Pentecost 11, August 13, 2017

Matthew 14:22-33

St. John the Apostle

“Spero Me Patronum (with apologies to J.K. Rowling)”

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

Last Sunday evening, I drove through Kamloops on my way to Sorrento Retreat Centre on Shuswap Lake.  It was an apocalyptic landscape.  The sun was low like a hung-over red eye in the brown sky, and the buildings on either side of the highway were obscured with the smoky haze.  Gone was the city or any view across to the hills.  Except for the vehicles on the motorway, there was no sign of people or life.  With the temperature at 33 degrees Celsius and the heavy smoke, we kept the windows of the car sealed and we kept going.  Seeing the effects first hand, I was troubled for the residents of the city and all the communities fighting the wildfires this summer in BC: more troubled than I expected.

Then I realized that the scene was familiar to me:  it came from a recurring childhood nightmare.  I am a child of the 1970s.  It was a period when tensions between East and West were uneasy, and television programming was pre-empted with newscasts from war zones.  World powers were amassing nuclear warheads pointed at the other.  Social consciences were beginning to awaken and speak out against the proliferation of these weapons of mass destruction.  I remember saying, as a child, that I did not expect to live til I was 20.  And I had some bad dreams.  Perhaps they had roots in reality and fantasy; documentaries like “If you love this planet” and horror movies of the time.  One, which came more than once, found me with my family in a car driving through a post-nuclear landscape.  I remember being afraid to roll down the windows because the atmosphere outside was poisonous, and being fearful any desperate humans that might appear out of the murk to attack us.  It was this ghost of a memory that disturbed me in the present.

Part of being human is feeling fear.  And there is much to be afraid of in the world, from present dangers to future possibilities.  There is a satirical skit on the political show “This Hour has 22 minutes” that spoofs a Fox News -styled presenter.  Every episode she rants “here’s what you should be afraid of this week”.  And sadly, we absorb anxiety from much of what the media bombards us with.  Bad news sells.  And there is always new bad news.  This week alone, the tension ramping up between North Korea and the United States leaders, the growing violence in communities like Surrey, the continuing wildfires,… all add to our burden of making sense of the world.  This is overlaid on our personal struggles:  illness, responsibilities for family members, the death of loved ones, financial difficulties, insecurity and change in our jobs. Every day we deal with the chronic stress of modern life even as we juggle how to face the new challenges that are thrown at us.  At times, it feels like too much, and we begin to sink under the load.

The message “Do not be afraid” is not only counter-cultural; it seems laughable.  How can we not?  Yet this is the message that comes through again and again from God through our Holy Scriptures.  Usually it is in the mouth of angels, sent as messengers to individuals to show a way forward in a particularly stressful situation.  But today it comes from Jesus himself.  What can he mean for us, when we find ourselves in waters too deep to cope with?

If we start with the disciples, you can see that they are an awful lot like us.  In the story from Matthew 14:22-33, they have just finished a miraculous picnic with Jesus and five thousand of his followers.  They are amazed and filled with both bread and hope: here is the Messiah who will make everything all right in Israel.  All they have to do is stick with him.  But in the next sentence, Jesus compels his companions to leave him.  They are sent away from their Master to the other side of the lake, while he goes alone to spend some time in prayer.  They do what he asks, but what were they feeling as they set out in their little boat?  Some separation anxiety, perhaps, or resentment that they weren’t invited to stay and share quality time.  Maybe they are nervous about what he is going to expect of them next, since they didn’t manage to come through with their last catering assignment.  Then the storm comes up, and they are helpless against the wind and the waves.  They battle all night to keep afloat.  With experienced fishermen on board, they are realistically frightened about what happens when one is caught in the middle of the sea of Galilee in a gale.  By morning, they are reduced to survival mode.  It is then that they get the fright of their lives.

Their terror stems from the apparition walking towards them on the water.  “A ghost”, they cry, in the Greek, “a phantasma”.  Their fear of the unknown focuses on supernatural bad news.  They don’t immediately jump to the idea of rescue, but of destruction.  Here is a spirit from the dead coming to take them to a watery grave, or worse, a creature of chaos from the depths of their ancestral stories.  They are not afraid.  They are terrified beyond belief.  And even when Jesus tells them, “be comforted.  It is I.  Do not be afraid,” they are not convinced.  He’s used key words which should remind them of their faith, including the holy name of God “I Am” and the words spoken by every angel.  But at this point, the disciples are not too rational.

Peter, bless him, is the first to respond, although not in the smartest manner.  He challenges this unknown phantom to call him out of the boat if he is really the Lord; to prove it with another miracle.  And so he climbs out and starts walking on the water.  But the boat, although tossed by the waves, is safe in comparison to the wildness of the sea, and Peter quickly loses confidence in his ability to carry out Jesus’ command.  Overwhelmed, he begins to drown.  Sometimes we, like Peter, can take the risk of jumping out of a boat that is barely afloat into rough seas.  There are times when it is actually safer to stay in the boat and await further instructions.  But when we do decide to venture out, fear and doubt will work against us, and try to paralyze us from taking steps or even staying on the surface.  The only thing we can do is to put our trust in God to see us through.  “Lord, save me!” Peter cries.

In the J.K. Rowling books, there are particularly nasty creations called Dementors.  They personify fear, and anyone who has experienced depression has known them in one form or another.  One of Harry Potter’s professors describes them in the following way:

“Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them. Even Muggles feel their presence, though they can’t see them. Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself — soul-less and evil. You’ll be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.”

– from The Prisoner of Azkaban

The only way to repel these fearful beings is to use the Patronus charm, which is conjured with a strong happy memory.  Harry learns to use his powers with great effect to counteract the terrible feelings that threaten to overwhelm him.  But a memory from the past alone is not enough to overcome despair and fear.  He learns to draw on present hope and the love of those he senses still around him in order to defeat its power.

“Expecto Patronum” is a latinized expression which loosely could mean “I expect/call on my patron”.  Similarly, Peter called on his patron to save him.  He puts his trust entirely at this point in Jesus as his Lord and Master, not in his own actions. Peter is not relying at this point on a happy memory of his childhood, his family, or even his recent experiences as a disciple of Jesus.   He doesn’t beg the other disciples in the boat to throw him a rope.  Maybe they already tried.  What he does is turns to the One who for him is the Son of God, the source of his present love and hope.  And Jesus, as the Son of God, stretches out his hand and catches him.

So what are we supposed to do with this? There are times when we get in over our heads.  If God is calling us to something new, then the risk of faith we take is to obey, but not to trust in our own ability to keep it together.   What is to be is in God’s hands.  What is in the past can be forgiven and laid aside.  And now, in the present, we need to reach out our hands to the presence of the One who will catch us when we start to sink under our fear.  We are not actually being asked to walk on water.  But we are being asked to trust the One who can.  To put aside our anxiety and doubt would be a miracle indeed.  In the midst of our life situations, it is enough to know that Jesus is there to help us get back into the boat and calm the wind until we get to the other side.  Amen.