My sermon from Sunday, August 7, 2011
My Facebook status update last Sunday night, after all the celebrations for Andrew’s retirement in the morning, was: “The training wheels are off.” It’s a leap of faith for me to be your priest-in-charge, and I know it’s a leap of faith for you as we chart this new course together. I have this sense that if I just keep pedaling and don’t look down and it’ll all be fine.
Which might have been good advice for Peter this morning. I always think of this as the Wile E. Coyote gospel story—you remember Wile E. Coyote from the old Roadrunner cartoons, who would run out over the edge of the cliff and keep going until he noticed that there was nothing underneath him, and then hold up a sign that said, “Uh-oh!” or something and then plummet to earth. Peter is fine until he begins to think about what he’s doing, and realizes that he’s actually walking on water, and only then does he begin to sink. You really can do amazing things when you don’t know that what you’re doing is impossible. You really can do amazing things when you have your eyes fixed on Jesus—but when you take your eyes off of Jesus, you might start to sink.
The most memorable leap of faith I ever took was when I celebrated taking the General Ordination Exams while I was in seminary with three of my classmates. Strapped to a large Brazilian man, I got into a tiny airplane with a friend and a pilot, circled up for 10,000 feet, and then jumped out. I was attached to the Brazilian, and he was attached to the parachute. There’s a picture in my office, if anyone doubts that I was so stupid as to jump out of a perfectly good airplane. But when I and my friends—all priests now—landed, we laughed about what a wonderful sermon example this was going to be for all of us. It was an act of faith—in the Brazilian, in the airplane, in the skydiving company, and I suppose in God, tangentially, for good luck rather than bad luck. But I didn’t feel like a person of faith while I was doing it. I was terrified, (there was video of this, but my parents taped over it!) very pale, shaking, and spent the entire plane ride afraid I was going to fall out, and then realizing the irony that I was paying quite a lot of money precisely so that I could fall out of the plane. But once we got out of the plane, especially once the free fall was over and we were floating slowly down to earth held up by the parachute, was exhilarating.
We tend to think that faith is a feeling of peace. I always think of people on TV, saying that they have faith so they don’t have to worry about disease or terrorism or whatever, and they always look sort of holy, very serene with their hands clasped together. And I’m not exempting myself from this—I have been known to say to people, “Have faith.” But faith isn’t something you have, it’s something you do, and acting on faith sometimes feels like and looks like stupidity. Faith is getting out of the boat and walking on the waters towards Jesus. Faith is jumping out of the airplane with only a Brazillian and a parachute to save you. Faith is moving on in the life of a church after a beloved rector leaves. It’s terrifying, and even if Jesus is standing there saying, “Do not be afraid,” the adrenaline and the fear kick in naturally. In my experience, acting on faith is scary, not peaceful.
Peter is the one who takes the big literal leap of faith today—he’s the only one of the 12 disciples who gets out of the boat. He’s kind of showing off, and then gets humiliated out on the water. That’s Peter’s way. But look at what happens to the other eleven: they stay in the boat and watch Peter and Jesus, and then acclaim Jesus as the son of God when he and Peter return. Seeing someone else act on their faith can give you faith—the guys in the boat do not walk in the water, but what they see happen between Peter and Jesus illuminates who Jesus is for them.
We don’t always have to be the person getting out of the boat or jumping out of the plane to inspire our faith in God. Sometimes we just have to be watching for others. What are the faithful acts you’ve seen that have helped your own faith to grow? Who are the people of faith who inspire you—who in-Spirit you?
Thinking this week about people who inspire me, one who came to mind was the Rev. Altagracia Perez in LA who was sent to St. Phillip’s church in South Central LA basically to close it down, but who revitalized it and bridged the elderly historic African American congregation who commuted in from Compton and the Mexican and Salvadoran immigrants who actually lived in the neighborhood. She never gives up when fighting for the poor, sometimes sounding like the persistent widow in the Gospel in her confidence that Jesus came to liberate us from poverty of spirit as well as poverty of pocketbook. When I want to give up, and say something is impossible—Altagracia reminds me to keep fighting; and she reminds me of the communities in which I found my calling to the priesthood which is so very different from the comparative safety of the Upper East Side. The Rev. Rob Schwartz and his wife, Jeanne, are out on the Standing Rock reservation in the Dakotas, leading churches that bear no resemblance at all to ours beyond the name “Episcopal” as he preaches hope and good news in the midst of a community rent by poverty, addiction, and suicides—which at the same time is obviously a community he loves deeply and finds incredibly beautiful. I think of Pastor Noah Daudi in Tanzania, a priest to a parish, a husband, father, and grandfather, and the man who runs the Carpenter’s Kids—and the Diocesan retreat house. All with grace and gentleness—I can’t imagine being in charge of three institutions at once, but Noah does it with God’s help.
These are real examples, now, of what’s going on with the Gospel today with people acting on their faith. People who have gotten out of the boat, and are walking towards Jesus, confident that if they start to sink, Jesus will immediately grasp their hand and pull them up again. “Immediately” is a big word in the Gospel—Jesus does a lot of things immediately, one of them today. The second Peter cries out for help, help comes immediately. “Lord, save me!” I’m sure that Altagracia and Rob and Jeanne and Noah have all cried out those words. They’ve all needed to be saved.
We need to be saved too. We cannot save ourselves—no matter how hard we try, no matter how fast we pedal to try to just keep going. It takes Jesus to hold our hand and pull us up. It takes Jesus to get into our boat and still the storm so that we can go where he is leading us. And to let go and let Jesus save us takes a lot of faith. It takes trusting God as much as I trusted that Brazilian who jumped out of a plane with me. We will doubt, we will be afraid, we may look crazy.. but if we act on our faith, we will be saved. Amen.