On Getting Stoned: A Sermon on Outback/Wilderness

By Jim Perkinson, for the St. Peter’s Episcopal community in Detroit, MI on October 4, 2020 (Romans 8:18-27; Matthew 3:1-4:11)

Detroit Will Breathe

So we are up against the wall now, facing the logic of the country, as our settler colonial and white supremacist history rises up incarnate in an orange-headed inciter.   We have lived without yet fully facing what we have visited on others—on Natives, genocidally eliminated to the tune of 95% (somewhere between 60-90 million killed over 500 years), African folk enslaved (behind the 12 million carried across the Atlantic and sold on the auction block, 30-40 million killed before getting here), 553 other places invaded over the course of 244 years, resources pirated, garbage and pollution outsourced to the rest of the globe, an ocean heating and full of plastic, 200 species pushed into extinction per day, Water and Fire as Great Living Beings, now shouting back, and a tiny microbe whispering warning: full halt, stop your self-absorption as a species, recognize the rest of the biosphere as well as the all the displaced marginalized people, as Creatures of Beauty and Worth and Mystery.  Do we—who have been the beneficiaries—think we should continue to be exempted from what we have visited on so many others?  We are on the Titanic, the iceberg is in full view, there is probably not time to turn the rudder, what now?! 

I have no simple answers to the dilemma, no ear-candy to comfort the anxiety.  In times past it was possible to soften fear by looking elsewhere—another neighborhood, another state, another country.  But no longer—unless you are Elon Musk deliriously looking to Mars or Richard Branson to a recently-purchased Pacific Island!  The cook-pot is now global and we are the meat.  And the temptation is seduction to the fate, like to a horror-flick, not even needing a movie ticket or Netflix account.  Just watch a debate!  Abel has been slaughtered.  Babylon built with the blood.  And the four horsemen are mounted and riding. 

All I know to do is give you what I see and try to embrace.  Which is right outside my townhouse window.  There are locust trees like mammoth sentinels, squirrels scurrying, cardinals diving, nuthatches flitting, clouds drifting.  Occasionally, very occasionally—Grandmother Moon maintaining vigilance, or even a faint glimmer of Venus or Sirius.   The green is now going yellow; the air is crisping; the shadows lengthening earlier and earlier in the day.  There is just this.  The Wild.  Even in the city.

We do what we can.  Detroit Will Breathe still on the march—I hear the Homeland Security choppers daily toward evening and know the confrontation continues.  Doctors and nurses struggle with the case-load; essential workers daily make their choices.  Those living on the streets continue to exercise their wits and survive. Some of us write; some teach; some negotiate or call or bake or tend the tomatoes and beans and basil.  Some pay bail or deliver water.  We will vote.  We will agitate.  We will cogitate and maybe like Cindy listening to one of my poems, even regurgitate.  But the iceberg this time around is as massive as a continent and it has broken off from the land and drifts straight in the path.  And the ship is too big, too big, too big!  And it will not do to turn tail and run to the back, like Kate Winslow and Leonardo DiCaprio. One way or another, in days not too far off, this ship is probably going down.   If I were wise I would simply stop here and ask us to bow and pray.

But there is what there is.  The Wild.  Not for us.  Not made by us.  Not under our control.  But it is where we came from and where we are going to.  Part of the regimen, for Lily and me, is a nightly moment between brushed teeth and tucked-in covers, to stand before the window-glass and look out to the sky.  There—a lost half-life, a black expanse, now rendered hazy amber and shadowed.  The city in lonely luminosity, now self-blinded to all the accompaniment, the million-million campfires in the dark upper distance.  And as I gaze, I thank whatever I can see, even if, on a given eve, it is . . . nothing.  I know beyond my gaze is something like ten trillion galaxies with 150 billion stars each on average.  And I imagine and feel—extend my feelings out, to see, through the lattice-work of my imagination—the Milky Way, the solar system, the next world after that, in every direction, world after world after world. 

On my best nights I weep with gratitude at being allowed to exist for a brief flicker as part of this unfathomable immensity, going on and on and on, speeding up in its hurtling expansion.  And I know our ancestors lived in full view of this incomprehensible colossus of wild metal combustion and gravity-spinning-attraction—indeed, in some cases, as with Serpent Mound earthworks construction, 60 miles east of where I grew up, more than 2,000 years old, the original indigenous spent multiple generations of labor, moving millions of tons of soil, to map onto the land what they saw overhead—not as anything utilitarian or useful for their own life prospects, but as a gift, given in respect, to the Star Beings they watched and named, and who looked down at them, as kin and teachers and forerunners. 

Which brings us exactly to our scripture for today.  Jesus comes to guru John, Wild Man of the Wadis (“canyons”), wearing camel and leather, eating insectivore and local, for counsel and beginning.  John has been renegade for much of his life, going East-Bank-of-the-Jordan feral, consorting with pastoral nomad Bedouin folk, learning their lore and savvy in living off the desert sands, knowing the flora and being schooled by the fauna, especially burros and dromedaries.  Jesus cannot say what he needs to say, cannot do what needs doing, from within his own upbringing.  He is raised artisan, under his father’s wing and his mother’s wiles and warrior-tongue, in the hill country west of the big lake. 

Nazareth is a tiny burg, peasant-settled, answering to Tiberias east and Sepphoris north, big-city developments, where the Jewish land-privatizers luxuriate in Roman-bathhouse lifestyles of ease and fraud, foreclosing farmers and piling up debt-inveiglements that secure their future.  Rome lurks heavy-handed and militant in Jerusalem and on the coast, ever-ready to enforce tax imposition and cash-crop extraction—at sword-point if necessary.  Homelessness grows; rebellion seethes; surveillance connives and watches, through spies and opportunists.  It is a rude, harsh time, under foreign occupation and elite collaboration.

For a young activist in the making—Zealot street protest, Essene retreat to survivalist camps, Pharisaic compromise, and Sadducee assimilation do not offer hopeful options.  But a Beleaguered Lives Matter movement has coalesced at the river, raging with redress, invoking ancestral promise and help.  John has been on the hunt—gathering not just food and permaculture skill but history and energy. 

He haunts the outback wildness whence early Israel came up from Egyptian trauma, wandering and learning.  The terrain was both pantry and kitchen.  The wild honey on Baptist lips likely an allusion to the manna that the ex-slaves licked—gift of aphid insects, eating tamarisk leaves, herded and “milked” by ants, shitting 130 % their body-weight every hour, puddling at the tree base, waiting to be scooped up and baked down into loaves of sustenance and satisfaction.  The lesson enjoined by Moses had been epochal: gather like an ancient hunter enough for one day at a time.  Live off the land.  Learn the wild provision.  Adapt to the given.  Circulate the nutrition.  Step free from imperial addiction and incompetence and relearn nomad wisdom.  John has gone back upstream in his own family gene and been re-configured.  Now he invites an entire country to do the same.  But not only that.

He has also been on hunt for a haint.  He grew up in the hood in Judea where Herod ordered up infanticide and Rachel’s cry from the Other Side suddenly broke wide of the ground and presided like a Ghost Guard over the crib.  Rachel was a nomad woman and the soils under her feet remembered farmer-nomad strife and life lost.  Her cry is a recapitulation of Abel’s own sigh and a long history of soil replies and ground groans and burial mound moans and outcries.  John doesn’t invent his ministry out of the blue.  He deciphers its Presence all around him in the root-memories and blood-letting catastrophes that had never yet been given their due and healed in that landscape.  Here indeed is the razor’s edge of his bombast. 

In Matthew’s text, right before Jesus steps on stage for his River-Plunge and Vision-Quest, the Jewish fat cats had showed up to compromise the rite and gather intelligence on the Baptizer.  He “throws down” in blunt vitriol: “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the Wrath to come?  Don’t presume to claim fame and rights with Abraham and Sarah as your ancestors, for I tell you God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham and Sarah.”  And now we are right in it!  But we typically don’t know how to read it!

“From these stones!”  From what stones?  We have to go way back in the history to the nomad ex-slaves, desert-schooled, finally after forty years crossing the Jordan, east-to-west, giving up the manna-meals and herder ways, and settling in to grow crops.  But stones were erected both within, and on the bank of, the river-ford, as durable witnesses of the transition. 

They shout “remember”!  Remember how to live on the land!  Remember that the real Gift is Wild!  Remember from whence you were “quarried.”  Israel in a very real sense is rock-borne and stone-taught.  Indeed, even before Egyptian-Bondage and Wilderness-Wandering, Jacob had once slept in the wild, head on a hard agate pillow, dreamed a ladder, watched angels go up and down, “woke” up, set up the stone as a pillar, named it Beit-El, “God’s House,” anointed its head with poured out oil and promised: “If the god ‘housed’ in this Holy Rock will provide bread and drink on the way, when I return, I will embrace this One as my God and this Beitel-Stone as my Shrine.”  The first “Christ”—the first “Anointed One”—in this tradition is a Stone! And indeed, Jacob is “provisioned”—given bread—for some twenty years, tending Laban’s herds, before he shepherds his flock south and back, has continual encounters among rocky outcrops, sets up stones as gifts and witness, wrestles Night Powers at water-fords like the Jabbuk, before healing relations with Esau and giving himself to the East Bank environs as his “place of belonging.”  Bread indeed had been provided and the Stone Creatures of that arid terrain had been honored as Spirit-Bearers of the tradition.

All of this is so foreign to our citified, modernized, hi-tech-seduced, violently-mining-addicted lifestyles, we scarce can listen.  And if we do, we yawn, because we have not had that kind of relationship to rocks.  But our ancestors did.  And so will Jesus.  And so can we . . . if we will do the work to recover the respect.  The possibility is there.   It is just deeply buried.

There is not time to do more than outline.  Jesus goes into the Jordan under John’s hands, comes up Third Eye open and shouting; the heavens “open,” which may well mean he is greeted by a cloudburst of drought-ending rainfall, a Thunder Voice announces him “beloved,” a Dove descends—Luke will assert as “the Spirit incarnate”—and the bird drives Jesus up the wadi.  The winged one impels the two-legged into the wilderness.  There he will be baptized into stone.  Every one of the three temptations on the part of the “Spirit-Tester” (Satan in his former life had been the Prosecuting Attorney in the high court of God according to Job) has to do with his relationship to rocks. 

And the ante is upped when we learn that more recent scholarship insists Jesus was not a carpenter—the actual word tekton in Greek means “builder”—but much more likely a stonemason.  There weren’t enough trees around Nazareth to build with wood.  But rock, on the other hand . . .

Jesus has been making his living by handling the boulders and pebbles and gravel and crystals as quarried “objects,” domesticated ore, eroded mountain tops hammered from their home beds to be re-deployed as slaves of human will and whimsy.  Now he is made to know them at a whole different level.   The first test is the same as the ancestral quest of Jacob, interacting with Wild Rock as if it is “Numinous House” and asking if “it” can provide bread.  

In the second scenario, the Nazareth novice is “spirited” in waking vision to the Temple parapet—the epitome of enslaved stone made to serve human design—and told to use such as backdrop to a spectacular “splashdown” to inaugurate his public ministry, requiring angels to intervene to solidify his shamanic, miracle-working street-reputation. 

And in the third challenge, he is carted in trance apparition back to a Wild Probation—this time on mountain crag—to answer an interrogation about leadership and political devotion. 

And again, the allusion goes right over our heads, because we are so far removed from a common indigenous conviction that mountains are the model for chiefs and rulers, continuously pulling in the clouds that break loose the storms that flush nutrients and biodiversity to everyone downstream regardless of their worth or merit or claim.  Leadership as a Wild Mountain Height, as a constantly-giving gift—like sun, like rain, like God!  There is not time here to unpack so much more—the fact that every one of the scenarios is a re-visitation of a moment of wounding in Israel’s past—Jesus wrestling with his people’s history inside of himself, especially at those precise junctures where they betrayed their vocation and gift—and every one of them a failing out in the Wilds of the Negev, remembered in the write-up of Deuteronomy.  The Vision-Quest-Test of the nascent Prophet of the Galilean Outback takes the form of a Battle-Rap, each side in that untamed theater of rock east of the Jordan, spitting verse at the other. 

And not surprisingly, the initiate will return back to society, named by his core following, a “Living Stone”—a Living Rock like Living Water, untouched by human tool or design, unhewn agate like un-piped rainfall: stone indeed, that Jesus will affirm,  in his final showdown in the Temple, is quite capable of crying out on its own. . . ! (Lk 19:39-40).  He will admonish all of his Movement adherents to “go and do likewise”—themselves become Rock-regaled and Dove-led and Water-taught (I Pet 2:4-8).   Petros “the Little Pebble,” as Jesus will name the leader of his inner circle, will eventually call his Teacher “Big Boulder, Head of the Corner!” (Mt 16:18; I Pet 2:7)  And the task for us is to recognize that way more than metaphor is going on here. 

And that is my entire offering for our hour of struggle.  COVID messenger, climate disaster, BLM rancor and confrontation, election-time terror and thuggery—all of it interweaving and coalescing into an underground tsunami of retribution, erupting like Abel’s blood inside the walls and under the streets of Babylon!  As underscored last week—that nomad cry, coming from both shed human blood and violated belly of Earth is abroad right here and now. 

The remedy for the human we like to call God-in-the-flesh, was radical re-schooling in the Wild, haunted there by that still throbbing Cry of his violated ancestor, tested by the Spirit-Adversary of the place, to learn to see the beings he hammered and levered into housing as Living Creatures in their own right, Spirit-Personas when left to their own devices, whose counsel and comfort would be central for the rest of Jesus’ continuous confrontation of the Powers, back inside the desperate politics of his own society. 

And so there it is.  There is no magic bullet, no suddenly appearing savior, making the ship go left.  There is only this magnificent universe of nature, unfathomably beautiful and infinitely untamable, from which we little ones came, which ultimately will eat us again, on our way to becoming some other configuration of cells and structure.

Do we, like John, in his day, face the apocalypse of our society?  Then do as he did.  Counsel everyone to share extra clothes and food with those who have not. And speak with fierce recalcitrance right back in the face of the Powers.  God can, has, and will again raise up children of justice and magnificence from these very stones!  Just don’t be surprised if most of them are not human.

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