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This past week, a tropical storm blew through the Washington area. Of course, even here, far from the coast, tropical storms can be serious and life threatening because of the high winds and the heavy rains that can cause flash flooding. And so there were lots of alerts, and the storm made headlines even in a time of pandemic and national election campaigning.
It seems that this storm wasn’t too bad for us, although it was for others. But what was really different about this storm for me was how “normal” this felt! I mean, in a time when so much of our lives has been turned upside down and each day brings about a “new normal”, having a tropical storm roll through in the middle of the summer, as bad as it is, felt like “normal” around here. You know, it’s Washington in the summer, and strong storms are just a normal, regular occurrence.
And strong storms on the lake we call the Sea of Galilee were just as regular and normal for fishermen like Jesus’ disciples. Our Gospel story today begins as Jesus dismisses the crowds after feeding 5000 people with 5 loaves and two fish. For reasons that aren’t stated, Jesus tells his disciples to get in the boat and head to the other side of the lake without him, while he dismisses the crowds. Afterwards, Jesus heads up the mountain to pray, probably for several hours.
Meanwhile, the disciples in the boat get caught up in one of the many, normal wind storms that happen on the Sea of Galilee. They probably weren’t surprised – this happened all the time. And they probably knew what to do. Of course, they were still in a little boat, in a storm, in the middle of the night, and it was still dangerous.
Sometime, though, in the middle of the night (which in the NT is called “early in the morning”), Jesus comes near them walking on the water, right in the middle of the storm.
Now, I pointed out last week that the feeding of the 5000 is recorded in all four of our Gospels. And in three of them (Matthew, Mark and John), the disciples get into a boat and head out into the lake without Jesus, and Jesus comes walking toward them on the water in the middle of the night.
But only here in Matthew’s Gospel does Peter want to get out of the boat and walk on the water. And that’s always caused me to wonder, “what possesses somebody to want to get out of a boat in the middle of a storm?” That just seems, well, “inadvisable”!
And notice, that this is NOT Jesus’ idea! Peter, for some reason, decides he wants to do this. Why? I don’t know, but perhaps in the middle of the storm, Peter:
- Saw an opportunity he had never seen before, and he wanted in on it …! (“Wow! Walking on the water looks cool – maybe Jesus will let me do this too…”); and indeed, sometimes storms in our lives do present us with opportunities we hadn’t considered before…
- Felt like the situation in the boat was so bad, he needed to get out … (which also means he was, in any event, willing to leave his buddies behind; but sometimes in a really bad storm, you need to consider abandoning ship, and maybe Peter saw his chance…)
- Just did something impulsive and crazy … (often, stress does that; people do things and on reflection don’t know why; and after all, Peter seems prone to that kind of behavior…)
Whatever the reasons, both Peter and the disciples in the boat survived the storm. Jesus helped all of them through it, and in so doing, showed them and us, too, some things about dealing with storms in our lives.
All of the disciples were caught up in a storm. And storms of all kinds were “normal” in their lives as well as ours. But in the midst of that particular storm, the disciples:
- Noticed the presence of Jesus in the midst of the storm – that’s actually the first remarkable part of this story. It’s the middle of the night, in the middle of the lake, and they notice Jesus where they didn’t expect him to be… (they probably assumed he would be walking around to meet them when they landed, but somehow they paid attention and noticed…)
- Listened to Jesus’ voice in spite of the howling of the wind around them … (in fact, Peter gets into trouble when he focuses on the wind instead of Jesus…)
- Kept doing what they need to do, not expecting Jesus will suddenly make the storm stop (in fact, while Jesus tells them not to be afraid, he doesn’t tell them to stop bailing…!)
And right now, it feels to a lot of us like we’re in the middle of a storm. It’s not clear when the storm will subside. And it’s at moments like this that our Gospel reading reminds us that getting through whatever storm we find ourselves in involves:
- Looking for the presence of Jesus in the midst of the storm (not simply hoping to find him later on when things are better…); As with the first disciples, it’s not always clear how or where Jesus is making himself known in the midst of our storms, but Jesus really is here for us, too…(even if it’s through the presence of a friend in the midst of our own storms…)
- Listening for Jesus’ voice, instead of just the incessant sound of the wind and waves … and lately, while we need to stay vigilant and informed, too much focus on all the chaos can actually be counter-productive… (and sometimes the voice of Jesus is the voice of hope and possibility that so often gets lost in the newsfeed…)
- Keep on doing what needs to be done right now… which can be hard in the midst of such disorder. But like the disciples, sometimes keeping up the bailing is what’s needed, rather than wondering when the storm will end or where on the shore the ship will eventually land…(I’ve spent a bunch of time trying to plan for what’s ahead, but sometimes the most important stuff I’m doing is just keeping up with what needs to be done right now…)
It feels like we’re going through a particularly long and tough storm in our world right now. Like that storm on the lake, it will eventually end, too. But another one will surely come along.
Storms of all kinds are just normal in our lives and in our world. But in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus promises that his presence and help is also a normal part of life we can expect and depend upon.
And because we can depend upon the presence and help of Jesus right here and right now, not just when we land in heaven, Jesus calls us to look for signs of his presence all around us, even in the midst of the storm. Jesus calls us listen for his voice in our lives, instead of just the howling of the loudest voices around us. And Jesus calls us to keep on with the regular work he strengthens us to do, so that we can keep moving forward, even in the midst of the storm.