The recording begins with a special one-minute arrangement of We Shall Overcome sung by the Women’s Ensemble of Patty Console, Shelly Jesberger, Elizabeth Shaw and Beth Zych.
Earlier in the week as I was meditating on today’s Gospel story I was reminded of the old introduction to a comedy routine that goes something like this– “I’ve got good news and bad news. First the bad news…” This is one of those stories with a happy ending we all yearn for, but I was drawn first to the bad news, to the earlier part of the story where the disciples are far from land, battered by the waves and tossed about by fierce winds.
The disciples were experienced fishermen and probably familiar with the sudden, frequent windstorms that were part of the weather patterns of the region. Still, I couldn’t help wondering what it was like for them in that boat. Why were they so far from land? Was the wind blowing them wildly off course? Were they taking on water? What were they feeling as they struggled through the dark night? In the throes of it all did they ever question whether God was really with them?
We often practice lectio divina here at Forest Hill Church. It’s a practice in which we pray by reading several rounds of a Scripture passage aloud and interspersing those rounds with silent prayer. One of the questions that is asked in the course of the practice is “what phrase or image is calling to you?” As I prayed over today’s Gospel in preparation for this sermon the phrase that kept calling to me was “battered by the waves.”
Battered by the waves. I’m feeling it. I’m especially feeling it in light of the horrific news out of Charlottesville. I am really angry at yet one more example of the politics of hate.
Words cannot capture what I am feeling inside. I imagine that many of you feel the same way. I’m feeling battered as inflammatory rhetoric on both sides fans the flames of tension between the United States and N. Korea. I’m feeling it as we are bombarded with never-ending reports of chaos and corruption in our government. I’m feeling it as I see people I care about being battered by waves of sorrow that arise in many different ways. I sit day in and day out with people here at church and in my counseling practice who are being battered by waves of grief, illness, addiction, racism, rejection, loneliness, depression, and unhealthy relationships.
Many of us know people who are battered by the waves of poverty, hunger, and homelessness. I remember how, on a very personal level, I felt battered in 2013 when in just a few short months I lost my mother, then a woman who was like my second mother, and then her husband who was like my second father, and finally my dog who snuggled with me through the earlier losses with the kind of unconditional love only a dog can give. I struggled for the longest time to get my psychological and spiritual footing because each subsequent loss chipped away at my sense of self, of the ground under my feet. It was an overwhelming feeling of chaos and darkness. I suspect that many of you could tell stories of being knocked down by life’s waves in large ways and small, including the newest wave of racial and religious hatred that swept over our country this weekend.
The people for whom Matthew was writing his gospel could certainly have related to our situation. He was writing after the destruction of Jerusalem and the sacking of the temple in 70 A.D. The Romans were cruel beyond measure to the Jews and took pleasure in stamping out any remnants of Jewish identity and pride–both national and religious. The community was terribly divided over this whole Jesus movement–Jewish Christians were not welcome in the synagogues and families were being torn apart by differing beliefs. It would not be an exaggeration to describe what they were going through as an apocalypse. Life as they knew it was completely disintegrating. It is to these people that Matthew was writing about Jesus for they desperately needed stories of hope and salvation.
What’s so interesting about today’s story is that Jesus actually never rebukes the storm as he does in the 8th chapter of Matthew. He just shows up, and his presence speaks louder than words. Admittedly he makes a big entrance by walking on the water, an entrance so big and surprising that the disciples are afraid he is a ghost. But no, it’s Jesus, showing up and simply saying, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Good old Peter, testing to see if this is really Jesus and not a ghost, asks Jesus to command him to walk to him on the water. Jesus does and Peter begins to walk on the water, and, well you know the rest–as soon as Peter notices the strong wind he becomes frightened, begins to sink and has to cry for help. Without hesitation Jesus reaches down, catches him, and asks, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” The story ends with a big finish: they get back into the boat, the wind ceases, and the disciples worship Jesus saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
Now here’s the thing that intrigues me– the disciples’ confession of faith comes after their terrifying time in the boat and not after the feeding of the Five Thousand which happened right before their seafaring adventures. Why didn’t they confess that Jesus was the Son of God when he fed five thousand people with five little loaves of bread and two fish? Why did it take a near disaster for them to recognize and praise Jesus?
Does that theme sound familiar? Could it be that for most of us when things are going well we become complacent and don’t pay a lot of attention to God’s life-giving presence and care for us. But, oh when those waves are battering us, when we are sinking under their weight, then– then– how quickly we become aware of our need of God! And some of us, because we feel too battered, may even succumb to fear and discouragement and sadly believe that God is nowhere to be found.
The good news we proclaim, however, is that it’s not really about us. No matter how we behave, God’s response is always one of love. Whether we are negligent in our devotion or devastated by life’s blows, God is still God, coming to us to help us through the storms of life. We may not always recognize God when he shows up because we’ve made up our minds about what God ought to look like and how God ought to act. Like the disciples who thought Jesus a ghost we may not see God walking towards us because we’re looking for outcomes we’ve already designed in our own minds.
“You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Jesus asks Peter. I’m going to stake a claim that Jesus spoke those words with tenderness and not harsh judgment. Perhaps it was even with sadness, because he didn’t want Peter to suffer from a small faith. He wanted Peter, and wants us, to claim a bigger vision for ourselves than we frequently do. We often try to domesticate Jesus, seeing him as the magical figure who comes across the water to bring us a sadly limited version of personal salvation. Yet Jesus always articulated a big vision of living courageously, risking our lives for the common good, and loving others, including those who are very different from us.
“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid,” Jesus says to the disciples and to all of us. Take heart? That sounds a lot like the kind of wholehearted living social psychologist Brené Brown writes and speaks about so brilliantly. If you haven’t read her books or seen her videos, I highly recommend that you check her out.
What’s great about Brené Brown’s description of wholehearted living is that she keeps it real –wholehearted living is gutsy, unfailingly honest, and vulnerable. Living courageously and wholeheartedly doesn’t mean we won’t experience anger, fear, discouragement, and grief. Even the most wholehearted among us will cycle through periods of faith and doubt. Trust and faith are not linear experiences for human beings, and thankfully God knows our frame and understands that we are mere mortals. God keeps commanding us to step out of the boat, to come to him, to live with and for him, even when, in our vulnerability and fear, we may sink beneath the waves. And when we do sink God is there. We need to claim God’s presence even when we don’t feel it, even when we are furious, scared, and brokenhearted. And we most certainly need to pray without ceasing for the scales to fall from our eyes so we can recognize the many surprising ways God comes to us, often through the people and events he brings into our lives.
Friends, it is more important than ever that we claim God’s presence with us. God is here, all the time, calming the waves that threaten to batter us, but in God’s mercy, will never prevail.