Walking on Water
By Fr. Bill Wigmore
(This sermon was delivered to a group recovering from alcohol and drug addiction.)
I heard a story a few weeks ago that I liked,
and maybe it has some bearing on tonight’s gospel.
It was a story about a teacher who one day
brought a huge glass beaker into his classroom –
the kind they used to use in chemistry class.
And the teacher had filled the beaker up with large stones right up to the top.
He showed it to his young students and he asked the class:
Could he possibly fit any more into that glass jar?
The kids all said, “No.”
But then he took some tiny-pea-gravel and he poured it into the jar –
and the gravel filled in all the space left between the big stones.
And so again he asked if there was room for more? –
And this time the kids weren’t so sure and weren’t so
quick to answer.
So he took some very fine sand and he poured it into the jar,
It filled all the little spaces between the gravel –
And then finally, after he asked them yet again,
he poured water into the beaker –
and the water filled all the spaces between the grains of sand.
So the teacher then asked the class –
What lesson did this teach ‘em? And one kid said: Maybe the lesson is:
“If you plan your day really, really well
you can pack a lot more into it!”
We’ll likely see that kid in Workaholics Anonymous some day!
And another kid said his lesson was, “Seems like you can always have one more!” –
and were saving a bed for him out at the Ranch!
But what the teacher said he wanted them all to learn was simply this:
Get the big things in first –
He said: “If you arrange the big things in your life first
then you’ll find there’s room for all the rest to fit in neatly.”
In tonight’s lesson, Matthew puts into his gospel a really big thing.
But just like with that other story, the point of his lesson can easily be missed.
Now when I first heard this gospel story as a kid of 6 or 7 –
I thought the point was that Jesus could really walk on water.
And I thought that was a pretty neat trick –
And so one day, very secretly, when no one was looking, down at the beach,
I prayed really hard and then I tried doin’ it a few times myself –
Every time, I sank like a stone –
And so I totally missed the point of Matthew’s story.
His point isn’t that Jesus could walk on the waves –
His point was the sentence where Jesus says to his followers:
“Do not be afraid! I’m here with you. You’re not really alone.”
Man, did I ever miss learning that one!
Matthew starts off his story with Jesus sending the disciples out
to cross the Sea of Galilee.
Matthew never tells us what exactly their mission was,
or why he was even sending them out –
But we know a few things from his gospel and from history
that might help us understand this scene a little better.
You see, just a bit earlier in this 14th chapter,
Jesus learns that his friend and (who we’d call his) sponsor John the Baptist
has been killed by King Herod. He had his head chopped right off!
And we also know that Matthew wrote this story
some fifty to sixty years after Jesus himself had died.
And this was a very dangerous time for Matthew’s little
community of believers that he was writing this story for.
Persecutions had started.
People were being arrested and some were being killed.
Matthew’s community was under attack from Rome
and under attack also from the majority of Jews
who refused to accept Jesus as the Messiah.
It was a tough time and really rough going for the new, little Church.
The winds were blowing against it
and those who were trying to keep their little church-boat afloat were bailing water as fast as they could.
They were scared and many were starting to lose heart.
And this story can also serve as a model for us –
maybe especially about what those early years of recovery
are like for many of us.
Our “storms” probably won’t come in the form of persecutions;
but I can promise everyone here that storms are going to
appear – and maybe when we least expect them:
Jobs that we counted on will be lost.
Relationships that seemed so important will turn sour.
And sooner or later, thoughts of drinking & drugging will return – that’s a promise! –
And when those thoughts come, the winds inside our heads will start howling –
and our little boats will feel like they’re going down for sure.
But in this story – just like in our own stories –
when it looks like things just can’t get any worse –
somebody in the boat spots something off the starboard bow.
“What is it?” They ask.
“It looks like a person” –
but they can’t quite make him out.
Then someone in the boat says: “It looks like Jesus
and it looks like he’s walking on the waves.”
What’s Matthew’s message here? –
I think – there are two.
First, in Matthew’s Jewish world,
there was only one Person who held power and authority over the
sea – and that One was God.
Matthew knew his scriptures
and he liked to quote them in his gospel stories.
And he remembered the story of Job when Job was under attack
and everything in his life seemed hopeless & lost–
Job never lost his faith in God.
Listen to how Job responded when everyone around him
was asking him to curse God and say the hell with all this faith stuff:
Job replied: “It was the Lord and no other who stretched out the skies
and (it was the Lord) who walked upon the sea’s tall waves.”
Matthew’s readers, unlike us, surely got the point.
And Matthew also remembered Psalm 77 where it says this:
“When the waters saw it was you, God;
when the waters saw it was you they recoiled, shuddering to their depths.
That psalm goes on: The clouds poured down water,
the sky thundered, your arrows darted out.
Your thunder crashed as it rolled /
Your lightening lit up the world
The earth shuddered and quaked
But you – you strode across the sea /
You marched across the ocean
though your steps could not be seen.
In the middle of our storm – God is with us.
In the middle of our darkest nights – Jesus is always near.
At first, the men in the boat thought they were seeing a ghost.
They thought maybe Jesus was dead –
Maybe Herod had found him and killed him too.
But Jesus comes and he calms their fears.
He says: “Take heart – It’s me – Don’t be afraid!”
One scripture scholar notes that this story sits exactly in the middle of Matthew’s gospel.
It comes in Chapter 14 of his 28 chapters –
And that same scholar may have been a little obsessive /
compulsive because he then counts some 90 Greek words
both before and after this one key sentence:
“Take heart – It’s me – Do not be afraid!”
These words, he argues, form the very heart of Matthew’s gospel.
Now the Big Book reading we heard,
says we shouldn’t be afraid to visit the most sordid spot on earth
– if we’re there doing God’s business.
But it also says that we’d better be assured that we’re standing on firm spiritual ground whenever we’re walking on or near a sea full of alcohol or dugs.
And our old friend Peter’s here in Matthew’s story to remind us of that fact.
Of all the apostles, Peter’s probably the most likely alcoholic in the bunch.
He’s certainly got the biggest mouth
and he likes to play God
if he thinks he has even the slightest chance of getting away with it.
So Peter says, “Hey Jesus, if that’s really you out there,
then command me to come to you on the water.”
(It’s always reassuring to have old Peter around
and to know we’re not the first ones who tried to bargain with
God! “God, if you’re really there, prove it to me
and make this happen!”
But Jesus has a special place in his heart for addicts like us
and for egomaniacs like Peter – and so he says,
“Come on, Peter! You can do it!
If you’ll only trust and keep your mind fixed on me.”
And so Peter does – He risks.
He steps out of the security of his boat – and steps right into the raging storm.
But Peter keeps his eyes fixed firmly on his Lord
and so he does the impossible.
You know, when I first came in here – they told me this really is a miracle program.
Every day, people like us do the impossible.
We stay sober –
And for us – staying sober is about as unnatural a thing as
walking on the water was for Peter.
But just as soon as we take our minds off of that truth
As soon as we start taking our sobriety for granted –
As soon as we forget who’s keeping us sober and we start
inflating our egos and feeling like we’re pretty hot
stuff walking on the waves –
then watch us each start to sink back into the sea.
I’d like to tell you that my 35 years in the Program
has been a steady march across the Sea of Sobriety –
but that would be a huge lie!
Like Brother Peter, I sometimes get frightened by whatever wind’s blowing my way
and pretty soon I’m doubting God
and doubting that he can do what he said he would do.
Before I know it I’m in water up to my neck
and just like Peter I’m shouting:
“Glub! Glub! … Lord, save me- again!”
If you’re new to the program – Try to learn a lesson from Peter –
Be prepared for doubt.
Doubt is going to come – because doubt is part of our human condition.
You’re going to doubt some days that God is really there or that he’s listening.
You’re going to doubt that this is your time
and that this sobriety thing is going to work for you.
You’re going to doubt that a drink or a drug won’t make you a whole lot more comfortable while you’re full of self-pity preparing to drown in a sea of problems.
Faith doesn’t come in a steady flow.
We go back and forth in our faith –
Sometimes believing and sometimes doubting.
Sometimes keeping our minds and our hearts set squarely on God
and sometimes saying,
“Look at the size of that wave up ahead!
Holy Ship-Channel, Jesus! I’ll never make it over that one!”
God didn’t let Peter drown that day –
and he’s kept quite a few of us afloat for a very long time.
And so the story concludes, “When they got into the boat – the wind ceased.”
The storm was over.
God had done for them what they couldn’t do for themselves.
As Christians, we believe that Jesus holds a unique place in God’s world.
We don’t understand it,
but we believe that he stands in the middle of the storm –
with one hand firmly holding on to God his Father
and with his other hand reaching out to us.
I guess some of the earth people can get pretty accustomed to his hand being there.
Maybe they even start to take it for granted cause they don’t
need his help very often.
But most of us alcoholics and addicts seem to find ourselves in
a storm about every three days or so!
If there’s a dark cloud with lightning around –
look for some poor addict to go and stand right under it.
And then watch all us other addicts go running over there
to see what all the excitement’s about!
Maybe that gives us a little advantage over the earth people –
cause we find ourselves in need of having our butts saved pretty regular!
And after God’s 300th rescue operation, even we start to get a little faith ourselves.
And when we do, then you might hear even some of us say to Jesus:
“Truly you are God’s Son –
and I’m starting to believe you when you say to me:
that I’m truly his son or his daughter too.
Sure am glad you never gave up on me!”
There’s a time to be born and a time to die.
A time to drink & drug – and a time to get sober.
Maybe this is our time.
Lord, help us and let it be so. Amen!
Copyright 2008 Bill Wigmore. Used by permission.