One of the things that I loved about moving back to Nova Scotia 12 years ago from Ontario that all the water illustrations and metaphors are embedded in our culture. The ocean has been a constant backdrop to life through most of my time in Nova Scotia. I have almost always lived within sight and sound of it and I consciously try to appreciate it each day it as it comes into view. From the days where the water is so still, I can see reflections in it, to the days that are so storm tossed, it is frightening in its power, and all its variability in between, the ocean is a representation of my experiences of God.
The disciples, as fishermen, knew that they lacked control over that environment, they knew of the unpredictability of its forces, and they knew of its awesome power. Power that provided life through its fish as food and power that could destine the unwary to certain death.
In our Gospel reading today we hear the story of the Jesus walking on the water to come to the disciples’ aid as they are struggling in the midst of a storm.
Jesus has tried to be alone after he heard that his cousin, John the Baptist, had been killed, but people followed him, which led to the feeding of “the five thousand.” Then he sends his disciples away by boat and dismisses the crowd. Finally, he has time by himself, to pray. But the disciples, in the boat, have a different experience: a storm comes up, with winds that frighten even seasoned fishermen! Let’s listen, as the story unfolds, in Matthew 14: 22-33:
14:22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 14:23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 14:24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.
14:25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 14:26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear.
14:27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
14:28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 14:29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.
14:30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”
14:31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
14:32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.
14:33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
There have been a lot of ‘storms’ that have battered our lives over the past number of months haven’t there? The shutdown of Covid-19… the murders that began in Portapique… the Navy personnel who lost their lives in a helicopter crash… Increasing economic uncertainty… have been you been to downtown Halifax lately? It’s like a ghost town! Parents and teachers worried about school… Racism and white supremacy… We had a massive explosion in Lebanon… and I say ‘we’ deliberately as so many of us are connected in some way to the Lebanese community here in Nova Scotia. Those are just some of the big storms that have battered us.
What about the smaller ones? Ones that you might feel embarrassed to mention because in the grand scheme of things they don’t seem to bad. And while that may be true, what is also true is that whatever storms YOU are experiencing on a personal level are YOUR storms and they affect you in a way that an explosion in Lebanon or an tornado in Manitoba does not.
The central message of this passage for me is Jesus words, “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.” Being afraid is human. In fact, it’s part of our evolutionary design to keep us alive! It’s the response that keeps us from putting our hand on a hot stove… at least more than once… It’s the fight, flight or freeze response that is buried deep inside our brain.
But sometimes our fear muscles engage so fiercely, perhaps through habit or past abuse or experience that our first response is fear. We all know people like that don’t we? When something new or different is suggested, they can tell you all the reasons why it won’t work… or why it’s a stupid idea… or you’re wasting your money… Perhaps you are that person! Or have been that person.
Fear shuts down creativity. Fear shuts down connection. Fear shuts down compassion. Of course the disciples were afraid in a storm! That makes sense! On a metaphorical level though, I wonder if one of the things that they were so afraid of was knowing that their lives were never going to be the same after knowing Jesus?
And I wonder if one of our fears right now is that we are coming to the realization our lives aren’t ever going to be the same. Think about it, could you have imagined a year ago that we would be wearing masks whenever we enter a building other than our own home? Could we have imagined a summer without visitors from all parts of the world? Could we have imagined not being able to see our loved ones whenever we wanted.
Just yesterday, Bill Elliott posted on Facebook that he was able to go in and have lunch with his mother, for the first time in five months! Funerals, like the one for Muriel Jones, by invitation only, in order to conform to the limit of 50. We are being battered by multiple storms. But now, as then, Jesus comes, reaches out his hand and says, ‘Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.’
He doesn’t say that there won’t be change… he doesn’t say there won’t be sorrow… he doesn’t say that there won’t be destruction… He says, “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.” He is present with them… in their need, in their doubt and in their fear… “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.” And just as he was with those early followers, he is with us.
I can say that because I have experienced it. Picture me as a mid-thirties woman, going through some major life challenges: health issues, marital breakdown, family of origin conflict, financial stress. I am depressed, despairing and fearful of what the future holds. I am walking on her favourite beach wondering where God was in the midst of my life.
I came to this beach where she so often experienced God… hoping and longing for a sign from God. Through wind and tear wet eyes I spot a heart shaped rock on the sand. I pick it up, not quite believing my eyes, but is not magically assured of God’s presence. In fact, my first impulse is to take the heart shaped rock and hurl it as far as I can. 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. Death of plans, death of dreams, death of hope. But those words, “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid,’ were a constant refrain.
That mantra and the words to What a Friend We Have in Jesus, kept me going. 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 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. 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.”
Thanks be to God for the challenge and the opportunity of following Jesus, amen.
August 9, 2020 – SMUC