Homily – 19th Sunday OT – August 13, 2017
An avid duck hunter was breaking in his new bird dog on an early morning hunt. The small retriever was excited and pulling at the leash, just waiting for the opportunity to go retrieve a duck. The hunter approached the edge of the lake, waded into the tall reeds to get a better view at the approaching ducks. As they waited, the anticipation was thick in the air. Finally a flock of ducks flew by, the hunter leveled his gun and fired. Got one! He yelled as one of the ducks fell from the sky.
He released his bird dog, and like a shot he bolted out toward the fallen duck. To the hunters amazement, the dog ran directly across the top of the water, never getting more than the pads of his paws wet. He retrieved the duck and brought it back to his master, again running on top of the water. The hunter had never seen anything like it! He looked out at the lake to see if there could possibly be something underneath the water that the dog was running on, but no…the water was clear and deep. A little while later another flock of ducks flew by. The hunter again leveled his gun, took aim and shot. Again, another duck fell from the sky. The dog bolted back into the lake with great excitement - across the top of the water. Well, this was the darndest thing he had ever seen…a dog that could walk on water!
He knew he would be hunting with his best friend the next weekend, and decided not to say anything to him about his dog. He wanted to hear the amazement in his voice when he saw his dog walking on the water!
The morning came, and the two hunters headed out to their favorite spot on the lake with the bird-dog tugging at the leash with excitement. The two hunters took up their positions in the tall reeds at the edge of the lake and waited. A flock of ducks flew by, they raised their guns and shot. Two ducks fell from the sky. The bird-dog shot out of the reeds like a bullet and ran as fast as he could right across the top of the water, retrieved the two ducks and sprinted back just as fast. The dog owner waited with excitement to hear his friend say something about the amazing dog, but he didn’t say a thing. A little while later another flock of ducks passed by, again the two hunters raised their guns and shot. Again, two more ducks fell from the sky. The bird-dog shot out of the reeds like a shot and retrieved the ducks, never getting a bit wet except the pads on the bottom of his paws.
Still not even a comment about the dog. “Don’t you think there’s something curious about my new dog” asked the owner. “Yeah,” said his friend, “your dog can’t swim.”
In the Gospel this weekend we have the beautiful story of Jesus walking on the water. The backstory of what’s going on is this: The disciples had just witnessed an amazing miracle, Jesus feeding more than 5000 people with five loaves of bread and two fishes. Their faith was strong, they could see their works and words as effective. Soon afterwards they get into a boat to cross a lake while Jesus was not with them. A few miles off shore out they run into a fierce storm and begin to panic. Jesus comes walking towards them on the water. Initially they’re frightened and think he is a ghost. He calms them by saying “do not be afraid” I am with you.
Peter, filled with faith and courage, gets out of the boat and walks on the water. Once he realizes what he is doing he is gripped again with fear and he begins to sink like a stone. Our faith works in very much the same way. Sometimes we are filled with courage and confidence and we can walk on the water, then just as quickly it seems, we grow afraid and begin to sink like a stone.
We have all had these experiences from time to time when we feel our faith is strong and we can do anything. Maybe it was after a particularly powerful retreat, or parish mission or an experience of success in something you had been praying for. We were filled with courage and walked on top of the water…for a time. Then just as quickly for some reason – perhaps we understand why, perhaps not – we begin to sink. Our courage leaves us, we retreat into other things for comfort. Sometimes we sink so deep that we can even doubt the existence of God, and ask questions that don’t have answers like “Why would God allow this or that to happen?” Sometimes people even confess their doubts in the Sacrament of Confession, as if it is a sin to sink like a stone. These are very painful times – but they are not sinful. They are part and parcel of our faith experience.
It may be comforting to know that some of the saints (I would argue ALL of the Saints) suffered exactly the same ups and downs with their faith. St. Julian of Norwich was a renowned mystic and had a very strong faith. However, she too vacillated between walking on the water and sinking like a stone. In a diary she wrote, and I paraphrase: I was completely filled with everlasting certainty without any painful fear. A feeling so joyful and so spiritual that I was wholly at peace, nothing on earth would have grieved me. She goes on to say that that lasted only a while and changed to leave her in such sadness and weariness of life, and annoyance with herself that scarcely she was able to have patience to live! Walking on water and sinking like a stone.
Many other Saints tell similar spiritual stories: St. Mother Theresa of Calcutta, St. John of the Cross, Habbakuk and Job from the Old Testament. Perhaps even Jesus Himself as he hung upon the Cross and cried out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Our Spiritual journey is one of ups and downs. A Saint is someone who looks up when they are down, and knows that this too shall pass.
I visited a young man in the hospital last week named Daniel, a boy really, he is only 13. He should have started 8th grade on Wednesday, but instead he and his family are wrapping their heads around a new diagnosis of Cancer. He is undergoing a series of painful tests to determine what type and to what extent the cancer has spread. The thing that struck me about Daniel was his calmness and confidence in the face of a storm. He was walking on the water, confident that he is going to beat the cancer. He used the image of balling up the cancer and throwing it in the trashcan, like a basketball through a hoop…nothing but net! His mom and family as well showed tremendous faith and strength in the face of a potentially very serious cancer. Their calmness and confidence can only be attributed to their faith.
And that, I believe, is the greatest gift that our faith gives us. The words from the Gospel…”Do not be afraid, I am with you.” My prayer for Daniel and his family – and all those who are caught in the grip of a storm - is that they are not afraid – that their faith remains strong, and that they spend their days on top of the water instead of sinking in fear.
The Sufi mystic, Rumi, once wrote that we live with a deep secret that sometimes we know, and then not, and then we know it again. Faith works like that, some days we walk on water, other days we sink like a stone, and then later we walk on water again.