The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 5/1/05
Text: Matthew 14:22-33
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

"It's May, It's May, the lusty month of May,
The lovely month when everyone goes blissfully astray."(1)

Happy May Day. This is not a big holiday in our society. In many countries, as you know, it is celebrated as the equivalent of our Labor Day, but here, the only thing I remember being special about it was the slightly outrageous verse from my youth: "Hey, Hey, it's the first of May; Outdoor necking begins today." Happy May Day!

Of course, MAYDAY means something more than the first day of the fifth month. MAYDAY is the universal cry for help. Have you ever wondered about that? Why would a date be a call for help? Well, actually, May First has nothing to do with it. M'aidez is French for "Help me." M-'-a-i-d-e-z. MAYDAY! So you learned something. Now, aren't you glad you came to church today?

We read about an ancient MAYDAY in our lesson from Matthew a moment ago. It was early, early in the morning...the fourth watch...sometime between three and six AM. A storm had come up on the Sea of Galilee. Nothing unusual about that. Violent squalls spawned by winds whistling through the mountain passes surrounding the water were...and are to this day...a regular occurrence. What was NOT regular was the sight the sailors saw as they strained their oars against the waves - Jesus, walking toward them on the water. They thought it was a ghost. But he said, "Take courage! It is I. Don't be afraid."

Now the fun starts. If the gospel writer had not identified Peter as the one who wanted to walk on the water, we probably could have figured it out. After all, Peter was always the impetuous one, the one to leap before he looked. True, he occasionally made a fool of himself, as he did on this occasion, but no one could ever doubt the depth of his commitment and love for Jesus. When it comes right down to it, Peter was a man of incredible faith. Of all those in the boat, he was the only one who had enough confidence in his Lord to think that, simply at Jesus' say-so, a man could walk on water. That is faith!

Jesus said, "Come." So, as the record has it, Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water...for a step or two anyway. Suddenly that big fisherman began to think about what he was doing, about the wind and waves that were lashing all around him, about the fact that men do not walk on water, and he began to go down like a rock. "Lord, save me...MAYDAY, MAYDAY!

Jesus responded, of course, rescued the sinking sailor, gently chided him for his "little faith," and brought him back to the boat. Great old story!

Of course, we have heard it since our earliest days in Sunday School, so perhaps it has become routine in the telling. We even joke about it.

There is one that has gone around for years about three ministers out fishing together in a small boat. One of them, suddenly realizing that he had left his tackle box in the cabin, stepped out of the boat, and walked on the water over to shore. Just then, the second one said he had forgotten his faithful fishing hat on the front seat of the car. He too stepped out of the boat and walked on the water over to shore. When they had both returned, the third minister who had watched this remarkable demonstration with mouth open and eyes wide, reasoned to himself "My faith is as strong as theirs. I can do that too." So he stepped out of the boat and promptly sank to the bottom. His two companions dragged him out, but once they got him in the boat, he was determined not to be shown up. He stepped out once more, and immediately sank again. As his friends pulled him out, he sputtered, "My faith is as strong as yours. Why can't I walk on the water?"

The first two looked at each another and one finally said, "We'd better tell him where those rocks are before he drowns himself." Ah, ha.

To be sure, the Bible story was never intended as a joke. We did not learn it that way and do not think of it that way now. We hear it, think how great Jesus is to be able to perform such a miracle as water-walking, how foolish Peter was to take his eyes off Jesus, to waver in his faith, and then we challenge ourselves never to lose sight of the Lord if we hope to survive the winds and waves of life.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus;
Look full in His wonderful face;
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.(2)

And not only that, you will be able to walk on water. Sure! Do you believe that? I don't. And, honestly, I do not ever want to. Because that kind of faith almost always ends up a big disappointment. It ends up sinking like Peter and that preacher.

Do you remember what Jesus said to that big fisherman as he was rescuing him? He said, "You of little faith." We might "Tut-Tut" about something like that and say he should have trusted completely. But note that Jesus did not say, "You of NO faith." We have already noted that Peter had more faith than anyone else in the boat. But Jesus called it LITTLE faith.

Hmm. Maybe faith is like knowledge - a little of it is a dangerous thing. A little faith that is confounded by overblown expectations might lead us, like it did Peter, down a very slippery slope. It might lead us to presume that God will act in a certain way just because we want God to, and often without any effort of our own.

We pray for healing, and then do not take the medicine. We pray for our children, but do not teach them values. We pray for a good marriage, but do not talk to one another. We pray for peace, but do not work for justice. We pray for the homeless, but do not provide shelter. We pray for the unemployed, but do not offer jobs or training. No wonder we are finally reduced to crying MAYDAY!

I read somewhere of an itinerant evangelist who looked for any opportunity he could find to do his preaching. One day he saw a crowd gathered in a public park, so he climbed up on a tree stump and began to share the gospel. Not far away, another fellow heard what was going on and, mocking the preacher, began challenging God, if there WAS a God, to knock him down. On an on he went in a voice of derision. Finally, the preacher climbed down from his make-shift pulpit, walked over to the challenger, and BLAM...he knocked that sucker flat. The stunned crowd just stood in wide-eyed silence. Slowly, the preacher turned around to them and quietly said, "I never expect God to do what I can do myself." Good thinking.

The lesson in all this is that faith in a living, loving Lord is not the same as believing in magic. Christian faith is firm in the conviction that God can do anything God wants to do, even tricks like walking on water if such be the choice. But those are not the norm, and frankly, they are cold comfort when we are faced with real-life winds and waves that ARE the norm...the loss of a loved one, the pain of a family crisis, even the prospect of our own death. In those moments, those times when we want to shout MAYDAY, Mr. or Ms. Little-faith cries out for Jesus to rescue. But Mr. or Ms. REAL-faith is content simply with knowing that Jesus is THERE, and in his unfailing love, able to sustain us even through the most violent storm. Once we get to that point, with the disciples in the boat after their wet friend had been brought back, we can declare to Jesus, "You are not Merlin or Blackstone or David Copperfield answering our cry of MAYDAY. You are far more. Truly, you are the Son of God."


1. Camelot, lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner; music by Frederick Loewe, 1960

2. Helen H. Lemmel, 1922

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