Fourth Sunday of Lent, 2018
Spiritual Geography: The Landscape of our Faith
The Sea Click here for audio
Luke 8:22-25, Jonah 2:1-10
Pastor Donna Buell
During the summer of 2001 Marty and I had the opportunity to take a two month Spiritual Renewal Leave. Our family spent one of those months traveling in Ireland. During the months prior to that trip Marty and I did a lot of research. And after identifying the places we knew we wanted to visit, particularly those sites associated with the development of early Celtic Christianity, we put together an itinerary and made reservations at Bed and Breakfasts for each night. But we tried not to over schedule our time, so that we would have the flexibility to be open to the unplanned and the unexpected.
Now I knew that Ireland is an island, but I hadn’t really anticipated the amount of time we would spend near the sea. And as I look back on that trip I realize that those are some of my fondest memories. We visited the high rugged Cliffs of Moher that drop 800 feet to the ocean, and the Giant’s Causeway where amazing 6-sided basalt columns march down into the sea. We found ourselves on quiet inlets and rugged turbulent points. And many evenings, after dinner, we walked on long stretches of beach covered with sand or shells, rocks or boulders. No two places were exactly alike, yet all were beautiful. We even had two opportunities to venture out onto the sea, taking a passenger ferry to Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands, and taking a small fishing boat with seaworthy captain Patrick Casey at the helm, to the rocky and isolated monastic community on the island of Skellig Michael. And through all of these experiences I was reminded again of the incredible power of the sea.
This year for the season of Lent we are exploring the theme “Spiritual Geography: the landscape of our faith.” We started out three weeks ago in the desert, before climbing into the mountains, and then visiting a vineyard. In the weeks to come we will spend time in a garden and on the road, while this morning we find ourselves at sea. One writer has described the sea with these words:
The sea is inscrutable in its ways, vast in its reach, irresistible in its power. The sea thwarts human efforts to control it, easily overwhelming and submerging human plans. Only God’s word can tame and direct the surging force of the sea. Only God has power to establish lasting boundaries around it.
Reading these words reminds me that although there are things in life over which we have some degree of control, there are also many things over which we do not. The image of the sea seems to provide a powerful metaphor for those times in life when we find ourselves at the mercy of forces beyond our control; when we find ourselves overwhelmed by the immensity of a situation; when we find ourselves swamped by waves of sorrow and grief; when we find ourselves dragged under by the powerful currents that run deep within our culture; when we find ourselves tossed to and fro by the uncertainty of the future; when we find ourselves wondering if we will survive and whether God even cares.
On our last full day in Ireland we came to a sunny beach at mid-day at the western end of the Dingle Peninsula. There were people actually swimming in this beach, which was rare because despite all of the marvelous beaches in Ireland, most of the time the waters are just too cold for swimming, even in the middle of the summer. Marty and Nate took one look at each other and decided they had to get in the water. It was easier for them to wriggle into swim trunks in the back seat of our tiny rental car than for me…so I just rolled up my pant legs and took off my shoes to walk along the beach as the two of them waded out into the surf. They were out there having a grand old time jumping in the waves, when suddenly they both heard a sound and looked back to see a really huge wave heading towards them, and they knew they were in trouble. Marty, having a bit more experience with the ocean than Nate, waited for the wave and tried to ride it in. Nate, on the other hand, tried to out-swim the wave. Both of them were pulled under. After a just few moments Marty’s head popped up from under the water. It may have only been about 30 more seconds, but it seemed like an eternity to me before Nate’s head appeared. Both of them returned to the shore and excitedly described their experience of becoming disoriented, of being tossed and tumbled and shoved down to the sea floor. Nate said it was cool! I know that if it had been me I would have been scared to death. I imagine it would have been like what people sometimes describe when they have been in an accident. It seems as though time slows down and you have that odd sensation of being both in the midst of the experience, and stepping outside of yourself and reflecting upon the experience, recognizing that these could be the last moments of your life, and there really isn’t much you can do about it.
Our first scripture reading this morning is Jonah’s Psalm of Thanksgiving, offered from the belly of the great fish that had swallowed him up after he had been thrown overboard. Jonah’s description of being tossed and tumbled in the sea, dragged down further and further into the depths of the sea, life and hope ebbing away, is such an apt metaphor for so many experiences in life; experiences when we find ourselves overwhelmed whether because of a conscious decision we have made or because of events over which we had no control. Either way, it is as if we are drowning, because we can see that our life, as we know it, is coming to an end, and when that happens to us it can sometimes feel as though God has abandoned us.
I imagine the disciples felt that way as their boat was being swamped by a sudden storm on the Sea of Galilee. Luke tells us that they had to wake Jesus up saying, “Master, Master, we are perishing!” The tables were turned on the night of Jesus’ arrest, when the disciples slept as Jesus agonized in the garden. And later, as Jesus hung on the cross, he identified with that deep sense of abandonment when he cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And after it was all over, the disciples, whose lives had been so completely overturned by Jesus’ death on the cross, found themselves adrift in a sea of grief.
Stephen Bryant, in the Journal Weavings, writes about the experience of feeling adrift at sea following a turbulent life experience. He describes being adrift as “the state of any young adult who awakens to all the possibilities of life and then with integrity agonizingly asks, ‘How shall I fit in?’ Being adrift also describes the person who has recently lost a home, or a job or life’s dearest partner. Being adrift is the retiree grieving over the daily routine that has vanished. It is the victim of character assassination trying to put back together the pieces of a savagely attacked and shattered life.”
And he says that organizations and communities can find themselves adrift when people dare to say, “Things have changed. We simply cannot go on as we have and yet we do not know what lies ahead.” Being adrift happens when we ask, “What next, what ever shall we do next?”
Many people, finding themselves adrift in life, struggle with how to be adrift and remain faithful at the same time. And as a way of suggesting an answer to that question, Stephen Bryant describes a conversation he had with a colleague who had recently retired. For some reason this spoke to me.
She sat across from me, he writes, and had found the hint of an answer. More than a hint, actually, although she did not flaunt it or even name it as such. She was four months into the retirement she had anticipated with both joy and grief, and this was our first time together since she had actually taken the step. She had loved her work. For years it had shaped and filled her days. Her faithful labors had enriched the lives of many, including my own. How was she doing, I asked. “I’ve felt at sea,” she said, “no anchor anymore. Drifting. I still feel this way.” She had the unsettling habit of saying exactly what she thought. She paused, took a sip of tea, and went on quietly, “Then about three weeks ago I realized there’s a wind and a current.” The words contained no outright declaration of joy, but she spoke them with a quizzical interest. “I just need to wait” she said, “I can’t force anything.”
This woman was beginning to notice what she described as a sense of wind and current, the barely perceptible hint of a direction was beginning to take shape. At that point she wasn’t sure where the wind and the current would take her, but she was willing to trust that God was in it and that if she allowed herself to be carried, for a time, the way would become clearer. Bryant writes that “to work with the wind and the current is to let ourselves be carried for a time, even when we have no idea where that will take us. It is to say within: “God, you are in the center of this. Or you are all about me. Or even though I cannot name how you are here at all, still you are. I cannot rush matters now. Where would I rush to? I cannot deny that I am completely at sea. The sea and the drifting are all I look upon, day to day. Yet somehow, by the thinnest of membranes, you keep me from sinking into the abyss. With your barely perceptible touch, you convey me, though I have no idea where. Through all of this uncertain movement, let my heart be toward you. Let me trust…and wait.”
Let my heart be toward you, let me trust and wait. That’s really what it’s about: being patient, trusting in God’s presence and God’s timing, and being willing to wait for a clarity we so desire, but do not yet experience. “With a heart toward God, let me trust and wait.”
Living faithfully when life experiences have left us adrift on a sea of uncertainty is about trust. It is about having trust in God who loves us, who is with us always, who will not forsake us. We don’t like being adrift, however. We prefer to be in control of the journey, the destination and the timetable, simply because we cannot tolerate not knowing. But there are times in life when we simply cannot know. At least not yet. It isn’t time, yet. Someone has said, “one does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a long time.” And so in the meantime it is good to trust and wait patiently upon the Lord.
What would it mean for us to live with our hearts toward God during times of transition and uncertainty in our personal and family life, our vocational life, the life our community, our congregation, our nation? What would it mean for us to let go of the need to be in control of the process and the outcome so that we might be open to the wind and the current of the Spirit? The disciples on that boat worried that God didn’t even care, but Jesus knew that everything would be all right. He trusted completely that even if they were swamped, even if they were to perish at sea, it would be alright…because they were in God’s hands. And it was that faith, and that trust, that allowed Jesus to be faithful to God even to the point of death on the cross.
I remember seeing Dr. Phil one time, back in the days when he was a regular guest on Oprah. He was talking with a woman whose husband had repeatedly been unfaithful to her. This woman was understandably struggling with the question of whether she would ever be able to trust her husband again. Finally Dr. Phil suggested that she reframe the question of trust. He said that what she needed to trust was not that her husband would be faithful to her. She could never have certainty about that. So he told her that what she needed to trust was that whether or not her husband was faithful to her in the future she would survive. She would be able to pick up and go on with her life, with him or without him. That’s what you need to trust, he told her. And to me that kind of trust is about trust in God. It is trust that says, even if the worst happens, I know that God will be with me.
It seems very much a time of uncertainty on so many levels, doesn’t it? Each of us could name the particular uncertainties we face in our own lives and in the lives of our families. For Marty and I there is the uncertainty that comes as we anticipate our upcoming retirement. What will this new phase in our lives mean for us? For all of you there is the uncertainty of pastoral transition. What will it mean for the life of this congregation and for its future ministry in this community? There is the uncertainty within our worldwide United Methodist Church as we move through a time of careful discernment, seeking a way forward for our denomination. And of course there is the uncertainty we are experiencing in our life together as a nation. In many ways we are on very turbulent seas, and I know I am not alone in worrying about our collective future. This litany of uncertainties is the very reason Adam Hamilton wrote his book, Unafraid, which will be our Adult Study this Spring. Through this study we will hopefully find ways to identify what is at the root of the fears and uncertainties that are so much a part of our lives, to examine them in the light of our faith, and to discover resources and tools for living with courage and hope, that we may live faithfully in the midst of the uncertainties of life.
So whether you are setting out on a voyage of discovery, or life’s circumstances leave you feeling tossed to and fro as if upon a turbulent sea, or if you find yourself adrift, transitioning through a time of uncertainty about the future…I urge you, in the words of Stephen Bryant, to “let your heart be toward God,” watching for those signs of wind and current that will lead you in the way God would have you go. “And trust…and wait,” Trust in God and in God’s abiding presence, and trust that in God’s time you will find your way. And ultimately trust that even if the worst should happen God will be with you, for in life and in death we belong to God.
Thanks be to God.
Let us turn our hearts toward God in prayer:
You keep us waiting.
You, the God of all time,
want us to wait
for the right time in which to discover
who we are, where we must go,
who will be with us, and what we must do.
So thank you…for the waiting time.
You keep us looking.
You, the God of all space,
want us to look in all the right and wrong places
for signs of hope,
for people who are hopeless,
for visions of a better world which will appear
among the disappointments of the world we know.
So thank you…for the looking time.
You keep us loving.
You, the God whose name is love,
want us to be like you –
to love the loveless and the unlovely and the unlovable;
to love without jealousy or design or threat;
and, most difficult of all,
to love ourselves.
So thank you…for the loving time.
And in all this,
You keep us.
Through hard questions with no easy answers;
through failing where we hoped to succeed
and making an impact when we felt we were useless;
through patience and the dreams and the love of others;
and through Jesus Christ and his Spirit,
you keep us.
So thank you…for the keeping time,
and for now,
and for ever. Amen.
~John Bell, Iona Community