Preparing for Sunday, I started writing about half a dozen different sermons. I wanted to write on Moses removing his shoes before the burning bush and being present on holy ground. I wanted to write on the love that I have seen manifest in our outreach, in the weddings I have officiated, and in the community we share. But none of these sermons felt right though.
On Thursday I went to see Lucille Wyers. For four years, Lucille has been in my periphery. I’ve loosely kept tabs on her through Lois and others in the community who know Lucille, but on Thursday I was called to her bedside by hospice. Lucille didn’t have much to say, so we prayed together and then I sat with her daughter to talk for a while.
Even when we don’t have a personal connection to someone who is dying or has died, we realize that we are profoundly affected by the loss. As the English poet, John Donne wrote: “No man is an island entire of itself; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”
The dying process is both an intellectual exercise and an emotional experience. We know in our brains that everyone gets older, our bodies shut down, and eventually we will leave this existence as we know it. But it is also a deeply emotional experience; it can raise new questions about forgiveness, love, responsibility, loss and grief. No matter how well prepared we are, death—and especially the loss of a loved one—can leave us feeling confused, sad, and full of despair.
I share my thoughts with you about grief and loss because I feel like I can empathize with Peter in today’s gospel lesson from Matthew. Just last week, it seemed that Peter had finally started to understand who Jesus is—the Messiah, the son of the living God. And as Jesus begins to turn towards Jerusalem, to the place of his arrest, trial and crucifixion, Peter pulls him aside and tries to convince him otherwise. While scholars and commentators have said that once again, Peter is acting like an idiot, I think Peter is responding out of a deep place of both love and grief. Why—why would anyone choose to go to a place that can only lead to death? Why would someone risk everything? Why must there be suffering? I think these questions are behind Peter’s “this must never happen to you” statement to Jesus. Peter loves Jesus, and in that love there is also a fear of losing Jesus. The idea that Jesus chooses to go to Jerusalem and the consequences of this choice conjures up fear of what will happen next. There is a lot of fear in Peter because he so deeply loves Jesus.
I recognize this fear in myself and those whom I sit with as the death of their loved one approaches. We don’t want to have to experience life without that person; it seems inconceivable at the time.
But this is a lesson in discipleship.
When Moses approached the burning bush, he was both curious and afraid. The text tells us that he hid his face; that he was “afraid to look at God”. And yet, when God calls his name, he says “Here I am”. In the events of the burning bush, there is a great revelation—God has seen the sufferings of the people, and will be with them in the midst of their lives. This is the starting point for Moses to lead the people out of Egypt; to free them from the bondage of slavery and oppression. And we know how the story goes. As the Israelites wander in the desert, in their rejoicing and in their sorrow, God will be with them. It is a lesson in discipleship.
Now it would be easy for me to end here, to take us to the logical conclusion that discipleship is about knowing that God is in the midst of our struggles and hardships.
But I want to point out the lesson from Paul’s letter to the early church in Rome because it tells us about our responsibility as disciples of Jesus, and for me, it more fully explains what it means to be a disciple. To carry the cross of discipleship is about love. There were several things from the Romans reading that stood out for me; as disciples, our love should be genuine; we should show compassion and solidarity with those who rejoice and with those who weep; we should live in harmony and peace with others, and we should extend hospitality to all—even our enemies.
When I read this passage, I was reminded of all the celebrations we’ve had at St. Mark’s—weddings and baptisms, of blessing Gabriella at the start of her mission trip, of celebrating Roy & Bev for their ministry and service, of welcoming new members like Bret & Amy, Joyce & Gene, and Pravin’s wife Jasinta. I was reminded of those for whom we pray each week—honoring them as children of God. And I was reminded of Lucille’s daughter and all those we’ve sat with at the end of life. All of these are examples of our calling to follow God and to be disciples.
In the midst of life, in the sorrow and weeping of grief, in times of confusion and pain, and in the rejoicing, God is with us. Give thanks to the Lord.
I used to have a mentor who said, “The chaos in your life is represented by the chaos on your desk”. If you had come into my office at any point this week, you would have known that I was in chaos. On the brink of leaving for a little rest time, I was juggling multiple calendars, preparing for upcoming training sessions, recruiting volunteers for projects, organizing my notes for meetings, trying to anticipate answers to Sue’s not yet asked questions, making pastoral visit, and keeping up with my daily tasks. Whew. If someone had asked me to do or think about one more thing, I might have drowned. And the chaos on my desk was representative of the chaos not only in my outward life, but my inward life--my heart and my head--as well. At one point in the week I told Matt I needed to go upstairs and work, not because I had a full to-do list, but because I needed to do some discernment around some things that had been weighing heavy on my heart. I needed time to pray, to sit and listen, and just BE for a moment.
Now I’m telling you all this not so you’ll go “oh, poor Anna, she really does need to take time away”, but because we all have chaos in our lives. To be human means to have moments in our lives when we are overwhelmed, confused, and drowning. And to me, that’s part of what today’s gospel lesson from Matthew is about.
Like the disciples in the boat on the rocky sea, we are often overwhelmed and afraid. And like the disciples, we are not left alone to weather the storm...Jesus is there with words of comfort and peace to not be afraid. To the original audience of Matthew he would have said “ego eimi” or “it is I”...a variation on the same identifier that God used at the burning bush--I am. This simple phrase “it is I, have no fear” is meant to assure the disciples (and us) and instill courage and faith among the chaos.
And that’s the second part of this lesson...having the courage and faith needed to enter into the chaos. So often, Peter gets a bad wrap for being impulsive and unaware. When he sees Jesus walking towards the boat on the waves, he asks Jesus to call him out into the water, but then he sinks. Some have understood Jesus' "you of little faith, why do you doubt" statement as a rebuke for the disciples still not understanding who Jesus is (even though they later say "he is the Son of God"). Some have understood it as a rebuke for those who have little or no faith...that even after all the miracles Jesus has performed, they still doubt. I think what's going on here is an acknowledgment that the disciples were growing in their faith, but they still had moments of doubt. And who among us don't?! Aren't we all on a path of discipleship, constantly growing in our faith, but still having moments of doubts...wondering if God is with us when we are struggling?
Jesus invites us to be courageous and step into life--into discipleship--with all it's unpredictions. And when we start to sink, to fear the unknown, to have anxiety, to be uncertain...we pray the same prayer Peter did "Lord, save me". Lord, save me. Lord, here our prayer. And once again, Jesus is there, offering his hand to pull us up and out.
Matthew Skinner, a theology professor at Luther Seminary, had this to say about our calling to discipleship:
“It is the nature of faith--humble, active faith--to be willing to throw oneself into a disorderly world and expect to encounter Jesus there...to see what possibilities [there are]...[and] even to waiver from time to time, when it has stepped into stressful, unfamiliar terrain”.
This is the life of discipleship. We can stay in the boat...it may be safe, but it may sink...or we can venture into the water with Jesus. A little faith may be all that is needed to follow Jesus into the unknown.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.