In 1978 I had a moment like Saint Peter must have had when he stepped out of the boat and experienced the truth of W.H. Auden’s observation that “the distresses of choice are our chance to be blessed.” That was the year I chose to leave one publishing house and join another. It was probably the most distressing choice I had made until that time. It was also the choice upon which the greatest blessings have followed.
I knew it was time to leave a job I had clearly outgrown. In my hand were two offers of new jobs, one where, at about the same salary, I would be doing about half the work with the opportunity to expand my career in different areas. It was a job I knew I could do easily. The other offer carried a salary that would be significantly higher, but I would be responsible for about twice the number of books and working for a much more demanding boss. It would have been a significant leap forward in my career, but I wasn’t sure I was ready for it or that I even wanted to give what the job would require.
It was my night in the boat. I had to make a choice, and I preferred the safety of what I had known to the chaos of change and challenge that was ahead. Would I play it safe with something easy or risk failure at something challenging? That’s the choice life presents. It came to me in 1978 and has many times since. It came to the early Christians like it did to Jesus and Peter and the other disciples in the boat on that stormy lake (Matt. 22-33). And it has come again to us today.
Up to the point where Jesus meets his disciples on the water that night, the story has been about danger. Herod has just killed John the Baptist in a gruesome entertainment. Are Jesus and his disciples next? How will they respond in the midst of fear and chaos? What will they do when all the power in the world seems arrayed against them and they have virtually nothing left with which to respond? Those were not merely questions for Jesus and his disciples; those questions were facing the church when the story of Jesus and Peter walking on the water was written down.
It’s one thing to recognize that Jesus had the power to walk over the waters of chaos and not be overwhelmed, but that’s not where the story goes. Peter, representing the early church, wants to know if he can walk over the stormy waters also, and Jesus encourages him to try. The divine power Jesus reveals is not confined to Jesus alone; it is shared by those who follow him in faith.
Our little boat is sinking. In every denomination and religious group in America, churches are in significant decline. There are lots of reasons for it, many of them out of our control. The sea on which we sail is stormy and chaotic, and it won’t do for us to hunker belowdecks and hope to ride it out. The time is long past when we can make the easy choice and play it safe. We won’t reverse the decline by passing out more leaflets, posting a better website, or offering better cookies and conversation with our coffee.
Preaching on this text in his inaugural sermon, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby encouraged the church to be like Peter and to get out of the safety of the boat. “We are called,” he said, “to step out of the comfort of our own traditions and places, and go into the waves, reaching for the hand of Christ.” What Christians need most today, he said, is courage: “the present challenges of environment and economy, of human development and global poverty, can only be faced with extraordinary courage.”
The challenge is the same for us. We’ve got to do far more than caulk the leaks and bail water and invite others to step aboard. We’ve got to step out of our boat to help people who are foundering in the storm. If we are called to reach young families, we’ve got to develop ministries to meet the practical needs of young families. If we are called to reach the elderly, we’ve got to step out of our comfortable space and offer hands-on help for the elderly where they are. If we are called to ministries with the poor, the hungry, the homeless, then we need to step out of our comfort zone and go to the places where the poor, hungry, and homeless are imprisoned by cultural privilege, economic injustice, and the preservation of political power.
It’s not enough to offer a class or a workshop and hope someone comes. We need to offer substantial help by stepping out of the safe place we occupy and going to stand beside others in the places where life is overwhelming them. We run the risk of rejection or failure, but that’s what it means to take up our cross. That’s what it means to follow Jesus’ invitation to step out of the boat and into the storm.
Two-and-a-half centuries ago, Methodists exploded with a vitality that transformed the world. We provided food, clothing, and shelter for neighbors in need; we established Sunday schools to combat illiteracy and neighborhood clinics to improve community health and sanitation; we built colleges and universities like Syracuse, Boston, Drew, Duke and dozens more, and scores of hospitals like Barnes in St. Louis, Brooklyn’s New York Methodist, and Duke University Medical Center. The list goes on and on.
Every one of those efforts began when someone in the pews recognized a pressing need in the community and made the choice to do something about it by stepping out of the safety of their little boat. The needs and challenges were huge, and perhaps they seemed overwhelming. But there was one who was with them, one who said “Take heart; do not be afraid” (Matt. 14:27), the same one who is with the one of you who is feeling a holy nudge to make a risky choice for good today.
It may be that none of us is called to build a university or hospital. Our calling is likely to be much smaller: to look with fresh eyes at the neighbors around us, to allow our newly opened hearts to be touched by their needs, and to choose to step out of our status quo and offer what we have.
Although she’s largely forgotten today, British novelist Mary Cholmondeley (1859-1925) wrote something as true today as it has been through the ages: “Every year I live I am more convinced that the waste of life lies in the love we have not given, the powers we have not used, the selfish prudence that will risk nothing, and which shirking pain, misses happiness as well. No one ever yet was the poorer in the long run for having once in a lifetime ‘let out all the length of the reins.’”