Not drowning but thriving – sermon from 10 August 2014


Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full in his wonderful face
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of his glory and grace


When I was growing up – that’s exactly the kind of thing that I would have been singing on a Sunday morning.

And it came to mind when I was starting to think about what to say about the gospel this morning.

You see, the gospel reading that we have today tends to lead to sermons which represent that kind of mawkish sentimentality that suggests that Jesus will solve everything.

I’ve found in life that Jesus doesn’t solve everything. If he did, the world would already be a very different place.

I’ve learned that if Jesus does anything he calls us to build that better place not simply with him but with people of goodwill wherever we find them.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus.

That’s the thing about this passage – the evangelist lays on that sentiment with a trowel. Peter leaps out of the boat and starts to sink – only when he looks at Jesus is he safe. And thus, so many sermons will say – we need to fix our eyes on the saviour and all will be well.

Well, I certainly think that Jesus can be a brilliant inspiration and I look on him as Saviour and Lord.

But when I look at Jesus I find that he is looking at the world and asking me to gaze with compassion upon it with him.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus?
Look full in his wonderful face
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim? – really. Do they really?
In the light of his glory and grace


As John Bell has reminded folk on more than one occasion – people get their theology from what they sing in church. That’s the glory of Christian hymnody. And that is the scandal of Christian hymnody too. For singing such things can tempt us into believing the great lie that Jesus’s love is merely personal and that our own individual selves are the last word in God’s salvation plan.

Well, I’ve come to the conclusion that it ain’t like that. And I’ve long now believed that salvation that is merely personal is entirely unsatisfactory.

So let me not start with that song. No. Let me start with a poem to get us into thinking about Peter and Jesus walking on the water.

Poem first. Then we’ll get back to the gospel.

Let’s see who knows the key line in this:

Nobody heard him, the dead man,

But still he lay moaning:

I was much further out than you thought

And not waving but drowning.


Poor chap, he always loved larking

And now he’s dead

It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,

They said.


Oh, no no no, it was too cold always

(Still the dead one lay moaning)

I was much too far out all my life

And not waving but drowning.


Stevie Smith’s poem is something of a favourite with people. I can never decide whether it is macabre or funny.

She seems to have picked words that are perfectly balanced between absurdity and profundity.

She picks her way between pathos and hilarity.

And somehow she says something that people want to remember – it is one of the most well-known modern poems in the English language.

Her phrase has become shorthand even amongst those who can’t quote the poem itself – not waving but drowning.

Peter, leaping out of the gospel boat this morning is also a figure about whom I can’t quite make up my mind. Is he brave or foolhardy? Is he full of belief or full of doubt.

Not faithful but drowning.

And who hasn’t felt that they have been drowning in the last couple of weeks?

Though Glasgow has been having a ball, there’s been more than enough in the rest of the world to make people feel that our heads are sinking beneath the waves.

The disproportionate attacks by the state of Israel on Gaza have horrified me.

The violence of Hamas in response makes me despair.

The consequent outbreaks of antisemetism and violence directed at Jewish people around the world makes me wonder whether we are incapable of learning anything.

The persecution of the Christians of Mosul, the Yazadi’s without food on the hillsides and the sectarian battles between Muslims in the Iraq that the West created give me naught for my comfort to think about.

It feels as though humanity itself is too far out and not waving but drowning.

The pious answer is to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and all will be well.

However, this is not a time for piety. There’s more to being religious than piety and right believing.

Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus by all means – there is comfort there.

But I think we need just a little more.

Thrown into the deep – the only answer is to learn to swim and the more different strokes we learn from one another the better.

Firstly, we need to work out in our own minds the importance of proclaiming our belief in a common humanity that binds us more than any belief will divide us.

We are compassionate people in congregations like this one. There’s compassion to be exercised, compassion to be proclaimed.

And the need to practise compassion unites divided peoples of faith.

Secondly it is time to start brushing off those Just War theories and keep on talking about them in a world that is changing. How do we judge which proposed humanitarian interventions are justified?

We are thinking people in congregations like this one. We’ve work to do. We’ve thinking to do.

And thinking is something we can’t do without people who think differently to ourselves.

Thirdly, we need to keep the dream alive of a world that is better than the world we live in now.

So yes, let us be dreamers in congregations like this one. We’ve dreaming to do.

Why not believe in a better world?

Keep your eyes on Jesus by all means. I’ve a feeling he won’t simply stop you from drowning but will give you plenty of dreams to share.

Dream of a world free from war, free from genocide, free from missile attacks, free from conflict between nations, where the hungry are fed, where the sorrowful are comforted, where all who breathe live in peace with one another.

We must not let the things of earth grow strangely dim. That’s not what religion is about. We must hope and pray that the things of earth will shine with the glory that we know as God.

It is worth keeping that dream alive. And stubbornly, belligerently, hopefully and prayerfully I call on you to keep living that dream.

Dream the dream. And help build a world where humanity is not drowning but thriving.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.




  1. Jane Mason says

    Thank you. I was beginning to despair of finding a way to ‘think’, ‘dream’, ‘work ‘, my way through this horrifying week. But you are right, there are those whose compassion, love, care and understanding I wish to share and with whom I want to journey alongside ….. Let us find one another and see the reality of ‘drowning’ rather than ‘waving’ so that we can move forward together. Thank you, Kelvin.

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