August 13, 2017, Stormy Weather – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000037
1. Here are two examples of different kinds of stories we tell about people.
- Example one is the story we all know about young George Washington and the Cherry Tree, how little six-year-old George damaged a cherry tree in his father’s orchard with his shiny new hatchet. And when his father was all in a lather about the destruction of his beautiful tree, so the story goes, George came forward and said, “I cannot tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet”. We tell this story to teach a lesson – “Good people always tell the truth – even if they might get in trouble.” It doesn’t really matter whether the story is true or not – and in fact, it is an invention of one of Washington’s first biographers. It never really happened. But that’s OK, we still tell this story, because the reason we tell the story is to make a point, and to inspire people, especially our children, to do the right thing and be noble, truthful people.
- Example two is a different kind of story. If you were to ask me to recommend someone for a job that required a lot of strength, I might tell you the story of when we moved into our house on Cherry Street in Potsdam, and how we had an immense old upright piano that had to fit through a narrow door in a tight place, and how our son Wyatt single-handedly lifted and maneuvered the piano through the door and into the house. In this case, it makes all the difference in the world whether this really happened or not – because I’m not telling you the story to inspire you to do something. I’m telling you so that you will know that Wyatt is the man for your job, because he is that strong.
- And it is of the utmost importance for us to know the difference between these two kinds of stories when we read the gospels. On the one hand, we might read the stories about Jesus in the gospels like a holy kind of Aesop’s fables: to teach a lesson, so that people will be inspired to do the right things and act the right way. We use the story of the life of Jesus Christ, in other words, as a teaching tool. It has been my experience with Sunday School lessons that that is pretty much the way the gospels are presented. We tell our children, or our congregations, the story about Jesus walking on the stormy waves of the Sea of Galilee to teach them that they must always keep their eyes on Jesus, by which we mean they must always pay attention to what he told us to do, or we will “sink beneath the waves” – by which we mean we will get overwhelmed by our troubles. It doesn’t make so much difference, really, whether Jesus literally walked along on top of the waves of a stormy sea or not – the moral is the thing. If we remember the story and it helps strengthen our resolve to step out in faith instead of fear, then the story has served its purpose.
- But what if what actually happened on that day was that Jesus put one real human foot in front of the other on the thrashing waves of the real Sea of Galilee during the kind of actual meteorological event we call a thunderstorm? What if those twelve men in their fishing boat really and truly cried out in terror when they saw what looked like a man but must surely be a ghost coming towards them out of the gloom? What if Peter really and truly pulled himself together enough to step out of the boat and found himself walking – for a moment – on top of the waves? And what if, when he panicked and sank and his lungs began to fill with salt water, he felt the strong hand of Jesus hauling him to safety on the deck of the ship? And what if that same Jesus, who turned out not to be a ghost, was still alive and active today, willing and able to help us in our need just like he helped Peter? Well, that would make all the difference in the world if you or I were facing something in our lives that threatened to completely overwhelm us, something bigger and stronger than we are, something utterly outside of our control. If you or I were in the middle of a raging storm, we would hear this story and rejoice that there is someone we can turn to.
- Because it is pretty clear that we are living in very stormy times. The word Matthew uses for what the wind is doing to that boat is literally a word that has to do with torture – the storm was tormenting them out in the dark and wind and driving rain, threatening to break that little fishing vessel into pieces. And it doesn’t take a great imagination to see that just like that little boat, our fragile world is being tormented day by day: rocking wildly on the waves of hatred and suspicion and fear and greed that divide us from one another. Yesterday white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville Virginia to stage a protest that turned violent and resulted in three deaths and many injuries. Our president and the president of North Korea, both countries armed with nuclear weapons, are trading threats on an almost-daily basis. On every side we see terrorism, human trafficking, famine, war – so much violence and injustice and human suffering that the news can’t even keep up with it all.
- And not only on a global scale, but right here in our community, right here in our church, right here in our own families,we find ourselves in the middle of our own personal life-storms:daily battered by broken relationships or financial insecurity or illness, or the slow but steady losses of growing older – loss of strength and loss of memory and loss of independence and the loneliness of losing the people we have known and loved. Sometimes it seems the troubles facing us are more than we can bear; sometimes we don’t feel very hopeful even about making it to the other side of the trouble that is facing us today. We get tired, as the disciples must have been weary to the bone from the struggle of trying to keep that boat from being swamped by the wind and the waves. Because the storm is very often bigger and much more powerful than we are.
- And in the midst of the storm, what we need is not inspiration and advice to keep our chin up and be brave. What we need is to know that the Jesus who walked out on the raging sea where his friends were floundering in their fishing boat – that same Jesus is with us, not metaphorically or figuratively but truly with us. He isn’t a ghost. He isn’t a metaphor or a myth or a memory. He is living flesh and blood and ever-present Spirit. He can hear our cries of fear and sadness and hopelessness. He can see that we are growing tired of the battle. And he is standing, not far off on a mountaintop, but right in the thick of the tempest. He is right in the middle of the howling winds and the driving rain and the crashing waves. When we are battling the storm, he is “the God who shows up” and calls out “Take heart! It’s me! Don’t be afraid!”.
- But there’s more to the story. Good old Peter called out to that ghostly figure in the storm – he still wasn’t 100 percent sure whether it was really Jesus or not – and he said, “If it really is you, call me out to where you are.” And Jesus didn’t tell him “Don’t be a fool, just stay right there in your boat, I’ve got this.” No, he said just one word, “Come.” And Peter stepped out of the boat – even though the storm was still raging just as terrifyingly as ever. He stepped out of the boat and he began to walk on top of those waves towards his Lord and Master. The proof that it was really Jesus wasn’t that Jesus walked on the water in the storm. It is that he gave Peter the power to walk out on the water.
- And so, if the Jesus of that gospel story is the same Jesus who is part of our daily lives, then we can know that Jesus is the man for the job when we are facing the high winds and threatening waves in our own lives. He is the man for the job first of all, because he is the God who shows up. When the disciples looked out into the darkness that threatened to swallow up their boat, and them along with it, they saw Jesus, right there in the thick of the storm, coming towards them. There is nothing we face that is so dark or so powerful that Jesus is not right there in the midst of it, coming towards us. In our darkest times, when our fears or our sorrow or our hurt crash into us like the waves of a stormy sea, he is there in the midst of it. And he bids us come to him. And just like Peter stepped out of the fishing boat and stepped onto the churning surface of the sea, that very same Jesus gives us the power to step out in faith towards him – to go out into the storm and not be overwhelmed.
- Of course, the other part of this story is that Peter’s faith failed him when he looked around him at the waves rushing towards him and heard the howling of the wind. He took his eyes off of Jesus and suddenly he was going down like a bag of rocks. And there’s no mystery about that – Peter did exactly what you or I or any other normal human being would have done. But Jesus was right there, and no sooner did Peter sink down under the waves than Jesus’ strong arm caught hold of him. And as soon as they were both safely back in the boat the wind died down and the waves grew still and the storm was over. And then Jesus gently and lovingly rebuked Peter for giving in to fear, “Why did you doubt, you little-faith?” That same Jesus catches hold of us and keeps us safe, even when we look around us at troubles that are genuinely so much bigger and stronger than we are, even when we forget for a moment that he is the one who is Lord over even the wind and the waves – because we are little-faiths, too. We are no better than Peter. But this is not a story about what we are supposed to do or be.This is not a story with a heart-warming moral so we can pull ourselves together and get our lives in order. It’s a story about who Jesus is and what he does, two thousand years ago on the Sea of Galilee, but also today in Norwood and in Charlottlesville and in Syria and anywhere and everywhere God’s beloved children are being tormented by the storms of this world.
- Hear the promise of your God, through all of your storms: yesterday, today and tomorrow, “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”