Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Archive for 2013

Yo, You Are Not the Father: A Meditation on St. Joseph

St. Joseph, Patron Saint of Fathers
Patron Saint of Step-Fathers
Patron Saint of Adoptive Fathers
Patron Saint of Dead-Beat Dads

 

Every year during Christmas and Advent, I think about St. Joseph. I remember a sermon I heard from his perspective more than a decade ago. The preacher-man was saying how hard it is for men to raise children that are not theirs, particularly when they feel that they have been deceived. It’s one thing for a man to marry a widow, divorced mom or single mother, or for a couple to decide to adopt or even use a reproductive technology that involves donor sperm. It is an entirely different matter for a man to stay with a woman who has been impregnated by someone else after they made a commitment to each other. It must have been unimaginable for Yosef, Yusif, José, or Joseph to hear his woman saying that she had never cheated, never been unfaithful and was pregnant and the Holy Spirit – She! – was the Father.
I wonder if Yo thought Miryam or Mary or Maria was mentally ill. I’d like to believe that he loved her. That the quiet divorce was to spare her shame, protect her family honor and his, and to save her life. It’s also possible that he wanted to annul their betrothal quietly so that he wouldn’t lose face. Even if Yo came to believe Miryam’s crazy [@$$] story – and let’s not be so sanctified that we think that makes sense – even if he believed her,  his family and his boys wouldn’t. They would say that he got punked; that he was a punk; that he was pitiful for staying with a girl that played him so badly, so publicly.
Yo doesn’t get a lot of ink in the bible. But what he does get is continual reassurance from God through his dreams, for a while. God appears to him over and over again. And like his eponymous ancestor, he doesn’t need anyone to interpret his dreams for him.
To his eternal credit and well-earned sanctification, Yo stays with his woman. But he doesn’t touch her, for a while – a long while. I can’t believe that he didn’t feel bitter, betrayed and trapped at least some of the time. But he stayed.
Although he is absent from the Epiphany story. Where was he? Were they separated then? If so, they worked through it. And they had a real marriage. The scriptures are clear that they had four sons and an unknown number of daughters. (The perverse interpretation of the scriptures denies them their holy, healthy, God-given sexuality is blasphemy.)
But Joseph eventually disappears. He may well have died. But that is not the only possibility. As the strange boy-child became an even stranger man-child it became more and more clear that he was a stranger. And in spite of all of that God-talk the memories of those dreams were faded memories. The boy was trouble, running off, getting lost, causing a scene in the temple before the elders, reminding everyone about the possibility that Yo had been cuckolded. Joseph left.
Miriam was widowed by death, by abandonment or indifference. When she needed him, he wasn’t there. When her son – not his – was arrested; Yo wasn’t there. When her son – not his – was executed; Joseph wasn’t there. When her son – not his – was taken down from his lynching tree; Yusif wasn’t there. When her son – not his – was bathed after his death for his burial; Yosef wasn’t there.
José didn’t come back when people started saying that her son – not his – had risen from the grave. Joseph didn’t gather in Yerushalyim to see if her son – not his – would really meet his disciples including his mother, sisters and brothers for Shavuoth. Perhaps he was dead. Perhaps he heard all that miraculous, unbelievable resurrection talk and was ashamed of leaving, after all he hadheard from God in his dreams.
The silence in the scriptures surrounding Joseph’s absence at the end (and new beginning) of Jesus’ life is intriguing. If he was dead, why not say so? If he was a great age when he married Miryam and impotent and had children from a previous marriage, why not say so?
But if he left, left God’s son fatherless, how could that be explained? If he lost his faith, how could the rest of us come to believe?
I think he left. I think that the very humanity of Christ made the Incarnation harder and harder for him to believe. And I believe that as a saint who lost his faith, St. Joseph has much to teach us. Our faith is not rational. It is nearly unsustainable in the real world. I wonder if Joseph had other dreams that he disregarded. I wonder if having received his last divine visitation he believed he needed one more, and then another, and another, like an addict. I wonder if he ever really believed. I wonder if his pride got in the way of him asking Jesus the man, “Who are you really? Where did you come from? I need to know.”
Perhaps the disappearance of St. Joseph teaches us that we have to invest in our faith on a daily basis, making ourselves vulnerable to ridicule and the scandal of the gospel. I have to believe that when God called Miryam and Yosef into service God knew that they were capable of living into and up to their calling. And, God knew that they were capable of failing.
St. Joseph’s disappearance and likely abandonment of his family, God’s family, the family that he had promised God he would nurture on God’s behalf, also teach us that marriages fail and families rupture even when God is Incarnate in their  midst. And, we learn that a single mother can raise a child who will change the world by her [d@mn] self. And we learn that children from single-parent homes may be a little odd, lacking in a few social graces, but full repositories of God’s gifts and graces.
St. Joseph, I’m not mad at you. I think I understand as much as I can how hard was your calling. I’m just glad you were able to hang in there as long as you did. You guided them to safety and saved their lives, risking your own. I honor you for that. And I think you can claim some of what he grew into. Your mark is on him and no one can take that away from you.

St. Joseph, Patron Saint of Fathers
Patron Saint of Step-Fathers
Patron Saint of Adoptive Fathers
Patron Saint of Dead-Beat Dads
I call your name. I bless your memory. Ashé.

The Magnificat as Kedushat HaShem: Sanctifying God’s Name

God has shown strength with God’s arm;
God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
 and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things, 
and sent the rich away empty.
God has helped God’s servant Israel,
in remembrance of God’s mercy, 
according to the promise God made to our ancestors,
to the descendants of Abraham through Hagar and Sarah and Keturah forever.
Luke 1:46-56, RGT, (Revised Gafney Translation)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Magnificat properly belongs at the Visitation, traditionally 31 May – an unspecified amount of time after the Annunciation, observed on 25 March (often in Lent, occasionally on Good Friday) – In those days Miryam, Mary, set out… Luke 1:39. It is “repeated” in Advent, though many missed it earlier.

God has…
The Virgin proclaims that God has already done all of these things, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, in spite of her present reality.
God has shown strength with God’s own arm at varying points throughout Israel’s history, and the memory, witness and testimony of their ancient scriptures and new psalms to God’s strength, willingness and power to save in those times is enough for the present moment. In the face of the mighty Roman Empire, what God has already done is enough.
God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts in the songs and stories of old enfolded into the scriptures of Israel. Herod’s arrogance goes yet unchallenged but God has unseated the proud from their thrones in their hearts and halls before and it is enough.
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones inside and outside of Israel, whether or not they were enthroned with God’s blessing. God has deposed other gods from within their own realms. Caesar or any other would-be god, it matters not. God has done it before and can do it again. And that is enough.
God has lifted up the lowly time and time again. In spite of the biases of Israel’s story-tellers and scripture-writers, the God of Israel visits and blesses women and children and slaves and foreigners. A peculiarly pregnant girl-child and her post-menopausal cousin with her own pregnancy predicament may be beyond the notice of Rome, but not God. And it is enough.
God has filled the hungry with good things in the before times and every once in a while in our time. People still go hungry, people still die in squalor, taxed to death by Rome and Romanesque imperial imitators, but God still provides unexpected and unimaginable blessings. Our people will not be starved to death and pass out of existence on God’s watch. Some of us will survive and that is enough.
God has sent the rich away empty in our stories and songs and scriptures. The glory of Rome is not eternal. Ask the Egyptians, ask the Assyrians, ask the Babylonians, ask the Persians, ask Alexander the Great, if you can find him. God has done it before and that is enough.
God has helped God’s servant, in our faithfulness and in our faithlessness. God has been faithful. In our history, in our memories, in our scriptures, God has been faithful and it is enough.
God has remembered God’s promise and will keep it. Our prophets Miriam and Moses taught us to hold God accountable to God’s promises. They bargained and argued with God and never let God forget God’s promises to our ancestors or to us, their descendants. Even when the promises have not yet been kept, God remembers and that is enough.
Dayenu. “It is enough.” This is a Pesach (Passover) theology. Sometimes the Visitation overlaps with Pesach. Dayenu, is the refrain and title of what may be the most familiar and popular Passover song. The song says that if God had only… and lists the miracles God performed for the ancestors, if God had only done one and not these that followed, it would have been enough. Dayenu.
And it occurs to me that the theology that the Ever-Blessed Virgin named for Miryam the Prophet of Exodus is proclaiming is Dayenu, Passover theology even though the song would be written centuries after her death or assumption, whichever you prefer.
The Holy Mother of the Word-Made-Flesh is herself a Torah-sage and she teaches us. Her perspective on the yoke of Roman oppression that strangled her world is framed by the memory of what God has done for her people and her ancestors. And by what God is doing to and through her: Kedushat haShem, sanctifying the Divine Name.
Kedushat haShem, sanctifying the Divine Name would come to be the way in which the actions of martyrs were understood. The Stations of the Cross liturgy on Good Friday places the words of No’omi and Lamentations on the lips of the Sorrowful Virgin at the foot of the cross: Call me not My-Pleasant-One, No’omi; call me Bitter-Woman, Mara. For Mother God, the nurturing nursing Shaddai has embittered  me. And, Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow. For me, the Mother of Sorrows is also the Mother of Martyrs. And there have been enough. Dayenu.
Truly all generations call you blessed.
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 
for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;   
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, 
and holy is God’s Name.
Post Script: The Magnificat is woven from Hannah’s Hymn in 1 Sam 2 which also lives on in Ps 113, making Hannah one of the most overlooked authors of scripture.

Israelite & Jewish Identity in Black & White: Shabbat Vayigash

 

*Vayigash Mandela. Mandela stood. And now he is at rest. I dedicate this drash to the memory of Rolihlahla, Nelson, Mandela, Madiba. (Vayigash, “he stood,” is the first word of today’s Torah portion, Gen 44:18-47:27.)

Ex 46:20 To Joseph in the land of Egypt were born Manasseh and Ephraim, whom Asenath bat Potiphera, priest of On, gave birth to for him.

I was going to begin: “Jewish folk and black folk have shared experiences of diaspora, involuntary and voluntary.” But that language is not quite right. Those binary categories presume there are no black Jewish folk (or African Israelites). We know that’s not true, and no, I’m not about to convert. But what language should I use instead?

 

 

Slavery. Freedom. Diaspora. Migration. These are some of the themes that drew enslaved Africans in the Americans to the stories of the Israelites in spite of the best efforts of the slavers – black folk are the only folk in the United States for whom reading was illegal, primarily to keep my ancestors from reading the bible and concluding it called for their liberation. Though to be clear Africans were not dependent on slavery, white folk or Western Christians for their introduction to either testament, Judaism or Christianity.

Africa looms large in many of our hearts this week as one of her lions has taken his final rest.

South Africa is one of the spaces in which Jewish and African identities meet and mingle, in the very kohenic DNA of the Lemba people. (The Lemba are South African and Zimbabwean African Jews with genetic links to the Kohen, priestly gene, previously identified in Jewish populations.)

Joseph’s Egyptian sojourn complicates the issue in interesting ways. On the one hand, Joseph marries an Egyptian woman so the tribes of Ephraim and Manesseh are half-African. Westerners have worked really hard at separating Egypt from Africa although we don’t separate any other northern countries from their continents. American Biblical scholar Martin Noth writing in the 50’s and 60’s was scandalized by Egyptian art and wrote that the Egyptians were quite simply wrong to portray themselves with brown skin and wooly hair as though they were Negroes. (Clearly a Freudian reaction to issues at home.) I see similar motivations in the claims that aliens or the residents of Atlantis built the pyramids, anyone other than Africans.

Generations of folk of all races have asked what the Israelites looked like, for many, in order to identify with literal, cultural or spiritual ancestors. According to Mishnah Nega‘im 2:1: R. Ishmael stated: the children of Israel – may I be an atonement for them! – are כְּאֶשְׁכְּרַע like eshcara-wood neither black nor white but of an intermediate shade.

Well, that settles that. According to Jastrow eshcara-wood is either box-wood – which looks to me like wood-colored wood, kind of tan – or eshcara-wood is ebony, which completely changes things. I published an essay on blackness and whiteness in rabbinic literature last year and am borrowing some of that today:

It Does Matter If You’re Black or White, Too-Black or Too-White, But Mestizo is Just Right

Rabbi Shimon bar Lakhish says in Bavli Bechoroth 45b:

 לבן לא ישא לבנה שמא יצא מהם בוהק

שחור לא ישא שחורה שמא מהן טפוח

Lavan lo yisa’ lavanah sh’me’ yatza’ lahem boheq

shachor lo yisa’ sh’chorah sh’me’ yatza’ lahen t’fuach

A-white-man should not marry a white-woman lest they produce boheq, a-too-white-child, and a-black-man should not marry a-black-woman lest they produce, t’fuach, a-too-black-child. It is important to remember that the rabbis are discussing their own kinfolk, black, white, red, spotted and speckled, who are also their skin-folk.

The texts are about how to tell when someone has a plague spot on their skin and how skin-color affects the inspection and determination. Given the range of skin tones evoked by the range between “excessive whiteness” and “excessive blackness” – ebony, ivory, cocoa, mocha, caramel, sandalwood, perhaps even peaches and cream, along with black coffee – no sugar, no cream, how will the nega, plague spot appear on all of these skin tones?

The terms boheq and t’fuach, “excessive whiteness” and “excessive blackness” are not always negative in the rabbinic lexicon. Boheq means “bright” and “brilliant” and “beautiful” in reference to jewels and candlelight and Sarah’s beauty and the brilliance of scholars across the tradition. (Cf: Yerushalmi Pesachim 27b, Bavli Kiddushin 33a, Gittin 11a and Sanhedrin 100a.)  “Excessive blackness,” t’fuach, is related to a particular type of pitcher used for hand-washing, t’fiyach, – leading to Rashi’s interpretation “black as a pitcher;” no one seems to know what sort of black pitcher Rashi meant, but it was certainly not pejorative. There is a secondary lemma that refers to “grass” and “grain” leading Jastrow to say that t’fuach might refer to the skin discoloration of a person dying from starvation due to lack of grain. Following Rashi t’fuach was the same shade of black as a well-known household object, now obscure but with no negative associations. So then, according to Resh Lakhish, the kohanim (and likely the rest of the Israelites) range in skin-tone from blacker-than-black to whiter-than-white with only the extremes on both ends perceived as problematic.

The full Mishnah Nega‘im 2:1 text:

The bright spot in a German (girmani) appears as dull white, and the dull white one in a Kushite appears as bright white. R. Ishmael stated: the children of Israel – may I be an atonement for them! – are like eshcara-wood neither black nor white but of an intermediate shade.

Germani is used in rabbinic literature to refer to the inhabitants of the Roman province of Germania, the ancient Cimmerians (related to the Thracians), the biblical Magog and stereotypical white folk. FYI: The Cimmerians have crossed over into popular culture as the people from whom Conan the Barbarian emerged, played by the Austrian (not-quite-Germani) actor Arnold Schwartzenegger and by the half-Hawaiian – mestizo? – actor Jason Momoa.

Bringing us back to today’s parsha, Bereshit Rabbah 86:3, identifies Joseph as Germani: Everywhere a Germani sells a Nubian, while here a Nubian is selling a Germani! This refers to the sale of Yosef by an Ishmaelite, descended from Hagar the Egyptian.

Which brings me back to Joseph and Asenath and their children in our parsha. My ancestors looked to the ancient Israelites as spiritual kin and proof of a liberating God active in the world. Generations of lay and professional biblical scholars have charted out complex relationships between people of African descent and beney Yisrael, especially in the places where they overlap and intersect, like the land itself, a bridge that connects Asia and Africa. The ancient Israelites and Biblical Hebrew are characterized as Afro-Asiatic by scholars. Yet whiteness and Jewishness go together in the popular and rabbinic imagination though in neither are they completely inseparable.

Each of us is a series of interwoven and overlapping identities. We operate out of multiple identities at a time. As I offer this drash I am most aware of being a member of Dorshei Derekh, a biblical scholar and a black woman. Others may be more aware of my Christian identity than I am myself at this moment.

My questions are about identity:

Which of your multiple identities are at the forefront of your self-articulation in differing contexts and why?

Are you aware of others perceiving you through the identities that are more important to them than those that are for you?

So much of the bible and its interpretive literature is about constructing and maintaining identity, which of those constructions are still meaningful and which are being reconstructed in your life and religious practice?

Michael Jackson famously sang, “It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white.” The space between unacceptable blackness and unacceptable whiteness in Bavli Bechoroth 45b, what Soncino translates as “excessive blackness” and “excessive whiteness” is to borrow a term from the Latina and Latino interpretive lexicon, a mestizo space. Implicit in the prohibition, A-white-man should not marry a white-woman lest they produce boheq, a-too-white-child, and a-black-man should not marry a-black-woman lest they produce, t’fuach, a-too-black-child, is the solution, that black and white people should marry each other and produce beautiful mestizo babies. Shabbat Shalom.


Walking in the Light of God with the Son of Woman

From Isaiah: Come, let us walk in the light of the Living God. From Matthew: The Son of Woman is coming at an unexpected hour.

Let us pray: Brukhah at Yah HaShekhinah eloheteinu Malkat HaOlam she’astah nisim le’imoteynu vela’avoteynu bayamim hahem bazman hazeh. Blessed are You Holy One our God, Sovereign of Eternity, who performed miracles for our ancestors in their day at this season. V’imru, let us say: Amen.

I began with one of the traditional prayers of Hanukkah because Hanukkah like Advent is a season of light. Light infuses and perfuses our sacred stories, from the moment of creation to the moment of redemption and every saving moment in between. Holy light lights our way on all our journeys and our lessons today are full of those journeys, full of comings and goings:

Longed for days shall come. Peoples from all nations shall go to Mt. Sinai, whether that is their ancestral mountain or not. Torah, God’s revelation, teaching, instruction and law, all of these and more, comes from Mt. Zion as the presence of God from the new Sinai to all the world. The word of God comes from Jerusalem just as the first torah came from Sinai. All peoples will go from Mt. Zion walking in the light of God. In the Psalm the tribes dispersed in Isaiah’s time shall reunite and return to Jerusalem, to the temple destroyed once between Isaiah and the gospel and destroyed again between the gospel and epistle. And, the gospel ends dramatically promising the coming of the Son of Woman.

The Son of Woman. Yes, Jesus of Nazareth is and was the Son of Woman. That’s the part of the story everyone agrees on. It’s that bit about his daddy that is a matter of faith or controversy. Yeshua ben Miryam, Jesus, Mary’s child is a child of anthropological human flesh, woman-born, mortal according to the Greek term (huios tou anthrōpou) poorly translated “son of man.” Using the corresponding Hebrew term, (ben adam) God called Ezekiel “earth-child” to remind him of his mortality. In Daniel the Hebrew boys Hannaiah, Mishael and Azariah, who folk insist on calling by their slave names Shadrach, Meshach and Aved-Nego saw divine deliverance in human form and said this one too was somehow a child of earth, (using the Aramaic bar enosh). And Jesus took the title for himself as a woman-born, mortal child of earth and as one who held the power of God in a human form. I know some folk still prefer the old “son of man” translation – even though the Greek anthropos means more “human” than “man” but I can’t get past the truth of Sojourner Truth:

Where did Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.

Our wait for the return of this the Son of Woman makes the whole of existence from the Ascension to the present moment one long season of Advent. We are waiting. And while we are waiting, we have work to do and journeys to undertake. The world like our lessons is full comings and goings, especially in this season. Advent is the season of the comings of Christ, first as miracle, next in majesty. And we seem to travel more to mark his coming than at any other time. Folk are coming and going by planes, trains, automobiles and Mega and Bolt buses. If we’re not leaving town we are coming and going to work and malls and the grocery store. Even if we’re not camped out for Black Friday, maybe we’re running in a Turkey Trot or dashing off to get more batteries or a few more presents – and are we out of cereal again? And, most of us are working, coming and going from a full – or almost full – time job, perhaps then to a part time one or two. We’re taking children to school and volunteering, others are coming and going to job fairs, employment centers, job interviews. Some are going back and forth to the doctor’s office, the pharmacy, the bedside of a loved one. And folk are coming and going to see us, if they can catch us at home or in our office, if we can spare a minute to greet a co-worker, look her in the eye, smile at him and just say hello. Maybe ask how are you and mean it, and wait for an answer. We are busy. And as far as the places we are too busy to go to or are too far away, we send electronic extensions of ourselves, text messages and and emails, coming and going. And did I mention church? Services and rehearsals and committee meetings and decorating parties and, and, and…

We are busy, coming and going. But where are we going as a people? As church? As the Church? As a congregation? As a nation? As humanity? Where are we going and why? Who is leading us? Who are we following? With whom are we walking, keeping company on our way? What are the sights and sounds of our journey? What are our traveling songs? What shall we do when we get there? To us, running on cosmic treadmills in every direction but seemingly going nowhere, Isaiah says, Come, let us walk in the light of the Living God.

How is it that an Iron Age Israelite prophet speaks across time and space and place to us? We Christians are quick to claim these texts as ours, forgetting that they are at best shared texts and that we were late to the party. We forget that we were adopted into a large family of beloved children and we think more highly of ourselves than we ought. But there is another way that these ancient texts speak to us and everyone else whether you believe in Jesus, celebrate his first Advent while waiting for his next or not, whether these are holy days to you or a daze of frenzied holiday consumption – food, drink and consumerism. Isaiah speaks of and to all the nations. All. And that is good news.

In Isaiah’s world there was good reason to look inward, to think only of yourself, to claim God was your god and loved or cared for no one else other than your people. Isaiah lived through the greatest catastrophe of his people in their existence until that time, the fall of the northern monarchy. The division between the two monarchies and even war between them did not break the ties that bind. They were together the tribes and people of Israel; they worshipped the same God, sometimes in Jerusalem, sometimes in the old sanctuaries. They married each other and traded with each other and sometimes joined together to fight off common enemies – when they were not fighting each other. They were one people in two nations. And then the Assyrians came.

The Assyrians swept across West Asia gobbling up nations and peoples. They were vicious: parading the heads and body parts of the dead on spears, peeling the skin off their victims, piercing the lips of their captives and attaching leashes to them. When they invaded the northern monarchy, there is no reason to think they changed their ways. The biblical authors won’t say how bad it was but nine and a half tribes of Israel simply ceased to exist. Of those who survived the Assyrians, nearly thirty thousand were deported and survivors of other Assyrian conquests were imported to work the fields. The poorest Israelite survivors and the conquered peoples in the former capital city, Samaria, merged and became the Samaritans. Their descendants were reviled as non-Jews because of the differences between Samaritan Judaism and Judean Judaism and because of their multiethnic heritage.

Isaiah would have witnessed all of this and had no reason to talk about the love of God for all peoples, including the Assyrians, except… He had a vision from God. He saw a new world. A world in which the violent and the vicious will walk with those they have victimized, but not as victors. Isaiah saw a vision of peoples coming and going in peace, every bit as unimaginable as prophesying an end to the Syrian civil war – the Syrians are the descendants of the Assyrians and the ancient empire included what is now Iraq and Iran. Even the psalmist seems to think we can pray for the peace of Jerusalem and make a difference. What are we to make of these impossible visions that have now become our visions because these scriptures have become our scriptures?

One day, things will be different. One day, folk on this planet will no longer be seemingly perpetually at each other’s throats. One day a rocky hill, too short to be a mountain if you’ve seen the Rockies, Adirondacks or Alps, but a mountain if you live in a desert land – one day that mountain and it’s God will draw folk, all kinds of folk to a new world characterized by the justice of God founded on the word and words of God. One day. Isaiah doesn’t tell us when but assures us it’s coming.

Isaiah saw all the world turning to his God, his temple, his mountain. His is a stunning ecumenical and interfaith vision. He sees a joyful liturgy of procession to the God he proclaims as inviting, welcoming and transforming. It’s a beautiful vision but let’s reality-check Isaiah: Can we see it? A free Palestine? Israel at peace with the Arab nations. Jerusalem open to all who love her? Peace in and between Iran and Iraq and other nations? An end to anti-Muslim prejudice in the United States and Europe? An end to every kind of religious oppression? An end to all violence, all war, everywhere? See the vision, don’t just hear it, see it:

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:

they shall beat their swords into plowshares,

and their spears into pruning hooks;

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

neither shall they learn war any more.

Can we see it? Do we believe it? Do we believe God can, God will, change the world? Again and again if necessary? Isaiah and Micah, one of them quoting the other or perhaps both of them quoting another prophet: one day there will be no more war, ever. Against all the evidence around him Isaiah prophesied and I believe he believed, even though he wouldn’t see it in his day, even though there has been no end to war since his day. Truth is things got so bad one day that the prophet Joel saw another vision turning this vision and its prophecy upside down and inside out, reversing the word and words of God to and through Isaiah and Micah:

Joel 3:9 Proclaim this among the nations:

Prepare war, stir up the warriors.

Let all the soldiers draw near, let them come up. 

10 Beat your plowshares into swords,

and your pruning hooks into spears;

let the weakling say, “I am a warrior.”

Yet the prophecy of Isaiah and Micah endures. The days are coming. Christ is coming. We are waiting. Someone once asked me why I bothered praying for peace when the world was full of violent and vicious thugs from street corners to presidential palaces. My response was:

We pray not because we believe it is magic, not because we are certain that God will do what we ask, but because we can and we must. The world’s burdens are too great and too many for any of us to bear, its problems impossible in our strength, knowledge and capacity. We pray knowing there is a God who hears, loves, aches and moves. We pray knowing our ancestors prayed for freedom until they died, not receiving it in their lifetimes, passing the mantle of prayer down through the generations. We don the ancestral mantle of prayer because it is our time. And we pray knowing that we may die before we see peace in the world. But we pray because we know the world will see peace whether we, our children or our children’s children live to see it. We take up the garments of prayer passed down through the centuries until the time comes to exchange it for a burial shroud and pass it on to the next generation.

Isaiah envisioned this new world in spite of the world he lived in. The Ever-Blessed Virgin Mary gave birth to this new world nearly eight hundred years later. The coming of Jesus, his life, his teaching, his example, his love, his compassion, his power, his suffering, his death and his resurrection lay the foundation for this new world. And we, we are to build upon it. Come, let us walk in the light of the Living God. We have work to do. We have love to give. We have people to feed, clothe, house and for whom to care. We have children to nourish and nurture. We have lonely elders to comfort and offer the gift of our company and companionship. We have estranged relatives to reconcile. We have broken systems to renew, repair and restore. We have peace treaties to negotiate. We have plagues and diseases to cure and heal. We have a planet to tend and heal. We have a gospel to preach and the same gospel to live. We have prayers and praise to raise, offerings to offer and gifts to give. We have neighbors and strangers to welcome.

Come, let us walk in the light of the Living God. Amen.


Black and Beautiful and Sunburned

 (By request)

“Can you tan?”

“Do you burn?”
Assumptions about the normatively and inherent value of whiteness – “fair” being light and attractive – are imposed on me as a black woman every day, living in a white supremacist society. I am regularly asked to give an account of my presumptively alternate biology, imagined to be fundamentally different from the interrogator’s own normative experience of being human.

“Can you tan?”
“Do you burn?”
I am expected to answer when questioned. To explain myself and my race. Public access to my body is unquestioned.
And deeply entangled with the notion of otherness is the notion of beauty.
How can something, let alone someone, be black and beautiful?
So never mind that Song of Solomon 1:5 has a simple conjunction, black am I and beautiful, (and emphasizes her blackness by opening with it), a myriad of bible translators continuing into modernity persist with “I am black/dark but beautiful/comely/lovely.” Blackness and beauty cannot occupy the same space in the imaginations so they cannot occupy the same space in their translations, no matter what the text actually says.
Some say, they “get” that, but (negate that “getting” with their next comment) doesn’t verse 6 say that she is sunburned, therefore, she can’t be black – that’s what the notes in my study bible say…
As though being black and sunburned were impossible, as impossible as being black and beautiful.
If the text had not said that the woman was as black as the tents of Qedar – as black as the black goats’ hair tents woven from the famed goats of Qedar renowned for their beautiful black coats in antiquity, but instead was as white as a lily and that the sun had “gazed” on her, white (and other readers) would have no problem imagining that her lily-white complexion was damaged by the sun, along with all of the class implications associated with laboring outdoors.
But the antithetical constructions of blackness and beauty, blackness and normatively, even blackness and sunburn mean that far too many readers cannot hear that the woman in the text ruined her beautiful black Qedari completion with a sunburn, in spite of what the text says.
Yes, I am black! and radiant – 
O city women watching me – 
As black as Kedar’s goat hair tents 
Or Solomon’s fine tapestries. 
 
Will you disrobe me with your stares? 
The eyes of many morning suns 
Have pierced my skin, and now I shine 
Black as the light before the dawn.
 Rabbi Marcia Falk,
The Song of Songs: Love Lyrics from the Bible
Whiteness and assumptions about whiteness permeate nearly all things in our society like an anti-light obscuring non-Eurocentric realities.

Torah In Our Midst (Again): A New Covenant

“Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney, Associate Professor of Hebrew and Jewish and Christian Scripture and, Chair of the Biblical Area at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia: You’re fired.” Let us pray. (Click here for sermon audio.)

Blessed are you, Holy One our God, Sovereign of the universe,
who has chosen faithful prophets to speak words of truth.
Blessed are you, Faithful One, for the revelation of Torah, for your servants Miriam and Moses,
for your people Israel and for prophets of truth and righteousness. Amen.

Jer 31:33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Holy One of Sinai: I will place my Torah in their midst and on their hearts I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Holy One,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Holy One of Old; for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will not remember any longer. Gafney translation

God has given me notice. And Fr. Shaw too. Every priest, pastor and professor of religion, rabbis and rabbits too – rabbis-in-training, have been informed that our service will no longer be required. One day. One day, things will be different. The world will be different. Folk will be different. Folk will act like they have sense because they will have sense; uncommon sense will be common sense because we all will have it. God will put it in us. All of us who are born into or adopted into Israel – that’s where we come in – God will put God’s Torah in our midst (again) and in our hearts. We will know everything we need to know about everything. If I were preaching this sermon in the seminary there might be a rash of book burning and class cancelling. Who needs seminary or synagogue or bible study or church if God is going to zap us with all knowledge? Who needs the Christian life if God is just going to… “Poof!” and make it all better. Why, I might as well sit down and wait… [I left the pulpit and sat down for a while waiting for God to zap me.]

Hindsight is 20/20. We are some two thousand, four hundred years from the time of Jeremiah and have figured a few things out reading the stories of our spiritual ancestors’ wait for God. And that’s why we have the scriptures, the scriptures that Paul writes to Timothy are: God-breathed and beneficial for teaching truth from error, for correction, for correcting faults and for instruction in righteousness (which is justice). You do know that Paul and Timothy were reading the OT, right? The Only Testament.

Have you ever heard people talking about the bible like there’s an old covenant that is no longer valid and a new covenant that supersedes and replaces it? That’s not how God works. That’s why we as a church read, teach, preach and pray all of the scriptures. We pray the Ten Commandments in Lent because we know they are still binding on us and a worthy and appropriate place to begin our season of self-reflection and penance. We even may do so in Advent, our little Lent as well, for when we reflect on the gift of Jesus, the Word of God – the Torah of God – made flesh, we don’t throw out any of the covenants or promises that led to him, that he still teaches, preaches and prays through the Holy Spirit.

Think about that the next time someone says we don’t need the Old Testament, that’s the old covenant, God has given us a new covenant in Christ Jesus. Jeremiah spoke of a new covenant and it’s not in the back of our pews. That new covenant is a new beginning in an old relationship. It is God’s active, guiding, accompanying, leading presence on our journey but we haven’t arrived yet. We are not yet where we shall be but we are on our way. We are also not where we were. We have moved forward. And we are still on our journey.

You see God plays the long game. The revelation of God is ongoing. It is not “Zap!” or “Poof!” Jeremiah speaks of a new or perhaps better, another covenant, but the truth is there were more than two. God made a covenant with Noah and his wife and their children and their families. God made a covenant with Abram and Sarai and their children for all time. God made a covenant with the children of Israel in the wilderness; the tablets with the Ten Commandments were the notarized copy. God made a covenant with David. Through prophets like Isaiah and his disciples, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Hosea, God made new and renewed covenants with Israel and the earth and even its wild animals so that the lion would be contractually obligated to one day lie down with the lamb.

We Gentiles are also creatures of earth and God’s spirit, beneficiaries of and partners with God. Jesus brought us into the family. The child presented his friends – even his faithless friends to his parent and said they’re part of the family now, ‘kay? And God adopted us because of Jesus. We are heirs to the covenants but must never forget that we are here by grace. And we should be grateful that each of these covenants built on the one before without breaking a single promise, without canceling, nullifying of rejecting the previous covenant because God is trustworthy. God is faithful and just. So we can trust God not to abandon or reject of because God has never abandoned or rejected God’s people – even when holding them at a distance for a while – God has always returned and pursued God’s people like a broken-hearted lover.

For with each covenant God reveals and gives God’s heart, God’s self. That is what Torah is, the heart of God. To say Torah is just Law is to strip it of all its color, texture, detail and fragrance. Torah is most simply the revelation of God. It is all and everything God reveals – teaching, instruction, revelation and yes, law, are all appropriate translations; no single one encompasses all that is Torah. Some of what God reveals is law, but God also reveals relationship and riddles, story and song, genealogy and generosity. Even the first five books of the bible called capital-T Torah have more than law in them. God reveals Godself in the words and Word of Torah. That is why the Torah scroll is the holiest object in Judaism; one that human hands are not fit to touch directly.

So the new covenant and Torah God promises through Jeremiah is more than a scroll or book; it is the presence of God within us:

this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days… I will place my Torah in their midst and on their hearts I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Holy One,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Holy On of Sinai; for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will not remember any longer.

After those days… Our lesson is in the middle of a chapter made all the more complicated by the fact that the book of Jeremiah isn’t remotely in chronological order. It is a jumbled mass of emotion like Jeremiah himself. It is probably made worse by the fact that Jeremiah was illiterate and needed Baruch to write for him. Jeremiah lived through the apocalypse, not the zombie apocalypse but an apocalypse all the same. An apocalypse is devastating destruction on a world-changing, world-ending scale after which things can never be the same. “Those days” were filled with death and destruction, swords and axes, rape and murder, soldiers and mercenaries, burning and slashing. The government and its forces toppled and swept away; the temple toppled and its rubble picked through. Psalm 74 describes the looting of the temple: hatchets and axes splintering the woodwork, the stonework hacked and defaced, the chalices and censors, incense shovels – not spoons – all the vessels and vestments taken as trophies and desecrated.

Look around this sanctuary and imagine. Or remember when the city of Philadelphia bombed its own people. Imagine, remember, the devastation. See, hear, smell the flames engulfing the sanctuary and our homes and schools and businesses and the courts and the government. The police and military dead in the streets, imprisoned, deported. All the educated, literate citizens, business owners and artists and most workers in slave camps in another country. A few like Jeremiah, smuggled into Egypt, the place their ancestors prayed so long – four hundred and thirty years – for them to be delivered from. And here they are, back in Egypt, voluntarily.

After those days… Jeremiah’s prophecy is for after those days. The new covenant is a new start, a do over. It is a promise that the God who brought their ancestors to a good land delivering them from slavery is still their faithful, promise-keeping God. God makes the covenant with them in their days, that they might know that they are still God’s partners; God has not forgotten or abandoned them. God will work with them to bring them home again and restore them.

As before, their community will be governed by their covenant with God, Torah. This time God’s Torah will not be vulnerable to predation, unlike the Ark of the Covenant bearing the tablets inscribed by the finger of God which disappeared during the Babylonian conflagration. This time the Israelites would not be dependent on scrolls that could be burned, desecrated or stolen. God is preparing Israel for the world in which they would live, one which would not be free of conflict, but one in which God would always be with them and God’s word, God’s Torah would always be available to them.

And for those who were blaming themselves or others in their communities for the catastrophes, God promised forgiveness of sin, forgiveness and forgetting. No generational curses here. Even if their ancestors sinned and they did, even if they sinned and they did, God forgives and forgets. Folk like to say “God knows my heart,” usually to explain away something ungodly. But God says you shall know my heart. I will change who you are at your very heart so that you will be more like me.

God says, “I will.” But sometimes “I will” in Hebrew is really “I am.”

I am placing my Torah in their midst and on their hearts I am writing it; and I am their God, and they are my people… I do forgive their iniquity, and their sin I have already forgotten.

Jeremiah’s words are to his people in his time but they speak to us as well. Look at the devastation and destruction in our days, cities like Detroit and broken systems like the Philadelphia school system. Look at bodies lying in the street, rape and murder, theft and corruption in homes and schools and sometimes houses of worship. People keep saying we have to go back to the old ways, the old religion. Some folk want to go all the way back, to plantations, to a time when we weren’t priests and professors and presidents. Some folk want to go back to a time when women were property and men could do anything they wanted to women and children. Some want to go back to a time when black and brown folk weren’t so visible, so numerous, knew their place, when they didn’t have to hear Spanish spoken daily. But God says, that’s not the way. I am the way and I am going forward with you in a new covenant that responds to world you live in with all its complexity and promise. God has already begun writing over the brokenness in our hearts and in the world. God has already written us into the book of everlasting life. God has already written God’s name in our hearts. And God is still writing, teaching, revealing, guiding, correcting.

God didn’t stop speaking after Jeremiah’s pronouncement. God continued and continues to reveal Godself, through scripture, through Jesus Christ, in the world around us and in our own hearts. God is here, with us, in us already. We are not meant to wait around for the world to change, but like Jeremiah serve God by serving God’s people. There are communities of broken, traumatized people who need to know that they have been written into God’s story. There are devastated communities that need rebuilding. There are folk who have been driven far from home who need to be gathered in.

Father Shaw and I have not been fired just quite yet, but we have been given our notice. The time will come when God does not need us or anyone to teach anyone about God for we will all know God for ourselves because each one of God’s covenant partners, you and you and you and I will have fulfilled our contractual, covenantal obligation to walk with God, welcoming home the hurting and the hopeless, the guilty and the innocent, the wolf, the lion and the lamb, the serpent and the bear, neighbor and stranger to the family of God.

Blessed are you, Holy One our God, Sovereign of the universe,
Rock of all creation, Righteous One of all generations,
the faithful God whose word is deed, whose every command is just and true.
For the Torah, for the privilege of worship, for the prophets: we thank and bless you.
May your Name be blessed for ever by every living being.


New-Old Ways of Teaching: Rabbis & Rabbits

My first experience with hevruta, a companion in learning with whom to study Hebrew and Aramaic biblical and rabbinic texts was in graduate school. When I joined the faculty at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia I was delighted to be able introduce my students to the concept and be able to partner with Rabbis Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer and Melissa Heller of the Reconstructionist Rabbinic College to offer a co-taught hevruta class between the two seminaries paring Jewish and Christian seminarians. I write about that class and its continuing impact on my teaching for the Wabash Center’s teaching blog here. All of out students were greatly enriched, the LTSP community is especially grateful for the lessons learned from rabbis – classical and traditional – and rabbits, rabbis-in-training.


Are You There God? It’s Me & Habakkuk

With the prophet I say:

Habakkuk 1:2 How long, Holy One, shall I howl for help, and you will not hear?

Cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?

3 Why do you make me see iniquity and compel me to look at trouble?

Destruction and violence are before me; litigation and contention arise.

4 So the Torah becomes weak and justice never emerges.

The wicked surround the righteous; that is why judgment comes out perverted.

 (Gafney Translation)

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

 [Audio file of sermon available here.]

How long Holy One? How long? How long shall I, shall we, howl for help and you will not, do not, hear us? How can you not hear? The screams of the hurting, hungry, hopeless, desperate and dying drown out my own screams of frustration, impotence and rage. The world is drowning in a sea of violence that you must hear through the choruses of angelic choirs: Syria, Chicago, Iraq, Detroit, Afghanistan, Philadelphia, Camden, Washington DC. How much longer?

Like Habakkuk and Job I cry out to God about God. That I am not alone in this is scant comfort. That God hears in spite of all evidence to the contrary is some comfort. Comfort which I grasp like a drowning woman clinging to the broken pieces of what used to be a world that made sense.

Habakkuk was likewise clinging to a frail support in a sea of violence. Hamas. That is the Hebrew word for violence in this text. Biblical hamas and its modern Arabic counterpart share the same root. Violence. The violence Habakkuk envisioned has long been presumed by many to refer to the Babylonian invasion but there is no time stamp in the book, no way to relate it to that or any other crisis. The truth is that violence is so epidemic in the broken world from the moment of the first sin, Cain’s murder of Abel – according to the text that is the first sin – violence is so epidemic in our world that it doesn’t matter whether we know what Habakkuk saw because we can all envision violence that makes us cry out to God. It’s also true that when you are surrounded by violence, whether a single act that forever changes your life or a larger conflagration whose borders you can’t even see, your experience is all-consuming and breathtaking whether on the international or individual scales.

We know next to nothing about Habakkuk, neither provenance nor patrimony, or for that matter matrimony. His prophetic identity is articulated as a matter of fact, the visions God sends him recorded in this little scroll seem not to be the first. They have a relationship and he has a vocation in the background of this brief text. Habakkuk’s cry reveals the expectations he has about God: he believes in a God who is or is supposed to be responsive. He expects God to do something about the state of the world. And he expects God to respond to his cries. He cannot fathom what is taking God so long to act. But he is sure that a response is coming.

He’s also sure that what he is seeing all around him is inconsistent with what he knows about the world. Torah, the embodiment of God in the world, God’s revelation, instruction, teaching that comes down from the heavens like the yoreh, early rain with which it shares a root, has been perverted, twisted, weakened, paralyzed, desensitized, rendered numb and insensitive. It’s hard to know how to translate tafug, the state of Torah in Habakkuk’s visionary experience; she is as stunned as Israel was upon hearing that his long lost son Joseph was still alive and practically Egyptian royalty (Gen 45:26), as crushed as David was when he realized he had a sexually transmitted infection in Ps 38:8 and the opposite of the endurance of the psalmist’s hands stretched out in prayer, refusing to weaken or yield in Ps 77:2. Something horrible has happened to God’s holy Torah: Justice has lost the battle and the judgments being rendered as Torah are crooked, perverse, perverted. Torah is Torah in name only and the justice system is unjust. How is such a thing possible and how long until God does something about it?

Are we still talking about Habakkuk’s time? Or are we talking about our own? I can no longer tell. (And yes I know I’m the one doing the talking.) Those entrusted with the work of Torah, the work of justice towards citizen and alien, neighbor and stranger have betrayed their sacred trust. Our public ethic of the social good is based on and drawn from the ideals of the very Torah Habakkuk aches for. But something has happened to those who should be its servants and guardians. Oh the words of scripture are often on their lips, but their hips and hindparts are dug into policies that are the anti-Torah as they mutter about the anti-christ of their fondest dreams. How long Holy One?

Why do you let me see things like this? No, not “let,” “make.” The verb is Hiphil, causative. The prophet couldn’t turn away even if he wanted to. And he may have wanted to. God knows I don’t want to see what I see in the world, not just on the TV and internet, but in our own city, sometimes in our own community, even in my own family. God makes the prophet look and see. See and envision. That is part of the calling. Opening our eyes and having God open them even further for you. Seeing the world as it really is in all of its ugliness and brokenness. We can’t look away. Our very gaze is prophetic.

Too many folk are caught up in prophetic performances of one sort or another. They garner attention and feedback and can launch you into the notice of the public square. But seeing the world for what it is and carrying that awareness with you is just as prophetic as giving voice to it. And let’s face it, many so-called and wannabe prophets are speaking about what they don’t know because they haven’t truly seen, they haven’t been shown by God the world behind the world. They’re just moving from one soundbyte to the next.

It is all too much. Enough! It is well past time for God to do something about the world, whether the whole world or just Habakkuk’s little corner, or even my little corner of the world. So Habakkuk demands of God, “What are you waiting for?” Habakkuk says his piece and God listens. God listens! God does hear his howls. God is right there all the time. God sees what the prophet sees and more. God has given Habakkuk a glimpse of the horror God sees all the time, from which there is no respite for the Divine.

And God tells Habakkuk that God has already responded, but that even the prophet who knows something about the ways of God would not believe it if God told him all that God has in store. It is simply incredible, incomprehensible, for a mere mortal. Now for some reason the lectionary framers leave out God’s response to Habakkuk. They present a mangled monologue, eliminating the dialogue and totally missing the point. So today’s readings restore the back and forth between the prophet and his God. Habakkuk’s conversation with God, his challenge to God, occur in the context of his relationship with God.

We are not alone in the horror engulfing the world, the waves of violence, shooting after shooting, massacre after massacre, bombing after bombing. God is active in the midst of the world’s fracture. God is here with us. God is here for us. And according to God in Habakkuk two thousand years and an unknown number of centuries ago, the healing has begun but we can’t see it yet, not even with our prophetic vision. It is beyond us but it is there.

God bless Habakkuk; he has seen too much horror to be satisfied with glib responses and clichés, even from God. Habakkuk says, ‘OK. God. I’ll trust that you are turning the world around. But I will stand on my prophetic perch and verify.’ He needs to see something from God. And God doesn’t flinch or shrink in the face of scrutiny. God can handle Habakkuk’s weary wounded caution. God says this transformation is so certain that you can write it down and check it later, adding predictive prophecy to prophetic vision, lament, and passionate invocation of God, all prophetic gifts and tools. By the end of the book he will offer a psalm as a prophetic performance. Habakkuk was no one trick pony.

In response to Habakkuk’s question “What are you waiting for?” God promises that a change is going to come. It will come, no matter how long it takes. It won’t be late, no matter how long it takes. God will heal the world. God will heal Habakkuk’s piece of the world. But God is apparently playing the long game; both traditional Jewish and Christian interpretation see in these words a prophecy of the messiah and understand that Habakkuk will not live to see the change. Those who saw the messiah in their days saw the world begin to turn towards repair and restoration, but maddeningly, that turn is not complete in our days. We, like Habakkuk, may not live to see the complete transformation of the world for which we ache and long, work and pray. Yet we will live, sometimes in full sight of the hurt and the horror. How are we to live in this reeling, sin-drunk broken world? Faithfully.

In Hab 2:4 the faithfulness of the righteous person at the end of the verse is in direct opposition to the self-inflated life of the guilty person at the beginning of the verse. The righteous person shall live in, through, her faithfulness: Amunah, the sure, the reliable, the trustworthy, the “amen” – coming from the same root is that faithfulness. Faithfulness is not “belief” in the sense of intellectual assent or creedal affirmation; those aspects will be added when Hebrew amunah is translated with Greek pistis in a context shaped by philosophical discourse. Here in Habakkuk, faithfulness is more a matter of heart and hand than head and heart. I know it’s not very Lutheran or even Pauline, but none of that exists in this text.

What does exist in the world of the text, the world of the Gospels, the world of the Epistles and in our world is the intoxicating array of opportunities to wander away from the one who has been so faithful to us. Do not be distracted by wine and wealth or even by worry. God is working a work, begun on the watch of previous generations for which I will take my turn watching and waiting, putting my frail hands to the work of faithfulness.

How long Holy One? I will keep asking until I see. Amen.


When Seminary Messes With Your Simple Faith

[The image is courtesy of Karen Whitehill, a digital collage in which she superimposes the heads of vintage stars over the Last Supper by Juanes. Many thanks for her gracious permission.]

Jesus told a parable like this (in Luke 13:6-9): A woman had a fig tree planted in her vineyard; and she came looking for fruit on it and found none. So she said to her gardener, ‘Look here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ The gardener replied, ‘Mistress, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’

Let us pray for the times “When Seminary Messes With Your Simple Faith”:

Holy One of Old, open our eyes that we may see. Amen. (Link to audio available here.)

 

[NB: The RGT is my name for my translation of the scriptures, the Revised Gafney Translation. I generally translate all the lessons when I preach.]

 

Job ends his response to God’s interrogation by saying:

I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes. (NRSV)

I recant and relent, Being but dust and ashes. (JPS)

I disparaged myself and wasted away, and I regard myself as dust and ashes. (LXX)

I reject all of this and take comfort in dust and ashes. (RGT)

Why are all of those translations of Job 42:6 so different? And which one is right? The second question is easier. The RGT is right. The JPS is right too. They are both right even though they don’t say the same thing. The LXX is also a faithful translation – of a different Hebrew text translated to and preserved in Greek. The NRSV, RSV, KJV, ESV, Wycliffe, Geneva, Bishop and Douay Bibles are all less right, much less right because they insist on making Job repent even though the verb shuv, “turn,” “repent” isn’t actually in the text. They need Job to conform to their theology, their embedded theology, so they corrected the text to say what they thought it should say to mean what they knew it meant. As for others, the NIV just isn’t worth opening and as a paraphrase the Message isn’t even a translation of the bible. The bible was a whole lot simpler before we all got to seminary – in whatever century (ahem) we attended.

The bible was so much simpler because for most, there was only one with a single table of contents, passed down in a straight line from ancient texts written by men – and I mean men and not people – men who heard from God and wrote what “He” said. Biblical faith was bumper-sticker simple: God said it. I believe it. That settles it. At least mine was once upon a time. Now there are different bibles for Protestants and Catholics and we Episcopalians and Anglicans and, among the Orthodox there are more bibles still with the Ethiopians not bothering to print bibles anymore officially, but if they did, there’d be more books in theirs than any other under heaven – except for some of the Church’s early bibles with the Odes of Solomon and Sibylline Oracles and Epistles of Barnabus and Clement and Shepherd of Hermas. Maybe it wasn’t all so simple back then.

Now we know there are Hebrew manuscript families and Greek manuscript families and Aramaic manuscript families and, for each family sometimes hundreds, if not thousands of manuscripts for both Testaments. And if we trust that God guided canon-shapers and collectors to preserve the “right” text – if there even is such a thing – then we have to wrestle with so many translations. It was so much easier when we had the translation of our childhood faith, our youthful devotion, our pastor’s teaching, our grandmother’s sacred trust. Now we’ve learned aleph-bet and alpha-beta and how to use software and the internet to find the root of words and it’s not so simple anymore. The words of scripture are beloved and treasured and strange and slippery all at the same time while remaining authoritative and compelling.

And it’s not just bible. Seminary messes with your theology and you didn’t even know that you had a theology, let alone that it was embedded. You knew what you believed and that was just the way it was. There was no interpretation. Faith was simple, not simple-minded. We had questions. Some of us were blessed with pastors and counselors and family and friends who honored and encouraged our questions whether they understood or shared them or not or even knew where to begin to answer them. For others of us our questions marked us as different, malcontent, uppity. Neither we nor our questions were welcome in places that should have been safe for us. Now our questions beget more questions like “why do you ask that?” And when we find answers they are satisfying and unsatisfying all at the same time. As God’s mind-blowing response was for Job.

The book of Job is the story of a man who has questions for God; he seeks to face God face to face and so he summons God, he subpoenas God, he sues God. Job’s questions are the questions of all the world: Why is there evil? Why is there suffering? Why did my children have to die? His friends have answers but they don’t answer the questions in his soul. His friends’ theology is the theology of good religious folk. It is simple theology. It is that he must have done something wrong because God’s folk are blessed and highly favored and favor ain’t fair. Their understanding of God has been shaped by their cultural contexts, social locations and families of origin, shaped and limited, like our understanding of God. Because God is more. Job is hungry for that more. He needs God to be more.

So Job goes in search of that more. He goes in search of God, to serve his papers; his complaint – the text describes Job’s beef with God in the language of litigation, his legal pleading is based on his belief in a God who is fundamentally just and imposes order on chaos. He knows that if he can just get to God, all the horror he has experienced will somehow make sense. He is certain that there is justice with God, but he’s going to need a little help; he’s going to need an advocate to take his case, and if necessary, to bail him out from under the jail that the God in the whirlwind might just drop on him like Dorothy’s house. That’s what a goel, a redeeming relative is, the kin who will help you save your skin, the relative whom the Torah would say was required to come to your rescue. Job was looking for someone to stand with him as he stood up to God in that famous verse that everybody makes about Jesus. But Job’s redeemer wasn’t Jesus. (At least not yet.) I know that messes with somebody’s simple faith. Whether or not anyone else went with him, Job was going to find God.

And while he was on his way, God found him. I like to think of that whirlwind as seminary – you all are looking less blown away than when you first got here; your hair isn’t all standing up on end, there are no leaves stuck to you but you are in the whirlwind. However, unlike you all, Job didn’t know he was enrolling. Seminary isn’t just an academic program. It is from its Latin epistemological roots a place of formation and transformation. It’s a place where seeds are nurtured and cultivated, seeds of faith, seeds of self-expression, seeds of vocation, seeds of public theology, seeds of squiggles that will yield a harvest of biblical literacy and a place where critical seed questions sprout, blossom and bloom. Job took his precious handful of seeds to God and God – there’s no delicate way to say this – God shits on him. Yes, that’s what the gospel teaches us. Only Jesus calls it manure in the parable of the fig tree. It was as I said once in a children’s sermon, a “stinky and sticky mess.” But Job’s life isn’t a parable to him and the crap that’s raining down on him isn’t manure to him; it’s not obvious to him that his faith and theology are being fertilized. Because the God he encounters is not the God he expects, the God of his once simple but now questioning faith.

Job encounters God in expected and unexpected ways. He encounters God in the soaring rhetoric of creation language:

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?

Job encounters God in explicitly feminine God-language, not just on the tongues of lefty-liberal, feminist and womanist faculty – of both genders – but from the mouth of God and for us, in the pages of scripture, hidden by generations of male translators but accessible to students of biblical languages and to software supported exegetes. God is more than Job thought or expected, but not necessarily the more that he was looking for.

Job seeks answers to his questions from the source of his questions and in return he gets more questions because God takes Job to school in a whirlwind intensive using Socratic pedagogy – teaching through questioning. God questions Job from chapter 38 to chapter 41, for one hundred and twenty nine verses. Now that Job has met God, his previous simple faith is still real but it is inadequate for the mystery he has experienced living his not-so-simple life. Job is learning about God in this stormy weather seminary but it doesn’t look or feel like what he thought it would.

And, as Job prepares to graduate, he finds all of his questions have not been answered. His most burning question is still with him: Why? But God doesn’t answer the question. And so Job utters perhaps the most enigmatic line credited to him. Job’s embedded theology is that even God is constrained by justice. So now Job looks into the face of the whirlwind that could have stripped the flesh off his bones but didn’t and says: I reject all of this and take comfort in dust and ashes.

Job doesn’t drop out of seminary because he learns stuff he whishes he never knew, ideas and concepts that make it difficult to hold on to his simple faith from a much simpler time. He rejects something but what? God? No. They continue in their relationship after this lesson. Does he reject his questions, his theological awakening and try to go back to the time before his critical thinking and religious experience clashed? I don’t think so. So what does Job reject? Perhaps he rejects the expectation that God will answer all of his questions, that everything will make sense and will fit together in an orderly, systematic paradigm or flowchart. Maybe he rejects the notion that God has to make sense to his finite, limited, human understanding.

So Job takes a seat. More than that, he takes comfort in where he is, on, al (preposition), aphar v’epher (conjunction junction, what’s your function), dust and ashes. Dust and ashes is his immediate context, that’s the place of his public theology, field site and internship. Dust and ashes is the place of our ministry. It’s the place where hurting people gather and signal their pain with a formal liturgy of mourning. It is a place of embodied tweeting, ashen-faced rather than face-booked. The ash heap is where you let go trying to capture your God experience in the perfect theological formulation. Job takes a seat and takes comfort in the God of his scandalous theology.

The theology of Job is scandalous for many reasons: Job, a mere human being is blameless in the sight of God. And by the way, Job wasn’t even an Israelite. Then when he loses every thing he has including the skin he is in, it is because God gambles with his life and the lives of his children, consigning them to death to prove a point and win a bet with a character who is a satan but not the devil, (yet). And Job has the – I have to say it because the text calls for it – Job has the balls to sue God over what he knows was an injustice done to him, (the very ones God told him to gird up, tie down, like a man because God had a few questions for him and God was going to get all up in his face and his personal space and it was going to get rough). And if that were not scandalous enough, Job, who is not patient – James must have been reading the Testament of Job or one of the other extra-biblical Job stories – this impatient Job demands answers from God, holds God accountable to a standard of righteousness and sues God to answer to his questions. Job sued God. Shouted at God. And lived to tell about it. God even said he, Job, was right.

At the end of the story, Job takes comfort in his scandalous theology and the questions it generates because he has encountered a God who is big enough to be questioned, one who doesn’t wilt or fade under scrutiny, one who is not so insecure as to demand mindless, unthinking, unquestioning faith.

I found in seminary a safe and challenging place to examine and challenge my own faith and I discovered that the God of my faith, my simple, sincere, honest, faithful faith, was not God. Or rather, I like Job, encountered a God who was more than I imagined. I received a religious education that included, multiple perspectives, unanswered questions, doubt, uncertainty, ambiguity and conflicting text traditions which left me with a supple, flexible faith rather than a brittle, unyielding one. And I left with questions, more questions, different questions that frame an on-going conversation. I learned to take comfort in my questions and in the God who hears and honors them, welcomes them even, just as Job took comfort in dust and ashes.

So go to the ash heap and live your theology there. Take comfort there when prayer and liturgy and scripture and theology and history conflict with what you think you know about God. Be fulfilled in service to those still wounded on their ash heaps; engage their questions with more than the theological platitudes that failed to satisfy you. And when you rise from your ash heap, pray for those who tried to force you to fit in their simple theological paradigms. Job’s seminary experience was healing and transformational. And when Job died old, contented and full of days, he had a rich, complex, questioning faith and he was still unrepentant and God was still alright with that. Amen.


Why Pray for Peace?

We pray not because we believe it is magic, not because we are certain that God will do what we ask, but because we can and we must. The world’s burdens are too great and too many for any of us to bear, its problems impossible in our strength, knowledge and capacity. We pray knowing there is a God who hears, loves, aches and moves. We pray knowing our ancestors prayed for freedom until they died, not receiving it in their lifetimes, passing the mantle of prayer down through the generations. We don the ancestral mantle of prayer because it is our time. And we pray knowing that we may die before we see peace in the world. But we pray because we know the world will see peace whether we, our children or our children’s children live to see it. We take up the garments of prayer passed down through the centuries until the time comes to exchange it for a burial shroud and pass it on to the next generation.


Preaching A Feminist Faith From Priscilla’s Epistle

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A great cloud of witnesses surrounds us…

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

If your preacher preached about faith last week, she or he might have ended with, “To be continued…” The more than forty verses in Hebrews 11 and the beginning of what is now chapter 12 have been spread out over two Sundays in our lectionary, but they are part of one sermonic whole. Last week the text began: Hebrews 11:1, Faith is the essence of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen… And continued in v 3, By faith we understand… Then there is that famous roll call of faith: By faith AbelBy faith EnochBy faith NoahBy faith Abraham and Sarah… By faith IsaacBy faith JacobBy faith JosephBy faith MosesBy faith Rahab… And then the big finish:

Hebrews 11:32 And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. 35 Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— 38 of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. 

Hebrews 11:39 Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect. 12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

I’ve seen preachers read that and sit down. It is already a powerful sermon. It was so powerful that for the mothers and fathers of the church it ceased to be a sermon about scripture and became scripture itself. That’s powerful. It is a powerful word meeting a powerful need, the need for faith in a seemingly faithless time. The world in which this snail-mail sermon was sent was full of brokenness, full of hurt people hurting people, a world in which the forces of evil and chaos moved through and independently of human hosts. It was an awful lot like this world, but without the internet or modern medicine because people and their evil were and are more or less the same.

It was a single lifetime from the death and resurrection of Christ, fifty to sixty years later. The earliest possible dates for the Epistle to the Hebrews puts it during the reign of Nero (who followed Caligula). It would have been at the end of his reign when Rome burned under Nero for a biblical six days and seven nights and he inaugurated the lethal persecution of Christians on an institutionalized, state sanctioned and sponsored industrial scale. His own historians relate that he crucified Christians and set them on fire to provide illuminations for his garden parties. The tortures of Hebrews 11:35-38 sound like the Neronian persecutions.

It could have been after those horrific days during the year of civil war when Rome had four emperors in a single year. It could have been during the reign of Vespasian, the survivor of that war, during the time the Jews rebelled against Rome and the empire struck back. That war like all war had so many conflicting rationales and mixed motives: patriotism, faith, freedom, greed, power, resources, corruption, death, glory, sin, bias against those who were different, different religions, different ethnicities. It could have been in the days when Emperor Vespasian destroyed the holy temple in Jerusalem. The temple had been destroyed before. Imagine if the hallowed ground at the World Trade Center were bombed again. But the temple was more holy than Ground Zero, it was the Vatican and Mecca and more and Rome razed it to the ground.

And some preacher-woman started talking about faith. The author of Hebrews – and I like the notion advanced by some scholars that she was Priscilla – she uses scripture stories to vividly illustrate her teaching on faith. Last week it was Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Jacob. I noted that she left out Hagar and Keturah and Rebekah and Rachel and Leah and Bilhah and Zilpah.

This week Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets bear witness to the God who is worthy of our faith. Reading Priscilla’s sermon to the Hebrews in light of its setting – Nero’s persecution, the destruction of the temple and the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul, along with the backdrop of Roman oppression and financial exploitation by the Romans and their Jewish collaborators, it is easy to understand why some would doubt God and others would lose their faith all together. Especially if they had just watched God’s home on earth be torn down stone from stone, heard Roman hob-nailed boots stomping and storming into the Holy of Holies without a single answering rumble of thunder and smiting bolt of lightening. Was God dead? Was their faith in vain?

Add to that, being a marginalized member of that minority community. A Jew who believe that the executed Jesus of Nazareth was the son of the living God and even God incarnate. And, even though everyone knew he was dead and buried, believing, claiming, witnessing, that he was no longer dead, that his grave was not robbed and that he was as alive as anyone of us. He was also more alive, transcended beyond time and space and, coming back again. Being persecuted for those beliefs – not what passes for persecution in the minds of some today – you have to respect the religious rights of others; that’s not being persecuted. But they like their Jewish kin through the ages would be scapegoated for the ills of gentiles among whom they lived and worked and worshipped, with whom they traded, bartered, bought and sold as neighbors and strangers.

Hebrews 11 and 12 offer a look through Israel’s sacred stories for the saintly souls who accompany the hearers of this semonic epistle through their own treacherous journey in a world where being a Christian was scandalous, dangerous, sometimes even treasonous. And in response to all that, faith… Faith in a God who is worthy of our faith. Faith in a God whose worthiness is testified to by our own cloud of witnesses, prophets and martyrs, ancestors and elders, angels and archangels. A great cloud of witnesses surrounds us…

Isn’t it good to know that we’re not alone? I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel like I’m all alone in this whole wide world. I have been blessed with friends and family and life companions along the way but there are times when I go through what I go through all by myself. I know I’m not alone. We all have sorrow. We all have struggles, heartaches, grief and deep disappointment.

Life can be hard, even when you’re a person of relative privilege in the world. It often looks and feels like we’re all alone as we navigate life’s vicissitudes. Friends and family can and do abandon and betray us. Lovers leave, employers resend contracts and church folk, well church folk are some of God’s most special children. There are times when we might prefer to be alone given human nature. Yet we are never alone. We are always accompanied by an invisible cloud of witnesses. Witnesses, testifying to what they have seen and heard and know. We are not alone. None of us walks our path alone, no matter how rough, how crooked, how steep, how treacherous, how exhausting, how perilous. We are not alone. We are accompanied. We are accompanied by angels and ancestors guiding and guarding us. A great cloud of witnesses surrounds us…

Our troubles like the troubles of the first Jewish Christians are no trifling matters: slaughter in Syria, rampaging violence in Egypt, folk gunning police officers down in the street on the days they’re not shooting and killing each other, innocent bystanders, children on the playground or folk in their houses struck by errant bullets. We too lurch from war to war, from economic instability to and through cycles of recession, depression, collapse and recovery. We have our own shady financiers pillaging the people. And we have our own Priscillas preaching faith. A great cloud of witnesses surrounds us…

But unlike that Priscilla, I can’t preach a patriarchal faith; I must preach a feminist faith, a womanist faith. Don’t get me wrong, a “heroes of the bible” approach has great appeal. These texts have been preached that way for at least two thousand years. Many of us learned in Sunday school, Vacation Bible School and church camp to put ourselves in the roles of the biblical heroes, and occasionally one or two heroines. And that’s all right I suppose. But in a fame and celebrity obsessed culture, comparing yourself to great luminaries can be damaging and devastating, just as never seeing yourself represented in media images, or only represented as a stereotype. It is damaging to women and men, boys and girls to construct wholly masculine images and idols of God, base liturgy and hymnody on male experience and preach a gospel of “add women and stir,” but only a pinch, only a token, if you mention us at all.

Perhaps our preacher Priscilla just hit the highlights because she knew she was writing to a biblically literate audience who could fill in the blanks for themselves. But here and now, more than two thousand years and five thousand miles away, I’m pretty sure folk need some help filling in those blanks. In a world where imperial and individual greed and lust consume the people of God like raging fire or ravenous beasts, we need the same faith the Priscilla preached about, faith in the God of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David and Samuel and more.

We need the faith of Deborah, not Barak. Barak who? Barak who hid behind Deborah’s skirts? Let’s talk about warrior-woman faith. Deborah had a sword – and I believe a good right hook. You see Deborah’s people had immigrated to Canaan without checking with the Canaanites. And there were some fights – and to hear Joshua tell it, he killed everybody, but the truth is he didn’t and they had to figure out how to get along together, and they still do. Killing everybody on one side or the other wasn’t the answer in the Iron Age and it’s not the answer today. Deborah helped her people live in the real world after Joshua and his war stories were laid to rest. She didn’t go looking for trouble. But when it found her, Deborah went in and went in hard, hard as a mother, in Israel. I believe the motto on her coat of arms if she had one would have been: “Don’t start nothing, won’t be nothing. But if you start it, I will finish it.” Deborah had faith in the God who called and empowered her.

I don’t know why Deborah isn’t in Hebrews and Barak is. And God knows I don’t know why Jephthah is in it at all. There was a time when he had faith and won a few victores. But killing his daughter in the name of God was the evisceration of that faith. Now his daughter had faith, faith in God and faith in the father who betrayed and butchered her. We don’t need that kind of faith. Too many women and girls die at the hands of men and boys who are supposed to love them. There was nothing redemptive or faithful in her death.

And David, David. Lord have mercy. David had faith, but let’s talk about the faith of the ten women he married or was engaged to, the eight women or more he made babies with, the six women he was legally married to when he bypassed all their rooms to rape Bathsheba because rape is not about sex. It is about power. Let’s talk about the faith of Bathsheba. Let’s talk about the faith it took for her to go to the man who raped her and murdered her husband and live and sleep and make babies with him so she could survive. And Bathsheba survived David. And after he died she thrived on the throne Solomon had installed for her.

Let’s talk about the faith of David’s daughter Tamar whom he refused to comfort or even see after her brother raped her following in his daddy’s footsteps. Let’s talk about her shattered faith and body, and her broken heart when the brother who avenges her by killing her rapist is killed in turn. And then David’s tears flow. But not for her.

Let’s talk about the faith of Samuel’s mother Hannah who taught us all that God hears the prayers of our hearts. That’s what Priscilla was preaching, that no matter what it looks like, no matter how bad it is, whether the perverse persecutions of narcissistic Nero or the savaging of Syrians by Assad’s assassins, whether economic catastrophe or Egyptian carnage, faith, the essence of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen, points us to that great cloud of witnesses where all who have been saved, redeemed and delivered before us watch and wait, with and for us with Jesus, the pioneer and perfector, author and architect of our faith.

God can and will heal, change and transform the world with and for and through us. The empire doesn’t not have the last word, not even our own. Priscilla’s people survived Rome and passed into the cloud of witnesses. We will survive political regimes and corporate schemes. A great cloud of witnesses surrounds us… They are here with us now. They are here with us now. One day we shall join them. Jesus is in that cloud.  And he and Priscilla, prophets and martyrs, mothers and fathers, ancestors and elders, angels and archangels testify to the faithfulness of God, the One who is worthy of our faith. Amen.


Subversive Service: Lee Daniels’ “The Butler”

Dear Mr. Daniels,

I had the great pleasure of meeting you during one of your visits to the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in the company of your mother whose ministries in music and service have enriched my life as a congregant and as a priest.

I had the tremendous pleasure of seeing your film, The Butler, earlier today. It was simply phenomenal. I want to thank you for making this moving, poignant, revelatory film. And I want to commend you for how you made it. In telling the story of Cecil Gaines and his family, you have told the story of America, our shared history, from slavery to freedom. [For those who haven’t seen the movie, specific details follow.]

While this film was wildly entertaining and full of laughter, I appreciate that you did not shy away from horrors of slavery and its legacy in America. I say “slavery,” because although the film begins in 1926, you demonstrate with incisive clarity that the world of the share-cropping south in 20th century America was no different than that of the previous slavocracy in many ways: White men and women did what ever they wanted to black folk – raping and killing without consequence. The regular rape of black women in from of their families, often including children who were products of those rapes, continued well into the Civil Rights Era. It would be another half-century before a black man who tried to protect his family could hope to be protected or supported by the law. It was particularly important for me as a black woman that you started with that horrific reality and its aftermath.

I’m a seminary professor who thinks about how we teach and tell our sacred stories. I am so grateful your visual text. Your masterful storytelling and cinematography told the story of the Civil Rights Movement through the tender story of an African American family, showing their life, love, and laughter through celebrations and struggles with heart-warming intimacy; a rare portrait of a black family on film or television. Thank you.

I particularly appreciate the way you used contrast in the film: the shots of the lunch counter-sit in cutting in and out of the state dinner were breathtaking. There were others but the contrast between Mr. Gains and his son Louis and their journeys to political action were particularly profound. I loved that each had his own journey and could not see or understand the other’s journey. While each was changing the world in his own way he struggled with the incomprehensible choices of his son/father. I was particularly struck by the refections of the King character on the subversive dignity and service of the black domestic – weaving those storylines together was sheer brilliance.

And, as a priest and pastor I deeply appreciate your honest look at intergenerational conflict, the often difficult relationship between fathers and sons and estrangement that many experience. I loved the many small moments that bore witness to the stories of black folk in America like Mr. Gaines who had never been to school sending his children to college and reading to the President’s daughter. And I noticed with delight that there was a character with your mother’s name.

There is so much more I could say: The cast was incredible. Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey and Cuba Gooding Jr. were all stellar. The transformations of Robin Williams and Live Schreiber into Dwight Eisenhower and LBJ were inspired. The script was compelling. And Carol’s afro was everything! I want to thank you deeply for making this powerful film, telling the story of my people and my country. May God continue to bless you with vision and the means to bring those visions to life.

The Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D.


On Biblical Literalism

I was invited to participate in a forum on Creationism in the NY Times. You can find the whole conversation here. (Note that a subscription is required after 10 free articles a month.

Here is my contribution:

Biblical literalism usually emerges from a faithful impulse, deeply meaningful faith in God, Jesus and scripture in Christian tradition. (Corollaries exist in Judaism and Islam, but I will confine myself to Christianity.) That faith is frequently buttressed by experiences with God and the Scriptures that shape and reinforce their meaning. Denial of any of those elements is for many rejection of the God of the Scriptures.

What often goes unexamined are the assumptions that underlie biblical literalism about the intent and genre of the text: Specifically, biblical literalism requires reading all of the bible as having the intent to relay a series of historical (and theological) facts. This ignores what we know about language, that there are many kinds (genres) of speech and writing (rhetoric) which we use in infinite combinations without thought to make our points: irony, exaggeration, puns, sarcasm, riddles, proverbs, quotes in and out of context, etc. Insisting on biblical literalism flattens out the richness of the text and of its multiple contributors. In addition, there are many texts and books now bound as “the Bible,” yet no single Bible: there are differing number of books in different sequence in Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant and Anglican Bibles. For example, the King James Bible that has become standard in Evangelical and much of Protestant Christianity has had a number of books removed from its original Anglican formulation, with most of its adherents non-the-wiser, though Anglicans and Episcopalians still use them.

Literal readings of non-literal texts can also lead to fraudulent readings of the text, dogmatic tenacity to ahistorical or unscientific claims and the loss of credibility for those who insist on nonsensical interpretations.

I teach a 3-point interpretive paradigm shifting from “is the bible true” to “how is it true.” Determine: 1) what the text says; this requires knowledge of original languages since all translations are unreliable at points, 2) as much as possible what the text may have meant in its originating contexts; i.e. euphemistic expressions and evolving language, 3) and, what the texts says in our contexts, what values and themes transcend time and which do not. Determining the genre, rhetoric and interpretive possibilities of a text is hard work and many prefer simplistic formulae. But even literal readers accept that the earth does not have four corners though that was the literal meaning when the texts were composed and transmitted.


Believe God: Listen to the Voices in Your Heart & Head

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Genesis 15:6, Abraham trusted in God… Hebrews 11:1, Faith is the essence of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen… 3 By faith we understand

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

I believe I can fly 
I believe I can touch the sky
I think about it every night and day
Spread my wings and fly away
I believe I can soar
I see me running through that open door
I believe I can fly…

What do you believe this morning? I know we shall all recite some of our commonly held beliefs in the Creed after the sermon, but what else do you believe? What do you believe that other folk call cray? You know, cray is when you’ve gone all the way past crazy and just kept going. What do you believe?

I’m not asking what or who do you believe in, because that is not the limit of what faith is about in scripture. There are folk who wear their belief in Jesus like a t-shirt; they are team JCeezy and like good sports fans, talk trash about all the other teams. That is not faith. That is fandom. What do you believe? But before you tell me, show me.

Genesis says that Abraham trusted in God. You know the Hebrew word for this kind of trusting belief already; it is amen. Abraham said “yes” and “amen” to everything God said. But belief is more than just words. As she tells the story, the author of Hebrews writes – by the way, I’m not the only scholar who believes that Priscilla wrote Hebrews – she writes in verse 8: By faith Abraham obeyed… v 9, by faith he stayed… v 10 he looked… and in v 11, he received… Abraham didn’t just believe, think or feel, he got up and got busy (that too). Faith is evidence – that’s a legal term for proof in Greek – and Abraham proved his faith with his actions. What do you believe Abraham? Watch and I’ll show you. So what do you believe church? What are you showing? What are you showing the world about your faith in God?

Whether the author of Hebrews was a woman or not, she probably wasn’t a feminist. Oh sure, she mentioned Sarah, but the rest of her exemplars were men and if you read the whole chapter, especially the end when she brings this sermon home, she includes some men whose supposed faithfulness includes abusing and killing women. But that’s next week’s sermon, and I’ll be on the road again. This week our exemplars in the faith are Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Jacob. What do you believe? Don’t tell me; show me.

I believe the faith of biblical women even if it was in a God their men said was male like them is a faith I can’t live without in a world that still marginalizes women and girls, allowing us to be snatched off our neighborhood streets, thrown into dungeons, used and abused with no one looking for us if we’re not the right sort of girl from the right sort of family. I believe God is our God too. I believe God cares about our stories too, even when the media doesn’t. I believe.

I believe in, trust in, hope in, the God of Hagar, Keturah, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah because of their faith – their amens and their actions – in the God of Israel, in spite of every good reason to choose another path. Even the stories that tell their stories don’t always tell their side of their stories, their faith stories, they’re too busy telling how God used them in the faith stories of their men. This morning, I’m going to do a little womanist midrash and fill in those blanks. For those of you who don’t know, womanism is the deeper, richer feminism of black women, like purple to lavender. And midrash is classical and contemporary Jewish interpretation of the scriptures, asking questions and filling in the blanks when need be.

So I believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob this morning. But I also believe in the God of Hagar, Sarah, Keturah, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah. Their stories teach me about faith, even though they weren’t good enough for the author of Hebrews, with the exception of Sarah, the acceptable token. You know some folk like to include one woman on an all-male committee and call it “balanced.”

Hagar believed in God in spite of what Sarah said – and it was her idea – Hagar believed in spite of Sarah’s claim that she and Abraham were entitled to use Hagar’s body without her consent to secure their piece of the promise. Hagar believed in God in spite of Sarah and Abraham’s faith in a god who sanctioned her rape. Sometimes faith requires believing in spite of the faith claims of religious folk. And we need to check Abram and Sarah on what they felt entitled to in the name of their faith. Claiming a shared faith doesn’t give you a free pass to do whatever you want in the name of God.

Keturah, Abraham’s other, other woman and baby mama had to believe God because Abraham’s notion of child support was a couple of presents, one time. Gen 25:6: to the sons of his other women Abraham gave gifts, while he was still living, then he sent them away… But Keturah believed that God would make a way out of no way and no child support for six of Abraham’s sons. And God did; God took care of Keturah and her children. One of her grandsons was Sheba, and one of his descendants was a Sista-Queen who turned Solomon’s head and turned him out.

Rebekah believed in God when she struggled with a high-risk pregnancy. Later, she struggled in her parenting. She had two boys who were at each other’s throats. And she wasn’t perfect by any means; she chose one over the other. But God believed in her and used her anyway. I believe that God doesn’t write us off for making mistakes.

Rachel believed in God while she waited for her promised husband, while her wedding day was ruined, when her father betrayed her, while she watched her beloved marry her own sister. And when she finally got her man, he kept going back to her sister’s bed, even though he had an heir and a spare, even though he kept telling her she was the one he loved. And Rachel believed God for a child. And God gave her an heir and a spare. And when her first long-awaited child was taken from her and she didn’t know if he was dead or alive, and her husband sent her baby off to a foreign land, she believed that God who gave her those children was able to bring at least one of them home, and God returned both her sons to her.

Leah believed in God who made her in God’s image no matter what anybody else thought about how she looked or didn’t look. Leah’s father used her to betray her sister, saying he did it for her own good. And when everyone in the whole world was mad at her, laughing at her, God was with her. God blessed her with children to love and raise and parent better than she was parented. And when she cried in the night over a man who slept with her but told everybody he didn’t love her, God’s love was there for her whether she knew it or not.

I believe that Bilhah believed in God even though she found herself enslaved to Rachel’s father, passed down to Rachel like a family heirloom and then turned over to Jacob to impregnate because Rachel didn’t have enough faith to wait on God. Or perhaps Bilhah couldn’t see her way clear to have faith in the god of her enslavers and abusers. Leah’s son, Reuben whom she had known since he was a baby raped her when she was an old woman. Yet I’d like to believe that Bilhah had the kind of faith in God that our enslaved ancestors had – it doesn’t matter what you do to us or our children. We are free in God. You can touch our bodies but not our souls. You can kill us like dogs in the street but there is a God of justice, who sits high and looks low. Vengeance is mine says God-Whose-Name-Is-Holy.

Zilpah, Leah’s maid had to believe there was a God somewhere when Leah turned her over to be impregnated, out of spite.

The faith stories of Israel are full of the good, the bad, the ugly, the dirty, the nasty, the crazy and the cray-to-the-cray. Maybe you think your faith doesn’t count this morning, maybe the author Hebrews wouldn’t think your story is important enough to tell the church folk about – you know some people think we shouldn’t talk about sex and violence and rape and murder and hurt and pain and death and disease and grief and depression in church.

Oh but faith! Faith says bring it all to God because God can handle it. God will handle it with you. God will handle it for you. Only believe. Believe that God can bring you through and deliver you from harm. God can. And sometimes God will. But also know that faith doesn’t mean that you won’t have sorrow or grief or pain or even have a horrific act of violence inflicted on your person. Real faith says that even if the worst should happen, God will be right there with you and bring you through.

Let me leave you with what might sound like some strange advice: Listen to the voices in your head. Listen for the voice of God with your heart. Follow the voice of God with your behind, hands, feet and mouth. The faithful folk of scripture didn’t just wear their faith on donkey bumper stickers; they got up and followed God, walked with God, spoke with and for God and sometimes, died for God. Faith without works is dead. Belief without action is invalid. If you believe God, get up and do something.

Believe God. Believe God about you. Believe God about the world. Believe God against the opposition. Believe God against the world. Believe God and trust in God. Trust God’s yesses and amens. I don’t know about you, but I have a personal soundtrack: I believe I can fly… And, I believe that God used R. Kelly in spite of the horrific violence and degradation he rained down on God’s daughters. And I believe we need to tell the truth and hold folk accountable at all times. And I believe that none of us is all good or all bad.

Sometimes, when I’m out walking, particularly if there is a body of water nearby, I play Donald Lawrence, O Peter (Walk Out On the Water). And I hear Jesus saying to me as he says in that song, I am Mary’s Baby, don’t you be afraid; walk out on the water, don’t be afraid… That is my shouting song.

Finally, when I need to hear God sing to me, I play Lena Horne singing Believe in Yourself As I Believe in You from The Wiz:

If you believe

I know you will

Believe in yourself, right from the start

You’ll have brains

You’ll have a heart

You’ll have courage

To last your whole life through

If you believe in yourself

As I believe in you. 

What do you believe? Don’t let anybody tell you, you, your faith or your story don’t count.

My former classmate at the Howard University School of Divinity, Yolanda Adams sings I Believe I Can Fly:

Donald Lawrence and the Tri-City Singers, O Peter (Walk Out On the Water):

Believing God means believing in yourself. Let the Holy Spirit incarnate in Lena Horne prophe-sing to you:

 


Hosea’s Mothering God: Back to Egypt

Listen to the recording (mp3 file)

Hosea 11:3 I, I taught Ephraim to walk, 

I took them up in my arms;

yet they did not know that I healed them.

4 I pulled them along with humane restraint, 

with ties of love.

And I was to them

like those who lift babies to their cheeks,

I reached to them and fed them.

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

For the last few years I have been engaging in the work of public theology in social media. I do so because I am often frustrated with and disgusted by the misrepresentations of my God and my scriptures in the public square. I am an evangelical Episcopalian, like our Archbishop of Canterbury who is so evangelical he speaks in tongues; I want to share the love of God in and through the scriptures. I’m active on social media in part because I want people to know the loving faithful God of Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament – and all the books in between – and not just a few carefully curated verses reflecting Iron Age, flat-earth theology.

This morning’s First Lesson holds one of my favorite images of God, that I’d like to share with you and with the world, one whom I’m in desperate need of, a tender, loving, mothering God. I don’t know about you, but this has been a summer of sorrows, for me and for people about whom I care. It has been sorrowful for people in our neighborhoods, nation and around the world. It has been sorrowful for people who look like me and my little brother and my nephews. Sometimes random tragedies and natural disasters leave sorrow in their wake. But all too often sorrow is caused by human beings, intentionally inflicting great harm and pain on other people.

Hosea may seem like a strange place in which to find a tender loving mothering God, especially if you heard or read last week’s First Lesson option from Hosea chapter 1. Hosea claims God told him to marry a woman of prostitution. I say “claims” because, come on… We’re trained to hear these texts religiously which is not always a good thing. Imagine if your rector came back and said God told him to marry a porn star and his next sermon series will be based on their children so he needs to get busy making those babies and is doing all of this as a sermon example so you can see God in him and in his wife who’s going to go back to her porn-making ways and eventually he’s going to have to buy out her contract. I can’t say Hosea didn’t hear the voice of God. I can say the story provides us an opportunity to explore how we know what we are hearing, thinking or imagining is or is not the voice of God. But that was last week.

Now about this week… I’m guessing this is not the sermon you thought you were getting. Perhaps equally unexpected are the ways, plural, in which Hosea thought about and named God in what has become scripture for us. Whatever you make of the marry-and-impregnate-a-woman-who-sells-herself-and-will-return-to-selling-herself-so-you-will-have-to-buy-her-back-story of the beginning of the book, it paints a particular, familiar, traditional, image of God. God is Israel’s long-suffering, betrayed, jealous husband, who loves his – I said his – wife in spite of how she has treated him and will take her back. This image of God has its problems; God is often a violent, abusive husband in these Iron Age theological portraits, particularly in the prophets, which assume that jealous men beat their wives and have every right to do so, and worse.

We should be honest about the limitations and danger of that image and language. All of our language and imagery falls short when we speak of God, for human language is woefully inadequate for the task. Even our most familiar and beloved God-language can become an idol – that which is not God but which we treat as though it were. For some, masculine god-language is an idol; it is a limited, finite, incomplete articulation of who God is in and beyond the scriptures treated and worshipped as though it were God. God is not our language about God, even our most cherished and traditional language, father language, Trinitarian language, falls short of who God is. We need multiple images of God, more than one set of words, like Hosea. In most of Hosea God is Israel’s husband but in chapter 11 she is Israel’s mother.

God says: I, I taught Ephraim how to walk – using a double subject in Hebrew for emphasis. Imagine God holding out her fingers for her toddling child to grasp as he teeters and totters.

God says: I lifted them up in my arms. Imagine God holding her child in her arms, not just one, but all of them at the same time. No matter how many, no matter how wriggly, there is room in God’s lap for all of her children.

God says: I was to them like those who lift babies to their cheeks. The way I cared for them – the nation who is my child – was like when you hold a baby up to your face and rub his soft, plump little cheek against your own.

God says: I reached to them and fed them. I fed my babies as all mothers have from the founding of the world until some of you all figured out how to bottle milk. I nursed my babies at my own breast; I didn’t farm them out to a milk-nurse. The image of God as mother is older than Hosea and endures into the New Testament and earliest theology of the Church. Feminists didn’t start it; we are Janies-come-lately.

The Spirit who is always feminine in Hebrew and never male in any biblical text, was the mother hen of all creation in Genesis. In Exodus, at the founding of the nation, God gave birth to Israel becoming their mother. The Hebrew word for Egypt, mitzrayim, means “narrow place.” It is a metaphor for the womb from whose violent contractions Israel was delivered. The passage through the Sea is the passage through the birth canal, complete with blood and water. In Numbers 11 while arguing with God, Moses complains that he did not give birth to Israel and is unable to nurse them and tells her – Moses uses a feminine pronoun for God – Moses tells her to nurse her own babies because he doesn’t have the equipment to do so. He then quits as God’s nanny but they make up and he goes back to work. Then God whips up a batch of chicken and biscuits for her ungrateful children. (That’s the manna and quails for the literalists among you.)

Deuteronomy 32:18 charges the ancient Israelites, and us: The Rock who gave birth to you, you have neglected; and you have forgotten the God who writhed in labor with you. 1 Peter 2:2 urges new Christians to desire the milk of the gospel; the gospel is mother’s milk and God is our mother. Julian of Norwich, that great mystic of the Church wrote of the motherhood and fatherhood of God and repeatedly of “Christ our Mother” who feeds us in the Sacrament from his own body as a mother from her breast.

Hosea preached of the tender mothering love of God as he preached about a second Exodus, a do-over. Anybody else want to turn back the hands of time and start over? Israel was going to get one, but it wouldn’t be like they thought. God wasn’t going to wave a magic wand and erase all of their problems and the consequences of their decisions, choices, actions and inactions. But God would accompany them on their journey, through and beyond their sorrows, no matter where they led or how long it took.

Hosea 11 with its tender portrait of Mother God has a tragic, reverse Exodus:

Hosea 11:5 …return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king,

because they have refused to repent.

6 The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their divisions,

devouring because of their schemes…

Israel will go back to Egypt. Juxtaposed with the Assyrian invasion and defeat of Samaria, the capital of the Northern Monarchy, resulting in the decimation of nine and a half of the twelve tribes, God announces that Israel – meaning the North, not the whole – will return to Egypt. This is unimaginable, going back to the place of slavery.

Perhaps it is not so unimaginable. Violence rages in our cities too, violence from a time we thought long past all. The legal right to kill based on your feelings, even when those feelings are rooted in racism. Are we going back in time? Perhaps not going back to the days of slavery, but are we going back to pre-Civil Rights, pre-Voting Rights Amendment America? Are we going back to the time when my daddy wore the uniform of the United States Army and didn’t have the right to vote? We can’t go back! Surely God won’t send us back there.

Are we going back to a time when women didn’t have any control over our own bodies, medical or other decisions, couldn’t walk down the street without a male escort to avoid being seen as one of those women – the kind who can be taken off the street, used and abused and held for a decade? Well, maybe no one but the predators thinks that’s acceptable anymore but one in five women are raped and only three percent of rapes lead to convictions and rape victims and survivors still have to prove they were really raped. We’ve made so little progress here. We can’t go back! But it looks like we’re going anyway. For once we want Mama to say, “I will turn this car around…” But this time she won’t. Israel is going back to Egypt and we are backtracking too. But how far back are we going to go?

After four hundred years of bondage, it took the Israelites another forty years to reach Canaan, and everyone who started the journey with them did not make it. A whole generation died on the way, a whole generation of dreamers. American chattel slavery lasted four hundred sixty years. Its aftermath gave birth to generations of dreamers and their dreams; one dream marched on Washington fifty years ago this month. Will we let the fabric of their dreams be unraveled?

March on WashingtonWe have done so much since then, learned so much, built so much, changed so much. Are we going to lose it all? Civil Rights and women’s rights and the dignity of every human person, gay, straight, and crooked, cis, trans and in transition, able-bodied and varying abilities, documented and undocumented, wealthy, comfortable, struggling, working poor, deeply and desperately impoverished… I imagine Hosea’s congregation reflecting on their own history.

After leaving Egypt, the Israelites fought their way into Canaan, when they were not fighting the indigenous population who understandably objected to what they experienced as illegal immigration, they were fighting the land. We will continue to fight against the dreams of a new generation of dreamers? Are we willing to offer the stranger welcome to this nation built on bones and broken promises and the sad history of cutting off many of its First Nations from the same promises?

Now, the prophet says God will let the Assyrians invade them as they themselves invaded Canaan. Yet this is not an easy decision for God. God laments:

8 How can I give you away Ephraim? How can I hand you over Israel?

How can I make you like Admah, treat you like Zeboiim?

[cities destroyed with Sodom and Gomorrah]

My heart turns within me; kindling my tenderness and heart together.

9 I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim;

for I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst,

and I will not come in wrath. No!

But you will go back to Egypt. God, we can’t go back there! We can’t go back in time here in America. But it looks like we too are going back to Egypt. And God promises us as God promised Israel, no matter what happens, no matter how bad it looks, no matter how bad it gets, not to destroy us, not to abandon us, to accompany us wherever we go and when necessary to bring us home, again and again.

But this time it will be different trip. We and Egypt have changed – and I’m not even talking about the most recent changes in Egypt. Those who go to Egypt as Hosea prophesies will not be enslaved; their former oppressors have become welcoming neighbors – for a while. Those who seek refuge in Egypt will be saved from Babylonian annihilation. More than one hundred and fifty years later, the prophet Jeremiah was forcibly taken to Egypt and he and an entire community of Jews escaped the Babylonian invasion. They built a thriving community in North Africa. They learned Greek and translated the scriptures. Many generations later that community welcomed the Holy Family into their midst when they too went back to Egypt in response to the dream of a new generation, giving new meaning to God’s words to Hosea: Out of Egypt have I called my son… And the gospel in which Hosea was quoted was written in Greek because of the influence of that community and their descendants.

Israel will be defeated by the Assyrians and deported to Egypt and to Assyria, but God will bring them home again, in a second Exodus.

Hosea 11:10 They shall follow the God Who Is Mother and Husband,

who roars like a lion; for when God roars–

God’s children shall come trembling from the west.

11 They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt,

and like a dove from the land of Assyria;

and I will return them to their homes,

says the Mothering God.

Sometimes we go back to go forward. And wherever we go, our Mothering God goes with us. That’s Iron Age theology that still works in the digital age. In the words of Ps 107:43, Let those who are wise give heed to these things…

May God the Mother and Father

of Avraham, Yitza’ak and Ya’acov,

Sarah, Hagar, Rivqah, Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah,

Who took the tangled threads of their lives

And wove a tapestry of Redemption

In the Body and Blood of Miryam l’Natzeret

Continue to weave the strands of your life

In the Divine design. Amen.


Dont Ask Me How I Am

Don’t ask me how I am if you don’t want to know. If you can’t handle it. If you will need me to help you understand. Just don’t ask. You know how I am. How we are.

I am not ok. We are not ok. I am not safe. We are not safe.

I am not safe as a woman. I am not safe in America. I am not safe because I am black. I am not safe because I have a Ph.D. because I am black. I am not safe because I am middle class or even upper middle class because I am a black woman. I am not safe because I am an American because I am black and a woman.

My Episcopal priest’s collar will not keep me safe. I am not safe in this liberal Christian institution. I have been called nigger in the chapel of one of these seminaries. And I have had white faculty and administration colleagues white-splain to me that just because the student used the word nigger in a sentence while talking to me didn’t mean that she was calling me a nigger. I didn’t understand. I remember being forced to apologize for calling that place a plantation because I hurt the feelings of a white lady. And I did. I didn’t have tenure. I have tenure now. And I am not safe because I have tenure because I am black and a woman in America.

Don’t ask me what you already know.

Just keep playing Strange Fruit and Mississippi Goddamn until you get it.

And then let’s make the world safe for our children.


Moses & His Lady (Who Is Also His Lord)

Shabbat B’ha’alotkha 25 May 2013/16 Sivan 5773

בְּהַעֲלֹתְךָ

 בְּהַעֲלֹתְךָ “When you set up (the stuff)…” There’s a lot of stuff in this parsha.

The purpose of this setting up in 8:1 is to give light, so too I hope will this drash. Let’s shine the light on some of the stuff in the text. First there is the consecration of the Levites who are frequently invoked as a trope for contemporary clergy in Judaism and Christianity. As chance would have it, seminarians at RRC and LTSP are in graduation and ordination season (less closely linked for Christians). Some may well turn to these texts for inspiration, for contemplation, for liturgical innovation. But I don’t think any will turn to Numbers 8:7 and shave their entire body in preparation.

Another place for illumination in this parsha is הֶעָנָן, the cloud in 9:15. This is one of my favorite articulations of God in the text: God is present. God is visible. God accompanies God’s people. Technically God leads God’s people but when they won’t follow, God comes back for them, waits for them, attends them. That’s what happens in ch 11, the reason I asked for this parsha although I guess there wasn’t much of a bidding war.

This is one of my favorite stories about Moshe Rabbenu. And I like Moshe – even though I critique him severely for failing to give Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah their inheritance as commanded by God, going to his death in disobedience on that score – I like Moses; I do.

I love that when he was on the run from a murder beef and had every reason to think about himself to the exclusion of all others, hi risked his own life and freedom for women he didn’t know because they needed help. And in the wilderness wandering, Moses interceded with God for the Israelites over and over again, even when they were cussing him and blaming him. Honestly, if I had been Moses that time God said, “Move over there. I’m going to kill them all and start over.” I’d have said, “Here good?” I would not have gotten between God and the folk while God was in a smiting mood waving incense in God’s invisible nose – how did he know which way God was facing? – hoping to calm (sedate?) God as Moshe did in 16:43.

Moses models an aggressive form of intercession: Going toe-to-(invisible)toe with God. Getting in God’s face – or at least her space. And She is she in this text, perhaps more so than in any other text.

Numbers 11 begins with the people grumbling to themselves as indicated by the hitpaal. (This text offers plenty of light for my fellow Hebrew grammar nerds.) Even though they are grumbling to themselves, God hears them and fries them. God is in a smiting mood. And Moses intercedes. Then the people grumble (again), this time craving-a-craving and weeping. And Mother God feeds her babies – more like toddlers. But they don’t want what she cooked – מָה נָא, what is this? מָה, the “what,” was not what they wanted. They wanted what they used eat for free – except it wasn’t free – before they were forced on this family road trip – except they weren’t forced.

Then God gets burning hot (again), וַיִּחַר־אַף. Literally, God’s nose was on fire.

I imagine smoke pouring out of God’s nostrils because that snorting bull image is never far away since an aleph in paleo-Hebrew is a bull’s head meaning every time someone wrote el or elohiym before the adoption of the Assyrian square script, they started with a bull (you can also see the origin of our “A”).

(You don’t know how happy I am to have found a free True Type paleo-Hebrew font that works on a Mac!) Or maybe God is just red in the invisible face. And it was in the sight of Moses, רָע, bad, wicked, evil, naughty.

Moses standing in judgment of God? That messes with my Christian sensibilities. But what I love about Job is his gumption to sue God – as a Gentile no less. So, OK, Moses is not pleased with the sight of God’s anger. Question 1) What does it look like when God is angry? Some decidedly unchristian folk say that natural disasters are what it looks like when God is angry. Ancient folk without malice thought that too. What does it look like when God is angry? What did Moses see?

In v 11 Moses has had enough – of whatever: Why are you doing me dirty? That’s how I translate it when רע)ע) is a verb. Verse 12 (follow along): Did I conceive these people? No you did. I don’t have the parts! Did I give birth to them? No you did. I don’t have the parts! Because you said to me, carry them in your bosom like a milk-nurse. I don’t have bosoms! You know what, I have had it with your whiny brats. JPS translates בכה, weep, in v 13 as “whine.” I tell you what Lady, if you are going to treat me like this kill me now.

In v 15 Moshe uses the feminine pronoun אַתְּ rather than the masculine one, אַתָּה, for God. There is an obscure point of Biblical Hebrew grammar in which the second person masculine singular takes on the form of the second person feminine singular, generally at the midpoint (atnachta) or end of a pasuq. Allegedly because of a change in inflection. I’ve always been suspicious of it because it doesn’t affect any other forms. Even if that rule is valid, it doesn’t apply here. The pronoun in question is not at the middle or end of the verse. Moses has called God a woman, or better contextually, a mother, one who needs to come get her kids.

Moses talks about being God’s unwilling male-nanny but not having the parts for the job. Question 2) What is Moses’ role in the analogy he crafts? Is he Israel’s nanny? Or Israel’s step-father? What is his relationship to God in the analogy?

Finally, what about God’s parts – and bosoms? According to Job 38:29 God does have a womb and give birth to ice and snow among other things. In Deuteronomy 32:18 Moshe will later say – or at least the torah will say he said – that God writhed in labor with us and gave birth to us. The divine Name Shaddai is rooted in “breastedness,” – see Gen 49:25 when Shaddai provides the blessings of breast (shad) and womb. Perhaps the source of all those “taste and see verses” and the Christian injunction to consume “spiritual milk” in 1 Pet 2:2.

Question 3) What if anything does gendered language in Biblical Hebrew mean? Is there a relationship between grammatical and ideological or functional gender?

The last chapter, 12, in the parsha is the one in which Miryam HaNeviah challenges Moshe and perhaps God on the perception that Moses is the only prophet in Israel while he is scandalizing the nation with his new Nubian wife, having abandoned Zipporah back in Exodus 18:2. It get’s pretty ugly. There’s some yelling and some more smiting. And Miriam was struck with a disease, צָרַעַת, (and according to me in Daughters of Miriam and Rabbi Akiva in b. Shabbat 97a, Aaron as well). Miriam was banished to what I call “the camp beyond the camp” in my current work, the place where those who were טָמֵא waiting to be pronounced טָהוֹר stayed. The text says that the people did not move until the “gathering,” הֵאָסֵף, of Miryam. I like to imagine that the illuminating cloud got up to leave but the people would not follow without Miryam. Or perhaps God herself refused to move without her daughter. The family squabble was over. For now.


Savaging Women (and Men)

The festering scab of our rape epidemic has been ripped off (again), revealing the festering flesh underneath. Women and girls snatched off the street and held in chains for years as sex slaves; predators talking their way into the homes of struggling single mothers for access to their children; male soldiers and defense contractors raping their female and male fellow soldiers habitually and for sport with impunity; women, men, boys and girls trafficked around the world because they are cheaper and more profitable than drugs with lower overhead and fewer turf wars – and the demand is inexhaustible.

We are horrified by and seemingly inured to violence: sexual violence; domestic violence; gun violence. The sleeping behemoth of righteous indignation is shaking off its slumber as the  parents of murdered children find allies in their fellow citizens and in some of their representatives to address one factor in the sea of madness, nearly unfettered access to guns including military grade weapons and high capacity magazines that can turn any shooting into a slaughter.

The consumption of women’s and girl’s bodies for the sex-power-rage gratification of men is prehistoric and perennial. It is biblical. But it is not godly. No longer “just” a tool of  warring armies – although still very much so – the daily reduction of women of women and girls to  tubes of flesh to which and for which some men will do anything is a horror that must be decried and ended.

We cannot legislate our way out of rape culture any more than we can out of gun culture, although legislation has an irreplaceable part to play in transforming our society that must not be abandoned or surrendered.

We are broken at the basic human level, but not not past the hope of repair. That is the irrepressible hope that dogs me, hounds me, stalks me. We have it within our capacity to change, ourselves and our world. We begin with what we tell ourselves about ourselves and each other. We continue by rejecting and correcting messages objectify and commodify people, women, girls, boys and men. We shine the light of day and the light of God on sexual violence in our homes, churches, temples, mosques, schools, military, and streets. We teach men and boys not to rape, that they have no right to the flesh of women and girls or boys and men. We stop blaming the victims of sexual violence for the crimes against others against them. We stop accepting rape and torture as the price of doing business or consequence of living in certain neighborhoods, countries or anywhere else in this world.

It is not enough for good men not to rape. It is not enough for people of faith to condemn atrocities after the fact. We must nurture human dignity in each child, each adult; teach and model manhood that is not based on conquest or dominion. The savages among us are savaging the illusion of civilization. No amount of digital technology can prevent the deployment of a weaponized penis yet technological advances and innovations further rape and trafficking. It is far past time to target men and boys  and our rape-normative culture with messages of transformation. You are not savages. We will not be savaged.

The time has come for rape-culture to be buried in a grave from which it will never rise again.


Rewriting the Bible, Me & the History Channel

I am a womanist, feminist, post-colonial, transgressive, progressive biblical scholar. I am liberal about the love of God and conservative about translation issues (like lexical fidelity). And I have been accused of rewriting the bible on more than one occasion, see Rewriting the Bible: the Gospel According to Liberals where I’m in good company. That is something that I and the History Channel have in common. HC offers a disclaimer before each episode of its miniseries: This program is an adaptation of bible stories. It endeavors to stay true to the spirit of the book. I applaud the History Channel for their honesty here, in spite of the name of the project, “The Bible,” what they offered was an interpretation, one clearly marked by the social location – race, religion, culture and gender politics of its producers. (See the archives of this blog for many examples.) Their interpretation included a fair bit of rewriting the bible for their own purposes.

The charge is a common one regularly leveled at progressive or liberal Christians, really anyone who isn’t claiming a literal interpretation of an inerrant scripture. And that’s what makes History Channel’s Bible mini-series so interesting to me, given that it is marketed so heavily to evangelical and conservative Christians, many of whom subscribe to literalist and inerrantist readings of scripture. The series engages in rewriting the bible on an epic scale, so much so that they’re offering a novel as a follow up for all the bits they couldn’t quite work in. Mind you that’s a novel – the ultimate rewrite – rather than an extended DVD of, say, clips from actual biblical accounts that they couldn’t broadcast because of time limits.

If rewriting the bible is so awful, so progressive, so lefty, so liberal, why is a project with such good evangelical and conservative Christian street cred doing so, loudly, publicly and getting paid? (That novel, the series itself and the other Bible Series merchandise is not free.)

Because of what all seminary professors, biblical scholars, seminary trained clergy and religious leaders and careful critical readers of scripture know: we all interpret everything we read or see, including (and not just) sacred texts. Yet there is a misperception that texts – especially religious texts – are independent of interpretation, that their meaning is whatever the literal text says, with no nuance or room for interpretation. And Those who get to say that the text means what it literally says to them, are those with power, frequently white, male, heterosexual, cis-gendered, able-bodied, frequently clergy (with or without seminary education depending on the tradition).

And while all readings and viewers are interpretive and affected by the identity of the readers and viewers, that doesn’t mean that it is impossible to make historically appropriate productions of biblical or other stories. And I confess that’s what I expected from the History Channel, a retelling of the biblical narrative as it is preserved supplemented by the historical record. What I saw was a particular religious and cultural retelling that rewrote the portions of the bible that did not fit the larger vision. The final episode of the mini-series contained some truly spectacular rewrites:

The gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial make it clear that Jesus was shuffled off from Pilate to Herod and back to Pilate. The number of legally questionable proceedings and sheer exhaustion of the nighttime travels build the tension in the scriptural accounts. The mini-series cut out Herod’s hearing and the travel between locations.

Jesus’ female followers were seemingly compressed into a single “Mary” based on her appearance at the tomb, I’m guessing Magdalene. I give the History Channel credit for including her among the disciples from the very beginning, but by making a lone woman a disciple apart from the company of other women they present an unnecessarily scandalous (from a First Century Jewish cultural perspective) of this one woman running around with a group of men. They cut out Joanna, Salome, the other Mary (as the bible calls her), leaving Mary and Martha behind after the resurrection of Lazarus. (In that episode the departed from the Gospel which says that Jesus called Lazarus to come out of the tomb – from outside – by having Jesus go in and kiss him on the head.)

Jesus’s march to Calvary includes a scene with a woman wiping the face of Jesus. Many Catholic, Anglican and other Christians will recognize this as the story of St. Veronica from the Stations of the Cross. It is beloved, but not in the bible.

Easter morning did not find Mary Magdalene going to the tomb with spices to prepare the body of Jesus for a more permanent burial. (They seem to be using John’s gospel which eliminates all but one of the women from all of the other gospels.) She went with nothing for no discernible purpose.

And, on the day of Pentecost in the scripture, the disciples who were there numbered 120 made up of the surviving first 11 (after Judas’ suicide), Jesus’ mother (absent), siblings (I don’t think we ever saw his sisters in the whole series nor all 4 of his brothers), 2 candidates to replace Judas and the rest were “certain women,” meaning that with the exception of the 17 men the other 103 disciples present on the day of Pentecost were women. But there were only a handful shown, with the obligatory, token, individual woman. In the scripture the sight of so many, particularly women, speaking in other languages led to charges that they were drunk – entirely missing from the episode. In the scripture that charge leads Peter to preach a sermon from Joel explaining that God calls women and men to ministry. A powerful moment and a missed opportunity.

These fundamental rewrites of some of the most cherished accounts in the scriptures occur in spite of their consultation with New Testament scholars like Duke University’s Mark Goodacre. As a biblical scholar who studies and engages in midrash, Jewish biblical interpretation that can include rewriting the text I welcome the HIstory Channel, the series producers Roma Downey and Mark Burnett and their viewers to the work of biblical interpretation. I would however like to offer a couple of suggestions from my own teaching to those who are new to the practice from a critical scholarly perspective which differs from many religious practices of reading and rewriting the bible.

  1. Determine what the text actually says, as much as possible, resort to the original languages and all of the relevant manuscripts, especially when they conflict and when there are multiple versions of a story; this will multiply your source texts.
  2. Determine what the text meant in its original context in light of the religious and cultural norms of the time.
  3. Interpret the text for and from your context and be honest about your interpretive lens.

That the History Channel got so many folk watching, talking and thinking about the bible can be a good thing if those conversations include understandings of how and why the TV show is different from the bible that folk know – and there are many bibles with differing contents – and, how all of our understandings differ from those of the folk who produced and preserved those texts never imagining a largely Gentile church on the other side of a globe they didn’t know wasn’t flat.


Crucifixion and Sexual Violence

On this Good Friday as on many before, I consider anew the full range of torture and humiliation to which Jesus of Nazareth was subjected, physical and sexual. The latter is so traumatizing for the Church that we have covered it up – literally – covering Jesus’ genitals on our crucifixes. But the Romans (and others) who used crucifixion as more than a form of execution, as a form of state-sponsored terrorism – really lynching – to control subject populations were not inclined to respect the human or religious dignity, culture or customs of their targets.

The mocking, taunting, forced stripping of Jesus was a sexual assault. He was, as so many of us are – women and men, children and adult – vulnerable to those who used physical force against him in whatever way they chose. Those who rush to say but he wasn’t raped, or at least he wasn’t raped miss the point. (And we don’t know that he wasn’t. We can only say the Gospels do not say that he was. But would they?) The combination of various forms of sexualized violence and lethal violence are potent dehumanizing expressions of dominance as in ritual castrations combined with lynching in the American South – and North.

It is hard to think of Jesus that way. Hard to find images that preserve that historical perspective. (I couldn’t find any nudes that also portrayed him as a Semitic, Afro-Asiatic, man.) An internet search is not for the faint of heart. The sexualization of a bound man or woman is an obvious and a familiar trope in pornography. The association of Jesus with BDSM (bondage, discipline/domination, submission/sadomasochism) is horrifying (for me and for many others, but clearly not for all). The line between consensual sexual encounters and assault and sexualized murder is crystal clear for me. Crucifixion, like all forms of lynching, is depraved and should make us uncomfortable whatever our sexual pleasures.

The Church that has a hard time talking about sexual violence perpetrated against mere mortals has an understandably hard time thinking about the sexualized connotations of the crucifixion of the Son of God. The reason the Church has such a hard time thinking critically and talking about sexual violence is because it has a hard time thinking critically and talking about sex. The Church – and I really mean churches, congregations and denominations – has had and have a hard time talking honestly and publicly about good healthy sex and so they are unable to speak authoritatively about its antithesis and perversion, the use of sex as a weapon.

There is so much shame associated with sex for so many Christians and those who lead, teach and preach in Christian communities, and that shame is regularly heaped on women and gay or effeminate men. Yet the scandal – and it is scandalous – of the Incarnation is that God pulsed into this world between a woman’s thighs, in not only the spit and shit of a stable, but passed through her vagina, as Bro. Cornell West says located “between the orifices for urine and excrement.”

Jesus has been carefully shielded from female and male genitalia in the tradition ever since. The idea of Jesus being in either a heterosexual or homosexual relationships are both anathema for many Christians. Even the notion of Jesus’ own human sexual development  – erections and nocturnal emissions – is taboo. And what of his own actions? Could Jesus be fully human as a teenaged boy and man without ever fantasizing or masturbating? If he was truly unmarried in a culture that married teenagers off as soon as they went through puberty in lieu of birth control because there was no controlling those hormones, how did Jesus deal with his own, natural, healthy, God-given sexual desires?

Celibacy is a powerful, counter-cultural witness in our world and in the time of Jesus. And at its best it is a mature affirmation of a life fully dedicated to God (in Christian tradition), building families through love and spiritual kinship. Celibacy doesn’t make a person asexual. But sexual difference can make someone a target for sexual violence. The exposure of Jesus’ naked body on the cross was a particular shaming targeting a man who was not normatively, heteronormatively, coupled.

I always think of the beginning of Jesus’ (human) life as we memorialize its end because the Feast of the Annunciation, marking the beginning of the miraculous pregnancy that produced him regularly occurs during Holy Week as it did this year (on Monday, the day after Palm Sunday). Sometimes it falls on Good Friday.

Tradition says the Virgin’s conception of Jesus was absent sexual pleasure – and there are those who deny her a healthy sexual relationship with her own husband. The child of her body, the Blessed Ever Virgin Mary or Ever Blessed Virgin Mary – is it her blessedness or her virginity that is perpetual? – depends on where in the Protestant /Catholic divide you fall. (Here I am a Protestant.) Yeshua ben Miryam l’Natzeret, Jesus, Mary’s child of Nazareth is the Son of Woman as surely as he is the Son of God. Her humanity was his humanity in his birth and in his death. Jesus’ death was a parody of his birth, at his crucifixion he was as naked as the day he was born, and again covered in blood and water, but dead when his body was placed in his mother’s arms and his head laid on her long-empty breasts.


Whitewashing Jesus’ Judaism

We begin with the simple historical fact that Jesus was a Jew… It is impossible for Jesus to be understood outside of the sense of community which Israel held with God… The Christian Church has tended to overlook its Judaic origins, but the fact is that Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew of Palestine when he went about his Father’s business, announcing the acceptable year of the Lord. (Thurman, Howard. Jesus and the Disinherited. pp 15-16, 1949)

[The film clip is from the Lumo Project. Compare their portrayals of Jesus and his disciples with those of the History Channel.]

The Church has struggled with Jesus’ Jewish identity, sometimes violently, sometimes lethally at the expense of the lives and property of Jews. One of those responses has been anti-Judaism – related to, but distinct from, anti-Semitism. Anti-Judaism minimalizes, trivializes, demonizes and/or declares Judaism incomplete, invalid or insufficient. This is sometimes called supercessionism, the idea that Christianity replaces and completes Judaism. However, the Christians who hold to this theology vehemently disagree with the same notion in Islam.

The History Channel’s blockbuster production of the bible sadly perpetuates the Christian heresy of anti-Judaism in its depiction of Jesus. First, the producers erased Jesus’ ethnic identity by refusing to cast an actor who shares Jesus semitic ancestry and looks like the semitic peoples of the world in North Africa, the Middle East and West Asia. They cast a European for Jesus and for most of the ancient Israelites (see my previous commentaries here and here) and for most of Jesus’ disciples. However, they cast semitic-looking actors for the Pharisees and a Moroccan for Satan (for more on that click here). This identifies the Israelites, Jesus and his immediate followers with whiteness over and against the Jews. The construct of whiteness is a thoroughly modern one from which Jews have been excluded and to which they have been included as their social and political fortunes wax and wane with regard to the dominant culture.

Second, Jesus’ religious Jewishness is erased in the production. Jesus is a Torah-observant Jew who wears tzit-tzit, the holy fringe on his garments. (See Num 15:38–39; Matt 9:20; 14:36; Mark 6:56; Luke 8:44) He does not wear it in the production contrary to the Gospels – not even in the synagogue! Likewise the History Channel Jesus does not cover his head in public or even when teaching. As an observant fringe-wearing Jew and Torah teacher Jesus would cover his head – and not with a pashmina as he does that one time in the synagogue scene (see image above immediately following synagogue service).

The synagogue service (taken from Luke 4:16-30, greatly abridged) perversely misrepresents Jewish liturgy, worship and tradition. There is a cantor chanting in a lovely trope (musical intonation). But what is he chanting? Well, he starts with:

 וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

And Moses spoke to the Israelites…This is the beginning of a couple of verses in the Torah, Lev 24:23; Num 9:4; 17:6) but the cantor does not chant Torah. He chants part of a medieval hymn,

לכה דודי לקראת כלה פני שבת נקבלה

Come my beloved, to greet the bride, and welcome Shabbat. That song would not be composed for more than a thousand years yet and would be sung on Friday night as Shabbat breaks, not afterwards on Saturday as depicted. Jesus is called to the bema to read from the scroll of Isaiah with the words “y’amod Jesus.” However, his Hebrew name includes his father’s name. No Jew is called to the bema or Torah without a full name – naming practices vary contemporarily with regard to including mothers but in the first century Jesus would have been called up as “Yeshua ben Yosef.” Omitting his father’s name is tantamount to calling him a bastard. While there are scenes in the gospels in which Jesus’ paternity is questioned and challenged, this is not one of them.

The lethal legacy of anti-Judaism means that Christians cannot be cavalier about misrepresentations of Judaism with any ethical integrity. Johanna van Wijk-Bos writes convictingly in the preface to her 2005 Making Wise the Simple: The Torah in Christian Faith and Practice“After Auschwitz” Christian teaching and preaching must take place in the light of what was perpetrated in Christian lands by Christian hands, and must take account of the ultimate consequences of Christian “teaching of contempt” for Judaisam and the Jews. (p xviii)

Theologically speaking, Jesus was and is still a Jew – from the perspective of a confessing Christian who believes that he is very much alive. Jesus’ Judaism is manifest in his teaching and preaching, and in his love of God and for scripture. Historically speaking, the processes by which the followers of Jesus became known as Christians, distinct from Jews and primarily Gentile took centuries and included many reversals and struggles.

Emptying Jesus of Nazareth of his ethnic and religious identity and their markers leaves a hollow shell that can be filled with anything at all – insert dominant culture here – and devalues and denies the specificity of the Incarnation.


How Patriarchy Almost Destroyed America

Olympus Has Fallen was a fabulous movie! I loved it. I didn’t realize that it was an Antoine Fuqua film until the end. but I wasn’t surprised. I have enjoyed most of his movies. There are always these twists that get me thinking…[SPOILER ALERT]

The Secretary of Defense, Ruth McMillian played by Melissa Leo had a heroic scene of the kind that is regularly played by men: The future of the whole world is at stake. The terrorists want the codes to the CEREBRUS system to deactivate the nuclear weapons. But the SecDef won’t give up the codes. She takes a beating like a woman. She is prepared to die for her country. But the (male) president orders her to give up her code. He swears that they won’t be able to get his – they need three codes. He does not let her die for her country like a soldier. I wondered if it had anything to do with her being a woman.

To be fair, he had already ordered the male Admiral to give up his code after the terrorists put a knife to his throat and starting cutting, saying the same thing. He, the President wouldn’t give up the code – even though he knew that his son was out there somewhere and the terrorists were looking for him to use him as leverage. Maybe the President wasn’t sexist, maybe he was just cocky. He was so convinced that he could hold out if he was tortured.

But they didn’t torture him. They hacked his code. They had time to hack just one. And he had ordered his subordinates to turn over the other two codes already. And because he didn’t let the female SecDef go out like a hero he put the nation and the world at risk. The terrorists activated the failsafe and began the process of detonating all our nuclear weapons in their silos to turn our country into a nuclear wasteland.

Of course, this set the scene so the male hero could save the day. And he did it big time, with style, humor, panache, guts, glory, and a ridiculously high body count. It was a great movie but it could have gone a whole other way if the POTUS hadn’t had a fit of paternalistic patriarchy and let the SecDef take one for the team and give her life for her country. Maybe next time Mr. Fuqua.


H.A.M. Hard As a Mother (In Israel)

[I prepared this meditation for the Logan Legacy Prayer Breakfast, celebrating the life and legacy of the Rev. Canon Thomas Wilson Stearly Logan, the longest lived priest of African descent in the Episcopal Church who died at the age of 100, at the request of the committee who assigned me the theme of “Engendering Prophecy” from the story of Deborah.]

 

One of my favorite stories about Father Tom was how he lived long enough to change his mind about women in ministry – and it wasn’t a last minute deathbed conversion either. He lived long enough to hear from God and see God at work in women priests, pastors and preachers who I will call today the daughters of Deborah, who was herself a daughter of Miriam, the Mother of Prophets. 

The committee asked me to talk about Engendering the Prophetic from Deborah’s story. It’s an easy topic because God engendered the prophetic in women and men like Anna and Amos, Miriam and Moses, Huldah and Hosea, Noadiah and Nehemiah. 

Today we are going to hear from Deborah:

Judges 5:6 “In the days of Shamgar ben Anath,

in the days of Yael, caravans ceased

and travelers kept to the byways. 

7 Then the peasantry prospered in Israel,

they grew fat on plunder,

because I, Deborah, arose,

I arose as a mother in Israel.

As the hip-hop heads say, Deborah went H.A.M.: Hard as a Mother (in Israel). Let us pray: Holy One of Old, open our eyes that we may see. Amen.

 

Judges chapter 5 is one of the oldest passages in the Hebrew Bible, describing events more than a thousand years before the birth of Jesus. That makes our Scripture lesson over three thousand years old. Older even than Fr. Tom of blessed memory, may his name and legacy endure as long. 

Deborah was the sixth Judge in the line of succession: From Moses to Joshua, from Joshua to Othniel, from Othniel to Ehud, from Ehud to Shamgar and from Shamgar to Deborah. Unlike women preachers today who are regularly called by some folk only to give a “women’s message” Deborah governed the whole people and commanded the whole army in which she was the chief warrior as well. Her word was law and she proclaimed from a throne near a large palm tree between Beth-El and Ramah. That is, when she wasn’t kicking Philistine and Canaanite butt that sorely needed kicking. Deborah was H.A.M. – hard as a mother.

When God appointed Deborah to lead the nation, eighty years of peace and prosperity had just come to a crashing halt under the hooves, heels and wheels of Canaanite cavalry and infantry. Then for twenty long years the Philistines ground the Israelites into the very ground. Judge Shamgar beat back the Philistines single handedly when they joined the Canaanites to double team Israel, but it wasn’t enough. And then he died.

And Deborah suffered with her people. You see a prophet is of the people and for the people. A prophet loves the people and leads the people. A prophet weeps with and for the people and when necessary, bleeds with and for the people. There are a whole lot of folk calling themselves “prophet” and “prophetess” in this day and age. Some of them have it printed right on their business cards. 

Well, Deborah didn’t have a business card. She had a sword – and I believe a good right hook. Because you can lose your weapon in a battle, but when your body is your weapon, an extension of your will, then fists and fingers become the weapons of your warfare when you run out of rocks and sharp, pointed sticks. Any other veterans in the house know what I’m talking about? Deborah was hard and hardcore. That was the context of her ministry. 

You see Deborah’s people had immigrated to Canaan without checking with the Canaanites. And there were some fights – and to hear Joshua tell it, he killed everybody, but the truth is he didn’t and they had to figure out how to get along together, and they still do. Killing everybody on one side or the other wasn’t the answer in the Iron Age and it’s not the answer today. Deborah helped her people live in the real world after Joshua and his war stories were laid to rest. She didn’t go looking for trouble. But when it found her, Deborah went in and went in hard, hard as a mother, in Israel. I believe the motto on her coat of arms if she had one would have been: “Don’t start nothing, won’t be nothing. But if you start it, I will finish it.”

The big story moves from conflict to conflict, from oppression to oppression, scarcely taking account of the individual people and families struggling to survive day after day. And Deborah was there between the lines of the text. She was there in good times and bad. She was there for births and deaths, weddings and funerals, accidents and illness, good harvests and famine. She was there when folk acted a fool and had to be locked up and when the whole people of God worshipped on one accord. She didn’t just show up when there was a press conference. She was there on the front lines when it was time to go to war calling the shots – she was the shot-caller. Those of us who have served our country know that we cannot expect our soldiers to go where we are unwilling to lead them. Deborah led her people from peril to prosperity.

There were many bitter, vicious battles and terrible losses on all sides. Just when the Israelites had carved out a little space and paid for their peace in the blood of their fallen, within four generations they were overrun. Canaanite oppression was accompanied by an economic depression. It didn’t matter how much or hard people worked, they couldn’t always feed their families or keep their homes. Their savings weren’t being gambled away on Wall Street; they were being burned in the field, and stolen as their livestock was driven off. They lived through hard times. The loss, pain, anger, rage and fear were the same that people feel today. People were hurting. And they took their pain to God.

Deborah’s people cried out to God. She cried out with them and for them. That’s what a prophet does. She speaks to and for God, praying, preaching and when necessary, weeping, wailing, shrieking, shouting and cursing. And Deborah cursed – she cursed the tribes who didn’t show up for battle because they had it good and weren’t concerned about their sisters and brothers. One of those tribes, Machir, has never been heard from since. Deborah cursed them right out of this world.

 Deborah prayed. And God answered. But it wasn’t fast and it wasn’t easy. God didn’t wave a magic wand and fix it. That’s a hard lesson, because there are still desperate, hurting, frightened people, losing their security through no fault of their own. And so to God who created the warrior-prophet in her own image and the quintessential churchman, priest and canon in his image we give thanks and we pray:

God of prophets, priests and praying people everywhere, hear our prayer. Continue to raise up faithful servants from among your people to lead and inspire your people, to speak truth to power, to stand firm in the face of overwhelming odds, to serve you by serving your people. God of prophets, priests and praying people everywhere, hear our prayer.

Keep up us in peace that our prophets and people no longer have to learn the ways of war. Teach us to live together in mutual respect with all of the peoples of the earth at home and abroad. God of prophets, priests and praying people everywhere, hear our prayer.

We give you thanks for the life and legacy of the Rev. Canon Thomas Stearly Wilson Logan and we give you thanks for all of those women prophets and priests who welcomed him into glory, Sarah, Rebekah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Huldah, Noadiah, Esther, Anna, Junia the Apostle to Florence Li-Tim O, the first woman ordained in the Anglican Communion. God of prophets, priests and praying people everywhere, hear our prayer. Amen.

The Rev. Mother Florence Li-Tim O


Erased By the History Channel

Hannah, a sculpture al Mamilla Mall, JerusalemOne thing for sure, the History Channel's mini-series has people watching, talking and blogging. But are people reading the bible? Some are I think. I hope that this series leads to deeper and richer conversations with and about the text than are possible in any multi-media production. I'd like to see folk read the narratives that were shown in the series to see how they compare to the production and read stories which were left on the cutting room floor. I'd like to offer a list of characters, an A-Z (as much as is possible translating, transcribing and transliterating Semitic names into English) of just some of the biblical characaters and their stories yet to be told by the History Channel.

Here is a list of just some of my favorite biblical women missing in action, erased from the History Channel's abridged Hebrew Bible/Old Testament:

The Abigails (one David's wife, one his sister),

Abishag (David's last woman),

Basemath (Esau's wife),

Bilhah (slave-mother of the Israelite people),

Cozbi (murdered by Aaron for marrying an Israelite like Moses and both of his wives),

Dinah (one of Jacob's daughters),

Deborah (both of them),

Elisheba (Aaron's wife),

Ephrath (Caleb's wife),

Gomer (the woman, not the man of the same name),

Hannah (who becomes a prophet in Jewish tradition),

Hammutal (one of the last Queen-Mothers of Judah),

HaSophereth (the female scribe who served in the time of Solomon),

Hoglah (one of the sisters for whom God changed the Torah),

Iscah (neice of Sarah & Abraham whose daughter married their uncle in the incestuous first family),

Jael (avenger of raped women),

Judith (both of them),

Jemimah (not the slave-era distortion),

Keren-happuch (beautiful, wealthy sister of Jemimah & Keziah),

Keziah (along with her sisters above shared her name with many enslaved African women),

Keturah (Abraham's other, other woman),

Lillith (the one Isaiah knew about),

Maacah (all five of them),

Mahalath (both of them),

Mahlah (both of them),

Milcah (both of them),

Noah (the woman, not the dude),

Nehushta (the last of the Queen-Mothers marking the end of an era),

Noadiah (the prophet who led all of the prophets of Jerusalem),

Penninah (who lived with a man who loved another woman but kept sleeping with her),

Puah (one of the deliverers who delivered Moses),

Rizpah (her body was used by men but she used her body to teach a king or two a thing or two),

Serach (daughter of a patriarch whose stories extend far beyond scripture),

Sheerah (who built three cities, naming one of them after herself),

Shelomith (all four of them),

Tamar (all three of them),

Zillah (the first woman dragged into polygamy),

Zeruiah (David's other sister), 

Zilpah (the other slave-mother of the Israelite people), and

Zipporah (Moses' wife). 

For a reminder of what the History Channel focused on instead, see the twitter archives below:

 

Twitter Stream on The Bible, March 17 episode #3

Download the March 17 episode Twitter stream (pdf)

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