August 9, 2014
In the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.
If you have spent many hours fishing, you have been in a boat when the seas were rough and possibly have even been scared for your safety. Storms can blow up fast on the water. In the gospel last week, Jesus fed 5,000 men and their wives and children, with just 5 small loaves of bread and two fish. Now the Master needed some time alone. He sent the crowds home and he sent the disciples out in a boat on the Sea of Galilee while he went up on a mountain to pray.
The Sea of Galilee is a large, heart-shaped body of fresh water, eight miles wide by thirteen miles long. Of the twelve disciples, Peter, Andrew, James and John were all fishermen. They knew the Sea of Galilee very well – just like many of you know Big Lake. They knew that, at that time of year (probably mid-Spring), the Sea of Galilee was subject to strong gusts of wind. The late afternoon and evening was not a good time to be out in the middle of the lake.
The boat was a considerable distance from land and was being thrown about by the waves, says Matthew, because the wind was blowing against them. Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to the boat, walking on the lake. It is difficult to imagine someone walking on the water when the wind is whipping the surface and large waves are forming. The disciples were already uneasy in the storm.
This appearance is not unlike Jesus’ resurrection appearance. On a dark night of fear and helplessness, Christ comes to his disciples. Until reassured, they think they see a ghost. But Jesus says to them immediately, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Peter becomes so excited at the sight of Jesus that he forgets his surroundings and jumps from the boat. Just as Jesus is walking on water, so is Peter. Then reality sets in as Peter becomes conscious of where he is and what he is doing. Fear overwhelms him, and weakens his resolve. He begins to sink and cries out for help. Jesus immediately holds out a hand to him and lifts him from the water to safety.
Many in our society are drowning every day. They drown in mounds of responsibility, or stacks of paperwork. Some families are drowning in bills; others are drowning in unemployment or homelessness, and some are literally drowning, as we have experienced in the past, in floods or hurricanes. They find it difficult to see any hand reaching out to pull them from the swishing waters. But Jesus says, “Take courage! It is I. don’t be afraid.”
Surely we can see ourselves in this story. There are plenty of times when we find ourselves “in deep water.” Some people panic more often than others. They are just more panic prone. Many are not up to dealing with the emotional or financial strains that are placed on them. Almost everyone knows what it is to have a calm and tranquil life and then, WHAM!, it is interrupted by an unexpected storm.
It might be, “I don’t love you anymore and I want a divorce.” Or it may be a health diagnosis that is serious and unexpected. In this world, the possibilities of a painful disruption are almost unlimited. If we are going to make a successful voyage across the unpredictable sea of life, we need to know something about storm survival. When we get caught in a storm, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we are off course. Certainly, it does not mean that God has forgotten us or singled us out for punishment.
The only thing certain about storms is that they are part of life, even for the finest and most devout people on earth.
I want to go back for just a minute to Peter. As long as he kept his eyes on Jesus, he was able to walk on the water. Here is a simple story that is similar to the one in today’s gospel. In the early days of sailing, a boy went to sea to learn to be a sailor. One day when the sea was stormy, he was told to climb to the top of the mast to help trim the sails. The first half of the climb was easy. The boy kept his eyes fixed on the sky. But halfway to the top, he made a mistake. He looked down at the stormy waters. He grew dizzy and was in danger of falling.
An old sailor called out to him: “Look back to the sky, boy! Look back to the sky!” The boy followed this old man’s instructions and finished the climb safely. The boy’s mistake was the same one Peter made in today’s gospel. He took his eyes of his goal and looked down at the stormy sea, just as Peter took his eyes of Jesus and looked down at the story sea. This is what often happens to you and me. We start off just fine. We have our eyes fixed firmly on Jesus. But then something happens to make us take our eyes off Jesus. We look away from Him. And that’s when we lose our balance. That’s when we begin to sink.
Today’s gospel reading invites us to take an honest look at our lives. If we don’t experience the spiritual peace and joy we once did or really want, maybe it is because we have taken our eyes off Jesus.
If we find ourselves in danger of being swallowed up by the storm waves of life, maybe it’s because we have turned away from Jesus. If we accept the gospel’s invitation, I can assure you we will experience what Peter did. We will experience the hand of Jesus reaching out in love to us.
We may not experience it instantly and miraculously. But if we keep calling, we will indeed experience it. And we will say with Peter, “Lord, you are indeed the Son of God.”
When the storms of sorrow come, he will be there with words of comfort.
When the storms of temptation come, he will be there with words of strength.
When the storm of guilt comes, he will be there with words of forgiveness.
When the storm of discouragement comes, he will be there with words of hope.
In the midst of all life’s storms, if we look for him, we will see him. But, so often, we are like the disciples in that we do not recognize him when he does come. You might see him when He comes in the support of family and friends or the loving counsel of a teacher, or the sacraments of the church and in the quiet assurance of His presence in prayer. These are the ways he comes to us when we need him most.
Elijah, the prophet, found our Lord in the whispering sound at the entrance to a cave.
Paul found him in a flash of light on his way to Damascus. Peter found Him in the midst of a storm at sea.
In order to see Jesus as the saving Presence of God, we need the one thing Peter lacked when he took his eyes off Jesus – faith. Faith enables us to see Jesus for who he is – our Lord – the Son of God. The worst thing we can do in the midst of a storm is to lose our faith, to look down at the waves, to lose confidence in our Master. And even when we are lacking in our faith Jesus reaches out his hand to save us. It is only our faith that allows us to walk on the sea of life, hear Jesus’ call and venture out on those raging waters. We will not sink in our faithful discipleship if we count of Jesus for our strength and protection. In this way when we keep our eyes focused on Jesus – even raging seas cannot stop us from answering Jesus’s call.
Most everyone knows the story of Helen Keller, the little deaf and blind girl, who thanks to a loving and dedicated teacher, became a world-famous speaker and author. Helen Keller met every U.S. President from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon B. Johnson and was friends with many famous figures, including Alexander Graham Bell, Charlie Chaplin and Mark Twain. Not bad for someone who could not hear or see.
Do you know the most remarkable thing about Helen Keller? In the midst of her limited interaction with the world, she was able to say these words, “I thank God for my handicaps, for through them I have found myself, my work, and my God.”
Now that’s the way to handle a storm! That can happen for any of us. Christ is able to deliver us from the storm. Trust Him. Believe in Him. See Him reach out to you to lift you form the angry waves.
That is Christ’s word for us this day. “Take courage. It is I. Don’t be afraid.”