Preacher: The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Readings: Psalm 30, Amos 5: 14 – 24, Luke 9: 37 – 55

Despite the rich and evocative readings which we heard read to us tonight – Amos and his rant against the hypocrisy of those who think that, because they follow the right rituals, God will listen to them, when they should be focusing on justice and righteousness; the impassioned plea of the psalmist to be shown God’s ways; and the graphic detail of the boy possessed of a seizure – I want to talk a bit about Sea Sunday and one of the great Anglican mission organisations.

For many years the 2nd Sunday of July has been kept as Sea Sunday, with a special focus and prayers for all who sail the seas. The Mission to Seafarers, with its well-known flag and the flying angel (shown on the front cover of tonight’s service booklet) was founded 160 years ago by, among others, the Rev’d John Ashley. He worked in the port of Bristol and, so it is said, personally visited over 14,000 ships in his long ministry. He got to know firsthand the difficult, dangerous and lonely lives of seafarers. Since those early days the Mission to Seafarers, originally called the Mission to Seamen, has grown to be a world-wide organisation active in 50 countries and in more than 500 ports. (I asked one of our naval chaplains the other night why the Flying Angel no longer flies in Port Adelaide, and he told me that the Roman Catholic ‘Apostleship to the Sea’ does such a good job there is no need for Anglicans to be involved locally. That’s a good example of how a number of churches work together in providing this vital and life-giving mission.)

There are of course, many stories of journeys in the Bible. One of the first is that of Abraham who was told by God to leave his home and set off into the unknown. At the very heart of the biblical narrative is the great forty year wandering of God’s people in the wilderness – being shaped and formed into a holy people, ready and willing to do God’s will. Jesus himself seems to have been a peripatetic, wandering from village to village, synagogue to synagogue, preaching, healing and casting out demons. He called others to follow him – initially the twelve disciples and then many others. The calming of the storm on Lake Galilee shows the power of Jesus even over the elements of the universe. But the greatest biblical traveller is surely St Paul. There are three distinct missionary journeys we read about in the Bible when he travelled extensively in what we now know as the Middle East – eventually going as far west as the great imperial city of Rome.

Paul knew well the trials and dangers of journeys and sea-journeys in particular. There is a graphic account in Acts 27 of Paul on board a ship being taken as a prisoner to Rome. Caught in a winter storm off the coast of Crete, for fourteen days they were blown this way and that before finally, starving and exhausted, they were cast up on the shore. To their surprise it turned out they had made landfall on the island of Malta – nearly 1000km off course.

Today of course our ships are vastly different to those fragile sailing ships of St Paul’s day, or even the cramped ships the first South Australian settlers sailed in over many months to reach our shores. The super tankers, roll-on-roll-off car carriers and luxury cruise liners criss-cross the oceans with the most sophisticated of navigation instruments. Yet the life of the professional seafarer is not all luxury and a girl, or boy, in every port. Many of today’s seafarers are likely to come from the Philippines, the Ukraine and Myanmar. They sign up for contracts that will take them far from their homes and families, often spending many months at sea with only a few hours in port – such is the quick turn-around these days. Of course, the internet makes contact with home so much easier – but that can bring its own stresses. Just as for those serving far away in the military, the internet means a sailor must not only cope with his or her own loneliness, but can listen daily, and helplessly, to the struggles of their family back home. You can’t just get off a ship in the middle of the Indian Ocean and pop home to sort out the sick puppy, or take a child to the dentist. Nor can you be there on Saturday for the netball or soccer game, watching your child grow and flourish.

The Mission to Seafarers, along with similar organisations of other denominations, offers a home from home, a friendly face to talk to, the opportunity to worship in a chapel, to spend quiet time with friends. But the Chaplains are also there to help. Some years ago a ship was impounded at Lyttleton, one of the ports in New Zealand. The owning company had gone bankrupt, the port fees were not paid – and the crew were stranded in a strange and foreign land, their ship effectively becoming their prison for none of them had the necessary passports and visas to go ashore. The Mission to Seafarers heard of their plight and went to their help. For many months the Chaplain was their only conduit to the outside world, providing food (donated by local churches) and warm clothing, and relaying messages. Through the Mission contact was made with lawyers who eventually found a way of securing the release of the seamen, got their long overdue wages paid, and organised flights back to their home countries.

One of the most stirring sea stories is that of Ernest Shackleton and his expedition to the Antarctic in 1914. His ship, Endurance, became stuck in sea-ice and was trapped for many months. Twenty-eight men were marooned on the ice for 428 days living in upturned ice-boats with little hope of rescue. Eventually Shackleton decided to take a boat, with six companions, and attempt to get to South Georgia, 1500km away where there was a whaling station. Caught in a hurricane the boat was driven ashore on the inhospitable southern shore of South Georgia. Trapped again, Shackleton set off on foot, with two others, to cross the mountains to reach help. For 36 unendurable hours the three of them made their way painfully towards help. In one of the great rescue stories of the sea Shackleton eventually managed to rescue all his crew. Later he would write that ‘it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.’

In the long hours of watch-keeping there is plenty of time to think – and pray. And the Mission to Seafarers helps mariners to do just that.

So tonight, before we go and sing hymns, let us pray for the Mission to Seafarers and all who sail the seas in ships large and small.