To begin with, there is an awful lot for which we can be legitimately afraid. Can we just acknowledge that right off the top?
As a flatlander from Nebraska, one of the scariest moments in my life was getting caught in a storm in deep water.
It was on a family vacation to a lake in Minnesota. We didn’t own a boat, we rented one at the resort. I still remember that it was a bright red open “Lund” fishing boat with a woefully underpowered small engine. The wind came up suddenly, the skies clouded over and the motor struggled to push us back toward shore against the wind. We went from “fun” gliding over the water to dipping and rising with the swells, almost losing sight of the shore between the waves. There is something particularly disconcerting about water sloshing over the sides of the boat and gathering around your ankles.
I was pretty young at the time and so I don’t think I was actually contemplating drowning or dying, but I certainly felt very much out of control and could see the look of panic in the faces of the adults in the boat with us.
So, in this story, I totally get the terror of the disciples.
There was probably not a one of them in the boat who could actually swim,- even the fishermen. Learning to swim in largely desert Palestine was probably not high on the list of things to do on your summer vacation like it was for me, and there were no life preservers. The prospect of the wind being against them and struggling to make shore would have unnerved even the most seasoned of fishermen.
The fear and the danger in this Gospel story is real.
We can tend to forget that knowing how the story ends.
We even sometimes criticize old Peter for his “lack of faith.” I’ve heard and probably delivered a number of sermons on the need to “get out of the boat” in faith.
You can deliver a sermon like that when you know that in the end the storm is stilled and things all turn out just fine. Go ahead, step out in faith!
But, when you’re in the middle of it all, there is no such reassurance.
So, acknowledging that the fear and the danger is real in this story is the first step toward finding the good news in this story.
In similar fashion, the fear and danger that we have in this present “storm of life” is no less real. There is much for which we can be legitimately afraid, and real harm is possible.
We can acknowledge that, right?
Did you ever think we’d be tap dancing around Nuclear exchanges again? “Fire and Fury” meets “Enveloping fire” with escalating threats sounding every bit like bullies on the playground.
We have become keenly aware of how little check there is on leaders when they use the rhetoric of irrationality.
Or who would have thought that just a little cracking open of the door on nationalism, tapping into some good ol’ patriotic pride and playing to American exceptionalism would result in the White Nationalists rising again and hate speech mongers scurrying out like cockroaches?
We hear the angry rhetoric of hate, and see things that my grandfather and father would never have dreamed possible. The Swastika flying in America, beside the Confederate flag and stars and stripes.
We fought a war, and have proclaimed the message, “never again” – and yet the seeds of anger, privilege and bigotry are as persistent as ragweed. It springs up to irritate and choke out all too readily.
So, we’re afraid, and the danger is real, and we need to own up to that.
We’re afraid right now that cooler heads will not prevail in time of crisis.
We’re afraid that the evil released by inflammatory rhetoric cannot be contained, but instead will continue to spill out like the plagues of Pandora’s Box, doing damage, overrunning and overwhelming the good.
The fear in our own lives is real.
That’s the starting place for finding the good news in this Gospel story. The fear that we feel is just as real as the fear the disciples felt in that boat.
The second thing we need to acknowledge in this story is that the picture of Jesus as he appears is of no real comfort.
This is a Jesus who seems detached and distant, and who confuses us. Just last week the good news revolved around how Jesus would not dismiss the crowds. Not until they had been fed. Not until they had been satisfied with compassion.
But now with those things met, Jesus himself dismisses the crowds, and the disciples as well. He sends them off and then goes off to the mountain to pray.
As the storm rises on the lake and the disciples begin to struggle, we are left to wonder if Jesus is paying any attention to the events at all.
How did the disciples get into their predicament in the first place???
It was at Jesus’ command that they set off on the perilous journey. Jesus told them to get into the boat and go ahead of him.
Is that really the case, that Jesus sends us out to our own peril while he’s off doing something else?
Sometimes it seems that way.
Sometimes it is in the midst of doing what we thought Jesus told us to do that we find ourselves thrown into the midst of the storm.
There were clergy and lay people gathered for prayer on Friday night in preparation for the “Unite the Right” assembly in Charlottesville when a group of torch bearing people there for the assembled showed up at the University of Virginia chapel and surrounded the place.
Do you suppose those inside felt like the disciples bobbing in the boat?
And, hey let’s admit it. If Jesus really wanted to be helpful to those disciples in their peril out in the boat, why didn’t he just calm the storm from where he was when he first noticed it? Why let the disciples bob around like corks waiting for him to show up?
And speaking of that, you can’t read this story without thinking how absolutely unhelpful it was to have Jesus walking out over the waves toward them!
First of all, he turns out to be unrecognizable to his disciples from their storm-tossed position in the boat. We are told he looks like a ghost, and no one finds a ghostly apparition walking toward them particularly comforting in the midst of danger or difficulty.
Secondly, what exactly was Peter thinking? “If it is you Lord, bid me come to you?” Here’s a great way to find out if you’re unsure, step out of the boat and see if you sink!
Just having Jesus “show up” while you’re in the midst of the storm turns out to be not very helpful.
The storm rages on.
The unsteady legs that try to step out in faith on their own will inevitably falter and sink.
The mind is too distracted by the events around you, the wind and waves to focus on clearly on Jesus.
It’s going to take a little more than Jesus “just showing up” to get us through our time of fear when the danger is real.
Which, as it turns out, is the point of the story, because the story isn’t just about Jesus “showing up.”
No, it’s about what Jesus does in response to Peter’s cry.
It turns out that this is a story about a display of the power of God. It’s about a God who ignores the laws of physics he put in place and upends the natural order to get to us when called upon.
This is the source of hope and comfort in the Gospel here.
When Peter says, “Lord, save me!” we witness a God in Christ Jesus who reaches out and grab him and pull him up out of the waters.
That’s the moment around which everything else revolves.
This is the action—Jesus reaching out at the right moment to catch hold when we falter. That calms the storm in the story, and perhaps in our world.
The gospel presses us to see that Jesus is doing more than just “showing up.”
Jesus defies the normal rules, controls the wind and waves, all for this moment. The moment when we cry out and when he can reach in to grab us.
This is a part of the biblical story that we see time and again, and yet it is hard to keep in focus.
The storm of life is so overwhelming sometimes, the bad news so persistent, the appearance that evil is winning so prevailing that we can lose sight of the God who strides into this world to save.
God strides in with the birth of Jesus in the first place.
God strides in where we don’t think anyone could ever go, and reaches into the midst of the maelstrom, pulling out and saving.
Where do we sense or see Jesus reaching out to grab us these days?
It might be in the actions of those around us. Those who will speak and will not keep silent.
It might be in the words that remind us of God’s unfailing love and intention for this world, that no matter how bad things look at the moment God has not given up on us, or on this world, nor has God just stepped back to let happen what will happen.
No, the promise in this Gospel is that Jesus is not in the business of just casually “showing up.”
He comes with intention.
He come not as just some shadowy, ghostly figure, who we hope is who he says to be, who is barely perceptible amidst all other static and noise of the storm around us.
No, Jesus comes to make God’s presence known, and to confirm the power God has to save.
It is not with our faltering steps and actions that we find hope, as necessary as they may be, but it is ultimately with the firm grasp of God upon us at the moment that we need it that we trust and depend.
Jesus comes, and while we sometimes think faith is about our weak attempts to step out and act in faith, that is not what we put our hope and trust in at all.
It is instead about a firm hand that comes and says, “Gotcha!” at the right moment when we think we’re about to slip under.
That’s the good news today, to a people who have real things to fear, and for a time when there is real danger.
God is not done with us or with this world.
Even if we can only dimly perceive his presence amidst the storm, he is coming with intention, with an outstretched arm and mighty hand to those who call out.
That is the promise of God this day.
Jesus says with his actions and presence— “I’ve got you….”