The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
“Of Having Little Faith”
Scripture Reference: Matthew 8: 23-27
And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. A windstorm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him up, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. They were amazed, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?”
It’s called, “swing.” In rowing crew, when the eight team members follow the direction of the cockswain who shouts the orders, when the crew follows the direction as one, in harmony, the result is called “swing.” The oars move in a syncopated rhythm, the depth and speed of the oars are in harmony, there is pure oneness and the boat flies.
The possibility of this happening and watching it made crew one of, if not the most, popular sport in the world in 1930s. People wanted to see it happen, watch the raw power of amazing athletes fused into a kind of force. People loved crew; were crazy about it in the 1930s. Hence, when the Olympic games were being held in Germany at that time, the real medal, the big one to win, for all the gold, was crew.
Most of the top crew teams in the United States trying out for the 1936 Olympics were on the East Coast, think Ivy League. But on the West Coast the University of Washington had an advantage. They had the best coach and best boat builder. And indeed, the University of Washington crew team won the Olympic gold medal in Berlin in 1936. Most people remember Jesse Owens and Hitler’s refusal to shake his hand; we remember the scandal. But not many people remember that all of Germany was unhappy about the American victory in rowing.
In the years leading up to the victory, the key challenge for the University of Washington crew team was one member, Joe Rantz. Joe could out-row, out-endure, out-perform, out-work all of his team members. He was strong and driven and focused. He had a discipline born of a hard life, a life far different than the affluence and opportunity of his team members. Yet, in spite of all this, Joe was the greatest liability on the team. He was the real risk because Joe couldn’t trust. And without trust there is no swing.
There were reasons for this. Joe had a hard childhood. His mother died when he was young. His stepmother didn’t the child around and convinced his father to abandon the boy, not once, but twice.
Joe Rantz raised himself in the woods of Northern Washington in a small coastal town called Sequim. This is a beautiful but harsh place. That the boy survived on his own is a testament to his strength and his endurance, that he was able to thrive and do well in school is shocking. But he did. He made it. And that was when things got really hard.
Reading the story of Joe Rantz in the great biography, Boys in the Boat, I thought once he made it out of high school, had found a stable girlfriend, and was accepted to the University of Washington, I thought the story was going to shift from heartbreak to good fortune. Yet, as is sometimes the case, with success comes great peril. The peril for Joe was how little he fit in, how little he felt a part of life.
Colleges in the 1930s had student bodies that were mainly from families of means or affluence. Joe raised himself in poverty. While not all students had happy homes, it would be hard to imagine that many of his classmates were abandoned as a child, twice. Many times in reading the story of his childhood, I wondered if Joe was going to make it. Each time, though, through courage and hard work, he did. And then, just when you would think that he could move past such a troubled beginning, it all came home to roost. And rowing crew made it worse.
Perhaps it was fate, or luck, or grace, but Joe Rantz tried out for not only the most grueling of sports for the body, but he also chose the one sport that would challenge his heart the most. To achieve “swing” every member of the crew needs to trust the others, believe in the others. Joe just couldn’t do this. After a childhood alone, abandoned, heartbroken by the people he should have trusted the most, how could he trust without fear?
This is what made him the wildcard on the Olympic team. It only takes a little bit of doubt or fear and the boat drifts or slows because the team begins to row against itself, and out of sync. Joe gave everything he had to the race but his heart. He didn’t know how to trust.
The back of the book gives the end of the story away. When you read the story of Joe Rantz, you know his team won the Olympic gold in Berlin in 1936. But what you don’t know reading his story was whether or not Joe would be in the boat or on the shore. Would he keep his spot in the boat?
You didn’t know until the very end if Joe would make it. Could he find the freedom to trust, to believe in others, and not just himself? Could he ever be part of the “swing?” I won’t keep you in suspense. He found faith in others; and he was in the boat. It’s a great story.
I thought about titling the sermon, “Finding Our Swing.” Or maybe something pithy like “Galilean Boys in a Boat.” But that wouldn’t have been accurate as Judas was not a Galilean. Or something fun like “Row, Row, Row the Church.” In the end I opted to cut to the chase, “Of Having Little Faith.” For the rebuke of Jesus, chastising the disciples, is the end and crux of our story. To understand what is happening here we need to reckon with his terse words to them, “O you of little faith.”
The Sea of Galilee doesn’t look big enough for a storm; it is, in truth, only a big lake. Yet, owing to its unique topography the Sea of Galilee is known for having terrible storms. The twelve disciples were not overreacting. This is not a fishing tale. They were going to die.
You can see this by who was in the boat. There were four fishermen in the boat who were silent. There is no record of Peter, James, Andrew and John assuring the others, telling them, “no worries. We will be fine.” The only dialogue is telling Jesus, “we are going to die.”
The classic title for this story is “Calming the Storm.” The classic title focuses on Jesus’ act not on his words. And this is fine. As a boy I was given a small picture of Jesus guiding a young man standing at the helm of a boat in a storm. I keep it with me to this day and take the meaning to be, Jesus will guide you through life. When the storms come, God is there to lead you to calm waters.
Again, nothing wrong with this. The Bible is filled with stories like this. Psalm 23 assures us God will be with you in the valley of the shadow of death. The entire book of Exodus is about the people being rescued. God heard their cries and saved them. And we could add this story to the list. There was a storm; Jesus stilled the waters; the disciples were rescued.
We could look to our time today and say, we too are in the midst of quite a storm. There are unique factors creating an unrelenting gale of fear and dread and worry. There is a desire, a need today to find the assurance that God will save us. Nothing wrong with this either. That could preach. It could except for the rebuke. Jesus rescued them, but he rebuked them. “O you of little faith.”
To make sense of the rebuke, we need to ask about what sort of faith the disciples lacked and we may need to lay aside what is called the “classic formula” of faith. It just doesn’t work that Jesus is chastising the disciples for not having faith in him or having faith in God for that matter.
The simple equation, or classic formula, is this: Hard times come; have faith in God; God will rescue you according to your faith. This formula is part of our religious DNA. So it might be hard to lay it aside. But there is no good way to make sense of the rebuke within our story and keep to the formula. The disciples were afraid, they turned to Jesus, Jesus rescued them. He should have encouraged them, affirmed them; he rebuked them instead. O you of little faith.
What if he was not questioning their faith in God; what if he was questioning their faith in each other? They turned to him in their hour of need. Which is fine. Yet, the rebuke poses the question, should they have turned to each other instead?
It’s strange, but quite often it is easier to believe in an invisible, transcendent, all-knowing, benevolent deity controlling all things, than it is to believe our neighbor is capable of kindness, worthy of our trust, or simply someone we can rely upon. True, some people are not worthy of trust; some people have our worst interests in mind. But is that true here? Are we not worthy of each other’s trust?
And yet, trusting each other can prove illusive. I say this because if Jesus had wanted to challenge the disciple about their faith in God, he might have chastised them about prayer; if he had chastised them about himself, he could have said, don’t worry, I was right here. But he didn’t. He tells them you of little faith.
They have faith in God. But what if they have little faith in each other; what if they don’t trust each other. When they thought they were not going to make it, they didn’t turn to one another.
We are going to make it through this storm. We will. The day will come when the pandemic will be done and the dust will settle. The waters will calm. We all trust God; we all love Jesus. Yet will we make it through together?
This is the beauty of Joe Rantz. He made it through. He won an Olympic gold. As he does, what comes so clear, is how difficult it is to trust more than yourself. Joe was going to make it out alive; but would he come through it with his team? He could endure, but could he find the courage to trust others?
I am not sure how much stormier life can get right now. True, we are not in an actual boat in a real storm, but there is quite a persistent gale blowing through our lives. Each challenge is multiplied given the isolation, the persistent vigilance, the merciless unknown. In this storm, our storm here and now, my faith is this: all I really know for sure is that you and I are in this boat together. We are in the boat together. We will make it. But will we make it together?
We all know the classic formula of faith: take it to the Lord in prayer. Sounds good. But it doesn’t ring true to me. God knows our needs; God hears our prayers, before we ask Jesus says. It would be easy to read this story as “the calming of the storm.” Yet, the rebuke changes this. The disciples trusted in Jesus, but that was not the problem. O you of little faith. Did they and do we have enough faith in each other?
I have, you have, we have faith in God. We trust in God’s love and mercy. The Lord will bless and keep us. Of this we are sure. Yet, more and more, what I am led to wonder is this: do we have enough faith in each other; will we find the courage to rescue each other, stay together in this storm?
Do we believe in each other? Amen.
- Isaiah 17:10 - 14
- Matthew 8:23 - 27