Asking the Impossible (Matthew 14:22-33)

Peter, suddenly bold, said, “Master, if it’s really you, call me to come to you on the water.”

Jesus said, “Come ahead.”

Jumping out of the boat, Peter walked on the water to Jesus. But when he looked down at the waves churning beneath his feet, he lost his nerve and started to sink.

I can hear Peter’s mother now.

“Peter, you’re soaking wet!  Get out of those clothes right now before you catch your death of cold!  What in the world possessed you to go for a swim tonight?”

(Somewhat embarrassed) well, Jesus—

“Jesus!  Jesus told you to?!!!  That’s just great.  He said what?  He said you could walk on water?  Simon Peter, tell me something, if this Jesus person told you to jump off a cliff, would you do that too?  I mean really, I don’t know what has gotten into you lately.”

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Peter probably doesn’t know what’s gotten into him either.  Sometimes the whole thing must just seem crazy.  He and the other disciples have left everything behind—jobs, families, any semblance of security—and are following this strange and startling rabbi all over the place.  I can imagine Peter dripping wet, thinking back over the past months, trying to come up with a reasonable answer to his mother’s reasonable questions.  He shakes his head and smiles a bit, thinking about the people whose lives have been changed before their eyes—the blind who can see, the lame who can walk—that one little girl who one minute seemed dead and the next was awake in Jesus’ arms, asking for her supper.  Then Peter thinks about some of the things Jesus has said to the scribes and Pharisees and laughs out loud, remembering the looks on their faces.  Jesus really knows how to get their goats.  Then Peter sobers, thinking about John the Baptist who was imprisoned and then beheaded.  Maybe this isn’t really that much fun, after all.

And what about last night?  Jesus really did scare them half to death walking across the water like that.  They had been sure it had been some kind of ghost.  How had Jesus done that?  Come to think of it, how does he do half the things he does?  Jesus really is something special, Peter thinks, one of a kind.  But sometimes Jesus doesn’t seem to realize he is special.  In fact, Jesus seems to think that Peter and the other disciples can do anything he can.  Doesn’t he realize that asking Peter to walk on water—well that was just asking the impossible?  Wasn’t it?

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Asking the impossible.  That’s what Jesus does.  Healing the sick, casting out demons…last week it was feeding five thousand people with a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish—again and again Jesus asks the impossible.  But—here’s the thing—Jesus doesn’t seem to realize he is asking the impossible.  He seems to think nothing is impossible.  And sometimes his disciples almost believe it too.

So what about us?  Do we believe this Jesus who tells us we can walk on water?  Our tradition tells us we are disciples, too.  We are part of this rag tag band of followers.  But more often than not, I think, we would side with Peter’s mother, shaking our heads at such nonsense—walking on water—really now, what’s that all about.

We modern day, main-line protestants don’t put much stock in the miracle stories in the gospels.  We like to hear them metaphorically, as stories meant to convey how special this one Rabbi really was.  We don’t really expect God to give us our daily bread—we run to the grocery store.  And when we get sick, we go to the doctor’s office.  And most of us are sure that the closest we will ever come to walking on water is daring to put on a pair of water skis and be pulled behind a motor boat out on the lake.

So these stories do convey one thing they were meant to convey—this Jesus really was a special person, a one of a kind.  But is that all they are meant to convey—these stories of Jesus, the one we follow?  Or is there more?   I think there must be more, because the impossible things Jesus asks of his disciples—the impossible things he asks of us—are not just the spectacular impossibilities, but the everyday ones.

By everyday impossibilities, I mean things like believing, trusting, forgiving.  In our passage for today, Jesus doesn’t just ask Peter to come to him by walking on water—he asks him to trust that he can do it, believe that he can do it—and in fact, it is when his trust falters that he does, too.

So let us talk about these everyday impossibilities that Jesus asks of us.  Jesus asks us to believe.  Thanks to Marcus Borg and other wonderful theologians, we know that Jesus is not asking us to believe in the modern sense of the word.   When Jesus asks us to believe, he is not asking us to affirm a literal-factual truth.  He is asking us rather to give our hearts to it.  He is asking for our loyalty and our allegiance.  It does not contravene the laws of nature to give our hearts to God, or to pledge our loyalty to Jesus.  It is not strictly a miraculous occurrence when a people give their hearts and minds and strength to the idea of God’s kingdom here on earth.  All of this is in our grasp, isn’t it?  Jesus says it is.  And yet, sometimes it seems we would have more luck changing water into wine at the next wedding we attend. *************************************************************************************************

The second everyday impossibility is trusting.  Jesus asks us to trust.  The bible is full of it—fear not!  Don’t worry!  Scholars have told us that some form of “Do not be afraid” appears 365 times in our scriptures—one for every day of the year.  It appears in our portion for today when the disciples are freaked out, terrified that a ghost is walking across the water toward them.  Jesus tells them, “Courage, it’s me. Don’t be afraid.”

Once again, trust is not a physical impossibility.  In some ways we do it all the time.  Catherine and Peter trusted me to be here this morning, not to leave them last minute with an empty pulpit and the necessity of an impromptu sermon.  I trusted, even though I was nervous, that I would be able to find something to say to you all this morning.  So we all have practice trusting, but most of us have even more practice worrying.  We worry about things we have no control over.  We worry about the past.  We worry about the future.  We worry about money.  We worry about our children.  We worry about our parents.  We worry about our clothing, our weight and what people think of us.

Jesus talked about another way of being in the world—a way of radical trust in God and in God’s goodness.  Remember the sermon on the mount?

“Has anyone by fussing in front of the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? All this time and money wasted on fashion—do you think it makes that much difference? Instead of looking at the fashions, walk out into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They never primp or shop, but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them.

“If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way God works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how God works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.

“Don’t worry about missing out.”  Jesus asks us not to worry, to let go of our anxieties, to free ourselves us for the here and now, so we can live out God’s love in the world, be the people God dreams us to be.  And yet, many of us find it impossible to stop worrying.  Many of us—deep down—find it impossible to relax into a radical trust in the Holy One, to trust body and soul what the mystic has proclaimed:  and all will be well and all will be well and all manner of things shall be well.  Some days trusting—really trusting—seems as impossible as feeding a crowd with a couple of fish.

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The third everyday impossibility that Jesus asks of us is to forgive.  Although Jesus does not talk about forgiveness quite as often as he urges us to let go of our fears and our worries, forgiveness is pretty central to our faith.  Jesus goes around forgiving people left and right, and he seems to think we should too.  He seems to think forgiveness has great healing powers—for individuals, for communities and for the world.  He says it straight out in Luke, chapter 6: “Forgive, and ye shall be forgiven.”  In her book Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott points out that this scripture doesn’t seem to have any loopholes.  “It does not say, ‘Forgive everyone, unless they’ve said something rude about your child.’  And it doesn’t even say, ‘Just try.’  It says, If you want to be forgiven, if you want to experience that kind of love, you have to forgive everyone in your life—everyone even the very worst boyfriend you ever had—even, for God’s sake, yourself.”

Jesus practiced radical forgiveness.  I mean, he actually forgave the people who crucified him, who strung him up on a cross like a common criminal for daring to teach about God’s unstoppable love for all creation, God’s unwavering faithfulness to God’s people, God’s grace and spirit and power.  For that he was brutally murdered, and yet, as he died, He prayed to God, “Forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”  But what about for the rest of us?  Can we forgive?  As for me, I think sometimes I might have better luck walking on water.

But when I first started pondering this text in preparation for this sermon, my first thought was that somehow this story was about forgiveness.  I am not quite sure why—it is not an obvious reading of the text—so what was the connection I made?  I think that the truth is, for me, for a long time, forgiveness—true radical forgiveness—was as impossible as Peter getting out of the boat and walking across the water toward Jesus.

I have tried to grow to be a person who does not hold a grudge.  I routinely forgive those who cut me off in traffic or are rude to me at the grocery store.  I forgive my friends and family for slights and misunderstandings, for casual grumpiness and quotidian difficulties.   I try to say I am sorry—early and often—and seek forgiveness when I have caused pain or inconvenience.  This small practice of forgiveness has definitely blessed my life.  But for the really big things?  Are we supposed to forgive deliberate cruelty?  Rape?  Murder?  Are we supposed to forgive those who harm us, wound us and never even say they are sorry, that they repent, that what they did was wrong?

Impossible.

Impossible, just like feeding the five thousand, like making the lame walk and the blind see.  Impossible, like walking on water.  And yet Peter did walk on water.  At least he did until he realized what he was doing, got freaked out and started to sink.  We know it isn’t possible—and yet, at least for a moment, he did it.

Just for a moment let’s suppose these stories are more than stories meant to show what a special, one of a kind guy Jesus was.  Just for a moment, let’s imagine that this text is a key to making the impossible possible—even for just a short time.  Maybe this text can help us with everyday impossibilities, maybe this text can help us figure out how we might truly give our hearts to God and the building of God’s kingdom.  Maybe this text can help us figure out how we might truly deeply trust God’s love and providence, resting in God’s gentle embrace.  Maybe this text can help us figure out how to practice radical forgiveness.  Just for a moment, at first, and then maybe, just a moment more.

What keys to unlocking the impossible are in our text today?  First of all, it is okay to be scared.  Peter and the other disciples certainly are.  But the text assures us that even through our fears we will hear Jesus saying, take courage, it’s me, do not be afraid.  Can you imagine that now?  Jesus’ voice, like fine music or like fine wine, speaking to us, giving us strength and power and daring like we never imagined.  Next, our text tells us that even hearing Jesus’ voice, it is okay for us to be unsure.  Like Peter we can say, Okay Jesus, if it’s really you, call me—ask me to do the impossible and I WILL do it.  Now, this is the scary part, if we are going to take this text seriously, because it tells us that as soon as we are bold with Jesus, as soon as we dare to engage, Jesus will answer, will call us to come to him, will ask of us the impossible.  Two final noticings from our text—first, as long as Peter kept his mind on Jesus and moved forward toward the voice that called him, he was fine.  It was when he looked down at his feet, at the lapping waves, when he listened to the howling winds, so different than the encouraging voice of his teacher—that was when he started to sink.  So if we want to try the impossible, if we want to do those crazy things Jesus keeps asking us to do, if we want to deepen our love and loyalty, if we want to rest in radical trust, if we want to forgive our enemies and those who persecute us—we had better keep our eyes on the Holy One.  We had better pay more attention to the Voice of the One who is Still Speaking than to the howling winds around us.  And the last thing is this—if we falter, if we get freaked out or scared, if we start to go down and we fear that we will sink, we can do just what Peter does.  We can call out for help.  Our text tells us Jesus will catch us.  He will not let us drown.  He will simply help us on to another day.  Another day of trying to make the impossible possible, here and now.

May it be so.

Preached 10 August 2008, University Congregational United Church of Christ, Seattle, WA.

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