Reflection given at St. Anddrew`s URC Ealing by Revd Sue McCoan
Have you ever had a day when things didn’t turn out quite as you expected? Maybe things going wrong – the milk’s off, your shoelace breaks, your train is cancelled – or sometimes nice surprises.
On Monday, I was setting off to go to the bank, when I saw a woman waving at me from the church car park. She had a mask and I couldn’t make out what she was saying, so I went over and saw her husband and realised, in a kind of slow motion, that these were friends of ours; that they had come on a surprise visit; and we could ask them in; and offer them a cup of tea. It’s so long since we did any of those things… it was completely lovely to see them, but it was very strange.
Later on I did get to the bank and found it is now closed until September. So very much not the day I’d planned.
The disciples of Jesus had a day a bit like that but on a much larger scale. We heard about the first part of the day last week, in the feeding of the 5000. First a crowd turned up in a lonely spot, though that must have happened quite often around Jesus. Then, just when the disciples might have been thinking, these people will go home and we can have time on our own with Jesus, Jesus challenged them to feed the people themselves – leading to the unfolding of the miraculous feeding of the whole crowd.
Today we pick up from where last week’s reading left off. The crowds have eaten, the scraps have been cleared up. The disciples have been part of something wonderful, and maybe now they’ll get to talk to Jesus about it? But no. As we shall hear, Jesus sends the disciples off first, back in the boat he arrived in, and only then sends the crowd away. So we can imagine that these disciples are tired – it’s been a long day – and fed up, because they’ve been wrong-footed by Jesus, and probably emotionally drained after witnessing this miraculous feeding. They will be really glad to get home and get to bed and call it right. But yet again, things aren’t quite as they expect.
Let’s hear the bible reading.
Bible reading: Matt 14:22-33
The disciples set off in the boat, but the wind is against them.
When I was a student, I coxed for the boat club, coxed a racing eight. We would go out to train in all weathers, but the worst weather to deal with was strong wind. Cold or wet is unpleasant and uncomfortable but you can keep going. Wind makes everything difficult. A head wind, one that’s blowing against you, obviously slows you down. But then on top of that, if you’re not moving forward, then you can’t steer with the rudder, because the rudder works by putting a slight drag on one side to slow that side down. So you lose your steering. And if you’re trying to row, then choppy water or waves make it hard to get a clean stroke because you don’t know where the water is.
So even though some of the disciples are experienced fishermen, they are powerless against the strong wind. They should have been long home by the small hours of the morning, but here they are, struggling in the middle of the lake, taking all their strength just to hold on and not get blown backwards. No wonder, then, that when they see a person outside the boat, their first reaction is fear. How can there be anybody there? It must be a ghost. That’s the last thing they need! But of course it is exactly what they need, because it is Jesus.
We’ll look at Peter’s reaction in a minute. But let’s stay for a while with the struggle. I’ve spoken to several people over the last week or two, who have all said, coming out of lockdown has been hard. For going back to church, we had to do detailed risk assessments, and we’ve just had to do another for re-opening the St Andrew’s Church Centre, and it’s complicated because there are so many unknowns. I’m grateful to Peter, to Pat Soutter and to John Mitchell for doing the bulk of the work on this. But all of us, in everyday life, have to keep doing our own mini risk assessments – am I safe, am I a danger to others, if I want to see this person on Wednesday had I better avoid going out on Monday and Tuesday? We are constantly having to think, how do I do things now? Even things that used to be simple, like having friends in for a cup of tea.
It all takes energy. This constant, conscious processing is really tiring. For people who were already struggling with mental health, especially depression or anxiety, it has been doubly hard. It is easy to feel as if we too are battling against a head wind, using all our effort just to keep still. This is the time, of all times, to cut each other some slack; to do our bit with wearing masks and keeping distance but not being too judgemental or angry with people who are not doing it. And looking out particularly for people who have been stuck indoors because they were shielding, who are now allowed out but afraid to go because there are too many others around.
In this effort to keep going, we may not very easily notice the presence of Jesus; we may not recognise God coming close. We may be fearful. We may, like Peter, want to test whether Jesus really is anywhere near.
When Peter hears Jesus saying ‘Don’t be afraid’, he offers a bold test – if it’s really you, Jesus, command me to walk on the water towards you. Jesus commands and Peter obeys – and it’s going OK until Peter realises, this is not possible, whereupon he starts sinking and Jesus has to fish him out.
Under stress, faith can get patchy. We lurch between doubt and over-confidence. We walk on water and we sink like a stone, and flounder helplessly in between the two. And sometimes the stalling and the lurching and the floundering seem to go on and on and we think we’ll never get through it. But Jesus was there beside the boat before they saw him, before they recognised him. Jesus was there while Peter tried and while he failed and called for help. Jesus is with us, probably not in the way we expect, sometimes in ways we might not notice or understand, but there for us. Sowe keep going.
We keep going through the storms; we keep going through our own mistakes; we keep going through our doubt and our fear. We keep going, until one day Jesus manages to heave us back into the boat, and we and the storm are calm again.
We walk on – as the song goes – through the wind, we walk on through the rain, though our dreams be tossed and blown, Walk on, walk on, with hope in our hearts. With Jesus, we will never walk alone.
‘Take heart, it is I’, says Jesus. ‘Do not be afraid.’
A prayer of confession (from Roots)
I’m sorry for the times I take my eyes off you,
And seek to do things in my own strength.
I’m sorry for the times I doubt
That you can keep me on the straight and narrow.
I’m sorry for the times I ask you for signs.
Lord, I pray that you will forgive
My doubts and hesitations;
Show me your loving presence,
Especially when I most need it;
And teach me to trust you at all times.