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Joshua 4.1-7, 19-24

Mark 13.1-8

Sailors & Signs

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

“London Bridge is down.”  When Queen Elizabeth’s private secretary delivered those words to Prime Minister Liz Truss, the world learned that the Queen had passed.  It put into motion a long and complicated, but precise, series of actions that had been scripted far in advance.  Flags were lowered to half staff.  Prince Charles ascended to the throne.  And it is interesting how much of the royal succession plan involves the church.  Here is a paragraph from Friday’s New York Times:

“Charles will make a statutory oath to uphold the Church of Scotland during the first Privy Council and confirm the timing of the queen’s funeral.  He will later make the accession declaration oath, a vow to maintain the established Protestant line of succession...  And lastly, he will make the Coronation Oath, which includes a promise to uphold the rights and privileges of the Church of England.”

I share this with you this morning, not because of the emphasis on the church, but because there are protocols in place that provide explicit direction.  In a time of transition that could be filled with chaos and turmoil – January 6, anyone? – the protocols provide a series of signposts, a road map for England’s way forward.

I’ve been thinking about signs that mark important moments, days and directions this week, in part because my calendar tells me today is September 11, a day that deserves to be marked itself as a commemorative sign, one that serves as an indication of what happened to us as a people, a nation, and indeed a world, and the ways we have responded to it that have been helpful, and the ways we have responded to it that have not.  The question is, what do these things signify?  What does September 11 mean to you?  What does December 7 mean to you?  For that matter, what does January 6 mean to you?  Chances are good that whatever your answer is, it says something about your own values and world view.

“When your children ask their parents in the time to come, ‘What do these stones mean?” then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel crossed over the Jordan [River] here on dry ground.’  For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you crossed over… so that all the people of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, and so that you may revere the Lord your God forever.”

Twelve stones, that’s all.  And yet their meaning spans thousands of years, back to the days of Joshua, Moses’ immediate successor.  Twelve stones for the twelve families of Israel.  Twelve stones to remind generations of Jews what God had done for them, twelve stones to remind them and us what God has done, can do and will continue to do for God’s children.  Twelve stones.  They don’t have anything written on them, no instructions, no arrows, very little information all by themselves.  Now that I think of it, maybe Route 9 should resort to stones instead of the blacked-out exit numbers that don’t really tell us much of anything, since we generally already know where the exits lead regardless of number.  But the stones are markers and memorials, they point to something far beyond themselves.  They are a sign that represents something that does not want to be forgotten.

You and I do this all the time, we mark the milestones that dot the journey of our lives.  We mark birthdays and anniversaries, and we pause as we pass each one.  At sixteen we can drive; at eighteen we can vote and buy assault weapons; at twenty-one we can give Eric Nelson our business.  We mark the first day of school and our graduation years; Debbie and I both hit milestone reunions this year.  We have a cross in our chancel and a steeple – well, technically a cupola – on our roof.  Our friend Christopher Owens has dotted our town with stars that for many of us represented the exuberant joy of finally getting out and seeing one another once again after being sequestered for more than a year; our church also sported one of Christopher’s hearts in our window for more than a year to signal our gratitude to our medical and professional first responders, as well as to send a wider message of love out to everyone in our community.  Jesus also talked about signs.  Diane read from what is sometimes called Mark’s “little apocalypse,” the 13th chapter where he uses the sign of the large stones that made up the Jerusalem temple and foresees the temple’s destruction which occurred forty years later.  It would prove to be, in the short term a sign of confusion and alarm, but in the long term, a sign of the Roman Empire’s dissolution and the church’s ascendancy.

And so on this September 11, 21 years later, we mark this date on the calendar and pause to remember.  Last year we held a twenty-year community remembrance in front of the church, and it felt just right for twenty years.  It was not a celebration by any means, just a remembrance, a marker, a sign.  And it wouldn’t feel right to let today pass without marking it again, this time in worship.

[Moment of silence]

I’ve told you before that Moby Dick is one of my favorite books.  Almost everyone can quote the first line of the first chapter, “Call me Ishmael.”  But there is the most curious passage at the end of the first chapter that in those first days after September 11, found surprising circulation.  Ishmael has decided to go to sea once again, making a distinction in his mind:  “I don’t mean that I ever go to sea as a passenger.  No, when I go to sea, I go as a simple sailor, right before the mast, plumb down into the forecastle, aloft there to the royal masthead.”  And then he imagines his voyage will make headlines among the news of the day; here are the headlines Ishmael imagines, and bear in mind the context of the first September 11; the headlines read, “Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States.”  “Whaling voyage by one Ishmael.”  “BLOODY BATTLE IN AFGHANISTAN.”  Consider what bookends Ishmael’s voyage:  “Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States.”  Think Bush vs Gore less than a year before September 11; and “BLOODY BATTLE IN AFGHANISTAN,” which came in the aftermath of the September 11 attack.  And what about today, twenty-one years later:  “Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States.”  “Stop the Steal,” anyone?  And in the withdrawal of troops twenty-one years later, “BLOODY BATTLE IN AFGHANISTAN.”  To hear Melville tell it, history has a way of repeating itself.

Now whether or not this has any meaning for today I leave to you.  But what caught my attention is not Melville’s imaginary headlines, but rather Ishmael’s determination to go to sea, not as a passenger, but as a sailor.  This is the kind of metaphor that I think is helpful to us as the church, as we stand at the head of a new year and mark our ongoing mission and ministry.  How do we intend to make this journey together?  Are we going as passengers, sitting contentedly on the deck, watching the waves below and the sky above, content to let others do the heavy lifting for us, the navigating, the fishing, the very sailing itself?  Or are we going as sailors, the crew that is engaged and invested in the journey, travelers whose very life and livelihood are invested in the vessel’s purpose and success?  To Ishmael’s mind,

“To go as a passenger you must needs have a purse, and a purse is but a rag unless you have something in it.  Besides, passengers get sea-sick – grow quarrelsome – don’t sleep of nights – do not enjoy themselves much, as a general thing; - no, I never go as a passenger… when I go down to sea, I go as a simple sailor… because of the wholesome exercise and pure air of the forecastle deck.  For, as in this world, head winds are far more prevalent than winds from astern.”

To sail the ship, to determine its course, its speed, its goal, is so much more important and effective and meaningful than just going along for the ride.  And so at the beginning of the new church year, we weigh anchor, hoist the sails, put our hands to the tiller, and we go, you and I together, as sailors on the sea.

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