The following sermon was delivered by Rev. Ryan Slifka at the joint service of Comox, St. George's and Cumberland United Churches held at St. George's United Church.
“Risky Business” by Ryan Slifka
This past week I’ve been asking myself the question, “If you had all three United Churches in the Comox Valley in the same room together, what would you say?” I mean, it’s got to be good. New minister, new to the valley. Gotta impress. Gotta inspire. And I felt the same way I always do when I’m putting together a sermon. So much to say, so little space to say it all. Count yourselves lucky.
At the same time, preaching a sermon isn’t so much about what the preacher would like to say. It’s about what people need to hear. And I think that in times like ours, what we need most is encouragement. Not someone to simply say “things are fine.” Things are OK as they are. But en-couragement. To make courage possible in the face of challenge. What we need most is encouragement.
Which makes our passage from Matthew’s gospel a strange choice to preach on. Because courage seems to be the last thing this passage is about. It’s all about fear. It’s all about doubt.
After feeding thousands in the wilderness, Jesus sends his disciples on a boat to go ahead of him, to cross the sea of Galilee. Meanwhile, Jesus stays behind, opting to spend a little me-time on the top of a mountain in prayer.
But as night falls, a storm hits. "The wind was against them," it says, and waves crash and torture the boat, tossing it back and forth for hours. The wind drives their little wooden vessel far out to the middle of the sea. And there's no land in sight.
But the worst part is that, just when they need him most, Jesus is nowhere to be seen. A few chapters back they had hit a storm like this one, and Jesus was asleep when it hit. But when they called out in terror, he awoke, he spoke, and stilled the storm. But now, Jesus is back on dry land. And so they spend the better part of an anxious night navigating the waves, hoping for the storm to cease. It’s a time of great fear.
My guess is that this sense of anxiety and doubt is not unfamiliar to those of us gathered here, as the people of Jesus, in this time, and in this place. I don't need to say much about waning church attendance--you all know enough about that. And I don't need to say much about the decline of the influence of religious faith in people's personal lives, or in the public square. You already know that--we live in British Columbia, the most secular, least religious part of the country. And in the Pacific Northwest, the least religious, most secular part of North America. None of this is anything new.
But I get the feeling that we gather together as the body of Christ with a common sense of uncertainty about the future. Like the disciples, we've seen times of abundance, where our churches were full, and people seemed to be hungry and were made full by what we had to offer. But now we find ourselves in the middle of a perfect storm of fear, distrust and doubt.
Maybe it's fear for the loss of our institutional church as we know it. Maybe it's distrust of religious institutions based on our own role in the pain and anguish of other human beings. Or maybe it's doubt--the sense that Christian faith is archaic, a backwards relic of the past, that can't help but crumble in the face of overwhelming evidence. In the same way that the disciples have left Jesus behind on the shore, for us Jesus can be left behind in history, relegated to the status of archaeological interest. When it comes down to it we feel the waves crashing in on all sides. We're cast out to sea with no solid land in sight.
But they say the darkest hour is the one right before the dawn. And it's in the darkest hours of the morning in the boat, just before the sun rises Jesus comes in walking on the water to meet the wind-battered disciples.
The disciples, understandably, think he's a ghost. And are terrified. But in the midst of their fears, Jesus speaks, reassuring them. "It is I," he says. "Do not be afraid." And his encouragement works, as Peter, one of the disciples in the boat is emboldened enough to ask for Jesus' invitation to step out on the water. He's confident at first, and manages to take a few steps. But the wind picks up again, and he becomes scared again, and begins to sink. Just then, Jesus reaches out and grabs him. While Jesus questions him on his lack of faith, it’s at this moment that the disciples are astounded, and they see Jesus as if for the first time, confessing, “Truly you are the Son of God.” They recognize him. They know who he is. And what he’s about.
Which is kind of weird, if you think about it. Because just before this Jesus managed to feed thousands of people. And before that he healed the sick and the lame. They've just seen him do incredible wonders, but it's here in the midst of their terror and their doubt, where they manage to see who he really is. Here they finally see the "real Jesus."
I wonder if in our days of success, in the days where our society was culturally Christian, I wonder if this somehow got in the way of a vital and authentic faith that doesn't just recognize God at work in the good times, but sees God powerfully at work in times of uncertainty, times of stress, pain, or doubt. Maybe we haven’t figured that part out.
And I wonder if this is due to the fact we spend so much time in our lives trying to establish safety and security for ourselves and our families by buffering ourselves from risk and uncertainty (jobs, investments, mortgages, RRSPs). On one level, this is good, because God desires us to have the stable space to flourish as human beings. But on another level it also makes us fearful of change. It can make us afraid to experiment, and take risks as people and as congregations for the sake of the gospel. And renewing ourselves and our congregations. Because change seems to push us further into uncharted waters, rather than back to the safety of the shoreline.
Yet, if we take this story seriously. Which I like to think we do. We discover that Jesus isn’t just back on the shore with the good times. No, he is powerfully present even in the midst of the storm. Even though Jesus brings a word of comfort to the disciples in the boat, they don't recognize him until Peter takes the risk. The risk to step out off the boat, and step out towards Jesus on the raging sea. And even when Peter risks everything to step out, and he loses heart and fails, Jesus, Emmanuel, God with is, is there to hold on to him when he begins to sink. And when all seems lost.
To be honest, I don’t know entirely what this kind of risky business is going to look like for us in the days, and the years ahead. Undoubtedly, as a congregation we’ll be trying new and different things that call us out of our comfort zones and into turbulent, untested waters. And that will require plenty of courage, trust and risk.
But it’s even more than that. I know that we live in a stormy world where courage is needed more than anything else. It takes courage to face daily struggles of addiction, fear and distress. It takes courage to risk our time and our money to care for others in need. It takes courage to care for and continue to love someone even though they keep letting you down. It takes courage to stand up for the most vulnerable and the good of our community. And it will take courage to face our global environmental challenges with a sense of mercy, justice and compassion. It takes courage to “step out of the comfort of our own traditions and places, and go into the waves, reaching for the hand of Jesus."
Because following Jesus is risky business, and always has been. The One who calls Peter out of the boat and stills the storm is the same One who calls disciples just like you and me from our ordinary lives, and says “pick up your cross and follow.” The risk is what faith is all about. And the risk is what changes everything.
It’s a big challenge. And one that we will face together. But the good news is that when we know that God is with us, and for us, we are empowered to live with courage and with hope, even in the face of fear and uncertainty. Trusting that even when we begin to sink, God will grab hold of us with forgiveness, mercy, comfort and grace. And will never let go. Of people like us. In times like these. In a world like ours.
Thank God. Amen.
 This was said by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby in his inaugural sermon, “We Will See a World Transformed.”