Presence in the Storm

boat

This sermon was preached at First Presbyterian Church in Troy, Michigan and was focused upon the story that is told in Matthew 8:23-27.  The audio recording is above and a written manuscript is below.

The last few days, and even the last few hours, had been a whirlwind. Jesus and the disciples had connected with so many people — people whose lives existed on a large continuum of social location.

After Jesus finished teaching the Sermon on the Mount, he came down from the mountain, and an enormous crowd was following him. That’s when a leper, a social outcast, had the audacity to come and kneel before him, saying, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” And Jesus did choose, not only choosing to heal him, but also choosing to touch him — one carrying a contagious disease, one who had been cast out from connection in the community.

Then Jesus and the disciples entered Capernaum, a city in Galilee. And when they arrived, a centurion approached Jesus, a person who had been given power and authority. He was alarmed about the health of his servant at home. And Jesus merely spoke the word and healed this servant.

These two moments were extraordinary — the healing of a leper, the healing of a servant merely by speaking a word. The needs were great; the healing was great.

And then next, the need for healing came close to home. Jesus entered Peter’s house and soon learned that Peter’s mother-in-law was lying in bed with a fever. So he healed her, and then immediately, she began to serve a meal to Jesus, Peter, and the disciples. Meanwhile, all of these people from the growing crowds heard what had been happening. That very evening, many people came to Peter’s house, asking for healing. And the story says that “Jesus cast out the spirits with a word and cured all who were sick.”

Jesus and the disciples must have been amazed at it all — joyful and overwhelmed. After all, don’t we feel both joy and overwhelm in times of amazement?

This is the great whirlwind of all that had happened over the last couple of days, and this is the context of what was happening right before Jesus and his disciples got into a boat and began to travel across the Sea of Galilee.

Jesus had seen the large crowds continuing to follow them, and he said, “Let’s go to the other side.” So he got into a boat, and his disciples followed him.

I wonder what they were thinking as they began this journey… Maybe there was a sense of relief. All of this excitement had also been exhausting. Maybe there was a feeling of adventure. All of this had also been quite new, quite engaging. And now, they were traveling to the other side of these waters, and the other side would not be Galilee but Gadara, a city that was a member of the Decapolis and a center of Greek culture in the region. Who knows what they would experience there?

We don’t know what Jesus and the disciples were feeling, but they did enter that boat. They departed, away from crowds, away from excitement, away from exhaustion. Perhaps now, they were expecting smooth sailing, but of course, as we know, that’s not what happened.

The Sea of Galilee is actually pretty small. When we hear a word like ‘sea,’ we expect an expansive body of water. But the Sea of Galilee is only 13 miles long and at its greatest width, only 8.1 miles wide. This was not a large body of water. But despite its small size, the Sea of Galilee was known to produce very large waves, especially during storms.

A storm was developing. The story says that “a windstorm rose on the lake, so great that the boat was being swamped by waves.” The scene turned into chaos pretty quickly. They were on a small boat together, and all of water was entering that boat with them. Even though they were on a small body of water, they were in the middle of it with no more crowds to help them. They were there together, but with a great feeling of being alone as they tried to bail out that water. How could it be possible that they just experienced all of this vitality together just days and hours before, and now, they would conclude it all by sinking and dying in the middle of the Sea of Galilee? This must have felt surreal — how could that be true? And yet, that seemed to be right before them.

And what’s more, they had just watched Jesus do extraordinary things among their neighbors, but right now, in their chaos and panic, they looked over, and Jesus was sleeping. He was sleeping. No doubt, he was exhausted from all that had happened before, but when they saw him sleeping, they must have been terrified. Maybe they were understandably angry too.

They went and woke him up and said, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” This seemed like the end to them. They were utterly terrified. And then Jesus says something unexpected,

“Why are you afraid, you of little faith?”

How could they not be afraid? The winds and the waves were pummeling their tiny boat. But then Jesus followed his question with action. He got up and rebuked the winds and the sea, and suddenly, there was a dead calm. He calmed that storm with his presence, and they were amazed. They were shocked. They were puzzled.

And they said to one another, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?”

And seemed as though they had gone from abject terror to awe. [1]

And while the first involved great risk and peril, the second was unsettling too. Awe can be unsettling in this way. They had feared that Jesus had abandoned him. Now they were in awe that a great presence was with them, a presence greater than they had expected… It was wonderful, and it was unsettling.

And so I wonder, what do we do with a story like this one? Is it unsettling to you and me?

It might be… because we could sit with it and think through its implications in ways that seem to say, “Jesus calms every storm. Jesus turns everything around. Jesus will save us from every peril.” We could sit with that implication, but it might unsettle us, because we know that is not always true.

We do live in a world with cancer… and war… and freak accidents… and poverty… and people who cause what seems to be infinite harm with never a consequence. We live in a world with depression… and family separations… and family estrangements… and addictions… and grief that seems larger than we can handle.

These are real, and sometimes, they seem to be pummeling our lives. Sometimes, it might even feel as though Jesus is sleeping.

But we of little faith… sometimes, just a little faith… come to discover moments, unexpected moments, when we sense that a presence greater than we have previously imagined is with us. Can you recall moments like that? I imagine we might have stories to share. And we experience moments like that, we feel awe… a sense of wonder, a sense of the sacred, mixed with perplexity, and mixed with a little bit of hope. Today, wherever we are and however we are, we are invited to rest into that, maybe even just a little bit, discovering that this presence loves us and is holding us fast.

Jesus himself will not be protected from all peril. In fact, the Gospel goes on to tell us that he loved so deeply, so broadly, so radically that the powers-that-be were threatened. He was unjustly arrested. He was unjustly murdered by the state.

It seemed as though all hope had been lost. But even here, we discover God’s presence — the presence of God found in Jesus found even on the cross, that instrument of ancient torture. We discover a God that says, “Where you suffer, I suffer. I am profoundly with you. I am profoundly for you.” And in the resurrection of Jesus, we discover a God that says, “I am calling you to new life, even here. Even in destruction, even in heartbreak, even in death.”

And here is one of the greatest mysteries of all. We ourselves are being invited to embody that kind of presence in this kind of world — this world that knows all of these things. We’re invited to step into that and perhaps invite ourselves and our neighbors to experience awe.

Years ago, when I was in seminary, I remember a classmate saying something so simple but so beautiful. In a prayer, she kept repeating a rhythm and a refrain. She said words like these, “God, may we add our care to your care. May we add our compassion to your compassion. May we add our presence to your presence.”

Maybe that is our prayer collectively today, that we might discover the presence of God as we dare to embody the presence of God in the world — not that we ourselves are God or little gods, but that our lives are truly accompanied, beckoning us to accompany other lives.

Perhaps this story unsettles us.

But perhaps, it also calls us. . .

(From here, our sermon moved toward celebration of communion)

Renee Roederer

[1] I appreciate the commentary of the Rev. Robb McCoy on the Pulpit Fiction Podcast who spoke about the movement from fear to awe in this passage.

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