St Bride's: Sermons

Trafalgar Day

Trafalgar Day

The Fall of Nelson - Denis Dighton (circa 1825)

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A couple of years ago I discovered a really interesting fact about seafarers during the Elizabethan age.  I happened to catch one of those television programmes about archaeology, which was investigating of the remains of a ship that had been wrecked off the coast of Scotland during the reign of Elizabeth I.  The presenter expressed considerable surprise when it became apparent quite how many sailors' lives had been lost when the ship went down - for the simple reason that the wreck was only a matter of feet away from the rocky coastline.  Why hadn't more of them made it to safety?

The explanation for this was straightforward enough: which was that most Elizabethan sailors couldn't swim.  But it was the reason why they couldn't swim that was so startling, particularly to the modern mind: they couldn't swim because they deliberately chose not to learn how to do so; and the reason for that was because they regarded it not only as bad luck, but as hubris - as the worst kind of defiance of God's will - to presume that they could, by their own human strength, take on the might of the sea, and the will of God.

For them, the business of seafaring was so dangerous and so unpredictable that they were acutely conscious, on a daily basis, that their life and well-being was at the mercy of the Almighty, and so, when they went to sea, they surrendered themselves to their destiny.  The famous Breton fisherman's prayer sums it up with stark brevity and simplicity: "Lord be good to me.  The sea is so wide and my boat is so small."  That tells you everything you need to know about the lot of the seafarer throughout the ages.

And of course, that sense of peril and dependence upon God was, and still is, shared by their families and loved ones of those who go to sea.  Near the entrance of Birmingham's Museum and Art Gallery, there is an astonishingly moving painting, which always used to stop me in my tracks whenever I saw it.  It was painted in 1894 by Walter Langley, an artist who lived in the fishing port of Newlyn, in Cornwall, and you can see a small reproduction of it on the table at the back of church. 

An elderly woman, her face scarred by a lifetime of toil, and stress, and grief, is seated at the harbour's edge, her hand gently comforting the distraught, weeping young woman at her side.  And you can tell from the old woman's expression and posture, and from her terrible air of resignation, that she has seen it all before, many, many times.  The title of the painting is a line from the poet Tennyson: 'Never morning wore to evening, but some heart did break' - and it is all too easy to imagine the story behind the painting: the sea has claimed the life of yet another fine young man; it is yet another devastating personal tragedy.  On this occasion tragedy has been visited upon the poor young woman who is portrayed; but at the same time it is nothing new.  It happens all the time. 

And such has been the lot of seafarers and their families throughout history, and into the modern era.  It is a life that continues to have more than its fair share of danger and unpredictability; a life in which the sheer frailty of human existence is all too apparent.  And some of you here this morning will know this from personal experience, particularly during times of war and conflict.  As I have mentioned before, my own father was fished out of the North Sea when his motor torpedo boat was blown out of the water during the Second World War - and, had he not been rescued by a passing German patrol boat, I wouldn't be here to speak to you this morning.  Others among you will, I'm sure, have similar stories to tell.

But for all its danger and unpredictability, the sea is also, of course, a source of great wonder: its sheer scale, its immensity, and its beauty can be utterly breath-taking.  What is particularly poignant about the Langley painting, as you will see, is that the background to the young woman's grief and desolation is a sea that is serene, and calm, and beautiful, which somehow throws the depths of her utter despair and devastation into ever sharper relief.

And the sea is, of course, a place of great mystery.   I find it sobering to reflect on the fact that we still know considerably less about the bottom of the sea, in the very deepest parts of the ocean, than we do about the surface of some of the planets in our solar system.  It is uncharted territory: a place of wonder, and awe, and dark secrets; and the sea itself has a power that refuses to be tamed by even the most sophisticated of human technology and human ingenuity; which is why, of course, human beings have always associated the sea so readily with the majesty and power of God. 

The sea is one of those places where we mere mortals are forced to face the frailty and the ephemeral nature of our own existence; to learn an appropriate humility in the face of forces that are far greater than we are.  You may recall that, not so very long ago, human beings finally created a ship that was unsinkable.  Its name was the Titanic.

Today's gospel reading is a pretty landlocked Biblical passage which has nothing whatsoever to do with the sea.  However, interestingly enough, it does pick up a theme that is of direct relevance to our main subject this morning.  Which is that of humility: a recognition of our human frailty and limitations in the face of the might and the majesty of God.  The arrogance and over-confidence of the self-righteous Pharisee is contrasted starkly with the tax collector who, standing far off, would not even raise his eyes to heaven.  And yet it was he, the tax collector - a man who in the eyes of his compatriots was the most despicable and immoral creature of all - it was he, rather than the pious Pharisee who did everything 'right' - it was he who was justified in the eyes of God.

Today we remember the work of the Royal Naval Association, as we honour the memory of all those who have lost their lives at sea, particularly during times of war.  But today's service has a relevance to all of us, too: because in being reminded of our need to respect the power and the might and the wonder of the oceans, we are reminded also of our need to respect the power and the might and the wonder of God.


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