Texts: 2 Corinthians 6 1-13 (day of salvation) ; Mark 4 35-41 (Jesus calms the storm)
Several times over the past 20 years, I have tried to adopt meditation as one of my spiritual disciplines. But so far, none of these attempts have stuck.
In meditation, one tries to calm and focus the mind by moving attention again and again to one's breathing. Doing so is supposed to help thoughts and anxieties that constantly chatter away at the back of your mind drift away.
The problem is many people like me cannot focus our attention on a simple thing like breathing for more than a few seconds. We find it difficult to reach the gracious emptiness that lies beyond our anxious inner thoughts.
In reading our familiar Gospel story today about Jesus calming the storm, I am reminded of a meditation tape I once used. Unlike many meditation practices which involve sitting up straight, this one was designed to be practiced while lying on one's back. The tape suggested that the listener imagine he or she were resting comfortably on the bottom of a beautiful lake while breathing from an oxygen tank.
The listener was encouraged to regard the anxious thoughts that float across the mind as frothy waves far away at the lake's surface. No matter how stormy life seemed to be at the surface, at the bottom of the lake, all remained stable and calm. Amid this stability and calm, the listener was directed to focus on his or her breathing and let any anxious thoughts churn away harmlessly at the surface.
Perhaps this is one way to see Jesus' ability to sleep through a fearsome storm in the stern of a boat while his friends, the disciples, become frantic at the danger. Jesus shows them that beneath the surface of life's many crises and storms, there is another a place where we can remain trusting and faithful, a place where life's dangers do not shake our confidence.
After the disciples awake him, Jesus calms the waves and rebukes the winds. Yet even after this miracle, his friends remain terrified.
I sympathize with the disciples because there seems to be so much to fear in life. Take nature. Mostly we love the beauty of our world. We rely on the the rain, soil and sun to help us grow crops. But as we know, nature is not always calm and gentle. A season of bounty can be followed by one of drought or hail. And the fury of nature's storms often leads to destruction. The people in Saskatchewan who have lived through tornadoes this summer can attest to that fact.
Nevertheless, Jesus tells us to have faith instead of fear. One reading of the story might suggest that we should have faith because Jesus calms the storm and protects his friends from the winds and waves.
But that would be too simple, I believe. Jesus will soon head to Jerusalem where he will be betrayed, arrested and executed. Not only that, Jesus will urge his followers to take up their own cross and follow him. Far from calming the storms of life, Jesus heads directly into the centre of the storm of his time, and he calls us to follow him.
I believe that the faith Jesus exhibits as he sleeps in the boat in the middle of a stormy night is a faith that comes from accepting the inevitable crises and pain of life. It is not a faith that believes that God will magically make all these crises disappear with a simple command.
Jesus shows us another source of faith. Although storms, pain and death are inevitable in life, there is a deeper sense in which we are safe in the midst of all of life's storms. At the deepest places in our souls, God is with us . . .
The storms of life were in evidence, I think, at the meeting of the United Church's General Council, which ended in Ottawa yesterday. Like General Councils before it, this one often seemed gruelling and filled with disputes; at least, that was the impression I got as I watched sessions broadcast live from a church website.
But despite the turmoil at the meeting, I am pleased with its outcomes. For one, we have a new Moderator. He is Dr. Rev. Gary Paterson of St. Andrew's Wesley United in downtown Vancouver.
The headline about Paterson is that he is gay. In fact, he is the first openly gay person to be elected to the top position of any mainline church anywhere. Paterson is married to another ordained United Church minister, Rev. Tim Stevenson, who now serves as a Councillor on Vancouver's City Council.
But I agree with Paterson that the headline about his election could just as equally be the fact that his sexual orientation and that of two other gay nominees for Moderator was not an issue in the election.
I think that Paterson has a lot to offer our church beyond his role as trail-breaker for gay people. I am drawn to his passion, poetic nature, pastoral skills, and long experience in ministry. I listened to the speeches of all 15 nominees, and I liked the one given by Paterson the best. I believe that we are lucky to have him as our Moderator for the next three years.
The Council also passed resolutions that expanded the doctrine section of our Basis of Union, modified the United Church Crest to incorporate First Nations themes into its design, adopted a new Statement on Ministry, and wrestled with many other topics. These decisions occurred between numerous worship services of singing, sharing, reflection and prayer.
There was also the debate around Israel/Palestine. I am pleased that the Council moved forward with many of the resolutions of the report of a working group on that issue, this despite lobbying against it by groups who support the illegal Israeli settlements on the West Bank of the Jordan River.
The issue of Israel/Palestine presents many difficulties, of course -- 3,000 years of disputed history; confusion about the roles of Judaism, Christianity and Islam; western military intervention in the region since World War One; links between violence in the Middle East and anti-semitism and Islamophobia in Canada; the rise of both fundamentalism and secularism in our lifetimes; differences between Stephen Harper's positions in the region and those of previous Canadian governments; and recent popular revolts against U.S.-backed dictators in Arab regimes. All this and more tends to muddy the debate.
Nevertheless, General Council moved our church further along a path of trying to respond to our Christian partners in the region even as it listened to different voices within Canada, including Jewish leaders who support the settlements and Jewish leaders who oppose them . . .
General Council did not always look to me like a placid or easy event. But the Council did its work with enthusiasm and good will, and for that we can all be grateful.
Our church often seems like a stormy place. But we also are a church that chooses faith over fear again and again. We try to stand for justice. When we stumble, we get up and try again, because we want to respond to God's call. We confront difficult issues like sexuality and politics in the Holy Land. When this upsets other churches or some of our own members, we listen but try to move forward because we want to respond to God's call. In the face of criticism both from secular and fundamentalist sources, we carry on because God in Christ calls us to faith and not fear.
Still, the turmoil of these debates might sometimes be difficult to take. When that is true for us, perhaps we could try to be like meditator praying at the bottom of the lake. Perhaps we could see all the heat, heartache and effort of the discussions in our church as the waves occurring far above the stable and beautiful lake bottom where we lay praying and breathing secure in the embrace of God's love.
Now, the difficulties I have had with meditation over the years show that this trusting place is often hard for me to find. But God's Grace continually clears the path to calm places where fear drifts away and we know that regardless of our circumstances, we are saved.
In our other Scripture reading today -- the one from St. Paul's second letter to the church in Corinth -- the apostle says that "now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation!" No matter how difficult a day might seem to us, Paul reminds us that it is always a day of salvation when we are in Christ.
Our new Moderator, Gary Paterson, likes to quote poetry. So I will end this sermon with a poem about the day of salvation, which Paterson quoted at the end of his acceptance speech on Thursday. It is titled "This Amazing Day" by e.e. cummings.
i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday; this is the birth
day of life and love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened).
Thanks be to God.