“Help!” And other Short Useful Prayers

Scripture: Matthew 14

Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it. During the fourth watch of the night Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.

But Jesus immediately said to them:
“Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”
“Come,” he said.
Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”
And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down.

Peter is agift to preachers everywhere. He is a ready-made object lesson. He’s the way you talk about the glaring failures of a particular congregation member without having to mention them by name. On the flip side, he’s an aid to self-esteem. He is the standard of comparison by which all of us who are insecure in our faith, who regularly feel deficient in our resolve to live by that faith, who suffer from an over-developed awareness of our own inadequacies, might feel slightly better about ourselves.

Peter’s only trouble, of course, is that he is an extrovert. All introverts recognize this and are secretly delighted by it. Peter thinks out loud, instead of pondering and brooding and calculating. Peter puts his hand up, instead of waiting to see if someone else will speak up. Peter says what’s on his mind, instead of properly squirreling it away for thirty years waiting for the right moment to pull it out and use it as evidence.

The rest of them, I’m thinking, were all introverts, bless their hearts. Thaddeus and Bartholomew are disciples too, but what do they have to say in all of the Gospels? Not a peep.

The point is, as we introverts will tell you, that it is usually the extroverts who take the fall. James and John were there on the mountain too when Jesus was transfigured and Moses and Elijah appeared. What do you bet they were also thinking, “Wouldn’t it be nice to put up a few tents and just stay here.”But it’s Peter who says it.

“No,” Jesus says.
“Pheeew,” James and John think.

When Jesus asks, “who do people say that I am,” and the disciples give him one word answers, “Elijah,” “John the Baptist,” “one of the prophets?” we aren’t told which disciples speak up, could have been poor Thaddeus!
Then Jesus gets to the heart of things: “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter is the first with his hand in the air.

“You are the Christ,”
“Ah man,” thinks Thaddeus, “I was going to say that in a minute.”

Here’s where Jesus calls Peter the cornerstone of the church, and this is when the introverts, in delicious silent resentment, start thinking that extroverts get all the praise and the attention.
Then Jesus goes on to speak of his death, and Peter is the first to say what is on all of their hearts, “No, Lord,” and the other 11 all envy him his ability to speak his feelings; then Jesus says to Peter, “Get thee behind me Satan,” and suddenly being the introvert seems to be not such a bad deal.

So, I’m saying, let’s give a little shout out to the 11 who stayed in the boat. Surely by this point they’ve been together long enough that when Peter steps out of the boat the rest of them have to be thinking, “This ill be interesting!” And just because they didn’t holler out, “Jesus, if it’s you, tell me to come to you,” didn’t mean they didn’t love him less, or want with any les intensity to know it was him, and to go to him. They weren’t the sort that wore their love on their sleeve. But Peter was just exactly that sort.

Biblical scholars, and by that I actually just mean me, categorize Jesus’ walking on the water as one of the nifty miracles. It’s not one of your raising of the dead, healing the sick, casting out of demons miracles of weighty import. It’s more like turning the water in to wine. It doesn’t leave you awe-struck or dumbfounded, just happy that someone thought to invite him. Jesus is to the lake as the chicken is to the road, he just wanted to get to the other side. “Hey Jesus, want a ride across the lake?” “No thanks, I’ll walk.”

While changing the water in to wine was nifty then and there, Jesus walking on the water was nifty only in retrospect. In the fourth watch of the night, far out in the middle of the lake, in the midst of a storm, seeing a figure walking toward them on top of the lake was niftoterrifying.

But Peter, apparently unencumbered by the thought process, gets out of the boat. The secret to walking on the water, it seems, is not thinking too hard about it. Peter was doing just fine until that moment of clarity when it all registered, the wind, the waves, the laws of physics, which is when the problems started. Serious problems, like the serious problem of drowning. Until then, Peter was like a man at an Obama rally: “Yes we can! Yes we can! Wait a minute, — No we can’t!”

It isn’t as though solid ground is anything more than a comforting and temporary illusion. We thought the red hot economy would go on and on, would hold us up, and then came the financial crisis, and the burst housing bubble, and it was all just water under our feet. And each of us, in our own experiences of grief, whatever those experiences are, or have been, know exactly what it is to feel the ground give way. There we are with the tiny boat left behind, jostling in the waves, receding behind us, and the shore too far ahead. Can there be a more apt image for that desperation that sometimes suddenly invades our lives? Maybe even we think we can manage it, and for a time, we do. Then reality forces itself in on us, and all we know is that overwhelming sense of our own utter powerlessness, just like Peter in the middle of the lake with the storm and the night descending, and the water rising up.

But it’s not an exact metaphor. Peter wasn’t thrown in to the water, he, by his own choosing, stepped out of the boat. And it wasn’t loss, or grief or desperation that got him there, but love. “Rabbi, if it’s you, tell me to come to you.”

At the close of the Gospel of John, Jesus and Peter speak together of love. They are on the beach. It is morning. Peter and the other disciples have again been out fishing through the night. They come in to shore that morning to find the resurrected Christ making breakfast over a charcoal fire. “Peter,” Jesus says, “Do you love me?”

Remember where we are in the Gospel story in the last chapter of John. Remember how close we still are to that night of terror — of Roman soldiers, and kangaroo courts, and the implements of torture. For Peter and the other disciples, that night is still fresh, still a recent wound on the fine membrane of memory. But for Peter, there is more. There is also, in with all the other horrors of that night, the most horrible of all, encapsulated in 4 words, repeated not once, or twice, but three times “I don’t know him.”

That’s how terrible and powerful a thing fear is. Sometimes, in the frailty of our own human natures, a thing more powerful than love. And when the fear in us betrays the love in us, the end result is shame. And nothing infects our memory like shame does.

“Peter,” son of John, do you love me.”
“Rabbi,” Peter says, “You know I do.”
“Feed my sheep.”
Twice more the exchange will be repeated, “Peter, son of John, do you love me?”
“Rabbi, you know I love you.”

We can say what we will about Peter, his impetuosity, sandaled foot-in-mouth, his tendency to act before thinking, his Joe Biden-like capacity for unedited speech. None of that matters. It doesn’t mean a thing. The truth of Peter is his love for the Christ. Not even betrayal matters.

“But when he, Peter, saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Rabbi, save me!”
Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”

A colleague I spoke to about this text recalled seeing a version of it acted out. What she remembered most was the way in which the actor who played Jesus chose to speak these lines. There was, she said, in his voice, not remonstrance, but rather, such fondness, such bemused recognition, such familiarity, so that there was no sting in it, but pure kindness. Peter loved Jesus, and Jesus loved Peter.

So, in your imaginations, picture the scene: the boat in the near distance, the rolling water, the night sky, the froth of the storm, the figure of Jesus, radiant from within with an encompassing peace, the figure of Peter, shaking, with the water running off him. Now, set all of that aside and concentrate only on their two hands; the hand of Peter, cold, shaking, flailing wildly; and the hand of the Christ, steady, warm, sure.

This is why it matters that ours is an incarnational faith, that God became one of us, walked among us, sat and spoke with us, slept and worked and ate, and knew hunger and loneliness, happiness and fear, despair and joy, just as we do. No abstraction, no philosophical speculations, no idea of God far off and removed. All that there is to know about love, about God, is here in the hand of Peter enfolded by the hand of Jesus. “For God,” says the Psalmist, “is not far off.” And, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble.”

As though the whole of the universe, all of time and space collapses and is distilled in this moment of equipoise, Jesus and Peter, joined at the hand, balanced on top of the foaming water. Let everything else stop. Here is love, in these two hands.

So may we, whatever our proclivities toward introversion or extroversion be more like Peter. May it be said of us that our greatest fault was that we wore our love on our sleeves. May love fling us out, before we have time to consider or weigh the consequences. And then, when the water rises, because it will, may we not be too proud, or too beguiled by our own fear, to cry out. And may we know the answer before we even ask. God is for us, even now coming toward us across the water, hand outstretched.


Lisa Larges