Sunday, August 13, 2017

"When the Storms of Life are Raging" - Sermon from August 13, 2017

Community UMC, Quincy
“When the Storms of Life are Raging”
Pastor Andrew Davis
August 13, 2017
Matthew 14: 22-33

          One of the things about visiting the mountains throughout my life and now living in the mountains is that the wind can often come up out of nowhere and come up very strong in the late morning to afternoon.  I remember from my many years of fishing the Truckee area lakes how things would be relatively calm when my dad and I got there, only to see the wind start creating riffles on the lake, then by mid-afternoon, whitecaps.  It’s one of those moments I would not really want to be out there in a kayak, raft, or small aluminum boat like our old 12-foot SeaNymph we used to have.  In fact, I remember how windy it was when my dad and I first went up to Eagle Lake when I was almost 13.  Even though we went ahead and launched at Spaulding and got out onto the lake, it was like being on a rough sea.  And to compound the rough water, our old Evinrude outboard didn’t want to cooperate by cutting in and out, making it a little more scary.  However, as the evening went on and once we got the motor going by making a long run, the wind began to subside and before long, the lake was as smooth as glass and would be that way the next day as well.  Even though we had dreams of landing one of those large, legendary Eagle Lake rainbows, we didn’t catch anything, still managing to have a good time despite a few tense moments that first evening.  ---
          I invite us to imagine being on the water in the boat with the disciples in the evening, as they are sent by Jesus to go to the other side of Lake Gennesaret, aka the Sea of Galilee when the wind suddenly comes whipping up during the night, creating these huge waves and white caps on the lake, much like some days at Eagle Lake, Lake Tahoe, or Lake Almanor.  Depending on the size of the boat, which at that time probably was not very big, or stable, that boat could have been rocking hard enough to make even the hardiest of ocean travelers seasick.  On the other hand, this particular passage from Matthew kind of reminds me of the George Clooney film from 2000, “The Perfect Storm,” minus the massive wave that ultimately leads to the loss of an entire crew.  Although the filmmakers took liberties with the actual story of the Andrea Gail off the coast of New England to make it more thrilling, just the idea of being out in the middle of the lake, the ocean, or river when in a small to mid-size boat can be quite frightening, especially when the boat is rocking violently to-and-fro.  It’s no wonder why the disciples cry out in fear!!  I would too if I felt like I was going to capsize and sink at any moment.  
          Nevertheless, Jesus shows up at the right moment, coming up to the boat while walking on the water.  Now if I saw someone coming towards me while walking on water, I too would think I was seeing a ghost or something paranormal, just like the disciples did.   I'd even want to call the guys from Ghost Andventures to come investigate.  However, Jesus is not a ghost, and reminds the disciples and us that when the storms are raging around us, “take heart, it is I…don’t be afraid” (Matt. 14: 27, NRSV).  In other words, Jesus’s words are like the cover of this little pack of inspirational cards I keep in my office that say, “Keep Calm and Trust God.”  Jesus is more or less telling the disciples, “don’t worry, I’ve got this…keep calm and trust me.”
Of course, Peter being Peter, the man of action and oftentimes overconfident in his own abilities, wants to try walking on water too, as he wants to make sure that it’s really Jesus and not a ghost.  Instead, Peter learns a hard lesson, that only Jesus can walk on water because the minute that Peter becomes scared when the wind comes up, he sinks, then gets admonished by Jesus who says, “you of little faith, why did you doubt,” otherwise implying “silly Peter, walking on water’s only for Jesus to do” (Matthew 14: 31). 
When the storms of life are raging, there are days where it’s so much easier to be afraid and doubt, especially in times when there is rapid change, natural disasters, the threat of war that is escalating as tensions rise between the US and North Korea, or increasing acts of violence, racism, bigotry, and hatred such as what we are seeing manifest itself in Charlottesville, VA this weekend, oftentimes clashing with those who are trying to witness in love and with those trying to be peacemakers.  It’s also easy to equate or even blame the storms of life we face for a lack of faith or other factors in society; although I believe that it’s healthy to wrestle with doubt and faith during the storms of life.  As we saw over the last couple weeks during the Minerva Fire, we kept hearing the message to stay calm, stay positive, and don’t panic, even though it’s often our first instinct to panic and think of every worst-case scenario that can happen (something that I am often guilty of doing too!!).  Amidst the fear and uncertainty we faced, we did very well staying calm as a community, and even for an anxious person like myself, it was reassuring to know that we had thousands on the ground fighting the fires all night long and from the air during the day.  That's where faith came into play as that storm of life was raging. 
Even in the other storms of life, there will be questions to wrestle I going to have enough money to cover my rent and pay my bills and have enough to eat?  Are the doctors going to be able to find a cure for what’s ailing me?  Am I going to be able to get into the class that I really, really need in order to graduate?  Are we heading to war soon? When will all violence, anger, animosity, racism, and other forms of hatred in our world come to an end?  Will we ever see peace in our world and nation? And so on…  We need Jesus to appear, to come up to the boat that's rocking more than ever before as we face these present storms of life.  We need Jesus’s assurance, even in the midst of doubt. 
Similar to this morning’s lesson, the disciples face another storm in the boat on the same sea in Matthew 8, although unlike today's lesson, Jesus is right there with them in the boat.  But the result is the same, the disciples become afraid in the middle of a storm just as they are afraid in the storm without Jesus in the boat.  However, disciples get the same admonishment from Jesus to have faith in Matthew 8 as they do in this morning’s Gospel lesson.  In the times we have to wrestle, there are times and storms of life when having faith is all we can do.  And there are also times where our faith needs to lead us into the places we don't always want to go, or speak up when we know what we have to say may not always be popular with everyone, or when what we have to say meets resistance, or ruffles some feathers.   Even being the peacemakers that Jesus called us to be back in the Sermon on the Mount even earlier in Matthew’s gospel involves stepping out in faith and even wrestling with doubt.  We may be afraid in some situations, but that's where faith helps us get through and where faith holds us together as a community. ---
Now, there is some caution we do need to take when it comes to talking about faith or doubt during the storms of life.  Just simply telling someone to have faith and to not doubt can come off as a platitude, which two of my former seminary professors, Drs. Michael Koppel and Denise Dombkowski Hopkins define as “a superficial comment that stifles further story explanation.”[i] One thing I always caution people in pastoral care situations and was cautioned in pastoral care class is to never equate the storms of life with a lack of faith, or equate it with not praying hard enough.  Everyone will experience Jesus’s message differently.  While wrestling with our text this morning, I know that Jesus’s message to not be afraid and have faith during the storm is a reassuring message when the storms of life are raging, as this reassuring message is something I had to keep reminding myself and being reminded to do during the scarier times of the fire and other storms of life.  Many of us will struggle with our faith at one time or another in our lifetime, and the storms of life will come up and rage, as not everything is necessarily sunshine and rainbows.  While we might not or see it right away, or when we see it in retrospect, God is still present when we do turn to our faith, and we can receive hope and assurance from God in the hard times, except it doesn't mean that we won't wrestle either.  Think about the disciples on that boat in the middle of the storm.  Although they were scared and crying out,
Peter hears Jesus’s claim [that Jesus is here and not to be afraid]…Jesus is the one who makes God present.  In a chaotic world where such a claim often appears false, hollow, or meaningless, many would like some experiential, spectacular reassurance that it is really so.  Peter knows that Jesus has been left back on the beach, just as [we] know that that Jesus has been left back there in history**.  In both cases, it is clearly impossible that he could come to us.  So when he appears, walking on the sea, it should be good news...  We can resonate with Peter, the typical disciple, when he proposes a test.[ii]
**(to clarify as pointed out by some after worship this morning, Jesus still lives on in each of us through the Holy Spirit, even though Jesus is not physically with us…it was not my intention to make anyone upset for the exegetical error and for not unpacking this point more).
 As I shared with you last month, I’ve had my own storms of life in dealing with depression and anxiety, and there are many others I know who deal with similar storms of life.  I can’t speak for all of my friends or others I know who are dealing with their own storms of life, but I know that from my own experience, there are times I just want to throw up my arms and say the heck with faith and let my doubt take over because doubt is the easy way out; on the other hand, it’s in those moments of doubt when it’s like the boat is tossing violently to and fro where I find that I have my most profound encounters with God during the storm.  I feel like Jesus is coming to me on the water like he does with the disciples in both scenarios, saying “do not be afraid.” On the other hand, I have also gotten myself in trouble and have made people angry when I have implied that they don’t have enough faith, something I don’t always catch myself doing until it’s too late and the damage is done, then have to do the equally challenging part of repenting for implying so.  It's also one of the many occupational hazards that we clergy have to face in our conversations and sermons, although there are other things we may talk about, actions, our involvement in causes near and dear to our hearts, speaking on political causes where faith and politics intersect, and other things that come with the territory  which might make people uncomfortable or upset because we can't please everyone all of the time or because we may have a difference in what we think our occupation is about, even the prophetic role that we have as clergy. However, we do it on faith, and like Peter, we step outside the boat and we sink because we don't walk on water either, and quite honestly, none of us should try, kind of like that ‘don't try this at home’ disclaimer.  Walking on water is something only for Jesus to do!!  ---
All of us are at different levels on this journey of faith, with some of us having a little faith like the size of the mustard seed, while others have a strong, steadfast, unwavering faith. Yet, each of us will face storms of life at one time or another and will have different ways to navigate those storms and rough seas, some with certainty and unwavering faith while others will wrestle with doubt and cry out to the deep.  However, nobody should ever be made to feel guilty for not having enough faith because “faith is not being able to walk on water – only God can do that – but daring to believe, in the face of all the evidence, that God is with us in the boat, made real in the community of faith as it makes its way through the storm, battered by the waves.”[iii] We the church, are the boat and we need each other to navigate through the storms that come up in life, just as we have been able to do at many different points in history and continue to do so today when we believe that God is here with us, even though it may not be quite as dramatic or as spectacular as Jesus walking on water or coming up to our boat when caught in the wind, especially on one of the lakes up here. 
While it may not always feel like it, I believe that God is still with us, giving us a sense hope, and saw that God was still with us during this fire, particularly through the crews who quickly descended onto our town to keep it safe.  God has also been present through the overall community in our hospitality and care of the fire crews, which caught the attention of the Los Angeles Times and was featured in an article earlier this week.  The amazing part of living in a small town like ours is that we take care of one another, and in the midst of high anxiety when our collective boat is being tossed around in the sea of danger and uncertainty during the storms of life, Jesus shows up at the right moment and reassures us that God is still with us, assuring us that we don’t have anything to be afraid about.  Amidst the moments of high anxiety last Friday while seeing flames a little too close for comfort, I was able to feel a sense of peace and reassurance from God after praying, especially knowing that the ground crews were on it.  Putting our trust in God when when we pray can help give us a calm and sense of peace in the midst of the storm, and that includes things that are going on in the world around us beyond our community, but I am doing my best to trust God and not be afraid in all of the chaos and will not stop trying to be a peacemaker or call out injustice. When we got to last Sunday and the threat to our community was abated, I kept hearing the saying of the theologian Julian of Norwich, “all shall be well, all shall be well” playing over and over again in my head.  And when the disciples were once again with Jesus in the boat and the waters stilled, all was well once again.  My constant prayer in the wake of escalating tensions among nations and the constant uptick in violence is that all will be well, even if it feels like being in a boat on the sea rocking violently about in the storm.
The Good news is that in the midst of the storms of life, all can be well by putting our trust, faith, and hope in Jesus who can pull us up from the water when we start to sink, but gets in the boat with us, and calms the storm by giving us a sense of peace and calm.  Our fears and doubts will not necessarily go away completely, especially right now with things we are seeing around the nation and world, but we have this all loving, all knowing savior in Jesus who shows up at the right time, and assures us not to be afraid, even in the moments when it feels easier said than done.  We are all here together, staying in this boat together as we navigate through the waters of the good, the bad, and the ugly just like we would still navigate our boats through the calm or through the whitecaps on the many lakes we live around.  So as we go into this new week, where have you experienced Jesus showing up at the right time when the storms of life have been raging around you?
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, let the church say, AMEN!!

[i] Michael Koppel and Denise Dombkowski Hopkins, Grounded in the Living Word: The Old Testament and Pastoral Care Practices (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), 23.
[ii] The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol. VIII (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 329
[iii] Ibid., 329-330.  

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