The gospel for this Sunday begins with an interesting image. “After he had fed the people, Jesus MADE the disciples get into the boat” (Matt. 14:22). Jesus made them get into the boat. You could say, “He pushed them into the boat.” In Spanish it says, “Jesus obligated his disciples.” (Jesús obligó a sus discípulos.) The Italian translation is, “Jesus ordered the disciples to get into the boat.” (Gesù ordinò ai discepoli.)
Sometimes, God pushes us right into a storm!
Shortly after ordination, God pushed me into a dark storm. After I was ordained for three years, I was sent to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in northern South Dakota. Normally, life on the reservation is rough, but it was intensified by one of the harshest winters ever recorded. It started snowing in late October and by early December we had close to 30” of snow. There were two Franciscan Sisters with us, and Sr. Jacque said, “Isn’t the countryside beautiful with all the glistening snow.” I told her, “You just wait until the wind blows.” The week before Christmas the wind blew for three days straight, and we were buried.
That winter we had over 100” of snow. High winds constantly blocked roads. Ranchers suffered large losses of cattle and struggled with depression. It was a long dark cold winter ….. and the storm continued right into the next spring when the thawing snow flooded one of the mission churches. A year later, lightning struck another church and burned it to the ground. In the meantime, we had a rash of suicides.
Storms come in a variety of flavors. What kind of storms have you experienced? Maybe financial uncertainty or losing a job, which can throw an entire family into turmoil. For some, it is cancer or a life-threatening illness. The constant battle drains you physically, mentally and emotionally. It might be leaving for college. As much as young people look forward to having their own space and being independent, leaving family and friends can be unnerving. Parents send their kids off to college, but not without apprehension about the storms that they will encounter.
Sometimes, God pushes us right into a storm. And the storm can last deep into the night. The disciples spent almost the entire night in the storm before Jesus came walking on the sea. “During the fourth watch of the night, he came toward them walking on the sea” (Matt. 14:25). The fourth watch is the last watch – around 4 or 5 am.
Why does God push us into storms? Why does he leave us there all night long?
First, the storms of life are a place to meet God. The long night of the storm puts us face-to-face with our nothingness, which humbles us and opens us to God’s power. Storms are a special place to meet God. That is what I have found, as I look back on the storms of my life. For me, coming to Cheyenne as a new bishop is another storm. Moving to a new state and leaving everything familiar is stressful. But this Gospel reminds me to see this as a time and place to meet God.
The storms of life are a place to meet God, and the Lord uses storms to deepen our faith. Jesus said to Peter, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matt. 14:31). He challenged him to trust in his power over all things. And he challenges us to trust. In Matthew’s gospel, the disciples are often described as having ‘little faith’ (cf. Matt. 6:30; 8:26; 16:8; 17:20). They believe. But their faith is weak. It is like a flame that flickers in the wind. When Peter sees how strong the wind is, he begins to sink. Later during the passion, he wavers in his commitment and denies Jesus.
You might ask: “How could Jesus expect Peter to have faith enough to walk on the stormy sea? Isn’t that asking too much?” Yes. It’s asking a lot for a mere human, but not for someone who believes in Jesus as the Lord of all creation, and as the Risen Lord with power over death. Thanks to this experience Peter comes to know Jesus as the Lord of creation. He saw in Jesus the same power as the Lord who opened the Red Sea.
In the Old Testament, Yahweh (translated as “LORD”) shows his power by walking on the sea. The sea is a place of terrifying power. And when Yahweh shows his power over the stormy sea, the Hebrew people realize he is Almighty God.
As Jesus walks on water and calms the storm, the disciples realize that he is God. So the disciples in the boat “did him homage” (Matt. 14:33). That faith is crystalized after Jesus’ death, when the disciples saw the Risen Lord. He has power over sin, evil and death. The only response can be to give him homage.
The Greek word here for homage means to fall face down and kiss his feet. Matthew’s Gospel ends with that image. In the last scene of the Gospel as the disciples meet the Risen Christ, it says, “When they saw him, they worshiped (or did him homage), but they doubted” (Mt. 28:17). Don’t worry if you worship and doubt. To be a disciple is to keep worshiping with imperfect faith. The mistake would be to quit worshiping in times of doubt. To give up in the storm.
When I was on Standing Rock, Paul & Margie Keller lost their house in a fire. Paul is a deacon. He and Margie have strong faith, but when they saw their home go up in flames, they were devastated. Their faith flickered. Yet, today they describe that experience as a blessing. The outpouring of help from friends and neighbors was amazing. The experience of God providing for them during that time of loss deepened their faith. You might say that they describe the fire as a place where they met God. Their faith grew stronger because of that stormy night. It helped them to fall down before Jesus and kiss his feet.
When has God pushed you into a storm? Or where are you experiencing a storm right now? Can you see how it was a place to meet God? How did God invite you to grow in faith through that storm? Did you respond by giving Jesus homage?