Sermon from Sunday 13th August

Matthew 14 : 22 - 33


Let me give you some scenes from everyday life.

A girl has just passed her driving test and is nervously reversing her dad’s car back into the runway for the first time.  Even more nervous is her father, who is at the back giving her directions.  Back a bit, round to the right, now straighten up, back some more.  The girl is doing fine, just following the instructions.  But then she catches a glimpse of her father’s face in the mirror, and sees how anxious he is looking.  She glances round and the wall looks awful close.  Thoughts race through her head about how expensive even a little bump can be to repair, and in a panic the feels for the brake but presses the wrong pedal.  Crunch!

It’s the cup final, and the striker is about to take a penalty kick.  The score is nil-nil, and there are only a couple of minutes to go.  The coach has sent out word, the keeper always dives to his left, so put it to his right, and keep it low.  He has done it hundreds of times in training and he knows he can do it again.  He places the ball on the spot and steps back, repeating to himself, low to the keeper’s right.  Then he hears the roar of the crowd, and he looks up to the goalie staring at him.  The goalie suddenly looks much bigger and goal much smaller.  He steps forward, scuffs the ground in front of the ball, and it trickles wide of the post.

A young child has just learned to ride their bike and a proud dad waits at the end of the field to congratulate him.  The boy is loving it, peddling away, heading straight for dad.  Then he looks down and sees how fast he is going over the ground.  He feels the breeze blowing past his face and he can’t help thinking how sore it would be if he fell off.  He feels for the brakes, where are the brakes, what if they don’t work.  He starts to wobble and fear takes over, and down he goes.

What have those three incidents got in common?  They are all about people who were doing fine until they started to worry about what might go wrong, so that they could no longer concentrate on what they were doing right.  Much like the story we read of a young fisherman who had been so enthralled by Jesus that he had given up his job so that he could follow him around and be with him.  The more time he spent with Jesus the more excited he became, and one dark and dismal night, when he saw what he took to be Jesus, walking on water, he believed he could be just like him.  So indeed he could.  He headed straight for him and it was all going so well until he felt cold water on his feet, and looked around at the stormy skies, and panicked, and started to go under.

Lots of what we read in the bible, and lots of things we read about Jesus in particular, are things we can easily relate to.  His stories are about a women who loses a coin and turns the house upside down until she finds it; a farmer who goes out and sows seed on his ground; a traveller who gets mugged, a family which breaks up when one son wants leave home...  This one may seem a bit different because walking on water is not generally a part of our everyday experience, but that shouldn’t distract us from the what the story is really about.  It is really about Peter wanting to be like Jesus - and failing.

I suspect that wanting to be a particular kind of person - and failing, wanting to live a particular kind of life - and failing, wanting to be a particular kind of church - and failing, is something that we can all too easily relate to.  Peter wanted to be like Jesus but he failed because he took he took his eyes off what he was wanting to achieve. His attention was captured instead by all the problems and all the reasons why he might fail.

For you and for me, wanting to follow Jesus will not mean wanting to walk on water.  We might impress people and save a bit of money on wellies, but little else.  For you and for me, wanting to follow will mean wanting to do other things that he did, things that are far more central to what he was about, yet things that we might find just as challenging as stepping out of a boat in the middle of the sea.  Because this Jesus talked about and demonstrated love, even for the unloveliest of people.  This Jesus talked about and demonstrated forgiveness, knowing just how hard it was when you are hurting.  This Jesus talked about and demonstrated the value of a simple lifestyle, uncluttered by too many possessions, unhampered by undue concern of what people will think of you.  This Jesus spoke about and demonstrated what it means to sometimes set aside the things you want to do, in order to help someone else.

So maybe, like Peter, we are enthralled by what Jesus has to offer, and excited by his vision of how life should be, and we want to be part of the movement he began.  It’s great, let’s go for it, but…  we know there are some people we could never forgive, some people we could never feel any love for, some comforts we would never give up, some problems that are just too big for us to do anything about.  We sense our forthcoming failure, we are overwhelmed by the size of the problems, and we quickly lose sight of the vision we began with.

Isn’t that what happened in the stories I began with?  Isn’t that what happened to Peter?  Isn’t that what happens again and again to all of us?  We really want to do the right thing, and for a while it seems quite simple.  We catch a glimpse of what might be possible, the quality of life might have, the impact for good we might be able to make, but before we get very far, our minds are so full of reasons why we might not be able to do, that we don’t do it.  We can’t do it.

Isn’t that what life is often like in churches?  We know what we want to do, we know the sort of community we want to become, we have some fairly simple basic instructions from the master about caring for one another and accepting people as they are, valuing everybody whatever they are able to contribute, making the love we believe God has for all his people a reality by the way we treat one another.  It’s a brilliant vision.  We sense that we can all be part of it and we sense that being part of a community like that would be a fantastic thing to do with our lives.  We love the idea that we could be part of helping and supporting and pointing hearts and minds towards God in wonder and in worship.

Yes, it would be great, but then, we’ve got the roof to get repaired, and everything costs money, and some weeks the minister’s not that great, and there’s some folk in that church I just don’t like…  and suddenly we are drowning in all the problems, and the vision we started out towards seems well out of reach.  That can happen in our personal journey, it can happen to a church, it can happen in so many ways, just as it happened to Peter.

Well that all sounds rather bleak and discouraging.  There doesn’t seem to be a lot of good news in the gospel this morning.  But then, do you remember how the story ended?  I said this was a story of Peter trying to follow Jesus and failing, but it is also the story of how Jesus responds to those who fail.  When Peter cried out for help, “Save me Lord”, Jesus looked down at him and said, “I gave you a chance and you messed it up, you have no one to blame but yourself”.  No, that might be what we would say, but it is not what Jesus said.  Jesus reaches out and helps him back into the boat, and when the storm has died, Peter joins the others who are able to proclaim, “Truly you are the Son of God.”  He ended up with a clearer vision of who Jesus was than he had begun with.  Yes, he had failed.  He had, once again, demonstrated in front of them all that he was not as much of a believer as he claimed to be, he had been humiliated and needed to be rescued, but that was not the end of the story.  It was merely another learning experience for the man Jesus would come to describe as the rock on which he would build his church.

So if we have tried and failed, if we have set out for something and got distracted along the way, if we have got so caught up in the problems that we have lost sight of our hope, that is OK.  It does not mean our journey has come to an end, it simply means that we are human, and that we have learned more than we knew before about how much we need the grace of God, the grace which reaches down and picks us up and sets us back on our feet.

St Paul, in one of his letters, said, the one thing I do is forget what is behind me and do my best to reach what is ahead.  So I run straight towards the goal, which is God’s call through Christ Jesus to the life above. 

So never mind the past failures, never mind all the problems.  Rather let’s make sure we keep a clear sight of the vision that we started out with, the vision of what might be possible when we put our faith in Jesus enough to try following his ways.  Let’s remember that vision of the kind of community our church can be and the role we can play in our community, and be inspired to want to be part of it.  Let’s keep on learning about the grace that we all need, keep on loving and giving and forgiving and celebrating the one who keeps picking up and setting us on our feet again.