Sermon for June 20, 2021

  There once was a harried young mother who was beside herself when the telephone rang. She listened with relief, though, when the kindly voice on the other end of the line said,  "Hi, Sweetheart. How are you?" "Oh, mother," the poor thing said, breaking into tears," it's been an awful day! The baby won't eat and the washing machine broke down. I tripped down the stairs and I think I've sprained my ankle. I haven't had a chance to go shopping and the house is a mess and we're having company for dinner tonight!" "There, there, darling, it will be all right," the soothing voice on the line said. "Now sit down, relax and close your eyes. I'll be over in a half hour. I'll pick up a few things on the way over and I'll cook your dinner for you. I'll take care of the house and feed the baby. I'll call a repairman I know who'll be at your house to fix the washer this afternoon.  Now stop crying. I'll take care of everything. In fact, I'll even call George at the office and tell him he ought to come home early." "George?" the distraught woman said. "Who's George?' "Why, George! Your husband!" "But my husband's name is Frank." There was a slight pause and then the woman on the line asked, "Is this 555-1758?"
The tearful reply was, "No, this is 555-1788." "Oh my, I'm terribly sorry,” the voice on the phone apologized. “ I must have dialed the wrong number." There was another short pause before the housewife asked, "Does this mean you're not coming over?"

    Have you ever felt so embarrassed that you just wanted to bury your face and hide?  Have you ever felt like saying, “Did this really happen to me?” After hearing this morning’s gospel, I think all of us tend to feel a little bit that way about our Lord’s disciples. We are embarrassed for them. St. Mark tells us that as they are crossing the Sea of Galilee, a storm develops on the water, and they become panicky. After waking Jesus up, who is asleep in the stern of the boat, they say to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He then says to the wind and to the sea, "Peace! Be still!”  and all is still immediately. Then he says to the disciples, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" The disciples must have felt about two inches high after a rebuke like that; they probably wanted to run away and hide.  So the Gospel this morning is really a story about life -- your life and my life. It is a story about the security we all seek, the corners we all try to cut, and the investments we all must make. And it is upon these three things that I want to reflect with you briefly this morning.

   From the earliest accounts of the human race in the Book of Genesis, security is a central issue. Adam and Eve, after they had tasted of the fruit of the tree in the midst of the Garden, sought to hide  themselves from the Lord God. But they were discovered and expelled from the security of the Garden of Eden. In this morning’s Old Testament lesson from the Book Of Job, Job discovers that he cannot hide from God behind empty words. After thirty-eight long chapters, God finally answers Job out of the whirlwind, and says to him: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man.” Several chapters beyond where our lesson ends today, Job at last confesses: “I heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee; therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” Life, at times, it seems, is one long, never-ending, quest for security. Security, however, is an elusive thing. It is not always something that we can count on in this life. This is especially true these days with all the reports of how our cyber security is under attack by numerous “hackers” around the world, affecting everything from oil pipelines to meat processing plants.

     A number of  years ago,  I took part in a Flashover Survival Training exercise with the Fire Dept. at the Delaware County Emergency Services Training Facility near the Philadelphia Airport. The exercise was designed to help firefighters recognize flashover conditions before they occur in an actual fire. A flashover, to refresh your memories, is when all the contents of a room get heated to the point that  they combust or ignite simultaneously, creating one huge mass of flame. For the exercise, six of us at a time, along with two instructors, entered what was known as a flashover  container — a small corrugated metal box about the size of our sanctuary, and only ten feet high.  We all wore full protective clothing including a breathing apparatus. The doors were closed and a fire allowed to build up inside.  The six of us took turns being up near the front of the container in order to operate the hose nozzle we had in there with us to knock the fire down periodically. The radiant heat was so intense that we had to crawl on our hands and knees, and we could not look for extended periods of time at the fire itself or our face masks would melt. Some of my colleagues in the Fire Dept. said to me, “From now on, whenever you preach about hellfire and brimstone, you will know what it really feels like.” From this exercise, we learned firsthand that our security, our survival, if you will, is dependent upon  being able to recognize the conditions that exist for a flashover to occur before it actually happens. I came away realizing how tenuous security can be even for those trained to fight fires.

   Security, then, is not something that we can always count on in this life. When we look for security in spiritual matters, the same is also true. There are no sure things, no guarantees, no easy wins when it comes to entering the kingdom of God. The well-known evangelist of another generation, Billy Sunday, used to say: "When I get to heaven, I know I'll be in for some surprises. I'll be surprised that I'm there, surprised  to see some others there that I didn't think would be, and surprised to see some missing that I thought would be there."

     Sometimes, though, we are tempted to take short-cuts in life, not always realizing what the outcome of  our actions may be. There once was a woman who was doing a final check of her things-to-do-before-Christmas list. She discovered that she had forgotten to send any Christmas cards. It was Christmas Eve, and though the time was short, the clock had not yet struck five o’clock.  She rushed into a store and found two boxes of cards — already marked 50 percent off. Without reading or even really looking at them, she feverishly began addressing and signing the cards. Dashing to the post office, she shoved them onto the counter just as the clerk was reaching for his “This window closed” sign. The next morning, on Christmas day, when things had quieted down a bit and some semblance of order had been restored, she noticed that one of those last minute cards had been left over. She wondered, “What was the message I sent to my friends?”  Opening the card, she stared unbelievingly at the words: “This card is just a note to say ... A little gift is on the way.”  We all have a pretty good idea of what this woman did on the day after Christmas!
    The disciples in the boat this morning had a different experience when it came to taking short-cuts. They had Jesus asleep in the stern, and all they had to do was to wake him up when they thought that they were in danger. St. Mark tells us that he "rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, 'Peace! Be still!'" and everything  quieted down. Jesus was the disciples' short-cut to safety and security. Most of us are not that lucky.

    There once was a mountaineer who got lost in the Swiss Alps. A rescue team was dispatched to find him, but when they eventually did, it was too late. The mountain climber had died from exposure. Some nearby monks brought his body to the chapel down in the valley. At the funeral service, the priest told the congregation how the rescuers had found the man: “his hands cramped against the mountain, pick in hand, eyes directed upwards to the mountain peak.” The priest paused a moment, and then he made this reflection: “the mountaineer never made it to the top of the mountain, but he kept on trying.” Christian living and commitment is much like that. It requires a great deal of effort on our part; it is never easy. It calls for hard work, long hours, perseverance, and determination. There are no short cuts.

    The third and final lesson which we learn from this morning's Gospel is that if you want to get anything out of life, you have to invest something in it. Jesus once said, "How hard it is to enter the kingdom of God," and his disciples, we are told, were exceedingly astonished. It seems as if, in today's culture, everyone wants something for nothing. People are not willing to invest the necessary time, and effort, and initiative to get the job done, or done well. You and I are part of a generation that seeks instant gratification with as little output as possible. The famous psychoanalyst Karl Menninger was once asked: "What would you advise a person to do if he or she felt a nervous breakdown coming on?" He replied, "Lock up your house, go across the railroad tracks, find someone in need, and invest yourself in helping that person."  If you want to get anything out of life, you have to invest something in it.

   In this morning's Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples in the boat that the missing ingredient in their lives is faith. He says to them, "Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?". Without a little bit of effort, and a little bit of faith to overcome their fear, they will never get to the other side of the lake. Everything costs something; everything has its price.

   When Mother Teresa first began her work among the dying on the streets of Calcutta, India, she was  obstructed at every turn by government officials and orthodox Hindus. They were suspicious of her motives and used their authority to harass her and to frustrate her efforts. She and her fellow sisters were insulted and threatened with physical violence. One day a shower of stones and bricks rained down on the women as they tried to bring the dying to their humble shelter.  Eventually Mother Teresa dropped to her knees before the mob. “Kill me!” she cried in Bengali, her arms outstretched in a gesture of crucifixion, “and I'll be in  heaven all that much sooner.” The rabble withdrew but soon the harassment increased with even more irrational acts of violence and louder demands were made of officials to expel the foreign nun in her white sari, wearing a  cross around the neck. One morning, Mother Teresa noticed a gathering of people outside the nearby Kali Temple, one of the holy places for Hindus in Calcutta.  As she drew closer, she saw a man stretched out on the street with turned-up eyes and a face drained of blood. A triple braid denoted that he was of the Brahmin caste, not of the temple priests. No one dared to touch him, for people recognized he was dying from cholera. Mother Teresa went to him, bent down, took the body of the Brahmin priest in her arms and carried him to her shelter. Day and night she nursed him, and eventually he recovered. Afterwards, he would say to his people, over and over again, “For 30 years I have worshiped a Kali of stone. But I have met in this gentle woman a real Kali, a Kali of flesh and blood.'”  Never again were stones thrown at Mother Teresa and the other sisters. We, too, as Christians, need to make the effort, to take the initiative, to exercise our faith. We  need to invest something of ourselves in life, if we are to get anything out of it, if we are to make a difference in our lives and in those of others.

    So, this morning as we hear once again this familiar Gospel story about our Lord and his disciples on the Sea of Galilee, we recall that it is a story about life: about the security we all seek, the corners we all try to cut, and  the investments we all need to make. But let us remember three things: Our security in this world is never guaranteed, no matter how hard we try. It is never a sure thing. The road of Christian discipleship is always one that requires long hours and honest work. There are no short cuts or easy solutions.. And finally, it is our faith, our commitment, that ultimately makes a difference. We need to invest something in life in order to get something out of it. Thus, we, too, will discover, as did the disciples of old, that our security lies not in our attempts to protect ourselves against life's many hazards, but rather  in following Him, whom even the wind and the sea obey.

Sermon given by Reverend Philip Stowell

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