Monday, June 11, 2018

The Blessing of the Fleet

I led worship for the Pennfield Presbyterian Church in Battle Creeks on Sunday, June 10th, as they prepare for the retirement of their pastor.  It was also the last occasion for me to lead worship and preach in my role as General Presbyter.  The congregation's response was strong.  They encouraged me to share the sermon with the Presbytery via my blog.  Here it is.
“The Blessing of the Fleet”
Numbers 11:11-17     Mark 4:35-41      Acts 4:31
Sermon by the Rev. Dr. John Best to the Pennfield Presbyterian Church
June 10, 2018

Every year on this day, the 2nd Sunday of June in Montauk where I served as pastor for 12 years prior to my coming to Michigan, the community comes together for the Blessing of the FleetMontauk is a fishing village and ocean side resort community on the very east end of Long Island. There's a saying, Montauk, a drinking village with a fishing problem, and the blessing of the fleet captures both of those identities.  The fleet of commercial fishing boats and sport fishing boats gather on this day every year to bow before their maker, briefly though it may be, and then have a huge season opening party.

So this afternoon, my successor, the Catholic priest, the Greek Orthodox priest, and Jewish Rabbi will board the Coast Guard Cutter at the Coast Guard Station. The crew will take them across the harbor and tie up at Gosman’s dock near the inlet.  Over the radio they’ll read the story of Jesus calming the storm at sea.  They’ll pray asking God’s blessing on those who venture out to sea.  Then some 140 boats will pass by the cutter one by one in single file.  The religious leaders will make eye contact with each captain, and each in his or her own way will pray for blessing.  The priests genuflect sometimes holding a large brass cross, the rabbi waves and smiles.  I would raise my arm like when giving the benediction at the end of a worship service and whisper, “God bless this boat and all those who travel on it."  140 times!
After all the boats passed by, they go out the into Long Island sound and form a flotilla around a buoy a short distance out from the harbor entrance.  When we join them, a memorial prayer is said for those in the boating community who have died in the past year.  Their family members and loved ones, guests on the cutter, drop wreathes in the water as the names are read over the radio.  For several years the Jewish cantor came and sang into the radio in Hebrew the blessing we say in English. “The Lord bless you and keep you.  The Lord make his face to shine upon you and give you peace.”  Followed by silence......excepted for water lapping against the side of the boats, and the seagulls.  Then the captain of the boaters association who organizes the event, sounds a boat horn, followed by the blasts of all the boats' horns and the spraying of water canons, and the party that launches the summer season begins.  If I was still pastor in Montauk, that's what I would be doing this afternoon.

I entitled this sermon “The Blessing of the Fleet” because to me, sailors, who venture out to sea into the raw elements of nature understand their vulnerability to nature and their dependence on a power greater than themselves.  They may not be the most religiously devout people, but they know their vulnerability.  They symbolize for me our fragile human condition and our spiritual journeys.
Today also, happens to be the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, a holy day which society has not adopted and corrupted, a day on which the church was born.

The sailboat at sea was a symbol for the early church.   Such a vulnerable and fragile thing so small on the vast sea, sometimes tossed to and fro.  The symbol was a boat with its sails unfurled, catching the wind which propels it forward.  Skilled sailors know how to catch the wind for speed and power.  Unseen on sailboats is the keel underneath the boat.  The keel keeps it stable in the water from rolling over and gives the wind and sails a counter weight to push against.

Carl Jung, an pioneer psychologist, used the sailboat at sea as a metaphor for a person living the conscious life, the sea being a mass of unconsciousness, collective subconsciousness of history.  He taught that the deeper one probes the mystery of our dreams, like a keel reaching into the water below, the healthier one will be, and the less likely to be blown over.
Our scripture lessons today are a trilogy of sailing/journey stories of people at sea so to speak, vulnerable in the world.  In Numbers freed slaves were navigating uncharted territory in the Sinai wilderness.  Moses, their captain, had led them out of slavery but into a vast wilderness, where they had never been before.  They were scared, hungry, thirsty, disoriented outside their comfort zone, vulnerable.  The text begins with them crying not knowing where to get food or water.  Moses heard their cries, and turned to God and most of what we read was his prayer.  He had been that way once before alone, but now he was responsible for 600,000 people.  Showing signs of leadership frustration and fatigue, Moses confronts God saying, “What in the world did you have in mind bringing so many people into this wilderness?  What did I do to deserve this responsibility?”  God’s response was to send quail if you read further and manna and water from a rock.  But here God’s answer is to spread the burden of leadership. “Bring me 70 elders… gather them at the tent of meeting…I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself.” Numbers 11:17

This is an early “elder” story in the Bible.  In Exodus, we read of Moses’ father in law Jethro’s visit.  He suggests to his son-in-law the same thing. Select some trusted leaders and empower them to share your burden.  Here those 70 are empowered by God’s spirit, and sounds very much like an early Pentecost, where the Holy Spirit comes on the disciples of Jesus.  These elder stories are foundational for us as Presbyterians because we are the church of elders. “Presbyter” in Greek meaning “elder.”
Like Moses, sometimes pastors over function and think they must fix everything, blow gaskets and need someone like me to sit and listen to them vent their frustrations.  Leaders have responsibilities and sometimes our burden’s weigh heavily.  Leaders today are especially vulnerable as we journey in this uncharted wilderness called the 21st Century, the digital world of social media, facebook, twitter.  No one has navigated this territory in business or the church world.  And people are anxious and pine for the church life or career that once was the going thing. 

This story teaches us it’s ok to vent to God in prayer and to trust God, and each other.  The story teaches leaders to share their burdens, to delegate responsibility. The story shows how the Lord empowers the elders with the same spirit God gives to leaders.
At a retreat day for our Elders in the Presbytery some years ago, a former GA moderator Joan Gray spoke on the spiritual role of Elders, how we often think of our pastors as the spiritual leader, but as our lesson in Numbers today indicates, as far back as Moses, God has sent the Spirit to empower elders for ministry.

Then Joan asked the question "Are you a row boat or a sailboat."  It sometimes feels like we are doing all the rowing, all the heavy lifting ourselves! Joan challenged us to stop straining so hard at the oars rowing, and start lifting our sails to partner with the Holy Spirit.  Spiritual leaders raise their sails to catch the wind of the Holy Spirit, to partner with God in what the Spirit is doing. We lift our sails by continually asking the Spiritual leader’s questions:  What is God doing?  Where is the wind blowing? How can we partner with God?

Our Second Story in Mark tells of Jesus calming the storm when he and the disciples were out in a boat crossing the lake. A storm blows up, scares veteran fisherman to death. Like the Montauk fisherman, they knew those waters like the back of their hand. Yet they still were vulnerable there.
They wake up Jesus, who is sleeping through the crisis.  He gets up from his nap and calms the storm. He is Lord of the wind and sea.  I don’t suggest walking into the path of a thunderstorm or tornado, but God does call us to walk into the storms of injustice and conflict, to speak truth to power with a calm confident peace in our hearts.  COM members, Mediation Team members and I have occasion to do this in congregations, when like in our first story, people are weeping, complaining, and fighting.  We step into chaotic stormy situations with the trust and expectation that God is there in the midst of us, and low and behold, storms calm.
The third story in the fourth chapter of the Book of Acts ends with what we heard read, “When they prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.”  What precedes that is a story of the days after Pentecost, Peter and John had been teaching and witnessing to the resurrection. In Chapter 3 we read that Peter, like Jesus, healed a crippled beggar.  In Chapter 4 Peter and John are arrested and taken before the Council and questioned.  They gave their witness saying, We can’t keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard,” and because the man who had been healed had been crippled for over 40 years the baffled council decided they couldn’t punish them.  So they sent them away, threatening them to restrain themselves from their witnessing about Jesus.
So Peter and John returned to the other believers, shared what had happened and prayed and “the place in which they were gathered was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.”  They prayed, they put up their sails to catch the wind of the spirit.  The Book of Acts and the Story of the Church is the rest of the story, and we, you and I are apart of that ongoing story here today.  Our circumstances all different, but the same story.

The church is like a fleet of ships sent on mission journeys of our lives. The church is also like a fleet gathered in the safe harbor marina where we dock and tie up and rest, unload the burdens of our voyages, tell the stories of our adventures, share the new learnings for updating our chart maps, for other sailors, and restore our energy and stock up on supplies replenished from the store house of love.  Doesn't that sound exactly what we are about when we gather as the church, the call to worship, prayer of confession, sharing joys and concerns, telling our mission stories, hearing the word of God read and proclaimed?  Churches are safe harbors, congregations marinas where we do these things, and then set off on our week to join God and give witness to what God is doing. 

So I’m here to bless this fleet. We travel in vulnerable places and scary times. We are navigating unchartered territory, and you are navigating a transition of pastoral leadership.  Be bold, raise up your sails to partner with our invisible partner Holy Spirit. Share the burdens of responsibility. And when the way is not clear. Be alert to the wonders of God in your midst. Be alive in joining in what God is doing.  Be bold in witnessing to the wonders God has done.

God bless this boat/fleet and all those who travel on it.”

Lord, you send us off on adventures in mission, and gather us together again. We thank you for the shelter and provision of this harbor marina where we can tie up our boats and rest awhile, where we can reconnect with the landed world, and take refuge in a storm and replenish energy and supplies. Be with us as we tell our stories, as we unload our burdens accumulated on our journeys.
Help us repair the damage incurred from journey’s taken. Mend the sails and nets which get tangled, and from this place you commission new journeys we go into the world with strength and courage knowing what Jesus promised, that we are not alone. that no matter what happens, we are loved.  And let the people say, Amen.

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