Proper 14, Year A, Church of St. James the Less, Madison

When he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened” (Matt. 14:30).

Back in early March (which now seems a long, long, time ago) Caroline and I woke after midnight to the sound of our cell phones going off, alerting us that there was a severe tornado warning in Nashville. As we silenced our phones, all was still outside, unnaturally so; the calm before the storm. Shortly after that our home alarm went off, followed by the city siren; I looked out our bedroom window to see darkest night and the neighborhood around us buffeted by high speed winds. Only minutes had elapsed from our first warning to arriving in our basement. I’m still trying to figure out how I managed to get there before Caroline. She’s still trying to figure it out, too. I guess I was just a little faster or perhaps more frightened.

That, of course, was the great Nashville tornado of 2020, which tore through our neighborhood in East Nashville and other communities in Middle Tennessee with incredible power, taking lives and doing damage, with winds over 140 miles per hour in some places. A major disaster for our community, now overshadowed by the pandemic, which became a thing just days later. Talk about the “changes and chances of this mortal life;” talk about the winds of adversity. Sometimes those winds are metaphorical and sometimes they are actual winds.

Our Gospel today tells a story of the disciples crossing the Sea of Galilee; Jesus has sent them on ahead while remaining on the mountain to pray. This takes place immediately after the feeding of the five thousand that we heard about last week. This story bears a passing resemblance to something that happens earlier in the Gospels, when Jesus is with the disciples in a boat and a storm comes up, threatening to swamp them. Jesus wakes from sleep and calms the wind and sea, and tells the disciples to have faith.

It bears a passing resemblance, but it’s not the same story. On the first occasion, Jesus is in the boat, and the way the story is told places all the emphasis on the natural phenomenon of sea and wind, and the fear it inspires. In our Gospel today, however, Jesus sends the disciples ahead of him so that they are alone in the boat. There’s no mention of fear until Jesus gets there, and he seems to be the one who inspired it! Is it really Jesus or isn’t it? The story focuses on the disciple’s lack of progress on the journey, their failure to make headway, and Jesus’ own absence from their midst.

If faith is about anything, it’s about believing in the presence of Jesus. Faith is not only the means by which we know about God, but our means of knowing God. Faith doesn’t depend on seeing; in fact, in the Letter to the Hebrews it says, “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen” (Heb. 11:1). For the disciples, however, out of sight seems to have meant out of mind. Even when they see him coming to them across the water, they don’t believe it’s Jesus.

Notice again that the issue in this story is not the danger from the elements, but simply the lack of any headway. Without faith, the disciples aren’t getting anywhere. Small wonder: again, out of sight, out of mind. Without a lively sense of the Lord’s presence, the church isn’t going anywhere. If it’s up to us to get where we need to go, through our own powers, then we’re likely to run into a storm that will make it impossible to move ahead. This is true, for each of us in our own lives and in the life of the community, the church as a whole. Right now, each of us knows the difficulties of making headway, but faith in Jesus will help us chart a course.

There’s another part to the story, one that only St. Matthew recounts, that bears out the importance of faith in Jesus. After Jesus enters the boat, Peter decides to try his own hand at walking on the water. Again, faith is the theme; but here what comes into focus is relationship with Jesus. Venturing on the water, Peter begins to sink. “But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’” (Matt. 14:30). Faith is manifested, not in St. Peter’s starting to sink, but in the personal appeal to Jesus. He knows he can’t make it without the Lord’s help. As it says in our reading from Romans today, “All who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Rom. 10:13). That’s what faith is all about.

Our faith shows forth in our own cry of help, especially in the times we live in. World-shaking events are taking place around us, but we will still need to fix our sights on Jesus. We won’t be able to move forward without recognizing his presence with us. The real danger is not the storm around us, with its threatening wind. The real danger is not relying on Jesus to move us forward, or not calling out for help when we’re beset.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee