9-August-2020 / Matthew 14:22-33
Let us pray. May I speak in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
It is good to be back in the church where my mother’s favourite minister preaches. Our business now is True North.
Throughout the manse I have all sorts of motivational quotes taped to the walls. Many of you have seen them. Quotes like:
1. “Be regular and orderly in your life, like a good bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work,” -Flaubert
2. “Sang, Sunday is over, Sunday is coming. You cannot compete in past defeats and victories. Sunday is coming.”
3. And this crowd pleaser: “Something good is just about to happen.” Although I doubt its veracity on any given Sunday.
Today marks our reopening and maiden voyage after the lockdown in the midst of this serious storm of COVID 19 days. And how apposite is this quote that I have taped on my laptop: Endure, wait out the storm and try again. It matches well with today’s lectionary passage.
Today’s very famous and therefore over-exposed story about Peter’s brief walk on the water appears only in the Gospel according to Matthew, Mark includes the story about Jesus coming across the sea and calming the storm, John uses an even shorter version of it, and Luke leaves it out altogether. The 3 Gospel writers who tell the story agree that it followed the feeding of the 5000 and that Jesus’ calming of the storm was a miracle worked for the disciples alone – a very unusual occurrence in the New Testament.
But only Matthew mentions Peter, which may be why this version of the story is the most popular one. There is something so appealing about Peter: brash but humble enough to know that he is brash. Passionate, seriously committed, rushing headlong into things, saying what the others are only thinking and doing what the other would not dare. We all have known someone like this in our lives.
Peter is Jesus’ first disciple, and clearly, one of his favourites. When Jesus hikes to the Mount of the Transfiguration later on in Matthew, Peter is one the 3 disciples whom he asks to go with him. He says very many stupid things because he says very many human things.
Yet, it is hard not to love Peter. For all great men are flawed. Sure he talks a better game than he can put up, but still there is something so sincere about him, so authentic, so achingly familiar. He is full of faith one minute and full of doubt the next, riding high one moment and lying in the dirt the next. But he is not a FAKE. Because he is YOU. He is ME. Peter is US.
By peeling away the crowd, the other 11 disciples, and leaving the optics trained on Peter and Peter alone, Matthew puts a frame on just one individual and steps away from the camera. By leading us to this deeply personal, existential moment, Matthew is showing us how each of us are in our own spiritual journey called the Christian life. Thus to say that following Jesus is a matter of life and death is not mere hyperbole, it is AUTOBIOGRAPHY. As Aristotle points out in his brilliant and enduring book, Poetics, in any good story the hero or the heroine wants one thing and one thing only. What is this one thing?
In the passage, Peter says, “Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on water.”
Now that is a strange thing to say. Why not say, “Lord, if it is you, make this storm stop right now?” But this is not what Peter says. Rather, “Lord, if it is you, bid me come to thee.” What a strange thing to say! Bid me come to where you are. Let me join you on the water. Show me that what you can do, I can do, if only you tell me to. Take away my doubt. Make me have faith. Peter is saying, I would rather have Jesus in the midst of this storm for I know that it IS the safest place to be.
But Peter begins to sink. And like Peter, perhaps because we are Peter, we begin to sink. Why do I doubt? Why can’t I trust God? Why don’t I have more faith? I believe I am in God’s hands and that they are good hands, but then I lose my job and cannot find another, The IVF keeps turning up NEGATIVE. You lose a baby, a teenage son in a car accident, my savings disappear, your sister get sick, you cannot pay the rent and living with the fear of eviction, my faith goes with them and I begin to sink.
It seems that the storm will never end. I believe that God is present and active in the world, but terrible things keep happening. I believe in life after death and a bright future with God, but then I get sick and the doctor says 6 maybe 9 months. Brain tumour. Being furloughed becomes being laid off. That boutique restaurant that was once your dream of turning into 1 Michelin Star, maybe 2, Maybe even 3! will now have to close forever because of the pandemic. Abbreviated. I pray for a miracle but no miracle comes, and the waves keep crashing. I begin to sink.
Why do we doubt? Because we are afraid. Because we are afraid of abandonment. Because the sea is so vast and we are so small. Because the storm is so powerful and we are so easily sunk. Because life is so beyond our control and we are so helpless in its grip. You board a plane one minute then all of sudden you plane is shot down by a bunch of thugs using a surface-to-air missile backed by the Russian Government. All gone. All gone. Nobody on board that plane flying over Ukraine expected to die that day. Why do we doubt? Because we are afraid, EVEN when we DO have faith. Because we DO have faith, you know. We do not have NONE. We have some. Like Peter, like your minister, we have a little, and a little is better than nothing, even though there are times when it does not seem enough to save us.
Jesus calls Peter a “person of little faith,” one who becomes fearful in the face of crisis. In Matthew’s gospel, the disciples are referred to as being “people of little faith” no less than 5 times.
Today’s story graphically depicts what it means to be a Christian caught midway between FAITH and DOUBT because to believe in the saving power of Jesus is to take a risk. Because FAITH is not a possession but an activity – like a song that disappears when we stop singing.
I have said to all of you that I have never doubted Jesus. I have never doubted that he is the ultimate being of the Trinity and the Son of God. I have never doubted the power of his resurrection and his all surpassing beauty.
Yet, the Church of Scotland is losing something like 2.5 million pounds a year and people don’t come to church anymore. Lord, where are you leading us?
Many of you do not know this about me. I shared it with someone I know during a conversation some months ago. Perhaps my own family does not know this about me either for it was not acceptable to indulge in one’s weaknesses in the society in which I grew up but I used to get these terrible anxiety attacks as a child. It began around when I was 8 or so and it stopped completely when I was 12. It used to happen only in a very specific setting when I was in the shopping mall in a Macy’s or Sears or Bloomingdale’s and the overhead speakers would come on with that voice and it would say: Attention shoppers, the store will be closing in 30 minutes. Please bring all your items for purchase to the counter. And I would be mortified. Panic would set in. I would become frantic looking about for the EXIT. Maybe my parents had made their exit and were waiting for me outside. It was all very irrational. What was that all about? Abandonment. I was afraid that I would be abandoned. Looking back now, it does not take a genius to figure out that I felt like an abandoned child at a shopping centre.
As I said before, I can relate to Elon Musk when he says running Tesla is like getting up each morning and eating glass and staring into the abyss.
It is the kind of comment you hear in any shopping mall: ‘You go on ahead: I’ll catch up with you later.’ These were the words of Jesus as he sends his disciples off across the Sea of Galilee in a boat. ‘You go on ahead: I’ll catch up with you later.’
It was Goethe who said, Give me the benefit of your convictions, if you have any; but keep your doubts to yourself, for I have enough of my own.
But the story today implies if you want to be close to Jesus, you have to venture forth out on the sea, you have to prove his promises through trusting his promises, eat some glass and stare into the abyss for a while. To risk our very LIVES at the risk of abandonment. Indeed, in my experience, it is only when the student is ready that the teacher appears.
Are we not like Peter? He gets out of the boat but soon, his eyes were diverted to the wind, to the storm, to the size of the waves; and he sank. And so it is with us so often in our lives; rather than focusing on the eyes of Jesus, the face of Jesus, the Presence of Jesus, we focus on the storm which is raging in our lives and we start to sink…because we are focusing on the storm rather than on the saving Presence of God in our lives.
When we turn our attention back to Jesus, then we have a better chance of seeing what God is up to. Where the story starts to get strange is at the point where Jesus identifies himself to the disciples to calm their fears. “It’s me,” he says. But the phrase that Matthew uses here is more than a mere greeting. Jesus uses a phrase that in the Greek Scriptures, both old and new means so much more than “Alright old chaps, It’s just me!” The Greek phrase here is Ego Eimi, which is the same identifying phrase that God uses in the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, when Moses asks for God’s name.
This changes everything in terms of how we now see ourselves in this story. In Jesus, the great “I AM” has come to dwell with us and for us, whether we are tossed about on the seas or hungry on the hillside, whether we are in the boat or out of the boat.
And here is the good news for us this morning as pointed out by Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor. They were alone and afraid in the darkness of the night adrift on a bottomless sea… and then Jesus came. Let that thought sink in for a moment. Everything was wrong… and then Jesus came. Do you hear these four words?
• The woman taken in adultery cringed on the ground hiding her face. The people in the crowd picked up stones to put her to death… and then Jesus came.
• The disciples gathered in the upper room hiding behind locked doors for fear of the Jews… and then Jesus came.
Do you hear that? Do you hear the power? Do you hear the story of life being told?
• His gambling debts were killing him. His life was going down the tube… and then Jesus came.
• The burdens of knowing who she was overwhelming. Her church told her that Christians “hate the sin but love the sinner”. She felt rejected all the same. The self-loathing was too great. The pills were already in her hand… and then Jesus came.
• He had hit a good patch in his life. Overcame some personal things. Got a good job with a social purpose. Had raised a family his father could be proud of. Then He was laid off… and then Jesus came.
Do you hear the voice of Jesus? Do you understand what’s being said? The story of your life is being told. It’s the story of your life, your struggle, your hurt, your fear, your anxiety, your pain. It’s all there. Listen to your life.
Peter’s story is our story. The truth about us is more complicated. The truth about us is that we obey and fear, we walk and sink, we believe and doubt. But it is not like we do only one or the other. We do BOTH. Our faith and our doubt are NOT mutually exclusive. They both exists in us as the same time, lifting us up and bearing us down, giving us courage and feeding our fears, supporting our weight on the wild seas of our lives and sinking us like stones.
I do not need to remind all of you that you are sitting in the “nave” of the building — a word whose origins come from the Latin navis which means “boat” or “ship”. The “ship” we are in is not intended to stay tied up to the dock but to set forth into the world to live out that FAITH despite the CRASHING waves. In a few minutes many of you will walk back outside in order to face a pit or swim through the waves.
Some weeks ago, I felt a sense of quiet devastation as it dawned on me that I will not be able to visit New Jersey this year given what is happening all around us.. Sometimes God makes us feel that SINKING feeling. And yet. And still. And then. I heard the voice of my Lord say, “Here I am. Do not be afraid.”
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God.