“Jesus Walk”

Download a PDF of this sermon here.


Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

August 10, 2014 – Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Scripture:  Matthew 14:22-33


It’s two inches thick by six feet wide by twenty feet long, made of blue polyethylene foam—the same stuff they use to make yoga mats, and camping mats, and gymnastics mats, and nursery school naptime mats. To reach it, you first have to walk a quarter-mile down a very steep hill. Then you cross the gravel, and then the sand, and then you walk down to the end of the dock and you dive into the lake.

If you swim out a little way, out near the raft with the diving board, out where the water is way over your head, you will find it floating there, right on the surface of the water. And if you grab on to the side, and pull with your arms, and kick with your legs, and haul yourself out of the water, you can sit on top of it and catch your breath, or lie down and sun yourself, or just float there for a while and enjoy the gentle rocking of the ripples in the lake’s surface as you watch the world go by.

Or, if you’re a rambunctious pre-teen or teenager, you can pile onto it with a bunch of your friends and race to stand up first, and then jump up and down so that the foam bends and flexes under your feet, and slides from side to side, and bumps up and down unpredictably as the water churns beneath it, so that your friends have all they can do to keep from falling into the lake again, let alone stay on their feet.

It is everyone’s new favorite toy at Silver Lake Conference Center, our UCC outdoor ministry site here in Connecticut. Its official name is something like the Water Mat, but at Silver Lake, it has another name. They call it the Jesus Walk.

Now, Mudge Pond (the lake at Silver Lake) is no Sea of Galilee. And a sunny Connecticut afternoon is no stormy Middle Eastern night. And standing up on a piece of blue polyethylene foam is no supernatural, death-defying, break-all-the-rules-of-nature act. But I have to say, I gained a different appreciation for today’s scripture lesson as I struggled to balance on that wriggling, roiling surface. I can definitely understand why Peter got scared.

If you look at the way in which artists tend to render this scene, you will see that feeling on Peter’s face. His clothes are soaked with the water that swirls around his knees, around his belly, around his neck. His hands are stretched out to Jesus, waiting to be pulled to salvation. His face looks panic-stricken, utterly terrified.

Do you know that feeling? The feeling that comes when you realize that you are in over your head, that your feet can’t touch the bottom, and the water is getting choppy, and the power of the waves is way beyond your swimming ability…

Do you know that feeling? The feeling that comes when the doctor walks into the room, and you can tell from the look on her face that the news is bad. And it’s like the ground has dropped out from underneath your feet, and your ears ring and your vision blurs and your stomach goes hollow, and you’re not even sure which way is up any more…

Do you know that feeling? The feeling that comes when you turn on the news and hear a report of yet another violent incident, yet another part of the world that seems to be imploding. And you wonder whether the conflict will ever have any chance of ending, or if the world will just be stuck in the storm of war forever…

Do you know that feeling? The feeling that comes when your boss comes to you on Friday afternoon, looking serious, and says that you’ve been laid off, and you have two hours to clean out your desk before you’ll need to leave the building. And your legs turn into jelly, and you pinch yourself hard because you think this must be some kind of bad dream, only you can’t wake up because it’s real life…

Do you know that feeling? The feeling that comes when you read another article about melting glaciers, about tornadoes and hurricanes, about droughts in one place and floods in another. And you wonder what kind of planet future generations will inherit, and you feel like there’s nothing you can possibly do to stem the tide…

Do you know that feeling? The feeling that comes when the phone rings in the middle of the night, telling you that your child is in serious trouble, and you think to yourself, How did we end up in this situation, and how the heck are we going to get out of it?

Do you know that feeling? The feeling that comes when it’s all that you can do to keep from slipping beneath the waves. The feeling that Peter must have had when he cried out for help, “Lord, save me!”

If you look at the way in which artists tend to render this scene, you will see that feeling on Peter’s face. But if you look at Jesus—well, Jesus looks as beatific as ever. He is smiling benignly, treading sure-footedly upon the foaming waves. The skies are dark and stormy, but he has a sunny, golden glow around his head. The wind is making whitecaps on the water, but his robes are dry and hardly even windswept, and every hair and whisker is still in place. He looks like this supernatural, death-defying, break-all-the-rules-of-nature act is really no big deal at all.

Jesus is typically depicted as calmly making his way across the sea, walking as though he is just out for a peaceful stroll. But I think the artists got it wrong.

I think it would have looked a lot more like the Jesus Walk when a dozen energetic middle schoolers have just clambered on board. I think Jesus would have been tossed and driven by the stormy lake. I think he would have been buffeted by the swirling wind. I think he would have had his arms out to either side, trying to keep his balance, leaning into the gale. I think his legs would have been working overtime to keep him on his feet as the water churned beneath him. Jesus might have been a little more graceful than the Silver Lake campers, a little more graceful (or a lot more graceful) than I—but I don’t this is a story about Jesus doing something easy. I think this is a story about Jesus doing something hard.

The story says that Jesus had sent his disciples on ahead of him to continue their ministry of healing and feeding and teaching people about God’s love. He had gone up the mountain by himself to pray before he followed them. And while he was at prayer, he saw his friends out on the lake in their little fishing boat, and he saw the storm sweeping in, and he realized that they were in trouble.

Don’t you think he would have looked for a boat first? Don’t you think he would have run as fast as he could down the mountain and along the shore, trying to find another fisherman who could row him out to save his friends? Maybe the fishermen were too soundly asleep to be roused… Maybe they were too afraid to venture out in the midst of such a storm… Maybe there simply was no one who lived along that particular stretch of lakeshore…

One way or another, Jesus came to the conclusion that there was nothing for it. If he wanted to reach his friends before their boat capsized, if he wanted to save their lives, if he wanted them to go on in the ministry to which he had called them, if he wanted to see their faces again, he would have to find a way to get there by himself.

So he did.

The story says that Jesus gathered his wits and his courage about him, and somehow he made his way across the water toward the place where his disciples clung to the gunwales of their boat. Sometimes it must have felt like the ground had dropped out from underneath his feet as the waves churned underfoot. Sometimes it must have felt like his legs had turned to jelly. Sometimes he must have pinched himself hard in hopes that he might wake up from this bad dream. He must have wondered to himself, How did we end up in this situation, and how the heck are we going to get out of it?

The gospel writers didn’t tell this story to demonstrate Jesus showing off, doing something impossible just for kicks, just for the fun of it, just to prove a point. They told this story to demonstrate the lengths to which Jesus will go for his friends.

He is not stymied by the laws of nature, the laws of physics, the laws of human civilization. He is not stopped by storms of grief and sorrow. He is not scared off by the wind of doubt. He is not dissuaded by the fact that there seems to be no boat available, no fisherman to take him from shore to where the disciples are.

Where there is no way, Jesus makes a way. He makes a way into that doctor’s office where you are receiving bad news. He makes a way into that conflict zone where even the best-trained soldiers fear to tread. He makes a way into that office where dreams are coming crashing down. He makes a way into the hurricane’s path, the tornado’s wreckage, the struggles of this beleaguered planet. He makes a way to your bedside when that terrible nighttime phone call comes.

So when you find yourself in the midst of something hard, when the waves swirl and roll, and the wind blows in your face, and you can’t see how you’ll make it through, know this: God has been there, too. God is there, too.

Over and over and over again, Jesus makes a way where there is no way. Over and over and over again, he walks straight into the teeth of the storm. And over and over and over again, he speaks words of peace and comfort that are stronger than our cries of fear.

Hear them now: “Take heart; it is I; do not be afraid.”