This sermon was preached at Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church in Mountain Brook, AL.
Let’s face it, there are some scary things happening in the world today — The dramatic escalation of the rhetoric between our country and North Korea. An epidemic of depression and addiction among our young people.
And the disturbing reports out of Charlottesville VA of white supremacists marching with torches Friday night, and the ensuing violence as protestors and counter-protestors clashed yesterday.
How are we as Christians to faithfully respond in light of the divisiveness and anxiety we are experiencing in this country and the world? Some of our cultural responses are quite unhealthy—shifting blame to the “other” as the source of our fear; masking fear with alcohol or drugs or numbing ourselves with social media.
We have so many reasons to be afraid. In today’s Gospel, Peter is a symbol of being afraid in the midst of the chaos. Like Peter, we are experiencing these fears where it feels like the place on which we had hoped to stand, is just not there.
How do we personally and as a body of Christian people, begin to act on this faith that is calling to us, like Jesus is calling to Peter? Peter has something to teach us about how to respond.
I want to share a little context about our passage from Matthew (Mt. 14:22-33). It immediately follows the feeding of the 5,000. Jesus commands the disciples to go into the boat without him so he can dismiss the crowds and pray by himself.
The disciples are commanded to go out to sea. As you probably know, there is much Biblical symbolism in the sea—it is the locus of evil and chaos, and mystery. Only God has control over the sea.
Peter and the others were violently tossed about. This must have been a terrifying experience. The harrowing lasted nearly all night.
Finally, Jesus comes to them—in a form that scares them even more.
In our NRSV translation, Jesus says, “Take heart. It is I.” Many other translations interpret the Greek to be, “Take courage. It is I.”
My friends, it takes courage to have faith. Courage to believe in the face of overwhelming odds. Courage to believe God cares or even exists. Sometimes, it takes courage to pray.
THERE ARE STORMS WHIPPING UP AROUND US—words of war, racial tensions broken open reminiscent of the 60’s, and many other struggles.
It would be easy to be discouraged, but Jesus compels us to take courage. Oftentimes we would rather stay in the boat and just tremble. OR sit in the boat talking about how crazy Peter is. Taking courage looks like leaving the relative safety of the boat, and walking into the chaos, trusting we are not alone.
Both Mark and Matthew’s Gospels include this story of Jesus walking on water. In Mark’s version, the disciples don’t understand who Jesus REALLY is, because their hearts were hardened.
Only Matthew’s version includes the exchange between Peter and Jesus. In Matthew, Peter gets it. PETER KNOWS WHO JESUS REALLY IS.
Listen closely to Peter’s response to Jesus. “Lord, IF it is you..” Did you hear that? Inherent in his response is questioning. “IF it is you command me to come to you…”
And Jesus does. Peter begins to be like Jesus, walking on water. Notice how Peter asked Jesus to bring him closer to Jesus, not for Jesus to come to him. Also, Peter asked to do what Jesus was doing— to walk on water. If we are going to get closer to Jesus, we have to model our lives after his.*
Faith in Jesus means—praying like Jesus, loving like Jesus, forgiving like Jesus, speaking like Jesus, giving sacrificially of ourselves—like Jesus.
SO IN THIS TIME OF OVERWHELMING EXISTENTIAL FEAR AND ANXIETY, HOW ARE WE AS CHRISTIANS TO RESPOND? Jesus is inviting us to trust him. What does that mean? What is he inviting us to?
I hope you will pray with those questions. Let me assure you, your preacher does not have all of the answers. That is one of the gifts of doing this in community. Each of us is made in the image of God, given the Indwelling Spirit of God. Each of us has a unique relationship with God and a unique wisdom. I welcome a conversation about what comes to you in prayer.
In the meantime, here are four scripturally based suggestions:
First, Be mindful of LANGUAGE—Our words have the power to destroy and the power to build up (Proverbs 12:6). A lot of the turmoil we are experiencing is a result of the violence that is a part of the rhetoric of our time. In words, we are being so violent.
I’m talking about the words that we speak, the words we write on social media, even the words we think. We must be vigilant in not participating in perpetuating an environment of violence. We must not be complicit in language that incites hate. Words matter.
Second, FORGIVE. When we live in a zero-sum world where there have to be winners and losers. Everyone loses. Rather than a spirit of superiority and dominance, Jesus calls us to a spirit that seeks to carry the possibility of reconciliation and healing.
So much of the hurt and suffering that is out there is caused by people who just don’t know what they were doing. They would not say these things or do things if they were in their right mind. Many are reacting from great hurt and pain.
I am not suggesting we condone violent, belligerent, or any kind of sinful behavior. We are held accountable for what we do. But the spirit that is like unto the spirit of Jesus always looks for more than punishment. It looks for a path toward reconciliation.
The best modern day example of this is Bishop Tutu—reconciliation that held people accountable, but always for our common deliverance for victims and perpetrators. For Jesus there are no winners and losers. Christ sees us all perfect. Everything is grace.
The Church has its mission to think and act and witness to a redemptive kind of relating to one another. Do we dare to voice this unconditional love that looks beyond all of the brokenness?
Third, if we want to understand more of what Jesus is calling forth from us in this time, we must have a REGULAR AND RIGOROUS PRAYER LIFE. I once heard a a personal trainer say, “There are so many ways to exercise, just choose one you love and be faithful to it.” That is true of prayer too.
There are so many ways to pray. We can read Scripture, or pray with beads, or say mantras while running or turn off the radio and plead with God on the way to work. At the center of all prayer is a lifting of our heart to God. Our job is to take time to consent to God’s presence and action within us. Like any relationship, our relationship with God requires time and attention.
I encourage you to recommit to a faithful prayer life, and pray for those you deem to be your enemy.
Fourth, develop a relationship with someone or a group of people who thinks differently than you, believes differently than you, lives differently. Barriers break down through relationship.
When Peter began to walk on the water, he became afraid. That is when he started to sink. It is a natural response. And in his fear, Peter cries out for help. Frequently, we interpret this exchange as Peter failing the faith test. What if we were to push back on that reading and instead, see how much good Jesus can do, even with a little faith?
Remember, later in Matthew Jesus tells us that if we only have the faith of a mustard seed, we can move mountains. Also later in Matthew Jesus identifies Peter-faith-wavering Peter, as the rock of the church.
We are invited to take even our smallest kernel of faith and courageously follow Jesus.
Look at Peter—Jesus LOVED Peter, did not expect perfection from Peter—just faith and following.
The revelation of God in the chaos may not come in the time we desire—that storm lasted a long time for the disciples. Or in the form we desire. You know they weren’t hoping for a water-walking ghost.
But, if we continue to move toward Jesus, and follow him we will have an experience of the risen Christ in the midst of our storms. And, we will be the Church that fulfills Christ’s mission.
I pray we will have the courage to have faith, that Jesus is with us in the storms, to live out our faith and bravely follow in the way of Jesus. We as Christians have an important voice in the conversation.
Jesus asks not our perfection—only a mustard seed of faith. Yes, we will forget. We will sink under the waters of our doubts. Still, take heart! Take courage! God can make miracles with the smallest of seeds. Thanks be to God. Amen
Notes– I am grateful to the following for their influence on this sermon
* Michael Renninger http://asermonforeverysunday.com/sermons/a38-tenth-sunday-pentecost-year/
Sarah Dylan Brewer http://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2005/08/proper_14_year_.html
The Rev. Joe Elmore, retired Methodist Minister and beloved friend.