Get Out of the Boat, by The Reverend Connie Frierson

Matthew 14:22-33  - Jesus Walks on the Water
 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’

 Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’

        This time of the year and the scripture today got me thinking about the ocean.  I love the ocean.  I can stare at it and listen to the waves for hours, even days. And if I could swing it, I would spend weeks and weeks by the ocean.  Do you remember how it is to be at the edge of the water? I can. I love those moments when you screw up your courage to get into the water. You know it is going to be a cold shock to your system. But the water and movement are going to be such a delight.  So you hover there, with what? Fear? Trembling? Anticipation? Excitement?  Maybe a little bit of dread? Do remember those moments when you either dive or jump or you inch by inch wade in?  Some of you may be waders and some of you might be jumpers.  But those moments are moments of truth. They are crucial pinpoints in time, when we go forward, plunge, dunk, and wade. Or we don’t. We may decide to stay on the shore. Sit in the beach chair. Or play it safe and passive.
         Today’s scripture is about just such a moment. Of course it seems that anything with Jesus is heightened and deepened.  So instead of wading into the water, Peter is walking on water to meet Jesus. And all of this is heightened by awe and fear as they recognize in Jesus, divine power.  But that moment, that instant as Peter stood on the edge of the boat might be a little like our childish experience on the edge of the ocean.
         You all recall what happens when as children we took the plunge?  We were thrilled and chilled and buoyant. I recall how delightful the ocean was. Once I got in the water the perspective was completely changed.  I could be a fish or a porpoise. The world was much different and it looked more like this. Once you are totally in the water the limits of the old world are changed.  This is true of Peter too as he walked mysteriously buoyed up.  This can be true of us too.  We can live and work and walk in a new and fearless perspective.  How great would it be to let go of all our land bound dreary fears and concerns and worries.  How great is it to have those times when we are living in deep trust with a God who wants to take our hand.  Where by the very power of God’s love and gaze we are buoyed up.
         But then Peter looked down and let fear rule him and he sunk till Jesus grabbed him. This reminds me too of what happens so often as we struggle in our spiritual life.  When we let fear rule us and we sink.  I have another moment from childhood at the beach that seems to speak to this moment.  So I’ll ask you to remember the time that you suddenly became afraid of the water or all the things that could be in water.  Do you remember?  For me it might have been 1975 when Spielberg’s Jaws came out.  But I think it was a little earlier, when something skimmed past me in the water and I was 13 or so and suddenly conscious in adolescence about how dangerous the world could seem.  Or maybe it was because that was the summer after my dad died.  We all learn to view the world and the ocean as dangerous and by extension all of life as dangerous and so we don’t plunge in. This was Peter’s issue and this is our issue. But if we are going to do something dynamic and real with our church and our faith and our lives, we need to make this plunge.
         We need a resurrected life, a deep trust and a God point of view. One thing that got me thinking about this is something called the “blue ocean strategy.”[1]

According to W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne, authors of Blue Ocean Strategy, the business world is divided into red oceans and blue oceans. In red oceans, companies try to outperform their rivals through head-to-head competition. They fight like sharks for the same limited profits, and their cutthroat competition turns the ocean a bloody red. In blue oceans, on the other hand, companies expand beyond existing boundaries, or they take their business into whole new areas. Competition becomes irrelevant because the rules of the game are still in the process of being created. Long-term success comes not from fighting competitors, but from creating “blue oceans”— untapped new market spaces ripe for growth.
         This is true in business, but it is also true in faith, in our individual faith and our church as a whole.  We need to be blue ocean Christians and a blue ocean church.  Could we jump into life and worship and maybe create whole new form of outreach? This church, this community and this world are ripe for growth. The problem is that we are stuck in red ocean thinking. —If we think that we’re in competition with other churches in our area, that worship only occurs at 11:00 on a Sunday, or that there are just not enough people out there who need the good news of Jesus Christ, then we are stuck in a red ocean mindset. 

         Jesus has a blue ocean strategy. Not in terms of business plans, but in terms of stepping into wholly uncharted waters. He turns away from the best practices of the scribes and the Pharisees, and takes his ministry in an entirely new direction. Jesus is anti-establishment, unconventional, and counterintuitive, outside the box. In the red ocean of first-century Palestine, the rule was, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But Jesus creates a blue ocean of “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44). Red ocean: Blessed are the strong. Blue ocean: Blessed are the meek. Red ocean: Blessed are the rich. Blue ocean: Blessed are the poor. Red ocean: Blessed are the warmongers. Blue ocean: Blessed are the peacemakers. Red ocean: Blessed are the satisfied. Blue ocean: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst. In the red ocean of scribes and Pharisees, godly people did not pollute themselves by eating and drinking with certain people. But in the blue ocean of Jesus, it’s a mark of honor to be called “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (11:19). 

In the red ocean of religious regulations, you were forbidden to pluck heads of grain on the Sabbath. But in the blue ocean that Jesus enters, famished disciples are free to forage, because “the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath” (12:1-8). 

In the red ocean 5,000 hungry people cannot be satisfied with five loaves and two fish. But in the blue ocean that Jesus creates, all of them eat and are filled. (14:13-21). 

         We have examples of a blue ocean faith right in our midst. One of our members Rich Gigilotti came to the session of Calvin with a passion and an idea that expands what church usually does. The idea is to engage in a new kind of mission, an after school program called Encompass Point. This program turns a red ocean experience into a blue ocean grace.  Unsupervised Teens are the most at risk in one particular time frame, the after school releases them and before parents are home from work.  This is the time when most drug or alcohol use is consumed. This is the time when teen crime happens. This afterschool gap is a dangerous time.  So Rich has created a program for Calvin to help in a concrete way and a relational way. What if we turned this dangerous time into a time or fun, and learning and friendship and safety?  We have Kathy Efau and Kim Boyd home from the trip to Ghana, a mind blowing and world-expanding trip.  How can a trip abroad do anything for the growth of the church here?  Well if you want to see the truth of Jesus statement, “Blessed are the meek and the poor.”  Then go see the meek and poor and witness the tremendous and dynamic power of their faith.  And then bring that desire of God’s power right back here.  These are women who have seen and experienced blue ocean Christianity.  These are two examples of what happens when you hear Jesus call to you and you jump out of the boat and to jump right into the blue ocean.
         Let’s look at our scripture once again from a Blue Ocean viewpoint.  Jesus steps out onto a deep blue sea after a wild and windy night. I know many of you are laboring away in some small boat in a large stormy world. You are working hard. The wind and waves are against you. When morning comes, you slump over your oars, discouraged, exhausted and seasick. 

Suddenly Jesus appears, walking on the water. You’re shocked, surprised, stunned ... even terrified. Is it a hallucination? A ghost? A god? Certainly nothing human can walk on water. But then Jesus says, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid” (14:27). 

Jesus invites you to step into this blue ocean with him, and so you carefully put a foot out. You begin to make your way across the waves, but the wind suddenly whips up and startles you, and you begin to sink. Jesus reaches out, catches you, and chides you gently, “You of little faith, why did you doubt? (14:31). 

To succeed with a blue ocean strategy, you have to trust the power of God.  If you are called you can be held and supported, encouraged and blessed. 

         The Ocean is out there. 
If we dare to make such a move, we’ll discover that Jesus is way out ahead of us. He’s anxious to release us from outmoded rules and fears. He’s hoping to connect us with people who may never hear his story unless it comes to them through our words and our deeds. All this begins with our response to his invitation, “Come.” All this comes to life as we tap into God’s power, and trust Jesus to lead us across the deep blue sea. Then we’ll be a church that walks on water. 



[1] Homiletics Online, A Blue Ocean Strategy, Aug. 7, 2005

Wrestling Untill Dawn, by Rev. Connie Frierson

Genesis 32:22-31  Jacob Wrestles at Peniel   NRSV
 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

         I love this story of Jacob wrestling with the man, or the Angel, or with God, all the night long by the river.  This story springs to life for me. It is the archetype of the spiritual journey. It is an epic soul deep myth that reveals God, humanity, ego, past, pain, wounds, healing and transformation.  It is amazing what one long night of struggling with God can do. Jacob stopped for the night on his way home to a brother who understandably wanted to kill him and at the dawn he has a life long limp and a new identity. 
I’m not the only one who loves this story.  Lots of people identify with it. Artists have painted this image of a man wrestling with an angel of God is a 1000 different ways. It is a testament to the depth of this story that each artist interacts in a different and unique way. Here is a painting by Rembrandt.   Notice that it doesn’t seem like much of a fight from the angel’s point of view. While Jacob might be striving and pushing for all he is worth, the angel appears to be embracing not wrestling. From the angel’s point of view this is more a divine hug than a battle for supremacy.  Next is a painting by Chagall. I love the divine whimsy of this painting.  Jacob is purple with passion as he runs headlong to head butt the angel.  Here is a painting by a Dutchman, Bartholomeus Breenberg.  It seems to be all about the landscape and not by the tiny figures. Maybe he was making a point about the Glory of God’s creation. Gauguin puts giggling maids in the foreground, who aren’t in the biblical stories. But for Gauguin anything done that isn’t viewed or applauded by girls isn’t worth doing. Gauguin was always one for the ladies.  Edward Knipper is a Christian artist whose pictures hand in the Billy Graham Library and the Vatican.  This is perhaps my favorite.  The cubist element show such fragmented energy swirling around Jacob.  Next we even have this story recreated in Legos. This is a story we can put ourselves into and some people put the story on their bodies in tattoos.  This is indeed one of the most important stories in the Old Testament about our relationship with God.

         But in order to get the most from this Jacob vs. Angel Smack Down, we need to understand a little of Jacob’s back story.  The very name of Jacob, describes Jacob. Jacob means heel grabber or supplanter, or even cheater, deceiver, schemer, and crook.  Jacob was the second born twin. From birth Jacob was wrestling and wrestling dirty for power and wealth. It is said that he grabbed his brother’s heel as Esau was born. Later Jacob gets his hungry, brawny, dimmer brother to give him is birth right, his inheritance, for a bowl of stew. Then Jacob connives to trick his aging, blind father, Isaac, to give him his brother’s blessing.  Jacob pretends to be Esau. Isaac isn’t sure who this is and asks, “Who are you?”  Jacob replies, “I am Esau.” And steals his father’s blessing. After all those shenanigans, Jacob has to run away from home, or his brother Esau will kill him. He runs away to his uncle Laban, an even greater trickster and the cheater. Jacob gets cheated in the marriage mart. But eventually he does well and now, years later, he is on his way home to make up with his brother or be killed by him. 
         These are all the events that lead up to this one night alone on the banks of the Jabbok River. On this night Jacob is about to go home. He is trying to make it up to his wronged brother. He is going back to repent and face his sins against his brother. He may well be facing death as word has reached him that Esau is riding with 400 men to meet him. So Jacob has sent this wives and maids and children and flocks and men across the river and is alone on this pivotal night. You can see that Jacob has a lot to wrestle with on this night. He has a lifetime of bad behavior to mull over and tomorrow it may all come home to roost. There is nothing like mortal danger to bring about some deep reflection.  Someone once said that God whispers to us in our pleasures but shouts to us in our pain.  It is into this time critical and painful night that Jacob wrestles with God. 
         So what can we learn from this story?  First, it is critical to get alone with God.  We have a culture that thrives on distraction. More than any other times before, we never have to be alone with ourselves or our thoughts or our God.  We have media, music, iPods and cell phones, the web at our fingertips. So we need never have quietness.  Even in our spiritual life, we can out source our spiritual growth. Now it can be my job or Graham’s job or your spouse’s job, or your favorite radio or TV preacher or guru to grow your relationship with God.  All these sources can help. But at the end it is necessary for each person to as Paul writes, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12).  Our relationship to God grows in community. But our relationship with God also requires one on one time. When you are alone with God you can answer the question Jacob answered. Who are you?  What is your name?  We can be honest about ourselves and then we can have a real start with God. 
         This brings us to the second lesson. Use your real name as you wrestle with God. The mysterious man in the wrestling match asks Jacob what his name is.  Why did he do this? God had been pursuing Jacob for years. God is all-powerful and all knowing. Why ask?  God is calling Jacob to relive the last time he asked for a blessing, when he stole his brother’s blessing.  When Jacob masqueraded as Esau to receive his father’s blessing, Isaac wasn’t sure this was Esau. Isaac asked, “Is this you? Esau?  And Jacob lied and pretended to be someone he was not.  So this agent of God asks Jacob’s name.  Jacob answers the truth, that he is Jacob, the schemer and grabber and cheat. There is always a humbling truth to be face, an embarrassing reality about who we are and what we have been. The blessings that God wants to bring to us can only be given when we start with truth.
         Wrestle until dawn. Be persistent.  Jacob wrestles all night.  I used to watch my son wrestle in school.  The wrestling matches consist of 3, 2-minute rounds.  Wrestler pushes and grabs and grapples for all they are worth for 2 minutes.  Then they restart and go again, and then again.  In all that is 6 minutes. Now in a hard fought match each wrestler is giving it his all for that eternity of two minutes.  But getting to the bottom of whom we are and who God is, takes longer than 6 minutes.  Too often we are dabbler and not serious searchers.  There is a quality in Jacob that will not let go that we need to emulate. We need to hold fast, return again and again in prayer, silence and practice our faith.          
         There is a woman who reminds me of Jacob; who had Jacob’s persistence, who met God alone and without distraction, who didn’t hide behind any false self as she wrestled with God.  This woman is named Jeanne Safer.  Jeanna is a therapist, a PhD and an author. One of her particular areas of study and therapy are conflicts between siblings.  So perhaps that is what leads her to think about the Jacob and Esau story more closely. But one day Jeanne was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia.  She had been feeling tired. She had no energy.  She had been bruising easily. But one day as she watched a bruise bloom in seconds on her arm. She got herself to a doctor. The doctor immediately ordered blood tests and she could tell that the diagnosis was really serious.  She had almost no platelets in her body.  She didn’t know it but she was one small bump away from uncontrollable hemorrhaging. The treatment started immediately. She was put in the hospital for one month of round the clock intravenous medical intervention and then one year of outpatient chemotherapy, one month on, one month off.  She gave herself over to the medical treatments but she understood that she had to fight for her self in a different way.  As she was admitted to the hospital for this grueling intervention, she redecorated her hospital room. She put one of her favorite rugs over the TV. So she wouldn’t be tempted to zone out, she kept books and images of faith around her. She would take grueling walks down the hallways. She passed windows that opened up into look at brick walls of other wings of the hospitals or bare, brick lined air shafts. But at the end of one hall there was a window that showed one tough, tenacious weed.  She wrote that a dandelion would be exotic compared to this scraggly weed.  But she thought of herself as that weed. The image that she would not let go of was of Jacob wrestling with the Angel of God.  She would not let go until she got her blessing from this suffering. Whatever happened until she had her blessing, whatever that blessing would be.
         When we do these things, when we get alone with God, bring our real selves and call ourselves by our real names, when we persistently wrestle for a blessing, then God does indeed bless us. But that blessing often means that we are forever different.
Jacob received a new name.  Name changing is profound, Abram became Abraham, Simon became Peter, and Saul became Paul.  The point of this entire struggle isn’t that you walk away your same old self, but with a bonus in your pocket. Meeting God and receiving God’s blessing changes us.  Jacob became Israel. And Israel limped forever afterward.  When we meet God in our wrestling we come away with a true knowledge that may make us less in the eyes of the world.  Israel came to know that he was dependant on God.  People who meet God generally realize that their illusion of self-sufficiency strength was just that, an illusion, a lie we tell ourselves.   Young Jacob walked without a limp and caused havoc wherever he went.  But Israel can walk confidently and humbly leaning on God. 
         So as I look out today. It would be best if we all had a little hitch in our giddy-up, a little dependence on God’s spirit, a leaning in humility our God.  If you wrestle for a blessing you will come away with a new name, beloved of God.

Setting Sail: Weathering Storms

Matthew 8:23-27
July 6, 2014

And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. A windstorm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him up, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. They were amazed, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?”

            I first thought about this sermon series, and about how living a life with the Spirit was like setting sail, because of this passage. This passage reminded me that whether we like it or not, much of life is stormy, and how we weather the storms determines much of what our life becomes. Just like in nature where storms rush in out of the blue, in life we often have to face storms, and the question is whether we will face them with faith or not.

            What kind of storms have you had to weather in your life? Did you grow up in a stormy family? Did you have bad experiences in school or college? Have you gone through terrible work times or unemployment? Have you gone through major relational problems—abuse, neglect, strife, or divorce? Have you gone through terrible grief? Have you been ill or suffered something debilitating?

            All of us wish that we could go through life without experiencing the storms of life, but the reality is that no one gets out of life alive. At some point all of us go through something terrible that overwhelms us and that is difficult to get through. The reality is that storms are just a part of life.

            In many ways the storms that we go through are like the ones I experienced last Thursday morning. I woke up at 2 am, and a terrible rain and thunderstorm was raging. It only lasted about fifteen minutes, but in those fifteen minutes thick trees bent almost to the breaking point, leaves and sticks pelted our windows, sheets of water cascaded over gutters, and tree limbs crashed to the ground. The next morning, surveying the damage, one tree had fallen over covering our back yard, and many branches littered the property and driveway. Clean up was difficult. I was fortunate that my bother and brother-in-law were in town for the 4th because they helped me tremendously. In fact, my brother-in-law ended up overheating my chainsaw engine (it’s electric) from cutting through so much thick wood. The lesson? Just as in the storms on Thursday morning, sometimes there’s nothing you can do about life’s storms but get through them as best you can and clean up afterwards.

            Just like real storms, spiritual, mental, and life-storms are a reality in life. But this is a hard fact for so many people to swallow. It’s so common for people to wonder, in the midst of life’s storms, why they have to suffer them. They become discouraged, thinking that God has made a promise that if we have faith, then we won’t go through storms. I’m not sure where this idea comes from, but many people believe that if they have even a modicum of faith, or attend church on a semi-regular basis, or believe in God, that God will spare them from having to go through life’s storms.

            Many people think like that, asking why, if God is truly good, God would let us go through these storms. I always wonder if they’ve ever read the Bible. Have you ever looked at the people of the Bible? Every single one of them went through storms, whether it was Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, the Israelites, Joshua, Gideon, Sampson, David, Elijah, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Daniel, Ezekial, the disciples, Paul, or even Jesus. What’s apparent from the Bible is that storms are a part of life. Only one pair of people was asked to live a life without storms, and they created a storm—Adam and Eve.

            Learning to weather storms is a huge part of the life of faith. So the big question is, what do you do to weather storms? The answer is, “whatever you have to.” I’m going to take you back to the metaphor of sailing. When a storm comes upon a ship at sea, there’s often nothing they can do but batten down the hatches and bring down the sails.

            I’m not sure everyone knows what it means to batten down the hatches. Basically it means to fasten down every portal or doorway to the lower decks. Failing to do so is dangerous because if too much water gets down below, the ship becomes too heavy, causing it to sink. Do you remember the 1975 wreck of the ship, Edmund Fitzgerald? Maybe not, but you probably know the 1976 song by Gordon Lightfoot, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” When I heard the song as a teen, I always thought it was about a ship that wrecked in the 19th century, but it turned out that the Edmund Fitzgerald was an iron ore cargo ship that sank in a terrible storm in Lake Superior as it headed to Detroit.

            They’re not really sure why it sank, but there’s a theory that one of the hatches might not have been battened down quite securely, either by accident or because of a flaw in the hatch. Water may have filled the hull, causing the ship to become too heavy, especially in the front. If so, there’s a good chance that a 30 foot wave from behind pushed the stern of the ship upward, forcing the heavy bow downward into the bottom of the lake, 30 feet below. When a storm comes, you have to batten down the hatches to keep from sinking.

            Once a storm hits, you do you best to get through it. But it’s not enough to just lower the sails and batten down the hatches. You need to be ready before the storms come. Our associate pastor, Connie Frierson, spoke about this a few years ago in a very profound sermon. She made a comment that I’ve cited a few times since then. Connie has gone through a number of very bad life storms. Her father died when she was 13. She cared for her mother in hospice. And her beloved husband, Allen, died suddenly of a heart attack about six years ago. His death, as sudden as it was, became even more tragic when the Allegheny County coroner’s office called Connie a month or so afterwards to talk with her. They told her that Allen’s death had been difficult for them because of the condition of his body. Allen had been a fitness and health nut, and they said that his organs, even though he was 54, were those of a 25 year-old. At the same time, they said that his heart was the heart of a 90 year-old. He had a congenital condition. But because his body was in such good shape, he probably never realized that he had had several heart attacks. As you can imagine, Allen’s sudden death was traumatic for everyone who knew him, especially for Connie and her family.

            I still remember something Connie said in her sermon, reflecting on dealing with the grief of Allen’s death. She said, “don’t wait till tragedy hits to work on your faith. Work on your faith before it happens. That way your faith is there to get you through.” Connie didn’t really ask the question, why would a good God let this happen. Instead she relied on God to help her get through what had happened. That’s battening down the hatches and bringing down the sails before storms hit.

            A man named Horatio Spafford understood how faith gets us through storms. You probably don’t know Spafford, but you certainly know his work. Spafford was a prominent Chicago attorney in the mid-19th century. As a senior partner in one of the most prestigious firms in Chicago, he made a tremendous amount of money. He invested that money in property all around the city of Chicago, which was undergoing tremendous growth at the time. He also had been a man of great faith, devoting himself to Scripture reading, prayer, and service.

            Then in 1870 his life started taking a turn for the worse. His four year-old son died of scarlet fever. Then in 1871 the great fire of Chicago burned half the city, and with it Spafford’s investments. By 1973 he had recovered enough financially that he decided to take a trip with his family to England, both to get a change of scenery, and also to hear the famous preacher, Dwight L. Moody, preach in England. Spafford had some extra work to do, so he sent his family out ahead of him, following three days later. The ship carrying his wife and four daughters was hit by an iron sailing vessel, causing it to sink and resulting in 226 deaths. His wife sent a telegram to him that tragically said, “Saved. Alone.” His four daughters had died. How do you deal with this kind of tragedy? Spafford dealt with it by penning his famous hymn, “It Is Well:”

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

(Refrain:) It is well (it is well),
with my soul (with my soul),
It is well, it is well with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.

My sin, oh the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to His cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

And Lord haste the day, when the faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.

            Spafford had worked on his faith before the storms hit, and it allowed him to weather the storms. After the sinking, he and his wife had three more children. Eventually they moved to Jerusalem and started an effort to reach out to people struggling through the storms of life. The American Press dubbed them “The Overcomers.” Their group spent the rest of their lives reaching out to struggling Christians, Jews, and Muslims in an attempt to bring God’s love and grace to people struggling through their own personal storms.

            Storms are an inevitable part of life. The Christian life isn’t about living in a way that prevents us from being hit by storms. It’s about having a faith and life that are able to get us through the storms.


Setting Sail: Following the North Star

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Setting Sail: Weighing Anchor

Matthew 8:18-22
June 15, 2014

Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. A scribe then approached and said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Another of his disciples said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”

            This is an odd passage. It really reflects badly on Jesus, making him seem very insensitive. One guy steps forward, pledging to follow him, and Jesus basically responds, “I’m a wanderer. You don’t want this kind of life.” Why would he discourage someone who wants to follow? The other, a disciple who goes unnamed, is grieving over his dead father. Jesus basically says, “So sorry for your loss. Now,… either come with me or forget it.” Is this how you treat the people who like you,… who want to follow you?

            Why do you think Jesus was so mean? This seems to go against the whole image we have of him as a man of deep love and sensitivity. Was he really that insensitive? Was he trying to discourage his followers? Is this the way to build a lasting movement?

            Actually, I think he was trying to give a very blunt message to those who say they want to serve God: If you’re going to sail with me, you have to pull up your anchor, serve God, and trust the ways of the Spirit.

            I don’t know if you’ve ever heard this phrase, or said it yourself, but when I was younger I used to hear people say, “I want the church to be my anchor.” I don’t know that people still say or think it, but it’s still a common sentiment among many Christians today, even if they don’t say it the same way.

            What do you think it means when we say that we want the church or our faith to be an anchor? It means that in an ever-changing world, people want their church and their faith to be the one thing that’s constant. They don’t want change. Why? Because in a world of change, where else can we be safe? Think about the way the world is today. Everything constantly changes. For example, those of us who, in the 1970s and 80s were up on the latest audio technology, who had the best turntable, the best tuner and amplifier, and the greatest set of Boston Acoustics speakers, are now intimidated by our smart phones because we feel like they are so much smarter than we are. There has been more change in the past 40 years than in the previous 200. The change from horses to cars, or from radios to televisions, has not been nowhere near as dramatic as the technological changes in terms of the sheer access to information, entertainment, news, communication, travel, and so much more. When life changes this rapidly and dramatically, what are the constants? People want something safe.

            The desire for the church, religion, and faith to be an anchor is a problem, though. The problem is that if your faith or your church is an anchor, your ship really isn’t doing what it’s intended to do. What are the reasons you drop an anchor? It is to be in the harbor as you either load up or unload cargo. Or it is to be repaired and repainted. When a ship is at anchor, it is not really serving its purpose. The purpose of a ship is to be at sea—either going to new places, bringing goods and services to new places, or bringing people to new places. A church that is an anchor is doing none of those things. It does not serve others, it does not bring God to others, and it does not help us to move to where God is calling us to go.

            The Christian life is meant to be like a ship at sea where we’re willing to go where the Spirit takes us. But if we stay at harbor, we never really fulfill our purpose. In fact, if we stay at harbor, we are in one of the most dangerous places to be. It may feel safe, but if we are at anchor and a storm hits, we increase the danger of shipwreck and destruction exponentially. We are too close to shore, which means our ship could be tossed onto the shore and broken. The anchor also holds us in place while the waves crash, meaning that there is also a significant danger of the ship being pulled under the waves.

            Even if the ship goes a bit offshore and anchors near the shore, it can be dangerous. There’s the possibility of being tossed onto the rocks. The safest place for a ship is actually out at sea in a storm. It is frightening. It can make us sick from the motion. It can feel extremely dangerous. But it is much safer than being at harbor and at anchor. It is also much truer to the spiritual life. Sailing on the winds of the Spirit can lead us to stormy times. Just because we say “yes” to God doesn’t mean that everything will go well. It does mean that God will be with us to see us through. If we try too hard to keep the church at anchor, or our lives at anchor, we end up serving little purpose and not serving God.

            We’re called to be a people who are willing to sail on new adventures with God. A ship’s purpose is to serve, and so is ours. I see how members of Calvin Church keep the church sailing all the time. For example, two of our members, Kim Boyd and Kathy Efaw, are heading to Ghana on a mission trip this summer. They are willing to pull up anchor and set sail for a completely new place with completely new experiences. In the next month we will be sending mission trips to Camp Westminster in Michigan where are our teens will help the camp in its mission to reach out to inner city children. Then we’ll send another mission trip to the Wayside mission in Louisville, Kentucky to help in their ministry to the homeless and broken.

            This setting sail isn’t just about going somewhere else. This fall we are starting a new partnership with EnCompass Point, an afterschool program for teens between the ages of 12 and 16. It is a ministry to children who are often left alone at home in the afterschool hours—hours when teens are most likely to engage in risky behavior, drug experimentation, and crimes. We are trying to create a safe place for teens to be during those critical hours in a program that offers adult mentors, tutoring, games, teaching healthy living, and more.

            How did this program get started? It got started because one of our newer members, Rich Gigliotti (he and his wife, Ashley, just had their first baby this past Monday), felt a calling to help teens who were basically being ignored. He has taken a chance to set sail rather than to stay safe at harbor. This is an opportunity for you, also, to set sail. During the summer we will be looking for volunteers who can offer to be part of the program for one, two, three, four, or five afternoons a week. All you have to do is to be a person who cares about making a difference in teens’ lives.

            Another group that set sail is a choir that many of our members belong to, the Circle of Friends Choir. This is a choir that developed out of a very bad situation when they felt they could no longer continue as a church choir in another church in the area after their director, David English, was asked to step down. Many members of that choir felt they could no longer remain in the church. The fifteen-member choir, no longer part of a church, could have folded up and licked their wounds, looking for any safe harbor to plop anchor in. Instead, they decided to become a community choir serving as a mission to other churches, organizations, and charitable opportunities. Many of their members, including their director, belong to Calvin Presbyterian Church, but many don’t. It is not our church’s choir, even though they rehearse here. They have grown to be a choir of almost forty members who are incredible. They sing old songs. They sing new songs. They have a creative flair that is wonderful. And they make a difference for others by being a choir intended to serve others. This is weighing anchor and setting sail, even if it means setting sail out of the storms.

            This kind of pulling up anchor and setting sail is what our passage is all about. Jesus wasn’t trying to be mean or insensitive. He was simply telling the scribe that sailing with him in serving God was going to be difficult, not easy, and he had to be ready to sleep on the ground, eat crappy food, and wander as they served God together. To the other disciple he was saying that there is little time, and they had work to do with the living to prepare them for life after death, as well as for life in this life. He wasn’t being insensitive, he was telling them all to make sure they had their priorities.

            This passage arrives in Matthew 8 amidst of a series of passages about faith. First there was a passage in which a leper, an outcast, comes to Jesus for healing. Then a centurion, a soldier in command of over 80 men, comes to Jesus asking that his servant be healed. Jesus tells him that it will take time for him to get to his house. The centurion replies that Jesus is a commander much like himself, and that all Jesus has to do is to command that the servant be made well and he would be healed. Jesus proclaims this man, a pagan, to have more faith than all the Jews of Israel.

            Then comes our passage, telling us that we need to be ready to follow in faith no matter what happens. This is followed by a passage in which Jesus and the disciples are in a boat on the Sea of Galilee. A terrible storm rises up, and the ship is tossed to and fro as Jesus rests in the bow asleep. The disciples wake him up, asking him to still the storm. Jesus stills the storm, and then criticizes them for having such little faith and not trusting that God would care for them.

            Our passage for today comes in the midst of all that, and it is a passage that tells the scribe and disciple that if they are to follow in faith, they need to be willing to make faith in God the priority, not security and safety. This is our call, too. We are called to pull up our anchors, whatever that means for each of us, and to find a way to serve God.


Setting Sail: Catching the Wind

Due to images in the sermon that can't be placed in this version of the sermon, please click here to read the sermon on Graham Standish's website

Following Visions

Act 16:6-10
June 1, 2014

They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.

            Have you ever read a book that changed your life? I’m not talking about that self-help book that got you through a crisis, or a technical book that helped you figure out your career. I’m talking about the book that changed everything because after you read it you no longer saw life the same way. Your perspective on people, work, the world, and God changed. For me, that book was Catherine Marshall’s book, Beyond Ourselves.

            What made this book so life-changing for me was her basic premise that God is here, God wants to make a difference in our lives, and all we have to do is open up, which she then demonstrated through story after story. At the center of her book were these three basic ideas:
1.    God knows the past, present, and future, and knows what’s best for us.
  1. God loves us so much that God wants to guide us to what’s right.
  2. God can communicate to us what’s right, but we have to listen

            Marshall discovered these principles almost by accident. She says that her first big, and somewhat trivial, experience of these ideas came about when she tried to hang some curtains. She had seen curtains hung a certain way in a magazine and wanted to hang them in a similar way. No matter what she did, though, the curtain rod kept bowing. She invited a friend over to help her, and after an hour neither could figure it out. After her friend left, she tried again, but soon became discouraged. Going up to her bedroom she cried in frustration. She lied on the bed very still, and she heard a voice inside her say, “Do it this way,” and she sensed a series of steps she was to do. She went downstairs and did it. It was perfect. She felt that it was God.

            She even admits that this is SO trivial, yet she noticed in it that God seems to want to be part of even the trivial moments of our lives. She discovered God’s presence more profoundly in a healing experience she had that changed her life. In her thirties she contracted tuberculosis, and it slowly degraded her life. Tuberculosis is a disease of the lungs that slowly kills. It’s rare now because of the many antibiotics we have that cure people of tuberculosis. When she got it in the 40s, there wasn’t much treatment for it. For her, it eventually rendered her bedridden. She became helpless.

            She had been reading about the need to relinquish and surrender ourselves to God, so she decided to do so. Mustering all the strength she had while spending the summer in Cape Cod, she forced herself out of her bed. With all the energy she had left, walked to the beach. There she started praying. She began by confessing to God, telling God about her doubts, fears, and lack of faith. She offered herself to God and said that she would serve God no matter what happened in her life. Finally, she asked God for healing. Afterwards, feeling a bit more energetic and as though God was in her life, she walked back to her bed. 

            Over the next few months, she continued to pray for healing, and as she did she slowly recovered. The strength returned, and one year later there was no sign of the tuberculosis in her lungs. She was healed.
            What made an impact on me wasn’t just this experience, but how she reflected on it afterwards: “It was not until after my entering-in experience in 1944 that the inner Voice became a reality to me. Apparently this surrender of self is necessary groundwork, since not even God can lead us until we want to be led. It is as if we are given an inner receiving set at birth, but the set is not tuned in until we actively turn our lives over to God.”

            Catherine Marshall led me to discover amazing Christians I hadn’t heard of before--people like George Müller, who started an orphanage based on prayer in the 1850s, and over 40 years grew from 4 orphans to over 2050. She led me to people like Brother Lawrence, who wrote about turning everything into prayer—sweeping floors, washing dishes, and more.

            Her writings led me to experience similar things, and it led me to try her approach to life and ministry, which led us at Calvin Presbyterian Church to experience similar things. The fact is that Calvin Presbyterian Church has been a church that has grown because we live by Catherine Marshall’s principles.

            It’s these principles, and others like it that, have led us to our mission to Trinity Presbyterian Church, which we are embarking on today. We are helping Trinity to recover from a crisis that’s led them to shrink from 200 members to 17 over a three-year period. And we are doing it because we believe God is both calling us, and because God has great things in store for Trinity if we are willing to join God in what God is doing.

            One of the people who has also inspired me the way Marshall did is a Southern Baptist writer (a Canadian one,… go figure) named Henry Blackaby. He has listed Seven Realities of Experiencing God that have guided me in my life and ministry, and that speak to both what we try to do at Calvin Church and are going to try at Trinity Church. He realities are:

1.    God is always working around you.
2.    God pursues a continuing love relationship that is real and personal.
3.    God invites you to become involved with Him in His work.
4.    God speaks by the Holy Spirit through the Bible, prayer, circumstances, and the church to reveal Himself, His purposes, and His ways.
5.    God’s invitation for you to work with Him always leads you to a crisis of belief that requires faith and action.
6.    You must make major adjustments in your life to join God in what He is doing.
7.    You come to know God by experience as you obey Him and He accomplishes His work through you. 

            I want you to focus most on numbers 5 & 6. Too many people think doing what God works with us, life gets easier. What this says is that often doing what God wants leads us to a crisis, and that crisis moves us to number 6. When we seek to do what God wants, we have to adjust our lives.

            This is what we are doing with Trinity Church. They’ve gone through a crisis of faith and action. They’ve prayed. We’ve joined them in prayer, and we are adjusting ourselves to join them in what God is doing there and here. We have to change. Trinity has to change. We all have to adjust to what God is doing.

            God has plans for Trinity Presbyterian Church. God has plans for Calvin Presbyterian Church. What we are doing there isn’t the beginning, but it is the next big step. We are all being called forward, and God has great things planned, but we can only go forward if we are willing to join God in what God is doing.