Our gospel tells one of the “boat” narratives—with the usual characters of Jesus, the disciples, a boat and, some type of water. There are stories of the calming of the storm. There are stories of finding no fish until putting the nets out on the other side. There are stories of crossing the sea from one shore to another. Today I’d like us to think about our faith, our church, as a boat. Now this is not new. It is obvious from the New Testament that Jesus taught in boats; that several of the disciples had been fishermen; that boats were a mode of transportation, and the scene of important events.
As Rev. Mark Ralls says “Signifying a vessel of salvation, the boat was often used to portray the church. The old image still resonates in the word [sometimes used] for the central portion of a sanctuary, the nave. The Latin word for ship is navis, and for boat is navicula…”
The Lutheran Church has taken the boat motif and incorporated it into architecture of many buildings. So what might the Scriptures have to tell us as we picture ourselves on a Christian Cruise? Now I know in the era of pandemic, the term “cruise” might make your hair stand on end. But don’t think large cruise ship—think family-sized pontoon boat.
I will admit that I have very little knowledge about boats. We weren’t a boating family, and what I know about the subject has basically come from watching others in the Finger Lake district of NY where we spend time. And what I’ve come to realize is that it takes a lot of work to own a boat.
You have to put it in the water. You have to keep it gassed up and ready to go. You have to abide by the rules of the road/water lane (or at least the agreed to way of behaving with others). You may need help when trying to tie up at a dock. You need to know how to tie a good knot. You have to pay attention to the weather reports, and know when not to be out on the water. You have to take care, in the off season, to scrap and paint and cover and store your boat. It is not for the faint-hearted or anyone who is looking for an economical pastime.
And maybe this year is just the time to remember all the work that goes into being in a boat. Maybe we as Christians have gotten complacent, maybe we are imaging that we are on a cruise where someone else does all the work, where we don’t have responsibilities to others, where we can just lie back and “forget about everything else.” (And here is where I realize that naming a sermon before you have written it might have drawbacks—for from here on out, this sermon should be called Christian boating, not Christian cruise).
The first disciples would not have been thinking about cruising in their boat. They were well aware that everyone would need to be “working” while they were on the water. And that is another thing that you become extremely aware of when you live near a large body of water. It is different every day. Some days the water is like glass, and others it has actual waves. The sea of Galilee is nothing to sneeze at, and they didn’t have weather forecasting the way we do. To go out on the water in those days was to put yourselves in the hands of God (and the hands of the other people you sailed with).
The sea was an unpredictable, dangerous place. Things could change in a heartbeat. And on the water you become aware of how small you are, and how big and strong nature is.
Thinking about all this, what might we take away from today’s image? Boats were at least a little protection from the power and unknowable sea. In a world that has come to seem dangerous and unpredictable—our faith can provide a place to huddle in the midst of all the “chaos” that is swirling around us. If you want to get from one shore to another, having a boat is a lot better than having to swim the distance yourself.
And maybe the image of a boat reminds us of the reality of human life (that we often don’t want to admit). We can’t control everything. There are forces, strong forces, that are “out there”—storms, rip currents, wind and waves. Thinking about our faith as a boat nudges us to acknowledge that we are creatures (limited and finite), and we need God’s help. I think that is what the writer of the hymn “Eternal Father” was getting at—if you have ever been on a boat in the ocean (even an ocean liner) you certainly know that there are perils on the sea. We pray to the One who created the ocean depths, who gave life to our planet with the gift of water, and who stands with us in the trials of our lives.
So boats are protection. And boats are also a place of camaraderie and trust. If you have ever been on a sailboat, you know that everyone has a job to do. Even if it is being on the correct side of the boat as it moves through the water—much less, putting up or pulling down sails, steering the rudder, adjusting weight, and so forth. This reminds us that our faith, our church, isn’t a solo kayak. It’s a place that has more than one on board.
Boats as an image of our Christian life remind us that we are all needed in the process. We may have to discover our gifts. We may have to try out a few things. We may have to get knocked into the water a few times! But being on a boat means looking out for one another—knowing when there is someone overboard, and turning your vessel around, throwing out a lifeline, making rescue a priority. Being on the boat of faith is leaning on the wisdom of “old hands,” and being thankful for the strength and energy of those new to the craft. Being on the boat can be energizing or maybe exhausting. But it is a communal experience—one that requires respect for each job, for your lives depend on each other.
When I was starting to think about this sermon, the theme song to “Gilligan’s Isle” kept cropping up in my head. Very annoying. But when you think about the premise of the TV show, that people who come from all kinds of places, social strata and backgrounds, get shipwrecked and have to learn to live with one another—I think I see where my subconscious was going. Our faith boat, the church imagined as a boat, is like that “three-hour cruise” that turns into life together.
Our Christian boat isn’t just for those who we know or feel comfortable with. Our Christian boat mixes us up, places us together, knits us closer as we face difficulties and learn new skills and “try to get along.” We at UPC have chosen to go out on the water with one another—and we will have opportunities to learn from each other, to grow in our faith, and to be pushed into new spaces.
Boat/faith as protection. Boat/faith as community. Boat/faith as a prod to finding new wine and creating new wineskins. There is one more image I want to lift up. Getting out of the boat. As much as you might love being on the water, there is a time when you have to pull into a dock, tie up on the pier, or even drop anchor and jump into the lake. Most of us don’t live our lives on a boat (and even those who do have to come ashore to stock up on essentials), and in our Scripture passage this morning, we see that Jesus wants us to get out of the boat sometimes.
In the midst of a storm, yes the boat is protection. But we can’t allow ourselves to cower in the boat when Jesus is calling us out, to walk on the water. I know this is a ridiculous image. None of us, even with a whole mustard tree of faith can change the scientific laws of gravity and viscosity. If we stand on water, we will sink. But that doesn’t keep Peter from stepping out in faith, even though his faith isn’t quite strong enough. Notice Jesus is the one who takes Peter’s challenge, Jesus is the one who says ‘Come,’ and Jesus is the one who rescues when Peter, inevitably, flounders.
A more modern image came to me in thinking about this. That of a spacewalk. See, there, you are outside the ship, outside the protective bubble, out in the wilds of space, but you are tethered, you are still connected, you have a way home. There are times when we need to get out of the boat—maybe to test our own faith, maybe to be in a place where we can invite others to join us in the boat, maybe because we hear the call of Jesus, even into that dangerous, uncontrollable world out there. But we have a lifeline in Jesus—the one who can lift us up, the one who can calm the seas, the one who gets us back to the boat safe and sound.
I keep playing with images for this unusual time. And I certainly think we can look to the stories of the time in the wilderness, and the time of Babylonian exile as examples of other cataclysmic upheaval in lives of faith. There we find stories of weariness and lament for what was lost—and we hear that wilderness and exile come to an end. Eventually you stop wandering and find yourself at the Promised Land. Eventually you are freed from exile and come home, to rebuild. Today I’m adding another image—from the world of the people who boat. That of travelling from one shore to the next.
We have left one shore, actually been pushed off it, if we are honest. We have been thrown into a stormy and unruly sea. And we don’t even know what the shore on the other side looks like. It seems to be a dire situation. And it would be if we didn’t have our guide and friend, the One we call Lord, Master, Savior, Jesus.
We are promised that even if we don’t feel him near, he knows where we are. We are promised that when we step out in faith, when we try something new, when we can’t quite walk on water, Jesus is there to grip our hand before we sink, to pick us up, to lead us back. And we are promised that with Jesus we will eventually make it to the other shore, that though it may be foreign territory, or make us feel like a stranger in a strange land, of these things we can be sure. The love of God shining down on us like the sun, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ rolling in like the never-ending waves, and the strong ties of fellowship spun between us by the Holy Spirit.
May these boat musings inform our lives, our faith, this day and forevermore. Alleluia, Amen.