Gospel: Matthew 18:21-35

Proper 19 Year A, 09/13/14 Contemplative High Mass

“ . . . how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”

All this week, I’ve been asking myself, “What does Jesus mean about this seventy-seven times of forgiveness?”

There are a lot of things God may be saying about this, and the Holy One may already be nudging you about of them.  I’ve been thinking about my family of origin, where we have a history at holding on to grudges.  Some of us make a painful point of not talking to each other, being quick to say something critical about the other.  We humans are so eager to see each other’s flaws and to cement that as our view of them instead of wondering if things could be different – instead of seeing each others’ woundedness.

Is that what forgiveness is?  Seeing behind or beyond the sins?  Does that mean we think what the offenders did was OK?  Of course not.  God is not saying we should be doormats, or that we should excuse behavior that is destructive, or pretend that evil isn’t active in our world.  But I think there’s a way to tease apart the necessary recognition of wrongdoing; to distinguish it from that mental “throwing-away” of the entire person involved.  We need to learn to tell the difference between, “That action was just plain wrong” and “This person should be obliterated.”  Yes, if someone tears you down or abuses you or otherwise hurts you, it would be a very good idea to separate yourself from that person decisively; but we hurt ourselves if we turn that into nonstop warfare and bitterness.

I love the illustration Jesus gives us in this Gospel; it’s just so – Dramatic!  Can’t you just see the guy who owes the king a few billion dollars, how terrified he is, how much he sees his life and everything he cares about, on the verge of being taken away?  And then –the astounding act of the king in forgiving an astronomically large debt!  How might you feel in his place, leaving that royal chamber?  We just recently had a workman – whose visit was promised to cost us $125 per hour – say, “Ah, I was barely here half an hour; I’m not going to charge you anything!”  We were just grinning all day!  What would it be like if suddenly all your student loan debt was forgiven?  Or your home loan or your credit card paid off?  I think most of us would be stunned with gratitude.

But THIS guy walks down the hall, sees a fellow who owes him, depending on how you figure it, maybe a couple of months’ wages — so it’s not an insignificant amount, but not a fortune – and he throttles the other slave!  He grabs him by the throat and shakes him and threatens to throw him in jail unless he pays up!  What. A. Creep.  As I’ve been re-reading this, I realize this man didn’t even spend a moment being happy or relieved or grateful.  It’s like he didn’t get the gift at all, he didn’t even notice the enormity of the forgiveness he’d received.  How sad.

But the story’s not over, and what I think I love MOST about it is the thing that comes next.  The other servants are so outraged at this injustice, so righteously distressed at their friend’s plight, that they go public.  They take it to the top and they tell it all to the king, and he’s so furious he reverses his forgiveness and the guy ends up in jail.  It’s the community’s action that led to justice – the community that understands that being forgiven is the fuel that lights our own compassion, and the community that won’t let someone living in willful unforgiveness destroy others.

That part of the story says to me that, when we see injustice, we actually have to open our mouths and our hearts and DO something about it, just because we are a forgiven and freed people.  Is this country treating immigrants in an unjust way?  Arresting and imprisoning black and brown folks more than white?  Are we listening to those who beat the drums of war without seeking other solutions?  Do we support politicians who encourage polarization?  Are we walking past the homeless, the hungry, the mentally ill on our streets, accepting that as the norm?  Do we tolerate churches excluding any of God’s people?  Being a forgiven, healed people of God means that we take action to heal and forgive and build up others.  That’s not being a doormat.  That’s not some light-hearted “forgive and forget,” or some apathetic, “It is what it is.”  That’s being true to the great gift we’re given, and sharing God’s grace with others – which is part of owning that grace for ourselves.  Those two can’t be separated.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I strive so hard that I fall into the trap of magnifying my own brokenness, and that gets me lost.  God has been showing me that I need to continue to return to the well of refreshing, healing grace.  The pattern should be that we receive and accept healing; we work with joy to share that freeing grace with others; and we come back to drink ever more deeply.  As Bishop Steven Charleston says, “Life may be fickle, but God’s mercy is constant.”

If we are a church full of people who truly are free to give and receive mercy, then let’s help one another practice that.  Just as in our families of origin, where we still sometimes suffer from the wounds we’ve given and received, our sisters and brothers in the faith community can hurt us easily, and we know how to hurt them.  You know what I mean – that eyeroll when we talk about so-and-so; that quickness to blame this or that church leader for not being perfect in every regard; that snub or impatience or faulty decision that we’ve been brooding and talking about for weeks or months — or years.

Forgive it.  There was hurt, yes.  And now it’s past.  I truly, truly don’t have to carry that with me till the end of time.  I can actually ask to be freed from that burden hanging around my neck.  I can – we can – mean it in a few moments when we say, together, the Lord’s Prayer, and ask that our many trespasses, big and small, be forgiven because we have finally let go of the other person’s sin against us.  We can truly share bread and wine at the Lord’s table like people who have stopped counting “who owes whom and how much.”  We can come with open hands, ready to receive grace.  Thanks be to God.

God’s Economy – Isaiah 5:1-7, Matthew 21:33-46

Everlasting God, you always give more.  

If you have ever spent time in wine country, ideally on foot or on a bicycle, you will easily understand why, in biblical times, the vineyard was a sign of divine blessing.  The cultivation and harvest of grapes, with their finely tuned dependence on the sun and the rain, the temperature and the topography, smacks of a grand design. The vineyard was the sign of Noah’s re-establishment after the great flood, the sign that life on earth was going to flourish under God’s protection. Noah was the bible’s first vinedresser, and the bible’s first alcoholic, so I would venture to say that the vineyard is also a sign of the choices that God sets before us. Matthew’s parable of the Wicked Tenants tells a story of bad choices and the misuse of God’s gifts.

This vineyard story comes on the heels, as it often does, of the celebration of St. Francis, whose feast we observed yesterday. Francis is the saint who more than any other is associated with nature, and with the love of all creation. Francis was in tune with God’s circle of life, and with humanity’s right relationship with God and creation.

As we explore this gospel story about the misuse of God’s gifts, I cannot help but share a conversation, transcribed by God knows who or when, between St. Francis and God:

God says to St. Francis, you know all about gardens and nature. What in the world is going on down there? What happened to the dandelions, violets, thistle and stuff I started eons ago? I had a perfect, no-maintenance garden plan. Those plants grow in any type of soil, withstand drought and multiply with abandon. I expected to see a vast garden of colors by now. But all I see are these green rectangles.

  1. FRANCIS: It’s some of the tribes that settled there, Lord. They started calling your flowers weeds and went to great lengths to kill them and replace them with grass.

GOD: Grass? But it’s so boring. It’s not colorful. It doesn’t attract butterflies, birds and bees. It’s temperamental with temperatures. Do these tribes really want all that grass growing there?

  1. FRANCIS: Apparently so, Lord. They go to great pains to grow it and keep it green. They begin each spring by fertilizing grass and poisoning any other plant that crops up in the lawn.

GOD: The spring rains and warm weather probably make grass grow really fast. That must make them happy.

  1. FRANCIS: Apparently not, Lord. As soon as it grows a little, they cut it, sometimes twice a week.

GOD: They cut it? Do they then bale it like hay?

  1. FRANCIS: Not exactly Lord. Most of them rake it up and put it in bags.

GOD: They bag it? Why? Is it a cash crop? Do they sell it?

  1. FRANCIS: No, sir — just the opposite. They pay to throw it away.

GOD: Now, let me get this straight. They fertilize grass so it will grow. And when it does grow, they cut it off and pay to throw it away?

  1. FRANCIS: Yes, sir.

GOD: These humans must be relieved in the summer when we cut back on the rain and turn up the heat. That surely slows the growth and saves them a lot of work.

  1. FRANCIS: You aren’t going to believe this, Lord. When the grass stops growing so fast, they drag out hoses and pay more money to water it so they can continue to mow it and pay to get rid of it.

GOD: What nonsense. At least they kept some of the trees. Trees are a sheer stoke of genius, if I do say so myself. The trees grow leaves in the spring to provide beauty and shade in the summer. In the autumn they fall to the ground and form a natural blanket to keep moisture in the soil and protect the trees and bushes. As the leaves rot, they form compost to enhance the soil. It’s a natural circle of life.

  1. FRANCIS: You’d better sit down, Lord. As soon as the leaves fall, the humans rake them into great piles and pay to have them hauled away.

GOD: No. What do they do to protect the shrub and tree roots in the winter and to keep the soil moist and loose?

  1. FRANCIS: After throwing away the leaves, they go out and buy something which they call mulch. They haul it home and spread it around in place of the leaves.

GOD: And where do they get this mulch?

  1. FRANCIS: They cut down trees and grind them up to make the mulch.

And so on…

This may seem like a rather whimsical story somewhat removed from today’s readings, which are anything but whimsical. But it is about our relationship to God’s love and our right use of God’s gifts, God’s abundance. We always do well to ask ourselves: how do we make the best use of God’s abundance? How do we use God’s gifts in a way that reflects our relationship with God and with our neighbor?

At the time of the Exodus, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob set himself apart from any other god by giving the people the ten commandments, spelling out not only right relations with God, but also with our neighbor.

The commandments set in motion the formation of a new world order. In the story of the Wicked Tenants of the vineyard, this order, which holds our love of God and neighbor, gets broken.

Like the mythical conversation between God and St. Francis, only much more painful, this is a story of bad stewardship, a parable of people who forget that all that they are and all that they have belongs to God, all the time. The story has been described as being about the difference between stewardship and ownership.

And now a commercial: This happens to be the season here at St. David’s where we explore the use of the abundance God has given us, both individually and corporately. I know that all of you have or will very soon—like today—sign up to attend one of the small group gatherings being held this month. How you participate, not just with your pledge but with your presence and your voice, is very much connected to how the future of St. David’s unfolds in the next chapter of its wonderful life.

Back to the Gospel. When we are more focused on ownership than stewardship, greed happens. Greed is part of our humanity, whether we’re talking about corporate greed or national greed or personal greed.

Most of us do not suffer from greed in such a degree as the folks who make headlines in the Bible. But many of us do suffer from selfishness, fear, anxiety, or the longing to have more control of our surroundings. Those guys in the vineyard suffered from those things, too. All of that—the greed, the fear, the drive to control and own the world around us—all of these things separate us from the love of God. Like it or not, we call this separation sin.

God’s intent for us, God’s longing, if you will, is not separation, but closeness. Not sin, but enjoyment of God’s abundance. What is God’s intent for us? This is something I always pray about, both for myself and for our community.

The good news is that our own desperate acts, driven by selfishness or fear, point to our utter dependence upon God. The good news is that as we awaken to our dependence upon God, God is indeed there; God will renew our strength. God does not destroy the vineyard. The vineyard is the kingdom to which we are continually invited and in which we live life to the fullest. It is always there as a sign of divine blessing and a source of God’s extravagant abundance. What will you do with this abundance?

Radical Empathy

As a child, I loved musicals. I, if pressed, and plied with a glass of wine,can sing most of “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” and “Gary, Indiana”. Please don’t ask me to do this at coffee hour, although if you come to our stewardship gathering I might be willing!

I have distinct memories of the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar”, and the scene that made one of the strongest impressions was when Jesus enters the temple in Jerusalem. In the 1973 movie, the temple kind of looks like Saturday Market crossed with burning man crossed with a gun show. There are weapons, and money, and women being traded.

Jesus storms in. This is a rock and roll Jesus. This is Jimi Hendrix Jesus, Mick Jagger Jesus, Freddie Mercury Jesus. He is furious at the desecration he sees and wails that all must leave his father’s house. He is angry at the corruption of the space and the corruption of the people. He is angry, perhaps, that in this place where we expect to find God, God is nowhere to be seen.

Today’s gospel picks up where that story leaves off, minus the go-go boots and pot of the movie. The priests of the temple are questioning Jesus, asking by what authority, by whose authority, did he throw everyone out of the temple: they demand to know “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”.

Jesus, as usual, answers their question with a question, and ups the ante even more by bringing John the Baptist into the mix. He responds the  “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”.  This rhetorical jousting is not just a trap, as the temple leaders seem to think, but by bringing in John the Baptist Jesus is defining himself through association with him; he is defining his own ministry with that of the radical, itinerant prophet who lived in the wilderness eating wild honey and preaching of the messiah to come.

Jesus, by aligning himself with John the Baptist and all who followed him, is also defining himself not by who he is, but by his people. He is answering the question of the temple leaders by consciously placing himself with the radicals, with the prostitutes and tax collectors. And in doing so, he is illustrating to them, and us, that God is often found in the most unexpected places and the most unexpected people; God is found in the wilderness rather than the temple, in the crazy prophets and sinners rather than in the chief priests, in a rock in the desert rather than an oasis.

Jesus is also telling us that it is our responsibility as Christians to stand with those oppressed, to associate ourselves with the radicals and the overlooked and the looked down upons. Jesus is reminding us here that who we say we are is less important than whom we associate with and what we do.

And luckily for me, I am identified partly through my association with all of you. And we are identified by our association with Christ. But what happens when we leave this building, when we leave one another? It is too easy for me, at least, to slip my identity as a Christian off like an old coat when it does not suit the surroundings I am in.

So when Paul exhorts “Let the same mind be in you as was in Christ Jesus”, he doesn’t just mean on Sunday, when we are surrounded by one another and lifted up in prayer and song. I think what Paul is telling us is not to be imitators of Christ, although that is certainly not a bad place to start (the whole what would Jesus do thing has some merit), but to put ourselves into a place of radical empathy and love.

Paul gives us a kind of recipe for finding that empathy when he writes: “2:1 If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2:2 make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 2:3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 2:4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others”.

“Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind”. Empathy is what Paul is really encouraging us to find, and empathy is hard, but I believe empathy can serve as a path to grace.

There is an amazing video that was making the rounds about a year ago about empathy versus sympathy. In it some animated animals illustrate the words of Brene Brown as she discusses how hard empathy can be because it requires us to access something dark and painful in ourselves. She reminds us that empathy fuels connection, that it is feeling with someone and not feeling at someone, and in her words empathy “creates a sacred space”.

She outlines 4 parts to an empathic response: 1) perspective taking, taking the perspective of another, 2) staying out of judgement, 3) reading emotion in others, 4) and communicating that emotion.  And while I agree with these 4 characteristics of empathy, I think the key is staying out of judgement.

I think it is debatable whether staying out of judgement helps promote empathy or whether empathy help us stay out of judgement, regardless empathy often means crawling down into a hole with someone else, and recognizing the same pain and emotion that they are feeling in ourselves. It also means not feeling the need to say just the right thing or fix the situation. And for many of us, including me, that is incredibly hard so often we just say nothing or move quickly past. Brene Brown notes that rarely does an empathic response start with the words “At least” and says that it is better to say “I don’t really know what to say about what happened, but I am really glad you told me”.

We live in a culture that does not value empathy, that seeks to drive our behavior through comparison and judgement and shame. As followers of Christ, putting ourselves in the mind of Christ means putting ourselves in the mind of others. And not others that we know and like and who are just like us. It means putting ourselves in the mind of the homeless guy on the corner, in the mind of the mother screaming at her 3 kids in the grocery store, in the mind of the 18 year old African American boy who grabs a pack of $2 cigarettes, in the mind of the friend struggling with mental illness. We are identifying ourselves with the prostitutes and the tax collectors and the radicals living in the woods. We are identifying ourselves with Christ.

When I found firm footing in my faith, when I started to feel a real and profound connection to God, it was as if my heart was cracked open and love and connection rushed out of it like water from the stone in Exodus. Everything and everyone seemed to make me cry. I believe that was God, God was both fueling my connection and in that connection.

This means letting God, letting Christ, letting the Holy Spirit, and letting each other into the hard and broken places within ourselves. As Leonard Cohen sings “there is a crack in everything, that is how the light gets in”.

—Jeanne Kalizewski

Writing a Way Towards Engagement

Writing Prompts for Deepening our Sense of Empathy by Fr. James

How can we use writing as a practice to creatively engage ourselves, our enemies, our neighbors, our friends, our God? Try one or more of the following nine prompts to find out…

List Making

  • Write a list of things you’re grateful for. Anything, everything. Add to it each day. Keep your lists in a box or a book, or a single blog entry, like an ongoing epic poem.
  • Write a list of people about whom you are concerned. Pray the list. Choose one thing you could do to express your concern.
  • Write a list of people who have inspired you. Write a second list of qualities which those people embody for you. Pray the list. Choose one thing you could do to express one of those qualities.

Letter Writing

  • Think of someone towards whom you feel anger or resentment. Write them a letter aimed towards reconciliation. It needn’t be sent, but is there any act of reconciliation you might be called to?
  • Think of someone towards whom you feel admiration. Write them a letter aimed towards gratitude. Consider sending it, or just an email or postcard with a small piece of the larger letter, letting them know you’re thinking of them.
  • Think of a time when you felt despair or uncertainty, write the you of that time a letter of compassion and encouragement.

Creative Writing

  • Imagine a character from scripture. Imagine a time from in-between stories about them in scripture, perhaps a moment before or a moment after a big event. Write a paragraph in their voice.
  • Imagine someone from your daily life whom you do not know well, a stranger. What are they afraid of? What are they looking forward to? Write a paragraph in their voice. Consider how much you do not actually know as you are writing.
  • Imagine yourself filled with a particular gift of the Holy Spirit (love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, others ETC.) which maybe doesn’t spring “naturally” from your day to day life and circumstances. Write a paragraph about how life is different.

Core Strength

Owe no one anything, except to love one another.

Even though the church calendar says we’re in the same season that started in June and that runs through November 23, even though the Farmers’ Almanac says it’s still summer until 10:30 pm on September 22. We all know that summer is over and fall has begun, regardless of this ridiculous weather. It is the time for starting new things. It is the time for the end of life as we have known it for the past few months, especially if our lives are such that our rhythm changes in the summertime—not everyone’s does.

It is also the end of a season at St. David’s, a long season. Most of you are aware by now that the season of me—I like that…the season of me!—as your rector is ending. But that season doesn’t end right now; you’re stuck with me until November 23, the end of the Church year.

Transition can be a rich time for a community and I’m excited for you all. A transition like this is a time for you all to articulate and claim your corporate identity as followers of Jesus.

sermon-wordle-2008-09-07Today’s readings from the New Testament, from Romans and from Matthew, have much to teach us about community identity as followers of Jesus.

A few weeks ago I talked about our missional identity as followers—even though a writer whose work I respect a lot says don’t ever use the word “missional” in a sermon—this week I want to talk about how we function within community. This is always important as followers of Jesus—for everyone anywhere, really, but especially during a time of transition. As Jesus traveled from village to village, and taught others to do the same, I’m sure he, and later Paul, and Barnabas, and others, left people who stood there on the edge of town scratching their heads and saying “gee, I wished he’d stayed a little longer. Hm. What do we do now?” How do we live in community without Jesus or James or Timothy to remind us how it’s done?

Jesus and Paul give us the answers in today’s readings.

All of the eighteenth chapter of Matthew is about potential pitfalls of community life. It is in this chapter, a few verses prior to today’s reading, that we hear “if your hand or foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away.” This is how seriously Jesus takes community life.

Paul describes the building blocks of community life as living in love with one’s neighbor, setting aside quarreling, jealousy, drunkenness, etc. The bottom line is for Paul, as a guide for community life, the ten commandments never go out of style.

The first verses of today’s gospel provide, in very specific steps, a conflict resolution plan for Christian community. If you have a broken relationship with someone in the church, go and talk with them about it. If you feel heard, that’s good. If the person won’t listen, take one or two others along to try again. If that doesn’t help, tell the church—by which I assume the writer means the elders of the church—and if the offender still won’t listen, then that person essentially ceases to function in the community. I’m not talking about this because we have a lot of conflict here at St. David’s, nor am I saying that conflicts resolved according to this—or any—process are always resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. As the longtime Portland Trailblazer announcer Bill Shoneley used to say: “no one ever said it was going to be easy.”

The core of discipleship is this vigilant, reconciling work that begins in our hearts and moves from there out into our own community of disciples. The kingdom of God is a full-service community, serving up not just the good news of healing and economic justice, but also healthy communities equipped from the inside out to proclaim Jesus’ love to the world. This core of community health is kind of like core strength in our own bodies. Ever thought about or begun working out with weights? Most people who start lifting weights do it because they want to get bigger muscles. (I have a theory that this is even true for women who say it isn’t.) People often start lifting weights because they want to have bigger biceps or shoulders or quadriceps, whatever. No one wants to be told that they really need to work on core strength first, and always. No one wants to be told that unless they have a strong core, they will eventually—pretty soon—hit a wall with all their other training. It doesn’t mean that the other stuff like intervals and weights and cardio isn’t important, it means that we need to be strong at the center in order to keep getting stronger in everything else. There are limits to what we can do without this core strength. And this is, of course, true of communities of Jesus-followers.

Our core strength is our own healthy gathered community, and what we do here in this space when we gather. Our ritual meal—like the ritual meal of the people of Israel we heard about in the first lesson—looks backward in time and forward beyond time. In every Eucharist, we look back to the meal where Jesus broke bread with his disciples and asked that they do the same in his name. And we look forward toward the time beyond time, the time that is right now and forever, toward the transformation of the world into the Kingdom of God.

As we gather around this table, I hope the holy food and drink you find here will nourish and strengthen you for your discipleship journey, in our community and in the world God loves.

 

Who is he and who are we?

But who do you say that I am?

You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.

This is the classic revelation of Jesus’ identity by Peter, the revelation that happens approximately midway through each of the gospel stories told by Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

Jesus’ identity has implications for our identity. Jesus is about starting a movement to restore the world, and every person in it, to the glory God intends for us. As followers, we get to take on that mission, and to proclaim God’s mission of reconciliation and healing. Jesus’ invitation to follow is not like asking someone to follow us on Twitter or Instagram. For some of us everyday humans, the temptation to want followers simply for the sake of having followers is very great. I know.

Jesus gets excited about Peter’s identifying him as the Messiah, the Christ, God’s anointed one, to bring about the transformation of the world. Jesus gets excited about this because it means that Peter and the others will carry on the saving, reconciling movement he came to proclaim. Peter recognizes Jesus as the Messiah, and Jesus confers upon him enormous authority. We have such authority conferred upon us by our baptism, and and simply by having a share in a community like this.

I came across a parable recently that illustrates how easily our identity and authority as followers of Jesus can get a little skewed. This is an oldie but goodie, and some of you may have heard it before. It was written during what some still consider to be the “glory days” of the Episcopal Church in the 1950.

lifesaverOn a dangerous seacoast where shipwrecks often occur, there was once a crude little life¬saving station. The building was just a hut, and there was only one boat, but the few devoted members kept a constant watch over the sea, and with no thought for themselves went out day and night tirelessly searching for those who were lost. Some of those who were saved and various others in the surrounding area wanted to become associated with the station and gave of their time, money, and effort to support its work. New boats were bought and new crews trained. The little lifesaving station grew. 

Some of the members of the lifesaving station were unhappy that the building was so crude and poorly equipped. They felt that a more comfortable place should be provided as the first refuge of those saved from the sea. They replaced the emergency cots with beds and put better furniture in the enlarged building.

Now the lifesaving station became a popular gathering place for its members, and they decorated it beautifully because they used it as a sort of club. Fewer members were now interested in going to sea on life-saving missions, so they hired lifeboat crews to do this work. The lifesaving motif still prevailed in the club’s decorations, and there was a liturgical lifeboat in the room where the club’s initiations were held. About this time a large ship wrecked off the coast, and the hired crews brought in boatloads of cold, wet, and half-drowned people. They were dirty and sick. The beautiful new club was in chaos. So the property committee immediately had a shower house built outside the club where victims of shipwrecks could be cleaned up before coming inside.

At the next meeting, there was a split among the club membership. Most of the members wanted to stop the club’s lifesaving activities as being unpleasant and a hindrance to the normal social life of the club. Some members insisted upon life¬saving as their primary purpose and pointed out that they were still called a life¬saving station. But they were finally voted down and told that if they wanted to save the lives of all the various kinds of people who were shipwrecked in those waters, they could begin their own lifesaving station. So they did. 

As the years went by, the new station experienced the same changes that had occurred in the old. It evolved into a club, and yet another lifesaving station was founded. History continued to repeat itself, and if you visit that seacoast today, you will find a number of exclusive clubs along that shore. Shipwrecks are frequent in those waters, but most of the people drown. 

Surely we would never say this parable reminds us of St. David’s, but I think we might agree that it’s an accurate designation of the evolution of the institutional church over many centuries. Do you recognize any parts of the story? I recognize the early days as being like the church in the Book of Acts. We have been reading the Book of Acts during the daily office these weeks—story after story of the church growing in amazing ways because people want to join in the church’s life-saving mission, and to give themselves to the movement Jesus founded.

I recognize myself, in how easy it is to get caught up in worries about paying for the heat or caring for linens, or choosing the right color of paint for the kitchen. These things can distract me from God’s mission. And, it is easy to confuse saving lives with saving the church.

I don’t know about you, but my life wasn’t saved because someone needed me to be part of their church so they could grow. Good thing, too, because at the time I started going to church, I had no money, no wonderful husband who loves to find his way around church kitchens, and no cute kid to liven up the Sunday school.

My life was saved by the surprising encounter with the holy that I experienced in the breaking and sharing of bread, and in the people who came to the table to share it with me. In a mysterious way, these things made my unholy life holy.

When we recognize Jesus as the Messiah, we recognize ourselves as disciples, followers committed to saving lives, helping broken people to become whole. This life-saving mission belongs to every single one of us in the same way that the electric bill and our children’s ministry and the music we sing and the bread and wine we are about to share belong to all of us. We are Peter, we are Jesus, we are life-savers.

Only drowning men can see Him

boat

Peter was a fisherman, raised on the shore, every day spent casting nets, every night repairing them; like his father, and his father’s father, hauling catch after catch. He thought he had seen all the fury the sea could summon, he thought he could weather any storm with his strong hand on the tiller.

That night the screams of the others were drowned in the pitch of the wind and the crash of the waves against the hull. The fear on their faces needed no voice. They pleaded with Peter, who stood surer on water than on land, to save them.

He had seen things that day he could not comprehend. He had seen bread and fish, barely enough to fill the bellies of the twelve, satisfy the hunger of thousands. He had seen the rabbi, who had at first sought refuge from the throngs embrace them and feed them one and all. It had been a good day, it had been a miraculous day in a string of miraculous days.

Yet here they were, in the ravages of the storm, the calm and fellowship and comfort of just a few hours before a like a distant dream.

Through the rain stinging his eyes, through the howling of the wind, he can see a figure on the sea. “We must have gone down, we must be dead”, he thinks. Then a flash lights up the sky like 1000 torches and Jesus’ unmistakable face comes into focus.

“How can it be?” Peter screams into the wind, “And how can you ask me to not be afraid? You must show me Rabbi, you show me how!”. And then Jesus beckons to Peter to join him in the storm.

Peter thinks: “Why, oh why must this always be so hard Rabbi? Why must I make this choice again and again and again. Why do you ask me to step from this boat, to ignore all the rules I have known and all the things I have been sure of and leave my boat?

My father built this boat, shaped it with his sure hands. I see you there, doing the impossible, asking me to do the impossible too”.

Peter swings his leg over the side stepping into the blackness and chaos below.

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In last week’s Gospel following Jesus was, literally, a picnic. The loaves and fishes, the giant Eucharist Jesus presided over just last week is now lost in a torrent, drowned out by claps of thunder and the wind howling in our ears.

Today we are reminded that we can not sit on our blankets in the sun and wait for God to come to us, to bring us what we need. Following Jesus means stepping out into the storm, the storm that surrounds us or the storm that rises within us. Following Jesus does not mean waiting for him to calm the seas.

Sometimes to find Jesus we have to wade through a sea of doubt and uncertainty. We have to enter those places that make is anxious and uncomfortable. We have to sit with someone who is grieving. We have to revisit old wounds to find healing. We have to learn the name of the woman on the corner who asks for spare change, those are the places where Jesus lives.

Sometimes following Jesus means leaving the picnic and walking into the hurricane. Sometimes following Jesus means you must keep walking forward even though you can only catch the faintest glimpse of him through the storm. The storm can be fear. The storm can be the kind of envy we heard in the Old Testament today in the story of Jacob and his brothers. The storm can be unexpected change or anxiety of addiction or illness or failure. The storm can happen to us or originate within us. The storm is all those things that make us want to close our eyes and cover our heads and retreat from God and each other.

But today’s Gospel teaches us that we have to resist that impulse, leave behind our fear and be courageous, we must loosen our hands from the gunwales of our boat and lift our head and look out into the fury that faces us.

We must try to leave behind the boat, we must try to resist the urge to hunker down in the face of the storm because otherwise we miss Jesus, who is standing with his hand outstretched ready to help us do the impossible.

Sometimes only when we are drowning can we really find faith, can we really see Jesus. I could not get Leonard Cohen to join us today, and did not want to subject you all to my poor attempts at rendering the song “Suzanne”, so I have asked Matthew to help me out on the audio portion of our program:

“And Jesus was a sailor

When he walked upon the water

And he spent a long time watching

From his lonely wooden tower

And when he knew for certain

Only drowning men could see him

He said ‘All men will be sailors then

Until the sea shall free them’

But he himself was broken

Long before the sky would open

Forsaken, almost human

He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone

And you want to travel with him

And you want to travel blind

And you think maybe you’ll trust him

For he’s touched your perfect body with his mind.”

Leonard Cohen, “Suzanne”

And although I love the comfort and peace of the picnic, sometimes the faith that is forged this chaos is deeper and richer. In “Mortify our Wolves” Christian Wiman writes of the faith that we often find at our darkest moments, he says: “It takes a real jolt to get us to change our jobs, our relationships, our daily coffee consumption, for goodness sake—or, if we are wired that way, to change our addiction to change. How much more urgency is needed, how much more primal fear, to startle the heart out of its ruts and ruins. It’s true that God comes to the prophet Elijah not in the whirlwind, and not in the earthquake, and not in the fire that follows, but in the “still, small voice” that these ravages make plain. But the very wording of that passage makes it clear that the voice, though finally more powerful than the ravages it follows, is not altogether apart from them. That voice is always there, and for everyone. For some of us, unfortunately, it takes terror and pain to make us capable of hearing it”.

God is as much part of the storm as he is part of the picnic, but the God we find in the storm is sometimes harder to see because we have to dive into the chaos to find his hand.

It is love, and deeply profound faith, that gets Simon Peter to take that first step over the side of the vessel that represents all the reality he has ever known. It is faith, and love, that allows him to see the figure in the storm for what he truly is.

And yes Simon Peter falters, the winds of his old beliefs, his old life, rattle the connection to the man across the water. But Jesus is there, extending his hand.

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