Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Archive for February, 2012

Noah’s Earth, Ark and our Creation

Genesis 9:8-10: God says, “I, yes I, am establishing my covenant with you all and your offspring after you, and with every living creature that is with you, from birds to herds, every living thing on earth with you, as many as came out of the ark.” And, Mark 1:13: “Jesus, was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by the Satan; and he was with the wild animals; and the angels ministered to him.” This morning I invite you to consider a ‘Cosmic Covenant with Creation.’

Let us pray: In the name of the Author, the Word and the Translator. Amen.

From the day before days when all days began with a divine inhalation, exhalation and articulation, “Let there be,” to the moment the mountains were submerged beneath the hull of Noah’s ark, creation followed by corruption coincide with this cosmic covenant. The Divine Wordsmith spoke and life happened. All manner of life with all manner of feet and none, every kind of tooth, and none, and all sorts of coverings: feathers, fur, scales and skin. A peculiar earthling was pulled from the womb of earth. New, human souls had been breathed into hand-crafted, God-crafted earthen vessels. Then one became two and two became one. In between creation and corruption was Shabbat and its promise of peace from the work of the world.

Smaller cycles of creation and corruption spiraled through the ages. And Lamech, the murderer who invented polygamy fathered a son with one of his wives, either Adah or Zillah. And he called his son’s name Noah. I Enoch, from the scriptural collection of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, tells us Lamech knew Noah was a special child because he was born with a beautiful demdema, which is an old Ethiopic word for a halo of curly hair, in other words, an afro.

Noah’s famous story in today’s first lesson is a call for reflection on consumption and creation. This is our first Lenten reflection. We began this season with the reminder that we are dust; from dust we were crafted and to the dust we shall return. This week’s readings teach that the very dust, and we who were shaped from it, are precious in the sight of God. And we find that we dust-folk have dust-kin in all of the creatures of earth, and the earth herself. As the Jewish poet Marge Piercy (The Art of Blessing the Day: Poems with a Jewish Theme, 2006) writes, “We stand in a a great web of being.”

Our first lesson is a lesson in ecology, a lesson in which in which humans are responsible for safeguarding all creation. Noah is our role model. Noah is righteous, at that time and for a while, although after his salvation narrative he would abuse God’s good gifts of time and wine and call for the oppression of some of his own offspring in a drunken, hung-over rage.

But today, Noah has saved the world. He has saved aardvarks, bats, cats, doves, eagles, fireflies, gophers, horses and an ibex, actually two. Four times the covenant partners of the Creator are identified as every living creature.” This cosmic covenant is with all of creation. God has covenanted with jaguars, kangaroos, lemmings, mice, newts, orangutans, pythons and quails. Five times the covenant partners are “all flesh.” God has made a covenant with every living thing on the ark including, rabbits, sheep, tigers, urchins, vermin, wombats, maybe even a xenopithicus – probably two, yaks and zebra.

The author of the Petrine Epistle, our second lesson, completely misses the boat – pardon the pun. He says that eight souls were preserved through water – No! Noah and his family saved the whole world. Our epistoleer completely discounted animal creation and the plant life that sustains human and animal creation as cosmic covenant partners with the Creator of the universe. The natural world that God also hand-crafted was irrelevant to him, and too many in our world today. The diversity of life aboard the ark is a lesson in and of itself. The world is more than human beings. We can’t survive without plants and animals. We can’t survive without bacteria. Yet under our watch, animals are hunted to extinction, driven from sustainable land as the land itself is used up, even plants driven to extinction.

Noah probably took care of things that he didn’t want to. I don’t imagine that it was easy for Noah and his family – or the animals, if fact I think it may have been downright awful. The Rabbis asked much like Bill Cosby, ‘God, who’s going to clean that up?’ And they answered Noah. Noah was the caretaker and steward of every living thing on the ark, which meant that he was the caretaker and steward of every living thing on earth – except of course for the sea creatures who were more or less on their own. The fate of the entire ecosystem rested in Noah’s hands.

Yet Noah wasn’t in this thing alone, he had help, his wife, their sons, their wives and God, the Creator and Sustainer of all life. The Creator of the cosmos made a covenant with all creation, saying: in verses 8-10, “I, yes I, am establishing my covenant with you all and your offspring after you, and with every living creature that is with you, from birds to herds, every living thing on earth with you, as many as came out of the ark.”

The cosmic sign of the covenant was given in verse 13: God says, “I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.” Here God is laying down a weapon of war – for it was believed that God used that bow to shoot arrows from heaven in the form of hail and lightning. The bow of the original rainbow warrior has become a Divine sticky note. The weapon of war has become an implement of preservation. God says ‘I will remember.’ And Noah says ‘I will remember.’

The story of Noah teaches us that when God wants to destroy the earth and all we who dwell therein, when God wants to wash away our sins and our capacity to sin forever, when God wants to wash her hands of us and there are tears in heaven falling to the earth, God sees the rainbow and remembers. Even when all we can see is clouds, God can see the rainbow, for her vision is far better than ours. God sees her former weapon and keeps her word. And we are saved from destruction again.

The Psalmist understood this when he cried out to his Creatrix: Remember me! In verse 6:

Be mindful of your mother-love, O Yah,

and of your faithful love,

for they have been from the time before time.

The Psalmist also understood that the feelings – rechamim, of God that flowed from the womb – rechem, of God was the tender love of a pregnant mother for a wanted, cherished child. The Psalm concludes with the Psalmist promising to wait for God to remember him, but not him alone. He begs God to ‘redeem Israel out of all of its troubles.’

            The evangelist who shaped today’s Gospel knew that Yeshua L’Natzeret ben Miryam, Jesus, Mary’s boy-child from Nazareth, was the one for whom the Psalmist prayed, the one who would redeem Israel out of all of its troubles. And so we journey to the wilderness where the Son of Woman, the Son of God, the redeemer of Israel and the savior of the whole world, sojourns as the companion of creation. After his surrender to the waters of Baptism, Yeshua, Jesus, the one who is salvation, went to the desert and found an oasis. There was the full diversity of creation, humanity and divinity in his person, natural and supernatural in his companion caretakers – animals and angels.

            Jesus’ desert sojourn prepared him for the proclamation of the Gospel. The Gospel is forged in the heart of the wilderness, a wilderness that is overflowing with life. All desert creatures know how to find water in the wilderness. And they know how to live together in harmony. When all creation is in harmony – humankind, animal-kind, angel-kind – the reign and realm of God is at hand. This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Repent, in this Lenten season and believe in this Good News.

            But are we at harmony with creation? God does not expect us to round up critters in a pilot for a new reality show, “Hoarders: The Noah’s Ark Edition.” Nor does God expect us to bring heaven and earth together in harmony like Jesus in the wilderness. But we do have a role to play in caring for creation. This earth is our home and God’s good gift to us. Yet it seems we prefer consumption to conservation. Many like the author of the Petrine epistle seem to have discounted God’s non-human creation. Some don’t think about animals as more than food, or occasionally pets. We have forgotten that our survival on this planet depends on their survival. It seems that we care even less for plants, for water – oceans, rivers, lakes and streams – and we even seem to care nothing for the air we breathe. We have forgotten that we are covenant partners with all creation. The whole world is ours, to tend, to save or perhaps, to destroy.

            It seems to me that it never occurred to Noah that he couldn’t save the world. God comes to him with this crazy plan that must have sounded like a pipe dream – I mean really, what was he smoking? – and the scripture simply says that “Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.” Some of us also want to save the world. But it may be that we’d rather God asked us to build a titanic ark, seal up us and our folk and some cuddly creatures from the local zoo and leave the unrighteous to their fate than really conserve the earth. But Noah didn’t save the world all at once. He did it bit by bit, as Anne Lamotte would say, bird by bird. With every creature Noah saved, he was saving the world. Every critter counted. As we harvest the treasures of earth – and we need them to survive, I invite you to consider whether our consumption is partnered with conservation.

            Consider for a moment a few of your favorite things – chocolate, coffee, cotton. Consider their county of origin, the indigenous flora and fauna displaced by their plantations; consider the pesticides poured into their native soil and waters. Compare the wages of the workers with the profits of the corporations, consider the packages in which these products come and their final disposition, the petroleum products required to manufacture them and their packaging, and to transport them. And then make wiser choices, life-saving, earth-saving choices.

Noah and God made a covenant that is still binding on us today. We are all partners in a cosmic covenant with all creation. And that means no one gets left behind. We are not to sail off into a future with God and leave the world to drown in corruption. God has saved, is saving and will save more than a handful of folk from one family. Or rather, we are all one human family. There is no sailing off to a world without the rest of human society. Some say that the church is the ark of God in this world, but unlike Noah’s ark, we are not to batten down the hatches and nail the doors shut to keep some in and others out. In this ark with open doors exists all the diversity of the world.

Look around us, search above us, below, behind.


We stand in a great web of being joined together.

Let us praise, let us love the life we are lent
passing through us

in the body of Israel
and our own bodies, let's say amen.

Time flows through us like water.


The past and the dead speak through us.


We breathe out our children's children, blessing.

Blessed is the earth from which we grow,


Blessed the life we are lent,


blessed the ones who teach us,


blessed the ones we teach,


blessed is the word that cannot say the glory


that shines through us and remains to shine


flowing past distant suns on the way to forever.


Let's say amen.

Blessed is light, blessed is darkness,


but blessed above all else is peace
which bears the fruits of knowledge
on strong branches, let's say amen.

Peace that bears joy into the world,


peace that enables love, peace over Israel
everywhere,

blessed and holy is peace, let's say amen.

For the gospel writers, for his disciples and for us, Jesus of Nazareth is the one who unites all creation in peace. Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world is the one who brings all of creation into right relationship with our Creator. The time is fulfilled, and the reign and realm of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news. In the Name of God, Creator, Christ and Comforter. Amen.


Ash Wednesday: We’ve Got Work to Do

2Corinthians 6:1 As we work together with Christ, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain.

Let us pray: In the Name of the Author, the Word and the Translator. Amen.

We’ve got work to do. As we work together with Christ. Fasting and bearing witness to our fast may be important markers of our faith and of our community, but today’s texts put little value on them. Perhaps you have already made your Lenten commitments, what practices you will take on, what pleasures you will give up. Let me suggest a new list from Isaiah. I do so knowing that there is at best an uneasy relationship with works in this community. Such much so that work – no “s” in the epistle – might be viewed with suspicion. Yet the Epistle urges, As we work together with Christ, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain.

For the next few minutes, let us privilege the voices speaking through the epistle and the latter portion of Isaiah, and hear them in concert as we work together with Christ, for whom the words of God through Isaiah were basarah, good news, gospel. On your fast day you find your own pleasure and oppress all your workers. It would easy to say that this does not apply to us; very few of us are entrepreneurs or job-creators. Perhaps this verse is for the one percent. But let’s do pause to ask ourselves the question: on this day are we oppressing others even as we outwardly afflict our souls? Now we don’t all have employees, but we are part of institutions that do. And how do we treat those on whose labor our world, our institutions and our lives depend? In this broken but rebounding economy, it’s easy to balance our budgets on the backs of the working poor, the used to be, want to be, middle class. We down-size and right-size and expect those who remain to do the work of those who have been voted off our islands, in our churches, schools, businesses, local, state and national governments.

And then there are the workers who make our very lives possible. The laborers who pick and produce our food and clothing and homes and gadgets work for all of us. And to the degree any are oppressed, we are all complicit. As Martin King wrote in Strength to Love, “When we arise in the morning, we go into the bathroom where we reach for a sponge provided for us by a Pacific Islander. We reach for soap that is created for us by a Frenchman. The towel is provided by a Turk. Then at the table we drink coffee which is provided for us by a South American, or tea by a Chinese, or cocoa by a West African. Before we leave for our jobs, we are beholden to more than half the world.” We have become, perhaps, even more beholden in the decades since his martyrdom. We are accountable to and for that half of the world and the other half as well.

And so before we immerse ourselves in our Lenten disciplines, seeking to experience the presence of God anew in the coming wilderness, may we heed God’s difficult words in Isaiah: Your fasting today will not make your voice heard on high. Should we persist in fasting, afflicting our souls in the language of my childhood church, God through Isaiah and those writing in Isaiah’s name, describe the fast that pleases God. And there is no mention of chocolate or alleluias:

Is not this the fast that I choose, to unlock the bonds of wickedness,

to release the yoke-ties that burden, to set the oppressed free, and to tear off the yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and the homeless poor, bring into your house?

When you see the naked, cover them, and from your own kin do not to hide yourself.

This is also the work of Christ, the work we are to do together with him. What would it mean to the world, to our Christian witness, if our Lenten practice were to lift burdens from the down-trodden, break the chains of oppression – and if those goals are to lofty and too abstract – feed the hungry and house the homeless, even and especially when they are our own kin? God and Isaiah know that sometimes it’s easier to deal with strangers than our own relatives and that poverty and despair touch us all.

And in what may be the most difficult language for contemporary exegetes, God makes our experience of the Divine Presence dependent on this true fast. If we do these things, im in Hebrew, if, then, az, then:

Then you shall call, and the Holy One of Old shall answer;

you shall cry for help, and God shall say, Here am I …

In this text God and Isaiah declare that there is a link between God’s response to us and our response to those ground down by the world. And there is one more set of conditions: if you remove the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil.

It is not enough for us to refrain from oppressing God’s children or even to work towards their liberation, especially when they are in our very midst, but we must also refrain from finger pointing and the kind of language that is the very antithesis of the good news. Do God and Isaiah know that it’s election season? And there follows a reiteration of what seems to matter most to God: offer to the hungry your own substance and satisfy the needs of the afflicted. People are starving, dying. Do something. Don’t just fast. Your hunger will not ameliorate their hunger.

Then and only then will God respond with an explosion of life in the wilderness of our lives:

The Holy One of Old will guide you always, and satisfy your soul in parched places,

and will fortify your bones; and you shall be like a watered garden,

like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.

Lastly, I’m struck by the context of the Isaiah passage, restoration after exile. The prophet is speaking to folk who don’t have much themselves and are longing for a return to a Golden Age long gone, you know, the way it used to (never) be. The horrors of the exile have ended but the Israelites – really what remains of Judah with representatives from Benjamin and a few scattered tribes thrown in – are not back in paradise. Everything is harder than they imagined it would be. They are poorer than they thought they would be. The Persians are intentionally keeping them too poor to mount a successful rebellion. And yet they have reinscribed old class stratifications on their renewed society. The rolls of returnees in Ezra and Nehemiah stipulate that there is at least one servant or slave for every six returnees, some of whom have become so indebted to their fellow Israelites that they have had to sell their children, and watch while their daughters were used by their neighbors. And while the temple has been restored, well if not fully restored, at least rebuilt, the good government jobs of the temple-industrial complex on Davidic and Solomonic scales are long gone.

To those who might feel that they have every right to say each man for himself, God through Isaiah’s legacy says, You are not too poor to do justice. Times are not so hard that you’re relieved of the obligation to do what is right. It doesn’t matter how bad the economy is; we have work to do.

But we will not do that work alone. We work with Christ. We work with Christ because Christ is already doing that work. Christ lived and died doing that work and lives again continuing that work. We who say that we have been transformed into his image by his work must join, imitate and replicate his work. We’ve got work to do. As we work together with Christ, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. Amen.

The text of this sermon is also available as a Lenten meditation on the Huffington Post.


Sabbath of Just-Laws and My Two Cents

Jean-Leon Gerome: Selling Slaves in Rome

Shabbat Mishpatim & Shabbat Shekalim 5772

On this Shabbat that we examine toroth, laws, that we hope are rooted in mishpat, justice I offer my mechatzi shekalim, my half-shekel, my two cents on this double-shabbat.

Imagine with me. We are our ancestors. We have been liberated from Egyptian slavery. There are Israelites and Nubians and Phoenicians and peoples from every nation conquered by the Egyptians, perhaps even a few Egyptians in the great Exodus. We are all looking for a new start. We have been on this journey long enough that we’re taking it for granted. We no longer wonder where we are when we wake up. The miraculous events of the past few weeks seem like a dream except the pillar of cloud is there and there is rumbling from heaven whenever Moshe goes in to the Mishkan. We have the water and food we need each day even though we are in a desert with no oasis in sight.

From time to time Moshe comes to us with Torah, words of teaching from God of Fire and Cloud who accompanies and guides us. God and Moshe are teaching us how to be a people, how to govern and conduct ourselves, how to treat others and how to revere God, so that when we get to freedom in our new home, we will know how to live, not as the Egyptians live, not as any of the other nations of earth live, but we will model a new way of living, we think, we hope. And yes, there are other nations with codes of law and we have some laws in common, but ours is special, different, singular, like our one God.

Those of us on this journey were born in slavery as were our parents and their parents before them, generation after generation. The freedom of this journey is the only freedom any of us have ever known. We can scarcely imagine what it would be like to have land, vines and fig trees, sheep and goats, our own homes with our families, to labor for ourselves and our community, to be free of the brutality and ravishment – but we don’t talk about that. We speak of our enslavement without ever mentioning how women and girls are treated by the slaveholders of every time and place, and sometimes boys and men as well. We tell the story of Yosef who got away from that evil woman, but we never mention those who did not escape their predators.

Today, Moshe’s words include something that we thought we’d never hear again. Some of us will be sold back into slavery. And there will be no escape, no Exodus. Lo tetze. She shall not go out. There shall be no Exodus, no liberation, no freedom for her.

Exodus 21:7 When a man sells his daughter as a slave, lo tetze, she shall not go out as the male slaves go out. 8 If she is unacceptable in the sight of her lord, who designated her for himself, then he shall let her be ransomed; he shall not sell her to a foreign people – he does not have the authority to do so because of his treachery against her. 9 If he designates her for his son, he shall treat her justly as a daughter. 10 If he takes another woman for himself, he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or intercourse of the first woman. 11 And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing – no money.

In Exodus 20-23 the treatment of Israelite and non-Israelite slaves is repeatedly addressed. The passage begins (Ex 20:10) and ends (Ex 23:12) with Shabbat rest for the Israelites, their livestock and any resident aliens within their midst; the call for Shabbat is universal. Yet there is an omission of the free women in the household.

Ex 21:7-11 speaks of unmarried women and girls who are sold into slavery by their own fathers, (or perhaps parents), setting this Torah in the middle of the Exodus journey, allowing for the literary possibility that some young women left Egypt as freedwomen but were sold off along the way or entered Canaan as slaves. Their own fathers nullified the freedom that God gave them through Moshe, for money. A critical reading of this text looks at this passage in light of its much later composition, and sees it speaking to a period of desperate poverty in Judea, perhaps after the restoration as in Neh 5:5 Now our flesh is the same as that of our kindred; our children are the same as their children; and yet we are forcing our sons and daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have been ravished; we are powerless, and our fields and vineyards now belong to others.”  

But this torah isn’t set in Nehemiah. It is plumb in the middle of Exodus. My first question is how are we to understand this torah in its literary context? Why would a father newly freed from slavery sell his daughter? It is striking that the text doesn’t require the family to be in debt, he can just sell her at a whim. Perhaps the best thing that I can say about this text is that it was revised in the canon, Deuteronomy 15:12-18 grants release to these enslaved women in the same circumstances as enslaved men and sens them both out with resources to help them establish themselves in the world.

Since yatza is the primary verb of the Exodus, I hear the “going out” as emancipation – but in this case, denial of emancipation, from slavery. In other words, women and girls who are sold into slavery shall not be released from bondage except as specified in this text. Yet there are some slight protections for her: The man her father sells her to cannot use her sexually and then sell her to non-Israelites. It seems he must be an Israelite himself. Her buyer cannot use her sexually if he designates her for his son’s sexual use and he cannot reduce her material provisions – food, clothing and the opportunity to conceive – if he acquires another woman. While these provisions leave much to be desired, they are clearly aimed at preventing sexual use and abandonment of vulnerable women having been sold by their fathers. I think that the very existence of this passage indicates that this is exactly what was going on, that girls were being sold, used sexually and then resold. The text refers to this as “treachery” “against” or “in” her, bevigdo-vah. The penalty – if one can call it that – for the slaveholder who does any of these things is that he forfeits all rights to the woman or girl. Verse 8 says that her enslaver shall let her be ransomed; it is not clear who will ransom her. It is hard to imagine her father buying her back.

Lastly, verse 11 says that the emancipated woman shall go out “for nothing, chinam,” “no money, ayin keseph,” that is, if someone does ransom her from slavery. She will not plunder her former enslaver as did the Israelite women plundered the Egyptians, and she will not be led to a land flowing with milk and honey. She will be on her own to make her own way in a world that may not value a formerly enslaved woman with a sexual history.

The fate of these women slaves, whether or not they are eligible for this conditional emancipation depends entirely on whether they “please” their lords or better, “if she is ra‘ah in his eyes.” So then if the woman sold by her father is not attractive to her new owner and he has sex with her anyway and then decides to get rid of her then the provisions of Ex 21:7-11 come into play. However, according to the logic of the text, if the slaveholder refrains from having sex with her, then he can sell her to a foreigner or give her to his son for his sexual and reproductive use. Then, lo tetze, she shall not go out to freedom.

My questions: How are we to understand this torah in its literary context? How does the tradition value individuals in relationship to the community? Then, reading beyond it’s context into our own, there is a belief that some people have the right to dominate and control the bodies of other people. This notion is fundamental to the scriptures but older than them even though it is sanctified by them – and by the scriptures of many if not all religions. The radical patriarchy assumed by the text is not a thing of the past. Men (and women) still sell their daughters. Some due to extreme poverty, others out of greed or addiction. Contemporary sex-trafficking and slavery keep this torah relevant. How do we fight the assumptions of this text as patriarchy continues to infect our public, religious and political discourses.

Lastly, I’d like to suggest that perhaps, Moshe’s promulgation of patriarchal toroth in the Divine Name, had something to do with his being barred from setting foot in the Promised Land. Perhaps. Shabbat shalom.

(The image: Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904): "Selling Slaves in Rome," Public Domain Photos)


A Radical, Threatening Love

 The Commemoration of Fr. Absalom Jones

(read today's lessons)

This morning I’d like to talk to you about Radical, Threatening Love.

By the rivers of Babylon, Israel sat down and there they wept when they remembered Zion. By the rivers Mississippi, Potomac and Chattahoochee, our ancestors sat down and there they wept when they remembered Mother Africa. On the willows, Israel hung up their harps, one translation says, “on the poplars.” From American poplar trees our ancestors were hung:

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

In Babylon, Israel’s captors asked them for words of songs and their tormentors for joy saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.” In America and the Caribbean, our ancestors’ captors asked them for songs and minstrelsy, saying, “Sing us one of those Negro Spirituals.” How could they sing the song of the God of Mt. Sinai, in Egypt, in Africa, on foreign ground? How could we sing on command, shuck and jive, shuffle and scratch where we were not itching? If they forget Jerusalem, may their right hands wither and their tongues cling to the roofs of their mouths. If we forget Mother Africa, may our right hands wither and our tongues cling to the roofs of our mouths. If they do not remember, from whence they came… If we do not remember, from whence we came… There’s no place like home.

And home is also where the heart is, here, in Jerusalem, in Africa, Europe and the Caribbean, throughout our diasporas. Persons of African descent do not seek to return to our ancestral homeland as a collective any more than do all the world’s Jews seek to immigrate to Israel. These rivers have become our rivers. This land has become our land. And because of the lives and deaths of our ancestors, the land that once held us captive has become home for many of us here today. Here, biblical stories have been re-enacted and reinterpreted and reincarnated, from Harriet Moses Tubman to Canadian Canaan and back again with radical, threatening love, the kind of love that transforms people, places and even politics.

The Israelites eventually made a home in Babylon in spite of the violence with which they were transported. They transformed Babylon and left their own stamp on its culture. From then on, the name of Babylon would be linked with the Jewish theological tradition in the form of the Babylonian Talmud. Africans in America also made a home here in spite of the violence with which our ancestors were first deposited on these shores, surviving and thriving, changing American culture even as we were changed by our ancestors’ violent encounter with it.

Here in this Episcopal Church our ancestors made a home, carving it out of the ignorance, racism and sometimes, hatred that infested and infected it. We must never forget that our Church as did many others – once told enslaved Africans that the promises of freedom in the Gospels and in the Baptismal Covenant did not apply to them in a literal, physical sense. They would get the only freedom they needed to worry about in the next world. Yet our ancestors like blessed Absalom Jones found a home or the makings of a home in this church in spite of the racism and white supremacy that stained it, and transformed it into our home, with radical, threatening love. Those who were threatened by their claims of God’s love for them burned this church down. More than once, I believe. But look at us now, bishops, priests, deacons, acolytes, vergers, lay-readers, vibrant multi-cultural congregations; we are the Church along with a myriad of sisters and brothers from all nations and races. Now it is our task to continue to make this church home for all of God’s children, preaching the gospel of Isaiah and Jesus:

… good news to the oppressed,
…bind up the brokenhearted,
…preach to the captives, liberty,
and to the prisoners, release, freedom…

We need that gospel today, for though we’ve come a long way, oppression endures. People and institutions use their privilege and power to trample the rights and dignity of other people. Nearly twenty-five hundred years after the time when it is thought that the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites because they were different, ethnically, culturally and religiously, cultural, ethnic, religious and racial hatred endures in our world, in our nation and, if the truth be told, in our Church. There is still systematic oppression of women and girls in our world. Bullying of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth and adults, and in far too many cases, assaults and murders or coerced suicides. The poor, the working poor and the desperate poor are ground down by the wealthy and sometimes by the middle class, even though most of the middle class is just a paycheck or serious illness away from becoming desperately poor themselves. The oppressed are yet with us and if we tell the truth, sometimes we are complicit in their oppression. We participate in and benefit from a system where workers in China and Indonesia make our electronic gadgets and tennis shoes at slave wages. Our economy depends migrant labor toiling for pennies an hour with no benefits so we can have fresh fruit and vegetables and coffee and tea. Even slavery persists, in factories, and in private homes. And then there are the untold numbers of women, girls and boys sold into sexual slavery each year. Radical threatening love requires unpopular truth-telling. That is also the Gospel.

The world needs this Gospel, this good news. We need to be reminded of the good news, that the Spirit of God has already anointed us, already sent us to proclaim this gospel with our words and with our lives. And it is good news. The good news is God’s love made flesh in Jesus the Messiah. God’s response to the brokenness of this world is divine love, not a warm, fuzzy feeling, but living, breathing, redeeming, transforming love active in the world, a radical, threatening love. As Fr. Absalom reminds us in his sermon, God came down into human history to deliver Israel from her oppressors. That’s good news.

This good news was also clothed in the Virgin’s womb. Jesus is the good news, his very existence, his life, his love, his witness, his example, his teaching is good news to those broken down by the mighty of this world. Even his suffering and death were transformed into good news by his glorious resurrection. The good news is also that God continues to redeem and to save, intervening in our lives and in our world, bringing real, literal freedom to those in bondage. God came down into our very nation, across the Atlantic, even to Great Britain, Spain and Portugal to wipe out the Atlantic slave trade. But this time, God didn’t come down into a virgin’s womb. God didn’t raise up a Moses, woman or man. God worked through women and men in houses of worship and government. The abolition of slavery, renunciation of Jim Crow and securing of civil rights for all Americans were the fruit of the Spirit of God moving through the hearts of women and men without number. Sometimes I think we forget that.

Sometimes, I think we get so fixated on individual heroes that we forget that we all have a role to play in proclaiming the good news, binding up the broken hearted and preaching liberty, freedom and release to captives and prisoners. And for all the freedom we have, we are still captive to so much in our world, in our lives and sometimes in our minds.  Yet whatever the forces marshaled by the tyrants of this world, they will not stand because it is the Spirit of the Living Loving God who anoints, enables, empowers us.

The Spirit of God. The Spirit who fluttered over the waters of chaos giving birth to creation. The spirit embodied in fire and cloud leading her people from slavery to freedom. The Spirit who thunders like mighty waters, crashes like breaking rocks and speaks in a small, still voice – the sound of sheer silence. The Spirit who accompanied her people into Babylonian exile and shepherded them back to their homeland, keeping her promise. The Spirit who spoke new and unimaginable life in the womb of the Virgin of Nazareth. The same Spirit who taught and guided and accompanied Jesus of Nazareth, empowering him and raising him from the dead – that same Spirit calls us, sends us, anoints us, prepares us, enables us, empowers us.

And that is why we can proclaim good news to the oppressed. How could we not? Bind up the broken pieces of the broken hearts around us and even our own broken hearts. It’s possible because of the power of the Spirit. Preach liberty, release and freedom and know that it is coming because the Spirit has never failed to deliver. Proclaim that this is the year of God’s favor. As was last year and the year before that, and the ancient year in which this text was first composed. And we who have just buried our dear Billy Valentine, and those mourning Whitney Houston, the Spirit comforts us and accompanies us as we comfort each other. And while we are waiting the long years it may take for God to break open our prisons and change the heart of nations, God is always with us, hearing our prayers, accompanying us on our journey, sharing in our suffering. This too is good news. We are never alone. And that’s a good thing, because the path of love is not always an easy path.

And yet what neither Jesus nor Absalom Jones did was check the prevailing cultural and political winds before opposing the religious authorities in the name of love in their day. They did not choose the easy path, the popular path. They chose the path of love, radical, threatening love. Threatening the establishments of their day, threatening their spiritual power and economic interests. With love. The love our Gospel calls for, life-surrendering, life-saving love. The love Fr. Absalom had for his wife when he bought her freedom from slavery, when he could have used that money for himself – he had no way of knowing if he would ever get his hands on that much money again. But he chose to lay his life down in the bonds of slavery so that she and their children would be free. That’s love.

This is the good news that Father Absalom Jones preached. This is the Gospel. This Gospel is that God’s love for the woman-born was manifested in God, Godself, becoming woman-born, for the redemption and liberation of all the woman-born from every oppression and from death itself. Jesus the Messiah, the Son of Woman and the Son of God, came to seek out and save the lost and to give his life as a ransom for many.

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

The Lessons for the Day:

Isaiah 61:1 The spirit of the Sovereign God is upon me,
because the Holy God has anointed me;
God has sent me to proclaim good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to preach to the captives, liberty,
and to the prisoners, release, freedom;
2 to proclaim the year of the Gracious God’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion,
to give them a wreath instead of refuse,
the oil of jubilation instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a fainting spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Faithful God, to wreathe God in glory.
4 They shall build up the ancient ruins,
the former desolations, they shall raise;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the desolations of many generations.

Psalm 137 

1 By the rivers of Babylon,
there we sat and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows there we hung up our harps.
3 For there they who took us captive
asked us for words of songs,
and our tormentors for joy, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion.” 
4 How could we sing the song of the God of Sinai
on foreign ground?
5 If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand wither.
6 May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.

Thanksgiving Sermon, 1 January 1808  An Epistle from Fr. Absalom Jones,

The history of the world shows us, that the deliverance of the children of Israel from their bondage, is not the only instance, in which it has pleased God to appear in behalf of oppressed and distressed nations, as the deliverer of the innocent, and of those who call upon his name. He is as unchangeable in his nature and character, as he is in his wisdom and power. The great and blessed event, which we have this day met to celebrate, is a striking proof, that the God of heaven and earth is the same, yesterday, and to-day, and for ever…He has heard the prayers that have ascended from the hearts of his people; and he has, as in the case of his ancient and chosen people the Jews, come down to deliver our suffering countrymen from the hands of their oppressors. He came down into the United States, when they declared, in the constitution which they framed in 1788, that the trade in our African fellow-men, should cease in the year 1808: He came down into the British Parliament, when they passed a law to put an end to the same iniquitous trade in May, 1807…

Let not our expressions of gratitude to God for his late goodness and mercy to our countrymen, be confined to this day, nor to this house: let us carry grateful hearts with us to our places of abode, and to our daily occupations; and let praise and thanksgivings ascend daily to the throne of grace, in our families, and in our closets, for what God has done for our African brethren. Let us not forget to praise him for his mercies to such of our colour as are inhabitants of this country; particularly, for disposing the hearts of the rulers of many of the states to pass laws for the abolition of slavery; for the number and zeal of the friends he has raised up to plead our cause; and for the privileges, we enjoy, of worshiping God, agreeably to our consciences, in churches of our own. This comely building, erected chiefly by the generosity of our friends, is a monument of God's goodness to us, and calls for our gratitude with all the other blessings that have been mentioned.

The Gospel

John 15:12 “This is my commandment, that you keep on loving one another just as I have loved you. 13 A greater love than this has no one, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 No longer do I call you servants any, because the servant does not know what the lord is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 

(return to the sermon)


Christian Zionist Messianism Run Amok: Eddie Long’s Torah Coronation

Eddie Long from the YouTube VideoI am writing this response to a YouTube video circulating widely on the Internet in in which Eddie Long, the troubled pastor of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta GA, is apparently crowned king with the ritual use of a Jewish Torah scroll. The reader may know Long for the recent scandal in which he was accused by five young men of sexual misconduct. After initially denying the allegations, he went into settlement talks with them. A number of specious claims are made during the ritual which I would like to refute. (right: image of Eddie Long from the YouTube video)

The unidentified man represents himself as a Jew (in the YouTube video to which I had access he is identified subsequently as Ralph Messer). He may well be some sort of Messianic Jew, a person who claims Jewish heritage and recognizes Jesus as the Son of God, but who is not part of one of the major Jewish movements: Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, Renewal. He does not, however, represent recognizable Jewish thought or practice in his (mis-)representations of the Torah and other Jewish sancta – or for that matter, New Testament and Christian biblical interpretation and theology. 

  1. The claim that Holocaust Torahs cannot be insured “because there are no more” is patently false. They are regularly insured as are other one of a kind objectsd’art, i.e. the works of Picasso.
  2. The Torah cover is not a “foreskin.” Hyper-masculine, hyper-sexualization of the Torah reduces the holy Torah to a problematic phallic symbol – God’s? or Long’s? – and categorizes the most destructive behaviors associated with New Birth ministries in recent years. Grammatically and symbolically, the Torah is feminine in Hebrew and is personified as “She,” as in “She is a Tree of Life,” in Prov. 3:18.
  3. The Temple in Jerusalem was not a synagogue or Beth Midrash, where Torah scrolls were kept and studied.
  4. The Torah wrapper is not referred to as a “belt of righteousness.”
  5. The tree in the vision in the book of Revelation whose “leaves are for the healing of the nations,” (22:2), is a fruit tree – not a Torah scroll – and the text does not say that there are “39 leaves” as claimed in the video.
  6. The claim that “only one of great authority” is given a “finger” to touch the scroll is patently false. Any bar or bat mitvah, girl or boy, woman or man, who has completed the rite of passage, can chant the Torah according to the (minhag) custom in their congregation. Torah scroll pointers, called “hands,” (yadayim), not “fingers” are common gifts and possessions in Jewish families and communities.
  7. The claim that 90% of the Jews in the world have “never seen, approached or touched” Torah scrolls is utterly without foundation. The Torah is taken out of the Ark during Shabbat and other services; it is processed through the assembly twice where people reverence it (Her!) by touching and kissing it/Her.
  8. The frequent references to significant numbers may be an attempt to mimic the Jewish mystical tradition of Gematria that elicits meanings from numbers and their contexts.  The speaker is devising his own system without reference to any of the classical texts in Judaism, frequently by simple free- and word-association.
  9. There is no verse in the scriptures where Jesus calls himself “the eternal government of God” as claimed by the speaker.
  10. The point that “these” – presumably Torah scrolls or just Holocaust Torah scrolls are only given to “cities in need of anointing” is false. Individuals, families and religious communities own and commission Torah scrolls and keep or give them as they see fit, to synagogues, Jewish seminaries and other schools and museums.
  11. Even if the speaker identifies as a Jew and has Israeli citizenship, he does not speak for “the Jewish people,” “the land of Israel” or “the state of Israel.”
  12. His address of Eddie Long as a biblical or Israelite king is without foundation in the scriptures or in reality.
  13. The notion that there is such a thing as a “king chromosome” is a fiction, as is the claim that it is kohenic, that is priestly; the Israelite and Judean monarchs – there were queens as well – were not priests.
  14. The man’s articulation of what “God wants,” is to say the least unsubstantiated outside that particular setting.
  15. The man never says how he knows that none of Long’s ancestors or relatives has ever seen a Torah scroll.
  16. While there are some traditional reflections on the human body – including DNA and chromosomes – in the mystical Kabbalistic tradition, the speaker is crafting a verbal montage without reference to the classical texts or their theologies.
  17. He attributes a quote to “Jewish doctors” stereotyping an entire community as conflating cellular biology with his Hebrew mysticism without actually naming or quoting any single “Jewish doctor” who holds such an opinion.
  18. The “crowns” in Torah scrolls stem from a particular – now-normative – calligraphy style, but other types of calligraphy have been used through the ages to produce legitimate Torah scrolls.
  19. The claim that the kings of Israel were crowned with Torah scrolls wrapping them has no foundation in the biblical text. According to the bible’s own chronology the written Torah did not come into existence until the reign of King Josiah in the sixth century BCE (2 Kgs 22), some four hundred years after the time of David. However, the great second century rabbi Hanina ben Teradion, was however wrapped in a Torah scroll and burned alive in his martyrdom. Perhaps he has confused or conflated the traditions.
  20. While the Torah poles are called, etzim, “trees,” they are not known as “justice and blessing.”
  21. The speaker’s claim that his speaking “life” to Eddie Long as a Jew has some meaning, is utterly without meaning.
  22. The speaker’s prediction that the ritual – his antecedent is unclear – will arouse either “death” or “life” in someone – Long? Or the congregation? – is his own Gnosticism, knowledge that is not shared by those outside that particular setting.
  23. There is no precedent for presenting anyone, even a fictitious Israelite-ish monarch with the Torah wrapper.
  24. The donning of the tallit, prayer shawl, is done by those who have completed their bar or bat mitzvah – whatever it was that just occurred, it had none of the requisite elements of a bat or bar mitzvah. In addition the tallit is donned by pulling it over one’s head and reciting the traditional prayer, which was not done. It is also not draped like a clergy stole.
  25. The elevation of Long lifted in the chair by four men seems to have been borrowed from Jewish wedding festivities and has noting to do with coronation; there is no evidence of this practice among Israelite or Judean monarchs.
  26. The Aaronic blessing (Num 6:24-26) is a blessing for the people and not a putative leader.

It is unfortunate that the speaker chose to plunder the sacred traditions of Judaism as he invented novel interpretations of biblical texts and imagery to affirm and elevate an individual who had admittedly broken the sacred trust between pastor and congregant.

A version of this post ran first on TheFeministWire.com. A quote appears in Anthea Butler's commentary on ReligionDispatches.com.