St. Paul’s Congregational Church
August 9, 2020 – Proper 13A
1 Kings 19: 9 – 18; Matthew 14:22-33
It’s been yet another intense week, hasn’t it. Today’s passage from Elijah tells of that intensity: earthquake: an explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, shook the earth and leveled much of the city. Hundreds of deaths. Thousands of injured – rubble everywhere. All of a sudden it happened – did you happen to see the news video from a delivery room in a Beirut hospital? Dad was filming the birth of his child when the explosion happened – the building shook, the ceiling fell down – but the baby was born safely and mom and baby are doing well.
Fire: we see the California wildfires again – small outbreaks grew exponentially within hours, leading authorities to issue the first evacuation orders by 7:30 p.m. for areas around the neighboring cities of Banning and Beaumont. The fire is being fought by 375 firefighters with dozens of fire engines and air support but has remained 0 percent contained. More evacuation orders have been issued – firefighters are working in scorching 107 degree heat – weather forecasts warn that the area will face hot and dry conditions with low humidity and gusty winds for the coming days. We’ve seen in prior years horrifying pictures of these fires, haven’t we.
And the wind – that hits close to home, doesn’t it – on Tuesday we all experienced the tropical storm/hurricane right here – hundreds of thousands of people without electricity, trees falling everywhere – when I came over to the church on Wednesday it seemed to take me forever to get here - detours everywhere – branches, big trees, power lines blocking roads. Good thing most roads in Nutley eventually lead to Franklin Avenue! I was lucky not to lose power or sustain real damage at my house but many did – as of Saturday afternoon, power hasn’t yet been restored to homes within two blocks of mine. I hope you and yours are all safe now and cleanup is done. Scary times – but thank God for power crews who came from far away to help with the recovery – we had crews from as far away as Alabama working through the night!
And the noise of all this: earthquake, fire, and wind! Add to this the continuing noise of the news – our ongoing pandemic, economic turmoil, racial injustice, deadlock in congress as people continue to suffer from unemployment, facing eviction, can’t afford to feed their families, loss of health insurance, and the incessant political campaign rhetoric that seems to get crazier and nastier every day. We yearn for sheer silence, don’t we. We yearn to hear God’s voice in the sheer silence.
A friend of mine wrote this week, “I’ve been really wrestling with some personal and vocational decisions. A colleague suggested I take a walk and just listen….and this came to me as I walked and has remained with me all day. It’s a song I learned in Sunday School 60 years ago:
“On the good and faithful God has set His love; When they call He sends them blessings from above. Stand in awe, and sin not, bid your heart be still; Through the silent watches think upon His will.
Lay upon God’s altar good and loving deeds, And in all things trust Him to supply your needs. Anxious and despairing, many walk in night; But to those that fear Him God will send His light.”
Now we move from the Elijah story to the story of another storm – this time on the water. Jesus went up into the mountains for some quiet time to pray after the feeding of the 5,000, sending his disciples to the boat to cross to the other side where he would join them.
While Jesus is praying, the disciples are paddling. It doesn’t take long for them to run right into a storm at sea – the wind blows, the waves crash around them.
Now it’s 4:00 in the morning – they are cold. Wet. Exhausted. Afraid for their lives – it wouldn’t be the first time that a boat ventured across these waters, never to be heard from again. At this hour they’ve had just about all they can take. They’re so tired, battered, seasick – their hands are blistered from their struggle against the storm. It looks grim for them.
But one of the disciples looks up and there amidst the mist and clouds he sees a figure coming closer on the dark and treacherous waves. As if the storm wasn’t scary enough, it looks like a ghost is walking toward them on the whitecaps.
Jesus senses their fear and quickly identifies himself – “Don’t be afraid – it’s me.” But they’re still not sure. So Peter speaks up, “Lord, if it’s really you, then tell me to walk on water with you.”
Now, this isn’t something that would have occurred to me at all – if I’m in a boat being battered by waves, seasick, tired, soaking wet, cold, the last place I would think to do is to go out of the boat into the water, much less onto the water, and move toward him on the water.
But maybe to understand Peter’s request, we have to understand a little about Jesus’ world – Peter was Jesus’ committed disciple. Being a disciple is more than being a student, sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to his teachings. A disciple wanted to DO what the teacher did. A disciple wanted to TALK like the teacher did. WALK like the teacher WALKed. So Peter is really being a good disciple when he asks to walk on water with Jesus. Peter wants to do what his teacher is doing. So Peter says, “Lord, if it is you, please call me to come to you on the water. Call me to do what you are doing. Call me to be like you.” And Jesus simply tells Peter, “Come. Walk to me.”
So he steps out of the boat – takes a couple steps on the water. But then the wind comes up again. Whitecaps break over his feet. He gets scared and begins to sink. He cries out, “Lord, save me.” And Jesus does – he reaches down. Catches him. Pulls him into the boat. But even as he rescues Peter, he asks, “Why did you doubt?”
Maybe Jesus is calling you, calling me, calling this church, to do something impossible. But the wind has picked up and doubt is creeping in and we feel like we’re sinking. The storms of life – earthquake, wind, fire, and water rage around us and in us these days – the storms just don’t quit, do they. Nor will they.
Another friend has written a poem this week that speaks to what those disciples, what we may be thinking: may these words touch you as they did me:
We left you there upon the mountain, Lord. The safest place for you – or well, for us – well insulated from the crowd’s demands for things that we, in truth, cannot provide.
If you are there upon the mountain, Lord, then you will not repeat those awkward words, “You give them something now to eat.” With just five loaves of bread at hand (as well you knew).
If we had known about that pair of fish, well, that would surely make the difference in our well-meaning cluelessness. “Bring them to me,” was all you said, and all were fed.
So you are there upon the mountain, Lord, and when we have once more resumed our breath, when we are not so weary carrying those baskets full, we will be there for you.
But now that you are on the mountain, Lord, we find that we cannot return to you with quite the ease we promised. Now a wind opposes our return to land and you.
We’d rather be upon the mountain, Lord, instead of struggling with our oars and sail to make some headway into this head wind. How can we find your presence once again?
But now the wind blows from the mountain, Lord, and with it moves a terrifying shape, a figure of the dead and of our deaths, to take us from your side for now and ever.
“Take heart!” we hear. “Do not now be afraid!” Oh, these, we know, are words of angels, heard by those they summon to great deeds, the likes of which are not within our feeble skills.
And, “It is I!” you cry, O Lord, a word of doubtful reassurance. Who is that who walks upon the gale-tossed sea? A ghost we comprehend; a Savior, not as much.
But when you were upon the mountain, Lord, we strove to come to you despite the wind and now see you come to us, and how can we do other but to meet you here?
So call us from the mountain, Lord, and call us from the heaving sea, and may we take our faltering steps upon the waves and reach – and find – and grasp – your outstretched loving hand.
A poem/prayer written by The Rev. Eric Anderson, based on Matthew 14:22-33, the Revised Co
Elijah found God’s presence in the silence. Peter found God’s presence in the midst of the whitecaps. What does that tell us about the reality that God is always with us – calling us forth to something new, something wonderful, new possibilities, new directions, new ways of doing ministry. God’s presence is in the quiet stillness. God’s presence is in the midst of fires, earthquakes, and wind.
Matthew’s gospel is written for a struggling storm-tossed church – then and now. May we listen for God’s voice in the silence. May we listen for God’s voice in the midst of the storms we all endure. And then let us respond – as individuals and church – with courage, joy, and thanksgiving for God’s amazing grace. Amen!