Taking the Next Faith Step: Sermon for 2023 Diocesan Convention

by | Jan 28, 2023

Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’
Matthew 14:22-33

The theme of this Convention, indeed, for all of 2023, is Taking the Next Faithful Step. It is an image that evokes the physical act of moving toward a destination. But as those who cannot physically walk know very well, not every faithful step is made with our feet. We take faithful steps with our hearts and minds, in our relationships and commitments. Sometimes taking the next faithful step doesn’t involve movement at all. Other times, it necessitates looking back before moving forward, or turning around and going in a different direction.

Taking the next faithful steps involves taking stock of where we are. Thus the step you take for yourself, and for the community or ministry that you represent here will be specific and unique to you. To be sure, we have challenges and opportunities in common, and a singular call, as Christians, to know, love, and follow Christ, but how that call is lived out, and what step you are being summoned to take now is rooted in your particular role and context.

For example, in the fantastic story that we’ve just heard of Jesus inviting Peter to get out of the boat and walk on water, it’s worth noting that Jesus didn’t call all the disciples to join him there. As I heard one preacher counsel the members of his congregation, “If Jesus isn’t calling you out on the water, best stay in the boat.”

The image of Peter walking on water is symbolic of those times when what’s before us isn’t merely a step, but rather a leap of faith–those marking moments when we know that we’re being asked, either by life or by Jesus himself, to do something that we’ve never done before and that seems impossible, or, at the very least, really hard. As we step out onto that proverbial water, we know that we are beyond our capacities and the ability to control outcomes. It shouldn’t surprise us when we sink a time or two.

Looking back on your life, and certainly in the past few years, I suspect that you’ve all had at least one walking-on-water experience, and perhaps more. And that more than once, you’ve been in the position of the other disciples, watching from your place of relative safety as your loved ones were being called to step out on water of their own. As much as you may have wanted to, you couldn’t go there with them.

Bring one of those moments to mind now, if you can. Acknowledge the courage taking such a faithful step required of you, or what it felt like to watch while another ventured out. What, as a result of your experience, have you learned about yourself, and how God moves in your life?

There is another less dramatic but no less courageous way that we can experience the call to take the next faithful step. I’m speaking of those times when Jesus isn’t standing in front of us with his arms stretched out; when perhaps we’ve started on a path that seemed compelling at the onset, but is not clear now, and we wonder if we’ve made a mistake; when we’ve encountered obstacles that have so consumed our energies that we feel stuck, or off course.

These are the times when long-range vision goes dark. As the author E. L. Doctorow once described the process of writing, “It’s like driving a car at night.” His advice to other writers was to keep going. ““You only see what the headlights light up, but you can make the whole trip that way.”1

One biblical story that speaks to taking the next faithful step in the dark is that of Moses and the people of Israel moving through the wilderness toward a land of promise. The beginning of the journey could not have been more dramatic and the call more clear. God freed them from slavery, parting the waters of the Red Sea so that they could escape their captors, and God set them on a journey in the wilderness toward a new life of promise.

But the journey took a lot longer than anticipated. It wasn’t an easy road, and the way forward wasn’t clear. More than once, the people seriously contemplated turning back. And not everyone made it through the wilderness. Some interpretations of that iconic story suggest that the pilgrimage generation’s task was to start the journey but not arrive at the destination–which is heartbreaking to think about, but for those of us in the latter years of our lives, that vocation becomes far more real.

I’d like to dwell here for a moment, because those of us who are sixty or older make up the majority of this gathering, and in many of our congregations we are the most influential, because frankly, we show up more and we’re paying the bills. But when the way forward is unclear, our natural temptation is to look back and to hold onto what has the most meaning for us. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that the focus is on us and our preferences, which can blind us to what others need now, particularly those we hope will join our communities. And then we wonder why they don’t come, or don’t stay.

For us, the next faithful step is to acknowledge the grief we carry, the feeling that we’re letting our ancestors down, and the worry that what we value most is being lost or discarded, and that we will be discarded. It’s a real fear, and I hear it across the diocese. In truth, sometimes I feel it myself.

Almost every time I talk about our diocesan priority, as expressed in our strategic plan, to invest resources in rising generations, so that we might become a church that our children and grandchildren will find spiritually compelling, someone will give voice to what all of us over sixty are feeling–”Don’t forget about us old people.” Or, “we don’t want to lose our church’s identity,” which is another way of saying, “We don’t want to lose our identity.” The work of creating the kind of churches that our children and grandchildren will want to attend depends upon us old people giving of ourselves and our resources in ways that preserve the best of our traditions, but allows those coming after us to tell us what they need, what speaks to their hearts and inspires their souls.

It’s not as if everything one generation values is of no use to those that come after. My musician son, now in his thirties, prefers to listen to vinyl records even as he produces music with the latest high tech equipment. He just traded his guitar, that was maybe five years old, for one built in 1940, which he played at his grandfather’s funeral two weeks ago amplified by technology that didn’t exist when that guitar was made.

Contemplative prayer practices dating back to monks from the 4th century continue to nourish the modern soul, as reflected in the number of apps you can download on your smartphone to help you engage them. Old hymns find new settings and can find their place among other musical expressions. Cathedrals like this one, and the beauty of all our church buildings crafted by earlier generations, still beckon, but not if they look as if no one has updated their interiors, replaced the carpeting, or even cleaned the closets since the 1970s.

Let me return now to the image of taking the next faithful step when we can’t see very far ahead, because from a spiritual perspective, that’s where we live most of our lives. The moments of high drama are relatively rare compared to the long stretches of making our way in the relative dark of not knowing. That’s especially true after an experience of trauma, or when we’re tired, feeling a bit stuck, or facing realities that seem to be insurmountable. That’s when taking one small, faithful step, followed by another, can make all the difference, even when it feels we’re not making any progress at all. As I’ve been speaking, I wonder if an example of this kind of faithful step taking has come to mind for you–either for yourself or your community.

The renowned depth psychologist Carl Jung, who was deeply attuned to the spiritual dimensions of life, kept up a lively correspondence with people all over the world. People would write to him for all manner of advice. Two letters, and his responses, speak to this idea of the next faithful step.

The first letter was written by a woman who wanted to know, broadly speaking, how best to live her life. Jung responded, in part, with these words:

Your questions are unanswerable because you want to know how one ought to live. . .There is no single, definite way . . . The way you make for yourself, which you do not know in advance, simply comes into being of itself when you put one foot in front of the other . . . if you do with conviction the next and most necessary thing, you are always doing something meaningful and intended by fate.2

What is the next and most necessary thing for you right now, and for the community you represent? It’s a compelling question for all of us, and sometimes can help us keep going when our long-range vision is out of focus.

Another man wrote to Jung who had clearly done things that he now regretted and was desperate for guidance in how to make amends. To him, Jung replied:

Nobody can set right a mismanaged life with a few words. But there is no pit you cannot climb out of provided you make the right effort at the right place. When one is in a mess like you are, one has no right any more to worry about the idiocy of one’s own psychology, but must do the next thing with diligence and devotion and earn the goodwill of others. In every littlest thing you do in this way you will find yourself. [Everyone has] to do it the hard way, and always with the next, the littlest, and the hardest things.3

I find Jung’s counsel incredibly helpful when I’ve made a mess of things, which I have done in my episcopacy, or when I realize that my intentions to do good were experienced as harmful to someone else. It doesn’t help to justify my actions or make excuses. I simply must do what I can to make amends and restitution, one step at a time. Those who walk the path of recovery and the Twelve Steps know this well.

That’s the approach I am taking, as your bishop, as we face our historical and contemporary complicity in systemic racism. It’s a long journey of reparation–making amends for harms done one faithful step at a time. Some of you may be learning of these steps for the first time, and your congregation hasn’t yet engaged the issues that reparations raises for us. All I can say to you is that these issues are real, they run deep, and those of who are the beneficiaries of white supremacy in our society can only feign ignorance or innocence for so long.
In this and in all aspects of your community’s life, and for us as a diocese, Jesus will sometimes call us to bold steps out onto the proverbial water. But on most days, and in most things, the next faithful step for us is more humble, because we’re in the valley, not on the mountain, and we’re walking more by faith than by sight. Of course we get tired. We’d be made of stone not to feel discouraged. Grief is real. But here’s the paradox of faith, once we accept grief and the struggles of life, our capacity to experience joy increases, too. As Jesus told us, the way of the cross is the way of life.

The planners of this Convention have worked hard to highlight signs of hope and goodness throughout the diocese for us to savor and to celebrate, and to encourage each other as we make our way. We will remind you of the resources available to you as you take the next faithful steps in your context, and of some of the faithful steps before us as a diocese–many of which are of the humble, next-most-necessary-thing variety, and a few are more like walking on water.

May we be open to the Spirit of God moving among us, giving us the consolation, strength, and courage to take our next faithful steps, and to trust that the One who has begun a good work in us will see it through to completion. Amen.

2Quoted by Maria Papova in The Marginalian, a weekly composite of quotes and reflections
3Quoted again in The Marginalian