On the Way to Faith (w/audio)

. Posted in Sermons

Mark 4:35-41


Forty years ago in January, I knelt in this recently built sanctuary and was set apart by the ministers and elders of the presbytery for the gospel ministry. One vivid memory I have of that day is of Joe Matlock, the pastor under whom I worked at the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico, during the summer between my Junior and Senior years in college. I was trying to decide at that time whether the ministry was right for me, whether it was my calling. In Albuquerque, of all places, I preached my first sermon. And it was there that I decided to answer the call to the ministry and become a candidate for the ministry when I got home to Tennessee.

As I knelt in this newly built sanctuary on that January Saturday in 1978, I looked up at Joe Matlock, who had at that time moved to Memphis to work with our denomination’s Board of Missions. There were tears in his eyes. Maybe they were tears of joy. I believe they were. But I imagine they were also tears for the journey I had chosen (or that had chosen me), a journey with which he was quite familiar.

On that day forty years ago I stood (or should I say, knelt?) with the disciples of Jesus who were summoned by him to get in the boat after a long day and go with him to the other side of the sea. They did that. They answered his summons. And so did I.

What was the other side of the sea? For Jesus and his disciples, it was Gentile country. It was a place where the unaccustomed was to be met. It was unknown and therefore frightening in the way that unknown places and unknown people can be.

And of course getting there was not easy. There was a storm—a terrible storm that threatened to swamp their little boat and take their lives. Call it unlucky or the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. But it was Jesus who got them in that fix. It was Jesus who said, “Let us go across to the other side,” and they were just doing what they were told.

So I knelt on that Saturday in this place over 40 years ago, having said, “yes,” to Jesus. I got in the boat with him and his people and I headed to the other side of the sea. When the World Council of Churches was formed during the terrible days of World War II, it adopted as its symbol a picture of the church universal as a storm-tossed boat on the sea with a cross for a mast.

I was to learn after kneeling here forty years ago that this is an apt image for the church and those of us who are called to serve it as ministers of the gospel. It is not always easy to go with Jesus and his people to the other side of the sea. There are storms—of all sorts and kinds. Sometimes the storms are just life in this world, from which we are not exempt as people in the boat with Jesus. Like everyone else, we face sickness, death, divorce, betrayal, unfairness of all sorts and kinds. Sometimes the crops we have planted and carefully cultivated don’t get any rain. Sometimes the love that we wanted and needed and gave ourselves trying to create is not reciprocated. Sometimes compulsions get a hold of some people and we look on helplessly as they ruin their lives. Sometimes plans, grand plans, even for the church—prayed about and invested in—don’t pan out. They crash and burn. Sometimes ministries of justice and compassion we consider inspired by Jesus and his way are met with controversy and resistance.

To get in the boat with Jesus and head for the other side of the sea can be tough. It can be stormy. It can be threatening. Maybe that is partly why those tears were in the eyes of Joe Matlock on that Saturday over forty years ago.

How was I to know on that day over forty years ago that I was to come back to this very congregation as its pastor over six years later, in September of 1984? But I did. And I am thankful that I did. To be sure, I prayed about it quite a lot. There were concerns I had about coming to a church where my parents were among the charter members. There were concerns I had about coming to a place that had been my home. There were concerns I had about leaving a place I loved.

But it seemed right for me to come. And so I got in the boat and headed to the other side of the sea. I am glad I did. What a remarkable and loving people with whom I have shared the boat all these years. Of course there have been some storms through the years. There have been deaths, some extremely tragic and some very personal (as with the deaths of my own parents). And, especially in the early years of this church, we had our share of marriage beak-ups. There have been financial difficulties and job loses. There have been grand plans that crashed and burned. And there have been grand plans that we were able to pull off, but not without significant resistance and struggle along the way.

And the tumult without was sometimes matched by the tumult within for me. When the sea roared and the boat began to take on water, I have had a tendency to doubt myself and my own abilities. I have had a tendency to do what those disciples did at first when, on the journey to the other side of the sea, their boat began to take on water and it looked like they were about to be sunk—rush around in an anxious state bailing water, trying to do something about it, tempted to give up hope.

What saved me—and may just have saved this church—is the assurance, that regardless of how stormy the sea, Jesus is in the boat with us. He always has been and he always will be, no matter how rough the storm.

One of my favorite Beatles songs is Let It Be. I learned in an interview that James Corden had with Paul McCartney this past week that the song was prompted by a dream McCartney had. It was back in the 60s. His mother had died. And she came to him in a dream telling him not to worry, telling him to “let it be.”

And so he woke up the next morning and wrote the song:

When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom
“Let it be”
And in my hour of darkness
She is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom
“Let it be”

Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be
Whisper words of wisdom
Let it be

And when the brokenhearted people
Living in the world agree
There will be an answer
Let it be
For though they may be parted
There is still a chance that they will see
There will be an answer
Let it be

Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be
Yeah there will be an answer
Let it be

Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be
Whisper words of wisdom
Let it be

I learned in the ministry, maybe in a way that I might not otherwise, to let it be. To quit my anxious efforts to fix people and trust the one who was in the boat with us to still the storm. I prayed before I every came to this church. But I learned to pray here. I learned to listen for God here. I learned (although not perfectly) to let it be, to trust that Jesus will arise and say to the stormy sea, “Peace! Be still!”

And then, Jesus who teaches his disciples that most storms in life you can just sleep through because God is present in him, and there will come a time when we can just let it be because we are not alone in the boat. And, if we stop our anxious activity long enough to trust the storm will be stilled, there will be smooth sailing again to the destination where we are called to go.

Do you remember John Bunyan’s classic novel Pilgrim’s Progress? It’s an allegory. And in a scene close to the end of the novel the chief character, Christian, the symbol of a person like ourselves who is trying to live a life of faith, has just about completed his journey. But he has a treacherous river with rushing waters that he has to cross first. He is afraid, even terrified, as any of us would be.

But he is not alone. With him is his friend Hopeful. And they both wade into the waters. Christian cries out, “I sink in deep Waters; the Billows go over my head, all His waves go over me.” Just ahead his friend Hopeful calls back, “Be of good cheer, my Brother, I feel the bottom, and it is good…”

I wonder if that was another reason there were tears in Joe Matlock’s eyes forty years ago. I wonder if he was praying that in spite of the storms ahead I would discover that I would feel the bottom, and find that it is good—that the treacherous waters we are invited to cross turn out not to be as treacherous as we supposed because we are not alone. Jesus is with us.

And to remind us of this, there are all these people in the boat with us. Often in the morning I will wrap this shawl around my shoulders when I am saying my prayers. It was made by one of you and given to me following heart surgery a few years ago. It reminds me of your love. It reminds me that no matter what we have been through as a church we have been through it together. You have prayed for me. You have supported me. You have challenged me. You have been the church for me and for my family. And, speaking of family, I am a man who has been loved and supported by his family fully through the years.

As most of you know, my best asset is my wife. Ours has been a love story. And, when I was tempted to give up when crossing treacherous waters over the years, she was the one who strongly reminded me in no uncertain terms to be of good cheer, because she had felt the bottom, and it is good.

When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans back in 2005, someone took a photograph that pictured the devastation of a cemetery in the historic district of the city. Trees were turned over, limbs and other debris was everywhere, and several burial vaults had been broken open and smashed. But in the middle of all the devastation, seemingly untouched by the storm, there stood a statue of the risen Jesus, arms open wide, offering a blessing of calm amidst the chaos.

That has been my faith experience here as your pastor all these years. And that has been the faith experience of many of you. It has been our faith experience not just because of our personal faiths, but because we had each other. In this community we have worshiped, prayed, listened to one another through dark and stormy nights, served with each other, and given ourselves sacrificially to and through the church in countless ways. And, in it all, we have been the reminder to each other of that risen Jesus, arms open wide, offering a blessing of calm amidst the chaos.

This is my prayer for you—that you will continue to do that for each other and for others—including the new pastor who will be coming here in the next several months. Don’t be afraid to go to the other side of the sea. Don’t be afraid of the storm. Don’t be afraid, because Jesus is with you. He is in this boat. He always has been. And he always will be.

—William E. Warren, Cumberland Presbyterian Church of Germantown, June 24, 2018

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