Not for sissies, fakers or quitters.
It’s summer. You’re at the ocean, of course. There are times when you have to commit, when the opportunity is there and beckoning, the invitation so clearly extended, right there at your slightly sunburned feet, it is time for you to show who you really are--literally with the very next step. You look around you at the water’s edge and you see how others respond.
There are four categories, and words for the people in them.
Some will stay resolutely beyond all danger, not even a toe will touch the freezing water of the Ocean Atlantic: these are the sissies, the wimps. You watch them backing up in anticipation of that surprise wave, little warnings inside their head going off, “Incoming, danger, incoming, incoming, danger!” Why even come to the shore if you deny even a toe-full of the experience?
Then there are the feigners, the phonies, the pretenders: the ones who wade forth into the ice pretending they will go all the way, but then they stop, going only so far, ankle length, or if a little more daring, up to the knees. If they’re men, they keep their hats on, sunglasses in place, arms folded, surveying the waters like a benevolent general, though revealing all the while an underlying cowardice. If they are women, they’re the ones bending down to scoop up a handful of salty sea, for careful application on the kind of arms my Aunt Katie had—ample, flesh jiggling below with every new scoop.
It is always fun to watch when some little kid goes by, happily splashing everyone in this category in her path—the pain on their faces as the cold water stings them with every splash.
The third group are the quitters, who make the decision, at least tentatively to go in…but the process is so slow, so tortuous, hot skin being exposed inch by inch, step by step, jumping up to avoid the next incoming wave, arms in the air, bathing suit half wet, half dry. It’s hard to watch, and then sometimes it is just too much and they give up, turn back, hair and shoulders still dry, back to the safety and warmth of the shore. They don’t have the staying power to go all the way.
Finally, there are the truly heroic: they stand at the shore, the potential of the blue waters stretching endlessly before them, and…they go for it, foot to foot, running with large splashes, meeting each incoming wave without pause, charging forward faster and faster, deeper and deeper, leading up to that magnificent, courageous dolphin-like leap right into the angriest, frothiest overbearing wave the ocean can throw at them…and they come up on the other side, hair flattened and soaked, grinning and triumphant, man (or woman) and sea married, opportunity and invitation accepted, fully. Swimming out there like you were meant to do.
I stood at the edge, looking into the opportunity, wondering, which one was I, really? The sissy, the phony, the quitter, or the hero? Which word most truthfully describes who I am?
On my visit to the beach in Massachusetts last week, I didn't even attempt a plunge. Instead I took a walk in the pitch dark, flip flops protecting me from an unseen shell along the surf.
I sat down not far from the waterline, in the cool sand. Dim white ghosts came rolling towards me, crashed onto the darkness, and disappeared back into the black. The crashes and rolls and cracks and foams and trickles just went on and on and on and on, one after the other with an occasional pause here and there. I listened to the endless rhythm, trying to hear through the crashing waves the words of our brothers and sisters across the huge ocean at my feet. Who was out there, and what were they saying in France and Italy and India and the Philippines and Korea and Mexico and Ghana?
I shouted out, to our brothers and sisters over there in England :”Hey cousins”.
To an Italian boy looking at a shell somewhere on the Riviera: “Ciao”.
To an old woman sitting in a chair with her feet in the water in Vietnam: “Xin Chao”.
To the man in the moon: “Mooooooo”.
I dunno, I was just calling out in the night, into the wind, across the waves. And my words of greeting were swallowed up into… where, I wondered? Where do our words go that are shouted out across the crashing oceans?
And I suddenly recalled a trip with my students a few years ago on the way to a retreat in the country, and every time the road made one of those long winding crazy curves around the mountains, every time we went through a mountain tunnel, we all shouted out at the top of our lungs “Ahhhhhhhh!”. And I was remembering my dear friend in the hospital a few weeks ago, her broken body looking up at me and whispering, every breath straining to tell me something very very important, those whispering words out into the air. The words of my dying friend, the happy words of my tunnel companions, my spontaneous shouts across the churning dark waters, the words of people crying for help, speaking words of comfort, putting someone in their place, explaining official policy, offering a gift, cursing the darkness or the companion, singing with abandon—I imagined them all mingling with the other words and calls and shouts and songs of every creature of the land and the sea and of the air. The words and the chatter and noise we make, they were all there in the crash and roar and clap and whoosh of the watery waves of the ocean.
I spend of lot of my day with words. In my different roles in life—as a priest, as a teacher, as a filmmaker---the tools of my trade are words. Crafting a homily, finding the right thing to say to someone in pain, trying to explain a theory to a student, inventing dialogue for a character in a film---getting just the right word or phrase in the most appropriate sequence takes a lot of time, thought and care. Words have power; words can be power-filled. Directed at someone we love or hate, or at a stranger on the street, or at an audience in the theater or in a twitter feed that reaches millions, words can illuminate, encourage, empower, infuriate, depress, and inspire. Words can give hope, can make you feel wonderful. Words can hurt, like a knife to the heart. Words can also heal.
You know, in ancient days, before we had cellphones or computers or typewriters or even books, spoken words were really important. A person’s word in ancient times was their word, it was who they were, and if you gave your word you gave your self. That’s why blessings and curses were so important, so desired, and so feared. And so when the Bible talks about God’s Word, like Isaiah does in today’s first reading---when he compares rain and snow to God’s Word from heaven—and when Jesus tells the parable of the seeds in the Gospel today, the seeds are God’s good Word, he says---when the Bible refers to God’s Word, that’s not cheap trash talk, that’s the most powerful, the most permanent Word there ever was or ever will be swirling around every inch of this earth, coming down like rain or a zillion seeds, falling all over the place, lodging everywhere, in every creature’s ear, aiming for—gliding down, slamming down, floating down—aiming for the deepest, most fertile soil… in here. In the very beginning, the very very beginning, there was only God’s Word…God said…Let it be, and it was, and it was good. God’s Word, you know, is the good word, the really great word, and when it comes down to it, there’s only one translation: I love you.
It’s summer. You’re at the ocean. The Word doesn’t come across an ocean, God’s Word is an ocean, and we stand before it, poised to its invitation. It beckons to us to respond to it. Depending on whether we are sissies, the phonies, the quitters, or heroes, some of us choose to stay put, some fake it, some try and fail, and others just plunge in, courageously. Who are you, how do you respond to the word that is all around us?
Listen to me. Please, for a moment, listen to me. Our words are always in conversation with God’s good word—everything we do or say every moment of every day: when we say good morning to someone, when we speak in our official business tones, when we curse one another from across a steering wheel, when we fumble to utter our thanks, when we coldly speak in silence, when we groan in desire and love, when we shout for joy—every single word that comes forth from our lips is captured and carried up in the howling, sweet currents of God’s breath, from our mouths to God’s heart. Whether we curse the darkness or sing to the light, our words are never lost, they still embody who we are, our very selves, the good and the bad. And God always responds, keeping us in conversation if we only try to listen.
But I have to warn you. We can’t be sissies or fakers or quitters. We have to be brave and go for it, foot to foot, meeting each incoming wave without pause, charging forward faster and faster, deeper and deeper, we have to willingly listen to the truthful Word that is sometimes going to challenge us to risk our lives and our selves. God’s word always makes us grow bigger, calls us to abandon our meanness and our smallness, invites us to open our hearts and sometimes our wallets to grow the seed that has been planted by the ultimate sower.
The good Word that has been sowed and rained upon from the beginning of time is… I love you.
I am convinced that every good word we speak to someone today with our actions will rebound across the universe and make it good. And I am equally convinced that every bad word we speak today with our actions will only hurt or slow the growing goodness that reaches to the farthest star.
The good Word that has been sowed and rained upon from the beginning of time is… I love you.
And if we hear it, the only thing we can say back out into the roaring wind is the same: jump into the crashing surf with a joyous I love you too, and then we become what we have always been meant to be, we are God’s word, we are I LOVE YOU, and the world outside those doors needs to hear it from us.
This is the day, don’t you think, when we should tell someone how beautiful they are, how gifted or how brilliant, or how creative or how funny or how generous or how loving they are? This is the day, when we should give the good word we’ve heard back out, don’t you think this is the day we should do some sowing of our own, some raining or snowing of the Word we all of us want so desperately to hear… I love you? Don’t you think we should do that today, because today and every shiny or rainy day, the word is, God’s Word is, to you and you and you and you and you and all or you’s and all of us, I LOVE YOU.