Two things that get people into trouble are being caught in a hopeless pit of despair and having an overblown sense of self-importance. The story of Joseph and his brothers is a perfect example of the first and Peter sinking while trying to walk on water shows the other.
I can picture Joseph in a deep, dark pit of despair. His brothers had betrayed him, hated him, and wanted him dead. In his childish innocence he probably knew nothing of their ugly jealousy. Yet, he paid a great price for it. His life was spared, but he was sold into slavery. Fortunately for all involved, God had far greater things in store for Joseph than just his coat of many colors and slavery.
I can’t help reading this story as metaphor. It’s not that I think it did not happen; I actually believe that it likely happened much the way it has been recorded. But betrayal by brothers and sisters, by those we love, is such a common human experience. Like it did for Joseph, betrayal usually leaves us in a deep, dark pit filled with pain and despair. Of course, our pits are less literal, but the darkness, pain, and despair are quite real. We also are not likely to be sold into slavery. However, we are really very good at enslaving ourselves to all kinds of masters from work to alcohol to drugs to sex to food to all manner of other things. It happens before we know it. What I find, though, is that few people seem to realize that God has more in mind for us than this kind of painful, shallow existence. Too many people get trapped here without hope of ever escaping.
Peter has a slightly different version of the same kind of problem. I have no trouble picturing the events of this story. It must have been quite a night! A storm, Jesus walking on water and inviting Peter to do the same, Peter sinking in the wind and waves, and Jesus saving him. I firmly believe that Peter started sinking because he realized what he was doing. The problem, of course, was that Peter wasn’t doing it on his own. He had a “look at me!” moment when it should have been a “look what Jesus is doing with me!” sort of moment.
How often do we start to sink when we think we can do everything by ourselves, forgetting that we do not work alone? I cannot tell you how often I’ve heard people cry out to God when tragedy strikes only to fail to offer thanks and praise when good things happen. I know. I’ve done it myself. I’ve been pretty quick to ask God why such a terrible thing has happened, with an attitude of blame, of course. But when I’ve achieved something or completed something, my thought can easily be, “look what I’ve done!” as if I’d done it without God’s grace. Inevitably, something happens to trip me up again, to make me realize that God is actively at work in my life and in the lives of those around me.
Overall, I think it is hope and remembrance that is missing for many people today. What hope have we if we believe we are alone, that Christ is not present, that God does not have plans for us beyond the limits of our own vision? What hope have we if we think we can do everything ourselves and we come up against failure? Who will be there to pull us out of the stormy seas? We don’t have so much hope, so much trust in God, when we fail to remember.
We fail to remember as the Psalmist says, “the wonderful works God has done, God’s miracles, and the judgments God uttered.” As a culture we tend to push self-reliance and forget the self alone cannot get us through everything. This leads me to wonder how we can better capture our stories of faith to counter-act this self focus. There are more Josephs out there surviving horrific conditions by the grace of God and going on to achieve great things. Likewise, there are more Peters who fall from self-reliance into the humbleness of faith to be transformed into greater men and women than when they started out.
Has God led you from the pits of despair or the slavery of addiction to something wonderful? Has God revealed your greatness in a humbling flood of stormy waters? Have you shared your story with someone who needs to hear a word of hope? People can’t find hope for the future or attribute their greatness to God if they don’t know the stories.
But 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? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
RCL – Year A – Ninth Sunday after Pentecost – August 10, 2014
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 with Psalm 105: 1-6, 16-22, 45b or
1 Kings 19:9-18 with Psalm 85:8-13