Sunday, August 10, 2014

A Leap of Faith (Matthew 14:22-33)

I know what it is like to be afraid on the water. I was nine or ten years old and my dad took me with him on a fishing trip with a work buddy. At the time we had a small boat with a 50 horse power motor. We were at Lake Cumberland catching crappie. It had been a good evening. We were in a school of crappie when dark clouds began to gather. Of course, we didn’t want to leave and stayed on the lake too long. The storm came on us quick and we were taking in some water trying to get back across the lake. Then the motor died.

I had never seen my father afraid. The look of fear on his face terrified me. I can still remember those feelings of fright. Fortunately, they were able to get it started back without too much delay. But I will never forget the fear I felt at that moment even though it was so very long ago. 

The disciples are caught in a storm. The waves and wind are against them, beating up against their small vessel. And then they see something or someone coming towards them. The text says they were terrified.

This is not a story about avoiding storms or the fear such storms produce. Fear is, first of all, a simple reaction to threat or danger. It has its place in helping to keep our children safe. Most children that is. It never seemed to be much a deterrent for Jordan.

I remember three times he went tumbling down our basement stairs. One time it was on a three wheeler. When he was real small he learned how to stand on his tip toes and slap the screen door handle to get outside. One afternoon, when I was supposed to be in charge, Julie was watching TV when it malfunctioned. In the brief time it took for me to see to the problem, Jordan had disappeared without my realizing it. Then there was a knock at the door. A middle aged man, with no shirt and a long beard had my son in his arms. He said, “This your kid. I came around the corner and he was in the middle of the road in front of your house.” I still remember the feelings I had that afternoon as vividly as I remember the fear in the boat on Lake Cumberland as a child. It was fear that kept me from sharing that story with my wife for a time. 

Some fear is necessary, but fear can also be debilitating and oppressive, when one lives in fear constantly. Many of the kids crossing our border were sent here by parents who lived in daily fear for their children’s lives. It was their fear of what a lifetime of violence and poverty would do to them that compelled them to take such a risk. 

This story is not about avoiding storms or the fear they evoke, but learning how to face them with faith. Someone might point out that Jesus did indeed still the storm, and might draw the conclusion that if we just had enough faith Jesus would still our storms too. That, I think, is a misreading of the story. 

Stories have meaning on many different levels. At one time scholars thought that parables were intended to convey a single meaning, though today that theory has been largely debunked and most interpreters would argue that parables convey multiple meanings and that is true of most stories in the Gospels.

On one level, this story is a witness to what Matthew’s church had come to believe about Jesus. In the Old Testament, only God is attributed with the power to still storms. For example, the Psalmist cries out to God, “You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them.” And when Jesus speaks to the disciples, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid” he is echoing the name of God by which God identified God’s self to Moses out of the fire when God said, “Tell them ‘I am’ has sent you.” Matthew’s church had come to see Jesus as the conduit of divine power and authority. At the end of the story Matthew (in contrast to Mark) says, “And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’” They worshiped Jesus as God’s agent of redemption. While Matthew’s church would have never said, “Jesus is God,” they believed Jesus had divine status and function. This story reflects the evolving faith of the early Christians.

So this is not a story about having enough faith to still the storm or be delivered from the storm. Nor is it about avoiding storms. Some people want to make God responsible for the storms.

Author Philip Yancey recalls receiving a phone call from a television producer just after Prince Diana had been killed in an automobile crash. He wanted Yancey to appear on his show and explain how God could possibly allow such a terrible accident to happen. Without much thought Yancey retorted, “Could it have had something to do with a drunk driver going ninety miles an hour in a narrow tunnel? How exactly, was God involved?” God does not micromanage the planet or our lives.

There are some experiences of suffering that are simply tragic; it’s hard to find any redemptive value at all in some oppressive forms of suffering. Some suffering is simply oppressive. On the other hand, we’re not likely to grow without battling some storms. Talk to any recovering addict who has been in a Twelve-step program any length of time and he or she can talk about “necessary suffering.” They will tell you that it took what it took, that coming to the end of themselves was necessary to begin their recovery toward healing and change.  

Paul, as well as other New Testament writers speak to the issue of necessary suffering. Paul tells the church at Rome, “we boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” James, in his little epistle says, “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”

You may have heard the saying before, “Religion is lived by people who are afraid of hell. Spirituality is lived by people who have been through hell and come out enlightened.” God’s deliverance is rarely a deliverance from; generally it is a deliverance through. I suspect that it takes living through some hellish encounters in order to face the ways we need to change and grow. Some suffering is necessary to prompt us to face our false attachments and our negative patterns which we tend to deny, ignore, excuse, rationalize, and minimize.

It generally takes some form of suffering to compel us to confront our “spiritual comfort zones” which keep us spiritually stagnant. It may be that we are trapped in a particular way of thinking about God that undermines our capacity to actually trust God or it could be that fear keeps us from getting involved in some area of service or social justice that could expand our faith and spiritual development.

What is required of us at such times is a leap of faith. Peter takes a leap of faith in our story doesn’t he? There is a wonderful scene at the climax of the movie “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” where Indiana has to pass three supreme tests to reach the Holy Grail and save his father from dying. The first test is “The Breath of God” where he walks down a corridor and must bow at precisely the right moment to keep form having his head cut off. The second test is “The Word of God” where he has to walk on the right stones – the ones that spell God’s name in Latin – to keep from falling through the floor to his death.

The third test is “The Path of God,” where Indiana comes to a large chasm – about a hundred feet across and a thousand feet down. On the other side is the door to the Holy Grail. The instructions say, “Only in the leap from the lion’s head, will he prove his worth.” Indiana says to himself, “It’s impossible, nobody can jump this.” Then he realizes that this test requires a leap of faith. His father says, “You must believe, boy. You must believe.” Even though every nerve in his body screams don’t do it, he walks to the cliff’s edge, lifts his foot, and then steps out into thin air. Instead of falling to his doom like Wile E. Coyote in the Roadrunner cartoons, his foot hits solid ground. He lands on a walkway, this hidden, disguised, solid stone walkway that supports him and takes him across.

God is that hidden, disguised, invisible but solid Power and Love that sustains us and supports us, wherever we find ourselves, even when (or especially when) we are tossed about in a chaotic sea of confusion, pain, and uncertainty. Someone said, “God comes disguised as our life.”

But taking that leap of faith is not easy. When we take that step we usually have to leave a familiar place, a safe place. I think of the guy who was hiking across some cliffs, when he lost his balance and slid over the side of a drop off several hundred feet down. As he falls he manages to latch hold of a branch growing out of the cliff’s side. In his desperation he cries out for help. "Is anyone up there?" A voice responds, "I'm here."  "Who are you?" "I am God." "God will you save me?" "Yes, I will save you if you will do what I say. Now, let go of the branch." "What did you say, God?" "Let go of the branch." Then, after a long pause, the man cries out once more, “Is there anyone else up there?" 

Letting go is hard for us, but our spiritual growth requires it. Where do we need to take a leap of faith today? Maybe we need the courage to face someone with the truth, to speak the truth in love and we know it will not be easy and probably will not be received well, and may create conflict. Perhaps it means facing some negative pattern or addiction that is not only hurting ourselves but also hurting the people we care most about. Maybe we need to stop being an enabler of negativity and hurtful attitudes and actions within the group we are part of, which may turn the group against us and leave us on the outside. Or maybe it’s an act of compassion or kindness that will require more energy and time and resources than we think we have. What leap of faith do you, do I need to take today?

Peter begins with great courage, but soon begins to sink. Thank goodness! The sinking is a reminder that we all sink. And just because we sink, is no reason for not getting out of the boat. Peter represents all disciples of Jesus; he represents everyone of us.

From a literary perspective, this story of Peter is a foreshadowing of how Peter figures in the story to come. In chapter 16 Peter confesses Jesus to be the Christ and Jesus says, “Blessed are you, son of Jonah. Flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father in heaven.” But then, when Jesus informs them of his impending death Peter tries to dissuade him from the path of the cross. Jesus says to him, “Get behind me, Satan!” He is walking on water one minute, and sinking the next. He confesses Jesus to be the Son of God, and then denies him three times.

Once Peter takes the leap of faith, he becomes overwhelmed by the presence of the waves. Little faith, by the way, is what we all have, this mixture of courage and anxiety. The word that is translated “doubt” in the story connotes vacillation, not skepticism. We all vacillate between trust and the lack of trust, between hearing the word of the Lord and looking at the terror of the storm. Faith is a struggle and little faith is all we have really and that’s okay. That’s quite all right. That’s enough.

I suspect that Matthew’s church wanted some assurance that the Jesus they proclaimed as Lord and who was the center of all these stories was with them amidst the turbulence and chaos of their lives. We want that too, don’t we? We want to know that the God who acted in Jesus is with us in the midst of the chaotic turbulence of our lives.

Some scholars think that this story was originally a resurrection story, which in the course of the oral tradition, the telling and retelling of the story, it got worked back into the narrative of Jesus’ ministry. When Jesus comes to them on the water their initial reaction reflects their lack of recognition (a characteristic of the appearance stories), “It is a ghost,” they exclaim.  

Maybe what we first call "a ghost" is actually the Holy Ghost. I have no doubt that God speaks to us in a rich variety of ways and forms and means, in ways that are not so obvious or overt or easily recognizable.

But I do believe that once we learn to be aware of the divine presence within us, in our true self, we can learn to see that presence everywhere. We can discover that presence in the laughter of a little child, in the wisdom of an elder, in the touch of a lover’s hand, in the beauty of a sunrise or sunset, even in the midst of the raging sea that threatens to capsize our small boat.

Whatever the chaos of the circumstances we face in life as individuals and as a community, however forceful the wind and waves threatening our very existence, we must not let that keep us from taking a leap of faith.

The eating of the bread and drinking of the cup is not only a sacred act that recalls the self-giving of Jesus unto death, it is also a celebration of his living presence in us and with us and for us, no matter how chaotic the circumstances of our lives.


Gracious God, give us the courage to take the leap of faith, to face the storms of life with the confidence of your abiding presence, and to realize that whenever we start to sink, that whenever we feel overwhelmed by it all, you have our hand and you call our names. Amen.

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