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In The Storm

A sermon on Matthew 14:22-33

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here]

What a week to get a story about a storm!

A violent storm is an image that holds particular power for me – and I imagine for many of you, as well – after our state was pummelled by tropical storm Isaias this past week. It is an experience that helps me to connect to the disciples’ fear.

It has been a long time since I was genuinely frightened by a storm, but there was a half hour or so last Tuesday during which fear had my stomach clenched into tight knots, and I had to deliberately remind myself to take full, calming breaths. It happened after we had already lost power. The house felt still and shadowy, without the usual hum of appliances, air conditioner, and our various devices. Even at mid-day, we had to light candles to supplement the scant grey light that seeped through the windows. But there was enough light to see what was going on outside.

We had already lost one tree, which had taken out another as it fell. But those trees were far from the house. The fear started when Tyler grabbed me to come check if his eyes were deceiving him. The large tree off our back deck was moving.

Of course, all the trees were waving and whipping around in the gusting wind, but this was different. As we watched the ground around the spreading roots of the large tree, we could see it heaving and billowing, almost like waves on the sea. Each time a gust would drag on the spreading mass of the tree, we could see the energy translated into the ground that was slowly losing the battle to hold the tree in place were it had stood for… who knows how many years.

There was no question that the tree was going to fall, the only question was the direction of the crash. Most of the time the wind was pulling in a direction that would keep us out of danger, but every few minutes it would whip around, and a huge gust would pull the tree toward the house. And with the foundation of the roots so compromised, it was entirely possible that one of these gusts could be the one that brought it down, straight into our kitchen.

We grabbed the kids, and gathered in the front of the house, and then just sat waiting for the crash. It was such a powerless feeling. Being confronted with the destructive power of wind and water that I could do absolutely nothing to control.

And it was all the more shocking because, just a few days before, the tree had seemed so immovably solid. Tyler and I had spent hours the prior weekend working to clear climbing vines off the trees in the backyard. We yanked with all our strength on vines that clung to resistant branches. At one point, Tyler swung like Tarzan, using his entire body weight to pull the vines down. And through all that effort, the trees stood strong and tall, rooted in place.

But on Tuesday, in the storm, that solid immovability was gone. And if my strength had been unable to move the tree before, it was even less able to stop it from moving now, or to control which way it fell.

So, when I hear the description of the disciples, small and alone in a boat tossed on billowing waves in the middle of the night… I can feel that fear in my bones.

It is terrifying to face a crisis we cannot control – whether that crisis be a storm at sea, or a falling tree; a national pandemic, or a personal medical crisis – fear is the great equalizing emotion. It rips away our illusions of strength and self-sufficiency. It confronts us with the truth of our own fragility…. Or at least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.

Scripture describes fear – the fear of the Lord – as the beginning of wisdom. Healthy, clear-eyed fear is the recognition of our own limits. It’s the honesty of facing the terrible truth that we can be hurt. We can lose what is precious to us. We are vulnerable.

The problem is that our fear doesn’t always lead to wisdom.

Because, all too often, when our fear takes over we forget who God is. And when that happens, we tend to reduce God to a tool that we try to wield against our own sense of helplessness, rather than letting the knowledge of our helplessness drive us to God.

On Tuesday, as I waited for the tree to fall, I said a few fervent prayers, but I also kept inching back toward the window that would give me a view of the wavering tree … as though by staring at it I could will it to fall the right direction. I told my children to stay back, but – like Peter – I was itching the get out of the boat; to feel like I was doing something to re-establish control.

I know we are used to hearing this story as a story about Peter’s faith… a faith that started strong and only wavered when he saw the wind and waves… but I don’t think he started out with faith. I think he started out with fear and with a desperate desire to feel less vulnerable. Why else would he demand that Jesus call him out of the boat? It’s absurd. It’s pointless.

Unless we recognize that Peter is rebelling against the helplessness of his own fear. He sees Jesus – unmoved and unafraid – and he wants to be like that. The boat that had felt solid and reliable when he first entered it is now pitching, and rolling, and taking on water. It has proved to be less safe than he thought it was, and he can’t stand the feeling of just sitting there, rowing against waves that are too strong for him, knowing his safety is out of his hands.

So, he tests Jesus, just as the Tempter had done back in the dessert.

“Lord, if it is you… if you really are who you say you are, then perform a pointless miracle just to prove your power. Tell me to cast myself down, and then make me just as impervious to wind and waves as you are. Make me feel invulnerable.”

Jesus had refused to prove his own invulnerability when he was tempted in the wilderness, but he doesn’t refuse Peter’s parallel demand. When Peter tests Jesus, Jesus calls him out of the boat… and in so doing, he lets Peter experience his own vulnerability in a way he can’t bluster his way out of.

Peter wants to escape his fear, but instead, Jesus makes him face it. He makes him face the truth that he can’t walk on water. He can’t be impervious to the storm. He can’t make the storm stop by an over-the-top display of bravado. If he wants to put his faith in feeling safe, he will sink beneath the waves.

Because his hope cannot be found in safety. His only hope in the storm is Jesus.

This matters for us because we all face our own storms. The skies are clear today, but we are still being rocked and buffeted by forces beyond our control.

Our country is still in the grip of a deadly and debilitating virus, and our populace and leaders are divided by conflict about what steps to take in response;

And the consequences are cascading out on our economy, and essential workers, and small business owners, and school systems, and working parents;

And our mental health is suffering as depression, and anxiety, and suicide, and toxic anger spike;

And the racial tensions that have always lain just below the surface, and have recently been bubbling over, are now erupting like a molten volcano that is impossible to ignore;

And all of this is layered over the fragility that is the human condition, and the individual-level fears that can bowl us over when someone we love gets sick, or a relationship breaks, or we lose a job, or we lose any of the familiar places and things that give structure to our lives.

Pick your storm. We all have one, or more than one.

And when that storm gets hold of the tree that we had thought was so firmly rooted that we could shelter in its strength… we get scared.

Of course we do!

Fear is not a failure of faith. Fear is a reminder that we cannot control the storm, nor can we decree the timeline or the manner in which Jesus responds to it.

Notice that when Jesus tells the disciples not to fear, he doesn’t cause the wind and waves to cease.

He tells them that he is there, in the storm.

And when Peter begins to sink and calls out for help, Jesus doesn’t raise him up to walk on the water.

He reaches out his hand and catches him.

And when the tree crashed down in my back yard, sparing my house and my family, that did not save us from the inevitability that more storms will come and we are never guaranteed safety.

Our hope is not in Jesus’s power to end the storm, it’s in Jesus’s presence with us in the storm.

He won’t make us invulnerable. He won’t teach us how to walk on water, unaffected by the wind and waves. He won’t stop every tree from crashing down.

But he will catch us when we sink. He will be with us in the storm. Even when we are afraid.

Thanks be to God.

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