My husband, Matt, just finished reading The Life of Pi. I read it a few years ago and don’t remember all the details, but when I began thinking about this week’s readings, I kept coming back to the main image of The Life of Pi, which is the image of a young boy, stuck on a lifeboat in the middle of the sea, with a zebra, a hyena and a Bengal tiger. Now, being stranded in the middle of the sea in a small boat is bad enough, but you can imagine that wild animals as your shipmates complicate matters. At one point, after the tiger has dispatched with the zebra and hyena, Pi writes a message and puts it in a bottle. The message reads,
Japanese owned cargo ship Tsimtsum, flying Panamanian flag, sank July 2nd, 1977, in Pacfic, four days out of Manila. Am in lifeboat. Pi Patel is my name. Have some food, some water, but Bengal Tiger is serious problem. Please advise family in Winnipeg, Canada. Any help is very much appreciated. Thank you. (p. 238)
Ah yes, those Bengal Tigers will get you every time.
Being stranded in a boat is a powerful image because endless water is one of the most primal, beautiful, but fearful images in the human psyche. Water, though it sustains us, can also completely subsume us. Water symbolizes that which we both need, but that threatens to destroy us if not controlled.
Water courses throughout our readings today. We begin in Genesis with the wild waters of creation that simmer in the chaos, not yet controlled by land. These images continue in descriptions of thunder, storms, and flooding that threaten the Psalmist. Water is presented here as something extremely powerful and dangerous.
If water represents unknown, uncontrollable forces, then it certainly is a metaphor for our times, isn’t it! In my three and a half years here I have never received as many calls and visits for financial assistance as I have the last three months. People are getting hours cut back and fired because businesses just can’t sustain activity in the current economy. Being a worker right now feels a bit like being afloat in a boat on the wild seas.
And in such unsteady times, if any additional part of your life begins to fall apart, it can feel like there is a Bengal tiger right in your boat with you!
For better or worse, we are not the only group of people who has ever felt this kind of anxiety. In fact, most of our readings today were written to respond to anxiety. When everything is going well, and you sense the presence of God very clearly, you don’t need to be reminded about who God is. However, when things in your life are rocky, you need all the reminders of God’s goodness you can get. When you are an Israelite who has been exiled from Jerusalem, you might need to hear about the God that controlled chaos and created plants, animals and people with loving care. If you are an early Christian who fears being persecuted, you might want to be reminded that Jesus really was the son of God, and that the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove.
Telling our stories is a powerful antidote to anxiety. We tell stories from the Bible every week in church because they remind us of who God is. We need those reminders on a regular basis to stay rooted in our identity as God’s children.
The stories we tell in this week’s lectionary readings remind us both who God is and also who we are in relation to God.
Our first reading is the very first passage from Genesis. When the creation story starts, the world is nothing but a formless void. The world is dark and filled with water. We don’t get the whole creation story, but we get the very beginning images: a wind from God sweeping over those vast waters and then out of the darkness, comes light. God makes something out of nothing. God sheds light where there was only darkness. God takes something chaotic and scary and makes something beautiful and life-filled. Although water can be overwhelming and uncontrollable, in this passage, God is fully in control and able to shape and guide the powerful element. This passage reminds us of God’s control and the way God brings light into difficult situations.
The author of Psalm 29 calls out to this Creator God as he faces a terrible storm, and reminds himself that the Lord God is incredibly powerful and reigns even over the floods and cracking trees and thunder that the storm brings. The Psalmist gives us a model of how to pray in the midst of crisis. He is able to celebrate God, even while being nervous about his own safety.
Our stories from the New Testament today address water and God’s relationship to water in a different way. Both stories are about baptism. In the Gospel we have Jesus’ baptism and in the epistle we have the baptism of Apollos. While these images may seem completely unrelated to the images of wild and dangerous water from the Old Testament readings, danger is actually a part of baptism.
Baptism symbolizes cleansing, but it also symbolizes death. Like Jesus’ baptism, early baptisms were all fully immersion baptisms. People who wanted to be baptized were pushed under the water and then hauled out again three times. Being pushed under, symbolized drowning, reminding the baptized of the power of water and of death. When you were pulled back out, it symbolized your new life in Christ. And like God shows up in the Old Testament when waters become dangerous, God shows up at baptism, too. Both Jesus and Apollos experience the Holy Spirit after their baptisms. In the book of Acts, Jesus explains that the Holy Spirit gets sent at baptism to be our Comforter and guide.
We need to be reminded of the Holy Spirit. We need to be reminded that even amidst the roiling waters God sends us a comforter and guide to help us through difficult times. We need to be reminded that God is with us, even as we face off our own Bengal tigers in our tiny boats.
And so, we tell our stories. We tell stories of God’s faithfulness in the Bible, but we can also tell stories of God’s faithfulness in our own histories. I think of all the stories I know about how God has shown up in my life and your lives just in the nick of time. These stories calm me. They remind me that God is with me.
You might remember times when you thought you would be adrift forever, but then God rescued you in unexpected ways. Better yet, you might remember a time when you were lost on the seas, but suddenly God helped you to see that you were not lost after all-you were just on a little character building adventure.
This remembering is what puts legs on our faith. Telling our stories gives us the courage we need to take risks, to be brave in unfortunate circumstance, to be kind when we are feeling threatened. Telling our stories helps us to be true to our baptismal promises on the days when they seem silly or outdated.
Telling our stories helps us to remember that God holds us up amidst the waters, even if there is a tiger in our boat.