Live Like You’re Dying sermon series – #1: Get Out of the Boat

SCRIPTURE – Matthew 14:22-33 – Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it. Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. 26 When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear. But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” “Come,” he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?” And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Live Like You’re Dying sermon series
#1 – Risk: Get Out of the Boat
March 9, 2014

            Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I just read a scientific study that said people who breathe are at risk of dying. Apparently, the act of breathing air in and out repeatedly will, without a doubt, lead to death. For those of us who breathe, this is disturbing news. If this scientific study is to be believed, and I read it on the Internet so it must be true, then living has a 100% mortality rate. That’s pretty scary, especially if you share the same sentiment as Woody Allen, who said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve it by not dying.” Well, too bad. For every single one of us, there will come a day that will be our last day.

            So the question is: What are we going to do with the days we have left? How will me make the most of this one life we’ve been given? How can we make sure that the breaths we have between the one we are taking now and the last one we’ll take will be used wisely? I think the best guidance for answering that question can come from those who are knowingly taking their last breaths. The inspiration for this sermon series came from an article I read recently written by a Hospice chaplain. In it, she talked about the most common regrets she heard expressed by her patients. If given the chance to do it over again, what would they have done differently?

One of the common themes shared by Hospice patients was that they wished they had taken more risks in life. Looking back, they realize that they worried too much about staying safe and being comfortable and didn’t take the chances in their lives that could have led to greater success, greater satisfaction, or greater significance. And now, at the end of their lives, when the really have no reason to fear, they recognize what they missed out on by not taking more risks.

But fear is an awfully powerful motivator, isn’t it? Fear can be healthy, but it can also keep us from doing a lot of things. Think about how the news preys on our fears: Why the food you eat may be dangerous! Why your clothes may not be safe! Why your choice of vacation spots my kill you! What’s next? Too many Reese’s Cups are bad for your health? Or think about how fear dictates what we drive. First there were lap belts. Then shoulder belts. Then both. Then anti-lock brakes. Then front airbags. Then side airbags. Then top and bottom airbags. Soon we’ll be driving around strapped into a giant marshmallow. Fear is a powerful motivator.

Author Elizabeth Kubler-Ross says that almost all the fears we experience in life can be boiled down to two basic, fundamental fears: the fear that we will not survive and the fear that we are not good enough. Afraid to take a lower-paying job that’s more fulfilling? Fear of not making enough money to survive. Afraid to go out on a date or take a new class? Fear of not being good enough. Afraid of visiting a sick relative? Fear of being reminded of your own mortality. That’s a question of survival. These two fears are the paralyzing forces that often keep us from taking risks.

That was certainly true for Peter in our story today. The disciples are out in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, during the fourth watch of the night. That means the disciples had been rowing and bailing for up to nine hours, and had yet to make it across the sea. Why? Because the wind was against them. As a former Chicago resident, I understand the metaphorical force of that statement. Have you ever had that feeling, like the wind was against you? You work and work and work and get nowhere, you take one step forward and are blown two steps back.

So the disciples are battling the wind and the storm and the sea. Jesus comes to them, walking on the water, saying to them, “Take heart, it is I, don’t be afraid.”             Peter, always the most impulsive of the disciples, immediately asks to come to Jesus on the water. Some commentators scold Peter for putting Jesus to the test, but I don’t see it that way. Peter wanted to be where Jesus was. He wanted to be with his Savior. So Peter steps out onto the water and begins to walk toward Jesus.

I’ve come to learn that there are two kinds of people in this world: sinkers and floaters. My Uncle Pete was a floater. He could lie on his back all day in his swimming pool, arms outstretched, floating on the top of the water. He’d perch his drink on his belly and just float. I tried to do that, but I’m a sinker. I learned to swim by flailing my arms and legs until I either made it to the other side of the pool or splashed all the water out of it. But I never could float like Uncle Pete. When I tried, I always ended up at the bottom of the pool, which I found out wasn’t nearly as comfortable as the top.

The disciple Peter, as we learn in this story, is also a sinker. You know he floated for a second, right on top of the water. For a moment he was able to block out the howling winds around him and focus on Jesus. But just as quickly, he remembered the storm, he remembered the wind, he remembered that he was only human and couldn’t actually walk on water, and he began to sink. In that instant, he was overcome by two powerful realizations: I’m not good enough to walk on water, and I’m not going to survive.

Now, some may look at this story and say that Peter failed, that his faith wasn’t strong enough. “You know, if he had just kept his eye on Jesus, if he had just had more faith, he would have succeeded.” It’s that fear of failure that can keep us from taking steps to grow our own faith. What if I start reading the Bible but don’t understand it? What if I try to pray every day but can’t keep it up? What if I serve at church but don’t do well? What if I join the choir but miss a few notes? Sometimes it’s easier just to stay in the boat, isn’t it?

Some people would rather stay in the boat than meet Jesus out on the water. John Ortberg calls those kinds of people Boat Potatoes. Sure, it’s risky out there on the water, but it’s just as risky to stay in the boat. There’s a risk involved in everything, no matter how much we try to insulate ourselves. You could stay in bed all day, but you may be one of the half-million people who require emergency room treatment each year for injuries sustained while falling out of bed. You could shut your windows, but that may make you one of the ten people each year who accidentally hang themselves on the cords of their venetian blinds. If you’re looking for safety, you’ve picked the wrong species. Everything is risky. Our fears will never go away.

Fear of not being good enough and of not surviving are strong deterrents, aren’t they? No one likes to be a failure. But failure is not an event; it’s a judgment about an event. And we control that judgment. Ortberg tells the story that before Jonas Salk developed a vaccine for polio that finally worked, he tried two hundred unsuccessful ones. Somebody asked him, “How did it feel to fail 200 times?” Salk said, “I didn’t fail 200 times. I just discovered 200 ways not to vaccinate for polio.” Failure is how to choose to see something. When we contemplate taking the risk to grow and strengthen our faith, to make the most of the breaths we’ve been given, the worst failure is not to sink in the waves. The worst failure is never getting out of the boat. Jesus is not in the boat. Jesus is out on the water. To try and succeed, that is glorious. To try and not succeed, that is painful. But it is not failure. Failure is not trying at all.

The Hospice patients have a valuable lesson to teach us here. In many ways they have failed. Their bodies have failed, the medical treatments have failed, every effort to extend their lives have failed. One person who had previously survived cancer said, “If I survived that, what else was there to fear? I understand now that most of what I fear isn’t going to happen anyway. Our fears are usually not related to what really happens to us.” In other words, our fears don’t stop us from dying; they stop us from living.

There’s a cost to getting out of the boat. You have to risk something. As the saying goes, “No sense waiting for your ship to come in if you haven’t sent one out.” And there’s a chance that you will take a risk and it won’t pan out, that you’ll start to sink like Peter. And yet, when he did, there was Jesus, ready to pull him up, to save him from his own fears. There’s a reason that God or Jesus or the angels always greet people in the Bible by saying, “Do not be afraid.” That’s because fear is the number one reason people avoid doing what God calls them to do.

What’s keeping you in your boat? What’s your reason for not risking more, for not stepping out in faith? Being willing to take risks means we choose to believe that God is with us during the storms, and that we choose to live our lives free from fear. Yes, we will doubt. Yes, we may sink at times. But by choosing faith over fear, we are daring to put our trust in the God who stills all storms, the God who calls us out of the boat and into the risky life of faith put into action each and every day. If you get out of the boat, there’s a chance you’ll sink. But if you stay in the boat, there’s a 100% chance you won’t walk on water. Maybe the lesson to be learned from the Hospice patients can be best summarized by the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said, “Do not go where the path may be. Go instead where there is no path, and make a trail.”


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