Learning to breathe underwater

Preached at the Benefice service by Rev’d Dr Emma Pennington on 1st March 2015.

In her book Sharing the Darkness, the palliative care doctor, Shelia Cassidy, includes a poem which she always kept in her white doctor’s coat in the hospital where she worked in Chile.  When she was arrested the poem remained in her locker and was eventually returned to her being the only one of her papers to escape the secret police.  The poem is by Carol Bialock and reads:


I built my house by the sea.

Not on the sands, mind you,

Not on the shifting sand.

And I built it of rock.

A strong house

By a strong sea.

And we got well acquainted, the sea and I.

Good neighbours.

Not that we spoke much

We met in silences,

Respectful, keeping our distance

But looking our thoughts across the fence of sand.

Always the fence of sand our barrier,

Always the sand between.

And then one day

(and still I don’t know how it happened)

The sea came.

Without warning,

Without welcome even.

Not sudden and swift, but a shifting across the sand like wine,

Less like the flow of water that the flow of blood.

Slow, but flowing like and open wound.

And I thought of flight, and I thought of drowing, and I thought of death.

But while I thought the sea crept higher till it reached my door.

And I knew that there was neither flight nor death nor drowning.

That when the sea comes calling you stop being good neighbours,

Well acquainted, friendly from a distance neighbours

And you give your house for a coral castle

And you learn to breathe under water.


For Shelia Cassidy the sea in this poem had always been an image of the presence of God, but when she showed it to a friend the slow advancement of the sea was to him the gradual encroachment of the agony of the world upon one’s consciousness.  The great mystery, he told her, is that the two are really the same.


It is this more comprehensive and simply mind blowing understanding of God’s love and action that lies behind our Gospel reading this morning.  In a scene which he directly associates with his temptations in the wilderness, Jesus has been describing the inevitable path his ministry will lead him down; the way of rejection, suffering and death but also that mystery of the resurrection, yet to be comprehended by his followers.  Leaving the latter aside, Peter, like any normal human being has been shocked by hearing Jesus’ words and so he rebukes him for saying such things.  Matthew’s version of the events in chapter 16 gives us Peter’s actual words: “God forbid, Lord!  This shall never happen to you”.  Just as Satan in the wilderness tempted Jesus to be the powerful miracle maker that was expected of a true divine Messiah, so now Peter, however unknowingly, tempts Jesus down that same path out of love and fear.  For him, at this moment, the path of the cross can only be one of humiliation, suffering and to be lost within the deep, dark waters of death.  This must not be the case for Peter’s idea of the divine transfigured person he saw on Mount Tabor.  He does not know it but his mind is set on human things.


So Jesus rebukes Peter, just as he did Satan in the wilderness.  The ways of God are not as we imagine them to be, they are not bound by our ideas of power, dominion or even divinity.  God is not simply to be contained and cloistered within this holy place away from all the agony of this world.  Shining is his high heaven but irrelevant to ordinary people’s lives.  It is so tempting, however, when our minds are set on human things to place him just so.  Is it not this very temptation that lies behind the rebuke that the bishop’s open letter has receive from journalists and politicians alike in the last few weeks regarding the our responsibility to vote.  When we are told to keep our faith out of the decisions and actions of our daily lives whether it be how we buy bananas or even vote, are we not being tempted to set our minds on human things, to deny the mystery of the comprehensive, transformative and loving presence of our God who has become embodied and walked the way of the cross that we may learn to breath under water and so set our minds on those things that are truly from above.  Amen.