St Andrew’s Parish of Indooroopilly
Genesis 37.1-4, 37.12-28
Psalm 105.1-6, 105.16-22
Sunday 9 August 2020
When losing the way is the way ©Suzanne Grimmett
T.E Lawrence, better known by many as Laurence of Arabia, wrote in Seven Pillars of Wisdom about his state of mind the night before heading into the desert. He said that ‘as you look ahead, you envision everything that could go wrong and wonder why you ever decided to do this. But the next day when you are in the desert, two things usually happen to your expectations. First, it is not as bad as you imagined and you are doing fine. Second, it is as bad as you imagined, maybe even worse, but you find you develop the skills and recruit the resources you need to deal with it. ’ 1
To be able to step confidently into our future does require courage even though we know that worrying, as Jesus says, cannot add a single hour to our life. As Christians we are called to live by faith…and yet I wonder what that really means? When Peter steps out of the boat he seems to be full of faith, responding quickly to Jesus’ invitation to come out on those stormy seas. Surely that is the definition of faith, isn’t it? To not be afraid and follow Jesus’ call, come what may, trusting in God to lead us safely through? As soon as Peter becomes frightened, Jesus catches him but says he has “little faith”. Now if we read this story literally this seems unfair- hadn’t Peter responded straight away to Jesus’ invitation, even though the wind was howling and the waves crashing? Of course we are not meant to read this story literally- this hugely symbolic story of deathly waters, a ghostly figure of their fears and a very alive presence of the Christ who is with them and saves them. But we are meant to reflect on what a life of faith entails, and what we can expect when we follow Jesus.
Generally when we study the Bible we are seeking to understand more of the mystery that is God, or who we conceive God to be. Today I would like to shift the focus to what it means to be human. What does faith look like in a human life? Peter apparently had little of it in this moment of falling down into the heaving sea; a story unique to all the Gospels. It is also Matthew’s Gospel which exclusively records Jesus affirmation of Peter as the rock on whom “I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not overcome it”. The writer is apparently keen to communicate that someone with little faith is still able to be that firm foundation. Matthew’s Gospel also records the vehemence of Peter promising Jesus, “Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you” and when Jesus predicts his betrayal, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” Peter at least seems to think there is some standard of faithfulness, and he needs to prove himself. How often do we feel the same thing? How often do we presume that the faith of another is stronger than our own?
If we could let go of our need to make this into some kind of best believer competition, I have a hunch we would inch closer to what faith really means. I think it is important to recognise that that person next to – sitting a couple of metres away from us!- on the pews is probably not the spiritual superstar we think they are, and neither is the person behind the altar. What would it mean to us if we realise that God isn’t expecting us to be summoning up the will power to believe we can walk on water, but rather is inviting us into a sacred relationship where we will lose our footing again and again?
If we consider the tenacity of our own faith, we might become discouraged. In the narratives of all the Gospels the disciples too seem to be often wandering clueless after Jesus and their words and actions appear generally as a spectacular witness in missing the point. We have to ask ourselves, “If the disciples who lived and travelled and worked alongside Jesus every day of his ministry life didn’t get it, what hope have we?”
I think we have to recognise that Jesus came to witness to the character of God and to pass on a way of thinking and acting and being in the world that leads to life. I think we need to be aware that to receive this way, and to live that life of faith, is not easy not for the disciples, and not for us. Our days are full of both light and dark and we are both full of dark and light. When we notice this in ourselves, we are more likely to hear Jesus words to Peter as a word of rebuke to ourselves, “You of little faith!” I think, we need to hear instead, “Take heart, do not be afraid.”
So as we survey our own lives, in all their mess and complexity, and the seed of faith which sometimes flourishes and at other times languishes, we need to discover the comfort of persistent courage. The call to be a disciple of Jesus is a daily one which returns as an invitation, regardless of the storms or sufferings or struggles of our lives. Sometimes we can be in the midst of trouble, dealing with painful situations or emotions, and yet still be right where the Spirit would have us be. The storm may seem to last forever, and yet the call remains, despite our own imperfections and the difficulty of the task.
But how do we go about living a life of faith today, trusting Jesus way when we have two millennia separating us from his earthly life? John Shea describes what this task might look like. He says;
We have to go through community beliefs about Jesus and become personally familiar with the Gospel stories. We have to study and meditate on these stories in such a way that our consciousness and behaviour is shaped by them. We have to engage in self-reflection to uncover both the thrill of following Jesus and our resistance to his instructions….Also there will be a need for the support of a community of serious followers and the guidance of someone “who has been there for a while” and knows the twists and turns of the less travelled road.2
We don’t always specifically state what following Jesus’ way might look like in daily practical terms, so I think John Shea’s “how to” list is helpful. I think we need to take care though, to hear the communal emphasis in his words and not think this is a project that we have to self-manage. For many at present, anxiety is growing over time and we have lost some of our traditional sources of social and emotional comfort. Any stormy crisis has the potential to reveal truth, and the problem is that coming to terms with these truths can be disconcerting as we are forced to rethink things we thought would never change. What we can do is remember that discipleship is a shared journey and we don’t need to work things out on our own. Julia Baird reminded us in an article published this weekend that resilience- something we will all need in the weeks and months to come- is a social characteristic and not an individual one. Now is not the time to be aiming for the super stoic award, but a time for remembering that we carry one another’s burdens.
I do not believe in an exacting God who sets us an impossible task. Like the disciples, our faith will fail us again and again. But, also like the first disciples, we will discover that losing our path is the way– a way where the return is marked by repentance, forgiveness and a renewed self-understanding of what it means to walk this narrow road.
So as we step into the future, daunted by the unknowable possibilities, we should remember the approach of Laurence of Arabia- even if the worst happens, once we arrive at that moment we will have the resources we need to survive the storm. Christ is always with us, and we do not need to be afraid. To be a disciple is to follow a way where there will be pain and struggle, but where we will find courage because courage is always born out of love; a love that will never leave us or forsake us. +Amen
1 John Shea, Following Jesus, (Orbis Books, NY: 2010) p.36
2 John Shea, Following Jesus, (Orbis Books, NY: 2010) p.36