A Sermon preached by the Rev. Craig Lemming for St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, St. Paul, MN
Sunday, August 13, 2023 / Proper 14 / Year A / Track 1
In the name of Jesus, who walks towards us, reaches out, and catches us when we fall, time after time. Amen.
This morning’s sermon will consist of three short reflections on today’s Scriptures. The first involves a story about my favorite classical pianist. The second my favorite pop song. And the third is one of my favorite prayers.
Pianist Sviatoslav Richter is one of my favorite enigmas. As I meditated on Peter the Apostle walking towards Jesus on stormy waters, I remembered an excerpt from Sviatoslav Richter’s Notebooks. He wrote,
“I never choose a piano and don’t try them out before a concert. It’s useless and demoralizing. I place myself in the hands of the piano tuner. If I’m on form, I can adapt to no matter what instrument, whereas if I’m in doubt, I never succeed in doing so. You have to believe, more than Saint Peter, that you’ll walk on water. If you don’t believe it, you’ll go under, and straight away.”
Richter goes on to recount how he was due to give a recital at the Soviet Embassy in Paris when he received a phone call from the piano tuner warning him that the embassy’s Steinway was completely unplayable. Richter immediately canceled the concert. The ambassador, however, ignored this cancellation, and as the audience gathered in the embassy, he phoned Richter and begged him to play. Richter writes,
“His words moved me to pity and so I decided to go there in spite of everything, convinced the concert would be a disaster. I went out on the platform, thinking ‘To hell with the piano and the rest of them,’ and launched into Brahms’ Sonata in F minor. It was probably my best concert of the season.”
Very few of us have Peter the Apostle or Sviatoslav Richter’s courageous faith. A faith so strong that they dare to jump right into the stormy sea of life with both feet, trusting that they will not drown. Trust is what faith feels like. We cannot predict or control the ways God’s future will unfold. In fact, God’s future oftentimes unfolds out of a terrifying event. Events that stretch and mature our faith. In today’s first lesson from Genesis, the seventeen-year-old Joseph teaches us this lesson. Joseph’s brothers hate him and refuse to speak peaceably with him. And yet, when Jacob their father sends Joseph to his hateful brothers, Joseph says those three sacred words of a true vocation; the sacred words of a genuine calling: “Here I am.” Joseph travels for 50 miles to Shechem and not finding his brothers there, he travels a further 15 miles to Dothan, not knowing what he would face. His brothers threaten to kill him. They strip Joseph of his beloved robe, throw him in a pit, and eventually sell Joseph into slavery. Nevertheless, out of this terrifying event, God’s future for Joseph and his brothers will unfold into one of the most powerful stories of forgiveness and salvation.
Salvation requires us to show up in the face of unknown outcomes and say, “Here I am.” The risk of salvation requires trust. Trust in God to pour forth the right people, at the right time, with the right resources, to restore all of us in right relationship. Salvation is a risk because we have to trust in who we are. Not what we have. Not what we do. We trust in God to work with who we are. Just as we are. We can only turn up faithfully, be fully present, and say, “Here I am,” and God’s unknowable future unfolds. Cultivating that spiritual depth and breadth of trust in God’s future is extremely difficult. And a pop song from the 1980s might help us!
It was a crisp, sunny, Zimbabwean morning in 1988. I was six years old and it was the first day of school. My father drove me to school that morning and I sat in the back seat of the car in my starched school uniform, still pungent with that freshly dry-cleaned aroma. An infectiously beautiful American pop song came on the radio that momentarily distracted me from my terror as we drove through the school gates. We arrived at the drop-off area. Dad got out of the car with me and crouched down on one knee. I remember the smell of his Aramis aftershave and Newbury Extra Mild Cigarette smoke – it was the 80s – and Dad’s handsome smile beaming with pride. I don’t recall exactly what Dad said, but I knew that his phone number was on the business card he had tucked into my blazer pocket, right by my heart, and that, no matter what happened at school that day – no matter how lost or frightened I would be – I could call him and I would find him right there waiting for me. Comingled in my memory of that morning are the words of that beautiful 80’s pop song:
If you’re lost you can look—and you will find me.
Time after time.
If you fall I will catch you—I will be waiting.
Time after time.
When Peter is walking on the stormy water towards Jesus and becomes frightened, he begins to sink and cries out, “Lord, save me!” And Jesus immediately reaches out his hand and catches Peter. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have Peter’s level of trust. I need help with my trust issues. I know intellectually that salvation requires the risk of trusting God and God’s unknowable future. But, for me to know that truth in my heart, in my body, in my bones, I need a song. For the same reason Martin Luther King, Jr. used to call Mahalia Jackson to sing “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” we need songs because in Hans Christian Andersen’s words, “where words fail, music speaks.” So, when I’m having trust issues with God’s future, especially in the midst of those terrifying events out of which God makes a way out of no way, and turns never into nevertheless, I turn to songs. I do with Cyndi Lauper’s love song what my Jesuit teachers taught me to do when they theologized pop songs in their sermons:
If you’re lost you can look—and you will find God.
Time after time.
If you fall God will catch you—God will be waiting.
Time after time.
The Jesuits would also encourage us to share this Good News with those who might be drowning in fear. When we encounter a person who is terrified, we show up, fully present, and say, “Here I am,” to remind you that God is with you in this storm.
Speaking of Jesuits, there is a prayer Saint Ignatius of Loyola that has saved me when I have been drowning in fear. The fear I imagine Joseph experienced having escaped being murdered, being thrown in a pit, and then being sold into slavery by his own brothers. The kind of fear the disciples and Peter and all of us feel when we courageously step out in faith and suddenly life’s raging storms threaten to drown us. In those moments of fear, I pray the words the Jesuits taught me as a boy. A prayer that helps us to surrender everything in our life to God’s will. It is the prayer that teaches us to trust in the faithful risk required of salvation. Center yourselves, take a deep breath, close your eyes, and pray St. Ignatius of Loyola’s “Suscipe” with me:
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, take my understanding,
and my entire will –
All I have and call my own.
You have given it all to me.
And to you, Lord, I return it.
Everything is yours, O Lord; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
and that is enough for me.
A pianist, a pop song, and a prayer. Remember Sviatoslav Richter walking out to a doomed piano and God turning that “never,” into “nevertheless.” Remember to sing your favorite love song, make God the subject of those lyrics, and trust that God is right there – nearer than your next breath and the words on your lips. And if the pianist and the pop song don’t do it for you, then try the prayer: “Suscipe” by St. Ignatius of Loyola. We can pray our way into knowing again that the risk of salvation requires complete trust in God’s unknowable, redeeming future. Amen.
 Sviatoslav Richter, Notebooks and Conversations, ed. Bruno Monsaingeon (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001), 108-10.