Monday, August 23, 2010

shelter from the storm (acts 27)

We pushed out to sea. With those words we are told that Luke and Paul are setting out on a journey. The journey is the larger adventure of the Book of Acts---from Jerusalem, which might be understood as wherever home is---to Judea, the people are like us and live close to us---to Samaria---the people who live adjacent to us and may not be like us at all….to the ends of the earth (Acts 1. 8).

Now some of you have traveled a great deal, I know, you tell me about it when you return, and if you are going to get to the ends of earth you are going to have to cross bodies of water. And so in Luke’s narrative they set sail. To sail is to be carried by the winds, and it helps to know something about their patterns. Paul warns them not to leave at this particular time…it is just after the Day of Atonement, early fall, not the best time to venture out, but they ignore his advice. We can relate. “It is not the best season for sailing, but I can think we can take off now.” “You should take better care of your health…I think I am fine.” “You should seek some counsel, some guidance…I think I can do it on my own”. We have all been there.

And so they put out to sea. They push away from the dock. The conditions are precarious. It is, in personal terms, the journey from who we are to who we might become. It is common to speak of life as a journey. In our congregation this week parents have taken their children to college, another parent watches his child climb into the school bus as a kindergartner for the first time, a couple prepares for missionary service, and a mature adult moves into a retirement community. It is a journey.

In this life’s journey we know that we age, we learn new things, we move around, from place to place. People come into our lives, they change us. Maybe we marry or become parents. People also leave us, and there are voids. Some relationships fill us with joy, others leave us diminished. Some are the cause of praise, others lamentation. We sometimes ask why bad things happen to good people. And we sometimes wonder why good things happen to bad people!

Life is a journey. It’s also common here for Christians to speak of life as a spiritual journey. From the moment we meet the Apostle Paul in the Book of Acts, he has been on a journey. He was there when Stephen was put to death, giving his consent. He was transformed on the road to Damascus, his life turned around. He was visited by Ananias, who was God’s messenger of acceptance and forgiveness. He was there to confront Peter about the way of Jesus being more accessible to those beyond Judaism. Paul was no longer an outsider; he was an insider. And from then on he becomes a passionate missionary to those on the outside, the Gentiles, the pagan, the unclean. This mission would take him to the ends of the earth, and to the world’s largest city: Rome.

They set sail. Twice Luke tells us that the movement was difficult. This is an honest account of the spiritual journey. Many of us think that if we trust God, if we make the decision to follow Jesus, it will be easy, but often it is just the opposite. We do remember the language in the gospels about taking up the cross and carrying it, or dying to self, but we rationalized that we were intelligent enough or shielded enough or sophisticated enough to avoid all of that. We thought we were in control. But when you are sailing you are never in control.

The sailing is difficult and at times slow. Then it gets worse. The winds begin to blow, and the ship is battered by the storm. Five years ago next weekend our nation was battered by storms on the gulf coast. Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans and a number of displaced persons were transported all over the U.S.

I remember meeting some of the Katrina refugees. As the waters rose they had gone from their homes to the Superdome to a bridge to an airplane and had been flown to some unknown destination which turned out to be Charlotte. They ended up at the Coliseum, which has since been demolished. On the day it came down my own sadness was not that I had seen the Hornets play there, which I had; it was the day I spent in the presence of the men and women who had made their way through the storm and had survived.

I remember listening to some of the men and women trying to make sense of what had happened. Some blamed God. Some said God had cleansed the area and needed to. Some were speechless. I remember the nine families whom our church helped during the following months, all of them different. I remember that Charter Hall was filled with furniture and clothing, which many of you donated and assembled. I remember the meal we shared with them, also in Charter Hall, on Thanksgiving Day. The church, instinctively in that moment, became a shelter in the storm. The church has always taken in those battered by the storm; it is a holy place because it is a safe place, a sanctuary. John of the Cross, the 16th century Spanish mystic, expressed it this way:

“I saw a river over which every soul must pass to reach the kingdom of heaven and the name of that river was 'suffering'...And then I saw a boat which carries souls across the river and the name of that boat was 'love.'”

One of the earliest images for the church in the first centuries was a ship, an ark, taking us back to the story of Noah. The church was God’s instrument of salvation, the means by which we pass safely through the storms to the shore, the shore being eternal life and heaven. At its best, the church is a community of salvation, a safe place. The tragic reality is that church is not always a safe place—we think most visibly of children abused in church settings, sometimes by religious leaders. And yet the church at its best provides a shelter from the storm.

Two years ago this fall one of our Sunday School classes had planned a retreat at Myrtle Beach. Pam and I were going to be the leaders. It happened that week that the stock market dropped 777 points in one day. Financial institutions changed forever. Retirement funds and employment plans were threatened. About 80 people had signed up for the retreat, and about 80 showed up. It had been a disorienting week. A friend e-mailed me a picture of graph of the stock market with a line going lower and lower, and the image was one of sinking. As we gathered, it felt very much like a group of people who had passed through the storm.

How did we make it through? It helped to be together, it was God’s grace that we had planned to be together and not alone, and that has always been one of the great gifts of the church: we do not make this journey as solitary individuals, we follow the signs of those who have gone before us, we draw strength from those who travel with us, we set out on the adventure because it is something of a calling.

In a difficult time, we need each other and we need God. I think of the Irish Fisherman’s Prayer:

"Dear Lord, be good to me. The sea is so wide, and my boat is so small."

The sea, the water has always been ambivalent to a great extent. It is a source of life and death. What does not kill us, someone has said, makes us stronger. In the adventure we become more resilient; in the danger, we discover strengths we did not know we had. A part of the learning in Acts 27, as they make their way across the sea, is what is expendable. Luke tells us that they tossed some of the cargo overboard. There is wisdom for us here. In college I led backpacking trips through the Appalachian Trail of southwestern Virginia. When you are hiking long distances you figure out what is essential and what you can leave behind.

It is true in life. What do we need to let go of? An anger, a resentment, a bitterness. The image of throwing all of this into the ocean is allowing it to be cleansed, submerged, swallowed up. In Luke’s telling of the story they are ridding themselves of everything that is unnecessary as they move into God’s mission.

Here the emotions of the passengers shift from discouragement to fear, and at about this moment Paul speaks, and he says to them, “do not be afraid.” God is going to take care of them. God is going to take care of us. We are going to make it. It is an echo of Jesus speaking to the disciples, “do not be afraid”. And then a compelling experience that Luke wants us to remember: they have been battered, they are discouraged and fearful, and they are wondering if they are going to make it through the night.

Just before daybreak Paul realizes that they need to eat. Their resources are depleted, they are hungry, he encourages them: you have to eat, you have to remain strong, God is watching over you. And after he had said these words, note what happens in verse 35: he took the bread, he gave thanks to God, he broke it, and he gave it to them. It is an experience of Holy Communion, a meal that sustains and strengthens and reminds us of the promise of life even in the midst of death. Do not be afraid. God is with us. There is shelter in the storm. In the morning light they see something; it is the shore. They have made it. We are going to make it. I don’t know how you connect to this sermon or this passage of scripture, but the storms are relevant to us in one of three ways:

• We are coming out of a storm.
• We are in one.
• We are going into one.

Some of us are here this morning and we are putting out to sea. There is some apprehension, some uncertainty, some risk, and also some excitement. Some of us are here this morning and we are sailing, but it is not going according to plan. We are out of control, or lost, or wondering if we are going to make it. Some of us are here this morning, and we have no control over the external environment in which we live, but we have heard the calming voice, assuring us that all will be well, and we have tasted, again and again, the daily bread for which we pray every week. We know that God provides. Some of us are here this morning, and we have passed through the storm, grace has brought us safe thus far and grace will lead us home. And it has been grace, the grace of being in the boat, the grace of finding community or church, the grace of friendship or a guide, or, simply, the grace of the Lord Jesus, who calms the storms and is the peace that surpasses understanding, who is the hope of all who seek and the help of all who find. Or simply the grace of surviving.

The Puritan minister Richard Baxter gave voice to this:

"O then what a blessed day will that be when I shall have all mercy, perfection of mercy, and fully enjoy the Lord of mercy: When I shall stand on the shore and look back on the raging seas I have safely passed; when I shall review my pains and sorrows, my fears and tears, and possess the glory which was the end of all.”

Grace has brought us safe thus far, and grace will lead us home.

Do not be afraid. God is with us. There is shelter in the storm.


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