Father Nicholas Lang
The Tenth Sunday After Pentecost
Thunder. Lightening. Gale force winds. Humongous waves. Torrential rains. Tornadoes. The recipe for a really huge storm. We’ve just experienced one, so this Gospel story seems very timely. I don’t like storms. Never did. As we witnessed this week and after Irene and Sandy in past years, storms cause serious damage and devastation to homes, the loss of power and even the loss of lives. I would have been a very scared disciple had I been in that boat.
In the stormy story of the Gospel, our seasoned boat-handlers are being tossed about by a violent storm on the Sea of Galilee site of many a fierce tempest. Up to this point in their lives, the only tool they had was to grab one of the planks and just hold on to the boat. That strategy wasn’t working for them and they were overcome by a grave sense of fear that this may be their last fishing expedition.
Biblical scholars find this water-walking episode a difficult miracle around which to wrap their heads because its sole purpose seems to be establishing that Jesus has mastery over nature in all its wildness and unpredictability. Even Luke was unwilling to record it.
Putting it in context, we might see it as a story told to encourage the small community of believers in the first century who were battered by the waves of persecution. Just as he did that night when he was off someplace praying, Jesus must have seemed a long way off to those earliest Christians facing imminent torture and death.
Even to some respected commentators this Gospel account seems more story than Gospel. We can easily allow that Jesus walks on water to reveal his person and power over the wildest and unmanageable forces in life. The phrase has become almost cliché: a job description for a certain CEO of a large corporation began with, “In addition to walking on water the right applicant will be…” Such unreal expectations! Most of us are just trying to keep our head above water.
It makes sense to ask why Peter ventures out of the boat. I doubt that he expected that stepping on to the storm-tossed sea would alleviate all his fears. He’s not trying to be Jesus; he’s just trying to be with him. When he steps out of the boat, he enters the turbulence which, save for the strong arm of Jesus, would have caused him to drown.
It’s what history teaches us that most faithful people do. They may not have been the most stalwart believers but they knew if God might be found anywhere it will be places where predictable endings don’t apply as before, that incredibly tempestuous places are sometimes those “thin places” where God breaks through.
The Gospel today puts before us a vivid demonstration of God’s concern for each of us in the midst of a troublesome situation. There aren’t many life circumstances that can’t be seen through the lens of this story. We all encounter storms. We get sick, we are torn apart financially, relationships break apart, a job crashes and burns, terrorists attack another part of the free world, COVID-19 rages uncontrollably. Turbulence is inescapable. If you are in any way feeling that you are living in the midst of a storm and wondering whether you are going to sink or swim, this Gospel message is for you.
In these summer weeks we have been exploring the ways in which God’s story intersects with our own human story: how the miracles of Jesus in his time still occur in our lives and how we are challenged to be faithful followers of him on our own journeys amid the trials of our days. Like those “thin places” like where Peter met Jesus, where spirit meets flesh, where water meets land, where heaven meets earth—the places where God’s story meets our story are full of promise.
The Gospel we consider today is not a deep analysis of storms but rather a metaphor for how the God of the universe cares about the particulars of our world, about your storms and mine and will hold life still until they subside and we recover. So Matthew gives us this story which, in the words of playwright Annie Baker are “a little bit of light that we can cup in the palm of our hands like votive candles to show us the way out of the forest.”
There’s a very old joke about a priest, a minister and a rabbi who were fishing in a rowboat in the middle of a lake. They realized once they had thrown their lines in that they had left their coolers with refreshments back on shore. “Not to worry,” the priest said, “I’ll go get it.” So he stood up, stepped outside the boat, walked across the water to the shore, and returned with the cooler. About an hour later, they realized that they had forgotten the ice. The minister got up, got out of the boat, walked across the water, and came back with the ice.
The rabbi was beside himself. So, when they ran out of bait, he was more than ready to try this as well. “Not to worry,” he said, “It’s my turn. I’ll go get the bait.” He got up, stepped out of the boat…and immediately began to sank. The priest looked at the minister and said, “Guess we should have told him where the rocks are…”
Jesus does not expect any of us to walk on water. That’s for him to do. He just wants us to trust him enough that we’re willing to get out of the boat and get our feet wet, to grow in faith, take risks, change, and find ourselves transformed. And when we venture out, we can be assured that he will tell us where the rocks are and we can be sure that there will be at least one outstretched hand to catch us, not to mention the many hands around us, the community of fellow navigators right here, making sure we stay afloat. In the end, thank God, we’re all in the same boat.