Dry Run for the Pier Walk

Revd Dr Donald MacEwan, University Chaplain

17 September 2017

Exodus 14:19-31; Matthew 14:22-33

In early January 217 years ago, a student called John Honey was worshipping in this chapel one morning when word came to the congregation that a small ship, the Janet, from Macduff, had run aground near the East Sands.  Honey joined with others at the scene, and led the rescue.  He swam to the stricken vessel, and secured ropes for the Master and four further men to reach safety.  But they were too weak to use the ropes, and so Honey, one by one, swam to the Janet and brought the men back one by one.  On his final trip, he was struck heavily on the chest by the ship’s mast, but still made it back to shore, and all the crew were saved.  Honey received the Freedom of the City of St Andrews; the citation states:

This is the only gift that this corporation can bestow on you, for your wonderful and unexampled exertions in rescuing from the jaws of death the master and four seamen of the sloop the Janet of Macduff, wrecked in these sands of St Andrews, and who, but for your humane and unparalleled exertions, at the imminent hazard of your own life, must inevitably have perished.

Honey became a parish minister in Perthshire, but died in his mid-thirties, possibly of complications from the rescue.

He is remembered throughout the University.  There is a fine stained glass window of the rescue in the organ loft in the Chapel.  Students of Computer Science will spend much of their time here in the John Honey building.  The Students Association give the Honey Cup to a student who shows outstanding service to the student community.  But most famously perhaps, students make the Pier Walk weekly, after worship, following the path Honey took to the East Sands, and then walk out into the sea, along the pier before returning safely to town.

Honey’s courage in going out into the water came to mind when I read the passages we heard earlier in the service.  Both are accounts of crossing a body of water; both involve courage; both perhaps could be seen as precursors of our own Pier Walk.

The book of Exodus from which we heard our first reading is the account of the escape of a nation, Israel, who had for hundreds of years been an enslaved and oppressed people within Egypt.  God promises to support them through their escape; today’s part of the story is perhaps the most dramatic part of their deliverance.  The Red Sea lay between the Hebrews and freedom, but it was miles across.  As we heard in the narrative, an east wind blew that night, parting the waters and creating a passage through which the Hebrews could walk safely, on dry ground, the sea on either side.  But by the time their pursuers attempted the crossing, the waters closed over and Pharaoh’s army were drowned.

It is important to consider what this passage is saying and what it is not.  Modern-day countries of Israel and Egypt still exist, but we should not read into contemporary geo-politics the specifics of this narrative, set down well over 2000 years ago.  Nevertheless, features of the story continue today in many places: slavery, oppression, the desire for deliverance, a people leaving a home pursued by well-armed troops, borders and barriers.  From Syria to Burma, people still leave home behind, and make hazardous journeys, driven by circumstances of violence and fear.

The second reading comes from later in the Bible, the people of Israel settled on the other side of the Red Sea, and takes place on the Sea of Galilee (in reality a lake) in northern Israel.  Peter and other disciples were crossing the sea by boat in bad weather.  They saw a figure crossing the sea, and were plunged into fear.  “It is a ghost!”  But as the figure approached, they heard his voice, and realised it was Jesus.  Peter, impetuous, passionate, tried to walk to Jesus, across the waves.  And it went all right until he noticed the wind.  It seems he was no longer in the zone, and began to flounder.  He called to Jesus for rescue, who saved him, and got him into the boat.

Peter’s attempted crossing was not like the Israelites’.  It was not born of fear, of necessity, of escape.  It was a crossing for something, for a different life, for a taste of glory, for a glimpse of eternity.  It was a stretching beyond the usual limits of our humanity.  There are parallels perhaps with Icarus in Greek mythology, who flew too close to the sun, melting the wax which held his wings together.  Indeed, although Peter tried to walk rather than fly, these lines from a poem called ‘High Flight’ seem curiously apt:

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of.

In this Opening Service, with many new students here soon to walk between the waters along the pier, it is worth asking ourselves the question: What surly bonds will we slip off?  What humane and unparalleled exertions will be undertake?  What will we stretch towards?

As students, could I suggest part of what we’ll stretch will be our brain cells until they zing, as we make connections, and set them down, as we see the brilliance of nature’s solutions in the chemistry lab, as we master the Russian verb, as we grapple with sub-atomic forces, as we seek to understand the movements of populations in Syria, in Burma, and elsewhere.

Or our exertions may be swimming with the strength of Honey, or testing our bodies’ limits in countless other ways.  Or we may slip those bonds of our experience, and discover in conversation with another student what it’s truly like to grow up in Cairo, or Kyrgistan, or Clydebank, or to eat halal or kosher, or to believe in Brexit, or pacifism or euthanasia.

In other words, could I suggest that, like the Hebrews, we escape the Pharaohs of our own lives who would control us, decide for us, even oppress us by their judgments?  And like Peter, we push our limits, and stretch out to discover who we are; what moves us and thrills us; what fashion is our fashion and what is mere fear of looking different; who we are love and how we love; what calls us out from the boat to walk; who or what we might name as God, and how we might live stretching towards that light.

Of course, the wind never really stops blowing in St Andrews.  We can notice it, and lose our confidence, and slip below the surface, and fear we will drown.  For Peter, Jesus was there.  “Lord, save me!” Peter shouted above the wind.  And he did.

It is my belief that God is with us, and wills to be with us, and wills to be with everyone.  The exodus, and Jesus walking on the water are two ways of showing this.  Whether we are needing rescue or being inspired to serve, God is with us.  But that presence is not forced.  How could God rescue us from oppression by being oppressive?  And so God does not provide stepping stones under every wave.  In love, God gives us freedom, and in freedom we will flounder.  But when we call, ‘Lord, save me!’ help comes.  It may come through friends walking home with us from the Union, or family over facetime, or Student Services with their warm and caring expertise, or even me.  No-one need be alone when the wind blows.

I confess, I’ve never done the Pier Walk on a Sunday.  I always stay in Chapel for communion – and it’s got nothing to do with being scared of heights.  But I have gone on some special occasions – the Gaudie, the night before May Dip, when a torchlit Pier walk specifically recalls John Honey.  And every year, in January, on the might of Holocaust Memorial Day, I have joined students and others in a silent, communal witness to the victims of genocide, Jewish and other, in Europe and beyond.  This Pier Walk is a conscious echo of the children of Israel, who walked between the walls of water, escaping cruelty, and walking through the sea to liberty.

John Honey left the Chapel to answer the urgent needs of others.  In a while, many here too will leave the Chapel and turn east to the shore.  Perhaps this service has been a dry run for the Pier Walk, rehearsing the courage of Honey, the faithfulness of God to those who fled persecution through the sea, the presence of God with the impetuous water-walker.  Whenever we walk out across the water, stretch out to discover who we are, find ourselves undertaking humane and unparalleled exertions, may we know the God of freedom and love with us.