Leaps of Faith (Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost)

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Whenever you go on a Holy Land Tour, they always take you on a boat out into the middle of the Sea of Galilee, which is the setting of today’s Gospel reading.  The “sea” is really a large, fresh water lake.  And while it is a big lake, and the largest reservoir of fresh water in Israel today, it’s only about 13 miles long and 8 miles wide.  On most days, it’s easy to see the other side.  It’s pretty and surrounded by mountains.  And on two of the trips I’ve taken, including the last one with Prince of Peace folks four years ago, the day on the lake was an absolutely gorgeous day.  It was sunny and warm and the lake was so still it was like a mirror.

That wasn’t the way it was on my second trip.  That morning, we had been staying overnight at a hotel with a breakfast dining room that overlooked the Sea of Galilee, and our schedule had us going out on the lake soon after breakfast.  But as we looked out on the lake during breakfast, it looked like the beginning of that novel that Snoopy always wrote, “it was a dark and stormy night”!  Or at least, a dark and stormy morning.  There were literally white caps on the lake.  

I thought about the storms I had read about, like the one in this morning’s Gospel reading, and wondered if this was bad enough to be considered a “storm”, until one of the guys on the tour, who was a retired Navy officer piped up, “No way I’m going out on a boat in that!”  And this is in spite of the fact that we would be going out on a MUCH bigger boat…

The tour company also realized this, and we ended up going out on our trip later in the day, after the storm had subsided.  But one of the things you learn when you take that trip is that storms like this happen suddenly and without warning.  Even with bigger boats and life jackets, they’re still a threat.  And the first disciples of Jesus knew this, and had probably been through many bad storms before.

The one in today’s Gospel reading was arguably worse, because it happened in the middle of the night, when it was also hard to see.  And for reasons that the Gospel writers never explain, Jesus had sent the disciples on ahead in the boat while he remained where they had been when he fed the 5000.  But then “early in the morning” (which means something like 2 am), Jesus comes walking on the water towards the boat, and the disciples vaguely make out something, which they figure to be a ghost.  But Jesus identifies himself, and tells them not to be afraid.

And it’s at this point – and only in Matthew’s Gospel – that Peter, who should know better than to get out of a boat in a storm like that, decides he doesn’t want to wait for Jesus to reach them.  He says to Jesus, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

It’s important to note here that this is Peter’s idea, not Jesus’ idea!  But Jesus accommodates Peter, and tells him to come.  I don’t know if Peter actually expected Jesus to let him do this, or whether he expected Jesus to tell him not to be an idiot and stay in the boat where it was safer.  But when Jesus tells Peter he can come to him, Peter actually steps out of the boat, and at least at first, walks on the water like Jesus.

As we’re getting ready for Confirmation in the fall, we always ask the 9th graders to write “Faith Statements”, which are intended to be an opportunity to write about what faith in Jesus means to them.  And when I explain the assignment to them, I remind them that faith can be an intellectual understanding of who God is and how God works in your life.  Faith can also be a feeling of being close to God, and confidence that God has your back.  But faith can also be an action – a way of living in which you act confidently and take a “leap of faith” because of your trust in Jesus.

And I use this passage to illustrate a “leap of faith”.  Peter hears Jesus’ call, and he literally takes a leap of faith out of the boat.  But of course, the story doesn’t end with that first step, and it’s important to notice that Peter’s “leap of faith” involves several things:

  • First, Peter has to be willing to actually do something.  Even if it’s his idea to get out of the boat, when Jesus says, “OK – come on down!”, Peter has to be willing to take those first steps and move his body into an unknown and even hostile environment in order to reach Jesus…
  • Because the environment into which Peter steps is dangerous and hostile, he has to stay focused on Jesus and Jesus’ call.  And at first, he does, and it seems to go OK.  But then, he “noticed the strong wind”, and really, how could you not “notice” it!?  Yet as he focuses on the danger and the distraction, he begins to sink…
  • And actually, sinking is important to this story, because as he sinks, Peter finds out that he has to rely on Jesus to save him.  He never actually reaches Jesus.  Jesus reaches him, and grabs him.  Peter’s act of faith is begun, continued and in the end, saved, by the power of Jesus, not his own strength to walk or even to “believe”… (I mean, if faith is about my ability to believe and trust so strongly that I can walk on water, than it might have ended with Peter drowning and the moral being that you need to “trust harder”; but the story ends with the reminder that it’s not human effort – or even human ability to trust harder – that finally saves Peter; the story begins, continues and ends by trusting Jesus not ourselves…)

And so Peter’s “leap of faith” – as goofy as it may seem – is actually an important reminder for what faith should look like for us as well.  It’s not that any of us should offer to jump out of a perfectly good boat in the middle of a storm, but rather that real faith often requires:

  • An actual act – not simply a thought or a feeling;  Peter actually did something, and that’s what made this story memorable.  This weekend, we’re highlighting Mar-Lu Ridge’s Capital Campaign, and I don’t know how it’s been for them, but over the years almost every time I get involved in a campaign to raise money or find volunteers or help, people almost always get up in front of others and say things like, “we’d like you to consider giving, or raising your giving”; or “we’d like you to consider helping or volunteering.”  Those campaigns are always immensely successful, because everyone is willing to “consider” those things…!  But what makes a difference is when you actually give; or help; or volunteer.  Faith doesn’t ask you to consider taking a step; it actually asks you to do it…!
  • Staying focused on what Jesus is calling us to do and where Jesus is calling us to be; that was hard for Peter because of the noise of the storm; but really, the noise of the “storm” is always all around us; and often, it’s deafening.  Often, the biggest challenge to continuing to take steps of faith is that the headwinds of all the stuff happening in our world and in our lives distract us so that we “notice” all the other stuff, instead of looking towards where Jesus may be calling us to be…
  • Trusting that Jesus will be with us, even WHEN we start to sink; if I waited until I was sure I was strong enough in faith to step out of the boat and manage things by myself, I’d never do it. And I’d be right that I couldn’t do it alone!  The lesson Peter should have learned was not that he shouldn’t take “leaps of faith” anymore, but that he shouldn’t trust that he could take those steps by himself.  And part of our ability to take leaps of faith is not ginning ourselves up with false bravado about how much we trust God, but rather being willing to acknowledge that the journey of our steps will require Jesus to help and save us, too…

Peter’s “leap of faith” was more than just taking that first step out of the boat.  And that’s what acts of faith are for us, too.  Leaps of faith require the willingness to continue to keep moving forward, even in the midst of storms in our lives.  Leaps of faith call us to stay focused on Jesus’s call, and on where Jesus is calling us to be, so that we don’t get distracted or scared off by all the other stuff that’s always going on around us.  And most of all, leaps of faith call us to never try to keep moving by ourselves, but always to rely on Jesus’ help each step of the way.