Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33
On the count of three, OK?
Whether it’s taking that first step out of bed after surgery, having to speak in public if you are are not used to it, taking the plunge to wade through an icy mountain stream or at least risking a wetting by hopping across slippery stepping stones—you don’t have to go bungy-jumping or try sky-diving to feel scared. Almost anything that takes us out of our comfort zone takes guts whether we just dive in at the deep end or dip a tentative toe in the water for starters. We each have things we shy away from—they can be simply picking up the phone to someone we might have upset, taking something back to a store, trying out a new recipe on guests or any other situation that makes us nervous. Very few of us go through life without a dose of anxiety over something that really challenges us, or perhaps regularly bothers us.
These days, some folk employ life coaches, but whether we rely on our family and friends to encourage and cheer us on, having someone to give us confidence or a helping hand can make all the difference—keeping us going when our own energy, courage or faith starts to flag until we cross whatever finish line we face. Regardless whether it’s a marathon or just something that just feels like one, it sure helps to have someone rooting for us—perhaps a friendly nurse or doctor, an inspiring teacher or leader, a person we love who always says the right word—someone we can trust. But what when we have to tackle something tough on our own without the benefit of someone to show us how it’s done or how to cope when we run into a problem we hadn’t anticipated, or something we’d even prefer to struggle with in private for a while perhaps?
The way Jesus coped was to get away from it all and pray—to go and find a secluded spot away from the crowds and even close friends, then pray—to be alone yet not alone, to spend some quiet, quality time with the One he called Abba, to replenish the energy others demanded from him, tapping into that inner strength that drew on the absolute trust he had in the love of God. He did not always get his wish, as we gather from his struggle in Gethsemane, but by showing him God’s way, prayer prepared him for what lie ahead, with the promise new life beyond suffering and death.
The disciples, being Jewish, would have also prayed regularly, but must have felt something was missing to have asked Jesus to teach them how to pray so handing down to us what we call the Lord’s Prayer. But there are many methods and approaches to prayer—some that suit certain personality types or situations better than others, but the best advice I’ve heard is to pray as you can, not as you can’t. Just pray from the heart, because God surely hears a heartfelt call for help like Peter’s cry Save me! or sincere burst of gratitude and praise, even if it is a simple Thank you! or Wow!
Tolstoy wrote a story on this very topic called The Three Hemits that also echoes today’s Gospel. Henri Nouwen summarized like this... “Three Russian monks lived on a faraway island. Nobody ever went there, but one day their bishop decided to make a pastoral visit. When he arrived, he discovered that the monks didn’t even know the Lord’s Prayer. So he spent all his time and energy teaching them the “Our Father” and then left, satisfied with his pastoral work. But when his ship had left the island and was back in the open sea, he suddenly noticed the three hermits walking on the water—in fact, they were running after the ship! When they reached it, they cried, “Dear Father, we have forgotten the prayer you taught us.” The bishop overwhelmed by what he was seeing and hearing, said, “But, dear brothers, how then do you pray?” They answered, “Well, we just say, ‘Dear God, there are three of us and there are three of you, have mercy on us!'” The bishop, awestruck by their sanctity and simplicity, said, “Go back to your land and be at peace.”
What we aim for is prayerfulness (which goes beyond mindfulness) to make room for God in our hearts, our minds and in whatever we do or face—to become people who can pray and be aware of God’s loving presence anywhere, anytime, so that we can draw wisdom and strength, comfort and joy from knowing we are never totally alone. Many people admit they pray for help, when they face or crises or feel out of their depth. Others talk about the ecstasy of mountaintop experiences, but actually we learn prayerfulness by practicing—perhaps using words we know, or some other approach, but praying as we can, not as we can’t.
So there was Jesus, up the mountain praying, while the disciples were in the boat and far from shore, battling the wind and waves through the night. According to Matthew’s Gospel, this is the first time they had been sent out without Jesus who was not only their leader, but represents God with us. Some folk love to debate if Jesus really walked on water—whether it was a miracle, or mirage—a trick of the light, or the over-active imaginations of stressed out disciples, especially the landlubbers amongst them terrified they were going to sink. But as with many biblical stories that operate on three levels—the literal, allegorical or symbolic, and spiritual, there are some keywords that may affect the way this story speaks to you right now. For example, the early church was often depicted as a boat (hence our word nave), and its members were not only being buffeted about, but being persecuted. They were also rough times for missionaries who faced many perils. Jesus had told his disciples to head for the other side which could mean the far shore of the Sea of Galilee, the lands of the gentiles, or other side of death and new life. Their struggle through the stormy night can imply the dark night of the soul, when our faith is tested and we feel all at sea, unable to recognize Christ even when he is near to us. It’s a ghost! they cried, yet even after Christ’s reassurance, Peter in a mixture of confusion and doubt tests him saying …if it is you, command me to come to you on the water. All Jesus says is Come, and impetuous as ever, Peter started walking on water but then starts to sink when he loses his nerve, noticing how strong the wind was. Lord save me! was all he had to say for Jesus to reach out and catch him. No formula or fancy words—the cry for help was enough and when Christ got into the boat the wind ceased. When we are open to Christ’s presence it can feel precisely like that as our fears subside and we enjoy peace of mind.
Look at Peter—despite his all his failings, fears and at times lack of faith, he dared to walk on water when Jesus said Come and then Peter received help when needed. What does that tell us?
On the count of three, OK?