Headwinds

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear,
though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.[1]

Psalm 46 begins with a bold assertion of fearlessness. I suspect it was composed during peaceful, tranquil days, not when the waters were roaring and foaming. Just a few days ago, I looked across a lake in Austria, and the morning was so quiet and peaceful, the water made a perfect mirror for the mountains and the blue sky. “Be still, and know that I am God,” the Holy One of Israel says in Psalm 46.[2] It’s not difficult to be still when the morning is still under the rising sun or when the night is quiet under a blanket of stars. It’s not difficult to be still when you let your eyes follow the clouds instead of the relentless stream of likes, texts, adds, chats, snaps and tweets on your phone.

Jesus wanted to have some quiet time when he heard the news that Herod had killed John the Baptist, but the crowds followed himand his compassion for them was greater than his need for some time alone. He stayed, and he healed the sick, and when it was evening, and the disciples wanted to send the people away to the villages to get something to eat, he hosted a feast of abundance: it began with five loaves of bread and two fishes, and only ended when all had eaten and were filled and twelve baskets of leftover pieces had been taken upenough to feed any who hungered.

Then Jesus went up the mountain by himself to pray. He dismissed the crowds and told the disciples to get in the boat and go on ahead without him. This was the first time since Jesus had called them to follow him that he told them to go on without him. When night fell, he was alone on the mountain, praying, and they were alone in the boat, out on the lake, far from land, with the wind against them, working hard to keep the course. The contrast of the mountains shaking in the heart of the sea and the stillness of resting in the presence of God, that contrast from the psalm is also reflected in our gospel reading; but in the gospel it’s the contrast of Jesus alone resting in the presence of God up on the mountain and the disciples alone in the boat, facing the roaring wind and foaming waters.

Since apostolic times, the church has recognized itself in this small boat on its voyage to the other side of a wide sea. In Matthew, this is the second time that we are invited to recognize ourselves in those seafarers rather than pretend we’re watching them from shore. The first time, Jesus was in the boat with the disciples when a wind storm arose; the boat was being swamped by the waves, but he was asleep.[3] He was right there with them, but to them it was as if he wasn’t there at all. They woke him up, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” And he said, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. Why be afraid when God-with-us is in the boat with us?

Well, in today’s passage of the sea crossing Jesus is not in the boat. It is dark, and they are far from land because the wind is against them – but they are not afraid. They don’t panic; apparently they know what to do. Despite the wind and the waves and the unpredictable currents, they stay the course. But then Jesus shows up, walking on water. Now they are terrified, convinced they are seeing a ghostpeople don’t walk on water, after all. The wind and the waves they could handle, but Jesus showing up like that out of nowhere, that is frightening. “Take heart,” he says, “it’s me; don’t be afraid.”

The church has continued to tell and dwell in this story because it reminds us who Jesus is: not somebody we left behind on a distant shore when he sent us, but one who is with us, one who is coming to us; one whose voice and word we recognize: “It’s me; don’t be afraid.” That’s very close to “Be still, and know that I am God.”

Now what got into Peter that he responded, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water”? It’s a good question to ask. Followers of Jesus have asked themselves for generations, and some suggest that Peter climbing over the side of the boat is a great example of daring discipleship. They paint a portrait of Jesus calling us o’er the tumult of our life’s wild, restless sea and bidding us to come to him. Like Peter, we are to heed his call and find the courage to get out of the boat and walk. Don’t be afraid, step out; just keep your eyes on the Lord and keep walking. They think it’s perfectly OK for a follower of Jesus to want to walk on water, and if Peter hadn’t taken his eyes off the Lord, he would have hiked up and down the waves like it was just the thing to do out on the lakethe implication being that if you just kept your eyes on the Lord, you could and would do the same, walk on water. But you may have noticed that Jesus didn’t tell Peter or any of the disciples to get out of the boat. Jesus didn’t come to them walking on the sea and saying, “It’s me; get out of the boat and let’s walk together.” That sudden urge to climb over the side of the boat was Peter’s impulse, and that doesn’t make him an example of daring discipleship, but of ordinary humanity.

The Jesus we follow is not far away on a mountain resting in the presence of God. The Jesus we follow is indeed with us and continues to come to us in unexpected ways. “Take heart, it’s me. Don’t be afraid.” You are not alone on the journey to the fullness of God’s reign; I am with you. We hear the words, we hear the promise, while the boat hits wave after wave of chaos and fear, and like Peter, we go back and forth between the courage of faith and the need for certainty, back and forth between the courage to stay the course together and the urge to climb over the side of the boat on a solitary quest for certainty that demands more than a promise and a word.

“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water”, Peter said. In all of Matthew there are only two other scenes where someone addresses Jesus with this kind of conditional language. In one, the devil comes to Jesus in the wilderness, saying, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”[4] And in the other, at the crucifixion, some who pass by say, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”[5] We want more than the word and the promise, and that puts us in the company of those who tempt and scorn the Son of God, it puts us in the company of those who put God to the test. Nevertheless, Jesus didn’t scold Peter, but said, “Come.”

As we follow the Risen One who is with us and who is coming to us we must learn to trust his word and promise and be attentive to his voice and call. Our faith, like Peter’s, resides in the tension of courage and fear; it is a blend of deep-down trust and an anxious need for certainty, an experience of sinking and being held. “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck,” we learn to pray with the words of another Psalm. “I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.”[6] The world floods in on us with heart-breaking and gut-wrenching experiences, with unimaginable loss, violent death, hate-filled rhetoric and action, with wave after wave of anger and pain over what becomes of the world when love is absent and justice like a distant dream. Just a few days ago Nancy, the kids and I were in the former concentration camp at Dachau, near Munich, quietly reflecting on the rise of the reign of terror and destruction in Germany and across Europe, and we came home to Nazi slogans and white supremacist terror in the streets of Charlottesville. These days, it’s like you’re coming up for air only to be hit by yet another wave, isn’t it?

You long for the mountain. You long for the experience of God’s presence encountered in stillness, and it is a holy longing. However, Matthew’s witness reminds us that Jesus came down the mountain in the darkness before dawn; he came down to meet his friends at sea; he came down to let us know that we are not alone. God is with us in this chaos. When Peter began to sink and the waters were about to close over him, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” No more “Lord, if it is you,” only the voice of humanity crying out of the depths—and there it was, the saving power of God in the hand of Jesus.

Faith is not about walking on water; it’s about daring to trust that in Jesus we encounter the presence and power of God. Faith is about daring to trust in that presence, that saving power, that God amid the wind and the churning waves, in the middle of the sea, far from land and far from the day. What else will give us the strength to stay the course against the forceful headwinds of fear, ignorance, hatred, and apathy? What else will give us the courage to journey on in the direction Jesus has pointed this little boat that has room for every human being?

[1] Psalm 46:1-3

[2] Psalm 46:10

[3] Matthew 8:23-27

[4] Matthew 4:3, 6

[5] Matthew 27:40

[6] Psalm 69:1-2

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