September 11, 2016 – Shipwreck

Pentecost 17 September 11, 2016  Acts 27:1,7-12; 13-15, 18-26; 27-44; 28:1-2   Shipwreck

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In days of old anyone who lived near the sea knew about shipwrecks. I’ve been reading The Outermost House by Henry Beston, an account of the year he lived in a cottage on the dunes in Eastham, near the edge of the National Park’s Coast Guard Beach. Beston’s small cottage stood just thirty feet above the high water mark, a mile and a half from the Coast Guard station.

The Outer Cape shores were notoriously perilous before the Canal made it possible for ships to avoid their waters. Beston’s closest neighbors were the Coast Guard rangers… Every night one would walk past his cottage on patrol – watching for ships coming too close – lighting flares to warn them back from nearby shoals.

There were a dozen Coast Guard stations between Eastham and Provincetown, with tiny half-way houses in between each, and nightly patrols over all this terrain. Even so, there were six shipwrecks on the Cape that year, and many lives were lost.

When a shipwreck happened lifesaving crews would either row through turbulent surf in a lifeboat – often a dangerous venture – or shoot a line from a cannon onto a stranded ship’s deck, then run rescue gear out and bring people off the boat with ropes and pulleys… A technical advance over what could be done in St Paul’s day.

But as he describes the wreck of a three-masted schooner stranded nearby, Beston’s account sounds remarkably like our last reading from Acts. Long ago or not so long ago, when a ship runs aground on rocks or sandbar, stormy waves can often tear it apart in just a few hours…And…

Even ninety years ago, when Beston lived in Eastham – much more so in the time of the book of Acts – death at sea was relatively common. Sailors and frequent sea travelers like the apostle Paul were very familiar with the dangers of ocean travel.  But owners of ships often insisted on sailing even under unsafe conditions. The ship carrying Paul and companions to Rome was a merchant ship, loaded with Egyptian wheat, purchased by the Imperial powers-that-be, to be given to Romans, to keep a lid on social unrest. Meanwhile children in Egypt often went hungry due to food shortages. Which was of little concern to Rome and ship owners, who profited on every load of wheat delivered. Thus the owner (and the captain, who may have received a bonus for completed trips) insisted on continuing the journey, even though the Jewish Day of Atonement (known as The Fast) which occurred between late-September and early-October, had already passed, signaling the end of the safe season for sea travel.

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The book of Acts is a God-driven story that works simultaneously as sacred history and sanctified theological metaphor… As Acts tells its close-to-the-end shipwreck story very slowly at first, capturing the mood of an approaching storm…Describing  stops at various ports, and the transfer of Paul and other prisoners to another ship – then sailing on, against the winds, with difficulty… Pausing for discussion of the critical question – to sail – or not to sail onward in spite of the danger… We hear Paul’s warning against sailing onward rejected. And our ship sets sail again, with gentle favorable winds at first…

Only to be caught up soon in a violent wind – a Nor’easter – (sounds familiar) – a wind that turns the ship and blows it off course… Causing the crew to start tossing first cargo, then even some of the ship’s tackle in an effort to lighten it’s load and stabilize the ship…

The Fast of the day of Atonement has gone by – but now all those on board are fasting – fourteen days – whether in fearful prayer or due to seasickness we’re not told… But no one eats…

Until Paul speaks again, saying ‘The God I worship and belong to has sent word: this ship will still be lost – but now our lives will be spared. So take heart, have courage.’

Paul himself was doubtless of good courage. (In 2nd Corinthians 12 Paul writes of being shipwrecked three times. He’s used to hard traveling.) But it probably takes awhile for others to believe his words… The sailors, we’re told, are praying for morning to come – praying, probably, like the sailors on the ship that carried the prophet Jonah, to whatever small g gods or higher power they hoped in…

The sailors prayed, but probably with none of the faith and hope Paul has. They hadn’t met the one true God who made heaven and earth, the seas and all that fills them… They didn’t know God. But they did know what happens when a ship becomes impossible to steer – unresponsive to turning of the ship’s wheel, its rudder useless… They knew well what happens when a ship runs aground…and starts to break apart… And lives are suddenly lost…

In ancient times journeys by sea were told as metaphors for the journey of life… And even if we’ve never been at sea in a storm… we can remember…different yet also very similarly beyond-our-control times… on this day of solemn remembrance…

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St Paul and the earliest Christians expected to encounter many difficulties on life’s journey… They knew life’s difficulties and dangers well…But they regarded life’s difficulties differently than others did, due to trust in Jesus Christ, risen Savior.

Knowing the ship he was traveling on as a prisoner was journeying far too late in the year for safe travel, Paul had every expectation that all would be lost. He predicts with certainty – the voyage will be a disaster – with loss not only of cargo and ship, but also many lives. Speaking as a prophet who listens to God – and as an experienced traveler with common sense, he knows – when one makes a journey that isn’t necessary, at an unwise time, one should expect to die.

Yes, Jesus stills a storm on Lake Galilee – but he does this only once that we know of. God doesn’t set aside normal cause and effect most of the time. We should expect continued increase in devastating storms due to global climate change. And admit the role humans play in accelerating the stormy trend.

Remembering the same God who stills the storm has also been known to send storms to communicate… As the psalmist says of God in our thought for the day: “He commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea…” (Psalm 107)…

And the same Hebrew word means both wind and Spirit. In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, we hear (depending on translation –) “…the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters…” or “…a wind from God swept over the face of the waters…” (Gen 1).  God’s wind, God’s Spirit brings forth creation. God’s wind and rain also bring the great flood as a direct consequence of  humans flaunting God’s law of love…

And sometimes God’s word seem designed to keep us pondering and praying about what God means. Plain speech? Metaphor? Parable? All of these? The ambiguities in sacred scripture often seem deliberate… Perhaps – one of God’s ways of letting us know… God wants to be in real conversation with us…

Remembering – On the day of Pentecost (in Acts’ second chapter) disciples are “altogether in one place” when “suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind” and “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit…”

Now in the next-to-last chapter of Acts again we encounter a violent wind – – which now seems almost opposite to the Holy Spirit. Except as we read on – it does seem like the Holy Spirit is keeping close watch on this storm-tossed ship… .. Even as wild winds blow the ship and all aboard into stormy unknown waters…

Till Paul proclaims – God has given more grace – Reprieve from the earlier word that all lives will be lost. ‘Now the God I serve,’ Paul says, ‘has sent word that yes, the ship (and all its cargo for sure) will still be lost – but now every life will be spared. Be of good courage…’

Now people begin to listen… As Paul gives thanks to God and blesses bread, and a meal that resembles communions is eaten by all – and all the remaining cargo and ship’s tackle is thrown overboard to lighten the load…

Now again we hear a word from God spoken through Paul, as he warns – if sailors leave in the ship’s lifeboat – everyone’s life (theirs included) will be lost… And when soldiers, fearing punishment if they escape, plan to kill the prisoners as all prepare to abandon ship and head for shore – Julian, the centurion, orders all prisoners be spared. As if he, a pagan commander, has believed the Christian message Paul proclaims – that now we’re all in this journey of life together – and must stick together – to be saved…

So it is – all the mixed company aboard ship – sailors, soldiers, commanders,  prisoners alike – come safely to land… and –

How very grateful – all who come through this shipwreck safely – washed up together on the beach – how grateful all must be. Imagine! Two hundred seventy six people swimming and hanging on to planks and ship boards – all making it safely to shore… Met by a crowd of kind people, gathered together to help… (Henry Beston says Cape Codders were like this – always ready – both to try to prevent – and to help survivors of shipwreck…)

Shipwrecks are more rare now, thanks to modern navigational technologies… But other kinds of shipwreck are common as ever. As the first letter to Timothy says “by rejecting conscience certain persons have suffered shipwreck in the faith.” And by disregarding God and natural law – cause-and-effect – many suffer shipwrecks of sin and/or addiction…

And our work of faith is still, as in ages past – to proclaim by word and deed the saving gospel of Jesus Christ – who reminds us – we take nothing with us when we leave this life – So don’t ever let our baggage (or anyone else’s) drag us down…or sink our ship…

But be ever on the lookout to help those suffering any kind of shipwreck… Alert to opportunities to help all escape with life…life forevermore…  in the blessed company of all believers in Jesus Christ our Lord.

To Him be all glory.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.