Last week I was talking to my friend Derek about kayaking. Kayaking is one of his favorite sports. It’s also a dangerous sport, even for experienced kayakers.
It’s easy to tip over in a kayak. If you’re stuck in a boat upside down with your head in the water it can be hard to get right-side up. One of the most important moves a kayaker learns is something called a “combat roll,” but here’s the thing: The natural thing to do is try to get your head above water so you can breathe, right? Well, when this maneuver is done successfully the last thing to come out of the water is the head.
Another hazard for kayakers is big rocks. One lesson kayakers learn is that when they can’t avoid hitting a rock instead of leaning away from the rock they need to lean into and “hug” the rock. This keeps them safely above the water and keeps them from being pinned between the boat and the rock.
Sometimes the best move in a difficult situation is to go against our instincts–against what seems logical or “common-sense.” Jesus’ friend Peter was trained as a fisherman. If you’re a fisherman in a boat and it’s dark and stormy what do you do? You don’t jump out of the boat; you stay with it! But on this occasion, our gospel story for today, Peter jumped out of the boat!
My friend Derek is not only a kayaker but a rock climber. Falling is part of rock climbing. With the aid of a rope it’s relatively safe if the rock climber pushes out from the rock wall. Most of us would instinctively stay as close to the wall as possible but if you fall close to the wall you’re likely to hit rocks along the way and get seriously hurt. The key is to push away from the wall and trust that the rope is all you need to fall safely.
At first blush, Peter doesn’t seem to come away from this story looking very good. He jumps out of the boat in a storm. He starts to sink, and Jesus seems to criticize him for not having enough faith. Once again, Jesus is the hero, the one who rides in on a white horse to save the day: Healing sick people, raising people from the dead, feeding thousands of people with a few bits of bread and fish, walking on water. It’s all pretty predictable. But–is that all there is to these stories?
Let’s look at our gospel reading again. Against a lifetime of habit and training and experience, against beliefs, against common sense, Peter jumps out of the boat in a storm. That sounds to me like an act of faith. Does it sound like something you would do on a daily basis? Throw out everything you’ve learned? Go against common sense, safety, self-interest, peer pressure, habits and beliefs of a lifetime, try something new and maybe very risky? Is that how you live?
On the face of it, Peter comes out of this story looking not too great. But read the story again and notice what happens. In the midst of a storm the disciples see what looks like a ghost. Jesus reassures them by speaking to them. And then, a most amazing thing happens: Peter says, “If it is you, Lord, tell me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus says, “Come.”
Now, think about that. Instead of saying, “Jesus, come and rescue us!”, Peter says, “Tell me to come to you.” This is unexpected. It’s a riskier proposition, and it may be the most important part of the story. Peter is willing to meet Jesus on Jesus’ terms, and not Peter’s.
How do you pray? When you talk to God—especially in a crisis—how do you pray? Lord, fix this, heal that, do what I ask? But in this case that’s not how Peter prays. It’s, “Make me do the impossible. Make me come to you.”
Peter failed. He began to sink. And once again, Jesus comes to the rescue. “Oh, you of little faith, why did you doubt?” We’re left with the idea that if you only believe hard enough you’ll get what you want in life. Is that what you believe? Well, it’s not Christian faith. It’s more like a fairy tale.
Why do you think Peter got out of the boat? I wonder if it’s because in the midst of a crisis, he had learned from someone else’s example. Peter, as it happens, was not the first to get out of the boat. If you recall, last week Jesus was in a boat. Grieving the death of his friend John the Baptist, he sought solitude so he set sail. When he approached shore thousands of people were waiting for him. It’s not what he expected and it’s surely not what he wanted. He could have turned around and taken the boat away from the shore, but he didn’t. Instead, Jesus got out of the boat. It was a different kind of crisis; it was shallow water, but–he got out of the boat. Soon, loaves and fishes were multiplied; thousands were taught and fed and healed because…Jesus got out of the boat.
I wonder if that’s what Peter remembered when he asked Jesus to call him out of the boat.
Each Sunday one of the lines we pray in the Lord’s Prayer is, Thy kingdom come, thy will be done… But is that really what we want? Do we really want God’s will or do we want God to take care of our fear and anxiety without giving up what’s safe and comfortable and familiar? Lord, thy will be done…as long as you don’t expect me to change. As long as I don’t have to get out of the boat. As long as I can be in control of my own life.
Storms in life come and go. In the midst of a storm not everyone is called to “walk on water,” but everyone is invited to get out of the boat, to come to Jesus rather than expecting him to fit into the safe and familiar world we’ve created for ourselves.
Where in your life are you in the middle of a storm? Where are you afraid? But, storm or no storm, where might God be calling you out of the boat? What habits, traditions, beliefs and priorities are keeping you in the boat? Where are you trying to save yourself rather than turning your life over to the saving power of Christ?
But if getting out of the boat is not something you’re ready to do where in your life do you see others who are? In today’s story, for example, while one disciple got out of the boat eleven others were watching, and learning. They were being shown what was possible. How might each of us draw strength and encouragement from the example of others so one day when Jesus says, “Come,” we are ready to get out of the boat?
Every Sunday we gather at the font. The waters here are a far cry from any storm but the power of this water is the same as the power of the water in which Peter began to sink. Baptismal waters represent a threat to the life we know but the beginning of a life of learning to push away from the wall as we fall, of bringing our head up out of the river not first but last; baptism is the beginning of letting go of all we think will save us, everything we’re accustomed to turning to. When we dare to step out of the boat, no matter what happens after we get out of the boat, we are assured of a strong arm waiting to save us—not on our terms but on his.