I have preached before on what I have considered to be encounters with angels. You may remember my stories about the nun who always seemed to be praying with me as I read the Daily Office at St. Rose of Lima in Murfreesboro, TN. You are more likely to remember the DNR officer when we pulled the girl out of the St. Joe River before the Vigil service at St. Paul’s. I think I have mentioned that one twice.
Susan and I were talking about the DNR officer this week, and she asked if I had any clue at the time that we were in the presence of an angel. I did not and neither did she. It was just later when we tried to locate the guy and the police report had no record of his being there. The police had not seen him, and suddenly we started asking ourselves why he had not called for help on his radio or his phone. Why had the police not seen him?
It seems that for the disciples in today’s reading, they did not recognize Jesus either. They were in peril, and we are told that the boat was far from land and battered by the waves. The wind was against them. It was not a good place to be. They saw a man walking toward them on the water and they were terrified. They thought it might be a ghost. They cried out in fear.
Jesus told them “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” They still doubted. Peter said, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He doubted and did not say, “Lord it is you!” He said “if.”
As Christians we find ourselves in peril. When I was praying the Office in the chapel at St. Rose of Lima, it was because I felt disconnected from my faith and was really struggling. Both my parents had died. Susan and I had lost a series of pregnancies. I was in a desert place, as we say in the pulpit. I was focused on my own problems.
This narrative in Matthew follows the feeding of the 5000, and I am sure the disciples were tired. Jesus told them to go ahead of him in the boat, and so they were on their own. Now they are fearing for their lives. I will observe they are doing what Jesus told them to do, and they did not like the way it seemed to be turning out.
As we read this story of the disciples at sea, we need to know what was happening as Matthew wrote down the words. As Matthew was writing down his Gospel, Romans were persecuting Christians. Those Christians, like the disciples in the boat, were just trying to obey Jesus, but like the men in the boat they were caught up in a storm that was not of their making. Like the disciples in the boat, they were trying to do what Jesus wanted them to do, but things were going badly. The story of the disciples in the boat was also, in a sense, the story of the Christians of Matthew’s day.
So Matthew is telling two stories simultaneously: The first is the story of the disciples caught in a storm at sea. The second is the story of Christians everywhere who find themselves in a bad place. The story of the disciples caught up in the storm is the story of every Christian. Sometimes we are obedient to our call. We do the best we can to respond to our Lord. It is not always easy, and storms come up. We find ourselves distracted by the wind and the waves.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Everyone therefore who hears these words of mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man, who built his house on a rock. The rain came down, the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat on that house; and it didn’t fall, for it was founded on the rock” (7:24-25).
We want to be that house built on the solid foundation. We we see the storms though, and it is easy to be terrified. We focus on the peril or our own situation.
Notice that when the disciples see Jesus walking on the water, he tells them “Do not be afraid.” That is my first takeaway. When we encounter the storms of life, we also should not be afraid. Jesus is there for us. He has a plan. He loves us. Sometimes we do not see the angels the Lord has provided to help us, but that does not mean they aren’t there.
Second, I want you to notice that when Peter walks on the water, he is doing great until, he gets distracted. He takes his eyes off Jesus and begins to sink.
Keep your eyes on Jesus. That is my second takeaway.
I have said these words in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sermon preached by Fr. Tom at St. Thomas, Plymouth
August 13, 2017; Tenth Sunday after Pentecost