It wasn’t the first time that day that Jesus had gotten into a boat. Now evening had come and it was time to get back into the boat and cross over to the other side.
I doubt there’s a person here this morning that will not at some moment hear these same words, “Let us go across to the other side.” Are we willing to launch our boat, face the storms, and find the grace of calm for our lives in the One who beckons us to cross over to the other side?
Life is one crossing after another: Birth, marriage, separation, divorce, graduation, aging, retiring, entering the work world, losing those we love, our homes, our health. Sometimes it’s crossing from one worn out idea to another, or perhaps a huge attitude shift. You name it. We all are called to make our crossings, to go across to the other side, and that other side we may or may not be able to see.
These crossing are times of “liminal space” or ritual space, as the scholar Victor Turner would say. It’s a time of danger, darkness, potential death and opportunity as well. Transitions are like that and we enter into a different space, a danger zone that is also an area of opportunity as well.
At one point earlier in that day Jesus had met the crowd at just such a liminal place – down by the seashore. There he had taught the crowd and explained the parables in private to his disciples. The crowd pressed closer to him, and it was hard to back them up. They wanted more. They knew their very own lives were at stake. It had been a long day of teaching, explaining, and reaching out to those on the fringes of life. He had been forced to get into a boat, push off from shore a bit and address the crowd from the boat.
Now, evening had come, the liminal time between day and night, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us go across to the other side.” I’m wondering if someone here this morning might hear those words echo down through the ages and consider that they may be spoken once again to you this very morning.
Let us go across to the other side by launching our boats.
I know of someone who wanted to go to sea so he began to build a boat in his backyard. When my wife was a child, she had a neighbor who lived behind them on the other side of a tall fence. This neighbor had a dream. He would build a boat and begin to explore the world. He decided he would build it in his back yard. He ordered the plans that came in a kit, and began to build. This was no rowboat, but a large boat, and everyone in the neighborhood knew about it. He started out by constructing a building to house his project and the neighborhood kids threw him milk cartons to line the roof of the building and keep the rain out. There were a lot of giggles about his project and he asked for advice from the neighbors as he worked for over ten years building his boat and his dream to sail away some day. Some said he was a bit off but the neighborhood tolerated his project. But, you know what, after more than ten years the boat just sat there. It never made it to sea. Maybe he ended a ten-year argument with his wife. Maybe the boat had been so long on land that it began to rot and was no longer seaworthy. Maybe he couldn’t get it out of the yard without tearing down the house. Maybe, maybe, maybe. Whatever! The boat never launched and neither did his dream. At times we may simply get caught in our dreams and never take the chance of enacting them.
Maybe we don’t cross because we’re looking for the perfect launching. You know the church was often compared to a ship, the mast being the cross, an image of the church as being like Noah’s ark. Most launchings don’t go so smoothly. Some of you know about this first hand here at St. John’s on St. John’s Day. Launchings take a lot of preparation especially for a sideways launch: greasing the skids, first knocking the blocks out on the launching side, then driving in the wedges that begin to tilt the ship, and then the slide, huge splash and the ship rights itself. Sometimes we simply have to act even though it may not look so nice.
Maybe we don’t launch because we want to hold on to the familiar. Some people will cling to the familiar that is unhealthy for them rather than risk changing to something that is new and unfamiliar and yet healthy for them. It seems safer to stay put – even when their life is not working.
Some people decide to live in houseboats. They can’t decide if they want a house or a boat, and so they stay tied to a dock in a houseboat – most of the time.
I’ve known others who stand on the shore and tell themselves a story about what it’s going to be like if they leave shore and their stories frighten them into not getting their boat wet. The pull their boats further up on shore! Never know how high the tide will get!
One story some tell themselves is that everything is going to get worse if they launch their boat into the unknown. They are convinced and certain this will be the case. Life is a bad soap opera, and the story is surely going to turn out bad. They seem to know just what’s going to happen, and it’s going to be bad, bad, bad.
Others tell a story about how wonderful it will be on the open sea, if you just keep a positive attitude. It’s all in your mind, all in your attitude and your mind can control the situation and that will keep you safe. They have the interesting idea that their mind is all-powerful, and if their mind is not positive about an adventure they will choose to stay on land.
Both the negative and positive story is driven before the wind by anxiety about the unknown. And, of course, anxiety is not something we are to blame for experiencing and we may experience it in various degrees of intensity. However, at times we cling to our stories as a way of controlling an unpredictable future. At times and for a period of time this may be necessary. In doing so though we may cut ourselves off from surprises, from God’s grace, even from our own relevant resources and yet mostly from God who is there to help us draw on the resources we need at the time – resources that help us meet what comes our way from the unknown.
Let us go across to the other side in spite of the storms we will inevitably meet.
Suppose we do launch our boat, and hoist our sails and end up ‘luffing’ before the wind, perhaps caught in the irons. How do we get out of the irons? We throw our wheel or tiller hard to one side, tighten up on the sheets, and then catching the wind we can start across to the other side.
There will, of course, be storms at sea and we are suddenly in peril.
Those of us here this morning know there are sudden squalls that hit us in life: A tragic accident that happened to thirteen year old Trevor Smith who fell between a car and a trailer and was killed, young mothers and fathers killed in war, the sudden onset of a disease, losing someone we love, a moment of betrayal and the loss of innocence, an unexpected diagnosis, a financial reversal fed by an overall economic crisis.
Some storms seem to blow for days and even for the life of a person: Children are born with a particular gene that limits them physically throughout their lives. Another gene changes brain chemistry and a person suffers from a so called mood dis-ordering of their lives where depression pulls them down into the depths of the sea, taking the life of a friend Nancy on April 13th, a friend who encouraged me in the ordination process. Others unexpectedly, find their thoughts racing, pressured to speak, emotions overwhelming them and like an accelerator stuck, they cannot slow down. There’s often no recall to fix the problem and if there is relief through medication some of the side effects at times also reduce the quality of life.
There are storms. They happen. There are storms and there is the crisis in the storm. And what is the crisis? It is to be found in the disciples cry to Jesus, “Do you not care that we are perishing?” Do you not care? Does anyone care? Is there any more painful cry into the terror of life than the one that asks if God cares? Jesus himself was to cry out in anguish from his cross, “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Are we alone? Is there no one there for our deepest fears?
It’s so hard to hear another person say they don’t care much less that God wouldn’t care about our peril. Sometimes people say they don’t care when what they mean is that they are overwhelmed. Life is too much. They are swamped. They’ve taken on too much. The bilge pumps can’t keep up, and so they shut down and tell us they don’t care. Sometimes people say they don’t care when they really mean they are so angry with us that they have to get away. They try to create some distance by not caring.
Yet the most anguishing cry comes from the suffering of the innocent and the fear that we live in an impersonal universe, alone, and without knowing that we are cared for in spite of the storms of life. If I am honest with myself, I have seen enough in, even my own personal life, to join the cry of the disciples, “Do you not care that we are perishing? Does God not care?”
In my youthful innocence I recall seeing a storm come up on the bay in front of our home and rushing down to hoist my sails on my 19’ Thistle. I wanted to sail into the wind, just off the wind, lowering the jib, reefing the mainsail, letting out as much sheet as possible and sailing close to the wind, making long reaches across the bay, while the waves threw water into the boat and at times drenched me through.
At times I have faced the difficulties of my life, sailed into the wind and at other times I have dangerously “come about” and run before the wind, fearful for my life, and eye on the boom that could suddenly swing across my sailboat if I wasn’t careful about the direction of the wind. Life seemed too terrifying to face.
Others had to help me face my fears. And they did. They were close family. They were strangers. They were people helping me that I will never know. Whether they belong to a church or not, they were “the church” in that moment. You who are here in this ship at St. John’s represent those people. You celebrate their caring by your presence, by your love and care for each other. Those people did not say from one end of a sinking ship, “Charles, your end of the ship is sinking!” They knew; I knew that we are in this together, and through us God incarnates his care even when we are uncertain and afraid and feel alone in what seems to be an arbitrary and uncaring world.
Calming of the Sea
Let us cross over to the other side and discover who we can trust to calm us in our fears.
At twenty, I sailed for a summer on the 150’ tug John Roen III towing logs a mile and a half behind the tug – logs that were enclosed in a huge raft. We towed them all summer back and forth from the shore of Lake Superior to Ashland, Wisconsin where they were loaded onto trains to be taken to the paper mills in Green Bay. While I painted the deck during the ten to two watches during the day, at night I was a wheelsman with the third mate. I had the ten to two watches, ten at night until two in the morning. Most of the nights were calm as we crossed the shipping lanes on the three or four day trip.
That is, it was calm, until the one night when we were caught in a sudden storm. The third mate quickly rang the bell that summoned the captain to the pilothouse. He was asleep in his cabin just behind the pilothouse. The tug rolled from side to side and the bow was lifted up and then crashed down at a different angle. Standing at a large wheel, I frantically watched the gyroscope as the ship swing fifteen to twenty degrees off course and I had to anticipate this and compensate by spinning the wheel to keep the tug close to being on course.
The captain was calm. He asked the third mate questions about our location, what ships were coming down from Duluth/Superior. What was the weather forecast? He asked about the length on the towline and shortened it. How much drift was in our course? He adjusted our course out of the trough of the waves so that our bow was at least hitting the waves at better angles. He rang the engine room and slowed our speed. He said very little. Yet his questions and small adjustments calmed our spreading fear.
And then he left, and went back to his cabin to sleep.
Isn’t that what Jesus did? Jesus questioned the disciples toward an inner calmness. He wasn’t scolding them with his questions. He wanted to know. He led them by questions that would transform their lives. He asked them very specific questions, “Why are you afraid?” How is that you have lost your faith, your trust, in the face of this storm?” Asking those questions began to diffuse their fear.
These were not rhetorical questions he asked of the disciples or that he asks of us. They call for our response. He wants to know specifically what we fear when we cross to the other side and face the most difficult storms of our lives. What is it that we are feeling? Thinking? Imagining? That we’re not strong enough? That we can’t bear the pain? That we can’t let go? That we’re not good enough? Confident enough? Religious enough? Wise enough? What do we fear in particular about crossing over to a better life? He wants to know the fear of each one of us here this morning.
Knowing our specific fear we ask honestly for help. He responds to our specific fears – even our challenges, “Do you know what you’re doing? How could you do this to an innocent child?” He may help us adjust, adapt to our changing conditions. He may help us see how to set another course, trim our sails. He may respond through another person, through these words, through the sacraments of bread and wine, through this community of St. John’s on St. John’s Day. He may come to us in a stranger’s words of kindness or challenge.
God’s love is accurate. God’s love is aimed at our specific fear for the next moment of crossing in our lives – be that at evening time or in the morning of our lives. He may give us a new course for our lives, alter an image here and there, set the sails differently, ask the right questions, send us someone who will guide us for a time. He is there in the moment we need him.
How full of awe that moment is, how awesome is its power, and no wonder we too, like the disciples, ask, “Who then is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
The disciples didn’t really know. They really didn’t get it. Perhaps we don’t know either and will never quite understand how he comes to calm our fears, how he stills the raging sea that beats against us with questions we cannot answer. We may never quite know how he comes when life overwhelms us, even swamps our boat, when life seems so unfair, especially to the innocent, who did absolutely nothing to have had their lives so limited.
Who is this that helps us answer the call to cross over to the other side through thought, word and deed of what is no longer working in our lives?
Who is this that enables us to face the stormy times of our relationships, and failing health, and grounded vocations and the wind blown process of becoming who we are intended to be?
Who is helping us imperfectly launch into our unknown futures knowing that storms surely will arise?
Could someone here this morning tell me who this is?
When I listen into the Kingdom of God that is like a child, I hear that child singing down through the ages, “This, this, is Christ, the Lord.”
Let us pray: “O hear us when we cry to thee for those in peril on the sea.”
Dec. 15, 20013
Third Sunday Advent St. John’s Episcopal Church
Are You the One I’ve Been Looking For?
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Matt: 11: 2-3
A Japanese proverb states: “The tea bowl has two handles. Always pick it up by the other one.”
How will we pick up the other one this third Sunday in Advent? Has the Messiah come? Is the Messiah coming? Will the Messiah come again? All of the above? Confusing to us. Confusing to the early church.
How do we get a handle, any handle, much less the other one, on this Advent season?
Perhaps by a question buried deep in the heart of the human condition, a heart wrenching question, one of the last of a prophet’s life. It is addressed to Jesus from the prison cell of John the Baptist, “Are you the one who is to come…?” It is heart wrenching trying to make sense of our lives. Sooner or later we all feel imprisoned and want to know if there’s a way out. Who or what will we ultimately trust?
It’s a confusing time of year because so many voices fill the air beckoning us to be of good cheer through making the right purchases be it diamonds or whiskey or how about a new Lexus with a red bow tied around it? Ad after ad. Voices, competing, and pleading for our attention and dollars.
And then there’s the wildly popular show claiming to find, THE VOICE! Perhaps you’ve seen it. It comes on right during Monday night football! It’s strictly about voice! Based on what voice the judges like they push a button on their chair. They swivel around in their chair to see whom they have chosen to hopefully become The Voice.
The judges listen intently. On key? Flat? Sharp? Yet there’s another voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare a way for the Messiah.” There’s the voice of the good shepherd who goes ahead of the sheep who follow him “because they know his voice.” (Jn. 10:4) A voice from prison is asking, whom do I trust as my life is ending?
I’m wondering. With all these voices vying for attention, for whom will we turn our pew around?
Take away these pews, pull up the carpet, a few boards, jack hammer some concrete, turn the lights off, cover these nicely stained windows and quite easily we are cellmates. With John the Baptist we are wondering who or what to trust. Above a young girl begins a dance that will lead to John’s arbitrary and gruesome death. Perhaps John senses his dangerous situation with Herod and Herodias. Perhaps he knows he’s wrestling with some of his last thoughts on earth. What has his life meant? Has it made any difference? Been mislead? More importantly, is this Jesus the one deserving of his full loyalty?
Life becomes a prison for many and not because they deserve to be punished. We dare not talk casually about the metaphorical meaning of blindness, or deafness, or physical diseases or poverty, or despair. For many, these are concrete realities. (A woman, who is blind, taps down the uneven sidewalk on 6th street each day. War amputates arms and legs. One in nine people in Sonoma County live under the poverty line; one in four are on Social Security.)
Yet there are many ways we are afflicted. It’s hard to see through childhood patterns. Hard to hear through threatening adult voices. Hard to rise up and walk when we are waiting for another test result. Hard to be cleansed when the words of forgiveness are stuck in our throats. Hard to feel alive when the drudgery and routines of life wear us down. It’s difficult to receive good news when our spirits fall to new lows. (More people die by suicide than by auto accidents.) At times it can just feel like life is reduced to the lowest common denominator and we are pressed down into the dirt floor of our cell.
We can only imagine that John might also have felt deeply discouraged, doubtful, perhaps even despairing in the confinement of his cell. He knew he had challenged the established powers and morality of Herod and his wife. No doubt he knew his life was in peril. And now he wonders about his life: What has it meant? What did it mean for him to cry out that a new kingdom was at hand, and that it would be fulfilled in Jesus as the Christ? Was he deluded? Was he just making up what he desperately wanted for himself and his world? He needed to know. So do we, don’t we?
John sent his disciples to find out, to ask Jesus directly. Are you the one? The answer came quickly, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” (Matt. 11:5)
How are we to understand this reply? When I look around and see hopefull streams in the desert of people’s despair, “the speechless singing for joy, “I also see their desert, the wasteland, and the tragic side of life. I see so many people innocently suffering: Children not getting a fair genetic start; arbitrary devastating disasters such as typhoons and earthquakes, sudden illness and death. Herod’s daughter dances on. Look around, but what do we honestly see?
No sense taking a poll on this. Gathering so called empirical evidence will not do. There are facts and the interpretation of facts. How to evaluate what we see? It’s dark in a cell. Easily blinded, hard of hearing, hearing what we want to hear, seeing with no peripheral vision, we often distort what we see.
It matters how we look at the experiences of life. Last week in Wyoming it was so cold people’s contacts frozen to their eyes! Frozen eyes, hard eyes, or soft eyes? It matters with what eyes we see and with what ears we listen, and with what heart we approach life. Is there One who will gracefully help us see and hear in a new way?
Strangely, when I just don’t know what to make of it all, when I let myself down into the darkness of my own cell, when I don’t falsely fight it all off, from over there, in the corner of the cell, I hear the faint cry of a child. I see a young teenage mother holding her child, humming, singing softly, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” (Luke 1: 46b-47. Her beautiful voice silences the harsh sounds of life.
Suddenly Herod trembles in a nightmare. The powerful are brought low. Here and there, a change of heart. Here and there, a U turn. Fear in the hearts of the unrighteous. Here and there, a knee touches the earth. Some lame get up and dance with strangers. “… sorrow and sighing … flee away.” (Isa.35: 10) A voice says, “Cross over this bridge of despair. Live for a future you do not yet know.”
In those moments, a ray of light enters the cell. I see a small group of people gathering together at 5th and C with a devoted priest. They embrace the diversity that glorifies creation. This small group of people are being loved free of their self enclosed cells, their eyes opened, their ears are inclined to the voice of One they have come to know.
As the young mother sings to her child, I hear once again their longing plea echoing down through the centuries, “O Come, O Come Immanuel”.
In spite of blindness, life’s pain in our ears, I hear a voice nevertheless, faintly at times, a voice that seems to be the one I’ve been listening for, hoping for, straining to hear and the voice says,
“Fear not. Rejoice. Be of good cheer. Your wait is over. I am Christ, the Lord. Look around. Your jailbreak is at hand. Your imprisonment is over. I am coming to set you free.
For I am the one you’ve always been looking for. I am coming for you.”
Prayer: O Come, O Come Immanuel. Amen.
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Petaluma, CA. Jan. 26, 2014 Charles Asher
Down By the Seashore
Matt. 4:19 “And he said to them, “Follow me….”
“I must go down to the seas again,” says the poet, “for the call of the running tide Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied; And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying, And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.”(John Masefield)
A wild and clear call.
Down by the seashore, it’s a wild call because we don’t know what we’re getting into, what will be required of us.
Down by the seashore, it’s a clear call, a command to obey in the face of all life’s distractions.
Down by the seashore we do not always get the nice day at the beach we asked for when, suddenly, interrupting our best laid plans, someone, is asked of us, like it was of Peter and Andrew, James and John, “And he said, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people?”
There’s something compelling, isn’t there, about going down to the seashore? Most of us are drawn to it from time to time. There we walk along between the known and the unknown, the sand slipping away beneath our bare feet. Our footprints are so suddenly washed away. Our castles in the sand easily crumble. We sense the transitory nature of our lives. We look to the horizon and wonder what lies beyond it? What, if anything, might transcend this all?
We carefully spread our towels out, grind our umbrella pole in the sand, and watch children bring bucket after bucket of water from the sea as they try to moisten our lives with what we do not know about ourselves. With the incoming tide, Jesus washes our feet in our dreams, daydreams, dis-eases, losses, hopes and aspirations. We say, “It’s only a dream, a tiny bucket of water from the sea, child’s play.” Is it?
Meanwhile the ocean calls us to renew our baptism in the pounding surf where a lone Nazarene crosses the usual boundaries we have so carefully marked. He heals the sick, befriends the poor, talks with women, eats with the outcast and the unemployed and under employed, and the lonely and lost and those without hope. His love transcends our rigid sexual preferences and fantasies, our tidy rules and regulations, and our petty moralizing and our firm hold on the familiar.
In those moments of uncertainty, he comes unknown to us, when we lay down on the sand between everything we know about life and all we do not know as our lives begin to recede. He comes between the sure footing we seek and the sand slipping away beneath our hard won security, and says, “Fear not. Follow me….”
There, down by the seashore, where two or three are gathered together, walking along the shore, he may also come to us in another person.
I know a man fairly well, not as well as I think I do. His identity is confidential. I know he has taken up a certain posture in life. You can see it in his body, how he walks along the beach, head down, shoulders slumped, flatfooted, chest caved in, heavy steps, slightly pigeon toed.
You might say it looks like he carries the weight of the world. He is a serious sort of guy. Therein lies a subtle inflation. Not too many people can carry that much weight so he thinks on occasion. He carries so much that somewhere it helps him feel like he is important even though he also senses that really isn’t the case.
Important or not, one day his young daughter asked him to go to a yoga class with her. “Why not,” he thought. “Maybe I can learn to stand up straighter, improve my posture a bit.”
At the yoga studio a nice mellow instructor welcomed him and he took off his shoes, and lay down his ultra thin mat on the gym floor next to his daughter. From time to time he sneaked a look at his daughter standing on her head and to see what he was supposed to be doing. The instructor with her foot behind her neck soon hopped over to him and brought him some rope to bridge the gap between his hands behind his back. Then she brought a wooden block for a prop, and then a few cushions and before long he was surrounded by everything but a stretcher. Others lay on thin mats with no accoutrements.
When class was done, he did feel a little differently though, a little bit lighter, a little taller, not so compacted, as though something about his posture toward life had changed. He felt a little more dependent on his smiling daughter, less so on himself. Some unnecessary weight had lifted and he thanked her for taking him to yoga, and told her he loved her, and made a vow he would never do it again. When he told his daughter that, as he painfully loaded himself into the car, she said, “Don’t be silly daddy; I love you too.” He was no longer quite the same person.
If you were a fisherman, however routine the day started, you never knew when a fierce wind would sweep down off the steep hills surrounding the Sea of Galilee. The unexpected would suddenly arrive. You could be on hold for Anthem Blue Cross for two hours. You could be driving your kids to school. You could be mending your fish net stockings. You could be casting a net over your hair.
Meanwhile, fishing or not, a young Nazarene makes his way toward the seashore, and comes to this particular group of brothers at this precise moment and he says, “Follow me.”
Immediately, not later, immediately, they left their nets, their boat, and their father. You see they didn’t store their decision in virtual reality, in “the cloud” backed up by a LaCie Disk, where they could retrieve it for some future consideration. They put down the familiar, dropped their anxiety overboard, scuttled their fear of the unknown. They didn’t let their feelings of inadequacy drown out the strange feelings of being loved that kept washing over them in the presence of this Jesus of Nazareth. They acted on what they knew, right then. A wild and clear call, “Follow me.”
They began to follow him, to follow Jesus leading them up a narrow path from the sea, down D street, left at 5th to C.
Peter, the rock, who had aspirations to be a leader in Rome some day, began the first annual parish meeting when he asked how we could get more groups to use Cram Hall. Andrew, the ritualist, suggested they all stop and sip some wine and eat some bread. James, the activist, said, “We just ate. Let’s act. We need to subvert Herod’s power.” John, the inclusive one, said that the church to be named after him at Fifth and C, needed more women ushers.
At John’s idea they began to bicker among themselves because after all they were men, special now, and this seemed to them to be men’s work. Then some reports were read and the minutes approved.
Meanwhile Jesus, listening to them, kept moving toward a nearby synagogue. He had news to proclaim that had never been heard before. He was the news he was proclaiming. The sick and rejected lay heavy on his heart, and there were evening shadows beginning to fall across his path. The right time had come for them all. The rough and ready fishermen following Jesus hurried along, stumbling here and there, trying to keep up with him, muttering about the church budget, carping about this and that.
What an unlikely bunch of followers, at 5th and C, called to usher in the kingdom of God.
Jesus didn’t think so.
Oh God, in and through our Lord Jesus Christ, in the mystery of your ways, you have called us, even us, to follow you. Help us to do it. Amen