August 13th Sermon: Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid (Paul Strike)

Matthew 14:22-23, 1 Kings 19:9-18

 

There is a painting in the Narthex,

In line with the center aisle.

You really can’t miss it—it’s pretty massive.

It is, of course, a painting depicting

A dramatic moment from our Gospel reading for today.

Peter, with white hair and beard,

Is about waist-deep in the tumultuous waters.

He stares wildly up at Jesus.

His left hand clings to Jesus right around Jesus’ wrist,

And his right arm is splayed off to the side.

Jesus, on the other hand,

Has a hold of Peter’s forearm.

Jesus’ feet are atop the waves swelling underneath him.

His feet are even reflected in the water below him, which is a pretty neat touch.

What strikes me most about this picture

Is the sheer calmness of Jesus.

His demeanor is that of one who has seen it all,

And still has compassion.

Jesus, of course, has chaos all around him:

The waves all around him are whitecaps,

Swelling and cresting and lulling.

The other disciples are in a boat off to the side.

Their boat is listing hard to the right, rolling on the waves.

The disciples’ faces hold looks of concern;

Their arms are raised, perhaps beckoning Jesus over to them

To help them out!

Finally, of course, Jesus is lifting Peter out of the dangerous waves.

Even amid the tumult going on all around him,

Jesus exudes quiet compassion,

A soft love as he looks down at Peter.

He here encapsulates the first phrase he utters in the Gospel story for today:

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

 

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

What are we supposed to make of this phrase and its implications

In a world where absolute chaos of various kinds seems

To have become imprinted into our very culture, even our DNA?

In this week alone,

There was news about North Korea threatening attack on Guam.

This can bring to mind very frightening words like “nuclear war”

And “mutually-assured destruction.”

Perhaps more urgent and frightening

Was the news that there was a large white nationalist gathering on the

University of Virginia campus.

They came to protest the potential removal

Of a statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general.

Among the harrowing scenes were hundreds of white people with lit torches,

Nazi flags, Confederate flags, shirts with Hitler’s Mein Kampf quoted.

And, as if these things were not terrifying enough,

A car rammed into a group of people who were part of the counter-protest.

Nineteen people were injured and one woman died.

This domestic terrorism against people of color has not been extinguished;

It has been, is, and potentially will be chaos for the foreseeable future.

In addition to these problems, our own lives are full of their own turmoil.

There is so much fear at the root of these problems.

Fear at not being able to pay the bills.

Fear at loneliness from life transitions and leaving people and things behind.

Fear at losing a friend or relative to sickness, to war, to hate.

Fear at death.

In the midst of these fears, cultural and personal,

And when the two become one,

We might join our voices to that of Peter:

“Lord, save me!”

We might not even expect an answer.

Like Peter taking his mind off of Jesus

And fearing the wind and the waves,

Sometimes all we can do is succumb to all the fears and terrible things that pile onto us, forcing us to the point where we ask:

Where is God in all this?

 

God wasn’t supposed to be in the silence on Mt. Horeb.

Elijah, in the Old Testament passage reading for today,

Was running away from those who wanted him dead.

He is in the cave at this mount

And witnesses:

A wind that destroys mountains! An earthquake! A fire!

One would expect God, who has been in these forces before in the Scriptures,

To be part of these earth-shattering phenomena.

—yet, this time, God is not there.

Instead, God speaks in the sheer silence,

The absolute absence of everything else.

There, as some translations state,

A “still small voice” speaks to Elijah and gives him a new commission:

Go back and anoint people to do God’s will. They will do so.

And God assures Elijah that he is not alone.

Seven thousand people are still on God’s side.

God wasn’t supposed to be in the silence,

But God was.

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

 

Jesus wasn’t supposed to be walking on water to the disciples.

You could tell that by the reactions of the disciples.

They had been pushed out far away from the land

By the wind and waves.

They are tired, it is early in the morning—between 3 and 6 AM,

And suddenly they notice a person-shaped figure

Walking toward them, atop the ripples of the sea’s surface.

Of course Jesus was a ghost to them!

They had never seen anything like it.

But Jesus says,

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

There is something specific I must note here.

The phrase, “it is I,” is not just Jesus referring to himself without significance.

Jesus is referring to himself emphatically.

He is God incarnate, a God of presence. It is I.

This recalls the time when God refers to God’s self in the book of Exodus,

When God reveals the divine name to Moses on Mount Horeb out of the burning bush.

I AM WHO I AM is the translation.

It is I, Jesus says.

Thus, on this early morning, in the middle of a rough sea,

For these disciples in the middle of the sea, there is nothing to fear because

Jesus is God and no ghoulish specter come to haunt them.

Jesus was not supposed to be walking on the sea to the disciples,

But he was.

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

 

Finally, there is the ultimate place

Where God is not expected to be: the cross.

In Matthew’s account of the crucifixion,

Jesus, on the cross,

Utters the first verse of Psalm 22:

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Soon after, Jesus breathes his last and dies.

His body is taken to a tomb.

It lies there… until the third day.

Jesus is raised from the dead.

He is conqueror of death, by death on a cross.

God was not supposed to be there at the site of the cross nor at death,

Yet God was miraculously there.

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

 

 

Recently, I learned about the death of a teacher

At my old high school.

My dad is a teacher at the same school,

And I used to play with one of his sons.

His wife was my sixth-grade teacher.

We knew each other.

This man who died was an English teacher,

And you would be able to know that by his mannerisms.

He was a pretty big man—maybe a little over six feet tall, sturdy,

And had a big personality and a booming voice to boot.
He would pop his head into other classes to

Ask totally unrelated questions,

To the delight of the students.

Catholic friends would say that you knew when

He was at Mass—there was no mistaking his big singing voice.

His speaking voice was expressive, full of vigor that would make any thespian proud.

He recently had a poem published.

He was a grandfather, a father, a husband, a teacher.

He was a poet, a singer.

He had a beautiful soul and let it shine for others to see.

He helped people see the love of God in the world.

He had cancer,

Which metastasized, or spread to other parts of his body,

And it had so deteriorated this big man—big in personality, in stature, in impression—

That he died just a couple

Days after entering hospice.

He died this week.

He was 63.

His death is one of those deaths that can make one think,

Where is God in all this?

After all, he had a lot to look forward to:

Retirement. Years with his wife, children, and grandchildren.

Years of singing loudly and writing deeply.

I have hope that God is with his family right now,

Holding them up in love,

And that he is hearing those words:

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

 

In our day-to-day lives,

When we see and feel and taste fear,

We must always resist the nagging idea

That God is not there with us amid the chaos of death and destruction.

God is not “supposed” to be in those places.

But, it is in those places we least expect

That God is most certainly present.

 

Amen.

 

 

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