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"Three Challenges We Face: Fear"

Howard Boswell

Matthew 14:22-33

Sermon Preached by the Reverend Dr. Howard W. Boswell, Jr.

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 13, 2017

Kenmore Presbyterian Church

Kenmore, New York

 

Last summer, Gradye Parsons retired as

Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

When the General Assembly celebrated his service,

a friend, Sharon Youngs spoke of Gradye’s affection for this passage.

You see, when Gradye stood for election in 2008,

someone asked this question,

“What is the greatest challenge facing the church?”

 

When Gradye answered,

he downplayed all of the obvious challenges,

like loss of members and money,

conflict within and without the church.

Instead, Gradye gave an answer with which I agreed

and still sticks with me as the right answer to the question.

He said:

Fear is the overriding issue in our church.  It does not seem to matter whether it is a thousand member congregation with a million dollar endowment or a ten member congregation without indoor plumbing.  Everyone thinks the church is two Sundays away from closing its doors.  Fear so permeates the PCUSA that people smell it on us when they come into our churches.  We Presbyterians worry about declining membership.  We fret about losing our young people and our relevance in an increasingly secular society.  We’re afraid of change, and of drifting away from our Biblical moorings.  Most of all we fear conflict. 

 

Then, Gradye turned to this story.

He said that when fear surrounds him,

he remembers every day: 

Get in the boat. 

Go across the lake. 

There will be a storm. 

You will not die.

 

Gradye’s words stick with me,

because they speak to what I see around us every day: fear.

When I listen to politicians speak,

they talk of fear more than they talk of hope.

When I hear church leaders discuss what’s going on,

they fill what they say with dire predictions about

what will happen, if we don’t change our ways or even if we do.

Sometimes, when we speak with one another,

I understand how afraid we are not only of the future,

but of the present as well.

 

So, what can we do?

Well, let’s follow the wisdom Gradye gives.

First, we need to get in the boat.

Nowadays, it’s way too easy

“to sit along the shoreline and say you’re satisfied,”

as Garth Brooks sings.

We tend to think we’re in this mess all alone.

Yet, when we get into the boat,

we join others who share the same struggles

and know the same troubles as we do.

When we get in the boat, we’re headed in the right direction.

 

Second, we need to go across the lake.

You see, that’s the right direction: across the lake.

For the disciples, across the lake meant more ministry,

more encounters with the dying and the desperate ones.

For you and me, across the lake means just outside our doors

where the real mission of the church.

You see, the purpose of the church parallels the purpose of a boat.

When all is said and done, a boat provides transportation.

When all is said and done,

the head of the church, Jesus Christ challenges us

to go into the world with the good news.

 

Third, there will be storms.

Now, I know we’ve already talked about the storms we face.

Yet, we need to remember that there have always been storms.

Sometimes, we look back to the golden days

when the churches were filled and money flowed freely.

Other times, we look back to when things were simpler,

when everyone shared a common vision for our country.

However, there have always been storms.

Even when the churches were filled,

there were struggles over issues big and small.

Even when the country was young,

there were differences of opinion about

what it meant to be the United States of America.

Even in our personal lives, we always face storms,

moments when we feel as if we’re going down for the third time.

Oh, there will be storms.

 

Yet, you will not die.

We will not die.

Oh, there will come a time when you and I are no longer here.

Yes, there may come a time when our country comes to the brink.

Well, there will come a time when another church,

maybe even this church will close.

Yet, you will not die; we will not die.

Like the disciples on the boat in the storm, Jesus comes to us,

saying, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

 

Yet, the story doesn’t stop with those words in Matthew.

In Mark and John where this story also appears,

the end of the story happens here with

the disciples confused and incapable of speech.

Yet, Matthew adds another story, a story about Peter.

 

Now, I need to tell you one thing about Peter in this story.

Peter is more than a disciple doing something strange,

leaving a perfectly good boat to go walking on water.

No, Peter represents the disciples, all of them, even us.

 

Too often, we make Peter impetuous, taking an undue risk.

Yet, I see him as every disciple.

He sees Jesus, walking on the water,

and he asks the Lord to command him to come.

Now, Jesus says, “Come.”

So, Peter sits on the side of the boat, swings his legs around,

and starts walking toward Jesus on the water.

 

Listen, here’s what I think—

Peter provides an example of what faith requires.

Some people call it “a leap of faith.”

There’s only so far we can go by just accepting God.

Sometimes, we need to take a step outside our comfort zones;

we need to get out of the boat.

 

Get out of the boat.

If you ask me what fear fashions in a church or in ourselves,

I would say it’s an unwillingness to risk.

When I listen to others in the church,

I hear them speak of hanging on to what we have.

Yet, God never calls the church to mere maintenance;

God calls us out into mission.

We need to get out of the boat.

 

Focus on forward movement.

We spend most of the time in the church, in our lives,

going back over the past, or worrying about the future.

Peter was alright as long as he kept moving forward.

It’s like every movie or television show

when someone is afraid of heights.

Inevitably, someone says, “Don’t look down.”

In Peter’s case, he looked down at the waves

and felt the wind on his face.

 

When we think about it, we spend most of our time like Peter,

caught between doubt and faith.

Yet, here’s a final word from this story:

Keep Jesus in front of you, behind you, within you,

underneath you, and above you.

When Peter begins to sink and cries out to Jesus,

Jesus acts immediately to save Peter.

Please notice: Jesus doesn’t scold Peter first; he saves him first.

Then, Jesus says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

 

Friends, I hear Jesus’ words spoken gently not harshly.

He speaks gently, because he knows Peter, all the disciples,

even you and me have little faith.

Yet, remember the parable of the mustard seed.

All we need is faith that small.

Jesus understands our doubts and fears.

His hand remains stretched out toward us.

 

©2017 Kenmore Presbyterian Church