Rev. Elizabeth Michael
Preached at University Presbyterian Church, Chapel Hill
May 28, 2017
One ordinary Sunday morning during worship in my last congregation, the liturgy was moving smoothly and predictably…we’d sung a hymn, recited the prayer of confession together, passed some peace, made it through the children’s sermon with a minimal amount of orthodoxy still intact…and then it came time for the reading of the scripture. Nine-year-old Beth was scheduled to read that day: she was a small child with a strong voice. The pulpit in that church was large and looming, dwarfing even a fully-grown adult in its heft, and so whenever children led worship, we put a stool in place to elevate them above the line of visibility. But for some reason that day, the stool had gone missing, and so when small Beth walked up to the pulpit, she found herself unable to see over its edge. Immediately, we three pastors who were sitting behind the pulpit, seeing this scene unfolding before the congregation could realize what was going on, started to panic. It wasn’t clear how we could go on with worship as usual.
I confess I feel something of that surprise and disorientation today. Like worship is moving on as usual and suddenly we are caught up short by discovering that a crucial ingredient is missing. A key element of our life together, one who has lifted and supported us faithfully, reliably, week after week, is absent, and we have to figure out how to move forward.
For any of you worshiping with us for the first time this morning, it might help to know that last week this congregation bid goodbye to a beloved pastor of 26 years, sending him into a well-deserved retirement. The love and affection we have for Bob is deep. And so today it is sad and strange not to see him in his office, in this pulpit, in his spot by the back door shaking hands. Glad as we are for the season ahead of Bob and Marla, there is no small amount of grief in this space. At least one of you joked about bringing in a shop vac to wipe up all the tears! Others have commented how hard it will be simply to enter the sanctuary—to worship as usual—when so much is different now. This space is marked by a keen absence today.
But here we are, having sung a hymn, confessed our sins, passed some peace, survived the children’s sermon with a minimal amount of orthodoxy still intact… Here we are, figuring out a way forward.
That Sunday many years ago when Beth approached the too-tall pulpit, I learned that in times of distress, it pays to pay attention to the gifts of all members of the body. That morning, those of us wearing black robes, we who were vested with the formal authority of leadership in the church, proved pretty useless. Left to ourselves, we might have concocted a sort of human pyramid to lift Beth a foot above the floor, making a spectacle of ourselves in the process. But it was Beth who showed us the way. I’ll never forget watching her step into that pulpit, lift one small arm and then the other up up up around the edges of that huge pulpit Bible and then hoist herself into midair, high enough that she could see the whole congregation. Then she proceeded to read fourteen verses of the gospel lesson in her clear, strong voice, never giving away for a moment that her feet were hovering inches above the floor the whole time.
I’m not sure I’ve seen a more compelling image of the life of faith than that one: Nine-year-old Beth, holding fast to the word of God and trusting that something greater than her own power would hold her up.
I want to offer us that image today as one to hold onto as we navigate this transitional season as a congregation. We have been nurtured so well in the holding fast part, shaped by Bob’s weekly charge to hold fast to the One who always holds fast to us. And now we have occasion to lean still deeper into that goodness, to trust in its power to sustain us as we feel the ground shifting beneath our feet.
So beside Beth, let’s place a picture of Peter. Now Peter can be a little too easy to caricature. His habit of launching himself heart-first into complicated situations has earned him a reputation for rashness, made him something of a cautionary tale for those prone to leaping before they look. But it is nothing less than the voice of Jesus that Peter responds to that day on the lake. Christ says, simply, “Come,” and Peter propels himself out of the boat and onto the water. He goes racing toward the Word of God trusting that something greater than his own power will hold him up. And with that one move, he shows us that the life of faith is not only about holding fast; it’s also about letting go.
Peter has had some practice at letting go, of course, starting with those nets he left cast aside on the beach the first time Jesus said, “Come.” The practice of relinquishment has been a good one for him, but the stakes are higher as he now trades the firm bottom of the boat for the churning waters of the sea.
So much of the life of faith is lived here: in the watery expanse between the security of the boat and the Christ beckoning beyond it. Holding fast and letting go.
This week, I spoke with a father whose daughter is graduating from high school and heading hundreds of miles away to college in the fall. “How does it feel?” I asked. “Oh, you know,” he replied. “I couldn’t be prouder of her. It’s exactly what her mother and I raised her to do—spread her wings, follow her dreams. I just didn’t know it’d be so hard to let her go.”
I spoke next with a faithful soul who is thoughtfully, consciously letting go of her car keys. She’s saying goodbye to the convenience of trips to the farmers’ market, the ease of dropping by to see friends. It’s absolutely an act of faith—she told me she knew it was time when she thought back to the words of a sermon she’d heard decades ago. “The harder choice is usually the right one,” the pastor had said. And indeed there’s nothing easy about this choice.
Then I met with a daughter who is planning her father’s memorial service, writing his eulogy, making plans for his ashes. His was a life well-lived and well-loved; there was tenderness in their final days together; she’s been through this before when her mother died. But still there was no preparing for letting go of his hand when the time finally came.
And last night I spoke with a friend who was tending to her own soul as news of yet another hate-fueled act of violence raced across tickers at the bottoms of television screens and banners at the tops of websites. “I do not know how to be a person of faith in this new world,” she said. “But neither do I know how much longer I can continue to enjoy my life of comfort and privilege while the world around us is trembling with fear. I think something big is being asked of me. But I’m afraid of what I’ll have to give up.”
So much of the life of faith is this: learning how to release our grasp on the things of this world that are all too temporary and to lean harder still into the eternal, deep and mysterious though it may be.
And there we find good company in Peter. Peter who steps out of that boat and into the deep. Peter who knows both the power of the One who summons him and the power of the storm around him. Peter who sets toward Jesus with a strong stride but finds his feet faltering as he goes. In Peter we see that discipleship is not one steady trajectory of progress, but a constant wavering: a commitment and then a stumble, a fall and then a catch.
In the end, Jesus does catch Peter. So often when this story is told, much is made of Peter’s bravado, of his walking on water, of his faltering in the end. But the action verbs do not belong to Peter alone. When Peter stumbles, Jesus reaches out to catch him.
So I’ll offer you one final image, then, to hold beside Beth and Peter. This one comes from the great spiritual writer Henri Nouwen, who writes about a troupe of circus trapeze artists he befriended. Having watched their routine once, Nouwen became enamored with them, and asked permission to follow them on tour. He spent weeks watching them rehearse and perform, the seemingly effortless work of flinging their bodies across space and snatching one another to safety.
Nouwen writes, “One day, I was sitting with Rodleigh, the leader of the troupe, in his caravan, talking about flying. He said, ‘As a flyer, I must have complete trust in my catcher. The public might think that I am the great star of the trapeze, but the real star is Joe, my catcher. He has to be there for me with split-second precision and grab me out of the air as I come to him in the long jump.’ ‘How does it work?’ I asked. ‘The secret,’ Rodleigh said, ‘is that the flyer does nothing and the catcher does everything. When I fly to Joe, I have simply to stretch out my arms and hands and wait for him to catch me and pull me safely over the apron behind the catchbar.’
“‘You do nothing!’ I said, surprised. ‘Nothing,’ Rodleigh repeated. ‘The worst thing the flyer can do is to try to catch the catcher. I am not supposed to catch Joe. It’s Joe’s task to catch me. If I grabbed Joe’s wrists, I might break them, or he might break mine, and that would be the end for both of us. A flyer must fly, and a catcher must catch, and the flyer must trust, with outstretched arms, that his catcher will be there for him.’”
The success of this whole gravity-defying, death-defying operation and the safety of the one who releases his body to the sky (or the sea) depends on this one act: trust that the catcher will be there.
Nouwen turns then to the reader, but might as well be speaking to Peter: ‘Do not be afraid. Remember that you are the beloved child of God. He will be there when you make your long jump. Don’t try to grab him; he will grab you. Just stretch out your arms and hands and trust, trust, trust.’ ”
These are days for courageous steps, sisters and brothers. The winds and waves are swirling, but somewhere across that watery expanse, Christ is calling, saying, “Come.” Much is being asked of us—by our Lord, and by a broken world that bears great scars.
But do not be afraid. Remember that you are beloved children of God. Christ will be there when you make your long jumps. Don’t try to grab him; he will grab you. Just stretch out your arms and hands and trust, trust, trust.
 Henri Nouwen, “Our Greatest Gift: A Meditation On Dying and Caring,” Harper, 1994.