That Sinking Feeling

"Walking on Water," Image by Kevin Krejci via Flickr, Licensed under CC BY 2.0

I hope we can all agree that it’s misguided to take Matthew’s story about Peter walking on the water and turn it into a sappy morality tale about overcoming the stress that comes from “stepping out” in some generic sense. How wearisome it would be to mine the passage for ordinary self-help resources, as if the sermon’s job is to instill in a listener the courage to attend their first yoga class or the peace of mind to let a teenage child drive the family car at night for the first time. I don’t need a Bible in order to know that life is hard and taking risks is sometimes good for me.

It can be difficult for preachers to cut through the thick moralistic shell that centuries of interpretive malpractice have left clinging to narratives like Matthew 14:22-33.

Most folks in congregations will recognize the basic story. Many of them have already been taught to allegorize it; too many of them hear it and jump to platitudes about the storms of life, the power of having Jesus in your boat, and the need to let go and let God. All the banal baggage this text carries can be enough to make preachers run to Romans 10 or Genesis 37 to see if there is greener or easier grass in other lections assigned for the week. (Spoiler alert: there isn’t.)

But don’t surrender this passage to Floundering-Peter-and-Baywatch-Jesus interpretations just yet. And don’t despise the story for its familiarity. The difficulty with this passage resides in its history of being yoked to theological shallowness. The difficulty is not the text’s basic familiarity. Begin there — with what people recognize in their own lives.

After all, Working Preachers, often a key function of sermons is to unpack the theological significance of what’s already familiar to us. In other words, our preaching can give people eyes to see how their common experiences, hopes, feelings, and frustrations might relate to God’s presence and God’s intentions.

Notice that the turning point of this wild story is the thing that looks the most familiar about Peter’s experience, at least to me: the paralyzing fear that engulfs Jesus’ disciple.

As many interpreters note, Peter’s fear (see phobeo in 14:30) materializes when he sees the wind’s ferocity. Then he begins to sink. Jeopardy arrives because his fear has transformed him — or transformed his outlook. I think most people who will listen to you preach about this text will be able to relate. Fear, although it is a sometimes very helpful self-protective instinct, holds us back. Never underestimate some fear’s power to make us lie to ourselves and hinder us from moving forward to where we should be.

Not all types of fear are the same. Peter’s experience on the sea reminds me of a specific kind.

I’ve been thinking about that kind of fear lately because in July I spent a week touring college campuses with one of my daughters. All told, so far in my life as a parent I think I’ve been on nineteen guided campus tours with my children. (Spoiler alert: these tours are mostly all the same.) I loved my years as an undergraduate, back in the day, so these experiences make me excited for the young people who are about to launch in that direction. I even get a little jealous.

But the tours also fascinate me because they bring so much fear into the open. You can hear it in many of the question that students — and their parents — ask the guides and admissions counselors. I’m referring to a particular expression of fear. In the questions I’ve heard, I don’t sense fear about “Will I/Junior survive here?” or “Will I/Junior be happy and successful?” as much as I detect it manifested in an underlying question about “What if I/Junior fail to meet everyone’s expectations?”

Fear about failing expectations harms all the saints. Including preachers.

What if I — in the life I lead and the commitments I make — look stupid to others? What if I don’t accomplish what I think I’m supposed to? What if I don’t measure up to others’ standards for what a well-lived life looks like? The fear-laden questions show their theological significance when we extend them that direction: What if my wobbly discipleship — manifested in the life I lead and the commitments I make — looks stupid to others? What if I can’t figure out (let alone meet) Jesus’ standards for sufficient or vital faith?

(Notice that people’s fears about disappointing Jesus’ expectations can be especially paralyzing. No wonder so much interpretation of this passage tries to pinpoint an answer to a question the passage is uninteresting in answering: What did Peter do wrong and what should he have done instead?)

We’re talking a lot right now about preaching in a culture of fear stoked by media, political polarization, and cultural panic. That’s important. But how do we preach to (and as) people who are also afraid that they can’t meet the expectations for trusting and living as God would want them to?

Some of that begins with the preacher and how each of us speaks honestly with ourselves, our peers, our supervisors, and even our congregations about our own fears. Again, I mean specific fears: how the expectations we perceive from ourselves, our peers, our supervisors, and even our congregations prove intimidating as we seek to live a life of authentic, even if perennially unsteady, faith.

Fear is not always the opposite or enemy of faith, although sometimes the two inhibit one another. In some circumstances, however, faith and fear fuel and magnify each other, and the magnification can be intense. The goal, then, isn’t to suppress or excise all of the fears that spring up in discipleship and ministry. The remedy is not to insist that we are really capable of doing anything or being anybody we want. Nor should we foolishly suppose that we are somehow above criticism and correction.

A good first step comes with remembering that it’s misguided to take the Gospel story as a complete representation of our individual lives of faith. In reality, there are lots of folks out there on the water with you — all of us splashing around in swells of insecurities and paralyses that, ironically enough, link us to one another. Perhaps we can work together in walking with Jesus.

Including preachers. After all, we know Sunday mornings can be the scariest time of the week.

This is my final column while Karoline Lewis takes a short vacation. She will return to this space next week. Thanks for reading.