“Be Perfect” and Other Impossible Feats, Matthew 5:38-48, February 19, 2017, FPC Holt

“Be Perfect” and Other Impossible Feats
Matthew 5:38-48
February 19, 2017, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Listen here

Alright, we’re going to play a game, Let’s call it Matthew 5. When you hear something that applies to you, raise your hand:

Who out there has given clothing to a friend?

Who has gone the extra mile to help someone out that is close to you?

Who has given money to someone you care about?

Now, who has given clothing to someone you really don’t like?

How about going the extra mile, who has gone above and beyond to help someone who has gone out of their way to be unkind to you?

What about money, who has given money to someone who they don’t trust at all?

Okay, now raise your hand if you are perfect.

When we really think about the practical applications of this text, it’s a hard one to follow.  It’s made harder by the fact that we probably don’t name those around us the same way this text does.

2017-2-19-slide-2-enemyWho is your enemy? Perhaps someone popped into your head immediately. If so you may be thinking, guess I’m really failing that, “be perfect,” test? Or maybe not. I’d like us to think about this for a minute. Who is your enemy? You might be sitting there thinking, “oh, this doesn’t apply to me, I don’t have any enemies,” but let’s really think about it. Who is it that has caused you pain? Who has acted unjustly in your life? Who has caused pain to those you love? Whose actions diminish your way of living?

2017-2-19-slide-3-jesus-preachingJesus does something interesting in this text. He doesn’t say “don’t have enemies,” or “avoid evildoers,” in fact Jesus says “do not resist an evildoer,” and “love your enemy.” Because it’s in the past we can fall into thinking that it was a simpler time. I know those pictures I’ve seen of Jesus preaching have everyone in rapt attention. No one questioning, no one doubting. Everyone on his side. 2017-2-19-slide-4-jesus-crucifixion I remember hearing about the crucifixion when I was younger and thinking, “why on earth did they kill Jesus?” “what did they think that he had done?” “wasn’t he nice to everyone?”

What I didn’t know then, and what I’ll likely always be trying to understand, is that if you are nice to some people, there are others who won’t like you very much. And if you profess loyalty to God’s kingdom of justice through equality, those who benefit from being on top really don’t want you around. There really aren’t just the good guys and the bad guys that we may boil things down to for the sake of Veggie Tales and children’s books. There are so many more nuances in between, and perspective is everything. How can we love those so against who we are and what we are?

2017-2-19-slide-5-karoline-lewisLuther Seminary professor, Karoline Lewis wrote, “Loving your enemies will not sit well with most… First, you have to determine just who those enemies are. They are often not the obvious suspects… Our enemy has indeed become our neighbor, or so we think… We suspect those we never did. We question those who we thought were our friends. We look differently at those that others have said, ‘Do you really know who they are?’”

2017-2-19-slide-6-fear-of-the-otherI know there have been times in this current political climate where I have felt wary of those around me with symbols and clothing that have designated them to be of a different ideology than me. Though never threatened directly, I didn’t feel entirely safe to be who I was, where I was. And if I feel this way as a Christian, white, cisgendered, heterosexual American female citizen with european ancestry living in a small town, you know there are many in other demographics who feel exponentially less safe than I do, those whose demographics place them automatically on the “other” list for a majority of the people they interact with every single day. Many have enemies, not of their own choosing, but who are self-identified by their proclamations of xenophobic opposition and hate.

2017-2-19-slide-7-boyd-bookIn his challenging book, “The Myth of a Christian Nation,” Gregory Boyd writes, “While people in the kingdom of the world usually do good to those who do good to them, followers of Jesus are called to do good even to those who harm them (Luke 6:34-35). When struck on the cheek, we are to offer up the other (Luke 6:29). When asked by an oppressive Roman guard to carry his equipment one mile, we are to offer to carry it two (Matthew 5:41). Understood in their original context, these teachings do not tell us to allow people to abuse us, as though we are to love our enemies but not ourselves. To the contrary, Jesus is giving us a way by which we can keep from being defined by those who act unjustly toward us. When we respond to violence with violence, whether it be physical, verbal, or attitudinal, we legitimize the violence of our enemy and sink to his level. When we instead respond unexpectedly—offering our other cheek and going a second mile—we reveal, even as we expose the injustice of his actions, that our nemesis doesn’t have the power to define us by those actions. (p. 39-40)”

2017-2-19-slide-8-mlkThis is the very principle that spurred Martin Luther King Jr. to found a movement of nonviolent resistance, and the very thing that made it so powerful. Hate is the expected response to hate. Confront pain with peace and it is thrown off balance. Are we really to love our enemies? What would that love even look like?

2017-2-19-slide-9-buechnerPresbyterian theologian, Frederick Buechner wrote, “Jesus says we are to love our enemies and pray for them, meaning love not in an emotional sense but in the sense of willing their good, which is the sense in which we love ourselves. It is a tall order even so. African Americans love white supremacists? The longtime employee who is laid off just before he qualifies for retirement with a pension love the people who call him in to break the news? The mother of the molested child love the molester? But when you see as clearly as that who your enemies are, at least you see your enemies clearly too. You see the lines in their faces and the way they walk when they’re tired. You see who their husbands and wives are, maybe. You see where they’re vulnerable. You see where they’re scared. Seeing what is hateful about them, you may catch a glimpse also of where the hatefulness comes from. Seeing the hurt they cause you, you may see also the hurt they cause themselves. You’re still light-years away from loving them, to be sure, but at least you see how they are human even as you are human, and that is at least a step in the right direction. It’s possible that you may even get to where you can pray for them a little, if only that God forgive them because you yourself can’t, but any prayer for them at all is a major breakthrough.”

2017-2-19-slide-10-confrontationToo often we believe conflict avoidance is the way to be a Christian, but avoiding our enemy gets us no closer to being able to love them. Our scripture says “do not resist an evildoer,” no, instead Christ invites us to draw closer to them, to offer our other cheek, and our cloak, and to walk that extra mile. Martin Luther King Jr. brought about a movement of nonviolent resistance. It wasn’t violent, but it was still confrontation.

How can we faithfully confront hate without allowing ourselves to reflect that same hate? How can we use our opposition to unmask our enemies rather than drive them further away? What would it mean to really and truly know your enemies?

2017-2-19-slide-11-accidental-courtesyAfrican American musician Daryl Davis has spent his life working to figure this out. I recently saw his story in an incredibly thought-provoking documentary, “Accidental Courtesy.” He seeks out members of the Klu Klux Klan and asks over and over again, “How can you hate me if you don’t even know me?” His passion is meeting and befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan in an attempt to change their minds and forge racial conciliation.

2017-2-19-slide-12-davisIn the documentary, Davis says, “Let’s say you and 20 other people have this group that is anti-racist and all you do it talk about how bad racism is, what good is that group doing? All you’re doing is preaching to the choir. If you and I agree, I’m not accomplishing anything by trying to convince you of which you already know. The way you resolve that is you invite somebody to the table who disagrees with you and so you can understand why they have that point of view. Then, perhaps, you will figure out a solution to dissuade our fears.”

His words echo that of Jesus in our text, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?”

2017-2-19-slide-13-davis-handshakeDavis most certainly practices what he preaches, going out of his way time and time again to come alongside members of the KKK and learn what it is that motivates their white supremacist beliefs. He told a story of helping the family of a klansman to visit the man in prison and the way that his care for them, even and especially in the face of their hate, enabled him to change their minds and hearts.

2017-2-19-slide-14-mlk-quoteMartin Luther King Jr. once said, “every word and deed must contribute to an understanding with the enemy and release those vast reservoirs of goodwill which have been blocked by impenetrable walls of hate.”

Hand on shoulder, close-up

Hand on shoulder, close-up

Let’s think about that “enemy,” that you identified earlier. Let’s use some different questions this time. What pain has your enemy experienced? What has shaped their sense of justice? How is their life diminished by the absence of your story and experience?

2017-2-19-slide-16-compassionI’ll admit, I don’t know the answers to these questions. I’m still figuring out what this radical vulnerability in the face of an enemy would look like in my life, but by the power of the Holy Spirit, I believe wholeheartedly, that our efforts to show love and compassion in the face of hate are not in vain.

2017-2-19-slide-17-perfectionBe perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” We hear these words and feel inadequate, but this word that we have translated in the text as “perfect,” can also be translated as “complete.” 2017-2-19-slide-18-puzzleWhen we seek the wellbeing of those who do not seek the same for us, we do come closer to the completeness only found when two sides meet to form a whole. May we ever seek to bring about the perfection God desires for us, so it may be on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

 

Here is a trailer for the documentary I reference:

The full-length film is available here till the end of February 2017.

“When Following God is Hard;” Genesis 22:1-18; June 29, 2014, FPC Jesup

“When Following God is Hard”
Genesis 22:1-18
June 29, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01There’s a lot you can find out about the faith we practice, by what we teach our children. There’s a particular canon of stories that make it into children’s story Bibles. I bet you could help me name them. What are some familiar ones? Creation, Adam & Eve, Noah and the Ark, Moses in a basket, Jesus Turning Water to Wine, Feeding 5000, Last Supper, Jesus’ Baptism, Nativity Story. Though I won’t go so far as to say that these stories are necessarily easy to understand, we can tell kids about how God show’s God’s love, promises, works miracles, and in general, shows up for God’s people.

SLIDE 2 - Abraham and SarahOur story today is of a different variety. Abraham is someone we lift up to our children as a great and faithful man, but if we want to be authentic, we cannot distill his story so easily into a child’s storybook. We may tell the story of an angel telling Sarah she’s going to have a child and her laughter at the thought given her age. That is a sweet story with a happy ending, at least how we usually hear it. And sure you may have sung “Father Abraham Has Many Sons, Many Sons Has Father Abraham!” but that song comes after this story. In this particular story we are situated between two happy anecdotal understandings of Abraham’s larger story. We are in the strange in between of God’s incomprehensibly painful request, and Abraham’s incomprehensibly obedient faith.

Slide03We read that God said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love…and offer him…as a burnt offering.” And then in the very next sentence, without so much as a gasp, moan, or shout, any of which would be more than understandable given the circumstances, we read, “So Abraham rose early in the morning…” and then he goes about readying himself to take Isaac to the mountain to sacrifice him.

Would the God you believe in ask a parent to sacrifice their only, long awaited child? Would the God I believe in do this? There’s no point in really asking, since here God is, asking Abraham to take Isaac up to be sacrificed. But it is worthy of reflection, how does this strange and painful request change how we view our God? Is our God so cruel? What is God getting at? Abraham is one hundred years old! Hasn’t Abraham been through enough? How would you react? How would I?

Slide04What was the conversation like between Abraham and Isaac as they’re going up to the mountain? We’re told that they traveled for three days. Three days that Abraham knew resolutely of the dark and terrible thing to which he had been called and to which he was driven to complete. What on earth did they talk about those three days? Did they talk about Isaac’s school lessons? Did they talk about their fieldwork? Or maybe Isaac spoke of his affection for another girl in their village. How could Abraham keep the conversation casual? How could he not weep at Isaac’s dreams for his future? How could be not weep at his own dreams for Isaac’s future?

Slide05And where was Sarah in all of this? Sarah who had walked beside Abraham in seasons of both scheming and faith, surely she would have something to say. Maybe she didn’t know. Maybe Abraham didn’t say anything to her. Maybe that’s why he rose early in the morning, to avoid her eyes that could see right through his intentions. While she has been a partner to Abraham throughout both the good and the bad of their relationship, she is nowhere to be seen in this story, left at home while Abraham takes the burden of this request on by himself.

Slide06In this story there’s a strange covenantal conversation happening between God and Abraham. God had promised to Abraham over and over again that he would be the father of many nations[1], and then, requested Abraham sacrifice his only son from his beloved wife, Sarah. Isaac was more than just the son whom Abraham loved, he was also the answer to a promise, the conduit through which the many nations would come to being. God was asking Abraham to sacrifice that which God had promised.

It’s seems like God is playing a strange game with Abraham, which given the history between the two of them, doesn’t seem like a great idea on God’s part. Of course, God is God and will do whatever God wants, but still, it’s strange. Sure we know Abraham for his great faith now, but we needn’t go too far back in Abraham’s story to see his weakness. He did not trust that he would have a son with his wife, and so he had a son by his wife’s servant, Hagar. The family line started by his first-born son, Ishmael would continue on to be the beginning of Islam, solidifying the theological break began by two very differently regarded half-brothers; a rift in God’s people that began with Abraham and Sarah’s mistrust in God’s plan.

Slide07As is the case among many of God’s people, including and perhaps especially us, it can take a long, long time for us to understand what God is doing in our lives, and desiring to do through our lives. God’s the only one that sees all the gears turning, all the many lives unfolding, all the pieces coming together, and when we approach our all knowing God from our own particular circumstances, it can be frustrating to not have God’s perspective. We have so many questions, many with answers that are only incrementally revealed throughout our lifetimes, understanding our lives through living them.

Some look at the lives of Christians and see faith, while others see willing ignorance, two sides to the same coin. From the edge of these two perspectives we approach Abraham on the mountain bound journey, asking how he could be so uncritical in his obedience even while we applaud his faith.

Slide08I’m not sure what it was that allowed Abraham to go all in on this request of God. Sure the Biblical author chalks it up to faithfulness, but the history between Abraham and God is such that it makes me think that there was more at play. Faith, yes, but perhaps also acceptance of how utterly outmatched Abraham is by God. Maybe there’s even a sad sort of curiosity? I could see him shouting out in the night “come on God, you’re the one who promised I would be the father of many nations…what’s your plan now?” And yet, day after day, for three days they travel to that mountain with wood for the burnt offering, but no burnt offering.

Slide09The way Abraham’s actions are described in this story are rather frightening in their detachment:

“Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together. When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.”

There is no, “lovingly he regarded his son for the last time,” or “with a tear in his eye he took the knife.” The description is dry and perfunctory, inevitable, unflinching.

I don’t know about you, but that bothers me. To me, Abraham has always come across a bit callous and resigned. Is that what faith is? Is this is the sort of faith to which were called?

Slide10In the next verses we hear, “the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’” This is the third “Here I am” of the passage: the first, Abraham answering God’s call in the night; the second, Abraham answering Isaac’s question at the absence of a sacrifice; and the third, Abraham answering the angel. “Here I am” is Abraham’s constant reply. Over and over again he doesn’t know what is to happen next, but his response is being present, listening, and obeying.

The angel continues saying to Abraham, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”

Slide11While God does ask Abraham to sacrifice his son, God ultimately stops him. After three days of sorrow, it turns out God was only testing Abraham. Surely this relieved Abraham, but I don’t think that’s the type of sorrow you can really forget. I’m sure that it changed his relationship with God, both in how he understood God’s requests and understood his own ability to respond. Abraham learned through his experience that sacrifice was not God’s ultimate goal with Abraham, rather God wanted Abraham’s obedience.

SLIDE 12 - Hosea 6 6In Hosea 6:6, Hosea brings these words from God: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”

Slide13Sacrifice is not something God asks of us, but it is something that God has offered for us. Abraham did not have to give up his son’s life on that mountaintop that day, but God willingly gives up his son, Jesus through death on the cross. God offers that unfathomable sacrifice, pays that unimaginable price, for the sake of all of God’s children. God does not ask us to make the same sacrifice. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

[1] Gen. 12:2-3, 15:5, 17:2-9

“Lost and Found”; Luke 15:1-10; September 15, 2013; FPC Jesup

“Lost and Found”
Luke 15:1-10
September 15, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 1 - NYC SubwayTwo weeks ago the New York City subway system in Brooklyn was shut down for an hour and a half. As crowds gathered and commuters became frustrated, they certainly guessed at what it could be, what could shut down their subway travel so completely? It turned out that the reason was not some mechanical issue or political threat, but two kittens. Everything was stopped so that these two kittens could be rescued when they were spotted down on the rails below. Everything was stopped so that their two little lives could be saved.[1]SLIDE 2 - Kittens on rail

I know when I first heard this story my reaction was an incredulous, “really?” Though I am an animal lover myself, it just seems… unusual, bizarre, and disproportionately inconvenient. However, after being reminded of our scripture lesson this week, I realized that this story of extravagant care and compassion while being so odd is simultaneously a manifestation of the Gospel message.

This story is rather close the parables Jesus gives us in our scripture today.  Jesus asks, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

????????????????????????????????????????This passage just leads to more questions, why would Jesus advocate such a bend over backwards approach to caring for that one lost sheep? What is he seeking to accomplish by leaving all the rest of the sheep and just going after one?

Our understanding of Jesus’ parable, and our response to it, depends on our perspective. Those 99 sheep could be like those subway travelers, frustrated with the circumstances, not happy with being left unable to move forward. Those sheep in that group likely pulled closer together. Those subway travellers were likely tapping feet, sighing deep sighs, and grumbling among themselves.

SLIDE 5 -Stranded SheepNow imagine instead that the lost one is one that you specifically care about, a loved one, a spouse, a family member, a child. Of course you would want everything to be stopped, and you wouldn’t mind if you were left with the rest of the group, because it would be to search out for your loved one. “Whatever it takes,” is the mantra of a parent of a lost child, and the response of our heavenly parent to all lost children.

It’s a strange and scary picture for anyone to be left in the wilderness, but even harder if you are one alone in the wilderness. Wilderness doesn’t feel so wilderness-like when you’re in community. Though yes, there were still dangers to these 99 sheep, there were even greater dangers for that one sheep out by itself.

SLIDE 6 - RighteousI’m also bothered by the idea in this passage that Jesus doesn’t pursue the well being of the righteous. What a strange thought. We think that by coming to know God better we reach some sort of inner circle where we have direct access to Jesus Christ, but this passage points to a strange and challenging message. Once we have achieved righteousness, whatever that may look like, we are no longer Jesus’ top priority.

1 Timothy 1:12-17 says, “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”

Jesus is not worried about the righteous; he’s worried about lost. While Jesus came to be our example and friend, he came most explicitly to be our savior. He’s not about buddying up to us, he’s about caring us in our brokenness and about seeking the restoration of our sinful souls.

By extension, we are tasked with worrying about the lost, rather than about the righteous. We are called to reach out of our own comfortable pew and group of church friends to those who are searching for God. We are called to reach out to those who don’t even realize that it’s God that they are searching for.

There is a baptismal prayer in the tradition of the Uniting Church in Australia, that sums up God’s desire to seek us out of our unperceived brokenness: “Little child, for you Jesus Christ has come, has lived, has suffered; for you, he has endured the agony of Gethsemane and the darkness of Calvary; for you, he has uttered the cry “It is accomplished!” For you, he has triumphed over death; for you, he prays at God’s right hand; all for you little child, even though you do not know it. In baptism, the word of the apostle is fulfilled: ‘ we love, because God first loved us.’”

Searching for the one over caring for the many is a strange and disorienting gospel message. When worked out in a real life situation it seems foolish. Of course no one wants to harm kittens, but are the lives of these two little kittens really worth all of that inconvenience? That day, that transit authority worker said, “yes, yes they are.”SLIDE 7 - Kittens

A colleague of mine brought up an interesting point with the kitten story, she said, “I bet the New York City subway official who made the decision to shut things down was a pet owner.” My first thought to that was: well, probably because than they would have more of a soft spot for the welfare of all animals, but then by second thought was: oh, of course they are, but they’re not just worried about those specific animals, but thinking of their own animals and what great care they would want to be shown to their animals if they were in similar circumstances.

SLIDE 8 - Jesus GriefJesus is not just a person worried about that sheep lost in the wilderness. This parable points to bigger concerns: he’s worried about all of us who feel lost in whatever way we are lost. He’s worried about all of us that don’t realize we’re lost. Which brings up another question, did the sheep know they were lost? The sheep probably didn’t know they were lost until they ran out of food. Those kittens probably didn’t know they were lost until they were able to experience home again. The whole wildness world can seem like a great adventure, until we become hungry, spiritually, physically, or relationally. When we discover we are being starved from community and wake up feeling this deep sense of loss in the midst of our lives.

SLIDE 9 - Lost and FoundKeep in mind, the categories of “lost” and “righteous” are not permanent assignments. Psalm 14 provides a rather bleak view of what we think we know about our own justification.  It says, “Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is no one who does good. The LORD looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God. They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one.”

If you believe yourself to be righteous, I would ask you to look to your brokenness and seek God there. If you believe yourself to be lost, I would ask you to look to the places you feel whole and seek God there. Maybe you think you have things figured out, and maybe you are doing alright, but God has placed within you a deep desire for “home,” both in God’s eternal kingdom, and in God’s kingdom here on earth, and until that “home” is sought you will have a hunger within you. Trying to do it all on our own is just plain exhausting. and it was never God’s intent for our lives. We were meant to be walking this journey of life and of faith alongside one another.

SLIDE 10 - Welcome MatI am so glad that you made the decision to come today. Each and every one of you. And while I’d like to support our regular members as much as I can, I have to tell you, I’m going to follow Jesus on this one, I’m going to spend more time with those who feel lost than with those who are doing just fine. If you feel like you’re disconnected or lost or unsure or uncomfortable, you are the person I want to sit down and have a conversation with. If you feel like you are stretched so thin in trying to get everything “right” that you are no longer able to receive the joy and love of a personal relationship with God, I pray that this church will be a place of respite. You are the person that I want all of us to make a home for here in this flock.

Because this congregation, this fellowship, and this church body are better for you being here. Each of you. When that one in one hundred is not here, we are not fully able to be who God calls us to be. When you are not here, that change is felt, the dynamic is changed, and we miss you. It may feel strange being back after being gone for a long time, or being here when you’ve never been before, but I urge you to push past that strangeness and into the embrace of that fellowship, because God and this community want to welcome you home.

SLIDE 11 - MosaicWhen we are all together, we rejoice, and as our scripture says, “there is joy in heaven.” One of my favorite images of the church is a mosaic. There’s something incredibly beautiful and powerful to how a great many broken parts all come together and create beauty. These broken parts are much more than they would be by themselves even if they were one whole piece. Each of us coming in brokenness with or own raw edges makes a beautiful image of God’s love.

God desires to seek you out in your brokenness, to place you on his shoulders, carry you home and to throw a party with all of the neighbors. “Rejoice with me,” Jesus says, “rejoice!” Amen.

“Even the Wind and the Sea Obey,” Genesis 1:1-10, Mark 4:35-41; June 24, 2012, First Congregational Church of Williamstown

“Even the Wind and the Sea Obey”
Genesis 1:1-10, Mark 4:35-41
June 24, 2012, First Congregational Church of Williamstown

The other day I went for a hike on Mount Greylock, on the Bradley Farm trail. This trail is a “self guided trail,” with markers every once and a while. The numbers on the markers correspond with numbers on a brochure and each has information about that specific site.

One of the sites drew my attention to a big rock in the pathway. I looked at my brochure and it said, “The Mount Greylock range is made up of mostly grey-colored metamorphic rock (changed through heat and pressure), as in this boulder. According to geologists this rock here was created from what was once part of a muddy sea bottom hundreds of millions of years ago. Bands of translucent, white colored quartzite, formerly sand, are found here too.”

Reading this, I couldn’t help but laugh, you see, as I was driving up the mountain I was thinking about our scripture passages today, how to bring light and life to two very different passages. One, which we heard read from Genesis, discussing the formation of the world, and another, which we read together, speaking of a short narrative moment in Jesus’ ministry, both having to do with God’s ability to control the ocean.  And then my car stereo started playing a favorite song of mine, Paul Simon’s “Once Upon a Time There was an Ocean.”

The chorus to this song goes, “Once upon a time there was an ocean but now it’s a mountain range. Something unstoppable set into motion, nothing is different, but everything’s changed.”[1]

And now, here I was, about 3,400 feet above sea level, being told that I was much closer to being in an ocean than those 3,400 feet would have me believe.

Thinking of these large shifts in the ocean over a long period time I tried to picture the land around me in a new way. That the nearby butterflies were not butterflies at all, but rather they were seahorses, flitting about in a familiar way. And the fern along the path, bent in the wind as seaweed moved by a slight current in the ocean.

How different things seem when we look at them through the long lens of history. Amazingly, this is the very vantage point that God brings to creation and to our lives.

In our New Testament passage today, we read that Jesus and a group, widely assumed to be his disciples, are traveling across the Sea of Galilee on a boat, when a great windstorm arises and the water laps over the sides. While the disciples were frantic, Jesus was asleep on a cushion. They awake Jesus and say, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He wakes up, rebukes the wind and tells the sea, “Peace! Be still!” The wind stops and it is entirely calm. Jesus asks them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” They were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Nowadays the body of water they were traveling across is called Lake Kinneret. It’s a large, shallow body of water, prone to very sudden violent storms. West of the lake are mountains that form a funnel around winds blowing in from the Mediterranean, creating volatile weather over the lake.[2] By their nature, these storms don’t last for long.

Let’s be clear, this storm was frightening, and no one could fault the disciples for feeling threatened by this seemingly all-encompassing storm, but by Jesus’ reaction we see that this fear was greater than that. Pastor and author David Lose offers this perspective, he writes: “maybe the issue isn’t that the disciples are understandably afraid because of the storm, it’s that they allowed their fear to overtake them so that they don’t come to Jesus and say, ‘Teacher, we need your help,’ but rather come already assuming the worst, ‘Teacher, don’t you care that we’re dying.’ This isn’t a trusting or faithful request; it’s a fear-induced accusation.”[3]

God has the bigger perspective, has seen the other side and knows that this storm will end.

I am reminded of a slogan that arose out of a tragic string of suicides particularly among LGBT youth in the late summer of 2010. In response to a number of students taking their own lives after being bullied in school, author Dan Savage created a YouTube video with his partner Terry Miller to inspire hope for young people facing harassment. They wanted to create a personal way for supporters everywhere to tell LGBT youth that, “It gets better.”[4]

“It gets better.” What I appreciate about this slogan is that it does not seek to diminish the current pain that anyone is feeling, but rather strives to instill hope for the future. Living with bullying and harassment is indeed a very violent storm, all encompassing when it is around you. And when it is around you, you’re not sure that it will end. But Dan Savage and a great many people following his lead speak out from the other shore, beyond the crashing sea, saying, “It gets better.”

In Hebrew there is a phrase that I feel encompasses this all surrounding stormy-ness: toehoo vahvohwho. In a literal translation it means chaotic void. It is found in the second verse of Genesis, which was read for us today. Beginning at verse 1, we read:

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was toehoo vahvohwho and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” This place of chaos, of desperation is our starting point. It is the raw ingredients from which our entire world came into existence.

Through God’s creation, this toehoo vahvohwho mess is separated out, dark from light, sky from water, land from sea. Creation, is inevitably an act of separating what is to become one from what is to become another. Even at a microscopic level we see this act, cells separating, particles pushing away from one another.

There is a story told that the great artist Michelangelo was once asked how he created his famous statue of David. He responded that he simply started with a block of stone and then chipped away everything that wasn’t David. And perhaps this is how we can view our own creation; our experiences sometimes chipping away at us, other times smoothing the rough edges, so that we can become fully who God created us to be.

Now, I am not going to stand here and say that our God is a God who would intentionally inflict pain to makes us better people, or to test us, or because we can handle it. But, I do believe that when we are in the midst of the storm we are to trust that it will indeed get better and to have faith that God’s will will be enacted by how we react to the storms of our lives.

There is an interesting moment in our Mark narrative today, where the disciples’ perspective is changed. In the midst of the storm they cry out to Jesus, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Once he has calmed the storm they are filled with great awe and say to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

In Jesus’ transformative act they are moved from one type of fear, that of panic and fright to another type of fear, that brought about by the awe and reverence of encountering something greater than ourselves.

“Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” It’s a good question. Why would the wind and the sea stop at the command of a man? Well, we know that Jesus was more than a man, he was part of the Trinity, He was God incarnate. The wind and the sea obey God because God was the one who created them.

In our passage in Genesis, starting in verse 9 we read, “And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.”

The ocean became ocean by being separated from the dry land.

The hymn we will sing at the end of this service, “God Marked a Line and Told the Sea,” expounds on the meaning of these verses in Genesis. While I won’t read you all the lyrics, the first verse paints a good picture of the text, “God marked a line and told the sea its surging tides and waves were free to travel up the sloping strand, but not to overtake the land.”

As we know all to well, the seas have borders, until they don’t. Tsunamis have killed thousands, wiped out villages, crippled countries. Levee walls have burst, taking homes and lives in the wake. And we don’t even need to look beyond the borders of this town to know the devastation caused by flooding.

Why couldn’t Jesus ask the wind and seas to stop then? Were our prayers not strong enough? Why do such disasters seem to affect the people and places that can least afford such destruction?

We’re not given those answers.

We are, however, given these words in Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult…The LORD of hosts is with us.”

“The Lord of hosts is with us.” These are not empty words, but a promise lived out through the redeeming life of Jesus Christ and the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit. God is present in the midst of our suffering. God’s promise of salvation is an ever echoing, “it gets better,” “it gets better.”

Perhaps instead of being chipped away like Michelangelo’s David we could see ourselves like the ocean depth turned purple mountain range that surrounds us here in Williamstown. Maybe what we are undergoing is not a refinement, but a revelation. When we are able to trust in God’s greater perspective, God’s desire for good in our lives, we are able to see the possibility that though we may feel buried by oceanic depths, we are simultaneously a mountain range yet to be unveiled.

In both the joys and toehoo vahvohwho of our lives, all the raw ingredients of faithfulness are there. We must look to God’s creative hand, guided by eternal perspective to help us separate out what is to be from what is not to be. The words of Paul Simon might be right to call God’s great and beautiful act of creation, “Something unstoppable set into motion, nothing is different, but everything’s changed.” Glory be to God. Amen.


[1] “Once Upon a Time There Was an Ocean,” by Paul Simon

[2] “Mark 4:35-41, Commentary on Gospel” by Sharon H. Ringe, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=6/21/2009&tab=4