Mission President Planting’s Easter Message: What the Sunbeam Cross Means
Sunbeam Easter Trip: March 30-31, 2018
Isle au Haut, Matinicus, Frenchboro
Draft Easter Sermon by Seacoast Mission president C. Scott Planting
Scripture Lesson: Mark 16. 1-8
- Painted on the bow of the Sunbeam is a large white cross. I want to talk with you about what that cross means.
The history of the cross painted on the bow of the Sunbeam is recent in the story of the Seacoast Mission. The cross was painted on the bow of the newly commissioned Sunbeam III in 1940. The world was at war. The cross meant that the Sunbeam was a “mercy ship,” a military designation similar to hospital ships with red crosses painted on their hulls. These were humanitarian ships not to be attacked by enemy vessels.
But the meaning of the cross goes deeper. The Seacoast Mission was founded in 1905 by two brothers, Angus and Alexander McDonald, both congregational ministers. They founded the Seacoast Missionary Society in 1905.
The McDonald brothers were acquainted with island fishing communities, lighthouse stations and life saving stations. They knew from visiting these places directly about hardships of living far out to sea. The first Mission statement — 1906:
To sail a sloop in a parish extending from Kittery Point to Quoddy Head, along the broken coast of Maine, in all kinds of weather, is not a small undertaking. To enter the coves and harbors, to call on the families on isolated islands, to visit the light-keepers and the life saving stations, is a task of greater magnitude.
They knew about difficult living conditions — terrific isolation, no schools or churches, teachers or doctor. A diet of cod and potatoes. From the beginning they understood their mission to address often deplorable living conditions — both physical and spiritual. The cross in this deeper sense was a Christian witness to serve people with a gospel message — that each person was a child of God, made in the image of God worthy of dignity, respect and care.
- This particular understanding of the cross painted on the bow runs throughout our Mission’s history. I read the daily logs of ‘mission workers’ – great souls like Alice ‘Ma’ Peasley. A school teacher who joined the Mission staff in 1927. In the Fall of that year the Sunbeam dropped her off on Crowley Island, near Jonesport, and picked her up the following Spring. She organized a school and a church. One of my favorite photographs, taken in 1939 shows Mrs. Peasley walking briskly across “South Sandy Beach” on Matinicus to visit the home of Henriette Ames . “Ma” Peasley had taught island women to hook beautiful rugs.
Arthur Sargent was a lay pastor assigned to Jonesport in the 1930’s-40’s. He was a tall, wiry man, and who loved to walk from house to house, village to village visiting neighbors. In his journal, Sunday, April 1, 1934, he describes Easter at Moose Neck Basin, “Neck attendance 23 offering 64 cents. I walked home to Jonesport and called on 14 families and ate dinner with Helen and William Garnett.”
It’s a bright line from these tireless Mission workers to today’s Sunbeam crew — who bring the boat with the cross on the bow in all kinds of weather, winter and summer, to isolated places, walking with Ma Peasley and Arthur Sargent — not away from this world in search of a better, but precisely the opposite to walk unreservedly towards “the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings” (Albert Schweitzer) with the people they serve.
- What I’ve witnessed so many times aboard the Sunbeam is a crew who hold nothing back in their care. I experience this on a midnight trip to Matinicus, when the Sunbeam is trying to get a head of rough weather to make important telemedicine appointments. I’ve watched the crew of Captain Michael Johnson and engineer Storey King work ‘spring lines’ in horrible conditions to bring the boat safely to dock. It’s in this giving without counting the cost where we nourish and bring life to others. This is the example of Jesus, this is the power of Jesus, this is the witness of the Sunbeam that in Christ-like ways the crew of the ‘mercy boat’ has poured out its life over all these years. Boat captains and engineers, stewards and ministers have nourished so many people. I’ve heard so many times from islanders in some needy place in their lives say, “When the Sunbeam comes into the harbor I get a piece of my life back.” The cross on the bow of the boat represents the loving action of the whole boat. When the boat sails into an island harbor it brings hope.
Sixty years ago Neal Bousfield, the great Mission superintendent, talked about the ministry of the Sunbeam.
“This is a ministry made up of little things, time-consuming things with individuals where only the Lord knows the amount accomplished… We trust we have planted seeds, have encouraged growth and will be able to continue to do so. We do not expect great changes to take place immediately but deep changes that will have a lasting effect on the lives now and in generations to come. Our people are the salt of the earth and are very good to us.”
Bousfield says , “Our people are very good to us.” I believe there is a deep sense of gratitude from islanders for the generations of service provided by the Sunbeam. Wherever we go we are so well received. As the boat has cared for people that love is shared with others. I remember a few years ago, aboard the Sunbeam visiting Matinicus. I was mourning the death of a friend, a fisherman invited me over to his home to watch a Patriots game with him. A simple act of kindness. The boat’s life is integrated within the rhythm of giving and receiving.
- Mark’s Easter gospel ends with words to women who’ve gone to Jesus tomb early in the morning. They are greeted by a “young man, dressed in a white robe” saying:
Go, tell Jesus’ disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.
The Easter gospel is simple. The first witnesses to the resurrection are told, “Go back to Galilee where you walked with Jesus, and do as he did, shape your life after his. Live completely in the world as Jesus did. And there in the world with all its duties, problem, and troubles you will receive from the Spirit of the risen Christ the courage of Jesus’ kind of suffering love and you will learn in your own experience who Jesus is.” The cross painted on the bow of the Sunbeam stands for the courage of Jesus’ kind of love that gives life to the world. This love is seen every time the Sunbeam enters the coves and harbors to call on the families of isolated island communities.
- Whenever I see the white cross on the bow of the Sunbeam, I think of Easter. Whenever I see the Sunbeam sail out of Northeast Harbor en route to an outer island, I think of the crew on the boat, and all the crews who’ve sailed out of harbors, who’ve gone forth to respectfully ,thoughtfully and joyfully serve their neighbors. I think of islanders like Billy Barter from Isle au Haut who told me, “I get such a good feeling when the Sunbeam comes in.” It’s like whenever the Sunbeam enters a harbor it brings with it the accumulated good will of a century. It’s a palpable feeling that all will be well. The Sunbeam is a mercy ship that sails with Easter hope. Amen.