Regular worshipers at this Cathedral know how serious we are about the lectionary: faithfully reading and singing the appointed Scriptures and preaching from those texts. But sometimes even we wonder what was in the minds of those who years ago selected a particular combination of readings for a particular day.
Take today, for example. They scheduled three very wet, watery, soaking texts: texts about floods and stormy seas and drowning. Did they really anticipate this hot, dry summer’s searing drought? Is that why we are to think about Jonah tossed by the waves and swallowed by the whale? About the psalmist proclaiming the throne of the Lord above the floodwaters? About those happenings on the Sea of Galilee: disciples terrified as their boat is battered by the billows; Jesus walks on the waters; Peter nearly drowns?
So what to preach on today? Water conservation? Flood control? How about “Save the whale”? Or the United Nations Law of the Sea Treaty? Or baptism by immersion? Or perhaps a sermon on miracles? How can we explain walking on the water? Some folks have tried suggesting it was perhaps an optical illusion through the mist or the fog: Jesus must actually have been walking along the shoreline, or perhaps on shoals in very shallow water—maybe after a serious drought.
The homiletical possibilities for today are rich and various!
But there’s a powerful current running through all these sloshing texts—the basic question: What is faith? In what or whom can we really trust when we are full of doubts, or when life itself is storm-tossed, especially when we feel we are drowning? It is a question made particularly poignant by Jesus’ rebuke of that poor petrified Peter—a rebuke very familiar for its being so often quoted in our ordinary conversations, whether serious or frivolous: “O ye of little faith!”
Let’s assume today that most of us are like Peter: people with too little faith. However, if you happen to have a surplus of faith, you need not pay any attention to the remainder of this sermon.
What would the rest of us really believe if we had much faith? What would give us strength to cope with our doubts and with the storms and stresses that engulf our lives?
1. If we had much faith—
We might really believe that this world—this whole creation—is full of the purposes and power of God its Creator;
That God has endowed the cosmos with dependable laws so that science and medicine can make our lives more blessed;
That there is also a moral law written into the universe and even in the depths of our own hearts;
That we are made for love and for community and to be creators ourselves;
That, as Martin Luther King, Jr., put it, the arc of the universe bends toward justice.
Now if you happen to be a non-believer—an atheist or an agnostic—you may be such because you are deeply troubled by all the suffering in the world. You may wonder how a good God could permit such things. In Archibald MacLeish’s Play, J.B. (a play modeled on the story of Job) a character named Nickles also wondered about God’s responsibility for suffering—if indeed there was God. And Nickles did so in a little conundrum:
“If God is God he is not good,
If God is good he is not God.”
But if the problem of suffering and of evil tests your will to believe, how about the problem of good? How do you explain all the good? How do you account for “sunsets and symphonies, mothers, music, and the laughter of children at play, great books, great art, great science, great personalities, victories of good over evil,… and all the friendly spirits that [offer] others a cup of [compassion] in some great agony?” (That list of miraculous things was offered many years ago by the pastor of New York’s Riverside Church, Harry Emerson Fosdick.) So this is a sermon on miracles, after all!
So it may be just as difficult for an atheist to explain the good as it is for a believer to explain the bad.
Perhaps an especially winsome challenge to non-believers comes from a writer named Carrie Hammill, who once suggested:
[“You, there!] Drop to your knees beside the wide road.… Take clay and dust, and fashion a child [yourself] with wistful brown eyes and breath in its lungs; Make flesh-warm lips, a brain, and red blood—if you succeed, tell me there’s no God!”
Or, as someone else suggested long ago: “What can be more foolish than to think that all this rare fabric of heaven and earth could come by chance, when all the skill of science is not able to make an oyster.” (Jeremy Taylor)
2. If we had much faith—
We might really believe that the Ultimate became intimate: that Jesus of Nazareth shows us what the love of God is really like—and also what it means to be fully and authentically human, in the image of God—yes, we ourselves reflecting the love and glory of God!
And that means really believing that we are children of God, belonging to God’s own beloved family. And if we are such a family, we can surely communicate with God—directly. So we can pray “Our Father”—or “Our Mother.”
That doesn’t mean we can always get what we pray for. A loving parent doesn’t always give a child whatever she or he asks for. You may remember that Huckleberry Finn learned the hard way that not all his prayers were answered as be wished—so that he came to doubt the power of prayer altogether:
“Miss Watson, she took me in the closet and prayed, but nothing come of it. She told me to pray every day, and whatever I asked for I would get it. But it warn’t so. I tried it. Once I got a fishline but no hooks. It warn’t any good to me without hooks. I tried for hooks 3 or 4 times, but somehow I couldn’t make it work…. I set down one time back in the woods, and had a long think about it. I says to myself, if a body can get anything they pray for, why don’t Deacon Winn get back the money he lost on pork? Why can’t the widow get back the snuffbox that was stole? Why can’t Miss Watson fat up? No, says I to myself, there ain’t nuthin’ in it!”
At that point in his life, Huck Finn didn’t have much faith!
3. If we had much faith—
We might really believe in forgiveness—that to forgive really is divine, like God—a holy thing to do when some person, or some group, or some nation—deliberately or unintentionally—does harm to us, whether some little annoyance, or some awful, ghastly thing so horrible we want to say: “That is unforgivable!” Which is precisely when we should be ready to forgive. That doesn’t mean permitting injustices to go unchallenged or uncorrected or uncompensated—if you believe in a rule of law.
Several years ago, Victoria Rebeck, the managing editor of Christian Ministry magazine, attended the trial of a close friend who pled guilty to driving under the influence of alcohol, in a terrible accident that killed two people. She stood with her friend’s weeping mother as the judge sentenced him and returned him to prison. Then another woman approached the defendant’s mother and said: “Excuse me. I’m the mother of one of the people who died. I just want you to know that I know you must be in great pain…. I know he didn’t mean to do it. I just wanted you to know that.” And then she slipped away quietly. What a moment of grace!
Without forgiveness, some relationships are poisoned or shattered forever—between friends, between spouses, between parents and children, between political leaders, between governments. And so friendships are ruined, families broken, the public good suffers, and nations wage genocidal wars. In Kosovo, the unforgiving vengeance goes on and on—nobody wins and everybody is victimized. The costliness of an unforgiving spirit is incalculable.
Two centuries ago, an Englishwoman named Hannah More—a playwright and devotional writer—wisely said:
“A Christian will find it cheaper to pardon than to resent. [For] forgiveness saves the expense of anger, the cost of hatred, the waste of spirits.”
And so we pray, within our own holy family: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Sometimes, at least some of us know all too well that our own lives simply cannot go on until we experience the liberation of forgiveness for our own annoying, or even awful, sins.
4. If we had much faith—
We might really believe that God suffers when we suffers and we might really believe that our holy family life goes on forever.
Do you remember when, in the life story of Jesus, he said: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life”? It was precisely when his own way was most powerfully challenged, his own truth denied, and his own life so imminently threatened. It was on his last night, even after the Last Supper, after betrayal by Judas, after foretelling denial by Peter, after knowing that trial and crucifixion were coming, even after saying on that night:
“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God. Believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions…. And I will go and prepare a room just for you.”
It was only then that Jesus said: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” He was thrusting his message about life into the face of suffering and the fact of death!
If we had much faith, we would really know something about this inseparable family connection through life and death, and life again. Listen to several of Paul’s verses from Romans 8—a very familiar passage, but given a fresh rendering in the Jerusalem Bible:
“Nothing can come between us and the love of Christ, even if we are troubled or worried, or being persecuted, or lacking food or clothes, or being threatened or even attacked…. These are the trials through which we triumph, by the power of him who loved us. For I am certain of this: neither death nor life, no angel, no prince, nothing that exists, nothing still to come, not any power, or height or depth, nor any created thing, can ever come between us and the love of God, made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:35, 37—39)
Dear Friends: If you can really believe that, you have much faith indeed! Amen.