Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Weight of the Earth

Matthew 14:22-33
Just after the miracle of feeding five thousand, “Immediately, he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’
Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’”

These sorts of miracle stories are always so hard to relate to children. It is so easy to fall into the “God can give us everything we need” or “God is always there when we call out for God” or “With enough faith, we can do anything” fallacies. The truth is, there will be times in these children’s lives, and there have been times in our lives, when we’ll go without, we’ll feel alone, and when we’ll be utterly helpless. It would be unfair to these children to express to them that this is what this story is about. Faith isn’t about guarantees, or the ability to defy the laws of physics; faith is about the bumbling character of Peter.

Poor Peter. He always gets a bad rap for being the terrible faith example. He’s always saying the wrong things, doing the wrong things, speaking and acting without thinking. He’s the over-exuberant one, the one we’d like to duct-tape to the boat until he comes down from the clouds, until he’s ready to be a realist, until he’s got some doubt and fear like the rest of us. But the thing is, we need Peter. And we need to hear how Jesus interacts with Peter. We need to know that God’s grace is big enough for the human likes of Peter, and even big enough for the quiet ones who sit back and watch Peter fumbling around. We need Peter’s sheer audacity, and bravery. He’s brave not because he gets out of the boat, but because he is willing to fail, is willing to be caught, and is willing to test the Grace of God. We can learn from Peter because he shows us how to rely on the hope that God will make something of all of our bumbling, fumbling, flailing, and questioning, even when the earth seems to disappear right from under us.
So for the children, I tell them that we are like tulip bulbs. I showed them a bag full of them, and without telling them what they were, asked them what they thought they were. Some said, “onions,” “garlic,” “turnips,” and expressed that they weren’t very attractive things at all. Just as Jesus had the hope that Peter’s faith would grow enough to lead the Church, so do we have faith that when we plant these “ugly” bulbs in the ground, if we wait long enough, something beautiful will come up. We might need to wait through the deep cold, the darkness and the sludge of Winter. We might need to wait a long time. But God promises Spring. Peter shows us that we may be imbeciles when it comes to our faith, but with enough hope, with some waiting, maybe with some hard times, we will emerge from the sea, or the ground, or the failure, as faithful, hopeful people.

This miracle isn’t about our ability to do what God does. It does not show us that if we only had enough faith, we, too, could walk on water. Sure, we can do extraordinary things, but not because we are Christians who have it all together. It’s is true that, for some people, God’s light and encouragement has shown up just when they needed it, just when they thought they were about to drown. God can make us capable of doing miraculous things. But some of us are as ordinary as Peter. We are lucky to remember to brush our teeth in the morning, or to put the gas cap back on the tank before we zoom off, late, for our next appointment. Some of us have felt so lonely that we are at the bottom of the ocean. Some of us have felt the silence of God as heavy and rough as a wool blanket.

Even Jesus needed to be buried in a tomb , to wait, to feel the silence, to grow into the Christ, before rising again. (In whatever form that may have been). Sometimes, we, too, need to feel the weight of the earth upon us, in order to grow into the fullness of faith that God intends for us. This waiting may be in the form of us blundering around, trying to say and do the right things, or it may be in the silence and loneliness, or it may be in our failures. But with time, God has the power and offers us the grace to turn us into something beautiful. Maybe I can remember this when I plant my bulbs this Fall, and if I can't, maybe I will, in time.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Reflection from Confirmation Sunday

God’s Faith, Our Faith

Have you ever read the Sermon on the Mount all the way through, in one sitting? It’s not long, only a few chapters in Matthew. The first time I read it with sincere attention, I found myself suddenly wondering if I was a Christian at all. The demands seemed too great. The requirements to be a true follower of Christ seemed impossible.

Jesus has brought his disciples high on a mountain to instruct them on how to truly follow him. But if you read this list closely, this list is a Sermon on the Mount that is full of impossible standards:

He says:
If you break “even the least of these commandments, and teach others to do the same,” you “will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven…” “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
If we think we’re doing well for not acting on our anger, Jesus ups the ante by saying, “don’t even be angry.”
If you call someone a “fool,” “you will be liable to the hell of fire.”
Jesus gives us prison images: “Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.”
He gives us drastic imagery: Tear out your eye if it causes you to sin. Cut off your hand if it causes you to sin.
If someone hits you, you should turn the other cheek.
If someone takes your coat, you should give your cloak as well.
Give to everyone who begs.
And the very difficult: Love your enemies.

Towards the end, Jesus gives the disciples a complete impossibility. He says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

We are left at the top of the mountain a little lightheaded, a little short of oxygen, and a little bewildered.

How often do we feel this way about our own faith journey? If you’re like me, all the time.

And I’ve seen this concern, this worry that they won’t size up, that they won’t know enough, believe enough, do enough, or be enough, that they won’t “be perfect as their Father in Heaven is perfect” in our own confirmation candidates’ questions and their concerns.

But if we stop here in the story of Jesus’ Sermon, we will be like the rich man who leaves too early to hear the grace. All he hears is that he must sell everything and give it to the poor, and so, he leaves, hopeless. Don’t walk away too soon, or you’ll miss it.

Jesus doesn’t walk away. Jesus doesn’t stop here. He gives us words of encouragement: Ask and it will be given to you, Seek and you will find, Knock and the door will be opened. Jesus tells us that when we walk with God, anything is possible.

Today, we celebrate that God does not leave us alone on that mountain with only impossible expectations. When we ask, seek, and knock, God will be faithful to answer our calls, to be there when we look for God, and to open the door for us when the way seems impossibly locked. Even when we feel the silence of God as thick as a winter wool sweater, God promises to be faithful. Sometimes, our faith is in the waiting.

Today, you have heard from these young people about the journey of faith that begins with what Jesus leaves for us on that mountain. Since October, and even since their baptism, these young adults have been actively acting, seeking, and knocking.

They have asked by meeting with their mentors, studying together on Sunday mornings, and asking tough questions at retreats.
They have sought by serving at the men’s shelter, packing coffee for Building New Hope, and, just yesterday, helping re-roof a home in the Hill District, and they have been meeting together Sunday mornings, and experiencing different ways of worship at the Baptist church, the Synagogue, the Hindu Temple.

They have knocked with their journals, their prayers, and with the Statements of Faith.

And when they asked for bread, God did not give them a stone.

Today we celebrate and witness the faith that God has given them, the faith that God has in them. We celebrate and witness the journey we are all on, and the journey that these young people have begun and have promised to continue.

We come to ask God for fish, for a feast of faith and love and hope. On this Confirmation Day, we ask for blessings on these young people. We seek the renewed hope that God will help us fulfill those tasks that seem impossible. We know on the door of God’s Grace, and long for humble encounters with the Face of God. And God will not give us a snake. God will be faithful to what we ask. And if your experience is like mine, we must hold on, we have to keep knocking, we have to keep searching, even when we only hear silence on the other side. Faith is holding on to the hope that God is faithful, even if we have to wait for years. May we stay, listening to God’s word long enough to hear the Grace, to hear that our journey of faith is what is important, and with God’s help, we too can embrace a faith that leads us to right actions, that we too can be recognized by others as children of God, a faith that gives us the courage to hold on, even when the path is not clear, even when God seems far away.