The sign said “Worship and Picnic Today with us. Welcome.” So naturally I walked up to the rows of folded chairs and saw Marlene Pingitore, Church Secretary, whom I have talked to before while interviewing Rev. Dr. John Califano, Pastor of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church. She asked me to sign Rev. Califano’s birthday card, as he was to have a birthday this week. I took a seat and waited. It had been years since I had been part of an outside service, so I was happy to be there.
Rev. Califano led the congregation through the service, including a reading from the book of Matthew, the section where Peter steps out to walk on the water with Jesus. He eventually came to the sermon.
This is the beginning of Rev. Califano’s sermon :
Recall with me a child just learning to walk, and as we see that, the uncertainty and determination. We also see a little fear. As we think about that, the hardest step we ever have to take in life is the first one. Even as adults, as we consider it, we have to face the storms of life that come to us, hopefully not for two hours today, but the challenges and the storms that present themselves to us. And yet we have to continue in the midst of those storms that seem to come all too often. How very difficult is it for us to set sail on the sea of life, when all we seem to see are dark clouds and rough waters.
Now, there’s a story told about a Vermont farmer, who journeyed to the Maine coast, who had never seen the Atlantic ocean before in his life, and who decided that before he got much older and certainly before he passed that he would see the ocean firsthand – the sight, the sound and perhaps the smell. So he set out on that journey. He took a long walk and finally his walk led him along a high point of the land and his curiosity started to get the better of him and got him to look down. And what did he see, but the crashing tide, the huge breakers, and he was also able to guesstimate that he was about 200 feet above all that he was seeing. Unfortunately, as he walked he got a little too close to the edge, and he began to feel his feet slide. The earth was giving way along that edge. He quickly, almost reflexively reached out and grabbed the scrawny brush that was there and so found himself dangling, swaying in the wind. His whole body was suspended over that space. And as he was hanging, he could feel himself losing his grip. Either his weight was to strong or the brush was too weak.
All he could see was the ocean and all he could hear where the waves, so he said “Oh my God, what is going to happen?” In his fear and trembling what did he do? He yelled out “Help! Help! Is there anybody up there who can help?” And after what probably seemed like hours in that feverish attempt, he suddenly heard a deep voice from the recesses of heaven, saying “This is the Lord speaking. You must have faith. Let go! Let go with both your hands! Do you trust me?” The Vermonter replied, “Ah, Lord, what do yo have in mind?” “Let go of the shrubbery and you’ll be safe!” said the voice in return, “I’ll send an angel to catch you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.” Then the Vermonter thought for a moment and began to shout: “I believe you, Lord, I believe! But is there anybody else up there that’s willing to help?”
The centerpiece of Pastor Califano’s sermon was how easy it is for Christians to critique the apostle Peter for failing to walk on the water, when it would have been difficult for anyone to make his choice to try in the first place, and that trust in God is essential for any person of faith.
After the service, I asked Rev. Califano who had come up with the idea to meet outdoors.
He said, “I think it was a combination of multiple minds. Somebody had introduced the idea of ‘a church without walls’, as an expression. I think we are the only church in Amsterdam that has this available green space. Typically, in the city you are cement bound. So, a few minds got together, back in the spring, and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to bring the jewel of what we have inside and bring it outside?’ And it seems to be working. You get some people walking by, and either the sound of the music or the gathering and come closer. We’ve been doing this since the 6th of July. So, some people have come back and are actually sitting down. People here are wonderful: a donated tent, a keyboard for music donated. The group gets here a little earlier and they don’t mind setting up the chairs. We’ve invited people to bring their own lawn chairs, if they would be more comfortable. It’s working. God’s been good to us with the weather, too.”
The outside service at St. Lukes Lutheran Church, located at 24 Pine Street, Amsterdam, will continue each Sunday through to the end of August, 2014, weather permitting.