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 toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is 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 toward 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 worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
His name was John Gravelle, and he was my Driver’s Education teacher in Summer School my sixteenth summer. Not only was he the primary teacher for the hundred of us gathered in the band room for the classroom part of the course, but he was the on-the-road instructor to whom Debbie Dunphy and I were assigned. He was a wonderful, gregarious, unforgettable teacher.
Mr. Gravelle taught us five principles for good driving, two of which for the life of me I can’t remember. But the number one principle, said Mr. Gravelle, was aim high when steering. Don’t look at the white line to the right, or the yellow line to the left, or ten feet in front of the car. If we would look as far down the road as possible, Mr. Gravelle promised, we would magically stay in the middle of the lane. And, when I took the wheel of that 1967 Buick Skylark that was our instructional vehicle, I looked as far down the road as I could and, to my surprise, it worked.
Where we fix our sights in life makes all the difference. The same rule applies in my sailboat – I pick out a buoy, or a house or a tree on shore, and steer for that. It’s the way I got through math class in school – I looked for the end of the period, the end of the day, the year, or the promise that someday I was going to graduate from college and never take another math class. It may be the way some of you make it through a sermon – you know that somewhere around 9:30 or noon this service is going to end, you’re going to lunch and then watch a ballgame or a movie. Parents, you use it to survive the summer – you know that Labor Day and the beginning of school is coming. Aim high when steering.
Like all preachers, Jesus was always trying to get away by himself for a while. He pronounces the benediction over the congregation, tells the Church Council to take the boat across the Chesapeake, and he’ll meet them on the Eastern Shore. Then Jesus goes up on the mountain alone, to pray. The physical setting of this story is highly symbolic: in the Bible, mountains and hillsides are places where God and people meet. People go up, God comes down. The sea, on the other hand, almost always represents chaos and danger. God creates the world out of the waters of chaos. Noah takes his family and all the animals to escape the flood. Moses leads the Hebrews through the sea. Jonah is cast into the sea to escape God’s call. The disciples are sent ahead of Jesus, into chaos.
A storm pounds the disciples in their boat. All night long they struggle to stay afloat, and as dawn begins to break, the exhausted disciples are desperate for help. They have been looking at the waves, looking at the wind, and they are terrified. They’re looking for the shoreline, and as their bleary eyes stare into the distance, they see someone walking across the water towards them. At first, they think it must be a hallucination, a mirage. But the image grows. It must be a ghost, a demon, perhaps even Death himself. They scream in terror.
Jesus, out across the waters, hears the scream, and calls out to them. The Greek, ego eimi, is the same wording as the Greek translation of God’s words to Moses at the burning bush: I Am. This is no accident, Matthew is telling us. This is no ghost. This is the God who hears his people cry, in Egypt and on the Sea of Galilee.
Peter is crazy with exhaustion, fear, and hope. Master, if it’s really you, command me to come out to you on the water. Go for it, Jesus answers, and Peter climbs out of the boat.
The sequence is remarkable. First, Peter waits for Jesus’ command. Peter doesn’t just jump out of the boat and walk, on his own power, to Jesus. He knows he can’t do this thing on his own. He can only do it in response to Jesus’ command. There are a million good and miraculous things we can imagine to do. The question for us as a congregation, as well as the question for each one of us personally, is not what would Jesus do, but what is Jesus commanding us to do? When I was in Charlottesville, the University church there decided it would be a good thing to start a ministry to the homeless. The problem was that the homeless were largely downtown, not out by the University. It was a good thing to do, but wasn’t what Jesus was asking them to do. I kept saying to them, if you want a ministry to the homeless, how about the 18,000 homeless students across the street? That’s your call from Jesus. They still haven’t gotten the message. Of the million good things to do, what is Jesus calling you, and us, to do?
Second, Peter has to get out of the boat and into the waters of chaos. Ernest Campbell, former pastor of Riverside Church in New York, was once asked why it seems that we see so little faith in our time. His response was that “we are not doing anything that requires it.” We can’t rise above the chaos all around us if we’re not willing to leave the relative security of our foundering little boats. We stay close to home, close to the vest, close to the knitting. Martin Luther King left the safety of his pulpit for the segregated streets of Birmingham; Mother Theresa left the security of her convent for the dying poor of Calcutta; Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan left their Belfast homes to face down Irish terrorists. We will never learn to walk on water by staying in the boat.
Third, Peter can rise above chaos only as long as he keeps his eyes upon Jesus. But when he starts to think about what he’s doing – note, what he is doing – and is distracted by the wind and the water and the danger all around, he sinks into chaos. Aim high when steering. Don’t look at the lines on the road, don’t look at the pretty girl on the sidewalk or the fat guy on the bike or who’s sent you a text message. Don’t be distracted by the chaos – look down the road and keep your eyes upon Jesus. Otherwise, as Mr. Gravelle said, you will steer towards that distraction. We live in a world of nonstop distraction. Don’t watch the wind, or the water. Aim high.
Some of us have to aim high when we go off for another cancer treatment or another surgery or another round of therapy, remembering the long-term goal. We have to aim high when we’re paying the bills, and not be distracted from the goal on the horizon by what might look good at the moment. Would that Congress had the same discipline – and stayed in the middle of the road. We need not to be distracted in our homes and in our jobs and our relationships when the boat seems to be sinking and everything is turning into chaos. We need to aim high as a congregation, glorifying God by giving God and each other the very best we have, making disciples of Jesus Christ, not distracted by cranky air conditioning systems, balky septic tanks, or personal preferences and agendas. And when we lose loved ones for no good reason, when the sin and insanity of the world come crashing over the gunwales, when the questions are dark and deep and threaten belief in anything good and loving and holy, we need to look out on the horizon for the Savior who always hears the cries of his people, who always rises above chaos, even the chaos of death itself, and calls us out of our sinking boats and into his arms.
Don’t watch the wind or the waves. Aim high.