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August 7, 2005
TheTwelfth Sunday after Pentecost
St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church
Southaven, Mississippi

The Storms of Life
The Rev. Canon Reneé Miller

Gospel: Matthew 14:22-33

When life is shattered, tattered, torn,
Like shores so wild and weatherworn.
I’ll wash upon the Rock that saves
And be raised up, up from the grave.
"When Life is Shattered," words by Renee Miller, from Wellspring)

Jonah experienced it.

The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever.
Jonah 2:5-6a

Gilliat, the hero in Victor Hugo’s novel, Toilers of the Sea experienced it.

He had to deal with this impenetrable hostility. Not being able to put him outside, it put him under. It? The unknown. If clasped him close, it compressed him, it took his place from him, it deprived him of breath. He was bruised by the invisible. Every day the mysterious vise was tightened one turn.
(Victor Hugo, Toilers of the Sea (New York: Signet, 2000)

The disciples experienced it. “By this time, the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. When he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened.”

What they all experienced is what life deals out to us all-–the stormy waters that leave us feeling alone and in danger for our sanity, our balance, our life.

Even though many of the storms of our life do not take place in the midst of an angry sea, we can feel the trouble the disciples found themselves in, as if we were there ourselves. They had struggled the whole night with the emerging wind and storm. Their emotions were on edge, their bodies were weary, their nerves were frayed from fear, they had contended with the possibility of death and had done everything they could to keep an upper hand against unruly nature. Then, in the midst of all their turmoil, they saw Jesus walking toward them on the water. Jesus skirted above the storm, unhampered by its power, its strength, its control. Rather than rejoicing and taking comfort in His presence, however, the disciples became even more fearful. They were sure they were seeing ghosts, and if they were seeing ghosts, death must be near. “It’s not possible,” they thought, “to meet up directly with heaven unless we are on our way there.”

What seems most surprising to me about this story is that Peter did not speak for the others and beg for what we would expect. What we would expect is that he would ask Jesus to calm the storm. He didn’t. He wanted only to go to Jesus on top of the water. He wanted to prove to himself that what he saw was real. It was more important to go to Jesus than it was to stay focused on his problem. And, when Jesus said to Peter, “Come,” Peter trusted enough to get those feet out of the boat and on top of the raging water. Of course, it’s sometimes easier to begin a thing than to keep going. He began, but when he got up on top of the water the wind seemed stronger, the storm greater. He took his focus off the goal and was overcome again by his fear. When he realized that he couldn’t save himself he cried out, “Lord, save me.” And heaven answered his plea. Jesus reached out and grabbed him out of his terror and when they got into the boat – the same boat that was tossing and turning on the high waves -- everything became still.

To trickling streams fierce waves subside,
My soul at last with God abides.
‘Twas in my soul, there all along,
the Wellspring of God’s loving song.
"When Life is Shattered," words by Renee Miller, from Wellspring)

We all know what it is like to have the waves of life come crashing around us. It feels as if our bodies and souls are being thrashed about at whim leaving us gasping for breath. We might experience, for example, a severe crisis of faith when all the trusted formulas we’ve grown up with and known in the past no longer answer the longing of our soul. We wonder if there even is a God, and if there is a God, why God leaves us to struggle so with our faith.

Or, it might be that we or someone we love is diagnosed with a dread disease. We feel the powerlessness of knowing that the body is at risk and death might be imminent. We wonder why God is allowing this to happen to us.

Or, it might be that we lose our job or feel helpless in the face of financial difficulty. We see no possible way to climb out of the dungeon of dearth. We wonder why God has taken away our blessing and our means of support.

Or, it might be that we lose someone whom we have loved greatly. We are overwhelmed by sick, haunting grief and the loneliness that seems never to abate. We wonder why God would allow such deep and painful separation.

Or, it might be that someone we trusted betrays us and we are left feeling exposed and vulnerable, angry and hurt. We wonder why God would allow others to desert us with such impunity.

In all these storms of life, we’re carried away from our safety and security. The winds of an untamed sea batter us about. We are taken away from our moorings, we become frightened, we blame others and God, and we ask the age-old question “why?” When we are in the midst of such waters of tempest, feeling weary, broken, wretched, uncertain about our future, fearful and nervous, we try to fend off the danger that is twisting around our lives cutting us off from our life’s breath. We talk to friends, we go to therapy, we pray, we think, we cry, we drink or eat excessively, or we shop ‘til we drop. We do anything we can think of simply to escape, and we find that we only fall deeper and deeper into the very thing from which we are trying to extricate ourselves.

Now what do you suppose would happen if we got out of the chaos rather than being consumed by it? If we stepped away from the trouble instead of becoming more fully mired in it?

There’s a Sufi story about a man who was chased off a cliff by a tiger. He fell and as he fell, he grabbed onto a branch. The tiger stood just a few feet above him with his teeth bared. A hundred feet below an angry sea lashed against sharp rocks. He knew he couldn’t hold on for long, and there were two rats gnawing on the branch that kept him poised between the tiger’s teeth and the craggy rocks below. It didn’t take him long to figure out, like Peter, that he couldn’t save himself. He finally cried out, “O Lord, save me!” The voice of heaven replied, “Of course, I will save you, but first you have to let go of the branch.” Just as Peter had to step away from the problem by getting out of the boat, so this man had to let go of the branch.

This might seem to us counter-intuitive at best, and crazy at worst, because when we find ourselves in the midst of a storm, we know that all we can think about is the storm. We play out all the nasty possibilities of where it will lead, what will happen to us, how awful our situation is. When others try to comfort or encourage us, we have excuses for why our situation is so bad that we can’t be comforted or encouraged. We find ourselves thinking about our circumstances when we wake up, and when we go to sleep. We talk to our friends about it. We stop doing what is healthy and fulfilling for us. We become so consumed with our problem that we can’t imagine letting go. We ask why, why, why, as if the answer to the ‘why’ question would erase the problem! We hang on until the tiger grabs us and tears us apart bit by bit. But, if we would let go of the problem for a moment,--let go of the branch, step outside the boat--we would find ourselves walking on top of the water right toward the saving embrace of heaven. I call this counter-intuitive response to the storms of life the PPSP - ‘The Peter Problem-Solving Principle.

Now, I said that the most surprising part of this story is that Peter did not ask for the problem to be removed. He did not ask Jesus to calm the storm. The other disciples were consumed with the problem, and it was only getting worse. When they saw Jesus, they were even more fearful. Peter, however, haltingly realized that the solution to the problem was in letting go of it – stepping away from it – looking elsewhere – namely to the presence of something/someone beyond the storm.

We spend much of our lives searching for peace and happiness and doing all that we can to avoid struggle and misfortune. And when we find ourselves the victims of misfortune, we simply do everything we can think of to change the situation – to make the problem go away so we can get back to a happy and peaceful existence. The Peter Problem-Solving Principle leads us, instead, to listen to the voice of God on the waters (as the Psalmist says) that calls us to “come.” When we go toward that God with every fiber of our being, the power of the storm seems to recede, the need to know ‘why’ no longer cuts at our heart. Suddenly, we seem to know that it isn’t peace that is important. It isn’t problems that are important. There is only one thing that is important. Going toward the One who is beyond the peace and beyond the problem. So rather than frantically trying to escape, by going to the mall, or the bar, or the therapist, or the refrigerator, we would do well to listen to the voice of God on the troubling waters and lurch toward God, not allowing anything to hold us back. In one surprising moment, we will touch the hem of heaven’s robe and hear the words that move our soul:

Grow full, grow strong, trust only Me,
Though earthly rocks urge you to flee.
Our Christ has broken every stone.
Let go at once, you’re not alone.
"When Life is Shattered," words by Renee Miller, from Wellspring)

Copyright ©2005 The Rev. Canon Reneé Miller

Gospel Reading: Matthew 14:22-33
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, "It is a ghost!" And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid." Peter answered him, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." He said, "Come." So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord, save me!" Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God. NRSV (New Revised Standard Version)

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