Sermon: The Courage to Change

“The Courage to Change”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Matthew 14:22-33
February 22, 2015

Audio for this sermon is unavailable.

Lent is traditionally a time of taking inventory of our lives and preparing for a rededication of ourselves to God. This inventory involves identifying those barriers of thought and action that keep us from being the person God intends for us to be. It is a time to seek new direction, to turn around and go another way. But change is difficult even though in many areas of our lives it is inevitable, even as we struggle against it. Letting go of the familiar is hard and can be frightening, and yet once done, there is the possibility for a freedom that we might never have otherwise dreamed of or hoped to find.

Each week during Lent our worship will begin with the song “Ready for a Change” that Robert and the choir sang this morning. Maybe you heard the words, and if you didn’t today, listen for them next week, the words that say “Give my life a new start and plant in me afresh, seed that grows and blossoms into the fruit of blessing.” That’s the kind of change we’re all looking for – a new start that leads to blessing.

It takes courage to change, to seek that fresh start. Courage is not fearlessness in the face of danger or challenge; it is instead acting in spite of the fear that holds us back. Is there anyone here who has never been afraid? Did you know that over 100 times in scripture, we can find the admonition “Do not fear”?

In today’s gospel lesson the disciples are afraid. At the end of a busy day when 5000 people had been fed, Jesus instructed them to get into their boat and go across to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, saying he’d catch up with them later. So, they do as they’re told, and as evening falls, they find themselves in their little boat alone. But a storm comes up quickly, and they turn their total attention and strength to rowing across the rolling waters. The wind was against them, so they didn’t make good time; they rowed all night it seems. And then tired out from the exertion, early in the morning, looking towards the shore that is still in the distance, they see something that they can’t make out.

Now, they weren’t afraid of the storm particularly, storms are a part of life on the Sea of Galilee; they’d rowed against the wind before plenty of times. But they’d never seen what they were looking at now – a figure, walking toward them, on the water. What could it be but a ghost? People don’t walk on water! And they’re terrified by that apparition. I would be too, wouldn’t you? They cry out in their fear, and receive an immediate response; it’s Jesus, saying “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

And Peter, often impetuous and speaking before he thinks, asks, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus says, “Come.” So Peter takes a few steps out of the boat, but then he looks around, and begins to sink into the waves. Afraid that he will drown, he calls out to Jesus to save him. And Jesus reaches his hand out to him immediately, not waiting for him to go down for the third time before offering help, and says to the floundering Peter, “You of little faith, why do you doubt?”

Consequently, Peter is often used as the example of what happens to people whose faith is inadequate. He is the poster boy for that questionable theology which asserts that if our faith is strong enough, no harm will befall us; we can walk on water and we will be sink-proof in all of life’s difficulties. Consequently, when bad things inevitably happen, it’s our own fault and we are prone to blame ourselves because our lack of faith must have caused whatever hardship we are experiencing and we berate ourselves for our failures and feel guilty that our faith was not sufficient for the day.

But I don’t think that’s what this story is meant to teach us. I find it interesting that Peter asks to be commanded to come to Jesus. He doesn’t just jump up and shout “Here I come, ready or not!” In asking for the opportunity, he surely realizes that venturing out on the water isn’t something that he can do alone under his own power. He knows that his ability will have to come from Jesus. There is some tentativeness in his request, “If it is you,” he says, “command me to come to you on the water.” But even though he’s not completely sure who that mysterious water-walking figure is, he asks to be commanded to leave the boat, and when he receives the command, he obeys despite his fears and doubts.

And then, naturally enough, once in to and over his head, he gets scared. I like Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase in “The Message” of Jesus’ response to Peter. Instead of “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Peterson’s Jesus says, “Faint-heart, what got into you?” Faint hearted, frightened Peter shows his courage, acting in the face of fear and doubt, and asking for help when he needs it. If he had waited until he had it all figured out which was not until after Jesus had died, he wouldn’t have made his request; he wouldn’t have stepped out, and he wouldn’t have experienced the saving hand of Jesus. He and the others would not have worshipped him, that day or called him the Son of God.

The last time I reflected on this story I was particularly taken with fact that Peter was venturing out onto the water, an alien place where he had no business to be, It was the lace for Jesus as the Lord of the wind, waves, water, and sea to walk on water, but Peter is not Jesus. And so, I concluded, the appropriate place for Peter to be is safely in the boat waiting for Jesus to cross the sea and join him and the others on their journey across to the other side, to care for new people, people who needed their presence and their ministry.

But I have changed my thinking a bit since then. The boat is a good place to be – it was, after all, one of the earliest symbols for the Christian faith and for the church. Matthew may well have been saying to his group of believers, and to us as well, that in the midst of the chaos of the world and of our lives, we have this seemingly fragile but sturdy and tested craft to preserve us and buffer the stormy winds of conflict and hardship. And safety and salvation are experienced with Jesus in our midst – in the boat with us – regardless of what is going on around us.

Although all that is certainly true, there are times, however, when we are called – commanded – just as Peter was, to step out of the safety of the boat, and into the fray not knowing what is next or what will happen, being afraid but doing it anyway. . Martin Luther King, Jr. was called out of the safety of the good ship Dexter Avenue Baptist Church to confront the evils of discrimination and segregation. He spent most of his life out there, walking in areas where by any stretch of the imagination a less courageous person would have sunk to the bottom and drowned. But I believe he held the hand of Jesus as he walked. It isn’t that he was fearless. When he sat at his kitchen table at midnight after have received death threats and threats to firebomb his home, he was afraid. But then he prayed, and heard God command him to get out of the boat and walk. He heard God say,  “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for Justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.”

There are also times when less famous people, people like you and me, are commanded to get out of the boat. Jamie wrote about that kind of courage in his devotion for Friday – he said, “recently nine young people, five UGA students and four undocumented individuals allowed themselves to be arrested in a sit-in. They were also protesting our state’s unjust law requiring undocumented students pay four times more in tuition while prohibiting them completely from going to UGA and the other top state universities.” And he concluded, “Undocumented and choosing to be arrested…that is courage I don’t need in the safe confines of my privileged life. “ They stepped out of the boat, and Jamie’s right, that is courage that challenges all of us.

In the boat or out of the boat, the needs of the day and the call of God determine where we should be. But, God calls us to live adventuresome lives of faith; lives that may involve risking ourselves, taking chances and embracing change; lives that call us to seek the welfare of others; lives that demonstrate courage and hope. It is courageous to believe the word of God when it comes to us, and not to allow our fears to stop us from becoming who God wants us to be or doing what God has called us to do. We can choose be defined by our fears or by our faith. One holds us back, restricts and limits us; the other, as Joel read earlier in Jan Richardson’s poem, stands beside us in the boat, places its hand in the small of our backs, and pushes, never leaving or forsaking us until we are borne up by the hands that reach toward us and the voice that calls our name. Amen.