Trinity 17 Year C 2004

Faith and Duty

Today I want to tell you about a remarkable man, whom I heard interviewed some months ago on the radio talking about his work as a lifeboatman.   This lifeboatman is called Mark Sawyer.   One evening Mr Sawyer was just getting ready to have some supper when the phone rang.   A yacht was in difficulties off the coast of Eastbourne, where he lived.   After a fine clear afternoon, the wind had suddenly strengthened to gale force – force 8 – and there was a yacht which had not made it to harbour in time.   He quickly telephoned some other lifeboatmen and went down to the lifeboat shed with all speed.   He saw for himself how dangerous the conditions were out in the sea beyond the harbour.   The waves were 3 metres high; it was low tide, so parts of the harbour entrance were extremely shallow, and a boat could easily run aground.   He also remembered that there was a sunken wreck just outside the harbour, which an incoming boat could easily run into.   And moreover – it was dark – pitch black, with no moon to give even a little light.

The   yacht which was in trouble should really have stayed outside the harbour entrance until the gale subsided.   But instead the crew tried to come in to safety.   By this time lifeboatman Sawyer and his men had launched the lifeboat and were trying to get as near to the yacht as possible.   Conditions were appalling, with waves breaking over the lifeboat – which, like the yacht, was only about 4 metres long.   Then they noticed that the yacht was spinning round.   It had run aground on a sandbank.   The crew – a man and a woman – were getting desperate.   Sawyer and his men tried to throw ropes to the crew of the yacht, but each time they were blown away by the wind.   Finally Sawyer told one of his men to fire a rocket-propelled line towards the yacht – fire it directly at the man on the yacht, he said, and let’s hope that he’ll catch it.  

Amazingly, he did.   He struggled to tie the rope to the bows of the yacht, and the lifeboat began to tow it out to deeper and safer water.   But their luck didn’t last.   A huge wave knocked the yacht over and the mast and sail, already in tatters, lay flat in the water.   The man and the woman were thrown into the fearsome sea. Amazingly, Sawyer’s men managed to get a rope to the woman, who after a determined struggle clambered aboard the lifeboat, exhausted.   But the man was still in the sea, bobbing around in the waves, looking – as far as they could see in the dark – barely conscious.   One of the lifeboatmen leapt into the heaving waters.   He grasped hold of the man, but couldn’t bring him close enough to the lifeboat to get him aboard. It finally took four men to drag him up over the side of the lifeboat to safety.

But they weren’t in fact yet safe.   One tremendous wave then broke right over the lifeboat, swamping the crew.   One of them was sucked over the side – and only through the presence of mind of the woman who’d just been rescued, who grabbed hold of him, was he kept from being lost in the cauldron of foam.  

The lifeboat did, then, make it back to shore, the rescuers and the rescued exhausted and lucky to be alive.   Lifeboatman Sawyer was later awarded a silver medal for gallantry, and the lifeboatman who jumped into the sea to rescue the drowning man was awarded a bronze medal.

When I heard Lifeboatman Sawyer interviewed on the radio, two things struck me in particular.   First, his modesty.   There no sign at all of any desire for fame, glamour, or celebrity status.   And second, the fact that he said ‘I was only doing my job’.   In fact – it wasn’t even a job he was paid to do – he and his crew, like most lifeboatmen, are volunteers, and do their work as an act of service, freely given.  

The gospel reading we heard a few minutes ago is not very well known.   It talks of a man who had a servant who has been working all day in the fields.   This servant has to come in and make the master’s supper, before being able to have his own. Jesus asks whether the master should thank the servant – but surprisingly, he says ‘No:   the servant is only doing his duty’.    When we do something for God, we should do it simply because that’s what God wants from us..   That’s in fact what that word ‘duty’ means, in the reading – something we should do for its own sake, because it is important to God (as ‘devoir’, in French).   When we do something to help someone else, we should do it not for anything that we’ll get out of it, but because they need it. Our worship of God and our service of others are things we should do simply because that is what God desires from   us.   We may not be lifeboatmen.   But each one of us can still do our bit to serve others and serve God – and that should be something that is second nature to us, something we do, as for lifeboatman Sawyer, simply because we know we should.

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