When the light went out, one hundred years ago

In 1914, one hundred years ago, Sir Ernest Shackleton and his expedition became trapped in the Antarctic ice floes.  When they lost contact with the outside world, the First World War had just erupted.  Shackleton, like virtually all others, expected World War I to end quickly and decisively.  Upon finally arriving at South Georgia Island a year and a half later, he asked, “Tell me, when was the war over?”

The man to whom Shackleton spoke looked at him in amazement and said, “The war is not over.  Millions are being killed.  Europe is mad.  The world is mad.”

It came to be called “the Great War,” but great is no compliment.  Rather, it means utter, comprehensive, total.  Writer G.J. Meyer says of combatant nations in the First World War, “They threw everything they had—their people, their production capabilities, all the wealth accumulated over generations of industrial development—into the effort to destroy one another.”

When the war began, men still charged into battle with sabers on horseback...

When the war began, men still charged into battle with sabers on horseback…

When the war began, men still charged into battle with sabers on horseback.  By the time it ended, legions of fighter airplanes filled the sky.  Chemical weapons had been invented and used with lethal success.  Armored tanks had made trenches obsolete.

The Second World War killed more people and had greater individual villains, but it was the First World War which redefined everything modern people understood about life.  Politics, literature, art, and, of course, religion shifted seismically.  In each of these fields, some version of the question was asked, “What does it say about humanity, and what does it say about God, when the world’s energy can so casually be directed toward its own annihilation?”

In various ways, we’ve been posing that question for a century now.  It influences our philosophical musings to be sure, but it also affects us in the most concrete and tangible ways.  For instance, the present turmoil in the Middle East finds its roots not primarily in the re-creation of Israel after World War II, but rather in the colonial partitioning of the entire region after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in World War I.  We live with the aftermath of World War I every day of our lives, even when we scarcely realize it.

Have we re-lit the lamps of hope and grace in our world?  How brightly do they shine?

Have we re-lit the lamps of hope and grace in our world? How brightly do they shine?

The crucifixion window at the south end of Christ Church Cathedral commemorates those who fought in World War I.  Standing at the foot of the cross are a doughboy soldier, a sailor, a Red Cross nurse, and a USO volunteer.  At times when I walk past the window, I pause and ponder the events of a century ago, when British Foreign Minister Sir Edward Grey looked out his office window onto the dusky London street and said through his tears, “The lamps are going out all over Europe.  We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” 

The century mark is a good time to ask:  Have we re-lit the lamps of hope and grace in our world?  How brightly do they shine?

Stepping into God

After packing a camper and a Chevy van full of tents, sleeping bags, luggage, six Thompsons, and four Barkleys, we got a late start.  We left Northeast Arkansas mid-afternoon, and by the time we arrived at Wind Creek State Park south of Birmingham, Alabama, it was already dark.  Winding our way slowly through the campground, the only light came from the dim lanterns hung on campsite posts and the occasional campfire.  Soon enough, though, my grandfather Pop found our people.  They’d come from Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Indiana (where some had fled for work during the Depression and never returned home).  Our family sprawled across the state park.

At the family reunion.  (I'm the one in the "Members Only" jacket.)

At the family reunion. (I’m the one in the “Members Only” jacket.)

As soon as the van stopped, I bolted to find my relatives.  Aunt Polly was there, who so resembled my grandmother Boo in both looks and demeanor that it was like having a bonus grandmother whenever they were together.  Uncle Brother was there with his wooden leg and ever-present nub of a cigar.  My beautiful cousin Karen was there, who had briefly modeled and who, to a grade school boy, seemed like a movie star.  My Uncle Robert was there, who could juggle and talk like Donald Duck, and who was an Army Reserve officer.  In consequence of all of the above, he was undoubtedly the coolest person I knew.

I darted around greeting these and more, but when I passed my grandfather Pop, he grabbed my shoulder to stop me.  Pop turned me around and pointed into the darkness just inches from our camp sites.  “Be careful where you run in the dark,” he said.  The lake is right there.  You might step off into it.”

I looked intently in the direction my grandfather pointed, but I saw no lake.  In the forested darkness, it was invisible, if it were there at all.  If Pop hadn’t been the wisest person I knew, I’d have moved forward at full tilt.  But I slowed down, and as I walked along the paths between campsites I could almost begin to sense the presence of the lake to one side.  Periodically I would stop and stare into the darkness toward which my grandfather had pointed.

"The lake is right there.  You might step off into it.”

“The lake is right there. You might step off into it.”

The next morning when the sunlight filtered into my tent, I rose and walked outside.  What I saw stunned me.  Not fifty feet from my sleeping bag was the lake.  And no pond it was.  Lake Martin is one of the largest lakes in the United States.  Forty-four thousand acres.  Seven hundred fifty miles of shoreline.  There it was, a thing of power and beauty and majesty, right in front of me.  And in the darkness I couldn’t see it.  I’d doubted it.  For a moment I was frightened by the thought that I could, indeed, have stepped off into its depths the night before.  Of course, soon I would plunge into its waters with joy.

_______________

In the narrative of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is halfway to his Passion.  Jesus has tromped through towns both Jewish and gentile.  He has healed, taught, exorcised demons, spoken in mystifying parables.  And today, he pauses along the road to Caesarea Philippi to ask his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”

Jesus is asking “why” as much as “who.”  “Why do people follow me,” he wonders.  Why do they leave their livelihoods; why do they bring their children from the next town; why do they pursue me into desolate places where there is no food or shade?

The disciples blubber a bit and say that, well, some people assume Jesus is a prophet, a real prophet, the likes of which haven’t appeared for centuries.  Other people think something even more profound than that is going on.  They believe Jesus may be the reincarnation of Elijah or John the Baptist.

While they’re talking, though, something is going on with Peter.  I imagine him weirdly quiet while the others debate.  He stares outwardly at Jesus and inwardly into his own soul.  He senses the presence of some reality, just beyond the bounds of his understanding, but it’s murky.  Then there is a flash of insight, an awareness, and Peter answers both the who and the why of Jesus: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

"You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!"

“You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!”

The grammatical construction of Peter’s claim is important.  There is no subjectivity to it.  Peter is not saying, “For me” or “On this particular day” Jesus is these things.  Peter is proclaiming an objective, immutable truth.  Jesus is the representative of God, because Jesus is the Son of God.

And not just a god, but the living God.  Peter is saying that all other gods, all other idols, all other things from which we seek meaning in life, are dead things, mere fetishes.

Only the God represented by Jesus lives, and only that God gives life.  That is why Peter follows.  That is why the crowds follow.  They see in Jesus—they see through Jesus—the God who gives life and gives life freely.  They see through Jesus the God who heals our hurts, who will not give us up to our demons, who will feed us when we are spiritually famished, and who will, ultimately, sacrifice himself rather than meet our human violence with violence.  In short, through Jesus they see the God who loves, because he is love.[i]

_______________

This morning your alarm clock went off, jarring you from sleep.  You likely hesitated for a moment before swinging your feet to the floor and getting out of bed.  You showered, shaved or put on make-up, dressed, fed yourself and perhaps a family, and drove anywhere from five to forty-five minutes to get downtown for services at the Cathedral.

Why?  Why are we here, today, in these pews?  Is it history, a tangible connection to a place where your parents or grandparents worshiped and made their lives?  Is it duty, a sense of social responsibility that finds a locus in the good outreach work of this place?  Is it morality, the desire to raise children with an ethical framework that will form them as virtuous people in the world?  Is it spiritual nourishment, the comfort and strength to face a new week that comes, mysteriously but surely, when we receive the bread and the wine at the Eucharist?  Why are we here?

All other reasons for being part of the Church have veracity only because of the first reason, the first truth: that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.

For me, I’d have to say all of the above.  But might it be that each of these and all other reasons have veracity only because of the first reason, the first truth: that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God?

We Episcopalians sometimes so worry about sounding like our more evangelical brothers and sisters that we shy away from this proclamation upon which Jesus founds the Church, and without which the Church has no ultimate standing.  It is true that some Christians tend to use the proclamation of Jesus’ identity as a shibboleth, some sort of password into heaven, or as a club with which to beat non-Christians over the head.

But that’s not what Peter does.  For Peter, the proclamation isn’t a theological litmus test but a life-changing exclamation of wonder, even of surprise.  The others muse that maybe Jesus is a prophet, or an inspiring ethical teacher, or a social revolutionary.  (Jesus is all of these, of course.)  But Peter steps out of the tent into the sunlight and suddenly sees the full expanse of God’s truth stretching out in front of him in power, beauty, and majesty.  I’m sure for a split second it’s frightening to catch a glimpse of who Jesus is, but Peter won’t skirt tentatively around the edge any longer.  Peter, who has been standing all this time at the cusp of God, with these words steps off into God’s very depths.  He plunges in—“You’re the Christ!  You’re God’s Son!  You’re the embodiment, the incarnation, of the God who is love!”—and thus begins his life’s transformation.

Here, at the beginning of the fall, when we again have roused ourselves from sleep, unzipped the tent, and come to church, it is the ideal time to ask the questions, “Why are we here?  Who do we say Jesus is?”

The answer we proclaim in our hearts and to the world will say much about us, and about the God or gods we follow.  It will impact the extent to which we dedicate ourselves to worship and service at the Cathedral, and it will affect the way we live, and love, and serve when we leave this place.  Will we cling to fetishes, defining ourselves by the dead gods of materialism, or vicious partisan politics, or narcissism, or prejudice, or any of the other idols out in the world that lead to death?  Or will we step off the bank into the depths of God, following only the one who came bearing God’s Gospel of love, and saying, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!”  Will we, with Jesus, heal the hurting, walk with those who are battling demons, and give of ourselves—fully, if necessary—as witnesses to grace against hatred and fear?

We’re poised at the very cusp of God.  St. Paul says today, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”  It begins with a question: “Who do you say that I am?”

________________________

[i] See Bruner, Frederick Dale.  Matthew, A Commentary.  Volume 2, The Churchbook, Matthew 13-28, pp. 121-124.

Getting out of the boat

This morning our Gospel lesson is that great passage in which Jesus and Peter walk on water.  It reminds me of a lesser known, similar passage that I think may be in one of those Gnostic gospels that people are so enamored with these days.  In this story, Jesus and Peter are teeing up on one of the water holes at the Royal Liverpool Golf Club in England.  It just so happens that Jesus saw Rory McIlroy win the British Open at Royal Liverpool the previous week, and since he is the Son of God, after all, he believes that he can drive the ball at least as far as Rory.

“Peter,” he says, “I’ll bet you I can drive my tee shot all the way across that pond.

“Now, Jesus,” Peter responds a bit nervously, “Why don’t you use a three wood and just try to place your ball on the near side of the water.  Then you can use a nine-iron over the pond and end up safely on the green.”

Peter has a knack for saying the wrong thing, and Jesus gets a bit irritated.  He glares at his disciple, and when he does dark storm clouds gather over head.  It gives Peter the willies.  “You don’t think I can hit this ball over the water?”  He asks Peter.  “You just watch.”

So Jesus tees up, sets his club face, and bends his knees just so.  He takes a full back swing, and Wham! knocks the stuffing out of his ball.  It soars overhead with a beautiful arc, heading toward the water.  It carries and carries and carries…and then Bloop! it plops into the pond about halfway across.

"Just who does he think he is?"

“Just who does he think he is?”

Jesus won’t even look at Peter, and Peter does everything he can to keep the smirk from creeping across his face.  “Mulligan!” Jesus yells, and he takes off toward the pond.

“Ah, c’mon Jesus!” Peter calls, “Just use a different ball.”  But Jesus gets to the water’s edge and takes off across the pond, walking on the water.  As he gets to the point midway across where his ball has sunk, the foursome behind him and Peter ride up to the tee box.  One of them looks out to the pond and sees Jesus walking on the water.  Naturally, he is stunned.

“Who does that guy think he is” the man asks incredulously, “Jesus Christ?”

“Nah,” Peter sighs, “He thinks he’s Rory McIlroy.”[1]

___________________________

One of the things that makes The Episcopal Church somewhat distinctive is that we read scripture each week from the lectionary.  In other words, we don’t have the luxury—nor do we fall into the trap—of picking and choosing whichever passages of scripture we want to read in a given week that might prop up our comfortable notions of the world.  Instead, we read scripture as it is intended to be read, as the on-going narrative story of God’s people.  (Of course, this only makes complete sense when we attend church regularly to hear that whole story from week to week…)  Well, last week Jesus fed the five thousand.  Jesus took a seeking and a hungry people and nourished them.  They were lost and they were famished, and Jesus set aside whatever might be pressing on his own agenda to gather the people up and feed them.  This is what God does.  Humanity is a self-absorbed and voracious species slowly but surely killing this tiny green planet in a barely noticeable solar system in some far corner of the universe.  And yet, God counts every hair on our heads, Jesus tells us, and he loves us every one.  Even if the effort requires nothing short of a miracle, when we are in need and when we seek God, God feeds us.

That was last week’s message.  It’s a great message, one that we need to hear often.  But that pesky lectionary won’t let me or you rest in its comforting assurance for very long!  That we are supposed to read last week’s Gospel lesson and this week’s Gospel lesson together as one piece is accentuated when Matthew joins the two by beginning today’s passage with the phrase (which our leaflet omits) “Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat…”  There is no pause in the action between the feeding story and this morning’s passage.  There is no change in scene.

So what happens in today’s passage?  The disciples get into the boat and head across the Sea of Galilee.  Jesus hangs back for some much-needed alone time.  The next morning the disciples wake up and look out upon the choppy waters only to see Jesus himself walking toward them!  Across the chasm, where the brine is dark and deep, the Lord stands, and the disciples are afraid.  Jesus does two things at that point, both of which are crucial.  He tells the disciples that outside the boat, right in the middle of the foamy torrent he is there, and he beckons Peter to join him.

Walking on waterTo his credit Peter tries.  With enthusiasm he jumps out of the boat and heads across the top of the water.  It is true that soon he notices that the murky water is crashing in waves against his legs and the wind is buffeting him sideways.  In an utterly human way, his fear gets the better of him, and he begins to sink.   But just before he the water overtakes him, Jesus offers him a saving hand and pulls him to safety.

In this story, there are two reactions to Jesus that are noteworthy.  The first is Peter’s, upon which the passage focuses.  He, like the others, has been recently fed by Jesus’ abundance and now he finds himself called out of the boat and into the choppy water.  He follows where Jesus calls.  It is true that he becomes fearful, but he tries to follow, and when he does Jesus will not let him fall.  It is true that Jesus says to Peter, “Why did you doubt?”  But I believe Jesus means this not as words of condemnation but as words of encouragement, as if saying, “You were doing it!  You were following, finally understanding my call to you.  Don’t stop next time!”[2]

The second reaction is even more instructive to us.  Looking closely at the story, we realize that when Jesus is seen on the water, only Peter responds to him.  The other eleven make no attempt to call to Jesus, and no movement to follow him.  Perhaps they are still too full of the food Jesus had given them when he fed the five thousand.  Perhaps they are too comfortable on the boat.  Rather than venturing out onto the water, they wait on the boat for Jesus to come to them.  They content themselves with offering him platitudes saying, “Truly you are the Son of God,” but never even making the attempt to follow.

The feeding of the five thousand and today’s Gospel cannot be separated.  Matthew links them in a way we dare not break.  Jesus feeds us, but never so we can simply sit back and offer up pious platitudes, never so we can stay on the boat.  He feeds us in order that we be given the strength to follow him out onto choppy waters, to walk with him in the face of wind and waves.

What is our boat?  Where are we comfortable?  Where do we risk getting fat on God’s food and mustering only the strength to offer feeble, half-hearted words of praise?

What would it mean for us to get out of the boat?  What would it mean for us truly to believe that Jesus is to be met not when the water is still, but when it is choppy and murky?  This very day, we come here materially comfortable to be truly fed with the spiritual food of Christ.  But what will we do now?  What will we do with all of the abundance we enjoy, every bit of which is owed first and foremost to God our Creator?

“He feeds us in order that we be given the strength to follow him out onto choppy waters, to walk with him in the face of wind and waves.”

We’re just a couple of short weeks away from the beginning of our fall program year here at the Cathedral.  Starting on Rally Day, the opportunities for worship, formation, fellowship, and service will be abundant.

Will we be like the eleven, who take Jesus’ food from his hands only to stay in the boat, to recline in our comfort, self-satisfied?  Or will we, like Peter, make the effort to use the sustenance Jesus gives us to do the hard work of the Gospel?  Jesus feeds us here so that we can follow him out onto the sometimes treacherous sea and feed others.  Out there it’s hard to keep our balance.  It takes our time, our energy, our money, and our focus.  It requires making room on our weekly schedules to take the risk to get out of the boat.  Jesus understands this, and when we follow him he will not let us sink.  Even in our doubts he will offer us, as he did Peter on the water, words of encouragement and strength, and when we stumble he will extend his saving hand.

Today’s Eucharist, like every Eucharist, will end with this prayer:

You have fed us with spiritual food in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood.  Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness singleness of heart; through Christ our Lord.  Amen.

______________________________

 [1] I first heard this joke so long ago that the golfer was Jack Niklaus.

[2] I owe this insight to Amy Hunter, “Living the Word” in the July 26, 2005, issue of The Christian Century.