For sheer drama, today’s gospel reading can’t compete with last week’s gospel about the Transfiguration. Very generously, I gave that one to our Deacon. But our reading for today is still pretty dramatic.
The disciples are going by boat across the Sea of Galilee to a town called Gennesaret. Matthew doesn’t tell us how long that journey is. But the waves are rough, and the wind is against them, and they row from evening until early morning, so it takes most of the night.
Picture that scene in your head. Some of you may have experienced something more or less similar. I have, and it wasn’t great.
Over a couple of years, in a series of trips, I paddled the length of the Connecticut River, more than four hundred miles, from the Canadian border to the Long Island Sound.
Carrie came with me for my big finish. We spent a Sunday night in Essex, Connecticut, and set out the next morning on the last five miles of the river.
Even before we got started, we had weather problems. Due to a storm somewhere off the coast, there was a small craft advisory. Basically, canoes were not supposed to be on the river that day.
But I had come four hundred miles. I could taste the finish. I was not going to let a little weather stop me.
So, we ignored the advisory, started paddling, and quickly discovered that our timing was poor. The tide was coming in, and we were fighting the ocean current.
We pushed on for a couple of miles until we came to a narrow part of the river a mere three miles from the Sound. There was a railroad bridge over the river at that point with enormous pilons, which meant a LOT of water was flowing through a small space.
We were already working hard, but as we approached the bridge, with all that water coming at us, we really began to struggle. As we got under the bridge, we were paddling as hard as we could and making VERY slow progress. Making matters worse, incoming water bounced off the pilons on either side of the bridge, so waves were coming at us from more than one direction. I began to get scared.
But I thought, if we could just make it past the last bit of the bridge, the water would smooth out. I was wrong. We got far enough that I could see the water beyond the bridge, and it was choppier than anything I had ever paddled in.
Carrie and I probably didn’t have the physical strength to get past the bridge. But I’ll never know because I lost my nerve. We let the water push us back, pulled over to the bank, and I walked the last couple of miles to the Sound. For the record, that counts! I finished the River!
I think about that experience with the wind and the waves against Carrie and me. Now think about doing that same paddle at night. For hours. The disciples were having a tough time in our gospel story. I would not want to have been in the boat with them.
That’s just the set-up. Now, along comes a ghostly figure, walking on the water. The disciples were terrified. I would have been, too.
This is where we get the first big lesson of our reading. It’s Jesus, who says, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” In the midst of their struggles, what had seemed to the disciples like the scariest thing of all turns out to be Jesus.
This is about more than a boat ride. This is about life.
Life is like a boat ride. Some days, the sun is shining and the wind is at your back, and everything is great. Other days, things don’t line up so well, and you have to work hard to make progress. And some days, you get pounded, and it is scary, and you can’t go forward. That’s life.
On the hard days, in the scary times, our Gospel story invites us to look for Jesus. Jesus, who is with us always. Jesus, who comes to us in the winds and the waves, difficult though they may be. Jesus, who comes to us in the strength of our arms and our paddles that hopefully keep us moving forward. Jesus who comes to us in our trials and tribulations, whatever they might be.
It can be hard to recognize Jesus. But even in our worst moments, Jesus is there, inviting us to take heart, to let go of our fears, to trust in his loving presence. That’s good news.
There is more. Last Sunday, Terry reminded us that Peter tends to speak and to act before he thinks. Often that doesn’t go well for Peter. But here it does. Before he knew what he was doing, Peter accepted Jesus’ invitation.
Buffeted by the waves and the wind, in the middle of the night, poor, exhausted Peter speaks to the “ghost.” “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” And when Jesus does command him, to his credit, Peter gets out of the boat.
This is an amazing moment. Peter glimpses Jesus in the storm, on the waves, in midst of all the challenges Peter is facing at the moment. Peter realizes Jesus is there. But not in the boat. In the storm. And Peter wants to be with Jesus, even if it means abandoning the safety of the boat and facing directly into the storm.
I can’t imagine getting out of my boat in those circumstances! But I have had moments like Peter’s, moments when I felt Jesus’ presence even in the midst of difficulties, moments when I sensed Jesus coming to me not in spite of, but in the very difficulties themselves.
In my experience, that has not always meant the wind immediately ceased. But being aware of Jesus with me has always been a great comfort and help.
But we need to keep going to the end of our story.
Predictably, Peter can’t sustain it. Peter can’t stay focused on Jesus. After a minute, Peter loses sight of Jesus in the storm. All Peter can see is the wind, and Peter starts to sink.
What happens to Peter happens to us, too.
Those glimpses of Jesus in our troubles, those moments of faith and confidence and strength and hope, tend not to last. We look away from Christ, and once again we start to sink.
Jesus is still there to lend a helping hand.
But wouldn’t it be great if we could stay focused on Jesus the whole time, if we could recognize the presence of Christ in our difficulties, if we could commit to seeking Christ’s presence no matter what it cost?
I invite you to spend time this week practicing that focus, practicing what one author calls the presence of God. Over the course of your day, whenever you remember, pause, just for a second, and imagine Jesus saying to you, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Imagine Jesus saying that to you while you drive, or wait in line, or interact with an irritating neighbor, or whatever. Particularly if you have a difficult moment, picture Jesus with you, holding out his hands, offering you the support you need, helping you to face the storm with courage and hope. Picture Jesus with you, because Jesus is with you.
My prayer for us this day is that we can hear and accept Jesus’ invitation to come to him in the storm. In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan