Today marked the first day of the “Season of Creation” that my congregation is doing in worship this month. Each Sunday has a different theme, with different readings. You can find this information at http://www.seasonofcreation.com. We made it fun by bringing in seashells to decorate the sanctuary, and one parishioner even had a piece of baleen from a whale! We also had a PowerPoint slideshow of different ocean shots going throughout the service. I think it went over very well with the congregation. Below is my sermon, based on the Gospel reading, Luke 5:1-11:
My first memory of the ocean is this: I was a little girl and we were living in New Hampshire. One day my parents took us to Hampton Beach, which is part of the small stretch of coastline that New Hampshire owns. While my brother took to the water naturally and swam, with my father, out into the deeper water, I stood in the sand absolutely mesmerized by and terrified of the huge waves that were crashing in. When I was little, I didn’t know how to express my fears very well, so I just stood there, while my mother tried to convince me that it was okay to go out further and she would be right by my side. But nothing she said could convince me that all of that water crashing in waves on the shore was safe.
It turns out that my childhood fear of the ocean is understandable, in the grand scheme of things. In the ancient Near East, which is where the stories in the Bible take place, the sea was the primary symbol of chaos and death. In the creation story of Genesis 1, God gathers the seas together and subdues them in order for dry land to appear. In our reading today from Job, God describes his act of creation as “shutting in the sea with doors” and “prescribing bounds for” the ocean, and telling the seas, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped.” The ocean is a fearful place, one where human beings cannot survive for long without special equipment to help us breathe.
But the ocean is also a source of life for us. The oceans account for 97 percent of the earth’s water and more than 95 percent of the earth’s living space. Scientists believe that the ocean is where all life on our planet began. Oceans absorb roughly one-third of the carbon dioxide emitted by human activity, which slows the buildup of heat-trapping gases and works against global warming. And, of course, oceans are home to all sorts of creatures, from the familiar, such as fish and whales, to the exotic, such as octopus and jellyfish.
It might seem strange to us then that the Gospel lesson chosen for “Ocean Sunday” takes place not on an ocean, but on the Sea of Galilee—which Luke calls Gennesaret– which is actually a large freshwater lake. But in Bible times, both salt seas and freshwater lakes were viewed as a part of the same great subterranean reservoir that fed springs, rivers, lakes, and oceans. So, in other words, these great bodies of water are not separate, as we think of them, but are all part of the same body of water. According to the Biblical worldview, the land that we live on floats on the water. And even though today’s Gospel lesson does not take place on the ocean proper, it still has some important things to teach us about God’s abundant creation.
Usually when we approach this text, we read it as the great call to follow Jesus and “fish for” or “catch” people for him. It is both a discipleship text—leave everything and follow Jesus—and a missionary text—“become fishers of people”. But as I was preparing this sermon and reading about the text from an environmental point of view, one of the comments really hit me hard. Luke does not tell us what happened to that enormous catch of fish. He simply says that the fishermen left everything and followed Jesus. So, what happened to the fish? Certainly after God had provided this abundance, he would not let it go to waste.
Since the Gospel does not tell us, I think we need to guess what happened to the fish, and I think there are two possibilities. Since Peter, James, and John were partners in a fishing business, it is possible that they sold the fish and created a financial “nest egg” for Jesus and themselves as they left their business behind and followed Jesus. But, somehow, I don’t think they sold the fish. We don’t know what Jesus was teaching the crowds that day from the boat, but I believe the miraculous catch of fish was a type of “sermon illustration”. What I infer from that illustration is this: Trust in God to supply your needs, because God is a God of abundance. For if this is indeed what Jesus was teaching to the crowds, the great catch of fish was the proof that Peter, James, and John could indeed leave everything behind to follow Jesus, trusting in God to supply all of their physical needs. And so, I believe that these first disciples of Jesus gave the fish away and did not charge the people for the fish, as a further demonstration of trusting in God’s abundance.
Trusting in God’s abundance is the first lesson that we can learn about proper stewardship of God’s creation. But, like Peter who says, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man,” we in our sinfulness shove God away. We think we know better than God and take on the burden of trusting in ourselves and our own work to provide for not only our needs, but our desires as well. To use a local fishing example, let’s look at the lake trout vs. cutthroat trout problem in Yellowstone. About 20 years ago, lake trout were illegally introduced to Yellowstone Lake. Why? I couldn’t find the why, but my guess is because people wanted more fish to catch in the lake for their recreation, rather than trusting that what was already in the lake would supply their needs. The consequences were that the lake trout fed on the cutthroat trout. With the decrease in numbers of the cutthroat trout, bears, otters and other wildlife could no longer eat the fish they needed, because the lake trout inhabit deeper waters than these animals can reach. This causes these animals to go elsewhere in search of food and to find other sources of food that they might not normally eat, which in turn causes a chain reaction continuing up the food chain. Human beings, who think they knew best by playing God and introducing lake trout into an area where they were not native, caused even more problems in God’s very good creation.
Another way that human beings do not trust in God’s abundance is to take that abundance for granted. To use an example from the ocean proper, let’s look at shark finning. I have a confession to make: I have eaten shark fin soup. It was when I was in Taiwan, and I was the guest of friends at a very expensive meal. It would have been the height of rudeness to refuse to eat it, and it was very tasty. What’s wrong with shark fin soup, you ask? In order to obtain the fins, the practice is to catch the sharks from the ocean, cut the fins off, and toss the injured shark back into the ocean, where it will bleed to death. The reason for this inhumane practice is that the shark fins can fetch up to $300 a pound, while the rest of the meat sells for a much lower price. Shark fin soup is a part of Asian culture, and the fins are in high demand. So these fishermen throw the rest of the shark back in order to make room on their boats for more fins. We might say, “So what? They’re sharks, and we all hear about shark attacks on humans whose only crime has been to swim in the ocean.” But, if sharks were to die out, other fish species that the shark keeps under control would multiply, then overcrowd the oceans and die off themselves. To this day, I still feel guilty about that bowl of shark fin soup that I ate in order to maintain a good relationship with my hosts. When we think that God’s abundance in creation is never ending and waste it to supply our needs and desires, then we create difficulties not only for God’s creation, but eventually for ourselves. For everything in God’s creation is intricately and intimately interconnected.
And when I say everything is interconnected, I mean everything. We as humans are a part of God’s creation that he named “very good”, and not set apart from creation. God has given us a role to play in his creation. And in spite of the two examples that I’ve named above, along with numerous other threats to our oceans, I see signs of hope. I see hope in how many people are working to remove the lake trout from Yellowstone Lake in order to help restore the delicate balance in that ecosystem. I see hope in the simple act of the fishermen in this area who, every fall, work to rescue the fish that are cut off from water when the canals are turned off and return them to the rivers. I see hope in places like Hawaii that have banned shark fin soup in the hope that by decreasing the demand for the product, the fishermen who fin sharks will one day stop doing so. I have hope because the God of creation is a God of forgiveness and of second chances, and I believe that he has given us the opportunity to learn from and to correct our mistakes.
What is done with the abundance of the ocean that God has given to us? Many of us use these resources wisely, while we hear of others who don’t. Introduction of non-native species and shark finning are only two problems that are going on in our waters today; there are also many others out there. I encourage each of us, as part of living out our baptism, to find out what is going on with our oceans, and then to pick an issue, pray about it, and discern how God is calling us to advocate for wise and responsible care for our oceans. Because, even though here in Wyoming we live nowhere near an ocean, that ocean water is necessary for our life here. Life has been born from the oceans and life on this planet is maintained through our oceans. God is indeed a God of abundance, but abundance misused is gone sooner than we think. Let us pray for forgiveness and make good use of those second chances that God gives us to care for our oceans. Amen.