June 24, 2018
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them,
"Let us go across to the other side."
36 And leaving the crowd behind,
they took him with them in the boat, just as he was.
Other boats were with him.
37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat,
so that the boat was already being swamped.
38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion;
and they woke him up and said to him,
"Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?"
39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!"
Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.
40 He said to them, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?"
41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another,
"Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?"
It is the end of the work day for Jesus. He is most likely exhausted. He has been teaching all day. The crowds were so great at the seashore that he sat or stood in a boat moored just at the edge of the beach in order to teach. Imagine balancing your weight in a boat to teach. Speaking above the lapping of the waves. Telling stories to help the people understand the ways and realm of God. Watching their puzzled faces. Patiently explaining over and over what you thought you were making clear the first time. No wonder Jesus is tired! No wonder he falls asleep on the journey across the Sea of Galilee to the country of the Gerasenes....distant Gentile neighbors of the Jews.
Yet tired as he may be it is Jesus’ idea to make the crossing of the sea by night. To go to a foreign country with no particular preparation, a country where they may or may not be welcomed. He is not saying....”Hey, guys! Let’s get in the boat and go home! Won’t it be great to sleep in our own beds?” No, he is saying,” Hey guys! Let’s get in the boat and set off on another journey into unknown territory after a long, exhausting day of teaching, preaching....being with the crowds.” And they all go with him....they had to have been tired as well. They take him “just as he was” the text says. No preparation. Just as he was....remember that phrase, we’ll get back to it.
They, too, leave just as they were. And not just one boat but an entire flotilla of boats go with Jesus. Other boats, most likely fishing boats...perhaps the livelihood of an entire village, maybe more. They all set off together. They all encounter the storm together. They are all in peril. This is bigger than the fate of one small boat with Jesus and the disciples, as momentous as that might be. If any of them go down it will impact more than one family. If more than one perishes, God forbid all of them, the livelihood of several villages is wiped out.
The very image of setting off into the dark is bit scary for you and me. Remember there are not lights on this boat....not one has a cell phone flashlight or flashlight of any kind. Perhaps some of them were skeptical about setting out at night...knowing what might be when storms come up, knowing the storms on the Sea of Galilee.
When the storm comes up the disciples are truly scared. There are no life preservers. No rubber raft life boats. The waves are beating into the boat....the rain must be coming in sideways...so any lit lantern would be doused. Steering is getting more impossible. What if the boats are dashed against one another by the storm? This is a serious! “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” What do they hear? Snore.
No wonder they are upset! Frantic. Panicked. They are bailing water and steering and calling out locations...trying to row for shore....yet they cannot save themselves. They realize they are in the boat with this one who has shown them amazing healing miracles through the power of God, who preaches good news with stunning truth. A teacher sent from God. But he is not paying attention just when they need him most! He is asleep in the back of a boat....head even on a cushion! For God’s sake! “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”
In the dark days of WWII a sailing boat was adopted by World Council of Churches as the symbol of the church universal. Depicted on storm tossed seas it had a cross for a mast. We are in the 21st century church boat in the stormy seas of our times....sailing it seems at times with no particular preparation....no extra provisions...no life preservers....here we are just as we are .... and there are a flotilla of competing boats with us, boats of politics, culture, other faiths, other kinds of Christians. What can we do? Will we be effective in riding out the storm? Can we steer the boat? Or in the midst of all the other boats will we crash into one another causing more disaster in our efforts to save ourselves and help our neighbors?
In “The Wood Song”, Indigo Girl, Emily Saliers sings,
the thin horizon of a plan is almost clear
my friends and i have had a tough time
bruising our brains hard up against change
all the old dogs and the magician
now i see we're in the boat in two by twos
only the heart that we have for a tool we could use
and the very close quarters are hard to get used to
love weighs the hull down with its weight
Her words are an apt description of our life and times. Though we might think she is a bit optimistic in thinking it is love that weighs the hull down with its weight. Our boats seem weighted with greed and competition rather than love and compassion. Yet perhaps she see the bigger picture from our text today and is remembering Jesus in the boat. God’s love with us in human form, in the boat.
“God, do you not care that we are perishing?”
I amazes me how Jesus wakes up and immediately he is in the moment. No grogginess. No yawning. . Jesus, so attuned to the power of God that he wakes from deep sleep into complete chaos and knows immediately what to do. Remember that phrase from the beginning of the story. They took him “just as he was.” Jesus wakes up and just as he is....he rebukes the wind and says to the sea....”Peace! Be Still!”
In the Greek, he literally says “Be Silent! Be Muzzled!” And the wind and the sea obey. There is a dead calm And Jesus says to the disciples, to us.... “Why are you still afraid? Have you still no faith, no trust?”
Oh, that I could handle crisis in this way.....but I am not Jesus...none of us are. We are the ones in the boat with Jesus. And our job in the midst of chaos is to remember that we are not alone. To remind one another, we are not alone.
We row and steer and bail out the water AND pray! We protest and pray. We write letters and make calls and pray. We build housing and feed people in our church and pray. We volunteer and send aid, love even our unpleasant neighbors....AND WE PRAY! And God shows up! Just when we are think that this old boat of a church might be so tired that its breaking apart ....God shows up! For us just as we are. And God is always enough...there is always a love that passes all our understanding watching closely over the journey.
In the final verse of her song, Emily sings,
sometimes i ask to sneak a closer look
skip to the final chapter of the book
and then maybe steer us clear from some of the pain it took
to get us where we are this far yeah
but the question drowns in its futility
and even i have got to laugh at me
no one gets to miss the storm of what will be
just holding on for the ride
My friends, we may feel beaten and battered, old and tired as individuals and as the church, but Jesus meets us just as we are....just where we are...with the power and authority of God. And it is enough for any stormy journey. Remember, the task ahead of us is never greater than the power behind us. We know we will make it fine if the weather holds....but the weather never holds....there is always change in the midst of life....and the point is we can always go to the place of faith. Jesus is there waiting for us. Just as we are. Waiting to still the storms and heal the brokenness. That’s where we need to go. And together with the disciples of old we can say with awe and wonder, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?" Thanks be to God!
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson ,2018 and beyond. May be reprinted for publication with permission only.
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, Associate, Minister, is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. She is also the writer of sermon-stories.com, a lectionary-based story-commentary series. Learn more about Jane Ann here.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
June 17, 2018
I’ve been wondering…what is it that has kept people coming to church for the past 2,000 years? What is it that we’ve got that other groups and organizations don’t have? Let’s face it, the ACLU does social justice better than we do. The federal government supplies more housing that we can ever hope to. Laudamus and the Larimer Chorale are more polished than our choir…even though we share some of the same singers. CSU does a better job at young adult education than we do. And even though we love potlucks and Ice Cream Sunday, Austin’s and Walrus Ice Cream have superior offerings. And Snapchat is a lot better at reaching millions of teens with smartphones than we ever will be in youth group. The coffee is better at Starbucks than it is at our coffee hour. And you might hear more articulate people if you were to stay at home and watch CBS Sunday Morning than you’ll encounter here at Plymouth, even in this pulpit.So, maybe we should cash it in while we can.
If we sold our property for $9 million, that would mean that each member of the church would get about $12,500. If you read all of the studies about mainline decline and read the self-flagellating books and articles about how narrow-minded, bigoted, and anti-intellectual we Christians are you might want to cash in your chips and just become spiritual but not religious. Certainly, plenty of people have done just that.
And for our staff, we could be making a lot more money as lawyers, professors, or in the corporate world. And we’d get to have three-day weekends, wouldn’t be on call 24-7, and wouldn’t have to work on Christmas Eve or Easter.
So, what has kept people coming to church for 2,000 years? Is it just our social justice and music programs or coffee hour?
Here at Plymouth we DO act for social justice. And we are one of the most active venues for participative music each week. And we do have outstanding adult theological education. And we do have food free-for-alls that welcome you, whether you contribute or not. And we do instill a profound sense of morals and values in our children and youth. And you might actually gain some insights in hearing promptings from the pulpit or in a coffee hour dialogue. And to my colleagues, you get to do amazingly meaningful and fulfilling work.
But this still doesn’t answer my question: What has kept people coming to church for 2,000 years?
Back when the UCC entered a full-communion agreement with the ELCA Lutherans, a wise and bold Lutheran pastor speaking at the UCC General Synod offered these words of challenge to us: You need to remember that UCC doesn’t stand for United Church of Causes, it stands for United Church of Christ. She knew one of the pitfalls of our denomination: that we sometimes substitute working for social causes for being the body of Christ. To be sure, acting for social justice is an important component of the way many of us live out our tradition, but it is not an end in itself. What does it mean for us, the church, to be the body of Christ in the world? Paul writes, “Now, you (plural) are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” [1 Corinthians 12.27]
About a year and a half ago, I was sitting in a doctor’s office, and I heard the words that many of us dread: “You’ve got cancer.” What do you do with that news? Other than scaring the Dickens out of myself by reading way too much conflicting information on the internet, I’ll tell you what I did: I prayed. You see, there is nothing that the ACLU or the Larimer Chorale or CBS Sunday Morning or Snapchat could do to help me navigate the scary waters of cancer treatment. But, my faith – and by faith I mean a trusting relationship with God – my faith gave me the tools to walk through a very scary time. And unlike most other folks with cancer, I had to make my news very public with all of you, which was not comfortable or easy, but it was the right thing to do. That line in the unison prayer this morning struck me: “We pray not for smooth seas, but for a stout ship, a good compass, and a strong heart.” A solid, trusting relationship with God is a stout ship with a good compass, and it provides us a strong heart.
Every morning, during my prayer time, I started offering this as one of my prayers: “Circle me, God, keep wholeness within and cancer without.” And it is a prayer that I continue to offer for the members of our church who are living with cancer. You may not know I’m praying for you each day, but I am. “Circle us, God, keep wholeness within and cancer without.”
I was out having a beer with one of our members on February 1st this year, when my iPhone rang. I couldn’t understand Jane Anne’s voice through her tears; so my son, Chris, got on the phone and told me the news that strikes fear into the heart of every parent: that one of our sons, Colin, had died. And I raced home across town and held Jane Anne tight. I hope that none of you ever has to go through what we went through this year, but if you do, I hope that your faith in God sustains you. I didn’t know what else to do after we received this news, so I lit a candle and prayed. In the middle of the night, our doorbell rang, and a Fort Collins police officer appeared to make the official notification of Colin’s death. And then there was a discussion with the medical examiner and the funeral director and picking up Colin’s belongings from the coroner’s office. And we decided to be very frank and open with the congregation in telling you that the cause of death was suicide. That level of transparency was not obligatory…and God knows it wasn’t easy or comfortable. But it was the right thing to do. We were trying to embody healthy communication: that even when it’s hard, uncomfortable, jarring, difficult news, it is important to tell it straight, be honest, and be direct. That kind of open communication helps keep the body of Christ, the church, healthy. I can also tell you that the only way Jane Anne and I are standing here this morning is because of our faith in God and because of your faith and prayers pulling us along. In the week after his death, I had a very strong feeling come over me, a feeling that let me know that Colin was at peace. Our prayers together with your prayers and expressions of God’s love created a wave of faithful expression that kept us afloat…and they still keep us afloat!
What has kept people coming back to the church for 2,000 years?
Part of the answer is that when life gets very, very real…when you think the world is crumbling…faith in God will keep you going. And life WILL get real for each of us. We will get a pink slip at work. We will learn that our parents or spouses or (God forbid) children have died. We will hear the doctor utter the words of an unfavorable diagnosis. And eventually each one of us will die.
It may be in those moments when we most clearly rely on the strength of our faith in God, because no matter how intellectually astute or wealthy or young or accomplished or seemingly bulletproof we are…life gets real. And then there is nothing that the ACLU or the Larimer Chorale or CBS Sunday Morning can do to make you see that death is not the final word, that the sun will indeed rise tomorrow, that you are part of something bigger. Unlike the ACLU, Larimer Chorale, or CBS Sunday Morning, we comprise the body of Christ in the world.
That tiny, little mustard seed…that’s what the kingdom of God is like. Maybe the church is like that mustard seed, too. It may look tiny compared to other seeds, but when it takes root and gets going, it can be explosive. And it’s exciting to be a part of that…to dream of what God is calling us to become! And you know that Jesus also said that if your faith is the size of just a little mustard seed that your faith has the power to move mountains.
If you are like me, sometimes you may feel that your faith – your trust in God and Christ – is really tiny…that it may not be adequate or up to the job when life gets real. Faith is like a muscle in that it needs fuel and exercise in order to grow; it needs to be nurtured and used so that it will grow.
For those of us who are (or are trying to be) physically fit, how much time do you spend training each week? 3 hours? 5 hours? 7 hours? And for those of us who are trying to be spiritually fit, how much time do you spend exercising your faith? I’m doing a lot of swimming right now, and it occurred to me that spending 15 minutes praying each morning doesn’t compare favorably with the time I spend swimming. And if you need help with a spiritual practice or workout, please come and see me…I have ideas!
But you don’t need to be a spiritual Ironman. No, you just need faith like a mustard seed and to water it, give it air and light and soil. Maybe that’s part of why people keep coming back to church after 2,000 years: to nurture that wild, explosive seed.
So, let me ask you a personal question: Why are you here today, and what keeps you coming back?
In these uncertain times in our nation, it is easy to put our heads in our hands and admit defeat. Or to play small…or to opt out of controversy…or not to claim our inheritance as followers of Jesus and proclaimers of the kingdom. Our faith is not bound by time or space or even the span of a human life. It is eternal. And so our relationship with God supersedes our politics, our nationality, our race, our gender, our body. All these aspects of our personhood will cease when we die, but our faith will not.
The empire in Jesus’ day and in our own can take away our wealth, our livelihood, our rights, our land, our freedom, even our life. But one thing they can never take away is our faith – our relationship with God.
A wise Congregational/Unitarian minister, Ralph Waldo Emerson, once offered these words, and I want you to hold onto them, because life will get real for you. And you will need the force of your faith to see you through: “The task ahead of us is never as great as the power behind us.”
May it be so.
©2018 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
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