Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts; for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Early in the morning he came walking toward them 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 in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “you of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased, and those in the boat worshipped him, saying, “Truly, you are the Son of God.”
Matthew 14: 22-34
Let me begin by saying how grateful I am for the faithfulness of St. Michael and All Angels’ Church. When I think of all you’ve been through in the eight years I have served as your bishop and the many ways you strive to love God and your neighbors, sustain your church family, and raise your children well, I’m filled with awe. Father Lewis has told me of your good ministry this summer–another successful Vacation Bible School, your ongoing monthly meal program, your commitment to provide scholarships for your college bound students and steady commitment to the children and young people of the congregation.
You give of yourselves in this way in the midst of all that your personal lives ask of you, with all their challenges and blessings. So today I pray that you may feel God’s love and Jesus’ abiding presence, that you sense in a real way how the Spirit is guiding you and giving you strength. On the days when God seems distant and, like Simon Peter, you feel yourself starting to sink, may others be God’s instruments, reaching out their hands to lift you up.
Now I know from experience that one of the first things we let go of when life gets stressful is the very thing we need most. So I encourage you, as your bishop, to take time each day for quiet prayer. Sit in a chair in silence for as little as ten minutes, or turn off the radio while driving in your car; or don’t wear earphones when taking a walk, and offer that time to God. Turn your gaze toward Jesus.
I also encourage you to read from the Bible each day, and in particular, from the life and teachings of Jesus. You don’t need to be a biblical scholar and you don’t need to read for hours. Simply start with one of the gospels and read a portion every day. When you come across something you don’t understand or agree with, you can do one of two things: dig a little deeper to learn more about that passage or skip it and keep reading until some word speaks to you. Go to the Bible, not so much for answers as for strength, guidance, and inspiration.
As I thought about what word I might offer you today, the biblical story that came to mind was the one you just heard Fr. Lewis read about Jesus and Peter walking on the water. It’s a story that is speaking to me as your bishop, and, I believe, for all of us in the Diocese of Washington for reasons I hope this sermon will help explain.
Let me begin by putting the story in its context. We find it in Matthew chapter 14, which is exactly the halfway mark of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life. In the chapters leading up to this one, we see Jesus at the height of his influence and fame in the region around the Sea of Galilee, which is in northern Israel, not far from the village of Nazareth where he grew up. Large crowds had begun to follow him and his disciples wherever they went, so drawn were people to Jesus’ teachings and healing.
Jesus and the disciples had been hard at work teaching and healing throughout the Gallian countryside. But then word came to them that Herod, the puppet ruler for the Roman Empire, had killed John the Baptist. When Jesus heard the news of John’s death, he abruptly withdrew by boat to a deserted place by himself to pray. He was grief-stricken and needed to spend time alone with God. But when the crowd realized that Jesus had left, many followed him on foot, because they still needed and wanted more from him. When he saw the crowds, even in his personal sorrow, Jesus was filled with compassion. So he and his disciples worked another long day, curing the sick and offering words of hope. You know that wasn’t easy. You know what it’s like to set aside your own needs in order to be present for another. It’s humbling and gratifying to feel God can carry us through those times when we’re called to focus on others when we ourselves are in need.
When evening came, the very tired disciples urged Jesus to send the crowds away, as there was no food to provide for so many. Instead, Jesus asked the disciples what they had to offer. You remember this story: all they had was a few loaves of bread and some fish, not nearly enough to feed so many hungry people. But Jesus told them to offer what they had, no matter how insufficient. And from their offering, which Jesus blessed and gave back to them to distribute, there was more than enough for everyone, with food to spare. So like Jesus in his fatigue, the disciples experienced in their inadequate offering how God meets us in the gap of what we have to give and what is needed, and then works through us, enabling us to do what we could never accomplish on our own.
But now Jesus was truly exhausted and he told the disciples (which is where we pick up the story today) to go on ahead of him by boat and he’ll catch up with them later. He didn’t say how he would catch up with them, only that he would. While the disciples were on the water, a storm came and strong waves battered the boat. The wind remained against them, such that they couldn’t make their way toward land. So they were stuck in the middle of the lake all night with a storm raging. Most of the disciples were professional fishermen, so they knew what to do. Nonetheless, you can imagine how exhausted they were. Then early in the morning, the disciples looked out on the water and saw someone walking toward them, on the water. They thought they were hallucinating. But instead, incredibly enough, they heard Jesus say, “Take heart. Don’t be afraid. It is I.”
Simon Peter, as you may remember, was by far the most impulsive of the disciples and the most eager to be at Jesus’ side. So when he heard Jesus say, “It is I,” walking on the water, he wanted to go out there, too. “If it’s really you, Jesus,” he said, “command me to come to you.” Jesus did, and Peter got out of the boat and started walking on the water towards him. He actually walked on water for a few steps, until the wind began to blow and he got scared. Sinking, he cried out to Jesus, and Jesus grabbed his hand, lifted him up, and together they climbed into the boat.
This may sound like a fantastic story and it is. But here’s the takeaway: each and every one of you has walked on water, and more than once. Perhaps not in the way that Simon Peter did, but in other ways just as important, just as miraculous. Every time you tried to do something that you’ve never done before, you were walking on water. Every time you stretch beyond your capacities, you were walking on water. Every time you took a risk–perhaps inspired by someone else doing the same, as Simon Peter was by Jesus’ example–you were walking on water. And you weren’t being superhuman those times. You were being the most human, and in your finest hour. We were created to walk on water.
In truth, you’ve walked on water all your life. In childhood, everything before you was something you’d never done before–do you remember? The first time you rode a bicycle, or swam on your own, or mastered a skill, solved a problem, or fell in love. I remember when one of our sons broke his arm, badly, when he was eight years old. He needed to have surgery, and as I stood beside his cot about to wheeled into the operating room, he panicked. He didn’t want to go. At that moment, the anesthesiologist, who happened to be a member of the congregation I was serving as rector at the time, came to his bedside and calmly explained what would happen when they passed through the swinging doors. Our son listened, trying not to cry. Then he took a deep breath and to me, “Tell them to take me in now.” And off he went, facing the unknown with such courage, and–this is important–a friend at his side, like Jesus alongside Simon Peter, who said, “I’m right here. You can do this.”
We walk on water when we climb the stairs of a new school, sleep in our own apartment for the first time, make a terrible mistake and have to pay the consequences, commit to someone or something not knowing if we can keep our word, join the military, or move to a new county. We walk on water whenever we have to face something really hard–the hardest thing, what we dread most.
Walking on water isn’t just a Christian experience. It’s a human experience. But what makes walking on water a faith experience is when we sense that it’s Jesus calling us out of our boat onto the water. “If it’s you, Jesus,” Simon Peter said, “command me to come to you.” When it’s Jesus calling us out, and we take those first steps toward him, our relationship with him moves to a new level of intimacy and trust.
When I was 17, I heard Jesus call me out on the water, which involved leaving my home in Colorado where I had lived for many years with my father, and return to live with my mother in New Jersey. It’s a long and complex story, but the call was clear. I got on that airplane and cried the entire way, for I was leaving what felt at the time was my entire life. But I also knew that it was the right thing to do, and that I wasn’t alone.
That experience pales in comparison to Father Lewis’ story. When he was 24, he traveled by himself from Sierra Leone to the United States. I suspect that others here can tell of a similar journey, that either you or your parents took. What kind of faith does it take to travel halfway around the world?
Sometimes when Jesus calls us out, we’re excited to go, as Simon Peter was. And sometimes, we dread stepping out, wanting more than anything to stay right where we are. In the end, it doesn’t matter. We take those first steps; more often than not, we sink; then somehow we’re lifted up and we keep going.
To those being confirmed in the way of Jesus today, know that part of being a Jesus follower is to be called out of your boat and onto the water. Listen for his voice calling you from time to time, from where you are now to a place of great adventure. At other times, when life itself seems to thrust you into a new and unfamiliar place, or asks of you something you’ve never done before, go ahead and take your first step. Then look around for a loving presence, a supportive hand. Remember you were made to walk on water.
For those of you, like me, who have lived a good many years, rest assured that there is more water walking in our future as well. Sometimes we will respond to the call with a spirit of adventure and other times it will be the thing we dread most. Either way, if it’s Jesus calling us out, we can trust that we’ll be okay, no matter what happens.
And to all who belong to this beloved congregation of St. Michael and All Angels, you know what it feels like to walk on water together. That’s a good thing, because it’s clear that you’re being prepared to step out of the boat again. I’m not sure what it will look like, but I know this: we serve a faithful God, and a loving Savior who is not daunted by our human limitations. In fact, God seems to prefer to work through our limitations, making miracles happen along the way. Remember that you were created–we all were created–to walk on water, putting our trust in who calls us out and whose hand is there to catch us when we fall.