By Dr. James Perkinson (right), a sermon on Luke 24:13-35
I want to begin with a word of prayer before we jump into the gospel for today, but to facilitate that, first—a story about prayer and some necessary preliminaries. I have a half-Filipino poet friend in Detroit who tells of his first experiences of the Lord’s prayer, while growing up. Whenever he heard “Our Father who art in Heaven,” his five-year-old vernacular ears could not compute “art” as anything other than what happened when you put paint on paper, so his five year-old mind supplied a little slurred “n” in there, and what he actually thought he heard was “Our Father, who aren’t in heaven.” And it rattled him; he couldn’t figure it out; he says he kept thinking, “Well, where is he then?” If not there, then where? But he gradually came to hear it as a positive affirmation: a God who “aren’t” in heaven, because that God’s “place” is really right here, with us. A deep intuition, I would say, for all—what I would call place-based confession.
In the Detroit inner city where I have hung out for more than 25 years now, living and working, laughing and crying, philosophizing and organizing—the rage now, in the face of the heavy gauge assault on the Detroit public school system by outside interests, is a thing called “place-based” education, seeking to involve kids in concrete problems of their own neighborhoods, and then elaborating learning around solving those problems in a hands-on paradigm, rather than trying to educate inside an arid classroom, locked down in a chair. A lesson those of us locked down in a pew could well learn.
In my own life, I would have to say core city Detroit has become the clear site of everything I’ve ever experienced with anything like a burning bush quality to it—what I would call place-based revelation. For this white boy wanna-be missionary, descending on Motown inner city streets in the mid 70s thinking to help poor folk in the urban core peel themselves up off the floor of oppression, place became the hard anvil of a hard-knocks revelation about my own presumption and white racist possession that has now been the subject of a slow-motion and continuing “exorcism,” over the course of an on-going “baptismal initiation” into the reality of life on those streets under the hands and hearts and minds of a whole host of Afro-urban teachers of things divine and gritty.
So, I’m from the Motor City and contrary to how “Chrysler luxury” represents, this is how some of the rest of us do it, who’ve been broken down by those streets, opened up by common struggle for the common good of the big D alongside many others of quite varied spiritual persuasions, and rocked into motion by youth with a quest and a vision and not bothering to ask permission. So with that as fair warning I want to offer a little place-based D-Town poetry-prayer. Not “Our father in heaven,” but:
“Our mother on the concrete”
O Deep Root-Stock of Eve, the real Ancient of Days
Siren of the Seven Seas and the Hard Streets
African Spirit-Mother of us all!
You, who breathe the space of saving grace
in the face of dark loam and Ezekiel zones of
the broken bones of time
channeling Jehovah and Allah, Buddha and Kumbaya
through the rare earth-tones of Yemaya and
Oya of the storm-ripped-waters,
your name is as wild as the wind through an empty train station
as un-pronounce-able as an auto industry factory across an ocean!
Hallowed be your Ashe, your sashay,
your percussion-driven rhythm exploding consternation
and confusion into a cosmic revision of the original primordial
contusion, whose never-ceasing reverb echoes eternal spasms
of creative delirium against delusion and gives
birth to all subsequent vision and dancing—whether the molecules
of Andromeda or James Brown feet!
We, your late great planet earth offspring,
beat a retreat to your door and like the
quantum spore of the second ring of the rainbow
granted Noah, spectral sideshow of the hidden promise
of the coming reign of bodacious color
outrageously hopeful as an apple blossom peeking through an April snow,
We, cry out and implore you
Give us this day your ceaseless flow of community
simple as a Pottawatomie gift-economy
a homeless sharing of coffee
or an Egyptian revolutionary breaking bread
on the square of Tahrir
Release us from the clutches of Chase or any trace
of a Citibank list of balloon payments due
even as we refuse to foreclose on friend or foe
in the business office or church pew
or under a street corner contract anchoring our crew
in the power of vengeance
and a short lifespan
And lead us not into the hard place of apathetic trashing
or mindless degradation polluting our rivers or relations
with what-goes-round-comes-round retribution
Settle us on the likelihood of courtroom appearance
bearing unrepentant witness to the possibility of a reality of vitality
alternative to empire or neo-liberal upward mobility
For yours is the ultimate post-industrial eventuality
the coming apocalyptic calamity,
whose pain we refuse to refuse, and whose overcoming—
in a return to a garden-of-our-own-growing—we choose
both now to die for, and forever to celebrate
in full view of your unfathomable and irresistible Beauty!
So the theme for this morning is place—and it shows up with particular power in the gospel of the day. Though actually, your pastor mandated me to preach on race
And I certainly don’t want to get in trouble with her! So I’ll see if I can weave in some reflections on what I would dare call that most pernicious of structural oppressions of the last 500 years, settler colonialism and white racism.
But first to the story. Little details hide big dilemmas. Luke launches us with a simple notation: “Now that same day two of them were going to the village of Emmaus.” Two of whom? Who is the “them”? We have to flip back an episode. The three women have been to the tomb, discovered the stone rolled away, the body gone, and then been accosted by two “men” clothed in lightning. Ever seen folk who dress like that? Actually, I’m married to one—but that is another story. They are told to remember—specifically, remember the campaign in Galilee and what Jesus had asserted there—the necessity of pushing this quest and facing the arrest, imprisonment, execution likely to follow. And yes, the hint that a third day “rising” would follow. They run back to the Eleven and the others with the news—even though their report is dismissed as merely “women talk” (until Peter can verify for himself). Typical patriarchal stupidity!
And then two of them head out to the hot springs (what “Emmaus” means) to sweat out some of the fear and grief. The “them” points to something crucial. These are movement folk. Jesus was not a lone-ranger prophet. Like the Baptizer-Guru who initiated him, Jesus is a movement man. The prophetic vocation is one of mobilizing the poor and oppressed (peasants in this case), to experiment with living alternative to empire. Both John and Jesus galvanized quite a people’s parade. John haunts the water fords of the Jordan as a kind of Bedouin renegade, foraging his food and wearing camel, re-initiating folk in wildlands living and gift-economy exchange (both of which are huge topics we can’t get into here).
Jesus hatches vocation under John’s hand, tutored by a passenger pigeon (the dove Luke will name “Holy Spirit” incarnate), spends 40 days on vision quest, listening to the land, then takes over part of the Baptizer’s crowd after the Big Dipper is decapitated, organizing a liberated zone of villages in the Galilean hill-country, staging spiritual raids into city centers like Capernaum to spit hard truth in the hardened ears of the powers, calling for Jubilee release of debts, Sabbath-circulation of goods, and liberty to the captives.
Once having shaped an alternative community of learners, he begins to prepare them to throw-down on the same prophetic trip he himself claims—telling them, at the height of his Galilean efforts, that they will march on the central city Jerusalem, occupy the national shrine which is also the national bank where all the records of indebtedness are kept, sit-in for a day, lock-down business as usual, unapologetically lean into the tear gas, police batons, handcuffs, jail bars, court-room lies and ultimately capital crime sentence that will likely result.
They do take-over the Temple Mall, shut it down, hold a teach-in naming the operation thug-central (“den of robbers,” epicenter of elite plundering of the poor across the whole country), and then exit the city. During the day that follows, Jesus and crew come back into the Temple confines and dare continue the confrontation, with the peasant crowds out en masse as his protection. But after the sun goes down, the Nazareth whooper is subject to an APB, is quickly snapped up by the local SWAT team in his nighttime parlay with the Spirit, and in rapid succession, interrogated, tortured, strung up, and cut down. A few politically connected followers make a bid for the body, inter the corpse in a grave, and huddle behind closed doors in fear. And in response, as Matthew’s gospel makes clear, Roman and Jewish elites, to guard against disciples stealing the remains, set up a guard on the tomb, wax the stone cover tight, and impress on the wax seal the imperial insignia (as fellow Detroit activist Bill Wylie Kellermann notes). Resurrection, it turns out, was illegal, a trespass against imperial certification, an outlaw refusal to honor the yellow tape. Which brings us to the story today.
Two of these folk, schooled in such a movement politics, summoned to live Spirit as an economy of solidarity with the poor coupled with prophetic rebuke of the rich, exit the city to escape the heat that would take them out as well, if caught. And we read the curious encounter that ensues. A fellow walker appears, Jesus incognito, in disguise of stranger, playing dumb and questioning. They are amazed he has not heard; sum up the harsh crackdown; lament the crushing of their movement. The stranger dares demur, opening Torah in its stubborn insistence: prophetic vocation is necessarily destined to prick the wound, uncover the violence, suffer the blowback. As it has! Why are they surprised?
The two are captivated: at journey’s destination, despite the grief, they insist on movement hospitality. He is to stay with them and eat. He does, takes bread, blesses; they see and he “vanishes.” Puff! How shall we read?
Of remark, is their passionate musing, in response. They do not fret about the disappearance, but remember heartburn. While tutored by the stranger, they “knew,” their hearts grasped, their formation in movement vision throbbed in recognition. What did they know? The word emphasized in the stranger’s rendition of scripture was the word “necessity”: it was necessary that the prophet enter into the suffering of his time. It is easy to read this into our culture’s love of heroes: it was necessary for Jesus to suffer . . . precisely so we don’t have to!
This individualizes both the suffering and the response. The hero is the entire locus of struggle. The hero goes bail for the rest of us, does the necessary work, while we admire and “worship” and drink our lattes and head off to the spa! But that was not either the practice or the promise.
The telltale sign of the entire passage is this: they go back to the city and hunker down for the long haul. What he exhibited is a way to be followed, even as he learned that particular way by first joining John and immersing himself into John’s movement and priorities and place. His way enjoins on them a similar way.
And soon thereafter, many of them will exhibit the same defiant fierceness as he had in his Galilean practice—an unrepentant freedom to walk away from compliant safety, enter into shared jeopardy with the poor and marginalized, learn their wisdom, speak their truths, eat their food, party around their tables, channel their anger, champion their protest, embrace their destiny as criminal and repressed.
There is much here that begs extended comment that there is not time for. But this place-based following is at minimum, “baptism into” a quite particular social location and set of relations. And it is just here that the significance for us today is most significant.
I cannot specify such a place-based following for you, but only bear witness. My own attempts to follow have entailed stumbling into the way as much as intentionally embracing its summons.
Evangelical conversion at 19 in Cincinnati, led to Spirit-baptism under the hands of inner city black folk from Lexington, KY, and by the time of college graduation, an option to head north to eastside Detroit to enter community with a group of folk pooling income and assets on a poverty-level budget, living communally and “tight” in extended family-households for 15 years, while elaborating program in that poorest zip code in the congressional record of the time. Running school and daycare, distributing food and clothes through a church pantry, organizing low income tenants to become owner-managers of their own apartments, and joining peace-and-justice advocates in resisting cruise missile manufacture in the area became the hothouse engagement that reconfigured ideas in the heads and emotions in the belly and probably even molecules in the bone.
Thinking I was there to help poor folk of color deal with the reality of poverty was the sheer white arrogance that initially animated my involvement. It took years of exposure finally to see that such presumption was basically supremacist flatulence. But once I did begin to see, real initiation began as a process of psychic and spiritual dismemberment and re-assemblage that continues up to today. As this is but a sermon, not a biography, I can only hint.
But suffice it to say, what is now more than 30 years of immersion in black inner city culture and struggle has proved to be my Jerusalem. The Emmaus temptation remains ever present for anyone white in our society—the siren song of suburban comfort and hot springs enticement that morphs again and again into ever-renewed possibilities of privilege, coddling white fragility. Again and again, strangers have appeared on the way to insist on the necessity of not exiting the place of commitment and accountability. Most recently for me—Emergency Management takeover of the City of the Strait in 2013 to continue the conquest begun in 1701 under the French settler Cadillac, supercharged in industrial brutality under Henry Ford’s early 20th century command, eviscerated in white flight and corporate retreat following World War II, reverse-engineered in gentrification’s neo-liberal assault, post-2008, re-tooling city assets and natural commons as creative class playground and finance-capital dividends—all of this unrelenting history of white-led-and-benefitted plundering has galvanized a take-no-prisoners resistance, headed up by African American women warriors and hip-hop street-savants, hell-bent on reinventing the city as a food-secure, self-educating, maker-space animated, elder-respecting, own-beauty-creating network of communities.
Water, in particular, has become the little piece of the agenda I have stepped-up to, organizing, with many others, against the nearly 90,000 shutoffs targeting low income households over the last four years—a ramped up Emergency Manager policy going after anyone $150 or two months in arrears, and leaving untouched the bigger corporate bad debts, until our protest generated outcry about such. Coupled with rabid foreclosures clearing out 1/3 of all Detroit residences since 2002, water bills attached to property taxes as liens have operated functionally as a form of ethnic cleansing by policy, enabling re-invention of the city in the image of the suburb, serving largely white entrepreneurial and creative class interests and their corporatized backers.
Pushing back on the shutoff policy in favor of a water affordability plan, correlating bills with income and ability to pay, finally meant, in July of 2014, blocking shutoff trucks in direct actions resulting in arrest. The disorderly conduct charges are still being prosecuted in the courts as we speak. But for me, the actions were one way I could respond to black leadership in the struggle, inviting those of us white and therefore less vulnerable to criminal justice severity to offer civil disobedience as a small token of support.
But in the larger scheme of things, my own involvement over more than thirty years with inner city creativity and accountability has anchored my spirituality in the reality of continuing white supremacist rapacity and the richness of black resistance thereto. Far from a mere matter of duty, the experience has been one of utter vitality and upheaval.
Like the “two of them” in today’s gospel, what I have discovered is that resurrection has never been the monopoly in history of a body named Jesus, but a recurrent insurgence popping out anywhere and everywhere human beings defy death before its time. Black theologian James Cone once asserted “the resurrection is the sign that God has never left a single people on the planet alone in their struggle against oppression,” but—as in the Jesus movement in 1st century Palestine—breaks out in uprising, in whatever local idiom enables folk to stand tall and speak strong.
That death-defying energy erupts intransigent under multiple signs and in manifold efforts: Nat Turner rampages and Harriet Tubman railroads, Civil Rights courage and Black Power dread, Alice Paul vehemence and Carrie Catt militance, Arab Spring defiance and Occupy dalliance, Standing Rock drumming and Black Lives Mattering, and uncountable acts of everyday refusal to capitulate or knuckle under. It is uncontainable, irreducible to a formula or a name, irrepressible as chicory blue in the middle of Detroit blight, as burning with insistence and conviction as the word of a stranger on a path fleeing crucifixion.
The question is, whether those of us who hear will turn around and hunker down with the fierce ones who have no choice but to fight, or continue to hope in a hot bath and a cold cabernet?