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.

Which way all the way

a sermon for Easter 3C for St John’s, Weston in Runcorn.

Hallo.

‘Allo, ‘allo.

One of the running gags of TV sitcom ‘Allo, ‘Allo! was the line, delivered in a French accent, “I will say this only once …….”, which was said over and over again, in a comedy called “Allo, allo”.

And we can perhaps imagine the market trader saying, “I’m not going to give you this once, I’m not even going to give you this twice, I’m going to give you this three times.”

That is what we get in today’s readings. We get it three times.

In the gospel, Jesus gives it to Peter three times. “Do you love me?” “You know I do.”

Three times, to correspond with the number of times Peter denied Christ before the cock crew.

Three times to emphasise that Jesus had got over that, that Peter was forgiven.

Three times to underline Peter’s particular pastoral responsibility

I wonder what he says to each of us, this Jesus risen from the dead. What his call is. “Mary, do you love me?” “You know I do.” “Then feed my lambs, teach my people, help them find their freedom.”

It’s not just once that Luke gives us the story of Saul’s conversion. It’s not just twice. It’s three times.

Why?

First of all, I presume it was because he thought this is a story worth telling.

And I presume that it was Luke’s intention that this story should capture the imagination of the church, and help us in our own journeys and our own transformations and conversions.

It’s worth remembering also that it’s not just one, it’s not just twice, but it’s three times that Luke tells us how brutal and callous Saul was towards the followers of the Way.

  1. In chapter 7, Luke tells us how Saul was involved in stoning of Stephen to death. He may only have been holding the coats, but Luke does say that Saul “approved of their killing him.” He was not a nice man.
  2. In chapter 8, Luke reports that “Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.” What was wrong with the man?
  3. Here in chapter 9, he goes and gets letters from the high priest to authorise him to arrest those who followed Jesus’ Way, and imprison them in Jerusalem. This is a truly frightening man.

What on earth was Jesus doing with Saul?

This is a story of conversion told three times, intended to capture our imagination.

I want to look at this in not just one way, not even just in two ways, but in three.

I want to look at the idea of “going out of our way” (in the sense of waywardness), “mending our ways” and “finding our way”.

And I want to refer not just to one person, Saul, nor even to just two people, but three. I refer to Saul, to the prodigal and to ourselves as the people this story is intended to inspire and transform.

Firstly, Saul.

Saul went out of his way to find the followers of the Way.

It comes across as an obsession.

There are two places named. There’s Jerusalem and there’s Damascus. It’s hardly Runcorn to Liverpool in 20 minutes, so long as there are no lane closures on the bridge. This is 135 miles away, across rivers and mountains, on horseback – perhaps 4 or 5 days away.

Then, lo, Jesus meets him, risen from the tomb.

Lovingly he greets him.

“Who are you?” Saul asks.

“I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.”

And he said to Saul, “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what to do.”

And Saul had to be led the rest of the way by hand, and then he was told his way forward.

And what a long way he went.

Luke emphasises all the places Paul went, by road, overseas, through storms carrying Jesus’ to all the nations.

The way was found for Saul, and the way was followed by the convert all the way, all the miles, through trial, suffering, all the way to his death.

Saul’s way, Paul’s way, reminds us of the ways of the prodigal son.

His way was to get his inheritance and run for the time of his life.

Until his luck runs out, and he sees the error of his ways.

The father’s way is to tuck his skirt into his belt and run out to embrace the son he thought he had lost.

Lovingly he greets him, in such an outrageous way that the elder brother protests.

“This isn’t the way.

This isn’t the way to deal with someone who stripped you of half of your money, and who let down the family business.”

And the father says “This is the only way.

The only way to share your father’s pleasure is to forgive your brother. That is the only way. That is my way.” 

What about ourselves?

What are our ways? Are they his ways?

Our waywardness may not be as dramatic as Saul’s, or the murderer who becomes a preacher, or the prodigal’s.

Or as awful as Peter’s, who when he realised what he had done just broke down and wept.

Waywardness is part of our reality which is realised in our worship. We confess the ways in which, whether in thought or in deed, we have sinned against our brothers and sisters, and sinned against God.

We ask for God to help us to mend our ways.

We let Jesus lovingly greet us, lead us, his way, so that we may “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with you our God.”

That is the way God wants us.

He wants us to walk with him. He wants us to be yoked to him, on the way and all the way.  This is the way of life.

Before Jesus’s followers became known as Christians, they were known as followers of the WAY.  The followers of the WAY were known because they had a way of life.

And that way of life is spelled out not just once, not just twice, but three times, by both Jesus and Luke in today’s readings.

Through both Peter and Saul Jesus experienced betrayal and persecution.

To both he showed forgiveness.

For both he gave them a way to go, a direction.

For both there is the prediction of suffering, but for them that was another aspect of walking with Jesus and following his way.

Ourselves, we help each other on our way at the end of our liturgy.

Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord. “In the peace of Christ, we go”.

We don’t simply get on our way.

We commit ourselves to his way, to keep in step with Jesus, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God as we meet other Sauls, Peters, Sharons and Janets.

What is our way with them?