August 7, 2011
August 7, 2011
The Rev. Leslie E. Chadwick
This summer, I’ve had several opportunities at church and at home to observe children hearing stories of Jesus for the first time. They quickly learn and ask for the stories by name: “Jesus Calms the Storm.” “Jesus Walks on Water.” “The Lost Sheep.” “The Man that was Hurt.” Whether Jesus is the storyteller or a figure in these stories, children immediately grab hold of him as someone they can trust. They have no trouble relating to being lost, hurt, afraid, or needing help. They have no trouble imagining how small you feel in the middle of a storm or when waves get too rough or high. They latch on easily to the one who is stronger than those forces and who loves them.
Many people of faith in the gospel of Matthew are childlike in the way they grab hold of Jesus. They are needy in the truest sense. Their need is always with them. They cannot distance themselves from it. A woman who has been hemorrhaging for twelve years touches the fringe of Jesus’ cloak and is made well (9:22); friends of a paralyzed man haul him on a bed over to Jesus to be healed (9:2); a centurion who needs his servant to be healed says, “Jesus, I’m not worthy for you to come in my house, but, as a man under authority with soldiers under me, I know that you can speak the word and it will happen.” After today’s passage, Jesus is mobbed by a crowd bringing their sick to him and begging to touch even the fringe of his cloak to be healed.
But today’s gospel shows us that faith isn’t always so childlike or immediate. The disciples are on a boat in the Sea of Galilee as they have been countless times. It’s between 3 and 6 AM, the fourth watch, when night seems the darkest and loneliest. The water is beyond choppy. Waves slam and crash against the boat. This is not the first windstorm the disciples have experienced. Their boat has been swamped with waves before. The last time, Jesus was with them in the boat, sleeping. That storm was one of the worst they’d ever seen. They’d awakened him that time with their cries: “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” He asked, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he got up, rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a dead calm.
Jesus isn’t in the boat this time. In fact, he’s nowhere to be found. The disciples do not panic as they did in the last storm. They can handle the chop pretty well on their own. They’re seasoned fishermen. They are tense and antsy because their boat has been battered by waves all night, but they are alive. With the wind against them, they aren’t sure how they’re going to get back to pick up Jesus. He went up to the mountain to pray after feeding the 5,000. He needed to be alone. He made that clear. He had tried to get away by himself right after hearing that his cousin John the Baptist was beheaded, but the crowds followed him. He filled their bellies with fish and bread, and then dismissed them. He told the disciples, “Get in the boat and go on ahead of me.”
The fourth watch is always a little eerie even on a calm night. But on a night like this, it’s hard to see or hear anything past the waves crashing and the wind howling. Tension builds. The disciples snap when they see a dim figure walking right through the high waves, tunic flapping in the wind. They scream out in panic and terror. But before anyone jumps overboard, Jesus immediately says, “Courage. Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Once their hearts stop banging in their chests, Peter catches his breath and tests Jesus. The preacher Barbara Brown Taylor points out that Peter phrases his question just like the devil did when he was tempting Jesus, “If it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” The disciples need Jesus; they can’t get back to him on their own. Jesus has come to them through the wind and waves, not as a stunt to teach them a lesson, but because he sees their need and wants to be near them. Peter and the other disciples are not yet sure what they’re to be saved from. They’ve fought the elements all night alone and have made it this far. They’re not sure it really is Jesus with all the chaos around them. Jesus allows Peter to test him. “Come.” Peter starts walking on water; he sees the strong wind and gets frightened; he begins to sink. Only then, does he drop his skeptical tone. He cries out from his heart as he did in that other storm, “Lord, save me!” In this moment, Peter knows “both who Jesus is and what he is for—The Lord. The life-saver” (Barbara Brown Taylor, “Why Did you Doubt?” Bread of Angels, 124). Immediately, Jesus reaches out his hand and catches Peter: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” They get into the boat, the winds cease, and everyone in the boat worships Jesus.
Like Peter and the disciples, we often fail to see who Jesus is when things get turbulent around us. We get so caught up in handling things and surviving that we don’t recognize him when he comes near. We cling to our self-reliance, independence, and to what we think we know. It’s hard to let go of our questions until we are sinking. Then fear, need, and faith strip everything away and we are able to cry out, “Lord, save me!” This story suggests that faith isn’t necessarily courage. It is what helps us to see whom to grab hold of and what to let go of in difficult moments. When we finally call out for help, Jesus is already there. He steps out in faith toward us first, ready to reach out and catch us the moment we cry, “Lord, save us!”
Faith is not “magic protection” or freedom from doubt and fear, turbulence or suffering. A life of faith is a life of learning to see and trust whom to grab hold of, what to let go of. It takes both grace and practice. A self-reliant friend of mine who was an atheist in college was in an elevator on her way to her oral exams. She was surprised to find herself praying, “Lord, help me.” After the exams were over, she couldn’t shake what had happened in the elevator. She thought, “If I find myself praying for help, maybe I should rethink whether or not there is a God.” She began to let go of some of her old assumptions. More serious experiences of loss and grief can also be times of learning to trust Jesus. An Episcopal monk, Brother Geoffrey Tristam, makes this observation: [When life is turbulent] “we can learn just how much we cling to things in our lives which actually are not of the essence. Such times can invite us to let go of those lesser things in which we trust, in preparation for the final letting go at death when all we will have is our trust in God” (“Trust,” http://www.ssje.org/).
The miracle in today’s gospel is not only Jesus’ power to walk on water and calm the waves; the miracle is also that he has the power to still our anxiety and fear, to help us let go of the things that keep us from recognizing him. In the end, when we cry out, “Lord save me,” we will find that he is already there. We, like Peter, can grab hold of Jesus as one to trust. Jesus will lead us back into the boat, back into community to worship him for who he is: “Truly you are the son of God.” We will find that Jesus indeed is stronger than sin and death; he is the one who commands the wind and the waves, and he loves us.