SINK OR SWIM
22Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” 28Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:22-31, NRSV)
Thanks to Connie Knies for reading our scripture earlier in the service. Midweek I emailed Connie the passage. As she read the email she noticed that it told the story of Jesus walking on the water. She then paid me a compliment I did not deserve. She emailed saying, “I got the scripture reading – obviously tied to current weather events – as you do so admirably in each sermon.” When I read her email I thought to myself that when I picked the passage, I was not even thinking about the hurricanes. So Connie, thanks for thinking that I had intentionally found the best passage in light of the recent hurricanes, but I must confess that was not my intention—maybe it should have been….
In August, my daughter, Alina, and I took a 2 week trip to see my parents down in Tennessee. We chose these particular dates so that we’d be in the Volunteer State for the total solar eclipse. We traveled across the state to Chattanooga to camp and see the sights. From there we were only 45 minutes from the path of totality. My assumption was that the eclipse would be the highlight of the trip, and it was great. However, I made other plans that for me eclipsed the eclipse.
I checked Google maps and discovered that we were only 275 miles away from Plains, Georgia, home of another Jimmy, that being former President Jimmy Carter. I knew that despite the fact that he is 92, that President Carter teaches Sunday School in his church every Sunday that he is in town. I checked the Maranatha Baptist Church website and learned that he was in town that weekend and planning to teach.
So on Saturday, August 19, Alina and I road tripped 4 hours to south Georgia to see the Jimmy Carter sights in Plains, a town so small it only has one blinking traffic light at the intersection in town. First we visited his boyhood home where he grew up and learned to farm. Next we visited the Plains train depot, which had been Carter’s campaign headquarters in 1976. Our last Carter stop was the former high school attended by both Jimmy and Rosalynn.
Inside the school I asked the National Park ranger what time he thought we should arrive at the church the next morning considering I had heard that it was Rosalynn’s birthday weekend. He advised 6 AM, 4 hours prior to the start of the President’s Sunday School class. He also mentioned that there would be a party for Mrs. Carter that evening in Plains. “How nice,” I said. After seeing the museum I decided to speak with the ranger once more to inquire about the party, this following one of my maxims in life, that being “it never hurts to ask.”
I asked the ranger where the party would be. He pointed to a store front on the other side of the railroad tracks saying one needed tickets for the party. Can anybody buy a ticket I asked? When the ranger said yes, I couldn’t contain my glee. Are you selling tickets I inquired? No, you’ll have to buy them in town. Fingers crossed, I asked if the tickets would be the usual political fundraising rate of $5,000 a plate. He laughed and said, “No, I think the tickets are $10.” I thanked him profusely then ran for the car to go in search of tickets.
To make a very long story short, Alina and I went to Rosalynn Carter’s 90th birthday party. The next morning we drove in the dark to Maranatha Baptist Church at 5:50 AM in order to secure our spot in the church some 4 hours later. When the time came I was in the fourth row and President Carter’s class was amazing. Including the party and church, I spoke with Mrs. Carter twice and President Carter 6 times. They were as warm and genuine and humble as you would assume. Alina and I had our picture made with them after church. Despite being in their 90’s, the Carters have already signed up to help Habitat for Humanity build houses in 2018.
President Carter is so well known as a peanut farmer that people often forget his many accomplishments—graduating from the Naval Academy in Annapolis, working under then Captain Rickover in the fledgling nuclear submarine program, as president making peace between Israel and Egypt, winning the Nobel Peace Prize, and working to change the world for the better through the groundbreaking work of the Carter Center.
One of the most interesting things I learned about President Carter was how he ended up leaving the church in which he had been brought up. When he was away from Plains, during his time as President, Jimmy Carter’s home church, Plains Baptist, refused to welcome African Americans in their church. Disgusted with the powers that be, a small group within that church broke off and formed a new church, Maranatha Baptist Church. When the Carters moved back home to Plains in 1981, they had a choice to make. Would they return to the church where Jimmy Carter grew up, where he was baptized, where he attended Sunday School, where as a teenager he started teaching Sunday School or would they try something new and go somewhere else? We all know the Carters to be people of untarnished character, highly moral without being holier than thou. Naturally when they returned to Plains the decision was an easy one, go to the church that welcomed everyone. They left their old church behind to join a new church that welcomed everybody, a church where no one is turned away. The brave souls who left one church to start another were stepping out on faith, trying to do the right thing not knowing where it would lead, not expecting to be joined by a former president and first lady.
This reminds me of today’s scripture lesson, the story about Jesus walking on the water to meet his disciples out on the Sea of Galilee. One would think that the most amazing part of the story was that Jesus was in fact walking on water, but for me this is not the best part. After all, the stories of Jesus working one miracle and then another were well known in his day. While he had done no water walking just yet, the story of him once calming a storm, healing a blind man, and curing a leper led the disciples to believe that Jesus could do anything anytime anywhere – not that he encouraged these assumptions.
As the story goes, it was around 4 AM when Christ’s disciples were in a boat battered by waves on the Sea of Galilee. As they feared for their safety, the disciples caught sight of an even greater threat when they spotted what appeared to be a ghost moving their direction. As the being drew closer to the boat, the disciples realized with great relief that it was no apparition, but instead Jesus. He tells the awe-struck disciples to take heart and fear not.
If the story stopped here it would be a great story, but my favorite part comes next when Peter, suddenly emboldened by the miracle of the moment, says to Jesus, “If it is really you, then command me to walk to you out on the water.” Jesus replies, “Come to me.” I picture Jesus and Peter locked in an unbroken stare as Peter climbs over the side of the boat and begins walking on the water towards Jesus. For a moment all goes well as Peter takes tentative steps toward Christ, but in the moment when he turns his eyes from Jesus to the raging waves, Peter’s faith gives way and his fear returns. It is then that Peter loses his nerve and his buoyancy. Immediately Peter, sinking like a stone, cries out to Jesus, “Save me!” Of course Jesus does just that, reaching out to Peter. Jesus then says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Peter and Jesus then hoist themselves into the boat. Instantly the wind stills and the waves calm. The disciples wipe their eyes in disbelief and say to Jesus, “Truly you are the Son of God” (Matthew 14:33, NRSV), which wasn’t exactly news to him.
As a church, we too need to get out of the boat, out of our comfort zone to try new things in our rapidly changing world. As I wrote in our recent church newsletter, it’s no secret that the American church is in serious decline, and not just Mainline Protestant churches like ours, Evangelical churches too. Even the mighty Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, has lost 1,000,000 members over the last 10 years, this despite aggressive recruiting and contemporary worship. Just like us, the 3 other Mainline churches in town are facing a decline in membership and attendance.
So maybe it’s time to stop putting all of our eggs in the one basket marked membership and attendance. Of course the 10 AM Sunday service and 11 AM Fellowship Time will continue bringing us together as a Family of Faith, but if most people are no longer interested in attending a Sunday morning service, what else might we offer to meet the needs of our community.
First, we want to better connect with the many people who walk through our church doors every day, some to attend our Nursery School or a children’s music program, some to attend Alcoholics Anonymous or Weight Watchers, some to attend a Spanish class or a Suzuki violin lesson. Over the course of a month we have numerous groups who meet in our building. People might not show up on Sunday mornings, but they certainly show up at other times. The logical conclusion—our church should offer more programs at times other than Sunday mornings, and most of these programs fall under the category of wellbeing—hence, our new idea, The Center for Wellbeing. Little by little we will offer programs at alternate times including our mindfulness course and our yoga classes. All of these programs are sponsored by our church’s new Center for Wellbeing, and meet at non-traditional church times.
It’s not that we’re giving up on Sunday mornings, instead we are going to welcome more guest speakers to broaden the Sunday morning experience. We’re envisioning speakers from other religions or experts to address LGBTQ issues, addiction specialists or marriage enrichment speakers, gerontologists or parenting professionals—all of these sponsored by our Center for Wellbeing. We will continue our traditional theology classes and Bible studies, but we’ll be offering other programming too. We welcome your ideas as we broaden and deepen the ministry of our church. After all, God loves us body, mind, and spirit.
So as we begin the new 2017-2018 program year, let us commit ourselves to getting out of our comfortable boat and instead walk by faith on the water in the direction that God is leading us. Besides, what’s the worst that can happen, we lose our nerve and start to sink, but even then God will catch us and help us walk by faith once again. AMEN.
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
Kick Off Sunday
September 10, 2017
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)
We thank you, O God, for our Family of Faith gathered in this sanctuary. We thank you for the time we had to slow down and spend more time with family and friends over the summer. We ask your blessing on our church as we begin a new program year. Lead us in the way that we should go and give us the wisdom and courage to stay the course.
There are many who need your help this day. We remember those in Texas battered by Hurricane Harvey. We remember those in Florida taking a direct hit from Hurricane Irma. We remember those suffering as a result of the earthquake in Mexico. Help all of these we pray.
Through Jesus our Savior and Friend we pray. AMEN.