08.13.2017 Preaching Text: “So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.” (Matthew 14:29b)
To be perfectly honest, I have mixed feelings about this morning’s gospel story about Jesus walking on water. And it doesn’t really have anything to do with the miracle part which, as we know, is a challenge to our rationalist tendencies.
It has more to do with the part about Peter walking on water. The implication is clear: if Peter had had sufficient faith, he wouldn’t have sunk.
The larger point seems to be that if we have enough faith, we can accomplish just about anything.
This is where I have a problem. Oh, it’s not that I don’t think faith “can move mountains” or that faith is not the absolute foundation of the Christian life. It’s just the idea that faith can achieve anything seems to be the takeaway. Which is not, as I say, to dismiss the importance of faith notwithstanding.
Back in my early teens I attempted to learn water skiing. So I went out onto the Long Island Sound in a friend’s boat. At the time I wore thick glasses, before, that is, the era of contact lenses. Skiing without being able to see was daunting. But I was determined.
One of the things I quickly learned was not to focus on the water rushing by. Just look straight ahead. Don’t focus on what you’re actually doing, which is skimming precariously on concrete-like water at impossibly high speeds!
Once you start focusing on what you’re doing and what’s going on around you, you falter, like Peter. Focus instead on what’s up ahead and ignore your fears. And presto, you’re home free (without need for the emergency room).
The fact is, we’re often more focused on the spinning wheels inside our heads and what’s going on around us to overcome our fears so as to accomplish things.
I need only recall the first time I preached. The second time was even worse, given that the offending event took place in my home church! I was absolutely terrified, imagining in my mind all sorts of catastrophic possibilities.
Of course, I failed to consider the fact that the vast majority of the congregation couldn’t have cared less about most of what I was thinking and fearing. Not only that, they were pulling for me, knowing that I was new at this and had grown up in their midst.
What I’ve learned since is to stay focused on the “now,” not letting the potentially debilitating static in your head discourage or overwhelm you. The idea is to remain calm, positive, trusting that God will take care of you. Have faith, in other words. Be positive.
But I’ve also come to learn that everything depends on what it is you’re being positive about, what you’re putting your trust in.
Years ago I visited a nursing home where a woman was in the process of dying. Directly in front of her, on the wall opposite, was a poster which apparently was supposed to be inspirational. It featured one of those New Age-y photographs of waterfalls, rainbows, etc.
But it wasn’t picture that concerned me. It was the caption that accompanied if. I forget its exact wording, mercifully, but it said something about imagining life’s possibilities so that you can make anything happen.
Under the circumstances, the wording seemed a cruel joke. It presumed to offer expectations that were simply unrealizable. I found it heartbreaking. Creating false hope is not the same thing as having faith.
Years ago, while I was serving as a hospital chaplain, I experienced something that’ll always stay with me. I’ve shared it with you before, so I’ll keep it brief.
It involved a young woman, 20 or 21, who had been admitted with a drug overdose. Her mother was absolutely distraught. And desperate.
She called an old friend of hers who was part of a Christian fundamentalist group. They came up to New Haven and essentially took over the daughter’s hospital room.
They advised the mother that if she wanted her daughter to live there were certain things she’d have to do, including, but not limited to, reconciling with her ex-husband. The most significant demand, however, and the most egregious, was telling the mother that if her faith were strong enough, the daughter would live.
The disconsolate, frantic mother attempted everything they had instructed her to do. But, alas, within days her daughter lost her fight and died.
What followed was an unqualified disgrace. The mother’s “friends” said the daughter had died because the mother simply didn’t have enough faith! This was cruel beyond measure, and unforgivable. The mother was crushed.
What the mother’s “friends” failed to understand is that faith is not based on our expectations, but on what God wills for our lives. We are not God, nor do we direct His actions.
Back when I wrote my first pastoral profile in preparation for seeking a call in the U.C.C., I remember tackling this matter head-on. The response to my profile was resounding, i.e. a plethora of rejection letters! I sometimes wonder if this subject was at least partly to blame.
I had written that in God’s economy we don’t always get to decide, or get what we want. Our faith lives are often directed more properly toward finding God’s consolation in the midst of life’s inevitable losses and failures.
Faith, in other words, doesn’t guarantee a “positive outcome,” as we define such things. Rather, it often means finding meaning and purpose when nothing in our life-circumstances would seem to recommend it.
Unlike “positive thinking,” faith is not about imagining a successful outcome as the means of coaxing it into being.
Instead it’s about trusting in the person of Jesus Christ.
Jesus, you see, is our guide, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. We follow him, now knowing where he will take us. Faith is not about relying on our own insights, or desires, or expectations. It’s about faithfully following obediently the leader whom we trust implicitly, no matter where that might take us.
Faith, in the final analysis, is a relational term. It’s not about a set of abstract beliefs, or expectations, or ideas. It’s about trusting that God will do for us what he said he would do, through the person of Jesus Christ.
It’s been said that God answers all prayers. But sometimes that answer is “no,” no to our personal beliefs, expectations, and ideas. Faith means trusting that God will bring about our promised good, in God’s way, and in God’s time.
It even means following God when to do so seems altogether implausible at best, even if that means walking on water. Amen.