“Why did you doubt?”

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 9, 2020 – Matthew 14:22-33 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer via Zoom

This sermon, which I preached this morning, is a slightly different version of the sermon I wrote as a contribution to this week’s installment of Sermons that Work.

Today we find Jesus’ disciples terrified on the Sea of Galilee. It’s certainly not the first time. The disciples are no strangers to this lake. Even before Jesus called them to fish for people, they fished here for fish, no doubt risking life and limb for a good catch. 

A quick look back at Matthew’s chapter eight reminds us of another traumatic experience they had not so very long ago. You may recall the story. A windstorm arises, so strong that the boat is swamped and it begins to sink.

Scared to death, the disciples yell to Jesus, who is fast asleep in the back. “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” Jesus responds calmly, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he gets up, rebukes the wind, calms the sea, and the disciples are amazed.

Today, however, it’s not the weather that frightens the disciples. They can handle being tossed about by strong winds and waves. Been there, done that.

Today they are frightened by something else entirely—an eerie figure walking toward them on the surface of the sea. “It’s a ghost!” they cry. No, Jesus assures them, “It is I; do not be afraid.”

Alas, these comforting words do not quite satisfy Peter, who seeks further proof of Jesus’ identity. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

Jesus agrees, “C’mon, Peter.” And Peter goes. But after just a few steps, the wind startles him and he begins to sink, crying, “Lord, save me!” Of course, Jesus does save him, but he also asks him this sobering question, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Jesus’ question is a different version of the same one he asked back in chapter eight. It’s déjà vu right here in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. Make no mistake, these questions are just as much for us as they were for those early disciples.

Why do we doubt? Jesus calmed a storm with his voice, fed five thousand people with only a few loaves of bread, and walked on water. In light of all this, why would Peter—or we—ever lack faith?

Well, right off the top of my head, I’d say: fear. Like the disciples, sometimes storms pop up in our lives and scare us half to death. That’s what storms do. It’s only natural for a dog to hide under the bed when he hears thunder; for a child to cling to her mother when she sees lightning; for the driver to pull over when he can no longer see the road. 

And it’s not just wind and rain storms that scare us. So do the metaphorical storms of our lives. Things like global pandemics, contentious election cycles, horrifying diagnoses, economic downturns, and relational discord can shake us to the core.

In the midst of difficult setbacks like these, it’s not uncommon for anyone to doubt their faith in God. That’s exactly what happened to Peter in today’s gospel, that’s exactly what the disciples did in chapter eight, and it’s exactly what can happen to us.

All Jesus does is ask why. Like any good teacher, he already knows the answer, but he wants us to learn it, too.

Simply put, I’d say it’s because we are human. Fear is, quite literally, instinctual. Humans are wired with a fight-or-flight response. We have this reflex for a reason. When our lives are in jeopardy or—more commonly for us today—when our identity is threatened, we are naturally inclined to react in fleeting ways.

When that happens, we tend to leave calm, rational thought behind, and we often need some assistance getting back to a more faithful frame of mind.

If you took Public Speaking in high school of college, you probably learned how important it is to engage the audience. Speakers have many tools for doing this, but perhaps the most important is the rhetorical question.

Rhetorical questions engage audience members by asking questions that get listeners thinking about their own answers. And as they do, they become personally connected to the subject in question.

This is to say, Jesus is not asking his rhetorical question, “Why did you doubt?” to shame Peter. Jesus is not in the shaming business. Instead, he uses the question to get a frightened Peter to focus on what’s most important. And in the realm of life’s storms, faith is more important than safety, or at least comes before it.

Faith is the foundation of human life, as important as food, water, and shelter. Only after faith is secured can safety add value to living. This is the message of the cross. This is the message of Jesus’ whole life. Faith is what Jesus wants Peter—and all of us—to focus on when storms come.

Jesus’ question prompts us to realize that faith is always within our reach. Even in the stormiest times of life, when we most doubt our ability to make it through, we can remain faithful to God.

It may not be easy. Staying faithful to God doesn’t simply mean going through the motions. It doesn’t mean saying the creed while thinking about a shopping list, or repeating Bible verses from memory. It means for us, just like Peter, refocusing on our commitment to faith itself.

We will not always be perfectly faithful. Doubts will creep in. The important thing is to return to a place of faith that is strengthened and sustained by a relationship with God and nurtured by participating in life in Christ.

You can return to faith by reading scripture, praying, attending worship. Each Sunday when we confess our sins, we admit that we don’t always get everything right, but we repent and recommit ourselves to walking in God’s ways once again.

Repent and recommit. This is the nature of the Christian life.

Peter is a prime example of what it means to live a life of holy imperfection. He has misunderstood before, and he will misunderstand—and even deny—again. But today we see him refocusing on faith (with a little help from Jesus, of course).

Watching Peter’s journey reminds us of our journey, a journey on which we can—and should—choose faithfulness. And a journey on which we, just like Peter, repent, recommit, and focus on a faithfulness that comes from the knowledge and love of Jesus, through whom we experience the grace of God time and time again.

Feeding on the grace of God

Saturday in Proper 17C – September 7, 2019 – Luke 6:1-5 – St. Mary’s Convent, Sewanee

One sabbath while Jesus was going through the cornfields, his disciples plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them. But some of the Pharisees said, ‘Why are you doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’ Jesus answered, ‘Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave some to his companions?’ Then he said to them, ‘The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.’

—–

The problem is not that the disciples are stealing the grain. (Travelers were allowed to take a bit for nourishment.) The problem is that they are harvesting it and threshing it, that is, plucking it and rubbing the chaff away in their hands.

That’s work, and according to God’s law, work is not allowed on the sabbath. It’s no wonder the Pharisees raise concerns. Resting on the sabbath defines Jewish identity. Along with table customs, it is part of the sacred piety of the Jews.

In response to their question, Jesus cites a biblical example of human need being considered before the law. Then he says, “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”

I must admit, hearing such a strong Christological statement at first made me nervous. It’s not that I’m uncomfortable with an authoritative Jesus. I’m just all too conscious that some confused preachers have corrupted his words in order to discount Jewish identity.

We are followers of Jesus. We should never be ashamed of that. We should rejoice in Christ and share him with the world, but not at the expense of the dignity of others.

Interpreting this passage to mean that all of God’s teachings before Jesus’ time are somehow irrelevant is nonsensical and problematic. We don’t simply want to say, “That’s all a bunch of baloney!” And I don’t think Jesus means for us to. On the contrary, God’s laws are important. To this day they shape Christian—and Jewish—culture.

Consider the context in which Luke wrote. The “Jesus movement” was in its infancy. Folks were still trying to make sense of it all, and many Jewish followers of Jesus weren’t sure whether or not to continue keeping Jewish customs.

Perhaps the Gospel writer is offering a response to such question. Following the law is not necessary to be a follower of Jesus. It can be done, but it’s not the primary identity marker of a Christian. The primary identity marker of a Christian is life in Christ. That means following Jesus and living like Jesus, who took on our human nature, lived a human life, and died a painful human death.

God loves us so much that he shares our journey with us—each of us—in the flesh. Jesus walks beside us along the way, just as he did his earliest disciples. And he wants what’s best for us, even if it does, from time to time, mean doing a little work on the sabbath. 

After all, we do need to eat. That’s why we’re here, isn’t it? Even on a Saturday morning, at the outset of the sabbath day, we gather to do the work of God’s people, to pluck a bit of living grain, not from the field but from the altar, and to feed on the grace of God. 

Freedom to follow

21st Sunday after Pentecost – October 14, 2018 – Mark 10:17-31 – Christ Church, Alto, TN

We often hear today’s gospel passage cited as “the rich young ruler,” but that portrayal is the result of a mash up of all three different gospel accounts of this story. Matthew’s version calls the man both rich and young. Luke’s account calls him rich and identifies him as a ruler. Mark’s account, which we read today, really does neither. It does say he has a lot of possessions, and Jesus goes on to discuss wealth, so we take the point, but technically speaking, we make a lot out of this passage that is not actually there. 

Reading the passage as Mark has laid it out for us, I find nothing inherently entitled or snobby about the man who approaches Jesus. Some people identify him as pretentious; they think he’s trying to prove something. Those are largely editorial comments which we lay over the text instead of letting it speak to us as it is. 

Let’s review what we get from today’s text. Jesus is about to leave town and a man runs up and kneels before him. The man asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” 

“You know the commandments,” says Jesus, “Don’t murder, commit adultery, steal, lie, or defraud. Honor your father and mother.” “I have kept all of these,” says the man. 

Jesus looks at him lovingly and says, “You still lack one thing: sell everything you own, give the money to the poor, and then come follow me.” 

The man goes away grieving because he has many possessions. Well, wouldn’t you? If after trying to live the best life you could someone told you that you still needed to get rid of all your material goods, wouldn’t that make you a little sad? 

It’s a lot to ask of someone, even if you’re not wealthy. Perhaps especially if they’re not wealthy. Material goods aren’t all frivolous; they provide us comfort and make living life possible (at least the way we are accustomed to living it). There’s nothing wrong with grieving the loss of the material things in your life. Right now there are thousands of people in the Florida panhandle doing just that in the wake of Hurricane Michael. 

My spouse constantly urges me to go through my closet. “You have too many clothes,” he says, “You don’t even wear them all.” He’s right. So a few weeks ago I went through them and donated a huge trash sack full. It did, I hate to admit, involve some grief. All change does, even if it’s just donating old clothes. 

What if we don’t think of the man in our story as a spoiled rich kid? Instead, what if we think of him as a man who comes to Jesus to ask a legitimate question? “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” In response, Jesus is honest with him. 

I think that’s a question we all struggle with. I do, even as a priest of the Church. What must I do? What must we do? (As if it’s in our control.)

When the man asks this question Jesus says, “You know the commandments.” “Yes, and I keep them all,” the man replies. 

We all know the Ten Commandments. Even if we can’t name them in order, we can probably get somewhere close. We learned as kids that these are rules to follow in order to follow God. We do our best to keep them. 

But there’s more, Jesus tells us. The commandments are only a part of the deal. You still lack one thing: “Sell what you own, give the money to the poor, and then come follow me.”

If you ask me, that sounds like three things. Sell, give, follow. But I think Jesus is really getting at the “follow me” part. It’s just that those first two things—selling your possessions and giving the money to the poor—are prerequisites to doing the third thing well. 

In order to follow Jesus we have to give up the things that tie us to this earthly realm. We have to get rid of the things that distract us from the capital-T Truth. It’s ironic. The one thing we lack is getting rid of all the things we have. What we lack is what we have. 

People have been following this teaching for centuries. St. Francis, whose feast day we celebrated with a blessing of the animals last Sunday, is well known for casting aside his great wealth in order to follow Jesus. He famously removed all his clothes upon his conversion as a way of renouncing his reliance on material goods. To this day monks and nuns take vows of poverty in order to focus more singularly on a vocation of service to Christ. By unshackling themselves from the goods that bind them to realities of this world, they find a freedom to follow their God with everything that are, by giving up everything that they have. 

Their example is one for all of us. In order to follow Jesus we have to completely reorient our lives. If you really want to inherit eternal life, then go free yourself of all of the stuff that weighs you down—whatever it is—and then come back and follow Him.

We’ve seen this before in the Gospel. Remember when Jesus called his disciples? He said, “Leave your boats, leave your nets, leave your parents, and come follow me.” 

Your material possessions are just things, but Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. What you lack is what you’re hanging on to.

Peter heard it, Andrew heard it, James and John heard it. Maybe we would know this man’s name if he had done the same. Maybe he’s the would-be thirteenth apostle who couldn’t quite comes to terms with the real cost of following Jesus. 

What keeps you from realizing your freedom to follow Jesus? Is it something that you cling to? Is it something that you need to take out and put on the curb?

I imagine there is something, but I don’t say that to judge you. I think it’s true of everyone. It’s our nature. We cling to things instead of God. Those things can get in the way of our relationship with God. 

It may be money. Or it might be something else. For some people in this great nation of ours it’s their approval rating. For other people it’s always being right. Being able to prove that you are right and know more than everyone else, that’s the problem. Putting too much stock in your own opinion of your knowledge of the facts will get in the way of God. 

For some it’s fear, a palpable sense of dread that they face waking up every morning. Some can’t stand facing a world that they are convinced is utterly hopeless. 

Is it any of those things, or is it something different? I’m not telling you literally to sell everything you own. I don’t think that would be in our best interest, but I do urge you to think about what separates you from God. What do you lack? Go to a quite place this week, and search for the answer. When you find it, take it to the curb, tie it down, or burn it with a pile of autumn leaves, and be free.

Storms

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost – June 24, 2018 – Mark 4:35-41

I had the privilege of serving the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Tracy City, TN today. Here’s my sermon. 

In today’s Gospel Jesus’ disciples are afraid. They are in the middle of the sea of Galilee in a crowded boat when a terrible squall gathers and jeopardizes their very lives. These men are not strangers to this lake. Before Jesus called them to fish for people they fished here often, no doubt risking the occasional storm for a good catch. 

But today is different. Today the waves are so big that they spill into the boat which sinks lower and lower into the water. Today the situation is out of control. Today they are afraid. Jesus, however, is not. The same waves that terrify the disciples have rocked Jesus to sleep.  He’s lying down on a cushion in the back of a boat, resting after a long day of telling parables. 

The rain and the wind don’t phase him. This scares the disciples. When their fear turns to anger they lash out at him. “Wake up!” they yell. “We’re about to sink! Don’t you care what’s happening to us?! Don’t you care that we are at the very brink of death?”

Storms are fearsome things. You know that. I know that. Storms gather frequently atop this mountain. We’ve even had a few this week. Dogs run under beds to hide from the thunder, children hug their mothers for fear of the lightning. 

We often use the metaphor of the storm to describe times of adversity in our lives. A stormy time in life is a time of sickness, divorce, or money troubles. I am reminded of a cartoon man in a television commercial. When depressing times come into his life, storm clouds gather over him, thunder rumbles, and rain falls on him. As life gets better the clouds part, the sun shines, and peace and contentment return. 

We all recognize stormy times in life, but we don’t always recognize the different kinds of storms. There are two kinds of storms in our lives. There are external storms and internal storms. 

External storms are storms that occur outside of us, storms that are inflicted upon us. These are political storms, economic storms, storms of  immigration policy, natural disasters, car accidents, gas prices, and bitter partisan disagreements. These are the storms we face when we get fired from our job or lose a loved one. These storms result in intense arguments, lost money, or personal injury. 

But there are also internal storms, storms that arise inside of us. These storms cause anguish and confusion. These are storms of mental illness, low self-esteem, or intense guilt. These are storms that lead to depression and lack of faith. These storms result in doubts and fears that we cannot always express. 

When we face external storms it is easier to assign blame, pass the buck, or seek solutions from others. But inward storms leave us even more vulnerable. Often, no one knows they are brewing but us. Inward storms are hard to talk about, hard to understand, and hard to admit to. 

The disciples are facing an outward storm, a struggle with a force of nature beyond their control. They get frustrated because Jesus is so calm. They lash out at him—“Don’t you care that we are perishing?!” When Jesus quiets the storm an eery, dead calm falls over the green water. The men in the boat are relieved. Their troubles are gone. (Or so they think.) The disciples think they are home free, but Jesus knows better. Jesus knows that their fear isn’t just about the tempest. This is about what’s going on inside of them. 

Jesus scolds them, “Why were you afraid? Do you still not have any faith? After everything I’ve taught you??” Some translations put it this way— “Why are you such cowards? After all the parables I’ve told you, and the miracles I’ve performed, have you no faith? Did you really think I would let you die?” 

Of course Jesus cared that the disciples were in danger. And he did something about it. Jesus always cares about the storms in our lives. And Jesus knows that just like the external storms that rage around us, we often face interior storms—we don’t feel whole, and we lack faith because we are not sure who in the world to listen to. We’re not sure who our friends are. We’re not sure who has our best interest at heart. And when we struggle with these things, we lose track of ourselves. And we lose track of God. 

I know an old man whose wife died and he was left as a young single father. He did everything for his children. Woke them up, made their breakfast, sent them off to school. After work he sewed their clothes, bookmarked bedtime stories, and prepared dinner. When they went to college he sent them care packages, and made special preparations for holiday celebrations. But now they are grown, scattered across the country, and he rarely sees his grandchildren. Adding insult to injury, when Father’s Day rolls around, no one calls. No greeting cards come. He feels lost, utterly scorned. The storm clouds gathered.  “Those ungrateful kids! Am I no longer a father?” he wonders. “How did it come to this?” His entire identity is wrapped up in the children. But now that’s in jeopardy. A part of him is missing. 

This is familiar territory to many of us. Sometimes, like the disciples, like the old man, we don’t know who we are. The danger of not knowing who we are makes external storms difficult to face, and we make bad decisions. 

The old man was afraid that he’d be alone forever, so he tried getting a cat for some company. But he hates cats, so that didn’t work. Finally he remembered his own father’s preferred bandage and reached for a bottle. Again and again he drank until he couldn’t stop. 

The disciples are stunned, shocked, and surprised by their circumstance. The storm caught them off guard. There were literary knocked off their usual course. They were not sure what would happen or how they would cope facing this new disruption. All they could do was fear.

Jesus tells them not that he doesn’t care about the external storms in their lives, but that as long their internal storms rage, as long as they don’t know who they are—or whose they are—they will not prepared to deal with the challenges that come their way. We can become so consumed with our fear, our anger, and self loss, that we fail to recognize that Jesus claims us as his own and no one can change that. The external storms make us doubt our worth. We’d rather argue and complain and blame others (to make them look worse than us) than we would say a prayer or read a our favorite passage of scripture, a passage that reminds us just how much we are loved.

Through his death Jesus gave us the power to do much more than assign blame, point fingers, or panic. Through his death Jesus gave us the power to live BECAUSE we are loved as much as God loves anyone. In living we no longer have to fear death. Jesus rose so that we might know, remember, and trust the power of God. 

That day on the lake the disciples knew Jesus was with them, but they forgot about his saving power and his calming presence. So he had to remind them. 

So it is with us. Jesus is always with us. Jesus always loves us. Jesus is always there to remind us of his saving power and his calming presence. Jesus is always at hand with a grace that gives us the ability to know ourselves more surely, to calm us in adversity, and to know who we are, and whose we are. 

Jesus has already done the hard part. Our job is to remember that.