In 1968, the London Sunday Times announced their sponsorship of a solo, non-stop, round the world sailing race, for which there would be two prizes: The Golden Globe trophy for the first to finish, and a £ 5000 prize for the fastest finisher. Nine sailors began the race; only one, Robin Knox-Johnson, finished. One boat sank, one sailor committed suicide, and five retired without finishing. Of those five, the most interesting was the French sailor Bernard Moitessier, whose book about the race, The Long Way, is a classic tale of both seamanship and mystical spirituality. Moitessier was probably leading the race when, after crossing his path off the coast of Africa, instead of turning north to finish the race where it began in England, he kept on sailing half-way around the world again to finally end in Tahiti.
During his first lap around the world, Moitessier was off the southern coast of New Zealand shortly after Christmas. He had set his self-steering gear, which kept the boat at a constant angle to the prevailing westerly wind. He needed to keep clear of Stewart Island, which is the southernmost island of New Zealand. As night was falling, Moitessier was below in the cabin when he heard the squeals of porpoises alongside the boat. Going topside, Moitessier was surrounded by perhaps a hundred porposies. To his astonishment, twenty-five or so porpoises would swim on the right side of the boat, surfacing three times to breathe, and then would all make a right-angle turn at the same time and swim away from the boat. They would be replaced by another group of porpoises, who would do exactly the same thing. Again, and again. Moitessier, in all his years of sailing, had never seen such a thing. Something began to gnaw at Moitessier’s mind, so he checked his compass heading. While he had been below, the wind had shifted to the south, and his boat was headed, in the dark, straight for Stewart Island. He would have wrecked his boat, in the middle of the night, on the shoals.
Moitessier immediately corrected his course and headed away from the island. As he did so, the porpoises resumed swimming alongside the boat, now without their turns to the right. As he watched, one large black and white porpoise leaped ten or more feet into the air and turned a double somersault before landing back in the water. Moistessier wrote: Three times he does his double roll, bursting with a tremendous joy, as if he were shouting to me and all the other porpoises: ‘The man understood that we were trying to tell him to sail to the right. . . you understood . . . you understood. . . keep on like that, it’s all clear ahead!’ The porpoises continued to swim with the boat for hours, until Moitessier was well past the reefs of Stewart Island and there were no obstacles ahead for thousands of miles. Only then did the porpoises leave.
We silly human beings, increasingly trapped inside our prisons of habitat, work, internet, and self-importance, imagine that the destiny of the world depends entirely upon ourselves. I’ve long been bothered by the story of a village in Germany, France, England, or elsewhere, depending on the teller, whose statute of Jesus had been damaged during the Second World War. The hands of Jesus, according to the story, had been lost, so the villagers put the statue back in place with the words below it: Jesus has no hands but our hands. It’s a nice story, often repeated, but it’s not true. Not only is there no such statue, but, as Moitessier’s story suggests, God has plenty of ways to operate in the world other than through us. Yes, we are accountable to God. Yes, we will be judged, Jesus says in the 25th chapter of Matthew, on how we have cared for the last, the least, and the lost. But that’s not the same thing as saying that God only works in the world through us, or even only through human beings. As the great humorist James Thurber wrote, If I have any beliefs about immortality, it is that certain dogs I have known will go to heaven, and very, very few persons.
All Jesus’ life he has been aware that God is relentlessly at work to bring justice and mercy to a broken Creation. For thousands of years God tried, through patriarchs and judges, kings, prophets, and priests, to reconcile a rebellious humanity to himself. A flood didn’t work. Neither did an Exodus, nor two tablets of commandments. The gift of a Promised Land failed to bind the people in covenant. Judges were followed by kings, to no avail. Prophets warned of the consequences of disobedience, nations fell and people suffered, slavery was conquered by a Persian deliverer, the Temple was rebuilt, and still people rebelled against God. If one thing didn’t work, God tried another. If one leader, one people didn’t bring the salvation God intended, God went back to the drawing board, over and over.
What Jesus knew was that God was going to fulfill God’s will one way or another, so Jesus decided, early on, that it might as well be through him. That, after all, is why Jesus had been conceived – to be the incarnation of God’s redeeming, self-giving love in the world. And Jesus knew early on what that meant and where it would lead. No one, especially the Son of God, can swim in the face of the world’s self-importance for long before that world puts you out of its misery. There were forces at work far beyond human consciousness that would lead to the cross. A cosmic drama was being played out, and only Jesus was aware of the script.
The whole Palm Sunday story is about God working beyond the willing participation of human beings. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, called this prevenient grace: God’s movement far ahead of our awareness or willingness. Go into the village, Jesus tells two disciples, and fetch the young donkey that’s tied there. When the owner asks what you’re doing, tell him ‘The Lord needs it.’ And the story unfolds exactly as Jesus has predicted: there are forces at work here beyond human understanding.
During the ensuing parade into the city, some of the Pharisees are upset at the riot the disciples have initiated. These are Methodists, after all, and the disciples are acting like Pentecostals. Like the joke about the newly converted man shouting out in worship, the disciples may have the Holy Spirit, but they didn’t get it here. Order your disciples to stop, the Pharisees tell Jesus. Jesus’ response is one of the strangest sentences in the gospels: I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.
Something bigger is happening here, Jesus is saying, than our intentions, emotions, or understanding. You and I are actors on a cosmic stage, participants in a divine drama being played out over millions of years. We imagine that we are the playwrights, the directors, the orchestra, the stagehands. If we don’t make it happen, it doesn’t happen. If it happens, it’s because of us.
All through Holy Week, the players think they are writing the drama. Judas thinks he has seized the initiative. The Temple priests, and Herod, and Pilate all believe they are masters of the moment. Peter and the disciples are convinced they can protect Jesus. The crowds elect Jesus on Sunday and condemn him on Friday. But there are far, far larger forces at work this week, and Jesus is the only one who can read the script. And, because he is the only one who understands what God is doing, he is the one person – the only person – throughout all of Holy Week, who can give himself willingly to God’s redemptive work. Everyone else is a victim of their own or someone else’s foolish and clueless self-importance.
The only way any of us can be conscious and willing participants in God’s holy work to save the world is, like Jesus, to surrender the lie that the world depends on us. God is going to do what God is going to do, with us or without us. But, when we surrender ourselves, as Jesus did, to God’s will to heal the world in God’s way – not ours – then we become the agents of that redemption. Then, and only then, do we become God’s hands. Then, and only then, does the world depend on us, precisely because we have surrendered any claim that it might. That’s the foolishness of the cross. That’s the scandal of the gospel: that we only save life by losing it, and lose life by keeping it. You might as well shout, because if you don’t, the rocks will.
Historian Stephen Oates says that the peak of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life was not on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial when he gave the I Have a Dream speech, as great as that was and is. It was, Oates said, when King led hundreds of marchers from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in defiance of Governor George Wallace’s edict to prevent them. John Lewis, now a congressman, had his head fractured by police batons. Marchers had been beaten, cursed, spat upon, and threatened with death. Standing on the steps of the state capitol, with George Wallace watching in fury through a window, Dr. King spoke of the day not of the white man or of the black man, but the day of man as man: I come to say to you this afternoon however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth pressed to earth will rise again. How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever. How long? Not long, because you will reap what you sow. How long? Not long, because the arm of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
King knew what Moitessier knew what Jesus knew what Hamlet knew: There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. God is at work far beyond us, in stars and porpoises, plays and protests, poets and peasants, to redeem the world. Only when we surrender to God’s work do we become God’s hands and voices. If we don’t shout, the stones will.