Pentecost 9 A: Whole-Hearted Faith

Dear Partner in Preaching,

Have you ever noticed that it’s often in the most challenging times of life that we sense God’s presence most clearly? I’m not saying it should be this way. Or that God only appears when we most need God. Rather, I think that there’s just something about significant challenges and trials that clarify our priorities and cut through the manifold distractions of everyday life so that we may see God more clearly.

I think that’s part of what’s going on in today’s Gospel reading. After feeding the thousands who followed him into the wilderness, Jesus commands the disciples to head across the sea without him while he remains on shore to send the crowds on their way and then spend some time in communion with his Father on the mountain. While the disciples are crossing, a storm arises that threatens to engulf them. They spend the better part of an anxious night navigating the waves, and in the early hours of the morning Jesus strides across the water to meet them.

Mistaking Jesus for a wave-walking specter, the disciples grow even more alarmed as he draws near. In response, Jesus reassures them that it is he who is coming to them. His encouragement works…and then some, as Peter is emboldened to ask if he might join Jesus out on the water. At first confident given his Lord’s assent, Peter soon remembers the height of the waves and depth of the sea and loses heart, whereupon Jesus reaches out and grabs him. While Jesus remarks on his lack of faith, it’s at this moment that the disciples see Jesus as if for the first time, confessing, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Which is interesting, when you think about it. I mean, Jesus had just fed thousands upon thousands of helpless and vulnerable people, revealing both divine power and divine compassion. And yet it’s here, at this moment of extremity, when the disciples perceive most clearly who Jesus is.

So part of what strikes me in this passage is how it reveals something deeply true about humanity, as I have a hunch the disciples are not alone in this penchant. I know, at least, that I have often overlooked God’s presence in the peaceful and pleasant portions of my life yet called out in earnest when things took a difficult turn.

I’m not totally sure why this is, but I think part of it is that we spend a fair amount of our time and energy trying to establish a stable, safe, and secure life, both for us and those we love. There’s nothing wrong with that on one level. From the beginning, God desires that we flourish, and stability promotes growth. But all too often we note our modest success and assume we no longer need God, or at least forget how much a part of our lives God is and desires to be. Or perhaps we confuse safety and stability with abundant life. Either way, we may forget how much we depend on God. Until tragedy strikes in the form of illness and job loss or the end of a relationship or some grave mistake we’ve made, and suddenly our ongoing need for God becomes painfully clear.

But the story doesn’t only tell us about ourselves, it also tells us about God. This in two ways. First, no matter what it is that reminds us of our need for God, still God responds. Just as Jesus reassures the disciples and reaches out to grab hold of Peter, so also God responds to us with compassion and support. Second, and I’d argue more importantly, God not only responds to our need, but actually desires that we seek to live lives of abundance and courage. Notice that Jesus actually commanded the disciples to cross the sea to go ahead of him, trusting them to navigate both sea and storm. And while some commentators may suggest that Peter’s request to join Jesus upon the waves is a mark impetuous foolishness, I suspect there was some delight in Jesus’ summons to Peter to come out from the boat.

I’m also struck by Jesus’ three-fold response to the disciples. First, he urges them to “take heart.” Second, he reveals his presence with, among, and for them. For while we translate what Jesus utters as “It is I,” the Greek is more  sparse, succinct, and significant: “I Am.” I suspect that neither the disciples nor Matthew’s audience would mistake the pronouncement of the divine name. Third, having revealed his presence and identity, Jesus then encourages the disciples once more to leave fear behind and live what Brené Brown calls “whole-hearted” lives.

And I think this is still God’s desire for us. God desires, that is, that we trust that God is with us and for us and thereby live with courage and hope, taking chances, risking ourselves in relationship, seeking the welfare of the individuals and community around us, all the while remembering that even when we overlook God’s presence yet God is always there, sometimes to encourage us to overcome our fears, sometimes sending us out ahead, and sometimes reaching out to grab hold of us in forgiveness, mercy, comfort, and grace.

So perhaps this week, Dear Partner, we might both promise our people that God is with us in the difficult part of our lives, responding to our fears and cries for help with the promise of God’s presence and comfort. But then we might also go one step further and imagine with our people the hopes and dreams God has for us – both as individuals and as a community of faith – and promise them that God is encouraging us to cross rough waters and even to step out of the boat in faith, trusting that God is there to grab hold of us in need. Perhaps we can do that in the prayer, inviting time for petitions about those particular challenges or fears we confront, ending each petition by saying, “God is with us in our need.” And then we might invite a time for calling to mind or naming future possibilities, ending those petitions with, “God calls us to whole-hearted lives of courage and hope.”

However you do approach this, the key, I think, is to remind folks that while God is eager to respond to our deepest needs, God also invites us to more adventuresome lives of faith as well. God wants more for us, frankly, than simply safety and stability, and therefore God calls us to stretch, grown, and live into the abundant life God has promised us, trusting that God is always with us.

And it’s not just our people who need these words of promise. We do as well. Because at times you may wonder why you’ve been sent to cross what feels like very rough water. And at other times you may feel God is calling you out of your comfort zone. And at still others you may have wished very much that you would have just stayed in the boat. But no matter where you find yourself this particular week or season of your ministry, Dear Partner, know this: God is there for you, revealing God’s presence, promising comfort, and calling forth courage. What you do matters, for yours are the beautiful feet, as St. Paul writes in today’s second reading, that bring the message of good news to God’s beloved people. Thank you. Even more, thank God for you.

Yours in Christ,

Notes: 1) For a different, and perhaps more traditional, reading of this text, you can see what I wrote on this passage three years ago at Working Preacher. Interesting how one’s view change – or perhaps what different things we see – over time.
2) Whether you preach on it or not, take a moment to read this portion of Paul’s letter to the Romans and let those words remind you of the importance of your calling.
3) The post image is “Christ Rescuing Peter from Drowning,” by Lorenzo Veneziano (1370).