If you follow the lectionary, you engaged Matthew 14:22-33 several weeks ago. Jesus goes up to the mountain to retreat, pray, and grieve the loss of his friend, John the Baptist. When he’s had the necessary time and is ready to meet with his disciples, he’s met with a storm instead. Interestingly, Jesus does not stop the storm, rather he walks on the storm to meet his disciples. Once the disciples see him, they fear him. They think they’ve seen a ghost. Even in his fear, it’s as if Peter can’t contain himself and must take the opportunity to ask for the impossible, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
Just as Jesus doesn’t stop the storm for himself, he won’t stop the storm for Peter either. The sea is raging, the waves and winds are against them, and still, Peter gets out of the boat and… walks on water! He should get more credit for these steps than he usually does. Peter does the impossible– he actually walks on water! He walks on the storm and takes steps toward Jesus. Even he couldn’t believe it. Soon enough, though, he redirects his eyes. He notices the raging storm, becomes frightened, and begins to sink. The text says that Jesus immediately reached out his hand to Peter and caught him. “You of little faith,” Jesus says, “why did you doubt?”
On September 1, 2019 the synod staff and I were organizing our offices, taking pictures, enjoying fellowship at the lunch table, and strategizing in the conference room. We were full of joyful energy and moved by awe and disbelief. We were now the synod staff. I was now the bishop. What was God thinking? We were eager to find out.
We could not have known the storm we would face — the difficult days and seasons we would endure, the inevitable growing pains as individuals and as a staff, the hard conversations, and the even harder decisions and transitions.
We could not have known we would be met by waves and winds crashing against us — a global pandemic, persistent racial injustice, civil unrest, an economic downturn, and political divides that threaten our lives. We could not have known this would be a year of tremendous loss or that each of us would suffer a sense of betrayal when our bodies or the bodies of our loved ones struggled to fight disease. We could not have known what an emotionally, physically, and spiritually draining year this would be.
Many days, it was as if, like Peter, we dared to ask for the impossible: to lead boldly and love boundlessly and to be transformed transformers for the sake of the gospel. We’d ask and then also realize the overwhelming weight of the call, become fearful, and our spirits would begin to sink. Each time this happened, by the grace of God, Jesus also happened. Jesus would immediately reach out his hand through Scripture and/or unexpected people in unexpected places. He would catch us and help us breathe in peace and breathe out fear. He would then firmly and lovingly remind us, “This isn’t about you, Beloved. This is not about your individual or collective skills, abilities, or resources to navigate the storm. This is about my call upon your life for the sake of the Church and the world battered by the waves of the storm. This is ultimately about faith in the One who calls you for such a time as this.”
Church, this is not just the synod staff’s story. This is our story as believers, humans, and followers of Jesus in unprecedented times.
I’ve shared the hardship of ministry this past year because our faith invites us to unapologetically name a thing what it is. To say that 2020 has been a difficult year for us all, would be an understatement. And yet, our faith also encourages us to tell the whole story.
Just as in Matthew’s narrative, Jesus has not stopped our storm from raging and he does not promise to do so either. Even still, when we prayed to God and asked to do the seemingly impossible: continue to be church even while unable to gather in traditional ways for example, Jesus said, “Come.” And we have walked on water!
Think back and look at all the ministry we have co-created, with the Spirit’s help, in the past 6 months alone.
We have walked on water each time we have engaged in the unimagined — in things for which we were not trained, not prepared, and didn’t think we were ever called to do.
We walked on water when we became stay at home parents, teachers, and caregivers!
We walked on water when we became video producers, sound technicians, and media experts!
We walked on water when we preached to a blue, green, or red light hoping and trusting that faith does come to the lonely, heartsick, and in need through the hearing of the Word of God— and it did!
We walked on water when we worshiped online and outside with the world as our church sanctuary!
We walked on water when we dared to let go of aspects of our ministries that no longer serve us, or the community we’ve been entrusted to lead!
We walked on water when we believed our congregations could grow with people we’ve not yet met in person- and they did!
We walked on water when lay leaders dared to discern a call to ministry even while the storm was raging!
We walked on water when we went on staycation or vacation and found that rest is revolutionary and faithful!
And we walked on water when we advocated for members of our human family and protested against any and all racial and systemic injustice!
We have led boldly and loved boundlessly this year. And yes, waves of fear have battered us and some days our spirits began to sink. When this happened, by the grace of God, Jesus also happened. And when he didn’t have to remind us to get out of our own way, he firmly and lovingly told us, “Take heart, it is I (I have you. I called you. I will not leave you. Keep your eyes on me.); do not be afraid.”
As you know, Mathew’s narrative continues. After Jesus rescues Peter and questions his faith, they both enter the boat and the text says that the winds ceased. I’d like to imagine that the winds did not cease at all. I want to believe that the fact that they were in the boat together with their eyes on Jesus made it so that the storm lost its power to distract them from their work and destination. I want to believe this because instead of noting the strength of the winds and the threat to their journey, the disciples worshiped Jesus and professed, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
Maybe this is the invitation of the Spirit to us all, “Come. Walk on water! When you sink (and you will because you’re easily distracted), call on Jesus. He will extend his hand to you, rescue you, and lead you toward one another. And though the storm persists, be church together with your eyes on Jesus and the storm will lose its power.”
May we listen to Jesus each time fear threatens to overshadow our thoughts, lives, and ministries.
May we unapologetically call a thing what it is and tell our whole story without reservation.
May we continue to lead boldly and love boundlessly.
And may we ever nurture our faith in the One who has called us for such a time as this… with God’s help and in Jesus’ name. Amen.