August 13, 2017

1 Kings 19:9-18
Matthew 14:22-33

“Meeting Jesus in the Storm”

The Revised Common Lectionary provides us with a set of readings for each Sunday, and the first thing that ministers tend to do in studying them is to look for some kind of connection between them. Why do we have Elijah’s panic attack paired with Jesus’ walking on the water today? Two interesting stories… but what do they have to do with each other?

Well, the first connection I noticed was that both stories have storms. The disciples encounter a windstorm out on the lake, causing their boat to be battered by the waves and likely making the rowing very difficult. And Elijah, after running away to hide in a cave, experiences a great wind, an earthquake, and a fire… followed by the voice of God asking him, “What are you doing here?”

And it’s not just the strong winds that connect today’s stories, but also the good news that in the midst of those storms, God speaks to us, and God comes to us.

Can you remember some storms that you’ve been through in your life? Perhaps some actual storms with thunder and lightning striking, with mighty winds causing destruction, or with blowing and drifting snow that obscures vision and causes accidents.

I am remembering the panic I felt many years ago, when I experienced a white-out as I was driving on the highway between Saskatoon and Regina. I was relieved not to be alone in the car when we found ourselves leaving the road and driving into the ditch, and I was even more relieved that we didn’t hurt ourselves or anyone else in the accident. I expect that many of you have similar storm stories, and perhaps some that did not have such a good outcome.

And I know that you also have other storm stories to tell – not of actual rain, or snow, or lightning, or wind – but figurative storms you’ve weathered that may have included illness, injury, bereavement, financial struggle, relationship breakdown, or personal crisis. In fact, some of those storms may still be raging right now… and it is in spite of the storm that you have gotten yourself here to church, to be together with your church family, and to look for a sign of God’s presence in the tumult.

Today’s stories remind us that God comes to us and God speaks to us in the midst of those storms. When I am driving through heavy rain and panicking because I cannot see, God speaks to me through the voice of my husband, saying “Just slow down a little more, and keep to the right, and we’re going to be fine.”

God comes to another who is struggling with loneliness, through the kindness of a church member who visits or drops off some homemade baking. God makes his presence known to a sick or dying person in hospital, through the whispered prayers or gently held hand of a friend or caring visitor. God is revealed to another who is weighed down with grief when someone provides space for them to talk and cry and lament the loss that feels like it has broken their heart.

Sometimes we only notice and name that presence of God when we reflect back on our experience, when the worst of the stormy weather has passed. But I think that today’s stories have more advice for us than simply, “Hang on, and remember that God is with you in the storms.”

Let’s begin with Elijah. Poor Elijah! This prophet has been doing the hard work of proclaiming the Word of the Lord, challenging the people to turn back to God, and combatting the false prophets of false gods and idols. He’s made himself so unpopular that the powerful Queen Jezebel is threatening to have him killed “by this time tomorrow.”

So, Elijah runs for his life! He was afraid, so he fled. He goes out into the wilderness, and expects to die. He eventually finds a cave in which to sleep, and there he hears God speaking to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

He answers, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

Some commentators describe this scene in Elijah’s story as a panic attack, and other say that he was depressed. Although the storm he is experiencing of conflict with the powerful Jezebel is real and dangerous, Elijah has somehow started to believe that he is all alone and destined to fail in his mission. He’s given up, and run away to the wilderness to die.

The story isn’t very clear about the meaning of the stormy elements that follow. We hear that “the Lord is about to pass by” and then there is a great wind, followed by an earthquake, and then a fire. The text says that God was not IN the wind, or IN the earthquake, or IN the fire, but God spoke again in the sound of sheer silence that followed.

Perhaps it is a reminder that God does not CAUSE the struggles that we experience in our lives either. God does not SEND us tribulations and trials, but when these things happen, God does make his presence known in the quiet in-between times.

When God does speak to Elijah, God challenges his conclusion that “he alone is left.” Whereas Elijah states that all the Israelites has forsaken the covenant, God says that there are 7000 people in Israel that have not turned away from God to worship idols. And whereas Elijah says that he’s the only one of the prophets left, God suggests several good leaders whom Elijah should anoint as kings and prophets to continue the work that he has begun.

It reminds me a little of times in my ministry when I have felt overloaded with responsibilities and feeling like there is no one equipped and ready to help me. But God has spoken to me in those times too… often through a lay leader with an eye for recognizing spiritual gifts in God’s people. Have you thought of “so-and-so”? Perhaps with a little support and encouragement, she could take on that project? What about “this other person” – I know he’s been looking for a way to get more involved in the church community, and his background would make him ideal for that role.

“You are not alone,” God assures Elijah and us, “Not only am I here with you, but you belong to a community of people and you can work together to accomplish the mission that I have given to you.”

In our Gospel story, Jesus gives the disciples a challenging mission as well. While he goes off to pray, he sends them out in a boat on the lake to make their way through a windstorm.

For the early Christian community that first heard this story, the disciples in the boat came to represent the Christians gathered together in the church. The trials and persecution that they were experiencing at that time were very much like the wind and the waves tormenting the boat in which the disciples travelled.

And so, as they struggled with their mission of sharing the good news about God in Jesus Christ with the world, they could remember the first disciples struggling to row through the windstorm. They could trust that Jesus would come to them as well, making his presence known in the darkest part of the night when the struggle seemed most difficult.

As you know, there are several stories in the Gospels about storms at sea. In some of those stories, Jesus is already in the boat, though sleeping in the back. This version is different, in that Jesus comes to them walking on the water. And this version is different too, because of what Peter decides to do… to get out of the boat and try to walk on the water like Jesus.

The standard interpretation is that Peter is a brave and courageous disciple who steps out in faith to do something that seems impossible. His downfall is that he doesn’t have quite ENOUGH faith to manage it. He loses focus, pays attention to the threatening storm, and begins to sink.

This reading might challenge us as individuals to new ventures in ministry that seem difficult and scary. You might want to try some preaching or evangelizing your neighbours, for example. Or how about risking your life in a foreign mission, or giving up your job to volunteer full time for the church or in another ministry?

But some interpreters have pointed out that it may not have been the “sinking” that demonstrated Peter’s lack of faith. They suggest that he showed his doubt when he decided to get out of the boat.

The problem was that Peter didn’t trust that Jesus was really there. He wanted proof. He couldn’t just hang on with his friends in the boat, and wait for Jesus to come to them. Instead, he left them in the boat while he stepped out on the water to test out whether he could be a star, walking on the water like a god.

His words to Jesus sound very much like the devil’s tests back at the beginning of the Gospel. “Lord, IF it’s really you… command me to come to you on the water.”

One commentator reflects on the folly of Peter’s challenge: “Faith is not being able to walk on water – only God can do that – but [faith is] 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.”

I like the image of the church as a boat, sent out on a mission by Christ, making our way together through the storms and challenges that come our way, assured that we are not alone… not only because we are together in the same boat, but also because Jesus is with us.

What I have learned about this congregation so far (through my visits and conversations with you) is that many of you have experienced this community as a church family, a place of welcome, and belonging, and care. I am grateful that you have welcomed me into the boat with you, and pray that we can listen together for Jesus’ instructions on which way to row as we continue this mission.

I think we also need to remember that the boat is bigger than just this congregation… that we are not alone because we belong to a presbytery and a denomination… that we are not alone because we belong to the one, holy, catholic church throughout the world. We must not be deluded into thinking, like Elijah, that “we alone are left.”

We are not alone because we belong to a large family. And we are not alone because God is with us… coming to us in the midst of the storms we face, speaking to us in quiet moments, giving us instructions for what to do next, and courage as we row into the wind.

Let us encourage one another in the work of ministry, and help each other to listen and to hear God’s voice, as we continue our journey together.