Sunday, August 10th, 2014 – Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scripture: Matthew 14:22-33
Hymns: “God of Grace and God of Glory”, “Jesus Calls Us O’er the Tumult”, “Love Lifted Me”, “Jesus, I Come”
Special music provided by the Vacation Bible School program
“Faith on the Water”
As I stand here in this pulpit today, the church is dying. No, not Gower Christian Church in particular, but the Christian Church as a greater whole is in decline. Churches from the smallest of the mainline Protestant churches to the largest of the evangelical mega-churches are losing the fight to survive. People are leaving, membership is dropping, tithes are decreasing, and churches are closing. Indeed, a Pew Research Forum study on religious identity in America demonstrated that in 2012, nearly 20% of all Americans did not identify with any religious belief set whatsoever. That’s more than sixty million Americans who just can’t get onboard with religion.
And you know, we can go through any number of reasons as to why this has happened. We can talk about clergy abuse scandals, about the failure of the church to remain relevant, about the stubborn insistence with regard to worship styles that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, about the fact that some of the most visible churches look more like three-ring circuses than houses of worship, about the fact that in some circles, the church has come to be almost as distrusted as Congress. We could talk about any of those things as to why the church is failing – but the “why” is not what I want to talk about today.
No, I want to talk about the way the church is responding. And let me tell you, in many circles, the church is not responding well.
It’s not that the responses of churches don’t mean well. The people who formulate responses in many of our churches today just want the church to survive, to remain relevant, to touch the lives of those around them. But the big issue here is that many of these churches are not leaning on God, but instead trusting on their own understanding. And this is where they fail.
Enter today’s Gospel lesson. Yes, to many of us, the story of Jesus walking on the water and Peter trying to walk toward him is an old one, maybe even a tired one for some people. I’m sure that there are folks out there for whom the Audio Adrenaline song “Walk on Water” runs through their head like a broken record every time they hear this story – “If I keep my eyes on Jesus, I can walk on water…” The problem there is that song totally misses the point.
Well, maybe I shouldn’t say that. Yes, the song has a good point, and one which we should glean from the Scripture – whatever we do in life, we should do with our eyes fixed on God. It is God that gives meaning to our lives, purpose to our actions. But the song itself seems to miss the deeper meaning of this story.
The problem with this particular message is that it is the primary message that so many seem to take away from the story, and it is what too many churches that are in trouble stake their entire well-being upon. “If we just keep God as our center, there’s no way that we can fail!” churches will say. And you know, keeping God as their center is exactly what they should be doing. However, that doesn’t mean that they can’t fail. That just means that the fall is going to be even harder when they do fail – they’re going to be left with questions of God: “Why did we fail? We were doing what we thought to be your will! We thought we were serving you! Where were you God, how could you let us fail? How could you let us slip below the waves?”
To which God says: “How did you get yourself in that situation in the first place?”
Let’s go back to the beginning of the story. Jesus’ apostles had just had a major failure of faith turn into a major witness of God’s power. Jesus had taken some kid’s lunch and turned it into dinner for 5,000 men, plus women and children, plus enough leftovers for each of the apostles to take home to their families (I always figured that’s why it specified twelve baskets, but I could be wrong). Jesus then told the apostles to take themselves across the Sea of Galilee, and that he’d see them on the other side.
Now, give credit where credit is due, the apostles didn’t question how exactly he planned to see them on the other side of an eight mile wide, thirteen mile long lake if he wasn’t going on the boat with them. No, they set off across the lake, figuring Jesus would catch up when he caught up. They just didn’t count on HOW he was going to catch up.
You see, in the middle of the night – or, as the Greek of this text says, “the fourth watch”, which in naval terms is between 3:00 AM and 6:00 AM – as a nasty little storm was battering the boat, Jesus came strolling across the lake toward the fishing boat that the apostles were sailing. Obviously, that was an unsettling experience – thinking it was a ghost, they cried out in fear. Realizing that he’d just scared the living daylights out of his apostles, Jesus called out to calm them: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
All well and good, right, except for one particular hotheaded, brash apostle who’s come up in my sermons before as tending to leap before he looked: Peter pops his head up, and basically says, “PROVE IT.”
And THAT is how so many churches get themselves into untenable situations in the first place. God calls out to them, to take action, to move, and they say, “Prove it.”
Think about the church that has the opportunity to reach out to its neighbors, to use its resources to help the “least of these”, to make itself an important part of the community once more, but hesitates, because they’re worried about how that will make them look. Then, five years later, as they’re closing their doors for the last time, they say, “Why didn’t anybody come to us?”, and the answer, of course, is “Why didn’t you go to them?”
Or think about the church that has huge amounts of money in the bank, and could do incredible things with that, but can’t afford to spend that money on anything other than the upkeep of an old, massive property that was designed to serve a congregation of 400, and now houses a congregation of 50. Rather than selling the property, moving into more suitable quarters, and using their resources to the glory of God, they instead continue to squander their resources, keeping the lights and heat on in what is slowly becoming a sarcophagus. Then, one day, they’re out of money, and have to close the doors anyway – and now they can’t afford a new place. Their members scatter to the four winds, and it’s all because they stubbornly held onto a building. If you think about it, they made a graven image, and it became more important to them than God’s own self.
These are just two sorts of churches that are like Peter – sitting in the boat, they hear Jesus calling, but instead of faithfully accepting the call of Jesus, they say, “Prove it. If it is you, bid me walk to you on the water.”
And we all know what happened next in the story. Jesus probably sighed and shook his head, but realizing that Peter needed yet another object lesson in faith, said, “Okay, come on out, Peter!” Peter jumped on out of the boat, and having a moment of indomitable faith, took a few steps out on the water – until he remembered, oh yeah, I’m a human; oh yeah, humans are denser than water; oh yeah, humans are subject to gravity. And down he went, below the waves. But because Jesus was out there with him, he was able to pluck Peter from below the waves. Then, he gently rebuked Peter, asking him why he doubted that it was actually Jesus out there. And to his credit, Peter said, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
And that’s all well and good, but the problem there is that it took a bona fide, Jesus of Nazareth miracle to save Peter from drowning in the Sea of Galilee. It was in response to that miracle that Peter said, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
What should’ve happened is that Peter, when he poked his head up out of the boat, should’ve said AT THAT POINT, “Truly you are the Son of God,” instead of going with the “If you are who you say you are, tell me to come to you.”
So it is that when churches proceed on sight and not on faith, they all too often end up submerged below the waves – the waves of finance, the waves of the world, the waves of reality. And all too often, it takes a miracle for those churches to survive. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen, but the church would’ve had a much easier time of it had it proceeded by faith, and not by sight.
I don’t worry about that with this congregation. This is a church that identified a community need and said, “Okay, let’s build a family life center,” without worrying about whether or not that would benefit the church. This church proceeded on faith that they were doing what was best for the people of God, not necessarily what was best for the bottom line. Heck, this is a church whose board said, “You want to take the youth to Los Angeles? You’re gonna need seventeen grand? You haven’t raised so much as a dime yet? No worries! Go for it! We’ll make it happen!”
But even in a church as faithful as this one, we must remain guarded against the temptation to rely on sight rather than on faith. The reality is, we live in a country where fewer and fewer people are going to church. We live in a country that still hasn’t entirely recovered from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, now some six years hence. This church exists in a small community that is largely reliant on the well-being of the employment sectors in Kansas City and St. Joseph to survive. At any time, any of those factors could get worse, and then this church could be in trouble.
It is in those times that the church must rely on faith, not by sight. It is in those times that when the voice of Jesus is heard calling out across the waters, we must say, “Surely you are the Son of God,” and not “Prove it.”
When we look out across the sea and see the ghost on the water, we must recognize that it is Christ, calling us into deeper mission and fellowship. Because when we lose that faith and get out of the boat, that’s when we’re going to find ourselves below the waves.
Keep the faith. Recognize Christ. And stay in the boat.