Faith in the storm: Sermon at Stephen’s on Sunday 13 August 2017, Proper 14 (Year A, RCL)

Scripture Readings: Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14.22-33

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Votive ship in Nexø Church on the island of Bornholm, Denmark By Hberlin - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15968261

Votive ship in Nexø Church on the island of Bornholm, Denmark
By Hberlin – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15968261

In our text from the Letter to the Romans today, Paul reminds his readers- members of a small, persecuted Church- that we Christians live by faith in Jesus Christ. We are saved by confessing that Jesus, whom God raise from the dead, is Lord- the One we can put all our trust and hope in. This is our message- a Gospel of hope for all people, without exception. It’s an inclusive Gospel- in Paul’s day, good news for both Jews and Gentiles; by implication, an inclusive Gospel for people of all nationalities and races and religions. The good news is that ‘…everyone who calls out to the Lord for help will be saved’.

And then Paul writes:

But how can they call to him for help if they have not believed? And how can they believe if they have not heard the message? And how can they hear if the message is not proclaimed? And how can the message be proclaimed if the messengers are not sent out? As the scripture says, “How wonderful is the coming of messengers who bring good news!”

A more literal translation of the final sentence is: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’ (Paul is quoting from the book of Isaiah). Perhaps I should have worn new socks today. For after a gap of many months I find myself back in this pulpit at St Stephen’s. I’m back at my trade: to wrestle with Scripture, and bring you good news. Whether my feet are beautiful or not you will have to guess for yourself!

For Paul’s words to the Romans reminded me this week of what I am called by God, and by you, to do among you. We each of us have our different ministries- different ways in which we serve the church, serve our neighbours, serve God. Last week I preached my first sermon since mid-September, at the Old High Church, and I reflected with the folks there that it was a struggle to prepare it during the week (and I was pretty worn out after delivering it). And yet, it was great be once again wrestling with a Biblical text in order to find a word from the Lord to share with the congregation. So this week has been my second week of reading the Bible, not just for myself, but for you folks as well. We are all called to be messengers of good news. But my particular vocation is to preach that message among you all, and it’s been good to be back at my trade.

But this week, I wanted to say to St Paul: where’s the message in this difficult story about boats and storms and walking on water? What is there to be said about this story from the Gospels, that is really good news for this congregation? Should I say to you that you have to believe that a man can walk on water? But that’s not very good news if it’s too difficult for you to take literally. Or should I chide you, complain that you’re like Peter the disciple, who tries walking on water only sinks when he gets frightened? But making you feel guilty about your lack of faith doesn’t sound like good news either. No, I need a change of plan- or even a change of socks!- if we are to hear some good news from our Gospel passage story.

In many ways, this Gospel story is about the presence of Christ in our lives. And yet, it is a story that begins with the absence of Christ. At the very beginning of the story, our translation says that ‘Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side of the lake,’ while he goes off to pray alone. He ‘made’ them get into the boat without him, says Matthew- you can actually translate as he ‘pressurised’ them into getting on the boat[1]. It’s almost like a test- how will they cope without him?

Into the boat they get. Many writers, down through the centuries, have understood the boat in this story as a symbol of the church- and I won’t disagree with that. The boat goes out into the darkness, is not making much headway, for the wind as against her. How’s that for symbolism for today’s church? So often the church seems to be making heavy weather through a dark and stormy night. No wonder we want to sing words like ‘When the storms of life are raging, stand by me’[2].

A lot of people nowadays imagine that Christians are really weak people. They think faith is a sort of crutch to get weak people through life. Such people don’t know about the real experience of believers- that faith is often uncertain, doubtful. Believers can feel like those disciples whom Jesus left to sail without him on a boat on a dark and stormy lake. Yes, the disciples remembered Jesus telling them God would be faithful. But as the night got darker, and the winds got higher, and the waves began to slop over the side, it wouldn’t be surprising if they thought less of God, and more about whether the people in charge of the boat knew their job.

And that, if we are honest, is quite often how it feels to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. We’ve been told he’s with us- but he seems to have left us to his own devices. We are all at sea- and we hope the sailors are good.

Those of you who have been through serious medical procedures will know that feeling. Like the disciples on the boat, you’ve found yourself in the hands of people whom you hope know what they are doing, for your life depends on it. That was dramatized starkly for me, when I found myself recently in the hands of my consultant as he wiggled a couple of wires inside my heart as I watched it, live, on an X-Ray TV screen. I did so hope he knew what he was doing!

Yet every day we are in the hands of other people. We hope the person who fitted the brakes on our car knew what he was doing. We trust that the people who brought us our breakfast egg made sure it wasn’t contaminated. We hope that when the gas installer came to our house, she did the job properly. We hope that the builder used fire-safe materials in our house. We hope that those who are advising Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un are careful people who know what they are doing. Every day of our lives, we depend on other people.

And yet- this does not mean that we do without God. Yes, following Christ can seem sometimes as if we have been sent on a boat trip on a dark night on a stormy lake. But that is precisely what faith is all about. Often, the language of faith in the Gospels is the language of journey, adventure, going out into the unknown. ‘Take up your cross and follow me!’ says Christ. ‘Go out into the world, baptising people everywhere!’ Faith is a movement, a process, a journey. Faith is not about sitting still, staying where we are taking no risks. Faith pressurizes us to get on the boat, set sail for the unknown. We are not called to live in a cocoon, wrapped up in pious sentiments shielding from life’s harsh realities. Faith is an adventure, a journey in the unknown, dangerous, treacherous. A voyage on stormy waters.

Now, the next thing that happens in this happens, says Matthew, happened between three and six in the morning. I love that wee detail. Because some of you may know I used to be a hospital porter. Sometimes I did night shift, and any of you who have done night shift, or had to stay awake all night, will perhaps agree with me that the worst time of night are the few hours before dawn. We had done all the routine stuff, like clearing away beds. Patients were mostly asleep, and it was unusual for us to be asked to take someone somewhere in the hours before dawn. So we would sit around in the porters’ room, and as the night went on, we’d soon we’d be too dozy to talk or read or watch TV. We had all wore walkie-talkies strapped to our belts; if yours bleeped and buzzed at that time of night, it made you jump.

Presumably on that boat, someone was at the wheel, or the tiller, or on the watch- I don’t know much about ancient Sea of Galilee fishing boats, but presumably someone was in charge. And even if it was choppy and windy, they were (if they are at all like me between three and six in the morning) finding it hard to keep awake. And then, through the mirk, he sees something which makes him jump- it looks like a man walking on the surface of the water. No wonder they thought it was a ghost, and cried out in panic!

But Jesus says to them: ‘Courage! It is I! Do not be afraid’.

And in the wee small hours, when we feel things cannot get any darker, when we are dozy and disorientated, distracted by the winds change and the storms that threaten to sink us- ‘It’s me’ says Christ. If he did walk on water, it’s because he’s Lord of Creation. For we Christians do not put our ultimate trust in other human beings (no matter how expert they may be), and on technology (no matter how safe it seems to be). The gas fitter, or the general with the nuclear codes, might be having a bad day. Sometimes ships sink, planes crash, houses burn, wars start- all of these, different kinds of human failures. But everyone who calls out to the Lord for help will be saved, because the God of Jesus Christ is hands of the God of Creation.

I really think everybody has got faith. Even those who say they don’t have faith still have to put their trust in something. Christians think that nothing created can ultimately be trusted- and it takes a lot of courage to think that. We face the darkness and the darkness by singing with the Psalmist: ‘Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth’[3]. For, after all, it would be daft to depend on anything less.

And so Peter, the impetuous fisherman, see his friend Jesus, now Lord of the Waves, and shows us exactly what the risk of faith is all about. He clambers over the side. We should celebrate Peter’s courage, instead of bemoaning the failure of his courage once he’s out there. Jesus says that Peter lacked faith, but I think that’s unfair to Peter. For even as he began to sink he knew what to do- he cried out to Jesus to save him. For Peter knew that ‘Everyone who calls out to the Lord for help will be saved’.

If you don’t like being in a boat, if sailing makes you queasy, then I’m afraid I’ve got bad news for you. For all of you (apart from the choir) are sitting in a ship right now. The English word for the area of a church where the congregation sits is the nave– which comes from the Latin word for a ship (it’s also related to the word navy). If you’re part of the Church, you’re all at sea, whether you like it or not!

There were places in the Highlands and Islands where, when the Disruption in the Church of Scotland took place in the nineteenth century, the new Free Church congregations literally had to have their services in boats because the landowners wouldn’t let them build their churches on the land. We should remember that all our churches are boats. For then we would remember that we are all on a journey, for faith is a journey. We would remember that on the journey of faith there will be storms and danger. We would remember that Christ sent his disciples on a voyage: a voyage to bring light to a dark world, a voyage to speak peace to a stormy world. A voyage in which we put our trust in the Lord of the Creation, and no-one and nothing else.

As Paul says, our God is the Lord of all people and stretches out his hand to save all who call to him for help. In our stormy, uncertain, dark world, that, brothers, and sisters, is, I hope good news indeed!

Ascription of Praise

The God of grace who calls you all

to his eternal glory in Christ

restore, establish and strengthen you.

All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.

Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated

© 2017 Peter W Nimmo

NOTES

[1] Arthur van Seters, in Allen, Ronald J. Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year A (p. 347). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Charles Albert Tindley: CH4 570 (sung before the sermon)

[3] Psalm 124:8

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