Sinking like a stone

What is faith? Faith isn’t something you ever achieve. It is not something that you ever nail down as a fait accompli. Faith works this way: Some days you walk on water and other days you sink like a stone. Faith invariably gives way to doubt before it again recovers its confidence, then it loses it again.

Jesus Walking on the Water

We see this vacillation between confidence and doubt today in the Gospel. The disciples are frightened by the storm which dangerously rocks their boat. Then, when Jesus suddenly appears, walking on the angry sea, they take him for a ghost, a spirit come to cause further distress. When Jesus speaks “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid,” their faith is buoyed, once again having confidence that Jesus will save them.

Peter, in his exuberance and confident in his faith asks Jesus to command him to come to him, to walk on the water. Jesus says, “Come” and Peter immediately steps off the boat and begins to walk on the water. But after taking but a few steps, Peter begins to doubt, and realizing what he is doing is impossible, he immediately begins to sink. Crying for help, Jesus reaches out and rescues him.

Our faith has its ups and downs, just as Peter, at first, so confidently stepped off the boat and onto the sea, only to, almost immediately, upon realizing what he was doing, lose confidence and start to sink. Faith is like that: at times, it lets us walk on water and at other times, we sink like a stone.

As long as we have faith in Jesus and don’t look down, like Peter, we can walk on water. No matter how large our failures or how grievous our sins, we can always come to the Lord. It may feel like walking on water, but as long as we don’t look down, as long as we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, as long as we have faith, anything is possible.

Faith works best when we don’t confuse it with our own efforts. For example, Donald Nichol, in his book, Holiness, writes of a British missionary working in Africa. At one point, early on in his stay there, the missionary was called upon to mediate a dispute between two tribes. He had no preparation for this, was naïve, and totally out of his depth. But he gave himself over to the task in faith and, surprisingly, reconciled the two tribes. Afterwards, buoyed by this success, he began to fancy himself as mediator and began to present himself as an arbiter of disputes. But now, however, his efforts were invariably unhelpful. Here’s the irony: when he didn’t know what he was doing, but trusted solely in God, he was able to walk on water; as soon as he began to wrap himself in the process, he sank like a stone. Faith works like that: We can walk on water only if we don’t think that we are doing it with our own strength.

In the first reading, we hear of God calling Elijah to come out from hiding to hear God’s voice. Elijah thought he would experience God in a strong and heavy wind, or in an earthquake, or in a fire. Instead he found God in “a tiny whispering sound.”

Elijah, having been promised that he would find the Lord on the mountain, left the shelter of his cave. Sure enough, God showed up, but not in mighty gales or crashing rocks. The Lord was not even encountered in the earthquake or the fiery extravaganza. The Lord was in a tiny whispering voice that made Elijah cover his face in the presence of the Most High. Elijah was called in the quiet, in the “still, small voice” of God.

We too often think that God will be found in the great and powerful, and we wonder why so many people are never able to find or hear God.

Our sights must be lowered, so to speak, from the powerful to the powerless, from the rich to the poor, from the satisfied to the suffering, from the oppressors to the oppressed. We must listen carefully for the tiny whispering sounds of alienation and powerlessness.

Peter and other disciples, tossed about by the waves and the wind, saw the Lord as a ghost approaching, walking on the water and were terrified. They heard the voice of Jesus telling them: “Get hold of yourselves! It is I! Do not be afraid!” Peter heard the call to cross the raging waters. But daunted by the strength of the wind and his own frailty, he began to sink in fear. Even so, despite his going under, Peter was called to faith amid turmoil.

Fears rise as invitations to greater trust, if we only face them and move through them. Fear most often assails us when we are in danger of losing something or someone we treasure. It is understandable that we would worry about the possibility of losing something, someone, some strength in ourselves so reliable and so dear. But the threat of loss is the call across troubled waters.

The sinking feeling may be nothing other than the recognition of our inability to walk the waters on our own. Going under despite our efforts, we finally turn our faces up more honestly, more in faith, to the one who carries us. Ebbing powers and promise do not signal the end. They remind us that it is only in God that we are strong. Fright does not necessarily mean cowardice; it also invites the admission that we are wondrously dependent.

Storms are omens of deliverance as well as of disaster. If we break through to freedom in the following calm, we discover a faith in God so newly grounded that we need never again fear losing the cherished creatures we love. A radical faith, the daughter of dark times, finds the sun wherein all the loves we have had are illumined in the love that is light.

If fear is the last word in our love, we will communicate only fear to those we cherish. Such fear is a futile strain, as if we could walk, by our puny skills, on water. But fear faced and released in faith allows us to love the beloved more freely and the giver of the gift more authentically.

Saint Augustine observed:

The Gospel tells us how Christ the Lord walked upon the waters of the sea, and how the apostle Peter did the same until fear made him falter and lose confidence. Then he began to sink and emerged from the water only after calling on the Lord with renewed faith.

When we consider Peter as a representative member of the Church we should distinguish between what was due to God’s action in him and what was attributable to himself. Then we ourselves shall not falter; then we shall be founded upon rock and remain firm and unmoved in the face of the wind, rain, and floods, which are the trials and temptations of this present world.

Look at Peter, who in this episode is an image of ourselves; at one moment he is all confidence, at the next all uncertainty and doubt; now he professes faith in the immortal One, now he fears for his life.

  ‘Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you upon the water.’ When the Lord said ‘Come’ Peter climbed out of the boat and began to walk on the water. This is what he could do through the power of the Lord; what by himself? Realizing how violently the wind was blowing, he lost his nerve, and as he began to sink he called out, ‘Lord, I am drowning, save me’!

When he counted on the Lord’s help it enabled him to walk on the water; when human frailty made him falter he turned once more to the Lord, who immediately stretched out his hand to help him, raised him up as he was sinking, and rebuked him for his lack of faith.

Think, then, of this world as a sea, whipped up to tempestuous heights by violent winds. A person’s own private tempest will be his or her unruly desires. If you love God you will have power to walk upon the waters, and all the world’s swell and turmoil will remain beneath your feet. But if you love the world it will surely engulf you, for it always devours its lovers, never sustains them.

If you feel your foot slipping beneath you, if you become a prey to doubt or realize that you are losing control, if, in a word, you begin to sink, say: ‘Lord, I am drowning, save me!’ Only he who for your sake died in your fallen nature can save you from the death inherent in that fallen nature.1

We are each called to have faith in Jesus. When our faith wavers and doubts set in we will feel as if we are sinking. Only when we place our trust in him and not in ourselves will we be able to walk on water.

Amen.

Homily #135
Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
1 Kings 19:9, 11-13
Romans 9:1-5
Matthew 14:22-33

 


1 Saint Augustine, Sermon 76:1. 4. 5. 8. 9: PL38, 479-483.

Deacon Chuck

About the author: Deacon Chuck

Deacon Chuck was ordained into the permanent diaconate on September 17, 2011, in the ministry of service to the Diocese of Reno and assigned to St. Albert the Great Catholic Community. He currently serves as the parish bulletin editor and website administrator. Deacon Chuck continues to serve the parish of Saint Albert the Great Catholic Community of the Diocese of Reno, Nevada. He is the Director of Adult Faith Formation and Homebound Ministries for the parish, conducts frequent adult faith formation workshops, and is a regular homilist. He currently serves as the bulletin editor for the parish bulletin. He writes a weekly column intended to encompass a broad landscape of thoughts and ideas on matters of theology, faith, morals, teachings of the magisterium and the Catholic Church; they are meant to illuminate, illustrate, and catechize the readers and now number more than 230 articles. His latest endeavor is "Colloqui: A journal for restless minds", a weekly journal of about 8 pages similar in content to bulletin reflections. All his reflections, homilies, commentaries, and Colloqui are posted and can be found on his website: http://deaconscorner.org. Comments are always welcome and appreciated. He is the author of two books: "The Voices of God: hearing God in the silence" which offers the reader insights into how to hear God’s voice through all of the noise that surrounds us; and "Echoes of Love: Effervescent Memories" which through a combination of prose and verse provides the reader with a wonderful journey on the way to discovering forever love. He regularly speaks to groups of all ages and size and would welcome the opportunity to speak to your group.

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