Proper 14 Year August 9, 2020 Romans 10:5-15 and Matthew 14:22-33

The sermon begins at the 10th minute, or you can read the sermon below. 

Proper 14 Year August 9, 2020 Romans 10:5-15 and Matthew 14:22-33

When the newly elected bishop of the Central Gulf Coast introduced himself to the diocese a few years ago, he sent out a video of himself. Bishop Kendrick wanted folks to see him in person…so clad in his purple shirt and collar, he rolled up the legs of his khaki pants and waded into the gulf waters up to his knees. He began by saying, hello, I’m Russell Kendrick, your new bishop and the first thing I want you to know is that I don’t walk on water.

A longtime friend of ours, Russell got us laughing at this stunt, mostly because we didn’t even know he could be so funny. While I’d like to recreate this for you, I suppose you already know I don’t walk on water. Letting the words of this gospel story wash over me this week, I sat by the waters of the Tennessee River, and ruminated. I read Paul’s epistle over and over, I read the story of walking on water in three of the gospels. Luke, skipped this story, not sure why. I read and prayed and thought and what came back to me again and again is this: these are serious times. I know you were perhaps hoping to hear something different—something funny or uplifting—and we’ll get to that, but the truth first must be spoken and the truth is we’re in the last days of summer, and it isn’t the same as in the past lazy summer days. We’re not feeling the usual buzz and excitement of “back to school or SEC football;” no, our excitement is replaced with anxiety, tension, and for some, even dread. Adding face masks to the shopping list of notebooks and lunch boxes, is so strange. It swells the stress that is already inside of parents, teachers, and students. Apprehension is what I heard from many of our youth heading off college as we talked for hours the other night on our dock—sure there are new experiences ahead but so much is unknown. Add in the death count of COVID-19 and all the suffering this virus continues to cause, and what you get is fear. We are walking through serious times, no doubt.

It is fitting then, as we recognize we’re walking through serious times, to hear St. Paul’s quote this morning about walking. Paul is teaching the Romans about being obedient to the faith. He writes to them quoting from Isaiah: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” Beautiful feet…it’s a funny line and it may present us with an odd image—depending upon how we feel about our own feet…so I’ll encourage you to picture something other than your feet. Instead, when you hear this line, put into your mind the image of footprints made in the sand. “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

Our gospel this morning takes us to the banks of the Sea of Galilee—some of which is sandy. I’ve been fortunate enough to walk on those banks, to leave my footprints there. I also was lucky enough to take a boat cruise on the very waters upon which our Lord walked.

The Sea of Galilee is a freshwater lake in Northern Israel that is fed by the Jordan River and continues on as the Jordan to the Dead Sea. The sea of Galilee is a fishing haven, surrounded by green grassy hills; it measures eight miles wide and 13 miles long. It may not sound very big or scary, but I can tell you that when the wind picks up and the clouds cover the sun, when the waves begin to rock the boat, you’d might be ready like I was, to get back to shore. And I was not in a small fishing boat, like the disciples.

Fear is what the disciples experienced there on the sea we read about, but this time it is not the stormy sea that makes them anxious. This time, the disciples are afraid of what they see. It is a ghost, they cry out! And Jesus immediately calls to them, “Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid.” Our wonderfully impulsive disciple Peter needs proof, and asks Jesus if he really is the Lord, command him to come out of the boat. Jesus says come, but after only a few steps the wind frightens Peter and he begins to sink crying out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus reaches out to save him, saying, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

It is Fear, of course, that made Peter sink. Peter was the brave one, he thought, to get out and go to Jesus. But Peter’s fear shows up like egg on his face. His fear, I imagine is all over the place. He feared for his life, feared he might be wrong to jump out of the boat and test Jesus. Peter feared that this man he called Lord might not be able keep him from sinking. Peter was afraid and that led him to doubt.

Fear is natural for us. It’s an emotion that actually works for good most of the time. Fear cautions us to veer away from danger. Without the emotion of fear, we humans would tumble into all kinds of perilous situations. And yet, fear, deep seated fear, troubles us, as it did Peter.

Fear can blind us: in a fearful situation, we struggle to be able to see or think clearly. We can’t see the possibility of good when we’re scared half to death. Even when the frightening moment is past, fear can still linger. Fear leaves us with doubts about our strength, our courage, and our faith.

Whether we are talking about actual storms at sea, with large rolling waves crashing all around us, or as we are now, having to face the continual waves of a pandemic, an economy in which so many are sinking, and the pitching and rolling in our country, we are facing serious issues—it is no wonder fear creeps in and rattles our faith.

The story of Jesus walking on the water and saving Peter comes at the right time. This story speaks directly to our questions of fear and doubt. Jesus doesn’t hold back; he asks Peter the probing question, ‘why did you doubt?’

This question is not a reprimand. Jesus reaches for his friend’s hand, to say, I am here with you, you know that. In asking this, Jesus is recalling Peter’s attention to the faith that he already has. This wonderful story is about putting our hand into the hands of Jesus, even in the scariest of times and walking on by faith.

Several years ago, I read a book called The Art of Possibility. It was a summer read for our  administrative team at school. One chapter in this book has stuck in my mind, ever since, probably because it led to a prolonged discussion amongst several of us—a debate, you might say. The chapter told the story of Ben Zander, a conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, who realized in his college teaching that fear of getting a bad grade was holding his students back. Zander knew his students were driven to succeed and afraid they might not get an A. This fear made his students less creative and less inclined to take risks. Their fears over the grade they’d get in class made students think of their classmates as competitors rather than partners. This is not conducive to orchestral harmony.

So Ben decided to change the way he taught. He gave his students an A at the beginning of the semester—here it is, you have an A. All you have to do is write me a letter, he told his students. Tell me who you will have become by the end of the term to justify this grade. Ben’s practice of giving the A at the outset was a remarkable success. The change was transformative for his students and for Ben’s own teaching. They were free to explore and create as never before.

What Ben learned is very much a lesson for us—and it is the same lesson Paul wanted the Romans to hear. You’ve been given the faith, the faith is already in you, “it is on your lips and in your heart,” now go live into this faith with all your might. In another letter Paul says run the good race, but he is not saying Christ is holding out a carrot for us to earn if we just win, if we beat others to the end. Paul is letting us know we’ve already been given the carrot—we’ve been given the gift of life, of grace—so go for it, run with it, to the end of time, embrace this grace and it will transform you.

You know, I actually think Paul must have had pretty ugly feet and I’m pretty sure he didn’t actually run foot races like the Greek races he appreciated. The descriptions of Paul in the bible and extra canonical books tell of his appearance in distinctly unflattering terms—he was bald, short, and had some kind of disfiguration. But it is clearly evident none of that matters. God isn’t looking at our actual feet. God looks at our footprints, or whatever we use to walk the path of faith, and God says, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” Paul was so persistent in his mission that I’m darn sure if Paul were on that boat in the Sea of Galilee, rather than get out of the boat like Peter did, Paul would have told Jesus to GET IN, it’s time to go.

It is time. It is our job now, to go, to live fearlessly, to be creative. This pandemic is crying out to us to find creative solutions—to rethink the way we care for one another, and frankly don’t care for everyone. The old arguments or excuse we have, seem to recirculate over and over; we are too afraid to take the risk of changing the way we’ve always done things—who will get power then, we think quietly to ourselves? You know Paul had this same argument with Peter. Paul told Peter and those around them, that Peter was being hypocritical, unwilling to share, reluctant to take a risk to change. Peter not taking risks, ironic, isn’t it? But God bless him, Peter listened to Paul. Peter wanted to grow this movement, just as much as Paul. He just needed a reminder to open himself up to change.

Transformation comes in our fidelity to Christ.…recommitting ourselves to Jesus’ mission of healing and giving and changing people’s minds about God’s love.  

We are called to run with this gracious gift, friends, leaving our footprints everywhere.

Thanks be to God.