Walking on the Water

The Rev. Mary Vano
St. Margaret’s, Little Rock
August 7, 2011
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Year A, Proper 14
Matthew 14:22-33

On July 20, 1969, the world listened to those incredible words spoken by Neil Armstrong: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Armstrong was the first man to walk on the moon, and though many failures preceded that first success, he seemed to have nerves of steel as he made history that day 42 years ago.

Today’s Gospel story from Matthew records another incredible feat—the first steps of men walking on water. Peter’s first steps in faith were more like the wobbly first steps of a toddler, than the seemingly fearless steps of Neil Armstrong, but certainly no less significant. Peter leapt out of that boat boldly believing that as long as Jesus invited him to, he would have the ability to walk with him on the water. It was good thinking, and it worked. As Peter stepped out of the boat and onto the water he took one small step for man, but one giant leap of faith. It was not the problem of gravity or the problem of density that caused Peter to sink. Rather, it was the problem of his fear.

Fear is the great obstacle that is present throughout this story. Matthew tells us that the disciples were terrified when they saw Jesus walking over the water toward them. Their fear prevented them from recognizing their friend and Lord. With Jesus encouraging them, “do not be afraid,” Peter seems to overcome his fear just long enough to take his first few steps out into the deep with Jesus. An instant later though, he felt the strong wind and lost his nerve. As his fear dragged him down, Peter cried out for help.

A few summers ago, I enjoyed reading the novel The Shack, by William Young. It is a modern story of a man who experienced a deeply painful loss, and while he is sinking in his own depression, God reaches out to him. Actually, God writes him a note, and invites him to meet him for a weekend retreat. The main character, Mack, ends up spending a weekend in a cabin with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It’s a very interesting book.

In one chapter, Jesus invites Mack to go for a walk on the water with him. You can imagine Mack’s surprise, followed by fear, when he realizes Jesus is serious. Jesus asks him why he is afraid, and the answers are obvious. The conversation leads Jesus into posing more questions: “Do you think humans were designed to live in the present or the past or the future?” And then, “Where do you spend most of your time in your mind … in the present, in the past, or in the future?”

As Mack and Jesus stood on the dock looking out onto a lake, this was what they discussed, with Jesus promising that when he dwells with us, he dwells with us in the present. We often allow our fear of things that may happen in the future to prevent us from living with Christ in the present. So, the author writes this conversation between Jesus and Mack, with Jesus saying,

“The person who lives by their fears will not find freedom in my love. I am not talking about rational fears regarding legitimate dangers, but imagined fears, and especially the projection of those into the future. To the degree that those fears have a place in your life, you neither believe that I am good nor know deep in your heart that I love you. You sing about it, you talk about it, but you don’t know it.”

“Mack looked down once more at the water and breathed a huge sigh of the soul.‘I have so far to go.”

“Only about a foot, it looks to me,” laughed Jesus, placing his hand on Mack’s shoulder.

And with that, Mack overcame his fear and stepped out onto the water with Jesus.

Just as God reached out to Mack in the deep of his depression, Jesus reached out to rescue Peter when he cried out for help. The wonderful thing about Peter in the Gospels is that he is so human. He often gets it wrong, but often enough, he gets it right. Crying out for help was just the right thing to do.

Fear is a deeply embedded part of human nature. Even infants, with no experience of the world, no long-term memory, no inkling of the future, have a reflex that causes them to startle and cry when they hear sudden loud noise. In childhood, most will develop a rich imagination that will trick them into thinking that there are monsters lurking all around them. We adults tend to dismiss those fears as the products of over-active imaginations, but have our imaginations really stopped tricking us? Or are the imagined fears that we project into our futures actually causing us to sink?

Yes, fear—rational and irrational—is part of who we are. The bad thing about that fear is that it can prevent us from walking more closely with Christ. Besides Peter, the other disciples were paralyzed by their own fear and they could not get out of the boat to meet Jesus. Jesus was on his way to come to them where they were – they certainly didn’t have to get out of the boat. But risking nothing, they gained nothing. They did not get the extraordinary experience they would have, had they overcome their fear. You may object—but Peter failed, he sank! And I reply, no, those were just his first steps in faith. Peter would certainly fall again, but eventually he would be walking steadily with Christ. The first steps are always the scariest. Because we often live with our fear in the future, we miss the opportunities to be with Christ in the present.

The good thing about fear is that it can also be the teacher of an important lesson. Peter did at least two things right in our Gospel today. First, he relied on the power of Christ’s invitation to give him the courage to step out onto the water. And second, when his fear overcame him and he began to sink, he cried out for help. Fear teaches us our need for God. We need God to give us the courage to live most fully and according to God’s purpose. And we need God to save us when we are sinking. This is the purpose of Jesus Christ—to meet us where we are, to calm our turbulent waters, to save us from the deep. Christ is there not only for Peter, but for us, too. Christ is there to grip our hands when fear pulls us down, but we must cry out for help, and trust that it will be there.

William Young’s story, The Shack, is full of grace, but I chose the excerpt I read to you today because it helps us remember two important things: That while fear may pull us into an uncertain future, Christ dwells with us in the present. We do better to live in the present moment, and know that God is with us here. And it is here, in the present, where we will discover the truth that will free us from fear: that God is good, and that God loves each and every one of us. When we know that God is good, and that God loves us, we will trust that God will save us from destruction, and we will no longer be crippled by fear. Knowing that God is good, and that God loves us, we will do things we never thought possible, as we walk hand in hand with Jesus.

Surveying the world around us, the possibilities that lay in the future, the world looks pretty scary—it seems like it would take an extraordinary leap of faith to get to where we need to go. When we look out over the deep and sometimes troubled waters over which we must tread, it may seem like we have a very long way to go. But Jesus puts his arm around us, looks down at the gentle water lapping against the dock, and laughs “only about a foot, it looks to me.”

May we know Christ’s presence with us here and be freed from our fear, so that today we may take a step forward in faith.