Sermon for Sunday, August 9, 2020 – “God’s in Our Boat”

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Decorah, Iowa
Rev. Amy Zalk Larson

Click here to read scripture passages for the day.

Beloved of God, grace to you and peace in the name of Jesus, the name of love.

Sometimes it’s hard to connect with the stories in the Bible. The ancient world and all its strange rituals and images can seem so remote from the realities of our lives. Today, however, it’s not hard to imagine ourselves in the same boat as the disciples that night on the lake. They’re alone, in the dark, in a storm, battered by waves, far from solid ground, and the wind is against them.

Oh, can we relate. We especially know what it is to be battered by waves – waves of the virus, waves of layoffs, waves of injustice, waves of fear and worry.

During my recent trip to our family cabin on Lake Superior I was reminded of a phenomenon there called the Three Sisters. The Three Sisters is said to occur on Superior when a series of three rogue waves forms and approaches in rapid succession. These three waves can sink ships. One hits and before it clears a ship’s deck, the second hits. The third incoming wave adds to the two accumulated backwashes and suddenly overloads the ship deck with tons of water. Scientists suspect this phenomenon may have led to the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald freighter in 1975.

I was reminded of the Three Sisters thanks to a map on a wall at the cabin. The map marks and tells the stories of shipwrecks on Lake Superior. It seemed a little unwise to be looking at it right before heading out to sail on that same lake. Thankfully, we didn’t experience anything close to rogue waves. We were in a small, safe part of the lake and had a very peaceful time. I’m so grateful.

Yet I can’t stop thinking about how all of us are enduring a kind of Three Sisters experience right now in the US.

We’ve been hit by a series of three huge waves – COVID-19, economic turmoil, and the impact of centuries of racial inequity. The second wave hit us before the first wave cleared and the third incoming wave threatens to overwhelm. And even though we in the US are all in the same storm, we are not all in the same boat. People of color are impacted to an even greater extent. The Three Sisters are coming at us. Yet once they hit on Lake Superior, the waves roll on and move out. In contrast, we keep being battered about this way and that by these three powerful waves. They just keep coming at us. Like those first disciples we feel alone, in the dark, in a storm, battered by waves, far from solid ground, with the wind against us.

The disciples in the storm are not actually alone. As the waves keep rolling toward them, threat- ening to overwhelm, Jesus is also coming toward them, coming to get into the boat with them.Except, the disciples can’t recognize Jesus in the storm. They panic – What else is coming at us? Is this a ghost, something else that will cause us harm? They’re terrified. They cry out in fear. Jesus comes near and says, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” That phrase, “it is I”, should actually be translated as “I am”. Jesus uses the ancient name of God, I Am, to assure the disciples that God, the great I AM, is with them; they need not be afraid. Jesus has come to get in the boat with them. They can stay in the boat and not abandon ship. They can risk leaving the boat when that’s helpful, as Peter tries to do. They can have courage for Jesus is present and his abiding presence brings peace even amidst the storms.

Jesus has also come to get in the boat with us. Jesus has come to us to share all that it means to be human – the storms, the battering winds, the rogue waves. Jesus has come to enter the depths of human suffering to assure us of God’s presence with us always. Yet like the first disciples, we sometimes struggle to recognize Jesus in the storm. We panic. We’re terrified. Is this just something else coming to do us harm?

So, Jesus draws near and speaks to us the same promise he spoke to those first disciples – Take heart, I am here, do not be afraid. Jesus speaks these words of promise to you today in this worship service – through scripture, sermon, song, and prayer this promise is spoken to you, for you. Take heart, I am here, do not be afraid. Hearing this promise during worship helps us to recognize Jesus’ presence amidst the storms of our world, the presence that brings peace. As one wise Good Shepherd member reminds me – sometimes God works to calm the storm, sometimes God works to calm us, but God is always at work.

Hearing this promise, “I am here, do not be afraid”, also helps us to discern what in this world is of God and what is seeking to do us more harm. We can discern by asking: Is this leaving me more afraid or is this helping me to take heart and be courageous? So many powers in our world today are trying to increase our fear for their own gain. Some politicians claim only a vote for them can keep us safe. They try to stoke our anger and fear. Some corporations seek to increase our anxiety so that we’ll use their products – generating fear for their own profit. Some media outlets act like a map of shipwrecks on Lake Superior with added neon lights flashing, “Be afraid, be very afraid.” All of this can leave us feeling paralyzed and terrified. The message “be afraid” is not of God. Over and over in scripture we are told, “Do not be afraid.”

And over and over in scripture we see that God gives us what we need to not be afraid. Great waves are coming at us – yes, but God, in Jesus, is always coming toward us. Jesus comes to get into the boat with us. Jesus comes to speak words of promise to us again and again so that we can take heart and have courage. With Jesus’ presence, we can stay in the boat rather than abandoning ship – when that is needed. We can get out and risk as Peter did – when that’s helpful. We can work to shore up others whose boats are far more impacted by the storm.

Take heart – God the I AM is here. Do not be afraid. Jesus is with you. You are not alone.