Sermon August 9 – Matt:14:13ff Take Heart Rev. Betsy Hogan
Remember that old saying? “Can’t see the forest for the trees?” I have no idea whether this is a saying still used by people younger than myself, but at any rate -- what it’s referring to is that thing where one gets so focussed on the details, on the individual pieces, events, trees… that one loses sight of the big picture. All those pieces or events together. The forest as a whole.
It’s about the need sometimes to take a step back to restore a full perspective. To remind ourselves of the wider context, and then to relocate the specificity of whatever detail’s absorbing all our attention into that wider context. So we don’t lose sight of the grand scheme of things.
So we don’t forget, perhaps, that there IS a grand scheme of things. And it matters. The big picture matters. If we use up all our attention in focussing on individual trees without also contemplating the fact that they’re a forest all together, we’ve wasted that attention.
And it’s super-easy to do. That’s why there’s an actual saying about it – not seeing the forest for the trees. It’s really easy – we literally do it in self-defense – to find ourselves narrowing our focus, losing perspective, missing the broader import of whatever’s going on and just concentrating on this. Whatever single tree happens to be right in front of us.
It's how we attempt to regain or establish a measure of control. Which is good and necessary and helpful. Particularly at times when the sheer number of individual trees rising up to demand attention, one after another after another, begins to feel like its own version of a forest.
I remember this past spring, when the one single month of days that began with the massacre in Portapique ended with the death of the Snowbird pilot from Nova Scotia, literally saying out loud, "Okay we're done here. Enough." Even not seeing the forest for the trees ceases to feel like viable self-defense when the sheer number of individual trees becomes patently unacceptable. And there doesn’t seem to be a single thing we can do about it other than pray.
Which… if we’re forced to admit that that.... doesn’t feel terribly useful, or helpful, or easing in any way of how fearsome everything seems? Or how totally beyond our control? Or how too overwhelming to even look at straight in the face? Well, we’d not be the first to admit that.
Another old saying: there are no atheists in foxholes. It’s part of the human condition, I think, to exhaust every possibility of what might be useful, what might be helpful, what might ease in any way whatever it is we’re facing, before conceding as an absolutely last resort to simply pray.
We tend to hate admitting powerlessness, admitting there’s nothing we can do – we call it losing hope. We don’t call it finding God.
But if we imagine that’s new, or that we’re particularly “bad” about it in our fancypants, modern, technical, agnostic age, we’re not. Turning to God finally and only when there just doesn’t seem to be any other viable option? Praying we’re not alone only when we feel most so? People have always done that. Always.
And yet, instinctive and part of the human condition notwithstanding, sometimes we forget it’s there. Sometimes when we’re overwhelmed by the fact that there’s nothing we can do about whatever’s going on, we forget to simply pray.
Look at the disciples in that boat on the Sea of Galilee, in the passage from Matthew’s gospel that we heard earlier. Jesus has gone off by himself after feeding the 5000 plus women and children, and he’s left the disciples alone.
For like, a few hours. Maybe. Not even the whole night. They’ve literally spent every moment of every day with him for WEEKS – Jesus in whom they already recognize God’s Godness is wholly present. They’ve been with him for weeks, with him in all his Godness right there beside them.
And he leaves them for like four or five hours at most, and they’re crossing the Sea of Galilee in their boat and a storm blows up – and it’s like they’ve never known him at all. The wind is tearing the sails, the waves are crashing everywhere, they’ve tried to steer, they’ve tried to row themselves to safety, there is literally nothing they can do but huddle together, terrified – but apparently it doesn’t occur to ANY of them, to pray.
Dear God, help us. Dear Jesus, help us – this is not what’s happening in that boat in that moment of utter need and complete powerlessness. It’s so MUCH not what’s happening that when Jesus actually approaches them, they don’t even recognize him. They scream out in terror that it’s a ghost.
Which to be fair, is partly because he’s walking on the water. But still -- if you think about it, in the dark, they wouldn’t necessarily even have known if they were quite close to shore. So theoretically at least he could just have been walking into the water from the shore, from their perspective…
But at any rate the point is, he’s walking right toward them and they don’t even recognize him. Their teacher, their Lord, the one in whom they see the Godness of God. They’ve forgotten in that moment of fear, in that moment of being confronted by no options, that there is always one final option when there’s nothing else to be done. We can pray.
“Take heart,” Jesus says to them. “It’s just me. Remember me?” And then they do. And they turn to him, as in prayer. And after Peter, entirely in character, gives walking on water a brief but plucky attempt, Jesus joins them in the boat, and of course the storm immediately ceases.
Which, frustratingly, it’s true, is how things always happen in the gospels and not so much in real life. Which of course is why -- whenever people think about praying here, in the actual world -- we either imagine it’s meant to be magical, like in the Bible – or, more likely, like when the minister says that there’s sometimes there's really nothing we can do other than to pray, we dismiss it as being trite.
But it’s neither. It certainly isn’t magical – though the storm might instantly cease in the gospel story, the only way to rationally translate that into real life is sort of metaphorically or spiritually, because there’s probably not a single person here who doesn’t know already quite well that praying is not magical.
But it also isn’t trite. And I’m not just saying that in self-defense. It’s not just sort of “useless sentiment”, a spiritual opiate, a sort of pathetic sedating lollipop to soothe our ruffled feelings after every boo-boo.
Because to pray in its most essential form – to simply shape in our minds the words “please help” – is actually powerful. It’s not only powerful because it’s an expression of need, radical enough from the human family, so convinced as we often are of our own amazing capacity to manage “everything”, on our own…
But it’s also a powerful expression of conviction against all the odds that somehow all this matters. That what we get up to here, that how things are and what might happen, that somehow all this matters. Whether we construe to whom it matters in a very precise way and call that God, or whether we’re utterly vague about it – to simply shape in our minds the words “please help” is to declare that this world, this life, are meaningful. It’s living a belief that they matter.
Somehow. Beyond just us. From the perspective of a step back from the trees, that sees the whole forest.
Which maybe, it’s true, in the absence of Jesus then literally turning up having walked across the stormy waters to say “Take heart”, maybe still sounds trite.
But if it does, all I can tell you is this. Try it. When there’s something you can do, do it; but when there’s nothing you can do, try it. Just pray. Please help. Please take care of. Please be with.
Pray through the news, every story, please help. Pray through your email, on your daily walk, every hurting person, please take care of. Pray through every race riot, every car crash, every terrorist attack, please help us. Please be with us. Please take care of us.
Because as CS Lewis said, Prayer doesn’t change God. Prayer changes US. And it does. To just shape those words. To acknowledge need because how life is and how the world is matters. And should be less broken and less painful and less frightening.
It changes us, to choose to articulate that perspective – that we need help, that we can’t get through this alone, but that we dare to believe we’re not alone. However we imagine that.
It changes us, and it helps. To open our spirits on purpose to hear the words “take heart, take heart, take heart, and do not fear”. It does help calm the storm. And it isn’t trite, it’s survival. Survival is never trite.
Some of you may have come across the writing and preaching of Lutheran pastor-theologian Nadia Bolz-Weber. If you haven't, she's worth looking up – and I'm not even going to spell out her name Bolz-Weber because literally all you have to google is Nadia and Lutheran and tattoos, and you're good to go.
But what she says about prayer – it isn't radical. She says "God is not a vending machine, where you put in your coin and if you've behaved properly you get the treat." And that's not a radical statement. I don't think any of us imagine that's what God's like or that's how prayer works.
But what she describes instead is that prayer isn't about us getting what we want, but instead it's about God getting what God wants. What she pictures is like prayer acting as a thread, connecting us with whomever we're praying for, even ourselves. Which is what God wants – these threads over which Godness moves, connecting us to one another, connecting us even to our own inner selves. Threads that connect, but also the threads that God wants so God can be work stitching us back up whole, repairing the torn places, making our fabric stronger.
Which seems to me not a bad way to think about it. When we're not seeing the forest for too many trees and the storm shows no signs of letting up.
Because whatever else we can do, we can also pray. And when there's nothing we can do? We can still pray. Please help. Please take care of. Please be with.
Because there is no storm that can silence the words “take heart”, no matter how many times we need to hear them. There is no storm that will not, eventually, cease. Amen.