10th Sunday after Pentecost
August 13, 2017
28Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” – Matthew 14:22-33
So what a thrill it must have been for Peter, who knew these particular waters so well, to climb out of the boat on such a windy morning and place a foot down on the water. Almost as if he was finally conquering this body of water which had given him his livelihood, but which was also notoriously unpredictable and perhaps even sometimes a source of grief and worry. One solid step and then another. Doing the impossible with Jesus. Until he fell in. I used to imagine that his feet slowly started to ease into the water, but actually I wonder that he didn’t just go crashing through, unexpectedly surrounded by cold water, flailing in the midst of the water he was so accustomed to, the water he thought he may just have finally conquered.
Maybe you know the feeling. I had a panicked sinking feeling yesterday as white supremacists rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia. I was under no illusion that we had conquered racism, despite the ways in which I continue as a person of privilege to let it slip from the forefront of my mind. But I would have liked to think we were beyond the point where the KKK had rallies in the streets. Yes, thousands of counterprotestors gathered, people of faith prominently among them, which made me feel like maybe we could get a tiny foothold in containing such ugliness. But Friday evening before the official rally even began white supremacists wielding torches had cornered a group of clergy counterprotestors and were angrily threatening them. Yesterday they were throwing concrete bottles and throwing punches with brass knuckles against the people gathered to pray for an end to racism and driving cars into crowds of people. And I felt like we were suddenly crashing through the water and gasping for air and screaming for help. When nonviolent resistance fails, I don’t know where to turn next.
And maybe you know that sinking feeling, because it seemed like for a while we were getting a foothold on nuclear disarmament. There at least was talk, even if the actions weren’t yet enough. Tentative steps on the water. But this week’s news has left us with reminders that, political posturing aside, weapons of our own making capable of destroying life on the entire planet exist, and that our own nation holds exponentially more than most others. It feels like another crashing through into icy waters.
Maybe you know that sinking feeling, when you’ve watched people you love, and maybe even yourself, slowly experience decline. There are sometimes small signs of hope along the way, things that give a few more days or weeks or months or years, things that seem like they are turning around. A tiny step toward conquering the wild and uncontrollable sea of aging and disease. And then it all falls apart again. The longer the journey the more often the moments of crashing into the sea seem to come and go. And ultimately the sea does consume all of us.
Failure. That could be what we focus on in this story. And often we do. “Oh Peter of little faith, why did you doubt?” we hear Jesus say. And we let that rebuke seep into our souls, because we know all too well the feeling of failure, the feeling that we cannot control the uncontrollable, we cannot do the impossible.
But that is who we are. People who cannot walk on water. Maybe it’s our fear and doubt, but frankly its also basic physics. We aren’t people who are capable of taming the sea. We aren’t people who by our own power can defeat evil that exists in the world. We are not people who can conquer death. But that doesn’t mean this story ends in failure.
It doesn’t end in failure, most obviously because Jesus reaches out and lifts him up out of the water, out of the flailing panic of the choppy water and back into the safety of the boat. Even in our most panicked moments we are not beyond the reach of God and not beyond the love and care that keeps us from drowning.
This story doesn’t end in failure, because even though Jesus knows Peter can’t walk on water, Jesus believes in him, and calls him out of the boat anyway. This isn’t a failure because at God’s invitation Peter takes a wild adventure. It may not conquer the sea, but it’s a few steps in that direction. God’s call to us is not to defeat evil and death once and for all but at God’s invitation and with God’s power lent to us, to take some of those steps, to stand with those who are hurting and oppressed, to stand against racism and injustice, to take a few steps alongside those who are failing and struggling and drowning. And we can do it because God believes in us – believes in us more than we believe in ourselves. Jesus’ question to Peter isn’t so much a rebuke perhaps as it is a wondering out loud how it is that Peter doesn’t see in himself what Jesus sees so clearly in him.
And finally this story doesn’t end in failure because Jesus’ story doesn’t end in failure. Jesus’ story looks like it ends in failure and death. It looks like it ends in the defeat of God’s beloved. It looks like all is lost on the cross. And yet God sees there more than we can ourselves. God sees in failure an opportunity for resurrection. God sees already the rescue before we’ve begun to sink and flail and drown. God breathes life into us and extends a hand to pull us up. And offers God’s very self for us – the body of Christ given for you. For you who feel like you’ve got a foothold for now, for you who are sinking and drowning, for you who doubt yourselves, for you who cannot see in yourselves what God sees in you, for you who have been called to something important and felt failure, for you who are still waiting to hear the call. Reaching out in the wind and the storm, an invitation to join in the kingdom of resurrection and to know the power of God at work in us doing more than we could ask or imagine.
-Pastor Steven Wilco