I preached this sermon on Sunday, August 10th at the Greenpoint Reformed Church in Brooklyn, NY.
The Rev. Sarah Segal McCaslin
I am so pleased to be here with you all this morning, and so grateful to CB Stewart and Jen Aull and Anne Kansfield for inviting me into this pulpit. I am new to Greenpoint Reformed, but not brand new. My first Sunday with you all was on Easter, just four months ago. I was ending a seven year ministry at a Presbyterian church in Manhattan, and my family and I were looking for a new place to worship (I think the technical term is ‘church shopping’). We were missing our old church and feeling uncertain about starting over. On the advice of Facebook friends and colleagues, and because we are Brooklynites, too, we started our search here. And you welcomed us, immediately and unconditionally, and though we’ve been irregular in our attendance, we haven’t been ‘shopping’ anymore.
I can’t resist telling you one story to illustrate. Our youngest, Henry, who you have now met, is unused to being in ‘big church’- having spent all of his infancy and toddlerhood in church childcare. But reluctant to separate from us, we brought him into the sanctuary a couple of months ago, instead of taking him upstairs. I was armed with books, crayons, and, yes, I’m ashamed to say, my iPhone, so afraid I was that he might be a disturbance to others. But Henry didn’t need distraction. He was, from the very beginning of the service, completely transfixed by the band, which I think included piano, upright bass and ukulele that day. And then Jen stood up to make the morning’s announcements, and she mentioned that there would be a party in the garden after worship, WITH CAKE, and Henry, in his excitement, yelled back, “CAKE!” (Never assume that the 2 year-old isn’t paying attention).
Then, after all the music and talk of cake, we stood for the unison prayer of confession. Henry stood on the pew between Donny and me, and while we were reciting the prayer, Henry began to sing the theme song to Thomas the Tank Engine (Henry REALLY loves Thomas). It took me a few minutes before I realized what was happening. Henry wasn’t disrupting worship, he was participating! He does not read, he could care less about Reformed theology, but he saw all the other people speaking together, and he wanted to join in.
At another church, Henry’s solo performance might have drawn disapproving stares or gentle suggestions that we avail ourselves of the professional childcare. But you didn’t flinch. In fact, you smiled, and you spoke to us after worship, and spoke to Henry, too. That’s just one illustration of how you have captured my heart as a community of faith.
As I said before, we have been erratic in our attendance, but even in my absence, I have been thinking about Greenpoint Reformed, and thinking about how well you ‘do’ church. In particular, I think about y’all in the context of the Pew Research studies and Huffington Post Op-Ed pieces about the decline of the church and the increase of the religiously unaffiliated that carry the dismissive, and frankly offensive, moniker, nones- N-O-N-E-S. These are the folks who, for history or experience, cannot, or choose not, to identify with a religious group or institution. Folks who have been recipients of the sideways glare or the unmet expectations. Or who fail to meet the demands of even moderate orthodoxy.
Then there are the refugees from, or strangers to, the institutional church. Those who have been shamed out of the church, or those who have never darkened the door of a worship space. Those whose illiteracy makes the recitation of a written prayer another embarrassing reminder.
For a thousand different reasons, it can require a lot of courage to walk through the doors and sit in the pew. Creating a worship space that is neither isolating nor exclusionary is the work of all the leaders of a congregation, not only the pastors. Creating a welcoming community with a real message of inclusion might mean deviating from other plans for programmatic growth. Most churches, or so the numbers suggest, choose to stay on the well-worn cow path.
And yet… “Around the edges of organized religion…” according to the author and social historian Diana Butler Bass, “[some Christians] are trying to reform, reimagine and reformulate their churches and traditions. They are birthing a heart-centered Christianity that is both spiritual and religious. They meet in homes, at coffeehouses, in bars— even in some congregations.”[i]
Energy, grace, and Holy Spirit vitality are showing up in new and transformed communities (like this one!) where even two year-olds sense the difference and respond. Where all are welcome and fully-formed belief is not a prerequisite for church inclusion (nor even, necessarily, the aim).
The traditional way of doing church followed the helpful alliterative structure—Believe, Behave, Belong.[ii] Belief was assumed as the starting point, followed by participation. Then, if everything was ‘decent and in order’ (as we Presbyterians like to say), membership would be the culminating act of the Christian life. Butler Bass suggests that the real work of churches- well, let me clarify- the real work of churches that want to live and grow and be responsive to the world and offer grace and compassion to the entire human community- is to accommodate an inverted structure.
In this paradigm, people may join first, crossing over this first threshold before faith or belief or action can even be comprehended. Joining is not the culmination of belief, but the first step toward it. Then comes the participation; the trying on of new activities and forming of new relationships, of seeing what it feels like to ‘belong’ to something, seeing ‘if the shoe fits.’ And then, over time, spiritual formation and faith development occur as natural extensions of living in, and being accountable to, a community of faith.
The markers of Christian identity are the results of belonging and participating, not the origins.
It is child’s way into the church, in our reformed tradition. Infants are received into membership at their baptism, when they were babes-in-arms and don’t know God from the stuffed pig in their crib. They are raised in the church, singing cartoon theme songs and playing in the back garden during ‘big church’- understanding, subconsciously, that they are beloved members of the community. And then, the hope is, with nurturing and attention and the piquing of their own, innate curiosity, they may come to a faith that is all their own.
It was also the way of Jesus’ first disciples. It is what the Gospels reveal to us. The first disciples did not know Jesus from the guy next door, but they were baptized, and they started following him around. They did what Jesus told them to do… sometimes. Their faith came later- much later for some. Remember Thomas, the one unfortunately called the ‘doubting disciple’? Remember how most of the disciples fled Jerusalem after Jesus’ crucifixion, hoping to slide back into their old lives? Belief did not come first or easily for any of them.
That’s how Peter ended up knee-deep in the Galilee, right?
He had signed up to follow, had distributed the bread crusts and fish bones to the starving hoards, but when he threw his feet overboard, he was in no way convinced that he wouldn’t end up ‘swimming with the fishes.’ He was testing Jesus, making sure that Jesus was who he said he was. Because who is going to give up their life and comfort for someone who ‘might’ be the son of God? And Jesus called his bluff, so to speak, and Peter, drowning in his own doubt, said the truest and most faithful thing he could- “Lord, save me!”
Anybody else been there? Knee deep in trouble and shouting, “Lord, save me!”
Like this: “Lord, save me!” I just jumped out of the safety of the boat into a raging storm and realized, too late, that I’m not sure I have what it takes to believe what you have promised me.
Or how about this one? “Lord, save me!” I didn’t jump; somebody pushed me, and now I’m knee deep and sinking and I have no idea if or what I believe, but the waves are roiling and I can’t swim- “Lord, save me!”
Or this one, that hits close to home for me- “Lord, save me.” I saw you walking on water, and I just assumed I could do it, too. Watch me perform a miracle. Watch me try to be all things to all people all of the time and think I can get away with it unscathed, unharmed. “Lord, save me.”
And this: “Lord, save me.” What was I thinking? I can’t walk on water on my own, any more than I can fight this addiction on my own or repair this broken relationship on my own or heal my wounded-ness all on my own or make sense of all this violence all on my own. “Lord, save me.”
Peter falters, and so do we. And we say the truest and most honest thing we can, “Lord, save me.”
And Jesus ‘immediately reached out his hand and caught Peter, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ I don’t believe Jesus means it as an insult, although I know some Christian folks who think that rebuke is the way to genuine devotion. If Jesus needed to teach Peter a lesson about faith and doubt, he would have let Peter swim to shore. But that’s not the lesson of the story, I think. I don’t think it has to do with Peter walking or sinking. Who of us, really, would have made it all the way across to Jesus, in the pitch darkness and the high seas? I think the lesson is about identity. About who God is and who we are in relationship with the living Christ.
“As Barbara Brown Taylor said in a sermon, if there is a miracle worth savoring in this story, then it’s maybe not that Jesus could walk on water (after all, if Jesus is God, then his ability to walk on water is no more surprising than your or my ability to walk up a flight of steps). And the miracle is not that Peter managed that same trick for a moment or two. No, the miracle is that when it was all said and done- while a soggy and chagrined Peter sputtered seawater out of his lungs and as the boat continued to bob around in the dead of that rather dark night- somehow in the midst of those humble surroundings way out there in the middle of nowhere, the disciples realized that no one less than God’s own Son was sitting right in front of them. So they worshiped him. They believed.”[iii]
“Lord, save me” isn’t just a plea for help. It’s a creed. It’s a statement of belief. It is the Serenity Prayer of the Gospel. Know what’s ours to change and what’s not. Take heart that we are not in control, God is, and so we need not fear. It is doubtful that any of us will ever walk on water, and we will not be lesser Christians for it. Because we are not judged by our accomplishments. We are received as we are, fearful or courageous, questioning or certain, fluent in faith’s language or tongue-tied.
And if “Lord, save me” is all you know how to say when you cross the threshold of the church, because you are knee deep and sinking and have exhausted all other options, then you are uniquely equipped to be a disciple of Jesus. You stepped out of the boat, after all, in the dark of night, and without a life vest.
Claim your discipleship, follow as best you can (and be prepared to screw it up, just like the disciples), and don’t be surprised if you are led to belief. Begin at your hoped-for destination and work your way back to the starting line. Claim the faith you want or need, try it on, and see if it begins to fit. Then share your experience with others.
Belong. Behave. Believe. It’s not the easy way out; it’s the honest way in. It’s what makes me excited to be a part of the church, as a pastor, and as a worshipper, as one who gets to sit in these pews with you and share the journey.
The crisis of the church is real. Our crisis of faith is real. As Butler Bass has said, “I feel its sad and frustrating urgency. But I also know the hope of possibility, for every crisis bears the promise of something new. Endings are also beginnings. Indeed, without death, resurrection is impossible. Imaginative, passionate, faith-filled people are enacting a new-old faith with Jesus and are working to change wearied churches. It is the season of resurrection, and resurrections always surprise.” [iv]
So I guess there’s nothing left to do now but close our eyes, swing our legs over the edge, and jump in!
Or, if you’re Henry, sing to that faithful tank engine Thomas at the top of your lungs and shout your favorite creed: CAKE!
© Sarah McCaslin 2014
[i] Diana Butler Bass, “A resurrected Christianity?” The Huffington Post, April 7, 2012. Available online at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/diana-butler-bass/a-resurrected-christianit_b_1410143.html.
[ii] Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion (New York: HarperOne 2013).
[iii] Barbara Brown Taylor cited by Scott Hoezee, Calvin Theological Seminary, Center for Excellence in Preaching, August 4, 2014. Available online at http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/viewArticle.php?aID=1079.
[iv] Butler Bass. The Huffington Post.