On September 8, 2019 I had the deep joy of being reunited with many of the people from The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights following a three-month Sabbatical. As we gathered to explore the mystery of our connection and the intensity of the storms in which we live, we read from Matthew 8:23-27 and Ephesians 2:19-22.
To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below.
My wife and I were out for a quiet evening. As we waited for our meal to be served, a woman approached the table and when I recognized her, I stood and we embraced. She began talking, but after a moment she was overwhelmed by the grief in which she walked, and she wept. We spoke for a few moments, and then she excused herself and our evening continued. A day or two later, we were in the grocery store and I encountered another person and we had a similar exchange. When we got home, Sharon said to me, “Does this happen often?” I was engrossed in something and I replied, “What? Have the deer been in the garden again?” My bride said, “No – I mean, how often are you out in some public place and someone comes up to you and just starts crying? That seems odd to me.”
Well, as a matter of fact, it does happen often.
As I return from my time of Sabbatical, let me tell you a few stories. In case you haven’t been around the church very long, I’ll tell you that about 18 months ago I found myself being challenged by the intensity of life in this place. There were some horrific deaths, significant transitions, as well as some incredibly wonderful occurrences. The elders and I began to plan for a season in which I might be away for an extended period of time for rest, rejuvenation, and reflection. We realized that such a time would also result in a potentially painful separation with and disconnection from the day to day life here in the Heights, but we went ahead with the goals of bringing long term healing and strengthening to our shared ministry here.
So after more than a year of planning, I left at the end of May. And if you’ve read my blog or seen me on Facebook, you know that a lot of wonderful things happened. If you want me to come over and tell you about amazing adventures through our National Parks, a pilgrimage to Africa, or the world’s best granddaughters, I’ll do that.
But other things happened, too. You didn’t read about them on the internet. Not long ago I was with my grandchildren at a public event for families in rural Ohio. I was the only out-of-town guest there; I was also the oldest person present.
I sat on a porch with my toddling granddaughter and one of the other adults came by and placed a young man – maybe about eleven years old – in the seat next to me and instructed him to wait there – he’d be right back. The boy was flushed, and it appeared he’d been crying. I assumed he’d fallen and needed a band-aid or an ice pack.
As I fixated on my granddaughter, the boy said, “You sure have a nice family.” I nodded in grateful agreement. He continued: “And it’s so big. You have so many grandchildren.” And it occurred to me that he thought that I was the patriarch of this vast clan that had gathered. I explained that we were all present for an event, and he looked surprised and said, “Oh, well, I don’t know anything about that. I just came here. I think I just ran away from home.”
I asked him if he’d like to tell me more, and he went on: “I live down the road. It’s just me and my mom, and now my step-dad. I was outside playing, and I heard them fighting, and my step-dad told my mom that she had to get rid of me. If she didn’t get rid of me, he said, then he would leave and take all our stuff… I got really scared, because I don’t want my mom to get rid of me. So I ran as fast as I could up the hill and when I got to the fence I heard all of the laughing and playing from your family – I mean, from these people – and I thought this would be a safe place to catch my breath.”
Let me simply say that was not a conversation I expected to have. A week earlier, I had been in long line with my older granddaughter at a water obstacle course on the lake. One of the young adolescents in line ahead of us engaged my granddaughter in conversation, and asked where we were from. After my reply, I asked her the same question. She mentioned the name of a town about 30 minutes away, and then said, “Well, I’m only living there for another week or so. Then I will be living in…” and she named a town about 90 minutes away. I said, “Wow, you’re moving before school! That must be exciting!”
The young woman said, “Well, actually, my family is not moving. Things at home are not really good right now, and, well, you know how dads can be. My dad… it’s really rough. Because of him, my mom thinks it’s a good idea for me to go live with my aunt and uncle for a year or two.”
A week before that, I’d been leading trauma healing workshops for children who had fled their homes in South Sudan and were holing up in Ethiopia trying to figure out what was next. A week before that I had preached in a United Nations camp for displaced persons in South Sudan.
Perhaps you are now seeing what I discovered: that there may have been a design flaw in the Sabbatical Plan. You see, if I had hoped to remove myself from exposure to pain and tragedy and suffering, then the plan was bound to fail. Oh, there were a few days when Sharon and I were driving through Montana in our own little RV universe listening to a mix tape – but by and large, we continued to find ourselves in the midst of the storms of life.
Because that’s where we live. That’s who we are. The world is a stormy place, filled with great pain and deep violence. I know – there is deep beauty and great grace, but there is no place that is removed from the storm. That’s just where we are.
The disciples had been traveling with Jesus – it was the beginning of a great “Kingdom of Heaven” tour. They’d had some amazing teaching – in fact, Jesus had preached “The Sermon on the Mount.” There had been great healings: a person with leprosy, then the Centurion’s servant, then Peter’s Mother-In-Law. I mean, things were really looking good. They decide to cap it all off with a boat ride, and that’s when everything went south in a hurry. The storm erupts, and these people panic.
In spite of all the power they’d seen and experienced, these first followers of Jesus were convinced that they were going to die. They look around for their leader, and they discover him fast asleep – while the storm rages on. They yell at him; “SAVE US! LOOK AT US LORD! WE ARE GOING TO DIE!” And there’s no record that they actually said this, but it’s clear that the implication was, “We are going to die, and you are there sleeping like a baby. Do you even care?”
Listen, if I learned one thing in the past three months, it is this: I am more certain than ever that I have never met a person who hasn’t, at one time or another, given voice to that cry: “I’m dying here. I’m dying. Do you notice that? Do you even care?” If the Sabbatical taught me anything, it’s that people cannot outrun or hide from the storms and the pain of this world. And the disciples came to know that.
But the disciples also got to know this: that their friend Jesus, in an act that amazed and frightened them, quieted the storm.
And that’s why we’re here, right? We know we live in a world battered by storms and we’ve come here in the hopes that the One who calmed that storm two thousand years ago will take the time to be attentive to our marriages, our sick children, our mean streets, and our violent world. We want to believe and we want to hope that Jesus cares about the fact that live in and know far too well fear, pain, loss, and regret.
And because we hope that, we have to pay attention to what Jesus says to his first followers. He looks at them and he says, “You of little faith…” It’s one word in the Greek: oligopistoi. It is not, at first glance, a compliment.
And I want to say, “Now hold on a minute there, Lord. These are the 12 we’re talking about here. These are the people who have left everything to follow you. And these are the ones that you are calling oligopistoi?
The Gospels use that word five times.Every single time Jesus says this word in the Bible, he’s talking to his disciples.
Now hear me, Church: Jesus never looks at an outsider, a “sinner”, a leper, a wounded person, an addict, and says dismissively, “look at you, you little faith. Oligopistoi.” Never.
To the contrary, every single time Jesus utters that word he is looking at the group of people who have, arguably, the MOST faith of anyone else around. That word is reserved in the Gospels for the twelve, which we should take to mean the church. Us. It is only used in conversation with those who have demonstrated something of a desire to be in relationship with the Holy but who long for more. There is something, but it is small and weak and needs to grow.
Oligopistoi. That is why we are here. We want to become, like the twelve in the boat or like our sisters and brothers in Ephesus, a community of those who are becoming a dwelling place for the Holy One.
So here’s what we know to be true:
- We cannot escape the storm
- There is one who can and does calm storms
- Until the storm subsides, our only option is to ride it out together.
And this is also true: God equips us to live in a stormy place by giving us a congregation. In this particular place, at this particular time, we are called to be with and for each other. In the reading from Matthew, the disciples were in the boat when the storm hit. Why were they there? Because they were following Jesus, and that’s where he was.
In Ephesians, Paul tells his friends to stop arguing with each other, to stop aggravating each other, to stop distrusting or marginalizing or wounding each other because, he says, they are being built up into a place where the fulness of God dwells and the power of God is released. Paul tells this odd assembly in Ephesus that they are becoming an instrument of hope and healing for the pain of the world.
This is also the truth, my friends: while we cannot escape life’s storms, we are given the gift of congregations in which we can grow in our little faith and become stronger as we seek to follow Jesus more closely.
I know this full well: sometimes congregations can stink. Sometimes, it is really, really hard to be in congregations because, well, because they are made up of people like us. We hurt each other. We disappoint ourselves. We make mistakes. We blow up. We crash and burn. We act like, well, oligopistoi. We are, in our own eyes and often in each other’s, “little faiths”.
And yet the Divine strategy does not appear to have changed. Congregations and the communities that form them are the means by which the Holy is revealed and the healing is unleashed. This place – these people – by the grace of God, we are brought together in order that we might become, in the words of my young friend from Ohio, a “safe place to catch your breath for a while.”
Here you are, minding your own business, trying to get through your own stuff, and all of a sudden you are thrust into a place of pain and sorrow and weeping.
Does this happen often? Yes. You know that it does. And because we know that to be true, let us pledge to join together in the hopes of riding out the storms until we, and those we love, and those whom no one loves, can see and appreciate the complete healing and peace that comes from the One who has promised not to leave us alone in the midst of the chaos. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Matthew 6:30, 8:26, 14:31, 18:8, and Luke 12:28.