“Thy Sea so Great, Our Boat so Small”

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*Sermon preached on Sunday, 24 June 2018 at First Christian Church of Hampton VA.  I was gifted with this little boat, made for me by one of our younger attendees while I was preaching.  Children

Gospel of Mark 4:35-41 (New Revised Standard Version)

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.”  And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him.  A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.  But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”  He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.  He said to them, “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”  And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”



It was the last Tank Landing Ship {“LST”}  in the Navy.

The “Fast Freddy” she was called, with not a small amount of sarcasm.

The USS FREDERICK was old as naval ships go, 35 hard years on her hull.  Based out of Pearl Harbor, Vietnam era frigates were kept nearby, “in mothballs” as we say, and cannibalized for parts just to keep her going.  It was getting harder all the time and this was to be her last voyage before transfer to the Mexican navy.

We had loaded up the entire battalion’s artillery pieces, all of our 5-ton trucks, HUMVEEs and anything else we would need, and departed on a cloudy day, sailing past the sunken ARIZONA on the way out of the harbor.

A few hours later, already battling heavy seas, all four engines failed.  One was brought back online after an hour, another the next day.

Up on the bridge, I watched as our bow dipped low and scooped up the sea, the water filling the deck, even as the flat-bottomed ship rolled side to side.

Back and forth she rolled.  Like a metronome on a piano, yawwing as far as 35 degrees before swinging back.

36 degrees or more would have started toward capsizing her.

It went like this for days.

The ship’s crew were fine.  My battalion’s Marines were altogether another matter.

Fit for anything except a tossing sea, they mistakenly thought they did not need to take their Dramamine until already sick.

The ship of steel groaned and so did they

They looked for deliverance, but none came until we pulled into San Diego.

When one looks at the reading from the Gospel of Mark, a similar plea for deliverance is made.  Following an exhausting day for Jesus, the disciples attempt to steer their craft across the small inland sea, no more than about eight miles at its widest… basically as far as we are as from Naval Station Norfolk.

But the steep sides of the mountains along the Sea of Galilee are known for sending wind and waves racing across it, creating chaotic squall conditions.  In the midst of these, a small fishing boat would be tempest tossed, the journey lengthened considerably.

Water comes over the rails and panic ensues.

Waking Jesus, what do the disciples shout?  “Do you not care?!”


Now really, is this about Jesus not caring, or is it something more?


A couple of things stand out to me in these, ever sparse words of Mark.

First, the scene itself is of water no longer respecting the boundaries of the boat’s rails, and washing over them.  Standing on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem was a “great bronze sea” that remembered God’s creative act in restraining the sea from the land.  God gave it boundaries.  The flood let them loose and they were constrained once more, with God’s promise..  Right now, on a small scale, the boundaries seem violated and the disciples are frightened.

We may not be out on such a lake, a sea, the ocean, or in such a storm, but we know what it is to have threats to our well-being – physical and mental, body and soul.  There are illnesses, diseases, and disabilities.  There is danger on the highways.  “Afflictions, hardships, calamities,” as Paul says.  They are the human conditions, some brought upon ourselves, some brought upon us by others, and some we don’t know how happened.  Our sense of safety is shattered.  Our boundaries crossed.  Whatever the origin, it hurts and hurt can transform into fear.

This brings me to something that now retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu said in Washington on the first anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.  Tutu spoke of how “Vulnerability is the essence of creaturehood,” adding that

God was there in the anguish of the moment, in the darkness, in the bewilderment, in the senselessness of it all.  God, Emmanuel, is still here.  God with you.  For God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, wiping away your tears, pouring balm on your wounded souls.  On that day, you wonderful people of this great country awoke to find that you… YOU! were fragile, you were vulnerable.  For so long bad things had happened to other people a long way away.

The disciples don’t wake Jesus to save him.

The disciples woke Jesus to save themselves.

They are afraid and fear draws a tight circle.  Fear has a way of drawing us back to ourselves, becoming about us.  A circle of exclusion.  It leaves out people.  It leaves out God.

In the words of a Breton, Massachusetts seaman’s prayer, a portion of which once adorned John F. Kennedy’s desk:

Thy sea, O God, so great,
My boat so small.
It cannot be that any happy fate
Will me befall

A circle of fear stops there.

A circle of love – which is faith expressed – takes us to the rest of that prayer.

Save as Thy goodness opens paths for me
Through the consuming vastness of the sea.

Thy winds, O God, so strong,
So slight my sail.
How could I curb and bit them on the long
And saltry trail,
Unless Thy love were mightier than the wrath
Of all the tempests that beset my path?

Jesus wakes, rebukes the wind and says to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” and in that moment, all is at rest again.  He handles the immediate issue, then asks them: “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”  This moves the disciples away again from themselves to consider “Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?”

Faith, you see, is about getting out of our own skin, our own worldview.  It is stepping out and taking a look at life from a whole different perspective.

This got me to thinking about something I remember Archbishop Desmond Tutu saying a long time ago.  I met the man back in 1993 both when he spoke as a guest of our General Assembly, and at a local Disciples congregation for Sunday morning worship.  To be in his presence was to be near a bright light, one definitely not hidden under any bushel basket.  His joy could not be constrained.  In his Sunday sermon, Tutu made a powerful note of children, when speaking of his friend, Nelson Mandela, who had been released just a couple years before, imprisoned for 27 years after leading protests against apartheid in South Africa.

Tutu spoke about the drawings of children, and how during all those lonely years in internal exile, cut off from all visitors, kept in a windowless room, children had mailed Mandela drawings.

Crayon drawings.  Pencil drawings.  Ink drawings.

They had become not just like wallpaper in a windowless room, as kids drawings do to proud parents’ offices, but as Tutu said, they had become the spiritual “window” out into the world through which Mandela had seen the world, his solitude blessed and broken through the eyes of those children he had never met.

Children do that to us.  They bring us to their level, and we see things differently.

Tutu lifted up the response of Jesus when some Greeks came saying “We would see Jesus.”

He spoke about family.

Being family by the grace of God, not by our activity, but the Christ of the cross.

As he observed, “…in this family, there are no outsiders.  All, all are insiders.”

This is the consequence of the words of Jesus in response to those Greek visitors, for Jesus said of the Cross:  “…I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” [John 12:23].

Let’s think about this.

Not some.  All.

Those of color and those not.  Those of wealth and those of poverty.  Those able-bodied and those infirm.  Those of youth and those of age.  Those sound of mind and those troubled.  Those of every part of the political spectrum.  Those able to accept everybody and those who are racist.   Those who would separate children at the border and those who would race to rejoin families.  Those native born and those seeking refuge.

Said Tutu, “…it is a radical thing that Jesus says that we are family.  We belong.”  

Certainly “radical” is a word that has a charged meaning.  Tutu uses it in the sense of the Gospels… in the stepping completely outside the patterned norms and expectations.. immersing ourselves into the spirit-changing life of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5), that goes from the Beatitudes, to being the salt that seasons an otherwise bitter society… to being a light that drives despair away… to loving “not just those who love you.”

Said Jesus, “if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others  Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”

Radical is emulating the Christ of the Gospels… here… in this place… in this community… among those we are comfortable with and those not.

It is why, Tutu says,

Sometimes we shocked them at home when we said, the Apartheid State President and I, whether we liked it or not, were brothers.  But the truth of the matter is that when Jesus says we all belong, there is a radicalness that we have not yet fathomed.  That we are members of one family.

It has had me thinking.

Just last Sunday, as we were talking about Father’s Day, our new young friend Karla told us about her family and what it means to her to be “family.”  I couldn’t hear it all, but I do remember her saying “In OUR family, we love, we forgive, we hug…A LOT!”  No doubt was on her face.

To be THAT certain of such inclusivity, of love and grace, this is the essence of what Jesus was talking about… and THEN taking it into every facet of our lives and how we influence our society in a meaningful, creative, grace-filling, love-overflowing way.

It is because of this radicalness of family that we set aside elders and deacons to provide compassionate and non-judgmental ministry to all whom this church seeks to serve, and still other dedicated servants in leadership to guide us in the deliberations and decisions moving forward.

It is because of this radicalness of family that we set aside camp leaders and youth to experience the special needs camping program that fosters maturity in faith.

It is because of this radicalness of family that THIS  DEDICATED  RADICAL family feeds those who come to the Welcome Table, extending respect, creating community, feeding bodies and souls with simple kindness.

It is this radicalness of family that stretches us…AS IT SHOULD!  Often, only when the water is spilling over the rails of our small boat amid a seemingly great sea, and we have looked to the Lord, do we see the changes needed.

In the midst of this, people come asking to see Jesus.  In our attitudes and behavior.  In hope, always.

And so the question before us is: how are we influencing society with the spirit of Christ in an age of fearfulness?


We are in a boat together, we and our society.

It’s been leaking for some time, but water sloshing across the deck is easy to ignore at first.  At least if it isn’t one’s own feet which are wet.  But the water is now coming over the sides in waves now and the water cannot be ignored.

The chaos cannot be ignored.

I am reminded of a prophetic story told by Desmond Tutu.  He spoke of two convicts shackled to one another that have escaped and fallen into a ditch of dirty water.  “One of them, said Tutu, “almost made it to the top, but can’t because his mate is still down there, and he’s shackled to him, and he slithers down.  The only way they can ever make it is up, up, up and out together.”

And so Tutu reminds us,

We are bound to one another.  We can be human only together.  We can be free only together.  We can be safe only together.  We can be prosperous only together.  And God cries out to you wonderful people in this incredible land, God says, “Please help me; please help me realize my dream that my children will wake up one day and know that they are family.



Pastor’s Notes:  Other than remembrances of a sermon preached in the summer of 1993, in St. Louis, MO, as to Tutu’s insights I drew upon the sermon of Rev. Desmond Tutu, of 11 September 2002.  Accessed at https://cathedral.org/sermons/sermon-2002-09-11-000000/, on 21 June 2018.

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