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Sunday 14 July 2024 Sea Sunday

All at sea?

Acts 27:27-32, 39-44; Mark 4:35-41

By Michael Hopkins

Moderator of the United Reformed Church Wessex Synod; Author of Pastoral Care in Practice (Canterbury Press Norwich:2023)

Context: a middle of the road nonconformist church near the south coast

Aim: to understand that the sea can represent many good things theologically as well as practically, but also fear through storms; but God is with us in the storms helping us survive them

Someone who was at school in Bournemouth during the Second World War told of how on 6 June 1944 they were taken to a clifftop and watched what was probably a small part of the flotilla heading to land at Normandy, and their teacher remarked that ‘you will never see anything like this in your life again’.

D-day was a big thing on the south coast, and it turned out to be the beginning of the end of the Second World War, although the people left out were the Channel Islanders who remained under Nazi occupation but surrounded by allied forces effectively putting both Channel Islanders and Nazi troops under siege.

On 27 December 1944 the SS Vega, a ship chartered by the International Red Cross, arrived at St. Peter Port, Guernsey; and, four days later, in St. Helier, Jersey; following the urgent requests for food and medical aid. After six months of siege the Channel Islanders and the Nazi occupiers alike were facing the prospect of starvation. The arrival of the SS Vega, with its desperately-needed cargo – and its six subsequent visits – saved many from starvation. Whatever your relationship with the sea, the sea is very significant for those whose lives depend upon it.

The Bible paints a complex picture of the seas. Ancient tradition branded ‘Leviathan’ as the sea monster. Jonah tried to use the sea to escape his calling. The most famous fisherman in history ?shed the Sea of Galilee before being called by Jesus to catch people for him. The Gospels remind us that the sea is not always idyllic, recording such a violent storm whipping up that experienced fishermen fear they are going to die. Paul is ship-wrecked off Malta. Revelation anticipates an end to the sea! Nevertheless, in spite of the sometimes fearful and awe-inspiring power of the sea, it was God who created the waters.

The ?shermen who encountered Jesus on the shoreline must have been perplexed, even annoyed, that Jesus (the land-lubber!) told them how to fish; and yet they responded. In today’s Gospel reading we encounter those disciples once more in a storm on the lake. They were clearly still unsure of almost everything, afraid in the storm, and understandably confused as to why Jesus was sleeping; but, not for the first or last time, Jesus inspired them dramatically as he calmed the storm. In our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Paul was trapped in a ship during a storm, and even though the ship was wrecked, and Paul faced many dangers, he held onto his faith and the hope and confidence that it brought him.

Many of us are wary of the word ‘evangelism’, often because we think it means particular things, rather than the general sharing of our faith in a variety of ways, or because we are neither as confident nor sure in our faith as we think that we are supposed to be. The suggestion of evangelism may make some of us feel like we are heading out into rough and unpredictable waters – perhaps because of our own fear; perhaps because we never quite know what the voyage, let alone the destination, will be like. But as Jesus calmed the disciples in the boat, so he can calm us. As Paul survived the storm and the shipwreck, so too God will be with us.

Islanders depend on the sea. Fishing boats, pleasure craft, ferries, cargo, lifeboats. In former days, Channel Islanders were saved from starvation by the Red Cross parcels the SS Vega carried in its hold. But the seas can also remind us, every day, of God’s power, God’s provision, and the call to an adventure of faith. As we pray for all who work and travel on the seas and whose lives are shaped by them, may we also remember our own call to adventure: to leave the safety of the shore, and to head out to new places in sharing the good news, knowing that God is with us through all the storms.

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