Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
August 10, 2014; Ordinary 19
Listening to today’s gospel reading is one of those times when our twenty-first century Australian mindset can create a problem. Most Australians are happy coastal dwellers, much more apprehensive about Australia’s vast inland than about its oceans. In contrast, the people of Ancient Israel did not like the sea. The Book of Revelation actually offers a vision of paradise where the sea will be no more, (Rev 21:1) which isn’t a vision of paradise that works for me. For the people of Israel the sea was traditionally the source of deep and threatening power, a place of danger and terror. So when the disciples, in today’s reading, are in a boat, battered by the waves and far from land, they feel not only the immediate fear caused by their situation, but the primeval fear of chaos and the abyss inherited from their ancestors.
The only being with any power over this danger is God. That’s what we need to remember as we hear this story. Jesus isn’t walking on water for the fun of it; because it’s a quicker way to get to the other side of the lake; or even because such a showy miracle will help his disciples come to faith. Walking on water symbolises authority over all the powers that threaten humanity, and shows that the one who comes walking towards the disciples on the lake, the one in whose presence the wind ceases, is one who has God’s power. Matthew is telling us a story in which Jesus is shown to have a unique relationship with God. The disciples realise that this man who walks on water is someone in whom they can have faith. And that leads to the second part of Matthew’s story.
Matthew’s version of the story is the only one that adds to this revelation of who Jesus is the description of Peter walking on water. Luke and Mark both have Jesus calming a storm; Mark also tells the story of Jesus walking on water, but only Matthew gives us the extra story of Peter joining him.
I like Peter, and his habit of jumping in first and thinking afterwards. He does it on the mountain during the Transfiguration, when he suggests that he and James and John should build booths. (Matthew 17:3) He does it when he tells Jesus that Jesus must not suffer and die. (Matthew 16:22-23) He does it when he insists that even if everyone else deserts Jesus, he won’t. (Matthew 26:33) Here, we see that Peter again, eager, impetuous, willing to take risks.
Why does Peter leave the boat in the first place? None of the other disciples do, none of them take the risk of that step from battered boat to stormy lake. Peter does because Jesus asks him to. He has the faith to take that step out of the boat, not knowing whether or not he’ll sink, but willing to obey Jesus. This is the real miracle in the story, not that Jesus walks on water, but that Peter, rather than sitting fearfully in the boat in the hope that the storm will pass, takes that initial leap of faith.
Peter, as so often, represents all of us, and not just us at our strongest and most faithful. Peter recognises who Jesus is, and obeys Jesus’ command to ‘come’. He has the faith to follow Jesus. Then the reality of his situation strikes him, he takes his eyes off Jesus, and he begins to sink. Like all of us, Peter is torn between faith and doubt, boldness and fear, strength and weakness. Sinking, he cries out: ‘Lord, save me!’ and Jesus immediately reaches out his hand and catches him, saying to Peter, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’
Peter had the faith to risk stepping outside the boat. So why does Jesus address him as ‘you of little faith’? Not because of the faith he lacks, but because of the faith he has. Peter has a little faith. Repeatedly in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus refers to his disciples as those ‘of little faith’ but he also tells them: ‘if you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you’.(Matthew 17:20) If this is what a little faith can do, how could we ask for more than a little? To be of ‘little faith’ is to be one of the disciples, struggling, asking questions, misunderstanding, fearing and starting all over again. It’s to be within the circle of those who have glimpsed who Jesus is. It’s to be like Peter, able to step out of the boat and, just as important, able to call for help when sinking. To be of little faith is to answer Jesus’ invitation, and then to allow Jesus to hold us up when we begin to sink. To be of little faith means to believe that when we do sink, Jesus will offer us his hand.
Following the Revised Common Lectionary this particular story has come up three times since I began my ministry. And each time, as I’ve pondered this story of a small group of frightened people in a boat battered by the waves, I’ve been reminded of those we call ‘boat people’ today. All Christians are boat people – just look at the logos of the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches in Australia. But in Australia, the term is used to refer specifically to those asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat. Three years’ ago, when I connected this bible reading to our modern ‘boat people’ Australia had just received the first group of asylum seekers that the Labor government was planning to send to Malaysia as part of the ‘Malaysian solution’. This year, as we read about the apostles on the water, the Human Rights Commission under its commissioner, Gillian Triggs, is holding an inquiry into the situation of children in immigration detention. The stories coming out in that inquiry are enough to make anyone who cares about children sick.
This is a situation in which it is very easy to lose faith. I was talking recently to a young man who I first met when he started university in 2002. I was telling him that I’d been on the Palm Sunday march in support of refugees; and he reminded me that I’d taken him to his first rally for refugees twelve years’ ago. In those twelve years, the situation has only got worse. And yet the facts are well-known. Most asylum seekers arrive by air, not boat; the vast majority of asylum seekers who come by boat are found to be refugees; they make up a tiny, tiny proportion of Australia’s migration intake; they have the legal right to seek asylum under the Refugee Convention to which Australia is a signatory. Yet despite all this, it seems that a few words and phrases are enough to make Australians lose all compassion: ‘boat people’; ‘illegals’; ‘queue jumpers’; ‘turn back the boats’.
The churches have been trying for years and years to encourage Australians to see ‘boat people’ as people, and particularly to see children who come by boat as children. This week the Assembly released a statement in which the President, Andrew Dutney, said: “In its single-minded efforts to ‘stop the boats’, this Government has lost its moral compass. What started badly enough as using asylum seekers for political point-scoring has degenerated into a callous disregard for the value of human life,” and the National Director for Uniting Justice, Elenie Poulos, said: “”It is beyond comprehension that the Government believes it is acceptable to deliberately subject children to such clearly harmful treatment. That it shows no willingness to immediately adjust its policies to ensure the wellbeing of children demonstrates a callousness unbefitting of our democracy and our nation’s leaders.”
The stand the Uniting Church is taking on this issue is an unpopular one. Polls have found that the majority of Australians support what the government is doing and are willing for the government to go even further. The churches are united in their condemnation of what is happening, but our voices are frequently drowned out. Advocating for a more just and humane immigration policy is not going to make us many friends.
Today, as we listen to the story of a scared group of disciples sitting in a boat battered by the waves, we can remember Peter, our role model and example, leaping out of that boat and walking towards Jesus. Then we can have the little faith necessary to do the same, take the unpopular stance, and disagree with our government and our neighbours and even some of our friends. We can risk being mocked and abused, told that we’re soft on people smuggling and unAustralian. Because in the end it is as true for us as it was true for the disciples in the boat; Jesus is with us, saying to us in our fear: ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ Amen.