Sunday 1st July 2018
The Rev’d Jenny Wilson
In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.
The poet and cartoonist Michael Leunig wrote the following prayer:
There are only two feelings.
Love and fear.
There are only two languages.
Love and fear.
There are only two activities.
Love and fear.
There are only two motives,
two procedures, two frameworks,
Love and fear.
Love and fear.
This evening we gather to remember our patron saint, Saint Peter, Peter for whom Michael Leunig’s poem might well have been written. Peter is a wonderful guide to the spiritual life, to our life as beloved children of God, for his life is woven as much with the struggles as the joys, as much with fear as with love. We don’t have to struggle so much with following a saint who is perfect as Peter is so clearly not. God doesn’t seem to be very interested in perfection in us. Just that we look and listen and pray and confess our sins when we done things of which we are ashamed. That we show God’s love to others. There’s another thing that God seems very keen about. And that is that we try not to be afraid. Jesus said that so many times – “Don’t be afraid” – and the prophets of the Old Testament say it many times as well.
It is when the disciples are in a boat on the sea that Peter is afraid.
When the disciples are in the boat they see Jesus walking on the lake, and they say, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cry out in fear. But immediately Jesus speaks to them saying, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’
Our patron saint does take heart.
Peter answers him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ Jesus says, ‘Come.’ So Peter gets out of the boat, starts walking on the water, and comes towards Jesus.
Then fear gets the better of Peter.
When he notices the strong wind,* he becomes frightened, and beginning to sink, he cries out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reaches out his hand and catches hold of him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’
Peter, in this story, moves between Michael Leunig’s fear and love. His whole life seems to illustrate this truth. This deeply human truth. That there are moments when God seems close and we can step out in love in response to that closeness and there are moments when the wind and the waves overwhelm us and we step back in fear. Even on the mountain top when Jesus was bathed in light and God was speaking, Peter’s longing to cling onto that extraordinary experience was born of fear. I guess we are all a little like that about our mountaintop experiences, if we are fortunate enough to have one. We may want to cling onto them as a defence against the things that frighten us.
Few of us have seen Jesus bathed in light as Peter did but I guess many of us have been fortunate enough to have had times when God seems to bless us in a special way. Strangely, my recent mountaintop experience took place at one of the scenes of Peter’s fear, the sea. Many of you know that one of my great hopes for a number of years has been to see a puffin.
I first saw a puffin on a cliff edge. We were visiting a bird sanctuary called Bempton Cliffs on the coast in Yorkshire in the North of England. We had met two of our dearest friends, Jane and Don, at the train station in York and driven to the coastal sanctuary just an hour’s drive away. I could barely see my first puffin. “That’s a puffin,” Jane said. Looking through her binoculars. I was only just getting accustomed to the binoculars I had hired from the Bempton Cliffs shop. I strained through them. Gradually I could see the orange feet and the unmistakeable orange beak. I had seen a puffin. But it was so far away! We walked further along the cliffs until we came to a viewing point where a ranger had set up a large telescope and there we had a better view. Now I was sure I had seen a puffin.
Jane and Don had travelled to meet us in York from further up the East Coast of England where they had spent time in a town called Seahouses. Boats travel from Seahouses to the Farne Islands, home in the breeding season to many varieties of bird …terns, shags, cormorants, guillemots, gulls and, of course, puffins. “You must go there,” Jane said. “The puffins are so close they are almost walking at your feet.” She had photos to prove it.
So a year later we headed for Seahouses. It was a typical Aussie plan – distances are no object! We caught a train at 7 o’clock in the morning in London, arrived in Newcastle at 10am, set off in our hire car at 11am and arrived at Seahouses in plenty of time for our 1am boat trip to the Farne Islands where I would have puffins wandering around at my feet. After our boat trip we would travel about three hours down the A1 to our hotel in the Yorkshire Dales where we were to spend three days walking. I was very excited.
“I’m very sorry but the boats aren’t travelling today.” Said the Billy Sheils Boat Trips lady in the cabin on the wharf in Seahouses. I looked at her in disbelief. “They decide each morning when they have looked at the weather forecast if it is safe to go and I’m so sorry but today it is not safe to go.” She said. “But I’ve come all the way from Adelaide,” I said, sorrowfully, knowing this fact would make little difference. We walked on the beach and ate fish and chips in one of the many cafes in the town and bought a puffin scarf in the National Trust shop before we headed for the Yorkshire Dales which was the next stop on our itinerary. But I had not had a puffin almost walking between my feet.
Puffins come to the Farne Islands to breed from about April until September and so it is only in the warmer months that the boats travel to the Islands carrying eager tourists like ourselves, keen to see these beautiful birds. So it wasn’t until this year, when we travelled to England in June that we finally made it to the Farne Islands and we finally had those beautiful, eccentric, orange billed and orange footed birds almost walking between our feet. The boat trip took two and a half hours, travelling in the midst of the whole crop of islands looking at the birds flying and fishing and sitting on the sea until we landed on the island closest to the shore, Inner Farne, where we had an hour to look closely at the terns and the shags and the guillemots and the puffins. Puffins nest in holes and we saw them flying in, their mouths full of sandeels, the small silver fish upon which they feed, diving into their holes taking refuge from the black headed gulls that try to steal their fish.
I just looked at them. I just stood and watched those puffins, and they didn’t disappoint. It was a joy to have that hour – and as the boats were going we went twice, so to have those two hours – watching the puffins as they pottered about doing what puffins do. I just stood and looked at them.
I wonder if it is how Peter felt when he went up the mountain with Jesus and saw him transfigured on the mountain, bathed in beautiful light. I wonder if Peter felt joy and wonder as he heard God say to Jesus, “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!” I wonder if Peter felt that he had seen something he had longed to see and that God had not disappointed him. Peter wanted to take hold of what happened, to cling onto it, to build three dwellings, one for Jesus, one for Moses, one for Elijah, to keep the moment somehow, to protect him from the fears that he knew would come. But Jesus knew that the spiritual life, our life in God, doesn’t work like that. Jesus went up his own mountains to pray but he knew that he had to some down and be in the world after those moments of closeness to God. But the moments of closeness, for me, perhaps, the puffin moments, are part of us, woven into us, and if we can try not to cling onto them, will change us. Remember, Jesus, with Mary Magdalene outside the tomb, when she thought he was the gardener and then he spoke her name and she knew him. And immediately he said to her, “Do not cling onto me.”
Peter, our patron saint, is a wonderful guide to the spiritual life, to our life as beloved children of God. Peter gets it about love and fear, lives it out charging into loving as he steps out courageously onto the water, and crying out in fear when the wind and the waves suddenly seem more real than this Jesus who stands before him. Peter, our patron saint is a wonderful guide to the spiritual life, our life of love and fear, our life held in the great love of God.