“A Feathered Faith”
Rev. Laura Fry at Covington United Presbyterian Church
May 13, 2018
This weekend is the height of spring bird migration here in western New York. More bird species are reported in May than in any other month of the year—an average of 68 new varieties will arrive this month, for a total of 230 species of birds—more than double the number here in January (90 species on average). Songbirds flock to woods, meadows, and backyards; shorebirds wade in shallow waters; hawks and eagles fly over in abundance.
This astonishing diversity fills the month of May with a feathered choir wearing robes of yellow, red, orange, and blue. And amid all of this abundance, Jesus urges us, “Look at the birds of the air.”
How easy it is to overlook the birds. Up until a few years ago, I barely even noticed them. I could tell a robin from a blue jay but beyond that, I knew very little about them.
When my husband began to take an interest in birds, I gradually—and truth-be-told, reluctantly, found myself doing the same. Mike’s appreciation of birds piqued my own curiosity, opening my eyes to the abundance all around me, teaching me to recognize species I never even knew existed.
My skills in identification remain well below the level of any serious birder but I have come to appreciate the astonishing array and sheer volume of birds. The best world-wide estimate suggests there are 9,000 bird species in all—so many that even the most dedicated birders have not come close to seeing them all.
Yet even as we celebrate the abundance of God’s feathered creations, I do not mean to paint all birds as universally benign. There are the robber starlings, and the nest-invading cowbirds, and ubiquitous house sparrows. But by and large the birds of the air are faithful prophets of God’s provision.
Each day they sing anthems of eloquence and insight, if only we will listen. Morning and evening they preach sermons on the majesty, delight, and creativity of our God. Then they invite us to observe by their example what it means to put our trust in the Lord. “Look at the birds of the air;” Jesus says, “they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.”
Jesus is right of course: there are no finch farmers, hawk harvesters, or barn-building buntings. However birds do not just sit around waiting for their Father to feed them. They work hard to gather what God provides. Sometimes traveling thousands of miles, always appearing to be on the move, swooping to catch prey, pecking up earthworms, snatching berries. Like us, they work hard to provide for themselves and their families.
The difference between these hunting, gathering birds and ourselves as human beings is not the degree of work so much as it is the spirit with which we go about it.
The diligent work of birds is accompanied by joy, trust, and song. It is most unlikely that we have ever seen a songbird overwhelmed with worry about finding food to feed their nestlings. There is simply a confident and trusting spirit that with diligent work, there will be plenty to eat and energy enough for joy too. The birds seem quite naturally to trust in their Creator, confident that abundance is waiting to be found.
The great Protestant Reformer Martin Luther writes, in a wonderful sermon on this passage, of the songbirds’ daily praises, as they “sing Lauds and Matins to their Lord before they eat…They sing a lovely long Benedicite and leave their cares to our Lord God, even when they have young that have to be fed.”
Luther continues, “Whenever you listen to a nightingale…you are listening to an excellent preacher. He exhorts you with this Gospel, not with mere simple words but with a living deed and an example.”
Jesus calls upon us to listen and watch the feathered faithful. Then he says, “Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”
Worrying, no matter how naturally it comes to our own species, will do us no good. Worrying will not extend our lives by even an hour, and will in fact rob us of enjoying the days and hours we do have.
We may well argue that we have good reasons for worry: it’s been a very difficult year for dairy farmers, international tensions appear to be on the rise, and we each face personal realities of illness, conflict, injury, and loss. But Jesus urges us to listen to our hedgerow choir and heed their words of praise. When we sing to the Lord with trust, our joy will increase.
Jesus promises that our Father knows what we need and will provide, for we are most especially precious to God. Because our heavenly Father knows all our earthly needs, we need not be single-mindedly concerned with them.
As William Wordsworth writes, “Getting and spending we lay waste our powers.”
Jesus says, “Strive first for the kingdom of Godand hisrighteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Do not focus on these earthly things; do not cling to them; do not set your heart on them as the most important part of your existence.
But put your trust in the Lord.
Breathe deeply of God’s grace.
Release to God the worries you carry, the burdens known only to you and to our Lord.
We can trust in God’s care for us.
God knows our needs.
God will provide.
As Martin Luther preaches, “Every day you see these illustrations before your eyes, how God nourishes and feeds everything that lives and grows from the earth, clothes and adorns it so beautifully. Now let these illustrations persuade you to lay aside your anxiety and your unbelief and to remember that you are Christians.”
The abundance that we enjoy does not depend upon our worry but rather relies on God’s provision.
Like a mother lovingly spreading the family table with a feast, God provides for all our needs, pulling out a chair for us, calling us to the place where we belong,
to enjoy the abundance spread before us.
“Come to the table,” God calls. You need not be anxious about whether or not there will be enough—whether you are worrying about enough food, enough money, enough time, or love, or healing. There is enough and more besides.
God honors our work, our efforts, our action. God helps us to provide for ourselves and our families. So work hard but know that there is more to life. Put God’s kingdom first, above all else, and you will find all that you need.
Many of us need a daily reminder—and sometimes a moment-by-moment reminder—to put our trust in God. So Jesus invites us to pay attention to the feathered faithful. They sing with joy and trust each day, and call us to do the same, finding strength and assurance in the provision of our Lord.
So let us listen for the melody of birdsong today and everyday.
May the birds serve as our preachers and choirs, singing to us of work and trust and joy, preaching God’s provision, and calling us to share their faith.
Resources: “The Place of Trust” by Martin Luther in Spiritual Classics, edited by Richard J. Foster and Emilie Griffin. The Birds: Our Teachersby John Stott. Rochester Birding Association, rochesterbirding.com. The Westminster Bible Companion: Matthewby Thomas Long.
Practical, Powerful, Profound
Rev. Laura Fry at Covington United Presbyterian Church
May 6, 2018
Out of all of Jesus’ teachings, this might just be the most challenging: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Loving our enemies is exactly the opposite of our natural human impulse. We are much more likely to divide the world into “us” and “them,” allies and enemies, Americans and foreigners, blacks and whites, Republicans and Democrats. And while such deep divisions are certainly a problem in our day, they were also a challenge in the time of Jesus.
Popular religious teachers had been telling people that although they must love their neighbors, they had every right to hate their enemies. This teaching kind of sounded like Scripture but it wasn’t really. These religious leaders had looked at Leviticus 19 and the words, “love your neighbor” and inferred that they could treat anyone who was NOT their neighbor—Samaritans, Gentiles, Romans, foreigners—any way they pleased.
In this spirit an expert in religious law famously questioned Jesus, asking, “Who is my neighbor?” He was hoping Jesus would justify a narrow definition of who we are to love. But Jesus responds with his Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), astronomically expanding what it means to be a neighbor.
Jesus addresses the topic here as well, in his Sermon on the Mount, in a manner that is more direct: “love your enemies” he says, “and pray for those who persecute you. So that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” Just like children who take after their mother and father, bearing a resemblance to their earthly parents, Jesus is letting us know that when we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, we are bearing a resemblance to God.
Jesus taught his followers that love and prayer for our enemies are essential marks of the Christian life. And we see this love most fully revealed in the life and death of Jesus, who prayed from the cross for those who crucified him.
But there is a second reason why Jesus teaches us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us: so that we may be free from the destruction brought into our lives by hate. Hate doesn’t just harm the person who is hated; it also harms the one who hates. We do violence to others and to ourselves when we talk bad about people behind their backs; when we pile on the criticism while they’re out of earshot.
We might not call any of this talk hate—we probably just consider it venting or complaining. But an attitude of hatred can masquerade in the clothing of complaining.When we give ourselves a license to complain—whether that complaining is about our spouse, children, parents, coworkers, friends, neighbors,
national figures or our own church members, bitterness is only going to become a stronger force in our lives, corroding our spirits and infecting our souls. There’s certainly a place for naming disagreements and seeking to address them but complaining without collaborating for solutions is only going to bring about harm.
It is important to know, however, that loving those we have a hard time getting along with is not the same as having a loving feeling about them. Jesus did not say, “Like your enemies.” It’s a good thing too because we can all probably think of people who have caused us, or our loved ones harm. Jesus does not say that we have to like them. Instead Jesus calls upon us to “love them.”
This kind of love is about treating people with respect. It’s about demonstrating humility and recognizing our shared humanity. This kind of love is not about how we feel but about how we act.
Choosing to act in the ways of love does not in any way excuse wrongs that have been done to us. Neither does it mean that we should submit ourselves to ongoing harm.
What Jesus teaches us instead is a way to be freed from the corrosive effect that hatred has upon our souls. Jesus wants to replace hatred with love, turning our complaining into compassion, as we release our pain into the hands of God through prayer.
You see, Jesus doesn’t just instruct us to love our enemies; in the very same breath he urges us to pray for them. Prayer is a powerful and a practical tool for those who are striving to love their enemies. The ability to act with love toward those who are hard to love depends on a power beyond ourselves.
Through prayer we connect with this power, the power of God, who can change our hearts, lead us on the path of forgiveness, and bring healing to our pain.
Through prayer we draw near to the One who gives us strength to love.
Perhaps as you consider Jesus’ words today, you are thinking that all of this sounds impractical and idealistic, out of touch with the way things really work. Lots of people have thought the same.
But as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. writes in a sermon on this passage, “We have followed the so-called practical way for too long a time now, and it has led inexorably to deeper confusion and chaos. Time is cluttered with the wreckage of communities that surrendered to hatred and violence…Returning hate for hate only multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.”
Rather than being the idealistic instruction of a dreamer, Jesus’ words, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” might just be the most practical advice of all.
It’s been 57 years now since a little girl named Ruby Bridges became the first black child to attend an all-white school in the South. By the end of Ruby’s first day of first grade, white parents had emptied the school of all the other children, beginning a massive boycott.
Day after day that year, Ruby walked through angry, jeering crowds just to get to school. Angry parents chose to keep their own children out of school altogether rather than have them learn in the same classroom as Ruby.
During this time of desegregation, psychiatrist Robert Coles began to study its effects on children in the South and he took a special interest in Ruby. Coles wondered how it could be possible for her to demonstrate strength, determination, and even cheerfulness, while walking through that angry mob day after day.
One morning Ruby’s teacher observed her lips moving as she walked into school. The teacher told Coles about it and he asked,
“Who were you talking to, Ruby?”
“I was talking to God and praying for the people in the street,” she said.
“Why were you doing that, Ruby?”
“Well, because I wanted to pray for them. Don’t you think they need praying for?”
Coles agreed but inquired further. “Where did you learn that?”
“From my mommy and daddy and from the minister at church. I pray every morning [when I come to school] and every afternoon when I go home.”
“But Ruby, those people are so mean to you. You must have some other feelings besides just wanting to pray for them.”
“No,” she said, “I just keep praying for them and hope God will be good to them…I always pray the same thing. ‘Please, dear God, forgive them, because they don’t know what they’re doing.”
That six-year old little girl understood and put into practice day after day the words of Jesus. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Her parents, who could neither read nor write, had memorized this Scripture at church and practiced it at home. They understood that love and prayer are the most practical, profound, and powerful ways that we can follow Jesus.
So by the time Ruby entered first grade, she had already learned from her parents the strength that can be found in love and prayer.
Little by little love and prayer chip away at the power of hate, releasing us from bondage to bitterness, freeing us for a life of faith.
As we hear these words of Jesus today, as we think about all the challenges we face, let us choose to live in the practical, profound, powerful way Jesus—and pray to God that we may have the strength to love.
Resources: “Love Your Enemies” in Strength to Loveby Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “When Ruby Bridges Prayed for Her Enemies” by Peter Marty in The Christian Century, March 24, 2017. Westminster Bible Companion: Matthewby Thomas Long.
“Free to Live the Golden Rule”
Rev. Laura Fry at Covington United Presbyterian Church
April 29, 2018
Our Sunday school children have been learning the Golden Rule. If you know it, will you say it with me: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Jesus teaches this principle in his Sermon on the Mount, presenting it to his disciples as a concise guide for their behavior. The Golden Rule has become a core component of Christianity and is one of the treasured teachings of Jesus—we call it “Golden” in reference to Psalm 19, where the psalmist describes the Lord’s instruction as “more precious than gold.”
Yet although this teaching is important within Christianity, it is not exclusive to our faith. In fact a version of the Golden Rule appears in many religions of the world.
Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism all teach variations of it. It appears in these religions as, “Love your neighbor as yourself”; “Do nothing to others that you would not have them do to you”; “Hurt not others with that which pains yourself."
Even among those who profess no faith at all, considering themselves to be atheists or agnostics, the Golden Rule is widely known and affirmed as an important principle for life.
But the truth is that the Golden Rule is not always an easy one to follow. It may be “a simple, rule-of-thumb guide for behavior,” yet ournatural tendency as humans is in fact just the opposite—much more along the lines of doing unto others what has been done to us.
This is why harmful patterns are often passed down through generations, as destructive behaviors emerge from unhealed wounds. It’s why the child who is bullied often becomes a bully. It’s why the one who was abused often becomes an abuser. And it’s why those who want nothing more than to break family cycles of pain often struggle mightily to do so. The difficult truth is that our natural human tendency is not to follow the Golden Rule at all but rather to do unto others what has been done to us.
When I’m working with couples preparing for marriage, I always invite them to share about their families of origin—about what values and practices they observed and experienced growing up—which ones they want to continue and which ones they would like to change. My purpose is to help couples begin to see that they can be intentional about the life they are creating.
We are NOT destined to do unto others what has been done to us. Instead, by God’s power in our lives, we have the ability to change. Regardless of our marital status, age, or experiences, we can surround ourselves with relationships of support that will help us live out the choices we wish to make for our lives. And most of all we can recognize that the strength for building a new way of life comes through the power of God.
Left to our own devices we may know the Golden Rule and may even strive to follow it—but the ability to live this rule comes not through our own determination but rather by God’s power at work within us. Through Christ, and the love of those around us, we are healed; we are freed; and we are ultimately empowered to live the Golden Rule.
Jesus promises that as we bring our brokenness to God, as we name the pain we carry, as we ask God to mend that hurt and lead us to new life—God is faithful and will do so.
In fact just before he teaches his disciples the Golden Rule, Jesus says, “Ask, and it will be given you; search and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” When we ask, when we search, when we knock—God will respond with love, mercy, and healing.
In The Mothers of Preschoolers Magazine, author and speaker Tammy Kennington describes the heavy burdens she carried from her childhood. She writes, “I dragged them into marriage and motherhood unwillingly. They tracked my steps and lurked in the shadows until it was safe for them to emerge.” As a young mother those long-buried memories nearly overwhelmed her, yet by God’s work in her life, through her loving marriage, and the support of friends and therapists, she ultimately broke free.
“Link by link,” she writes, “the chains of my past were loosened. Some required more prying and harder work than others. A few only gave way to counseling or prayer….Finally, one beautiful day, the chains lay broken at my feet and I stretched out my arms—embracing freedom—as joy left its trail on my cheeks.”
That freedom, that breaking of chains, is the work of God in us. This is the healing and joy that are possible on the other side of pain. Kennington writes, “Perhaps your story runs as deep as mine…Can I encourage you? Tell someone. Invite people you trust to be part of your journey. When you do, you’ll begin to chip away at those chains and you’ll be one step closer to freedom—with God at your side.”
Our human impulse is to bury pain. When we do it buries us. Jesus promises, “Knock and the door will be opened for you.” So maybe the door we are knocking on is not a door leading in but a door leading out. Maybe the door we need to knock on today is the one on the inside of a tomb, a tomb of the past, a tomb of pain. Maybe we are knocking on that door with all our might, hoping for Jesus to answer us. Maybe we are just starting to tap tentatively upon it, wondering if anyone will hear.
Jesus promises, when you knock, the door will be opened.
For just as God raised Jesus from the dead, God raises us too—Easter means that right here and now, God opens the door to free us from tombs of pain.
God is rolling the stone away, and inviting us to step into the light of day, the light of a new day of freedom and transformation, when we can live in the strength of Christ. Then, and only then, will we be free to live the Golden Rule.
Jesus promises: “Everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”
Today God is opening the door of mercy to you; the tenderness of Christ is here to heal all that is broken; and the power of the Holy Spirit is ready to raise you to new life.
Resources: “The Gospel According to Matthew” by Warren Carter in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible. “One Step Closer” by Tammy Kennington in The MOPS Magazine, Spring 2018.
“Remember Who You Are”
Matthew 5:1-16 in The Message Version of the Bible
Rev. Laura Fry at Covington United Presbyterian Church
April 22, 2018
What does it mean to be blessed?
That is the question with which Jesus begins his Sermon on the Mount. And while blessing may seem to us to be a gentle topic, in Jesus’ time this concept of “blessing” carried strong social and religious implications.
Many people in his day believed that being “blessed” meant financial prosperity, physical health, and family strength. These kinds of “blessings” were seen as rewards for faithful living.
Therefore those living in poverty, facing illness, disability, or infertility were believed to be undeserving of God’s love and blessing. Jesus is about to dramatically and definitively upend that belief—but we’ll get to that in a moment.
Because the other thing that it’s important to understand about the culture surrounding Jesus was that blessings were seen as a limited commodity. If one person was “blessed” with wealth or power, then someone else’s resources and power would necessarily be decreased.
We see this concept playing out in the story of Jacob stealing his brother Esau’s blessing. As the older twin, Esau had the right to receive their father’s blessing; Jacob however manages to trick their father Isaac into blessing him instead. When Esau discovers the trick, he begs his father to find some blessing left for him. But very little remains that could be called a “blessing” (Genesis 27).
These two cultural understandings—that blessing is limited and that being blessed is defined by health, wealth, and power—shaped the community surrounding Jesus. And these are precisely the perspectives that Jesus aims to challenge in the opening lines of his Sermon on the Mount.
According to Jesus, there is no scarcity when it comes to blessings. Instead blessings are abundant. There are more than enough blessings to go around.
But Jesus defines blessings in a very different way from his culture. The blessings Jesus speaks of are not at all what people were expecting.
Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of this passage is helpful here, because the fresh language he uses may help us newly encounter the strange nature of these blessings.
Consider these words:
3 “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.
6 “You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.
7 “You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.
According to Jesus, being blessed does NOT mean self-sufficiency, health, wealth, power, or easy, comfortable lives.
In fact, Jesus teaches just the opposite—that we are blessed as we experience our need for God, as we feel compassion for the needs of others, and as we grapple with the inevitable struggles we experience as God’s people.
All of this presents a direct challenge to what we may have heard referred to as the “Prosperity Gospel”— teachings that are part of a movement that has been gaining popularity in the US since the mid-20thCentury, although its roots go back much farther.
The Prosperity Gospel teaches that God blesses people who live faithfully and give generously, rewarding them with financial prosperity, political success, and good health. But from the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus warns us to beware of these teachings. They sound appealing—what if we could guarantee wealth, power, and health just by living upright lives?! But this isn’t the way God works.
Instead Jesus says, “You’re blessed when you know you need God.”
You’re blessed when you grieve over the chasm between the way the world is and the way God created it to be; when you’re pained by the violence in places like Parkland and Syria.
You’re blessed when you seek reconciliation rather than retaliation.
And you’re blessed when your life is hard and you’re criticized because of your faith, because then you’re in good company with faithful people who have suffered and struggled for generations before you.
Jesus does not promise that our lives will be easy; rather he promises that even when we struggle, God will bless us and provide for us—not with health, wealth, and power but with faith, hope, and love.
This is the upside-down, inside-out gift of God. We see the proof of it in our lives when we observe that true joy and happiness come to us not by obtaining things for ourselves but rather by giving and sharing with others.
For just as Jesus says, “You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.” If we want a boost of happiness, one of the best things we can do is something kind and generous for someone else.
Jesus goes on to say that when we live these upside-down blessings, when we open our lives to loving God and those around us, we become God’s gift to the world.
We’re like salt that helps people taste goodness, bringing out the flavors of God’s love. And we’re like light, helping people see God’s presence and the hope and guidance God provides.
Salt and light are ordinary, common elements in the world—found nearly everywhere. We know that salt has many important uses. It’s a key ingredient for seasoning and also preserving food. It is also an important ingredient in many baked goods, helping to balance the flavor and texture in ways we may not even realize.
One important thing I have learned about making bread is the way that salt and yeast interact with one another. When salt and yeast come into contact for a prolonged period of time, the salt inhibits the action of the yeast. If they’re together for a little while the effect is undetectable but in cases of extended contact, the salt will profoundly inhibit the yeast’s ability to make the bread rise.
We, of course, want our bread to become light and fluffy from the action of the yeast. But in the New Testament, yeast is viewed in a very different way. Jesus repeatedly uses “yeast” symbolically in reference to the Pharisees and also Herod, and warns his disciples to watch out for their influence.
By calling his disciples “salt,” I wonder if Jesus may also be inviting us to see that as salt inhibits the action of yeast, we as the people of God slow the growth of negative forces around us. As we, the salt, come into contact with those who would cause harm to the world, we naturally inhibit their impact and influence.
As we are mixed into the whole, spread out in the world, we bring out flavors and preserve values like love and generosity, and we also naturally, simply by virtue of our presence, decrease the impact of those who would cause harm. Like salt coming into contact with yeast, it is in our very nature to decrease the influence of powers of destruction in the world.
Jesus began this powerful sermon by teaching his followers that they are blessed, and that they are salt and light in the world. This is their deep and true identity. In her book More Than Words,Rev. Erin Wathen tells the story of a friend of hers named Kara. When Kara and her brothers were growing up and getting ready to go out on a Friday night, their mother never said the things other parents would say: Things like “Don’t do anything stupid…” or “You’ll be in big trouble if…” Instead Kara’s mom would always say, “Remember who you are.”
That instruction became a powerful force in Kara’s life, shaping the decisions she made on those Friday nights, and guiding her as she went off to college, and began her life away from home. Remember who you are.
It is in a sense what Jesus says to his disciples. Remember who you are--You are loved. You are blessed. You are salt. You are light. You do make a difference in this world. Remember who you are.
Resources: More Than Words: 10 Values for the Modern Family by Erin Wathen. The Message Version of the Bibleby Eugene Peterson.
Rev. Laura Fry at Covington United Presbyterian Church
March 4, 2018
“Mom, come on! Get in. I want you to swim with me!”
“I don’t know, honey, I don’t feel so well.”
“Please, please, please get in the water with me?”
Left to my own devices that day, just a few weeks ago, I would have stayed in the boat. After thirty minutes on what had, it turns out, been accurately advertised as a “high-speed thrill ride,” I wasn’t feeling so well.
A strong east wind was sweeping across the Atlantic, stirring up the waves, rocking our little boat to and fro. The last thing I wanted to do was get in the water. I was wearing a life-vest but didn’t know if I could trust it.
My reluctance to get in the water that day was about more than just the waves. For over two decades, I have carried around with me a phobia of snorkeling, ever since the time I tried it as a teenager and panicked at the strangeness of breathing underwater, and the nearby darting of unfamiliar fish.
I became determined last summer to overcome this fear, braved the waters, and discovered for the first time the great enjoyment of snorkeling, which was a breakthrough for me.
Last summer I was snorkeling in still waters. On our family travels to snorkel a few weeks ago, the waves were high.
And yet with a burning certainty, I knew that giving in to my fear would set an example I did not want to set. Giving in to my fear could very well mean I was passing my own phobia on to the next generation.
If I wanted my kids to be free of my fear, then I had to get out of the boat. I had to climb down the ladder with the six year old who was thrilled to snorkel at a coral reef. And join my son who did not want me to miss out. With my heart pounding, I crept over the edge of the boat, climbed down the ladder, and leaned backwards into the waves.
Clearly I survived. And of course it was wonderful once I got in the water. A whole world of beauty lay beneath the surface. And I was no longer afraid.
I wonder if Peter’s heart felt a bit like mine when Jesus called him to get out of the boat. A strange mix of terror and excitement, the certainty that it must be done, and that perhaps something wonderful lay just beneath the surface of the moment.
After all Peter himself had come up with the bright idea … asking Jesus to call him out on the waves, only to be quickly faced with the crisis of decision when Jesus did as he had asked.
So often we
remember Peter’s worst moments and
misguided ways, yet he also understood something of fundamental importance to
the Christian faith, something that none of the other disciples seemed to comprehend. Peter knew that the very sign of Jesus’ nearness,
the very proof of his presence, would be the command to step outside his
comfort zone. Peter understood that if
Jesus could walk on the waves, then Jesus could empower him to do the
same. But there was only one way for him
to confirm the power of Jesus: he would have to get out of the boat.
What Peter understood is that when we are close to Jesus, we will not always find ourselves feeling comfortable. When we are close to Jesus, our faith will not always bring us comfort. When we are close to Jesus, sometimes he will disrupt and disturb our lives.
Looking back at the beginning of this story, we see that Jesus was, in fact, the very one who sent the disciples into the storm. Matthew tells us that after the miraculous feeding of the multitude, Jesus “made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side,” while he himself went up a mountain to pray. Jesus sent his disciples out onto the lake that night, knowing they were heading into a storm.
Earlier on in the gospel, Matthew told us that it was none other than the Spirit of God who led Jesus into the wilderness to face temptation by the devil. In a similar way it is now none other than Jesus himself who sends the disciples out onto the lake, to have their faith tested by the wind and waves.
When Jesus comes to them, walking calmly on the waters that terrify them, he demonstrates his power—supernatural power over the forces of the natural world.
But along with revealing his own identity through this use of power, Jesus extends this power to Peter. To access that power, Peter has to step out of the boat.
So I wonder about those times in our lives when Jesus offers us power, if only we will get out of the boat. Often we are tempted to stay in our boat, even if we do feel queasy there.
The boat where we find ourselves may not be comfortable but it is at least a familiar place. Seemingly more secure than the open seas. The wind and waves tempt us to stay in the boat, to stick with the familiar, when the storms of life crash toward us,
believing our little boat to be the place of safety from the storm.
Some of our boats have been tossed about by the violent gales of addiction
or the storms of self-harm, some of our boats have been sucked down by the dark depths of depression, flooded with the crashing waves of anxiety, swamped with the sorrow of grief, and tossed against the turmoil of rocky relationships.
Moreover sometimes the waves that crash around us are not personal in nature but social in their scope: gathering storms of bigotry, tsunamis of mass shootings, and cyclones of corruption. We begin to wonder if the stormy waters of social struggle and personal pain are about to sink us.
But then, at the very height of the storm, in the coldest, darkest hours before the dawn, when the wind is blowing mightily against us, we catch sight of someone walking toward us. And we realize that it is Jesus, treading on the turmoil that terrifies us, and calling us to walk on those very waves toward him.
He calls us, with a simple, “Come,” then gives us his own power…
So we venture a step out of the boat; we begin walking toward Jesus.
But then we notice the wind, and we get afraid. We feel the waves, and just like Peter we start to sink. Yet in that moment when Peter thinks he is a goner, he cries out, “Lord, save me!” And “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘Why did you doubt?’”
Jesus critiques his failure of faith, and yet he also immediately reaches out to save him, putting Peter safely back into the boat. Jesus doesn't require perfect faith from his disciples; he doesn't demand unwavering trust, but readily responds to our need, whether we cry aloud in terror or whisper in the silence of our soul those words of sacred prayer, "Lord, save me!"
Rev. Billy Honor, a pastor in Atlanta, Georgia talks about how often we try to go through our lives forgetting about the saving power of God. Trying to make it on our own, to cope in our own ways, to get through life relying on a whole array of vices.
Rev. Honor says that so often we forget that we need the power, the batteries, of the Holy Spirit in order to make our lives work.
How much better to pray, he says, to say, “Lord, I need you to put some “super” on my “natural.” Because the “super” that God can put on our “natural” is better
than what the phone booth did for Clark Kent, better than what the lasso of truth did for Wonder Woman, better than what spinach did for Popeye and what vibranium did for the Black Panther.
When God puts the super on our natural, it’s better than what alcohol does to help us cope and what drugs do to numb our pain, better than what any object can do to make us feel safe or help us escape.
When God puts the super on our natural, we can be sure he is going to call us to step out of our familiar boat and risk putting our trust in him. And we can be confident as well that in those moments when storms of life threatens to drown us, he will reach out his hand to lift us up.
Peter says, “Lord, save me!” “Lord, put the super on my natural.”
And we can pray those words too…
Lord, save me!
Lord, give me the power to make it through this life.
Lord, put the super on my natural.
Resources: “Sermon” by Rev. Billy Honor, Opening Worship at the Next Church National Gathering, February 26, 2018, Baltimore, MD.