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A Sermon from Sherborne
They that go down to the sea in ships
A sermon for Merchant Navy Sunday, preached at the Parish Eucharist at Sherborne Abbey by the Revered Canon Simon Everett, Rector of Wareham, on Sunday 8 September 2019
It is good to know that there are churches commemorating and celebrating the Merchant Navy, which so often goes unnoticed and taken for granted by the many. Even on the grand parades that take place around Armistice Day, the Merchant Navy is barely given a nod which I think is a glaring omission, given the role they played, and heavy losses they suffered in the First and Second Word Wars and other conflicts. (In WW2 alone it is estimated 36,749 merchant seamen lost their lives, a death rate that was higher proportionately than in any of the armed forces).
At the end of the War the House of Commons unanimously carried the following resolution:
“That the thanks of this House be accorded to the officers and men of the Merchant Navy for the steadfastness with which they maintained our stocks of food and materials; for their services in transporting men and munitions to all battles over all the seas, and for the gallantry with which, though a civilian service, they met and fought the constant attacks of the enemy.”
There is much to give thanks for and celebrate. But part of the problem in paying tribute to the men and women of the Merchant Navy is its disparate nature, for unlike the Royal Navy which is one military service, the Merchant Navy consists of many different commercial shipping companies trading or sailing in every corner of the world.
In short the Merchant Navy could be described as, ‘…those that go down to the sea in ships and ply their trade upon the mighty waters.’ (Ps. 107:23). And it was to this way of life that I felt drawn at a very early age and all through my school years I had no other ambition than to sail as a Deck Officer in the Merchant Navy. At the age of 17 I left school and started my cadetship with Mobil Shipping Company, which meant that I was serving on grubby old oil tankers of all shapes and sizes, from 30,000 tonne clean oil vessels, to super tankers carrying up to 280,000 tonnes of crude oil. I loved it and saw so much of the world (the only continent I never visited was South America – a shame, but you can’t have it all!)
After three and half years I gained my second mate’s ticket and sailed as a third officer, and was quickly promoted to Junior Second Officer. Then, having gained the necessary sea time I was able to sit my Chief Officer’s exams. And it was whilst I was studying in Bristol for these, that I stumbled into a Church and life changed. Up until this point God had been a nice idea and always there in extremis: maybe in the middle of a typhoon I would ‘cry out to the Lord’, but when the danger had passed it would be back to how I was.
On top of this there were times when, as the Psalmist says, I saw, ‘the deeds of the Lord, his wonderous works in the deep’ (v.24). One particular time, on my very first trip, we were making our way across the Bay of Biscay in hurricane force winds, when we received a distress call from a small coastal vessel, which was taking on water. We altered course, along with other vessels in the vicinity, to try and offer assistance, but unfortunately, within an hour or so we received another message to say that the ship had sunk but all the crew had managed to take to the life rafts.
It was hard to believe that anyone would be able to survive in such ferocious seas, but as maritime law dictates all the ships in the area formed a search pattern covering a large area around the coordinates the Dutch vessel had given as their last position. Despite being bright green with seasickness, I was still made to go on watch with the second officer, and I distinctly remember praying that these poor seafarers would be found safe and well (and that the sea would calm down!).
Well, we searched but only managed to find wreckage, so the Royal Navy frigate that was in charge of the search decided that we would keep looking until daybreak, and then review the situation. All the while the storm winds raged and waves came at us from all sides, meaning everything that wasn’t secured or lashed down was crashing around (it was like being inside a tumble dryer – not that I have ever been inside one, but it’s how I imagine it!).
Then, during the very early hours, not long after midnight, one of the ships in the search miraculously heard shouting above the noise of the storm, only to discover a life raft with four seamen practically washed up on her deck. They explained that there should be another raft nearby – but they had become separated.
At daybreak it was decided to continue the search until midday, in the hope that the remaining seafarers could be found. The storm raged. But then just as midday approached the wind and the waves died down, the sky began to clear and suddenly a huge bright rainbow appeared over the sky, and right at the end of the rainbow was the second life raft with the remaining survivors inside. I cannot begin to tell you the relief, the amazement and astonishment, we felt onboard. It truly was a miracle and even the most godless atheist said as much (I do not know to whom they would attribute it! But that was by the by – the Lord had spared these sailors – Glory be!).
Now you would have thought that would be enough to make me turn to God and believe – after all my prayers had been answered. But, alas, the lure of wine, women and song continued to lead me down the path of dissipation. And it was not until I stumbled into that church in Bristol that life changed.
It happened one summer’s evening, through a series of serendipitous events. I found myself in a church full of young people, listening to someone telling their life story, so much of which seemed to chime in with mine. It is hard to explain what happened other than to say, God met with me in a very profound way. At that point I knew God as a reality rather than a nice idea and my life changed for the better, and for good.
The next three years I wrestled with God – He wanted me to serve Him as an ordained minister, I wanted to carry on and become a Master Mariner. God won!
Because my final seagoing year was on the North Sea, sailing one month on, one month off, I never gained the sea time to sit my Master’s ticket. Instead I went to work as a lay assistant for a year before going to Theological College in London for three years and then serving my title with Eric in Wroughton near Swindon. The rest is history as they say.
Except to say, that I can honestly say that I ‘have seen the deeds of the Lord, his wonderous works in the deep’ (v.24); and he has saved me from myself and raging of the seas. And for that I can thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful work… and I will extol him in the congregation of the people, and praise him in the assembly of the elders. (vv. 31, 32). (You can decide which category you fall into!)
In conclusion, we worship a great, almighty God whose love is infinite. As John Newton said: ‘Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me’. If I had time I would love to tell you why I think four of the Lord’s apostles were seafarers, I do not believe it is a coincidence, but that will have to wait for another day. In the meantime, please do pray for those who ply their trade upon the mighty waters, and their families who watch and wait for them. Amen.