Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Archive for April, 2015

Call the Wailing Women to Weep for Us

Death is in the house. My ancestors sang it like this:

‘Soon one morning, death come creepin’ in my room,
‘Soon one morning, death come creepin’ in my room,
‘Soon one morning, death come creepin’ in my room.

That morning is today. And yesterday. And tomorrow. Death is in the house. So it is time to call for the wailing women to weep for us.

In the ancient Near East there was a profession that was passed down from woman to woman, from neighbor-woman to girlfriend. The initiates or trainees were called ‘daughters’ and the guild directors were called ‘mothers,’ just as the disciples of prophets were called their children. It was the mourner’s guild, called ‘the keening or weeping women’ in Jeremiah. They were trained and paid to perform the public ritual of funerals; they were funeral directors and grief counselors. These women walked with the body, wept and wailed with the family and sang and chanted hymns, psalms and laments composed for the occasion. They created space and community for the family and friends to grieve without embarrassment, and never be alone. Some guilds included musicians, both male and female, but the professional mourners were usually women.

I’ve been watching (predominantly Christian) folk call for men and Christian men to take to the streets in Baltimore and end/prevent the looting. I’ve heard folk say that only a man can tell another man how to be a man. While our cites are on fire and our children are being slaughtered I want to be charitable to those in my community who are surely in as much pain as I am. So I am going to allow for the possibility that they did not mean to slight all the women, mothers, godmothers, play mothers, grandmothers, church mothers sisters and aunties who have been raising boys and men and women and girls with and without help. I’m just going to sit down and weep at the thought I might have to justify why I’m out in the streets that black women are dying in too.

I’ll be honest. I don’t know what to do or what I can do to keep the police from shooting, strangling, suffocating and now, severing our spines in vehicular lynchings. I’m tired of praying. I feel like screaming. So that is what I will do. I know I’m not alone. I turn to the scriptures and see God says, “Call for the wailing women.”

Jeremiah 9:17 So says the SOVEREIGN of Warriors:
Reason within yourselves,
and call for the keening women to come;
send for the wise, skilled women to come;
18 let them quickly raise a wailing over us,
so that our eyes may run down with tears,
and our eyelids flow with water.
19 For a sound of wailing is heard from Zion:
“How we are ruined! We are completely ashamed,
because we have forsaken the land,
because they have cast down our dwellings.”
20 Hear, O women, the word of the HOLY ONE,
and let your ears receive the word of God’s mouth;
teach to your daughters a wailing,
and each woman her neighbor-woman a keening:
21 “Death has come up into our windows,
it has entered our palaces,
to cut off the children from the streets
and the young women and young men from the squares.”

In this text, the sound of weeping and wailing breaks forth from Zion, the heart of God’s home in Jerusalem. Yerushalayim, the city of peace has been torn to pieces. The first stanza of the funeral hymn composed by God in Jeremiah speaks of the shame of being run out of the Promised Land that God provided. For when their tabernacles were overthrown, they had to leave, because there was nothing left for them there anymore. Even God lost the tabernacle of the Temple. For some the lost tabernacle was that of the sanctity of their bodies; many were raped, tortured and killed. For others the tabernacles lost were the sacred spaces of their God-given homes. Violence and warfare have always affected women in a particularly intimate manner.

Professionals are called to lament on behalf of the people of Jerusalem. In Jeremiah, God tells the people to consider among the weeping women and to select the wisest. In ancient Israelite tradition, wisdom was head knowledge, heart knowledge and hand knowledge. Skilled theologians, skilled poets and skilled artisans are all wise in this understanding. In Ezekiel, the prophet will call the women of the ancient African nation of Nubia to join in the lament and to weep for all of their people.

The United States were never intended to be a land of promise for African Americans. We survived and sometimes we thrive in spite of all the death-dealing structures and strictures in the law and all the social and economic structures founded on and steeped in white supremacy. There have been moments of incredible jubilation and long seasons of grief. It is indeed a time to organize and protest, interrupt and inconvenience and give voice to holy rage. It is also time to lament, weep, wail, scream and keen our grief. Voices of lamentation are being raised all across our nation and world from Nepal to Baltimore. Let me add my voice to them: We call your names. Ashé.

The book of Exodus records the journey from slavery to freedom beginning with he words v’elleh shemoth, “these are the names…” These are the names of our dead. These are only some of the names. (Courtesy of Abagond.)

2015: Jamar Clark (Minneapolis, MN)
2015: India Kager (Virginia Beach, VA)
2015: Christian Taylor (Arlington, TX)
2015: Sam Dubose (Cincinnati, OH)
2015: Sandra Bland (Prairie View, TX)
2015: Icarus Randolph (Witchita, KS)
2015: Freddie Gray (Baltimore, MD)
2015: Walter Scott (North Charleston, SC)
2015: Tony Robinson (Madison, WI)
2015: Anthony Hill (Chamblee, GA)
2014: Akai Gurley (New York, NY)
2014: Tamir Rice (Cleveland, OH)
2014: Victor White III (Iberia Parish, LA)
2014: Dante Parker (San Bernardino County, CA)
2014: Ezell Ford (Los Angeles, CA)
2014: Michael Brown (Ferguson, MO)
2014: Tyree Woodson (Baltimore, MD)
2014: John Crawford III (Beavercreek, OH)
2014: Eric Garner (New York, NY)
2014: Yvette Smith (Bastrop, TX)
2014: Donitre Hamilton (Milwaukee, WI)
2014: Jordan Baker (Houston, TX)
2013: Barrington Williams (New York, NY)
2013: Carlos Alcis (New York, NY)
2013: Deion Fludd (New York, NY)
2013: Jonathan Ferrell (Bradfield Farms, NC)
2013: Kimani Gray (New York, NY)
2013: Kyam Livingstone (New York, NY)
2013: Larry Eugene Jackson, Jr. (Austin, TX)
2013: Miriam Carey (Washington, DC)
2013: Tyrone West (Baltimore, MD)
2012: Chavis Carter (Jonesboro, AR)
2012: Dante Price (Dayton, OH)
2012: Duane Brown (New York, NY)
2012: Ervin Jefferson (Atlanta, GA)
2012: Jersey Green (Aurora, IL)
2012: Johnnnie Kamahi Warren (Dotham, AL)
2012: Justin Slipp (New Orleans, LA)
2012: Kendrec McDade (Pasadena, CA)
2012: Malissa Williams (Cleveland, OH)
2012: Nehemiah Dillard (Gainesville, FL)
2012: Ramarley Graham (New York, NY)
2012: Raymond Allen (Galveston, TX)
2012: Rekia Boyd (Chicago, IL)
2012: Reynaldo Cuevas (New York, NY)
2012: Robert Dumas Jr (Cleveland, OH)
2012: Sgt. Manuel Loggins Jr (Orange County, CA)
2012: Shantel Davis (New York, NY)
2012: Sharmel Edwards (Las Vegas, NV)
2012: Shereese Francis (New York, NY)
2012: Tamon Robinson (New York, NY)
2012: Timothy Russell (Cleveland, OH)
2012: Wendell Allen (New Orleans, LA)
2011: Alonzo Ashley (Denver, CO)
2011: Jimmell Cannon (Chicago, IL)
2011: Kenneth Chamberlain (White Plains, NY)
2011: Kenneth Harding (San Francisco, CA)
2011: Raheim Brown (Oakland, CA)
2011: Reginald Doucet (Los Angeles, CA)
2010: Aaron Campbell (Portland, OR)
2010: Aiyana Jones (Detroit, MI)
2010: Danroy Henry (Thornwood, NY)
2010: Derrick Jones (Oakland, CA)
2010: Steven Eugene Washington (Los Angeles, CA)
2009: Kiwane Carrington (Champaign, IL)
2009: Oscar Grant (Oakland, CA)
2009: Shem Walker (New York, NY)
2009: Victor Steen (Pensacola, FL)
2008: Tarika Wilson (Lima, OH)
2007: DeAunta Terrel Farrow (West Memphis, AR)
2006: Sean Bell (New York, NY)
2005: Henry Glover (New Orleans, LA)
2005: James Brisette (New Orleans, LA)
2005: Ronald Madison (New Orleans, LA)
2004: Timothy Stansbury (New York, NY)
2003: Alberta Spruill (New York, NY)
2003: Orlando Barlow (Las Vegas, NV)
2003: Ousmane Zongo (New York, NY)
2003: Michael Ellerbe (Uniontown, PA)
2001: Timothy Thomas (Cincinnati, OH)
2000: Earl Murray (Dellwood, MO)
2000: Malcolm Ferguson (New York, NY)
2000: Patrick Dorismond (New York, NY)
2000: Prince Jones (Fairfax County, VA)
2000: Ronald Beasley (Dellwood, MO)
1999: Amadou Diallo (New York, NY)
1994: Nicholas Heyward Jr. (New York, NY)
1992: Malice Green (Detroit, MI)
1985: Edmund Perry (New York, NY)
1984: Eleanor Bumpurs (New York, NY)
1983: Michael Stewart (New York, NY)
1981: Ron Settles (Signal Hill, CA)
1979: Eula Love (Los Angeles, CA)
1969: Mark Clark (Chicago, IL)
1969: Fred Hampton (Chicago, IL)
1964: James Powell (New York, NY)

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)

What shall we do when death is in the house? Lament. Even Jesus said: “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.” Cry to heaven, weep and wail.

Daughters of Nubia, we need to weep for ourselves; we need to weep for our daughters; we need to weep for our sons. We need to weep for our cities. We need to weep for our leaders. We need to weep for our preachers. We need to weep for our teachers. We need to weep for our cities. We need to weep for our sanctuaries. We need to weep for our nation. We need to weep for all nations. We need to weep for the earth. Death is in the house.

Daughters of Nubia, we need to weep for politicians and police. We need to weep for those who perpetuate the culture of violence and retaliation, and those who fall prey to it. We need to weep for unrepentant racists. We need to weep for those who cannot see our beautiful bodies as being created in the image of God. We need to weep with rage and determination.

We need to weep for Baltimore and Ferguson and New York. We need to weep for Nigeria and Nepal and Palestine and Pakistan. Death is in the house.

Weep. Wail. Cry. Scream. And may the God who hears, hear and heal and help us.


Translating Iron Age Prophets into a Digital Age

 

DoMHuldah

HuldahImages of the prophet Huldah by Rabbi Me’ira Iliinsky and (photo) James Lewis

A recent conversation between two leading public intellectuals has brought renewed attention to the ways in which we, pastors, preachers, academics, activists, commentators and the public at large use the lexicon of the prophetic to define our work or the work of others. In my seminary classroom I am constantly stretching my students to expand their understanding of prophets, those who prophesy prophecies, and the prophecies they prophesy, beyond the predictive. In the public square, with its emphasis on social and political commentary, the understanding needs to be stretched beyond social critic or even champion of social justice or truth-teller talking back to power (or empire).

An analysis of prophecy in ancient Israel within the scope of its closest Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) corollaries demonstrates that prophets engaged in a variety of tasks, all of which were part of their prophetic portfolio. (This list and basis for my commentary here is drawn from my own work on prophets, Daughters of Miriam, which includes overviews of Israelite and ANE prophets and prophecy.) Prophetic practices include:

(1) interceding with [God] on behalf of human beings,
(2) performing musical compositions,
(3) commanding military forces,
(4) performing miracles,
(5) appointing monarchs,
(6) advising monarchs,
(7) archiving monarchal reigns,
(8) evaluating and legitimating Torah [scripture and religious/legal rulings],
(9) making, teaching, and leading disciples,
(10) mediating human disputes,
(11) archiving prophetic utterances,
(12) constructing and guarding the temple,
(13) serving as executioner,
(14) inquiring of the Divine, and
(15) proclaiming the word of [God].

Most simply, biblical prophets were divine intermediaries, facilitating communication between God and humanity at the instigation of either party. Prophets enjoyed perhaps the ultimate authority in biblical Israel given they could “fire” a monarch and appoint a new one while the previous one was still living.

One reason there is such a limited understanding of prophets and prophecy is the relative ignorance of the broader prophetic tradition in and behind Israel’s scripture. Reducing the prophetic enterprise to the men with biblical books named after them unnecessarily and inappropriately curtails the prophetic witness in limited ways. In order to know what biblical prophets do, it’s helpful to know who the biblical prophets. Explicitly identified women prophets are in bold, gender inclusive categories that could mask women prophets are italicized.)

Torah: Moses, Miriam, prophesying elders, Balaam

Prophetic Books: Deborah, Anonymous (Jdges 6:7-10), Prophetic Communities (1 Sam 10:1-13, 19:18-24); Nathan; Gad; Ahijah the Shilonite; Unnamed (1 Kgs 13, 20; 2 Kgs 9:1-13; Jehu ben Hannai, Azariah ben Oded; Elijah, Micaiah ben Imlah, Zedekiah the Canaanite, Elisha, Huldah, Isaiah, mother of Isaiah’s child(ren), Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Women’s Prophetic Community (Ezekiel 13:17-19), Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zecharaiah, Malachi (following Hebrew canon, Jewish classification in which Daniel is not a prophet)

Writings: Noadiah, Heman Family Singers (1 Chr 25:1-8), Iddo, Azariah ben Oded, Eliezer ben Dodavahu, Oded

Prophets in ancient Israel engaged in a broad range of activities. They interceded with [God] on behalf of human beings; performed musical compositions; commanded military forces; performed miracles; saw things that no one else could see; determined life expectancy; appointed monarchs; advised monarchs; archived monarchal reigns; mediated human disputes; archived prophetic utterances; validated divine proclamation; made, taught, and led disciples; constructed and guarded the temple; inquired of the divine; and proclaimed the word of [God]. The proclamation of the divine word is the dominant component of prophetic activity. The proclaimed word regularly focused on social, political, and religious matters; concern for right relations between humanity and divinity; relationships between humans; and appropriate religious practices. The receipt of the divine word was an extraordinary, extrasensory experience. Some prophets saw or envisioned the word; others experienced it intimately, literally “the word of [God] happened (hayah)” to the prophet. Some prophets experienced divine communication in more than one medium. Proclamation of the divine message was multifaceted: singing, preaching, and performing were regular modes of prophetic expression. The most common expression of prophetic utterance included the introductory formula “So says [God].” (Gafney, Daughters of Miriam, 47)

A frequent myth I regularly encounter in the public square, classroom and congregation is that all biblical prophets were male. (I’ve had to correct at least one public intellectual with a Ph.D. in a religious discipline on that point recently.) Others know better and may include Dorothy Day with Martin Luther King and Howard Thurman as modern day prophets. The idea that there are contemporary prophets is a contested notion. I find it more palatable and useful to think and speak in terms of prophetic work, action, ministry or service.

Attempts to translate Iron Age prophetic culture in to contemporary American, digital, social media culture regularly fail to take note of the theo-political context of Israelite and ANE prophecy: monarchy. A court prophet is not the same as presidential surrogate and a street prophet is not the same as a commentator who critiques both political parties – or for that matter a socially conscious rapper. While some may presume that (some) American presidents are or have been divinely appointed and elected and others wish for a theocracy, the religious role of the monarch in the ANE, including Israel has no corollary in our democracy (nor even in extant monarchies).

Regardless or one’s religious beliefs about whether prophecy or prophets exist in the world today, the biblical lexicon does not fit in the digital age in the same way as it did in the Iron Age. That is not to say that we ought give up the language, rather to point out the futility of trying to shove square peg pundits and preachers into the round holes of biblical era prophetic roles.

Yet the image and model of the biblical and ANE prophets are available for interpretation and reinterpretation. There are I contend, warrior prophets like Deborah, scholar prophets like Huldah, poet prophets like Micah, politically savvy prophets like Nathan, but perhaps more, legions of unknown prophets whose names we shall never know. Without worrying about who is a prophet (or for that matter an apostle) or legitimate heir to a prophetic mantle, women and men are simply doing the work, crying out to and for God and God’s folk.


Meet The Browns: A Wedding Homily

Anthony & Maria BrownDear ones, you are God’s chosen ones; you are God’s choice. God chose you and chooses you. And you. And you. And me. Being “the elect of God” as some translations have it is not about being chosen over someone else as when lovers choose each other over all others and proclaim that choice with the sacrament of marriage. Rather, it’s about being chosen by God in good company, all of us who are dearly beloved to God.

When we clergy say those words, “Dearly beloved…” we are affirming that the love of God borne witness to in the vows of lovers is part of a broader tapestry of love between God and all creation. And we are all blessed to be part of that love as we are to witness this love between Anthony and Maria.
There is no recipe for a perfect marriage, any more than there is for a perfect church. What with the Church and all marriages being full of people. And by full I mean more than one that’s all it takes for conflict and disagreement. And sometimes, not even that many. Yet our lesson in (Colossians 3:12-17) does tell us how to be a loving church, a healthy church and a holy church. And it turns out the same words of wisdom teach us how to have a loving marriage, a healthy marriage and a holy marriage. This passage gives counsel to the whole church including those in our homes and those in our hearts:
12 As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.
Maria and Anthony, you are the beloved of God. Treat each other that way. You are already holy, having been redeemed. Behave that way. When the text says put on these graces and virtues, it is metaphorically covering the body. Greek-speaking culture was often hostile to the human body and human sexuality. Which is a shame because one of the joys of our creation is the hand-crafted bodies God designed for us and our capacity to give our bodies to each other for mutual sexual pleasure. On this day when we proclaim there is no shame in the human body or the union of bodies let suggest that we hear the text saying put in your hearts
Put in your hearts the organs of compassion. In Syriac – Anthony, you knew who I was when you asked me to preach – in Syriac this is the womb of tender, mothering love which I like so much better than the Greek guts or bowels of mercy, pity or compassion. Instead hear the scripture saying:
Put in your hearts kindness.
Put in your hearts humility.
Put in your hearts meekness.
Put in your hearts patience.
13 Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.
Bear with here means elevate one another, esteem one another and be patient with one another. And when – not if – when you have griefs and grievances, forgive one another. Forgive each other because God has forgiven you. Forgive each other just as God has forgiven you. Forgive each other knowing that God will continue to forgive you.
14 Above all, clothe yourselves – fill your hearts – with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
More than anything else, fill your hearts with love. Love is the tie that binds. You have all the love you will ever need. It is the gift of God planted within you. Nourish and nurture it that it may grow to its fullest potential. It is God’s love in us that gives us the peace to live in harmony with another human soul. (And that ain’t always easy.)
15 …let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.
Let the peace of Christ, God’s peace, in and through Christ Jesus, rule in and over and, control your hearts. This is your calling, all our calling, in every relationship. Our interactions are to be governed by all that is that is peace – not the absence of conflict but the presence of wholeness, completeness, health, maturity and security. Thankfulness, gratitude, is one path to that peace. There will be occasion for lament and critique. But no one will have to solicit them from you. At all times, practice thankfulness. Remember that underlying the word for thankfulness is the Feast of the Lord’s Supper, keeping us mindful of that for which we should be most grateful.
16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.
Anthony and Maria, and all who share in this moment with them, be so full of the word and words of Christ that it shapes, changes if necessary, the way you think, speak and act. Your lives, your love is a lesson on the love of God. You are a lovesong that God sings to each of you and even to the rest of us.
17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Let everything that you do in joy and sorrow, sickness and health, poverty and wealth be worthy of that name that is most high, most precious.
And because you can’t be too thankful, the author says one more time: Be thankful, be grateful. Give thanks to God for each other, never taking the gift of each other for granted as we give thanks for you, your lives and your love.
In the Name of God who is Love, Jesus the Love that is stronger than death and the Holy Spirit who covers us and fills us with her Love. Amen.


ReWriting, ReMembering the Resurrection

A.D. The Bible Continues

According to Mark: After the sabbath Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome bought spices to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body. They also saw a young man dressed in a white robe. The stone had already been rolled away.

According to Matthew:  After the sabbath at first light, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to the tomb, experienced an earthquake and witnessed an angel descend from heaven and roll away the stone opening Jesus’ tomb. The angel had a substantial conversation with the women, commissioning them to preach the Gospel which they left to do.

According to Luke: After observing Shabbat as faithful Jews, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and other unnamed women who followed Jesus went to the tomb at dawn the next day with spices and ointments for Jesus’s body. The encounter two men in dazzling white clothes. The stone had already been rolled away.

According to John: Mary Magdalene went to the tomb alone and empty handed. The stone had already been rolled away. She leaves and reports to Peter and perhaps John. Somewhat out of sequence, she then announces the resurrection to other disciples. Peter and his companion enter the empty tomb then leave. Mary returns, encounters two angels in white and has a conversation with them. Jesus appears and tells her not to cling to him then disappears.

A.D. The Bible Continues

According to Roma Downey and Mark Burnett: Immediately after the crucifixion, Joseph of Arimathea takes the body of Jesus to his own tomb with Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene who brings water to wash his body accompanied by James (I believe). The say kaddish (the mourner’s prayer) over his body in Aramaic. A tender, touching but ahistoric scene. Kaddish is said outside of the tomb once it is closed. They also neglected to tear their garments.

A.D. The Bible Continues Their ignorance of and carelessness with Jewish tradition is neither new nor unexpected, both characterize their previous Bible series. That series like this one was also characterized by an erasure of biblical women. The series is loosely based on John’s gospel which is not the earliest (Mark), which offers the minority report on the presence of women at this most sacred moment, and presents the one woman, running to and fro like a chicken with her head cut off. I believe it is an intentional choice. Rather than tell the story of Jesus’ women disciples – “last at the cross first at the tomb” as we preach in the Black Church – they erase them all but for a token Mary and give us instead the wife of the high priest. Certainly he had one, but she is not in the Gospel.

She is not an apostle to the apostles. Mary of Magdala was. As were her sisters in the gospels, Mary the mother of James, Salome and many other women whose names have been stolen from us.

A.D. The Bible ContinuesWomen are not all that has been erased from this production. Jesus’ ethnicity is no where to be found.

His limp wig successfully communicates his separation from the semitic Jewishness of other characters who have curly hair and in three isolated cases, brown skin.

Jesus is not brown or visibly Jewish and that is intentional. The whitewash of Jesus from the last iteration is a key component of the gospel they are creating, one in which white identity is core, crucial and sanctified.

In order to tell their story they ran between the gospels of John and Matthew and back to John in a dizzying loop. Then let to Acts for the Ascension. There was one stunning image of the Ascension: billowing golden clouds with what I believe we are to understand as angels in them at intervals forming a sort of pyramid. (I couldn’t find the image.) However, it was less an ascension than a descent in that Jesus was never taken up to heaven: He walked up a hill in a beam of light to the top where heaven met earth then the camera cut away, A bit of a cinematic let-down.

I confess, I feel suckered into watching this thing. I’ll probably watch and tweet and comment the rest. I have a hard time leaving anything unfinished. But Hollywierd, I am seriously through with your white bible epics after Noah. (I haven’t watched God and Kings and shall not.)


Faithful Thomas

FinalStationoftheCross

Today’s Gospel focuses on St. Thomas who is significant to me for many reasons: My home church in Philly is St. Thomas. It is a very special St. Thomas, the first Episcopal Church formed by and for persons of African descent, dating from 1792. The African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas is one of the treasures of our Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion and I encourage you to visit it. There are some other St. Thomas churches I think you should know about.

The Mar Thoma Church is not a congregation but a denomination. It is a Syriac-speaking Orthodox Church – Syriac is a dialect of the Aramaic that Jesus spoke. The Mar Thoma Churches were founded in India and spread across the world, including the United States, including Dallas, Carrolton and Mesquite. What is it about St. Thomas that inspired such devotion?

He doesn’t seem like much in our Gospel lesson. Here’s some backstory: His name only appears eleven times in the bible. He doesn’t even get the full dozen. Apparently at one time they used to call him “the twin.” He shows up pretty far down on the list of disciples drafted in the first round, nine of twelve. Thomas is in only one story apart from today’s text. Earlier in our Gospel, in John 11 Thomas is a bit of a drama queen. When he heard that his friend Lazarus was dead he said, “Let’s go and die with him.”

And today he is the one who doubted Jesus was raised from the dead. And he did doubt, in spectacular fashion.

I want to tell you that Thomas had good reason to doubt. He had seen folk crucified before. Beaten, tortured, bloodied, flesh hanging from their bodies in shreds, broken bones, strangling, suffocating, drowning in their own fluids. And this was Jesus. He had power like they had never seen before, and only heard of in the days Moses and Elijah. And these petty men, religious leaders that he could preach circles around and bureaucrats who had no power to make miracles, they caught him and convicted him and he didn’t defend himself. And that voice from the heavens didn’t speak on his behalf. And he died. He died with two no-count thieves. Jesus died and the next morning it wasn’t a horrible dream. He was still dead. And the next day too.

The Church does not spend enough time sitting with the death of Jesus. It makes us uncomfortable. We rush to Easter – sometimes on Saturday, so we don’t have to deal with the spectacle of his death. Jesus’ death was designed to be a spectacle, state- sponsored terrorism. But not just his. The whole point of crucifixion was to demonstrate what the Romans were capable and that it was useless, hopeless to defy them. Terrorists and thugs do the same thing. We see it in the horrific acts of the warlords who call themselves an Islamic State. We see it in the savagery of the Mexican crime syndicate Los Zetas. We’ve seen it among ourselves in the spectacle lynchings that took place in this country and in this very state where people brought their children and even had picnics, sometimes right after church. That’s why it is so traumatic for many of us see to black bodies lying in the street for hours, to see people posting photos of the massacred and martyred Kenyan university students. The spectacle of death, especially intentionally violent death to teach a lesson about power and dominance is traumatizing.

Thomas was traumatized, grieving, dealing with the triumph of the Pax Romana. What the Romans called peace secured with the blood and death of anybody and everybody who got in their way or thought about getting in their way. Just like they did with Jesus. All he did was preach and teach and love and heal. It wasn’t much as revolutions go. But it was enough. And then it was over. But then the stories started. People said they saw Jesus. Women said they saw Jesus. The men he followed Jesus with said they saw Jesus. Every time someone said they saw Jesus, Thomas was conveniently not in the room. Now what were the odds of that? Thomas said, I need to see him for myself. I don’t blame him. I would have said the same thing.

I believe Thomas needed to see Jesus. Not just for proof. But he needed to see his friend and teacher, the man who he had followed from town to town for the better part of three years. I imagine Thomas leaving his friends, shaking his head, hoping against hope wanting to believe. I imagine him going home, waiting to see if Jesus would meet him there. Waking up to the memory of that horribly violent death playing over and over again in his mind and those stories. People insisting that they had seen the Lord. Some said they had touched him.

The days passed. The Gospel jumps to the next week. But I want to stay with Thomas, in his grief, and hope and yes, doubt, all mixed up together. A night and a day. And another. And another. Where did he go? What did he do? Did he ask his friends to tell their stories over and over again? Did he tell them to stop talking about it because he just couldn’t stand it?

Eight days later – the NRSV rounds down for some reason – eight days later, had he given up? How many times had they all been together in that room, trying to figure out what to do next? Had he come to believe in the resurrection on his own? Perhaps, though that is not the story the text wants to tell. Eight days later and they are all there – who? The male disciples who did not go to the tomb with the women? Had they collected a larger group of disciples? Whoever they were, they were there. But only two mattered: Thomas and Jesus.

Jesus came back, just to show himself to Thomas.

Jesus came back for Thomas to strengthen his faith. He still does that by the way, though not necessarily in such dramatic fashion. But I won’t doubt you if you tell me you’ve had a spectacular vision or experience. Thomas has said what he needs, to see and touch Jesus, his hands and his side. I wonder if he thought they might try to pull a fake over on him. Jesus gives him what he needs, exactly what he asks for – but of course, he didn’t ask, he demanded.

Even that is a lesson, we can tell God what we need. And God gets it. Jesus understands. Jesus tells Thomas that those of us who will not physically see or touch Jesus will receive a special blessing because he knows how hard it is. Jesus knows that it is hard to believe sometimes. And that’s all right. He doesn’t rebuke or chastise Thomas. He gives Thomas what he needs.

ShrineSignThomas ceased to be the doubter that day. The Western church still calls him that. But the Eastern church calls him apostle and seafarer. After Thomas saw Jesus and had his faith strengthened he took the story of Jesus’ resurrection to those who would not have the blessing of seeing and believing but could receive the blessing of believing through faith. And who better to teach about faith in what sounds like an impossibility but one who believed in Jesus, heard his teaching, saw him perform miracles, witnessed his death, doubted his resurrection and then saw and touched him alive after his gruesome death. Thomas took this Gospel to India, where he founded the Church in India. In a few hundred years at least one Indian bishop from this lineage would be a signatory of our Nicene Creed.

St. Thomas had what I like to call a reasonable doubt. But he moved past it when nearly everyone else was holding on to it. For the disciples of Jesus who believed in his resurrection were only a tiny fraction of the people in their towns and in the world. Most people believed what they had seen. Jesus had died. It would take some time and the work of the Holy Spirit to change that.

TombSignThomas went on his way telling the world-changing story of Jesus. The church he founded is our elder by more than a thousand years and we are in full communion. The story of Jesus remains so influential in India, in part because of St. Thomas, that Jesus is revered as a God among many Hindus who choose him to worship. There are more Hindus who worship Jesus in India than there are baptized Indian Christians. So many Hindus go to church that many congregations have enlarged their sanctuaries to accommodate them. That too is the legacy of Thomas, there is room for all in the church even if they do not believe in the same way as the one sitting next to them. St. Thomas died in India around the year 72, and joins St. Peter in Rome and St. James in Spain as the only apostles with basilicas where they were buried. I had the great pleasure of visiting his basilica in Mylapore India where he is remembered not for his doubt, but for his faith.

We are all of us so much more than our worst or even our most infamous moments. All of us have moments of doubt. But faith is stronger than doubt.

 

May the Risen Christ meet you in your times of doubt and lead you to new places in faith that you might proclaim to those near and far that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead. In the Name of God who is Love, Jesus the Love that is stronger than death and the Holy Spirit who covers us and fills us with her Love. Amen.

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Photos from St. Thomas Hill, Mylepore, India. St. Thomas’s tomb is below the sanctuary floor and can be viewed through the glass on accessed on the lower level.


Resurrected: The Bible Continues

A.D. The Bible Continues

Premiering on Easter Sunday, AD the Bible Continues needs must go through the cross and the empty tomb (again). The Resurrection is at the heart of the Christian faith. It is borne witness to in the theological discourses of the earliest Christian writing, the Epistles, followed by narrative accounts in the four Gospels that were eventually canonized along with more gospels and other writings that were composed and circulated without official sanction. The accounts differ in the details – the number and sequence of human and angelic witnesses and, presence, prominence or exclusion of women. Like all interpreters the producers must choose an account or create a sequence by harmonizing the texts.

The passion story was presented largely from the Gospel of John, including some direct quotes. There was also some Matthew thrown in and a bit of shared material form Matthew and Luke. It’s clear that the Gospels were not understood as separate literary traditions with their own way of telling their different accounts of the larger shared story. They were treated as a collection of interchangeable parts to be assembled piecemeal.

I am as interested in the visual text with which the sacred story – my faith story – is told. The Israel of Jesus was as is the modern state of Israel, at the juncture of West Asia and North-East Africa. Jesus like his fellow Jews, Judeans, were Afro-Asiatics, the scholarly classification give the region and its languages stretching across North Africa into the Arabian peninsula. Europeans were not unknown; they were not interchangeable with Palestinian Jews. The subjugation of Greece and Rome led to an influx of Europeans but not to the transformation of Afro-Asiatic Semites into white (or white-skinned) Gentiles is suggested by the casting choices. A.D. The Bible Continues Christian Testament scholar Mitzi Smith describes the diversity of the first century Roman Empire this way: The Roman Empire of the first century CE was vast and diverse extending into the deserts of the continent of Africa. [And m]ost Roman soldiers came from outside Rome including from Africa and… were Roman citizens.

This series has already provided some small improvement on the diversity of main characters and extras that reflects some of the diversity of the ancient world. They have a long way to go. The series has work to do in telling the stories of the women at the heart of the Gospel. There were some very powerful scenes with Mary the Mother of God, but the many women who followed Jesus seemed to be compressed into one Mary. Their absence from the crucifixion scene was particularly notable.  

A.D. The Bible Continues

I would like to highlight two visual choices that I applaud in the series: The recreation of the Jerusalem temple is stunning and seems to correspond well to the authoritative sources. Only a bit was shown last night. I have looked at some of the publicity images. And, I love the militant depiction of the divine messengers or angels as well as their diversity. (They were present in the last series as well.) I even enjoyed the completely unbiblical meteor-landing the angel made.

There was some good conversation on Twitter. Here are a few of my favorites:


AD the Bible (Redux)

AD1

After the epic whitewash that was the History Channel’s The Bible Series Produced by Roma Downey and Mark Burnett, I had no intention of watching their latest installation, AD the Bible Continues, focusing on the book of Acts (of the Apostles). In the publicity build-up to the premier, the producers emphasized the casting of a number of actors of color, including some of African descent in significant roles this time. Downey and Burnett acknowledged the criticism of their past work and sought to remedy it. (At the time, this blog was the only scholarly one that engaged every episode. I did attempt to engage the producers repeatedly on Twitter but heard nothing from them. I was pleasantly surprised to hear of their change in casting – and would like to think my unacknowledged critique played some role in that.) The change is welcome however their basic paradigm appears unchanged: They seem have created another predominantly white world in lieu of Afro-Asiatic context from which the scriptures emerged and added a few people of color. The portrayal of Jews particularly of Jesus and his mother as white-skinned is historically inaccurate and, symptomatic of and perpetuation of the white supremacy that pollutes the Church. (Juan Pablo de Pace plays Jesus and Greta Scacchi plays his mother.)

A.D. The Bible Continues

As a scholar and a priest I am interested in how the stories of my faith, church and scriptures are told. I am concerned about the ways in which the biblical text and Christian story have been used to buttress systems of domination from sexism, racism and heteropatriarchy to white supremacy and slavocracy. The previous series failed miserably on gender balance – the androcentric scriptures are more inclusive than their portrayal and it failed in fidelity to the biblical text.

Keeping to their previous practice, this series has been heavily marketed to Christian communities with a specific push to the Black community. Last time around T.D. Jakes and Jamal Bryant headlined those efforts. This time Vashti McKenzie and Joshua DuBois are promoting it. The series is also partnering with  Urban Ministries Inc. That kind of marketing makes me wary. Never-the-less I have decided to watch and engage the series (again), in part because of the casting choices. I will do so in conversation with UrbanFaith.com using their hashtag #ADBibleTalk. My participation in this conversation is by no means an endorsement of the program or UMI, Urban Faith or any of their programming or commentary. Join me as I live-tweet the program and look for blog posts after.