Since I gave a very short, it's-August-and-only-50-people-will-show-up sermon on Sunday, I thought I'd share it here. I will freely admit that, after reading a lot of scholarly exegetical background stuff, I pretty much ignored it and went off in a different direction...toward Dutch Harbor, Alaska, actually.
How many of you watch the TV show “The Deadliest Catch” on the Discovery Channel?
I have to admit that this is my very favorite television show; Tuesday night, when it’s on, is my must-see TV night.
This show is about crab fishermen off the coast of Alaska. It follows boats in the crab fleet as they sail the Bering Sea in an area that stretches nearly to Siberia. Even in good weather, this is one of the most dangerous fishing areas in the world; and these guys fish there all year ‘round, even in the wintertime.
These fishermen are tough customers. They smoke too much; they drink too much; they fight too much; they sleep too little. They live on caffeine and booze and adrenalin, and maybe the ink from their tattoos. Because they do have one of the deadliest jobs in the world. One careless move on deck can send them overboard into icy water that will freeze them solid in minutes. One careless move with their fishing equipment can kill or maim a shipmate. One rogue wave can sink an entire ship. Every fishing season the sea claims members of the fleet; after the last episode of each season it’s almost inevitable that you’ll see memorials to the dead scrolling down the final credits.
But here’s a funny thing about these rough, tough fishermen. At the start of every crabbing season, the show films the moments before the fleet goes out to sea, when a clergyperson from their home base in Dutch Harbor gives an invocation over the two-way radio, praying for the fleet’s safety. And you will see these tough guys, to a man, bowed in prayer. Real, heartfelt prayer. Because they know what’s out there; they know what they’re sailing into when they pull out of the harbor.
So in our Gospel lesson, when we find Fisherman Peter beginning to sink under the waves he thought he was going to walk upon, when he cries out, “Lord, save me!” – how ironic that he’d thought he was any safer in the boat than out of the boat. Because sailors should know better. The boys in the crab fleet up in Dutch Harbor know better.
We all construct boats around us that we think will keep us safe. Sometimes we want to build our rickety little boats out of wealth – if only we had enough money, we think, we’d have smooth sailing. But changes in the world economy are teaching us a hard lesson right now – that we can’t always count on being the most affluent country in the world; that we can’t always count on cheap fuel, cheap food or good jobs; that the things we’ve always counted on to preserve our wealth, like pensions and real estate, can suddenly become worthless. And sometimes, even if we are still blessed in material things, we can be swept overboard by a rogue wave of life-threatening illness or other crisis that sends us into the depths.
Sometimes we craft our boat out of our perceived righteousness or personal honor or social status – we imagine ourselves in a magnificent yacht of our own design next to our inferior neighbor’s leaky S.S. Minnow. Well, guess what – the storms of circumstance don’t care; if you recall, the Titanic was the most impressive ship of its time.
Sometimes we try to build our boat out of a cause – we think that if we just back the right political leader, or join the right action committee, we can steer society through the shoals of history into favorable winds and calm seas. You know, it’s not wrong to think that caring people can make a difference in the world But people are people – fallen, broken people who don’t always get it right. A social or political platform is only as good as the people who embrace it; and sinful, fallible human beings have a talent for taking good ideas and messing them up – as one bumper sticker I saw recently put it, never underestimate the power of stupid people acting in groups. And we’re all stupid and self-serving and shortsighted in some ways at some times.
And perhaps that’s why sometimes we decide that the safest boat of all is our own little canoe – we’ll just paddle away by ourselves, try to stay out of the wake of the other boats, and attempt to sail the seas of life alone; no crew, no compass, no chart, no anchor. How does that work for you? How does that work for people you know out there in the storm?
The safety of our perceived boats is a short-lived, temporary safety at best. In the long run, we all wind up in the drink. So maybe that’s why Jesus invited Peter out of the disciples’ boat, onto the sea with him. Perhaps it was Jesus’ way of giving Peter and the other disciples a reality check: You are here. And that is why you need me.
Do you know Martin Luther’s favorite prayer -- the one that got him through his toughest times, his deepest depressions, his most dangerous encounters with the powers of his day? It was very simple: “Lord Jesus, save me.” Anne Lamott, a contemporary author who has written about being drawn to the Christian faith as an adult, notes that the prayer she finds herself praying most is “Help!”
The good news – the GOOD news – is that Jesus hears our prayers, as we’re all sinking down through those rolling waves. The good news is that Jesus knows this prayer from the inside out…because if we read farther along in the Gospel narratives we find him, on the eve of his arrest and torture, as the waves of history crash around him, praying the same thing: Help me. Jesus knows what it’s like to feel life dissolving into chaos; knows what it’s like to see trusted friends being swept away; knows the feeling of sinking into a bottomless deep. And as Jesus notes, when we meet him, we meet God. So in Jesus we can see that God isn’t some distant deity watching our pain from far away – but that God is truly a God with us. And this God, whom Scripture says poured himself into the depths of our human condition, also raises us up and will raise us up, as Christ, the One who goes before us and shows us the way, was raised from the dead.
Jesus’ invitation to us still stands – to leave the false security of false safety in all those things in which we tend to place our trust, and to instead trust him…not to make the choices and chances of life always go smoothly, not to take away the risk of living faithfully and mindfully and passionately in this world..but to trust him to stay with us step by step, through this life and into life eternal. Amen.