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It's Me. Don't Be Afraid

Genesis 27:1-4; Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:23-23

Bigfork Community United Methodist Church

August 9, 2020 – 10th Sunday after Pentecost

We get two of the great stories from the Bible this morning. Jesus walks across the water and Joseph’s brothers sell him to a caravan of Ishmaelites headed to Egypt. The common message we get from these stories is the saving power of faith in perilous times…a fitting message for us these days.

Jesus has just sent the disciples ahead of him in the boat while he dismisses the crowd that has been following them for some time now. Then he goes up to a quiet place to pray.

After being pursued by those who want to see him and hear him and be healed by him…and after doing it all for all of them…he needs some quiet time to be one with God, the Creator.

I can identify with that need, and I am sure you can, too. One might think that during this time of social distancing that things would be quiet and boring and we would need some excitement, even if it is just a walk in a beautiful place or a concert…or a boat ride…or a drive in the car.

But things change so much every week and every hour, it seems, that we need some time to gather ourselves or center ourselves…to sit quietly and process all that has happened in the last week that has never happened before. Don’t just do something…Sit there.

It is time for centering prayer. Now that we have time to ourselves…if we are keeping to ourselves…we have this opportunity to do what Jesus did from time to time…to retire to a quiet place and be at one with our Creator.

I have done this for many years now. A friend heard me say in church one morning that I really wanted to work on my prayer life and they recommended the centering prayer group at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Billings.

We read the gospel lesson for the week, then sat up straight in our chair, feet flat on the floor, and cleared our minds of everything but God…we centered only on our thoughts of God…for 20 minutes.

You don’t try to picture God, but just want to be present with him, to put the world away from us and be close to the source of life. Sounds simple…and it is, but those who have done meditation like this are those who have pointed out to all of us that ‘the mind is a chattering monkey.’

No sooner do you begin your meditation than you think of something you need to do or something you need to get or someone you need to talk to about something.

It is normal to want to grab a pencil and paper and make a note of it, but that is not what we are about here. We gently resist the temptation to be distracted from our thoughts of heaven by the unceasing demands of the world.

If you can get ten seconds into your meditation time without something dragging you away, you are a world champion meditator. So what do you do to stay close to God while the world is bombarding you with crowds that wont go away, and storms tossing the boat, and what might happened the next day?

This is my personal best description of success: You focus on your breathing…it always comes back to the breath that God breathed into us…and you let the many little twitches of distraction pass by in front of you as you open yourself to the presence of God in all of it.

It is like having a waking dream, and as you resist the temptation to stop…as you allow yourself to just be a spectator to your own thoughts…a calmness settles over all the distractions of the world.

I imagine myself putting the distraction on a tray and lifting it up to God, asking God to help me with it or take it from me or open muy understanding to the divine will.

It is amazing how many things are tugging at your shirtsleeve for attention…pulling you this way and that…demanding you do this, not do that. But just to sit with God in the midst of it all…and to see what happens…is a great blessing.

Over time it makes a noticeable difference in how we walk through life…especially when there is so much happening that has never happened before…like when Jesus was preaching and healing around the Sea of Galilee.

Father John Houlihan, the priest at St. Patrick’s and a genuine Irish priest didn’t start this. A lay person in the parish did and Father John stopped in to encourage the faithful and support his active lay person.

Then people started to mention something they had noticed. He had changed. He was different. He had become more serene, less anxious, more accessible to everyone in a joyous way. Maybe…he was becoming a little more like Jesus.

His peace became his ministry and I don’t recall more than an isolated Saturday morning that he was not with us…and there weren’t many Saturdays I missed either.

Just set some time aside in a quiet place…turn off your cell phone… and open yourself to the Spirit.

Even when things get way too frantic and even scary…like the time we are going through now…it will restore your soul…invite the better angels of your nature to come close to you and surround you… protect you…guide you through the storm.

That is what Jacob’s Joseph had to do. We just begin the story today, but stick with it…it is, I think, the second greatest story in the Bible. It is a story that Jesus would have known and I would guess that he had to think about Joseph many times and how he came through it all in an amazing victory…to arrive at a place in his spirit where he could walk across the water…in a storm…to greet his disciples.

Joseph was the favored child of Jacob…just as Jacob had been his mother Rebecca’s favorite. He was the second youngest of 12 children …not the eldest…he was the younger brother…just as Jacob had been Esau’s younger brother.

His older brothers resented it, just as we, perhaps, resent people who haven’t worked as hard as we have or were born with more money or more talent or whatever.

Joseph tattled on his brothers and Jacob had a beautiful coat of many colors made for him, which only made things worse.

In a passage we did not read this morning, he tells his brothers about a dream he has had. “There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.”

This is really too much for the older brothers and they plot to kill him. He is only saved by the intervention of his brother Rueben and he is sold into slavery to a caravan headed to Egypt.

This is the worst thing that ever happened to him…but it will be the best thing that ever happened to him and all of Israel…by the time we are done with Joseph’s story.

It is full of hardship and unfairness …and glory and redemption…both ways. He is redeemed and he redeems the family…in spite of their anger…in spite of his vanity… and because of all of that.

We will get to a scene in his story where he comes to his brothers as Jesus comes to the disciples… walking, figuratively across stormy seas…to assure them and save them and show them that God has a plan for us that is far greater than any plan we may have dreamed up for ourselves.

He gets a chance to practice mindful meditation in all things… and in his dreams and his interpretation of dreams…his ability to see the message of God in the chaos of every day living…he grows into a centering prayer routine.

Have you ever gone to sleep at night when, just as you are about to drop off, the answer to a problem or an insight into something that has been bothering you comes to you?

There is a reason for the tradition of saying our prayers just before we go to bed is so common an exercise: we get a chance to take all of those pesky thoughts that come to us when we are trying to get through the day. We open ourselves to God’s guidance for us.

We might think we are across the sea from Jesus…like the disciples today…when we just lift our worries and our cares…our hopes and our dreams…up in silent prayer…but it is sleep that renews us…lets us let go of worry and seek faith in all our tasks and challenges.

Maybe the Gospel reading today is an archetypal image of that…or maybe that is an archetypal experience of the tale of two stories we walk through today.

We are all alone. The future is uncertain. There is danger all around us. The forces bearing down on us are greater than our strength or wisdom can grasp or deal with.

But as we open our minds and our hearts and the doors of our lives to the presence of God, perhaps we can hear Jesus say, “It’s me. Don’t be afraid.”

Refreshed we begin life anew, with one more assurance from God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit…and we ask: O Lord, what is it that you want to accomplish in the world through us …though me…this day? Amen.