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Living on Thin Ice

Rev. Brent Coffin
Sun, Dec 01

The First Sunday in Advent

Text: Matthew 1: 1- 25

Some years ago our family took a trip to Rome and Florence, where my wife had studied art history in college. In Florence, Poppy wanted to expose us to at least a little culture, so we went to the Uffizi Museum. I remember walking down what seemed to be an endless corridor with windows on one side and portraits of great men hanging on the other. At least I think they were great men, since each had an expression of great self-importance. We actually had no interest in looking behind the portraits into the actual stories of these grave men. No doubt their lives were much more interesting than their portraits. At the end of the hall, we finally came to the one painting that Poppy most loved and wanted us to see—Botticelli’s Primavera. It was a depiction of springtime, warm and alive, and at the center were not individual men, but young women dancing in a circle with one another.

You must be wondering why I have asked you to walk down the long hallway of Matthew’s genealogy that begins his story of Jesus. It would be interesting, if we had the time, to look into the real lives behind the portraits—for example King David—courageous youth, poet, ruler, and adulterer. Even more significant for Matthew is that we look beyond the 42 great men to the five women in the background. Tamar, childless after the death of two husbands; Rahab, doubly marginalized as a prostitute and foreigner; Ruth, a single mother who raised her child in the Hebrew tradition; and Bethsheba, who bore the child of King David, who then had her loyal husband killed in action.

Don’t just take the portraits at face value, Matthew seems to be saying. Look behind them to the lives of real, complicated, flawed human beings; especially to the foreigners, the women, the outsiders who lived in circumstances not of their own choosing. That’s where the action was. That’s where flawed human beings received and passed on the promise of God’s faithful presence. And that is where we too will find the promise kept—not in our portraits; behind them, in the real stories of our complex lives.

This is what we’re about here in the First Church community. We’ve been having deeper conversations in spaces of intimacy born of trust. Just recall the conversations we have had around the text of contemplative Mary and busy Martha, asking about our own personal balance between doing and being.

But it’s not easy for us to slow down to have those conversations, and to deepen them over time.

Doesn’t it sometimes seem like we’re living on thin ice? Even when all’s going well, it doesn’t feel very secure underneath. Maybe we fear to slow down. We don’t dare slow down. We’ve got to keep going at full speed, or else.

I’m reminded of a story James Carroll tells in An American Requiem. When Jim was in seminary studying for the priesthood, his classmate Paul was a serious hockey player. Each year in late fall, Paul would pick the first possible day he could skate across the pond without falling through. One late November day when the ice was still thin, everyone gathered on the bank to watch Paul strap on his skates, hurl himself down the slope and launch himself on to the pond. Bending forward about 45degrees, his legs churching like mad, barely staying ahead of the cracking ice, Paul reaches the other side to turn and see his friends hollering with joy and disbelief.

That’s something like where so many of us find ourselves today: titling forward, churning like mad, straining to reach the other side. But what happens when we have to keep going and going, never sure how much farther it is to the other side?

We need time to cultivate the spaces for deeper intimacy. We need to learn how to speak the same language to one another. We need to touch the nerves of our raw fears and tender hopes. But it’s not easy to slow down.

I’m no skater. But years ago, as a young minister serving a church in Minnesota, I ran across a lake.

It was a church leaders’ retreat up north, dead of winter, and the temperature was around 15 below zero. When we came to the afternoon break, my friend Bob Bryant and I decided to go for a run. In Minnesota, people drive trucks across the lakes in winter; they build cities of tiny houses; and they wait for hours for a fish to come calling. So Bob and I are running across the lake, following the tire tracks. As we are approaching the shoreline, all of a sudden, wooose, down I go. In an instant, everything changes. I have no idea where I am or what to do. Bob sprawls flat on the ice like a porpoise, slides over to me and reaches out his hand. I somehow find myself standing on top of the ice, soaked to the bone in ice water, a mile or two from the lodge. And I have no idea what’s going on, much less what to do. Bob says, “come on…keep moving…just run and you’re body will warm up.” So I start running behind my friend, and within five or ten minutes, I’m feeling okay. My cloths have frozen solid, I’m warm, and following Bob back to the lodge in a jogging igloo. Sometimes we go down when we don’t expect it. Suddenly we’re in a different place, in over our heads, with no idea how to keep going. We can’t make it alone. So we grab a hand that is there for us. Yoked to one another, it becomes possible to do together what we could never do alone.

Today, the first Sunday in Advent, we begin a new liturgical year. This year our primary biblical text for worship and study is the Gospel of Matthew. As we move forward and live with this text, I hope there will be times when it becomes for us a living con-text, as did Luke’s story of Mary and Martha.

For example, when we come to the middle of Matthew’s story of Jesus, we come upon the disciples huddled together in a boat. In daylight you can see across the Sea of Galilee. But now it’s the dead of night. Jesus has withdrawn from then, and the disciples are trying to go ahead alone. And even those who make a living by fishing, are not at home when they are powerless to make headway against the wind as their small boat is heaved about like a bobber in the surging waves. Even the most seasoned can find themselves lost at sea.

Then an apparition appears in the dark. Peter thinks he recognizes that this is Jesus. He’s emboldened. He asks for the courage to step out and go where he never dreamed of going. The courage comes and he steps out of the boat. As soon as he realizes his own absurd vulnerability, he goes down in panic and utters that most natural of prayers, “Save me Lord!” Somehow he is yoked to another, they climb into the boat with the others, and the storm passes.

As we move into Matthew, let’s not let a dismissive literalism blind us to deeper truth born of lived experience. Peter recognizes his Emmanuel. He reaches out to embrace him. We don’t know exactly why. Perhaps he’s daring the impossible possibility of doing something on faith he would never dream of trying on his own—getting closer to his Emmanuel. Or perhaps Peter is misunderstanding the nature of faith: he’s trying to grasp and hold onto the elusive presence of Emmanuel. Whatever his motivation, Peter is neither abandoned nor shamed. He risks doing what he cannot do alone, only to find himself back in the boat with his fellow, vulnerable human beings. It takes a community to recognize Emmanuel, and with him to worship the God who is with us.

None of us can walk on water. We are fragile, vulnerable human beings, often weighed down by our own sense of gravity. And we live on thin ice. So be it.

Let us run the race that is ours to run. And when we need to, for family or work or illness or change, let us go forward churning hard to stay ahead of the cracking ice. We too can make it across and bring joy to our companions.

And if we go down, or more realistically, when we go down, down beneath the surface of the world where we believe ourselves to be in control, then we dare not hesitate to grasp the hands of those who are there for us. Yoked together, we find ourselves up and moving forward again.

And let us even dare to step out of the boat once and a while. Step out onto the impossible possibility of loving more than we can love, hoping more than we can hope, trusting more than we know.

In the same boat,

Yoked together,

Cheering one another,

Reaching out in distress,

Calling out in prayer,

Weathering the storms,

We celebrate the truth of Jesus our Emmanuel:

God is with us.

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