Fourth Sunday of Easter by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

 

 

[McFerrin’s Psalm 23]

There is a video making the rounds on social media. Maybe you have seen it. It’s short and to the point.

 

More than one person has shared that video with a caption that goes something like this:

Actual footage of me and my relationship with Jesus.

That’s hilarious. And it’s accurate. It’s one of those jokes that tells the truth.

In the hymn Amazing Grace we sing, “I once was lost but now I’m found.” But I wonder if those words might be more accurate if they went, “I keep on getting lost and I keep on getting found.”

This is Good Shepherd Sunday, the day every year on which we hear Psalm 23, probably the most famous and most beloved of all the psalms. (If you grew up in a certain tradition, there is a good chance that you know the King James translation of Psalm 23 by heart.) And it is the day as well in which we hear Jesus make this staggering and enigmatic promise:

I am the good shepherd.

What I am noticing in particular this year as I listen to Psalm 23 and Jesus is that each of these readings name danger, they name hurt, they name loss. Yea, the Psalmist writes, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for you are with me. And Jesus – well Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is talking about the sheep – you and me – living in danger from wolves.

From the beginning, the church has had to wrestle with the paradox that on the cross and in the empty tomb God defeated death and that, simultaneously, death and, more broadly, suffering and unfairness and injustice remained. We still die. Awful things still happen. That kind of seemed wrong to the first Christians. And, I don’t know about you, but it kind of seems wrong to me today. If we are living in the time of Easter – and I don’t just mean this particular season, but rather the almost 2000 years after Jesus’ resurrection – shouldn’t all of that be over?

I guess that I am thinking about hurt persisting after resurrection this week because this is the week in which I got the news that a friend’s cancer has likely metastasized. “Metastasized” being a variation on a lovely ancient Greek word that in, this case, means that the monster inside of my friend that is eating him alive has given birth. Nationally, this was the week in which we witnessed the trial of Derek Chauvin and held complicated feelings as we did so. While there was a glimpse of justice in the verdict, George Floyd remains dead and a guilty verdict against a police officer for this sort of crime remains vanishingly unusual. And here at Grace, this is the week in which our beloved friend and longtime groundskeeper, Frank Schramling, died. We’re going to be doing a parish workday at Grace on Saturday, May 15th – you’re invited to help – and as we encounter the layers of grief in Frank’s death, a big layer will come as we work on Grace’s grounds and he is not there.

The resurrection has happened. We live in the time of Easter. And all of this hardship is still true and real.

Why?

In case it’s not obvious, I’ve just painted myself into a corner. If a solid structure for a speech is to pose a question and then to answer that question, I’m kind of hooped. Because, as my old Jesuit theology professor, George Griener, put it, theology – the words that we say about God – are nowhere more incomplete and inadequate than when it comes to suffering and evil.

Lots of folks have tried to give a neat and complete answer to why suffering exists and, in particular, why it exists after Easter. When the door-to-door religion peddlers come to your house, they will cheerfully hand you a pamphlet that explains everything. And just yesterday on Facebook I encountered someone making the extraordinary (and yet extraordinarily common) claim that everything happens for a reason.

Really?

What the hell is the reason that my friend’s cancer has metastasized?

What the hell is that a conviction such as Derek Chauvin’s is vanishingly unusual?

What the hell is the reason that Frank is dead?

Do not insult anyone’s suffering by trying to give an easy answer to those questions.

Give them the dignity of sitting with a question that, at least this side of heaven, does not have a good answer.

Maybe I started this morning with poetry (what are the psalms if not ancient poems?) and song because, sometimes, art has a capacity to hold mystery in a way that an argument or a speech or a thesis cannot. We could write books about where Jesus is in suffering – lots of people have, and lots of those books are glorious and consoling and important – but come the end of the book we would still have the sense that our questions were unanswered, that we had barely touched the beginnings of an answer. In art, in beauty, we sometimes catch a glimpse of God, of truth, of love in a way that we cannot via any other means.

So, as I hold the news of my friend’s diagnosis, as our nation holds the news of Dereck Chauvin’s trial, as our parish holds the news of Frank’s dying, let’s sing. Let’s sing about how the Lord is your shepherd and mine. About how we, Jesus’ sheep, walk through the valley of the shadow of death. About how, even in this Easter time, we keep on falling into that ditch beside the road. About our trust, our trust in spite of everything, that Jesus is with us and will pull us back out.

[McFerrin reprise.]

Third Sunday in Lent by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Are there times when God’s anger is good news?

I realise that this is a dangerous question. More than one person at our virtual service this morning grew up in a religiously abusive environment. In such a context there is very little good news about an angry God. Here is the god who looks at you and, like a drunken and abusive dad home from a bender, finds you perpetually wanting and screams your inadequacies at you. And I realise as well that, just floating around in our culture, there is a picture of God’s anger in which God is always ready to rain lightning strikes down on people who have failed to love him enough.

So, let me be clear: that isn’t what God is like. 1John is right when it tells us that God is love. God loves you beyond limit and beyond measure. And, more than that, that isn’t what I mean by the anger of God.

What I mean by God’s anger is what we witness today as we watch Jesus in the temple.

As Jesus makes a whip and chases people around, as he flips over tables, is this good news? Or, if we prefer, because this is the Gospel – in English, good news – and I reckon that our ancestors got that name right, how is Jesus’ anger good news? How is it good news for the people visiting the temple? And, maybe this second question is harder, how is it good news for the merchants selling doves and sheep and for the moneychangers?

How is Jesus’ anger evidence that God is love?

I’m going to invite you to cast your mind back – maybe to your childhood, maybe to a more recent time – and see if you can remember an occasion in which someone became angry on your behalf. Maybe you got ripped off by a neighbourhood kid or by a neighbourhood merchant. Maybe a teacher was cruel to you. Maybe you were the victim of a still more serious injustice. And someone who loved you and wanted the best for you blew their stack. They got red in the face, maybe even spit flew out of their mouths (this was before masks and physical distancing made that sort of thing impossible) and they told the person who had hurt you a thing or two.

What was that like? What did that feel like?

There are a lot of ways that a loving parent tells us that they love us. And one of them is this kind of anger. When you witness this anger you say, Oh. Someone loves me so much that when someone hurts me it is like they are hurt. My pain is their pain.

And that’s what Jesus does on behalf of the poor people coming to the temple today. He blows his stack at the folks who are getting rich by selling stuff to them at a criminal markup.

Now, I need to stop here and inert a kind of footnote. There is a long and disastrous history of reading this story through the lens of antisemitism, so that this story and ones like it are, somehow, Jesus versus the Jews. No! No, Jesus is Jewish, the people getting ripped off are Jewish, the people doing the ripping off are Jewish. This is an argument within a family. If it’s helpful, imagine Jesus as a faithful and committed Episcopalian, someone who has no intention of leaving the Episcopal church now or ever, let alone starting a new religions. And Jesus runs amok in an Episcopal church gift shop that has been ripping off other Episcopalians. (I don’t know if that analogy totally works, but it’s the best that I’ve got.)

If the poor people in Jesus’ time were anything like the poor people of today, they were ripped off all the time. In a funny way, they were almost used to being ripped off. I knew a guy in Spokane who was being treated in a totally unfair way by his landlord. And he said: My landlord is rich, I’m not. My landlord has a lawyer, I don’t. There’s nothing I can do.

And maybe the poor folks coming to the temple say the same thing. Maybe they say: We’re going to get hosed trading money. We’re going to get hosed even more buying our sacrifice for the temple. There’s nothing we can do.

But then Jesus loses his temper on their behalf. And maybe they feel something similar to what you felt in that memory that I invited you to examine a minute ago. Oh. Jesus loves me so much that when someone hurts me it is like Jesus is hurt. My pain is his pain.

Later on, they will come to realise that the one who lost his temper on their behalf is God.

This is good news.

But what about the merchants? What about the money changers? Surely this is nothing but bad news for them – they were having a good day, a god week, a good fiscal quarter. And suddenly their coins and running in the gutters and some dude is sending their tables airborne.

Again, I’ll invite you to cast your mind back. See if you can remember a time when someone loved you so much that they lost their temper with you. Maybe this was a teacher who knew that you were not trying anywhere near your best. Maybe this was a neighbour who discovered you stealing something. Maybe this was a friend or a partner who named your selfishness in unvarnished terms.

What was that like?

Well, if you are anything like me, it was no fun at all. If you are anything like me, you may have resented that anger. Maybe you sulked, maybe you retreated into silence, maybe you became angry yourself.

It is only with time that you came to say, Gosh, I really needed to hear that. It’s because of that anger that I started trying and I got into college; it’s because of that anger that my conscience grew a couple of sizes larger; it’s because of that anger that I realised that I was being selfish and that I wanted to do better.

And maybe with time you said, Oh. Someone loves me so much that when I make a mistake it is like they are hurt. My pain is their pain. The love me enough to blow my stack.

Because when we make a mistake, when we fall short of the mark, when we sin, what is frequently the behaviour of someone who doesn’t love us? Sometimes they will get angry. But as often as not, they will shrug. I was just listening to a popular song, the words of which contain ancient wisdom, wisdom that Jesus new:

The opposite of love is indifference.

Now, like you and me, I suspect that the merchants and the money changers don’t experience this moment as love, especially if Jesus’ whip gets anywhere near their behinds. But maybe, after a while, they too will say, You know what? That was the day that changed my life. That was the day that I understood that I wanted to be someone else. Someone kinder and more loving.

And they will remember and say Oh. Jesus loves me so much that when I make a mistake it is like he is hurt. My pain is his pain. Jesus loves me enough to blow his stack.

Later on, they will come to realise that the one who lost his temper with them is God.

This is good news.

So. When you suffer injustice, know that Jesus is angry on your behalf. That Jesus will flip over tables for you. And when you hurt another person or hurt the world, know that Jesus loves you so much that Jesus will get red in the face and tell you the unvarnished truth. In both cases, Jesus’ love for you is fierce and abiding and huge. It is a love that will lead you into life.

This is good news.

First Sunday in Lent by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

In the Gospel of Mark, the beginning of Jesus’ ministry is defined by three events. First, there is his baptism in the Jordan in which he comes up from the water and he hears the voice that declares who he is. Second, there is his time in the wilderness, a time of hunger, searching, and temptation. I’ve thought about – and prayed and preached and written about those first two – a bunch of times. But I’ve spent less time with the third defining event that Mark gives us. And that is the arrest and, later, the murder by the state of his cousin John.

One of the weird things that many people, maybe even most people, do is to imagine that hardship and suffering are things that will not happen to them. We are aware that time passes and that aging exists. But we are surprised when we cannot run as fast or as far as we once did and we begin emitting grunts and sighs when we bend over to pick something up.

We are aware that loss and grief and unfairness exist. But we are surprised when these things descend into our lives like a lightning bolt, when the phone call comes that changes everything. Sometimes our very faith is shaken.

We are aware that death exists. But we are surprised to learn that it exists for us. When my friend Don was dying he said to me, simply and wistfully, “I didn’t understand how short life was.” Don was one of the smartest and wisest people I have ever met: how could he not have understood? People are constantly saying “Life is short.” But somehow, I knew exactly what Don meant. And I suspect that, when my own death nears, part of me will be just as surprised as Don by the shortness of this life.

Jesus grows up in a volatile and dangerous world. Disease, pandemic will show up without warning. A farming or fishing or carpentry accident can change or end a life in an instant, and there is no ambulance to come to the rescue. And the army of another land walks the roads, ready to build their crucifixes on a hill for any or no reason.

And yet if Jesus is fully human – and Jesus is fully human – then maybe knowing that all of these things exist does not stop him from reckoning that, somehow, they apply to other people.

The taking of his cousin John will change that.

It is not long after the two of them have reunited and John has lowered Jesus into the waters of the Jordan that Jesus receives the news that the soldiers have come for John. That John is in prison. This is the van that comes in the night, the door kicked in, the flashlight shone into the face of the sleeper who awakes into confusion and terror. And then the house left empty again, the bedsheets still warm but no one in them anymore.

If Jesus is fully human – and Jesus is fully human – then when the news reaches him that John is gone he may utter those words,

I can’t believe it.

And this will not entirely be a figure of speech or a metaphor. Part of him – a big part – will be unable to believe that someone whom he knows and loves has been taken to empire’s prison, a prison from which few return alive and from which fewer still return without scars.

In not so long he will learn that John is not among the few. That empire has killed him.

This shattering, awful, unjust grief will shape the rest of his life.

Mark is the most urgent of the Gospels. It has this driving and driven quality. Mark loves the word immediately. And I always figured that told us a lot about Mark (and it does). But it also tells us a lot about Jesus. Because, after John’s death, Jesus understands that there is a holy urgency to this life. The things he is called by the Father to do: he needs to do them immediately. He needs to do them now.

John being taken, John being killed. This trauma has given him the difficult gift of understanding what Don did not understand until the end of his days. That this life is short.

When I think about my own regrets, the things I have done and left undone, many of them are about saying or doing cruel or selfish things. Many of them are about not taking a risk when I had the chance to do so. And many of them are about acting as though this life were something other than short.

A number of years ago, my beloved father-in-law, Bob, went on a pilgrimage to Greece, to a series of ancient monasteries. My brothers-in-law and I were all invited. But I didn’t go. I didn’t go because the trip was expensive and I didn’t make a whole lot of money working in the performing arts. And I didn’t go because I thought that there would be other opportunities. But there was no second trip. Bob is dead now. I didn’t understand how short life is.

More recently, I imagined that I would invite my friend and teacher here to Grace to preach. Bill was an amazing preacher: y’all would have loved him. And Bill was a bunch younger than Bob, I reckoned I had lots of time. But last spring Bill abruptly died. I didn’t understand how short life is. I could keep on giving examples. My regret is magnified because I have made the same mistake more than once. I keep on not understanding.

The same Don whom I was talking about earlier: He said something about the Lord’s prayer that I’ve thought about often. He said that the word that he thought was super important came right at the end. It was the word Now. As in Now and Forever. Amen. Don would encourage you to pray that prayer hitting that word hard, repeating it, now, now, now. using your arms to pull the world into yourself.

Now, now, now.

Give us today our daily bread. Now.

Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Now.

On earth as it is in heaven. Now.

I do not wish grief upon you, nor loss upon you, nor the injustice upon you. I hope that you do not have to endure anything like what Jesus endured when John was taken. And if you have endured such a thing, know that I am so, so sorry.

I do hope that you and I come to understand what Jesus understood in that loss, what shaped the rest of his life. This life is short. It is a fleeting, beautiful gift.

So, if you are called to speak words of love, speak them immediately, speak them now. If you are called to do works of mercy, do them immediately, do them now. If you are called to forgive, do so immediately, do so now. If you are called to take a holy risk, do so immediately, do so now.

Love the Lord your God. Love your neighbour. Love yourself. Right now.

The Last Sunday After the Epiphany by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

2 Kings 2:1-12
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Mark 9:2-9
Psalm 50:1-6

A story in which Jesus and three friends go for a hike.

The three friends are John and James and Peter. They are Jesus’ closest friends, hold oldest friends. Or at least they are his first friends since he was changed, since he came out of the Jordan’s waters and heard the voice, the voice that said to him and of him:

This is my son, the beloved. Listen to him!

The four of them have been on the move ever since. Walking from place to place as Jesus tells stories and feeds people and heals people and casts out demons. Walking as others have joined them.

Today, they stand at the bottom of a mountain. And Jesus says:

Today, our walk is going to take us up.

And so they go. They start walking. This is how things are with Jesus. He does things right now and if you want in on the adventure you drop your nets – be your nets metaphorical or, in the case of these three, be they very wet and very real – and you go too.

Notwithstanding all of the walking that they have done, notwithstanding the great advantage that is being young, this hike is difficult. They climb up and up, breathing hard, the world getting more quiet around them as civilization recedes and, simultaneously, the world gets bigger around them: they can see more and farther with every step that they take up.

Maybe they have brought water with them and they stop from time to time to drink it, letting their speeding hearts slow for a moment or two, looking back down the mountain and out at the immensity of the horizon. Maybe as they drink they talk – about everything that happened to bring them to the mountain, about what its summit might be like and how far it might be still.

Or maybe they say little or nothing. Maybe this is a moment for which there are not words, in which any effort at small talk feels, well, too small on the immensity of the mountain. And so the friends get only a few words in before they decide to choose silence once more.

Those maybes done, the friends resume climbing. Up. Up. Up. Up past the tree line, the place where the vegetation stops and the rock and the wind begins. Up into the brightness of the sun, a sun that, even as it leaves you squinting, does not take your cold away.

Eventually, they make it to the summit. And there the four of them stand, panting and looking around in wonder.

They are alone, the four friends.

Centuries after this moment, an anthropologist will appear in a documentary in which he will explain that, for our ancestors, for people like James and John and Peter and Jesus and billions of others, the world was malleable and permeable. Malleable meaning that categories were not as rigid as maybe we think of them as being today. To look at a drawings an ancient cave is to discover images in which someone is both a human being and, say, ox. It was possible to be both at once. This both/andness was something that people understood and accepted as normal. Our ancestors had a way of being that, perhaps, we are rediscovering a little today when we speak of being fluid or non-binary. Our ancestors lived in a non-binary or fluid or malleable world.

Permeable probably has a complicated dictionary definition, but I’m going to give it a simple one: it means that God isn’t somewhere else, that heaven isn’t somewhere else. To live in a permeable world is to trip over miracles all the time. It is to go into your kitchen to make coffee and to encounter something shining with divinity as you do so. In a permeable world, a friend will tell you that they encountered a bush that was on fire but was not consumed and you will neither assume that they are nuts nor that they are speaking metaphorically. In a permeable world, someone will walk on the surface of a lake, will make a finite amount of food into an infinite amount of food, Jesus will die and yet will talk with you and eat with you.

(These things still happen, by the way. One of the privileges of doing this work is that people tell me things. And lots of folks to this day still have profound visions, have profound God sightings. It’s just that we’ve lost the vocabulary for talking about these experiences and we are justifiably afraid that if we share them out loud people will think that we are loopy or, maybe worse still, will dismiss our most holy encounters as trivialities, as stuff that we plain-old made up.)

They are alone, the four friends. Alone on a mountaintop in a malleable and a permeable world.

And Jesus, whom doctrine says is fully human and fully divine, suddenly embodies this malleability, this both/andness before John, James, and Peter. He stands before the three friends, still the person whom they know, but shining so bright that they can barely look at him. He has become an explosion, become the sun – not s-o-n but s-u-n. The three friends look at him through their fingers, squinting. And they notice this incredibly folksy thing. They notice that no one, no matter how good they are at bleaching, could make Jesus’ clothes dazzle the way that his clothes are dazzling right now.

And the permeability comes at the same time. Elijah and Moses, those ancient prophets, gone into heaven centuries ago, are there and talking with Jesus.

Can the three friends hear any of their conversation?

Peter feels like he has to say something, like he has do something to mark this moment. And so he blurts out:

I’ll build you houses! We can stay here forever!

He does not know what to say, for the three of them are terrified.

They may live in a malleable and a permeable world, but that doesn’t make this moment into no big deal. You and I live in a world in which thunder and lightning exist. And to see a lightning bolt land on the ground before you is still to have something big and primal get touched within your soul.

But the terror, the wonder, is not over. A cloud shows up. And in a moment of fearful symmetry, the voice that comes from it utters the very words same words from the Jordan:

This is my son, the beloved. Listen to him!

And then.

And then the voice is gone. And Moses and Elijah are gone. And Jesus shines no more. Or no, that’s wrong. The three friends are able to look at Jesus again. And they realise that Jesus always shone. They just never saw it clearly before.

And that’s almost the end of the story. Except that there is this epilogue. The four of them go back down the mountain and, as they do, Jesus says:

Hey guys?

Don’t tell anyone about this, okay?

Scholars have spilled a lot of ink over this. What does it mean, that Jesus wants this moment to be a secret? Maybe it has a really complicated explanation. But maybe it isn’t complicated at all. I wonder if seeing Jesus transfigured, seeing Jesus shine, isn’t something that you can be told about and understand. In order to understand, in order to integrate the shine of Jesus into your own life, you have to climb the mountain and see for yourself.

Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Zephaniah 1:7,12-18
Psalm 90:1-12
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

Of all the stories that Jesus tells, there are few or maybe none that I find more confusing and more troubling than the one that we just heard. This is the story that is sometimes titled in Bibles: The Parable of the Talents. And I reckon that it troubles me so much because, here in the West, here in 2020, it is so, so easy to read it as an allegory – an allegory that functions as a celebration of individualism, of the wild accumulation of wealth, and of God’s love as something that you and I must earn. And indeed, an allegory for how God will punish us if we do not earn God’s love.[1]

In other words, it is so easy to read this story as an allegory for a very particular, very Western, and very modern way of living your life.

Within this allegorical understanding, the guy with the money is clearly God.

The story goes like this:

Once upon a time, a CEO went on going on a long business trip. And he summoned three senior managers into his corner office, high, high up the in sky. To one manager he gave five billion dollars, to another two billion dollars, to a third one billion dollars.

The first senior manager took the five billion and bought Amazon stock. And he doubled his money. The second took his two billion and bought Home Depot stock. And he doubled his money. The third took his one billion and bought a term deposit. And his investment didn’t even keep up with inflation.

The third senior manager was a total loser.

One day, the CEO came back – the managers knew the time and the hour when the CEO would come back because the CEO’s personal assistant texted them ahead of time – and the CEO summoned the senior managers into his corner office. The first senior manager said, You gave me five billion dollars and I made five billion dollars. Here is ten billion dollars. And he handed over the money. And the CEO said, Well done, good and faithful senior manager. You too shall have a corner office. The first senior manager said, You gave me two billion dollars and I made two billion dollars. Here is four billion dollars. And he handed over the money. And the CEO said, Well done, good and faithful senior manager. You too shall have a corner office. And then the third came forward. (Remember, in jokes and in parables, things happen three times: twice to establish the pattern, a third time to break it.)

Before the third senior manager handed over his money, he made a speech. He explained his actions. He said:

Boss, I know that you are a massive jerk. You take things that don’t belong to you. You’ll do anything to get rich, no matter how much your actions debase you and everyone around you. And because of that I am terrified of you. My knees knock when I am in your presence, I am actively working not to wet my pants right now.

Here’s your one billion dollars.

And the CEO replied:

You know that I take things that don’t belong to me, did you? You know that I will do anything to get rich, did you? Then you should have done like the other senior managers and invested my flipping money. I’m taking your one billion and giving it to the guy with ten billion!

Hey first senior manager! Hey second senior manager! Open the window of my corner office in the sky.

And they did so.

And now grab senior manager three’s legs! Let’s throw this senior manager three out and down, down, down onto the hard pavement below.

And they did so. And as the third manager’s screams receded and then abruptly ended, the CEO looked at senior manager one and senior manager two and he said:

Well. The rich get richer. And the poor get poorer.

The Word of the Lord.

What do we think about that? Via the CEO’s behavior, have we just witnessed the actions of God?

No. No, that cannot be the right reading of this story.

While God totally gives us gifts or talents and God delights when we live into them and we thrive, God does not make God’s love is in any way conditional on what we do with our gifts. God never responds to us by sending us to a place where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. You know that from scripture and from your every encounter with God.

Here’s the good news. Jesus agrees with you.

Here are a few clues.

First, remember that Jesus is telling this story to a group of folks who are living under occupation, most of whom are of modest financial means, many of whom live in poverty. Few or none of the people listening have any firsthand experience with investing, least of all with investing at the scale that Jesus talks about in this story. (There is considerable debate, by the way, as to how much a talent is worth in modern dollars. Some scholars reckon that a talent is equivalent to as much as 20 years wages. Regardless, it is a staggering amount of money.) So, none of these three servants or slaves in the story are going to be someone with whom the listeners identify. This story isn’t a story about them, it isn’t about whether they are trying hard enough in life. Unless you are absurdly wealthy, it probably isn’t a story about you.

Second, notice who gives the moral of the story. Often Jesus will tell us a parable and then, at the end, he will share a moral with us. But that doesn’t happen here. The wealthy man pronounced judgment on the third slave. And then the parable continues. And it is the wealthy man who says, For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The wealthy man isn’t God. The wealthy man is a wealthy man.

Third, Jesus constantly contrasts the Kingdom of God with violent human kingdoms. Jesus consistently says: God’s Kingdom isn’t like Caesar’s. Be not afraid. Do not worry. You don’t have to earn your way in. You aren’t going to get punished if you do it wrong. Remember just a few weeks ago the Parable of the Vineyard. The laggards, the latecomers get paid the same. Jesus tells us this persistently through his teaching. And he tells us most emphatically via the cross, whereby he refuses to respond to Empire’s violence with violence of his own. And notwithstanding his refusal to pick up a sword or a gun or to drop a bomb, he wins anyway. Love wins anyway.

In the resurrection, the Kingdom is victorious. And the only blood that is spilt is that of God’s.

The cross tells us this story ain’t an allegory, that it cannot be an allegory. And I wonder if what I talked about earlier – how this story leaves me confused and troubled – isn’t actually a deliberate choice by Jesus. I wonder if he is saying, through this tale, the same thing that he says when he declares that the love of money is the root of all evil. If you love money, this story says, you will end up doing evil things, things that leave you confused and troubled, things that leave you ashamed and hurt and that leave people around you ashamed and hurt.

Don’t be the sort of person who loves money so much that people fear you: don’t be like the boss. Don’t be the sort of person who loves money so much that you need to be afraid of your boss: don’t be like the servants.

Money’s a tool, sometimes a necessary one. But money is totally unworthy of your heart, of your fidelity, of your worship. So choose the Kingdom. Choose love. Be not afraid. Instead, be free.


[1] This sermon draws on the work of Sarah Dylan Breuer and Paul Nuechterlein.

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Isaiah 45:1-7
Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13)
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

The lectionary, the schedule of readings that we follow Sunday by Sunday, continues to take us in a sequential way through the Gospel of Matthew. We have listened for a bunch of weeks running as Jesus has told us short stories. And it is apparent that these stories have alarmed at least some of the religious and civic authorities who are listening. Because they decide today that they need to push back – more than that, that they need to trap Jesus. And their traps looks like this: They are going to ask Jesus whether or not folks like him and his followers ought to pay tax to Rome.

This is a question that has no good answer, especially when it is asked in public. If Jesus says yes, that is an insult to all of his followers, to everyone who is enduring the oppression of empire. To say yes to paying tax under occupation and within a system in which tax collection is corrupt (tax collectors are something like the Ancient Near East’s answer to the Mafia) is for Jesus to announce that he is okay with being a collaborator and with participating in a crooked system.

To say no, however, is to insult empire itself. And that, as anyone who has endured life within a dictatorship can tell you, is to risk getting disappeared in the middle of the night. When you are living in East Germany or modern-day China or Israel under the boot of Rome, announcing that you will not be giving your money to government is something that you do at your peril.

This is a gotcha question, a deadly question.

But if this question phases Jesus, if his heart starts racing when he hears it, we see none of that on the outside. Jesus tells them to bring him a coin. If this scene were happening right now, maybe he would ask them to produce a twenty-dollar bill.

And he asks them:

Whose head is this?

Although folks who know ancient Greek tell us that the question might better be translated a little differently. They suggest that the question that Jesus is asking would more accurately be rendered:

Whose image is this?

That’s a significant distinction. Because if you are even passingly familiar with scripture, then and now, you know that to ask about someone’s image is to evoke the Book of Genesis:

God made them, male and female, in God’s image.

It is after making humanity that God says that everything that God made was very good.

Whose image is this?

And suddenly it is the folks asking seeking to trap Jesus who are in a dangerous place, who have no right answer. Because to answer that coin depicts someone made in the image of God is to announce that there is an authority far greater the emperor. And in a time when the emperor controls life and death, when Rome says that the Emperor is a god himself, to suggest that the emperor is subject to anyone or less powerful than anyone is to engage in a reckless act of subversion. But to deny to this is God’s image is to engage in sacrilege, it is to declare that there are places and people to whom the power of God does not reach.

Maybe there is a moment of excruciating, expectant silence as the authorities weigh their answer. Jesus is giving them a holy opportunity to offer a daring response. And the authorities – well, they are suddenly wondering why they began this conversation in the first place.

And then, after pausing forever, at last they speak. And because the fear of Empire has beaten down their theological imaginations, they answer Jesus’ question literally:

That is the emperor’s image.

And Jesus lowers the currency. Like a magician done with his trick, he hands it back to whoever leant it to him.

Then,

he says to the authorities,

I guess you’d better give it to the emperor. And give to God the things that are God’s.

The authorities are, the text says, amazed. Although gobsmacked might get closer. Do they leave with their tails between their legs? Or do they leave with a crack in the armour, with an opening to something beautiful and new?

Today, McLeod has discerned a call to be baptised. Normally, this would be an occasion for many people to gather to celebrate. But we can’t do that in pandemic: there are just a few of us here in the courtyard. But we are trusting that there are many more of you on the far side of the screen, that there we are surrounded by what Paul wonderfully calls so great a cloud of witnesses right now, not only in heaven but also on the internet.

As McLeod enters into the baptismal waters, Jesus us will ask you and me the same question that he asks of the authorities. Jesus will introduce us to McLeod and say:

Whose image is this?

And in the pause before we answer, Jesus will speak again. He will invite us to look around us. If you are here in the courtyard, look at the other people with you in this place. If you are home, maybe look out the window. Perhaps there is someone walking past your home. Maybe, if you don’t live alone, there is someone sitting beside you or working in your kitchen. Jesus says:

Whose image is this?

And again, Jesus will speak before we can answer.  Jesus will show us the earth itself. The trees, the birds dancing across the arc of the sky, the ground beneath our feet. God’s first creation, what Augustine calls the first Bible. And Jesus will ask:

Whose image is this?

And then once more – I know that jokes and parables tend to feature things that happen three times, but Jesus is asking us a fourth time this morning – Jesus will show us that in the baptismal waters we can see our own reflection. He will point at that reflection and say:

Whose image is this?

How shall we answer? This question maybe isn’t frightening in the same way that it was in Jesus’ day: the secret police aren’t going to come get us if we answer in the wrong way. But I want to suggest that it remains a life and death question. And it remains a question to which this world, to which the powers and principalities, to which what Dorothy Day called the Dirty Rotten System invites us to give theologically unimaginative and dangerous answers.

This System invites us to look at our fellow human beings and to answer the question Whose image is this? by saying something like: That is a consumer. The primary value of this person, maybe the entire value of this person, is in their capacity to spend money, to buy stuff. And the world is very clear about who someone who no longer has money. That person is a loser.

The System invites us to look at creation itself and to answer the question Whose image is this? by saying something like: This is a resource to be used up. The primary value of this earth and the creatures upon it is the goods and the services that creation can yield to me.

The System invites us to look at ourselves reflected in the waters and to answer the question Whose image is this? by saying something like: Here is someone who is inadequate. My skin is not great, my tummy is too big, my hair is kind of sad. I am difficult to get along with. I may be unlovable.

Notice that all three of these answers are about money, about the love of money. Jesus is still holding a coin as he asks us about them.

And each of these answers to Jesus’ question is a God damn lie. Each of them is heresy, a rejection of what God has told us about our neighbour, about creation, about ourselves. We know that there is a better answer, a holier answer. We know what the answer is. So let’s offer it.

Now, I know that Episcopalians don’t like shouting stuff out, and I know that it is kind of weird to be at home and shouting stuff at the computer screen (although I actually do that fairly often) but I’m going to challenge us to see if we can put down out academic reserve a little bit and to shout out our answers this morning. The question is Whose image is this? And the answer is, This is the image of God!

Do you want to do a practice run? Whose image is this?

This is the image of God!

As McLeod gets ready to step into the waters of baptism, we look together at him. And Jesus asks:

Whose image is this?

This is the image of God!

We look around the courtyard at one another or out the window at our neighbour or at our family members or roommates, people whom we have maybe seen slightly too much of these past few months. Jesus show us each of them and asks:

Whose image is this?

This is the image of God!

We look at creation. The fragile wonder of it. The air we breathe, the food we eat, the ground which holds us up and to which, one day, we will return. And Jesus asks:

Whose image is this?

This is the image of God!

We look at ourselves. This one, for some of us, will be the hardest. Our hands. Our feet. Our lungs breathing in and out. Our faces. And Jesus asks:

Whose image is this?

This is the image of God!

If we take the answer to Jesus’ question even passingly seriously, it cannot help but change us. If the man lying on the street is the image of God, dare we ignore him? If the earth is the image of God, dare we abuse it? If you are the image of God, dare you speak to yourself with anything less than love? We are the Body of Christ. We are, somehow, not only followers of Jesus but participants in Jesus, members of Jesus. His story is our story. And remember what Jesus discovers in baptism. It is what you and I discover in baptism. We are the image of God. In the waters, the dove descends upon us, descends upon you. And the voice of the Father says, This is my child, the beloved. In whom I am well pleased.

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Isaiah 25:1-9
Psalm 23
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

We are in the middle of a run of stories by Jesus. The lectionary, the schedule of readings that we follow across the year, is taking us Sunday by Sunday through the Gospel of Matthew as Jesus tells us one parable or one folk tale after another.

On September 13th (and I’m identifying each of Jesus’ stories by the titles that they are traditionally given) we heard the story called The Unforgiving Servant. On the 20th followed The Generous Vineyard Owner. September 27th gave us the tale of The Two Sons. Today we hear about The Wicked Tenants. And next week we’ll hear the story of The King’s Son’s Wedding.

These run of stories feature themes such as power, duty, obedience and disobedience, reversal of expectation, violence or even revenge. Maybe most of all, they feature the themes of forgiveness, of love, of new life.

And four of the five of stories begin in a way that gets totally lost in almost every English translation. In the original Greek, four of the five begin with a double identification of the first character whom we meet. (I’m drawing here, and throughout this sermon, on the wonderful scholarship of Paul Nuechterlein and Andrew Marr.)

The Unforgiving Servant tells us of a man, a king.

The Generous Vineyard Owner speaks of a man, a housemaster (or a landowner).

The Wicked Tenants, today, is the same: There was a man, a housemaster.

And next week, in The King’s Son’s Wedding, we’ll hear of a man, a king.

Do these double identifiers mean anything? Possibly not. Clearly most translators think that they don’t, as witnessed by their choice to collapse the double identifiers into a single one so that today, for instance, we simply here there was a landowner. And the translators may well be right, this may just be a manner of talking in Greek and, before that, in the Aramaic that Jesus and his friends spoke. Certainly, English is full of double phrases that add little or no meaning: An added bonus is the same thing as a bonus; a free gift is the same thing as a gift; twelve midnight, it turns out, is midnight.

But I wonder. There is so little superfluous information in scripture. A modern book will tell you how tall someone is and what they are wearing and what the weather is like because these things help you to envision the scene. Scripture generally doesn’t do that. If scripture tells you about these things it’s because the story won’t make sense without them: we hear about height when Zacchaeus meets Jesus because otherwise we won’t understand why Zacchaeus is climbing the tree; we hear about clothing in the story of Joseph because otherwise we won’t get the fullness of his brothers’ jealousy; we hear about weather in the calming of the storm because without it we won’t understand the danger that the disciples face.

There was a man, a landowner.

Why does Jesus give us this double identification?

Here’s a guess.

There is a long history or habit of reading the stories of Jesus as though they were straight-up allegories. This habit might be particularly intense in the time in which we now live. This way of looking at scripture is to understand it as something like a puzzle which it’s our job to decode. In the case of a parable, it’s our job to figure out which characters represent which people. Which characters are the stand ins for the Roman occupiers? Who are the stand ins for the religious authorities? Who is the stand in for God?

And to be clear, this reading isn’t wrong. I read the story of The Unforgiving Servant exactly this way a few weeks ago. But what it isn’t and mustn’t be is the only way of reading Jesus’ stories, the final way of reading Jesus’ stories. To do so to reduce them to a riddle with which, once solved, you need no longer wrestle. I have that parable figured out: check! No! The parables have a surplus of meanings. If we approach them with curiosity, they will always be new to us.

I want to suggest that the most common allegorical reading of the series of tales that we have been hearing is to cast the person with power in the stories – the king, the landowner, the housemaster – as God.

What if Jesus is cautioning us against that through his double identification?

There was a man, a landowner.

In other words, Jesus says, there was a landowner, and that landowner was a human being. Not God!

Let’s listen to the parable again.

Once upon a time there was a landowner. A landowner who, in case you were wondering, was a human being. This landowner made a vineyard. And boy, it was nice. There was a tasting room and everything. But business took the landowner to another country. And so he leased the vineyard to some tenants.

The tenants did not turn out to be awesome.

They didn’t pay their rent. And when the landowner sent his employees to collect, the tenants beat and killed the employees. The landowner sent more employees. And the tenants did the same thing. And so the landowner said: I know! I’ll send my son. They will be sure to respect my son. And so the landowner sent his only child.

But the tenants murdered him too.

And Jesus as he often does, ends the parable with a question. A question for everyone listening, a question you and me:

What will the landowner do to those tenants?

And his audience answers:

The landowner will come with an army and put the tenants to the worst death you can imagine.

Which is such a reasonable answer. The landowner gave these guys chance after chance. One envoy. A second envoy. His own son. Three strikes and you’re out. Violence is exactly what a reasonable person would reach for in a situation like this one.

And if God is the landowner, then we have just learned something about God. God is generous, maybe even generous to a fault – sending his son might have been a little reckless. But in the end if we cross God enough times: look out. God will crush us.

What do we think about that?

Here’s what I’d like us to notice. I’d like us to notice how this story about a man, a landowner contrasts with the story of the Bible and, in particular, with the story of Jesus.

God sends the prophets. And they are greeted with contempt and violence. God sends John the Baptist. And John is greeted with contempt and violence. God sends God’s only son, our Lord and Saviour Jesus. And Jesus is greeted with contempt and violence. Jesus is murdered by the state. But the one whom Jesus calls Father raises Jesus from the dead.

And what happens then?

Well, Jesus tortures and kills everyone who was ever mean to him, right? That’s how the story ends. Isn’t it?

I can’t see you through the screen, but I trust that you are shaking your heads right now.

That isn’t how the story ends.

In the resurrection, what Jesus does is what he did in his earthly life. He tells stories, he teaches, he feeds people.

In the resurrection, the violence of empire is defeated. Empire does its worst, and the power of God turns out to be greater. Greater in the sense that even death cannot hold back Jesus, cannot hold back God. And greater in the sense that God reveals the futility and brokenness of the state’s violence by refusing to participate in it. For Jesus to come back and kill everyone would, in a real way, be a vindication of empire – it would be an announcement that empire’s philosophy, empire’s way of being was right the whole time. You will know who is right, you will know who the winner is because their violence is greatest.

And God says: No. God says what one of his prophets, the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King would famously said all those years later. You will see these words on lawn signs across Portland:

Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.

One there was a man, a landowner. And he behaved the way that human beings so often do. He responded to violence with violence. But not God. God responds to violence with resurrection.

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Isaiah 51:1-6
Psalm 138
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20


Back when I was first working as a stagehand at the start if the 1990s, I had a colleague whose driver’s license said Michael but whom we all knew as Woody. I don’t know if Woody liked being called Woody, I don’t know if it was a name that he would have chosen for himself. In fact the evidence suggests that it was not preferred name.

The way that touring Rock and Roll shows work is that there is a core crew that travels with the band and then there is a local crew, people who live in the city where the band is playing and who supplement the travelling stagehands. And the two crews meet at the beginning of the day on the loading dock, everyone tells everyone else their names. Hi, I’m Martin. I’m Chris. I’m Sarah.

Woody and I were on the local crew. And at the start of the day, Woody would say, Hi, I’m Mike. And it didn’t matter. Within half an hour, everyone on the road crew was calling him Woody.

The lore, the rumour, is that the origin of Woody’s nickname was not a charitable one. That he was so called because his head was thick, like wood. If that’s true, then I understand why he wanted to be Mike. And I regret, I am sorry for not honouring the name that he wanted to be called.

In the Gospel, there is this guy named Simon. But somewhere along the way, folks start calling him Rocky or the Rock. In most English translations of the Bible he is called Peter. And because Peter is just a plain-old name in English, we can forget that this is a nickname, laden with meaning. Other languages don’t have that forgetting problem: if you are reading the New Testament in French, the name Pierre is also a noun that means rock. In Biblical Greek, Petros means rock. And in Aramaic, which Jesus and Simon speak to each other, Simon’s word/name is Kepha, which is sometime transliterated in English Bibles as Cephas. In other words, in the scene that we just heard, Jesus says to Simon:

You are Kepha. And on this kepha I will build my church.

Some English translations try to preserve that. They have Jesus say:

You are Rock. And on this rock I will build my church.

So here is the question. Much as Woody had a driver’s license that says Mike, the Rock has a driver’s license that says Simon. And I wonder: does the Rock feels the same as Woody? Does he wish that people would call him by his real name?

I am asking this question in seriousness. It may seem like it has a thoroughly obvious answer: today, so, so many churches are called St. Rock’s, St. Peter’s, and we know that the Rock went on to be the first Pope, the founder of the church. But I want to suggest that the answer might not be obvious in Jesus’ time. And might be especially unclear if we didn’t have the Gospel of Matthew. Because this is the only Gospel in which we hear Jesus use the name Rock in the way that we just heard him do.

Remember where else and how else we hear about rocks and stones in the Gospel. Rocks are things that you trip over, they are stumbling blocks. Rocks are things that are tied around your neck as punishment; here is the millstone. Rocks are things that you hurl at people as a means of execution; here is the woman who is caught in adultery. Rocks are things that you would never give to your child when the child wants bread. And – remember we heard this story just last month – rocky soil is where the seed doesn’t grow, where the word is received with enthusiasm but the hearer falls away as soon as hardship or persecution shows up. Given what we know about the Rock, about Peter, and how the story of the passion goes, it would be very easy to read that as a shot at him:

You are the Rock, the one without depth, the one who grabs the seed for a moment and then lets it go and runs when things get hard.

So, we can well imagine that in this moment when Jesus calls Simon Rock, that Simon’s shoulders slump. This is the nickname that he has been trying to shake forever. And he thought that, with Jesus and with his new friends, he had found a community that could love him as he is, that could honour his real name, that didn’t need make themselves feel bigger by tearing him down, that wouldn’t call him Rock.

Jesus says,

You are Rock.

And Simon tries to be a good sport, he tries to keep on smiling. But you can see the pain in his eyes.

But then Jesus keeps on going. He does something that Simon totally doesn’t expect. He reinvents his nickname, he gives it a whole new meaning.

You are Rock. And on this rock I will build my church.

I imagine Simon standing there stunned. Wait a minute, he thinks to himself, wait a minute. I always thought that to be a rock is to be thick or dangerous or incapable of growing things. But Jesus is talking as though to be a rock is to be strong and solid and stable, to be that from which everything else rises.

What if? What if what Jesus does for Simon today is something that he also does for you and for me? Maybe there is a name that you have been carrying for a while, for years. It could be something as literal as an unchosen and unwelcome nickname. Or that name could be something a little more like a story, a story about how you are unlovable or a bumbler or always saying the wrong thing or never meeting the standard that everyone else meets, a story about your deep and secret wound.

And when you meet Jesus, he says your old name out loud. But unlike everyone else who has discovered your wound and named it, he uses your name not to hurt you but, rather, to set you free. He shows you how your hurt is what allows you to be empathetic, how your failure is what allows you to understand your neighbour, how your rejection is what allows you to love.

You are the Rock, says Jesus, and on this rock I will build my church.

Simon, who just a second ago felt like he had been punched in the guts, starts laughing out loud, laughing with joy.

Yes, he says. Yes! I’m the rock.

And all of his friends start laughing too, the way that friends do sometimes even when they don’t quite understand the joke. The slap their sides and howl and tears roll down their cheeks and one of them says:

Does anyone know why we’re laughing?

Maybe Jesus is thinking of this moment, of this sudden and free and joyous laughter, of the Rock, when he says:

The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

August 9, 2020

Lessons:

1 Kings 19:9-18
Psalm 85:8-13
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

 

Peace Be Still.

Jesus in the middle of the storm.

Jesus in the middle of the storm is a story that we hear six times across the Gospels.

Maybe, way back when, this was two stories, two encounters with Jesus, one in which Jesus sleeps in the stern of the boat while the storm thunders all around – there are three stories more or less like that preserved in Matthew, Mark, and Luke – and then another in which Jesus walks on the water – those are in Matthew, Mark, and John. Or maybe the story or encounter was one in the beginning, and as memory shifted the way that memory does across the years, the way that stories do as they are told around the campfire, it divided into two strands.

Regardless, Jesus in the middle of the storm is a story that the Gospels tell us six times. It has that sixfold telling in common with the story that we heard last week, the one that we sometimes call the story of the loaves and the fishes. This repetition suggests that Jesus’ first friends and then the early church reckoned that these encounters mattered deeply to understanding Jesus and to following Jesus.

In Jesus’ life, there is a malleable and a permeable border between the literal and the metaphorical. Jesus does things and says things and things happen to him that are real and symbol at the same time. So, last week, we saw Jesus feed hungry people. And way before we look for anything heady or spiritual in this miracle, let’s name and honour the earthy reality that when people are hungry, Jesus feeds them. As Jesus’ followers, we are called to do the same, to feed people when they are hungry.

And beside and within that intensely literal act of service, there are layers upon layers of metaphor. When we are with Jesus, the story tells us, we find creativity, generosity, possibility, compassion, fecundity, the absence of limitation, holy surprise. We are fed in so, so many ways.

This week – Jesus in the storm – is the same. At the story’s most basic level, there is something primal taking place. Heavy rain, high waves, a hard wind, lightning and thunder. Many of Jesus’ followers, most of Jesus’ followers, fish for a living. And if they are afraid of the storm, you know that it’s a bad one. This is a little bit like when you are on a plane and the turbulence gets intense. When that happens, I always look at the flight attendants: if they don’t seem nervous, I’m not going to get nervous, their calmness means that this is merely an unpleasant experience rather than a dangerous one. If they look afraid, by contrast, I’m going to start putting the finishing touches on my will.

And this week, the fishers, those who have logged hundreds or even thousands of hours out on the water, are afraid. Herb O’Driscoll, the wonderful Irish-Canadian preacher, has joked that Jesus’ calmness in the storm, whether that calmness takes the form of sleeping or of casually strolling on the surface of the lake, is proof that Jesus doesn’t fish for a living. Jesus, unlike the disciples, doesn’t know enough to be afraid.

The storm rages. This intense storm, this terrifying storm, this dangerous storm, this storm that may end in drowning rages. This is the sort of awful experience during which someone like you or me might call out God’s name.

God, help me. Please.

And from the deck of the ship, as we call out to God, what do we discover then? We discover that God is there, that Jesus is there. God is not watching from some distant cloud or castle or mountaintop. God is there in the middle of the storm. We see God walking on the waves, being pushed up and down by the swells, now rising, now falling, never breaking his stride, never losing his balance.

This is good news and hard news. It is very good news indeed to discover in the storm that God is not somewhere else. Alleluia.

And it is hard news to discover that God being with us doesn’t mean that there is no storm. The storm rages anyway.

And the storm – here is that malleable and permeable border between the literal and the metaphorical– in addition to being a very concrete and real and dangerous thing, is also this archetypal image for chaos, for uncertainty, for the absence of control, for volatility, for fear.

God is present in these things. And the storm rages anyway.

If the Gospels were a novel – they aren’t, there are a thousand and one ways in which the Gospels resist being classified as a modern book – if the Gospels were a novel, then Peter would be the character whose role is to stand in for you and me. As a child, I adored Agatha Christie’s mysteries and, in particular, I loved her Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. And the Poirot books work in significant part because of Hastings, Poirot’s friend and assistant and sometimes biographer, the guy who is amazed where the reader would be amazed, confused where the reader would be confused, who does and says the thing that the reader would do or say.

Peter serves much the same function in the Gospel. At the transfiguration, he says what you or I might say: Let’s build houses and stay here forever. When Jesus says that he will be crucified, Peter, like you or me, takes him aside and says: Lord, you have to stop talking that way. When Jesus nears the end, Peter is the one who swears that he will never abandon Jesus and who then flees in fear – that’s something that I might do and maybe that you might do, no matter how much we wanted to stay.

And today, in the middle of the chaos, in the middle of the storm, Peter is the one who sees Jesus walking on the water, dancing on the surging waves. Peter has one of those bracelets on his wrist that says WWJD: What would Jesus do? This is the question of his life. And he sees that the answer to the question What would Jesus do in the storm? is that Jesus would walk on the waves.

And so Peter kicks one leg over the side of the boat and then the other. He puts his weight down on the water. And for a little while, it works. Peter walk for several steps, getting nearer to Jesus, rising and falling with the swells as he does. But then he notices the danger, the impossibility, the absurdity of what he is doing. I don’t know if you have had the experience of learning to ride a bike, the grown up or older child who was helping you letting go and giving you a push, and you are able to ride exactly as long as until you don’t think about how your balance works and how much landing on the asphalt would hurt.

I think that something similar happens here. Peter starts thinking about what he is doing. And instantly, his leg punches through the surface of the lake as though he were breaking through ice. He is in up to his thigh, suddenly soaked. And sinking.

Lord, save me! he says.

And right away – Jesus does not leave Peter in his fear – Jesus reaches out his hand and catches him.

Oh, Peter, Jesus says. And I imagine that there is a big smile on his face. You almost did it. You of little faith.

And then the two of them get back into the boat, Jesus holding the now sopping wet Peter by the arm. Does Peter walk a little bit on the way back? Or does he kind of half swim? Or does Jesus carry him?

When they get back in, the storm stops. There is peace. And the fishers, they fall down on the suddenly still deck of their boat and worship Jesus.

Truly, they say, truly you are the son of God.

What does this end to the story mean? I’m not sure. But I do know that somehow it is right, that it is true. That in this moment when the real and the metaphorical intersect in the storm, Jesus comes to us and there is peace. Peace be still. I think that this moment is what Richard Rohr is talking about what he says that folks who are in deep communion with God find this okayness with life. Not because the storm doesn’t happen, not because they never experience grief, loss, unfairness, or suffering – they totally do. But because they know in their bones that Jesus is there with us as the storm rages, and that Jesus, always, always, brings us safely home.