Walking On Water, Stepping Out In Faith
by Paulist Fr. Rich Andre
August 16, 2017

Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily for the 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A) on August 13, 2017 at St. Austin Parish in Austin, TX. The homily is based on the day’s readings: 1 Kings 19:9a, 11-13a; Psalm 85; Romans 9:1-5; and Matthew 14:22-33.

We have spent many Sundays this year focusing on what Jesus teaches in the Gospel of Matthew. But now we’re in a period of five weeks in which Matthew focuses on how Jesus puts what he has taught into action.

Today, all of our readings present people in faith in times of distress. Jesus’ disciples panic during a storm at sea. St. Paul wrestles to explain how the Jews are still considered God’s chosen people, even though many of them have rejected the person of Jesus Christ. Elijah the prophet is fleeing for his life after Queen Jezebel has threatened to kill him. As he flees, Elijah leaves behind his servant, travels for forty days and forty nights on just the energy of two hearth cakes and two jugs of water, climbs Mount Horeb, and cries out to God that he is all alone.

But Elijah is mistaken: God never leaves us alone. He continually showers us with love and mercy.

Before I begin my homily, I am compelled to speak about this weekend’s events in Charlottesville, Virginia.

  • We can debate whether or not to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park.
  • People have a right to protest and counter-protest decisions such as this.
  • However, as the news reports and videos make clear, many of the protesters were clearly motivated by the ideas of white supremacy, unabashed racism, and Nazism. Those sentiments cannot be tolerated. All people have dignity.

At this Mass, we will offer an intention for the victims in Charlottesville and for the sins related to this incident. We will also use one of the Eucharistic prayers for reconciliation.

In his book titled Creative Ministry, Henri Nouwen challenges us to acknowledge the entire range of emotions we feel in the course of human events. For example, as we celebrate the love of a couple at a wedding, we need to acknowledge the challenges that the couple will face in their life together. 

The same is true at a baptism, although most parents are uncomfortable to hear that. Lauren and Nik, by promising to raise Peter as a Christian, you are not pledging that Peter’s life will be all sunshine and roses. Instead, you are pledging to give Peter an upbringing in the faith so that he hopefully has the grace to cling to Jesus Christ during life’s challenges. 

The waters of baptism may cleanse Peter of original sin, but as we bless the water this morning, listen to the other things that the water also represents. The water symbolizes passing through the Red Sea from slavery into freedom. It represents drowning, dying to oneself and rising up to a new way of life.  

The waters of life are often choppy and stormy. A friend of mine who served in the navy helped me understand how hard it is to walk on water. She said that if you try to use a treadmill in the ship’s gym during a rough storm, the pitching of the waves will cause you to go airborne as you try to run in place!

What a wonderful weekend to have these readings and to celebrate a baptism, as we prepare for a new academic year. As some students, faculty, and staff join our community for the first time and as others return to St. Austin’s after being away for the summer, it’s a good time to remember that this church is not a haven for escaping the challenges of life. We are the Body of Christ. Together, we can keep each other afloat, no matter how stormy the waters may become.

A lot of people laugh at St. Peter’s foolishness in trying to walk on the water. What a stupid idea, to abandon the safety of the boat. But if you think about it, Peter did not fail. The boat was pitching up and down, yet Peter traversed a few crests and the troughs of the waves before he began to sink, and he got close enough that Jesus could reach out and touch him.

In the previous chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus said that the reign of God was like a tiny mustard seed that grew into a great tree. He also said that the reign of God was like a bit of yeast that was able to leaven a whopping 3 measures – roughly 8½ gallons – of flour. So far in this chapter, Jesus has empowered the disciples to abundantly feed roughly 20,000 people with five loaves and two fish, and he has helped Peter walk on the water.

It’s not easy to walk on water. Even a prophet as great as Elijah had to run for 40 days, almost starve, and endure a windstorm, an earthquake, and a fire before he had the sense to listen to God and realize that God had been with him the whole time!

Henri Nouwen said that we need to acknowledge the variety of emotions we feel not only at weddings and baptisms, but also at funerals. Which brings us to Jay, for whom we are offering today’s 5:30 pm Mass. When Jay ended up in the hospital with a terminal illness several months ago, he asked the chaplains to find someone for him to talk with. “Someone who’s lived a real life,” he said. “Someone’s who not easily offended.” Of course, the chaplains called St. Austin’s. I had the privilege of journeying with Jay in this remarkable time of his life. Even as Jay’s physical strength was ebbing away, he was lifting heavy spiritual weights, wrestling with his regrets of the past and his fears of the future, all the while experiencing an overwhelming sense of the Holy Spirit in the present. At the hospital, and later on in his home, we talked about big concepts: grace, sin, conscience, and the love of God. Although it was beautiful to spend time with Jay, I always felt that we were in a race against time: would Jay work through his regrets and fears before he lost his mental faculties? And finally, late on an afternoon three weeks ago, Jay finally had the courage to abandon the familiarity of the past and step out of the boat. 

George Weigel once wrote: “In the Catholic view of things, walking on water is an entirely sensible thing to do. It’s staying in the boat, hanging tightly to our own sad little securities, that’s rather mad.”

Although he was gasping for breath and straining to hear my words that afternoon, Jay finally accepted that God loved him as he was. Rather than sinking into the abyss, Jay experienced the embrace of God. And it wasn’t a moment too soon. Jay died the next morning. It was my honor to know him. 

To walk on the water, we must have faith. But it only needs to be faith the size of a mustard seed.