Jesus said, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”Matthew 16:18
The church’s one foundation | Bonnie Thurston
Unable to see verdant forests for mangled, ecclesial trees, most of my companions have abandoned the church, not rats, but certainly escapees from a rusty old ship, with a treasure in her hold undiminished by its often ugly, always precarious, commanders. To the sailors who remain, not confident, but at least hopeful she isn't going down, who still stoke old boilers, and swab slimy decks, St. Benedict offers counsel: Be prudent in your cleaning. In scraping off the rust, don't break the fragile vessel. Appreciating mature beauty, long faithful seaworthiness, old sailors, like astrolabes, still chart direction by the stars. Their night watches taught them the sun will rise from the sea. They show their shipmates how to be held in a crumbling conveyance by the foundling Love in her hold.
I have been thinking about this poem quite a lot since I came across it in the July 13th edition of “Christian Century.” Perhaps I have been pondering this poem because I see myself as one of the “old sailors” that she mentions, serving on this “rusty old ship” called the church. She describes her companions leaving the church as “escapees,” which sounds a bit harsh. And she describes those who pilot the ship in pretty harsh terms, too. This is not an easy poem. It is even a little angry in tone. But also faithful. Because this poet is clearly not leaving the church. She loves it too much to leave it. Criticize it? Yes. Abandon it? Never.
And for those who remain with her, the poet goes on to encourage them (us) not to be too hasty in “scraping off the rust.” Don’t make changes to the church too hastily, or in desperation. Don’t “break the fragile vessel,” as she puts it, while trying to save her. After all, there is a priceless treasure on board this ship, undiminished in beauty, the “foundling Love in her hold.” And all my fellow Christians who still feel called to be this ship’s sailors are entrusted with this treasure. We are now, as always, stewards of the great and mysterious gospel – the good news of God’s saving love in Jesus. And as long as we remain faithful to this vocation, the world will go on being reminded of this mysterious, wondrous, essential treasure.
As I have been pondering this poem, a recent conversation that I had has been cross-pollinating with it. Not long ago, I happened to run into a church member who has not been active for a couple of years now. He apologized for that, and confessed that he didn’t really have a good reason. But then he looked at our church, visible in the distance from where we stood, and said, “You know, Pastor, I may not be coming to church right now. That may change, of course. But in the meantime, I know that the church is there. I know that you are there. And that brings me great comfort.”
Yes, my friend, we are here. I am here. Praying for you and for all this world. Still worshiping our living God, even while more and more doubt this truth. Still serving all people following the example of Jesus.
This rusty old ship that we call the church is still, and always will be, a tangible and visible reminder to all that there are people in this world who still believe – not just that there is a God who created this world, but that there is a God who loves it still. This is the priceless treasure, hidden in the hold of this rusty ship, that I will care for all of my given days.