From the known to the unknown

Sermon for 21 June 2009

As we listen for the Word of God,
let us pray:
Maker and Sustainer of creation,
you bring order out of chaos
and calm in the discord of our lives;
help us to trust in you,
even when all around seems to be giving way;
this we ask in our Saviour’s name. Amen.

Mark 4.35-41

Let me remind you of a beautiful prayer
that was on the slide before our service began—
a prayer used by fishers from Brittany, in north-western France:

Dear God, be good to me;
the sea is so wide,
and my boat is so small.

This prayer was on the lips of men
who routinely risked their lives
on the rough seas of the English Channel,
men who didn’t know
whether they’d come home
whenever they set out.

NCCA logo

The image on your screen
is from the logo of
the National Council of Churches of Australia.
It shows the Church as a boat,
going through the waters,
carried by the oceans of the Spirit,
the cross of Jesus as the mast
and the Southern Cross showing us the way.
Remember how sometimes
we talk about our congregation
as the SS Centenary?

Old-fashioned church buildings were built
in the style of boats.
The long part of the church,
where people sit in their pews,
is like a boat
in which everyone is facing the same direction.
It’s called a ‘nave’,
which comes from the same root word as ‘navy’.
And think about the ceilings
of old church buildings—
they look like a ship’s hull.
(Our building isn’t quite like that;
maybe it’s more like a Welsh coracle!)

Being out on the water can be dangerous.
Water can be dangerous, full stop.
I remember one day at a seaside town
on the east coast of England called Cleethorpes.
Seriously—that’s its name. Cleethorpes.
Miraculously, it wasn’t raining,
and the east wind coming in from Siberia
wasn’t keeping us indoors.
I was about three,
and I was lying on my back
looking up at the sky.
Nothing unusual there,
you might think.
Problem was, I was on my back
in a wading pool.
I was in about 6 inches (15 cm!) of water
and for some reason I couldn’t move.

My dad came into view,
and I felt that I was being lifted up.
Then all the rellies were around me,
clucking away with happy relief.
I’d been plucked
from a watery-though-shallow grave.
I can’t think of much worse than dying in a place
with a name like Cleethorpes;
happily, that wasn’t my end.

It doesn’t take much water to drown in.
Water scared the people of Israel daft.

They were landlubbers and happy that way.
Ratty may have loved messing about in boats
in Wind in the Willows,
but the ancient Jews
would have thought him mad.

But Jesus needed to get to the other side.
He wasn’t just travelling.
He wasn’t just going to another place
to teach and heal.
He was going from somewhere relatively safe
to somewhere unknown.
He was going from Jewish territory—
Nazareth, Capernaum—
to Gentile turf—
the country of the Gerasenes,
where that man we heard about
a few weeks ago,
the Gerasene demoniac, lived.

That was a pretty big jump.
But God’s will is done
when different kinds of people
come together,
live together,
work for justice together,
worship together.

The disciples were already scared.
What would become of them on the other side?
It didn’t help that the feared sea was threatening
to swamp their little tub.
It helped even less that Jesus was fast asleep.

It’s frightening going from the known
to the unknown.
People complain when that happens.
Remember the Israelites,
wandering through the desert
to the Promised Land,
how they bitched and bitched against Moses
and even against God?
When people are on the way,
when they are in between one place
and another,
they have a habit of complaining
and even losing heart.

Tomorrow is the 32nd anniversary
of the formation
of the Uniting Church in Australia.
Being on the way,
being in between,
being a pilgrim people
is a huge part of who we are
as the Uniting Church.
And we’ve had our share of bitching.

Let me read an excerpt from the Basis of Union.
The Basis of Union was the document
that the three churches
that came into the Uniting Church agreed on.
It’s the basis on which
the Presbyterian,
Congregational
and Methodist Churches
united back in 1977.
And in paragraph 3 it says:

The Church lives between the time
of Christ’s death and resurrection
and the final consummation of all things
which Christ will bring;
the Church is a pilgrim people,
always on the way towards a promised goal
;
here the Church does not have a continuing city
but seeks one to come.
On the way Christ feeds the Church
with Word and Sacraments,
and it has the gift of the Spirit
in order that it may not lose the way.

The very name Uniting
shows we are a pilgrim people.
We could have been
the United Church in Australia.
A United Church has arrived,
it’s there already.
But we are still on the way,
always in between.
We are a pilgrim people with Jesus.
We’re in the boat,
travelling across a choppy
and at times dangerous sea.
We are merely Uniting.

When we talk about the Uniting Church
being on the way,
we could talk about all sorts of things.
We could talk about
the way our tradition pioneered
the ordination of women—
the Congregationalists ordained
the first woman in Australia back in 1927.
Her name was Winifred Kiek—
and she was a Yorkshirewoman!

We could talk about the way
we have developed Indigenous ministry
in our Church as one of self-determination
under the guidance of the Spirit.
We could talk about the way
we have established partnerships
with Churches in the Asia-Pacific region.

We could talk about the way
we have spoken out,
often unpopularly,
for those who suffer.
We could talk about
the way we’ve engaged with the debate
every church will one day have to have.
I mean, of course, the sexuality debate.

But I want to talk about being on the way.

Let’s go back to the disciples.
Let’s stand with them in the boat.
The winds are shredding the sail.
The water is lashing your face.
Your clothes are sodden.
What’s it like?

Perhaps you look around for Jesus,
expecting to see all hands on deck.
But no, he’s working another miracle:
he’s fast asleep.
In the storm!
How can he possibly sleep?
Doesn’t he care?

A couple of the others wake him up.
Teacher, what’s up with you?
Don’t you
care?
We’re about to go down!

In this highly symbolic story,
the storm represents the power of evil
and the desire of evil to turn Jesus back.
Jesus is on a mission;
so are the disciples,
though they haven’t got it yet.
So Jesus rebukes the wind,
and tells the sea,
‘Peace! Be still!’
And the sea is as still as a backyard pool.

Well, the disciples begin to wonder
just who this Jesus really is.
And we’ve being trying
to answer that question ever since.
We can know the right answers—
he is Lord and Saviour—
but we each have to answer it
with our own lives.

And look at just where the disciples are.
They haven’t been immediately transported
to the other side.
The boat isn’t going at 60 knots.
They are still on the sea,
away from the land.
They still have to go over the water
to the destination that Jesus has picked out.
They are still on the way,
still in between.

The more pessimistic disciples might think
that it’s still possible
for the boat to capsize.
Or for a sea monster to surface
right in front of them.
Or for the old tub to spring a leak.

Jesus isn’t taking them
out of the danger zone.
But he is with them
as they go through it.

The Basis of Union puts it a bit more formally:

On the way Christ feeds the Church
with Word and Sacraments,
and it has the gift of the Spirit
in order that it may not lose the way.

We’re on the way.
Sometimes we can’t see the destination,
but we know we’re on the way
‘towards a promised goal’.
Christ feeds us on the way,
not with manna like the ancient Israelites,
but with his Word.
And through the Sacraments of baptism
and the Lord’s Supper.
And the Spirit—
the Spirit of Jesus himself—
keeps us on the right bearing.
We have to listen to the voice of the Spirit;
and I believe that often that voice comes to us
through the Church.
More often than some care to admit.

So here we are on the SS Centenary.
Perhaps we’re a sleek new seacraft,
perhaps we’re a leaky tub,
perhaps we’re a charming Welsh coracle.
Perhaps we’re all three at different times.
There may be stormy weather ahead,
but Jesus is with us,
his Spirit is guiding and correcting our course.

And we’re part of a whole fleet of boats
called the Uniting Church.
And that fleet is part of a whole navy,
the one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

I think I’m getting carried away
with the metaphor.
So let’s go back to that wonderful prayer
that we began with.

Let’s pray:

Dear God, be good to us;
the sea is wide,
and our boat is small;
but you are with us. Amen.

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2 Comments

Filed under RCL, sermon

2 responses to “From the known to the unknown

  1. Ken Devereux

    Thanks Paul for sharing your reflections on the journey of the flimsy ship SS Centenary and SS UCA last Sunday. Well suits our situation at Yokine WA where we are about to disband a small and ageing congregation in a changing and cosmopolitan inner metropolitan area of Perth.

    Thanks for allowing your reflections on the man who lived among the tombs with Radio National Encounter as broadcast last week too.

    Grace and peace,
    Ken D.

  2. Thanks, Ken. Good to hear from you!

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