It was a very hot evening in the Dominican Republic, and my project committee and I had just finished yet another very long and very unproductive meeting. I was feeling so frustrated and so angry about how we never seemed to be able to get anything done, to move toward the goals that we had set. And, evidently, I was not the only person feeling a little hot under the collar. Another member of the committee – Ángel – was a middle-aged man with whom I’d sometimes butted heads on previous occasions. He and I spoke at length after this meeting – and our conversation pretty quickly turned into a full-blown public screaming match right out in front of the community technology center. It was not pretty.
I still remember looking at his face, all red and flushed and sweaty, and thinking to myself, “What am I doing here?? How did it come to this?” I was about a year into my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and I had put SO much time and thought and effort into developing a project plan for the community, based on the needs and resources they had identified. But a year in, almost none of it had come to fruition. Almost nothing had changed.
There were a lot of reasons things had not panned out. I was sent to be an education volunteer working mostly with computer education – which is pretty hard to do when the electricity goes out all the time. I was a 23-year-old with a degree in music – convinced I was somehow going to save the world – being faced with the reality of complex problems that were never going to be solved overnight. And as a young woman, I was often not taken seriously as a leader, and I found out the hard way that there were just not that many people who were willing to put in the sustained effort needed to actually make a difference.
In short, I had no real idea of what I had signed up for when I decided to become a Peace Corps Volunteer. And especially in that one very heated moment, I felt like maybe I had gotten myself in over my head.
I think Peter and the other disciples are probably having a similar realization in our gospel reading for this morning. They’d had no real idea of what they had signed up for when they decided that they were going to become followers of Jesus. By this point in Matthew’s gospel, they have seen Jesus miraculously heal people on countless occasions; they have heard him preach radical good news to the people and fearlessly challenge religious and political authorities; they’ve even seen him miraculously feed thousands upon thousands of people with five small loaves of bread and a couple of fish.
But now Jesus ups the ante even further. After Jesus sends the disciples on ahead of him in a boat so that he can pray alone, he decides to catch up with them on foot – on a lake – in the middle of a storm. The disciples see him walking toward them, on top of the water, and they collectively lose their sh*t. They are completely overwhelmed by fear, thinking that he’s a ghost.
And Jesus is like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, calm down you guys; it’s just me. Y’all have seen me do way weirder stuff than this. Take heart! Do not be afraid.” And of course Peter is the one to say, “Alright then, if you really are who you say you are, then command me to come out there to you on the water.” And Jesus is like, “Okay. Come!” And to his credit, Peter does! Peter actually has the guts to hop out of the boat, storm and all, and starts actually walking on the water toward Jesus.
But that’s where things start to get a little dicey. Peter has made this bold decision to throw all in with Jesus. But once he gets out on the water, lets go of his grip on the edge of the boat, and takes a few shaky steps out into the darkness, his faith and his courage begin to waver. Away from the boat, the wind suddenly seems so much stronger, the waves so much higher, the sea so much deeper, than when he was safely aboard the boat. And Peter panics. It’s pretty easy to imagine that he was thinking to himself, “What am I doing here?? How did it come to this?”
Being a follower of Jesus was turning out to be much more challenging than the disciples had probably bargained for. They had been hoping for a Messiah who would swoop in to crush the Roman occupation and restore the kingdom of Israel. They’d probably even had fantasies of marching triumphantly into Jerusalem by Jesus’ side to reconquer the city. But instead, the reality of life with Jesus was more uncomfortable, much weirder, and sometimes even scarier than what they had imagined.
As a present day follower of Christ, I find that to be pretty relatable. Walking the path of discipleship can still often be uncomfortable and weird and sometimes even scary. That’s especially true right now. Almost every aspect of life in general during a pandemic has been weird and uncomfortable and a little scary. And for sure that includes our life together as the church – especially our worship life.
This virus keeps proving to be more contagious and more widespread and harder to get under control than we had hoped it would be. And in response, we as a church have been doing everything that we can to make wise, informed decisions and to keep our community safe – but it has meant putting up with some discomfort and weirdness for much longer than we would like. We’re finding that the wind is stronger and the waves are higher than we had expected – and it’s turning out to be a much longer walk than what it looked like from the boat. It’s easy to start feeling impatient for things to go back to “normal.” It’s easy to start thinking to ourselves, “What are we doing here??” and “How did it come to this?”
But the story doesn’t end there in the weirdness and discomfort and confusion. Peter panics, he starts to sink, and he cries out, “Lord, save me!” And what does it say next? That’s right: Jesus immediately reaches down into the water and fishes Peter out. No hesitation. There is no way Jesus was ever going to just let Peter go under and drown – no way! – just like there’s no way Jesus would have ever left that boatload of his frightened disciples to fend for themselves on a stormy sea. That is simply not how Jesus rolls. Not at all.
Jesus pulls Peter up out of the sea, and he helps him walk back to the boat. Jesus stays by Peter’s side through the wind and the waves and the stormy weather and helps him stay afloat. And eventually the storm itself stops, after they make it back to the boat safely.
No matter the storm, no matter the crisis, Jesus is always with us in the midst of chaos. Even when we are afraid and panicking and feel like we are going under, Jesus is there to pull us out. He is steady and calm, even when we are not. And Jesus is with us now, in the midst of this pandemic. Even though we may not all physically be together, we are still united by Christ into his one body on earth, wherever we are. We are still God’s church, and that is not about to change, not so long as we keep our eyes and our hearts focused on Christ.
I know it looks and feels different to be the church right now. But there can also be gifts in that. With my project work in the Dominican Republic, my project partners and I all had to kind of adjust our expectations of what we’d be able to do. We had to work with what we’d been given. But in that, we encountered some cool opportunities to do projects that we might not have even thought to do otherwise: like organizing a library and doing educational programming on the community radio station and helping coordinate a national youth conference for youth all across the DR. Looking back now, I see God’s fingerprints all over that work.
Likewise, even as uncomfortable as worshiping online may be, there are gifts to be found in it. A good Sunday attendance for us worshiping in person might be 35 people, but our online worship videos regularly get around 90 to over 100 views. That’s awesome! Hardly a week goes by that I don’t hear from friends in California or New Mexico or elsewhere that they are tuning in. (And I’m so grateful that you do!) Together, we are getting to spread the gospel good news even further than we were before – and that is truly a gift!
These are strange and unprecedented times, and we may well feel a bit like Peter, a bit lost among the strong wind and the tall waves. But Jesus is here – he is with us, working weird and miraculous wonders in ways we might never even see coming. Christ is with us, calm and steady in the midst of chaos, helping us to keep our footing and to keep moving forward.
So when you start feeling frustrated or fed up or worried or hopeless, just remember that this storm will eventually pass. These troubles will not last forever – but God’s love will. So take heart. And do not be afraid.