“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.

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.