Shipping Festival Service 2018

June 14, 2018

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Preached on the occasion of the Shipping Festival Service 2018 by The Dean of Winchester, the Very Revd Catherine Ogle on Thursday 14th June 2018.

It’s a great pleasure to be here this evening and thank you for the kind invitation to preach.  In truth, at a Shipping Festival, among sailors, I feel rather inadequate, and have to confess myself to be a land-lubber.

It’s not really my fault.  I grew up in Cambridge, East Anglia, then moved to West Yorkshire for most of my adult years and then to the West Midlands, so really I couldn’t have been further from the sea.  I’ve been well and truly land-locked.  But now, having worked down the country to Hampshire, the county of my husband’s birth, the sea is finally within reach.  And it’s rather exciting.  I’m familiar now with the joys of Portsmouth Historic Docks and the wonderful Bucklers Hard and walks along the coast, I’ve even taken the ferry to the Isle of Wight!  We are a nation with a rich heritage of sea-faring, of hard work to bring in the catch, of venturing out to defend ourselves, and in search of a better, richer life. We are a sea faring nation, and this has shaped so much of our identity.

Of course this is not true for every nation.

The people of ancient Israel, by comparison were not seafarers.  The literature of the Old Testament tends to identify the sea with danger and chaos.  Think of the prophet Jonah, the most reluctant of sea-farers, Jonah resists being sent on a journey by God to the people of Nineveh, and flees in the opposite direction, only to be thrown overboard by the ship’s crew, then swallowed by a great sea creature and vomited up on land.  Jonah, perhaps the most famous Israelite seafarer, understandably not a role model.

By comparison the Red Sea, became a safe route for the people of Israel fleeing the cruelty of slavery in Egypt.  God holds back the sea so that they can cross in safety, but the mighty waters crash down and drown the Egyptians pursing them.  The sea is powerful and dangerous.  Even the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus and his friends fish, is unpredictable and stormy.

But in the great story of scripture St Paul is an exception.  Paul is an experienced sailor.  He travels by sea as well as land to take his precious message about the love of God in Jesus Christ, because he wants to reach as many people as he possibly can. He is devoted to continuing the work of Jesus, teaching and healing, so that the command of Jesus, to take the gospel to ‘All nations’ can become a reality. And the church spreads and grows out from its source in Jerusalem, wider and wider, eventually to Rome the centre of politics and culture, the centre of most powerful empire.

The reading we heard this evening is the beginning of Paul’s last journey, that journey to Rome.  Paul has been arrested and as a Roman citizen has demanded his right to have his case heard by the Emperor.  The account of this journey, if you can read the whole thing later, is fascinating in its description of seamanship in a great and protracted storm.  Paul warned his guard that the storm would come.  They were travelling late in the season and Paul’s experience meant that he anticipated it.  Their journey from Jerusalem, took them up the coast and around the south of Cyprus, up and along towards Crete, touching the south of Crete and then out into the Mediterranean Sea, west to Malta and then north to Rome.  That’s the journey, but mid-way they hit a mighty storm, 14 long days of fear and discomfort. I can only imagine this, but I’m sure that some of you know what this means.

There’s a very well-known prayer, the prayer of the Breton sailor, simple but evocative, goes like this:  ‘O God, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.’

The sea in its great power and expanse puts us and our lives into perspective.  Human beings are so small and vulnerable in comparison with the waters of the sea.  ‘O God, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.’

And we know that storms happen, and ship-wrecks happen.  The boat that Paul sails in is eventually ship-wrecked, but all the crew are saved through Paul’s efforts to keep them together.

In a sense Paul’s whole adult life has been a storm.  He has been swept up in great forces: first his hatred for the followers of Jesus, whom he persecuted, until he had a life changing encounter with the risen Christ, he is thrown from his horse and blinded, hearing the voice of Jesus, ‘why are you persecuting me?’ Paul is humbled and when he regains his sight he gains faith and the Paul turns from being persecutor to became the most energetic preacher and missionary.  All that passion redirected by God.

And in the storm at sea, he is calm.  Paul has utter confidence in God’s promises. God intends him to get to Rome, and all the crew to be saved. The storm is all around, but he is calm in the storm.

For all of us, storms will happen.  No one escapes life’s storms.  Storms strike in the form of accidents, ill-health, relationship breakdown, betrayal, events that absolutely rock our world and make us sick with despair and worry.  Christian faith doesn’t mean that we will escape the storms of life, but faith can give us courage to live through the storm and even, despite the storm, find peace within it.  Because God loves us, knows us and cherishes us, we can know calm and courage amid the storm.  Calm comes from the knowledge that although we are tiny and the storm is great, we are loved. We matter. He is the rock on which we can rely. Each one of us is precious.

Today we remember those who died a year ago in the Grenfell Tower fire.  And today we continue to watch the news of migrants taking to the sea in search of a better life, at such great danger to themselves.  Let us ask God to open our hearts to one another, across divides of race and culture, to recognise in those who suffer, our brothers and sisters, precious children of God.  And may each of us, in storm and in calm, know the peace of Christ, which passes all understanding. Amen.