A sermon for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, August 13, 2017
Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York
In the fourth watch of the night, he came walking toward them on the sea.
If last Sunday had not been the Feast of the Transfiguration, the Gospel would have been the Feeding of the Five Thousand, which immediately precedes what we hear today. In the Gospel of Matthew, the reason that Jesus is out there at a remote place by the Sea of Galilee is that he had been informed that Herod Antipas was comparing Jesus to John the Baptist; and everyone knew that Herod had had John killed for calling out Herod’s immoral behavior. As Jesus was trying to withdraw to reflect and pray, the crowds came. It was late in the afternoon, and Jesus made sure that they had food.
So our lesson today begins with Jesus sending his disciples ahead with the boat, while he got rid of the crowds and went up on the mountain to pray, which was why he was there to begin with. So why did he send the disciples off in the boat? Because they needed to get to the other side. Most of them were fisherman, and they knew how to use a boat—better than Jesus did because he was a carpenter. So that evening, they were headed off, across the lake while Jesus was up on the mountain alone; praying.
Though they knew how to row it was tough going, because the wind was blowing directly at them. And as they struggled through the night, a storm came up.
I grew up in arid country, and storms can appear quickly. When I was a kid, I was fishing with my dad, an uncle and three cousins in a small boat in the middle of a reservoir not that much smaller than the Sea of Galilee. In the middle of a sunny afternoon a cloud came in from the west and suddenly there was a storm—the waves were higher than the gunwales of the boat. My dad got the motor started and we went straight for the nearest point on the shore. As soon as the boat touched the beach, it filled with water. It was a frightening and dangerous time.
Out there on the water there was no place to take cover. The disciples had been struggling out on the open water all night, and it was dark. When the storm suddenly came up, the text says, literally, it was the fourth watch of the night, which meant the time between 3 a.m and 6 a.m. There they were, far from shore, without even a 35 horsepower Evinrude to get them out of danger.
And Jesus appears, walking toward them on the water. It didn’t calm their fears—they thought they were seeing a ghost. Out there in the dark, everything seemed threatening. Not just the real possibilities of the boat sinking or capsizing, but everything. Their fear, which was in a real sense reasonable, magnified every other thing around them and made everything frightening, even the saving presence of Jesus. When I read this story again, I realized that it resembles nothing as much as the accounts of Jesus resurrection appearances. He appears, and is seen but not recognized until he speaks, he reached out his hand so that Peter could touch him and know that he was not a ghost. Jesus is present, the fear calms, and the storm calms, and they are safe.
So why didn’t he just stay with them and keep them safe? One reason is that he had something else to do—he was out there on that hillside to pray and reflect. And why shouldn’t these professional boat rowers be the ones to take a boat across a lake? The danger that the disciples were in was not unusual. Back then, people lived closer to the forces and dangers of nature than we do today. Everyday life could put you in peril that we mostly can’t imagine today. In our more technologically advanced age, the dangers are more technologically mediated, like automobile accidents or nuclear missiles. Our fears and anxiety more often emerge with relationship to people and institutions—will there be enough money? Are those unhappy faces signs of a conspiracy against me? Will things work out so my kids can learn and be happy? Will there be a war?
Yesterday, we saw a violent eruption of hatred in Charlottesville, Virginia. At its root is the self-pity and infantile anger of white supremacists who can’t bear the thought of others having equality of dignity with white people in our country. Their anxieties have morphed into blame and evil. And people were injured and died.
Like the disciples, we are responsible human beings out in a world with its dangers and with anxieties that magnify and distort those dangers to the point that we see ghosts of our fears at every turn. A large part of the polarization and partisan conflict is due to anxieties constructing dangers that aren’t there and making it harder to deal with the real dangers and evil that threaten us. It is particularly disturbing when people of great power intentionally magnify anxieties and threaten multitudes with danger and destruction.
Jesus appears in the midst of the storm, not to do a magic act and make the danger go away. That’s not what the miracle is. The miracle is the healing of the fright, the presence of the life-giving power of God. At the beginning of the lesson, Jesus is dismissing the crowds, just as I do, or a deacon does at the end of the Eucharist, “Go forth, in the peace of God.” At the end of the lesson, he brings peace, not just to the disciples, but to the forces of nature. His presence gives courage—even though, as Peter demonstrates, in the midst of all of this we can slip and start to sink. We often overthink things, think of why we are beyond God’s help, think that Jesus is on the other side of the lake, or perhaps on the other side of a historical or philosophical divide. Somehow, the last place we expect him is in the middle of our turbulent storm. Yet at the darkest time, there he is, “Take heart. It is I, do not be afraid.”
Don’t be fooled by the loudest voices, or the roaring of the storms, or the great earthquakes or cataclysms. Remember Elijah—he was told to go to the mountain and wait for the Lord. And it was not the storm, or the earthquake or the fire that revealed the Lord. It was the sound of sheer silence.