Sermon preached by the Reverend Nichlas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost – August 7, 2011
On a beautiful spring afternoon in May 1993 I was sitting on a large rock on the beach over looking the Connecticut Sound. I was on a reflection break during a respite retreat day for HIV Counselors and Caregivers that I facilitated at the Mercy Center in Madison—but my thoughts were focused on an important decision I needed to make.
Earlier that week, Bishop Arthur Walmsley had informed me that Father Campbell-Smith had tendered his resignation as rector of St. Paul’s on the Green due to the severity of his illness. Would I accept the appointment as the interim rector? If I did, I would begin almost immediately.
I liked my work at Yale-New Haven Hospital. I was paid a competitive salary and, back in the day, the hospital gave as much as a 9% raise every year. I had a ministry with a community of people committed to helping those living with HIV/AIDS and my private counseling practice was growing as well.
Should I stay with what I knew was fairly solid and that offered me job security that would provide stability for me—or did I step into the unknown, into a future about which I was not very sure. Interim rectors typically serve a parish for no more than eighteen months tops and then are whisked away before the new rector appears. I had been assisting at St. Paul’s since February and I knew the hornet’s nest in which I had landed. Did I have the stamina, the patience, the wisdom to assume the leadership of a congregation on the verge of collapse? Did I stay in the boat or get out and hope that my feet landed on the stones?
You all know the decision I came to on the beach that day. I can’t explain it but deep inside my soul I had the profound sense that all would be well and that this was a risk worth taking—that God was in this mess with us and wanted something wonderful for this community that had struggled for so long. So for me this morning’s Gospel story relates to the decision I made eighteen years ago.
What does the story of the boat in the storm and Peter’s daring attempt to walk on water say to you? How does it speak to your life. I’m sure that there are many experiences that you can identify through the lens of this story. Maybe you are living in the midst of a storm right now and wondering whether you are going to sink or swim. Maybe you are faced with choices—some of which will take you into unchartered waters and you are frightened. Change—especially change that is full of uncertainty—is scary.
This story also has great lessons to teach us about our fears as a nation in terms of the global and national financial crisis and it certainly should speak to us a church where our anxiety about money can become toxic and can threaten our spirit as a people on God’s mission. The reality is that we are living in a culture of fear, the fires of which are stoked by politicians, religious leaders, and the media. Yesterday I heard of the report that antidepressant use by Americans is on the rise. Is that a surprise?
I think the disciples’ problem on that day in the storm was that they didn’t expect Jesus to be able to walk on water. They had seen him cure the lame, give sight to the blind, chase out demonic spirits, change water into wine, and feed thousands of people with two fish and five loaves of bread but they couldn’t make the stretch to believe that he could do that. They sold God short. And so can we. We can expect too little of God.
Faith is not being able to walk on water—only God can do that—but taking the leap to believe that, in the face of all the evidence, God is really in the boat with us. Faith is the willingness to take risks in order to grow. When Peter stepped out of the boat, he taught us that sometimes we must be willing to take the chance that we may fail. Risk-less believing—safe, comfortable, and stagnant believing—stays in the boat. It might be more comfortable there. It might be the sensible thing to do. But it leaves us unchanged. Gospel living means we are willing to get our feet wet—maybe even begin to sink for a few seconds—knowing that there will be a hand or two to reach out and catch us if necessary.
I’m not suggesting that the risks we take don’t come with stormy days or that life will always be smooth sailing if we venture out of the comfort zone of the boat. It was a pretty rough ride for me—for this church community—for a long time after I arrived. But there were some faithful hands that reached out and gave support and the waves eventually subsided and the waters became calm.
Can you imagine what the other disciples must have said when Peter started to get out of the boat? Do you think they just sat there in silence? I don’t. “Peter, are you nuts? Get the hell back in the boat!” “Look at him sink. Arrogant fool! Serves him right.” And you and I will encounter those who will discourage us from taking that big leap, exploring the unknown, following a star, navigating in unchartered waters, pursuing a dream that involves risk-taking—one that means getting out of the boat in stormy waters.
Famous author Herman Hesse once said, “If my life were not a dangerous, painful experiment, if I did not constantly skirt the abyss and feel the void under my feet, my life would have no meaning and I would not have been able to write anything.”
I know that I made the right decision on the beach in Madison back in May of 1993. If I had stayed in the boat, I would now have many regrets and I would never have been a part of the building of this amazing community nor been touched by the lives of hundreds of people with whom I have shared my ministry.
Throughout these years, there have been other invitations to either play it safe or get my feet wet—some of which you have been a part of as well—and I know that the option of sitting in the boat is a short-lived one if we really want to follow the One who calls to us: “Come. Take heart. Do not be afraid! I’m here to catch you if you miss the stones.”