Sunday, August 10, 2008

"Lord, Save Me!" A Sermon on Matthew 14

This sermon is the first one I've preached since coming to CFB Greenwood. It was preached in St. Mark's Protestant chapel. After several months out of the pulpit since resigning my civilian parish at the end of May this year, it felt good to preach again.

But when he looked down at the waves churning beneath his feet, he lost his nerve and started to sink. He cried “Master, save me!” Jesus didn’t hesitate. He reached down and grabbed his hand. Then he said, “Faint-heart, what got into you?” (Matt 14:27-29 – from The Message, trans. Eugene Peterson)

“Lord, save me!” Those simple and urgent words stand at the heart of today’s gospel story from Matthew. It’s great story, one that even occasional bible readers will likely remember. The story is full of drama and excitement: the raging storm, the disciples huddled in the small fishing boat, the mysterious appearance of Jesus on the water as a faint and ghostly figure drawing near through the sea spray and driving rain. There’s the transition from fear to suspense as Peter squints into the wind, wonders, and then says ‘Lord, if it’s you, command me to walk to you on the water”. The focus narrows to Jesus’ outstretched hand, the calm and simple command “Come”, and then Peter’s face, joyful and wondering at first as he takes his first steps from the boat. Then the howl of wind and water picks up, Peter looks down and as his eyes fill with fear, and as he begins to sink comes a wail of pure helplessness, “Lord, save me!”

It’s this moment that I want to talk about this morning, this crucial moment when we, like Peter, realize that we are out of our depth, unable to help ourselves, and totally dependent on Jesus for our salvation. It’s an important moment in our spiritual journeys because for many of us, like Peter, we don’t fully realize our need until it’s almost too late. Most of us would rather tell God what he should do for us then turn to God when there is nothing that we can do. Don’t you find it curious that Peter should say “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water” Matt 14:28)? After seeing Jesus feed the crowd by the Sea of Galilee the previous day, as Padre Art described last Sunday, why should Peter need more proof? Why should Peter ask the Son of God to make things turn out a certain way, and why does it take a good dunking for Peter to simply and utterly place himself in God’s hands?

The answer has everything to do with our human nature. There’s an old joke, beloved of preachers, about a man visiting the Grand Canyon. Leaning forward to get a better view, he falls into the abyss. About twenty feet down, he grabs a branch and hangs on for dear life. He looks up, and says “Lord, if you’re up there, help me!” A deep voice replies “My Son, I am here and I will help you. I want you to let go of the branch. Let go now.” The man thinks for a minute, looks up again, and says “Umm, is there anyone else up there I can talk to?”

It’s a funny story, but haven’t you ever wanted a second opinion when faced with a difficult problem? What is it that drives us to want that second opinion? I think that need stems from our persistent need to keep our options open, to search for answers and alternatives, comes from our very strong human instinct to stay in control. The more choices we have, the more control we have. The more control we have, the more self-reliant we are. The more that we think we control our future, the less dependent we are on others, and most of us are taught to think from early on that we shouldn’t be dependent on others. After all, isn’t there an old saying, “God helps those who help themselves”?

True, this saying can have its place in certain life situations. “God helps those who help themselves” can be a very useful piece of advice for a person who just needs the motivation to look for a solution. For example, in my case, I am going to chaplain’s school this fall and the message that keeps coming down from on high is “Get physically fit’. One approach I could take would be to spend hours in prayer each day, asking the Lord to make me stronger. However, if I tried this, I suspect my answer might be “Mike, I’ve given you a wonderful gym with trained staff to help you, and the whole month of August to train. So go get fit!” Likewise, a congregation could be sitting under a leaky roof, wondering how to replace it. They could pray for a new roof, but the answer to that prayer might well be “Are you tithing, or are you just tipping? Dig deeper!”

However, we all know that moments come when we can’t help ourselves, and we need to take another approach, one summed up in the saying “Let go and let God”. As the man hanging on that branch in the Grand Canyon discovered, letting go is hard indeed. I remember the first time I went indoor rock climbing when Kay and I were dating. I reached the top of the wall, so there was nowhere else to go but down. When Kay said “Let go”, I froze. No way was I letting go of those nice rocks. No way was I going to trust that Kay and a slender rope could take my weight. “Let go”. Reluctantly, I let go, Kay and the belaying line took my weight, and I actually had fun swinging my way down that wall.

“Let go and let God” moments are times of helplessness, when we have to let go of our need to be in control and become dependent on others. It may be a time like the prodigal son in Luke where we have to turn to family or loved ones when the world is too much for us. It may be a moment in a doctor’s office when the diagnosis forces us to trust the skill and competence of medical professionals to bring us through. Or, it may be a problem that is so great that we have to step back and say, “Lord, this is so big and so beyond me

I think the reason why sea stories in the Bible always feature big storms is to remind us of our dependence on God. Recall the story of Jonah and his companions in what the Old Testament calls the “tempestuous” sea (Jonah 1:11), or the disciples on the sea of Galilee (Matt 14, Mar 6:45-52), or Paul and the Roman soldiers in Acts, their ship near the reefs of Crete and “pounded by the storm” (Acts 27:18). In the days before weather forecasts, GPS navigation, and search and rescue aircraft, going to sea required as much courage and skill in biblical times as it did for those who did (and still do) fish the seas around these coasts. Their skill and courage is all the more impressive when you consider how small and frail these craft were. Here’s a picture of two-thousand year old fishing boat found by the Sea of Galilee. It’s open-topped, twenty-six feet long, and seven feet wide, and could carry fifteen people. It’s not exactly the boat I’d want to face a raging storm with.

In all of these sea stories from the Bible, there comes a point when all skill and courage fails, and the sailors can only turn to God for help. The great church father St. Augustine wrote that the bible’s sea stories help us understand the church. The church, like a ship, carries us and keeps us safe, but the church still needs God. “Keep thyself therefore in the ship, and pray to God. For when all counsels fail, when even the rudder is unserviceable, and the very spreading of the sails is rather dangerous than useful, when all human help and strength is gone, there remains only for the sailors the earnest cry of entreaty, and pouring out of prayer to God. He then who grants to sailors to reach the haven, shall He so forsake His own Church, as not to bring it on to rest?”

It’s easy to lose hope when life’s storms seem too much for us. We can feel at our wits end, out of options, out of control. Our church may seem like an impossibly small little boat, we lose the heart to pray, and God seems far away. But remember in today’s gospel reading what happened to Peter when he looked away from Jesus. He saw the storm and the waves and he begin to sink. It was only when he looked back to Jesus in desperation and cried for help that he felt the carpenter’s strong and calloused hand grip his and pull him to safety. And as he lay there sputtering in the boat, he heard his friend’s gentle words of rebuke, “You of little faith, why did you doubt me?”

The point of today’s gospel reading is not to have superhuman faith. We’re not called to walk in water. We’re not called to do the things that Jesus did. We’re simply reminded that when it all seems too much for us, when our last piece of self-control is slipping from our grasp Jesus is there to grab us. St. Paul, who trusted God in storm and shipwreck, writes in Romans, as we heard today, that Jesus is always near by. “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:8-9).

I had a friend, Patti, who was a wonderful person, a great force for Christian education for laypeople. The last time Kay and I saw her, she was in a hospital room, gravely ill. It was a Roman Catholic hospital, and there was a crucifix on the wall across from her. She told me, “I spend a lot of time looking at that cross, because I know he’s the only one who’s going to get me through this”. She said this calmly, and with great faith. She knew the strength of the carpenter’s hand, and trusted him to save her.

My experience with Patti helped me to understand that God’s love and salvation comes to us not as private property, but as a wonderful gift that God urgently wants to share with a world in need. Visiting a friend in hospital reminds us of our common human condition, of our shared vulnerability, and of God’s desire to be with all of us in our darkest moments. Likewise, the experience of God’s love, a gift too great to be kept to ourselves, changes how we see others. Patti had spent her life wanting to teach others about God’s love, because she knew the power of that love to change lives. When we see ourselves as the beneficiaries of God’s generous love, our view of things changes. Rowan Williams, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, has written that when we let go of ourselves and let God take over, “we can see ourselves in a new way; we see ourselves as helpless, as poor and hungry in the presence of god’s love. And yet we see ourselves as infinitely precious in god’s sight. And then because of that we see others in a new way. [We see] ... our neighbour as the object of that same love and that is when the whole face of the earth is transfigured and enlightened by the love of God”.

My friends, the Word is very near. God’s Son is trustworthy and he will save us, if we have the courage to let go of our need to be in control and trust him. My prayer for us all today is that we may find the courage to let go and say “Master, save us” in our moments of great need. For who knows, but in the morning, when the storm passes and the sun shines on a calm sea, we may gaze at one another with love and wonder and find that we all share the gift of God’s love and salvation.

©Michael Peterson+ 2008

Friday, August 1, 2008

Peter Rabbit - Tank Killer

Wargamer friend James Manto, owner of the Lair O'Rabbits, passed this onto me, and it was too good (and I'm too juvenile) to pass up. It manages to spoof two staples of my young (Sven Hassel) and younger (Beatrix Potter) reading.

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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