We know the beginning of this story from Matthew. Twenty thousand people had shared a meal as evening fell. Jesus had taken the five loaves and two fish from the disciples, and had used them to open the hearts of the crowd, who learned a lesson about God’s generosity and responded with their own. Now night settled in and the crowds were on their way home.
I was raised by water – the Arabian Gulf, in water – swimming pools and the sea for the most part, but occasionally lakes or creeks, but not often ON water. We went fishing off the coast of Florida on one vacation. I caught a sea pickle and a sand dollar and spent most of the day throwing up. We took a cruise around the Mediterranean a few years later. My brother lost his glasses overboard and I got tonsillitis. With little experience of boating or sailing, it’s hard for me to imagine what it must have been like for the disciples – some of whom were fishermen, some were not – when Jesus told them (not asking, “Go,” he said) to get in the boat and head out. Perhaps the disciples who had marine experience looked at the sky and thought to themselves, “Hm. Not a great night for an excursion. Looks like a storm is coming in.”
But they went. Because frankly, this was Jesus, and he was sending them. And we never know what will happen when Jesus sends us, but it’s pretty much guaranteed to be exciting. So they go on, and Jesus finally gets time by himself to pray, perhaps giving thanks for the life of John the Baptizer, who had blessed Jesus at the start of his public ministry, and who had been murdered by Herod for speaking truth.
The disciples, meanwhile, were doing their level best to make some headway and getting nowhere. Now I’ve never been in a boat in a storm, but the phrase “battered by the waves” really captures my imagination. Several years ago, I watched part of an episode of a television show about Alaskan fishing boats. When the waves got bigger than the boat, I turned it off; just watching it made me feel queasy.
But even if you’re not a sailor or a fisherman, you can imagine how helpless the disciples must have felt. The boat is going up and down, the shore isn’t getting any closer, it’s dark, the dead of night, and the only alternative is to swim. At this point, humans being human, there may have been one or two disparaging remarks about their leader, who had sent them out into the chaos.
Traditionally, this text is interpreted to describe the early church. Scholars believe the gospel we attribute to Matthew was written around 90 CE(AD), when the Temple had already fallen, believers had scattered, and persecution of this new sect of Judaism, first called “the Way” and later tagged as “Christians,” was beginning to ripen into systemic cruelty and violent repression. So the boat being battered by the waves touched the experience of the faithful – out in the storm, who knew what would happen to them next.
“In the early morning,” the story reads, “he came walking toward them on the sea.”
Oh, thank God! they must have thought, Oh surely now we are saved!
The text tells us they were terrified, thinking they were seeing a ghost, and not the One who loved them. And Jesus had to reassure them, “It is I – ego emi.” The words he uses are so important. Ego emi is the Greek translation of the Hebrew phrase “I AM.” Ego emi is the same name God used when Moses asked the burning bush, “Who are you?” I AM is the name of the God who sent Moses to bring the people out of slavery, to lead them into the land of God’s promise. I AM is the eternal God, the Creator, the Liberator, the Guide. I AM is the God of freedom and faith.
The rest of the story is almost anti-climactic. We knew Peter would jump out of the boat. Peter was always jumping, always acting or speaking before he thought. And once again, his enthusiasm carries him a long way, but not all the way, and once again it is Jesus who reaches out to him, and brings him up, and it is Jesus who chides him, with much warm love in his voice, “Peter, Peter, Peter, why did you doubt?”
If we spend too much time on Peter, though, we will miss the point. Jesus continues, now drawing Peter along, and he gets in the boat.
And the wind ceases. And the disciples know who Jesus is.
Today our nation is being battered by waves taller than the boats we hope will bring us to the other shore. Yesterday, in Charlottesville, Virginia, ultra-right-wing, white nationalists brought bigotry and hatred out on the streets. Make no mistake, this was not an aberration. This was nothing surprising. This crashing storm of prejudice and anger is not a new thing or an isolated thing; it would not have drawn over a thousand people if it were. Violence grew and broke out, from marching to shouting to fighting to murder. Three people lost their lives. Scores were injured.
This is our storm. This is where Jesus has sent us, to speak up and to speak out against internalized hatred and the vilification of those who are not white, not straight, not documented, not powerful, not “Christian.”
And we are already in it. Already taking wave after wave, sick at stomach, sick at heart, holding on to our boat for dear life. Jesus sent us here, to enter the storm, whether we are afraid or not.
Some are already out on the water. Our book study group had the second gathering around the book UnClobber: Rethinking our Misuse of the Bible on Homosexuality, by Colby Martin, this Friday evening. We are rather like Peter – we started without really knowing what would be required of us, and in our first meeting we got thoroughly wet and had to swim because we were nervous, and didn’t know the language around LGBTQ* experience, and we said all the wrong things. But this Friday we became church in a way more powerful than I have seen in the four-and-a-half years since I came to Gallup. We started to push past our fear of the wind and to trust that our Jesus would show up, however stormy our surroundings. We asked questions and listened carefully and learned. We laughed.
The love we found through Christ on Friday is already transforming those who were in the conversation. We are more and more able to see the faith we bear together as wide enough for all. It is my expectation that the same faith, the same love, will move on from this group to our congregation and through our congregation to our community.
Morning will come. It is coming. Jesus is on the way. He comes to us THROUGH the storm, bringing courage for those of us who are willing to get out of the boat and try and even for those who have or continue to remain in the boat. He is reaching out to us when our faith fails and we sink. He is taking us back to the boat so we can continue on. For all of us, he is stilling the wind. We will make it to shore.
Thanks be to God.