Lessons for Proper 14, Year A: Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33
The Tormenting Storms
The disciples are surrounded by a violent storm with terrible winds on a rickety fisherman’s boat in the early morning hours on the Sea of Galilee. Various translations describe the boat as “battered” (NRSV) or “tossed” (KJV) or “buffeted” (NIV). In any event, the boat was getting badly beaten up. The Greek word used to describe the boat in the Matthean scene is basinizo, which literally means “to torment” or “to torture” and was used previously in the gospel of Matthew to describe the torment of the servant suffering from paralysis (Matthew 8:6) and the of the torment of the Gadarene demoniac (Matthew 8:29). The word conveys a sense of deep human suffering. In the middle of the night, the disciples are surrounded by darkness in a small boat engulfed by a torturous storm. I can only imagine the fear experienced by the disciples.
We might not be able to fully grasp the ferocity of that particular storm on the Sea of Galilee in 1st Century Palestine, but there are plenty of storms that surround us now. There are personal storms – troubled relationships, difficulties at work, health concerns, depression, and addiction. There are societal storms – systemic racism and misogyny, bigotry against those different from the norm, a school-prison pipeline, wars and deaths propped up by an economy of violence, housing inequality, and economic exploitation. And then, of course, there is the pandemic storm. These storms can overwhelm. They can drive fear in us and in our communities. If we allow them to, they can have the power to incapacitate, debilitate, and distress both our personal and communal bodies.
Boldness as the Response
Into the midst of this violent and fear-inducing middle-of-the-night storm, Jesus walks! Jesus appears to the disciples walking on the water, through the violent wind and the stirring waves. It was a vision so incomprehensible to the disciples that they think they see a mirage, an image, or a phantasm of Jesus. Hearing their fear Jesus speaks to them,
“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”Matthew 14:27
Peter, seeing the phantasm of Jesus but hearing Jesus’ voice, cries out,
“Lord if it is you, command me to come unto the water.”Matthew 14:28
The tone is often difficult to convey in a written word, so we don’t know if Peter is being sarcastic or trusting, angry or joyous. But, whatever it is, it is certain that Peter was being bold.
In this scene, Peter asks Jesus to do something normally reserved for the divine. In antiquity, walking on water was a sign of divinity, something done only by god. In the midst of this storm and in the midst of the fear, Peter asks Jesus to do something that no human should be able to do. Peter essentially asks Jesus to make him like Jesus, to imbue him with the character of the divine. It’s incomprehensible. And it’s bold. Now, notice that Peter’s boldness is met with tremendous generosity as Jesus simply says, “Come!” (Matthew 14:29). Jesus welcomes Peter’s boldness and initiative and invites Peter to come with him on the water.
How is this not a lesson to us as we struggle with our own storms? It appears that Jesus wants us to step out with him in boldness. This makes sense because Jesus was bold in his own life and ministry, amid the storms that he saw and faced. When Jesus saw the storm of the paralytic, he didn’t provide a wheelchair, but instead said, “Stand up, take your bed, and go home” (Matthew 9:6). That was bold. When the rich man came to him, Jesus didn’t send him on his way to worship more in the temple; instead, Jesus told him, “Sell your possessions and give the money to the poor” (Matthew 19). That was bold. Jesus didn’t give in the people plotting his lynching; instead, he challenged them over and over and forgave them in the end. Amidst all of the storms that engulfed Jesus.
All Kinds of Boldness
But boldness takes on all kinds of forms! This week coming on the Episcopal Church’s liturgical calendar, the church is invited to remember some very bold women and men.
On August 10, this coming Monday, we remember Saint Lawrence of Rome. Saint Lawrence was one of the seven deacons of Rome in the middle of the 3rd century CE. Charged with maintaining the church’s purse, Lawrence was responsible for assisting widows, orphans, and the poor. In 257 CE, the emperor Valerian instituted wide persecution of Christians in and around Rome, demanding their execution in an edict in 258 CE. Known as the keeper of the purse by the governing prefects of Roman, Lawrence was given the opportunity to hand over “the treasure” of the church in exchange for his life. Lawrence promptly distributed the funds intended for the poor to those who would properly manage it. He then rounded up the widows, the orphans, the sick, and the poor, and he brought them before the prefects. “Here are the ‘treasures’ of the church.” For his insolence, Lawrence was condemned to a particularly brutal death, being roasted alive on a grate over hot coals. Lawrence was bold as he faced the storm!
On August 12, this coming Wednesday, we are invited to remember Florence Nightingale. In the 19th century CE, Florence flouted convention and custom, leaving the luxury of her upper-class family and home to become a nurse. Having received a calling at the age of sixteen to enter divine service, Florence wouldn’t know what such service might look like for fifteen years when, at the age of thirty, she felt compelled to train as a nurse (a thought that horrified her aristocratic family). After training, primarily in Germany with Lutheran deaconesses, Florence returned to England to begin work in the poorest sections of London. When war broke out in Crimea, Florence led a group of thirty-eight other nurses and amidst the ravages of the war, she cared for the men who were torn apart by the horrors of the war. Florence would go on to challenge the conventions and authority of her day and transform nursing. Florence was bold as she faced the storm.
On August 14, this coming Friday, we will be invited to remember Jonathan Myrick Daniels. Daniels was a seminarian from New Hampshire studying at the Episcopal Divinity School when, in March 1965 he heard the invitation from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to come to Selma, AL for a march on Montgomery in support of civil rights. At evening prayer, Jonathan Daniels was alerted to this “luminous, Spirit-filled moment” and he knew that he must go to Selma. Daniels ultimately decided to stay in Alabama for the remainder of the seminary term joining in protests, gatherings, and marches. At one such rally in Fort Deposit, AL Jonathan Daniels was arrested with the other demonstrators and spent the next six days in the Hayneville county jail. After their release on Friday, August 20, four of them undertook to enter a local shop, and they were met at the door by a man with a shotgun. After a brief confrontation, the man aimed the gun at a young African-American girl in the party. Daniels pushed her out of the way and took the shotgun blast himself. He was killed instantly. Jonathan Myrick Daniels was bold as he faced the storm.
Boldness isn’t arrogance. Boldness isn’t bravado. Boldness is what Dr. King called “creative maladjustment.” Boldness is having the courage to say and do the inconceivable, the unbelievable, and the counter-cultural because we are strengthened in the fact that we are following in the path of Jesus.
Boldness is saying, believing, and working to end poverty. Boldness is saying, believing, and working to undo the school-to-prison pipeline. Boldness is saying, believing, and working to end racism, misogyny, and bigotry, and to take all this hatred in the world and transform it with love.
Confronting the Storms
As we confront the storms, we have to be honest in admitting that that boldness is difficult. Doubt and fear and misgivings creep in along the way. This is what happened to Peter as he stepped out of the boat. Peter steps out boldly, walking on the water towards Jesus; then, he begins to notice the storm – the boisterous winds and the foaming waves – and he loses sight of Jesus. Peter begins to sink, drowning in the midst of this storm. Being a follower of Jesus requires a little faith, faith that we can indeed weather the storm just as Jesus did. Jesus has shown us the way! Jesus is there for us! Jesus reaches out his hand to Peter and raises him up, all Peter had to do was trust and take it.
Sometimes storms will engulf us and sometimes those storms might start to overwhelm us. Still, we must have the confidence to be bold and come after Jesus. Jesus is there to guide and lead and raise us up with an outstretched hand. And by taking Jesus’ hand, we join with one who has known a violent storm. That is one of the ugly beauties of the cross: The creative maladjustment of Jesus’ loving ministry was more than some people could take and the chains of the powerful elite chased him, bound him, and crucified him. But during the events of his final days, Jesus wasn’t stoic. Jesus was scared and fearful, engulfed in the storm. Indeed, the stoic response would not have brought him to tears of blood and asking God to take this cup. But Jesus remained bold in the face of his storm and didn’t relent from the love that brought him there, even begging forgiveness for those who crucified him.
And in the end, as Jesus died he kept his eyes on God, knowing that he could withstand the storm. And like Jesus did to Peter, God reached down to his son on the cross, and Jesus took his Father’s hand, “Into your hands, I commit my spirit.” I see God as a proud mother taking Jesus into her arms. “You are my son, my beloved. You embodied my teachings with beauty and care.” And then the mother God raises Jesus, honoring the boldness, taming the storm, and breaking the chains of the powerful, even the chains of death.
We can stand in solidarity with Jesus because Jesus has stepped in boldness into the storm himself. Peter took Jesus’ hand and Jesus rescued Peter. There are many storms that surround us and engulf us and our communities. Peter shows that if we take the bold step, as Jesus summons us to come, Jesus will also welcome us with an outstretched hand, and lead us to the shore.