A sermon text, based on Matthew 14.22-33, video-recorded and shared with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, August 9, 2020.
Peter sinking beneath the waves is us!
For who among us, living in this world, has not known of a time when the cruel hand of whatever known cause or unknown chance thrust us under onrushing waves of worry and woe?
And who among us, as we live, given all that we do not and cannot control, is not aware that the possibility of another experience of being swallowed up by the deluge of life’s difficulties always is but the next moment away?
And who among us, at such grave moments, has not cried with Peter, with whatever words bursting from our burdened breasts, “Lord, save me!”?
In these present days and continuing weeks and months of viral pandemic, such is the cry of many.
I think of days gone by…
At the advent of the AIDS crisis, the question arose repeatedly in common converse: “Do you know of anyone so afflicted?” And I answered, “Yes, my brother.”
And during one of the cyclical rises in cancer rates, to the question, “Do you know of anyone?”, I answered, “Yes, my father.”
And when the increasing longevity in years of more and more people began to shine a light on the encroaching and lengthening shadow of Alzheimer’s disease, to the question, “Do you know of anyone?”, I answered, “Yes, my mother.”
And today, the question: Do you know of anyone who has been afflicted with or died of COVID-19? To which many of us, most of us, I can answer, “Yes.”
In this life, even with manifold viral disruptions to the patterns of our being, we know the joys of sunlit days and starry nights in the blessed bosom of families and friends with strength of purpose and goodly labor at hand. Nevertheless, sorrow always is an equal companion. Doubtless, more than the equal of joy for all of our sisters and brothers who daily contend against historic cultural and racial discrimination and generational socio-economic deprivations.
Yet, in either case, for them or for us, when immersed in the waves, how many of us most of the time or even once has had Peter’s experience of a savior walking across the water, lifting us, saving us from the peril of drowning?
Perhaps some (many? most?) of us could answer: Not I. Or I don’t know of anyone who has. Or I do know of some, many for whom such hasn’t happened.
If so, then what more do we make, can we make of this story than a fanciful, ghostly tale? At best, it is a metaphor, a symbol of a common human, though vain hope for supernatural rescue from worldly tribulation. Therefore, even at best, this story is hardly a worthy foundation for our faith.
And here’s an irony. Jesus, the miracle-worker, yes, made the blind see, the lame walk, the dead rise. Yet, before inaugurating his ministry, Jesus spurned the temptation of the devil to leap from the pinnacle of the temple to prove that he was the Son of God, saying, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test!” Therefore, Jesus rejected miracles as the basis of faith. Rather our faith – our trust, our confidence – in the presence and benevolence of God, often in the face of life’s contrary evidence, is the miracle.
This faith, however small, unformed and unfocused, led Peter to test himself: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus, as I imagine him, delighted, thrilled that one of his disciples would dare risk a bold, pell-mell, literal leap of faith, said, “Come.” But straightway, Peter, the salt spray spattering his face, the wind tearing through his hair, took his eyes off Jesus. Beginning to sink, he cried, “Lord, save me!” Jesus reached out and rescued him.
An olden hymn comes to mind, the words of which, for me, mirror this story:
O love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
that in thine ocean depths its flow
may richer, fuller be.
Jesus does not promise nor does our faith in Jesus profess that the storms of life will not threaten us. They do and they will. Or that trial and tribulation will not darken our door. They do and they will. Or that death to this life in this world will not befall us. It will.
Nevertheless, as Father Rob said last Sunday: “God grasps us, embraces us. At our moments of greatest fear and uncertainty, at the moment of greatest need, unless we choose to run away and deny the reality of the fear and the uncertainty, God will pull us close and refuse to let go.”
And, thus, Jesus, in taking our flesh and in his life, death, and resurrection, does promise and our faith does profess that he who is greater than the winds and the waves, greater than trial and tribulation, greater than our anxiety and fear, greater than death reaches out and holds us forever in his saving hands.
© 2020 PRA
Illustration: Jesus saving Peter from sinking, Caspar Luyken (1672-1708)
 Matthew 4.5-7
 From the hymn, verse 1, O love that wilt not let me go (1882); words by George Matheson (1842-1906), Scottish minister, poet, and hymn writer.
 From the sermon, “The Embrace of Jesus,” by Fr. Robert L. Brown, rector, St. Matthew’s Church, August 2, 2020.