(I inadvertantly mispelled Quvenzhané in the earlier version of this post affecting the text in the link. I have corrected it in the post I sincerly apologize to her and to her family.)
A black girl-child must be the most fearsome thing in the world based on how hard so many adults in the juggernaut of
Hollywood Hollywierd are working to demean and debase her. Whether it's reporters who can't or won't learn to say her name – "Can I call you Annie?" No. "My name is not Annie. My name is Quvenzhané." (I am not naming the offenders. I refuse to call their names.) Can you imagine a reporter not bothering to learn the name of a world leader because it makes demands on her articulation? Yet some want to call her uppity for insisting on the dignity of her own name. We've seen that before: Grown black women called "Gal," never "Mrs."
And then there was the person and organization who thought it was ok to call a nine year-old baby girl carrying a stuffed dog a vaginal slur.
I am reminded of the prophetic and prescient bell hooks and her continually relevant essay "Selling Hot Pussy." Black women and girls and our brown sisters are commodities from plantations to picture shows reduced to our urogenital orifices. (Bootylicious anyone?) The claim of comedic license would be a joke if it were not so feeble and so deadly. The law of this land not so very long ago was that black women and girls could not be raped because we had no ownership of our own bodies, no right to withhold consent or access from any white man or any black man to which he wanted to breed us. A black woman or girl who defended herself and her womb against violation and pollution was beyond uppity; she was a criminal.
White privilege and its daughter, White Ladihood, cover white child-actressess from Jodie Foster and Drew Barrymore to Dakota Fanning in its embrace. They were not and would not be called filth and out of their names on their big night. The actions of these journalists reveal their belief that Miss Quvenzhané Wallis is not deserving of the protections afforded white ladihood, not even at the tender age of nine. Like a slave, she is not afforded the luxury of a childhood.
No baby, we haven't come a long way. Some have never left the plantation. Others are trying desperately to recreate it and impose it on the rest of us. We are not a post-racial society. We are a society in which a few people of color have made extraordinary accomplishments and are then used as shields to defend against claims of racism. We also live in a world in which violence against women and girls is epidemic and cataclysmic. Little Quvenzhané lives at the intersection of black and female and is doubly impacted, doubly marginalized, doubly vulnerable.
That the writer who called Quvenzhané Wallis a word no nine year-old should hear, know or have to be shielded from should be held professionally accountable and lose his (or her) job must be said. That so many in the twitterverse an on other social media platforms are outraged is a hopeful sign. But that the media outlet which posted that comment and later took it down without apology has not taken responsibility for its vicious act of sexualized (verbal) violence against a child is reprehensible. That the people who work there don't understand that they feel entitled to treat Quvenzhené they way they are because she is black is the point and the problem.
Quvenzhané, I say your name with pride and respect. You are a gift to this world. You are brilliant and beautiful, made in the image of a loving God whom many cannot or will not recognize because she is a black girl flowering into womanhood. And the world that lynched a Jewish single mother's child simply can't handle God in black female body. (See Janet McKenzie's iconic image of Jesus using a black woman as Christ/a.)
Baby, I need you to hold this for me.
Baby, just say that it's yours.
Baby, you got my love on lock.
Here, "locked" equals "locked down." And for far too many women that means being locked up.
Baby, I can't go back there.
Baby, I've already got three strikes.
Baby, women's prison is soft time.
Baby, if I go back to jail I'll die in there.
Baby, I need you to do this time for me.
You love me, right?
There are so many women in jail because they love a man or a woman somewhere. So many women and girls are caught up in stuff that they never would have been caught up in on their own if it were not for that man that they love. Our society is full of romantic notions about love, sacrificing for love, even your life or freedom. But if it's love as I understand love and as I argue, the Bible understands love, then that love ought to be liberating and not incarcerating.
I'm thinking here of Ephesians 5:25: Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. This stands in sharp contrast with a man who asks a woman to do his time for him.
Liberating love has been a regular Valentine's reflection for me. It is my practice to reflect on the life and legacy of the Rev. Father Absalom Jones for Valentine's Day. His Feast Day is 13 February.
Father Absalom is the first Anglican priest of African descent and the founder of my congregation, the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. Before he was a priest, he was a slave. And when he was enslaved, his master rented him out and beneficently – in his own eyes – permitted him to keep some of his earnings. Father Absalom managed to save enough money to purchase himself from bondage. But he did not. Because his wife Mary (King) was also a slave. He would not risk losing her as he had his mother and six siblings whom his master had already sold away.
Father Absalom did not have enough money to purchase freedom for both of them. So he purchased his wife's freedom, setting her free, redemming her from slavery, literally, not metaphorically, just as Christ did for the Church – and as countless unnamed black men did for their families during slavery. In so doing he insured that their children would be born free no matter what happened to him. He remained a slave, not knowing whether he would ever have a second chance, enough money or the opportunity to purchase his own freedom. As it turns out, he would be able to purchase his own freedom, land and property and provide a good living for his family even before he was ordained a deacon and a priest in the Protestant Episcopal Church. But he didn't know that when he sacrificed his freedom for his wife's.
There are so many distortions of and misrepresentations of black love in the media. There is a subgenre of hip-hop produced for and consumed by the dominant culture in which black folk, especially black women, are pathologized.
And, the commercialization of Valentine's Day seems to me to be marketed primarily towards women. So, for those women seeking a valentine, especially black women, I lift up Absalom and Mary. Choose a liberating love and not an incarcerating one. A liberating love puts your love on top, not on lock.
Which brings me to Beyoncé:
Baby it's you.
You're the one I love.
You're the one I need.
You're the only one I see.
Come on baby it's you.
You're the one that gives your all.
You're the one I can always call.
When I need you make everything stop.
Finally you put my love on top.
Luke 9:28 … Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. [Audio link to sermon available here]
Now, let us pray: Holy One of Old, open our eyes that we may see. Amen.
Luke 9:28 Now about eight days after saying, “23…If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24 (About eight days after saying) For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. 25 (About eight days after saying) What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? 26 (About eight days after saying) Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Woman will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of my Father and of the holy angels. 27 (And about eight days after saying) But truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the reign of God,” – about eight days after saying these things, Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.
Laissez les bon temps rouler! Let the good times roll. It’s Mardi Gras, Carnival, time. It was Mardi Gras on the mountaintop. Peter, James and John had stumbled into one heck of a party. There were strobe lights and sound effects and VIP gatecrashers. Perhaps there was even the sound of a heavenly brass band. And Peter didn’t want the party to stop. He didn’t want to come down from that mountain. He didn’t want to go back into the world below, that cold, hard, ugly world from which he came. He wanted to stay in the rarefied air of that little mountain. Perhaps, looking out over the Nazareth Valley in Galilee he recalled when Moses looked out over Canaan from Mount Nebo. I bet, he thought to himself, Moses didn’t want to come down from his mountain either. Because Moses wasn’t going into the Promised Land; in fact, he died on his mountain. It’s Mardi Gras when people live life at a frenetic pace because we remember that life is attended by death. Somewhere in the carnival crowds Baron Samedi and the angel of death await.
It’s also Black History Month. It’s time to commemorate and celebrate mountaintops and their vistas. In this Black History Month on the heels of the birthday and commemoration of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., many remember that mellifluous baritone intoning:
We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!
We play that clip over and over again, marveling at the prescient prophecy. But are we less likely to dwell on what was going on at the base of that metaphorical mountain in Memphis from which Blessed Martin saw into eternity? Most folk don’t remember that in that very same sermon Martin also said:
…in the human rights revolution, if something isn’t done, and done in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed.
We don’t play that clip so much. In fact, it's hard to find an audio recording of the whole sermon. It is too easy to fix our sight on the man and his memorials. And now we have a new one that we can visit instead of doing the work that he called us to at the base of the mountain. It is much easier to look up to the top of the mountain than look down into the valley. There in Memphis the mountain of soaring oratory towered over the street protests of sanitation workers; civil servants, the poor peoples’ campaign and their integrated, interracial, multicultural allies fighting City Hall for an honest contract and more than that, fighting for recognition of the sacred worth of all human persons and the dignity of honest labor.
There are city workers and other unions all over our nation and some in our own city locked in a new generation of struggle with City Hall. And while so much has changed, in many of those struggles the basic issue of human dignity is as much at stake as it was in Martin’s day. And there are other issues. But perhaps we’d rather look to the man on the mountaintop in our memories than wrestle with the competing claims of today’s contestants when people of color can be found on both sides of the social, political and economic battle lines, some in the right and some in the wrong. And it’s not that easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys at the foot of our mountain, without the fire hoses and the German shepherds.
Besides, if we stay on the mountain with Martin and Jesus we don’t have to deal with the violence in our streets, homes and schools, black on black crime: Black men and boys shooting other black men and boys down like dogs in the street. Black men beating and raping and killing black women and children. Black women and men neglecting and abusing their children and, neglecting and abusing their elders. We don’t have to deal with the failure of our public schools, we don’t have to deal with our crumbling physical infrastructure, we don’t have to deal with the miseducation and criminalization of black boys and hypersexualization of black girls by those inside and outside of our communities. We don’t have to deal with unemployment rates and net financial worth in inverse proportions. If we just remember Martin on his mountaintop we won’t ever go down into those valleys. We could stay in that moment of perpetual celebration, Mardi Gras in Memphis, Mardi Gras on the mountaintop, just like Jesus’s disciples in the Gospel on Deborah’s mountain.
For more than a thousand years Christians in the Holy Land have identified Mt. Tabor as the site of the Transfiguration. While Peter is planning on continuing his Mardis Gras on the mountain, he is standing on the dust and bones of his ancestors and those of the Canaanites they defeated while following the command of the prophet Deborah, theocratic head of the confederated Israelite tribes. When Deborah and her ride-or-die chick Ya’el finished cleaning house, there was forty years of Mardi Gras in Israel after her death.
The holy ground of Mt. Tabor that Deborah purchased in blood has been made holier still by the appearance of two archetypal prophets from each end of the spectrum in Israel: Moses the Law-Giver represents proclamation prophecy; Elijah the Wonder-Worker represents performance prophecy and Jesus of Nazareth, Mary’s Child is the inheritor of both their mantles.
Who wouldn’t want to stay on the mountaintop with them? I know I wish I were there. Moshe Rabbenu, I’ve got a few questions for you: How much does the Torah passed down in your name reflect what you actually said and did and experienced? And now that you have crossed over to the other side, how much space is there between your experience and articulation of God and the God whom you now know in eternity? Why couldn’t you find a woman from your own folk you could stand long enough to marry? And is the bias against women in the Bible directly related to your domestic issues? And Elijah, I have a couple of questions for you too: how does being taken bodily up into heaven in a chariot of fire actually work? Does your body phase in and out of solid matter cohesion like in a transporter beam? Is heaven on the other side of a wormhole? When you killed the four hundred fifty prophets of Baal but not the four hundred prophets of Asherah was it because you really didn’t mind a little goddess worship on the side? Are we feminists right in saying that Asherah was just the Canaanite articulation of the Holy Spirit and not really another God? Those are just some of my questions. I don’t know if Peter had questions or if he just wanted to be in the presence of his holy and revered spiritual ancestors.
It was Mardi Gras up on that mountain and Peter wants the good times to roll on, he doesn’t want the party to stop. If he and James and John can stay up on that mountain with Jesus and Moses and Elijah there’s no telling who – or what – else might just stop by. And even if the prophets Miriam, Deborah and Huldah don’t show up, even if Isaiah and his Baby Mama don’t stop by – yeah, he had one, at least one; Peter is in the presence of the company of heaven: with prophets, apostles and martyrs – though none of them know it yet. There has never been a Mardi Gras celebration quite like this. And there never will be again, not on this side of eternity. They need to savor this moment while it lasts.
Besides, the way Jesus is going, he is going to get himself killed before he does all the things he’s been talking about. How can he usher in the reign of God if he is executed, crucified, lynched by the Romans? Jesus needs a time out. That’s it. Peter is doing this for him. Jesus needs a retreat; he needs to get away. Jesus needs time to be reminded who he is and what he’s supposed to be doing. Peter is just helping. Jesus needs to focus. Somebody’s got to take charge of this thing.
And so Peter lays the groundwork for building an institutional church on the top of the mountain, the Mardi Gras Mission. He’s already working on its architectural plans and interior design. It won’t be very big because he’s not planning on any new members; there is no evangelism in his future. Outsiders need not apply, or if they do show up, if they do take it upon themselves to climb that mountain, they will be welcome as long as they don’t disturb things too much.
But Mardi Gras doesn’t last forever. Ash Wednesday is close behind. Only a split second separates them. And so, between one breath and the next, Moses and Elijah return to glory. And Jesus leads Peter, James and John back down that mountain. Peter doesn’t want to go down into the valley of Lenten discipline and depravation. There is death and self-denial at the foot of that mountain. There is disease and demonic possession at the foot of the mountain. There’s just too much need. Too many folk and too little time. And they all want to cut in on his time with Jesus. If they just stayed on the mountaintop a little while longer they might just forget there was anybody else outside their little privileged circle, hungry, hoping, desperate, dreaming, waiting for them to come down and live the gospel.
But when they come down from that mountain, they don’t tell anyone what they have seen. They don’t tell anyone about the power and presence of God that they have experienced. They don’t tell anyone that they have seen Jesus in a completely new light. They keep their Epiphany to themselves. And when they encounter the people of God with all their needs, they do nothing, say nothing. It is as though the Mardi Gras on the mountaintop has had no effect on them. Jesus has to do it all, all by himself.
And there, at the base of the mountain, Jesus gives them another glimpse of God. He shows them God in service. God revealed in the glory of the cloud, attended by the holy ancestors is also God who ministers to the desperately ill. Jesus came down from that mountain because his sisters and brothers needed him. I needed him. You needed him. The world needed him. We need him. And Peter and James and John needed to learn how to be the church in the valley, in the field, in the streets and in the trenches. As we descend into the Lenten valley from the mountaintop of Epiphany, may we be the ones to meet the needs we encounter.
Jesus also came down from that mountain, because there was a waiting cross at the foot of that mountain, just out of sight, attending his way like Baron Samedi and the angel of death. May we follow that cross from Mardi Gras to Lent and back again, through Shadow-Valley Death to the other side where les bon temps, the good times, rouler, roll on, for eternity in that Mardi Gras without end. Amen.
Great Balls of Fire!
There is a single piece of text that directly connects Jewish and Christian liturgy:
קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת מְלֹא כָל־הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ׃
Holy, holy, holy, is the Sovereign-Commander of angel-armies; the whole earth is full of God’s glory.
Isaiah 6:3 is not only part of weekly Shabbat and Sunday liturgies in addition to festivals, but it also comes up in the assigned reading of each tradition. In Judaism, Isaiah 6 is the haftarah for Parshat Yitro. In Christianity, it is the First Lesson for Trinity Sunday, the first Sunday after Christian Pentecost, just over 40 days past Easter. Isaiah, Yeshayahu, whom I call Yeshua’s, Jesus’s, patron saint had an experience that was…well…let me put it this way:
It was a set-up. God set Isaiah up. Isaiah was minding his own business. He was asleep and dreaming. Or he was awake and taken out of this world. One moment he was in the world he knew and the next he was in a world he could only imagine. He was in heaven – and he wasn’t even dead. He was in a large throne room, in a temple not of this world – although it was the original reflected in the one below. He couldn’t have gotten into the most sacred space of the Israelite temple. Most of the temple was what we would call a compound and most of its real estate was outside, plazas and patios. The large sacrificial altar was outside. The only building was the most holy place, the smallest but tallest part of the complex with the small incense altar and menorah in the front part and the ark of the covenant inside behind the veil. Only priests could enter the building and only the High Priest could enter behind the veil and then only once a year. Isaiah could have never gotten in on his own; he was not a priest. Yet there he was. And it seems larger and grander in his vision than it was in the sixth century BCE, during his own lifetime.
Perhaps in his vision Isaiah was transported to a reconfigured version of the temple, like in a Harry Potter movie, so that the insides were bigger than the outsides and there was room for the throne and its occupant and attendants. Isaiah was somewhere in the back, perhaps behind a pillar. And no one seemed to notice him. Perhaps I should say no thing noticed him, because there were things in there that he couldn’t imagine. There were great balls of fire, talking, singing, shouting and flying – although how they could see where they were going, I don’t know because they covered their faces with two of their wings and… I think they were naked because they were covering their lower halves – although how can anyone tell if a flying ball of fire is naked let alone what’s below the waist – and I use the word “waist” loosely, I don’t know. I say this because רַגְלָיִם, (the Hebrew word for “legs,”) includes everything below the waist and frequently means above the thighs and below the waist.
I imagine Isaiah’s eyes bugging out of his head. I tell my students that MyIkDaVlAm, (messengers in Hebrew) includes ordinary human message-bearers and supernatural beings – divine messengers such as those Isaiah saw were something like aliens in our culture. There were stories about them, and a few folk claimed to have seen them, but they were special people and not always in the good sense: There are volumes of scholarship dedicated to figuring out if Ezekiel was bipolar, schizophrenic or on hallucinogenic mushrooms or something else. In fact, הִנֵּה, (usually translated as “lo” or “behold”) – what most folk say when they see angels in the bible is much more like “Holy **** look at that!”
And Isaiah is not just seeing fire-seraphim, who were technically not angels or messengers – the Hebrew bible treats seraphim, cherubim and divine messengers as different species not to be interchanged. Isaiah is seeing God. Wait. That can’t be right, can it? Surely only Moshe got to see God – It’s not entirely clear that Yeshayahu or his community had a copy of the Torah; they knew many of it’s stories and traditions but may not have had the Torah we have. The elders of Israel saw God in the wilderness, but then there was that one time that God hid Moses and only let him look at God’s—well… Does God have a rump? More recently, the prophet Micaiah said that he had seen the God of Heaven enthroned in glory, but he was one of those controversial prophets and no one knew quite what to make of him. And, he said that God intentionally mislead God’s people. (1 Kgs 22) And since the scriptures hadn’t been written down yet it’s not clear if Isaiah even knew that story or viewed it as credible, let alone canonical. Could a human being see God and live? Was Isaiah going to die? Was he already dead? Might he make it out of this alive-ish as long as he didn’t try to look at God’s face? No worries on that score; Isaiah was clinging to my imaginary pillar with his eyes screwed shut as though his life depended on it. But then he peeks…
So Isaiah is peeping around this pillar, I think, it helps me understand why nobody saw him. But surely God knew he was there. It’s not like Isaiah turned the wrong corner out on his daily walk and wound up in heaven. He had been brought here, some kind of way. Set up, I say. But no one is talking to him. Yet, they’re just going about their business which oddly enough seems to be talking about God and not talking to God. וְקָרָא זֶה אֶל־זֶה (They say to one another):
קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת מְלֹא כָל־הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ׃
Holy, holy, holy, the Sovereign-Commander of angel-armies; the whole earth is full of God’s glory.
Their voices rolled like thunder and the doors shook in their frames. Isaiah couldn’t tell if the doors were the only thing shaking or if everything was shaking. The whole world was topsy-turvy and his world was decidedly flat. It was after all, the Iron Age. And then this smoke filled the room, fragrant smoke, unlike any incense he had ever smelled. Incense in heaven? Isaiah didn’t have the language to describe God as a high church Anglican. But on the other hand, this was God’s home and people did burn incense in their houses, especially rich people. But Isaiah was a bit unsettled by the apparently self-tending incense altar. There was no attendant!
And not feeling particularly bold, not bold at all, overcome and overwhelmed, Isaiah said: אוֹי־לִי, Woe is me. I am undone, for I am a person of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the Sovereign of all the Worlds, the Commander of heaven’s armies!
And as soon as the words left his mouth, he clapped his hands over his mouth but it was too late. They heard him and one of them started flying in his direction. Isaiah held on to that pillar for all he was worth. And he couldn’t figure out why he hadn’t passed out yet. Half the people who had ever claimed to have seen an angel collapsed or passed plumb out. So why was he still on his feet? The death grip he had on that pillar I see when I imagine this story kept him upright.
The seraph that flew towards him stopped above the altar of heavenly incense and picked up a lit coal from the altar with a pair of tongs. Wait, how is she, he, it holding a pair of tongs with fingers of flame? And how hot is that coal if a creature made out of fire needs tongs to pick it up? And what is he – ok the grammar says it’s male but grammatical gender isn’t always biological gender, but then again biology doesn’t really apply here – so what is “e” going to do with that coal? The seraph flew to Isaiah and touched his lips with that coal. There are no words to describe what he felt. The text doesn’t give us any and I can’t imagine any. And I have a pretty vivid imagination.
The seraph pronounced the words of kippurim, the words of atonement that the high priest would only pronounce once a year: וְחַטָּאתְךָ תְּכֻפָּר, “your sin has been covered, atoned for.” Then God spoke. For a moment Isaiah had forgotten that God was there! On the throne, veiled in smoke. God spoke and Isaiah couldn’t see who God was talking to. God wasn’t talking to him. God was just talking. And he, Isaiah, was eavesdropping. Except that it was a set up. He had been brought here for a reason.
God said, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us. And Isaiah just happened to be in the right place at the right time, to hear God’s need for somebody, in a place he couldn’t have gotten into if he tried. That coal has had some kind of effect on him. He finally let go of that pillar. And Isaiah said: הִנְנִי שְׁלָחֵנִי, Holy **** it’s me; send me translated as “Here am I; send me.” The text doesn’t tell us how Isaiah got back to our world, or whether he experienced the whole thing as a dream or vision.
In Christian teaching, prophetic commissions become paradigms for clergy vocations; we are called by God and some of those calls have supernatural components. But how do Jews, liberal, progressive, not necessarily theistic Jews, understand Isaiah’s call? How do we understand Isaiah’s heavenly visit? What moral, ethical or socially just teaching does it inspire? And our society – including highly educated clergy, seminarians and rabbits – does not always take folk who have visions of God seriously, even as we celebrate our holy ancestors who have done so. Mystics and visionaries are often executed first and canonized later. Yet in New Age and Renewal iterations of our traditions many seek visions and mystical experiences of God. What are the lessons of this text for rational, modern peoples? And has anybody had a vision of God that they’d be willing to share?
Adapting the Apostle Paul: 2 Corinthians 12:2 I know a woman in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows.
I know a woman who has seen visions of God and saints in heaven. And I know from the ordination boards on which I have served and with which I have worked that this would have rendered her unfit for ordination in the eyes of many. In the eyes of some, psychological evaluation and medication may have been deemed essential.
But the dreams, ah the visions!
A waterfall of molten metal, flashing gold and silver and reflecting a light dazzling and warm as far as the eye could see, straight up and to each side. The sound of thunder and crashing waves. She knew it was speech yet could not understand the words. And behind the curtain of undulating metal there was… The dizzying assaults of visual and auditory stimuli stilled just enough to interpret them. Not a curtain, but a hem. And above and behind the hem…
I saw the Living God sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of God's gown filled the temple of my sight. Shabbat shalom.