09 August 2020

Finding peace with Christ as
we descend into the abyss
at 100 seconds to Midnight

Anne Frank in street art in Berlin … what have we to fear, what are our nightmares, 75 years after the Holocaust and Nagasaki? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday, 9 August 2020,

The Ninth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity IX).

9.30 a.m.: The Parish Eucharist, Castletown Church, Kilcornan, Co Limerick.

11.30 a.m.: Morning Prayer, Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick.

The Readings: Genesis 37: 1-4, 12-28; Psalm 105: 1-6, 16-22, 45b; Matthew 14: 22-33.

There is a link to the readings HERE.

‘Peace. Be still’ … Christ calming the storm … the Cameron window in Saint Seiriol’s Priory Church, Penmon, Anglesey … see Matthew 14: 22-33 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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

Today [9 August 2020] marks the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki on 9 August 1945.

It came three days after the bombing of Hiroshima, in the closing days of World War II. Within a week, the Japanese emperor had surrendered, and the war came to an end.

Perhaps there was added poignancy in Nagasaki as this was one of the oldest and one of the largest Christian communities in East Asia, and the cathedral was 500 metres from ground zero.

Throughout this year, we are marking the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II: the liberation of the concentration camps and the end of the Holocaust, but also the first use of nuclear weapons: at the ‘Trinity’ test site in the New Mexico desert, at Hiroshima, and at Nagasaki.

But many of us may be asking: what have we learned about war and peace, hatred and justice, since then?

The nuclear arms race continues apace, so that earlier this year the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists said the hands on the Doomsday Clock are now at 100 seconds to Midnight … ‘closer to apocalypse than ever before.’

They say, ‘humanity continues to face two simultaneous existential dangers – nuclear war and climate change – that are compounded by a threat multiplier, cyber-enabled information warfare.’

And they warn, ‘Civilisation-ending nuclear war – whether started by design, blunder, or simple miscommunication – is a genuine possibility.’

These are our worst nightmares. As we fall further and further into the pit, into the abyss, we see too a rise in racism, antisemitism and far-right populism that leaves us unable to cope as the Covid-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe.

Too much money is being spent on the arms race and hatred, not enough on hospitals, health and reaching out to one another.

In the face of the pandemic lockdown, many have descended to social, spiritual and psychological depths that we rarely experience, that we usually come to know only at times of great and intimate crises, such as family tragedies.

Social and spiritual isolation seem to bring us deeper into the abyss, and many people must be asking: ‘Where is God in all this?’

This is the context in which I find myself reading today’s lectionary readings.

The Joseph we meet (Genesis 37: 1-4, 12-28), ‘Joseph the Dreamer,’ is going to be thrown into the deepest depths and abandoned by his family. He is rejected by his brothers who go on to plot to murder him, then throw him into a deep pit, leaving him to die, but then selling him into slavery.

Yet we know, with the benefit of hindsight and through faith, that God is not neglecting his people.

Joseph’s experiences are recalled by the Psalmist (Psalm 105: 1-6, 16-22, 45b) as he ponders his own plight. But he too sees God’s hand at work, knowing that all who seek the Lord can rejoice.

In the Epistle, Saint Paul asks, ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ (Romans 10; 7), a reference from the Septuagint (Deuteronomy 30) to crossing the seas. But he too knows that descending to the abyss is not the end: it leads to the end of oppression and to liberation and freedom.

In the Gospel reading (Matthew 14: 22-33), the disciples feel abandoned as they face their worst fears and face the abyss in the sea, the fear of drowning in the storms of life, of falling into the pit.

What are your worst fears?

Most of us have recurring dreams that are vivid and that have themes that keep repeating themselves. They have many common, shared themes, and most of us deal with them in our sleep at various stages in adult life.

Two of the most common themes or nightmares involve drowning and falling, falling into an abyss. Each and every one of us is overwhelmed by the pressures of life, by the demands of others, by the state of the world today.

In the Gospel reading it is early in the morning, before dawn, and the boat is far from the shore when it is battered by waves and the wind.

The disciples have lost control and are frightened. They see Jesus walking on the sea, and are terrified even more, thinking they are seeing a ghost. They cry out in their fears, but Jesus seeks to calm their fears: ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’

In other Gospel accounts, Jesus says, ‘Peace! Be still!’ (see Mark 4: 39).

Both frightened humanity and disorderly nature listen to the word and obey. In their response, the disciples acknowledge Christ as ‘the Son of God’ (verse 33). He is in control of their fears and of the created order, offering to bring a new creation out of chaos and darkness.

‘The world is sleepwalking its way through a newly unstable nuclear landscape,’ the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists warns us.

But concern for the plight of the world in these dangerous times is not an add-on to mission – it is at the very heart of mission, not only for USPG but for all Anglicans.

Two of the five marks of mission – hallmarks of Anglican identity and mission – are ‘to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation’ and ‘to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth.’

In words quoted recently by Helen Mirren and written inside Anne Frank’s Diary, we must ‘be kind and have courage.’

There is no need to fear the abyss, the pit, the nightmares we face now, 75 years after the Holocaust and Nagasaki. We are in this boat together as disciples, and Christ offers the hope he brings with calming the storm, a way out of chaos and darkness into light and peace.

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

‘They got into the boat and went on ahead to the other side’ (Matthew 14: 22) … boats at Messonghi in Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 14: 22-33 (NRSVA):

22 Immediately [after feeding the crowd with five loaves and two fish,] he [Jesus] made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’

28 Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ 29 He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’

‘When they got into the boat, the wind ceased’ (Matthew 14: 32) … a gondolier on the Grand Canal in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Collect of the Day:

Almighty God,
who sent your Holy Spirit
to be the life and light of your Church:
Open our hearts to the riches of his grace,
that we may bring forth the fruit of the Spirit
in love and joy and peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Collect of the Word:

Mighty God and ruler of all creation,
give new strength to our faith,
that we may recognise your presence even when all hope seems lost.
Help us to face all trials with serenity
as we walk with Christ through the stormy seas of life
and come at last to your eternal peace.
We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Holy Father,
who gathered us here around the table of your Son
to share this meal with the whole household of God:
In that new world where you reveal the fulness of your peace,
gather people of every race and language
to share in the eternal banquet
of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Fishing boats tied up at the Quays in Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

‘Go unto Joseph’ … Joseph’s brothers in a stained-glass window by the Harry Clarke Studios in the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Athlone (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This sermon was also made available worldwide by the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) to cathedrals, churches and parishes as part of a series of recorded sermons

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