August 7, 2011 – 8 Pentecost, Proper 14A
1 Kings 19:9-18; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33
© 2011 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon to follow soon.
“If we don’t screw up now, we’ve got it made.”
Early in my time here at St. John’s, a parishioner taught me that funny little phrase, and it’s stuck with me ever since. I imagine I’ll keep it with me for a long time: “If we don’t screw up now, we’ve got it made.” Occasionally, we’ll bandy it back and forth here in the office, saying it to one another in a half-joking, half-nervous tone that expresses pretty well how things work around here. On the one hand, that phrase implies that right now things are going great guns, and, indeed, they are. But it also reminds us that we’re only one or two mistakes away from disaster.
But isn’t that true in almost every area of our lives?
Given our gospel lesson for today, Peter, it seems, could have learned from that. This story immediately follows the feeding of the five-thousand. As he prepared to disperse the multitude, Jesus sent his disciples back across the lake in a boat, afterwards retreating by himself for some quiet prayer. A few hours later, Jesus returned to the seashore to find that the disciples were struggling to make headway against a strong wind, so he rolled up his garments and started walking out to them on top of the water. Mistaking him for a ghost, the disciples were terrified at the sight of their master, so Jesus gently reassured them, saying, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then, everything looked as if it would be just fine…until Peter opened his mouth.
But that’s why we love Peter, isn’t it? His boldness was always getting him into trouble. In this story, the brazen apostle, whose reckless, blundering faith we both admire and disparage, called out to Jesus, saying, “Lord, if it [really] is you, command me to come out to you on the water.” In that moment, someone should have reminded him, “If we don’t screw up now, we’ve got it made,” but it was too late. I don’t know whether Peter really wanted to confirm that the apparition was Jesus or whether he just wanted to show off in front of his friends. But, either way, by the end of the story, those friends got quite a laugh. I can imagine that the sight of a frightened, embarrassed, half-soaked Peter made for some good-natured ribbing when he and Jesus climbed into the boat.
It’s true in life that things usually work out pretty well until they don’t.
I had the luxury of growing up in a family that reminded me over and over that their love for me was absolute. My parents often told me that they were proud of me—even when my piano recitals weren’t that great and when I struck out yet again in little league. From before I can remember, I always knew that my parents loved me. During my childhood and adolescence, I gave them plenty of relatively inconsequential reasons to be disappointed in my behavior or in the decisions I made. Like any child, I tested the waters of rebellion, pushing back on their love to see how far I could stray before my parents would snap me back into line. Yet each time I wandered a little off the appointed path, they always received me back lovingly. But that was only because I had never done anything to really disappoint them.
At the end of my sophomore year in high school, I was elected to statewide office in Key Club, a position which earned me a place at that summer’s International Convention in Miami, Florida. The first night we were there, the other three boys in my hotel room and I got into the worst sort of mischief that four teenage boys in Miami might be expected to get into. I never even made it through the opening session of the Convention. I still remember the feeling in my stomach when I looked up and saw our advisor beckoning me to accompany him out into the hallway. When I saw the three other culprits standing there, staring at the floor, I knew we were caught. What I didn’t yet know was how bad things would get.
One by one, we stepped into the advisor’s hotel room where we called our homes to tell our parents what had happened. The phone rang once or twice before my father picked up. The only words I got out of my mouth before I started sobbing were “Is Mom there?” In that moment, more than anything, I needed some sort of reassurance that I was loved and that I hadn’t permanently jeopardized my relationship with my parents. No longer was I at all interested in testing the waters of rebellion. I knew that I had disappointed my parents, but that almost didn’t matter. I just needed to know that they still loved me.
Peter and the other disciples were in the boat, struggling against the wind. When they saw Jesus, they were frightened, but Jesus identified himself and told them not to be afraid. Then, Peter seized that moment as an opportunity to test the limits of his master’s love and fatherly protection. “If it is you, command me to come out to you on the water.” It’s as if he wanted to see just how far Jesus’ promise of salvation would stretch. “If he can save us here in the boat,” he thought, “I wonder whether he could save me out there on the water.”
“If…,” Peter said—if. It was a conditional request--a test, a desire for confirmation. Well, Peter got what he asked for, and the next thing he knew he was standing out on the water’s surface. But then the reality of the situation sank in, and Peter himself began to sink. The wind was howling, and the white-capped waves were crashing around him. Suddenly, Peter wasn’t sure of anything anymore. “Help!” he cried. “Lord, save me!” Now faced with a real crisis, Peter was no longer interested in pushing up against the boundaries of his salvation. He was desperate, and he needed his master to rescue him.
Often, we go through life gently exploring the hypothetical limits of God’s love. We stretch the boundaries of salvation, taking it for granted. And as long as everything is under control, things are just fine. We live a life we enjoy—going to church when we feel like it and saying our prayers when we remember them. During those times, we trust that God, like a loving parent, is out there, somewhere, and we have no reason to question his love for us.
But, then, every once in a while, we find ourselves in a situation that surpasses our ability to handle it. And those are the moments when conditional requests like Peter’s no longer apply. In a real crisis, we never think to ask Jesus whether it is really him because, when we’re sinking beneath the water’s surface, we can’t afford for Jesus’ answer to be “No.”
The funny thing about God is that whether we appreciate him or not, whether we are confident in his love or doubt it to our core, God’s promise of salvation remains unaffected. God’s ability to save us doesn’t depend upon our confidence in him. God is always bigger than our doubts. So whether we’re enjoying the luxury of a relationship with God that allows us to test its limits, taking him for granted, or whether we’re desperate for his salvation, uncertain whether he’s still out there, God is still God, and he will still save us.
Wherever you are this day, remember that God loves you and that he always will. Don’t let that be an excuse to take your relationship with him for granted. But, if you have, don’t worry—he loves you anyway. Amen.