Saint James Fordham • Proper 14a • Tobias Haller BSG
When Peter noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Is anybody here afraid of heights? Well, having nearly fallen off the eleven-story roof of my grandmother’s apartment building when I was eleven years old, I confess I have ever since been a little nervous about being too close to the edge of an unprotected high space. I don’t know what I was thinking, but I just ran up to the edge of the roof, jumped up on the ledge and just teetered there, looking down 11 stories — one for each of my young years. Fortunately there was enough of me on the leeward side and the winds were mild, so I slipped back onto the roof of the building. I then crawled my way back to the stairway, gritting my teeth and fighting the urge to decorate the roof with some colorful regurgitation!
Ever since then, I’ve been uncomfortable on a ledge or open high space. I don’t mind being in a safely glassed-in area, or even on a balcony or viewing platform with a substantial guardrail. But low or non-existent guardrails make me uneasy.
And, of course, “low” is a relative term. When I last lived in Manhattan, almost thirty years ago, I was just as glad that my apartment on the 25th floor didn’t have a balcony. But I also remember being very apprehensive when I visited a friend in one of the apartments that did have a balcony. This guy was over 6-foot-five tall, and thin as a rail. I’d always get antsy when he would go out on the balcony and lean against the railing, which on him came to just below the waist! I was always dreading that he would just tip over!
Now, as I say, my fear of heights is moderate and has to do with the ledges being too low; I have no trouble with bridges or flying, and actually enjoy the window seat and am usually glued to the window admiring the scenery. But there are some people whose fear of heights can be overwhelming, so much so that if they get into certain situations they will just freeze up in panic, unable to move. When this panic strikes a driver on a long, high, suspension bridge, the fear of heights can be more than an embarrassing inconvenience — it can become a real danger. I was reminded of this when I heard on the radio today about a terrible accident on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in my own home state of Maryland.
Imagine, now, that you are a person with a fear of heights, and you’ve just heard this terrible news story about a tractor-trailer pushing several cars off the bridge and plummeting down itself — imagine yourself as someone with a fear of heights who has to drive across that same bridge. The long expanse stretches before you, slowly rising in the air. You begin to notice how very long the bridge is, and how very narrow, and how very much further you have to go. You can’t help but perceive how thin the cables are that hold the bridge up, how insubstantial the whole thing seems to be. It looks like a thread held up by a spiderweb, on which you are slowly inching your way across the dark and distant water far below.
As you continue your climb to the top of the arch your hands tighten on the steering wheel, and sweat begins to bead on your forehead. And as you reach the top of the arch the full panic hits you. It’s as if you’re on the top of a frozen Ferris wheel — Brother James can tell you about that, because that’s something that drives him batty — and in your panic you step on the brake as irresistible terror clutches your heart, helpless and hopeless, in the middle of the very thing that terrifies you most, unable to move.
This is no fantasy. Such panic attacks happen so often on America’s longest and highest bridges that most of them provide a free service: an attendant is available to drive terrified motorists across the bridge. The bridge authorities have found it is less expensive to keep a driver on staff than risk the tie-ups and accidents a panic attack can cause. For instance, attendants at that Chesapeake Bay Bridge — four miles long and 200 feet high — escort over a thousand fearful drivers across the bridge each year. You might think this wasteful, but think of the savings in avoiding two or three accidents or traffic jams every day!
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Matthew’s Gospel shows us Saint Peter in very much this situation. I like to think of Peter as the Patron Saint of Half-Way There. He gets out of the boat in answer to Jesus’ call, but a few steps along he notices the wind, becomes frightened, and starts to sink. I can’t help but be a little bit amused at Peter’s plight, when I realize how much he looks like one of those cartoon characters who rush straight out off the edge of a cliff, and only begin to fall when they realize what they’ve done! Peter is like Wiley Coyote or Yosemite Sam, half-way out in space without any visible means of support and suddenly realizing it. And it is only then, only when he realizes where he is, that he begins the plunge. So, what does Peter do? He yells for help, and reaches out to grab the outstretched hand of Jesus as he catches him.
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Isn’t that how we all are, so much of the time? We start off confidently in a new job, but soon find ourselves in the midst of problems, sometimes overwhelming ones. But if we’re people of faith — even a “little faith” — we call for help, assured that there will be a helping hand stretched out to rescue us. Peter was a man of faith, even if only “a little faith” — but it was enough for him to call out to Jesus, and to grasp that outstretched hand. As was once said, A person without faith is someone with no invisible means of support. But faith, that invisible support, is what you need when you’re walking on water, or even on what passes for solid ground amidst the changes and chances of this earthly life, these temporal things we pass through on our way to the eternal country.
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Peter is the Half-Way Saint, and there is another half to his story. Peter’s “little faith” wasn’t enough to let him walk on water, but it was big enough for him to reach out for help when he needed it. But his “little faith” was also big enough for him to reach out to others. At the Last Supper, Jesus told Peter, “Strengthen your brethren”; and after his resurrection, “Feed my sheep.”
And so Peter did. Peter was Half-Way, as all of us are, between being helped and helping, between being rescued and rescuing. And there is a profound and practical truth in this. I’d be willing to wager that a man with fear of heights wouldn’t stop half-way across a bridge in frozen panic if he were driving his pregnant wife or sick child to the hospital. You see, helping someone else can have the wonderful effect of putting your own problems and difficulties into perspective. That’s part of the reason so-called “self-help” groups, are so successful. It’s not just that you are reminded that you’re not in it alone — but that your participation, your presence, helps others to realize that they are not alone either. When you reach out your hand to help someone else, you find your own problems lessened. You help yourself by helping others. That is why most acts of heroism are performed by very ordinary people — people who forget their own fears in the midst of helping to save others.
The great psychiatrist Karl Menninger was once asked what you should do if you feel a nervous breakdown coming on. Should you go to a psychiatrist, find the nearest clinic? Menninger surprised the questioner by answering, “Leave you house, lock the door behind you, go across the railroad tracks, find somebody in need, and help that person.”
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All of us, like Peter, are potential Half-Way Saints, living in the midst of the storm-tossed sea of life, gifted with “a little faith” that is still a big-enough faith to call on Jesus and reach out our hand to grasp his. The miracle is that sometimes, perhaps most times, we will find that the outstretched hand we grasp is not that of a savior, someone who saves us, but the hand of someone we have been blessed to save. We are, all of us, joined in a chain of clasped hands that reaches from the lowest depths of despair up to the throne of glory. And all we need is that little bit of faith that keeps us hanging on. May that little faith still strengthen us, in the Name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.+