Sermon: “Grace in the Storm”

 

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Grace in the Storm” (Matthew 14:22-33)
August 10, 2014
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

When I was a kid I used to love to stay up late on Saturday nights and watch reruns of Creature Features on TV. Creature Features showed classic horror movies like Dracula (1931) and The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), “B-movies” like The Monster that Challenged the World (1957) and The Blob (1958), and Japanese monster movies like Godzilla (1954) and Rodan (1956). The opening for Creature Features was a montage of classic monsters from these movies, complete with spooky music and an even spookier voice who would eerily recite the following:

“Gruesome ghouls and grisly ghosts
Wretched souls and cursed hosts
Vampires bite and villains creep
Demons scream and shadows sleep
Blood runs cold in every man
Fog rolls in and coffins slam
Mortals quake and full moons rise
Creatures haunt and terrorize…”

It was great late-night scary fun…and likely one more reason I need therapy ☺.

In today’s gospel passage Matthew describes a late-night scary event that was no fun for the disciples. After the miraculous feeding of the five thousand, Jesus sends the disciples out on a boat to cross the Sea of Galilee. This journey was not the disciples’ idea; they were simply doing what Jesus had asked them to do.

The Sea of Galilee is about thirteen miles long and eight miles wide, and Matthew tells us that while the disciples are “far from land” they find themselves overcome by a sudden storm that threatens their lives. In his classic short story A Descent into the Maelstrom (1841), Edgar Allan Poe describes what it is like to be suddenly overcome by a storm at sea:

“Looking astern, we saw the whole horizon covered with a singular copper-colored cloud that rose with the most amazing velocity… In less than a minute the storm was upon us—in less than two the sky was entirely overcast—and what with this and the driving spray, it became suddenly so dark that we could not see each other…If you have never been at sea in a heavy gale, you can form no idea of the confusion of mind occasioned by the wind and spray together. They blind, deafen, and strangle you, and take away all power of action or reflection” (18 Best Stories by Edgar Allan Poe, 234, 238).

This is a vivid description from a fictional short story, but as you know storms at sea are not just fictional, they happen in real life.

In late October 1991 the commercial fishing vessel Andrea Gail was caught in The Halloween Nor’easter of 1991, later dubbed “The Perfect Storm.” During this massive storm a buoy off the coast of Nova Scotia recorded a wave 100.7 feet high. Can you imagine getting caught in that? All six crew members of the Andrea Gail perished, and the final recorded words of Captain Billy Tyne were, “She’s comin’ on, boys, and she’s comin’ on strong.”

In his riveting book about these events entitled, The Perfect Storm (1997), Sebastian Junger poignantly identifies the long-lasting effects of storms like this:

“Anyone who has been through a severe storm at sea has, to one degree or another, almost died, and that fact will continue to alter them long after the winds have stopped blowing and the waves have died down. Like a war or a great fire, the effects of a storm go rippling outward through webs of people for years, even generations. It breaches lives like coastlines and nothing is ever again the same” (219-220).

And in today’s gospel lesson we see that there was nothing fictional about the storm in which the disciples found themselves, it was quite real.

In addition to being afraid, Matthew tells us that the disciples were being “battered by the waves” and that “the wind was against them.”

In the title track of Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band’s number one album, Against the Wind (1980), Seger articulates how this feels:

“The years rolled slowly past and I found myself alone
Surrounded by strangers I thought were my friends
I found myself further and further from my home
And I guess I lost my way…
I began to find myself searching
Searching for shelter again and again
Against the wind…
I found myself seeking shelter against the wind”

So in spite of obeying Jesus’ command to take the boat across the Sea of Galilee the disciples find themselves overcome by a sudden storm in the middle of the night, far from land, battered by the waves, and against the wind.

Ever feel like that?

And yet this is exactly when Jesus takes the initiative and goes to the disciples in the midst of the storm in the wee hours of the night, during what the King James Version terms “the fourth watch of the night”—sometime between 3:00 and 6:00 in the morning.

And Jesus is walking on the water.

The disciples were experienced fishermen, but they had never seen anything like this—and they did exactly what you and I would do, they cried out in fear, “It is a ghost!”

But it wasn’t a “gruesome ghoul” or a “grisly ghost,” it was Jesus—and Jesus didn’t let the disciples wallow in their fear before comforting them, for we read that “immediately Jesus spoke to them.”

And what did Jesus tell them?

“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

The reason the disciples, even before Jesus did anything about the storm, could “take heart” and “not be afraid” was because of the identity of the one who had come to them in the midst of that storm: “It is I,” Jesus said.

The Greek phrase for “It is I” that Matthew uses here is ego eimi, which literally means “I, I am” and hearkens back to God’s identifying himself to Moses from the burning bush as “I AM that I AM.” It is the same phrase John uses in the “I am” sayings of Jesus (I am the Light of the World, I am the Good Shepherd, I am the Resurrection and the Life…).

In other words, Jesus comforts the disciples with the fact that “I AM that I AM” has come to them right in the middle of the storm.

And when Peter responded to Jesus’ invitation to walk on the water out to Him only to find himself beginning to sink, he cried out to Jesus, “Lord, save me!” And again, Jesus does not wait for Peter to sink under the water and then dive in after him to bring Peter back to the surface, Matthew again emphasizes that “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him.”

And after Jesus and Peter got into the boat the storm suddenly ended, and as they realized indeed that “I AM that I AM” was with them, the disciples responded in worship: “Truly you are the Son of God.”

While some of you may be in the midst of a storm right now, perhaps feeling far from land, battered by the waves, against the wind, others of you may still be in the process of trying to recover from a “perfect storm” from your past that may still leave you afraid.

The Oscar-winning 1980 film Ordinary People brilliantly portrays this. The caption on the movie poster ominously describes the plot—“Everything in its proper place, except the past.”

The film is centered on the fallout from a storm which left an indelible mark on the Jarrett family, as the older of the two boys in that family died in a boating accident caused by a storm at sea. The younger brother, Conrad, managed to survive, but the tragedy left him psychologically and emotionally damaged on a very deep level.

The film depicts the strain this placed on the marriage of Calvin and Beth Jarrett (played brilliantly by Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore), but it also portrays the healing process Conrad begins to experience. Toward the end of the movie Conrad has a breakthrough in a meeting with his therapist, Dr. Berger (played by Judd Hirsch).

Conrad describes in vivid detail what happened during the boating accident, as well as his anger he towards his brother for being careless, and his anger at himself for not being able to save him. In the midst of their conversation Conrad cries out: “I’m scared! I’m scared!”

Dr. Berger, leaning forward in his chair, filled with compassion for Conrad, responds, “Feelings are scary. And sometimes they’re painful. And if you can’t feel pain, then you’re not going to feel anything else either. You know what I’m saying?”

“I think so.”

“You’re here and you’re alive. And don’t tell me you don’t feel that.”

“It doesn’t feel good.”

“It is good. Believe me.”

“How do you know?”

“Because I’m your friend.”

Perhaps you, like the disciples in today’s passage, are in the midst of a storm right now—and there’s nothing fictional about it—or, perhaps like Conrad Jarrett, you are still reeling from a past storm that has left you just as scared.

The good news of the gospel is that there is grace in the storm.

For in the midst of the storm Jesus Christ, “I AM that I AM,” has walked out to you, and not only is He “truly the Son of God,” he is your friend.

In His passion and death Jesus fully descended into the maelstrom of our fear and pain, and died in the “perfect storm” of our sin and depravity…only to rise again.

And this means that even if you, like the crew of the Andrea Gail, lose your life in a storm, you can take heart and not be afraid, for the One who walked on water and rose from the dead has the final word.

The storm will cease…and just like Peter, you will be saved.

Amen.