Saturday, August 9, 2008

Sunday sermon from Tallinn


Just before The Reverend Boy takes up the reins of authorty.......

1 Kings 19
Psalm 85
Romans 10
Matthew 14

August 10th.

I am very happy in a car. I love trains. Despite the contribution it makes to my carbon footprint I enjoy flying. I am not at all comfortable on a boat – however big. When I last came to Tallinn in 2005, I went to Helsinki by ferry. It was a memorable journey. I wanted to kiss the ground when I disembarked.

When we first arrived at the ferry terminal I was immediately reassured by all those wonderful shiny, big, classy ferries. Only we didn’t get one of those. No, we got one of their smaller older, tattier predecessors. In due course the ferry left the safety of the harbour and began its slow ride across the Baltic. This was Easter and the sea was frozen and the ship struggled with the ice for most of the journey so violently that even usually seasoned seafarers were struggling with sea-sickness and hastened to find places to sit and nurse their misery. Several times the front of the vessel seemed to hit a particularly impacted stretch of ice and it felt as if the ferry had come to a juddering and jarring halt. My friends I couldn’t escape to the outer decks because of the intense cold. I know many of you folk are used to it, but that Easter I was convinced I had never before been anywhere as cold in my entire life. We finally found a place in the bar – no we didn’t drink, we didn’t think that would be too clever, but we did note upon arrival back in Tallinn that there were many who had decided on that refuge to the extent that they were so drunk the crew couldn’t tell whether they were Estonians or Finns. So we sat there in the most surreal setting imaginable, pale green with sea-sickness while half a dozen couples spent the evening dancing exhibition Latin-American to a live five piece band. So strong is that image at a time when I firmly believed I was going to die that I fully expect my journey into resurrection to be accompanied by a woman wearing red sequins and dancing a rumba!

In Estonia the fate of the ferry “Estonia” is still fresh in people’s minds as in Britain is the fate of the ferry “Herald of Free Enterprise”. Two terrible tragedies. Fear is the word that comes to mind: fear of circumstances being beyond our control, fear of the ice, of the cold and fear that death could be just a moment away. Such is the fear I felt in that moment. Such is the fear, I’m sure that the disciples in the boat felt when they were “battered by the waves” on Lake Galilee one evening as they waited for Jesus to finish his private prayers.

I can hardly imagine someone walking on a sea when it is calm, much less when the waves are rolling and the wind is whipping the surface of the sea. Yet Jesus comes along, not reassuring the disciples by his arrival but adding to their fear. Their first reaction is that he must be a “Ghost”. In order to calm their fears, Jesus immediately tells them to “take heart,” and he identifies himself. Jesus’ unrecognized presence on the sea was a threat to the disciples, but the real test for that early morning, was whether they could trust his three-fold word to them, “Take heart; have no fear; it is I”?

“Take heart,” of course, recalls Moses’ words to the Israelites on the edge of the Reed Sea with the pursuing Egyptians right behind them. “Take heart; do not be afraid, stand firm and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today.” And “do not be afraid” runs through the Gospel narratives spoken by God’s messengers to Joseph and Mary, by Jesus to Peter, John, and James on the mount of the Transfiguration, by God’s messenger to the women at the tomb and by Jesus as he sends the disciples into the mission field. Finally, “it is I,” that takes us back to the burning bush and God’s thundering, “I am who I am,” and all the “I am” statements of Jesus in John’s Gospel. Jesus uses a phrase that means so much more than “Look, it’s only me!” The Greek phrase here is the same identifying phrase that God used when Moses asks for God’s name. “I AM”. The association between Jesus and God is inescapable.

Now, something changes in this exchange, at least for Peter. Everyone but Peter appears struck dumb by the situation. And Peter takes a novel approach: rather than respond, he decides to test Jesus. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water!” Peter seems to see and hear more in Jesus’ action on the water than the other disciples because he challenges Jesus to call him out of the boat, to join Jesus on the water. I can’t help but wonder what possessed Peter to want to leave the boat in the first place? Were things so desperate in that boat so far from shore that he was willing to get out? Was the boat filling with water? Was Peter trying to show off? Was Jesus’ personal presence so calming and so reassuring that Peter needed to be where Jesus was? Why would Peter request such a thing?

We can’t know the answers to most of our questions. We just know that Peter suddenly found himself out of the boat and walking on the water towards Jesus. He had no choice: his challenge to Jesus is met with one in return. Not, however, without the necessary rebuke, “You have so little faith…”

And here is our application: when Jesus says, “Come,” we have to respond. In this respect we have to see Peter here as a template for Christians down the ages.
We also know that when his attention returned to the wind and the water, he began to sink and then, as if it had not already been so, his only hope was Jesus.
As we struggle to understand the meaning of this story for our lives today, my guess is that we really don’t expect to find ourselves in such a situation, although most of us know someone who “thinks they walk on water”. But the question remains: is this a morality tale about our faith and the extremes that we should be willing to go for Jesus? Or is there more to discover in this text.

I think it might be helpful at this stage to put ourselves into the shoes of the original listeners and readers of this event: within a long strand of Old Testament tradition, the sea was especially associated with evil powers. Psalm 89, for instance, refers to God “calming the raging seas”, Isaiah 51 talks of God destroying the great sea-beast. The storm was always a symbol of all the tribulations and disasters that could befall both individual and community and in all such passages it is clear that the theological intention is to show that God alone rules the waves and walks through the waters and God alone can defeat the powers of chaos and evil. For the first listeners and readers, a group of people steeped in the teaching of the Old Testament, this passage would have had striking symbolism. Today, we struggle with many of these nuances having lost the ability to unlock aspects of the meaning of the New Testament with the keys of the Old.

To them, the inescapable conclusion of this story was to show Jesus’ oneness with God.

When Peter steps out of the boat, the reader and Peter are given the startling truth that this indeed is the one who commands the waves. This is the “I AM” who has intervened with saving power so many times in the history of Israel that we should pay attention now.

This changes everything in terms of how we now see ourselves in this story. In Jesus, the great “I AM” has come to dwell with us and for us, whether we are tossed about on the seas or hungry on the hillside, whether we are in the boat or out of the boat. This presence does not show us that God has supernatural powers so much as it give us calm in the midst of our stormy world to imagine that we too might wade out into the storm with God’s help. In fact, like Peter, when we recognize God, present in our world, are commanded to go out into the water, to take the risk that the storms of this life can be challenged and overcome, even when we are outside of the safety and relative comfort of the familiar and the every day, even when the church seems to offer little in the way of guidance.

Today the dreadful situation in Georgia continues to unfold. There is no church script for this situation. What is a Christian to do? One of my guiding texts is St. Paul from Galatians: "Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling." In other words, get out of the boat and DO something with integrity. Today I put on my clericals and joined a crowd of Estonian and Georgian protesters as they made impassioned speeches outside the Russian embassy. It seemed a totally inadequate gesture but it took me outside my comfort zone. My other option was even more inadequate: stay indoors and drink coffee. No contest. I have no idea how the Holy Spirit might act now and whether that simple act will lead on to....who knows? But I got out of the boat and stepped into the storm because I needed to do something. Was I hearing the voice of Jesus in my conscience saying:"Come"?

I don’t know whether you are fans of C.S. Lewis and his wonderful Narnia books: a wonderful Christian allegory disguised as a children’s fantasy. At one point in the most recent film of the book “Prince Caspian” several Characters are about to embark on a dangerous journey. One of them, fearfully asks, “Is it safe?” The leader replies, simply, “No. Lets Go!” This is, I suppose the very situation that we face, really when we wake each day. We rise in the morning and look at the news to discover that our world continues to be rocked by bombs and terror, by kidnapping and murder, by disease and famine. We might not even know that we do it, but each of us prays wordlessly to God, “Is it safe?” And the reply comes back, simply, “No. Lets Go! Let’s step into the storm”.

The final good news in this passage comes as Peter falters and starts to sink. We too will surely falter. We too will feel that we are drowning in the depths of our world’s darkness. We too will surely feel that the chaotic waters of life are too treacherous for our tentative footsteps. We too will sink. That is real. Only fools pretend otherwise.

Then we will see as Peter does that Jesus’ hand reaches out to us. We discover, at times to our relief and at times to our annoyance, that we are not the heroes of this story. We also discover that our doubts and fears, while the cause for a rebuke from Jesus, do not, in fact, take us outside of his care and concern.

Sometimes I feel that the church is very much like a boat as we are tossed about on a sea of controversy as we negotiates our way through the storms of theology, contemporary culture, dogma, modern society and discipleship together with our own personal issues and troubles.

It is my prayer that we will look not to our own feelings for a way out of the problems that we face as individuals and as a church, but rather look to the one who walks calmly in the midst of our storms, our anxieties and our personal and institutional controversies. We will see the “I AM” coming to bring healing life to all. Will our fears be calmed long enough to bid him command us out of our boat, our safe places, and into the storm? When, surrounded by the moving waves, we falter, will we too grasp Jesus steady hand? Or will he huddle in the relative safety and comfort of the status quo and not take God’s challenge? That choice is always before us! The great “I AM” continues to walk out into the chaotic waters of the world. How will we answer when he bids us, “Come!”?