Confirmation Sermon 21 June 2014

Proper 7 year B 2015, Berne with Confirmations
Mark 4:35-41

I have to admit that I don't like spiders very much. I can cope with them, more or less, unless they are really, really huge, (by that I mean more than about 1 cm in diameter). Then I, quite irrationally, find them a bit terrifying. My family don't help, for they know of this irrational phobia, and if there is a large spider in the house, say in a sink or bathtub, they will leave it for me to find it and wait to hear a little shriek. But other more terrifying things tend to make me more fearful now - the threat of terrorist attack, and global warming.

If we go back about 2000 years, the ancient peoples of the Bible had another phobia, a deep seated fear. They hated travelling by sea. For very good reason they were frightened by the depths, given the state of transport in those days. Even the best boats were by our modern standards, pretty primitive. Even the most experienced of sailors would hug the shoreline whenever they could, trying to avoid venturing out in the deep water.

Therefore it is not surprising that when scriptural writers wanted to conjure up and express their deepest anxieties and fears, the things that would terrify them, and profoundly unsettle them, they would speak of the roar and chaos of the sea. This frightened them. So, for example in the Book of Genesis, we hear of the primal unformed darkness of the abyss, the ocean depths, out of which God draws out his creation. In the book of Exodus we read about the frightening Red Sea which was blocking the escape of the Israelites from their slave masters in Egypt. And in all four of the Gospels there is a form of the story which is our Gospel reading today, the storm at sea.

Karl Barth, the great Swiss theologian said, the stormy waters in all these biblical stories stand for das Nichtige, the great nothing. They stand for all those powers that are opposed to God's plans, all the difficulties, physical, psychological or emotional that beset us; all the darkness and murkiness that surrounds us in life, the stormy waters, the nothingness.

So today's Gospel is a story about the fears we face in life. The boat is a symbol for the Church - it is what the World Council of Churches uses on their logo. The stormy waters crashing against the boat, the winds howling and whipping about, are symbolic of everything that has beset the life of the Church across the centuries.

This particular storm must have been absolutely fierce. Remember these were seasoned fishermen! They were sailors who were well experienced in the storms of the Sea of Galilee. They made their living every day on it. They knew this sea well, they knew its dangers. So if these experienced fishermen were so terrified, this must have been a terrible storm. As we read this Gospel today, understanding that this boat and the disciples are the Church, we know that this story is not about some minor problem. It is not about a conflict in a parish council, or a shortage of money in the budget. This storm at sea stands for a major, life-threatening struggle. And in the midst of that storm the disciples cry out "Teacher, do you not care about us? Save us, we are going to die, we are going to drown".

Have you ever heard of a great and ancient prayer called the De Profundis? If you take out your Book of Common Prayer and turn to Psalm 130 you will see that this psalm has the Latin title De Profundis, which means "out of the depths". I will read a couple of verses from it. It goes "Out of the deep have I called unto thee, O Lord: Lord, hear my voice. O let thine ears consider well: the voice of my complaint. In a modern version: Out of the depths I cry to you O Lord, Lord hear my voice. O let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleading.

De Profundis Psalm 130, is a prayer that has been offered by Jews and Christians at the darkest times of their life. When we find ourselves lost and in the shadow of death, when we are feeling utterly desperate, when we know we are utterly incapable of helping or saving ourselves, we turn to this psalm "out of the depths I cry to you". A good example of this from our Christian history is John Newton. He was the author of the great hymn Amazing Grace. He offered a De Profundis prayer when he was on a ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. It was not any old ship. It was a slave ship. He was the captain of it, bringing human beings from Africa to the Americas to sell them into slavery. He was doing something terrible and evil. But he knew that he was spiritually lost and in the middle of that great and powerful Atlantic Ocean, he prayed this psalm, and his life was changed. That was when he began to experience the Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saves a wretch like me.

Another example was a man called Bill Wilson. He founded Alcoholics Anonymous. He was a prisoner of alcohol and had tried all sorts of remedies, would recover from his addiction for a while, and then fall back into deeper despair. He would lose job after job. He reached the point where he contemplated suicide. When he was a rock-bottom, a friend spoke to him of a way out of addiction and encouraged him to pray the De Profundis, Out of the Depths I cry out to you Lord, Lord hear my voice. And he experienced a spiritual awakening and from that moment on he never drank again. His experience of crying out to God from the depths became the foundation principle of his 12 step programme, admitting one's utter helplessness in the face of addiction and turning one's life over to a higher power. We know that those who are caught in this terrible cycle of addition, can't make this move towards recovery until they reach rock-bottom. The absolute depths. It seems that until you hit that place, the lowest depths, you tend to think that you can still save yourself!

My dear friends: what we have in this Gospel today, is really the New Testament version of the great De Profundis prayer of psalm 130. We can read it at two levels:

At the personal level, this Gospel story speaks to us in our individual crises. Not just when we are feeling a little down, or having a difficult day at work, but when something really major affects our lives. Perhaps when you receive the news of a terminal illness, or the death of a loved one, or when you suddenly find that you have no job and your money is gone, or when one of your children get into really big trouble. When the stormy waters seem to overwhelm us and threaten to drown our spirit you can identify with the disciples on the boat, when the waves were crashing over the sides, threatening to sink them and end their lives. The disciples do what we do when really bad things happen. We ask, "Where are you God?"

I heard that after the unbelievable racial killings of 9 people at the Emanuel Church in Charleston South Carolina, members prayed the De Profundis, Ps 130, as an act of faith that God, in our despair hears us.

So at the heart of the Gospel today is this good news: when we in utter despair cry out to God from the depths of our soul, we discover that God is really there. Right in the boat, in the midst of the storm that threatens our life, God is there, with us. One of the most important teachings of the Christian faith is that we human beings cannot save ourselves, but we can trust in the one who can save us, Jesus. Jesus we believe is the incarnate God, that means God in the flesh. Our God is incarnate, not a distant God, and this God incarnate is actually with us when life reaches its lowest, chaotic, darkest depths.

But beyond the personal level, this Gospel is also about the whole Church of God, and having trust in our Lord who is with that Church and will never let it be shipwrecked. There is a very important line in the Gospel, which we might not notice. It is when Jesus says to the disciples, to us, "let us go across to the other side". It was understood by the Early Church that the two sides of the Sea of Galilee symbolised Jewish and Gentile territory. Jesus and the disciples were clearly on the Jewish side where Jesus was preaching and teaching to a gathered crowd. Then our Lord asks the disciples to get into the boat and go to the other side, to the Gentile side. Jesus asks the disciples, asks us, to go to the unknown area, away from the safe environment of their own culture, their own language, their own people, their own religion. To the land of the stranger, even to the land of the enemy.

The Church, the people of God are commanded by Jesus to set off to the other side, to the foreign place, to the unknown, way out of our comfort zone, to the other side of humanity! At times do not know what to do. In Europe we face this right now, and somewhat ironically we see it in boats full of migrants fleeing poverty and war zones, attempting to cross to the other side, and many indeed perishing. Europe is getting nervous about this movement of people; they are strangers, how can they fit in, where will they fit in? But we Christians on this continent need to remember that our Lord commands us to move out of our comfort zone into foreign territory, to welcome the stranger and the foreigner, the one who is different.. We might feel desperate and completely at sea about what to do about our present crises. Then we remember the disciples cried out "Lord, please wake up, don't you see the mess we are in?" The disciples were afraid and were not sure what to do; we are afraid, of so much, immigration, economic collapse, terrorists, war, global warming. That is part of the human condition. But what happened to the disciples in their fear? They utter their De Profundis and Jesus awakens and calms the storm.

Elie Wiesel, the holocaust survivor and writer, in his book Night, wrote about a young boy, Pipel who was being hanged. When the chair was kicked away the child's weight was not enough to make his neck break; he struggled for more than half an hour, in slow agony while the inmates were forced to watch. A voice asked "Where is God now?" And Wiesel heard a voice from within himself answer "Where is He? Here He is - He is hanging on this gallows". We Christians know that even our Lord Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, was tortured and put to death on the cross, and as he was dying even he cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

We Christians are reminded: as we voyage across the troubled oceans of this world, the Church is pounded by the waves of life's different stresses. Our duty is not to abandon ship but to keep her on her course, trusting in our Lord's presence with us, and not fearing new challenges, not fearing foreign territory, not fearing the stranger, not fearing the unknown, the other side - for that is where God is pointing us, and God is with us as we journey.

Today we are welcoming some new disciples on board this ship. They enter through the sacraments of baptism and confirmation. Baptism is itself in its origin a scary thing - it was like a drowning. But we go back to the Book of Genesis and remember those chaotic waters we recall what was hovering over those chaotic waters - the Spirit of God, making order out of that chaos. Bringing peace out of trouble.

In baptism, and confirmation that same Spirit of God comes upon us and lifts us out of darkness and chaos, and makes us a new creation. We are assured, like the fearful disciples in the boat, that Jesus is always with us, never abandons us, he is right by our side, even in the most troubled moments we may ever experience. We discover that God is really here, right in the boat, in whatever terrifying place we find ourselves, God is there.

Dear sisters and brothers - dear candidates for baptism and confirmation today - at any moment in your life when you are feeling overwhelmed - remember your Saviour is always with you. Maybe remember at that time to turn to Psalm 130 and pray the words which will remind you that God is really there, even in the scariest moments you may pass through. The Good News of today's Gospel is that whatever we have to face, as individuals, or as a people, we don't ever have to go it alone.

+David Hamid, Suffragan Bishop in Europe