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.

 

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

August 18, 2019

Lessons:

Jeremiah 23:23-29
Psalm 82
Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Luke 12:49-56

 

On Wednesday morning I attended a rally organised by the mayor’s office. The rally was downtown at Pioneer Courthouse Square and I was there as a representative of the Interfaith Alliance on Poverty, an organisation to which Grace belongs. The purpose of the gathering was for folks from a whole variety of contexts (there were representatives in attendance from business groups, from other faith communities, from political and law-enforcement organisations, from unions) to together say that we condemn and we reject white supremacy and we condemn and reject the violence that it brings. As a group we declared that if folks are coming to Portland with the goal of nurturing violence and hate that they are not welcome here.

The folks coordinating the rally positioned me in the front row, just behind the dignitaries, somewhere to the audience’s right of the lectern; I wasn’t there to make a speech, just to look good, something at which I am excellent. And I was charged with the task of holding a giant letter “H,” part of a collection of giant letters that together spelled “Our city, our home.” (I was never a cheerleader, so finally getting to hold a giant letter, even if I had to wait ‘til middle age to do it, was kind of cool. Gimme and H!) Along with a lot of other folks, I stood there with my letter, looking out at a wall of cameras, at a whole bunch of reporters.

I don’t know how much the rally swayed the nouveau Nazis who want to come march in our streets. But I think that it was important for us as a community to say that white supremacy is not a part of who we want to be, not a part of who we are called to be.

The experience at the rally was mostly awesome. Except that, whoever designed the square, whoever designed what is sometimes called Portland’s living room, did not give a whole lot of thought to shade. And friends, I am not built for the heat. Even with a substantial hat on my head, even keeping myself well hydrated, standing still in the direct August sun was heavy going. And so about an hour into the rally and still only two-thirds of the way through the speeches, my knees just gave way. And me and my big “H” were suddenly half-kneeling, half-sitting on Pioneer Square’s brick floor.

Now, I am someone who not only really wants to be in control of myself but, more than that, I am someone who really wants to appear to be in control of myself. I did not care very much for adolescence, when my body frequently had its own ideas about how it was going to behave: without any permission from me, acne showed up on my face and my eyesight fell off of a cliff and I was listening to unbidden comments about how much my voice had changed. And to this day I don’t like it at all when the visible evidence of my control slips, when I am vulnerable. I want to be the one who gives help: I don’t want to be the one who needs it.

I totally understand what the writer David Dark means when he says that his sense of composure is almost sacred to him.

So, if I am going to be ill, or if I my knees are going to give way and I am going to fall, I’d really prefer to do so in the privacy of my own home.

But here’s the problem:

Standing in the front row of a press conference with several dozen cameras pointed your way is the possibly the least private place to do anything.

A lot of people noticed that I had fallen and came to help, to offer their kindness and their concern. The folks near me, several police officers and, fascinatingly, someone dressed like a national park ranger, like Smokie the Bear, all gathered around me, all of them sincerely, generously compassionate.

Other than sitting on the ground, I was actually doing okay: I didn’t hit my head, I wasn’t feeling dizzy. And I reckoned that the best plan was to sit there, to drink as much water as I could, and to trust that, in half an hour, my legs would be willing to hold me up again.

I told what felt like four dozen different people that this was my plan. And then my neighbour held up my “H” for me and I sat in its shade.

Today, in Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, we hear this protracted meditation on faith. Paul gives one example after another from scripture of what is possible when you have faith, of what people across history have done who have faith. Here are the folks who have endured much and have done much, who have walked through across the seabed and who have caused walls to come tumbling down and have seen resurrection.

And then Paul shares with us what, on some days, I think just might the most beautiful words in scripture:

We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.

Now if we want to, I guess we can read Paul’s words as those of a kind of First-Century motivational speaker: David defeated all those armies, so you can too; I am a rock star or an NBA player or a billionaire entrepreneur, so you can be one too. In this reading, Paul is sharing a quintessentially Western and quintessentially modern message: say your prayers, work hard, set goals, and you will be rich and famous. You will win. Never mind that being rich or famous are, by definition, something that only a tiny fraction of us can do.

But what if that isn’t what Paul means at all? What if, rather than being a celebration of individual achievement, of rugged self-reliance, Paul is offering a repudiation of that philosophy and a celebration of something way better? Why if Paul is saying that faith is what happens when we realise that we are not alone, that we never were, and that we were never meant to live life without anyone’s help. More than that – and this is hard for a lot of us – we are incapable of living life without anyone’s help.

There is this cloud of witnesses.

To paraphrase that 20th-Century Saint, Mr. Rogers: some of the people in the cloud are here; some are far away; some are even in heaven. So, some of the people in our cloud of witnesses have died, maybe years or decades or even centuries ago. And I believe, I trust that our relationship with them remains. But the cloud is not comprised only of those who have died, not just of the angels in heaven. It is comprised as well of everyone around us. Our friends right now, our family right now, our loved ones right now, our neighbours right now, the strangers who makes a cameo appearance in our lives right now.

They are the cloud of witnesses for us, the ones on whom we lean. And we get our turn to be the cloud of witnesses for them.

And it is a failure of holy gratitude – or maybe that it is not strong enough language – it is heresy or idolatry to look at the cloud and say: I have no need of you. This heresy damages us and damages those around us.

I read a fascinating article, maybe ten years ago, about the ethics of organ transplants. And it featured someone making the case for paying people to donate their organs. The reason that the person wanted to pay donors was not to make them more likely to part with a kidney. But rather it was, so that after transplant, the recipient wouldn’t owe the donor anything. I’m just not comfortable, the person said, owing another person that much.

As though any amount of money given to the person who gave you the internal organ that allowed your life to continue would make you even, any more than you could be even with your parents or the others who loved you into being. A gazillion dollars wouldn’t make you even.

My friend Brian said something a while back that I have thought often. Brian recounted how folks who were sceptical of church would sometimes say to him Religion is just a crutch.

To which Brian, marvellously, replied:

Yes, it’s a crutch.

And I need a crutch.

Acknowledging the cloud of witnesses, acknowledging our dependence upon them, means putting away the story that says, so long as our credit card goes through or our cheque clears, we don’t owe anyone anything. It means acknowledging our profound and utter dependence on one another and on God.

This is the spiritual gift of falling down in a public place, whether that fall be figurative – a diagnosis, a job loss, a grave disappointment, an enormous grief – or whether, as in my case, it be as literal as literal can get. In the fall the illusion of self-sufficiency is stripped away, the illusion that we were ever 100% in control, that we were ever 100% composed, the illusion that we could stand on our own two feet and owe nothing to no one. In the place of the illusion is the hard but also glorious and freeing and joyous truth that our falling was always inevitable but, when that fall comes, the cloud of witnesses will catch us.

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Ken Powell

Lessons:

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

Walk on Water or Stay in the Boat?

Deacon Ken Powell, Grace Memorial, August 13, 2017

            Some years ago, while my wife Karen and I were in Rome we spent a lot of time visiting the magnificent churches that seemed to be just around every corner. On one occasion, we happened to enter as a worship service was beginning so we took a seat and tried to participate as best we could. The liturgy was familiar enough to us to have a general idea about what was happening but the language was a barrier- Latin in some places I think and Italian in others. So, I suppose it was natural to begin looking about at the enormous and exquisite paintings that adorned the walls of the church and it occurred to me that perhaps that was their very purpose- when the language is foreign or incomprehensible try experiencing the biblical story in another way.

            As it happened, the image that I still recall is that of Peter leaping out of the boat one or two steps from Jesus. His feet just beginning to slip beneath the waters, his hands reaching out to grasp Jesus’ hand, his ardent desire to be with Jesus evident as he launched his whole body and being forward…and a look of panic and fear on his face as he realizes the risk he has taken.

            Sometimes today’s gospel lesson has been interpreted as if to say- “If you want to walk on water, you’ve got to get out of the boat.” The thinking is that Peter had the right idea when he stepped out in faith to be with Jesus amid the turbulent waters of life and that if we have enough faith in Jesus and keep our focus on him we will not sink despite the battering we might take from the wind and waves.

            No doubt Jesus wants us to take risks for the sake of the gospel. No doubt he wants us to keep our eyes focused on him and his mission.  No doubt he wants us to have the gift of faith but I am not so sure we have to walk on water to do so especially if it means leaving behind the only friends and support we have.

            So, I wonder when Jesus says to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt” the meaning isn’t simply “Oh, Peter, if only you had more faith”’ but also asks him, “Oh, Peter, why did you get out of the boat?”

            From the earliest days of the Christian community the boat has been a symbol of the church and the seas a symbol of chaos- and it is upon those waters and in the safety of that vessel that Jesus sent his disciples “to the other side”- yet another deeply meaningful symbol of our hope in the kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. But when a storm blows up, as storms do in our lives Jesus didn’t wait for the disciples to arrive at the other side before he came to their aid. Like the holy ghost he moved over the face of the waters to come to them in their distress saying, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid”.

            Most of this scene I saw beautifully depicted in the painting in Rome but something was missing I realize now, something a painting can’t say, a small word that weighed so heavily on Peter body and soul that it nearly sank him. A whole universe of possibilities seems to cram itself into Peter’s single, simple word – “if”. “Lord, if it is you…”  is an open question for Peter as it is for many of us much of the time.  Like Peter in this instance or later like Mary at the tomb we would love to cling to Jesus when we have doubts. It drove Peter to a reckless act of desperate faith that Jesus permitted but thankfully doesn’t require.

            There are only a few times in the gospel when anyone addresses Jesus with an “if” statement but they are core statements upon which our understanding of Jesus turns. Three times Satan tempts Jesus in the wilderness with” if you are the Son of God” make stones into bread, call down special privileges from God, worship me. And during the crucifixion “if you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”

            The curious thing is that the statements are meant to elicit proof of an identity that can’t be revealed when we are seeking answers to questions we aren’t ready and willing to receive. It reminds me of Rilke’s advice to a young poet “to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were…written in a foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given you now, because you would not be able to live them…and the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer…”.

            It is almost a proverbial term in our culture these days to say of someone who has done the seemingly impossible that they can “walk on water”. Someone who has been brought in to save a floundering business, for instance, or maybe the superstar athlete who appears to defy gravity and the laws of motion but it is a rare moment when people are thinking of Peter or Jesus when the phrase is used. For them it is just a trivial “figure of speech” cut off from its biblical foundation. But for us it is a story that shows us something essential to the way of life that Jesus sees for us.

            Jesus doesn’t expect us to walk on water…he expects us to stay in the boat! To stay with our companions in the faith, to keep rowing, to trust that he is with us and will even get into the boat himself to save us from our fear and lack of faith.  When the wind ceases and we approach the far shore, we will also know Jesus as the Son of God if we ride out the storm together. In the meantime, take heart and do not be afraid but leave the walking on water to him!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Richard Toll

 

Lessons:

Genesis 18:20-32
Psalm 138
Colossians 2:6-19
Luke 11:1-13

 

 

What do we do about living life to its fullest?

How do we address God?

How do we even know God?

Does God mean anything to you or me?

Why do we even care about the answers to these questions?  If, there are answers.

 

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”

One of the most important parts of life is asking questions and being able to receive answers.  And, the answers we receive are often not the answers we want.

Do you remember when you were a child and growing into the awareness of God?  Do you remember how you prayed?  I do.  I remember thinking that prayer was a magic formula for getting what I wanted.  And, as adults we often may have the same thoughts.  I can remember wondering about God when I prayed that our team would win a football game and we lost.  Darn it!  “Who does God think he is any how ?” was something of my childhood response.  And yet we asked and received.  The answer may not be what we hoped, wanted or needed.

The Lord’s Prayer is a simple prayer and a very profound prayer.  “Lord, teach us to prayer,” the disciples ask of Jesus.  Matthew’s Gospel gives us the fullness of the Lord’s Prayer as we know it in our Prayer Book.  Luke gives us his version at the end of the 1st century.

The Lord’s Prayer is a prayer of relationship.  God is addressed as “Father” which is a very intimate understanding of God.  It places God within our experience and recognizes our dependences.  It places us as a part of God’s creation.  It places us in relationship in such a way that we enter into the mystery of life itself with the one who created life.

In the intimacy we experience with God, the prayer speaks of Heaven and Earth, the Will of God and the Kingdom of God.  This is why the prayer is such a profound prayer.  Thousands of books have been written on all of these topics and thousands more will be written in the future as people like you and me experience God, Creation, Life and Death.  We live into mystery every time we say the Lord’s Prayer.

As individuals, we live in a very fractured world.  As individuals, we feel alone and isolated.  We wonder about who we are and what our role is within creation.  Can we , or do we make a difference?

I believe we are created in order to make a difference.  We often do not know what happens with our actions or prayers.  Because we do not see the results for better or worse.  Sometimes we do know.  Recently I heard from a dear friend whose child died 25 years ago.  The loss was very painful.  The father and family were hurting and he told me about a prayer I offered at the time.  I have no idea what I prayed or how God used me as a vessel.  But, my friend informed me how much it meant to him, his family and friends.  He is still uplifted by the memory.  I thanked him for sharing with me after 25 years.

We learn to pray in many ways.  First of all by reading and writing prayers.  The Lord’s Prayer is one of those prayers.  As life teaches us many lessons, we move beyond words to a deeper level of prayer that is within us, surrounding us and often it is not verbalized.  We often can find ourselves in prayer that is not focused.  I find that at times the best way to focus our moments of discernment within the life of the spirit is to simply say “Thank you_________” and begin to say thanks for where ever the Spirit leads.  It may be thanks for a hard lesson learned or thanks for being delivered from an injury or illness, or a relationship being repaired or an insight into a problem to be solved and thanks for and on and on and on.  To have a way of saying thank you for not giving into temptation.

Our thanks in prayer makes us aware of that beyond ourselves and helps us live beyond ourselves.

It can also remove a sense of isolation and bring us into the understanding of community and the realization that we come together to offer prayers not just as individuals but within community.  Can you imagine a world that does not intentionally as individuals and as community enter into prayer?

Repeat—can you imagine a world that does not intentionally as individuals and as community enter into prayer?  Self centered—without reflection—without forgiveness, relating only to our own wants, competing for more and more at the expense of others?  My guess is the world would have more wars and more of what we do not like in today’s world.

One of the things we learn from prayer is that we realize in our prayers that there is an expectation that we become answers to our own prayers.  Do we pray for healing for another person without visiting them and doing our part in any way we are able.  Do we pray for justice and find ourselves ignoring issues of justice within our own life?  Do we pray for a concern thinking someone else needs to address the concern or God will take care of it while we choose to ignore or dismiss.  It is like praying for the election in November and not voting.  Complaining but not acting.

We can become answers to prayers we offer.  And maybe that is what God is asking of us in order to be within the Kingdom of God.

We are gathered in community today.  Praying, singing, listening, discovering each other and discerning our lives within the presence of God.  Right at this moment there are individuals in countries throughout the world who are saying the Lord’s Prayer, receiving communion, saying prayers, reading the Bible, engaging in worship—all over the world—people together are offering themselves and giving thanks to God.  At the Church of the Pater Noster in Jerusalem the Lord’s Prayer is presented in over 100 languages on the walls of the church.

Funerals are taking place right now—somewhere grieving and loss are occurring.

Weddings are taking place right now—somewhere rejoicing as people join their lives together.

Baptisms are taking place right now—somewhere promises are being offered to honor the life of Jesus and to become a member of a community of Faith.

Births are taking place—somewhere new life—in hospitals, homes, jungles, at sea, anywhere and everywhere—“Give us this day our daily bread”.  May we receive food to nourish us.

And not just in Christian churches—Moslem, Jewish,  Hindo, Buddhist.  People drawing near to the presence of the One who created and is made know.  And of course we know that the impulse of good versus evil always can move us away from the spirit of love because of the gift we have of freedom to choose.  Thus, the Lord’s Prayer, “deliver us from evil”.

This past month our entire family (our son, his wife and two children and our daughter with her husband and two children visited Washington, D.C. for a week.  We went to Mt. Vernon, the Capitol, the White House and overdosed on Smithsonian Museums.   One of our most meaningful museums was the space museum.  A fantastic visit into space was offered as we were able to experience the vastness of space and the overwhelming sense of what is beyond us.  It is amazing what we have been able to discover about our universe in the past 100 years.  It is almost beyond belief.  We have been given the means to discover what God has done in creation and continues to do.  Within this creation, we offer the simplicity and the majesty of the Lord’s Prayer our gift from Jesus to draw closer to the Father, closer to each other and closer to our own selves.

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”  And the journey continues.

Amen.