Sermon for August 9, 2020

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Matthew 14:22-33 August 9, 2020
The Rev. Jonathan Linman, Ph.D.

The holy gospel according to Matthew. Glory to you, O Lord.

22Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25And early in the morning Jesus came walking toward them on the sea. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, here I am; do not be afraid.” 28Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

I have a confession to make: I barely know how to swim. For a variety of reasons, I was never taught how to swim as a child. As an adult, I did take swimming lessons, so I know the basics, and can manage to swim, more or less, in a pool. But it is not elegant.

The main issue for me is that I end up flailing, trying too hard. I don’t trust my body’s natural bouncy, and so I don’t relax into the act of swimming. To put it in theological terms, my swimming is works righteousness, trying to save myself by my own effort. My attempt at swimming is not an act of faith alone, of trusting my body’s natural capacities.

Perhaps my situation in the water is not unlike Peter’s in today’s Gospel reading. It’s clear that Peter had trust issues – his fear reveals that. He became frightened when he noticed the strong wind. That’s when he began to sink, and Jesus in the story made the observation, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”


Faith conceived as trust is a powerful reality. Faith in oneself, or confidence, as we might say, can make a huge difference in how we perform our various tasks. The etymology of the word ‘confidence’ speaks to faith – ‘confidence’ comes from the Latin, the prefix con + root word fides, in combination means ‘with faith.’

Faith is a centerpiece of Christianity. Thus we speak of our faith tradition, or the Christian faith. There are those in religious communities who exploit the theme of faith, that is the extent of one’s faith or trust, or lack thereof.

A popular TV faith healer had his operation in eastern Ohio, and so during my Pittsburgh days, I made a trek with friends to see the faith healer in person. It was moving to watch people gather before the service, people who clearly struggled with any number of kinds of ailments.

But then the show began, and I need to say that I experienced it as a show. The TV faith-healing personality came on stage and announced that we would see that very night the power of the Holy Spirit perhaps more significantly outpoured than even on the Day of Pentecost. And he proceeded to berate the backsliders and doubters, literally saying that God had no time for them, and that God would bulldoze them aside, making room for those with truly strong faith who would experience the miraculous healings powers of God. If one was not healed, that was clear evidence of their lack of faith.

I could not help but feel profound grief for those who left that auditorium that night without experiencing a miracle cure.

Even people of profound faith have their times of doubting, their trust issues. That’s part of the human predicament – “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief,” the father with the ailing son said (Mark 9:24). Think also of Mother Theresa, who did so much good, but after her death it was revealed that she consistently carried the burden of extreme doubt.

More often than not, doubt can get the better of us. As it did Peter when he cried out, “Lord, save me!”

We make that cry all the time, don’t we? I know I do. It’s central to one of our major liturgical words from the Hebrew – Hosanna! Hosanna essentially means, ‘Save us, we pray.’

But here’s the thing that we must not lose sight of: even Peter’s cry, our cry, is an act of faith, of trust, in the Lord on whom we call. “Lord, save me!” As if to say, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.”

With Peter’s cry of entrusting himself to Jesus, Jesus reached out his hand to catch Peter to keep him from sinking more deeply into the watery abyss amidst the winds of a raging storm.

With the intertwined crises we are enduring right now – the pandemic, the economy, racial injustice and unrest, other inequities, political division, we may well feel that we and the world are at risk of sinking into the deepest trenches of the ocean right now with hurricane force winds all about us.

Yet, we confess that Jesus is still present, responsive to our cries, “Lord, save us!”

But how? Jesus is not in the flesh with us to literally reach out the hand to keep us from sinking down into the literal waters.

By what mechanisms, then, does Jesus figuratively, but palpably and effectively, reach out the saving hand to us?

For a response to this query, I turn to the second reading for today from Romans where Paul writes, “’The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart’ (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:8-9)

Paul goes on to explore the dynamics of coming to such saving faith, that faith comes from what is heard, and what we hear comes from the mouths of those who proclaim Christ’s saving word. (cf. Romans 10:17)

To quote the apostle: “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’” (Romans 10:14-15)

All of this is to say, that through our very saying the words, “Save us,” God already saves us in the most ultimate sense, even if the storms continue to rage about us.

And our capacity to utter the words, the confession of our lips, is the result of the proclamation, the preaching of God’s saving word in the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s that simple. It’s that profound. Hence the power and importance of preaching. Hence the power and importance of those occasions when you proclaim a gospel message to others in your life.

More often than not such saving, faith-inducing proclamation does not happen in the ways we expect. It may not always be from the pulpit (or on the video).

In today’s first reading, Elijah expected to hear God’s voice and experience God’s presence in the great wind or in the earthquake or in the fire. God was not in those dramatic places. Rather, God was present with a message in the “sound of sheer silence.” (1 Kings 19:12b)

For it is the spaciousness of such silence, of such quiet encounters, that God’s Word can echo and reverberate in the Spirit to generate our trust, our faith in that very word to save us. Such silence is not an empty void, but full of God’s revealed Word when we dwell closely with that word.

My prayer for you today: may you be attentive to the sound of sheer silence, or the still small voice, in other translations. May you be poised to hear God’s saving, good news not just in sermons, but in those occasions when other members of God’s household proclaim in word and deed that which saves you.

Now, as ever, I invite your reflection, your holy conversation:

  • Name occasions in your life or in the life of the world when it’s natural to cry out, “Lord, save us!”
  • Name occasions when you’ve experienced the presence of God, of Jesus, of the Holy Spirit, to lift you out of the abyss, to save you.

Maybe in your quiet reflection or in your conversation you will hear the saving word you need this day! Amen.