Sunday, October 27, 2019

Ocean: What Am I to You?

Picture entitled "Empty Boat" illustrates a small empty rowboat on a choppy sea under a gray but brilliantly lit sky. 


"Ocean: What Am I to You?"

Rev. Paul Mitchell

Vashon United Methodist Church

September 1, 2019 

Luke 14:1, 7-14; Job 38:1-11, 16-17









I remember quite vividly the first time I stepped into the ocean. It was the summer between second and third grade. My family had spent the summer in Berkeley, CA while my dad took summer school classes at the Pacific School of Religion. We had seen the ocean a few times that summer, but I’d never been in it. On our way home to South Dakota at the end of the summer we drove north on the Pacific Coast Highway as far as Portland, and then out to the coast. Lake and river swimming were familiar to me. This was different. The crashing waves beckoned to me. We had not brought swimsuits, so, despite my awakening feelings of pre-adolescent timidity, I stripped to my undies and ran into the cold, salty water that was churning up the sand. I was warned not to go deeper than my knees, and I obeyed. But I did let myself be tumbled and pummeled in a gentle undertow – letting myself feel the buoyancy of the water, spitting and struggling for breath. I begged to stay and stay, and we watched for the green flash before heading back to the city. It was merely a few hours on a clear, warm day at the end of summer. Yet, it was a singularly formative moment. The feelings were of immensity and power, freedom and trust. It evoked in me a sense of creatureliness – of being small and contingent on something far beyond comprehension. I also felt deeply connected to that source beyond knowing. It was an encounter with the Divine.
I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. Let’s take a moment right now, close our eyes, breathe slowly in and out, and remember a formative moment when we came into the awareness of the convergence of infinity and intimacy – of mystery and matter.
The ocean evokes in us what theologian Rudolf Otto described as the mysterium tremendum et fascinans. The sense of the presence of the Divine, according to Otto, is tremendous – filling the creature with awe, overpowering the creature in majesty, and active, unrelenting urgency. We, the creature, are stopped in our tracks, frozen, unable to breathe. Yet, we are also drawn in, wooed by an irresistible grace, warmth, and assurance. In the same moment we are convicted and emancipated. There are of course many other creaturely experiences that evoke the mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Mountains, fires, storms, the trust of an infant, the vulnerability of a stranger seeking help and hope, the fully self-giving physical presence of a lover – all of these evoke the Divine. And how we treat them is how we treat the divine. The ways we treat what God loves is the way we treat God. For instance, when physical intimacy and vulnerability become a commodities or conquests – we also treat God as a means to an end.


This concept – that the way we treat whatever is beloved of God is also the way we treat God – became more real to me as we studied Amos this summer – in particular we learned that persons are not to be treated as objects, and personal ambition must be limited by the rights of those have no voice. God loves the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant. The way we are treating those seeking asylum – themselves manifestations of God’s diversity and beauty seeking to escape deprivation and violence – is the way we are treating God. The way we treat the ocean – a manifestation of God’s majesty, beauty, and power – is the way we treat God. When we take the ocean for granted, we take God for granted.
God has spread before us a banquet, and all too often we assume the position of guest of honor.
It’s easy and normal for us to interpret the teaching of Jesus that uses images and examples of the natural world or of horticulture and husbandry in application to our economic, social, and spiritual lives as human beings. It feels less automatic to work the other way – to interpret Jesus’ examples of human values and relationships and understand them as God’s intentions or lessons about our relationships with the rest of creation – with our sibling mammals, our cousin vertebrates, our neighbor fauna, our compatriot flora, even the inanimate systems of weather and geology. But why not. In a very real way, having placed creation in our care, God has called us to be hosts as at a banquet. It is our role not only and simply to be kind to those guests we have invited, but to seek out those who have no way to repay us. Jesus teaches that our value to God is not in our utility. We do not deserve God’s unconditional love and expectation of justice because we are worthy. Instead, we are worthy simply because of God’s unconditional love and expectation of justice for creation.
Ocean is trying to tell us something, but she cannot speak for herself. She is telling us that we are mistreating her. She is telling us that the edges and boundaries that we have drawn around her are not real, that her body is continuous with ours and that Ocean and humanity both are made in the image and likeness of God. Our origin story says that it was over the great water that God brooded, like a mother. As soon as there was light, God dove in between the waters above and the waters below. Today, in this continuing day of creation, Ocean is sacrificially bearing the burden of our sins of waste and greed, of privilege and alienation from God and from each other.


We tend to think of the ocean as the end result of a one-way process, from rain to stream to river to sound to ocean. But her children the salmon are teaching us differently. Ocean reaches up through the sound and the river and the stream and the rain into our yards and our homes. Ocean is intimately woven into our lives, and our way of life wounds her – and because she is beloved of God, a sign and manifestation of God’s self-outpouring, self-giving love, our way of life wounds God as well.
The ocean of trouble we are in on this planet can be very overwhelming at times. We feel so small in the face of such global forces. That feeling is portrayed in this poem sometimes known as the Breton Prayer, published by Rev. Winfred Ernest Garrison in 1965.
Thy sea, O God, so great,
My boat so small.
It cannot be that any happy fate
Will me befall
Save as Thy goodness opens paths for me
Through the consuming vastness of the sea.
Thy winds, O God, so strong,
So slight my sail.
How could I curb and bit them on the long
And saltry trail,
Unless Thy love were mightier than the wrath
Of all the tempests that beset my path?
Thy world, O God, so fierce,
And I so frail.
Yet, though its arrows threaten oft to pierce
My fragile mail,
Cities of refuge rise where dangers cease,
Sweet silences abound, and all is peace.


Perhaps we cannot undo the scars we have inflicted on her, but we can soothe her and reduce further harm. Perhaps you have an idea how we, as a community of followers of Jesus – the most human and beloved of God – can begin this process of healing. Perhaps in some small way we can take part in the building of those “rising cities of refuge where sweet silences abound.” It may seem at times that we are always being asked to do more, to give more, to be more. One of the things I am learning from The Academy for Spiritual Formation is to slow down, stop, and focus on our relationship to God and neighbor. Perhaps instead we need to do less, take less, and be less. Perhaps we can listen more deeply to the salmon and their habitat, and ask, how can we live smaller so that you can live more fully? Perhaps we could adopt and care for a bit of salmon habitat right here on our island. The salmon are ambassadors between us and Ocean – you might even say they are angels – messengers of the beloved of God.
Ocean asks, “What am I to you?” An inexhaustible source of raw materials – food and minerals and power… – a ready-made thoroughfare for commerce and pleasure… – an everchanging object of beauty, poetry, and vision… a necessary component of sunrises, sunsets, and storm cycles? Perhaps the questions could go the other way. What if we were to ask, “Ocean, what am I to you?” could she answer, “You are a gracious host, a caring partner, a beloved friend, a co-expression of the divine and mysterious, fearful and alluring, self-giving love of God?” So may we be.

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