Get Out of the Boat

by: Rev. Glenna Shepherd

Christ Covenant MCC, Decatur, GA

Excellence in Ministry!

I have a calligraphy piece in my office that has called me back to the voice of the spirit, has challenged me and put things in perspective time and again.

It says this:
Excellence is possible IF:

We care more than others think is wise
risk more than others think is safe
dream more than others think is practical
expect more than others think is possible!

Excellence in Ministry!

Relevant ministry. Spiritual ministry. Bold ministry. Empowered ministry. Beyond anything we can ask or imagine. How grateful we are to Peter for creating this powerful model for us in this well-known story. How grateful we are to Peter - most of the time - for underscoring our humanity and simultaneously winning the pleasure of Jesus.

Jesus knew Peter. He met Peter by the sea -- Peter's domain. The first to be called by Jesus to be a disciple, Jesus beckoned him to dare: Follow me, Jesus said, and I will make you fish for people. Peter responded to Jesus with incredible strength of character - coupled with characteristic reckless abandon.

Peter listened as Jesus taught -- words like: Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them is like a wise person who builds a house on a rock. Jesus watched Peter act with courage when Jesus told him that he was being sent out like sheep in the midst of wolves. And yet, Jesus knew Peter's weakness, too - his impulsiveness, his tendency to act strongly and, perhaps, think later. Perhaps his impulsiveness produced the daring that made him the first to confess Jesus as the Christ. And even though Peter later denied Jesus three times, it was to Peter that Jesus gave the keys to the realm of God. In fact, in the early church, Peter comes to represent the Church, the body of those who are, like Peter, eager to follow Jesus, but still very human.

Matthew offers this tale of Peter and Jesus to the church - the early urban church around 70 CE. This 40 years since the resurrection of Jesus were full and fraught with change. The church had gone through transition from being a sect of Judaism to being Christianity. This was a church that met with constant persecution and harassment, whose leaders had been killed, a church who had no scriptures except for the Hebrew scriptures.

The letters from Paul were circulating, but not as scripture. Rather, the faith of the church of Matthew was based on the experience of Jesus as the resurrected Christ - with them in spirit, but not in body. So, the Gospel writers wrote these stories down for the church. This church whose memory and experience of the resurrected Christ had brought them through incredible persecution to growth and thriving even in a hostile world.

Matthew chooses and orders stories of Jesus that speak to the faith and life of the church in his time and place. You know the story:

The sea is stormy; the disciples are afraid.
Jesus walks out on the sea.
The disciples think it's a ghost.

Listen to the dialogue:

It's a ghost. Take heart, it is I; have no fear.
Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water.
[Sounds impossible, no?] Come.
Lord, save me. O you of little faith, why did you doubt?
Can't you just see the little smile on Jesus's face?
You can do it, Peter, I know you can.
Why did you stop?

Excellence is possible IF:

We care more than others think is wise
risk more than others think is safe
dream more than others think is practical
expect more than others think is possible!

Jesus had great faith in Peter. Peter saw with eyes of faith. Obsessive faith. Passionate faith. Reckless faith. From time to time, he understood what Jesus was teaching him and showing him. He saw it so clearly sometimes. He got it! This is one of those times. He acts in spiritual and physical courage despite the fear he had and the overwhelming storm. Peter acts in a way that moves him toward Jesus - that makes him more like Jesus. He does something impossible! And then that old fear rushes back in and he begins to sink. But all is not lost. They are in the water together, and Jesus lifts him up.

This is the story. We know it - perhaps too well.... What did this story have to say to the early church? Where did they find themselves in the story? Perhaps they saw this story as a prediction of Jesus as spiritually present with the church. Jesus seems different to the disciples, as a ghost and yet he calls them still.

Perhaps they saw Peter as the church, in all his strength, faith and weakness; and the water, a traditional symbol of the unknown and fear-producing, as the hostile world in which their ship was afloat. If this, indeed, is one level of the message that Matthew was communicating to the church, we get an amazing look at the church itself in Peter. The church is empowered, empowered to do incredible things in the world - impossible things, unimaginable things, Jesus things!

The church is able to act. The church is sometimes afraid. Sometimes that fear is overcome by faith, sometimes not. The church is called to focus on the risen Christ, the Christ-spirit who works with us so that we can do impossible things. Greater things than I have done, you will do, Jesus taught - And we don't believe him!

The church is called to be imitators of Christ in the stormy world. Not a community of the perfect - still very human. The church's incentive is the Christ we know and love-- who calls us with love and empowerment. The church must take a risk to respond. The church is built on responsive relationship.

Remember: Peter knew Jesus and Jesus knew Peter. This was a relationship of mutual trust, mutual faith in each other, not just one of Jesus doing the impossible and Peter trusting. We are still called to this relationship of mutual trust, of empowerment, of risk-taking, of stepping out into hostile waters to walk in the steps of the Jesus who often lived against the status quo of personal, physical, cultural, economic & political power! As UFMCC, to what is Jesus calling us? What are those violent waves that bash our ship? As those who believe that we have heard the voice of Jesus calling us to be the church in a brave new way, how do we respond?

As ministers of the gospel, heirs of grace and power, do we still hear the beckoning of Christ to live beyond the possible? Is God calling us to step from the ship - the structure, the sacred cows, the assumptions, the status quo - that we've come to know and love to do yet another new and brave action to call the world to the empowering love and world-changing call of Christ?

We've come a long way in the past thirty years. We've built a boat that has held us in the hostile waters of homophobia and in our own storms of self-doubt. We've been a haven for those the church has discarded, a place for the defiant who refuse to be stepped on any more, a healing balm for the sickness of shame and a place of learning self-respect and healing process. We've been family and both the best and worst sense of the word. UFMCC has dared to step out of the boat of traditional Christian thought and has nurtured theological reflection, truth-speaking and dialogue from women, those with diverse cultural perspectives, and has fostered beginnings of gay theology. We've emerged from the boat. We've walked on water - on a most-of-the-time ferocious sea. And sometimes the water has even come into the boat! But Jesus is still beckoning. I hear it and I know you do, too.

How disappointing to the hear the words of Jesus to Peter: Why did you stop? You were on a roll! I believe that God is calling us to do what will, indeed, be EXCELLENCE in ministry - in being the church and living out our mission IF we have the courage to get out of the boat of assumptions about who we are and who we therefore must be as a denomination and step into the waters of renewal, reimagining, reinventing ourselves - our systems & structures - for the 21st century even when it calls for staggering change. Thomas Moore, in his book Care of the Soul, asserts that we can know, internalize and act on all that we are and all we can do ONLY WHEN we discover and face who we aren't and what we can't do. I believe that God is calling us to do what will, indeed, be EXCELLENCE in ministry - in being the church and living out our mission IF we have the courage to get out of the boat of denial of the waves of racism, sexism, classism ... you know the rest ... that batter our boat and step into the deep, choppy waters that call for the moral courage to name and in an ongoing, intentional, look-the-demons-in-the-face sort of way sustain active listening and unwavering self-examination without defensiveness or settling for simplistic tokenism.

What a wonderful beginning at the UFMCC African-American Conference. WE MUST provide a forum for the exploration and development of the particular BEFORE we can expect understanding and unity. But we mustn't stop there or decide it's just a black issue. Look on the chancel in our typical MCC - who's missing? Why? As the body of Christ, this is NOT okay - it's not excellence in being the Beloved Community to which we're called. We must examine how our outreach, our worship, our processes exclude and then we must do something about it. I believe that God is calling us to do what will, indeed, be EXCELLENCE in ministry - in being the church and living out our mission IF we have the courage to get out of the boat of denominational privilege and into the waters of the ecumenical church, we will be the prophetic voice that can boldly call the global church to moral and biblical accountability for the full inclusion of lesbian and gay people to full inclusion in the life of the church.

IF we have the courage to get out of the boat of boat repair - of structuring at least 90% of our ministries around the needs of those in the boat, IF we are willing to become wounded healers and step into the waters of liberating and healing and calling others to justice, we will rise like a phoenix from the fires of our own pain to serve a hurting world.

The waters aren't just danger. They are confusion, separation, loneliness, political and cultural imprisonment. They are fraught with sharks of spiritual despair and spiritual apathy. Children within blocks of our churches are neglected and suffering. Aging persons are put into closets of convenience in nursing homes. And laws still exist that threaten the well-being of gay and lesbian citizens of many countries. You know the scenarios well.

IF we are passionate about excellence in ministry, my friends, we MUST step into the waters of the larger community to make a difference. And you know what will happen. All that faith and commitment to which we've called our people will inspire us as we see our own lives transformed by offering ourselves to the world. Nelson Mandela has opened my spirit to the truth that we are more afraid of our strength than our weakness, more frightened by success than failure. Are we afraid that the water and the spirit will sustain us?? What in the world will God call and expect us to do then?? Jesus says: Don't be afraid; it is I. Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water. The voice is loud and clear, bounding over the waves: Come.

Excellence is possible IF:

We care more than others think is wise
risk more than others think is safe
dream more than others think is practical
expect more than others think is possible!

Can we be so astounded in Jesus's faith in us that we believe that if Jesus calls us to walk on water, we can walk on water?? If the impossible beckons us, we can do the impossible.

Today, I believe that Jesus is outside this UFMCC boat, saying Come, walk with me in the raging storm. Do the impossible! Walk in faith. Walk in courage! Together, we can change reality! Get out of the boat.

This sermon was delivered on August 16, 1998 at the UFMCC Leadership Conference in Phoenix, AZ

© Rev. Glenna Shepherd, 1998

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Scripture Reading:

Matthew 14: 22-33 [NIV]

22 Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd.

23 After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone,

24 but the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.

25 During the fourth watch of the night Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake.

26 When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. "It's a ghost," they said, and cried out in fear.

27 But Jesus immediately said to them: "Take courage! It is I. Don't be afraid."

28 "Lord, if it's you," Peter replied, "tell me to come to you on the water."

29 "Come," he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus.

30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, "Lord, save me!"

31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. "You of little faith," he said, "why did you doubt?"

32 And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down.

33 Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God."

Also In This Issue:

Crisis of Faith

Walking Faith

Faith: A Matter of Survival

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