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Stepping Into the Unknown

February 24, 2002

Ian Lawton

Lent 2     John 3:1-17


I have hanging in my study a photograph with a quote from Robert Browning, "Ah, but man's reach should exceed his grasp. Or what is heaven for?" The quote brings to mind Peter sinking in Lake Galilee stretching his hand out for his leader - his ideal, his guiding principle - reaching for Jesus, yet faith eludes him. Of course it does, or what is heaven for?


The point is he takes a chance and does his best. The wonderfully human figure of Peter sinking at the feet of Jesus is a parable of life. Don't we all live a mix of faith and doubt, certainty and fear? Don't we all sink in chaos at some times and stand tall above water at others? We do our best, and that is all that is required of us.


Depending on how you understand the parables, this may be about Jesus reaching out to you and picking you out of the chaos and fear and calming you with faith. If that is how you see it the story should fill you with courage to face the trials of life, as Jesus is there with you in some mystical sense in the midst of the struggle.


Or else you may understand the parable as being about reaching out for a justice principle, working at making social change and being inspired by the figure of Jesus to keep striving for that ideal. After all, the miracle occurred in the midst of Jesus' social revolution.


As always our best means of learning from the parables is to tell our own parables, and find the points of intersection. I will tell some this morning and hope that they spark your own memories and passions.


During the week I was asked to become involved with a family who were struggling because a church leader had abused a member of the family many years ago. (It was not a situation that had anything to do with St Matthew's or any previous leader of St Matthew's.) I was asked to advocate in certain ways and was given the trust of this family as they described their torment over many years. The pain that I heard in their voices, the sadness I saw in their eyes moved me beyond words. I couldn't help thinking that this was a moment of sinking for them, yet here they were striving for their justice goal and showing such courage. They were afloat, not drowning and that is all they have to do. They don't have to walk on water, just keep moving forward.


I contemplated also my own involvement and what that would mean for me. I felt fear and uncertainty. Yet the principle would drive me to push on and again I was reminded of Peter sinking in Lake Galilee with Jesus urging him forward.


I pondered this week also the anti nuclear movement in this country in the 80's. I rang up George Armstrong who had been heavily involved. He described the experience as being a combination of picnic and chaos, light and fun moments as well as formidable fear at the size of the cruisers. I made the connection between the feeding of 5000 a picnic and the walking on water story. George spoke of the ocean as a great equaliser, where the size of the boat is irrelevant. He spoke of the South Pacific as the great unknown, the point where ownership is contested. He spoke of the massive organisation, and each person finding their place in the whole. Kayaks, dinghies and boats all working together and performing their own miracle. There was some sinking, some chaos and some rising above the water in victory. Fear and doubt merging with faith and courage. The point again is that they did what they could do with the guiding justice principle before them.


Just one further thought on that exercise. There would no doubt be a range of opinions around the anti-nuclear issue and the 1980's action. Everyone had an opinion. Futile, foolhardy, idealistic, suicidal. I'm sure there were also a range of opinions about Peter stepping out onto the water that stormy day. You can imagine the other disciples whispering to each other; what is he doing? This is crazy, suicidal, pointless. The point is not what other opinions are, so much as following your own calling.


You bring your own life experiences to these Bible parables. Whether it is in the face of death or loss or change or an injustice, whether it is a personal desperation or a social ideal at stake you move forward with courage. Like the fisher spider you walk on water in your own way against all the odds. You survive and move forward. Like Peter you will sink at times, yet it will be enough. You will do what you need to do and move forward, because you will have your own guiding principle, your justice passion driving you to attain what seems to be just beyond your grasp.


David Lange, who has recently faced his own struggles, gave a lecture this year entitled 'Bombs Away' in which he said; "When New Zealand first adopted its nuclear free policy, the most common rebuke from the policy's critics, both foreign and domestic, was that New Zealand's exclusion of nuclear weapons from its territory was unrealistic. Its supposed idealism was the quality for which the nuclear free policy was most frequently faulted."


Today's parable is one of the great idealists' stories. Justice can be achieved, sometimes even in the most unlikely places. No matter what your opinion of David Lange, of anti nuclear movements, of sexual abuse in the church, the parable's power is its call to follow your heart, your guiding passion and to take a step even into the unknown, even into the chaos and know that the inspirational figure of Jesus lived his life that way, and offers us courage to live likewise.


God bless our contradictions, those parts of us which seem out of character, those callings which run against the tide.

Let us be boldly and gladly out of character.

Let us be creatures of paradox and variety:

Creatures of faith. God be our constant.

Let us step out of character into the unknown,

To struggle and love and do what we know we must.




Ian Lawton, Vicar, St Matthew-in-the-City


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