FOR THOSE IN PERIL ON THE SEA

14 MATTHEW 14:22-33
ST. AUGUSTINE’S EPISCOPAL CHURCH, MORROW, GEORGIA
THE REV. BARRY GRIFFIN, RECTOR

My dad was a veteran of the U.S. Navy.  During World War II he served in the Pacific.  Years later, I learned about Okinawa, Leyte and Lusanne in American History class.  Though he seldom talked about it, my dad and his comrades made American history in each of those battles.  He drove a landing craft that took soldiers from the ship to the beach.

Like them, he faced enemy fire.  He saw men shot.  He saw men loaded down with gear sink to the bottom of the sea.  As he once said to me, “I saw things nobody should ever have to see.”

This morning at the eleven o’clock service we’ll sing a hymn that has particular significance for sailors.  It’s known as the Navy Hymn.  It always makes me think of my dad. 

Eternal Father strong to save,

                  whose arm hath bound the restless wave,

who bidd’st the might ocean deep

                  its own appointed limits keep:

O hear us when we cry to thee

                  for those in peril on the sea.

We don’t sing that hymn very often.  But when we do, people sing with conviction.  Years ago, at coffee hour, a woman of my generation offered one possible explanation.  She said, “That hymn always takes me back to 1963.”

When she said that, I knew exactly what she meant.  For in November, 1963, they played the Navy Hymn at President Kennedy’s burial service.  I was young, but I remember it very well.

The restless waves of the war-torn Pacific did not overcome John Fitzgerald Kennedy, but an angry tide of hate in this country did.  This November will be fifty-four years since he was killed…

The sea is a dangerous place.  A calm sea can turn against you at any moment.  If you’re a sailor or a fisherman you know that already.  The sea is a dangerous, perilous place.

Ancient people understood this very well.  In the Bible the sea is related to the forces of chaos.  The dark forces of chaos continually threaten the goodness of God’s creation.  And when a storm comes up, you better stay in the boat…

“Y’all go on,” Jesus said.  Matthew tells us that “Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side.” 

Do you find this odd?  I do.  I find it odd for two reasons.  One reason is practical: I wonder how Jesus planned to catch up.  It’s one thing to say, “Y’all wait up.”  It’s another thing to say “Y’all go on without me.”  When you say “Y’all go on,” you must have a plan to catch up later.  Did Jesus plan to walk on water?  Maybe.

The other reason I find this odd is theological.  It seems to go against Matthew’s theology.  For Matthew, Jesus is “God with us,” God personified.  Remember that first chapter of Matthew?  Matthew quoted the prophet Isaiah: “For behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel: God with us.”

Remember the last chapter of Matthew?  Prior to his ascension into heaven, Jesus’ final words to his followers were these: “Lo, I am with you always: even to the ends of the earth.”

For Matthew, Jesus is God with us: God with us always, even to the ends of the earth.  But today, Jesus makes his disciples get into a boat and go on ahead without him. 

What is Jesus teaching his disciples?

What is Matthew teaching us?

Consider the storm-tossed boat.  The storm-tossed boat may well be a symbol of the church: the church as it journeys through the chaos of this world on its course through time.

And through the centuries, during stormy days and nights, how many times has the church cried out, “Where is God?  We are perishing!  Where is the Lord?”

And yet, eventually, the storm passes.  It always passes.  And the church realizes that Jesus has been near all the while.

Just because we feel forsaken doesn’t mean we are forsaken.

You may know the Footprints story.  Do you?  It goes something like this.  In eternity, a follower of Christ was invited to review the course of her life on earth.  What she saw was a long stretch of beach with two sets of footprints: her footprints, and the footprints of Our Lord.  That pleased her very much. 

But she saw something that troubled her, too.  For at a certain point, only one set of footprints was seen.

“What happened, Lord?” she asked.  “Why did you leave me?”

“I never left you,” he replied, smiling.  “You became weak, and so I picked you up and carried you in my arms.  Those footprints you see are mine, not yours.” 

Jesus said to Peter: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Doubt what?  Doubt his own ability to walk on water?  I don’t think so.  People don’t walk on water.  What was Peter thinking? 

Here’s the crux of the matter: Peter and the other disciples doubted that Jesus was near.  They were afraid: afraid of the storm; afraid of the Lord.  They thought he was a ghost.  They lost their faith in Jesus. 

Even so, when Jesus carried Peter into the boat the wind ceased.  Sooner or later, the wind always ceases.

When the wind died down, those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

There are times in life when circumstances make us afraid.  Sooner or later we find ourselves “in peril on the sea.”  There are times when we feel abandoned by God.  That’s just how we feel.  Feelings matter, but feeling abandoned doesn’t mean we’ve been abandoned.

Remember: you are Jesus’ beloved, and Jesus has promised to be with you always: “even to the ends of the earth.”

Amen.

         If you would like to respond to this sermon or receive future sermons by email, contact me at barryqgriffin@earthlink.net

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