Acts 27: 13 – 20
13 When a moderate south wind began to blow, they thought they could achieve their purpose; so they weighed anchor and began to sail past Crete, close to the shore. 14 But soon a violent wind, called the northeaster, rushed down from Crete. 15 Since the ship was caught and could not be turned head-on into the wind, we gave way to it and were driven. 16 By running under the lee of a small island called Cauda we were scarcely able to get the ship’s boat under control. 17 After hoisting it up they took measures to undergird the ship; then, fearing that they would run on the Syrtis, they lowered the sea anchor and so were driven. 18 We were being pounded by the storm so violently that on the next day they began to throw the cargo overboard, 19 and on the third day with their own hands they threw the ship’s tackle overboard. 20 When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small tempest raged, all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned.
There are moments when the ship is going down and you can’t see beyond the immediacy of the struggle at hand. How could you? There is simply adrenaline that drives you from task to task. It’s survival and any thought about your usual routine – your morning coffee with two creams and one Splenda, taking the dog on a walk, choosing the shoes that best match the outfit are of no consequence. It is chaos at its full… and nothing feels more unsettled in such a time than your spirit. Perhaps you know this feeling… perhaps you know it better than you’d like. Maybe that feeling is what brought you here tonight. I know it wasn’t easy to lace up the shoes and find your way here. This is not a service you stumble into by accident. You come with ready awareness of the power of the storm. I cannot, nor anyone else, name the pain as you can feel it. You feel it in your bones… the loss, the layoff, the addiction, the brokenness, the departure, the depression, the betrayal, the anguish, the heartbreak. And Christmas is coming, and you can’t imagine having to listen to “I want a hippopotamus for Christmas” one more time. It’s a strange feeling that keeps popping up in your soul.
Jonathan Martin wrote a memoir entitled, “How to Survive a Shipwreck,” subtitled, “Help is on the Way and Love is Already Here.” It has influenced my thoughts shared tonight significantly. At 36 years old, he saw his life crumbling… his marriage dissolved, his public career in ministry ended. He said, “Everyone else around me seemed alive enough, and even moving on with their lives, except for me – I was in a cover band, wearing my old clothes, playing the greatest hits of a man who had long since departed. I was shipwrecked. I could not go back to the life I had before but felt incapable of stepping into a new one.” He said, “it’s like wherever you are right now – you don’t know how to really be here. Like you don’t know how to own being in a broken place.” We name that here tonight… maybe not out loud… maybe only from a scream deep in our souls that never breaks the sound barrier of the surface of our lips but that knows there is pain and we’re trying to work through it. Poet Ann Weems named this Yesterday’s Pain.
In the godforsaken, obscene quicksand of life,
there is a deafening alleluia
rising from the souls of those who weep,
and of those who weep with those who weep.
If you watch, you will see
the hand of God
putting the stars back in their skies
one by one
Some of us walk in Advent
tethered to our unresolved yesterdays
the pain still stabbing
the hurt still throbbing.
It’s not that we don’t know better;
it’s just that we can’t stand up anymore by ourselves.
On the way to Bethlehem, will you give us a hand?
On the way to Bethlehem, will you give us a hand? My God, what a request? That may be what we’re seeking this night. Just a compassionate hand stretched in our direction. Ann Weems was a Presbyterian elder and poet now among the stars as part of the resurrection. She wrote those words and titled it Yesterday’s Pain… and she knew such pain well. Her son, Todd, was murdered on his 21st birthday. It was a pain that was always with her in some way as you can imagine. Her friend Walt Brueggemann once ventured a question to her which he said she did not need to answer if she didn’t want to. The question was one from our scriptures of one who knew great sorrow but directed to Ann, “Will Rachel finally be comforted?” Ann reflected silently for some time and finally responded, “Not until God wipes away every tear from our eyes” in reference to the promise found in Revelation. There is a sadness that never fully leaves us. It is, in part, what makes an Ann Weems poem an Ann Weems poem. She didn’t write as one who knew no pain. Quite the opposite. She described the practice of writing for her as “a spiritual exercise; a form of prayer in which one can imagine what might be and in the writing help it become true.” If you were to be comforted tonight… in the form of writing what peace and healing might look like for you, what would you write? It is not a re-do of the past as we are not afforded such opportunity. We grieve yesterday’s pain but also write a preferred future on our way to Bethlehem… and wonder if there might be a hand stretched our way to imagine new life in a new season.
The Apostle Paul is a prisoner on a ship, headed to have a face-to-face with the Emperor of Rome. The storm I described earlier is shared in Acts 27 – “We were being pounded by the storm so violently…” All that held their lives together was getting tossed and turned and crashed upon by so much that was out of their control. The 276 on board started to throw cargo and weight overboard… longing to lighten the load, stay afloat, but verse twenty sort of says it all. “When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small tempest raged, all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned.” And that may be where we are. We’ve tried to power through. We’ve tried all the standard maneuvers in the manual — praying and reading and looking for that magic word to hold on to… a word that makes us feel less abandoned.
At the point of yesterday’s pain, whatever that may be for you and me, was also a sense that we could not conceive of our lives without that ship. That ship on which I ate and drank and laughed and cried, sailed and struggled was so connected to me that it felt like it was me. How can I live without that person? How can I live without that job? How can I live without that relationship? How can I live without that house? How can I live without my dignity? How can I live without my good reputation? How can I live without the euphoria centered around my addiction? The storm hits and it really feels like all is lost. And not even a compassionate hand outstretched seems helpful in the moment because of the depths of the sadness or the guilt or the fear. “No sun and stars for many days and the hope of being saved was at last abandoned.”
In 2013, Robert Redford starred in a movie called All is Lost; a story of a man lost at sea. He was not only the star but arguably the best supporting actor as well – he was the only person cast in the movie. Redford is a seasoned actor of course but he really didn’t have more than two lines to memorize in the whole film. One actor. Two lines. Lots of time abandoned at sea on a raft as his ship had sunk. Jonathan Martin, who I mentioned before, watched this movie when his world was imploding. He said, “I didn’t go into a movie theater; I went into a metaphor.” Martin didn’t know how else to describe his situation other than being lost at sea. He was watching his life on the big screen in this lonely, one-man movie. Redford’s character, battered by his circumstance battles the elements alone… a speck of a human against the unending mystery of the sea. Two shots of the film really sliced through Martin as he watched this play out on the big screen. “The first was as the camera pans up slowly from the tiny raft he now occupied. The camera shot just keeps rising until the perspective crawls over you of just how small he is against the expansiveness of the ocean. The second shot is essentially the same shot but from the bottom of the raft as the camera descends lower and lower into the ocean, slowly, until not only do you see the tiny raft from the opposite depth but you also see a school of sharks swimming beneath him, undetected by the protagonist.” And with no dialogue, not even with a volleyball named Wilson like Tom Hanks had in Cast Away, it is sort of a dark and lonely reality. No sun or stars for days… all hope of being saved abandoned.
But what Redford’s character would discover, as would the Apostle Paul and the other 276 passengers on his ship following these terrible storms was this: They were still there. They still existed. What do you do when you feel all is lost and yet you’re still here? An angel visited Paul one night on that storm-tossed ship… stretched out a compassionate arm and said, “You’ll get through this storm.” After fourteen days at sea with a battered ship on its way down, Paul takes this outstretched arm as courage enough to try something different the next morning. He urges everyone on the ship to find some new courage too. “We’re gonna make it,” he says. Before daybreak on the fifteenth day, Paul says, “We haven’t eaten for fourteen days… but today we’re gonna eat.” Can you remember the first time after the funeral, or after the loss or the separation or whatever yesterday’s pain is for you, after that time when you could not bear to eat or drink, that the pangs of hunger overwhelmed you? It’s a strange feeling as part of you feels baffled by having such feelings … betrayed by that animal part of you that still wanted food after such a thing. And then there was a particular taste you longed for, even at some level desired. Or there was a time when you started to dream again, despite yourself. There is still a kind of music you hear that stirs within you an unspeakable longing. There is still an ache, not just for all that is lost, but to see and know and be seen and known still, to explore and imagine and create. You are still alive.
Jonathan Martin says “that ache is God’s fingerprint. The stirring to create, to love, to live, to give of yourself when there is no self-left to give – this comes from the Spirit. You were created in the image of God. Before you knew anyone or did anything, everything was in you necessary to live at home in divine love.” However deeply buried that image may seem to you now, it is the deepest part of you that knows how to be perfectly loved by your Creator. And such is an outstretched arm tonight.
Paul urged his fellow passengers suffering in the storm to take some food. “It will help you survive.” And here are the words in Acts that describe that very moment: “After Paul had said this, he took bread; and giving thanks to God in the presence of all, he broke it and began to eat.” Does that sound familiar? When we’re hurting and feeling hopeless or abandoned, people often try to offer us an explanation or rationale about the personal hurricane we’ve been living in. But when people offer us an explanation, God simply offers us a Eucharist.
So much of the world you have known is no more. Things have certainly changed. But if there is any truth in any of this faith stuff at all, the shipwreck that threatened to destroy you utterly may be the thing that saves you yet. It may not drown you; it may transfigure you. And whatever we gained from the person or the ship that was lost isn’t finished either. In our new desires for a preferred future, those memories spur us on with new strength. Carrie and I went down that rabbit trail the other night as we were trying to find a couple of pictures from our childhood. Along the way, we went through old scrap books, wedding photos, and shoe boxes of pictures and news clippings and the night turned into what is best described as the chest at the end of grandma’s bed – memories full of artifacts and memorabilia that tell the stories of who we are and why we have become who we are. There was nostalgia and some sadness but also a reminder of those in our lives now numbered among the stars whose greatest joy would be to see us thrive forward. Sometimes when we begin to eat again, others will eat too just as Paul discovered on the ship. “As much as you may feel like you have lost yourself, your presence in this world is enough for somebody else to feel found.”
Ann Weems wrote a later word that says: “Into the silent night, as we make our weary way, we know not where; just when the night becomes its darkest and we cannot see our path; just then is when the angels rush in, their hands full of stars.” Paul and all of his shipmates survived. The ship ran into the reef well out from the shoreline, but some swam in; others held a piece of the ship for a time as they floated their way to shore, others stretched out an arm to pull another through. They didn’t recognize the land… it was new territory… but there was life to be had still… and they would find new strength in this new day to step forward.
I admit that I haven’t seen the Redford movie, All is Lost. But I did search for the final scene, curious how it all turns out. Spoiler alert… chance for you to put on your earmuffs if you don’t want to hear the ending. After all attempt at survival has been tried and weathered and fought through, Redford’s raft is set ablaze and as he floats in the water watching the blaze in silence, he resigns himself to sinking and begins such a descent into the depths of the sea… until… until a pinprick of light above, a rescue boat’s search light. He begins swimming to the light and as he nears the top and just mere seconds before the movie concludes with a cut to a black screen, an outstretched hand penetrates the water locking arms with Redford. The only other character in the movie, is an outstretched hand from above.
Maybe that is your reach tonight…. toward the eucharist… toward the arm outstretched and reaching for you. This is the God named Emmanuel that we lift up this season… not a God that exists in ideas or theories but a God that is found in dirt-floor reality; found in the vulnerability of a manger with the stench of manure, teaching us how to be human by relying on God, leaning on each other. As Martin says, “God is only found on the cross, with his insides exposed, leaking out to the world for the sake of its healing.”
We’re all on our way to Bethlehem. “Will you give us a hand?” is the question. Such is the promise of Christ. Such is the gift of waiting in Advent. Such is the returning joy of the grasp of a compassionate arm… and ultimately… the return of strength to hold another as we have been held. That is my prayer for you tonight…
 How to Survive a Shipwreck: Help is on the Way and Love is Already Here. Jonathan Martin. Zondervan. 2016. As noted throughout the message, Martin’s book informed this message significantly.
 From Weems book, “Kneeling in Bethlehem.” 1980. Westminster Press.