Text: Luke 8:16-25
It’s the time of year for church conferences. This Thursday we’ll begin hosting the Central District annual gathering. If this were an odd numbered year, we’d also be preparing for the national Mennonite Church USA Convention, which is usually over the fourth of July and often in a southern state. Having Conventions in July in the South is one of the ways frugal Mennonites save money. Next summer we’ll be in Florida, in Orlando. The venue of course was decided some time ago, and up until last week the main association in our house with Orlando was whether the girls would get to go to Harry Potter world.
For the last week, Orlando has become synonymous with death and trauma. There was unimaginable horror inside the Pulse nightclub directed against queer and trans Latinx folks. Yesterday’s Pride Parade in Columbus was both a sobering and celebratative time for LGBT folks and allies to gather as a community and express solidarity with one another.
Like last week, we designated this Sunday as a time to do some reflecting on the life of the wider Mennonite church. The timing in coincidental, but this being Pride weekend, and having Orlando so fresh in our minds, sharpens the question of how our deeply divided denomination will move forward in relationship to LGBT members among us. Like last week, we are focusing on one of the scriptures that will be used during CDC worship services. All three of those services are based on stories from Luke 8, which is right where the lectionary is these days.
Very early on, leaders of the Christian movement used the image of a ship or a boat, as a metaphor for the church. Hints of this can be traced all the way back to the New Testament. The letter of 1 Peter makes a connection between the death and resurrection one experiences through the waters of baptism, and the ark of Noah and his family that brought them through the ancient flood waters. In the Noah myth, the ark, the ship, preserved human and animals through the overwhelming waters as the old world underwent a death and resurrection. Even before Genesis tells that story, it portrays the world as a watery chaos. Now the earth was formless and void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from Elohim, the god, swept over the face of the waters.
In the second century, Clement of Alexandria noted that a sea vessel was one of the appropriate Christian symbols to use for a signet ring.
Church father Tertullian, writing in the second and third century, spoke of the ship in which the disciples were tossed back and forth on the sea as a figure for the church.
This symbol later became much more tangible in church architecture. The traditional name for the main body of the church is the nave. It means ship, and takes its name from the same Latin word we use for the navy. The nave, the ship, is where the laity sits. It holds the people. Many centuries ago, church leaders recognized that the proverbial watery chaos out of which the world was created had not gone away. What is needed, what we have been granted by God through the church, they believed, was a vessel to carry us through the floods and storms.
Looking up at the arching beams in some cathedrals is very much like looking down into the ribs of a ship. This is by design. I’m not sure what kind of ship it is we’re floating in here. Definitely a Protestant ship.
Before the story of the boat on the stormy waters, Luke 8 contains another image of the church. Luke writes: “Just then (Jesus’) mother and brothers came to see him, but they couldn’t get through the crowds.” Supposedly this is Jesus’ biological mother and brothers, his kinship group that so thoroughly defined identity and responsibility in the ancient world. As a son and brother, Jesus has a cultural/religious obligation of loyalty and honor toward his kin. But in one crisp statement, Jesus redefines, or at least expands, the notion of family. He says to those gathered around him, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”
This was most likely a very painful moment and ongoing source of tension for Jesus’ family of origin. But it is pretty sweet for everyone else, those of us who are suddenly on the inside of Jesus’ kinship group. It’s a prominent metaphor for the church that we continue to use. The church as a family, defined not by blood or ethnic lines, but by a common commitment to hear the Word, however that might come to us. And to do it. We are the clan of the hearers and doers. Or, as one friend has put it: The “tryers.” We try. Those responsibilities once reserved for closest of kin now apply to the church. To care for one another. To support and visit each other when we’re sick, or in prison. To bake a casserole. To give when we can give, and receive when we need to receive. Or at least try. This is how healthy families function. The church comes into being under the banner of a new kinship group. And the repercussions of this, still working themselves out, have never been smooth sailing.
It’s at this point in Luke’s gospel, not so coincidentally, when Jesus and his disciples, spiritual siblings all, climb into the boat to go to the other side of the lake. Observant commentators have pointed out that when the gospels speak of going to “the other side” of the lake, the sea of Galilee, that this is loaded with symbolic significance. Roughly speaking, the western side of that body of water was populated by Jews, while the eastern side was populated by Gentiles – non Jews. The story right after this lake crossing is when Jesus encounters Legion, and unclean tombs, and pigs. Very un-Jewish. Going to the other side is an act of bridging and connecting the human family, separated by the waters, now, in process of being brought together under the banner of a new kinship group. Going to the “other side” is not a smooth ride.
And so, while Jesus takes a well-deserved nap on board, a windstorm sweeps down on the lake, and the boat is nearly overwhelmed. As it fills with water, the newly dubbed siblings scramble to wake up their elder brother Jesus, shouting: “Master, Master, we are perishing!” We’re dying in here! In this story, church father Tertullian found a ready-made metaphor for life in this imperfect family, this precarious ship, we refer to as ‘the church.’ The church as a ship, a boat, holding us through dangerous and stormy waters, accompanied by Jesus.
One of the things I see now in the Mennonite Church in the US is that just about everybody agrees we’re in the middle of a storm, but we disagree sharply about what the storm is. For some, the storm is the dangerous waters of secularism. The storm is trying to carry us away from our biblical foundations. The church is to carry us safely through these waves of cultural deterioration that threaten to take us down. For others, the storm is the dangerous waters of religious fundamentalism. The church is the space where we can breathe fresh air even as the rigid readings of scripture, within our own tradition and others, threaten to drown the human spirit.
For some the storm is caused by who we are letting on board the ship, and for others, the storm is caused by those who keep people off the ship.
There’s a mighty storm raging, but when what some people believe to be beautiful and faithful is seen by others as the very cause of the storm, where does that leave us?
This past week I had some exchange with a friend who has worked relentlessly for the last decade to make the national Mennonite church a welcoming place for folks who identify as queer. This person has been met with much resistance. One of my questions to them, asked out of genuine curiosity but also concern, was this: “Why do you and other queer folks remain engaged with the Mennonite Church? It seems something akin to (or just is) an abusive relationship. Why invest precious emotional energy toward an unrepentant system?”
Their response: “This is…a very good question. One I’ve been considering deeply lately. It’s an open question for me.”
The truth of the matter is that untold numbers of LGBT folks have had to leave the Mennonite and other churches for their own soul survival. I haven’t seen any write ups on how anyone in the Pulse club in Orlando related with religion, but I have no doubt that for many of them, Pulse was their ship. Pulse was their sanctuary in the storm. Pulse was the place where they knew they were with family, an extended kinship group abounding in a love they may not have encountered anywhere outside those walls.
The church is a ship, but it appears there are many other vessels afloat on these waters. And I would venture to say that Christ is very much alive and present in Pulse, and other places of sanctuary, declaring “Peace, be still.” Rebuking the wind and raging waves.
When theologians have spoken of ‘the church’ they have meant, by and large, the church universal. That’s catholic, little “c,” church. “I believe in the holy catholic church,” the Apostles Creed says. The church is greater than a single congregation, greater than a conference or denomination, greater than national boundaries. It is not a little fishing boat. It is an ocean liner.
I recognize this is not how most of us here experience the church. It’s a truism these days in church leadership circles that people don’t join a denomination, they join a congregation. In other words, most of you might care hardly at all about what Mennonite Church USA is doing. What matters is that you are journeying with this group of people, this eccentric extended family, who you see face to face, some of whom literally walk alongside you through life. Yet, it remains, that to be in this church is also to be in the bigger boat, whether we like it or not. If you have mixed feelings about this, you are not alone.
I have nothing conclusive to say about any of this. I’m grateful that our congregation is working at being a place of sanctuary and bravery for queer folks and those of us learning how to be allies. I’m grateful we’re talking about white privilege and black lives matter and intersectionality. I’m grateful we are a part of a tradition that names its rejection of violence in all forms, even if we aren’t living up to the high calling. I’m saddened that some have to leave in order to survive.
I have to believe that the boat is not merely a floatation devise riding out the waves, but that we are actually going somewhere. I don’t even know if the denominational ship will hold together at this point, but there is some boat, somewhere, that is headed to the other side, and I want to be on board. We are headed to the glorious and unknown other side. Even if you don’t know what you believe about God and Jesus and salvation and church and all that, you know intuitively that this cannot be a solo journey, and we have chosen a group of people to journey with together. Friends, we surely have not yet arrived, but we are on our way to the other side. And whether he’s napping, or on the lookout, or hanging out on the deck, or dancing to the pulse of the music with all the dark skinned queers, the Christ is with us. And that’s good news. Lord knows, we need some help in these waters.