Sunday, August 13, 2023
14A – 1 Kings 19:9-18, Matthew 14:22-33
So you know the story. After a long day, Jesus sends his disciples across the lake, presumably where they will find food and shelter for the night. He himself dismissed the crowds, and then went on up the mountain alone to pray.
When it got dark, he was still there by himself – Prayer sometimes requires a long time of listening and responding to love. But by then a storm had come up on the lake, and the little boat was no nearer land than it had been because the wind was against them.
Very early in the morning, Jesus walked towards then on the water. But, naturally, after a terrible night trying to keep the boat from capsizing and to get it safely to land, the disciples thought it was a ghost – and they were terrified. You might have been, too.
Jesus tells them it is he himself – and urges them not to be afraid. Dear, impetuous Peter challenges the spectre: “If it is you, command me to come to you on the water!”
Jesus does. And then Peter does. At least, he starts our well. But as soon as he notices the fierce wind, his boldness evaporates and in panic he calls, “Lord, save me!” And Jesus does, meanwhile commenting, simply, on Peter‘s lack of faith. He makes no mention of the ones who didn‘t even dare to step out of the boat – who didn‘t even make any act of trust. But when he got in the boat, the wind ceased. The storm ended. And they worshiped him, because they knew that only God commands the winds and the waves.
Well, okay. But why did the gospel writers tell this story? And why is it paired with the story of Elijah, frightened and discouraged and complaining, ready to quit?
I think it helps to remember that the gospels were written to people who were trying to make sense of their lives after the resurrection. Years after, actually. They didn’t need to write anything those first months and years, because everybody in Palestine knew the stories; there were living witnesses to every event; there were many who knew Jesus and his family, and the families of the disciples, too.
But then things changed. The story-tellers and the story-keepers began to die. And not only that, the Jesus people continued to spread outside Palestine where nobody knew any of those first witnesses. There was opposition from Jewish leaders and from the Romans; nobody knew exactly what those followers of Jesus were: renegade, heretical Jews? Or simply men and women who were inexplicably, but stubbornly disloyal to the Roman Gods?
Jews were protected – however grugingly. But atheists were not. And to refuse to worship the Roman gods earned a person that title – and persecution. Often death.
Elijah was in a similar situation. God had done great things through him and for him, but now he was fleeing in fear for his life, claiming to be the only one in Israel who was still faithful to God. He wasn’t, as the story reveals. But he thought he was. He was consumed with fear. And he didn’t even respond in trust when God came to him twice – in word, and in presence, after earthquake, wind and fire: in “the sound of sheer silence,“ and asked him again what he was doing there. Elijah, still hopeless and unbelieving, repeated the same complaint.
The writers of this Jesus story were Jews, too – and they knew the Elijah story. It was probably in their minds as they recounted how the storm ceased when Jesus entered the boat. How peace is the antidote to panic. How trust opens us up to receiving the presence of God. How we are safer than we think in the midst of any storm, metaphorical or literal – on Maui or Ukraine, or in a hospital room where someone we love is dying.
Those stories are not about God fixing everything for us. They are not about God removing obstacles or disasters or persecutions or death. You know the story. Jesus himself brought peace; but he was also murdered; and so have thousands of his faithful followers been killed for insisting that Jesus – not the Roman emperor – or anyone else – is everlasting Lord.
So why tell it? I think these stories served to assure Jesus’ followers that stepping out of the boat when they were called and invited, was not the risk they imagined it to be. I think Matthew intended to urge those new believers to keep on keeping on, to allow their fear to subside, to give then assurance of peace even in persecution, confusion, even as their status was increasingly viewed as problematic to everybody. I think they needed to remember that their own prophetic ancestor, the great Elijah, quailed in fear, too – and that it is evidence of faith to go on even in the midst of fear. That fear, as Elijah heard, is a liar. He wasn’t the only one. Nor has any follower of Christ been alone.
Romans has a word, too. Paul urges those Gentile Christians who had never been Jews, never been to Jerusalem, who knew nothing of the Law of Moses, who had nothing to counter the Roman accusations of atheism, except their experience of the Jewish Jesus, Christ crucified, risen and present to them by the Holy Spirit – to reassure them that there is no difference between them and those who had seen Jesus alive first hand. And that they, too, should keep on keeping on – in the midst of suffering to go on telling the story that had set them free: “How are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?”
This week I heard an old Black Pentecostal hymn which has been with me ever since – Enslaved men and women, and those newly freed – and those who suffered under Jim Crow did not reject the gospel because it came to them through white men who denied their humanity.
They accepted those stories as the truth – the truth that God was on their side as deliverer, as redeemer, as the one who was with them even in suffering.
They still sing it, still testify to that presence and power.
“My soul is a witness for my Lord…for my Lord
Oh what manner of man is this? All nations in the hymn are blessed All things are done by His will He spoke to the sea, and the sea stood still
Now ain’t that a witness for my Lord? My soul is a witness for my Lord.
Will you be a witness for my Lord? Yes I’ll be a witness …I’ll be a witness for my lord.”
That’s the power of story. It lets you see your own life in it – your own faith and hope and trust. And it encourages us to hold on –
“My soul is a witness to my Lord – “ – They sang in the midst of the earthquake in Haiti, too, even as thousands were killed.
They didn’t blame God – they leaned on God.
When God is all you have, you discover that God is enough.
That is the reason Matthew told this story.
Whatever storm is facing you – or that you are in the midst of – Matthews’ story is your story, too.
And mine. And St Albans.