Sermon given at Evening Service on Sunday 13th July 2014
13 July 2014 at 18:00 pm
The Reverend Tony Kyriakides-Yeldham, Chaplain
Last October, six British former servicemen, Billy Irving, from Argyll; Nick Dunn, from Northumberland; Ray Tindall from Chester; Paul Towers from Yorkshire; John Armstrong from Cumbria, and Nicholas Simpson, from North Yorkshire, were arrested at a port in southern India and imprisoned. Six months later, in April of this year, five of them were bailed on condition that they did not leave India. Paul Towers remained in prison. The six men had been working on a privately-owned American ship, the MV Seaman Guard Ohio, providing anti-piracy protection in the Indian Ocean, and were charged with the illegal possession of weapons.
Those are the bare facts.
Placing this in a broader context, for over twenty years modern-day piracy has been a major threat to merchant ships. The International Maritime Bureau has published the statistics: in the first nine months of 2013, there were 188 piracy incidents, with 266 people taken hostage, 10 vessels hijacked, one seafarer killed, twenty injured, and one reported missing.
Rather than cargo, modern pirates will regularly target the personal belongings of the crew and rifle the ship's safe, which often contains large amounts of cash necessary for payroll and port fees. Alternatively, pirates force the crew off the ship and then sail it to a pirate-friendly port to be repainted and given a new identity using false papers provided by corrupt or complicit local officials.
So what about the fate of those six Britons detained in India?
Yesterday you might have seen the BBC report that all charges have now been dropped and highlighting the role the Mission to Seafarers played. Canon Ken Peters, the Mission's director of justice and public affairs, described that role as this: 'Since their imprisonment... we have worked with the arrested seafarers, their families and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office to ensure that the crew received the care and support they needed through prison visiting, public awareness campaigns and family liaison work.'
So what is the Mission to Seafarers?
What began with one man, John Ashley, an Anglican priest, ministering to the needs of nineteenth century seafarers aboard the four hundred vessels sailing up and down the Bristol Channel, has today developed into a global presence in 260 ports in 71 countries, offering hospitality, ship visiting, practical support and connecting seafarers and their families by telephone or video link. A Christian charity, the Mission to Seafarers often finds itself dealing with men and women abandoned in foreign ports and without the means to get home, or injured at sea and requiring medical help or, due to long periods at sea, unable to talk to their families for months on end. Those seafarers are an invisible workforce, all 1.5 million of them, and we are dependent on them.
For their part, the Mission to Seafarers is dependent on us, and the support of the churches, being funded entirely by voluntary donations. Perhaps you have noticed, from the Order of Service, that part of this evening's collection will be given to the Mission to support their work among seafarers.
In devising a service of thanksgiving for the work of the Mission to Seafarers, there are many stories in both the Old and New Testaments to which I might have turned: stories which tell of the challenges and dangers of the sea. For many in the ancient world, including the Israelites, the seas represented chaos and were feared for their destructive powers and unpredictability. What biblical episode comes to your mind? Perhaps one of the 'storm stories', one of those six accounts in the gospels where Jesus miraculously calms the storm.
However, my attention was drawn elsewhere: to a passage which focuses on the importance of serving others. In Matthew 25, which you heard a moment ago, he people of the nations are being judged and are separated 'one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.'
To the ones on the right, the king commends them for the service they have rendered him: alleviating his hunger and thirst, welcoming him stranger as he was, clothing him, caring for him when he was ill and visiting him when he was imprisoned. This leaves those commended confused, for they have done nothing of the sort. The king then explains: by meeting the needs of others they have met the needs of the king himself.
However, to the ones on the left, the emphasis is on their failure: by ignoring the needs of others, they have ignored the needs of the king.
It is a parable which anticipates the final judgement when we will be called to account for our actions or inaction.
While I don't want to minimise the complex issues surrounding the interpretation of this parable, I would suggest that at one level the central thrust of this passage is unambiguous.
God's judgement on the world will be in the hands of Christ for he is the one who lived among us as hungry, thirsty and without a home. Christ knows, at firsthand, what it means to suffer for that is what the incarnation is all about: vulnerability and powerlessness and anguish.
The response of God's people, our response, should also be unambiguous: to identify ourselves with the needs of those who suffer and, in so doing, to commit ourselves to relieve their burden of suffering.
It was St James, in his letter New Testament letter, who wrote: 'what good is it... if you have faith but do not have works... faith, by itself, if it has no works, is dead.' (James 2:14, 17)
By responding to the needs of those who 'ply their trade on the sea', by being servants of the servants, the Mission to Seafarers is deserving of our prayers and our financial support. It also provides us with an example of what it means to live the good news for others and, in living the good news for others what that good news might mean for you and for me.
It was William Blake who wrote the words of my introduction. 'I sought my soul, but my soul I could not see; I sought my God, but my God eluded me. I sought my brother, and I found all three.' In living the good news for others, we discover the good news for ourselves.