Homily for June 21, 2009

Father Tom’s Homily
12th Sunday
June 21, 2009

I began to consider today’s gospel reading during the fierce wind and rain storm that swept through here on Friday afternoon.. It provided a vivid commentary on today’s story of the storm on the Sea of Galilee that drove the apostles, all experienced fishermen on that large inland sea, to despair over their survival.

Along with this gospel story I want to consider another confrontation with the fury of angry seas. It was the voyage of the James Caird across 800 miles of the Antarctic Ocean 83 years ago.
Perhaps you have read or seen a video documentary about the failed exploration of the Antarctic by the crew of the ship Endurance. The Endurance, captained by the renowned explorer Ernest Skackleton and crew of 27, set sail from England in the fall of 1914. The expedition ended two years later. Some would say that it was a failed project. They did not journey to the South Pole as intended.
But the story of those two years provide a remarkable account of survival and courage. And one could say, the result was something of a miracle. In the words of Shackleton, reflecting on the experience, “I have done it – not a life was lost and we had been through hell.”

Back to the beginning of the story. Three months after they began their journey in August 1914, their ship became trapped fast in the ice pack, 85 miles from the coast of Antarctica. Gradually the Endurance was crushed till it was abandoned in October 1915, one year after they began their effort.
Under the leadership of Shackleton, the crew abandoned the ice that was melting into a watery mush under their feet, and set out for Elephant Island, a small uninhabited island 130 miles away in three lifeboats called whalers. It took nine days crowded in the boats for them to reach the island.
Realizing that the world had probably abandoned hope that the expedition would still survive after 18 months lost somewhere in the most inhospitable climate on earth, they had to take a risk to save themselves.

The risk was a desperate trip over the open Antarctic Ocean in one of the lifeboats to reach South Georgia Island, 800 miles away, where there was a small whaling port.
Shackleton chose five men to join him in this extremely risky undertaking to reach the outside world so that the 22 men abandoned on Elephant Island would be rescued. On April 24, 1916, the six men began their journey on the boat, the James Cairn. The tale of their seventeen day voyage was one of supreme strife amid heavy waters.
Rain, hail, sleet and snow hammered down on them as the sea whipped their small craft in the mountainous waves. They had to proceed mostly by instinct and dead reckoning since the reading of the sextant could provide them only sketchy results because the boat heaved in the heavy seas in mostly overcast weather.

As the heavy seas poured in upon them, they could never let up their desperate efforts to bale water out of their boat. Later Shackleton wrote: “During 26 years experience of the ocean in all its moods, I had not encountered waves so gigantic.
The cold was intense, they were soaked to the bone and frostbitten, and badly chafed by wet clothing that had not been removed in seven months. They felt that the end was very near as they noted the debris of ship wreckage floating by them.

Seventeen days after leaving Elephant Island, on May 10, 1916, they landed hungry and in complete exhaustion on South Georgia Island.
But their ordeal was not over, because they landed on the west side of the island. The whaling station was on the opposite side of the island.
Realizing that they could not risk heading out into the wild seas to reach the station, Shackleton chose two others to walk with him over the ice and snow of the mountains that separated them from civilization.
Even this part of the trip was extremely perilous, not only because of the difficulty of finding a passage over the high mountain peaks, but also because of their weakened condition and their ragged clothes and worn-out and water-soaked shoes.
They walked and stumbled for 36 hours without sleep, knowing that if they slept they would very likely freeze to death.
Miraculously they reached journey’s end surprising everyone at the whaling station that they could have made the impossible voyage over 800 miles of the open seas in a small boat and finally walking in their condition across the mountains of the island.

The terrible power of the gales at sea that terrorized the apostles and Shackleton’s crew, as well as the powerful wind and rain that shook us on Friday, are a reminder of the power of the Creator, who manages and can reign in the mighty forces of nature.
The first reading from Job (ch 38, v. 1, 8-11) speaks of the oversight of God. (in part) “The Lord addressed Job out of the storm and said…Who shut within the doors of the sea when it burst forth from the womb….when I fastened the bar of its doors”
There is another quote from this same chapter of Job that is a part of the story of the Endurance.

After the ship broke up and sank, the crew had to rescue food and other essentials for their survival. Shackleton required the men to eliminate all personal items that were not absolutely necessary since they would have to drag all their possession in the three lifeboats to Elephant Island.
To set an example, before the assembled men, he discarded his money and his gold watch and many other personal items on the ice. Then he took the bible that had been presented to the ship before departure by Queen Alexandra and ripped out a few pages to take with him in his pocket and set the treasured bible also on the ice.
The pages he retained were those of the 23rd psalm (“The Lord is my Shepherd…”) and these verses from the Book of Job (ch 38, v 29-30). “Out of whose womb comes the ice, and who gives the hoarfrost its birth, when the waters lie covered as though stone, and the face of the deep is frozen.”
In both of these quoted passages, Job recognizes the Lord as the Maker and Manager of the forces that sometimes confound and trouble us. The gospel answers Jobs questions, by telling the story of the Lord responding to our call for help when troubled by hostile forces.

When reflecting on the expedition, especially the terrifying journey over the fierce ocean and the frozen mountains, Shackleton wrote:
“When I look back at those days I have no doubt that Providence guided us, not only across the snowfields, but across the stormy sea. I know that during the long march of 36 hours over the glaciers of the island it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.
“I said nothing to my companions about this, but afterwards Worsley (one of three) said to me, ‘Boss, I had a curious feeling on the march that there was another person with us.’ Crean (the other man) confessed to the same idea.”

Shackleton’s account of the mysterious presence that guided the three men across South Georgia haunted the poet T.S. Eliot, who evoked it in The Waste Land:
“Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you.”

As the other page from the bible in Shackleton’s pocket said, “The Lord is my Shepherd…even tho I walk through a dark valley, I fear no evil, for you are at my side.”