Proper XIIII Sermon Year A, “Stormy Weather”

Sunday, August 7, 2005

The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector

St. John the Baptist, Sanbornville

Jonah 2:1-9; Ps. 29; Rom. 9:1-5; Matt. 14:22-33

            One of my favorite vocalists of all time is Billie Holiday. Her smooth, velvety, voice touches the depth and breath of human emotions like no other. Billie sang passionately from deep within her own heart and soul: that passion fueled by the experience of her own all too short and tragic life. Each time I listen to Billie Holiday, I am aware that her voice expresses feelings that I find difficult to articulate myself. Billie Holiday and her music resonates this way in the lives of many people.

            One of Holiday's best blues ballads - maybe the greatest of all time - is Stormy Weather. How many of you are familiar with this song?

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

Life is bare, gloom and mis'ry everywhere

Stormy Weather

Just can't get my poor self together,

I'm weary all the time So weary all the time

When he went away the blues walked in and met me.

If he stays away old rockin' chair will get me.

All I do is pray the lord above will let me walk in the sun once more.

Can't go on, ev'ry thing I had is gone

Stormy Weather

Since my man and I ain't together,

Keeps rainin' all the time 

            Lyrics by Ted Koehler / Harold Arlen


            In Stormy Weather Billie laments her current life circumstances - a life that is filled with woe , a life with no sunshine or hope, a life filled only with rain, gloom, misery and barrenness, because the one she loves is gone. As she sings, it "keeps rainin all the time, since my man and I ain't together."  

            How many of us have felt this way - like life was just one endless gloomy storm - when difficulties occur in our personal relationships: when we and our man - or woman - ain't together? When the only way to end that Stormy Weather and see the sun again, is to be re-united with the one we love? I suspect all of us have, which is why this music resonates with us.

            Lyrics like this, sung by the voice of Billie Holiday . . . well, music just doesn't get any better than this, in my book.

            I don't if know the lyricists Ted Koehler and Harold Arlen had this in mind when they wrote Stormy Weather, but there is some good theology in those lyrics.  

            I wish that Peter and the disciples could have heard Billie Holiday sing Stormy Weather. They would have understood how their experience in the storm on the Sea of Galilee are expressed in that song. Maybe Peter and friends could record a new rendition!

            In the story we hear that the disciples are in a boat doing what Jesus had made them do, which was to, "go before him to the other side" of the sea. Jesus sends them off because he needed a little respite time for himself: some time to be alone, to pray and to recharge his battery. His ministry was demanding and exhausting, and the truth be told, all of us need a little distance and space now and then, even from the closest of family and friends. So Jesus sends off the disciples ahead of him to prepare the way for their next stop on the itinerary, and he goes to find quiet time.

            The text doesn't say as much, but I suspect that the disciples were not happy with this mandated separation from Jesus. At other times when Jesus tried to find some alone time, the disciples and the crowds hounded him relentlessly. Once when Jesus went to a lonely place to pray, Simon [Peter] and those who were with him pursued him, and they found him and said to him, ‘Every one is searching for you.'" (Mk. 1:35b-37) In my mind I hear Jesus responding, "Please, just leave me alone for a bit."

            I know of parents who similarly struggle to find some space for themselves from the demands of young children. Children often believe that if a parent is out of sight, that they have permanently gone away. This seems to have been the case with the disciples as well. When Jesus was out of sight, they believed he was permanently gone as well. This had to be hard for Jesus - to always be in such demand. But it had to be hard on the disciples as well - to be so afraid of not having Jesus with them, of feeling like they might not have him in their lives: of feeling that their man and they ain't together.

            The disciples didn't really comprehend until after the resurrection that Jesus is always there for us, we just have to be aware of that presence.         

            So here they are on the Sea of Galilee, once again separated from Jesus. And as night falls, a gale blows down the Jordan valley, creating a strong wind with battering waves that impedes the disciples journey. Stormy Weather, indeed. Jesus, with his birds eye view from the mountain top, sees the difficulty the disciples are having in rowing and negotiating the boat in the Stormy Weather. And he knows they are afraid. So he sets off toward them, and because they were, "many furlongs distant from the land" this necessitates his walking on water. In the midst of their struggle with the storm, the disciples see someone approach the boat, and think it's a ghost, which, of course only heightens their terror. They probably imagine that they are about to die, and that this ghost is the welcoming committee to the netherworld. We read that the disciples, "cried out in fear." But Jesus allays their fear by telling them, "take heart, it is I; have no fear."

            Peter though, has some doubts and says to Jesus, "Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water." Jesus says to him, "Come." So Peter proceeds to step out of the boat into the stormy sea. Now I don't know about you, but stepping out of a storm battered boat into a raging sea without so much as a life preserver, seems like a rather rash and impetuous method of discerning whether or not the image standing on the water in front of you is really Jesus, or Casper the Ghost! But Peter does this. And he walks on the water toward Jesus. Oh my gosh, just picture this scene! Imagine Peter's reaction as he gazes at Jesus' face, realizing that he is able to defy the swirling forces around him. See the look of amazement on the disciples faces, as they witness , not one, but two people walking on water in the midst of Stormy Weather. See that "a hah" moment, as they come to the realization that only God, and not some ghost, could have empowered this supernatural feat.

            But the moment is fleeting. Peter becomes distracted by the Stormy Weather. He loses his focus. We read that, "he saw the wind [and] he was afraid, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord save me.'" And Jesus, of course, does just that. He reaches out his hand to the sinking Peter, as the waves and wind batter him and the waters begin to suck him downward. And Peter is saved from the Stormy Weather.

            It is crucial for us to understand the crux of the message in what has happened in this event, and how it informs our own faith and behavior. Witness that as long as Peter's attention is focused on Jesus, he is able to walk on water - to overcome the power of that Stormy Weather. They cannot harm him as long as he stays with Jesus. But, as soon as Peter focuses on the storm, shifting his focus off of Jesus, Peter becomes frightened, and he begins to sink. The Stormy Weather overwhelms him, because Peter and his man ain't together.

            How often do we allow ourselves to focus on the Stormy Weather of life, taking our eyes off of Jesus? How often do we doubt Jesus' power to hold us up above the storm? How often, after we take our eyes off of Jesus, do we become frightened by the wind and waves that batter us, the gloomy waters rising over our heads, sucking us into the deep sea?

            When I was in seminary, attendance at chapel services used to plummet during exam periods. Students were stressed out and frantic: studying, writing, cramming, pulling all-nighters, drinking prodigious amounts of caffeine, all in an effort to get high grades. The first thing to be deleted from their schedules was worship. Like Peter, they had taken their focus off of Jesus, instead allowing the Stormy Weather of the exam experience to overwhelm them. And this from people preparing to be priests of the Church! I am convinced that had worship been central to their exam preparations - instead of incidental - the experience of those seminarians would have been dramatically altered. They would have been able to walk on and through the wind and waves of their exam stress and worry, as they kept their focus on Jesus and not G.P.A.'s.

            This is frequently true for us as well. We stay away from church and worship during times of Stormy Weather in our lives: the Stormy Weather of over-work - of holding down more than one job; of multiple commitments and activities- especially on Sunday mornings; of intense family life that can drain our energy; of sickness and loneliness, depression and despair. But when we stay away from worship, taking our focus off of Jesus - separating ourselves from us and our man- the Stormy Weather prevails, fear overwhelms us and we get sucked down into the deep. We forget the one and only thing that can save us from the storms ill affects: and that is being focused on Jesus Christ.

            We need to be together in our faith community, especially during the Stormy Weather of life. The only thing that will make the power of the storm subside, is to keep our focus on Jesus, the One with the power to lift us up - so we can walk above and through the waves and wind.

            If we and our man Jesus, ain't together, our lives will be filled with storms, where it's rainin' all the time, where the wind is against us, where we are beaten and battered by the waves, and where we will surely sink into the deep. Billie Holiday understood that. When we ain't with our man, life is endless Stormy Weather.

             Billie prayed the lord above to let her walk in the sun once more. To be back with her man and to see the Stormy Weather end. Her prayer speaks to keeping the focus on Jesus, so that the winds and waves would cease and the sun would shine in her life once more. Let that be our prayer as well: that we and our man Jesus, will always be together.