Proper 7B. 24 June 2012.
Some time ago I heard a wonderful sermon about Jesus walking on the water. I'm sure you remember that story. Jesus sends his disciples in the boat the go across the Sea of Galilee, and they set off and journey overnight. As they are making their way across, late at night, Jesus comes walking on the water to meet them. At first they think it's a ghost.
I had that sermon in my mind when I read the text for this morning, because the preacher is a seminary professor, and he said that the story of Jesus walking on the water might not be historical, but rather one of the first Christian sermons. It is an interesting idea. We are permitted to look at the biblical texts with some suspicion about their historical accuracy, because—the Gospels especially—are reconstructed histories from years after the Ascension of Jesus.
If you sat down and tried to write your memoirs, you probably wouldn't give as much space to your teenage years as you probably thought they deserved at the time. And it's likely that you would add elements of your story that you didn't actually live—stories about other people—you understand. What I'm trying to say is that the text for this morning about Jesus calming the storm might be another early church sermon. Or, alternatively—and I like this idea better—it might be a parable, a story that teases our imagination.
One reason why it seems like a parable is that Jesus is sleeping in the boat. Jesus is at peace; the disciples are worried. The storm gets worse and Jesus is still sleeping. The boat begins to take on water; Jesus is still sleeping. Finally, they wake him up. "Do you not care that we are dying out here?" And Jesus tells the wind to stop, and says to the sea, "Peace! Be still!" and everything calms down. Then he turns to the disciples and asks, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?"
Now, if you've been in church all your life, you know this story, and you probably don't think that what Jesus says to the disciples is offensive. Even if you were a little offended, the little church voice in the back of your head says, "Jesus is right, you are wrong—you can't be offended at Jesus, he's God."
But now take that little voice away. How would you feel if you were in a tight spot and Jesus turned to you and said, "What's wrong with you? Where's your faith?" You might get a little upset. I think I would be crushed.
I remember how the Sunday school teacher taught this story when I was a child. We sang the song, "With Jesus in the boat you can smile in the storm / when your sailing home." And the message was that if you have Jesus in the boat then he'll take care of you, and you can be happy. That's the children's version. But that's not how the story goes.
The story is that Jesus is asleep, and when he wakes up and takes care of the problem, he actually scolds the disciples for not taking care of the problem themselves. That version of the story doesn't go over so well with children—but you aren't children anymore.
That's why I think this is a parable, because it reads more like a teaching to the early Church that they needed to grow up, and own the faith that Jesus had given them. "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?"
It reads to me very much like a parable. Jesus is asleep. In other words, he's here with you, but he's not actively managing things. And then some craziness starts to take place—life seems to get unmanageable. It starts off with a couple waves, and then some wind, and then the waves toss the boat a little higher and the boat begins to take on water. Jesus is there—he will never leave or forsake us—he's just not doing anything. Now we already know how Jesus wants us to handle this, right? Don't be afraid. Have faith. So what does that mean? (Pause.)
Faith is a complicated word. It has a lot of meanings. Most people use it as a synonym for hope; and hope is a weaker word, because it's rarely used in a positive way. "I hope it doesn't rain this afternoon." What does that mean? It means, "We're having friends over and I'd really like to use the grill, but the sky will probably unzip just as I touch the match to charcoal."
Hope. "Well, we'll just have to hope for the best." Which means, "He doesn't stand a chance." Faith can be misused just as easily. "Well, we'll just have to have faith that it's going to be all right." Translation: This is going to get worse.
See, it seems to me that being told you have to have faith is like being told that you have to regress to childhood, and take your spiritual guidance from the Rev. Mickey Mouse: "When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are. When you wish upon a star, your dreams come true." That's the problem. You've become so cynical. You've lost that child-like faith. Go back and relearn how to be naïve and Pollyanna, and all misty-eyed.
Or, no, here's the problem. You didn't believe hard enough. You prayed the prayers all right, but you didn't really believe. And God looked into your heart and saw those traces of doubt, and said, "Humph…well, there are children out there who eat their vegetables and say their pleases and thank yous and they don't doubt when they say their prayers." Please.
Faith, hope. They're such good words, but they've been so corrupted. Or maybe the words themselves haven't been corrupted, but the tone of voice we use to say them gives away our cynicism. It's like you know what you know; and you control what you can control; but you just naturally assume that what you can't control is going to fail.
The problem is that word: faith. What are we going to do with that word? We can't get rid of it. We need it. It's just hard to get a hold of. Is there a quantity to faith? Some people seem to have more, but how can you measure it? "He has five quarts of faith." "She has two teaspoons of faith." "I have…well, I don't know…I believe in God. I say I believe in God."
I think the problem is that when people use the word faith they are really using the weaker synonym: hope. And they do that because they are scared of the stronger synonym: trust.
It's a whole different story if Jesus calms the waters and then says, "Why are you afraid? Are you still unable to trust?" Do you see how scary that word is? Trust. "I trust you." How many people could you really say that to? You catch the vulnerability in it? You have to take your fists out of the air. You have to put the sword back in its sheath. You have to breathe a little more deeply, and look at the person square in the eye.
I don't think it's even possible to say the words, "I trust you," without looking them in the eye. Men have a horrible time with those three words. My guess is that a man would rather say "I love you" than "I trust you."
Love is gooey word—it is like chocolate; it changes shapes and it can be a solid or a liquid. You can almost melt love down and pour it into molds and make it look like this or that. You can't do that with "trust." Trust is always a solid word, and it doesn't change shape.
Trust is a brick building, built on a poured concrete foundation. Love can be light as a feather; it can be carried on the wind; you can take it out of your pocket and leave it somewhere and someone else comes along and takes it. But you can't carry off trust. Trust is a lead paperweight.
The parable is this: You can calm the storm just as easily as Jesus did. You don't have to wake him up. The only thing he did differently is that he trusted that the Father was with him and things would get better. Now don't complain that he's God and you're just you—Jesus all but said, "If you had trust in God, then you could've handled this." That's the sermon. That's the parable. We're not supposed to have some pie-eyed, naïve faith—we're suppose to trust that we are in God's hands.
Things may get bad. Being in God's hands does not mean that we get rescued at the moment of crisis. Jesus taught that on the Cross. But Resurrection always follows Crucifixion. No matter how bad things get, God is always able to redeem.
I think people would say they have faith in God, meaning they hope; but it's a very mature Christian who can say they have faith in God, and what they really mean is trust. And I'll go ahead and confess to you that it's something I wrestle with. You can't go through this life without having your trust in God shaken from time to time. And I think that's a little message of grace in this text.
I think that Jesus would have preferred the disciples to take care of the storm—I think that's the parable's true meaning. But the grace is that when he woke up, he didn't just say, "Where is your faith?" The first thing he did was to make things better. (Pause.)
I never realized how much I would learn when Peter was born. Parenthood is like taking a test for which you can never study enough. I watch Peter and Maggie get frustrated with the tiniest things and it's as if the entire world has ended. And I try to explain that a little patience, a little creativity, a little trust that things will be okay…but that's not really what they want. They want Daddy to make it better. And the grace is, that I do.
Anyone of you who has had a child knows what I mean. You know that they could have headed this off. You know that if they had had a little more confidence, a little more foresight, it would have been fine.
But when the crying starts, no matter how much we know that this too shall pass, now is not the time to say, "Why didn't you do it this way?" Now is the time to wash the knee and get out the Band Aids. Now is the time to kiss and hold, and love. Trust will come with time. And that, too, is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving to the church where you feel most at home.
The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.