Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 08/07/2011

 Sermon by Pastor Chrys Levesque Hendrick, supply at Bethany Lutheran, Ishpeming

Sun. August 7, 2011, 10:30 (only Sun., not Mon.), Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Life … Metaphor … Life

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 (cont.) / Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b (alt. w/cont. OT) /Romans 10.5-15 / Matthew 14.22-33

I have a confession to make.… I absolutely cannot put myself into the disciples’ experience of fear … in their boat … on that stormy sea.  Nor … can I feel their awe and wonder at the sudden calm … in their souls—and physical circumstances … when Jesus and the sopping wet Peter got into the boat … and the wind and waves became calm.

In the fear department, I have been on boats in heavy waves, but found the experience exciting, not fearful.  I have never come near to drowning, and so cannot imagine what that feels like.  My guess is that you cannot envision your own deepest selves into the disciples’ boat either.  Our minds can visualize the situation of another person, but our hearts stand pretty much apart from it … unless we have experienced something similar.  We might then be able to empathize with another, but it is still our own details and emotions that we recall.

In the awe department, beauty and faith and love are like that, too.  Experiences of these can be communicated from one person to another to the delight of a rational mind; but the singing heart feeling … the emotional experience … of the teller simply cannot be passed to another. 

For example, let’s to a little thought experiment.  I can still recall how I felt one day in October of 1969 when I stumbled upon the magnificent Pieta of Michelangelo in an alcove of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  I was on leave, on my way to my first permanent Air Force duty station in Greece.  I knew that the famous sculpture was in St. Peter’s, but wasn’t sure where.  I walked up the vast front steps, apparently ignored by the Swiss guards, entered the massive nave and looked left and right as I walked deeper into the imposing space.  Suddenlythere it was.  Only a velvet rope about 10 yards in front of the statue separated me from the masterfully carved … yet utterly wrenching … marble image of the crucified Jesus draped tragically over his mother’s knees. 

To say that I cried does not do justice to the complex of feelings that overwhelmed me. 

As an object of art, the image was painfully beautiful.  As the expression of a man who could not live without doing art, it touched me on a human level. As an act of devotion and faith out of the heart of the artist, it rang true … this last despite the fact that my doubts were stronger than my childhood faith at that time in my young adult life.  Yet none of this fully conveys the divinely joyful singing of my heart that could only find expression in tears.

And yet, as I tell you this story, your hearts do not sing …the way my heart did that day… and still does when I remember that moment … when time and space disappeared for me for an instant.  You cannot enter my experience … though you may well find the story leading you into your own memories of profound joy.  For you … then … my experience is at best a metaphor pointing you towards the deep joy that God has made possible for the human family.

If all this is so … that we cannot enter each other’s particular experience … of fear …or of awe or joy or love … why does Matthew’s telling of this story still resonate with us … these two thousand years later?  What makes us care about the disciples in a boat on the stormy lake? … about their encounter with Jesus in the midst of their terror? … about Peter’s risky words and actions? … about Jesus’ own words and actions … sending the disciples off in the boat in the first place … then praying long into the night … and finally joining them in their storm-tossed life together?

I believe the answer lies … at least in part … in the power of metaphor to remind us of what we share in common … regardless of the great variety of details.  A metaphor is an image … a story … a work of visual art … a poem …  a hymn … that evokes a deeper truth—a deeper meaning—than the image itself, whether or not the image is meant to be taken literally.  So, it is not primarily the image … but its resonance with life … and with faith … as we experience it … that touches and strengthens us … with the Spirit of the living God.  The encounter with the Pieta was like that … for me—a metaphor that nudged me along my faith journey. 

A metaphor helps us get beneath the particulars and into the experiences we hold in common, and first among these is fear … which is very likely the most basic of creaturely instincts.  It may be even more basic than the search for nourishment … or engaging in reproductive activity … since both of these invariably take a back seat to getting out of the way of danger.  The reaction of a creature to a perceived threat is to flee … or to fight … or … to cry out in helplessness

This “gut level” survival reaction is built into every form of animal life … and humans are no exception.  Add to this basic animal survival instinct … the human capacity to reflect on the past … to anticipate future consequences of present actions … and to communicate all of this to one another through often faulty language … and we have a recipe for pervasive anxiety … which is fear by another name.  Thus, it is no great surprise that the disciples cried out in fear when the wind rose, the waves churned, and … to top it all … a ghostly figure appeared walking towards them on the water.  They could not flee out of the boat.  Fighting the weather was useless.  They could only cry out their terror.

 The fear the disciples experienced was the very creaturely fear of drowning.   Their fear of being overwhelmed by circumstances beyond their control … despite the many signs of God’s power they had already witnessed in their time with Jesus … was very human.

However, what was beyond mere human relief … in the passing of a crisis … was their response of worship … when they experienced … once again … the power of God in Christ Jesus. 

This capacity to rise above mere reason and into praise and thanksgiving to God … to feel the hand of God in their deliverance … is pure … irrational … faithThe sense of certainty that God has touched our lives and our circumstances is pure gift … and it can only be passed on from one to another when and how God chooses. 

Yet God so very often does choose to use those whose lives Jesus has already touched … to provide others with glimpses of grace that grow into great visions.  And that is why we must tell our stories to others, rather than keep them to ourselves.

I can recall so many dilemmas in my 65 years that left me floundering in the confusing waves of my life, and I’m not immune to them now.  I can recall the times when there was nowhere to flee … fighting was not an option …  and all I could do … finally … was to cry out.  More and more, that “crying out” has taken the form of prayer … sometimes brief and silent … sometimes lengthy and written in a journal. 

But … and this is the absolutely vital part … there has always been an answer that put me on a path I could not have discovered for myself … a life-giving, peaceful, creative path that I could only see through the eyes of faith … and the conviction that the Jesus I had met as a child … abandoned as a young adult … and grew to love and trust as the decades unfolded … was and is indeed the way, the truth, and the life.  For such a gift, I can only echo the question of the writer of the hymn “O, Sacred Head, Now Wounded?”   He asks, “what language shall I borrow, to thank Thee, Dearest Friend?”  And I ask: how, Lord, can I thank you for teaching me to pray?

For surely it was to pray that Jesus sent his disciples off ahead of him while he dismissed the crowds and went up the mountain alone.  Could it be that the very human Jesus needed—after a day of intense teaching and healing—to reconnect with the source of his own life and his mission?  Could it be that he needed the divine counsel of the rest of himself … the ever-creating Father and the sustaining Spirit … to get back the holy perspective of his divine Son-ship in the midst of his human condition?  Could it be that Jesus feared drowning in the human condition and losing sight of his mission to bring everlasting life among those he had grown to love in a most human way?  It’s worth thinking about, wouldn’t you say?

In any case, most of us will never come close to physical death by drowning.  Yet most of us … at one time or another … have found, or will find ourselves … drowning in circumstances beyond our control.  It is not literal death that we fear most of the time … but the utter loss of capacity to do anything at all to relieve the suffering and anxieties of ordinary life …  illness or injury in ourselves or in someone we love … broken relationships … loss of confidence in government leadership … joblessness …  shame over some circumstance that makes us the object of ridicule, bullying, or contempt by others … waning strength as we age … loss of purpose … uncertainty in general. 

It is this echo of human reality that speaks to us in today’s Gospel.  The experience of the disciples echoes our own … personally, and as members of the Body of Christ … the church.  And that is very likely Matthew’s point.  There is good reason to believe that the heart of the story he tells is not the apparent miracles of first Jesus and then Peter walking on the surface of the water … wonderful as these are.  Rather, Matthew was relating the experience of the ups and downs … doubts and fears … of the early church … and of the power of the living Christ among them after the death and resurrection of Jesus

There is good reason to believe that we read this account still today because the early church experienced the presence of the risen Christ each and every time they began to fear that all was lost.  They could not have told us directly what they experienced … individually and in community … each time there seemed no way out and each time their cries for help were answered in amazing ways.  They described their fearful selves saying, God, if you are really there, help us out of this mess!  They described their gathering strength as they stepped out of the God club boat and tried to act as Jesus had taught them … and often succeeded.  They described the sinking spells that regularly overcame them as they let distractions get in the way and took their eyes off of Jesus.  And they described, above all, the persistent, insistent, saving presence of the living Christ among them.

We are part of that same very human church, called—as St. Paul reminds us—to tell the biblical story of Jesus … in all its richness … and metaphor … and truth … and to recall for others our own experiences of the risen Christ …  in our individual lives, and in our life together.  We are a living metaphor … a truth that runs deeper than any of our stories … a metaphor that God uses to reach a world drowning in fear in the midst of the resurrection life God desires for each and for all.  Let’s each and all take a risk.  Let’s get out of the boat!  But let’s also … always … keep our eyes on Jesus, the living Christ!  Amen.



Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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