Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Our Faith Inside the Boat

Rev. Kathy Donley



Scripture Lesson:  Matthew 14:22-33


Last year in Ireland, we booked ourselves on a tour that sailed from the west coast to the island of Innisheer.  Before we left our guide mentioned something about 4-meter swells, but we didn’t pay enough attention.  It turns out that meant 12-foot waves.  The crossing took 30 minutes and it seemed like the boat spent as much time going up and down as moving forward. It was an amusement park ride we had not intended to purchase.  We had several hours to explore the island, but our enjoyment was hampered by the gnawing anxiety that we were going to have to get back on that boat for the return trip. 


By the time we did get back on, the waves had risen to 15 feet.  Because we had wanted the maximum tourist experience, we were not going straight back, but instead taking the scenic route to see the Cliffs of Moher from the water.  Which meant that our return voyage was going to last an excruciating 80 minutes.    The crew passed out sea-sickness bags before we left.  Every time one of those waves exploded against the boat,  it covered the glass of our enclosed space, scaring everyone and giving the momentary sensation that we were going under.  I can only imagine how much more terrifying this trip would have been at night.  Again the boat bobbed up and down in its efforts to move forward, but this time there was also a persistent sideways pull from the water.  Did I mention the sea-sickness bags? 


We did make it across finally and back onto dry land.  On the bus back to our morning’s departure point, our guide joked about those of us who had thought we were going to die.  It was funny because it was true.


After that one awful experience, we had to force ourselves to get back on the boat.  If there had been any other way off the island, we would have taken it. Believe me, we looked. 


As I read this familiar story this week, I noticed that maybe the disciples had a similar feeling.   Verse 22 says, “Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead of him to the other side.”  They didn’t want to, but he made them.  In Matthew’s gospel, this is the first time the disciples have been separated from Jesus and for whatever reason, they don’t want to do it, but they go because Jesus forces them to. 

Some of them were fishermen.  Maybe they could tell that there was a storm coming.  And then they got out on the lake and the wind picked up and the water got choppy  and they thought to themselves, “We told you this was a bad idea.” 


Matthew is telling a story about an incident in Jesus’ life.  He is telling the story some 40-50 years after it happened to a community of Christians who are suffering for their faith.  His gospel is written to encourage them to keep on keeping on.


The story involves water, a great lake or inland sea.   For people of the ancient Israel, the sea was a place of chaos.  Being on the water was threatening.  It represented all the anxieties and evil powers and death that threaten the goodness of  life.[1] The sea is a fearful, dangerous place, and Jesus has sent the disciples, out there without him.


Matthew writes that the boat is being tortured by the waves.  His readers were people who were being tortured for their faith.   He used that word on purpose.  How do you think they would hear this story?  Maybe they thought of themselves as those forced to go out into chaos, into the journey of life where storms of conflict and persecution battered them.   Do you think they ever wondered if Jesus had sent them out on their own?  Were they frightened that he had abandoned them to the storm? 


Maybe you’ve been there, forced out into a storm,  made to take a journey you knew was going to be no fun at all.    We’ve all known some of the storms of life, times when the blasts of wind knocked you  off balance and before you got your feet under you, the waves rocked the boat and knocked you down again.  And no matter what you did, the wind and rain kept battering you.   All you could do was hold on and let the waves roll over you.   Maybe it made you angry or seriously scared.  Maybe it left you too exhausted to go on. You just wanted to be done, to get off the boat and rest someplace quiet and safe.  


That’s probably what the disciples are thinking.  They’re exhausted from trying to keep the boat afloat.  They’re mad because they didn’t want to do this in the first place.  Some of them are probably convinced that they’re going to die.  And now, it looks like there’s ghost to contend with.  But it’s not a ghost.  It is Jesus and he calls out to them to tell them not to be afraid, that he is with them.

We heard the rest of the story.  Impetuous Peter gets out of the boat and tries to walk to Jesus.  At first he can, but then he sees the storm and the waves.  When he sinks, Jesus lifts him up and asks him why he doubted and walks with him to the boat.  After they get into the boat, the storm dies and the disciples worship Jesus.


You and I have heard lots of sermons on this text.  There’s a book called If You Want to Walk On Water, You Have to Get Out of the Boat. That’s a good title.  A lot of the preachers I’ve heard use that as the moral of this story.  They say that if we would just have enough faith, we could walk on water.   They say that faith means taking risks and that we have to step out of the boat and keep our eyes on Jesus so that we don’t sink.    I’ve preached a sermon like that on this text, but . . . it’s not how I read the story this time. 


This time, I’m thinking about the fact that Jesus made the disciples get into the boat.  He told them that was where he wanted them.    But Peter -- you gotta love Peter  -- he couldn’t stand being in the boat.  He was one of the fishermen, one with experience in storms, but he wanted out and he got out as soon as possible.  And Jesus said, to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” 


Maybe Jesus meant, “why did you doubt that I would come to you in the storm?  Maybe he meant, “Oh Peter, why did you get out of the boat?”


So, what looks like faith, getting out of the boat to walk on the water to Jesus might really be a lack of faith.  There are a couple of clues to that.   The first one is that at first Peter isn’t totally sure that it is Jesus.  He tests him by saying “Jesus, if it is you, call me to come to you.”  And then he leaves the others to their fate.  He doesn’t seem to consider what will happen to them without him to work his oars or do his share of bailing.  The last thing they need is to have to rescue a drowning crewmember, but he doesn’t seem concerned about that either. 

The message is not "If he had enough faith, he could have walked on the water," just as the message to us is not "If we had enough faith, we could overcome all our problems in spectacular ways."[2] But rather,  “Can we believe that Jesus is always with us, even when the evidence, the storm, suggests, that he is not?”   We might remember that one of the ancient symbols for the church was a boat, and understand this encouragement to Matthew’s readers to make our way through the storms together, within the community of faith.


A few minutes ago we sang Stand By Me.    That hymn was written in 1905 by Charles Albert Tindley.   For the last 30 years of his life, Tindley was the pastor of a 3000-member church in Philadelphia, and he knew his share of storms.    He was born to an enslaved  father and a free mother.  He was born as a free person, but his mother died when he was still young and his father was forced to rent him out.  He said that he was “hired out wherever father could place me.  The people with whom I lived were not all good.  Some of them were cruel to me.  I was not permitted to have a book or got to church.   I used to find bits of newspaper on the roadside and put them in my bosom (for I had no pockets), in order to study the ABC’s from them”[3]


Tindley never got to go to school.  He worked as a church custodian and hauled construction materials to pay the bills.  By age 17, he had taught himself to read.  He took night classes from Boston University and eventually was ordained as a Methodist minister.    The hymn Stand By Me says  “when the storms of life are raging, stand by me.” Not if, but when the storms rage.    Charles Tindley understood the storms of life.  He knew that it’s not a matter of  whether there will be storms, but that the storms will swirl and beat and batter us all at different times. 


Fear and anxiety are the worst parts of the storm for me.  I don’t like the wind and the waves, but what really tears me up is my fear that they won’t stop or that I won’t see the storm coming and won’t be ready for it.  My fear of the storm I anticipate can be worse than the damage the storm actually inflicts when it arrives. 


And so I’ve learned that dealing with fear and anxiety is an issue of faith for me.  Do I try to avoid it?  Do I ask Jesus to deliver me from it?  Well, yes, sometimes I do.  And maybe sometimes that’s the most faithful thing I can do.


But I know people who seem to have more faith than fear.  They’re the ones who stay in the boat and cheerfully encourage others to keep bailing because land is in sight.  In Wendell Berry’s words, they can be joyful even though they’ve considered all the facts.[4]  I think that they’ve learned to believe that Jesus is with us, even though the storm might suggest otherwise. 


New Testament scholar Beverly Gaventa says, “The variety of faith granted to human beings does not banish fear. No amount of moralizing or pleading will make it so.  Faith does, however, teach us whose name to call and who waits to calm us, for faith knows who is powerful over the deep of our fears as over the deep of the waters.[5] 


Life is full of storms.  We cannot avoid them.  But as the current one blows in, let us remember to stay in the boat and believe that Jesus will stay with us.  May we continue to trust the Christ who is powerful over the deepest of our fears. Amen.




[1] Eugene Boring,  New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VII, Matthew,  (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1995, p.  327.

[2]  Boring, p. 329.

[3] Tindley, Book of Sermons, 1932.

[4] Wendell Berry, Manifesto:  The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,  found at http://www2.gcc.edu/media/events/2013/022713Virtues2HandoutCourage.pdf

[5] Beverly Gaventa “Doubt and Fear – Matthew 14:22-33”, The Christian Century, July 14, 1993.