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June 25, 2006 (Sunday 12 • Time after Pentecost)
Interim Pastor Steve Jensen
As most of you are aware, I spent the majority of my ministry as a chaplain to Navy and Marine Corps units. While some may think it a glamorous or exciting ministry, it certainly came with its challenges.
Mere weeks after I left my first congregation in Buffalo, NY, I found myself underway aboard the cruiser Halsey for a deployment to the Western Pacific. While tied up to the pier, the ship seemed rather sizeable. Crossing the Pacific, one’s perspective changes dramatically, however, and I could truly appreciate the old “Seafarers’ prayer”: “O Lord, your sea is so great and my boat is so small.”
We weren’t away from sight of land very many days when I encountered the chief engineer racing down the passageway with a look of stark terror on his face. He slowed only long enough to mutter, “Better say your best prayer, Padre. There’s fuel in the uptakes.” Not being an engineer, I could only imagine what that meant and it wasn’t good. The emergency announcement was made on the loudspeaker and everyone secured everything they could in preparation for a major explosion—and then we waited for what seemed like several lifetimes, deep in prayer.
Eventually the chief engineer addressed all hands on the announcement system. In essence he said that a mistake by one of the crew put highly explosive fuel oil into the very hot vents coming from the engines—which should have decimated everything above the waterline. The only explanation he could give for the suspension of natural law was that “somebody’s been praying.”
Two months later we were all looking forward to a port call in Japan and Christmas ashore. Before we could find safe harbor, however, we had to ride out a typhoon. Despite everything that could be anchored or tied down, there was still crashing and yelling and 45-degree rolls throughout the long night. At one point there was genuine concern we might become top heavy and flip over. But by morning of the second day we safely approached Tokyo Bay and were stunned to walk about the ship and note the damage—yet celebrate the fact that there was no life-threatening injury or death. While there may not be foxholes on ships, there was definitely more “foxhole religion” than usual and frequent comment about the God who kept us safe on both occasions.
You can imagine after all that not everyone was anxious to return to sea when our visit ended, but we were reminded that “A ship in the harbor is safe; but that is not what ships are built for.” We had a mission and we were expected to do our very best to accomplish it. Once again we were to leave a place of safety, comfort and relative familiarity for dangerous and more foreign areas.
And you think the transition for a new pastor here is a challenge...
So as a sailor, I can appreciate the scene in our Gospel of the disciples and Jesus in a fishing boat crossing an unpredictable sea from a place of comfort to a place not of their choosing—to an area of foreigners, Gentiles. Jesus, we see later, could have walked. They were in the boat, however, to experience Jesus’ passion to include Gentiles in his saving work—and to learn more about the power and authority of the Son of God.
Remember, this was not a group solely of tax collectors or accountants out at sea. Four of the disciples were professional fishermen, whose fear of dying suggests to us this sudden storm was life threatening and their seamen’s skills were insufficient. With all the bucking and creaking and water coming over the gunwales that signaled danger, Jesus slept. Through all of that, he slept! They read it as if Jesus didn’t care that they were all going to die. The truth is, he trusted God; while they got angry with him. Surely they’re not unique in their response to danger or in their shaky faith.
Despite apparently being disappointed in their lack of faith, Jesus rebuked wind and waves. He instantly demonstrated not only that he cared, but that he would respond to their needs. And what was their response? What manner of man is this that even nature at its worst obeys him? Should we be afraid of him or at least keep our distance in awe or bow down to him?
They didn’t have long to ponder those questions because it quickly became apparent to them that this sail-powered boat was becalmed. Now the disciples had to work hard to bring this Jesus to a place to which they still didn’t want to go. If they had to work this hard to reach land, they’d much prefer to return to their own shore and their own kind. But Jesus’ ministry and desire to reach all God’s people required his followers to work together to get to where the lived and worked.
How telling that elements of God’s creation, wind and waves, responded better to Jesus’ words than the disciples and most people even today.
Let’s not forget that the disciples were not in the boat alone—Jesus was with them. In the storms of our lives, Jesus has promised he will be with us as well. And his trust in God demonstrates that God has the power to control the chaos. We are not meant to keep God’s saving acts in our lives secret, but rather to share our encounters with the living God as a way of inviting others to open themselves up to him. And once the danger or chaos is controlled, he may well send us right back out to unfamiliar or hostile territory to spread the Good News of the God who is still in charge of creation, who is with us at all times and in all places.
How is it that groups of disciples today in the form of congregations or ministries are showing their trust in the Living God? As Synod staff and ELCA representatives visit congregations, they frequently are taken aback by responses of some about outreach to the Gentiles of our day. Listen to just a few:
Those responses remind me of a story from my seminary days you may also have heard from James Christensen’s Creative Ways to Worship or repeated elsewhere.
On a dangerous seacoast where shipwrecks often occur, there was once a crude little lifesaving station. The building was just a hut and there was only one boat, but the few devoted members kept a constant watch over the sea, and with no thought for themselves went out day and night tirelessly searching for the lost. Many lives were saved by this wonderful little station, so that it became famous. Some of those who were saved and various others in the surrounding area wanted to become associated with the station and give of their life and money and effort for the support of the work. New boats were bought and new crews were trained. The little lifesaving station grew.
Some of the members of the lifesaving station were unhappy that the building was so crude and poorly equipped. They felt that a more comfortable place should be provided as the first refuge of those saved from the sea. So they replaced the emergency cots with beds and put better furniture in the enlarged building. Now the lifesaving station became a popular gathering place for its members, and they decorated it beautifully and furnished it exquisitely because they used it as a sort of club. Fewer members were now interested in going to sea on lifesaving missions, so they hired lifeboat crews to do this work. The lifesaving motif still prevailed in the club’s decoration, and there was a liturgical lifeboat in the room where the club initiations were held.
About this time a large ship was wrecked off the coast, and the hired crews brought in boatloads of cold, wet, and half-drowned people. They were dirty and sick, and some of them had black skin, and some had yellow skin. The beautiful new club was considerably messed up. So the property committee immediately had a shower house built outside the club where victims of shipwreck could be cleaned up before coming inside.
At the next meeting, there was a split in the club membership. Most of the members wanted to stop the club’s lifesaving activities as being unpleasant and a hindrance to the normal social life of the club. Some members insisted upon lifesaving as their primary purpose and pointed out that they were still called a lifesaving station. But they were finally voted down and told that if they wanted to save the lives of all the various kinds of people who were shipwrecked in those waters, they could begin their own lifesaving station down the coast. They did.
As the years went by, the new station experienced the same changes that had occurred in the old. It evolved into a club, and yet another lifesaving station was founded. History continued to repeat itself, and if you visit that coast today, you will find a number of exclusive clubs along that shore. Shipwrecks are frequent in those waters, but most of the people drown.
With all the work you’ve been guided in doing by Pastor David and the Ministry Planning Task Force with Natural Church Development, what does this story say to you? How does the Gospel lesson impact what we’re doing and where we go from here?
The alternative to risking a stormy crossing is staying tied up to the shore. Bishop Lyle Miller, at a Sierra Pacific Synod assembly, proclaimed: “The church isn’t a luxury liner, granting passage and comfort to all who qualify and clamber aboard, but is rather like a rescuing life boat, sometimes listing or even leaking, but always guided by the captain, Jesus, at the helm.”
As we look to the future at LCH, we would do well to remember Jesus is with us in the boat, and it is he that gives us direction. If we will trust him, we may well wind up on new shores bringing the Good News to people we would never anticipate calling brother or sister. As he calls from the helm for “All ahead full,” I pray that we will respond in faith, “Aye, aye, captain,” and set our sights for those places and peoples to which he will lead us.
Copyright © 2006 Steven Jensen
Comments welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org