09 August 2020

St Dunstan's Anglican Church Camberwell

Pentecost 10 A 20

1 Kings 19:9-18

Psalm 85

Matthew 14: 22-36

So today we have the story of not one but two Theophanies, that is, revelations of God. 

And I wonder if we, at this strange stage of our lives, might be comforted by a revelation of God? Those of us here in Melbourne are in Stage 4 lockdown, and the people here, is this church producing the service needed a permit to come, including me. Many of us feel overwhelmed and, let’s be honest, some of us are frightened. Some of us are exhausted, we are feeling isolated. Of course, some are enduring it all with grace and courage and some of us go between all the different emotions, perhaps even on a daily basis. And for those listening in other places you have your own set of experiences, but certainly nobody is untouched by the crisis that is Covid 19.

Elijah, in the 1 Kings has a different story but one with resonance for us. He had just had a huge triumph and killed all the prophets of Baal. Then he totally lost confidence, perhaps because of the death threats he has received and ran away. An angel looks after him, and then he hears, or experiences, God who asks him what he is doing here. He immediately begins to list his achievements to God, his credentials if you like, and then ends by telling God they are trying to kill him. Now, he is speaking with God but somehow that isn’t enough, God is going to ‘pass by’. It feels a bit to me like one of those airforce flyovers. And we read what happened, there was a wind, an earthquake, a fire and then the sound of sheer silence, and it was in that complete and absolute silence that God was to be found. Now, this is a more recent translation, we used to talk about the still small voice of God, and I think many of us strained to hear God in the midst of our turmoil, whatever it was, but the scholars have now decided that maybe it is silence. And that, of course, is counterintuitive, we want to hear God speak, and when God is silent we often get angry or despairing, depending on who we are. But God reveals God’s-self in the silence. The other thing that always strikes me is that God has already spoken to Elijah, then we have the great demonstration of power proving perhaps to Elijah that this is really God, and then in the silence, exactly the same question: ‘What are you doing here?’ This is a moment Elijah, to reassess your life. And I wonder if the silence, into which we have been thrown, is a moment to do that self evaluation, as we stand before God who reveals God’s-self, in the silence.

The story of the theophany for the disciples is a little bit different, though there is also a raging wind. To put it all into context, Jesus has been rejected in his hometown, then has heard of the death of John the Baptiser, and has gone away to a deserted place to have some downtime. But it hasn’t worked out that way and 5,000 men, and women and children have arrived wanting healing and then incidentally feeding. Jesus has healed the huge mass of people because he is ‘gut-wrenched’ by their need. And then Jesus empowered the disciples to feed them in a way that prefigures the feeding that we all receive through the Eucharist. Jesus is exhausted, even more exhausted than he was before, you would think. The text says, very confusingly, ‘Immediately’ he made the disciples get into the boat he had arrived in, and sent the disciples ahead to the other side. I am not sure whether that means the next morning, but I presume so. Jesus has a quiet day praying up the mountain, becoming restored by the experience. Meantime the disciples are having a bad day on the lake. I used to wonder, as a girl from Sydney, with the Pacific on my doorstep, just how bad a storm on the lake could be, but apparently it does get very wild. At dawn the poor disciples, who must also be quite exhausted you would think, see Jesus walking towards them on the sea. Now you need to understand that for the Hebrew people this water represents the chaos of death. It was a terrifying thin, they used to get around but still feared the water, and it would be very unlikely that any of them could swim. This appearance of Jesus walking towards them is so unexpected that they think he is a ghost. And then Jesus says the God words, ‘I AM, do not be afraid’. He names himself as Yahweh to his disciples and says what God always says when revealing God’s-self, ‘Do not be afraid’. I read somewhere recently that God says that 365 times in the bible- I certainly haven’t counted them, but humans’ reaction to the appearance of God is fear, and God always reassures them. The gospel of Mark adds a detail that Matthew leaves out, that Jesus was going to pass them by, which is a reference back to that scene with Elijah of a God who passes by the mouth of the cave. This walking on water, is to convey that God, whom the wind and waves obey, has come close to them. This is I AM, God has come to them.

And then Peter responds by saying to Jesus, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water’. Jesus tells him to come, Peter hops out of the boat, starts off OK and then begins to panic. And I have to say that I have had that experience many times in all kinds of different contexts, start off OK and then begin to panic. Jesus ‘immediately’ reaches out his hand and catches him, saying, ‘you of little faith, why did you doubt?’ And it is a good question. Why did Peter doubt? He had recognised YAHWEH, right there and yet he doubts. Now it is important for us, I think to realise that in Matthew’s gospel, having little faith is alright, it is enough, which is a consoling thought for us. Peter’s little faith is like a mustard seed that will grow and bear great fruit. The disciples then recognise Jesus as the Son of God, which is a Messianic title. They are beginning to understand. 

When they get to land Jesus goes back to that most important job, which is healing and is indeed so empowered that people only needed to touch the fringe of his garment. The disciples have seen God revealed, it is a Theophany for them, and yet they just all go back to normal. They have been exhausted, frightened, and isolated on the lake, have experienced God at first hand and then it is business as usual.

Our business is anything but usual at the moment, we are in the crisis state where we might be able to recognise God. So how do we see God in our moment of fear, exhaustion and isolation?

The Psalm that we read tells us something about God’s character, God is a God of mercy and truth, righteousness and peace. God is the champion of the marginalised. All those important qualities are thrown into relief in this moment, aren’t they? We are thinking sensibly about all those who don’t have homes, those who are struggling financially, those who are in need of healing, both in terms of their bodies, but also their minds. And as we analyse the situation we are thinking about truth, though I have to say that is still fugitive. Can we see God in the chaos all around us? Can we hear God in the silence of our isolation? Peter wants to leap out of the boat, into those roaring waves, and join Jesus. I wonder if we do? Now, of course, we can’t go out. That is the point. There is no jumping ship, to change the metaphor a tiny bit. God is there, revealed in the chaos and revealed in the silence. And that revelation is sometimes in the person of another human being. Peter saw God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, who was a fragile and exhausted healer in his community. In whom do we see God at this moment? And that leads me ask, if we are people like God, people of mercy, truth, righteousness and peace, whether we might reveal God for others. Can we be like Peter and say to God, ‘If you command me, I’ll do it’?

In the midst of our disruption and our unprecedented circumstances, our fear and isolation, I pray that this week we might hear the voice of God asking us what we are doing here, and that indeed we might be ready to answer, and respond to our God, even if we have only a little faith. MayJesus the great healer comfort you this week.

Rev Roberta Hamilton