Homily by The Rev’d Glenn Empey, Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Matthew 14: 22-32
I’ve always been wary of people who have no doubt about anything. They appear to me to be overly confident and motivated by their own sense of self-importance. The thing is though that when you dig into what’s really going on inside that kind of way of thinking and that kind of way of perceiving the world, the confidence is actually a defence-mechanism to still the doubts that rage within like a storm. The inflated self-view is a shield that throws a healthy sense of self-confidence out of balance.
I wonder if Peter was that kind of person. I’d never thought that way about him but one commentator I read recently was pushing that point.
It had been hours that Peter and the disciples, in their small boat, were being pummeled about by the rage of a storm. A normal way of recognizing the reality of the situation would be to fear for ones life. There would have been some doubt about the group’s survival.
They’d gone into the boat and headed out into the lake because Jesus had made them do it. He didn’t offer them an option: he made them go out onto the lake while he remained ashore. So, to top it all off, the disciples were alone without Jesus and it was Jesus, in whom they had great faith, who had made them venture out into the stormy waters while he remained on land.
I always remember some of the things I learned when I took a Survival and Ground Search and Rescue course while I was in the Canadian Armed Forces (Reserves). In the book “Down but not Out”, they list seven enemies of survival. Neither doubt nor fear is on the list. The list is pain, cold, thirst, hunger, fatigue, boredom and loneliness. (If you’d like to learn why those are enemies of survival, we can talk.)
Fear and doubt – within healthy limits — are actually assets for survival. It’s like when you stand on the edge of a cliff or a tall building. Pretty well every one of us has some kind of automatic internal reaction that I think stems from an awareness of fear. Fear is a good thing. If you’re standing in the middle of the rail tracks when a train is approaching, it’s a good thing that fear alerts you that you must move. You have to get out of the way.
Similarly, a sense of doubt makes a person re-think things to see if they have things in proper perspective. It leads them to ask questions to learn more, to be able to understand more fully. It makes me think about the survival maxim of hoping for the best but planning for the worst. You don’t just gather the amount of wood you think you’ll need. You gather more.
So, back to the boat where each of us may find ourselves from time to time as did the disciples. Along the lakes and streams of human experience, there are times when we find ourselves in the same boat.
When Peter realizes that it is Jesus outside the boat on the water, he – perhaps boastfully or daringly – asks Jesus to command him to walk toward him. And Jesus tells him to come toward him. When fear of the wind and the waves overcomes Peter, he begins to sink and he cries out to Jesus to save him which Jesus does. Then Jesus chastises him for his doubt and lack of faith. I don’t know about your thoughts but for me that is the strange part. Why admonish Peter for his doubts and his lack of faith? How was it that his doubt lead him to begin sinking?
In another part of Matthew, Jesus speaks about the tiny, tiny mustard seed and says that if we had even that small amount of faith, we could move mountains. It may seem like it sometimes, but in reality, you and I cannot move mountains. So, does that mean our faith isn’t even as big as the tiny mustard seed?
Back to the scene in the boat: there is one significant element of the human experience that is not directly mentioned in the story. I think it is an essential element in the process of faith. And that is hope. The word is not mentioned but the idea, I believe, looms large (as they say) between the lines and in the midst of the experience of Peter. What did Peter learn through his doubts? What may Peter have learned was missing in his venture into the churning waters?
I think that was the whole notion of hope.
Paul Tillich, an existential philosopher and theologian whom I am always find inspiring said: “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.”
Another equally inspiring person of similar credentials was Søren Kierkegaard. He observed:
Every mental act is composed of doubt and belief,
but it is belief that is the positive, it is belief
that sustains thought and holds the world together.
And a more contemporary, Toba Beta, an Indonesian financial analyst whose writings are likely influenced by his experience in that realm, remarks:
No one knows for sure that tomorrow won’t come,
but most people assume that tomorrow will still exist as usual. This is Toba’s Paradox, which means, hope overcomes doubt.
It is true. Hope overcomes the power of doubts. Hope is what enables a downed pilot to keep his wits in the far north. Hope is what enables a person lost in the woods to remain calm in the midst of panic. Hope is what enables a person in a storm on the lake to have the calm to navigate the danger. Hope is profound, far deeper than wishfulness.
Hope is the profound lens through which to see the world. It enables a person to focus on the picture that, while the world is far from perfect, good outweighs evil, light overpowers darkness, love overshadows hate, forgiveness overcomes brokenness. In short, hope harnesses doubts so that they are a tool of understanding and a resource to seek meaning. Hope reaches into the reality of the world and beyond.
The missing link, it seems to me, in the Gospel story, for you and me to take away with us today, is the whole matter of hope. A lesson Jesus taught that day.
Hope – profound-light-in-the-darkness hope – is what makes our stormy winds cease.
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