Sailing Lessons

Sailing Lessons

Acts 1:3-14

Robert Hoch

First & Franklin Presbyterian Church

Baltimore, MD

May 28, 2017  — Seventh Sunday of Easter

Our scripture reading says that Jesus appeared to the disciples after his suffering and death; he presented himself alive; and for forty days, Jesus instructed them about himself and God’s kingdom, using “many convincing proofs” (3).

Or hard evidence, according to one translation. Argument. Explanation. Interpretation. Logic testing. Not poetry, but prose.

Apparently, resurrection gave us a whole new vocabulary, a whole new language, not just a new experience but a new world. And for forty days, the disciples were in class, learning this language. For forty days, Jesus preached. Forty days, Jesus interpreted. Forty days, Jesus held forth, interpreting this resurrection experience for the disciples, who would be his witnesses in the world, speaking that resurrection tongue, with the fluency of the Holy Spirit.

Forty days of sustained instruction. Forty days of interpretation. Forty days where we aren’t experiencing resurrection so much as learning Christ. Jesus isn’t using a white board to teach the subject of Christ but forming disciples who learn Christ by participating in his life, doing the things Jesus did, saying the things Jesus said, praying the way Jesus prayed.

But the most pressing thing for the disciples was “when” – when are we going to get there? And this wasn’t, “Dad, when we are we going to get to the beach?” but “When does the kingdom of heaven arrive?” — code for God’s peace, dignity, and justice active and even prevailing in the world.

When will we get there? We get it, right? For two thousand years we’ve been waiting. And for two thousand years we’ve been asking, “When?” When, O God, will our neighborhood be safe? When O God will economic justice flow like a mighty stream? When O God will we sail on clouds of Christ’s perfect peace? When?

I was visiting with a member of the church in the hospital a couple of weeks ago and she said, “I’m not good at being sick.” She was trying to learn something from this stint at the hospital. It was her classroom, I guess. But it was a struggle. “I know,” she said, “I need to learn patience, and I’m praying for patience, but I wish God would hurry up!”

When, she wanted to know, will God give me patience? I’m in a hurry. I’ve got work to do!

Could we be in that place here in Baltimore? In this church? In our faith journey? Are we impatient for action, impatient for experience, for actualization, perhaps at the expense of our intellectual and spiritual formation? Maybe we want to cut Jesus’ class down a few hours – reduce it from a forty-hour degree to perhaps a 15 minute online, at your convenience, asynchronous degree – a multiple-guess-fill-in-the-blank sort of degree.

I recently joined the Downtown Sailing Center here in Baltimore. I can’t wait to get in the water. I’ve always had a taste for sailing, but not too many opportunities to get into the water. So, now, so close to the Patapsco River, I’ve got my chance.

But you know something – you guessed it, they won’t let you captain one of their sailboats until you’ve gone through so many hours of instruction. What? I don’t wanna study. I wanna sail a sailboat; I wanna feel the salty spray of the open ocean on my face; I wanna feel the wind snapping at the sails and the bow slicing through the waters . . . I wanna, I wanna, I wanna be a sailor man  . . . when can I get in the water?

My kids are the same with bicycling. I’ve never been able to persuade my kids that learning to use the brakes is as important as learning to balance or pedal. I explain it every time, I assure you, but they’re so focused on riding that brakes – they figure, that’s extra credit – that’s for the advanced class.

I remember the first-time Imogen learned to balance on her bicycle – we were at a park in Dubuque and she went flying down this hill – and as we watched her, we realized, to our growing alarm, that she knew how to balance but she hadn’t quite mastered the brakes yet. I remember yelling out to her, “Use your brakes, Imogen, brakes!”

Imagine, if you can, trying to explain the concept of brakes to a six-year-old as she begins to realize this thing isn’t going to end well.

When, the disciples want to know. Jesus doesn’t dispute that God’s reign will be restored. There is indeed a when – a when that belongs to God and not us. Positively, Jesus redirects his students from when to whom: learn Christ and you shall be formed as a people who witness to my kingdom vision, my kingdom reality.

As an educator for twenty odd years, I would tell my students that we weren’t merely teaching a subject but forming a person.

Jesus seems to be speaking in this key: You’re asking about a when, a graduation date, and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but it is the who upon whom the Holy Spirit will descend, that matters right now. You are the who: you who will be my witnesses – through your witness, a subject area in which you will always be students, you are the who that will experience a regime change – a regime change that begins in the heart, even if it is not limited to the heart.

They were looking for a calendar date – but Jesus was giving them instructions for a new vocation beginning — today. But today includes some class time, forty days.

Soon, very soon, the community will upset the status quo – they will share everything in common. Trickle down theories of economics turned on their head. They will refuse to distinguish between Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free. They will defy the economics and politics of segregation. They will pray to the crucified Christ – in defiance of a crucifying nation.

They will sail on open waters; they will cry out to God as the wind lashes against the sails, as waters break over the bow, as the ship cracks up on the rocky coastlands of the Mediterranean Sea.

But before all this, before the storm, before the conflict with the powers, before they launch salvation’s dinghy onto the tempestuous waters of ancient Rome, they will be in class. Learning the rigging. Learning the wind. Learning the salvation story. Learning Christ. Learning the one who modeled the life of faith before he preached it.

And learning Christ will take a while. It will take as long as they live. And even longer than they live.

I’ve gone out sailing a couple of times so far this year. I’ve learned some vocabulary. I know the difference between the jib sail and the main sail. If the captain says, “Rob, you’re luffing again,” I know he doesn’t mean, “Quit telling tall tales”; he means I need to “trim” my sail – I’ve got too much sail out for the wind. So, I pull on the rope of the main mast, my pinky pointed toward the pulley – not sure why, but our captain was very specific. As in, perhaps it’s better to lose your pinkie if it gets stuck in the pulley than losing your thumb – a pinky you can live without, but that thumb — kind of important.

I don’t know, I’m just thinking out loud here about potential amputations that I might experience on the sea of God’s saving love.

I’ve performed two or three successful tacks, which is lingo for turning the vessel, and I’m not jibing you.

And I’m learning by doing. We are eager to jump in, sometimes at our own peril, but mostly, these experiences are instructive, even Imogen’s experience, and somehow, we know this to be true.

Saturday before last, I drove down to the dock for a three-hour crew member class. Our instructor, Kevin – the e-mail told me to look for a “skinny dude who wears aviators [this is a boat – why is he wearing aviators?] and sports a beard [that’s okay, I think Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick had a beard], likely wearing jeans [isn’t he supposed to wear kakis on a sailboat?]” – and he also had baseball cap on – I was so disappointed. He should have had a Greek fisherman’s cap on. Anyway, there he was, all twenty-seven or so years of him. Inappropriately dressed. But skinny, as promised.

Kevin got us into our boat and asked, “What do you guys want to do? I can just sail you around the bay here or you can try some maneuvers.”

“Try some maneuvers!” we said, almost in unison. I kind of think he knew that’s what we would want to do, but he wanted us to own that desire. We wanted to blow some bubbles in the bay, not literally, but figuratively. Though I thought at one point those bubbles might turn into literal ones when our boat seemed as if it were going to flip over. My bottom was only an inch or two removed from the water, a little close for comfort.

Our captain reassured us that the keel of the boat, a thousand-pound thing – basically a fixed rudder – which runs the length of the vessel, would keep us from capsizing. And I believed him, mostly. And we didn’t capsize, which makes me think there’s something to what he said. . . .

You follow analogy? Do you trust God as the thousand pound keel that stabilizes your journey through life? Or are we keeping the skiff of faith in the shallow waters, sticking with the paddle boats in the bay? The keel of our ship runs deep at First & Franklin Church. Let’s take our faith into deep waters and open seas – it’s where it was meant to sail. God’s Spirit may not always be visible, but God’s presence holds us fast, allows us to get close to the edge of human experience, indeed, invites us to live fully and without fear.

We know, somehow instinctively, that any skill worth knowing not only requires instruction, but it requires practice. But it does require instruction. It requires some time in the classroom.

But the classroom of the Holy Spirit – it tends to be very real. There isn’t a white board, where we can parse our subject. Our subject, Christ, the Spirit, acts, moves. Christ parses us – or forms us.

It can be that way in church. A strong wind kicks up here in church and sometimes this pulpit feels like I’ve been lashed to the prow of a ship, and we’re in the middle of a squall, and it plunges me under the water, and I wonder if I’ll ever come up, and when I do, I’m gasping and guttering for holy breath, and some of you do too, you’re thinking we’re going perish on the high holy sea of sermonic turbulence. And you’re like, thank God, we made it through Sunday, as you wring out your clothes, sopping wet with baptismal vows renewed.

Three weeks ago, on Saturday, a confirmation class witnessed a murder in West Baltimore. They were kids on an immersion experience in this city. Don’t know where they were from. Not from West Baltimore, that we can probably safely assume. But they were learning in a different kind of classroom – the streets of inner city Baltimore. They weren’t by themselves. Leaders watched over them. Congregations in the area hosted them. Kids in the church and neighborhood came around to play games, toss a Frisbee – but then they witnessed what is too common in this city: a shooting death.

Their leaders talked to the kids and their new-found friends. They talked and they prayed. They listened. Sometimes teaching is more about listening.

The next day, that group of kids, thirteen or fourteen years of age, sat in this church, right about there. They roped off their sailing vessel in this beautiful sanctuary. This protected cove of soaring arches. Beautiful music. Warm people. It seemed as if that shooting was far away. But then maybe they noticed, in this sanctuary, the purple ribbons draped over the Lord’s Table. And then they heard the names of Baltimore’s murdered men and women and children – lives represented in each of those ribbons. Perhaps they read the bulletin, where we try to explain as much to ourselves as to others the reason for these ribbons, the incompleteness of our prayers, what we wait for, what we sigh for, and why we witness for whom we witness.

After church, the kids wanted to tie the ribbons onto the wall adjacent to Park Avenue. We said, “Sure.” The kids wanted to pray. Learned to pray – living prayer. They may ask the when question, but they are also learning Christ.

Their prayers flit and turn in the wind – restless, and full like sails let out in city of troubled waters.

They witnessed something terrible in West Baltimore. But then they witnessed again – to something like hope. Hope not yet arrived. Hope not yet achieved. But they got on the water, troubled water, and they heard the Spirit – and the Spirit called them by name, and they said, “Here I am, send me.”

Here we are. Class about over. Class just beginning. Here’s your homework. Go outside before today is done. Take one name from the names we read today. Learn it by heart. Pray for his brothers and sisters. For his mother. Father. Friends. Pray for a life cut short. Pray for our city. Learn amid shifting winds of chance and tragedy, and with your soul filled with the Spirit of God’s peace, pray that our hearts might be changed.

It is not so much about a when, but a who. It is not so much about a subject as a person. It is not so much about a grammar as it is the eloquence of love itself.

Looks like weather is kicking up a little breeze for us. Ready to go? Class dismissed. Amen.

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