"At Sea", a sermon by Senior Minister Nancy S. Taylor on the Sunday of the 348th Annual Meeting
Based on Hebrews, portions of chapters 11 and 12
An ancient analogy imagines the Christian soul—your Christian soul, my Christian soul—as on a ship, sailing, under way, under sail, embarked upon a voyage. Destination? The shores of heaven.
The source of this analogy is baptism: the emersion into water, the plunging, drowning, dying and the rising, emerging, surfacing to new life. The analogy is supported by ancient stories of biblical proportions: Noah’s water borne ark carrying a remnant people to salvation; the parting of the Red Sea: a water crossing that leads from captivity to emancipation.
The ancient analogy also imagines that the church itself is the ship, the means of conveyance, transporting its crew and passengers from this world to the next. Most of you are sitting in the nave, from Latin, navis, navy, meaning ship. Take a moment to look up to the ceiling and beams. These mimic the inverse of a ship’s keel. See behind me, the shape of the windows, the decorative details, conjuring, do they not, a ship’s prow? The analogy and image is further supported by a stained glass window in the upper gallery of the West Transept. The left most window depicts Jesus and the disciples in a boat, upon the sea, amidst a great storm, their lives threatened. Jesus rebukes the storm, stills it, bringing to the boat equilibrium and to its passengers relief.
The analogy is also supported—intimately and existentially—by the human experience of feeling at sea, exposed, vulnerable to the elements, to accident and illness, susceptible to malice and to mortality, to grief and hurt.
Stretching the analogy yet further: it imagines us – Old South Church – abroad upon the high seas. We are a little company – crew and passengers – who, by faith, set out together. If heaven is our ultimate destination, there is no great urgency for the voyage itself is adventure and delight. Because we sail under the flag of Christ, we do battle with evil: right wrongs, protect the defenseless, rescue the hapless, speak for the voiceless, provide for those in want, and bring cheer to far flung lands. By faith, we are thus embarked.
With the image and symbol of the church as a ship, on this Sunday—the Sunday of our 348th Annual Meeting, in our 349th year of ministry—allow me to spin a watery, briny tale or two.
The first is the story of one of our church’s charter members, John Alden, a sea captain of some repute. Alden cut a smart figure in his day. He was a child of the Mayflower’s John and Priscilla Alden. He was a tall man, towering and strong, full of spit and vinegar, a man of salty tongue and large courage. Out to sea, beyond the help of land, he strode the decks of ships in the kind of perilous weather you and I can only imagine. He calmed sailor’s fears and commanded their respect. John Alden was not to be trifled with.
As charter member of this church in 1669 he proved his spunk and independence of mind as, by faith, he and a small band split with the established church and, against enormous pressure, stood firm in their resolve to offer here an ever wider welcome.
And there is this to know about John Alden. Between the years 1660 and 1681, that is, across a span of 21 years, John and his wife gave birth to twelve children, seven of whom died either at infancy or very young. This is a man weather beaten, battered by life’s vicissitudes, acquainted with sorrow, yet resilient and defiant, brave and revered.
However, in 1692 this hearty, salty seaman met his match. He was accused of witchcraft; accused by young girls in the throes of that strange malady; accused by girls in Salem Village who had never met the sea captain, but who knew his name.
In the grip of that strange madness the girls accused John Alden of tormenting them through sorcery, afflicting them from great distances. Captain Alden was ordered to Salem Village where he was tried, if that is what you call it. Despite his vigorous protestations, the girl’s accusations held. He was taken prisoner, hauled to Boston and jailed. In vain did his minster and his church try to bail him out. He remained behind bars, prisoner of appalling circumstances, for 15 weeks, always with the threat that at any moment he would be dragged out and hanged.
It is not too much to say that for the first time in his life, this stout and eminent man was truly at sea. He, who had manhandled the captain’s wheel through oceans that rolled and pitched his small vessel, was helpless against the storm of terror and death against which reason had no power.
Fifteen weeks into his confinement, when the hysteria had reached its height, it seemed to his friends all but certain that Captain Alden would meet the fate of the noose, or stoning, or pressing.
And so they conspired and so they planned. One night, under cover of darkness, and at great risk of being themselves soiled with accusations of witchcraft, the Rev Samuel Willard, the second minister of this church, and another one or two leaders of this church, stole upon tip-toe to the jail house. There, as quietly as they could manage, their hearts pounding in their throats, they broke open the lock, and broke John Alden out of jail. Alden escaped to Duxbury where he lay hidden until the delusions died away. It was by faith that Willard and others defied the law, imperiled themselves, and saved their friend.
This, too, is what it means to be church: to come to another’s aid; to rescue the innocent and imperiled; to summon courage in the face of injustice and hysteria; to defend madness with reason or, reason failing, to meet madness with action, even actions contrary to the law. This too is what it means to be church: when one of our members is perishing, to pluck him out from great deep, protect and defend such a person against senselessness. This, too, is the mission of this ship of faith.
The second story occurs over a century from the time of John Alden. It tells of the Reverend William Jenks. Though not a called minister of this church, he worshipped with us when not preaching elsewhere. He filled the pulpit when it went vacant. He was a wise and welcome presence.
We are to imagine William Jenks, of a Sunday morning, an esteemed elder, in the Old South
Meetinghouse, climbing into and taking a seat in its capacious pulpit. His appearance, venerable;
his countenance, benignant; his hair a shock of white; his bearing scholarly; his ear trumpet opening towards the preacher.
Jenks was born in Newton, Massachusetts. He studied at the Boston Latin School and Harvard. He was a pastor. He was also a scholar and teacher, professor of Oriental Language and English
at Bowdoin college. Moreover, William Jenks was a humanitarian.
It is Boston, 1821. A merchant ship sails into the harbor, secures berth to discharge its cargo. No sooner is the ship tied up and lashed down than the sailors are paid in cash. Their pockets full, they venture ashore, spilling into the port town where they are preyed upon by every unsavory business. A sailor away from home, who has lived aboard ship with considerable deprivations for some while, who is inexperienced in the ways of the world, who is suddenly cash-rich and idle, who is too easily influenced by the worst of his mates, he might well give in to the temptations of drink and gambling, of sex and debauchery. He might lose everything he has just earned in the blink of a bloodshot eye.
This is where the Rev. William Jenks comes in. Having observed this phenomena, this shake down of young sailors by the most unsavory sorts, it is by faith that Rev Jenks undertakes to meet the sailors at the port upon arrival. He provides alternatives: worship services, counseling, a library, tutoring for the illiterate and uneducated; opens a day room where the sailors can gather for innocent diversions, games and letter writing; a dining hall with cheap, hearty fare.
Eventually, with representatives from all the congregational churches, Jenks helps to found Boston’s Seaman’s Friend Society, and the Mariners’ Church, and Sailor’s Home. These are missions and ministries into which our forebears lean with all they are worth: with money, with volunteers, with management and prayers.
This, too, is what it means to be church. By faith to come to another’s aid; to rescue the innocent and imperiled; to offer alternatives to temptation; to meet idleness with meaningful activities, debauchery with self-control, indulgence with moderation, waste with usefulness.
A third story. High up in our stone tower is a bell. Inscribed on the bell are these words:
The Gift of Captain Timothy Cunningham
to the Old South Church in Boston
who died at sea, September 12, 1728
The Cunningham family, Timothy’s parents and siblings, were long members here. Yet we know little of Timothy. We know he was a ship’s captain, that he died young, and that he loved his church. Beyond that we have these few words about him, written by an acquaintance: “he was a brisk and likely young man.”
While the bell rope is pulled each Sunday by David Vogan, while each Sunday it clangs to life, calling the faithful to church, it is also tolled, in memory of the dead. It is the only church bell in the Back Bay. Perhaps the next time it will be tolled is April 15th, the fifth anniversary of the Marathon bombings. Doing the honors will be one of our own, Tom Ralston, a survivor of that terrible day.
A final story. At our 348th Annual Meeting we will name and remember those whom, over the course of the past year, we have, as it were, delivered to the shores of heaven; those who join Noah and Moses, John Alden and Timothy Cunningham.
For this, too, is the purpose of this vessel, of this old ship of faith. While you and I yet do battle with evil – yet right wrongs, protect the defenseless, rescue the hapless, speak for the voiceless,
provide for those in want, bring cheer to far flung lands – even so, it is ever our tender duty to ferry Christian souls from this world to the next.
By faith then, we stand on the shoulders of Abel and Noah, of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac, Jacob and Esau, of Moses and Rahab, and, oh church, time would fail me to tell of Captain Alden
and William Jenks, of Samuel Willard and Timothy Cunningham, of Barbara Boates and Gaston Dada, of Bruce Wellnitz and William Amidon – who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, battled hysteria, opened schools, founded churches, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness.
On this, the Sunday of our 348th Annual Meeting, we are surrounded and emboldened in this great Christian voyage by so a great a cloud of witnesses.