July 24, 2016 — Nancy Bancroft
Readings: Genesis 1:7-10; Mark 4:35-41
I chose the theme, Lessons from the Sea, before I looked for scripture passages for this Sunday. When I started to do so, I was pressed to find anything that seemed to fit well. The sea to Jews in ancient times was an object of almost unmixed terror. Though we read in Genesis that after creating the oceans God saw how good it was, nearly all of the references in the Bible tell of its malevolent power and peril, never of its beauty, magnificence or value. The Jews were non-seafaring people and they feared the ocean. They had no substantial seaport and for centuries their seaboard was held by the dreaded Philistines. All their conceptions of the ocean relate to its hurtful and destructive power. In Deuteronomy being taken back to Egypt in ships is held out as terrifying. Psalm 107 is one of many that refer to the sea in negative terms. This is a long psalm praising God as a refuge in all dangers. Here is but one section of it: “Some went out on the sea in ships; they were merchants on the mighty waters. They saw the works of the LORD, his wonderful deeds in the deep. For he spoke and stirred up a tempest that lifted high the waves. They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths; in their peril their courage melted away. They reeled and staggered like drunkards; they were at their wits’ end. Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble, and he brought them out of their distress. He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed. They were glad when it grew calm, and he guided them to their desired haven. Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for mankind.”
Then there are the stories of Noah’s ark and the great flood that destroyed all life, the Exodus when God parted the water to allow the chosen people to escape, but destroyed the great Egyptian army, and the story of Jonas, swallowed by a whale and imprisoned in it for three days.
Any epithets in scripture about the sea are never pleasing, but rather all more or less terrible. It is “raging”, “roaring”, troubled”; to the point that in Revelations, John, when extolling the beauty, the glory, and the joy of the new heavens and the new earth, to highlight its goodness adds, “And there was no more sea.”
For much of human history the oceans were means of travel, commerce, and industry, but not pleasure. Swimming did not become a sport or recreational pastime until the nineteenth century. Before that time many considered it as a cause of epidemics.
Compare all of this with a segment of a sailing log by Peter McPheeters:
“Words can’t properly express how amazing this place is. . . The whole place looks like something out of Jurassic Park, or the beginning of time. It is a volcanic outcropping, on the same tectonic plate as theGalapagos, but the only one that broke the surface for about 400 miles around. Like the Galapagos Islands it has species of birds, lizards, insects ( its own mosquito which we blessedly haven’t encountered), that aren’t found anywhere else in the world. Did I mention that it is insanely beautiful?
“This afternoon, after we all got some rest, Sam and I went for a quick snorkel, and immediately saw a few very small nurse sharks, just hanging on the bottom. . . Also on this swim, we saw a few lobsters, and I saw a yellow tailed moray eel, another creepy creature of the deep. Just throwing something like a pineapple rind off the boat causes a feeding frenzy of 20-50 fish, some quite large, of all colors of the rainbow, right at the surface. Quite a show!
“In any event, after that swim, we made our attempt at the other anchorage. . . The ride over and back was unbelievable; birds wheeling around high cliffs, with more bird roosting in the clinging vegetation. . .We also passed a point of land that had a fissure cut through the bottom of it straight through to the inlet behind it—like a very narrow cave that goes through to the other side, probably wide enough to swim through if one dared, which I do not.
“After repositioning ourselves, all four of us dove in for a late afternoon snorkel. We immediately encountered more sharks. Look up manta rays when you have a chance. It is the weirdest looking creature I’ve ever seen by far, but come to find out, they are no danger to man. They have typical ray tails, but no sting. They also have an extra set of flippers by their mouths, and they look like some kind of Star Wars space ship. Well this guy couldn’t care less about us, and goes about his business gliding around, eating his lunch. At one point he banked a turn, and one fin was out of the water, looking very much like a shark’s dorsal fin, and the other darn near touched bottom, as I said, 15-20 feet down. I mean huge. At some point, another manta joined the party, and the two of them were swimming lazy circles around us. Just to add one more element, our happy little group happened upon a fish ball in the midst of all this. A fish ball is a true feeding frenzy, with hundreds of medium sized fish swarming something they are all trying to eat, and creating what looks like (and is) an enormous wad of writhing fish. Then one of the rays glided into this scene, which got the fish even more riled up. It was a truly amazing show.
“Tonight we were on deck after dark, and the stars were just amazing in the hours before moonrise. On shore, there is one dim light from the rangers hut, and we have the lights from three other boats in the distance. I wish you were all here to see this. I can’t properly describe it, and I’m sure that the photos I’m taking won’t do it justice.”
I understand that Peter took an evening sail this week under a beautiful full moon. And in a few minutes, Jenny will share a slide presentation of pictures from many of you.
I present all of this to show how our view of the ocean has developed from something negative, to something practical and expedient, to something awesome. Many of us even consider time on the ocean a spiritual experience; an encounter with the divine. People today who are seeking spiritual renewal and inspiration often turn towards the ocean.
As I reflected on humankind’s evolving relationship with the sea I wondered if it might be an apt metaphor for a changing awareness of the divine spirit in and around us. The writers of the Old Testament present God as all-powerful, someone who initiates relationship with us but is a fearsome law-giver who demands obedience. In the New Testament Jesus, who is full of compassion, inclusive, and affirming says that, “when you see me, you see the Father. “ In addition he refers to God as daddy or papa; affectionate, slow to anger, gentle of heart, approachable. This is surely a changed perception of God.
In the scriptures we have meaningful accounts of people’s experiences with the divine. But we have something more. Before leaving this earth Jesus promised to send the Spirit. In John we read, “I shall ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever, that Spirit of truth whom the world can never receive, since it neither sees nor knows him, but you know him, because he is with you, he is in you.” And further, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything.” This Spirit in and among us helps us recognize the divine and develop our own unique relationship with the God of our understanding. In the Old Testament, the first commandment that the people of God were given is, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” I understand this now as an invitation to trust our own spiritual experience, value our own spiritual understanding, and treasure our own spiritual relationship. Scripture can be a powerful resource to help us recognize God’s actions in the world. But someone once said that trying to apply everything that we read in scripture to our lives is like reading someone else’s email. We need to understand the context of the story or message and consider if it is directed to us. The same is true with the writings of wise and holy people. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J. understood God as having a shared planetary destiny for all of humanity. Sallie McFague has an ecological theology that recognizes God as incarnate in all of creation. Two weeks ago Lisa Barstow shared her vision of our shared divinity with God. These shared insights can serve as guides to help us recognize our own reality, but we do ourselves a grave injustice, I believe, when we adopt another’s truth at the expense of owning our own.
Last week we were invited to get out of the boat and walk on water; to let go of what is familiar, what feels secure and comfortable so as to stretch and grow and live to the full. The sea is ever-changing, as are we. Jesus foretold that more would be revealed. He assured us that the Spirit would be with us and should we choose to, that we would know the Spirit because the Spirit is with us and in us. Let’s dare to believe that. Just as the disciples in today’s gospel asked themselves, “Who is this man that even the wind and waves obey him?” Let’s never stop asking ourselves, “Who is this God who self-reveals to me?” As the hymn says, we are invited, “Come, let us live in the light.” May we all shine with the joy and the love of God. Amen.