13 Pentecost Proper A14
Rev. D. K. Schroeder
Matthew 14:22-33 Sermon
August 10, 2008
Hymns (from the Service Book and Hymnal):
419 "O Saviour Precious Saviour"
531 "Jesus Saviour Pilot Me"
338 "Eternal Father Strong To Save"
292 "O Take My Hand Dear Father"
TAKING A BRAVE STEP FORWARD
TEXT: (vs. 27-32) "But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid.' And Peter answered Him and said, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.' So He said, ‘Come.' And when Peter had come down out of the boat, he walked on the water to go to Jesus. But when he saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink he cried out, saying, ‘Lord, save me!' And immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and caught him, and said to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?'"
His name is Izzy Skenazy. Today he is a ten year old boy, and in every way he is as normal, healthy, happy, and well adjusted as any ten year old boy could be. He lives in New York City and goes to school and does the normal things kids his age do. There's nothing really in his life that would make him stand out any more than any other boy his age. His life is what we would perhaps call "normal."
So why am I mentioning his name in the opening of my sermon today? The story begins when Izzy was nine. He had been bugging his mother about wanting to do some things by himself. He wanted to take the subway and the city bus on his own from midtown Manhattan to his home. He knew where he lived, he knew how to get there, and he knew how to use public transportation. His mother mulled it over for awhile, and then in late March of this year she decided to let him go ahead and do it.
It's here that we need another word of explanation. Izzy's mother is Lenore Skenazy, a feature reporter and columnist for the New York Sun newspaper. After her son's adventure, she thought it might make a good topic for her column; so in the April 1st edition, she reported on what had happened.
Rather than paraphrase it myself, I'll quote from the article in her words: "Anyway, for weeks my boy had been begging for me to please leave him somewhere, anywhere, and let him try to figure out how to get home on his own. So on that sunny Sunday I gave him a subway map, a MetroCard, a $20 bill, and several quarters, just in case he had to make a call."
Of course he made his journey without incident. He made it home without a hitch. His mother parted ways with him at Bloomingdale's department store in Manhattan, and met up with him at home. Everything went like clock work.
However after Lenore Skenazy published her article, it attracted a lot of attention. About half of the people who responded to the article thought she needed to be locked up for child abuse. People on both sides of the issue came out of the woodwork. NBC's Today show interviewed Izzy and his mother. This issue didn't even escape the attention of the rather boorish ranting of the Penn and Teller team.
Nobody was more surprised than Lenore as to the attention this was attracting. In her way of thinking, this was no more newsworthy or uncommon than "boy rakes leaves." In her article she says, "Was I worried? Yes, a tinge. But it didn't strike me as that daring, either. Isn't New York as safe now as it was in 1963? It's not like we're living in downtown Baghdad."
So what do you think of a headline that would read, "Nine-year-old boy takes subway by himself and survives?" Is that the kind of thing that should make headline news in today's society?
A lot of this has to do with what grips our minds. We are faced with things like germs, and accidents, and child molestations, and amber alerts, and Megan's law. We are overwhelmed with the feeling that people are out to get us and that the entire world is plotting to harm our children. Parents are becoming less like parents and more like secret service agents.
So much of our world is wrapped in fear, and fear begets paranoia. One feeds off the other to such an extent that people are reduced to quivering bowls of jelly who are afraid of their own shadow.
As we look at our Gospel lesson for today, the topic of fear is right at the forefront. With this in mind, let's take a look at the situation.
Our text for today is the account immediately following last week's Gospel lesson, which was the account of the feeding of the 5,000. In that account, remember that Jesus' original intent was to get away from the crowds for a short while for a bit of private time. However the crowd of people wouldn't let him alone. They followed him and the disciples to their retreat area, and Jesus took care of them.
Now it was time for Jesus' quiet time, and so he goes off into a solitary place by himself where he could pray and meditate. But as he prayed, the disciples were in the boat, having to deal with a high wind. Sudden, violent storms were common on the Sea of Galilee; but since some of the disciples had been fishermen, they were well qualified in dealing with such matters. But this storm was more violent than most; and the disciples, weary from the physical activity, were not making much progress on their way back to the western shore.
So it was sometime between 3 and 6 am, when they were about 3 ½ miles from the shore, that Jesus went out to meet them, walking on the surface of the water. Even though some of the men were experienced fishermen, they had never seen anything like this. No man can walk on water, let alone turbulent water like this. So they reckoned that it must be a ghost!
But Jesus speaks to reassure them. "Be of good cheer! It is I! Do not be afraid!" Jesus had departed from his private retreat, and had come across the rough water to assist these disciples who were battling against this raging storm. At the point where this situation seemed to be conquering them, here comes Jesus to the rescue. This immediately re-focuses their attention, because they knew that in his presence, there was indeed nothing to fear.
Simon Peter, as impetuous as he was, responds with a challenge. I don't think he doubted that it was in fact Jesus out there, but still he wanted something more. So he makes the request: "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." Peter wanted some personal proof. So Jesus simply tells him to "Come." And that is exactly what Peter did. He stepped out of the boat and on to the water.
Throughout all of this, the disciples exhibited fear. Peter became afraid when he looked out and saw the raging water beneath his feet. He trusted Jesus, but his fear became a stumbling block for him. In effect, his fear began to replace his trust to the point where he began to sink and succumb to the water. His fears were subduing him.
In our Gospel lesson for today, the word translated "fear" and "afraid" is the Greek word, "pho-BE-oh." That's where we get the English word, "phobia." A phobia is described as an unexplainable or an irrational fear of someone or something. Most often, we see it attached to another word as a suffix; so we have words like: acrophobia (fear of heights), aquaphobia (fear of water), claustrophobia (fear of enclosed places), and so forth.
Furthermore, we can become so wrapped up in fear and phobias that we lose sight of what is really important in life. Fear is always a bad replacement for trust.
One of the problems with fears and phobias, is that parents pass them along to their children. Children are attuned to their parents' paranoia. They grow up believing that there are perverts everywhere who are lurking around every corner who will molest them, kidnap them, sell them drugs, or otherwise do them harm. And because of this, children grow up not trusting anything or anyone. And of course this adversely affects their future relationships with other people, and ultimately their relationship with Jesus.
I'll give you a good example of this. A friend of mine had a young son who was deathly afraid to go into a state or national park. For the longest time, nobody could figure out why. Then one day, he figured it out. His son had been well schooled to avoid strangers. The problem was however that he didn't know exactly what a stranger was, so when his dad identified the uniformed men in the park as rangers, the young son didn't understand the difference between a "ranger" and a "stranger." He thought he was meeting up with those people he was told to avoid.
In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus demonstrates that when a person puts their complete and total faith in him, there is nothing whatsoever to fear. Peter was a fisherman and knew the water. He knew that no mere human being could walk on the water. That was something only God could do. But when fear replaces trust, then it's like a person cuts themselves off from God. Peter began to rely on his own experience rather than upon what Jesus had promised him. And when he did that, he began to sink like a rock.
If we look at John's first epistle, chapter 4, we find a good description of fear in relationship to God's love. Reading verses 15-18: "If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the Day of Judgment, because in this world we are like him. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love."
Fear is the result of sin in our lives. It is the constant reminder that we are not perfect, nor do we live in a perfect world. Fear is the opposite of trust. So when we experience fear in our relationship with God, what does that mean?
John says that fear has to do with punishment. We can get the idea that we aren't worthy of God's love. We think that our sins are too great for God to forgive. And so often, people think that they will have to stand before the judgment seat and answer for every sin they've ever committed.
But remember there is no fear in love. Just as Jesus reached out to Peter on the water, so he reaches out and takes hold of us. We don't need to fear anything, because we know our future in God's kingdom is guaranteed. We know that Jesus paid the full price for our sins, so that when we stand before the judgment seat, we will be judged according to Christ's righteousness and not our sinfulness.
Through faith we accept Jesus as our Saviour from sin. Through faith we know we have nothing to fear. With Jesus on our side, all of those fears we face will vanish just like those childhood fears of the boogie man hiding in the closet or the monsters under the bed.
The words in our Epistle lesson for today from Romans chapter 10 verse 9 provide us with a simple, yet profound solution for our fears: "...if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." That is a statement of confidence we can accept without any fear or reservation at all.
In this world, people frequently have unfounded fears, and here are a couple examples. Parents will often tell children that sitting too close to the television will cause blindness, or radiation poisoning, or brain tumors. That's completely false, but people still believe it. That fear has been passed down from generation to generation.
Another fear that is common is that you have to wait an hour after eating before going swimming. To illustrate this, I remember having a conversation with my grandfather who believed this. He believed it so much in fact, that he would wait an hour after he ate to take a bath. He told me that he knew of someone who took a bath after eating, and died in the bathtub. When I asked him how this person died, he said it was a heart attack. I then reminded him that the reason behind the "wait an hour" rule was because of the danger of cramping, and not a heart attack. Of course both reasons are completely false. It's another one of those unfounded fears that gets passed along from generation to generation.
When Lenore Skenazy sent her son Izzy home by himself from Bloomingdale's in New York City, it wasn't because she didn't care what happened to him or she didn't love him. She knew full well what she was doing.
First of all, she trusted him. She knew he was capable of getting home on his own. Secondly, she was aware of the risks involved. The odds of a child being abducted or harmed is actually one in 1.5 million, something like the odds of being struck by lightning. In fact the Justice Department reports that the number of children abducted by strangers has decreased over the years. The reason we hear about it on the news when it does happen, is because it happens so infrequently.
For Izzy Skenazy to embark on his little adventure, it meant a milestone in his life. His mother knew he would have to survive in the world, and he needed to learn to do it without fear. He couldn't live his life in some sort of artificial sterile environment, nor could he be shielded from the outside world his entire life. At some point in time, he had to be like Peter, and take that first step outside the safety of his own boat.
Of course children need to be aware of certain dangers and situations, and they need to know that they can't charge out in a state of reckless abandon. People need to exercise a certain degree of common sense about things. But people can't live their lives cowering in the corner out of fear either.
As Christians, we have a Saviour we can absolutely trust without fear. We know that we are saved by grace through faith. And as we live our lives in this world, we have his promise that he will never leave us nor forsake us. That's a perfect love which casts out all fear.
NOTE: Lenore Skenazy's article in the New York Sun can be accessed by this link:
Lenore and Izzy Skenazy's interview on NBC's Today show can be accessed by this link: