Wow, I can’t believe it’s been two-and-a-half months since I’ve posted. I had the privilege of guest-preaching again in June, and wanted to share the text:
There’s a popular Christian book from a few years back called If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat. It epitomizes the faith of Peter, who stepped out of the boat to reach Jesus on the lake, and it’s a response to the protectionist, Noah’s Ark-kind-of-Christianity that values safety above all else.
That’s a good thing, in many ways. Jesus was always saying, “Go out!”
“Go out to Judea! Go out to Samaria! Go out to the uttermost ends of the earth!” And he went out, and took his followers with him, to all those places that were dangerous, uncomfortable and disreputable in polite society.
In contrast to “GO OUT,” too much of the Christian church today keeps saying, “COME IN!”
Come in! The coffee’s hot!
Come in! The seats are comfy!
Come in! The music is top notch…
Come in! It’s safe inside. It’s clean inside. You’re life will be better and you can live the American dream! We won’t stretch you or present any theology that makes you uncomfortable. Flame-broiled with cheese! It’s just the way you want church to be!
This is called “attractional Christianity,” and it’s the sort of ethos that megachurches are built on. What does it take to go from 500 to 5,000? An espresso bar helps. So does TV advertising, best-selling self-help books written by your pastor, and giant flat screen monitors everywhere you look! There are formulas for this stuff.
Strangely, for its prominence in Christian psyche, Matthew is the only Gospel where Peter goes out to meet Jesus and walk on water. In all four Gospels, Jesus walks on water, but in the other three, he just gets back into the boat. Peter stays put. So while I completely agree with the “go out and live dangerously” mentality, I probably wouldn’t build my case on Peter. He’s not the most reliable subject.
Today’s other boat-narrative is from Mark, and it’s found in Matthew and Luke as well, but for its prominence, I can’t find any popular Christian literature encouraging us to go to sleep below deck. That sort of thing doesn’t sell books. And maybe it shouldn’t – I know a lot of people who don’t need encouragement to rest and relax more…
But some of us do – particularly when that encouragement grates against all of our sensibilities and responsibilities. It becomes the sort of upside-down logic that makes Jesus so frustrating.
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From what I can tell over the past year or so of attendance, this is a “missional” church. Missional is the opposite of attractional. We don’t base our faith in big performances or flashy promises of how Christianity will make your life more prosperous. We don’t spend a lot of time talking about saving souls… our aim is loftier, isn’t it? We want to save the world! All of creation! We care about justice, peace, care for the environment, care for the poor… these are exciting aims. They are reasons I’m so proud to be a member of this church. But sometimes that missional focus outward can cause us to lose sight of our foundation / our anchor / even ourselves – which sounds a little unspiritual to say. Almost selfish, right? I mean, Jesus gave everything.
But he also took a nap in the stern of a boat. And on the seventh day, God rested.
What are your limits? At what point does your mission get in the way of your identity? When does it become your identity? When do you forget yourself in the midst of your work? At what point does service compromise community?
These are tough questions – questions that do sound selfish, or even impious, to ask. Because – as followers of Christ – we have the model of THAT (cross) to live up to, right? We say, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead!” But maybe that’s not the point. Maybe we get things backward when we put mission before being. Sort of like the cart and the horse; the cause and the effect…
The message of Christ IS upside-down. It confounds our sensibilities.
So when was the last time you took a nap in the stern of the boat?
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This isn’t the sermon I planned to preach. In some ways, it feels mundane, and I’d prefer to be controversial. But this keeps bubbling up and emerging in my notes, as I’ve tried to prepare something else, so I have a hunch there’s a message here that at least a few of us need to hear…
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One of the dangers within the culture of philanthropy – religious and secular – is that our charity giving automatically differentiates us from those we give to. By giving to someone, we unavoidably identify ourselves as “benefactor,” and them as “needy.” Even if we’d never say that out loud. And we can do the same thing in church, can’t we? We rightly identify areas of pressing need, and focus our attention there… but sometimes, it’s to the detriment of ourselves and each other, because it separates and invalidates some of our experiences that fundamentally make us the same as those we serve.
Henri Nouwen wrote:
Our culture has become most sophisticated in the avoidance of pain, not only our physical pain, but our emotional and mental pain as well. We not only bury our dead as if they were still alive, but we also bury our pains as if they were not really there. We have become so used to this state of anesthesia, that we panic when there is nothing or nobody left to distract us. When we have no project to finish, no friend to visit, no book to read, no television to watch or no record to play, and when we are left all alone by ourselves we are brought so close to the revelation of our basic human aloneness and are so afraid of experiencing an all-pervasive sense of loneliness that we will do anything to get busy again…
How many of you have said, “What right do I have to feel this way, when so many others are so much less fortunate”? How dare I feel bad, if someone else feels worse? Right?
But all of us are needy. Sometimes we give to prove that we’re not! Sometimes we give to avoid thinking about our own neediness. But we are needy. We are grieving, or sick, or in despair, or just weary, and no amount of privilege can cover our wounds.
Last month, while Jen was at her conference at the Buddhist Monastery in New York, I took my own personal retreat to the Benedictine Monastery in Mt. Angel. It wasn’t my first time there, but I find each time I go how true Nouwen’s words are, and how difficult – painfully difficult – it is to be alone with myself and my thoughts. I use all sorts of busyness to avoid the pain of silence: work, school, entertainment… all of it distracting me from the internal work I need to be healthy.
What surprised me most, the first time I went to the monastery, was how much I needed to sleep. I got there, was assigned my little room, and planned to unpack, explore the campus, the gardens, and walk the Stations of the Cross. Instead, I laid down on the bed and quickly went to sleep. I woke to the church bells ringing a few hours later. I got up and prayed, but found I could not stay up. I laid back down and slept. When I woke again, my brain still seemed to be praying, I was in that “mode,” so I laid silently and continued to listen to the voices in my head that prayed for peace and for faith, while simultaneously clamoring over the life and work that waited for me at home. Then I slept again.
I continued this cycle the entire first day – waking and sleeping, waking and sleeping. My mind somehow trying to pray in the spaces, in-between. I felt guilty at first. I hadn’t come to the monastery to relax, I’d come to “be spiritual!” This was serious business, and I was wasting time…
Last month, when I went again, I experienced much the same thing. It wasn’t only my body that needed rest – my soul seemed to need it even more.
In Mark 4 we read:
On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’
There are infinite messages we can extract from today’s text, but what strikes me most is the Son of God, sleeping on a pillow in the midst of a storm. Some commentaries allude to “the power of Christ:” the Son of God would not be afraid of a storm! So with nothing to worry about, he could sleep. Others suggest Jesus planned an intentional lesson: to demonstrate the meaning of faith and peace through his ill-timed nap. After all, these are seasoned fishermen. Seasoned sailors. They’ve been in storms before. Why do they panic so quickly?
Just a few verses prior, Jesus has been teaching a great multitude. He shares parables about the sower, the lamp under a bushel, and the mustard seed. He spent the day preaching, surrounded by needy, desperate people pushing in at every side.
The most profound thing about the text, to me, is the exhaustion of the Son of God. And the fact that he doesn’t apologize for it. Instead, he berates both the disciples – and the sea – for interrupting him.
If we apply the same sort of detached benevolence to Jesus that we often subject ourselves to, Jesus falling asleep in the boat isn’t profound – it’s lazy. It’s outrageous. The Incarnate God wasted time with self-care! But this attitude presumes Jesus was different – “other” – from those he served. In fact, Jesus was the same: born frail and vulnerable, just like everybody else.
The tragedy of Christian compassion – and Christian mission – today, is that we fail to recognize the link between compassion for ourselves, and compassion for others. We don’t give ourselves – or each other – permission to grieve, to be broken, or to rest when we are tired. Maybe it’s that unshakeable Protestant Work Ethic, but for all its accomplishments, it’s left us exhausted, wounded… and unable to admit it.
This message isn’t just a feel good message: you need to take better care of yourselves; you’ve been working really hard; don’t you need a break? Even though some of that may be true. This is a message of responsibility and solidarity. As people committed to Christian community, to discipleship and the way of Jesus, we have a responsibility to BE. To be healthy. To be authentic. To be brave and active, yes! But also to recognize our limitations. Because if we take on the role of “hero” or “benefactor,” we separate ourselves from our sisters and brothers who need us to be sisters and brothers more than they need us to be heroes and philanthropists.
Jesus identified with the people around him because he experienced the fullness of humanity. And each of us does.
Maybe this church is a fishing boat, like Jesus’ – fishing for people. Maybe it’s a rescue boat, looking for individuals capsized and drowning. I hope no one here idealizes the ark, which simply keeps us alive and… procreating.
But no matter what kind of boat it is, we can’t sail it if we only have a small portion of the crew who responsible. In fact, when we refuse to recognize our human limitations, we put other crewmembers in danger.
There is no “us” and “them” paradigm in the Kingdom of God. In the Kingdom, it is all “we.” When we serve others, we must allow ourselves to be served. This is the upside-down way of Jesus. We have to let our feet be washed.
“But someone else needs it more than I do!”
That’s probably true. And if we’re paying attention, we’ll be able to serve those folks as well. Only we won’t be detached, exhausted or in denial when we get there. We’ll know ourselves, and we’ll know each other, and we’ll be ready to say, “you’re tired? Me too. Let’s walk together.”
There is no room for heroes in the Kingdom of God. In one of my favorite “books of the Bible,” The Tao Te Ching, verse 43 reads:
The most yielding of all things overcomes the hardest of all things.
That which has no substance enters where there is no crevice.
Hence, I know the value of action without striving.
Few things under heaven bring more benefit than the lessons learned from silence and the actions taken without striving.
In Mark 4 verse 39, Jesus rebukes the wind and the waves, saying: “Quiet! Be still!” Maybe we aren’t the panicking disciples in this story… Perhaps we’ve gotten confused, and become the wind and the waves.
May we hear the voice of Jesus. May we be quiet, and still.