Preached from the Pulpit of Good Shepherd Berkeley by Bill Countryman, August 10, 2014
Proper 14A: Genesis37:1-4, 12-28; Psalm 105:<1-22>; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33
Of all the disciples, Peter is the most daring. He’s also the one who fails over and over again. In this morning’s gospel reading, he certainly holds true to type. But the thing I’ve always found particularly surprising in this story is that Peter’s failure doesn’t come at the beginning of it, but in the middle. He steps out of the boat: crazy, impulsive thing to do. He’s actually walking on the water. (Yes, that is an impossibility for human beings, large and heavy as we are. You can either accept it as a miracle here or you can take the whole story as a kind of parable. The point, I think, will be pretty much the same, either way.)
But notice how the story unfolds: The disciples are really scared when they see Jesus because they think they’re seeing a ghost or a phantom of some kind. Jesus says to them, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” But Peter wants more: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
Now, think about that for a moment. What’s the point of that? If Peter wasn’t sure that the phantom (or whatever this is) was telling him the truth the first time—in claiming to be Jesus—why would it tell him the truth now? But Peter, of course—Peter isn’t really the type to think things through first. He just gets out of the boat and finds himself . . . walking on the water!
And that’s when the real trouble starts. Having mastered his first few steps, he finds himself free to look around and he realizes, once again, that he’s in the middle of a big storm. This isn’t like walking on dry land—well, maybe dry land in the middle of a really big earthquake. But, no, the winds here are pushing and pulling at him and whipping up the waves. Everything is in motion. Where does he put his foot next? And you know what happens: he panics and starts to sink. Jesus grabs him and gets him back into the ship—the kind of thing he does more than once for Peter, in different ways, in the gospel narratives.
So this is a story about how good we human beings are at losing faith. We even do it just when things are going well, just when God is closest to us, just when you’d think we’d be feeling new strength and confidence. But there we are, all of a sudden, feeling as if the bottom has dropped out and we have no idea where we are or what we’re doing.
It’s also a story about how God deals with us in such moments. God doesn’t keep us out of trouble. But God doesn’t abandon us, either.
We know, of course, that experiences like this aren’t entirely bad for us—unpleasant, for sure, but an essential part of human life. We may wish, at times, that God would be a bit more protective—maybe keep us from geting ourselves into scary situations or, at least, yank us out before we’re about to drown. But the other side to that is that then we’d never have the freedom we need to make our own mistakes and have our own uncertainties. God has decided, it seems, not to be a helicopter parent, always hovering around us. And that’s actually something to be thankful for when you think about it.
Human life is, in large part, a process of trial and error. Sometimes we fail quite badly. Sometimes we may even do harm to ourselves or others by our failures. But how else does a person become human? What sort of world would this be if you had to get everything right the first time—not to mention every time thereafter? What would God be like if God expected that? What does it do to us when we demand that of ourselves? Mostly, I think, it just ties us in knots—knots of anxiety and indecision before the fact, knots of regret and self-recrimination afterward.
But God is not a helicopter parent. God, in fact, isn’t a micromanager of any sort. The ancestral (patriarchal) stories that we’ve been reading lately from Genesis show us the same thing time after time. God prompts Abram to move from Haran to the Promised Land. But Abram quickly finds that he’s more or less on his own once he gets there—and that God isn’t even very quick to fulfill the promises made to him. Isaac finds himself mistakenly giving the blessing to the wrong twin. Jacob. And Jacob, having got the blessing—at the price of alienating most of his family—actually meets God at Bethel on his way into exile, but still finds he has to manage his crafty uncle (and prospective father-in-law) pretty much on his own.
And, today, we come down to the case of Joseph. Joseph is his father’s pet. He gets all kinds of special treatment, not least that famous coat of many colors (in the old translations) or long sleeves (in the newer ones). What’s more, he’s a bit snotty about it all. He has dreams that predict his own superiority and he can’t resist telling everybody. (If you’re wondering how you missed that bit this morning, don’t worry. It’s not Alzheimer’s. It was left out to keep the length of the lesson down.)
At any rate, the young Joseph didn’t have much social sense. He even ratted on some of his brothers at one point. It’s hardly surprising that the brothers didn’t like him. Still, the idea of murdering him was completely beyond the pale. And, even in that day and age, selling your kid brother into slavery in a foreign country wasn’t really considered appropriate behavior. But Joseph did help bring it on himself.
God didn’t abandon him. But God wasn’t in a hurry to bail him out, either. It’s a long story, actually, almost a short novel, and completely absorbing—adventurous, full of danger and unexpected reversals. And it’s psychologically astute and fascinating. If you haven’t read it in a while, it’s worth going back to just for the pleasure of a good read.
But God doesn’t micromanage. Joseph has to learn from experience how to become a wise and honorable adult—a lesson that he’ll eventually have to apply in relation to his brothers when they come calling years later. It doesn’t mean that God abandoned him. It means that God was prepared to let our complex and difficult world do its work and let Joseph grow up in the authentically human way of trial and error.
Many of us, like Joseph, have probably experienced God nudging us from time to time. And I’ve heard more than one person around here over the years talk about God’s propensity for playing jokes—jokes that aren’t always very welcome at the time. In this story of Joseph, God, with consummate irony, even uses the brothers’ crime of selling him into slavery as the means, much later on, to save the whole family from starvation.
God may not be a micromanager. But God is still very much engaged.
God cared deeply about Joseph and Peter both—just as God cares deeply about each of us. And I trust that God never, in fact, abandons us even though we probably all have times that feel that way. But God definitely leaves us space to grow in the only way that human beings really can: trying things out, making our own mistakes, failing, grabbing hold of the nearest hand (which sometime turns out to be God’s hand), trying again. And if, at times, we might find a more intrusive God useful, I suspect that, on the whole, the one we have is actually better: a God who loves each one of us, warts and all, and is giving us space and time to become the even more beautiful person we have it in us (by God’s gift) to become. Maybe after we’ve come through at least a few scary passages.