By Jim Perkinson, a sermon on John 6:1-12 for the radical disciples who gather at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church Detroit (July 29, 2018)
I preached here earlier this year on Jonah and fish and began that sermon by saying “I am not a fish person.” But then offered that fish were central to the gospel, that Jonah had in fact been saved by a fish, that fish were on par with bread in feeding the multitudes in the wilderness, and that Jesus was even called, in subsequent tradition (notably North African theologian Tertullian) “The Great Fish.”
Today, I would preach on wind. As you know by now, I am not interested in offering typical sermons repeating old patterns. Rather, I want to sit before the text and be summoned by little details about wild nature that hint an older understanding when plants and animals, fish and snakes, seeds and soil had parts to play in divine action and grace. And so, today, it will be wind. Even though I don’t like wind! I have never been a sailor or an ocean person, not even a Great Lakes lover. I grew up in southern Ohio, spent boyhood summers on a backwoods lake in Kentucky, loved dense leaves hanging in dappled glory as the day aged and sat fat and still on its haunches for long summer afternoons, bathing in sun and wellbeing, occasionally slipping into the tepid waters as languid in their embrace as the afternoon was in its shimmering translucence. I enjoyed slight breezes, yes, but not gusting gales or zephyr blasts or even steady draughts, much less squalls, or tempests, or freshening blusters. Though I do have to say I like big storms on hot afternoons—thunder beings roaring, lightning arc-ing like serpent fangs, ozone haunting air with electric excitement. Storms with gigundus clouds and short-lived drama, before returning to a day, brilliant with rain-scent and sun-warmth.
But no matter my personal predilections, today, John’s gospel is blunt. The Word is in the air. Jesus has just fed the 5,000 with five loaves and two fishes. A Eucharist in nuce, where Pisces Flesh ranks with Wheat Kernel in God’s provision. And place is crucial. In his only Sea of Galilee crossing in this particular gospel’s telling, Jesus has gone “to the other side” we are told (John 6:1). There is faint premonition. Someone a bit Celtic like me, hearing the “other side,” would start thinking mounds, imagining what the Irish call the sídhe, and look for fairies and elves. The Gospel is not Gaelic, but the suggestion is pertinent. Stepping out of society into the outback is often enough a venture to the Spirit-side of things—unseen by the normal eye, a door without a handle, a space-warp, usually stumbled on unintentionally and feared. For the Jewish Sage Jesus here, however, presumably not a surprise, but rather an intention! But we can say more.
The slight evocations of geography in this gospel are clear to one conversant with the region. Jesus has “gone renegade” out of Herod’s turf and up to the north shore, just east of where the Jordan empties, from its headwaters up in Mt. Hermon’s snowy heights, into the Galilee Sea, otherwise known as Lake Kinnereth. To the west of that river mouth, Herod reigns vigilant and ruthless. To the east, a scant half-mile away, his brother Philip presides, cuckolded by Herod Antipas, but less foamy-mouthed and vicious when it comes to prophets and political resistance. In Synoptic witness, at this juncture, Herod has just beheaded the Baptist and Jesus grows itchy with foreboding, knowing what is coming. He must prepare the crew, stifle his own terror, and look the beast in the eye—when the moment is ripe.
Meanwhile, however, he seeks cover and sanctuary where his neck is not yet at risk. So he heads north, to a patch of ground just east of the town of Bethsaida, whose name in ancient time meant “Temple of the Fish God.” The multitudes follow, roused by healing and oracle. Jesus and his homies climb a nearby hill and watch. It is Passover time, but he is a wanted man in Judea to the south, so no Temple advent this particular spring (in John’s gospel he had already cleared the shrine-courts and incurred the wrath by chapter 2).
The crowds gather, hungry; Philip writhes in uncertainty. How deal with such a horde? Jesus challenges—how will we get enough bread? Philip inventories five loaves and two sardines and scratches head. The master has them organize and sit—for there is “much grass in that place.”
Aha! Unsettled grasslands! We are here in nomad terrain, where deep history is carried by the land. A Celt would instantly understand. Yes, the sídhe. The people presumably open pockets; the food multiplies; the gift-economy abundance of this world is magnified by the Other-World into leftovers. It is a sign; the people thinking the prophet should now be crowned king. He runs to the mountain to get away. And the disciples shove off in boat to get back to safe shores and more normal chores to the west near Capernaum. Nothing said on this return trip about an “other side.” No, they are going back to the everyday world. But the wind rises.
More literally, the sea rises, because the wind is blowing. They are rowing—and getting nowhere. Then out on the wave crests, a wind-blown Water Walker appears. They are terrified. Is it a Ghost? A Demon? Some heretofore undiscovered Galilean version of Loch Ness Monster? The blasting air says “Ego Eimi” in Greek, “It is I.” Or more literally, “I AM.” This is the Great “I AM” speaking! “Don’t be afraid!” Only then do they recognize it is Jesus, take him into the boat and are “immediately” at the land to which they were going.
John’s gospel is built on these “I AM” encounters, usually falling from Jesus lips with a qualifier in tow: “I AM the Door,” “I AM the Light,” “I AM the Way,” “I AM the Truth,” “I AM the Life,” etc. These sayings allow John to camp out his word on top of Moses’ experience. For the great Hebrew-Egyptian renegade, slave-revolt guru, the “I AM” had come in Bush-form, a Vegetable Revelation, God-as-Talking-Plant. He sees fire on leaf, approaches to investigate, and hears the Big Voice: “This is ‘I AM’ calling . . . anybody home?” For the disciples, wave-tossed out on the Lake, it is Wind-Speech, the I AM as Screech of Storm. Only after being told to stop fearing, do they “see” Jesus. So, if we want, this is “God” as Wind. Except in Jewish “smarts” you never say this I AM set of Hebrew sounds; you don’t pronounce the actual Hebrew word for “God” (YHWH), but substitute a generic term of respect like “Sir.” Or if we want to challenge the patriarchy, “Ma’am.” Why? Jews were savvy. It is so easy to create a word-idol. And frankly the word “God” has become precisely that for so many of us.
But there is more to play with here. As the text already noted, it is Passover. That means spring. That also means it is a time of Wind-Wars. Twice per year, wet West winds coming in off the Mediterranean battle with hot, dry “Oriental” Winds known as the Sirocco coming off the deserts to the south and east. The winter in Palestine is the rainy period, when constant storms from the western seas blow in and fertilize the soils and flush nutrient down mountain passes. Until roughly the time around Passover when the eastern winds kick in, bringing dust storms, Ḥamsin or Haboob—desiccating heat, plague and illness, drying up streams and water courses, spreading sickness among animal and human alike. And again in September/October, after the hot blast of summer, the rains arrive from the west and the battle again takes place between the airs. The interchange between the two winds can occur in a matter of an hour or so, during these two seasons, temperatures rise or fall 25 degrees or more. And throughout Hebrew scripture, God is associated with both, sometimes spoken of as Lord of the West Winds, sometimes Lord of the East. From the West, Divinity comes as agricultural blessing. From the East, as herder retribution against enemies. Jeremiah will even describe the Sirocco storms as “shepherds” ravaging a vineyard; the rain clouds as “sprouting” a new David (Jer 12:10-13; 21:22; 21:8).
A final thing to note on this battle rap between airs wet or hot: “God” in Hebrew writ, as we have it from Genesis to Malachi, is double-named, a hyphen-Deity, Elohim of the cool, wet coastal mountains, YHWH of the hot sands south and east. And this is likely because Israel was a hyphen-people, a mixed lot, a creole crowd, partly composed of pastoral nomads following Moses and Joshua, coming into Canaan from the forty years of desert wandering, once crossing the Jordan from the east, joining with rebelling Canaanite peasants, going feral up in the central highlands from seaboard cities on the Mediterranean to the west. A motley crew, each group bringing their God into the stewpot, a Midianite-Canaanite mix, worshipping a YHWH-Elohim amalgam of deities. YHWH is a dust-storm deity encountered by a renegade herder horde on a Sinai desert mountain in lightning and thunder. Elohim is a rain-storm deity encountered by an outlaw peasant crowd on a Canaanite coastal mountain in lightning and thunder. One flashes over the vastness of sand; the other over the expanse of sea. And though the name YHWH comes to predominate, Elohim remains in use more than 2500 times in the Hebrew text.
We could go on if there were time. The word for Wind in Hebrew is “ruach,” which also means “Air,” “Breath,” “Spirit.” Gendered female. These are not fully separable ideas. For many indigenous and antique peoples, the Spirit-World is the Natural World, especially in its fluidity as Air, Wind, Breath. It is not so much the case that the Spirit is in us, as it is we are in the Spirit. It moves through and among us all the time. Everything is breathing Spirit, in and out, every second. And the bodies that navigate the realm of air, the bodies exquisitely attuned to sense every nuance of wind wafting, whispering, upwelling, down-blowing, scudding or sheering—birds—are quintessentially Spirit-Messengers in culture after culture. We, in the biblical tradition, just freeze-frame them and call them “angels”—winged creatures that sing, and bring messages from heaven!
It is the Wind-Spirit that hovers, Dove-like, over the Great Waters of Chaos in Creation in Genesis 1. It is that same hovering Spirit-Wind-Dove that blows back the Red Sea waters for the escaping slaves. It is the Wind-Cruising-Dove that Noah sends forth from the water-bound ark to find land. It is that Dove-Bodied-One who falls on Jesus coming up from Jordan waters, as the Holy Spirit incarnate, says Luke. God as Dove-Animal, shaped by Wind-Air-Breath, tutoring the Messiah in his wilderness vision-quest and then accompanying him at every step along the way as that Spirit-Bird-Familiar by which he confronts demons and exposes Principalities. Spirit-Wind, in you want, as the Third Person of the Trinity, moving in and out of us and of every other living thing on the planet, at every millisecond!
And back to the gospel for a millisecond, Jesus would seem in this Passover hour of interchanging storms, actually to be riding Sirocco Wind out onto Galilee wave, against the force of the West wind thwarting the disciples rowing—and once they hitch their boat onto his motion, boom, they are almost instantly at the Capernaum shore, without effort!
So what do we do with such today? We are so far removed from such a Spirit-Sensitivity to the Divinity of Wind-Storm and Ruach-Breath. I’m not sure, except to say—the I AM is accosting us on every side. Hurricane and typhoon over ocean; roaring Santa Anna winds over wildfires in Cali, etc. Maybe we could listen to the people of Puerto Rico. A short while after Maria hit, Canadian writer, Naomi Kline, went to the island to get the scoop. On the ground she encountered people who told her Maria was certainly devastating, but was also their teacher. This Great Female Storm had indeed taken lives and destroyed infrastructure—especially those things associated with a centralized economy rooted in importing food and technology and energy from the U.S. in the north, under crushing finance-capital terms of debt. On the other hand, various groups of local people, working for years on returning to the land, and recovering older, indigenous traditions of sustainable reciprocity and symbiotic respect, growing root-crops and fruits like the intercropping strategy of Organización Boricuá survived just fine and had food available for the people the very next day. Maria taught “what works and what doesn’t work,” in the words of the people. Antique folk on the island, had long known how to read the signs of coming storms and had already evolved ways of adapting and surviving.
That is not to say climate crisis is not a calamity. It is to say, it is one we have created. As I have ventured in previous sermons, Nature is not here to make up for our moral failings. We address God in the face of a Maria and say “How could you harm so many poor people!?” Nature says right back, “I am not your Santa Claus! People suffer because you make them vulnerable; you force them to live where they are at risk; you create the systems that de-skill folks, so they no longer know how to listen to the wind, read the sky, or suss out what the waters are saying. How many people have to die before you change!?”
But even more to the point, as we fight to shut down the incinerator so kids can breathe without getting poisoned, as we struggle for affordable water, work to learn to grow local foods in backyards or vacant lots, maybe even in days to come here at St. Peter’s, open an Earth Spirituality Center—a deeper question lurks. Will we learn that each of these things—air, fire, soil, water—is actually a Living Creature on its own terms, separate from us? Clean water is not just a human right, but a water right! Water has a right to be Herself, without being enslaved or bent to our purposes. Breathable air is not just a pre-condition for human health, but first of all, a pre-condition for Life itself, long before we arrived. Air, created more than two billion years ago by cyanobacteria and chloroplasts, joining forces to become plants, belongs finally, to Air. And what’s more, it is, according to indigenous thinking, but also, preeminently, according to Christian tradition, a Divine creature, a Spirit-Being. I do not have simple answers here, as the hour is so desperate. But I do see that each of these Wild Persons—despite our enslavement and abuse—just keeps on living and keeps on giving. A model for our own action in the hour of apocalypse! And if we listen carefully in spite of our frantic rowing and panicked yelling, we will hear, “Be not afraid, it is I. I AM.” And if we invite Her into our little lifeboat, maybe the Wind Herself will blow us to the shore we seek!