Tenth Sunday after Trinity | Choral Eucharist

The Interim Dean's Sermon preached on the Tenth Sunday after Trinity.

One of the real attractions in coming to Southwark was its proximity to the River Thames. I love being next to the water and to experience the changing tide patterns and all the activity on the water. Perhaps more than any other feature of our cityscape, it is the river that has defined and crafted the history and culture of London over the centuries. There might never have been a convent established on this site which evolved into a priory, parish church and eventually our Cathedral if it had not been beside the first crossing point over the river. It’s been a place of trade, pilgrimage, the movement of people and goods, and over the years the Thames has been like an umbilical cord bringing nourishment, commerce and diversity to the people of our city. The Mudlarking day held here last month underlined the rich culture and history which is washed up and changed by every tide, revealing the past and the present.

There is, however, another side to the Thames and to all open water which is rather more sinister. Next Sunday we will commemorate the sinking of the Marchioness 34 years ago, remembering the 51 young people who died that night and their families and survivors who continue to live with the memories and scars of that tragedy. The Tower Lifeboat station was established as a consequence of the disaster and is now the busiest RNLI station in the UK. At the Blessing of the River in January each year we also remember those who have died by suicide or accident in the waters of the Thames. We have seen too this week the tragic deaths of those seeking hope and a new life but being drowned after their ship sank off the island of Lampedusa and a further six people in the English Channel this weekend.

Yes, water can be a source of life and healing and yet it can also be destructive, inspiring terror and fear.

In today’s gospel reading we see something of this. After the feeding of the five thousand Jesus sends his disciples away in a boat to the other side of the lake, whilst he retires to the mountain top in the presence of God in silence and prayer. With the evening comes a strong wind which stirs up the sea into a maelstrom and the boat is battered by both the rough waves and the forceful wind. As fishermen perhaps they weren’t too bothered by the stormy conditions but they were certainly terrified and in fear of their lives when they saw Jesus coming towards them, walking on the water. They don’t recognise him and are beside themselves with anxiety.

Jesus responds with calm,

‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’

The same story in Mark and John’s versions finishes here but Matthew elaborates further with the dialogue between Jesus and Peter. ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ Keeping his eyes fixed on Jesus, a bit like a toddler learning to walk, Peter makes his way towards his Lord and then he takes his eyes away from Jesus and his terror returns. ‘Save me!’ and Jesus scoops him up into the safety of the boat.

It's no coincidence that Jesus is found in prayer before both the feeding of the five thousand and as he stills the storm and restores hope to his disciples. In this short passage his friends are described as frightened, terrified and fearful. But they move from these feelings to worshipping Jesus, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’ Jesus is the antidote to fear, saying to them and to each one of us, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ Jesus reaches out a hand to rescue Peter. Those of you who are familiar with the Harrowing of Hell icon will remember that in a similar way Jesus pulls Adam and Eve by the arm from hell in his resurrection. We need this powerful, hope-filled presence in our lives.

In the first reading, we hear about the destructive forces of nature when Elijah waits for the Lord to pass by. There is wind splitting mountains and breaking rocks, followed by earthquake and a fire storm. The Lord is present in none of them but only in sheer silence; God is as gentle as the breeze on Elijah’s face. He, like Peter is facing great trials and shouts out, ‘I alone am left and they are seeking my life to take it away.’ Elijah is not shielded from persecution and fear but rather strengthened by God’s gentle presence and sent with a mission to anoint a king and a prophet.

In the second reading, Paul writes to the Church in Rome that ‘the word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.’ He further tells them that there is no distinction between Jew and Greek – the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call upon him. But how are they to hear without someone to proclaim it. Pope Francis spoke in a similar vein this week at the World Youth Day in Portugal, ‘The Church is for everyone, everyone, everyone.’ We are the ones who are sent with this good news for our needy and desperate world.

Neither Elijah nor Peter were abandoned or tested beyond their limits and neither are we, though at times we might feel pretty close to it. Elijah, Peter and the fledgling church in Rome were called to step out in faith, out of their comfort zone, embracing God’s mission and message for the world. Faith does not insulate us or protect us from the turbulent, storms of life. Far from it! We, like them, are given the strength to face life’s challenges, knowing that we do not do it on our own. In our weakness may we know God’s strength; in the storms of life may we feel the gentle breeze and whisper of God’s presence.

We encounter the living God in silence and stillness and not through noise, so we are called to listen attentively and intentionally, seeking God in our midst. We live such busy and noisy lives and so often it is the things which shout loudest which gain our attention. We need to seek to avoid this at all costs otherwise we will walk past Jesus and turn our backs on his help because something or someone else grabs our attention.

Like the first disciples and Elijah, we too are given a mission. ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news.’ This week how might we point to the peace and stillness that we find when we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and in turn be bearers of healing and hope to those we will encounter?