By Jim Perkinson, a sermon for St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Detroit, Michigan (March 5, 2023)
Last week Carvan asked me “What’re you gonna preach on!” I said something like, “I don’t know yet—we’ll see.” Only partially truthful—but human “knowing” is always a work in progress and for a 71-year old man, more like a bird flitting “now here, now gone,” than a rock sitting hard and fast on the ground. But the response was also a way of keeping the door open, letting the wind in, as the gospel today retorts, making womb-space for new seeds to plant themselves and grow. And sure enough, a new seed showed its face on the very morning of my beginning to sprout whatever it was I was going to say. And contrary to our modern dried up relations with the plant world, seeds do have faces. So, I will start there.
The New York Times this past Friday had a feature on the most recent museum display of Wangechi Mutu, Kenya artist straddling the Atlantic like her people have been made to do for 500 years now, crafting pain into vision, trauma into beauty, haunting and clairvoyant. She sees the past and future all in one glimpse. And opens the sight for any who would dare look. But only, as John enjoins, if you are willing to be “born again.” Am I? Are you? Hmmmm . . .
In any case, the show is entitled: “Wangechi Mutu: Intertwined,” and the “intertwined” word encapsulates—with a view to liberating—what I hope to open this morning. So, I’ll pass out a little sheet here showing some of her sculptures, so you get an impression, and offer a short rendition by the Times-writer describing the overall display.
Installation view of “In Two Canoe” (2022), which features the leafy forms of two larger-than-life plant people. Credit…Charlie Rubin for The New York Times
Roberta Smith begins her piece thus:
Pardon the binary thinking, but the multimedia Kenya-born artist Wangechi Mutu has turned the New Museum into a magical matriarchy. Or something close. It has become an enveloping, shadowy place shot through with flaming color, incalculable beauty, but also disease and violence. Hybrid creatures populate both the artist’s extravagant collages and startling sculptures, variously merging human and animal (or plant), alien and earthling, and female and male into assertive female-leaning beings.
Umm-hmmm, yes. “Magical matriarchy.” Merging female and male both—but “leaning,” in the outcome, towards the female—towards a “womanish” stance (as Alice Walker might intone) that is “assertive.”
And we hear in today’s reading: Good old boy Nicodemus sleuths his way to Jesus with a bit of brown-nosing about the latter’s rock-star teaching and is told in rejoinder, “You have to be born anew!” What??! And the text is gendered—which is going to be part of the point—so I am going to leave it patriarchal as it is. Confounded, the Nicodemian-fan says, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” And note Nicodemus is one of the elite; doesn’t want to compromise his position by being seen with this upstart agitator who one chapter before (in John’s version) has already cleared the Temple and announced its demise and has a price on his head. So, he comes only at night, under cover of the dark! Ok, fair enough—darkness is where we all began; it is home, the great ocean up inside the womb, cut off from light. And already the text is full of Momma hints and smirks! “Magical matriarchy” and “hybrid-actuality” indeed! Just who is the “mother” in question here and how many faces does she bear?
Some 312 million years ago according to contemporary research, for the first time, amphibians, were taught by an invading retrovirus to develop the protein necessary to envelop the placenta in a trophoblast layer—thus for the first time ever, enabling birth on land, by creating an amniotic sack of water inside the body of the mother. Up until then, eggs were laid outside the female body in the ocean and fertilized by males, there.
A little lizard-like creature, known in science lingo today as Casineria Kiddi, as writer Sophie Strand points out, is the one of the first ones to give birth out on the land itself back then. She is one of the “mothers” of. . . mammalian motherhood itself, having learned, in cross-species collaboration with a virus, to take a bit of salt sea into her own body as she crawled out of the water—transporting the ocean with her in her newly innovated amniotic sack, as the “birthing shack” for all the birds, reptiles, and mammals to come all the way up to today, including you and me. Pretty amazing! I have an amphibian-becoming-reptile ancestor deep in my genes—and I have to confess, sometimes she comes out flaring and sassy!
And here again, Mutu is on it! Her “Crocodylus” and “Glider” sculptures are then not sheer fantasy but hint “way way back” history.
“Crocodylus” (2020), with the artist’s new “Subterranea” collages at “Wangechi Mutu: Intertwined,” at the New Museum. The sculpture refashions a photo of the supermodel Naomi Campbell.Credit…Charlie Rubin for The New York Times
“The Glider” (2021), a hybrid of human, reptile and rudimentary flying machine, with the video animation “The End of Carrying All.”Credit…Charlie Rubin for The New York Times
We are the products of this interspecies cooperation. In fact, we ourselves are hybrid to the max! I have as many as 10 times the number of bacteria cells at work up inside me millisecond by millisecond as I have “Jim Perkinson” cells. I am a living, walking, breathing ecosystem just within my own flesh—and a minority in my own body to boot! Life is a trip!
Listen again to Smith, this time describing the Mutu-piece in the New Museum lobby that first accosts the visitor:
[The] “In Two Canoe” [sculpture as Mutu names it] features two larger-than-life plant people half made of big leaves — in softly patinated green bronze. Mangrove vines extend their limbs into the floor outside their vessel — as if plunged into water, as suggested by a narrow shoreline (with mountain) molded from rescue blankets along the walls. Nearby, the blankets form an island on which stands a figure both bisected and somewhat caged by wood branches, studded with tiny bells and cloyingly titled “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (2019).
Yeah, yeah—whether we like it or not, in reality we are caged by plants and mothered by vines. Without their green input to our lives both as food and as breath, we don’t exist. I’m partially composed of salad. And I have to admit, I’m completely addicted to plant defecation. I have the waste product of their photosynthesis called “oxygen” going up my nostrils every few seconds. Never really yet tried to break the addiction and don’t plan to any time soon!
So, back to the text. Jesus responds to the Nicodemus-fuss with this: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” And we need to get savvy about the fact that in Hebrew—as indeed in many languages all over the globe and especially those that are indigenous—the word for “spirit” and the word for “air, wind, breath” are one-and-the-same.
At root, way back in our ancestral past, they are not different ideas or experiences. Spirit was wind was air was what you breathed in and out every few seconds—not a capitalist possession bought from some Christian-evangelist’s plate-collection, afforded only those who mouth the magic name “Jesus” and aspire to the vaunted position of dominating the entire globe as some kind of “chosen” elect. No!
Spirit is in fact shared across all communities and indeed species—going in and out the noses and even the stomata pores of every animal and plant that has ever lived on the planet! Whoa! I think I just took in a molecule of Julius Caesar passed by the bacteria in his belly and swallowed by his dog. Whew!
We live in Spirit with everything else. It is way bigger than us! And Jesus clarifies it immediately in verse 8 by saying: “The windblows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” “Wind” and “Spirit” are just different “huffs’ of the same “Puff.” But the question is: how does Spirit live in us?
It’s worth circling back around to where we began. How did I come up with the sermon? Also last week, at the potluck table, Kateri informed me most of our non-binary crowd would not be present for my preaching. They would be gathering at a queer retreat to take a break from the rest of us! Ha! I showed a little bit of lighthearted dismay, and said, “Oh, so I have to preach a ‘straight peoples’ sermon,’ huh?” And we laughed and then I said, “Actually I am going to be talking about God doing drag”! (That much I already did know about my prep.) Whereupon Cindy said, “Oh, maybe we need to zoom in!” Yeah! Zoom in, zoom out, “who’s zooming who”—as Aretha was fond of pouting—is part of the shout-out here. So, let’s go there!
Jesus is implying that Nicodemus has got to do it “all over again.” He’s elite. Living off the fat of the system. Enjoying a full belly based on the labor of others full in the face of their resistance. First century Palestine was not different than the entire history of civilization. Most people struggling to make ends meet, working up some part of the environment into surplus “treats” for others to come along and commandeer as “property,” put under lock and key, and then eat so they themselves can grow rotund and proud, and hatch a bunch of ideas and sound-bites for why they get to live high-on-the-hog while everyone else grovels in the sand!
He wants the “kingdom of God? He’s got to crawl back through his entire history as wealthy, undo every assumption about being healthy and worthy, climb up inside his Mamma’s belly, come out dependent, wet, and sticky and then walk forward as part of some kind of movement like Jesus’ to be re-made in new mold. That’s all!
Being “born again” in our culture is a little bouquet of spiritual experience tacked onto an otherwise patriotic, upwardly mobile hysterical existence, convinced white Christian nationalism and Euro-settler colonialism were God’s great intention for the planet, and now everyone else either gets on board with the agenda, or faces elimination at the wrong end of a police-held magnum or drone-targeted bomb. No! “Born again” means doing the whole thing all over again from the start! But how far back is that “start”?
There’s the question! We think with the Nicodemus-man that the scan is merely our own life-span and “mother” is the woman who gave us breakfast from a frying pan! And here I am going to go off like a rocket because the time I have left is only a minute.
What if the Mamma in question is the real womb of the entire planetary system? After all, Jesus does immediately reference the Big Ancient Powers of Wind and Water as the real “birth-larder” for the flesh and spirit showing up in what we think of as merely “human” conception. Like coming up out of ocean and learning land-living as vocation going back 300 million years! Putting aside our modern conceits about human feats of supposed superiority—we are the most recent arrival out of the flux of creation, wet behind the ears and still huffing and puffing with exaggeration and misperception.
But our ancestors knew the situation. And honored the Earth Herself as the real Mater of labor-travail and parturition. The real Mother we need to crawl up inside again is the local ecosystem that enwombs us every second. From which we are born through our human mother and back into which we are immediately delivered for the rest of our living circumambulation, taking in Her bounty, like a placental provision, Her water and air and continuous giving of food and heat and shelter, in our utterly dependent positioning, and all of this as Her blessing.
And here it gets wild. Two last little contentions. If we go on in John, we hit chapter 7. Jesus stands up at the end of the fall rain-fest called the Feast of Booths and throws down a gauntlet. Contrary to Temple-exploits mandating everyone pay a tax to secure rain-showers and field sprouts, water is free gift. And anyone who drinks will find coming out their belly a Living River he calls Spirit.
But there’s a catch. The gender-reference is male, but the belly-word is actually, in Greek, “womb.” The image is really from our own “human” birthing reality, where the water-breaks—that’s the “Living River”—and the body contorts and then the fetus plops. But in John it comes out of “his womb.” Which is to say—anyone (including so-called “males”) who is willing to embrace this “return-to-the-land-and-its-graces” teaching and be born again of its “matrix” and incubation. And it’s a gender-bending mix that goes back to the beginning of both creation and John’s writing.
The chapter 1 hymn prefacing John’s composition of his gospel is literally, in Greek, stammering that it all started with a Word-Meme called “Logos.” In the beginning was God “speaking.” But John the Jew, trying to communicate to a church increasingly Greek, is actually hearkening back to a Hebrew trope. Proverbs 8 sings loud and long to the Original Presence alongside God, through Whom everything was made and came into being with the help of That One’s smart tongue and skilled trade, crafting wonder after wonder and then presiding over their necessary limit—whether land or sea or cloud or star. And She is Hokmah—the Lady-Wisdom-Queen of all Creation, destined to show Herself in flamboyance and masquerade as Sophia and Shekinah, the Sabbath-Goddess of every weekly shabbat-meal in Jewish households and the Wild Fierce One birthing, and then eating, every single thing in existence. Underneath the surface called “Logos’ is the substance called Hokmah! What is actually incarnate in the flesh of Jesus? A Great Huge Woman-Spirit! “He” is really She, doing drag. And laughing, belly-struck, at our consternation.
And this . . . is the gospel of the Lord. Amen!
James W. Perkinson has lived for 35 years as a white settler on Three Fires land in inner city Detroit, currently teaching as Professor of Social Ethics at the Ecumenical Theological Seminary and lecturing in Intercultural Communication Studies at the University of Oakland (Michigan). He holds a Ph.D. in theology from the University of Chicago, is the author of five books including Political Spirituality for a Century of Water Wars: The Angel of the Jordan Meets the Trickster of Detroit; Shamanism, Racism, and Hip-Hop Culture: Essays on White Supremacy and Black Subversion; and White Theology: Outing Supremacy in Modernity. He is an artist on the spoken-word poetry scene and an activist in the struggle against water shutoffs. Preferred pronouns are he, him.