Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Archive for 2012

When the Shadow of Death Touches Christmas

Let us pray:

Come thou Wisdom from on high

and order all things far and nigh

To us the path of knowledge show

and cause us in Her ways to go. Amen.

It was for the author of the gospel attributed to John as if time had stopped and started all over again. Or been rewound. Or spiraled back on itself. This new beginning was another beginning, not the same beginning. But it changed everything. I know the “in the beginning” language is beloved, traditional and familiar, but grammatically it’s more like “when beginning…”

John 1:1 When beginning there was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 The Word was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through the Word, and without the Word not one thing came into being. That which has come into being 4 in the Word was life, and the life was the light of humanity. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

God begins with a word, the logos, in the Gospel. God begins with the Aramaic word for word, Memra, in the mystical tradition of Judaism on which Yochannan whom you know as John is drawing – if he indeed wrote the gospel penned in his name – just as God began with the d’var, the Hebrew word for word when beginning all things in Genesis. When beginning each time, each beginning was a word, a divine word, a holy word, a spoken but not yet written word, perhaps a word whispered in a still small voice.

That word was light and life; it was more than alive; it was life itself. The word was the God of life and the life of God to be breathed, poured, into humanity giving us life in the image of God. This eternal living light cannot be extinguished and shines forever as God lives forever, as we too will one day live forever. This living light has been infused into and through creation and we – and the whole of creation – are suffused with it. But that light coexists with darkness.

The light is shining in the darkness. The darkness cannot overcome, overwhelm, diminish or suppress the light. Yet what John does not say (in verse five) is that the light does not overcome the darkness. The darkness and light co-exist. There is always shadow. The world is filled with shadow. We have seen those shadows recently. Friday was the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the children and babies murdered on Herod’s orders as he sought kill the Virgin’s miraculous child. And we remember the innocents of all generations who have been slaughtered for every reason and no reason: in the Crusades, during ocean-crossing of the Atlantic slave trade, the native peoples of North, South and Central America, in the Holocaust, those who have been murdered at the hands of parents, neighbors and strangers including those in Newtown CT and every day since then in Philadelphia, Palestine, Chicago, Congo, around this nation and around this world.

I didn’t tell you the title of the sermon because it might have seemed too dark without some introduction. Today’s sermon is “When the Shadow of Death Touches Christmas.” The juxtaposition of the first Sunday of Christmas with the Feast of the Holy Innocents marking the slaughter of the Holy Innocents is intentional in our calendar. The sweet little Jesus child, holy infant so tender and mild, was born into a dark world, in which children were murdered for financial and political gain. And, every year at Christmas families grieve the loss of loved ones who were there the Christmas before but are not here this Christmas. Some will die doing the holiday season. Others will fall ill; there will be fires and accidents and other tragedies. Christmas has always been touched by, attended by, the shadow of death. Yet the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.

And in many places the church keeps saying, “Merry Christmas!” and ignoring the shadows. We light our candles, wreathe our homes with light, wrap our trees in light and bask in glow of our fireplaces, but there remain shadows in the corners of our rooms, in the corners of our eyes and in the corners of our hearts.

Death is everywhere, in the darkness and in the light. This is the scandal of the Incarnation, God descended into shadow, even into Shadow-Valley Death and walked its lonely yet crowded pathways. Perhaps even more scandalous is how God did it: The scandal of the Incarnation is the scandal of the human body, a woman’s body and all of its ins and outs. The scandal of the Gospel may have been the crucifixion for Paul. But for far too many others it is the specific circumstances of the Incarnation: human flesh and blood, the secret places of a woman’s peculiar biology.

For it is through human bodies that shadows are deepened in and lengthened on the world. And while there are evil forces at work as well, encouraging, facilitating, instigating; the old claim “the devil made me do it,” does not account for all of the evil in the world. We humans have done more than our fair share.

So God became human, woman-born. Son of God, Son of Woman, Child of Earth: mortal, frail, embodied, human. To be human is to be carnal, fleshly, to dwell in shadow. The child conceived in holy mystery, whose tiny human heart beat underneath his mother’s heart emerged from his mother’s womb in blood and water as did we all. The Gospels remind us continually that the Messiah was fully human: He was woman-born, his body experienced hunger and thirst and exhaustion and pain and death. Even his post-resurrection body was tangible and capable of digestion along with walking on water and through walls. To be human is also to be in relationship as God is in relationship within Godself.

The Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word became flesh and dwelled among us. God became flesh and dwelled among us as Yeshua, Jesus, the mortal immortal, Son of God, Son of Woman, Child of Earth. He was like us and we are like him. We are human. We are mortal, frail, embodied, humans. We ache for human companionship. We worry about our parents as we come to grips with our own mortality. In our desperate pain we search for a familiar comforting face. And we pray that when it comes our time to die, we won’t have to face it alone.

We do not walk alone among the shadows of earth because God is Immanu El, God with us. In our brokenness, in our fullness, God is with us. God is with us when the bullets are flying, when the ground is shaking, when the planes are crashing, when the waters are rising, when the ship is sinking, when the winds are howling, when death is knocking, when the shadow of death stretches out and touches even Christmas – God is with us! God is with us when we are falsely accused and unjustly imprisoned. God is with us when we are raped and tortured and murdered. God is with us when our children, our precious children, are stolen from us. God is with them in their fear and horror! God is with us in our rage and sorrow and grief! God is with us! God is with the suffering and the dying, comforting and accompanying through that valley of death that we cannot yet enter. This is the Gospel, not that we’re untouchable, not that we’re inviolable, for even the Son of God was violated. But that we are never alone, never forsaken, never absent from the Divine presence is the Gospel of light and life.

This Gospel is that God’s concern for the woman-born was manifested in God, Godself, becoming woman-born, for the redemption and liberation of all the woman-born from fear and from death itself. Yeshua the Messiah, the Son of Woman, came to seek out and save the lost and to give his life as a ransom for many.

This is the season of hope and peace and joy and light. One of the reasons Christmas was placed at this point on the calendar is because the days are getting longer; light is literally filling the world (our side of it anyway). The Twelve Days of Christmas are days of light. The Feast of Epiphany is a feast of light.

(For) What has come into being in the Word was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

When beginning in Genesis, the first thing God created was light. When Mary’s boy child was born, even more light flooded the world. Each of us has become a light-bearer through our professions and confessions of faith and in the water of our baptisms. The light of God lives with and in us; we are the light of God. And there is no darkness, no shadow, that cannot be overcome by the holy light of God.

How bright is your light? How do you kindle, nurture and stoke its flame? How often do you join your flame with the flames of your sisters and brothers in prayer and worship and at the table? Let the light of Christ shine in and through you to the ends of the earth, with all of its nooks, crannies, corners, crevices and crevasses and even that Shadow-Valley, Death.

This light will shine through the ages; it cannot be overcome and one day it will banish all darkness. One day when the shadow of death extends itself to the Christmas season its touch will be rebuffed; it will fade in the light of Christ. Whether we join God in heaven or God and heaven join us on earth, the whole of creation will be transformed by that holy light. For where God dwells, there is no darkness or shadow at all.

Holy One of Old, open our eyes that we may see. In the name of the One who waded in the waters of Miryam’s womb, walked the way of suffering as one of the woman-born, and woke from the grasp of death in the deep darkness of the morning. Amen.

 

The Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D.

Memorial Church of the Good Shepherd

East Falls Philadelphia

30 December 2012


The Bible and the Second Amendment

The Second Amendment and Guns

As I have listened to folk talking about "the right to bear arms," it has struck me that they are treeating those words (and the Constitution) as scripture. What would happen if we applied the principles of sound biblical exegesis to the Second Amendment? For starters we'd have to take seriously the contexts – literary, social, cultural, political – of the text in its formation and of the interpreters. I do that exegesis here in conversation with my colleague, Jon Pahl.


Letter to My Enslaved Ancestors on the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation

 

lincoln_eman

A Letter to My Enslaved Ancestors,

Emancipation ProclamationI don’t know your names or from where you were stolen. I don’t know how many of you freed yourselves or died in bondage. Yet I claim you all and I honor you. The savage ferocity of slavery has torn your names from the memories of your descendants but not your lives, your survival, your strength. I want to thank you for surviving and enduring the unimaginable. As I give thanks for you, I weep for you. I give thanks for your sacrifice – not that you sacrificed yourselves, but that you were sacrificed – human sacrifice on an epic scale to greed and misanthropic racism.

I know that I cannot know the fullness of the horrors you faced, endured, survived and to which some of you succumbed. Yet I must try to give voice to them. In your stolen names I now name some of the horrors of American chattel slavery: intergenerational terrorism, murder, kidnapping, rape, forced pregnancy, forced miscarriages and abortions, child abuse and neglect, physical, mental, emotional, sexual and spiritual torture, beating, burning, stabbing, scarring, maiming, forced illiteracy, extirpation of culture and religion, violent imposition of a morally bankrupt idolatrous Christianity, and much, much more.

What ever it is that I am and all that I am, I am because you were. I cannot contemplate my future without reflecting on my past, our past. Our nation now looks back 150 years to the Emancipation Proclamation. Many will pretend that one man freed the slaves in the United States and its territories with the stroke of a pen. They will not tell the stories of dirty tricks and politics. They will not say that the Proclamation only freed some slaves in some circumstances. They will not say that the majority of slaves freed themselves. They will say that their own ancestors were all on the side of the angels. But we know different. We know the truth and the truth has set us free.

Remembering that you built this country with your bare hands, your blood and broken bodies forming the mortar that cements it together – on a bloody foundation of other massacred peoples, that you freed yourselves and this nation from the curse of slavery, that you reconstructed this nation after it began cannibalizing itself over the right to exploit your bodies, I now look to the future. I look to the future that will be and I look to the future that I hope will be.

The racism, sexism, xenophobia, misanthropy and greed that characterized your times endures and adapts. And those plagues are hounded, challenged, diminished, transformed and rejected in our time by many of those who have benefitted from them and as well as by those of us who have borne its burdens.

The future I envision is one in which the United States is further enriched by the presence and contributions of citizens who reflect the breadth of the world’s peoples, and one in which ethnic majority and minority status will be upended and have no power. I also see a future in which power and resources which are currently concentrated in a dwindling segment of society multiply across race and class categories leading to a strengthening of us all. I also foresee a future in which some will still exploit others: we still disenfranchise some people with state and federal laws and taxes as it pertains to marriage and its benefits; we have not closed the pay gap between women and men; we have not done justice for the native peoples of this land; sexual slavery and trafficking endures, the poor remain with us.

In a future which yet may be, I see your children’s children’s children across the ages transforming our society, economy and infrastructure with renewable energy sources and eradicating abject poverty and hunger in partnership with sister and brother Americans whose ancestry circles the globe and in partnership with all peoples everywhere.

In order to reach our future, we must survive our present. Our children must survive and thrive and there is much that imperils them: poverty, substandard education, violence, lack of access to health and dental care, astronomical incarceration rates, a deeply flawed justice system, failure and inability to dream a world beyond the one they know or to which they have been confined, hopelessness.

In your name, in your memory we work and pray and struggle, weeping and rejoicing at what has been and what will be.

[Cross-posted on the Huffington Post. Letters from other contributors can be found here.] 


#What2Preach In the Aftermath of the Sandy Hook Massacre: A Tweet Chat

Students and staff killed at Sandy Hill Elementary School, Newtown, CT

I found my self advising preachers, pastors and priests on what not to say about God in relationship to the savage atrocity at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT on December 14, 2012 in which twenty children and six adults were mowed down and murdered by a young man who also took his own life. All I could think of was bad theology and preaching that I had heard too many times by well-meaning clergy after tragedy. (I’m not considering the intentionally misanthropic theology spewed by those of ill will such as the Westboro Baptist Church, James Dobson and Pat Robertson.)

I was concerned about what and how people would preach after the slaughter of the innocents in Newtown CT. I started writing a blog post called A Word to Preachers and couldn’t finish it as I was wracked with grief and stunned into silence at the thought of those murdered children, lying in their own blood as police and medical examiners did their grisly work for as many hours as it took. I took the few coherent sentences I wrote, tweeted them and posted them on Facebook.

  • Don’t you dare blame God or claim this was God’s will. God did not want those babies (or adults) in heaven today, this way.
  • If your theology is inadequate to make sense of human evil, the love and sovereignty of God say so.
  • Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know what to say when you don’t know what to say. Sit down if you need to. Weep. Let the musicians minister – without words when no words can be found.
  • Stand in integrity. Be honest. Acknowledge your pain.
  • If you’re a lectionary preacher admit the “rejoicing” in the texts doesn’t fit. We’re in too much pain to rejoice.
  • If you observe Rose Sunday perhaps the concern of a mother, the Virgin, for her Child is a starting place.
  • For me Job is a resource. Cry to heaven, scream at God, even curse God.
  • This is an Immanuel moment. God is with us. This is a sure promise. God was with the dying. God is with the grieving.

A clergy colleague in the blogging community RevGalBlogPals to which I belong, the Rev. Martha Spong asked me to help think and articulate what we should preach rather than what we should not preach. In consultation with the RevGals and two other online communities to which I belong, WomanPreach! and Move And Shake (a private Facebook group for women in the academy) I came up with the hashtag #What2Preach and facilitated a conversation on Twitter, Facebook and the RevGal Preacher Party.

Social media made it possible for me to hold multiple conversations with struggling clergy wresting with the lectionary texts, and those seeking a word and a text from God. For lectionary preachers the texts included: Zephaniah 3:14-30, “Sing aloud…Rejoice with all your heart…” Surely inappropriate and insensitive for many. Canticle 9 in the Episcopal Church, “Surely it is God who saves me” from Isaiah 12:2-6 – but so many perished. “Rejoice in the Lord always…!” The exhortation to rejoice seems so out of place. And then there was the gospel, “You brood of vipers…” Hardly comforting.

I left that Tweet Chat encouraged by the priests and pastors I met there and grateful for the opportunity to use my gifts as a priest, preacher and seminary professor to respond to this atrocity in a meaningful way.

The #What2Preach Twitter thread – captured as an image 12/18/2012.

Entries continue to be posted since this image was captured – click to go to the Twitter feed.

Click to download an interactive pdf.

#What2Preach - Twitter thread

#What2Preach – Twitter thread captured 12/18/2012

 

 

 


My Advent Practice

This year I am tweeting President Obama (@BarackObama) every day during Advent, Hanukah and the 12 Days of Christmas urging him to push for a just peace between Israel and Palestine. Join me (@WilGafney)! Huffington Post Religion features my practice here.


O Little Occupied Town of Bethlehem

I spent much of the summer of 2010 in Israel. I also spent some of that summer in Palestine, in Bethlehem in particular. Now in 2012, in the aftermath of the Gaza War and failure of Israel and Palestine to return to the negotiating table and work out a just peace for both nations, I have been thinking about the little, occupied town of Bethlehem again. This Advent, Chanukah, and Christmas I pray for a just and lasting peace and two secure homelands, for the security and prosperity of those who live in each and generous hospitality for neighbor and stranger. I keep wondering if the Incarnation happened today whether the Blessed pregnant Virgin would have had to scale the wall to give birth in Bethlehem or if she would have given birth at a checkpoint like so many Palestinian women, some of whom have had their babies die at the checkpoints.

You could say I was following a star. As they say, it’s always Christmas in Bethlehem. The beautiful art in the newest building of the Bethlehem Bible College portrays the signal moment in Bethlehem’s – and some say the world’s – history. But a few things have changed since then.

“Security” is tighter. And of course, one woman’s security is another woman’s occupation. The icon of both is the wall, the so-called “security fence.” According to Dr. Alex Awad, Dean of Students, local pastor and United Methodist missionary, 80% of the security wall was built on Palestinian land. The wall looms over Bethlehem and cast its shadow over my visit.

In order to enter Bethlehem I had to walk through the checkpoint and its cattleshoots made of bars and razorwire.

The wall has become a site of resistance. One primary form of that resistance is art. Here is some of the art on the wall:


The wall has also inspired art. These three souvenirs re-imagine three bible stories through the shadow of the wall. In one the trumpets are blown as in the story of Jericho, but this wall does not come tumbling down. In another, the Blessed Virgin and Sweet Baby Jesus are on the wall, Joseph is preparing to cross with them. And in the wall runs smack dab in the middle of the Nativity scene, as it cuts off some Palestinian residents from their homes, family and olive trees.


A final piece of art from the checkpoint, a prayer and I hope, a prophecy:


Advent, Infertility and Miscarriage

Advent is a sacralized last-trimester pregnancy among other things. Many women identify with the pregnant Virgin – in spite of the sexual intimacy through which most of them were impregnated, medical and reproductive technologies aside. But all women will not and cannot become pregnant and give birth. For some that is extraordinarily painful and magnified in this holy season.

An anonymous blogger wrote on this theme in 2010:

To what will this season give birth?
For what (whom) am I waiting?
For what do I long?

For hopes and dreams miscarried by disappointment.
The end of some lives, some hopes for life
washed out in a bloody painful flux.

Where is the promise of new life to take root and blossom,
in scarred wombs convulsing with the pains of miscarriage
parodying the pains that give birth to life?

And what of the empty wombs of barren women?
For what do they long and how will this holy season give birth to and for them? 

Can the youth and fertility of one otherwise insignificant girl child restore us all?
Redeem us all?
Give life to us all?
Save us all?

I wait in the eclipsing darkness
shadowed by the light of a single candle
the deepest night with all its terrors is behind me
I feel its breath on my neck.

Before me is that single candle
and in its shadow
another
waiting.

What will the next explosion of light reveal?

Monica Coleman, who has blogged about her miscarriage also writes about the link between Advent and pregnancy: “Advent is about pregnancy, and pregnancy is about waiting. Pregnant women wait. Some women wait for the first three months to pass before they tell anyone they are pregnant. Waiting to get past the time when miscarriage is more likely. Waiting to share the good news. Waiting to feel like the baby is safe. Waiting to exhale.”

 Advent is a fragile and frightening time for many. And we ought not forget that.


The Commemoration of King Kamehameha and Queen Emma ~ 28 November

Today is the commemoration of King Kamehameha IV and Queen Emma, Hawaii’s Holy Sovereigns who brought the Episcopal Church to Hawaii. I had the great pleasure of spending parts of my 2010 sabbatical in Hawaii where I learned about the ali’i, royals.

Readings and prayers of the day here.

 

The following images are from the 2010 Feast of the Holy Sovereigns at the All Saints Episcopal Church, Kapaa, Kauai.


Neither Jew or Gentile, Slave or Free, Male or Female: Did Paul REALLY Mean That?

Nehemiah 8:1 All the people gathered as though they were a single person into the square before the Water Gate. They told the Torah-scholar Ezra to bring the scroll of the Torah of Moses, which the Holy One of Sinai had commanded to Israel. 2 So, the priest Ezra brought the Torah before the assembly, both women and men and all who could hear with understanding…

 

 

Psalm 148:

11 rulers of the earth and all peoples, princes and all judges of the earth;

12 young men and women alike, old and young together…

and Galatians 3:

Galatians 3:26 All of you indeed are children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Judean nor Greek (that is neither Jew nor Gentile), there is neither slave nor free, there is not male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

The Legacy of Slavery in Flesh, Blood and Scar-Tissue

Let us pray on the theme: “Neither Jew Nor Gentile, Neither Slave Nor Free, Neither Male Nor Female – Did Paul Really Mean That?”

>[Listen to the sermon here.]<

May my teaching pour like the rain, my word go forth like the dew;

like rains on grass, like showers on new growth. Amen.

U.N.I.T.Y. (That’s A Unity) The Queen, Latifah, put it down. Unity. There’s a lot of talk about unity in the Bible. But when you scratch the surface, there is always something more, much more going on. The Israelite monarchy was united, for a while. But the golden age of the Israel was only about one hundred years. At the same time that Israel was beginning its great decline a curious migration was happening in Europe. Warriors who painted their pale skins blue crossed from their island home onto the mainland and began making their way through Spain and Austria to France, Italy and Greece. It would take them hundreds of years to reach the Mediterranean in large numbers. Some of them would eventually settle in the mountains of Turkey where their military dominance would cause one region in the land to be named after them. They were Celtic peoples from what became known as Ireland and Scotland – think “Braveheart” back when Mel Gibson wasn’t acting like he was raised by wolves, and about 1000 years before that story – and when they dealt with the Greeks and Romans they were called Galatois, meaning “barbarians” and became known as Gauls and Galatians.

By the time that Paul began traveling in the south of Galatia the peoples descended from those ancient Celtic warriors had intermarried with the descendants of the great Hittite Empire for generations. Their descendants intermarried with the peoples brought and left behind by Alexander the Great and his successors. And it was to some of their descendants that Paul penned these famous words: [drash – you who the barbarous Romans called barbarians, someone else baptized you, Word for the saints, but you chose to put on Christ; it is a done deal; what it says, what it means; ethnic differences; class differences; gender differences]

Galatians 3:26 All of you indeed are children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Judean nor Greek (that is neither Jew nor Gentile), there is neither slave nor free, there is not male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Episcopae

Women Bishops in the Anglican Communion

These words have become something of a bumper sticker in the church for unity. But unity is much more than a slogan or even a beloved bible verse. The context which occasioned the writing of these words, the notion that the Galatians were so barbarian that they didn’t even count as Greeks meant that they heard Paul saying it doesn’t matter if the world counts you out – and the Greeks were the world, God counts you in. It doesn’t matter if the greatest empire known to the world, the Romans who conquered and inherited the Greek empire, the height of culture and class thinks you are not worthy to be part of their republic, their empire.

You know how the Galatians felt. Perhaps they were told people like you don’t belong here. You don’ t get a say in how we run this joint. You don’t have the right to vote. You aren’t intelligent enough to vote. We can’t have one of you in the White House. We can’t have the White House turned into the Black House. Your people are barbarians and savages. We only let you into this here church so that we could civilize you but you are not equal to us; you are not one of us and you never will be. I’m not saying that the Galatians were the black folk of the Bible because they were actually whiter than the black, brown and beige folk who made up most of the other biblical folk, but they were on the margins of the Jewish Christianity represented by Paul.

It wasn’t an issue of race as Americans have come to think about race. It wasn’t about skin color or hair texture or the shape of nose and lips, thighs or hips. There was plenty of bias in the ancient world around ethnic identity, national identity, religion and culture without the concept of race which was invented to facilitate the North African slave trade. In the bible, it was more about who your mama was and where she came from than what she looked like. And that was just on the Roman side that inherited and magnified the old Greek prejudices. I haven’t even gotten to the Judean or Jewish side with the deep suspicion of and hostility towards Gentiles. Some Judean Christians – the word Yudaoi doesn’t always mean “Jew” in opposition to “Christian” – some Jewish Christians believed that Gentiles who wanted to follow Jesus would have to make a full conversion to Judaism first and then they could receive the Jewish Messiah.

A council of elders met in Jerusalem to decide this matter and determined that there were certain ethical obligations that fell on Gentiles but they, we, didn’t have to convert. In Acts 15 the elders of Jerusalem decided that Gentiles who seek to follow Jesus must also follow a greatly abridged and reduced Torah including keeping a small part of the kosher laws. We must abstain from the pollutions of idols. This mostly referred to eating meat that had been sacrificed to other gods but Paul would reject that eventually because there were some people who were so poor that that was the only meat they could afford so that commandment would eventually be waived. The next command was to avoid illicit sexual activity. Most you know the word translated as “fornication,” but pornea is a more complicated term that has to do with unsanctioned sexual activity. The question of what is sanctioned and what is unsanctioned sexual activity is a question for another day. I know I’m in a COGIC house, so suffice it to say that the traditional understanding of sexual purity and holiness in this and other Pentecostal churches won’t get you into any trouble. It’s alright to live holy as big mama taught holiness. There is much more sexual activity that is permissible under a biblical understanding that most of us are comfortable with, but I’m in a COGIC house and that is a sermon for another day.

The elders of Jerusalem also prescribed a modified form of keeping kosher for Gentile converts. In addition to avoiding meat that was sacrificed to idols, they were to avoid meat that was strangled and not slaughtered according to kosher law, including meat that hadn’t had the blood drained out of it properly. And yet here is Paul in his epistle to the Galatians saying it doesn’t matter if you’re a Jew or a Gentile, it doesn’t matter if you’re a Greek or a barbarian. You don’t have to keep the Jewish Torah and then Paul breaks faith with the elders of Jerusalem and says that Gentile converts don’t even have to keep the modified Torah that the elders approved. For you and I are one in Christ no matter who our people are or where we came from. When writing to the church at Ephesus in lands through which the Celtic Galatians passed and some surely settled in ancient days, also now in Turkey Paul writes:

Ephesians 2:14 For Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups, Jews and Gentiles, into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.

Paul spends most of his apostolic career tearing down walls between Jews and Gentiles. Surely Paul is preaching unity this morning, unity between different ethnic groups. We need to hear Paul today. Our nation needs to hear that we are one people. In the Christian community our oneness comes from Christ. So those who claim to claim the name of Christ need to claim another name if they’re going to keep hating on our President and First Lady. Because we are one in Christ. In fact whether you are Christian or not we are one flesh with all humanity. We are one and we need to act like it.

And Paul says more: there is neither male nor female in Christ Jesus. Now this is really something, because women were often second-class citizens in much of the ancient world and in biblical Israel. And at the same time, there were women with power and authority like the prophets Miriam and Deborah and Isaiah’s Baby Mama and Huldah and Noadiah and those whose names we do not know. There were queens in Israel like Bathsheba, Zeruah and Jezebel and Queen-Mothers in Judah like Naamah, Micaiah, Maacah, Azubah, Athaliah, Zibiah, Jehoaddin, Yecoliah, Jerushah, Avi/Aviyah, Hephzibah, Meshullemeth, Yedidah, Hammutal, Zevidah and Nehushta who ruled with and without husbands and sons. And if you don’t know those women prophets and queens it is perhaps because the gender bias of the bible has been multiplied in the church and we don’t study women in the scriptures the way we study men even when the bible remembers to tell us their names. And only 8% of the names the bible tells us are the names of women.

Gender bias didn’t end in the bible. Folk have been using iron age theology suppress, repress and oppress women and girls from the moment Adam blamed Eve to the disciples asking Jesus why are you wasting your time and our time talking to women, to Paul himself saying neither male nor female out of one side of his mouth but men are supposed to be the head out of the other. I haven’t forgotten that one of the great questions of our time was whether women – and they meant white women – should be given the vote before or after coloreds – and they meant colored men. For many the issue was clear neither women nor colored folk should be able to vote in this country, and forget about black women. There are still little girls being told, you can’t do that, you can’t play football, you can’t be a Supreme Court Justice, you can’t be President, you can’t be a priest, you can’t be a bishop in the Church of God in Christ or in the Church of England. You can’t run this shop, you can’t be the boss of men, you can’t be an astronaut or Army officer, you can’t make more money than your honey.

You’re just a girl and you’re not the same as a boy, God made you different, you know, separate but equal. You woulda thought black folk had learned already that separate is not equal. We’ve got politicians and corporate raiders talking about I don’t have to pay women as much as men if I don’t want to. I don’t have to provide them health insurance if I don’t want to. I can use my power to keep them out of the workforce, out of college at home and pregnant, even raped and pregnant. Because for them women are not people, not the image of God and not the same as them, not one in Christ as Paul says here.

Paul is teaching there is no longer male nor female in Christ Jesus. And if this is true then this changes a whole lot in Scripture: then there are no women’s roles and men’s roles in the home, in the world or in the church. And if there are really no genders or no difference in gender then why does it matter so much to some folk who can marry who. I know I’m in a COGIC house, so I’m not going to go any further with that but Paul raises the question for us.

And Paul also falls short of his own preaching. Paul does not work as hard for unity between women and men as he does for unity between Jews and Gentiles. Paul preaches tradition and superstition, he talks about women covering their heads; he admits he doesn’t have a word from God on that but he tells them to do it anyway. But more than that this is a piece of a divine revelation of Paul seems not to like. He doesn’t spend much time preaching on it; he doesn’t spend much time teaching on it and he regresses and allows the church to regress without prophetic critique. Paul had a little trouble with the Jewish/Gentile thing: he told Timothy that he had to be circumcised as a grown man in spite of this revelation that God gave him. Unity is a hard thing, it’s an expensive thing, it will cost you standing, privilege and position if you are on the inside or if you are on top. Paul had a hard time relinquishing power and control, sharing that with other folk, especially women. But he gave it the old college try in Romans 16. You ought to read that and see how many women Paul worked with, along side of, celebrated, shouted out, women with whom he was working as fellow laborers and co-laborers, even sisters he recognized as apostles including a woman named Junia who was chief among the apostles in his book. But he couldn’t stay there. He lost sight of the unity God called him to proclaim.

There was a third category of unity in this revolutionary epistle: slave and free. Paul also had a hard time with this one. He had never known a world without slavery and truth be told he couldn’t imagine a world without slavery. Paul sounded a lot like the white slaveholders of this country, believing that freedom was all in your head or in the world to come but not necessarily for your body in this world. He wished the saints wouldn’t hold slaves but he would not use his apostolic authority to forbid buying and selling and holding of human beings in bondage. In fact when one of the Christian brothers ran away from another Christian bother holding him in slavery Paul sent him back into slavery saying he hoped he would be free one day but Paul couldn’t see his way clear to insist on his freedom in the Gospel. Paul did not proclaim this word of unity to Onesimus and Philemon; that there is neither slave nor free in Christ Jesus.

Paul has hit all of the major categories that still divide us in our times. Ethnic identity which we now experience as racial and cultural identity, speaking to bias against black folk and Hispanic folk and Arab and folk – we are one in Christ Jesus, gender identity which includes lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex identities, bodies and a variety of gender performances – there is more than one way to be a man and more than one way to be a woman and we are one in Christ Jesus. And Paul spoke of the major class division in his day: slavery. We still have slavery in many parts of the world. Sex trafficking of women and girls and boys and sometimes men is modern-day slavery and pervades the United States in the prostitution industry. Some of our favorite corporations like Nike and Apple and Martha Stewart use and have used slave labor at their factories around the world. But the class divide in our time is not limited to sex trafficking or other forms of slavery. The divisions between the haves and have-nots, the 99% and the 1% and let’s not forget about the 47% – those class distinctions divide the country and cost one man the election.

Yet there is unity in Christ. Or at least there should be. The fact that Paul was writing this letter is a testament to how things really were. And if we tell the truth, and we ought always tell the truth – at least in church – then Paul knew perfectly well that the church was not unified. At best we are unity in diversity. Even a casual reading of Paul’s epistles and those who wrote later in his name illustrate that there were some folk trying to reform the church, trying to unify it while some were trying to go back to the old ways men with power and women without, Christians holding slaves and instead of Jews and Gentiles it became Christians were somehow better than heathens. Yet then as now there was diversity of practice, diversity of belief, diversity of interpretation. I for one don’t believe that is a bad thing. I don’t believe that unity requires uniformity.

Take a look at any choir that wears a uniform, whether robes or classic black and white. Their robes may be identical; they may have sprung for identical button-down white shirts and identical pants and/or skirts. But that choir is still made up of individuals with different facial features, skin tones and hair-styles. Even the world-famous Rockettes are not uniform. Before they started hiring black, brown and beige dancers, they had blondes, brunettes and redheads, and even when they were wearing identical wigs or Santa hats they were not identical, yet they move as one. I don’t know much about music but I know what makes a choir work is that they don’t all sing the same notes the same way. There is harmony and melody. Even when they are singing in unison there are treble voices and bass voices; there is diversity in their unity.

So there should always be ethnic diversity in a healthy church because God’s house is to be a house of prayer for all peoples. And there will be gender diversity in church but not just in the pews – at every level of power. And there should be class diversity in church, folk at every level of income. Maybe one day those differences will no longer matter as Paul wrote, but that day is not today. Because those at the top of the power curve have benefitted for so long from holding other folk back it is not necessarily just to try to erase everyone’s identity without reforming the systems that privilege some folk more than others.

I believe that God gave Paul these words for the church. And I believe that they were too hard for Paul to live up to and into. Paul worked hard to get it right on Jews and Gentiles. But he didn’t get it right with women. And he didn’t get it right on slavery. Paul tells us how church should be – there should be no distinctions and there should be no divisions. And Paul also tells us how it really is, it’s hard to erase distinctions and it’s doubly hard to do so when your distinction holds the power. That works the other way too: When someone who doesn’t look like you uses their power to keep you down, to keep your people down, to hold your children back, to suppress your vote, to count you out, it’s hard to see them as the image of God, let alone part of the body of Christ.

On this your Unity Day, the day on which you celebrate the ministries of women and men together, let me suggest to you that you can have unity without uniformity. Just like that beautiful choir. You can make beautiful music together without all looking the same or sounding the same. There is unity in diversity. The Psalmist takes it farther than Paul can go. She – and why do some folk imagine all the Psalmists were male when 1 Chronicles 25:5-6 says: God had given Heman fourteen sons and three daughters. 6 They were all under the direction of their father for the music in the house of the Lord… The Psalmist has a vision of unity that I’d like to leave you with. One day all of nature will be united in praise of God:

Psalm 148:7 Praise the Holy One of Old from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps:

8 fire and hail, snow and frost, storm wind executing God’s command;

9 the mountains and every one of the hills, trees with fruit and those of cedar;

10 animals wild and tame, creeping ones and flying birds;

11 rulers of the earth and all peoples, princes and all judges of the earth;

12 young men and women alike, old and young together.

13 Praise the name of the Holy One of Sinai, for God’s Name alone is exalted;

God’s splendor covers earth and heaven.

14 God has raised up a horn for God’s people, praise for all God’s faithful,

for the sons-and-daughters of Israel, the people who are close to God.

Praise the God-Whose-Name-is-Holy!

             Whoever your people are, whatever your gender is, whatever your financial situation, you are God’s child and Christ has redeemed you. And there is nothing anyone can say, nothing anyone can do to count you out when God has counted you in. You are God’s. Amen.

25 November 2012

Sanctuary Church of God in Christ, Mt. Airy, Philadelphia PA

 

 

 


Wil’s Words of Wisdom for the Womanists Catching Up to Me: You Betta Werk!

AAR/SBL Womanist In-Gathering 2012: Rituals of Wisdom and Healing

American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, Chicago, IL

 Two Faces of RuPaul

I’ve learned a lot about being a woman and being a womanist from drag queens. So I’m going to share with you: Wil’s Words of Wisdom for the Womanists Catching Up to Me: You Betta Werk! (adapted from RuPaul’s Guide to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Style, HarperCollins, 2010), an exegesis of Ru-isms/Truisms and drag as a template for womanist gender construction and performance in scholarly vocation.

I first became impressed by RuPaul’s intentional constructions and performances of gender on season one of her reality competition show, RuPaul’s Drag Race; during one episode she said, “Wearing drag in a male-dominated society is an act of treason.” Drag, and particularly RuPal’s incarnation of it, construct and celebrate womanish gender performances that I experience as womanist, although we may not all see them the same way. However it is there that I’d like to start, with the many ways in which we all construct our varied performances of gender. However it is that you are a woman, however it is that you express and perform that gender publically and privately, however it is that you relate to womanism and feminism, these words are for you, especially if you are coming up in this womanist scholarly enterprise. Today, I will be exegeting a number of Ru-isms that I find to be truisms.

Ru-ism: Learn your craft and know thyself. (p 13)

This Ru-ism focuses on the ways in which we construct ourselves from the inside out. Many black women professionals, scholars, authors and graduate students suffer from imposter syndrome. Whether we have had nurturing parenting or not, affirming mentors or not, achieved at and beyond expectations every single time or not, we live in a world that pathologizes our very existence and begins with our black women’s bodies. So learn your craft. And know that you know it. And know that learning is not a static accomplishment. To know your craft you have to keep learning your craft, keep crafting your craft. Know yourself in relationship to your craft, and apart from it. You are not your hair. Neither are you your dissertation, book proposal, acceptance or rejection letter, tenure portfolio, promotion package, cover letter, title, letterhead, bio or abstract. Know who you are beyond your vocation even and especially when you have a spiritual and/or religious understanding of your calling.

Know your drag. Know how you construct and perform your public werk. Understand how your drag is perceived and experienced in your context. Be intentional about your drag whether is it Carol Duncan “always bet on black” fierceness, Tracy Hucks “Yoruba-divine Africana” fierceness or Wil Mickey Finning Gafney “gladiatrix in a suit – Olivia Pope ain’t got nothing on this” hotness with a l’il international flair. And if there’s a part of your body, face, hair, thighs, lips, nose, eyes or smile that you have been taught to despise then do as Pandora Boxx says and put some glitter on it! Love it and yourself fiercely.

Ru-ism: There is freedom outside the box. There is truth outside the box. And it was outside the box that I began to truly understand and develop my own sense of style. (p ix)

Carve out a niche for yourself in relationship to your discipline and peers. Find your space, place, voice and vision. The boundaries around our respective disciplines are becoming more and more porous. Some of us straddle multiple disciplines while others of us weave them together into new constructs that frighten and confuse those who thought they were the object and objective markers of objective truth. Give yourself permission to do what has never been done, write what has not been written, say what has not yet been spoken. The world doesn’t need you to mimic your peers or mentors or even the great womanist and feminist ancestors and icons that inspire us.

In order to find truth – and beauty – outside the box you have to get out of the box. Get out of your office, get off your campus, get out of your house, or alternatively go to your home space, get into your garden, go to the gym, go jump in a lake, take a hike, have a day at the beach, dance in the rain, enjoy a tequila sunrise and sleep it off. Nurture who you are outside that box and figure out how she is connected to who you are in your vocational framework – I won’t call it a box this time – so that you are a full and complete well integrated person.

I want to riff on Ru and say, “but don’t throw out the box.” Don’t throw out everything that everyone has done before you. Relate your new hotness to the tried and true and even the tired and trifling. Even if you are light years ahead of your colleagues, you are all in the same time stream and you share that universe with students and staff, administrators and alumni, funders and fundraisers, governing boards and a general public and sometimes congregations and communions who all have a stake in what you do and how you do it. You are accountable to many publics and they want to see that box. Some of them want to see you in it. Use your box as a teaching tool and stepping stone. But don’t let them pack you in it with the peanuts.

Ru-ism: All the colors of the rainbow are there for you to use… You must learn the rules first before you throw them out, and then by all means throw them out. (p xiv)

Learn the rules. Follow the rules. And when necessary, change the rules using the rules. Learn your faculty handbook. And learn the HR handbook that applies to all employees too. Learn your promotion and retention requirements. Learn your tenure requirements. Learn your benefits package. Learn your tax obligations – especially if you’re clergy, get a housing allowance, file as self-employed and/or get a lot extra checks that add up to a new tax bracket at the end of the year.

Learn the letter of the law, and the spirit. Learn how things really work in your department and institution in spite of what the rules say. Understand that they will apply both the written law and codified oral tradition to you, often combining the most injurious pieces of both – when they’re not just making –ish up.

Learn the rainbow warriors and watercolor muddlers. Figure out who is working for diversity of thought and bodily representation in your community. Figure out who wants just enough earth tones to make the brochures look pretty. Figure out who thinks melanin and everyone colored by it are a stain on the image and legacy of the institution. Learn how to navigate the written rules and the unspoken ones. And each time you survive a snare, expose that trap for those who follow behind you, and use the rules to change the rules to make that place more just for whoever is traveling behind you. Throw shade when you need to – and you will need to – but don’t be shady.

Ru-ism: I focus on projects that get me excited. (p 169)

Werk! Do the work. Do the work you love. Teach the texts and theories you love. Write the books you want to read, write the books that you wish someone had written for you. Work smart and work hard. If you’re in grad school, as much as possible make every paper in every class connect directly with your dissertation. Let your book reviews and conference papers emerge from your work or advance it. Use your research in your teaching. Be strategic about accepting invitations to publish. Rewrite, reuse and recycle. Reuse your own work; quote yourself. Don’t keep reinventing the wheel. Enjoy yourself. And if you’re not having fun, you’re not doing it right. There has got to be some joy in this thing, because there’s not enough money to make anybody happy. Do what it takes to maintain your joy and don’t let anyone take it away form you.

Ru-ism: Rise up and be fearless! (p 4)

You are not alone. There are mothers and mentors, sisters and far-seers, healers and huggers, listeners and lovers, cousins and counselors in this community, and bound to this community in love and affinity.

Finally let me tell you about my fierce drag, that it might be a mirror to you as you construct your own:

  •  I go to church every Sunday that I’m able. And when I’m not able; I don’t go. And I don’t sweat it.
  •  I celebrate the feminine divine in and around me. I designed my own vestments, incorporative the Divine Mother and Mother of God as the Blessed Virgin Mary and Tree of Life, עץ חיים היא, She is a Tree of Life (Proverbs 3:18).
  •  I plan to go to the gym 3-4 days a week and give myself full credit if I make it two. I don’t let it be none if I can help it.
  •  I have a good massage therapist.
  •  I go to the spa and to the beach and to the spa at the beach.
  •  I pamper my skin and beat my mug. Right now I’m on a Lush Cosmetics tip. I also worship at the altars of Nordstrom, Bobbi Brown, Sephora, Make-Up Forever, Smashbox and NARS.
  •  I believe in real jewelry, precious and semi-precious stones. I don’t put plastic in my hair.
  •  I rock heels as high as I can on my size 4’s except when I’m feeling low-down.
  •  I might have two or three Coach bags and accessories at any given time.
  •  I cluster my classes and teach longer days so that I can devote at least two days a week to writing. On my writing days I write in 1-2 2-4 hour blocks and if all I produce is 250 words that’s enough. If I can’t write, I rewrite, edit or research, but one of those two days will give birth to words even if I have to take them back later.
  •  I say no to my beloved colleagues when the projects they invite me to don’t fit my writing agenda or I have multiple contracts already. I can do that be cause I have already written with and for many of them and I have made space for them to write with and for me.
  •  And while I didn’t know it until I started watching Scandal, I am a gladiator in a suit. I always start the semester in a vicious suit and heels, so that when I decide to relax my look, I have already marked my territory and demonstrated my cultural and topical mastery.

 

Taking my own advice, I will share some of what I presented in 2008 when asked to present on “Surviving and Thriving in the Biblical Academy.” These are my Ten Commandments:

  • Thou shalt not allow anyone to divide thy person into the sum of its parts – ethnic, gender, orientation, religious affiliation or lack thereof.
  • Thou shalt not place collegiality or institutional loyalty above thine own career.
  • Thou shalt develop mentoring relationships with senior scholars on thy faculty.
  • Thou shalt develop trust-bearing relationships with scholars in and outside thy field of all ranks, genders and ethnicities outside of thy institution.
  • Thou shalt consult the elders before making stupid decisions because thou wilst not know that they are stupid until it is too late, but thine elders can see it coming.
  • Thou shalt manage thy time well and meet deadlines, developing strategies and/or schedules for when to write what.
  • Thou shalt pursue thine own research interests, while writing for projects requested by thy peers whether they interest you or not  – for one day thou wilst need those colleagues to write in thy projects, not to mention for thine retention, promotion and tenuring.
  • Thou shalt covet time with the one or ones thou lovest.
  • Thou shalt mentor junior scholars and graduate students.
  • Thou shalt observe a Sabbath – religious or not – a time of rest for thy body. Thou mayest attend the gymnasium or spa on thine Sabbath. Thou mayest travel on thine Sabbath to mountain bike, hike, snorkel or otherwise enjoy thy gift of thy flesh.

Ru-ism: May the fierce be with you! (p 23)

 


An Army of Preaching Women

My fellow sister US Army women chaplains in basic training at Ft. Jackson, SC in 1999.

Psalm 68:11 The Sovereign-Commander gives an order; the preaching women are a great army.

Isaiah 40:9

Woman, go up to a high mountain, you who proclaim good news to Zion.

Woman, raise your woman’s voice with power – proclaiming good news to Jerusalem.

Raise it woman, do not fear woman; woman, say to the cities of Judah,

“Here is your God!”

1 Chronicles 7:24 His daughter was Sheerah, who built both Lower and Upper Beth-horon, and Uzzen-sheerah.

“An Army of Preaching Women” a sermon delivered at the the William Harvey III Memorial Malawi Mission Portrait of Excellence Banquet, 20 October 2012. Click to listen to audio of the sermon An Army of Preaching Women Sermon (mp3).


St. Publia the Confessor: a Patrona for Public Theology

The young widow Publia became a deaconess in Antioch in the fourth century. She was commended for raising her son John later Bishop of Antioch, in the faith. She was sainted for her own confession and defense of the faith. She was a public theologian who used the scriptures of the First Testament to articulate her faith. She and her sisters are said to have recited all or some of Pss 113-115 and 68 when Julian the apostate Roman emperor came to her community. Most commentators point to the language against idolatry in Ps 115 as the reason for Publia’s proclamation. Yet I find in those Psalms some of the most interesting feminine and dare I say feminist language in the scriptures.

Psalm 113 opens and closes with Hallelu Yah, using the short form of the divine Name, Yah which is actually a feminine form grammatically. It is used in some contemporary Jewish prayers as an explicitly feminine articulation of God. Psalm 113 is also one of the few that may have been outhored in whole or in part by a woman. Verses 7-9 quote Hannah’s prayer from 1 Sam 1:7-8 and may have functioned liturgically as a prayer for infertility. The canonization of Hannah’s prayer extends into the New Testament where it is adapted by the Blessed Virgin Mary as the Magnificat in Luke 1, particularly verses 52-53. Those themes are repeated in Ps 68:7-8. Ps 68 also includes a line translated as “the company of preachers” in Handel’s Messiah. However the preachers in the text are all women. The Hebrew verb b-s-r, “to proclaim good news” becomes euangelizo, “to preach the gospel” in Greek. And, these gospel preaching women are a great “army.” Using the word that describes God’s heavenly armies, tzavaoth, the women preachers are not jus a numerous “host” but a well-organized military formation.

Some time after Julian’s 362 visit, Saint Publia died of natural causes, perhaps hastened by the beating she took. The Ecclesiastical History of Theodoretus records:

I will now include in my history the noble story of a right excellent woman, for even women, armed with divine zeal, despised the mad fury of Julian. In those days there was a woman named Publia, of high reputation, and illustrious for deeds of virtue. For a short time she wore the yoke of marriage, and had offered its most goodly fruit to God, for from this fair soil sprang John, who for a long time was chief presbyter at Antioch, and was often elected to the apostolic see, but from time to time declined the dignity. She maintained a company of virgins vowed to virginity for life, and spent her time in praising God who had made and saved her. One day the emperor was passing by, and as they esteemed the Destroyer an object of contempt and derision, they struck up all the louder music, chiefly chanting those psalms which mock the helplessness of idols, and saying in the words of David   “The idols of the nations are of silver and gold, the work of men’s hands,” and after describing their insensibility, they added “like them be they that make them and all those that trust in them.” Julian heard them, and was very angry, and told them to hold their peace while he was passing by. She did not however pay the least attention to his orders, but put still greater energy into their chant, and when the emperor passed by again told them to strike up “Let God arise and let his enemies be scattered.” On this Julian in wrath ordered the choir mistress to be brought before him; and, though he saw that respect was due to her old age, he neither compassionated her gray hairs, nor respected her high character, but told some of his escort to box both her ears, and by their violence to make her cheeks red. She however took the outrage for honour, and returned home, where, as was her wont, she kept up her attack upon him with her spiritual songs, just as the composer and teacher of the song laid the wicked spirit that vexed Saul. 

As we pray these psalms let us listen to their theology:

 

Convener: 

Psalm 113:1 Hallelu Yah!

Praise, you servants of the One God; praise the Name of the Living God.

Assembly:

2  May the Name of the Eternal God be blessed from this time on and forevermore. 

3  From the rising of the sun to its setting the Name of the Ageless God is to be praised. 

4  High above all nations is the Sovereign God, and above the heavens is God’s glory.

Women:  

5 Who is like the Saving One our God, the one enthroned on high? 

6  Looking far down on the heavens and the earth? 

7  God raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap, 

8  to seat them with nobles, with the nobles of God’s people. 

9  God sets the barren woman in a home, the joyous mother of children. Hallelu Yah!

Men:  

Psalm 114:1 When Israel went out from Egypt,

the house of Jacob from a people of strange speech, 

2  Judah became God’s sanctuary, Israel God’s dominion.  

3 The sea looked and fled; Jordan turned back. 

4  The mountains danced like rams, the hills like lambs.

5 Why sea, do you flee? Why Jordan, do you turn back? 

6  Why mountains do you dance like rams and hills, like lambs?

Assembly:

7 Tremble, earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob, 

8  who turns the rock into a pool of water, the flint into a spring of water.

Convener: 

Psalm 68:1  Let God rise up, let God’s enemies be scattered;

let those who hate God flee before God. 

Assembly:

2 Just as smoke is dispersed, so disperse them;

as wax melts before the fire, let the wicked perish before God. 

3 And let the righteous rejoice; let them exult in God’s presence; let them be jubilant with joy.

Women: 

4 Sing to God, sing praises to God’s Name;

lift up a song to God who rides upon the clouds—

God’s Name is Too-Holy-to-be-Uttered—

Exult in God’s presence.

5 Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in God’s holy habitation. 

6  God provides a home for the lonely; God leads out the prisoners to prosperity.

But – ah! – the rebellious, they dwell in a parched land.

Men:  

7 God, when you went out before your people, when you marched through the wilderness  ~ Selah ~

8  the earth quaked, indeed the heavens poured down rain at the presence of God, 

the God of this Sinai, at the presence of God, the God of Israel. 

9  You showered abundant rain God; when your inheritance languished you sustained it. 

10  Your creatures dwell in it; in your goodness you provided for the needy God. 

Convener:  

11 The commander gives an order; the preaching women are a great army.  

 

Let us pray:

Holy One of Old, you called your daughter Publia to the vocational life of a public theologian. Grant that we who remember her here today may find as she found, in the words of scripture words of proclamation, resistance, life and transformation. And may our readings of scripture empower those who follow. Amen.


Drag Queens and Did Jesus Just Call that Woman a B—-?

RuOaul

(Listen to or download the sermon as recorded in chapel – mp3 format)

[Dons feather boa.] I love drag queens. I love the way they make me think about gender, its construction and its performance. Drag queens like RuPaul, Sharon Needles and Latrice Royale are some of my favorite critical gender theorists and theologians. Now drag queens are not female impersonators; for the most part they don’t want to be women. They can be gay men and there are straight men who drag it out. There are women who perform as drag kings. Drag performers are folk who have chosen to express themselves and (hopefully) make a living by publically performing another gender. While all gender performances including those of us here today who are not professional gender performers, choose some elements of gender presentation over others to represent publicly, drag performers tend to center their performance in the stereotypical: voluminous hair, curvy bodies, sequined eveningwear, feathers and eyelashes that would shame a giraffe.

While there are a few petite queens – Ongina boasted of being a size 4 – many queens are well over 6 feet without their 5-inch platform heels and some are so full-figured that they could play professional football. One of my favorite queens, Latrice Royale is famous for what she calls her “curves and swerves,” for being “chunky yet funky.” Drag queens have also been subject to public censure, ridicule, harassment and violence. RuPaul, the reigning Queen of Queens is famous for saying “wearing drag in a male dominated society is an act of treason.” Ru knows that choosing any kind of female gender performance by intentionally surrendering and/or sabotaging male privilege is an act of treason – or resistance – against the androcentrism is this planet’s original sin, pervading the scriptures and on display in the Gospel, on the lips of Jesus, no less.

You don’t have to be a drag queen to feel the wrath of some sections society – church and society even – for your gender performance and presentation: If you are a man who is deemed not to be appropriately masculine whether because you’re gay, bisexual, transgendered, or heterosexual and in some way non-compliant – you knit or love babies, puppies, kittens, manicures and mascara, and think women are your equal… If you are a woman who is deemed not to be appropriately feminine whether because you’re lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, or heterosexual and in some way non-compliant – you earn more than some men, coach sports, wear your hair short and spikey, hate make up or love trucks and wrenches, think men are your equal… Or because you’re a man, woman or child who has been raped or sexually abused and no longer fit in the hierarchy in the same way. In this rigid gender binary masculinity and femininity are immutable and fixed characteristics of immutable and fixed genders and those genders are not equal. The gender binary serves to keep women and feminine folk in their place and has little patience for folk who occupy an unanticipated, unscripted place in the hierarchy.

Like other marginalized members of society, drag queens have taken the hateful language spewed at them and transformed it into community and self-affirmation, like the Syrophoenician woman in the Gospel. Latrice Royale has taken one of the more hateful epithets thrown at all kinds of women and folks who perform as women and redefined it: Being In Total Control of Herself. The b-word in case you didn’t catch it, a female dog.

In a gospel that does not sound like good news to me, Jesus said to a woman kneeling at his feet begging for help for her child, “Let the children be filled first, for it is not good to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Did Jesus just call that woman a b—-? I know this is Jesus and we’ve been trained to read him and hear him religiously, more than religiously, divinely, incarnationally. But where I come from you cannot call a child a dog without calling her mama a dog and you cannot call a woman a dog without calling her a b—-.

In my best Queen Latifah – I want to ask Jesus, “Who you calling a b—-?” (I know some of you don’t know that song, U.N.I.T.Y., it’s from the previous century.) In our supposed-to-be-good-news Gospel lesson Jesus calls a woman like me, a non-Jewish woman, a b—. There is no honest way around it. Jesus was not talking about a pet dog. Yes, he or the evangelist used the term kunarion, which sometimes meant a smaller dog like those kept indoors in other cultures; but the Israelites did not keep pet dogs. Dogs were filthy animals to the Israelites, something like a cross between a hyena and a rat, often paired with pigs in the literature of the wider Ancient Near East, all of them scavengers. “Dog” was also the code word for a man who sold sex to other men – voluntarily surrendering his proper place in the gender hierarchy. Dr. Mounce’s dictionary makes the point that a kunarion is a worthless specimen of a dog, reminding me of the way some folk who love big dogs think about little yapping dogs – that they’re not even worthy of the title “dog.”

When Jesus talks about throwing food to dogs, he is not talking about feeding family pets. He’s talking about taking your good food that you have prepared for your family off the table, walking it outside and throwing it in the gutter – Greek students note the ballistic verb in the text – so that the scavengers that are rooting through the garbage and maybe even eating the corpses of other dead animals can dine on what you prepared for your children. And the children in the analogy are the Israelites, the Syrophonecian, Canaanite, Gentile woman and her daughter are not even human in his metaphor.

The woman’s response, emerging from her context – after all Jesus is in her country, at the beach, blissfully outside of Herod’s jurisdiction – she reframes Jesus’ words and changes that context. She does that. In her words, not those of Jesus, dogs are if not pets, at least not scavengers; they eat under the table. Now she has already humbled herself. She is now kneeling at the feet of a strange man. She is begging him for help. She probably knows that he is a Jew and what Jews thought of Gentiles. And while there is no reason to believe that androcentrism was any worse in ancient Israel than any other place in the Ancient Near East, she is dealing with a religious leader from a tradition that alternated between suspicion of and outright hostility towards women.

And taking the words that David Henson calls racist and sexist,” (in Jesus Was Not Color Blind on Patheos), and that Matt Skinner (on WorkingPreacher) calls “palpable rudeness” while being “caught with his compassion down,” she shows Jesus what it is to Be In Total Control of Herself. She doesn’t ask, “Who you calling a b—-?” But she does werk. She werks the Word. And because of what she said, what she did, not what she believes – this is werk without articulated faith, Jesus healed her daughter. In v 29 he is converted by her logos, “that saying” not “saying that” – rendered as a verb in the NRSV, but her word, her logos. She is the embodiment of the divine Word.

Now, many will say that Jesus didn’t really call her the b-word. He just made an analogy in which the healing she wanted was compared to food for those whom he intended to heal, who were children and she and her child were dogs. So she was only a b-word by analogy. And that’s not the same thing. Well, one day I was in the chapel of another seminary and a seminarian walked up to me and said to me “I grew up calling black folk n-words – and the seminarian actually said the word, to me in chapel, then asked – what word should I use to refer to black people now?” She used the n-word about people like me while talking to me, in the chapel. When I discussed this with a variety of folk I was surprised that some of my colleagues said, “She didn’t reallycall you the n-word, she just used it in a sentence while talking to you.” They were of the belief that was a distinction that mattered. To me, that was a distinction without a difference.

And that’s how I feel about this text, that the difference between comparing the woman and her daughter to dogs in an analogy and calling her and her daughter the b-word is a distinction without a difference. Now I understand that not everyone experiences this passage that way. And I’m not claiming that this is the only way to hear this Gospel. I’m sharing with you how I hear it because the principles of womanist preaching include affirming the dignity of black women as legitimate interpreters of the Scriptures whether or not our interpretations converge with those of the dominant culture, because our interpretations are God-breathed and revelatory, Gospel to more than folk who look and think like us.

It’s alright if you have your own way of understanding this text. But I ask you to proclaim this Gospel in such a way that it doesn’t take lightly how deeply entrenched gender bias is in the world of the Scriptures, the Scriptures themselves and our world, that you don’t dismiss the concerns of girls and women who feel marginalized by the Church and even by the Scriptures and that you don’t empower people who call women outside of our names.

The church has taught that Jesus was fully human and fully divine, taught and fought, killed and died over that notion and it’s implications. But most of us are not ready for Jesus who was quite that human. Who you calling a b—-? A fully human Jesus is a product of his culture. Perhaps he was influenced by his own scriptures, Sirach who shared the same Jesus says in 26:25: A headstrong woman is regarded as a dog, but one who has a sense of shame will fear the Lord. The Anchor Bible Commentary (Skehan and Di Lella) has, The unruly [woman] will be thought of as a bitch… Even Jesus is affected by the androcentrism and ethnocentrism that characterize his people and their time. As am I.

I’m a black woman living in an American context that alternately demonizes and exploits my womanhood. If the Gospel isn’t relevant to my context then it’s not Gospel, good news to me. And I stand with and in the place of all of those girls and women who are called the b-word by men and boys and other girls and women. Who hear the word on television and in the movies and in the music that is marketed to them, to us. I stand with the women and feminine-gender performing folk of various subcultures who use the word affectionately and with those who have redefined it for themselves.

And I’m standing up to Jesus, talking to and about women like me using language like that. Some of you maybe asking, where is the Jesus I know and love? Well, I think I caught a glimpse of him, in the midrashic space between their words. The listening, learning Jesus is the one I know and love. In this story, this nameless woman is also a Christ-figure. She is the one who humbles herself and will endure whatever is dished out to her in order to bring healing and new life. She is the rabbi, who teaches Jesus the value of all human life. She is the prophet who preaches the reign of God for all of God’s children. She is the one who transforms the narrowly ethnocentric Jesus into the savior of the whole world. Apparently even Jesus needed a little help. In becoming her student Jesus becomes our teacher.

As a colleague recently reminded me, this is a passage that will sort out your Christology. How human, how divine is your Jesus? Is he human enough to be bigoted and biased? Or does your preconceived notion of the divinity of Jesus mean that whatever he said was holy, therefore comparing a woman to a female dog isn’t really the same as calling her a b—–, or it’s alright as long as it’s Jesus. How divine is your Jesus? That Jesus listens and responds to the woman, is that an indication of humanity or divinity? Or is it both? I think the humanity and divinity of Jesus are all tangled up in this passage, sometimes thick and sometimes thin, neither distinguishable from the other, impossible to sort out.

In this troubling story, Jesus teaches me the value of listening, the value of hearing, and the value of being able to grow and change your mind. Perhaps Jesus is a process theologian. In either case he models divinity and humanity in a muddy, godly, morass. Jesus is God enough/human enough/man enough to change his mind. And that is Good News.

This Gospel is that God’s concern for the woman-born was manifested in God, Godself, becoming woman-born, for the redemption and liberation of all the woman-born from fear and from death itself. Jesus, the Son of Woman, came to seek out and save the lost and to give his life as a ransom for many. Amen.


Solomon’s Theology, Solomon’s Catechism

SolomonSolomon’s prayer tells us what he believes. Today I’d like to share with you Solomon’s Theology, Solomon’s Catechism.

1Kings 8:41 And, when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, when such a one comes from a faraway land because of your Name— 42 For they shall hear of your great Name, and your powerful hand and your outstretched arm—when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, 43 you, you shall hear in the heavens, your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls out to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your Name to be in awe of you, as your people Israel, and so that they may know that your Name has been invoked on this house that I have built.

The dedication of the temple is a moment without peer in Israelite history. They are at the peak of their power; the borders that David enforced have grown wider under Solomon. They are wealthier than they could have ever imagined. No longer thinking of going back to Egypt because now they’ve got their own. And Solomon built a temple that became known as one of the wonders of the ancient world. And he built himself a house that was many times larger than the house he built for his God but on this day, the dedication of the temple, all that was forgotten. 

As we pray in this house today we still face towards that house. That's why the high altar in many churches faces east. Muslims, Christians and Jews historically and traditionally face east when we pray. Some Christians are losing that tradition, only facing east when we are in a church that is built that way; some know nothing about that practice. I didn’t do it on purpose but my bed is set at true east so that when I kneel at the foot of my bed I am facing east when I pray. Even after the Temple was destroyed twice there was still something about that place, something special, something holy. Later on the Holy of Holies would be encompassed by the Dome of the Rock to make sure that place would remain a place of prayer. Its name in Arabic, Al Quds, means the Holy Place.

Thousands of years before Jesus prayed for us, Solomon prayed for us in that place. He was light-years ahead of his time. In a time when most folk wouldn’t marry outside of their tribe or clan – Solomon did, too much so – and perhaps as a result, Solomon had a vision of a God who was bigger than he was, bigger than his family, bigger than his nation, bigger than folk who thought they had a monopoly on God. Or perhaps, having so many people in his family from so many different places opened his eyes to God in the world beyond the world which he knew. Solomon believed in a God who was not his alone, a God who would be the God of people he would never meet. And so Solomon prayed for us alternately standing and kneeling with his arms outstretched towards the temple building.

The Israelite temple was more of a complex than a building. Most of the worship took place outside in the courtyard. Solomon was outside the temple building when he prayed. Only the priests and Levites could go into the temple building, and then only by turns as they exercised their duties. There was the small altar of incense to tend inside, lamps to keep lit on the great menorah lampstand and the tables of bread before the Holy of Holies to maintain. The great altar was outside, as large as the chancel area. The priests actually walked on the altar which was a large platform; it was big enough that that an entire bull could be burned on it while the priests stoked the fire and added incense by the shovelful. Solomon prayed next to the altar and facing the temple, while inside the temple the throne of God had just been installed. The Ark of the Covenant, with its cherubim was the place where God would sit – as much as an invisible and formless God could be said to sit – and dwell in the midst of God’s people in the temple that Solomon built. Somehow, the great God of all would dwell in a building made by human hands. So Solomon prayed towards but not in the house, “Will God truly dwell on the earth? Look! The heavens and the heavens beyond the heavens cannot contain you, how much less this house that I have built!” Solomon is not ashamed to take credit for building the house; he reminds God of this every few moments.

And Solomon prayed, “Turn towards the prayer of your servant and his plea, Holy One my God, and hear the cry and the prayer that your servant prays to you today; that your eyes may be open night and day toward this house, the place of which you said ‘My Name shall be there,’ that you may hear the prayer that your servant prays toward this place. Hear the supplication of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place; may you hear in the heavens, your dwelling place; hear and forgive.

Solomon prayed for forgiveness. For himself. For his people. On general principle. Because we all need forgiveness. That is why we confess our sins corporately when we come together to worship. Solomon’s prayer is teaching today.

When Solomon prayed, the word “Jew” hadn’t been invented yet but in Israel’s perspective there was them and the rest of the world. They were “the people;” everyone else was “the nations,” goyim in Hebrew and ethnoi in Greek. That’s where we get the words “ethnic/ethnicity” and in a roundabout way “gentile.” Yet in this moment where Solomon can ask God for anything he wants, he famously asks God for wisdom and for God to hear the prayers of people from other lands. 

Solomon believes that people around the world will hear of the Name and fame of God – of course he meant across the surface of the earth, because Solomon believed it was a flat plane as did everyone of his day. It strikes me that Solomon doesn’t put any conditions on his prayer for outsiders. They don’t have to believe what he believes. He still asks God to hear their prayers, our prayers. Solomon’s prayer reveals his faith and if you will, his catechism.

I know we have a formal catechism in the Episcopal Church and in the Anglican Communion. But this morning I’d like you to think about Solomon’s catechism. First, he prays for foreigners, those who are not of the people Israel. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus made a sharp distinction between Jews and Gentiles. He was very clear that he came to save the lost sheep of the house of Israel. It was not until he was converted by a Canaanite woman seeking his healing touch for her daughter that he opened up his ministry to Jews and Gentiles alike. Later, he would go on to teach that everyone who does the will of his father in heaven is his sister and brother, father and mother, part of the family, part of the people Israel. Paul would teach that we who are faithful Gentiles are grafted into the tree of Israel. 

But Solomon prayed this prayer long before any of that theology had been worked out. He just believed in a God who was big enough to hear anybody no matter who they were. So let me ask you this morning, how big is your God? Is your God big enough to hear the prayers of people who don’t think like you, don’t talk like you, don’t even pray like you? Is your God big enough to hear the prayers of people who don’t vote like you, who don’t go to church like you, don’t look like you, don’t eat like you, don’t live and love like you? Solomon doesn’t say, “Hear their prayers Lord except for the Egyptians because you know they did us wrong.” (And not just because he was married to an Egyptian princess.) Is your God big enough to hear the prayers of your enemies?

Next, Solomon says, “When the foreigner, the outsider, comes to your house…” Are you prepared to let outsiders in the house? Are you prepared to give a royal welcome to whoever shows up, no matter what they look like or how they are dressed, pierced or tattooed? Notice that Solomon doesn’t say that they’ve been to new members class or learned basic church etiquette. Now Solomon is talking about people going to Israel, going to Jerusalem to the temple that he built. That temple is no longer standing but its Western Wall remains. And I encourage you at least once in your life to make that pilgrimage. It is a holy place. This is also a holy place. Where the people of God are gathered, there God’s Spirit is. And, God in Christ Jesus is present in a particular way through the sacrament of his body and blood. God is in this place. And we are the temple of the living God. Our bodies are the habitation of the Most High God. God dwells in all of these places and more. How are you treating your temple? How is your temple treating God’s other temples?

Solomon prays, “They shall come for they shall hear…” Are you telling the story? Do you have a story to tell? Are you telling the Good News? Do you know the Good News? Do you know anybody who doesn’t already know the story? Or are the only people you talk to people like you who already know what you believe? Solomon is so certain that people from everywhere will hear of God’s fame yet he never assembles a committee to go out knocking on doors, stopping people at bus stops, harassing or annoying people. He just believes the word will get out. 

Solomon prays that God who dwells in heaven will hear the prayer of the foreigner. Solomon knows that God is present in the temple that he has built but he also knows that God can’t be contained by four walls. He knows that God exists in a world beyond his world, in a place that he cannot see or enter. Yet God from the height of heaven, the heavens beyond the heavens, can hear the prayer of anyone on earth. Solomon is teaching theology today. He’s teaching ecclesiology, the nature of the church. And Solomon adds that God would answer the prayers of the foreigner; that God would do whatever the outsider asks God to do. It's hard to catch this if you're reading in English but in Hebrew Solomon doesn't ask God to grant the prayer of the foreigner; Solomon tells God that God will grant the prayer of the foreigner. Solomon believes that God will be gracious to aliens and outsiders because that’s the God he knows and the one in whom he has placed his trust. 

Solomon doesn’t put limits on God. He doesn’t ask for the prayers to be granted only if they’re in his best interest for the best interest of his people. He asks God to grant the prayers of outsiders so that people will know that his God is real and that the stories they have heard are true. Ultimately he wants people to fear God, to revere God, to be in awe of God’s Name. He wants to draw people from the four corners of the earth into relationship with his God. 

That is Solomon’s prayer. What is your prayer today?

In the Name of God, Sovereign, Savior and Shelter. Amen.

25 August 2012


Restoring Bathsheba

David and Bathsheba

Our first lesson says, “Solomon’s throne was firmly established…” And, “Solomon loved the Lord…” In so doing the text jumps from 1 Kings 2:12 to 1 Kings 3:3. There is a gap in the text. The story as we have it framed by the lectionary presents a smooth transition from David to Solomon. But it wasn’t that smooth. You may not be surprised, because if you’re like me, you know that life is not always smooth. And if you know anything about the biblical narrative, you know that life in the bible is most certainly, not always smooth. If you’ve been hearing David’s story preached this summer, you know that his life was not always smooth. The lectionary framers skipped something, cut something out. Don’t you want to know what it is? This morning I’m preaching the gap, “Bathsheba Restored.”

As David lay dying just before our lesson, with his professional and personal impotence on display, his sons began fighting over his throne. Even before David was in the ground one of his sons, Adonijah, began trying to claim some of what was his. Adonijah wanted David’s throne and his last woman, Abishag. She had been brought in as a bed warmer for David, to warm up his old bones. But he wasn’t the man he used to be. And he could do nothing with her. And when she got up from what became David’s deathbed, his son Adonijah began asking for her.

This didn’t sit well with everyone. Solomon and Bathsheba understood that by asking for a royal woman even if she had only been a royal woman for a very little time, Adonijah was making a claim on the throne. While he was David’s fourth son, he was now at the head of the line. His oldest brother, Amnon was executed by his third brother Abshalom who was in turn executed by their cousin Joab. (Forget the Borgias, David’s family put the “OG” in original gangstas.) The second brother probably died in infancy because the bible says nothing about him after his name. 

The king is dead! Long live the king! As David lay dying, folk began maneuvering, choosing sides. Who would be the new king? There were a lot of options because as quiet as it’s kept, David had a whole lot of children with a whole lot of women:

2Samuel 3:2 Sons were born to David at Hebron: his firstborn was Amnon, of Ahinoam of Jezreel; 3 his second, Chileab, of Abigail the widow of Nabal of Carmel; the third, Absalom son of Maacah, daughter of King Talmai of Geshur; 4 the fourth, Adonijah son of Haggith; the fifth, Shephatiah son of Abital; 5 and the sixth, Ithream, of David’s wife Eglah. These were born to David in Hebron.

But hold on! Chronicles continues chronicling David’s children:

1Chronicles 3:5 These were born to him in Jerusalem: Shimea, Shobab, Nathan, and Solomon, four by Bath-shua, daughter of Ammiel; 6 then Ibhar, Elishama, Eliphelet, 7 Nogah, Nepheg, Japhia, 8 Elishama, Eliada, and Eliphelet, nine. 9 All these were David’s children, besides the children of his secondary wives; and Tamar was their sister.

In case you missed it, Solomon was David’s tenth son out of nineteen. Adonijah was way ahead of Solomon in the line for the throne. But he didn’t count on Bathsheba. Today we’re talking about “Restoring Bathsheba.” Bathsheba had been so callously used by David. When he sent his men to take her she didn’t have the option of saying no. She was a stranger in a strange land, her husband was away fighting the king’s war and the king took her, used her, raped her and tried to discard her. But she became pregnant and David tried to get rid of her and the baby by setting them up to be claimed by her husband. And when that didn’t work, he got rid of her husband by murdering him. I guess she could be grateful that David didn’t just kill her too. I wonder if she had had a choice would she have chosen death over marrying her rapist. Perhaps some days the answer was yes.

That’s all that most people remember about Bathsheba, the worst day of her life, maybe the worst two or three days: the day she was raped, the day David killed her husband, the day she realized she would have to live with David as his wife. I don’t know how she did it. But it seems to me that she made up her mind to have the best life she could under the circumstances. I imagine that she said to David, “You are not going to shut me away like you did your first wife Michal. You stole the life I had with my husband in the sight of God, the man I love, the husband I chose to live with. You stole our future and you stole our children. I can’t get that back but I can have your children and the security that comes with them. I will be the mother of kings.”

I don’t know if she really said that, but that’s what I imagine her saying. I have to imagine something because she keeps living and sleeping with David, having his babies in spite of everything that he has done to her and her husband. She stayed in that marriage like so many women married to a monster with no place to go. Now don’t get it twisted, I’m not saying that women who are being abused or even raped by their husbands must stay with them. I am simply acknowledging that in her time she had no other choice, and that in our time many women feel like they have no choice either. She made the best she could out of the situation and God was with her.

God was with her in the form of Nathan. The one man who stood up to David. He had no way of knowing whether or not David would kill him, but he told David what he was doing wasn’t right and he told him in such a way that David pronounced judgment on himself. I believe that Nathan became a friend, advisor and perhaps a father figure to Bathsheba. She even named one of her children after him. And then there was the confusion as David lay dying, who would be king after him? Nathan and Bathsheba worked it out.

The king is dead! Long live the king! But who would be the new king? Adonijah is sure that he will be king. He had the support of David's chief enforcer, his nephew Joab, the man that killed one of David's sons and then told the king to stop crying because his grief was taking too long. The rest of the warriors didn’t back him; the priesthood was split. They didn’t have another candidate; they just knew that they didn’t want Adonijah. And yet, Adonijah throws a big party; he invited all of his brothers except for Solomon and he left Nathan off the list too.

David’s oldest surviving son, Adonijah, was making moves, claiming royal property, claiming David’s last woman. And Solomon is only tenth in line; even with the death of three of his older brothers he only moved up to sixth place. And Mama stepped in. I believe Bathsheba said “Baby, let Mamma handle that.” While the man who would be king was partying the night away, Nathan went to see Bathsheba. He said to her look, “If this boy becomes king he will kill you and your son. You and I are going to make sure that doesn’t happen. You and I are going to put your son on the throne. You’re going to go into his room and remind him that he promised to put Solomon on the throne.” Of course, there is no record of that promise in the Bible. Scholars are divided over whether or not David actually made that promise. Some of us think that Nathan and Bathsheba simply decided that Solomon should be king and used David's old age and failing memory against him. 

Bathsheba went in and asked the question while David was lying there with his latest pretty young thing curled up with him in the bed. She spoke to his pride saying, “Aren’t you still the king? Why is it that Adonijah can proclaim himself king while you’re still alive?” She closes by reminding him that Adonijah will surely kill her and Solomon and the rest of her children with David. She doesn’t have to say the rest out loud; she just looks him in the eyes and reminds him of everything he did to her and why she is even in his house. Then, just as they planned, Nathan walked in on cue and Bathsheba slipped out. “Did you say that Adonijah was supposed to be king? He has proclaimed himself king and is throwing a party – and he knew better than to invite me. And by the way, the people are saying long live the king!” David called for Bathsheba to come back in and said to her, “I promised you that I would make Solomon king and I am going to keep my word.” At that very moment, David proclaimed Solomon King. Then David died. The king is dead! Long live the king!

Our last verse before the break says, “Solomon’s throne was firmly established…” But there’s a gap in the text. In that gap in the text, in the space between the two pieces of text of assigned for us today, there’s a whole lot going on. Adonijah knew that the tide had turned against him; he tried to cut a deal with Bathsheba. He said, in the text between our texts, “You know the throne was mine, but I’m going to step aside for your boy because I’m sure that’s God’s will. I do want just one thing for my trouble, that girl.” Bathsheba said, “I will speak to the king about you.” What she meant was, “I’m going to see to it you get exactly what you deserve.” 

She knew that if he had a royal woman and got her pregnant he could claim the throne. And she knew that Solomon knew that too. She raised him well. She also knew that Solomon had to decide on his own what to do about Adonijah. So she asked for the girl for him. Solomon’s response did not disappoint her:

1 Kings 2:22 King Solomon answered his mother, “And why do you ask Abishag the Shunammite for Adonijah? Ask for him the kingdom as well! 23 Then King Solomon swore by the Holy God, “So may God do to me, and more also, for Adonijah has devised this scheme at the risk of his life! 24 Now therefore as the Holy God lives, who has established me and placed me on the throne of my father David, and who has made me a house as God promised, today Adonijah shall be put to death.” 25 So King Solomon sent Benaiah son of Jehoiada; he struck him down, and he died.  

The violence in this text and much of the bible is symptomatic of the barbarity of the times. God met folk where they were and they were in the Iron Age. Three thousand years later we haven’t learned that power to hurt and kill is not strength; it does not last and does not bring happiness. In this city plagued with murderous violence and sexual assault God is still trying to show the Davids of the world that they cannot do whatever they want just because they have power. There is seemingly no end to those who use their power against others. I wonder how many Nathans there are, willing to stand up and say that what you have done is wrong; you can’t do whatever you want to people.

After the death of Adonijah, the words of the text came true: “Solomon’s throne was firmly established…” And Bathsheba, the woman who had been stolen and raped and stolen again, who had married, lived with and lay down with the man who raped her – a man who collected women like dolls and set them aside when he was no longer interested in them – Bathsheba survived him. Bathsheba survived and thrived. Her agency, her ability to make decisions for herself, her life and her body was restored, in part because of Nathan’s friendship and in part because of Solomon.

In that scene in the throne room where Bathsheba is making sure that Adonijah will never threaten her son or his throne again, Solomon elevates his mother in 1 Kings 2:19: “The king rose to meet her, and bowed down to her; then he sat on his throne, and had a throne brought for the king’s mother, and she sat on his right.” He places her on a throne that he has set on his right hand side; from now on she will be the right hand woman in the kingdom. How different this is from her first encounter with an Israelite king! The physical postures are reversed; now she is elevated above him and it’s voluntary. And in the generations to follow in the monarchy of Judah the king’s mother, the Queen Mother will rule with her son. Bathsheba is no longer the broken woman David used to flex his power. God has transformed her brokenness, given her back her power and more power than she could ever imagine. God restored Bathsheba.

This is the point where poor preachers will say that there is a reason for everything and that everything happens for a reason and that everything happens for our good. I’m here to tell you that’s bad theology and bad preaching. God who can create anything out of no thing can transform any situation and restore any brokenness but God does not need us to be broken, devastated, raped or abused to elevate us. It’s true that Bathsheba would not have had Solomon if David had not kidnapped and raped her; it’s true that she would not have had this life. But we will never know what kind of life she and Uriah would have had. Perhaps, just perhaps, he would have risen up through the ranks of David’s army and when after David died one of David’s fool sons made a mess out of the kingdom, he could have stepped in and stepped up making Bathsheba the right-hand woman with out all that mess. 

It could happen. It did happen. That’s what happened with the general and his wife after Solomon died and one of his fool sons made a mess out of the kingdom. He became king in his place. Bathsheba made the best out of a bad situation. And God was with her. Our text says, “Solomon’s throne was firmly established…” And, “Solomon loved the Lord…” But that’s not the whole story. There’s a gap in the text. And God is in the gap, restoring Bathsheba.

May God the restorer of broken hearts, minds and bodies
Accompany you through the gaps and brokenness in your life
Nurture, sustain and transform you to change the world around you. Amen.

19 August 2012
Episcopal Church of St. Andrew & St. Monica
Philadelphia PA


Mourning the Temple of Our Ancestors: A Tisha B’Av Sermon

 

You've probably noticed that there's something different about our readings today. (See collect and lessons) Our propers commemorate the destruction of the Temple observed on Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the summer month of Av in the Jewish calendar. That day is today. Let us remember. 

The Israelite monarchy was a mess. A long time ago David brought the tribes together, including many that had nothing to do with the others – two even refused to cross the Jordan and settled instead on the other side of the Promised Land – with them David forged a nation that dreamed of being an empire. Later, Solomon expanded and undermined the nation. He weakened it with his taxes and spending; he sold off pieces of the Promised Land to pay his bills for the temple and for his own palace which was 10 times larger than the temple and, he forced people – his own and foreigners – into virtual slave labor for years at a time to serve on those building projects. It got so bad at one point that the man he sent to recruit new workers was stoned to death for returning to one village one too many times. And then, even though he released them, the workers went home to live in poverty because they weren’t able to tend their crops or raise their herds while they were working on his projects. 

After Solomon came Rehoboam but his son and heir was not even half the man he was. Most of the people of Israel refused to recognize him as king. They decided they would rather have one of Solomon’s servants, Jeroboam and went all the way to Egypt to bring him back from exile. Now there were two pieces of Israel: one led by folk who could trace their ancestry directly back to David and the other by a series of soldiers and bureaucrats and sometimes their children when they were able to pass the throne down from one generation to the next. And every once in a while, one of them was also able to claim authentic Davidic heritage. Israel and Judah were constantly under siege. The nations surrounding them were always nibbling at their borders, small nations who had once been governed by them and the mighty empires all looking to gobble up the two tiny nations. Even mighty Cleopatra would one day lay claim to part of Israel Land and she got it too; she and Herod fought over it so much that he tried to put a hit out on her but somebody talked him out of it.

But before that, the Assyrians came. They destroyed the northern monarchy. Nine and a half tribes of the twelve tribes of Israel were decimated and dispersed. All that was left was the tribe of Judah in the south with some Benjaminites, some Simeonites and whatever refugees made it in. The loss of the capital city Samaria was devastating. People in Judah struggled to make sense of it by saying that can’t happen here. That happened to them because they were sinners. But we, we live with God. God lives in our midst. They pointed to the temple. They recited the psalms that celebrate the presence of God in the midst of Jerusalem, that promise the protection of God, psalms that promise Jerusalem, Mount Zion where the temple is – was, will stand forever. 

The throne of David was also supposed to endure forever. But even we who understand that Jesus of Nazareth is the son of David must acknowledge that there was a time, a long time, centuries, when no one from the line of David sat on his throne, because when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the temple he also destroyed the monarchy. Israel ceased to exist as an independent, self-governing nation. It would be restored in the time of the Maccabees and the monarchy would return until the Romans destroyed the temple again and Israel would be re-established as a nation in our own modern history. 

But 587 years before the time of Mary and Jesus, the Babylonians defeated the Assyrians and set their sights on what was left of Israel, the monarchy of Judah. Nebuchadnezzar taxed the last king of Judah to the breaking point. And when he had had enough and rebelled then Nebuchadnezzar had the pretense that he was looking for; he moved his whole army across Mesopotamia and he savaged the nation of Judah. 

There are eyewitness accounts scattered throughout the Bible in Jeremiah, Obadiah and 2 Kings from our first lesson:

And in the ninth year of his reign, in the tenth month, on the tenth day of the month, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came with all his army against Jerusalem, and laid siege to it; they built siegeworks against it all around. So the city was besieged until the eleventh year of King Zedekiah. On the ninth day of the fourth month the famine became so severe in the city that there was no food for the people of the land. Then a breach was made in the city wall; the king with all the soldiers fled by night by the way of the gate between the two walls, by the king’s garden, though the Chaldeans were all around the city. They went in the direction of the Arabah. But the army of the Chaldeans pursued the king, and overtook him in the plains of Jericho; all his army was scattered, deserting him. Then they captured the king and brought him up to the king of Babylon at Riblah, who passed sentence on him. They slaughtered the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, then put out the eyes of Zedekiah; they bound him in fetters and took him to Babylon.

The destruction of the temple by Nebuchadnezzar was theologically incomprehensible. Nebuchadnezzar’s assault was as unimaginable as – not the events that we remember from September 11th, for the towers had been struck previously – but rather as unimaginable as the assault on Pearl Harbor, and, as incomprehensible as the bombs we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and as unfathomable as was Japan’s ultimate surrender to her own citizens. 

There was a time when no one could enter the most holy space in the temple except the high priest, and then only once a year. Tradition says that he wore bells so that people would know if he was able to survive in the presence of God and, that he had a rope around him so that if he dropped dead from proximity to the holiness of God, his mortal remains could be pulled out for burial. And yet, Nebuchadnezzar’s troops not only entered the most holy place, they butchered it with battle axes, hatchets and hammers, chopping it to bits, burning everything that would burn, melting down the gold and silver and bronze for the Babylonian treasury. And they took a few choice vessels, used to worship the God of Israel back to Babylon for their king as trophies. 

And there was not even a puff of smoke. There was no strike of holy lightening; no burst of fire from heaven, no hailstones, plagues of Egypt, no earthquake or sinkhole; the earth did not swallow them whole. Nothing happened. It was almost as if the temple was empty.

Listen to the psalm: 

4 Your foes have roared within your holy place;
they set up their emblems there. 
5 At the upper entrance they hacked
the wooden trellis with axes. 
6 And then, with hatchets and hammers,
they smashed all its carved work. 
7 They set your sanctuary on fire;
they desecrated the dwelling place of your name,
bringing it to the ground.
… they burned all the meeting places of God in the land.

It must have seemed like the stories passed down from generation to generation and the promises God made either never happened or were null and void. It may have seemed like the stories of Exodus were irrelevant fairy tales. Imagine, if you can, what it would have been like if the assault on and collapse of the Twin Towers was followed by an assault on and collapse of our government, defeat of our military and forced exile of our citizens: no homes, no jobs, no healthcare, parents separated from children, dead bodies heaped in the streets, everyone subject to robbery, rape – if not murder – on the way to incarceration in an over populated refugee camp with out any social services. 

And the Israelites wrestled with their devastation. They tried to make sense of it all. They thought that perhaps it was because they had sinned as had the rest of Israel. They thought that God allowed their destruction as punishment. But then they thought God could not have given permission to the Babylonians to do all of the things that they did to them. They cried out in the book of Lamentations that Jews all over the world will read today remembering and mourning:

1:10 Enemies have stretched out their hands
over all her precious things;
she has even seen the nations
invade her sanctuary,
those whom you forbade
to enter your congregation.
 11 All her people groan
as they search for bread;
they trade their treasures for food
to revive their strength…
2:11 My eyes are spent with weeping;
my stomach churns;
my bile is poured out on the ground
because of the destruction of my people,
because infants and babes faint
in the streets of the city…
20 …Should women eat their offspring,
the children they have given birth to?
Should priest and prophet be killed
in the sanctuary of the Lord?
  21 The young and the old are lying
on the ground in the streets;
my young women and my young men
have fallen by the sword;
in the day of your anger you have killed them,
slaughtering without mercy…
 4:3 Even the jackals offer the breast
and nurse their young,
but my people has become cruel,
like the ostriches in the wilderness.
  4 The tongue of the infant sticks
to the roof of her mouth for thirst;
the children beg for food,
but no one gives them anything…
10 The hands of compassionate women
have boiled their own children;
they became their food
in the destruction of my people…
 20 The Lord’s anointed, the breath of our life,
was taken in their pits—
the one of whom we said, “Under God’s shadow
we shall live among the nations.”
 5:11 Women are raped in Zion,
virgins in the towns of Judah. 
12 Princes are hung up by their hands;
no respect is shown to the elders…
20 Why have you forgotten us completely?
Why have you forsaken us these many days? 
21 Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored;
renew our days as of old—
22 unless you have utterly rejected us,
and are angry with us beyond measure.

Our lectionary doesn't commemorate the destruction of the temple which is a shame because the destruction of the temple, and its repeated destruction after the founding of the Church, shapes our very faith. The first destruction of the temple in 587 BCE gave birth to our scriptures and some of its most important theology, as people sought to explain what had happened, told one another the stories of their God and passed down the knowledge of who they were and who their God was to their children and their children’s children in exile in writing for the first time. They wrote the Scriptures. And as they wrote they recorded a theology of return and restoration. Exile would not have the last word. They believed that God would bring them back to their Promised Land in a Second Exodus. And they crafted a wholly new theology of God, a theology of divine accompaniment. They realized that God was not just rooted in the Holy Land. But that God was with God's people, wherever they were in the world. And if God's people were in exile, then God was in exile with God’s people. That’s good news for us today, and for people who suffer around the world and across time.

Everywhere God’s people are, God is: with Native persons herded onto reservations, Japanese American citizens interned in camps, South Africans banned to Bantustans, European Jews crowded into European ghettos, American Blacks crowded into inner city ghettos, political dissidents sentenced to gulags and reeducation camps, warzones and hospitals and mental hospitals and prisons. The theology that emerges from the exile in the Scriptures is that God is with the suffering people of the world wherever they are. This is an Immanuel theology.

When Israel return to their land the broken temple reminded them of the day that Nebuchadnezzar evicted them and their God from their home. Rebuilding the Temple became a national obsession. That’s what our gospel lesson is pointing to. How could Jesus say he would destroy the temple? It had taken them so long to rebuild it to make it as good as Solomon’s. Better even. They were never satisfied. That’s why Herod kept revising it, kept renovating it, kept adding to it. Of course Jesus was taking Immanuel theology to the next level. He was talking about the temple of his body. Paul took it further in the Epistle and wrote of the temple of all our bodies. That wherever we are, not only is God with us, God is within is.

While we rejoice that God is present with us and within us, we remember the temple today and we mourn its loss and the devastation caused by war in every age. We perpetuate the memory of the temple in our own services, in our prayers and even the configuration of our churches. We stand with our Jewish sisters and brothers and lament that human hands destroyed the house of God in an attempt to subdue their people. We remember the temple of our ancestors, we mourn its loss. We lament the violence that plagues our world. And we turn to God for comfort. God who dwells within and among us. Amen.


Scandalized By Jesus: Some Lessons for Vocation

Crucifixion

Is not this the carpenter, the son of Miriam called Mary and brother of Ya‘akov called James and Yosef called Joses and Yehudah called Judas and Shimon called Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they were scandalized by him.

Jesus is simply scandalous. More than notorious or shocking, eskandalizonto in Greek means to offend, to drive away, to force to stumble, to push into betraying or deserting, to cause to sin. Some people love Jesus, particularly what he does for them. And in the previous chapters in Mark he has done extraordinary things for ordinary people. But at the same time some are deeply troubled by Jesus, especially by what he says. It’s not easy being a biblical scholar in the public eye or a public theologian. Teaching and preaching the scriptures means taking unpopular positions with political implications, challenging cultural norms, systems of power and prestige and offending somebody sometime – or you’re not doing it right. It means being accused of all sorts of things, few of them true and it means that scandal of one sort or another is never far away – especially in the case of Jesus and those who follow him, imitate him – that’s what a disciple is, one who imitates a teacher with mathematical precision. And there is a price to pay for scandal: marginalization, and in the case of Jesus, abandonment, imprisonment, assault, execution.

The very humanity of Jesus was a scandal: The Gospels remind us continually that the Messiah was fully human: He was woman-born, his body experienced hunger and thirst and exhaustion and pain and death. Even his post-resurrection body was tangible and capable of digestion along with walking on water and through walls. 

The child conceived in holy mystery, whose tiny human heart beat underneath his mother’s heart emerged from his mother’s womb in blood and water as did we all. He was the Son of God, the Son of Woman and a Child of Earth: mortal, frail, embodied, human. To be human is to be carnal, fleshly. For millennia Christians have struggled with this dimension of Jesus’ nature. Some have done away with the human aspect of the Incarnation altogether, and have been properly condemned as heretics. Others turned to Greek philosophy to interpret Christianity and concluded that the body and all its functions are lower than the spirit and its possibilities. Sometimes this spirit/body dualism is expressed in terms of good and evil. But we are wholly God’s good, very good, creation. We are created in the image of God, not in spite of our bodies and their possibilities, but with our bodies and their possibilities. And God became one of us through Jesus.

The gospel writers almost seem to take his infancy and childhood for granted, they were presumably so normal – so human – that they scarcely rated comment. The notable exceptions were his conception, birth and teaching the elders as a child. But of his nursing and burping and diapers and teething and weaning and crawling and toddling there is not a word. Not because these things didn’t happen, but because they did as they did for all of us. He lost his baby teeth, his voice cracked and grew deeper; his Adam’s apple grew more prominent; he grew darker, thicker hair all over his body. And there were other changes. He was a teenage boy, he slept, he dreamed, he imagined, he was human. Dare I say he experimented? He was human. James Nelson in his classic treatise on theology and sexuality, Embodiment asks, “Is the notion of Jesus as a sexual person inherently blasphemous, or at least scandalous?” I say, if we say yes, the problem is with us, not with God’s design and implementation. Jesus was scandalous and people were scandalized by him, by his humanity.

Jesus was like us in his need for human intimacy because he was one of us. He loved, he hurt, he touched, he embraced, he kissed, he wept, he was lonely. He was frustrated when his family didn’t understand him. He was hurt when his dear ones betrayed him. And in his last hours, he didn’t want to be alone to face the coming storm and darkness. He needed human companionship. He cherished his friends and adored his mother.

In our gospel text, Jesus left the place where he healed a woman with a twelve-year vaginal hemorrhage or perhaps she healed herself with her own faith. And he left the place where he raised a girl on the cusp of womanhood from death to life as easily as waking a sleeping baby. He left that place and came to this place, without all of the miracles. This place, his hometown was most likely Capernaum on the shore of the same sea that he had just crossed to perform his most recent miracles rather than Nazareth farther away in the hill country. 

He came as biblical scholar and Torah teacher and gave the d’var Torah, (the word of Torah) in the synagogue on Shabbat because he was an observant Jew and did not see his ministry as something other than Judaism. His teaching was amazing, astounding, provoking his hearers to ask where did he study Torah? Who was his rabbi? How could this locust-eater from the desert, as Khalil Gibran would later say, teach like this? And it seems no matter how often folk exclaimed over his teaching, each time he taught; he surprised them all over again. I want to know, what did he teach this time? And why didn’t the gospel writers share his teaching with us this time?

And the people in the synagogue asked how can the same man be both a master teacher and a miracle-worker? Isn’t that just too much giftedness for one man? And because this was his hometown they knew him, they knew his people, they knew his mama. They knew the stories about his daddy – that he might not be his son and perhaps that’s why he didn’t stick around. Joseph disappears from the gospels during Jesus’ adolescence, those difficult teen years and the text does not say that he died. They knew his sisters and brothers by name (their Hebrew, Jewish, names, not the Greek names that have replaced them) and maddeningly to me – the gospel writers still to do not tell us the names of Jesus’ sisters, let alone how many of them there were. 

And perhaps, because they knew him, knew where he came from, knew that he was no different from them or at least ought not be any different from them since they all came from the same place, they were scandalized by him, offended by him and rejected him.

This wasn’t, I’d like to suggest, a rejection of Jesus as the son of God; this was a rejection of the local boy who made it big. This was sociology, not theology. Who do you think you are? I know who you are and where you came from. You came from the same place I did. Why do you get to be famous? I came from the same place as you. You’re not special. You’re just like me and I’m not special either. 

There is something about the hometown crowd, in big cities and small ones. Sometimes they do celebrate the local girl or boy who has made it big. But in the case of prophets, Jesus says there is no honor to be found at home. How can God speak through such an ordinary person? A person I know is flawed. I remember when… We have these ideas about who can be God’s messenger: men, white men, heterosexual white men, with long beards and robes, projecting our notions about race and gender and sexuality onto the text. So many think of Charlton Heston but not Harriet Tubman or Toni Morrison or Maya Angelou when we imagine prophets. We don’t think to look to our children for a prophetic word, not always to our elders, especially when they are no longer strong and vibrant, to people whose bodies don’t work like ours, or to people who don’t live and love like we think they ought. [I have to say here that I am guilty of this, thinking that today’s guest musician must be an adult, and I was wrong and happily so! Thank you Abigail, for sharing your gifts with us.] All of the biblical prophets are larger than life in the text, but they were just women and men from home towns where folk scratched their heads and said “How can Yocheved’s daughter and son both be prophets? Please! I remember when they were children…” Of course Yocheved’s daughter and son were both prophets, Miriam and Moses.

They took offense at him. They were scandalized by him. The people in their hometown, knowing Jesus and his family and stories that we’ll never know about them said, I just can’t believe this is the guy everyone is talking about, but he sure is some kind of slick preacher. Their disbelief in Jesus, in his ability to do miracles that they couldn’t do and to interpret the scriptures in ways that they could not was an extension of their disbelief in themselves. They did not meet him with the faith of the bleeding woman or grieving father and as a result, Jesus was unable to do the miracles in his hometown that he was able to do in other places. This is a hard text for me, the idea that Jesus is limited by other people’s disbelief, by my disbelief. So I pray regularly the line from another Gospel story: “Lord I believe, but help my unbelief.” 

There is so much irony in this text. They, the faithful folk, the Jews in the pews – and we – are why God became human, woman-born. This is, I think, the true scandal of the Gospel, the Incarnation. Those of you who have taken to reading my sermons online, bear with me because I need to repeat some of what I said last week. The scandal of the Incarnation is the scandal of the human body in all of its forms, genders, expressions, orientations, nationalities, ethnicities, abilities, limitations, communicable diseases, poverties and, the scandal of the human condition from mortality to mental illness. I see the scandal in today’s Gospel in terms low self-esteem and holding others in equally low regard. Nobody from our hometown has any right being famous, powerful, respected by important people, recognized for making a difference. I can’t put my trust in this guy from the old neighborhood. Even if he did do all those miracles.

Let’s face it, if folk wouldn’t believe in Jesus when there were other folk saying he healed me, he raised my child from the dead, how on earth are we going to get a committee together to do the work of the church? How can we pursue our calling and fulfill our vocation if none of the people who know us best believe in us? If we have a hard time believing in ourselves? Look to Jesus:

Here he is in our text with the family that has accompanied him in the Gospel for these past two months, caring for him, worrying about him, scolding him and occasionally getting in his way. But they are here with him. Every one of them won’t be with him every moment. But they won't all abandon him. In his most desperate hour, his mother will stand by him and with him, at the foot of his cross. Two of his brothers will carry on his work in his name and give up their own lives for his Gospel.

And for those desperate few hometown folk willing to believe that the boy down the street had the power to touch, heal and transform lives, their faith in him was justified. He did heal them. They were small in number but they bore witness to the possibility of transformation of those who could not let themselves believe in a human, common, familiar Jesus. He marveled at their unbelief and he kept on teaching, kept on serving, kept on healing. Jesus did not stop doing what God called him to do. Not even death stopped him or slowed him. Even when those closest to him did not believe, doubted him, abandoned him, he did the work God sent him to do. 

This Gospel is that God’s concern for the woman-born was manifested in God, Godself, becoming woman-born, for the redemption and liberation of all the woman-born from fear and from death itself. Yeshua the Messiah, the Son of Woman, came to seek out and save the lost and to give his life as a ransom for many. Amen.


The Scandalous Gospel According to a Bleeding Woman: A Re-Telling

Let us pray: In the name of the One who waded in the waters of Miryam’s womb, walked the way of suffering as one of the woman-born, and woke from the grasp of death in the deep darkness of the morning. Amen.

Sarah’s daughter was bleeding from her vagina, again, still. It wasn’t the not-so-secret monthly blood whose scent was part of the cacophony of smells which perfused the Iron Age and passed largely without comment from anyone else. This was something else entirely. This was a flow that never quite stopped. It dwindled from time to time, giving birth to aborted hope that this time it had stopped for good. A day or two of respite, and then the bleeding started again. There were some years that she had gone for months without bleeding at all. And just a few months – she could count them on one hand – that she bled like other women. She had bled this way since her first bleeding. It was nothing like what her mother and aunts told her to expect. Her sisters didn’t bleed like this. She drank the teas the midwife gave her, tied the knots in the cord around her body as prescribed by the healing prophets (like those in Ezekiel 13), nothing helped. She never felt clean. There were stains on all her clothes, her chair, her bed. She was tired, tired of bleeding and just tired.

She had moved to a town where no one knew – or admitted that they knew – her story. She couldn’t stay at home any more; all of her sisters were married and having children. She loved her sisters and their children and yet every time she saw one of them blossoming with yet another pregnancy or putting a baby to her breast she felt an ache in her empty, broken, bleeding womb. The other mothers in town wouldn’t consider her for their sons. She could have married an older, widowed man to help him with his children, but that wasn’t the life she wanted for herself. And she made a decent life for herself, as a midwife, a healer, hoping to learn something that she could use to heal herself. She also became a midwife because she hoped no one would think twice if they saw blood on her skirts. All of the money she earned, all of the goods and services she received, she sold or bartered away in hopes of healing herself. She spent all of her income on every healer and physician in her town, within walking distance and sometimes beyond. She was Sarah’s daughter and she decided to do whatever it took to heal herself, save herself, to live.

Her vaginal hemorrhage didn’t affect her day-to-day life as much as people might have imagined when the flow wasn’t too heavy. After all, being ritually not-yet-ready for worship – a better translation than “unclean” in terms of illness or naturally occurring bodily cycles – was quite common and in most cases remedied by bathing and an inexpensive offering. Some cases also required physical inspection by a priest or for women – I believe – a woman who was both the daughter of and the wife of (another) priest with the pronouncement of restoration being made by the priest. But her vaginal bleeding would have to stop first, long enough for her to qualify for and pass inspection. And in the past twelve years it hadn’t and as a result she couldn’t go to Jerusalem and worship in the temple, and she wanted to go. She had been there as a child, but she wanted to go as an adult and take her own offerings and say her prayers facing the place where the living God resided, bathed in clouds of incense. It wasn’t required for women, but so many women went that there were mikvahs – baths – dedicated for them, there was a plaza named in their honor and, special gates and balconies for women who didn’t want to mix with men.

Even though she poured herself into the healing arts and her life-giving work, rejoicing at each new life born into her hands, Sarah’s daughter longed to be free of her terrible illness, the weakness, the pain, the constant washing and cleaning and to have some new things, new clothes, unstained. Her affliction also affected her sense of herself, her sense of her own value and beauty and worth. She was distant from her own family and had no family in this town. She had no one with whom to share Shabbat meals, she lit the candles by herself. Sometimes families she helped invited her for celebrations but she was always afraid her body would betray her, like that one time she thought she had enough padding and then it broke through in front of everyone. She had moved again after that. She was keenly aware that her body didn’t work like other women. She felt broken. And she knew she could die from this. 

But Sarah’s daughter refused to be destroyed by her pain or paralyzed by fear. She didn’t know why her body was the way it was, but she knew it didn’t have to be. She knew it could be, should be, would be different. And she would do whatever it took to save herself, be healed, be made whole, be restored, to live – the verb means all of those things. She had heard that there was a miracle-working rebbe, Yeshua ben Miryam, (Jesus, Mary’s child) based in Capernaum who regularly crossed the Sea of Galilee. And today he was here. She was going to see him. 

As she hurried after the crowd, she thought about what she was going to say. She followed the sound of the commotion and saw more people gathered than lived in her town. All of them pushing towards a group in the middle, and one of them… Yes him. He’s the one. She pushed. Not caring if some stepped out of her path because they saw or smelled the blood that was flowing even harder. She had to reach him, had to get his attention…

But he was walking with Ya’ir (who the Greeks called Jairus). Ya’ir’s daughter – what was her name? was it Me’irah? Named for “light” like her father? I think so – Me’irah had died. A child whose whole life was the length of her disease, twelve years. And now she was dead. Sarah’s daughter said to herself, I won’t bother the Rabbi. He must go to comfort Me’irah’s mother. 

She was all alone as she watched her daughter die, she was all alone as she planned and began the funeral of her child. She was like so many mothers left alone to do the difficult work of holding her remaining family together through the most trying of times. Her husband had not abandoned them, but he had left them. He missed the moment when the light left his baby girl’s eyes as she passed from life to death. He left her on her deathbed and her Mama in her deathwatch in the hope that he could persuade Rebbe Yeshua, Rabbi Jesus, to come and lay his hands on her. But she died in his absence and they started her funeral without him…

Yet Sarah’s daughter couldn’t walk away; she couldn’t take her eyes off of him and found herself within a hand’s breadth. Falling to her knees, reaching out, not knowing what she would do until she did it; (according to the other two gospels) she touched his tzit-tzit, the knotted fringe on the corners of his clothing – the sign of an observant Jew. She believed that this time she would be healed. She had believed before and been disappointed, but that didn’t matter. Sarah’s daughter had resilient, indefatigable, inexhaustible, inextinguishable faith. She said, “If I but touch his clothes, I shall be saved.” 

More than healed, saved, saved from the death that was surely coming closer. Twelve years of pain, disappointment, sorrow and struggle did not diminish her faith; it was a living thing, carried inside of her, extended through her hand to One who was so worthy of her faith that he didn’t have to see her, speak to her or even touch her to save her, heal her, make her whole, grant her life and transform her.

And it was so. She drew the healing power from his body. She did it. The text is full of her verbs: She endured, she spent, she was no better, she grew worse, she heard, she came up, she touched, she said, she felt, she was saved/healed/restored and then she told him everything. Everything. All her pain, all her grief, all her hope, all her faith. All. She is the active agent in her healing eleven times, and once passive – her hemorrhage stopped.

And Ya’ir, Jairus, is waiting and watching. He left his child on her deathbed to find Rabbi Yeshua, Rabbi Jesus. He didn’t know if she would be living or dead when he got back; but he knew that if Yeshua, Jesus, just laid his hands on her, she would be alright. Ya’ir started his journey in faith. He said, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be saved, and live.” (There’s that verb again.) And Ya’ir ended his journey in faith. When he found Jesus, he found resurrection and life at the same time Sarah’s daughter found restoration and life.

One of the great ironies of the aftermath of this text is that the church of Jesus Christ and nominally Christian societies like ours have become so scandalized by women and our bodies that we dare not name our parts or the problems with our parts in polite company according to some folk. It is ironic, because silencing women and censuring our bodies denies the Gospel story itself: That God became flesh and blood in the body of a woman, was nourished by her blood in her body passed through an umbilical cord attached to a placenta, rooted in the wall of her uterus, and one day pulsed into this world through her cervix and vagina. Just like the rest of us – give or take the occasional caesarian. 

This is the scandal of the Gospel, the Incarnation of a woman-born God. At the heart of Incarnation theology is the notion that the human body – and women are fully human – is neither accidental nor unworthy of the habitation of God. The scandal of the Incarnation is the scandal of the human body in all of its forms, genders, expressions, orientations, nationalities, ethnicities, abilities, limitations, communicable diseases, poverties. And this is what God became, for Sarah’s daughter and Ya’ir and his daughter and her mother and you and me, for the whole world, for all of groaning creation. To paraphrase Brother (Cornell) West: Jesus was born too close to urine, excrement and sex for the comfort of many. God became human to touch and be touched by the broken, bleeding, dead and dying and to be broken, bleed and die. And in so doing transformed that brokenness into a sacrament, body and blood, bread and wine, the shadow of death, grave-robbing resurrection. 

This Gospel is that God’s concern for the woman-born was manifested in God, Godself, becoming woman-born, for the redemption and liberation of all the woman-born from fear and from death itself. Yeshua the Messiah, the Son of Woman, came to seek out and save the lost and to give his life as a ransom for many. Amen.


Suing God

Job 38:1 Then the Holy One of Old answered Job out of the whirlwind: 

2 “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? 

3 Gird up your loins like a man,

I will question you, and you shall respond to me.

 

Let us pray: Blessed are You, Yah our God, Heart of the Universe, who attends to us and hears the voice of our hearts; mother-love us and make audible the soft, still voice. Amen.

 

If I knew where to find God, I’d sue. That’s what Job said and that’s what Job did; he sued God. Job loses everything he has. His cattle and camels aren’t just money in the bank, they are the food in his belly, milk for his children, clothes on his back, the tractors with which he plowed his fields, fertilizer and fuel and transportation, Social Security and Medicare rolled up together. He has even made it his business to treat his slaves as justly as he knows how and he grieves their loss. And then there is the loss of all of his children at one time, a grief that overshadows everything else including the disgusting, oozing sores all over his body. All of Job’s children are dead and gone – murdered – and nothing will ever bring them back. Even if he has children later – and he will – they can never be replaced. And so he sues God. I understand. I am haunted by Job’s children, by the shades of his murdered children; they attend my teaching and preaching on and from the book of Job. They are three daughters and seven sons whose names and ages are neglected in the text. I will never forget them nor allow them to be forgotten.

 

The basis of Job’s lawsuit is that God has done him wrong by allowing his children to be butchered, his body to be afflicted and his wealth to be erased. After all, Job knows that he is blameless in God’s sight. And he knows that the prevailing theology of his day is that if bad things happen to you you are not a good person, you deserve whatever you get. But Job knows that he does not deserve any of this. (However, neither Job nor the biblical author take up the issue of whether wrong was done to Job’s murdered children.) 

 

Where was God and what was God doing while Job’s life was being destroyed? God was there. And God did nothing. God permitted it, sanctioned it, suggested it. And if Job knew what we know from the narrator who speaks to the reader – that his life was crap because God was playing craps with his life – he might have wanted to do more than sue God. But Job doesn’t know that God set him up, used him and his children and all of their lives to prove a point. But Job does know that God is, that God is there and that God is just even when he doesn’t understand how a just God could let all of this happen. He knows that God is real and that if he can just find God and serve the Most High a subpoena and give God a piece of his mind, everything will be all right. 

 

I’ve been saying that Job sues God because the Hebrew text is full of legal terminology and presents Job’s claim as a personal injury lawsuit. Words like “contend” and “reason” in English bibles are all translations of the word that means lawsuit, riyv, in Hebrew. Job spends the majority of the book looking for God so that he can have his day in court. And Job believes that he will get a fair trial and a fair hearing from God because he believes in a just God. Now, in order to sue God Job had a number of obstacles to overcome which he explains his friends. First, God is no ordinary defendant, (9:32-34):

For God is not a mortal, as I am, that I might answer God,

that we should come to trial together.

There is no umpire between us,

who might lay a hand on us both.

If God would take God’s rod away from me,

and not let dread of God terrify me,

then I would speak without fear of God,

for I know I am not what I am thought to be.

 

Second, he had to figure out how to serve God a subpoena. Job discussed his search for God with his friends in 23:3-5:

Who will grant that I might know

where I might find God,

that I might come to God’s abode?

I would set my case in order before God,

and fill my mouth with arguments.

I might know what God would answer me,

and understand what God would say to me.

 

Job also spends quite a bit of time with this idea in chapter 9, verses 1, 14-16, 19-20:

If one wished to sue God,

one could not answer God once in a thousand…

If it is a contest of strength, God is the strong one!

How then can I answer God,

choosing my words with God? 

Though I am innocent, I cannot answer God;

I must appeal for mercy to my accuser… 

If I summoned God and God answered me,

I do not believe that God would listen to my voice.

If it is a matter of justice, who can summon God? 

Though I am innocent, my own mouth would condemn me;

though I am blameless, God would prove me perverse.

 

Job had to find someone among his kinfolk and skin-folk, an advocate, a go‘el, (traditionally translated redeemer) to represent him. That was the system set up from the time of Moses – if you got into any type of legal or even financial trouble, one of your relatives was supposed to bail you out, literally. But who could serve as Job’s redeeming relative? The relatives who abandoned him when he fell ill and lost all his money wouldn’t help him sue God. He says (in 19:13), “My relatives and my close friends have failed me.” Of Job’s attempt to find legal representation to take on God, one of his friends (Eliphaz) says in 5:1, “Call now; is there anyone who will answer you? To which of the holy ones will you turn?” But Job is convinced that this thing can be done, he also knows he may not survive it and wishes to leave an account for all who follow, 19:23-24:

“O that my words were written down!

O that they were inscribed in a book! 

O that with an iron pen and with lead

they were engraved on a rock forever! 

 

He got his wish. Perhaps most importantly, Job knows that there is someone who will take his case and he will surely get his day in court. He says:

For I know that my Advocate lives,

who will at the last stand upon the earth; 

and after my skin has been so destroyed,

then in my flesh shall I see God, 

whom I shall see on my side,

and my eyes shall behold, and not another.

My heart faints within me!

 

Job’s Advocate, his Redeeming-Relative is One who can summon God and require faithfulness of God. Job doesn’t know it yet, but his Advocate and Redeeming-Relative is God. Meanwhile, Job’s faux-friend Elihu acknowledges that there may indeed be such a mediator in 33:24-25:

Then, if there should be for one of them an angel,

a mediator, one of a thousand,

one who declares a person upright, 

who is gracious to that person, and says,

‘Deliver him from going down into the Pit;

I have found a ransom. 

Let his flesh become fresh with youth;

let him return to the days of his youthful vigor.’ 

Then he prays to God, and is accepted by God,

he comes into God’s presence with joy,

and God repays him for his righteousness.

 

With every fiber of his being Job ached and thought, if I could just see God… And then, God appeared to Job in a whirlwind. Job seeks to draw a real, living God into court, and gets more than he bargains for. God shows up. God shows up and God blows up the courthouse. God shows up in chapter 38 and tells Job to tie up the man-flesh dangling between his legs and demands that Job answer, “Who is this that darkens counsel by speech without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you will answer me!” 

 

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Don’t you know that I am the mother of ice and snow, birthing them out of my own womb? Don’t you know that I am the father of the rain? (God uses both genders in Job.) Have you given marching orders to the sun every morning from the time before time? Did you plant the stars in the heavens joining them into constellations? Who do you think you are? Don’t you know who I am? And Job put his hand over his mouth.

 

The book of Job doesn’t whitewash pain and suffering. Its scandalous theology is that God is gambling with your life and the lives of those you hold dear, including your precious children. And at the same time, the book of Job affirms a God who is there, a God who responds, albeit a God who does not do what we want or think, but an all-powerful, sovereign God. When Job meets God face-to-force, Job says, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you. I reject all of this and am comforted in dust and ashes.” 

 

The book of Job is an ancient theodicy; it is a theology of pain and suffering. And the book of Job is scripture to bear holy witness to the truth of the victimized and devastated who know that life is not fair, you don’t always get what you deserve, the innocent do suffer and God is inscrutable. Yet God is real and God is there and God will listen when you give God a piece of your mind about what God is doing to you, with you and the ones you love. 

 

That’s what the disciples do in the Gospel. They are on the Sea of Galilee which can be a good place to have a party. That’s what I did on my first trip to Israel. I danced across the sea on a party boat. It was late summer. On my second trip, it was July and I was buttoned up against the cold and braced for the wind. And even with our modern, motorized boat we were buffeted on that tiny lake like we were in the ocean. And if Jesus had been onboard, I would have woken him up too. Loudly. That's what the disciples do, giving Jesus a piece of their minds: Get up Jesus! What do you think you’re doing? I can’t believe you’re lying there asleep while we are dying. Get up and do something!

 

Job teaches that even if you’re crazy enough to try to sue God, God will come to meet you where you are, God will speak a word – that if it doesn’t change your circumstances, will change you. God spoke to Job from chapter 38 to chapter 41. God spoke to Job for one hundred and twenty nine verses. And in that time, God didn’t change a single thing in Job’s life. God changed Job.

 

I say with Job, I have suffered unbelievable loss, but it’s all right. I’ve faced the limits of my own mortality, and it’s all right. I’ve called God on the carpet and been blown out of the water, and it’s still all right. How can it be all right? Because whenever I need to – and I need to frequently, I give God a piece of my mind. I have filed more than one lawsuit myself. Shall not, the Judge of all the earth do what is right? I know that I have a living Advocate to plead my case. Somewhere there is for me, a redeeming relative, some kin to help me save my skin. I know I will get justice. I know I can’t win against God, but when I have my say then I know there’s still justice and righteousness in the universe.

 

Job sued God. Shouted at God. And it was all right. It was more than all right. It was healing and transformational. And Job died old, contented and full of days. 

In the Name of God: 

Sovereign, Savior and Shelter. Amen.


Saying “Vagina” In the Pulpit

Looking forward to next week's Gospel and reflecting on the censuring of a Michigan State Representative, I discuss the woman with a vaginal hemorrhage in light of contemporary politcal and public discourse in my latest Huffington Post bog entry.


It Takes A Village: In the Shadow of David

Let us pray: Holy One of Old, open our eyes that we may see. Amen.

The author of the book of Samuel wants you to know that good things come in small, or better, seemingly insignificant packages. David’s own father – Happy Father’s Day! –  overlooked him because he was the baby. Samuel wasn’t much better, focusing his attention on the tall, dark and handsome brother. But God says, “I do not see the way that humans do: you all look at a person’s face and body; I look at a person’s heart.” 

Samuel and God were having this conversation because God had decided to replace Saul as king. Saul, the second king in Israel after Avimelek in the book of Judges, has turned out to be something of a disappointment. And God breaks up with him. Saul is devastated and never recovers, and I really feel for him. Samuel seems to take it equally hard. But the bible and God move on to David – ah new love!

God has had God’s eye on David’s family and decided on David as the next King of Israel. What was it God saw in the young David? I’d like to think it was promise and possibility. I’d hate to think that God saw all of the things that David would do and chose him anyway, not caring. I’d rather think that God saw that David had it in him to be a great man, to inspire people, to lead people, to love passionately, to pray faithfully, yes, to sin, but then to repent sincerely. So God sent Samuel to Jesse, to anoint one of his sons – as yet unidentified. God tells Samuel to invite Jesse and leaves the rest of the details up to him. And that’s where things get interesting.

  I’m calling this sermon “It Takes A Village: In the Shadow of David” because while David is the obvious focus of this story, he’s not the only one in it. David is anointed as king to lead God’s people, but not for his own benefit – although he did benefit. David was called to service, a type of service that exists in only a small part of our world. People all over the world recently reflected on the tradition of monarch as servant with Queen Elizabeth II as she celebrated her Diamond Jubilee. David’s service was to and for people the bible rarely mentions, the little people, the insignificant people, people passed over based on birth order or what they look like. Just like David; the irony abounds. So, I invite you to look at and look for all of the people who made David’s reign possible including his royal family because, quite frankly, David isn’t someone who I’d like to model my life and faith on. So I’m going to do a feminist reading of the story this morning. You don’t mind me using the f-word in the pulpit do you? As a feminist, I’m keenly aware of who is in the story and who is missing from this story. 

Today we’re going to talk to each other a bit. Who do you think is missing from this story? Think of the sacrifice like a big family celebration. Who is around your table at Thanksgiving?

I’ll give you a moment to answer while I remind you what is going on. Samuel comes to Bethlehem and the elders of the city meet him at the gate, shaking with fear and want to know, “Do you come in peace?” That’s because one verse before our lesson in the previous chapter Samuel kills the Amalekite king, Agag, chopping him into pieces: 

1 Samuel 15:32 Then Samuel said, “Bring Agag king of the Amalekites here to me.” And Agag came to him haltingly. Agag said, “Surely this is the bitterness of death.” 33 But Samuel said, “As your sword has made women childless, so your mother shall be childless among women.” And Samuel chopped Agag in pieces before the Holy One in Gilgal. 34 Then Samuel went to Ramah… [Our lesson picks up here]

So the elders of Bethlehem were understandably concerned when Samuel showed up. The text doesn’t leave any space between the two stories so for all we know Samuel may have come straight from the execution, having his conversation with God on the road. So Samuel invites the elders to the sacrifice, perhaps to prove the only thing getting killed is the cow. 

Back to your quiz: God has sent Samuel to Jesse to anoint the king that God has chosen. Samuel invites all of Jesse’s sons – but we know one, David, is missing – and Samuel invites the elders. Now, who do you think is missing from this story? [David’s mother and sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc.]

David was only available for God because his parents produced and raised him. We know a bit about his father, Jesse the grandson of Ruth and Boaz. But what about his mother whose name is not preserved? How do I know that David’s mother is alive and that he has sisters?

Later on in 1 Sam 22:3-4, David asks the king of Moab – his great-grandmother Ruth was Moabite – David asks the king: “Please let my father and mother come to you, until I know what God will do for me.” He left them with the king of Moab, and they stayed with him all the time that David was in the stronghold.

  So David’s mother was alive. And either Samuel excluded her from the sacrifice only inviting Jesse and the boys or the author of the text ignores her only focusing on Jesse and the boys. Where else would she have been but at her home when the national prophet showed up? Even if she was at market wouldn’t she have gone straight home after that scene at the city gates with the elders? Even if they weren’t invited to the sacrifice, don’t you think everyone in town was as close to the sacrifice as possible? And since sacrifices were done outside there was nothing to keep anyone away – and ancient Israel didn’t practice gender segregation at sacrifices. I think she was there, along with her daughters. Did she at some point offer hospitality to Samuel, a meal and a place to stay and water for his feet? I think so.

David comes from a large family and the names of all of David’s brothers and sisters are given in 1 Chronicles chapter 2. David’s brothers: Eliab firstborn, Abinadab the second, Shimea the third, Nethanel the fourth, Raddai the fifth, Ozem the sixth, David the seventh (1 Chron 2:13-15) and David’s sisters: Zeruiah and Abigail (1 Chron 2:16) They will become the royal family, the village that makes it possible for David to be who he will be and perhaps could be.

Why does it matter who counts and who gets erased? It matters as we try to understand what lessons this story has for us. Many folk read the scriptures through the lenses of the major characters. But we can’t all be David. Who are you in this story? Are you even in this story? Are you David’s parents or sisters? Think about the fact that we know their names unlike the sisters of Jesus from last week. Are you one of David’s brothers, one of his nephews – I’ll tell you about them in a bit – or even one of the many, many, women in his life? (Solomon got that thing honestly, from his father.)

The lessons for us today in this passage of scripture are not literal – we will not be anointed king of Israel or America. Yet this is a scriptural story passed down to us. It may be that God has seen something in us like David, that we are full of promise and possibility. And there is the promise and potential of all the other folk in our village, some of which gets overshadowed by the radiant gifts of a select few. But none of us will be who we are and who we will be, who we can be, on our own. We come from families that shape us for good and for ill, and from communities, neighborhoods, schools and our larger culture. And many if not most of us participate in more than one culture. And we are also responsible for our own choices, including the choice to nurture the dreams and aspirations of other folk in our villages. How will we live up to and into our own possibilities and promise and at the same time, how will we help those around us live up to and into theirs?

David’s family supports him; his successes are largely family affairs. David is supported by three men who have his back at every turn, his nephews, the sons of his sister Zeruiah: Abishai, Joab, and Asahel. Contrary to much of biblical tradition, their father is erased from the text; his name is not preserved and they are known by their mother’s name. David’s nephews are the commanders of his military forces and his personal guard. They hunted down and killed everyone who rebelled against David personally – including David’s son Absalom. David didn’t put himself on that throne and he didn’t keep himself on that throne. And when one of Saul’s men killed one of David’s nephews in battle they hunted him down and killed him after the battle was over.

David’s other sister, Abigail, gave birth to his nephew Amasa, unfortunately he sided with Absalom and was killed by Joab, one of those first three nephews. (1 Chron 2:16-17) Amasa’s father, David’s brother-in-law was Jether the Ishmaelite, so David is related to the children of Ishmael and Israel in addition to being the great-grandson of a Moabite woman. David’s village transcended socially acceptable boundaries. The Gospel of Matthew will take it farther and say that Boaz, David’s great-grandfather is descended from Rahab, the Canaanite prostitute. 

David’s complicated family history is a reminder that royal families are not different from our families in most ways. We’ve all got stories and skeletons. The feminist practice of naming those rendered invisible and silent paints the Israelite royal family in a whole new light. David’s family would be right at home in a reality show, but they are nearly lost to the long shadow cast by David in the glare of the light shone on David by the writers of the scriptures, nearly eclipsing everyone else. 

And of course, there are all of David’s women: Merab whose engagement to David was broken by her father Saul, Michal whose marriage to David was ended by her father Saul who gave to another man; she was taken back and imprisoned by David, Abigail with whom he apparently never had children. And then there are all of the women with whom he did have children: Ahinoam whom he married on the way home with Abigail after their wedding – ick!, Maacah, Haggith, Abital, Eglah, and Bathsheba. 

When I teach the biblical account of David’s rape of Bathsheba I start with the fact that David has at least six wives with whom he is living, sleeping and making babies. They are in addition to his banished wife, Michal. David has also two collections of women described as “other primary and secondary wives taken in Jerusalem” and he inherited “Saul’s former wives.” David has sexual access to as many as a dozen women if not more when he walks out onto that roof sees Bathsheba and gives the order to have her abducted and brought to him so that he can do as he pleases.

There were consequences to all of David’s womanizing which he admits in his lesser-known psalm of repentance, Ps 38:

1 Holy One of Old, do not rebuke me in your anger, or discipline me in your wrath. 

2 For your arrows have sunk into me, and your hand has come down on me.

3 There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation;

there is no health in my bones because of my sin. 

4 For my iniquities have gone over my head; they weigh like a burden too heavy for me.

5 My wounds grow foul and fester because of my foolishness; 

6 I am utterly bowed down and prostrate; all day long I go around mourning. 

7 For my loins are filled with burning, and there is no soundness in my flesh.

David has apparently contracted a sexually communicated disease. And, lastly, there was Abishag with whom he was impotent before he died – yes that is in the bible. Did God really know that David would do all of these things and choose him anyway?

Saint Augustine famously described God as omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. However in the bible, God seems to never be more than two o’s at a time. When God looks on David’s heart, what does God see? Perhaps God did see all of David’s brokenness and knew that it was still possible for David to be the man that God called him to be. And I think that’s good news for the rest of us. Amen.


If We Can’t See God Then Give Us a King: Incarnational Monarchy

A Bejeweled Crown

It’s not you it’s me. That’s the stereotypical and clichéd way to break up with someone. But what happens in the book of Samuel (and it’s a single book in Hebrew) is even tackier: The one partner (Israel) won’t talk to the other partner (God) and tells a third party (Samuel) that it’s time to redefine their relationship. Awkward!

But they’re also dissing Samuel – we wouldn’t need a king if you had done a better job raising your boys… Verse 5: You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways… Ouch! Samuel’s sons were greedy and corrupt. Listen to the beginning of chapter 18 excluded from our lectionary:

1Samuel 8:1 When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel. 2 The name of his firstborn son was Yo’el, and the name of his second, Aviyah; they were judges in Be’er-sheba. 3 Yet his sons did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice. 

The people had already been through this with Eli, Samuel’s mentor and predecessor. He was a good judge, but his sons were thieves – they stole the peoples’ offerings, God’s offerings, right out of the collection plates and they forced the women who ministered at the sanctuary to sleep with them, clergy misconduct in every way. Hannah gave her firstborn son Samuel to God and God gave him to Eli to be his replacement, but there were no fine young men or women waiting in the wings this time around. Just the thought of going through that again must have been traumatic.

But what I can’t figure for the life of me is why the Israelites thought a monarch would be any better. What guarantee would they have that the king’s sons wouldn’t be despots or tyrants? None! That's exactly what happened and the monarchy of Israel was broken into two shrinking pieces from which it never recovered, just as the gospel says, a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. The request was illogical and irrational. It wasn’t about Samuel; he was just the excuse. It was peer pressure on an epic, national and international scale. We want a king like everybody else. We want to be like the modern Iron Age nations, on the cutting edge.

Now this is a tricky text for Americans because we’re rather smug in our rejection of monarchy, particularly here in Philadelphia, the cradle of American liberty. But the aftermath of this text, which we often forget, is that God sanctifies monarchy –the Israelite monarchy and perhaps those that extend from it – making our own patriotic rebellion scripturally questionable. This text is also difficult to translate into our contemporary reality. If we agree that neither God nor Samuel thought that the monarchy was a good idea but held their collective noses and let their spoiled brats have what they thought they wanted to teach them a lesson, then what was the preferred alternative? Theocracy? Theocracy doesn’t have a positive track record in our world outside of the scriptures. It doesn’t work terribly well in the scriptures. We know that theocracies are dangerous.

Moses was arguably the first theocratic ruler in Israel’s history. And yet, in spite of the very real, visible presence of God in the pillars of cloud, smoke and fire, miraculous provision of manna and quail, earthshaking miracles, sand, serpents, plagues and other punishments, there were constant complaints, rebellions and more than one attempted coup. At more than one point God had enough, decided to kill everybody and start all over again with new people – as though they would be more faithful the next time around than the old people – and Moses had to talk God out of killing rages repeatedly, interceding with incense, placing his own body between the wrath of God and the dying.

Then came the judges. They were a mixed bunch at best. The judges were warlords and whoremongers, prophets and priests; one sacrificed his own daughter, slaughtering her like an animal in the name of God, a human sacrifice. And they had a bad habit of appointing their own questionable offspring after them. They may not have called themselves kings, queens or monarchs, but they sure acted like them – right down to the thrones of Moses, Deborah, Eli and Samuel.

So God tells Samuel, “it’s not you; it’s me,” that the people are really rejecting God in v 7:  “Obey the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from reigning over them.

But on the other hand, it is about you too in v 8: Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, abandoning me and serving other gods, so too they are doing to you.

As a priest, I appreciate that God got that Samuel was taking this personally and ministered to him: they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me… It’s not you; it’s me. God gives Samuel what he needs, divine comfort. And God gives the people what they say they need, a king. But that wouldn’t be enough. Because kings are not gods. They do terrible things, as bad as any of the transgressions of the sons of Eli and Samuel. 

The monarchy was already a failed experiment in Israel when they made their request. In the book of Judges one of Gideon’s seventy children, Avimelek, the one he seems to have rejected and not provided with an inheritance, kills all of his siblings (but one who escaped) and reigns in Israel for three years. He, not Saul, is the first king in Israel. He was eventually mortally wounded by woman while besieging her town and killed himself so no one would say a woman killed him in Judges 9. 

So the Israelites knew that monarchy was an imperfect solution. They also had the example of all the queens, kings, pharaohs, princes, and other sovereigns around them. The Middle Bronze and Iron Ages weren’t exactly known for their advances in human and civil rights. So why were they so desperate for a monarch in spite of all of the evidence around them? Because of what a monarch represented in their world, what I’ll call representational incarnation, the woman or man on the throne was the beloved of God, sometimes child, sometimes spouse, and God was with her or him in a particular, intimate way and that person was the visible presence of God in their midst. 

They just wanted to be able to see and touch God. At any cost. Monarchy comes with a price. It is an expensive proposition; it will cost them more than they know. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Lord Acton was speaking of the church when he penned those famous words. They certainly apply to the monarchy of which Israel dreamed. So Samuel warned them, “this is what a king will do, he will take….” in vv 11-17:

he will take your sons… he will take your daughters… he will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards… he will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards…  he will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys… he will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall all be his slaves.

And the people said, “We don’t care!” Verse 19: 

No! We are determined to have a monarch over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our monarch may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.

Perhaps they thought God would still be on their side and fight their battles through this king they demanded – which is how it eventually worked out, for a while. Perhaps they felt entitled to divine protection. Perhaps they weren’t faithless. But perhaps – and this is what I really think – perhaps they were just being human, craving institutional structures and hierarchy as bulwarks against the chaos of their world and a monarch, a king, as a tangible symbol of God’s presence with them. That’s why I call it representational incarnation.

As is so often the case, the symbol is more important than the reality. We want to see someone fighting on our side. We don’t want to have to imagine an invisible God or trust that God is really here with us or have faith in that which we cannot see with our own eyes or hear with our own ears or touch with our own hands – one could touch a king in certain circumstances, circumspectly. We want a king, even if he is a puppet. 

I don’t blame them. I understand them. They were not the generation who had seen the power of God in the deliverance of the Exodus, plagues of Egypt and miracles in the wilderness. Those were their ancestral stories. They are sort of like us, hearing the stories of scripture, whether the stories of Miriam and Moses or Mary and Jesus. Those are our ancestral stories, and they require faith because we were not there. And sometimes faith is hard. Samuel wasn’t enough. He was the heir of Moses and Deborah – only the three of them were both prophet and judge – but he wasn’t a miracle-worker or lawgiver like Moses and he wasn’t a warrior-poet like Deborah. He and his ministry weren’t enough.

We are not so different from them. We also need tangible symbols. Israelite worship like Episcopal worship was sensual. There were sights, sounds, smells, touches and tastes. A monarch was a religious symbol of divine power throughout the ancient world, not terribly different from a Christ Pantocrator icon come to life. And some still venerate the prophet, priest and pastor as God’s representative.

The need to have the power and presence of God in the midst of the community in a tangible, visible way endured and endures. And so God became incarnate in the womb of Miriam of Nazareth. An answer to that ancient prayer. But without the traditional trappings of monarchy. In fact so ordinary that his own family thought he was crazy from time to time, or least needed protection from himself, so that he wouldn’t wear himself out.

Jesus’ family, his mother, his sisters – we don’t know how many there were, just that there were more than one, his four brothers – Joseph Jr., James, Jude and Simon, his absent father Joseph Sr. and all whom he welcomes into his family, we who will do the will of God, find a monarch who refused to behave like a king and an incarnational presence who embraced and transcended death. A continuing, abiding, accompanying, guiding presence, reigning in our hearts with our consent. 

When we cry out, “Give us a king” because we cannot see where God is in our lives and in our world, may God disregard our demand and respond to the cry of our hearts with what we need, the living God and Risen Christ in our midst, reigning over the commonwealth of God in this world and in the next. Amen. 


She Built A City: Sheerah the Biblical City-Builder

Woman Construction Worker

The book of Chronicles tells many of the stories of the scriptures all over again beginning at the beginning. The first word of Chronicles is “Adam.” And for 9 chapters, in 407 verses, Chronicles chronicles the peoples of the scriptures in a genealogy that runs from Adam to Saul’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandsons, Azrikam, Bocheru, Ishmael, Sheariah, Obadiah, and Hanan. Now I know we are in uncharted territory for some of you; I have found that most folk don’t choose genealogies to study in the church or in the academy. But I have to confess that I love the begats. You know, “this one begat that one,” and “that one begat this other one.” The begats.

However, the massive genealogy in Chronicles is more than a list of begettings and birthings. Chronicles also tells the story of many women who were left out of the stories from Adam to David – from Eve to Bathsheba – in other parts of the scriptures. There are stories woven into the fabric of Chronicles like the one in chapter 7 that forms our primary lesson.

1 Chronicles 7:20 The descendants of Ephraim were Shuthelah, and Bered his son, Tahath his son, Eleadah his son, Tahath his son, 21 Zabad his son, Shuthelah his son, and Ezer and Elead. Now the people of Gath, who were born in the land, killed them, because they came down to raid their cattle. 22 And their father Ephraim mourned many days, and his relatives came to comfort him. 23 Ephraim went in to his wife, and she conceived and gave birth to a son; and he named him Beriah (weeping), because disaster had befallen his house. 24 His daughter was Sheerah, who built both Lower and Upper Beth-horon, and Uzzen-sheerah.

Sheerah was a daughter-descendant of Ephraim, who was the son of Joseph. Now Joseph was living in Egypt when he married. He married an African sister, an Egyptian woman named Asenath. Their children Manasseh and Ephraim who were counted among the tribes of Israel were half-Egyptian, half-African, or as one of my bi-racial friends would say, “hafrican.” And Sheerah, the sister-builder was their daughter-descendant.

Eprhaim’s offspring are listed in a confusing jumble in 1 Chronicles 7, some are his children, some are his grandchildren, some may even be his great-grandchildren, v 20: The descendants of Ephraim were Shutelach, and Bered his son, Tahath his son, Eleadah his son, Tahath his son, Zabad his son, Shutelach his son, and Ezer and Elead. 

But something happened to those young and perhaps even older men. A whole generation, maybe more, was lost, wiped out, because of the choices they made, v 21: Now the people of Gath, who were born in the land, killed them, because they came down to raid their cattle. Now I’m half-Texan which you may know was once a nationality and is now a culture, a language and some might argue a religion. And in Texas we have ways of dealing with cattle rustlers, you might say biblical ways, such as the ways employed by the people of Gath. And while it’s easy to read this text in light of Western classics like The High Plains Drifter and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Ephraim’s children and grand-children weren’t extras in a movie; they were his hope for the future and they were dead. The thug life killed everyone of them because they tried to be gangstas – but that’s another sermon…

The death of all of his descendants, children or children’s children, devastates Ephraim, v 22: And their father Ephraim mourned many days, and his relatives came to comfort him. Some folk in the house today have had to bury children, and some may have had to bury more than one. You know this is devastating. You don’t get over it, even as you figure out how to go on, the pain remains. And in inexplicable and unjustifiable mercy God chose to do something for Ephraim and his wife that doesn’t happen for everyone, God gave them another family. 

Apparently, Ephraim has a little juice left in him, 23: Ephraim went into his wife, and she conceived and gave birth to a son; and he named him Beriah (weeping), because disaster had befallen his house. This is the only text in which Ephraim’s wife appears. When the Ephraimites are counted in Numbers, the other place where some of this genealogy is found, there is not even a passing reference to an ancestral mother. It was as if all of those birthings and begettings happened by magic, like menfolk could do that all on their own. Like it was the men who were throwing up and swelling up, walking around with their hands on their backs looking for their puffy ankles. It’s all right to tell the truth and say there’s a little sexism in the text, after all we’re talking about the Bronze Age after which the Iron Age will be cutting edge – no pun intended.

This is one of the things I like about the book of Chronicles, while the author is chronicling the begettings and birthings in Israel she – and the Chronicler could have been a woman – she stops to tell us about dozens of women in short stories and half-verses, many of whom we would know nothing about if it were not for the work of the Chronicler: There is Abraham’s other, other woman, Keturah, David’s sisters, Abigail and Zeruiah, some of David’s baby mamas, (a different) Abigail, Ahinoam, Haggith, Maacah, Abital and Eglah along with Sheerah the city-builder. 

The scriptures tell us that she built three cities, but nothing else about her, v 24: His daughter was Sheerah, who built both Lower and Upper Beth-horon, and Uzzen-sheerah. Two of the three cities, Lower Beth-Horon and Upper Beth-Horon were on a hillside, one high above the other. The third city, Uzzen-Sheerah, is my favorite because she named it after herself – like all the men who built cities in the ancient and modern worlds. Uzzen-Sheerah means “listen to Sheerah.” 

Using my sanctified imagination, I’m listening to Sheerah this morning. I hear her saying: I’ve got work to do. You don’t just build a city, whether you are a woman or a man, with no planning or preparation, not even in the Bronze or Iron Age. So then, how did Sheerah become a city-builder? Maybe it was it her childhood dream. We’ve got to stop telling children that can’t do something because we wouldn’t, couldn’t or didn’t. Maybe her family nurtured her dreams. But maybe her family and friends, neighbors and strangers told her she was crazy: You can’t build a city. What makes you think you can build a city? What city was ever built by a woman? Go get yourself a man and make some babies – or go cry about why you can’t get a man. Your people aren’t city-builders. Your people are thieves. Everybody knows what kind of people you came from. You can’t do it. If there were any naysayers, Sheerah didn’t listen them.

Sheerah started building. She had a dream, she had a plan, she had a vision, she had a calling; she had a commission. She was born to do this work; it was in her bones and in her blood, in her heart and in her hands. And it didn’t matter if nobody else understood. It didn’t matter what the other women and men were doing or saying. 

She planned her work and she worked her plan. Somehow she learned to design and build cities. She chose the sites for her cities, taking into account water and other natural resources with an eye to defense. Maybe she had to go back to the drawing board, over and over again. Visions and dreams don’t always come to fruition the first time out. She didn’t quit when it got hard – and it got hard – she had to hire and supervise contactors and subcontractors. She had to manage her workforce: paid labor, forced labor and slave labor were the only options. She couldn’t be everywhere on the construction sites so she had to mentor some other women and maybe men to share in the responsibility. Maybe she had to make or commission architectural drawings. Could she even read? I don’t know, but I know she planned her work and she worked her plan. 

Since it was the Iron Age or perhaps the Middle Bronze Age it may have mattered to some folk that the chief architect, and project manager was a woman, they could be kind of sexist in those days… And we’re no longer living in those days, right? I mean we’ve figured out that God has been using women to build, lead and change the world for more than four thousand years. Right? Sheerah didn’t let nobody turn her around. She got it done. She built her cities. She planned her work and she worked her plan. But she didn’t do it alone. She needed a whole city to get the work done: Her dream wasn’t hers alone. Someone else had to buy into it. It took a whole village to raise that city, clearing the land, quarrying the stone, transporting the stones – there had to be some men who didn’t mind taking orders from a woman, men who could see the vision, or men who if they couldn’t see the vision themselves trusted the woman with the vision, the plan, the call and the commission.

Before Sheerah built, she had to dig. She had to dig canals and trenches, sewers and ditches. I don’t imagine that she stood around giving orders all the time – although I’m sure she had to do that some of the time. I see her tying up her hair, rolling up her sleeves and doing the work with her own hands. When you’re giving birth to a vision, when you’re making your own dreams come true, when you’re doing what God called you to do, you don’t mind getting a little dirty, you don’t mind putting in the hard work and long hours. 

She had to build her city in the right order. She couldn’t start with the wallpaper and the flower arrangements. She had to start in the dirt. She had to lay her foundation. She had to build her walls and those walls had to hold – they were still at war with some of the Canaanite nations. She had to choose which buildings would be built first. Sheerah built her own house; maybe she built a house for her mama and daddy if they were still alive. She built houses for her people and perhaps for folk she didn’t even know. And when she finished building her city, Sheerah didn’t retire. She built another city. And then she built one more. Sheerah never married or gave birth. That wasn’t her calling. Sheerah became the mother of cities. And her name lives on in the scriptures through her cities, the works of her hands.

The bible tells us about two of Sheerah’s cities, Upper Beth Horon and Lower Beth Horon. Many people know the story in Joshua about the day the sun stood still. But did you every why did the sun stand still at that exact moment in that exact place? 

Joshua’s memoirs as preserved in the book that bears his name are full of war stories and he is their hero. Joshua claims a spectacular victory at Jericho and Ai, the archaeological record disagrees and Judges says that the Canaanites remained in the land, but something happened. Something big. And everyone knew it and told somebody who didn’t. Anyone who has spent time with veterans knows that each soldier’s story is different from another's, and all are different from the official story and they’re all true. More or less.

Word came to Gibeon that Israel was on the march, and they decided not to take any chances. They disguised themselves as travelers from far away and struck a deal with Joshua to spare them. Their neighbors, the five Amorite monarchs became furious and attacked them. And Joshua and Israel were duty-bound to protect them. So Joshua and his army marched all night – and there was no road from the camp in Gilgal to Gibeon. They must have been exhausted. They were in no condition to fight. But they had to fight; they had given their word. God held them to their word.

God could have told them to stand back and see the victory of the Lord, but that was another story. This time God said, “Don’t be afraid. I have handed them over to you.” Yet the Israelites had to do their part. They had to stand and fight even though they were exhausted. God confused the enemy and sent them into a panic; it was an easy victory for Israel.

And then something happened. They were all on the slope of a hill between two towns, Upper Beth-Horon and Lower Beth-Horon. The Israelites were already winning, the enemy was already panicked. They had already been beat back over 15 miles to Azekah and Makkedah. All of a sudden God began to hurl down stones from the heavens. Then came Joshua’s prayer for the sun to stand still which God granted. 

Joshua 10:10 And the Holy One threw them into a panic before Israel, who inflicted a great slaughter on them at Gibeon, then chased them by the way of the ascent of Beth-horon, and struck them down as far as Azekah and Makkedah. 11 As they fled before Israel, while they were going down the slope of Beth-horon, the Ruler of Heavens and Earth threw down huge stones from the heavens on them as far as Azekah, and they died; there were more who died because of the hailstones than the Israelites killed with the sword. 12 On the day when the Holy One gave the Amorites over to the Israelites, Joshua spoke to the Holy One; and he said in the sight of Israel,

“Sun, stand still at Gibeon,

and Moon, in the valley of Aijalon.” 

13 And the sun stood still, and the moon stopped,

until the nation took vengeance on their enemies.

But why did God add the hailstones? I think it has everything to do with Sheerah’s cities, Upper Beth-Horon and Lower Beth-Horon. For it was when the battle came to Sheerah’s front door that God stood up, stepped in and personally fought the battle. I’m going to suggest to you that God listened to Sheerah, who named her third city after herself, Uzzen-Sheerah, “listen to Sheerah.” God listened to her hopes and prayers for her cities and the people in them and when Sheerah’s cities were in trouble, God came to the rescue. God saved Sheerah’s cities. God’s saved Sheerah’s work. The work that she did speaks for her. The very stones bear witness to her faithfulness. 

I said the stones bear witness, not bore witness, because Sheerah built on a firm foundation. Sheerah’s cities lasted for centuries after her death: Two hundred fifty years after Sheerah built her cities and God protected them, Solomon fortified her cities in 1 Kings 9:17. 2 Chronicles 8:5 explains that Solomon only added walls and towers and bars – you see the city was built on a firm foundation. Solomon didn’t have to relay Sheerah’s foundation.

Sheerah’s cities endured through the end of the Old Testament into the period of the Maccabees, more than a thousand years after she built them, the Maccabean warriors who took back the Temple of God in Jerusalem from the Greeks who desecrated it used Sheerah’s cities as their base of operations. And today, more than 3000 after Sheerah built her cities, the remains of Upper Beth Horon and Lower Beth Horon are visible in the Palestinian villages Beit Ur al Fuqua and Beit Ur al Tahat. Their foundations are still visible.

Sistren and brethren, let me ask you this morning? What are you building? What are you building for God? What are you building for your community? What are you building for those who will come after you? What legacy will you leave behind for the people of God to build on? And how are you building? Do you have a plan? Maybe you started out with a good blueprint but something went wrong along the way. 

Are you building on a firm foundation? Are you building on level ground? Are you building on solid rock? Did you remember to lay a sewer system to remove all that pollutes or infects? Or has your building become infested and infected with dirt and disease? Is it time for you to clean house? Did you choose a good cornerstone to bear the weight of your building for generations to come? Are your walls straight? Are your windows cracked and crooked? Is your roof leaking? Or do you need to go back to the drawing board and start over? Brothers, if called has called you to work on a building project would you turn up your nose if God chooses a woman to be the foreman? 

Build your own cities if that’s what God called you to do. Or help the woman or man called to lead the building project. Survey the promise that the Holy One of Sinai, your God, Sheerah’s God has given you. Draft a sketch of the contours of your city, from corner to corner. Remember you have to see your land in order to know how to build on it, how to account for the hills and valleys, and the even ground. Building a city is hard work. And when you lay your foundation, make sure you use solid rock. Build on the rock that is higher than you. 

Build on your foundation. Build your city. Raise the walls; let the towers touch the skies. Fill it with your folk: family and friends, neighbors and strangers. And when your city comes under siege, and it will, when your enemies surround you like a flood, and they will, God will fight for you from the heavens to protect God’s work and if God lets it fall God will stay with you after the fall and strengthen your hands to build again. Now I can’t say that the s-u-n will stand still for you as it did for Sheerah, but I know the S-o-n will stand with and stand for you until he welcomes you to a city not made with hands. And who knows there just might be a little renovation going on in heaven since Sheerah the City-Builder crossed over from labor to reward.

In this season of celebration, stand on the promises of God. Claim your own inheritance. And particularly if you are God’s daughter, don’t let anyone get in your way. Stand in halls of power. Speak truth to power. Build your own city. And may your works praise you in the gates of the city you have built, for the builder of a house or city has more honor than the house or city. 

In the name of the One who waded in the waters of Miryam’s womb, walked the way of suffering as one of the woman-born, and woke from the grasp of death in the deep darkness of the morning. Amen.  

 

Union Baptist Church

Baltimore MD

20 May 2012


Black, Jewish and Queer: The Ethiopian Eunuch

The Ethiopian Eunuch

The story in Acts 8 takes place on the side of the road in the wilderness, and at a crossroads, an intersection. I am not referring to the wilderness of the roads from Jerusalem to Gaza – there was no single road in the Roman era that transversed the fifty miles from Jerusalem to Gaza. One would have to travel a series of spider-web zig-zagging roads from Jerusalem south to Hebron, west to the Ephrathah Valley crossroads, south to Beersheba and northwest to Gaza on the coast, if one wanted a chariot-capable road. (Hebrew Bible students should be checking their atlases and reminding themselves for whom the Ephrathah Valley is named in preparation for next week’s examination.) 

The other wilderness in which this story from Acts takes place is the wilderness of biblical interpretation. This wilderness is also marked by a crossroad. At the intersection of race and ethnicity, the Greek gentile Philip crosses paths with the black Jewish bureaucrat whom I’ll name shortly. 

In this same wilderness, Jewish Scripture intersects Christian Scripture and Jesus is right in the middle, literally at the crossroads. For Philip, the Gentile, the whole bible is apparently all about Jesus. But to be fair, he was probably taught this system of exegesis by Jews, who although and perhaps because, they recognized Yeshua ben Miryam L’Natzeret, Jesus of Nazareth, Mary’s Baby, as the Messiah of whom their prophets prophesied, still identified themselves as Jews, as Israel.

What can we learn from this wilderness encounter at this particular crossroad? Should you who have been laboring for the better part of a year to supplement your Christian interpretive lenses with ancient Near Eastern and Israelite contextual lenses grind those new spectacles under foot and return to wearing your former prescription? Does the story in Acts mean that the Hebrew Scriptures are really the Old Testament and are in fact all about Jesus who is in fact lurking under every bush in the bible? Is this going to be on the final?

What if I were forced to answer the question I keep asking my students: What is a faithful Christian reading of Isaiah 53 that preserves its ancestral contextual integrity? What if I were in that chariot? What would I say? And perhaps most importantly, would the Kandake’s servant still be baptized? 

Let me begin (again) by retelling the story and filling in a few details. There is a biblical tradition that extends to modern Ethiopia of naming royal servants after their monarchs. Some of the names of biblical servants and eunuchs that are attested in Amharic, the contemporary Semitic language of Ethiopia include: Avimelek – my father is king, (this name is also found in the bible for men who are not royal – or other – eunuchs or servants.) Abdimelek – servant of the king and Melech – literally “king” but used as an indication of servitude. These two names belonged to Ethiopian eunuchs who served in the Roman Era in Rome.

Borrowing from this tradition, I will call the official Abdimalkah, “servant of the Queen.” Because he has a name and, the fact that it has been lost to us does not mean that he should be stripped of his dignity along with whatever else he may have had to surrender for his career. We’ll come back to his sacrifice.

I have named him Abdimalkah, because he was in fact, a servant of a queen. The Kandakes were the Queens and Queen Mothers of Meroe on the Nile – the Anchor Bible Dictionary persists in calling it a “kingdom” in spite of the fact that women and ruled there individually and only occasionally had male co-regents. The Kandakes were well-regarded warriors; some taking on the mighty Roman Empire and, the Kandakes were also priestesses of Isis. A second century BCE historian said that the Kandakes were the only real rulers in what I translate as “a queendom.”

While the Kandake in Acts is not named, she is very likely Kandake Amanitore, the co-regent of Meroe, called Kush in the Hebrew Scriptures who reigned from about 1 to 20 or perhaps as long as 50 CE. Kush was later called Nubia and finally, Ethiopia. It corresponds with parts of contemporary Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt.

Kandake Amanitore is the most likely referent because her monuments that exist to this day would have been well known during the first century. Her successor, Amantitere, is also a possibility. 

The writer of Acts may well have expected readers to know all of these things. There is another relevant tradition, that of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, that when Solomon and I quote 2 Kings – “gave the Queen of Sheba her every desire” she returned home pregnant and the two monarchies maintained friendly diplomatic relations across time, exchanging gifts including the scriptures of Israel after their production.

This tradition maintains that Abdimalkah as I call him, was reading Kandake Amanitore’s copy of Isaiah on that wilderness road when he arrived at that crucial intersection. There is some support for this in the text; Abdimalkah has been to worship in Jerusalem. He is a Jew. Israelite religion would have been introduced to the people in the broader Ethiopian cultural context by the Sheba-Solomon connection.

So let us use what my ancestors called sanctified imagination and see what would happen if I were Phillipa and I joined Abdimalkah in his chariot. I would say, “Abdimalkah these words:

And he, because he has been ill–treated,

does not open his mouth;

like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,

and as a lamb is silent before the one shearing it,

so he does not open his mouth.

In his humiliation his judgment was taken away.

Who will describe his generation?

Because his life is being taken from the earth…

These words are from the Greek Scroll of the prophet Isaiah and were written more than four hundred years ago. I know that they are a bit different from the Hebrew Scroll of this same prophet; that line about this man’s life being taken from the earth isn’t in the Hebrew one. 

You ask of whom does the holy prophet speak? I tell you, it is Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified, and more than that, who rose from the dead in our very days. I knew him; I sat at his feet and learned the scriptures of Israel from with and through him. I heard him teach that we should touch the untouchable, love the unlovable and forgive the unforgivable because that is how God loves us. And more, this virgin-born Jesus, who was and is God-in-Human-Flesh, Immanuel in the Hebrew tongue which I know is related to your own language, has power that no one has seen since the days of the prophets of old. When I hear these texts, I hear Jesus because of my experience with Jesus.

But they have other meanings as well. The ancestors of the followers of Jesus from Judea believed that these words spoke of people in Judah in days gone by. The holy words spoke to them of those who suffer as they did when the Babylonians destroyed their nation. It spoke of the suffering of the innocent with the guilty and perhaps of the suffering of the innocent on behalf of the guilty. For many believe that the sins of their ancestors brought the destruction of the nation and even the Temple in which God dwelled on earth. But they were not all guilty. Yet they all suffered. In ancient days, people believed that to be cut off from the land of the living in this text was a description of Israel in exile and, the lengthening of days refers to the restoration of the monarchy. This caused no end of confusion when Jesus was teaching among us; some believed that he would launch an armed revolt against the Romans. 

I have learned from studying the scriptures of Israel with the Judeans that even when sacred scripture was understood in a completely different way in another time, it speaks to those of us who hear and read it today in our time. And some say, that it will continue to speak to generations, yet unborn across the ages.

Abdimalkah, I believe that these verses speak of Jesus of Nazareth who waded in the waters of the Virgin’s womb, walked the way of suffering, and woke from the grasp of death in the deep darkness of the morning.

And, seminary community, I believe that interpreting the scriptures of Israel in their own context does not diminish the proclamation of the Gospel. It is in fact a greatly impoverished gospel that can only stand on texts whose sure foundation has been eradicated. 

And I believe, that when God decided to give birth to the African Church, a Church that survives into modernity without schism or reformation, and God appointed Philip as its midwife, and that Abdimalkah the eunuch becomes God’s firstborn in this new and continuing community.

In order to work for most monarchs in the ancient Near East and North Africa, men had to be surgically neutered. The monarchs did not want top-level employees trying to pass on power to their children and establishing dynasties of their own, or forming adulterous liaisons and undermining the government. Ironically, most eunuch formed intimate partnerships with other eunuchs or intact males, not royal women.

What then are we to make of these things as we prepare to leave this place for all time or for some time? There are several ways in which we can consider eunuchs. 

First, we can consider them to be anachronisms; that is, they are relics of an ancient time and antiquated social system and do not have parallels in our modern-techno-web-based society. For who among us would voluntarily sacrifice his plumbing for a job? There is at least one contemporary parallel, in a nuclear reactor in a small town, nearly destroyed by unemployment some years ago, some women were hired at an unimaginable cost. Those who were of child-bearing age had to agree to be sterilized, so that there would be no possibility of lawsuits over babies with birth defects. That employment contract was eventually overturned.

The last way we can understand eunuchs is as social and sexual outsiders. There are many who view lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and those in the process of having their gender surgically altered as outsiders from the fold of God and society at large. Those who are born with an indeterminate gender or who have been injured – burn patients often loose all of their extremities including their genitalia – quadriplegics, paraplegics and infertile women and couples can also feel like sexual and social outsiders. 

All of these folk for one reason or another do not fit in the dominant image of the American dream in which every woman was born to be a mother and every man was born to be a father in a hetero-patriarchal marriage that produces 2.4 children. There are many who consider anyone who doesn’t want to, or is not able to have a ‘traditional’ family as outsiders to the American dream and ‘traditional family values’ advocated by churches in the name of God.

Eunuchs can then be seen as those who do not fit into our neatly constructed gender paradigms as neatly as we might wish. If we understand eunuchs to be social and sexual outsiders whether born or made, then God chose to birth the faithful African Church though a queer person’s body.

This Gospel is that God’s concern for the woman-born was manifested in God, Godself, becoming woman-born, for the redemption and liberation of all the woman-born: gay, straight, crooked and confused, from fear and from death itself. Yeshua the Messiah, the Son of Woman, came to seek out and save the lost and to give his life as a ransom for many.

13 May 2009

The Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Hebrew and Hebrew Bible

The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia