Jesus Comes Aboard the Ship of Fools: A Sermon for Charlottesville

The following incredibly powerful and comforting sermon was delivered yesterday by Paul Walker, Rector at Christ […]

Mockingbird / 8.14.17

The following incredibly powerful and comforting sermon was delivered yesterday by Paul Walker, Rector at Christ Episcopal Church in Charlottesville (next door to the rallies from this past weekend).

Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.

Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.

But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

“Come,” he said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”

Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”

And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (Mt 14: 22-33).

I’m grateful to see you all here this morning. I know that some have stayed away from downtown, fearing lingering violence. Yesterday was a terrible day for Charlottesville. I hope I will be able to deliver a message of hope and comfort.

You probably assume that you are sitting in the sanctuary of Christ Church, but in fact, you are not. You are actually sitting the nave of Christ Church. The nave is the central part of the church starting at the narthex (where you entered the church) and extending to the altar rail. Inside the altar rail are the chancel and the sanctuary.

Why is the main part of the church called the nave? It takes its name for the Latin word navis, meaning ship, vessel, or boat. That is the derivative of “navy” in English. You may not have realized that you’ve come aboard when you walked through those red doors to sit down in your pew. But, tilt your head and look up above you. Have you ever noticed that our vaulted roof is designed to look like an inverted keel?

The reason for this is not that the gothic church architects were yachtsman, but because early on the church identified itself as a boat or a ship. As early as the 2nd century, the church saw itself as a ship tossed on the sea of disbelief, worldliness, and persecution. The church is a vessel meant to reach safe harbor with its cargo of human souls. A boat was also a useful symbol during times when the persecuted church needed to disguise the cross, since the ship’s mast forms a cross.

There are 2 scripture references for the church as ship. The first is Noah’s Ark. Frederick Buechner says the resemblance is worth thinking about.

In one as in the other, just about everything imaginable is aboard, the clean and the unclean both. They are all piled in together helter-skelter, the predators and the prey, the wild and the tame, the sleek and beautiful ones and the ones that are ugly as sin. There are sly young foxes and impossible old cows. There are the catty and the piggish and the peacock-proud. There are hawks and there are doves. Some are wise as owls, some silly as geese; some meek as lambs and others fire-breathing dragons.

There are times when they all cackle and grunt and roar and sing together, and there are times when you could hear a pin drop. Most of them have no clear idea just where they’re supposed to be heading or how they’re supposed to get there or what they’ll find if and when they finally do.

It’s not all enjoyable. There’s backbiting just like everywhere else. There’s a pecking order. There’s jostling at the trough. There’s growling and grousing, bitching and whining. There are dogs in the manger and old goats and black widows. It’s a regular menagerie in there, and sometimes it smells to high Heaven like one.

But even at its worst, there’s at least one thing that makes it bearable within, and that is the storm without—the wild winds and terrible waves and in all the watery waste no help in sight. And at its best there is, if never clear sailing, shelter from the blast, a sense of somehow heading in the right direction in spite of everything, a ship to keep afloat, and, like a beacon in the dark, the hope of finding safe harbor at last.

The one thing that makes it bearable within is the storm without. We’ve had quite the storm blowing without, all directly around Christ Church. As I said, yesterday was a terrible day for Charlottesville. The disbelief and worldliness we have experienced in this weekend’s rally, and in some cases, the response to the rally has put this downtown block at the center of the world’s attention. And it has enraged and frightened and unsettled people from all across the spectrum—the doves and the hawks, the dragons and the lambs alike. After the torch-lit pop-up rally on the Lawn Friday night, the ever-measured, deeply respected Larry Sabato said that he had never seen anything of its kind in his 47-year association with UVA and that the Lawn was in need of an exorcism.

In my opinion, the storm without makes it not just bearable within the inverted keel of Christ Church, but lifesaving. With the storm without raging from all sides, never is it more crucial for the nave of Christ Church to be a kind of sanctuary—a safe place. As Dylan sings, “Try imagining a place where it’s always safe and warm/Come on in, she said, I’ll give you shelter from the storm.”

The storm is blowing without in the other scripture reference for the church as a ship. In today’s gospel we read that the disciples are in a “boat, battered by the waves, far from land, with the wind against them.”  Storms are nothing new, of course.  And we all have a private catalogue of storms making us feel battered, far from land, with the wind against us. To be in this world is to be subject to storms. During seminary, a retired navy commander used to say to me and my friend Drew, “I wish you fair winds and smooth sailing.” I’m a big fan of fair winds and smooth sailing. Unfortunately, life does not always cooperate.

So like the disciples in story, I am desperately in need of Jesus to come to me walking on the water. We all need Jesus to get into the boat to take the helm. If Jesus Christ isn’t at the helm, then we are all sailing on a ship of fools.

Before Jesus gets in the boat and takes the helm, the disciples see him and think he is a ghost. Jesus assures them, saying “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” Peter, with his usual bravado, says, “If it is you then command me to come to you on the water.” He gets out of the boat, takes a few steps, then down he goes.

He then cries out something that is true and real and universal. He cries out the very thing you and I cry out in the face of the battering waves and prevailing wind. He cries out the one thing I want you to remember from this sermon, the one true recognition of our human predicament. And it is the true recognition of God’s mighty power. Peter, sinking down, sinking down, cries out “Lord, save me!”

Lord, save me! is a prayer to pray night and day. Lord, save me! is the right response to the storms of life. And, Lord, save us! feels like the right prayer to pray in Charlottesville, Virginia this Sunday morning.

Jesus does save Peter. Then He comes aboard the ship of fools. Then the winds ceased, waves receded, and the storm died down. They then sailed, presumably, to the other side of the sea in peace and calm. But since in life we are subject to storms, the peace and the calm did not last. It certainly didn’t last for Jesus.

Jesus’ answer to Peter’s plea—“Lord, save me!”—is only temporarily answered by his strong hand lifting Peter up from the drowning waves and taking him aboard the wooden ship. Lord, save me! is fully and finally answered not in the wood of the boat, but on the wood of the cross. Jesus saves Peter, Jesus saves you and me, Jesus saves the world by not saving himself.

So, week in and week out, storms within and storms without, it is always lifesaving to come into this nave, settle into your berth—or rather, your pew—and hear once again the never changing word of the gospel for all people: Jesus Christ died for the sin of the whole world. On the wood of the cross, death and evil and hatred are defeated. He rose from the grave to take us to Safe Harbor at last.

Lord, save me! we say. Come on in, He says, I’ll give you shelter from the storm.


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8 responses to “Jesus Comes Aboard the Ship of Fools: A Sermon for Charlottesville”

  1. Becky says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I’ve been thinking about MBird and Christ Church a lot these last few days. Lord Save us is my response to the storms too. Thank you Paul, and will pray for you and the congregation that you find ways to share Gods extravagant grace with your communities during this terrible time. Lord bless you all.

  2. Robert says:

    Thank you for that. At a time when so many, so many Christians, reach for the abrasive and hard language of
    stubborn and bullying political slogans, you preached Christ and him crucified, the only real answer to any of the worlds problems. Praise God, there are still churches where that is the central and primary message.
    Jesus, Save Us!!!!!!

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