sermon for Ocean Sunday

(Job38:1-18; Psalm104:24-26; Ephesians1:3-10oceans; Luke5:1-11)
In spite of having been an official promoter for the Season of Creation for a number of years, this is my first time actually using it.

The Season of Creation was put together (by Norman Habel, whom Lindy Wilson met long ago up at Holden Village) to cover an apparent gap in the normal lectionary, that there was no explicit time to highlight and reflect on God as Creator and our place amid this vast sweep of creatures in creation. (At the end of the Season, we’ll attend to just how vast the sweep is, on Universe Sunday.) Even without that explicit opportunity, though, I hope I am among those clearly showing you we should be seeing Creator, creation, creatures, creative faithfulness most everywhere we turn. Still, I’m in favor of this Season of Creation…at least basically.

See, I’m also discovering it leaves a couple of conundrums. The first is that in the common lectionary and in our usual worship service, we don’t focus on themes or concepts or nouns in this way. The center of worship isn’t generically love or family or prison or health or morality or whatever. Those things may come up, but it’s through our overall lens: the norm of our focus is Jesus and God. So it’s a conundrum to call today “Ocean Sunday,” as if that’s our primary focus, rather than God.

The other conundrum or temptation is that, since creation isn’t typically highlighted, there’s a lot that could be crammed into these days. There is so much room for faithful reflection on oceans that we’d be flooded with or drowning in the possibilities (as even those metaphors might indicate).

Just as an example from other potential Bible passages, I remember hearing Jeff Wild talk about trees marking the Bible, with the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden at the beginning in Genesis 2, the tree of Jesus’ cross in the middle, and the tree for the healing of the nations at the end in Revelation 22. Well, we could say the same about oceans and God’s trajectory of salvation. The very start of Genesis 1 has the Spirit hovering over the face of the deep, the tehom in Hebrew, a primordial chaos from which God will call forth life, or maybe it’s even a play on the name Tiamat, a dead Babylonian god, with the biblical story as a counterpoint that our God doesn’t battle and destroy, but orderly creates life.

In the middle, instead of the tree of the cross, we might notice the Sea of Galilee, not only in today’s reading, but even more instead of the tree of death we might say the sea is life, as the resurrected Jesus meets his followers there to lead into the next part of the story (John 21).

And in Revelation 21, alongside a new heaven and a new earth is a change, that the “sea was no more.” Admittedly that’s a strange line for today, when we are called to notice faithfully the goodness and life in the oceans, the extravagant abundance of coral reefs as the richest biodiversity on the planet, the remarkable foreignness of bioluminescent creatures that somehow survive in the dark depths that would crush us with such severe water pressure, or the currents ebbing and flowing across the globe, responsive to the moon and rotation around the sun, and the amazing migrations and whale conversation along the leagues of those open expanses, or even the liquid breathing that is hydrologic cycles of evaporation and rain and clouds and temperature exchange that form hurricanes to stir up weather and nutrients and in some enormous way sustain patterns of life. Revelation can’t want to get rid of all of that when it says “the sea was no more,” right? The thrust of Revelation, rather, is symbolizing an end to the fearful primordial mess that didn’t want to cooperate with a God of blessing and life.

Indeed, in another way that 21st chapter of Revelation emphasizes some of the same main point as this Season of Creation, that faith isn’t about heaven that’s elsewhere or else-when, but is for the here and now. “The home of God is among mortals,” Revelation declares, as does the overall message of Scripture. God is with us. And not just us. This isn’t a God who cares exclusively or maybe even mostly about humans.

That points us—at long last—to an ocean reading we do have assigned today, from the book of Job. (Incidentally, in three years of Revised Common Lectionary readings, we hear from Job twice but will have three readings from Job in these four weeks of the Season of Creation.) At this point in the story, for 37 chapters Job had been puzzling out why life wasn’t going well, why he suffered, and his friends said God was punishing him.

But then God speaks, and maybe even seems a bit distracted, or at least clearly and certainly isn’t focused on punishing Job. God in some way says that life isn’t centered on us. And so life amid creation may seem confusingly chaotic to you, but it’s also much vaster, grander, and more complex than we can understand. That was true of what people knew back then, and in substantial ways it is true even of our scientific knowledge today. There’s still so much we can’t quite comprehend, of how our blood levels relate to the salt of the ocean, of how dolphins communicate with brains that exceed ours, or simply of how jellyfish came to be.

But maybe more important than the message that we’re in the same incomprehensible boat as Job is that in this speech God has delight for creation, for creatures God made, not as natural resources waiting to be used by humans, maybe not useful to humans in the least, and even on occasion harmful to us, but still a delight to God.

This comes out also in the snippet of Psalm we read, about God sporting and cavorting with Leviathan. That delighted, almost giddy appraisal takes up a whole chapter in Job 41, comprising the culmination  of God’s speech. What’s significant is that Leviathan was the sea monster, the most fearful part of that oceanic chaos, the thing that swallowed sailors and couldn’t be caught and ruled in destroying boats with tremendous terror. Now, we don’t need a fish finder searching for the Loch Ness monster in order for this faithful sentiment of these verses to be true. It means that God can see fearsome great white sharks as good, as well as giant squid that we’ve never even seen alive, much less plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs and weird enormous trilobites and chambered nautilus and millions of years of sea life that existed—or, better, were creatures—long before humans were anywhere in sight.

Maybe with that non-human emphasis, we’re ready for a change in tone amid this reflection. It’s a task of striking some sort of balance. God wasn’t saying Job was unimportant or that his suffering was trivial or meaningless to God. Similarly, it’s not that God doesn’t care about you to highlight the fact that God delights in lantern fish of the deep and oozy sea cucumbers and that God would mourn the overharvesting of blue tang because they look like “Finding Dory” and people want them in aquariums or cod for Friday fish fry.

But that overfishing becomes exactly a hard point with our Gospel reading. We may take this in all kinds of ways that would be contradictory to the overall point of this day. The reading has creatures of the deep, but it doesn’t seem to emphasize marine ecology. Instead, the people catch too many fish (apparently at Jesus’ instruction) and then leave behind their boats for what would seem to be claimed as the more important task of catching people. And it would be an obvious stretch to say that Jesus called them away from their boats in order to stop the overfishing of the Sea of Galilee and let the natural ecosystem restore. In spite of having a nice setting along the sea, this reading seems too human-centered.

Even worse is when we transform these natural details and the realities of life instead into spiritual metaphors, that when Jesus says to cast your nets in deep water that it’s about trying to be open to a deep and mysterious experience of faith. I’m sure loads of sermons have been preached that way on this text, but it has little to do with what Jesus says, and it sure doesn’t have much direct connection to lives of faith in this world. For some pious-sounding lesson, it becomes detached from life and interactions amid creation.

And if that’s a risk with the Gospel reading, it’s a direct impediment in the Ephesians stuff. It’s trying to open our eyes to the vastness of a cosmic Christ, to which we’ll return next month, but in the meantime it’s convoluted and dense and the whole thing in Greek is one long run-on sentence and it’s thick with technical theological jargon and—even though it wraps up by proclaiming that the ultimate goal of Jesus is to attend to and care for all things on earth—still it hardly touches down to the ground or dips its toes in the actual water of what this really means here and now.

That seems like an anti-climactic point to wind up this sermon, but I’m going to do it anyway, maybe as a caution: if we’re only encountering creation (in this case, the oceans) for how they’re useful to us, for resources or recreation, or—probably even worse—if we diminish their reality by making them an ancient symbol of chaos or a contemporary symbol of beach-side relaxation, if they become an idea instead of a reality, then we’ve taken away the mystery and the otherness that God intends and loves, and with which God intends us to be in relationship and loving for its own sake as well. Perhaps God’s retort to Job can stand for us today and in these weeks as well:  “Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?” Let’s keep diving into that challenge from our Creator.

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