St Francis, Terriers - Trinity 9 (13.08.2017)

Tony Dickinson

My father was one of the 300,000 who escaped from the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940. He would talk about his time with the BEF during the “Phoney War”. He would speak about the three years he spent on Salisbury Plain. He would tell a few stories about the Normandy landings and the months that followed. But I don’t think I ever, ever heard him talk about the evacuation.

On Friday night we went, as a family, to see Christopher Nolan’s magnificent film, and I began to understand why. “Dunkirk” isn’t an epic – or a CGI gore-fest. It isn’t a vehicle for star performances. It hardly tells a story. It simply follows a few British soldiers, a flight of Spitfires, and the crew of the “Moonstone”, one of the “little ships”, through the events of a single day – in the case of the Spitfire pilots, a single hour – showing the same events from, quite literally, different view-points, different perspectives. And in its understated way it conveys very effectively the fear, the turmoil, the fraying tempers, the shredded nerves, the horror – and the courage – shown by men (and a very few women) caught up in the evacuation at all levels, people faced with desperately difficult situations and appallingly tough decisions. What would you do when a hospital ship full of wounded suffers a direct hit from a dive-bomber? Given the choice, which would you prefer – death by fire or death by water?

Fire and water figure prominently in our readings this morning. So do turmoil, fear and shredded nerves. In our first reading we followed Elijah, fleeing for his life from the vengeance of Queen Jezebel, into the wilderness and then on to Mount Horeb, the place where God had encountered Moses and charged him with the task of leading the descendants of Israel from slavery into freedom; the place too, according to tradition, where Moses had received the Law. Then we followed the disciples, as Jesus compelled them to get into their boat and set out across the Sea of Galilee, while he dismissed the 5,000-strong crowd who had just been served with a miraculous meal created out of five loaves and two fish. We headed with them into the battering wind and waves, and we watched them panic as Jesus walked toward them on the sea.

Then Peter decides he wants to do what Jesus is doing. It’s a test for Jesus (“Lord, if it is you…”) and a test for himself. Can he do what Jesus is doing? Can he walk on water? Well, “up to a point, Lord Copper” – the point being when Peter realises how strong the wind is and how deep the water is.

A bit like us, really, at this point in the history of the world. Leaving aside the wind, the waves and the wildfires caused by climate change, and the turbulence of Brexit, we have the President of the most powerful nation on earth behaving like a pumped-up teenager in a nuclear stand-off with North Korea, egged on by people who claim the name of Christian, while white supremacists who have been encouraged by his election pick a fight with the university town of Charlottesville and he says nothing to condemn them. We have seen American citizens bearing Nazi flags, wearing Nazi arm-bands and giving Nazi salutes and President Trump makes no distinction between them and the peaceful counter-demonstration. No wonder some Christians are beginning to think that the end-times are upon us. As we sink into the waves stirred up by this perfect storm of crises, we cry out with Peter “Lord, save me!”

Then we stop. And we remember. We remember that the God who brought Israel out of slavery in Egypt, the God who sent the prophets, the God who is author and Lord of all creation, does not reveal himself in “fire and fury”, nor in storm-wind and earth-quake, but in the sound of sheer silence and in the affirmation of hope over against despair, life against darkness. God stretches out his hand to us in the nail-scarred hand of Jesus, to haul us out of the boiling seas of our fears and anxieties and set us on our feet. “Take heart”, he tells us. “Do not be afraid.”

Let us keep silence...

God of love and peace, quieten our panicking hearts as you quieted the wind. Calm the raging of the seas and the tumult of the peoples. Bring justice and hope to this earth and equip us to be instruments of your peace in a world of violence. This we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord.