Sermon, 8/13/2023: Faith Meets Action

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11 Pentecost

Psalm 105:1–6, 16–22, 45b; Gen. 37:1–4, 12–28; Romans 10:5–15; Matthew 14:22–33

But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’  Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’  He said, ‘Come.’  Matthew 14:27 – 29

Last week, just hours after celebrating with you the beauty of the liturgy for the Feast of the Transfiguration, I retreated.  I drove north, to be with members of my small family in a cabin on a small lake in the mountains of central New Hampshire, in Grafton, New Hampshire, where the sound of birds and frogs and crickets was not drowned out by the marvels of our 21st century life: airplanes enroute to some distant locale, not by our smart phones, not by our television with its 24-hour news cycle.  I had promised my family and myself that I would leave behind business for those several days.

I thought, if Jesus could retreat to the mountains and be alone with three of his special people, as described in the gospel lesson for the Feast of the Transfiguration, so most surely could I leave behind for several days the “busyness” which occupies hours of daily life, that I could devote my attention to family.  Still, on the third day of our family retreat, I pulled myself away from the walks down to the shore of the lake, from observing the younger generation kayaking, from exciting board games, from the fictional excitement of my novel.  I retreated to my room, where I stole a glance at the lectionary appointed for today which I had “accidentally” laid in my overnight retreat luggage.

It was in that brief stolen period of reading, of breaking a promise to myself and to my family, that I was confronted with a conundrum.  After reflecting last week with you on the importance of the Transfiguration for us 21st century believers, and after reading the lectionary scheduled for today, the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, I conceded, in those few stolen minutes needed to read the lectionary, that I had a problem.  How could I to explain to a nonbeliever, as well as to fellow believers in Jesus Christ, that the Peter, who had been so moved by what he and James and John had witnessed on the mountain that he wanted to rush out and build three booths as evidence of Jesus’ divinity—how could Peter in such short time lose his faith, after proclaiming Jesus of Nazareth to be God’s Messiah?  Where was that transfiguring, that life-changing epiphany?  How could Peter begin to sink, after asking Jesus to calm the waters on the lake, so that he, Peter, could join Jesus in this feat against nature, as he, a fisherman, knew and understood nature?

I rejoined my family and laid aside my dilemma until I returned home. 

Once again home, in search of a solution to my question, I took myself to my library, and there among many of the “heavy duty tomes” History of the Church Fathers, and other volumes containing the thoughts of theologians such as Paul Tillich and Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann, all Germans of course, I came across one very thin book, a booklet actually, entitled “Holy Humor: Inspirational Wit & Cartoon,” by Cal and Rose Samra (New York: 1996).  This booklet had been given me years ago by a colleague in the chemistry department.  We both sang in a community chorus, he tenor and I bass; and prior to rehearsal begin, we would amuse ourselves with tales from our respective religious traditions.  He was and is Presbyterian, a layperson, and I, of course, Episcopal priest.  Polity aside, we discovered that we had much more in common than we voiced in public.

I thought of my former colleague, as I took that booklet from the shelf and leafed through it.  It was there, however, that I found a solution to my theological dilemma.  I share with you, from that little volume, both an anecdote and antidote to the problem of faith:
A tourist came too close to the edge of the Grand Canyon, lost his footing, and plunged over the side, clawing and scratching to save himself.  Somehow, he managed to grab hold onto a small bush.  Filled with fear, he called out, ‘Is there anyone up there?  Can anyone help me?’  He heard a reassuring voice say, ‘I’m here, the Lord your God.’

The man said, ‘I’m glad you came along.  I can’t hold on much longer.’  The Lord replied, ‘Before I help you, I want to know if you believe in me.’  The man answered, ‘Lord, I believe in you.  I go to church every Sunday.  I read my Bible, pray every day, and even put a few dollars in the collection plate.’

The Lord repeated, ‘But do you really believe in me?’  The man was getting more desperate, ‘Lord,’ said he, ‘you can’t believe how much I believe in you.  I believe!’  The Lord said, ‘Good.  Now let go of the branch.’  The man was silent for a moment and then yelled, ‘Is there anybody else up there?’

Our human nature forces us to be always on the lookout for a better deal.  To trust is to risk.  Without trust there is no risk; without risk there is no trust.  All of which brings my thoughts back to Peter, and to us.  Thomas, commonly called Doubting Thomas and my favorite among the disciples, gets it right.  Peter, on the other hand, had talked the talk, as it were, but had he ever taken himself aside, in order to reflect on what he, Peter, needed to do, in order to secure his own faith more firmly?  He observed others express their faith in The Teacher.  But, as Biblical record illustrates over and over again, Peter was the senior executive vice president for operations. He did not sense that the need for contemplation applied as well to him?  Peter desired just to get the job done.  Creative thinking was in another department, not under his jurisdiction.  My non-professional analysis of Peter may be summarized so: Act first; think later!

Peter’s actions and reactions are a different version of what a dear friend once put to me in the form of a question: “Do you know what the problem with us Christians is?”  Not pausing for my response, he continued: “The problem is that we are ‘balcony Christians.’  We are observers.  We sit above the fray.  We love to discuss religion and keep our faith at an intellectual, safe distance.  We dabble in this, and we dabble in that, but are fearful of actually walking on the water, ‘walking the talk,’ of our Christian faith,” said my friend.

Now on a roll, my friend elaborated: “I admit, Peter’s boldness challenges us not to sit in the boat all of our lives.  Quit procrastinating about being bold for the Lord!  Stop with the excuses, ‘I need more information.’  ‘We might be too far ahead of our time.’  ‘Surely, someone else is much more qualified to do that in the name of the Lord.’  Rash reactions can often cause more detriment than good, because we, in our goodwill, can often disrespect the traditions and values of the people whom we seek to help.  However, said he, we need, through honest and earnest reflection, to give God a chance to slip into our mind, to allow God to be in control.” exclaimed my friend.

In spite of Peter’s shortcomings, in spite of Peter’s rashness, a bravado, which, in my armchair analysis, cloaked often a timidity, a fear of appearing weak, in spite of those all too human attributes, Jesus the Christ sees something in Peter that he sees in each of us.  Jesus integrates the need to withdraw for contemplation and reflection and the urge to engage in life.  Like Peter, we, too, are unique in our personhood and are always becoming, never complete, but situated in the act of always becoming.  Peter is a great saint of the church, not because he was perfect, but because every time he began to sink, he also turned to Christ and began to rise again.  Christ does not turn him away, nor turn away from him, but says simply “come.”  That simple word is spoken to you and to me by the same Christ.

The lesson learned is a simple one.  Redemption does not depend on us; rather, it depends on the power of the hand that reaches out and pulls us up.  We do not find salvation in our faith, in our looking up, or in our crying out.  Rather, redemption finds us, because we know the power and the love of the one whose hand is reaching out to us when we sink.  Strength to confront the real illness that causes alienation among us of humankind is not found in us, but in the God of our creation, in the God of love.  God is always greater than our hearts or our faith.  God stays true to us, even when we look away or doubt or lose focus. 

Thus is my plea to you this week: Consider the words of the psalmist heard just moments ago:
Search for the Lord and his strength:
continually seek his face.
Remember the marvels he has done,
his wonders and the judgments of his mouth.
Be still and know that he is God.  AMEN.