Walking on water


Matthew 14: 22-33

Sermon for 9th August

The disciples have had a long day. Exciting – rewarding – but long. They have played waitress to over 5,000 people – feeding them with just five loaves and two fish. I was a waitress responsible for just 5 tables once – at the end of the night I resigned – it nearly killed me. I can not imagine the workload of 5,000.

And at the end of this very long day – they are not offered a cold drink and told to put their feet up – but told to IMMEDIATELY set sail into the dark. Jesus isn’t an easy boss sometimes – and it might be a lot to ask in 2020 – but in 1st century Palestine the sea was a place of danger and chaos – associated both literally and symbolically with death – it wasn’t somewhere you wanted to be at night. Especially when you were tired and storm was brewing.

Make no mistake – ministry is tough – following God’s call can sometimes give you few breaks.

And this is not entirely unlike how Elijah feels too.

Elijah has been under extreme pressure for following his call –– he has had to deliver the difficult message of a drought to the people – and then live through it. This will not have made him a popular prophet. Then he has to speak truth to power – never easy – and confront the ruling King and Queen who have governed badly and led the people astray.

Like the disciples he is fed miraculously – this time by ravens bringing him food – and like the disciples his tasks just keep getting harder too.

For Elijah this leads to a big show down on Mount Carmel – King Ahab and 800 false prophets against just Elijah. It is a David and Goliath moment – a walking on water in the storm sort of thing. But God is with Elijah and Elijah wins.

Queen Jezebel is furious – and sends word that she will kill Elijah – Elijah (despite having so recently witnessed the power of God) feels overwhelmed and he runs – and he hides – and we pick up on his story at that moment today in our readings. He is utterly depressed – feels he is the only one working for the Lord – and is sinking under the pressure.

And for the disciples in the storm and Elijah in his cave it seems all is lost – and their God has abandoned them.

But he hasn’t – not in the slightest – and they discover a hand to hold and a whisper of the divine which can save them. And I think they can save us too.

For haven’t we all been a bit overwhelmed recently? We do what we can for the Kingdom and to serve his church – we give all we can – and yet…

It really does seem to be getting harder and harder doesn’t it? The demands and needs of the world seem impossibly big right now – in the last week there has been a huge explosion in Beirut; a plane crashed in India; floods have affected 5.6 million people; the last fully intact Arctic ice shelf has collapsed – another dire warning of climate change; storms rage – including damaging winds in Australia; a hurricane in the US and Canada; a tropical storm in Vietnam and a large earthquake in the Philippines. There are forest fires currently burning worldwide including in Siberia, Spain and just down the road from us in Chobham – that local fire covers 150 acres and so far, as I write, the fire brigade have been fighting it for two days.

This is before we get on to the global pandemic that doesn’t just threaten health but relationships, the economy, our peace and prosperity – or the recent moment of global awakening to the evils of racism – in which we are all called to repentance and change.

And then bringing it down to the individual level – the personal stories of loss that we have all endured recently – as a priest my heart breaks for many – from the elderly who are housebound and have been without visitors for months – to the shielded who are afraid to go back out – to funerals limited to the smallest numbers – to the bride I heard about this week – the service and reception were booked for the 1 August – this was going to be the first chance for 30 people to gather for a reception since lockdown began – and then the night before the rules changed at the very last minute – as the R rate is rose – those receptions were cancelled. She like all the brides this happened to was devastated but only in her 20s and with just a few weeks to live this was her last chance to gather with friends and family before she died.

So right now – just like the disciples and just like Elijah we might feel God has abandoned us, even as we still have faith. And as we seek to serve God in the world – the storms are big – the waves overwhelm us – the threats can leave us wanting to run to our caves. And if we dare to get out the boat is it any wonder we sink?

No, it isn’t – and it wasn’t for Peter either – the wonder is that given the circumstances he did it all – he very briefly walked on water and realised for just a few seconds what can be achieved if we really trust and believe in God. And that in itself is a rare and beautiful thing – to see for ourselves just how miraculous a life with God can be.

A local church in a drought not unlike the one Elijah predicted once decided to hold a meeting to pray for rain in the middle of the village – where the fields were parched and dry – everyone turned up but it was telling that the only person to turn up with an umbrella was a child.

It is a childlike faith that dares to think he’ll need an umbrella when he asks God for rain – or that he can surf the waves with his feet in the middle of a storm at sea – and that is perhaps what we need now.

When my children were young almost anything could be endured by them as long as they were allowed to hold my hand: a trip to the dentist; that first day of school; a bruised knee from falling or the first exciting ride on a plane as it takes off from the ground.

And that is what God offers to us when we are prepared to try something new. A hand.

Peter starts sinking and he is offered a hand to lift him. A hand to hold. A hand which saves.

And that is Good News.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, tells a story of watching two children play on a beach on a hot summer’s day. The children spend ages building a castle with moats and layers – it is a work of art – but the tide is coming in and with one huge wave the whole thing is washed away. The Rabbi expects the children to cry at their lost work – but they hold each others hands and lightly skip away – to sit further up the beach and build again.

The Rabbi realised the children had taught him an important lesson – all the things we build, the complex structures and designs of our life, the things we give so much time and energy to – can all be washed away in an instant. The only thing that remains are the hands which hold us – only the hands we are joined to enable us to walk away from such loss or failure and build again. Only hands of love can help us find joy again.

God offers us his hand so that when others might expect us to sit down and weep we find the strength to skip lightly and build again.

And then he offers a whisper – a still small voice – or sheer silence.

And silence like the wave covering the sandcastles can wash away everything that distracts and demands and everything that fights for our time and attention – and leave us with the only one essential.

A mirror to our own self – and a glimpse of God himself.

I think this is why Jesus needs some silence and solitude himself after the busy day – it is why monks and nuns throughout history have retreated into silence – often to desert places – and why many spiritual and wise people today still carve out time for silence and retreat – because in silence is the whisper of God – that still small voice with the power to call us out and call us on.

God’s first question to Elijah in our passage is – what are you doing here? Is a calling out question – it is a vocation question.

What are you doing here? In other words what is really important? What is your purpose? What does God want from you – today, this year, with your life?

These are big questions that at some point we all need to hear and answer. Great theologians of the past have debated this for centuries and one of the most succinct answers to ‘what are we doing here?’ is in The Westminster Catechism

Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

To glorify God with our worship and obedience like the disciples and prophets throughout time – and to enjoy him with the delight of a child.

And if we do that – we still might not have an easy journey – the evil Queen might still chase us, we might still end up with waves around our neck, we might still face droughts or pandemics – but we will never face them alone.

This is the climatic last sentence of Matthew’s gospel – the bit that all these parables – all these miracles – all these stories – are leading to and can by summarised by.

Matthew 28:20 – And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

Remember. The God who loves us; the God who notices us; the God who calls us to strange and wonderful things – will never leave us – he sees it all – every brave step you take.

So step out of the boat, come out of that cave and holding on to the hand of God let’s trust him to do a mighty thing – as he did for Peter and he did for Elijah – in our times, in our church and in our lives. Our God will never leave us – can you hear the whisper of that promise?