Sylvania United Church of Christ
Claimed by God, Responding as Disciples
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The sermon for week August 10, 2014

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Fail Forward

Christianity is a shocking religion, although many of us have managed to protect ourselves from its message. As I understand it, Christianity makes the shocking claim that love wins, forgiveness is the hardest yet most powerful thing you can do, and reconciliation and justice go hand-in-hand. More shocking still, Christianity then attempts to do the impossible and live this out.

This morning I will speak about how we must attempt the impossible and why it is vital that we fail at it.

Last weekend I was at Pilgrim Hills for confirmation camp. It was awesome! Teens asking big questions, running around in the woods, playing games, talking about God, Jesus and life. If I have to spend a weekend away from my family and my church family, that’s a great way to spend it.

The first full day of camp, we did a low ropes course. It’s a series of team building exercises. I witnessed a group of strangers-- teens from different churches, families, and such come together in a remarkable way. They aced all of their games, they learned each other’s names, and they bonded as a team. It was remarkable. The teens must transport a tennis ball using a ring connected to a whole bunch of strings. Each person holds a string and they must work together or the ball will fall. At first, the ball fell off a lot. But soon, they were weaving through trees, over picnic tables, and setting the ball down on top of road cones.

The instructor was very impressed. “A team of adults couldn’t do this in a week. This is the best team I’ve seen all summer, and I’ve been doing this for 7 weeks! I am going to give them an impossible task.”

He had everyone hold an edge of a tarp. And he placed the tennis ball in the tarp. Then he had them throw the ball up and catch it; first just up and down without dropping, then for 5 times in a row, then up in the air for 3 seconds, then 5, then with a quarter turn. It took a little bit, but once the teens got the hang of it, they were able to accomplish these tasks.

Then he gave them the impossible task: Throw the ball up in the air, flip the tarp over, and catch the ball. They must have tried for 15 minutes. We adults were tired of them trying and tried to get them to move onto the next thing. But the teens-- they kept at it. They stayed where they were until the task was completed.

Jesus stays where he is too. He sends his disciples away in their boat while he dismisses the crowds and spends some time alone in prayer. In the early hours of the morning, when the disciples are still far from land and being battered by the wind and waves, Jesus comes strolling out over the water.

Jesus is doing the impossible. And the disciples in the boat start freaking out. I mean, the disciples’ situation is perilous before Jesus arrives. But they seem okay. Then Jesus shows up on the water, and everyone freaks out. Who does this? Who just walks on water? Is he a trickster? A magician? An evil spirit? The answer suggested by Matthew’s account is even more disturbing than that: Jesus is exercising a prerogative that belongs to God alone. When God speaks, things happen: waters move, earth is formed, the world is brought into being and everything in it. When he speaks, the storm quiets. Who can walk here with such authority and freedom?

God is given that credit. Trust in God and God alone, God is the mighty fortress, God will lead you beside still waters, and God’s rod and staff will comfort you. Jesus even says “Do not be afraid.” Every time God shows up in the Bible, or sends an angel on God's behalf, the first words out of God's mouth are "Do not be afraid." 365 times this phrase appears in the Bible, one for each day of your life. Yet Jesus is doing this stuff that God alone can do. He’s saying the very phrase that God says, or God’s messengers say, “Do not be afraid.” This is impossible!

I picture the disciples huddled in the boat. They can’t believe their eyes. We can’t believe this story! I mean, we’ve been to the lake. We’ve been to Plummer Pool or Olander Park. We’ve seen people do cannon balls into the water, not take leisurely strolls over it.

But then there’s Peter. Peter is inspired and he wants to do what Jesus is doing, but he’s nervous about it. “Lord, if you command me…” And he steps out of the boat. And for a little bit, he’s doing the impossible! He’s walking on water. But then he gets distracted, and he starts to sink.

Jesus reaches out and catches Peter and says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” I’ve heard people say that phrase so many ways. In my mind, it’s a strong, commanding and somewhat accusatory tone, “WHY did you Doubt?!” But now, after being a parent for some time and coaching my children in doing things I know they can do, but they don’t know they can do, I hear Jesus sound more like a patient father. “Oh, Peter… you were doing it! Why did you stop?”

I think this means that the bigger the idea, the bigger the goal, the more people either dismiss it or get excited about it. I get excited about the idea that love wins, forgiveness is the hardest yet most powerful thing you can do, and reconciliation and justice go hand-in-hand. But I have friends who love to poke holes in these ideas, they just can’t believe it. And I couldn’t believe that those teens were ever going to throw up a tennis ball, flip a 10x10 tarp and catch the ball. They couldn’t throw it straight enough or high enough for everyone to get their act together to do it.

And it’s why so many scholars doubt Jesus ever walked on water. It’s impossible.

But I’m more inclined to believe. I didn’t used to be, but now I’m starting to get it. I’m starting to see impossible things being done. I see how love wins the day time and time again. How crazy hard and yet worth it forgiveness is. I have forgiven my father after 26 years, and nothing has changed yet everything has changed. And bringing people together, from all walks of life and showing them that they aren’t as different as they assume… Yeah, I have experienced that. And I have saw it this past weekend at camp.

Those teens did the impossible. They threw the ball up high, they flipped the tarp, and the ball came down and one young man caught it in his hands.

“WE DID IT!” They shouted.

But we adults still couldn’t believe it. I mean, didn’t we say “throw the ball up in the air, flip the tarp over, and catch the ball?”

“Yeah,” the teens replied. “But you never said who or what had to catch the ball.”

“Are you satisfied with this?” the instructor asked.

Their shouts were our answer. YES!

Peter is the one man who tries to do what Jesus does. He is the hero of this story. He tries his best to imitate Christ, and he fails at it. But he’s closer than those who did nothing. Those teens didn’t do the task as I envisioned it, but they were closer than I was because they were doing it, not doubting it.

There are so many churches out there who are playing it small. They are staying in the boat. But I want to be a part of a church that is doing things now that other churches will be doing in 15 years. If we say we want to eradicate poverty in Lucas County in 5 years, which according the Census Bureau stands at 20.5% and we knock it in half, that’s still pretty awesome! That’s something!

Or if we want to make sure that an algae bloom never again threatens the drinking water of our city… or because we experienced a short-term inconvenience maybe that wakes us up to the millions of people who don’t have easy access to clean water. What if we could turn it into an act of compassion and make sure everyone on this planet has access to clean, drinkable water? Many would say these things are impossible.

But they aren’t doing, they are doubting.

It is better to try and fail than to stay in the boat. With our eyes on Jesus, we can walk on water, we can do the impossible. Jesus asks us to step out in faith. And when we fail, that we keep failing forward.

That is how the kingdom of God shall come. When we fail forward into the life of Christ.

Works Cited
Lucas County Census stats can eb found here:

More Resources
Info about water:

Short Video about water;

The Economist on extreme poverty:

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