Sunday, August 07, 2011

Little Faith

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Gainesville FL
The Chapel of the Incarnation, Gainesville FL
August 7, 2011

Year A: Proper 14 – the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Psalm 105: 1-6, 16-22, 45b
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

Little Faith

Last Sunday we heard Matthew’s account of Jesus feeding the multitudes. The crowd had followed Jesus, hungry for his teaching and maybe a healing or two. The only problem was now there were thousands of people in a remote place. As the day grew late the disciples grew concerned about how all of these people were going to get fed. They tell Jesus to send the crowd into the villages so they can buy food.

Instead, Jesus tells the disciples, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”

The disciples have very little. They are only able to offer five loaves and two fish. It certainly doesn’t seem like they have nearly enough.

Yet, Jesus is able to take their little offering and transform it into food that feeds a multitude – with baskets of leftovers completing the picture of God’s abundance.

Today we picked up right where we left off in the Gospel of Matthew – the story of Jesus walking on water and calming the storm.

Matthew drew upon the earlier Gospel of Mark when he wrote his own account of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Since there’s so much of Mark in Matthew, it’s interesting to note when Matthew adds some additional details to what’s in the earlier gospel.

For example, Matthew’s account of Peter’s “little faith” isn’t found in Mark.

Peter isn’t sure if it’s really Jesus or if it’s a ghost. But, he bravely says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

After getting the word, Peter – a fisherman who knew the dangers of the turbulent sea all too well - bravely gets out of the boat and takes a few steps on the water towards his Lord.

When he gets understandably frightened and begins to sink, Peter cries out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reaches out to him, catches him, and says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

“You of little faith” is the usual description of the apostles in the Gospel of Matthew.

“You of little faith” sounds like a put-down, but I’m not so sure.

After all, God seems to be very good at making something awesome out of something very little.

God is good at taking tiny mustard seeds and growing trees that provide shelter for many.

And we just saw God’s ability to turn little into awesome in the miracle of feeding the multitudes when Jesus took the little offering from the disciples and transform it into food that satisfies a multitude – with baskets of leftovers.

Actually, all God seems to require of us is “little faith” – the faith that leaves us open to God’s power working within us – the faith that leaves a small space in our hearts where God can do the work of transforming us and transforming the world.

And it’s noteworthy that it’s Peter who is of little faith. Peter is often depicted as kind of a well-meaning bumbler. And, as we know, he will let Jesus down in his greatest moment of need – abandoning and denying his crucified Lord.

Yet Peter’s little faith is enough to get him out on the water – Peter’s little faith is enough to get Peter to take a few steps toward Jesus – Peter’s little faith is enough for him to cry out to Jesus for help.

And we know that God will take Peter’s little faith – and working from that small place in the fisherman’s heart - transform him from bumbler and coward and denier into an apostle who gave his life for Jesus and the Gospel.

So, I don’t think “little faith” is a put-down.

But, if we’re honest, I think we all wonder if we have even Peter’s little faith. Would we really take even a step or two out onto the water towards Jesus?

Does our doubt crush our little faith and close off the small space in our hearts?

Like Peter, our doubts become most apparent in turbulent times.

And we are certainly living in turbulent times.

The loss of life caused by the shooting down of one of our helicopters in Afghanistan on Saturday is a reminder that our country is involved in wars that, despite the bravery of our troops, we know will end not with victory but, at best, ambiguity.

Our economy and many economies around the world continue to sputter -leaving so many of us unemployed or underemployed or frightened that we are about to take a place in the long lines of people looking for work. Unemployment benefits are running out and there doesn’t seem to be the money or the will or even the compassion to extend them.

For the first time in our history Americans really believe that their children won’t have it as good as they did.

Over the past few weeks the world watched as leaders of both parties made a spectacle of themselves in dealing with the debt ceiling – a spectacle for which we’ll all pay. But, that was really just one example of the dysfunction and corruption that prevents our elected officials in Washington and Tallahassee from setting aside ideology and self-interest for the good of the people.

And then there is the turbulence in our own lives.

Like every community, some of us here are facing serious illness or worried about the health of someone we love. Some of us are battling addiction. Some of our relationships are strained or have ruptured. Some of us feel guilty about things we’ve done or things we’ve left undone.

And there is the turbulence that comes when a priest gets ready to leave. What will happen to the church? What will our next priest be like? Will the next priest be in place before momentum is lost and people begin to drift away?

In turbulent times it’s easy to doubt - and hard to have even little faith.

Actually, though, our idea of doubt might not be exactly what Jesus meant.

When Jesus asked Peter, “why did you doubt?” he wasn’t asking Peter why he was skeptical that a man could walk on the surface of a turbulent sea.

Instead, when Jesus asked Peter why he doubted, he was asking why didn’t he hold steady? Why didn’t he remain steadfast? Why didn’t he keep going?

Peter had heard Jesus teach and had seen Jesus heal and had seen Jesus feed the multitudes. So why he didn’t Peter trust that the Lord would hold him up and keep him afloat?

In this turbulent time, you and I are like Peter trying to walk on the turbulent sea.

During my year here I’ve gotten to know you well enough to know that you’ve seen the power of Jesus to teach, heal and feed. So I know you’ll hold steady. I know that doubt won’t crush your – our - little faith. I know that doubt won’t close off the small space reserved for God in our hearts.

We have little faith – we make a small place in our heart – when we hold steady, when we remain steadfast, when we keep going even when we’re frightened or tired or bewildered.

We have little faith – we make a small place for God in our heart – when we stick together, make time for prayer, extend peace and forgiveness to our neighbors, sing our hymns, and take the Body and Blood of Christ into our bodies and into our hearts.

With all his flaws and failures, Peter still had little faith and made a small place in his heart for God. And God used that little faith and that small place to transform Peter and to transform the world.

As usual, God made something awesome out of something very small.

The good news is that what was true for Peter is just as true for us – what God did for Peter, God can do for all of us - for all of us of little faith.