There was a hymn that marked the end of every Billy Graham Crusade. It is number 592 in the ELw, "Just As I Am". The second verse declares, "Just as I am, though tossed about with many a conflict, many a doubt, fightings and fears, within, without. O Lamb of God, I come."
The verse tells it like it is. At times there are storms in life that toss us about, making a hash of our self assurance and inner calm, and overwhelm or come pretty close to so doing. This summer has been marked by fires and floods in the West and South. Yesterday in Charlottesville marked tragedy the direct result of human decisions. Persons with social axes to grind now see religious institutions and worship spaces as good places to invade and commit murder. I have known more people facing brain cancer in the last decade than I have in the twenty years prior to that. We have diseases, like polio, that were considered eradicated which are being seen again.
In the face of the various storms it is easy to forget the Good News that Jesus the Lamb of God is present. And if we do remember we are not particularly willing to accept the help offered by God unless it fits our expectation. At some education experience I was talking with Tony, a man a 10-15 years older than me who was studying to be a priest. He shared a joke about only taking help on our terms. "A man is hanging on a cliff by a tree limb. He cries out, 'God, help me!' God answers, 'Here I am.' The man replies, 'What should I do?' God answers, 'Let go. I will catch you.' The man responds, 'Can you give me a different answer.' He remains on the limb."
We are in good company. While not going so far as asking for a different answer, those closest to Jesus, his disciples find themselves near overwhelmed by a literal storm at sea, and have trouble believing Jesus is there for them.
Before this event Jesus learned John the Baptist had been beheaded by the Tetrarch of Galilee, Herod. Jesus tried to go to an isolated place. Crowds followed. He healed their sick and fed the multitude using 5 loaves and 2 fish his disciples had brought with them. Now the crowd has gone home. Jesus has sent his disciples back in their fishing boat. Jesus spends time alone to pray.
As instructed the disciples head across the Sea of Galilee. The sea is more like a large lake. It is shallow. Storms arise and they can be fierce. There is no great depth for water to move down and push out. The waves are quickly violent, especially difficult for smaller boats, like an inland Palestinian fishing boat. The disciples are caught in such a storm. They are doing the best they can to keep the boat upright. I suspect those knowing the waters worked hard to keep the boat afloat and in place while they sought to make some headway to their destination. Those who were not fishermen probably were more open about their fear. They may have been given occupation bailing. If anyone was recalling Jesus calming a storm recorded in Matthew 8, they probably wish Jesus was with them now and had not sent them ahead of him.
Sometime between 1 and 4 AM Jesus joins them. I find it interesting that he did not still the storm but came walking over the water while it raged on. The key is Jesus makes himself present.
He makes himself present to men spent, cold, wet, and frightened. Their first words reflect them being in the position of the man on the cliff in Tony's story. Seeing what appears to be Jesus they know it just cannot be. Like the adults in the Casper cartoons they cry out, "It's a ghost!" and scream in terror.
I know some people who could have fun with their response. Instead, Jesus does what he does in situations where his followers are frightened. He reassures them. He tells them not to be afraid, but take heart because he is really with them.
Then Jesus provides a concrete example of what can occur if we keep our eyes on him during an ordeal. Once I was participating in a spiritual reflection exercise with someone reading today's passage. Showing how my mind works at times I visualized a scene from the movie Apocalypse Now. A sailor looking for mangoes leaves the boat and comes running back with a tiger chasing him. Once back in he keeps repeating "I'm never getting out of the boat. I'm never getting out of the boat." The narrator says something like "That's right. Never get out of the boat, unless you're going all the way." In other words I probably would not be like Peter and ask Jesus to command me to come to him over the water. Bold and impetuous Peter does. While Peter's focus is Jesus he does it. It is when he looks around and notices he is still in quite a storm, he flounders.
In our irreverent age I can picture a comedy skit concluding with the disciple's saying, "Too bad Peter looked around. He was showing such trust I thought he was going to make it. Nothing left to do but head to shore and get some dry clothes." Jesus does not permit that because he hangs in there with us in the midst of our uncertainty. When Peter cries for help Jesus grabs him. He hangs tight to him while asking what led him to doubt after doing so well.
Without a word from Jesus, once all are safely in the boat, the storm settles down and becomes manageable. Unlike when Jesus stilled the storm earlier in the gospel, while in the storm things become different for the disciples because they know Jesus is with them. In the middle of the mess Jesus is 'a present help in trouble' by making them aware of his presence.
Putting together Jesus surprise coming , his reassurance, which emboldened Peter, and his picking us up when we reach the limit of our faith and courage, and his saving power it is no wonder that for the first time the disciples boldly exclaim, "Truly, you are the Son of God."
We began with "Just as I Am". This song, I believe done best by Johnny Cash and the Carter Family summarizes what Jesus did for the disciples and does for us in life's storms:
Troublesome waters, around me do roll, they're rocking my boat and wrecking my soul
Tossed in the turmoil of life's troubled see, I cried to my Savior "Have mercy on me."
Then gently I'm feeling the touch of his hand, guiding my boat in safely to land,
Leading the way to heaven's bright shore, troublesome waters, I'm fearing no more.