Get Out of the Boat – an excerpt from Bishop Susan’s Charge to Synod

We are in the middle of the Gospel of Matthew (14:22-33) and we pick up the action after Jesus has just fed a multitude. He’s gone to pray apart from them and he sends the disciples on ahead of him to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. And that’s where things get dicey. There was a storm. Now keep in mind these were experienced fisherman — and they were struggling with this storm all night, so it must have been bad. They were exhausted, depleted. And they were just trying to get to the other side to meet Jesus — to rest and to safety. 

And to top it all off, they think they see a ghost and that’s confusing. You see, the sea was a fearful place in biblical times — it was the provider of sustenance but at the risk of death. And to see Jesus come walking across the waves that had defeated them all night must have been unsettling.

And then Peter, seeing and hearing that it’s Jesus, steps out of the boat. And we have to ask why? Step into a storm — onto water? But scholars tell us that this is simply Peter acting like a typical disciple — wanting to be where his teacher was — doing what his teacher was doing. So here’s the thing: I doubt Peter expects a walk on the sea in a storm is going to solve all his fears.

When he steps out of the boat, he enters a tumult — chaos. He chooses to risk walking on an unfamiliar surface. It’s clear that his motive isn’t to escape from danger, that’s for sure. Peter is entering the danger but with one difference — he enters with Jesus.

Peter goes into a situation where the threats then look different. He goes into a place where Jesus is defying the chaos and reordering everything. 

All the things Peter thinks he knows — the way things are — or aren’t — all the old impossibilities — Jesus reorders it all — all those assumed limits. He’s walking on water for crying out loud! Ever try that? Yeah, no. Because you can’t. Not unless apparently, you do it in the power of Jesus. 

And we can see that Peter believes that. He willing to risk his life for that belief. He gets out of that boat and goes. I mean it looks incredibly dangerous but you have to admire the bravery don’t you? You have to admire the fact that he tries. But he was overwhelmed by the rational impossibility of what is — the fact that people can’t walk on water because they will drown. And he sinks but not before crying out —“Lord! Save me!” And of course — of course — Jesus does. And then he says: “you of little faith, why did you doubt?” 

Why did you doubt; doubt me, doubt yourself? Why?

Once safe back in the boat, I think it’s fair to say that the disciples realized that everything is different now — because of Jesus. Because Matthew clearly depicts Jesus as the Lord over all of creation — even to the point of mastery over nature, the deeps, the chaos, drowning and death. 

Isn’t that where we find ourselves in the church? Doubting Jesus and doubting ourselves? Well, no wonder. It’s stormy out there. So I want to talk to you about that storm just for a bit. 

You know all about it on one level — because you’re in the midst of it. I daresay every parish in this diocese is experiencing the same general trends because the church across the whole of the western hemisphere is experiencing these trends. You may have already seen the latest study of the trends in the Anglican church of Canada and it is sobering.

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There’s a decline in attendance numbers, the ageing of our core demographic, the changeable attendance patterns of those who are there, coupled with a reduction in revenue — which of course, has an impact on the number of ministries and programs — and on the clergy, licensed lay workers and staff to lead them. Add to that deferred maintenance on many of our beautiful but ageing buildings and the external — often government-mandated — pressures of compliance with various regulations, … I could go on, but you all know the details of this situation. 

Added to that, we’re in the midst of a turbulent time in our culture — when all the old norms and customs are shifting, or just don’t seem to make sense at all. We live in a time of gaslighting and fake news and the resurgence of the extreme right; in a time of technological brilliance but also a time of anxiety as that same technology remolds our society; we live in a time of climate anxiety. We live — in a time of incredibly fast-moving change.

In the midst of all this, we are the church — people who believe in the eternal and stable, love of God for all of humanity and for creation. 

However, change does affect the church — just as it has affected every other institution in our culture. This is the perfect storm. We are experiencing change in every corner of our church. 

The thing we cannot do is carry on and hope it will all just pass. It won’t. We are living in what sociologists call a time of discontinuous change. When change is constant and unconnected with what came before. Our world is being remade before our eyes. And in the church, that means we are in the midst of a new Re-formation as a result. 

I’m not inured to this as a bishop any more than all of you. Please know that I lose sleep over it too. I stand with you in this perplexing time.

Having said that — and granted I am a glass half full kind of person — but I just can’t see this time as entirely negative. I also think it’s exciting. As much as this is a perplexing and challenging place to be, I think we in Niagara are in an exciting place too — not to mix my metaphors too much — but we are at the same time being buffeted by the waves of the storm as also seeing the green shoots of new growth. There is something profoundly biblical about where we are: in the already and the not yet.

I also want to say to you that if this narrative of the storm tells us anything it tells us that we should expect that God will be found in places where the status quo and predictable endings don’t apply as before.

Incredibly turbulent places are also what Celtic Christians call “thin places,” where we can expect God to break through; where the Lord of Sea and Sky not only calms the storm, but all creation rejoices in the act. And this is where we get the clues for what we are called to in these times. 

This is the new song. You see, the church is called to be in these places of chaos and difficulty. But like Peter, with a difference. Remember why the creation rejoices? Because of Jesus. Because it’s Jesus who’s right there in the midst of that storm calling us out of the boat. 

(a copy of Bishop Susan’s complete charge is available here)