When We Fall

Genesis 37:1-4,12-28; Matt 14: 22-33, preached by Rev. Jane McBride on August 13, 2023

Hi kids, will you come over and join me here for a moment? Today I want to teach you a song. The words are simple; can you say them after me? Peace be still, peace be still. The storm rages, peace be still. Now I’ll play the song for you. Stephen Iverson wrote it and he’s singing it in this recording. Now let’s sing it together. This song reminds me of today’s story from the Bible. The disciples were out in a boat on a lake. It was really windy. There were big waves. Then they saw someone walking toward them on the water. They got a little scared because it was such a strange thing to see, a person on top of the water. Then the person said: It’s me, Jesus! Don’t be afraid.Jesus gave them peace. That’s how they knew it was really him. And that’s how we know Jesus is with us. The song we learned reminds us of that. So I hope you will sing it when you feel scared or really tired, or like you need help.

Carl gave me a heads up that his story might be more of a sermon. I do feel like we’ve already had some good preachin’! So, I’ll keep my part brief. Carl, I love your theology. God does not prevent us from falling. But God is there to cushion the impact. You know, like the water jug that wedges itself between you and a bone-crunching crock after a reckless glissade down a glacier. And, if you’re not a mountaineer, you can use your imagination, right?

Both of our scripture passages depict our human tendency to fall. Corrosive jealousy is the fatal flaw of Joseph’s brothers. They hate this kid with the fancy robe, their father’s favorite. The eldest, Ruben, persuades them not to murder their brother outright. Still, they treat him as less than human, throwing him into a pit before selling him to passing traders. One commentator pointed out a detail I’d never noticed before in this story: after doing this horrific thing to Joseph, the brothers pause to eat together, breaking bread as if everything were fine. They feast, deaf to the cries and pleas of their own brother, who doesn’t even have water to drink. One lesson I draw from this story is that it is necessary for us to reckon with the harm we do. Composer John Newton wrote:“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” That’s strong language, to describe the state of one’s life and soul as “wretched.” And yet, how apt, for a former slave-trader, who profited from the chaining of other human beings into the airless holds of ships. Of course, we’re not all slave traders, and yet, we are all complicit in the suffering of our global family; we are responsible for addressing the inequities and oppressions that diminish life for both our human and more than human kin. 

In today’s Gospel story, Jesus holds out his hand to a fallen Peter, who is about to drown beneath the wind and waves. Jesus’ walk on the water is meant to express his unique connection to the Creator. In Genesis and Psalms, God tames the waters of the great deep, restraining the destructive forces of water so that its life-giving qualities can be channeled to nourish the earth. The Creator is the one who is able to bring order out of chaos, to make peace amid storm and tumult. When Jesus says, “Take heart, it is I (or, more literally, I am),” he echoes the voice of God speaking to Moses from a burning bush in the desert. In this conversation, God calls Moses to be a partner in God‘s liberating vision for human life, urging Moses to go to Pharoah and seek the freedom of the Hebrew slaves. When Moses asks God very reasonably, “Who are you?” God replies, simply, “I am.”

Peter recognizes the claim Jesus is making, uttering these words, “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.” So Peter goes looking for some proof. He puts Jesus to the test. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Now we tend to assume that because Jesus replies, “Come,” that he is encouraging Peter to step out of the boat, to take a risk, to be a bold and faithful disciple. But I think Jesus simply recognizes that Peter is going to need to fall in order to truly be open to trusting in the God who cushions our falls. Peter will have to reckon with his own wounds and flaws before he can truly become a disciple, before he can act as a faithful partner with the God whose true agenda is to bring life and liberation to the earth.

Carl, I’m grateful for your vulnerability in sharing about your experience of addiction today. We all have wounds and flaws. We all do harm to ourselves and others. We all fall. Our falls do not imply that there’s something irreversibly wrong with us; they are part of who we are as God’s beloved ones, as people made in God’s own image. Falling is part of the process of growing and becoming. God knows that we are more than our worst moments. And God understands, with compassion and patience, the reasons we fall. And at the same time, God holds us responsible for the consequences of our falls. Responsibility begins with truth-telling. God is with us amid the terror and discomfort, as well as the healing and joy, that come with these moments of reckoning. God is with us always on the quest to become, as Carl put it, “more complete, if flawed, people.“ Amen.