Stepping into the Storm (Matthew 14:22-33)

I know what it is like to be afraid on the water. I was nine or ten years old and my dad took me with him on a fishing trip with a work buddy. At the time we had a small boat, maybe 15 or 16 feet with a 50 horse power motor. We were at Lake Barkley catching crappie. It had been a good evening. We were in a school of crappie when dark clouds began to gather over the horizon. We were having such good luck we didn’t want to leave and as a consequence stayed on the lake too long. The storm came on us quick and we had to get across the lake back to the dock. It was slow going as waves pounded the boat. We were taking on some water from the the waves. Then the motor died. I had never seen my father afraid before. He made sure my life jacket was tight and then gave me some instructions on what to do if the boat capsized. The look of fear on his face terrified me. I can’t remember a whole lot about my life at that point in my history, I was probably 9 or 10, but I still remember those feelings of fear. Fortunately, my father was able to get the motor started again without too much delay. But I will never forget the fear I felt at that moment even though it was so very long ago. 

The disciples are caught in a storm. Some of them were seasoned fishermen. It’s what they did. They were on the water everyday. They knew how quickly a little vessel could be upended. The waves and wind are pounding them. Then they see something or someone coming towards them. The text says they were terrified.  Now, let me say here at the beginning that this is not a story about avoiding storms nor it is a story about avoiding the fear such storms produce. Fear is, first of all, a simple reaction to threat or danger. And sometimes it can be a constructive thing. It has its place in helping to keep our children safe. Most children that is. It never seemed to be much a deterrent for our son Jordan, who went tumbling down the basement stairs on two different occasions. One time he was on a three wheeler and it was intentional.

Some fear is necessary, but fear can also be debilitating and oppressive, when one lives in fear constantly. I suspect that many of the kids who cross our border illegally are sent here by parents who live in daily fear for their children’s lives. None of us should judge them and say, “How could a parent send their child out like that?” You and I don’t know what it would be like to have children faced with a lifetime of violence and poverty. Maybe we would do the same. Maybe we would say the risk is worth it?

This story is not about avoiding storms or the fear they evoke, nor is it about stilling them. There are some who are quick to point out that Jesus did indeed still the storm, and they draw the conclusion that if we just had enough faith Jesus would still our storms too. That, I think, is a misreading of the story. Stories have meaning on many different levels. At one time scholars thought that parables, the stories Jesus told were intended to convey a single meaning, though today that theory has been largely debunked and most interpreters would argue that stories of Jesus convey multiple meanings and we intersect and connect with these stories on different levels at different times in our lives. The same is true of the stories about Jesus and this story today of Jesus walking on the water and stilling the storm is more of a parable than anything else.  

On one level, this story reflects what Matthew’s church had come to believe about Jesus. The story may have been constructed around images in the Psalms. One Psalm reads: “You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them.” When Jesus speaks to the disciples, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid” he is echoing the name of God by which God identified God’s self to Moses out of the fire when God said, “Tell them ‘I am’ has sent you.” Matthew’s church, which many scholars believe was predominately Jewish, had come to see in Jesus God’s agent of healing and redemption for the world. And at the end of the story Matthew changes the ending of this same story in Mark. Mark’s ending highlights the spiritual dullness and immaturity of the disciples. Mark’s story ends with Jesus’ rebuke. In Mark they don’t have a clue what is going on. But in Matthew’s version of the story it’s just the opposite. Matthew concludes the story by saying: “And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’” Matthew’s church is not claiming that Jesus was the one God, Creator and Father of all. But Matthew’s church is proclaiming Jesus to be God’s Son par excellent (not exclusively, but definitively) through whom God acts to heal and liberate the world.

So this is not a story about having enough faith to still storms or avoid storms. Nor does the story suggest in any way that God is responsible for the storms. Storms are an inevitable part of the climate we encounter on the journey. Author Philip Yancey launched his writing career with a book titled, Where is God when it hurts? He recalls receiving a phone call from a television producer just after Princess Diana had been killed in an automobile crash. He wanted Yancey to appear on his show and explain how God could possibly allow such a terrible accident to happen. (By the way, terrible accidents are happening every moment to God’s children.) Without much thought Yancey retorted, “Could it have had something to do with a drunk driver going ninety miles an hour in a narrow tunnel?” Yancey asks, “How exactly, was God involved?” God does not micromanage the planet or our lives.

There are some experiences of suffering that are simply tragic, and it is hard to find any redemptive value in them. On the other hand, we’re not likely to grow without battling some storms. Talk to any recovering addict who has been in a twelve-step program any length of time and he or she will talk to you about “necessary suffering.” They will tell you that it took what it took - coming to the end of themselves – to get them on a path toward healing and change. But “necessary suffering” doesn’t mean God causes or sends us suffering, it just means that it, unfortunately, often takes what it takes to get us moving in the right direction.

Paul, as well as other New Testament writers speak to the issue of necessary suffering, and they employ hyperbole in making the point. Paul tells the church at Rome, “we boast in our sufferings,” (that’s an exaggerated statement isn’t it?) Maybe a better choice of words would be: “We embrace our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” James, in his little epistle says, “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy (more hyperbole; who actually does that?), because you know that the testing of your faith (all forms of suffering, all hardship function as a kind of “testing”- that does not imply that God causes it or is responsible for it) produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.” Now, none of this is automatic. This outcome depends on our response. If we fail to face our sufferings in faith, suffering may just make us bitter and angry.

You may have heard the saying before, “Religion is lived by people who are afraid of hell. Spirituality is lived by people who have been through hell and come out enlightened.” Hell is not some place God sends people because they don’t believe or do the right things. Hell is what all of us have to live through to one degree or another in order to face our pride and ego, and confront the ways we need to grow and change. God’s deliverance is rarely a deliverance from; generally it is a deliverance through. Some suffering is necessary to prompt us to face the negative patterns in our lives which we tend to deny, ignore, excuse, rationalize, and minimize.

Matthew’s story differs from Mark’s in that Matthew brings Peter into the story. Peter is simply a disciple who represents all disciples. Peter takes a leap of faith into the storm. There is a wonderful scene at the climax of the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where Indiana has to pass three supreme tests to reach the Holy Grail and save his father from dying. The first test is “The Breath of God” where he walks down a corridor and must bow at precisely the right moment to keep form having his head cut off. The second test is “The Word of God” where he has to walk on the right stones – the ones that spell God’s name in Latin – to keep from falling through the floor to his death. The third test is “The Path of God,” where Indiana comes to a large chasm – about a hundred feet across and a thousand feet down. On the other side is the door to the Holy Grail. The instructions say, “Only in the leap from the lion’s head, will he prove his worth.” Indiana says to himself, “It’s impossible, nobody can jump this.” Then he realizes that this test requires a leap of faith. His father says, “You must believe, boy. You must believe.” Even though every nerve in his body screams don’t do it, he walks to the cliff’s edge, lifts his foot, and then steps out into thin air. Instead of falling to his doom like Wile E. Coyote in the Roadrunner cartoons, his foot hits solid ground. He lands on a hidden walkway, a hidden, solid stone walkway that supports him and takes him across.

God is often hidden, but solid nonetheless. God is with us every step of the way and will not abandon us. God may be hidden and disguised. Someone has said that God comes disguised as our life. We may not always or even frequently recognize God, but the Christ is with us always.
Many spiritual teachers drawing from their own experience have said, “When we find our true selves, our authentic selves, we find God.”

The Quaker educator, writer and activist Parker Palmer in his book, Let Your Life Speak tells about an experience he had while engaged in a program called Outward Bound at Hurricane Island off the coast of Maine. One of his tasks, a task that he feared the most, was to rappel down a 110-foot cliff.  As he slowly made his way down the cliff face he came to a deep hole in the face of the rock. Realizing he couldn’t go around it he suddenly found himself paralyzed by fear. He hung there in silence for what seemed to be a very long time.  Finally an instructor shouted, “Parker, is anything wrong?”  In a high squeaky voice he replied, “I don’t want to talk about it.” At that moment the second instructor jumped in and said to Parker, “It’s time that you learned the Outward Bound motto.” He thought, “I’m about to die, and she’s going to give me a motto.” But then she shouted ten words that have had lasting impact on his life. She told him, “If you can’t get out of it, get into it.” It’s like the advice given in the children’s story, “Going on a bear hunt.” I read that story to Sophie when she was little multiple times: “You can’t go over it, you can’t go under it, you can’t go around It, so you have to go through it.” As I said last week: Knowing that we are under a blessing and not a curse, knowing that we are God’s beloved daughter or son, knowing that the Christ is with us always, we can step into the storm in faith.  

The hard thing about that is that stepping into the storm means getting out of the boat. It means letting go and leaving the place of security. That could mean a lot of different things depending where we are in our pilgrimage. It could mean deciding to stop being an enabler of negativity and life diminishing beliefs and attitudes of some group we are part of and from whom we derive support and friendship. Speaking truth in love could turn the group against us. That’s stepping into the storm. Maybe it means facing some hard truth about ourselves that we have been in denial about because it contradicts the image we have of ourselves. Maybe it means confronting an addiction. Or maybe it’s getting involved in some cause or engaging in some act of mercy that requires more time and resources and energy than we think we have to give. I think of the two women senators who stood against all kinds of pressure and threats to do what they in their hearts knew was in the best interest of the country and their states. They decided to step into the storm.

In the story Peter steps into the storm and begins to sink. We all do. In this context doubt means “to be divided.” At some point we are all divided, we all lose focus and energy and we start to question our motives and decisions. We all doubt and we all have “little faith.” That’s just part for the course. The point here is that Christ is out in the storm. That’s where Christ is. This is really a story about the presence of Christ with us in the storm. It’s a story more about the cosmic Christ than the historical Jesus. Some scholars think that this story was originally a resurrection story, which in the course of the oral tradition – the telling and retelling of the story – it got worked back into the narrative of Jesus’ ministry. Because it really is a story about the presence of the living Christ. So when the Christ comes to them on the water they exclaim, “It is a ghost.” They don’t recognize him, which of course, is a common feature in almost all the resurrection stories. This is a story about Christ’s living presence in the storm.  

Maybe what we first call a ghost is actually the Holy Ghost. I have no doubt that God, the Holy Spirit, the living Christ, (use whatever phrase you are most comfortable with) speaks to us in a rich variety of ways and forms and means, though they are not clearly obvious or overt or easily recognizable. But I also believe that once we learn to recognize the Christ within us, in our true self, our authentic self, we can learn to see, to discern the divine presence elsewhere, especially in human beings. We can discover that Christ’s presence in the laughter of a little child, in the wisdom of an elder, in the touch of a lover’s hand, in the beauty of a sunrise or sunset, even in the midst of the raging sea that threatens to capsize our small boat.

The challenge and invitation that comes to us today is not to hunker down in fear, not to flee, not to deny or conjure up “alternative facts” when the storm assails us. I believe that the challenge and invitation that comes from the living Christ is to step into it.  

As we now come to the table to share the bread and the cup, it’s good to be reminded that the celebration of Holy Communion is not only a celebration of the self-giving of Jesus unto death; it’s also a celebration of the presence of the living Christ who walks with us into the storms of life.


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