HOMILY FOR THE FIFTH SUNDAY OF PENTECOST
JUNE 28, 2009
Once upon a time, there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work. One day, as he was walking along the shore, he looked down the beach and saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He was fascinated by someone who would dance on the beach, so he walked faster to catch up.
As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, and that what he was doing was not dancing at all. The young man was reaching down to the sand, picking up small objects, and throwing them into the ocean. He came closer still and called out “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?” The young man paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean.”
“I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?” asked the somewhat startled older man. To this, the young man replied, “The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them in, they’ll die.”
Upon hearing this, the wise man commented, “But, young man, don’t you realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can’t possibly make a difference!”
At this, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he said, “I made a difference to that one!” (adapted from the original story by Loren Iseley)
Loren Iseley (the man who wrote the original starfish thrower story) also wrote: “It is a commonplace of all religious thought …that the man seeking visions and insight must go apart from his fellows and live for a time in the wilderness. If he is of the proper sort, he will return with a message. It may not be a message from the god he set out to seek . . . but he will have had a vision or seen a marvel, and these are always worth listening to and talking about.”
So it is that I return to you from a week by the ocean. Sue and I were at Parksville last week and we had a number of long walks on the beach, at low tide and high tide, and there were many inspiring and marvellous things to see. The first morning we were there, we walked way out on the sand, as the entire bay drains at low tide. You can walk out almost a kilometre to where the ocean retreats. We were among the first few out that morning. We were just walking, but as always when there, we were very present, and open to noticing what might turn up.
What turned up was a starfish – a large, purple one. Shocking to me, because of how far in toward shore it was, and also because we had never seen a starfish there in all our previous visits and walks. The starfish was obviously not dead, and still very viable, so I decided to pick it up and take it out to the waves and give it another chance at life.
It felt good – like I had done something righteous. In the face of death, I had been an agent of life. Of course, we were reminded of the starfish thrower story, which has always been a favourite of mine – in fact, I had a poster bearing that story on my office door for years.
Already grateful, already glowing with a sense that I had been granted a special gift, a special moment, back at our room I sat down with a new book I had been eager to start reading, called Handbook for the Soul, a collection of meditations by various spiritual writers. I went to the table of contents and chose, in a random way, a chapter that looked interesting – “Rekindling the Fires of Your Soul” by Jack Canfield. It was a helpful meditation about taking time to re-connect with the realm of spirit and soul, being open to receive, and I was enjoying it immensely, but when I got about ¾ of the way through, I just about fell out of my chair, because there, in print, on the page I was reading, was the story of the starfish thrower!
Do you ever get that eerie sense there is something more going on than you’re aware of? Did you ever get that sense that someone is really trying to get your attention? It’s kind of unsettling, in a good way. For me, this was one of those moments where you almost look around to see who’s there – a strong sense that this wasn’t just coincidence — that I was being led, taught, healed, reassured of the loving presence of God. Let me tell you, for a tired priest/spiritual person, it was a great way to start a week of holidays!
Whatever was going on, it just opened me up, and made me very open to the many other blessings which the ocean, and the spirit, directed our way – bald eagles, seals, dolphins, the surf, the sky, the sun — and also opened us up to appreciate and cherish each other, as the Spirit always does. I was reminded that God is with us, the universe is friendly, and there is nothing to fear.
In the light of millions, even billions, of lives, what does one life matter? What does one starfish matter? What does my life matter? Does my presence, do my actions, make any difference? Who knows what it may mean in the larger scheme of things. In a way, that’s not our concern. The Jewish Talmud says, “Whoever saves one life saves the whole world.” So it is that Julian of Norwich could look at a hazel nut and see it as “all that is made,” recognizing the infinite work and love of God signified in the smallest of things. So it is that the mystic poet William Blake could see “the world in a grain of sand … infinity in the palm of his hand.” So it is that we find significance in small acts of mercy and grace, and pay attention not just to larger trends or general circumstances, but to the present moment and the specific circumstances of individuals. In the vision of life presented to us by our sacred writings, which we call The Bible, the individual, and the individual moment, is never a waste of time.
The symbolism of something near death being given new life in the water should never be lost on Christians. As children of God, we know that Baptism literally “plunges” us into a new life. Jesus has traditionally been seen as Saviour/Deliverer – his name literally means “The Lord rescues.” To me, Jesus is the ultimate starfish thrower, the one whose redeeming hand makes God’s redeeming love tangible to all humankind, who offers a second chance at life, a fresh start when we’ve blown it or gotten lost or washed up.
On the beach last week, the life that was there was so abundant it was astounding – the whole bay was just pulsating with the lives of millions of creatures from clams to crabs. There on the beach, I believe I encountered something of the nature of Christ – that aspect of God which brings life – that dimension of the Spirit which is present in all places and in all things – a reflection of the glory and infinite majesty of its creator. I felt amazed, caught up in it, connected, restored, and renewed.
In today’s Gospel, Mark tries to give a sense of the life that poured forth from Jesus, as he tells of people being restored and brought to life. For me, Jesus is about life – that was what his entire life was aimed at informing us. The Gospel of John interprets this life not just from the standpoint of the local and specific, but applies it to the universal and cosmic — he takes us to that place of seeing Jesus not just as an historical figure, not just as an individual person, but as the Resurrection, the Light, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, etc. In the same spirit, St Paul says “in Christ shall all be brought to life.” The writer of the letters of John makes a similarly strong statement: “And this is the testimony: God’s gift to us is eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life” (I John 5: 11).
This is how Jesus is; therefore, this is how we are meant to be. This is the logic Paul uses. Jesus was lavishly generous with his life – life flowed from him — so Paul tells the Corinthians that if they are truly the great Christians they are claiming to be, they will be conscious of others as Jesus was, and very generous toward those in need – they will be “cheerful givers.” It’s not just a matter of receiving this great gift of new life – it is essential to become agents of life ourselves. So as Jesus was an agent of life – as life was his purpose, his passion and his gift – so we in our small ways, become the starfish throwers of life in our own little environments.
The difference though is that, with the starfish, I tossed him back to resume the life that was. We often think that it’s helpful to people, and we feel good about ourselves, when we throw them back into what they used to be. It’s the hero or rescue model and sometimes it’s valid. But sometimes we retard people’s progress that way, because we fear change, and want to cling dependently to the familiar (and because we like playing hero). The Gospel is not about restoration; rather it’s about transformation. It’s about moving forward into a new life. I believe that when people encounter the life of Christ they are not taken back to their former life, but taken to a new place, because they are transformed by the encounter. As I think about it, maybe my moment on the beach had less to do with the starfish being given a new lease on life than with the transformation God was making available to me. It occurs to me that I was the one being picked up, and reminded that I am in God’s hands, and, as the starfish headed for deep water again, I wondered if the real point to the exercise wasn’t a reminder of my own significance, and how God is calling me to greater depths in the spirit.
That is my “gift from the sea” to you – I pray that it might inspire and encourage you to be open to the ways in which the Spirit may be presenting you with opportunities for new life.
The Rev. Grant Rodgers