My earliest memory is a memory of being too afraid to take a leap. My grandpa was a railroad engineer. He and I were great pals, and we always went on adventures together. Grandpa was a little sneaky. He was really a rule breaker, he was more of a rule bender. I adored him. He was my favorite person. When I was four years old, he was still driving trains and one day my grandma and I got on the train and sat up near the front. I can remember her taking my hand and a door opening and seeing the ground moving underneath me. Suddenly the door to the next car opened and there was my grandpa standing with his engineering hat and sooty face and he said come on Shelly, jump on over, I will catch you. With my grandma behind me and my grandpa in front of me and the moving ground underneath me, there was no way I was going to move between moving cars. I have two visual memories locked in my brain, his face telling me to come on, it was safe and the ground moving underneath the tracks. The feeling I had was fear for sure, but also disappointment that I did not have the courage to walk across the cars and into grandpa’s hands. Eventually, seeing the terror in my eyes and my determination that I was no fool, grandma and I turned around and returned to our seats.
When I read this familiar story from the Gospel of Matthew today about a stormy night filled with ghosts and fear of drowning, and Peter’s trepidation, I remember this story and I am filled with empathy for Peter. This story is not about Peter being silly, bumbling Peter again. This story is not as simple as having faith or no faith or being brave or not being brave.
This is a story about truly believing that Jesus is the son of God.
This is how the story concludes isn’t it? A sopping wet Peter and Jesus climb into the boat and the disciples all make a profession of faith, “You are truly the son of God.” Now, Jesus just fed 5000 people with a few loaves and fish and that did not do it. Jesus was baptized back in the beginning of the book, and the Holy Spirit breaks through the clouds and says, “this my son, listen to him,” and that did not do it. No, it took fear, uncertainty, chaos a matter of life and death for the disciples to relinquish all doubt and proclaim this belief.
When he gets in the boat, the wind ceases, and they say, truly you are the son of God. William Willemon makes the point that we are conditioned in our modern minds to ask how. How did Jesus do that? How can Jesus be
both fully human and fully divine. How did Jesus rise from the dead. The disciples ask who. Who is this that even the waves become calm, and wind ceases to blow? Hear buffeted by the wind and waves in the safety of a boat just before dawn they know.
Peter, whom Jesus named “little faith,” had enough faith to climb out of a boat in a stormy night, because he heard Jesus say, “come.” You do not need a lot of faith, just the size of mustard seed can compel you to be brave and move toward him. But then, what happens? Peter becomes aware of his surroundings. He becomes aware of the wind and the sea and thinks, “what have I done!” and then he starts to sink. Don’t we all? How often do we step out of our comfort zone, speak up, try something new, leave something behind, and think look at our surroundings, take our eye off the vision in front of us and start to sink? How many times have you found ourself in moments of chaos and in over our heads?
Most of my chaotic experiences happen in cars instead of boats. Many times, people come to here to church in crisis and while they have the strength to get church, the parking lot is as far as they can go…they cannot get out of their cars, so I come to them and sit with them.
I can remember sitting in a car with a friend who just discovered she had stage four lung cancer that had metastasized to her brain. -Chaos.
I can remember sitting in a car with a family who just discovered that a parent had overdosed, and they needed to find a way to tell the children. – Chaos.
I can remember standing outside of a car with a homeless family who was living out of their car, trying to figure out how to get them food and shelter – Chaos.
It is in these chaotic moments when people are too frozen to move or think about the next step, when they are drowning in anxiety, fear, helplessness, even despair that Jesus speaks through the wind and says, take heart, have courage, hold fast. Let me tell you, it is very, very hard to have courage when you are drowning.
I love the phrase that “Courage is fear that has said its prayers.” Courage is fear that has said its prayers. Peter prayed, “Lord save me.”
It takes courage to say that prayer when all you feel is fear. For me, most of my drowning moments have been as a parent, when I have feared for my children.
The night Jackson was born, when the doctor came in and said his life was in danger, I found myself drowning into a chasm of darkness, my prayer was for God to take me instead of him. Blake went into a quiet room and prayed and came back and told me everything was going to be o.k.- I was not sure I believed him.
The day we were in California and discovered that Maclean was in trouble at camp, and we could not get to her, I was drowning in fear and a retired priest who ran the bed and breakfast said to me hold fast, I am not sure I believed him.
The day Madelyn, at age 5, fell out of a tree and broke her femur and we rode by ambulance to Mayo Clinic, and I yelled at the paramedics to call me every 15 minutes because they would not let me drive with her. I thought I was losing my mind. They told me she would be o.k.; I am not sure I believed them. What are you most afraid of right now? A transition in your life? A relationship that is struggling? A lingering health issue? Maybe you aren’t afraid for yourself, may you are afraid for the world. Maybe you are afraid for the planet, for our nation, for our children. Maybe you are overwhelmed by the chaos of the news. Whatever storm you find yourself in, I hope you will put these words from Jesus to memory: ‘Take heart, it is I! Do not be afraid.’ I have not abandoned you. I am with you in the storm. Even if you cry out in fear as much as faith, I will rescue you. I will take hold of your hand. I will continue to love you with everlasting love. When there is no shred of self-sufficiency to hang on to anymore, there is only the cry, ‘Lord, save me.’ These words are really shorthand for the basic Christian confession of faith. Paul reminds us of the closeness of God in Jesus Christ: ‘The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.’
This word is the Lord himself, Jesus Christ, the one whose lordship we confess with our lips and believe with our heart. In Jesus, we are justified, we are saved. And so, Paul can say to us, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ Saved does not just mean sent to heaven. It means help in the here and now, with the God who is as close to us as the next heartbeat. It all comes down to this, who do you believe Jesus is? Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid. Amen, Rev. Dr. Shelly Wood