Sermon delivered August 13, 2017 to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY on Matthew 14: 22-33; this sermon can be heard here.
Setting out for the long drive between West Texas and Tennessee during my time in seminary, I would often leave Texas in the early morning hours, long before the sun would rise over the flat, barren landscape. As I came over one of the few hills along this portion of Interstate 20, I was finally greeted after two hours of driving with the first of the morning light. The warm, subtle orange-brown light promised a day full of abundant sunshine, even as it hugged the earth’s curve, slowly diffusing the darkness of the night. Suddenly, there was a massive being in the median of the interstate; it loomed large and I couldn’t quite figure out what it was. I ran through the options in my head, and as I got closer to the object my own fear grew. It was something that would certainly block the road or be some other form of danger. As my car approached it loomed larger and larger, lit only subtly from behind by the early light of dawn; I was full of fear at not being able to identify it and all the ways in which it might change my course. With wide eyes and a beating heart, as I passed this looming, large, ominous being, I realized that it was, not, in fact, a monster or a ghost as I was almost sure of, but was in fact a lone, rare tree. Now, perhaps it was because I so rarely saw trees in West Texas that I was afraid of a tree, or maybe it was the early morning hour and the darkness that was ubiquitous, yet not total that clouded my brain’s ability to process a very common object in nature’s landscape.
In our gospel passage today, the disciples are in a similar state of mind, even if what they saw in the early morning hours wasn’t as commonplace as a tree.
We pick up with the narrative from Matthew today just after the feeding of more than 5,000 people; the disciples have just gone through the undoubtedly long process of realizing there wasn’t enough food, and then distributing the abundance found in the simple five loaves and two fishes after it had been blessed and broken by Jesus. This is where we pick up: the disciples immediately get into the boat, while Jesus goes up to the mountain to pray. While Jesus is praying, the disciples have a wind-battered night which takes their boat far from the shore. Once he is done praying, Jesus, Matthew tells us, “came walking toward them”. The disciples, perhaps due to the early morning darkness or the long night that they had at sea, think that the being walking toward them is some sort of supernatural being and are terrified; once Jesus greets them with the theologically heavy name of God “it is I”, Peter comes to the foreground of the disciples in the boat and asks for confirmation that this is indeed Jesus. Peter, then, at the command of Jesus, steps out onto the water and begins to walk, only to have the winds and the reality of what he was doing bring him back to the fear that he originally felt, and he begins to sink. Jesus reaches down to save him, they get into back into the boat, the storm is quieted, and the disciples worship him.
For me, there is not a more relatable disciple than Peter in this story; his story, particularly this narrative of faith and doubt, is a story I know deep within my bones, because in many ways it is my story as well. This is no accident on Matthew’s part. In the gospel according to Matthew, Peter is the archetype of a disciple; he again and again comes to the foreground. After seeing and assisting in the feeding of more than 5,000 people with five loaves and two fishes, it seems that Peter’s doubt is not if Jesus could walk on the water, but if this being was in fact Jesus. Peter’s faith is abundant, we know this because he has the courage to greet the being walking on the water, to trust that it is in fact Jesus that commands him to leave the boat. Peter accepts Jesus’ invitation to the impossible by stepping out onto the water. But Peter, a faithful follower of Jesus, is a person and faith is not simplistic; it does not exist within a vacuum of idealized choices. Faith is not simply something that one has or does not have. Faith is dynamic and living; it is fluid and it is constantly adjusting. In this way, Peter’s experience is fundamental to every disciple of Jesus.
As Jesus extends his hand to save Peter, and says “Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt?” Perhaps this is Jesus chastising Peter with a harsh voice and an eye-roll as he extends his hand. Or perhaps it is the loving, gentle correction of a teacher that knows the challenges of walking a new path and living life a different way. To have little faith is to have faith mingled with doubt; those who have little faith have faith of those who would like to believe but who cannot. Just as the father in the gospel according to Mark cries out just before Jesus heals his epileptic child, “I believe; help my unbelief!” we know that we can believe deeply, but at the same time doubt deeply as well.
There is a reason that Matthew highlights Peter’s role in Jesus’ miracle of walking on the water, which is lacking in the other gospel narratives of this miracle; to have little faith was typical of Matthew’s community. It isn’t only a relatable story to us, but it was a relatable story to those who first heard this gospel proclaimed thousands of years ago. It might be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that had Jesus been standing before us on the water, or feeding thousands of people that we would not be people of little faith, that we would have complete faith without any doubts. But faith doesn’t work this way. Faith, in some ways requires doubt; faith requires a choice that when we are invited by Jesus to do the impossible that we still believe, all with the knowledge that this is not how the world works.
Men are not supposed to walk on the water, water is not supposed to turn into wine, the dead are not meant to be raised up. The narratives that we hear continually in society remind us that the meek should not inherit the earth, it is not the poor that are blessed, but the rich, and we are not supposed to love our enemies. This, we know, because we are people that live in a society and have seen that this is how the world works, but we also know that when Jesus invites us to care for the poor and lonely that this is the righteous path; we know that loving our neighbors (and our enemies and ALL of our facebook friends) solely because God, through Jesus invites us to do so is, in fact, not only possible, but it is what we are called to do as followers of Christ.
Maybe if we could see Christ with our very eyes or touch his hand as we step out in faith, we would have less fear, less doubt; perhaps if Christ were standing before us, accepting the invitation to come and do the impossible wouldn’t feel quite so impossible.
But, you see, every single day we do see God standing before us. Every single day we do see God standing before us because imprinted upon our souls is the very image of God. Every soul that comes to our church building on Wednesday for lunch, or who spend their days in the library because they have no other home, or those who find a home in Bowling Green because their home is ravaged by war or famine bear the image of God; every single person in your pew shares with you the image of God. Those who have little faith and those who have none; those with whom we work and those with whom we share a name all bear the image of God alike.
Every single day we have God standing before us inviting us to do what the world thinks to be impossible, but to which we are called by our baptismal covenant. We proclaim the Good News of the crucified and resurrected messiah during a time in which hatred and evil saturates our world, we love our neighbors as ourselves even when our neighbors are our enemies, and we strive for justice, peace, and dignity for all even when we know that to do so might be costly. So we have a choice; we have a choice when we leave here today. We can leave here today and live out our work weeks as usual, holding on to our faith as is, never trying it out to see its bounds, or we can strive to see the many ways in which God is inviting us all to do the impossible, all with little faith and God’s help.
 Mark 9:24