A Fish Out of Water Might Not Believe in the Ocean

Many years ago I went to the Annual Conference Meeting of the Canadian Unitarian Council held in Ottawa where I learned two jokes. Here they are.

How do you get 100 Canadians out of the swimming pool? You say, “Please, get out of the swimming pool.”

How do you get 100 Canadian Unitarians out of the swimming pool? You say, “Would anyone like to be baptized?”

Canadian Unitarians are not the only ones who are averse to religious ritual. Contemporary American Unitarian Universalism come from the left wing of the Protestant Reformation, which puts less emphasis on outward rituals and more emphasis on the inner life. The ritual is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible experience. The ritual is a testimony to the fountain. It is not the fountain itself.

I went to a Quaker school to prepare for the ministry and Quakers don’t do baptisms, at least not with water. Quakers do not sprinkle babies or dunk adults. Once I was once visiting an Episcopal church with a Quaker friend and he paused before a stain glass window of Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist in the River Jordan and he seem a bit puzzled for a moment. So I said something that seemed to put the image in perspective, “This is a picture of Jesus engaging in a wholly unnecessary outward ritual.” I could tell by the way he relaxed that I had named the problem for him.

Now I am a member of KICMA, a clergy group that contains a lot of Baptists, so I have an appreciation for the ritual of baptism. Our former ministerial intern Jon Coffee has a deep appreciation for this ritual and he held a reaffirmation of his baptism on the day of his ordination in this sanctuary, which is why I sometimes refer to him as our Jon the Baptist.

And we live in an area where baptism is a common ritual, where people often sing the song, “Shall We Gather at the River” because baptism is often done outdoors. Indeed more than once I have been canoeing down one of our beautiful East Tennessee rivers and suddenly found that I was canoeing passed a baptism, an unintended witness to an important rite of passage, an outward ceremony marking a shift in someone’s inner life.

The mystics teach us “The Kingdom of God is within you.” Seek ye first this inner reality and all other things will be added unto you. The outward ritual of being dunked into the river will mean little unless we awaken to the experience referred to in the old gospel song, “There’s a river flowin’ in my soul. There’s a river flowin’ in my soul. And its telling me that I’m somebody. There’s a river flowin’ in my soul.”

The Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount tell us, “Blessed are those who thirst for righteousness for they shall be filled.” The people living in Flint Michigan are not just thirsty for water. They are thirsty for justice. The Native American activists at Standing Rock remind us that, “Water is Life” and they are not just thirsty for water. They are thirsty for justice. During the days of segregation in this city there were different drinking fountains for Whites and for Blacks and I know some civil rights activists who would drink from White fountain even though the law required them to drink from the Black fountain – not because they were thirsty for water but because they were thirsty for justice.

Blessed are those who thirst for justice for they shall be filled. This beatitude takes on new meaning as we reflect on the words of the prophet Amos who did not have time for any outward rituals and ceremonies that did not serve the inner life’s drive for a more fair and free world. Speaking as a prophet of the Almighty he said,

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

The Hindu poet Kabir once remarked, “I laugh when I hear that the fish in the water is thirsty. I laugh when I hear that people are going on a pilgrimage to find God.” The wellspring of the joy of living is within us, the fount of every blessing is within us, there’s a river flowin’ in our soul.

This summer a sentence popped into my head, “A fish out of water might not believe in the Ocean.” When we are lonely it is hard to believe in community. When we are rejected it is hard to believe in love. When we are discouraged it can be hard to believe in hope. When we are afraid it is hard to believe in courage. When we are dead inside it is hard to believe in life. And so when we feel like a fish out of water we have to find ways to get back to the ocean. We have to find ways to throw ourselves back into the lake or river or stream –to get back to the place where we flourish and thrive and feel free.

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We began this sermon with two bad jokes so it seems only fitting that we end with one and it seems appropriate that this bad joke should be about a thirsty fish, so here we go. A fish walks into a bar and the bartender says, “Shouldn’t you be in school?” (I warned you it was a bad joke.)

Many of our kids are returning to school now. Yesterday we had a swimming pool party, which in all likelihood will be the last of the season for many. So a season of rest and relaxation is coming to an end and a new season of meaningful work is beginning.

This is a new beginning. We might even say it is a new baptism. The mystics tell us its not enough to be baptized by water we must be baptized by the holy spirit, and even if we do get baptized by water there still comes a time when we need to get out of the pool.

Get out of the pool and find peace like a river.

Get out of the pool and feel joy like a fountain.

Get out of the pool and work for justice that rolls down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Get out of the pool. Because sometimes a thirsty fish needs to get out of the water in order to discover the ocean.

Get out of the pool. Get out of the outward symbol and the outward ritual and the outward ceremony and experience the liberating power of the inner life and listen to the still small voice within as it speaks ever so quietly and politely, “Please get out of the pool.”

(This homily was preached by the Reverend Chris Buice at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church for the water communion service for August 12, 2018.)

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