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A Savior in the Storm

A sermon on Matthew 14:22-33

I have never experienced trying to sail a boat in the sea in the middle of a violent storm (and I hope I never will). I have, however, experienced trying to drive a car on a 10-lane freeway in the middle of a violent storm.

The freeway in question was an Italian Autostrada, which poses some challenges right off the bat. I knew more than one fellow expat who refused to drive in Italy, because… it was too terrifying. Cars there tend to move fast, and to swerve around obstacles with very little margin for error, and to respond to posted road signs as though they are just friendly suggestions. Italy is the home of the Ferrari after all.

So driving on the autostrada, late at night, already required significant skills and attention. And then…. You throw in a sky-ripping thunderstorm.

We’ve all heard the phrase “it was raining buckets,” but it literally looked like someone was tipping one of those massive 500-gallon buckets from the splash-parks over my windshield in a continuous flow. Visibility was almost zero. All I could see was the dim, indistinct red glow of tail lights in the darkness in front of me. Except for the temporarily-blinding flashes of lightening that lit up the whole sky in neon purple and blue.

It was truly terrifying – and the worst part was that there was no escape.

The shoulder of the road – even if I could have navigated several lanes over to get there – was not wide enough for the car. Which meant that STOPPING at the side of the road, in those conditions of virtually zero visibility, would have exponentially INCREASED the chances of getting hit by another car. I had no choice but to keep driving and pray.

I was reminded of this experience while I was reading a commentary about today’s gospel story. The commentary made the point that the disciples’ boat was intentionally being kept “far from the land”(vs. 24) because that was the only option.

“The most foolish thing to do in a storm at sea, of course, is to try to land the boat and risk being battered by the rocks on the shore rather than the waves.”[1]

Just like I could not pull-over for the elusive safety of side the of the road, the disciples had no safe landing to pull for. They were stuck in the middle of the storm with no escape.

That’s why storms are such a powerful image of chaos – that great Biblical enemy of Creation and of Peace. Storms are not only dangerous, they are unpredictable, and uncontrollable, and there is no escape.

They expose our vulnerability and they rob us of our sense of agency, the belief that our access to safety is something that we can control.

Perhaps some of you have been feeling battered by storms this week.

Storms in failing bodies… or in your minds or hearts…

or in your families or jobs…or in our insecure world...

or in the evidence of the dangerous, hateful white supremacy infecting our nation, that manifested this weekend in Charlottesville, VA.

Unfortunately, we all are confronted by evidence that safety and stability is not assured… and that there is not much we can do about it.

Not that we don’t try… I know that I, for one, have a tendency to start white-knuckling my life when I am reminded that I am not in control of scary things. Which is why I sympathize with Peter’s cry to Jesus: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” (vs. 28)

Now, at first glance, this seems like a CRAZY thing to ask. Peter is voluntarily abandoning what little security he had in the boat. And Jesus was not even asking Peter to demonstrate his faith by stepping out onto the thrashing waves. Why in the world would Peter propose this terrifying step?

But pay attention to the verb forms: they are command words. Peter is giving Jesus an order, an order for Jesus to order Peter to come to him.

Which is weird … unless we read it as a desperate attempt to establish a source of stability in the storm. In other words, Peter is saying: “Jesus, you clearly are not being rocked by this storm. So, I need you to live up to your billing and be the one who is in charge, the one who will guarantee my safety by calling me to come to you.

If you have the confidence to call me, and I’m coming on your orders, then it’s on you to save me.”

Kinda sneaky, huh? But I confess, I have totally prayed that prayer! When I am in the middle of the storm, and I don’t have the option to row toward to the security of dry land, or to pull over and wait for the thunderstorm to pass, that’s when I am most likely to start demanding that God fulfill God’s promises to keep me safe, and to be my source of strength. As I was reminded by a young man struggling with alcoholism this week “It’s the hard times that make us reach out to God.”

And I’m not trying to judge him, or Peter, or myself, or you by pointing out that tendency. Of course, we ask God to be our security when everything else is chaos! What else would we do?

But this story has more to offer than a relatable story about our desperation for security. This story also offers us a glimpse at the unexpected way God sometimes answers our demanding prayers of desperation.

Peter laid down his dictate for how Jesus was going to save him, and Jesus said “OK. Let’s try it that way.” And for a little while, it worked. Peter got to walk on water.

But then, Peter started to sink. Peter had thought he had a plan for how Jesus was going to save him,

But maybe it took too long…

Or maybe he started to second guess whether this plan was really able to counteract the chaos that he saw all around him…

Or maybe his heart just got heavy, and it started to pull him down.

Whatever the reason, he started to sink, and this time his prayer was just a powerless cry – “Lord, save me!

And Jesus did! Immediately. He reached out his hand, and caught him. In the middle of the wind, and the waves, and the chaos. Jesus saved him. While the storm still raged around him, Peter was safe.

That security is assured before Jesus asks Peter the famous question of this passage: “why did you doubt?

This question is usually interpreted as applying to Peter’s faltering and sinking, but I think it applies just as well to Peter’s demand that Jesus command him to walk out on the water. Because that demand was Peter’s effort to take control in the chaos, to dictate how he wanted to feel safe, rather than trusting Jesus to come to him.

When we are in the storm our instinct is to look for stability, to start drafting our escape plan and telling God exactly what we need God to do. Even though we have faith… just like Peter.

Jesus reminds him of that faith, after he has saved him. Jesus calls Peter “you of little faith,” and we tend to hear that as a criticism that Peter’s faith should have been bigger, but according to Jesus even faith the size of a mustard seed to do great things (Matthew 17:20), because the point is not the size of the faith, it is who the faith is in.

Our faith, and Peter’s faith, is in Jesus – the one who can save us in the middle of the storm, after our escape plan has failed and we are sinking beneath the waves.

Jesus WILL BE THERE to catch us. That much is sure.

It might not look like the saving we planned or prayed for.

The storm might not disappear – we might still hear the howl of wind and feel the slap of the waves against our faces…

We might not be comfortable or feel at peace…

We might not get to walk on water…

But we don’t have to be immobilized by fear. God grants us peace and sends us forth to be a sign of God’s presence to others.[2]

Knowing that Jesus is with us in the storm.

Even when we dictate

Even when we doubt

Even when our faith is small.

Even when the storm does not abate.

Take heart, and do not be afraid. Truly, Jesus is the Son of God. And he is stronger than the storm.

Thanks be to God.

[1] D. Mark Davis – “A Superfluous Miracle?” (downloaded 8/7/2017).

[2] Opening reflection for August 13, 2017: Lectionary 19, Sunday's and Seasons Year A 2017, Guide to Worship Planning, Augsburg Fortress. Used by permission in this Sunday's worship bulletin.

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