the Ship is Going Down
A sermon on 1 Samuel 17 & Mark 4:35-41 by Nathan Nettleton, 21 June 2009
Tonight’s worship service marks the one hundred and fifty fifth anniversary of the foundation of this congregation. The renewal our congregational covenant in a few minutes will also be a significant anniversary; it is ten years since we first introduced such a covenant. My memory doesn’t stretch back 155 years, but it does go back far enough to recognise that there are some unfortunate similarities between the situation that first produced our covenanting practice, and the situation we are faced with now. A couple of the readings we heard tonight toss up some powerful metaphors for this situation.
Our first reading was one of everybody’s favourite Bible stories, the story of David and Goliath. The picture that immediately leaps to mind is, of course, the little guy winning out against the big guy, but the backdrop to that is a scary scene. There is a stand-off between two armies, and the Israelite army are quaking in their boots. They keep seeing this enormous giant Philistine stalking out and challenging them to send someone out to take him on one-on-one. And they know that none of them are even close to being strong enough to stand up against him. They know that they face imminent destruction and they are in despair.
The gospel reading is also a favourite, perhaps because of the similarities. The followers of Jesus are out at sea in a boat, and a dangerous storm blows up. Jesus is in the boat with them, but he’s sound asleep. Do you know that feeling? Everything is falling apart, your life is about to be dashed on the rocks, and it seems that God is asleep.
Both stories depict situations in which the people of God are in serious danger. A wipe-out is imminent. It looks like the ship is going down, for sure. It is such a mismatch that there is nothing the people can do to even give themselves a chance. They are fearful and despairing, just waiting for the inevitable horrible end, hanging in there only to see if maybe God will rescue them, but God seems to be asleep.
Ten years ago, this congregation was in a mess. There had been a serious betrayal of trust by a leader, and we were haemorrhaging badly. In the space of about twelve months, we had lost about half the congregation, not in protest, but just because it wasn’t a nice place to be anymore. The smell of death was in the air. The ship was about to go down. We seriously considered planning a closing down service and looking at ways to intentionally prepare and smooth the transition for people as they transferred to new congregations. The reason we are still here is not because it wasn’t really that bad, but because God spoke and the waves dropped, and God told us to take up five smooth stones, a little collection of commitments and disciplines we called a covenant, and trust God to guide us in using them against the giants that threatened us.
Where are we now, ten years later? We’ve been through another traumatic year. It doesn’t feel quite as desperate this time, but I actually think that may be a bit illusory. The giants are different this time. We have probably emerged from the storm a bit better, but the boat is pretty battered. It is not clear whether it still sufficiently water-tight. Or to switch to the other story, there are still giants wandering around, big issues that have the potential to destroy us yet. They may not look quite as scary as the waves we have just emerged from, but they could still sink us.
Since earliest time, the church has recognised the story of the disciples in the storm-tossed boat as a picture of the church. Under threat from destructive forces, their survival is dependent on staying together in the boat and trusting God to do something. That’s what our covenant is about. Who’s in? The boat may be looking like a leaky tub, but it is all we’ve got. Who’s in? It is not about who is going to steer the boat. That’s one of the questions we need to resolve soon, but it is not the question here tonight. It just about whether you’re in the boat with one another. But even in the boat, we’re in danger. The ship may be going down. But in the boat is the place to be calling on God. And as our covenant acknowledges, we need to trust God to hold us when we cannot hold ourselves, for it is only by the grace of God that we can do anything.