Sunday, August 13, 2017

Faith and promise

A Sermon preached on August 13th, Pentecost X, at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
1 Kings 19:9-18, Romans 10:5-15, Matthew 14:22-33

Welcome once again to Noah and your family on the occasion of your Baptism. I know this church has a special meaning for your family as I discovered when your father first approached me five months ago about your baptism. Both he and his brothers were also baptized here in 1974. So I suppose that makes us a sort of Smith family church. 

Today’s New Testament readings are good ones for a baptism. Don’t worry Noah, I will not be asking you to walk on water like Peter, our font is far too small. The reason I say that is because faith is the focus of both passages: Matthew’s version of the story of Jesus – and his case also Peter - walking on water, the latter only briefly, and Paul’s discussion about the word of faith that we believe in our heart, and also profess and proclaim. And faith is also the focus of the Sacrament of Baptism: a public profession of belief and a set of promises based on those beliefs that we say we will try to fulfill. 

Let us look at the Letter to the Romans first. Paul addressed this letter to the Christian community in Rome that was made up of both Gentile and Jewish Christians. At this point in the letter, he is expressing his frustration that so few Jews has become Christians – after all did not Christ fulfill all the Old Testament promises? And so here, as in many other places, he uses passages from the Old Testament to reinforce his argument, particularly a passage from Deuteronomy, chapter 30. In it, Moses tells the Israelites:  
“Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” (Deut. 30:11-14)

Look, Paul is saying, how easy it is to achieve the righteousness that comes from faith, much easier than obeying the Law. Just as Moses said, you do not have to go up to heaven – for Christ Jesus already came down from heaven to live with and for you. Nor do you have to descend into the depths. Christ Jesus did that by dying for you and destroying death’s hold. The word is already right here – all you have to do is speak it and take it into your heart. And that word, for Paul, is to confess that Jesus is Lord and to believe that God raised him from the dead. All you have to do is accept what God has done for us and still is doing for us. 

Unfortunately, it is not always as easy as it sounds. God requires not only passive acquiescence but also active confession: heart and mouth, faith and action. Speaking “I believe” out loud, telling others what we believe can be either embarrassing or even dangerous, depending on where we live and who we are talking to, but no less necessary. After all, if we do not tell anyone else, how are they to know? Or as Paul puts it in his “chain of evangelism”:
“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?” (Romans 10:14-15)

In reverse order, that means that as baptized Christians we are sent to proclaim that Jesus is Lord so that others may hear, and believe, and be able to call on him. This commission is behind the question you, and all of us will be asked in a moment: “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?”

But it is not only the “proclaiming” aspect of faith that is not always as easy as it sounds, but also the inward believing part. You will have doubts, Noah. I have them now and again. Peter had them. They are what caused him to become frightened and to start sinking. The life of faith that you begin today will be a mixture of joy and sadness, of assurance and certainty mixed with moments of fear and doubt. That is the true of us all. Even as we know from her friend and confessor of Christian icons like Mother Theresa. 

We all set off on our journey of faith with the aim of following Jesus and wanting to become like him. We want to bring his love, his power, his peace, his hope to a broken and hurting world. Then like Peter, in our case metaphorically, we look down, we let our eyes drop to the waves, we hear the strong wind, we feel it pushing us back, we notice the darkness surrounding us. We are afraid and we think we cannot go on, that in fact we have come too far and we begin to doubt that we are capable of continuing. Yet in the Gospel, Peter is only a step away from Jesus, who as we heard catches and saves him. In the same way, the moment when we feel most strongly tempted to give up, when our doubts start taking over, is the moment when help is just a step away or as Paul says “near you, on your lips and in your heart.” (Romans 10:8)

One of the questions you will be asked during the service is “do you put your whole trust in Jesus’ grace and love?” It comes just before the question “do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?” There is a reason for that. Following and obeying Jesus, trying to imitate him requires trust – even or especially when that seems the most difficult thing to so. 

Returning to Peter’s example, it means not looking down but looking straight ahead – keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, keeping our ears open for his words of encouragement, and keeping our will and heart ready to do what Jesus says. I cannot tell you what your specific calling may be, but we know what Jesus taught and the Church has made this teaching part of our Baptismal Covenant:  to serve him in all persons, to love our neighbor as ourselves, to strive for justice and peace among all peoples, to respect the dignity of every human being. We can do what Jesus says, with his help, and we can only do what Jesus says, when we trust him. 

Faith is at the center of both readings, and faith is at the center of Baptism. And while faith is something God wants from us – to believe, profess, and proclaim – it is also a promise. “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved,” (Romans 10:13) Paul writes, and when Peter cries out, “Lord, save me!” (Matthew 14:30) Jesus does just that. 

So as it turns out, Noah, I wasn’t telling the truth. I do want you to walk on water, metaphorically. I do want you, and all of us, to do things that seem impossible or unimaginable on our own, in good times and in bad. To finish with the words of the refrain of one of my favorite songs, “You raise me up” that in part recalls today’s Gospel reading:
You raise me up so I can stand on mountains
You raise me up to walk on stormy seas
I am strong when I am on your shoulders
You raise me up to more than I can be

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