By Jim Perkinson, a sermon on Transfiguration, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Detroit, MI, February 27, 2022
I have developed a late life habit. When the snow falls around our house, these days, the bird seed comes out. I am a bit loath to invite too much wild dependence on human provision, so I normally don’t lay out food that way. But given our urban Detroit encampment on the habitat of so many wild creatures, I figure snow may interrupt some of the other foraging possibilities and so sprinkle some seed. The local sparrows and chickadees are quick to spy out the offer and just as quick to spread the word, sparrow style. But it is especially the cardinal pair whose territory we occupy that I delight in. For two winters now, when my gift-giving begins, they are adept at the uptake and 2-3 times per day, beginning around noon, will summon me by cavorting in the front bushes outside my second-story study-window. Once I see, I get up, go down to the front door while they vigil in a front-row, top-of-the-bush seat. I give a little throw onto the sidewalk from the open door; they hop down and feast.
But just three days ago, Mr. Cardinal took things to a new level, after seed had been scattered and he and the Mrs. had nibbled amidst an ever-growing throng of sparrow entrepreneurs, who had joined them. As I watched from the full-length window by the door, the Bright Red One looked up from the concrete, hopped up onto a garden-hose-box we keep by the door, then up onto a small security sign propped less than a foot from the window, turned sideways, cocked head, and gazed imperatively at me through the glass.
I was being watched.
Such is the theme for today’s word.
It is a hard world. The far-right drum-beat grows globally, deep desperation seeking comfort in deep demagoguery in nationalist and white supremacist dress; black- and Asian-targeted hate crimes escalating weekly; inequity widening; climate change brewing in flood and fire and storm; extremity of every kind the coin of the day; bulge-veined necks and raging rants the hourly rhetoric. And then Ukraine and the Putin purge of autonomy as response to the NATO surge eastward and the weapons-surround that is merging insanity with inanity on every side.
In the face of such, how speak? What believe? Where to act?
When apocalypse impends, in gospel admonition, the word is watch! (Lk 21: 36; and 4 x in 4 verses in Mk 13: 33-37). Not just auguring hidden agendas, and veiled destruction, and secreted transgression. Yes, decipher the Powers and their inflammation! But don’t lose sight of the blossom. When apocalypse threatens, look at the figs, pay attention to leaves, and trees, and seeds! And even the little human actions that resist and witness to Life trusting kernels and soils and the magic of birth on the other side of death.
Seems ludicrous to me! But it is the only real wisdom we have ever been given. Salvation doesn’t come from a drone or warhead or missile aiming for Mars. It comes from a root, a sprout from a clear-cut stump, a hovering flap of dove-wing—like the Spirit descending on the maverick prophet from Galilee who will convene a peasant movement returning to the land. And today’s gospel goes to the heart—not just of the hope, but of the distance we have fallen from what really sustains and survives into unforeseen futures.
It is land, finally, that matters. Native authors now, in our time, point out the anchor. Even worthy aspiration like decolonization is not a metaphor, say Native champions Tuck and Yang, but a pointer to where we stand (Tuck and Yang, 2012). Land that must be returned. Land outside the city plan, the title-claim, the market-price, the colonial demand that Christians have the truth and thus the right to plant the flag.
Vine Deloria was a Standing Rock Sioux theologian/lawyer, departing to the Other World but a decade or so ago, who laid out the gauntlet. In a voice at once generous and ferocious, he clarified that white folk, at best, on these shores of supposed sovereignty, relate to ground as art—a rosy dawn, a green spring, a lavender crest of light over a setting sun. Indigenous, on the other hand—if still part of a multi-generation clan living-in-place with ancestor bones under feet, reflect (Deloria, 251-254). What they reflect—what they think, feel, chew on, ruminate, cogitate, narrate and dance—is all provoked by the land. The Land is primal agent, first respondent, initiator of culture and mythic figure and even erotic desire.
As Anishinaabe activist Winona LaDuke will similarly insist: the land does not belong to us—even as a commons (interview; also see LaDuke, 1999). We belong to the land. It begins there. It has always begun there. And there it will end. So, to be Native is to know a place as Mother, whose every feature—towering oak, river bend, outcrop of rock—is storied, tattooed with memory, and ready to stalk those who would forget. Just like climate change is doing for all of us now.
But there is another characteristic Deloria will hint and underscore. Live long enough in a place—say three generations or more, with feet on the soil, nose in the air, bare hands working pelt and root and crop—and your people will stumble on an altogether different Presence of the Land—this time in the form of what he calls “revelation” (Deloria, 251-252, 254-259). And the Sioux teacher here is very particular. His own experience of such places among his own people is one of Dread. The sudden uncanny sense of being Watched. Time and space collapsing, the ordinary world dissolving, control gone, leaving one no longer even a subject or self, but the foreboding feeling of being a mere object, “at the mercy of” what does not quite appear . . . or disappear. A place sometimes guarded by birds or animals. But always haunted by an Other-World Spirit that draws a boundary. For Native folk, says Deloria, it is this kind of place that hatches medicine vocations and dictates ceremonies—in vision or intuition specifying the kind of ritual “give back” to the Wild that it both seeks and requires. And the men and women so selected by such an unwanted epiphany, ever after do everything in their power not to venture back into such places. Except (!) in dire emergency—knowing that going there may cost their lives.
Here is Land saying to Human, “You are not sovereign. The planet does not belong to you. There are other creatures, there are other beings, there are other realities, who have priority. Stay out, Stay away. Stay little and respectful.” Deloria will speculate that such zones of taboo may secretly host animal versions of ceremony. But it is this experience, he will insist, that marks out the great difference between Euro-colonizer, and more typical Native-dweller, ways of relating to land. He will even allow that in the past across Europe and elsewhere, indigenous communities there too probably once accorded the terrain Voice and Intent and Appearance—perhaps in the tradition of ley lines and standing stones. But here, on Turtle Island, it is a mode of honoring and an approach of listening and a practice of self-limiting that has been entirely dismissed by white society. And it cannot be engineered into re-appearing or New Aged into individual mystical feeling like a pet crystal. The experience is not for us. It belongs to the land.
Now in the shortness of a sermon, I can only minutely suggest such a Big, Consequential Witness from the very folk our Christianity has so consistently and genocidally smashed. So, the above will have to suffice. But the outline is remarkably suggestive when we turn to a cryptic gospel remembrance like today’s text.
Jesus has been circuit-riding in the northern outback of Israel for a year or more. The elites have early on contracted his “hit.” He is to be taken out. The only question is how to do it, such that they can destroy his street rep at the same time as his flesh. And at every turn they have been querying and trapping and gaslighting—trying to get from him a verbal misstep in sound-bite that will decide his fate in the kangaroo court they are hellbent on convening and do. In response he has stayed shy of city centers and synagogues except to throw down gauntlets and stir dissent, before retreating once again to the villages and wilds and wayward places where he teaches and heals and frets. He finally decides to set face to the south for the high-noon showdown with the powers-that-be in the Temple-State shrine in Jerusalem that is also the national bank. Pretty clear on what will go down. No retirement policy needed. But he must prepare the circle. And himself. For a contemporary similarity of jeopardy—though not of personality or character or vocation—think Zelensky opting to stay put in Kyiv as number one target, while the bullets fly and troops march.
The hour for Jesus is dire. Roman occupation, brutal. Elite Jewish collaboration determined to eliminate his witness as “threat.” Where does the healer-prophet seek reinforcement? He goes to mountain heights with a chosen threesome. The rock of choice? Most likely Mt. Hermon, immediately upslope from Caesarea Philippi (where he has just been traipsing), crown peak of the anti-Lebanon range, whose very name means “forbidden, taboo.” In deep Jewish memory, site where Angels had reportedly descended and manifested, doing Divine reconnaissance, gathering intelligence. Their names in subsequent history? Watcher Angels, looking back at human settlement across that terrain. A place where human beings are looked at, by what can’t be reduced to a picture frame! The place became off-limits, fearsome, dreadful. For centuries. A power-spot of terror.
And there Jesus goes with his core. All the action in the account comes from without—not from him. Ancestors visit. Moses and Elijah—each with his own memory of overwhelming upheaval and fearful address on a craggy mountain height, in the midst of fierce lightning and storm. Ever been above the tree-line when such hits? I have—with my wife, back in our Denver days. It was completely unnerving and terrifying! And here we see the same. Jesus’ garments lit up by the lightning-forks arcing out of the looming cloud. Thunder Voices. Talk of mission and death. Peter and the rest reduced to trembling incoherence—”should we build the apparition a booth?” Please, can we contain the experience somehow!!!??? No! Just listen!
Know you can be eclipsed in a mere Breath, a Wind burst, a quake of Earth. You didn’t create this place. You don’t own this place. You are just the latest little experiment on the globe—all else is your elder and mother and womb and yes, will be your tomb. Listen! Respect! And live accordingly! And yes, give your life when the moment is right! You will die for something! What is worthy? A fat bank account? A comfy retirement? National autonomy if you live in Ukraine? Black Lives that are made to Matter, if in the U.S. of A.? A planet where other creatures can flourish rather than careen into non-existence to the tune of 200 extinctions per day? Look at what looks you in the eye and recognize it will eat you, one day. As it does everything else. Just make sure—by how you live—that you are a good meal!
I have no such relationship to the land. And only a beginning relationship with the remaining Native people who do have that kind of land-relation. But three days ago, a cardinal came right up close—two feet away—and watched. How do I respond?
Deloria, Vine. “Reflection and Revelation,” For This Land: Writings on Religion in America New York NY: Routledge, 250-260.
Tuck, Eve, and K. Wayne Yang. 2012. “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor.” In Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1:1 (2012), 1–40.
LaDuke, Winona.1999. All Our Relations: Native Struggles for the Land and Life. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.