Katerina Friesen, Rooted and Grounded Conference,Chapel Message, April 21, 2017
At one time, the confluence of two powerful rivers churned with such energy that they created smooth, spherical stones. The Lakota people named one of these rivers the “Stone-Make-For-Themselves River,” (‘Íŋyaŋwakağapi Wakpá) because of the round stones the river formed, which they call Iŋyaŋ Wakháŋagapi Othí. Sacred Stones. These stones are used in prayer and ceremony, and are seen as enspirited, part of all our relations, like the river, plants and animals.
At one time, European explorers and colonizers who came to the region also saw and admired the rivers’ smooth, spherical stones shaped by the churning waters where they met the Missouri River. But instead of sacred stones, what did they see? Stones shaped like cannonballs. Instead of gifts from the river, they saw ammunition for war. And so they named that river the Cannonball River. Sacred stones or cannonballs? Perspective shapes practice.
This conflict of perspective between Indigenous and colonizer peoples shapes a long history of struggle on and for Lakota land. Take, for example, the 1874 gold mining expedition led by General Custer that catapulted a gold rush of settlers in the sacred Black Hills. Or the 1950’s Army Corps of Engineers damming of the Missouri River and flooding of Lakota burial grounds fertile land for gathering medicine to create Lake Oahe (oh-WAH’-hee) for hydropower. Or the more recent Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s resistance of the Dakota Access Pipeline’s destruction of sacred sites and imminent contamination of water — of life. Sacred stones or cannonballs?
What do we see when we look at stones? At earth? Nature as weapon and tool, as resource for human use, or nature as sacred, alive, and in kinship with us? In the colonized language and imagination, stones are the epitome of dead matter. They can’t move on their own. They can’t speak. They have no soul, no sentience. A rock is a rock, right?
Recently, a group from my congregation went to visit the Director for Language and Culture of the Pokagon Nation of Potawatomi, our nearest community of Indigenous neighbors still living in this area. Marcus shared with us that words in the Potawatomi language, like many other Indigenous languages, are grouped by inanimate and animate categories. Human-made things, like tables, are among those things considered inanimate. Yet rocks, water, fire, places, even weather patterns are considered animate. One would not refer to a stone as an “it,” nor by the English-gendered “he” or “she,” but with a pronoun signifying the stone’s inherent aliveness. Since learning this, I’ve been reading our sacred Scriptures with a new lens, with an eye for how what I once perceived as the inanimate world is part of the Biblical story.
For example, I noticed the stone as wilderness pillow for Jacob, an aid to his dreams that he anoints with oil and declares to be the place of God (Gen. 28:17-18). And in Deuteronomy 27, we are told Yahweh’s preferred altar is made of “unhewn” stones untouched by human technology. And stones are key witnesses of divine-human encounters, set up as markers of remembrance, as the song says, “Here I raise my Ebenezer,” (referencing 1 Samuel 7:12). Or consider Job 5:23, that says that as a result of God’s deliverance, “you shall be in league with the stones of the field, and the wild animals shall be at peace with you.”
Last week, before Easter, I noticed the stones in the Passion narrative for the first time, especially in the gospel of Matthew. Just as Jesus breathed his last, the earth quakes violently and rocks split — the same verb as the temple veil that was ripped in two (Matthew 27:50-51).
Barbara Brown Taylor writes:
When that Word fell silent on Golgatha — when, after a loud cry, both the high sound of his nervous system and the low sound of his beating heart stopped — the earth shook with grief. Rocks made the only sound they could, splitting open with small explosions that were their best version of tears… The whole inanimate world leapt in to fill that silence, while poor, dumb humanity stood speechless before the cross.
In front of the cross, it turns out the inanimate world is not so dead after all. The very stones cry out in testimony when we humans do not give voice! The living earth shakes with apocalyptic anger against those who would kill God’s son, and the spirit of the rocks cry out when the Crucified One releases his spirit and power. How can they help but split in two when our Lord Christ, in whom all things hold together, is broken on the cross?
Even though the myriad voices of earth cry out, even though creation groans in expectant longing for the revealing of the children of God (Romans 8:19), many of us are speechless before the cross of our day. We are speechless in the shadow of the cross that looms over Creation now, in our time, the cross of climate crisis. As we face this cross, we wonder, has God abandoned us to sin and destruction, abandoned us to this unparalleled desecration and defilement of God’s holy creation? Have the powers of domination and Empire triumphed in their all-out extraction of life from this planet, enslaving peoples and creatures — even water and rocks — for the pursuit of abstract profit and control?
Before this cross, we seek to respond with human words and wisdom, but it seems too little and too late. We find our tongues are tied, our technologies inadequate, our weapons powerless and fact-altering politicians, like Pilate, ask, “what is truth?” (John 18:38). Even our most eloquent theologies seem to shrivel in front of the cross of climate meltdown.
And yet the rest of creation is not paralyzed — new storm systems fling down their fury, from typhoons to polar vortexes, Leviathan tightens her vice grip around small island nations with rising sea levels, and all color drains from coral reefs bleached by warming waters. Despite our silence and stunned inaction before the cross, the rocks cry out. Perhaps if we give ear, we might join their lament, might feel our own hearts splitting open, and allow the cracking of control to release us into God’s own heart beat.
After Jesus released control over his own life on the cross, he entered into the tomb for three quiet days, held by stones. Have you ever imagined the perspective of those stones? What was it like to be that cave hewn into the mountain, that slab where the Lord’s cool body lay against cool rock, with the smell of spices scenting the air? Did the stones cradle Him in death, humming the words, Awake, O sleeper! Or, having fallen asleep with Him, did they, too, gasp again when God made breath enter this second Adam, firstborn of all creation, who has reconciled all things in Himself (Colossians 1:17)?
Stones are the unrecognized first witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection, even before the women disciples. In Matthew’s gospel, an angel of the Lord rolls away the stone from the tomb as the earth quakes. Yet in Mark, the women disciples looked up and saw that, “the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back” (Mark 16:4, NRSV). Could rolling have been the stone’s initiative, a way of bowing down to the Risen One, our New Creation?
Jesus, the transcendent and immanent Resurrected One, invites us to join new creation in Christ. For those of us who seek to live in Christ, the reality of Resurrection brings all Creation to life in Christ again, not only our own dead selves stuck in the ways of destruction. With resurrection eyes, we begin to see the world anew as a living, breathing whole of which we are honored members who also show honor to the rest. We recognize that the world is “charged with the grandeur of God,” and there “lives the dearest freshness deep down things,” in the words of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.
This spiritual cosmology poses tantalizing possibilities for our actions and practices. Take worship, for example. When we come alive in Christ and awaken to the alive-ness of the rest of God’s created world, we could see stones and trees as co-worshippers with us, perhaps returning like early Anabaptists in the 1500s, who were compelled by threat of persecution, to worship outside on forest pews or in caves as sanctuaries. Or in the radical spirit of these early Anabaptists, imagine if we offered land and water some of our Eucharist, the Great Thanksgiving, as a sign of our communion of love with all creation. Or in our pastoral practices, what if we made pastoral care visits to polluted rivers in our watershed, along with the human communities nearby?
We are not without guides and teachers in this work, though the way seems difficult and long, and oftentimes too little and too late. Against all odds, there is a pope who has taken the name Francis, the Christ-like man who spoke to Brother Sun and Sister Moon. Against all odds, Indigenous peoples who have survived tremendous trauma and loss continue to call those of us in dominant settler culture to wake up and listen to the voices of life around us, for the sake of the survival of all. And against all odds, we are gathered here today together, seeking the way of life through Scripture and traditions passed down amidst so much death and destruction. And against all odds, Christ is not dead but is our living cornerstone. The Risen Christ animates us, too, to be living stones, as 1 Peter 2:5 says, living stones built into a holy home for God in this sacred temple of Creation.