The story goes that Prophet Mohammed, the Buddha, and Jesus all return together and go sailing on the ocean in a boat. A storm blows up and breaks the sail, sweeping the oars and other implements away. Marooned some distance from land, what are they to do? Well, Prophet Mohammed ponders for a moment and then takes action. Relying on his physical prowess and trust in God, he leaps into the still tumultuous waves and, at the cost of much exertion and constant vocal prayer, swims his way back to shore. The Buddha is next. Remaining typically calm in the face of all the changing circumstances, he sits attentively for some time and then, picking up a piece of driftwood, slides on to it. Catching the next great wave, with profound skill and attention, he also eventually surfs his way back to shore. So, what of Jesus? Well, Jesus seems to spend far less time and effort. He simply steps out of the boat and walks easily and comfortably back to shore. Immediately, social media goes mad, making sense of these startling events. So what is the main meme, or message, that is spread? It is obvious, really: Jesus, proclaims social media to the world, Jesus can neither swim nor surf – so what kind of a saviour is that?!...
One of the wonderful aspects of recent times has been the development of Pacific Islander theology: that is, renewed understandings of our shared Christian Faith through the insights, cultures and experience of the people of the Pacific Ocean. Listen to this beautiful Melanesian prayer for instance:
be the canoe that holds me up in the sea of life,
be the rudder that keeps me in the straight road,
be the outrigger that supports me in times of temptation.
Let your Spirit be my sail that carries me through each day.
Keep my body strong, so that I can paddle steadfastly on
in the voyage of life.
Such images lead us into a deeper understanding of both life and God as Ocean, or moana, as many Pacific Islanders term it. This both enlarges our faith and our awareness of God in Creation, and also encourages us to strengthen our connection with, and protection of, the precious waters of our world.
Firstly then, on this Ocean Sunday, let us respond to our Gospel reading today which calls us to let go and take risks. Unless, Jesus says, we are prepared to let go, even of family connections when needed, then do not bother following me. We need to realise that a living faith both requires that we take risks and that such risks may be costly. After all, is this not what Jesus showed us again and again in his life? Do we recognise, for example, how many of the stories and teachings of Jesus, are connected to waters, not least the sea of Galilee? Again and again, we are led to see that faith in Christ is like travelling on the ocean and great waterways of our world. This involves uncertainty and even loss, crossing over into strange places and new encounters, enduring storms and changes of weather, and coming through. So, like those who pray the Melanesian prayer, will we continue to set out in the Jesus canoe, to whatever adventures lie ahead?
For, secondly, this is indeed how we find the fullness of life which Jesus promises. As in our Gospel reading, this is a risk worth taking. For life involves risk and courage and hope and adventure and the willingness to embrace both the storms and quieter parts of life. To be a Christian is to share the canoe of Jesus, to navigate with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and thus to find land and home together. Again, Pacific Islander Christians can often put it beautifully, as in this prayer from Fiji:
Loving God, provide a voice for our struggles.
Provide extra paddles to bring us together.
Grant peace to our hearts, our ears and our eyes
to forgive and to love our neighbours and our enemies.
O Lord, give us a chance to redeem the Fonua (our land and people)
and to reclaim paradise.
Thirdly, in being prepared for sharing risks in our faith, and in trusting God in the storms, our Gospel reminds us that, like the Ocean, life and God are a mystery: a mystery to which we are intimately connected. For as St Paul said, in God we live and move and have our being. Like fish in the sea, we are part of God’s ocean whether we know it or not and this ocean is astonishing in depth and complexity. Our true response to the challenges of faith is therefore to allow ourselves to explore this mystery more fully. The wonderful Tasmanian singer songwriter and L’Arche leader John Coleman puts it this way, in a lovely reflection for us all on this Fathers Day: ‘My father (John says) gave me the great gift of a love of the sea, I associate the word “mystery” with an image of me as a child with my head over the bow of our little fishing boat, gazing into the water as we would head across the bay to where we would fish – always hoping for a glimpse of something shining and fast. I often think of my dad when I am close to the sea.’ (in notes to the album songs of wind and water)
May we all be enabled to take the risks and have the trust that a good father cultivates, and together enter more deeply into that mystery.
In the words of another Pacific Ocean prayer, from Tonga:
O God, save our shores from the weapons of death,
our lands from the things that deny our young ones love and freedom.
Let the seas of the Ocean carry messages of peace and goodwill.
Turn away from our midst any unkind and brutal practices.
Let each child swim and breathe the fresh air
that is filled by the Holy Spirit.
O Lord Jesus, bless all who are makers of that inner peace
that breaks down the barriers of hatred,
and unite us with the open arms of your cross,
that all the peoples of the world may live happily together.
by Jo Inkpin, for Ocean Sunday, Pentecost 16 Year C, Sunday 4 September 2016