Text: Matthew 14:22-33
There is no doubt nor debating that Martin Luther King Jr’s most famous speech was his “I Have a Dream” speech delivered to a huge crowd gathered in Washington, DC in 1964. His words still ring in our ears. Listen to a selection:
In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice…
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”
This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
Those are unforgettable words. But it is a lesser known quote of King’s that I’m thinking about this morning. Speaking of and defining the faith that he referenced in his I Have a Dream speech, King said: “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” It is stepping out on this faith, and the doubt that comes with such faith, that I want to talk about for just a few minutes this morning.
Twice in my life I feel like I can honestly say that I “stepped out on faith.” The first time was when I boarded a plane for Vladivostok, Russia to adopt Nora. Many of you have heard that story so I won’t go into details about it now. But everything about that trip scared me to death—from the 24-hour plane ride to Vladivostok, to the commitment I was making to this child that had never met me nor I her, and everything in between. The unknowns, the risk (what if she didn’t like me?), to the abundance of unanswered questions about her health were overwhelming. But my desire and commitment to adopt Nora, not just any child but Nora, was so deep that it felt like the only thing I could do was to “step out on faith” and follow my heart.
The second time that I “stepped out on faith” was the commitment I made with you to become your pastor. Sure, we had known each other for ten years in a different relationship but to change that relationship in terms of my role was scary—for you and for me. You had questions and I had questions. Could I carry on the prophetic tradition of this pulpit and this church? Did I have the gifts necessary to lead the church for the times we faced? Was I a good enough preacher? The unknowns, the risk, the abundance of unanswered questions faced us both. But in the end, together we “stepped out on faith” and made a covenant with one another as pastor and parish.
I tell you these two stories from my life to prod your own thinking about the times in your life when you “stepped out on faith.” Or maybe you just called it “stepping out” and taking a chance or risk on something you believed in or were passionate about without knowing what would happen. In that moment of taking that first step you were moving toward something that was calling your name, inviting you to trust, to take hold, to believe without being able to see the whole picture. But here is the thing: more times than not doubt is as much a part of stepping out as faith is. And in no way does our doubt minimize our faith. In fact, it is often our doubt that leads us to a deeper faith if, indeed, we are willing to take that first step without seeing the whole staircase.
That is exactly the scene that is dramatized in the biblical story as Peter steps out on faith as the storm of doubt swirls around him. Imagine the fear of that moment for Peter. It had been a long day of battling the crowds gathered to hear Jesus teach. As the day comes to an end, both Jesus and the disciples were looking for a little bit of peace and quiet and calm. Jesus had retreated to the mountain to pray. He had sent the disciples out in the boat to relax until he would meet up with them again. But instead of a relaxing evening on the water, a storm moved in. The boat began to rock and the water swelled around it. The disciples got scared. And Jesus approached them, walking on the water, in an attempt to calm them. When reading this story you have to remember that Jesus didn’t approach them walking serenely on a still lake. It was a storm and the waters were raging. As the disciples saw Jesus coming toward them, they grew even more fearful, the text actually says they were terrified, imagining that they were seeing a ghost—as if things were not already scary enough. In the midst of their fears, Jesus calls out to them: “take heart” and do not be afraid. And Peter calls back, in what I imagine to be both faith and doubt, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus tells Peter to come and stepping out on faith he started walking on the water toward Jesus. But then something happened. Peter noticed just how strong the wind was, how the water was raging, and he got scared and he began to doubt and he started sinking. At that moment Peter did what most of us do when we are desperate. He threw out the plea “Jesus, save me.”
Here’s the thing about stepping out on faith. Even when we think we have clarity, even when we have decided to risk taking that first step in faith toward something that is calling out to us, there will be moments of doubt—moments of fear, of being frightened and even terrified. The doubt will come when the waters of life swell around us. Doubt will come when it looks like we can’t keep our heads above water. Doubt will come when life feels like it is closing in and we are not going to make it, when we feel as though we are sinking. But isn’t it often the case that in those moments of doubt a hand will reach out to us to pull us to safety. It may be the hand of someone we know well. Or it may be the hand of a stranger. It may even be the hand of God. But that is what stepping out on faith is all about. It is about trusting, in both our faith and doubt, that a hand will reach out to us and pull us into safety. And as people of faith, we are both the hand reaching out and reaching up.
[Personal story of thesis residency, with Bob Sigmon]
Let the image in this text of a hand reaching out to pull you to safety be imprinted on your mind and in your heart. As Peter cried out terrified the text says, “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him.” It is a beautiful and extravagant image. And oh how I wish I could ignore the next words out of Jesus’ mouth. But you good biblical scholars would never allow me to do that. Jesus says to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” I don’t know why Jesus felt a need to say that in that moment. Maybe it was the tiredness he felt. Or maybe Jesus chides Peter in order to tell the story in terms we can hear; acting as we do out of this collective conscious that deems we must always earn our salvation. Like a father scolding a wayward child, Jesus calls out Peter’s doubt. But what matters in the story, just like what matters when we scold our children, is that Jesus is there when Peter is overcome by doubt and he immediately reaches out his hand to pull Peter to safety. That is the image and the truth that we would do well to hold on to from this story. I imagine that when Peter felt his hand in Jesus’ hand there was less doubt. Often our doubt leads us to a deeper faith.
The life of faith is full of risks. And doubt is a very real part of our human experience and our life of faith. And yet, here is a story about stepping out on faith that overcomes our doubt. I can’t imagine that Martin Luther King didn’t hold in some small corner of his heart and mind a bit of doubt as he stood and delivered his I Have a Dream speech. There is no way that he could see the whole staircase at that moment and time in his life. But he stepped out on his faith and whatever doubt he might have had and in his willingness to risk taking that first step on faith he changed the world. We hold that same power when we dare to face our doubt and step out on faith. Part of stepping out on faith is trusting that there will be a hand there to pull us to safety when we are frightened and terrified. The good news of this gospel lesson is this: Take heart; do not be afraid to step out on whatever ounce of faith you have. For even in your doubt, there is a hand ready to reach out when the storms of life rage around you.
“With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation [and our beloved state] into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood [and sisterhood].” With this faith, no matter how much doubt we may have, our lives will be transformed by the hand that is always reaching out to us.