Pirates of the Indian Ocean, or the Unseen Hostage

A ship set sail not long ago, laden with a cargo of food destined for people in need. While on this mission of mercy the ship was attacked by pirates, who climbed aboard using ropes, as I suppose pirates have always done.

It hardly seems that a story about pirates could be taken from the pages of today’s newspapers. But this one is, as the whole world knows by now. There are no square-rigged tall ships involved; no one, that I know of, wearing an eye-patch or a tri-cornered hat. But there are the ropes, and the grappling hooks, I suppose. There are no swords, probably no knives gripped between teeth, but there are dangerous weapons. There must have been the ship-deck confrontation. Was there a struggle, a fight fit for the screen?

The latter-day pirates are not interested in the ship’s cargo – what use have they of food bound for hungry people? Their booty is supposed to be a ransom, if not for the cargo, then for the lives of the sailors on board.

Among the several things the pirates must not have counted on was a captain on board who was smart enough to keep his crew un-harmed, and brave enough to offer himself in exchange for their safety. They took him up on his offer, sending him over the rail into a lifeboat with them. And they did not count on that captain being bold enough to dive over the side of the lifeboat in the night in attempt to make his way to freedom.

That’s the moment in this story that makes me catch my breath: when Captain Richard Phillips sees his chance and goes overboard into the Indian Ocean. What was his plan? Were his hands tied? Was there a tussle as he vaulted himself into the water? Did he have a chance of making it to safety? How far did he get before they started shooting at him, and paddled madly after him, and hauled him, soaked, back onto the lifeboat?

It was Good Friday, when the captain hurled himself over the side of the lifeboat, into the dark water of the sea. And today, of course, is Easter. If you want an Easter parable there is one to be found here somewhere. Start with a crew-member of the ship, delivered to port in Kenya last night, facing the hoard of media looking for the story, who put it this bluntly: “We’ve got a man out there in a lifeboat dying so we can live.”

There is death lurking at every corner of this story. The lives of the crew were imperiled when the pirates climbed aboard. The life of the captain now hangs in the balance. The pirates are now surrounded by overwhelming firepower that remains in check as long as their hostage is alive. The Navy is keeping its distance, in part to stay out of firing range of the pirates and keep its sailors safe. And who knows what hungry, maybe desperate mouths have gone hungry while the food shipment went undelivered?

And we’ve got a man out here in a lifeboat dying, so that we can live. In a sentence, that is the story we have been trying to tell here in church over the past week – about a man out there in a lifeboat dying so that we can live. Preachers like me have been piling up words since Palm Sunday trying to say what a sailor put so neatly in a single sentence. We have been trying to imagine or remember what it feels like to know that there is a man out there dying so that we can live. We’ve been trying to get in touch with the significance of a man giving his life as a ransom for many.

We did not imagine that one man’s cross would be a lifeboat in the Indian Ocean; that his Good Friday would see him leap or wriggle over the side of that boat into the sea, rather than being gently lowered into tomb. And how I wish that his Good Friday escape attempt had led him to an early Easter, to safety, to life, to home, and to joy. I have been praying for such an Easter for Richard Phillips. God knows, he deserves it! But his Easter was thwarted, when his captors must have grabbed him by the shoulders of his jacket and pulled him back up into the boat, back onto his cross, dripping wet and out of breath, and his life still hanging in the balance.

It would be cheap of me to talk of Captain Phillips this way – because at this moment his life is quite literally in danger – if Easter were not really and truly about life and death. It would be insulting to a man who has over the past three days shown almost exactly what Jesus meant when he said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends,” if Jesus’ life and death had not already been lived and died for us. It would be crass of me to mention this if it were not to say that I believe that on Good Friday Captain Phillips did not actually go over the side of the lifeboat and into the sea alone.

He surely knew that those waters could just as easily be his grave as they could be his salvation. Did he know, I wonder, that he was not alone on Good Friday as he faced his own grave? Could he sense that presence beside him that slipped below the surface with him? Did he know that another heart pounded in perfect synchronicity with his pounding heart, and that another pair of hands was reaching out into the water with his hands? Could he feel another set of feet kicking through those treacherous waters with his feet? And did he know, when the gunshots fired, and the pirates slapped their hands onto his shoulders and hauled him back into the boat, that another hostage had escaped unseen, deep beneath the surface of the water: deep as a watery grave?

We’ve got a man out there in a lifeboat. At the risk of diminishing the darkness of his dark hours, do I dare suggest that Richard Phillips is, or could be every one of us?

What pirates have held you hostage this past week, this year, most of your life? For some there is addiction; for others it’s loneliness; or fear. Poverty holds too many people in this city hostage every day, with its band of brother pirates, racisim. A grudge makes a marvelous pirate as it tightens its grip over the months and years and you begin to feel justified in your loathing. Greed is the traditional pirate that has become awfully good at moving into the neighborhood and acting as though it is perfectly normal to need and want so much stuff, and so much more. For some it’s sickness, or a grief that will not let go. These pirates have taken many of us hostage, though we would never let on, not on Easter Day.

But it is because we know, don’t we, what it’s like to be in the boat with the pirates of our lives, that we cheered inside when we heard that Captain Phillips had dared to escape! O Captain! my captain!

But it is also because we know of that other man, that unseen hostage who went over the side of the boat and into the water on Friday, that we dare to cling to hope for Richard Phillips, no matter what happens to him; that we know his life is already won, even if the pirates should try to take it from him again. And having given his life already for the sake of his friends, he must surely know this, too.

Because today, this morning, the empty tomb, in my mind, stands on a shore on the east coast of Africa, where the waters of the Indian Ocean are lapping at the rocks. And that silent swimmer - who was in the boat with Captain Phillips, and has been in the boat with you and with me when ever the pirates have been at hand – that silent swimmer has made it to the shore, when the captain could not, just as we could not.

And every Easter morning tells us that the pirates will never win; there is no ransom left to be paid. And that even though the waters be deep and the shore too distant, and help too far away to do us any good, and death lies close at hand, there is One who went over the side, and into the water. And because he was buried, he appeared to be lost to us.

But he is not dead, he is arisen!

Yes, we had a man out there in a lifeboat dying so that we could live.

And by God, he’s done it. He died, and swam through death, and rose on a Sunday morning all those years ago. (O captain! my captain!) And now, no matter what happens to us, we can live!

Alleluia, Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

N.B, - At 1:30 pm on April 12 2009, Easter Day, U.S. government sources confirmed that Captain Phillips had been rescued in an operation led by U.S. Navy Seals.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Easter Day 2009
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on April 12, 2009 .