Sunday August 30th – 10 a.m. Worship
Called to Act by Faith and Love
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The Gospel according to Joniel – Part 2
Seven weeks ago I shared with you my thoughts around my experiences with Joniel, who is my Kindergarten mentee at the Russell School. It was my call to grow into a “Listening Heart”, especially when it comes to carrying out God’s word in this world. And given the events of last week and last night, I believe a “Listening Heart” is required now more than ever. But today, I plan to talk more about acting out our faith in love. Again, just like last time, a lot of my thoughts here are inspired and based on the teaching of my mother, rev. Lenie van Reijendam-Beek. May her wisdom guide us and inspire us.
My last sentence, seven weeks ago, was “We are going to do the right thing for the right reason”. It was a spin on a quote from a fun thriller-series around the character of Ava Lee. She hunts down stolen money around the globe and in the end makes the thieves return it. Since the thieves are not going to do the right thing (return the money) for the right reasons, she has to come up with other reasons to make them give it up. They are really an entertaining read. But I was thinking of that quote and this character again this week. She just steps out and goes on this journey every time, not knowing what dangers she will face, or where it will take her.
Because that is the thing with mission, it is a process, a journey, and not a singular moment. We don’t know when or how we will be called to act, let alone how we will be transformed by this.
Let me share a very personal story here, that some of you may have heard before. It is March 8th, 1991. I am on the bridge across the canal where my college crew-team practices daily. It is still cold, the water has been ice-free for only a week or so. And I am troubled. The winter semester has just finished and I failed miserably at my exams. After more than 3 years in my program, I have barely finished a year’s worth of credits. I am thinking to myself that I can’t make it. And I am faced with how to explain that to my parents, to myself, and why for the 2nd time I might have to drop out of college.
I look out over the canal, to see whether there are still any crews on the water, but that is silly because all the boats are already on the trailer to go to the first regatta of the season. However, I do see something that looks weird. It is at least half a mile downstream and I can’t make out whether it is a swan or a goose or something else that is in trouble in the water. While I am no particular animal lover (in fact, I hate geese) I feel a need to check it out.
So I go on the bike path along the canal and make my way there and I realize as I get closer that it is a person, a woman in the water. I know I am supposed to do something, but I don’t know what. I park my bike and call out asking whether maybe she is fine and is just having a swim. (Remember, this is March, a canal that gets a fair number of freight-ships, and with a chemical plant dumping cooling water in it). But all I get back from her is something that maybe sounds like “Help!”.
Every fiber in my body resents being there. Why me, why here, why now? I know I could go home and nobody would ever know that I had been there, there is nobody else around. But deep down I also know God is here, my mother is here, and she would know. So I start going through every single argument why I should not jump.
You can see why I identify so much with this story of Moses here. There he is, managing the sheep of this father-in-law. And then out of the blue, or really “out of a randomly burning bush” God calls to him with this insane mission to confront the pharaoh and lead God’s people out of Egypt. “W.. w.. why me?” is in essence his stuttered response. If you ever want to read the full hysterical version of that scene, I recommend “God Knows” by Joseph Heller.
You can hear Moses arguing why this is a terrible idea. Nobody will believe him, pharoah will not believe him, let alone let them go, and most definitely, he is not the right person to do this. Basically he is telling God: “I can’t do this”. For a person who claims to be a terrible speaker, he is putting up quite the eloquent argument here.
But God stays with him in this argument. He makes clear that he is the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the god of Jacob. Some translations have it as “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”, but those are simplifications from the original text. The distinction is important because it highlights the unique personal relationship that God has with each person. He or She is not the same for Abraham, or Isaac or Jacob. And so we witness in this text the beginning of the unique and personal relationship that forms between God and Moses. A relationship that continues to develop all through Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, until his death at the end of Deuteronomy. It is probably the longest and deepest personal relationship anybody has ever had with God. And I think that because God makes it so personal with Moses, Moses goes.
As I am standing there I also know that I have to jump. There will be no miracle here of walking on water to pull her out. I strip down to my underwear, jump in and swim towards her. It’s an older woman who is fully dressed in winter clothes. She tells me that she can not make it.
I pull her to the shore and try to lift her out. But the side of the canal is steep and high, and she is too heavy for me with all those water-logged clothes on and she has no strength or will-power left to help. I am only able to drag her half out and I really need help but there is nobody there. So I leave her and run back to the boathouse because it is 1991 and we don’t have cell-phones yet.
Marinus, the boat-repairman, is shocked to see me show up wet, half-naked since he had said goodbye to me only 10 minutes ago. But he immediately calls 911 and I run back. Someone else has seen me running naked across the road, realized something was wrong along the canal, and made his way to the woman as well. Together we get her out alive and shortly after the ambulance arrives to take her to hospital.
I feel weirdly alone as I bike home to take a shower, and then I go back to the boathouse to ask Marinus “Am I a hero?”. And I know the answer for myself is “no”. I am definitely not a hero because a hero would have jumped in right away without any argument at all. But then again, maybe that is not the right question to ask anyway.
In the same way, I don’t think Peter saw himself as a hero when he stepped over the side of the boat. Let’s take a closer look at what is going on in this story. The disciples are in a boat on a big lake, without Jesus who has stayed behind on the shore to pray. A storm comes up that throws them into a full scale panic. Jesus who is deep in prayer feels the need of his disciples and rushes to their aid.
Miracle stories are hard to believe, that is why we call them miracles. People will try to explain them like “the lake was just shallow there”, or “it was just an image, the spirit of Jesus”. But there is another way of looking at this. Jesus was so filled by the sense of urgency and the love for his friends, that he simply forgot that you can not walk on water. It is how someone can run into a burning house and pull people out without scratching themselves. It defies belief.
My mother shared the following story once. There are three pastors standing in front of a lake and they believe that in faith they should be able to walk across. The first one does just that and she gets across safely. The second one is really impressed so he steps on the water but sinks immediately. The third has paid close attention to where the first pastor walked. He follows in her footsteps and gets across as well.
Cheerfully he says to the first pastor “What a good fortune that you knew where all the rocks were laid”. To which the first replies in bewilderment: “What rocks?!” The first pastor understood the miracle of Jesus. Not a magic trick, or a well-reasoned optical illusion. But as a human possibility to cross over the divides of our lives, carried by faith and love.
Peter believes he can cross that divide as well, so he steps out of the boat full of faith and love for Jesus. But after a few steps he looks at the waves and the wind and he realizes the divide he is standing in. How chaotic the world is, and he thinks “I can’t make it”, and he sinks.
In that moment, there is someone with him. Jesus puts his hand into the water and pulls Peter out. But is not necessarily the Jesus who just walks on water.
In a beautiful image, one of my mother’s colleagues, Laura Boersma, paints the picture of Jesus going down, drowning himself. When you think of Good Friday, and Easter, you can see how he went under, but was lifted up again. And it is this Jesus, who has been under water with us, who can help us get through, when we like Peter, like the woman in the canal, like myself, like Moses, sink.
It brings me to our 3rd and final scripture of today, the letter Paul wrote to the Corinthians. Because it is through Love that all these things are made possible. It is the love that Jesus feels so deeply for his friends and especially for Peter that makes him walk over water. It is Peter’s love for Jesus that makes him step out of the boat and make those first steps in faith. And it’s Jesus’ love for Peter that pulls him out of the water when he sinks. It’s God’s love for Moses and his people, that makes them get out of Egypt. It’s Moses’ love for God and for his own people that he doesn’t give up on them and keeps leading them.
A week later, I got a letter from the family of the woman that I had pulled out of the water. They wanted to thank me and tell me that she was doing okay. She had been very confused and had apparently jumped in the water in attempted suicide. And this may sound strange, but that made me ask myself: “Did I do the right thing?”. Looking back, I don’t think that was the right question to ask either.
She had lost faith that she was loved. And so she sank, literally and figuratively. But we are never alone, whether it is Moses ready to lead his people out of Egypt, whether it is Jesus reaching out for Peter, or just a freaked-out college student like myself, or whether you are standing by yourself arguing with God. God is with us, always.
For me, that experience has been a turning point in my life. Not in that moment itself, but in the months and years that followed, I have come to trust in my faith, and eventually I did finish college. I realize now that I had lost faith in myself, and in God. Because the real question I should have asked is “Was I saved myself?”. Which is of course a question Marinus could not have answered for me. But I believe the answer to be “Yes”.
I want to end where I left off last time and wanted to start today. How do we do the right thing for the right reason? I believe the answers lie in each and everyone of us. It is in our personal faith in God and in Jesus. As we say at the beginning of worship “Whether we are sure in our belief, or surely do not know what to believe”. We can argue the time, the place, the ask, but in the end we have to put our faith in God. Every single day there is injustice in this world, every single day there is a person who cries for help, who can’t make it. Every day the divide that separates us from one another grows wider. And it is up to us to open ourselves to be vulnerable, open with a listening heart, ready to be transformed, so that we cross that divide.
Deep down I know that in faith, and in hope and in love, we can do this. We can do the right thing for the right reason.
In Jesus name, Amen.