Have you been to the ocean? Do you remember the first time that you saw the ocean?
I remember the first time that I saw the ocean, vividly. I was 9 years old and for the first time ever, my family was going somewhere on vacation besides my grandfather’s farm! We were going to the beach with my aunt and uncle and cousins. The two families planned for months for that trip, sorting out who was bringing what and who was going to cook which night. My brothers and I had never seen the sea and so we spent months trying to discover what it would look like. My aunt told me that the sea would reflect the color of the sky and I spent a great deal of time trying to determine what she meant as I watched the spring cloudbursts descend from grey skies. How could the ocean ever be grey?
The day arrived and my family piled into the car for the road trip to the beach. We reached the beach in the afternoon, unloaded the car, and then my brothers and I were allowed to go out on the beach, but we had to remain where we could see the house and my parents could see us.
I was smitten! The air, the sand, the water, the reflection of the sun on the water all felt like old friends welcoming me to their home. I loved the water rushing across my toes and the surprise creatures that I saw in the water, the pieces of shells along the shore, and the smell of the saltwater that permeated everything. From that first afternoon on the beach, I knew that I had found a space where my heart could soar, even though at the time I didn’t have words that could express the feeling.
Something happened one day that really could have taken away from me all those feelings that I had from the first moment on the beach. I was in the water in front of the house, where my parents could look up and see me. That day, the tide was strong. The current was strong. For a young girl, not paying any attention in the midst of her delight, I did not notice that the current was pulling me down the beach. I looked up and noticed that I was no longer in front of the house and I was moving dangerously close to the pier. I could do nothing but let the water carry me and for a moment I was very frightened. I was moving closer and closer to the big poles that held the pier and I could not move out of the way. Then, I realized that the water was carrying me, just to the side of the big pole, to a place where I could easily get out of the water and walk back to my parents. They hadn’t even noticed that I was missing.
What that experience taught me was that the ocean is beautiful and strong, teeming with life and mystery. It ebbs and flows as it wills. And I need to respect it.
Throughout my years, I have had many experiences on ocean’s shores. There have been sunrises on the shores in Maine. Sunsets in the wee hours of the morning on the shores of Iceland. Long, intense conversations on the shores of the southern coast of England. The beginning of a journey on the shores of Rotterdam, carrying me across the English Channel to Harwich and a magical view of the estuary and the moon. A long, windswept, winter evening walk on the shores of South Carolina and lovely celebrations at Thanksgiving.
Needless to say, I love the ocean. Each year, I feel like I have to see it. And I hope to see it in as many places as possible.
The ocean is an amazing place. Did you know that:
- The oceans cover 71 percent of the Earth’s surface and contain 97 percent of the Earth’s water.
- The majority of life on Earth is aquatic.
· Less than five per cent of the planet’s oceans have been explored.
· The world’s longest mountain chain is underwater.
· There are more historic artefacts under the sea than in all of the world’s museums.
· We still only know a fraction of the marine species in our oceans.
· Over 70 per cent of our planet’s oxygen is produced by the ocean.
· It’s possible to find rivers and lakes beneath the ocean.
· Around 50 per cent of the US lies beneath the ocean
· The Pacific Ocean is the world’s largest ocean and contains around 25,000 islands.
These are amazing and interesting facts about our oceans, but there are even more facts that we need to know and that we need to pay attention to. Our oceans are in trouble.
- Climate system change is causing sea levels to rise, threatening coastal population centers.
- Many pesticides and nutrients used in agriculture end up in the coastal waters, resulting in oxygen depletion that kills marine plants and shellfish.
- Factories and industrial plants discharge sewage and other runoff into the oceans.
- Oil spills pollute the oceans, though U.S. water-sewage treatment plants discharge twice as much oil each year as tanker spills.
- Air pollution is responsible for almost one-third of the toxic contaminants and nutrients that enter coastal areas and oceans.
- It is becoming more and more difficult for marine life to thrive. Many marine species are in danger of becoming extinct and there are some predictions that the coral reefs will disappear completely by the end of this century.
- Invasive species such as poisonous algae, cholera, and countless plants and animals have entered harbor waters and disrupted the ecological balance.
- The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 31.4 percent of fish stocks are either fished to capacity or overfished.
Clearly, dying oceans and marine life are not in God’s plan. Today, two passages of scripture help us to think about how God is asking us to pay attention to this precious, life-giving gift.
In the Old Testament book of Job, we find God and Job in the midst of a deep discussion. Job, who has experienced more misery than he feels that anyone should experience is asking God for an answer for his circumstances, but God responds in a different manner than Job was expecting. God counters Job’s demand for answers by asking what Job really knows about anything.
Where were you when I laid earth’s foundations?
Who brought the planets into existence while the morning stars were singing?
Who created the sea, its majesty, its beauty, its stormy waves, its limits?
Have you gone to the sea’s sources or walked the chamber of the deep?
Have you surveyed earth’s expanses?
Tell me Job if you know everything about it. (paraphrased selected verses of Job 38:4-8)
God is talking. YHWH is speaking and the presence of YHWH’s power is unquestionable. YHWH’s justice and love in the midst of that power is also unquestionable.
What God is doing here is releasing Job from the human need to putourselves at the center of everything—to make everything about ourselves. Job feels that his suffering is beyond what anyone else has ever dealt with and that the way he feels at that moment is all that God needs to be concerned about.
But God releases Job from this misunderstanding and self-centeredness with every question and is accompanying Job on a path of discovery and transformation. The questions are essential for Job to consider his place in the midst of God’s creation.
Who is Job in relation to God?
Who is Job in relation to Creation?
Who are we in relation to God?
Who are we in relation to Creation?
Who are we in relation to the Sea?
Here, God speaks particularly about the sea in language that is mysterious and vividly filled with images that Job and we can see and understand.
The Sea bursts forth from the womb
God wraps the Sea in swaddling bands of clouds and darkness.
God imposes limits on the Sea as a loving parent would impose limits on a beloved child.
We can imagine God cradling the Sea, loving the Sea, cherishing the Sea. This image might seem strange to us, but it isn’t strange to God. The Sea is precious to God. God has deep love for the Sea. For God, the Sea is something that needs care.
Today, God is not just asking these questions of Job. God is asking these questions of us. In this passage from Job, how can we not pay attention to God’s call for usto love, cherish, and care for the Sea.
In the Gospel of Luke, we find Jesus at the Sea of Galilee, wherethere are many who want to know more about what he has to say about God. Jesus asks Peter for two things that Peter could easily deliver.
First, Jesus asks to use Peter’s boat as sort of a platform or pulpit fromwhich to speak. Peter takes care of that, rowing Jesus to just the right spot so that he could speak to the people.
Second, Jesus asks Peter to try fishing again, in another spot. Peter, anexperienced fisherman declared that the second request was FUTILE! He just knew that it was useless to try fishing anywhere else, but he heard Jesus’ request and just because it was Jesus, he would do it. It is as if Peter said,” I know that this futile, but because YOU say so, I will do it.”
There was great success, a HUGE catch. Peter’s response is unexpected.He is astonished. In that moment, he understands exactly who Jesus is. He calls Jesus Lord, which is the word the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) uses for the word that we know as YHWH. In this moment, Peter understands Jesus for who he is–God incarnate.
The success of the catch calls to Peter’s mind, his sinfulness and the realization of Jesus’ acceptance of him despite his sinfulness reveals to him is that he wants to remain close to Jesus and to continue to follow and serve Jesus.
This passage, Luke 5:1-8, has something to say to us as we think about God’s call on our lives to care for the Ocean. Like Jesus asked Peter we are asked to do two things that we are capable of. First, we are called to notice and appreciate this great gift of the ocean and to recognize that it is more than just a place for a fun vacation. It is mysterious. It is beautiful. It is at the heart of life for our planet.
Like the second request of Peter, God’s second request of us is risky. Weare called to do whatever we have to do to help the ocean live and thrive. And like Peter our first response to that request is that it is FUTILE.
How can anything that you and I do really help preserve God’s ocean?
Recently, a video made the rounds on social media. The video showed a turtle with a plastic straw stuck in its nose. This video fueled a discussion that has gone on for several years about how hundreds of different kinds of plastic items have been found polluting the ocean. There is much discussion about whether or not we should be using plastic straws. Indeed, plastic straws are not the biggest culprit of plastics that have destroyed life in the ocean. We think that a straw is so small and that our decision to use one cannot have anything to do with whether our oceans live or die.
I first became aware of this discussion last year when I was visiting my dear friends Anne and Robin in the mountains of NC—far removed from the ocean. We had gone out to lunch and as we were waiting for our water, Anne pulled out three aluminum straws and gave them to us to use.
I must say that it felt weird.
Later in the day, we went out for dinner and Anne repeated her ritual of bringing out three straws for us to use. It still felt weird, but it also caused me to start thinking about what using plastic straws means for our ocean environment.
According to several sources, around 1 million shorebirds have choked and died because of plastic straws that were mistaken for food. When marine life sees straws floating in their underwater habitat, they mistake them for food and they also choke. In addition, the plastic straws fill up their stomachs so that there is no longer room for the life sustaining food that they need.
It is a little thing, but my friend Anne’s campaign to substitute aluminum straws for plastic straws led me to a decision. Because of her witness, I have now gone almost a whole year without the use of a straw. At times, it seems futile, but not using a straw has also led me to do more research about the trouble that our oceans are in. There are a lot of variables and some solutions seem overwhelming, but just as Peter discovered that when he took the risk that Jesus asked him to—because he knew who Jesus is—the risks that we will take are important for the lives of those that God has asked us to help care for.
Several years ago, I spent a week at Chautauqua Institute, in NY, learning about water. Every day there was a different lecture on a water issue. Even the preaching was centered around the themes of water in the scriptures. On Friday, the guest lecturer was Dr. Sylvia Earle, a world renown marine biologist. When the time came for her to speak, we all got a surprise. There was no Dr. Earle. The stage was empty until a large screen appeared and through the magic of technology, Dr. Earle appeared on the screen, live from a submarine somewhere in the middle of the ocean.
Her ocean surroundings were startlingly beautiful. In the pristine blue waters life of all colors swam by her as she told us the dangers that threaten our oceans. It was grim news and I remember feeling overwhelmed and thinking that there was nothing that we could do to save this precious gift that God has given us. I remember thinking that we are sinful creatures to let God down like this. But Dr. Earle was inspiring as she encouraged us to do what we can to help preserve this precious gift. She asked us to educate ourselves and to look for any ways possible that we can appreciate the oceans and protect them. She told us about Mission Blue, which is an organization that is doing phenomenal work in ocean preservation. Mostly, I left that lecture with hope.
Today, the image from Job of God cradling the ocean, holding it dear to God’s heart is a deeply moving image for me and indeed I hope for us all. This image reminds me that God calls humans to care for creation in such a way that all life on this planet thrives. It also reminds me that we cannot look at this task as futile. This task will require us to make sacrifices, but it is NOT FUTILE. It is a precious task and deeply rewarding and it begins with our appreciation and gratitude for the gift of the ocean that God has given to us all.
Note: This sermon is second in a series for Seasons of Creation and is my attempt to help my congregation and me to think together about the beauty of Creation and about the climate crisis that threatens our planet. In the midst of this situation we have a mandate from God to care for our earth. May we do so, before it is too late.