By Jim Perkinson (09.01.2019)
*Note: This is a sermon Dr. James Perkinson (right, performing spoken word at the Heidelberg Project in Detroit, MI) did for the liturgical “season” being adopted by some churches including St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Detroit. It is called the Season of Creation (Sept 1 to Oct 4). The focus on this Sunday (September 1, 2019) was on the oceans. J-Perk included a number of biblical passages related to the seas and water and asked a few questions/made some comments [as indicated], before getting into the sermon proper.
In the beginning, God created the Heavens and Earth. The Earth was without Form and Void, and Darkness was upon the Face of the Deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the Waters—Canaanite Mythology (Gen 1:1-2).
Questions: Does anything strike you as strange about this account? Comment: Hmmm—Water seems to already be present before creation. And all of these Preexistent Phenomenon—Earth, Form, Void, Darkness, Face, Deep, Spirit-Wind, Waters (plural) are actually Living Beings in the oldest mythologies of the Ancient Near East—de-personalized to be sure in the Genesis account which is a relatively late writing, but the traces of their indigenous Canaanite character as Alive and endowed with Agency is still detectable even in Genesis.
And God said, “Let there be a Firmament in the midst of the Waters, and let it separate the Waters from the Waters.” And God made the Firmament and separated the Waters which were under the Firmament from the Waters which were above the Firmament. And it was so—God (Gen 1:6-7).
Comment: We don’t have time to go into it here, but this is the only day that is not summed up in the phrase “And God saw that it was good.” Why? Rabbinic commentary on this tells us the Waters actually rebelled against their separation—it was painful to be carved apart, and once positioned Above and Below, Thunder Storms and Oceans, Rain Clouds and Aquifers, they are constantly trying to re-unite like long lost lovers.
O God . . . who makest the Clouds your chariot, who ridest on the Wings of the Wind . . . Thou didst cover [the Earth] with the Deep as with a garment; the Waters stood above the Mountains. At thy rebuke they fled; at the sound of thy Thunder they took to flight . . . Yonder is the Sea, great and wide, which teems with things innumerable, living things both small and great. There go the ships, and Leviathan which thou didst form to sport in it—Psalmist (Ps 104: 3, 6, 25-26).
Question: What do you notice here? Comment: And the primal act of Creation is putting a limit on Water by means of . . . a Thunder Storm! That is to say the Waters Above limiting the Waters Below! Again, we don’t have time to get into how that works, but suffice it here to note that this image of the Waters wrestling with each other is the most primordial image of Divinity we have in indigenous mythologies all over the world. God is plural and in the form of Water, God is limiting God for the sake of the Earth and the Earth creatures.
Then the Lord answered Job out of the Hurricane: Where were you when I . . . shut in the Sea with doors, when it burst forth from the womb; when I made Clouds its garment, and thick Darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed”?—Job (Job 38:1, 4, 8-11).
Comment: Here it is again—and indeed, in Hebrew scripture this is the most pervasive set of images associated with Divinity—this is who YHWH is: God as Storm limiting God as Ocean.
Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the Earth. . . . When God established the Heavens, I was there, when God drew a circle on the Face of the Deep, when God made firm the Skies above, when God established the Fountain of the Deep, when God assigned to the Sea its limit, so that the Waters might not transgress God’s command, when God marked out the Foundations of the Earth, then I was beside God like a master Craftsperson; and I was daily God’s Delight—Wisdom (Prov 8:23, 27-30).
Comment: Now it gets even more interesting. Even before the beginning there is God . . . and Someone else—and in Hebrew understanding that Someone is a Female called Wisdom (in later Greek, “Sophia”). And Her most primordial activity is working with God to limit the Waters, as we have already hinted, Waters limiting Waters, God limiting God.
I call Heaven and Earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you, life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life—Moses (Dt 31:19).
Comment: And here we have . . . the summoning of Climate Change, the entire biosphere, and especially the waters Above and the Waters Below, beginning to function as the Witness of lastw resort, when every other Divine communication has failed, when the prophets have all been rejected—then it is the entirety of the Wild Natural World that will speak—and whether we want it or not, this Voice will be heard!
But let justice roll down like waters, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream—Amos (Amos 5:24).
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the Heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, as a Dove, and a Voice came from Heaven—Luke (Lk 3:21-22).
Comment: Read in Hebrew context, a reference to “Heavens opened” typically designates a Rain Storm and a “Voice from Heaven,” Thunder.
On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed, “If anyone thirst, let that one come and drink”—Jesus (Jn 7:37).
Comment: The Feast here is the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths—in Hebrew known as the Feast of Sukkot, a week-long September fest that is quintessentially a Rain ceremony, calling on the Waters Above to return and re-start the rainy season in Palestine—which normally rolls in in late September or early October—and end the death-dealing Drought of Summer. Jesus will indeed assert that the Father in Heaven makes the rain to fall on just and unjust alike (Mt 5:45): it is pure Gift, as we shall see in the sermon.
Why is water activism perhaps the primary concern of faith for the foreseeable future? The last century was the century of oil wars—certainly cataclysmic in its horrors. But this century is already the century of water wars. The conflict in Syria, the threats between India and Pakistan, the struggle over the Nile—not to mention more local disasters like the shutoffs of Detroit and the poisoning of Flint—are just a few of the wet spots flaring into conflagration (not a mixed metaphor, as fire does actually kindle by “burning” H2O). We can live without oil. But not so without water! Even the tide of immigration at the U.S. southern border reflects the concern—climate-change-related drought making life in Honduras impossible for increasing numbers. Climate crisis is above all a phenomenon of “water speak”—our Great Mother raging at us in floods and hurricanes or going aloof and silent in drought and wildfire. We have thought Her a mere “object” for piping, pooling, or bottling; abundant “resource” ready to clean up our every mess, humbly seeking “the lowest place” like some saint-creature of the environment—midwife of all life, more than 60% of our own make-up, yet continuously disappearing under foot or watching from above in cloud, ready to yield bounty and land-fertility, or lay down metal and mineral in a sea bed for some distant future. High time, we “woke” to the great gift.
YHWH in biblical take is preeminently Deity of the Storm, haunting Sinai height, flashing in Thunder-Voice, etching not just stone with word, but the entire planetary surface with the graffiti of life (Ps 104; Gen 1:1-9; Job 26; Is 24-27; Dan 7, etc.). Serpentine rivers are the original calligraphy of Divine Gratuity. When we look down from a plane, we don’t see straight lines except where humans have re-made the landscape. Rather, we see shimmering snakes slithering to the sea. And it is that Sea who is the womb of all life on Earth.
Water predates air as the original largesse of the planet, enabling cyanobacteria to hook up with chloroplasts, building algae, breathing oxygen that more than 2 billion years ago became the life-giving envelope of the Earth. Indeed, some of our waters of origin are older than the solar system itself, cruising, on comets, into our little Milky Way neighborhood from the furthest reaches of the universe.
For the last half-billion years, this Denizen from the Dark Spaces of the galaxies has presided on this Third Rock from the Sun as the Great Mediatrix—holding, in a constant concert of astonishing innovation, all the titanic midwives of the ever-birthing crust—coordinating Gaia’s grinding, belching, diving, up-thrusting, down-pushing, wind-whipped and comet-pummeled surface, a ballerina’s balance between lithosphere, geosphere, biosphere, and atmosphere, holding in symbiotic symphony, the polysonic hymn as species come and go, bump each other out of niche, succeed each other in adaptation and thrust, but remain mysteriously in synch in relationship and motion.
The gift of Water—at once Conductor, Diplomat from soil to depth, from Sky burst to desert blanch, Repairer, and Compost Queen of all Failures! As feminist biologist Kate Marvel recently opined: “We shouldn’t have called it Earth.” Seventy one percent of the planet’s surface is water. We actually live on an astonishing blue marble orb that more realistically should be called “Planet Water.” And indigenous traditions the globe over—including the ancient Near Eastern indigenous traditions alive under the surface of the (elite-produced) biblical text—know the score and remember the wonder in all of their myths of origin and stories of responsibility of humans to their places of dwelling. There is perhaps no more primal understanding of Sacred Blessing in Judaism, Christianity, Islam and other traditions than the fact of regular rains, inundating fields, midwifing plants into being that convert sunlight and soil into living, breathing “matter” for all the rest of us.
And “God,” in indigenous spiritual assessment—underneath our of our anal monotheisms—is the water cycle “right on time,” setting up all of the Earth’s other rhythmic syncopations in its own on-going “dance of embrace” between the Waters Above as atmosphere and the Waters Below as aquifer transporting minerals from depths to surface and finally into bloodstreams, nurturing brains and babies. If God is incarnate as Christianity so loves to claim, “what” actually incarnates God long before human arrival on the scene—even long before the Dove that Luke describes as the Spirit incarnate in Bird-body form—is Water. The Living God is Living Water.
Skip then from Hebrew scripture accounts of Storm Cloud pirouettes over Ocean Pulse on all the world’s beaches, from Riverine Flash down Mountain slope, gifting lowlands with all manner of nutrient and biodiversity and transport possibility and we come to Jesus, going under Baptist hand into the Jordan flow. He emerges from the flush to Heavens opening in likely Rain gush and Thunder Voice—Spirit-Dove driving him into the Wilds to confront for 40 days the vision and memory of the history of his people’s own settler colonial take-over of the land and do battle with the devil over how to relate to that history—then return to the Roman-ruled society he grew up in to begin to act, confront, and create otherwise. There, after a multi-year campaign organizing peasants up in Galilee into an alternative gift-economy social movement, he will end his days in a direct action occupation of the Jerusalem Temple shrine—Chase Manhattan Bank of its time where all the records of debt and foreclosure were maintained (Mk 11:1-19). Convening a day-long sit-down strike interrupting that religious shrine’s money-changing and creditor-coddling operation, he will offer up a “take-no-prisoners” teach-in, naming the entire Temple-sanctioned system “Thug Central,” home-base of the real plunderers of the nation, and—in Gospel of John account in particular, invoke prophet Isaiah’s ancient admonition to all to “Come and drink for free!” (Is 55).
That is to say, at the heart of Jesus’ prophetic challenge of the Principalities and Powers of his day is a throw-down about water. The Temple had for centuries been charging the poor an annual head tax—tendered each Passover to the priestly class and their cronies—supposedly guaranteeing that the September rains continue to fall and the fields thus fecundate and fruit—a religious-political privatization of water, locking up its gift and necessity in a price, yielding elite benefit and peasant poverty. Jesus stands up at one point of the major fest, as the altar is being cleansed with Sihon spring water, announces Isaiah’s invitation, insisting water is gift of Divinity, freely offered from cloud bank crashing into mountain top, “living” and vital as long as it is not claimed as a human possession in an aqueduct or pipe (Jn 7:37-38). And his teaching is then verified, records John, by a Thunder-Voice that some hear as angel-speech (Jn 12:12-29). Jesus is a Water Warrior, championing natural flows over against the drive of dominators to privatize the Gift in a tax.
All of which is to say—Water is through-and-through a spiritual concern of the first order—at one very deep level, the very stake for which a Palestinian prophet like Jesus will give up his life in public confrontation of the Powers of his time commandeering the flow for private gain and political manipulation. And for which leaders of indigenous folk around the globe today and of oppressed peoples in places like Detroit and Flint, Baltimore and Newark, are likewise standing up and fighting back and giving theirs. High time we put our own feet on the pavement and bodies on the line, in working to halt the criminal incarceration of water in privatizing policy and corporation-profiting plastic that is everywhere now the apocalyptic issue of our hour and re-create affordable access for all—while recognizing that ultimately, water belongs to water! Water is indeed a human right! But even before that Water is a Water right! She is Elder to all of us. And She belongs to Herself!