“Get Out of the Boat: John Lewis and the Bridge” by Vicar A.J. Houseman
Mike Breen, in his book, “Building a Discipling Culture”, talks about Monty Roberts, who is a horse trainer. His father was a horse trainer as well. And Monty studied his father’s traditional style of “breaking” a horse as tying the horse to a post and scaring the horse repeatedly with a blanket until the horse’s spirit broke and the master could then control the horse in any way that they wanted.
Monty, after studying how a wild stallion would join a herd, employed a new revolutionary model to horse training: challenge and invitation. When a stallion wishes to join a herd it would go to the lead mare, who would assume a challenge position towards the stallion. The stallion would then go into a submissive position, and then the mare would turn, expose her flank, and form an invitational position. Then the stallion would take a couple of steps closer and then the mare would go back to facing the stallion in challenge. The whole process would repeat over and over until the two horses were touching. And from there the stallion was admitted into the herd.
Mike Breen says, in this same way Jesus leads his disciples with a mixture of this challenge and invitation. In the Gospel of John when he calls the disciples, we hear Jesus say to them “come and see”. This is his invitation and also his challenge. His dare for Andrew and Simon Peter to come closer and to learn and possibly be transformed by what following Jesus would mean. The gospel of John goes on to say that next he calls Philip and Nathanael in the same way. Daring them to “come and see”.
What is this challenge that Jesus is inviting his disciples into? And inviting all of us into over and over again in the gospels?
Take our story of Peter walking on water from this morning. “Jesus said ‘Come’, and Peter got out of the boat and started walking on water.” Jesus said “come.” It is an invitation and also a challenge to Peter. A DARE. In this moment Peter has a decision to make: to follow or stay within the comforts of the boat. To accept Jesus’ challenge of the possibilities of miracles if he follows OR the safety and security of staying right where he is.
Because a dare always comes with risks and usually a little bit of fear. What are Peter’s risks? What is it that he is afraid of? In this particular instance, drowning is probably one. A physical risk. Looking like a fool might be one. Failing himself or failing Jesus might be another. What would you do? If you were in Peter’s shoes, would you follow or stay in the boat?
I am an analytical person and often struggle in dares like this. I would be the person that would be like, “Jesus is it cold? How deep is it? 5 ft? 25 ft? What is your CPR certification like just in case this doesn’t work out?” This fear and unwillingness to take on the dare of the gospel is something that I have always struggled with and that many of us struggle with: being confined by our fears.
In 1965, there were three marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, the state’s capital, for African Americans in that state to exercise their constitutional right to vote. The first march took place on March 7th and at the county line on that famous bridge, the marchers were met by state troopers who attacked them with clubs and tear gas.
Standing on that bridge along with Dr. King and a many other Civil Rights Movement leaders was the recently deceased, Representative John Lewis. Standing 100 feet above the Alabama River when they first saw the troopers, Hosea Williams turned to John Lewis and asked him, “Can you swim?”.
This question is more than mere banter. This question is laced with fear, doubt, and assessing the risks that are in the murky waters that lay ahead. “If you are going to step forward, Mr. Lewis, if you are going to get out of the safety of the boat, are you prepared for what comes next?”
I’m pretty sure I have said this to you before, maybe just in one of our digital worships, but one of the most important and profound things that anyone has ever said to me was, “sometimes you have to be uncomfortable to be in the right place.”
The challenge of the Gospel is to love, to love all and to love fiercely. To shine a light of hope into this world. To fight for justice and peace. And to accept the challenge of the Gospel in 2020, especially in the midst of all the chaos, a pandemic, and violence that we experience and see on the news, is nothing short of terrifying. Because living out this radical love of Jesus can sometimes be very uncomfortable and can take us to scary places. But remember... in order to walk on water, in order to experience the miracles of the gospel, you first have to get out of the boat.
If John Lewis, and others on that bridge were not willing to step out of the comforts of the boat, they would have never walked on water. They would have never secured safe voting rights for people in Alabama. They would have never gone on to continue this work of justice that we fondly remember them for. The world would be a different place if not for the courage of those who came before us.
What are the things that God may be calling you to step out of your comfort zone to be able to follow Jesus into? And what are your fears that keep you in the boat?
The same way Jesus looked at Peter and said, “come” is the same way Jesus both invites and challenges us into the work of the gospel. The work of sharing hope, sharing love, and striving for peace and justice in our world. To continue the work that Jesus started, the work that Jesus showed us and gave his life for.
We each face challenges that fill us with fear. Fear of sinking, fear of drowning.
There’s one more very important piece to this story because it’s not just that Peter had the courage to get out of the boat because what happened next? He started to sink! The important piece is what comes next…
Jesus. Jesus grabbed his hand and pulled him back up out of the water. When we sink, Jesus is there.
On March 7th, they did not make it across that bridge into Montgomery county. But the fear did not keep them under. They tried again. And again. They were pulled up out of that water to safety and with the grace of God they had the courage to try again.
Getting out of the boat is only step one. This invitation and challenge from Jesus is a tall glass. The second step is up to Jesus. It is that Jesus will always be there with a hand when you need him the most.
One of my favorite Bible verses is from 2nd Timothy 2:13 “If we are unfaithful, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself.” Jesus will always show up. Even in our doubt, our sinking, our fear, and our failures. Jesus stretches out his hand to us. To try again. To chart uncomfortable waters. To be our courage when we have lost it ourselves.
This Jesus, our Jesus, will give his own strength and his own faith for us to walk on water. You just have to get out of the boat and know that he is with you. Amen.
Our reflection song today is Oceans, by Hillsong United.
A second reflection song to further reflect on the victory in Selma: