A sermon by Eric Bettis
I was up late working, like I usually do on a Friday. And it was pretty productive – I had managed to get a fair amount done. The weather outside wasn’t great, and that kind of kept me focused on getting stuff done inside the house. Well, to reward myself, I got up – I’ll admit I’m a bit of a late-night snacker – so I was walking towards the kitchen. And I stepped in something wet. Which made no sense, because I was in the dining room. So I looked down and there’s a puddle. And there shouldn’t have been a puddle there.
So, I looked up. And there was a crease in the ceiling, with water just dribbling out of it. And you know that moment where your brain kind of locks up, where you’re trying to reconcile things that don’t fundamentally make sense? You know what water is, you know what a ceiling is. But those two things just don’t go together. Well, after my brain unjammed and a little bit of light swearing, I run upstairs to see what was happening. Nothing seems completely out of whack. But then I look towards the skylights. And there’s water. There is water streaming in. And I’m trying not to panic. And I opened the doors that go to the attic crawlspace. And there are drops and sometimes streams of water coming through the roof. And I automatically felt defeated.
So, I have an odd relationship with my house. It’s been a blessing to me. But often I haven’t been able to focus on that because it’s an old house, and it has problems. It provides shelter excellently. But having as many problems as it has at times has been a source of frustration and even fear for me. I mean, my text history with Hillary is full of instances where I only half-jokingly pondered packing up and selling the place (They weren’t especially good jokes). And so, I see these leaks in the roof. And that old fear comes back. That fear that things are not going to work out well. And that I’m the only person who can fix it, but I have no idea how.
But I managed to squash that down and breathe through it while I went and got buckets and towels. I didn’t really have a game plan – I just did the best I could. I probably should mention also that this is June 25, so 3 weeks ago. And I think that you all probably remember that day pretty well, if you were in Michigan. Anyway, for the next hour, I crawl around in the attic, putting down towels and strategically placing buckets and praying that these feeble interventions will hold up, even though the forecast for the week said that we should expect lots of rain and storms. But I was somewhat satisfied with how I left things. I knew that I couldn’t turn off the weather. And so, I pretty much made peace with the situation, and was content that, at least, my dining room ceiling was likely to stop leaking, which it did shortly thereafter.
By this point, it is 1 a.m. And I’m tired and still a little frustrated. Then I heard my sump pump kick on. Mind you, that in itself isn’t unusual after it has rained. But something just made me need to go take a look. I turned on the basement lights, and the bottom fell out of my stomach. There was water almost everywhere. It wasn’t deep. But the walls themselves seemed to be gushing water. And again, I tried not to panic. And, as I ran to grab all the towels I could find during what, honestly, I can only describe as a temper tantrum, I thought back to the early days of COVID. And the summer when I spent a great deal of time outside working on the grading around the house and unclogging gutters and patching cracks in the foundation with concrete. And how I had felt that all of this effort and preparation would insulate me from this kind of minor catastrophe.
I’ve had serious problems with water before. I mean, most of us are familiar with the infamous Michigan basement. And many of us have a basement that gets a little wet if it rains too much. But this 97-year-old house has had a long history with water that really isn’t great. So this wasn’t my first time going downstairs and unexpectedly being faced with major cleanup. But I had believed that, through all of my efforts, I wouldn’t be put through this kind of frustration again. And my beliefs had largely been supported, because it has rained many times and the walls largely have held back the water. There have even been points when I was a little paranoid during and after rainstorms. But over the last year I had always been pleasantly surprised. And I guess I had been lulled into complacency, because I honestly didn’t see it coming this time.
So, as I’m seeing that an area behind my basement stairs is pouring water too fast for me to soak it up, all I felt was frustration, despair, and alone. I don’t know what I felt abandoned by, but I sure felt abandoned. Maybe in my faith in myself, the quality of my work, and my house. I felt, not for the first time, like it had been foolish to buy an old house to live in and fix up by myself. And that, clearly, I was in over my head. I spent the next three hours mopping up water and wringing it into a bucket. But I was never able to keep up with the flow that was coming in from every corner. No matter how clever I thought I was and how many things I tried, I couldn’t stop all the water – it just kept on coming. And, in some admittedly absurd moments, it seemed like it might never stop raining outside, which meant that it would never stop draining inside. And it took me almost that whole time in the basement, recognizing that I couldn’t do much more than I was already doing, that I was out of control of the situation. But, slowly, I started to realize that it would eventually be all right. Now, let me explain why.
Based on the scripture we just read (Full disclosure: I hadn’t been thinking about this scripture when I was mopping, wringing, dumping and repeating), in Matthew Chapter 14 and several chapters before it, Christ had just been on basically a miracle spree, for lack of a better way of putting it. He’s out there healing lepers. He’s healing people’s servants who aren’t even there. He’s driving spirits out of people. He’s even raising the dead. And through all this, he’s attracting these really large crowds of people who are drawn to the miracles, and they want to participate. They’ve never seen anything like this. And their faith in something bigger was, in many cases, bursting at the seams. Things had gotten so intense along the coast of the Sea of Galilee, with all these people who wanted Christ to be elevated – some sources say to be made a king – that he sent his disciples to the boat to get them away from all of that talk (because that’s not humbling to hear), and he stayed behind, and dispersed the crowds himself.
Now, after this tremendous expenditure of physical and spiritual energy, he goes off to pray, I presume, to recharge and reconnect with his Source, God, the source of his strength and power. And this is notable. So even after himself having performed all of these numerous miracles, and building the faith and restoring the literal abilities of other people, he himself needed to go off and spend some time with the source of his faith. He needed to immerse himself and restore himself.
Meanwhile, the disciples who Christ had sent to the boat were still riding high after these events. They had just seen the incredible things that God could do through their companion, Jesus. They had just had miracles happen right in front of them, and they even got to participate in the healing themselves. So, you’d think that they would be flush with renewed faith. But according to the Scripture, the winds started to kick up, and the waves started to batter the boat. And the disciples all of a sudden realized that they weren’t in control of their direction. And so they are trying to row back in the direction of the shore with all their strength and not making any progress whatsoever. They’re fruitlessly trying to get back to safety. But they’ve realized that they themselves are unmoored, both literally and, through the benefit of our hindsight, in terms of their faith. So they’re frustrated, and they’re starting to grow fearful. And they’re getting jumpy, because Jesus isn’t in the boat with them. And their faith abandons them again.
If some of you remember, not too long before this, there had been another storm on the Sea of Galilee. They were in the boat, but that time, Jesus had been in the boat with them. And they had been watching the storm kick up. But Christ was asleep. He had just been performing miracles before that, and he fell into a deep slumber, and didn’t even feel the storm as it rose up. And the disciples panicked. The waves are huge, and there’s water coming into the boat (as the scripture says, the waves swept over the boat), and they can’t bale it out fast enough. They felt frustration, and despair, and they felt alone, and abandoned. Sound familiar? And at what, to them, probably felt like the last possible moment, they woke him up with their screams of fear, and begged him to save them. And if you remember, he admonished them for their fear and having little faith. And he rebuked the wind, and it died down.
Now, these disciples were in a strange place, because they seemed to think that their leader – who I’m not sure they fully believe is divine yet – was totally unconcerned about the prospect of them all drowning. They believed, despite the fact that they were so near to him, that he might be indifferent to their worries and could, and maybe would abandon them. They showed a supreme lack of faith, even though they had just witnessed him performing miracles shortly before that. So, the second time that this happened, you would think that they, having not only witnessed the miracles that he performed for the people, but also saving them himself, would know that Christ wouldn’t abandon them to die in the course of this tour of ministry. But, being very human, their faith was incomplete.
Jesus comes down from his prayer and contemplation, and sees that the boat has drifted a long way off the shore. And as we all know, he walks onto the water. He walks out to the boat, and the disciples see him, but believe him to be an apparition. Even though they had seen his amazing works, this was just beyond the pale. Because healing people is one thing. And multiplying loaves and fish is something that they can kind of understand. But somebody’s walking on water, and that’s just too much. And now they are even more afraid, because they didn’t recognize their own leader and companion who had been with them this whole time.
So, in the midst of their panic, Jesus said to them, “Take courage, it is I. Don’t be afraid.” But that wasn’t enough, because Peter responds, “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.” (Side note: by making this request that Jesus prove who he is, Peter joins a small and infamous group of people, namely, Satan himself during his temptation, and the Chief Rabbi of the Sanhedrin as he passes down Jesus’s death sentence, and those that witnessed and jeered at him while he was on the cross. These three others commanded him to reveal his identity and divinity by mocking him. But Peter was speaking very earnestly in that moment (as you can imagine), and I believe that was the reason that Jesus obliged his request.)
Christ issues the command and demonstrates his awesome power in that moment. And Peter steps out of the boat and walks on the water. So, any of us should think that that would be enough of a demonstration of Christ’s power and faithfulness, right? But even in this state, it is still incomplete. The Scripture says that Peter was spooked by the wind and took his eyes off Jesus. And he began to sink. Now, even though he had just been walking on the water, and still was, mind you, his faith faltered. So he cried out in fear for Jesus to save him. And Christ caught his hand and said, “You have little faith. Why did you doubt?” He helped Peter back into the boat and again, silenced the wind. And only then was their faith complete.
But it’s crazy. Because even after witnessing dozens of miracles with their own eyes and even after being given the power to heal in Christ’s name, the disciples still leaned to their own understanding, which was inherently limited. And so, to them, these two storms on the Sea of Galilee looked pretty likely to be the thing that would take them out. They couldn’t yet think big enough to embrace a life where the miraculous could happen, and where God’s love was a promise that they would get through it.
And that’s all of us, most of the time. That was me.
I had lost faith in the fact that God has got me. That nothing would ever be put in front of me that I couldn’t handle with God’s presence and power. But, in the midst of all of it, when your faith is already shaky, it feels like the first thing to go when you’re in a tough situation. Most of us don’t lean into faith all the time, because we think we can handle it ourselves. But sometimes, the storm feels like it’s just too big. And that’s because it is.
Now, we here at Shalom may largely be a well-educated, pretty well-resourced, generally well-prepared and good-hearted group. But that doesn’t insulate us from everything. Now mind you, all of our efforts can do a lot. But they can’t always save us from the storm, and what that storm brings. Some of you, with basements that flooded or gardens that were washed away, or carpets and furniture that were soaked can attest to this fact.
So, when I was tested, this time and many previous times, I faltered. But God had shown me over and over again that it was going to be okay. Every time in the past that something unexpected happened with this house, or something potentially expensive broke, God brought me both peace and a solution, though not always in that order. But God never promised that I wouldn’t go through some things, or that my faith wouldn’t be tested again and again.
So, as 4 a.m. approached and my hands were too tired to keep wringing out towels that night, I realized that I had to surrender and trust that God would always be faithful. And that, of course, the rain would eventually stop. Because it has to. We don’t worship a vengeful, wrathful Old Testament God anymore, but rather a merciful God who allowed Jesus to rebuke the wind and immediately silence the storm and calm the sea.
I won’t lie and say I went to bed with an untroubled heart. Because I knew that when I woke up later that morning, there would still be water in the basement. And probably more than when I had left. But the difference from the night before was that I realized that it wasn’t too much water. And that next morning, I took my towels, and I wrung them out. And I dumped the buckets, and I did it again. And it honestly started to become kind of meditative. I stopped being worried about water damage. And about mold. And about all of that wet drywall. And about the fact that my backyard, in the light of day, had become a pond. During that time, my faith that, eventually, the rain would stop and the water would cease flowing began to strengthen. God had already promised that in Genesis, and Maya Angelou had already reminded me that “every storm runs out of rain.” I should’ve listened to both of them the first time. And it did cease flowing a few days later, as I finally knew it would.