Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Still on the Line” (Matthew 14:22-33)
August 13, 2017
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In 1968 legendary songwriter Jimmy Webb wrote a song that many consider one of the best ever written.  He was inspired to write it while driving west on Oklahoma State Highway 152 and seeing hundreds of powerlines, straight out to the horizon, with one solitary lineman hanging all alone at the top of one of the towers.  For Jimmy Webb this image of this solitary man alone on the tower was not only a stark picture of loneliness but also got him wondering what he was thinking about up there, all alone.

Jimmy Webb wrote this song for a specific singer, a young man from Arkansas who was one of a sharecropper’s twelve kids, who could not read music but still went on to become a coveted studio guitarist in Los Angeles and played on such hits as “Strangers in the Night” by Frank Sinatra, “I’m a Believer” by The Monkees and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” by the Beach Boys—the late Glen Campbell.  This song is one of my favorites, and since it was released the year I was born, I do not ever remember not knowing it.  I suspect you will recognize these lyrics:

I am a lineman for the county
And I drive the main road
Searchin’ in the sun for another overload
I hear you singin’ in the wire
I can hear you through the whine
And the Wichita lineman is still on the line
I know I need a small vacation
But it don’t look like rain
And if it snows that stretch down south won’t ever stand the strain
And I need you more than want you
And I want you for all time
And the Wichita lineman is still on the line
(Title track from Glen Campbell’s 1968 album Wichita Lineman)

There are many people who are metaphorically just like that Wichita Lineman—alone at the top of a tower, doing their job, who “need a small vacation,” who are longing for a connection with someone, who are “still on the line.”

Today’s gospel lesson contains a very familiar story about someone else who found himself alone, “still on the line”—Peter walking on the water.  Jesus, having just performed the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, had ordered his disciples to board a boat and cross the lake to the other side while he, as Matthew writes, “went up the mountain by himself to pray.”  The disciples obeyed Jesus, but found themselves in a perilous situation in the middle of a storm on the lake—in “the boat, battered by the waves…far from the land, for the wind was against them.”  This was in the evening, and for several hours the disciples battled this storm, until “early in the morning (Jesus) came walking toward them on the sea” (Matthew 14:22-25).

The disciples were obviously not expecting this.  They were terrified,” thought Jesus was a ghost, and “cried out in fear.”  Matthew notes that Jesus did not stand there for a few minutes to watch the disciples continue to be terrified, but rather “immediately Jesus spoke to them.”  And what did Jesus say to them?  Did Jesus tell the disciples to row harder or to not give up?  Did Jesus tell them, “You’re right—I am a ghost—boo!”  No, Jesus “immediately” spoke words of reassurance—“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid” (14:26-27).

Of course, the disciples are not alone.  Many Christians respond to Jesus’ call to do something, to get into some kind of boat and cross some kind of lake, only to find themselves in the middle of some kind of a wicked storm, “battered by the waves…far from the land” with the wind “against them.”

Some of you have experienced this.  I know I have.  It is tempting in those seasons to think that you must have misheard that call from God, because if you had correctly heard God’s call you would not be in the middle of this storm.  It was not your idea to get into the boat; it was not your idea to cross the lake.  And you did not cause the storm—and yet…there you are…in need of “a small vacation…still on the line.”  If that is you, there is good news for you today, because Jesus’ words to his disciples are his words to you, words of reassurance, words of grace—“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

But Jesus’ words of reassurance and grace were not enough for one of the disciples, Peter, who is not sure it actually is Jesus who has walked on the water and spoken to them.  As the storm continues Peter yells, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”  Jesus gives a simple one-word response, “Come.”  So Peter, the storm still raging, climbs out of the boat and begins walking on the water toward Jesus—so far, so good.  But Matthew notes that Peter begins to focus on the storm instead of the One who has invited him to come to him: Peter “noticed the strong wind,” “became frightened,” and started sinking (14:28-30).  Peter found himself isolated (none of the other disciples got out of the boat with him).  Peter found himself “still on the line.”  As Peter is sinking he does the only thing he can do, he calls out for help, “Lord, save me!”

“Lord, save me!”—Peter’s prayer is to the point.  When you are sinking you do not have time for a longwinded prayer.  How does Jesus respond to Peter’s prayer?  Does Jesus give Peter instructions on how to tread water or how to swim back to the boat?  Does Jesus, from a stance of “tough love” (which is a complete oxymoron) wait for a minute to let Peter hit rock bottom before responding?  No.  Instead, as Matthew tells us, “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him.”  “You of little faith,” Jesus said to Peter, “why did you doubt?” (14:31).

Jesus and Peter then climbed into the boat, and when they did, “the wind ceased” (14:32).  Jesus had taken the initiative to walk on the water to the disciples “battered by the waves…far from the land” with the wind “against them.”  Jesus had spoken words of reassurance to them, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”  Jesus had invited Peter to walk on the water toward him and when Peter was sinking and called out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately caught him.  The storm was now over.  The disciples were now safe.  And how did the disciples respond to all this?  They “worshipped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God” (14:33).

All of this points to Jesus’s death on the cross.  On Good Friday Jesus, as he did after the feeding of the five thousand, went up a different mountain by himself, Calvary, before walking on water through a world caught up in a storm of hate and violence and abuse and racism and sexism and self-absorption and addiction and corruption and greed…you can fill in the blank—and as he prayed alone on the mountain before walking on the water, he prayed alone on the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

Like the Wichita Lineman Jesus was alone at the top of the tower of the cross, and in the same way Jesus reached out his hands to catch Peter when he was sinking into the stormy lake, he reached out his hands to catch a world sinking into sin and death—he reached out his hands to catch you.  After Jesus’ breathing ceased, the centurion standing by the cross echoed the disciples in the boat when “the wind ceased”— “Truly this man was God’s son” (Matthew 27:54).  Why did Jesus do all this?  Because he needs you more than wants you, and he wants you for all time.

Back to the late great Glen Campbell for a moment…on February 12, 2012 CBS News Sunday Morning ran a “Sunday Profile” story about Glen Campbell, who knew he had Alzheimer’s and was in the midst of what he knew would be his final tour and while also recording what he knew would be his final album—both of which are documented in the moving 2014 film I’ll Be Me.  As he begins one concert he smiles to the crowd, “I’m happy to be here.  I’m happy to be anywhere.”

On this tour his three youngest children were in his backup band— Cal on drums, Shannon on guitar, and Ashley on banjo.  CBS journalist Anthony Mason asks Ashley, “What kind of help do you need to give (your dad) out there most?”  Ashley responds, “It helps when I just smile at him.  He looks at me a lot and I just smile at him, and then he looks back at the audience with a little more confidence.”

At one show in Joliet, Illinois they played Campbell’s 1969 hit “Galveston,” and when it was over he started to play it again.  Ashley gently smiles at him, “We just did that one, dad.”  Glen pokes fun at himself and quips, “I ain’t taught ‘em how to follow me yet.”  In other words, throughout his final tour, when Glen Campbell would find himself onstage, sinking into the stormy lake of Alzheimer’s, he would look at Ashley, whose smile silently reassured him, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”  And then he could look back at the audience with a little more confidence.

And incidentally that is what I hope happens to each of you when you worship here at Christ Church, that we can all be Ashley Campbell’s for one another, giving smiles to one another as we all find ourselves in various storms in our lives, smiles that reassure one another that you are not alone and that it is going to be okay.  And even more than that, I hope when you worship here at Christ Church you are reminded in Word and Sacrament of the gospel of God’s grace, which is always good news to people like Peter who need God’s help, people “of little faith.”

One more illustration…Glen Campbell’s final album, Ghost on the Campus, has a beautiful ballad that is a prayer full of hope for people stuck in a storm they did not cause, full of hope for people sinking and in need of God’s help.  The song is called “A Better Place.”  See if you can relate to this:

I’ve tried and I’ve failed, Lord
I’ve won and I have lost
I’ve lived and I have loved, Lord
Sometimes at such a cost
One thing I know
The world’s been good to me
A better place awaits
You’ll see

Some days I’m so confused, Lord
My past gets in my way
I need the ones I love, Lord
More and more each day
One thing I know
The world’s been good to me
A better place awaits
You’ll see

Glen Campbell speaks for all of us—because we have all tried and failed, we have all won and lost, we have all lived and loved “sometimes at such a cost.”  And we all get confused, we all have a past that gets in our way, we all need the ones we love “more and more each day.”  And the gospel is a word of hope because the grace of God assures us that indeed “a better place awaits…you’ll see.”

And even now, Jesus is your Wichita Lineman, who walks out to you in the middle of the storm, who speaks words of reassurance to you—“Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid”—who catches you when you are sinking, who smiles at you onstage, who needs you more than wants you and wants you for all time, who listens to every one of your prayers because he “is still on the line.”