August 13, 2017
In the Storm
Introduction to the text:
Last week we heard Matthew’s story of the feeding the 5000. Jesus had tried to withdraw to a deserted place, but a crowd had followed Jesus. He had compassion on them, and healed them; but as it got late, the disciples wanted to send them away to get something to eat. Jesus told them to give them food. But the disciples didn’t have anything to give them – just five loaves and two fish, which they saw as useless, given how many people there were to feed… But in Jesus’ hands, those loaves and fish became more than enough. Everyone ate and was satisfied, and there were baskets and baskets of food left over. This is where our passage picks up today. Listen for the Word of God for you.
Immediately after this, Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead to the other side of the lake while he dismissed the crowds. When he sent them away, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. Night fell, and he was there alone. Meanwhile, the boat was already far away from land, fighting a strong headwind and battered by the waves. As dawn broke, Jesus came to his disciples, walking on the lake. But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were scared out of their wits, saying, “It’s a ghost!” They were so frightened they screamed.
But Jesus immediately said to them, “Take courage! It’s me. Don’t be afraid.”
“Lord, if it’s really you,” Peter replied, “order me to come to you on the water.”
And Jesus said, “Come.”
Then Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when Peter saw the strong wind, he became frightened and began to sink. “Save me, Lord!” he shouted.
Jesus immediately reached out his hand and grabbed him, saying, “You man of weak faith! Why did you begin to have doubts?” When they got into the boat, the wind died down. And those in the boat worshipped Jesus and said, “You really are the Son of God!”
* * * * *
Maybe you’ve heard this one before: A rabbi, a priest and a pastor go fishing. They’re in the boat for a couple of hours, when the rabbi announces he’s going back to the shore to get some more beer. The pastor looks on in amazement as the rabbi gets out of the boat, walks across the water, picks up the beer, and walks back. About an hour later the priest says the same thing. He gets out of the boat, walks across the water, and comes back with more beer. When they run out again, the pastor figures it’s his turn. He’s a man of faith, after all; and if God gives these two the power to walk on water, surely he can, too.
So he carefully gets out of the boat, steps out on the water, and sinks like a stone. The priest calmly looks at the rabbi and asks, “Do you think we should have told him where the sandbar is?”
If only Jesus had told Peter about the sandbar…
There are actually two stories about Jesus stilling storms in Matthew’s Gospel. The first one is from Matthew 8:23-27. There are a lot of similarities, but they’re not exactly the same. Let me read you the first one:
And when Jesus got into the boat, his disciples followed him. A windstorm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him up, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. They were amazed, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?”
Our story this morning isn’t their first encounter with stormy seas, or with their boat being battered, or with the disciples calling out for Jesus to rescue them, or with Jesus stilling the storm… And it’s clearly not the first time Jesus asked them why they have such little faith. The stories are so similar… but they’re not the same. They’re not the same.
And it’s the differences I find interesting. I think the differences between these two storm-scenes tell us a lot about Jesus, and the disciples.
I think this is a story about Jesus helping the disciples to grow up.
This time the disciples are on their own. Last time there was a storm like this Jesus was in the boat with them, asleep. They had followed him there. When that storm hit, they woke him up and he made it stop. This time, they’re on their own – he made them get into the boat on their own. Pick your analogy: It’s like Jesus took off the training wheels. It’s like he left them home alone by themselves. It’s like he kicked them out of the nest. However you frame it, he thought they were ready to fly on their own.
And amazingly enough, it seems like they are.
If you look closely, it really seems like they are.
There’s a quirky little detail in this story I’ve never noticed before. You know how the disciples are terrified? How they’re so scared that they scream? What’s curious is what scares them so much. It’s when they see Jesus coming towards them. They’re scared that they’re seeing a ghost.
Here’s what I never noticed before: It wasn’t the storm that scared them. This time, they’re not crying out for Jesus to save them. This time, they’re out on the water without him, and even with the storm raging, there is no mention of fear.
This time, they know they can do this.
Jesus does come to them… and it’s his mysterious presence that terrifies them. That’s why they’re afraid. They don’t understand who it is. In the midst of the raging storm, he appears, and he tells them, “Take courage.”
He doesn’t still the storm – he tells them to be courageous. This is new. This confidence in them, is new.
And Peter responds. Peter shows incredible courage.
He almost dares Jesus, “If it’s really you, order me to come out on the water with you.”
Now, you could argue that Peter is testing Jesus. “If it’s really you, prove it with a miracle. Prove who you are, Jesus.” But he could have just as easily said, “If it’s you, make this storm stop.” It seems like he wants to be out there with Jesus.
What I hear from Peter is this:
“Jesus, I want to believe that it’s you.
I want to be able to live in the storm and not drown.
I want to believe I can walk on the water with you by my side.
I want to have that kind of faith.”
And Peter gets out of the boat, and he starts to walk on the water, and he goes toward Jesus. He does it. He actually does it. And he’s not afraid.
He’s not afraid!
Until he looks at the storm… That’s when he’s scared. “When Peter saw the strong wind,” Matthew says, “When Peter saw the strong wind, he became frightened and began to sink, yelling, ‘Save me, Lord!’”
This may seem like a silly analogy, but when I read that part I thought of my yoga practice, and the balance poses we practice. Every time we try to balance, the teacher tells us, “Pick a spot on the floor or the wall for your focus. If you look at your neighbor who’s wobbling, you’ll wobble, too. Don’t look at the tree in the wind. Pick something that’s stable.”
It made me wonder: what if Peter had kept his eyes on Jesus instead of the storm?
What if, when we’re trying to do the impossible, we’re focused on him?
What if, when things are most shaky, we look at the one solid, immoveable thing that we know?
What if we kept our eyes fixed on God?
Now, I’m not talking about ignoring what’s around you. I’m not suggesting that we shut out the news about Charlottesville, or North Korea, or anything else in the world. I’m not suggesting that we tune out suffering, or pretend that everything is going great in our own lives if it’s not. This is not about pretending, or escaping, or shutting down.
Sometimes people say to me, “You know, I come to church to get away from it all.” And I get that. God is our refuge and strength. Jesus did go away by himself to pray. But we know this isn’t an escape from life; this is where we go to sharpen our gaze on Jesus. There are still storms; but we here we practice keeping our eyes upon him.
When your life is battered, it matters a lot what you look at. It matters a lot… If you keep looking at the world crashing around you, how can you not drown in fear?
“Be still and know that I am God!” the Psalmist writes. “Be still!”
We will still have doubts. When it feels like we’re drowning, we will have doubts. The difference is, we’ll try getting out of the boat and walking with Jesus. We won’t expect him to simply stop the storms. We’ll find our courage.
At it’s heart, I think this is a story of discipleship, and how we grow. This is a story about the journey of faith. Eventually, Peter will be the rock on which Jesus will build his church. He didn’t start out there. He started afraid… but slowly, slowly, faith grew, until he was ready to follow his Savior right out to the middle of the storm. Right out on the water, waves or no waves. Keeping his eyes upon Jesus.
There will be times when it seems we have “little faith.” Maybe it’s almost inevitable.
“Little faith” is not an indictment, it’s the description of almost every Christian, ever, sooner or later. As one friend writes, “’[L]ittle faith’ is the dialectical mixture of courage and anxiety, of hearing the word of the Lord and looking at the terror of the storm, of trust and doubt, which is always an ingredient to Christian existence.”[i]
“In effect,” my friend writes, “Jesus is trying to say – not – “what’s wrong with you??”, but rather, “You’ve got it; trust it! Use it!”[ii]
And over time, courage grows, and we learn to trust. More and more, we learn to trust our own strength, given to us by Jesus.
When I read my friend’s words again this week, I found myself thinking again of the Pelotonia ride last weekend. A year ago when I rode, I was an utter novice, and scared. Suzy Henry and Beth Hall were my trainers, and without them, I would never have done it. When I was training, I fell off my bike so many times, I stopped counting. The day of the ride, Suzy and Beth stayed by my side, cheering me on every pedal of the ride. They knew that I needed them there.
This year I rode on my own. I had people to train with, Suzy and Gary Yaekle and others. But I mostly rode on my own. And it was fine. What I had were seasoned riders along the way with words of encouragement. “You’ve got this!” they’d say. “Great job!”
Honestly? This year I felt like a grown-up.
What I pray for these days is a grown-up faith. Not to be fearless; that will never be the case. What I want is faith enough that I’m willing to risk.
There are times when we feel battered, abandoned; sometimes it seems like you’re doing miracles, sometimes like you’re drowning. But you grow. You grow up.
I don’t know what impossible thing that you’re facing. But I hope you can hear Jesus urging you on:
You are stronger than you know.
You can do more than you believe.
You are braver than you think.
You’ve got this.
You can trust it.
It’s NOT because we’re “all that”.
But because you’re keeping your eyes on the one calling out to us on the water:
The one who really is the Son of God.
Rev. Karen Chakoian
[i] Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew, Interpretation Series [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1993], 169. Cited by Rick Spalding in an unpublished paper on Matthew 14:22-33 for the 2011 Moveable Feast.