The Aquatic Experience

A Sermon for 23 October 2016

A reading from Luke 18:9-14. Listen for God’s word to us.

“He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:  “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.””

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!


Have you ever heard of a ministry called the Aquatic Experience? It was started by Tom Dickleman, now director of the Center for Innovative Ministry in Lake Bluff, IL; but previously a pastor on staff of a large Presbyterian Church in landlocked Indianapolis. . . . You might be wondering, just what is this Aquatic Experience? A biblical exploration of all the ways throughout history that God has used water as a sign of salvation? Is the Aquatic Experience a preparatory class for parents who wanted to bring their children for baptism? Is the Aquatic Experience a fancy name for a year-long confirmation journey or even a youth group sponsored car wash? . . . None of the above. As Tom tells it, he loved to windsurf. It was a passion of his, though he found himself in landlocked Indianapolis. Just for fun Pastor Tom was a certified windsurfing instructor. And one day it hit him: why not join his passion for windsurfing WITH ministry. Thus the Aquatic Experience was born.

And so it began that each week Pastor Tom taught congregation members, and any other folks of the community who would attend, how to windsurf. He didn’t do it as a lead into important bible lessons about water, but simply as a way to bring divergent people together into one windsurfing community. . . . I love what Tom writes about the Aquatic Experience: “When windsurfing, everyone loses control, everyone falls off” (Aquatic Experience, Tom Dickleman: October 1, 2013: Blog). It reminds me of the time I tried paddle boarding on a vacation and found myself unexpectedly swallowing a lake-full of water after losing my balance and falling off! Tom writes: Windsurfing provides “a level playing field for everyone. It (doesn’t) matter if you are smart, athletic, overweight, popular, needy, successful, nerdy, Christian, whatever. When windsurfing . . . everyone gets soaked before humbly pulling themselves back on the board. All the preconceived notions about who someone is or is not, the kinds of things that often impede the development of healthy groups, start to vanish when everyone – and I mean everyone – loses control and gets baptized in the water.” The Aquatic Experience was Tom’s innovative experiment in living humility – because it’s pretty hard to think you’re better than the next swallowing a lake-full of water after first you fall down while windsurfing.

It’s the very same lesson Jesus is teaching in the parable we hear today from the gospel of Luke. Standing before him are some who, quote: “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” (Luke 18:9). . . . It’s pretty easy to go there, isn’t it? We’re good church folk. We worship every Sunday we’re in town – or at least when something else isn’t pressing upon our Sunday plans. We try to do the right things. We at least own a bible at home, whether or not we ever read it. We give some money for the church each week – or as often as we remember and have a little bit extra to spare. When we’re having trouble, we ask God for help. And we believe we at least are in on the right deal with Jesus as our Lord and Savior. We’re doing pretty well in this thing called faith, we think. . . .

It’s bad enough WE are the center of all that self-talk. But how quickly we can slip further into the game of comparisons! We’re doing better than that one over there. As if God’s going to pat us on the head more than the next if we’re doing a better job than someone else. . . . From childhood on we seem to get measured against others. Which one has the best grades at the top of the class? Which one is better at the game so they get to start? Which one is prettier or more handsome and wins the attention of the to-die-for boy or girl of the school? Even which one is easier to parent so gets a little more loving than the next? . . . Before you know it, we’ve created a race of people who only know who they are when measured against another. The better employee getting the promotion; the more attractive personality winning the friends; the wealthier voice wielding more power. . . . It’s as if all of life is a competition to see which one of us is better. It’s no wonder we can think our ways are God’s. Are we less of a sinner than that one who doesn’t even seem to be trying? Are we more important to God if we do more for the church than the next? In a world full of measurement, how do we not find ourselves standing before Jesus thinking: “at least I’m better than that one over there!” That one over there in this parable being the one regarded in his society as a bottom feeder. The dreaded tax collector who was free to take whatever and however they wanted from their neighbors in order to hand over a certain amount to the Empire. A collaborator with the enemy; a swindler whose very existence put them outside in the eyes of their fellow Jews. It’s safe to say we’re at least better than THAT one!

The problem is, at least according to Jesus, God doesn’t see like that. Grace is the veil through which God looks. In each one of us God sees the same: our sins. Our shortcomings. Those things in and of us that separate us from full union with God and all others. Those parts of us that we want to deny or at least cover up never to be exposed. . . . God sees that in each one of us no matter if it’s visible or invisible to the human eye. . . . It’s kinda mind-boggling, but the truth is: God sees it all and just doesn’t hold it against us. I mean God sees it all. God just doesn’t hold our sins against us. None of us – not the ones we think are the worst sinners in the world, not the ones we think are the best saints. With God, thanks be to Christ Jesus, every last one of us gets a get-outta-jail-free-card! . . . I’m not really sure how it’s possible – maybe if you parent more than one child you get it. How God can look upon this entire creation and love it all equally – no one higher in the standings than the other. . . . It’s the most beautiful mystery. That with God, we all receive the same free gift of mercy.

In the light of such good news, we’re called to live the same! To let our measuring stick be living the ways of Christ – the values of God’s kingdom, not living at least a little bit better than the ways of the other person over there. Each day we need to get in touch with this truth: that in God’s eyes we are all like wet windsurfers soaked down in the waters, swallowing lake-fulls of it. Because only from that position can we live the mercy of God with ourselves and with others. Only drenched from our failings and fallings will we realize the precious gift and be humble enough to rely not upon our own abilities, but upon the amazing mercy of our God . . .

For such incredible grace, we give thanks to the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.


© Copyright JMN – 2016  (All rights reserved.)

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