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Worship in a Rowboat? 
By Dr. Samuel M. Cooper

AUGUST 7, 2011

Worship in a Rowboat?
1 Kings 19:9-18
Matthew 14:22-33

When I was a young fellow, my father was a deputy sheriff. It was a simple universe. The world was safe because my Daddy kept it so.
My Daddy was the most important man in the world because he had the most important job in the world. He wore a big, wide, black belt with handcuffs, a billy club and a gun hanging from it. His car could go faster than anyone else's. It had a siren and a spotlight you could shine deep into the woods, and he got us into the county fair and all the ball games for free. 
I have to explain something about my name so that you get the complete picture. You see, I am Samuel Morgan Cooper IV. My great-grandfather, Samuel Morgan Cooper, was called, "Sam." My grandfather, Samuel Morgan Cooper Jr., was called "Sambo." My father, Samuel Morgan Cooper III, was called "Sonny." Because they ran out of names, I guess, I was called, "Little Sonny." But that double diminutive made me feel big, not small.
When Daddy took me with him and let people make on over me I felt like a little prince. But sometimes Daddy would say. "Ok, son, wait here. I've got to go see a man about a dog. I'll be back." 
I remember once, in particular. It was about dark and very, very hot. Daddy went inside a construction trailer and was gone a long time. I have no idea how long it was by the clock but it was plenty long enough for me to construct a lot of theories. Had someone with a silencer on his gun shot him? Was there any other way out of the place? And the worst one of all: What if he had decided I wasn't worthy of being Little Sonny and just left? I was not safe. The universe was caving.
Finally, finally, he came back. And when he did I burst into tears. He just smiled and hugged me. I didn't really understand how he could just smile.
Imagination in the service of fear is a deadly force. It can turn the neatest little world into a chamber of horrors. Even today I can see the images it conjured in my head fifty years ago.
So it was with the disciples, I suspect. Images piling on top of one another. John's head, bloody, on a platter. The rage and the cunning in the eyes of the Scribes and Pharisees. 
Jesus shoving them off and telling them to go to the other side before He dismissed the crowds. Didn't He need them? Was there something He didn't want them to hear? Where had He gone? Had He been killed like His cousin John? Or had He abandoned them? Were they simply not worthy to be His disciples?
Alone and adrift on the sea at night is a pretty good metaphor for the way life gets sometimes. Abandoned by the ones we trust most. Not really sure where we are. Helpless against forces we cannot control. The universe coated in black as if by paint poured from a bucket. I don't know where your anxieties have taken you, but I know where they can take you.
Let me tell you about Ellen. Ellen drove up in our driveway well after dark one night and said she really needed to talk. She had been hearing that her husband was running around on her. She had heard about it from her friends and from the other woman. But she refused to believe it. That night she had come to tell me that she had found him and this other woman buck naked running around at their river house. 
With all the seriousness of a heart attack Ellen said to me, "If only God would give me a sign that he is really having an affair I would know what to do!" 
"Ellen," I said, "What kind of damn sign do you need?"
(You may want to call one of our other pastors if you feel you need pastoral care.)
If it weren't so sad, it would be funny. The truth, the reality, was just too much for her. The next day we had to have her committed for psychiatric care when someone found her behind her house in her pajamas with a loaded pistol. I know, it sounds crazy, but except for that one episode, she fit the stereotype of a level-headed, proper Southern lady. And later, she returned to her role.
I can get a little Ellen-like myself when life gets sideways on me. When the wind and the waves push me everywhere except where I want to go. And life is all dark. That is when my inner-Ellen speaks with her fear-inspired fantasies and distortions. That is when I can't see the truth for what it is. That is when I make bad choices. That is when I delude myself into thinking that Jesus has run out on me, that I am completely helpless and at the mercy of merciless forces beyond my control.
Lily tells me that her grandmother used to go behind the barn and hide from all her children when they were bad. She had five of them in six years. Not a bad strategy maybe, for a crazy mother. But hardly one Jesus would use.
Jesus came to His disciples, walking on the water. The fear-filled inner-Ellen spoke first: "It is a ghost!" 
Then Jesus spoke: "Take heart. It is I; do not be afraid."
Then, frail faith, from somewhere inside Peter spoke, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." 
And Jesus says, "Come, Peter." And Peter steps out of the boat. 
Ever skip stones across the water? I don't know if this was a plip, plip, plip, plip, ploop. Or just a plip, ploop. But there was at least one plip and there definitely was a ploop. Peter walked and Peter sank.
Some of you may have heard of Fred Craddock. Some of you may have even heard him preach. After Todd and Stuart and Tom and Sandra and Mark, he may be the best preacher of our day. He says that Peter wants to put Jesus to the test, and that in testing Jesus, he puts himself to the test – and fails.
Preachers say all kind of stuff about Peter: that he was showing off, that he was impetuous, that he was brave, that he was a leader, that he was a fool. I don't think it matters. If it weren't for his plips and for his ploop, the story is not nearly as interesting. Once more it is left to Peter to make the story interesting. And to make it our story. 
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian and martyr has this to say about him: "Peter had to leave the ship and risk his life on the sea in order to learn both his own weakness and the almighty power of his Lord. If Peter had not taken the risk, he would never have learned the meaning of faith. The road to faith passes through obedience to the call of Jesus. Unless a definite step is demanded, the call vanishes into thin air. If people imagine that they can follow Jesus without taking this step, they are deluding themselves like fanatics."
That is an interesting way of putting it because we wouldn't normally think of the ones who stayed in the boat as the fanatics. It would be the idiot who stepped into the water. It is Peter who shows by his actions that he is the only non-delusional disciple. The others listen to the distortions of their inner-Ellen. Peter, in his obedience, stakes his life on what he believes is most real. Not the wind. Not the waves. Not the darkness. But the voice of Jesus.
Peter is willing to take a risk that the water will hold him up, which is the only way to see if the water really will hold him up. It isn't long, though, before he changes his mind about what is most real, as he feels the wind at his face and the waves at his feet. And those lovely plips end in a ploop.
Many years ago when I was a student intern at the First Presbyterian Church in Hickory, North Carolina, we had on our staff an Associate Pastor named Day Carper. Day had been a missionary in Zaire for 35 years. During his first few years there, his wife and all his children got sick and died. But Day stayed because God had called him there. A few years later he met Blanche, they married and had three of the loveliest daughters you have ever seen. 
Day and I played tennis several times a week. He was 65 and I was 23. There was a predictable pattern to our matches. I would surge ahead and slowly but surely Day would come back. In the midst of his comeback he would taunt me: "You can't stand prosperity." It would be at that point that my game would come apart and the 65-year-old man, his game trained under the hot African sun and his character shaped by countless plips and ploops, would edge out the quick dashes and the exuberant swats of the 23-year-old. 
Peter tries. And he succeeds. And he fails. 
And he cries out: "Lord, save me." Jesus reaches out His hand, and catches Peter. 
Day wasn't the type to prattle about it but when I asked he would tell me how many times he had cried out in Zaire, "Lord, save me!" And how many times his precious Lord had taken his hand. I still hear his good-natured taunts sometimes when everything is going in the right direction, and I smile, because I remember it is neither my successes nor my failures that matter all that much. 
I kinda think Jesus knew how it was all going to turn out with Peter, and He just watched and loved, from beginning to end. I even wonder if Jesus didn't give a knowing smile when He heard Peter's plips and Peter's big ploop. 
I kinda think Jesus knows how it is going to turn out with us, too. I think He knew how it was going to turn out with me in Daddy's car, and with Ellen, and with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and with Day Carper, and with you. 
Look for Him. Look for Him when your imagination wreaks havoc with your fears. Look for Him when your senses tell you it is too dangerous to step out of the boat. Look for Him. He is there. Answer Him. He is calling. Obey Him. Trust that the reality He describes surpasses the reality you see. He is waiting. Smile at your fears. I bet He is smiling, too. Step. You will probably fall. Don't worry about it. Just step.
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