Saturday, August 12, 2017

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19, Year A

The Calm After the Storm

Readings: Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45c; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33

Karl Barth writes about fear: “Fear is the shock caused by the supposed knowledge that I shall not be able either to be or to do what I should be and do in face of that which gloriously and fearfully confronts me.” We have all faced times of fear in our lives, events that made time seem to last forever, when we thought that our very lives were in the balance.

I think of the times that I have been most fearful. One is the event that led to my learning to swim. I was four years old and at a camp where my father was the chaplain. I did many of the activities of the campers, who were, of course, quite a bit older than I. Each day I would go swimming. I would paddle in the shallow water and play in the sand. I watched the children in their free time going down a slide into the water. I longed to try it out. So one day I asked the swimming instructor if I could go down the slide. “Of course!” she said to me, not thinking about how small I was, or the fact that I couldn’t swim. I flew down the slide and out into water that was quite deep. I felt myself sink below the surface and was filled with fear and panic. In my panic I thrashed around for what seemed like hours but must have been less than a minute. Then I became calm. I remember thinking, “This is what it is like to die.” And suddenly I was buoyed up by the water and bobbed to the surface. Realizing that I could float, that I could trust the water to hold me up, I began to dog paddle to shallower water.

It was a good learning, because trust, that sense of calm, is what it takes after all when we get into that state of fear. And fear can easily take over when life seems out of control as our world so often does these days. It seems we live in a world filled with fear. It is often through fueling that fear that people come to power. We are faced with so much violence; war, terrorist acts, strange viruses and other health issues, economic and environmental issues. Consider what is going on in the world today with the bombastic rhetoric between President Trump and Chairman Kin Jung-li. Guam must be a very fearful place to live. Fear takes over unless we remember just who is in charge. We trust, knowing that God is as good as God’s word.

It seems to me that it is fear that is at the centre of the stories in Scripture today. There is first of all the story of Joseph and his coat of many colours. Joseph is the baby of the family. Being the youngest, he is a favourite with his father. To make matters worse, he makes a bad report to his father about one of his brothers. They fear the power and influence that he has over his father. They wait for an opportunity to get back at him. It comes. They are looking after the sheep in a remote place. Joseph comes out looking for them. They conspire to kill him. Reuben, one of the brothers persuades them not to kill him, but to put him into a pit. His intention is to come back and rescue him. Then they seize upon an opportunity. They sell their brother to a passing caravan of Ishmaelites on their way to Egypt where he faces slavery and imprisonment. This new saga in Joseph’s young life must have filled him with fear.

Then there is the gospel for today. Jesus performs miracles. He feeds the crowds. Their curiosity satisfied for the moment he sends them off to their homes. He also sends the disciples out in a boat. Meanwhile he heads away by himself to pray. The Sea of Galilee is known for its sudden fierce storms. This day is no exception. The disciples are far from the shore. The winds come up. The waves toss the small craft about until they are sure they will all drown. Towards morning they see Jesus walking on the sea. It is not a reassuring picture. They think that Jesus is a ghost. In fact, the storm becomes less threatening to them than the sight of the ghost. And Jesus speaks those reassuring words. “Take heart. Don’t be afraid!” They trust him. They trust the calm and peace that his words bring.

The ever-brash Peter gets out of the boat and walks across the water towards Jesus. What is he thinking? Does he think he can walk on water? Maybe he hopes that by stepping out on the sea it will be the act of courage he needs to find faith. Maybe Peter wonders if he will be convinced of Jesus’ promises if he thinks big. Perhaps he thinks that he will believe in himself if he is able to do what Jesus does. Whatever he is thinking, he gets distracted by the gusts of wind. He becomes frightened and begins to sink beneath the waves. Just as he thinks that all is lost he remembers. “Lord, save me!” he calls out.

We have all been there, haven’t we? We have all been out in those heavy waves, blown about by fierce winds. Life produces strong and daunting waves. We can all look back at times when we have felt swamped. We have felt totally inadequate. We have felt helpless. We have let our fears and worries take over. We have felt as if we are sinking. We want to believe, but our faith is fragile. Just when we think all is lost we remember. We cry out, “Lord, save me!”

Peter called out to Jesus; Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. They made it back into the boat safely. The storm ended. All was well.

When have you experienced inner calm and strength amid external turmoil? What was the source of your strength? What does it mean to trust God? How do you nourish your faith?

Some of you may be in the midst of a storm at this very moment. You may be buffeted about by the wind. You may fear the difficulties that you are facing in your life. You may be wondering how you can face another day, how you can ever trust again. You may be facing sickness, your own or that of a loved one. You may be unemployed, wondering where God is leading you. You may be facing a broken relationship.

Others could no doubt tell us about overcoming those same fears and inadequacies. You can tell us of the miracles that have unfolded for you in your lives. You can tell of the storms that you have walked through, knowing that God was ever present with you on your journey. You can tell us of sicknesses overcome, of answers to prayer, of help in time of need, of unexpected miracles.

Jesus asks Peter, “Why did you doubt?”

Faith, he is saying to Peter and to us, means living out of your heart. Fear destroys. Trust yourself. Trust that what you do and say makes a difference. Trust that Jesus is with you and trusts you. There are times when you will feel as if you are walking on water. There are other times when you feel yourself sinking beneath the waves. Both are times to put your trust in God. Daily life is not extraordinary acts of faith, but hoping for enough faith to give us courage to face life’s difficulties.

I can’t always say that I am glad to be one of Jesus’ disciples. There are times that I would like to be left alone. It is too overwhelming. There is too much going on in my life. Jesus is asking too much of me. My cross is too heavy. My faith is too weak. I have nothing more to give. All I have to support me is my weak faith. At such times it is all that I can do to pray, “God, help me! Give me the ability to reach out to you even though I have only my faltering faith to support me.” It is then that I hear that invitation that Jesus extended to Peter. “Come! Don’t be afraid. Reach out and take my hand.”

And I reach out. I acknowledge my helplessness. It opens some gate in me that accepts help. It opens the way for others to respond to my need. I experience God’s love and forgiveness and healing and challenge. I am able to see Christ in others and allow them to see Christ in me. Amen.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 18, Year A

The Miracle of God’s Grace

Readings: Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 17:1-7. 16; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21

The three passages of Scripture this Sunday are human stories of people who are grappling with difficult situations in their lives. I suspect that is why I find myself resonating so strongly to each story.

First of all, there is the story of Jacob. He is a trickster, a con artist. He has to face up to the inevitable, a face-to-face encounter with his brother Esau whom he has wronged. He sends his family away to safety. He waits, alone. There in the darkness of the night he wrestles with a man. Is it a dream? So often it is in our dreams, is it not, that we work out our fears and anxieties, our regrets and guilt. Dream or not, they continue to wrestle throughout the night, neither of them willing to give in. Finally as day is breaking, Jacob says to him, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” Remember he already tricked his father into giving him Esau’s blessing. And for whatever reason, God offered him a blessing as they stood by the stairway into Heaven during a dream.

The man asks him his name. On hearing it, he responds, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Jacob limps away from the place praising God. I get the sense that he is seeing God in a real way, perhaps for the very first time.

This story is a lovely metaphor of our human existence. It speaks to our condition. We do wrestle with our fears and anxieties. If you are at all like me, sometimes you do it all night, tossing and turning, worrying about what is going on in your life. You wrestle with yourself. You go over things that have happened. You think about things you should have said or done differently. You look for solutions. You may even admit to yourself where you have gone wrong and decide on a plan of action. The next day you are exhausted! You spend the whole day literally limping, but there is something healing in facing up to all that is going on. The wounds are visible, but there is a sense of resolution and of looking to the future.

Then there is Paul’s story. He too is showing signs of limping as he communicates a personal experience, trying to help others to understand what is going on in his life. He feels a sense of frustration and disappointment with his ministry to the Gentiles. His great hope had been to share his amazing encounter with the risen Christ with his own people, the Jewish community, and so bring them to faith. Instead he finds himself alienated from them. He feels at least partly to blame. His sense of failure overwhelms him. But truly, ministry – both lay and ordained – does not work that way. We simply go where Christ leads, not where we think Christ should be leading. That is what it means to answer God’s call. Once again, it may keep us up at night wondering if what we are doing is truly what God wants us to do. It may cause us anguish. But in the long run, following God’s lead, doing what we are meant to do, blesses us in ways we could not have asked or imagined. I have discovered that over and over again in ministry. Paul certainly discovered that in his.

And there is Jesus’ story. News has just come to him about the death of John the Baptist. He is in grief, shock, as he considers what it all means. He reacts as many of us do by withdrawing. He goes to a deserted place by himself. He wants time to consider the tragedy. He wants time to consider what it means in his own ministry. But the crowds follow him out into the wilderness. They follow as they always do. They have such need. He puts his own feelings aside! He has compassion on them and heals their sick. And when evening comes the disciples want to send them away to fend for themselves.

"You give them something to eat," Jesus tells the disciples.

"We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish."

I can almost hear the sigh escape him! Out of his silence and grief, out of his compassion, Jesus performs a miracle. He takes the bread and fish and blesses them. He gives them what they want. He feeds them.

We have all been there, limping along. We have experienced that need to be alone. Yet somehow the crowds always follow. Our responsibilities, our plans, our worries, the things we have been avoiding or unable for some reason to complete – everything crowds in on us until we cry out, “I have nothing more to give. I am at the end of my resources.”

It happens in our churches. We are dealing with shrinking and aging congregations that still have the same responsibility to maintain buildings and ministry. Our Diocese calls on us to reach out into the community, to be a presence, to find new and exciting ways of doing ministry that will bring people through our doors.

And somehow God gives us the strength to go on. God’s grace sustains us. We are fed spiritually. We find ourselves from what we considered to be our slim resources to be able to accomplish all that God is calling us to do.

This miracle, this feeding of the five thousand teaches us about our God, our God who provides for us. We have all been in situations that feel hopeless. We are constantly amazed by the ability of God to take what we offer and make it great. But it teaches us so much more. Jesus sustained physical life with bread. But his real purpose was giving people eternal life. And that is a real miracle in which we all participate. He would have these people and us understand that the provision of God is more than enough to fulfill every need of every man, woman and child on earth.

And the need is great. We know that. We see it. There is such hunger in the world. There are millions in our world who have the most basic needs of existence – food, clean water, shelter, freedom, security. People are starving to death. Statistics show that fifteen people die of starvation every minute of every day. Most of them are children. And yes! You will tell me quite rightly that it would take a miracle to change that. But we can be part of the miracle. We can influence much of what needs to change. We can be advocates for social change, for attitudes towards women, birth control, education, urban farming … the list goes on.

All of this presents to us a tremendous commission. Needy people followed Jesus everywhere. We don't need to look very far to know that the thing most common to people is need of one kind or another. There is within each of us a need for spiritual fulfillment, for inner assurance and serenity, for meaning and purpose in life.

We may come to the table limping, but as the people of God, we are fed and nourished so that there is no holding back in our life journey. We come to the table of the Lord and bread is shared with one another. Our journeys become the journeys of all. The path becomes one path lived together. That is the miracle of God's love. That is how God graces us. Amen.

The Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year A

Come and See Readings: Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42 Invitations come in many shapes and sizes. They ...