Faith and Doubt
Matthew 14: 22-33
Four weeks ago today, at about this very hour, I was driving through Orlando, Florida. I had been there only twice before, each for a very short visit. The first time I was invited by my college roommate to go home with him for spring break. (Lucky me!) He lived in Daytona Beach but we went and spent one night at the home of his fiancée, on the outskirts of Orlando. That very same year, the Walt Disney Company was just breaking ground on a new theme park that, as it was being promoted, would be even bigger than Disneyland in California. My next time in Orlando was some thirty years later, when, for only a couple days, I was truly a tourist, spending one day at Disney and the next at Universal.
When I was there four weeks ago, I was not stopping, but rather just passing through on Interstate 4. Even with that quick drive through town, however, I was astonished by all the growth and development in and around Orlando. Just past the downtown area, something caught my eye. It was some sort of complex with snow-white walls and a lot of gold paint. It had Gothic arches and seemed out of place architecturally with everything else around it. It did seem to be some kind of tourist attraction and all at once, I spotted a big, splashy sign that identified it as “The Holy Land Experience.”
And then I had a quick flash of memory. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I sort of remembered that there was a feature at “The Holy Land Experience” where visitors could, just like Jesus, walk on water. Was my mind playing tricks on me, since I knew that that event was contained in the gospel reading assigned by the lectionary for today? About a week later, I Googled “The Holy Land Experience” theme park on my laptop, and while I did not find any mention of walking on water on the official website, I found on someone’s blog from some years earlier a comment that visitors could pose for photographs with a character costumed as Jesus, walking on water.
That, in turn, jogged my memory even more to recollect even further back into the past something I had read about or had seen on television. I remembered vaguely that there was another place out around Missouri or Arkansas where plexiglass panels were installed just below the surface of the water in a pool or a pond, making it possible to appear to “walk on water.” After a little internet research, I discovered “The New Holy Land” at Eureka Springs, Arkansas, where on one website, there was a photograph of a character portraying Jesus standing on the surface of a lake there. He looked sort of bored, actually, as if he were waiting at a bus stop.
It may reflect a disturbing level of eccentricity in me, but my curiosity got the best of me and I decided to confirm that these “walking-on-water” attractions actually exist, so I phoned both “The Holy Land Experience” and “The New Holy Land” to ask about them. At each one, I found out that there is at the present time no such feature at those religious theme parks. And so if you or I wanted to plan a vacation to include the possibility of at least appearing to walk on water, we would be out of luck. Could it be liability issues – people slipping on the plexiglass panels and tumbling into the water – that led to their demise? Or could it be that the novelty had just worn off?
Walking on water, for all its razzle-dazzle, is not at the heart of what our passage this morning from Matthew’s gospel is all about either. If that is all we were to take away from the passage, then we will have missed the boat as far as discovering the true spiritual riches from this event in Jesus’ life.
Indeed, Jesus customarily resisted drawing attention to the more dramatic and spectacular aspects of his ministry. Through the gospels, he often instructed his disciples or anyone else who observed the wonders he performed to “tell no one” about them. (Mt. 16:13-20, 17:1-9; Mk. 7:32-27, 8:22-30, 9:2-9: Lk. 5:1-14, 8:40-56, 9:18-28) On one occasion, his own brothers told him that he should join them at the Feast of Tabernacles so that he might demonstrate to everyone there everything that he was doing. “Show yourself to the world,” his brothers said. But he replied, “My time has not yet fully come.” (John 7: 2-8) Jesus was focused laser-like on one thing, and that was what would be the final culmination, the completion of his ministry of salvation for the world – his death on the cross and his rising from the grave.
Whenever we hear these stories about Jesus’ life and ministry, I believe that it can be helpful to try to figure out what our place in the story would be. Where would you find yourself in this story? Where would I? With whom would you identify in this story? With whom do you resonate? None of us, I hope and pray, would be so presumptuous or egotistical to see ourselves as being more like Jesus than anyone else in our passage today. But some of us might find ourselves identifying with Peter, that intriguing and bold disciple who seems almost the embodiment of enthusiasm. Peter is impulsive and jumps into so many things, yet he seems so often to have the wrong end of the stick. He is so earnest and yet he contradicts himself so consistently. Peter is so often like you and me; he is so very human in the way that we are.
When Jesus tells him that Peter will deny him three times, he protests, saying he would never do that, but of course, he does. When Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am?’ and then asks, more pointedly, “Who do YOU say that I am?” Peter is the first to answer: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And yet when Jesus lays out the price that must be paid to fulfill that role, Peter objects to that hard truth. Barbara Brown Taylor hits the nail on the head: Peter is “an impetuous, outspoken man who both loves Jesus and lets him down, who richly deserves Jesus’ judgment but who also receives his grace.” (“Saved by Doubt,” The Seeds of Heaven, p. 57, W/JK Press, 2004.)
In the events we encounter this morning, Jesus has just fed five thousand men, not to mention all the women and children who were there too. It is no wonder that he needs a respite, and in truth, this is the first time in the Gospel of Matthew that Jesus is able to get away on his own to pray. He had tried to do so earlier, but then the crowds showed up, hungry for his teaching and eventually hungry also for food. And so after he teaches the crowds and feeds them, he dismisses them and tells the disciples to get into the boat and to go on ahead to the other side of the lake. The waves batter their boat, however, and the wind blows against them and they are far from the shore.
In those times, although some of the disciples are fishermen by trade and are familiar with being out on the water, nevertheless, the sea is a fearful place. It is a place of destruction and evil and death. Being out there in a storm in the middle of the night just makes it worse.
So it is that the disciples, huddled in fear in the boat in the center of the storm, are terrified when they see a figure walking toward them across the water. They cry out, “It is a ghost!” Jesus calls out to reassure them and says, “Take heart; it is I; do not be afraid.” In truth, what has been transmuted to us as “It is I,” is more accurately translated “I am.” I AM, the same words that God speaks when Moses asks for the name of God. In other words, Jesus is telling the disciples that in him, God is present with them and they should not be afraid. Given his impetuous nature, it is no surprise that it is Peter who responds immediately, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” (14: 26-28) “Lord, if it is you… if it is you…” Peter’s words here echo those spoken by the Tempter when Jesus was being tested in the wilderness. “If you are the Son of God…” do this and do that, the tempter says, and “if it is you,” Peter echoes. Conflicted between faith and doubt, Peter is striving to believe, to trust in Jesus.
For you and for me, there are also those moments, even if they are few and far between, when we try to be courageous ourselves, when we try to be bold and firm in our faith. We face a difficult diagnosis from the doctor or we are uncertain about the future of our job or some other personal crisis and we declare, even if only privately to ourselves, that we are going to entrust ourselves to God’s care and keeping.
But then, when it looks as if we may very well lose our jobs or perhaps even our lives, then we, like Peter, sink into the depths of panic and question whether or not God is near and really cares about us or even if God is real. Like him, we cry out, “Lord, save me! Save me…”
One of the most encouraging words in this story is “immediately.” For just as soon as Peter cries out to Jesus for help, IMMEDIATELY Jesus reaches out his hand to Peter, pulls him up and saves him. Without a moment of hesitation, Jesus is there for Peter and will not let him perish. The saving power of God is not delayed or deferred, but comes as soon as Peter asks for it. But with the saving hand, there is also a rebuke: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” The rebuke does not bring rejection, however. It is more a verdict than a sentence.
And that’s the way life is for us. On the one hand, we strive both to have faith and to step out in faith. And on the other hand, we doubt and we fall. All of us, at one time or another, may very well be like Peter in this event in the greater Gospel story of salvation, torn between faith and doubt. Some of us, perhaps all of us in rare moments, may be like Peter in the story.
But many of us, if not most, are perhaps more often like the other disciples in this story. We may not have a starring role, but those less prominent roles are not to be disregarded or dismissed. When Jesus called the twelve disciples, his simple command was, “Follow me.” And they did. When he told them to get into the boat that evening and go across to the other side of the lake, they did not argue or object; they did so. It was no pleasure cruise for them, but they did what he told them to do; they followed. They were just as frightened and threatened as Peter was; they were in as much danger, but they did what Jesus had told them to do. Do you ever feel alone, out on the uncertain waters? Has that feeling ever occurred among this group of followers, within the life of this congregation? Indeed, Jesus’ walking out across the water was meant to save them, to assure them that they were not alone, that he was present with them when they needed him. He had said to them, “Follow me,” and they had done so.
There was a time when gaining admission to a college was not as complicated or as competitive as it is now. There were no College Board examinations, nor were extensive essays required of applicants. Sometimes, it was just a matter of submitting high school records and even a letter of recommendation by the parents of the prospective students. One father, back around the late 1930’s, was filling out a questionnaire that was sent to him to complete for his daughter’s application to a prestigious women’s college in the Northeast. One of the questions was, “Does your daughter exhibit the potential to be an outstanding leader?”
He wrote in the space provided, “I don’t know if my daughter is a good leader or not, but she is a very good follower.” A month or so later, he received a letter from the director of admissions at the college which stated, “Since we are admitting six hundred thirty-seven young women who show great promise of being outstanding leaders, based on recommendations from their parents, we are delighted to inform you that we shall look forward to welcoming at least one very good follower in your daughter. Congratulations.”
To be a follower, either like Peter or the other disciples in the boat, can be a dangerous and costly path. At the very least, it can be taxing. But surely it manifests itself in the ministries of this congregation, where through Miriam’s Kitchen and Project Create and Calvary Women’s Shelter and so many others, when those who cry out, “Save me,” you DO reach out immediately in acts of compassion and justice, extending a saving hand after the example of our Lord and in his name. C. S. Lewis, in his famous work, Mere Christianity, crystallizes a thought from Martin Luther when he writes, “Every Christian is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else.” And that is what you do! You become little Christs every time someone cries out in need, “Save me,” or words similar and you reach out immediately with the hand of Christ through the varied ministries of this church.
For some, living as a faithful follower will not end as we might have hoped. No great reward or acclamation may come our way. For some, it may even bring suffering. The late William Sloane Coffin, former chaplain at Yale and minister of the Riverside Church in New York, suffered the death of his son who was only twenty-four, when Alex was driving through a rainstorm in Boston and crashed his car into Boston harbor.
In a sermon he delivered at Riverside less than two weeks after Alex had died, Coffin quoted Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, “The world breaks everyone, then some become strong in the broken places.” (Sermons from Riverside, entitled Alex’s Death) Coffin went on to say, “My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.” (Ibid.) The faithful follower Bill Coffin was able to affirm that even in the very midst of his great loss, God was there and had not abandoned him.
And so the disciples in the boat that night were able to say, when Jesus came among them and saved them from the ravages of the storm, “Truly you are the Son of God.” May we be able to say the same, today and at the end of our days. Amen.