The Boat: A symbol of the Church
Jesus woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.” Pre-Covid, Terri and I used to love cruising the Caribbean. We have been on at least seven cruises and we love the peace, quiet, and serenity of the sea. However, a few years ago, we sailed on a voyage, whereas on which the first night it was far from peaceful and serene. Our first night on that ship was a rocky, unsettling evening to say the least. Now, I do not get motion sickness. As a matter of fact, I have been a pilot since I was 16 years old, and I have never been air sick, but I have to say that I was a little queasy and nervous on that one ship that night. I prayed that our ship was sturdy, that we had an experienced crew, and the seas would calm. Later that night, I continued to pray and strangely, I was at peace when the sea was not. Sometimes the seas of life are rough and uncertain, and we need to rest in God’s reassurance of peace.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus and his disciples were on a boat in a violent storm. The disciples were afraid and Jesus was asleep on a pillow. The disciples were desperate, and with a cry of despair, which I bet many of us have prayed before, they said, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Sometimes when we face terrible events, we cry out to God, as if God may not be aware of our troubles and we might think, “Do you not really care Lord?”
Our faith may be challenged in those moments, but I believe it is in those moments that there is a power beyond our imagine available to us. “Peace be still,” our Lord proclaimed, and through those words, he reminded those early followers, and he reminds us that we often have the resilient and ever-present peace in which, we might tap into, and one that will always carry us through. We can with confidence, rely on God’s grace in our despair, and God gifts us with a community of faith on which we can lean, when all around us seems to be beyond our ability to cope. Now think about that when you prayer. Think about that when Christians come together to pray, especially when all around us may seem chaotic.
The Boat of Faith
Bernard Baruch an early 20th century philanthropist, consultant and advisor to Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, and was later quoted by Martin Luther King Jr. King and Baruch once said, “We did not all come over on the same ship, but we are all in the same boat.” Baruch was also reminding us that we all traverse this life from different histories, backgrounds, and experiences, but we are all in the same family of God, all of us, and we must all care for one another. We are all in the same boat.
The church in our ancient history was symbolized as a rescue boat, set about on the rough seas of life. Some church’s architecture often resembles a boat. “For example, the area between a narthex and sanctuary was called the “nave.” This word comes from the Latin navis, or ship and was meant to portray the reality that the Church is a ship protecting those inside it from the waves and buffets of the world.” (4) Several churches in the Episcopal Church have this type of architectural design, and when you sit in the pew, and gaze at the ceiling, it is as if you are looking at the inside hull of a boat. We the church have a long history of being rescue boats, protecting others from the seas of despair and injustice.
Now if the church is like a boat, then we are traversing the sea of life and death. In scripture, the sea is often described as a place of despair, hopelessness, and death. “ Old Testament creation is described in part as a great struggle between God and the sea. In fact, the sea is presented as a monster that only God’s ineffable power can tame.” (3) In the ancient baptismal rites, full immersion in water was normative and as the candidate walked into the pool, the water covered their head as a symbol of dying to our old self. Rising out of the water was symbolic of being raised to new life. As Paul writes, “We die to a death like his, so we might rise to a resurrection like his.”
So, the symbols of the church as a boat of rescue, and the violent sea as a symbol of death is pretty serious business for we Christians, and today’s gospel reading gives us the origin of that symbolism. We the church are a rescue vessel, but it is not a seafaring cruise ship for merely ourselves, and it is not a voyage of faith for the faint at heart.
Church is not a Cruise Ship
I recently read a funny article by Mark Ralls, Senior Pastor with the First United Methodist Church in Hendersonville, N.C. He comically compares how some churches act more like cruise ships rather than rescue boats. Pastor Ralls wrote “People on cruise ships are passengers, a very passive and consumerist role. People on cruise ships all do their own thing. They dine at separate tables. They are entertained because it does not take much courage to sign up for a cruise.” (5) Please hear me say this clearly, I know this church is no cruise ship as Ralls describes, because you all are out there on the high seas, trying to pull others into the boat of God’s grace.
Don’t get me wrong, I love cruise ships and I enjoy the disengaged world of cruising. There is nothing like being fully detached from the responsibilities of life, the internet, the news, my phone, and living a time in bliss that cruising offers. Nonetheless, you do understand the metaphor, and we all know the church was never meant to be a cruise ship that disconnects us from the world, and what is going on in the tempestuous seas of life. We the Body of Christ are meant to be a lifeboat. So, if we are a lifeboat, what is our purpose?
“We did not all come over on the same ship, but we are all in the same boat.” The church is a rescue boat for all those dying and suffering in this life, and those who are without hope in those waters of death and despair. We cannot merely be a closed-in ship in which, we al huddle in the holds below staying dry and calm, or resting in our staterooms being comfortable and entertained. We have to be out there on the decks of the ship hauling in those who are drowning.
The church has a long history of speaking out for the least, lost, and lonely in this world. Dietrich Bonheoffer, a well-known Lutheran pastor, stood in defiance against the atrocities of the holocaust by Nazi Germany, and was made a martyr for the cause of justice. Bonheoffer is quoted as saying, “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” Bonheoffer stood boldly against such atrocities in the name of Jesus Christ, and suffered death because of his courage and honestly, we the church are to do likewise.
The Church as Rescue Boat
We are not merely individuals who enter the rescue boat for our own benefit, and climb aboard to do our own thing. We are bound together in common mission and what we do in our individual ministries connects us to one another, and together connected to the mission of God and thus, we are connected to all humanity. We do not function independently from one another, but everything we do has an impact on all of God’s creation. In the midst of all that is changing around us in this world, it is clear that we must advocate for our neighbor, to love our neighbor, and to invite all peoples into the boat.
At our baptism we made promises to God and to one another, about how we will love ALL people. We committed to those baptismal promises, and we responded, “We will with God’s help.” I invite you to consider again two of those promises we made, which are found on page 305 of the Book of Common Prayer. First, “Will you seek and serve Christ in ALL persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” Second, “Will you strive for justice and peace among ALL people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” I pray in these days of incredible injustice, unprecedented intolerance, and unimaginable pain being heaped upon God’s people, we all will have the courage to take a stand for ALL people.
My prayer is that our commitment, compassion, advocacy, and love for our neighbors will stand as a witness of the one that we call Lord. My prayer is that each time the call to stand for injustice comes, and my friends that call is ringing loudly in our world today, I pray we can claim all of God’s children as our neighbors by saying, “I will with God’s help” and then, go and do likewise. Please never forget, “We did not all come over on the same boat, but when it comes to loving our neighbor, caring for the least, lost, and lonely among us, and standing for justice for all, we ALL are in the same boat together.”
(2) King, Michael A. “Storm System.” The Christian Century, vol. 123, no. 12, 13 June 2006, p. 19.
(3) Callahan, Jim. “Weatherproof.” The Christian Century, vol. 117, no. 18, 07 June 2000, p. 643