What Is Real To You?

I preached on Sunday, 8/13/23, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture reading for my sermon was:  Romans 10:5-15 & Matthew 14:22-33.

I’m going to do something a little out of the ordinary with sharing this message. Normally, my sermons follow relatively closely to the message I’ve prepared in advance. I may deviate here or there, but it’s not radically different.

This time, however, my sermon ended up being significantly different from my prepared text. So I’d like to share both my final sermon (first), and then also let you take a look at the original manuscript (second).

If you’re short on time, I suggest you just read the final sermon and leave it at that. But if you’re curious to see an example of the way the Holy Spirit, acting in the moment, can take a sermon and tweak it a little bit, read on. I’m interested to hear what you think.

You can listen to the recording of the sermon here

Sermon As Preached

So if you’ll bear with me, I wrote a sermon like I usually do, but I’m not quite feeling it. So we’re going to see how this goes. Maybe something else needs to be said.

Let’s start out with reviewing what we’ve just heard in the Gospel of Matthew – the story of Jesus walking on water. The biblical writers can be a bit terse. So if you haven’t heard the story in a while, or even if you have heard it recently, it’s easy to miss details, because it’s so dense.

This story comes right after the feeding of the 5,000. After that had all gone down, and Jesus had taught the people and fed the people, it says that Jesus sent the disciples off. While he stayed on the shore, they went across the Sea of Galilee to Gennesaret. Jesus stayed behind to dismiss the crowds – basically to shake some hands and kiss some babies and say “bye-bye.”

Once Jesus was done with all that, and his followers were out rowing on the Sea of Galilee, he goes up onto a mountain to pray. And he prays there alone until night time. And at this point, the disciples hadn’t made it to the other side. The Sea of Galilee isn’t that far across, and so presumably the disciples had expected that by nightfall they would have made it to the other side, but they hadn’t. It says that the wind was against them. They were all alone, out in the darkness, fighting the wind without Jesus.

Which I think is weird. I’m imagining how the disciples are feeling at this point, and I’m imagining Jesus said: “Get on the boat. It’s cool. I’m going to stay here and dismiss the crowds.” What was Jesus thinking about? Why would he send them on ahead of him like that? Because, you know, this is the first-century AD; you couldn’t just call an Uber and say, “Hey, I need to get to Gennesaret now.” The boat had sailed!

So the disciples are fighting through the night, against the wind, and – this is something I feel like I’ve missed routinely when I’ve heard this scripture before – it’s not night time when Jesus shows up. The day has begun to dawn. The dawn light is here, and they’ve been fighting all night against this wind, though they thought they would have been in harbor by evening. Then, off the side of the boat, they see a human figure walking across the sea of Galilee, within shouting distance of their boat.

Now, what happens next shouldn’t surprise anybody: The disciples freak out. They start screaming, “It’s a ghost!” And then something even weirder than seeing a ghost happens: They hear the voice of Jesus say, “No everybody, chill out. It’s me. Take heart. It’s OK.”

When I read stories like this, I try to think about how I would have been reacting to this. More than anything, I think my first reaction to this would be – after I got over “Wow, it’s not a ghost; wow, Jesus is walking on the sea” – my next thought, I think, might be: “Get in the boat, Jesus! What are you doing?” So it’s interesting to me that this is not what Peter did.

Peter’s first thought wasn’t, “Get in the boat!” Peter’s first thought was, “How can I get on the water?” Bold move.

And, Peter actually does it! He says, “Jesus: invite me out on the water.” And Jesus says, “Come on out.” And so Peter steps out on the water, and he begins making his way over to Jesus. There’s just one problem: The wind is still blowing. There’s still a storm. 

So, as Peter’s walking out on the waves with Jesus, this big gust hits him. And he’s having this moment with Jesus, right? But suddenly the moment’s just broken; it’s shaken loose. I imagine it’s like, imagine you’re dating someone and it’s really exciting and you’re off having a nice dinner or something, and you’re really connecting. You’re totally in the moment. And then suddenly, a wind comes through and slams the door as loud as you can imagine. You’re startled. It just broke what was happening there.

And I imagine it was like that for Peter. He gets shaken to the bones by this wind, and suddenly he’s not focusing on Jesus anymore; he’s focusing on that startle. And so Peter begins to sink. For just a minute, Peter forgets about that moment he’s having with Jesus and he gets overwhelmed.

Peter doesn’t get enough credit sometimes. You know, Peter’s just the “idiot,” right? He’s often portrayed as being not too smart, just like all the disciples before the resurrection. But I don’t think Peter gets quite enough credit here. Because Peter walks onto the water, and then when he gets distracted he starts to sink, but then, very quickly he says, “save me, Jesus!” So he knows what’s up. He knows who is in control here!

And it says, “immediately” – no hesitation – Jesus reaches out his hand and lifts Peter up. And so again, with the scripture, it’s terse. It’s not a screenplay. It doesn’t say, “and Jesus said warmly” or “and Jesus said skeptically.” It doesn’t tell you how Jesus’ tone of voice was. But when I imagine Jesus, I imagine a friendly tone. “You of little faith, why did you doubt? Come on, man. You know I’ve got you!”

And so when the two of them get into the boat, it says that the wind ceased. The storm stopped. Like turning off a switch. And that’s what it was like. That’s what it was like to be in that magical moment. Peter was having that magical moment out on the water; he was having that connection with Jesus. And when he got into the boat, that sense of connection, that magical moment happened in the boat, too. And the wind stopped. The storm ceased.

The wind had seemed so powerful. The storm had seemed so scary. But now that Jesus was there, he shone through it. And the disciples discovered that they thought the storm was real, and they thought the wind was disturbing, but it’s Jesus who is really real.

The windstorm was literally blasting them in the face; it was a physical reality. But it turned out to be an illusion; a nuisance that Jesus commands to turn off, like the flip of a switch.

So this makes me wonder about the things in my life that seem so real and bother me so much, that distract me so greatly, and that objectively are very important. Which of those are a distraction and an illusion, and something that Jesus has command over, and that I don’t need to worry about?

There’s a book I really love, by C.S. Lewis, called The Screwtape Letters. For those who haven’t read it, I cannot recommend it more strongly. Towards the end of the book, Lewis describes the funny relationship that we humans have with the idea of what is real. We have a contradictory relationship with the real. 

On the one hand, say you had that magical experience, with that man or that woman out having dinner at that restaurant. You had this connection. And you might say, “Well, sure, probably the wine was good, and there was good music playing, and I was attracted to them. So that’s all that was really happening.” It wasn’t so much that your subjective experience of the moment was real, but there were physical reasons behind this. So that’s one definition of real. And we take that seriously.

But there’s another definition of real that we also take seriously. Imagine someone telling you about their experience bungee jumping from a hundred feet up. And they might say to you, “You cannot imagine what it is really like to stand there on the edge of a building and get ready to jump off of it.” That’s a different kind of reality. We think that’s real, too.

So, sometimes we say the mere physical facts are the reality; other times, it’s the subjective experience that matters. And in our reading from Matthew this morning, it’s revealed to us that the ground and foundation of all reality – what is really, really real – is Jesus. He’s mirroring that reality in the beginning, from Genesis One: The Spirit hovering over the waters.

The waters represent chaos. And Jesus is hovering over the waters, physically. And he says, “peace, be still.”

I want to go back to Peter for a moment, before we get to the boat. Because I think we’re going to end up back on the boat, but I want to talk about Peter. Because, again, Peter surprises me. Peter does something that I would not have thought to do. He doesn’t say, “Jesus, get in the boat!” He says, “Jesus, let me come out with you on the water.”

People have been reading this passage for 2,000 years, and a very popular interpretation – which is a good one, a correct one – is that the boat is the church. The disciples are on the boat, the disciples become the early church, they’re the community that gathers around Jesus. That’s what the church is, the people, right? So the boat is the church, it’s where the church is gathered. 

And Peter steps off the boat. And I’m wondering about that. Because I’m thinking about times I’ve had to step off the boat, times I’ve had to leave the church. Whether it was a particular congregation, or when at one point it looked like completely not being Christian for a while. I left the boat. And I think about why I left the boat. 

I think that a part of the reason I’ve left the boat many times is that I wanted to walk on water with Jesus, and it didn’t feel like the community was ready to go there. It didn’t feel like the rest of the community was having that magic moment with me with Jesus. And so I stepped out onto the water with Jesus – I think a lot of us have – and I also know that I’ve had gusts of wind hit me. I’ve sunk, and I’ve had to cry out for help. 

I think there have been times in my life when I might have been tempted to say, “the end of this story is for me to walk out onto the water with Jesus, and that’s what it means to be a “good person”, “spiritual”, “religious”, whatever you want to call it, “a good Christian.” Walking on the water with Jesus, that’s it.

I think Peter was brave. But that wasn’t the end of the episode. The episode could have ended with Peter and Jesus walking to Genneserat and the boat following them. That could have been the end of the story, but that’s not how it ends. It ends with Peter and Jesus getting back into the boat and the sea is stilled. The magical moment comes to the people in the boat. And they see what is going on, too.

I think an important message here is that our boat is this community, this church, this gathered meeting, this assembly of people here. This is the boat. And we’re struggling against the winds of the world, because the world has different priorities than Jesus does. But we’re rowing together. Even though the night is dark and it gets scary, it gets distracting, we’re surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, calling us to press on to the dawn. Press on to the light of Jesus. And Jesus comes to us in the boat when we recognize who is walking beside us on the water.

I wonder what would have happened if they hadn’t noticed Jesus walking. I wonder if he would have just kept walking by and would have met them in Gennesaret. That could have been the end of the story: Jesus just shows up in Gennesaret after praying on the mountain. But the disciples saw him, they recognized him when they cried out to him. Jesus identifies himself to them.

So when we recognize him walking beside our little boat here, he brings comfort and power when we welcome him into the boat. When we see him for who he really is, he commands the sea and the waves. We come to know what’s really real. 

And sometimes, some of us are going to need to leave the boat. For us. To help us see who’s walking out there. For those of us who are bold enough to join him on the waters, when we take risks for him, when we are foolish for him, Jesus catches us when we fall.

Original Manuscript

I can’t help thinking about the wind. It’s that wind that keeps coming back to me. In the story from Matthew, when Jesus walks on the water and has his encounter with Peter above the waves. It says that Jesus had sent the disciples off, he sent them away on the boat, across the Sea of Galilee, while Jesus stayed on the shore. And it says that Jesus stayed behind to dismiss the crowds that he had been teaching and feeding. And once they were gone, he went up the mountain to pray, alone.

And he stayed up on the mountaintop until evening. They had been out there on the water for a long time, but they hadn’t made it to the other side, because the wind was against them. Presumably they’d hoped to make it to land before nightfall, but the conditions weren’t just right. Now they were all alone, out in the darkness, fighting the wind.

I imagine that the disciples were already feeling a little bit on edge. The day wasn’t going as they had planned. The weather was all wrong. And where was Jesus, anyway? Why’d he stay behind and send them on? When would they see him again? It’s not exactly like he could take an Uber to Gennesaret!

So the disciples fight through the whole night, pushing against this wind until the first rays of dawn, when they see something off the side of the boat. And then it dawns on them that they are seeing someone off the side of the boat. A human figure appears to be walking across the water! Understandably, the disciples freak out. “It’s a ghost!”

But then, a familiar voice calls out from the distance. “Take heart, it is I; don’t be afraid.”

Now, what would your reaction be in this situation? Can you imagine what was going through the disciples’ minds? I think I would have some questions! I imagine I might say, “Wow, Jesus, what the heck is going on? How are you doing this?” And I think, perhaps most of all, I imagine that I would say, “Come to the boat, Jesus!”

So it’s interesting to me that this isn’t what Peter did. He didn’t call Jesus to the boat; he asked Jesus to have him join him out on the water. Bold move!

And Peter actually does it. When Jesus invites him to come, Peter steps out onto the water and begins making his way towards Jesus. There’s just one problem: It’s that wind again. 

They’d been fighting it the whole night, and now, in this moment of incredible joy and wonder for Peter, out walking on the waves with Jesus, a big gust hits him. And suddenly, it’s as if he’s shaken loose from the moment, from this encounter with Jesus on the waves. He’s drawn back into the reality of the wind’s chaotic power.

It’s like – imagine the feeling of being totally connected, in an incredible conversation with someone you love – and then, out of nowhere, a huge gust of wind blows open the window and slams the door shut with a bang. You’re startled. The moment is shattered. The magic is broken.

And so Peter begins to sink. He sees the wind and the waves, and it’s all too much. He forgets about Jesus; the reality of the storm begins to overwhelm him.

Fortunately, Peter doesn’t forget for long. Quickly, he cries out, “Lord, save me!” And immediately – the scripture says, “immediately,” no hesitation – Jesus reaches out his hand and catches Peter. And I imagine Jesus smiling, looking Peter in the eye, and reestablishing the connection they had before – the magical moment – when he says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

And when the two of them got into the boat, it says that the wind ceased. No more resistance from the storm. The wind and the sea bowed before Jesus, and all of the disciples were drawn into the magical moment, the beauty of being in the presence of the light of the world.

The wind seemed so powerful. The waves were so imposing. The storm was almost overwhelming. But the connection with Jesus shone through it. It’s his presence that caught Peter when he began to sink, when he called out for Jesus. The reality of who Jesus is calmed the storm when the disciples welcomed him into the boat.

It turned out – the disciples discovered – that Jesus is that which is truly real. The windstorm was literally blasting the disciples in the face, but it turned out to be an illusion, a nuisance that Jesus could command – even switch off. That makes me wonder about what things in my life that seem so deadly important and real, are in fact just a distraction from that which is truly substantial.

What is real to you?

I’m reminded of a passage towards the end of C.S. Lewis’ amazing book, The Screwtape Letters, where he describes the funny relationship we humans have with the idea of reality. On the one hand, we might describe a spiritual experience we had, and then say, “well of course, all that really happened was that I was standing on that mountain, looking at the stars.” On the other hand, someone might describe the experience of bungee jumping and say: “You can’t imagine what it’s really like to stand there and jump off of a two hundred foot drop!”

So which is it? Sometimes, we say that the mere physical facts are the reality. Other times, it’s the subjective experience that counts. But in our reading this morning, it is revealed to us that the ground and foundation of all reality is the person of Jesus – the light of the world – the presence hovering over the waters saying, “Peace, be still!”

We all struggle. None of us has it easy. There’s a powerful wind that is against us. To follow Jesus is to go against the grain of a fallen world. The challenges we face, the anxiety and fear, can seem like the most real thing in the world. But when we cry out with Peter, “Lord, save me!” we discover that there is a more important reality. We find that all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved – not just in some abstract, “spiritual” sense – but in a very tangible, practical, real sense. Jesus is holding out his hands to us. He is the rock that we can build our lives on. He is the one we must welcome into this boat.

Our boat is this community, the gathered meeting, the church. Though we struggle against the winds of this world, we do not struggle alone. We’re rowing together. Although the night is dark, we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses calling us to press on until dawn: Press on, to the Light.

Jesus comes when we recognize who is walking beside us on the water. He brings comfort and power when we welcome him into the boat. When we see him for who he really is, he commands the winds and the waves. We come to know what is truly real.

And for those of us who are bold enough to join him on the waters – when we take risks for him, when we are foolish for him – he catches us when we fall.