The World Is Our Oyster

The World Is Our Oyster (Photo taken by Rev. Lisa Degrenia)

On June 11th, I had the privilege of speaking with the United Methodist Clergywomen of the Florida Annual Conference.  The above photo is of one of the centerpieces I created for the event.  Below is a version of the talk I gave that night.  I say a version, because it is the manuscript that inspired the talk.  Yet the talk was more succinct, because I decided to just be present with the women and talk about how the world is our oyster, how kingdom work is a lot like harvesting oysters.

44“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a person found and hid again and out of joy goes and sells everything he or she has and buys that field.  45Again, the kingdom of heaven is like the situation of a merchant who is on the lookout for beautiful pearls.  46And when that person found one precious pearl she or he went and sold everything she or he had and bought it.”


 You’ve heard it said that the world is our parish, but I say to you the world is our oyster.  As clergywomen we know what it means to sell everything for the sake of the call.  We know what it is to surrender all that we are for the sake of the kingdom.  We, as clergywomen, know what is at stake.  We, too, have traded it all in for the pearl.  We know the value of the kingdom of heaven is worth our all.  So we have willingly put it all in one basket, trusting.

Can anyone tell me where the phrase the world is our oyster comes from?

The phrase:  The World is Our Oyster is rooted in Shakespeare.  Did you ever read (or see) The Merry Wives of Windsor?  

It’s Act 2, Scene 2.  Pistol and Falstaff are talking in a room in The Garter Inn.  In "The Merry Wives of Windsor," Falstaff refuses to lend Pistol any money:

Falstaff says to Pistol: I will not lend thee a penny.

Pistol replies: Why then the world's mine oyster, which I with sword will open.  I will retort the sum in equipage.

Falstaff reiterates:  Not a penny.

The original implication of the phrase is that Pistol is going to use extreme means a (sword) to obtain his fortune (the pearl one finds in an oyster).

Yet I see this notion of the world as our oyster a little differently.  As we look out at the world and the mission that God has called each of us to, we are invited to carpe diem, to seize the day, to seize each moment, as it were, as an opportunity to embody and share the love of God.  We are invited to be about kingdom work in our daily life. You might be wondering at this moment how does all this relate to oysters.  Kingdom work can be smelly, rough, dangerous, yet also rewarding.

As far as taste buds and palates go, people typically either love oysters or loathe them.  Putting aside oysters as food, let’s look at how the kingdom of heaven is like harvesting oysters.

Kingdom work involves preparation, a willingness to get wet and get dirty, a willingness to be about incarnational ministry.  Oysters have a season, running typically from mid September to mid May.  That’s where the idea of months with an “r” comes in play.  Mid-May to Mid-September is when oysters spawn.  Like oysters, ministry has seasons.  And the fallow seasons are just as valuable as the busy ones.  One way of harvesting oysters involves going out at low tide to the oyster reef, and one by one picking up clusters of oysters, out of the mud, and examining them, to see which ones are ready.  These are the low hanging fruit of discipleship.  These are the people in your life where seeds have already been planted and you are privileged to be there at the time of the harvest.  Notice, though, oysters grow in the mud.

Typically, though, oysters are harvested in a different way.  In order to harvest oysters you have to have preparation and patience.  You start by meeting the oysters where they are.  You wait for the waters surrounding the oysters to recede.  During low tide, you go to the place where oysters congregate – the oyster bed, the oyster reef and you physically place the oysters in the net or basket.  Attached to the nets or baskets are flotation devices.  This is so that when the waters of high tide return, you will be able to find the oysters.  After the tides have returned submersing the oysters in a fresh supply of water, ensuring that they are alive and fresh as possible then you retrieve your oysters loading them into your boat. 

In this analogy the nets or baskets are your outreach opportunities.  How in your mission field are you and people in your ministry setting sharing the love of God in tangible ways?  How are you meeting people where they are in your community?  How are you preparing people to have opportunities to encounter the Holy Spirit?  Each time we embody and share the love of God we are placing people in the net, in the realm of experiencing God’s kingdom here on earth.

Without the flotation markers it is like the sower who cast the seeds.  We are sharing the love of God in extravagant ways, which is a wondrous thing, yet we are not following up to help people continue to connect with God.

What means are you putting in place so that you can follow up with your oysters?  What do your floatation markers look like?  How are you paying attention to the ever changing tides?  Life is in constant flux.  

Once the oysters are brought into the boat the work is definitely not finished.  Getting people into the church vessel is not the end of the calling.  Jesus did not say, “Go therefore and make church attenders baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

The work of developing disciples is where it begins to get really messy.  Kingdom building is messy.  Making disciples is hard, ongoing, where the rubber meets the road kind of work.  Sometimes the mission of God feels a bit like shucking oysters.  Sometimes kingdom building feels a bit like shucking oysters.  Have you ever tried shucking an oyster?  Shucking oysters is a dangerous task that requires skills, tools, and finesse.  

Here are the directions for shucking oysters:

Oysters should be fresh when you shuck them, aka still alive.  The shells should be closed.  A simple tap of the shell and it will shut, letting you know it is indeed still alive, safely trying to guard what is within.  

That smell of the ocean should be evident.  Again, we want fresh oysters.  We are making disciple of people who are living in the world.  Unless of course, like Ezekiel, God has called you to the valley of dry bones.  In that case prophesy to the oysters in your midst.  And when God asks can they live, reply in faith:  “God, you know.”

They actually say oysters should have a heavy feel when you are about to shuck them, indicating that they are full of seawater.  

At our best, disciples are regularly being immersed in the Living Waters of God’s abiding presence.

When we go to shuck oysters we need the right tools.  Things like a stiff bristled brush, heavy gloves, an oyster knife (or sword in the case of Pistol) and a bed of ice for keeping them fresh. 

In order to do kingdom work we must start with ourselves.  We also must bring to the situation the proper tools, the proper skills.  Oysters need to be cleaned.  Believe you me, I know.  The ones on your tables, I personally cleaned.  

Sidebar:  As I was preparing for my time with you, I made contact with a local fish camp, Singleton’s Seafood Shack, an icon of the Atlantic Beach area that has been around for many years.  They provided me with a bucket of oyster shells that I used to help create the center pieces.  Being allergic to bleach, I had my husband soak them in bleach water in the bathroom in our garage.  A few days later, I made my way into the bathroom garage to wash my paint brushes.  The smell of bleach did not hit me.  Nope.  Instead the smell of fetid, decomposing oysters wafted in my face.  I realized that bleach was not enough.  I would need to hand scrape these oysters.  One by one, I began hand scrubbing each oyster and scraping off remnants of decomposing oyster.  Much to my chagrin, some of the oysters had whole smaller oysters piggy backing on their shells.  Just imagine the smell of oysters that have been sitting in an uninsulated bathroom in the heat of early summer in Florida.  I almost tossed my cookies, but I pressed on, scraping and scrubbing each one.  After I had thoroughly cleaned each one, I then had my hubby rebleach the batch.

Oysters are di-ir-ty!  So it is with us.  All of us are affected by sin, which corrupts and tarnishes.  We regularly need to surrender to the cleansing waters and the scrubbing brush of the Holy Spirit.  The hand cleaning of the oysters brought to mind images of repentance and baptism.

Before you can begin shucking you need to understand the anatomy of an oyster.  You need to know with what you are dealing.  

How true is that in the local church? In your ministry setting?  In the mission field?  Part of our job as clergywomen is to know people, know systems, know the culture, and know the particular baggage.  If we have a hope of helping people see the pearl of the kingdom of God that lives and reigns within them, we have to take the time to get to know them in non-manipulative ways.

Oysters are a bivalve mollusk.  There is a hinge, a muscle that connects the top and bottom shells at the pointy end of the oyster.  Opposite the hinge is the rounded front of the oyster.  The top of the oyster is the flatter shell.  The bottom shell is more cup shaped.  Before you even start.  Put on gloves. Oysters are sharp.  Without protective gloves you are likely to cut yourself.  

Oysters are called nature’s razor blades.  So it is with people.  People can be quite cantankerous.  And as you well know this is true of people within the church walls and people beyond.  Our protection comes in the form of putting on the armor of God.  

Ephesians 6:13-17:

13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.  14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness.  15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.  16 With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.  17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Italics indicates my emphasis.)

The sword (or in our case the oyster knife) of the Spirit which is the word of God.  How do we open people up to receive the word of God?  Part of our tools involves us being connected to the vine, us being grounded in the word.  How is it with your soul?  What does your prayer life look like?  Are you reading scripture more than for sermon prep?  When was the last time you took Sabbath?  What does self-care look like in your life?  The gloves represent the protection that comes from being grounded in the word.

Scrub the oysters clean.  Use the stiff-bristled brush to scrub the ocean grit from the oysters.  Rinse the scrubbed oysters in cool running water.  

Because they grow in mud, it really is essential to scrub oysters thoroughly before they are opened.  Again, this just sounds like images of repentance and baptism to me.  If oysters are the mission God has called us to of making disciples, ocean grit is all that junk that mars and corrupts the image of God.  And then we place people in the path of the living waters to flow down over them washing them in the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Then place an oyster, with the bottom, the cup side down in the palm of your hand.  The point (the hinge) should be facing toward you.

How you handle the oyster matters.  That goes back to the importance of relationship in ministry.  It is through loving people where they are that they find themselves more receptive to the love of God.

Insert the oyster knife into the hinge.  Point it down into the cup of the oyster.  Using a twisting motion to separate the top and bottom shells.  You should feel the hinge pop when you twist the knife.  Run the blade along the top of the shell.  Work the blade as close to the top of the shell as possible.  And run it from the hinge around to the other side of the oyster.  Continue using a twisting motion to separate the top and bottom shells.

The shell will be very tightly closed, so be careful NOT to let the knife slip as you do this.  Do your best not to break the shell into pieces.  A few stray bits may get inside, but the shell should stay mostly intact.  Be careful not to tip the shell from side to side or turn it over or all the delicious juices will pour out.  At this point you open the oyster.

As I read these instructions I immediately thought of the Chronicles of Narnia where Eustace Scrubb (in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader), because of his greed has become a dragon.  Eventually, Eustace meets Aslan, who returns him to human form by peeling off his dragon skin and sending him into a refreshing bath.  Again, repentance and baptism come to mind.

Now this is where the metaphor gets tricky.  Don’t go stabbing people with an oyster knife (or sword, for that matter) no matter how much they annoy you.  But feel free to use all your tools and skills to help them open up.  Each of us has been given gifts, talents, skills, and calling.  With these we are meant to help people be open to receive the power and presence of God.  Shucking an oyster takes finesse, practice, and is a learned skill.  Just because I am telling you step by step how to shuck an oyster, it does not mean that you could now go and do it well, if you’ve never done it before.  So it is with ministry.  We want to bring out the best in people.  We want people to be open enough to experience the love and power of the Holy Spirit.

When in doubt, love them as they are and just keep putting them in the path of the Holy Spirit.  Have you ever thought of the easiest way to actually get an oyster to open?  Heat.  If you grill oysters they will pop open on their own accord.  Those two muscles so fervently holding the two shells together will release.  The heat, for us, represents the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.  Our job is to keep putting them in the path to experience that power and presence.  Some would be disciples don't want to surrender.  And we have a choice: we can forcibly open them (which really doesn't work for the long haul) or we can lovingly keep putting them in the path of God so they willingly open up and surrender to the call on their own.  Perhaps shucking isn’t the way to go?  I read recently:  The world is your oyster; don’t shuck it up.  Perhaps there’s some truth there.  The world is our oyster.  Hande with care.  

Every oyster has the potential for a pearl, yet naturally occurring (as in non cultivated) pearls are rare.  Each of us has the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the kingdom of God reigns within.  

Do you know how pearls are formed?  An irritant gets between the two shells.  And the oyster begins to cover it with the same substance that lines the shell.  The formation of a natural pearl begins when a foreign substance slips into the oyster between the mantle and the shell, which irritates the mantle. It's kind of like the oyster getting a splinter. The oyster's natural reaction is to cover up that irritant to protect itself. The mantle covers the irritant with layers of the same nacre substance that is used to create the shell. This process eventually forms a pearl.  

It is when we face adversity, that we discover who we truly are.  What we do with it, is key.  Will we be about kingdom work?  May we be vessels that bring beauty from ashes. 

Questions To Discuss At Your Tables:

1. Did any of you struggle with God's calling on your life?  Who are the people in your life that kept putting you in the path to hear God’s call?

2. Who are the oysters in your life?  Who is God calling you to be persistent about putting in the path to hear God’s calling?

3. Where has ministry been most challenging/frustrating?  

4. Celebrate a time when God used you to help someone know of God’s loving presence?

5. Where have you seen pearls of the kingdom within the last month?  

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