Wednesday, August 13, 2008
Sailing Stormy Waters
Have any of you ridden on a boat before? We are not talking about a yacht or a typical speedboat. We are talking about wooden, hand paddleboats about the length of one pew, and could seat a dozen people. Now imagine this small wooden boat sailing against the strong winds. If you are sailing against the direction of the wind, you are sure to meet rough waters and smashing waves. Now if you were in that small boat, sailing in the middle of the night, where everything around you is dark, you cannot see from afar and all you could hear is the smash of the waves against your boat, you might be wondering, “what am I doing here?” This boat may not be able to make it and might sink. Now, the disciples could be wishing many things at this time. I am thinking, they would have been wishing that they were on a bigger boat – big enough to comfort them that it will stand against the storm. They might be ready to jump ship if a bigger boat passes by. Or they could be focusing on different ways on how to save themselves from this storm.
Our gospel story is about the experience of the disciples during a storm. But this is not your ordinary storm. This is a story of the experience of the followers of Jesus, the early church, when they were facing storms – difficulties and trials. The Gospel of Matthew is a Gospel that gives importance to the role of the church. In fact, Matthew is the only Gospel that mentions the word “church” (as can be found in chapter 16:18 and 18:17). In our gospel story, Jesus commanded the disciple to ride the boat and go ahead of him. Among the early Christians, the boat is used as a symbol of the church of Christ. The boat full of disciples is the church that Jesus has commanded to go and set forth. The author of the Gospel of Matthew even reminds us what the church is about. In the last verse in the last chapter, Jesus commissioned his followers, which is essentially the early church, to continue his ministry here on earth. Jesus commanded the church to continue his ministry here on earth. Also in the Bible, the water has been used to symbolize trouble, difficulties, challenges and trials. Therefore, in our story today the boat sailing the rough waters reminds us of the church facing difficulties and challenges.
When I was doing mission work in the Philippines, I collaborated with a small church at the foot of the mountain. This small church faced many storms both literally and symbolically. Because the Philippines is an archipelago of 7,100 islands surrounded by a great body of water, it makes the Philippines very vulnerable to typhoons and storms. Actually, the Philippines is hit by an average of 20 typhoons a year. This small church is located in the Visayas, a region in the country that is constantly hit by typhoons. Every after a typhoon comes, they have to clean up the debris and fixed a part of the church. And, of course, there is the symbolic storm that they face challenges and trials in the life of the church. Because it is in the mountain, there are no paved roads. To get to the church, the pastor had to walk half a day for more than 7 kilometers and cross the river 13 times. Walking for 5 kilometers may not sound difficult but if you are doing it at the edge of a mountain cliff then it adds to the difficulty. But crossing the river is the more difficult part. The river has strong currents and it becomes more dangerous whenever there are typhoons. The water rises up within couple of minutes and it may sweep whoever is trying to cross the river.
Despite this difficulty, the pastor still never fails to serve the church every Sunday. What is more inspiring is the life of the church itself. The church is only composed of 15 people. And because all of them are tenants in the farm, they cannot support the church financially. Nevertheless, the church has a ministry of helping their immediate neighborhood. The church sponsors the Community Based Primary Health Care Program. The church organizes the people in the community to be trained in primary health care, the program also provides alternative livelihoods to families to increase their income and once a week, the church helps the children and some adults master their writing, reading and counting skills. One cannot imagine how this small church that cannot even pay their pastor’s salary, a small church with only a dozen or so members, a church with only makeshift benches as their pews and does not even have a pulpit, a church who recycles a used calendar to write their liturgy and hymns, this little church has a big impact to their immediate community. This small church did not worry about the challenges and the difficulties they encountered. They did not allow the problems they had to be a hindrance for their ministry. The church remained focus to Jesus and trusted him that Jesus will be with the church whenever they are facing challenges. They know Jesus is with them.
History tells us that the early church sailed in troubled waters; they faced many challenges and difficulties. They were persecuted for being Christians, they were killed because of their faith and so they had to go underground. Because of these, the church was just small. Yet many people joined and wanted to be Christians because they continued to do the ministry of Christ. They continued to serve other people, the needy, the helpless, the sick and the hungry. Amidst these challenges and problems, they have not lost focus in Jesus Christ.
The experience of the church before is the same reality we are experiencing today. The Church today is facing many challenges and difficulties. In general, terms, one of the challenges the church is facing is dwindling membership. Here in the US, the United Methodist News System reports that “membership has decreased by 20% since 1973.” Because of this, many United Methodist churches across the nation have closed or merged causing a 12.4% decline in the number of UMCes in the US. I am told that the church attendance here have dropped over the years. Indeed, we must address that issue. What are the other challenges and difficulties that our church is facing. The UMC report tells us that most churches have an average age of 57 and above. I can see that this is true here in this church. It is not a problem if your are 57 or above. However, if the 57 and below are not present in our church, then that is discouraging. Another difficulty in the church is when we have lost more people in the church than welcoming new members in. This becomes more depressing when we lost church members through death. For pastors, for me, and for most people this is a sad and depressing reality. In the church, there are different individuals and different personalities. What is more heartbreaking is when these differences create animosity that leads other people to leave the church. Our depression and the problems we are facing have sometimes left us weak and feeble. We lost focus of our purpose as a church. We no longer participate in the church ministry. Sometimes, our ministry is no longer directed to the unchurched, to the needy and the helpless. We lost our focus because sometimes we concern too much about troubleshooting the difficulties and trials. The church has now shifted to a survival mode in trying to address its own need. We have lost focus in Jesus – in continuing the ministry of Jesus in helping other people instead of ourselves. We have become concerned of our need instead of what others need. We should focus our faith in Jesus or we might sink like Peter.
The challenges and the difficulties our church now are facing are true. Yes, we might be dwindling in number, we might be an aging congregation, we might be too weak physically, we might be lagging financially, we might be facing one or two more difficulties, our boat may be facing strong winds and rough waters but the good news my brothers and sisters is that Jesus is walking towards us. Jesus is walking in the water, Jesus is above the water and that assures us that our boat will not sink. Jesus promised to the church in chapter 28:20, that he will be with us. Because Jesus is with us, we need not worry, we will also be above the troubled waters… we will be above these problems and challenges we face. We need not worry about them. We need only to refocus ourselves to Jesus and bring back his ministry to the world; bring back Christ ministry to the children, bring back his ministry to the youth, let us bring back his ministry to those in our immediate community, let us bring back his ministry to the strangers, to the immigrants, to the needy, to the helpless, the sick, those in prison, and those who are homeless.
That small United Methodist Church in the Visayas is a testament that Christ is sailing with us and keeping us afloat despite the problems we encounter. Christ was with the early church before; his promise is that he will be with us also even now. Let us not worry about the strong winds and the battering waves because Christ is with us. Rather, let us continue to sail just as Christ has commanded the church to continue his ministry here on earth. Let us focus ourselves in Christ and witness how he will calm the roaring winds and the smashing waters that we may also declare, “Truly, Jesus is the son of God.”
In the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.