Do not be afraid: God is with you, so take heart. God is also in you, for the world, so the world can take heart.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 19 A
Texts: Matthew 14:22-33; Romans 10:5-15
Beloved in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
They weren’t frightened by the storm this time.
Another time in a Galilean storm, the disciples feared the boat would sink, and woke the sleeping Jesus.
This time they were trying to sail against the strong wind, probably rowing, and that’s hard work. When I used to sail, having the wind with you is like flying. Against the wind, it’s real labor to go where you want.
On a church canoe trip in eighth grade, we overshot the landing about a mile downstream. All we could do was turn into the current and paddle hard. It took forever.
That’s the disciples. Tired, far from shore. And they had to find the strength, after an exhausting few days, to cross the sea against the wind.
That feels like us now.
As Christ we are called to face so many challenges in our world today. Systemic racism, and the world-wide explosion of outrage at this persistent and brutal problem, centered just blocks from us. A chronic lack of affordable housing that’s created, among other things, an encampment in Powderhorn Park next door. A failed economic system that exposes millions to eviction on top of losing their jobs, with much of our federal government indifferent to this crisis. To be Christ today is a tremendous challenge to our creativity, our will, our listening skills, our discipleship. It feels like rowing against the wind.
On top of all that, we’re in a global pandemic that’s shut down nearly everything. We can’t gather together to talk to each other and listen on any of these challenges. We can’t gather to worship and be fed and strengthened by God together, as we’re used to.
It feels like we’re trying to deal with some of the greatest challenges of discipleship most of us have ever faced, with our hands tied behind our backs. We’re in a boat on the sea, the wind raging against us, and many days the boat feels as if it’s going backwards.
But in the midst of their fruitless rowing, Jesus comes and says, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Jesus is exhausted himself. After the emotional trauma of John’s execution, and days of endless healing and preaching, ending with a wondrous meal for thousands, he finally gets time apart on the mountain by sending the disciples across the sea ahead of him and dismissing the crowds.
But in the dark, early hours before dawn, he leaves his retreat and comes to the disciples. He could have skirted the sea and met them at their destination. But he sees them struggling against the wind and decides to help.
They didn’t have to look for Jesus; he came to them. It’s as Paul says to the Romans today: no one needs to go up to heaven or down to the abyss to find God in Christ. Christ is near to you, on your lips and in your hearts, in the midst of your life, your struggles, Paul says.
But the disciples don’t recognize Jesus.
They think he’s a ghost. They’re terrified. And this is where you and I come in.
God comes to us in our struggle against the wind and says, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid!” And yet we also fail to recognize God’s presence sometimes.
After George Floyd’s death, a couple nights we went to bed not knowing if Mount Olive’s building would be standing in the morning. Seeing it intact was, of course, a blessing. But it also gave me a sense of guilt: why should we be standing when our neighbors are burned down?
Someone said, “God was with us.” Yes, God is and was. But what about our neighbors who lost everything? Is it right to say “God is near you, in your heart and on your lips,” to someone who lives in a tent in Powderhorn? Should we say “Take heart, God is with you, do not be afraid” to someone who lives in abject poverty?
We might feel we’re rowing against the wind trying to be of Christly service to others. Imagine the strength of the wind against you if you’ve lost your job and are losing your home. If you are daily aware that the color of your skin makes you a target, even of government officials.
Peter said, “If it is you, Lord, give us a sign.” That’s what we need, too. To see if God is here. With us. With our neighbors.
And here’s the sign: there are two hands in this story.
The first is Peter’s hand, reaching up as he sinks, saying, “Lord, save me!”
As we row against the wind, as we feel the struggle of daily discipleship, trust this: Peter reaches out his hand and Jesus grabs it. So, ask yourself: when in these months of quarantine, these past years of a seeming collapse of government and society, these days of fear and challenge, when have you reached out and felt God take your hand?
In my spiritual direction group last week our director opened the time of silence with a reflection on Jesus’ words: ask, and you will receive; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened. (Matt. 7) In the time of silence, rather than focusing on the exhausting struggle against the wind I feel most days, I felt drawn to reflect on where God had come to me in these days. What I had received, and found, and had opened. And I saw many ways God came to me in these hard months saying, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
This is the grace center of the Gospel today, and Paul’s proclamation, and it is yours: God is near to you, in your heart, on your lips; God is with you, so be of good courage. Even as you row against the wind.
Take time to reflect on these months and see if you can note places God came to you. It will be a blessing. Because when you see that when your hand reached up, you found yourself in the presence of God, you will be able to let go of some of your fear.
The other hand is Jesus’ hand.
He reaches out and grabs Peter. This is how you lovingly witness to God’s presence amidst the chaos of this world, to your neighbors who are rowing against the wind. Be Jesus’ hand.
You were anointed for this in baptism. This is God’s gift for the world, the many ways and times you can be the hand that reaches out and says, “Don’t be afraid; God is here.”
So also reflect on this: When your neighbor asks, seeks, knocks, when are you the gift given? The needed thing that is found? The opened door? When you can be the hand that reaches out to the one sinking, with God’s strength in your hand, you are the presence of God to your neighbor.
In this story, as soon as Jesus gets in the boat, the wind stops.
We’ve lived in this world long enough to know that’s not how God usually works.
Recognizing God’s presence in your life doesn’t mean you aren’t still rowing against the wind. Being God’s presence to others doesn’t mean they have no more wind, either.
But now you know Jesus is in the boat with you, pulling an oar. Now you know you are rowing with your neighbor, too, easing their load.
We all will get to shore one day. But in the meantime, we also don’t need to be afraid.
In the name of Jesus. Amen