Sermon for Sunday, August 10, 2014 || Proper 14, Year A || Matthew 14: 22-33
The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
Iraq, Gaza, the Ukraine…Hurricanes, Floods, Wildfires…and now Ebola.
When my mom was still alive, and the headlines seemed like they just couldn’t get any worse, she would occasionally ask me, with real concern, if I thought this could be it—“it” being the “ends times” described in some parts of the Bible said to precede or accompany the second coming of Christ. It didn’t help that 9/11 fell on her birthday, or that I was the newly minted, theologically-educated, official-family-expert-on-God at the time.
“Mmmm. I don’t think so, Mum,” I would respond, always a bit confused by hearing a question coming from the lips of my decidedly traditional, main-stream, Episcopal mother that’s usually associated with the more charismatic or evangelical tradition.
But you see, my mom was desperately trying to stay afloat…trying to make sense of her increasingly incomprehensible world…and struggling to reconcile that world with what she believed about a loving and compassionate God.
And the fact that she couldn’t do that scared her. At least if the nightmare she woke up to on the Today Show each morning could be seen as the fulfillment of some kind of wild apocalyptic scripture…well, at least that would explain it. At least then it might make some sort of sense.
But it’s not that easy. Likewise, the danger with this morning’s gospel is that we are too quick in trying to make sense of it. Too often we conclude that if only Peter hadn’t been distracted by the wind and the waves—if only he’d had more faith–had kept his eyes on Jesus— he’d have been able to waltz across that water to Jesus without a hitch. So the moral of the story, in this telling, is that the faithful response to the storms of life is to “keep our eyes on Jesus”– as if that will solve everything. As if that’s what it means to have faith.
The problem with that is that it can far too easily deteriorate into an endorsement of “pie in the sky” theology—the kind of theology that refuses to grapple with the painful realities of this life, yet fully expects to live happily ever after in the next. We’ve probably all heard of Christians who consider themselves deeply faithful followers of Jesus, but who refuse to read the newspaper or watch the news because, they say, it’s too depressing or upsetting. They keep their eyes on Jesus, alright, but fail to see that his ministry is smack-dab in the middle of all the misery and anguish of the world. They have faith in Jesus, but more as a 1st century Bible figure than the face of God risen and living and active in our world today.
So the last thing in the world I would’ve said to my poor mother as she struggled not to sink in the overwhelming horrors around her was, “Quit watching the news and keep your eyes on Jesus. You just need to have more faith.” No, that would not have been pastorally helpful or theologically sound advice.
In fact, what I did say to my mom had little, if anything, to do with what I had learned in seminary. Mind you, I took every course I could that had anything remotely to so with theodicy—that’s the fancy theological term for why an all good and all powerful God would allow suffering and evil to exist—but none of those classes provided any better answers for me than the ones I’d already learned—and continue to learn—the hard way from personal experience.
You’ll have to judge for yourself whether this is anymore pastorally helpful or theologically sound, but for me, keeping my eyes on Jesus means looking for him not just where he’s praying on a lonely mountaintop or sitting on a beach, but right there in the midst of the most threatening winds and ferocious seas of life—whether it be my personal life or the global life of God’s people. It means trusting that Jesus is there, and searching him out, knowing that he will not let me sink no matter how fearful or overwhelmed I become–and that in fact he will not only save me from sinking (by using others to “lend me a hand”) but will then miraculously use me somehow (often without my even knowing it) to help save someone else by lending a hand.
That, to me, is what the life of faith is about. Iraq, Gaza, the Ukraine…Hurricanes, Floods, Wildfires…Hunger, homelessness, heartbreak…Divorce, grief, anguish, poor health…ageing, unemployment…rejection, failure. Life is hard! Sometimes it’s totally overwhelming.
And life is full of beauty and grace and love and joy and people who shine Christ’s light in the darkness, share His hope in the midst of horror, stretch out His hand in a saving embrace.
I don’t know why an all-loving and all-powerful God allows suffering and evil to exist. It’s the original paradox, and I don’t expect to find an answer this side of the veil. But what I do know is that God chose to take on human life and to throw himself right into the neediest parts of it, the most painful parts of it, yes even the most evil parts of it–and that because of His suffering, and death, and resurrection, He can be found there still—smack-dab in the middle of all the misery and anguish of our world—healing and redeeming all of God’s creation—bit by bit, through you and me and people like us: Faithful people who sometimes have doubts, who are sometimes overwhelmed, who even start to sink from time to time. But people who care and pray and let others pray for them when they can’t pray anymore. People who love God and love life and have the courage to live in the reality of no easy answers. People who keep their eyes on Jesus by keeping an eye on each other—and lending a hand. People, you might say, who keep each other afloat. Amen.