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Pentecost 9, 08/10/2014

Sermon on 1 Kings 19:9-18, by Frank C. Senn

Text: 1 Kings 19:9-18; Matthew 14:22-33

Summer seems to be the time when big fantasy-hero blockbuster movies come out: Superman 1, 2, 3; Spider Man 1, 2, 3; and this summer a brand new one: Guardians of the Galaxy. Superheroes have a strength and a responsibility that is beyond us. But we wouldn't be interested in them unless they also had a weakness and a flaw that makes it somewhat possible for us to identify with them (and root for them in sequels!). This is a convention that goes all the way back to Achilles' heel. Superman would lose all his superpowers if exposed to a piece of kryptonite from his native planet. Spiderman was filled with late adolescent self-doubt. I don't know what weakness Christopher Pratt's character, Peter Quill, has. But since the plot is based on him stealing an orb, I'd say there is a character flaw.

In today's readings we have two superheroes of the Bible who have character flaws and self-doubts. In today's First Reading we have Elijah, a great hero of faith for Israel because of his great victory over the gods and priests on Baal on Mt. Carmel. But the wicked Queen Jezebal swore vengeance and he fled to Mt. Horeb down in the Sinai peninsula. In today's reading we find him hiding in a cave, thinking that he was the only faithful servant of the Lord left in Israel, filled with self-pity and self-doubt. The Lord had to chide him and encourage him to go back to the scene of the battle in the strength which the Lord provides.

In today's Gospel we have Simon Peter, the rock on whom the Lord Jesus would build his Church. But he comes close to sinking like a rock in today's story. The disciples are out on the Sea of Galilee in a boat on a dark and stormy night. Jesus wasn't with them. Having dismissed the crowd whom he fed with five loaves and two fishes, he went back up the mountain to be by himself and to reflect on the death of John the Baptist and his own destiny. But then, as the disciples in the boat on the sea were struggling in the storm, Jesus suddenly appeared...walking toward them on the water.

Considering what we've seen Jesus do in the Gospel of Matthew, maybe walking on water wasn't so strange. But what happened next is really strange. Peter wanted to do what Jesus was doing. "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water."

Jesus does and Peter recklessly ventures out of the boat...and sinks.

Peter had faith. He had enough faith to venture out of the boat to walk to Jesus. But, unfortunately, it would seem that he didn't have enough faith, because he began to sink.

Maybe that insufficient faith was demonstrated in his words, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water."

What's Peter saying here?

Is he being like Satan, trying to put Jesus to the test? "Lord, if you are the Son of God

and can do anything for us that we want, call out to me on the water and prove it. Let's see how much of a Son of God you are."

Or is Peter saying, "Lord, if I'm your top disciple, if I'm the Rock on whom you will build your church, then show it to everybody else by keeping me safe in the waves. Prove that I'm special and that the rules of nature don't apply to me because I'm such a strong follower of you."

Peter, it seems, is always there to blurt out the wrong thing at the wrong time. That's his flaw. But we love him for it because Peter often speaks for us. He says to Jesus what we would like to say, but we don't risk saying it.

Maybe we would like to say: "Lord, because I've served you all my life and have tried to do everything right. Make me exempt from the storm of illness. Show the world that I am your faithful disciple by enabling me to rise above the storms of life."

Or, "Lord, since I've gone to the trouble of being here in church on a nice Sunday in the middle of August, show me some irrefutable sign that you really are who the Church claims you to be. Do something to prove to me that my faith in you is justified."

Or, "Lord, let me be a spiritual warrior, a superhero of faith. Let me show the world what can be accomplished by great acts of belief. Let me go into the waves and ride the foam unscathed.  Let me be a Super Christian."

Jesus would have been utterly justified in saying, "Peter, sit down and shut up. You're embarrassing yourself. You're just another beloved disciple. Forget the heroics and get back in the boat."

But Jesus doesn't do that. Maybe he knows what Peter really needs. So he calls to him and lets him venture out, even though he fails and has to call out for help. Maybe that's what Jesus was waiting for all along. Maybe that's what Peter needed. Not to say, "Here I am, Super Christian, on my way to you," but "Lord, save me! I'm sinking. What am I doing out here anyway? Save me before I go down for the third time."

And Jesus does. But not without a little tweaking. Peter is a rock, all right. He's sinking like one. So Jesus gives him a new name: "Little Faith." The English translations have not caught the Greek here. It's not "You of little faith," but "Little Faith." "O Little Faith, why did you doubt?"

Maybe it wasn't that Peter began to doubt once he felt the wind and waves. Maybe his doubt was in his demand of Jesus in the first place. Maybe Jesus is saying to him, "O Little Faith, why didn't you have enough faith just to stay seated in the boat with the others and let me come to you in my good time? Haven't you learned enough about me to know that I would come to you in the storm? You didn't need to jump the gun and go overboard for me. Just wait in the boat and have faith that I will come to you in good time."

Naturally I'm being somewhat imaginative here. But note that while Jesus rebuked Peter for his lack of faith, he didn't say anything to the others who remained in the boat and didn't engage in any spiritual heroics. Jesus just comes to them, gets in the boat, and there is a great calm as the storm ceases.

Well-meaning friends sometimes tell us when we're facing stormy situations in life, "You've just got to have faith." What are they telling us?

Are they saying, venture forth? Be a hero? Dismiss your doctors? Have faith that prayer will heal you? Don't plan on what you're going to do next? Just be open to the Spirit?

Or, are our friends telling us, stay in your place in the boat even though a storm is raging? Be confident that you don't have to come to Jesus because he will come to you?

The great act of faith is to trust the promise of Jesus, "I am with you always, even to the end of the age." You may recall that that is how the Gospel of Matthew ends. That's the parting shot of this Gospel which begins by proclaiming the coming of "Immanuel," "God is with us."

Matthew is the Gospel of the presence of Christ in his community. "Where two or three are gathered together in my Name, there am I in the midst of you."

In Mark's version of this story, the disciples are as dumb at the end of the episode as they are at the beginning. But in Matthew, the story ends with insight, with worship and acclamation.  "Those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.'"

So much has happened by this point in the Gospel of Matthew. We've heard stories of healings and exorcisms and even of a wondrous feeding of a multitude with only a few resources. But this is the first moment in the Gospel when the disciples say, "Amen," and worship. When Jesus gets in the boat with them they feel a great peace, and they are able to say with one voice, "Truly, you are the Son of God!"

That's where we are, too. We gather for worship singing both "Lord, have mercy" and "Glory to God in the highest" because we know that Jesus is with us both to save us and just to be present as God. Maybe we need to have both texts. The storms rage in the world around us and catch up our lives in the swirl of wind and wave. We don't have the strength of superheroes; we're not super Christians. But we have enough faith to stay in the boat until Jesus comes. Here Jesus comes to us in word and sacrament, and we feel reassurance and peace. Here we worship our Savior and Lord, saying "Lord, have mercy" and "Glory to God in the highest." In both instances we fall on our faces before him: pleading for mercy and expressing our adoration. Amen.

Frank C. Senn
E-Mail: fcsenn70@gmail.com