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Get Out of the Boat!

(a sermon for October 15, 2017, the 19th Sunday after Pentecost; first in a series, based on Matthew 14:22-33)

And “immediately [Jesus] made the disciples get into the boat” and said to them (in essence, at least), “You go on ahead… I’ll catch up later.”

If you read Matthew’s account leading up to our text for this morning, you can understand why:  Jesus, after all, had spent a very long day curing the sick; they’d all been involved in feeding a multitude of people with nothing more than loaves and fishes; and even now, there was the matter of getting this crowd over 5,000-plus to disperse.  And moreover, Jesus had been seeking to withdraw from there so that he could be alone to pray; so it just sort of followed that he would send his disciples on ahead to cross the Sea of Galilee.

For the disciples, however, it was a strange and uncertain experience!  They had not really spent all that much time apart from Jesus since they’d begun to follow him, and they were unsure as to exactly where they were supposed to go, or what they were to do when they got there; and, by the way, what if Jesus didn’t catch up with them; what if he “missed the boat,” so to speak… what then?  And if that weren’t enough, now it’s well into the night, the wind’s picking up and “the boat, battered by the waves, was far from land, for the wind was against them.”  And so now here we have all these disciples crowded together in a flimsy little boat; trembling and fearful for their lives and no doubt crying out, “OK, Jesus… you sent us out here… what do we do now?”

Every fall about this time, I’m filled with memories of days spent with my father walking through the northern Maine woods hunting for partridge; and later on as November came around, looking for signs of white-tailed deer.  When I was very young, of course, it was always about following close behind Dad as we worked our way through acres of hardwood ridges and black growth knolls; at that point, I wasn’t old enough to be out hunting on my own, and besides, I really didn’t know those woods all that well and most certainly would have gotten myself hopelessly lost!  But finally, the day came my father said, “Why don’t you go on ahead… I’ll catch up with you later.”  He made sure I had a compass, of course, and reminded me of some of the landmarks I ought to be looking out for; but finally Dad said, “You’ll be fine… just make sure you leave enough time to get back to camp before dark.”

And with that, my father headed off in one direction and I started out on the other.  And I’ve got to tell you that even now I still remember that sense of adventure in setting out into the wilderness, on my own, for the very first time; and that incredible feeling of great anticipation mingled with… abject fear!  Now, I’ve told you stories from this pulpit of those few times when I got myself turned around out in those woods, even long after dark; what I don’t think I’ve ever spoken about are all those many occasions when I almost got turned around, lost, or worse! These were times when I used my compass and still didn’t know where I was; when I didn’t recognize any landmark and every tree looked the same; when I kept an eye toward the western sky as the daylight grew dim and the air became damp and cold.  More than once, I remember saying to myself, “OK… now what I do?” and thinking how utterly mistaken my father was to believe I knew what I was doing!

But… and here’s the thing… I always (or almost always, anyway!) found my way back to camp; and along the way, I learned something… about how to calmly find my way through the wilderness; about that which my father and his friends always referred to as “woods savvy;” and also about how to be bold, because that’s where the adventure – and its opportunity – begins.

So here we have these disciples, in a boat far out from shore and in the midst of stormy weather.  You can imagine the scene: it’s the wee hours of the morning, and still very dark, but the wind’s howling; the rain’s coming down in sheets, and water’s swelling up the side of the boat and washing inside.  And even though most of them are fishermen (maybe because most of them are fishermen and know what kind of mortal danger the sea brings forth), they are… terrified, and moreover, wondering why Jesus would ever send them on a night like this!

But that’s when it happens: something unexpected; something miraculous. The disciples look out beyond their boat into the raging storm and they see him – they see Jesus – walking toward them on the sea; walking on water!  And of course, their first response is to cry out in fear, assuming that what they’re seeing is a ghost; some kind of grim reaper or representative from Leviathan himself, the sea monster of biblical legend come to pull them into the deep and their sure and certain death.  But no… it’s Jesus, who immediately speaks to them, saying “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

It’s unexpected because by now the disciples are sure their lives are done; and it’s a miracle because everyone knows you can’t walk on water!  But here’s Jesus, doing just that; walking on water beyond all human capability and overcoming the utter chaos of deep, turbulent waters, all to let these fearful and panic-stricken followers of his know that “it is well,” and that the seas, while stormy now, would soon be calm for the journey ahead.   That, in and of itself is a powerful word; and it’s no wonder that at the end of all the disciples, “exhausted by the storm and overwhelmed by what they have witnessed… make the first profession of faith in Matthew’s gospel: ‘You are the Son of God.’” (Rev. Canon Michael Rusk)  This is a story that serves to remind us that in all of life’s chaos and confusion we can take heart, because are never alone; but in the presence of one who can and does calm our fears and promises, as the song goes, that we’ll be “safe and secure from all alarms.”  And that’s important to know, because life is filled with storms; the kind of chaos that threatens to undo us: disasters, natural and otherwise, descend; jobs disappear; relationships disintegrate; we lose touch with people, values and practices; death rips us apart.  It’s times like these when you and need to know that we have the Lord at our side to help us weather the storm until, quoting Ronald J. Allen here, “the water of chaos” is transformed “into the water of life.”

And that’s what happens here in the gospel… but that’s not the end of the story.  What also happens is that Peter – bold, impetuous, Peter – sees Jesus walking on the water and calls out, “Lord, if it is you,” (notice there’s a big “if” there) “command me to come to you on the water.”  And what does Jesus do?  He calls back to Peter, perhaps with a bit of a smile on his face, “Comecome!” And Peter – God bless him (!) – with the storm still raging all around them, gets out of the boat!  He doesn’t get very far, mind you, before fear takes over and he loses heart, sinking like a stone, that is, until Jesus reaches out and grabs Peter by the tunic and brings him to safety.  A few words about Peter’s lack of faith notwithstanding, it’s another powerful example of how, even in the worst of the storm – whatever kind of storm we’re talking about – and regardless of the depth of our despair in the midst of it all, the presence of the divine will ever be our safety and our salvation.  That is one “sure and certain” promise of our God; that God will be with us and stay with us in our need; giving us strength and hope until the seas calm, the chaos subsides, and the way ahead – with all its opportunity and purpose – opens up before us.

Because, yes, that’s the other piece of this story, one that quite honestly, I hadn’t thought too much about until recently.  There was, after all, a reason that Jesus sent those disciples on ahead to the other side of the Sea of Galilee; it was so that they could reach Gennesaret, where, if you read on in Matthew, there were more people who needed the presence and the touch of Jesus.  Likewise there was a reason, as unlikely as it may have seemed to them or to us, that Jesus invited Peter to step out on the open sea so that he could walk on water… it was because it was an opportunity; a chance for Peter to leave his fear behind, get out of the boat and live a truly “whole-hearted” life of courage and hope, with eyes and heart wholly fixed on Jesus and his kingdom.

And so should it be for you and for me, friends.  No, I’m not suggesting you head up to Winnipesaukee to try your and at a little surface sprinting (not to shatter any hopes, but that would likely be a fruitless endeavor… and cold!); but I would suggest to you that some faith-fueled boldness might well be in order for us; both as persons and a people of faith, even as a church, because ours is a God who encourages us “to cross rough waters and even step out of the boat in faith.”  But the thing is that this always comes with a promise.  I love what David Lose says about this:  God calls us to “more adventuresome lives of faith… God wants more for us, frankly, than simply safety and stability, and therefore God calls us to stretch, grow, and live into the abundant life God has promised us, trusting [as we do so] that God is always with us,” that God will grab us by the hand when we lose our focus or when fear overtakes us.  The journey may not always be easy, but once you’ve moved forward and the way ahead is clear; once you’ve caught sight of your destination and know the reason that you were so bold, won’t you be glad that you decided not to stay in the boat?

Well… even now the journey looms before us, and in many, many ways.  Even now, Jesus is calling us “o’er the tumult of life’s wild, restless sea” to come; to be bold and come out of the safety of our boats so that we might participate more fully as Jesus’ disciples and on behalf of the Kingdom of God; so that we can know the possibilities and the adventure of following God’s Spirit where it leads.

And that’s especially true, I believe, when it comes to our life together here at East Church.

As you know, we’re just about to move into our annual Stewardship Campaign here at East Church, a time when together as a church, not only do we reflect on our support of this shared ministry in the coming year, but also a time when we should pause a moment to seek and affirm God’s vision for our future. It is, as this year’s stewardship theme suggests, a “Journey to Generosity” that has its pathway in the way of Jesus; truly, everything we do here as part of our stewardship is in response to the one who is always with us; who stands out there in the midst of our own storms; who seeks to calm our fears until the chaos subsides; who lifts us up when we feel ourselves sinking like a stone.

Beloved, I believe that right here and right now our Lord is there calling us to boldness; to come out of our complacency and be disciples in new and creative and adventuresome ways; to move into our 176th year with faithful optimism and hearts for Jesus Christ.  I have said this to you often in recent weeks, and very intentionally: there is no limit to what this “little church” can do with faith, and in the love and joy that we have here in such abundance; but for these things to happen, first we have to get out of the boat!

“Come.”  That’s how Jesus is calling you, and you, and me; that’s how Jesus calls us all.  So how will you respond?  I hope that we’ll all give that some thought and prayer in the days to come…

…and with our thanks unto God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Out Beyond the Big Rock

“The Big Rock,” just off to the right…

Beneath the waters just offshore of our summer home in Maine lies a rather sizeable boulder, placed there (or so I presume) by glacial movement eons ago and which remains as a prominent feature of an already rocky lakebed.  But given its large flat surface and the fact that it is also perched just so at the “dropoff” to deeper water, for at least a couple of generations of children in our family it’s always been “The Big Rock,” a great place to play and a natural boundary between swimming in relative safety and “going out over your head.”

I remember well as kids how we’d always use the Big Rock as our own underwater diving platform; as this was the one place where, if we dared, we could push out to swim out beyond where our toes could touch the bottom.  Of course, when we were very young and still depending on something akin to a “doggie paddle,” it was more than enough to keep our feet firmly planted on that stone precipice.  After all, venturing out that far from shore was hard, not to mention potentially dangerous; much better, we reasoned, to experience the beauty and wonder of the lake from a safe distance! On the other hand, however (and we all figured this out pretty quick), there were a whole lot of fun, exciting and even important things awaiting us if only we’d take the risk and simply learn to swim!

Fast forward a “goodly” number of years but still headed “uptacamp” every summer, this year I found myself looking out at the Big Rock with gratitude for the countless dreams and adventures that it had inspired in me over the years; glad that whatever fears or doubt I might have had at the time, eventually I’d made the decision to be bold enough to dive into those deeper waters…

…which, come to think of it, isn’t all that bad of a parable about what it means to live a life of faith.

All through what’s been, to say the very least, a very tumultuous summer we’ve nonetheless been given some wonderful glimpses of what can happen when people of faith dare to go out beyond their own safe places into the deeper water. I stand in admiration, for instance, of my clergy colleagues and the committed laity who bravely linked arms to stare down white supremacists in Charlottesville to show that love and equality are more than simply words.  Or consider the willingness of church people across the nation and beyond to gather up resources and immediately go and join the ranks of “first responders” in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria, or to leave home and family so to travel to Mexico to assist in recovery efforts following the tragic earthquakes there. This kind of faith-inspired outreach requires courage and more than a little boldness, and yet it’s clear that such an effort yields a harvest of love and mercy that our world sorely needs about now.

Even back in our own little corner of Christianity here on Mountain Road, again and again I’ve witnessed the same kind of boldness in the ways our people are living out their calling as disciples and as the Church.  It’s so interesting – and very gratifying to me as pastor – that whether the concern is one of stewardship, mission and outreach or simply doing what it takes to be a truly welcoming and inclusive congregation, hardly a week goes by around here without someone coming up with some new and creative way for us to be about the work of Jesus Christ in our life together. As a result, wonderful things happen; in the process challenging us to boldly move beyond the false assumptions that we’re too small, too old, too budget-crunched, or too set in our ways (!) to ever accomplish great things – or at least to accomplish small things in a great way – for the sake of God’s kingdom. And it’s all because someone, in faith, decided that it’s better to go deeper than to cling to the safety of shallow waters.

I’m actually reminded here of the words to a Vacation Bible School song from some years ago (for those who remember those VBS days, this one was from the year of “S.C.U.B.A.” which, by the way, stands for “Super Cool Underwater Bible Adventure!”): “I wanna go deep; I wanna obey;I wanna love God more every day.  (“I Wanna Go Deep” by Carol Smith)  Back then, it served as a tuneful reminder to our kids that when we trust God and love God, life becomes an adventure filled with many opportunities for bringing joy to others.  But the kicker, so to speak, and the part I always remember, came in the middle verse: “Faith’s not supposed to be ankle deep! Ready to swim? It’s time to leap! I’m not wadin’ in… instead, I want to be in over my head!”

It seems to me that this is one message that’s as applicable to us grown-ups as it is our children!  Now more than ever, in fact; as I have been fond of saying to the congregation as of late, in times like these – where tragedy, violence and division have become sadly commonplace – the first and best thing the church can do is to truly be the church.  But for that to become our reality requires from each of us the readiness to leap out from all of “the Big Rocks” of our lives, so to swim out over our heads into the deeper waters.

For the sake of the world in which we live, as well for the realm to come, may God grant each one of us the courage to take the risk.

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

You Want the Keys… Really?

(a sermon for September 3, 2017, the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Matthew 16:13-28)

It was my very first car: a 1970 Ford Maverick with 70,000 miles on it and quite literally held together by the “Bondo” that my father and I had used to fill in all the rust holes!  But for 19-year-old me, it didn’t matter because this car was mine; and my own ticket to freedom!  Never mind that I basically used this car just to get back and forth to school; it was the idea that I could go anywhere or do anything I wanted!  Yes, car keys in hand, the open road was right there before me, and adventure was calling!

But then – and I’ll never, ever forget that day – I pulled up to the gas station to fill up my tank, putting gas in my own car for the very first time.  It was costing me 58 cents a gallon (!), a fair amount back in the 1970’s, and as I watched the mechanical dials on the gas pump spinning around and the money in my pocket quickly starting to dwindle, my previously soaring spirit was beginning to fall!  In fact, I remember thinking, “I’m never going to have any money ever again!”  And of course, as any car owner will tell you, this was just the beginning!  Needless to say, the open road wasn’t quite so open to me anymore, and for a fleeting moment I wasn’t so sure I wanted those keys!

Is it not true that that there are times in this life when our “great expectations” of a given situation end up failing to match the reality of the thing?  From the so-called “perfect job” that ends up being much more difficult, more involved and more stressful than we could ever have imagined going in, to the hardcore realities of having a home, raising a family or simply trying to keep your head above water in these days, economically and otherwise; so often what we learn as we grow is that there is a difference between how we imagine things should be, and how they really are!

Don’t get me wrong here – it’s also true that oftentimes the reality of these things is far better than the fantasy – but most of us, sooner or later, do come to the point where we have to adjust our expectations in life.  And while that’s difficult, to say the least (I never did take that cross-country road trip) it’s not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, more often than not it’s the new reality that shapes us as people and makes us more than what we ever expected.

Think about this in terms of our scripture readings for this morning, in which Peter receives from Jesus both accolades and a stern rebuke, pretty much one right after the other!  First, Peter boldly makes this amazing confession of faith when no one else would:  “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  And for this, Jesus calls Peter “blessed,” and uses the meaning of his name – Peter, or in Aramaic, Cephas – to describe the rock on which Jesus would build his church.  But best of all, Jesus then says to Peter, “I will give you… you, Peter… the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” with all the rights and privileges thereof: as The Message translates it, these are “keys to open any and every door: no more barriers between heaven and earth, earth and heaven. A yes on earth is yes in heaven. A no on earth is no in heaven.”  

Now, Matthew’s gospel doesn’t say this outright, but you’ve got to imagine that Peter was feeling pretty good about that!  A few months before, he’s just another fisherman who’d chosen to leave everything to follow Jesus; and now, here he is, Peter aka “the Rock,” keeper of the keys in the realm of God!  Yes!   And you know his expectations were already running high; and Peter’s thinking life is going to be pretty good from this moment on!

But then expectation runs right smack into reality.  All of a sudden, the conversation turns from the promise of this solid rock of a church to Jesus talking about going to Jerusalem; and how he himself was going to have to “undergo great suffering… be killed,” and after three days be raised.  Talk about ruining the moment (!); needless to say, this didn’t fit into Peter’s vision of things! And so, ever the bold and impulsive one, Peter takes Jesus aside to have a “word” with Jesus (and by the way, don’t you love that Peter doesn’t simply blurt out his rebuke, but takes Jesus aside; as though his new status as “keeper of the keys” demanded a private, face-to-face meeting!  You can almost hear Peter saying, “Ah… Jesus… walk with me.”).  And Peter tells him, “God forbid it, Lord!”   Didn’t you just hear me call you the Messiah?  Well, let me just tell you, Jesus, the kind of things you’re talking about here doesn’t happen to the Messiah, and they aren’t going to happen to you!”  (and, he’s no doubt thinking, it’s not gonna happen to me either!)

And this is where Peter gets his reality check:  with Jesus quite literally snapping back at him, “Get behind me, Satan!  You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things!”  In other words, Peter, you don’t get it, do you?  You want the keys to the kingdom, Peter… really?  Then deny yourself; take up your cross and follow me where I’m going… because all those who are just interested in saving their own lives will lose them, but those who are willing to lose their lives for my sake will find them.

I have to imagine that at that point, the awkward silence was deafening!  I love what David Lose describes this scene; he says, “One moment, Jesus is saying you’re ‘the rock on which I will build my church’ and the next he’s calling you ‘a stumbling block.’ That’s… such a reversal of relational fortune that it had to be incredibly painful.”  Now, to be fair, Peter hadn’t spoken merely out of impulsiveness or ego; as a devout Jew, he had a historical understanding that the coming Messiah was to be the mighty and unconquerable leader who would bring forth a kingdom with no end.  But Jesus’ word to Peter – and his word to us – is that he was to be a Messiah of a different kind, one bringing forth a kingdom “that runs by forgiveness, mercy, and love rather than retribution, violence, and hate.”  He would be challenging all the powers that be in the world; and that, most certainly would lead to sacrifice and death. And so that’s why Jesus knew that he “must go to Jerusalem,” suffer the cross and die.  And if you’re going to follow me, says Jesus to Peter (and to us), you’re going to have to do the same.

So you want the keys… really? 

I mean, it’s one thing to have the blessing of Jesus and have the keys to the kingdom, but quite another to have to die because of it!  I’m sure Peter shuddered at the very thought of it; and let’s be honest, in our own way, so do we.  The reality of discipleship does indeed run up against our expectations; we want our faith to help us get rid of pain, not to lead us toward taking on more of it!  We want our walk with the Lord to be one of blessing and honor and prosperity, both spiritual and otherwise; but sadly, that doesn’t seem match up to Jesus’ own promises.  In fact, if we’re really listening to Jesus’ rebuke of Peter we’re apt to hear his words echoing in our ears as well!

Now understand, friends, that our expectations here are not wrong – blessing and honor, joy and love and peace that the world cannot give nor take away – do come to us in a walk with God in Jesus Christ.  But we also need to understand that these blessings come to us in a radically different way than the world would have us believe.  What Jesus wants us to know is that those things in life that are good and vital and vibrant and truly alive come to us when we deny ourselves; when we turn away from our own particular expectations and prejudices and to start really following Jesus where he goes.  And where Jesus goes, finally and inevitably, is to the cross.  Jesus goes to die, and so must we; that’s what it means to lose your life in order to save it.

Now, while you and I aren’t likely being called to live as true martyrs of the faith; I do believe that there’s truth in the idea that we are being called to die to ourselves for the sake of following Jesus; or at least, to let our old expectations for our lives die for his sake.  Our comfort, our sense of worldly status or propriety, our very livelihood; very often, true faith means to set those things aside when it comes to kingdom of heaven in our midst, in favor of sacrifice and service in Jesus’ name in the times and places where we dwell. Where the kingdom is concerned, you see, it’s the day-to-day forfeits that add up to create the greatest gains!

I love Fred Craddock’s analogy about this: it’s like all of us have a $1,000 bill to give to God, a $1,000 bill that represents our lives.  Now some of us will lay that bill down in its entirety, as if to say, “Here’s my life, Lord, I’m giving it all right here and right now.”  But the reality for most of us, says Craddock, is that most of us end up cashing that $1,000 bill into quarters, and we go through life putting out 25 cents here, 50 cents there, sometimes even a few dollars at a time.  For most of us, you see, the sacrifices we make for the sake of kingdom of God are seen in all the little acts of kindness and caring and love we do… 25 cents at a time.

You and I are called to follow Jesus by acting on those opportunities we have each and every day to put ourselves aside, and demonstrating through our all the many small portions of our lives what Jesus would do, and to live how Jesus would live.  But the question is, are we able?

Are we willing to give our lives away for Jesus’ sake?  Are we willing live not simply or primarily for ourselves but for others; to let our focus not be about our comfort or our pleasure, but about reaching out to the least, the lost and the forgotten, after the manner of Jesus?  Are we ready to live today and always not by the ever changings winds of the world’s culture, but rather out of thanksgiving for the richness of our blessed life God has given us and wants us to share?  Can we… will we… lose our lives for Jesus’ sake in order to truly find it?

Yes… to follow Christ is costly; it requires us to adjust our expectations to reflect his reality.  But rest assured that the rewards of of that kind of reality check are far greater.  Indeed, it will be what brings us meaning and joy in this thing called life, and it will make a difference for us and for this world we share.  As Jesus told Peter and the others, “he will repay everyone for what has been done.”

You want the keys?  Really?

I hope and pray that you do, as our…

Thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN.

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on September 3, 2017 in Church, Discipleship, Faith, Jesus, Sermon

 

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