Sermon 2017 August 13th

ST COLUMBA’S CHURCH OF SCOTLAND

SUNDAY 13TH AUGUST 2017

Revd Andrea Price

Listen here: https://youtu.be/8yUC7nzMiOw

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our Lord and Saviour. Amen

 

In July the charity “The Mission to Seafarers” asks churches to remember the work of men and women earning their living at sea and to support them in any way they can. Given our gospel story today it seems to be appropriate for us to do so.

Not living in a city with a large harbour we can easily forget how much our life style depends on those who work at sea: 1.5 million men and women, who spend months away from their families, and are responsible for transporting 90% of the goods we expect on our breakfast tables and in the shops.

The charity “The Mission to Seafarers” traces its history back to 1836 when the Revd John Ashley established the Bristol Channel Mission, being struck by the loneliness and spiritual needs of the merchant seafarers at anchor.

In 1856 The Mission to Seamen – as it was known – was founded and its work grew in line with the rapidly expanding British maritime empire.

In 2000, the name was changed to The Mission to Seafarers to reflect its role as a society which cares for all seafarers, regardless of gender.

The charity works in over 200 ports in 50 countries, caring for seafarers of all ranks, nationalities and beliefs offering practical, emotional and spiritual support.

In 121 ports around the world they run “Flying Angel Centres” offering refreshments, recreational activities, internet and phone facilities, and the chance to spend time away from the ship.

Harsh working conditions, tensions between crew members and isolation from friends and family can take their toll on seafarers, leading to depression, anxiety and loneliness. Chaplains and volunteers are on hand to listen and to offer sympathy and advice.

Many ports are located in industrial areas miles away from towns, shops and amenities. The Mission to Seafarers provide transport so that seafarers can make the most of their brief time ashore.

In cases of pirate attack, shipwreck, abandonment, serious injury or bereavement, the chaplains, staff and volunteers are on hand to offer whatever assistance a seafarer needs.

And the chaplains provide of course Christian worship, spiritual support and opportunities for prayer and quiet reflection. They are trained to recognise and respond to signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. In the aftermath of pirate attack, shipwreck or industrial disaster they offer a caring response.

Look them up on their website if you can. Their work is impressively faithful.

 

Our gospel story today is a story of a group of men caught by a storm on the sea of Galilee. Suddenly they see their Lord coming to them across the water. No wonder the disciples fear to see a ghost! But Jesus reassures them:

“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Peter, himself a fisherman by trade, then asks of Jesus what seems to be impossible.  Like Jesus he wants to walk on water. Walk on water?

Why would Peter want to walk on water? What is the point of that? Yet, the story goes on that Jesus bids him “come”. And to our and everyone’s utter astonishment Peter gets out of the boat and walks like Jesus on the water towards him.

Now if we take this scenario literally most of us will struggle with incredulity and dismiss the story as a fanciful.

 

However if we think of the whole story, the ship struggling in the stormy wind, the waves lashing high, Jesus coming to the rescue and bidding Peter to follow him onto troubled water, if we think of this story as an image for life in faith, life trusting God and following Jesus, does it not all make much sense?

Three gospels tell of Jesus walking on water and joining the disciples in the boat during a wild storm. The image of a ship has always been a popular image for the gathered Christian congregation, so much so that it has shaped our terminology. We sit in the “nave” of this church – you could describe church as a stone ship navigating its way through the wild waters of political and personal life.

But only Matthew has Peter ask Jesus to also walk on water. What is the point?

 

Jesus came to live God’s love, being the visible face of God among us and calling his friends like Peter to follow him, doing seemingly impossible things …until someone dared to imagine a new way and dared to set to it.

Is that crazy or daring to live and love and to love and live in a new way?

 

Since Jesus’ bidding Peter to ‘come’ many faithful people obediently stepped out of their (relatively) safe boats onto wild waters:

 

Who for example would have thought it possible to abolish the lucrative slave trade the UK was involved in for 200 years? Parliamentarians like William Wilberforce, campaigners like Thomas Clarkson, women, slave revolt leaders and Quakers all played their part to achieve the abolition of the slave trade and slavery in the UK. And the world is not rid of slavery yet as the news keep reminding us.

 

Who would have thought it possible to heal many diseases, like e.g. leprosy until Gerhard Hansen discovered the bacterium causing this disease?

Who dared to touch and care for leprosy’s victims until a cure was found in the 1950s but the many missionaries, some of whom even gave their lives for the sake of loving their neighbour?

Who would have thought it possible to give free healthcare and schooling to everyone and set about to organising a way of making this possible in this land?

 

It was not easy to achieve all this and more – but we are glad that what seemed impossible was achieved thanks to the effort and faithful striving of many.

 

Ann Lewin describes another boat ride in her poem: White Water:

 

Watching that programme

I remembered.

 

Tiny canoes, turbulent water,

People pitting their skills against

The treacherous currents, swept

Along, barely in control;

Dashing against rocks, rolling

Out of danger, exhilarated

But afraid; reaching the

Finish, battered and

Exhausted.

 

I have known that.

Swept along in fear of

Disintegration, thrown against

Jagged obstacles that threatened

Destruction; gripped by some force

That almost strangled hope;

Calling on all available

Resources to ensure

Survival.

 

Then just at the point where

Disaster seemed inevitable,

Thrown from the turmoil

Into quiet water; space to

Regain my equilibrium; time

To reflect, and realize that

In spite of all appearances,

I was held by strong arms

That would not let me go.

 

When currents swirl again,

I hope I will remember,

I am profoundly loved,

And need not be afraid.

 

Peter walking on the water also struggled, and then was in danger of being overwhelmed:

 

30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him,…”

 

Paul, fully knowing human weakness, encourages us to believe the Good News of Jesus, the Son of God, who came to save us and everyone with and through his love. Believe, he urges us, have faith – that is trust God with your heart and let your mouth speak of this good news and be its messenger.

 

When Peter steps out of the boat he trusts Jesus, the son of God and obeys him and thus his faith becomes real. What good is it if we just say “hello” to God in our pews but never apply his command to love him and our neighbour as ourselves outside these walls?

 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who struggled hard and long about his active involvement in resisting the Nazi regime, put it like this:

“Peter had to leave the ship and risk his life on the sea, in order to learn both his own weakness and the almighty power of his Lord. If Peter had not taken the risk, he would never have learned the meaning of faith….The road to faith passes through obedience to the call of Jesus. Unless a definitive step is demanded, the call vanishes into thin air, and if people imagine that they can follow Jesus without taking this step, they are deluding themselves like fanatics.” (The cost of discipleship p.53-60, New York: Macmillan 1960)

 

Most here are not having to brave the sea, wild and dangerous at times, for a living, nor go to sea in the flimsiest of vessels to escape warfare, torture or climate change like many refugees. But we too have to leave what boat we found safety in and walk like Peter on unsecure surfaces in our living.

Keep your eyes on the Lord in prayer and praise as you go. In this we also follow his example, who made sure he had time out to pray and reflect before his next task as we heard at the beginning of our story.

Listen in your prayers for Jesus’ call to you: “Come….” We are all called to come to him and to be bearers of good news. “Come…” and live a little dangerously by daring to follow your Lord into the unknown, crossing many depths.

 

And if you get overwhelmed by the threatening elements call for help by all means. Peter did so too and Jesus caught him and stilled the storm.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s experienced: God will always give you strength – but not in advance!

 

So let me finish with an Affirmation of faith by Dorothy McRae-McMahon:

 

We believe that what we see before us is never all that is possible,

That beyond our present is a future which could be new

With more than enough for all,

And compassion greater than our own.

 

We believe in a God

Who comes to the fearful people

Across waters of life which threaten to swamp us

And whose company is love

Beyond our understanding.

 

We believe in a greater power for good

Than anything within each of us and all of us,

Which stands between us

And at the centre of the universe

In ways of mystery and grace.

 

Amen