Troubled Times and Mistaken Identities: sermon notes for Trinity 9

Readings: 1Kings 18:9-18 and Matthew 14:22-33

It is so odd seeing one another in masks isn’t it? It affects our communication because it hides so much of our expression. So much is communicated through the muscles of the lower part of our face. It also makes identification more difficult. I had thought that new guidance would have meant that I would be preaching through a mask this morning – I was thinking how difficult that is going to be.

The idea of masks fit both our readings this morning – because we have two cases of mistaken identity. People thinking that they had seen one thing, but had seen something else altogether.

The first mistaken identity is when the king, Ahab, meets Elijah. Ahab asks Elijah, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?”

Elijah replies to tell Ahab how wrong he is. He says to Ahab: “I have not troubled Israel; but you have, and your father’s house, because you have forsaken the commandments of the Lord.”

So, who is the troubler? Is the troubler Elijah? Or is it the king who is the troubler? Is Elijah right in claiming that the king’s misrule – the lack of good government is the trouble with Israel?

From Elijah’s point of view (the point of view of scripture), it is Ahab and his wife, “that Jezebel” who had caused all the trouble for Israel by forsaking the commandments and by their fanatical religious persecution, rounding up the “troublemakers”, killing off the prophets and the opposition.

In our own troubled times we have similar identity parades – but with a different cast. People are paraded before us as troublemakers and are made our scapegoats. So within living memory, Jews, blacks, gypsies, those who are gay have all been paraded before us as the troublemakers – and final solutions have been devised to kill them off. But they haven’t been the troublemakers (however militant they may have become). They have been the troubled – and their troublers have been their accusers. The accusers, the persecutors, have been the real troublemakers.

Similar processes are at play when people are demeaned in today’s politics as “doomsters and gloomsters”, or “remoaners”. That is how opposition is dismissed in British society these days. That is how troublemakers are dismissed.

There have always been peacemakers who have been mistakenly identified as troublemakers. Nelson Mandela was despised by the media as a troublemaker. So was Mahatma Gandhi. So was Martin Luther King. So is Greta Thunberg by some. They are not troublemakers but instead have resisted the troublemakers.

John Hume died last week. He lived through that chapter of Irish history we refer to as “the Troubles”. For his political opponents he was regarded as part of the trouble. But he turned out to be a hero of those troubled times refusing to be swayed by the troublers. He was very much one of the architects of the Good Friday Agreement and the peace of the Agreed Ireland.

Martin Kettle, in the Guardian (August 6th) wrote:

He was a political leader who was confronted with a deeply divided society. He was a bridge builder where flag-based identities and community suspicions loomed suffocatingly large. He recognised that building bridges meant talking to, and listening to, the extremes as well as the centre ground. He saw there was no future for a system in which one tradition exercised total power and ignored the excluded. He took the long view about the hard journey that had to be taken. And he never gave up on it.

Do you see how contemporary that exchange between Ahab and Elijah is? “Aren’t you the troublemaker?” “No, you are the troublemaker.”

The Ahabs do not want anyone rocking the boat. They are threatened by them  – not realising it is their monstrous rules which are rocking the boat.

We are living through very troubling times. So many of our landmarks have gone. We can’t touch those we have hold dear. We don’t know what’s going to happen to our jobs. Children don’t know whether they will see their friends in September. Poverty is alarming us. And the World Health Organisation is saying from a global perspective that we haven’t peaked yet. We have never been this way before.

And this brings us to the second case of mistaken identity.

In our gospel reading the disciples are all at sea. All night long the waves have been buffeting their boat. They are all exhausted – so understandably they don’t recognise Jesus when they see him walking towards them. They see him as a ghost, probably as the sea monster, the troublemaker responsible for their troubles and nightmare.

Of course, nothing could have been further from the truth and the disciples realise that when Jesus tells them who he is. He says: “Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid.” Jesus didn’t refer to himself by his name, Jesus. Instead he said, “It is I” – this is “I AM”, the great I AM – the name by which God chooses to be known to the world.

This is no troublemaker walking on the lake, walking on the water. This is God walking as if a bridge through troubled waters.

This is the one Psalm 89 refers to as the one who rules over the surging sea and who stills the mounting waves. For Job, God alone stretches out the heavens and tramples the waves of the Sea. One commentator, Carol Works, says of this, that “God controls chaos with his toes”. Nobody else does that. And here as they see Jesus walking on the lake they began to see that this must be God – because only God does this.

Chaos is described in terms of “troubled water”. We go through “stormy times”. Nothing is “plain sailing”. We are “all at sea”. How many times do these sort of phrases come to mind in times of trouble? They come from deep in our collective memory – maybe from our birth, or even the waters of the womb.

Jesus calls Peter into troubled water.

“Come” Jesus said to Peter.

“Come” he says to all who would listen to him.

“Step into the water”.

“Get out of your depth”.

“Don’t stay in the shallows”,

“step into the depths, where there is danger, where there is trouble”.

“Join the troubled, don’t be spectators of them.”

“Sail the same waters as the migrants – hear their Sea Prayer (Sea Prayer is a poem by Khaled Hosseini)

“Join Elijah, MLK, Greta Thunberg resisting the evil currents of our culture”

“be prepared to be accused and persecuted as troublemakers”

Those who do are blessed. Jesus said:

 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” (Matthew 5:11)

So Peter, the first disciple, responds to Jesus’ “come”. He steps out but becomes frightened by the storm and begins to sink. He cries out to the lifesaver who catches him (remember that Peter was called to be a “catcher of men”).

Other disciples follow. Into the troubled waters of our chaotic times we are called. We are not called to safety but to danger.

I wonder whether this gives us a different understanding about our baptism. What are the waters of baptism other than that stormy lake, or the waters of chaos over which the Spirit of God hovers at the beginning of creation, and hovers at our second birth in baptism – in our re-creation?

We are called into trouble, not away from trouble. We are called into deep water by the one in whom we have the confidence to save us and catch us.

What makes us shy away is we are short of confidence that we can cope. It feels like drowning. We too are people of little faith. But that is OK. Jesus still calls us. “Come” he says to Peter knowing his little faith. “Come” he says to us. “Come, don’t doubt that together we will tread these troubled waters, together we will build bridges. With you in me and you in me we will calm these troubled waters. Don’t be afraid.”

So Jesus calls us in these troubled times. He calls us to join Elijah, Peter. They are not the troublemakers – the trouble has already been made. He calls us in these troubled times and that becomes our vocation – here and now. The gospel reading was intended to hearten those who found themselves in trouble, to accept God’s call to step out in faith. It is the same for us. Peter was the first disciple – we follow as disciples.

We are not called to walk by on the other side, but to get involved. We may not feel that we are very good in trouble, or dealing with conflict. Maybe it is lack of practice. Maybe we have a lot to learn. Maybe we will get that sinking feeling. But Jesus holds his hand out to us at the same time he calls us “Come” – he does show us the way to walk through troubled times.

If we thought it was going to be plain sailing we have probably mistaken God’s call. And if we remain untroubled we may in fact be part of the trouble – a troublemaker.