“Be encouraged! Don’t be afraid.” Colchester Federated Church, August 9, 2020, (Matthew 14:22-33) Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (**Virtual Worship)
As I sat down to write this week’s sermon, Tropical Storm Isaias barreled through Connecticut. Apparently it’s one of the worst storms in recent memory in terms of power outages throughout our small state. Eversource related on Twitter on Wednesday afternoon that the impact Isaias had on the electric system is greater than Superstorm Sandy. Power went out at the parsonage quickly once the storm began and I just had to laugh as I had carved out the evening to be alone at the parsonage writing the sermon on my laptop with a busy few days ahead. There went that plan right out the window. So when I could finally sit down and write, it was at the Bradstreet home on the shores of Pickerel Lake. Somehow they miraculously had power and invited me over. Thank you, Steve and Jude for your hospitality.
So the irony of all these events these last few days isn’t lost on me. Because this week we’re reflecting on Jesus with his disciples in a boat encountering stormy seas and Jesus walking on the water to comfort them and instead scaring them half to death. That’s just life for you sometimes—stormy weather. Matthew tells us that Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead to the other side of the lake while he dismissed the crowds. This takes place right after the feeding of the five thousand story we talked about last week. Jesus went up onto a mountain by himself to pray. Evening came and Jesus was alone. Though the boat that the disciples were in began to fight a headwind. The Sea of Galilee after all is known for storms that whip up quickly out of nowhere. And then the disciples look out over the lake in the morning to see Jesus walking on the surface of the lake. Storms and lakes—yes those are familiar sites this week. And perhaps it can make us realize how alarming this must have been for the disciples.
Storms make us on edge. Even storms that don’t do as much damage as we can observe at first still make us on edge. Power gets knocked out. Trees are downed. The wind can be loud. Tree branches and debris can be flying around. Storms at sea are treacherous with waves barreling into boats and possibly capsizing them. The waves making the boat go all over the place on the water. It’s scary. So here the disciples are in this boat that’s rocking. Verse 24 states, “Meanwhile, the boat, fighting a strong headwind, was being battered by the waves and was already far from land.”
In the midst of these scary, disquieting moments that the disciples must have had while dealing with those stormy waters—here comes Jesus walking on the water toward his disciples come morning. It’s a story that we perhaps appreciate more these days after a storm and in the midst of what we’re facing with this pandemic. The comforting image of Jesus walking on water toward those he loved. Except at the time the disciples didn’t find this comforting at all, keep in mind. They mistook Jesus for a ghost! Matthew tells us that they were so frightened, they screamed!
Though “just then Jesus spoke to them, ‘Be encouraged! It’s me. Don’t be afraid.” What a beautiful statement to hear from Jesus in the midst of the storm.
Here’s the thing. When we become afraid, we’re often not our best selves. We can’t even think straight. We behave in ways that are irrational. Now there are times when fear is a good thing, fear in certain situations saves lives. And we can’t forget that. If we encounter a bear in the woods—having some healthy fear isn’t a bad thing. Though we need to keep our wits about us too is what I’m trying to say. If we just let fear overtake us and don’t think things through, we may get ourselves into even more trouble. Even with encountering a bear in the woods, we people are supposed to behave differently depending on the type of bear it is! So we can’t go panicking and just have a meltdown, even if that’s how we’re feeling inside in that moment.
Today’s story can give us pause because the disciples are afraid of Jesus at first. They are afraid of someone who is pure compassion and love, someone who came that we may have life and have it abundantly. The disciples are afraid because they mistake Jesus for a ghost in the wee hours of the morning on the Sea of Galilee. They don’t recognize him for who he truly is. Jesus reassures them, giving them courage. Peter takes his words to heart and steps out of the boat in good faith only to notice the strong wind and all of a sudden becomes frightened again. That’s when he begins to sink. Take it literally, take it metaphorically—it’s still true. When fear seeps into our hearts, it is a sinking feeling. That feeling that we can’t overcome obstacles and we are just doomed.
Yet as Christians, deep down in our bones we know that fear is the opposite of faith. That lesson comes home in a myriad of ways because being afraid is all over the Bible. You would be hard pressed to find any Biblical book where everyone is fearless throughout the whole story. Think of the famous 23rd Psalm, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me.” Fear seems to be part of our humanity. Admitting we are afraid and trying to overcome whatever scares us with God’s help is what people of faith constantly try to do. The disciples dealt with fear as we can see today in this story of Jesus walking on water. Or think of the Transfiguration and the disciples falling on their faces in fear atop the mountain. As a human being, Jesus dealt with fear in the Garden of Gethsemane as he prayed, “If it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” In that moment, faith overcame fear.
These are scary times. It’s crazy to pretend otherwise, and it’s equally crazy to pretend for one second that overcoming fear is easy. That’s why Jesus tells us to be encouraged in the same sentence as reminding us to not be afraid. Being encouraged is essential for overcoming fear. Overcoming fear doesn’t mean we become reckless either. It just means we can face what’s in front of us without outright panicking!
Somehow keeping an open heart in the midst of scary situations enables us to come out the other side with lessons learned at the very least. Because when our hearts are open, even in the midst of the fear, that’s when we can experience that moment of Jesus reaching out and catching us like Jesus caught Peter. We can step out in faith with the best of intentions, experience some stormy seas and sink with fear. We’re human and it happens. Though we can also accept that grace of an outstretched hand—and come back to God, to one another, and to our best selves. So thanks be to God for persistent love, a love strong enough to overcome our fears. Amen.