The Secret Place of the Storm

Matthew 14:22-33
Proper 14A, Gospel
Thursday, August 11, 2011
International Center Chapel

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”

And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” [ESV}

What’s a disciple to do when Jesus isn’t where you expect Him to be? In Matt 14:22-33, if you’re a disciple looking for Jesus, he’s not there. He’s someplace where he seems singularly unhelpful.

First, He’s off by himself. Jesus sends the disciples away. Right before this the disciples had suggested that Jesus send the crowd of 5000 listeners away—who wants to provide dinner for thousands, anyway? Jesus refused to send the crowds away and fed them instead.

Now he sends the disciples away! Hardly what they would expect. We don’t have his words, but the jist of it is something like this: “Yes, you’re my followers, but don’t follow me now. I’m going away alone. You get in the boat and go that way.” Matthew makes sure we notice this. He tells us explicitly that Jesus was “alone,” and the disciples are just as alone without Him. What’s a disciple to do without Him?

In this case, keep rowing. After He sends the disciples away, they encounter a storm. It’s the second storm mentioned in the Gospels, but Jesus isn’t sleeping in the back of the boat this time. He’s gone. They’re facing the storm alone! Although it seems like they’re managing it okay, even though the wind and waves are against them. Matthew says nothing about any terror in this storm—no fear that the boat is about to be swamped by the stormy waves.

No, the fear comes when they see a ghost right there in the storm, walking on the stormy waves!  Jesus not only isn’t with them in the boat, He’s the one who is scaring them in the storm. He’s scarier than the storm itself!

What a great thing that the Holy Spirit put this story into the heart and pen of Matthew. Every generation of disciples needs it.

We too wonder what to do when Jesus isn’t doing what we expect of Him? Every generation of disciples knows how often we feel alone—like Jesus is nowhere to be found. Like the disciples, we just keep rowing and figure that’s all there is to it.

The storms hit and you cope with them yourself. You decide what to do when the doctor gives you bad news. You deal with it when trouble comes, when you feel abandoned, when families start to fall apart. You deal with the worry of economic decline and threats of unemployment and retirement uncertainty. You seek help when you’re sick or depressed or despondent.

Like the disciples, we keep rowing, but where’s Jesus? Is He really here? What difference is He making? Yeah, we know that lonely feeling. It’s scary to be alone in the storm, even if we’re coping and not curled up in a corner. But this Word of God gives us two strong words of comfort in our loneliness and in the sometime sense of Jesus’ absence.

First, it informs us that although our Lord might seem distant, He’s praying. While the disciples are struggling away without Jesus in the boat, His absence from Him means prayer, not neglect.

It is no different for us. In the creeds, when we confess the Ascension of Jesus to the right hand of the Father, we may think we’re just confessing an absence—that’s He’s not walking the shores of Galilee anymore. Rather, Hebrews reminds us that we’re confessing Him as our Great High Priest—our Intercessor (Hebrews 8:1).

Paul in Romans 8(:34) also assures us that no matter how far we might feel from God that such distance never means isolation from the goodness of God in Christ. No, not even the reality of our sin does that for God’s repentant children: “Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died–more than that, who was raised–who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” That same promise is there in the assurance that the Holy Spirit also intercedes for us (Rom 8:26-27).

Yes, there’s no doubt. We’re in some very scary storms, but Jesus is praying for us. And His prayers mean a security that is always there, even when we don’t perceive it. That’s the first strong word of comfort.

The second is even stronger—so strong it’s kind of scary. Look at the second word of encouragement in this text. It’s strange, because it instilled the greatest fear in the disciples. As Jesus comes to them on the water, they’re scared to death, because they don’t recognize Him.

How could they? Who would expect a Man walking on water? Worse, who looks to the storm for hope—storms bring danger, not safety. But Jesus is in the very middle of the storm—on top of it, literally, walking on the roiling waves. Jesus Himself scares them because He’s not the way they expect Him to be; He’s not where they expect Him to be or doing what they expect Him to do.

And that is the strong Word of hope. In their absence from Jesus, He comes to the disciples where no one would expect Him. He comes to their aid in the very storm they are battling.

It should make us think twice about the storms of life—about distress and the grief and misery that life contains. It should make us think twice about how God brings His help into our lives. We like it best when we see God working gently—in a lovely day, a “sweet hour of prayer,” in encouraging words while all is well in our lives. I don’t even want to think about the storms as the place where God intends to make Himself known.

Okay, so He gave His Law in the thunderstorm of Mt. Sinai, but our faith is anchored in the Gospel, isn’t it? And that’s all sweet and tender, right?

Maybe not. Luther considered a puzzling line from Psalm 81 in which the Lord says in our English Bible: “In distress you called, and I delivered you; I answered you in the secret place of thunder.” (v. 7, ESV; 8 in German). “The secret place of thunder?” Luther’s German translation of that last phrase said something closer to this: “I heard you in the secret place of the storm”  (Wetterwolke storm cloud). What Luther puzzles over is the idea of a thundering storm being a “secret place.” He writes:

“It is called ‘the secret place of the storm,’ … because the soul, even though there is storm and persecution out in the open, nevertheless is inwardly safe and at peace before God through hope and trust in Him…. How is the storm a secret place for us? It can be called that because ‘Thy visitation has preserved my spirit’ (Job 10:12). Thus storm and persecution preserve in the fear and love of God, but peace and security destroy and betray them. Therefore the secret place of the storm is very useful and much better than the appearance of peace and security. The latter brings forth the spirit into the open, while the storm drives the spirit inward and pushes it toward God. [AE 11:108-109]

So it goes: the storms of life are the very thing by which the Spirit is pushed toward God. No wonder Christ comes striding on the stormy sea. He needs to prepare His disciples, then and now, again and again, for the real heart of the Gospel.

We hate to admit it, but we need that push, for we’d rather have false comfort and a sweet spirit of sunny skies and “all-is-well.” We forget that the greatest good news—the heart of the Gospel—is a dark and stormy Friday filled not only with that ugly darkness but also with an uglier cross and bloody wounds and sheer agony.

Jesus scares His disciples that day. They can’t imagine Him coming to them in the way that He is. But it’s true. It really is Him. He calls out: “Be courageous. It is I. Fear not.

So Peter is at first emboldened. “If this is real, then let me come to you.” Then he steps into the storm, only to panic because he starts to see only the storm, and not the Lord who strides through it. Faithless fear begins to drown Him until He screams for help from the only one who can help.

Back in the boat, the disciples rightly worship Jesus—Jesus, who can not only still storms, but can stand on top of them.

That’s the Lord Jesus for you.

Better, that’s the Lord Jesus for you! He’s praying for you when you think He’s long gone. He’s striding through the storms of our lives so that fear might be the beginning of wisdom. He comes to turn our fear into faith. He compels us to see that in the storms of our lives where it is apparent that we have no hope in ourselves He will be our strength and salvation. He uses all that fear and anxiety and loneliness to draw us up out of the waves to Himself where we will find real peace and courage in His Word. In the midst of the storms of our life, here again is Jesus’ strong word to each of us: “Take courage. It is I. Fear not.”

—Rev. Larry Vogel

ELCK Visit to LCMS and Audit Report

Archbishop Obare, Charlie Rhodes, Rev. John Halahke

Today, Archbishop Obare and Rev. John Halahke, General Secretary, representative the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kenya (ELCK) at the LCMS International Center. Archbishop Obare and Rev. Halahke paid a visit to the United States in connection with the Lutheran Malaria Initiative (LMI) and to meet with representatives from the LCMS regarding various projects supported by the LCMS in Kenya. Since the turn of the 21st century, the LCMS has partnered with the ELCK on projects such as Cows for Kenya, 1001 Orphans, Project 24, and the Kenya Hymnal Project (See the August 2011, Lutheran Witness). These projects have been well received and supported by LCMS members as they provided care for the body and soul of people in Kenya.

In order to assure accountability and donor integrity regarding LCMS supported projects in Kenya, Archbishop Obare requested in January 2011 for a financial expert from the LCMS to travel to Kenya to review the financial records and the projects supported by the LCMS. This past month a team lead by Mr. Charlie Rhodes, Executive Director of Accounting for the LCMS, visited Nairobi and other sites in Kenya to review financial and project accountability. In addition to LCMS projects, Charlie Rhodes also reviewed the past two or three years of the ELCK’s audited financial records. This afternoon, Charlie Rhodes, Archbishop Obare, Rev. John Halahke, and Dr. Albert Collver met with President Harrison to discuss the findings of the LCMS team. Charlie Rhodes was pleased to report that for the audit period, all LCMS funds sent to the ELCK were accounted for and that they were used for the projects in Kenya as intended by LCMS donors. Charlie Rhodes reported, “We have concluded all funds have been utilized for their intended purposes and no one in ELCK or DCM personally benefited.” Charlie also reported that he was pleased both with the co-operation and hospitality shown to him by the members of the ELCK during his visit. President Harrison indicated both to Charlie Rhodes and to Archbishop Obare that he was pleased with the results reported. Charlie Rhodes is preparing a report of his findings for the Board for International Mission, which will provide them with an example of how project accountability is maintained.

Archbishop Obare, President Harrison, Rev. John Halahke

After Mr. Charlie Rhodes concluded his report, Rev. John Halahke, who graduated from Concordia Theological Seminary this past spring presented President Harrison with a gift in honor of the doctorate he received from Concordia Theological Seminary.

After the presentation of gifts, President Harrison took the group for  lunch at the Elephant Bar in honor of Kenya.

Rev. John Halahke and an Elephant

Instead of finding simba (a lion), Rev. John Halahke found an elephant in America. After conversation over lunch, the group from Kenya returned to their hotel for rest in preparation of their journey to South Dakota for a LMI event to be held this weekend.

Restructuring Update

Earlier this year the details of our restructuring were announced. New Mission Boards were created; the CMO role was added and the two major program areas were more tightly linked. Changes were made in how Communications and Fund Development are organized. Positions were added, moved to a new department or eliminated. We are now calling this part of the restructuring Phase 1.

July 1st we started work on what we are now calling Phase 2. In this phase we will work on finalizing roles and responsibilities and their related position descriptions. We’ll create new processes where they need to be created and we’ll make new connections between departments if the old connections have been broken. Some policies will likely have to be rewritten and procedures will have to be revised. All of this work is included in Phase 2.

We have established a Phase 2 Restructuring Work Group which is made up of 13 Synod, Inc. staff members. The members of this group are:

1. Myroen Koehn (IT)

2. Dave Fielder (General Services)

3. Kama Bernabo (Office of International Mission)

4. Dave Birner (Office of International Mission)

5. Dennis Fangmann (Office of International Mission)

6. Bart Day (Office of National Mission)

7. David Strand (Communications)

8. Vicki Biggs (Communicationas)

9. John Fale (Office of International Mission)

10. Val Rhoden-Kimbrough (HR)

11. Charlie Rhodes (Accounting)

12. Barb Below (Office of the President)

13. Rachel Asburry (Office of the President)

14. Jeff Craig-Meyer (Fund Development)

15. Bob Gleason (Consultant)

This group will be asked to:

  • Assess impacts of restructuring
  • Optimize the organization, process improvement or creation
  • Improve integration across functional areas
  • Establish baseline measure for “effectiveness” and “efficiency”
  • Articulate how employees can be successful in new structure

This organizational change process will include communication updates, engagement of stakeholders, and celebrating accomplishment along the way. Hopefully, this work will respect the past and history of how our Synod has done its work but also look toward the future and how we will transform the national office. These are exciting times and lots of positive energy exists in the building about the movement, activity and progress being made in restructuring.

More updates to follow as we move forward.

"Don't Sweat the Weeds!"

The following homily was preached today in chapel at the International Center. A similar homily was also preached last week at the National LCMS Worship Conference held at Concordia University—Nebraska.

Matthew 13:24–30
I.N.I. Amen.

Weeds. If you grew up as a farm boy like I did, weeds were definitely not your friends. There’s absolutely nothing attractive about them, and when you’re out there working in the hot sun, weeds are a constant reminder of the curse of sin on our first father in paradise, and on every human being since: “. . . cursed is the ground because of you; 
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you . . .” (Gen. 3:17–18).

But then they invented Roundup. I remember when Roundup first came out in the mid-70s. I was a teenage farmhand back then, and Roundup was so cool! Crab grass, Johnson grass, and all the other rugged, broadleaf weeds that could only be hacked at with the end of a hoe, miraculously withered and died within two weeks of application—dried up at the root. Excellent, Smithers!

And then they invented Roundup-resistant corn and soybeans, so that you can plant your field, and when your planted seeds comes up along with the weeds, you spray the field, and the corn and soybeans live, and the little weeds die! Judgment Day, Roundup style!

Farmers do get obsessed with weeds, I must admit. I was recently talking to a grad student from Iowa State whose studies involve soil quality and agribusiness, and he was telling me that basically farmers tend to “over Roundup” their fields—that studies have shown that they could get by with fewer applications of Roundup. Their yield would be less, but their profits would be higher when you factor in the cost of the extra applications.

So I asked him why farmers tend to over apply Roundup, and he said that he thought it was because of image. A good farmer wants a field with no weeds in it, and he’s afraid that if other farmers see his field with weeds in it, they’ll think less of him as a farmer.

In our text for this morning, Jesus tells of a different kind of farmer—a farmer who doesn’t sweat the weeds, but actually allows the weeds and the wheat to grow up together until harvest time. Then, and only then, will the weeds and their weed seeds be separated out and cast into the fire, and the wheat will be gathered into the barn. So, what’s the point of the parable for us today, who live in between planting and harvest? “Don’t Sweat the Weeds!”

I.

But we do, don’t we? We see the problems in the world around us—the weed seeds of the evil one “overseeded” liberally throughout the field of God’s creation. From that twisted terrorist in Norway, to the suicide bombers of the Middle East; from the genocide of Darfur, to the scourge of abortion-on-demand in our own country; from the increasing advocacy of a pro-gay agenda by our state and society, to a growing societal hostility toward the church and her mission of witness and mercy—the world we live in is decidedly overrun with noxious weeds of every variety, and more still to come.

And we can begin to get obsessed about the weeds growing in the church, too, can’t we? I mean, when you think about it, the church has so many problems. Somebody recently told me that the problem with working here at the IC is that all the problems going on in Synod—wherever they may be, whatever they may be, however bad they may be—eventually come to roost here, in one way or another. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds when you work here, isn’t it? But when you start to focus on the weeds, you lose the point of the parable: “Don’t Sweat the Weeds.” Because if you try pulling up those weeds, their roots are so entangled with the wheat, that you will do damage to God’s good seed. No, the weeds and the wheat must grow alongside of each other until the end of time. It’s messy. It’s uncomfortable. It’s imperfect. But it is what the kingdom of heaven is like.

II.

You see, our Lord Jesus Himself came to live among the weeds. He didn’t apply some kind of cosmic Roundup to the world, sanitizing it before he became flesh among us. No, “the saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners . . .” (1 Tim. 1:15). As the Pharisees declared: “Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Mt. 11:19). Friend of sinners, indeed! That’s our Jesus. For “greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

Jesus laid down His life for you, dear friend. At His Incarnation, Jesus immersed Himself into the grit and grime of this weed-infested world. By the sweat of His brow, he lived a perfect life, flawlessly spending it here, in and among the weeds, in your place. And at Calvary, He took all of your sins upon Himself. All of your unrighteousness, and the unrighteousness of the whole world, was laid on Jesus. As St. Paul declared: “God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). At your baptism, he poured out that perfect righteousness into your life. “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:5–7).

So, don’t sweat the weeds! Yes, life among the weeds is often confusing, confused, and flawed. But hope remains. For the farmer of this field knows exactly what he’s doing. At the time of harvest, “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear” (Mt. 13:39–43).

I.N.I. Amen.

Rev. Jon D. Vieker