A little about me: I grew up next to Cleveland, Ohio, in a suburb called Parma; the second son of four children to a Catholic father and Presbyterian mother. If we were to take a field trip to Parma, Ohio, one day, we would notice the tremendous influence of the northern European cultures. In fact, one could drive down the street and see numerous steeples and crosses (or crucifixes) of Catholic and Orthodox churches, and every now and again a Protestant church. The community calendar is often filled with Lenten fish fries, church carnivals, feast days, and my favorite, pierogi sales. My parents wanted what was best for us, and their take on religion was pretty simple. The rule on Sundays was that you went to church. It didn’t matter where; just that you went. So while I do claim a pretty long history with the Presbyterian Church tradition, the Catholic experience is something that I also feel quite comfortable with, as I attended a few masses along the way as well.
Flash forward to the year 2010. I heard this wonderful music back in seminary which reminded me of my upbringing in Cleveland, and when I asked about it, I was told that, well, it’s not only music, but it’s a place. There is a small town in the countryside of France of all places called Taizé. It gets even better though, because this town is home to this wonderful monastery, which basically means it is an intentional community gathered around prayer and an ordered life. The best part is that Taizé is really intentional (couldn’t resist the pun) about inviting young people to visit and share in the life of this community!
I do enjoy a good adventure, so as one may imagine, I was hooked on the idea of visiting. Thanks to the continuing education program that pastors receive from their churches, I headed out that summer for a two week pilgrimage of sorts to the Taizé community.
There were so many wonderful things that happened during that experience, but one of my favorite memories was getting to interact with some of the Brothers; those who have committed their lives to the community. These men were so inspirational to me, that when deciding which style of robe to wear back home in the US, my first choice was this white alb (or robe) which is very similar to what the Brothers wear for prayer.
In order to understand just how amazing this community and these Brothers are, it is important to learn about one very important person of Taizé. His name is Brother Roger. Brother Roger helped to create the Taizé community back in 1940, just around the time another community was being formed right here. The story goes that in the midst of WWII, he was called by God to create such a place just outside of this quiet French town, devoting himself to prayer and simple living. In response to the numerous humanitarian atrocities that were happening within this region at the time, groups of children that were victims of war would be relocated here; a safe place in the midst of unspeakable horrors. People of all different nationalities, ethnicities, and religions would come to Taizé, where they were cared for and loved as children of God. Once the war had ended, Brother Roger continued to welcome people of all walks of life into this community, especially young people, whom he knew from personal experience just how important it was to experience God’s love at such a precious time in one’s life.
Brother Roger would continue to live a life of simplicity, prayer, and community, as the community of Taizé continued to evolve over the decades. Numbers of young people would continue to come to Taizé’s doors, and Brother Roger would sit with them all, numbering in the 1000s each week. Taizé would become a center of reconciliation and love.
Brother Roger, the founder and first Prior of the Taizé community, died in the year 2005. Reflecting on Brother Roger’s life, one of his close friends and fellow Brother of the community, Brother Alois, wrote these words:
Now, our little community feels impelled to continue along the way [Brother Roger] opened up. It is a way of trust. For him the word “trust” was not a facile expression. It contains an appeal: to welcome very simply the love that God bears towards everyone, to root our lives in that love, and to take the risks that that implies.
To lose that intuition would lead us to impose burdens on those who come seeking the living water. Faith in this love is a wholly simple reality, so simple that everyone can receive it. And this faith can move mountains. Then, even if the world is often torn apart by violence and conflict, the way we look on it can be filled with hope.
–Brother Alois (Homage to Brother Roger)
While many around the world will know the name Taizé because of the beautiful music, each time I put on this robe I am reminded of a community of love and reconciliation that inspires the world, and a simple man of faith who, despite his imperfections and challenges as a young person, has moved mountains with his life and witness.
What does faith look like in the world today? In a world with news stories like that of nuclear fears with North Korea, the famine in Yemen, or violence and hatred in Charlottesville? At the very core of the term itself, faith is defined as “complete trust or confidence in someone or something”. If we look to the Bible, one common verse from the letter to the Hebrews describes faith as “…the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” But is this really what faith is about? Is this the same faith that Brother Roger is said to have embraced?
It seems like the more and more knowledgeable and technologically advanced we get as a society, the less we identify with this idea of ‘faith’. In speaking with many young people today, the notion of faith is something that is alien to many of them. Why need faith when you can ‘google it’?
To compound this issue, many people that I have spoken with carry years of spiritual baggage from their individual church experiences. I have heard stories of people feeling overwhelmed with guilt and shame as the church emphasized sin and judgment over grace and love. I have heard young people share with me stories of pastors and church members, many of whom helped raise these young people, openly condemn sexual orientation and identities, all the while these young people wrestled internally with who they were as children of God. People have wanted to love the church, but didn’t know how to respond when the church would dismiss science in the name of what they called ‘the Truth’. There seems to be many hurdles to faith for young people today.
One of the reasons Brother Roger was so adamant about welcoming young people is because he understood the questions and doubts that many of us go through during this time in our lives. He also was open about his own questions of faith during this time in his life. Perhaps we are all, despite our age, still wrestling with much of our own ‘spiritual baggage’ at this moment.
The life of faith is not easy. In the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew Jesus is recorded as calling certain individuals to ‘follow me.’ These young fishermen, tax collectors, and even a revolutionary were compelled to follow this man as they were known as the first disciples of Jesus. So in the most basic sense, the idea of discipleship is simply ‘to follow Jesus in one’s life.’
But let’s not be mistaken in believing that it was a simple process. We read chapter after chapter of the disciples messing up, not understanding Jesus’ teachings, or all together missing the point of what Jesus was all about at times. They carried their own spiritual baggage as they sought to learn from this man whom they could not resist.
Just previous to this morning’s reading (last week), we were witnesses to the feeding of the 5,000. You would think that after such a miracle, a mystery of faith, that the disciples would fully be on board!
But…then we get to the next chapter…
If we want to give credit to the disciples for anything, they were pretty responsive. We will read the word ‘immediately’ several times within the gospel of Matthew:
22Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone,
Okay, so the disciples are doing alright. They understand Jesus needs some time to be by himself, and they will hang out on the boat. Many of them are fishermen after all; they are comfortable on the boat. But then ‘life happens’ once again…
24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.
‑The disciples tried to stay close; they tried to be good disciples, but the storm was relentless…
How many of us have felt battered by the storms and waves of life at times?
25And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea.
26But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear.
So there is a storm, the disciples are understandably a little shaken, and then they see Jesus walking over the water. But instead of knowing who it was, they freaked out a little. Again, understandable.
The next verse, however, is more about Jesus, and less about the disciples. Jesus proclaims himself, not as just an ordinary man, but the Divine. Much like God appears to the prophets of old, Jesus appears to the young, imperfect, disciples: ‘…it is I’.
27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Peter is emboldened by this statement of Jesus,
28Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
29He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.
30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”
31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.
33And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
Have we been there before? I know I have. We have gotten to know Jesus, whether it’s by growing up in church, or perhaps coming to faith as an older person. We have walked with him. We have seen some of the amazing things that he has done. We have learned from his teachings. We want to truly follow him as his disciple. And he says ‘come,’ and we really do honestly want to walk to him,…but falter. We begin to notice the storms in our lives around us. We begin to doubt. We begin to remember all of the spiritual baggage we lived with before meeting Jesus. Yes, we want to follow Jesus, but we begin to sink.
Friends, this is the life of faith as a disciple of Christ. The definition of faith may talk about assuredness and certainty, but there is also fear, and doubt, and sinking involved in this life as well.
The Good News is that God calls us in faith…with all of our issues, our baggage, and our imperfections. The beauty within a life of faith is that living as a disciple of Christ is, yes, about us following Jesus. But living as a disciple is more about allowing Jesus to come to us and reveal his glory in our lives as he says “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid”.
We are, as humans, innately created as people of faith.
A certain amount of faith already exists in one who even takes the first steps to follow Jesus.
Faith grows, is tested, evolves, and grows more.
But let us not be mistaken. Our faith does not center on our human intelligence, logic, and achievement. As disciples of Christ, our faith is centered within the living God, who calls us towards Christ.
We may not all be called to create a community such as Taizé like that of Brother Roger, but we are called to share our faith nonetheless. And we do this in the simplest of ways as we live in what we call a community of faith, here at Valley Community.
- We share our faith each time we gather to worship as this community.
- We share our faith each time we pledge and offer our monies, our time, our talents to do God’s work.
- We share our faith each time we gather over a potluck in Christian fellowship.
- We share our faith each time we serve in ministry and mission revealing God’s love with each other and the world.
Sisters and brothers, we all have our stories, our experiences, our spiritual baggage. And yet…we are being called. We are each being called to follow Christ as God uses these very unique things in our lives that make us who we are to reveal love and grace with the world.
We are not perfect beings. Our knowledge is limited. Yet God wants to use each and every one of us as we are called to live in faith and discipleship, as we, together, witness the living God.
As Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”