Sunday, August 13, 2017

Deliverance from the Storm(front).

I’m going to start with a little bit of an under-the-stole confession here.  A particular preaching pet-peeve of mine is when the priest gets up every week and talks about whatever movie they saw in the last week and maybe, if you’re really lucky, offers some tepid theological reflection upon it.  

Well, I’m not going to inflict that upon you on a regular basis, I promise.  I don’t go to see movies nearly often enough to do it; and secondarily, this sermon isn’t really going to be about a movie, though I am going to mention one briefly in the first part.  And so here it goes:

I went to go see Dunkirk this week.  It was my birthday and we never really go out to the movies or dinner or anything between Charley and our work, and so Lara and I went out for a very fancy, very posh date wherein we watched Dunkirk and then ate some Nando’s which has been a favourite of mine since they opened one near my seminary. Who says I’m not fancy?

Dunkirk is a remarkable movie, and while I’m terribly wary of “endorsing” things from the pulpit, I’d encourage folks to see it.  It manages to show the arbitrary nature of war, the frequent futility of individual struggle in combat, and the tragedy inherent in conflict while simultaneously recognising that even so, there are times in which such tragedy and violence may be the least evil choice; never a good, but the least bad option. 

That it was such a great victory in defeat may not be chalked up merely to the British fortitude and sense of duty, but perhaps also to prayer.  King George called for a national day of prayer as the decision to evacuate was made, and the weather was miraculous indeed, grounding the Luftwaffe for a day, and then granting calm seas to the flotilla of naval ships and little day-sailers that answered the call or were commandeered to get the men off of the beach.  And with all those who responded to King and Country, to duty and to God, and with the protection of the RAF who, though the soldiers on the beach didn’t always recognise it, fought like hell to keep them safe, hundreds of thousands of men made it back to Britain to fight another day and to liberate Europe from the Satanic force of Nazism and Fascism.  

In the end, Dunkirk is a story of Deliverance.  It’s a theme we know well and it’s one that resonates with us; it’s also one of the principal types of story in the Bible.  In fact, this one should be particularly obvious to us.  A group of people driven back to the sea, chased by an army with their chariots, praying for deliverance from what appeared to be a certain fate, and brought through and across the water to freedom.  If that hasn’t rung any bells yet, I have another very good movie for you to watch: Prince of Egypt. 

Deliverance is not brought to us only by brave sailors and pilots, however.  And in today’s gospel we get another story of deliverance.  Jesus has performed a miracle in that he has just fed the masses with loaves and fish, and Jesus sent the disciples along on their way across the lake, while he stayed to dismiss the crowd.  The disciples must have been a bit sulky at their dismissal because they lake is only about four and a half miles across there, but they still hadn’t made it to the other side by the 3:00-6:00am watch.  I’m not sure how much experience any of you have at sea, but suffice it to say, if the men at Dunkirk were waiting for the apostles to come and get them, they’d probably still be waiting.

And while lollygagging their way across, a fierce storm came up, and the disciples were in a bind and afraid for their lives.  And suddenly Jesus comes walking to them across the tumult, striding across the sea as if it were dry land, and if they were scared before, they’re doubly scared now. 

And what does Jesus say? Be not afraid”
To which I hope the disciples said, even if it’s not recorded “Easy for you to say, you’re walking on the water, we’re all about to drown!”

And then Peter, ever skeptical, asks Jesus to call him out onto the water, and to his credit, he manages a step or two before he starts to sink.  But Jesus grabs him and they get into the boat and the wind stops and they recognise him for who he is, that even the wind and the sea obey.

A story of deliverance, of impending doom averted by God’s action in the world.  A story of divine intervention to save us. 

We are, all of us, caught up in the tumult, and it is by Christ stepping into the dangerously broken world, a world in which our lives and souls are at risk, that we are saved from the danger.  In this reading we see the story writ small with the twelve disciples in the boat; in the whole Gospel we see it writ large as God becomes human in the person of Christ to save us from death and the grave.  

But just as importantly, we see here Jesus not just rescuing the disciples as he RNLI rescues people, plucking them out of danger and fighting back to the safety of land.  No, here we see Jesus calm the wind and flatten the sea.  He doesn’t just move them from danger to safety, he conquers the danger, eliminating the storm entirely and leaving behind a place.  

Today (as it is many days lately, it seems), I see my home country on the front page of the BBC's website, and it is once again for horrifying reasons.  While I wish the biggest news of the day had been Chelsea coughing up three goals and picking up two red cards at home to Burnley as it’s always nice for good news to take the day, instead it’s that the same ideology that drove those men onto the beach at Dunkirk is in the midst of a dramatic resurgence which led to one dead and more injured as white supremacists and neo-nazis rally in the states, a rally which many of my former classmates were present with other clergy, in a peaceful and powerful display of Christian witness in opposition to hate.  While I wish I could say such tumultuous and anti-social behaviour was restricted to a tiny group of bigots just in the United States, it is not.  It’s neither a tiny group of bigots, nor is it restricted to just my country.  In fact, we’ve seen the rise of various hate organisations across the west; I had to sign a document before coming attesting that I was not a member of certain organisations here in the UK deemed to be hate groups, and their growth in places like Greece and France has been well documented. 

I find it too appropriate that one of the principal hate magazines in the United States is called “Stormfront” because storm seems to be an appropriate way to describe these movements: unpredictable, complicated, and chaotic.  But no matter how good we get at describing storms, no matter how well we can predict their path, no matter how well we can prepare for them, we cannot stop them.

But Christ can. 

The true answer to this challenge that faces the west, that of extremist ideology of any colour or religion, is the only one who can calm the storm.  God, in whom there is no partiality, is the only one who can do that.  Jesus, who ate with the Samaritan woman, who did not condemn the adulteress to death, in whom there is no slave or free, neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female… God is the one who speaks peace into these situations, and it is by becoming better, more serious followers of Christ, and by praying that others may be converted as well, that we can invite Jesus into this situation. 

And so as we go about our lives (particularly here in this place where mustard gas, one of the most horrifying of our weapons of war from the darkness of the last century, was manufactured) let us pray that we may once again find Christ present in the tempest, taking us by the hand, converting us and those around us, and calming the winds and waves so that we may all come together in that peaceable kingdom that is, in all its beautiful diversity, the body of Christ. 

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