Worship notes for ocean sunday: september 29th

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for this upcoming Sunday, September 29th.
We started the Season of Creation a week late so are hitting "Ocean Sunday" this week.  I am also preparing things early given a crazy week AND with the possibility that I will become a grandpa this week, too. We shall see...

“More than 25% of the Earth’s species dwell in the ocean’s depths.”  Nearly 97% of the Earth’s water and 95% of the Earth’s biosphere (the space on Earth that nourishes life) are connected to the ocean.  Sixty percent of our bodies are water.  Life and land have their origins in the ocean.  “And like marine life, we ourselves mature in the waters of our mother’s womb” on the way towards our birth. (Seasons of the Spirit Sunday School material, Season of Creation, Wood Lake Publishing)  Our baptismal liturgy speaks of the sacred waters of life like this:

We thank you, God, for the gift of creation called forth by your saving Word. Before the world had shape and form, your Spirit moved over the waters.  Out of the waters of the deep, you formed the firmament and brought forth the earth to sustain all life.  In the time of Noah, you washed the earth with the waters of the flood and your ark of salvation bore a new beginning. In the time of Moses, your people Israel passed through the Red Sea waters from slavery into freedom and crossed the flowing Jordan to enter the Promised Land.  In the fullness of time, you sent Jesus Christ who was nurtured in the water of Mary’s womb.  Jesus was baptized by John in the water of the Jordan, became living water to a woman at the Samaritan well, washed the feet of the disciples in water and sent them forth to baptize all nations by water and the Holy Spirit.

·      Our tradition and our very existence is saturated in waters – and today on what we are calling “Ocean Sunday” in the season of creation we have been asked to ponder and honor the truth of the Lord as expressed and experienced in the ocean.

·      And let me tell you something:  I am terrified of the ocean.  I love to walk beside it and feel very much at home along the ocean shore.  But the thought of going more than 10 feet INTO the ocean makes my head spin and my stomach hurt in ways I can’t begin to describe. And it is not just because I get sea-sick (which I do in the most tragic and unpleasant way).  No, the vast power and sheer physical enormity of the ocean unhinges me in ways are beyond comprehension.  The depth and breadth of the ocean terrify and mystify me.  The uncontrollable and unpredictable force of a storm at sea alarms me beyond all reason.  And the whole subject of unnerves me.

Did anyone see the movie, “The Life of Pi?”  It was beautiful – and insightful – and a truly wonderful story – except, of course, that whole sequence with the ship wreck.  Apparently there is a term for my fear – thalassaphobia – from the Greek word, thalassa, meaning sea and phobos meaning fear.  I don’t think I am totally phobic about the ocean because I love walking on the beach and adore sea food – and I really don’t think much about sea monsters – but let’s just say that there is no way on God’s great green earth that you are going to get me on a boat that does anything on the ocean but sit snuggly secured to its port, ok?

And that might be a good place to start to go deeper into today’s focus scripture from the book of Job.  Because the One Who is Holy gets just a little salty and agitated with our man, Job, who in spite of his miserable troubles and woes has come to think that the world really does revolve around himself.
After listening to Job’s complaints for five chapters – as well as the less than insightful inanities of Job’s friends – from out of the whirlwind the Lord of hosts says: Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man as I begin to question you – and I want some answers! ‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined the measurements of creation—surely you know! On what were its bases sunk or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?

·        Do you get a sense of the Lord’s annoyance at Job’s self-absorbed arrogance – and anthropocentric understanding of reality? And here’s the thing:  God’s rant goes on for another long four chapters:  Where you there, Job, when I shut the doors on the sea… 

… when it burst out from the womb?— when I made the clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band and prescribed bounds for it and set bars and doors and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther and here shall your proud waves be stopped?”

·      Now do you get what is going on here?  Ordinarily we tend to think of the Sacred One, the Lord our God, as gracious and merciful, right?  We even sometimes domesticate God into a sweet and ultra-forgiving old grandpa.  Bt not here – no here we have a God who is every bit as powerful and mysterious as the ocean itself – deep and inscrutable – patient and nurturing, to be sure, but equally capable of unimaginable destruction, rage and awe.

·      The first insight about this scripture has to do with human humility:  God expresses to Job what his true place in creation actually is – and it isn’t very grand.  It is tiny – real and important – but hardly the center of the universe.  And apparently before Job can make peace with his troubles, he needs a reality check:  his egocentric world view and his inflated sense of place in the order of creation needs some adjusting. Are you with me on this point; have I been clear? 

Job’s “sense of justice is linked with his own estimation of his virtue?” (Seasons of the Spirit) “How come bad things are happening to me, Lord?  I’m a good guy, so what’s going on?  This isn’t fair?”  To which God doesn’t give much of an answer, right?  Rather, the sacred reply goes something like:  Are you kidding me?  Do you have any sense of how creation works?  Or began or is ordered since before there was time?  Tell me – if you do, then I will treat you as an equal – but if not then get a grip and understand where you fit in the fullness of the cosmos!  That is, how about some authentic humility, man?

·      What do you think or feel about that?

·      Does it challenge or call into question any of your notions about the Lord?

If respect and humility in the face of God’s power and authority is the first point, then the second is a reminder that there is a sacred order to the way God works that is as deep and diverse as the ocean itself:  it is bigger than our imagination; it is more wild than our ability to comprehend; and despite the terrifying destruction built into the rhythm of the cosmos, God’s order is greater still and sets limits to all things.

In fact, just as there are limits that God asks Job to acknowledge about his own ability to understand, God tells Job that the Lord has set creation in motion in a way that puts limits on even the ocean and the wind and land and all living things.  If you pay attention to the way this passage is constructed, just like the creation story at the beginning of the Bible you will see that there is an order and limit to all things:

·      First there is the creation of the earth – from out of the chaos of the oceans – in verses 4-7.

‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?  Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk,or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?

·        Second there is the creation of the oceans – an act of order and limits – in verses 8-11.

‘Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?— when I made the clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed bounds for it and set bars and doors and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther and here shall your proud waves be stopped”?

·        And third there is the creation of light and darkness – yet another act of creation with ordered limitation – in verses 12-15.

Have you commanded the morning since your days began and caused the dawn to know its place, so that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth and the wicked be shaken out of it? It is changed like clay under the seal and it is dyed like a garment. Light is withheld from the wicked and their uplifted arm is broken. 

Do you see the sacred truth in the order the text itself emphasizes?  The theological insight here is that while there is a power at work that is astounding – and sometimes even menacing – built into our awe in the Lord’s creation is a balance that always preserves life.  There is a limit to even evil or destruction in the way of the Lord just as there is a limit to the cold and the heat, the water and the land, the day and the night. 

And even if we can’t see it – even if we are unable to experience this truth in our hearts – faith asks us to trust that it is true.  St. Paul reminds us that:  “Now we see as through a glass darkly, but later we shall see face to face.  The preacher in the book of Hebrews tells us that: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for…  The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see. The act of faith is what distinguished our ancestors, set them above the crowd… for by faith we see the world called into existence by God’s word, what we see created by what we don’t see.”

The poet of Ecclesiastes is even more clear when it comes to reminding us
that faith has to do with trusting God’s order and limitation when she writesTo everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down and a time to build up;  a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance. 

·      What does that say to you about the nature of the Lord?  What are you thinking or feeling about all of this so far?

·      In reality as well as metaphor the wisdom our spiritual ancestors want to share with us about the ocean is that the wildness of the sea is meant to humble us, and, God has set limits on even its power and size.

·      It is the paradox of faith:  humility and trust – awe and respect – reverence and love.

And if we’re learning about both humility and trust in the Lord from the ocean, then even the Gospel story about Jesus and those out in the fishing boat underscores what Job and all of us must witness.  We want to believe that we can make it on our own – that if we just try hard enough and work long enough – then we can earn and get what we want.

·      But that wasn’t true for the fishermen in this story, was it?  They worked all night long doing heavy labor and still didn’t have much to show for it, right?  The text tells us that when they came in there was only a small catch.  Like Job, they did everything right and still were unable to come out as winners.

·      Jesus, of course, upsets all of this by showing them the “instability of their labor” and efforts by having them go back out into the deep and start fishing again.  The point isn’t so much about the miracle – although that’s fun – but the realization that what we control in life is really very small.  We have responsibility to do our part, but God’s mysterious order is much bigger and far more powerful than anything we can think or say or even do.

And when Simon Peter – like Job – realizes that God’s power is at work in the world in ways he cannot comprehend, he is set free to live in a new and faithful way that is in harmony with God’s order.  The way I read these stories is that when both Peter and Job let themselves be “guided by awe and reverence” then their lives were able to take on a whole new level of beauty and peace and even power. 

The ocean invites us to reclaim and celebrate awe.  It also asks of us in humility to own our responsibility for the ways we have wounded this powerful and mysterious friend with pollution and sin.  To date we have created 405 dead zones in the ocean where life can no longer be supported.  Because we have ignored the limits of God’s created order, dumping tons and tons of fertilizer run off into the Mississippi River, the Gulf of Mexico now as a dead zone that is the size of the state of New Jersey.  But here’s the good news:  dead zones are not eternal.  They can be reversed. 

·      The Black Sea was once a complete dead zone, but between 1991 and 2001 – as the result of the collapse of the Soviet Union – fertilizers become too expensive to be used in excess.  And now a thriving fishing industry has returned to the once God forsaken place.

·      Pete Seeger and his Clearwater crew have done much the same for the Hudson River. And while the jury is still out on our treasured Housatonic River there is hope.

All around us are signs that when we live without humility and respect for the Lord’s limits, all hell breaks loose.  And that too is one of God’s limits:  when we live without care, when we treat everything – including people – as if it were a tissue to be used and then thrown away, all hell breaks loose.

·      We find dead zones in the ocean – beleaguered and wounded people gunning one another down in a perverted cry for help – cynicism and pollution becoming the order of the day.

·      The poet, Mary Oliver. Who lives near the ocean in Provincetown, Massachusetts put it like this in her recent collection:

The good citizens of the commission
cast their votes
for more of everything.
Very early in the morning

I go out
to the pale dunes, to look over
the empty spaces
of the wilderness.

For something is there,
something is there when nothing is there but itself,
that is not there when anything else is.

the good citizens of the commission
have never seen it,

Whatever it is,
formless, yet palpable.
Very shining, very delicate.

Very rare.

Beloved, there is a sacred and created order that we have been entrusted with that begins with awe.  We are the stewards of awe, the custodians of reverence, women and men called to honor the God we love by living in harmony with the cosmos.  Our ancestors said to us:  Bless the Lord, O my soul, for you, O Lord have set the earth on its foundation… and I will sing your praise by living in awe all the days of my life.

Lord, may it be so for us, too.


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