and battered by the world.

Which of course is not an unfamiliar story to us in this place at this time.  We just finished up a study on the identity of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and some of the statistics about the churches in our denomination are not good.  The one statistic that stuck in my mind since I first heard at the General Assembly in Orlando last year is that about 18 percent of all of the congregations in our denomination are sustainable according to mid-20th century standards.  I don’t have to tell you that our church is not considered sustainable according to those standards.  In some ways many congregations are like the disciples in that boat braving the storm.  We are getting battered by the changing culture.

But somewhere out in the storm, an image appears.  We can see Jesus walking towards us and asking us to get out of the boat and try to walk towards Jesus.  We are called to have faith, not a lot of faith or a little faith, we are just called to have faith, faith that Jesus is there and that Jesus will be there when we start to doubt.  Jesus will save us from the dangerous waters.

God is calling us to leave our boats and come and join him.  Now, that’s a scary proposition.  It reminds me of trying to swim knowing the pool floor is several inches away from me.  But God is calling us to leave our boats and follow him.  The boats can be a place of shelter from the storms of life, just like churches can be communities of safety and support for people.  But we are also called to leave our boats and meet Jesus in the communities around us, in day to day schedules.  We leave our boats and follow Jesus in sharing the gospel with friends around us, in feeding the poor, in meeting and ministering to people of a different ethnic group.  When Elijah fretted about being the only prophet left, it was God who reminded him he wasn’t alone.  Get out of the boat and follow me, Elijah.

In the next month or so, we as a congregation will be meeting and talking about our future.  What does it mean for those of us in this small boat called First Christian-St. Paul?  I don’t know.  We will find out.  But as we go back to our places of work and families, let us be mindful of this: when we get out of our boats, when we hear God in the silence, may we have the faith to walk with Jesus, knowing that God is with of all the time.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


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