8/7/11; Matthew 14: 22-33

A sermon preached by Rev. Jane McBride, First Congregational Church of MN, UCC

“Artimeo Trinidad Mena was born October 20, 1977, in Guerrero, Mexico, where he grew up the oldest son of the Trinidad Mena family. In 1996, Artemio married and, later, had four children. He immigrated to Minnesota to provide his family with a better life, and he promised to return to them as soon as possible. After several years, he began counting down the months until he could return, not realizing that he would never again hold his children and his family.” (text from the 35 W bridge memorial)

“Hana Sahal was a bright, shining star. She was a smiling, laughing little girl who loved to talk to her parents and anyone who would listen. On the morning of August 1, 2007, Hana gave her father an extra hug and kiss before he left for work, almost as if she knew she was saying goodbye. Hana will be dearly missed and never forgotten.”  (text from the 35 W bridge memorial)

One muggy, drizzly morning last week, I visited the new memorial to the 35W bridge victims. Vibrant blue lights frame the i-beams that represent each person lost. Roses, still fresh and blooming, lay quiet on the ground. Water trickled over the granite wall behind the beams. As I paused to read each biography – Artimeo’s and Hana’s among them – these strangers took on flesh, became real. The brief tributes offer a privileged glimpse into sacred matters. As I read about each person in turn, I was surprised by the strong emotions their stories evoked in me. Parents and children and spouses who never made it home to each other. This hit home. The memorial also spoke to me about what’s under the surface in the faces of people I encounter daily. One young man had been born with down’s syndrome and a hole in his heart; another woman fled the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia to come to the US to learn a whole new culture.

Governor Dayton, in his remarks at the dedication, called the bridge collapse a “why God?” moment. We live with these “why” questions every day. Disasters happen constantly in our world. In Somalia, the recent famine has already claimed the lives of 30,000 children. Why, God? Some disasters are quiet and personal – a new diagnosis, the loss of a job, the ending of a relationship, a chronic struggle with depression. Why, God?

The sea is a central figure in this morning’s scripture. It is a symbol that depicts the stunning mystery of this world – it speaks about the rich blessings and the capricious cruelty of creation. In the Hebrew creation myth, the sea figures prominently. Creation narratives from a whole host of ancient near eastern cultures underlie and inform this biblical account. In these stories, an explicit battle rages between God and the sea. The sea is chaos personified. It is a power that can be harnessed to bring life, but it is also a destructive power that constantly threatens to undo God’s life-giving order. It is the abyss of nothingness that can at any moment open up and swallow us.

We see this struggle in the Genesis account of creation. God sets boundaries for the sea, separating the waters from the waters – differentiating the waters of the sky from the waters of the cosmic deep or abyss that ancient people believed lurked under the earth. These echoes of God, the Creator, mastering the waters of chaos aren’t only found in Genesis, but throughout the Bible. Psalm 74 proclaims: “Yet God my Sovereign is from old working salvation in the earth. You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters. You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness. You cut openings for springs and torrents; you dried up ever-flowing streams.”

As I ponder the “why God” questions, I find they aren’t questions about simple cause and effect. These questions center around identity: ours and God’s. Amid our own suffering or that of others, we ask “Who am I?” And who is God? How is God involved in this world, when so much is not as it should be? For me, the most honest and helpful answer to these “why” questions is “I don’t know”. At the “faith on tap” gathering this past week, at one point, we talked about the gods we don’t believe in. I don’t believe in a God who causes suffering, or who could put an end to our pain, but chooses not to. I also don’t think God blesses some of us but refrains from blessing others.

I realize that leaves a lot of things up in the air … what kind of God is God, if God doesn’t have the power to control events? Can God be God without that power? One thing I love about the UCC is our acknowledgement that our theology is full of holes. There is no way to systematize God or life so that it all makes sense. We encounter God’s presence in the order of creation, the bounty of its blessing and at the same time we mourn and rage at what seems to be God’s absence when chaos tears away at our souls.

I find it helpful that in the biblical way of thinking, Creation is not a one time event, not a finished product. Creation is a struggle that unfolds in every moment. It is the ongoing work of God: wresting order, meaning, hope, and being from the raw material of life. When Jesus strides out onto the stormy sea, it’s not about defying the laws of gravity. This symbolic moment declares that, in and through Jesus, God is with us in the chaos, enfleshed in the storms of our lives. Jesus prays alone on the mountain before he plunges into the waves. He centers himself in a fullness of being that masters the abyss, but not through raw authoritarian power. He approaches the sea’s tumult with strength and grace, freedom and confidence. In this moment, God is revealed. The process of creation continues.

Jesus speaks to the disciples, saying: “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.” This statement, too, is meant to alert us to the unique presence of God in Jesus. It is a shorthand way of referring to the whole of the biblical experience of what it means to be God’s people. We hear “Fear not” in almost every book of the Bible, from the mouth of God, on the lips of divine messengers. In a nutshell, “fear not” expresses God’s stance towards us.

Jesus’ statement: “It is I” can also be translated “I am”. In the book of Exodus, Moses turns aside to look at a bush that is burning, but not burning up. He hears the voice of God telling him to go free the Israelites from slavery. He says to God, well, who are you? When I talk to the Israelites about this plan, who should I say has sent me? God replies: “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be” In his book The Courage to Be, theologian Paul Tillich writes: “Courage is the self-affirmation of being in spite of the fact of nonbeing.” (Yale University Press, 1980, p.155)

Amid the undeniable fact of non-being – that is the chaotic reality of suffering — Jesus nurtures a connection to God who is being itself. “Come”, he says to Peter, inviting him to step out of the boat and into the waves. Come, and live. Not a painless life, but a real life. Come and be. Claim fully, vibrantly, courageously, who you are, even in the face of the abyss.

This past year, we gathered in small groups as a congregation to listen to one another’s hopes for this community. One person shared the story of how our church responded to the collapse of the bridge on that August day four years ago. This happened before my time, but she recalled that the congregation opened our doors spontaneously to people who were looking for a place of safety, refuge, and spirit. She described the sense of hospitality and community she felt in those days. This brief account helped me to realize how powerful it is to be who we are, to claim, with courage, what lies at the very core of our being.

When Peter strikes out toward Jesus, he loses his nerve and falls into the waves. Jesus reaches out his hand and he says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” We tend to receive these words as a rebuke, but are they? I wonder if Jesus is gently reminding us that even a little faith can be very powerful. After all, the same Jesus, elsewhere in Matthew declares that faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains. Come, Jesus beckons. Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid! Amen.


3 Responses to “Come”

  1. Cynthia Hendricks Says:

    Lovely and well stated, Jane. I missed that Sunday and I’m grateful to read the sermon here. I have always been struck by the wide diversity of the 13 who lost their lives that day, and of course so many more who were injured or affected, or were first responders.

    Thank you.

  2. Kathy Haskins Says:

    This is such a nice sermon, Jane. It is so hopeful. It makes me think alot about my views of God. Scrambles me up a bit in a good way. What an eye opener in the last paragraph that maybe Jesus was NOT rebuking Peter. The thing is faith and trust that although a real life will have some pain in it, God is Love and Justice and will see us through it if we but have the courage and energy to face each unhappiness; we are not alone.

  3. сайт под ключ Says:

    сайт под ключ

    […]Come | First Church of Minnesota, UCC[…]

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