Sermon on 1 Kings 19:9-12 and Matthew 14:22-33 for Pentecost +10 A, August 13, 2017
1 Kings 19:9-12
At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.
Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, “Truly you are God’s Son.”
Finding God in Storm Stories
We just read two of the most well known stories in the bible. Most people have heard of God speaking to Elijah in the “still small voice” as it says in the King James Version. And, most people know the story of Jesus walking on the water, and of Peter trying to join him, and of the calming of the storm.
You are free to take these stories anyway you like. For me, they both function on the level of myth. That is, they are stories that tell us things that are deeply true, in a metaphorical or non-literal way.
For us, these are extremely important stories, because they are God stories. They are stories of God involved with humans – like us. So they help us as we try to understand God’s role in our lives.
Speaking of God in Limited Language
So, as God stories, they face the same problem that all discussions of God are faced with: the problem of describing the infinite with something as finite and limited as human language. We are finite creatures with limited capacities, limited abilities to understand, and we are trying to grasp the infinite.
On Wednesday evening we were discussing faith, and the relationship between faith and doubt. I was sharing some of the insights from one of the Twentieth centuries’ greatest Protestant theologians, Paul Tillich, from his book, The Dynamics of Faith.
He said that many people think that faith means believing things that there is not very good evidence for, like miracles. But that is actually not what faith is. Belief is not the same as faith.
Faith as Ultimate Concern
Faith is having an ultimate concern. An ultimate concern is one that is so big, that it is what gets you out of bed in the morning. An ultimate concern is something you give your life for.
An ultimate concern requires that you surrender to its demands, and those demands can be severe. But you surrender to those demands because, as your ultimate concern, it promises ultimate fulfillment. Tillich says that everyone has an ultimate concern.
So, for some people, their ultimate concern is their nation. For others it is success or prestige. For some it is the pursuit of truth. For some it is simply the self, as in self-fulfillment or simply survival. Clearly these concerns can make enormous demands, even, as in the case the nation, your life itself.
We have all watched people who have sacrificed their families or their health for success in their careers. We have watched this, just as Tillich had seen people in his country, Germany, make their nation their ultimate concern. Everything was sacrificed for the promise of the fulfillment of the dream of the Third Reich. We all know how that project ended.
There is deep tragedy and pain in mis-identifying a concern as ultimate. If it is not indeed ultimate, it cannot fulfill the promise we think it has made. It is tragic to look back on life and to think of the price we paid, and to realize that the reason we paid it was insufficient; the concern was not ultimate.
So, the ultimate concern has to be truly ultimate to be worthy of the sacrifices made for it, and to be able to accomplish the fulfillment we expect from pursuing it.
We believe that the only candidate able to fulfill those conditions is God. Only the infinite could truly be ultimate.
Uncertainty and Doubt
Because we are speaking of the infinite, we come again to the problem that we are finite, and we use our finite minds and finite human language to try grasp and speak of the infinite, which we cannot do in any adequate way. So we are faced with something we cannot know enough about in order to be certain. Therefore, faith is a risk. It is like a wager we make with our lives.
We have the experience of having been grasped by something infinite; we feel its pull, its tug, its lure towards the good, the beautiful and the true, in some ultimate sense. And yet we are not certain. So we take the risk; we have faith that this ultimate is real.
Which is why doubt is always part of faith. Doubt is, as Tillich says, a consequence of the risk of faith. It is the risk a finite person takes when surrendering to the infinite.
Doubt is most challenging when we face the unexpected, the painful, the tragic – and all of us experience these. The most common metaphor for these life events is the storm.
We just had a big electrical storm here Thursday evening. The lightening and thunder were magnificent to hear and see from the vantage point of a safe, secure place, but to be out in it would have been terrifying. When the storm is raging and we do not know how it will end, we face doubt.
Faith means that we keep on taking the risk even in the storm, even in the doubt.
Terrifying Storm Stories, Peaceful Ends
So, we read two stories in which terrifying acts of nature took place.
Elijah on the mountain experiences a wind so strong that it splits mountains and breaks rocks, and then an earthquake, followed by a fire. The narrator does not tell us how that must have felt, but it had to be terrifying.
In the gospel story, the disciples are out in a boat being battered by the waves. If you have ever been in a boat in really rough water you know how it feels. And then, to make matters worse they see what can only be a ghost, they believe, coming towards them on the water just as the gods of mythology do.
Both terrifying experiences end with quiet peaceful calm. In spite of the terror, in spite of the storms, in the end, it was okay. They got through it. In both, they experienced the presence of God in the peace after the terror.
Elijah experienced God, not as a “still small voice” but rather as modern translations say, much more accurately, as “the sound of sheer silence.” Of course that is a paradox because silence, by definition, makes no sound.
But that is a perfect description of a mind, or a heart, that is at peace. Not anxious, not fearful, not in dread or panic or worry, but at peace in the present moment, accepting it just as it is, not wishing to change it.
The disciples too come to complete peace as they recognize Jesus, who stands for the presence of God among them. Jesus asks them why they doubted; he suggests that their faith was weak. They were unsure, in the storm, whether they were going to make it. Even disciples doubt. But they also learn. And it is the storms of the past that teach them to trust in the present.
Aloneness and Community
There is another parallel besides the terror of nature between these two stories. It has to do with the experience of being alone. Elijah complains bitterly that he alone is left, that everyone else has been unfaithful to God.
Being alone, as he believes he is, without a supportive community, he doubts. He is in fear and despair. If we read on in the story, we learn that he is, in fact, not alone. God tells him there are over 500 people who have not abandoned faith. He has a community – he just did not know it.
In the gospel story, of course the disciples are not alone; they are all in the same boat. The boat has long been recognized as a symbol of the church. Jesus comes to the disciples during the storm and joins them in the boat.
There are probably many ways to take this, but I want to offer this suggestion. Peter wants to get out of the boat, to join Jesus on the water. If the boat is the symbol of the church community, Peter is then leaving the community. He wants to have his own spirituality as an individual experience. But it doesn’t work. The storm overwhelms him.
Of course it does. He needs the community. This is true for all of us. We are not ever meant to keep ourselves to ourselves. We were meant to be there for each other in the storms. In fact God comes to us, as the story illustrates, in the boat. God has given us each other, the Christian community, to be there for each other. Together, we talk about our storms, we admit our doubts and fears, and we help each other to trust.
So, it is important to practice our regular spiritual practices, and some of these we do alone – like daily meditation, prayer, reading the bible or spiritual literature. But it is also crucial that we gather together; for worship, but not only for worship. We need to be together to get to know each other, to build trust and to become comfortable enough to be willing to share the storms we are going through.
Some of our storms are personal, but others are public. The condition and uncertainty of the world and of our own politics here in America, and the condition of the planet can be large storms for us to deal with that we need each other to address.
Racism still exists, as this weekend’s tragic events in Charlottesville demonstrated. Racism needs all of us together to fight against. Poverty needs a community to address, as we do through the Christian Service Center and Uniforms for Youth.
I do not know what storms you are dealing with. I know my own. And I know that everyone has them. I know that storms cause doubt. That is normal. And I also know that storms require a community to help sustain our faith.
We have a community. God has given us each other. Together, we can recognize God’s presence in the boat with us, and experience peace. Together we can confront public storms, with courage and hope.