Sermon preached by Fr. Mark D. Stuart
“Take heart, it is I, have no fear!”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Through these times in which we live it seems the pace of life escalates. Multiple responsibilities and conflicting schedules frazzle many of us much of the time. Cell phones, personal and business software organizers, and hand held computers are commonplace technologies available to us in an attempt to regulate and de-escalate the mounting pressure and angst in our increasingly fragmented lives. Stress, stress, stress; contemporary life runs thick with stress. Add just one more expectation or demand to our over-burdened lives and some approach the brink of disintegration.
Imagine, then, the stress Jesus’ disciples endured as they rode out the nighttime storm on the sea?! Although we know today of all the geographical and meteorological particularities of the Sea of Galilee, people of Jesus’ day lacked scientific understanding to explain the rather nasty storms and squalls still common there today. They explained their cosmos through a myriad of spirits, some benevolent, some malevolent and they believed that bodies of water were especially prone to evil forces. Some of you may tend to agree with that belief if you were gripped with terror, as I was whenever I watch the film, “The Perfect Storm.” When the huge rogue wave mounts the little fishing boat, ‘Andrea Gail’, it seems to be a perfect manifestation of evil against the crew of brave men for whom we have developed such affection. No wonder the disciples were beside themselves in their 26-foot boat on the tossing dark sea with their beloved Master left on the shore!
It is a story about us, as well! To remind us that in many ways we are sitting in the boat with the disciples I invite you to gaze up at the ceiling of our church. In case you may not have noticed before that it looks like the hull of a ship, that is no coincidence, my friends; nor is it that you are sitting in the nave of the building, which comes from the Latin word “navis” meaning “boat” or “ship.” In early Christian art, the Church is depicted as a ship at sea.
In oh so many ways, we are like a boat at night in a storm- tossed sea, both in our personal lives and in the life of the Church today. Nighttime is the occasion when fear steals into our homes and finds us most vulnerable. Some small concern, scarcely noticed in the daylight hours, takes on monstrous proportions in that still, quiet time before dawn… A letter too long neglected; a telephone call left unanswered; a careless word or action that may have hurt a loved one or friend, or perhaps by them may have hurt us…
Fear and anxiety do not confine themselves to that hour of the night, of course.
In fact, they control much of what we do. Fear about financial security motivates career choices for many, or constricts our relations to the needs of others. Fear for our relationships moves some of us to cling and others to flee. Fear that our efforts will amount to nothing produces an obsession that robs vocation of its pleasure. Fear that our material security is not as secure as we would like restricts the joy of generosity.
Matthew’s story of Jesus walking on the water is, first and foremost, a story about Jesus and His recognized identity. Yet in the process we are also told a story about human fear. Fear characterizes the atmosphere of the whole story. The disciples are separated from Jesus and their boat is seriously threatened by a storm. Knowing the sea’s treachery, we fear for them.
Despite Jesus’ acts of healing, his earlier calming of a storm, and the feeding of the 5,000 in the preceding scene, the disciples can only assume that the figure who walks toward them is a ghost and they react with terror. The ever-precocious Peter cries out to Jesus to prove that it is He by commanding him to come to Him on the water. (But, of course, we should have known that Peter “the rock” would sink!) He becomes frightened and down he goes, crying “save me!” Peter took his eyes off Jesus and his faith off Him as well and he began to sink.
That is our situation in life all the time. We take our eyes off of Christ and focus on the tempests around us and start to drown. Thus it is with us so often. Rather than focusing on the eyes of Jesus, on the face of Jesus, on the presence of Jesus; we focus instead on the storm which is raging in our lives and we start to sink. In the middle of the nastiest storms of life (and the storms of life can be so very nasty); it is essential to keep our focus on Christ and the strength and power of God, rather than on the turbulent tempest. At the core is Jesus’ statement: “Take heart, it is I, have no fear.”
We are perpetually afraid of the next chapter in our lives. We fear the dark storms of life: the report from the doctor, a relocation from our home we have known for years, the loss of a job, the break-up of a relationship… The list of our storms in life goes on and on and into those storms miraculously walks Jesus to take our hand as we feel ourselves losing faith and sinking…”Take heart, it is I, have no fear.”
Our Blessed Lord feeds the 5,000, walks on the sea, calms the tempest, and offers His hand. How did He really feed 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish? Did He actually walk on the sea or by the sea, or on a sand bar in the sea? Could He have actually stilled a storm, or was it just a coincidence of the meteorological peculiarities of the Sea of Galilee where storms quickly arise and dissipate? This is not about magic my friends. It’s not about how it happened; that’s completely missing the point. It’s about the disciples in a boat in the middle of a ferocious storm scared spitless, until they recognize the saving presence of Christ. They were awestruck by what they experienced, encountering the power and holiness of the Divine and they saw Jesus for who He was, the Son of God.
They couldn’t explain it anymore than we can explain miracles in our lives. You know, we’re really not strangers to miracles and we reference them all the time. They’re good for marketing, to be sure: there’s Miracle Whip, Miracle Glue, the Miracle Ear, and, of course, Miracle- Gro. On Wilshire Blvd. we find the Miracle Mile and we all know the film classics, “The Miracle Worker” and “Miracle on 34th St.” There’s even “Miracle” the sacred white buffalo born in Bob’s hometown of Janesville, WI in fulfillment of ancient Lakota Sioux prophecies, of blessed memory but immortal now with her own web site.
People who have come through particularly harrowing ordeals will say they are a “walking miracle.” And I don’t think we need to speculate much if the 297 passengers and 12 crew on Air France flight #358 who survived the catastrophic crash in Toronto on Tuesday believe in miracles. When people testify to miracles in their lives, you never hear how the miracle happened, or the rational explanation.
The focus is always on God’s intervention in their lives and the deepest gratitude and appreciation for it.
Yet we still are anxious in the dark. Fear happens. Storms beset us. As we feel ourselves sinking like Peter reaching out for the saving hand of Jesus, He grasps us and chastises us like Peter, “Oh you of little faith!” Will Peter fear again? We know the answer to that. But as surely as he fears, he knows whose Name to call and whose hand will catch him!
Through 25-years of ordained ministry my experience with congregations, church agency boards, and vestries has brought me to the observation that many tend to operate out of scarcity rather than abundance, plagued by fear and doubt.
But time and time again, when we step out with the conviction of faith, Jesus reaches out His hand and a miracle occurs. When we live with an attitude of scarcity and fear threatens to turn us in on ourselves, God provides resources, reminds us to focus on the presence of His Son, and declares that we are not left adrift in the storm if we but have faith.
The variety of faith granted human beings does not banish fear. No amount of moralizing or pleading will make it so. Faith does, however, teach us whose name to call and who waits to calm us, for faith knows who is powerful over the deep of our fears as over the deep of the waters. Amen.
Posted by: The Parish