The Almighty Bluff-caller (a sermon)

**This sermon was originally preached at Edgewood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama on February 24, 2019**

Matthew 14:22-33

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking towards the on the lake.  But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It’s a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

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About 6 months ago when I finally made the choice to let go of a decade of far-off big city life, and moved to Charleston, South Carolina – which has been “home” for my family for a number of years now, even though I grew up in Atlanta. One of the joys of that decision is that I have spent more days than not over the last 6 months hanging out with my older brother, his wife, and their 2 kids – who live 2 miles away from me. My nephew Hunter is 10 years old which, means he’s old enough for me to finally start introducing him to some of the movies and books that I loved so much when I was growing up. Most recently, my brother and I were evangelizing to him about one of the great classics of our childhood: The Sandlot.

If you’re not familiar, The Sandlot is a movie set in the San Fernando Valley in 1962, and centers on a crew of young boys who play a never-ending game of baseball in the dirt lot near their houses. The main character is a 10 year old boy named Scott Smalls, who is new in town and desperate to make friends with these boys, but who, unfortunately, is also awkward and deeply terrible at sports. His bumbling efforts and ignorance of baseball earn him exasperated eyerolls and constant refrains of “You’re killing me, Smalls” from the other boys.

One day, when a baseball goes over the fence behind the lot and the team laments that the ball is now lost forever and they can’t play anymore – Scotty asks why – and learns that the house behind the lot is owned by a mean old man and that his backyard – which backs up to the sandlot’s fence, is home to a fearsome dog-creature known only as “The Beast.” When balls go over the fence – they’re gone forever.

Scotty, trying hard to earn his place in the group, tells them he has a ball they can use, and he dashes home to retrieve a baseball sitting on the shelf of his stepdad’s office. Only after Scotty has successful hit his first ever home run – knocking that ball straight over the fence into the Beast’s lair, does he reveal – to the horror of his friends – that he has to get the ball back or his stepdad will kill him.

“Some old lady who knew my stepdad signed it for him!” He tells them.

“Some old lady?” They ask. “Yeah,” he says. “Some lady named Ruth.”

Of course, it isn’t some lady named Ruth. It’s Babe Ruth, the Great Bambino, utmost baseball hero to these young boys. And so begins a series of creative but ultimately fruitless efforts on the part of this crew to retrieve the ball before Scotty’s stepdad returns home from his business trip. Finally, they’re forced to admit defeat and Scotty prepares to face his doom.

But that night Benny – the beloved and big-dreaming leader of the group and singular baseball hotshot among them – has a dream. Babe Ruth himself appears to Benny in his bedroom. And says, “I heard you’re in a pickle.” When Benny explains the legendary player says, as if it’s the simplest thing in the world, “Well just go over that fence and get it.” It’s as if Babe Ruth is calling Benny on his bluff. If you’re the great leader of this group and future baseball legend you think you are, prove it. For a beat, Benny just looks at him – incredulous – before he finally confesses that he can’t do it – and tells him about the Beast. But Babe Ruth tells him this is his chance to do something great and so the next day – to the amazement of all the other boys – Benny does indeed go over the fence to retrieve the ball.

And when he returns there is one moment of wondrous rejoicing and glory – until the great beast himself vaults over the fence and chases Benny all over town and finally back into his own yard, when the dog’s owner finally reveals himself – not mean at all it turns out – and happily willing to trade the now very beat up Babe Ruth ball with another one signed by Ruth and the rest of his 1923 team. That chase through town makes Benny a neighborhood legend and earns him the nickname “The Jet” which follows him all the way to Major League Baseball.

It is a great, epic story.

In my opinion, our scripture for today is another great, epic story. It’s famous – legendary even. It’s got wonder and miracles and Jesus being somehow both creepy and awesome. And Peter being … well, Peter.

When it comes to the ragtag bunch of disciples – Peter strikes me as much more like the bumbling Scotty than Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez. But I suspect that Peter saw himself as much more of a Benny – with big dreams and a lot of bravado. Perhaps that’s why he dares to offer Jesus such a bold challenge.

When our story starts, the disciples have just come from one of Jesus’s most public miracles – the feeding of the 5,000 – in which a paltry assortment of 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish becomes an abundance to satisfy the masses, with leftovers to spare. Jesus has sent the disciples off in the boat and told them he’d join later, and after having dismissed the crowds, he has gone up to a mountain to pray and get a gosh-darn moment of peace to himself.

I don’t entirely blame the disciples for freaking out when they first encounter a man coming toward them literally on top of the water. It’s not like it’s something they’d seen before or that their brains could even compute. But once Jesus has identified himself – maybe I’m expecting too much here – but it seems like given everything they’ve just seen Jesus do, they would just take this latest miracle in stride. Of course he can walk on water. Why not? Maybe most of them do. But not Peter. Peter wants a part of the magic.

And so he tells Jesus, “Alright – fine. If you are who you say you are, Mr. Water-Walker command me to walk on the water to you.

I picture Jesus sizing Peter up in this moment – perhaps the way Babe Ruth sized up Benny in his dream. He raises an eyebrow, annoyed and incredulous, but also a little impressed despite himself at Peter’s daring. “Let’s see where this goes” he thinks to himself. And so he crosses his arms over his chest, smirks, and calls Peter’s bluff, “Alright. Come on then. If you are who you say you are get your tuchus out on this water.”

To Peter’s credit, he does it. And he’s honestly doing pretty well with the whole impossibly walking on top of a liquid surface with the Son of God thing. So what is it that throws him off his game? What causes him to lose his confidence and start to sink? The wind. The wind he already knew was there – because they were wrestling with it in the boat earlier. The everyday, ordinary, earthly wind that he has been dealing with for his whole life as a fisherman.

It’s almost as if he’s surprised to find that even as he’s doing the impossible with Jesus, the challenges of the world still exist. And so he starts to doubt and he begins to sink and he cries out for help, and Jesus stands over him and says, “You’re killing me, Smalls!”

Just kidding. But he does reach down a hand to help Peter up, and he says, “Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt?”

I love to pick on Peter – he just makes it so darn easy. But the truth is, I think we’re not so different from him. And the struggle he lives out in this moment – for all its miraculous trappings – is such a real part of the struggle to live a life of faith.

God calls our bluff – God challenges us to be who we say we are – even in the hard moments – not because God doubts but because even when we doubt, God knows. God knows. And she says, “Come.”

We come to our churches on Sundays and read scripture, and sing hymns, and talk and learn about what it means to follow Christ and we leave filled up with the Spirit. We watch the ocean at sunrise as a new day is born, or hike through the mountain forests as the trees explode into a sea of color in autumn and we know – we feel inside ourselves – the wonder of God’s creative hand. We pray in groups and alone, we confess, we proclaim, and we declare that we are followers of Christ – we are Christians – and we say, “Use us, Lord. Use even us. We will follow you anywhere Jesus, just bid us come.”

And Jesus says, “Alright then. Come.” He calls our bluff.

To our credit, we try. God knows. We return from our sanctuaries and our mountaintops, eager and bumbling. Confident and looking for just a little more certainty. We want to marvel in God’s presence and be a part of the magic.

We try hard and sometimes we’re actually doing okay, we think, at this whole being Christian thing. And then the dang winds of this world start up again and knocks the courage and confidence right out of us. It turns out that walking hand in hand with Jesus does not actually change the fact that we are walking in the world. A hard world, a broken world. One full of gusts, and hot air, and cold fronts and oh so many hard things. It is hard y’all.

Because sometimes our faith means singing old hymns that fill up our souls and sometimes it means holding the hand of a person walking through the valley of deep unimaginable pain. Sometimes our faith means giving a meal to someone who’s hungry, and sometimes it means knocking the doors down on the halls of power to demand a world where that person doesn’t have to go hungry in the first place. Sometimes our faith means coming together and loving each other in the midst of hard differences, and other times faith means walking away – shaking the dust – rather than allowing injustices to persist. Sometimes it is hard to know which hard thing faith is calling us to do.

Right now, as we sit here in Birmingham, Alabama, countless of our siblings in Christ in the United Methodist Church from all over the world are gathering together in St. Louis to ask and discern what the faithful way forward for them as a body is – what it means for them to follow Christ in this midst of this messy, complicated, broken human world. And some of my best friends are there – queer clergy – and they are waiting to learn if the church to which they have pledged their lives will ever see that as a gift rather than a burden.

Y’all sometimes. Sometimes trying to follow Jesus feels like walking on water, and sometimes it feels like sinking.

We try hard and sometimes we get it so wrong. Or we’re too scared and overwhelmed to do much at all.

One of my favorite lines from the show Call The Midwifecomes from Sister Monica Joan who says, “The hands of the Almighty are so often to be found at the ends of our own arms.”

How often do we pray for God to do something but then balk and tremble when it becomes clear that we are, perhaps, that thing that God intends to do? How many times in my life have I said, “God, if you will just do this, give me this, help me in this way, then I will …” only to find that when the time comes to live up to my end of the bargain, I’ve got a whole list of excuses.

At our best, we show up to our churches and our bible studies, we weep for the world and pray, and ask how we can help. We dare God to use us. And God the Almighty sizes us up and says “come.”

But some days the wind blows so hard around us and we begin to doubt that we are up to the task. But God doesn’t. Christ doesn’t.

Jesus doesn’t call Peter out of the boat to teach him a lesson or put him in his place. And he doesn’t really, I don’t think, call Peter out of the boat to show Peter who he is. He calls Peter onto the water because he knows who Peter is.

God dares us. God calls our bluff – God challenges us to be who we say we are – even in the hard moments – not because God doubts but because even when we doubt, God knows. God knows. And she says, “Come. Be who you say you are. Be who I know you are. Be my hands and feet.”

There’s a weird skip in this scripture and I think it’s hiding some grace and comfort for us. Because see, Peter begins to sink and calls for help. And Jesus comes and reaches out his hand to Peter. And then in the next verse, they’re back in the boat. But how did they get there? I can only imagine that Jesus pulled Peter right back on top of the water, and they walked back to the boat together. We walk, and we sink, and we stumble, and we walk again. It’s all part of it – this faith thing. The wind too. And the promise of Jesus Christ is that he is right there beside us through it all.

Trusting in this promise, we dare to go when he says “Come.” And we dare to get back up when we start to sink. And we let our faith take us places we never dared imagine we could go even and especially in the midst of the mighty winds of this world.

I recently learned about a community in Massachusetts, which has long prided itself on being a place where neighbors talk to one another, look out for one another. Where the children feel loved and welcome and are raised by the whole community. And into the midst of this little village of people, a little girl was born. And they loved her like they loved all the children – but they found that showing that love to her looked a little different. Because she is deaf. They couldn’t just say hello to her on the street. They couldn’t strike up a casual conversation. Well they couldn’t, unless they did something wild (and yet somehow simple) like all get together and hire a teacher to teach them sign language. But that is exactly what they did.

It wasn’t easy. But see they said they were a neighborhood where the children feel loved and known. That is who they are. And so when that proclamation dared lead them down a new, unexpected path – when it led them out of the boat and right through the particular opportunities challenges of their world – God dared them “Come” –  and they went.

May it be so for us all. Amen.

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