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Sermon: Sunday, 13th August 2023
SERMON PREACHED AT St PETER’S, ARROWTOWN
and St PAUL’S, QUEENSTOWN
19th ORDINARY SUNDAY (August 13th) 2023
Genesis 37: 1-4, 12-28
Psalm 105: 1-6, 16-22
Rom 10: 5-15
Matthew 14: 22-33
Back in the convoluted days of my adolescence, I was given a book to read. I must add so I don’t appear to be completely a drama queen, that my coming of age was not particularly more or less complex than the journey of any youth of probably any era, but certainly of the 1970s.
Nevertheless I was given the book Forgive Me, Natasha, (also known as The Persecutor) and I read it, and there is no doubt that it played some part in my quiet and personal journey form adolescent atheism to Christian faith some months – or was it years? – later. The book was also almost certainly the reason I called my second daughter Natasha, still more years later but approaching forty years ago. But that's another story.
Sadly much of Forgive Me, Natasha has been discredited by researchers in the years since. The author, Sergei Kourdakov, was not all that he claimed to be, and much of the narrative has been exposed as demonstrably false. Even at the time I wondered at some of his claims.
Yet two aspects of his fabrication transcend even the fabrications.
One is the power of forgiveness – though myriad investigations into the behaviour of predators in church and similar bodies have warned us that there are, despite powerful value in forgiveness, many grey areas: forgiveness is not the airy waving of amnesia-dust when someone demands that they receive it, and survivors of predation and abuse must not be coerced into believing they have to nonchalantly forgive their perpetrators.
But the other aspect of the book was almost a parenthesis in the conversion story that it told. Sergei tells of his defection from the USSR, jumping overboard from a Soviet warship into bitterly cold west coast Canadian waters. Perhaps he did, though his claims of surviving in those waters, even with a deep and new found faith has always struck me as stretching credulity too far. His suggestion that a computer programme, when faith was factored into his narrative, revised an assessment that the survival was untenable, stretched my imagination even further. What, in the 1970s or the 2020s, does Artificial Intelligence know of the quantifiability of faith?
Yet even with those questions in my mind I do have a deep sense of the strength – perhaps not 11 kilometres over six to nine hours’ worth of strength but never mind – that faith can provide in dark times.
Perhaps we can all recall dark times in our lives that faith has steered us through. Perhaps we might recall the story of Terry Waite’s 1,763 days in captivity: less dramatic than the story told by Sergei Kourdakov, unembellished, and utterly credible.
Any dark chapters in my own life have been far less important but the emergence into light after a tunnel has never failed to remind me of the story of Peter reaching out on the waves in desperation: save me Jesus.
For some of course the light does not shine until after the final human closure: surely there are countless crying out to God in the Kupiansk district of the Kharkiv region in Ukraine at this very time, those for whom the lights will go out. We must hold stretched belief in that further aspect of light beyond our sight, for ourselves, for those we love, for those we pray for but see no apparent answer.
Surely this week in Hawaii’s Lahaina some who cried out to God saw light only after the tragic closure of their lives. There are no words except to know that the very same Christians who first rumoured resurrection-hope were themselves able to hold to light even after the dying of their light, and so the Easter rumour spread through space and time.
It spread, of course, because those first and countless subsequent witnesses were so inspired by love and anger, as the Iona hymn puts it, that the light in their lives transcended mortality.
Perhaps that was what Peter glimpsed as he reached out for Jesus’ hand on the lake. I have no idea what happened that day, but I do believe that Matthew’s telling of the story was utterly consistent with the Chistian experiences of divine hope that transcended even death.
I am not altogether convinced by Sergei Kourdakov’s narrative now. I’ve seen and heard too many false testimonies to believe that all are as it were gospel truth.
But I remain convinced of a God who continues uncannily to reach out across stormy waters and transform, darkness into light – as Joseph’s story reminds us – and even death into life as Paul and Matthew alike were so convinced. I think that’s what Peter’s desperate clutching reach for Jesus can remind us, and perhaps, for all its faults that’s what Sergei Kourdakov’s embellished tale told me.
Yes, for all its faults. The God revealed in Jesus still reaches out over stormy waters.