Saturday, August 6, 2011

Walking in the abyss

Sermon Proper 14 (year A), August 7, 2011

Sunday's Gospel

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, "It is a ghost!" And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid." Peter answered him, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." He said, "Come." So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord, save me!" Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God." -Matthew 14:22-23

He is sitting in my office and he tells me – in a voice shaking with emotion – ‘I am drowning ... drowning. What am I to do?’ He is of course speaking metaphorically and we understand what he means: he is in a situation which is overwhelming him and he seems to have run out of options and resources. He is desperate and panicking. Not a bad description for the literal experience as I remember it from that moment in infancy when a zealous swimming instructor pushed me under and I floundered, spluttering and panicking, out of my depth. Notice: another watery metaphor, ‘out of my depth’.

Do you recognise the feeling, that frightful sense of raw fear? It may have been a family crisis, a broken relationship, a financial disaster, something at work, a threatening health issue; try and remember how you felt. Was this a time when you might have said ‘I am drowning’ or ‘out of my depth’? When we use such phrases we acknowledge our limits, our powerlessness – and whether the predicaments in which we find ourselves are of our own making or something that has happened and has devastated us, does not matter one jot. All that matters is the overwhelming reality of the experience: the sense that the solidity of our world has dissolved and the waters of chaos have taken over.

That is a very ‘biblical’ experience. The Semitic world of the Bible is not a surf-oriented culture! The ocean is an image of threat and terror. So, God creates the world out of the waters of chaos – subdues and orders them; and, running through the Old Testament are the stories of Jonah and, in the Psalms, the images of God walking on the waters and rescuing us from peril. The waters image those experiences and moments which seem about to destroy us: as the psalmist says -

‘Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.’ Psalm 69:1-2

This now starts to help us begin to understand what is at stake for us in this gospel. As always, the task of the ‘gospeller’ is to tell us or show us who Jesus is. What appears on the surface of the text to be a fantastic story becomes, on close reading, a luminous window – or an icon if you like – that breaks beyond the frame of the story. A series of questions seem to follow.

  • Who is the Jesus the gospel shows us?
  • What should we be paying attention to?
  • What is the miracle here? (Is it Jesus walking on the water, or is it Simon Peter’s faith?)

One of the energising aspects of this story is the high christology it presents: Jesus walks upon the waters of chaos – untroubled. All the powers and experiences that threaten us, he is untroubled by. He is the Lord.

The disciples are in the boat, it is battered by the waves and the wind is against them and they are far from the safety of the land. The boat, which figures in the Old Testament stories of the ark and of Jonah, is a powerfully loaded image – it has, you may say, a history and significance. It is one of the early images that came to be used to represent the church. In this gospel context the church is in danger, it is threatened by many forces, but here the Lord of the Church comes to its rescue and the storm ceases. But as you unpack the image and explore it – note that one implication of the image is that the church’s place is out on the frightening waters of chaos and darkness. That is where our business is.

Now let’s think about the disciples in this story. Notice how they are portrayed as very vulnerable and confused. Their first glimpse of Jesus walking across the water is farcical: as in the post resurrection appearances, they initially have trouble recognising him. Is he a ghost? Is it really him? These are the leaders of the church – and they get it wrong. Under the pressure of the storm about them they are disoriented, fearful and (spiritually) blinded. At this point Peter becomes a pivot for the story – the man whom Jesus has named as the leader of the church is the one who responds to Jesus and leaps into the waters of chaos – walks to Jesus through his fears but then loses his focus for a moment and is overwhelmed by his fears, and drowning in them calls to Jesus who reaches out - and holds him fast. Peter’s leadership of the church is never more affirmed than at that moment of apparent failure – faith grows only through our venture toward God.

The image of Peter drowning in his fears and reaching out to the Lord who rescues him is something we may take to heart and work with – in a multitude of ways. It can speak to our church and to church leaders in crisis. It can speak to the individual soul going through a dark time, besieged by doubt. It can speak to anyone of us whose whole world seems under threat. The faith of the church, the experience of the church, is that we reach out to the Lord Jesus whose hold of us will never slacken.

That does not mean that we will enjoy the experience: we may feel as if we are drowning – but it is in the abyss that our trust can grow. It is in risking our terrors that we discover we are held more firmly than ever. It is in the abyss that the storm carries us toward God. Yes, I know we live in troubled times: but in our lives, in this cathedral, in this diocese, in our nation – this is time in which we reach out and, with Peter, say ‘Lord, save me’ and find that we are held fast.

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