10th Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Lois Pallmeyer
Dear Friends in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you. Amen
As Congressman John Lewis neared death a few weeks ago, he wrote one last message to his country, to be published on the day of his funeral in several national newspapers. His letter concludes:
“Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.
“When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war.
“So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”[i]
When historians pick up their pens to write the story of 2020, what will they say about us?
The events of these last months present themselves to us like a storm, the likes of which we’ve never seen. We’re walking against winds that seem to be changing the course of our lives, reshaping our institutions, wiping out our investments, not only the financial ones, but all the investments we’ve made in our relationships, our education, careers, and life stories. The pandemic feels like an out-of-control storm, ripping up the sails in our boat and washing up water over the decks.
It’s not the virus alone, it’s the incredible divisiveness in our culture, racial violence, open signs of animosity, stress of climate change, and growing disparity between the privileged few and the impoverished many. A hurricane knocks out power on the east coast. Wildfires burn through California. Beruit, already in the midst of years of turmoil, civil unrest, hyper-inflation and raging pandemic, witnesses an explosion that would have disrupted out most of the city of Chicago.
Individual storms tear at the fabric of our lives, too. We are separated from those we love, unable to support the most vulnerable ones, as we’ve been told to keep our distance. Spouses say their final goodbyes to their beloved ones over Facetime or Zoom. We learn of new diagnoses, notice worrisome symptoms in those around us. We take note of every cough or ache, worried that somehow we’ve caught the virus in spite of all the precautions we’ve taken to avoid it. We watch as marriages unravel, young people show signs of mental anguish, relationships suffer from time apart, or from misunderstandings while spending too much time together. The stress is wearing on all of us, and it’s wearing thin.
The ancient prophet Elijah was trying to escape the storms that threatened him[ii]. Time after time, God had provided for Elijah through great deeds of power, silencing his critics, and rescuing him from danger. But now, all of that seems forgotten. Elijah is being pursued by his adversaries, forsaken by his friends, and fears for his life. It feels to Elijah that no one will be left to follow in his footsteps. No one will ever care about the work he’s done. He retreats to the cave as his last place of refuge, and cries out for God to save him one last time.
Elijah may have expected to find God in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire. It’s where he has witnessed God’s presence before. He knows to look for God in brilliant and powerful displays.
This time, it’s different. On the mountain, outside the cave, God comes to the prophet not in the flashy signs of power and might, but in silence, in stillness, in the very absence of signs. God reassures Elijah that he’s not alone in trusting God. In fact, thousands of faithful followers remain. Future leaders will succeed him; future prophets will serve as he has. The silence declares to Elijah that God is not finished, that generations to come will sing God’s praises no matter the storms they face. God encourages Elijah to continue the work to which he’s been called.
Jesus seems more accustomed to seek God’s presence in the quiet[iii]. He too has been trying to retreat from the storms overwhelming him. He’s been seeking solitude and an opportunity to pray since he learned of the murder of John the Baptist. But that big Baptists Lives Matter demonstration interrupts him when the crowds learn of John’s fate. He takes time to respond to their needs, curing their illnesses, providing for their hunger. When Jesus can finally send his disciples away, and dismiss the gathering, he climbs the mountain to pray as Elijah did. Jesus takes time to rest, pauses to listen for God’s reassurance.
It seems likely that Jesus is feeling the same kind of foreboding that Elijah faced. His mentor has been killed for speaking truth to power, and Jesus must recognize the real dangers he faces as well. His friends seem confused and afraid of the work he has been calling them to do. Though he has showed them his power in countless ways, they continue to doubt and wonder. Alone in prayer, perhaps Jesus wonders about his future. Perhaps he despairs of the futility of the mission he is trying to fulfill.
But just as God had reassured Elijah on the mountain, so Jesus is strengthened. When he comes down to the shore later that night, Jesus is ready to face the storm. In the gloomiest hours before dawn, Jesus finds his way to the seaside and recognizes that his disciples are in danger.
Even before the storm settles down, even before the winds die, Jesus appears to his friends on the waves. Take heart, he calls to them. Do not be afraid. It is I. Not in the quiet silence, but right in the midst of the raging sea, Jesus crosses the water and returns to his companions. Take heart. The storm rages, but God has not abandoned you.
Peter can’t even wait for Jesus to arrive. He dares to enter into the storm himself. He wants to trust God’s presence in the midst of the sea. Peter actually manages it briefly, before he starts looking to his own ability, and begins to falter. But even then, even as Peters slips under, Jesus reaches out to hold him up.
Those seemingly scolding words, “you of little faith,” are in fact a familiar and loving response of Jesus. Remember when he told them that they need never fear, for they were of more value than the birds of the air or the flowers of the field, he assures them with the same words, “Will God not much more clothe you, you of little faith?[iv]”
Remember when the angel tells Joseph about the child Mary would bring to life, he is told that the child would be named, Emmanuel, God-is-with-us[v]. This is who Jesus is, God’s own presence with us. God is with us, not only when the storms cease, but even in the midst of the sea. God is with us, not only in dramatic displays of miraculous power, but even in the sheer silent reminders that love wins.
There are more storms ahead for Jesus. Pain, abandonment, betrayal and crucifixion face him. But Jesus continues to embody the reign of God in the midst of whatever storm he faces. Jesus’ ongoing ministry proclaims that God’s love continues. God’s goodness prevails. God’s presence will not be denied.
Today we celebrate the love God shows a new child through the waters of baptism. A flood of grace poured out on little Broderick, will be the sign for him that the grace of God is present in every storm. Though pandemics, and fears, and worries, and pain will unfortunately be part of young Broderick’s life, they will not get the last or the strongest word for him. Take heart, Jesus will continue to whisper to him in the quiet moments, I am with you. Hold on, take my hand, Jesus will shout to him in the worst times of his life. It is I, God-with-us, the Lord of wind and rain, who is here to sustain and hold you through whatever you’re facing to a place of hope and joy.
Yes, we are still in the storm. And though we may sense an absence of signs of God’s presence, God-with-us has never abandoned us. We like the prophets, may need to take time to rest and reflect, to pray and keep quiet for a while, but never mistake the silence in these moments of fear as an absence of God. God is still with us. God still calls to us.
Take Heart, Jesus still sings. The storm is not stilled, but I am already here. The vaccine is not ready. Racism is not overcome. The earth is still suffering. But God-with-us is still speaking. God is present in the midst of the danger and the fears. God speaks not only by calming the waves, but sometimes speaks out of the storm itself.
And there are thousands, in fact millions of faithful others, standing up to survive this storm with us, leaning into the love and persistent power of a God who saves us. We are not alone. God is still calling us into life.
When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was our generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last, who laid down fears and resentments, feelings of abandonment or isolation, worries or hopelessness, so that God’s peace and hope could finally triumph over our violence, aggression and war, over our hatred, despair or despondence.
“So I say to you, walk with the wind, dear friends, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”[vi]
Thanks be to God.
[i] John Lewis, “Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation,” New York Times opinion page, 7/30/2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/30/opinion/john-lewis-civil-rights-america.html
[ii] 1Kings 19:9-18.
[iii] Matthew 14:22-33.
[iv] Matthew 6:28-30.
[v] Matthew 1:23.
[vi] John Lewis.