Proper 14a, August 10, 2014

August 11, 2014

The Lurch of Faith
Matthew 14:22-33

22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” 28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

What kind of preacher calls his sermon, The Lurch of Faith? This is probably the most unappealing sermon title I’ve ever come up with, and it may represent a lurch on the part of this preacher, but it’s a line that speaks to me in a significant way. To lurch is to make an abrupt, unsteady, or uncontrolled movement, and I’m thinking that’s a pretty good description of Peter’s action in this story.

I must admit that I’m very influenced in my thinking about Peter’s behavior by a sermon I read that was written by Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, a preacher and writer for whom I’ve grown to have great respect and appreciation. Rev. Taylor points out in her sermon on this text that when Peter sees Jesus walking on the water toward the boat all the disciples were in, he addresses Jesus in a manner that is very similar to the way that satan addressed Jesus when he was tested in the wilderness. Right after Jesus tells the disciples not to be afraid and he identifies who he is, Peter says, Lord, if it is you command me to come to you on the water. It sounds like more of a test for Jesus than an act of faith on the part of Peter.

Now I’m not saying that I would have known how to best respond to the sight of Jesus coming toward me on the water, but I’m not convinced Peter was operating with his highest mind when he said what he said and did what he did.

The more traditional interpretation of this story identifies the response of Peter to Jesus as a powerful expression of faith, and I can go with that line of thinking as well. I can think of Peter’s reaction to Jesus as a bold display of faith, and as a model of how we are all to step out of our comfort zones and on to the unknown waters of discipleship – complete with the proper way to act when our bold efforts fail. But I’m more inclined to think Barbara Brown Taylor is on to something when she identifies the devilish nature of Peter’s request.

She says: We have all got a little bit of devil in us, asking Jesus to prove himself by doing something spectacular for us. We want the burden of proof to be on him, not us. We want him to single us out for special treatment, to let us climb out of the boat and do a solo no one else gets to do – and maybe even get special credit for volunteering to do it (look at him, so brave, so faithful, such a spiritual warrior).

I love the way Rev. Taylor puts things, and the way she finds ways to bring texts to life. I don’t exactly know what Matthew wanted us to glean from this story – and in particular what we are to think of Peter’s adventure on the water, but I think it’s safe to say that what Peter does is not a perfect portrayal of faith. Peter may not have been badly motivated, but this is not the action of a man who had prayerfully considered what he jumped up to do. This was not so much a leap of faith – I’m thinking it was more of a lurch of faith.

And certainly a lurch of faith is better than a lack of faith. We don’t know what Peter was thinking on the front end of this episode, but we are told that at some point he began to think about where he was and what he had done, and at that point the normal forces of nature took charge of the situation. Peter was going down, but he had the good sense to cry out to Jesus, and Jesus saved him.

You might say that Peter became a model of faith – he became a person who knew he needed the hand of Jesus, but I’m not sure he is the best model of faith that we see portrayed in this story. There was another model of discipleship exercised on this boat and it came from the rest of the disciples who quietly stayed in their seats and paid attention to the situation. The other disciples didn’t add to the drama of the situation, but they all experienced the same sense of peace and deliverance that came to Peter.

It may seem odd that a story as supernaturally bold as this one would be a call for us to keep our seats and pay attention, but I’m not seeing that it’s particularly fruitful to simply jump up and do something without a clear sense of purpose. Actually it’s not accurate to say the disciples were just sitting still waiting for something to happen – they had been rowing in the direction that Jesus had instructed them to go all through the night. They weren’t being passive in face of the storm that had arisen, but they didn’t respond to the sight of Jesus approaching on the sea with anything other than reasonable fear and heightened attention.

And I like that. Now, I’m probably a person who is guilty of setting my sights too low, and of harboring overly modest visions, but I have no great love for grand displays of faith. Honestly, my passion is not so much to transform the world but to put together a worship service that makes someone’s life a little more bearable. I’m not out to whip up enthusiasm for the man who was so awesome he could walk on water and calm a turbulent sea, but I do hope to create some curiosity about Jesus in the heart of someone who isn’t seeing much hope coming from anywhere else.

Extraordinary feats of faith just aren’t my thing. I don’t even think it’s essential to believe that Jesus could alter the rules of nature, but I am inclined to believe that Jesus was so determined to reveal the truth of God there wasn’t anything that could prevent him from delivering that message. I don’t know what transpired on that stormy night on the sea in Galilee, but this story leads me to believe that Jesus can calm any storm that may rage in our lives. It also makes me think that in order to experience such calm we will probably need to exercise more patience and consistent effort than to jump up and launch a new initiative.

What jumps out at me from this supernatural story is the calm that came to the rest of the disciples who are hardly even recognized in this story. We know they were terrified. They didn’t know who he was or what was going on in the beginning, but they listened, they believed, and they were blessed. Maybe our calling is not to seek out our own dramatic displays of faith, but to have radical trust that God can come to us regardless of where we may be or what we are having to deal with.

I read a great quote last week by the Buddhist Monk, Thich Nhat Hahn, who is a person who has great love for Jesus as well as for Buddha. He said: The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive.

I think he is speaking to the need for us to pay more attention to the ordinary things we are currently doing than to focus on the extraordinary things we hope to one day do. And I know this is something I need to hear. It’s easy to let the what if’s of life determine what I’m doing in the here and now, and when you give too much attention to the coming crises you spend a lot of time looking for miracle cures. When you forget to pay attention to what you are doing in the moment your life can become defined by one lurch after another.

I’m not particularly qualified to do a psychological analysis of Peter, but I will proceed to do so anyway. In some ways Peter strikes me as someone who tended to jump ahead of the moment. He didn’t pay as much attention to what was happening as much as he was thinking about the next step. There’s also this story of Jesus taking Peter, James, and John up the mountain where Jesus was transfigured before them. Jesus became dazzling white as he spoke to Moses and Elijah, and Peter immediately starts talking about building shelters for them. In that story, Peter’s words were cut short by God telling them to listen – don’t do anything – just listen to Jesus.

Of course we need people in the world who make things happen, but none of us need to get ahead of ourselves. We need to pay attention to where we are and what is happening before we spring in to action. Today’s story begins with Jesus going up the mountain to pray. And if prayer is anything it is a time of listening and paying attention. It is an effort to not get ahead of what God is doing, but to live in response to God.

Certainly there is a need for action in this world. There is an abundance of strife in the world right now. As we gather in our safe sanctuary this morning there are bombs are dropping in several different places in this world, and it’s hard to see how that’s going to stop before it gets a lot worse. It’s hard to know what to do about these large scale disasters, but we certainly need to be paying attention, and we need to encourage our leaders to pursue just policies – even if those policies may be costly to us. God’s will is not just for things to go well in the United States.

And these poor children who have been driven by poverty and violence to our border from their homes in Central America certainly need our attention and compassion. Once again, I don’t know how to fix that problem, but these are God’s children, and we need to respond to them in a godly way. I don’t know what the long term solution to that problem is, but in the meantime you can send some money to the United Methodist Committee on Relief who is on the scene providing some much needed assistance. In fact you can write those checks this morning – make them out to our church and write what they are for on the memo line.

There is a lot of work that needs to be done in this world. And of course we all have our own individual crises as well. Paying attention is not an alternative to taking action – these things go hand in hand, but we primarily need to remember that if we aren’t also reaching out for the hand of God we are sunk.

Our efforts to be faithful to God may well proceed with awkward lurches and misguided heroics, but God’s love for us remains consistent. The reign of God prevails over the power of bombs or the rules of nature. This is what we are called to remember, to trust, and to give our constant devotion. In times of peace, war, sickness or health – God is with us and is worthy of our attention.
Thanks be to God.


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