The Promised Hand
Preacher: Revd Dr Donald MacEwan, University Chaplain
Readings: Joshua 1:1-9; Matthew 14:22-33
We’re on the cusp of a new year. Summer is, technically, over, though I’m fairly sure St Andrews broke a few temperature records in the marquee during Freshers Fayre. Still, our travels are past, we’ve returned or made our way to St Andrews for the Martinmas Semester, we’ve got to grips with organising bedding, a bank account and bonzai from the Plant Sale beside the Union. All that remains is to cross into Week 1: lectures, labs, and going to the library, perhaps to read the book with the shelfmark StA LF1119.R4B28F34.
Last week my sermon here in chapel reflected on Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush, in which God promised to rescue his people from slavery in Egypt to a land flowing with milk and honey. They did indeed leave Egypt behind, crossing the Red Sea, celebrated by Jews around the world at Passover. But it was another 40 years before the story we heard today read by our student reader – 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, in which the people received the law, ate manna, had children, got old, fell out with each other, got fed up of their leader, followed the latest craze, and had all the issues any community has. But after 40 years, Moses ascended Mt Nebo and looked west across the River Jordan to the Promised Land. And then he died, without entering it.
It was Joshua, his assistant, to whom that task was given. In our reading today, God is unsentimental about Joshua’s commission: My servant Moses is dead. Now proceed to cross the Jordan, you and all the people, into the land that I am giving them, to the Israelites. Of course, there were people already living there. You may already be thinking of parallels in the 20th and 21st Century history and present of the Holy Land, Israel/Palestine. I’m not quite bold or perhaps reckless enough to make that the theme for today’s sermon – maybe another time.
Instead, I want to focus on the instructions Joshua was given on the eve of their crossing: be strong and courageous. Three times God told Joshua – be strong and courageous. Of course Joshua was anxious: he was taking on a new role, crossing into the unknown, and couldn’t be sure he was up to the task. But God promised he would be with them, and would not fail or forsake them. He gave them guidance: meditate on his teaching, follow his instructions to keep them on the right paths, and lead them into the land flowing with milk and honey.
Milk and honey brings to mind that marvellous example of strength and courage in our own University history, one John Honey. Honey was a student from Perthshire, 19 years old. On the first Sunday in January in the year 1800, he was worshipping here in St Salvator’s Chapel when the congregation learned that a small ship called the Janet, a sloop from Macduff in the north of Scotland, had run aground east of the harbour. There was no lifeboat.
Honey and other students ran from the chapel and reached the harbour. He had a rope tied round him, and swam out to the stricken boat and then swam back to the shore with a rope from the boat. He then accompanied each of the five men aboard back safely to shore. The rescue was celebrated – Honey received the Freedom of the Cities of St Andrews, Perth, Forfar and Auchtermuchty. He also received a silver cup pictured in the order of service. He went on to marry Ann Adamson, the daughter of a History Professor, with whom he had three children, and become a minister in Perthshire. But he died aged 32 of ill health, possibly linked to injuries sustained during the rescue when a mast fell across his chest.
Honey is remembered in the name of a Computer Science building, in stained glass in the gallery of this chapel (on the cover of the order of service), and in the Pier Walk which takes place every Sunday, tracing his footsteps from chapel to harbour and returning safely. Moreover, the Students Association gives the John Honey Award to one student every year who makes an outstanding and exceptional contribution to student wellbeing during their time at St Andrews. I’ve known a number of the John Honey award-winners over the years. None of them, to my knowledge, have rescued stricken sailors at the shore. But I have witnessed the strength of their commitment to fellow-students, stricken with mental health problems, isolation and, sometimes, a feeling they are going under.
There are many reasons we may be fearful, for our planet, society, and ourselves. And so courage can mean so many things today, in the lives we lead. Indeed, I see courage everywhere in this University…
in students holding on to faith when it seems terminally uncool.
In being yourself, in fashion, interests, and engagement with the mind, when it seems slightly eccentric compared to the crowd.
In finding your identity, from gender to job, in ways which would astonish your childhood community, or a careers adviser.
In resisting wrong paths, strangely seductive, knowing in your heart that only disaster lies at the end of them.
In delaying gratification, until the necessary task is done, until we have achieved net zero.
In remaining committed to a friend, even when they are being immensely annoying.
In submitting to the curious whims – and they can be very curious indeed – of academic parents at Raisin.
And, of course, in entering the North Sea at first light on the first of May.
It’s my experience that in showing such strength and courage students enter a truly good place, a land of milk and honey – albeit oat milk and vegan honey for many.
Of course it’s not easy to maintain that spirit of bravery. Our Gospel story, 2000 years old, offers a more complicated picture of our humanity than the rescue of the Janet. It’s another crossing of water, this time the Sea of Galilee in the Holy Land. Jesus’ disciples were in a boat, but bad weather assailed them much as it had the Janet. They were rowing and bailing, rowing and bailing with increasing desperation, pushed out into deep water, and were fearful for their lives. Then, between 3 and 6 am, perhaps in the first hints of dawn, a figure approached, walking on the water. In fear of their own deaths, they assumed it was a figure from the grave, a ghost. But it was Jesus. It is me, he said.
In fact the Greek is ego eimi – meaning I am – a hint there of the Hebrew name for God. Could this friend and rabbi be saying he is God? After all, if he’s walking on water, he’s in control of nature – a sign of divinity. And so Peter, impetuous, bold, courageous, takes the risk to find out. If it is you, command me to walk to you – in other words, if you are really God, you can make me walk on water too. All right, says Jesus, Come. And Peter does. We don’t know how far, but he walks on the water. A miracle.
But then, it all goes Peter-shaped, and he somehow leaves that zone of trust, his ears hear the wind, his eyes see the waves, his feet feel the swell, his skin is conscious of the cold. He overthinks the situation. And fear comes back and he can’t believe any more and starts to sink. But he must have got pretty close: Jesus stretches out a hand, pulls him up and they make their way to the boat.
At this Opening Service, aware of a crossing to make into the Martinmas Semester, we may be aware of what we are scared of. Everyone keeps saying subjects are hard here, and that your next year is always harder than your last year. Are we bright enough? Hard-working enough? Or what about fitting in – will that ever happen? Especially since people don’t seem to look like us, sound like us, think like us, love like us? Will we make the sort of friends that everyone else seems to make? We may think the courage of John Honey is beyond us – and certainly I could not do what he did. I’m even too scared to climb on the higher section of the Pier.
But as we enter the promised land of St Andrews, or continue more deeply into its geography, let us recall the story in the early morning on the rough sea. Peter was brave and fearful. Courageous and panicky. But Jesus didn’t fail or forsake Peter, and Peter didn’t sink. He was grasped by a promised hand: Take heart; it is I; do not be afraid.
Generations of students and staff have been here before us, and got the gown. They have had their own fears. They have had their own times of peril. Their own faith has flickered and faltered. But the promised hand of Christ has always been there – faithful, sure, generous, unconditional. And they have found, almost despite themselves, that they were able to show extraordinary courage. Not only in being themselves, but in blessing those around them.
And that shelfmark for the book in the Library? Well, later this semester, students will be electing the 52nd Rector of the University in the modern era, to succeed Leyla Hussein. Potential candidates might consider following up that shelfmark and reading perhaps the most famous text associated with any of our Rectors. Indeed it’s worth reading by anyone who cares for integrity and commitment in our common life. This is the book:
Courage: “The rectorial address delivered at St. Andrews University May 3rd 1922.” by J. M. Barrie.