Sunday, August 13, 2023

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
“A Sill, Small Voice” — Rev. Brent Gundlah

Behind my elementary school there was a tiny stream that separated the athletic field from the woods just beyond it. It was only about six feet wide and six inches deep — not significant enough to warrant an actual name like the Great Salt Lake or the Sea of Galilee, and so it didn’t have one. We just called it “The Stream,” and this was fine because every kid in town would have known exactly what you were talking about; the same could be said for the aforementioned Woods.

One afternoon when I was in fourth grade Mr. Elwood announced that our class would be heading outside for a walk in The Woods. At the time, we were studying the ways that living things interact in nature and, since The Woods was what passed for nature in New Jersey, it made sense for us to go there.

The prospect of spending the last hour of school hunting for bugs and snakes and salamanders sounded pretty appealing — at least a first, anyway. But once the wheels in my mind began turning, I remembered that The Stream stood between me and The Woods on the other side.

There wasn’t any kind of bridge spanning this body of water; a series of five rocks sticking up above the surface provided the only way to get across. And, because I was neither the boldest nor the most coordinated kid, the thought of walking across those rocks absolutely terrified me.

Schools back then were a whole lot less concerned about student safety than they are now. I know we weren’t playing tackle football without helmets or anything crazy like that, but this passage over The Stream was still a bit risky; someone was bound to slip and fall in. 

You’d think that someone might have thought to tie a rope between trees on opposite banks for people to grab onto in order to help them get across. Sadly, though, this was not the case; it was just kid versus nature — sneakers versus those perilous rocks and a whole lot of water.

I was one of the last ones to try and go across and, up to that point, no one had fallen in (which was a miracle in and of itself). As I approached the water’s edge and stared down at the five slippery stones below, that stream seemed a lot wider and deeper than it actually was; my knees were shaking and my heart was racing — I felt like Evel Knievel on his motorcycle, staring down into the Snake River Canyon that he was about to jump over and thinking, “Are you sure you want to do this?”

And that’s when things suddenly got religious for me, which was strange because I didn’t even go to church back then. I did, however, have my own copy of The Children’s Bible, which I read all the time — it was, for better or for worse, my self-guided Sunday School. As I stood there on the banks of The Stream that afternoon, my thoughts turned to something I remembered reading there. 

On Page 544 is a passage called “JESUS WALKS ON THE WATER,” which is an abridged paraphrase of today’s text from Matthew’s Gospel. My Children’s Bible notes that the story comes from Matthew 14 and Mark 6, which is mostly true.

Like Matthew, the authors of my Children’s Bible included the parts of the story concerning Peter — Peter doubting that Jesus is who he says he is, Peter stepping out the water as if to test Jesus, Jesus saving Peter and then rebuking him. An account of Jesus walking on water appears in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and John, but Matthew’s is the only one of the three that actually talks about Peter, something I didn’t realize until I went to seminary.

“In the fourth watch of the night, Jesus went to them walking on the sea,” is how  the Children’s Bible describes Jesus’s miraculous trip across the water to meet his disciples out there in their boat as they are being tossed about by the waves.

This was amazing to read, but even at that young age I understood that ordinary people don’t tend do this kind of thing. I really didn’t believe that I wasn’t going to be able to get across The Stream in the same way that Jesus might have, even though I hoped like heck that I could. I did, however, pray to God to keep my feet upon those rocks and get me to the other side.

I’d been doing well in school and (mostly) behaving myself at home, so I figured that if anyone deserved a favor from God, it was me. If Jesus were real, if Jesus were listening, then helping me cross The Stream was the least he could do. As a fourth grader, I didn’t understand that this isn’t how God works. Then again, a whole lot of other people don’t seem to understand this either. 

Suffice it to say, my experience that afternoon turned out to be a bit like Peter’s. With sweaty palms and a lump in my throat, I stepped out onto the first rock with my right foot, then quickly reached out with my left foot toward the second; so far so good. As my right foot touched the third rock, I began to move my left foot toward the fourth; at this point, I thought I was home free. And then all heck broke loose.

As my left foot landed on rock number four, it just kept going… and going… and going, right off the other side. I flailed about, desperately trying to regain my footing for what seemed like an hour before finally landing on my rear-end in the middle of The Stream amidst a giant splash of water.

My classmates found this amusing, as evidenced by their loud peals of laughter coming from up on the banks; I myself, did not. I sat there silently on that rock barely able to hold back my tears of embarrassment before a classmate of mine eventually extended a helping hand to pull me out.

My Thom McAn sneakers and Toughskins pants were completely waterlogged, which rendered me unable to continue the hike. Mr. Elwood sent me back to the office so that I could call my Mom to bring me dry clothes, while the rest of the class headed off on their way.

Much to my surprise, the kid who dragged me out of the water also offered to accompany me across the field back to the school. He was giving up the opportunity to go on this awesome adventure in order to help out a classmate, which was a pretty solid thing for him to do at the ripe old age of nine.

His name was Mike, but all the kids called him “Meatball” because he was large but mostly because people can be cruel. I never understood why this gentle giant tolerated this treatment from the other kids — he could have beaten the you-know-what out of all of them, but he didn’t ever do it.

I was small and skinny and meek — I had no choice but to take it; but Mike actually had options — and the fact that he elected not to exercise them was always a mystery to me, even though I’d read about the whole “turn the other cheek” thing in my Children’s Bible too.

Neither of us uttered a word on that long walk across the field. I didn’t feel much like talking and I think that Mike realized that. When we got back to the door of the school he finally broke the uncomfortable silence: “Eh, stuff happens,” he said as he shrugged his shoulders and then turned and walked away. Truth be told, “stuff” wasn’t the word he actually used, but this is church so I decided to clean it up a bit. Mike was a good kid, but he had kind of a foul mouth; nobody’s perfect.

And yet, Mike’s words in the middle of that unfortunate experience continue to resonate with me today. On the surface, they might not sound quite as theological or as memorable as some the things that Jesus says, but they’re pretty profound.

I say this because stuff really does happen to us — and not necessarily though any fault of our own. Our boat will be tossed about the ocean from time to time; we’ll end up sitting on our backsides in the middle of a stream completely soaked and absolutely mortified every now and again. That’s just the way it goes.

And challenging God to swoop down and save us from such unfortunate situations as proof of God’s love for us is a really bad strategy. For whatever reason, God doesn’t seem to enjoy being put to the test by us in this way. Just ask Peter how that went if you don’t believe me.

But this doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care. The whole point of this Jesus story is that God chooses to meet us in our fear and pain and suffering and doubt, extending us a hand to pull us out of the depths, providing us comfort in our most trying circumstances and offering us companionship during our inevitable moments of shame.

God might not always save us from the bad stuff, but God will always be there to accompany us through it, even though we may not always understand or appreciate this at the time.

God once showed up in a poor Jewish laborer from Nazareth named Jesus who reached into the Sea of Galilee and pulled Peter into the boat when Peter pushed things with God a little too far.

And maybe, just maybe, God once showed up in a nine year old from New Jersey named Mike who reached into the stream behind our school and pulled me onto dry land, when I did the very same thing.

“You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Don’t you know that God has been doing that kind of stuff for as long as anyone can remember?

O yeah — my Children’s Bible taught me that too.