January 22, 2006
Listen to this Sermon
This past Friday, at 8:30 AM GMT, a man sat riding a London train, on the way to work or the gym or whatever he was to be about that day. If he was anything at all like I am on the train on the way to work, he was sitting there staring blankly at the plastic seat in front of him, trying to wake up. Or perhaps he was reading a book and thinking unkind thoughts about the person having an overloud phone conversation a couple of rows back. At some point, he chanced to look out the window.
The next moment found him wide-eyed, holding his cell phone to his head with a shaking hand, having just dialed the authorities. “I—I might be hallucinating,” he said when they answered. “I might be hallucinating, but I think I just saw a whale. Swimming in the River Thames.”
He wasn’t hallucinating. A northern bottlenose whale, almost twenty feet long and weighing in at several tons, mildly endangered and usually living in waters far from southeast England, had somehow managed to find its way right into the heart of London. Out of the ocean, under the bridges. Past the Tower. Past Big Ben. There, among the pleasure boats and barges and touring skiffs, it swam, occasionally breaching the water for a breath, then swimming back down among the bridge abutments and the concrete embankments. It was incongruous, ridiculous, enchanting.
Before long, the news was out and thousands were flocking to the bridges and banks of the Thames. Workmen dropped their tools on the roofs of buildings overlooking the river and stood in awe as the whale breached beneath them. A young accountant told of being on a shopping errand in the city when she got a call from a friend telling her about the whale. “I thought I should go see it but I then got in a taxi and was heading somewhere else,” she said. “I then thought, ‘You just live your life.…You’ve got to come and see that whale.’” So she did, along with much of London, and via the helicopters that swarmed overhead and the camera crews along the riverbank, so did the rest of the world.
We watched as the crowds clapped every time the whale breached. We shook our heads, bemused smiles on our faces as the whale swam past the posh apartments in Chelsea, or at the sight of its dorsal fin cruising past an industrial backdrop. Children jumped up and down and shouted to see such a great and powerful sea creature right there! Right there in their city. We held our breath when it bumped into a moored boat and injured itself slightly, and were relieved when it swam off with only minor injuries. When it almost beached itself in a shallow part of the edge of the river, in our hearts we urged a foolish man on when he jumped into the water to encourage it back into the channel. By the end of the day, it was showing increasing signs of distress, and so were we, and then we lost sight of it in the gathering dark. We went to bed praying that, if our whale didn’t make its way back downstream to the sea, it would at least survive the night.
It did live through the night, but yesterday found it on the riverbed near shore, stranded as the water level lowered with the outgoing tide. We looked on with fearful eyes as, in a desperate last-ditch effort, rescuers quickly lifted the whale’s several tons onto a huge air-filled raft on the deck of a barge that began heading downstream as fast as it could, while teams of veterinarians administered antibiotics and worked to keep the skin and eyes moist. We prayed that our world might not be the whale’s undoing, that the being that had gathered the whole city and much of the world together in awe and wonder might be brought safely back to its home. In the end, the rescue efforts, and the hopes and prayers of the crowds of Londoners looking on, were not enough. Our whale died yesterday at about 7:00PM GMT, on the deck of the barge on the way back to the sea. And London wept.
There’s a lot we don’t know about the whale at the center of all this attention. We don’t know why it was so far from its regular habitat in the deep, cold offshore waters of the Arctic and North Atlantic Oceans. We don’t know if it was in some way related to another whale—or maybe two—spotted swimming way down river in the Thames Estuary. We don’t know why it ended up in the place it did: if it had gotten confused by boat sonar or other noise, or if it was sick and, having said goodbye to its pod, searching for a likely place to die, or if perhaps it was simply exploring. We don’t know how it managed to get past the Thames Barrier, the huge flood control structure that stretches across the lower reaches of the channel, separating the river proper from its estuary and the sea, the ocean from the river. We don’t know what, if anything, its presence among us this weekend means.
What we know is this: no whale has been seen in the River Thames for at least 90 years, the length of time they’ve been keeping official records of such things. We know that such a sight is so rare that the first to see it literally thought they were hallucinating. We know that poor, dear whale had no business being where we found it. We know that London, and much of the world, could not take its eyes from the spectacle of such a wild and uncouth kind of animal invading our world, there surrounded by humanity and humanity’s best efforts to tame the world. We know that its presence among us made stop, and notice, and be united in wonder at the world around us. We know what a whale spouting in front of Parliament looks like.
We mourn the death of that whale. Soon, London’s, and our, attention will turn to other things. To war in the Middle East, to our jobs, to our tax returns, to whatever occupies our minds all day. But for just the briefest of moments, just a day or two, a whole city turned, and gathered, and smiled, and cheered, and wept for the wonder of the creation. For a little while, this boundary-crosser from another world, this fascinating transgressor, entered our world, and we sat up, and we noticed, and the wonders of God’s world felt very near.
Such bizarre clashing of worlds, such odd juxtapositions, such nonsensical moments, so strange they feel like hallucinations, are, I think, opportunities God takes to grab our attention from our fear, from our bustling about, from our inattention to God and the creation around us, from our sin and say, “Hey, look! Look over here! Turn, and see this world of ours!” It’s one of the ways God calls us to repent of our busy-ness, repent of our self-centeredness, repent of our frenzied, unnoticing hurry through each day, to turn—the word “repent” means “turn”, you know—and notice that the world is everywhere full of wonder, and that God is abroad and working in it, calling us to join.
Jonah the Israelite, fresh from his own strange encounter with a whale—or maybe just a big fish, depending on whom you ask—Jonah marches into Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria, the Israelites’ most hated neighbor of the day, foreign, strange, evil, they said, with different customs and different dress and ways of worshipping, hated deeply for the violence they had done and for their apparent perversity. He marches right into Nineveh speaking of God. He crosses the boundary between two worlds, the Assyrian and the Israelite, pointing with his foreign words to a God they had never noticed before. The contrast between the speaker and his setting is so strange, the sight of the grumpy, unlikely, unwilling prophet from another land cruising down the city’s thoroughfares so odd, that the people turn, even the king turns, and notice. And when once the notice, they story says, they cannot help but stop and worship God.
And God, every bit as compassionate toward Jonah’s enemies as the frustrated, fearful prophet accuses God of being, God does just what God always does when God can get our attention long enough: forgives, abounds in steadfast love for the creation, and shows us that another realm, God’s realm, is very near. It takes the strangeness of the moment, the odd juxtaposition, the foreigner transgressing, to make the people take notice, but when they do, they are saved, and the glory of God shines forth.
Today, on Ecumenical Sunday, we in the broken and often fractious Body of Christ, the church, celebrate God’s reconciling action in our midst. We remember that Christ prayed that we might all be one, and we celebrate and give thanks for all that we and our forbears, moving with the Holy Spirit, have accomplished. We give thanks for the World Council of Churches and the Massachusetts Council of Churches, through which vastly different kinds of Christians, Protestant and Catholic and Orthodox, Lutheran and Reformed and Anabaptist and Anglican come together for prayer and dialogue and action, and strive for unity even in our diversity. We give thanks for Church World Service, by which the gathered resources of countless Christians are put to work serving God and God’s creation. We give thanks for the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, by which the churches of our city, those black and those white, those rich and those poor, those open and affirming and those not willing to welcome or celebrate GLBT Christians, those that proclaim the Gospel in English and those that do it in Haitian Kreyole, the means by which all these diverse churches who have sensed the realm of God very near gather their power to call for and create God’s justice in our city’s here and now. We give thanks for our United Church of Christ, itself born of the ecumenical movement and gathered together from among the wealth of our nation’s Christian diversity to be a united and uniting force for the upbuilding of the realm of God in the United States and beyond.
Today is the day that we especially remember that behind each of these triumphs, there were people who believed Jesus when he said that the realm of God is very near, who heard God calling them with the call of Jonah: the call to go to the enemy, or the one the world said was supposed to be the enemy, to reach out to those who looked, or believed, or worshiped, differently, to transgress, cross the boundary between the us and the them, to enter strange waters, strange cities, strange churches, and speak the wonders of God.
For each of these uniting and reconciling bodies, there were those that knew that, no matter how angry it makes us that God treasures our worst enemies—in the church and outside it—at least as much as God treasures us, there were those who knew that no matter how wrong we are sure that the other guys are, God will be unto them every bit as compassionate as Jonah accused God of being to the Ninevites.
On Ecumenical Sunday, we bless and remember the ones who left the comfortable safety of the places where they were supposed to be, where they should reasonably be, and crossed straight into the places where people like them had never gone before and, incongruous and awesome like a whale in the Thames, caused the people to turn, and notice, and be together drawn into the wonder of a God compassionate and abounding in steadfast love. We pray that we might be made like them, modern day Jonahs among the strange and the foreign, even among the enemy, speaking gospel words about our God, and we rejoice in the sure and certain knowledge that, though it is never easy or safe to cross into the places where we are not supposed to go—Jonah’s fear and anger, the London whale, the story of what they did to Jesus Christ himself remind us of that—though it is never easy, it is by just such efforts as those that the people, that we, come to notice and build the realm of God, to come together and be lost in love and wonder at the creation and its creator, and so to be saved. Amen.
Copyright © 2006, Old South Church and by author.
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