Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Archive for July, 2017

How Deep Is Your Love

Photo Icon of Rebekah by James Lewis

Let us pray: God of love, teach us to love as you love. Amen.

The Bee Gees, Dru Hill, Calvin Harris, and a few folk I’ve never heard of have all asked, “How deep is your love.” If they were to ask the biblical characters, more often than not the answer might seem be, “not very deep.” In some cases, downright superficial, in others, plumb shallow. It is something of a virtue that the faults and failings of our biblical ancestors are on full display in the sacred pages, lest we think we must reach unattainable perfection before God will have anything to do with us.

Many of the stories in Genesis are etiological; they are the way the Israelites explained how and why things were the way they were. And whatever one wants to make of these accounts of pre-history, there is something about many of the relational and familial stories that ring true. How many of us, when it comes to our own family stories, tell a sanitized version of our history even though plenty of folk know the full story? That happens in the bible too, in today’s lesson. It is, perhaps, familiar but do we know, do we tell, the full story? [Gen 25:19ff]

These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac…

Actually, (what had happened was more like…): These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son with his sister Sarah after he raped her slave Hagar at her suggestion and fathered a son Ishmael who he sent into the desert to die with his mother. We need to tell that story. All of it. Because it has shaped our story here in the Americas and impacted the rest of the world. We need to tell the story that Abraham did not love his children the same. Even though God made him incredibly wealthy, he did not provide for all of his children. He gave “gifts” to Ishmael and his children with his last wife but gave Isaac everything he had.

Tell that story. Tell the full story.

Last weekend over the 4th of July holiday many celebrated American independence without telling the full story. They skipped over or rushed through the parts in the Declaration of Independence that called Native Americans “savages” and objected to slaves seeking to liberate themselves. When they read, “all men are created equal” they didn’t acknowledge that didn’t apply to black folk or white women folk. They didn’t tell the whole story. The founders of this nation including a quarter of our presidents and a fair number of Supreme Court justices held other human beings in slavery and justified it using scriptures like God’s blessing of Abraham with wealth that included slaves.

And when over this last weekend the room was uncovered in which Thomas Jefferson kept and raped Sally Hemmings, the 14 year-old girl he enslaved, many news outlets referred to her as his mistress. (Sally, the sister of Jefferson’s wife Martha, was herself likely the product of rape.) The version of the story that is told is not like the version of the story that Sally and other enslaved girls and women lived; they had no legal capacity to consent and disobedience was punishable by death. Though some will say Jefferson loved Hemmings, he refused to free her ensuring that she would remain a slave and that her children—his children—would be born in slavery. His love for humanity had its limits. How deep is your love?

… Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah…

… Isaac was forty years old when he married his cousin Rebekah because his family married within their own family like his uncle Nahor who married his niece Milcah who gave birth to the man who would become Isaac’s father-in-law, which may help explain Isaac’s own incestuous parents Sarah and Abraham. We should stop sanitizing these stories, and stop reading them uncritically, especially in the church.

Isaac prayed to the Holy One for his wife, because she was barren; and the Holy One granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived.

Isaac assumed like all men in the Stone Age and some now that only women could be infertile. And by infertile they meant like inhospitable soil; they didn’t know that women contributed anything two children other than space to grow.

“Genesis 25:26 states that Isaac is sixty when the twins are born; he was forty when he married Rebekah. That means that Rebekah lived with her infertility for twenty years…Yet the text never mentions Isaac taking another woman or fathering children with anyone else.” Tell the story that you don’t have to reproduce the dysfunction with which you were raised. Isaac’s love for Rebekah stands out in the biblical text and even in his own family. Tell that story.

The children struggled together within Rebekah; and she said, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” So she went to inquire of the Holy One. And the Holy One said to her,
“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
the elder shall serve the younger.’’

To these cousins, Rebekah and Isaac whose love was deep, twins were born after a period of infertility. And they loved their children, just not equally. How deep is your love?

Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game…

Isaac loved his son Esau because he was a hunter and he loved fresh meat. He loved his son because of what he did for him. But did he love him before he could do anything for him? I know folk—and you may too—who only love folk for what they do for them, and that includes their children and family

…but Rebekah loved Jacob…

Isaac loved one son and Rebekah loved the other. The boys were rivals from the womb and rivals in the womb. They were rivals for their parents’ love before Esau threw away his birthright. How deep is your love? Is it deep enough that you don’t have to ration it? Or perhaps better, how uneven is your love? It is an unhappy truth that we don’t love all of our dear ones the same. Some love one child more than another. Some love their children more than their spouse. Some don’t love one or more of their children at all.

These parents of our faith are a hot mess. They are imperfect in their life and their loves. As are we.

It is long established tradition that we read biblical characters as moral exemplars. But an honest reading requires acknowledging when they are not worthy of our emulation, and digging deeper to find what is.

That may just be this: We are fragile and flawed. We are often stingy with our love and our love is often self-interested. And yet, God loves us. God works with us and through us in spite of our faults and failures. God chooses to be in relationship with us. God even chose to be one of us.

Our love is imperfect. And yet we do love, sometimes the best we can, sometimes the best we know how. But there are moments when our ability to love transcends our human limitations, when we give, share, sacrifice, risk, stand, tell the truth, and when necessary, die with or for someone else.

We are God’s handiwork and the capacity to love is part of what it means to be created in the image and likeness of God. True love, rooted in God’s love, is inexhaustible and self-fueled. A well that will never run dry. How deep is your love? If you are drawing from the reservoir of God’s love in you, it is endless. That love equips you to hear hard truths, tell the whole story and write a new story for the next generation. Amen.


A New/Old Psalm of Lament

 

If you don’t mind, I’m going to take some liberties with Psalm 13.

How long Holy One? Will you forget us forever?
How long will you let them kill us?
How long will you let them deny us justice?
How long O Lord?
How long will you hide your face from us? From what they do to us?
How long?
How long must we bear this pain in our souls?
How long must we have sorrow in our broken hearts? How long?
How long shall those who have made themselves our enemies be exalted, over us?
How long?
Look at us! Answer us! We are crying out to you. How long?
Show us something. Because right now they are putting us down like dogs in the street.
Then they walk out of court saying, “I have prevailed.”
They rejoice and we are shaken, more than shaken; we are shook.
How long?

If you were following along in the psalm you may be looking for the shift to trusting in God’s faithful love and rejoicing in her salvation.

I’ve got to tell the truth in church today. Today, for me, it is too soon to move to rejoicing. I have so much more to lament. Four verses is not enough space to lament Amadou Diallo, Alberta Spruill, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Miriam Carey, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Rekia Boyd, Kimani Gray, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, John Crawford, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Philando Castille, Sandra Bland, Jordan Edwards, and those I’ve had to add since starting to write this sermon—Charlene Lyles and Ava Le’Ray Barrin, and now Bianca Roberson—and the many whose names I don’t know to lament. How long, O Lord? How many more?

Praise is important and perhaps we’ll get there but sometimes the church just needs to lament, to cry out our grief and rage, anguish and anger. But some folk think Christians shouldn’t lament, that our every word should be praise. And so some folk try. They go through the motions. Haven’t you seen folk who mouth the words of praise because they believe that’s what they must do no matter how they feel, and their praise doesn’t quite reach their eyes? Their eyes tell the story of their soul’s sorrow. But the church isn’t comfortable with lament.

Look what happens all too often on Good Friday. Some preachers can’t just sit at the foot of the cross or contemplate waking up the next day in a world in which Jesus is still dead so they fast forward to Easter Sunday morning and preach the resurrection while his body is yet warm. Sometimes you just have to sit at the tomb with the sights, sounds and, smells of death, and lament.

This world, this broken heartbreaking world, this crucified and crucifying world, calls for lament when it doesn’t call for screams of rage or fits of cursing. Maybe it’s just me but sometimes I need to scream and sometimes I do curse. (Cursing is biblical. The bible has some strong curses. And indeed there are some forces and practices that need to be damned, but that is another sermon.)

I just came by to give you permission if you needed it to pour out your heart to God, to tell her everything you think, fear and feel, because she knows it anyway. Lament unburdens our hearts from a load that too much for us to bear alone. Scripture teaches the power of lament over and over again, in the psalms, in the prophets, in Job and Lamentations.

Jeremiah knew the power of lament and he knew he couldn’t do it on his own. He called for the wailing women to come and raise a song of lament that the people might weep; he called for the women to pass the song down through the generations because one day they would need it again. Today we are singing that same song:

Jeremiah 9:21 “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 public squares.”

Even dirty David laments. He laments for Saul and Jonathan. And he laments for his murdered son Absalom. In between David’s laments, Bathsheba lamented for the husband David murdered and Tamar lamented for her ravishment at the hands of her brother, and her father’s silence, broken only to lament for the son who raped her, but not his own daughter. We need to lament for our daughters as well as our sons. In spite of the fact that the Black Lives Matter Movement was started by three women, including queer women, women color, the movement and the media seem only to focus on murdered sons and fathers. So we said #SayHerName! Don’t let them murder our memories too. We need to lament. People know this in their bones. That’s why people gather and light candles and leave flowers and even stuffed animals. They have had to create their own liturgies for lament because the Church in too many cases isn’t meeting their need.

The poets of Israel composed an entire book of laments that that has become scripture for us; that means it is our example. It is to that book of Lamentations that we turn on Good Friday for the Stations of the Cross (Lam 1:12):

Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?
Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow…

Is there any sorrow like our sorrow? Has any people in the history of the world been done like our people? How long Holy One? When they asked us to sing one of the songs of Zion, they meant a happy song, but sometimes the songs of Zion are songs of lament.

But where are our laments? We have praise songs and protest songs, but what are our songs of lament? I have to confess I took me a minute to think of the songs of lament in our tradition, but then Facebook came through.

The lament refrain of the scriptures may be, “How long O Lord,” but we have learned to sing “Precious Lord, take my hand.” When we’re marching in protest, “Walk With Me, Lord.” When the world has broken our hearts one too many times, “I Must Tell Jesus.” When one more child is gunned down in the street, “Come Ye Disconsolate.” When they keep getting away with our murders, “I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray.”

Songs of lament are holy songs. Songs of lament are healing songs. Songs of lament are heart-changing songs, ours and theirs. Hammer the heavens with your lament and you will discover that we are not alone in our cry.

There is one who shares our pain and one who bears our grief. Our Blessed Mother shares our pain because it is her pain. She watched the sons and daughters of her people snatched up by Roman soldiers and temple police, and one day they came for her boy. Mary’s baby, ripped from her breast by men who knew they could do anything to him they wanted because of the uniform they had on, and they did. They beat her boy bloody, torturing him within an inch of his life. They put her boy on trial but there was no hope of justice because the whole damn system was corrupt. They put her boy on death row and they killed in him in what the poet Crystal Valentine called “the blackest way possible—with his hands up, with his mother watching,” in public on a state sponsored lynching tree.

Yes, there is one who shares our pain, and there is also one who bears our grief. Our Blessed Mother shares our pain but it is Jesus who bears our grief. Jesus bears our griefs and those of our slaughtered sisters and sons. He bears our grief in his own body. We do not sorrow alone. We cry out “How long” because we know God is listening. We cry out to God about God like Job and Elijah, knowing that God hears, not from afar, but in the midst of our storm for God is with us. God is with us. Jesus is the proof that God is with us for it is he that is God-With-Us. Our gospel teaches us that what we do to one another we do to Jesus, even if it’s just offering a cup of water or a word of welcome. That also means that what they do to us, they do to Jesus. When they kill us they kill him.

It is because we know that God is with us and we do not bear our pain alone we can hear and affirm the psalmist’s words and say with her:

I will trust in your faithful love.
I like that it says “I will” because some days I’m not there, but I will get there.
My heart will rejoice—
one day my lament will be stilled and my heart shall rejoice in your salvation
I will sing to the God Who Hears My Cry
for God has been good to me
even in the midst of my tears.

Let the saints of God, on, above and even under the earth cry out. God hears, is here, and weeps with us. Amen.