Tuesday, 9 August 2011

That Sinking Feeling. A sermon by Kevin Bright

1 Kings 19.9-18, Romans 10.5-15, Matthew 14.22-33

What was going through your head as you heard our Gospel reading this morning?

Possibly you were thinking miraculous acts of healing, of feeding I can relate to, I can see their point but walking on water, why does Matthew tells us about that, was Jesus just showing off?

Or perhaps like me you struggle to accept the literal interpretation of these events but want to go beneath the surface, not like Peter was about to, but to see if they have any relevance to us and our lives today.

It strange isn’t it, I do believe that God raised Jesus from the dead and that there is hope for us to be at peace with God after we die, yet walking on water I just can’t get my head around it. Maybe it’s something to do with personal experience. Most of us have seen people healed from sickness, sometimes beyond the expectation of the medical experts but I guess that if we are in the sea or the pool we know we need to get swimming or otherwise experience that sinking feeling.

The first useful thing we can learn from what we heard today about Jesus is how important his quiet time is. A useful tip for everyone who feels they are under pressure with family, work, school or other matters is find yourself a place and time where you can be quiet, clear your head, relax, reflect, pray and prepare for the things that need to be done.

Jesus has skilfully carved himself such a space by telling the disciples, and I paraphrase, ‘ you boys jump in the boat while I finish up here and I’ll catch up with you later’, knowing that with the crowds dissipating and the disciples on their way he would be able to find some peace if he walked up the mountain. He knows that the pressure is building as Herod and the Pharisees are starting to take more notice of him and that he really needs time to think and pray.

I don’t want to labour the point too much and I know boats aren’t readily available to most in Sevenoaks but the quiet time to pray, read or reflect might have to be skilfully carved out by some of us too. When others from our household are engaged in work, shopping, study, sport or any activity that keeps them busy seize the opportunity, spurn trashy TV shows, switch off all means of communication and grab 10 minutes with God.

In our Old Testament reading we heard God speak to Elijah saying the Lord was not in the great wind, earthquake or fire. The temptation is to expect to find God in the dramatic events of the world or to take on great challenges hoping to find God in them and whilst God is present in all things the silence and ordinariness of each day are not too small to meet with God, in fact they offer a perfect opportunity to experience the Holy intimacy that God wants to share with each one of us.

Move your mind from the peace of the mountainside to the busyness of the boat. Having been packed off by Jesus how do you think the disciples were feeling? I could imagine that spirits were high. After all the disciples had just played their part in feeding masses of people who we are told left with full stomachs and food left over when at one stage they must have feared a disgruntled crowd sent away to find their own food.

Perhaps the disciples had that post event feeling, like after an exam, a presentation, a wedding. You know the sense of relief you have when the big event is over and has gone well, you have a buzz about you, the pressure is off, you enjoy some banter with your friends or maybe just a sense of relief. Often our confidence and belief grows after things have gone well yet it doesn’t seem long until the disciples are in trouble again as a storm starts to build while their boat is far from land.

I’m no great sailor but I did used to spend most of my weekends racing sailing dinghies when I was a lot younger. On one occasion when the wind was strong we were towards the front of the pack cutting through the sea with a full sail, the boat tilting about 80 degrees and me with my feet under the toe straps, back arched, counter balancing like a true athlete. For a brief moment we were masters of the sea when suddenly the toe straps snapped and I plunged into the ocean with a backwards dive that Tom Daley would have been proud of. A shocking change in circumstances as I tumbled downwards swallowing water and, for a moment, not knowing which way was up. When I did work it out and my life jacket started moving me in the right direction I put my hands over my head hoping that I wouldn’t be hit by the boats which were behind us. A frightening experience.

Luckily my skipper decided to turn around and follow his man overboard drill rather than go for maximum points and see if I was OK later so I was able to gratefully grab an outstretched hand and clamber aboard.

Even professional fishermen know that being overboard in rough seas can be extremely serious so it’s no surprise that Peter panics and cries out for help as he begins to go under.

We are told that the disciples were terrified at what they first thought to be a ghost walking on the lake. Peter accepts the invitation he has requested from Jesus and steps out of the boat apparently with initial success only to lose his belief, perhaps it was a ghost or perhaps his imagination was running wild and he gets that sinking feeling before gratefully grabbing the outstretched hand of Jesus.

Christ utters those familiar words ‘You of little faith’ and I suspect that this is the point at which we see ourselves in the story.

Like most of us Peter does what Paul is trying to tell us not to do. That is that he is unable to confidently accept God’s grace and so flounders in his efforts believing that his will and effort can secure God’s power.

If we are to mature as Christians it means letting go of some things and accepting that God is more than we can see or understand or even believe in much of the time so there is a real possibility that we could fail to reach our full potential if we feel we must always be in control.

It’s difficult for us to grasp but Paul is urging us not to turn faith into a strenuous pursuit and to recognise it more as acceptance of what God has already done. Jane Williams says that ‘God is already closer to us than our own breath, our own heartbeat’. If this is true then seems that to be still enough to hear our own body will also give us a chance of God’s presence becoming a reality.

You could view events positively and say that at least Peter stepped out towards Christ when beckoned to do so. What might our reaction be if we felt we were being called by Jesus?

There is always the possibility that we question whether it really is Jesus that calls us just as the disciples initially did.

But even if we are convinced that it is Jesus who calls us to do something it’s unlikely that we immediately step forward without considering everything that can go wrong. How is this going to work out, could I get hurt, and what is this going to cost?

We should take comfort from the sinking feeling which Peter experienced, when his faith failed him and he began to falter Jesus did not abandon him to his fate but reached out his hand. Like Peter we may have to recognise an unpalatable rebuke about our lack of faith if we are to learn from our mistakes, but we will not be not left to perish.

Above all we should not view our faith as a test. Christianity is not about passing a selection process like those for a team, a school or a career. Paul says that ‘there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.’ There is no exclusivity to be obtained and the good news is that places are unlimited.

Maybe we feel we are called to do something that seems impossible. I don’t mean performing miracles but far more everyday things like conquering sinful behaviour that is getting between us and God or developing a pattern of reading and prayer despite what can sometimes be hectic and disorganised lives

What can initially seem beyond us can come within our reach if we approach it day by day with prayer that seeks to involve God.

Jesus beckons us, come, so rather than seeing the waves which will knock us off course and give us that sinking feeling let’s try to keep our heads up, our eyes fixed straight ahead on Christ and keep moving closer to him. There’s a real prospect that we will be joyfully rewarded but it’s up to us to take those first steps however tentative they may initially be.

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