Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, 14-15
There is a time to mourn and a time to celebrate, and so often in life, these times are one and the same. This is the third occasion this weekend on which this passage has been featured – first at Doug Johnson’s funeral, where we celebrated his ordinary and remarkable life and the love that poured from it, and we mourned his passing and grieved losing him, and we did both of these things at the same time, even while recognizing that Doug is held in God’s eternal time.
Then yesterday this passage came up again at my Dad’s wedding, where two people with broken pasts and broken hearts who have found each other started over together. And it was, for them, truly a time to celebrate as they joined their lives into one and the future opened up before them. But for me, sitting there, as a living part of the time that was in my Dad’s past, it was painful. I am thrilled for him, but I grieve over the brokenness of my family that can never be recovered, and the way that brokenness invades my very being. And it was really, really hard to find myself inexplicably mourning when anyone at all can tell you weddings are times to celebrate.
There is a time for everything and so we like to use this passage to tell you what time it is. It’s happy time, not sad time; it’s time to build up, not break down, it’s time to look forward, not backwards, it’s time to speak or dance or smile, not be silent or sit quietly or weep. Get with the time.
But the problem is that almost nothing in life is just one thing or the other. And all these times nestle so close to one another that one person’s time for silence is another’s time to speak, and building up often demands some breaking down at the same time, and joy and sorrow are such a shaken up cocktail that they can barely be tasted separately and are impossible to completely extract from one another, and tears and laughter absolutely belong together at funerals.
And I hate when people use scripture, any kind of scripture, to tell you what you should do or how you should be. We do that to ourselves all the time. But that’s not what this book is. It’s not a how-to manual. It’s not a self-help guide or a right-living formula. It's so much more valuable and powerful than that.
This is the story of our faith. This is the story of life. Of God. Of God’s involvement in people’s lives. So it is mostly not prescriptive; it is descriptive. What I mean is, this beautiful poetry read in so many different times and contexts is not telling us that we should divide life into these clear-cut categories and try really hard to do the right thing at the right time.
It is observing, noticing, that life is filled with all of these things, that sometimes we mourn and sometimes we dance and sometimes there is war and sometimes peace, and we keep and we throw away and it’s all part of the package, this great big mixed bag called life. And it is suggesting that in every season there is purpose, meaning, and mostly, it is recognizing that in the midst of whatever season we find ourselves in, God is there with us, this God who holds all these times, and all time, in God’s hands.
And so when we come to our passage of Peter walking on the water, I can’t help but feel almost irritated, because there is nobody who has been in church for any amount of time that hasn’t heard sermons on this text, and 99% of the time they are prescriptive. They tell you what time it is. It’s faith time, not fear time! It’s worship time, not doubt time! You should have enough faith to get out of the boat. You should not be distracted by the storm. You should keep your eyes on Jesus.
Duh. Nobody needs to be told that. We know that. It just makes us feel bad to be told once again to keep your eyes on Jesus because if we are honest we are very often distracted by the storm, and who wouldn’t be? And very seldom do we really have the faith, or stupidity, or whatever it is, to get out of the boat in the middle of it. And who in the world can keep their eyes always on Jesus and what in the world does that mean anyway?
So, we could sit here, all itchy and annoyed, ready to be told once again how we are supposed to feel or follow, what we are supposed to do or believe, and let the beauty and ridiculousness and reality of this story blow right over us. Or we could really listen to the story, immerse ourselves right into it and let it describe instead of prescribe, let it help us observe life and ourselves, and fear and faith, and worship and doubt and let it show us a little bit about what it mean to be human and how hard it is, but mostly, let it tell us something of who God is and what God is up to.
Immediately following the feeding of the 5000, where the disciples not just witness, but participate in this doubt-busting miracle, they head out alone into the boat on the Sea of Galilee. And then they spend the entire night fighting a relentless storm, thrown around, bailing water, struggling with sails and bracing against wind with no respite in sight, terrified for their very lives, and, I can imagine, utterly and completely exhausted.
It has not been a good night.
And in the wee hours of the morning, wind still gusting and waves still heaving, here comes this figure, walking atop the water.
So let’s just pause there and note that, at least to me, their fear makes complete sense. This must be the end, right? They’re seeing things, they’re going down, or they’ve already died.
But when he’s within shouting distance Jesus tells them, “Don’t be scared, guys, it’s me.”
And Peter, dear Peter, calls back, “Jesus, if it’s really you then tell me to walk to you.” (which of course, no ghost or figment of your imagination would do-?). So Jesus invites Peter out of the boat, and Peter actually climbs out of the pitching, heaving boat and puts his feet onto the water and stands up.
Now, I don’t know about you, but that seems to me some kind of faith. “You of little faith,” Jesus calls him later, little faith like a mustard seed that moves mountains, little faith that gets you raw, open and vulnerable in the middle of the storm because you’ve asked Jesus to call you there. Just sayin’. Little faith is no small thing.
So Peter steps out and walks to Jesus. But he is suddenly distracted by the raging sea and the roiling sky and the wind screaming around him and he begins to sink.
And here is where we get told to just keep your eyes on Jesus, as though somehow it’s God’s goal to get you out of storms, even ones you’ve put yourself into the middle of, or that God sends storms to test us and we are supposed to have some big faith, bigger than Peter’s little faith, and just resist.
We also like to assume at this point that discipleship is some kind of mental game of focus, like karate or zen golf, and if we just believe hard enough we wont sink, like seeing the storm is what causes the sinking, so if we just keep ourselves from acknowledging that the elements are raging around us and threatening to break us down, somehow we’ll coast along the top of the water and everything will be peachy. But when we admit our fear, or notice how terrible things really are, down we go, under the waves. And apparently, Jesus is just there to get us back on track.
So buck up, little Christians, and put on that smile! This the time for bravery and stoicism! This is the time for faith!
But with all the encouragement we get with this passage to keep our eyes on Jesus, we rarely take our eyes off of Peter long enough to really look at Jesus. Where is he in this story? What is he doing? What does he do when Peter cries out? Who is Jesus here?
Biblical scholar Dave Lose says,
“Jesus, finally, isn't simply our guide or life coach; he's our Savior, the One who does for us what we cannot. Too much of American Christianity, I think, has forgotten that, reducing the gospel to one more spiritual self-help recipe, hardly different from what you might hear on Oprah. But the Lord who walks atop the sea in this story not only directs wind and wave but also death and life. This Jesus wants more than to command our attention; he wants to save our lives. And he has promised to do just that.”
Jesus, Lord of wind and rain, is right here in the middle of the storm, face to face with Peter, catching him when he sinks, climbing back into the boat with him. And the disciples who began this encounter not even recognizing him, fearing and doubting him, now worship him.
There are two places in Matthew where doubt is talked about – here, and after the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. And both places, doubt sits right alongside worship. They doubted and they worshiped. In both situations the time for doubt and the time for worship were one and the same. They so often are when encountering this God-man in all his divine humanity and messy holiness in the midst of this painful joy of a life.
It’s not about how to be a good Christian who doesn’t fear or doubt or notice life’s storms; it’s is about what it is to be human and who God is in the midst of it.
And it isn’t about defining or categorizing our times, trying to find the right way to be and only that, it is about what it is to be human and who God is in the midst of it.
Being human means that there is no experience that life doesn’t throw at us, but whether we’re laughing or crying, tearing or sewing, seeking or losing, planting or harvesting, warring or at peace, dancing or mourning or doing them at the very same time, God invites our honesty, our humanity, our doubt and our worship, because the God who stands both outside of time holding it all, and also drenched to the bone and reaching out in the very center of the storm
is right here,
in all things,
no matter what,
and there is nothing that God doesn’t have us through.