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The Courage to Attempt Something New

July 25, 2010
Sermon:  The Courage to Attempt Something New
Text:  Matthew 14:13-32


I have entitled the message today “The Courage to Attempt Something New” and constructed it around four stories, two of which come from the Gospel of Matthew and two that come from present-day events.  We ordinarily look at the biblical two stories individually, but today I want us to look at them as companion pieces.  They appear back-to-back in the Gospel account, with good reason.

When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place.  Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns.  When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick. 

As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late.  Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”

Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away.  You give them something to eat.”

We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.

“Bring them here to me,” he said.  And he directed the people to sit down on the grass.  Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves.  Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people.  They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over.  The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.


Jesus is grieving when this first story begins.  He has recently learned that John the Baptist has been killed, executed, beheaded.  He wants to go away with his disciples.  They travel the way the disciples know best – by boat – to what the disciples would call “a lonely place,” a place where they were supposed to be alone.  The crowds follow, however, and gather on the far shore.  Instead of turning the multitude away, Jesus has compassion on them, the Scripture says.  He starts to teach and heal those with illnesses. 

Then it is time to eat in that remote place, that deserted place, deserted except for “the five thousand men besides women and children.”  The disciples come to Jesus and say, “This is a lonely place.  Send the crowds away.”  Almost anyone in any helping profession has felt the same as these disciples.  Every school teacher, every social worker, every pastor has felt the need, at one time or another, to “Send the crowds away.”  Jesus does not respond as the disciples have asked.  Instead, he tells these weary men, “You give them something to eat.”    

I am not positive that the crowd was even aware that a miracle had been performed.   Think about the times you have been to a large banquet.  You give very little thought to all of the preparation that has gone into the meal.  When served, you enjoy the food without having worried about any of the details.

Though the crowd is unaware that a miracle has been performed here, the disciples know.  Apparently, this particular miracle made an enormous impression on the disciples.  This particular miracle is the only one recorded in all four Gospels, except for the incarnation and the resurrection. 

Jesus has given his disciples a task that seems utterly impossible.  He has told them to feed the crowd of more than five thousand with a mere five loaves and two fish.  Knowing they could not feed this many people with their own strength, Jesus tells them, “Bring what you have to me.”  He blesses this meager amount of food and breaks it.  Jesus, himself, does not distribute the bread and fish to the crowd.  He returns it to the disciples so that they can do what he has instructed them to do.  Everyone is fed, with food left over and collected in baskets.

Just as Jesus instructed the disciples to do something that seemed impossible to accomplish, Jesus may ask us to complete a task that seems unrealistic.  If so, we must rely on him to provide the way and the strength, and, in this case, to multiply the resources.

Now let us move to the second story in Chapter 14 that follows the miracle of the feeding of the crowd.  Again, the disciples witness an extraordinary miracle.  Matthew’s use of the word “Immediately” at the beginning of this section suggests his desire to emphasize the connection between the two stories.

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 dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray.  When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it. 

During the fourth watch of the night (This would be about 3:00 A.M.) Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake.  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?”

When they climbed into the boat, the wind died down.  Then those who were in the boat worshipped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”


John Ortberg has written a sermon and a book based on this account in Matthew 14.  His book title, If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat, offers some insight regarding the courage needed to attempt something new. 

Some people believe that Simon Peter was foolish, that he attempted something really risky here, something no one should ever attempt.  It is a daring act to be sure.  If you look carefully at the account though, Peter asks and then waits until Jesus responds, “Come on.”  Peter’s step out of the boat onto the water is really an act of obedience.   

Peter has been on the water a long time.  He has spent his life on the water as a fisherman.  He knows all of the physical principles that apply to water.  He knows that if a person tries to walk on water, the person will sink to the bottom.  There before his eyes, he sees his Master walking on the surface of the lake.  This is the same Master who has just recently said, “You can feed five thousand people with a few fish and loaves of bread.”  Peter believes and says, “Lord, if it is really you, let’s take this a step farther.  Bid me to come to you.”  Jesus answers, “Come on.”

Just as Jesus was there to help the disciples feed the multitude, Peter’s Master is there to assist in this endeavor.  It is so amazing that Peter actually walks on the water, though it does not last for very long.  When reminded of the storm, Peter looks down to see how he is doing and then begins to sink.  In the same way that Peter knows he cannot walk on the water in his own strength, he knows he cannot survive the sinking in the lake alone.  He calls out to Jesus, “Lord, save me!”  Jesus reaches out his hand, and together they walk across the surface of the water back to the boat.

Once inside the boat, Jesus makes a comment that is a bit perplexing. Is he addressing Peter when he asks, “You of little faith”?  Peter has shown more faith than all the rest; he, at least, has gotten out of the boat.  Perhaps Jesus is addressing all of the other disciples.  After all, they had remained in the boat.  They had been too afraid to attempt something new.  Maybe “You of little faith” means they lacked courage to try something that seemed impossible. 

I do not want any of you to be foolish.  I do not want you to try something that is foolhardy.  I do want you to know that if the Lord asks you to do something, you need to have the courage to make an attempt. 

Several years ago, a man who had served on our diaconate told me, “I have decided that I am going to sing in the choir.”  I was knocked off my blocks.  I could not imagine that this guy could sing.  If he had hidden talent, I thought he needed to keep it hidden.  This man did join the choir.  He is, in fact, in the choir this morning.  I do not want to tell you who it is, but his initials are Bob Pinson. 

When I talked with Bob and told him that I was going to use his decision to sing in the choir as an illustration, he said, “That’s fine.  Just be sure to say that if Holly Irvin puts you between two people who can sing, you can sing, too.”

Trying something new takes courage.

I listened to Stacy play the violin earlier in the service this morning.  I remember when she was a student in junior high school playing that violin.  She was good then, but my goodness!  What talent she has now!  At some point, this daughter of Tom and Joni Burnette decided that she was going to attempt something that takes a good bit of courage.  You can see the results.

Now, I want to share with you an example from my own life.  Somehow Father’s Day is a time when my children challenge me.  On Father’s Day in the year 2000, Erik told me that I needed to write stories.  I have done that.  This Father’s Day, our sons Scott and Kris, both of whom are artists, agreed, “Dad, you need to paint.” 

I assured them, “I’ve been painting all my life.  I remember painting my Uncle Wesley’s fence all day long in the hot sun.  The boards on that fence were made of rough pine that just drank that paint.  The next day when I went back to finish, the fence looked as if I had not put any paint on the boards.  I painted again and again and again.  I painted that fence about four or five times.  At best, it looked as if it had been whitewashed.  I’ve been painting all my life.”

They said, “No, Dad.  You need to try your hand at painting pictures.”

I said, “I can’t do that.  I’m colorblind.”

“We know you’re colorblind, but you doodle all the time.  Every time you sit down to think, you draw.  You need to try your hand at this.”

So on Father’s Day, I got a few canvases and a few paints.  I sat down and painted my first canvas.  I first had the great idea of turning the double helix into Jacob’s ladder.  I loved the idea and tried to execute it on canvas. 

Kris, who has been named the new Assistant Dean for Studio Art at Wofford, later came by to see my work.  He looked at the canvas and asked, “Do you feel good about it?”

That remark sounds just like a teacher.

I said, “No, I don’t feel good about it!  I feel like a kindergarten kid who has brought something home that might make it to the refrigerator.  I don’t feel good about my painting at all.”

Kris suggested, “Dad, you grew up at a lumberyard.  Why don’t you try painting on wood?  It’s a lot more forgiving.”

“Forgiving” is not a term I would ordinarily apply to painting, but I understand why Kris suggested it.  Wood is a lot more forgiving.  Taking his advice, I have started painting on some pieces of wood called OSB board.  Those of you in the construction business know that OSB is Oriented Strand Board.  I am afraid to say OSB very fast.  I might wind up saying something I do not mean to say. 

I next tried using crosses as my subject.  After finishing two paintings using acrylic paint on strand board, I asked Kris and Scott to look at them.  Remember that I am colorblind.  Kris’ first reaction was, “Dad!  You’ve got such unusual use of color.  Your colors are so vivid.  You need to keep doing this!” 

Scott added, “Dad, I think you have found your thing.  I think you ought to keep painting crosses.” 

Because their reaction was positive enough, I took some pieces of strand board to the beach.  On Thursday, I started five more paintings, using crosses as my subject.  I finished them on Friday.  My entire family looked at them and said, “Dad, you’ve got to keep doing this.  The colors are so vivid, and the subject matter is so unusual.  Your paintings put crosses in places that nobody expects to see them.  They put the cross in the great outdoors, in God’s creation, and take it out of church.”

Trying something new takes a lot of courage.  It takes courage to take a brush, dip it in paint, and put the first stroke on a piece of wood.  It takes courage to sit down at a computer and dare to type the first sentence on a blank screen.  It takes courage to attempt anything new, especially if any part of you believes that what you are doing is for the Lord.

Today in Sunday School, you will receive a survey entitled “How to Multiply Your Ministry.”  This survey asks you what you are willing to attempt for the Lord.  Before you take that survey in hand, I want you to ask God to show you what He wants you to attempt for Him.  I want you to pray, “Lord, give me the courage to believe in You, to take a few loaves of fish and see what You can do to multiply them.”  This is your opportunity to step out of the boat and attempt something that is really risky, to take up a brush and paint, to sing in the choir, to pick up a violin, to do whatever it is the Lord has called you to do.  I believe our Lord calls every single one of us to do something.  He has a place for you and for me. 

Attempting something new does not mean you will not fail.  Thomas Edison made a thousand attempts to invent the light bulb.  When somebody pointed out to him, “You failed a thousand times,” he answered, “No, a thousand times I showed what would not work.”  You may not get what the Lord asks of you right the first time, but you must attempt it.  You must have the courage to try.

Having the courage to attempt what Christ would have us do grows out of our relationship with Christ, our belief that he is the Master, that he can lead us to do what seems impossible.  If you do not have a relationship with Christ, I invite you to accept Jesus as your Savior. 

 Kirk H. Neely
© July 2010

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