Material God

Scripture: Genesis 1:9-13, Lakota Instructions for Living
Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN
November 20, 2016 (no video available)

Do we have any Madonna fans in our midst?  (No, I am not referring to Madonna, the mother of Jesus, but Madonna the popular 1980’s entertainer.)  Madonna was a favorite musician of mine in High School.  One of my very favorite songs she sang was her hit single “Material Girl”.  The words say: You know that we are living in a material world.  And I am a material girl.  A few months ago, Austin and Lara returned from their Honeymoon to Mexico.  During staff meeting following the Honeymoon, Austin that one of the highlights during their romantic getaway was Lara singing a karaoke version of Madonna’s “Material Girl”.  Loving the song myself and trusting that there is a sermon somewhere in the song, I asked Lara to sing a little bit for us today.

It is true that we live in a material world and we worship a material God.  No, I am not referring to the manufactured material of Prada handbags or Gucci wallets, but the raw material of earth, air, fire, water.  In fact, Sally McFague says that the world, the cosmos is the body of God.  We worship a material God.  

First, Biblical creation stories abound with praise for the soil.  God creates the ground and calls it good.  God’s first language is dirt.  Then the land brings forth life, and God calls it good.  Humankind is made from the dust and God sees that as very good. The word Adam means humankind and Adam is formed from adamah (which means soil).  The word play is significant.  We are animated dirt.  From living ground we were made; to living ground we will return.  Soil is holy.  Soil is a sacrament.  For the people of Israel, land is a blessing and bounteous.  That is why they call their land, the Holy Land. It is time for us to reclaim the holiness of land, of earth, of dirt.

Next, we read in the creation story that God breathed God’s breath into the dirt to create humankind.  That breath is called “ruach” in Hebrew – which can also be translated as spirit or wind.  It is unseen material but is very active.  We need ruach, we need air to breathe.   The atmosphere of oxygen is humanity’s womb and without it all terrestrial life would perish. The breath of God creates a sacred environment, the atmosphere of existence.

Fire is also a significant element.  Fire represents purification, cleansing, renewal.  The sun’s fire gives life, provides energy, enables the process of photosynthesis (remember that word from Biology class), and keeps us warm.  Without the fire of the sun, there would be no life on earth.  Therefore, ancient people worshipped the sun.  While we do not worship the sun, the sun, too, according to Sally McFague is the body of God.

Finally, if the world is God’s body, then water is its lifeblood.  Water covers 70% of the planet.  Likewise, our bodies are made up of 70% water.  Some have argued that we should call this planet, not planet Earth, but planet Ocean.  Though there is much water on the planet, 96% of the water is saline, in the oceans and seas.  Though that is very helpful for marine life, we can neither drink it nor far with it.  Another 2% of the earth’s water is ice.  That leaves about 2% freshwater, but most of that is trapped underground.  Only a very tiny fraction of the world’s water, less than .3% is readily available freshwater.  Water is plentiful and necessary, but rare in usable forms (Diana Butler Bass, Grounded, p. 70)

Throughout human history, the quest for God has often been connected with a quest for freshwater.  Our ancient biblical tradition suggests that waters, wells, springs are places of liberation, hospitality, healing and life.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus is called “Living Water”. Muslims depict God as the One who sat upon the waters – and so water for the Muslims is associated with creation, motherhood, and God’s provision.  Hindus revere all water as sacred, especially rivers.  In the Ganges River, sins are forgiven, ancestors are honored, and the dying are ushered to heaven.  Buddhist pray with water bowls to achieve serenity, clarity and purity.  Taoism uses water as its primary metaphor, leading to the nickname the “Watercourse Way.” Psychologists affirm that simply being around water boosts energy, calms anxiety, elevates positive emotions and promotes attentiveness, concentration and creativity (Bass, pp. 73 – 78).

Earth, air, fire, water.  On this Thanksgiving Sunday, we say “thank you” to the Creator for these sacraments.  We live in a material world and we worship a material God. And in Genesis, God has called us, human beings, to be caretakers of this glorious earth.  Many have read Genesis 2 that says we are to have dominion over the earth to mean we have the power to dominate, to exploit planet earth.  A more accurate translation of the Hebrew of the word “dominion” is “to care for”.  We are called to be stewards, caretakers of God’s creation.  

So what does that mean for us in 2016?  Right now, there is an environmental crisis, a religious crisis taking place at Standing Rock.  A Texas company called Energy Transfer Partners has been building an oil pipeline that would extend from North Dakota to Illinois, 1200 miles.  It is called the Dakota Access Pipeline.  The cost of the pipeline is $3.8 billion dollars and it would transport 570,000 barrels of crude oil per day.  Part of the construction extends across a portion of the Standing Rock Lakota Reservation, a Native American sacred burial site made holy by tears and prayers. Even worse, the pipeline needs to cross the Missouri River and so the company has begun to tunnel under the river to put the pipeline in place.  The Missouri River is the water source for Standing Rock Reservation.  If the pipeline ever leaked, or broke, the water supply would be irreparably damaged.  And the seepage would extend downstream to other communities – recall that the Missouri river is one of the tributaries of the Mississippi River.

The disregard of Native Americans, of the First Nation, is astonishing.  It’s what we call environmental racism, subjecting poor and minority populations to greater ecological risks than those with greater wealth or privilege.  The name given to the oil pipeline by the Native Americans is black snake.  A poisonous black snake that has the ability to kill them.

Some say that the pipeline is a manifestation of the Doctrine of Discovery.  In 1491, the Doctrine of Discovery was created by the church on behalf of the monarchs of Europe.  The Doctrine told the explorers heading out into the New World that any land they saw could be claimed for the crown and if they happened to meet people, they could convert them.  And if those people wouldn’t convert, they could enslave them.  The Doctrine was woven into US law when the US Supreme Court ruled that the United States inherited the American conquest from the English.  In 1845, the phrase Manifest Destiny was used to affirm that the US was called by Providence, God, to dominate the continent.   Manifest Destiny grew out of the Doctrine of Discovery.  The Doctrine of Discovery is alive and well in the Dakota Access Pipeline.

On November 3rd of this year, 524 clergy – many of them from the United Church of Christ, representing 24 faith traditions went to Standing Rock to stand in solidarity with the Lakota People.  A pipeline was put in place because of a Church doctrine 524 years ago (the same number of clergy 524 that were there) and those clergy declared that the doctrine was wrong.  And they burned the Doctrine. It was there was of saying no to genocide, cultural degradation, conquest, slavery and raping of the land.  I have a copy of the Doctrine of Discovery with me. I think that we, too should burn it too.  Remember, fire is a symbol of cleansing and purification. (Symbolically burn Doctrine of Discovery document.)

It is so important to celebrate victories, even if they are small victories.  Victories encourage us and give us hope for the struggle ahead.  We celebrate the 524 clergy burning the Doctrine of Discovery.  We celebrate the thousands of people who have gathered at Standing Rock to stand in solidarity with the Lakota people.  They gather without weapons, without alcohol or drugs; they gather to pray, to sing, to dance, to work side by side with the Lakota people.  We celebrate the Healing March that took place on the reservation to the Sheriff’s office.  The Lakota people offered prayers of healing and offered water to law enforcement.  Twenty-seven police officers said that they could no longer protect this oil pipeline and not they felt they needed to protect the Lakota people.  That is a victory.   We celebrate the handful of people from our congregation who participated this last Tuesday in the National Day of Action.  Around the country a “No Dakota Access Pipeline National Day of Action” was held.  About 7 – 8 persons from our congregation marched at the University of Redlands to protest injustice and inequality, to stand up for the people of First Nation and God’s creation.  And we celebrate that tomorrow, our own Peter Tupou will be leaving for Standing Rock. People are coming by thousands around the world and there are not enough adequate facilities. So Peter will help cook, clean, dig to provide hospital space for others to stand with the Lakota People.  Peter, along with others, over this Thanksgiving week (a time when we traditionally celebrate the coming together of the Pilgrims and Indians) will gather with the Indians, the First Nation this week.  That is a true Thanksgiving.  Yes, we must celebrate victories wherever they are found because victories help us to stay encouraged for the journey ahead.

(Peter is then commissioned and given red cloth to give to the First Nation for their prayer circles and ceremonies…)