Proper 15A: Erring on the Side of Grace

W.592.43aOLD TESTAMENT: Genesis 45: 1-15

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage, click here

This is sort of a climactic point in the relationship of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph sits in a position to do with his brothers as he pleases. Yet he makes no effort to hold their feet to the fire; there is no evidence of anger or irritation. This passage contains high drama. It is a part of the continuing saga of Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his brothers over jealousy and hatred. He is taken into slavery in Egypt, where he rises to the highest of places in the Egyptian government because he provides a service to Pharaoh. So Joseph is chosen as prime minister in charge of both the palace and the country, second only in command to Pharaoh. This comes about 13 years after his enslavement.

Joseph and his wife have two sons—Ephraim (“Prospered”) and Manasseh (“Preserved”), named in recognition of God’s involvement. When the years of famine come, Egypt, like the surrounding nations, is affected but they are the only ones that have stores of grain. Joseph’s wisdom enables Egypt to become the “bread basket for the world.”

The chapter that we read this week is sort of the climax to the story. Standing alone with his brothers, he reveals his identity. (It is interesting that Joseph sort of dismissed everyone. It was as if this was a private family affair. Perhaps he did not want to see his brothers embarrassed. Perhaps he knew he could not contain his own emotions.) All of the brothers are alive. The silence that ensues is the point at which reconciliation is questionable. He asks them to come closer to him, implying that it was alright for them to cross the official barrier. He does not scold them or blame them and doesn’t make them feel guilty. In essence, Joseph has picked up on the theme of “preserving life”.

His conclusion is that in spite of their past history, all will be well because what has happened corresponds to God’s purposes. He invites them to view the past in a positive manner. He instructs his brothers to return to Canaan and bring their father and their families back to Egypt, with the assurance that they will have no worries about possessions. (Historically, pharaohs were generous to Semitic peoples in time of famine.)

Now, thinking back, the reading demonstrates the fulfillment of Joseph’s earlier dreams and the salvific role played by God and Joseph. I don’t really think that God planned for the brothers to do evil and get rid of Joseph. They are fully accountable. But God, in God’s sovereignty and providence, is able to use the situation to bring life and reconciliation into this family of Jacob. God, in typical God-fashion, has done yet another reversal of human plans and human circumstance. It could be said that this passage describes a moment of self-revelation (for both Joseph as well as his brothers). This passage brings us to understand our own soul, our own humanity. It brings about a moment of truth. Twenty-two years after Joseph’s enslavement, it is now a time of reconciliation. It is a story of forgiveness. Perhaps it is also a story of one who sees that things are different now—that the context and the surroundings are different. There is no use carrying grudges or expecting some sort of recompense for what went on before. It is time to move on.

And even beyond that, Joseph has married an Egyptian. He has taken an Egyptian name (Zaphenath-paneah). His children, representing two of the Tribes of Israel, are half Egyptian. No longer is this a story centered only on a family. This culture and this religion has been bridged into another. Joseph didn’t plan to be a bridge. He probably didn’t see it coming at all. But somewhere along the way, the context has changed. And so has Joseph. I do not think that God has made all of this horrible stuff happen to get Joseph to this place. I’m not a big proponent of a micro-managing God that has some unchangeable plan through which we are forced to walk. After all, what happened to that free will thing? God just walked him through it to the other side. And Joseph is different simply because of the journey.

Walter Brueggemann writes that “Joseph, man of faith, takes a second hard look at his life. He is willing to host the hidden, inscrutable, unresolved purpose of God for his life that is beyond his control….he is willing to trust a purpose for his life that is larger than his own horizon” (“Taking a Second, Painful Look” in The Threat of Life: Sermons on Pain, Power, and Weakness). Maybe that’s the whole point. We know that God is bigger than we often view God to be; maybe our life is the same way.

Personally, my first thought would have been to ask God, “Wasn’t there an easier way?” Couldn’t we have just postponed the famine? Or, have Joseph send his resume to Pharaoh after he had his troubling dreams? Did it really take all of that?

Any yet, what the story of Joseph exemplifies is the notion that God does not promise to take away all possibility of pain and discomfort–but rather God promises to be with us through it all. God promises to make great things happen, but not all great things come easily.

Some great things come in a manger. Some great things happen after hasty trips to Egypt. Some terribly wonderful things happen on an old rugged cross.

Our culture always seems to highlight the quick, the easy, the painless. Just pop this pill. Just exercise 10 minutes a day. Just eat grapefruit–lots of grapefruit. Just go to this particular school. Just apply on this website. Just like us on Facebook. But, the biblical view of life is that God doesn’t always look for the path of least resistance. Sometimes God asks us to walk through fiery furnaces or bear a cross. But, on the other side of the valley of the shadow of death we are always presented with the reality that God had never left us. And life is now able to bloom, in the most beautiful and holiest of ways. (From “When God Sends You”, a blog by Rick Morley available at http://www.rickmorley.com/archives/693, accessed 8 August, 2011.)

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What is inherent in Joseph’s understanding of God?
  3. Where do you find yourself in this story?
  4. What can this say to our world today?

 

NEW TESTAMENT: Romans 11: 1-2a, 29-32

To read the Lectionary Epistle Passage, click here

This is the third time that we deal with Paul’s struggle over whether or not the Gospel betrays his Jewish heritage and his Jewish nation. Paul is quick to dispute the idea that the Jewish people, God’s Chosen, have just been abandoned. There still remains a remnant of those people. But then what is unsettling to Paul is the possibility that the rest of us might be abandoned. But this leads him to the idea of the “grafting on” of those “non-Jewish” persons. It is a remnant that rather than being “chosen by birth” are “chosen by grace.”

What drives the whole thing is not that Paul needs to show a God who is in control but, rather, one who is compassionate toward all of God’s children. So, essentially, Paul is warning the Gentile followers to not be so arrogant about their beliefs. Israel’s present failure to respond to God does not seal their fate because it is God who deals in compassion. Very cool…an image of a God of compassion rather than a God of rules. When are we going to really get that?

Our Christian proclamation has always included the notion of God’s judgment. Do you think that God is really putting us into piles of “the saved” and “the damned” even as we speak? And, pray tell, how comfortable are we REALLY with that picture? What happened to compassion? What happened to grace? Maybe God is judging us all and saving us all. Is that so hard to fathom, that this God of all Creation, all grace, all beauty might have a plan for us all? Some would claim that to be a sort of “universal salvation”. I don’t think of it like that, necessarily. Somewhere along the way all of us are somehow compelled to move toward God, to respond to God’s calling and God’s love and grace. But if we are proclaiming that this is the God of all and for all, who are we to start siphoning people out into the “damned” pile? Are you really that sure of your own belief to start going there? Are you really that sure what pile you’d be in? Bonhoeffer was right: Grace is not cheap. But it’s free. Free for the taking.

The Garden of Gethsemane (February, 2010, Shelli)
The Garden of Gethsemane (February, 2010, Shelli)

In the Garden of Gethsemene, there is an orchard of olive trees. Olive trees are fascinating. They can live for as long as 900 years. But when they die, they do not just rot away. Their roots give way to new growth, to new shoots. So, even though the tree has died, it lives on in a new tree. Here’s one that I took a picture of last year. The oldest tree is on the bottom left. It’s at least 2,000 years old (which means it was alive that night when Jesus came here with the disciples!). The trunk that is leaning against it is probably about 900 years old. The trunk springing from that is probably 200 years old. And the young tree on the right is probably just a few years old. It is the new shoot. But it does not exist alone. It is growing from the roots of centuries of growth. What a great image! New shoots, new thoughts, new ideas do not replace the old. They grow from it.

Maybe I’m wrong, but at least you can say I erred on the side of grace.

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What does “chosen by grace” mean for you personally?
  3. Why is it so difficult for most people to exist with those who believe differently? Why do so many of us have to be right?

 

 

GOSPEL: Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

To read the Lectionary Gospel Passage, click here

In the previous verses, Jesus has had to spend time arguing with the church leaders over what is appropriate behavior for those that are religious. This has gone on and on (and on) and he has even had to tell parables and then re-explain them with little or no success. These people just don’t get it. So he leaves that place.

He leaves and travels to a place that is near the border of what is actually Gentile territory. So, first he spends all this time arguing and then he has to travel some distance to an unfamiliar place. In Jesus’ defense, he has to be tired. He has to be craving some time alone to regroup and reflect on his mission. Then, all of a sudden, this woman comes up and she’s shouting at him with some foreign accent—not just a loud shout but one that is incessant and wailing and very annoying. She is begging him to heal her daughter. But what could Jesus really do? After all, his mission as he understood it was at that time to the Jews and here was this Gentile (and a Canaanite to boot) wanting Jesus’ time.

In the Old Testament, there were stories about the “evil” religion of the Canaanites who occupied the Promised Land—a religion of false idols, child sacrifices, and intermarriage. The writer we know as Matthew underscores this. From this point of view, the woman was “scum.” If anyone was the wrong religion, if anyone wasn’t saved, if anyone was damned, she was. In fact, this woman had everything working against her—gender, race, religion, class, and nationalism. In the first century, she was the “outcast of the outcasts”.

Put yourself in Jesus’ place. “Perhaps if I ignore her, she will go away.” But, then, the disciples get involved. “Good grief,” he probably thought, “if they would only be quiet.” And the woman keeps on—shouting and wailing like some sort of banshee. What do you do with a pushy Canaanite woman who won’t shut up? “Don’t you understand…I am not here for you…I must first attend to the Jews…the chosen ones…the children of God…the people to which I was promised…it would not be right to abandon their mission for another.” (I will tell you, the reference to “dogs” is not a nice one. Without offense to the dog-lovers among us, in Jewish society, dogs were looked upon as unclean, as scavengers. To compare someone to a dog was to lower them to the bottom of society.)

But the woman responds, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the masters table…Even I, the Gentile, knows that you are Lord.” All of a sudden Jesus’ tune changes. This woman has a faith that will not quit. This woman DOES get it! The mission is indeed to the Jews. But this woman’s faith has brought her to Jesus as a sign of what is to come. This moment is, in effect, a sort of turning point for Jesus’ whole mission. In fact, at the risk of overstepping, you could almost say this was a sort of “conversion point” for Jesus. You also have to consider that this turning point is the reason we’re sitting here. We are not the “children of Israel” but rather those to whom Jesus’ mission was broadened to include.

I think we should be grateful that the writer of Matthew didn’t clean up the story. After all, perhaps it doesn’t reflect well on the Son of God. And yet, there is a powerful statement regarding Jesus’ humanness here, his searching, his exploring, and his changing. In this moment, Jesus saw a broader vision of God than even he had had before. And if you’re uncomfortable with the whole idea of Jesus getting something wrong, try this: What if this whole thing was a test, giving voice to what Jesus may have considered an archaic closed-minded theology? What if the disciples had failed the test? And what would our score have been?

 

Jesus was converted that day to a larger vision of the commonwealth of God. Jesus saw and heard a fuller revelation of God in the voice and in the face of the Canaanite woman. The woman’s truth is evident in the way Matthew tells this story. At the end of this chapter there is another feeding story. This time 4000 men are fed — besides women and children — and there were seven baskets left over. Seven is the number of wholeness, completeness, a number encompassing the nations. Matthew has placed the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman between these two feeding stories. The Canaanite woman taught Jesus that she and her daughter deserve more than crumbs. After this encounter Jesus went on to feed those who had not yet been fed.

            If Jesus could be changed, can we? Every generation sees some people as “other” and puts them under the table. We could make a long list of people we see as different – different race, different customs, different religion. Two summers ago at one of the raucous town meetings, a white woman who looked a bit like me spoke through her tears, “What happened to my America? I want my America back.”  I guess she meant an America where people look like her and me. Over the past ten years, many in the United States have come to see Muslims as the other. They are the Canaanites – not only in this country but in Europe and Scandinavia. In protests against a proposed Muslim Cultural Center in lower Manhattan, people carried signs that read: “All I need to know about Islam I learned on 9/11.” Really? What if someone protested outside the church I attend with a sign saying: “All I need to know about Christianity I learned from Rev. Terry Jones.” Muslims have become Canaanites to many in our country. One candidate in the presidential primary race has called for a ban on building mosques in the U.S. Three states have enacted statutes against Shariah, though there is no evidence that Muslims have proposed Islamic law for this nation. (Andrea Elliott, New York Times, July 30, 2011)

This week I went to get coffee at the deli across the street from Union seminary. “I’m a little dizzy,” said the kind man who always works in the afternoon. “You know it’s Ramadan,” he said, “and I haven’t eaten all day.” I realized that I had never asked him his name. Perhaps we will behave like the disciples: “Send the Muslims away for they are ruining our country!” Or maybe we will be as willing to learn as Jesus was. Maybe in this month of Ramadan we will catch a larger vision of the commonwealth of God. (From “Teaching Jesus”, by Barbara Lundblad, available at http://odysseynetworks.org/on-scripture-matthew-15-21-28, accessed 8 August, 2012)

 

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. How would our society and our church fare on that issue?
  3. What does the fact that the woman “fired back” at Jesus say about her faith?
  4. What is so difficult about this passage for us?

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 Remind me that I don’t need to carry the heavy burden of defending You, or religion, or tradition. The best witness I can make is to communicate the joy of knowing You uplifting, carrying power. Keep me from being a person with a heavy attitude others feel must be carried or dragged along. When I allow You to meet my deepest needs, I don’t have to transfer to others the responsibility of making me happy. You do that so well with Your faithful supply of love and encouragement. (Lloyd John Ogilvie)

 Every way of seeing is a way of not seeing. (Alfred North Whitehead)

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. (Marcel Proust)

Closing

For the healing of the nations, Lord we pray with one accord; for a just and equal sharing of the things that earth affords; to a life of love in action help us rise and pledge our word.

Lead us forward into freedom; from despair your world release, that, redeemed from war and hatred, all may come and go in peace. Show us how through care and goodness fear will die and hope increase.

All that kills abundant living let it from the earth be banned; pride of status, race, or schooling, dogmas that obscure your plan. In our common quest for justice may we hallow life’s brief span.

You, Creator God, have written your great name on human kind; for our growing in your likeness bring the life of Christ to mind, that by our response and service earth its destiny may find. Amen. (“For the Healing of the Nations”, words by Fred Kaan, UMH # 428)

Proper 14A: See, You Have to Get Out of the Boat

 

Peter Walking on the Water, Allessandro Allori, ca. 1590
Peter Walking on the Water, Allessandro Allori, ca. 1590

OLD TESTAMENT: Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage, go to http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=274192551

Jacob settles in the land of promise. This sets up the themes for the story: the movement from Canaan to Egypt and the development from individual to “the chosen people”. As it became obvious that Joseph was his father’s pet, the brothers grew to hate him and could not speak to him peaceably. The coat given to Joseph by his father is a sign of that favoritism. Remember that Joseph was the son of Jacob’s “favorite” wife, Rachel. He was also the child of Jacob’s old age, probably born long after Jacob had given up on the possibility of Rachel conceiving.

Communication breaks down and the stage is set for yet another family conflict. The brothers then journey some fifty miles from Hebron to pasture the flock where there is good grassland. Joseph stays home. Jacob sends him to look into the well-being of the brothers and of their flocks and report back. But because the brothers have moved to Dothan (fifteen miles north of Shechem), Joseph has difficulty finding them.

Considering Jacob’s past, we can’t help but wonder about his motivation. Didn’t he know of the brother’s feelings toward Joseph? Or was he possibly trying to force some family reconciliation? You really can’t help but wonder whether this is a naïve, loving father who hopes the brothers can work things out. So, the brothers plot against Joseph and when they see him approaching, they conspire to kill him. Their motivation centers on Joseph’s dream (they sarcastically call him a “master of dreams”).

Our passage doesn’t have us actually reading about the dreams, but it’s an important part of the story and the motivation for what happens. Joseph’s dreams, which are so famous, depict the entire family bowing down to him in reverence, a sign that he is the head of the family. This, of course, infuriates all of his older brothers and sets the stage for what comes next. Keep in mind that it was understood that dreams were looked upon as some sort of divine intervention. But the brothers looked upon Joseph’s dreams as a type of arrogance. By getting rid of him, they will make certain that the dream does not become a reality. But, ironically, by selling him to Egypt they enable it to become so. This place Egypt is now part of the story that will lead us into the Exodus saga. The brothers agree to sell him to passing Ishmaelites or, in some texts, Midianite traders. But, Joseph is ultimately sold on the open slave market and is taken to Egypt (which will ultimately provide a link between the Genesis story and the Exodus story, so the “family” theme becomes a “national” one.).

The brothers return to their father with Joseph’s coat dipped in goat’s blood and tell him that Joseph is dead. (The trickster has been tricked!) And yet still, God continues to exist even with this somewhat less than ideal, chaotic, conniving family. God remains with them. But the family of Jacob will become the family that enters Canaan.

This is an odd story, to say the least. I mean, really, what kind of parent is Jacob? And on some level, Joseph is really nothing more than a spoiled obnoxious brat. But all of that is overshadowed by this band of brothers who conspire murder. I think that may take the cake! But once again, God takes even this and uses it. This story sets in motion the rest of the Genesis story. Once again, the cycle is repeated—the eldest, the one who should be “in charge”, who should inherit the legacy and the birthright, is not in line to do that (or lets it slip away). Next week’s Old Testament lection will see the reuniting of Joseph and his brothers and the continuation of the Genesis story and this family’s story as it weaves through it. But along the way, God does not interfere with humanity’s mistakes. That is not the way God conducts business as Master of Creation. There are many ways that Creation and Re-creation happen. God is pretty good at using whatever instruments are available. I think God has to be; otherwise, this whole free will thing would have been possibly the biggest regret that God has. And I don’t think it is. God doesn’t demand perfection—just openness to the possibility that change is always in our midst.

The 15th century Spanish commentator Rabbi Isaac Arama interprets it like this:

 

In the Joseph story, we find all the protagonists playing their own parts, carrying out their personal objectives, without affecting God’s overall design. Quite the contrary, the freedom of choice of none of the participants is interfered with in any way… The chain of events in which the jealousy of Joseph’s brothers played a prominent part, ultimately proved to have become the instrument for carrying out God’s design. However God could have found many other means to achieve the same end. Therefore the brothers cannot claim exoneration by saying that what they had done helped God to achieve his aim. The Bible is full of similar lessons. (From “Joseph, Don’t Go!”, by Eliezer Segal, University of Calvary, available at http://people.ucalgary.ca/~elsegal/Shokel/Preaching/S971221_Vayyeshev.html, accessed 3 August, 2011.)

 

And, using the words of the prophet Jeremiah, Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani writes this Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 85:1):

 

“For I know the thoughts that I think towards you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil” (Jeremiah 29:11): The tribes were busy with the selling of Joseph. Jacob was busy with his sackcloth and mourning. Judah was busy looking for a woman. While the Holy One was creating the light of the Messiah! (From “Joseph, Don’t Go!, Ibid.)

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What do you think of Jacob’s part in this story?
  3. What about Joseph’s part of the story?
  4. What part does fear play in this story?
  5. This story is told without a single reference to God. Where do you see God in this story?

  

NEW TESTAMENT: Romans 10: 5-15

To read the Lectionary Epistle Passage, click here

In this passage, Paul is in the middle of explaining why the gospel does not amount to a betrayal of his own people or a denial of scripture. He uses a text from the eighteenth chapter of Leviticus. Here “live” implies life with God. He claims that this new way of looking at things, this gospel, creates something that produces right relationship and, subsequently, right behavior. It takes further this idea of the commandments, “God’s law”, no longer being external “rules” but rather something that is indeed written on one’s heart. The basis for righteousness, for Paul, is being at one with God.

Paul professes that acceptance of Christ as Lord leads to liberation. Essentially, Paul has made the same claim before but, here, he is speaking of a more internalized relationship with God. It is beyond just doing right and living right; it is being one with God. At the end of the passage, Paul affirms the equality of all humanity before God, either Jew or Gentile. Right-standing before God is a gift available to all humanity for the asking. To stand approved before God (to stand justified) is simply a matter of faith.

The problem that Paul is countering is that most saw goodness as achieved by obeying the law. They saw their standing as progressed by merit. They could not grasp “perfection” in the sense of Christ. You can actually sense Paul’s frustration. His passionate belief in the Gospel and in Jesus Christ as Savior comes through. But you also get a sense of a certain frustration. He truly believes that the Gospel is open and inclusive of everyone and, yet, he is frustrated that he doesn’t seem to be getting the response that he desires. And yet, he never gives up on the notion that Israel is special, chosen. He cannot imagine that God would ultimately abandon God’s covenant people. God will not just quit loving God’s children. It is apparent that Paul’s image of God is of a Creator who is loving and caring toward all of Creation.

Maybe, given the three questions toward the end of the passage, this discourse is more about proclamation than trying to figure out who was going to be saved. (Personally, I think that’s more up to God than anyone else! If God wants to save everyone, I actually think that’s God’s prerogative. I mean, are there really rules in place here?) But Paul is clear that if one professes to be a Christian, than one must openly confess the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We are sent into the world to proclaim the Good News, rather than to weed out (Oh my…can’t get rid of the weed imagery, can we?) who is saved by the words. I mean, last I checked, we were saved by grace! Isn’t that worth talking about?

The last verse of this reading is familiar, thanks to Handel. Think about it—how comfortable are we with “feet”. (Not shoes, feet!) There is an African proverb that says, “When you pray, move your feet.” In other words, we are sent to proclaim the good news. I THINK that’s why our own United Methodist Church recently added “witness” to our liturgy of commitment and confirmation. We now commit our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness. Go! Now! Start moving! Start talking!

Pope John Paul II once said that “modern [humanity] often anxiously wonders about the solution to the terrible tensions which have built up in the world and which entangle humanity. And if at times [we] lack the courage to utter the word “mercy,” or if in [our] conscience empty of religious content [we] do not find the equivalent, so much greater is the need for the Church to utter this word, not only in her own name, but also in the name of all the men and women of our time.” So, then, what is it we are being called to utter? How do we profess the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What does “being one with God” mean for you?
  3. How well do you think WE grasp perfection in the sense of Christ?
  4. How, then, should we look at the “written law”?
  5. What does it mean to you to profess your “witness”?

 

 

GOSPEL: Matthew 14: 22-33

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

This story is probably one of the most loved. We like the calming effect of it. We like the image of a Christ who brings peace and calm to our lives, who will at a moment’s notice reach out a hand to save us. It makes us feel good. It alleviates our fears.

And yet, is that really all this Scripture is meant to portray? Look at the beginning. Jesus sends the disciples forth without him. He knew that they had the wherewithal to do it, to make it across to the other side. And then he went up to the mountain by himself to pray. And then the clouds rolled in. The winds came up and the waves began to batter the boat that held the disciples. And all of a sudden, Jesus was there, holding out his hand, inviting Peter to get out of the boat. Peter was assured by Jesus’ strong hand and his encouraging eyes. So he followed. And then, fears crept in. What in the world was he doing? This was nuts, not even rational. And he began to sink, began to drown.

In an article on this passage in The Christian Century, Amy Hunter says that “Peter’s growing awareness of the wind and the waves reminds [her] of the cartoon of the coyote chasing the roadrunner off the cliff. The roadrunner always makes it across the gap, but every time the coyote, halfway across, becomes aware that there is nothing beneath his feet, he stops cold, then plummets down.” (Amy Hunter, “Stepping Out”, in The Christian Century, July 26, 2005, 19., available at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3234, accessed 1 August, 2011.)

So think about this: Did Peter begin to sink because he was afraid or because he let his fears control the person he was and affect what he was being called to do?  Over and over again in Scripture, we read the words “do not be afraid”. That is not the same as being told not to fear. Of course we are going to have fears. They are normal human emotions. In fact, 19th century British Prime Minister and literary figure Benjamin Disraeli once said that “fear makes us feel our humanity.”   I really do think that that is a good thing. I think God wants us to feel our humanity at its deepest and most profound level; otherwise, why would God have made us human in the first place? God wants us to know who we are—fears and doubts and all—so well that we will finally realize that we cannot do this alone. It is a way of trusting our fear to bring us back home.

And the truth is, most of us are a little uneasy with Jesus’ question of Peter: “Why did you doubt?” I have to say that I squirm in my seat a little and want desperately to jump to Peter’s defense as well as my own. I mean, really, waves and wind, little bitty boat, and the fact that it is just not physically possible to walk on water! I’m sorry, you want me to get out of the boat in the middle of a storm and do what? Isn’t that enough to at least warrant a minimum requirement of fear and doubt?

Again, if God’s expectation of us is not to fear and not to doubt, then we are asked to do the impossible. We are asked to do that which we are not really capable of doing. God can do it; I’m clear I cannot. We are essentially asked to do something as ludicrous as walking on water.   This passage can pretty easily generate uncomfortable questions and just downright bad theologies. Jesus is not asking Peter to prove his faith. And the message is not that having faith will shield us from all harm and woe. In her article, Hunter said that “[she] had a classmate at an evangelical Christian college who repeatedly defined faith as ‘stepping out of airplanes, knowing that God will catch you.’ [Hunter’s] response was that surely God had better things to do than catch folks stupid enough to step out of airplanes.” (Ibid.)

You see, faith is not a shield that we create that protects us from harm. It is not something that we accomplish or wear like a badge of honor. I don’t even think it’s something that is measurable. It’s not something that we check off of our “to do” list. Rather, faith makes us realize that we’re not in this alone. Maybe God will pull us out of the storm in the nick of time. I think it’s much more profound to believe in a God who will get in the storm with me, who will hold me, allow me to wrestle, allow me to fight against the waves. I believe in a God who doesn’t demean me or dismiss me for being afraid. Sure, I’m afraid! After all, there’s a big wave coming my way right now! What kind of semi-emotionally-adjusted human WOULDN’T have fears?

You know, Peter had fears. He admitted he had fears—ghosts, storms, death. Jesus never said to him that those were unfounded or baseless or stupid. Jesus just held out his hand and cheered him on. “Peter, you almost have it, hold on, hold on.” It is no different for us. In his 1833 Journals, Ralph Waldo Emerson said that “the wise man in the storm prays to God, not for safety from danger, but for deliverance from fear.” We need to trust our fears. They are part of our very being. They are part of the way God made us to be. But they don’t need to control what we do or who we are. There is a way to recast (i.e. reconstruct or remodel) those fears into something that is life-giving.

Of what are you afraid? Most of it comes down to one thing: chaos—loss of control, loss of knowing what will happen in one’s life, loss of being prepared for what is to come. Really? Did you forget what God can do? God has done this over and over and over again—creating order out of chaos, light out of darkness, wisdom out of stupidity, and life out of death. It’s about faith. It’s about trust. And it’s also about opening yourself to recasting your fears into something that allows you to look to Christ when you feel like your feet are sinking into the abyss. And part of recasting those fears means, I’m afraid, that once in awhile you have to get out of the boat!

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What image of God does this story bring about for you?
  3. How does fear affect our faith? How does it affect our image of God?
  4. What scares you the most? How could that be recast into something life-giving?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 The way of faith is necessarily obscure. We drive by night. (Thomas Merton)

 Trust is letting go of needing to know all the details before you open your heart. (Unknown)

Faith does not need to push the river precisely because it is able to trust that there is a river. (Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer, p. 122)

 

Closing

Worry and stress are not hard for us, God. We do them without thinking. There is always the potential of threat to our security, our comfort, our health, our relationships, our lives, and we foolishly think that we could silence the fear if we just had enough money, enough insurance, enough toys, enough stored away for a rainy day. It’s never enough, though; The voice of our fear will not be dismissed so easily. But in the small silent places within us is another voice: one that beckons us into the foolishness of faith, that points our gaze to the birds and flowers, that, in unguarded moments, lets our muscles relax and our hearts lean into loved ones; In unexpected whispers we hear it, calling us to remember your promises, your grace, your faithfulness; And suddenly, we discover that it is enough. Amen. (John Van De Laar, in Weavings, Vol. XXV, Number 4, p. 41.)