10 August 2014

When they saw him walking on the
lake, he said, ‘do not be afraid’

‘I líonta Dé go gcastar sinn, May we meet in God’s nets’ … a modern stained-glass window in Saint Maur’s Church, Rush (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Bartholomew’s Church,
Clyde Road, Ballsbridge, Dublin

10 August 2014

The Eighth Sunday after Trinity

11 a.m.:
The Solemn Eucharist


Genesis 37: 1-4, 12-28; Psalm 105: 1-6, 16-22, 45b; Romans 10: 5-15; Matthew 14: 22-33.

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Since last weekend, each of us is aware of the real living – and dying – conditions for soldiers in World War I.

We have not descended into glorification and over romanticism. Instead, this centenary of commemorations has started with a stark realism that has helped many of us realise the brutality of war and the fears faced constantly by soldiers and civilians over the five years of World War I.

On Monday night, in our household, we switched off the lights at 11 p.m. and lit not one but two candles to remember two grandfathers:

● Stephen Edward Comerford of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, who caught malaria in Thessaloniki and was sent back from Greece to Dublin in May 1916, dying in hospital in January 1921.

● Patrick Culley of the Royal Army Medical Corps, who spent World War I in the trenches and came home with what was then called “shell shock” and what we now know to be Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Thessaloniki is an attractive city today, but the waterfront was a sump during World War I (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Some time ago, we spent a few days walking through the streets of Thessaloniki, imagining the nightmares my grandfather must have seen: young men, half his age, young enough to be his sons, wounded maimed and dying; imagining his own fears and nightmares as he wondered whether he would ever return home to his wife and children in Ranelagh; the frostbite and diseases he or his comrades were afflicted with in the winter when they were deployed into other parts of the Balkans; the stench of the dead water in the sump of the Thermaic Gulf (Θερμαϊκός Κόλπος) on the waterfront in Thessaloniki as he was bitten and infected with malaria.

And then I imagined his nightmares, night after night, after he came home.

The startling truth, though, is that modern warfare today, 100 years after the start of World War I, is worse than the worst nightmares of those who came home from Gallipoli, the Somme and the fields of Flanders.

I was reminded of that in the past week as I spoke publicly at the Hiroshima Day commemorations and was interviewed about the present violence in the Gaza Strip.

What are your worst nightmares?

As we grow up and mature, we tend to have fewer fears of the outside world, and as adults we begin to cope with the fears we once had as children, by turning threats into opportunities.

The fears I had as a child – of snakes, of the wind, of storms at sea, of lightning – are no longer the stuff of recurring nightmares they were as a child – I have learned to be cautious, to be sensible and to keep my distance, and to be in awe of God’s creation.

But most of us have recurring dreams that are vivid and that have themes that keep repeating themselves. They fall into a number of genres, and you will be relieved to know if you suffer from them that most psychotherapists identify a number of these types of dreams that most of us deal with in our sleep at various stages in adult life.

They include dreams about:

● Drowning.

● Finding myself unprepared for a major function or event, whether it is social or work-related.

● Flying or floating in the air, but then falling suddenly.

● Being caught naked in public.

● Missing a train or a bus or a plane.

● Caught in loos or lifts that do not work, or overwork themselves.

● Calling out in a crowd but failing to vocalise my scream or not being heard in the crowd or recognised.

● Falling, falling into an abyss.

There are others. But in sleep the brain can act as a filter or filing cabinet, helping us to process, deal with and put aside what we have found difficult to understand in our waking hours, or to try to find ways of dealing with our lack of confidence, feelings of inadequacy, with the ways we confuse gaining attention with receiving love, or with our needs to be accepted, affirmed and loved.

In our Old Testament reading this morning (Genesis 37: 1-4, 12-28), Joseph is dismissed by his brothers, is seen by his brothers as a threat, because he is a “dreamer.” His perhaps naïve behaviour in his youth is threatening them as the older brothers, the adults.

But rather than confronting their fears and dealing with them, they decide to get rid of Joseph – it’s another play-out of the constant theme of shooting the messenger rather than listening to the message.

We sometimes think of the idealists in our midst as dreamers or day-dreamers. They imagine that things can be done another way, they point to potentials or possibilities, they confront us with our greatest fears. But, like Joseph’s brothers, we often confuse dreams that help us deal with our worst fears and the worst fears themselves.

Saint Peter’s plight in our Gospel reading (Matthew 14: 22-33) this morning seems to be the working out of a constant, recurring, vivid dream of the type that many of us experience at some stage: the feelings of drowning, floating and falling suddenly, being in a crowd and yet alone, calling out and not being heard, or not being recognised for who we are.

Peter sees Christ walking on the lake or floating effortlessly above the water. At first, he thinks he is seeing a ghost. But then Christ calls to him, and Peter responds.

Once he recognises Christ, Peter gets out of the boat, starts walking on the water, and comes towards Jesus. But he loses his confidence when he notices the strong wind, he is frightened, and he begins to sink.

He cries out: “Lord, save me!” Christ immediately reaches out his hand and catches him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

They get back into the boat, the wind ceases. And those in the boat worship him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Was the sight of Christ walking on the water an illusion?

Was Peter’s idea that he could walk on the water the product of an over-worked mind while it was sleeping?

Did he realise he was unprepared for the great encounter?

Did the wind cease when he woke from the dream?

All of these questions are over-analytical and fail to deal with the real encounter that takes place.

Even before the Resurrection, in his frailty, in his weakness, in his humble humanity, Peter calls out to Christ: “Lord, save me” (verse 30).

Do the others in the boat fall down at Christ’s feet and worship him because he can walk on water, because he can lift a drowning man out of the depths, or because they recognise that in Christ they can find the end to all their worst dreams and nightmares?

Saint Paul almost chides us for these questions, reminding us that people have a variety of experiences that help them to grow in faith (see Romans 10: 10).

The delusion of walking on water … learning to paddle standing up on a sailboard off Ireland’s Eye (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

In the sunshine last Monday afternoon, we took a small boat from Howth Harbour to the small island of Ireland’s Eye. The waters were calm, the sun was shining, there were few clouds in the sky, the tiny beaches were covered in golden sand. A few people were sailing in the water between Howth Head and the island, and two or three men were learning to paddle standing up on sailboards.

But, in this come-and-go summer, we knew, as they say, to expect the unexpected. For a brief few minutes, black clouds suddenly moved across the whole scene. The weather could have turned, we could have found ourselves stranded on the island, or we could have found the waters started to become choppy, which can be a frightening experience, even on a short 15-minute hop like this.

As seasoned fishers and sailors, the Disciples know not to try walking on water. They know the risk of sudden storms and swells, and they know the safety of a good boat, as long as it has a good crew.

An icon of the Church as a boat, including Christ, the Apostles and the Church Fathers (Icon: Deacon Matthew Garrett, www.holy-icons.com)

Since the early history of the Church, the boat has symbolised the Church.

The bark (barque or barchetta) symbolises the Church tossed on the sea of disbelief, worldliness, and persecution but finally reaching safe harbour. Part of the imagery comes from the ark saving Noah’s family during the Flood (I Peter 3: 20-21). Christ protects Peter’s boat and the Disciples on the stormy Sea of Galilee (see also Mark 6: 45-52; John 6 16-21). The mast forms the shape of the Cross.

It is an image that appears in Apostolic Constitutions and the writings of Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria. We still retain the word nave for the main part of the church, which, architecturally often looks like an up-turned boat.

So, this morning, I do not want any of us to risk walking on water, or to play stupidly in boats in choppy waters or storms.

But if we are to dream dreams for our parish, for the Church, for the Kingdom of God, we need to be aware that it comes at the risk of feeling we are being sold out by those we see as brothers and sisters, and risk being seen as dreamers rather than people of action by others: for our dreams may be their nightmares.

If we are going to dream dreams for our parish, for the Church, for the Church, for the Kingdom of God, we may need to step out of our safety zones, our comfort zones, and know that this comes with a risk warning.

And if we are going to dream dreams for our parish, for the Church, for the Kingdom of God, we need to keep our eyes focussed on Christ, and to know that the Church is there to bring us on that journey.

Let us dream dreams, take risks for the Kingdom of God, step outside the box, but let us keep our eyes on Christ and remember that the boat, the Church, is essential for our journey, and let us continue to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.


Blessed are you, O Lord,
and blessed are those who observe and keep your law:
Help us to seek you with our whole heart,
to delight in your commandments
and to walk in the glorious liberty
given us by your Son, Jesus Christ.

Post Communion Prayer:

Strengthen for service, Lord,
the hands that holy things have taken;
may the ears which have heard your word
be deaf to clamour and dispute;
may the tongues which have sung your praise be free from deceit;
may the eyes which have seen the tokens of your love
shine with the light of hope;
and may the bodies which have been fed with your body
be refreshed with the fullness of your life;
glory to you for ever.

Canon Patrick Comerford is lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Solemn Eucharist in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, on Sunday 10 August 2014.


Anonymous said...

Please credit the iconographer: Deacon Matthew Garrett of www.holy-icons.com for the icon image of the Mystical Church that you are displaying. Thank you.

Patrick Comerford said...

Thank you, I have just done this and added a link. I was not sure where the icon had come from, and shall track back the other places I have used this beautiful icon to add this information.