10 Aug 2014
“During the fourth watch of the night, [Jesus] came toward them, walking on the sea.” (Matt. 14:25) In the name …
Yesterday marked the 40th anniversary of the forced resignation of President Nixon from office. I was 14 at the time and I remember watching the resignation speech and I remember Nixon boarding the helicopter to leave the White House. I was 14 but I still remember an editorial cartoon soon afterwards of President Ford standing on a ladder and polishing the Presidential Seal as his administration worked hard to clean-up the mess that was left behind. I was 14 but I remember all of the legislation that was passed after Watergate to try and increase oversight and accountability throughout politics. Things that were once allowed to be done in secret would now be forced into the public light in the hopes that there would never be another Watergate. Now we have Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United that allow large corporations and unions to throw obscene amounts of money at politicians. Now Super PACS are the largest donors to campaigns and they don’t have to disclose who their money came from. It’s been only 40 years, but Watergate already seems like ancient history. Nixon and Watergate are still real for me because I remember them personally. They’re part of my living memory. If, however, they maybe mean anything at all for teenagers today, it’s only because some teacher did a good job in civics or history class.
One hundred years ago this summer World War I began in Europe. My daughters probably think I have personal memories of that too, but I really am only separated from that war by a couple of generations. My paternal grandfather was born in Europe in the year 1900. He was 14 when the war started. It was as real for him as Watergate is for me, and I personally knew my grandfather. There’s a direct, personal connection between me and that event of world history through him. I’m separated from the Civil War by only six generations if you count a generation as 25 years. The Declaration of Independence is still a reasonable ten generations ago. These are figures I can grasp. But when I hear about the birth of civilization some 5 thousand years ago, my mind wanders. When they talk about the extinction of dinosaurs 65 million years ago, I have no idea how to imagine that. The talk about life starting on this planet some 3.5 billion years ago in an impossibility for me to comprehend. If you’re at all like me, we have limitations built into our minds. We seem to be able to only capture and imagine events that we can translate into our own experience. Otherwise, we can know that they’re real, but we can’t make them feel real. I can believe the scientists, for example, when they say the universe is 14 billion years old, but I have absolutely no concept of how to imagine that this number is equal to all the way back from today to the dinosaurs 215 separate times.
Now let’s talk about 12 guys on a storm-tossed sea and one other by the name of Jesus walking on the water. I can understand how worried the men in the boat were. It registers for me when Peter starts to doubt and begins sinking beneath the waves. I have to admit though that I don’t know exactly how to process Jesus walking on the water.
I started this past week’s Bible class by talking about a close reading of last Sunday’s Gospel. If you recall, the Gospel was about the miraculous feeding with the five loaves and a couple of fish. What I mentioned to the Bible group was the first verse that says Jesus “withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” (Matt. 14:13) I thought only they would find it interesting, but they said I should have preached last week’s sermon on that line. Jesus had just been rejected in His hometown by His neighbours. He had just heard that His old teacher John the Baptist had been executed. With these two events, Jesus’ tank was empty. He left the crowds and even His disciples to get away by Himself. He had nothing more to give to others. He wanted to be left alone if even for a while. Instead, the disciples follow after Him, and crowds follow their example. Jesus needed to be alone, but He was met by thousands, and yet He ministered to them. He put His own needs aside, and He ministered to them. That registers for me. That helps me better understand and appreciate who Jesus is, and that in turn helps me to better understand and appreciate who God is.
When we pick-up the story today, we hear that Jesus first sends the disciples away and then dismisses the crowd. He is finally alone. He finally has His time to recharge His battery. Again, this registers for me. All of this I can imagine because it matches somehow with experiences that make sense to me. But Jesus walking on the water is completely unimaginable because it is completely foreign. This doesn’t mean it didn’t happen; it just means I don’t know how to process it. It’s like knowing 14 billion years ago, but not knowing how to make sense of that number. So I have to take the Jesus part of the story on faith, and that then leaves me with Peter. It’s easy to focus on his collapse of faith. The picture on your song sheet is a familiar one in whatever way it is depicted because a terrified and doubting Peter is a powerful image. But none of us would do any better. What grabs my attention instead is the courage and faith of the man to take that first step out of the boat. It doesn’t end well, but Peter at least tries. He pushes what is possible and none of the other eleven apostles dared to follow him. I think that’s a message and a challenge that I can grasp and make meaningful. We are challenged to take chances when Jesus calls to us. We may falter, but we need to trust that His helping hand is not far away, so take the chance. Our faith may need us to do something we don’t think we’re capable of or that we maybe don’t want to try, but the message of today’s Gospel is to get out of the safety of the boat and give it a chance. That we may trust enough in Jesus to dare to try and to challenge our faith, for this we pray in His most holy of names. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo