Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Archive for October, 2013

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.