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.”
I was inclined to summarize today’s Gospel reading with the often-heard phrase “Jesus walks on the water,” but it occurred to me that his walking on the water is not the point. As I thought about it, I changed and shortened the summary to just two words: “Peter sinks.” We, as humans, can relate to taking risks and sinking far easier than we can to taking a stroll on Lake of the Isles.
Jesus had just said, “do not be afraid,” and at first Peter is doing pretty well. He hops out of the boat and onto the sea. But that’s the extent of his success. His fear comes rushing back to him and yes, he begins to sink.
Society tells us that if we sink, we aren’t worthy of success; we are failures. And in our culture, being a failure is the opposite of being a success. We all want to be a success because according to the media, we have to be successful to be happy and worthy of love. As Peter sinks, he challenges this notion of success and failure.
In her book Daring Greatly, shame researcher, author, and speaker Brené Brown says:
Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough. It’s going to bed at night thinking, Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging. (Daring Greatly, 10)
Peter is afraid. Peter was afraid of what was coming toward him on the water, but still took the opportunity to do something unheard of. He got out of the boat, which was shaking and rocking with the gusty wind, and started to walk on the water. It was not until he realized how vulnerable he was that his fear took over and he began not to walk, but to sink. Now, I’m not saying not to have any fear in your life. According to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, fear and anxiety are what keep us alive in times of danger. In The Book of Joy, he says, if we were fearless, “we’d also be very stupid, and we would not be around very long.” What I am saying is that in the face of fear, we need to have courage, which the Archbishop describes as “not the absence of fear, but the ability to act despite it.” (The Book of Joy, 94)
In Dreamworks Animation’s 2012 movie, The Croods, we encounter a family of cavemen who live by the motto “never not be afraid.” This motto keeps them alive in a world of uncertainty, where danger lurks around every corner and every story told ends in death. It also keeps them confined to a dark cave most of the time. A catastrophic earthquake forces them to leave the relative safety of their cave and embark on the first family cross-country trip. During their travels into the unknown, the father, Grugg, tries to force the family into a new cave for safety, saying that it’s his job to follow the rules and the rules keep them alive. The teenage daughter, Eep, responds “That wasn’t living, that was just not dying. There’s a difference.” If we let fear take control, fear might, as in the lives of the Croods, keep us from dying. But it can also keep us from living a life of fullness and meaning.
Peter is vulnerable. Peter is standing there. He isn’t in the boat anymore. Looking down he sees nothing but the deeps under his feet. Looking up he sees the darkness of storm clouds. He feels the wind buffeting him and he knows he has no customary protection from the elements. He feels alone in the middle of the sea. He starts to feel the water over his toes, then his ankles are getting wet, now the water is approaching his knees and he knows he is in trouble. Help! In a panic, he calls out to Jesus, who calmly pulls him from the water, protecting him.
Vulnerability is a scary thing. In this case, it is to the elements that Peter is vulnerable. It is also to his self-doubt. Just like the rest of us, a tape was probably running through his head, “What was I thinking? Why did I step out of the boat in the first place! Everyone is going to think I’m a fool. I screwed that up, I’m such a loser.”
Brené Brown has a lot to say about vulnerability. She says: Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection. When we spend our lives waiting until we’re perfect or bulletproof before we walk into the arena, we ultimately sacrifice relationships and opportunities that may not be recoverable, we squander our precious time, and we turn our backs on our gifts, those unique contributions that only we can make. (Daring Greatly, 2)
Peter has an opportunity. Peter rarely waited until he was perfect before he spoke up in an effort to take action. Last week he made some foolish statements at the Transfiguration of Jesus, wanting to build booths for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses. This week he steps out of a boat in the middle of the sea. Yes, Peter was vulnerable, but that vulnerability created opportunity for him. He had the opportunity, brief as it was, to walk on the water. He had the opportunity to reach out to Jesus and be pulled to safety. As we know from the rest of the New Testament, Peter does not let his fear and self-doubt stop him from moving forward and continuing to follow Jesus. Like us, he is not perfect, by any means, but he does his best to be faithful and learn from Jesus, thus, muting the tapes of shame that were playing in his head on the night he sank into the Sea of Galilee.
When Peter’s fear caused him to start to doubt Jesus and himself, he started to sink. When we doubt God and ourselves and live in fear, we also sink. We sink away from relationships with God and with other people. We sink away from opportunities to be the hands and feet of Jesus. God does not want us to have a life controlled by fear and doubt. God wants us to have a life of faith, despite fears. When we reach the end of our lives, I hope we can all look back and say that our lives were an adventure where vulnerability led not to sinking, but to opportunities to live, learn, and grow.
I have been trying to put words to what I am feeling about the violence at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, and to be honest, I am still confused and angry. So I’m going to start out with a definition and go from there. According to the U.S. Code, “Domestic terrorism” is defined as “activities with the following three characteristics: Involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law; Appear intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, … and Occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S.” (http://www.secbrief.org/2014/04/definition-ofterrorism/). This definition is not a statement of political leanings or party support; it is a factual definition. The events that have been taking place at the University of Virginia are nothing short of domestic terrorism. Armed militiamen, wearing helmets and shields and carrying Nazi and Confederate flags are deliberately causing fear in all who oppose their agenda. There has been one death and many injuries related to the violence involved. White supremacist rhetoric is vile and has no place in our church, our country, or our world… But there is hope. Clergy in Charlottesville have been standing, arm in arm, in prayer. They are literally standing up to the hatred that is being openly displayed in the streets. Now is the time for us, as Christians and compassionate people, to stand up and say no! This is unacceptable and incompatible with our faith and our humanity.
We will not allow the violent tactics to cause us to lose faith and sink away in fear. We must open ourselves up to vulnerability and take a stand against hatred. We, as Christians, must follow the example of Jesus and say to others, in both word and action, “Fear not, it is I, a Christian and a fellow human being, do not be afraid.”
We are always on the edge of a spectacular opportunity called life, filled with excitement, joy, and fear. Then we realize that “stepping out of the boat” of our comfortable places puts us in a very vulnerable position and we often hesitate. We don’t know what will happen and fear creeps in. The question is, what do we do with the fear? It can motivate us, or paralyze us. We can have the courage to act, or let the fear win.
When the tapes start rolling in our heads, telling us that we aren’t good enough, they ould keep us from taking advantage of the opportunities we are faced with. Or we can reach out to Jesus, and our fellow humans who share the journey with us, and say “help!” allowing our hands to be taken and receiving guidance through the rough seas of vulnerability and fear and on to new adventures beyond our wildest dreams.