“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” (Matthew 14:27b)
There’s a hard and fast rule for dealing with a crisis: if you panic, you die. During the Great Depression Franklin Roosevelt told us the only thing we had to fear was fear itself. That’s because people do stupid things whenever our sense of the normal becomes unhinged. We’ll run from a wild animal, thereby encouraging said beast to chase us, when we should be backing away slowly. We’ll hit our brakes in a skid when we should be taking our foot off the gas and steering into the skid. We’ll pull money we don’t even use out of our investment portfolio when the market goes south, effectively realizing the loss and incurring tax penalties, rather than waiting patiently for a turnaround.
Fear is a pretty strong tool of the devil. It makes us forget we have an all-powerful God. In the First Lesson in the RCL for Pentecost 10, Year A (1 Kings 19:9-18) even the prophet Elijah—the superstar of prophets who’ll make a special guest appearance on the Mount of the Transfiguration—starts to freak out. This guy has just slain 400 prophets of Baal, but when the evil Queen Jezebel puts a hit out on him he panics and high-tails it for the wilderness. Even after God provides him with food to sustain him for forty days and forty nights, he’s still overstating his case, whining and crying that he’s the only one left who loves the true God. God has to jerk his chain a little. God sends forth a tornado, an earthquake, and a brush fire[i], as if to say, “Now that I’ve got your attention, Elijah, let me give you the facts. This isn’t as bad as you think. There are still 7,000 in Israel who are faithful to me and have not bowed to Baal. You’re not the only one, Buster, so get over yourself.”
We see Peter acting the same way as Elijah in our Gospel Lesson (Matthew 14: 22-33). We‘re told the boat the disciples are in is being “battered by the waves” (v.24). Some Bible scholars see the boat as a metaphor for the church and the water as an ancient symbol of chaos. The interpretation here is that Matthew’s early Christian community is getting the crap knocked out of it by the chaos that surrounds it. This chaos could consist of lots of things in the ancient world, but most probably included a family-sized load of persecution.
Fortunately, the church still has Jesus. Jesus can walk calmly through the storm and angry sea, serenely telling the church, “Don’t freak out! It’s me!”[ii] Of course, ol’ Pete has got to have some reassurance, so he asks Jesus if he can come to him on the water—a pretty unsafe move under the circumstances if you ask me! But Jesus is never one to pass up a good teaching moment. He lets Peter do a pretty dumb thing. Peter looks at the waves, gets scared, and has to beg Jesus for help. Isn’t that just the way? Whenever we try to combat the chaos on our own, we always end up turning back to Jesus.
I’ve heard some people look at the COVID-19 pandemic, the civil unrest in the US, the economic troubles, and the intensity of weather events and conclude that the world is coming to an end. I’d agree that some aspects of our world may be on their way out, but I’m not sure it’s all over. And even if it is the end of civilization or humanity, would that really be so bad? Aren’t we still the children of God promised a home with God forever?
Uncertainty is no fun. We’ll fear what we don’t understand, and we’ll grow to hate what we fear. We can easily fall victim to frustration, anger, doubt, and—ultimately—despair. The last mentioned is what Luther called a “great and shameful” sin. So let’s remember who we are: children of the Heavenly Creator. Let’s try not to overstate our current situation like Elijah or jump ship like Peter. Even in the midst of the battering waves of chaos we can be imitators of Christ. We can be loving, self-sacrificing, grateful, and evangelical—preaching to others by the way we bear our own hardships and disappointments. Yeah, I’m sure there will be some who fall away and won’t return to the church when this is all over, but I prefer to have faith in the ones who will not bow the knee to disappointment or kiss the idol of bitterness. Remember: we don’t have to suck it up forever—we just have to trust for today and keep tomorrow’s troubles for tomorrow. Personally, I like to pray in the words of that great old gospel hymn:
Precious Lord, take my hand,
Lead me on, help me stand.
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn.
Through the storm, through the night,
Lead me on to the light.
Take my hand, Precious Lord, lead me home.
‘Til next time, may God give you peace and comfort. Thanks for reading.
[i] Just FYI, all of these natural disasters were believed to be caused by Baal, who was a sort of pagan weather god. The Bible says that God was not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire. See 1 Kings 19:11-12.
[ii] The Greek here is one word Qarseite! (tha-ra-seet-ay) which is variously translated as “have courage,” “take heart,” “be of good courage,” “be of good cheer,” etc. We don’t really have an equivalent word in English, but you get the idea. When Jesus introduces himself, he just says Ego eimi (Ego em-ee) or “I am.” I guess he just had to remind everybody that he is God by using the divine name found in Exodus 3:14.