Sermon for Sunday, August 9, 2020 || Proper 14A || Matthew 14:22-33
Before I jump into my sermon, I’d like to say I was hoping that at least some of us would be gathering in person outside this morning. Our reopening team decided that we would wait until I was back from vacation to begin our in person experimentation. But that was all predicated on Connecticut being in Phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan. Our prudent and cautious officials have kept us in Phase 2 as much of the rest of the country experiences a huge upsurge in their cases. We will have in person outdoor services during Phase 3, and we will be bringing back Holy Communion during Phase 4. For now, patience, perseverance, and continued compassionate sacrifice mark us citizens of both the state of Connecticut and the Kingdom of God. We don’t know when we will move to Phase 3, but I am very much looking forward to seeing you all when the state reaches that goal.
I’ve been gone for four weeks, though if you watched our services over the last month, you saw me. But I didn’t see you, and I’ve missed you all terribly. I’ve especially missed the community formed and prayers prayed in the chat box of our YouTube Live services. I’ve talked to many of you in the last few days, and you’ve all asked about what I did on my summer vacation. So I thought I’d build that report into this sermon, and we’ll meander by the Gospel reading on our way. But before we get to what I did during my vacation, I need to say two more things.
First, there’s a pretty simple concept that we often forget. That is, what we focus on flourishes. If you never weed and water your garden, nothing will grow. If your dream is to play in the Boston Symphony, but you don’t practice your instrument all day everyday, you’ll never even have a shot at an audition. What we focus on flourishes, or at least has a better shot of flourishing than things we push to the sidelines.
Second, as many of you know, one of the most important ways that I remain a sane, well-adjusted human being is that I write. If I’m not writing every day, I tend to sink slowly into a morass of depression and insomnia and anxiety. My therapist and spiritual director have both helped me realize this over the years during times when I wasn’t doing so hot. Without writing, it’s as if my mind gets clogged with all my excess thoughts; they don’t have a place to go, so they sit in the stagnant water of my brain and keep me awake at night. But when I’m writing – and it doesn’t really matter what I’m writing – the excess thoughts have a way to escape, and I remain a functional person.
Now to be a writer, you don’t have to be published. You just have to write. Thanks to some Holy Spirit driven coincidences several years ago, I did have the opportunity to publish a few books, but since then my writing has been for me. My writing has been part of my mental and spiritual health regimen, has been a spiritual discipline. Between mid-2016 and mid-2019, I wrote four full-length fantasy novels – over 80,000 words each – as well as four more full-length books detailing the adventures of a Dungeons and Dragons game. While I was writing every day I felt pretty good. Writing gave me energy rather than sapping it. Then I finished my last manuscript, and I tried to start another. I got about 10,000 words in, but then I lost the thread of the story. I stopped writing entirely last fall. And predictably, my mental and spiritual vitality began going downwards. Months stretched into seasons, and then the pandemic hit. Like all of you, I entered survival mode, which uses creativity in a very different way than novel-writing.
But when my vacation started, I knew I wanted to write something and record it as an audiobook for the kids to listen to on the 13-hour drive to my parents’ house. Last year, I wrote and recorded a novelization of the first Star Wars movie. Yes, I am that nerdy. I was going to do the same this year with The Empire Strikes Back, but then about a month ago a young squirrel named Vayla, who owned a mysterious enchanted acorn, popped into my mind. I shelved the Star Wars project, and I began writing Vayla’s story for my kids. It was like a dam bursting. During my vacation, I wrote nearly 40,000 words – that’s like half a full-length novel – in less than four weeks. My creativity has climbed out of the foxhole, and all the spiritual and mental benefits I receive from the gift of writing are coming back too.
Remember, what we focus on tends to flourish. Be it a vegetable garden or a relationship or a creative outlet like writing. When I focus on the spiritual discipline of writing, I flourish. Not just in word counts, but in every facet of my life, from ministry with you to family time to my relationship with God.
Today’s Gospel lesson illustrates the idea that what we focus on flourishes. Jesus walks on the stormy seas towards the disciples’ boat. They think he’s a ghost; he assures them otherwise. But, of course, a real ghost would assure them otherwise, too, so Peter basically says, “Oh yeah? Prove it.” He throws his leg over the side. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
I imagine Jesus giving Peter the old raised eyebrow treatment. “Okay,” he says. So Peter gets out of the boat and starts walking toward Jesus. But then what happens? His focus wavers. The wind and choppy water draw Peter’s attention away from Jesus, and Peter starts to sink. And it’s only when Peter is already sinking that he cries out for Jesus’ help. Jesus hooks him out of the waves and walks him back to the boat, saying, “You of little faith. Why did you doubt?”
Peter doubted because he lost focus. He doesn’t doubt Jesus’ power or he wouldn’t have cried out for Jesus to save him. His doubts arose because he was distracted by something else, something that overrode his trust in his Lord. Sometimes my exhaustion overrides my will to write even though I know writing will help alleviate my exhaustion. In the same way, Peter allows his fear of the wind and sea to override his faith, even when the object of that faith is standing feet from him. He loses his focus, and he flounders.
I’m so glad stories like this one found their way into the Gospel. Peter doesn’t come off too well in this story, and surely with his power and celebrity in the early church, Peter could have scoured this tale from the record. But he didn’t. Stories like this one give me hope for my own walk with Jesus. We all lose focus. Something big and bright and shiny, or else something terrible and scary pulls our attention. And we start sinking. So we shout, “Lord, save me.” And Jesus is there to pull us up again. In this season of compounding crises, so many terrible and scary things vie for our focus. And they ask us a question. During this crisis, what will you focus on?
Will you focus on the interminable inconvenience of mask-wearing? Or will you focus on the compassionate sacrifice of mask-wearing? Will you focus on your own stories of woundedness and shut out everyone else’s? Or will you focus on listening to the stories of others, especially those who have historically been oppressed in our society, so that your own understanding can grow? Will you focus on the breaking waves or on the beckoning Jesus? When our focus shifts to things that make us flounder instead of flourish, we, like Peter, can cry out, “Lord, save me!” and feel Jesus fish us out of the water.
One of the ways Christ saves us is through the Holy Spirit’s presence in that which brings us life. And one thing that brings us life is our favorite focus, which causes us to flourish. For me, it’s writing. What is it for you? What passion has God placed in your heart that helps keep you from sinking, that brings you back to mental and spiritual health when you’ve been cast adrift? Whatever it is, make sure your loved ones know (and me too, if you’d like), so they can hold you accountable, so they can support you in your God-given focus. Such passions are gifts from God. What we focus on flourishes. And when it flourishes, so do we. And when we flourish, we shine even brighter with God’s light, and bring to this darkened world new and glorious radiance.
Click here if you are interested in my fantasy novels.