"Saints and Boats"

All Saints’ Sunday.A.2023
Revelation 7:9-17
The Rev. Melanie L. McCarley

In his Revelation, St. John writes: “I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.”

Today I invite you to look up. Really. Look above you. While I can’t discern any ghostly saints or angels hanging about the rafters, for all I know, they could be there. Instead, what I would like for you to see this morning are the beams. And imagine that what you are looking at, isn’t so much a ceiling as it is a boat (or an ark), turned upside down.

You are seated in the Nave of the church. The resemblance to the word “navy” is not a coincidence. Both words derive from the Latin “navis” for “ship” which in turn comes from the Greek “naus” for “ship”—think “nautilus”.

Likening the church to a boat not something new. By the fourth century, in a series of books called the “Apostolic Constitutions,” the shape of church buildings were likened to a ship, with the bishop as the commander of the vessel and the deacons as “mariners.”

There’s a long history linking boats to the church. Several of the apostles were fishermen, including Peter and his brother Andrew. In the Gospel of John we learn they were fishing when the resurrected Christ appeared to them and directed them to a huge catch of fish—symbolizing the people of God who would form the church.

In the second century, the Christian theologian Tertullian, compared the Church to Noah’s Ark, likening it to a place of refuge and safety from the storms of the world.

Boats can be thought of as protective nooks for the recess of existence. But they also represent transition—whether it be the literal transportation of people from one place to another, or metaphorical transition. Boats represent moving on. In ancient mythology boats are vessels of death and rebirth. Both Greeks and Vikings envisioned ships carrying souls from one realm to another.

All of which brings us to the art work on the front of today’s program. In 2015 the dean of Birmingham Cathedral, in the United Kingdom, invited the artist Jake Lever, to create an installation to mark the cathedral’s tercentenary. Lever writes: I conceived the idea of a multitude of boats, a collection of vessels united in a single boat-shaped flotilla. I also suggested that we hang these boats in the nave, an ancient votive practice in the coastal churches of Europe. To ensure uniformity in scale and shape, a template was designed, with golden hulls and a hidden, interior space that invited children and adults to draw, paint, collage, or write personal memories, prayers and reflections inside. The boats were created in hospices, youth clubs, schools and sacred spaces. Many were made in memory of loved ones who died. All two thousand boats were gathered and hung high above the nave, heading east toward the high altar in the sanctuary. The flotilla formed a gentle arc, recalling the underside of a ship. This constellation of souls held dualities together: fragile and confident, public and private, full of individual expression yet communal. It is a grand representation of the church. A great multitude, making their way towards the Triune God of love.

It’s a wonderful image to behold on All Saints’ Sunday, particularly when we have the joy of welcoming two new Christians (or “saints”) into our midst, Zoe and Mia Nadaff, whose mother, Bridgett, sings in our choir.

I imagine Zoe and Mia as two more boats joining a much larger flotilla. It’s been said that to sail a boat is to negotiate a life. It’s a matter of learning to work with the Wind—or the Holy Spirit, if you will. That Spirit inspires and guides us on our journey.

This morning, as we participate with God in this sacrament, I’d like to draw your attention to the Prayers for the Candidates. This prayer has a clear trajectory and is filled with movement. It begins with Mia and Zoe’s baptism on this joyful All Saints’ Sunday morning. Here we ask that they be delivered from sin and death, that their hearts be opened to God’s grace and truth and that they be filled with the holy and life-giving Spirit of the Most High. The prayer continues with the expectation that they will live their lives in the faith and communion of God’s church where they will be strengthened in ministry and eventually sent out into the world in witness to God’s love. Finally, they are ushered into the fullness of God’s peace and Glory in the heavenly realm when their journey through this life comes to an end.

I look at those golden boats, soaring high above the nave of Birmingham Cathedral, and I imagine Zoe, Mia and ourselves along there with them—a magnificent flotilla making our way to the heavenly realm.

You may find yourself wondering how we navigate toward that realm. There isn’t a point on a map to be found—but we, like others before us, look towards a fixed point—one which helps to orient us on our way. For ourselves, that point isn’t the horizon. It is the cross. It’s intersecting beams beckoning us each with outstretched arms to a place that we have never been—yet feels like home.

John, in his Revelation continues: “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. …and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” In Jesus’ name. Amen.