Do any of y’all like sea stories? I love them. And I’m not talking about the sort of “sea stories” that begin with, “I once caught a fish this big….” No, I mean real sea stories like C.S. Forester’s books about Horatio Hornblower, Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast, and Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea… stories of sailors who undertake perilous voyages across the wide, and sometimes uncharted, oceans… to fight the good fight against tyranny… to seek fame and fortune in far off lands… and to extend the horizon of our understanding of the world in which we live. I love these kinds of sea stories. Most sailors do, I guess. During my time in the Coast Guard, when I was assigned to a large, high-endurance cutter doing counter-narcotics operations in the Caribbean, there was almost always a book of sea stories, of one sort or another, on the bridge that you could browse through to help pass the time during an uneventful watch.
This is where I became acquainted with the work of author Patrick O’Brien, who wrote a twenty-one volume series of novels about an eighteenth-century (Napoleonic War era) English naval officer named Jack Aubrey, and his “particular friend” Stephen Maturin who served his country as a ship’s surgeon… and also, clandestinely, as a seagoing intelligence agent. If you’ve seen the Russell Crowe movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, you know who I’m talking about. Actually, one of my favorite stories from the Aubrey-Maturin series is recounted in the Master and Commander movie, which is actually a mish-mash of the first three books in the set. The movie tells the tale of Captain Jack Aubrey in his Majesty’s sloop-of-war “Surprise” crossing the Atlantic Ocean in search of a French privateer that had been preying upon British merchant vessels in waters off the coastlines of Central and South America. Well… the privateer, which in the movie was named the “Acheron” (like the river in Hades), found Aubrey first, and “surprised” the Surprise with a devastating cannonade that left her crippled… and unable to maneuver… or return fire. Only by lowering the ship’s boats and having Surprise towed into a nearby fogbank was “Lucky Jack” Aubrey able to save the day and preserve his ship and crew to live and fight another day. Even so, the Surprise would need extensive repair and refitting, and there were no friendly harbors that could provide that level of service for thousands of miles in any direction. Aubrey remembered, however, a small, uninhabited island nearby that he had visited on a previous voyage… and that did not appear on most nautical charts. This was where the Surprise could go to lick her wounds… and get herself back into fighting trim.
The brief encounter with the Acheron had taught Aubrey a painful, but important lesson. Acheron was bigger, faster and more heavily armed than Surprise. On top of that, Acheron’s hull was constructed in such a way that most of Surprise’s cannonballs had simply bounced off her sides. So, Aubrey’s officers could be forgiven for thinking that, after refitting, Surprise would return home… with her tail between her legs. But that wasn’t what Captain Jack had in mind. England was on the ropes. The war against Napoleon Bonaparte was not going well… and the Navy was all that stood between England and invasion. So above the din of hammers and saws bringing the ship back to life… when Surprise’s Sailing Master and First Lieutenant stood before their Captain rehashing all of the excellent reasons why the ship was no match for the Acheron and that, in any case, by the time that Surprise was ready to sail, the Acheron would have a thousand-mile head start on them, Jack smiled and said, simply, “Well then, there’s not a moment to lose.” Spoiler alert: The story ends well.
Let’s take a minute to review where we stand in our exploration of Matthew’s Gospel up to this point in the liturgical year. Way back in Epiphany—which seems like a long time ago to me—we picked up with the story of Jesus’ ministry after his Baptism by John in the Jordan (Matt. 3:13-17). We read about the calling of Peter and Andrew… and James and John… and of Jesus teaching in the synagogues… and healing all manner of sickness throughout the Galilee (Matt. 4:12-23). We learned about how our lives could be happy and blessed… in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:1-12). We grappled with what it means to be “salt of the earth” and “light for the world,” and the sort of lives we must live in order to be able to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt. 5:13-20). We all hung our heads a little bit when Jesus told us that we must love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:38-48)… didn’t we? And then we skipped way ahead and saw God’s son… the perfect Son of Man… transfigured in light and cloud before Peter, James and John to fortify and encourage them for the difficult, difficult days that lay ahead (Matt. 17:1-9). And then it was Lent… and Holy Week… you know all of these stories, told in one form or another by all of the Gospel writers. But we especially like John’s telling of them: stories of temptation, betrayal and death, and of God’s overarching love and final victory over the grave. And during the “Great Fifty Days” between Easter and Pentecost, we pondered Jesus’ promise of salvation… and what we must do to continue his mission in the world… and the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. That’s pretty heady stuff, isn’t it? I know it is for me.
And now, here we are again at the beginning of liturgical “ordinary time…” green time. From a lectionary perspective, we’re back to “all Matthew, all the time.” Good times…. Because Easter was a little late this year, we missed some notable passages from Matthew’s Gospel… like the one where Jesus teaches us that we can’t serve two masters… that we have one master who will supply our needs, just as he does those of the lilies of the field… that we must strive first and foremost for the Kingdom of God (Matt. 6:24-34). And that if we build our houses on the solid rock of God’s righteousness, we need not fear the destructive rain, floods and winds of this life (Matt. 7:21-29). And here’s a funny thing: we missed the calling of Matthew, himself, to be an Apostle! And the story about the Pharisees’ criticism of Jesus for hanging out with tax collectors and sinners (like Matthew), and Jesus’ response that “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Matt. 9:9-13). What does that tell us about how we should be spending our time as the Body of Christ, the hands and feet of Jesus, here on earth? And we missed the story of the woman with the twelve-year hemorrhage that Jesus healed… and the little girl he raised from the dead (Matt. 9:18-26).
I only mention these stories because it helps inform and orient us to what’s going on in today’s Gospel Lesson. Jesus was still teaching… and still healing… but change was in the wind. The Twelve had been with him… travelling with him… and watching him work… for long enough now that they were beginning to have an inkling of what it meant to be followers of the Christ, the Messiah, the Savior of the World. And now it was time to practice what they had learned. Search out lost sheep, said Jesus. “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons.” Bring peace… even when that peace is not reciprocated. The powers of the world will hate you… because you’ll be “upsetting their apple cart…” “overcooking their grits…” messing with the customs and culture they’ve put in place to ensure that they remain “large and in charge” until the end of time. They’re gonna hate you, and persecute you and do anything they can to shut you up. And it’s gonna hurt… and you’re gonna feel overwhelmed and unequal to the task. But don’t be afraid. The Spirit of your Father will speak through you, as it did through the Prophet Elijah. Be faithful to the LORD, and you will see salvation.
The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. And the vineyard can be a dangerous place. Each day… and every day… brothers and sisters in this country, and around the world, are crying out for relief from hunger, fear, injustice and oppression… endemic in a world that has forgotten its duty to the “least of these.” The pain seems never-ending: this week and most weeks, the headlines are rife with tales of disaster… of bombings and shootings… of fire, famine, plague and betrayal. And yet, today’s Gospel story reminds us that the Kingdom is at hand… nearer than we think… if we can only find a way to become reconciled to God and to one another… to break the cycle of poverty and violence that pits nation against nation, brother against brother and parents against children. And you and I… we’re called to be in the vineyard but not of it… to be instruments of God’s overarching love and reconciliation: the hands and feet of Jesus Messiah to the poor and oppressed… in order to help bring God’s healing to the world. To do this we, like the Twelve, will need to do the seemingly impossible: we must stand up and oppose the powers and principalities… systems of domination and persecution… that have bedeviled the world since the Fall of Creation. We must be prepared to suffer ridicule, imprisonment and even death for the cause of Christ. It’s a tall order. Are we up to it? Probably not. The forces arrayed against us are stronger, craftier and more implacable than we can imagine… but viewed in the context of eternal salvation or damnation, failure is not an option. We must be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves,” and remember that with God, nothing is impossible. So, we’d best get to it, my friends… and there’s not… a moment… to lose.