Thinking Through the Scriptures is the name I have given to the Wednesday mid-afternoon session in the Cathedral's Chapter Room where I, and whoever else turns up, read and reflect on the lessons and gospel for the Sunday ahead. It is a time of discovery where one engages the news items of the week alongside the scriptures and waits to see what may emerge. At the end of it all, by the Sunday, I will have prepared a sermon.
Readings 19th Sunday Ordinary Time:
Gen.37: 1-4, 12-28
Mt. 14: 27-30.
'Don't be afraid' those words of Jesus in the gospel this morning are words of reassurance. But how can we hear them as reassuring? They come to us from an extraordinary context - the apparition of Jesus walking on the water in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. In other words, he appears where, in the world as we understand it, he has no right to be; he is supposed to be miles away on shore, yet here he is - and walking on the waters! Reason collapses at this point and he presents us wIth an intolerable challenge to our minds as well as to our senses - at this moment the world no longer makes sense; everything has to be revised; where will this stop?
It is helpful to remember other occasions in the scriptures when we have been told not to be afraid; other moments when the physics and structure of our world seem to have been bent and our understanding of reality appear threatened and possibly in need of a radical revision. For instance: it happens to Mary at the Annunciation; to the shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem; to the women visiting the tomb; and to the apostles gathered in the Upper Room with all the doors locked.
Fear is a constant factor in our human condition. If we were to live entirely without fear, we would not survive. Fear is a mechanism essential to our survival - it keeps us aware of boundaries and limitations; it prevents us from trying to walk on water!
But fear is an ambiguous instinct - it has the capacity to trap or ensnare us as we become increasingly obsessed with our survival and our understanding of the world. The TV program's that feature people described as 'hoarders' may reveal an aspect of our wider cultural fearfulness: are we gripped by a culture and a world view consumed by consumption and possession? Are we so fearful that every instinct is geared to possession and constant acquisition? Is the neoliberal society and the ever widening gap between the poor and the affluent an indicator of our fearfulness and the spiritual sickness from which it comes?
Yet there is a sense in which fear is an entirely proper response. To be confronted with the manifestation of God must evoke fear: it confronts us with our limitations and with that source of all being that is utterly other than us. God is that otherness we cannot domesticate, control or - ultimately - avoid, even though we may spending our conscious hours more or less doing so.
What thoughts come to Joseph as he lies abandoned in the well, his family life turned upside down? Is this where he cries out from the depths but cannot imagine how he may be dealt with? We, with Joseph, will all have known something of these depths and darkness - our life is so fraught and vulnerable and unspeakable fears can haunt us. Paul understands this and speaks for us when he asks 'Who will descend into the abyss' and then reminds us that there in the abyss, in the most threatening place that tests all our fears and every vulnerability, there is Christ - on our lips and in our heart.
Come back then to that scene on the boat: the disciples are aboard a smallish boat far from land amidst the Sea of Galilee and in rough conditions. They are vulnerable, keeping afloat on the primeval waters of chaos and it is in this rather tense situation, with all their nerves jangling, that they see Jesus - and walking on the water! Already fearful, his appearance triggers not relief but accentuates their fears, raising appalled questions as to what is going on.
But there, nonetheless, walking at ease on the waters of chaos, in the darkness and amidst the storm, is Jesus - searching for the disciples, as he does for us all and always. Peter asks if this figure is really The Lord but Jesus is not there to answer questions - rather he is there to ask questions of us.
It is really all of a piece with that primary question in the book of Genesis, the first question asked of humankind, when The Lord God, searches in the garden for the guilty Adam and Eve who are trying to hide from him, and asks 'Adam, where are you?'
That is the question that really sorts us out and from which there is no hiding. Where are we in our relation with the source and ground of our being? We spend so much time and energy on evading the question - and yet our true joy and freedom turn always on our response and readiness to answer 'Lord, I am here.'
To answer that question is to face the truth about ourselves: the selfishness and fearfulness that would shield us from the world's pain and our own darkness; our deceitfulness, disconnection and desire to control our lives. It is also to face the call of God upon our lives, a call to self-sacrifice and unstinting generosity and open-heartedness in the world where we are called to give life to others.
In these troubled weeks before the election, is it entirely fanciful to imagine that God's question may be applied to us as a nation? 'New Zealand, where are you?' In our society, now so fractured by the gap between rich and poor, where inequality eats away at the very fabric of our social life and helplessness and despair are increasingly real - 'New Zealand, where are you?' is a question we all need to hear.
So we come to this Eucharist this morning to heed that life-changing question and answer - 'Here I am Lord'.