They Go Down to the Sea in Ships

Bath, Maine is known as the City of Ships. The 10-mile stretch of the Kennebec River from Bath down to the open sea once hosted over thirty shipyards. The first known ship ever built in North America to sail to England was constructed at the mouth of the Kennebec in 1607—12 years before the Mayflower arrived to the south at Plymouth, Massachusetts. Along Washington Street in Bath are grand old homes built in the 19th Century by the captains of Clipper ships that sailed the world. The homes are distinguished by the widows’ walks where the wives kept watch for their hoped for returning husbands’ sails on the horizon. 

The largest employer in Maine is The Bath Iron Works, which builds ships for the U.S. Navy. The Maine Maritime Museum is located in Bath, and there’s still a significant lobster and fishing industry.  Recreational boating is quite common at this time of the year . . . although with fuel prices being what they are, I imagine that this summer sails are more popular than gas and diesel engines.

Early every August, Grace Episcopal Church in Bath celebrates Sea Sunday, a tradition that I was privileged to initiate in the 1980’s when I served as the rector. We even had a large model four-masted sailing ship that hung suspended above the altar rail year-round. (Anyone have a model Wright Flyer they’d like to donate to hang here in this city of Flight?)

On Sea Sunday in Bath, active duty and retired Navy and Coast Guard veterans, fishermen and women, representatives of the Museum and others engaged in ocean-related activities are all invited to join in the worship that features special prayers for these folk, for their safety, and for those who have died at sea in the previous year. They read a text like the one in today’s Gospel about Jesus walking on the water and calming the storm. And, of course, (with tears in their eyes) they sing the Navy hymn:

Eternal Father, strong to save,

Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,

Who bid’st the mighty ocean deep

Its own appointed limits keep;

Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,

For those in peril on the sea!

O Christ! Whose voice the waters heard

And hushed their raging at Thy Word,

Who walked on the foaming deep,

And calm amidst its rage didst sleep;

Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,

For those in peril on the sea!

This hymn was and is sung at almost every funeral at Grace Church in Bath.

The images of ships and sea are powerful ones in Christian history and tradition.

  • According to the first chapter of Genesis, it was out of the chaos of the brooding waters that God created the cosmos. 
  • Drawing on the imagery of Noah’s ark, the early church fathers referred to the church as the “ark of salvation.” 
  • And, of course, there’s the great story of Jonah, sailing away from God’s command to go to Ninevah, who was caught up in a great storm, thrown into the sea, and swallowed by the great fish where he was kept safe for three days in a watery tomb. The symbolic connections with Jesus’ three days in death are unavoidable.
  • The entire 27th chapter of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, and part of chapter 28, describe Saint Paul’s sea voyage to Rome, escorted by a Roman Centurion. There was a massive 14-day storm and a dramatic shipwreck off the coast of Malta, and the miraculous saving of all 276 people who were aboard the ship. The clear implication was that Paul and his companions were protected by the providence of God.
  • The Latin word for “ship,” navis (from which we get our words “navy” and “navigate”), is the root of the noun, “nave,” which is the name for the main part of the interior of a church building, where the laity worship. Many naves are even architecturally designed to look like ships. Look up into the vaulted ceilings of many churches and you’ll see what looks like the hull and cribwork of an upside-down boat, sailing on the seas of heaven.

The forces of wind and storm, water and flood represent the most fearful and devastating powers. Hurricanes, tsunamis, and cyclones in Asia, winds and fires in Hawaii and Greece– just in the past few weeks alone have led to the death and displacement of multitudes of people – all in a few moments and days of time.  They serve as significant metaphors for any power or force that overwhelms – disease, pandemic, fire, auto accident, bullet, global economy or any power that is greater that you or I.

So the story of the disciples in the boat, in the dark of night in a great storm, is a parable for human life on “this fragile earth, our island home,” that exists as but a speck of dust in a vast, ever-expanding universe.

Several observations about the story: Jesus sent the apostles out in the boat that evening before the storm came up; and he later invited Peter to leave the relative safety of the vessel to walk on the water before Peter began to sink like a stone. This is the same Jesus that invites his people to take up our crosses and to follow him. This is no prosperity Gospel . . . it’s a Gospel that invites us into places of danger and among forces that may well overwhelm us and often do.

But there, in the midst of those powers, is Jesus. Sometimes he may calm the storm or grab a drowning hand and pull it to safety. At other times he’s just there among the mourners, with tears in his eyes. And sometimes he can be seen among the relief workers, the peacemakers, and the rebuilders. But there he is – always present – always inviting us to “live fully, love wastefully, and be all that we can be,”[1] even if we sink in the trying.

Hear the words of the Psalmist:

7Where can I go from your spirit?

      Or where can I flee from your presence? 

8If I ascend to heaven, you are there;

      if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. 

9If I take the wings of the morning

         and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, 

10even there your hand shall lead me,

         and your right hand shall hold me fast. 

11If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,

      and the light around me become night’, 

12even the darkness is not dark to you;

        the night is as bright as the day,

          for darkness is as light to you. 

18bI come to the end—I am still with you. [2]

[1] Bishop John Spong. This phrase is quoted from numerous lectures, sermons, and writings, including a lecture at Christ Church, Dayton, September 18, 2004.

[2] Psalm 139:7-12, 18b

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