Tentth Sunday after Pentecost – Gemesis 37:1-4; Mattthew 14:22-33; Coming Home through the Storm – It’s good to come home. You may know that I was away for a time of study leave and vacation. It began with a week at the St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota. I went longing for a bit of peace, quiet, centeredness. Life and ministry here over the past year has been far from stormy crisis. Still maybe I felt something like the disciples rowing hard and long, straining amidst winds and waves. I wonder what experiences come to mind and heart for you. Like Jesus going up a mountain to pray, we all need rest, rejuvenation, renewed inspiration.
I’d never stayed at a Catholic Abbey before. How would I be received? When I arrived, I asked Brother Aidan where I could and shouldn’t go. And would I be able to share communion in worship. Except for the small cloister area, I had the run of the entire college campus. He especially encouraged me to visit with craftsman in the woodshop. And he welcomed me to share communion. But just to be sure, admittedly skeptical, I asked another brother Jim. “Oh, yes,” he flashed a rebellious smile. “We Benedictines kind of go our own way, sometimes.”
It’s beautiful when unfamiliar places and people quickly begin to feel a bit like home. I’m fondly grateful for my time there reading, worshipping, cycling, chatting with various brothers and people I met. My tired, distracted little faith met the presence of Christ. Something like I hope we might share and offer for anyone who comes among us. Brother Jim proved very friendly and attentive … and very talkative! He happily invited me to become an oblate of their Abbey—sort of like being a monk without actually living there. I said: “Well, I’ll have to talk it over with Suzanne, MY WIFE!” “Oh, she become an oblate too!” he encouraged. When I told her, Suzanne just smiled. And didn’t need to say more. All of you who jokingly greeted me with: “Welcome, tell me your name? or can you find your way to the pulpit again?” You don’t need to be concerned about my intentions, friends!
There’s feeling like we’re at home. And then there’s HOME. Home. Where we’re safe and accepted just as we are, with all our idiosyncrasies, and no need for pretension. Home. With people who love us and whom we love in return, without conditions or limitations. Home. A shelter in storms that blow through our personal lives and society, where we share difficult conversations, and from where we venture forth again on seas of service with hope, confidence, peace.
After my time in Minnesota our family went on a cruise to Alaska. We didn’t face anything like gale-force wind and waves as Matthew says the disciples did in their little fishing boat. Some sun. Sixties. Little rain. Nearly perfect. Until storms roiled our stomachs about a day after leaving the ship. Suzanne and Ailih had gone back home to work. It was the night before we expected to have our mountain-top experience at Denali. First, Nathaniel lost his Subway sandwich. I phoned the front desk. A poor guy came with a few rags and a spray bottle; took a brief look and left again. I’m sparing you the details! About an hour later, I mostly suppressed laughter, when three people showed up in white hazmat gowns from head to duct-taped shoes and gloves, masks and goggles! Even Nathaniel cracked a smile through his misery. And when I joined him on stormy seas a few hours later, I tried to make sure staff didn’t need to dress for another alien encounter!
As we lay in hotel beds that day and the next. As we received special transport from Denali to Fairbanks (that is quarantine) over roads as wavy and bumpy as the Galilee sea. A strong longing for home rose in my heart. Do you know what I mean? Maybe our longing that night pales in comparison to your storms or those of others we know. The chemo, radiation, or weeks of rehab. The months of searching for a job. Nights lying awake wondering how did our relationship become so conflicted. Years struggling with the grip of addiction, or homelessness, or hunger. Venom and condemnation heard from religion. Incessant fear and anxiety fueled on tv, radio, Facebook … wherever we get our news … like the vitriol and violence from Charlottesville, Virginia yesterday. Longing. Longing for home in God’s grace and peace where all people are loved, healed, and share abundant life.
I suppose if stormy seas could blow through a hilly wilderness and dry pit, that’s what rocked Joseph’s world. He wasn’t feeling much love from his brothers. And truth be told, he didn’t give it. Some might say he got what was coming, after flaunting his privileged favor in Daddy Jacob’s eyes. Like that special coat every word clothed him with an attitude far more haughty, than humility. Sometimes storm clouds in life form from our own hot air and the condensation of our transgressions.
“Bless the Lord, O my soul, who redeems my life from the Pit.” Joseph might come to sing that refrain years later after he languishes in an Egyptian prison and then rises to be Pharaoh’s right-hand man, when his dream comes true. But we’ll get to that part of the story next week. Right now, he’s caught in a serious tempest like Jesus’ disciples. Or maybe it’s more like his brothers threw him overboard. Out of the family boat. Sink or swim, with no life jacket.
As Matthew tells the story, Jesus and the disciples are as far apart as mountain top and distant sea level. A bumper sticker on their boat reads: No Jesus. No Peace. Waves batter the boat and splash over the side. Wind rips open their cloaks and soaks them to the bone. The news or diagnosis buffets our minds. Questions and uncertainty pelt us like driving rain. Frustration and fear soak into our hearts. Waves of loss, loneliness, hopelessness threaten to swamp us. It’s late at night and no land in sight. And friends, we know what storms can do to even the biggest Edmund Fitzgerald ocean tankers. If we don’t, just ask any of the many sailors among us who’ve seen how quickly a storm can blow up on the Great Lakes as on Galilee long ago.
At men’s group this week, guys mentioned how one day recently ten foot waves rolled over Lake Michigan. Sometimes we can forecast how long stormy conditions will last. Guys said, apparently, that’s what made many Chicago to Mackinac racers buffeted by waves turn back. We try to make plans for our journey based on reports we receive. We analyze predictions. We responsibly make our decisions. And sometimes despite our best calculations and intentions, winds shift suddenly. Waves begin to rise. And we just have to make it through best we can, looking for a safe port, a calm inlet, any big rock to shelter behind and ride out the storm.
The disciples strained at the oars. No land in sight. Maybe they were concerned. Maybe as experienced fishers of the sea, they thought: “been here; done this; it’s going to be rough and we’re far from shore at the moment. But we’ll get there.” Clearly, they weren’t lounging through a peaceful sail, under a beautiful moon and stars, with a gentle breeze at their backs.
But Matthew doesn’t say they’re terrified until they see Jesus coming toward them. Walking on water. Coming in a way beyond anything they know is possible. This is their leader, their companion, as they’ve never known him before. Now, friends, Matthew’s not trying to get us to marvel at Jesus’ circus stunt ability, something like “cirque de soleil” at sea. Matthew tells this story to emphasize who Jesus is theologically.[i] How we experience God in his life and teaching and the way he empowers our living resurrection faith.
You see, all the good Jews to whom Matthew wrote would remember the Hebrew scriptures when God brings life out of stormy chaos. As the Spirit moved over the watery void at creation. In the story of Noah’s flood and the Exodus through the Red Sea and crossing the Jordan River into the Promised Land. Job’s proclamation would ring in their hearts: God tramples on the waves! God’s power of love surpasses any other force or circumstance in the universe. That’s what we believe when we cry: “Bless the Lord, O my soul!” You see, friends, here’s the good news. Jesus came to the disciples through the stormy chaos, unhindered by the gale winds that buffeted and waves that battered their boat. Trust that our Risen Lord comes to us with love and peace and a way forward when stormy chaos soaks and sickens and threatens to sink us.
Now good news is not always easy to accept. Like the disciples, it can be unnerving when experiences of divine grace don’t fit our conceptions of reality. It can be alarming when revelations of love, healing, and visions for abundant life together as Jesus embodied go beyond what we believe possible, good, right, true.
Sometimes if we’re honest we need to change our opinions and expectations about people, places, what should be done. No doubt, faith is not always easy, straight-forward, predictable and comforting. God’s Spirit can be unsettling. Jesus can be scary. That’s what got him crucified. To really see him, to really trust in God, we must be willing to have assumptions challenged and preconceptions changed. We must be willing to live differently.
“Take heart, have courage,” Jesus says, “do not be afraid.” So Peter casts all caution into those winds. He steps out into something he hasn’t calculated securely, that may even defy all but holy devotion. And the way we live faith will depend on how we understand Jesus responds when Peter begins to sink. Because, friends, no surprise … we’re going to sink too.
God wants us to keep the eyes of our hearts focused on Jesus. To center our hearts and minds, all we say and do in the Way of compassion, the Truth of love, the Life of sacrificial service he embodies. And inevitably, we too will have times when our attention turns more to stormy winds that blow – tweets and news feeds, words someone said, conflicts close to home, anger or fear in our hearts, self-doubt or tiredness that clouds our heads. And when we do, that’s when we’ll sink into chaos, overwhelmed by waves of all that’s wrong. Losing sight of all that is right. “Lord, save me,” we cry. “Precious Lord, take my hand.”
When Jesus gets hold of us, we hear no echo of him Peter being chastised. Jesus doesn’t chide for trying to do what he does. Jesus doesn’t scold and tell us to remain in the boat. Friends, hear the patient compassion in his voice. The encouragement and affirmation with no condemnation. Like a mother who will not forsake a nursing child. Like a father who runs to welcome the prodigal home.
“You of little faith, why did you doubt?” It’s not squelching healthy questions. It’s more like “Why did your heart quaver, your trust waver?” More than stressing failure, Jesus tries to help us see how much more is possible.
I love how Henri Nouwen expresses it in a book I read at the St. John’s Abbey. “As Jesus travels with us in life, he teaches us how to return to the house of love.
It is far from easy … [we panic when] looking at the impossible task, … the powerful waves, the heavy winds, and the roaring storm.… Jesus is a very patient teacher. He never stops telling us where to make our true home, what to look for, and how to live.”[ii]
Jesus never stops telling us, showing us, even when we stop listening and looking. You know, friends, after time at the Abbey, and then lying in bed sick, longing for home, I realized that amid all the wonders and all the ways a cruise makes you feel at home, I really missed routines of prayer with God. My little faith wavered again amid all the daily delights of activity and scenery. It’s my fault, if any to confess. I could have done it. I even brought my prayer book with me. I just didn’t do it.
And now after weeks away, here I am again with you in worship. And I am home. I’m grateful for the break. I hope we all find times to get away—moments each day, if not a special trip for prayer, renewal, whatever we might say. We all need times to be with God, who is of course, always with us. And dear friends, as I’ve come back this week I realize I cherish being in this great big boat together with you. I lament a few friends of ours who are moving away soon, or have found it difficult in the past year to feel at home here anymore. I am home. And I dearly desire that all people might a way here to come home with God in Jesus Christ.
I came home, as we shared with the Associate Pastor Nominating Committee a celebratory meal and final preparation for Chrissy beginning this coming week. We talked about palpable ways we felt the Spirit move and clear outcomes that are far more God’s grace than our intentions and actions.
I came home with God in a room where about ten or twelve of us gathered at noon to talk about Holy Love in daily life. Laughter. Good questions. Past experiences rising up in waves beneath the surface, some blessed and some very difficult.
I came home … with a young man finding a way step-by-step on life’s journey through questions of faith and experience and love for a life partner. And with those other men on Wednesday night, a little farther along their walk on the water, probably still asking many of the same questions.
I came home to the bedside of a saint who has begun her final journey of this life into eternity. Surrounded as she was with pictures and other decor of a long life and bonds of love that make a hospice room a home. As I talked with her, God’s Spirit revealed again so clearly that relationships in love, as Jesus shows us, make any place from a lonely boat, to a cozy house, to a soaring sanctuary … home.
I could go on and on. Thanks be to God that we will in this sanctuary in the city. Together. In this great big boat. Ever stepping out toward new revelations of Holy Love. Ever striding in new directions of Sacred Grace through the stormy winds and waves that blow. Like in the wake of Charlottesville. Or holding in prayer people like family and friends of Joseph Sablan back home in Guam. We proclaim Jesus’ vision for home in our world, against hate and prejudice, even loving enemies, pursuing abundant life as God intends for all people and creation in the fullness of grace and peace. Starting tomorrow, friends, we welcome Chrissy Westbury and her family home among us. As we would anyone who may wander in among us. And this Thursday evening we’ll share a potluck dinner of gratitude with the Zamel family whom we’ve welcomed and settled from Syria. Every day, God calls us to continue going through storms of life to people like us, crying out “Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, help me stand …”
When they got into the boat, Matthew writes, the wind ceased. They were home. And those in the boat worshipped him. They said: “Truly you are the Son of God.” More than biological explanation or metaphysical description, it’s a humble whisper. It’s a quietly confident declaration. It’s a bold shout of devotion. It’s song of faith that moves us from fear to trust in the One who promises:
I will come to you.
Do not be afraid, I am with you. I have called you each by name.
Come and follow me, I will bring you home.
I love you and you are mine.[iii]
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] See Thomas G. Long, Matthew in the Westminster Bible Companion series (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 166.
[ii] Henri Nouwen, Spiritual Formation (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 78-79.
[iii] Lyrics by David Haas, “You Are Mine,” 1993.