Willing to Sink

Matthew 14:22-33
© Stacey Steck

Maybe you’ve heard of Sam Shoemaker, considered one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, probably the most commonly used method for gaining sobriety from alcohol, drugs, and other addictions. Sam Shoemaker was also an Episcopalian priest who was once the Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh where I too had the pleasure of working many years after Shoemaker’s time there. He was known as a gifted preacher and source of wisdom, who once wrote the following words in his book, How You Can Help Other People: “Faith is like water. It can steal into the smallest openings. When you love someone, when you pray for him, and when God galvanizes your faith that things can be different for him, you have one of the most powerful forces on earth in your hands. Your faith lifts him for a time, not only to a new attitude, but to a new altitude, from which his life and problems seem different.”

“Peter cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly, you are the Son of God.’ ” “Your faith lifts him for a time, not only to a new attitude, but to a new altitude, from which his life and problems seem different.” Simon Peter, the rock upon which Christ says he will build his church, sinks like a stone and nearly drowns in waters of doubt, but is saved by faith that steals, like water, into the smallest openings. Jesus’ faith lifts Peter up from the waves to both a new attitude and a new altitude. And he was a different man. Thank you, Sam Shoemaker.

This morning, I also want to tell you about another Shoemaker, this one named Fred, and the two men are very much alike. You see, besides their last names, Sam and Fred have another commonality. They’ve both helped hopeless people. It may seem trivial at first, I admit, but Fred Shoemaker has done for hopeless golfers what Sam did for hopeless alcoholics: he gave them a vision of what life could be. During my vacation, I had the privilege of reading Fred Shoemaker’s book called Extraordinary Golf: The Art of the Possible, and although it has yet to correct my wicked slice, it has helped me to see something important about this morning’s passage from the Gospel of Matthew.

Golf is a divine sport. It’s divine not only because you get to enjoy a nice long walk in God’s creation, not only because it’s a game in which you can really get to know the people you are playing with, not only because it’s a competition with one’s own self, not against others. No, golf is a divine sport because it takes you so deeply into the mysteries of life, in particular, why anyone in their right mind would try to hit a little white ball into a hole several hundred yards away using a stick. Over and over again. If they’d had golf in Solomon’s time, there would be a proverb about it: “A wise man plays golf only once. A fool takes divots forever.” But seriously, golf is divine because it reveals something to us about ourselves, mostly the stuff we’d rather not admit.

Back in Costa Rica, I once proposed that our church offer a weekly “Worship on the Green,” a church service at the local golf course, because there is no greater den of iniquity in the world than at your local golf course. You’ll find more sinners per square inch at a golf course than anywhere else, at least based on what comes out of their mouths after a bad shot, and wherever sinners congregate, the church ought to be there. So, one day I joined the weekly tournament they held there and introduced myself to the coordinator of the group who asked what I did for a living, and I told him I was a pastor. And I still remember that look in his eye. So after the round was over, I come into the pro shop and find him there listening to another guy tell one of the most offensive, expletive-laden, God-awful stories you can imagine. And he just lets the guy go on and on, while I’m standing right there, until finally he says, “Oh, Larry, I want you to meet the newest member of our club. This is Stacey and he’s a pastor.” You’ve never seen a face fall faster, or get redder, than Larry’s. So, yes, there’s some Gospel work to be done out there on the golf course.

But most of what golf reveals to us is our priorities, or at least that’s what Fred Shoemaker thinks. Shoemaker’s book talks about the mental side of the game, and how doubt and fear and expectations, all the things Peter encountered there on the bow of that boat in the Sea of Galilee, how those things cause us to sink just when we could be walking on water. He talks about how golfers focus so much on how their club strikes the ball that they can’t get the ball in the hole, which is, of course, the whole point of the game. “What is your purpose for playing golf?” he asks in the very first chapter, a version of the same question Jesus could have asked Peter out there on the water: “What is your purpose for following me?” Is it to look good in front of your friends or fellow competitors? Is it to live up to the expectations others have placed on you?

That’s where Shoemaker found himself as a young man, good at playing golf, but burned out on it because he was playing for all the wrong reasons. So, he gave it up and joined the Peace Corps in Ghana in the 1970s and for a few months he forgot all about the game. But sin isn’t extinguished so easily so he called up the US embassy in Accra to see if they could get him a tee time on one of the three courses in the entire country. Now, to add to his credibility, he had mentioned that he was a professional from the US, which he was, a club pro, but somehow that got reinterpreted as him being the US champion, so when he arrived at the course at the appointed hour, he was met by a huge crowd which had gathered to see an international match between the US champion and the Ghanaian champion, a barefooted fellow named Kojo who was carrying clubs that could have been used in the 1930s. You know what happened, don’t you?

Yes, Fred Shoemaker started the round pleased to be a goodwill ambassador of the United States of America, and the grand game of golf, a feeling which lasted until about the eighth hole when Kojo tied up the match. From there on out, it was a downhill spiral of fear, doubt, and expectations, as he tried his best to make sure that he didn’t lose to the barefoot bumpkin. The match was over on the seventeenth hole, where Kojo was carried off triumphantly on the shoulders of his countrymen while Fred sunk slowly beneath the waves of the Sea of Galilee, no Jesus in sight to lift him to higher attitudes and altitudes. Needless to say, that’s not the end of the story of Fred Shoemaker, but it was the beginning of his thinking about the purpose of golf, and how to play the game the right way.

Contrary to popular opinion, Peter didn’t sink because he lacked faith. Peter sinks because he’s supposed to sink. He's not the Son of God. Only Jesus walks on water. When Jesus says to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” he’s not referring to him failing to walk on the water. He’s referring to the fact that Peter asked for proof of Jesus’ presence. It was not enough for him that Jesus came to that sinking ship in the first place, or that he announced “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” No, Peter wants Jesus to prove it by allowing him to walk on the water. And so I picture Jesus saying, “Sure, Peter, come on out. Come on” and knowing exactly what’s going to happen. If Peter were focused on getting the ball in the hole instead of just making sure he hit it, he never would have gotten out of the boat in the first place. He may have sunk, just like Fred Shoemaker, but as a result of the experience, he and the disciples do learn a lesson and are able to proclaim, “Truly, you are the Son of God.”

What is your purpose for following Jesus? For being a member of Thyatira or any other church? For being a parent or an employee? On what are you focused? In the midst of the storms of your life, do you believe Jesus is there or do you need proof? The possibility of an extraordinary life, or an extraordinary faith, are found in how we ask and answer those questions. Otherwise, we’re just marking time. Did you that’s what the word “ordinary” really means. It means counting, counting the first, second, third, fourth, whatever of our lives. Those are the ordinal numbers. During the summer, the church is in the season of Ordinary Time, not because it’s plain or common or just average, but because we are marking time between the festival seasons of the year like Advent, Lent, Easter and all the rest. Not that Ordinary Time is ordinary; it’s sacred too, but there is a difference, isn’t there, between ordinary and festive, ordinary and extraordinary? Our lives as disciples go through their ups and down, they have both birdies and bogies on their scorecards, just like Simon Peter and Fred Shoemaker, and here we are at one of those festive moments, Homecoming at Thyatira church, an extraordinary moment in which to ask again and answer again that timeless question, “What’s your purpose for following Jesus?,” that question that leads us to an extraordinary life in the midst of ordinary time. And may the faith of Jesus Christ lift us to not only a new attitude, but to a new altitude, from which our lives and problems seem different. Truly, he is the Son of God. Amen.