The Tenth Sunday After Pentecost, August 9, 2020
One summer, when I was about fourteen years old, I rented a boat and went out sailing. It was nothing new for me. I’d done it hundreds of times before. In fact, I owned a boat at the time, and it was nearly identical to the one I had rented. The difference was that we were in Hawaii. Very few people were out on the water with me, and the familiar environment of San Diego Bay was gone. Nothing came between me and thousands of miles of ocean.
For a while, it was fun. It was a sunny day, and there was a stiff breeze that made the boat go very, very fast. The water was warm and clear. But then, the wind began to pick up—and to change direction. Soon, it was blowing me away from shore. I could barely control the boat. I was being pushed out into much deeper water. And so, I began to get afraid.
Now, it’s possible to sail a boat against the wind. Moving back and forth at a 45-degree angle or so, you can get where you need to go. Sailors do it all the time, and I had done it countless times myself back at home, in the safety of the harbor. But, in a small boat with a high wind, there’s a danger of capsizing, and I was already more than half a mile from the shore.
Needless to say, I was terrified. And, though I made it back in one piece, I didn’t go out again that whole summer. I’d like to be able to say that I prayed—that I called out to God and he delivered me. But the truth is, I don’t remember. I was too busy sailing the boat! It’s only in hindsight that I can give God the glory.
Today’s Gospel isn’t really about boats and wind. It isn’t even primarily a miracle story, though Jesus did walk on the water. Like most of the other miracle stories in the Gospels, this one is about Jesus revealing himself as the Son of God. Today, we see him walking on the water, just as God’s Spirit hovered over the face of the deep in Genesis. Today, we see him stilling the storm, just as God beat back the primal chaos, when he divided the waters from dry land.
“Take heart,” says Jesus, “It is I. Do not be afraid.” In a way that happens more often in John’s Gospel (for example, when he says, “I am the Bread of Life,” or “I am the Good Shepherd,” or “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life”), Jesus is here alluding to the Divine Name—a Name so holy and so powerful that many Jews and Christians don’t use it at all. Jesus is using the Divine Name revealed to Moses from the Burning Bush, “It is I,” he says. In other words, “I AM.”
Matthew’s Gospel is all about Jesus as Emmanuel—God-with-us. In and through Jesus, God is always, always with us in the flesh. God lives in our flesh. The boat is ancient symbol for the Church. That’s why we call the room that we’re in—the place where we gather for worship when we can—a nave, as in “navy” or “nautical.”
In today’s Gospel, so long as Jesus is out of the boat, his disciples struggle against an adverse wind. But when he arrives (when he finally gets there), everything changes right away. As much as he calms the storm, Jesus also calms our fears. By his presence, his power, and his love, he helps us overcome whatever it is that makes us afraid.
I don’t know about you, but my fears are different today than when I was a small child. They’re different than when I was a teenager. They’re different than from when I was a young adult. Over time, my faith has grown, and I have had to handle bigger and bigger challenges. My fears have seldom simply gone away though. But now I know (at least sometimes I do) how to face them. The object of these fears has also changed. I am less self-centered than I was when I was child. Now, I worry more about Tracey and Rachel and Danny—about all of you, and other people I care about—than I do about myself.
I am learning (sometimes by hard experience) to trust God, who is generous and keeps his promises. Again and again, I’m reminded that I’m not yet perfect in my faith—that I am not yet perfected in God’s love. More and more, I am learning to entrust the people and things I care about to God. Over time, I’ve become more available to God’s purposes. Though (I’ll admit it) I’m still capable of holding back on God, I am starting to mean it more when I pray “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done. On earth as it is in heaven.” I am learning to put my life in God’s hands.
God is starting to show me that, like Peter, we can step out and meet Jesus on the waves. With Jesus, we can do impossible things for God. True, Peter does start to sink. We all do that. Like all of us, Peter only has a little faith. But that little bit goes a long way. Jesus loves Peter.
Jesus loves us. And, because Jesus loves us so much, he is willing to become our partner in every challenge we face. As many times as we fall, he takes our hands and lifts us up, so that we can learn to follow in his steps.
Our country was already an anxious place to live in before Covid-19. We are anxious today about the economy. We are anxious about the pace of change, and our unknown future. We live our lives in a raging sea of stress hormones—and we perceive a high degree of threat. Some people I know can’t even stand to watch the news. It can be a never-ending litany of disaster—designed to keep us stressed out and tuned in.
Whether we’re looking for the latest Covid statistics or we’re looking at the deep divisions in our country—or the news coming out of Lebanon (with more than 150 people dead, 5000 injured, 300,000 people homeless overnight), we can easily get overwhelmed. We can also become anxious by thinking about our family and work situations, and many other worries that are closer to home.
But then, we see Jesus coming alongside us, walking on the waves to save us. And he says to us, “Take heart. It is I. Do not be afraid.” Now, it’s true, many of the things that we are afraid of are still there. But we can face our fears better in the presence of Jesus. He is always calling us out of our self-centered ways and into his movement and his community. He is calling us into his Beloved Community, where his love is at the center—where God begins to reign in our lives. In
Jesus, we learn to care for our neighbors (all of them)—and to put our trust in God.
“Take heart,” he says to us this morning. “It is I. Do not be afraid.”