Sunday, July 31, 2011

Ship Shape

While we're on the subject of boating... During the summer months, I usually leave all my kayaking gear in the trunk of my car, whether the kayak's strapped to the roof or not. So on Thursday--without my kayak--I took my car over to the VW dealer in Burlington, VT. While waiting to board the ferry across Lake Champlain on my return trip, I was one of the lucky few chosen for a spot Homeland Security inspection. After looking through my trunk, the lady came back to the window and said, "There's really no need to bring your own lifejacket; we have more than enough of them on the ferry for everyone!"

Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]

Even as a little boy I thought about becoming a priest.
But on those days when priesthood wasn’t on my mind,
one of the other things I thought about was becoming an architect.
(Of course, I would have tried just about anything
if it got me out of my farm chores…)
So I’d like to start this morning
with a brief lesson in architecture—
church architecture, to be specific.

You might not have ever noticed but, with few exceptions,
Catholic churches—no matter their age or their style—
have a basic three-part plan.

First, there is the area around the door,
which is called the narthex.
It’s a gathering point and an entry hall,
a brick-and-mortar passageway symbolizing our spiritual passage
from the world outside—with all its trials and tribulations—
to this place set apart.
Most traditionally, you’ll find the baptismal font here;
near the entrance to the church building
is celebrated the sacrament which gives entrance
to the life of the Church community.

All the way at the opposite end of the church
there’s the area around the altar,
which is called the sanctuary—meaning, the “holy place.”
It is here that the Church’s sacred ministers perform their sacred duties:
here that God’s holy Word is proclaimed and preached;
here that holy gifts are given for a holy people,
as bread and wine become for us the Body and Blood of Christ.

But what about all this space left between them?
It has a name, too: it’s called the nave,
which comes from the Latin word for “ship.”
If you take the main body of most churches
and picture them turned upside down,
you get the basic shape of a boat.
(For some churches,
this will take a little more imagination than others!)
But this unexpected name—the ship, the nave
comes from more than just a loose physical resemblance.*

Notice in the course of this Sunday’s gospel
that we find Jesus is two distinct places:
first, we find him out in a boat;
next, we find him back on shore.
Out at sea, Jesus is alone with his disciples,
but on land he’s surrounded by vast crowds—
crowds who bring him their sick,
crowds who let him know that they’re hungry.  (cf. J. Lienhard)

It kind of paints a picture
of the place of the Church in our world, doesn’t it?

We come here, to a place apart,
to set sail on this ship with Jesus.
We come here to withdraw from a world
where health and food—for both body and soul—
are so often lacking.
Here, we can get close to Jesus.
Here, we can take refuge in him.
Here, our faith is renewed
that no power on earth or in the heavens
can ever separate us from the love of God revealed in Christ.

Yet that doesn’t make the difficulties back on land
somehow go away.
And we can’t stay out to sea forever.

When Jesus has disembarked,
and his disciples want him to dismiss the needy crowds,
take careful note of his response:
Give them some food yourselves.
So the disciples take inventory:
five loaves and two fish…which, in their own hands,
appear to be nothing more than a couple of sandwiches.
But five loaves and two fish, when placed in the hands of the Lord,
will become more than enough to feed thousands.
You see, Jesus doesn’t focus on what is lacking—
sending everybody home to fend for themselves.
Instead of whining or wallowing in self-pity,
Jesus gives thanks for what they do have
and focuses his efforts on spreading it around.

Like those first disciples who could only see
the limited resources which they could count,
we can get rather discouraged these days
when we’re looking at the numbers—
whether it’s fewer priests in the sanctuary,
or fewer people in the nave,
or fewer dollars in the collection basket.
And we can be overwhelmed when we consider
the vast crowds of the walking wounded
who don’t even realize that they’re limping along;
the hungry and thirsty crowds
who spend their wages on what fails to satisfy;
the growing crowds of people who struggle through this life
without knowing God and how much he loves them.

We fear and we fret about all this
because we—just like the rest—
need to be healed and need to be fed.

And so we come back, Sunday after Sunday,
for another dinner cruise.
And we must watch and learn
as Jesus does now, with a little bread and wine,
what he once did with fives loaves and two fish—
with eyes raised to heaven,
taking and blessing, breaking and giving.
It’s not only the structure of our Eucharist;
it’s the very model for the Church’s mission in the world.
When the Mass is ended,
when we leave this safe harbor and get back to shore,
we will never be able to cure the sickness
or feed the hunger we find there
unless we put our otherwise limited resources
into the hands of Jesus
and allow him to multiply them.
For us on our own,
it would most certainly be impossible…
…but for God and those who put their trust in him,
all things are possible.

At this table, there is more than enough
for all to eat and be satisfied.
On board this ship, there is room aplenty
for anyone who wants to come away awhile with Jesus.
So let’s fill this nave!
Let’s lead many others toward this sanctuary!
Let’s not focus on what may be lacking,
but on sharing with a hurting and hungry world
what we have found here in the boat:
the unconquerable love of God
in Christ Jesus our Lord.

*The church pictured here is that of Ste-Catherine in Honfleur, France, on the Normandy coast. The largest wooden church in the country, dating all the way back to the late 15th century, it was most likely one of the last places visited by my ancestors before they set sail for New France in the mid-1600's.  It's little wonder that in an active port town the "naval" imagery of the church's ceiling--fashioned by local ship-builders using only axes, no saws--would be so very obvious!

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