Presented at Memorial Congregational Church, Sudbury, Massachusetts, August 7, 2011.
Scriptures: I Kings 19:9-18 and Matthew 14:22-33
The other day, while running errands in my car, I encountered a timid driver. You know the type: hesitating at intersections, driving slow or speeding up unexpectedly. These drivers start to do one thing, and then without warning change their mind. If they’re at a stop sign, you don’t know whether to go, or wait for them. If they’re trying to make a turn, you don’t know whether to go around them, or not, because you know they might suddenly turn right in front of you.
It would be far better for everyone, including themselves, if these people would just make a choice and go with it, rather than second guessing themselves and changing their minds. They don’t project confidence, don’t clearly indicate their intentions and leave us guessing as to how to respond.
These drivers seem to have no faith in the choices they are making. Maybe they’re unsure of where they’re going, or perhaps they’re afraid of the consequences of making a wrong choice. When they do choose, they change their minds the second there is any reason to doubt the decision they’ve made.
In today’s Gospel reading, when Jesus rebukes Peter, saying “You of little faith”, this is exactly what he’s talking about. It wasn’t that Peter really had “little faith”. Because, frankly, if someone told us to jump out of a tiny fishing boat into windy, heaving seas at 3:00 in the morning, would we do it? Peter did, and didn’t hesitate.
Our readings today both deal with individuals who, like timid drivers, were hesitating, looking for someone or something to resolve for them the challenges they were facing. They were unable or unwilling to make decisions, or enact those decisions, by themselves.
Let’s start with Peter’s walking on water.
When I was a kid – maybe 12 or 13 – I used to think “Well, if bumbling old Peter could do it…” Hmmmm…
So, I’d go to the edge of the beach and try walking out on top of the water – like this … – never worked, my feet always got wet. I even tried closing my eyes … that didn’t help either. It never occurred to me that in trying this while barefoot, in broad daylight, in shallow water, and (just in case) wearing my swim trunks, I had eliminated every risk and uncertainty, which meant I’d also eliminated any place for faith to operate. On the other hand, Peter, on that boat that night, was faced with an overwhelming abundance of places for his faith to operate.
In preparing for this meditation, I thought long on what Jesus was trying to teach Peter when he said, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Jesus didn’t just condemn others outright, not even his enemies. Instead, he was always trying to teach them, and us, to think about what we were really doing … or saying … or feeling … to enable us to make better choices in light of our faith … to help us come closer to the Kingdom of God. So, what was the lesson for Peter?
When reading this story, modern readers usually focus on the physical impossibility of walking on water. This is not how the ancients looked at it. In the Bible, water, particularly stormy water, is often a metaphor for disorder, or the vast chaotic blackness that existed before God brought order and light through Creation. In fact, in this story, the water is both chaotic and dark: waves battering the disciples’ small fishing boat this way and that as they attempt to cross that huge lake late one night.
What would have sprung to mind for those who first heard these stories is that Jesus was coming to help his disciples. He was demonstrating his power over chaos and all of Creation, and that nothing could hinder him. The point of the story was not the miracle of walking on water, but that Jesus will always come to us when we need him, no matter where we are or how dire our situation, and that we only need a little faith.
The disciples in the boat are also a metaphor for the Church: we are all in the boat together: a tiny refuge battered and tossed by the world around us. And yet, even in the midst of all the chaos and uncertainty, Jesus comes and says “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
At this point in the story, Peter feels he must prove that it really is Jesus, and not a ghost. So, he demands a sign: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
When he says “Lord, if it is you” – Peter is both honoring Jesus as Lord and yet questioning whether it really is him in the same breath. He doesn’t say “allow me to come to you” or “enable me to come to you” he says “command me.” Peter is demanding that Jesus drag him out of the boat. Peter is not acting in faith. Instead, he’s relying on Jesus to carry the whole load. He is muddled, confused, tentative, and not willing or perhaps not able to employ his own faith.
When Jesus says “come” he is commanding Peter to get out of the boat, as Peter demanded. But, Peter is not relying on his own faith to walk on water, he is relying on Jesus’ command to do so.
Another thing, suppose it really had been a ghost? If it had said “come” – Peter would have jumped out of the boat … end of story.
We have a conundrum here. Peter’s demand of Jesus shows he had little or no faith. Yet he jumped out of the boat, apparently without hesitation, when commanded to do so. He was giving mixed signals, like those timid drivers. We don’t know where he’s going with all this, and he doesn’t seem to be able to make up his own mind.
It was Jesus’ power that enabled Peter to walk on the water. Yet, Peter began to sink when he saw how big the waves were. Peter hadn’t lost faith in his own ability because, as we’ve already seen, he never had that faith to begin with. However, he believed Jesus could make him walk on water. But when confronted with the reality of the waves and the wind, he lost even that little bit of faith, and so began to sink. Then, he shows faith again, crying out “Lord, save me!” and – once again – Jesus responds to his plea: grabbing Peter’s arm and physically hauling him out of the water.
Three times in this brief story we see Peter doubting: at first he thinks he sees a ghost. Then, even after Jesus’ reassurance of “it is I, do not be afraid,” Peter demands proof in the form of a miraculous sign which requires no faith on his part. Even so, and this is important, Jesus responds to even this, saying to Peter “Come.” Finally, Peter doubts that Jesus’ power can really keep him safe from the wind and the waves; and in doubt, he failed.
Yet, Peter also demonstrates faith three times in this story: First, by saying “Lord, command me” in his demand of Jesus. Second, by jumping out of the boat when commanded to do so. And finally, by appealing to Jesus for help as he began to sink.
In challenging Peter’s wavering faith, Jesus doesn’t say “You of No Faith” but “You of Little Faith.” Peter has faith, but isn’t willing to let go of his doubt, of his fear, of his uncertainty. Peter, like those “uncertain drivers”, is defeating himself through a wavering, little, faith.
You see, faith is action and commitment, not just a state of mind, not just a noun. Over and over, the Bible says things about Faith like “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Or, “let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” Or, “Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
The Bible teaches us that Faith is about moving forward in spite of uncertainty. Faith is about taking action, and being committed to it; about taking the initiative to move into the future, in spite of the dark and scary unknowns all around us. We need faith to live every minute of every day. Even getting up in the morning is an act of faith: faith that this new day is a day worth living, a day that will bring forth fruit out of our investment in life.
Peter wasn’t claiming faith for himself. Like an uncertain driver, he was taking tentative steps and then backtracking even before he’d taken his new path. Peter’s faith was not absent, but it was neither persistent nor active. He was trapped in a web of uncertainty and doubt.
When he says “You of Little Faith, why did you doubt?” Jesus is aiming right at this root of uncertainty. The uncertainty, the scariness, the darkness of the situation did not change. What had to change was Peter. Jesus was encouraging Peter to move past doubt, to reclaim his faith and make it an active and positive force, to move forward even though the path was not certain, to have faith in himself.
When reading the passage about Elijah in I Kings 19, we focus on God’s “still small voice” that was there in the cave with him. What we don’t talk much about how Elijah got there to begin with.
You see, just a few days earlier, Elijah was three hundred miles away and on top of the world. He had challenged the prophets of Baal to prove whose god was the one true God.
We all know the story, of how the 450 prophets of Baal built a huge alter of wood, danced all day, cut themselves with knives and made awesome prayers and vows, but to no effect, nothing happened.
When his turn came, Elijah rebuilt the long neglected stone alter to the Lord God that was in that place and dug a trench around it. He laid wood and a sacrifice on top, doused it with water, enough to soak everything and fill that trench, and then said a simple prayer. Instantly, fire from heaven came and burned up not just the wood and the sacrifice, but the stone alter, too; and even “licked up the water in the trench.”
This proved to the people that the Lord God was the one true God, that Baal was a fraud, and that Elijah was a great Prophet – not someone to mess with! The people’s acceptance of the Lord God ended the long drought that had plagued the land. In the passion of that moment, they, led by Elijah, massacred all of the false prophets.
So why was Elijah hiding in a cave, alone, scared, depressed: hundreds of miles from where all of this had happened? Why was Elijah claiming that Israel was throwing down the Lord God’s alters and killing his prophets? Why did Elijah say that now they wanted to take his life, too? Nothing in chapter 18 makes us think that this is the case.
What caused Elijah to run – and I mean run – the entire length of Israel, then wander out into the Sinai desert for “40 days and 40 nights” before he came at last to the mountain. The mountain where God came down and gave his people the Torah. Tradition says that the cave where Elijah was hiding is the same one where Moses hide his face as God passed by in the flesh, the place where Moses encountered God.
What had caused Elijah to be transformed so, and so quickly, from a Hero of the Faith to a frightened refugee? Why was he hidden in that cave, perhaps the place he thought held the best hope of directly encountering God?
The answer is Queen Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab of Israel. Jezebel, the patroness of the prophets of Baal. Jezebel, whose name, for us, is synonymous with immorality, cunning treachery, and idolatry.
Now, when King Ahab came home from the great events of that day and related the whole story to Jezebel, I imagine that she was not happy, that she wanted revenge. Yet, instead of sending a squad of soldiers to kill Elijah, or even an assassin, she sends just a small note, which read: “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.”
Why not just kill him outright? I believe the answer is that she knew that if she had killed him, he would be a martyr. If he ran away, he would be a fraud. Her plan worked perfectly.
As soon as Elijah read her note, he ran out of the gates of the city and did not stop until he reached Beersheba, about 110 miles away. Then he set off into the desert.
For those 40 days and nights, Elijah had no one to talk to – obviously. I’m sure he was turning this whole episode over and over and over in his mind, trying to make sense out of what had happened and to find justification for his own actions and feelings. Whether it was his conscious intention or not, the explanation Elijah gave to God was a description of his emotional state, not a dry statement of the facts.
Elijah was tired of being a prophet, tired of fighting all these battles, tired of having to speak for God. He wanted God to carry the load for a while. Elijah was burned out. A personal threat to his life was something that had never happened before, and was the last straw. Being a prophet wasn’t fun any more.
So, how do we link these two stories: that of a man who was not yet ready to wholeheartedly serve the Lord, and that of a man who had had enough?
Elijah in effect wanted the Lord to “fire” him from his day job, but was given tough love instead. The Lord gave no credence to Elijah’s complaints that “everyone was against him” and that “he alone was left” – no sir! Instead, God corrected Elijah on the facts, then sent him back, because he still had work to do.
Elijah didn’t get pity, but also got no punishment, just like Peter. They were both running away. Elijah was running in a physical sense, and Peter in an emotional sense. Doubt, fear and uncertainty had overwhelmed both of them.
Yet, both received understanding. Both were given new opportunities to grow in their faith. Both were given a chance to reclaim and grow their faith through the rebuke of a loving God.
So, will I try walking on water again? … Nah.
But, the next time I encounter a tentative driver, I’ll remember that we’ve all been there, that we all have times when the road ahead is not clear, that we all go through dark valleys of doubt and fear, that we have all defeated ourselves through doubt. Yet the Lord is there for us. So – hopefully – next time, instead of gripping my steering wheel and muttering something unrepeatable under my breath, I’ll say a prayer for them; because, you know – we all need a little faith.
Copyright (c) 2011, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via mention of my name on your site, or a link back to this site).