God in a Grape; Spirit in a Sheep

JPerk, Ilustration
Icon of the Unburnt Bush 

By Jim Perkinson, a homily on John 15:1-8 and Acts 8:26-40 preached last Sunday to the beloved community at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Detroit

I begin by thanking four primary ancestors: my own Celtic, Nordic, Saxon, Frankish kin deep in the past before my people became sick with white supremacy; the African Eve of all of our origins whose black folk offspring of Detroit engaged survival efforts and justice demands and creation-in-spite-of that are nothing short of prophetic and wondrous; the Algonquian and Haudenosaunee communities of the Strait who lived by profound dignity and wisdom on the land and waters; and all the non-human denizens of this place themselves, whose continuous gift makes possible the breathing and loving and struggle of all of us sitting here. For all of them: gratitude. And indebtedness to live, worthy.

And thus to the text this morning. The chant of John is like an echo-chamber.

I am the vine. Elsewhere in the text, I am the light. I am the door. I am the truth. I am the way. I am the life. I am the shepherd and not a thief! The pound of proverbs is relentless. The beat echoes from ancient depths. Moses in the house, haunting the voice, as the peasants listen! The I AM he encountered at the Bush, speaking! Memory aching. Haze of desert sands enervating! Mirage of imagined water! Shimmering heat! And there, there, in the distance, flame and burning. Go near. No, run away! No, go see! And the old man does. And hears! A bare bush. Ordinary, scrubby tree at the base of a craggy height. Lone plant, dwelling in a harsh land. But the old man is arrested by the sight! He has been long in learning. And is now learned in longing.

Half-a-life ago, exiting Egypt, price on head, like an OG (“Original Gangster”) of today’s urban core, looking over his shoulder at every turn, waiting the bullet. So he had fled the Pharaoh fat and ease. Hooked up with African Bedouin clan, Kenite by name, Midianite by tribe, working the sands with their herds. They take him in at the well, where he defended daughters from marauding shepherds, in the age-old struggle over water in the desert. Jacob would have understood the outcome. Wiley woman charm, robed against the sun, flowing like a Goddess-stream, willowy and thirst-slaking. Homeless Moses, watching at well’s lip, intercedes for the daughters, makes sure they keep their bucket-loads and then, needy, accepts the invitation to the tent shade and in a blink is married and herding. But it will be another 40 years before he is ready.

Then suddenly on a day ordinary as a Monday, like a coal in a kiln, a Bush suddenly blazes, fiery with aura: Spirit-Fever and Vision-Color and Voice-Rap all bound-up together! Millennia later, Greek Orthodox Christianity will paint the scene on wooden board as “Icon of the Unburnt Bush” and offer—strangely, amazingly—an intuition as old as the drum of the first shaman–in spite of Christianity’s patriarchal rigidity.   At the heart of the Bush, in the flush of icon paint—a Woman shimmers, pregnant with Life! Orthodox belief, of course, sees Mary, and names the womb-bulge a Jesus conceived in a mother, “unburnt” by any human-male involvement.

But behind that naming, in indigenous ken, the perception is broad: the Divine Feminine lurking everywhere in fractal Spirit-Shapes, beckoning with Birth and Life! Even ancient Jewish imagining sees there the Primal Wisdom Woman of Proverbs 8, offering Herself as Vessel through whom all else is shaped and born. And thus we swing back to John and the scripture today.

John styles Jesus as more than merely himself. In opening hymn he is Logos incarnate, Word made flesh. But John the Jew, writing in Greek, is translating from deep Hebrew intuition to present Hellenistic concern. Under the Greek Logos he is thinking Jewish Hokmah—precisely this Wisdom Queen of Proverbs 8 fame, ghosting the male messiah of his gospel. In fact, you could argue, outrageous as a god inside a grape, that this last gospel writing is a Drag translation. Up inside the Man Jesus is a Woman-Spirit as old as creation. The hint shows up more than once in John’s text, but here we need stay with the focus. “I am the vine,” says this messiah. The I AM of Moses’ meeting, the Bush Voice, now a thousand-plus years later, ventriloquizing itself in Jesus-flesh, and once again throwing down a Plant-Word. Bush last time around; Vine this time!

Reduced by modern conceit as we are, simplified and rendered deaf and blind by empire’s demand— believing only humans can carry Spirit—“it is but metaphor” we insist.   I cannot argue the case here, in a mere sermon, but only suggest. You know me from past sermons. I am no longer willing to stay tight-bound and hubris-imprisoned in typical Christian doctrine, but want to open the tradition to the indigenous savvy it “itself” carries hidden underneath its imperial surface. Indigenous folk would say: “No actually, vine sap and branch bark and berry-juice are just as full of Divinity and Mystery as any two-legged brain or human brawn. “Jesus” is just as present inside grape vines as inside Palestinian prophets.

But he is also present in sheep. And there is where I want to spend the rest of our time this morning, since the Acts reading also hints a non-human epiphany of Spirit. And here I am as unschooled as any of you, struggling in a late hour to re-learn what my ancestry used to know. We are in a planet-wide crisis that will continue, lifelong. The Apocalypse of our hour is not going to end with a few demonstrations or a new election. Foreclosures emptying the city of color. Water shutoffs catapulting us to the brink of a Hepatitis A disease epidemic. Siwatus in cities north and south imprisoned with impunity. Finance capital and banks continuing to maraud across an entire globe. Bombs dropping without relent on Muslim backs in Syria and Yemen. Drones and debt sowing fear everywhere. Plastic covering oceans, flowing out facets, gumming up rivers, metastasizing in bodies as tumors.

And looming ever larger in the mix, a climate warp, giving Voice to this Woman-Whelp of Proverbs, this Sybil-Siren, Divine-Feminine, Earth-Mother-Goddess giving Herself to us continually, under a thousand different forms, as round and fecund and constant as the morning Sun or the Rivera painting in the DIA atrium. We have been so richly gifted, ever since the last Age of Ice twelve millennia past, that we have grown dumb and lost, thinking we created the gift and it is ours to dice, slice, and re-splice as we will. The planet is speaking otherwise. Our true Mother is the very ground under our feet that we so wantonly tread and abuse. But She will not much longer continue to give, in silence, and without rebuff. The climate is Her Voice and we either listen or perish now as an entire species.

So I hunker down with a text like today, and rather than one more time thump the page in name of a God-Man Jesus, monopolizing the sacred in the name of human hubris, I seek to be caught up short like a Moses in the desert staring at a Bush. Or indeed like a eunuch in a chariot, reading an Isaiah about a sheep. “Like a sheep led to slaughter, or a lamb before its shearers.” (Acts 8:32). In context, a prophetic belch indicting an entire epoch as we read.   “Who can describe his generation? . . .Justice was denied him . . . his life was taken from the earth.” And if we dip back to the Isaiah original, we read “all we like sheep have gone astray.” It is sheep all the way down. We are the sheep. He is the sheep. Dumb sheep! Sheared sheep! Slaughtered sheep! Sheep, sheep, sheep! The bible is full of them. And we yawn and think Sunday school. And secretly thank God we are not such creatures.

High time we actually learn a bit about them. They saved Abraham from Ur. And Moses from Pharaoh. And Israel from Egypt and Edom. And slaves from early demise across the entirety of Asia and much of Africa throughout much of the last 5,000 years. We are saved by sheep. Not alone. Not solely. But sheep and goats and horses and camels and reindeer further north have enabled human beings to exit imperial systems ever since we first organized imperial violence as agricultural state-systems in Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago. Sheep have saved us. And been bent to our will. Domesticated, bred, cloned, and killed.   But up in their gene as in our own—if it be not too late—is a wild beast of profound magnificence.

In her lyric testament to what remains of the wild West, natural history writer, Ellen Meloy, in a book called Eating Stone, offers a remarkable praise song to some of the bighorn sheep of Utah’s canyon lands.

Suffer a passage or two.

One of my last winter days with the desert bighorns, they no longer kept me out of their world. With motions I had come to know as an exquisite union of liturgy and physics, they closed the distance between us and herded me toward a threshold, a place best described as a hairsbreadth.

Their slender legs rose like smoke from stone, curving into pale rumps. The rump carried all the muscle, the force that was capable of pushing their stocky bodies up a sheer cliff with nothing beneath their hooves but air and a foothold barely larger than my lower lip. This is what you will find at the center of the desert bighorn: dry, vertical space. On the flats, they seem as awkward as square wheels.

Their haunches held but small tensions now. The sheep stood about like mildly bored ballerinas. Black hooves found cusps of white snow. Breath condensed in milky wraiths. The wind did not matter to them. They moved serenely among themselves, brushing flanks warm with blood, weaving me toward that breach of transmutation.

Something in their amber eyes told me that I was about to change, to be given a language without tongues. I wanted to leap into that wild side—their side—then bring back their startling news from other-than-human world. But I was weighted with a wobbly confusion about how to see, how to behave.

After so many days among the bighorns, in the end it seemed best to quiet the mind and act like a rock (Meloy, xi).

True to their species, these animals loved bleak, hair-ball country. They were nervous, gregarious, hilarious. Agile, gorgeous, faithful to place to the point of disaster. They came with personalities: the bullies, the head bangers, the celibate pacifist ram, the barren ewes, the lambs perched atop sheer pinnacles of rock, leaping straight up in the air like toast popping out of a toaster. They were often elusive and spectral. To see them was a blessing (Meloy, 5).

I wanted my bighorns to adopt me, a kind of reverse Bo Peep arrangement. Me, their lost human. Their pet. The primate among herbivores. The bovids’ equivalent of a wolf boy.

Being with these wild animals was like a prayer, a meditation that ranged from dopey to dreamy to absorption so profound, it stopped my blood. Their habits and motions formed a liturgy that mapped the prayer, liturgy as “the sanctification of time,” a place where I was willing to wait in stillness, to count on nature’s rhythms to calm my messy ones (Meloy, 6).

Then a pale turn of light, s shift of tectonic plate, some glimmer of a sheep idea, set them in motion. The animals glided down a precipice of jumbled boulders as if it were a wave of silk. I was not invited to go along (Meloy, 8).

But there is also this that Meloy introduces into the mix: 14,000 petroglyphs in over 30 miles of basalt-interrupted granite—a kaleidoscope of rock paintings in the Cosos Mountains of eastern California’s Mojave Desert. The motifs include the entire suite of Paleolithic animals: bison, horses, panthers, ibex, bears, reindeer, lizards, snakes, and yes, humans. But especially, bighorn sheep!   This is art coming out of stone, as another writer pens, “as if the earth was seen as a ripe pelt of animals” (Meloy, 200). Dream-time etched on rock face! For the pre-Numic and Numic peoples of these great black-wall gorges, rising out of beige-sand arroyos, the chip-stone figures are not mere hunting-magic, as the thinking now goes, but shaman-summons (Meloy, 197, 200-201). For 16,000 years, these healers not only augured cures but called storms. To influence winds and pull in clouds, the shaman went through a trance-hole to the Other Side, aided by animal helpers. Bighorn sheep in particular were the prime gift: offered in ritual invocation, the magnificent cliff-jumpers proved rain doctors for the people. Kill a sheep; rain fell. This stretch of Cosos “Fire-Mountain” glyphs were the center of rain-shamanism for the entire Southwest.   Even distant Navajos said the bighorns carried clouds on their backs, carrying corn seeds and plants in the tangles (Meloy, 232).

And we in our modern timidity react—animal cruelty! How could they! Kill a sheep for the sake of rain!? Meanwhile we precipitate the 6th Great Extinction, 200 species per day sent into eternal oblivion! Sacrifices to our lifestyle, as long as we don’t have to be the ones to slit the throat! Yes indeed, animal cruelty! And it is “we” who the cruel ones! Keeping pets and disappearing huge segments of the biosphere. They did it ritually, eye-to-eye, with respect and prayer. We do it furtively, and wantonly. No ritual. No respect. No prayer. Just plastic wrap!

But the ancient association of sheep with rain—of shaman weather-dreaming, spirit-helper offering, and storm-waters falling—is part of our deep ancestry and even biblical practice. Tswana chiefs in South Africa would sacrifice a black sheep with a white spot to conjure the upwelling of black clouds, roiling like dark wool and emitting “white spot” lightning strikes to nurture the soil with nitrogen. In some places, solar rays breaking through cloud cover are likened to horns of male sheep or rams butting the weather in a “sky rut,” or even in West Africa, hinting the appearance of Shango, the great spirit-king of lightning and thunder. Among the Greeks, Prometheus was thought to have flung lamb’s wool skyward as “cloud” so humans would know when rain was coming.

And then there is Samuel of biblical fame, offering a lamb, when Israel is under Philistine assault, and the Lord answering in thunder with a storm-rout of the enemy-threat (I Sam 7:5-14). By chapter 12 of Samuel’s account, Israel has made its fateful choice for monarchy, betraying its calling to live as a people without oppressive political structures, and Samuel summons rain at the wheat harvest as a sign against them. Ps 99 will verify this judge-hero as one crying to the Lord in calamity and being answered out of cloud, continuously. And then there is Gideon with his wool’s fleece collecting dew as testament (Jud 6:37) and Ps 72’s assertion that a just ruler is like rain on the fleece (the mowings of grass and shearing of sheep as one and the same in the summoning of “sky water”; Amos 7:1).

Sheep and rain—in terrain that was mostly arid, with but one small river in the watershed, subject every year to desiccating siroccos from the east, blowing in with insufferable heat, intolerable sand, plague and pestilence in its wake. Rain, in such a setting is everything—the quintessential form of blessing, indeed, the very face of God, who is revered as the Cloud-Stacked Storm-Bringer, inundating earth with life! And sheep as the living, walking Prayer-Being, whose very fleece and wool are clouds made incarnate as animal, in ancient indigenous perception. Meloy describes their presence in her life, at one point, as a “six hundred pound mantra lodged between the ears” (Meloy, 7).

“So what?” we ask.   That was then; this is now. We have plenty of rain in Detroit.   We could use some sun.   What animal would help us call up the Great Blazing Flower of Dawn whose Shining Face we have been waiting so long to see this spring? Would that we would even ask that question! But all of our ancestors are speaking now. All of the dead: keening and wailing and crying for justice. The tally grows daily. We will need to be fierce for the rest of our lives. Fighting for justice for black folk. Return of lands and life-possibilities for Natives. Calling out white supremacy and white power and white pathology, at every turn.   But also, weeping for the really old ones—all those plants and animals and waters and soils who long pre-dated us and on whom we utterly depend. They are not just “resources.” They are faces of God. It is increasingly my conviction that God really has only one face: wild. There is no such thing as a domesticated God.

Meloy’s tale ends with a lament: It is where I will end as well.

As I loaded my daypack, it struck me that these forays into sheep country were futile and delusional. The end of the wild world, the emptiness, will come—indeed, has arrived. The absence may not be one of actual bodies, a physical loss of this bird or that mammal, a river of native fish or a band of homeland ungulates. Rather, it is a reduction of diverse nature into a simplistic biota that is entirely managed and dependent. It is a loss of autonomous beings, the self-willed fauna that gave us metaphor, that shaped human minds capable of identity with all existence.

Sometimes I picture this moment in history, a moment with which my own lifetime chances to coincide, as a gate that we have been closing for some time. On the other side of the gate, deep landscape falls farther and farther away, always at the point of loss. The spellbound threshold between humanity and the rest of nature is very nearly pulled shut to the latching point. Soon we shall turn our backs and walk away entirely, place-blind and terribly lonely (Meloy, 327).

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