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Sermon Reflection - Jay Bergen, February 7, 2021

Updated: May 7, 2022

Two years ago Thea Risher, a member of our community, wrote these words for our Palm Sunday service:

If some morning,

The trees contort, roots upturn,

the flowers wither, the fruit rots

the heavens fold in on themselves

Until there is not even enough light to look upon the desolation

And not even enough tears left to mourn

What is the prayer for this time?

For when everything we know is lost?

A couple weeks ago, I was trying to describe this moment to my spiritual director. “It’s like we’re all standing here, on this cliff,” I said. “And over there, we can see another cliff, the world where everyone gets the support and healing they need. It’s the shalom world: Nothing broken, nothing missing. But between here and there is a great chasm. I look down into it, and I cannot see the bottom. I see a path winding down, but I do not know where it goes. If we step into the chasm, how will we know whether we are getting closer to the other side, or just wandering lost?”

If you are looking at a chasm of your own this morning, welcome. If you’ve run out of coping strategies for quarantine, welcome. I promise that you are not alone. So many of us are feeling it, sometimes in subtle and hard-to-place ways. Call it the doldrums of winter, the extended 2020, the season of grief: Many of us are living through a time of despair.

One of you described an imaginary box that is filling up with your grief, but that is too heavy and painful to open up. So instead you carry this box with you, knowing that right now lugging around the weight of grief is easier than upending it onto the floor and drowning in its contents.

Others have described feeling trapped in a cycle of disconnection. Journalist Kyle Chayka writes, “Numbness beckons when life is difficult, when problems seem insurmountable, when there is so much to mourn.”

Maybe you have a chasm, or a grief box, or a feeling of great nothingness. Maybe you are wondering where to go from here. Maybe you’re like Peter in today’s Scripture: This little boat isn’t safe in a storm, but reaching safety seems about as likely as walking on water.

This is a desperate story: A boat was buffeted by winds, far from land, “because the wind was against them.” And after a long night trying to battle their way back to shore, as the morning light begins to shine on their exhaustion, Jesus appears amidst the chaos.

So much of our Christian tradition is a history of images trying to capture God’s love for us amidst suffering, images like this one. The image of the Trinity, after all, is an image of the Divine holding death within itself. Theologian Serene Jones writes, “When Christ is crucified, God’s own child dies.”

Our siblings in the Eastern Orthodox tradition understand salvation not as “getting right with God,” but rather “getting one with God.” Faith is not a transaction, but the yearning to get more intimate with the Sacredness that already lives within us even in our deepest despair.

Every time we celebrate communion, we remember something scandalous (and something it is hard to remember during quarantine), the sharing of bread as the hour of death drew near. And we are invited to remember, “as often as you eat and drink together,” that every broken body is God’s broken body.

It’s easy to read this as a story of Peter’s failure. Stupid Peter - couldn’t get more than two steps without losing faith. Leaving aside the fact that no one else offered to step out of that boat, I love this story not because of Peter’s humanity but because of Jesus’ love. You can almost hear him laughing as he pulls Peter out of the stormy waters: “Don’t you know that I’ve got you?”

This is a story about faith. At GMC we don’t talk a lot about our faith in particular images of God. We are a community rejecting the colonialist, white supremacist, patriarchal God. Some would call us atheists for that. But we do speak more honestly of God as the mystery, as Love, as community. So I’d like to take a minute to talk about our faith in God not as belief in particular images, but as trust in something we cannot fully understand.

Because as I have sat with this story in the past few weeks, I cannot shake an understanding that Peter does not begin to sink because he loses sight of the Divine, but because he is trying too hard to stay above the waves, too hard to carry himself with his own power.

If you feel like you are trying too hard to stay above the waves right now, welcome. You are not alone.

Sometimes, when it feels like all hope is lost, we need that reminder: You of little faith, why did you doubt? God already knows about the numbness, about the box of grief too big to open, about the chasm and the path that is uncertain. God simply invites you, as much as you are able, to get closer.

A few days ago, Pastor Cate sent me an article that reimagines Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs not as a pyramid with levels, but as a sailboat, a unified whole: The boat is our needs for safety, connection and self-esteem, while the sail that moves us forward is our needs for exploration, love, and purpose. The author writes, “With holes in your boat, you can’t go anywhere. All of your energy and focus is directed toward increasing the stability of the boat…. But human beings are incredibly resilient. Even under adverse conditions, we find the potential for momentum…. Growth is a direction, not a destination.

Even in our moments of deepest despair, when we are struggling just to stay above the waves, our need for love and Oneness with the Divine can pull us forward. When our boat is struggling in storm-tossed seas, there is the Divine, so close to us, inviting us again and again, “Come.” And as I have rested in this truth, my eyes keep opening to the Divine at work in our world.

I see God in the teachers and families here in Philly, who have stood up to the district’s plans to re-open schools for K-2nd grade, who have made it clear that sending teachers and students back into toxic classrooms while a pandemic rages is simply not safe. Amidst the exhaustion and frustration, I see teachers and families demanding, “not until it’s safe,” and I see God’s spirit drawing close. If you don’t work in a school, I encourage you to reach out to those who do and offer them support. If you aren’t a parent with children at home, I encourage you to reach out to those who are and remind them that God’s love is surrounding them.

I see God in the ways our small community loves each other. In our youth gathering on Zoom to hold each other, in the cards written and candles lit for the Horst-Martz family and so many others who are grieving right now, in the affinity groups gathering to go on walks and share recipes and read books, in the calls and support for Carmela and her family, in the meals gladly made for those who need them - seriously, if you’re here and you need someone to make you food, message Cate or I and we will connect you to some eager cooks. Every time I connect with GMCers for pastoral care, I find that the many arms of God are already reaching into the waves to pull you up.

And I see God in the quiet moments that are not public. Everyone who, with hidden determination, is just refusing to quit. Everyone who is standing up to the monsters that rage inside their heads, or the toxic dynamics in their home or work life. Everyone who at some point has decided to face the chasm, or take a peek inside the grief box, or step out onto the waves. Everyone who has then retreated to the safety of the boat, but who knows now that they can take at least one step and that God will be there to hold them. Everyone who may feel like they are journeying alone; in fact we are all slowly healing the world together.

A couple weeks ago, on a rainy walk, one of you said to me, “There’s no secret strategy for a time like this. There is just taking one day at a time, putting one foot in front of the other.”

What is the prayer for this time?

For when everything we know is lost?

There’s no secret. There is a boat, slowly taking on water. There are the storm-tossed seas. And there is God, intimately close to us and yet drawing us closer, reaching out to pull us forward with the power of Divine Love. And there we are, taking tentative yet trusting steps together through the storm, towards the Oneness who tells us, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”


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