Proper 14 Year A Matthew 14:22-33
In today’s gospel, we have a story that is probably pretty familiar to most of us; it is the story of Jesus walking on the water. The disciples are out in a boat. We are told that it has taken them all night to cross the sea of Galilee. Now, the sea is only seven miles wide going from east to west. There is no way is should have taken them all night to get across the thing unless the weather was really bad! Storms on the lake are notorious, so they had been getting buffeted by waves all nigh and not seeming to get anywhere. Then they saw something, something they at first thought was a ghost. When they saw this they were afraid, then Jesus spoke to them and told them to not be afraid. Peter recognizes Jesus and, in a great display of faith, says that if Jesus calls him, he, too, could walk out on the water to Jesus. So Jesus calls him and Peter begins to walk. But once Peter starts walking, he begins to doubt, his faith begins to waver; and as he doubts, he begins to sink.
I don’t think Peter’s experience is too far away from our own experiences in life. We see where Jesus is calling us and it may cause us to be initially frightened. But then we reach out and say, “Just call me Jesus and I will follow you anywhere. “We then venture out in faith, and to our shock and amazement, we realize that we, in fact, can walk on the water! We continue to walk in faith, but then it dawns on us, WE ARE NOW IN THE MIDDLE OF STORMY WATERS! And as we look around, we realize something else; our boat is WAY behind us!
Oh no! We are out in the middle of the water. Our boat is out of reach behind us. Jesus is somewhere in front of us. (Have you ever felt this way?) We look for a way to save ourselves. Suddenly, we feel the water beneath our feet go from being solid enough to hold us to being, well, water! We feel ourselves starting to sink and we feel the water wash over us. Now we start to panic. And as we panic, we feel the water cover us even more! We are going to drown!
We step out into life with the best of intentions. We have every intention of volunteering our time to help take care of the church building and grounds. We intend to help with the nursery and Sunday school. And we are going to jump right in and tithe. And we truly have faith that Jesus will see us through on these intentions. But then the strong winds of life begin to buffet us. We begin to notice that we are moving in uncharted territory. We notice that the water around us is mighty choppy. We notice that the water around us is just that, WATER! We notice that our usual sources of support are gone. And then we realize the boat is out of reach.
What we forget about in this story, however, is that Peter does NOT drown. When Peter faltered, Jesus didn’t just abandon him to the depths. Jesus reaches out and catches Peter. Jesus does NOT let Peter drown.
And we are also told that Jesus speaks to Peter. Now, how we interpret these words of Jesus have a lot of bearing on what we take away from the story. If we hear Jesus speaking to Peter as a punitive parent, then we would rightly have fear of stepping out of the boat and out into the chaos of the world in faith. If we hear Jesus say in some booming, angry voice, “OH YOU OF LITTLE FAITH!!” we may assume that we should only try something so audacious as walking on water, only if we are some kind of faith superstar.
But there is another way of interpreting what Jesus said.
Imagine yourself as a parent. Now, imagine your child in the process of learning how to walk. Your child is at one end of the room and you are on the other. Your child is reaching out to you and you are encouraging her to take her first tentative steps toward you. She looks into your eyes with total faith and then lets go of the bookcase. Keeping her eyes on you, she toddles into the middle of the room. When she reaches the middle of the room, she begins to look around. THERE IS NOTHING TO HANG ON TO! The bookcase is behind her and you are in front of her. And the only thing between you and her is the wide expanse of floor. Suddenly in a panic, your child starts crying and drops to the floor.
Now, do you go to her and begin to scold her because she got frightened? Well, of course not. You scoop her up in your arms and you laugh. She was doing so well and then she began to doubt. And when she doubted, it was than that she lost her footing.
I guess I see Jesus in just such a parental role in today’s reading. I don’t see Jesus as scolding Peter. I see Jesus as having one of those, “Oh so close but not quite yet” moments. Peter seems to get it; Peter seems to get that Jesus can be trusted in even the most bizarre of situations. But then the world gets the better of Peter and Peter flounders. (I guess we should have expected that, Peter does mean “Rock” after all!)
Jesus knows we will flounder too. But still, Jesus calls us. Jesus calls us to get out of the boat and enter into the chaos that surrounds us. Jesus calls us to get out and trust in him. Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples to row the boat faster or try harder. He just tells them to take heart and not be afraid. And what does Jesus do when Peter begins to sink? He reaches out and grabs him and carries him to the boat. Even when Peter’s faith falters, Jesus does not leave him behind to sink into the chaos; Jesus scoops Peter up and carries him to safety.
Jesus is asking us all to step out of the boat, or let go of the bookcase, or release our grip on our time or our paycheck. Jesus is asking us to let go of those things we think are giving us support and to look into his eyes and trust. Jesus is asking us to believe and then move. Jesus is asking us to just step out in faith. Jesus is not expecting us to be faith superstars, he is just expecting us to take one small step, and then another, and then another. And you know, in no time at all, not only are we walking on the water, but we are running laps around the lake!
But if we should lose faith and become caught up in the winds of life, we are not lost, we are not left to sink to the bottom and perish. If we get caught up in the chaos of life, Christ is there for us, ready to hold us up and support us. Ready to carry us back to the boat ready to calm our fears, and if need be, ready to calm the winds that surround us. Even if WE get caught up in the troubles of life, Jesus doesn’t just leave us.
I can pretty much guarantee that we will get caught in the troubles of life. We will lose faith and falter. But that does not mean we are punished. Christ comes to us, scoops us up in his strong arms, looks into our eyes and smiles. He gives us a little shake of the head and then, trying, but not quite succeeding, to suppress a knowing chuckle, says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
Why do we doubt? Why do we doubt the one who died and was raised? Why do we doubt the one who calls us and feeds us with his own body and blood? Why do we doubt the one who promises to be with us until the end of time?
But the fact is: we do doubt. The fact is: our faith will flounder. And although sometimes we will be out there like faith superstars, the fact is, most of the time we will get caught up in the winds of the world. But the fact that we need to remember is that no matter what we do, Christ is there, urging us on to step out of the boat in faith; and also ready to scoop us up if we should falter.