Tenth Weekend After Pentecost (A/RCL): “Don’t Be Afraid!”
1 Kings 19:9-18; Matthew 14:22-33
August 12-13, 2017
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manasquan, NJ
Remember learning to ride a bike, way back when? We went from sitting in a wagon and being pulled, to riding a trike under our own power, eventually moving up to a two wheel bike with training wheels, then really graduating when the training wheels were removed and we were challenged to “fly solo,” which was both exciting and terrifying. How many times did my dad and sisters get their workout running along beside my bike, holding onto the handle bars to steady me, then letting go as I either hurtled or wobbled forward, depending on their strength and my courage. Initially there were a lot of head-on crash landings and sideways crumbles, accompanied by black-and-blues and abrasions where the bike chain chewed into my leg. But as time went on, I stayed upright longer, rolling smoothly forward for greater distances, doing fine until someone pointed out how well I was doing, made me self-conscious, and distracted me from pedaling or balancing. Then: klunk!
I’m thinking that’s a tiny bit like Peter, walking on water in today’s Gospel. For reasons unknown, unfathomable, he asks Jesus to confirm His identity by bidding Peter to come to Him across the water. He has trust and chutzpah (and maybe a bit of showmanship) to step out of the boat in the midst of stormy seas, and walks a watery path toward the Lord. But then he’s distracted: his glance leaves the Lord and lights upon the waves, and he’s sunk, literally. Splash!
It’s an odd story. It follows Jesus curing the sick and feeding the multitude. Those “practical” miracles of healing and nourishing make more sense to us. But walking on water – what’s the point? Question: whom did that serve? Answer: the small circle of disciples who fit in the boat that was being swamped, and then all the people to whom they ever proclaimed that Jesus Christ is Lord. It’s a faith-building miracle showing that Jesus of Nazareth is Lord of creation. Faithful Jews knew that only God could walk on water. In the Book of Job we read about the God:
…who alone stretched out the heavens
and trampled the waves of the sea…. (Job 9:8)
And God challenges Job:
“Have you entered the springs of the sea,
or walked in the recesses of the deep?” (Job 38:16)
The psalmist marvels:
Your way was through the sea,
your path, through the mighty waters;
yet your footprints were unseen. (Psalm 77:19)
We might add: and those can walk on water whom God enables, including Peter who succeeded as long as he kept his eyes on the Lord.
We find ourselves in scary situations in life: pedaling along solo, at what seems like breakneck speed, barely able to keep upright; rocking wildly in an angry sea, saltwater spraying or pouring over the gunwales; or, like Elijah in the first lesson, spirit sucked dry by depression, life’s colors leached away, leaving only grey. More than one thing factored into Elijah’s depression: Jezebel was angry he had killed her prophets of Baal and had sworn to kill him in turn, so he was on the lam. Maybe, too, he was coming off the high of victory on Mt. Carmel, when God had answered his prayer and sent fire from heaven to consume a sacrifice. We know what it’s like to experience the dip-in-spirits, the psychological recalibration, that often follows an emotional high.
None of which would be so bad if we didn’t feel so darn alone! There’s another story of a storm at sea that you may remember (Matthew 8:23-27): the one in which Jesus is asleep in the stern of the boat, so the frightened disciples wake Him up: “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” (Matt. 8:25) In this instance, Jesus had shooed away, waved off His friends in the boat while He stayed behind on land. Once the wind and waves rose, they must have said to each other, “If only the Lord were here with us! Where is He when you need Him???” We’ve wondered that, haven’t we, when we’re at the end of our rope, or have hit rock bottom in courage, or feel like our prayer is answered by a thundering Silence? “Where is the Lord when I need Him???”
Well, in this case He walked on water to reach His friends. He knew their need and imagined their fear and came to comfort and to save. His appearance was so unexpected it was terrifying and He had to assure them:
“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” (Matt. 14:27, NRSV)
“Courage, it’s me. Don’t be afraid!” (ditto, The Message)
I’d be surprised if there’s anyone here today who doesn’t need to hear that message. With nuclear saber-rattling going on, and horrible international threats being exchanged, I don’t think too many of us really are sleeping well at night. I sure need to see my Lord look me in the eye and say, “Courage, Mary, it’s me. Don’t be afraid!”
And when my trust is wavering and my faith feels as wobbly as my bike riding when the training wheels were first removed, I need to remember the Lord’s challenge to soaking-wet Peter, whom He just pulled out of the drink:
“You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matt. 14:32)
“Faint-heart, what got into you?” (ditto, The Message)
Maybe the Lord whispered that kind of message to Elijah in the “sound of silence” that whispered past the opening of the cave in today’s first lesson from 1 Kings (19:12). Poor, depressed, depleted, burn-out Elijah had laid down to die, essentially submitting his prophetic letter of resignation. But God didn’t accept it. Instead, God gave Elijah more work to do.
Sometimes the Lord enables us to walk on water, to do the seemingly impossible in His name, but most often He gives us humbler kingdom tasks, including trusting that He is present even when circumstances seem to scream that He is absent. He crossed the waves to reach His friends on the Sea of Galilee. More amazingly, He crossed from life to death to Life, having ascended the cross in love, died in obedience, been raised in glory, to save us from drowning in our own sins.
The baptismal promise that God has made to us and makes to Evangeline Dylan and Jack Louis this weekend, is that our everlasting life with God will transcend our physical death. In every imaginable and unimaginable storm, we have a Savior. When we cry out, “Lord, save us!” He will be present to us. If we go down, He goes down with us, and will also raise us up. Someday when we pass through the valley of the shadow of death, we will not be alone, and He will safely usher us out the other side. Meanwhile, when wind and waves threaten to drown our faith, and courage armwrestles with fear, the Holy Spirit is a mightier, more powerful presence still. Hear the Lord call you by name
“Faint-heart, what got into you?”
“Courage, [insert your name here], it’s me. Don’t be afraid!”
Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham