Becoming a New Kind of Church, Matthew 14:22-24
First United Methodist Church, November 25, 2018
Pastor Toni Carmer
Since September, we've been talking on Sunday mornings about what it means to be a missional church. The purpose of reading through and talking about Shaped by God's Heart hasn't been to "fix" us; it's been to help us see a little further out, and to help us think about how we might more effectively reach out and serve our community in today's world.
I have learned from my 2 ½ years of serving alongside you, that First United Methodist Church has a very strong history as well as a very strong and capable present. I have also perceived a need for encouragement about the future. It seems that it is all too easy for us to reflect on the past, polishing it up and making it (perhaps) even more glorious than it was, while at the same time lamenting that we can't be who we once were. And yet I look around and I see not only faithful older adults, but families and children, as well. It's important for us to lean into the future, to keep serving, to keep learning, to keep listening for God's guidance, and to remember that with God, all things are possible (Matthew 19:26) and to believe that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us (Philippians 4:13). We can reach beyond our own limited dreams and capabilities because Jesus Christ sits upon the throne, he is King, he is Lord, and he is in charge of the future. Our task is to be a part of what he's doing; a part of making God's dream for us a reality.
This morning's scripture comes the day after Jesus and his disciples have fed over 5000 people with just a few pieces of fish and a few loaves of bread. (And we know that there were even more than 5000 people when you add the women and children that were there!) With Jesus, there was enough food for everyone. With leftovers. It was an impossible multiplication—something they would have never expected could happen. But, again—with Christ, all things are possible.
When they finish, Jesus sends his disciples off to get some much needed rest. He tells them to get into a boat and to go to the other side of the Galilean Sea where he will meet them. As the disciples push off from the shore, Jesus sends the crowd of people on their way. After everyone leaves, he withdraws to a nearby mountain for some peace and quiet and restoration.
He is on one of the mountains that surround the Sea of Galilee. Because of those mountains, there are often cool winds that rush down from the slopes of the higher elevations. As these cool winds mix with the warm air over the sea, violent storms can develop pretty quickly and unexpectedly.
So, here's what happens: While Jesus is up on the mountain in the cool air, the disciples are down below, making their way across the sea. The cool winds blow, and suddenly a storm develops as the disciples are out in the middle of the sea. The wind blows, the rain falls. The waves batter the boat. All night long, they fight the storm, struggling to maintain their course. By 3 or 4 in the morning, the disciples still haven't made it to the other side of the sea. They are struggling in the darkest part of the night, in the middle of this pounding storm, trying to get to the other side/to be safe.
That's when one of the disciples sees something, and shouts to the others to look. In the darkness of the night, through the storm and waves, they focus their eyes—it looks as though someone is moving toward them. The figure comes closer and closer, moving through the wind and the waves, seemingly with ease. They see it isn't a boat. Someone is walking on water?
"It's a ghost," someone screams. And if the disciples weren't already panicked enough from the storm, now they are terrified by what seems to be a ghostly figure moving toward them on the water. We might imagine that they put their oars in the water and begin paddling as fast as they can to get away from this thing. Some cry out in fear, while the others try to find a hiding place. But as they panic in the boat, the approaching figure begins to speak—and it's a familiar voice.
"Don't be afraid," he says. "It's me. I am walking to you."
It's Jesus. In the middle of the storm, in the middle of the wind and rain, in the middle of their panic and fear, Jesus walks on the water to them. "Don't be afraid," he says.
The disciples start breathing again. The storm still beats down on their boat, but their focus is now centered on Jesus. It's as if they have nothing to fear with Jesus walking on the water to them.
Peter, amazed, excited, still a little uncertain, impulsively says, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on water." He wonders, can it really be Jesus? "Tell me it's you…let me walk on water to you," Peter says.
Jesus commands Peter to come. Peter scrambles to his feet, and holding onto the side of the boat, steps out with one foot, and then the other, into the rough water. The boat moves up and down with the waves as Peter holds on tight. Both of his feet are on the water as he slowly, gradually lets go. As the waves come over the top of his feet, Peter finds himself standing on the sea.
He takes a step forward. And then another. He holds his chin down to his chest as the wind continues to press in on him, but he keeps his eyes focused on Jesus who continues to walk toward him.
The other disciples look on in amazement. Peter is doing the impossible. Walking on water. Then Peter realizes he's doing something he shouldn't be able to do. For a moment he takes his eyes off Jesus and looks down at the waves. The wind blows against his face in full force. His fear begins to rise, his faith begins to fade and his feet begin to sink into the water. He cries out, "Lord, save me!"
Jesus quickly reaches out to Peter and pulls him up. "You of little faith," he says. "Why did you doubt?" Jesus leads Peter back to the boat and all the disciples begin to worship Jesus because of what they've seen.
Peter did something pretty amazing (stupid?). His feet weren't made for walking on water. He shouldn't have been able to do that at all. It was completely illogical, as Spock would say. But he looked out at Jesus, and for a moment was filled with confidence because he knew that Jesus was with him. "I can do this." And he did.
I wanted to tell you the story of Jesus (and Peter) walking on water this morning, but I wanted the scripture reading this morning to stop where it did for a particular reason. I want you to catch the image of the boat out in the water, battered by the waves, far from land, with the wind against them. I want you to think of that boat as the church, our church and all the others, here and down the street, around town and around the world…with the disciples inside, with the winds and the waves all around, making their job difficult. (The "nave" is the place where you're sitting. In Latin, nave means "boat.") Right now, these disciples are just trying to get to the other side of the Sea of Galilee—they're thinking about survival. But ultimately, their job is to get out of that boat and to proclaim Christ, to make more disciples.
If we as the church are the boat, the storm we're experiencing is this day and age. I wouldn't say that our culture is battering us—although in some places that does happen. Christians in some places are persecuted, but that's not how it is for us in the U.S. church. The storms that are happening for us are the changing times. We live in a day where the significance of the church comes much lower in the pecking order, on our list of priorities. On OUR list of priorities. We're shy to invite others into the church, we don't want to be disrespectful of other people's beliefs, we're uncertain, we doubt ourselves, we're not sure we really can make a difference, even if like me, you do believe that the Church/that Jesus is the hope of our world. But we don't always act in ways that live out that belief.
Our doubt batters us. Our lack of confidence batters us. Our many commitments batter us.
And yet Jesus is with us. Always walking toward us, beckoning us to step out of the boat. To trust. To keep our eyes focused on him. To be the church.
And you know what? We can do this. We can do what Christ calls us to do.
That so often begins in simply seeing a person, caring about that person, and offering to be in a relationship with that person.
Last Sunday at District Connection Day we heard some stories of churches around this District who are stepping out of the boat. It was fun seeing pictures of Trinity, just down the street, who are stepping out, nurturing some relationships in their neighborhood with children, doing some tutoring, some loving on kids. Pretty cool.
One particular church caught my attention because I've known it for years: Goshen St. Mark's United Methodist Church. When I served in Elkhart, the pastor there was a part of our ministerial association and some of Scott's relatives have been a part of that church forever. Over the years it has declined in attendance as many downtown churches have…they had space available and their pastor worked to connect different groups in the community in that space. Not everyone in the church was pleased about that. She ended up being appointed elsewhere, as the church made the decision to go to a ¼ time lay pastor. Then, they experienced the major crisis of a staff member embezzling $130,000. Bad became worse, attendance dropped down to about 40.
Somehow because of the community connection seed that had already been planted, the church connected to the county jail located a couple of blocks away, specifically, the work-release program. The 40 remaining members said, we can love on those folks. We can be a judgment-free zone. Let's welcome them.
So those on work-release began coming to church on Sunday mornings. Why hang out in jail on Sunday when you can be free for an hour or so? Afterwards, they'd stand in line to have their cards signed that they were there. Because they were in jail except for when they worked, they didn't get to see their families very often…and when they did, of course it was supervised in the jail. So their families began coming to church, too. They could actually sit next to each other in a "normal" kind of environment.
The church decided it would be pretty nice to get to know these folks better, and sharing a good meal is always a good thing. Since the time of the work release folks had to be out was limited, they decided to cut worship by a half hour once a month, and share a meal together. It was a hit. Everybody knows church ladies are great cooks.
Now there are 156 people in worship and there are 3 lines of people in line to get their "we were here" cards signed. There are also 5 scooters parked outside in the parking lot on Sunday mornings. (Scooters don't need to be licensed, so if you've lost your license due to a DUI, you can still get to work okay). What that means is that 5 guys who have been released from the program and are still coming to church, even though they're free and can see their families whenever they choose. They're there because they choose to be there.
There isn't anything "glitzy" happening at Saint Mark's Church. In this "judgment free zone" they're simply proclaiming the Gospel and being a place of welcome.
We've been talking about being a missional church over these past weeks. About turning outward and "seeing all the people" outside our church's doors and engaging in ministry to serve and to share the gospel of Jesus Christ. St. Mark's has actively invited people "in" rather than going "out" to meet the needs of the particular population they're serving…but they're being missional, without question.
Our church (in Goshen, in Plymouth, or wherever ) isn't the same church it was 60 years ago, or even 10 years ago, but we are still Christ's church, and our mission remains important: it's life-saving. The culture around us has changed and continues to change, and our lives are changing, too, and yet there are people all around who need to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. We see them. We already reach out in a variety of ways. Perhaps our challenge now is to consider how we might connect those activities into disciple-making moments. How will we proclaim Christ's message in this place, in this time, in our community?
May we keep our eyes focused on the one who has challenged us to step out of the boat, and may we remember that with and through him, all things are possible.