[This is more or less the text of a sermon I gave on the fifth Sunday after Pentecost 2018.]
One of the first things I did when I moved to Toronto was buy a membership to the AGO. I work just down the street from it and so sometimes on a frustrating workday, I’ll sneak down on my lunch break in order to remind myself of who I am and the things I love. I also love to take friends there and expose them to the beautiful things I love. And so I’ve wandered the AGO dozens of times in the five years I’ve been in the city. I know its halls well: I have my favorite galleries, and know the ones I feel comfortable skipping because they’re just not my thing.
But what amazes me is how, despite the consistency in the collection, my experience is always different. So much of how I experience the gallery and the art within it depends on what I’m bringing in with me. Depending on how I’m feeling, certain pieces will speak to me that I might barely notice another time. Some days, I take in entire galleries as a whole; at other times, I might only see a brush stroke or the play of light off a tree. What I see depends on a lot on me.
I think life itself is similar to this. In every situation, there’s always a tension between what we see and what we don’t see. And this is the theme that stuck out to me as I looked at this week’s readings. And so, I’d like to take these few minutes to explore our readings through this lens.
When our Gospel story begins, Jesus and his disciples set off by boat from one side of the lake to the other. Jesus is exhausted after a long day of teaching the crowds and falls asleep in the back. Suddenly, a massive storm blows up, a storm big enough to frighten even the seasoned fishermen among the disciples.
As I was preparing this week, I was reminded of getting caught in a storm while camping about twenty-five years ago, and how in the midst of the driving rains and winds that rocked our pickup truck from side to side for hours on end, everything — even life itself — felt tenuous and up for grabs: So great was the raw and untamed power of nature.
And I imagine that’s how things felt for the disciples in that boat caught in the storm. They start to panic, fearing for their lives, forgetting that they have — if nothing else — Israel’s most famous wonder-worker sleeping in the back. When they do eventually rouse Jesus, it isn’t with confidence and faith that he will save them, but with anger and accusation: Don’t you even care about us at all? Don’t you see what’s happening?
In our story their fear is played off as a joke. Jesus is not concerned about the storm at all. With a simple rebuke from Jesus, the storm is replaced by calm. “Why are you so afraid” he asks them. “Have you no faith?” And here is the irony in the story: It’s not Jesus who isn’t seeing what’s happening, but the disciples. The crisis of the storm has narrowed the disciples’ vision so that they can’t see the possibility that lives in that moment. All they can see is the danger, death and destruction that was right in front of them. No wonder they’re angry when they finally wake Jesus up. But while this may be an understandable reaction, it isn’t exactly commendable. And it’s certainly not the kind of reaction and life to which Jesus was calling them.
The disciples in this story are standing in for all of us. Their reaction in the storm is the most normal reaction possible. Crisis narrows our field of vision so that all we can see is what is right before our eyes. And when we’re in that state of mind, it’s so easy to become less than what we are, to shrink back from the fullness of who we are as humans and as Christians. When we are in crisis it’s as though we can’t access our higher reasoning, so that fight/flight/freeze are all that’s left. So we pull away from compassion, empathy, and love, and retreat into self-protection, narrow-mindedness and prejudice. And again, while this may be understandable, it isn’t the life to which we are called. It isn’t the life that is reflected in our baptismal vows.
Such narrowness of vision is a problem because, as people of faith, we know that there is always more than meets the eye. God is the ultimate wildcard — where God is at work, anything is possible. God is infinitely creative; God can see options we simply can’t. In the words of God as spoken by the prophet Isaiah,
I am about to do a new thing;
It’s springing forth right now! Don’t you see it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
God can create a future we can’t even imagine if we refuse to narrow our vision, if we refuse to constrict our hearts. This is what faith is.
And, brothers and sisters, this is so very important for us to remember, especially right now. There are storm clouds on the horizon. Whether it’s the very real and present threat of climate change, increased political polarization at home and abroad, expanding inequalities of wealth and opportunity, or the kinds of ecological and political instability that have the potential to create millions of additional refugees, our world is a turbulent place.
How are we going to meet these challenges as Christians? Will we retreat into ourselves, grasp on more tightly to what we have and protect our own? Or will our eyes and hearts be open enough to embrace the new realities, to welcome the stranger, to bridge the gaps? Will we have the vision to see new possibilities and forge a future, our own river in the desert?
To meet these challenges in a Christ-like way, we need to be strong and resilient, open-hearted people of HOPE and possibility.
As real as these big overwhelming challenges are, perhaps even more challenging in their own way are the mundane storms of everyday life, all the frustrations we experience when we have to deal with one another. As a friend of mine likes to say, “Being a Christian is easy until my husband leaves his socks on the floor.”
This more mundane kind of crisis is where Paul finds himself in our epistle reading today. There has been a rupture in his relationship with the church in Corinth and Paul is desperate to repair it. He lists all the things he’s done, all they ways he’s tried to extend a hand to them, to no avail. He pleads to them, “Our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours. In return open wide your hearts also.”
We’ve all been there, haven’t we? I know I have. Those times when you feel like you are honestly doing everything you can do, when you’re doing everything right, when you’re offering your best self to someone — a parent, a child, a friend, a sweetheart, a spouse, a colleague or boss — and they just aren’t responding. It’s such a hard place to be.
It would be easy for Paul to retreat emotionally, to close off his heart to them. But, Paul is a man of faith. More than that, Paul is a man who learned the lessons of faith the hard way. He knows what happens when we allow our vision to be narrowed: When the first Christians emerged from hiding after Pentecost and started calling the authorities to account and proclaiming that God had vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead, Paul been so focused on preserving the teachings and traditions handed down to him that he couldn’t see anything else. Not only could he not see that what they were proclaiming was Good News and true, but he couldn’t even see their basic humanity, and acted with the cold cruelty that always follows when we dehumanize someone. He could only see the Christians as ‘them’, as an ‘other,’ an other that threatened everything he loved and cared about. It took his dramatic experience on the Road to Damascus, when scales fell from his eyes, for him to truly see again.
And boy did he learn to see the wide open spaces of God; for not only did Paul become one of the leaders of the Church, but this man who had been so obsessed with the purity of tradition became the greatest advocate for blowing the doors of the Church open to welcome in everyone. Through his new wide eyes and open heart of faith, Paul could see that God was making a new beginning, a way in the wilderness that was open to everyone and not restricted by birthright, blood, and family ties.
So, Paul knows the creative power of faith. And this faith enables him to see that there’s still time to make a new future with the Corinthians.
This passage begins with a stirring exhortation: “Since we’re fellow workers”– since we’re on the same team — “we urge you: don’t accept the grace of God in vain.” — Accepting the grace of God is pointless if we don’t let it seep into the deepest parts of our hearts, shape and refashion us, and open our hearts and eyes WIDE. — “See,” he says, “Behold! Now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!”
The time is now. Don’t waste it.
As much as we might see ourselves in Paul here, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’re also just as often playing the role of the Corinthians: We’re hurt and maybe a little stubborn in our refusal to hear someone out, perhaps exulting a bit in our righteous indignation. But of course this too is just one more way we pull back and limit the scope of what is possible. And so, we are called, just like the Corinthians, to seize the moment and open wide our hearts, so that our acceptance of God’s grace — so that our baptismal vows — won’t have been in vain.
The time is now. The time is always now. If we’re being buffeted by high winds and stormy seas like the disciples, we can reach out in faith and hope instead of turning against our brothers and sisters in anger and fear.
If, like Paul, our best, most open-hearted efforts at reconciliation are being rebuffed, we can choose to remain our best and remain open-hearted in the knowledge that God can soften even the hardest heart.
And if we are like the Corinthians and allow our resentments and frustrations to constrict our hearts to someone, we can seize the moment God has given us and repent.
Friends, these conflicts and crises both big and small offer us a choice. We can contract, or we can expand. We can live in fear and anxiety, or we can live in faith, in hope and in love. We can narrow the eyes of our hearts, or we can let faith expand the horizons of what is possible for us and for our relationships. For God is with us and God can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.
The choice is ours.