Pentecost 10 A: Something More

Matthew 14:22-33

Dear Partner in Preaching,

I notice that I’ve fallen into something of a pattern over the last few weeks and months of wanting to emphasize God’s grace and activity lest we receive the Gospel primarily as good advice rather than as good news. I suspect that’s a core part of my own theology – the primacy of God’s grace – and perhaps it’s a result of just finishing up a “Making Sense” book on Martin Luther’s theology where God’s activity is so central (I’ll share a little more info. about that once I know when it will be available). But I suspect it’s partly also a reaction to Matthew’s Gospel which, of the four gospels, always seems to me the one easiest to read somewhat legalistically. Matthew absolutely displays a concern for Christian behavior and, indeed, fidelity to the Gospel in confession and action that probably is a response to the challenges his community was having, and I don’t ever want to ignore that. And yet Matthew also rests on a fundamental understanding of the grace of God made not just apparent but also palpable in the One named Emmanuel, “God with us.” Which means we need to take care to hear the good news in the stories Matthew tells so that we don’t translate, as I mentioned last week, God’s gracious gift into yet one more goal for our lives.

This week is no exception. Many sermons will choose as a preaching theme either the imperative to “get out of the boat” in a well-intentioned and perhaps helpful invitation to hearers to take risks in their personal or congregational lives, or the imperative to “keep our eyes on Jesus” in another well-intentioned and perhaps helpful invitation to greater piety and devotion.

And here’s the thing: both of these exegetical approaches are absolutely supported by the passage at hand and legitimate homiletical choices. Peter does indeed get out of the boat and only flounders when he focuses on the tempest around him instead of his beckoning Lord before him. While sermons on these themes have at times run a tad sentimental for my tastes, that doesn’t mean the themes aren’t worth exploring.

Having said that, however, I’d still invite exploring something different. Because I think our people fundamentally want and need something more than good advice. And that “something more” is a recognition of, first, the power of fear in this passage and our lives and, second, the even greater power of promise, again in this passage and in our lives.

Peter doesn’t just flounder because he takes his eyes off of Jesus, but because he grows afraid. And, quite frankly, that fear is justified. It’s a storm, for heaven’s sake, raging powerfully enough to sink the boat, let alone drown a single person. He has, in other words, perfectly good reason to be afraid.

And so do we. Whether it’s a fear of the return of illness, of the stability of a fragile relationship, of loneliness after loss, of not being accepted by those we esteem, of whether we’ll fare well in a new chapter in our lives, of what future our congregation has, of the direction of our country…. You name it, there is a lot in our individual, congregational, and corporate lives that can make us afraid. And that fear is debilitating. It sneaks up on us, paralyzes us, and makes it difficult to move forward at all, let alone with confidence. Fear, in short, is one of the primary things that robs the children of God of the abundant life God intends for us, and for this reason I tend to take Jesus’ words to the disciples near the end of the passage (v. 31) more as lament than as rebuke.

In response to Peter’s fear, however, Jesus doesn’t simply urge him to courage or instruct Peter to keep his eyes on him. Rather, when Peter begins to sink, Jesus reaches out and grabs him, saving him from drowning and restoring him to his vocation as disciple. And so also with us! Jesus will not let us go. Jesus is with us. Jesus will not give up on us. Jesus will grab hold of us when we falter and restore us to where we can be of service.

This the promise at the heart of this story, all of Matthew’s Gospel, and indeed of our faith: that God will never give up, that God is with us and for us, that God, in the end, will do what we cannot. And this promise is the one thing I know of that helps us cope with and transcend fear. Transcend, not defeat. Fear is a part of our lives, and we should take care that being fearful is not equated with faithlessness. Courage, after all, isn’t the absence of fear but the ability to take our stand and do what needs to be done even when we’re afraid.

But even the promise of comfort and courage and presence doesn’t quite exhaust the potential of this story. Because all of that is, finally, a part of God’s larger promise and vision of what we might be, of the persons God sees us as and calls us to be, of the hopes and dreams God has for us as individuals and communities. That, I think, is the “something more” for which our people long. The belief – and belief stems always from promise – that their story isn’t over, that there is more to them than perhaps has been thus far seen, that the past doesn’t determine the future, that their faults and failings don’t disqualify them from love and acceptance and hope.

When the disciples are terrified, Jesus calls for them to “take heart,” and when Peter flails and cries out to be saved, Jesus reaches out and grabs him. The future is open, Dear Partner, for God is with us and for us. God will do what we cannot. Nothing that we have done or has been done to us can erase God’s desire and ability to save and restore us. God is not done with us yet.

So tell them the truth about our real and understandable and too often debilitating fears, Dear Partner, and then tell give them not just good advice but something more, the good news, God’s promise and action to overcome our fear and send out us armed with courage and confidence to live and share God’s abundant life. For while fear is a powerful part of our lives. God’s promise and vision is more powerful still.

Blessings on your proclamation, Dear Partner. Your congregation, and indeed this whole wide world God loves so much, has never needed it more.

Yours in Christ,