The Boat: A symbol of the Church
On mine and Terri’s cruise last year, it was pretty rough the first night of our voyage. Even as a pilot, who never gets air sick, I have to say that I was a little queasy and nervous. Even so, I prayed that we were in a sturdy ship with an experienced crew, and interestingly, I was at peace. Sometimes the seas of life are rough and we need that same kind of reassurance. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus and his disciples are on a boat in a violent storm. The disciples are afraid and Jesus is asleep on a pillow. The disciples are 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 say, “Do you not really care Lord?” Our faith may seem challenged in those moments, but I believe it is in those moments that there is a power beyond our imagine, which is available to us. “Peace be still,” our Lord proclaims, and through these words, he reminds us that we often have a resilience to tap into that carries 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.
Bernard Baruch an early 20th century business and policy consultant and advisor to Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, and a philanthropist said, “We did not all come over on the same ship, but we are all in the same boat.” In other words, 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 in 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 of our churches in the diocese of Southwest Florida 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 hull of a boat. We the church have a long history of being a rescue boat, protecting others from the seas of despair and injustice.
Rescue Boat or Cruise Ship
Carrying the symbolism a bit further 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 have to be careful though that we not take this symbolism into the wrong direction. The church is a rescue vessel, and it is not a seafaring cruise ship for the faint at heart.
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, which is a very passive role. People on cruise ships all pretty much do their own thing. People on cruise ships dine at separate tables. People on cruise ships are entertained, because it does not take much courage to sign up for a cruise.” (5) Please hear me say this clearly, I know that St. Monica’s is no cruise ship as Ralls describes, because we are out there on the high seas trying to pull others into the boat of God’s grace. Sometimes it is helpful to know what we are not, so we can clearly know what we truly are. Don’t get me wrong, I love cruises and I enjoy the disengaged world of cruising. There is nothing like being fully detached from the troubles of life, the internet, the news, and my phone, and living for a time in bliss, which cruising offers. Nonetheless, you do understand the metaphor, and we all know the church was never meant to be a cruise ship, which disconnects us from what is going on in the tempestuous seas of life. We the Body of Christ are meant to be a life boat.
Church as a Respite on the Tempestuous Seas
“We did not all come over on the same ship, but we are all in the same boat.” The church is supposed to be a rescue boat for all those dying and suffering and those who are without hope in those waters of death and despair. We cannot merely be a closed-in ship in which, we 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. To ALL of God’s people who are suffering injustice, oppression, abuse, neglect, and horrific suffering, Jesus says to his church, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” I worry that some Christians today are like the law expert in Luke’s rendition of the Good Samaritan parable who asked, “Who is my neighbor?” The law expert tried to minimize Jesus’ command, as if it allows some ideological boundaries that limit whom it is we are commanded to love and show mercy.
In the story I reference from Luke’s gospel, the Good Samaritan is the unlikely outsider, who showed heroic mercy to a dying man in a ditch, a beaten man who was passed over by two holy and devout men. After telling the story, Jesus asked the law expert, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” When others suffer, Jesus calls us to be bearers of mercy, love, grace, peace, and reconciliation, and to do likewise without walls, boundaries, or divisive criteria.
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 we 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, 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 heaped upon God’s people, we all will have the courage to take a stand for ALL people. My prayer is that with commitment, compassion, advocacy, and love for our neighbors, when 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 ship, but when it comes to loving our neighbor, caring for the least, lost, and lonely among us , and standing for justice for all, we are all in the same boat.”
(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