“Why did you doubt?”

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 9, 2020 – Matthew 14:22-33 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer via Zoom

This sermon, which I preached this morning, is a slightly different version of the sermon I wrote as a contribution to this week’s installment of Sermons that Work.

Today we find Jesus’ disciples terrified on the Sea of Galilee. It’s certainly not the first time. The disciples are no strangers to this lake. Even before Jesus called them to fish for people, they fished here for fish, no doubt risking life and limb for a good catch. 

A quick look back at Matthew’s chapter eight reminds us of another traumatic experience they had not so very long ago. You may recall the story. A windstorm arises, so strong that the boat is swamped and it begins to sink.

Scared to death, the disciples yell to Jesus, who is fast asleep in the back. “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” Jesus responds calmly, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he gets up, rebukes the wind, calms the sea, and the disciples are amazed.

Today, however, it’s not the weather that frightens the disciples. They can handle being tossed about by strong winds and waves. Been there, done that.

Today they are frightened by something else entirely—an eerie figure walking toward them on the surface of the sea. “It’s a ghost!” they cry. No, Jesus assures them, “It is I; do not be afraid.”

Alas, these comforting words do not quite satisfy Peter, who seeks further proof of Jesus’ identity. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

Jesus agrees, “C’mon, Peter.” And Peter goes. But after just a few steps, the wind startles him and he begins to sink, crying, “Lord, save me!” Of course, Jesus does save him, but he also asks him this sobering question, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Jesus’ question is a different version of the same one he asked back in chapter eight. It’s déjà vu right here in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. Make no mistake, these questions are just as much for us as they were for those early disciples.

Why do we doubt? Jesus calmed a storm with his voice, fed five thousand people with only a few loaves of bread, and walked on water. In light of all this, why would Peter—or we—ever lack faith?

Well, right off the top of my head, I’d say: fear. Like the disciples, sometimes storms pop up in our lives and scare us half to death. That’s what storms do. It’s only natural for a dog to hide under the bed when he hears thunder; for a child to cling to her mother when she sees lightning; for the driver to pull over when he can no longer see the road. 

And it’s not just wind and rain storms that scare us. So do the metaphorical storms of our lives. Things like global pandemics, contentious election cycles, horrifying diagnoses, economic downturns, and relational discord can shake us to the core.

In the midst of difficult setbacks like these, it’s not uncommon for anyone to doubt their faith in God. That’s exactly what happened to Peter in today’s gospel, that’s exactly what the disciples did in chapter eight, and it’s exactly what can happen to us.

All Jesus does is ask why. Like any good teacher, he already knows the answer, but he wants us to learn it, too.

Simply put, I’d say it’s because we are human. Fear is, quite literally, instinctual. Humans are wired with a fight-or-flight response. We have this reflex for a reason. When our lives are in jeopardy or—more commonly for us today—when our identity is threatened, we are naturally inclined to react in fleeting ways.

When that happens, we tend to leave calm, rational thought behind, and we often need some assistance getting back to a more faithful frame of mind.

If you took Public Speaking in high school of college, you probably learned how important it is to engage the audience. Speakers have many tools for doing this, but perhaps the most important is the rhetorical question.

Rhetorical questions engage audience members by asking questions that get listeners thinking about their own answers. And as they do, they become personally connected to the subject in question.

This is to say, Jesus is not asking his rhetorical question, “Why did you doubt?” to shame Peter. Jesus is not in the shaming business. Instead, he uses the question to get a frightened Peter to focus on what’s most important. And in the realm of life’s storms, faith is more important than safety, or at least comes before it.

Faith is the foundation of human life, as important as food, water, and shelter. Only after faith is secured can safety add value to living. This is the message of the cross. This is the message of Jesus’ whole life. Faith is what Jesus wants Peter—and all of us—to focus on when storms come.

Jesus’ question prompts us to realize that faith is always within our reach. Even in the stormiest times of life, when we most doubt our ability to make it through, we can remain faithful to God.

It may not be easy. Staying faithful to God doesn’t simply mean going through the motions. It doesn’t mean saying the creed while thinking about a shopping list, or repeating Bible verses from memory. It means for us, just like Peter, refocusing on our commitment to faith itself.

We will not always be perfectly faithful. Doubts will creep in. The important thing is to return to a place of faith that is strengthened and sustained by a relationship with God and nurtured by participating in life in Christ.

You can return to faith by reading scripture, praying, attending worship. Each Sunday when we confess our sins, we admit that we don’t always get everything right, but we repent and recommit ourselves to walking in God’s ways once again.

Repent and recommit. This is the nature of the Christian life.

Peter is a prime example of what it means to live a life of holy imperfection. He has misunderstood before, and he will misunderstand—and even deny—again. But today we see him refocusing on faith (with a little help from Jesus, of course).

Watching Peter’s journey reminds us of our journey, a journey on which we can—and should—choose faithfulness. And a journey on which we, just like Peter, repent, recommit, and focus on a faithfulness that comes from the knowledge and love of Jesus, through whom we experience the grace of God time and time again.

The devil you know

Second Sunday after Pentecost – June 23, 2019 – Luke 8:26-39 – Trinity, Winchester

It’s that time again: Ordinary Time! We’ve made it to the Second Sunday after Pentecost. Last Sunday was of course, Trinity Sunday. 

After two principal feasts in a row, it is perhaps fitting that this morning is a bit more subdued. We are reminded that no matter the day, no matter whether there is organ music or hymn-singing, the risen Christ is with us. 

If you noticed anything weird about today’s gospel, you wouldn’t be the only one. There is, of course, the whole demon-possession thing, but I’m talking about this: Jesus is asked to leave town, even after he exorcised a man of a demonic spirit. 

What’s up with that? 

Upon his arrival to the country of the Gerasenes, Jesus is immediately confronted by a solitary, naked, demon-possessed man. A danger to himself and others, Luke tells us that the man is often restrained in shackles. 

Jesus does what Jesus does. He confronts the demons, who recognize him as the Son of God, and sends them, at their request, into a herd of pigs which run into the lake and drown. 

People from all around come to see what has happened and find the man fully clothed and of sane mind, seated next to Jesus. After hearing eye-witness testimony of the exorcism, you might think they would have invited Jesus to stay for dinner and given him the place of honor at the table, but no. 

Instead, the crowd’s fear takes over, and they ask Jesus to leave. “Go on, pick your stuff up, take your friends, and get out of here. We don’t need you making anymore trouble.” 

At first blush, their desire for Jesus’ departure doesn’t make much sense. Why would Jesus be asked to leave town when he has demonstrated that his power is greater than the demon’s? He has saved their countryman from demonic possession and restored the community to health and peace.

But if we ponder this unusual request for a moment or two more, their insistence that Jesus leave may start to make more sense. 

There is, of course, the economic factor. An entire heard of swine are dead. If I were one of the pig farmers, I would be pretty upset. How did insurance work in the ancient Near East, anyway? 

It goes much deeper than economics. To understand the Gerasenes’ desire for Jesus to leave, we have to look deeper into our own human nature. 

How does the saying go? “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t?” Or in this case, perhaps, “Better the devil you know than the Jesus you don’t.” 

The Gerasenes know evil. They are used to evil. They deal with evil everyday. They chain it up, post guards around it, and hang up those little signs that say “Beware of evil.” “Please don’t feed the evil.” “Must stay at least 20 yards from the evil at all times.” 

We, too, are well-acquainted with evil. We each have our ways of coping with it. Some of us are skilled at keeping it at arms length, while others of us simply choose to ignore it.

Have you ever heard someone say, “Oh, I just can’t stand to watch the news anymore!”? “Whenever I hear that voice I just—smack—turn the radio right off!”

On the other hand, the power of God—the power for good—often seems to allude us. The Gerasenes weren’t so accustomed to it, either. Jesus’ liberating power was unfamiliar to them. When something is unfamiliar, we often find it threatening.

Those among us who are more naturally competitive than others may recall the experience of meeting someone who shares our interests, but has talents that we perceive to be better than our own. We feel jealous of them because we feel threatened by them.

Grandma had the same experience with microwaves. She had no use for one. She cooked every meal from scratch and had perfected each one herself. If she wasn’t afraid of the new technology, she was certainly afraid of what it would do to her lifetime of cooking experience.

Likewise, when we encounter something new it can awaken in us a primal fear.

When a family member dies we know instinctively that things will be different. Fear is a big part of our grief. Who will carve the turkey this year? Who will drive me to the doctor’s office? What will I do with all my time?

Change makes us uncomfortable, even if it appears to be for the best. For some reason we prefer the chaos that we know to the chaos of uncertainty. In other words, our eyes are kept from seeing the good because the change itself is so scary. 

Take for example the woman who gave her husband a bottle of Jack Daniels for the first anniversary of his sobriety. She knew if he drank it he would become belligerent and abusive once again, but that’s the only life she knew how to live. With her sober husband she was lost. Her identity was changing faster than she could cope. 

She had no idea how to function as the partner of a stable person. Even though any bystander would observe that her life changed for the better, she didn’t know what to make of it. 

Even liberation can be threatening, scary, uncomfortable. It’s not so surprising, after all, the Gerasene response. When faced with uncertainty our first instinct is often to push the source of that uncertainty away. We just want things to be “normal.”

It’s hard to imagine new life when the only thing you know is death. At least death is concrete. At least we know what we’re getting with death. 

“At least when he lived out by the tombs—as good as dead—he could keep control of him. At least back then we knew what he was up to. Now, who knows what kind of funny ideas he’s going to have?” 

The story is not new. We hear it every year on Good Friday. We would rather reject God’s offer of transformative love by nailing Jesus to a cross than accept the promise of a resurrection that we cannot yet imagine.

Jesus comes to the Gerasenes today to give them a glimpse of what resurrection has to offer. It’s startling, it’s dramatic, it’s a lot to take in. 

We can’t blame them for asking him to leave. We are much the same. Take heart, there is still time to learn. Jesus is always right beside us, ready to remind us what new life—what resurrection—looks like. 

I’ve given you examples of it before: overcoming addiction, managing grief, asking for help when you hit rock bottom. I know you’re in the habit of spotting signs of life all around you. 

Whenever you realize God’s liberating power of love it’s only natural to want to take some time and bask in it. Like the healed man, you may want to stay all cozy right up next to the source of your resurrection, but there is a little time for that. 

Simply observing and enjoying these signs of life is not where we stop.

Listen to Jesus. He’s calling you to go one step further. He bids you still today, “Return . . . and declare how much God has done for you.” 

Good Friday 2019

Good Friday – April 19, 2019 – Trinity, Winchester

Pontius Pilate entered his headquarters and asked Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. Pilate said to him, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above.” John 19:9-11


Pilate asks Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus remains silent. 

This utterly baffles Pilate. “Don’t you know that I have the power to either release or crucify you?” Jesus replies, somewhat calmly as I imagine it, “You have no power over me unless it was given to you from above.”

“You have no power.” 

Jesus is right. Pilate has no power. It is easy to see why Pilate thinks he has power over Jesus. In his mind, he can either have Jesus killed or he can set him free, but in reality, it’s not so simple. Nor does Pilate have power over the angry mob outside. He has no control over the hate welling up in their hearts and spewing from their lips.

Something far greater than human power is at work in the events of Jesus’ arrest and trial. Evil forces conspire to create divisions that Pilate and the angry crowd are completely unaware of. Only Jesus recognizes them as the work of Satan plotting to get exactly what he wants. 

Jesus sees Satan at work in the mob mentality. Tensions arise and instead of trying to discover their underlying causes, the group casts all the blame on one person: Jesus. They identify him as a scapegoat. He has been putting some crazy ideas in the minds of the poor, the widowed, and the sick. They consider him the source of their problems. If they can only kill Jesus, then all of their problems will go away.

Satan still works like this in the world. Truth be told, I get nervous throwing around words like “Satan.” Some of you might wonder, “What in the world is he talking about?”

I’m talking about systematic evil in the world. All around us the devil’s scandals run riot. Some develop quickly, others over long periods of time. They carry us unknowingly along with them, and all the while we are complicit in evils of which we are often unaware. [1]

This was the story of the United States during the Civil Rights Movement. “If only that black family would move back to their side of town! People would walk around the neighborhood again. Parents would let their children play in the yard. We could leave our doors unlocked.”

It’s still the case today. “If only we could keep the immigrants on that side of the border! Our jobs would be safe, our economy would be thriving, and our streets would be free of crime.”

That’s not the only example of our modern tendency to scapegoat. Think about the human impact on climate change or the societal acceptance of school shootings. Even as we cry out for solutions, systemic forces of evil keep us from working together to find them. 

We would much rather attack each other than work together to solve the problem. “If we got rid of Trump, everything would be so much better!” “If Nancy Pelosi disappeared, we wouldn’t have these problems anymore!”

As toxic partisanship takes over the political landscape it’s nearly impossible to have civil dialogue. Fear has become our only motivator. When we respond out of fear, we vilify people who are different from us. We lose sight of the real issues and instead mistake each other for the problem. We begin to think that if we can suppress our rivals, then all of our problems will be solved. [2]

As long as that’s our attitude, then the devil has us right where he wants us. As long as Satan keeps us afraid of each other, then we’ll forget about God. As long as Satan keeps us focused on destroying each other, then we won’t notice Jesus hanging over there on that tree. And as long as the devil keeps us at each other’s throats, then we can ignore the fact that we hung him there. 

Three years ago, during Holy Week of 2016, the House of Bishops issued a statement to the church reminding us to reject hatred and fear. They wrote, “We reject the idolatrous notion that we can ensure the safety of some by sacrificing the hopes of others.” [3]

Their sentiment is, unfortunately, still relevant. Even in a country that stands in the shadow of the lynching tree, we continue to turn against our neighbors. As long as we seek safety and security at the expense of others, and as long as we engage in dialogue only with those who agree with us, then we have not learned our lesson. 

It’s as if we have forgotten about Good Friday. It’s as if we’ve forgotten that today is a crucial part of our Christian story. Today Jesus teaches us one of his most important lessons: fear has no power. 

Today Jesus refuses to play by the devil’s rules. Today Jesus refuses to lower himself to cheap scare tactics and manipulation. Instead, he does the one thing that Satan never expected. He gets up on the cross and he dies. 

He dies. 

Not because he’s weak. Not because he’s stupid. Not even because his Father willed it. No, Jesus does not die out of guilt or necessity or coercion. 

Jesus dies out of love. Jesus dies to show us what it looks like when you refuse to fight fear with fear. 

By dying Jesus upends our worldly expectations. By dying he teaches us that what we consider to be power is not power at all. By dying he teaches us that no matter how afraid we are, we cannot solve our problems by eliminating our neighbors; by dying he teaches us that fear never gets the last word; by dying he teaches us that love triumphs over death. By dying Jesus teaches us that we have no power to save ourselves. 

No matter who we persecute, no matter who we lock up, no matter who we expel, we can’t save ourselves. 

Only God can do that. 


[1] Rene Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001), 41.

[2] Ibid., 38-41.

[3] The House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church, A Word to the Church (Holy Week 2016).

Trust and see

23rd Sunday after Pentecost – October 28, 2018 – Psalm 34:8 – Trinity Church, Winchester, TN

Psalm 34 verse eight says, “Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are they who trust in him.” 

These are comforting words, but they are also hard words to hear after recent events. After yesterday’s shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburg, PA the only thing I can taste is our country’s steady diet of hate speech and blood.

The King James Version puts it like this, “O taste and see how gracious the Lord is: blest is the man that trusteth in him.” Ralph Vaughn Williams wrote a choral anthem using this version. It’s often sung at churches during communion.

I’ve had that anthem stuck in my head all week. That’s the good thing about preparing sermons, sometimes the good stuff gets stuck in your head, and you can’t let it go. I’m not talking about an errant Billy Joel tune or a Cranberries single from 1993; I mean the really good stuff, the stuff that makes you ask, “Where is God in all of this?” The stuff like, “O taste and see…”

It makes me wonder: how do we taste God’s goodness? What does grace taste like? 

The eucharist is the one part of our common life when tasting seems the most relevant metaphor for our relationship with God. We put the bread and the wine in our mouths, literally tasting the body and blood of our Lord. But can you really taste God’s grace via wafer and port wine? And can you taste the grace even better if instead of a wafer you use homemade communion bread, the kind with honey mixed in the batter? 

For that matter, is God’s graciousness found in bread alone? Or is it also in grandma’s homemade cookies? The ones we look forward to when we spend the weekend with her, the ones many of us will never taste again? Maybe. 

Or perhaps divine goodness is the taste of street tacos made by a Mexican vender who you’re not quite sure is in this country illegally, but he has that look. Nonetheless he sells you food because he needs to feed his family. I do wonder.

Maybe God’s goodness is like eating an orange. When you peel it, it releases that fresh scent that lingers under your fingernails for hours, even days, reminding you that God is always near. It could be. 

The second half of this verse gives us a clue about what it means to taste God’s goodness. It says, “happy are they that trust in him.” “Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are they that trust in him.” 

This verse implies that you really have to trust in something before you taste it. That’s true, isn’t it? Taste and trust are certainly related. You do have to trust something in order to taste it, even if it’s implicit trust.

When I was growing up and one of my older sisters took a bite of something that didn’t taste so good, often she would recoil in disgust and then look at me, smile, and say, “Hey Warren, try this.” Heck no! I wasn’t going to try something she thought was disgusting. I wasn’t going to taste it because I no longer trusted that it would be good. If you don’t trust that something is going to taste good, you don’t eat it. 

When you buy a bag of salad at the grocery store you blindly trust that it doesn’t contain dangerous bacteria like E. coli. Maybe trusting God is like the trust you place in a bag of lettuce. You don’t see the faceless company that packed it; you don’t know exactly where it came from, but you take it home and eat it anyway. You assume that it’s purpose it to provide nourishment for your body. You don’t often consider what might be wrong with it. You just trust it, so you taste it. 

There is beauty in that trust. There is beauty in the trust that allows you to taste the lettuce, the trust that allows you to nourish your body, the trust that keeps you from becoming a paranoid mess. That trust is beautiful, and it’s not unlike the trust that allows us to taste God’s goodness. 

Sometimes we go around worrying so much about the possibility of the bad, that we never experience the good. If you live in fear, you’ll never be able to recognize all the ways that God’s grace is already working in your life and in the world around you. When you live in fear–and not trust–everything tastes bitter. 

I’m afraid. I’m afraid for the welfare of our nation. As the military marches to meet thousands of peaceful immigrants, I’m afraid of what will happen.

I’m afraid when terrorists send pipe bombs through the mail to kill the people they disagree with. I’m afraid of what that will lead to.

I’m afraid in an era when politicians say they would rather put their opponents in jail than have reasonable debates with them.

Yes, I’m am filled with fear, and the only taste that fear leaves in my mouth is bitterness.

Over lunch on Friday a friend (who is much older than me) said, “This is the worst I’ve ever seen this country. I thought all that Nixon stuff was bad. It was nothing like this.” That left a sour taste in my mouth, so I took another bite of my food, but it was bland and unsatisfying. Nothing could get the bitter taste of fear out of my mouth. 

When I get a bad taste in my mouth I want to rinse it out immediately. When I swallowed cough syrup as a kid I always wanted to chase it with Sprite or fruit juice to overpower that gross cherry flavor, but I find it hard these days to get the disgusting taste out of my mouth. Day after day I look for something to eliminate the bitterness, but I don’t succeed. There are of course cheeseburgers and large pizzas, but those only help temporarily. They only quell the taste of fear for a few hours. I need sometime more permanent than that. 

When news comes that eleven Jewish worshipers were gunned down in their temple, all I can taste is fear, and I need something really strong to wash that taste away. 

I need that beautiful trust that allows me to experience God, and I think that late yesterday afternoon, I just may have found it. I was listening to Bishop Gene Robinson’s sermon at the internment of Matthew Shepard’s physical remains in the Washington National Cathedral. Bishop Robinson gave me a powerful reminder. He gave us all a powerful reminder: we are not alone. And Matt, said Bishop Robinson, was never alone. Even on the night he lay dying, tied to a fence post, his God was with him. It’s too easy to forget in days like these that God is with us. 

Bishop Robinson told the story of the first police officer to arrive at the scene of Matt’s death. The police offer reports that as she approached Matt’s body she didn’t notice it at first, but there was a deer laying beside him, and it looked as though the deer had been there all night long. When the deer noticed her, it looked her straight in eyes before running away. Recounting the event the officer said, “That was the good Lord, no doubt in my mind.” 

Matt was never alone. Even amidst the horrible tragedy of his own death, God was with him. God is with us always. That’s something we can trust. We can trust that even on a freezing-cold Wyoming prairie, tied to a fence post, God was there. Even on the floor of a synagogue, amidst blood and dead bodies, God was there. 

Nothing can separate us from the love of God. God will always be right beside you, even if it’s to welcome you home. You can trust that.

If you live like you believe that God is always with you, and if you let yourself trust God, then you will get a taste of God’s goodness; you will experience God’s grace. And that grace will wash the taste of fear right out of your mouth. 

Really. You’ll see. 


Fifth Sunday after Pentecost – June 24, 2018 – Mark 4:35-41

I had the privilege of serving the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Tracy City, TN today. Here’s my sermon. 

In today’s Gospel Jesus’ disciples are afraid. They are in the middle of the sea of Galilee in a crowded boat when a terrible squall gathers and jeopardizes their very lives. These men are not strangers to this lake. Before Jesus called them to fish for people they fished here often, no doubt risking the occasional storm for a good catch. 

But today is different. Today the waves are so big that they spill into the boat which sinks lower and lower into the water. Today the situation is out of control. Today they are afraid. Jesus, however, is not. The same waves that terrify the disciples have rocked Jesus to sleep.  He’s lying down on a cushion in the back of a boat, resting after a long day of telling parables. 

The rain and the wind don’t phase him. This scares the disciples. When their fear turns to anger they lash out at him. “Wake up!” they yell. “We’re about to sink! Don’t you care what’s happening to us?! Don’t you care that we are at the very brink of death?”

Storms are fearsome things. You know that. I know that. Storms gather frequently atop this mountain. We’ve even had a few this week. Dogs run under beds to hide from the thunder, children hug their mothers for fear of the lightning. 

We often use the metaphor of the storm to describe times of adversity in our lives. A stormy time in life is a time of sickness, divorce, or money troubles. I am reminded of a cartoon man in a television commercial. When depressing times come into his life, storm clouds gather over him, thunder rumbles, and rain falls on him. As life gets better the clouds part, the sun shines, and peace and contentment return. 

We all recognize stormy times in life, but we don’t always recognize the different kinds of storms. There are two kinds of storms in our lives. There are external storms and internal storms. 

External storms are storms that occur outside of us, storms that are inflicted upon us. These are political storms, economic storms, storms of  immigration policy, natural disasters, car accidents, gas prices, and bitter partisan disagreements. These are the storms we face when we get fired from our job or lose a loved one. These storms result in intense arguments, lost money, or personal injury. 

But there are also internal storms, storms that arise inside of us. These storms cause anguish and confusion. These are storms of mental illness, low self-esteem, or intense guilt. These are storms that lead to depression and lack of faith. These storms result in doubts and fears that we cannot always express. 

When we face external storms it is easier to assign blame, pass the buck, or seek solutions from others. But inward storms leave us even more vulnerable. Often, no one knows they are brewing but us. Inward storms are hard to talk about, hard to understand, and hard to admit to. 

The disciples are facing an outward storm, a struggle with a force of nature beyond their control. They get frustrated because Jesus is so calm. They lash out at him—“Don’t you care that we are perishing?!” When Jesus quiets the storm an eery, dead calm falls over the green water. The men in the boat are relieved. Their troubles are gone. (Or so they think.) The disciples think they are home free, but Jesus knows better. Jesus knows that their fear isn’t just about the tempest. This is about what’s going on inside of them. 

Jesus scolds them, “Why were you afraid? Do you still not have any faith? After everything I’ve taught you??” Some translations put it this way— “Why are you such cowards? After all the parables I’ve told you, and the miracles I’ve performed, have you no faith? Did you really think I would let you die?” 

Of course Jesus cared that the disciples were in danger. And he did something about it. Jesus always cares about the storms in our lives. And Jesus knows that just like the external storms that rage around us, we often face interior storms—we don’t feel whole, and we lack faith because we are not sure who in the world to listen to. We’re not sure who our friends are. We’re not sure who has our best interest at heart. And when we struggle with these things, we lose track of ourselves. And we lose track of God. 

I know an old man whose wife died and he was left as a young single father. He did everything for his children. Woke them up, made their breakfast, sent them off to school. After work he sewed their clothes, bookmarked bedtime stories, and prepared dinner. When they went to college he sent them care packages, and made special preparations for holiday celebrations. But now they are grown, scattered across the country, and he rarely sees his grandchildren. Adding insult to injury, when Father’s Day rolls around, no one calls. No greeting cards come. He feels lost, utterly scorned. The storm clouds gathered.  “Those ungrateful kids! Am I no longer a father?” he wonders. “How did it come to this?” His entire identity is wrapped up in the children. But now that’s in jeopardy. A part of him is missing. 

This is familiar territory to many of us. Sometimes, like the disciples, like the old man, we don’t know who we are. The danger of not knowing who we are makes external storms difficult to face, and we make bad decisions. 

The old man was afraid that he’d be alone forever, so he tried getting a cat for some company. But he hates cats, so that didn’t work. Finally he remembered his own father’s preferred bandage and reached for a bottle. Again and again he drank until he couldn’t stop. 

The disciples are stunned, shocked, and surprised by their circumstance. The storm caught them off guard. There were literary knocked off their usual course. They were not sure what would happen or how they would cope facing this new disruption. All they could do was fear.

Jesus tells them not that he doesn’t care about the external storms in their lives, but that as long their internal storms rage, as long as they don’t know who they are—or whose they are—they will not prepared to deal with the challenges that come their way. We can become so consumed with our fear, our anger, and self loss, that we fail to recognize that Jesus claims us as his own and no one can change that. The external storms make us doubt our worth. We’d rather argue and complain and blame others (to make them look worse than us) than we would say a prayer or read a our favorite passage of scripture, a passage that reminds us just how much we are loved.

Through his death Jesus gave us the power to do much more than assign blame, point fingers, or panic. Through his death Jesus gave us the power to live BECAUSE we are loved as much as God loves anyone. In living we no longer have to fear death. Jesus rose so that we might know, remember, and trust the power of God. 

That day on the lake the disciples knew Jesus was with them, but they forgot about his saving power and his calming presence. So he had to remind them. 

So it is with us. Jesus is always with us. Jesus always loves us. Jesus is always there to remind us of his saving power and his calming presence. Jesus is always at hand with a grace that gives us the ability to know ourselves more surely, to calm us in adversity, and to know who we are, and whose we are. 

Jesus has already done the hard part. Our job is to remember that.

It Takes Courage

April 27, 2017 – Thursday in the Second Week of Easter – Acts 5:27-33

Tonight I preached at the seminary’s final Community Eucharist of the semester. To view the sermon click here.

And so it is with today’s reading from The Acts of the Apostles as it has been with many of our readings from Acts since Easter: we join the following program already in progress.

The lectionary people have invited us into a vignette that is but one in a series of events in which the disciples find themselves in deep trouble. They have been performing healing miracles and teaching all over Jerusalem in the name of the Risen Lord Jesus. And here’s the thing: a lot of people are loving it. They’re won over by the hundreds. It’s no secret that Peter and the rest were good at what they were doing, and in tonight’s reading they appear before the council largely for that reason.

At the outset of the passage it says, “When they had brought them [from the Temple where they had been teaching], they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them…” They brought them, they had them stand before the council, and the high priest questioned them—it just sounds like a biblical precedent for our discernment process.

But, it’s more than that. We need to pay attention to what’s happening here—it’s pretty serious stuff. This is the same council that Jesus appeared before. These folks really don’t like the disciples stirring up people’s emotions and disturbing the civil order. No government does.

The council elders say, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.”

Listen to that: “You have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.”

It’s blood that the council members don’t want anything to do with, bad blood. “Don’t you go blaming us for his death!” the council elders seem to be saying. [1] Oh the nastiness, animosity, and distrust they feel toward that blood!

For many Christians today that blood is a good thing. It’s like when I see Tom Early in the hallway. “How are you, Tom?” He replies with a crooked smile, pointing his index finger at me, “Washed in the blood of the lamb.” The fountains of hymnody flow with it. It’s the only tonic capable of curing our sinful ways.

But these folks are afraid of that blood (and rightfully so perhaps). They don’t trust what the disciples are doing. “Don’t blame me for what’s happened!” It’s like—don’t put that evil on me!

They’re afraid, and they’re mad at the disciples; mad because they fear being associated with Jesus and his death. Deep down I think they’re scared that what happened to him will happen to them if the disciples keep winning people over. As their fear increases they lash out in anger at the disciples who are the living, breathing symbols of Jesus.

Sound familiar? It’s what we do. It’s our human condition, evidence of our frailty. When we’re afraid, it feels more natural, easier, to lash out in anger than it does to take up courage. When everything is piling up, you’re exhausted just trying to make it to the end, and you open your mail box and find a C- where there should be at least a B+ and you get angry. You might not pass. You take it out on the professor. Then you find out your diocese has released you, you might not have a job. You take it out on your spouse or your bishop. These types of things don’t exactly breed courage, but courage is exactly what it’s going to take to fill Jerusalem with the news of the Risen Christ.

This is the last one of these Thursday night Eucharists for a while, and as we look around the room we’ll the see the faces of those who won’t be here when the next one rolls around. Some of our friends won’t be back. They’re headed out into a world that’s very fearful. They’ll need some courage to fill Jerusalem with the news of the Risen Christ.

Courage is required, or else we’ll get stuck in the cycle of fear, too. When your new neighbor at the rectory says, “Listen preacher, it’s like I told the last guy, we don’t need you nosing around here. Wife’s got cancer and my back is acting up again. I’m out of work. God has nothing to do with us.” It’s too easy to ignore the promise of Easter in times like that and to become a prisoner of fear. We can’t let ourselves do that.

We’ve got to take courage like the disciples do when they say, “We must obey God rather than any human authority,” they say. “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus … exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior … and we are witnesses to these things…”

That kind of courage is a no-brainer to them by this point. They are literal witnesses to the resurrection. They have no reason to fear any civil authority. When they said this council members got so mad they wanted to kill the disciples. But it’s no matter; the disciples have a reason to hope.

They may have no reason to fear death, but for us it’s much harder, don’t you think? Can you go out into Jerusalem and testify to things that enrage people to the point they want to kill you? It takes a lot of courage. Can you do it?

And don’t say, “Well Peter did it and he’s our model so we’ve got to go and do likewise,” because it’s not the same. No, it’s not the same for us, because they actually saw it. They were there when they nailed him up and they were there to hear the news of his resurrection and they were there when he appeared to them, and breathed on them, and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

They were there, but we weren’t. It was easier for them to live into the promise of the resurrection because they witnessed it firsthand and so could obey God without question, right? It’s harder for us, right? It’s harder now that it’s 2017. That was all so long ago. I want to know how we can do it now!

To say today that we must obey God rather than any human authority—it’s laughable! Can you even imagine how much courage that would take?

Where does it come from? Where does our courage come from today?

In a nursing home sits an old woman that I’ve become reacquainted with recently. She’s the sweetest thing, but it’s a terrible place. I bet you’ve been there. It’s damp and cramped. There are fans that circulate air that has long since stopped moving; all they do is mix the smell from the kitchen with the smell of stale bed sheets. She’s so sweet, but I don’t know how she has the courage to go on in there. The staff members are always scowling. They don’t even try to hide it from the visitors anymore. Where does her courage come from? I can hardly even stand to visit.

Before I knock on the door I peek my head around and see her there reading her Bible. It’s the only book she’ll even try to read anymore. I don’t know how she could go on. I sit down and she tells me she’s been thinking about her family. Each night when the nurse puts her in bed she thinks of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren and she prays for them. How does she go on? The nurse comes in to bring her pills. “Oh, thank you so much, honey. I know you’re busy,” she says. How does she do it? She tells me about her new friend at her table in the dining room. They used to go to church near each other, so they have something to talk about. “She’s a good Christian woman,” she says. As I get up to leave she asks me, “Before you go, do you think we might have a prayer?”

I just don’t know where she gets that courage…


[1] Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, editors. The Jewish Annotated New Testament: New Revised Standard Version (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 208.