Date: October 11, 2015
Title: “Walking on Water”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Matthew 14:22-33
This week I had the privilege of spending some time with about 30 other clergy and lay leaders from the three annual conferences assigned to our bishop – Alaska, Pacific Northwest, and Oregon-Idaho. We met together in Seattle for three days of movement and contemplative practice aimed at deepening our own spirituality and sharing with one another our love for the church. Part of the time we worked as a full group, while at other times we connected with just one other person, or shared as a group of four.
My friend David, from the Pacific Northwest Conference, was in my small group, and shared a story from his youth. David grew up in the Philippines, and was very active in the United Methodist Youth Fellowship there. He told us they had a tradition in the Philippine United Methodist Church, which called for high school youth to go out into the small rural villages during the summer months and provide Bible study, worship and prayer on all the islands which make up the Philippines.
Now David was a leader in the UMYF and thought he knew what he was doing when he was sent to a small farming village. He met with the people there and told them he thought they should all gather in the big tent used as a village church at 4:00 every afternoon for Bible study. “Oh yes, pastor” they said; “good idea, pastor, we will be there at 4:00 in the afternoon.” So, David arrived at 3:30 and set everything up for his first Bible study, eagerly anticipating the arrival of most of the village. Four o’clock came and went, and nobody showed up except for two elderly women who had brought snacks for the class. These two women hemmed and hawed around for awhile, not wanting to hurt David’s feelings, but finally they told him nobody was going to come. “David”, they said, “this is a farming village. Everybody is out in the fields working at 4:00 in the afternoon. They were just too polite to tell you they couldn’t come.”
David was humbled but soon learned the rhythm of the village, where people arose well before dawn and headed out to the fields in the first light. There they would toil until the sun became too unbearably hot, when they would gather in small shacks at the edges of the fields where they at least had shade and a chance to rest for awhile. Their children would bring them water and food if they had it and there they would stay until 4:00 in the afternoon, when they would once again head into the fields to work until the sun had disappeared from the day.
So David learned to take Bibles to these shacks in the afternoon and to find the people there. He learned that the heat of the day was the time to build community and to develop trust, and that worship could happen only at night.
One night the whole village was gathered inside the big tent they used for worship. The moon was particularly bright that night and everyone sat listening, eyes closed, as David prayed. All of a sudden David noticed movement outside the tent, and he saw shadows cross its walls.
Now at that time the Philippines was a place of great unrest. Bands of guerrilla warriors roamed the countryside and had been known to indiscriminately massacre whole villages seemingly on a whim. The army had given the farmers some old rifles with which to protect the village, hoping this would keep them loyal to the regime. As David considered the shadows outside the tent, he saw they were men carrying guns. Big guns – AK47 guns – not the kind the army had passed around the village. These were guerrillas, the people most feared in the Philippine countryside and they were right outside the tent where the villagers sat, like sitting ducks.
David said he was terrified. He did not know what to do. He was certain he was praying his very last prayer, and that they were all about to be murdered in the tent. It would have been so easy, so quick, so horrible. So David just kept praying. On and on he prayed, trying to keep the panic out of his voice and the fear out of his heart. At last he risked another glimpse at the back of the tent and discovered to his amazement that they were alone. For whatever reason that village had been spared; the guerrillas had moved on into the moonlight.
Sometimes we are faced with things so fearsome all we can do is to keep doing what we are doing. Sometimes all we can do is go on. My own story of fear seems laughable by comparison. Still, I will never forget the night I first cantered on a horse. You see, my daughter Kate was quite enamored with everything about the barn – the horses, the tack, the hay. She loved to brush and groom these giant creatures, she enjoyed going out into the field to catch the one she would ride, she didn’t even mind cleaning up after them! So, when Kate suggested I join the “Moms’ class” at her barn, I was persuaded by the contagious enthusiasm and joy shining out of Kate’s eyes.
Which was fine, until I got to class and discovered that all the other mothers had grown up around horses. I was the only one who did not seem to know exactly what they were doing. Still, I was game, especially since the teacher gave me Freckles to ride – a very old, actually fairly slow horse. And she let me ease into the equestrian world slowly. For several weeks Freckles and I just walked around the arena, doing a few dressage turns through poles, before we advanced to trotting and posting. Still, it was all good, until the night came when Freckles and I were asked to canter, and she insisted I use an English saddle, which has absolutely nothing to hang onto!
The teacher had told me it might be a little frightening at first. She said that when the horse first began to pick up the pace it would feel like I was riding on the crest of a wave, or maybe on a whale cresting a wave (did I mention Freckles as also a BIG horse?). But the teacher said, “Not to worry – fear not – just hang on and enjoy the ride.”
So Freckles and I took a few turns around the arena at a nice gentle walk. We trotted a few minutes while all the other moms effortlessly cantered by. Finally, I summoned up all my courage and gave Freckles the nudge… and then began to scream! Round and round the arena we went, Freckles cantering as smoothly and carefully as he could (and probably thinking to himself “What is wrong with this woman on my back?!”), while I matched my screams to his hoofbeats and tried my best to hang on.
In that moment it really didn’t matter what I had been told to expect. It didn’t make any difference to me, what my teacher had shared with me before the fact. What I knew in my head had little impact on my body or my fear. I was caught in the grip of that fear, much like Peter in the Gospel lesson this morning. Like Peter, all I could see or feel or imagine was the danger I found myself facing. I knew I might fall off that horse. And I knew it was going to hurt. And it wasn’t going to be pretty.
I think fear is a good place to start with this series of sermons I am calling “iDoubt”. We tend to think of fear and doubt as the opposites of faith. We tend to admonish ourselves or one another, thinking of Jesus as he says “O you of little faith, why did you doubt? Why are you afraid?” And yet, I suspect Jesus never intended that to be a rebuke because doubt and even fear are not so much the opposite of faith as they are elements of it.
Frederick Buechner says “If you don’t have doubts you’re either kidding yourself or you are asleep. Doubts are the ants-in-the-pants of faith; they keep it alive and moving.” Flannery O’Connor once wrote “Don’t expect faith to clear things up for you. It is trust, not certainty.” And Wilson Mizner says “I respect faith, but doubt is what gets you an education.”
I love that one – Doubt is what gets you an education – because it feels particularly true to me. Our doubts, our questions, our fears are what make room for the movement of God in our lives. These are what allow us to broaden our own world views, to enlarge our perspectives, to engage our minds as well as our hearts. Doubt is what gets you an education and fear is one of the best teachers any of us ever knows.
We often seem to miss the point of the story of Peter trying to walk on water. We want to read it like some kind of instructional tale, some parable of positive thinking. You remember the disciples are out on the sea in a little boat, fighting against the waves, when they see Jesus walking toward them across the water itself. They are terrified, but Peter decides to be a hero. He steps out of the boat, thinking he knows what it takes to walk on water. But of course, he quickly sinks and Jesus has to save him. Too often we want to make the moral of this story three-fold: 1) Don’t be afraid; 2) Keep your eyes on Jesus; and 3) Just have enough faith.
As if it were that easy to put our fears aside! As if it were that simple to rise above the very real dangers, the very real challenges, disappointments, crushing defeats and devastating losses of our lives! Nadiz Bolz Weber suggests:
Having a preacher tell me that the solution to my problems is to just try and have more faith, so I can make my way to Jesus – this never sounds like good news to me. It reminds me of the Simpsons episode where square-jawed newscaster Ken Brockman makes a set of motivational tapes which he called “Get Confident, Stupid!” In the end, I just don’t know how helpful it is to say “Get faith, sinner!” It just doesn’t work.
It is true that sometimes our fears are figments of our imagination, born out of worry and nurtured by dread. But it is equally true that sometimes our fears are well founded. Which is why throughout the Bible fear plays a central role in the human story. And Jesus’ response to our fear is not to invite us into faith as intellectual assent. Jesus never suggests that if we believe in God we will never experience fear. Rather, Jesus’ response to fear is to call us to faith as movement. For Jesus faith is as simple as taking one step forward (even a little step), in spite of our doubt, and even in the face of our fear. Fatih is about movement. It is about risking the unknown. It is about nudging ourselves from a hesitant walk into a confident trot, all the way to a rhythmic canter and even beyond to a gallop – in spite of our doubts, and in the face of our fears.
Did you know that the root meaning of the English word “courage” is the Latin “cor” or the French “coeur” – which both mean “heart”? This may explain why different English translations of this passage may vary between Jesus telling us to “take heart” and to “take courage”. Karoline Lewis suggests:
I wonder if Jesus is saying here that faith means living out of your heart. I wonder if he is suggesting to Peter (and to us) – you are going to have to lead, live, and love from your heart. You know who I am. Deep down in your heart, you know I will be with you. Trust yourself. Trust your heart…
Maybe that is what makes it possible for us to walk on water from time to time – to go beyond our own expectations, to accomplish things we never thought we could do. In those moments when we are strong beyond our strength, wise beyond our wisdom, and brave beyond our imagining, we are living and loving from our hearts.
As Freckles rose up to the canter that night and I finally began to relax (who knew it would be easier when the horse went faster?), I remembered these other words of instruction for those who would jump their horses over high fences. When asked once how to do it a trainer replied, “It’s easy, really. You just take your heart, throw it over the fence, and then jump after it!” Good advice for equestrians. Even better advice for faith. Thanks be to God. Amen.