FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Prayer of the Day: O God of creation, eternal majesty, you preside over land and sea, sunshine and storm. By your strength pilot us, by your power preserve us, by your wisdom instruct us, and by your hand protect us, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Mark 4:38.
The ocean is often employed as a metaphor for trials and tribulations of life. Consider, for example, the old favorite “Jesus, Savior Pilot Me.” Here on Cape Cod those terrors are frequently anything but metaphoric. This week Michael Packard, a fifty-six year old lobster diver, suffered a broken leg after having been swallowed by one of our humpback whales. Thankfully, these gentle giants, that feed principally on plankton, have no taste for human flesh. Thus, after twenty seconds in the whale’s mouth, Mr. Packard was ejected just as a cyclist might spit out a fly. He is now qualified to be enrolled along with Jonah and Geppetto as one of the few people swallowed by a whale that lived to tell about it.
With the exception of our reading from Paul’s Second Letter to the church at Corinth, the lessons for this Sunday all speak in some fashion about the sea and its terrors. In language echoing Babylonian mythology, the Book of Job speaks of God’s triumph over the sea and God’s power that “proscribed bounds for it.” Job 38:10. The psalm recounts the terror of seagoing pilgrims caught in a storm. In our Gospel we find the disciples in a similar predicament crying out to Jesus, “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?” Mark 4:38. The ancient Israelites were not seafarers. They did not willingly take to the water. Only once in the Bible do we read about an Israelite taking a sea voyage. That story is recited in the Book of the aforementioned Jonah-and it did not end well.
Our love, fear and fascination with the sea is, I believe, grounded in what it tells us about ourselves. We are small, vulnerable and the universe does not care if we live or die. I experienced something of what the disciples must have been feeling one day out on Puget Sound fishing with my Dad. Dad was in most respects a cautious man. You would never find him scuba diving, hang gliding or scaling cliffs. He always admonished us kids not to take foolish risks with our lives. “A cheap thrill sometimes comes with a steep price,” he told us many times. But when it came to fishing, Dad threw caution to the wind. He would forge his way into whatever waters he had reason to believe the fish were lurking with the obsessive passion of Captain Ahab.
On this particular day the weather was calm, though the sky was dark and cloudy. We were already much further out in the water than anyone in a twelve foot aluminum boat with a five horsepower motor had any business being. Dad could see seagulls circling over a patch of water some distance out. He reasoned that the gulls were after herring that, in turn, had been driven to the surface by king salmon pursuing them. If we could get ourselves over to where the seagulls were, we stood a good chance of getting our limit. Dad was right about the fishing. It was great. In fact, we were so busy pulling fish out of the water that we failed to notice the wind picking up. Only when the waves started rocking the boat did it occur to us that we had best get ourselves back to shore.
On this particular day, Dad allowed me to run the outboard motor and steer the boat-quite a thrill for an eleven year old boy. Though his expertise was now sorely needed in the stern, there was no way we could risk changing position under these rough water conditions. So it fell to me to start the engine and steer us back to shore. I pulled the starter cord several times, but the engine would not start. It was then we realized that it was probably out of gas. While Dad took the oars and kept the bow into the waves so that we would not capsize, I struggled with the gas can and the cap on the motor. This ordinarily simple task proved nearly impossible with the boat pitching around in the waves. I am sure I lost more gas in the Sound than I managed to get into the tank. At one point I shouted out in rage, terror and frustration, “Can you just hold still for a goddam minute?” I don’t know who I thought I was talking to. But I recall how it suddenly occurred to me that the sea didn’t care. There was no malice in the waves. The Sound wasn’t “out to get us.” It was just doing what the sea does and we happened to in its way.
Obviously, Dad and I survived this adventure. I eventually got the engine going and, with Dad’s coaching, managed to maneuver the boat back to shore. We arrived home shaken and chastised, but alive and well. I couldn’t have told you where my faith was at that instant anymore than the disciples were able to answer Jesus’ question to the same effect. But in retrospect, I understand the mortal danger we were in and appreciate more fully our deliverance in which, I believe, God had a hand. I hasten to add that there was nothing here I would call miraculous, if by that one means an unexplained, unnatural and unexpected occurrence that could only be attributed to divine intervention. My father’s skill at the oars, his coaching and my following directions were clearly instrumental in getting us safely to land. While the water was rough that day, I’ve seen worse. Had the wind increased a bit more, this story might have ended tragically for us. So there was an element of “dumb luck” as well. Nevertheless, I am convinced that there was also a “God factor” in, with and under all of that to which I owe my life.
Of course, we all know that not every encounter with the sea ends as well as it did for the disciples, me and my Dad. The ocean floor is littered with boats that did not make it back to shore. One can pray for God’s deliverance from the storm and give thanks for it, but one can never presume upon it. When deliverance does occur, it needs to be seen in a larger context. No matter how dramatic and remarkable an act of deliverance may be, it amounts to nothing if the benefactor fails to recognize it for what it is. Deliverence is nothing more or less than the gift of more life, more opportunities to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. It is this for which Noah and his family were rescued from the great flood; Israel brought through the sea to freedom from slavery in Egypt and the church called through the waters of baptism into Jesus Christ, sanctified and commissioned. Divine deliverance from the dangers of the sea is really no different than waking up in the morning. But such dramatic experiences can serve to remind us that each new day is in reality just such a miraculous deliverance. This morning you have been given the gift of another day, the day which the Lord has made for you to rejoice and be glad in it. So, then, what will you do with this day that you did not earn, do not deserve and have no right to expect another like it on the morrow?
It is also important to recognize that deliverance from storms and other catastrophes are only temporary reprieves. One day there will come a storm you will not survive. The One who gives us our lives ultimately claims them back again. That reality should hold no terror for those who know that One as “Abba Father,” the God who numbers our hairs and has the burning desire and the determination to give far more than is taken. So in every storm, whether it be one of the many I pass through during the course of my life or the last, “In every high and stormy gale/
My anchor holds within the veil.”
Here is a poem about the terrifying power of the sea by Cleopatra Mathis, a power that puts us in our proper place of awe and thankfulness.
The Sea Chews Things Up
When I woke, the waves had gone black,
turning over the macerated
curd of the ocean bottom, heaving its sludge
onto the beach. Some storm far out, I thought,
had ravaged the sea, stirred up its bed,
sent the whole mess flying to shore.
At my feet I found a grave of starfish,
broken and gnarled among the fleshy
snipes and heads. Every shade of death
covered the sand. It looked hopeless
in the pale day but for the birds,
a congress of gulls, terns, and the rarest plovers,
calm for once, satiated, a measure of
the one law: this sea will claim it all—
feed them, catch them, grind their complicated bones.
Cleopatra Mathis (b.1947) was born in Ruston, Louisiana. Her father left when she was just six years old and she was raised by her Greek mother’s family. Her grandmother ran the family café. Mathis received her bachelor’s degree from Southwest Texas State University in 1970 and spent seven years teaching public high school. It was during this period that Mathis became interested in poetry. She went back to school to earn her M.F.A. from Columbia University and graduated in 1978. Since 1982 Mathis has been the Frederick Sessions Beebe Professor in the English department at Dartmouth College where she is also director of the Creative Writing Program. In addition, she is a faculty member at The Frost Place Poetry Seminar. You can read more about Cleopatra Mathis and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.