Being in the Storm

Proper 14.A.2017
Matthew 14:22-33
The Rev. Melanie L. McCarley

The Chinese symbols for the word “crisis” are identical to those used for the word “opportunity.” Literally translated it reads “Crisis is an opportunity riding the dangerous wind.”

Unlike the Gospel story in which Jesus is asleep on the boat during a great storm only to be awakened by frightened disciples in order to calm the raging winds; in our passage for today, the disciples do not have the luxury of awakening Jesus. Jesus is not there.

The story begins with a command. The NRSV of the bible translates the Greek as “Jesus made the disciples get into the boat. Other translations read Jesus compelled, constrained, and directed the disciples to get into the boat. In other words, there’s no mistaking the fact that getting on the boat wasn’t an option for the disciples. Following this, Jesus retreats to the mountain to pray. We gather that Jesus needs a bit of a rest—for this story follows directly on the heels of the Feeding of the Five Thousand.

Alas, for the disciples there is little rest to be had. By early evening, a storm has carried the boat far from land where it is now being battered by the waves. I find it interesting and not unimportant to note that Jesus does not make an appearance straight away. It is only in the far reaches of the night (between three and six in the morning) that Jesus comes to the frightened disciples, walking on the water. So, by the time they see this figure standing upon the waves, the disciples have been struggling to keep their small craft afloat for quite a while. Understandably, they are exhausted and frightened. Can any of us blame them if they thought they were seeing a ghost?

I’m led to wonder. What is the point of this story? In fact, if you think about it, the miracle of Jesus walking on the water almost seems gratuitous. Why send the disciples out on the boat with a storm brewing? Why not stay put where it is safe; avoid the storm, hunker down and have a spot of tea? Why do any of this at all?

It seems to me that the storm upon the lake is, in effect, a microcosm of moments in our own lives. Haven’t you ever felt you have been cast adrift in the midst of a terrible storm? If you haven’t, I can assure you that I have. Fear can do terrible things—causing us to doubt our most cherished beliefs, casting us adrift in despair, leaving us feeling as though we are drowning in a sea without hope. Certainly, this past week has sent many of us in this direction. We began the week by witnessing nuclear threats bandied about by world leaders. And yesterday, we confronted the sin of racism head-on in Charlottesville, Virginia as we witnessed Neo Nazi’s parading by torchlight—a city in which Phil, Hannah and I used to live, and one which I had (until yesterday) associated with a certain degree of progressive thinking and good southern gentility. By yesterday evening, the events of the day had left a thirty two year old protester, Heather Heyer, murdered by a Neo Nazi, and two policemen, Jay Cullen and Berke Bates, dead in a helicopter crash. We are kidding ourselves if we don’t believe racism is alive and well in our country. We are kidding ourselves if we think that we are not living in the midst of a storm. Perhaps one positive attribute of the week that is past is that we can no longer deny that there is hatred roiling in the water about which our boast has been cast.

Our storms might reflect anxiety for the world, as found in the news this past week; but they could just as easily be formed by a medical crisis, financial upset or family tension or tragedy—and, the reality is, when we face these storms, they rock our world.

In truth, I feel a great affinity with Peter. When facing a crisis; at one moment, I perceive myself as courageous—certain I can get through whatever life has thrown at me—willing to step out of the boat onto the waves. At the next moment, I’m all but certain the storm I am facing has no intention of ending until it takes me under. My feelings at these times are remarkably akin to the psalmist who writes: “I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.” (Psalm 69:2)

And so, I wonder, if what Jesus is saying to Peter in this passage is not that he should have possessed enough faith to walk on the water, but that he should have had faith enough to reach out to Jesus sooner. (Melissa Bane Servier; Contemplative Viewfinder, 2011) Because, notice what happens next in the Gospel. Jesus takes Peter’s hand, thereby, saving him from drowning and proceeds to get into the boat with the weary, sodden disciples and the wind ceases.

And this is where we discover the grace of today’s lesson. There is no storm in life that we might face—no gale of uncertainty, no chaos of conscience, no deep waters of despair that will prevent Jesus from responding to our frantic and fading cries for help.

Today’s lesson, you might note, does not tell us that if we are faithful followers of Christ we will avoid the storms life sends our way—indeed, it says quite the opposite. It tells us that if we are obedient to Christ, the odds are certain that, at some point, we will be sent directly into the vortex of a maelstrom. And once in this storm—let go the illusion that you might find a place of neutrality or safety for there is no boat that we might craft with our own hands that is impervious to the waves. What this lesson tells us is that when we call out to our Savior for help, he responds. Jesus gets into the boat with us and rides out the storm from the bow. What begins as a crisis, becomes an opportunity riding the dangerous wind.

I’d like to close today’s sermon with a much smaller sermon, this one written by St. Augustine in the late second or early third century. He writes: “You are not walking on the lake like Peter but on another sea, for this world is a sea; Trials its waves, temptations its storms, and men devouring each other as fishes do. Don’t be afraid, step out stoutly lest you sink. When the gale blows and the waves rise, and your weakness makes you fear you will be lost, cry out, ‘Lord, I am sinking,’ and he who bade you walk will not let you perish.” (Augustine of Hippo 354-430, Sermon 141, Psalm 39 Passim) In Jesus’ name. Amen.