10 August 2008
12th Sunday after Trinity
10.30 Communion – Woodchurch
Readings: Romans 10:5-15, Matthew 14:22-33
May I speak in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. AMEN.
In Easter 2001 Vivienne and I went to Spring Harvest in Minehead. One evening at the beginning of the main service they ran a promotion for a charity called Saltmine who were organising various sponsored challenges -you know the sort of thing – hike the Inca trail, climb Mount Kilimanjaro, cycle the Great Wall of China. You have to raise enough money to cover the costs plus extra that goes to the charity. Well, the challenge that really caught my eye was the North Sea Arctic Challenge. This involved sailing a 67ft racing yacht from inside the Arctic circle, down the coast of Norway and then across the North Sea back to London. After a day or so of umming and ahhing I signed up for the challenge and then spent the rest of the spring and summer raising sponsorship. In September myself and the 13 other volunteers flew out to Norway to join the yacht and we were expecting some gruesome sailing conditions. Instead for the whole first week the sun did not stop shining and there was barely a breeze – I think it was the nicest week’s weather they had ever had in Norway and we ended up motoring down the coast looking at the mountains and fjords whilst taking turns sunbathing on deck. It was a hellish way to raise money for charity but someone had to do it.
We then reached Bergen and from there we were to set off across the North Sea towards home. It was on the second day out from Bergen that the weather started to turn nasty and we ended up in the middle of the night in the middle of the North Sea in a force 8 gale. The sailors amongst you may not be overly impressed but to us novices it felt like a storm in the Southern Ocean – the wind was terrific, the waves were the size of houses and the boat felt quite insubstantial against the raw forces of nature. I don’t know if you have ever been on a fair ground ride that is more violent and more scary than you were expecting well, helming a 67ft yacht in a force 8 is a bit like that except for one crucial difference – on a fair ground ride you know that however bad it gets it will always be over in a matter of minutes – however when you are at sea in rough weather it may last for hours or days and you just have to keep hanging on. Actually you don’t just hang on you have to be clipped onto the boat – as you leave the cabin and come up onto deck for your watch’s turn to sail you clip onto a jackstay and make your way down the cockpit and, if you are going to be helming, you have to take your life in your hands between waves by quickly unclipping from the cockpit jackstay and onto the helm. You then hang on for an hour trying to keep the boat on the right heading and trying to prevent the boat from being swamped by steering up each wave at the right angle. It is a grim battle of man and boat against the elements.
It was that experience of being at sea in rough weather that I brought to this morning’s gospel reading. Jesus had sent the disciples ahead of him in the boat (which unlike the steel boat I was on would have been wooden and probably no more than 16 foot) whilst he withdrew up a mountain to pray by himself. The disciples had set out across the Sea of Galilee – we are told that it was the fourth watch of the night and their boat was being buffeted by the waves as the wind was against them. And then, in the midst of all this turmoil, amongst the waves and in the gloom of the night they catch sight of something in the distance. It looks like a man, a man walking on the water towards the boat. They were terrified and, frankly, I don’t blame them because if I had seen someone waling towards my boat across the top of the stormy North Sea I would have been terrified too! They cried out with fear and said “It’s a ghost!”.
But Jesus said to them “Take courage! It is I. Do not be afraid.” It is interesting how often the words “Do not be afraid” as used when the divine encounters the human and it is often the first words used by Angels when greeting people – but I digress as that is probably for another sermon.
Anyway, in response to Jesus’ words of reassurance Peter does something amazing he says:
“Lord, if its you, tell me to come to you on the water.”
And when Jesus said “Come” Peter climbed out of his boat in the middle of the night in the middle of a storm and started to walk towards Jesus across the top of the water. Before we get to the next bit it is worth really thinking about that for a moment – Peter knew that it was not possible for a person to walk on water and that to fall into the water on a night like that would be an almost certain death sentence. Yet because Peter had seen Jesus doing this and because Jesus had called him to do the same thing Peter did not hesitate to climb out of the security of the boat and into the ultimate insecurity of trying to walk on water. And for a short time it worked. But then Peter “saw the wind and was afraid and began to sink” – I am reminded of the cartoon characters that run out over the edge of a cliff and keep going until they realise that there is nothing under their feet! Peter was suddenly overwhelmed by the reality of the conditions in which he was standing without a boat beneath him – his initial faith that he could do whatever Jesus willed was overtaken by his fear and his knowledge that people can’t walk on water and so he started to go under. Fortunately Peter still had enough faith to make an important cry from the heart:
“Lord, save me!”
And immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. Jesus then said “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” I have always thought that this was rather unfair of Jesus given that Peter had just climbed out of a boat in the middle of a storm in response to Jesus’ call but it is not always easy to get intonation from the written word – it may look like an admonishment when written down but may well have been said much more gently than it looks – a bit like telling off an errant child of whom you are actually both pleased and proud.
I will be honest with you, if I had seen Jesus walking on the North Sea not only would I have been terrified but I do not think that I would have unclipped myself from the boat and climbed down for a walk. I don’t think that my faith is up to it. In Matthew 17 it is said that if you have faith as small as a mustard seed you can tell a mountain to move from one place to another and it will do so. Well, I have never managed to do that and I have never heard of it being done by anyone else so I guess that sort of absolute faith is in short supply, which may be just as well because can you imagine the chaos if people started moving mountains around to prove how faithful they were. However there is something I can do and that we can all do – when we start to get overwhelmed by the wind and the waves and the darkness we can always cry out “Lord, save me!” and we can rest assured that Jesus will be there for us to pull us back to safety – perhaps with a gentle admonishment about our lack of faith but there nonetheless.
As St Paul said in this morning’s epistle:
“9That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” and “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
So Christianity is not a test to see who has the most faith – to see who can walk on water or who can move mountains. Ultimately Christianity is about being in a relationship with God through the person of Jesus Christ and the only requirement is to acknowledge that Jesus is Lord and to reach out your hand to be saved. And the good news is that you will be.
Lord save me – Lord save us all!