Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!


Walking on water
August 9, 2011, 7:44 pm
Filed under: Sermons

A sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, Sunday 7th August 2011

(Asked to preach at short notice, I dug this out from the archives, preached elsewhere in the aftermath of the London bombings in 2005. With just a few changes, it is depressing to find it still as topical as it was then.)

A constant theme in the Gospels is the disciples’ failure to understand Jesus, or to have confidence in him. This stems principally from the memories of Peter, on which Mark, Matthew and Luke base their accounts. Today’s reading follows directly on last week’s, the feeding of the five thousand, one of the few incidents outside the Passion to be told in all four Gospels. Already, this week, we see some divergences: Luke does not include the story, Matthew includes a detail not found elsewhere. But let us look at the essentials. After the feeding of the crowd, in late evening Jesus sent the disciples off in the boat, while he remained behind. After dark, and faced with a contrary wind and a rough sea, the disciples saw Jesus walking towards them across the water. They were terrified, thinking it to be “a ghost”, but Jesus reassured them with the words, “Don’t be afraid, it’s only me!” Matthew alone adds that Peter asked Jesus to let him come to him across the waves, and was told, “Come on, then!” But after setting out, he got cold feet (so to say) and then wet feet, beginning to sink until Jesus took him by the hand, saying, “Man of little faith! Why did you doubt?” They get into the boat, and are soon ashore.

Matthew includes the detail about Peter, because it is part of his purpose to emphasise Peter’s importance (modestly played down in Mark), and this story reflects Peter’s ministry as a whole- his impulsive faith, his momentary lapse, his restoration by Jesus. But from a more general point of view, the story is about fear, and the need to have faith in Jesus. It applies to all followers of Jesus, and especially to leaders.

These are difficult and anxious times in our society. One of the effects is to make us all afraid, uncertain in our daily routines, and less trustful of other people, especially those we perceive as different from ourselves. Who knows what those strangers are thinking or planning?

In truth, we all have two great enemies. But these are not flesh and blood, these are not particular human beings or human groups. They are, if you like, two “spirits”, but again I do not mean devils or demons in the conventional sense. They are the spirits of Fear and of Anger, and they are, in a metaphorical sense, the demons we have to confront and overcome, individually in ourselves and together as a society.

As is illustrated in today’s Gospel-story, fear clouds the judgement and paralyses the will. Already in a dangerous position because of the stormy sea, faced with an unknown apparition the disciples panicked. When people panic, they do stupid things: the Gospel words suggest agitated movement, shouting and screaming: not the safest behaviour in a storm-tossed boat! People who panic tend to abandon their clear duties, leaving others to their fate in the desire to save themselves; or they may lash out blindly against anything that looks threatening, perhaps discovering too late that they have injured an innocent person. Fear is irrational and instinctive, something we share with the brute beasts that have no understanding. We cannot help feeling it, but as human beings we must learn to control it, to master it.

When we are under attack, we also react with anger. This too is a natural defence: when an animal cannot run away, it will try to counter-attack. When there is no-one else to be angry with, people are often angry with God- but certainly when faced with human enemies, it is natural and instinctive to react with anger against them. But, like fear, anger is blind. Where fear drives us to escape danger, anger drives us to destroy it, and not to care what else we destroy in the process. Unless fear and anger are controlled, they drag us down below the human level, to behave like animals.

There is talk of new laws against “religious hatred” and “race hatred”; but in truth the real problem is just hatred in itself, a blind emotion to hurt and destroy what is thought to threaten our safety. There are real threats, but when (as sometimes happens in the media) there is a deliberate effort to increase public alarm and anger, then that anger can become an indiscriminate rage against whole categories of people, most of whom are barely connected with the object of our anger.

People who commit terrorist crimes, like those who commit violence against racial or religious minorities, are always motivated by anger, and often by fear as well. They divide the human race into two groups, “us” and “them”. Any injustice done by one of “them” to one of “us” calls out for vengeance. We must destroy “them”, and all who belong to “them”, or at least make them so afraid of us that they will not dare to harm us. This seems to have been the mentality of Anders Breivik, consumed with Islamophobia to the extent that he massacred dozens of young fellow-Norwegians. This, it would seem, is the mentality of young Muslims who so identify themselves with the sufferings of their co-religionists in various parts of the world, oppressed (as they see it) by an arrogant, selfish and materialist “West”, that they will even die themselves in order to terrify that “West”. There is a similar mentality in gangs of youths who take out their anger and resentment against society on any passing black lad who crosses their path. There is no reason in it: if I say we have to understand it, I don’t mean we must look for its justification. I only mean we must look for its causes. Angry and hate-filled people will take out their rage on anything and anyone. It may be cruelty to animals, child-abuse, racial violence or terrorism- the root is fear and anger, not reason.

The Scriptures begin with the story of the Creation and the Fall. Rationalists and fundamentalists get hot and bothered about the literal details of the story: the Church knows that the story is God’s way of telling us truths about ourselves. We are both dust of the earth and the spirit-filled images of God. What is more, whether or not the first humans were called Adam and Eve, or Darby and Joan, we are all a single family. Each and every one of us is related to each and every other one by ties of blood, however far back they go. In the end, there is no “them”, there is only “us”. We are all brothers and sisters.

Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, it is I.” God himself has come to us in our storm tossed world, as one of us. Each and every one of us (if we knew enough genealogy) could trace our family relationship, through Mary, to him. We must not let ourselves be divided from him, or from one another. He has the power to still the storms, to support us amid the waves. He is Lord and Messiah, the very embodiment of God. He has the Power, the Wisdom and the Love to keep us safe. It is our task to convince other people of this, so that they can become free of the fear and anger that often blights their lives. Do not be afraid. Do not be angry. Do not hate. Stretch out your hand, like Peter, and Christ will hold you up.

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