Saturday, August 9, 2008

Walking On Water

(19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, A)

There’s an anti-drug campaign going around on TV and internet these days with the slogan, “above the influence.” I like it; it’s definitely better than the fried egg thing they were doing when I was a teenager. The slogan, “above the influence” is a play on the phrase, “under the influence.” When someone is intoxicated with drugs or alcohol, we say that they are “under the influence,” but this campaign urges us not to be under, but above the influence.

I appreciate this because I think a lot of our spiritual work and religious effort needs to be about keeping ourselves above the influences that are useless or harmful. Many of these are on the outside: the false promises of advertising, the hubris of scientism, the lies and destruction of the cultures of death and violence. Harmful influences are on the inside too; self-hate, patterns of self-punishment, useless anxiety, and the voices of low self-esteem. To work ourselves above these influences and to replace them with the sole influence of God is a blessed but difficult spiritual work. It’s what in Christianity we call ascesis, from which we have the word asceticism. Mutatis mutandis, it’s what our Muslim brothers and sisters call jihad, right effort in bringing ourselves and the world around to God.

The work can be overwhelming. Many times we feel like the boat in the Gospel today, thrown every which way by the storm. Surrounded as we are by the importunity of advertising, the easy problems of people on television, and the false promises of consumerism, our minds become distracted and confused. Bad “tapes” play within our minds, telling us the wrong thing and inciting us to the wrong strategy in trying to feel better.

But here’s the good news. Jesus comes to us, walking on the water in the midst of the storm. The craziness of the influences of this world doesn’t bother him. Jesus can walk peacefully in the midst of the storm because his divine humanity is perfect; this is part of what we mean when we say he is “like us in all things but sin.”

The good news of our faith is that in Jesus, God wants to share with us freedom from sin and anxiety. God wants to grace us with the ability to walk peacefully in the midst of the both the storms of this life and the ones in our heads. But we have to seek it! We have to say with Peter, “command me to come to you on the water.” We have to make this our prayer. We have to ask God, “Make me free from all these useless and harmful influences and voices that bat me around in the course of the day, wearing out my heart and getting me to do what I know I don’t really want.”

If we make this our prayer, like Peter did, we will find that Lord’s power, his perfect humanity joined to ours, will empower us to take our first peaceful and confident steps in the midst of the storm of this life. This is our spiritual work. To rise above the sea the false promises, tiring lusts, and pointless ambitions that our Christian tradition calls the world, and to walk in the midst of the storm in peace, depending only on God. That’s holiness, and that’s what it means to be a saint.

At times we will falter and fall in our journey. Even after beginning on our path of walking confidently on the chaotic water, just like Peter we will occasionally become overwhelmed again and begin to fall. Jesus is there to catch us, to keep us from ruin, and to receive our prayer again: “Lord, command that I come to you walking on the water, putting one foot ahead of the other, above and free from the influences that seek to harm me."

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