Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 9 August 2020.
• First Reading: Genesis 37: 1-4, 12-28 (Joseph sold off as a slave, sent to Egypt)
• Psalm 105: 1-6, 16-22, 45b
• Epistle: Romans 10: 5-15 (It is with your heart that you believe and are justified and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved)
• Gospel: Matthew 14: 22-33 (Jesus seen walking on the water. Peter saved from the wind and waves.)
For some, solitude is a place of real blessing. It is a place of prayer, of composure, of companionship with God, and though history there have been those – and thank God there still are – who seek to serve God in their solitude.
Such people are a powerful but hidden blessing to the church and indeed to society, even if they are often misunderstood and ill-used.
But then there are times when solitude becomes loneliness and even isolation. The depressed person may live in a bustling community but still be isolated. Imprisoned by anguish and the bleak prospect of nothingness, even when surrounded by activity and amusement.
This is far less an offering and far more an endurance test. It can become a major trial in life and even a life-defining experience. It can even redefine life as existence, and a burden of which the sufferer wishes to be released.
Then there were the experiences of both Joseph and Peter. Each found loneliness in one way or another and each had to overcome it.
For Joseph, separated from the doting love of his father, he was then attacked by his own brothers and after being put into a dried up well was sold off as a slave. Now he really was on his own and now he would have to live by his wits and his faith.
There would be no easy answers and life within any royal court was always going to be full of jealousies, manoeuvres, plots and the real threat to liberty and life itself.
Yet Joseph was only at the beginning of a journey of a lifetime, and prospects within that dried up well did not look good. Somehow it was within him to persevere and to trust. The rest we know.
Then there was Peter, the fisherman, in a boat and surely within his element. Even in a storm he would have the experience, the strength and the skill to manage the boat and its crew, even if some were certified land-lubbers.
But a storm when close to home and in the daylight is quite different to the night-time, when there is nothing to see except the waves, and no landmarks let alone navigational aids.
The wind should give a sense of direction, but what if it shifts? Gradually, and then suddenly as when gusts come from different directions? It is not quite so funny then.
And it was in this sense of confusion that the disciples saw Jesus calmly walking across the waves. A ghost? Were they about to founder? Was this a premonition of doom?
It was at this point that Peter started looking at things differently. While the waves and the strength of the wind were real enough, there was also the reality of Jesus.
Peter was not looking at Jesus as if He were some kind of disembodied spirit but rather as a real person whom he knew. This was the Jesus whom Peter was coming to admire and to trust. It was a relationship beyond the tutor and pupil life of a disciple. It was more about life itself.
This time Jesus would define the reality, and so would overrule the power of the wind and the waves. He would not deny their existence but He would deny their power over the disciples.
Jesus would be the centre and the disciples would revolve around Him. This was the certainty and the conviction that enabled Peter to call out to Jesus and to offer to come to Him, on the water.
It is not as if Peter got out of the boat unbidden, but that he was relying on Jesus’ personal summons. Only then would he venture forth.
And in itself that was fine – until Peter took his eyes off Jesus and started looking at and thinking about the wind, the water and the storm. Then it got to him and for all his courage and bravado, he began to sink. That was when prayer had a definite edge of urgency.
This is a colourful story, told by Matthew and pointing to the power of faith. It comes after the account of the feeding of the 5000 and before the separate account of the feeding of the 4000.
Paul, however, gives some of the issues some depth. A faith that works is far more than something hidden within the heart and mind.
It goes beyond intellectual assent to commitment and a commitment that is not afraid to share the message with others. A faith that exposes itself to opposition, to ridicule, and even abuse is something that can cost.
It has both a strength and a vulnerability about it. Its strength lies in its relationship with God in Jesus Christ who has given His all for His disciples in every age. It is a strength that redefines life and does so, even beyond the confines of life itself.
It is a strength that knows that the promises of God are far stronger than those of politicians, advertisers or the moderators of fashion and popular opinion.
But yes, there is also a vulnerability about it, a risk of being seen as odd, unfashionable, ignorant or bigoted. Maybe all of these and more.
Yet even this vulnerability is something that Jesus shared, for in going to the cross He submitted Himself to just about every kind of malice and cruelty that could be devised.
And He did it out of overflowing and outpouring love for God and for His disciples in every age and in every land.