Don’t you just love Peter’s confidence in our Gospel this morning – getting out of that boat and walking toward Jesus across the top of those waves? It is the confidence of one who wants to follow Jesus, but many have over-estimated their own abilities.
I was a bit like that the summer after my second year in seminary. I had the opportunity to work as an intern with a chaplain who was doing street ministry in Downtown Albany, NY on behalf of the ecumenical community of churches there. I had lived in Albany and worked as a probation officer there for 4 years before going to seminary, so I was no stranger to the struggles of the urban poor there. And I was grateful for a chance to approach life in that city not as a member of the law enforcement community, but rather as a pastor in training.
As I anticipated that internship during the last month of the academic year, I envisioned the sorts of ministry encounters I might have – connecting with people who needed hope and spiritual sustenance. I could be the one to bring the good news! I was ready to do what it would take to really making a difference in their lives. It all had a “Touched by an Angel” sort of sheen to it.
I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that is not what I experienced that summer. What I experienced was something very different. First of all, my “job” was not as well defined as I had expected. Other than sitting in the ecumenical outreach office for a couple of hours a day in case someone came in seeking help- which rarely happened, I was sent out to the food pantries and soup kitchens, and to walk around the city streets to meet and get to know people in need. This was really pretty much outside of my comfort zone. I felt clumsy in my interactions in the soup kitchen. I felt like sobbing at the food pantry as I witnessed people of all ages coming in hungry and desperate. I felt awkward speaking to homeless people on the street – what could I say to them? Anything I could think of to say about God or Jesus just came off sounding condescending when I rehearsed it in my head. And I was left speechless when I was wolf-whistled at or became the object of a drunk man’s irrational ranting and raving. I may have been confident in the safe boat of seminary, and even felt a bit of confidence as I started out across the waters of this new work, but these initial experiences made my heart sink like a rock.
Two weeks into the 8 week internship the street ministry chaplain found me weeping in the office. To my amazement he did not seem at all surprised by my tears. He smiled and said to me, “OK, now we are getting somewhere.” That jolted me out of my sobbing! Seeing the incredulous look on my face he told me to relax, that I was right where I needed to be – where he himself had been just a year before. As he recounted his own initial high hopes and how he too had experienced that same sinking feeling after a week or so on the job, I felt at ease.
Then we reflected together about the largely unrealistic expectations we had brought to our street ministry and how those expectations had taken a real beating. We wondered together about what our goals in this ministry should really be. Toward the end of that conversation the chaplain said that after a year in the job he had become convinced that God had brought him there, not so much to have an amazing impact on others, but rather to be changed himself. He said that like Peter walking on water and then sinking, he had to jettison his over-confidence in his abilities to bring massive change to needy people’s lives, and instead daily call on Christ to hold him up and make his way in this work he had been given. He said that when he started each day that way his expectations about this work began to shift. It was true that over the year he had been in this ministry he had been able to befriend some folk who had no other friends, and that he had been able to help in small ways with material needs. But he said he had become convicted that the only way he could really help the people he was there to serve was to get to know their life from the inside and then use that knowledge to work for substantive change in society. Substantive changes that would mean the people we were seeking to serve and their children would not be trapped in cycles of poverty and violence endlessly. Those cycles of poverty and violence were winds that sometimes could make him sink in fear, but if he remembered to call out to Christ, Christ would draw him up out of the waters again, to find a way to take what he was observing and use it to witness for change in societal systems that perpetuated those cycles of suffering.
This strikes me now as a wonderful image for baptism. When the sacred waters of the font pour over us, we die to the idea that we can change ourselves or our world on our own power alone. And when Christ raises us up again from those waters, he begins to empower us to move where he would have us go for his good ends and purposes. And the life of faith is a challenging, sometimes perilous, and always wondrous journey with Christ when we stay close to him.
That day all those years ago in Albany, as I felt immersed in waters of uncertainty, I asked my colleague for advice on how to join him in this work of being changed so that I too could work for positive change. He said that the best advice he could give me was “don’t just do something, stand there.” He counseled that a ministry of presence would go a lot farther than a ministry of words with the people we were trying to get to know. He also counseled that if I made being present my goal, God would have a lot easier time getting through to me with what I needed to receive to change and grow in my vocation. That God could be heard in the silence of presence, easier than in the noise of self-propelled activity, well intentioned as it might be. Years later that advice has not worn thin! Listening for the still small voice of God to guide me is always better than my best self- manufactured ideas.
I will never forget one person I met that summer who I do feel spoke the word of God to me. After sharing several meals with me in the soup kitchen, a man who was a Vietnam vet and who was struggling with PTSD and lack of employment said to me, “Just remember, some of us wear our need on the outside and some of us wear our need on the inside.” In that moment the tables turned and I was hearing God speak through this man
The more I listened that summer the more I heard God speaking to me about compassion and justice. The more I looked around, dared to look into faces across the table or on the street, the more I recognized Christ looking back at me, present in the very ones I had mistakenly thought I was supposed to bring him to. They gave me a new facet of truth – the truth that we are all one and that there is not distinction between any of us in God’s eyes. The truth that when any are in need we all are in more need than we want to admit or talk about.
So often we who wear our wealth on the outside, avoid the truth of how large the gap between rich and poor has become. I suspect at least part of the reason for that avoidance is the shame we feel at that disparity, and the uncertainty about how to do anything lasting about it. At least that is the lesson I began to learn all those summers ago, on the streets of Albany. But I find there is an incredible freedom that comes when we affirm that this is not the way that the God we know in Jesus Christ would have it for his beloved children. There is a freedom and a joy in affirming that. A freedom and a joy that can spur us time and again to become more vocal witnesses of that truth in the places of status and power that we have access to. Witnesses who emphatically trust that the Word that we need to speak is very near us – He is on our lips and in our hearts. He has drawn us up out of the waters that threatened to sink us, and has gotten into the boat of our lives with us, and that makes all the difference and gives us the power to be witnesses to his incredible love for all people.
Amalie, this is the good news of the life of faith that you are entering into formally with us this morning through the waters of baptism. Remember that whenever you feel overwhelmed by life or have a sinking feeling in your heart, all you need do is call on Jesus, and he will come and raise you up. We are so glad you will be joining us in this body of Christ as we follow his lead in ushering in his reign on earth. In Christ’s name and for his sake. Amen+