“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth nations will be in dismay, perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves.” Luke 21:25-28.
We live at the edge of the Pacific Ocean — a sea so large it covers one -third of the Earth’s surface.
This past summer, PBS and the BBC produced a three-part series entitled “Big Blue Live” from our Monterey Bay Aquarium. The program examined our particular habitat of the Elkhorn Slough and the marine sanctuary of Monterey Bay with its sea otters, whales, sea lions and the Great White sharks — to name only a few of our neighbors.
It’s the people that go to the sea for their livelihood — our fisherman at Moss Landing, or the Coast Guard seamen and Navy sailors who face those roaring ocean waves, and their many dangers.
On this first Sunday of Advent, I’d like to speak about a great sea adventure, the dangers, a mutiny and our personal redemption… “a people perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves.”
In April of 1789, Lieutenant William Bligh, the commander of HMS Bounty was awakened by his men, and with eight others were set adrift on the Pacific. This was an act of mutiny on the high seas, perhaps most amazingly Bligh and his companions in their small vessel navigated some 3,000 miles to the Dutch West Indies. Later Bligh returned to England a hero, he won much notoriety as the Royal Navy attempted to locate the Bounty and its crew.
Of course, this dramatic story found its way into history, legend and five movies, the most famous, 1935 version “Mutiny on the Bounty,” featured Charles Laughton, playing a sadistic William Bligh, and actor Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian, a very attractive leader of the mutiny.
But what of the Bounty and its crew? What happened to this band of sailors? Christian feared that he and his crew would be discovered. So for a time they remained in Tahiti, where some of the crew stayed; however Christian set sail again with seven mutineers, twelve Polynesian women, and six Polynesian men who were essentially slaves to the English crewmen.
After months of exploration, they found the remote and uninhabited Pitcairn Island — halfway from New Zealand and Panama, some 6,500 miles from Panama on the open ocean. Even today, the trip can take ten days to reach Bounty Bay. To further insure the group would not be detected, Fletcher Christian ordered the ship destroyed. Together they lived on this tiny island of 18 square miles — with its abundance of coconuts, breadfruit and other crops.
Back to today’s gospel,
“Beware that your hearts do to become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life.” Luke 21: 34-36.
Soon those on Pitcairn realized this island was no paradise — open sexuality simply provoked mutual jealousy and rage. The Ti plant was distilled into liquor, and there was rampant drunkenness. After four years, all of the Polynesian men and half of the English including Fletcher Christian had been murdered. And after a few years only two Englishmen Edward Young and Alexander Smith remained with ten women and the children.
Now here’s the part that the movie left out. While looking through the items saved from the ship, Smith located a Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. These were the only printed books on the Island, and these became the source of wisdom and the very tools for learning English. Alexander Smith did not read, but Edward Young taught him to read, before he died in 1801.
Smith studied the Bible for years and convinced everyone that in order to survive on the island that they needed to live by the Bible’s principles. Once he dreamed that the angel Gabriel showed him the wickedness of his past life, and Smith repented of his sins. So he began Sunday worship, daily prayer, at times he offered petitions like this,
“Suffer me not O Lord to waste this day in sin or folly. But let me worship thee with much delight. Teach me to know more thee and to serve thee better than ever I have done before that I may be fitter to dwell in heaven, where thy worship and service are everlasting. Amen.”
By 1808 an American ship, the Topaz, discovered Pitcairn Island and its crew were surprised to find a community of 35 English-speaking Christians.
As the news of their finding the lost crew of the Bounty reached England, six-years later a British ship arrived at Bounty Bay to seize the mutineers. However by this point, Alex Smith had changed his name to John Adams, after the American president, in order to avoid capture, and he died there in 1829.
The British crew went back to England empty-handed but flush with stories about the exotic South Sea island with its inhabitants of mixed race and culture. After a while, the Seventh Day Adventist came from the port of Oakland in California in order to minister the people of the Polynesian islands, so far off in the Pacific.
Today, Pitcairn Island remains a British protectorate, and has an official population of only 56 people, from a post World War II population of 250. They live on agriculture, herding of goats, honey production, crafts and curio wood carvings for the tourist who arrive by ship which makes for 80% of their economy.
However, the future of the island remains uncertain. Only ten men are physically fit enough to row the island long boats and reach the passenger and cargo ships in the bay. In 2004, six men were found guilty of 35 cases of sex abuse and underage sex offenses. International environmental groups are lobbying that Pitcairn and its nearby islands become the world’s largest marine sanctuary, and with plans of moving the small population to New Zealand.
So scriptural teaching alone didn’t make Pitcairn into a “heaven on earth.” These people struggled with their day-to-day problems, nonetheless Alex Smith’s emphasis on the word of God provided order, survival and redemption to people on these distant shores.
Again, back to today’s gospel reading,
“Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man.” Luke 21: 34-36.
This homily of mine was inspired from a sermon by Anglican Archbishop David Moxon, on the occasion of the Christian Unity Octave, January 25, at the Jesuit Caravita community in Rome.