Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost.
Immediately [Jesus] made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
About a month ago now, I needed to make a run to the post office.
Pulling out of my driveway, I noticed that the sky was a little grayer than it had been earlier in the day, like it might rain. I hoped that would mean it would cool down a little.
By the time I got to main road, it was pouring.
Not just pouring—sheeting. Windy. Thundering. As I passed River Ridge Elementary School, there was an explosive burst of light to my right. Lightening hitting a transponder.
I jumped, but I’ve driven through storms before, and as usual, I’d procrastinated, and I really needed to get my package to the post office.
Buttermilk was busy, like it usually is in the late afternoon. The rain was coming down so hard I could barely see the fender of the car ahead of me. I white-knuckled it, trying to stay close enough to the car in front of me to see their lights, but not so close as to tempt a fender bender. Most of the cars had our hazard lights on, to try to help each other out. The rain came sideways, the wind blowing it first one way then another, and the strikes were deafening on the roof of my car.
It was terrifying, but I was in the inside lane, and to merge into the lane beside me to pull off the road altogether seemed even more dangerous. We crept on at 5mph. I was grateful that at least the drivers seemed to understand that we were all in this together. No one went zipping in and out of lanes or honking at the low speeds. All of us inched forward, rain spraying from pooling water on the side.
After what felt like nearly an hour, I finally turned off into the post office parking lot. I hadn’t brought an umbrella—and it would have been useless anyway—so I braced myself for the run from the car to the door, my mask in place and my package under my arm. I was drenched by the time I made it to the vestibule—and to the postal employee who was frantically waving me off.
“Power’s out,” she shouted through the inside door. “We can’t do anything unless it’s already got postage.”
I waited a hopeful minute in the vestibule for the rain to let up—it didn’t—and then sprinted my way back to my car in sloshy shoes. Defeated, I now had to face the drive home.
The worst of the thunder and lightening had passed, but the rain was still coming down in droves, and even better—all the traffic lights on Buttermilk were out.
Now, as we all know, when the lights are out, intersections become four way stops. But there’s a reason they don’t put four way stops when there are eight lanes of traffic, people turning every direction, cars coming up off the interstate.
We did okay. Nobody crashed. But it was nerve-wracking, and not all the cars got the memo about waiting their turn. I felt like I needed a neck like an owl’s to be able to look every direction at once before proceeding through.
I made it home fine—obviously—but the reason I’m telling this story is because it feels like such a perfect allegory for 2020.
A week before Coronavirus shut down our state, and our church, I was at a conference, and pandemics were nowhere on my radar. I could have looked at the news and seen it coming, just like I could have looked at the weather forecast before hopping in my car, but somehow I didn’t; none of us did. This pandemic has felt like a squall blowing up out of nowhere.
And suddenly we’ve all been thrown into chaos and uncertainty, and it’s felt like the hits have been coming from every side, as disorienting and dangerous as those gusts of rain. Sometimes I feel like I’ve been whiteknuckling through my days since March, keeping my eyes trained on whatever fender lights I can see in front of me to keep me on track—case reports, mask science, vaccine news, Zoom tutorials, transmission studies, CDC recommendations. I know I can’t see the whole road right now; none of us can. Still we’re trying to make it through safely.
And jeez, doesn’t it really feel like all the traffic lights are out? The old rules, so comfortable and familiar. I used to have my routines down, and now they’re all upended. Even just going to the grocery store means proceeding with caution, sticking your nose out and hoping not to crash.
And just like with the cars that day, I’m relying more and more for my own safety on everybody making good choices together, and nobody getting impatient and deciding to take the risk. The only reason the numbers aren’t worse than they are is because so many of us are making sacrifices to keep everybody safe.
At least I was in a car in that storm. Even in that downpour, I passed a few people on the sidewalk, carrying their groceries back through the rain, drenched to the skin. Just like I know now that as hard scary as this has been for me, there are people for whom it has been 1000 times more visceral, more dangerous, more devastating.
And it’s not just the viral disease itself. Since March, we’ve seen devastating economic downturns, and some of us have been hit by job or income loss. We’ve seen raging storms over the ongoing lack of compassion for black lives in this country. We’ve seen the cracks in our political landscapes deepen to chasms. We’ve seen schools and parents struggle in desperate turmoil with how to balance all the needs of our children and teachers. We’ve seen devastating revelations about how people in power across the world have exploited the vulnerable.
And the storms of our own lives have raged just as fiercely: storms of loneliness and isolation, of mental illness and physical illnesses gone untreated, of grief and rage over all the opportunities and celebrations we’ve lost, of having to be on constant guard, of having to whiteknuckle our way through all these storms for weeks and weeks and weeks on end.
I want it to be over. Don’t we all desperately want that? Haven’t we been praying? Praying to God for the wind to cease, and the rain to gentle, and everything to back to normal?
But then I read today’s scripture—one of the most famous, one of the most powerful stories in the gospel—and I realize that God has more tools to help us than I want to acknowledge. God can still the storm. But God can also teach us to walk through it.
I’ve preached on this before, that what amazes me about this story is that Jesus doesn’t calm the storm until the end. That when he goes walking out to his disciples, he does so while the rain is pelting sideways and the waves are crashing all around him. That when he commands Peter to join him, it’s in the midst of the howling winds.
You’d think Jesus would have started Peter off with something a little easier. Water-walking on nice calm day, maybe in the shallows, or in somebody’s backyard pool. But he doesn’t. Jesus commands Peter to meet him in the middle of that storm, and for just a moment, Peter does.
We tend to focus on the fact that Peter loses faith and falters and begins to sink, but I think we don’t give him enough credit that for a few steps, he manages it. He walks through the freaking storm. Him. Regular old Peter. As long as his eyes are on his friend, his teacher, his savior, he manages it.
Until the winds remind him he isn’t supposed to be able to survive this, and he quakes.
Friends, we don’t have a choice. We’re in the storm whether we like it or not. We can stay in the boat, but the boat is just as tempest-tossed and seasick a place to be as any. The dry shore is miles away. But we don’t have to be lost. All we have to do is learn to walk through the storm.
Easier said than done, I know.
The good news is that faith isn’t something that we just have or lack, like brown hair or a sense of smell. Faith is a muscle, one we can exercise and strengthen and enlarge. Jesus didn’t invite Peter to come to him on the water straight out of his fisherman’s boat on the day they met. Jesus walked with Peter on the dry land for a long time first, teaching him Torah, showing him miracles, healing his mother-in-law, explaining God’s kingdom to him. Jesus helped Peter build up his faith muscles until he was able to take a few tentative steps out into the storm with Christ.
Then Peter fell. And so what? Jesus was there anyway, with a hand ready to steady and save. Jesus didn’t leave him to drown. This is important: we don’t have to have the strongest faith to be worth saving. But how amazing would it have been for Peter, if he’d been strong enough to meet Christ in the storm, and to walk with him even then?
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be looking at ways to strengthen our faith muscles so that we can walk with Christ in this storm. But even as we do, even as we go through training together, even as I talk about how to make our strength stronger, greater, more resilient, I want you to hear that Jesus’ love for you is not dependent on how much faith you can offer him. Grow your faith for your own spiritual strength, for your own peace of mind, for your own ability to be loving, for your own well-being; but know that if these storms have rattled your faith to the core, and you aren’t sure if the God you used to worship is no more than a ghost somewhere out on the horizon:
Christ is right there, hand outstretched. Right there, drenched in the same wind and waves as you, but unsinkable, unstoppable, and holding you up, even if you can’t see it, can’t feel it.
We want to walk through the storm. But even if we can’t, even if we fall, Christ will walk through every storm to get to us.
And for that I breathe a sigh of relief, and I say Amen.