June 21, 2009
Sermon by the Rev. Amanda Currie
When we read the stories of the bible, one of the first questions we often ask is “What kind of story is this?” Is it something that really happened historically? Or is it a mythic or symbolic story shared to teach us a deeper truth?
A good example would be the parables that Jesus told. He told a story about a prodigal son — how he took his inheritance and spent it in wild living — and how he later came to his senses, realized the mistakes he had made, and returned home to find himself welcomed and embraced by his forgiving father. Of course, we know that the story is not historical. It is told not to teach us “what happened” but to show us “what God is like” — loving, forgiving, and ready to celebrate over each of his children who return to relationship with him.
Today’s Gospel story is one that most Christian bible readers would put in the category of history. It’s a story about something that happened to Jesus and his disciples when Jesus decided it was time to cross over to the other side of the lake to continue his ministry in another area.
Many modern interpreters get stuck with these stories about Jesus’ miracles and his divine power over nature. They can’t imagine these dramatic events taking place, and they argue that even if Jesus did have the power to still a raging storm, what does that have to do with us today? Should we row out into stormy seas, risking our lives and futures, trusting that God will protect and guard us? Is it a sign of our lack of faith that we take precautions like checking the weather forecast or choosing a safer route? And if it’s reasonable for us to be scared when we’re out on the highway and we get caught in a snow storm, why would Jesus be so down on his friends for being fearful when their boat was being swamped by the raging waves?
I can’t make a lot of sense of this story when I think of it literally. But when I consider it as a parable or a story with symbolic meaning, I begin to understand and to make connections with my own experience.
The first thing we might notice is that it’s Jesus who directs them to go out on the lake. They’ve been travelling with him in his ministry of proclaiming the good news, and he guides them away from one set of crowds. Across the lake they will presumably find more people to teach and heal and care for. But the way that Jesus chooses leads them through danger. There is a great wind storm, waves beating into the boat, and the boat is quickly being swamped.
While the disciples are freaking out, Jesus is taking a nap. He’s sleeping! That is perhaps the ultimate way of expressing how relaxed and peaceful he was. They’re worried. They’re afraid. They think they’re going to die. And Jesus is so calm that he’s sleeping. What the disciples have not yet figured out is that there’s nothing to be afraid of when you’re with Jesus. Every challenge can be overcome. Every negative force can be overpowered. Storms may arise, but they can be faced with courage because we are not alone and Jesus will help us through.
The point that this story illustrates is not a new one. God’s people have always relied on God to get them through challenges and storms that threaten to overpower them. The words of the psalmist come to mind: “The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. And those who know your name put their trust in you, for you, O Lord, have not forsaken those who seek you.”
Like the disciples who were led by Jesus out through the storm, others also faced fear-inducing challenges because of the things that God had called them to do, and it was God’s presence and strength that they relied upon to get them through those challenges. Think of David, who was called and anointed to lead the People of Israel, and how he risked his life to fight the giant Goliath. Or remember the Apostle Paul and his friends who endured through afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, sleepless nights, and hunger. They kept at the ministry that God had called them to do. They were not overcome by fear or the instinct towards self-preservation, but they risked their lives and opened their hearts, trusting that God was with them and would help them to succeed.
I think the problem with fear is that it threatens to stop us in our tracks. It can paralyze us so that we cannot do the things that God is calling us to do. Perhaps you can think of a time when fear held you back… when fear stopped you from making a phone call to ask for assistance, or when it made you hesitant to offer a helping hand. Maybe fear kept you from initiating a relationship, or it stopped you from clearing up a misunderstanding or working through a conflict.
Fear can be debilitating. There are some awful examples of debilitating fear on a new television cop show called, “The Unusuals”. These two cops are partners and they both struggle with fear. One is obsessed with the fact that both his father and his grandfather died at the age of 42. Now he is 42 himself, and he’s afraid that he too is destined to die at 42. He’s so afraid that he wears a bullet-proof vest ALL THE TIME, and his fear holds him back in his work, causing him to run for cover when he needs to be brave and bold. Eventually, he ends up hiding in his apartment, double and triple locking the door, and not coming out to work at all.
His partner has a different kind of fear — not an irrational fear of what might happen, but an overwhelming fear of facing the reality that he has a brain tumour. He’s been experiencing symptoms for months, and self-diagnosing, and we learn that he really does have a brain tumour. But he’s afraid… afraid to deal with the ramifications of that diagnosis, so he doesn’t even go to a doctor. Fear has paralyzed him so that he doesn’t even get the medical help that could potentially save his life.
The problem is not that we FEEL afraid. I think feeling afraid at times is natural and normal. But fear becomes a problem when it keeps us from moving forward, when it keeps us from doing the things that God has called us to do, when it makes us forget that we are not alone — that God is with us to help us face the challenges that come our way on the journey.
Today is Aboriginal Sunday — a day to remember our First Nations brothers and sisters, to celebrate the gifts of their culture and faith, and to focus on the work that still needs to be done to bring healing and reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in our country. The Presbyterian Church in Canada has come to the realization that we were complicit in the great harm done to Aboriginal People in this land by European settlers, both government and churches, who saw themselves as superior and civilized, and who saw the Natives as savages.
Through the church’s apology of 1994 for the harm caused by our participation in residential schools, and through the church’s continuing commitment to the ministry of healing and reconciliation, we are responding to God’s call to make right a relationship that has been broken. But like so many ministries to which God calls us, this ministry leads us into many challenges. Apologizing is never easy, and when we do apologize, we are usually hoping that that will be the end of it. We’ll be forgiven, and we’ll move on, and everything will be okay.
True healing and reconciliation take a lot more work than that, though. We are called to meet the ones that we have harmed, to listen to their stories and their struggles, and to share their burdens. We are called to get to know Aboriginal people enough that we begin to love the parts of them that we once feared and tried to change. And we are called to walk with First Nations people on their journey towards healing — healing that does not come quickly or easily because it is deep. It has injured them to their core, and been passed from generation to generation as well.
A few months ago, we had the opportunity here at St. Andrew’s to participate in a Sharing Circle led by the Rev. Gordon Williams and the Rev. Stewart Folster — both Presbyterian ministers and both First Nations people. One of the things that we experienced in that circle of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people sharing their thoughts, experiences, and feelings, was the gift of amazing courage.
I was surprised at how freely and how personally so many people were able to share. Each one who opened up their hearts and spirits to share and to listen deeply took a great risk… the risk of being hurt again, the risk of saying something that would cause more hurt, and the risk of sharing the pain and suffering of another person.
Maybe it was because of great courage, or because of many carefully chosen words… but I believe it was because Jesus was with us in that circle that fear did not paralyze us, and a little bit of healing took place. Understanding grew, relationships were strengthened, and hearts were opened to one another and to God’s working within and among us.
On Aboriginal Sunday, we are reminded that there is much more work to be done, and that we must open our hearts to listen and to share with our Aboriginal sisters and brothers more and more.
I think we can learn a lot from First Nations people about giving of ourselves freely without fear of the risk that it entails. As you know, many Aboriginal people in our city live on social assistance or low working incomes, and Aboriginal people are often among those who come to the church seeking assistance in emergency situations.
And one of the reasons for that is because their natural inclination is to share the little that they have with anyone who is in need. A relative needs travel money to get back to the reserve… a friend needs help to buy baby supplies… an acquaintance is hungry or needs a place to sleep. More than the rest of us, Native people seem to offer help first, without counting the cost to their own budgets. They give, and then they hope and trust that someone will do the same for them.
“That doesn’t sound very smart,” you may be thinking. Well, perhaps not. But it reminds me an awful lot of the way that Jesus lived his life… giving of himself without counting the cost, offering all that he had to the people who needed his healing, his teaching, and his loving, and relying on the kindness of strangers for food to eat and a place to sleep along the way.
The way that Jesus lived, and the way that he calls us to live is a way that accepts risk, that overcomes fear, and that leads to reconciliation and peace. Jesus followed that way all the way to the cross. May we remember that he is with us as we face the challenges and storms along our journey. And may we receive the gift of faith that overcomes fear and equips us for the work of healing and reconciliation. Amen.