Sermon: Ninth Sunday after Trinity
Sunday 13 August 2017
The Very Revd David Monteith, Dean of Leicester
Eucharist, with Baptism (Matthew 14.22–33)
We gather in a week when ‘fire and fury’ has been threatened to be unleashed in the world matched by a tit for tat response from the other playground bullies. It is a ‘storm’ which God willing might remain a ‘storm of words’ but suddenly we all know a little bit more about fear.
This week at our monthly Bishop’s Staff meeting we learnt a new acronym which has become popular in the academic literature to describe times like this. It has emerged from the Banking Crisis which began in 2007. This acronym is being applied more widely across the whole of our lives as the political landscape has changed, as climate change becomes more apparent, as terror morphs like a resistant bacteria, and as recovery from the financial crisis still seems illusive.
It is VUCA, which is not a colloquial name for something nasty you picked up from the swimming pool. VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. They are four different but related things which when they come together, they certainly can create a storm. SO V is for volatility; all that turbulence with challenges that come as unexpected and often of unknown duration – life is blustery. Uncertainty – despite knowing so much, some of the causes or reasons are known but things are very difficult to predict accurately. C is complexity; so many different forces and nuances are at work that it makes the situation hard to describe, to really see or to unravel sufficiently to get a handle. Ambiguity is about the haziness that comes from all this, the mixed meanings in a situation where cause and effect are not very intelligible. Knowing of VUCA is a bit like going to the doctors. For a time it is good to know the diagnosis – we’re living in VUCA times maybe we always do – but what really is the diagnosis or prognosis and is there any remedy?
Our gospel from Matthew 14 tells of a boat, a storm, a stranger, a terror, and courage and worship too. Two things in particular frame this famous story which we might miss. The first is that it is full of the echoes of a more ancient story involving Moses. Just before this Jesus has fed the 5000 – a story with echoes of manna in the wilderness. So here like Moses, Jesus having ensured the people are fed, Jesus also goes up the mountain to plead for forgiveness of the people. So Jesus withdraws having commanded the people to get into the boat and they pushed off into the waters. Just as with Moses the people are led through the mighty waters and God is revealed as ‘I am’. So the identity of Jesus here in Matthew is revealed as ‘Son of God’. With our VUCA, we are to hear about the enduring presence of God and God’s work as deliverer for a frightened people.
Notice secondly that he walks on the water ‘early in the morning’. They are terrified. You don’t see people normally walking on water! They think he is a ghost. He enters into their midst and the wind ceases, peace returns. Think of Easter early in the morning, the terror of the empty tomb, their wondering if they meet a ghost and yet there hear too ‘my peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you’. So with our VUCA, in our experience of the confusion and fear of the storm, we are to expect to have revealed the gift of resurrection amidst the confusions and fantasies of belief and unbelief.
Our attention here in this walking on water story is often drawn to impetuous Peter. He reveals that so called rocks in the economy of heaven look more like sinking ships than heroic leaders. However, today and most especially as we celebrate a baptism, I want us to keep our attention on everyone else who is in the boat because Peter here is the exception not the norm. The vast majority of the community are together in the boat. Jesus does not invite them out to walk on water. Rather his command to them is to get into the boat, to experience and weather the storm living with a Christian confidence or courage which means we need not be surprised by VUCA’s. Nor should we be surprised if as a church we find ourselves in the middle of many storms and also far from the shore; a bit odd or crazy or different. Baptism is our invitation into the boat or as Christians of old described it – ‘the ark of salvation’ picking up the allusion to Noah and the place of safety in the storm.
At times our witness needs to be the tentative speech ‘that it is a ghost’. In other words that we have seen or experienced something and we don’t quite have the language for it. And yet at other times, experiencing the safety and solidarity which comes from being in the boat together with our Lord, our witness can be so clear that it will reveal as much as Moses ever experienced.
It is an odd kind of courage yet it is that. It used to be that when people were confirmed, they were slapped in the face by the Bishop. Can you imagine a Bishop doing that today and doing it to you? Completing the initiation of baptism was seen to be a ‘sacrament of courage’ preparing us to be in the boat together, to suffer with each other in every sense of suffering with each other and revealing the peaceful presence of Christ.
The early church knew much of this as they experienced persecution. One of the martyrs from those times in Rome, a man called Ignatius who came from Antioch found himself in the midst of very stormy weather. Some of his fellow Christians thought that their new found belief could mean that they should not be subject to the storms or that they should resist with equal force any attempt to sink the boat. Yet as he went to his martyrdom, he argued that storms happens and that our response needs to be different. Thus he says his death was ‘an intelligible utterance of God’.
Convincing and converting witness of this kind in turbulent comes out of that experience of speaking the truth to one another, to be unafraid of one another in the storm, to begin to untangle the real and unreal fears and to see the storm as powerful but not all powerful. It is a courage which is not heroic but a courage that comes from worshipping Jesus as the vulnerable presence who has conquered all the powers of death and hell through his faithful love. When Jesus addresses their fear, he does not say, ‘stand up’, or ‘fight’ or ‘speak’. Instead he says ‘take heart’. This is our Christian antidote to VUCA and to a time of ‘fire and fury’. Take heart!
Seamus Heaney, my favourite contemporary Irish poet died in 2013. Minutes before he died, he sent his wife a text message. It said in Latin ‘noli timere’ which means ‘Do not be afraid’. Noli timere; this is ‘taking heart’ of a profound and converting kind.
The Very Reverend David Monteith