SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV’D SAMUEL N. KEYES AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
AUGUST 7, 2011, THE EIGHTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Fr. Keyes is a doctoral student at Boston College (Class of 2015).

Some of you may know the title song of that great 1943 film Stormy Weather. Lena Horne sings, in a wonderful sultry voice, which I will not attempt to imitate:

Don’t know why there’s no sun up in the sky
Stormy weather
Since my man and I ain’t together
Keeps rainin’ all the time

I have to wonder if that is very far from what the disciples were thinking.

In another story, of course, a storm comes when Jesus takes a nap.

In today’s reading, when Jesus goes to pray on the mountain, the winds drive the boat out into the sea.

Where’s Jesus when you need him? “Since my man and I ain’t together, keeps rainin’ all the time.”

Don’t worry, this is not going to be a “Jesus is my boyfriend” sermon. But it is going to be a sermon about storms — both the storms of the world, and the storms within our hearts. Today’s gospel has something to say about each of those. These correspond roughly to the two parts of the story: first, the wind-beaten boat and the ghostly Lord, and second, the walk of St Peter.

***

Scene 1. Jesus goes up on the mountain to pray, while the disciples wait on a boat, buffeted by contrary winds.

St. Augustine, along with several other figures in the Tradition, sees a pretty clear allegorical meaning here. Boats are often an image for the Church. This stems at base from the story of the flood in Genesis; the Church is the ark that brings the faithful people through the waters of the world. The ark — the boat — is also made of wood, which has pretty obvious resonance with the wood of the Cross.

So if the boat is the Church, perhaps we can see how Jesus’s sojourn on the mountain is something like hit ascension into heaven. The Son has gone into heaven to sit at the right hand of his Father; in a certain way he has therefore left the Church in the sea of the world. This ship isn’t always what we want it to be, but it is a sure means of safety. “For if there be perils in the ship,” Augustine says, “without the ship there is certain destruction. For whatever strength of arm he may have who swims in the open sea, yet in time he is carried away and sunk, mastered by the greatness of its waves. Need then there is that we be in the ship, that is, that we be carried in the wood, that we may be able to cross this sea.”(1)

But here is the key: dangerous as it all is — the ship, the sea, the wind — we are not left without comfort. Jesus comes to us in the storm, crossing the water, he comes to us, in the flesh, to be with us, to remind us that we are not alone, that the ship will find safe harbor.

Jesus says, as he come to us across the sea, “Take heart; it is I, have no fear.”

***

Scene 2. St. Peter tries to cross the waves.

“And Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water.’”

Here we have something different.(2)

Now Peter, not the boat, represents the Church — and more properly, the individual Christian. Most of us have, at some point, a little bit of gumption. Perhaps, on Good Friday, we feel the weight of our sin, and we long to do better. Or perhaps we understand some truth about God and we resolve, with God’s help, to a new course of study, or a new spiritual discipline, or a new habit of charity.

In that sense we can, perhaps, identify with Peter’s enthusiasm. [It is, dare I say it, very un-Anglican, that enthusiasm.] He sees something good and he thinks, yes, yes, maybe… with help, I could do it too! And so he throws himself into it with the zeal of a convert.

And then, what happens? It is what happens to so many of us: “But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.”

Here Peter represents both our strength and our weakness. There are strong Christians, and there are weak Christians, and many of us are, no doubt, something of both.

The Lord takes us all. To the strong he says, “Come.” To the weak he does, in fact, demand something: “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” But more importantly, he reaches out his hand and catches us. He says: “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.”

***

I hope it is already plain how, in my view, these two scenes are connected. Obviously the allegorical readings I give, taken from Augustine, require a certain artificial separation within the narrative. But I think that there is in fact a two-fold problem in the passage. There is the external problem of the wind and the internal problem of Peter’s faith. Both receive, in effect, the same answer, in the God-man Jesus.

Likely our most prominent modern pathology is to draw a strict separation between society and the individual. Liberal democracy is an institutional form of such separation. Institutions are structured to give the highest possible freedom to the individual and his or her choices.

In many ways we model this in the Church. We think of the Church as a voluntary society into which we can opt in or opt out depending on our private needs. Sure, we value community, but this is often simply another way of saying, “I need to have my social needs met.” When was the last time you heard someone say, as St. Paul does today in Romans, that they would be willing to be damned for the salvation of their people.

That desire seems foreign to us, because it is difficult for us to understand how one individual’s spiritual journey connects to another’s. We veer from vague individualism to vague communitarianism. And neither of these makes much sense in the world of the New Testament.

What we see in today’s gospel is that this is a false dilemma. True Christianity is both radically individual and radically communal. My salvation depends on yours, and yours on mine, in a way that defies modern concepts of privacy; yet at the same time all salvation is deeply personal. Jesus doesn’t call somebody into fellowship; he calls you, he calls me. He comes to the boat, the Church; he also comes to Peter, to the individual.

And he does come to us, really and truly; he’s not just a ghost, a specter. He showed up in Mary’s womb a couple thousand years ago, real flesh and blood. He showed up on the sea when his disciples didn’t know what to do. He showed himself to the world on the wood of the Cross; he rose from the dead, he ascended into heaven, and he comes to us today on the altar of Holy Church. This morning he calls us each, together, from the storms of our Church, from the storms of our conscience, from the storms of the world. He says, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.”


St. Augustine, Sermon 25.2.

Here I follow St Augustine, Sermon 26.