In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
It’s one of the most basic human experiences.
We’ve all been afraid at one point or another. Through a quick Google earlier this week about what fear is, exactly, the word that appeared most often was “normal”.
Fear is normal. We all feel it from time to time.
In the Gospel lesson today, we hear one of the more familiar stories about fear. Jesus has been traveling, teaching, and performing miracles. Along the way he’s accumulated a large following. The closest among them become known as the disciples, and they are with him in a boat. There are other boats, filled with other followers, but the closest among them - the disciples - are with Jesus.
Out in the water, presumably within the safe confines of the boat - their security was suddenly interrupted. A storm came up and tossed the boat around. And the disciples became afraid.
They went to find Jesus - in their fear they sought solace from the one among them who seemed to have all the answers.
To their dismay, however, they found him asleep.
In the midst of their fear - their sense of scrambling around the line between life and death - their Lord was simply asleep. As almost a kind of insult to their fear, Jesus’ rest went undisturbed.
One of the things that I like most about this time of year - this “Ordinary Time” within the church’s calendar - is that it explores some of these normal parts of our existence. And fear IS normal.
Earlier this weekend, I went on my day off to see a movie with a friend in Brooklyn. We were planning to have a day at the beach, after it had been so hot this week, but instead, it would turn out to be the day that it would rain. After a week of unrelenting sun and merciless heat, our beach plans were thwarted by strong storms - the kind of strong storms that are pretty uncommon around here.
Undeterred, however, my friend and I were determined to enjoy our day off together. So we went to see a movie. The movie was terrible, as a matter of fact - I wouldn’t recommend it. It was called Prometheus. But as bad as the movie was, there was, within it this one line that captured my imagination - particularly as it related to the Gospel lesson for today.
A band of space explorers had traveled to a far-off planet on suspicion that another form of intelligent life inhabited there. As they approached the planet and were deciding where to land, one of the scientists onboard saw through the window a series of straight lines and grids. He said, “Land there. God doesn’t create in straight lines.”
|scarred land left behind as the Dead Sea has receded, March 2012|
It’s true, isn’t it? God doesn’t create in straight lines. The shapes are always more complex: there are gentle curves and sharp edges. There are cracks and crags.
Humans, on the other hand, tend to be more comfortable with straight lines. We like to see all that lies before us, as far as we can. Twists and turns engender fear - they feel unstable. Straight lines make us feel assured and safe.
But the truth is, fear is normal. As normal as the odd angles and turns that appear throughout God’s creation. God doesn’t create in straight lines, and the world and our experiences within it aren’t as safe and predictable as we might like.
In the church - not just here at St. Paul’s, but in the church throughout the world - we’re living in a climate of fear. The straight lines that we thought that we’d built for ourselves and for our futures aren’t holding up anymore.
The expectation of what church is and should be as it was experienced in the generations before us is proving to be untrue for our time. Some people are even beginning to conclude that those clean and straight paths that we’ve built are keeping us from really walking with God.
After all, God doesn’t build in straight lines.
Too often we keep trying to walk those same straight lines laid out by our parents and our grandparents, but more and more we’re finding that the road we thought we’d be following isn’t beneath us anymore. And our commitment to straight lines isn’t serving us as neatly as we’d expected it to. The world has changed around us, and the same old patterns of moving forward just don’t work anymore. When we insist on continuing to walk in straight lines, we run into walls, or the path is rocky, or the goal is nowhere to be found.
Straight lines may allay our fears, but they don’t serve us well for long. Sooner or later our selfish and shortsighted commitment to them keeps us from following the crooked, and often frightening paths that God has laid out for us.
Several years ago Bishop Spong wrote a book called Why Christianity Must Change or Die. The same is true of the church. It used to be true that we could simply open our doors on Sunday mornings and assume that the people would come. But that’s becoming less and less true.
After my friend and I finished the movie on Sunday we went back to his neighborhood bar to have a beer and to wait for his wife to get home from work. The little dive-y bar was packed to overflowing with young people - my friend and I were among the oldest people there. They were laughing and reconnecting with their friends - many of them had their children with them. They were eating and drinking and engaging in real community. In the outdoor section where we sat, I looked up to my left and saw my friend’s massive stone church. Just a little farther away and to the right I saw the massive Roman Catholic cathedral. And I realized - perhaps for the first time - that those impressive structures don’t seem to impress people anymore.
Churches are dying all around us, because we keep walking along the straight lines we’ve always walked along, and we’ve hardly noticed that the path is no longer beneath us.
I know I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, but the truth is, we have to start finding another path. God doesn’t create in straight lines, so the more we insist on sticking to them - sticking to the path we’ve always been on - the more assured we are of wandering away from where God would have us go.
It can be scary to go a different way. It can feel like the security of the world that we’ve come to depend upon is falling apart around us. But we have to find another way. We have to be willing to try to walk with God - wherever that walk might take us. Even when it seems unsure.
In the end of the story, Jesus restores the calm. The disciples just could not yet take the threat to their security.
There will be times when we need calm, too; but, we have to remember that calm, security, peace, tranquility - whatever else we may long for - those aren’t the goal. The goal is to walk with God. Sometimes that’s not the easiest path to walk, but it’s the path to which we’ve been called. Amen.