"In the Midst of the Storm"

Proper 14.A.23
Matthew 14:22-33
The Rev. Melanie McCarley

In the years 1014 - 1035 there ruled over England a Danish king named Canute. It is said that King Canute grew tired of hearing his retainers flatter him with extravagant praises of his greatness, power and invincibility. And so, one day, he ordered his throne to be set down on the seashore, where he ordered the tide not to come in. It should surprise none of us that the ocean refused to obey his order. No matter how forcefully he commanded the waves to stay away, his order was ignored. Soon the waves were lapping around the throne. One historian tells us that, following this, Canute never wore his crown again. Instead, he hung it on a statue of the crucified Christ.

“What sort of man is this that even the winds and sea obey him?” This question, found in the eighth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel when Jesus calms a storm, finds a reprisal in today’s lesson in the Fourteenth chapter of the same Gospel where today we discover Our Savior walking on the water.

This morning’s lesson begins after the miracle of the feeding of the five-thousand. Following this miracle, Jesus commands his disciples to head across the sea without him while he remains on shore to spend some time in communion with God on the mountain. While the disciples are crossing, a storm arises that threatens to engulf them. They spend the better part of what must have been an anxious night navigating the waves, and now--in the early hours of the morning, here comes Jesus, striding across the water to meet them.

In their fear and exhaustion, what the disciples behold is not their Savior, whom they knew, but a ghost, and Jesus speaks to them saying: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

About this verse--Jesus’ declaration “It is I” can be literally translated “I am”. Now, ask yourself where you might have heard that statement before? If you came up with Moses at the Burning Bush--you are correct! In fact, biblical scholar Birger Gerhardsson counted the Greek words and noted that these two ego eimi, are in the exact middle of the story. “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

The second half of the story focuses on Peter--but before we get there--a few more words about Jesus. This story is an answer to the question “What sort of man is this that even the winds and sea obey him?” Kings -- even those of a humble spirit, such as King Canute, cannot command the waves to obey them. This is a feat belonging only to God. Only the Almighty can still the waters--God, and only God, commands the sea.

And now we turn to Peter. Along with the other disciples, he must have been exhausted. There is nothing to suggest to us that Jesus was walking on a calm sea--he was striding about in the midst of the storm. And about that storm, those churning waves, in the world view of ancient Israel, and the disciples, they represent chaos and danger. What’s more--in the midst of a life-threatening storm, now (the scriptures tell us) the disciples believe that what they are seeing is a ghost. It’s terror all around. And Jesus tells them to “take heart and lay their fear aside.

The root meaning of the English word “courage” is the Latin cor and the French Coeur--meaning “Heart”, which explains why English translations vary between “take heart” and “take courage”. Either way, it means to look within yourself to your core--and dig deep.

Peter does. And he steps out of the boat. It’s a marvelous display of chutzpah: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus says “Come.” Peter steps out--and he walks on the water. But once again the storm takes center stage. Peter loses his focus, becomes afraid and begins to sink. And this is where Peter’s great moment arrives. It’s not that Peter begins to kick and suddenly learns how to swim--no. This storm is too great for that. Peter cries out to Jesus: “Lord, save me.” And---almost as if he was standing around waiting for Peter to ask, Jesus reaches out his hand and pulls the sodden disciple to safety. Peter’s great moment is that he knew precisely who to call upon when the storm grew too great to bear. That cry, “Lord, save me!” is a profound statement of faith.

Some may look at Peter’s walk and chalk it up to failure. But I think we do wrong to criticize his faith--for the truth is, the greater sin is not to have tried. I look at myself and consider --would I have stepped out into the water or would I have been huddled in the prow clutching at anything that would have kept me in that boat.

The lesson for us in this reading isn’t that we should check the weather reports before we head out on open water (though this is undoubtedly true); it’s that storms happen. Chaos erupts--sometimes we see it coming; and at other times it arrives on the heels of a lovely morning and a perfect day. Chaos happens to the good and faithful (like the disciples in the boat) and to the bad and terrible. Terror arises--and what are we to do? In this, Jesus has an answer. “Take heart. Have courage. It is I. Do not be afraid.” And like Peter, in those moments when we are in justifiable fear of drowning, Jesus reaches out his hand and grasps us.

This morning we encounter our Savior not in the calm and quiet --but in the midst of terrified disciples encountering the violence of a storm. Jesus is there, in the storm. That is the Good News. The same, I believe, is true in the storms we encounter in our own lives--be they in our homes, the hospital, office or the heart of our soul. Storms arise everywhere. And sometimes it’s the terror that captivates our attention and holds our sway--rather than the promise of God’s presence in the midst of whatever storm we happen to be facing. Today’s reading tells us that hope is present in the chaos and storms of life. Hope, not necessarily in a quick or easy resolution of what we are facing, but hope in the promise of the presence of God. God, who has the power to walk upon the waves, and, when we call to Him, reaches out to us when we are afraid. God, who climbs into the boat with us and stills the wind. God, who calms our fear and brings us peace. That is the Jesus we encounter in today’s Gospel, and it is a fine reason for each of us to take heart. In Jesus’ name. Amen.