Picture a mid-thirties woman, going through some major life challenges: health issues, marital breakdown, family of origin conflict, financial stress. She is depressed, despairing and fearful of what the future holds.
She is walking on her favourite beach wondering where God was in the midst of her life. She came to this beach where she so often experienced God… hoping and longing for a sign from God. Through wind and tear wet eyes she spots a heart shaped rock on the sand. She picks it up, not quite believing her eyes, but is not magically assured of God’s presence. In fact, her first impulse is to take the heart shaped rock and hurl it as far as she can.
That woman was me. In the midst of betrayal and deceit, this symbol of love was of bleak comfort, in fact seemed like a slap in the face. But for some reason, I couldn’t throw it away. I brought it home with me and put it on my nightstand. And there it stayed for a number of years.
It is hard to look to the future with excitement and anticipation when you are anxious and fearful. Being afraid is human. The disciples were often afraid. Even with Jesus with them, they still experienced fear. This is apparent in the reading from Matthew.
We enter the story right after the feeding of the 5000. And it seems that Jesus is tired and needs to spend some time in prayer on the mountain, alone. So he sends his disciples on ahead of him to the other side of the sea, to us like a large lake, even though it could get stormy and dangerous. They are to cross by boat, and Jesus will join them later. They go ahead and the boat gets tossed by the storms and in the middle of the night they see Jesus walking on the water towards them. And they cry out in terror, thinking it is a ghost!
Peter, being Peter, has to test Jesus, and says, “Lord, if it is you, let me walk on the water too.”
Jesus holds out his hand and says, “Come.”
Peter gets out of the boat, starts walking towards Jesus… and he walks! But then becomes afraid and starts to sink. Ever since the story was first told, the emphasis has been on the impossibility of walking on water. But there are other ways of hearing it.
One way is that Jesus calls us to go where we don’t know just where to take the next step.
And Jesus responds with what I think is the key in this passage. He says, “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.” “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.”
In the midst of my despair, those words, became a sort of mantra: “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.” The realization that Jesus walked with me, through what felt like the valley of the shadow of death. Death of plans, death of dreams, death of hope.
That mantra and the words to What a Friend We Have in Jesus, kept me going. Words of Jesus, and words about Jesus… Are you weak and heavy laden, burdened with a load of care, Christ our saviour is our refuge, take it to the Lord in prayer. I prayed and prayed and prayed, in various ways, I sought counselling, I cried… and gradually, as Parker Palmer would say, ‘Way opened.’
Fast forward a number of years… I responded to a call to ministry… one that I have ignored for decades… I go through the discernment process, enter the Atlantic School of Theology, get through the multiple interviews for ministry and am ordained.
I get sent to Ontario… and one summer, I am home on vacation. I am walking on that same beach with one of my sisters, whose husband has just been diagnosed with lung cancer. I spot another heart shaped rock and this time, I pounce on it with giddiness and joy. I take it home with me, it sits on a wooden plate in my study.
I am not home for more than a few days when I realize that this symbol of love that I have received, doesn’t belong to me.Why do I need TWO reminders of God’s love? I send it to my sister and her husband, along with the scripture passage, “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.’ And received a message of heartfelt thanks.
“Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.”
For those of us who seek to follow Jesus, we can sometimes be like Peter, who, when he keeps his eye on Jesus, can walk on water. We walk on water when we walk reach out to do what we can to mend a broken world. We walk on water when we challenge friends and neighbours when they say or write racist, misogynist, homophobic things, even if our voice shakes. We walk on water when a door closes… in order for another one to open. And Jesus is there, perhaps just a little ahead of us, saying, “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.”
This photograph, one of thousands I took on my sabbatical a couple of years ago is a reminder of how unexpectedly God’s presence is made known to me. It was taken at Terrence Bay. I scrambled up over the rocks, and there it was!
When I look at it I am reminded at the strong bedrock of my faith, firmly grounded, it can hold and support me. I am reminded that my faith and relationship with the sacred is flexible, fluid and that visible signs of it are often fleeting and so I keep my eyes and heart open to find the next one. I am reminded that when and if I have a soft heart, a heart that has been broken open more than once, I experience the living presence of Jesus.
So let us dare to take heart, as we move ahead with changes in our life together. Let us dare to take heart when our hearts are broken open by the poverty, sickness and violence in our world. Let us dare to take heart to reach out to our neighbours, especially when they are different from us. Let us dare to take heart to love one another. With every step we take in following Jesus. Jesus is with us… inviting us to keep our eyes on him and saying, “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.”
Thanks be to God for the challenge and opportunity of following Jesus. Amen.
Matthew 14: 22-33
Rev. Catherine MacDonald – EPC