Proper 14A – Mathew 14:22-33
When I was a kid a ghost lived on the second floor of my grandparents’ house. I know that because my older cousin told me so. And I believed him. That’s why the adults never went upstairs. That’s why it was either blistering hot or freezing cold up there. That’s why the door at the bottom of the steps was always kept closed and locked.
It never occurred to me that my grandparents were the only ones living in that big house and had no need to go upstairs, that they were heating and cooling only the downstairs, or that they were too old to be climbing stairs. All I knew was that door stood between me and the ghost. That door was a warning not to go upstairs, and a barrier to keep the ghost from getting downstairs. “Whatever you do Mike, don’t open that door.”
When I got older I learned there is no such thing as a ghost. There is no scientific evidence of their existence. They’re make believe, a product of our imaginations. They’re not real and they don’t exist except in stories and movies. “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts.”
I don’t remember when or how it happened but somewhere on the dark and stormy sea of life my understanding and experience of ghosts changed. I no longer believe that a ghost lived in the upstairs of my grandparents’ house. I know now that it was always living within me. I still don’t think ghosts exist but I am absolutely convinced they are real. And to tell you the truth, I am afraid of my ghosts.
Some ghosts are my from my past – things done and left undone, guilt, disappointments, regrets. The ghosts of self-criticism and second-guessing often visit in the night saying, “You could’ve…” or “You should’ve…” The ghosts of worry and anxiety keep me awake imagining the worst and wondering, “What if…?” The ghost of grief and sorrow is ever present rattling the chain of my losses. The specter of self-reflection, growth, and change sometimes keeps me doing the same old things even as I expect but never get a different result. I know there is a ghost in the dream, the argument, the experience that continues to be replayed in my head and reenacted in my life. I’m haunted by the voices that say, “You’ve only got five loaves and two fish. That will never be enough, and neither will you.” And the pandemic, the upcoming election, the economy, racism, immigration, the explosion in Beirut are ghosts that frighten me.
Those are a few of my ghosts. Maybe you recognize some of them in your life. I wonder what haunted the disciples so much that they cried out in fear, “It’s a ghost.” I wonder what haunts you that much. What are the ghosts in your life today? What ghosts do you see haunting our country? What are the ghosts that you don’t want to face or deal with?
My ghosts live on the other side of the doors I am afraid to open. Those are also the doors to my life and my future but I’d rather keep those doors closed than face and deal with my ghosts. And I think that true for all of us. I think it was true for the disciples. I think it’s true for you. And I think it’s true for America. We don’t want to face and deal with our ghosts. We don’t want to face and deal with ourselves.
Each ghost is an aspect of ourselves, a part of our life. They are the wounded, broken, and impoverished parts of ourselves. They are the parts of our life that we reject, deny, or ignore. They’re the parts of ourselves we don’t like, parts we’ve deemed unacceptable or unworthy. And yet, every ghost offers the possibility of healing, wholeness, and new life. They shriek, cry, and haunt; wanting to be recognized and dealt with. Our fear, however, often keeps those doors closed and locked. It keeps us looking for Jesus to be a divine ghostbuster rather than seeing him as the divine presence revealed in our ghosts.
What if Peter had faced and dealt with his ghosts rather than demanding proof from Jesus? And what if we did too?
“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water,” Peter said. I’ve read commentaries, heard sermons and probably preached a few that said that’s faith. I don’t that’s faith anymore. I think that’s Peter avoiding his ghosts. I say that because every time I have lived and prayed like that I was avoiding a ghost. I wanted proof and a guarantee before I opened the door of my life. I suspect we all do. That’s not faith. And it sounds a lot like something someone else said to Jesus: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread” (Matthew 4:3).
Every ghost holds before us the possibility of faith and the possibility of doubt. And we all live on a faith — doubt spectrum. It’s never just one or the other. Every ghost we deal with lets us step out in faith. And every ghost we refuse to face sinks us deeper in doubt.
And I think that’s why Jesus says to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” For years I’ve heard that as a criticism of Peter, me, and anyone who doubts. This week, however, I heard something different. I don’t think Jesus is criticizing Peter for not have more faith, better faith, stronger faith – a walking on water kind of faith. In fact, I don’t think walking on water – whether it’s Jesus, Peter, you or me – is even the point of or the miracle in today’s gospel (Matthew 14:22-33).
The miracle, the good news, the hope for every one of us, is that sometimes Jesus comes to us disguised as a ghost. The ghost the disciples see and the Jesus they can’t see are two sides of the same thing, a holy ghost, a life giving ghost. The ghost that frightened them also carried the divine presence. The ghost they were convinced would take their life also carried the power to give life. There is always more to the ghosts of our life than we see or believe.
It’s the same thing that I spoke about in last week’s sermon. The disciples saw only five loaves and two fish. They couldn’t see enough bread and fish to feed more than five thousand people, and yet it was already there. They were two sides of the same thing. Mark’s version of today’s gospel makes the point. He says the disciples “were utterly astounded for they did not understand about the loaves” (Mark 6:52).
Jesus’ question to Peter isn’t a criticism. It’s not an accusation and it’s not a judgment. We cannot manufacture for ourselves more faith within ourselves or gain it by demanding that Jesus prove himself. But what we can do is face and deal with our ghosts – face and deal with our past, our guilt, our regrets, our sorrows and losses, our hurts, our anxieties and worries. That’s faith. That’s courage. That’s hope. That’s the door to new life and more life.
That’s what Jesus’ question to Peter is about. “Peter, why do you turn away from instead of facing and dealing with your ghost? Why do you keep the doors to your life and future closed and locked? Why do you assume I stand more outside your life’s circumstances than inside them?” Those aren’t just questions for Peter. They’re questions for you and me.
So what would it mean for you today to face and deal with just one ghost that haunts your life? What is it asking of you? What is it offering you? What doors do you need to open?
I don’t want us to just answer those questions. I want us to act on them. And here’s what I want you to do. Name one ghost that keeps hanging around you, messing with your life, interrupting your thoughts, disturbing your sleep, denying you peace, and won’t let you go. That’s the door I’m inviting you to open and walk through.
Go on now. You can do it. Open it!