Willing to Sink

Matthew 14:22-33
© Stacey Steck

Maybe you’ve heard of Sam Shoemaker, considered one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, probably the most commonly used method for gaining sobriety from alcohol, drugs, and other addictions. Sam Shoemaker was also an Episcopalian priest who was once the Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh where I too had the pleasure of working many years after Shoemaker’s time there. He was known as a gifted preacher and source of wisdom, who once wrote the following words in his book, How You Can Help Other People: “Faith is like water. It can steal into the smallest openings. When you love someone, when you pray for him, and when God galvanizes your faith that things can be different for him, you have one of the most powerful forces on earth in your hands. Your faith lifts him for a time, not only to a new attitude, but to a new altitude, from which his life and problems seem different.”

“Peter cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly, you are the Son of God.’ ” “Your faith lifts him for a time, not only to a new attitude, but to a new altitude, from which his life and problems seem different.” Simon Peter, the rock upon which Christ says he will build his church, sinks like a stone and nearly drowns in waters of doubt, but is saved by faith that steals, like water, into the smallest openings. Jesus’ faith lifts Peter up from the waves to both a new attitude and a new altitude. And he was a different man. Thank you, Sam Shoemaker.

This morning, I also want to tell you about another Shoemaker, this one named Fred, and the two men are very much alike. You see, besides their last names, Sam and Fred have another commonality. They’ve both helped hopeless people. It may seem trivial at first, I admit, but Fred Shoemaker has done for hopeless golfers what Sam did for hopeless alcoholics: he gave them a vision of what life could be. During my vacation, I had the privilege of reading Fred Shoemaker’s book called Extraordinary Golf: The Art of the Possible, and although it has yet to correct my wicked slice, it has helped me to see something important about this morning’s passage from the Gospel of Matthew.

Golf is a divine sport. It’s divine not only because you get to enjoy a nice long walk in God’s creation, not only because it’s a game in which you can really get to know the people you are playing with, not only because it’s a competition with one’s own self, not against others. No, golf is a divine sport because it takes you so deeply into the mysteries of life, in particular, why anyone in their right mind would try to hit a little white ball into a hole several hundred yards away using a stick. Over and over again. If they’d had golf in Solomon’s time, there would be a proverb about it: “A wise man plays golf only once. A fool takes divots forever.” But seriously, golf is divine because it reveals something to us about ourselves, mostly the stuff we’d rather not admit.

Back in Costa Rica, I once proposed that our church offer a weekly “Worship on the Green,” a church service at the local golf course, because there is no greater den of iniquity in the world than at your local golf course. You’ll find more sinners per square inch at a golf course than anywhere else, at least based on what comes out of their mouths after a bad shot, and wherever sinners congregate, the church ought to be there. So, one day I joined the weekly tournament they held there and introduced myself to the coordinator of the group who asked what I did for a living, and I told him I was a pastor. And I still remember that look in his eye. So after the round was over, I come into the pro shop and find him there listening to another guy tell one of the most offensive, expletive-laden, God-awful stories you can imagine. And he just lets the guy go on and on, while I’m standing right there, until finally he says, “Oh, Larry, I want you to meet the newest member of our club. This is Stacey and he’s a pastor.” You’ve never seen a face fall faster, or get redder, than Larry’s. So, yes, there’s some Gospel work to be done out there on the golf course.

But most of what golf reveals to us is our priorities, or at least that’s what Fred Shoemaker thinks. Shoemaker’s book talks about the mental side of the game, and how doubt and fear and expectations, all the things Peter encountered there on the bow of that boat in the Sea of Galilee, how those things cause us to sink just when we could be walking on water. He talks about how golfers focus so much on how their club strikes the ball that they can’t get the ball in the hole, which is, of course, the whole point of the game. “What is your purpose for playing golf?” he asks in the very first chapter, a version of the same question Jesus could have asked Peter out there on the water: “What is your purpose for following me?” Is it to look good in front of your friends or fellow competitors? Is it to live up to the expectations others have placed on you?

That’s where Shoemaker found himself as a young man, good at playing golf, but burned out on it because he was playing for all the wrong reasons. So, he gave it up and joined the Peace Corps in Ghana in the 1970s and for a few months he forgot all about the game. But sin isn’t extinguished so easily so he called up the US embassy in Accra to see if they could get him a tee time on one of the three courses in the entire country. Now, to add to his credibility, he had mentioned that he was a professional from the US, which he was, a club pro, but somehow that got reinterpreted as him being the US champion, so when he arrived at the course at the appointed hour, he was met by a huge crowd which had gathered to see an international match between the US champion and the Ghanaian champion, a barefooted fellow named Kojo who was carrying clubs that could have been used in the 1930s. You know what happened, don’t you?

Yes, Fred Shoemaker started the round pleased to be a goodwill ambassador of the United States of America, and the grand game of golf, a feeling which lasted until about the eighth hole when Kojo tied up the match. From there on out, it was a downhill spiral of fear, doubt, and expectations, as he tried his best to make sure that he didn’t lose to the barefoot bumpkin. The match was over on the seventeenth hole, where Kojo was carried off triumphantly on the shoulders of his countrymen while Fred sunk slowly beneath the waves of the Sea of Galilee, no Jesus in sight to lift him to higher attitudes and altitudes. Needless to say, that’s not the end of the story of Fred Shoemaker, but it was the beginning of his thinking about the purpose of golf, and how to play the game the right way.

Contrary to popular opinion, Peter didn’t sink because he lacked faith. Peter sinks because he’s supposed to sink. He's not the Son of God. Only Jesus walks on water. When Jesus says to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” he’s not referring to him failing to walk on the water. He’s referring to the fact that Peter asked for proof of Jesus’ presence. It was not enough for him that Jesus came to that sinking ship in the first place, or that he announced “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” No, Peter wants Jesus to prove it by allowing him to walk on the water. And so I picture Jesus saying, “Sure, Peter, come on out. Come on” and knowing exactly what’s going to happen. If Peter were focused on getting the ball in the hole instead of just making sure he hit it, he never would have gotten out of the boat in the first place. He may have sunk, just like Fred Shoemaker, but as a result of the experience, he and the disciples do learn a lesson and are able to proclaim, “Truly, you are the Son of God.”

What is your purpose for following Jesus? For being a member of Thyatira or any other church? For being a parent or an employee? On what are you focused? In the midst of the storms of your life, do you believe Jesus is there or do you need proof? The possibility of an extraordinary life, or an extraordinary faith, are found in how we ask and answer those questions. Otherwise, we’re just marking time. Did you that’s what the word “ordinary” really means. It means counting, counting the first, second, third, fourth, whatever of our lives. Those are the ordinal numbers. During the summer, the church is in the season of Ordinary Time, not because it’s plain or common or just average, but because we are marking time between the festival seasons of the year like Advent, Lent, Easter and all the rest. Not that Ordinary Time is ordinary; it’s sacred too, but there is a difference, isn’t there, between ordinary and festive, ordinary and extraordinary? Our lives as disciples go through their ups and down, they have both birdies and bogies on their scorecards, just like Simon Peter and Fred Shoemaker, and here we are at one of those festive moments, Homecoming at Thyatira church, an extraordinary moment in which to ask again and answer again that timeless question, “What’s your purpose for following Jesus?,” that question that leads us to an extraordinary life in the midst of ordinary time. And may the faith of Jesus Christ lift us to not only a new attitude, but to a new altitude, from which our lives and problems seem different. Truly, he is the Son of God. Amen.

Widows and Other Superheroes

Luke 18:1-8
© Stacey Steck

If you listen carefully to the Gospel of Luke, you can hear the echoes. Rolling through the pages of Luke’s account of the life of our Savior, are echoes of the words of the prophet Isaiah, echoes of the Law of Moses, and echoes of the history of the people of Israel. Those ancient voices were strong and their staying power great as they lived on throughout the centuries to be heard once again by their spiritual descendants. And along with the echoes of those ancient voices, you can hear too echoes of Luke’s own voice, and this morning’s story is a chance to hear several of these echoes converging, as Jesus tells his disciples a parable which he hopes will strengthen them for the days and years ahead, this “parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart.”

The first persistent voice we hear is that of the cause of the widow, one of the most powerful voices emanating from the Old Testament law. Again and again, God’s people are commanded to care for the widows, orphans, and foreigners in their midst, to care for the most vulnerable, the most easily forgotten, forsaken and forlorn. There was perhaps no greater reason for the exile of God’s people in Babylon than the neglect of widows, orphans, and foreigners, because all the misdeeds of the kings, and their trampling of the poor, hurt no one more than these whom God entrusted to the whole community and to whom God showed special provision and care. Get out your concordance one of these days and see just how often the care of this vulnerable triumvirate is charged to God’s people. It is not chivalry at the root of this commandment, but justice, not a “women and children first” show of macho bravado, but a deeply rooted knowledge of the human tendency toward a social Darwinism at odds with the divine purpose. Charles Darwin didn’t invent the idea of the survival of the fittest; he just described it. The widow, orphan, and stranger were thus the most likely to be abused, defrauded, and taken advantage of, a reality which Jesus highlights as he shares this parable.

The widow in the parable may not have a name, but she has a case, even if we don’t know exactly what it was. Most likely she was trying to reclaim some property her “opponent” was trying to bilk her out of. Her last recourse is this judge, seemingly a man unfamiliar with the echoes of the past now ringing daily in his ears. We may imagine our widow sitting outside his window offering her mantra from Psalm 146: “The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin,” and he tuning her out, as we are told that he feared neither God nor man. But finally he grows tired of her white noise and takes up her case, rather like we might turn on the television to quiet our children’s lament of “Mommy or Daddy, I’m bored.” “I will grant her justice,” he says, “so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” The echo that roared.

Jesus makes sure that the disciples do not miss the point by making sure they see the comparison that he is making, the old “how much more will God do for you” exercise designed to help them to understand the nature of the reign of God. If even this callous judge will finally grant a widow justice, how much more quickly will our compassionate God respond when one of us seeks the justice that God has ordained. “Of how much more value are you than the birds,” Jesus has already reminded them, and “how much more will God clothe you” than the beautiful lilies in the field who outshined even King Solomon in all his glory. Be persistent in your prayer and your hope, Jesus is saying, and God will indeed respond, even if the local magistrate will not. You can count on it.

For those seeking reassurance that God is listening, this would be a fitting end to the passage, but there is a curious addition, an extra line that doesn’t seem to fit: “And yet,” Jesus adds, “And yet, when the Son of man comes, will there be faith on earth?” This third question Jesus asks, the third after, “will not God grant justice?” and “will he delay long in helping them?”, the third is not so easy to answer because the third question is not about God, but about us. God’s promises are sure; our commitments are not. “Will you be persistent in prayer until the day comes when I return?” Jesus asks. “Will I find the same faith on earth then that I found when I first arrived?” And it is here that we hear another echo, this time from Luke’s own story.

The question Jesus is asking is this: “Will you be as faithful in your prayer as another widow I knew? Will you be as persistent in waiting for me as was the prophetess Anna,” way back in chapter 2, a widow about whom it was said that she “never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day.” Anna, like the righteous and devout Simeon in the passage before her, persisted in her hope and her prayer and her faithfulness until the coming of Jesus the first time. You remember these two who waited for the Messiah and met him face to face when Mary and Joseph came to Jerusalem to present him in the temple eight days after he was born. These two faithful characters are, to Luke’s eyes, the kind of disciples that the twelve should aspire to be. “Will you, Simon Peter, be able to hope as fervently as Simeon?” “Will you, Mary Magdalene, wait for Jesus as long as Anna?” Will Jesus find the same faith on earth the second time that he found the first time? Times will be tough, Jesus is saying. “Will you have what it takes until I come again?”

Not surprisingly, this is not a question stalled in Jesus time, but one which should still be echoing through the chambers of our hearts today. How do we remain persistent in our prayer, in our righteousness, in our hope, in our love, faith, service, and patient endurance? Jesus was well aware of the possibility of letting other things take precedence over caring for widows and orphans, and by extension, all of creation. He only had to look at the failures of the faithful in his own day. And so he saw the need to challenge his followers that they might not fall into the same trap. By recalling the faithful Anna, he used the echoes of the persistence in his own life to issue that challenge. Perhaps we might do the same.

Our kids learning about the superheroes of the Bible during this year’s Vacation Bible School got me thinking about some of the superheroes of persistence I’ve met or heard about. I remembered meeting Superman once, or at least the one in Saint Cloud Minnesota whose real name is John Fillah. Fillah has been dressing up, more or less, as the comic book superhero Superman and standing on various street corners in St. Cloud since at least the turn of this century, and probably longer. He simply stands there with his hands on his hips, with his cape billowing behind him, in the classic Superman pose and watches the traffic go by, reminding pedestrians to stand up for the values he admires. You see, John Fillah is convinced that the people of St. Cloud need a daily reminder to stand up for “truth, justice, and the American way,” the motto of Superman. Preaching that gospel in all seasons has earned Mr. Fillah not only a certain notoriety around town, but a growing suspicion about the state of his mental health. He is frequently asked by the police to find a new corner when the complaints about his imposing presence reach a critical mass.

Not long ago, however, the police stopped moving him along, and even gave him an award. It seems that Superman, being more recognizable probably than the town’s own mayor, was in the right place at the right time when a suicidal man was preparing to hurl himself off a bridge into the Mississippi River. It seems that the man about to kill himself recognized Fillah’s face, and probably his own bouts of depression, and began to share with him the story of his pitiful life, revealing his intentions to kill himself, upon which revelation Superman leaped into action and physically restrained the man when he tried to climb over the railing of the bridge. And even though the man was fighting him off, Fillah held onto him until some passersby could help him pull him to safety. Superman is now receiving a commendation from the city, and although the award is for saving the man’s life, it might as well be for his street corner persistence, a persistence that helped him make a connection with someone who really needed a connection. The Police Chief said the letter of appreciation would be hand-delivered to this Superman, and noted, in a nod to Fillah’s persistence, “We can usually find him when we
need to.”

What kind of persistence do we practice? Are we the fair weather faithful who claim God when it is safe to do so or when we need something? Or are we there day in and day out banging the drum for Christ like John Adams does for the Cleveland Indians. For nearly every home game of the last forty-four years, John Adams has been in the centerfield bleachers pounding his bass drum when the Indians come up to bat. For nearly every home game of the last forty-four years, John has been there waiting for a World Series-winning team. Let me tell you, there have been some lean years for baseball fans in Cleveland in the last forty-four years, and John Adams is the ultimate challenge to every fair weather fan.

Perhaps you may find these stories of mentally ill persons and baseball fans less than inspiring for your own personal persistence in faith. After all, it is not for Christ that they persist. But if saving a life and reminding an entire city to keep the faith, even about baseball, are not enough, consider some other acts of persistence you may have heard about. Consider the persistence of the Amish in their way of life, a persistence which carried them gracefully, if painfully, through the experience of the murder of their schoolchildren a number of years ago, and taught the world a thing or two about grace. Consider the people who have persisted in pressing the case for the things in which they believe, like grieving mothers who pushed for things like the legislation that created what is now known as the Amber Alert system to activate communities to help find missing and abducted children. Consider the perseverance of people like the mothers of the disappeared in Argentina in the 1970s whose silent witness in the plazas across the country brought to light the dirty wars of the region. Consider the persistence of single parents who labor at two jobs so that their children might have a chance to go to college. Consider the persistence of caregivers of people with Alzheimer’s. We all know these kinds of persistent superheroes, don’t we?

“When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” I guess that depends on how persistent we are willing to be, for like the echoes that ring through the Gospel of Luke that inspired the faithful in Christ’s time, it will be the echoes of our persistence that will inspire others to persist in faith, in prayer, in peacemaking, in compassion. In fact, that’s really what the “patient endurance” of our mission statement is all about. May God help us to have the persistence of widows and other superheroes. Amen.