Simon Peter and the Path of Totality

Screen Shot 2017-08-27 at 4.03.37 PM
Photo Source: LA Times

Isaiah 51:1-6
Matthew 16:13-20

My day on Monday started like just about any other: get up, breakfast, meeting, phone call with our music director to plan some hymns, then getting the worship info out to our admin for the bulletin, and finally tying up a few other logistical odds and ends. Then, at about 2PM, I looked at the clock with a start — it was time to go.

Monday, as you might recall, was eclipse day, and I had plans: watch from a mountain.

I made it to the trailhead up Mt. Holyoke and peered through the trees at the sun through my super cool eclipse glasses. The sun was already starting to disappear.
I made the short, steep hike up to the top of the mountain and caught my breath while I looked at the representation of the Pioneer Valley who had come out to watch the solar eclipse with me on top of the mountain: along with the usual outdoorsy-looking hikers and the summer-loving barbecuers, there was a ridiculously wholesome, diverse group of schoolchildren and their cheerful, chaco-wearing, snack-wielding chaperones; a lady with a flowy skirt and a straw hat who definitely lives in Northampton who had hiked the mountain in flip-flops; two college guys debating politics, and finally, a grumpy farmer who had been dragged there by his family.

From now on, if I ever need to explain where I live to out-of-towners, I’ll just explain that scene. As the sun became 65% hidden, casting a shadow over the river and farmland below, this place that I’ve found myself was revealing itself just a little more, too.

These days, we plan for months to observe solar eclipses, but obviously, the first recorded solar eclipses were quite a shock to humanity. As with other phenomena in the stars, humans had no way of completely observing or explaining what was happening in the sky, so they came up with their own theories: one was that a dragon was eating the sun. So the people would sacrifice animals, sometimes even humans, to try to get the dragon to leave them.

And as one of the documentaries that I watched this week said, it worked every time.

The sun always returned.

The Greek historian Herodotus tells us about when the path of totality crossed a battlefield as the Medes and the Lydians fought a long-standing war. When the sky became dark, the soldiers immediately stopped fighting, and their leaders took the eclipse as a sign that they should agree to a truce. It’s called the Eclipse of Thales, named after the philosopher who is said to have predicted it ahead of time, which is only sad for the guys who died in the battle before the eclipse. That battle, eclipse, and truce occurred on May 28, 585 BCE, and we know the exact date because science.

Eclipses are much less of a mystery to us now. We now know that there is no dragon in the sky, and though we may have toyed with the idea of human sacrifice when certain people annoy us, we don’t go through with it anymore. We can predict the exact dates and times of every eclipse, so it’s much less of a shock to us than it used to me. In fact, I chuckled a bit to myself when I realized how excited I was getting about something as simple as the moon getting in the way of the sun for a few minutes.

But a total solar eclipse is still a big deal, and science has made it more possible for more people to witness one. In fact, April 2024 is set to be a great time for us to head over to Maine, Vermont, or northern New York to see totality ourselves. This time, people streamed from all over the country to get into the “path of totality,” where the moon completely obscures the sun, the birds stop chirping, the land goes dark, and all you can see of the sun is the corona, the dazzling light of the sun’s plasma or “atmosphere” that is usually invisible to us.

People of all faiths and none describe it as a deep spiritual experience, and on Monday, the whole country stopped bickering about everything for just a few minutes to witness the cosmos putting on a show.

And then, just like that, life restarted again, or as a boy on Mt. Holyoke near me said, “So now it just goes back to being the sun again, right?”

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus has come a little ways since having healed the Canaanite woman’s daughter last week. In between that passage and this one, he’s fed four thousand men plus women and children and had plenty of leftovers, and right after that, he’s bickered with the Pharisees and other religious authorities about showing them a sign that he’s really sent from God. Of course, he had just given them a sign — he’d just fed a huge crowd of people out of nothing. No sense of irony, those Pharisees.

Then, after that, even his disciples are being slow with him. It’s one of those times when Jesus must’ve felt like nobody got it, nobody understood, or as my biblical scholar friends described Jesus in Matthew and Mark — “dejected teenage Jesus: no one understands him.”

Finally, he up and asks his disciples, “Hey, who do people out there say that I am?” I think he starts with the crowds rather than the disciples because he knows it’ll be easier for them to talk about other people’s feelings and assumptions rather than their own.

The reply comes, “Well, some say John the Baptist” — which could be a case of mistaken identity or it could be a case of “he’s back from the dead,” depending on whether they’d heard the new that John had been killed. These were the days before we could just google “prophet/messiah figures near me.” But then there are also other, definitely “they think you’re back from the dead cases: “some say Elijah, others say Jeremiah or one of the prophets” (v. 14).

Then he asks them: “Who do you say that I am?”

A man who up to that point has been called Simon steps up and delivers: “You’re the Messiah, the son of the Living God.”

And just like that, something extraordinary has happened and something hidden has been revealed. They finally said it. You know those moments when you know something is true, but then when you hear yourself say it, it becomes real for you? I imagine this is what that was like for Peter. All of a sudden, things shift dramatically and you can see things in a way you never have before. Peter finds himself in a kind of path of totality, where everything has shifted. In a few minutes, everything will be back to normal and Jesus will quickly tell them not to tell anyone that he’s the messiah.

But for a few shining moments, everything shifts and Simon even gets a new name: “Blessed are you, Simon Son of Jonah! …I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and all of hell won’t be able to touch it.”

“Peter,” you might know, means “rock.”

Our Old Testament reading is from Isaiah, and it also references both rocks and acknowledging the obvious: God calls Israel to remember the rock from which they had been hewn.

Remember what you’re made of. Remember who you are. Remember that God has brought you this far.

I think that’s something we could all do a little more of these days as we press towards busy times and ever trying times. We are the heirs of Peter, and all those who built the church. The church’s history is not a clean one — the church has done plenty of evil in Christ’s name to all kinds of people. But every now and then, we find ourselves in a kind of path of totality. Every now and then, we see clearly not only who God is — a self-giving God of love, patience, and welcome — but who we are and who we are meant to be: self-giving people of love, patience, and welcome.

“Remember the rock out of which you have been hewn.”

Remember where you came from; remember who you are and whose you are.

We have from God and we are going to God, and this morning, God says:

“Who do you say that I am?”
Consider that question for yourself, because it will shape who you will be, and who we will be together.

Who does this church say that Jesus is? I’ll tell you what I’ve observed in the year and nearly nine months I’ve been with you.

According to what I’ve seen, to you, Jesus is someone who shows up. Jesus is someone who shows love to everyone, even when it’s not convenient. Jesus is someone who cooks a great meal and throws a good party and who always comes to the tale with joy. And Jesus is the Son of the Living God. Sometimes Jesus feels like the only thing we have in common, but you also know that when you get right down to it, that’s the only thing that really matters.

This is how Jesus shines through you. This is how you show that the rock from which you’ve been hewn is the rock of Jesus Christ: God of the universe, lover of humanity, and presence at our table every week. And when we can see that, we can see ourselves more clearly, too.

Solar eclipses shake up a lot within us: they make us see how very tiny we are, in the midst of it all. They help us to understand something about ourselves. They provide those rare moments of clarity when we can see things that we usually can’t — both literally and metaphorically. They stop everything — all the bickering, even all the suffering, just for a few moments.

They help us, for once, to look up and see the same thing.

This morning, when we come to the table, we are in a kind of path of totality. All the bickering and the suffering can stop for just a few minutes as we all gather around Christ, who may be the only one we have in common but really, that’s the only thing that matters. We can build from that.

So let’s go to the table, and no matter what you see every day, whether in your life circumstances or on the news, let us come with joy and finally, in this moment, look up and see the same thing: peace, grace, and the path of totality — total, complete, and all-encompassing love. Amen.

Beauty in the Gaps

Screen Shot 2017-08-20 at 3.03.52 PM
The phenomenon of crown shyness. 
Plaza San Martín (Buenos Aires), Argentina

Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15:10-28

The first time I ever came to the Northeast in the winter was, believe it or not, only a few years ago. I believe it was the winter of 2012, and because I don’t do things halfway, I went up to Saranac Lake, NY, to the Adirondack high peaks. It was a bitterly cold January, at least to me, and as we drove through the winding mountain roads around and through the high peaks, I gazed up at the frozen waterfalls and gray / white landscape as the wind whipped the snow around the salt-covered roads.

From Lake Placid, New York, I posted on Facebook from the passenger’s seat as we drove: “I believe we have entered God’s freezer.”

Without missing a beat, a few minutes later, a Facebook friend — a Lutheran from Minnesota — replied, “I bet it’s really full. You know God never throws anything away.”

God is patient, it seems, and sometimes too patient. There are things in God’s freezer that I wish had gotten thrown away long ago because they keep resurfacing to thaw and smell: racism. Hatred. Terrorism. White supremacy. Neo-Nazism.

Some folks seem to be worried about denouncing white supremacy and Neo-Naziism in particular because they fear offending conservatives. Let me be clear: I was raised by conservatives and I think much more of mainstream American conservatives than to assume they in any way identify with white supremacy.

One such conservative who helped to raise me landed on the beaches of Normandy at D-Day fighting the Nazis. My grandfather arrived in the second wave, and of the fighting, he only said in his Southern drawl, “The first wave was a surprise. By the time we got there, they were ready for us.”

He, an Alabama conservative at heart, had no patience for Neo-Nazis or white supremacists when he was alive. I don’t believe that would change if he were still with us today.

He, like most of us both liberal and conservative, would not be able to believe that we were still rehashing that Nazis are bad.

Indeed, sometimes I wish that God would throw some things away for good.

But it’s also not surprising that we have to because it’s a tale as old as time: because of our differences, we dehumanize each other. One group finds dominance and abuses another and endless bloodshed and oppression ensues.

Everyone pays dearly, in blood or in soul.

The truth is that we humans have never learned to live together in peace for long. In the times that it feels like we have, it’s because one group is firmly in control of another one with tension and violence bubbling just beneath — or on — the surface.

In our Isaiah reading this morning, you may not notice it, but Isaiah is saying something revolutionary. Ancient Jewish faith highly valued lineage and was suspicious of foreigners. Foreigners could, realistically, be an invading or corrupting force on them. In their history, in many times, they had been. Israel was no stranger to foreign invading forces, so it makes sense that they would be suspicious of foreigners.

Like I said, we humans have never really learned to live together.

But Isaiah says that God will be a God of the foreigners as well as the Israelites, which to the Israelites — operating under the idea that they’re the only chosen folks and God don’t love nobody else — this must’ve seemed crazy.

Now, the Romans reading from today is pretty clear about God choosing Israel and never un-choosing them (God doesn’t really clean out the freezer or un-choose people), but God’s also trying to teach the Israelites something that we’ve never been able to figure out — how to live in peace with people who are different from us — because it is the only way to lasting peace.

We want to be tribal. Whether we like it or not (or whether there’s a good reason for it or not), we tend to be more comfortable around people that we read to be “our people.” People who look like us, sound like us. It still amazes me when some New Englanders visibly cringe when I intentionally slip into a deep Southern accent or how rural Southerners will accuse me of “sounding like a Yankee” if I’m not careful to code-switch into my native accent — because in both cases, the person has imagined me to be one of their tribe, but by sounding different, I jar them.

For reasons — some reasonable, some horrible — we’re comfortable around people who, based on a number of factors, we read to be “our people.” And that would be fine if it didn’t mean that some groups need to dominate everyone else. Today and in modern history in the West, this has looked like the evil of white supremacy. It has looked like many things around the world throughout history. Domination. Slavery. Conquest. Forced religious conversion. The removal of native peoples.

We humans have never learned to live together.

And we relegate the “others” — those who are not our tribe — into useless objects rather than people. When I was a 23 year old seminarian just out of college, I took two classes with Dr. Luther Smith, a wise pastor, teacher, and activist. He said something in one of my first seminary classes that I will never forget: “People think we make too much of slurs, but never underestimate the destructive power of calling someone a derogatory name. If you call someone a name, you take away their humanity and turn them into an object. And once you’ve done that, you can do whatever you want to them.”
We saw that during the Civil Rights movement.

He emphasized the civil rights tactic from the 1960s of activists looking into the eyes of those who were beating them. The idea was to make them see you as a human being, not an object.

Of course, objectifying people is more than just sinful, it is irrational. Diversity makes us stronger. Different experiences, skill sets, and ways of thinking make us stronger. And yet we act like everything foreign to us is an invading, threatening force.

We see other groups as useless odds and ends, but there is no junk drawer in God’s kingdom. (1)

We need each other.

Oppressing the other and regarding everything foreign as a threat is not only sinful, it is foolish.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus begins by saying that it is not what goes into a person, but what comes out, that corrupts us.

This also applies to ideas. (2)

You will not be corrupted by hearing something you don’t want to hear. As John Dickerson, host of Face the Nation, says, “Ideas are like filters — they are useless unless you run things through them.”

In other words, it is of no worth to have your own opinion if you do not test it frequently to maintain its factual accuracy.

We are not all the same. This is not an easy thing, but it is a good thing.

After giving this speech in the Gospel reading about what goes in not corrupting but what comes out, Jesus meets a Canaanite woman who begs for her daughter to be healed. If this passage didn’t strike you in some kinda way in light of recent events, you might not have really been listening, so go back and read the end of it again. I’ll wait.

Jesus obliquely calls this woman who is begging for healing for her child a dog.

What are we supposed to do with that?

Some say that she changes Jesus’ mind about foreigners. Others say that Jesus was testing her faith and knew all along that he was going to heal her daughter when she believed hard enough.

I think neither is correct or helpful, tbh.

Jesus has just given us a crass metaphor about how it’s not what you’re exposed to that corrupts you, but what you produce, in a system that tells people to that foreign stuff is unclean. In response Jesus says, who cares about things you literally or metaphorically take in, digest, and poop out?

If you think that’s too crass for church, take it up with my Boss.

To be clear, I mean Jesus.

Both the bishop and the council lead busy lives.

In other words, Jesus says to worry more about what you’re putting into the world than what you’re exposed to.

People often think that when they are asked to wear masks to see a patient in the hospital, that the mask is to protect them. It usually isn’t. It is usually to protect a patient with compromised immune system.

Worry more about what you’re exposing others to than what you’re exposed to.

You get the idea.

After Jesus gets this idea across, a foreigner comes up to him and asks for healing and I think he intentionally gives the answer that might be expected by his audience: “Sorry, no foreigners — I’m only here to serve the Jews.”

This particular foreigner is gentle but direct. Even in not challenging his characterization of her as a dog, she shows her humanity. She is a mother who just needs her daughter healed. And Jesus knows the disciples and others see and hear all of this. And he validates her faith and heals her daughter immediately this foreigner is not an invading force — she is human. She is faithful.

We have never really learned to live together as humans, but it is part and parcel of our ability to survive together. We — as a church, a nation, and as the human race — have got to figure this out.

God has no junk drawer. Each human being was created with love by a creative God. When we dismiss, enslave, hate, oppress, and kill others because we see their differences as an invading force, we sin. And in addition to calling out the sin of white supremacy, let us also look for the sin of hatred and prejudice within ourselves.

Lastly, we members of majority groups have a tendency to say things like “It doesn’t matter to me if you’re black,” or “It doesn’t matter if you’re gay,” or “It doesn’t matter where you’re from.”

But it does matter. It matters because being black, or being gay, or being an immigrant, or being part of any other group shapes who we are. Pretending that we are all the same does not help us because we are not the same. God is a creative artist, and each of us is treated differently for a variety of identity-related reasons each and every day. Our differences matter. Our differences are gifts from which we can each learn.

This week I found myself researching a phenomenon in the trees called “crown shyness.” If you have a chance, look up images of it from your favorite search engine when you get home. The trees grow up next to one another, often with roots intertwined, but when their tops reach the canopy, they seem to give each other space. The gaps between the trees that result create a beautiful canopy.

All of humanity shares a root system. We are all intertwined with one another, and justice for one group is connected to justice for all others. But I pray that someday we, like the trees, can create beauty in the gaps, not by trying to all become the same tree, but by giving each other space to grow, even as we share common humanity.

The God who created all of us has been moving towards us since we were created, teaching us to create beauty in the gaps. This God took on brown human flesh in the middle of an occupied country to show us that God has no junk drawer. Each person is not only loved, but necessary. We all have gifts to share, a purpose to fulfill.

Jesus taught us today that ideas that go into us do not corrupt us, but those that come out of us do. Let us examine our own hearts and our minds, cleaning out of the freezer the ideas and prejudices that long ago started to stink. We all have them.

And let us give each other space to grow, knowing that God intends to create beauty in the gaps between us. Let us see differences not as invading forces but as new ideas to be wrestled with. The God who created us different also created us beloved and calls us into a future with hope that someday, someday, we might finally learn to live together. And just maybe we can learn something fro the trees. Amen.


  1. This idea appeared in Sundays & Seasons’ “Ideas for the Day” in the Planning Guide, p. 241. Kudos to Lisa, our music director, for calling my attention to it.
  2. Dr. Brooks Holifield first articulated this idea in my hearing with regard to this text in a sermon at the Candler School of Theology c. 2010. 

The Tempest is Raging

Screen Shot 2017-08-13 at 1.16.11 PM
A glimpse of the fighting at a gathering of white supremacists, counter-protestors, and others in Charlottesville, VA, on Saturday. 

Matthew 14:22-33

I’ve always wanted to start a sermon like this: It was a dark and stormy night.

No seriously, it was.

Some of you might have experienced a few storms last night. 

They are unpredictable, uncontrollable, and the darkness makes them scarier.

The disciples find themselves out on the water alone at night, stuck, perhaps, in a summer thunderstorm not unlike the ones that moved through the Northeast last night. Jesus, who’s been trying to get some peace and quiet for a few chapters now, has sent the disciples ahead of him while he goes up alone to pray. We don’t know how much praying he got done before the storm began, but what results is one of the most famous stories about Jesus. The story of Jesus walking on water is included in three of the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and John. And here’s the thing. It isn’t a serene scene in any of these accounts. Every Gospel writer is quite clear about the setting for this story, and it isn’t calm.

It was a dark and stormy night.

The tempest is raging. And, unlike most of us when we experience a summer thunderstorm, the disciples are not safe in their living rooms or in their beds. They’re out in a boat on the raging sea. Very few of us, besides those who have been on ships in the military, know exactly what it’s like to weather a storm at sea.

The disciples are in a boat, away from shore, and Matthew tells us that the wind is against them, and that a storm has started. They are far from the land, and the waves are beating against the boat. Jesus has sent them on ahead of him, and so they are alone. The last time they were caught in the waves like this, Jesus calmed the storm. But he’s not here now. No doubt, they must be afraid, wishing he was there to calm the storm like last time.

But there’s more to the disciples’ storm than the literal waves that were beating against the feeble boat. John the Baptist was killed by Herod mere days before this. Israel is occupied by Rome. Their very lives are in danger, from Rome or from Herod himself, if they make too much of a fuss. And Jesus, never one to make a fuss, has just fed about 5,000 people, as we heard about last week, from basically nothing. Huge crowds are following him everywhere. The religious authorities are getting nervous that he is disturbing their fragile peace with Rome.

So much for not making a fuss.

And now, teetering on the edge of disaster in an occupied land, the disciples are alone, away from shore, and caught in a thunderstorm.

We know that this story ends well, but the disciples don’t know that. For all they know, they’re about to drown here in the dark or, if they do make it to the other side, they may face arrest and persecution on the other shore. To call them frazzled would likely be an understatement.

The tempest is raging.

And then they see Jesus walking towards them on the water.

God has shown up right when they needed him most: they’re in a high stress situation in more ways than one. The bad news for the disciples is that God has shown up, but they don’t recognize him.

Jesus, helpfully, calls out to them: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I would still have some more questions for Jesus at this point. I would have a lot more questions. And Peter did, too – except he didn’t want questions, he wanted proof. “Lord, if it’s you, command me to come out to you on the water.”

Oh, Peter. Always eager. Always wanting to put himself out there. Usually failing, but failing spectacularly.

It looks like a leap of faith, daring to walk out on the water, and I’ve often heard it preached that way — that Peter’s only flaw was taking his eyes off of Jesus.

I want to offer a different perspective. Because really, Peter, now is not the time to see the Son of God doing something and yell “Hey, I bet I can do that!

And Jesus’ response, I imagine, is less a “Come to me, my child,” and more of an, “Um, okay.”

I think that all the disciples, including Peter, failed to see their rescue coming and simply wait for it. Peter is, if you’ll pardon the pun, a bit of a showboat.

The tempest is raging, but the One who calms storms is here. They’ve seen him in action. Jesus shows up in the middle of the storm – he wasn’t with them when the storm started, but he shows up here, and in the most unexpected of ways – defying the very laws of physics to get to them. But the disciples — God bless the disciples — they don’t even recognize him. Even after he identifies himself, Peter gives him a qualifier: “Lord, if it’s you…” And of course, as expected, Peter walks out on the water but Jesus ends up having to pull him out. St. Matthew tells us that Jesus caught him “immediately.” He saved him — immediately.

Peter didn’t even get water up his nose.

Then he responds in the most Jesus of ways: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” I don’t think that Jesus is only referring to Peter’s doubts about Jesus’ ability and the laws of physics. I think Jesus is referring to the whole scene, and talking about the disciples as a whole.
Why did you doubt in the first place? Didn’t you know I would come to you?

Can you imagine a scenario in which Jesus lets the disciples drown?

Then, predictably, he gets into the boat and the wind ceases. Jesus calms the storm. Again.

Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt?

It is Jesus that calms the storm. Though Peter wanted a role in it, wanted to be proactive, wanted to go out and get it, it’s Jesus that catches Peter, in all his doubts, and pulls him back up. A couple of chapters later, Jesus will call Peter the rock on which he’ll build his church. Here, he’s the rock that almost sank because he couldn’t just stay in the boat.

Then Jesus calms the storm. It’s Jesus’ presence which makes all the difference. God showed up in the most unexpected and slightly startling way possible and saved the day. He startled the wits out of everyone, but he showed up. He showed up because that is who he is.

I think about us today. You may have heard of the deadly incident in Virginia yesterday where white supremacists and others from the alt-right violently clashed with counter-protestors, resulting in the death of at least one person.

The tempest is raging harder than a summer thunderstorm.

Make no mistake: white supremacy is out there — not just in the South but in our own backyard. Ideology that proclaims the superiority of whites over other groups is contrary to the Gospel, and plowing down your fellow citizens for ideological reasons is nothing short of domestic terrorism.

But before we on the left feel too self-righteous or victimized, don’t forget the man who opened fire on a congressional baseball practice after asking the fateful question: “Are those Democrats or Republicans?”

“Republicans” was the answer, and the man opened fire.
Again, domestic terror.*

In order to avoid hard conversations, people often say the Gospel isn’t political.
Yes it is.

What we call “politics” is nothing more than how we relate to one another and organize and run our society. That may make some conversations hard, but if the Gospel doesn’t inform how we live, see the world, and organize our society, then we’re simply using it as a security blanket for our own personal comfort.

The Gospel is indeed political, but it is not partisan.

All are welcome here: Democrat and Republican, Trump supporter and Bernie Bro, independent and immigrant.

And that can create quite a storm.

But the tempest is already raging.

In the midst of all of an increasingly violent political world in addition to our own personal storms, we have so many questions, ranging from “Why is this happening?” to “How did we get here?” to my favorite question, “Now what?”

Sometimes, like Peter, we go stumbling out of the boat before we’ve even fully assessed the situation, begging God to prove that God is indeed present and with us and that we are God’s favorite and that we are the most powerful, most skilled, best disciples.

And, quite frankly, we sometimes think that God needs standing up for.

We try to prove ourselves to the world and to God, and we sink every time. Sometimes, unlike Peter, we drag others down with us.

“Oh you of little faith.”
Why do we doubt?

The Gospel is not a story about us. The Gospel is a story about God.

God is with us in the chaos. God will defy the very laws of physics to get to us because neither life nor death nor anything will separate us from the love of God. God will and can move heaven and earth to get to you. You don’t have to go splashing out of the storm-battered boat.

Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to stay in the boat and let God run the show. To let God get to us. To let God’s grace work in us and through us. And to dare to trust that yes, God really will reach us.

And what’s more, we are not alone.

The disciples were not in individual canoes.

We’re in this battered little boat together.

“The best of all is that God is with us.”(1) And God often shows up in startling and unexpected ways, walking towards us on the water, performing a miracle while also scaring the bejeezus out of us in ways that only Jesus can. And so, as we look to the future in our changing nation and community and wonder how we might be of service in the midst of the raging storms of chaos and change, I want to challenge us — not to quickly figure out how to walk on water ourselves, but to instead look for the ways in which God will show up and witness to that.

Witness to how all are loved, all are welcome, and no one should have to suffer violence. Witness to what God has already done.

Sometimes, God shows up walking on the water, and the rumbling waves in the middle of a storm, doing the impossible. Other times, God appears in the most mundane and unremarkable things, such as bread and wine, and still performs a miracle. But God always shows up.

How will God show up at Our Savior’s as the summer starts to end?

And how will we respond? How will we witness to God’s presence in this politically diverse community in the midst of the storms of violence raging outside?

How will God show up in the midst of the tempest of your own life?

How will you respond?

Three things are for sure.

One: we’re in a battered little boat in the middle of a storm.

Two: that boat is God’s boat, and we are Jesus’s imperfect and almost comically bumbling disciples.

Three: Jesus will not let us drown. God will show up.

Our job is to wait, to be patient, to stay in the boat, and to believe that help is on the way. We don’t need to go crashing and tripping across the waves to get to God. Nothing will stop God from getting to us, even if the laws of physics need a little bending. God will get to us this morning, in bread and wine and in each other.

God will get to us. God will get to you. Heaven and earth won’t keep God’s love from you. So stay in the boat: stay in this boat with all of us. Rest in the love that will defy the laws of physics to get to you. Jesus is on his way. Amen.

* In light of the events in Charlottesville, I rewrote this sermon quickly after my vacation, and in the preaching of it, failed to use the word “terrorism.” Too often, we use this word to describe only acts committed by those who claim to be Muslim when the word actually means “the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.” The acts here described certainly qualify.
This was pointed out to me by a parishioner after the service and has thus been corrected. Thanks be to God for church folks.

A note on the sermon: A version of this sermon was first given at St. Luke Lutheran Church, Atlanta, the last time this text appeared in the lectionary. The “stay in the boat” idea was first articulated to me by my friend and mentor, the Rev. Nancy Christensen, senior pastor at my home congregation of St. John’s Lutheran Church, Atlanta.

1. These are remembered as the dying words of Methodist founder John Wesley.

Guest Post: Of Crowds, Compassion, and Miracles

Screen Shot 2017-08-13 at 12.55.11 PM.png
Written by Debbie Brown, Council President, Our Savior’s Lutheran Church
Sermon given at Our Savior’s on August 6, 2017.

This week, I was reading about a man named Stan Brock. Some of you may know him from the TV show The Wild Kingdom. Before he became famous, Stan had a life changing experience while working in Guyana South America. This experience moved him to establish a non-profit organization for healthcare access called Remote Area Medical®. 

He describes his experience like this:

“My vision for Remote Area Medical® developed when I suffered a personal injury while living among the Wapishana Indians in Guyana, South America. I was isolated from medical care, which was about a 26-day journey away. I witnessed the near devastation of whole tribes by what would have been simple or minor illnesses to more advanced cultures. When I left Guyana, I vowed to find a way to deliver basic medical aid to people in the world’s inaccessible regions. So, in 1985 I established the non-profit, Remote Area Medical® or as most people know us – RAM®. RAM® is the way I have kept that promise, not only to the Wapishana Indians, but to thousands around the world in similar conditions. In other words, there are Wapishanas everywhere.”

Today, RAM holds more than 700 clinics in convention centers and football stadiums across the United States. More than 80,000 volunteers bring dental and vision care to nearly 1.5 million people who do not have these benefits through insurance or cannot afford to pay for them.

This summer, people gathered in Wise, Virginia. Some of them arrived two days before the clinic opened – many slept in their cars, in tents or on blankets spread beneath the open sky. Each family was given a piece of paper with a number on it. They could only hope that their number was low enough to get them in for treatment.

As I looked at the pictures of the people gathered there, I couldn’t help thinking about the crowd in our Gospel reading today who gathered at the lakeside waiting for Jesus.  They could only hope for an encounter with this miraculous man of God with the ability to heal.

It was in this setting where we see the miracle of feeding a ridiculously crazy number of people with a ridiculously small amount of food. But this isn’t the only place in scripture where this story is recounted. Including today’s reading, feeding miracles are seen six times in the New Testament. It is the only miracle told in all four Gospels. 

There is a theory that if you want someone to hear a message, it has to be repeated three times. Since this story is included twice that many times in the Gospels, the writers must have really wanted to be sure we get the message.

But what is it about the re-telling of this story that is so important? What does it say about God and Jesus’ mission? What does it say about us?

I think we can all relate to the people gathered at the lakeshore that day. We know what it is like to need healing, and we all experience hunger – both physical and spiritual. We hunger for food, attention, companionship, good health, success, peace, love, and wholeness. This is where God enters into our lives through Jesus and offers us hope.

This morning’s first lesson invites us into a relationship with God. The reading comes from Isaiah. It was written for the people of Israel who were living in exile and describes the life that God promises them. It is a beautiful passage that reminds us of God’s abundance given to all people at no cost.

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” (Isaiah 55:1-2)

Perhaps you, like me, are drawn to this vision. We yearn for our world to be like this, but we live in the reality of a hungry world where our hunger never seems to be satisfied. 

In today’s Gospel, Jesus had been healing and teaching people about God’s kingdom when he heard the news that Herod thought he was John the Baptist’s ghost, out for revenge. The crowds that followed Jesus were proof to high people in high places that he was a threat to their status quo.

Jesus knew he was in danger, but his work isn’t finished yet. So, he withdraws from the region until it is the right time for him to return. He and the disciples get into their boat and head to the other side of the lake.

Somehow, the word about his destination got out. The people discovered where his boat was headed, and when he came ashore, a crowd was waiting for him. We are told the crowd is around 5,000, or more like 10,000 people including the women and children who gathered to see him.

We couldn’t blame Jesus if he needed more time to recharge after the distressing news he heard. But Jesus didn’t yield to the temptation to shield himself from his grief and pain and the suffering mass standing in front of him. Instead, something pushed him to go on. As soon as he got off the boat, he began to cure all who came to him.

We are told that he was driven by compassion.    

Thomas Merton, a catholic monk and mystic, said, “The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another.”

Compassion is not just feeling sorry for someone; it brings us to the recognition that all of us are in this together and we need to support one another through life.

We would say that compassion comes from the heart, but in Hebrew, the word “compassion” connotes a feeling that comes from the bowels… deep down in the center of the gut. Compassion is the ability to understand another’s pain. It involves walking with people in their suffering and results in a deep desire to somehow mitigate that pain. 

Too often, we find ourselves identifying with another’s pain so much that we do one of two things. We experience the pain so deeply that we fall into a state of hopelessness. OR, we do everything we can to protect ourselves from it. We ignore the pain we see around us by putting up walls to keep it out. We turn a blind eye to people in pain, all the while convincing ourselves that their pain is the natural consequence of their behavior. We give up trying to alleviate the pain, and we forget that God has always had other plans for all of creation. 

I think the disciples are at this point. I am guessing that after a long day, they are beginning to get hungry too. They are not insensitive to the people’s needs, so they come up with a solution. Jesus should send the crowd away to the nearby villages where they can get some food.

But Jesus doesn’t heed their advice. Instead, he gives the task of feeding the people back to the disciples. 

I can hear them now… are you kidding me Jesus? We can’t do this. We have five loaves of bread and two fish – barely enough to feed us…. and you want us to feed all these people? We will all die of starvation here!  Jesus tells them to bring what they have to him. He lifts the bread to heaven, offers it to the Father, breaks it, divides it and gives it to the disciples to distribute. Everyone there is filled and there are twelve baskets leftover – one for each of the disciples.

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.”

Too often we, like the disciple don’t believe that God has provided us with enough resources to carry out God’s work in the world. We live with an attitude of scarcity and forget that our God is a God of miracles. The feeding stories remind us that the only way we can break out of this state of mind is to place all that we have back in God’s hands. No gift is insignificant for God to make a miracle.

Today in worship, we will present our financial gifts during the offering. On our behalf, the acolyte will receive our gifts and lift them to God, dedicating them to God’s work. We can expect to see miracles…miracles made possible with the gifts we have placed in God’s hands. We are not a huge church with a huge budget, but we make a difference for others.

As a member of the council, I have witnessed many miracles made possible because of your gifts.

We provide food for more than 100 people each month through the Food for Friends program. We help to stock the Food Pantry in South Hadley by bringing needed items every month. We support a student in Haiti, providing him with an education and basic medical care. We have stepped out in new ways to share the Good News with our Hymns and Beer evenings.

Even seemingly insignificant things like the tabs from soda and vegetable cans are gathered to support the Shriner’s hospital. This one small gift has brought miracles to many children who need medical care.

Last Saturday, Our Savior’s had a booth at the Fall’s Fest. I hope you had a chance to stop by to see what we were doing. Amanda and I shared the job of running the booth in the early afternoon. She has the gift of gab and was great at attracting people to our table by inviting them to receive a ticket for a free drink just for spinning our wheel.

The wheel was like a small Wheel of Fortune, except that there were 12 numbers on it and several other slots that would provide a free ticket and even a water splash. This of course was a favorite for the kids. Even Pastor Anna and I got in on the fun…and yeah – I got her wet.

It was up to me to handle the educational piece. If the wheel landed on a number, I would ask the winner a question about water. If they didn’t know the answer, we talked a bit about it. The best part was when the kids realized we were playing this game with clean water while others didn’t even have proper sanitation or clean water for drinking and cooking. 

Not only did we bring attention to the need, we also shared concrete ways to preserve water and to support initiatives that bring clean water to those who have none. To top it all off, the tickets we gave out were purchased from the Falls Fest organizers who donated all of the money back to the South Hadley Food Pantry.

Your gifts of financial offerings, time, talents, and passions placed in God’s hands helped to support all of these activities.

But there’s more…Each week, as we present our financial gifts, we also bring the elements of Holy Communion to the altar.

In the last few months, Pastor Anna has been including an explanation in the bulletin for each part of our service. Just above the heading for the offering, you will find the following description:

“We begin the Table rite by offering our gifts to God: our selves and our talents and resources, while the community offers Bread and Wine to be the Eucharistic feast.” 

Bread and wine – simple ordinary gifts that we offer to God. They become Jesus’ body and blood for us. In this celebration, the divine and the human are joined together – interconnected. In this meal, we receive the gifts of forgiveness, community with all the saints, and the promise of life.   

Nothing we bring to the table is insignificant.

Today and every week, God gathers us at the table and creates a miracle. God offers the gift of grace and mercy and invites us into a holy story, a place where our meager offerings are multiplied into greater blessings.

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.”


For more information on Stan Brock and RAM®:

For more Thomas Merton quotes: