As a Christian, the problems of society can be overwhelming. Children are being separated from their families at the border. War is devastating regions around the world. White supremacists are staking claim to our country.
Jesus says we cannot solve any of these problems without getting to the root of the issue: evil. Jesus tells us that the world is in need of salvation and the medicine of God is the only thing that can heal humanity.
That doesn’t mean we should sit and wait for change. The Holy Spirit gives us the power of God to help heal the world. But are we ready to accept this huge responsibility? We have to come to the place in our lives where we have to have the humility to change the place that we live, our life situation, and be transformed by the Holy Spirit.
“Christ’s career as a home-wrecker”
Sermon by The Rev. Joe Gunby
Mark 3: 20-35
June 10, 2018
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Luke 14:15-24 and Deuteronomy 30:15-20
March 15, 2015
For the past several week’s we’ve been focusing on change, how it’s a part of our lives, chosen or unchosen and how we tend to resist it. We seek equilibrium and our tendency towards the status quo is difficult to overcome whether because of fear, or complacency, or habit and custom. In today’s gospel reading from Luke, we have the parable of the great banquet. Last year we had a look at Matthew’s version, a much more elaborate and more violent story than Luke’s softer rendering. But the bones of the story are much the same.
A rich person decides to host a party and invites all of his friends and acquaintances to come. He sends out our equivalent of “save the date” cards. But when the time comes, and the second invitation arrives in various homes just days before the event, many of the invitees have made other plans. Their circumstances have changed. One has gotten married in the interim, and custom says that newlyweds don’t have to go anywhere or do anything during the early days of their marriage. Men are even excused from military duty. Others have had different types of changes in their lives that now require their immediate attention. One has purchased land and another, a set of oxen. They need to see after their investment, and can’t take time off for a party. They can’t be in two places at once, and economic necessity requires looking after their holdings.
Sometimes we read this story and think that these are trivial excuses, the equivalent of “I have a hangnail,” or “my favorite TV program is on that night.” But they’re not. These, for that time and place, are significant obligations that vie with the banquet invitation for top priority. It is the age old question of how do we choose among good things to find the best? How do we sort through multiple valid priorities, to rank the demands on our lives in their appropriate order. How do we avoid becoming one of those who have measured out their lives in coffee spoons? C. S. Lewis commented once that we can be “half-hearted creatures, fooling about with” lesser interests “when infinite joy is offered us.” And he concludes, “We are far too easily pleased.” Somehow the guests who attended the banquet were able to see it as the best alternative among other options or obligations that might have been calling for their attention, and were not distracted by competing claims or interests.
In our reading from Deuteronomy, Moses encourages his people as they prepare to enter the Promised Land to “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him, for that means life to you . . .” The command to “Choose life” is echoed throughout scripture. In 1Timothy, Paul encourages Timothy to lead his congregation “to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share . . . so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.” In John’s gospel, Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except by me.” Now this has been interpreted as an exclusivist claim for Christianity, but I think it is more that Jesus is saying, live the way I live, seek the truth I seek, and you will have the life that I have. If you want to know God, pattern your life after mine.
We live in a culture today that equates the good life not with seeking God, but with prosperity and the accumulation of stuff. The rule of the day has been for some time now “he who dies with the most toys wins,” and this kind of life seems simple and straightforward enough to strive toward. It’s safe, it’s culturally approved, it has tangible signs of progress. But there inevitably comes a time in our lives where this pattern of existence just doesn’t satisfy as it perhaps once did. There may be a nagging feeling that there must be more out there. The line from a Wordsworth sonnet becomes very real, “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”
I can remember very well when my children were in elementary school, and my husband and I were working hard to “get ahead,” our lives were caught up in so much activity, so much going and doing, that there was very little time for being. I felt kind of like a hamster running as fast as I could on the wheel, but not getting anywhere. And I asked myself and God, “Is this all there is? Is this day-in, day-out rat race, all we have to look forward to.” Of course there was satisfaction in participating in school activities with the children, and working hard to get ahead at my job, to keep the family healthy and the house clean, — well, you know the drill. But there was also deep exhaustion and that nagging feeling that something was missing.
Yogi Berra, the legendary catcher for the New York Yankees, said once, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” And that fork in the road is different for each of us depending on our life experiences. But it comes at a time when we become aware of a sense of disorder, a sense of something missing , and we acknowledge that we want the rest of the life that is left to us to be qualitatively different. Back in 1989 Steven Covey wrote his best seller, “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” and I don’t remember a whole lot about it now, but one thing has stuck with me. I remember the statement, “Keep the main thing the main thing.” It is really easy to get distracted and get off course, go down a whole lot of rabbit trails, and wonder how we wound up so far from the goal that was first established when we forget where we were going.
As people of faith, then, we have to decide what our main thing is. And then everything that we do will either contribute to our reaching it or will take us away from it. If the main thing is to choose life, and that life is defined as the kind of life Jesus had, then that immediately re-orders our priorities in several areas – in economic terms certainly – making the most money and having the most things are no longer essential. Learning the meaning of “enough” becomes an important first step. But also our priorities are re-ordered in the relational terms.
Suddenly understanding others becomes more important than being first understood. Giving is more important than receiving, and helping and sharing are no longer optional. If we see or hear of someone in need, we can’t just walk by on the other side of the road anymore and pretend we don’t notice or assume someone else will come to the rescue.
Interestingly, Jesus tells the story of the banquet while attending a banquet where dignitaries, people of note, were seated at the head tables in places of honor, and the lesser knowns were seated farther down towards the ends. He suggests that a little humility might be in order, not to go immediately to the head of the table, but to hold back and wait for an invitation to move up. He also suggests that when planning a party, the host should consider inviting those who cannot repay in like manner. There’s no blessing in giving in order to get. Instead, he should host a banquet to which the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind will be invited, and there will be blessing because these guests cannot repay in kind.
And then comes the parable where that exact thing happens – people invited to the banquet make excuses and don’t come, and they are replaced, not by people of the same social class and station, but by the poor, the lame, the blind, the crippled, strangers who are traveling on the roads. Hospitality is extended to everyone, even passing strangers, and the table is filled with new guests. Those who declined the invitation, have missed out on something wonderful.
If our main thing is choosing life as it was lived by Jesus, then we too have to be open always, first for the invitation to the party – to the life that really is life – and have enough courage, and vision to make God’s offer our top priority regardless of the other forces that vie for our loyalty, time, and attention.
And secondly, we cannot stop simply with congratulating ourselves that we had the good sense and enough faith to recognize God’s invitation when we hear it and see it; we then have the obligation and opportunity to become party hosts ourselves, drawing the circle wider, bringing more chairs to the table, looking for ways to live out Jesus’ great commandment to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind, and our neighbor as ourselves.
It’s easy to make excuses; it’s easy to say I’ll do that one day, but first I have to take care of these things — my oxen, my land, my spouse. The reasons for delay are innumerable. And it’s easy to get so wrapped up in the day to day issues, problem solving, putting out fires, fending off what seem like disasters – that we trudge through life looking down, satisfied that we can still put one foot in front of the other, getting through another day, and forgetting to look up, forgetting to see the horizon, forgetting that there is a great banquet going on, and despite the issues we face, we can choose to attend, we can choose to rejoice, we can choose to celebrate with friend and foe alike at the party that never stops with the host who always has room for one more at the table of life. Thanks be to God.
2 Peter 3-10: His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. 4 Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature. 5 For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, 6 and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, 7 and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. 8 For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 For anyone who lacks these things is short-sighted and blind, and is forgetful of the cleansing of past sins. 10 Therefore, brothers and sisters, be all the more eager to confirm your call and election, for if you do this, you will never stumble.
Everyone had a Nintendo, except me. My parents thought the Commodore 128 we had was sufficient enough for video games, but they were wrong. I couldn’t play Super Mario Brothers, Blades of Steel or Punch Out on a Commodore. In my bedtime prayers every night, my 9-year-old self would include a request for a Nintendo. But after several unanswered prayers, I asked my dad why God wasn’t listening. He told me this story:
A man prayed every day to God that he would win the lottery. Day after day, week after week, month after month and year after year, the man made the same daily request. But he never won. After the man died in his old age, he went to heaven and saw God.
“God, how come you never answered my prayers?” he asked.
“What do you mean?” asked God.
“Every single day for the past several years I prayed that I would win the lottery. But I never won,” he said.
“Son,” God said. “You never bought a lottery ticket.”
I understood what my dad was saying. So I continued praying and picked up some extra chores around the house, and volunteered to do chores around my aunt’s home. And I still prayed. After a few months, I had a lot of money saved up, but not nearly enough for a Nintendo. But God answered my prayers, as my parents – seeing the effort I put in to achieve my goal – agreed to pick up the difference so I could finally get my prize.
Of course, 2 Peter 3-10 is not about video game systems or lottery tickets. But it is about the effort we willingly put into our life. God has empowered us with “everything needed for life and godliness,” but the impetus is on us to “make every effort to support (our) faith.”
It’s easy to question God when we see injustice in the world. We may pray that God will thwart the injustice and overcome evil, and when the injustice persists we question God. But we really need to question ourselves. We prayed and prayed, but did we buy that lottery ticket? Did we do anything to help change the situation? Did we “make every effort to support our faith”? Or did we just pray, and continue on our lives in the same fashion, leaving the entire responsibility in God’s hands?
Prayer: God, thank you for giving me everything needed for life and godliness. Help me use these gifts to support my faith with goodness, knowledge, self-control, endurance, affection and love. Help me put my faith into action and be the impetus for change in this world. Amen.
Prayer: God, thank you for giving me everything needed for life and godliness. Help me use these gifts to support my faith with goodness, knowledge, self-control, endurance, affection and love. Help me put my faith into action and be the impetus for change in this world. Amen.
Romans 12:1-2: 12 I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
This month we are singing a song that’s perfect for the season of Lent: “Lord, I want to make a change.” Being a psychology professor at UGA who studies infant development, the topic of change and development is one that’s at the forefront of my personal and professional interests. What is it that “makes” a baby change from a relatively helpless creature, totally dependent on care from others for survival, into a laughing, thinking individual? What is the nature of development and change? Is development a gradual process (akin to getting a little bit bigger each day) or is it a qualitative process (the caterpillar becoming a butterfly?) And perhaps more relevant to our lenten considerations, how does inner change happen in our adult lives? Is it something we can just “buck up” and take on, or is something deeper required?
Paul’s letter to the Romans suggests that the key part of standing out and being distinctive — holy, set apart — is to be transformed by the renewal of your mind. True inner change, encompassing our whole body and mind (presenting our entire beings as a “living sacrifice”, set apart for God), begins with our inner being. When our mind is renewed, when we are tuned into what is good and acceptable and perfect, then the inner process will drive outer change, and our lives will be in harmony and balance.
So as we travel through this season of reflection and renewal, let us vow daily to allow God to help us to change, starting from the inside out. It is God’s mercies that draw us ever closer to him.
Prayer of reflection: Lord I’m ready for a change, only you can make me change… please help us to be transformed by the renewing of our mind, not being conformed to the hustle and materialism of the world, but being tuned into your love and spirit, walking and living in harmony with you. Amen.
“Life is what happens when we’re making other plans”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
John 12:20-26, Corinthians 4:7-11, 16-18
March 8, 2015
Choir Anthem: “I Choose You”
Not many of us like change. It means adjusting to something different, and adjusting is not something we do easily. It is so much easier to keep things as they are. We rely on routines and predictability in our lives for a sense of stability and safety. We seek equilibrium. Sr. Joan Chittister says “we want to sink into the marshmallow of life and enjoy what we have gained.”[i]
Even good change is difficult. Becoming debt-free, or getting in shape, or staring a new job, or moving to a new place, these are all good changes to make, and to make them, takes a lot of determination and effort. But at least these are changes that we want to make; we are ready for them even if they may take time and effort on our part, and even if they are temporarily uncomfortable or stressful. There’s a greater good that we’re working toward and believe we can achieve.
But what about those changes that we don’t chose to make, the ones that come in to our lives uninvited? It’s one thing to decide to find a new job; it’s another thing to find out your current job is being eliminated. It’s one thing to decide to get into better shape, it’s another thing to find out that your body is doing things you didn’t realize, and exercise alone won’t cure it. I read yesterday about a young man who began to put on a lot of weight. He chose to begin an exercise and diet plan, but it didn’t seem to do much good. He continued to gain weight. He was finally diagnosed with a pituitary tumor that had been quietly growing at the base of his brain and causing all the trouble and required unexpected surgery to cure him.
In life there are changes we would never choose, but if we live long enough, they are a part of life and will come to us uninvited ,unexpected, and unwelcomed. If we made a list of them, all of the items would probably have certain things in common – shock, loss, and interruption. This kind of significant change does more than create a little temporary anxiety or stress, it can make us feel powerless, helpless , overwhelmed, and afraid. In these situations, our natural inclination is to be in denial, to hold off the future, to run away, to escape, to avoid the pain because frankly, loss feels like death, and who wants to die? But because many of the losses we experience in life are inevitable and unavoidable, trying to forestall the future is futile and trying to hang on to the present forever is impossible.
We know that the only constant in our lives is change. Change is present at every stage and phase of our lives, and it is necessary for the sake of carrying us on to the next phase of life. We experience biological and social change; internal and external change. Some of it we control, but much of it is beyond our control. How we respond to it then, is all important.
In our gospel reading today Jesus says, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth, and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Somehow for Jesus, change and loss are not defeat, but gain; not the end; but somehow a new beginning.
One of the real blessings for me as a pastor having served this church for almost 14 years, is the opportunity to have watched the truth of Jesus’s words lived out in individual lives within this congregation. There are all kinds of stories of unwanted change and loss in this room this morning – and all kinds of struggles in the aftermath, and most miraculously and most beautiful, all kinds of new life that has pushed its way from the earth and into the sunlight. Each of us has a story to tell.
For me, unwanted change came in the deaths of two people closest to me. it was the loss of my mother when I was 35 years old that brought me back to church after many years away; and it was the death of my husband 13 years later that brought me first to seminary and then here. Both events forced me to think differently about who God is and who I am and what God is calling me to be and to do. In the process, and it is a process because it doesn’t happen overnight, I have come to understand that although they are both physically absent from this life, their lives continue to bear much fruit. And I have come to trust that there was nothing in life or in death that they or any of us has to face that Jesus himself did not experience, and that he walks with us each step of the way.
In both events my life was changed through circumstances I could not control, in significant ways, and I found myself on an unwanted, unexpected path, pushed in a new and different direction, one that has given me despite my grief and loss, a good and a blessed life; and no one has been more surprised than I have been. Paul’s words, Mikell read earlier express it best; In the Message it reads this way: “So we’re not giving up. How could we. Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without God’s unfolding grace. . . .There is far more here than meets the eye.”
I know that for some people that old saw about a door closing and another door opening is a whole lot of hooey! Too trite, too clichéd, too easy, too pat. But nevertheless, for me it proved true. Not that the second door opens immediately after the first door closes. No, there can be a good bit of time standing in the hallway looking for a door, or going from door to door and finding each one locked. Endurance plays a large part. But Paul says elsewhere that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope and hope does not disappoint. And sure enough, it takes a while to imagine, first that anything can come next, and second to imagine what will come next. But we can do more than simply endure. We can rediscover hope, and with hope we can begin anew.
My story is not so unusual – there are many who have experienced new life through the unexpected loss of the old. But even in the most unexpected and most unlikely circumstances, miracles can occur. Earlier this week, I shared some thoughts with you in a Lenten devotional and also in a newspaper article about Kelly Gissendaner. Even though 18 year ago she was found guilty of murder, to which she has confessed, even though she was sentenced to death, she has not died prematurely, but instead, surrounded by death, she has found new life, and she is a new person in Christ. She is not the person she used to be. As the prison doors closed behind her, the door of faith opened wide for her.
Even though we say we believe in redemption, it is still is hard, isn’t it, to imagine such a transformation. And yet it has happened. She has opened her heart in that most despairing of places – death row – to the grace of new possibilities. Through the grace of God, she has been given the opportunity to touch lives for the better even as she has felt hers drawing to a close. And now, who knows. The death penalty is now suspended for the time being. But each day that she has, she is living as fully as she possibly can.
The word for us today, is that change, change we will never be ready for, change that disrupts the very center of our lives, is not the end. There is a gift hidden within it if we have the faith and the endurance to persevere and look for it. It is the gift of beginning again. The gift of growth. The gift of bearing more fruit, different fruit from what we’d ever imagined. We may be as Paul was, afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down, but also like him, through the grace of God present with us, we are not crushed, driven to despair, forsaken, or destroyed.
The challenges for each of us are “what are we able to endure? How long will we persist? How much are we willing to learn in order to begin again? We have a choice even in change that we did not choose – we have the choice to try to hang on to our present life and inevitably lose it, or to let it go, and somehow keep the life that truly is life for eternity. We have the choice to die spiritually, or to begin again, to be open to possibility, to see God, as Sister Joan says, not only as a caring father, but as a “birthing mother, who brings new life with the rising of every sun and the descent of every inner darkness.” And she says, we have the choice “to grow spiritually in the image of our mother God . . . to be open to newness, to expect surprise, to understand pain, to soothe hurt, to nurture difference rather than to deny it. . . . to [welcome] tomorrow . . . rather than to attempt to cement today into eternity. . . . until, at the end, we find ourselves full-statured and full of grace.”[ii] May it be so for you and for me as well. Amen.
[i] Joan D. Chittister, Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope, 2003, 20.
“Resistant to Change”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
March 1, 2015
The Pharisees in today’s gospel reading are opposed to everything Jesus is trying to do. They are opposed for the very best reasons; what he is doing is in violation of established law and tradition. They have a duty, an obligation to uphold the law, to instruct those who don’t know better and chastise those who do know better in how more closely to follow the path to righteousness. They have it all figured out. Their way of thinking is the one true way, the right way, the real way.
It’s easy to criticize them. They are the whited sepulchers, the blind guides, the hypocrites. Jesus, in contrast to their strict adherence to the law, is the beacon of truth, the one who understands the purpose behind the laws, the one who knows that the Sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath. We are to feed the hungry and heal the sick even on the Sabbath! God’s laws are meant to enhance life, not destroy it. When we hear these stories in Mark’s gospel, it is so easy once again to identify with Jesus, and cluck our collective tongues at those holier-than-thou, stuck-in-a-rut Pharisees who have unconsciously begun to worship the law and tradition more than God.
And yet, we know how dangerous that is, identifying with Jesus. A Savior complex is easy to acquire and difficult to shake off. We are the Pharisees, you know. We’re not Jesus. We’re the ones who are stuck in our various ruts, unable to see beyond them, thinking ur way is the only true reality, and unable to understand that there might be a more excellent way. Unable to see that self-salvation rarely, if ever, works.
There are various ways to be stuck in a rut. The Pharisee in us likes to point to others who are in some ways obviously stuck — the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the aliens, the poor, the hungry, those with messy bad habits, those who are their own worst enemies, those who just can’t seem to get their lives together, who keep on making the same mistakes over and over again. We all know them, don’t we? We see them in our everyday lives. We have them in our families and among our acquaintances. But rarely do we have the courage to admit that we are among them. We’d much rather dish out advice, or judgment or punishment. And in many cases, we perhaps unknowingly enable these behaviors because we get something out of it ourselves – a feeling of being needed perhaps, of being – there it is again – a Savior.
However, the less obvious ways to be stuck are just as destructive and more insidious because they disguise themselves to appear commendable, and worthy of imitation. In fact, our culture reinforces and encourages these behaviors so that it becomes difficult even to know how stuck we are in certain attitudes and assumptions about ourselves and about the world. They are so ingrained that they are the framework within which we organize and understand our lives, just like the Pharisees. That’s why Jesus insisted that we have to lose our lives to find them.
So can we all confess here this morning that none of us is Jesus and that we’re all stuck in a rut of some kind and either don’t realize we’re in it or don’t know how to get out of it. Fr. Thomas Keating, in his book Invitation to Love, tells with some degree of humor as well as chagrin about his own rut during his first years as a Trappist monk. He was “sold on the whole idea of spending [his] life in search of union with Christ.” (p. 142). He spent many hours on his knees in the chapel praying and asking for God’s help. Then a newcomer joined the order and also began spending much time in prayer. Before he knew it, Fr. Keating felt himself drawn into some kind of inner rivalry with the unsuspecting novice; he began to envy him and to feel a sense of competition with him, as though he was vying for a prize. He did not leave his pride or his envy or his competitive spirit behind when he entered the monastery; he was in the same rut, just in a different geographical location.
I can remember years ago feeling stuck in a particular rut, and praying to God to change the people around me so that I wouldn’t feel so stuck. It didn’t dawn on me until later that if I wanted change, I would have to be the one to change, and that when I did, I could expect those others whose change I had so fervently prayed for would be among those discouraging the attempts I was making. The truth is, there is nothing most of us would rather not do than change. We’d much prefer the world around us to change to change our way.
Our ruts are comfortable, known, and safe –even when they are not fulfilling, even when they prevent the complete expression of ourselves as the persons God has created us to be. Rebecca wrote about this in her devotion yesterday, speaking to her demons “Sure you make me uncomfortable, but I know what to expect from you. I’ve gotten used to being miserable with you living in me. How am I supposed to know how to live happily and freely?” We know that when we try our own formulas for change, they often lead us into other ruts that are just as constrictive and destructive because they are formed out of the same understandings and defenses that led to the creation of the previous one. Our demons can follow us from one rut into the next and we can truly jump out of the frying pan and into the fire! As Paul says in the Romans passage that Sharon read earlier, “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
In the call to worship this morning, the choir sang “wash away the old ways, replace my pain with your joy.” Lent is that time wash away the old ways, wash away the ruts that hold us back. The old fashioned word for this cleansing is “repentance.” Fr. Keating calls repentance changing “the direction in which you are looking for happiness.”(p. 138)
And to change that direction, to find that happiness, our inner Pharisee has to let go and allow our opinionated heads to open to the possibilities of new understandings of what is true and good. We have to admit that whatever we think, whatever our knowledge of the world and of people may be, we don’t know it all; God is God and we are not. And we are not called to judge, but to follow.
We also have to open up our defended and closed down heart and risk loving and being vulnerable. That doesn’t mean that everything will at once become a rose garden. Far from it. But it does mean that we won’t let the woundedness of someone else be in control of our responses or our happiness.
And finally, and perhaps the most difficult of all, we have to accept the love of God that surrounds us always, simultaneously giving up both our Pharisaic belief in our own merit and our opposite belief in our own intrinsic unworthiness, rejoicing instead in the abundance of God’s grace that is greater than either of these things, knowing that our judgments are not superior to God’s and what God forgives we dare not hold against ourselves or others. Richard Rohr has written, “God does not love us IF we change; God loves us so that we can change.” (p. 41)
Did you hear the words of the anthem earlier? I confess I didn’t like this anthem when we first were learning it at Choir Music Weekend a few years ago. I didn’t like all that reference to addictions, and grief, and problems I can’t bear. I thought it wasn’t very “spiritual” or very “holy.” It was too prosaic, too much of this world. But it’s grown on me! I have to say today, as I think about the ruts in my own life, both past and present, on my own, I am not able; maybe that’s why I didn’t like the anthem; it hit too close to home! But when I can accept God’s grace and love that surrounds me, then I can say with great conviction and thankfulness, as well as no small amount of relief, “Halleujah! God is able.” Surely, God is able. Thanks be to God. Amen.
“The Courage to Change”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
February 22, 2015
Audio for this sermon is unavailable.
Lent is traditionally a time of taking inventory of our lives and preparing for a rededication of ourselves to God. This inventory involves identifying those barriers of thought and action that keep us from being the person God intends for us to be. It is a time to seek new direction, to turn around and go another way. But change is difficult even though in many areas of our lives it is inevitable, even as we struggle against it. Letting go of the familiar is hard and can be frightening, and yet once done, there is the possibility for a freedom that we might never have otherwise dreamed of or hoped to find.
Each week during Lent our worship will begin with the song “Ready for a Change” that Robert and the choir sang this morning. Maybe you heard the words, and if you didn’t today, listen for them next week, the words that say “Give my life a new start and plant in me afresh, seed that grows and blossoms into the fruit of blessing.” That’s the kind of change we’re all looking for – a new start that leads to blessing.
It takes courage to change, to seek that fresh start. Courage is not fearlessness in the face of danger or challenge; it is instead acting in spite of the fear that holds us back. Is there anyone here who has never been afraid? Did you know that over 100 times in scripture, we can find the admonition “Do not fear”?
In today’s gospel lesson the disciples are afraid. At the end of a busy day when 5000 people had been fed, Jesus instructed them to get into their boat and go across to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, saying he’d catch up with them later. So, they do as they’re told, and as evening falls, they find themselves in their little boat alone. But a storm comes up quickly, and they turn their total attention and strength to rowing across the rolling waters. The wind was against them, so they didn’t make good time; they rowed all night it seems. And then tired out from the exertion, early in the morning, looking towards the shore that is still in the distance, they see something that they can’t make out.
Now, they weren’t afraid of the storm particularly, storms are a part of life on the Sea of Galilee; they’d rowed against the wind before plenty of times. But they’d never seen what they were looking at now – a figure, walking toward them, on the water. What could it be but a ghost? People don’t walk on water! And they’re terrified by that apparition. I would be too, wouldn’t you? They cry out in their fear, and receive an immediate response; it’s Jesus, saying “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
And Peter, often impetuous and speaking before he thinks, asks, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus says, “Come.” So Peter takes a few steps out of the boat, but then he looks around, and begins to sink into the waves. Afraid that he will drown, he calls out to Jesus to save him. And Jesus reaches his hand out to him immediately, not waiting for him to go down for the third time before offering help, and says to the floundering Peter, “You of little faith, why do you doubt?”
Consequently, Peter is often used as the example of what happens to people whose faith is inadequate. He is the poster boy for that questionable theology which asserts that if our faith is strong enough, no harm will befall us; we can walk on water and we will be sink-proof in all of life’s difficulties. Consequently, when bad things inevitably happen, it’s our own fault and we are prone to blame ourselves because our lack of faith must have caused whatever hardship we are experiencing and we berate ourselves for our failures and feel guilty that our faith was not sufficient for the day.
But I don’t think that’s what this story is meant to teach us. I find it interesting that Peter asks to be commanded to come to Jesus. He doesn’t just jump up and shout “Here I come, ready or not!” In asking for the opportunity, he surely realizes that venturing out on the water isn’t something that he can do alone under his own power. He knows that his ability will have to come from Jesus. There is some tentativeness in his request, “If it is you,” he says, “command me to come to you on the water.” But even though he’s not completely sure who that mysterious water-walking figure is, he asks to be commanded to leave the boat, and when he receives the command, he obeys despite his fears and doubts.
And then, naturally enough, once in to and over his head, he gets scared. I like Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase in “The Message” of Jesus’ response to Peter. Instead of “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Peterson’s Jesus says, “Faint-heart, what got into you?” Faint hearted, frightened Peter shows his courage, acting in the face of fear and doubt, and asking for help when he needs it. If he had waited until he had it all figured out which was not until after Jesus had died, he wouldn’t have made his request; he wouldn’t have stepped out, and he wouldn’t have experienced the saving hand of Jesus. He and the others would not have worshipped him, that day or called him the Son of God.
The last time I reflected on this story I was particularly taken with fact that Peter was venturing out onto the water, an alien place where he had no business to be, It was the lace for Jesus as the Lord of the wind, waves, water, and sea to walk on water, but Peter is not Jesus. And so, I concluded, the appropriate place for Peter to be is safely in the boat waiting for Jesus to cross the sea and join him and the others on their journey across to the other side, to care for new people, people who needed their presence and their ministry.
But I have changed my thinking a bit since then. The boat is a good place to be – it was, after all, one of the earliest symbols for the Christian faith and for the church. Matthew may well have been saying to his group of believers, and to us as well, that in the midst of the chaos of the world and of our lives, we have this seemingly fragile but sturdy and tested craft to preserve us and buffer the stormy winds of conflict and hardship. And safety and salvation are experienced with Jesus in our midst – in the boat with us – regardless of what is going on around us.
Although all that is certainly true, there are times, however, when we are called – commanded – just as Peter was, to step out of the safety of the boat, and into the fray not knowing what is next or what will happen, being afraid but doing it anyway. . Martin Luther King, Jr. was called out of the safety of the good ship Dexter Avenue Baptist Church to confront the evils of discrimination and segregation. He spent most of his life out there, walking in areas where by any stretch of the imagination a less courageous person would have sunk to the bottom and drowned. But I believe he held the hand of Jesus as he walked. It isn’t that he was fearless. When he sat at his kitchen table at midnight after have received death threats and threats to firebomb his home, he was afraid. But then he prayed, and heard God command him to get out of the boat and walk. He heard God say, “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for Justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.”
There are also times when less famous people, people like you and me, are commanded to get out of the boat. Jamie wrote about that kind of courage in his devotion for Friday – he said, “recently nine young people, five UGA students and four undocumented individuals allowed themselves to be arrested in a sit-in. They were also protesting our state’s unjust law requiring undocumented students pay four times more in tuition while prohibiting them completely from going to UGA and the other top state universities.” And he concluded, “Undocumented and choosing to be arrested…that is courage I don’t need in the safe confines of my privileged life. “ They stepped out of the boat, and Jamie’s right, that is courage that challenges all of us.
In the boat or out of the boat, the needs of the day and the call of God determine where we should be. But, God calls us to live adventuresome lives of faith; lives that may involve risking ourselves, taking chances and embracing change; lives that call us to seek the welfare of others; lives that demonstrate courage and hope. It is courageous to believe the word of God when it comes to us, and not to allow our fears to stop us from becoming who God wants us to be or doing what God has called us to do. We can choose be defined by our fears or by our faith. One holds us back, restricts and limits us; the other, as Joel read earlier in Jan Richardson’s poem, stands beside us in the boat, places its hand in the small of our backs, and pushes, never leaving or forsaking us until we are borne up by the hands that reach toward us and the voice that calls our name. Amen.