Sunday, 17 October 2010

The Annual Lifeboat Service

It’s an honour and a privilege for me to address you this morning because of the great admiration and pride that all of us here have for our local RNLI station and for the RNLI as a national institution. It’s a life saving institution crewed by local volunteers showing deep commitment to what they do and great courage in the face of adverse and often unpredictable conditions.

The sea plays a big part in the lives of many people here in terms of both employment and leisure pursuits. I have a great love of the sea myself; I come from a family that loves to ‘mess about with boats’. My step-father built from scratch a 50-ft sailboat in our back garden when I was growing up in California. Later I spent around 10 months sailing around the islands of the South Pacific on an 85-ft schooner as paid crew together with my future husband, who was a professional yachtsman at the time. He was one of the eight who survived the sinking of the tall ship Marques near the Bermuda Triangle from a sudden squall in the 1984 Tall Ships Race. Many didn’t survive that sinking, because they were below deck when the squall hit, but Andy, who was on deck, managed to find one of the ship’s life rafts which kept him safe until he was rescued by another ship. That was a rescue he’ll never forget. And now here our family have a small dinghy and our two children are learning to sail. It’s a great relief to know that the RNLI are prepared and equipped for rescue operations 24/7 right here in our local waters.

Well, I’ve been the curate here in this parish for just over a year now, and I’ve also recently taken on the role of chaplain to the Sea Cadets, who, of course, meet just across the road – around 70 young people who are learning the skills of seamanship and the fun of ‘messing about in boats’. These young people, and many people like them who live near the coast, are naturally drawn to the sea for its sheer magnificence and for all the opportunities of recreation and employment it provides.

You might remember that the first disciples of Jesus Christ also did a bit of ‘messing about in boats’. Most of them were fishermen, who made their living on the Sea of Galilee, where conditions are notoriously unpredictable. On the night when the story from our reading from Matthew’s gospel takes place, the sea was particularly choppy because of the strong wind. The disciples were in the boat on their own, as Jesus had sent them on ahead of him to the other side of the sea. But now they were in difficulty. Professional fishermen though they were, here they are struggling with the oars, unable to make headway against the wind - a familiar sight for RNLI lifeboat crewmembers. The disciples were afraid, even though they knew first-hand of Jesus’ power. They knew his teaching and they knew the prayer that he taught them. And still they were fearful and doubtful.

One way of looking at this story is as a picture of the life of faith – and the life of faith isn’t always smooth sailing. Faith is often mixed with occasional fears and doubts as we’re buffeted by the events of life that can threaten us or sometimes overwhelm us. But at the heart of the gospel story are Jesus’ words, ‘Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid’.

The disciples saw Jesus, a shimmering figure out on the water, and Peter, feeling both wonder and terror, started walking on the water towards Jesus. Peter’s eyes were focused on Jesus, and there in a moment of doubt, his attention diverted by the strength of the wind and the size of the waves, he began to sink. And so often it is with us in our lives. In the midst of our worst storms, Jesus asks us to keep focussed on him, on his strength and power, rather than on the storm that is raging around us - to take his hand and depend upon him - to trust him and to lean on him. Into the storms of our lives, Jesus says, ‘Take courage. Don’t be afraid. I am with you’. But it isn’t easy to trust.

Much of our world knows at least a little about Jesus, but to some he seems a kind of fanciful dream, unrelated to us and to our real problems. Others find Jesus frightening. Some wish he’d just go away and leave people alone. Even those who believe in him, as the disciples already did, aren’t always sure what to expect from him. Yet they are compelled to try and do what he asks, even when it sometimes seems impossible: to bring his love and his power, his peace and his hope to the needy world. But then we let our eyes drop for a moment to the waves - like a small boat in trouble on big seas, surrounded by darkness, fear and a howling gale. That’s what it can feel like when you try to bring God’s love and healing power into the wild night of the world.

There are many times when what Jesus asks of us seems impossible. How can we even begin to do the task he’s called us to? How can we manage to love others as he has loved us – and yes, even our enemies? How can we even think of giving up that sin that we really would rather to hold onto? How can we possibly develop a commitment to prayer when we’re so busy and life is hectic? That’s when we need to hear, once more, Jesus’ words, ‘Why all this doubt? Take courage. Don’t be afraid. I am with you’. We’re called to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, and our ears open for his encouragement (even if it does contain some rebuke as well).

While I was preparing this sermon, I do confess my concentration was distracted by the extraordinary rescue shown on TV of the 33 Chilean miners. To a large extent, that astonishing achievement was made possible by the great skill and courage and fortitude of all involved. But also the faith which the Chilean people openly proclaimed was so obviously an integral part of the rescue operation and the survival of those miners. One of them said afterwards, ‘it has been a nightmare, but I grabbed God’ hand, and I never doubted that he would get me out of there’.

I was amazed to hear those words while at the same time I was reading the words of the scripture set for today’s service, because when Peter begins to sink, the scripture says, ‘immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him’. If we would just look to him in times of trouble, Jesus reaches out his hand to us.

At the same time I was also making a connection in my mind between the rescue that I was witnessing on TV with the Chilean miners, and the purpose of the RNLI, because of course, the RNLI is in the rescue business. And it’s a measure of the very best of humankind when people work together, using their skills and time to rescue others. Courage in the face of adversity is something the RNLI lifeboat crew have to face every time they are called out. And it is my belief that all who are involved with the RNLI - either in the front line or in supportive roles - are working alongside God, because God is also in the rescue business. God’s work is being done when people are compelled in their hearts to reach out sacrificially to rescue people from trouble and despair. It’s God who upholds us, and he can equip us with the inner strength and resilience that we need when the going is rough.

It has been an eventful year for our local RNLI. 2010 began on a sad note with the passing of one of the station’s most inspirational members... But of course, the task of the RNLI goes ever on, and over the spring and summer months the lifeboat crew were called out many times. And with grateful thanks to The Lifeboat Fund, the new lifeboat is now in service, which will enable the lifeboat crew to carry out their life saving work more effectively than ever before.

Here in this service we thank God and we praise God for all the people who make this work possible: The Lifeboat Fund, our local fundraising guild and all those who support the RNLI financially; the local RNLI Management Group; the lifeboat crewmembers, who sacrifice time with their families or at work to go out and help people in trouble on the sea; and we thank the families and employer’s who support them in this calling. So let us pray:

Loving God, our God of rescue,
We thank you that you put it into our hearts to want to help others in need. Thank you for the RNLI: for all who contribute in so many ways to its effectiveness in saving lives.
And we thank you that by the example shown to us by Jesus we know just how much you want to save and help us. Help us to trust in Jesus. Help us to live and work hand in hand with him, to your praise and glory. Amen.


  1. To the person who made an anonymous comment but then stated that it's best not to let it appear on the blog:

    I hear your cry. Please let me assure you that Jesus hears your cry, even if it is very faint. Please take his hand. I'm praying for you.

  2. Wow, what a tidal wave of a sermon! So powerful in connecting the local rescue folks to Jesus rescue of us all and to the Chilean rescue miracle! I have tears in my eyes--thank you for this, Karen.


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