‘Sink or swim’. I think most of us, if not all, have heard this figure of speech before. What it means it simple: when we are unexpectedly thrown into an unforeseen or unfamiliar situation, we either deal with it, or we don’t even try and fail. The good thing about a ‘sink or swim’ situation is that usually, such a situation is manageable somehow, swimming is possible. We may be anxious because we have never found ourselves in such a situation before, we may be unsure how to go about it, we may not like it, but then we usually overcome our apprehension and somehow make it work. Because we have to.
And so I am sure all of us have had to deal with things or situations in our lives when it was sink or swim. And we may have realized that a situation is not as bad as we thought, or as frightening as we thought. That we can do it. There were many ‘sink or swim’ situations for me when I first came to the U.S., let me tell you. And I’m still kicking.
But then we all know situations when there seems to be no other option but to sink. Because life sometimes washes over us, things happen to us over which we have no control whatsoever, things that really frighten us, and we are powerless. Swimming, pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, getting ourselves out of the mess and out of the depths of our fear sometimes isn’t possible, no matter, how hard we try.
Sometimes, we feel like those disciples in today’s gospel, out on the boat in the middle of a storm, without orientation, tossed about, bruised, hurt, not knowing if we will make it, afraid, in terror, not knowing if we can trust our senses anymore. There is no swimming in such a situation, there is just holding on for dear life and hoping and praying that the storm will pass.
Sometimes, we feel like we are but pawns in the games of the powerful, who threaten with war and mass destruction and aggression and retaliation and fire and fury. Are we on the brink of World War III? Is the world rife for yet another massive conflict, like so many sociologists suggest, that we as the human race simply cannot go without war for a prolonged period of time? God knows. But no matter, what we do, no matter, how hard we try to swim, this is a situation that is out of our control, but controlled by those who have a vested interest in such a conflict. And all we can do is to hold on for dear life and hope and pray, pray hard, that the storm will pass, and not only for our sake, but for the sake of the world. Lord, have mercy!
And then there are those situations when we might feel powerless when, in fact, we are not. Take the events as they unfolded in Charlottesville, VA, over the last couple of days. We watch in disbelief and horror as white supremacists openly spew hatred – and act on it. And we may feel helpless and speechless as we witness words and gestures and symbols we only know too well from Nazi Germany. ‘Never again’, we said. And yet, there it is – again, still. And we may feel too frightened to stand up to such evil and remain silent, even though we know it’s wrong. But what we can do at least is pray, pray hard – and then act on our prayer. Lord, have mercy! And then, no matter how scary and how difficult, we have to act on our prayer and do our part to counter the sin of white supremacism and racism. We must have that much faith, even when it seems little.
I believe it is not a coincidence that, in today’s gospel story, Peter has little faith as he finds himself in a situation that threatens to overwhelm him. And let’s reflect on his faith for a bit.
What makes for a big, strong faith? What makes for a small, weak faith? Now we live in a country where we have those who preach the prosperity gospel: you can see how big your faith is by the size of your bank account and your material wealth, for God makes the faithful prosper. Believe enough, and God will grant you blessing upon blessing. And if you are not well off, there’s something wrong with your faith.
Others say that a strong faith can overcome the laws of nature, and even cure terminal diseases. That people who succumb to illness just didn’t pray hard enough for a miracle – or that others didn’t pray hard enough for them. For with God, all things are possible. Think for a moment what a slap in the face these teachings are, adding insult to injury for those who have a strong faith and a lot of love for God and their neighbor in their hearts, and yet are poor or slowly dying of cancer or lose a child or face some other kind of disaster. Should we, could we really say to them, ah well, if you only had a stronger faith, God wouldn’t let these things happen to you? Should we say, oh ye of little faith?
Jesus never said to all those sick and hurting people he encountered, oh ye of little faith. He didn’t criticize them for being poor or ill. He just had compassion – and healed.
It is often thought that Peter should have believed that Christ has the power to grant him the impossible: to walk on water. That he should have focused on Christ instead of looking at the waves around him. But it is not in man’s power to walk on water. Ironically, the name ‘Peter’, a name of honor bestowed on Simon, the fisherman, by Jesus, means ‘rock’. And rocks sink, every time.
No, Peter’s little faith begins before that already. Peter’s faith is already assaulted as he is in the boat, battered by the waves, and he can’t believe it’s Jesus walking on the water. What makes Peter’s faith small is the unbelief that Jesus could be with him and the others in the turmoil and the danger they encounter. That Jesus is present with them in the face of terror and death. ‘If it’s you, Lord, command me to come to you on the water.’ That’s the doubt Jesus is talking about. And this doubt leads Peter to ask for proof, and to ask the impossible of Jesus.
But even though Jesus grants Peter the impossible, this doesn’t mean the situation changes. The storm is still blowing, the waves are still battering, there is still reason for fear, reason to hang on for dear life and hope and pray. Once Peter realizes that, that his super powers don’t change a thing, he is overcome by fear and loses his confidence. There is no swim, just sink. But ironically he shows his faith in that particular moment when he realizes he is powerless, that no supernatural ability of his can still the storm and save himself or the others, by calling out to Jesus: Lord, save me.
And Jesus catches him, immediately. Jesus doesn’t hesitate, Jesus is there. Even though Peter has doubts. Even though Peter’s faith is little in that moment when all the world crashes down on him and fear takes over his heart. Jesus helps him into the boat, back into community. And with Jesus on board, the wind ceases. It is the moment the community accepts Christ’s presence in their midst that calm is restored.
In the end, big faith, little faith, doubt, it doesn’t matter – Christ is present. Christ doesn’t abandon us in situations that frighten us, in situations we hang on for dear life, in situations we lose direction, in situations we are powerless, in times of doubt. God knows that there are many situations in life when we are not strong, but fall apart. God knows there is suffering and grief and disappointment and brokenness and violence, as we once again witnessed this past week. God, after all, came into a broken world to heal it and redeem it – and was broken on the cross himself. God is with us. We are caught by God’s grace when the turmoil of our lives threatens to make us go down and sink.
In a time and in a society where there are so many gurus who try to teach us that it’s all about self-improvement and trying just a little harder in order to have a successful life, I find it comforting to know that sometimes, we are powerless and can’t calm the storm, and that it’s okay. I find it comforting to hear that the world is not resting on my shoulders. I find it comforting to hear that it’s okay to feel overwhelmed and overcome by things that happen to me and to us. That it’s okay to be weak. That it’s okay to have little faith.
It’s good to be reminded that God is there, always, in situations when we swim and so everything in our power to do good in the world – and that God is there to catch us and save us when ‘swimming’ just isn’t an option.
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