Reflection: August 10 — Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

A couple of weeks ago I turned on the television to watch the daily news to find out what was happening in our province and around the world. To my surprise there was a story about a fisherman from Tofino who was out on his boat and discovered a large sphere floating in the ocean. With help he was able to pull the object from the water and onto his boat. To his amazement it was evident that attached to the sphere was sophisticated seismic detection equipment. The fisherman reported the find to the appropriate authorities who soon discovered that this particular piece of equipment had gone missing during the devastating Tsunami that hit Japan three years ago. To think that equipment survived on the open ocean battered about in storm tossed seas for three years eventually floating to the west coast of British Columbia is quite remarkable.

We all know the power of the sea – whether we’ve been on a boat in stormy weather, been at the seashore when the wind whips up and the sea gets choppy, or witnessed countless times on our television screens hurricanes or earthquakes that cause the seas to roil and crash against anything in its way – we understand the power of a storm-tossed sea.

Jesus first disciples also knew the power of the sea. Remember that when Jesus first called them to be his disciples, they were earning a living as fishermen on the Sea of Galilee. They knew well the dangers of open water and how quickly relatively calm water can change into a turbulent mass of huge waves that can easily sink a small boat. They knew the risks and they knew this particular body of water very well. The Sea of Galilee, is actually a huge freshwater lake which is thirteen miles long, seven miles across and 150 feet deep. Mountain ravines funnel cold air from the mountaintops and mix with the humid air at the water’s surface and twenty foot waves can arise unexpectedly especially at sundown which is exactly when Jesus sent his disciples off in a boat after feeding the multitudes on the shore.

This is where today’s story, from the Gospel of Matthew begins. The disciples were supposed to go on ahead of Jesus to the other side of the lake perhaps to Bethsaida as Mark’s gospel suggests. In each of the three gospel accounts of this story (Matthew 14:22-33; Mark 6:45-52; John 6:16-21) we are told the wind was against the disciples’ boat. The account, from Matthew’s Gospel, tells us that by early morning the disciples’ boat was battered by the waves and was still far from land. We can only imagine how exhausted they must have been. It would have taken great vigilance, strength, and the determination of all hands on board to keep afloat given those extreme conditions. And, from our own life experience of exhaustion in extremely trying circumstances we can well understand the disciples’ anxiety and fear.

In ancient times, the sea was seen as a mythical place that was unpredictable and thought to contain spirits that were not always well intentioned. Chaos could reign in such places and unsuspecting people could get caught up in dangerous situations they did not have the power to control. With this in mind, it is not surprising that the disciples mistook Jesus for a specter of death coming to claim them. When Jesus reached them he spoke words of reassurance and encouragement. “Take heart”, he said, “It is I; do not be afraid.”  

This story, of Jesus coming to the disciples in their time of need, speaking words of affirmation and assurance, and accompanying them with steadfast love, was of essential importance to the early Christian communities. After Jesus died, this story would have been told and retold as a reminder that Jesus would always be with them no matter how rough the storms of life. They needed to be encouraged to “take heart” which they knew meant having courage in spite of whatever adversity they were facing. As they continued, with the ministry they shared with Jesus, they had a profound sense of being accompanied by him and they remembered their many experiences with him and the lessons he taught them. They passed these stories and lessons on to others who in turn passed them on throughout the ages. These stories, though they sometimes sound strange to our ears still contain wisdom for us today.

It is no coincidence that early on in the formation of the Christian Church that the symbol of a small boat with a cross-shaped mast was adopted as a symbol for the Church. This symbol, inspired by stories such as today’s story from Matthew’s Gospel, reminded Christians that in all the storms of life that Christ is with us. Crucial to the Church, then and now, is the conviction that Christ guides our way in good times and in challenging times.

Over the centuries, church architecture has been influenced by the image of boat as representative of the church universal. Often the ceilings of churches are shaped, like our sanctuary ceiling is, like the inverted frame of a simple boat. This image has also taken on metaphorical meaning with the detail in Matthew’s story of Peter daring to leave, what was known to him, and venture out into unknown and even riskier territory to follow Jesus.

For the people of his day, Jesus represented the masses that lived outside the comfortable confines of established religious establishments. He went out where the people were, found out what they needed and shared what he had to offer. His words of faith, hope, love and justice were mirrored by his actions. People could count on him to speak and act for the disenfranchised, the poor, the homeless, the weary, the sick, the disheartened. Jesus called his disciples to risk leaving what was familiar and comfortable behind and follow him in a way of life that exemplified compassion and justice.

The transformation of our lives and our world is a risky business. We don’t always know exactly where we are going or what the future will hold but if we keep our eyes on Jesus and step out with faith and hope we can, like Peter did in today’s story, risk doing something we aren’t entirely sure we have the strength or ability to do.

Twenty years ago I had an experience that led me to believe that Jesus was calling me to take a risk and step out into an unknown world. I followed that call, sometimes feeling like I was sinking and sometimes feeling buoyed by the faith and support of others. That call led me away from the secure and comfortable life I had created for myself and into an unknown future. Very often I felt afraid. I was fearful: that I would fail; that I wouldn’t have what it takes; that I would disappoint myself and others; of accruing financial debt more than I could handle and of many other things. During those times when fear gripped my life I reached out: to God in prayer; to others for emotional and spiritual support; to my community of faith; to Christ in whose footsteps I was trying to follow. Every day, then and now, I step out in faith and trust God will guide me and Christ will walk with me.

I don’t know what the future holds for me or for the United Church of Canada in the twenty-first century. What I do know is that when I feel anxious I think about those disciples on a storm tossed sea and Jesus’ voice saying, “Take heart. It is I. Do not be afraid.” And, I remember Peter’s remarkable act of faith in stepping into the unknown and that Jesus accompanied him in his first feeble efforts and continued to encourage and guide him all the days of his life.

Wherever we journey as a community of faith, may we always remember that when we step out in faith we are never alone. Trusting God’s constant and loving presence we’ll share in the responsive prayer, written by Joyce Rupp, found on the yellow bulletin insert.

One: As we journey through life, we face fear of the unknown, doubts, hesitations, anxieties, and insecurities…
All: help us to trust in you, O God.
One: Life is an unfolding mystery, sometimes a painful search and sometimes a wonderful discovery…
All: help us to trust in you, O God.
One: When our footsteps grow weary, when we stumble along the way, discouragement and doubt so easily come forth to greet us…
All: help us to trust in you, O God.
One: We are always learning what to leave behind and what to take with us as we move along the road of life. As we struggle to make wise decisions…
All: help us to trust in you, O God.
One: Expectancy, anticipation, and courage rise up in our beings when we are open to your ways, O God of intricate mystery. As we search for reasons to hope…
All: help us to trust in you, O God.
One: In our journeying, we need a strong conviction about the beauty and goodness of life, a vision of hope that endures through the difficult times, and a thread of love that weaves through all of our dreams.
All: O God of the journey, help us to trust in you, step out in faith, and have courage to act with love and hope, this day and in the days to come. Amen

 “A Prayer for Those Who Journey”
from Out of the Ordinary, pg.226, by Joyce Rupp, adapted.



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