August 9, 2020, In the Eye of the Storm, Matthew 14:22-33 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000209
“Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified and said, ‘It is a ghost!’ and they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them saying, ‘Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.’
And Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come’. So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, ‘Lord, save me”. Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him saying to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’ And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’ ”
Carroll and I got home a few days ago from our journey to Oklahoma for our daughter Roseanna’s wedding – which is why we are here at home, in quarantine. It was a strange and unsettling time to travel across the country, for a lot of different reasons. Oklahoma is a two-day trip by train, and Amtrak has very strict regulations that everyone wear a face mask, and observe social distancing at all times. We were glad to comply with those rules, and we were certainly very thankful that the people around us, for the most part, were also respectful of them. But seeing all these other travelers, even little children, wearing masks, was a continual reminder that the threat of the pandemic is among us at all times, this new disease that has taken the lives of over 700,000 people worldwide, over 160,000 Americans, over 30,000 New Yorkers – all in less than one year – and that is a very troubling thing.
We spent quite a few hours in the lounge at Chicago Union station, where a huge TV set continually plays the news of the day, and that was also very unsettling. The day we were coming home there was a huge explosion in Beirut, and we saw the devastation and panic and suffering, played over and over. There was a report of a 9 year old boy who was killed in a shooting that very day. That was also the day Representative John Lewis’s body was carried to lie in state in the Capital Building, and the loss felt so huge. I watched his flag-draped coffin carried slowly up, step by step, remembering the sacrifices he made and the many dangers he faced to make this nation a place of justice and equality, remembering his hopefulness and his humility and his kindness, and I felt a little overwhelmed by how much still remains to be done, by how much more will be needed from us, to overcome the racism and injustice that still infects our society.
Oh, and as if that wasn’t enough, there was a hurricane.
It is pretty clear that we are living in very stormy times, in every sense of the word. In the gospel story today, the word Matthew uses for what the waves are doing to that boat is literally a word that has to do with torture – the waves were tormenting the disciples out there in the middle of the sea, 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 waves of hatred and suspicion and fear and anger that divide us from one another. On every side we see sickness, poverty, homelessness, war – so much violence and injustice and human suffering that the news can’t even keep up with it all.
And right here at home, we all find ourselves in the middle of our own personal life-storms of one kind or another. We are battered by broken relationships or financial insecurity, illness or loneliness or fear or bitterness. Sometimes it seems like the troubles facing us are more than we can bear; sometimes it’s very hard to feel hopeful even about making it to the other side of the trouble that is facing us today. We get tired, don’t we, just like 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 truth is, most storms are much bigger and much more powerful than we are. But right here and now, in the midst of the storm, we need 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. He sees our hopelessness. He knows that we are growing tired of the battle. And he is standing, not far off on a mountaintop, but right here, in the thick of the tempest. He is right here with us in the middle of the howling winds and the driving rain and the crashing waves. When we are battling the storm, he is Emmanuel, “the God who is with us” and he calls out “Take heart! It’s me! Don’t be afraid!”. There is nothing we face that is so dark or so powerful that Jesus is not right there in the midst of it with us. The Psalmist tells us, “If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night, even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.”
In our darkest times, when our fears or our sorrow or our anger crash into us like the waves of a stormy sea, Jesus is there in the midst of it. And just like Jesus called Peter to step out of the boat and onto the churning surface of the sea, that very same Jesus gives us the power to step out in faith towards him – the power to go out into the storm and not be destroyed.
Of course, the other part of this story is that Peter’s faith went all to pieces 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 just exactly what you or I or any other normal human being has done any number of times. But Jesus was right there, and no sooner did Peter begin to 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 every time 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 to be. This is 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 Beirut and in Chicago and anywhere and everywhere God’s beloved children are being tormented by the storms of this world. Along with the disciples, we fall on our knees and worship him, saying, “Truly, you are the Son of God.”
Hear the voice of Jesus, who is with you in all of your storms: yesterday, today and forever, “I, the Lord your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, ‘Fear not, I am the one who helps you.’”