Sermon by the Rev. Abby VanderBrug on Sunday, August 9, 2020.
Poor Jesus is just trying to take a minute to himself, but the disciples keep getting themselves into trouble. Last week in the Gospel reading, upon hearing the news of John the Baptist’s death, a grieving Jesus retreats from his life with the disciples to be alone. But, of course, while he is trying to get away, a very large crowd of sick and hungry people forms around the disciples; they are not quite certain how to deal with them, so they must retrieve Jesus from his solitude to fix it.
In today’s Gospel, after seeing yet another large crowd of people, Jesus sends the disciples off in a boat by themselves so he could have some solo time to pray. Yet again, without Jesus, the disciples find themselves in a situation they do not know how to handle. A storm strikes, with their boat far from shore, and the disciples are terrified.
We too, found ourselves in a storm this week. Tropical Storm Isaias ravaged our region – leaving behind a trail of destruction and death as it raced up the East Coast this week. Trees smashed into windows, fell on top of cars, and into our roads. Many of us in New England, about 2 million, myself included, lost power and some still have yet to get it back.
On top of that, a fire in Lebanon claims dozens of lives and injures thousands, causing more destruction, more chaos, and more damage to our already hurting world.
In any given year, these two coinciding world events would be enough news for us to handle. But here in 2020, it’s already been more than we can handle. When you add a global pandemic and the question about how to return to schools for our children, teachers, principals, it adds yet another layer of anxiety, stress, and fear.
Also this year many of us have grappled with the truth that we still have a very long ways to go to create a world where we respect the dignity of every human being.
In other words, it feels like we’re in the boat with the disciples, far from shore, with the wind against us, and the seas are raging.
I have never been in a boat when a storm comes, but as a child what I remember from bad storms is go down to the basement. Stay away from windows. Bring the patio furniture in. Grab a flashlight and some extra batteries. I imagine many of us did some form of this as we watched the news this week and awaited the storm. We prepared because storms are scary and can cause serious damage to our towns, homes, and lives.
So I can only imagine being a disciple of Jesus, already a crazy task in and of itself, and finding myself on a boat, in the middle of the seas, with no basement, no flashlight, no lifejacket. The reading says three times that the disciples were afraid, and who would blame them? If I were them, I would be clinging to the rails of the boat begging for it be over. Please stop, please stop, please stop.
Sometimes when you are scared, you can’t see things for what they are and you end up making it into something else. Think back to being a child and being afraid of a basement, or a closet, or the dark. The disciples mistake Jesus for a ghost, but as soon as they realize it is Jesus walking on water, Peter gets the idea to walk out towards him. All it takes is an invitation from Jesus, he says to him “come” and Peter is off for the races.
We all know how the story ends, Jesus saves Peter from drowning, they get back in the boat and Jesus says to him, “you of little faith, why did you doubt?” which has mostly been remembered as the most important quote from this story. If only Peter had kept his focus on Jesus and just ignored that dang wind, he could have walked so much further! He could’ve walked across the whole ocean! It becomes really easy, almost too easy, to shame and admonish Peter for this “little faith.”
But I’m not so sure that quote needs to carry the weight we think it does. Jesus talks about small or little faith doing incredible things in the Gospel of Matthew. In the chapter before this, Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to being like just a little bit of yeast that leavens an entire loaf of bread. In Matthew 17 Jesus says, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain ‘move’ and it will ‘move.’”? Indeed, having just a little bit of faith isn’t a bad thing, in fact many times it’s all we need. Just a little, just a step, just enough.
I’m also not so sure that it’s always helpful to think that our faith as something that enables us to do something humanly impossible. I think Peter’s story here is much more analogous to what each of us experience in the life of faith. Actually, the pilgrimage of faith seems to look a lot like Peter’s walk on the water: take a step of faith, take our eyes off Jesus, start drowning, cry out for help, and then be carried onto the boat. Repeat many times over.
It would’ve been so much easier for Peter to stay in the boat. He is the only one of the 12 who dares step out of the boat, into the storm, and towards Jesus. 92% of the disciples stay right where they are; they can see Jesus, but the boat feels like the safer option so they stay. Like all of us, they cling to what they know, pray for it be over and return to normal, clutch onto the guardrails and ride it out.
Ultimately, it is Peter’s faith in Jesus that gives him the courage to take the first step. And it is his fixed vision on the calm, all-powerful Jesus that allows him to keep going. But, like all of us, it doesn’t last long before fear sets in and he takes his eyes off Jesus and starts sinking. When he does he cries out “Lord, save me!” To me, this is the very definition of faith, the crucial element of what it means to have trust in a God. It is by no means little or insignificant or shameful. When we are sinking, when are capsized by fear, when it’s crashing down on us, we reach out our hands and say to God, “Save me!” That, my friends, is faith.
Peter is the disciples who Jesus chooses to be the rock of his church and so as a church we would be wise to emulate his faith here. What would the church look like if we were able to embrace this? What new things might we find if we had the courage to take a step? What new creation might be we discover if instead of praying for this storm to be calmed, we moved toward Jesus? The last time I checked being a disciple of Christ doesn’t mean that we get smooth sailing our whole life, but that when we start sinking again we can trust that Jesus will pull us onto the boat.
The words Jesus offers, even before Peter steps out of the boat, could not be clearer, “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.” Whatever the storm, whatever the uncertainties, whatever the fears, the church and those that are willing to risk a closer step toward Jesus have nothing to do with being afraid or not being afraid and everything to do with faith that Jesus will pull us onto to that boat.
Friends, we are all the disciples in a small boat, far away from shore, with the wind against us, and the waves rolling. The sea rages on, and I hope with all my strength that the thing we see off in the distance is indeed Jesus calling us to step out of the boat, into the storm, towards him.
May we all have just the little bit of faith we need to take a step.