Sunday, August 13, 2017

Father Riley's sermon for August 13, 2017

10 PENTECOST - PROPER XIV - A - 17     MATTHEW 14. 22-33
As a rector, I taught First Holy Communion classes to 7-10 years as prerequisite to their becoming acolytes. I recall the beginning of one such class when a precocious lad raised his hand and asked that since I was a priest he guessed that I just sat around all day and thought about God. I confessed that is not always the case.
How many times during the course of a normal day to we stop and think about God? If we are honest, we must confess that our focus is mostly on self; something we need, something we need to be doing, and when we are older, something we have forgotten! Our focus is not always on God.
Today’s gospel scene takes place on water. It follows Jesus’ feeding of the 5000 where he demonstrated his power over nature. He demonstrates it again in his “walking on water” and the stilling of the wind. After the miraculous feeding, Jesus sends his disciples back across the sea to Galilee while he remains to dismiss the crowd.
When the people have dispersed, Christ goes up on the mountain to pray and be with God. The disciples had been gone for some time but were struggling to cross the lake for the wind was against them. They struggled all night it seems without much headway.
It was almost dawn when Jesus appeared to them walking on water. By this time, they were sorely tired having strained for hours against the wind and the waves. When they saw Jesus, they did not recognize him; for they were not expecting him, but thought what they were seeing was a ghost. They were afraid and cried out.
Then Jesus spoke to them in order to clam their fear. “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter thought he recognized Jesus’ voice. So, Peter asks, “Lord, if it is you,” still doubting, “bid me come to you on the water.” Jesus said, “Come.”
At first, Peter dismissed the wind and the waves keeping his eyes fixed on Jesus. As long as he did, he was able to overcome the natural and physical elements and do the impossible. However, when he diverted his attention, when he saw the waves, felt the spray in his face, and looked down, he became afraid and began to sink crying out to Jesus to save him.
Peter lost focus. He let his fear override what little faith he had when he first stepped out of the boat. Jesus saves him of course but chides him for his lack of faith. Note Peter did not ask to “walk on water,” but to “come to Jesus.” He wanted to be with Jesus.
We can’t physically be with Jesus as the disciples were. However, we can “be with Jesus” in our thoughts and our prayers. We can be with Jesus when we focus our attention on him. To do so is to set aside the distractions of life. That is not an easy thing to do when we have so many things we are normally engaged in on a daily basis.
Yet all the more reason for each of us to find time during the course of the day “to be with Jesus.” In 1986, a seminary classmate and I decided to go on a Lenten retreat. That would usually mean to a monastery where a directed retreat would be conducted. We chose the Jesuit center in Wernersville, Pennsylvania.
It was a 17 day, silent, Ignatius retreat. Upon entering the monastery, we were met by the retreat master who assigned us our rooms and gave us a schedule. Then, he took our watches. The daily schedule was one that revolved around prayer and worship and a set time to meet with a spiritual director who assigned us a passage of scripture for our daily meditation.
We were expected to keep a journal and to write down our thoughts based on the passage of scripture that had been given to us and then share those thoughts with our director during the course of the day. Our time there was intended to be a private retreat; one designed to be alone with God.
The surroundings were beautiful. Some 300 hundred acres was ours to roam to stop and pray to sit and meditate and to write down our thoughts, in other words, “to be with Jesus,” without the normal distractions of daily life. The first few days, I admit, were difficult. I felt I should be doing something else or that I should be somewhere else and I often found myself looking at my naked wrist in order to check the time.
It was hard to focus on something besides myself and turn my sole attention to God. I was like Elijah in today’s first lesson struggling to hear God’s voice. After the first two or three days, I learned to do just that and was amazed at how the scriptures spoke to me. My journal quickly filled and my prayers deepened. What a peaceful experience. What a feeling of calmness within.
My time there became a sacramental experience. It gave me a slight foretaste of what it will mean to “be with Jesus” for all eternity. I learned to be absorbed in spiritual concentration. I can imagine now what eternity means in contrast with time, and what the eternal presence of Christ may mean when human distractions have been left behind.
Alas, the day came for our departure and neither one of us wanted to leave. I know now how Peter felt on top of the Mount of Transfiguration when he wanted to remain with Jesus. What I learned from that experience is that one does not have to go on a directed retreat to “be with Jesus.” No, what we have to learn to do is to focus on him whenever and wherever we are by letting go of life’s distractions.
The gospel calls us to look outward and not inward. We do that by giving Him our concerns, our fears, our hopes and our dreams. Jesus is not only present to us in the storms of life, he is always present as he promised and his presence is real, not some shadowy experience. It is we who have to learn to make ourselves present to Him by letting go of the things that crowd our thoughts so that we can focus our attention on Him.
When we do so we discover that His presence brings peace and composure; courage returns, and forward movement is possible. The wind ceased as did the disciple’s fear when Jesus got into the boat with them. The disciple’s fear is transformed into hope, faith, and eventually love for the one who makes his presence known to them.
How does this story work for us? The story is a picture of the life of faith, or rather, the life of half-faith, faith mixed with fear and doubt which is the typical state of so many of us, as it was for the disciples.
“You of little faith.” Often we do suffer from too little faith. However, the matter is not remedied by sitting ourselves down and resolving to have more faith. To do so is to focus more and more upon ourselves and less and less upon God, as Peter did when he attempted to approach Jesus on the water.
Again the gospel calls us to look outward and not inward, and thus to behold the glory of God, who is our help. To know the closeness of Jesus is a central insight of the Christian faith. But if we over emphasize that affinity of Jesus to us as human beings we are in danger of losing something important.
The One we address as Christ is not merely a human companion with us on our journey of faith, but the source and sustenance of our faith. Thus, we do not produce faith by deciding to have more of it. But, as we witness and identify God’s love again and again, faith springs from within and flourishes.
There are many times when God in Christ asks us to do what seems impossible. How can we even begin to do the task he has called us to do? Of course, if like Peter we look at the waves being lashed by the wind, we will conclude that it is indeed impossible.
What we are called to do is so basic and obvious, but so hard to do in practice and that is, to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and our ears open for his words of encouragement. And our wills and our hearts ready to do what he says, even if it seems impossible at the time.
That is what it means to be with Jesus now, and by God’s grace live according to His will with the hope of one day being where He is for all eternity. AMEN+

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