I Am___(& I Get to Fill in the Blank!) Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins Sunshine Cathedral (8/28/11) Ex. 3.1-14; Matt. 16.24-28 I love Will.i.am’s stage name. Of course, he was born with the name William, but has used Will.i.am as one of his stage names for decades now. How clever to convert William to Will.i.am! To [...]
I Am___(& I Get to Fill in the Blank!)
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins
Sunshine Cathedral (8/28/11)
Ex. 3.1-14; Matt. 16.24-28
I love Will.i.am’s stage name. Of course, he was born with the name William, but has used Will.i.am as one of his stage names for decades now. How clever to convert William to Will.i.am! To use I AM as one’s name! To consciously say every time he gives his name, Will.i.am, I am Will, I know who I am. What a great symbol for us all.
And I also love that short video he did for Sesame Street, where he begins with a powerful statement of truth: “If what I am is what’s in me then I’ll be strong that’s who I’ll be and I will always be the best me I can be.” I wish children heard that in churches more and not just on Sesame Street. If we had internalized that message early in life, how much happier we’d be, and what a blessing to our world we would be. Of course, it’s never too late to learn it.
That entire song is just one empowering affirmative declaration after another. Will.i.am sings, “There’s nothing I can’t achieve because in myself I believe.”
And then he has the muppets practice the power of I AM statements. He has them say:
What I am is –
Thoughtful, Brave, Special, Smart, Super, Magical
If we can get children to believe in themselves in that way, we won’t need anti-bullying campaigns, because children who love and believe in themselves won’t need to tear down others in order to feel better about themselves; neither will adults.
And children who love and believe in themselves won’t grow up to terrorize and demonize people who embrace the fluidity of gender, or who celebrate their love for someone of the same gender, or who know that God could never be limited to a single country, religion, or any group.
Now, the Will.i.am song also shows how the power of I AM can be used negatively. While some are pulling what is wonderful into their I-Am-ness, saying, What I AM is special or smart or magical, there is also Oscar with his trash can consciousness boldly declaring that what he is, is “grouchy.” And he gets to be. I AM works as powerfully in one direction as in another…As long as Oscar thinks of himself as a grouch surrounded by garbage, he will continue to have that very experience. But the Count and Bert and Grover and Big Bird and the others are making more empowering choices that lead to hope and joy, as they affirm, “I AM special, I am brave, I am super”
We see a very similar message in the first reading we heard today.
When Moses left Egypt and settled in Midian, he married Zipporah. In today’s story we see Moses, working for his wife’s father, Jethro, leading a flock of sheep. And he takes the flock to Mount Horeb, where he encounters an angel of God who speaks for God from a burning bush that somehow never burns up.
Now, before we go on, we have to acknowledge that even just this much of the story is filled with symbolism. The story, in addition to imagining how Moses might have felt called to the work of pursuing justice for his people, is also an allegory for our own spiritual journeys.
So far we see Moses leading a flock…so we know he has leadership potential because he is already leading…sheep, instead of people, but still, he must have some kind of organizational skill and he is developing it as he leads sheep.
What do sheep represent? Innocence. There is something innocent, sacred, gentle, divine within all people, and Moses is called to see that quality in his people and call it forth and lead them forward into an experience of liberation.
And where has Moses led these sheep? To Mount Horeb. Mountain tops often symbolize the divine presence, and this mountain in particular represents being in the presence of the Holy. Moses calls forth the innate goodness of people and then leads them into a life-giving experience of God. Isn’t that what we all are seeking as we form and build a worshiping community together?
Next we see that on this mountain Moses experiences God in a dramatic way. He encounters an angel, a messenger of God, speaking for God in a burning bush that never burns up.
Let’s stop again. The angel of God is a messenger of God, or in our experience, perhaps thoughts of God that lead us deeper and deeper into an experience of God. Where is the angel, the symbol of God’s presence? In a burning thorn bush. Moses has fled for his life from Egypt, and gone from being nobility in the empire to working for his father-in-law tending sheep in the outback. He’s had some hard times, some fear, some pain, some disappointments. Where is God when everything is a mess? Where is God when it hurts? God is present! Pain doesn’t chase God away; even in the difficult moment God is there. What could be more uncomfortable than a burning thorn bush in the desert, but that is exactly where Moses finds the angel of God’s presence…in the uncomfortable place. Where is God in our moment of distress? Right there with us.
The bush burns but doesn’t burn up. It experiences heat, but it isn’t destroyed by it. When we feel like we’ve been through the fire, yes it was hot, but we’re still here. The fire burned, but it didn’t destroy. So rather than obsessing on the pain, we can choose to celebrate our survival! God was with us, not causing the trouble but neither abandoning us in it, and on the other side, we survived. Maybe we learned a few things about ourselves along the way. And we have more to accomplish still in our lives!
The voice calls to Moses from the bush, “Moses!” and Moses answers, “Here I am.” I am right here, fully present in this moment…fully present with my innocence (the sheep) and with God (the mountain), present even in my distress (the burning bush). In the moment of mindfulness, we are present, we are here now, we are open to miracles.
Now, the voice from the burning bush tells Moses, “Come no nearer. Take off your sandals; you are on holy ground.” ”Come no nearer.” Why shouldn’t we come nearer to God? Because there is no nearer to be! Right where we are, God is! We don’t need to approach a flaming angel, we’re already on the mountain. Right where we are is holy ground! Begin your worship right where you are, as you are, because that is exactly where God is…you are on holy ground!
Now, we know that God doesn’t cause suffering. And we’ve considered that God is present with us through suffering. But does God do anything to relieve suffering? The story suggests that God does.
The voice from the bush says, “I’ve seen the misery of my people.” God knows. We are in God’s presence, and God is in ours. We are part of God; God is part of us. We are never separated from God. God knows the suffering of God’s people, and God suffers with them, with us. God is infinite compassion. Compassion means “to suffer with.” God is with us in our sufferings, aware, holding us, crying with us, and prompting us to help ourselves and one another.
How does God propose to rescue the suffering people? By calling Moses to lead them! What God does for us, God does through us. We are God’s hands. God is expressed through us, through what we are.
Here I am, God. And that means that I am available for God, through me, to make a difference. My words, my expressions of hope, my goodwill, my generosity, my faithfulness, my courage, my cooperation, those are the ways that divine Love is expressed and through that expression, healing can take place. Here I Am.
Now, not only does Moses say, “Here I am,” but look at the next part of our story. Moses asks, “What shall I say the name of our God is?” And the answer is, “I AM who is…” I AM is one of the names of God! Never say I Am something negative – that is taking God’s name in vain. Always follow the power of the divine name I AM with something positive and wonderful.
God is the Ground of Being, the Substance of all that is, Pure Being made manifest in/through/as creation, the creation that includes us and that is very good. The I AM, through Moses (“Here I am”), speaks out against injustice and for liberation. God is our life, and we are how God is expressed in this life. We need God and God needs us. It’s a partnership, a truly holy UNION. The Great I AM is forever part of all that we are. Here I am, with God, in God, and God in me. “If what I am is what’s in me then I’ll stay strong that’s who I’ll be and I will always be the best me I can be.”
In the gospel reading, Matthew has Jesus suggest that there would be people in that first century audience who would still be alive for the return of Christ; but then later in the gospel, Matthew will have Jesus say that he never left us and never would (“Lo, I am with you always!”). When we allow ourselves to be individually the expression of God, and collectively the body of Christ on earth, then that is how Christ never leaves and also returns. In reality, the Christ spirit never leaves, and in our experience, it is here in a new way for us as we allow ourselves to be fully present in new ways. Here I am.
The I AM is experienced on the mountain, and continues to be experienced in community, the church. We are the on-going story of the Great I AM. And so we get to say I AM…and then we get to fill in the blank. This is the good news! Amen. © Durrell Watkins 2011
In the name of the Great I AM…
I declare that I am hopeful.
I am courageous.
I am magical.
I am loving and loved.
I am receptive to miracles.
And so it is.
Who Are You? Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins, Sunshine Cathedral Romans 12.1-2; Matthew 16.13-20 (Aug. 21, 2011) That’s a list of incredible souls, isn’t it? Dr. King, President Kennedy, President Mandela, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Einstein, the student protester in Tiananmen Square, singers, athletes, inventors, peace and justice workers…tough acts to follow, or are they? Our scripture [...]
Who Are You?
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins, Sunshine Cathedral
Romans 12.1-2; Matthew 16.13-20 (Aug. 21, 2011)
That’s a list of incredible souls, isn’t it?
Dr. King, President Kennedy, President Mandela, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Einstein, the student protester in Tiananmen Square, singers, athletes, inventors, peace and justice workers…tough acts to follow, or are they?
Our scripture readings today suggest that these heroes and achievers are expressing what is true of all of us; they are just the ones to show us that it’s possible. They aren’t exceptions to what we are; they are examples of what we really are.
Eric Butterworth taught, “We are human in expression, but divine in creation and limitless in potentiality.” That’s what the Apostle Paul is telling us today. That is what the writer of Matthew’s gospel is telling us today. There is a Power within us, not just some of us but within all of us which is limitless and it seeks to be expressed through us and we honor this divine Presence when we allow it to express through us. We won’t all be president or famous inventors or Olympic athletes, but we can each be happy and loving and generous and hopeful, and as we allow ourselves to express those divine qualities we will be contributing to our healing and the healing of the world.
How, though, do we make contact with these divine qualities within us and then allow them to flow through us into expression?
In our first reading, that ancient sage who learned to be the embodiment of compassion, the Buddha said, “We are formed and molded by our thoughts.” That’s the secret, isn’t it? We express the best by learning to believe the best about ourselves. We express the best by learning to look for the best. We express the best by developing the habit of speaking forth what is good and helpful and hopeful and encouraging.
The Apostle Paul wrote, “Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable…and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” Philippians 4.8 (NLT).
Has self-pity, or fear, or gossip, or complaining, or predicting doom, or expecting failure, or looking at every opportunity as a burden, or tearing down others rather than simply being your best ever brought you peace or hope or happiness? Probably not. Which is why St. Paul says try something different: Fix your thoughts on what is good!
Think of circumstances and situations and emotions as little fires. And think of our focused attention as lighter fluid.
There is a fire of dread. There is a fire of failure. There is a fire of self-loathing. There is a fire of fault-finding (there’s lots of those little fires, aren’t there?). There is a fire of perpetual anxiety (I’ve warmed my hands at that fire many times).
And there is a fire of hope. There is a fire of encouragement. There is a fire of goodwill. There is a fire of opportunity. There is a fire of healing. On which fires are we going to pour that lighter fluid? Fire is fire and fuel is fuel…whichever fire we pour the fuel on will get bigger and brighter and hotter. How many times have we developed the habit of pouring our fuel on the wrong fire?
Instead of building the fire of warmth in the fireplace, the fire that cooks delicious food in the stove, the fire that provides light and heat to toast marshmallows and hot dogs on a camping trip, we sometimes, out of sheer habit, build the fires that destroy forests and homes. Which fires are we building? Which fires are we feeding with the fuel of our focus?
Winston Churchill said, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Which kind of person are we? And which kind will we choose to be from now on? If our first response to opportunity is to talk about how it is likely to fail, or how inconvenient it is that we can’t control every aspect of it, then we may sabotage or miss out entirely on that opportunity. But if we can train our minds to see what is good, to focus on the good, to praise the good, to invite the good, to accept the good, then guess what? Good is much more likely to be what we experience!
The Apostle told the Romans to present their bodies, their physical, lived experience, as a living sacrifice. In ancient times, sacrifices often meant death. You killed a bull or a goat or a ram to sacrifice to the deities. Sacrifice was deadly, bloody, messy, scary. Paul says to make life, not death, but life our sacrifice, our gift to the divine. Death, pain, destruction, negativity…these aren’t worthy sacrifices for the spirit of Life; Life is best praised by living well! You’ve heard that quote that has been attributed to every positive thinker who has ever written anything at all, but it’s true: “What you are is God’s gift to you; what you do with yourself is your gift to God.”
Make your lives the gift you give to Spirit. This more positive way of looking at things may take a change, but it is a transformative, healing, life-giving change. And so Paul says, “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”
Of course, Paul is building on the witness of the prophets. Hosea said that God wants us to show mercy, not to destroy life: “I desire mercy and not sacrifice…” Hosea 6.6
The prophet Micah said that instead of negative, destructive, fearful things, God desired more uplifting offerings. He said, “This is what is required of you, only to do justice and love mercy and live humbly with your God.” Micah 6.8
And one of the contributors to the book of Isaiah said that God doesn’t want pain and suffering and despair and fear and heartache from us. Those deadly attitudes are represented by the killing of animals, but in the very first chapter of Isaiah we read the prophet imagining God to say, “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?…I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls or of lambs, or of goats…[Instead of killing, just] cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” Isaiah 1, NIV. Sounds an awful lot like make your lives a living sacrifice.
We may not have slaughtered a lot of animals in our time, but we have killed hope, and we have killed joy, and we have killed the expectation of miracles. Stop the killing the prophets say, and Paul joins them by saying, “Live your lives in such a joyous, generous, optimistic way that your life is an offering of worship to God.” It’s a new way of thinking for some of us, which is why he tells us we’ll need to be transformed by learning to think in more optimistic, joyful, life-giving ways.
Dr. H. Emilie Cady taught, “Deny apparent evil; affirm good. Deny weakness; affirm strength. Deny any condition that is undesirable and affirm the good you desire. That is what Jesus intended when he said, ‘The things you desire, when you pray, believe that you receive them and you shall have them.’”
Now, I know that we each bear our own unique pain. Some of us were abused as children. Some of us have been in dysfunctional relationships. Some of us have landed on hard times. Some of us have been betrayed or abandoned by friends. Some of us have been given frightening diagnoses. Some of us have experienced profound grief. But renewed minds can help us recover from the pain; we can learn to give life a new chance to unfold in more joyous ways for us. We must stop sabotaging our opportunities because the past was painful. We have to learn to heal from the past so we can see and seize the opportunities that are before us today.
Have you had difficulty, disappointments, challenges? Good. Then you are the perfect candidate for a renewed mind, in fact, who needs it more? That patron of camp St. Oscar Wilde said, “the basis for optimism is sheer terror.” And it’s true. Because we have known pain, we need and deserve healing, and to experience the healing we deserve and desire we must turn from the pain of the past and toward the hope that Life is always trying to offer.
Dr. King said, “We must accept finite disappointment but we must never lose infinite hope.”
John Updike reminded us, “Dreams come true; without that possibility, Nature would not incite us to have them.”
And Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh counsels, “People deal too much with the negative, with what is wrong…Why not try to see positive things, to just touch those things and make them bloom?”
Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter said, “You are anointed.” That’s what Christ or Messiah means. You are anointed. But the question has two applications. Who do you say that I am, the person Jesus standing before you Peter? And, when you use the words “I AM”, who then do you say, “I AM”? Like the heroes we began with a few moments ago, Jesus is the example, not the exception. He is anointed, chosen, God-filled, and so are we. He demonstrates what is waiting within each of us to be demonstrated. And that understanding is the rock solid foundation against which negativity can have no power.
Jesus also says, “What you bind will be bound and what you loose will be loosed.” The baggage we hold onto, we get to keep; and what we let go of is released into the nothingness from which it came, freeing us to embrace new possibilities. Are you tired of being bound by past mistakes, by past failures, by past disappointments? Release them. Loose them. Let them go, and be transformed by the renewal of your mind. Know that the I AM of your being is blessed, chosen, loved, anointed, and forever one with God. That’s who you really are, and this is the good news! Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2011
I Am willing to be healed.
I Am ready to be happy.
I Am generous, kind, and hopeful.
I Am anointed.
I Am blessed.
And so it is!
“A positive attitude may not solve all your problems, but it will annoy enough people to make it worth the effort.” Herm Albright
Peace Beyond Pain, Hope Beyond Horror Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins, Sunshine Cathedral Aug. 14th, 2011 Genesis 43.1-11, 13, 15; Matthew 15.22-28 Beyond our progressive, positive, and practical spiritual community I have friends who don’t understand our relentlessly optimistic approach to life. I think they hear and read our positive affirmations and then remember that old [...]
Peace Beyond Pain, Hope Beyond Horror
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins, Sunshine Cathedral
Aug. 14th, 2011
Genesis 43.1-11, 13, 15; Matthew 15.22-28
Beyond our progressive, positive, and practical spiritual community I have friends who don’t understand our relentlessly optimistic approach to life. I think they hear and read our positive affirmations and then remember that old Saturday Night Live character, Stuart Smalley, who was a little nerdy, a little awkward, and a little smug with his lispy affirmations for self-esteem.
Of course, Al Franken was making a caricature of a self-help spiritual seeker and he based the character on people he knew who were involved in Twelve Step programs.
But the truth is, many people in Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous and Adult Children of Alcoholics , Codependents Anonymous, Al-Anon and other Twelve Step programs have greatly benefited from the optimism, the support, the accountability, and the positive self-talk that they discovered in the program.
Other helping disciplines have adopted these same practices, Neuro-Linguistic Programming and positive psychology for example.
As a child I heard over and over the story of the Little Engine Who Could. When faced with a daunting task, the little engine encouraged himself with self-talk…I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…and he learned that he could and he did.
The movie “The Help” (based on the book by the same name) has domestic workers in segregated Mississippi tell their stories of what it is like to live under such oppressive conditions. The main character is a housekeeper and nanny who repeatedly tells the little girl she cares for positive things. She tells her throughout the film, “You is kind. You is smart. And you is important.” And she has the child repeat those words after her each time.
The practice of using self-talk to develop positive attitudes has long been embraced and promoted among athletes and sales people. After all, St. Paul said, “faith comes by hearing” and the one sure way to make certain we hear positive messages is to say them to ourselves.
We see this practice in the bible.
“God is my shepherd, my provider; I want for nothing. God makes me to lie down in beautiful green pastures and God leads me beside the calm waters of tranquility. God restores my peace of mind and leads me in the paths of right thinking and right action…Even if mortal danger approaches, I will fear no evil for God is with me. God’s tools are present to comfort me. God has abundance for me that my so-called enemies cannot take away. I am anointed and satisfied. Surely, goodness and mercy will be with me throughout my life and I will dwell in God’s presence forever.” The 23rd Psalm may be the most famous positive affirmation in the world!
This kind of positive self-talk isn’t limited to the Psalter. The anonymous writer whom we have named John affirmed, “Greater is the power within me than the power people believe is in the world.” 1 John 4.4
The Apostle Paul was a believer in affirmations.
“I can do all things through the Christ which strengthens me” (Philippians 4.13). He also said, “We are more than conquerors” (Romans 8.37). Paul went on to affirm, “I am convinced that NOTHING can separate us from the love of God.”
In the first half of the 20th century there was a Divine Science minister named Emmet Fox who was a popular speaker in New York City, drawing enormous crowds every week. He also wrote books and his teachings were popular in the early days of the AA movement. Emmet Fox also influenced a Methodist minister who transferred his credentials to the Reformed Church in America so that he could answer a call to pastor the Marble Collegiate Church in New York…that famous Protestant minister who was influenced by Emmet Fox was of course Norman Vincent Peale who introduced The Power of Positive Thinking into the mainstream of Christianity and into the vocabulary of people all along the spiritual spectrum.
Dr. Peale said, “Plant seeds of expectation in your mind; cultivate thoughts that anticipate achievement. Believe in yourself as being capable of overcoming all obstacles and weaknesses.”
That’s good advice, but how do we do it? We encourage ourselves, we affirm what is true of us even when circumstances don’t seem to verify that truth. We affirm what is spiritually true of us as children of God. “I am kind. I am smart. I am important.” We affirm that good things are possible for us and that we even deserve them. We even affirm that God wants us to be blessed! New Thought teacher Emma Curtis Hopkins had two powerful prayer statements that I use in my own prayer life. She said, “There is good for me and I ought to have it!” And she would also say, “There is no mixture of evil with my good.” Plant positive seeds in your mind; cultivate those positive thoughts. That’s Peale’s advice, and it’s modeled for us in scripture.
Dr. Peale also said, “You become a worrier by practicing worry. You become free of worry by practicing the opposite…” Positive affirmations, optimistic self-talk is the practice of moving beyond fear and worry, it is the bold attempt to develop the habit of going to peace instead of to pieces, of summoning hope rather than fear, of imagining what good is possible rather than what disaster is probable.
No, our affirmations aren’t a silly game, nor are they a diversion from the harsh realities of the world. They are the way we instill hope in our hearts and that we remain focused on the possibilities of life. And that method of positive prayer often yields remarkable results.
That same kind of progressive, positive, and practical spirituality is present in both of our scripture lessons today.
In the book of Genesis, Joseph was his father’s favorite child. Joseph was not only daddy’s little baby, but he was given a special gift…a coat of many colors. And his brothers were annoyed by this. Now, traditionally we have been taught that what frosted their cupcakes about that coat is that only Joseph got one and they felt left out. But bible scholar Mona West tells us that such vibrant, multi-colored cloaks were often worn by young women. If this is true, then Joseph’s brothers aren’t mad that he got a gift and they didn’t; they’re mad that he’s cross-dressing in public! And their father encourages it, he even gave him the darn dress, er, coat of many colors. There’s quite a bit of drag in the bible, but that’s another sermon.
In an unimaginably reprehensible act, Joseph’s brothers abduct him, sell him into slavery, and tell their parents that Joseph was killed. Joseph grows up a slave in a foreign nation, and later he winds up in prison on a false charge. But somehow through all of this, Joseph finds reasons to celebrate life. He shares the gifts he has with others. He’s very good at analyzing dreams, and so he does so freely for whoever asks. His optimistic and generous attitude serves him well and he eventually not only is freed from prison but is elevated to a high government position. He has gone from slave to prisoner to national leader! Even when things look bleak, he is able to see God at work in his life and he trusts that good can come from apparent chaos. When his family comes to his adopted country looking for aid, Joseph is in a position to help them and again, he gladly gives what he can even to people who hurt him. He told his brothers, “What you meant for evil, God used for good.” That is the positive faith that we are trying to develop with positive affirmations.
We see positive spirituality at work in the Gospel story as well. Jesus at first doesn’t want to be bothered by this Canaanite woman who is asking him for help. And, a literalist reading of scripture would not condemn him. Deuteronomy 20.17 says, “You must completely destroy the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, & Jubusites…” If we are meant to take the bible literally, Jesus should have stabbed this woman on the spot! But instead, he simply ignores and insults her; but she won’t take that. Thank God we take the bible seriously rather than literally, and Matthew would say, “well done!”
The Canaanite woman affirms her sacred value, her human dignity. No matter what any scripture says, no matter what any religious person says, in spite of cultural prejudices, she insists that she and her daughter deserve to have the healing opportunities in their lives. She says, “Could you be bothered to show us the kindness or compassion that you would show to a little dog?” And because she affirmed her own sacred value, not only did she get the miracle she was seeking, but she helped Jesus grow and heal too.
Homiletics professor Barbara Lunblad says of this passage, “Jesus was converted that day to a larger vision of the Commonwealth of God.” Isn’t that what we all want?
By affirming God’s presence, by affirming God’s love, by affirming our sacred value, by affirming that possibilities exist beyond what we’ve experienced so far, we can develop the attitude that lets us see miracles riding on the waves of disappointment, healing following heartache, and blessings rising from the ashes of despair. One bad moment may lead to a new possibility and the painful moment then becomes part of a larger narrative that tells of our ultimate healing, success, and joy. But to get there, we have to practice relentless optimism, and we do that with our positive affirmations.
I can’t promise that every problem will be easily solved and I can’t promise that every heartache will be instantly healed, but I can promise that the possibility of peace beyond pain and hope beyond horror is very real, especially as we train ourselves to be more and more optimistic. And we build optimism just the way we established all of our attitudes, by consistent practice. What we think habitually we’ll experience eventually. And we can choose to think optimistically by developing the habit of affirming divine possibilities. And this is the good news! Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2011
I am kind. I am smart. I am important.
I am a magnet for miracles.
There is good for me and I ought to have it!
And there is no evil mixed with my good.
Thank you God!
And so it is.
“Affirm your divine selfhood; look the world in the face and fear nothing.” Emmet Fox
Do Something: Sink, Swim, or Walk on Water!
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins
Sunshine Cathedral, Aug. 7, 2011
Jesus is walking on the water; he calls out to Peter to come join him. Peter takes a few steps but then begins to sink. Jesus pulls him up and takes him back to the boat. Matthew nudges Phillip and says, “Can you believe what we just saw?” Phillip says, “I know, right? Who knew Jesus couldn’t swim?!”
That sounds silly, but really, religious people can be that ridiculous. We are here to fill up on hope, to have an experience of unfettered joy, to find empowerment for our daily lives, and to share ourselves with the world so that it will be a better place. We are feeding the hungry and working for justice and helping people learn to love themselves and offering people hope in the most difficult moments of life; but sometimes, we find ourselves tempted to focus on all that’s wrong, or on all that isn’t to our personal liking rather than to rejoice in all that ways that we are sharing the light with the world.
If we have developed the habit of looking for the worst, then we may miss the miracles that we actually want and really need.
But our readings today challenge us to take a more positive approach to spirituality and to life, and the challenge seems to come with a promise that if we will look for and celebrate what is possible, we’ll find ourselves actually experiencing miracles along the way.
Notice that Matthew’s story happens during a storm. Storms happen. We try to be optimistic, of course, but optimism doesn’t keep us from knowing that sometimes there are storms in life. Matthew doesn’t tell us that we can make the storms go away; Matthew tells us that how we approach the storms in life can keep us from being dragged under by the raging wind and waves. Storms happen, but we can walk above the turbulence if we develop a positive faith.
Isaiah offers an image of feet on a mountain (and mountains represent the presence of God in scripture). Matthew offers an image of feet on the sea. Both suggest an experience of the Sacred. Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that any mindful moment is a Sacred moment. Whether Isaiah is speaking of walking on a mountain, or Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of walking on green grass, or Matthew imagines walking on water, they are each challenging their readers and hearers to do something, to step out in faith, to risk failure for the sake of growth and healing. Do we hear the spiritual teachers calling us to step out in faith, to do something whereby we will have to trust a power greater than ourselves, greater than our titles and our resumes and our bank accounts and our politics? Can we just say, as Peter did, “Lord save me!” and then allow the help to come?
Let’s look at some details of Matthew’s story. First, notice that when they see Jesus walking on water, did anyone immediately say, “Hey, look! That’s pretty incredible. I bet it’s something really good or at least pretty interesting.” No, before they even know what it is they assume the worst. Without any facts, and without even trying to gather any reliable information, they just decide that what they are seeing is a ghost.
Our fears (phantoms, ghosts, demons) sabotage our success. If we focus on the perceived monsters, they will seem more real to us than the power of hope, or the presence of Spirit, or the reserves of courage deep within us. The disciples are handling the real threat. They are managing to navigate the storm. The real danger isn’t that upsetting. When we face the facts, even if they are difficult facts, we can usually get through them; sometimes we even wind up better for having gone through the experience.
But what caused their panic was a false assumption, a lie, something they made up and then proceeded to treat as if it were true. The fear of a ghost is what almost did them in. Most fear is False Evidence Appearing Real. There’s no ghost in this story; there’s just Jesus doing something out of the ordinary, something that’s not been done before. It isn’t a tragedy; but the disciples’ negative way of responding to what they didn’t understand was pretty tragic. “Hey, this is new, this is different, it must be bad!” Nope, it’s just Jesus. Their fear was just false evidence appearing real.
Secondly, notice how ridiculous it was for Peter to panic. He shows a bit more courage than the others. He says, “If you are really our friend whom we can trust, then call me out there to do what you are doing.” And then he stepped out, trusting that he could do something amazing. But then he remembered he hadn’t done this before. He remembered this isn’t how things usually work, or how things used to be. He got caught up in the drama and the confusion and the fear and the negative perceptions, and all at once all that negativity overwhelmed him and he began to sink. But so what?
Peter, a commercial fisher, one who made his living from the sea, was undoubtedly an expert swimmer. His friends, also swimmers (with ropes and nets no doubt), were nearby, in a boat! How odd that he would panic when sinking! Why not simply swim back to the boat or call to his friends to throw him a line? OK Peter, you tried something new, and it didn’t work out the way you hoped. Why panic and make such a fuss? You tried walking on water… “A” for effort! And even if you fail at that, you still know how to swim, and if the currents are too powerful for you to swim, you still have friends who can throw you a line. Why be such a drama queen? Why start singing the blues at the first sign of difficulty. You still have options! Nothing about this situation has to be terribly upsetting, unless you choose to let your attitude defeat you. And it almost did.
Of course, the story is probably allegorical rather than historical. If the point of the story was that the laws of physics were arbitrarily broken once a long time ago, that wouldn’t be very meaningful to us in our own lives. But as an allegory for how we can respond to the challenges of life, it becomes a great encouragement. In the story, when Peter moved in faith, he had a measure of success. When he became overwhelmed by his fear, he started to sink.
The metaphor seems to suggest that if we focus on possibilities, more is possible. If we focus on limitations, then we will be limited. The storms don’t disappear, but our attitude toward them determines if we rise above them or start to drown in them. Faith is positive focus; fear is negative focus. Fear is just backward faith. What are we focusing on…the gossip, the drama, the lack and limitation, the perceived doom and gloom; or on hope and possibilities and achievement and joy. We are in charge of our focus…when Peter focused on the possibility of walking on water, he walked. When he focused on the probability of sinking, he sank. That doesn’t have to be historically factual for it to be obviously true for us in our own lives today.
The story borrows imagery from the Hebrew bible. Jesus walking on the water brings to mind images of Yahweh walking on the water. The story of Job says that “Yahweh alone…treads on the waves of the sea” (Job 9.8)
Jesus, filled with the light and power of God, can face the chaotic challenges of life (and thereby show us how we can as well). So we find ourselves encouraged, and we dare to hope, and we dare to find joy in spite of the wind and waves, and rather than drowning in our fears, we are lifted up and find ourselves renewed.
Matthew is writing half a century after Jesus’ execution, and a decade and a half after Rome destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple. It’s a chaotic, troubling time. Turbulent waters represent chaos, troubles, possible destruction. The deep sea could be navigated but not controlled or even predicted. In this instance, it represents danger, but it is a danger than can’t have the last word. Resurrection is the affirmation that chaos and destruction cannot have the last word. This is a resurrection image, Jesus rising above the chaos of the troubled sea. The writer of Revelation continues this theme when he imagines a new heaven and a new earth where “…there no longer was any sea” Revelation 21.1.
Before Matthew 14, we read in Matthew 9 “your faith has made you whole” (v. 22) and “according to your faith it is done to you” (v. 29). Matthew continues to repeat the theme that even when things are difficult, we can trust (have faith) in the power of God even when things are clearly beyond our control.
When Jesus says, “It is me” that Greek phrase can also be translated, “I am.” I AM is a way to understand the name “Yahweh” who walked over the sea at the Exodus (according Job 9.8). The power of God in us/with us is greater than the power of chaos. Matthew began his gospel by calling Jesus Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” Jesus represents the presence of God in our lives. He became so totally aware of that omnipresence that he could trust it no matter what was happening around or even to him. His faith in “God with us” is meant to inspire us to have faith in “God with us.” God is with us and in us, and if we really believe that then what is there to fear?
Peter took a step on the water. Probably not in any real, historical sense, but in the imaginative tale, the allegory that is meant to inspire us to have faith in God to help us with our challenges, we see Peter taking a step of faith into the roaring sea of chaos. When his courage left him, he became overwhelmed. And paralyzed with fear, he thought himself helpless.
But really, he was never helpless. He proved he could do the presumably impossible by taking even a step or two on the water. And even if he couldn’t take another step, he could swim; and even if the waters overpowered him, he had friends who could help him. He was never powerless. When he took a step of faith, he experienced amazing power. When he sank back into fear, he began to sink completely. That’s the lesson. Not that storms won’t happen, but that we can face them with faith. And as we pray faith-fully, contribute faith-fully, worship faith-fully, we find hope, peace, and courage. Faithfulness builds faith, and with faith we can attempt great things. We may sink, swim, or walk on water, but the faith is what will make a difference. And sink, swim, or walk on water, we can be sure that God is with us, and this is the good news. Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2011
God is with me.
God is in me.
God is bigger than my perceived trouble.
I can trust God to help me face every challenge.
My faith in God sustains me now.
“The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive.” Thich Nhat Hanh