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Archive for June, 2011

Who’s in the boat with you?

Posted by Ron George on June 20, 2011

Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1695), by Ludolf Backhuysen

The preacher brought scripture home to his new congregation yesterday. His text was Mark’s version of the stilling of the storm (Mark 4.35-41), always grist for a stem-winder, but this young man preached it especially well. Pregnant silences said it all: God was in the boat, just as he said.

The congregation is loaded with debt and division. A previous pastor didn’t please many, so they left, taking their money with them. With attendance and revenues down, he asked to be relieved after just a year. His replacement clearly staked out not only his but his new congregation’s evangelical task: growth in number, to be sure, but also growth in zeal and commitment to the gospel of Christ, not the happy-chops gospel of what has become much of contemporary Christianity but the gospel of rolled-up sleeves, blood, sweat and tears, evangelical caring for the poor and dispossessed, the addicted, the afflicted; and yes, the self-satisfied who believe they have nothing to learn of Christ and the household of God. He didn’t say it in so many words, but complacency is an enemy of the gospel second only to hypocrisy.

This truly enthusiastic sermon – meaning, literally, God was in it – made everyone in the room feel good. It was like a fresh, cool rain in a parched land – but there’s steely resolve within that velvet touch: Folks, either we get together and let the Holy Spirit empower us to become the Body of Christ here and now in this city, or we will die the slow death of the fearful who cling to worldly security as though it held eternal promise. It doesn’t, and mature Christians have heard it all their lives, but this pastor is calling the church – mature and immature alike – out of its conventional notions of what that means. It doesn’t mean growing the congregation in order to pay off the debt; it does mean growing wide, tall and deep in the Spirit so God’s household may flourish on earth as it is in heaven.

It almost made me want to pray again.

Boat in a Storm (1967), by Sadao Watanabe

The preacher pointed to Jesus’ way of ministry – boldly reaching out then retreating to let God restore one’s spiritual resources, and total trust in God to be present not in sympathy from afar but in the very moment of human anxiety and despair. Jesus’ stilling of the storm was not a promise that Jesus people always would be delivered from the storm but that God would always be in the boat with them, no matter what. Being delivered from fear by love is the greatest of all God’s gifts, the preacher seemed to say, because it empowers us to live in hope even when there’s water coming over the gunwales. And what if the boat sinks? Jesus reveals God as Emmanuel, the God who sinks with us – and then raises us up.

The preacher didn’t get bogged down explaining the story. He let the story tell itself and then brought it home with a question: Don’t all of us know what’s it like for water to come over the sides? Haven’t all of us felt gale winds blowing us way off course? Haven’t we wondered whether God was asleep at the wheel? Yes, of course! Haven’t some of us become unemployed and overcome with debt? Haven’t some of us become addicted to alcohol and drugs? And he wasn’t speaking of “some of us” in general but as particular members of this particular congregation. We are those in need of courage, hope and healing. The church is a hospital for sinners, he said, not a club for the pious. And as such, he said, we are called to be of God’s love to those even more in need than ourselves.

He promised that the congregation would live in the scriptures, but my guess is his is not the kind of Bible-thumping fundamentalism that makes peace with right-wing reactionaries that would dismantle the nation’s safety net and health-care system for the poor, elderly and disabled. If Sunday’s sermon is any indication, this pastor embraces scripture as a template for social justice, peace-making and socioeconomic equity. It’s all there, without the phobic ranting of those who stir hatred and division in the name of Jesus.

The congregation liturgically promised its support – its prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness, which is a deeper layer than what one customarily hears in mainline Protestant congregations. Time will tell whether those promises have any weight, but there’s no question in this fallen-away Christian’s mind that the preacher will keep his end of the bargain – a full measure, shaken down and overflowing, of inspired truth-telling, gospel ministry and redemptive pastoral care.

God in Christ Jesus rests on a cushion in this young pastor’s boat. May his new congregation come aboard and not lose heart when the gale blows and the waters rise.

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