Proper 14A Sermon (2002)

Proper 14 (August 7-13)
Texts: Matthew 14:22-33;
1 Kings 19:9-18; Rom. 10:5-10


Peter starts out of the boat so sure of himself. It’s a moment of impetuous confidence that is so typically Peter: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” But impetuous confidence is not faith, and so, after a good start, he begins to sink down into the water.

It is not yet faith. So what is faith? Would it have been to walk out on that water all the way to Jesus? Perhaps. But a much stiffer test will await Peter and the disciples. A stiffer test than walking out on water in the midst of a storm? Yes, because this test will come about when Jesus lets himself be swamped under in the storm of human violence awaiting him on the cross.

Think about it. It will be a similar situation. Jesus beckons his disciples to come with him on that night of his betrayal. He essentially calls all of them to get out of the boat and to walk on the stormy sea with him. Peter, John, and James he asks to come pray with him. They fall asleep. Judas and the armed guards come to arrest Jesus. They run away.

And Peter — this stormy night out on the sea was a dry-run (wet-run?) for him. Jesus predicted that none of them would get out of the safety of the boat and follow him. At the Last Supper, he says to the disciples, “You will all stumble and sink [skandalizo] because of me this night; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.'” What does impetuously confident Peter say? “Though all stumble and fall because of you, I will never fall.” But we know what happens. He tries to come to Jesus. Once again, he gets out of the boat and tries to walk through the storm. But around that fire in the temple courtyard, as the accusations begin to fly at him, he sinks into the stormy soup a second time. And this time Jesus won’t be there to rescue him right away. Jesus won’t be there to stop him from hearing the cock crow three times, to realize in great anguish that he has failed Jesus at his time of greatest need. Once again, his impetuous confidence is not faith. It is not enough to get Peter out onto that stormy sea of impending violence without be pulled under.

I said that Jesus lets himself be swamped under in the storm of human violence awaiting him on the cross. Let’s take a moment to see in the Bible how much sinking into stormy waters is associated with human violence. Here’s something from the psalmist:

Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. (Psalm 69:1-2)

What is this flood that sweeps over him? “More in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause; many are those who would destroy me, my enemies who accuse me falsely.” What is this flood? He is being scapegoated, like Jesus will be on the cross. The psalmist goes on to describe how even his family has turned against him. He is the brunt of gossip, a laughing stock, with drunks singing songs about him. And so he cries out to God:

With your faithful help rescue me from sinking in the mire; let me be delivered from my enemies and from the deep waters. Do not let the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up, or the Pit close its mouth over me. (69:13c-15)

Jesus quotes this psalm when he is predicting his own passion (“hate me without cause” is quoted by Jesus in John 15:25). He will let himself be swamped under in the storm of human violence awaiting him on the cross. He himself will sink down, only to have his heavenly Father reach out the saving hand and raise him up on the third day.

Are there other places in the Bible that talk about seething waters as a flood of violence? Well, there’s the flood story itself, about Noah and his family being saved. Here is an opening verse in the flood story: “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence” (Genesis 6:11). And before the earth was even created, what was there? Here’s the opening words of the Bible in Genesis 1: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” In creation stories of other cultures, the violence is more than symbolic. In the Babylonian myth, for example, there is a war of the gods and the killing of a great sea monster. But always in these myths some order and civility is brought out of a situation of chaos and violence. In the Bible’s story of creation, the chaos gets barely one line of mention at the beginning, a formless deep ocean of swirling waters. And then God’s Spirit, God’s word begins to move over it, bringing order and peace. A stark difference already between the Bible’s story of creation and other myths is the minimizing of violence. God’s word bringing order is quite different than a god who slays a sea monster.

Why this connection to violence and drowning waters? Because ever since the beginning of humankind our violence against one another has been the number one threat to our survival, as threatening, or worse, as a raging storm on the seas or a flooding rain. We have always needed to ask the gods for peace in the midst of our stormy, violent relationships with one another. And how did the gods answer? Well, for the first several millennia of our ancient ancestors, the gods always asked for a smaller dose of violence to hold off the greater violence. The gods always asked for a blood sacrifice. Why?

I think that the story of our Lord’s passion gives us that usual human formula for peace. In John’s Gospel, Caiaphas the High Priest says it straight out: “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50). That’s always been our formula since the beginning of time: we need to stave off a greater storm of flooding violence with a smaller dose of it. For the first millennia of humankind it was killing someone on an altar, a smaller dose of violence to ward off a raging flood of it. That’s why it took the cross of Jesus, with him as the Lamb of God, to reveal it. Humankind had for millennia thought that the gods demanded such doses of violence with their blood sacrifices. Finally, it took the true God to offer us the Lamb of God in order to show us the nonsense of all this. When we use violence to stave off violence, the violence will never go away. The stormy floods may recede for a time, but they will always return to swamp us under again — until, that is, Jesus comes into this world with true faith. It is Jesus’ faith that saves us.

We can now answer our initial question about faith: True faith is not getting pulled into the stormy waters of violence. Jesus let himself be swamped under for a time. But in another sense he wasn’t. For Jesus let himself be overwhelmed by our violence, without resorting to any violence himself. That, brothers and sisters, is what I believe faith is: even letting yourself be swamped over by the violence without returning the violence yourself. Jesus let himself be pulled under for only a moment, because he knew that the hand of his heavenly Father would be there to raise him up again on the third day. When Peter sank down into the sea that stormy night, he didn’t quite yet have faith that Jesus would be there to pull him out. And, when Peter promised not to be sunk on that stormy night in which Jesus was handed over to our violence, he didn’t quite have faith yet to believe that Jesus would be raised in order to raise him again, in order to forgive him and to give him another chance.

How about us? Do we have that kind of faith? Think of the times in our lives that are stormy, when relationships threaten to break apart, when we are confronted by death. Are we tempted to fight back, so to speak? To find someone else on whom we can dump our troubles? It may be another in our own family or community that may be made the scapegoat when trouble arises. Or perhaps we can even relate with the psalmist we quoted earlier who was being swamped under in the scapegoating against him.

Has the church been a place of faith in this sense of not get pulled into the scapegoating violence? Think of the times in your life when churches are in turmoil. Don’t we in the church love to blame somebody as much as anybody else? Don’t we love to turn against someone? In general, aren’t we in the church sometimes head the class in pointing fingers and nabbing someone for the so-called sake of the peace of everyone else? Don’t we still subscribe to Caiaphas’ formula?

How difficult is it to not be scandalized by this notion of faith? Here’s an example, I think: when the twin towers were tragically destroyed by such unthinkable violence, how quick are we to prescribe our own counter-violence in order to have peace? Amidst the swirling storm of terrible emotions in those days and weeks after September 11, how easy is it for us to get pulled down into that soupy and stormy sea? Yes, believing that the faith of Jesus Christ is the faith to not get sucked into the violence, even in response to terrible violence, is a scandalizing thing. I don’t think we realize how scandalizing it is.

That, in fact, is the precise word that Jesus uses when predicting to the disciples at the Last Supper: “You will all be scandalized [skandalizo] because of me this night; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.'” The ‘September 11,’ the righteous cause, for Jews of Jesus’ day was Roman occupation of their land. They expected the Messiah to come and lead an onslaught of righteous violence against the enemy. A Messiah who was anything but victorious over their enemies was scandalous to think about. Sure enough, even Peter, the rock, got sucked down once again into the stormy waters. But we have left out so far what Jesus says next. Yes, they will be scandalized, “But after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee” (Matthew 26:32). Jesus will go ahead of them and reach out to them the hand of forgiveness which will once again pull them out of the water.

It is the same hand of forgiveness that our Lord is about to reach out to you me in this Holy Supper that we share …

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Our Savior’s Lutheran,
Racine, WI, August 11, 2002

Note: another important sea image in the Bible is the one at its very end: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more” (Revelation 21:1). The promise is that in the end there will be no more violence, no more sea, only waters of life.

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