Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Archive for August, 2013

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

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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.