Sermon Sept 4 2022: Gifts from the Sea (Ps 104, Philemon)    Rev. Betsy Hogan

Have you ever had that thing where you wanted someone to stop – and listen to something? Like a noise you just heard, and you want them to hear it too, or even on purpose -- something you want them to hear either where you are or on your phone – 

And so they stop. And there’s a pause. But then instead of reacting the way you imagine they’re going to react, instead it’s like – “What am I listening to??”

I thought it’d be quite brilliant to PLAY the sound of the ocean at some point during this service. A bit literalist, to be sure, but quite apart from the notion of LITERALLY listening to the voice of the ocean… it’s also absolutely undeniable that in the place in our spirits as Nova Scotians where the ocean abides and evokes and speaks to us, a big part of that is its sound. 

The sound of the waters and the waves, whether they’re gently rising on the beaches or crashing up against the shoreline. It’s not ALL about the sound, but it IS about the sound. 

So I looked up clips of ocean waves. Discovered there’s a whole cottage industry of making audio and video clips of ocean waves, mostly aimed at people who have trouble falling asleep –

But I wasn’t going to use a long clip – heaven knows, I don’t want to overtly encourage people to fall asleep – so I gave some of them a listen.

And frankly, all I could think was “What am I listening to?” Because it was just sound, it was just noise, it was just a roar. When we’re standing on the shoreline we can see the individual waves, we can catch the sense of the rhythm and the ebb and the flow, but as just a sound?

It’s kind of just an undifferentiated roar. Deep and wide and unfathomable and breathtakingly awe-inspiring in its actual context – but when its separated and held apart and being listened to almost clinically through speakers? Essentially indistinguishable from the sound of static. 

Which is simply not fair to the majesty that is the ocean. To a degree that’s sort of hilariously ironic.

So… no undifferentiated roar. No sound clip. We know the roar, and we know its rhythm and its ebb and its flow: the depth and the breadth of its sound in its actual context. We’ve heard it, and that’s the voice of the ocean that speaks.

You’d be amazed, or maybe you wouldn’t, how often the vastness of the oceans, the simple SIZE of the seas, as evidence of the astonishing creative power of God – the astonishing creative power of the Spirit of God moving over the elements – turns up in the earliest books of our Bible.

In the Older Testament, the Hebrew scriptures -- and especially in the Psalms. Because Psalm 104 that we heard parts of earlier is only one example and there are LOADS. Where the writers and the storytellers of Ancient Israel, whenever they wanted to convey God’s sheer, immense, breath-taking, overwhelming hugeness, would invariably fall back on the seas.

Resort to the oceans, call up the waters. As kind of the ultimate expression – as Monty Python would later memorably put it – of “Oh Lord, You are so very big. You’re absolutely huge”.

Which, OF COURSE they did, the writers of the Psalms. Of COURSE they’d go immediately to the oceans if they wanted to talk about God’s bigness. It’s the perfectly obvious and instinctive choice. But at the same time, pause a moment and imagine if instead of the Mediterranean, they’d known of the Atlantic. Imagine if they’d known of the Pacific!

Nevertheless, even just the Mediterranean, what the oceans said, spoke, revealed, to the ancients of our Bible – to the ancients everywhere – was the experience of being ‘small’ in relation to ‘huge’. Tiny in relation to vast, insignificant in relation to epic, vulnerable in relation to formidable.

In the Psalms, the ocean almost stands in for God -- at once awe-inspiring and terrifying -- in the same way that Elizabethan poet George Herbert later reflects when he writes “He that would learn to pray, let him go to sea”. Because nowhere else in all God’s creation is as overwhelming in the sheer SIZE of its presenting life – or as dangerous in the sheer SIZE of its capacity to destroy.

For the Psalm writers and for Herbert, the line between the Creator and the Creation itself, when it came to the ocean, was very thin indeed. And if, in the intervening millennia or centuries we’ve been able through science to step away from the fearsomeness of ascribing every maritime disaster to a randomly vengeful God – and alleluia for that – 

I do think that the ocean’s voice for us is still all wrapped up as much as it ever was in that experience of feeling small in relation to huge, insignificant in relation to epic, vulnerable in relation to formidable. But what the Psalms and other Bible passages also remind us is that that’s a voice… that can actually be restful.

Because the ocean speaks to us perspective. Whatever there is in my life or your life, it’s not that it “pales in comparison” with the vastness of the ocean – it’s that it’s not unique, it’s been experienced, it’s been survived.

There’s not a single drop of water in the ocean that hasn’t been present in some form from the beginning of creation. So whatever it is that we bring to the shoreline as we look across and imagine we can see France, it’s been brought, it’s been lived, it’s been shared. 

The ocean speaks to us that perspective of being overwhelmed, inescapably and poignantly, by how very small we are in the vastness of history and the human family and surpassingly diverse beauty of life. And how big Godness is, who created it all and holds it all. Including us.

The ocean in its hugeness, it confronts us with our essential vulnerability, the limits of our control – and if those things sound bad, they’re not. Because they’re real. And when we let that realness in, as a gift from the sea, we’re learning to allow ourselves to rest. In that perspective. Of smallness and humility and vulnerability that knows and trusts it’s not alone. 

That leans in, and lets itself rest.

But it’s not just about the endless horizons and the depth and the breadth and the vast overwhelming size and power of it all, is it. Because we know, if we’ve listened to the voice of the ocean where the ocean actually is – and not just on a youtube video – we know it’s not just an undifferentiated roar.

It has rhythm. Lakes have stillness and rivers have flow, but the ocean follows the moon – its cycle has the rhythm of our living in its waves. “Day, night. Night, day” is how American poet Langston Hughes puts it in his poem about the endless and relentless and wholly trustable turning of the tides, but it’s actually the language of our faith – 

It’s “weeping endures for the night, but joy comes in the morning”. It’s exile and restoration. It’s brokenness and forgiveness. It’s death and resurrection.

What the voice of the ocean speaks for us in the turning of the tide – in the approach and the retreat, in the strong waves IN and the tired waves OUT – is just promise. It’s just hope. It’s just… there’s always a new start.

And we turn, and we turn, and we turn. And I could go off on a spectacular tangent about the healing properties of salt water and quote for you the famous words of Danish author Isak Dinesen, that “the cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, and the sea” – and metaphorically and even to some extent literally it’s manifestly true!

But instead, there’s this letter of the Apostle Paul to Philemon. That hardly ever gets read, and it’s literally only 25 verses long, but it was one of the lectionary readings for today and so we heard it earlier, and you know what it is?

It’s a letter written by Paul while he’s in prison, to some fellow called Philemon who was apparently a leader in the church in Colossus. And the only point of it, the only reason Paul bothers to write it, while he’s busy sitting in an actual Roman dungeon, presumably in chains –

Is that Paul is sending his friend Onesimus to Philemon, and he’s asking Philemon to give Onesimus a second chance. We don’t have any idea what Onesimus did before. Paul weirdly and sort of comically mentions that he knows that Philemon has pretty much found Onesimus to be “useless” in the past, which I suppose could be annoying enough –

But he does also make a point of noting that if Onesimus has actually wronged Philemon in any way, or otherwise owes him anything, Philemon should put that on Paul’s account. So Paul certainly isn’t trying to paper over anything here. It’ll have to BE a second chance for Onesimus with Philemon, and Paul’s absolutely aware of that.

But he asks for it. He a little bit pleads for it. Indeed, I’ve no desire to mince words and the letter to Philemon can stand on its own as a HIGHLY problematic how-to manual for emotional blackmail, with top tips from the Apostle Paul.

But setting that aside, the faith that’s at the heart of this letter is Paul’s deep belief in second chances. His deep belief in fresh starts. His deep belief in a faithfulness utterly grounded in the conviction that what’s broken can be healed, that what’s been wrong can be forgiven, that yesterday’s “useless” can get another go. It’s what Paul calls grace. 

And it’s exactly what the voice of the ocean speaks for us in the rhythm of its waves, in the turning of the tide. “God’s mercies never fail,” the prophet Jeremiah writes in the Book of Lamentations. “They are new every morning”. 

Relentless and trustably and it’s not just an undifferentiated roar. The ocean’s voice echoes that promise of grace, the hopefulness of trying again, the gift of fresh starts. It speaks to us of forgiveness. It speaks to us of resurrection.

And it speaks to us of perspective, of our tininess and our smallness and our shared humanity and vulnerability as only one piece of an unfathomably vast creation. It speaks to us of a Spirit of God who patently IS “so very big” and in fact “absolutely huge”. It invites us to lean in, to rest, and to know we’re not alone.

Thanks be to God for these gifts from the sea. Amen.