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Stilling the Storm

Proper 14A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago


“…The boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.” (Matthew 14:24)

The Sea of Galilee is tiny compared to Lake Michigan, only seven miles across at its widest point. Yet it was absolutely vital as a source of fresh water and food in a dry land.  It had provided work and stable livelihoods to sustain entire communities for centuries by the time Jesus came along. The Sea was also an important national border between people of different nationalities, races, and religions. Jews lived on the Eastern shore, others lived on the West.  By going back and forth across the Sea, Jesus was crossing boundaries and stirring controversy.  He was mixing politics, religion, and economics in new unsettling ways. The blowback from the gospel was starting to get ugly.

This scripture was addressed to a fledgling Christian community struggling to survive.  They told and retold this story to rekindle their courage and bolster their faith while it seemed that chaos and disarray everywhere threatened to swamp them.  This story gave them a sense of direction as they continued to struggle against the wind and the waves of resistance, rejection and outright persecution.

Modern Christians tend to miss the boat in reading this famous gospel as if it were a story about defying the law of gravity –Jesus and Peter walk on water.  Christians of Jesus’ day understood it better. They held up this story to share its astonishing promise: Christ has power to still the storm—to cancel out the threat of chaos through the power of his cross.

The ugly violence this weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia was one of the bloodiest fights over the campaigns across the South to remove Confederate monuments. It reminds us what can happen whenever the undercurrents of long-standing division and hatred are confronted. It reminds us where we still must to go.

We have rowed all night Lord, but we are nowhere near the shore.  These waves threaten to swamp us.  We are tired. Our hope is waning. Matthew’s gospel says literally the boat was “being tortured or tormented” (basanizo) by the wind (v. 24). Then, as if to add insult to injury, as Jesus approached, the disciples think they see a ghost.  It’s terror all around. The disciples seem to be afraid of their own shadow.

The strength of the church is not that we are heroes, but that we are a community. We find shelter where our burdens and fears may be shared, and thereby reduced. Our strength to face life’s storms is rekindled and our hope restored.

The church is called to traverse the boundary between strangers, to forge authentic bonds of peace and stability, to uncover our common connections, and to use our God-given gifts to calm the storm. Today’s gospel is about the nature of faith.  Over the centuries this passage has fed the imagination of Christians about what it means to walk faithfully in fearful circumstances.  It raises the question, “Can we believe that Jesus is with us always (our Immanuel?), even when all evidence suggests he is not?” (Matthew L. Skinner, Associate Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary Huffington Post)

Perhaps our faith is never more tested than when we confront the storms that are a natural part of our own mortality—as when our lives, or those whom we love are lost or threatened.

Two weeks ago, I was in Yankton, South Dakota enjoying a warm sunny day with family at the beach having a picnic.  At some point, my sons Sam and Joe set out on paddle boards.  I watched move quickly and easily, gliding along the shore just beyond their sister, cousin, and uncle swimming in the lake.

By the time they turned to go farther out they were already out of earshot.  You don’t have life-jackets I would have said.  You don’t have ankle-straps, I would have said. You don’t have shirts, shoes, or coats. I watched them paddle out into the middle of the lake like they were walking on water.  At one point, they stopped and sat down to look around and have a conversation. After that would have been a good time for them to head back.  Instead they were drawn toward the same site famously noted by the explorers Lewis and Clarke who noted some part of the same rock formation on their map, naming it “White Bear Cliff.” Sam and Joe stood up on their boards turned and headed out of sight toward the white chalkstone ridge on other side.

Lake Yankton is a damned stretch of the Missouri river 25 miles long and over a mile wide. By now, I’m sure you know where this story is heading.  The weather turned quickly. By the time they headed back, the wind and waves made it impossible. The rain made it freezing cold. They could no longer stand on their boards but clung to them, kneeling or laying on their stomach. They were pushed by three foot waves back to the opposite shore when Joe fell, hit his head, and watched his board fly out of reach.  Sam paddled and Joe swam until he could reach the oar outstretched in Sam’s hand.  They clung together. Joe hung onto Sam’s legs. Finally, they managed to make it back to the cliffs, stash their board, pick their way up, and through the forest on their bare feet until they reached a row of cabins.  At the second one they found someone who took them in and drove them home.

Of course, Kari and I didn’t know any of this. Kari and her brother Craig searched the other shore by car.  I watched the storm and searched the horizon parked beside the head Ranger. My prayers, hope, and attention was focused on tiny red and green flashing lights bobbing on the waves from two patrol boats –one from the State Park, and the other from the State Police slowly working their way along the distant shore moving in opposite directions. All the what-ifs and the horrific scenarios ran through our heads. Please God, be with my boys!   Bring them home safe.

We can’t walk on water.  Gravity wins.  Exposure to the cold brings hypothermia.  Water suffocates and kills. Loved ones die.  Tragedies happen.  Change and mortality is inescapable.  War and rumors of war continue to plague us.

Like the early church, we feel ourselves gripped by powers stronger than we are, helpless to do anything to save ourselves.  It’s only human, just like poor, very human Peter and the disciples, to feel despair and panic. And yet we also know how it feels for the power of Jesus, reaching out to us, to give us strength, to fill us with calm, confidence, and endurance.

God was there with my boys when I could not be.  God was there in the bond between them that kept them working together.  God was there in the courage of those officers who went into the storm to search for them.  God was there in the man and his 9-year-old son who opened their door and drove them home.  God was there in our prayers as we watched and waited.

Maybe that’s the lesson that Peter offers us today.  As he stepped out of the boat and onto the waves, he’s not trying to be Jesus, he’s just trying to be with Jesus. Peter’s discovery is that Jesus is there in the midst of the storm, whenever boundaries between heaven and earth, saints and sinners, insiders and outsiders, life and death are being redrawn.  Jesus is there for us to still the storm even when it appears that chaos is about to get the upper hand. You and I are called and empowered in Jesus’ name to enter into life’s storms.

The wind and the waves that tear at the fabric of life in society are strong today.  But the grace of God we have in Christ Jesus is stronger. Do not be afraid.  The Lord Jesus is with us.  The storm shall not prevail but even now is being undone by the grace God kindles in your hearts while we stand together as Christ’s church alive and at work in the world.

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