Stormy weather, then and now.
“Jesus….went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. When evening came he was there alone.” – from St Matthew 14:22-33, NIV.
“She’s become very self-sufficient in lockdown – she’s even doing her own nails!” – reporter Ross King, of Michelle Obama.
Today’s Gospel continues from last week’s, where Jesus first sought solitude following the news of the terrible death of John the Baptist but then attended to the needs of the large crowds awaiting him instead. Now, he makes the disciples go ahead of him by boat and dismisses the crowds so that he can be alone to pray. Matthew writes that the weather is windy and, despite being buoyed up with the day’s miracle of sharing five small fish and loaves to feed so many, the disciples are now caught in a storm. Many of them were fishermen, familiar with weather predictions, so why did they set sail? Had a gale arisen without warning? Were they doing what Jesus told them? If so, why would he put them in danger? There are so many questions about what’s actually going on as these followers do what their leader tells them.
Amidst all this, Jesus comes to his disciples by walking over the water and, despite the miraculous events of the day, they are very frightened when they see him. The fourth watch of the night is 3-6am and also known as the witching hour – darkness is thought to be at its greatest just before dawn so, with the mindset of their day, the disciples are terrified by what they think is a ghost. Only Peter finds the courage to speak and try to walk on water himself. Matthew tells us that, at first, he does – but his fears eventually get the better of him and he begins to sink. Jesus then reaches out and catches him with the well-known, and still often-used, phrase, “O ye of little faith,” (KJV) and, as both get into the safety of the boat, the wind dies down and all aboard land safely.
Perhaps, after the events of the day, Peter had thought that, by the sheer force of his own will, he could tap into the power of Jesus to do miraculous things. As his fear overcomes him, Peter is only saved by reaching out for Jesus’s hand – a reminder to us all that Christianity is a relationship with a saviour, not a system of achieving miraculous results. Prayer, worship and care for self and others are at the heart of it – and that is needed more than ever as the storm-clouds around the Covid-19 pandemic continue to gather. It seems that gales of criticism and variations of policy are causing confusion as further outbreaks develop – choppy waters are still ahead, anxiety is resurfacing for many as winter draws near and we may be as understandably fearful as those first disciples. Like them, we are today expected to follow faithfully what we’re being told to do by leaders as the turbulence of anxiety, restriction, treatment and criticism created by the pandemic continues to whirl around. There may be many questions for us about what’s actually going on as followers begin to query what their leaders are now telling them. Yet we’re all in the same boat, trying to outrace the unknown consequences of a new virus as we face an uncertain forecast about the future – even if it’s in a dinghy, trying to cross the channel.
Like Michelle Obama, the prospect of this has caused many to become self-sufficient and do for themselves in lockdown what they would normally expect to receive, whilst offering encouragement to others through podcasts, phone calls or remote contact. Yet, after the terrible explosion in Beirut, and despite the risk of Covid-19 in such chaos, surgeons nevertheless stitch wounds by the light of mobile phones in the car park, a nurse rescues three premature babies by holding them closely in the darkness and an aged woman plays her piano in the debris of her ruined home. Death, suffering and destruction are everywhere – but so are hope, love and new beginnings, brought through hands reaching out to help those in need. In the face of such uncertainty, adversity and turbulence perhaps our watchword today should be the other words of Jesus to his followers facing the terrifying storms then and today, as he brings God’s love and hope of the miraculous into the everyday and at the darkest of hours: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
With my prayers,
Diocesan prayer for the week
God of peace, you draw close to us, breathing tranquility into the storms of our fears. In your calming presence may we step forward courageously, knowing that your grace and strength will sustain us in every situation, so that our faith may not be for us alone, but bring peace to others amidst the turbulence of the world. Amen. (Canon Carol Wardman)