Es kommt ein Schiff geladen bis an sein höchsten Bord
Es trägt Gotts Sohn voll Gnaden, Des Vaters evig Wort.
This is one of the oldest German hymns we know of. It was written in the 1300s by Johannes Tauler, a Dominican mystic who studied in Cologne, about the same distance from Bonn as Boston is from us. It is an Advent hymn using the symbol of a ship as an allegory for the church. It has been a real gift to me, and today I want to share it with you, in an English translation.
A ship is coming laden, and rich indeed her hoard;
It bears God’s Son, so gracious, the great eternal Word.
The church is like a ship carrying the precious cargo of Jesus Christ, the Word of God. Jesus is the main thing that makes the church, the church. Jesus whom we know through the Scriptures is what sets us apart from any other religion. It’s what makes us different from other good causes, and charitable organizations that do lots of good. Other organizations can do good works. But only the church brings Christ to the world. It is the church’s mission is to be sent out, traveling the world to share our costly cargo, our gracious Lord Jesus Christ, with the world.
In this way, the church continues the work of John the Baptist. Christians see John as the messenger of the covenant in the Prophet Malachi. Imagine being at a harbor when a tall ship comes in. Imagine that ship brings the good news of Jesus and hear Malachi’s words, “Look! I’m sending my messenger on ahead to clear the way for me. Suddenly, out of the blue, the Leader you’ve been looking for will enter his Temple – yes, the Messenger of the Covenant, the one you’ve been waiting for. Look! He’s on his way!” When John was born, his father Zechariah sang a song – a prophecy. “You, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give knowledge of salvation to God’s people by the forgiveness of their sins.” This is not only John the Baptists’ calling, it has become the main mission of the church.
And safely floats that galley, from troubled coast to coast
Its sail is love and mercy; its mast, the Holy Ghost.
Boats have important symbolic meaning in the Bible and likewise water. In the Bible it often represents chaos and violence which threatens the safety and wellbeing of human beings. It shows up as a flood in Noah’s Ark – a boat which saved all the animals and birds from destruction. In the Isaiah 51 and Psalms 89 and 74 God slays the sea serpent Rahab or Leviathan. In Isaiah 17 God’s voice thunders over many waters – representing the many nations which are hostile to Israel. Revelation 21:1 says that when Christ returns the sea itself will be no more. These are all based on the idea that water is chaotic, dangerous, destructive. In the New Testament all four Gospels show Jesus walking on the sea, demonstrating that, like God the Father, he has power over the waters of chaos. And Matthew, Mark and Luke also show this power by telling the story of Jesus calming the waves while he and his disciples are riding on a boat.
Listening to Malachi we can add a lot of troublesome characters into this sea of chaos. There are those who break the 10 Commandments: sorcerers who dishonor God when they try to control spiritual forces for their own evil purposes, adulteress, those who swear falsely. Also mixed in the briny foam are those who exploit the weak: taking advantage of widows and orphans, those who “thrust aside the alien” that is, turn their backs on immigrants, those make employees work under oppressive conditions and don’t pay them fair wages.
There’s a lot of chaos in the world around us just now. The dangerous sea includes corporations that endanger our lives by messing with genes, destroy local businesses and create tremendous pollution all over the world, particularly in China where it reached record levels just last month. Other dangers in the sea include companies that manufacture weapons, as they pour tremendous resources into media outlets that will do all they can to scare more and more people into buying, and even more resources into the pockets of politicians who make the laws weak enough that almost anyone can legally get one of these weapons. The sea of chaos also includes individuals who make IEDs at home, people with mental illness who do not have adequate care, and families who buy violent video games and play them incessantly.
Even those we employ to keep order often contribute to the brutal sea of injustice. Just this Friday, Dr. Steve Locke, from Dedham, a professor at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design who happens to be black stopped in JP to pick up some lunch on his way to teach a class. Suddenly he was surrounded by police and detained for 35 minutes because he “fit the description… Black male, knit hat, puffy coat.” They didn’t care to look at his faculty id from work that was hanging around his neck, or that he’d been teaching there for 13 years. It didn’t matter that the knit hat he wore was hand made by a friend, with pink, orange, black, blue and lime green – one of a kind – it doesn’t fit any description. It didn’t matter that he was wearing a Ralph Lauren quilted blazer – it might be the “puffy coat” worn by the thief they were looking for. They finally let him go, but this incident shook Dr. Locke up real bad. One false move and he could have been dead. Dr. Locke was experiencing the dangerous seas of chaos. I’m sure you can think of many more such experiences.
The church isn’t exempt from such chaos. Indeed the stormy waters often wash overboard and threaten to capsize the boat. Just this Friday, United Methodist Bishop James Dorff resigned and turned in his clergy credentials. In a letter he confessed that he did not keep the sacred vows he made to God at his wedding. Clergy misconduct of all kinds, in all denominations, is an example of the waters of chaos threatening the church.
Yet we can trust that since the church is of God, called into being by Jesus Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit, as long as it’s doing its mission carrying Christ through the waters of chaos to the people, it will not sink. As long as Christ is on board saying “peace, be still” the church will not capsize. And Christ is faithful, and will never abandon ship, no matter how small our congregations get, no matter how much internal conflict we engage in, and no matter what outside forces would seek to destroy us.
Furthermore, the church’s place is in the waters of chaos. That is how we become a vessel of salvation; our mission is to rescue the perishing. If any congregation docks for very long, or starts to become an island unto itself, if it ever is out of the water long enough to get dry, it is failing to fulfill its mission. It ceases to be the church. The church engage in the stormy mess of this world, even though it is not of this world.
In Bethlehem of Judah a child to us is born;
Sing praises ever unto him who saves a world forlorn.
Jesus Christ is not only the most precious cargo that the church carries, he is the captain of our ship. The rest of us are the sailors, assigned to different tasks but working together with Christ as our head. Under the direction of Jesus Christ our savior, the church saves the world by tossing out life rings, and pulling each on board. We tend to the wounded, heal the sick and comfort those who mourn. And who does Christ intend to save? Everyone in the sea.
We can start with the widows and orphans, the children of addicts who are in foster care. The homeless and those struggling with mental illness. Add to this refugees fleeing the chaos of war in their home lands, and those displaced by famine. Throw out the life rings to those who work retail at this crazy time of year, working all night long and crazy hours under threat of losing their jobs. Add to it those who have to work two or three jobs to earn a living wage, and those whose companies are asking them to do immoral tasks. Pull all the people of color who “fit the description” making sure that the waves of prejudice in our world don’t overwhelm them. As the Canticle of Zechariah proclaims the God of Israel has come to set his people free. Christ, the mighty savior will save us from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
It may seem like a lot of work, but when the ship is doing its work rightly the labor force grows. For every newly rescued person who come aboard and is healed, is invited to use his or her own gifts and graces to contribute to life aboard the ship. Each one become a member of the crew. The Canticle of Zechariah says that we are rescued from the hands of our enemies so that we might serve God without fear.
But the mission of the church doesn’t end there. Even as we rescue victims in the chaos of the world, Christ calls us to rescue those who do others harm. As Paul wrote to Timothy “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners; 16 but I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” God’s love and mercy are the sail of our ship. And often, as is the case with Paul, when the church ministers to those who oppress, those who persecute, those who harm others God is able to do infinitely more than we could as or imagine to transform lives. Christ calls his shipmates to save the terrorists, those who use their weapons and authority inappropriately, the very ones Malachi points out are also within the hope of salvation through Jesus Christ.
Are you, my friend, now floating in the sinners’ bark so frail?
Come on board with us, we’ll pull you up, toward glory we will sail!
As we move through the rest of this worship service and to the rest of our day and week, I invite you to ponder your roll on the Ship of the Church. Do you feel overwhelmed by the waves of the world? If so let me know, or someone else who is aboard the ship so we can throw you a life preserver and pull you in. Or maybe you have a story of being lost at sea, until the ship of the church found you. Maybe you feel like a sailor, working with Christ for the salvation of the world? On the pledge Sunday we will be collecting promises of financial support to help keep our congregation ship shape. All who have become professing members of our congregation have also promised to support this ship with your prayers, presence, service and witness. Take some time today, and later this week, to talk with Jesus Christ, this ship’s captain, about the role you are playing in extending salvation to the world.
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name, Amen.