Rev. Tom Baker
St. Andrew’s, Mountain Home, Ark.
August 7, 2011
Year A, Proper 14
A man goes to work like he has for years. He’s asked to report to the office only to learn that due to cut backs he’s been laid off. He’s afraid if he’ll be able to support his family and find another job in today’s economy. Our parish secretary comes to work only to find out a water pipe burst flooding half of the building two weeks before the Bishop is set to visit. Talk about worry. A teen gets a text mistakenly and discovers his friends have been making fun of him behind his back. He’s angry, hurt, and fears if he can trust them again. A woman finds herself having no energy, unable to work. A cloud of depression has made her afraid to even get out of bed. An elderly man has to use what income he has to pay his electric bill instead of buying groceries. He’s afraid the 100-degree weather will continue to last and that he’ll have little to no food. Fear has a way of entering all our lives. The small fears of life can be handled but too many of them can weigh us down making life more difficult than it already is. The larger fears of life can crash into our lives making us fell powerless, hopeless, and lost. We can even wonder if we’ll make it through our fears alive.
Fear is a part of life. We all know what it’s like when the world turns upside down in an instant. Fear has of way of raining on all our parades.
In the today’s Gospel we met Jesus after he has fed the five thousand and dealt with the death of John the Baptist. Perhaps this is why Jesus needs to stop and pray. So, Jesus tells the disciples to get in a boat and go on ahead; he’ll catch up. The disciples cross a sea that’s 13 miles wide and 8 miles long. After fighting the wind all night long just trying to get to the other side the disciples see a ghost. They’re scared like never before in their lives. Suddenly the disciples are cast into an Alfred Hitchcock movie or a scene from “The Ghost Hunters.” The sea the disciples cross, one could say, is very much like life. Beautiful and yet also full of danger and fear that can strike without warning.
A few weeks ago a family of seven was taking turns spending night and day with their mother in the ICU who had a massive heart attack. To make matters worse she suffered her attack at their father’s birthday party. Their mother and father had moved to this area a few years ago and were enjoying their retirement. They had worked their whole lives so they could afford to spend time together, travel, and see family. But suddenly their plans changed. She was now on a ventilator, receiving massive amounts of IV drugs, and doctors feared she had brain damage. The family was in shock; their mother had no signs of heart problems she didn’t even have high cholesterol. Suddenly, without warring, they found themselves dealing with their greatest fear. Their father was in grief thinking somehow the excitement of his party was at fault. Her children who lived all over the country had to drop everything and drive for hours, even days to get to the hospital.
That family felt as if they were in that boat with the disciples. They were afraid; lost; fighting against forces stronger than themselves; not certain which way to turn; and believing that their world was coming to an end. Fear does that. It overpowers and frightens us. We feel lost, hopeless, and weak. For Matthew the boat is an image of the church sailing, as the disciples were doing, from one mission to the next. In Matthew’s culture water was always a symbol of chaos and danger. Matthew knew, first hand, that even when we are members of a church; the fears of our lives can still crash down upon us. The church, as great and powerful as it is, is nothing when Jesus isn’t aboard.
Fear it seems is a part of life. We know, Matthew knew, what it’s like when the world turns upside down in an instant. Fear has of way of raining on all our parades.
Right in the middle of his fear Jesus reaches for Peter and pulls him out. With the water up to his neck Peter feels the strong and certain hand of the Son of God bringing him to safety. Peter finds the Lord in the midst of his fear – as we all can.
I realize, of course, that when people talk of this Gospel reading Peter is often accused of having no faith. Even Jesus himself asks Peter, why do you doubt? The problem, as it is usually put, is that Peter takes his eye off Jesus, and his faith falters. So, many say, we all should be courageous, get out of the boat and keep our eyes on Jesus. But is Jesus really scolding Peter for not “Keeping his eyes on the prize?” or is Jesus asking Peter, “don’t you know – who I am?” Too often we make this reading about Peter who can’t walk on water. Yet, Jesus reminds Peter as well as you and me – disciples belong in the boat. Leave the walking on water to the Lord. This is the first time in Matthew’s Gospel that the disciples proclaim Jesus as, “The Son of God.” In his Gospel Matthew doesn’t proclaim Jesus again as the Son of God until after the resurrection. So clearly this is not a story about weak faith but it is the revealing of a strong Lord.
As the family camped around their mother in the ICU after her heart attack I told them a story about one of my favorite authors, Fr. Henri Nouwen. A Dutch-born priest Fr. Nouwen is best known for his spiritual books like The Wounded Healer. Fr. Nouwen died in 1996 after suffering a heart attack. Years before Fr. Nouwen had learned he had a very bad heart condition and decided to do something he always wanted to do, go to the circus. There he saw the flying trapeze act and was captivated by their beauty, skill, and bravery. He was astonished watching their twists, summersaults, and spins while flying through the air. He was so impressed with their skill he went back stage to met them. After telling them he could never be as brave the trapeze artist told him that the real stars of the show are not the flyers. The real star is the catcher. “You see,” the flyers told Fr. Nouwen, “If we try to catch the catcher our momentum will cause us both to fall. Instead all we have to do is let go, fly through the air, and then reach out knowing the catcher will catch us.”
At that moment, Nouwen later said, he felt a deep peace. For he knew no matter what would happen to him, no matter how many fears would crash into his life; the catcher—Jesus—would be there reaching for him. It is in the middle of their fears that Jesus tells the disciples, “Take heart; it is I.” A better translation of this verse could be, “Take heart it is – I am.” Jesus identifies himself as the Lord. This is the true message of today’s Gospel. The one true Lord of land and sea, strength and fear, is Jesus – our Lord who immediately reaches for us in the midst of our fears. Peter sinks into a sea and his fears and Jesus catches him. As the family gathered around the hospital bed of their mom they learned to gain strength from the love they had for their mom and one another and in their love Jesus caught them. We too, in the middle of all our fears, only have to reach out and Jesus will catch us.
Right in the middle of his own fears Jesus reaches for Peter and pulls him out. With the water up to his neck Peter feels the strong and certain hand of the Son of God bringing him to safety. Peter finds the Lord in the midst his fears—as we all can.
Fr. Henri Nouwen wrote, “You will discover that Jesus is right there in your fears and you will be grateful for his presence in your weakness. Ministry means to help people become grateful for life even with pain. The minister, the disciple of Jesus, goes where there is fear and pain not because they he is a masochist or she is a sadist, but because God is there.” So here we are today in the boat known as the church. We may we use this time together to celebrate, worship, prepare, and strengthen ourselves before we head ashore into our world as disciples. Let us give witness to a Lord who stands with us even in the midst of our fears. Let’s us proclaim that we serve and follow a Lord who will catch us.