Sunday, August 07, 2005

Walking on water

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Homily on Matthew 14:22-33
by The Rev’d Timothy M. Matkin, SSC
Given at S. Alban’s Church, Arlington, TX on 7 August 2005

Last week, if you recall, we talked about Jesus feeding the crowd of over 5,000 in a miraculous way with only five loaves and two fish. It wasn’t much to share, but everyone contributed what they had, and in God’s provision, there was enough (indeed, what looked like an empty basket turned out to be a basketfuls of abundance).

Jesus was always looking for ways to instill faith and confidence in his disciples. Part of that task was to teach them dependence upon God. Another part was to encourage them to be a part of the solution. Remember, Jesus said, "You give them something to eat." Now that he’s shown them that God can fill an empty dinner plate, why not just teach them to walk on water?

I remember taking swimming lessons as a child, perhaps you do too. I think I was about 7 or 8 years old. It was a series of lessons that went on over the summer weeks. And I remember that the first week was easy. We all got in the shallow end of the pool. We would grab ahold of the side of the pool and practice kicking. We would practice holding our breath, getting our faces wet. We would learn safety rules and different strokes.

Before too long, we were swimming laps at the shallow end. I’d swing my arms through the water from one end to the other, all the while, keeping my feet firmly planted on the bottom of the pool. But I remember one day it was different. I headed to the shallow end, ready for business as usual. But it was not to be. The instructor called us over to the deep end.

The dozen or so kids walked around to the other side of the pool. I followed them--hesitant and uncertain. We lined up standing along the side of the deep end. The instructor was in the water saying something, but I wasn’t listening. I just kept looking at that water. At the shallow end, the water was almost colorless. But down here, it was a deep blue. I could hardly see the bottom. I looked at the numbers on the side of the pool. Back on the shallow side it was 3, down here it was 12. I wish I could remember how tall I am.

Evidently, the instructor had told everyone to jump in, because before I knew it, I was the only one left standing on the side. She called out to me, "Hey Tim! Come on in. Just look at me. I know you can do it. I’ll be here for you." Now I had jumped in the shallow end many a time. It was no problem. I’d plop in the water, hit bottom, and stand right up. But this just looked totally different.

I had all the skills I needed. I could hold my breath. I knew how to move my arms and feet. So I just did it; I jumped in. Instantly, there was blue all around. I was sinking in the water, but I ever hit bottom. I had to hold my breath a lot longer than I did before. There was nothing to push off from, but I slowly started to rise. Then my head popped above water, just long enough to get a breath.

My arms and legs seemed to remember what they were supposed to do. I felt two arms under mine, as the instructor helped me to the pool’s edge. There I held on for dear life as we continued the swimming lesson. I wonder if perhaps St. Peter might have felt the same way. For a number of chapters now, Jesus had been trying to get some time alone. Finally, the crowds start to disperse when Jesus sent his disciples to go in a boat across the lake ahead of him. Jesus stayed on the mountain to pray.

For the disciples, it was not an easy task--it was like rowing upstream. The harder they tried to make headway, the more the sea and wind came up against them. They would not reach the other side until Jesus joined them in the boat. And lets face it--swimming is for the fish. If they weren’t astounded before, with the loaves and the fish, they certainly were now, as the saw Jesus coming toward them, walking on the surface of the water.

They thought perhaps it was a ghost, but Jesus reassures them, "It’s me. Don’t be afraid." Peter says, "If it’s really you, then ask me to come over to you." So Peter jumped out of the boat, or perhaps we should say, he stepped out of the boat and started walking toward Jesus. When Peter was focused, he had no problem, but soon he became distracted--the wind, the waves, the deep blue sea.

Soon the blue was all around him, and he felt himself sinking. He was so afraid, all he could do was cry out, "Help me." At that moment, the hand of Jesus reached down, pulled him up, and helped Peter get back into the boat. "O man of little faith; why doubt?" When Jesus sat down in the boat, the wind calmed down. They could go on about their way now--the Lord was with them.

It seems to me there are three decisive moments in this experience. The first is the moment of courage, when Peter left the boat. It takes a lot of courage to leave the boat, because it looks rough out there. And worse than that, the wind is rough; the waves are as bad as they seem. The water is deep; you can’t even see the bottom. It takes courage trade the security of a boat for the turbulence of water. Some might think it foolish, but don’t confuse foolishness with courage. The fool does not discriminate. The fool believes everyone or no one. Courage involves exercising discernment and trust, even over the cost it may involve. Even though he saw the raging sea, Peter trusted Jesus when our Lord said, "Come to me."

Having courage to get out of the boat is a defining moment. Courage is the moment when we have the strength to sacrifice who we are in order to discover who we may become. The Danish philosopher theologian Soren Kierkegaard put it this way, "To dare is to momentarily lose one’s footing. But not to dare is to lose one’s self." There ended up being two kinds of people in that boat--wet & dry. Eleven disciples were left dry, unchanged. They had not understood about the loaves and fish.

Might I encourage you to take the plunge in whatever God is inviting you into. Don’t do it when it’s for foolish reasons, but do it when it’s out of trust and godly discerment. Jesus is there like that swimming instructor was for me, saying, "Come on in. You can do it. I’ll be with you." We as a parish church need the same lesson--We will never learn who we can be and what we can accomplish until we have the courage to give up what we already are.

The second decisive moment in this story is that Peter faced panic. The Israelites were not sea-going people. There enemies were. For them, the sea almost always represented something negative--chaos, confusion, turbulence, danger, the unknown. Have you ever gotten out of the boat, and then panicked? Of course you did. You were sinking into waters of chaos and confusion. When I first jumped into the deep end of the swimming pool, I panicked. I felt like I would never come back up to the surface. The deep blue waters that covered me distracted me from the fact that I had all the skills I needed, and that my teacher and guide was there.

What Peter needed was patience--patience helps us face panic. When he remembered who it was he trusted, Peter was saved. When he cried out, "Save me," the hand of God was right there. Patience allows us to make better use of our courage. Patience gives us the level head to act at the right moment. All Peter had to do was tread water--what fisherman couldn’t do that. We panic when we feel that our circumstances are greater than God. Patience keeps us mindful that God is greater than out circumstances.

We might say that the third decisive moment in this story is that Peter embraced the faithfulness of God. Every story of risk and challenge and growth is the story of the discovery of God’s never-ending faithfulness. Even in the most unlikely moments, God is there for us.
When Jesus got into the boat, the water became calm. Can’t you see Peter, wet and shivering, looking across the boat to Jesus, thinking, "God is faithful, isn’t he! We sure found that out." Why don’t you find out? If God calls you out of the boat, why not. Have courage, be patient, and find out how faithful God really is. Be like Peter, who said, "Lord, if it is you, ask me to come to you."

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