Sermon preached at Eucharist on the Ninth Sunday after Trinity (13 August 2017) by the Reverend Helen O'Sullivan, Chaplain
The Chaplain calls us to 'place into God’s hands and to take into prayer and deep contemplation' those things we find challenging, those where hope seems to have died, or where we struggle to stay above water.
I have an enduring dis-ease in regard to the interpretation of scripture and as a result have both an ambivalence about and fierce sense of needing to protect this space, the pulpit, the place of teaching and preaching the Good News (if you’re lucky).
And I say, if you’re lucky, because having undertaken six years of biblical studies at one of our pre-eminent universities, I for one am left with
more questions than answers, and know only too well from my personal and pastoral experience the enduring damage that well-meaning but ill-informed preachers and teachers can do to a sensitive and fragile soul.
We’ve recently heard again at morning prayer that most sobering bit of scripture from the letter of James - not many of you should become teachers, my brother and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness’. Preaching and teaching, giving counsel and spiritual direction is at the heart of the ministry of the priest and yet how effective can it really be and how misguided might it more often be. I say this because I don’t think there is a short cut to finding the answers to our deepest questions. I believe that knowing something, gaining true insight and understanding, is never the simple business of taking on board a bit of information, like finding the right piece of a jigsaw. I think the questions that are at the heart of our lives can only be answered through prayerful contemplation of where God might be at work.
And so I particularly distrust the ‘helpful’ section headings in Bibles that propose to give us an in a nutshell summary of particular passages. Such headings are just a few hundred years old and so imbued with, what some might see as centuries of wisdom, but I’m afraid I see much more as centuries of baggage - dragging into my present the concerns of another’s past. Of course it can be useful to understand the ways in which particular scriptures have been received down the centuries, but what I need to know, my life in some ways depends upon it, is what use is this to me - here and now.
The section heading of our Gospel reading this morning is a case in point.
Jesus walks on the water
With an introduction like this I believe we are woefully misled, or at least sold pitifully short. If we are told this is what it’s all about then that is all we will read off the page. Yes Jesus walks on the water, calms the storm and the disciples worship him saying: “Truly you are the Son of God”. Yes this passage is a revelation of Jesus’ divine nature, defying the laws of physics walking on water, declaring: “take heart” (have courage, have faith) “Ego Eimi” – “I am”, Jesus using the words that God used to Moses all those centuries ago that reveal the divine presence, God in Jesus bringing order to the primeval forces of nature in making the waters calm and the wind cease. Yet I think that this is to miss the point, or at least a point of the story, because what it truly amazing is not that Jesus walks on the water, but that Peter walks on the water, albeit briefly.
And so if I were to endorse a section heading for this portion of the Gospel of Matthew it would be - Peter walks on the water.
The disciples are in a boat, in a storm, far from land, the wind is against them and they are being battered by the waves. Now whether you are a sailor or not, I am confident that everyone of us here can identify with the situation in which the disciples find themselves. It might be when someone dies, it might come with the loss of a partner, or a job, or a house, or through conflict or illness, we and those we love can find ourselves literally at sea, disorientated and distressed, out of control and far from a place to anchor and find sanctuary. We have probably all been there and certainly none of us will get through life without finding ourselves at some time or other in exactly this situation; and so how can these verses help us, and help us to help those around us, who feel themselves to be at sea.
In the scriptures the sea or the waters are an illusion to the chaos of life into which, at the beginning of creation, and throughout history God brings order through Christ, with Christ, and in Christ. Just as the Word was with God in creation, hovering over the waters, so the Word is with us in Christ.
Peter, panicked and frightened, says to Jesus: “if it is you, command me to come to you on the water”. Just the sort of crazy outlandish thing Peter might say, help me, make it possible for me to do this seemingly impossible thing. Jesus says “come”, trust me, believe in me, and Peter gets out of the boat, in the storm, and walks on the water. And whilst his focus is solely and firmly on Christ and whilst Peter puts his trust in him, his life in his hands, he finds that he can do it, he overcomes all that would tell him that this is impossible, can’t be done. Peter walks on the water. But then he loses his focus and notices the strong wind around him, he is aware of his vulnerability, his weaknesses and limitations, he becomes frightened and begins to sink.
For me this passage has everything to teach me about how pitiful it is for me to set out to do anything, and certainly anything of real importance, imagining for one moment that I do so in my own strength. And it is a reassurance that even in the most overwhelming situations, by God’s grace and strength alone, peace and order may be restored to our disordered world.
Of course that takes a heap of trust on our part. Peter spent day after day with Jesus, one of his closest and most trusted friends, who witnessed his power and yet even he, when the chips were down, struggled to entrust himself entirely to God. How much more reasonable then that we, at 2,000 years distance, struggle with our faith, but struggle we must if we hope to find that peace that only Christ can bring. Jesus called Peter out of the boat because the boat was going nowhere or rather perhaps round in circles in the storm.
So what do you bring to this passage of scripture today? What is it in your life or in the life of someone close to you that is making you feel overwhelmed, terrified, at sea, where are you being tossed about or going round in circles? And how might you find a way of focussing on Christ to find a path through these waters? So that, as we have just sung in our last hymn, nothing can our peace destroy.
Whatever it is, wherever hope seems to have died, wherever you are wondering if it’s worth it, or whether you can keep your head above water, these are the things I believe that we being asked to place into God’s hands and to take into prayer and deep contemplation. Sometimes God needs to prise out of our hands that which we would seek to have control of because life, the waters, are not ours to command but God’s. And sometimes by God’s grace we can find ourselves able to achieve the impossible not through our strength or ability but through God’s grace if we allow that grace to work in us. And so in this Eucharist, as we bring ourselves to God for renewal and restoration, let us pray for the courage and the faith to entrust ourselves and those we love to God, confident in both God’s power and in God’s purposes.