This sermon was preached by John Webb on 13 August, 2023 (Pentecost 11)
The Theme for today: Being present to God’s Presence fits well with the Gospel: there is much in the Gospel for us to reflect on. However the first reading of the day from Genesis with the dramatic story of Joseph being sold by his brothers, dramatic though it is, does not fit in thematically with the Gospel. And the reading from Paul to the Romans, referring, as it does to justification by faith and the gift offered to Gentiles, also did not inspire me with connections to the gospel or to our lives. It is for this reason that I thought that I would put in another reading, one from the poem Tintern Abbey by William Wordsworth, that for many years has been one of my favourites. It fits well with the theme of being Present to God.
Let’s start with Matthew’s Gospel which we have just heard. It’s Peter’s recognition of Jesus and what Peter does in response to this recognition that spoke powerfully to me, and led me to reflect on my response when I recognise Jesus present and active in my life. In the Gospel, where Peter says, “if it really is you, Jesus, tell me to come to you across the water.” Jesus replies with the simple word “Come!” Peter, as we heard got out of the boat, and started walking on the water. All seemed well, but when he saw the wind and the waves, he was afraid and taking his attention off Jesus, Peter began to sink. In desperation, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him, saying, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
For Mathew’s Community and also for me, there are times when I feel the call of Jesus to come, only to feel overwhelmed when I see so much around me and that distracts me from my focus on Jesus. It is then that I start to go under. If the story is to be believed, it is at this time that I need to focus again on Jesus and take his hand reaching out to me.
As many of you know, I’m a grateful member of Alcoholics Anonymous and have been a member of AA for over 5 years. For years I had tried to control my reliance on alcohol, but was unable to do so. On a visit to my GP, I told him that I was unable to control my alcohol intake, he told me that the only thing that he knew that really worked with Alcoholics Anonymous, and he said if I was to prescribe anything for you it would be AA. Soon after that, I went to my first meeting. It was when I became a member of AA and gave myself to the program that change was able to happen. Central to AA is the belief in God “as I understand God”. In meeting after meeting I hear stories about people who ruined their own lives, and/or other people’s lives, and became submerged in their addiction. It was only when they turned to the “God of their understanding,” and grew in the conviction that one stronger than themselves wanted to be with them in their struggle that they were able to be successful. Over and over again in these stories, those who try to do it on their own, fail over and over again, whereas, those who put their trust in this higher power are able to remain alcohol free.
The ‘Serenity Prayer is used at the end of every AA Meeting. In my home group we hold hands forming a circle of support, and then we pray to the God of our understanding: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference”, and then we all say to each other, “keep coming back!” As in today’s gospel, we remind each other and ourselves of the need continually to be aware of God’s part in keeping us from going under.
With this theme of meeting God in mind, I suggested the Wordsworth Poem, Tintern Abbey as the second reading. It is this poem which reminds me of another aspect of prayer. The sense of support and raising of the mind to a new level that can happen as we move into deeper prayer. Wordsworth is said to be a pantheist. This means that he saw God revealed in nature. In awareness of the beauty of a natural scene he’s taken out of his normal thinking and is filled with an awareness that is beyond the every day experiences. He expresses this strongly in, Tintern Abbey.
It is in quiet awareness of God present in the beauty of nature, that he is revived. He is aware, as he says in the poem, of:
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration:
And he knows that the outcome of such a sense of the presence of God has:
Perhaps … no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good [persom’s] life,
[The] little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love.
And further on in the poem he refers to, that:
In which the burden of the mystery,
In which the heavy, and the weary weight,
Of all this unintelligible world,
In short, for Wordsworth, the entering into a close relationship with God in contemplation, lifts his mind from the mundane every day existence, to an assurance of the goodness of this world with God present in it. What Wordsworth describes is what happens whenever we move into contemplative prayer. We are no longer on our own but aware of God moving us towards new insights and revelation. God becomes truly present to us and we are lifted above the mundane and ordinary existence towards new awareness and contemplation. We are in the presence of God
So in today’s readings we are assured of God’s presence both when we are in crisis and feel ourselves overwhelmed and submerged as Peter was. It is then that turn to God and are open to God lifting us out of what is about to overwhelm and submerge us.
We are also reminded in Tintern Abbey of the power of prayer to take us beyond ourselves. God is the one who raises our minds and our hearts beyond the ordinary and the mundane. into deep contemplation and awareness of God.
May each of these responses be the gift that we accept from our loving God when we enter into prayer.