Salem Lutheran Church, Hitterdal, MN
August 10, 2014
Installation of Pr. Ruth Popkin
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
I love a good story—and I bet you do, too!
I love to lose myself in a good story. I crave the “escape” that reading a good story brings. I’m glad when a good story allows me to step back from my too-small world, in order to perceive a larger, more intriguing, different world.
Three things go into a good story: plot, characters and context.
- The plot, the “action” is what most of us focus on first.
- But a good plot can only take us so far, without compelling characters whom we care about.
- Context usually is third in importance—providing as it does the frame within which plot and characters interact.
Here in this good story, in this gospel text, the context is what we definitely should notice first. The context in time is that this story comes hot on the heels of the Feeding of the 5,000. The context in space is focused on two places: the mountain and the sea.
After the Feeding of the 5,000 Jesus needs to get away and pray. So he sends everyone away and he climbs a mountain to be alone with God.
That makes sense within the narrative arc of the biblical story—mountains are places of encounter with God, ideal places to speak with God and hear from God. In the three-story universe that was assumed by the biblical writers, a mountain was literally a location on earth that was closest to heaven, closest to God.
So Jesus goes up, to a very good place, a holy place, a mountain…..and Jesus’ followers go down, to a very bad place, a scary place, a place that made them nervous (even the fishermen, perhaps especially the fishermen!). The disciples climb into a boat and head out onto the notoriously treacherous, unpredictable Sea of Galilee—a body of water on which squalls could blow up just like that.
Jesus goes up to the mountain, and the disciples go down to the sea….not by their own choice, we need to notice. Jesus “makes” them do it—Jesus compels, Jesus forces them to go where they’d probably rather not have gone.
And for good reason…because the little sea voyage Jesus sends his followers on takes a suddenly disastrous turn…their little boat is battered—literally “tormented”—by nasty waves. The wind is against them, making it virtually impossible to follow the course Jesus had laid out for them.
This dangerous tug of war between the beleaguered disciples and the contrary winds and waves drags on for hours, until the “witching hour” (between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m.) when everything always seems most dire, most hopeless, most fear-filled.
Only then, when the chaos of the sea seems to be winning, when the disciples have exhausted all their energies rowing against the wind….only then does Jesus come to them, in the most direct way that he could, walking across the water…..not to put on a show, mind you….not to “demonstrate his divinity”….but to comfort them, to assure them that God was in charge of this storm.
So beside themselves with anxiety are the disciples that at first, when they perceive a dark shape moving toward them across the troubled waters, the disciples assume that a ghost has shown up to heighten their torment….
….until the ghost speaks to them, in a voice that is utterly familiar to their ears: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid."
Jesus descends the mountain and glides across the sea—not to wow his followers with an amazing parlor trick—but to do what Jesus does best: to save them, to revive their courage, to be God’s rescuing presence, to steady their fears.
Dear friends in Christ, and especially Pastor Ruth: we have before us in this splendid story from Matthew’s gospel, a paradigm, a template for what life and ministry together for you will be like here at Salem.
Although we live in a part of the world where mountains are scarce (!), I dare say that these folks and others regard this wonderful stone edifice in Hitterdal as a mountain to which they’re drawn, time and again, because they meet God here….they come into God’s presence in the Word, the Bath, the Meal, the community and the mission that are tended in this place.
As pastor and people you will have mountaintop moments together in this place, I pray, for a good long time. All of us would be the poorer if we never had such times of awareness and encounter with God!
But only some of your life in Christ, actually only a slender slice of your walk with Jesus, will play out here in this “mountaintop” place.
Most of life happens on the treacherous sea of daily experience, filled with tormenting waves and treacherous winds. Much of what pastors do, what we most need and want our pastors to do, is to be with us in the hardest parts of daily life…..to sit with couples whose relationship is unraveling, to pray at sickbeds, to comfort the grieving, to lead in times of uncertainty, to guide a questing people into fresh ways of listening to God, one another and our neighbors as we make our way along a challenging path.
This will call forth, Pastor Ruth, all your faith, hope and love….along with all your best gifts.
But one thing—let me assure you!—one thing you do not need to do is “walk on water.”
I’m happy to inform you that this congregation doesn’t expect that of you. I know—because I checked!—the call committee did not list the “must walk on water” option on Salem’s Ministry Site Profile.
And that is a very good thing, because there’s only one Person who can walk on water, and his name is Jesus.
That’s the point, it seems to me, of the little coda to this story—the part where Peter thinks it would be a wonderful idea if he walked on water the same way Jesus was walking on water.
Contrary to what many of us were taught in Sunday School, this part of the story isn’t a little morality play designed to suggest that if Peter (and we just) just have enough faith we can do anything—even walk on water.
No, Jesus knew exactly how this final part of the story would work out. Jesus allowed Peter to try his hand at walking on water, knowing full well that Peter didn’t have it in him—knowing that Jesus would have to rescue Peter, because that’s what Jesus does best.
For, when all is said and done, this is what the life of faith comes down to: we sink and Jesus saves.
We sink—we sink in doubt and peril and sin and meaninglessness and death…..and it is God’s good pleasure (in Christ) to save us….always, always, always and forever.
So, Pastor Ruth, the good news is you don’t need to walk on water and you shouldn’t even try….
…but what you do need to do, and what this congregation has called you to do is to constantly, unfailingly point people both here in this place and across your wider mission field….to point them to the only One who does walk on water--and then some!
Your job, your calling (for as long as you serve as pastor of Salem) is to be on the lookout for fresh ways to say and enact this simple, timeless but also timely message: we sink, Jesus saves.
End of story!
End of story!
In the name of Jesus. Amen.