The Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA), J. Herbert Nelson, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention Rev. Dr. Steven Gaines, and Pope Francis, were all out fishing together. But they weren’t having any luck catching anything. So the Pope suggested to the group that they go out to a little island a few hundred feet offshore, where he was sure the fishing would be much better.
“But, we don’t have a boat,” objected Steve Gaines. “How will we get out there?”
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” the Pope replied. “Just follow me.”
So the Pope headed out toward the island, walking across the water.
Presently, Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson followed along in suit. When they both got to the island shore, they looked back for Dr. Gaines, who was only about twenty feet off the distant shore, standing neck deep in water.
Chuckling, J. Herbert asked Pope Francis, “Shall we tell him where the stepping stones are, your holiness?”
“What stepping stones?” replied the Pope.
I know, you’ve probably heard that joke a million times in one form or another. Just as I’m sure you’ve heard this Bible story more times than you can count.
And I suspect that when the average Presbyterian hears such a well-worn story like this one, at some level they just stop listening. “Yeah, sure…I’ve heard it before. Old news. Plus, things like that don’t really happen. And even if it did happened way back then, those kinds of miracles don’t happen today.”
So, this morning, we’re going to pause for a while to think about this old story anew; and try not to let the questionable facts of it, get in the way of its central truth.
Every now and then one or another of you will come up to me and ask something to the effect of, “C’mon Tom, you have some pull upstairs, don’t you? Can’t you do anything about this – hot/rainy/cold/fill-in-the-blank – weather?”
And the pastor’s standard response is, “Sorry, I’m in sales, not production.”
Of course, we all know that the weather is the one subject that everyone talks about, but no one does anything about. Because we have no power over it. A meteorologist is the one job you can have and still be wrong 80% of the time.
Weather is unpredictable at best. At worst? Well, we’ll probably be talking about the storm of July 1, 2017 for years to come.
Growing up in Kansas, Diane and I both know that you definitely did not want to get caught out in a tornado, even though living your life in tornado alley – which spawns over 200 tornados each year – you realize there’s always the risk of that possibility. It’s a regional hazard.
And, as fishermen, those first disciples also knew that anytime they got into a boat out on the Sea of Galilee, they were taking a significant risk, as well. It was an occupational hazard.
A little meteorological lesson: The Sea of Galilee is about 12 miles long and 8 miles wide; a far way to traverse in a little boat. Chill winds blow down from the Golan Heights on the eastern shore, colliding with the warm air rising off the water, spawning frequent violent storms; a phenomenon not usually found on inland lakes. But one which any skilled Galilean fisherman would warn you about. It’s an unpredictable environment, at best. And often leads to a treacherous journey for those making the crossing.
And yet that was part of life for those first disciples. Those fishermen turned disciples knew what it was like to be in a small boat on a stormy sea.
By the same token, in those early days of the church, Christian disciples represented a small, relatively insignificant minority in every city. And they were routinely tormented, persecuted, hunted down, arrested, tortured, and executed by the most powerful entity the world had ever known: the Roman Empire.
So the early church really loved this story about Jesus coming miraculously to the disciples in their beleaguered boat and then calming the stormy seas around them.
In fact, one of the very first symbols of the Christian church was that of a ship heading into a storm. The early church fathers even referred to the church itself as `the ark of salvation’; as in the ark that carried Noah and his assorted entourage through forty days and nights of stormy weather and into the bright promise of the rainbow and a new day in God’s covenant.
But, they had to have been scared to death that night. Alone and afraid in the darkness, adrift on a bottomless sea. Of course, now we know that sudden ocean storms are the result of atmospheric conditions, troughs of high pressure and low pressure, cold dry air mixing with warm moist air. Two thousand years ago, though, they believed it was the result of demons living beneath the surface of the waters. The disciples feared what they could not see.
Thus, with the wind and waves threatening to capsize their little boat, those disciples were probably thinking that they were sailing into oblivion, never to be heard from again. Then Jesus came like a ghost through the mist, like one of those demons rising from the depths to bring their doom.
I’m sure most of us have felt that way, at one time or another; like we’ve had to struggle just to keep our head above water. Felt like, somehow, life’s hidden demons were out to get us. Just sailing along and then suddenly we’re swamped with a horrifying diagnosis from the doctor; or we find ourselves unexpectedly out of work and getting buffeted by the harsh winds of financial woes; or without warning a stormy marriage starts coming apart at the seams.
You feel the waters surrounding you, rising up, pulling you under. And you feel like you have no power to do anything about it.
The Psalmist gives ancient voice to that human angst: “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. I am weary of crying; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.” (Ps. 69:1-3)
Those first disciples loved this Bible story because it reminded them that – in the midst of all the turmoil and the struggle – they were not alone. They had each other. And, most importantly, they had Jesus Christ in the boat with them.
The One who was Lord even of wind and waves.
The One who could bring calm even to the most violent of storms.
Today, this age-old story, which we just read yet once again, reminds us that even in the midst of life’s storms, Jesus comes to us.
Calls us to: “Take heart. And don’t be afraid. For I am with you.”
Now, Peter hears that voice and – being the impetuous soul he was – responds by almost demanding proof: “If it is you, Lord, command me to come to you on the water.”
With a sort of odd mix of fear and faith – not even daring to step out of the boat of his own accord – Peter asks Jesus to command him to do so. And Jesus simply says, “Come.”
`Join me amongst the wind and the waves. Join me in the deep waters.’
Not long after a devastating diagnosis of brain cancer and subsequent surgery to remove a blood clot over his left eye, John McCain tweeted, “I greatly appreciate the outpouring of support – unfortunately for my sparring partners in Congress, I’ll be back soon, so stand-by!”
Less than two weeks later Senator McCain returned to Washington D.C. and voted his conscience on the health care repeal bill; arguably preserving health care for millions of Americans for the foreseeable future.
We gather together in the church like this to remind ourselves that we are not alone; we share in the support of fellow seafarers. We come here hoping that this small vessel will afford us a bit of buoyancy in the sometimes stormy waters of life.
But we come to this place also accepting a certain amount of risk, knowing that, when we ask Jesus to command us to join him where he is, he may well, on occasion, command us to step out into deep waters, even though the storm is raging all around us. It is a vocational hazard.
One week ago this past Tuesday (August 1st), as I was heading off to church that morning, Diane said goodbye the usual way, “Have a good day.” But then added, “And congratulations!”
“Congratulations for what?” I asked.
“Today is your one year anniversary at First Presbyterian Church,” she said.
And I thought, “Wow . . . that’s right. Man, it’s gone fast.”
But then I started thinking about some of the initiatives that we’ve launched over the last year: The Pass-Through Project, which folks here have been talking and dreaming about for a number of years; and now we’re pushing forward on it, with a timeline, an architectural design, and firm estimates for the work to be done (and you will be hearing more about this in the near future from the Trustees).
And we’ve also been knee deep in conversations for the last several months with Interfaith Works, the Common Grounds Committee, and other village churches regarding what we might do locally about the global issue of the refugee plight; trying to discern God’s will for us, as a community, in response to that tragic human suffering.
And, I’ve discovered that, the further we get out into those deep waters, the more I hear other disciples in the boat express their concerns, anxieties, and fears about it.
“What if somebody gets mad when we start making changes to the interior of the sanctuary and starts making a big fuss about it?”
“What if some of our congregation doesn’t want to have anything to do with refugees – with those people – and withdraws support, or even stops coming to church?”
Christ disciples still fear, sometimes, what they cannot see.
But when I hear those kinds of things, my heart just starts to sink.
And what I want to say to you – as your pastor – is this: When you really determine to respond, even with both faith and trepidation, to Jesus’ command to “Come;” joining him in the midst of the storm; getting out of the boat and going to where he is by stepping out in love toward others through both words and in action – the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the refugee, the foreigner; the gay, the lesbian, the transgender, the questioning; the disabled, the displaced, the dispossessed, the disheartened; the ostracized, the ignored, the forgotten people of this world – then you too will know the joy and the freedom of walking with Jesus upon the deep waters of this life.
Life is ever a risky proposition, if for no other reason than because it is so unpredictable. Storms can crop up without warning. And if you venture into this Boat to set sail on high seas, surely that risk increases.
For every time we listen to God’s Word – read from this ancient book – we take a risk: a risk that God, in Jesus Christ might challenge our faith by calling us to step out of our comfort zone.
Every time I step into this pulpit (which resembles the prow of a boat more than I’m comfortable with), I am taking a risk: a risk that God might lead me to say something that God’s people don’t want to hear.
But, as God’s people, we cannot allow ourselves to be led by fear, or prejudice, or self-preservation, or private agenda. As the church, we must be led by faith; even though that faith might well be mixed with great trepidation, because we do not know where following Jesus Christ might lead us.
But, I can guarantee this: If you respond to Jesus’ call and dare to walk amidst the wind and the waves for his sake, then you will be rewarded with the power of a deep and living faith.