A Sermon from All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor, New York
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector on August 3 , 2008 (Proper 13A)
Who’s Michael and why does he have a boat? These are valid questions for a Folk Mass which will end with the classic spiritual “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.” But first, many of you may be wondering why we’re even attempting to revive the folk mass – even if it’s just a one-time-only thing. Some of you, of a certain age, well remember the experience. And a lot of the images aren’t pretty. Priests with guitars and tie-dyed stoles is fortunately a thing of the liturgical past. But some of the music was both sing-able and compelling. And there was a passion for connecting with God and one another that is sometimes lacking in our world. It is out of that model that we gather here this morning.
But we’re still left with the question: Who’s Michael and why does he have a boat? As the crowds in this morning’s gospel passage gathered, they may well have asked a similar question: Who’s Jesus and why does he have a boat? The very first line begins, “Jesus withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.
So we’ve got a couple of boats floating around this morning. Let’s start with Michael. Everyone knows the tune so I won’t start singing, but we rarely consider who Michael is and why he’s rowing his boat ashore. The song was first heard being sung by slaves who lived on islands off the coast of Georgia. These slaves were charged with bringing supplies back and forth from the mainland for the plantation owners – hard work under any circumstances let alone forced servitude. So it was partly a work song used to pass the laborious drudgery. But the song also had spiritual undertones which is increasingly obvious as you get deeper into the verses. There’s talk of the Jordan River – where Jesus was baptized – and the reference to “milk and honey” is an Old Testament euphemism for the Promised Land. And you certainly can’t miss the “hallelujah” in the chorus.
“Michael” refers not to a particular slave of that name but to the archangel. In the Christian tradition it is Michael who carries the souls of the deceased to heaven. The slaves hoped to be carried in the short-term to freedom and in the long-term to the gates of heaven. The song calls upon Michael when the waters of life get rough, which they certainly were for the slaves. So it is a song of hope. Hope that the Lord will transport its singers through the choppy waters of the present age to the Promised Land of freedom.
Which sounds a lot like what we continue to ask of Jesus. Circumstances change, the rough waters of life look different for each one of us, but we still call upon Jesus to help us get to the other side; to draw us to a place of peace and love and harmony.
So that’s Michael’s boat. Jesus’ boat wasn’t at all metaphorical. He used a boat to “withdraw,” to renew, to take some time to be alone in prayer – something we all need. In this case it just didn’t work out too well. The crowds heard about his location and followed him. Jesus is in the midst of what I like to call his “rock star” stage – huge crowds following his every move, never giving him a moment of peace. And how does he respond here? Not by punching out the paparazzi but by having “compassion” for the people and curing the sick among them.
There are many nautical images throughout Scripture. We’ve got boats and fishermen and nets; Jesus both calms the sea and walks upon it. Much of this is simply a reflection of the way of life around the Sea of Galilee. But we have also inherited some of this language in our church life. The “nave” refers to the place inside a church where the people sit. Nave literally means “ship” in Latin – it’s where we get the word Navy. And if you sit in the nave at All Saints’ and look up it really does look like the inside of a ship. Almost as if a giant ship was turned upside down. And that’s a wonderful image. There’s an ark-like feeling of comfort and protection. Which is precisely what faith in God offers.
If you have ever been around boat owners, you know how obsessive they can be. They take great pride in their vessels and they’re always tightening something or cleaning or polishing. Serious sailors will tell you if it wasn’t a labor of love they’d all go nuts. In a sense we’ve been doing the same thing with our “boat” this week. We’re worshiping outside this morning because we’re painting and sanding and refinishing our “nave” – getting it ship-shape for the years ahead. And this is exciting not just because it will be “prettier” but because as a congregation we take pride in the sacred space in which we worship the living God.
Now, with all this talk about boats and ships and arks, is it any wonder we’re baptizing a child named Noah this morning? You just can’t plan this stuff! But through baptism Noah will be assured of the divine presence in his life. Jesus will be sitting in that boat, doing the heavy rowing during both the storms and still waters of life. He’ll encounter both, as do we all.
I should note that Jesus isn’t just rowing the boat ashore in this passage. Once he’s made it and the crowds have gathered around, we get the miracle feeding of the five thousand with five loaves and two fish. I’m not going to try and explain the miracle. That’s the nature of a miracle – they’re unexplainable. But I will say this story is brimming with Eucharistic images. It has all the elements of what we do at the altar – take, bless, break, give. This four-fold action takes place during this miraculous feeding and it takes place each Sunday here and in churches throughout the world. And so this morning we have the two primary sacraments of the church on full display: baptism and eucharist. The one is the primary initiation rite of the church; the other is how we renew our commitment to Christ on a weekly basis. Both form the foundation of relationship with God and allow Jesus to be both our companion and our vessel. Hallalujah.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2008