Grace Cathedral

Grace Cathedral

Article | October 3, 2023

Sermon: The Hawaiian Voyaging Canoe and St. Francis

Blog|The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm Clemens Young

Watch the sermon on YouTube.

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus… for it is God who is at work in you” (Phil. 2).

How do you listen to your soul? How can you hear God’s invitation to change your mind? Brené Brown writes about the difference between fitting in and belonging. All of us know what it means to fit in, to try to change essential parts of ourselves so that we will be accepted by others.

Belonging refers to a very different experience. It means learning to “be present with people without sacrificing who we are.”[1] It requires vulnerability and it happens in those rare places where we can really be who we are without pretending. It’s one of our highest ideals at Grace Cathedral. Regardless of where we came from, what we may have done in the past, or whatever we believe now, we belong here.

Last Sunday the Hawaiian voyaging canoe Hōkūle’a, arrived at Aquatic Park in San Francisco after a dangerous journey. In the overflowing amphitheater we saw musicians and dancers; we heard prayers and proclamations from Native peoples from across the vast Pacific Ocean. I wish I could express the feeling of joy and celebration that we all shared together.

People describe Nainoa Thompson, the president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society as a Native Hawaiian master navigator but far more importantly he is one of the most significant storytellers of our time. On Tuesday night he talked about the world he was born into. In 1926 the Hawaiian culture and language were outlawed. By the 1970’s there were fewer than one hundred people who could speak Hawaiian fluently and they were mostly advanced in age.

Hawaiians had lost so much – their land, sovereignty, language, religion, culture, music, art and even sports and pastimes. It no longer felt like they belonged in their own homeland. In 1948 the Norwegian writer Thor Heyerdahl published a book called The Kontiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas. For many Hawaiians the book’s unspoken thesis was that Pacific Islanders could never have had the skill to build canoes and navigate them at will through the Pacific, but instead only arrived in Hawaii by luck on giant rafts setting out from South America.

And so in the 1970’s a group of Hawaiians sought out the last remaining navigators (Mau Pialug) and re-learned the practices of their ancestors. They built the Hōkūle’a and in 1976 they successfully traveled to Tahiti. They were utterly surprised when 17,000 people met them on their arrival in Papeete. The mood was ecstatic. The world began to see how they belonged.

But then came the fateful voyage of 1978. Unprotected in a massive storm, stacking waves overturned the canoe. One of the hulls had filled water and the entire crew sat on the remaining upturned hull at midnight getting periodically washed off by waves barely able to hear the next person over because the winds.

The legendary lifeguard Eddie Aikau began to paddle his surfboard for help into the white water of the gale. Nainoa swam over and was the last person ever to speak to him. Later the rest of the crew was miraculously rescued. Back onshore Nainoa witnessed the terrible grief of Eddie’s parents. He heard Eddie’s mother wailing. After all hope was lost he saw Eddie’s father implore everyone to call off the search for his son. For a while fear overtook him and Nainoa lost faith in his calling.

In the most pivotal moment of his life Nainoa’s father came to meet with him. They talked about values, about supporting the community and most of all about the destination – not of a particular voyage, or even of his own life, but of the Hawaiian people. Nainoa had to ask himself if he was ready to be changed.

2. When the religious authorities fault Jesus for befriending tax collectors and prostitutes, he tells the story of a father who independently asks each of his two sons to work in the vineyard. The first says no, but changes his mind later and works. The second says, yes but does not follow through. The strict answer is that neither fully did the will of his father (that would have been to say yes and go). But the one who comes closest is the one who actually does the work. And for Jesus that means the sinners will enter heaven before religious leaders.

We may be familiar with the Greek word metanoia which means changing one’s mind and is frequently translated as repentance. But this is different. The word here is metamelomai. More literally it means to change one’s “cares,” to change what we consider important. It implies a kind of regret or remorse. Jesus says that obvious sinners have this in a way that the religious leaders do not. Understanding how we have fallen short makes us more willing to change our minds.

Today we celebrate the Feast of St. Francis. Living off the riches of his father Francis had a reputation as spoiled but also for putting on great parties. For a while he tried to be a soldier. A serious illnesses in his early twenties made him wonder if he had to change. He dragged his feet, but then began spending time in the ruined church of San Damiano. One day he heard a voice coming from the cross. It said, “Go hence, now, Francis, and build my church, for it is nearly falling down.” He took this instruction literally and within two years had rebuilt three churches that had been falling apart.

Francis cared for impoverished people and became poor himself. He founded a movement of monks. He wrote songs. He attained notoriety for preaching to birds and to human beings. Some say that in the eight centuries since his death no one has more closely approximated the ideal that Jesus teaches.

The twentieth century writer G.K. Chesterton writes that one could never anticipate what Francis would do next. But once Francis did something, all you could say was, “Ah, how like him!” Brother Masseo once approached Francis and asked why the world followed him so ardently, when he didn’t seem especially smart, beautiful or wealthy. A friend of mine thinks it is because that while Francis chose, “a life of intense and prayerful austerity,” unlike many other saints he made being a child of God seem fun.[2] He said, “rejoice always,” both in words and how he lived.[3]

The most famous prayer attributed to Francis is “Oh Lord let me be an instrument of thy will.” Francis lived by emptying himself out so that God could be a continually growing part of his life. Francis told Masseo that God had chosen him precisely because he was the greatest sinner and that this reminded everyone that all good comes only from God.[4] Emptying out his ego Francis saw a world filled with God. All people, all animals and birds, even the sun, moon, water and fire became his family. When we empty ourselves of ego nothing lies outside of the spiritual life.

So today we remember and celebrate this remarkable figure by blessing the animals we love. Over the years I have blessed dogs, cats, turtles, geese, chickens, lizards, gerbils, hamsters, mice, etc. We will also pray for the wild animals around us: the pelicans, coyotes, whales, seals, dolphins, sea lions, salmon, hammer-head sharks, red-tailed hawks, racoons, squirrels, and butterflies too.

It is a wonderful to live in a city dedicated to a person who we remember by trying to be particularly kind to animals, by in our awkward way blessing them and recognizing all the ways that they bless us. In our lifetime an uncountable number of species will be lost forever because of human activity. I have a dream that one day we will truly care for the other creatures and learn to better understand them.

Nainoa says that all storms come in pairs. When the storm hits, take your place at the helm and face into it. Be humble, pay respect, and stay with it. The second storm is the one inside of us. It is the storm of emotions. In that storm when we are tempted by hopelessness we can choose the way of faith. With God’s grace we can decide to be courageous. That is what Nainoa Thompson did.

By the end of the 1960’s after generations of being forced to fit in, a Hawaiian Renaissance in politics, art and culture began to truly unfold. We see many signs of its success. Today there are 22,500 fluent speakers of the Hawaiian language. The Hōkūle’a has been an indispensable part of an extraordinary transformation.

In the beginning I imagine Nainoa may have thought he was just building a canoe, but really what he was doing was building up a culture, a people, a promise that we can all belong. And this has grown into something even more powerful. Today the Hōkūle’a sails to unify all native peoples and to share a message, that human beings will never thrive unless the oceans do too.

How do you listen to your soul? How can you hear God’s invitation to change your mind? Nainoa Thompson and St. Francis were open to being changed by God. They learned to be humble. They dared to imagine a future when all species will be valued and preserved. May each of us conquer our ego and become an instrument of God. May we belong and our life be a blessing to the whole family of God’s creatures.

[1] Brené Brown, Atlas of the Heart (NY: Random House, 2021) 159.

[2] I’m referring to Carol Flinders who wrote this in her introduction to Francis. Eknath Easwaran, Love Never Faileth: The Inspiration of Saint Francis, Saint Augustine, Saint Paul, and Mother Theresa (Petaluma, CA: Nilgiri Press, 1984) 16, 13.

[3] A rich nobleman named Bernard of Quintavalle invited Francis over to test him. The rich man fed him, and even set up a bed in his own room to carefully observe him. Francis threw himself on the bed and pretended to sleep until he believed that the nobleman had fallen asleep. Then Francis stayed up all night, praying, crying and saying “My God and my all!”

One night Francis heard a brother cry out in his sleep, “Brothers! I die of hunger.” Francis got everyone up and he gathered them around the table and fed them. He had compassion on people who were stumbling.

Ibid., 23-24.

[4] Ibid., 17, 16.

Share to your favorite platform or Email to Family & Friends