- August 20, 2017
- 08:00 AM
A Sermon offered by Rebecca Clifford Pride
at the Episcopal Church of Saint Mary in Falmouth, Maine
Sunday, 20 August 2017
Matthew 14:22-36 Revised Standard Version: Jesus Walks on the Water
Then 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 many furlongs distant 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, saying, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out for fear. But immediately he spoke to them, saying, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.” And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, bid me 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 caught him, saying to him, “O man 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.”
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable to you, O God, my Strength and my Redeemer. Amen.
Today’s gospel reminds me of that wonderful song from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel:
When you walk through a storm
Hold your head up high
And don’t be afraid of the dark
At the end of the storm
There’s a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of the lark
Walk on, through the wind
Walk on, through the rain
Though your dreams be tossed and blown
Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone
You’ll never walk alone
Part of the magic of the Bible for me is that I am within its stories. In the case of today’s gospel, I am struck by how closely Matthew’s account mirrors our experiences in living. The Bible is our guidebook when we choose to think outside the box and beyond the familiarity of each story, when we try to understand how it speaks to us directly. Today’s gospel passage follows immediately after Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and the feeding of the 5,000. I am absolutely filled with awe ~ as I so often am ~ by Jesus’ wisdom, his alternative way of thinking, his absolute humility, his infinite love, the paradox of his humanity and his divinity. Jesus, the good shepherd, the charismatic teacher and speaker, must have been absolutely exhausted, spent, exhilarated after the Sermon on the Mount and the feeding of the multitudes. Is it any wonder that He went up the mountain by himself ~ to be alone ~ to pray. How must Jesus of Nazareth have needed physical and spiritual replenishing after feeding so many of us with loaves, fishes, and ~ most importantly ~ God’s word.
I’m sure we can all identify with feeling elated after accomplishing something major and meaningful to us. And can we not equally understand the absolute necessity of withdrawing to be alone, to recharge our selves by our selves, … alone ~ yet always in the abiding presence of God. Since I empathize most and understand best by putting myself into the narrative’s various parts, I find myself having departed the hillside; I am with the disciples in the boat. Responding to Jesus’ directive, we are crossing the Sea of Galilee.
Now the Sea of Galilee is eight miles wide and thirteen miles long; at its deepest it is 140 feet. It is Israel’s largest fresh water lake ~ about the size of Washington, D.C. Because of the region’s climate and the geography, storms can brew there in a matter of minutes and these storms can be violent. The disciples have been rowing for most of the night and making little progress. As if trying to survive tempestuous weather during the wee hours of the morning isn’t enough, what they perceive to be a ghost, a supernatural being, walks toward them on the water. They are terrified.
You and I have heard the story before ~ many times in our lives ~ so that it is predictable and believable to us [or not]. But imagine that you and I are experiencing this phenomenon first-hand. We’re physically exhausted, we’re battling the sea for our lives, and we see what we think can only be a ghost walking on the water toward us. Would we not too be terrified? And then comes the reassurance: Take heart, it is I; have no fear.
You and I can experience fear when our lives are in peril and when something out of the ordinary defies our limited ability to understand. And you and I, Christ’s disciples who sit in this holy place on this August day, we too face struggles that come upon us as the winds and storms did the disciples: we too can be cruising along: just fine one minute, exhausted and overwhelmed the next.
Now it is Peter whose faith overcomes his fear and who take center stage to instruct us. I become Peter who KNOWS that I can walk on water because God is with me. I go over the edge of the gunnel despite the fact that an angry sea could drown me in no time. But it is Jesus who is assuring me that I can do it. As long as I focus on Jesus, I am safe. Yet, as Peter will do momentarily and as Thomas will do later in the disciples’ lives, I too doubt. My rational mind registers that what I am doing is impossible. How can I, a mere human being, do extraordinary feats such as walk on water? The second my mind wanders and I become distracted, the moment I take my eyes off Jesus, so to speak, I lose my grip, my faith, and I begin to sink. … And so it is with our lives. We can do the seeming impossible if we have faith.…. Jesus tells us several times in the Bible that with faith, everything is possible. We can move mountains: “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” [Mt. 17:20b]
Peter is so endearing in this passage. I am deeply touched by his unwavering answer to Jesus’ call. I just don’t think I would have the faith or the guts to do what he does. What person among us would be so foolhardy, so impetuous, so lacking in common sense as to go over that gunnel? Yet Peter responds to Jesus’ “Come” as a dog would plunge into dangerous waters after his master. No thought of consequences with his practical mind, no room for logic or pondering, just GO. Let go, and let God. Peter becomes ABSOLUTE TRUST. OBEDIENCE. DEVOTION. FAITH. Peter transforms into what God tells us we are capable of becoming.
Peter’s actions remind me of the words written by Thomas Merton centuries after Peter lived and died… words that perhaps many of us can also identify with ~
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, says that growth requires a process of change and a shift in perspective that entail letting go of our egos and allowing our Spirit-centered selves to emerge. While Peter’s attempt to walk on water may seem an almost suicidal act of blind faith to some, Peter dares to take that leap of faith. He lets go of his ego concerns and follows his Spiritcentered self. Rohr also says, Jesus came to give us the courage to trust and to allow our inherent union with God, and he modeled it for us in this world. Union is not merely a place we go to later—if we are good. It is a place of deep goodness that we naturally exist inside of—now.
By answering Jesus’ call, Peter DOES walk on water… He has found the capacity to function on this higher level to which Jesus calls him…. and to which Jesus calls each of us. You and I are capable of the miraculous if we have faith. We are children of God and can perform miracles through Him who loves us.
But when Peter’s this-worldly sense of his limitations jar him, and he realizes he’s doing the seemingly impossible by walking on water, he panics and begins to sink, as I think we all would if in his sandals. When Peter begins to sink, he cries out to Jesus: “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reaches out his hand and does save him, and he does calm the sea. Just as Jesus calms the Sea of Galilee, so he can calm our hearts, our fears, our loneliness if we choose to rest in him, to rely on him, to have faith in him. Christ is always with us, within us, beside us, before us, as St Patrick’s ninth-century breastplate says.
Rohr says that life will lead us to the edge of our own resources through life’s [painful and tragic] events. We must be led to an experience or situation that we cannot fix or control or understand. And that ~ for some ~ is where faith begins. Up to that moment one might have only experienced religion…. By the very nature of life and human nature, we humans find ourselves in difficult positions, in dangerous waters. Life can be harsh and frightening at times, as in these times in which we are living. We suffer illnesses and losses and heartbreaks that could defeat and overwhelm us… yet God is always with us.
God saves us every time. Maybe not in the way we expect to be saved. Maybe we are saved “kicking and screaming.” Happens all the time. Ultimately though, we are in God’s Hands. As He did with the disciples on that stormy sea, He comes to us when we are in trouble, and we need not be afraid. We’ll never walk alone.
My hope for us is that when we face the storms of our lives, we find ourselves able to reach out to God as Peter did. I do believe that when we do we, too, will hear “Take heart; have no fear ~ it is I.” Amen.