"Staying in the Boat" by Rev. Kyle Childress for the Installation of Rev. Jillian Hankamer"
Staying in the Boat
Isaiah 43:1-7; Matthew 14: 22-33
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (September 25), 2022
The Installation of Rev. Jillian Farmer Hankamer
Northminster Baptist Church, Monroe, LA
I bring you greetings from your sisters and brothers called Austin Heights
Baptist Church in Nacogdoches, Texas. We have long worked aside you through
the Alliance of Baptists, doing youth and children’s camp together, and various
other endeavors. I’ve known Craig Henry going back to the 90’s on the Alliance
board together. I’m a long-time fan and admirer of Welton Gaddy. I remember him at Broadway in Fort Worth when I was finishing Baylor, and you need to know, Welton, that a little later, when I was a rural church pastor in Central Texas trying to find my preaching voice, I preached some of your sermons from the Mercer University Chapel. Those Central Texas farmers had great patience with my Mercer University references.
It’s an honor to be here for Jillian’s Installation. We go back to when she
was eight years old when her family joined Austin Heights. I remember her riding with us to Shiprock, NM in Navajo country, as we joined Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth on a mission trip. I remember while I drove, Jane and Jillian and our two girls read out-loud the novel Holes. That, and I remember Jillian’s tent blowing away during a sandstorm. Over the years, we have continued to love and admire her and follow her ministerial life.
So today is a blessed time for me as I witness the coming together of a
congregation I have long known and admired and a pastor I have long known and admired. Thanks be to God.
Our Gospel Lesson tells us that Jesus has just fed over 5,000 men, plus women, and children. He then sends the disciples on ahead to the other side of the Sea of Galilee by boat, while he goes off alone to pray. Later that night, when the
disciples are a good ways out on the sea, a storm comes up, wind blowing, rain,
waves threatening to swamp the boat. The disciples are terrified.
Let’s pause for a moment and remember how the Bible speaks to us on
multiple levels. First, the Christian church at the time of Matthew was very small
and certainly not powerful, and there was already some persecution going on by
the Ruling Powers. By the time of Matthew, they were being expelled from their
traditional place of worship, the synagogues, as well. To put it differently, the
church of Matthew was in a storm.
Furthermore, the church, as you well know, saw themselves as a boat, often
a reminder of the faithful remnant God had saved in Noah’s Ark. The early church fathers called the church “the ark of salvation.” Furthermore, the Latin word for “ship” is “navis” (from which we get our words navy and navigate) and it is the root for the word “nave.” Nave is the name for the main part of the interior of a church building, from the entry point up to the chancel. This nave, like many churches throughout history, has a vaulted ceiling as if you are inside the hull of an upside-down ship. So, when the disciples are in a boat they are not simply in a boat. This is the church. And in this story, it is an image of the church in a storm.
And while we’re on the subject, let me remind you that in the Bible
whenever you see a storm, it is not just a storm. Darkness and water are the chaotic forces that God pushed back when the earth was created in Genesis chapter one.
So, whenever the sky clouds over, when the wind picks up and it is dark and
stormy and the rain starts, it is not just a storm. It is as if creation itself is being
threatened. As if God’s reign over the world is being contested. In these Gospel
stories Jesus battles the Powers that rebel against God – disease and illness,
hunger, demons, injustice, and even the elemental powers of the deep, the wind
and the rain and the waves.
The storm has been going on throughout the night. The boat has been taking
on water and things look bad. Early in the morning hours, the hours when things seem most bleak and when despair rears its ugly head, comes Jesus. He comes walking across the water to the fear-filled and probably exhausted disciples. They see him coming toward them and they cry out all the more, not sure if it is him or a ghost. The storm scares them and Jesus scares them and Jesus calls to them, “Don’t be afraid. Take courage.”
What happens next is strange. Peter, good old impulsive, impetuous,
spontaneous Peter, cries out, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on
the water” (v. 28).
Jesus says, “Okay, come on.” And Peter climbs overboard and takes a few steps on the water, all the while keeping his eyes on Jesus. But the wind is blowing
in his face, the waves are hitting him, and he takes his eyes from Jesus and looks
down. And Peter, whom Jesus had called “the Rock” goes down like a rock.
Of course, those of us who’ve been hearing this story for years and years
know that it is Peter’s amazing faith, his extraordinary trust in Jesus which
compelled him to jump out of the boat and into the storm. And all of this is true.
But the rest of the story is that he didn’t have quite enough faith. In fact, if
we look back at what Peter said before he got out of the boat, we have a clue to the kind of faith Peter had. When Jesus was first seen walking toward them, Peter
cried out, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water” (v. 28).
“Lord, if . . .” How many times have we heard that? Or how many times
have we said it ourselves? “Lord, if . . . if you are the Son of God and can do
anything for us that we want, call me out on the water and prove it to me.” “Lord,
if you are the Son of God, prove it to me by getting me out of this trouble just one more time.”
Maybe Peter is also saying, “Lord, I’m the leading disciple, the real rock of
the church as you have said. While the others sit back and worry, I’m a hero, a
leader who really believes that you call us to taking big steps of faith and I’m
taking the risk of faith and stepping out of the boat.”
Jesus would have been utterly justified in saying, “Peter, lighten up! You’re
one of disciples. Forget the heroics and get back in the boat.”
Jesus doesn’t do that. Jesus is patient, even if Peter is not. And maybe Jesus
knows what Peter really needs. So, Jesus says, “Okay Peter. Come on.” Peter
ventures out, “Lord, look at me! I’m walking on water!” Then he begins to sink,
and he changes to “Lord, save me! I’m sinking. What am I doing out here? Oh no! I can’t believe how stupid I am! Save me!”
Maybe that’s all Peter needed to know and what Jesus needed to hear. “Lord,
save me. Lord, I can’t do this no matter how much faith I have.” “Help me, please, Lord.”
And Jesus does save him. He says, “O Little Faith.” It is usually translated,
“Oh, you of little faith.” But it could be translated as if Jesus is renaming Peter. He was called “The Rock,” and now he’s “Little Faith.” As in, “Little Faith, why did
I don’t know but I wonder about Peter’s doubt. Maybe it was not so much
the doubt which he had once he felt the wind and waves. Maybe his doubt was in
his demand of Jesus in the first place. “Little Faith, why didn’t you have enough
faith to stay seated in the boat with the others and let me come to you? Why didn’t you wait on me and my timing instead of you trying to come to me on your timing?” “Peter, why didn’t you trust me to come to you in the storm and get in the boat with you? You have to learn to wait in the boat. I’ll be with you. I’ll always be with you in the storms.”
Note that Jesus only rebukes Peter for his lack of faith. To the others, who
stayed in the boat, who didn’t attempt Peter’s spectacular spirituality, Jesus just
comes. He gets into the boat with them. And there is a great calm as the storm
What if great faith, perhaps even a greater faith than walking on water, is the
faith to stay in the boat? What if we’re called to be calm and patient, learning to
wait on Jesus? What if discipleship is the un-heroic but solid conviction that keeps us in the boat, rowing, bailing the water, and encouraging the other disciples, and all in the middle of the storm? Perhaps great faith is that patient trust that we don’t have to come to Jesus. In good time, at the right time, he’ll come to us. And all of this – we do together.
To change the analogy a bit – sometimes we exhibit the characteristics of a
bi-polar church. We swing between lethargy and preoccupation with other things so that we just can’t be very active at church. Or we’re the other extreme, where we are motivated, energized, and organized to do something big. We’re either in the harbor with the boat anchored or we’re in the middle of a raging storm out in the middle of the sea and decide we’ll try to walk on water. But healthy congregations stay with it during the in-between times – we show up, we do the menial tasks of worshiping, praying, forgiving, giving sacrificially with our money, teaching, being a student of Scripture and the faith, volunteering, working with refugees, working with your partner church in Cuba, and volunteering with your mission truck. So much of being disciples of Jesus is not glamorous or heroic. It’s just getting in the boat when Jesus tells us and rowing together to the other side where he says he’ll meet us.
There are times for heroic risks but let’s not confuse heroic risks for
impatience and our habits of not being able to sit and wait. We live in a society
which encourages frantic activity and hyper-mobility. We love the get-it-done
multi-tasker and my guess is you are among those who, when asked “How are
you?” your answer is “Busy.”
Furthermore, lest you think I’m suggesting you should not be courageous;
think again. The courageous church gets in the boat, rows to the other side in the middle of storms. Meanwhile, there are hundreds of churches sitting in the safe harbors, anchors down, while looking to see if the storms will pass or not and debating whether they should venture out into the deep water far from shore.
So, in your context, perhaps the gospel word for you is not so much how you need to be more like Peter and how you should have the kind of faith which walks on water. Perhaps the gospel for you is to learn to stay in the boat together, with a quiet, calm trust that waits for Christ to come and be with you.
W.W. Finlator was the long-time famous pastor of Pullen Memorial Baptist
Church in Raleigh, NC from the late 1950’s through the early 1980’s. Welton, I
daresay he was a hero to many of us. He was famous or infamous, depending on
your politics, for speaking at a labor organizing rally on Sat. night and then
preaching to his congregation on Sunday morning, where some of his deacons
would have heard from a sheriff in the nearby county about their pastor’s union
work the night before. Most of the time, the deacons were not happy. Or Finlator would be in the front row of a civil rights march or joining a sit-in against Vietnam across the street from the church at North Carolina State University. Bill Finlator was gutsy, prophetic, and tough.
Mahan Siler followed Finlator as pastor of Pullen Church. Mahan told me
that as much as he admired Bill Finlator, he realized that his task as pastor was not so much to go off and organize a protest or speak in a rally or whatever. His job was to lead and train Pullen Church, so that when the rallies and protests came, the entire congregation would show up at rallies and protests. Not just one heroic pastor, but an entire courageous congregation.
Mahan knew that it took immense pastoral patience and day-to-day pastoral
work to lead an entire congregation to get out of the safe harbors and sail into the storms, but that was the pastoral task.
Jillian, I suggest that much of your vocation here is to lead this congregation
to stay in the boat and keep rowing into the storms. To have the patience to keep
on doing what Jesus has called you to do and not give up, give out, or give in!
Your job is not to lone ranger it and, Northminster do not expect Jillian to go out
there alone. You go together. You pray together. You stand together. You serve
together. You live out the Way of Jesus Christ – together, staying in the boat.
Matthew says that Jesus said simply, “Hush!” to the waves. And they do.
And at that moment, when all is strangely still, when all is quiet and the storm has passed, that’s when they are able to say, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
By this time in the Gospel according to Matthew so much has happened. The
disciples have seen miraculous healings and exorcisms. They have seen Jesus
confront the Religious Authorities. They were there when he fed several thousand people. But this is the moment when they get it. This is the place where they say, “Ah!” and they worship him. When Jesus gets in the boat with them, and they know this sense of peace and calm, they are able to say with one voice, “Truly, you are the Son of God!”
Being a pastor is helping a congregation row out into the storms, stick with it
and not give up, and wait on Jesus – together. Then, be prepared for Jesus, so when he shows up, everyone, together, in the boat can know him.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. One True God,
Mother of us all. Amen.