Monday, September 5, 2011

The Faith of a Mustered Deed

Matthew 14:22-33

22Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone,24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.25And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea.26But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear.27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”28Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”29He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.33And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

When Tino was only seven years old, his grandfather, Karl Wallenda, put him on a wire two feet off the ground. Karl taught his grandson all the elementary skills: how to hold his body so that it remained stiff and rigid; how to place his feet with only his big toe on the wire and his heel to the inside; how to hold the pole with his elbows close to his body. “But the most important thing that my grandfather taught me,” Tino said, “was that I needed to focus my attention on a point at the other end of the wire. I need a point to concentrate on to keep me balanced."

Of course, Karl Wallenda was not the typical grandpa. He came from an amazing ancestral family that traveled as a circus troupe consisting of acrobats, jugglers, clowns, aerialists and animal trainers all in one family. As far back as 1780, the Wallenda family traveled throughout the villages of Europe setting up and performing in the city squares, trusting in their talent and skills to provoke thrills and joy, and relying on the generosity of the audience to reward them as they passed the hat around. In the late 1800s, for the next two generations, they became known for their expertise in the art of the flying trapeze.

The Great Wallendas were headliners with Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus during much of the 1930s and 1940s. One frightening event happened in Akron, Ohio, when the wire slipped slightly as they were performing. All four members fell to the wire, yet they were relatively unhurt. The next day, a reporter who witnessed the accident stated in the newspaper, "The Wallendas fell so gracefully that it seemed as if they were flying,", and the headline read "THE FLYING WALLENDAS." And that name is still synonymous with the family to this day.

At age 19, grandson Tino thought he was a real intellectual. “I was always eager to talk with people about things, ¬even religion, ¬ on an intellectual plane. If someone would talk to me about God, I would say, "I have thought about this, and I'm an agnostic." But I should have known that God exists. From the time that I was young, my mother and my father told me about God and heaven. They taught me how to pray, and I had a grandmother who told me again and again that God answers prayer. And there were other people in the circus world who told me about the reality of God. It wasn't personal testimony, however, that made an impact on my life. The thing that brought me to an understanding of the reality of God was the Word of God.”
(Excerpts from articles on

Now it’s this perspective about God that Tino Wallenda expresses that raises my first question about this week’s gospel reading. What is exactly the word from God in this text? The story has quite a few inconsistencies that I have to address. First of all, what on earth are experienced fishermen doing out on a stormy sea in the middle of the night? Now if you’ve seen any of those movies like “The Perfect Storm” or shows like “The Deadliest Catch” you know that modern fishermen know when not to go out into a treacherous sea. Is it really plausible that Jesus would deliberately have sent his friends out into the teeth of a storm while he went off by himself to pray? Is it reasonable to conclude that hardened fishermen – twelve of them, as a matter of fact - couldn’t read the clouds or that they couldn’t have put to shore at the first sign of a storm? The story defies common logic for what we know of history and culture in Jesus’ day. Are we really dealing with an actual historical event that took place on the Sea of Galilee?

What we seem to be dealing with, at least what the author of the Gospel of Matthew is dealing with, is a parable about the relationship that exists between Jesus and those who follow him. And what Matthew has very much on his mind is the situation disciples were facing in his own church. They were living in a time and place that was very turbulent indeed. The heart of this incident for Matthew is this interchange between Peter and Jesus. Matthew is the only gospel writer who inserts this intriguing conversation and incident into the story. Why? It’s not the fact that Jesus is the one whom even the wind and the sea obey. The other Gospels make that point without Peter sinking.

So let’s dig deeper. First, Peter makes a highly unusual request. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” “If it is you . . .?” Why is there such uncertainty in Peter’s question? And who else would it be anyway? What is Matthew getting at here? Is Peter asking Jesus to make him capable of a supernatural feat? Once again, we need to consider what is plausible, reasonable; and what is certainly realistic. We know that the disciples of Jesus would indeed have been intimidated by the thought of carrying on the ministry of Jesus after his death. After all, they were surrounded by enemies who had demonstrated in no uncertain terms exactly what they had thought of Jesus and exactly what they would do to anybody who had similar ideas. We know that the reality of Good Friday and the scandal of the cross was very much on the minds of those first followers when they began to tell the story of Jesus. And now as it gets chronicled in written form at least 70 years after his death if not longer, the leaders of this emerging church face the same hostile environment. And yet Jesus had commanded them to do precisely that; to tell the story. The question was: would they be able to obey? Peter is clearly portrayed here as one who is questioning that command. “Uh, well, Lord, just in case I didn’t hear you right the first time, would you repeat that order? Give it to me one more time – just for the record.”

The second thing to notice is what happens when Jesus obliges him. Peter gets out of the boat. He begins to walk toward Jesus on the water. Dietrich Bonhoeffer commented on this story saying, “Peter had to leave the ship and risk his life on the sea, in order to learn his own weakness and the almighty power of his Lord. If Peter had not taken the risk, he would never have learnt the meaning of faith. Before he could believe, the utterly impossible and ethically irresponsible situation on the waves of the sea must be displayed. The road to faith passes through obedience to the call of Jesus. Unless a definite step is demanded, the call vanishes into thin air, and if men imagine they can follow Jesus without taking this step, they are deluding themselves like fanatics.” In other words, faith is only real when it is put to the test. If Peter had not taken that first step, his faith would have been worthless. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Call to Discipleship.”)

Finally, it is when Peter starts walking that he becomes frightened by the wind and starts sinking. We need to get the connection between faith and doubt or between faith and fear. Matthew is not talking about some kind of intellectual doubt. He’s not talking about the kind of skepticism that some people exhibit, people who have no real interest in putting faith to the test, who are merely interested in debating the issue. Matthew is talking about someone who has the nerve to take that first step and then, because of circumstances beyond his or her control, begins to falter and sink beneath the waves. That’s the kind of person, Matthew says, who discovers Jesus’ steadying, delivering hand.

. . . and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

“You of little faith . . .” wasn’t something Jesus ever said to those who refused to follow him. He said it to those who did but who began to falter along the way. He said it to those who had the courage to take the first step. “If we would follow Jesus we must take certain definite steps,” wrote Bonhoeffer and that first step is the one that counts most of all. It is that step that makes following a serious business and not just an intellectual enterprise. That first step cuts us off from the way we have been living up to that point, just the way it cut Peter off from his nets. The only proof of whether are not we are serious about following is whether or not we are prepared to get up and muster the courage to take that first step; to begin a deed worth making. A mustered deed takes real faith.

Of course, it places us in an impossible situation. Of course, it forces us to traverse deep and turbulent waters. Of course, it plunges us into a situation of deep insecurity. Does anyone seriously believe for one instant that following someone like Jesus of Nazareth would mean making ourselves popular, safe, or successful? Faith is not about sitting still and waiting. It is about leaving the boat and risking your life. The reason Peter sank, of course, was because he started to doubt himself. It is an easy mistake to make. To think that being faithful to Jesus is all up to us, that it has something to do with our strength, our conviction, our will power, our emotional maturity. When Jesus finally did haul Peter up out of whatever waters he had begun to sink into, he must surely have said to himself, “What a fool I was. Here I thought that it was all up to me.”
(Excerpts from Barry J. Robinson’s sermon “The First Step” for August 7, 2005 –

As an adult, Tino Wallenda still lives on the high-wire. And so does his family. He said, “At one time or another I have taken each of my four children ¬Alida, Andrea, Aurelia and Alessandro ¬ on my shoulders as I have walked across the high-wire. In those situations the children really can't do any balancing; I'm the one who has to balance and support them. And people have asked them, "Aren't you scared?"

"No," they have said. And when they have been asked, "Why aren't you scared?" They have answered, "Because that's my daddy." You see, they have confidence in me because I'm their daddy. (

And because of that confidence, they have the courage to do it over and over again. And so can we, by the faith of just one mustered deed. Let us pray.
O God; your good news to us today is so simple. If it is our job to leap, then it is the Spirit’s job to catch us; if it is our task to yield, then it’s the Spirit’s job to strengthen us; if our task is total commitment, then it’s the Spirit’s job to bear us up; if it’s our job to trust, then it’s the Spirit’s task to see that that trust does not wither; if it’s our job to love and trust, then it’s the Spirit’s job to grow that love and trust stronger and longer. Thank you for being Abba to us. Thank you for being faithful. Amen.
– Andrew M. Greeley

Meditation: 1. What are the turbulent and violent storms you’ve experienced in your own life?
2. What did it feel like taking that first step into the unknown?
3. What did it cost you?
4. What was your experience of Christ’s hand reaching out to you?

Who's Our Guest?

The Origins of Memorial Day in the United States (Sorry for the late posting! This sermon was originally preached on May 29, 2011)

It all started 147 years ago in the middle of the American Civil War when a battle at Petersburg, Virginia on June 9, 1864 caused the Ladies Memorial Association of Petersburg to be formed to memorialize the City's militiamen who had been killed. Mrs. John A. Logan visited Petersburg after the battle where she saw the flags and flowers on the graves of the fallen heroes. These memorial observances by the Ladies Memorial Association of Petersburg caused Mrs. Logan to tell her husband, who was a General, to do the same for all of the fallen heroes throughout the country. General Logan then established the practice of decorating veterans' graves all over the United States. General Logan also instituted the National Memorial Day to be the last Monday in May every year.

Who’s Our Guest?

John 14:15-21
15"If you love me, you will obey what I command.16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever--17the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.18I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.19Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.20On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.21Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him."

While preparing for my sermon on this Memorial Day I spent some time reminiscing about my first experience of leaving home bound for Air Force basic training in San Antonio, Texas in the summer of 1981. Those of us who have served, or still serve in the Armed Forces will probably never forget the day we began our new life in the military. I was just barely 18 years when I stepped off the charter bus into the hot, arid heat of Texas. Now this was quite a shock to my Midwestern sensibilities, and those first few inhospitable days in the Texas heat was a wakeup call for me. I knew that, not only was I no longer home, but I had started on a journey so different than my experience of life so far…and I was scared to death. For the next six weeks I stumbled through basic training like a scarecrow, all the time repeating the words of Dorothy Gale, “There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home!”

After basic training I settled into my Russian language school studies and realized that I wasn’t afraid as much of this military life, but still felt that something was missing. I needed to find a church. Being raised Pentecostal; I immediately gravitated toward the Assemblies of God pastor who held worship services at the base chapel and became fast friends with his family. I even started driving a church van picking up military men and women on base for their services. This church became my home away from home, connecting me to the community of faith that I had left behind.

And I had a similar experience once I moved to West Berlin Germany for my first duty station following the completion of my technical training. I arrived speaking no German, but immediately found a church full of people all ages who welcomed me with open arms, regardless of the language I spoke! I remember trying to communicate with just my hands and body language that first Sunday, listening to a worship service and sermon all in German, but somehow feeling such warmth as the congregation embraced me for who I was in spite of the strangeness.

These experiences remind me of the uniqueness of the Christian community; that you could go into any worship center in any part of the world and feel a part of something familiar, yet new and different. It could be that is our real call as Christians. Let me explain. I used to think that the biblical discipline of Hospitality was one of those “less important” spiritual gifts. I remember taking those spiritual gift inventories growing up, and thinking that gifts like hospitality, also known as helps or helping, seemed to be relegated to those who liked to “be in the background.” In fact, the classic story of Jesus chastising Martha for being too “busy” serving everyone else was case in point for me. Did Jesus really think that serving and helping others was not as important as sitting at his feet in worship?

But if we look deeply into this gospel text this morning a powerful image of hospitality emerges in this teaching by Jesus. Here’s a little background. In the lives of Old Testament Semitic peoples, hospitality was not an option in life, but a moral obligation. The harshness of the desert life made nomadic people sensitive to the needs of those who appeared at their tents seeking food and shelter. And it wasn’t just among the Hebrew people; many followers of pagan religions also considered it a duty. Yet in the New Testament hospitality has a different flavor. Inns and hostels that sprang up along Roman roads offered placed to say, which lessoned the importance of private accommodations. The strong sense of community was breaking down and with it the practice of hospitality. Even though the Romans like to throw lavish banquets, it was not their custom to offer hospitality to wandering strangers.

By the time of Jesus, hospitality had become something of a burden. The result was that people had to be reminded to show hospitality. And as it became less impromptu, it began to require rules. Invitations became more formal. Banquets, weddings, social occasions; all required an etiquette. It was to this reality that Jesus addressed his disciples on his last evening with them, and he was reminding them of the importance of hospitality from their ancient scriptures. Old Testament hospitality was not just about offering food and shelter to strangers; it was also marked by sacrifice. Killing an animal was regarded as a sacrificial act. Therefore when meat was eaten on festal occasions it carried sacred significance. In these sacrificial meals, the people and their God came together at the same table to partake of the same holy food. Eating together resulted in being drawn together, in a renewal of the covenant bond. Hospitality became an expression of the covenantal relationship with God and other human beings. The guest, when accepted into the sacred community, receives food for the body and for the soul. Through fellowship, story sharing, and being welcomed, the guest goes forth renewed and restored.
Both the Old and New Testaments stress that the primary recipient of hospitality is to be the stranger.

However, strangers are not necessarily those different in culture, race, or socioeconomic status. They may be members of our family, or friends or neighbors who have become alienated from us. When we offer hospitality to anyone “estranged” from us, some curious and unexpected results occur. To offer hospitality to a stranger is to welcome something new, unfamiliar, and unknown into our life. Strangers have stories to tell which we have never heard before, stories which can redirect our seeing and stimulate our imagination. Hospitality to the stranger gives us a chance to see our own lives afresh.

Hospitality is the hallmark of a welcoming community. When we take time to discern the needs of the local community and then find ways to express compassion; that process calls us to respond to the real needs of people. We each bring unique gifts to the community, and authentic hospitality invites us to share those gifts. Our mission efforts are never one-way streets. Risking outreach to others creates opportunities to, not just give, but also receive. Feeding the neighborhood, clothing the needy, visiting the sick and those in prison, and might even hosting a kid’s carnival on our lawn yesterday, are ways of welcoming Christ into the community. We who are sent forth into mission are uniquely able to return with lessons of hospitality offered by those who have been served. Our open hearts and serving hands that reach out to the world are the same hearts and hands that receive God’s hospitality in return.

This understanding of hospitality has both inspired and haunted me. For in it we, as God’s children, are called to not only give, but also receive hospitality. It is not a one way street. The communion table is a universal example of Christian hospitality in our worship. But it wasn’t until I began training as a hospice chaplain that I realized how the world that we live in and serve is much like the communion table. We partake of the gifts of God, receiving them in their broken state, and become nourished by their gifts back to us. We receive that which we are there to give. I have worked weekly in hospice settings over the past year. When I enter the room of a patient with the expectation of receiving the same measure of hospitality that I give, I am truly humbled and transfigured by these experiences.

Walter was one of my first hospice patients. I met him at a nursing facility that was pretty run down and located in a not so great part of town. As I was driving to the appointment I realized it was not far from where I grew up. Just up the street from this nursing facility my Uncle died in desolation five years earlier, lying in a dirty apartment littered with trash, empty beer bottles, drug paraphernalia, and filled with hopelessness. I’ll never forget the moment I arrived at his apartment as hospice was called in. My grandmother, who lovingly cared for him his entire life—was there by his bedside—holding his hand and sweetly singing. My Uncle’s death would close a difficult chapter in our lives. But he would not die alone because my Grandmother, perhaps the greatest living example of God’s love and hospitality to the “stranger,” was there with him—comforting him as he took his last breath. All of those memories flooded back to me as I entered the nursing facility and walked across the worn floors, the smell of urine and cries of pain and hopelessness filled the air. Who was I going to be in that place? Would I mirror the abandonment of the world which daily passed judgment on the undesirables and fringes of society? Or was I going to be the agent of God’s grace and love welcoming healing and wholeness into these least of God’s children?

Moving into Walter’s room I sensed his loneliness. Cognitively he didn’t seem “all there.” The nurse wheeled him in from the TV room and he seemed a little agitated. Walter didn’t know what a chaplain was, and seemed a little suspicious of me. I didn’t push Walter very hard and I excused myself after a few minutes and wheeled him back to the TV room. He didn’t say thanks. He didn’t say see you later. But I hoped he would remember me next time. Each time I returned to visit it seemed I moved one more step toward radical hospitality. I meet Walter next time around Christmas while his family visited, and led them in singing Christmas carols with him. A month later we talked a bit deeper about his love of bluegrass music and memories of his long departed wife. The next visit he stayed in bed facing the wall the entire time, but seemed willing to talk even though I had “interrupted” his nap time. And the last time I visited Walter invited me to stay and have lunch with me. There it was, radical hospitality in action, and I received it from Walter.

It is no coincidence that hospice and hospitality come from the same Latin root hospes, which is formed from hostis, which originally meant "to have power." Linguistically, the word served double-duty in referring both to guests and hosts. Hospitality is a two way street, where both guest and host are imbued with power to transform the relationship. Jesus is our host at the communion table where that which is broken and poured out is used to create a covenantal community. It was this sacred moment that Jesus expressed his affection and companionship for his disciples. But our text tells us that we will still experience this radical hospitality. Jesus said he was sending an Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, to be with us. The Greek word used here is “paraclete” which means, “one who has been called to our side” to stand up for us. Think of lawyer shows on television. Think of detectives and mystery and action. The Paraclete, the Advocate, is a force on the move…just as Jesus was a force on the move in his lifetime.

Jesus clearly promises his presence and the presence of the Spirit to those who keep his commandments to love and serve one another. The love Jesus commands is not a feeling—but an action of hospitality to the stranger. What if we really understood Jesus words this way? What if we were to recognize that Christ is truly present among us, not just within ourselves as Christians, but whenever we greet and serve the stranger, the guest, the visitor that walks through those doors? This is why the work of hospitality in the church has illuminated the power of the Christian way for me. For in Christ there is no stranger. There is no separation. And in the words of Dorothy Gale, “There is no place like home!” So click your heals together and believe it. Amen!