Sunday August 7-13 in Year A (Retzlaff23)

Stronger Winds on the Seas – Carmen Retzlaff reflects on winds of climate change.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary

Readings for Sunday August 7-13, Year A (2023, 2026)
1 Kings 19:9-18
Psalm 85:8-13
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

The first thing that strikes me about the story in Matthew of Jesus walking on the water is that it begins with Jesus trying to get some space, to be alone in nature.

“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” (Matthew 14:22-23).

After the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, the masses finding abundance in the fields of Galilee (which I wrote about last week for Lectionary 18), Jesus sent his disciples, fishers by trade, out to cross the water in the boat. What trust, really, they demonstrate by leaving him alone for the night, trusting that he would find his way by foot, and they’d meet him after a night voyage, familiar to them, across the Sea of Galilee. I suppose after trusting him that the land and the people and God would provide food right there in the countryside, for everyone gathered, maybe trusting a rendezvous in the land they knew so well was not that much of a stretch.

And how relatable, Jesus’ wish to be alone, to recharge, to go up on the the mountain to pray! After a day of teaching and feeding and leading, he needed time to himself, in nature, to pray. It is worth noting as we read the stories of Jesus’ ministry, how often he is preaching outdoors, how rarely in buildings or houses of worship. In the countryside, in the streets of the city, Jesus preached, taught and healed. In the remote natural places of his native Galilee, and then on the Mount of Olives outside the city of Jerusalem, Jesus went to pray, to rest, to recharge, and to be close to God.

The second thing that strikes me about this passage is the wind.

“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” (Matthew 14:23-24).

I grew up in the flattest part of the third flattest state (Garger, Megan, “Science: Several U.S. States, Led by Florida, are Flatter than a Pancake.” The Atlantic, March 11, 2014). My childhood home was, millennia earlier, the bottom of ancient Lake Agassiz, flattened by the glacial sea. When floods come to the Red River Valley, they are unpredictable, as water flows where it will across the broad table-top-like landscape (Michael Carlowicz, NASA Earth Observatory,“Red River flooding is worst in a decade,” May 10, 2022).

Victoria Loorz, author of Church of the Wild, How Nature Leads Us Into the Sacred (Minneapolis: Broadleaf Books, 2021), and founder of the Wild Church Network, often gives this direction during group introductions: “Tell me about the land that raised you.” In my case, the land that raised me was flat prairies as far as the eye can see, a landscape shaped by WIND – nearly constant, sometimes soft breezed, sometimes raging gales.

I have struggled to appreciate and love the wind. Remembering it is often a metaphor for the Holy Spirit helps – coming in, changing things. As the hymn says, the wind is free, and restless.

Spirit, Spirit of gentleness, blow through the wilderness,
calling and free.
Spirit, Spirit of restlessness,
stir me from placidness,
Wind, Wind on the sea.

(“Spirit, Spirit of Gentleness“- hymn refrain,
James K. Manley, 1978)

In this story, the disciples struggle, too, for “the wind was against them.”

“Due to global warming, global climate models predict hurricanes will likely cause more intense rainfall and have an increased coastal flood risk due to higher storm surge caused by rising seas. Additionally, the global frequency of storms may decrease or remain unchanged, but hurricanes that form are more likely to become intense” (Angela Colbert, Ph.D., NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, “A Force of Nature: Hurricanes in a Changing Climate,” June 1, 2022).

In the age of climate change, as hurricane season stretches into months on either side of summer norms, and the wind speeds repeatedly top record levels, I know others struggle with the wind, too.

The story of Jesus walking on the water and the mighty and frightening winds will mean different things to different people in different times – like all great stories. Today, in the story’s original place, it would hit differently because the water levels in that inland sea are falling.

“In a couple of decades, anyone will be able to cross the Sea of Galilee on foot because of climate change. It’s heartbreaking to see how far the water level has dropped in the last few years. Docks hang in the air, and fishing boats are left high and dry on shore. Climate change poses a serious threat to all humankind. It is the uncontrollable storm that threatens to sink our collective boat” (Shawnthea Monroe, “The receding sea where Jesus walked,” The Christian Century, August 1, 2011).

This story will sound different in coastal Florida than in tornado alley, and to fishers or farmers. As Pastor Paris-Austin reminds us in her commentary on this passage, context matters:

“In the Matthew telling of the feeding of the masses, Jesus turned the work of feeding over to the disciples. From Jesus’ hands they took 5 loaves and two fish, and they fed the people. Jesus then sends them off in the boat, so they can rest from the work they have done, an amazing deed of God’s power in the wilderness. These lifelong fishermen find themselves being tossed about on the water, certainly not an unusual occurrence, and upon seeing a shadow in the morning mist, failing to recognize Jesus, they are gripped with fear. Instead of rebuke, God responds…with a loving presence…For the disciples, it is Jesus, coming to them on the water, before they know their own need, immediately speaking to their fear…God continues to entrust these fear-filled followers with a calling…Jesus bids Peter ‘Come’…As we bring this word to the people, context matters. What are the great works and amazing deeds of God’s power that have happened in your community, that have been forgotten in the face of fear (Priscilla Paris-Austin, “Wild Lectionary: The Mixology of Faith and Fear,” Radical Discipleship, August 10, 2017)?

For all of us, the last word will be this: that in all of life’s storms, God will be there with us. And our response to that grace is our work in the world, bringing the Good News to our neighbors.  Paul reminds us in the Romans readings this week, we are sent. In the dark night, tossed on the stormy sea, the feet of Jesus emerging out of the wind, must have looked beautiful indeed. May we see those feet even in the stronger winds of the seas of the era of climate change.

“And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news’” (Romans 10:15)!

Beautiful feet, braving the storm, stilling the wind, in order to stir us from placidness, to go out and serve the world.

Originally written by Carmen Retzlaff in 2023