By Sheri Hostetler and Joanna Lawrence Shenk
This is the third in an Eastertide mini-series called “Rewilding Jesus” that unearths fun and feral images/ideas about Jesus, the Jewish prophet deeply rooted in his place and his community and undomesticated by Empire.
The kindom of heaven is like a farmer who sowed good seed in a field.
The kindom of heaven is like a mustard seed.
The kindom of heaven is like the yeast a baker mixed in three measures of flour.
The kindom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea, which collected all kinds of fish.
Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet Creator feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.
When I was typing this sermon on rewilding Jesus, my autocorrect kept changing “rewild” to “rewind.” But in truth, we need to rewind Jesus so we can place him in his people’s story, and its relationship to wildness, land and empire.
It’s possible to read our entire Scripture as a call to rewild. It begins with Abraham and Sarah, who are called by God to leave the city of Ur to become nomads, people with flocks of sheep and goats who move across the land in order to find pasture. People who live in tents rather than houses of stone, under the sheltering sky.
Centuries later, the descendants of Abraham and Sarah find their way to Egypt via Joseph and his brothers. There, they grow numerous and strong, and the emperor (that is, the pharaoh) becomes afraid of their growing political power, afraid that they will make allies with his enemies. And so he brutally enslaves them, forcibly tearing them from the land and bringing them into the imperial center, where they make bricks for his building projects. At one point, he decides to kill all the Hebrew baby boys. Moses is saved, however, when three women conspire to resist Pharaoh by hiding him in a basket that they set loose down the Nile River. Pharaoh’s daughter finds him and raises him as her adopted son, directly contradicting her father’s orders.
Moses grows up very privileged, the elite of the elite. He is someone who would never have had to lift a finger to raise, or prepare, his own food. He wouldn’t have had a clue about how to live off the land, as his ancestors did. He never forgets who his people are, however. He kills an Egyptian slave master who was brutally beating an enslaved Hebrew and is forced to flee to nearby Midian, where he eventually marries the daughter of a shepherd. Now a shepherd himself, he becomes re-integrated into the ecology of the wild lands. He learns how to read the land for springs of water, how to find the nourishing plants his sheep and goats need. He spends many, many nights under the stars. And there, Moses has an encounter with God on a mountain. The wilderness, the mountains — these are always the places in the Bible where sacred encounter happens. They don’t happen in cities. They happen in the wild. On Mount Horeb, Moses is given his sacred destiny by a bush that burns. He is told that he is the one who will liberate his people.
He returns to Egypt and, indeed, leads his people out of slavery. They exit the empire of Egypt, and spend the next 40 years wandering in the wilderness, learning to live on the land again, being re-schooled by the land and their leader, Moses, who had been similarly re-wilded years earlier. There, they meet God on the mountain at Sinai and enter into covenant with this Thunder Being.
After 40 years, they are now ready to enter the promised land. But the promised land is already inhabited by an Indigenous people known as the Canaanites. The Biblical story tells us that the people of Israel violently conquered the Canaanites, committing genocide as they go, essentially establishing a settler colonial nation there. Settler colonialism refers to the practice of an invading power displacing the indigenous population of a nation and replacing it with a new settler population. This is what happened in this country, of course. My family was a settler colonial family in both Pennsylvania and Ohio, moving in and displacing the original Native tribes in both of those places.
The truth of the Biblical story of conquest is far murkier. What appears to have happened is that the people of Israel assimilated with the Canaanites and other Indigenous people in the promised land. In fact, biblical scholar Jim Perkinson says that the Israelites join with these people in a movement to flee the “imperial city states on the Mediterranean seaboard and re-tribalize cooperatively in the hills.” Sort of like back to the land types, they work together to provide for themselves, away from the dominating powers of their day.
During this time, the God of the Hebrew people assures them that “He” will defend them from invading empires and peoples. They are not to become like other nations, with a king and a standing army, which would radically change their political economy into a military-industrial complex. Their God is trying to build something different through “His” covenant people, an alternative community. But the people finally clamor to become part of the regional domination system and organize themselves as a monarchy. The result, says Perkinson, was “four hundred years of chaos and violence (and warfare) and finally exile,” when the Babylonian empire invades their lands, crushes their capital city of Jerusalem and carts off most of their elite to exile in Babylon.
Says Perkinson: “Five hundred years later, John the Baptist and Jesus the Prophet led movements attempting to return to that early Israel experiment in cooperative economics and communal decision making. But both had first to be deprogrammed,” rewilded. John goes into the wilds east of the Jordan, where Bedouin people live, and there he learns to eat insects and wear animal skins. Jesus goes to join his wilderness cousin, “accepting initiation from him through being baptized into the watershed — immersed in the river, tutored by a dove, taught out on the land among the wild animals, pursuing something akin to a vision quest — before launching his campaign of resistance in occupied Palestine.”
So what were the landscapes of occupied Palestine that rewilded Yeshua? In what ways were these ecosystems imprinted into his storytelling and his very being? I want to begin by looking at a map, to orient ourselves to his ministry years, picking up where Sheri left off.
I wanted to start here so we can see the diversity of landscapes that Yeshua moved through. At the center you’ll see the Jordan River. Down near the Dead Sea is where Yeshua is believed to have been baptized.
From there he left the river valley and went into the arid highlands for 40 days. Some say it was on the east side of the Jordan and others say it was on the west side. It was a dry, rocky landscape, with lots of cliffs and ravines and not much vegetation.
Then he returned to the place of his birth, Nazareth. It is north and west of the Jordan, across the arid central highlands and down into the valleys and rolling hills. Nazareth was a much more lush ecosystem.
Not too far from Yeshua’s home was a rock quarry and it seems likely he learned the stonemason trade, rather than carpentry. Knowing the great value of stones, he named one of his disciples “the rock,” and also claimed that the stones had voice to cry out for liberation. As I talked about in a recent sermon, the land was also included in Yeshua’s Sabbath-Jubilee vision. He proclaimed the Year of the Lord’s favor which was all about the land getting a rest from exploitation and extraction.
In this region and moving west toward the Sea of Galilee there were many farms and vineyards. As Yeshua walked with his disciples, he connected with people where they were at as farm workers and vineyard workers. He talked about the kindom of God in ways that connected to their everyday life. The kindom is a farmer sowing seed. A woman making bread. It is an invasive mustard plant taking over a field.
As he spoke to the crowds, which almost always happened outside, he looked around for what they could see, hear, and touch. I imagine sparrows flying from tree to tree as he pointed, “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet Creator feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”
He continued, now pointing toward the rolling hills, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” These anemones are literally referred to as “lilies of the field” in Israel Palestine.
These passages, coming from what is called the Sermon on the Mount, took place close to the sea of Galilee, which was also where Yeshsua invited fisherman to join his movement.
The sea of Galilee was at quite a distance from the religious and imperial center of Jerusalem, which made it an ideal place for Yeshua to grow his movement. It was at least 70 miles, which of course most people walked on foot.
The north shore of the sea had an abundance of fish and drew many poor farmers who had been pushed off their land. Jim Perkinson describes it this way, “Displaced native dwellers gravitated to the north country waters to eke out a living there–often in indigenously influenced gift-economy cooperative ventures.” To them Yeshua likens the kindom to a fishing net, which once cast, collects all kinds of fish.
The kindom is something you can feel–a heavy net filled with fish. It is something you can see–birds flying overhead. It is something you can smell–warm bread dough rising. The kindom is a sensory experience. The kindom is among us.
Yeshua was, Perkinson writes, “calling an ancient peasantry into a movement re-rooting itself in traditions older than Israel itself, harking back to Bedouin-nomad desert-wisdom and Canaanite small-farmer knowledge of hill-country and lake ecology, right under the nose of Roman imperial and Jewish comprador domination. And he is teaching about a Spirit-World infestation of such that speaks through Seeds and Storms, Doves and Rivers, Mountains and Seas and Winds.”
The stories he told were deeply rooted in the land on which he lived. They were meant for the people who lived alongside him on the land. Although not indigenous to that place, Jewish people had lived there–assimilated with the tribes of the land–for centuries by that point.
As the true vine, as the bread of life, as the Green Man, Yeshua invited the people into restored relationship with the Divine, which included right relationship with the land. His movement was about the people and the land being freed from imperial occupation.
Herein lies one of the great tragedies of Christianity: Once his stories were pulled from the soil of the Jordan river valley and the Galilean shoreline and the rolling hills of Nazareth and the rocky wilderness near Jericho, they were co-opted and used as ammunition for extractive and exploitative conquest that continues to this day. So part of the invitation is to re-place these stories in their native land, recognizing that they were living stories coming from an oral culture. And another part of the invitation is to learn to know the land on which we live and become its students. What are the stories that these lands have to tell? This is how we begin to re-place ourselves.
Yeshua as Lady Wisdom in drag, as Hokmah, She is among us, spinning her healing web of reconnection. She calls us to follow in her path because she is as alive in the lands on which we live, as she was in the ecosystems of 1st century Palestine. What humans and creatures is she speaking through today? What does she smell like? What does she feel like? Where does she stop us in our tracks with her beauty?
May the call to rewild that runs through our scriptures, inspire our discipleship in ever expanding webs of connection. May we literally taste and see the goodness of God as we find our place on the lands that sustain us. May we learn from our creaturely neighbors and tell their stories. And may we honor the wisdom of our bodies and the bodies of all who struggle for freedom and liberation.
Jesus… Yeshua… Green Man… Lady Wisdom… said, the thief comes only to steal, kill and destroy, but I have come that you may have life and have it abundantly. May it be so! Amen.