Sermon: Proper 6 RCL B – “The Chambered Nautilus”


A clown is out surfing in his full clown costume one day. Suddenly he’s attacked by a great white shark.

The shark takes one bite, quickly realizes his error and swims away.

As the shark rejoins his friends below the surface, one of the them asks him, “Why didn’t you just kill that thing?”

The attacking shark replies, “It tasted funny.”

On the fifth day, “God said, ‘Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens.’  So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind.”

The variations and number of God’s creation on this day were so great that we still have not even discovered them all. When it comes to the sea, perhaps the most feared of them all is the Great White Shark (even if they don’t like funny tasting clowns), but there are many other creatures that just go about their business: everything from the Blue Whale that can weigh as much as 330,000 pounds to the tiniest single cell organisms (and lets not forget the Leviathan!) There are so many, so today I want us to consider just one: Nautilus pompilius, also known as the Chambered Nautilus. You’ve got a picture on the cover of your bulletin of one’s shell that has been split. They’ve been around so long that they are included in the fossil record.

One variety can grow up to 10 inches in diameter and live for up to 20 years. They live in the Pacific between Japan and Australia, spend most of their time at 1,000 feet (but can dive to 2,000), and according to one, eat “anything that smells,” because it is through various chemical signatures that they locate their food. Alive… well, they almost look as scary as a Great White Shark, but it is for the beauty of their shells that they have been highly prized for centuries, and you’ll see the shell in art, incorporated into drinking glasses, and other decorative items.

As the creature grows, it develops the various chambers. Its body moving into the larger one as it ages. The empty chambers then are used for buoyancy and to regulate depth by filling them with water or air, and it was the understanding of how the shell and chambers are formed that inspired the poet Oliver Wendell Holmes to write a poem, The Chambered Nautilus (source). Holmes saw the growth of the soul and spirit within the growing chambers of the nautilus. He begins:

“This is the ship of pearl…”

From there he describes how the nautilus spends its life toiling to create for itself a larger and more perfect and glorious home, which is not known until the creatures death, but even so, it persists in that work of growth. Holmes then takes the imagery further, to speak to us about our spiritual “home”:

“Through the deep caves of thought I hear a voice that sings:—
Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
As the swift seasons roll!
Leave thy low-vaulted past!
Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!”

The nautilus grows, creating and recreating a home for itself that is larger and more glorious than the last. We are to do the same, so that when the Lord comes, he will find within us a mansion prepared for himself, but it does not end with the individual, for we are to grow in the image and likeness of God, so that the kingdom of God may also grow. So that a home is created as a sanctuary for every living being. As Jesus said in our Gospel, “The kingdom of God… is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” How are we to understand this and apply it?

“From the smallest of all the seeds on the earth….” The seed that was the smallest, that is, the one that humbled itself the most, was God—Jesus—who was born in a manger and who then humbled himself even more, to death on a cross, and then like a seed that was laid to rest in the earth: Joseph of Arimathea “went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.  Then he took it down and wrapped it in a linen shroud and laid him in a tomb.” We know not how it all happened, but on the third day, Jesus rose from the dead, and from him, from that smallest and humblest of all seeds and all beginnings has grown the greatest of all sanctuaries for every living soul: the Church, but the Church only grows if we—in union with one another—like the nautilus, continue to grow, ever seeking to be more like Jesus.

Is the church perfect? If I’m a part of it, most definitely not! As Archbishop Michael Ramsey stated and something we always need to be reminded of, “The Church is not the society of those labeled virtuous.  It is the mixed community of sinners called to be saints.” However, as we seek and discover greater perfection in our own life, creating and recreating our spiritual homes, then we also assist in growing and perfecting what Christ Jesus began when he called twelve—not so virtuous—fellas to follow him. The Church will not reach perfection until the end of days, however, through our good work, it will continue to grow and provide a home for those who are called.

For us to spiritually grow is the will of God. C.S. Lewis, in The Problem of Pain, states, “To ask that God’s love should be content with us as we are is to ask that God should cease to be God.” God is working within us, growing us, so that we might be like him and with him, and so that the Kingdom of God might be fulfilled. Like the nautilus, always be in that process of creating and recreating your spiritual home that you might participate in the greater work of the Church.

Let us pray:
Heavenly Father,
look upon our community of faith
which is the Church of your Son, Jesus Christ.
Help us to witness to his love
by loving all our fellow creatures without exception.
Under the leadership or our Bishop
keep us faithful to Christ’s mission
of calling all men and women
to your service so that there may be
“one fold and one shepherd.”
We ask this through Christ, our Lord.
Amen.

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