The power of storms are something we are familiar with, particularly this week as many in our neighborhoods deal with power outages and downed trees in the wake of Tropical Storm Isaias on Tuesday. Storms can be relaxing or anxiety inducing and anywhere in between. They can arrive in areas with vastly different impacts as well. I was admittedly taken aback by the extensive damage when I came back to New York. Back home in North Carolina we had a thunderstorm the night prior that was far stronger than the Tropical Storm. Even with as much technology as meteorologists possess to forecast the weather storms are unpredictable. In today’s gospel we pick up immediately following Matthew’s account of the feeding of the multitudes. The disciples get into a boat while Jesus dismisses those who had gathered together. Overnight a storm erupts and instills fear in the heart of Jesus’ friends gathered in the boat. Often when I’m feeling anxious or outright terrified about something I turn on music to help calm the turmoil. Today’s gospel reminded me of the song “Oceans” by Hillsong. It means a great deal to me because a dance group I co-founded at Wake Forest danced to this song and it has gotten me through many of life’s storms. It starts:
You call me out upon the waters
The great unknown where feet may fail
And there I find You in the mystery
In oceans deep
My faith will stand
Jesus walks out onto the water after dismissing the crowds. Upon seeing a figure seemingly floating over the stormy sea the disciples cry out in fear. Jesus immediately calls out and comforts them. “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Do not be afraid. Sometimes that is easier said than done, isn’t it? Yet, eager to prove he’s not afraid, Peter, zealous as ever, responds: Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water. We’ve heard Jesus’ identity questioned before. Way back on the first Sunday of Lent the Tempter encouraged Jesus to complete certain tasks if he truly is who he says he is. And this time Jesus does. Jesus calls Peter, both literally and figuratively, out of the boat and into the crashing waves. Peter gets out of the boat and not only that but he actually begins walking on the water just like Jesus does. The miracle in the story isn’t that Jesus walks upon the waters, but that Peter does too. Regular, fully human, often speaks before he thinks it through, Peter walks on the water to meet his friend in the middle of a storm.
The song continues:
And I will call upon Your name
And keep my eyes above the waves
When oceans rise, my soul will rest in Your embrace
For I am Yours and You are mine
Peter’s faith and a healthy dose of moxy get him out of the boat. In fact, Matthew’s gospel is the only account of this story where Peter exits the boat and autonomously walks to Jesus. Peter’s faith allows him to walk on the water toward Jesus and then Peter’s brain catches up with his feet. Peter takes in the scene around him, the waves crashing around him and Matthew tells us more specifically that he noticed the wind. Have you ever walked against the wind, or seen a reporter cover a major storm and try to stay standing during a major hurricane? It is not an easy feat. The wind is destabilizing. It’s the wind that is largely at fault for felling trees during a storm, the rain just softens the ground in which they’re rooted. Fear is what causes Peter to sink into the sea. Fear is what breaks Peter’s trust in his ability to stay afloat despite the storm. And what Peter does next proves that his faith is not lost. Peter, just like the disciples before him, cries out in his fear. “Lord, save me!” It’s Peter’s faith in God as exemplified in Jesus that compels him to cry out for help from the one whom he knows can give it.
Your grace abounds in deepest waters
Your sovereign hand
Will be my guide
Where feet may fail and fear surrounds me
You’ve never failed and You won’t start now
Immediately, Jesus lifts Peter up out of the crashing sea. While still out on the water they talk about what had taken place. Jesus asks “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” It sounds to us that Jesus is reprimanding Peter for his lack of faith, but don’t forget. In Matthew’s gospel a little faith, even the size of a mustard seed, goes a long way. Jesus isn’t chastising Peter’s lack of faith. He asks what caused him to doubt. We never get a response from Peter, and rather than laying into him for his failure to trust in the midst of chaos and uncertainty around him, Jesus simply leads Peter back to the boat as the wind dies down. That’s grace. Knowing that even when the storms of life rage around us and we grow fearful we have faith in the one who will reach their hand into the waters to lift us up again, and it’s a reminder to do the same.
“Oceans” closes with a bridge in the form of a repeated petition that we remember the interaction of two friends in the midst of a storm that exceeded Peter’s control. The song ends:
Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders
Let me walk upon the waters
Wherever You would call me
Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander
And my faith will be made stronger
In the presence of my Savior
Our gospel reading today does not discount the role that fear plays in our journeys of faith and unfortunately life’s storms may last far longer than they did in this one gospel account. When faith is tried and fear arises. We have an example of what to do when it feels like we’re starting to sink: to reach out for help. Sometimes that’s not easy to do and asking for help can take many forms. Prayer, talking with a friend or a therapist, talking with a pastor, listening to music, the list goes on and on. No matter the storm though, we are not alone. Thanks be to God.