Monday, March 13, 2017

Grace in the Storm: Senior Sermon, Eden Theological Seminary

Psalms 130 and 131
Matthew 14: 22-33

Icon: Jesus and Peter walking on the water

Once, when I was a teenager, I got left out in the middle of an Oklahoma lake during a sailing lesson at summer camp. The minutes I spent trying to swim to shore were some of the longest in my young life. Once I realized I was marooned, it got even more interesting. The sky overhead matched my mood, turning gray and surly, with dark low-lying clouds scudding by in that way that in Oklahoma says “You think it’s a pretty summer day? Hold my beer.”

In those few minutes I did a lot of thinking out there, though, powered by panic. And one conclusion I came to was this: when you’re out on the water, staying in the boat always seems like the best thing. Not exactly earth-shaking as realizations go, but solid.

That’s probably what the disciples thought too, when Jesus put them on that boat on the lake. Until that storm came up.

In our gospel reading, Jesus has put his disciples on a boat so that he could get a moment’s peace. Throughout Jesus’s ministry as a teacher and a healer, he still needed times to re-center by through a mindful practice of prayer. As our great High Priest, Jesus models a truth for everyone engaged in ministry: to be the best minister you can be, you also have to be mindful of maintaining your own spiritual life so that you can have something to give to others. That’s what prayer and worship is all about: courage as well as comfort. Strength for the journey.

However, it doesn’t take long for the disciples to run into some stormy weather out there on the water. The disciples in that boat must have been terrified. And then along comes what they think is a ghost: a figure walks across the waves toward them there in the middle of the night in that storm. Is it any wonder that they don’t recognize Jesus? But Jesus speaks, and seeks to reassure them.

And then here comes Peter. I don’t know about you all, but I love Peter. If ever there is a disciple that reminds us of us, if we’re honest, it’s Peter. Leap before you look Peter. Peter, who makes commitments rashly and then loses his nerve. Just like all of us. And yet this is the one upon whom Jesus will build his church. I sometimes wonder if Jesus wasn’t being ironic calling Peter “the rock.” Because if he is rock, he’s more like sedimentary rock, or maybe limestone. Maybe he’s the rock because he can be kind of dense. Whatever the reason, Jesus is awfully patient with Peter, loving him and pulling him along out of this mess or that one whenever he puts his foot in his mouth. And thank God! We can take hope from the fact that Peter was given the grace by Jesus to make mistakes while he was trying to find his own way. Even when Jesus gets exasperated or irritated with Peter, Jesus also at the same time never gives up on him. Nor with us.

Jesus’s generous urging of Peter to take that step and share in the miracle of ministry reminds us of the unfailing grace and patience we all receive, even when we lose sight of our goals again and again. Peter’s faith does falter, and he begins to sink—yet out of the depths he cries out to Jesus, who chides him and pulls him up and keeps Peter from sinking. Some think of Peter as being a fool here. But I think Jesus admired Peter’s willingness to dare, even if it came from an impulse. To my mind, even as Peter is sinking under the weight of that flickering faith, he actually at the same time perfectly embodies the life of faith, knowing that Christ is the One Peter can call out to and trust to save him. There’s a lesson for us in that. Even a little faith is enough.

Some people might say that the boat represents the Church, and the lake represents the world, and I think those might be fruitful metaphors for our time. The Church does not exist for her own sake, within her own walls, but is called into mission for the life of the world. That means that sometimes we have to risk leaving the confines of the boat and step out onto the waves for the sake of the gospel of love and unity that has drawn many of us here as seminarians.

It’s easy to get cynical about the Church today. We see that the Church is being battered around by storms both within and without it. Many of us ourselves feel battered. We’re not sure everyone in the boat is on the same page. We’re not sure the boat is going to hold together. We’re not sure the boat is going the right direction, even before the storms come up. Some of the people in the boat don’t show too much concern for anyone not already in the boat. Frankly, a whole bunch of us look at that boat, and we feel anxiety. For many of the disciples, the last thing they want to do is leave that boat to engage the world. And in our time, there are so many people who see the boat pitching around in the storm, and the last thing they want to do is get in it.

But I’m convinced that the boat is the way we get out on the water in the first place. We see that Jesus is out there on those waves. And for me, that fills me with hope and wonder. As Jesus’s disciples, we are called to engage with the world for the life and healing of the world. In order to bear witness to the God we worship, we have to remember that the Church exists for the world, and not the other way around. God reveals Godself to us in the most unlikely of ways, and Jesus reminds us again and again of God’s solidarity with all creation, which calls us to engage with creation in a spirit of unity and healing. Jesus encourages us to open our eyes and recognize him when he shows up in the most unlikely ways. We can’t just sit passively in the boat and expect the world or Jesus to come to us.

The Church cannot bear witness to the saving love of God if those in the boat forget what our true calling is: to be bearers of hope and grace as members of Christ’s body, transformed by the love that lights our paths and heals the woundedness we all have, friends as well as opponents.

There is a lot of despair, fear, anger, and hopelessness in our churches and in our world right now. Even as we enter Lent, it’s hard not to feel that all that looms before us is the cross and the tomb. But we have to remember that the Holy One who is our Savior ultimately calls us to be an Easter people. We confront pain and injustice, and are called to respond with something radically different: 

We are called as disciples to be sacraments, which in my tradition is defined as “outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace.” Poet Gerard Manley Hopkins reminded us of the sacramental nature of the universe when he said, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” We have a special calling to embody that beauty, even in the face of fear and storm—even out there on the water. The water can be a place of danger and struggle, but it can also be a place of rebirth and new life.

In the name of Love Incarnate, we come up out of the waters of baptism, and we can come up out of those waters empowered to be Christ’s saving hands to those who themselves feel they are being pulled under. The world is already mired in cynicism, fear, and love of self. But that presents us in the Church with an opportunity to be truly counter-cultural as the gospel calls us to be. We have the chance as the leaders of the Church to protest and stand for right and resist hate, but in doing so to testify in hope-filled witness to the God of Life and Light. As our psalms and Peter remind us, we call upon God when we are sinking, but we also can rest within the embrace of God like that weaned child resting upon the shoulder of the One whose love envelops and sustains us and all of creation, and then do the work of God’s kingdom.

And we are in a perfect place to learn how to do that. We come to Eden to study theology- and be reminded that Christ is in places we never expected. We have been called to embody Christ’s radical love as well as righteousness into a world that desperately needs that hope and love in the face of anger and violence.

Many of us in the class of 2017 learned that, even before our first class started. We learned that Christ was in the streets of Ferguson on August 9, 2014 and in the streets of St. Louis in October of that year, and Christ was in Waller County, Texas, that following July. We heard the voices of young people and older people, gay, straight, queer, or transgender folx of all kinds joining together in the name of justice, reminding us that “Love is Love,” and those voices all echoed with the reassurance that carried across the waves, saying, “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.”

But I hope we have also learned that God is found in simple things like sitting by the bedside of a sick person or a shut-in and being present with them. We have learned that God is found in common prayer, in reverent worship, in songs of praise and in silence, in sharing communion so that we never forget who we are called to be: the Beloved Community, the joyful Body of Christ. Just like Jesus, we are also called here to learn how to make worship and prayer the center of our lives, the thing that gives us the groundedness to step out in faith. We have learned all kinds of complex academic material in our time here at Eden, yet along the way we have also been called to serve God and each other with humility and kindness.

But I’ll tell you one thing: we DON’T come here to learn how to sit safely in the boat and just hang on. We come here to learn to dare to step out on those waves in love and hope. We come here because we are willing to hear Christ’s call and see where it leads. May we have the courage to long to hear Christ call us to step out on those waves, to testify to the beauty of God’s love all around us, knowing that even in the storm, we are not alone, but are upheld by God's grace.


 (Preached in Wehrli Chapel at Eden Theological Seminary on Monday, March 13, at 11:40 am).

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