A Formula for Faith

Genesis 37:1–4, 12–28

Psalm 105:1–6, 16–22, 45b

Matthew 14:22–33

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

 

14:22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” 28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (Matthew 14:22-33, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: Through the storms of life, O God, you are with us, your people in the person of Jesus your Son.  So, we pray that you will calm our fears and strengthen our faith that we may never doubt Christ’s presence among us but proclaim that he is your Son, risen from the dead, living for ever and ever. Amen.

 

I must confess that math, especially algebra and calculus have never been my thing.  I really don’t like that there is only one answer.  The starkness of math…you are either right or wrong.  No partial credit. No participation trophy.  No, what do you think about the process to find the tangent of the cosign of yr2.  You either get it or you don’t.

 

I speak of formulas because the readings for today, while very different, have themes that make up a powerful formula for faith.  The lessons begin in Genesis, the continuation of the story of Jacob and his dysfunctional family.  This story plays out in the next generation, as Jacob’s sons were tending their herds of sheep.  When Jacob sends his youngest and most favored son Joseph to check on them.  Jacob showed his favoritism and love toward Joseph by giving him a special coat, the “coat of many colors”.  This special coat is an explicit sign that Jacob loves Joseph more than any of his other sons, and his brothers hate Joseph because of it.

 

To make matters worse, Joseph is self-absorbed and lacks common sense. Remember Joseph also had two famous dreams: that he would rise to prominence not only in his family but in the kingdom and that his brothers, even his parents bowed down to him!  Naively, he shares these dreams with them.  They hate him even more for it.

 

We pick up the story as his brothers are keeping watch over their sheep, and they saw Joseph approaching, they said: “Let’s kill him, throw him into a pit, and tell Dad (Jacob) he was killed by a wild animal.”  It is a story of jealousy, parental favoritism, sibling rivalry and revenge.

 

When Reuben, the oldest brother, tries to appease the anger of his brothers and suggests that they not kill Joseph but only throw him into a pit.  This way Reuben could then later return and rescue his baby brother Joseph and be the hero.  However, Reuben’s plan fails as his angry brothers overrule him throw Joseph in the pit and leave him to die.  Later some Midianite traders pass by and pull Joseph out of the pit, then they sell him into slavery for 20 pieces of silver.

 

It is quite a story of family dysfunction, lies and revenge.  Interesting to think this is one of the foundational stories of the Old Testament and a cornerstone text of the people of God.  It almost seems like everyone is deceiving everyone else!  It is problematic for me, because I have trouble watching a movie or a TV show that doesn’t have at least one redeeming character.  I look for someone to like, to cheer for.  This practice of deception and dysfunction in the Bible takes place at all levels of the social ladder and it involves all types of characters.

 

It is fascinating that the grand sweep of the story of the people of God includes such scoundrels, rogues and cheats.  The Bible is full of stories like this full of deception, revenge and wrong doing.  We naively assume that the steps to faith must be perfect and positive, full of trust and doubt free.  We often think of faith as strength and power but if these lessons tell us anything it is that faith is much more fragile and delicate.  There is a lot of messiness in faith.  The formula is not so clean and clear.  Faith is rarely direct line from point A to point B instead it often has a lot of fits and starts, many more failures than triumphs.  The formula of faith is that the cheats and the misfits and the broken, well in reality you and me, there is a place for even us in the Kingdom of God.  We don’t have to have it all together and live perfect lives.

 

That leads to the next elements of the formula of faith, fear and failure. The passage from Matthew shows a wonderful image of faith:  so powerful, yet so fragile.  Peter is invited out of the relative safety of the boat and to walk on the water to meet Jesus.  Notice that Peter begins to sink.  Peter doesn’t sink solely because he takes his eyes off Jesus, instead he sinks because he is afraid.  His fear is completely justified.  There is a storm raging around him. Who wouldn’t be afraid?

 

Did you notice Jesus’ response to Peter’s fear?   Jesus doesn’t criticize him about his lack of courage or coach him to keep his eyes on him.   Instead, when Peter begins to sink, Jesus reaches out and grabs him.   He saves Peter from drowning.  Peter is the archetype of faith, the rock, the one on whom Jesus will build his church, the solid and notice that he is afraid.  Well, that my friends is good news, Jesus knows we are human, fragile, afraid and doesn’t expect us to be anything more.  So, he in his strength reaches out to save Peter, you and me in the storms of our lives.  We hear that faith as small as a mustard seed can move mountains.  This is good news.   But the better news is that Jesus comes to us in the storms to save us in our fears.  Jesus will not give up on us.  Jesus will grab hold of us when we falter and restore us.

 

This is the promise at the heart of our faith: that God will never give up, that God is with us and for us, that God will do what we cannot.  And this promise is one thing that helps us cope with and transcend fear.  Notice, I said transcend, not defeat fear.  Because fear is a part of our lives, and we should take care that being fearful is not the same as thing as a lack of faith.  Courage, after all, isn’t the absence of fear.   Instead it is the ability to take our stand and do what needs to be done, even when we’re afraid.  We can’t banish fear.  It is in us and it is part of us, it makes us human.  But with faith, fear is put in its proper place, an emotion that keeps us alive but doesn’t rule our lives.

 

So, lies, dysfunction and fear are alive and well in our lives and in our world, we can’t deny it.  But in a very freeing sense they are also components in the best formula of faith.  That is the promise of these stories and of the whole of scripture is that God’s saving grace and love is more powerful. The ultimate lesson or formula of faith is that God is in control.  We can’t work faith hard enough to get the “right” answer.  We can’t work hard enough to overcome our fears.  We can’t strive long enough to achieve perfection.  It will never come.  But when we finally realize we are sinking and we can’t save ourselves, then the fear diminishes and the peace comes and acceptance sets in and we can rest in the loving grasp of Christ just as Peter did.

 

Let us pray: