August 13, 2017

10th Sunday after Pentecost

In high school I had a friend who was an excellent water skier. He was so good in fact he could step onto the water from a standing start at the dock or the shore and ski barefooted. Every time I saw him do that I marveled at his skill and wondered if he could teach me, but the few times I tried, I sank like a rock and ended up feeling like a failure, maybe like Peter.

Matthew starts off this story with Jesus sending the disciples out
to cross the Sea of Galilee. Matthew never tells us what exactly their mission was, or why he was even sending them out – But we know a few things from his gospel and from history that might help us understand this scene a little better.

Earlier in this chapter, Jesus learns that his friend and cousin John the Baptist has been killed by King Herod. And we also know that Matthew wrote this story some fifty to sixty years after Jesus himself had died. This was a very dangerous time for Matthew’s little community of believers. Persecutions had started. People were being arrested and some were being killed.

Matthew’s community was under attack from Rome and under attack also from the majority of Jews who refused to accept Jesus as the Messiah. It was a tough time and really rough going for the new, little Church. The winds were blowing against it and those who were trying to keep their little church-boat afloat were bailing water as fast as they could. They were scared and many were starting to lose heart.

The “storms” in our lives probably won’t come in the form of persecutions; but storms are going to appear – and maybe when we least expect them: Jobs that we counted on will be lost. Relationships will be strained. Maybe our health will be challenged. And we’ll wonder, “where is God in my storm?” And when those thoughts come, the winds inside our heads will start howling – and our little boats will feel like they’re going down for sure.

But in this story – just like in our own stories – when it looks like things just can’t get any worse – somebody in the boat spots something off the starboard bow. “What is it?” They ask. “It looks like a person” – but they can’t quite make out who. Then someone in the boat says: “It looks like Jesus and it looks like he’s walking on the waves.”

In Matthew’s Jewish world, there was only one person who held power and authority over the sea – and that was God. Matthew knew his scriptures and I’m sure he remembered the story of Job when everything in his life seemed hopeless & lost. Listen to how Job responded when at least one of his friends had told him to curse God and die:

Job replied: “It was the Lord and no other who stretched out the skies
and (it was the Lord) who walked upon the sea’s tall waves.”

And Matthew also probably remembered Psalm 77 where it says:

But you O God, you strode across the sea /
You marched across the ocean
though your steps could not be seen.

So Matthew’s point is clear, Jesus is being identified with God, as having the same power as God and Matthew is confirming for us that Jesus is God’s son. In the middle of our storm – God is with us.

At first, the men in the boat thought they were seeing a ghost. They thought maybe Jesus was dead – Maybe Herod had found him and killed him too.
But Jesus comes and he calms their fears. He says: “Take heart – It’s me – Don’t be afraid!”

One scripture scholar notes that this story sits exactly in the middle of Matthew’s gospel. It comes in Chapter 14 of his 28 chapters – “Take heart – It’s me – Do not be afraid!” These words, he argues, form the very heart of Matthew’s gospel.

So Peter says, “Lord, if that’s really you, command me to come to you on the water.” It’s always reassuring to have Peter around and know we’re not the first ones who tried to bargain with God! “God, if you’re really there, prove it to me and make this happen!” But God has a special place in his heart for people like us and Peter – and so he says, “Come.”

And so Peter does – He risks.
He steps out of the security of his boat – and steps right into the raging storm and for a few moments Peter seems to be OK, but then the strong wind gets Peter’s attention and he begins to sink. Jesus reaches out and grabs Peter’s hand and guides him back into the boat.

And so the story concludes, “When they got into the boat – the wind ceased.” The storm was over. God had done for them what they couldn’t do for themselves.

St.Augustine said that this story is an allegory for Jesus and the Church.  He said that the Church was represented by the boat the disciples were in.  That’s an analogy often drawn – thus the reason the part of the church you’re sitting in is called the nave, coming from the same root word for “navy” and “navigate,” and you’ll notice that many church ceilings look like the upside down hull of a boat.  So Augustine said that the Church may get thrown around by the storms and high seas of life but with God’s help the Church can weather whatever storm blows.

As Christians, we believe that Jesus holds a unique place in God’s world.
We don’t understand it, but Matthew wants us to see that Jesus stands in the middle of the storm and as God’s son he holds onto us in the midst of our storm, saying, “take heart, it is I, do not be afraid. I am with you!”

And while God may not remove the storms of life that surge around us, we can receive God’s peace and assurance that God will be with us in the midst of those storms and see us through to the end.