One of the finest symbols here in our Danish Lutheran church is hanging from the ceiling. As a beautiful reminder our church ship or ships are swaying and sailing and constantly reminding us of how we are meant to sail together in unity, in spirit and in hope. To be sailing together, to be in the same boat, to share the comfort and the discomfort of sailing over troubled waters, to be seated row by row to sail in the same directions. And most importantly to leave the steering to God and to trust that he will indeed bring us safe to shore.
The customs of displaying ships in the sanctuary began a long time ago in the Catholic Churches of Europe, - and it became a custom in Denmark after the reformation.
In many of our Danish church you will find ships like ours here in the Danish Lutheran church in YL. Those of you who have been living or visiting Denmark, knows that this is indeed a very common custom in Danish churches. And I am sure we agree a very beautiful and meaningful tradition.
In Denmark there is a fleet of 1200 ships sailing in the waters of the Danish Churches, and there are many different models, sizes and shapes.
But why are they hanging in churches, what is the symbolism?
It goes back a long long time in our Nordic Religious and Pagan traditions and our Christian Religious traditions. And we ad even one more modern component to the symbolism: as these ships also are the bearers of the recent history of Immigration from the Nordic countries to US.
In the landscape of Denmark, the findings of gravesites from the Bronze Age (1800 – 500 before Christ) tells us the story about ship shaped gravesites. These are big monumental stones placed in a ship shaped circle. The ship was in that age the most powerful and glorious symbol of the connection between this world of humans and the other world of the Gods. There is a marvelous finding in a small village of Funen, LADBY, that not just found the ship shaped stone setting, but literally found a ship buried in the ground. A wealthy man was buried in his ship with horses, equipment and weapons.
The ship was the connection from here to there, from the world of humans and death to the world of Gods and eternity.
In the Gospel we listen to the wonderful story about the Storm at Sea and Jesus calming the waves and sea by his words and command.
This story and this image from the Gospel has shaped how the Christian Church understood itself as a crew, sailing together, on its ways from this world to the Kingdom of God.
As a congregation you were still in this world with problems, dangers and temptations, but with Christ on board and in charge…. The Christians hoped to be saved and reach the shores of Eternity.
There are so many beautiful renditions of paintings of this story and storm. And the artist Giotto made a mosaic which later was placed in the entry hall of St. Peters Cathedral in Rome just over the main entrance to the sanctuary.
“Welcome on board!”
In Greek a temple is NAOS and a ship NAVS. In Latin a ship is navis. And the shape and architecture of the church is self is marked by the ship metaphor. The big room to seat the congregation, the crew, is called a ship.
This symbolism was through time transferredinto the even more vivid custom of actual church ships hanging in the churches. The customs have been known for most of Europe from the Middle-age with the oldest ship in a Spanish church from 1400 century. But especially in areas close to the ocean you would and will find ships in churches. In Bretagne and alongside the English Chanel you will find ships adorning the churches and this Catholic custom really found its way to the Scandinavian Countries after the reformation.
The oldest one in Denmark you will find in HO Kirke on the far west coast of Denmark from 1600/1610.
There are several popular ships among the Danish ships: most popular is a copy of FREGATTEN JYLLAND and then there are many ships called HOPE or DENMARK.
Quite often the church ships were gratitude gifts from sailors who survived dangerous trips on sea. In some villages with strong sailor traditions the ships could be a way of protecting and praying for the ships and their crew. To bring them back safely…. and as a curiosity none of the church ships have a rescuer boat…. Of course because the ship is the hope itself and the captain God himself.
Our two ships have histories too.
Suspended above the main church is a model of the Danish battleship Fregatten Jylland. It was a gift from Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth Hansen, owners of the former Scandia Restaurant in Beverly Hills who had it commissioned in DK in 1966. It was installed in the old church and moved along to YL in 1995.
The second ship was discovered at a pawn ship in Hollywood by Mr. Winstrup Olesen in 1962. The ship originated from St. Thomas, Virgin Island, former Danish colony and had hung in the Danish church in the capital Charlotte Amalie. When the Danish church closed in 1918, the Danish pastor moved from the island taking the ship to US. And now it is here. Isn’t History just amazing???
We are still sailing along.
We are still seated row by row, side by side, looking towards East, the sunrise and hope.
We are still carried through life by the Golden Hope that God is with us through stormy days and nights and that we will be brought safe through life to the shores of life and light.
We sang about it in the beautiful Danish hymn: “See the golden sun from the ocean rise”:
“Now the ocean dark shall not daunt my heart, though I must at last from this world depart;
He, the God of life, shall his child uphold, rescue me from death when the breakers roll.
Then the golden sun I again shall see
Rising from, the deep while all shadows fell, blessed hour when finished is all our strife
Light forever stays on the shore of life.”
Our hope and our faith is that Jesus as we meet his in the Gospel of today and throughout the year, - was filled with the power of Spirit to bring good news to us, to bring light into our darkness and to fulfill God’s promises.
We are still sailing. And we are still in one boat. As Paul was describing the congregation in Corinth we are still a congregation of many members with different calling, talents and gifts. We need to steady the boat and not stir the waters by selfishness, gossip, or carelessness. We need to work together as one body, we need to sail together in unity and spirit. And then leave the stearing to God.
When we are seated here Sunday after Sunday, in the main sanctuary that we fondly call the ship or the nave, - we are on board a ship. We are moving, we have a goal and we are trying to reach it. The ocean can be calm and breathtakingly beautiful and it can be furiously dangerous. We need our captain, we need our Golden Hope, we need our ship to sail these waters.
And as we celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King this last week, I will close with his words: “ We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”