The Rev. Canon Paul McLain
Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Little Rock
August 7, 2011
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Year A, Proper 13
The writer John Updike once compared writing novels and poems to writing literary criticism, which is writing about novels and poems, by saying, “Writing criticism is to writing fiction and poetry as hugging the shore is to sailing in the open sea.”
He meant that while good literary criticism can offer helpful insights into novels and poems, it is a safer path for a writer. The writer of literary criticism is evaluating a work that has already been written. But the writer of a novel or poem starts with a white sheet of paper or a blank computer screen. The writer then takes his or her creative impulse and sails boldly out into uncharted waters. It is far riskier. Likewise, it is easier and safer for us to talk about God, to think about God. It is far riskier and far more exhilarating to enter an actual experience of God.
In today’s Gospel passage, the disciples are now sailing out in the open sea. For the first time, Jesus has sent them out on their own. They took a risk in going. Jesus took a risk in sending them.
(In fact, Jesus took a risk in this whole idea of disciples. He took a risk in betting the future of his kingdom on this motley crew of fishermen, zealots, and a tax collector.)
A storm hits. It torments the disciples. The winds and waves batter them. They are lost at sea.
Storms happen to us when we take the risk of creativity. We get writer’s block. Our inner editorial voices question everything we create. We are afraid of our critics or what we imagine our critics might say. We feel that we are no longer in control of the outcome. We lose sight of the meaning of what we’re creating. We have no idea where we are going. We are caught up in the whirlwind of chaos. We become paralyzed by fear. And then when we look directly into the chaos, we see a distant figure walking toward us. He defies nature. He is doing the impossible. He is in the chaos, yet controlling it. Only God can do this.
The figure speaks. He says, ‘Take heart.’
In French, the word for heart is coeur, from which we derive the word ‘courage.’ Jesus is telling the disciples, ‘take courage.’ He is telling them to be courageous in the midst of this storm, in the shock and terror of seeing him walking on the sea.
Jesus is also telling them, and us, that the first step in joining him in creating and bringing about the kingdom of heaven is to take courage.
Courage is the ability to look directly into the chaos and not be paralyzed by fear, but instead see the possibility of joining Christ there in creating something new.
Where do we find Jesus? We don’t find him on safe ground. We don’t find him in our certainties. We don’t find him hugging the shore. We find him in the midst of our doubts. We find him in the throws of chaos. We find him in the open sea. Deep in the uncharted waters of creativity, that’s where we will find Jesus.
Peter doubts momentarily. He says, ‘Lord, if it is you.’ Jesus commands him. ‘Come.’ Peter, with all his human frailties, jumps out of the boat. At least he acts. He takes a huge risk. In an enormous act of courage, he gets out of the boat. And he leaves 11 timid disciples still in the boat, who are, in their own way, still hugging the shore.
And, for a little while, Peter too walks on water!
As he sets his eyes firmly on Jesus, he enters the presence and power of God.
But fear gets the best of Peter like it sometimes does us. His mind goes away from Jesus and to the storm. He sinks. He cries out, ‘Lord, save me.’
Like Peter at that moment of fear, we yearn for salvation. We yearn for certainty. We yearn for calm. We yearn for peace. One writer observes: ‘Too often we expect Jesus will give us peace by freeing us from chaos, when, in fact, Jesus wants us to take his peace into the chaos and become his servants.’ Go into the chaos and take his peace.
Jesus reaches out his hand and grabs Peter in the sea. In the midst of chaos, Jesus is always there – giving us his hand and holding us up.
This is a story of courage in the face of chaos. Jesus has the courage to take a chance on his disciples. The disciples have the courage to go out in open sea. Peter has the courage to get out of the boat. Even though Peter doubts, takes his eyes off Jesus, and temporarily sinks, he shows courage in walking to and actually experiencing Jesus.
Are we willing to set sail on the open sea for Jesus? Are we willing to get out of the boat to follow Jesus? Or are we satisfied with hugging the shore? Hugging the shore is an unwillingness to take risks.
Sailing on the open sea, even getting out of the boat – is having the courage to follow Jesus even and especially in the chaos. It’s joining Jesus with every ounce of our God-given creativity.
Where is Jesus calling Trinity Cathedral to get out of the boat? What uncharted waters are calling to us? Where are you personally being called to get out of the boat and walk toward Jesus out into the open sea? We won’t get to where he calls us by playing it safe and hugging the shore. We must have the courage to go into the chaos around us and within us, and join Jesus in creating something bold, something new, something with depth and meaning, something powerful.
Don’t sit back, settle for critiquing others, and hug the shore. Instead, set sail for the open sea. And, when you get there, take a big risk.
Get out of the boat.