Sermon: Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity, 23 September 2018, St Mary Magdalene, evening

Reading  Matthew 8.23-34

Preacher  Revd Alan Sykes


I was brought up in the era before central heating. At least it took a long time for that particular mod con to reach our house up in the frozen north of England, up there in the tundra.

So we had to rely on coal. I know it’s not environmentally friendly but, let’s face it, you can’t beat a good coal fire. In winter we would have a lovely warm fire in the living room and I can remember vividly how cosy it felt, especially when there was a storm raging outside. Every other room in the house was freezing, mind you, but you tend to forget that sort of thing when you’re indulging in childhood reminiscence.

Reality seems to consist of a mixture of order and chaos. Being snug in our warm living room was an example of order. The storm outside was an example of chaos – at least from the human perspective.

Before modern science came along, it was commonly thought that the world around us consisted of four elements – earth, air, fire and water.

We might find that notion a little naïve these days but at the very least it was a genuine stepping stone on the path to greater scientific understanding.

Earth, air, fire and water – again from the human perspective – all have an ordered side and a chaotic side.

The earth provides us with food and the wherewithal to build the places we live in. It gives us solid ground to walk on and that we can call our home. And yet in a few brief seconds it can destroy all that we’ve built and those whom we love the most by means of an earthquake or a landslide.

The very air we breathe sustains us in being. It conveys to us the scent of a flower. And yet a hurricane or a typhoon can uproot the strongest tree and devastate a prosperous land.

Fire can cook our food and keep us warm on a winter’s night. And it can burn beyond our control, consume a forest or a moorland and choke us with its smoke.

And finally we have water, which can quench our thirst and cleanse our bodies. It allows ships to travel the world. And yet floods can destroy homes and devastate whole communities. And over the centuries the sea has claimed the lives of an untold number of seafarers.

In the first part of our New Testament reading we have an account of a storm on the Sea of Galilee, a combination of the chaotic aspects of air and water.

The world is an astonishing, beautiful – and dangerous place. Sometimes it appears to work in our favour, at other times to work against us. It can go both ways.

And not just the outside world. Our minds can be centres of joy and excitement but also of turmoil and disquiet.

And we have an extreme example of that in the second part of our reading. Jesus encounters two men who are said to be demoniacs – possessed by demons. Other versions of this story in the gospels have only one demoniac but they have him night and day among the tombs and on the mountains howling and bruising himself with rocks.

These demoniacs are not in good shape.

In both parts of the reading Jesus is portrayed as the one who brings order and peace to troubled waters, whether in the outer world or the inner world.

But perhaps order isn’t necessarily all good. Perhaps chaos isn’t all bad. One of the most well-known sayings of Jesus was that demanding but enigmatic exhortation that we should take up our cross and follow him.

The cross – whatever it may mean for us in our own lives – can be seen as that which is challenging and overwhelming for us (chaos, if you like) but Jesus seems to be saying that it isn’t something to be avoided. In fact, it’s vital not to avoid it.

Too much order may not be a good thing. We need a measure of disruption, adversity and struggle – the chaos of the cross – if we are to reach our full stature as mature human beings.

As with most things in life it’s a question of finding a balance. And balance is never easy to achieve but God is the one who can bring us from the brink of too much order and of too much chaos.

But what about that little detail at the end of the reading? The demoniacs have been healed but their neighbours – their fellow Gergesenes – don’t seem to care that much for the welfare of these men.

You’d expect them to be overjoyed but no, on the contrary, they plead with Jesus to leave. They seem to see him as a disruptive influence. They just want to carry on as normal. We were fine just as we were, they seem to be saying, till you came along.

My surmise is that they’re probably perturbed by the economic implications of those pigs being drowned. After all, they must have been owned by someone.

Perhaps, as a child, I was a bit like those people who pleaded with Jesus to leave. I was happy for the storm to rage outside as long as I was snug and secure indoors.

Of course, I was only a child but I wasn’t at all mindful of those who were outside in the wind and the rain and the cold, and those Gergesenes didn’t really want the minds of those two men to be healed if it meant disruption.

The demoniacs had by far too much chaos and not enough order. Their neighbours had too much order and not enough chaos. At least. they were afraid of the challenges these healings were presenting them with. They couldn’t bring themselves to embrace a healthy, creative balance of order and chaos – the place where human beings thrive most fruitfully.

About Revd Alan Sykes

Revd Alan Sykes is a self-supporting minister (SSM) based at St Mary Magdalene. He was ordained in 2009. He has worshipped at St Mary’s for over 25 years. No longer employed, he gave up his job as a librarian early in 2009. His interests include poetry, classical music, cricket and football. Which team he supports remains a closely guarded secret as he does not wish to cause merriment among the congregation.
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