You are not alone. Come share the journey.

August 22 – Just Keep Swimming

Matthew 16:13-20

Joint Worship with the Waterloo United Churches

One of the things that I have loved in this time of worshipping together in this way is our virtual coffee times that we share each week. Those at Parkminster know how much I like to get my ministry teammate Joe going during them, but more than that, I have loved laughing and sharing with you all. Whether it’s your favourite song or food, a movie or book that has touched your mind and heart, or a celebration of the many places near and far that feeds your souls, this has been one of the blessings for me and I feel it is one of the many things that has brought us even closer together as a community despite being physically apart. 

Someone asked me this week what is has been like to be a minister through the many ebbs and flows of this pandemic.  I said that, in many ways, it reminded me of that line from the film, “Finding Nemo:” Just keep swimming. No matter what has happened – what is happening – we just keep swimming.

And we have. As individual faith communities and together as the Waterloo United Churches we just keep swimming. We’ve still shared Holy Week and Anniversary services as well as coming together this summer. Even in times when we have been told to please stay home, and many things were shut down, we have worshipped together from homes and cottages and camp sites – looking at each other through cameras and proclaiming the presence of the Living Spirit in all that we do.

When it comes to my pastoral approach to things in these times, while I have been very cautious in terms of safety, by and large, on the outside, I have tried to remain positive and optimistic about the situation.

Behind the scenes, however, I have had moments of breaking down just like everybody else.  I was very much mourning all that we are missing.  Like you, I’ve watched dates on the calendar pass by – dates that were supposed to be filled with celebrations, events and special in-person worship services.  My office at the church is somewhat caught in time between pre-Covid and life now. It hasn’t always been easy. At times, the swimming has felt more like treading water.  And there have been times when I struggle with all of this.

Over the past few weeks though, something shifted for me.  I was out in my vegetable garden, which is a bit of a mess.  It’s been kind of a strange gardening year – at least for me – that I assumed had come to a screeching halt during the major storm a few weeks ago when all my tomato plants collapsed in a giant heap on top of one another.  As I looked around that day, there were plants that had bolted, had been eaten by bugs and were lying flat on the ground.  I thought to myself, well there is always next year.

But then I thought to myself, well maybe this year is not over yet.  Maybe there is still hope.

So, I wandered over to my planters that held all our lettuce and greens; I pulled those plants out, tilled the soil, and planted some beans.

A week later, those planters are full of bean plants – about three inches tall.

I was inspired.  This week, I pulled out some other plants and planted some more beans.

We’ll see what happens.  It might work, it might not.  But the year is not over yet.

And the same is true at the church.

Time is marching forward.  While we still must always consider things like safety and the most recent orders and our public health guidelines, the church is marching forward too.  Much like the renewed sense of hope and excitement I feel for gardening right now, I feel the same way when it comes to the church. 

Because we are moving towards a new time. A time when eventually in-person and online worship integrates, and we reunite. A time still filled with questions, concerns, and caution: but we are allowed to dream about what this new era means for communities of faith.

I believe that this is an exciting time for the church. We are once again on the cusp of something new.  Through it all, the church never stopped swimming; it has never been closed; it is just in a different season.

In the gospel reading that I chose for this week, Jesus invites his disciples to live a question: “Who do you say that I am?” he asks them as they make their way through the villages.  Who am I?  Where do I stand in this life we’re making together?  What do I mean to you?

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus talks about what his church will be built on.  In the passages leading up to the one we just heard, Jesus had set the stage for what it meant for people to follow him.  He taught by telling stories called parables, performed miracles, and blessed the loaves and fishes, feeding the multitude.  At this point, people know that to follow Jesus means to believe in the unseen, to care for the least of these and to challenge yourself as you learn and grow in faith. 

And yet, Jesus’ question is one that is meant to be asked again and again. We’re not meant to “solve” God once and for all.  As odd as this might sound, we’re not meant to land when it comes to theology.  To arrive and hunker down.  We’re meant to journey. To just keep swimming.

As Matthew tells the story, Jesus (being an excellent teacher) prefaces his zinger question with an easier one: “Who do people say that I am?”  In other words, what’s the word on the street?  What have you heard?  What’s social media saying? 

I don’t know about you, but I can just about hear the relief in the disciples’ voices as they scramble to answer Jesus’ question. This is an easy one!  “People say you’re John the Baptist!  No, no, they say you’re Elijah!  Some folks think you’re Jeremiah.  Yes, but others say you’re one of the prophets!”

I’m guessing they go on for a while, each disciple trying to drown the others out with a more succinct, authoritative, and promising answer.  Not coincidentally, the answers the disciples come up with are based entirely on the religious factions they’re partial to.  Interestingly, Jesus neither affirms nor denies any of the disciples’ answers, instead pressing on “But who do you say that I am?”  Looking at each disciple in turn, he awaits a more intimate answer.  Meaning: forget about other people’s theologies and interpretations.  Put aside tradition and creed, valuable as they are, and consider the life we have lived together thus far.  The bread we’ve broken, the miles we’ve walked, the burdens we’ve carried, the tears we’ve shed, the laughter we’ve shared. Who am I to you?  How have you experienced me?

And while we don’t know for certain, this is where I imagine the awkward silence that falls upon them.  I imagine the disciples avoiding eye contact with Jesus.  Shuffling their feet.  Looking at the ground.  Casting anxious glances at each other.  I imagine every single one of them desperately hoping that someone else will answer first.

Cue Simon Peter.  Bold, earnest, impetuous Peter.  When the silence becomes unbearable, he throws himself forward and answers the question as confidently as he can: “You are the Messiah, the firstborn of the living God.”  And Jesus replies to Peter, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church.

Two things are important to know about this exchange.  The first is that Jesus’ phrase, “I tell you” is a common introduction to Jesus’ authoritative teaching; it is found at other points throughout the Gospel.  Jesus’ use of the phrase, “I tell you” in this passage is sort of like a high school teacher saying, “Listen up– this is going to be on the final exam.”

In other words, this is important.

The second thing that is important to note is that Jesus uses the word (or what we translate in English to be), “church.” The Inclusive Bible uses community, but many other translations use church – “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” – but this is only one of two times Jesus uses the word, “church” in all four Gospels.  Church is not something Jesus talks about a lot – and even here church is not something he is talking about in regard to a religion; he is telling Peter that Peter – is part of the foundation of the church.

For Jesus it was never about buildings or institutions, it was about people; it was about commissioning people to go out into the world to share the Good News that love is real, that justice should be fought for, and that hope is worth holding onto.

In a way, Jesus sets Paul up for his conversations about the Body of Christ.  Because the church Jesus calls into being is not one concerned with elaborate governance and power, it is one that gives everyone the opportunity to pitch in and keep things going.  There is no time for a hierarchy; instead, as members of the Body of Christ – the church – we all must get to work.  As members of the Body of Christ – the church – we do not all have the same job, but we do all have a crucial role to play.

The pandemic has thrust us into a new way of being together. It will thrust us into thinking, talking, and dreaming about where we go from here. As Parkminster’s wise Chair of Council has said: we have no blueprint for what is next. But we do have each other. We have the wisdom, support, and collective vision to take us where we need to go next. 

Churches are not about buildings and institutions; they are about people.  We are the church.  We are the Body of Christ. 

And we are still here. And we just keep swimming.

And we still have a lot of work to do.

Friends, I am cautious about the days and weeks and months ahead, yes. But I’m also excited to dream. I have this renewed sense of hope and excitement because I truly believe that God is using us to write this chapter of our narrative where we show the world just what communities of faith are capable of doing.

Our churches were not built on a building; they were not built on historical documents and bylaws and governance structures.  It was not built on anything that is “closed” or in a phased opening because of this pandemic.  Our churches were built on people who came together and said we want to tell this story.

And that is what we are going to do.

So, as we close out the summer and move into the fall, I invite you to remember who you are – a member of the Body of Christ, an individual on which Christ’s church is built on.  You are telling this story with your gifts and exercising your membership in your faith community through the gifts you have been given.

When you send cards and make phone calls.

When you lead a reading, our Statement of Welcome, an announcement or joys and concerns.

When you log on to worship and comment so those of us on the other side of the screen know who we are talking to.

When you share your gifts of music.

When you provide dessert for A Better Tent City.

When you support The Healing of the Seven Generations by contributing to their backpacks and school supplies program.

When you support your faith community and the work of the wider church through your time, talent, and treasure.

When you work and support the ongoing mission and care of Waterloo Wayside.

When we, as the Waterloo United Churches, proclaim an affirming, inclusive, and connected ministry that can shape not only this community but the world.

This is more than enough right now.  The church – built on the Body of Christ – sharing the Gospel in a time when, more than ever, the world needs to hear it.

Friends, while sometimes it feels this way, remember this:  We are not merely treading water.  We are just navigating uncharted waters…. just keep swimming.

We’ve got this. Just keep swimming.

Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Rev. Heather Power