Pastor Lisa Horst Clark
November 11, 2018
Genesis 1: 6-10
And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day. And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good
O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
Yonder is the sea, great and wide,
creeping things innumerable are there,
living things both small and great.
There go the ships,
and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.
These all look to you
to give them their food in due season;
when you give to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath, they die
and return to their dust.
When you send forth your spirit, they are created;
and you renew the face of the ground.
The Marianas Trench in the Pacific Ocean has within it challenger deep a valley 36,000 feet deep, or 10,994 meters. To give a perspective, Mount Everest is more than a mile shorter than the trench is deep. January 23, 1960 Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard, in a submersible Bathyscaphe Trieste, were the first humans to reach the bottom of this deepest place in the ocean. It took them almost five hours to descend through the darkness and of course, when they got to the bottom, they wondered what would be there. For 20 minutes they sat at the deepest part of the ocean, 7 miles under the surface, far away from the surface where oxygen can meet the sea, miles deeper than the last glimmers of sunlight. They looked out of the window in their submersible, resting on the floor. The submersible was designed to go up and down and withstand pressure, not to move around when it got there. And their landing had brought up a cloud of dust. They just sat there and stared out their porthole at the tiny piece they could see of the deepest underwater trench on earth when something swam by their window. Even at the bottom of the ocean there was life. At the time in their excitement they named it a fish, and in time we have learned it was likely a sea cucumber happening by their window in their 20 minutes in the depths of the sea.
Twelve people have walked on the moon, but only 3 have ever descended to the depths in the trench. Human beings have spent 300 hours on the moon but only 3 hours at the deepest part of the ocean. The seas are still unknown to us. About 71 percent of the earth’s surface is water. I am trying to repeat this because when I think about the “average square mile” of the surface of the earth, my temptation is to picture a place like where I have spent the vast majority of my time. If not a suburb, then at least some rolling hills, vast forests, deserts, jungles or sprawling urban areas. My mental bias has trouble thinking that all of those spaces of well, land, where I can stand on my feet simply and breathe air. That is not even a third of the earth: 29 percent. By far, most of this spinning orb is water, seas, oceans. I have known these spaces only by glimpsing their edges, seeing the surface of the water as the sun moves across the skies, and those edges where the water touches the coast, staring into tide pools, at the tiny crabs.
I know that there are ways in my life that the water has felt like a voice of the holy: on the ocean with the waves rolling in or out, at a stream that just keeps being mesmerizing, or out here, at the lakes. It was water that made me fall in love with this area. It teaches you that gray is not a color, it’s a palate. Yes, yes, there are the blue skies for that moment in July, but the lakes and the sound have taught me to appreciate gray, to find it to be stunning as the clouds roll in. But I know in ways that my appreciation is cursory. I am a tourist because I see really just the pretty surface of the water that reflects the sky. I know the water from at a distance or those edges that are sometimes land and sometimes water, depending where we are in the tide. I get a glimpse of its depths caught behind glass at the aquarium or in rare be-goggled treks beneath the surface. I do not know the deep waters for their own sake, for all of the complexities and stories they hold within. I don’t know what it’s like beneath.
As we look at God the creator, and give creation the gift of our attention, part of what strikes me is the vast expanses of even our world which do not have to do with me, or broadly us, in humanity. 71% of the earth is covered with a substance to which we owe our life and being but beneath which, absent the wonders of technology, we would drown. It is not for us, but somehow for itself, and we just get to catch the glimpses. How do you respond to something that is so fundamentally unknown and in the depths in its sheer size, still to this day, unknowable? The 2010 Census of Marine Life estimated that at least 750,000 marine species await discovery. To put this in perspective, that is 3 times as many marine species than we have found so far. They named that only 0.0001 per cent of the deep-sea floor has been sampled.
Genesis tells us that God gathered the waters together so that dry ground appeared and called the dry ground “Land” and called the waters “Seas” and God saw that it was good. There is a line of division of difference. Think of all the lines of difference, of how you will find yourself on one side of one and the other side will be in some ways unknowable. How do you respond with an encounter from the other side, to bring it back to a human scale? I still find it creepy that when you go into a lake or ocean that there are things living there. I have visceral memories of getting in the water to swim in the ocean or a lake and when you step one step in front of the other on uneven shifting terrain, as the water grows higher and higher until you feel something unknown brush by your ankle, unlike a pool, where you can see to the bottom and chemicals promise that you will be alone with the exception of the neighbor kids with floaties. In the waters of this earth they are filled with life that is not you. As you look into the waters and can only catch glimpses of what lies beneath, there are creatures so foreign we don’t even breathe the same way: I would gasp for air under the waters and they would perish for lack of oxygen in the air. Something is in there, something in the depths that you cannot see.
How do you respond amidst such profound lines of difference to the things which touch you and are not you? Do you respond with anxiety, pulling yourself out of the waters with a gasp or a scream? Do you respond with delight, leaning closer, wondering at what these depths can hold? For here we stand at the edge of the waters, glimpsing into a world through the distorted light. There is a whole world within our world, profoundly different from us and yet interconnected. What do we see when we look upon this world as alien as we can imagine, swarming, teeming with life, and upon which, whether we know it or not, our life depends?
The waters themselves can be dangerous. Writer Annie Dillard quotes that more people have died fishing other than any other human activity excepting war. Writers for generations have looked at the water as a symbol of nature, as a place of peril, for who knows what dangers lie beneath? Who knows what lurks? The Leviathan was how the Bible imagined the monsters that dwell in the deep, on par with Loch Ness monsters or Jaws and its sharknado counterparts. Our human imagination thrives on the danger that may be lurking beneath or, to put it another way, just how profoundly vulnerable and powerless we are at the face of the deep waters.
In the Babylonian creation myth, which would have been contemporaneous to the time our narrative of Genesis was written, the world is created in war. The salt water Goddess Tiamat and her mate Apsu have children and then grandchildren. Apsu cannot stand the noise that they make. Apsu threatens to destroy his grandchildren, to make some silence so he can sleep. The goddess Tiamat rises with fury, a terrible fury. The grandchildren rise up against and destroy Apsu instead and Tiamat is beside herself with anger and she begins to breed gods of war against her own grandchildren. And so it is Marduk who becomes a hero as he rises up to slay the goddess Tiamat. And that is where the earth begins. The earth and land are formed out of her body, the world slayed into being, cut down from the chaotic dangers of the salt water goddess.
This is not an uncommon creation myth: a world created out of murder, betrayal and profound violence. And I see it at work, more often than you would know, in our stories of difference. There is a line in the world and it needs to be upheld lest those folks over there threaten its boundaries; you need to be ready with a sword. If the world was created in control, control needs to be maintained. If the world was created in violence, then we cannot expect anything but violence in its wake. If difference is threatening, the boundaries must become rigid, must become a wall where you are one thing or another and nothing in between because if that line is threatened or questioned then the dam will break, the levy will burst, the storm will surge and the waters will carry us all away in its wake.
We see this control and violence as the seas are valued only for the ways that they can be controlled or consumed as we pull fish from its waters, pushing refuse into the sea and in ways our attempts to control our world and our fate have led us to a state of warming where we know these waters will only rise in the years to come.
This is not how Genesis tells of the creation of the world. The world is not created with a sword, with a war, with a murder or with control. The world is created with a word. The spirit of God swept across the waters and God spoke: Let there be light, and there was light. Let there be a dome above to separate the above from the below and there was. Let the water under the sky be gathered in one place and let dry land appear. And God saw it was good.
As we read this story, there are a few things that I do not take as true. I do not think that the world as we know it was created in 6 24 hour periods. For what is one day in God’s sight? Infinite, vast and unknowable. But this story does speak a truth that endures, for I hear in it the character of God and of the universe at God’s fingertips. For the world was not created in violence, in bloodshed or in the conquest of one over a vanquished other. The world was created with a word, with a whisper, as one thing was made different from another and both named and both affirmed as good.
Theologian Catherine Keller writes: “This much can be asserted: Genesis 1 has no fear of the dark, no demonization of the deep, of the sea, its she and its dragons.” Keller, in quoting the Rabbis from the Jewish tradition who imagine the day in twelve hours, and how God spends three hours studying Torah, three hours sitting in judgment of the world, three hours transferring to the seat of justice to mercy—feeding the whole world. During the fourth quarter God is sporting with the Leviathan. In this Rabbinical imagining, God spends a full fourth of the day playing with the monster of the deep, God appreciating with joy the creatures of the ocean for its own sake.
I heard a scientist Edith Widder give a talk on bioluminescence. Bioluminescence – light created by creatures – happens at many depths, from algae near the surface on down. But when you get to a certain depth it becomes ubiquitous. I read estimates from scientists that 75% of marine animals between the surface and 13,000 feet deep can use bioluminescence. In the open sea under 1640 feet, where the sunlight fades, 90 percent of the marine animals can make their own light. When you go down in a submersible, at around 3000 feet you turn off the lights and the sea glows. The light is so low that it is hard to get footage. Some fish have bioluminescent organs underneath their bodies, in counter illumination. They glow to mimic the sunlight above them so that their shadowed outline does not reveal their presence. Some use these organs as a lure to bring their next meal closer to them or to find a mate. Some it’s perhaps an alarm system that by making bright flashes when they are under attack may encourage a larger intruder to attack their attacker. Dr. Widder set up a lure under the ocean: flashing lights to mimic a jellyfish. And she saw the creatures respond. Some come near, some flash in response. She was having a conversation in light far beneath the waters, as she had no idea what she was saying.
But there, far beneath the surface of the water, there is a conversation taking place with lights that sea creatures create with their own bodies. This has been happening for hundreds of millions of years. Unmoved by our presence, regardless if we see it or not and perhaps even causing God delight in a way that is completely independent of us, a twinkle of lights best viewed at 3000 feet beneath the surface. We cannot care for, improve, control or change unless it is for the worse. For millions of years the seas have been glowing, down in the deep, invisible to us, but held in God’s love.
Praise God who made the land, and the deep waters and saw it was good.
© Copyright. Lisa Horst Clark. 2018. All rights reserved.