Matthew 14:22-33, 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time
We’ve all heard that phrase “standing on solid ground.” Today’s Gospel is about anything but standing on solid ground. Do you remember ever feeling like you’ve run out of solid ground? One day you get out of bed, and for some reason, you feel completely unsure of your world, your life, and yourself. Maybe it’s because there’s some kind of crisis in your life–the sudden death of a loved one, the painful end of a valued relationship, the loss of a much-needed job, or just some unexpected detour or dead end. Sometimes you can’t even quite put your finger on any specific reason for how you feel, but the bottom line is, you don’t feel grounded.
Welcome to the human race–or as the Marian devotees among us would say, welcome to this “valley of tears.” You’re just living the life of a typically limited human being inhabiting an imperfect world. In this town, things sometimes just go wrong and the proverbial excrement hits the fan.
When we experience such seasons in our lives, when we feel like we’ve run out of solid ground, and we’re unsure of where we stand or how we can even survive the day, we are being invited to do a Simon Peter: to learn to walk on water.
The Gospel story today recounts one of our Lord’s most impressive miracles, as well as Simon Peter’s less than impressive attempt to replicate it. But don’t feel pressured: The water-walking we’re invited to learn is the Simon Peter variety. But even that’s not an easy art to master. Most of us would not even dream of trying it–just like the rest of the disciples that stormy night, none of whom gave any thought to taking a step out of their boat even despite the sight of the Lord crossing the sea. None, that is, except Simon Peter, who, unlike the others, refused to dismiss the Lord as a mere ghost.
Simon, as always, can teach us a thing or two about following Jesus. First of all, he gets this crazy idea of walking on the water just because the Lord is doing it. For him, following Jesus means imitating him, doing whatever the Lord does; it’s as simple as that. Do we, who also claim to follow Jesus, try to imitate him in the way we think, talk, and act?
Secondly, Simon doesn’t just jump into the water, as he has been observed to do on other occasions. In this particular event, he actually checks with Jesus first. “Lord,” he calls out, “if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” And it is only when he hears Jesus say, “Come!” does Simon get out of the boat to approach the Lord. And us? How often do we check with the Lord and wait for his cue before we make our decisions?
And finally, halfway to Jesus, walking on far-from-solid ground, Simon notices the strong wind and waves, gets scared and begins to sink, but what does he do? He cries out to the Lord for help. And of course the Lord stretches out a hand and delivers Peter safely back to the boat. What about us? When we get into trouble, how long does it take us to look up and ask for help?
It is only when they reach the boat that the wind dies down, so the storm must have been raging the whole time during Peter’s water-walking. Also, the Lord says something pretty curious: “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” This question sounds strange if it’s addressed to the man who has just volunteered to walk on the water at the height of a storm. But I think it may have been addressed as well to the rest of the disciples who opted to watch the whole thing from the safety of the boat.
The lesson for us, I think, is that our faith in the Lord should prevent us from cowering in fear and hiding from the storm. Our faith in the Lord should challenge us and enable us to venture outdoors, and like Peter, brave the elements, walk–perhaps in fear, yes, but also in faith. Just cross that sea, knowing that the Lord is there in the very midst of the storm, his eye fixed on us, his hand ready to save us when we need his saving.
The problem is often, in times of trouble, we prefer to cower and hide like the disciples. We tend to allow our fears to paralyze us. We refuse to cross that sea unless God parts the waters for us so that we could simply walk on dry land the way the Israelites did in the story of Exodus, God’s pillar of fire hovering over them. The hitch is, God seems to prefer not to hover over us, but to meet us face-to-face, but we need to walk on that water to approach him.
It won’t be easy–learning this art of walking on water. Often we will be tempted to hold back and to turn back, but we must strain our ears to hear the Lord call out, “Take courage! It is I! Do not be afraid!” We may flounder just the same, even sink like Peter, but always, the Lord will meet us halfway with his outstretched hand.