Monday, August 31, 2015

Archimandrite Sophrony's 'Prayer at Daybreak'

Essex country lane.  Who knew that an Orthodox monastery was close by?

A friend shared Archimandrite Sophrony's (1896-1993) 'Prayer at Daybreak' several years ago.  I have found it a useful addition to my prayer rule.  If you've not come across it before, you may find it useful as well.  Fr. Sophrony is perhaps best known as a disciple of St. Silouan the Athonite.  Archimandrite Sophrony was also the compiler of St. Silouan's works and author of his biography.  But Archimandrite Sophrony also was instrumental in 1959 in the establishing of the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights, Maldon, Essex, UK.  It was as an Elder there that Archimandrite Sophrony served as the spiritual father to many people, including my current Archbishop Makarios, who was at the time a graduate student in Oxford studying history under Metropolitan Kallistos Ware.

I've taken the liberty to update some of the language.

Morning Prayer of Archimandrite Sophrony:
"Prayer at Daybreak"

O Lord Eternal and Creator of all things,
Who of Your inscrutable goodness called me to this life;
Who bestowed on me the grace of Baptism and the Seal of the Holy Spirit;
Who imbued me with the desire to seek You, the one true God:
Hear my prayer.
I have no life, no light, no joy or wisdom, no strength except in You, O God.
Because of my unrighteousness, I dare not raise my eyes to You.
But You said to Your disciples,
'Whatsoever you shall ask in prayer believing, you shall receive.'
and 'Whatsoever you shall ask in my name, that will I do.'
Wherefore I dare to invoke You.
Purify me from all taint of flesh and spirit.
Teach me to pray aright.
Bless this day which You give unto me, Your unworthy servant.
By the power of Your blessing enable me at all times to speak and act to Your glory with a pure spirit, with humility, patience, love, gentleness, peace, courage and wisdom, aware always of Your presence.
Of Your immense goodness, O Lord God, show me the path of Your will,
and grant me to walk in Your sight without sin.
O Lord, unto Whom all hearts be open,
You know what things I have need of.
You art acquainted with my blindness and my ignorance,
You know my infirmity and my soul's corruption;
But neither are my pain and anguish hid from You.
Wherefore I beseech You, hear my prayer
and by Your Holy Spirit, teach me the way wherein I should walk;
and when my perverted will would lead me down other paths,
spare me not, O Lord, but force me back to You.
By the power of Your love, grant me to hold fast to that which is good.
Preserve me from every word or deed that corrupts the soul;
from every impulse unpleasing in Your sight and hurtful to my brother-man.
Teach me what I should say and how I should speak.
If it be Your will that I make no answer,
inspire me to keep silent in a spirit of peace
that causes neither sorrow nor hurt to my fellow man.
Establish me in the path of Your commandments
and to my last breath let me not stray from the light of Your ordinances,
that Your commandments may become the sole law
of my being on this earth and all eternity.
Yea, Lord, I pray to You, have pity on me.
Spare me in my affliction and my misery
and hide not the way of salvation from me.
In my foolishness, O God, I plead with You for many and great things.
Yet am I ever mindful of my wickedness, my baseness, my vileness.
Have mercy upon me.
Cast me not away from your presence because of my presumption.
Rather, increase in me this presumption,
and grant unto me, the worst of men,
to love You as You hast commanded, with all my heart, and with all my soul,
and with all my mind, and with all my strength: With my whole being.
Yea, O Lord, by Your Holy Spirit, teach me good judgment and knowledge.
Grant me to know Your truth before I go down into the grave.
Maintain my life in this world until I may offer unto You worthy repentance.
Take me not away in the midst of my days, nor while my mind is still blind.
When You shalt be pleased to bring my life to an end,
forewarn me that I may prepare my soul to come before You.
Be with me, O Lord, at that dread hour and grant me the joy of salvation.
Cleanse me from secret faults, from all iniquity that is hidden in me;
and give me a right answer before Your judgment-seat—
Yea, Lord, of Your great mercy and immeasurable love for mankind.

Archimandrite Sophrony, His Life Is Mine (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1977), 52-53. 

Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov)

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Further Adventures of Kenya Driver

Driving on roads in Kenya is sort of like visiting an amusement park in the US before OSHA started suggesting that safety might need to be a significant factor in one’s overall experience.  I remember watching a driver’s ed film when I was 14 on ‘Potential Hazards’ one might encounter when one is behind the wheel.  The film depicted a calm drive (could not have been at more than 15 mph) down a leafy suburban street.  We were supposed to identify the potential hazards, and then be on the alert in case it becomes an ‘actual hazard’.   The car pulling out of the driveway in front of us.  The ball bouncing into the road followed by the boy.  The dog careening full speed from between two parked cars.  The car stopped in the middle of the road with no flashing lights.  You get the picture.

Such fun!

Perfectly safe.

This past Sunday I made the drive from Kitale to Nairobi, a 400 km journey.  I can now definitively say that everything about this trip falls into the useful category of potential hazards, with not a few of them veering (sometimes literally) into the classification of actual hazard, not to mention being quite the excitement to experience.

Ignore Machakos for the time being.

Kitale is a growing regional center of about 120,000 souls.  And I have determined that there is at least a one-to-one correspondence between the number of ‘pikipikis’ (small motorbikes) and number of otherwise innocent civilians that make up greater Kitale.  People use pikipikis all the time, because they are small, don’t have to stay in traffic lanes (as required by the rest of us mortals), can weave in and out of traffic and generally drop their passengers off at their destination much more quickly (and cheaply) than if one had driven there (which is not an option for most) or taken a matatu (a barely tolerated necessary evil) or walked (which many do anyway).  But it is the very rare pikipiki operator who one ever sees wearing a helmet.  Sometimes they have a helmet, but it is dangling from the handlebar (I was told it was for the passengers, or to have on hand for the ‘police checks’, aka opportunities for revenue collection).  Even though Kenya has one of the worst highway traffic fatality rates in the world, and even though motorcycles are already the most dangerous way to get around, and though there are thousands of pikipikis swarming down the streets of Kenya’s towns and cities, Kenya drivers are for some reason perpetually shocked to find that there was an unnoticed pikipiki precisely where they intended their car to go. One begins to see that whatever the short-term gains may be for owning one or riding one, the long-term numbers are not necessarily in one’s favor.

Kitale pikipiki drivers fueling up to better serve you.

So I left Kitale having to negotiate a dusty two lane road choked with traffic moving in every conceivable direction, and sometimes even forward.  Plus the excitement of having pikipikis coming at me from said multiple directions.  We were all going the speed of a human-propelled push cart.  The reason I know is that because twenty cars ahead of me (with pikipikis rushing by within arms-length on both sides of my car) was the very man and his push-cart, oblivious to the fact that he was doing a fantastic job of controlling the traffic flow on Kitale’s busiest street.  Of course the slowness of our advance invited others to take advantage of the opportunity to get to the other side, including smartly-dressed businessmen, traditionally-built market ladies, worker boys carrying sacks of cement or potatoes, and even chickens (I was too distracted to ask why…).

We eventually broke free of Kitale.  The reason I could tell is that the number of speed bumps in the road dwindled, allowing one to drive more than 50 meters before one had to ascend and then descend some construction company’s idea of speed control.  I would love to say that at this point, we could sail on to the next community (and their own clutch of speed bumps) at speed, but at this point the road had descended into a state of random disrepair.  Which means that at any point the road had disintegrated into a series of potholes.  In the community from which I just came in the US, a ‘pot hole’ consisted of the top layer of asphalt cracking and then turning into a slight bump as one drives from one layer to the next.  At which point a concerned citizen would call and the pothole repair crew would come and apply their patch.

In Kenya, if only. Many potholes are actually entrances into the abyss, or wormholes into alternative universes.  One doesn’t drive over Kenyan potholes, one drives into them, and then back out.  Also, most of the time, Kenyan potholes come unannounced, like an unwelcome guest at dinner time.  On some stretches of road, it’s so bad that you can watch five or six cars ahead of you weave all over the road like drunken drivers as they avoid car-destroying engagements with what appears to be a crater-pocked lunar landscape otherwise passing itself off as ‘the road’.  Happily, I didn’t encounter a road like that on this trip, but the potholes were not few and appeared without warning.

I did pass by several construction sites.  The reason I knew was because there were men working with big machines and the road was a total mess, or a small solitary sign announced ‘Diversion’ and pointed that way.  Back in the US, road construction projects are announced differently.  For at least a mile before anything happens, orange and white cones or barrels sprout like a plague of mushrooms at predetermined distances apart, being our first clue that we might be asked to do something unexpected up ahead.  Then comes flashing signs, more orange and white cones, reduced speed signs, flashing arrows, and then yet even more traffic cones to move us out of this lane into that lane.  And then even more signs warning us that traffic fines are doubled in a work zone.  And then one comes to the actual work site and discovers a crew repainting lines on the road, or cutting the grass off the road.  I appreciate the emphasis on safety in our country.  But just imagine a place where no orange and white cones exist, where no flashing lights get our attention, where no warning whatsoever may be forthcoming as you come to a place where the old bridge is out and the new bridge is still under construction.  Welcome to Kenya!  Even on the major four lane highway through the outskirts of the capital, should a road crew cut out the area around a very deep pothole making it even deeper and bigger (and then for reasons unexplained just leave the resulting yawing cavern unfilled and unmarked for days, even weeks on end!), there is no flock of orange cones, no sign warning of impending apocalypse, nothing on the road at all to suggest that there is a very deep hole right in front of you as you and everyone else blast by at 100 kph.  A friend of mine hit such a hole in such a place at just such a speed, resulting in the total obliteration of his tire.  He was lucky that he and his family were not killed.

We eventually got to the city of Eldoret.  Eldoret is the fastest growing city in East Africa, and has about 230,000 folks in it.  Unfortunately for us and for everybody else, it still has the same road infrastructure as it had in the 1980s.  That means the main and only road running through Eldoret is functionally two lanes.  That means it only takes one person wanting to make a turn across traffic to cause a first class traffic jam.  For some reason, there were scores of people wanting to make this maneuver when we were there.  So it becomes a highstakes scrum between huge lorries, jaded car drivers, heartless or brainless matatu drivers (or both), and pikipiki drivers, creating a rather miasmic effect.  Heaven forbid one has a pre-existing blood pressure issue on a trip like this.

Eldoret.  What more need I say?

Somehow we endured Eldoret.  We were making relatively good progress about 150 kph into our trip when we heard the unfortunate and alarming sound of something metal scraping underneath and behind us.  We pulled off the road and discovered that our tail pipe was hanging by a shred of metal.  After determining that the muffler was otherwise ok and nothing else was about to fall off or apart, we pulled the tailpipe off and tossed it into the back to deal with later, and continued our journey.  Kenya roads are not just hard on drivers, they are hard on cars, too.

From previous trips I was hoping to encounter again the most interesting road phenomena that I have ever come across as one skirts the western edge of the escapement of the Great Rift Valley.  There is a place along the road where exists, evidently, a geological hot spot, produced by magma coming relatively close to the earth’s surface.  As a result, the temperature of the road occasionally gets so hot that the pavement actually melts, creating ripples in the road that are quite exiting to drive across.  I looked in vain for this section, but we never came across it.

However, we did make are way down the escarpment and into the valley floor as we travelled to Nakuru, the fourth largest city in Kenya (350,000 or so people), and the place where I spent my first summer in Kenya as a short term missionary back in 1980.  Needless to say, Nakuru has changed, not least in the number of pikipikis.  We stopped at a shopping mall (!) and ordered a hamburger and fries (!!) for a late lunch and then carried on our way across the Rift Valley, past Lake Elementaita, Lake Naivasha, through a wildlife conservancy where zebra and gazelle were grazing by the road.  It was lovely.  Except for the lorries (Kenyan/British for trucks).  I have yet to figure out why, but for some reason lorries in Kenya seem to be predestined by God to travel at a speed of absolutely no higher than 45 kph and usually less when going up hill, which seems most of the time.  And for some reason, the smaller the lorry, the slower it must go.  This is an interesting fact when studied in isolation.  But when one is driving the only road between Nakuru and Nairobi, and when the only road is two lanes, and when only occasionally will there be provided a climbing lane (extra lane when climbing up hills), this part of the trip descends into nightmare territory.  Behind every lorry there may be twenty or more cars all wishing they were going at least twice as fast.  But there are an equal number of vehicles coming from the other direction and in the same predicament.  It’s at this point that I can personally attest that otherwise sane people lose their minds.  There is no etiquette that says the person behind the lorry passes next.  It’s everybody out for himself or herself.  In order to get around said truck, the moment there’s a break in the oncoming traffic every car behind it leaps into the passing lane and then attempts to get around.  All well and good in hypothetical situations.  But in this case, oncoming traffic nearly obliterated a number of cars that took a chance when perhaps the driver might have been better advised to wait till next time.  But no.  This cycle repeated itself upwards of fifty times.  By then, my body had quit responding to adrenaline.

Slow lorry lumbering on left.  Petrol lorry passing in middle.  Big bus passing on right off road.
Just think about it.

On the way to drop my friend off, I encountered my final potential hazard.  Many Kenyan drivers are just like me, we are reasonable people who have good driving skills and we want only to arrive safely at our destination.  And then there are the few who are in danger of being on the wrong side of Darwin’s theory of evolution and the survival of the fittest.  I encountered one such man who was driving so aggressively that I was forced by his aggressive driving to hit a canyon of a pothole stretched across my side of the role.  He went on to be a menace to several other drivers.  Fortunately my tank of a car emerged in one piece (having already removed my tailpipe!).  But it just reminded me that one can be almost home and then an unexpected potential hazard emerge to become an actual hazard in the snap of a finger.

Must be from the UK.  Everything would have been squashed by now if this were here.

Every time I get into a car, I pray, ‘Lord, protect them from me, and protect me from them.’  Who needs Hollywood action films, video games or amusement parks (OSHA protected or not), when one can sit in the driver’s seat in Kenya.  Or hop on the back of a passing pikipiki.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

So It Ends; Thus It Begins

Christ is in our midst!

I get up to make myself a cup of hot tea as I ponder what to write in my prayer letter that can help you and my other friends back home understand something of my new life as a missionary in Kenya. And then I put on a jacket over my flannel shirt as I sit in my room at my computer because it’s cold here. Because this is just what Nairobi is like in early August.

Chai and Chapati - it doesn't get much better than this!

I take a friend home from church and I find myself driving on beautiful new roads past kilometer after kilometer of well-to-do high rise flats whose occupants may be paying $1500/month in rent; and I stop at the ‘Nakumatt’ on the way home and find myself overwhelmed in the middle of a retail jungle every bit as immense as a Super-Walmart, crowded with middle-class Kenyans paying for shopping-carts-full of stuff with their credit cards.  This, too, is just what Nairobi is like.

I venture out in my purple 1995 Toyota Rav 4 and am immediately embroiled in a hair-raising traffic scrum with amoral matatus (minivans that hold ‘14’ passengers and are the primary/only way those without a vehicle get from one place to another in the city) and buses competing to subvert every known traffic law in order to get around/over/under or even pass through whatever is in their way, and when they do they immediately stop in front of you (no signal or brake lights, of course) so as to block everyone until their hapless passenger gets off.  One of these on the road is a menace, but a whole traffic jam of them is a total maelstrom.  This is just the way things are in Nairobi.

cartoon by Chris Freeman

I find myself in the ‘home’ of a man who works as a gardener (as I did not so long ago).  Only his home, a relatively short walk from where I live, is made of tin walls and a tin roof and is maybe 10’x10’.    For this room he pays $25/month.  He can’t afford a place with two rooms, because he simply doesn’t have the $50/month it would cost.  In this room he lives with his wife and their 8 year old daughter and their 4 year old son.  The room is divided in two by a sheet.  The daughter sleeps at night on a small sofa.  The boy sleeps on two chairs pushed together.  Mom and dad sleep on a small bed on the other side of the sheet.  In this room the children play, the daughter does her homework, the parents entertain guests and the mom cooks meals, although sometimes there is hardly anything so parents go without so the children can have a little something, because there is no money left to buy good.  The father has gone several months without pay because the organization he works for has no money.  While I was visiting, the man offered me orange squash and biscuits, and would have cooked up some eggs for me if I hadn’t stopped him.  And though by Western standards he is a poor man and lives in a slum, yet even in his poverty he joyfully offered hospitality to his guest.  This, too, is what one finds when one comes to Nairobi, where great poverty and great generosity often go hand in hand.

Not my friend's room, but his is about this big, only not as nice.

But I should add a further point of detail.  The gardener who lives in the tiny room with his family in the Nairobi slum is also an Orthodox priest.  The Orthodox Church in Kenya has always been poor, but the economic troubles in Greece and Cyprus, from where much of the funding for the Archdiocese in Kenya has come in the past, has put many priests and students and parishes and projects into very difficult straights.  It is true that these troubles are serving to move the Church here to think anew about stewardship and take responsibility for its own finances.  But a culture does not transform instantaneously, and necessary changes are incremental and painfully slow.  In the meantime, many people, like my friend who is serving an impoverished parish in the rural areas about 20 miles from here, are suffering.  In the midst of a Church that has come such a long way and has such potential, there is also profound need, and a poverty that threatens to blight any future growth before it can happen.

My old friend, Fr. John, at Orthros/Matins this past Sunday

On the other hand, when I drove through the gates of St. Paul’s University last week on my first visit upon returning, I could hardly recognize the place.  The University has somehow raised a huge amount of money and used it to improve in a massive way its infrastructure and teaching capacity.  I wandered through six new buildings – a new Student Center (with a cafĂ©, a gym, and a large auditorium among other things), a Post-Graduate Center (where I will be teaching many of my classes), a new administration building (enabling the library to take over all of the building it previously shared with admin), a conference center and hostel, two women’s dormitories.  But in the new offices I found old friends, my colleagues and supervisors from when I served as a Senior Lecturer here before.  And they were pleased to see me, too!  So pleased that they immediately gave me a Church History survey course to teach at the extension site in the Kenyan town of Kitale next week (August 10-15) and then a Masters-level course on the History of Monasticism back in Limuru at the main campus for the August 17-28 module!  So I guess I’m not the front desk guy at the YMCA anymore.   There are between 4000-5000 students at St. Paul’s, crowding our two main campuses here in Limuru and downtown Nairobi, as well as at extension sites such as in Kitale. This, too, is the Kenya I’ve come back to, crowded with young men and women who see education as the way to enable their dreams of bettering themselves to become a reality.

I ate lunch at the top floor cafe here just yesterday.

So it’s been a month of transition, saying farewell to my parish and friends, to my Linnea and her William, and my Caroline and her Will, to parents and siblings, as well as the rush to divest myself of everything that wouldn’t fit into three suitcases.  And then of my arrival back in Kenya, into my new room at the Orthodox seminary, and seeing so many old friends and already blessed with wonderful new friends.  These first two weeks I’ve been able to reorient myself and get a few things to help make my four walls feel more like home.  So I enlisted a local carpenter to make a couple of bookcases and I found a rug on sale and after much internal debate broke down and bought the floor lamp that gives light to both my desk and reading chair.

Home Sweet Home!  The exciting rug was marked way down :-). 
My work space (aka the other half of the room)

God is good.  And you have made it all possible with your prayers, with your encouragement, with your financial support.  I am grateful.

And now the real work begins.  I covet your partnership with me in prayer.  And here are some things you can pray for.

Altar boys during the procession at the consecration I attended two Sundays ago

First, praise God with me!  He opened doors I thought were shut.  He brought me to OCMC and led them to accept me as one of their missionaries.  He moved the hearts of many men and women to provide the funding that makes all this possible.  And He provided a place for me to live and serve here in Kenya under His Eminence Makarios and at St. Paul’s University.  This is like a dream.  I cannot thank God, and you, enough.

His Eminence has consecrated more than 150 Churches in Kenya, unprecedented for a modern bishop.

Secondly, pray that I might pull this Church History course together this week, and that my colleagues and I might travel safely to Kitale and back, and that we would have the energy to teach what will be a lot of content to these undergraduate students.  Pray that I would be an effective instructor for my students, both in Kitale, and also in my Masters-level class the following weeks.

Another new friend, and my next door neighbor at the Seminary, Fr. Athanasios

Thirdly, pray that I would be a friend and a servant among my colleagues here at the seminary.  Classes here won’t start until late September or October, so I have some time to be intentional about relationships.

Speaking of answered prayer, here I am with Fr. Evangelos and my car, the day after my arrival, for those who know the story.

Lastly, I already preached at my home Church, Sts. Anargyroi¸ this past Sunday; and I was welcomed back into my old choir.  I will likely be given more opportunities to preach in the coming weeks in surrounding parishes.  Pray that I would be a good steward of every chance I have to expound the Word of God, and that I might be used by God to encourage and edify His people.

Back with the chanters/Readers at Sts. Anargyroi this past Sunday.

I am on Facebook and I will be posting pictures of things that are going on.  You can find me as ‘Joseph William Black’.  I’ll be happy to be your ‘friend’.  I also have a blog called ‘Onesimus’ where I post brief articles and sermons, including my farewell homily at St. Nicholas and my homily this past Sunday at Sts. Anargyroi.  You can find it at . And as always, if you want to partner with me financially and become a monthly supporter of this ministry, you can do so online by going to my page on the OCMC website and clicking on the ‘Support’ button at the bottom:

May you know God’s peace as you trust Him more and more and become His blessing to those around you.

By grace,


PS. Here are some more pictures from a very eventful month:

I said farewell to my home parish, St. Nicholas Orthodox Church near Charlottesville, VA.  Fr. Robert led a commissioning service for me after Liturgy.

And I said farewell to my friends.  And to my family.
My daughter Linnea treated me to lunch as I was on my way to the airport.

And this is from the reception celebrating my daughter Caroline's marriage 
to her husband Will in May.

I miss my girls to pieces.  But I have left them in good hands.

Once in Kenya, things just happened.  The Archbishop was invited by several Churches to celebrate the 23rd anniversary of his consecration as a bishop, and he invited me to come along.

And then there was the consecration at Sts. Rafael, Nicholas and Irene Orthodox Church in Thogoto.

And then this past Sunday, Fr. John asked me to preach during the Liturgy at Sts. Anargyroi.  The sermon I preached is posted below on this blog - 'When Walking on Water'.  I'm back in the land of 12 minute homilies, so it's not very long :-)!

So a lot has happened!  My future updates won't be this long.  But I thought you might want to see how things were going and how God is answering your prayers in some wonderful ways!


Dr. Joseph William Black
Nairobi, Kenya

Orthodox Christian Mission Center
220 Mason Manatee Way, St. Augustine, FL 32086
(877) GO FORTH (463-6784)

Sunday, August 2, 2015

When Walking on Water

A sermon preached at Sts. Anargyroi Orthodox Cathedral 
in Nairobi, Kenya on Sunday, August 2, 2015.

Matthew 14:22-34
22Immediately Jesus made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, while He sent the multitudes away.  23And when He had sent the multitudes away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray.  Now when evening came, He was alone there.  24But the boat was now in the middle of the sea, tossed by the waves, for the wind was contrary.
25Now in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went to them, walking on the sea.  26And when the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out for fear.
27But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Be of good cheer!  It is I; do not be afraid.”
28And Peter answered Him and said, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.”
29So He said, “Come.” And when Peter had come down out of the boat, he walked on the water to go to Jesus.  30But when he saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink he cried out saying, “Lord, save me!”
31And immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and caught him, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”  32And when they got into the boat the wind ceased.
33Then those who were in the boat came and worshiped Him, saying, “Truly You are the Son of God.”
34When they had crossed over, they came to the land of Gennesaret.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Jesus had called each one of his disciples to come and follow him.  And they had left their homes and their families and their businesses and their lives – there was something about Jesus: his teaching, the miracles he was doing, his authority over evil spirits, the way he opened wide his arms to people others considered to be ‘sinners’, his ability to heal the lepers and make the blind to see and enable the paralyzed to walk and even raise the dead to life – something about Jesus that enabled each of these men to take that step and leave their lives behind and give themselves instead to Jesus. They enrolled in Jesus’ school, they became his students, his followers, his disciples.   And here in the Gospel passage we just heard read, they have just seen Jesus break a few loaves and divide a few fish and from that handful feed the biggest crowd of people they had seen, more than 5000 souls who had followed Jesus hoping to hear what he was teaching, hoping maybe to see a miracle.  And when everyone had eaten, the disciples had each been given a basket and told to collect the leftovers, which gave them plenty of time to think about what they had just experienced.  Can you imagine?  Twelve baskets full of leftovers, and all from a little boy’s lunch.

Darkness is falling and Jesus dismisses the crowd and he tells the twelve to get into the boat and row across the lake back to Capernaum.  He stays behind because he wants to pray.  So Jesus goes up the escarpment that surrounds the Lake of Galilee.  And the twelve go down to the boat to begin their journey.  It’s not that far, five or six miles.  Not a few of them are fishermen.  This is their lake.  They know what to do with a boat.  This is, as we say today, a piece of cake.  Jesus has finally given us something we can do.

So they climb on board, put up the sail and shove off.  As darkness falls, they are making good time.  And then the wind picks up and starts to blow.  And then it really starts to blow.  And they have to take down the sail.  And the waves are getting big.  And they have to start rowing to keep the boat into the wind so it doesn’t get swamped.  And it’s a struggle.  And they remember the other time they were all in a storm, and Jesus was with them, but he was asleep.  And they had to wake him up and he spoke to the wind and to the waves and they became still.  But this time Jesus isn’t with them.  They are alone.  And the storm keeps blowing, and it just goes on and on.  The minutes turn into hours and it seems like they had been fighting this storm forever.  When suddenly, coming behind them, it looks like a light.  But no it looks like a person.  But that person is walking, he is walking on the waves.  And because people simply don’t walk on the water, the only other explanation is that it must be some kind of spirit.  And they are terrified and start rowing harder.

But then a voice shouts out to them.  ‘Don’t worry, it’s me.  Don’t be afraid.’  They all know that voice; it’s the voice of Jesus.  That’s Jesus! He’s walking on the waves straight towards them.  And Peter shouts back, ‘Lord, if it’s you, give the word and I will come to you on the waves.’  ‘Come on,’ says Jesus.  And almost without thinking, Peter lets himself over the side of the boat and starts walking to Jesus.  But then Peter remembers that this is a lake, and these are waves and this wind is very strong and he becomes afraid and looks away from Jesus and realizes that he is standing in the middle of the Lake of Galilee.  And he starts to go down.  But Jesus comes and grabs his arm and pulls him up and together they walk to the boat and get in.  And as soon as they get in, the storm and the waves and wind vanishes.  And it is calm.  And they are scraping the bottom on the shore at Capernaum. 

Once again Jesus has exploded their categories.  They do not know what to do with him.  What they do know is that they are in the presence of much more than just a man.  Because this man, this Jesus, keeps doing things only the God of Israel can do.  And Matthew the tax collector, who was in that boat with the rest of them, says they worshiped him.

The Fathers and the Church after them have always found this passage to be talking about the boat of the Church in the stormy sea of this world.  But there is a more basic, more fundamental issue going on here.  Because this passage first of all is telling the story of something that really happened.  And Jesus is concerned most of all that his disciples learn something about him.  If all the disciples had was a boat and oars and a sail and their own effort then they might rightly despair.  But Jesus comes and he saves them, he delivers them from the storm, he plucks Peter out of the abyss, he calms the waves and the winds, he brings them safely home.  And we can draw a direct line from there to here.  If all we have is a church building, and a liturgy, and some candles and vestments, if all we have is some singing and some bread and wine, then as the Apostle Paul says, our faith is futile, and we are still in our sins, and death will be the end, and we are to be most pitied above all people because we are believing a lie and there is no reality behind anything that we are doing this morning (1 Corinthians 15:14-19).  But Christ Jesus has risen from the dead, and Christ Himself is in our midst, and he is here speaking to you and me right now, and he is feeding us with himself, and he calling us to be in a relationship with him, calling us by name to trust him and to follow him, stretching out his hands to touch us and heal us, meeting our repentance with his forgiveness, transforming everything we give to him into something he can use for good and for love and for blessing.  And so as Jesus comes to us, even in the storm, he shows us more of who he is, and calls us to respond, to trust, even to get out and walk to him.
But St. John Chrysostom reminds us that there is even more going on in this passage.  St. John reminds us that Jesus is not just in the background reacting to his disciples’ distress. But he is allowing this storm to happen to teach them about both him and themselves:

In midsea he permits the storm to arise.  This was all for their training, that they might not look for some easy hope of preservation from any earthly source.  He then allows them to be tossed by the storm all night!  This had the purpose of awakening their stony hearts in a most complete way.  This is how Jesus dealt with the nature of the fear, which the rough weather and the timing had produced.  He cast them directly into a situation in which they would have a greater longing for him and a continual remembrance of him. (The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 50:1/PG 58:504-505/NPNF 1, 10:310)

Are you struggling right now?  Are you in a situation that is about to overwhelm you?  Are you in the middle of a stormy sea, lashed by wind and rain?  Did you, like Peter, respond to the Lord’s call to come to him, to follow him, and now you find yourself standing in the middle of a lake, afraid and sinking and going down? 

It’s been 26 months since I’ve stood here before you.  And I can say that they have been the most difficult, most painful, most challenging months of my entire life.  The wind was blowing and the waves were really rough before I left, but it just kept getting worse and worse and I thought I would never be able to come back.  And I know that I am not the only one who has been struggling, who has been afraid, who has felt lost or abandoned.  Many of us have been in a storm.  Many of us are still in the midst of it.  But I want you to notice this and take it home with you, it’s at this point, in the midst of the storm, in the midst of the darkness and the pain, it’s right here that Jesus comes, walking on the waves, straight towards us.  And he knows you are weary and afraid.  But he calls out to you over the gale, ‘Come!  Come to me!  Come to where I am!’  And many of us have heard Jesus calling us.  Many of us have climbed down from the boat.  Many of us are walking on the water.  But like Peter, it’s all too much.  The winds, the waves, the abyss below, the darkness around.   And we are afraid and we start to sink.  But I am here to say to you that the Lord Jesus who has called you will not let you sink.  He is here, he is grabbing you by the arm as you go down.  He is lifting you up to himself.  Together you are going back to the boat.  Together he is taking you home.

There is so much good news here.  Can you hear it?  Jesus is saving me from the storm.  And we see in our passage, that he can save you as well.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. Amen.