Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, August 09 2020, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45c; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33

You have to admit that it was not an easy go of it, being one of the disciples. They’ve just fed a unruly crowd of many thousands, and now Jesus is compelling them to get into their boat and head off without him, so that he can finally get up in the mountains and pray in solitude. And then the storm comes up, and it’s clear that this was a very dramatic storm. Some of the disciples were fishermen, they were used to rough water, but this storm is bad enough that they find themselves struggling all night to cross a small lake, not so much making progress forward as simply trying to keep the boat from sinking and themselves from drowning. They can barely see what they’re doing in the darkness, the waves are swamping them, and they’re just fighting to stay alive. And then, bizarrely, terrifyingly, they see a human figure. A human shape walking on the storm. And a voice they recognize speaks to them.

In Greek, the words are ego eimi. And they are also the words that most nearly translate the unspeakable Divine Name, the “I am that I am.” Ego eimi. Both “Don’t be afraid – it’s me,” and at the same time, “I am being in itself, I am the source of all that has being.” And these words are spoken by someone who is walking on the storm, who is controlling the primal chaos of water. I’ve noted before that there is only a small amount of material shared by all four gospels – but one of the things they do share is a clear memory that something astonishing happened during a storm on the Lake of Galilee, something which redefined who this travelling teacher was. But all four remember it rather differently, and only Matthew includes the next incident, when Peter comes up with a very odd strategy to check this situation out.

It really wasn’t until this week that it occurred to me just how odd it is—Peter decides to challenge this dark figure to prove his identity by commanding Peter to walk towards him over wild water. This does not seem to have been any part of Jesus’ plan. He is not demanding any especially miraculous exploits; he has come to reassure the disciples that he is with them, even in the darkness, even in the storm, and that no terrors are outside the reach of his care. In all the other accounts, he simply helps them get to the other side safely—which, in itself, no small thing. It is Peter’s idea to make this a dual test, both of Jesus and of himself. He does not want only to be accompanied, protected, enabled to get his boat across the deep lake and continue his work; he wants to be made to do something extreme and magical.

And then, almost immediately, his courage fails him. As we will see again in Jesus’ final days, Peter’s bravado never carries him very far; now, and then, he falls quickly, cannot sustain his first fast extravagant promise, and can only cry out for rescue.

This is not the end for Peter, and it will not be the end when he falls away during Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion either—and we cannot judge him too harshly for either of these failures, probably not one of us could cheerfully scamper along the torn waves of the storm, and we know that almost all the disciples failed in the last crisis, leaving only a litle group of women at the foot of the cross. But perhaps, eventually though not here, there is an end to some picture which Peter has of himself; he must acknowledge finally, on the shore after the resurrection, that he is not a superhero of love or faith or strength, that all he can do is thrash through the waters, and be forgiven, and keep on trying again.

So we, in the storms of this present moment, in the greater storms which may come—we do not need to be extraordinary. We do not need to ask God to prove God’s power by making us heroes, we do not need to aspire to great and conspicuous courage, we need not demand that God call us up into heaven or down into the abyss. Most of the disciples, while Peter struck out onto the water, and then fell, kept struggling with the boat and preventing it from sinking, and this was not a wrong thing to do. The women who persisted to the end never claimed great courage for themselves, never promised in front of everyone else that they would always be loyal; they just kept putting one foot in front of the other, no matter how awful the path, in all the blood and heat and terror of Golgotha and beyond.

We live, often enough, on that lake. The world can seem like a dark and dangerous and confusing place, and we can be trapped in the wind, not able to see a way forward very clearly. We may be, often are, frightened and doubtful. We may not be very sure at all that God is still with us. Sometimes, we may feel very sure that God is not. And while the story may be read as critical of Peter and the disciples, and in some ways it is, when we hear Jesus’ description of the disciples as people of “little faith”, we may forget that little faith and no faith are quite different things.

All the way through Matthew’s gospel, the disciples are called people of “little faith.” But they are, after all, the ones who are following Jesus on his travels and continuing on through all the dangers and bizarre incidents. Their faith is always mixed with doubt and fear, and this doesn’t change, this gospel isn’t a story of the disciples going from being people of little faith to people of lots of faith—at the very end, after the resurrection, Matthew makes a specific statement that, even as they worshipped the resurrected Christ, “some doubted.” There doesn’t seem to be much judgement in that statement. It’s just a matter of fact. Like us, they doubt. They worry that it may not be true. But that little faith is enough to keep them in action, enough to send them out into the world to heal and teach. To keep on acting as if, even when they weren’t sure. As if love defeats power, as if the storm will give way. That little faith is enough on which to build the hope for a better world. It is the mustard seed which we heard about just a few weeks ago, the yeast, the small invasive infiltration, the kingdom sneaking in.

Peter, it seems, needed to live out his faith partly through public failure, walking on water and sinking, promising faithfulness to death and running away, leaping out of his boat and splashing towards the shore. Many people, probably, have imagined God calling them to do some amazing and remarkable thing, and also somehow believed that doing this amazing and remarkable thing would be made easy, and not terrifying. What Peter shows us, perhaps, is that, however short we fall of our own imaginings, it is always possible to admit to failure, and to reach out in the storm for forgiveness and aid. He is not condemned for his temporary extravagance and inability to sustain it—that is apparently just who he is—but neither is he the only model for the small subversive faith which seeds the kingdom. The people who do not walk on water, but keep their threatened boat from sinking until they are delivered from the storm, they too are a part of this story.

So we take our little faith and move forward, in whatever way we can, through the storms in which we live. Walk on water, perhaps, for just a little while; fail and fall and reach out for rescue. Hold the sail in the background of the narrative, pull towards the shore. Knowing that always, somehow, even sinking, we are known; we are preserved.