August 10, 2008
Some of you will remember the roadrunner cartoons where the coyote chases the roadrunner off a cliff. The roadrunner always makes it across the gap between the cliffs but the coyote, every time, halfway across, becomes aware that there is nothing beneath his feet and he can't walk on air, stops cold and plummets down, way down and goes, as I always told my children and now, my grandchildren, boomy. For some reason, this story about Peter makes me think of that.
Fueled by love and faith, thinking not about what he can or cannot do, Peter steps out of the boat to meet Jesus and is actually doing fine until he becomes aware that he can't walk on water and begins to sink. And here is something about Peter that always endears him to me: he doesn't even pretend that he should be able to walk on water he just calls out for help and is saved. It was not his ego that took him out of the boat to walk on the water, it was love. It was passion.
I think this little story is about stepping out of the boat. And the passion that will be needed to do the stepping out.
Peter stepped out all right but then he became afraid and had to ask for help. Jesus asks him why he doubted? Peter doesn't answer but we will answer for him. HELLO, we can't walk on water! And that is only the beginning. There are a lot of things we can't do. For some of us it would be enough that we got into the boat at all.
Providentially, I have been reading the last book written by William Sloane Coffin this week. He died recently but was one of the great leaders and preachers of the church, a modern day prophet really, a man, incidentally, our own Mike Clark knew as good old Bill. If ever there was a man who knew about stepping out of the boat, he was it. He writes in his little book called Credo, If you ask me if Jesus literally raised Lazarus from the dead, literally walked on water and changed water into wine, I will answer, "For certain, I do not know. But this I do know: faith must be lived before it is understood, and the more it is lived, the more things become possible."
How many times have we been stymied by the wisdom that insists we have to know what we are doing it before we do it? If Coffin is right, Jesus seems to be suggesting that in order to know what we are doing, we will have to do it before we know and find out later.
What did Peter find out? I believe he found out the most important thing any of us needs to know when we step out of the boat and that is that we can't walk on water and we need help, the help of God. What if Peter had successfully walked on water? It isn't that Peter failed because he sunk, it is what he found out about faith when he did sink and reached out for salvation and was safe after all. He found out not only that he could depend on God but that he must depend on God. How would he know that if he didn't sink?
And how will we know how much we need God until we step out of the boat and into the storm risking everything we know for what we do not know and will not know until we hold out our hands for God to take a hold and lift us from falling?
Sloane Coffin had another word on this subject: I love the recklessness of faith. (he wrote) First you leap, and then you grow wings.
We are a little afraid of passion, I think, of doing what we know not the consequences will be. Reckless is not a word we think of in a positive light. Our boat is comfortable and rational and well-planned. There are reports and forms to be filled out, evaluations, strategies and goals. There is a careful schedule and everybody already knows what is going to happen next more or less. Nothing much will change and that is fine with us. Is it not? What has become of us?
There is a new book out entitled, Under the Radar, Learning from Risk-taking Churches, written by Bill Easum and Bill Tenny-Brittain. They describe how the church we know is perceived these days: It is first of all a building. Sometimes when I look at our building or many of the grand old churches around here I can see a great boat floating valiantly on the sea of the surrounding world. Yes, I do have quite an imagination, if you can call it that. (My congregation will remember that I sometimes see the trees breathing.)
The truth is when most people speak of the church, when they use the word in a sentence, they are talking about a place, a building.
The second mark of a church today is that there is an ordained pastor (ordained so they can speak orthodoxy for the church, someone who officially knows what the church believes and what is true.) (We know they know this because they are examined and have a Masters degree.) There has to be somebody who officially knows what they are talking about. We call this authority. It is what Winnie the Pooh had over his door: Once upon a time, a very long time ago now, about last Friday, Winnie-the-Pooh lived in a forest all by himself under the name of Sanders. "What does 'under the name' mean? asked Christopher Robin. "It means he had the name over the door in gold letters and lived under it.
Of course your pastor does not have authority because of the name on the door but because of what is in his or her heart and soul and because of the relationship he or she has with you. It is about what you have been through together and about what you ask of each other. This is not about the value of ordination or pastors or anything else except the perception of what a church is.
It is a building with an ordained pastor in it.
It is also a weekly worship service and other church-like programs. We all know what that looks like even if we don't think much about what it actually means to ride these pews in the eye of the storm, sitting before the Almighty God of the universe as if nothing strange or remarkable were happening at all. You Belmontians will already know this word from Dillard but I will repeat it for our friends from St. John's: On the whole, I do not find Christians outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have any idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? . . . we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return. (A.Dillard, An Expedition to the Pole)
Talk about an imagination. In fact the perception of the regular worship and program at the church is somewhat less exciting perhaps . . .and somewhat less significant as if we could do it or not, take it or leave it without much consequence either way.
Finally a church has a polity, a way of conducting business, of organization and structure where if you need to know what you can do and how to do it, you just look it up, in our case, in the Book of Discipline and of course a church has enough members to pay for all of the above.
And so we have a fairly accurate description of the boat we are in. We tend to think of the church as a place where we step in but the church is in fact where we step out. The church is a movement of people, people of God who come together in a building or not with a polity or not, with the authority of a common love and passion to do God's work, a movement of people stepping out of the boat and trusting God to do with us what needs to be done to bring the world back to God, teaching us first of all that we will need God, indeed that we depend on God for life and that faith is a living, breathing, thing, a moving thing, a life of stepping out and finding out what needs to be done by doing it and finding out what we need by falling into the arms of God.
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The United Methodist Church