10 Pentecost • August 9, 2020
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 • Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 43b • Romans 10:5-15 • Matthew 14:22-33
In the Name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Another extraordinary miracle that Jesus generated appears in this week’s Gospel Lesson—walking on water!
You will recall from last week’s Gospel Lesson that Jesus was very tired and needed some space so he took a boat and went across the large lake that is called the Sea of Galilee. But crowds frustrated this plan for some time alone by walking around the lake to meet him on the other shore. There, he had compassion on the sick and healed them. And then he had his disciples feed the five thousand with only two small fish and five loaves of bread, a remarkable miracle that is a prototype of how miracles happen and how we can generate them in real life.
In today’s lesson, Jesus finally gets some rest. He sends the crowd away, puts his disciples in a sailboat to go home, and spends the night in rest and prayer. Maybe some sleep, too. Meanwhile, his disciples in the boat were having a hard time of it, battling strong winds and waves all night. They had not even made it to the far shore when Jesus showed up, walking toward them on the water.
“Walking on water” has become a synonym for performing miracles—we say about someone who seemingly can do no wrong, “He walks on water.” Let me say at the outset that I do not know how this miracle could have happened. I will suggest a possibility at the end of the sermon, but it is in the form of a joke so perhaps it cannot be taken seriously. Maybe he did walk on water, literally; the story appears, after all, in all four Gospels. And maybe something happened that, in the re-telling, got exaggerated. Who knows?
The story, however, is not really about walking on water; it is about the power of faith; it is about the effectiveness of a commitment to a possibility, and about some of the pitfalls that can lead to ruin.
The miracle begins badly—the disciples, tired and stressed by a sleepless night, struggling against contrary winds and failing to make much headway toward the distant shore, suddenly see Jesus coming toward them, walking on the water.
They let their superstition overcome their direct observation of what is happening. They actually saw Jesus walking toward them, but they knew—they just KNEW—that people cannot walk on water. So they said, in effect, I cannot see what I’m seeing. This is the very nature of superstition: “knowing” with such profound determination that we can’t be seeing what our eyes are telling us, or what our possibilities envision, that we are stopped. “It must be a ghost!” And so they were terrified.
We get stopped when we KNOW something cannot happen. “We tried that and it didn’t work,” we say. “No, that will never happen,” we say. These are statements of “no-possibility” and they make miracles impossible. We cease to be like little children, who are always in a state of “not-knowing,” when we let what we know get in the way of what we want. Yet Jesus’ promise that whatever we ask for will be granted is nullified and made of none effect.
Fear is the other great killer of possibility. Peter wants to believe that it is Jesus and not a ghost, so he says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water,” to which Jesus responds, “Come.” Peter steps out of the boat and walks toward Jesus, but then “knowing” step in, he notices the power of the wind, knows that it should sink him, so then he sinks.
“You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Jesus chides Peter. Well, he doubted because of fear, which is another kind of knowing. We get afraid when we know we are in danger, which often is a useful survival aid, but also can easily deflect us from our commitment to a possibility.
So walking on water is not so hard after all. It just requires a commitment to a possibility and sticking to it.
Now, how could it possibly have happened? Looking at the event after the fact, after the miracle, we can usually explain how it happened. I confess that in this instance, I am not so sure, but here is the joke I promised at the beginning:
A priest and a rabbi had gone fishing together for years. A new minister came to town, so they invited him to go fishing with them. The three drove to a nearby lake, got into a boat, and began fishing. After a few minutes, the priest said, “Oh! I forgot my pipe and I need a smoke.” So he stepped out of the boat, walked across the lake to the shore to get his pipe and came back. The rabbi said nothing but the minister was amazed. Then the rabbi said, “My lunch! I forgot it,” stepped out of the boat and walked calmly across the lake to the car and brought his lunch back to the boat. The priest said nothing, but the minister was amazed. Finally, the minister drummed up his courage and said, “I think I’ll go to the car also,” got out of the boat and promptly sank like a stone. After the priest and the rabbi had hauled him out of the water, the priest said to the rabbi, regretfully, “We forgot to tell him where the stones are.”