Storms and “Thin Places” – August 13, 2017
In the Name of the God who creates, redeems, and sustains us. Amen.
Thunder. Lightening. Gale force winds. Humongous waves. Torrential rains. The recipe for a good storm. Some folks revel in it. They love the excitement of it all. I’m not one of them. I don’t like storms. Never did. Storms can cause serious damage and devastation to homes, the loss of power and even the loss of lives. I would have been a very scared disciple.
In the stormy story of the Gospel, our seasoned boat-handlers are being tossed about by a violent storm on the Sea of Galilee site of many a fierce tempest. Up to this point in their lives, the only tool they had was to grab one of the planks and just hold on to the boat. Today that strategy wasn’t working for them and they are overcome by a grave sense of fear that this may be their last fishing expedition.
Biblical scholars find this water-walking episode a difficult miracle around which to wrap their heads because its sole purpose seems to be establishing that Jesus has mastery over nature in all its wildness and unpredictability. Even Luke was unwilling to record it.
Putting it in context, we might see it as a story told to encourage the small community of believers in the first century who were battered by the waves of persecution. Just as he did that night of the Galilean eruption when he was off someplace praying, Jesus must have seemed a long way off to those earliest Christians facing imminent torture and death.
Even to some respected commentators this Gospel account seems more story than Gospel. We can easily allow that Jesus walks on water to reveal his person and power over the wildest and unmanageable forces in life. The phrase has become almost cliché: a job description for a certain CEO of a large corporation began with, “In addition to walking on water the right applicant will be…” Good luck with that. Most of us are just trying to keep our head above water.
It makes sense to ask why Peter ventures out of the boat. I doubt that he expected that stepping on to the storm-tossed sea would alleviate all his fears. He’s not trying to be Jesus; he’s just trying to be with him. When he steps out of the boat, he enters the turbulence which, save for the strong arm of Jesus, would have caused him to drown.
It’s what history teaches us that most faithful people do. They may not have been the most stalwart believers but they knew if God might be found anywhere it will be places where predictable endings don’t apply as before, that incredibly turbulent places are sometimes those “thin places” where God breaks through.
Have you been in a storm lately? Any turbulence in your life? The Gospel today puts before us a vivid demonstration of God’s concern for each of us in the midst of a troublesome situation. There aren’t many life circumstances that can’t be seen through the lens of this story. We all encounter storms. We get sick, we are torn apart financially, relationships break apart, a job crashes and burns, ISIS attacks another part of the free world. Turbulence is inescapable. If you are in any way feeling that you are living in the midst of a storm and wondering whether you are going to sink or swim, this Gospel message is for you.
In these summer weeks we have been exploring the ways in which God’s story intersects with our own human story: how the miracles of Jesus in his time still occur in our lives and how we are challenged to be faithful followers of him on our own journeys amid the trials of our days. Like those “thin places” like where Peter met Jesus, where spirit meets flesh, where water meets land, where heaven meets earth—the places where God’s story meets our story are full of promise. The Gospel we consider today is not a deep analysis of storms but rather a metaphor for how the God of the universe cares about the particulars of our world, about your storms and mine and will hold life still until they subside and we recover. So Matthew gives us this story which, in the words of playwright Annie Baker are “a little bit of light that we can cup in the palm of our hands like votive candles to show us the way out of the forest.”
Sometimes there are storm threats that seem insurmountable and even beyond comprehension. I would be remiss, given the events of this past week if I did not speak to the large elephants in the room of the world: the looming crisis in the Korean peninsula and attendant volatile rhetoric and the atrocious display of white supremacist, neo-Nazi hatred in Charlottesville, Virginia.
No matter how one voted –or didn’t—in November, no matter where one stands on the several hot button domestic issues being debated in Washington, I want to believe that no one wants to see “fire and fury” that may result in the loss of millions of lives and, for the first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis nearly sixty years ago, the potential for devastation on American soil. I want to hope that we have overcome the bitter divisions that saw this nation fighting a bloody civil war and even in decades after still perpetuating the sins of slavery, sexism and homophobia—all of which have surfaced in Virginia this week.
Here I find Peter’s cry for help speaks to the reality of our anxiety and uncertainty about how these storms will play out. The cry for help when things are far beyond our control – the recognition of our need for rational decisions by the leaders of the nations, for the voices of our national leaders condemning bigotry and violence, for our ability to sleep well at night and to know that tomorrow will bring a better day – this is what ushers in the beginning of hope and restoration.
If we really believe that Jesus is the incarnation of God, the very face of God, and want to be his disciples, then we know that greatness of a people, a nation, a society, of any community and of a church is measured by its commitment to compassion, social justice, respect for the dignity of every human being, restoration, reconciliation, and the work of building the kingdom of God here and now. That’s the only authentic brand of Christianity. We fool ourselves if we think it is not.
Peter’s cry is really the universal cry of all humanity in the face of seemingly unsurmountable distress and turmoil. It’s a good time to join him in prayer and trust and shout out, “Save us; help us!” Dear God, for the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, save us!