Sermon 5th February 2017
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our strength and our redeemer. Amen
“Sometime between three and six o’clock in the morning he came to them, walking on the water”
The sixth chapter of Marks Gospel is full of rich sermon pickings. The sending out of the disciples, the feeding of the five thousand. But the verses that spoke to me and that I have been moved to preach on is the fifth story, of Jesus walking on water.
The gospel tells us that after the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus “made his disciples get in the boat and go ahead of him to Bethsaida which was on the other side of lake Galilee from where they were” while Jesus himself went up into the hills to pray. The disciples were clearly making a night trip across the lake, it sounds an unusual thing to do, but some of the disciples were fishermen and this was probably routine for them. Though is worth noting they were headed to Bethsaida which was in Gentile territory, not necessarily hostile but not a trip that was going to go down well with their Jewish Community on the other shore of Lake Galilee. But Jesus could see that the wind was against them and they were “straining at the oars” so “Sometime between three and six o’clock in the morning he came to them, walking on the water”. Then it says very strangely “he was going to pass them by” a phrase theologians have discussed and tried to explain away, though I still find this inexplicable! The disciples seeing someone coming to them, or about to pass them by, walking on water are afraid and think it is a ghost. They are to use the modern parlance, totally freaked out!
So two things struck me about this story, about Jesus coming to the disciples. Firstly it is at a time when the disciples were under quite a bit of pressure, the very early morning probably in the dark, when, even professional fishermen not withstanding, few of us are at our best, and with the wind against them, straining at the oars, heading for a land that is foreign to them, something they would have uneasy about. Secondly, Jesus comes in a way that is, at least initially, not reassuring, but seemingly ambivalent, disturbing, frightening.
I expect there are some for whom the key message of this story is the miraculous nature of Jesus action, indicating his divine nature, only God can walk on water. And if that aspect of the story is meaningful and inspiring for you, that’s great. But for me what intrigues is how Jesus appears to be moved by love and compassion for his disciples after praying and wants to come to them. But it seems his timing is off, catching them distracted, and the nature of his appearance is not reassuring but alarming. And then it gets worse, Jesus originally planned to ignore them and walk ahead across the lake.
This has lead me to reflect on how Christ comes to people and to me. How this is sometimes we are expecting it, sometimes ready for it and readily recognising Christ’s presence in others. And how sometimes, Christ comes when we least expect it, comes and seems to be passing us by, comes and we are unable, or reluctant or afraid to recognise Christ in others.
I grew up a Methodist and for many years after I moved to Leeds I worshipped at Oxford Place Methodist church and for a while I was what was called a Church Steward, which is, sort of the Methodist equivalent of a warden here. I usually sat at the back of the church during services to ensure a welcome to any late comers, hand out a hymnbooks etc and one evening service not far into the service and during a somewhat lengthy prayer of confession that the minister was reciting a young man slipped in and sat in the same row of seats as me. As the minister continued to pray for forgiveness for our sins in a, even for him, rather more fervent way than normal, I saw a flash of something bright in the young man’s hands. Shortly afterwards, and as I recall even before the prayer ended he quickly left the church sanctuary. Something suggested to me that I needed to follow this up and I went out to talk to him in the church lobby. He held a piece of broken glass and his wrist was bleeding from a cut he had just made in it. I took him into the hall and inexpertly bandaged him up, noting the multitude of scars from previous cuts on both his wrists. He told me his story: several years ago whilst a student and driving recklessly, he had crashed a car and friend in the car had died. Since then he had been frequently overcome with a sense of guilt and had with a greater or lesser degree of intent, tried to kill himself or self harm. Walking into a service where someone at the front was on about how we needed to be forgiven for all the horrible things we have done, understandably set him off on another self-destructive path. In due course I managed to lure back a retired nurse who was in the congregation, who after tutting over my appalling bandaging, ensured his wound was better wrapped. At the end of the service, I was also grateful of for the help of a retired school teacher who, skilled in counselling also talked to the young man, called ahead to the hospital just up the road to organise an emergency psychiatrist and took him in. We never saw the young man again.
In very real way Christ came to me in that young man, telling something about the physical and mental pain of the world, and how the church doesn’t always respond as well as it could. And Christ came to me in the form of the practical retired nurse Margaret Wilson and Marjorie Cossey the reassuringly capable headmistress, able to take charge in a difficult situation.
How does Christ come to you?
Christ has come to me in a very vivid way when I was a student in Canterbury and joined a group from the chaplaincy to go up to the old St Augustines mental hospital, the last of the old and often infamous residential mental institutions in the area, where they held a weekly service for the people there, to help people come to the chapel and to share the witness with them. I remember sitting with a small group of mostly elderly people taking communion in the chapel and afterwards listening to a man who talked with tears in his eyes and recited the opening verses of another gospel Johns gospel in German. And that in that strange, uncomfortable, setting, something of the faith that of mans troubled mind inspired me.
How does Christ come to you?
I worked in the US in California for about a year and a half and during that time I got involved with a project to source food for a group of refugees from Central America. There was a need to go the big Oakland Fruit and Vegetable Market and ask the stall holders for donations. We went firstly with a slightly scary Catholic priest who would literally guilt the stall holders he knew or suspected were catholic lapsed or not (!) to hand over a box of pears, or a bag of potatoes. Later on I took on this task on my own or with a friend, I hated asking, the stall holders often didn’t like being asked, but usually gave something. I would then head back to the community centre where I pooled my often meagre offerings, with lorry loads of oranges from the central valley, donated eggs from a local monastery who kept chickens, and various other donations which were then handed out to refugee families, and various classes and advices sessions where held and the atmosphere was celebratory and joyful. I continue to remember these days, when Christ came to me in an uncomfortable way in the grudging generosity of a stall holder, as well as in the bustling positive energy of the food distribution.
How does Christ come to you?
In our story Jesus gets into the boat reassuring the disciples. “Courage, It is I, do not be afraid”. The winds are calmed, the disciples are amazed. When Christ does come to us he will calm our fears, reassure us, and give us the strength to carry on, to row to the other side, to continue our life of service and faith.
But interestingly the story then really focusses on the disciples lack of understanding of what is going on and who Jesus really is. A theme we have all probably become used to as we read this Gospel. And that maybe in a strange way can be reassuring to us. We may miss when Christ comes to us, in our meetings with others and experiences. Particularly when times are difficult, we are going against the wind, in dark, going into strange territory. I wonder if the person or persons who were relating these stories to Mark the gospel writer, would say. My goodness do your remember that time when Jesus came to us walking on the water and we thought he was a ghost! “ Perhaps when we take time to reflect, we will see how Christ comes to us.
As I think Debbie said in her sermon a couple of weeks back, at this point in this story the disciples are yet again probably saying to each other: “Who is this man?”
Albert Schweizer was a German Theologian, musician, Doctor and indeed Nobel Peace Prize winner in the first half of the last century, he was a remarkable if also at times very flawed man but he also asked this question, who is or was Jesus and wrote a book the Quest for the Historical Jesus. Id like quote the very last lines of this book to end this sermon.
He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: “Follow thou me!” and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfil for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.