Of faith, tides, and tables

A sermon for 2 October 2022 at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio. Readings for Year C Proper 22 Track 2

King Cnut the Great ruled in England, as well as Denmark and Norway, toward the very beginning of the second millennium of the Christian era (c. 1016-35).[i] He was, by accounts, a religious man, one who travelled to Rome to make penitence. He was a man of faith, and he knew, even so, his limitations. 

The legend is told that Cnut demonstrated this by setting himself before the rising tide and bidding the waves to cease at his royal command. The waves did not, in fact, turn aside, instead splashing his legs and his robe as they rolled in before he leapt up and cried out, “Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name but He whom heaven, earth and sea obey by eternal laws”. Henry of Huntingdon, who wrote down this account of Cnut’s legend, added that Cnut would no more wear his crown of gold, but instead placed it permanently upon an image of the crucified Christ.[ii]

The apostles ask for more faith, but Jesus doesn’t seem to think that it is more faith that they need, any more than it is necessary to uproot trees and throw them into the sea.

“If you had faith as a mustard seed,” he says. Elsewhere, that little piece of seasoning has been heralded as a sign of the kingdom of God; small enough to be overlooked by many, but capable of growing into something that provides shelter to many more. 

The apostles have left everything to follow Jesus, and they are with him still on the road to Jerusalem, despite storms and strife, hunger and miraculous food; they have faith, they believe in Jesus, or else they would not be there with him, knowing that they were heading into trouble. Faith, whether as a mustard seed or a tree of life growing through their spines and their souls, was not at issue.

What prompted this little piece of conversation was Jesus’ telling them a little more about the life to which he was calling them. It was not simply about faith, believing that he was the Messiah, being assured that God was with them. That was – almost – the easy part. The hint of a suspicion that Jesus was of God was enough to keep them near him, is enough to keep us coming back to him, and to his table.

But Jesus kept reminding them of the implications of walking in God’s grace, in the footsteps of love. It meant taking care of others, neighbours and strangers, enemies alike; and it meant forgiving more times than we would like to those whom we find it impossible otherwise to love.

What the apostles needed was not to believe harder, or more, but to accept that the life of faith, the way of Christ, which is the way of the cross, would require them to give over their own will to that of their God: thy kingdom come, thy will be done.

The prophet Habbakuk writes, “the righteous live by their faith”; that is, they do not simply set it as a rare jewel on a cushioned seat in their hearts and minds, congratulating themselves on their right and deep belief; but they are governed and guided by it. They have given themselves over to the consequences of it: the knowledge that we are walking in the way of One whose property is always to have mercy, and who asks nothing less of us.

Faith: Cyril of Alexandria wrote, “If you have faith as of a mustard seed, hot, that is, and fervent …”;[iii] faith, hot and fervent, spicy as a mustard seed, is not an end or ambition in itself but the flavour of life, and the means to its sharing. 

Paul writes to Timothy (in so many words), “Do not be ashamed of the faith whose testimony I have given”; faith is a gift, but not one to be locked away in a secret safe, nor set on the shelf for later, nor even hung as a piece of art, an installation, or an exhibit. Like a musical instrument, like a precious crystal flute, as it were, faith is designed to be taken out and played, not merely looked upon, but heard, heeded, acted upon, perhaps even danced with.

Paul preaches elsewhere, “If I have all faith so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2b). Faith is everything, and it is nothing if it does not lead to a faithful, which is a loving, way of life.

“You want to uproot trees and plant them in the ocean?” Jesus asks the apostles. You want to turn aside the tide? You want to commit spectacles and put on miracles? Make the Guardians of Traffic disappear from the Hope Memorial Bridge and show up in First Energy Stadium? Is that how you want to use your mustard seed of faith?

But the work of faith, the life of faith is more prosaic, and more humble. It is to tend the sheep, to care for those on the outside, and at the end of the day to feed the hungry, and to serve God so that God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done, rather than our own.

It is not, we might consider, the commanding of the waves and the weather, the turning away of the hurricane, but the steadfast and steady work of addressing and arresting the changes to our climate that bring ever-stronger storms, and in the meantime, the bringing of relief and succour to those most affected.

Faith fills in the ditches and brings down the mountains, makes the paths straight and helps the weary not to stumble, but not for the sake of the miracle itself, but because the faithful life participates in the prophetic mercy of God.

And then Jesus offers this little parable of severe humility, the reminder that there is nothing we can do to earn God’s gratitude and love, but that all we have, all we are depends upon and is owed unto God’s grace, and that the work of mercy is never done.

And having said that, Jesus stops, and removes his outer robe, and ties a towel around his waist, and tells his disciples, “Now, sit a while, and let me wash your feet, and serve you.”

Because here is the miracle: not how many trees we can toss into the ocean nor even whether we can still the storm, but that God cares enough to bring us back, time and again, to the table, to feed us with mercy and love.


[i] https://www.britannica.com/biography/Canute-I

[ii] “Canute and the Waves”, by Lord Raglan, in ManVol. 60 (Jan., 1960), pp. 7-8, Published by: Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, accessed via JSTOR, October 1, 2022

[iii] Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Luke (Beloved Publishing, 2014), 340

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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