Sermon for August 10, 2014: O ye of little faith
“God our Creator, let us never fail to put our faith in you, for it is in you that we find peace.” Amen.
I generally think of God is of a loving parent. This may have something to do with the fact that I lost one of my parents early in my life and have always had an intensely personal relationship with God “the Father.” Of course, many people object to the characterization of God as a father – or a mother for that matter- because God truly defies gender classification. Deciding how to refer to God is a dilemma for most preachers. If we say “he” when we speak of God, are we are being too patriarchal? If we say “she” are we being too progressive? If we say “it,” – well, “it” just sounds plain weird.
The truth is that the way in which we refer to God is strongly related to our relationship with him/her/it. For me, God has always been a dependable, loving – and sometimes disapproving – figure – in other words, the way I think of a father. For other people, God is a gentle, nurturing, presence that they perceive of as being like a mother. Still others see God as a force made up of the energy of those around them. And many people report finding God in nature – in its beauty, its wildness, its peace.
Nature is where Elijah finds God in today’s first reading. He goes looking for God to get some comfort – and help- since he has been run out of town and his life threatened for prophesying against the misbehaving Israelites. He is told to go outside of the cave where he is hiding and wait for the Lord to pass by – and so he does. He waits through a hurricane. He waits through an earthquake. He waits through a fire. But the Lord is not in any of those dramatic acts of nature. Instead, the Lord is in the silence that follows the drama. Because God is not the fury – God is the peace. Except God does not give this peace to poor Elijah. Instead he tells Elijah to go back to the people who wish to kill him and keep prophesying, even if it leads to his own death. Elijah simply has to believe that somehow God will make things right. Elijah has to have faith.
You see, God is the peace, but peace is not always what God gives us. Even though we pray for peace a lot. Even though God knows that this world is desperate for peace right now. Even though every week we conclude our service by asking for the peace of God, peace can still elude us. Even after being in community, even after meditating in prayer, even after sharing at table, many of us remain unsettled –and we do not experience the one thing that we may most want to find at church – a sense of peace.
St. Paul advised his congregation that peace was part of justification, which came from confession, which arose from belief. So for Paul, the key element in finding peace is faith. But the truth is that faith is hard. Even for those of us who were raised to believe. Even for those of us who have personally felt the presence of God. Even for those of us who reach out to God from our darkest places. And for many people, just thinking about God, just considering stepping into a church, just the idea of giving up any control over our lives, evokes feelings that are the exact opposite of peace. Because asking people to put their faith in something they can’t see is hard enough. Asking people to put their faith in something they don’t understand is even harder. Asking people to put their faith in something that is supposed to be overwhelming seems impossible.
It’s a tall order – just as it was for the disciples. Take Peter. Peter is perhaps the most recognizable of the apostles. Scholars tend to agree that Peter is the “every person” of the disciples – that he serves as our representative in the gospel stories. This makes perfect sense to me, since Peter spends a lot of time confused and clueless, just as I’m sure I’d be – often saying exactly the wrong thing at precisely the wrong time. And yet Peter was clearly one of Jesus’ favorite disciples. When Jesus traveled with only a subset of his followers, Peter was inevitably one of the elite group. In Matthew’s gospel, we are told that Jesus named him “Petra” or “Rock” because he was the rock upon which the church would be built. That passage is the basis for the Roman Catholic belief in the divine succession of popes – and the reason many people view Peter as the father of the Christian faith.
But how do we reconcile the wise, bearded church leader portrayed in Christian doctrine with the impulsive young man in the gospels that we have come to know and identify with? Because Peter the Pope seems to know very little about what it feels like to wrestle with our beliefs. It is Peter the disciple’s misguided but genuine attempts to understand his beloved rabbi that help us with our own efforts to be disciples of Christ. Through Peter, we get an idea of how hard it must have been to ask Jesus the right questions; how hard it must have been to try to have the right response when he answered you and, above all, how hard it must have been to believe in what Jesus was saying – to have faith.
And in today’s gospel, Peter fails again. Jesus’ ability to walk on water is one of his most famous miraculous behaviors. Except I don’t think this story is about Jesus walking on water – I think it’s about Peter walking on water. The tale is told from the perspective of the disciples, who have been abandoned by Jesus to a rocking boat in a choppy sea. And then he appears to them, not in the boat – not even next to the boat – but far off from the boat walking on the water. They are understandably terrified.
But the minute Jesus tells them not to be afraid Peter almost literally jumps into the water. As soon as they are addressed by Jesus, Peter says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water!” and Jesus says, “Come.” So Peter jumps out of the boat and he walks on the water –just like Jesus. Now that’s amazing. The real miracle is not that Jesus can walk on water – it’s that Peter can do it too. Except that he doesn’t get very far. “When he noticed the strong wind he became frightened,” the gospel writer tells us, and he began to sink. And although Jesus saved him, the words he had for Peter after the rescue had to have stung: “Oh, you of little faith. Why do you doubt”? Jesus was disappointed with Peter. He was disappointed because he saw that Peter lacked faith. He was disappointed just like a parent is disappointed with a child who fails not because the child can’t do something, but because the child doesn’t believe she can do it. And Jesus feared for Peter – because he knew that soon he would be gone and all Peter would have to depend on was his faith. But Peter couldn’t do it alone. As long as Jesus helped him, Peter was able to believe. But when Peter was distracted by the storm and his fears caused him to lose focus on Jesus, he sank. Peter’s faith was but “little” without Jesus.
And yet Peter’s “little” faith enabled him to recognize Jesus for who he was. It was Peter who understood the significance of Jesus saying, “It is I” – just as God had told the Israelites that he was simply “I am.” It was Peter who knew that Jesus was divine. Peter may have been impulsive. He may have seemed confused. He was childlike in his faith – but Peter knew enough to place his hopes and needs and desires in the hands of Jesus. Peter knew that as long as Jesus was holding him up, Peter could have the power not only to walk on water, but to carry out any ministry that God called him to do. Peter’s historical change from ignorant tradesman to religious leader was not the result of miraculous maturation or mythology. It simply reflects his willingness to put himself completely in God’s hands – to find peace in God.
The good news for us is that today’s gospel shows us that such faith is not automatic. It takes time. It requires effort. Peter had to grow into his faith – and so do we. We have to accept and live with the understanding that we may have only a little faith. Remember, Peter did not sink because he lacked faith. He sank because he had little faith – and he lost his faith in that moment – the kind of moment that we all have. The good news is that we need not believe our faith has to be perfect. Peter’s story tells us that even Jesus’ favorite disciples did not have perfect faith. They had little faith. But they put that little faith into Jesus’ hands, into God’s hands. Because God is our parent, and God is sometimes disappointed with us. And sometimes God fears for us. Of course, God wants us to be able to walk on “right pathways” – to be able to do his will. But God is also willing to hold us up. And God will always save us. That’s what good parents do. Whatever image you use when you think of God, be assured that God wants to be close to you. God loves you. And God will give you peace. Just – have a little faith.
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