“Praying for Good Weather”

Matthew 14:22-33

 

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

In our church, we clergy don’t choose the Bible texts that we preach about.

Instead, liturgical scholars draw up what is called a “lectionary” that assigns the lessons to be read on each Sunday in the church year. The results are then approved by a convention of the Episcopal Church.

But even though I had nothing to do with selecting today’s Gospel, I would say that it’s an appropriate text to read in church during the dog days of August! Many of us go to the beach at this time of year—or wish we were going! And we all worry about summer thunderstorms and hurricanes.

So this is a good time of year for a story that includes both a sea trip and a dangerous storm. The text begins with Jesus and his disciples gathered on the edge of what is presumably the Sea of Galilee. Jesus sends his disciples off in a boat, while he himself goes to pray on a nearby mountain.

As the disciples sail along, they encounter headwinds that keep them from crossing the “sea” (the body of water is actually what we would call a large lake.) Happily, Jesus comes out to rescue them; He arrives, walking on the surface of the water.

When Jesus appears, the disciples understandably think that they are seeing a ghost! But, St. Matthew writes, “immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

At that point, Peter also tries to walk on the water. He climbs out of the boat and takes a couple of steps; but the winds scare Peter and he begins to sink. Jesus then picks him up, and both men enter the boat, and the winds stop. The story ends with Jesus and the disciples peacefully finishing the voyage across the lake.

A vivid nautical tale that gets our attention! Yet, in another sense, the story is disturbing. For the Bible text contradicts our modern scientific understanding of the world. In the world as we see it, human beings don’t walk on water. Nor do we have the ability to calm storms.

Moreover, it seems to go against our Christian understanding of who Jesus was. We hold that even though Christ was “the Son of God,” he was incarnate in human flesh.

That means that he was subject to the limitations that physical bodies share.

Still, according to the text, Christ walked on the water. It was a miracle that demonstrated to his disciples that he was divine. Scholars call this kind of event, a “nature miracle.” A second nature miracle follows it: Jesus calms the winds that had so frightened the disciples.

Now the disciples had what we would consider a “primitive” view of the world. Their minds weren’t shaped by a scientific age, as our minds are. So we tend to conclude that the followers of Jesus were only imagining that he walked on water and calmed a storm. Jesus was a human being, and human beings don’t have supernatural power over the natural world.

Still, I don’t think we should dismiss the story as some kind of myth that we have outgrown. For the story isn’t just about the power of Jesus over nature; it’s about fear.

After all, the disciples were also aware that human beings don’t normally walk on water. That’s why, when they saw Christ coming toward them, they thought they must be seeing a ghost. That’s why they cried out “in fear.” When Peter sinks into the water, the text says that Peter “became frightened,” and he cries out, “Lord, save me!”

The disciples are afraid. Peter is afraid. What’s the solution to their problem? Jesus says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” If only Peter had more faith, he wouldn’t be afraid to sink. If the disciples had more faith, they wouldn’t be afraid of strong winds.

In the end, Peter gets back into the boat and the strong winds cease. The disciples give Jesus the credit for saving them from the storm. They recognize his divine power; they say, “Truly, you are the Son of God.”

What does this mean to us today—to us who don’t believe that God always controls the weather? Or for that matter, what does the storm mean to us who don’t really care if God gives us power to walk on water–because we have jet skis and paddleboards and lots of other ways to travel across the sea?

Well, it seems to me that whatever we think about nature miracles, the lesson for us is really the same as it was for the early church. It’s a lesson about confronting our fears.

These events taught the followers of Jesus an enduring lesson about the divine. Peter never again walked on water. And after Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven, his followers couldn’t count on him to deal with bad weather!

So instead of relying on Jesus incarnate–beside them in the flesh—the disciples learned to find God’s power themselves. They had to look for the spiritual within instead of the supernatural without.

Today, while we still pray about weather, we have a more sophisticated view of God than the disciples had. We know that God doesn’t intervene every time winds threaten a boat on the sea. And while we may pray when a hurricane threatens, and we may ask God to spare us from the brunt of the storm, we also realize that those who are caught in the storm aren’t being punished by God!

I get anxious during violent thunderstorms and I’m therefore likely to pray that I, and those I love, and the Church of the Incarnation will all weather the storm. But if the storm happened to cause damage—as Hurricane Sandy did—I wouldn’t blame God. Nor would I feel that God had let me down.

That’s because I know that the most important lesson to me is dealing with my fears. Into every life, some rain must fall. The feeling of helplessness as a storm approaches is just one of those fears.

But this is one way we human beings learn courage. If God always provided perfect weather, we wouldn’t become strong.

Whatever happens, God is with us. At frightening times, we can always pray—even the most skeptical of us probably will pray! And even the most pious of us will still bring our umbrellas!

So the difference our religion makes is this: whatever happens in the exterior world, we trust God to be with us in our souls. As a practical matter, if we are calm, we are able to face the storm better.

And as a spiritual matter, God remains present, strengthening our resolve, relieving our fears—and giving us the precious gift of faith.

Amen


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