13 Aug 2017
“Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.” (Mt. 14:29) +
When I was the Assistant Priest in Scranton, part of my Thanksgiving Day tradition was to listen to Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant on the radio. I still love that song. I got a big kick out of the “Group W Bench.” Part of my Christmas tradition now is to watch A Christmas Story as it runs for 24 hours straight on TBS. Drives the rest of my family nuts. And to a lesser extent, on Ground Hog Day I like to watch again the movie of that same name starring Bill Murray. I don’t know what it is about Bill Murray, but I think he’s hilarious. A Broadway Musical version of Ground Hog Day is now playing down in New York City, and Bill Murray was recently in the audience. He’s a good kind of celebrity. He tipped the bartended $50 for a bottle of water and took selfies with people in the lobby. In the newspaper article I was reading all of this in, Bill Murray said that Ground Hog Day was a comedy, but that it was also philosophical. Maybe you know the story. He keeps waking up on the same day in the same place and the same things keep happening to him, the only difference being how he reacts. And through all of this his character slowly changes and becomes a better person. Bill Murray said the movie was about never giving up, about always willing to try again.
I’ll bet a lot of you are familiar with Alice’s Restaurant, A Christmas Story andGround Hog Day, and I’m also hoping that you’re familiar with the story of Peter walking on the water, even before I read it only a couple of minutes ago. So if you are familiar with it, what stands out as the most memorable part of the story? I’d wager that it’s Peter sinking into the water and yelling out to Jesus for help. Most all of the clipart pictures of this story are like the one on today’s song sheet that show just that, Peter sinking into the waters and Jesus pulling him up. That’s dramatic in its own right, and if this story is in the Gospel to share a more timeless lesson of trusting in Jesus whenever events seem desperate, then reaching out for Jesus’ hand is even more compelling. And these are compelling times.
When I was a kid, Westfield’s emergency warning sirens were tested every Friday. In elementary school, we had to learn about those signs that had the three yellow triangles in the black circle. These showed us where fallout shelters were located in case of a nuclear war. Then those threats sort of faded away. Now we’re talking about actually using nuclear weapons again. Or how about Charlottesville and Neo-Nazis and KKK members. How can there be hundreds of these kinds of people any more? Where did they come from? What’s going on? Now it’s starting to feel a little bit like we’re beginning to sink under the waters. We want to reach out and have Jesus hold our hand and bring us back to safety. And there’s two very different ways to approach this hope.
There are some Christian fundamentalists, you can watch them on television, and they have this scary idea that coming to brink of something like nuclear war has a beautiful silver lining. They’re real Book of Revelation people. They believe that if things get so bad that this will be the last sign before Jesus comes back in glory to save us all, that history ends and that heaven-on-earth begins. Revelation is a book of hope in a certain, very qualified way, but it is also a book of absolute desperation. That early Christian community saw the Roman Empire as too big to fail, that Christians hadn’t a chance in you-know-what to ever overcome all those pagans and pagan gods. And because they felt they had no chance, they hoped for the end of time when Jesus would do everything for them because they couldn’t do it themselves. Desperation.
Well, the Roman Empire that the community around the Book of Revelation thought was unbeatable has come and gone. We only read about in ancient history books. Christianity actually replaced it, and people of faith did it little by little, family by family, town by town, not by waiting for Jesus to do it for us at the end-time. But still, every time things seemed beyond our abilities, some Christians still trotted-out this end-time silver lining, and every time it never happened. Maybe reaching out for Jesus’ hand is not as simple as hoping for Jesus to do everything for us once we start sinking under the waters. Maybe there’s another message of hope in this Gospel story that we need to pay more attention to as people of faith. And maybe that message isn’t that Peter began to sink into the waters and Jesus was there, but that Peter was brave enough to get out of the boat in the first place to go to where Jesus was.
Walking on water is a non-reproducible event. People of an exceptional faith cannot do it. Peter never did it again. It sure would have saved him a lot of grief if he could pull this miracle out of his sack, and after once walking on water he uniquely could have had the faith to do it, but he doesn’t. So the Gospel story may not be about getting people to try and walk on water. It may be to try and get people to take chances, to try something new and even strange, and if they fail, to have the faith to try again. We tend to concentrate on Peter’s failure when we should be looking at Peter’s courage to leave the relative safety of the boat and to try the untested. It’s Bill Murray’s message from Ground Hog Day that we need to keep trying. Remember that the boat wasn’t making any progress. The world was pushing against it. Maybe the Gospel message is that when we’re in that same proverbial boat and going nowhere, then to trust in Jesus doesn’t mean to wait for failure to happen and then for Him to come back and make everything all right. Maybe the message is to be daring, to be creative, to experiment, to try something new, that trusting in Jesus can give us the confidence to even fail because it also gives us the confidence to try again.
Whether global affairs or personal matters, faith in Christ gives us the chance to take a chance. I don’t think it’s wise to expect failure and then wait for Jesus to intervene, and I don’t think it’s the Gospel message either. I think our faith calls us to make a difference and sometimes that begins by first getting out of the boat. That Jesus may help us trust enough to try, and if we fail, to then try again. For this may we pray in His name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randy Calvo