If the story of the disciples at sea battered by wind and wave is not a story which speaks to our circumstance today, I surely do not know what is.
Indeed, I have said more than once to more than one trusted listener that every decision is hard these days. Every single one.
For yes, every possibility for how and where and when we may be called to steer our communities of faith is fraught with danger. The possibility of being swamped by doubt and fear as much as “real wind and waves” seems to be as real these days as I have ever known it to be in the place I am called to serve. I expect many of you will agree.
I hardly need to list the reasons why for we all find ourselves in similar places now.
And oh, who would have thought that something as small, as at first invisible, as so very unknown as a virus taken hold as pandemic would threaten to toss us off the boat as it has? In fact, if one thinks of the ‘boat’ as the ‘church,’ as our ‘community of faith’ as many of the commentators do, one might suggest that in our inability to all ‘be together in the boat’ we are all like Peter, not necessarily having stepped out willingly at all, but rather tossed overboard, sinking step by water logged step.
We know better, of course we do. The church is NOT the physical structure associated with its name. And it is NOT even only a place of safe keeping regardless of where (or these days how) the Church, God’s people come together. In fact, those who say that the Church is not known best and truest by how (or where) it gathers, but by where and how it is sent are entirely correct. And yet. If we have not come to this already, this particular mammoth storm will either batter us into this reality or we will perish in the process or, perhaps just as likely, in some real sense both will be true.
For the storm is real, dear ones.
And Jesus coming to us in the storm is just as real. Even more so, perhaps. Even more so, one hopes.
So it is that I, like Peter, like all of the disciples, am often afraid.
And I do not speak here of the healthy fear of a virus which is wily and deadly.
Rather, I am afraid that I will not have the strength to stand up to those powerful forces which just want things to return to what we remember from the middle of March and before. When we shook hands freely, wrapped our arms around one another with abandon, regularly stepped aside to allow small ones to run freely in our midst, gathered close over coffee and sweets on a Sunday morning, and sang out to our heart’s content. I am afraid that my own grief which mingles with that of countless others will cause me to bend before it is time, will push me to compromise or worse so as to appease the loudest, perhaps most hurting voices.
I am afraid.
And yes, I am afraid that that Church will never be the same as I remember. For remember, I am what you would call a ‘cradle Lutheran.’ The church is and has mostly always been a place of community and kindness and nurturing for me. No, not the same as when I was a child, and of course not the same as before I was called into leadership within it, but I have always, always loved the gathering of God’s people. I certainly harbor the fear that it, that we will never be the same again. That some will not come back having now experienced the gift of leisure on Sunday morning, tuning in to worship in pajamas and favorite morning beverage, if at all.
I am afraid.
And oh yes, I am also afraid that the Church will attempt to just return to normal as quickly as humanly possible. That we will not allow ourselves to be changed by all that has been:
- That we will too soon forget the disparities which this pandemic has made so achingly apparent in a world which has always been darn comfortable for many, including me.
- That we will too soon forget the utter gift it is to be near to one another once more.
- That the urgency of Christ’s call, enabling us to step out of this ‘boat’ into a world so desperately in need of the gifts of God will be drowned out by nostalgia or by the old familiar come home once more.
For we are in the midst of a storm, beloved ones. We are.
And yet, we hear today that Jesus walks into the storm, focusing all his attention on the boat which is holding his followers.
And Jesus encourages, invites, perhaps stands back in a kind of wonder himself when Peter risks it all, taking yet another step toward Jesus.
And when he falters, Jesus reaches out and pulls Peter to safety, cementing in perhaps his most impetuous disciple an ever more clear sense of who Jesus is.
And Jesus climbs aboard that boat in the midst of those exhausted, frightened followers and the wind dies down and the sea is calmed and everyone knows that Jesus is God’s Own Son. And they bow to this truth. Body, mind, heart and soul they bow to this life saving truth.
So it is these days that I recognize the deadly power of this storm.
- And I am watching for Jesus, oh I am, to come walking across and through these threatening waves.
- And I am wondering what it is to move towards Jesus even as he moves towards me, as Peter did. Even if I falter and fall, I wonder what that means for me, for you, for all of us today.
And I am praying that this storm will cause to perish within me and within all of us in Christ’s Body, the Church, that which perhaps should have died a long time ago:
- Our errant belief that the church is but a building and not God’s people at work in the world.
- Our blindness to all the ways in which God’s precious gifts are hoarded by two few and the many, many of God’s Beloved whose lives are lived on the edge: for whom the battering waves never ever cease.
- Our sometimes inability to see Jesus walking towards us, all the while we feel ourselves sinking beneath the waves.
For me, at least, it’s the last one which is most pressing for me now, this yearning to know, to recognize Jesus at work in a time which is by so many measures marked by storm. (This is most pressing because as I am able to somehow see Jesus, I expect all the rest will follow as well.) And this is how I know that the potential for precisely this is great:
I have been pastoring for decades now. By any measure I am far closer to the end of active ministry than I am to the beginning. And yet, I can still remember those first years when ‘pastor’ was being shaped and formed in me. For while I do not believe this call to be better or even in some ways unique from that of any follower of Jesus, there is something about this role which, at least for me, was necessarily shaped in me. Perhaps it was the call to regularly and often sink deep into the suffering of others. And seeking meaning and words to address it there. Or maybe it was the call to lay all that I witnessed in the world and in me alongside the Gospel week after week after week. And to seek to listen for something to say to it. Whatever it was, in those first years I could palpably feel it stretching me from the inside out. I can remember that and I am sensing it happening in these stormy days once more in a way I never imagined possible again.
Oh, surely this must be a sign that Jesus is, in fact, stepping towards us even now.
Surely this storm, and the promise of Jesus coming to us in the storm is doing this once more in me, in you, in the church, in the world.
Surely we are being shaped for all the places Jesus calls us to, enabling us to walk: on water, or not, into all that comes next.
Surely all of this must be so…
- How has this time manifested as ‘storm’ for you?
- How have you experienced Jesus walking towards you?
- What makes you most afraid?
- What gives you hope? What sustains you now?
- How do you sense yourself being formed and shaped for all that will follow now?