Sunday's Sermon -
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer.
I am indebted to the Rev. Dr. David Lose, the new President of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, for his ideas for this sermon.
Have you ever noticed that it’s often in the most challenging times of life that we sense God’s presence most clearly?
I am not saying it should be this way. Or that God only appears when we most need God. I just think that there’s just something about significant challenges and trials that clarify our priorities and cut through the many 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 lesson. After feeding the thousands who followed him into the wilderness, Jesus commands the disciples to head across the sea without him. Jesus remains on the shore to send the crowds on their way and then spend some time in prayer with his Father on the mountain. While the disciples are crossing, a storm arises that threatens to overpower 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 ghost, the disciples grow alarmed as he draws near. In response, Jesus reassures them that it is he who is coming to them and he is certainly not a ghost! Jesus’ encouragement works, so well that Peter is emboldened to ask if he might join Jesus out on the water. At first confident given his Lord’s encouragement, 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 Peter’s lack of faith, it is at this moment that the disciples see Jesus, as if for the first time, and confess, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
Think about the timing of that confession, the disciples stating that Jesus was “truly the Son of God.” Jesus had just fed thousands upon thousands of helpless and vulnerable people, revealing both divine power and divine compassion. And yet it is here, at this moment of the disciples’ perceived personal crisis, when the disciples see most clearly who Jesus is.
I have a hunch the disciples are not alone in this reaction: It strikes me that this passage reveals something deeply true about humanity, you and me. I know, at least, that I have often overlooked God’s presence in the peaceful and pleasant portions of my life and then, like the disciples, have called out to God when things in my life 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.
And, on one level, there is certainly nothing wrong with that. From the beginning God desires that we flourish, and stability promotes growth. But all too often when things are going well, it is easy to assume that we do not need God, or, at least, we tend to forget how much a part of our lives God is and desires to be. Or, perhaps, we just confuse safety and stability with abundant life.
Either way, it is very easy to forget how much we depend on God.
Then, when tragedy strikes in the form of illness and job loss or the end of a relationship or some grave mistake we’ve made, at those times we suddenly realize more clearly our ongoing need for God.
But today’s Gospel lesson does not only tell us about ourselves, it also tells us about God in two ways.
First, no matter what it is that reminds us of our need for God, God always responds. Just as Jesus reassures the disciples and reaches out to grab hold of Peter, so also God always responds to us with compassion and support.
Second, and perhaps even more importantly, God not only responds to our needs, but actually wants us to seek to live lives of abundance and courage. Notice that Jesus actually commanded the disciples to cross the sea 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 Jesus was delighted to summon Peter to come out from the boat.
Jesus makes a three-fold response to the disciples. First, Jesus urges them to “take heart.” Second, Jesus reveals his presence with, among, and for them. In today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “It is I” – there is no mistaking who Jesus is. Third, having revealed his presence and identity, Jesus then encourages the disciples once more to leave fear behind, to have a “whole-hearted faith,” and live “whole-hearted lives.”
And I think this is still God’s desire for us. God desires that we trust that God is with us and for us and, because of this, God wants us to 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, 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, just as Jesus grabbed hold of Peter on the waves.
You have heard me say this previously, and I assure you will hear it again: Today’s gospel lesson again assures us 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, as today’s gospel also suggests, God has hopes and dreams for us – both as individuals and as this community of faith here at Mt. Olive Lutheran Church.
I shared with our Council and staff earlier this week my excitement and confidence in this time in our lives as a congregation. Certainly, the wonderful response, the largest I am told in many years, for last week’s Vacation Bible Camp is a sign. Our plans for the fall with new worship and music opportunities are also an encouraging and, I hope, even exciting opportunity. God has plans for you and me, good plans, both individually and as a congregation.
Today’s text tells us that God is encouraging us to cross rough waters and even to step out of the boat in faith. And, when we do this, we can trust that God is there to grab hold of us in need. God calls us to have a whole-hearted faith and to live whole-hearted lives of courage and hope.
God is eager to respond to our deepest needs. There is no question about that. But, 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, grow, and live into the abundant life God has promised us, trusting that God is always with us. We can have whole-hearted faith and live whole-hearted lives because God is always with us.
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Mt. Olive Lutheran Church, Santa Monica, California