Step out into the storm

RCL Year A, Proper 14

We took the kids backpacking overnight last week, a fun adventure that quickly turned very exciting when a huge thunderstorm with hail and pouring rain hit us right as we were eating our dinner. We dove into our tents, Jim with Benji and me with Frances, and hunkered down. In our tent we discovered all the leaks in the rain fly, sang songs, told stories, ate M&Ms – but finally, Frances dissolved into tears as the lightning flashed and hail banged down and thunder roared on and on. In the end, the rain lasted nearly three hours – way more than we’d bargained for. But we made it through, and she fell asleep, and later I did too – and the morning was clear and beautiful and everybody was damp, but happy.

Storms are powerful things, times when we realize just how little we are in control. They happen when they’re predicted and they happen unexpectedly; they happen in our lives all the time, real storms and life-event kinds of storms. So maybe it’s not surprising that there are actually two different stories of Jesus and his disciples and a boat and a storm. Matthew includes them both in his gospel. The earlier one is the one where all of them are together in the boat, a storm arises, Jesus is asleep, and the disciples shake him awake, shrieking, don’t you care that we’re perishing?? In that story, Jesus rebukes the storm, stills it, and then turns and rebukes the disciples for their lack of faith. And they are amazed and wonder, what sort of man is this who can control the sea??

Several chapters later, there is this story we just heard. Jesus puts the disciples into the boat without him, a storm arises, he walks across the water and terrifies them still further, and then calls Peter out of the boat. Peter steps toward Jesus, panics and begins to sink, and Jesus rebukes him for his doubt, grabs him and climbs into the boat – and then the storm is stilled. And the disciples are not only amazed, but this time they realize what sort of man this is – that Jesus is the Son of God.

There have been two storms in my family in recent weeks, one literal, one more of a life storm. The first, the real storm, happened to my brother and his family, when an enormous windstorm tore through their town a few weeks ago. 70 mph winds took down a huge fir tree, narrowly missing their house. My brother and his son Phillip, a teenage state champion golfer, were out playing golf when it happened – yes, playing golf in a windstorm. When my brother got the call from neighbors about what was going on back at his house, he shrugged and figured, nothing to help it now, so they finished the round. He works in insurance; he understands catastrophe and the worst that can happen, and he could see this was not it. It didn’t require his immediate crisis response, so he didn’t give it. He is not a person of faith, but it is reminds me of the first story of the disciples in the boat with Jesus: realizing that although you are in a big storm in a little boat, you have the resources to deal with it. You might wonder, Who is this? just how are we staying so calm? But basically you manage to keep going.

In a different kind of storm, my mother just learned that she has to have a hip replacement. For the past 40 years of their marriage, she has been the hale and healthy one while my father has had various health scares, surgeries, ER visits, and so on. About 6 months ago that suddenly changed, when she developed some terrible pain in her back and hip. She began to have to use a walker even to move around the house. Here was a call she couldn’t ignore. But her first thought on this news from the doctor was, I can’t have this surgery, who will take care of Dad while I’m in the hospital? I can’t step out in this storm. Everything will fall apart. Only when we, her kids, said repeatedly that we were there to help, that she was not in this alone, did she begin to face into it – and then said later how ‘providential’ it was that we had been there when she got the news. There is more to support her than she had acknowledged. She is asking, Who is this? How will this be possible? She’s not sure yet whether she’ll be able to step out of the boat. Can she trust God to be there?

I talked last week about how we sometimes choose to stay safe and secure instead of risking being out on the street, out in relationship with God and with others. We want to be safe, but when everybody chooses that, we wind up being more isolated from one another, more captive to our own needs and more indifferent to those of others. It’s not the way God would have us live. After all, it’s Jesus who puts the disciples into the boat in both stories. In the first one, they follow him into the boat. In today’s story, he puts them into the boat and walks off to pray. They’re just following his lead. And even more terrifying, it’s Jesus who calls Peter out of the boat to walk on the water. Peter asks for it, but Jesus could have said, no Peter, it’s not safe. Because staying in the boat would be a lot safer. Staying on land, of course, would have been safer still. But only by getting out on the sea, stepping out of the boat, and taking the risks do the disciples see who Jesus is.

The disciples don’t weather the storm on their own. Peter doesn’t walk on the water by his own doing. When we are following God, we are held, able to walk through things that might otherwise scare us to death. When we are listening for God’s call and God’s voice, even if it’s drawing us into uncertain territory, we are given strength and peace beyond what we can muster ourselves. We can face into new health challenges, new jobs, new moves, new relationships. We can know our neighbors. We can share who we really are with those around us. And all kinds of things that seem too big and terrifying to imagine.

Because Jesus is out there, risking everything, and calling us to risk. God encourages us out away from the shore. God even calls us to step out of the boat, trusting that God is there to hold us up – even if we panic and start to sink, God will grab hold of us. Through all things, we are safe – even when we fear. God asks us, Why do you doubt? Why are you afraid? Don’t you know that I am with you in this as I have always been?

There will always be storms in our lives – storms that hit us without us asking for them, and storms we choose to walk into. The question is how we will respond to them. Can we step willingly onto the waves? can we trust God to be with us in the tiny boat? Or are we too afraid to let go of land, the certainty of what we’ve known? Do we try too hard to get through on our own doing? My prayer for each of us is that we will follow Jesus’ voice, listening closely for where God would have us go – and that we will trust God to hold us through it all. That is how we will see God, and know God. Amen.