“Up to the present we know the whole created universe groans in all its parts as if in pangs of childbirth. Not only so, but even we…are groaning inwardly.” Romans 8: 22
The groaning has not been so inward since the tsunami hit two weeks ago.
The first of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism asserts that all life is suffering, referring to the suffering of each person as an individual, but suggesting, I think, that we also suffer collectively.
The passage from Romans is saying that all of nature, ‘the whole created universe’ is suffering ‘as if in pangs of childbirth.’
“Here is a recognition of struggle and cruelty and pain in nature,” says Paul Tillich. “It is a picture of unfinished man in an unfinished universe. Somehow or other both nature and man are incomplete, estranged and separated from what they could be and eventually might be.”
At the start of this attempt to say something worth your listening, I offer brief confession: I’m nervous about this sermon—about finding something meaningful to say in response to the huge tragedy that hit the shores of a dozen countries—something that doesn’t sound trite.
Of course I’m always somewhat nervous about getting into this pulpit; a certain amount of anxiety is necessary. It’s healthy.
The tension I feel is this week is, in part at least, a function of the terrible strain we’ve all been feeling as we see the photographs and watch the videos of those deadly waves and the massive destruction they brought—especially the overwhelming tragedy of the deaths—and even more especially the deaths of so many children.
We feel a sense of responsibility not only our own children and grandchildren, not only for the children in this congregation and community…but we feel responsibility for all the children, everywhere.
It’s programmed into our brains—it has something to do with human survival on the planet, but more especially it has to do with this thing we call love, that we say is the ‘spirit of this church,’ that we say is the heart of our religious or spiritual life.
Without a sense of compassion, what are we?
It’s as though all those deaths, and all the destruction, happened to us, to each one of us, personally; and we feel it collectively.
At the same time, however, we feel the need to turn our heads away, to keep our emotional distance.
A philosopher once said, “Neither the sun nor death can be looked at with a steady eye.”(Francois de La Rochefoucauld)
It’s important that we look at ways we can be of some help to the victims of the tsunami.
The Sankar family is providing us the opportunity to take a close-up look; they’ve given us a sense of direct connection with the children in Channai where Sudha’s aunt, Mrs. Andal Damodaran lives and serves as Secretary General of the Indian Council for Child Welfare in Tamil Dadu. You have responded generously—hundreds of our members have given more than $5,000 so far.
How has the tragedy of the tsunami-wave devastation impacted you? What, if anything, has it done to your faith system, or your belief system?
We don’t make theological assertions—we don’t try to tell you or our children what you or they should believe about God, or the gods. We don’t make the assumption that you believe in God; indeed, I rather assume that most of the people sitting in this sanctuary don’t embrace traditional theological beliefs.
But we, as humans, are likely to believe something; and for most of us that ‘something’ is a moving target. Emerson said, “The gods we worship write their names on our faces, and a man will worship something, have no doubt about that.”
Robert Weston reminds us of our belief in nature, which we read responsively:
“Out of the stars in their flight, out of the dust of eternity, here have we come…earth with the thunder of mountains newborn, the boiling of seas…rising from rocks in the storm and the sea…out of the sea to the land…life from the sea…out of the stars swung the earth; life upon earth rose to love.”
For many of us in this room, God is Nature spelled with a capital ‘N.’
The glass walls offer a subtle religious symbol. The glass says, “Look. You want to see God, look out the window at the changing seasons–the autumn colors, the white winter snow, the return of green in the spring and the burst of blossoms. Isn’t this the face of God?”
There are no traditional religious symbols in this sanctuary–no sign of our Jewish and Christian heritage, no Buddha as a sign of our affinity for Eastern religious traditions.
During my first year here I was co-officiating at a wedding ceremony with a priest. As we stood together at the entrance to the sanctuary, and he was seeing it for the first time, he said, to himself as much as to me, “Ah, God’s stained glass!”
I envied his simple summary. I’ll return to the value of the simple later in the sermon.
Our ancestors talked a lot about the ‘fear of God,’ and why not. They didn’t know the origins of a tsunami—they didn’t know about the ongoing process of the earth’s need to settle in to its place in the universe—the shifting of tectonic plates and the resulting earthquake; when a quake happens under the ocean the seas ‘boil up’ again.
‘The thunder of mountains newborn, the boiling of seas…’
Even today there are people who talk with a straight face about the tsunami as a ‘message from God,’ or as a ‘punishment from God.’
A natural disaster of the enormous proportions as occurred two weeks ago reminds us of Nature’s other side—the dark side: Nature’s wrath.
We sing about the beauty of nature; the blossoming of flowers in the spring, the song of the birds, sunrise and sunset with their colorful displays; the steady, gentle sound of the waves lapping onto the shore.
Then there’s a tidal wave, a tsunami that comes crashing onto the shore and keeps rolling, breaking the boundary between the sea and the land, and seeming to break the ‘covenant,’ between God and Creation by wrecking havoc, with no regard for life and property.
This is what the story of Noah is about—God broke his unspoken covenant with his creatures. After the flood he put a rainbow in the sky to remind himself never to bring such overwhelming destruction again. He made an explicit covenant with his people—all the people.
The interesting thing about the covenant following the flood is that there was no religion—this was before the Biblical God spoke to Abraham and made promises to him and created the Jewish people.
The story of Noah, then, is universalist, with a small ‘u.’ Isn’t it interesting that nearly everyone in the past couple of weeks has become a universalist…almost no one is suggesting that God sent the waves as a punishment to a particular group of people; victims included Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Christians.
For most of us, what happened is a result of what we would call ‘natural history.’ Earth quakes happen. Floods and hurricanes happen. Volcanoes erupt. Big waves topple boats, and people drown.
There are lots of stories about the ocean— religious as well as secular—about the power and beauty of the sea. I have some of my own, since I’ve spent a lot of time at the ocean and had a couple of ‘close calls.’
One of my favorite sea stories is Hemingway’s story of the fisherman, Santiago, who fished alone. Do you remember that line? He made a point of it: “the old man fished alone.”
The great religious figures had their powerful religious experiences when they were alone. Moses was alone on the mountain when he was confronted by the burning bush; Jacob was alone when he wrestled all night long and his name was changed to Israel; Jesus was alone in the wilderness and he was alone on the cross; Mohammed was alone in the cave; the Buddha sat alone under the bo tree.
Hemingway said, “Santiago fished alone.” One reason he fished alone is that he was considered ‘bad luck.’ A boy had been with him, but his parents gave up on the old man and wouldn’t allow the boy to fish with him. When the story opens, Santiago had gone 84 days without catching a fish.
Again, we see a traditional religious theme—he had gone 84 days without catching a fish–it was his time in the desert, the barren time before the big life-altering event.
When he composed The Old Man and the Sea Hemingway was working on a large work he called “The Sea Book,” but he was having a hard time of it. He was stuck.
Part of that larger work included the story about the old man, Santiago, who fished alone. Hemingway was encouraged to publish it as a separate story. His writing career was in trouble. But he liked what he had written about Santiago, who fished alone.
In October of 1951 he wrote to his publisher, Charles Scribner, “This is the prose that I have been working for all my life that should read easily and simply and seem short and yet have all the dimensions of the visible world and the world of man’s spirit. It is as good prose as I can write…”
The Old Man and the Sea, as it came to be called, was published in its entirety in one edition of Life magazine, and it was an overnight success. In two days the September 1st edition of Life sold 5,300,000 copies.
The story became a novella and quickly climbed to the top of the best-seller list and remained up there for six months. Many called it Hemingway’s best work; William Faulkner said, “Time may show it to be the best single piece of any of us, I mean his and my contemporaries.”
The Old Man and the Sea was awarded the 1953 Pulitizer Prize and American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Award of Merit Medal for the Novel and played a significant role in Hemingway’s selection for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954.
The old man, Santiago, prefers to call the sea by its feminine name, “la mar,” rather than the harsher, masculine name, “el mar.”
I thought of that this week when I read a piece about a man in Sri Lanka who was quoted as saying, “We have lived by the sea and we’ve loved her. Now people hate the sea.”
He told about a woman he watched standing at the shore and cursing the ocean, waving her arms in fury as if talking to an evil person who had murdered her children.
Hindus worship the sea as a goddess who provides for her people. Another person in Sri Lanka interview said, “Our mother has punished us.”
The sea is often spoken of as a person with human motivation and all the human characteristics and behaviors: the phrase in my sermon title, ‘nature’s wrath,’ is a way of anthropomorphizing nature, as if nature gets angry—as if nature has human attributes.
God is often anthropomorphized, spoken of as if God was a person; usually a person of the male gender. God is usually spoken of as if he is happy or sad, angry or pleased. And when he’s angry he punishes. Some say the tsunami is God’s punishment, for what I’m not sure.
There’s something about the sea—something that draws us to the sea, where the price of homes goes up because you have water-front property, or even a water view.
Many couples want to have their wedding ceremony at the ocean; I’ve officiated at many of them. I’ve officiated at child dedication services at the ocean—a kind of baptism. And I’ve spread ashes in the sea.
In his wonderful story, Santiago catches the biggest fish of his life, and he’s at the end of his life…the best was saved to last.
But he gets pulled around by this big fish, and it takes all his strength and skill to bring him in. When he finally wins the battle with the huge fish and attaches it to his little boat, his prize is attacked by sharks who, bit by bit, consumed it.
Hemingway has the old man say, “But man is not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”
Here’s one of my favorite passages:
“Don’t think, old man,” he said aloud. “Sail on this course and take it when it comes.”
“It is silly not to hope, he thought. Besides I believe it is a sin. Do not think about sin, he thought. There are enough problems now without sin. Also I have no understanding of it.
“I have no understanding of it and I am not sure that I believe in it. Perhaps it was a sin to kill the fish. I suppose it was even though I did it to keep me alive and feed many people. But then everything is a sin. Do not think about sin. It is much too late for that and there are people who are paid to do it. Let them think about it. You were born to be a fisherman as the fish was born to be a fish. San Pedro was a fisherman as was the father of the great DiMaggio.
”But he liked to think about all things that he was involved in and since there was nothing to read and he did not have a radio, he thought much and he kept on thinking about sin.
“You did not kill the fish only to keep alive and to sell for food, be thought. You killed him for pride and because you are a fisherman. You loved him when he was alive and you loved him after. If you love him, it is not a sin to kill him. Or is it more?
“You think too much, old man,” he said aloud.
“He had sailed for two hours, resting in the stern and sometimes chewing a bit of the meat from the martin, trying to rest and to be strong, when he saw the first of the two sharks.
“Ay ,” he said aloud. There is no translation for this word and perhaps it is just a noise such as a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood.”
You don’t get any stronger Christian symbolism than that!
The story was a favorite of mine for a long time before I noticed or thought about the Christian symbolism in it. I didn’t realize that the name Santiago means St. James in Spanish; I hadn’t thought about the fact that the battle with the fish lasted three days, nor had it occurred to me that when Santiago finally arrives back at the shore that he carries his mast across his shoulders like a cross, stumbling under its heavy load as he made his way home. When he gets home he lies face down on the bed in his hut exhausted, with his arms stretched out stiffly and the palms of his hands up.
In the morning the boy who loved him finds him—he didn’t have to roll a stone away; he’s relieved to find him alive; he feeds him, communion-style, nurturing him back to health, and they make plans to fish together again. Hope is reborn.
The prize fish represents hope—his own hope, and by extension, the hope of all mankind; the story is about one man’s struggle to survive the ordeal of living. He wrestled with that fish the way Jacob wrestled, alone, ‘all night long.’ By doing battle with the fish the old man develops a deep sense of relationship with the fish; he even comes to love that fish, who is also his adversary. He eats pieces of the fish on his way home.
An early Christian symbol for Christ is the symbol of a fish, which we often see on the back of a car. It’s an acrostic, combining first letters of Greek words for fish.
Note: “Some Christians believe that a second link between their religion and the fish symbol is seen in the Greek word for fish (ichthus, spelled: Iota Chi Theta Upsilon Sigma). That is an acrostic for “Jesus Christ, of God, the Son, the Savior” [Iesous (Jesus) CHristos (Christ) THeou (of God) Uiou (the Son) Soter (the Savior)]. An acrostic is an “arrangement of words in which the first letter of each line ordinarily combines with others to form a word or words or the alphabet.”
In the end, Santiago’s hope is snatched from him. Or is it? He survived the three-day ordeal; he pulled in the prize.
Maybe that’s all that matters, in the end.
Clearly, Hemingway’s story is filled with Christian symbolism. But for me the religious theme of the story is universal. The underlying theme is that life is a struggle. That’s the first of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism.
Buddhism grew out of Hinduism. Many of the victims of the tsunami were Hindu. The Hindus have a holy trinity, trimurti, which offers a good explanation of the various ways we view Nature. Three gods form their trinity, or trimurti: Brahma is the creator god; Vishnu is the preserver god, and Shiva is the destroyer god.
The three gods are anthropomorphized: one creates, one preserves, one destroys—that explains the nature of the universe as we experience it.
All the gods represent the various human attributes with which we live. The shadow side of humans, as Jung called it, represents our potential for destructiveness, which manifests itself in things like greed, anger, bitterness—and collectively it leads us to arrogance, and once a nation becomes arrogant, war is close at hand.
So we project our own attributes onto God or the gods.
But God didn’t cause the tsunami. It came as the result of the natural process of the earth’s ongoing formation.
The earth is alive—it’s a verb, like you and me.
The difference is that we humans have this thing we call intentionality. We do things on purpose; we have our reasons; our motives; our hopes and fears.
The tsunami has resulted in an unprecedented outpouring of compassion.
This outpouring of compassion, this need to help, this urge in us to be generous, has a theological flavor that I relish.
The place where all the religions of the world meet, the best in all the religions, is here at this place of kindness and compassion, the urge to help, to be generous.
Emily Dickinson summarizes nicely in her little poem which I hope is a good way to bring this sermon to a close; and I feel much better now, thank you. All the anxiety is over, because the sermon is coming to a close!
Emily Dickinson put it this way:
If I can stop one Heart fr-m breaking
I shall not live in vain
If I can ease one Life the Aching
Or cool one Pain
Or help one fainting Robin
Unto his Nest again
I shall not live in vain.
“God is the great mysterious motivator of what we call nature, and it has often been said by philosophers, that nature is the will of God. And I prefer to say that nature is the only body of God that we shall ever see.”
Frank Lloyd Wright