Weekend blessings to you, friends. I missed my prayer yesterday – it’s been a full week of relational richness, having friends and family visit and sharing in the joy of my husband, Jeff’s, installation at First Presbyterian Church of Wilmette.
I don’t normally do this, but I am going to share the sermon I preached at Jeff’s installation last Sunday. In so many ways, I was preaching to my own heart – I have been craving the reassuring reminder that in following Christ’s call, he will always provide the support needed to continue the journey. Even if we sink. Or rather, when we sink…
The connection between breathing and following God’s call especially resonated with me in recent months as well, and I explore that here.
So keep breathing. Keep walking. We’re in this together.
“Breathing and Walking by Christ’s Power”
Sermon preached by Rev. Arianne Braithwaite Lehn
Sunday, March 19, 2017
First Presbyterian Church, Wilmette
Please join your heart with mine in prayer –
Loving and powerful Christ, please help us hear your voice, see your face, and feel your hand as we follow your call– in these coming moments and in the days before us. Keep our feet walking, our souls breathing, in faithful, courageous movement. In and by your strength, Amen.
When we think of “call” stories from Scripture, many of us might reflect on people altering their entire life trajectory – Sarah and Abraham following God’s call to a new land they’d never seen; Moses reluctantly agreeing to lead the Israelites; Esther bravely entering the king’s courts to save the Jewish people; Jeremiah, Isaiah, and others devoting themselves to being prophets; the disciples who dropped nets and the need for certainty in order to walk after Jesus.
This story of Peter walking on waves, though, is a tremendously powerful call story, reminding us how “call” is much more expansive, comprised of every day choices where risk and trust rule.
“Call” involves daily decisions about what we’ll leave behind and how we’ll use what we have. It challenges us to lean into things we’ve been promised, opportunities to express faith, and the struggle to put trust in God above fear over our own limitations.
Of course, some forms of call feel more dramatic than others. There’s the call to this job, this move, this college or residency program, this person to whom you’ll commit and say, I do…
But sometimes, they’re seemingly small, yet deeply impactful, choices in your normal routine – the many little sacrifices to help your aging parent in need of rides for appointments and help cleaning the bathroom and your careful eye scanning over the pill counter. The random text you’re compelled to send your friend who unbeknownst to you feels buried alive in stress. The five minutes you spend each morning to meditate and settle your soul as the sun rises, the day’s light spreading across your lap.
Dramatic or inconspicuous, they’re all God’s call…all God’s leading toward growth and less petty, stingy living.
God’s call always points to the “bigger life,” but not necessarily what culture deems “big.” It’s been all too easy in my own life to confuse safety and stability with abundant life. At times, it’s taken storms where I’m rowing in rote exhaustion to realize the call of hope beckoning from outside the boat.
And this is exactly the place Jesus meets Peter and his friends early one morning – they are completely worn out having fought the storm’s waves and wind all night. They’re too far into the mess to turn around, but cannot yet see the land ahead of them. And to this completely vulnerable group comes what appears to be a ghost calling out the words to, “Be encouraged. It’s me. Don’t be afraid.”
Nice words to hear, but the promise doesn’t override their terror. Peter especially had to know it was Jesus calling from the water. How could he possibly confirm this for sure?
When First Presbyterian of Wilmette called Jeff last fall, sharing they wanted him as their next head of staff, our family, too, felt afraid. The waters outside the boat looked so unknown. Our hands were bone-tired holding those oars, but there was that powerful yet familiar resistance – the clinging to what we’ve worked for already, the meaningful relationships established, and what was known. How could we know for sure this was Jesus calling from the water?
Peter understood the voice of Jesus well enough to know it often sounded like risk – like a call out of shallow water splashing into depths requiring some reliance beyond himself. The only way he’d know for sure it was Jesus was to take a shaky step of faith. To trust and act from a place of courageous, hopeful vulnerability.
So Peter stepped out. Bracing his face against the wind, believing he would receive confirmation on the waves, leaving his known security – even if it was a quivering form of stability at best. The boat and disciples aren’t there to catch him.
I bet you know from your own life experience exactly what Peter is feeling at this moment – this place where all facades get peeled away, layer by layer, and you’re left exposed and vulnerable with ghosty Jesus as your only way out.
This is the transition time when it’s Peter and the waves.
And this is the time he sinks.
Initially, it looks like a failure. Peter takes his eyes off of Jesus, focusing more on the lack of stability beneath him than the One before him.
But what could have been the end of the story turns into its most important moment. We witness Jesus’ compassion and responsiveness as his hand interlocks with Peter’s. We watch how an honest expression of fear leads to greater faith. We see the journey of walking to Jesus cannot be completed on our own – how we need the support of his love and power to keep walking.
It is Peter’s courage – one person’s risk – that leads to worship and confession among the rest of the group. They are changed because Peter said yes to a call, was open about his fear, and received the life-saving grace of Jesus as his way forward.
Jesus’ calling Peter a “man of weak faith” may seem a little harsh, but don’t we know how a frank naming of where we are is what we often need to wake up and grow? And in the end, what matters is that Peter was walking toward Jesus – that he took those steps at all. I, for one, am so grateful for Peter’s sinking because it’s where I nestle myself in the story.
Those sinking moments are integral to our call stories too.
From a pastoral position perspective it might happen right around now. A month into the job when the winds of fear, anxiety, and an enormous learning curve can knock a pastor down. All the new people to meet, the different “system” to understand, the rapport to build, the community to navigate, the surprises to swallow.
Or maybe the sinking comes when you’re a few years into a marriage and you’re living parallel instead of intersecting lives, wondering if making that commitment was all you thought it would be.
Or you went for it – you started college at your dream school and now you feel like a total fraud for being there, worried someone will find out you’re not cut out for this and that you really hate it.
Or you felt convicted to start your own business, and now it’s pulled you away from time with your kids while the deficit budget’s jaws are about to swallow your whole family’s income.
Sinking moments in our call toward Christ happen in those smaller events too –the daily experiences where we grasp for what’s familiar, resist what’s ahead, and let our fear paralyze us.
Our call and walk toward Jesus mirrors our breathing – step after step, inhale then exhale. We can’t stay on the same step, nor can we hold onto that same breath, before it starts to turn on us.
All of us at some point have tried to hold our breath for as long as we could, maybe when we’ve gone swimming, or had a contest with a childhood friend. It’s not too long before we start twisting and turning, our bodies convulsing with a desire to let out that original breath.
Because what we needed then is not what we need now.
The same proves true with our walk and call. The waves cover us if we stay stuck on that single spot. Our feet, like the ebbing, flowing waves, are meant to keep moving.
Just like Peter, we need our sinking moments, and we can’t continue the journey on our own. We need Christ’s hand grabbing ours, our voices mingling with Peter’s as we cry out, “Lord, save me!”
I think this is what it looks like to rely on Christ’s power and love – we keep inhaling – stepping toward what’s before us – and exhaling – letting go of what we used to know. Maybe our very breathing can be our best teacher in how to follow Jesus.
The call of Christ is fresh and changing, asking us to be responsive and open on an everyday basis – to hear what the Spirit is saying now, even if it’s different than what we’d originally thought or planned. Each breath, each step, is the nourishment we need in the moment, and if we can trust that’s enough, we’ll have a whole-hearted journey of deepened faith ahead.
Trusting our inner experience of who we know Christ to be, we live, we walk, in courage, taking those words of Jesus to heart –
Be encouraged. He’s with us. Do not be afraid.