by The Rt. Rev. Arthur E. Walmsley
I Kings 19:9-18; Psalm 29; Matthew 14:22-33
“Don’t worry. It’s me. Don’t be afraid.” –Matthew 14:30
One morning in August a few years ago, I stood looking out our front door when all at once there came a great roar — it reminded me of the engine of a Boeing 747 — and I watched a violent wind twist the trunk of a towering willow tree at the corner of the yard, perhaps a foot in diameter, and snap it off as if it were no bigger than a matchstick. And another time, a similar storm overrode all the surge protectors in our house, blew out the modem on Roberta’s computer and the sensors which control our garage door openers. These were convincing reminders that we are children of Mother Nature, though they amounted to minor and local interruptions of our routine, were soon repaired as one of the prices we learn to live within a complex world. Come to think of it, do our many gadgets help us to lead lives which are simpler and more productive than those of the generations of dirt farmers who built our house and struggled with the rocky soil and vagaries of nature in New Hampshire for a century and a half? Have the changes made life better?
Today’s psalm regards the raw energy of the natural order as a sign of God’s yearning for the human creatures God has made, and thus the basis of worship of God:
The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is majestic. The voice of the Lord breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon. The voice of the Lord strikes with flashes of lightning. The voice of the Lord shakes the desert. The voice of the Lord twists the oaks and strips the forest bare. And in his temple all cry, “Glory!” The Lord gives strength to his people.
Every time I read or sing this psalm as part of my prayer, I am reminded of the power of that mini-tornado which snapped a willow tree in half in our yard. What the Psalm describes are storm clouds gathering off the coast of Palestine, a thunderstorm crashing into the mainland. Those who have given us the Bible, Jesus included, have no doubt that God’s creative power in nature and God’s love for humans are intertwined and inseparable. “Where were you?” God asks Job when Job is grumbling about his lot, “where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” (Job 8:4, 6-7). If God is the creator, what is God’s continuing relation to the creation?
With that challenge in mind, I think we must see our relationship to the natural world at a deep, even complex level. We moderns live with the illusion that humans have the capacity to control nature, to tame its motions, and modern science and technology have plunged the human race into courses which unsettle the natural world as much as tame it. Gasses in the atmosphere have carved a hole in the ozone layer the size of France, entire species in the forests of New England are dying from the tons of carbon carried by the wind from coal-burning electrical plants in the Middle West, uncertain climate changes are taking place in the ocean current called El Nino. It is at least arguable that the swings of weather are growing more fierce and unpredictable. And my comments on the impact of the storms which have disrupted our region do not begin to compare to the devastation elsewhere on the planet — the droughts sweeping parts of Africa, tornadoes which have this summer destroyed entire communities in the Middle West and South, or the earthquake and tsunami which ravaged Japan and created an as yet unsettled threat of nuclear danger. The question goes much deeper than the political arguments about whether there is unredeemable climate change. As a people we have lost sight of the central truth of Biblical faith, that we are the temporary inhabits of a garden, the earth, and we are meant to be stewards of it, not ruthless conquerors.
I suggest that we have much to learn if we turn to the account in today’s Gospel about the disciples in the midst of a storm on the Lake of Galilee.
Imagine a storm similar to the one described in our Psalm descending over the mountains which surround the Lake of Galilee, onto which Jesus has sent his disciples after the famous — and no doubt exhausting — event of feeding the five thousand who had gathered to hear Jesus preach. (We considered that event last Sunday.) Jesus himself has gone off to a quiet spot to pray. But he has ordered the disciples to head across the lake to continue their ministry. It is late in the day as they set out. Bear in mind, the Lake of Galilee is only about a dozen miles long, and five miles across at its widest point, and many of the disciples — Peter, Andrew, James, and John — are seasoned fisherman. The storm they encountered in the middle of the night must have been unusually powerful. Matthew says that the boat was battered by the waves, the wind was against them, and that they literally quaked in the face of it.
The scene is one which reminds me of the movie of a few years back, The Perfect Storm, in which a 20th century fishing trawler sets out from Gloucester for the Outer Bank. When the weather forecast on their radio is for a powerful storm, they make the decision to continue heading out, betting on the possibility that they may harvest a full boatload of fish. As the storm intensifies, we watch their confidence turn to fear, then to helplessness, and they perish.
The question we must ask concerning Jesus’s followers is hardly that they were in danger of perishing in a Biblical perfect storm. They were seasoned fishermen, after all. What then was the source of their fear? The Gospel of Mark closes this incident with a telling comment which finds the source of their confusion in something other than the weather. Mark writes
The disciples were completely confused. Their minds were closed, and they could not understand the true meaning of the loaves of bread.
They have watched Jesus as he met the enormous throng — five thousand we were told — and fed them. But they have trouble comprehending that his preaching, indeed his whole ministry, is devoted to a mission beyond their conventional understanding. His message, his God, is for all people. However the food was produced — and I like to believe that it was because that throng opened their own food baskets to one another — he was inviting his disciples to see and understand that God will provide relief to those who seek God’s help. The heart of the matter is trust, trust in God to be with them, with us.
So, bewildered about what Jesus wishes them to do next, they set out onto the lake without Jesus, and lose their confidence. “Why on earth are we here?” we can imagine them saying. And when at last they have a sense of his coming near them — did Jesus actually walk on water? — Peter, with characteristic enthusiasm thinks he can do the same. And frightened, he shouts, Save me, Lord!
And when Jesus pulls him up, and they return to the boat, the wind dies down. When their hearts tell them that Jesus is with them, they can settle down and take the next step.
This story is a pretty fair account of the movement of faith, of initial belief which gives way to doubt and fear in the face of challenge, but with a renewed encounter with Jesus is able to move to deeper levels of trust. I suspect that pattern is one each of us has experienced more than once in our lives, in our own journey with Jesus. Sometimes it is the upheavals of the natural world which bring us to the pits of worry and fear — if not storms at sea then the frailty of our bodies, the unexpected loss of a loved one to death, or a wrenching breakdown of relationships of someone we love, or someone with whom we have regular associations. Sometimes it is events which terrify us, sometimes it is our own lack of trust which sets us to screaming inside if not groaning outwardly.
And still Jesus comes with the assurance, Don’t worry. It’s me. Don’t be afraid.
I intended to stop my sermon there, but yesterday it struck me that this week our global worry gauge has gone up dramatically in the face of economic uncertainty, the reaction of the stock market to the debt crisis in Congress, the possibility of a double dip in the recession, the warning signals in Europe about their economies. It’s not my place to try to second guess what is going to happen in those bigger than life considerations. But I know many of my neighbors and friends and many of you who are deeply troubled by the forces which are threatening our security, incomes, and way of life. I regularly read postings from Christians in such places as Palestine, sub-Saharan Africa as in Sudan, Kenya, and Zimbabwe, where the issues are those of threats to life itself. Globally, we all live in a dangerous time.
When we talk as Christians about trusting Jesus, trusting God as a way of confronting the trials we face, we are not talking about magic. Someone sent an envelope to our house the other day, a packet promising great things in answer to prayer. I believe in prayer, have worked hard at a prayer discipline for more than sixty years. But prayer to the God of Jesus is not a form of magic: a paper prayer rug to kneel on or hold on one’s lap, one which promises instant gratification. The woman in the photograph talks of receiving $46,866.20 in response to her prayer, but does not of course say where it came from. Though the claim is that this kind of return is based on Jesus’s teaching, life and faith don’t work that way. With whatever you may be struggling, do take it to prayer. And if you need help in shaping your prayer, talk to a fellow believer whom you know prays, or come see me or another member of the clergy. Prayer is not magic; but prayer is a matter of entering into a deeper connection with the one who met a group of struggling disciples afraid on a turbulent sea.
Don’t worry. It’s me. Don’t be afraid.