August 13, 2017 Sermon
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28/ Matthew 14:22-33
If You Can’t Beat ‘em, Ride ‘em
There is a poem that has become a Christian cliché. I personally heard this poem many times, both in Korean and English. In case you are not familiar with it, this is how it goes;
“Last night I had a dream. I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord. Across the sky flashed scenes from my life. For each scene, I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand: one belonged to me, the other to the Lord. After the last scene of my life flashed before me, I looked back at the footprints in the sand. I noticed that at many times along the path of my life, especially at the very lowest and saddest times, there was only one set of footprints. This really troubled me, so I asked the Lord about it. “Lord, you said once I decided to follow you, You’d walk with me all the way. But I noticed that during the saddest and most troublesome times of my life, there was only one set of footprints. I don’t understand why, when I needed You the most, You would leave me.” The Lord replied, “My son, my precious child, I love you and I would never leave you. During your times of suffering, when you could see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.””
This poem became a Christian cliché because it contains the one message that Christians want to hear; that belonging to God and following Jesus means we get divine help and support in difficult times. We all want and need this kind of comforting message. Today’s gospel story provides such a message.
In today’s gospel scene, Jesus “makes” his disciples go into the boat and go on ahead. Why he did this may not be clear from this text, but John’s account of the same incident helps us understand it. It was after Jesus fed the multitude and according to John’s account, the crowd tried to make him a king by force. There was a surge of popular acclamation, and politically it could have turned into a dangerous situation. Jesus sent his disciples away so they won’t get involved, at least partially because his disciples also thought he was destined to be a powerful political leader against the Roman empire. They could have joined or even instigated the crowd into this rebellious movement. Anyhow, they were alone in the middle of the lake and being shaken by the storm. Then Jesus came towards them. They were probably doubly scared because they were trapped in the storm and now thought they were hallucinating. To these scared disciples, Jesus said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” How comforting and reassuring! Our translations say Jesus walked on water, but judging by the original Greek phrase, it is not sure if he walked on water or walked “towards” the water. But it is not important whether he actually walked on water or not. The point is that Jesus graced his disciples with his reassuring presence when they were in trouble and scared. He came to their rescue and our Peter thought, “If he can walk on water, so can I!”
When I read this scene where Peter walks on water towards Jesus, I imagine a baby who is just attempting its first step and mommy or daddy is cheering on; “Come to mommy!” “Come to daddy!” The baby will keep its eyes on mommy or daddy and puts all energy into taking the first step. When the race is finished, the baby ends up in mommy or daddy’s arms and then celebration! Now imagine Peter carefully and slowly taking his first steps on water towards Jesus, keeping his eyes on him like a baby. Then he notices the strong wind and suddenly starts drowning. After saving him, Jesus says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Obviously, he was doing well while his focus was on Jesus but failed because he got distracted by the strong wind. By the way, I found an image of Lego pieces depicting Jesus saving Peter from drowning, and Jesus says, “Take my hand Peter and don’t lego.”
From this story, there are three things we can learn about Peter. First, he acts upon impulse without considering the consequences. He was ruled by his heart, but his heart was in the right place; love and faithfully following Jesus, for example. Second, since he was ruled by his heart and impulses, he often failed; such as quickly declaring that Jesus was the son of God and then denying him when he was scared of the crowd when Jesus got arrested. Third, however, he never failed in the end because in the moment of failure he clutched at Christ. Every time he fell, he rose again and went back to Christ. As has been well said, a saint is not a man who never fails; a saint is a man who gets up and goes on again every time he falls.
As we have seen in today’s gospel story, Jesus comes to our rescue or to help and support us in times of trouble; but not always in the way we expect. His comforting presence came first. He was with the disciples in the midst of storm and fear. Instead of calming the storm right away, he helped Peter walk on water. We tend to focus on his failure, but think about this; apart from Jesus, he was the only human being in the Bible who walked on water even for a little while. The only reason why he failed was because he lost focus on Jesus and got distracted by the scary thing; the problem. We face a lot of storms in our lives and God comes to us for help and support, but God doesn’t always immediately remove the storm. Even if the storm doesn’t disappear as quickly as we would humanly like, at least God helps us to walk through the storm. We have heard, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”; well, if you can’t beat the storms of life, at least we can ride them with Jesus. If nature gives us rain, we could pout inside the house or learn to dance in the rain.
Look at Joseph, whose brothers, out of jealousy, threw him inside a ditch and then sold him as a slave (although he was a tactless show-off being his father’s favorite). He goes to Egypt as a slave and, as you can image, lives a hard life for a long time. But instead of removing his problems and saving him from slavery right way, God used his hard life as a journey, guiding him to be a leader of the Egyptian court and the saviour of his people during times of famine. He not only survived his “storm”, but came out prosperous and influential. He definitely learned how to ride the storms instead of drowning.
Therefore, when you get caught in the scary storms life throws at you, remember Peter whom Jesus helped walk on water. Remember that during our difficult times, God will teach us to walk on water, ride the storms and wind, and to dance in the rain. Remember to keep your eyes on God who helps and leads you, and don’t get distracted by the problems that trouble you. When you get caught in the strong wind and waves, and can’t beat them, learn to ride them with the Holy Spirit.
Rev. Sunny Kim