Today people around the world will be celebrating Sea Sunday. In this, our tenth birthday month, we are celebrating Sea Sunday for the fifth time. As Epiphany is an island, surrounded by sea (though I accept it’s virtual sea), and has a mermaid for a churchwarden, it seems appropriate that we should dedicate one Sunday a year to thinking about those who spend their time at sea.
There are many organisations which support seafarers and in previous years I have drawn on their resources to create our worship and sermon. This year Dr Hugh Osgood, Moderator of the Free Churches in England, has supplied a sermon outline on the Sailors’ Society website. Also, the Apostles of the Sea have published a message from the Vatican by Cardinal Peter Turkson. I’m indebted to these two for what follows.
Psalm 107 is made up of stories of rescue and acknowledges the source of all our help, God himself, to whom we give thanks. Today we focus particularly on seafarers and have only read a section of the psalm. However, it’s worth noting all four groups who are referred to by the psalmist. First, he thinks of the wanderer, lost and aimless in the desert, until God intervened and brought him to the road and to a town. Then there is the prisoner, miserable and shut away, until he finds release and comes back into the light. Thirdly there are those in a prison of their own making, bowed down by guilt so much that they were near to death until God healed them by his word. Finally, the section to focus on today concerns sailors and the dangers they face until they are brought to a safe haven.
In each of these sections, the psalmist highlights how those who were suffering experienced rescue. “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out from their distress.” How God brought them out is different each time, but the focus is on God and his action at their request. The response to this action in each case is what we used as our response in the psalm: “Let them give thanks to the Lord for his goodness and the wonders he does for his children.”
Appropriately enough, the first part of the section on sailors concerns commerce: “Those who go down to the sea in ships and ply their trade in great waters.” They do not go out to sea for the fun of it; there is a very serious intent and this is acknowledged in God’s word. If it were not for seafarers much of what we do in the world would grind to a halt. 90% of trade goes by sea, made possible by 1.5 million seafarers. We owe these people, many from the developing nations, a huge debt of gratitude for the positive impact they have on our lives. For trade to be successful, it’s necessary for the ships to reach port safely and be able to unload their cargoes. Only when the sailors have managed to do this have they done their job, and hopefully made sure they get paid! It’s easy to understand why seafarers look forward to reaching a safe haven.
The sea is a challenging environment, as the next section of the psalm highlights. I can almost feel seasick when I read that “they were carried up to the heavens and down again to the deep”. Although ships nowadays are much bigger and more robust than in the time when the psalm was written, storms at sea can still be a challenge. There is also the issue of loneliness. Many seafarers are away from their families for months at a time. Fortunately, modern technology helps people to keep in touch, but imagine the frustration at hearing of some situation at home and of not being able to help because you are far away. Remote communication is not the same as face to face communication. This is something that chaplains in the various seafarers’ organisations try to provide, that human touch. It’s something vital as depression can follow from loneliness. Sadly, suicide is the top cause of death for seafarers.
Although reaching port is not the same as reaching home, that safe haven is still vital as it means new people to talk to, often a warm social space and a chance to do some shopping – really the sorts of things we take for granted. Chaplains also work with the families back home, supporting them in their lives which can be challenging when there is an absent father. If a seafarer is injured in their work, it is the organisations which help look after them when they are in hospital and arrange to get them home if necessary. Chaplains act as good friends to seafarers, in a practical sense and also in a pastoral sense. Each of the chaplaincy organisations has people there in the ports across the world and reaches hundreds of thousands of seafarers in some way in the course of the year.
Although chaplains provide practical support to seafarers, they are also alert to the opportunity of introducing them to Jesus. Some will already have a faith and meeting with a chaplain is a way to reconnect with it, perhaps to attend a worship service and to take communion. For others, although they are daily in contact with the sea which God created, they are not aware of God himself. God is the ultimate safe haven for seafarers and for us. In the psalm, it is God who stilled the storm and brought calm for those at sea. In our Gospel passage, it is Jesus who likewise stilled the storm and calmed the fears of his disciples.
God understands the needs of all people for a safe haven in life. No one can go through life with no difficulties. Storms, whether real or metaphorical, are part of a normal life. Knowing God gives us security and peace, even in the face of challenges. Like a sailor who longs to reach port, we too may long to reach the ultimate safe haven where we will be with God forever. What we have also been promised is that Jesus is with us now, just as real as he was for the disciples in the boat, and that we can depend on his love whatever happens.
Let us give thanks to the Lord for his goodness and the wonders he does for his children.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor