Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Archive for 2014

A Very Violent Christmas

10501674_10205425020685339_6064819075938599308_nEven without the litany of horrors that have made 2014 a year to forget if we could – hundreds of Nigerian girls abducted, sold and raped into slave marriages, their teachers and male classmates slaughtered, a plane with all souls aboard inconceivably disappeared into thin air, another plane from the same airline is shot down as Russia invaded and annexed Crimea – this Christmas is marked by violence the likes of which I have no comparison in my lifetime.

The deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner and lack of consequences faced by their killers are the tip of an iceberg of death. Black boys and men and, women like Renisha Boyd and girls like 7 year-old Aiyana Jones are being killed with abandon, particularly at the hands of the police. Black people are being killed by police at rates ranging from one every 72 hours to one every 28 hours by some accounts. (These accounts cannot be verified because of the lack of reporting by individual police departments.)

The racist biases against black people in this country and individual internalization of that bias lead to the disparate treatment of black folk at the hands of police. Unarmed black people, including children in their beds are shot to death and armed white folk are not even checked to see if they are in compliance with Open Carry and other firearm laws while white cop-killers are brought in alive to stand trial.

Too many black families are grieving the loss of their loved ones, many during these holidays and holy days. And many of us mourn with them, not as they mourn, but we mourn. And some of us are afraid for our brothers, sons, fathers, nephews and husbands. It is all too much. How can this be Christmas?

What does Christmas have to say to our broken fearful hearts? I’ll tell you the truth, the promise of eternal life is not comforting right now, neither is forgiveness of sins. I want to know what Christmas has to do with, say to, say about black life being snuffed out in American streets with little consequence.

There is one reason I haven’t thrown my bible against the wall and walked away long ago. One word actually. Immanu-El. God with us. God is with us. God is with us, dying in the street. That comforts me.

 

Mahalia Jackson’s Sweet Little Jesus Boy is one of my favorite Christmas carols. It is a poignant articulation of how much the story of the poor Babe of Bethlehem has in common with that of the black person in racist America. It is decades old, originating in Jim Crow and still relevant.

This Christmas I remember Jesus born to a fast-tailed girl and God was there, with her. Pregnant, single, presumed promiscuous. I remember a marginalized man, born into a world in which his people were subject to brutality at the whim of the people who oppressed his people. And God was with them. I remember a man who didn’t stick around for long eventually leaving a single mother to manage on her own, but God was with her. I remember a man whose protests against the powers of this world, including the collusion of some of his own folk led to death row. I remember a sorrowful mother told in his infancy that she would feel pain like being stabbed in the heart because of what the world would do to her child. And God remained with her. Even when the state executed her child and placed his bloody corpse in her arms.

The violence of this Christmas season is not new. It is not new for African Americans who survived the Maafa,  slavocracy, Jim and Jane Crow, state-supported lynchings, the prison industrial complex. We have survived because God has been with us. It is not new in the history of the world. We will survive trigger-happy police trained by their fear and society’s racism to demonize and exterminate black people. We will survive because God is with us.

We will survive and the world will change. Empires, conquerors and oppressors fall, rot and die and the world continues to turn. Another favorite song is The Canticle of the Turning, a modern take on the Virgin’s hymn, The Magnificat. Mary’s response to threat of death she was under as an unwed pregnant girl in a society that policed women’s bodies and sexuality with lethal violence was to look back at how her people made it over because God was with them. Mary looked back to one of the Mothers of her faith, Hannah who would be known as a prophet in Judaism – perhaps she was by then – Hannah for whom tradition teaches Mary’s own mother was named.

Hannah sang that God is a World-Turner (using the imperfect signaling future or even present action). Mary sang that Hannah’s prophecy was true (using the past tense). The empires that occupied Hannah’s Israel were long gone. Mary’s Song survived the empire that oppressed her and executed her son.

Finally (but perhaps not finally!), Immanu-El is with us in death and beyond death, transforming death into life.

The violence of that first Christmas, and of this one, those between and those to come will never have the last word because God is Immanu-El. God is with us. We will survive. We will thrive. And we will turn this world around.

The fires of your justice burn in us and will not be extinguished. With you we proclaim that our black lives are sacred. And this crucifying, lynching world does not have the last word. It is Christmas and you are Immanu-El. God is with us.

If you cannot be merry or happy this Christmas, be blessed. Blessed Christmas.


Protest Prayer

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God of Justice who declared black lives matter at the dawn of creation by scooping up a handful of black earth with which to craft humanity in the image of divinity,
We thank you that our radiant blackness is neither accidental nor incidental to your glory.
We join you Holy One, in your lament for the stolen lives of your precious children: Trayvon, Rekia, Mike, Renisha, Tamir, Ayanna and so many, many more. And we partner with you in righteous action to transform this sin-sick world.
We pray your heavenly benediction on those assembled [here], those who will protest and those who will not or cannot. We bless those protesting in other places around this nation and world proclaiming that black lives more than matter but that black life is sacred, and your very image.

And we pray your earthly benediction on and with us, for you are Immanuel, God with us. We pray your protection and know that you are with us in the streets because you are a ride and die God. Lastly we pray for the work: the transformation of the culture of policing, prosecuting and the entire unjust justice system. We pray for those police officers and citizens whose hearts are full of hate and fear. Touch them with your love in and through us. And let us together dismantle white supremacy that all black life: gay, straight, bi, trans, women, men, children in their beds, felons on lock down & homeless teens in the street will survive and thrive because we matter. Black life matters. Black life is sacred. Amen.


A Gospel of Policing: Serve with Integrity

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Luke 3:14 Soldiers Police officers asked John the Baptizer, God’s servant, “And we, what should we do (since we have been moved by the Gospel to be baptized)?” S/he said to them, “Serve with integrity.”*

*Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.

When I was an army chaplain I called this the Soldier’s Gospel. It was important for soldiers to see and hear that their military service was not prohibited by their faith, particularly at a time when non-violence is often lifted up as the only way for Christian, religious or other ethically guided people.

Serve with integrity.

I find myself turning back to that text in these evil days. The models of policing that are dominating our public and private spaces are thuggish, brutal and lethal. And, they are shaped by the racism that pervades our country and our institutions so that individual police officers, without regard to their own ethnicity, violently perpetuate institutional racism. Yet neither policing nor police officers are inherently evil. They are part of a system, of structures which shape their policies and tactics and their own perceptions and responses.

Serve with integrity.

Perpetuating race-based stereotypes is not serving with integrity. Integrity is a difficult path. It means acknowledging and dealing with your own individual racism and that of the system in which you live and work. It means taking a hard look at your own arrest statistics and those of your department. It means coming to terms with the way your own biases shape the way you see, respond and police. It means operating against your biases against black bodies – seeing black boys as men, black girls as promiscuous, black women as prostitutes and black men as thugs. Serving with integrity means holding yourself, your sister and brother officers and your department to a higher standard.

Serve with integrity.

The work of dismantling racism and reversing its programming in public and private, individual and corporate. Police officers have a sacred trust and responsibility to protect and serve, assess, de-escalate and respond appropriately. Lethal violence should always be a last resort.

Officers, we need you. We need to be able to trust you. In the name of all that is holy and humane: Serve with integrity.


Statement on Non-Indictment

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I am proud to have co-authored this statement with my colleague Dr. Keri Day on behalf of the Black Church Studies program and Faculty of Brite Divinity School:

The Black Church Studies program at Brite Divinity School, along with administrators and members of the faculty, lament the recent decision by the Grand Jury not to indict Darren Wilson for the killing of Mike Brown.  We believe that a trial jury should determine whether the facts of the case warrant a murder conviction.  We mourn Mike Brown’s death and believe that racism is subverting the due process of justice in the Ferguson Police Department and Prosecutor’s Office.  The ongoing criminalization of Mike Brown hinders compassion, care, and fairness not only in Ferguson, Missouri, but across our nation.  The cry of Job 34:17 – “Shall one who hates justice govern?” – is an apt warning to America, insofar as racism erodes the legitimacy of our law enforcement.

We at Brite Divinity School stand with the Mike Browns of America.  We demand that public institutions be held accountable for their chronic, oppressive, and often violent bias against African Americans.  “Let justice roll down like waters; and righteousness like an everflowing stream” (Amos 5:24).  African Americans are routinely desecrated by America’s law enforcement and justice system.  We feel outraged by such inhuman practices and trace their roots to a fundamental refusal to acknowledge the sacredness of black bodies.  We deplore the widespread criminalization of African Americans, we denounce the structural racism that corrodes our society, and we join those who embody justice, compassion, and respect for all people.  Let us work together toward equality and fairness in our social, political, and judicial systems.


StayWokeAdvent

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A reading for Advent and a meditation:

 

Isaiah 59:7 Their feet run to evil and they hasten to pour out innocent blood;
their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity, violence and brokenness are in their highways.
8 The path of peace they do not know and there is no justice in their pathways.
Their courses they have made crooked; no one who walks in them knows peace.
9 Therefore justice is far from us and righteousness does not reach us;
we hope for light and look – there is darkness! We wait for brightness yet in gloom we walk.
10 We grope like the blind along a wall, groping like those without eyes;
we stumble at noon as in the twilight, among those fat-with-health as though we were dead.
11 We growl, all of us, like bears; like doves we moan, moan.
We hope for justice, but there is none; we wait for salvation; it is far from us…

14 Justice is turned back and righteousness stands far off;
for truth stumbles in the public square and right cannot come in.
15 It is truth that is lacking and, whoever turns from evil is plundered.
The HOLY ONE saw it, and it was evil in God’s sight that there was no justice.
16 God saw that there was no one – and even God was appalled that there was no one to intervene:
19 Yet they from the west shall fear the name of the HOLY ONE OF SINAI, and those from the east, God’ glory;
for God shall come like a pent-up stream that the Spirit of the HOLY ONE drives forward.

There will be no candle of Hope this year. Hope is no longer enough. There will be no candle of Peace this year. For there is no peace without justice. There will be no candle of Joy this year. There are too many empty places at the table to rejoice. But there will be Light. Light that shines in the darkness illuminating injustice and indifference. The lights I kindle will join with the lights others kindle and expose the depravity that steals, kills and consumes our children and, those complicit with it. This Advent is a season of preparation. We have work to do. Stay awake. Stay awake to injustice. And stay awake to justice, wherever it may be lest we despair. Stay awake. Or, as we say on twitter: #StayWoke.

Translation by Wil Gafney, Ph.D.,  all rights reserved

 


Who Are You Calling A Whore?

Joshua 2:1 Yehoshua ben Nun, Joshua the son of Nun, sent from Shittim two men, spies, secretly saying, “Go, survey the land including Jericho.” So they went and entered the house of a woman, a sex-selling woman, a prostitute, a harlot, a whore, a ‘ho – her name was Rachav, Rahab – and they lay down there.

Matthew 1:1 An account of the genealogy of Yeshua, Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Avraham. 2 Avraham was the father of Yitzchak, and Yitzchak the father of Yaakov, and Yaakov the father of Yehudah and his brothers and sisters, 3 and Yehudah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, 4 and Aram the father of Aminadav, and Aminadav the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5 and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rachav (Rahab), and Boaz the father of Oved by Ruth, and Oved the father of Yissai (Jesse), 6 and Yissai the father of King David.

(The translations are my own, prepared for this service.)

(A DVD of the sermon may be purchased here.)

Many thanks to your very fine pastor Dr. Haynes for the very kind invitation to preach at Friendship West Baptist Church. I understand that the theme for the month at the Wild, Wild West is Jesus and Justice. [Tweet thisTalking about Jesus and justice means talking about the injustices done to Rahab and her sisters because we can’t talk about Jesus and justice and ignore the oppression and exploitation of women and girls who make up half the people on the face of the earth.

Jesus had a particular commitment to doing justice for and by women because he was raised by a single mother after Yosef, Joseph – I call him Yo – disappeared, but more than that, he was a child of the Hebrew Bible, what some of you call the Old Testament as though it was worn out or had been replaced. Jesus’ passion for justice for all God’s children emerges from his Jewish identity and his scriptures which have become our shared scriptures with our Jewish and yes, in part with our Muslim, kinfolk. While he was yet God in child-sized flesh Jesus also knew God from the sacred stories of his people because his mama raised a biblically literate Jewish son. I believe Jesus knew the story of Rahab from his childhood scriptures, but also from his family tree.

I maintain that one of the reasons Jesus was so committed to justice for God’s daughters including his own sisters was because of his own family history. Jesus had some scandals in his family tree. His own mother was likely called out of her name, maybe even called a whore, for saying that her baby daddy was not the man she was going to marry. I don’t know if Joseph ever recovered from being told, Yo, you are not the father. That can be a heavy burden for a man to carry. But Jesus was not ashamed of his mama or any of his folk or the secrets and skeletons in their closets. That’s good news right there. [Tweet thisSome of you are scandalous and some of you are scandalized and Jesus is not ashamed of any of us. I believe that he chose ministry to scandalous women in part because of his great-mother Rahab. She was his mama’s mama’s mama’s mama more than seven times over. According to Matthew’s count there were thirty generations between Rahab and Miriam who you know as Mary – remembering Joseph isn’t related to Jesus by blood except that he and Mary are from the same tribe and therefore kinfolk.

If we’re going to follow the example of Jesus and do justice for and by the Rahabs of the world, we’re going to have to stop calling them out of their names and more than that, we must like Jesus welcome them to the table and family of God, whether they are reformed or not. And as we sit around that table with the scandalous and the scandalized we ought to remember that if weren’t for God loving us in and loving us through and loving us out of our own scandals, skeletons and closets none of us would be at the table. So I ask again: Who Are You Calling a Whore?

The voices that keep telling us in the text that Rahab is a sex-worker also keep reminding us that she’s not an Israelite. She is an outsider, an ethnic minority; she’s not one of us. I know Christians like to read the bible like we’re the Israelites but every once in a while we need to read from the perspective of the Canaanites as do the Palestinian Christians. [Tweet that] [Tweet thisRahab was everything that Israel hated and feared: a woman, a sexually active woman controlling her own sexuality, and a Canaanite woman to boot. But don’t count a sister out who fears God no matter how the deck is stacked against her. Because Rahab knew God her circumstances were about to change. And God was going to use the very thing that folk would shame her for to transform her life.

Rahab’s story begins before the two spies who were supposed to be surveying the land come to her place of business for the business which was her business. Rahab’s story begins when she is born and raised, perhaps loved and cherished, or even abandoned, sold or abused. The text doesn’t seem to care how she ended up selling herself and perhaps selling other women and girls. She may have even also had some male employees. However she got her start, Rahab is now at the top of her game. She has her own house and it is not just a residence; it is her place of business. And that is where Boo and Bae show up.

The brothers went to Rahab’s house and lay down. The first thing they do when they get to her house in verse 1 is “lay down.” Before the word got out that there were spies in town, they lay down. Before they spied out the land, they lay down. Before they fulfilled their mission, they lay down. Without interrupting another brother on his way to handle his business asking about the town’s defenses, they lay down. Do you really think those brothers made a beeline from the wilderness to the pleasure palace to get a good night’s sleep? They didn’t have Sheraton pillows in the Iron Age. Rahab’s night shift would have been putting in work right about then. Is that what they were supposed to be spying on? But they weren’t spying because as soon as they got there, they lay down.

The two brothers in the story are supposed to be on a mission. They have one job: Go, study the land. But the first thing they do, the only thing they do is go to Rahab’s. Later, after their escape, they go right back to Joshua and there is no land-spying in between. They only things they have seen was Rahab’s merchandise under and on Rahab’s roof. They never complete their mission. But they do lay down. The verb sh-k-v means to lie down for sleep and sexual intercourse. And while men (or women) may in fact sleep in a brothel; they do not generally seek out brothels as places to sleep. Those hourly rates add up and in a brothel, beds and other flat surfaces aren’t for sleeping; they’re for working. Besides the verb for sleep does not occur in the passage. I have no doubt that the spies went to Rahab’s house for Rahab’s business. My only question about their transaction is whether they got their money’s worth before they were so rudely interrupted.

[Tweet this] The brothers came to Rahab’s house to lay down but she is the one who is is known as a whore. So I’m going to keep asking in her name: Who are you calling a whore? One thing that hasn’t changed from the Iron Age to our age is that there are women who sell sex, or perhaps better, women and girls and men and boys who have been sold into selling themselves. Even today men who buy sex – even from under-aged girls are less likely to be punished than women who sell sex. And girls who are coerced into selling sex are more likely to be treated as criminals than victims. Prostitution and trafficking go together. Even among those who are adults and say that they have chosen their lives as they are there are stories of abuse, abduction and abandonment raising the question who would they have been without the evil done to them.

The struggle for basic dignity, human and civil rights takes many forms. Even when we are well clothed, fed, educated and relatively free, we are subject to systemic injustice and oppression that affects us all in different ways. We are fighting multiple battles on multiple fronts – but we do not fight alone – we’re fighting racism in everyday life, systemic institutional bias against peoples of color, summary execution in the streets and we are fighting systems that tell women and girls we are less than, our only value is in our bodies, our appearance, that we are nothing unless we have a man or even a piece of a man to share. And sometimes the church is every bit as vicious and violent as the world for women and girls.

Some say Rahab was an “innkeeper” and not a prostitute. That’s simply not what the text says in Hebrew. There has been across time, a concerted effort to whitewash and sanitize Rahab because she is a great-mother of the messianic line through David to Jesus. Even though they have sex, some religious folk don’t like to talk about sex let alone acknowledge that they and their saints and ancestors ever had sex – except for that one time it took to make them. Folk act like all sex is sinful or that when there is a sexual transgression that is somehow worse than any other sin, especially for women who are somehow guiltier than anybody else in the bed. But the thing I love about the scriptures is that they keep it real. And I love Rahab, because like most prostitutes she understands better than the undercover brothers that all the saints are sinners and God welcomes us with our skeletons and scandals.

When I look at Rahab’s story, I see the story of a woman who was once a girl-child, somebody’s baby girl, who became the kind of woman people whispered about, the kind of woman some folk spit at or on, the kind of woman other women blamed because their husband went to her house every chance they got, the kind of woman Jesus liked to hang out with, and the kind of woman who would always be known for one just thing.

Prostitutes often remind us that there is more than one way to sell sex. Just because no cash changes hands doesn’t mean you are not selling, bartering or trading sex. Some folk trade sex for merchandise. Some folk have sex for financial security. Some folk trade sex for status, for jobs and promotions. For other folk sex is the price they have to pay if they don’t want to be alone or in order to feel better about themselves because if they’re having sex that means at least somebody wants them some time for something. A whole lot of folk are selling themselves. They’re just not all on Craig’s List. [Tweet that]

Yet Rahab refuses to be reduced to the stereotypes people have of women who sell sex. She is not all about the Benjamins or the shekels. She is not a cold-hearted witch. She has a family that she is going to save using her house of prostitution because God can take that thing in your past or even in your present that stains your name with shame and transform it into your deliverance and bring somebody else out with you. I don’t know if her roof was their roof, or her food was their food but when her family’s lives were in danger, Rahab saved them. She became the savior of her people, the Canaanite Deborah, Jericho’s Harriet Tubman. [Tweet that]

But Joshua keeps calling her that woman who does that thing as though that thing was all she ever did, all she ever was or all she ever could be. Is somebody calling you out of your name today? Don’t let anybody, prophet or pastor define you by what you have done even if you’re still doing it. You are God’s child. [Tweet thisWomen are more than a collection of the body parts some want to reduce us to. That’s true even when parts of the bible can’t get over our parts, what we have done with them and what we might do with them. That women and girl-children are used for those parts then called whores whether they have sold it or had it stolen is more than an injustice, it is a blasphemy against the Spirit of God enwombed in woman-flesh, not just in the case of Christ but also of each of God’s handmade children. Reducing God’s daughters to a singular collection body parts for which we are desired and reviled, coveted and cursed is to deny of the full dignity of our creation in the image of God. And that makes it possible to perpetrate acts of physical and sexual violence against us.

God’s daughters are not the only ones who are sexually abused, exploited, trafficked, sold into prostitution and then blamed for their own brokenness. Rahab’s story could just as easily be Ray-Ray’s story. [Tweet thisWe need to stop telling the lie that when a grown woman molests a boy he’s lucky. But because we don’t understand sex we don’t understand how and why it is perverted. We can’t talk about Jesus and justice and leave folk cowering in shame about what they have done and what has been done to them. God didn’t abandon Rahab to her fate or her previous life choices. We can’t do justice for anybody if we are to afraid or too embarrassed to speak the word of God to all of the situations God’s children find themselves in, especially those things that thrive in the dark.

We would do well to take a lesson from Rahab when she knew death was coming to her town. She didn’t say the rest of you are on your own, I’m the franchise player on this team. She said I need to get my people out. I need to do right by them. No matter what situation we find ourselves in we have the capacity to help somebody else. Rahab demonstrates a moral and ethical obligation to do justice for other folk, no matter how they have treated you or what they have said about you. I don’t know what her mama and daddy thought about her selling herself. No matter how much money she made there would always be the hint of scandal and shame attached to her name. It’s entirely possible that they sold her as a child to make their ends meet. But she didn’t leave them to their fates. She made a way out of no way for her people.

The text says Rahab has brothers and sisters. She saved them too. I don’t know if her brothers were on her payroll or crossed the street when they saw her coming. Whatever they thought or felt about her, she saved her brothers. She saved her sisters. It doesn’t matter whether her sisters were her flesh and blood, or her sisters working in the sheets and in the streets. Our ancestors had a saying: all my kinfolk aint my skinfolk and all my skinfolk aint my kinfolk. Rahab saved her sisters and everyone who belonged to her house and it didn’t matter what she did or had to do to build that house. She turned her house of prostitution to an ark of safety. [Tweet that]

Rahab was able to save her people because she put her trust – not in the men who came to her house to lie down – but in their God whom she knew for herself. Rahab told Bae and Boo, “your God is God in the heavens above and on the earth.” Rahab knew for herself what some folk are still figuring out that God is worthy of our faith and trust. Rahab put her faith and trust in the God of all creation and was rewarded with the faithfulness of God. Rahab was a Canaanite woman whose people were at war with Israel yet she believed that that she could and would be saved. [Tweet thisA thousand years before Jesus ministered to another Canaanite woman Rahab believed that God was no respecter of persons. Rahab believed that it didn’t matter what you had done or what had been done to you, there is a place for you in the people of God. Rahab knew it didn’t matter if folk call you out of your name when God calls you daughter. That’s who Rahab is, God’s daughter. Never mind that the Epistle to the Hebrews and James still call her a prostitute. [Tweet that]

Some folk will continue to tell your old stories, but if God has brought you out there are new stories to be told. Matthew has some new stories of Rahab. They are there between the lines. One day Rahab found herself the mother of a bouncing baby boy named Boaz. Baby boy grew up and met a widow-woman, she was a foreigner just like his mama. Funny thing is, nowhere in the story of Ruth does anybody talk trash about Boaz’s mama. Rahab’s name lives long after her, not in infamy, but in testament to the faithfulness of God. God’s faithfulness to and through Rahab produced at least fifteen kings according Matthew. Jewish tradition traces the prophets Huldah and Jeremiah from her lineage. [Tweet that]

One day one of Rahab’s daughters found herself pregnant in an usual way. People talked about her like she wasn’t even a child of God. But I believe she said, the God of Rahab is my God. The faithful God is my God. The trustworthy God is my God. And my baby will be in David’s line but he will also be in Rahab’s line so though he will sit high he will look low. He will be Lord of heaven and earth but he will dine with prostitutes and tax collectors. He will be sought after by kings and emperors but he would rather play in the street with the little children.

I’m so glad Rahab is in Jesus’s family tree. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the gospel of Rahab this morning, no matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done, no matter what has been done to you, nothing can keep you from the safety and salvation of God. Israelites and church folk may not want you at the table but God says pull up a seat and sit down. Jesus is not ashamed to have you in the family. They may still call you out of your name but you’ve got a place in the household of faith and nobody can put you out. They may still talk about what you used to do but you’re in the promised land with them anyhow. Salvation came to Rahab’s house. God met her right where she was and brought her out of her old house to a brand new life.

The Gospel of Rahab is a scandalous gospel. [Tweet thisRahab was reviled for spreading her legs and yet God chose to enter world through the spread legs of another woman. This Gospel is that God’s concern for women and the woman-born was manifested in God, Godself, becoming woman-born, for the redemption and liberation of women and all the woman-born from fear and from death itself. Yeshua the Messiah, the Son of Woman, came to seek out and save the lost and to give his life as a ransom for many, for Rahab and her sister. Now, who are you calling a whore? Amen.


Turning Tables Teach-In Christian Responses to Racialized Violence

Updated!

J. K. Gayle’s response to my address interweaving my (much) earlier work on translation theory as it pertains to the scriptures from a black feminist perspective.

Live recording from 22 Sept 2014 including my talk: Turning Tables and Snatching Wigs: A Biblical Response to Ferguson and Forney


Hildegard: Life-Giving Language for Liturgy

A Liturgy and brief homily in honor of the Feast of Hildegard of Bingen, 17 September

Hildegard

Collect: O Fire of Love by whose grace your servant Hildegard, kindled with the fire of your love, became a burning and shining light in your Church: Grant that we also may be aflame with the spirit of love and discipline, and walk before you as children of light; through Jesus Christ our Redeemer, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

Lesson:
*Sirach 43:1 The beauty of the higher realms and the pure vault of the sky,
the frame of the heavens manifests their majesty.
2 The sun shining as it rises illumines all below;
a wondrous instrument, the work of the Most High.
6 And more, the moon marks the changing seasons,
ruler of the ends of times, an everlasting sign.
7 To it belongs the appointed festivals and from it come the holy feasts;
and now it delights in its course.
9 The beauty of the heavens and the majesty of stars
is a sparkling witness in the heights of God.
10 At the word of the Holy One it stands as a statute,
never relaxing in its watch.
11 Look at the rainbow, and bless the One who made it,
for its splendor is glorious.
12 It encircles the sky with its glory
and the hand of God has stretched it out in might.
27 We could say more but could never say enough;
let the final word be: “God is the all.”
28 Where can we find the strength to praise God?
For God is greater than all God’s works.

*Verses 1-2, 6-7, 9-12 translated from the (Hebrew) Masada manuscript, MasSir.
Verses 27-28 translated from the (Greek) Septuagint.

*Psalm 104
25 This is the sea, great and wide;
creeping things beyond numbering are there,
living things both small and great.
26 There the ships go to and fro,
and Leviathan, this one that you formed to play in it.
27 All of these look to you
to give them their food in due season.
28 You give to them and they gather it up;
you open your hand and they are filled with good things.
29 You hide your face and they are dismayed;
you take away your Spirit,
they die and return to their dust.
30 You send forth your Spirit, they are created;
and you renew the face of the ground.
31 May the glory of the Creator endure forever;
may God rejoice in God’s own works:
32 The One who looks on the earth and it trembles,
touches the mountains and they smoke.
33 I will sing to the Eternal One as long as I live;
I will sing praise to my God while I endure.
34 May my meditation be pleasing to God,
for I, I rejoice in the Majestic One.

*Translated from the (Hebrew) Masoretic Text corrected against Dead Sea scroll manuscript IIQPsa.

John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send the Son into the world for the (sole) purpose of judging the world, but in order the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not judged; but those who do not believe are judged already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world and humanity loved darkness more than light, for their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do base things hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be scrutinized. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, in order that their works may be known to be done in God.”

Translated from the traditional Nesle-Aland (Greek) text consulting the (Syriac) Peshitta.

This Holy Eucharist will conducted as Rite II (beginning on p 355), shaped by the language of Hildegard of Bingen (in italics) who we celebrate today. You are welcome to pray the traditional language found in our prayerbook or to expand it following the example of Hildegard.

The Word of God

The people standing, the Celebrant says:

Blessed be God: Creator, Christ, and Compassion.

People:

And blessed be [God’s dominion], now and for ever. Amen.

The Celebrant may say

Omnipotent God, incomprehensible in majesty and inestimable in mysteries, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Redeemer. Amen.

On other occasions the following is used The Celebrant says to the people

Holy God,

Holy and Mighty,

Holy Immortal One,

Have mercy upon us.

The Collect of the Day

 

The Celebrant says to the people

The Living Light be with you.

People

And also with you.

Celebrant

Let us pray.

O Fire of Love by whose grace your servant Hildegard, kindled with the fire of your love, became a burning and shining light in your Church: Grant that we also may be aflame with the spirit of love and discipline, and walk before you as children of light; through Jesus Christ our Redeemer, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

The Lessons 

The Homily

In the name of God: Majesty, Mercy and Mystery. Amen. In 1098, the One Who poured the good and sweet intelligence into humanity (as she would one day write), midwifed Hildegard – later of Bingen – into the world. Eight years later she began her education at a monastery. Ten years later she became a nun. Another decade, another vocation; at 28 she became the abbess. For four years she received a series of visions. Out of those visions she wrote 72 songs, 70 poems, nine books – including a commentary on the Gospels and one on the Athanasian Creed—and a play.

Her writings combined science, art and religion. She was a preacher, traveling to France, Germany and Switzerland to proclaim the Gospel. She was a social critic and reformer of the church, writing popes and emperors to correct and guide them. Her exhortations were full of her concerns that the downtrodden be freed from crushing poverty and that every human being, made in the image of God, had the opportunity to develop and use the talents that God has given her to realize her God-given potential. She also knew something of architecture and engineering, when she moved her nuns to their own monastery, one without an attached men’s monastery, she ordered pipes to bring pumped water into the facility, a rather newfangled idea at the time. A Doctor of the Church, she joins Catherine of Sienna, Teresa of Avila and Thérèse of Lisieux among the male worthies.

I celebrate her for the language she found and crafted to communicate her visions. In her honor I sought to translate the scriptures and the rubrics of prayer in language worthy of her. Inspired by her scholarship I employed my own, discovering the oldest manuscript of our Sirach lesson was the Dead Sea scroll from Masada, so naturally I translated that. Hildegard’s glorious visions bear witness to both the inadequacy of human language to describe the God Who rules the whole world with celestial divinity in the brilliance of unfading serenity and the unplumbed potential of our language to translate something of the mystery of the Celestial Majesty. Like Sirach and the Psalmist before her, Hildegard saw in nature a lexicon for the Divine. And though she often used male pronouns and masculine imagery like the scriptures, like the scriptures she did not limit herself to them.

Yet all too often the language by which we name God in the church and in our prayerbooks is limited by and to a gender God does not possess and to a poverty of images – beloved though they are – reduced from the vast wealth of the scriptures, often abandoning nature’s witness. Hildegard of Bingen teaches us that it is the finest doctrinal work of the church to name God in ways that employ a myriad of images:

Let us attend to her lesson:

O comforting fire of Spirit,
Life, within the very Life of all Creation.
Holy you are in giving life to All.

Holy you are in anointing
those who are not whole;
Holy you are in cleansing
a festering wound.

O sacred breath,
O fire of love,
O sweetest taste in my breast
which fills my heart
with a fine aroma of virtues.

O most pure fountain
through whom it is known
that God has united strangers
and inquired after the lost.

O breastplate of life
and hope of uniting
all members as One,
O sword-belt of honor,
enfold those who offer blessing.

Care for those
who are imprisoned by the enemy
and dissolve the bonds of those
whom Divinity wishes to save.

O mightiest path which penetrates All,
from the height to every Earthly abyss,
you compose All, you unite All.

Through you clouds stream, ether flies,
stones gain moisture,
waters become streams,
and the earth exudes Life.

You always draw out knowledge,
bringing joy through Wisdom’s inspiration.

Therefore, praise be to you
who are the sound of praise
and the greatest prize of Life,
who are hope and richest honor
bequeathing the reward of Light.

It frustrates me to no end that a medieval woman and Iron Age scriptures are more expansive and inclusive in their language for God than my own church and prayerbook. May we finally learn the lesson Hildegard offers, that our God is…the living God, ruling over all things, shining bright in goodness and with wondrous things in God’s works, whose immeasurable brightness in the depths of God’s mystery no single person can gaze at perfectly.

In the name of God: Divine Love, the Eternal Beloved and the Faithful Lover. Amen.

Silence

The Prayers of the People

Form II, p 385

Confession of Sin, p 360

The Deacon or Celebrant says

Let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor.

Silence may be kept.

Minister and People

Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.

The Bishop, when present, or the Priest, stands and says

Almighty God the Just Judge have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins through our Redeemer Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life. Amen.

The Peace

All stand. The Celebrant says to the people

The peace of the Gentle One be always with you.

People

And also with you.

The Holy Communion

Eucharistic Prayer B, p 367

Offer yourselves and your gifts to God who is holy, giving gifts to all.

Set table

The people remain standing. The Celebrant, whether bishop or priest, faces them and says

The Living God be with you.

People

And also with you.

Celebrant

Lift up your hearts.

People

We lift them to the [Lord].

Celebrant

Let us give thanks to the Eternal One our God.

People

It is right to give [him] thanks and praise.

Then, facing the Holy Table, the Celebrant proceeds

It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Almighty and Ineffable God, Who was before all ages and had no beginning and will not cease to be when all ages are ended.

Therefore we praise you, joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven, who for ever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your Name:

Celebrant and People

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

The people stand or kneel.

Then the Celebrant continues

We give thanks to you, God Who is true Love, for the goodness and love which you have made known to us in creation; in the calling of Israel to be your people; in your Word spoken through the prophets; and above all in the Word made flesh, Jesus, your Son. For in these last days you sent him to be incarnate from the Virgin Mary, the sacred matrix, to be the Savior and Redeemer of the world. In him, you have delivered us from evil, and made us worthy to stand before you. In him, you have brought us out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.

At the following words concerning the bread, the Celebrant is to hold it, or to lay a hand upon it; and at the words concerning the cup, to hold or place a hand upon the cup and any other vessel containing wine to be consecrated.

On the night before he died for us, our Redeemer Jesus Christ, the Great Word of God dressed in flesh, took bread; and when he had given thanks to you, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, and said, “Take, eat: This is my Body, which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me.”

After supper he took the cup of wine; and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and said, “Drink this, all of you: This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink it, do this for the remembrance of me.”

Therefore, according to his command, O Shepherd of souls,

Celebrant and People

We remember his death,
We proclaim his resurrection,
We await his coming in glory;

The Celebrant continues

And we offer our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to you, O God the Ruler of all; presenting to you, from your creation, this bread and this wine.

We pray you, Living Fountain, to send your Living Spirit upon these gifts that they may be the Sacrament of the Body of Christ and his Blood of the new Covenant. Unite us to your Son in his sacrifice, that we may be acceptable through him, being sanctified by the Holy Spirit. In the fullness of time, put all things in subjection under your Christ, and bring us to that heavenly country where, with [Hildegard and] all your saints, we may enter the everlasting heritage of your daughters and sons; through Jesus Christ our Redeemer, the firstborn of all creation, the head of the Church, and the author of our salvation.

By him, and with him, and in him, in the unity of the Sacred Spirit all honor and glory is yours, O Wondrous Wonder, now and for ever. AMEN.

And now, as our Savior

Christ has taught us,

we are bold to say,

Our Supernal Creator and our Father…

The Breaking of the Bread

The Celebrant breaks the consecrated Bread.

A period of silence is kept.

Then may be sung or said

[Alleluia.] Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us;
Therefore let us keep the feast. [Alleluia.]

Facing the people, the Celebrant says the following Invitation

The Gifts of God for the People of God.

and may add

Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.

The ministers receive the Sacrament in both kinds, and then immediately deliver it to the people.

The Bread and the Cup are given to the communicants with these words

The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven. [Amen.]

The Blood of Christ, the cup of salvation. [Amen.]

After Communion, the Celebrant says

Let us pray using the form on p 366.

Celebrant and People

Almighty and everliving God,
we thank you for feeding us with the spiritual food
of the most precious Body and Blood
of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ;
and for assuring us in these holy mysteries
that we are living members of the Body of your Son,
and heirs of your eternal kingdom.
And now, Father, send us out
to do the work you have given us to do,
to love and serve you
as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.
To him, to you, and to the Holy Spirit,
be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

The Deacon, or the Celebrant, dismisses them with these words

Let us go forth in the name of God, the magnificent, glorious, and incomprehensible.

People

Thanks be to God.

 

Adaptation of the Eucharistic Liturgy and translations of the Holy Scriptures by the Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible, Brite Divinity School and Diocese of Pennsylvania, The Episcopal Church

Research Assistance provided by Zachary Poppen


Summer of Horror

Photo on 8-14-14 at 4.52 PM #2

Girls, black like me, abducted to be sex slaves and not for the first time, not for the last time. Tweet this
Abandoned to their fate, all but forgotten. It looks like no one will #BringBackOurGirls. Some of them have brought themselves back.
Hundreds of people lost on a flight and then again hundreds more lost on the same airline shot down, intentionally murdered. Their bodies disrespected, left to rot in the fields for days, perhaps looted. The investigation thwarted. Justice mocked, denied.
A war of disproportionate violence targeting civilians, killing children with reckless abandon, demolishing hospitals, ambulances, schools and refugee centers. And I am complicit. My government, my tax dollars, my army, backing and funding the slaughter and resupplying ammo with one hand while lightly wagging a finger with the other. click to tweet
A black man STRANGLED (lynched?) by a police officer on a city street on video. tweet The flower of black manhood has been shot down in the street like a dog. Left to lay in his blood for hours. tweet this Followed by a police response straight out of the manual of Bull Connor. Riot gear more up-armored than US forces in Iraq. tweet
I have been stunned into silence by this summer of horror. I could not blog. I could not shape a paragraph. I don’t know if I could have preached. Instead I tweeted, I prayed, I raged – keeping vigil in the age of social media.
The story of Job came to mind: for seven days and seven nights his friends sat with him in stunned silence. They did not open their mouths in theological platitudes. They sat with him, they looked at him, they listened to him. When they did open their well-intentioned mouths spilling forth the normative theology of their day it was of no use to God or Job. Job’s rage, including and particularly his rage at and with God, was right (alright, righteous) with God.

All kinds of rage is simmering in the cauldron of this summer. It is not all righteous but some of it istweet that The Church does not have a good track record of responding to holy rage – particularly of black folk. It kills prophetstweet

May the angry words of our mouths and the righteous rage in our hearts fuel the work of our hands and be acceptable in your sight O God of Justice. Amen. tweet prayer

 


The Racist Soil of Ferguson MO

tensions-still-high-in-missouri-war-zone-after-mondays-riots

(Photo: Reuters)

It’s in the soil. It’s in the air. It’s in the water. It’s as American as apple pie.

Racism perfuses the soil and soul of Ferguson MO as it does everywhere in these (dis)United States and the Western world. click to tweet It is our legacy and the stuff shaping the building blocks of this nation.

We’ve scraped it down to the bedrock in places but never removed all of that poisonous soil. So it putrefies, befouls and infects the soil and all that we have built upon it. Like the United States of America, our (in)justice system and penal code.

The Church is build on that racist soil. Which is why the Church, its structures, images and people are affected and infected by racism. We have failed to expose and eradicate the racism in our midst.

The police of Ferguson MO reflect an American reality. They are not an aberrationtweet

At the root of this race-based violence is more than a rejection of the civil rights of African Americans as citizens; rather it is a fundamental rejection of the human status of Black folk. This is a theological issue. I invite religious communities and the Church in particular to begin to have these discussions anew.


Road Trippin’

Between Tuesday and Thursday last week I drove one thousand six hundred and eighty miles to move immigrate to Fort Worth, Texas.

The plan was that Dad and I would rent a vehicle for the stuff the professional movers shouldn’t/couldn’t move – like the cats and all their accessories – and tow my car. What happened was he couldn’t secure a vehicle and when I ordered a hitch and trailer to tow behind my car it wouldn’t fit my 2003 Prius. Soooo, I rented a second vehicle and Dad and I caravanned down. I was concerned about not having a relief driver for either of us but we agreed to take it slow, even if than meant an extra day and a whopping $210 late fee on the van.

I used my Apple Maps app to plot out three roughly diagonal routes: one 1520 miles and two 1550 miles. Note I said I drove one thousand six hundred and eighty miles. Dad, who’s from Texas really wanted to take 85 which meant taking 95. I ‘splained that with the bridge closure on 495 in Delaware and the back ups on 95 doubling commute times there, that wasn’t going to happen. He adamantly refused all of my routes because he didn’t know all of those roads and didn’t like some of the ones he did.

Soooo, I led him to 95 south of Baltimore on 83 and we headed to Richmond. We didn’t quite make it that far on the first night since by the time we got on the road after the movers left and we ate dinner it was 7:00 pm. I was so wiped, I couldn’t imagine that we could drive more than 500 miles a day for the next two days and get there by 3:30 Thursday when the van was due.

We got gas and I called the hotels I could see around me to see if they took cats. Even if their national chain said yes, they all said no. So we looked for a motel where the rooms were away from the lobby and didn’t ask. After 16 hours in cages my no-longer-sedated cats were stunned and stupefied. Rabbi Tarphon hid under the corner of the bedspread and Her Divine Majesty the Living Goddess Cleopatra ran into the bathroom and got in the tub. The next morning they were resigned to the pills and cages and didn’t put up a struggle.

On Wednesday we drove more than 800 miles. And I saw my life pass before my eyes. Not a near death experience. But stops along the journey of my life layer out along 95 and 85. There was MD where I was raised, returned after college and bought my first house and, Washington DC where I went to seminary at the Howard University School of Divinity. There was South Hill, VA where I was born.

Then there was Durham where I earned a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible from the Graduate Program in Religion at Duke University and the road to Chapel Hill where I taught my first solo Hebrew course at UNCH and the road to Greensboro where I taught my first feminist biblical studies class at Guilford college. Past Greensboro would be Goldston – if we had gone that way and the church I pastored, Thompson Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church – while serving as the chaplain for the 3274th United States Army Hospital. (I had a lot on my plate in grad school.)

We drove past the Cowpens, the Revolutionary War Battlefield where I received tactical training in the US Army Chaplains Corps. Then past Columbia, SC where I did my basic training at Ft. Jackson. We drove past Gaffney, SC where I sometimes think my ancestors were enslaved though I don’t have any evidence for this and no one in my family spells their name with two F’s.

As we left South Carolina I felt like Samwise in the Lord of the Rings, keenly aware that that was the farthest I had gone, driven, and said a Shehehianu (or in my case a Shehehiyatanu), giving thanks for having been brought to this place, this new experience.

Along the way we stopped at a Cracker Barrel in Durham. Then another outside Atlanta. Then another in Meridian MS. I knew my Dad liked Cracker Barrel but this was ridiculous. He would go in to eat while I stayed in the car with the cats running the A/C and he would bring me something out. The first time he forgot the fork.

The second night in Meridian I was convinced my cats thought we were on the run from the police. They survived another 15 hour day in cages in the car. I learned that Cleopatra is so finicky that she would not eat or drink enough to have to go to the bathroom until we were in the hotel. She held on every day until we were settled. The poor Rabbi needed the pad in his carrier changed regularly.

As we prepared to leave Meridian I medicated them before leaving for the third Cracker Barrel and came back to put the relaxed cats in their carriers only to discover a pill on the hotel room floor. Someone had faked me out but I didn’t know who. Within ten minutes of driving, I knew it was the Rabbi. He mewed for about 20 minutes, softly, sadly.

At 2:00 on Thursday I called to beg for extra time on the van; it didn’t look like we were going to make it. They graciously gave us to 5 and told us we could turn it in near my apartment rather than drive to the airport. We had to be at the apartment by 6 when the staff left or we’d have to get another hotel room for me and the cats, Dad could stay with family. We didn’t make it to the rental return, but we did make it to the apartment by 5:30. Whew! Thank you Jesus!

While I was signing the paperwork I called the nanny I had previously arranged to feed them in the evenings, sleep over on an air mattress and feed them in the mornings. They both hid behind the toilet in my master maestro bedroom. The Rabbi is still hiding there. We moved their stuff in and I went to my Aunt’s house and collapsed.

I’m settling in, waiting for my furniture to arrive, commuting between DeSoto and Ft. Worth. It was quite a journey and the beginning of a new one.


Making It Plain: Biblical Bible Study

photoFrom Nehemiah 8, verses 2 and 8:

So Ezra the priest brought the Teaching before the assembly, both women and men and all who could hear with understanding… they read from the scroll, from the Teaching of God, making it plain. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.

[Watch sermon here]

This morning, on your Scholarship Sunday our topic is bible study in the bible. And if this bible study on bible study in the bible had a title, it would be Making It Plain. Let us pray: Open our eyes, so that we may behold wondrous things out of your word. Amen.

On this Scholarship Sunday, my goal is to make it plain. That is one of the heart scriptures of womanists. A womanist is a sister who has the good sense who know who she is in God, to know that God made her in God’s good image, who values the radiant blackness of her creation [click to tweet] and community and sees them at the center of God’s love. A womanist is a feminist – yes, she believes women and men are equally created in the image of God and equally called to serve. A womanist loves herself, loves her folk including the brothers, and has a special love for her sisters without reservation, desperately needed in these days the world continues to teach is that a womanist’s work is never done.

The extravagance of violence against women that has erupted far beyond its normal catastrophic levels this week and this month makes it plain that the work of womanizes, along with those who love and care for us, partner us, live with us and are raising the next generation of womanizes with or without us, is not done and will not be done until girls and women can walk down the street in safety, learn to read and write and raise themselves and their people out of poverty without being kidnapped, sold, raped into marriage and forcibly impregnated, wear anything they want and say no to sex without being beaten or raped and say yes to sex without being slut-shamed, [tweet this] raped later on or treated like they are anything but a child of God. A womanist’s work is never done.

And now that Mother Maya has gone to her rest we must not let her work go unfinished. There are too many little girls whose bodies are broken into by grown men [tweet quote], too many women selling their bodies to make ends meet – often not even their own ends but those of the men and women who profit off of them, too many beautiful black girls and women told that their blackness is not beautiful, too many caged birds who have lost their song for us to do anything but cherish every human child of God [tweet!] and raise our voices when anyone threatens any one. Mother Maya: Our feet cannot fit your shoes. But you did not call us to your work but to our own. Our feet fit our shoes. We walk with your memory guiding us as we too do the work.

Now I know that not all women are womanists or even feminists and, the women in scripture didn’t necessarily look at the world the way we do, so I’m not going to say they were womanists. I’m just going to suggest they had some womanist ways. And perhaps some of you do too. And brothers, while there is no small amount of academic debate on the topic of whether a brother can be a womanist or not, there is no doubt that our brother allies are partners on the journey, supported and supporting. We’re making it plain this morning.

That’s what our lesson is about, making it plain. The scripture says Ezra brought the Teaching of God, the scriptures before the assembly, both women and men. Now some of you will see the word “Law,” when you read this in your own bibles. But that’s not a complete translation because the word of God includes more than Law. The word torah comes from a root that means everything God rains down on the earth from revelation to rain. Torah includes story and song, judgment and law, prayer and praise and all for our edification, our study. So I follow the tradition of the rabbis and translate Torah as “Teaching.” Making it plain for those who think the Torah or even the First Testament is just about rules. I often say there is torah in the Torah but not all Torah is torah. But on the other hand the entire scripture is considered to be torah.

Now that we’ve sorted that out, let us return to the torah, the teaching, of Ezra. Ezra is set in the Iron Age and it was the expectation that women and men participate together fully in the study of the word in the Iron Age. (Somebody needs to tell the Hampton Ministers Conference that they ought to be at least as inclusive as our ancestors were at this moment in time the Iron Age.) That’s what I mean by they had womanist ways – sometimes – in ancient Israel. Other times their Iron Age ways were best left back in the Iron Age.

Our scripture lesson also says, women and men and all who could hear with understanding. Now let me tell you as a biblical scholar, the Israelites didn’t have much of a concept of childhood. Most of the verses you know about parents and children are actually speaking to adult children because households were multigenerational and there is no small amount of conflict when there are multiple sets of grown folks under the same roof. I think it’s a blessing that the bible understand that not everybody can live with mama and ‘em without some difficulty, sometimes. But in this case, when the word of God is being shared in the beloved community, children are welcome and intentionally included. Any child who was mature enough to attend to the scriptures was welcome. There was no age of maturity specified because children mature at different ages. Children are part of the household of God and God has a word for them. [tweet]

Think about this: if the grown women and grown men and growing-up and half-grown girls and boys were there, where do you think the babies, toddlers and young children who didn’t know what all was going on were? A womanist’s work is never done. It was the Iron Age and the work of nurturing baby Bellas fell primarily on mamas. The sisters were nursing and carrying babies, wrasslin’ and wrangling toddlers, all while studying the word. I have no doubt that at least some of the menfolk shared in parenting. They were all there together, everyone but the sick and shut in and incarcerated.

This passage is making it plain that all of us women and men and all who can hear with understanding are called to the study of the word, to wade in the waters of the word. It’s not just for pastors and seminarians and biblical scholars. All of us are called to the study of the word, not just in private, but together, in community. And the little ones ought to be about underfoot so that they can grow up and into the word as a regular and familiar part of life.

But Ezra’s bible study doesn’t look like the bible studies I’m used to in the congregation where the pastor or designated teacher teaches or preaches, or everybody reads a verse and says what it means to them. This bible study doesn’t look like the bible studies I’m used to in the classroom where masters and doctoral students study the word in its original words: Hebrew words, Aramaic words, Greek words, a couple of Persian words, Egyptian words. This bible study doesn’t look like the bible studies I’m used to where you find only a fraction of the saints in study you see on Sunday morning in bible study on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday night – though I don’t imagine anybody at St. Paul’s knows what I’m talking about.

In addition to involving nearly everybody and their mama, this bible study differs from the bible studies I see most often in that it was a long service. I mean a long service; it lasted from first light until midday. That’s about six hours. (I don’t plan to be before you that long, but I might be here a minute.) They read the bible in Hebrew. I like that. But the people didn’t understand Hebrew anymore. So the clergy, the Levites, who did understand Hebrew came down off the bema, the pulpit, went out among the people and translated the scriptures into Aramaic, the language people spoke and understood. But translating the scriptures into the people’s language wasn’t enough, so interpreted it, they gave the sense, in other words, they made it plain. The clergy went down, among the people and talked to them, one on one or in small groups. They waded in the waters of the word together.

You see, the teaching team was prepared; they were trained in the word in its original words and able to translate it into the people’s languages: Foreign languages, common language, slang language, street language, hip-hop language, play language, country language, city language, old school language, children’s language, ethical language, philosophical language, black church language, sadiddy language, grandmother’s language. Hebrew literate and Hebrew illiterate, clergy and lay, we are all called to be biblical scholars and wade in the waters of the word. [tweet!]

I’d love it if you all studied Hebrew – or even Greek. But that’s not necessarily what the text is teaching us. I don’t know how Ezra’s clergy staff was educated, but I do know they were able to translate and interpret the scriptures, making it plain because they were trained to do so and their community supported their training. On this Scholarship Sunday someone here has a call to prepare to make it plain and wade in the waters of the word at a different depth. Someone here has a call to support a seminarian or a doctoral student or a seminary or institution of higher education. Virtually all of the universities in the West were built by church folk. Black church folk built some of the finest colleges and universities, seminaries, medical and law schools in the world. [tweet!] And some of us were blessed to be their beneficiaries.

The last point about this Bible study that I want us to take note of today is that this bible study was not in the sanctuary or even a private home, it was in the street. It was worship without walls. I love a beautiful sanctuary. I love church architecture. I love a gorgeous cathedral brushing the outskirts of heaven with its spires. But I don’t need walls to worship. Sometimes we get so attached to the walls we lose sight of the work. The story of Israel is a reminder that the walls will not always be there. Walls can fall, walls can crumble, walls can be broken down. Enemy forces can break through walls and saboteurs can undermine and weaken walls, leaving them vulnerable to attack. And some folk worship their walls.

Let me tell you the story of the walls of Jerusalem. From the Stone Age, more than 1000 years before Abraham, more than 3500 years before Jesus, more than five thousand, five hundred and fourteen years before you and me here today, the City of Peace, Ir Shalom, Yerushalayim, has been encircled by walls from before from the time Hebrew was written in picture form like hieroglyphics. And from those days until the present day the walls of Jerusalem have been built and torn down, rebuilt and broken through, rebuilt and bombed, rebuilt and remain a center of conflict. [tweet this]

When David and his troops captured Jerusalem and built new walls, the city was more than 2500 years old. I’m sure it seemed like those walls would always be there. The walls of Jerusalem grew with the city as it grew across the ages: 12 acres when David got there, 15 by the time he died, Solomon built to 32 acres and God moved into its walls. God dwelled within the walls of Jerusalem. Surely those walls wound never fall. The psalmist was sure they were invincible: Those who trust in the LORD are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever. The united monarchy crumbled in the hands of Solomon’s son but the walls held. Who could ever imagine the walls of Zion, Jerusalem, falling or failing?

In Hezekiah’s time as the city and its walls expanded to 125 acres, that theory was put to the test. The Assyrians were boiling across the land to crush Egypt and Israel and Judah were in their path. They swarmed Israel and the twelve tribes were no more. All that was left was Judah and a little piece of Benjamin with some Simeonites in their midst. They sent Hezekiah a letter telling him what they would do once they broke through the walls of Jerusalem and his folk begged them to stop speaking in a language the people could understand to avoid a full fledged panic because they knew that all of Israel to the north had been shipped off and put to work share cropping for the Assyrians. (The languages were reversed then, the people understood Hebrew but not Aramaic. In Ezra’s time they understood Aramaic but not Hebrew. Preachers, teachers and scholars are you keeping up with what the people are speaking? One day your expensive seminary education will be out of date and what are you going to do then? [tweet!] Scholarship Sunday is for you too. Never stop learning, never stop studying.)

The walls in Israel north of Judah hadn’t protected them. Hezekiah also knew that the Assyrians were vicious. They would skin folk alive, cut them in pieces and put bodies and parts on poles around the cities they ran to keep folk in line. Hezekiah took that Assyrian letter and spread it out before God inside the walls of Jerusalem and the walls held. Not only did they hold, but the Assyrians turned around without slinging so much as a stone and never came back. It was a miracle. Historians and scholars to this day cannot explain why the Assyrians broke off and never returned. Hezekiah and his people were sure. God’s house was within those walls. God was within those walls. And God held the walls of Jerusalem in safety.

But let me make it plain for your this morning. Ezra and his people were worshipping outside the walls because no wall on earth will stand forever. Some time after Hezekiah went to his grave, Nebuchadnezzar came. And the walls held again. The Babylonians were picking up where the Assyrians left off. They were going to rule the world. They were going to go to and through Egypt and Judah was a speed bump on their way. But then the walls began to fall. The king of Judah held onto his throne and what was left of his walls by bowing down to Nebuchadnezzar. Then Nebuchadnezzar got distracted and Judah asked Egypt to help save its walls. Some folk are so invested in the walls that they will do anything to preserve them, no matter what it costs. Somebody in Judah was willing to go back to the land of slavery if it would help them hang onto those walls a little while longer.

Sometimes people change. Sometimes they really do. But Egypt hadn’t become Israel’s deliverer. I don’t know if they set them up, but I do know that they didn’t come through with the back up. Egypt stayed within their walls, Judah rebelled against Babylon and got caught up with no back up and Nebuchadnezzar came back to the walls of Jerusalem. And the walls held again. But this was no divine deliverance. There was no need for Nebuchadnezzar to break down the walls of Jerusalem, this time. The king opened the gates and surrendered. He didn’t just surrender himself. He surrendered er’body, including mama ‘n ‘em: he surrendered his army, he surrendered his officers, he surrendered his servants, he surrendered his palace officials and he surrendered his mother, the Queen Mother. By the way, marrying a king didn’t make you a queen in the Judean system but giving birth to one did. (That’s another bible study.)

We’re talking about the story of the walls of Jerusalem. We’re talking about the people gathered to hear and study the word of God in the book of Ezra outside of the temple complex where they would regularly have had services. We are talking about what the bible teaches us about bible study: That you have to go deep in the text, that you have to go through more than one text to understand what is happening in the text you are studying. We are making it plain this morning.

In Ezra the community was in an open square on the east side of the city by the Water Gate. If you’re going to do good bible study you have to know geography. [tweet!] They were south of the temple and its layers of walls and gates. They were out in the open with no defensive walls, no sanctuary walls. They understood that they could no longer rely on the walls of Jerusalem to protect them because of what happened when Nebuchadnezzar came back the second time.

Their walls fell. The city walls fell. The palace walls fell. The temple walls fell. They were defenseless. They were defeated. They were decimated. They were deported. They were for all intents and purposes enslaved again. They couldn’t go home or anywhere else. They could be forced to serve as soldiers or farmers, have their children taken, their religion forbidden. Exile doesn’t do it justice.

The walls didn’t just fall, they were demolished. Psalm 74 describes the Babylonians destroying the temple:

Psalm 74:4 Your foes have roared within your holy place;
they set up their emblems there.
5 At the upper entrance they hacked
the wooden trellis with axes.
6 And then, with hatchets and hammers,
they smashed all its carved work.
7 They set your sanctuary on fire;
they desecrated the dwelling place of your name,
bringing it to the ground…

The walls of Jerusalem were demolished. The folk certainly didn’t have any walls in captivity. But they had the word. They had the spoken word. When the Babylonians said that their god, Marduk was king and tore down Jerusalem’s walls, the Israelites said and wrote, In the beginning God… Then they had the written word. The Israelites had begun writing down the stories their ancestors and prophets told them about God before the devastation, but in exile they kicked it into high gear. The truth is, it’s easier to find ourselves in the word when the world is against us. [tweet that]

The exiled Israelites waded in the waters of the word here in their worship outside the walls. They read the word and heard the word, taught the word and interpreted the word. This community of reconstituted exiles didn’t just wade in the waters of the word, they waded into the deep waters of the word and stayed there awhile. At one level, this is a text about bible study. At other levels it’s about so such more. As Ezra and the clergy staff helped the people get past superficial understandings of the scriptures, they offer us a model for our own scripture study. My charge to you as you go forward in your biblical scholarship, whatever form it takes is to make it plain, remembering a womanist’s work is never done, worship beyond the walls and wade in the waters of the word. Amen.

 


Evolution of Hell

Apocalyptic DesktopBy request, repost of 2008 blog (now defunct) on literary evolution of Hell in the bible:

In the synoptic Gospels, Hell is usually described as a realm of fire, a place that seemingly judges and punishes at the same time, (Matthew 5:22, 29–30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5). The most commonly used word for “hell” in the scriptures is the Aramaic word “Gehenna” that passed directly into Greek. Gehenna literally means “Valley of Hinnom” (In Hebrew, “Geh Hinnom”). The Valley of Hinnom was originally a piece of the Promised Land, a lowland (now to the southeast of Jerusalem’s Old City), given to the Hinnom family after whom it was named (Joshua 15:8 and 18:16).

In light of passages that speak of the judgment upon Israel’s enemies in a valley near Jerusalem (Isaiah 30:29–33; 66:24; Joel 3:2, 12, 14) and the worship of Molech in the Valley of Hinnom, the valley became known as a fiery place of judgment. Gehenna was both a place of eschatological judgment in the environs of Jerusalem and an otherworldly place of judgment for the wicked.

So, how does a piece of the Promised Land become hell on earth, “where the worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched”? (Mark 9:48) The short answer is that we did it. Human beings transformed God’s good creation into hell. Let me say now that I am not concerned with the issue as to whether or not hell exists, or will exist, in a metaphysical sense. I am exploring the evolution of hell as a literary metaphor in the bible. It helps me to make sense of what I see as current manifestations of hell on earth in Darfur and Congo [originally in 2008. Today I think of all the placed trafficked women and girls are being abused, especially Chad and Nigeria].

Jeremiah (7:31) tells us that people burned their children alive in the Valley of Hinnom – the first mention of fire associated with the infamous valley. Even Judean kings, Ahaz (2 Chronicles 28:3) and Manasseh (2 Chronicles 33:6), immolated their children there. Human beings committed atrocities against the most vulnerable among us. Women and men murdered children, their own children.

In the rest of the scriptures and intertestamental literature – Judith, 2 Esdras, Enoch and the Gospels – Gehenna, hell, is a by-word. The biblical writers use Gehenna/hell the way many used place-names like Auschwitz, Beirut, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Rwanda years ago, and the way in which some invoke Darfur and Congo contemporarily.

A concept of the afterlife was developed during the Hellenistic Period, including the notion of a fiery judgment (1 Enoch 10:13; 48:8–10; 100:7–9; 108:4–7; Judith 16:17; 2 Baruch 85:13), a judgment usually in a fiery lake or abyss (1 Enoch 18:9–16; 90:24–27; 103:7–8; 2 Enoch 40:12; 2 Baruch 59:5–12; and in Qumran, in the Thanksgiving Scroll, 1QH 3). The Valley of Hinnom, often referred to simply as “the accursed valley” or “abyss,” eventually came to represent the place of eschatological judgment of the wicked by fire (1 Enoch 26–27; 54:1–6; 56:1–4; 90:24–27).

By at least the 1st century C.E. Gehenna was understood metaphorically as the place of judgment by fire for all wicked everywhere (Sibylline Oracles 1.100–103; 2.283–312). The judgment of the wicked occurred either as a casting of their soul in Gehenna immediately upon death or as a casting of the reunited body and soul into Gehenna after the resurrection and last judgment (2 Esdras 7:26–38/4 Ezra 7:26–38; Ascent of Isaiah 4:14–18; Sibylline Oracles 4.179–91). This key understanding separated Gehenna from its geographical location, but retained its fiery nature. Gehenna had become hell as we know it.

The biblical, literary, trajectory of the Valley of Hinnom from a piece of the Promised Land to a place of perpetual punishment is instructive. It offers the possibility that Hell is not a preordained construct created by God, but a human construction. The Hinnom Valley was created along with all other dry ground, and its vegetation sprouted on the third day of creation with the rest of earth, and presumably, it too was ‘good’ (Genesis 1:10-13). It was given to the Hinnom family as part of the divine promise. (No mention was made of previous inhabitants.) And some five hundred years later, monarchs burned their children alive in acts they understood as religious devotion. It is likely that unknown numbers of unknown Israelites and Canaanites also sacrificed their children there, and sent their children to a hell of their own making, but the chronicles of Israel are not the chronicles of ordinary folk, so we do not know their stories.

In rabbinic thought, as early as the 1st century, Gehenna was understood as both an intermediate place of punishment for the souls of the wicked between death and resurrection to final judgment, and as the place of final judgment for the reunited body and soul of the wicked (Midrash Tehillim 31.3). According to this reasoning, most Jews would be spared Gehenna completely, and most of those who do enter it in the intermediate state would be released from it, with the exception of historic reprobates, adulterers, or those who shame or vilify others (b. Rosh HaShannah 16b–17a). It was a fiery purgatory for those Jews whose merits and transgressions balanced one another (t. Sanhedrin 13.3) who would afterward be admitted to Paradise. Often the punishment of Gehenna was restricted to 12 months (m. {Eduyyoth 2.10; S. {Olam Rab. 3; b. Qiddushin 31b). However, the punishment for Gentiles in Gehenna was eternal. The epithet “child of Gehenna” is used in the Talmud (b Rosh HaShannah 17b) as it is in Matthew 23:15.

It occurs to me, that we as human beings have not finished making hell. In the decades and centuries to come, Auschwitz, Rwanda, Darfur and Congo may well replace Gehenna in public discourse as designations for hell; in many ways, they already have. And I suggest, that the gates of Jerusalem may be understood as the very gates of hell. For just as the ancient walls of Jerusalem opened to the Valley of Hinnom, so too does the new wall (a.k.a. ‘security barrier’) dividing Israelis and Palestinians circumscribe not just the geographicalGeh Hinnom/Gehenna, but also a living hell for both the Palestinian and Israeli people –living today in the same small land whose geography, culture and theology once gave birth to Christian notions of hell.

The burning children of Canaan, ancient and contemporary Israel, Auschwitz, Rwanda, Darfur, Congoand Palestine are calling us who stand outside the fires of hell to do “tikkun olam,” the rabbinic expression for “repairing the world,” and usher in the reign of God.

In the Lukan Gospel (17:21), Jesus says, “in fact, the dominion of God is among you.” I believe that the inverse is also true; the dominion of hell is among us. If it is true that human evil ushered hell into this world, does it not lie within us to transform the most hellish places on earth into arable valleys and suburbs?

Lastly, I want to comment on my use of “we” and “us.” I don’t think that anyone reading this column perpetrated atrocities in any of the places that I have named. But I do believe that we as human beings are responsible for each other: we are our sisters’ keeper and we are our brothers’ keeper. It is not enough for us to proclaim that our hands are clean of the blood – and ashes – of the innocent. This world is given into our care. Now, what are we going to do about it?


When Mother is the Hardest Word

Mother of Sorrows

My ancestors passed down this lament:

Sometimes I feel like a motherless chile,
Sometimes I feel like a motherless chile,
Sometimes I feel like a motherless chile,
A long way from home.

Sometimes mother is the hardest word.
Sometimes mother is a curse word ~
not the object of a profane expression, but the subject.

For some the pain of Mother’s Day is unbearable:

Those who have lost children
Those who have lost beloved mothers
Those who have been left unexpectedly to become single mothers
Those who have been forced into motherhood
Those who have been raped into motherhood
Those for whom mother was abuser
Those who long for motherhood denied by an uncooperative or betraying body or by lack of a partner and possibility.

Many will weep on Mother’s Day.
Few of those tears will be joyful.
Some are long past tears.

Mother’s Day with its crass commercialization and virtual sanctification may yet be redeemed, if we use it to reflect on the state of mothers, mothering and motherhood in the world.

On this Mother’s Day, do you know how many women and girls die in childbirth around the world including in these United States?

On this Mother’s Day, do you know how many infants are born dead because of maternal hunger, lack of or access to health care?

On this Mother’s Day, do you know how many mothers have lost daughters and sons to trafficking?

On this Mother’s Day, do you know how many girls and women are raped into motherhood as regular and recurring tactics of warfare?

On this Mother’s Day, do you know how many girl-children, some as young as eight, are sold, bartered and traded into marriage with grown men, often as old as their fathers and grandfathers?

On this Mother’s Day, do you know how many women are forced to bring unwanted pregnancies to term because of the cultural, religious and political values of men and sometimes women who control their sexuality and fertility?

On this Mother’s Day I am reminded of the risk inherent in being a girl or woman on display in particular ways in parts of the world that seem distant but are connected to me by ties of blood and faith and humanity.

For all of those women who have chosen motherhood and mothered the children of their hearts and wombs and streets and those they have embraced from near and far with or without papers, I give thanks.

For all of the men who have loved and nurtured with exquisite tenderness in the absence of any other mothering, I give thanks.

With all the motherless children, and for those for whom it would have been better to be motherless, I weep.

And for the daughters of Nigeria and all other trafficked girls and the mothers who are fighting for their return, I pray and I work.

The American Mother’s Day industry seems willfully and uncaringly blind to the lives, struggles and deaths of most of the world’s mothers and their children. Perhaps now you understand why I cannot say “Happy Mother’s Day” to anyone and have not been able to do so for a very long time.


A Lamentation For Our Daughters

This is a wailing; and it shall be wailed.
The women of the world shall wail it.
Over Nubia and all its nations they shall wail it,
says the SOVEREIGN God.
Ezekiel 32:16

My Lament

My eyes grieve continually for the souls of all the daughters who are raped.
My eyes grieve continually for the souls of all the daughters who are sold.
My eyes grieve continually for the souls of all the daughters who are bartered.
My eyes grieve continually for the souls of all the daughters who are stolen.
My eyes grieve continually for the souls of all the daughters who are illiterate.
My eyes grieve continually for the souls of all the daughters who are unemployed.
My eyes grieve continually for the souls of all the daughters who don’t have health care.
My eyes grieve continually for the souls of all the daughters who can’t feed their children.
My eyes grieve continually for the souls of all the daughters who are did not consent to their marriages.
My eyes grieve continually for the souls of all the daughters who were the child brides of adult men.
My eyes grieve continually for the souls of all the daughters who live in a world, culture or society that treats them as less than human.
My eyes grieve continually for the souls of all the daughters who did not choose their motherhood.
My eyes grieve continually for the souls of all the daughters who are going hungry.
My eyes grieve continually for the souls of all the daughters who are selling themselves.
My eyes grieve continually for the souls of all the daughters who hate their own bodies.
My eyes grieve continually for the souls of all the daughters who are dying of HIV/AIDS.
My eyes grieve continually for the souls of all the daughters who were killed by someone who should have loved them.

Some days that’s all I know how to do.


Who Gives This Woman? Patriarchal Marriage

For many, marriage is a sacrament or a covenant given by God, an institution that is rooted in love and gives rise to more love through the interweaving of families and sometimes the nurture of children. For many of my conversation partners in the past three weeks, the notion that trafficked girls could be sold into marriage was incomprehensible. Some of my work in the past three weeks has been to go back to biblical texts that call for, permit, assume and regulate the abduction and rape of girls and women into marriage. I have done this work not to proclaim these rape marriages as normative or even consistent with my understanding of God but to expose the deep and ancient roots of the erasure of the humanity of women and to identify those sentiments in holy Scripture.

Abduction marriages represent the most extreme form of patriarchal marriage. But they are not its sole expression. Whenever marriage is recognized without the consent of the woman or, when the bride is not even a woman but a child, that is also patriarchal marriage. The marriage of little girls, whether pubescent or prepubescent, is patriarchal. Structures in cultures in which a man, usually a father, gives his daughter to another man are patriarchal. The language “who gives this woman to be married?” Is a continuing remnant of patriarchal marriage that is part of many civil and religious ceremonies.

Patriarchy is not confined to antiquity, to texts with their origin in antiquity, “other” religions, cultures or foreign places. Patriarchy, like racism, undergirds our culture.


Trafficked into Marriage

Screen Shot 2014-05-03 at 3.02.21 PM

Today black women in the United States and perhaps some of our allies are wearing geles, traditional West African head wraps like those worn in Nigeria to call attention to the hundreds of our daughters, kidnapped and sold like the Israelite daughters at Shiloh more than three thousand years ago. Some folk still have not figured out that women and girls are neither property nor breeding stock. I often refer to that kind of thinking as Iron Age theology. In truth, all Iron Age theology is not so heinous. There are powerful, vibrant transformative religious communities in the world, including this one because of Iron Age theology. The Torah which we study offers some of the best and worst of the theology of our ancestors.

Among the worst is the reduction of girls and women to salable objects. There is renewed focus on the trafficking of women and girls (and boys and men) in sex-service industries. But as the world was horribly reminded on the 16th of April, girls have been stolen and sold into marriage for thousands of years. This story is particularly heinous to me as the descendant of trafficked peoples. The mothers of my people, were raped and bred like cattle.

To my horror as a Christian, my own scriptures commend the abduction and rape of women and girls as war booty. Nothing has caused me to wrestle with God, scripture and my understanding of the authority of scripture than the sanctioned abuse and marginalization of women in the scripture. My recent post on rape marriage in the scriptures in light of the kidnapping of nearly 300 Nigerian schools girls can be found here at Religion Dispatches.

In 2oo8 I wrote about the problematic notion of biblical marriage, polygamy, rape and incest being overlooked to invoke biblical authority on heterosexual unions to the exclusion of all others without acknowledging the reality of all forms of marriage acceptable according to the text:

Rape-marriage was a socially acceptable conjugal union in the worldview of the authors and editors of the biblical text and endures to this day in some parts of the world. While there are less vicious forms of biblical marriage, the construct cannot be invoked without sanctifying the abduction and rape of teen and pre-teen girls.

The ongoing abduction of girls and women in Ethiopia in Christian and Muslim communities and the abduction of as many as 70,000 women and girls by Hindu and Muslim communities during the partition of Pakistan from India that this on-going savagery transcends time, culture, and scripture. And there are accounts of Buddist citizens of Burma/Myanmar and Hmong Vietnamese in the U.S. abducting brides according to their ancestral traditions.

Today, there are contemporary prophetic voices crying out against the continued deployment of biblical marriage as normative social and religious construct. Challenging religious leaders or would-be religious leaders about what kinds of unions are divinely sanctioned, even biblical, is dangerous subversive work. They may call you names, they may even invoke the name of God, but your name will be written in the book of life and will never be forgotten.

It is well past time for all of us to raise our voices.

Will you use all of your resources to bring pressure to bear on our government and the Nigerian government to pursue and rescue the nearly 300 abducted Nigerian schoolgirls and to provide safe haven for them if and when they are rescued?


Lessons From Passover: A Farewell Sermon

Open the doors of our hearts. Open the doors of our hearts to the word we would hear and the word we would not. Open the doors of our hearts. Open the doors of our hearts to those whom it is easy to love and those who it is not. Open the doors of our hearts. Open the doors of our hearts to the stranger when it is convenient and when it is not. Open the doors of our hearts. Open the doors of our hearts wider than the fears that limit us. Open the doors of our hearts. Amen.

 Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak;
let the earth hear the words of my mouth.
May my teaching pour like the rain and may my word go forth like the dew.

Exodus invites us to imagine that someday someone will ask you about why you do what you do. In order for someone to ask the question, they have to see you doing something provocative. In the text, telling the story of liberation to the next generation is an act of living liturgy.

The story of Passover and its ritual instructions are not directly applicable to Christians and other Gentiles. But there are lessons to be learned here. It’s easy to focus on the story of the exit – as my dictation program typed instead of Exodus, a story of liberation – and then talk about all the ways in which we have been liberated and are seeking liberation for ourselves and for others. We may move easily into conversations about liberation of slaves here in America in the previous century and, here in America and around the world in this century.

But what about the command to tell the story? What about the liturgy of the telling? We have our own capital S story as Christians and individual stories. An important part of our faith is telling the story; that is the heart of evangelism. It is important, some would say crucial, for Christians to be able to tell the story of Jesus. But that’s not the kind of telling the text is talking about. The text calls for the Israelites to become living texts, to tell their stories with their actions and then when asked with their words. The living comes before the telling.

The text about telling comes with an expectation that the descendants of Israel will live the story in a particular way. The text foresees the future in which the daily lives and routine of people will be framed, not interrupted, but shaped by the liturgy they live. As cultural religions, Judaism and its ancient Israelite ancestor shape and shaped the daily lives and seasonal lives of the people born to them and those who choose them. While there are daily and seasonal Christian observances, they don’t shape the daily lives of its followers in the same way. Yet here in this time, when our living liturgies of the Three Days intersect with the living liturgy of Passover is an opportune time to ask how these liturgies affect our daily living. And looking beyond these days, what are the stories our lives tell?

Today is 14 Nissan 5774, Erev Pesach. Tomorrow is the first day of Passover (in our time zone). Jews all over the world engage in the liturgy of story telling at table in their homes, some tonight, some tomorrow night. Some unknown number of Gentiles like me will sojourn at those tables and share in telling that story.

Today, I would like you to focus on what if anything you do in your daily or seasonal life that tells the story of your faith. What are your living liturgical practices? What is it that you do that someone might see you do ask why do you do that? What does it mean? How do you mark the seasons of our collective story in your home? What do you do to tell your story when you’re not at church?

Today we are going to talk to our neighbors about our stories. In groups of two tell your story using these questions:

1-    When was the last time someone asked you about your faith based on something they saw you do?

2-    Are their ways you live out your faith in your home (other than Advent, Christmas and Easter decorations)?

3-    How/where/when do you share your story outside of your home?

Talk to a neighbor and Dr. Krentz will play us back together at the end of our time. (6 min)

So, what’s your story? The stories of Israel and the church are interrelated. Each is a study of a people who move from oppressed to oppressor. Each used their theology to justify dominating those with different theologies. And they continue to tell their stories. But the people who watched them didn’t always tell the same stories. The Canaanites didn’t tell the story of Israelite presence in the land the way Israel did. And folk on the bottom of the Church’s power curves don’t tell the same stories as those on top. Women and men, people of color and white folk, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender folk and heterosexual and cisgender folk tell different stories. But we’re part of the same great story. Privilege is seductive and the memories of marginalization loom large justifying using privilege to protect privilege.

You are telling a story with your life and when they ask you why do you do the things you do, what will you say about the story you have already told with your commitments, actions and inactions when they contradict the story you tell with your words? We are writing and being written as the Church, the story of God. Can anyone see Jesus in or story? That poor, Jewish, brown-skinned, non-gender compliant, establishment-critical, Hebrew Bible reading and preaching Jesus? What about that infuriating violence provoking Jesus? Anybody get mad when you preach? Anybody care when you preach?

In our first lesson, a portion of the Torah portion for the first day of Pesach, Passover, God tells Israel to tell their story and more than that, to live their story. Live the story you tell. And let it be the story of God. The story of redemption and transformation, the story of blending fellow travelers escaping the same slavery into a new people.

Our second lesson, a portion of the haftarah, the prophets portion for the first day of Pesach shows the Israelites telling their story of salvation in the living liturgy they had been given. There will be no record of Israel keeping the Passover in the bible again until the prophet Huldah canonizes the Torah scroll brought to her in the reign of Josiah, some six hundred years later, a reminder that if you neglect to tell your story, it will not die. It will wait for those who know its power to tell it again.

What’s your story? This place has a story, and old story and now you are writing new lines. What will you say when they ask you why you’re doing what you’re doing?

My time here has added new lines to my story. One is the certainty that the hijacking of the term evangelism by those who have redefined it by their example as religious intolerance, harassment, arrogance and bible bashing conversion drive-bys is a story that does not lead to liberation or even invite conversation.

When they ask me why I tweet, blog and insist on reading hearing and preaching from God’s word in God’s mother tongue, I have a story, one in which I hope my words reflect my actions, compelling, inviting, engaging, challenging and convicting, probing and prophetic. As we have lived our stories together, I have learned to tell my story in the public square in a way I couldn’t imagine, as drag-inspired womanist midrash, including vampire theology and critical analysis of race and its representations in popular culture, from the Masoretic Text to the movie theatre. That’s the story of this theological dominatrix. What’s yours? As we go our separate ways will the story you live be the story you tell? Will the story you tell be the story you live? The library is open.

 


Raising the Walking and Rotting Dead

(A sermon remix.)

Ezekiel sees zombies, the walking dead. Lazarus is wrapped up like a mummy. To the rotting dead and walking dead the living God speaks a living word:

…hear the word of the Holy God…I will cause spirit-breath to come into you and you shall live.

Let us pray: Open our eyes that we may see. Amen.

The setting is what would on another day be a lovely, lush valley. But today it is full of human carnage. It is a scene out of a horror movie. It is a horror movie. There are bodies and body parts everywhere, decayed down to the bone. It is as though someone uncovered a mass grave. The bones are jumbled together in an apocalyptic, post-modern, nightmarish sculpture. This is holy ground and accursed ground. This place was a killing field, plague site or the site of some other unfathomable catastrophe. Every once in a while a lonely bird of prey disturbs a ragged cluster of bones looking for some long dissolved morsel of flesh. There is the stench of death. Not the wet, rotting smell of decaying flesh, but the deeply permeating scent of death in the air, in the grass, in the trees. The smell of death is everywhere.

A ragged refugee-prophet escapes his prison camp through a wormhole that sucks him up into the air and spits him out into the valley of dry bones, feeling a supernatural hand propelling him, guiding him by the grip on his dreadlocks. The wormhole collapses in on itself and transforms into a being made of pure light, without color and all colors at the same time. The special affects are amazing! The God of Light gives the prophet-man a task – conjure life from death, draw the spirit-winds from the four corners of the flat earth into the valley and animate the bones. The prophet speaks the words he was given:

So says the Sovereign God to these bones: Look! I will cause spirit-breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will place sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put spirit-breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am God-Whose-Name-Is-Holy.

All of the bones in the valley begin to shake, rattle and roll. It sounds like an earthquake. The ground shakes and the bones rise. They whirl and swirl and connect to each other forming complete skeletons. There are all sorts of skeletons. Some of them have broken bones or marks on their bones from swords and clubs and other weapons. Many died violent deaths. Some are tall, some are short, some have the telltale pelvic girdles of women, some are children. The bones begin to thicken, their white turns pink and then shades of beige, tan and brown as layers of flesh, muscle, tendons, cartilage, nerves and finally skin covers them. The special effects director is going to win an Oscar for this movie! Finally there is a whole nation of people standing in the valley. Yet there was no spirit-breath in them – they were like an army of zombies: formerly dead, reanimated, moving, standing but without the breath of life – true, authentic, God-given life. But then they became something more than zombies. Sorry, no chainsaws, axes or other zombie-killing tools needed here. These one-time zombies had ruach, the word means spirit and breath, they had spirit-breath, life-breath, the breath of God poured into them and they returned fully to life, resurrected.

God tells the prophet from days gone by that the people he has seen resurrected are the prophet’s people, living in exile. Their nation has been hacked and burned to death and dismembered like disarticulated bones. And God promised them resurrection, national resurrection:

I will put my spirit within you all and you all shall live, and I will place you all on your own soil; then you all shall know that I, the Holy One of Old, have spoken and have done this,” says God-Whose-Name-Is-Holy.

The prophet was returned through the wormhole to his captive people. Eventually his people were returned to their ancestral land, but he didn’t live to see it. Sometimes, the promise is not for us. We are called to be faithful whether there is any direct benefit to us or even our children or not. That’s a hard word. But it was a hard life. Foreign nations fell on them like hoards of B-movie zombies. Some, many, of them died as individuals, yet they survived as a people. The resurrected nation would not die.

But who would believe his report? Ezekiel couldn’t tell his people good news of his prophecy. Ezekiel couldn’t prophesy to the crowds. He couldn’t prophesy outdoors at all. Ezekiel only prophesied indoors in a crowd-controlled room. The bouncer only let in folk he knew so no one would rat him out. You see Ezekiel was in a Babylonian refugee camp that might as well have been a prison camp. It wasn’t safe to speak against the empire. As the prophet Muhammad would come to say, “Believe in God but tie up your camel.” In other words, don’t take any chances. His inner circle would get the word out so if they got snatched up Ezekiel could live to prophesy another day.

Ezekiel’s world was a living nightmare. He had lived through the worst horror to plague his people since the days of Egyptian slavery, a horror that traumatized his people for more than four hundred years. The destruction of Judah and the temple by Nebuchadnezzar was simply theologically incomprehensible. Nebuchadnezzar’s assault was as unimaginable as – not the events that we remember from September 11th, for the towers had been struck previously – but rather as unimaginable as the assault on Pearl Harbor, and, as incomprehensible as the bombs we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and as unfathomable as was Japan’s surrender to her own citizens.

There was a time when no one could enter the most holy space in the temple except the high priest, and then only once a year. Tradition says that he wore bells so that people would know if he was able to survive in the presence of God and, that he had a rope around him so that if he dropped dead from proximity to the holiness of God, his mortal remains could be pulled out for burial. And yet, Nebuchadnezzar’s troops not only entered the most holy place, they butchered it with battle axes, hatchets and hammers, chopping it to bits, burning everything that would burn, melting down the gold and silver and bronze for the Babylonian treasury. And they took a few choice vessels, used to worship the God of Israel back to Babylon for the king and his court to toy with. And there was not even a puff of smoke. There was no strike of holy lightening; no burst of fire from heaven, no hailstones, plagues of Egypt, scorpions or poisonous snakes, earthquake or sinkhole; the earth did not open up her swallow them whole. Nothing happened. It was almost as if the temple was empty.

It must have seemed like the stories of Miriam and Moses and the promises God to their descendants either never happened or were null and void. It may have seemed like the stories of Exodus were irrelevant fairy tales. Imagine, what it would have been like if the assault on and collapse of the Twin Towers was followed by an assault on and collapse of our government, defeat of our military and forced exile of our citizens: no homes, no jobs, no healthcare, parents separated from children, dead bodies heaped in the streets, everyone subject to robbery, rape and murder, on the way to incarceration in an over populated refugee camp with out any social services.

Some will not have to imagine Native persons herded onto reservations, Japanese American citizens interned in camps, South Africans banned to Bantustans, European Jews crowded into European ghettos, American Blacks crowded into inner city ghettos, Latinos regulated to barrios, political dissidents sentenced to gulags and reeducation camps.

We may not be internationally displaced persons struggling for clean drinking water, firewood and food, and while some of us may be fearful of physical or sexual assault or murder, those atrocities do not shape our daily lives in most cases. But many of our sisters and brothers around the world and in our own country are desperately hungry, homeless or facing the loss of their homes, unemployed, underemployed, lacking sufficient or any health care and subject to private and public explosions of violence. To all of these, God offers the vision of a resurrected people and society in Ezekiel. Not only is the society resurrected but so are all the people who make it what it is. There are all there, restored from the confusing jumble of death. It does not matter how or where their bones were scattered, piled up, decayed, dissolved or even cremated, God sorts them out.

God brings the dead to life. Ezekiel and his imprisoned people can trust God to bring their dead and unburied, left in the street to rot nation back to life because God brings the dead to life. God through Elijah raised a widow’s son in Zarephath. God through Elisha raised another widow’s son in Shunem. God has a rep that can be trusted. God brings the dead to life.

But first, God weeps. God weeps with us when we weep. In his valley of the shadow of death, Ezekiel was a man transported by the power of his God to an open valley full of decayed bodies at the end of their decomposition cycle. Under a different shadow, God-in-flesh walked on his own two feet as a road-weary traveling prophet, teacher and healer joining the mourners outside the cave-tombs coming to stand before a closed tomb with just one body just beginning to decompose.

The setting is a rocky hillside dotted with natural and fabricated caves. Lightly carved and rounded stones secure the entrances to the cave-tombs, keeping some out and others in. The air is thick with the smell of vegetation. The air is full of life. The air is also full of death. Oils and ointments can no longer mask the scent of death. A small group of mourners prays, keens and beats their breasts. And there he spoke his own words of power: “El‘azar! Lazarus! Come out!” God brings the dead to life.

No one sees what is going on in the tomb: the bloated body contracts, the ripening flesh regains its firmness, the chest begins to rise and fall, the eye lashes flutter. He sits up, swings his legs off the rocky ledge on which he was so recently lain, and struggles to walk towards the light where he hears someone calling his name. He is like a mummy, wrapped in sheets of linen that have loosened as his body swelled in the first stages of decomposition. He shuffles out of the tomb. But he is not a mummy, or a zombie. He has had the breath of life spoken back into him and he has returned fully to life, resurrected. God brings the dead to life.

Over and over again God reveals Godself to be the God of life and light, even when God’s people are dwelling and dying in darkness. The life that the God of Ezekiel and Jesus grants us is individual and corporate life; no national or personal tragedy can destroy us. Where ever we are, no matter how we got there, God will find us and bring us home. The Judeans in the Babylonian internment camp did not believe that God would or could leave the temple, not even to see about them. Ezekiel’s crazy visions and even crazier antics – he will go so far as to use poop to make a prophetic point– all demonstrate that the people claimed by God will never be abandoned by God, no matter what happens to their national treasures and monuments.

God-in-flesh tells Miryam who you know as Mary:

I am the resurrection and the life! Whoever believes in me will live, even if they die; and everyone living and believing in me will never die.

And even when it seems like it is too late – and Jesus was four days late to the funeral – the universal laws of earth and heaven can be swept away that we might live again. The life that God calls us to is this life and the life beyond this one. Lazarus was raised and restored to his human life, for a while. He would die again as we all will die. But death will not have the last word. The same folk who sought to kill Jesus turned their attention to Lazarus and planned to kill him (again) too. The gospel doesn’t tell us if they succeeded because it doesn’t matter. Lazarus’ resurrection in this life was a promise of our resurrection in the next.

And to those devastated by the loss of a dear one, Jesus comes to us in our grief, walks with us, mourns with us, weeps with us and promises us resurrected life in the community of the redeemed. But unlike the movies in which the main characters seem to escape death at every turn, we may die, we will die, and even if and when we die, not even death has the power to separate us from the life-giving Spirit of God. We go to our deaths knowing that Jesus has gone before us, accompanies us and waits for us to transform our dying into living. God brings the dead to life. And that’s good news. Amen.


Noah in Genesis, Enoch & White Imagination

Using sources in Genesis, the books of Enoch – which are scriptural in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church – and his own interpretive imagination, Darren Aronofsky has given the world a new vision of the Noah story. His vision is eclipsed by its blinding whiteness, (see my take on his white savior saving a world full of white people and repopulating it in his image here, and picture of Eve’s hand above). Some will care that the movie deviates from the biblical narrative:

  • Noah is not 600 and his sons are not 100. Noah is 500 when he fathers his sons (all at the same time? in the same year? Perhaps with different women) in Gen 5:32; Gen 7:6 says that Noah was 600 years old when the flood began.
  • The sons of God or godlings, semi-divine God-like beings who come down from heaven to mate with human women in Gen 6:1-4 as the last straw before God floods the world do not do so in the movie. Their Enochic counterparts, the Watchers fall from heaven to earth, become encased in soil and rock and become walking, talking piles of rock with glowing, explosive inner cores.
  • The Watchers supply the bulk of the manual labor to build the ark.
  • Noah’s sons are not all adult, married men when they enter the ark (Gen 7:7). The lack of wives for the boy on the cusp of manhood and the much younger boy-child are plot devices.
  • When Noah gets drunk and is discovered and covered by his sons he does not curse his grandson Canaan – he doesn’t exist in the movie.) I went to see the movie in part to see how he would handle this portion because this text known as the curse of Ham, Canaan’s father, is deeply implicated in the American slave trade.)

What he adds to the story is truly fascinating. I discuss that in the company of other scholars on floodofnoah.com.


Black Like Me: Erased from the Noah Movie

I pay attention to the peopling of the world in the vision filmmakers. I want to know if there are people like me in their worlds, people of African descent, people of color. In Darren Aronofsky’s vision of Noah and his world I do not exist. People like me do not exist. Black, brown and beige people do not exist even though the story is the story of the destruction and re-peopling of the whole Earth. Noah and his family and all of his ancestors and even all the lost, dying, drowning people are white people. Adam and Eve glow with the light of innocence in their white skins. Ham, the ancestor of African peoples – at least according to the biblical text –has white skin and as a little boy, dark blue eyes. And that matters to me as a biblical scholar and seminary professor and, as a person of African descent whose ancestors were enslaved in the Americas, whose enslavement was justified in part on readings of the Scriptures that emerge from ancient Israel because these texts are also my scriptures.

As an origin story, the story of Noah and his sons and their descendants purports to tell the story of human diversity, many peoples of differing ethnicities descended from a single family, a common ancestor. There is an evolutionary equivalent. However on this planet, the first humans were African, all others derivative. Without other genetic material, the offspring of black and brown people can be lighter than their parents, but it doesn’t work the other way around.

Expecting an origin story, even a mythological one, to make some sense and correspond in some way to the world from which it emerges is not confusing scripture with science. While they are not incompatible, they are not the same. As a biblical scholar I want to remind readers and viewers that Genesis is a collection of sacred stories in the larger collection of Israel’s sacred stories including ancestral, origin and cosmological stories. Those texts and their stories were neither scientific methodologies – how to make a world in seven easy days if you don’t define a day as the earth’s 24 hour rotation because they thought the earth was flat and… – nor are they historical archives.

As a seminary professor I ask my students how the text is true. These mythological lifespans do not correspond with what we know about human beings, the archaeological or scientific record. They did not correspond to what the Israelites knew about their flat-earth world either. (The prelude to the Noah story in Genesis chapters 6-9 says that Noah is 500 years old when he fathers his sons. Gen 7:6 says that Noah was 600 years old when the flood began.) As origin stories the stories in Genesis preserved the cultural heritage of the people who would become Israelites, heritage that converged with and diverged from other ancient near eastern peoples with their own impossibly long-lived ancestors and their own flood stories.

The movie is an interpretation of the biblical narrative as are all readings, whether on film or not – including those that claim to be literal readings. As such, the movie is a midrash, in the tradition of classical Jewish exegesis. One aspect of midrash is filling in the spaces in the stories. We all do that to some degree. Putting the text on the screen requires filling out the story. Darren Aronofsky’s choices create a new interpretation of the story and that is neither a good nor a bad thing. That is the work of meaning making. And we all do it. For those fixated on the truth of the text, proving or disapproving the existence of Noah, the flood or God, I can’t help you. I’m not arguing either case. Nor, I think, is the movie. (Aronofsky speaks about his vision of the film here.) It is telling a story, a story of Noah, based of the biblical text.

The reduction of truth to literally true or not at all is a contemporary notion, like limiting biblical interpretation to literal readings (except maybe for parables). The truth is the biblical text uses a variety of genres, rhetoric and literary devices to communicate the truths of its messages (plural) through the lenses of its original speakers, writers, editors and those who preserved it. Beyond that, religious readers see the hand of God at work in differing ways. Some understand the text to have been dictated and copied unerringly and find their favorite English translation to be an exact rendering. Others find the hand – better breath – of God at work in each phase of the process including among those who hear, read and interpret as much as with those who spoke, remembered, repeated, recorded and translated.

The truth of the text is not in or limited to its literal reading even on the cases where the text is literally true. As a Christian the paradigm that helps me understand the richness and complexity of the text is the nature of Jesus, human and divine. The text is human and divine. The text is not, cannot be, more divine than Jesus. And like Jesus, the human parts cannot be easily listed as separate and distinct from the divine parts. To say that Jesus’ physical hunger was exclusively human is to reify the old dualism in which the body and all of its processes are somehow lower and lesser than the spirit and its processes. God becoming human, embodied, enfleshed, sanctifies our humanity, including our human bodies.

My black, woman’s body is a human body but it is not represented in Darren Aronofsky’s movie. No one in the whole wide world that he has created is black like me.

My review of the movie’s content in relation to the content of the books of Genesis and Enoch is available here.


Shalom Miryam, Hail Mary

A miracle happened today. We will see it in nine months on Christmas Day. In reflection an Annunciation sermon (from 2004).

[On this day when people are arguing for the right to prevent women from accessing health services under the rubric of birth control (and abortion) because of their own religious biases, I am mindful that God does not share their fear of women’s bodies, in spite of what they say in Her name.]

For many centuries most European countries took 25 March, not 1 January, as the day when the number of the year changed, so that 24 March 1203 was followed by 25 March 1204. If you had asked a Christian of that time why the calendar year changed so oddly in the middle a month, she might have said: “This is the beginning of a new year in the Christian era, which began a thousand years ago today when God was made human, when God took upon Godself a carnal body and human nature in the womb of the Virgin.”
I like to imagine that Mary was praying the scriptures. Perhaps she was praying Psalm 46 which describes:
4 …the holy tabernacle of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved:
God will help her, when the morning dawns…
8 Come, behold the works of the Holy One…
10 Be still, and know that I am God!…
11 The Sovereign-Commander of celestial armies is with us; the God of Jacob
[and Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah] is our refuge.
Perhaps she prayed the prophet Zephanyah, Zephaniah, chapter 3:
15 …The Sovereign of the Heavens and Earth,
is in your midst daughter;
you shall fear disaster no more daughter…
16 Fear not daughter, O daughter of Zion;
do not let your hands grow weak daughter.
17 The Ever-Present One, your God, is in your midst daughter,
a warrior who gives victory;
Who will rejoice over you with gladness daughter,
and will renew you in love daughter;
Who will exult over you daughter with loud singing
18 as on a day of festival.
I will remove disaster from you daughter,
so that you will not bear reproach for this daughter.
I imagine that since Miryam did not suffer from our masculinist translations, that she would remember those texts with all of their girl-God-talk to the Daughter of Zion. She too was God’s daughter. And God sent God’s messenger to this daughter of Zion.
The angel said, “Shalom lakh, peace to you woman, wholeness to you woman, may it be well with you woman. If as a member of an oral, aural culture Miryam recognized those words, she might not have felt well at all. The old Benjaminite householder in Judges 19 greeted the wife of the traveling Levite with those very words: Shalom lakh, peace to you woman, wholeness to you woman, may it be well with you woman. That night he stood by as her husband forced her out of the house and into the clutching grasp of the men who raped and murdered her, leaving her to die on the doorstep of the man who greeted her with peace.
These words were also put to the Shunnamite woman on Elisha’s behalf in question form: Is it shalom to you woman? Is it shalom to your husband woman? Is it shalom to your child woman? She said ‘It is shalom.’ But her child was dead. Yet her child would live again. But how often could that happen? No wonder Miryam was deeply troubled by Gavri’el’s, Gabriel’s, words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.
Then Miryam was greeted with a ‘Fear-not.’ (The standard greeting in angelic discourse.) Once upon a time, to the woman who received the first angelic annunciation there was “Fear not Hagar…” More recently there was “Fear not, Zecharyah, Zechariah,: for your prayer has been heard; and your wife Elisheva, Elisabeth, will give birth to a son, and you will name him Yochanon, John.” There would be “Fear not Yosef (Joseph) ben David, take Miryam as your wife…” “Fear not, shepherds. Look! I am bringing you good tidings of great joy, which are for all people.” And one day there would be to her again, this time with her sister-friends: “Fear not women: for I know that you seek Yeshua, Jesus, who was crucified…”
The word of the divine messenger was ‘fear not’ because God is with you. Already. Before the spirit of God transubstantiates the flesh and blood of your womb into the body and blood of the Messiah. God is with you now, in your ordinary-extraordinary first century, Iron Age life. In the midst of the Roman occupation, God is with you. After the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, God is with you. After the destruction of the temple in Samaria, God is with you. During the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem, God is with you. While God is breathing life into the dead womb of Elisheva, God is with you. Here. Now.
The word of the divine messenger was not that God would be Immanu-El, with all of us, but that God was with her. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved. When the fabric of space and time collapse into the secret spaces of her body, God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved. Even if her spouse were to drag her down to the temple by her hair so her cousin could intone the malediction of the sotach – the woman suspected of adultery, God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved. Even if she were forced to drink the bitter waters of cursing, cursing her body and its secret places – she whose own name meant bitter-water-woman. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved.
Because God had been with her, was with her and continues to be with her, God is with us also. Immanu-El. As we continue our Lenten and annual liturgical journeys, let us reflect on the expansion of Immanu-El within us. I would like to invite you to grow with God in a Marion year.
On Palm Sunday, feel the neonatal Gospel quickening deep within you. During Pesach, Passover, including Good Friday and Easter, imagine nibbling on matzah to quell burgeoning waves of nausea as morning sickness comes morning or noon or night or all of the above. On Pentecost as faithful Jews celebrate the First Fruits hear Elisheva’s benediction “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” ‘Your first fruit.’  Imagine Ordinary Time transformed into Extraordinary Time as Miryam’s womb, now the Ark of Throbbing Promises expanded to encompass the ineffable. Imagine Advent waiting to see what on earth, what under the heavens he will look like. Will he have 10 fingers and 10 toes? Imagine Christmas as Frances Croake Frank envisions it:
‘Did the woman say,
When she held him for the first time in the dark of a stable,
After the pain and the bleeding and the crying,
“This is my body, this is my blood”?’
The fusion of divinity and humanity in the dark softness of womb-space has forever changed both of us. God’s knowledge of being human is experiential. Our experience of God-being is being human. The Incarnation provides a glimpse of God’s anthropology: It is just possible that human beings are capable of nurturing and protecting the most precious gift ever conceived. There is hope for us.
In this Women’s History Month, the Incarnation also provides a glimpse of God’s gynecology: Women, our bodies and their possibilities, our intimate relationships, our family ties, our calls and our confessions are God-space.
But in our world, women are the poorest people on the planet – their children are often poorer, but regularly shorter-lived. Women and girls are the most frequent victims of physical violence and sexual abuse. Palestinian women give birth to dying babies at Israeli checkpoints. Iraqi women and girls are more likely to be kidnapped if venturing outside of their homes after Operation Iraqi Freedom than before it. More women in the Armed Forces of the United States haven been raped by their comrades-in-arms than by the designated enemies in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait – where there are presumably only allies. Professional sex-workers serve as recruiting sub-contractors for colleges and universities with billion-dollar endowments. A father murders his daughters and their children, some of whom are also his children. A prison guard reports of the two weeks she was held hostage by inmates “Fortunately the sexual assaults didn’t happen very often.” The broken body of girl-child is stuffed behind a toilet in a library whose shelves offer story of the Annunciation and Incarnation.
Shalom lakh, peace to you woman, wholeness to you woman, may it be well with you woman. God is with you. In your brokenness, in your fullness, God is with you. How can this be? The power of the Holy Spirit, She covers you, She enfolds you, She transforms you inside and out, and She is transforming the world through you – one man at a time.
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.

 


Women of the Word: Women Prophets

2014 Susan Draper White Lectures at the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, New Brighton, MN. The talk is based on my book Daughters of Miriam and previews the approach in my forthcoming book Womanist Midrash.

 


Having A Holy, Cranky, Lent

Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection…I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word…

I usually take the invitation to the observance of Lent in the Book of Common Prayer as an adjuration to have a holy Lent and bear it with me through the season. I don’t know if I shall have a holy Lent this season. I am too busy having a cranky Lent and we are barely 15 hours into it.

It started in the last couple of weeks when folk on social media started talking about what they would do. Some made reference to those post a picture a day for Lent projects and my skin just crawled. I suffered through them last year and tried to figure out how many folk I would have to block or mute this year. Apparently I had a somewhat cranky Lent last year too.

Then I saw all of those “Ashes2Go” pictures today and I got grumpier. Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea – and practice – of offering ashes to those who cannot come to church in the morning. We are dependent on each other’s labor and I honor those who work hours that I have the privilege to avoid. It was all the posts of folk doing that ministry that rubbed me the wrong way.

Now let me be clear, I am not judging anyone, individual or church. The title of the post is about me having a cranky Lent not anyone else having an inappropriate Lent. I am doing the work of self-reflection and have discerned that I am cranky. Perhaps it is because I have wrestled mightily in my soul and with my spiritual director about what I do and don’t do for Lent, what works, at what I feel like a failure, what brings grace and freedom. I do know about myself that my practices need to be private at this phase in my life – it was not always so and need not be so for anyone else.

Confronted with everyone else’s notion of what is a holy Lent I am tempted to compare and second guess and perhaps compete. I’m also aware that I am doing the work of self-examination, one way respond to the gracious invitation (or solemn adjuration) to have a holy Lent. Looking at my inner crankiness is holy work, holy, cranky, work. I am having a holy Lent. A holy, (wholly) cranky Lent.

And now, having blogged about it, I think I’ll tweet and Facebook my post because I didn’t give up social media for Lent. But before I do, I will pray the beautiful words of the Ash Wednesday collect:

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made…

No matter how cranky I am, God loves me. Amen.