Boats in the Bible

July 2, 2017, Genesis 6:13-16, Exodus 2:1-4, Mark 6:45-52 & I Corinthians 12:27-29


I’ve been asking for ideas for sermon series for this and next month. I’ve gotten some very interesting ideas, and really your thoughts, ideas, insights and perspectives are truly gifts to me and the whole church. Last week I pointed out that the window with the Bible also has the image of the Holy Spirit, symbolized by a dove, that reminds us that the written words of the Bible become living words when we bring the confidence that the Holy Spirit will guide us as we interpret the words together, seeking to discern the will of God.

The idea for this Sunday’s sermon came from some members of the Property & Finance Committee as we were starting Committee Night meetings last month. They wanted to hear a sermon about fishing, and, I think I heard correctly, some of them wanted to pray for a better boat. Everyone knew they were kidding. I love the playfulness that we have around here, we’re not afraid to be silly. Still, I got to thinking about boats….I remembered that Jesus’ first followers were fishermen…my inner voice said, “I can work with this.”

What started as a moment of silliness spawned a sermon. I hope you’re willing to play along and think about this congregation by hearing a new metaphor. Imagine this congregation as a boat. What kind of boat would we be? Broadly speaking there are three types of boats mentioned in the Bible. Each can be seen as a metaphor for us.

Everyone knows the first boat mentioned in the Bible is Noah’s ark. Here’s one artist’s depiction of Noah’s ark. Noah had seven days to build this enormous vessel. The 6th chapter of Genesis describes Noah’s as being 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide a 30 cubits tall. We don’t measure things in cubits anymore, it worked out to be about 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet tall. It was made out of gopher wood; no one knows what kind of wood this was. The word appears only once in the Bible, and it really is pronounced just like the burrowing rodent we know here in Wisconsin. Noah built this huge vessel; then Noah found pairs of all animals, though be brought additional animals on board, presumably to eat and to sacrifice to God in worship. Then the rain came…you know the song, “it rained and rained for 40 daisies, daisies…” The ark floated; and animal life and human life survived. The ark floated; its only mission was to protect animal and human life. I want to clear up a little confusion at this point: Noah’s ark was not the Ark of the Covenant. In English we use the same word for two different words in Hebrew. Noah’s ark was a “tay-va” in Hebrew. The Ark of the Covenant, which is best known as the object around which that Indiana Jones movie revolved was an “ah-rohn’” in Hebrew. The Ark of the Covenant was the box that the Israelites built to contain the tablets of the Law that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai.

Look at the image on the right. That’s a representation of the second Old Testament lesson this morning. That’s Moses in the pitch-lined basket that his mother used to conceal him. Pharoah was afraid because the Hebrew slaves were starting to outnumber the Egyptians, so he ordered that all the newly born Hebrew boys be thrown into the Nile. Moses’ mother, we don’t know her name, hid the baby for three months, then put him in a pitch-lined basket, and set the baby in the bulrushes at the banks of the Nile. Pharoah’s daughter found the baby; Moses’ sister asked if she could find a nurse among the Hebrew women for the baby; and then the sister took Moses back to her mother, who was paid to care for the baby and then turned over to Pharoah’s daughter, so the baby grew up in the royal household. The word for the pitch-lined basket is “tay-va,” same as for Noah’s ark. This is crazy, isn’t it? Noah’s ark is a ship and Moses was put in a bassinette—how could the same word be used for both vessels? They have three things in common: both were lined with pitch to make them watertight; both had no steering mechanism; and both protected very valuable things.

One way to imagine the church is as an ark, whose sole purpose is to protect something valuable so it can live in the future. Maybe you can imagine the church as a place that protects the good news of the grace of Jesus Christ. We exist to pass this best possible news on to the future.

Here are two other kinds of boats that the Bible mentions. The one on the left is representation of the ship that the prophet Jonah may have sailed on when he was running from God’s call. God told Jonah to walk 500 miles to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, Israel’s most-feared enemy, and Jonah promptly found a boat heading for Spain. Maybe a boat like this. It had both sails and oars; it had room for a crew of sailors from a variety of nations and it had a lower deck where Jonah was sleeping when a storm threatened to wreck the ship. This ship had both oars and sails. When a fierce storm threatened the ship sailors cast lots and they showed that Jonah was to blame for the storm that endangered them. When they threw Jonah overboard the storm calmed, and a big fish swallowed Jonah. This ship was large enough to sail from modern Israel to Spain, but small enough that it had oars to make it go when the wind wasn’t blowing.

The boat on the left shows Jesus from this morning’s gospel lesson. He had just finished preaching and feeding the 5,000. He dismissed the crowd, sent his disciples to cross the Sea of Galilee. He stayed on shore and prayed, he probably needed some alone time. After a while, Jesus saw that his disciples hadn’t gone very far across the sea, which is really more of a lake. They were rowing really hard, but the wind was against them, so they weren’t making much progress. This wasn’t a very big ship. If Jesus and all the disciples were on it, we know it could hold 13 passengers. It was a fishing boat, because in their first career some of his disciples were fishermen. Which makes me think, years ago I heard that if there was ever a good reason to doubt the miracle stories we read in the Bible it’s that the first people who witnessed those miracles were fishermen.

If you imagine the church as one of these medium-sized ships you see a church that is maneuverable, that can go where it wants to go if all the sailors are working together. And it can be a lot of work to move the ship.

If you didn’t notice the ship mentioned in the reading from I Corinthians, that’s understandable. Paul is writing to the church in Corinth and he lists a number of roles that different people, different members in the Body of Christ, have to fill for the Body to function: apostles, that is people who send the Good News; prophets, people who speak God’s words of warning and judgment; teachers; workers of miracles; healers; helpers; administrators…no one has all these gifts, but each of these gifts is needed. That word “administrators” sounds to our modern ears like people who have the skills to make an office productive. Other translators call this talent “organizing” or “gifts of leadership,” or “administering” or “governments” or “those who get others to work together.” This gift was originally the ability to pilot an ocean-going sailing ship. “Steering” or “piloting” are the closest English words for this. A ship is an ancient metaphor for the church, just as the human body is. There are lots of ways we can imagine the church. I like this idea of “kubernesis” though. And here’s why: a sailing ship relies on the wind to move it. But the wind and sails are not enough to get a ship where it needs to go. The ship needs a crew and someone who can organize, guide, lead, direct the ship. Skilled sailors can use the wind to move in any direction. I think it’s helpful to imagine the church as being powered and pushed by the Holy Spirit, but it also takes thoughtful, trained and organized people, members of the Body of Christ to make the ship sail. And the most important and perhaps the hardest part is to be able to discern which direction the ship should be moving and how to adjust the ship’s sails to get there.

One way to imagine the church is as an ark whose sole purpose is to protect something precious.

Another way is to imagine the church as being a “working vessel” where the crew works really hard and sometimes doesn’t make any progress, sometimes sails in seas that are too dangerous, and sometimes brings in a nice catch of fish.

Or you can imagine the church as a large sailing vessel, one that depends on the energy of the Holy Spirit to make it go. One that needs an organizer for the crew and one to discern how to use the wind that is blowing to go where God calls us to go,.