Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Archive for October, 2018

Redeeming Qayin (Cain)

Cain and Abel by Adolf von Hildebrand Marburg, 1890 www.metmuseum.org

In the name of God whose mercy is just and whose justice is merciful. Amen.

Zillah gave birth to Tuval Qayin, who forged every kind of implement of bronze and iron. And the sister of Tubal Qayin was Naamah.

In my sanctified imagination I envision what it was like being Tuval Qayin, saddled with the name of his most infamous ancestor. Can you imagine with me and put yourself in his shoes? Tuval Qayin was the great-oh-so-many-greats-grandson of that Qayin, whom you may know as Cain. They may not have remembered all of the generations in between. But they remembered that name. Qayin. It may be startling or even disorienting to hear names with which you are familiar spelled and pronounced in ways with which you may not familiar. Womanists place a high value on naming and in my practice that means not defaulting to European names for Afro-Asiatic biblical characters. If you look up images of Qayin and Abel, you will find more than a few of a black or significantly darker Qayin murdering a white Abel. (As we say on twitter #fightme.)

Can’t you hear the folk tormenting Tuval Qayin? We know who you are. We know where you come from. We know who your people are. We know they and you ain’t ish. You Qayin’s people, and errbody knows your great-great-whatever-granddaddy was a murderer. He merked his own brother. You one of them. Add to that his own father would become infamous for killing a man himself. Folk would say the apple don’t fall far from the tree. Tuval Qayin never stood a chance. Anything he ever did wrong, folk would point back to his people–never mind that most of his family weren’t murders, but two was two too many.

And then there was his parents’ marriage. His father Lamech was a poster boy for the patriarchy. He is credited with inventing polygamy because he wanted more. As a side note, Lamech’s invention of polygamy presents a challenge for biblical marriage enthusiasts and literalists–some of them anyway; others are far too excited by the prospects. On the other hand, Lamech’s redefinition of marriage was not only not challenged by God but eventually accepted and normalized providing an unexpected biblical model for the intentional crafting and redefinition of marriage norms.

Nevertheless, I don’t imagine it went over well with the neighbors: Your daddy ain’t nothing (and your mama ain’t much, neither one of them). Tuval Qayin and his siblings were the first to have two mommies, and if our more recent history is any example, he would have been teased mercilessly because his family was different. And if human beings haven’t really changed that much in the past five thousand years, some folk may have been violently opposed to Lamech’s marriage and meted that out upon the most vulnerable members of his family, particularly the boy with the OG murderer’s name.

And the thing was, they weren’t wrong about Qayin. Qayin was a murderer. A fratricide. A brother killer. He was guilty. He did it. One of the hard truths of this world is that even in an unjust justice system some folk locked up are guilty. Somebody’s son, father, uncle, cousin, brother, sister, mother, daughter, auntie is locked up and locked down because they did it, whatever it was. And some folk want to throw them away forever, use them for cheap labor, profit off of their bodies, throw their bodies at forest fires, leave them behind to die in hurricanes, and if they make it out, make it darn near impossible for them to find legal work to support themselves and their families. Especially if they’re black or brown. And then as the icing on the cake, strip their voting rights from them so they can’t help reform the system that they know better than anyone else. Everybody ain’t innocent and even when they are the privilege of innocence ain’t extended to everybody. Some folk are guilty as charged. Qayin was caught red-handed. The red was literally and literarily the blood of his brother, the brother he murdered with his own hands. Qayin destroyed a life with an act of horrific violence and that violence had repercussions.

Qayin’s act would have destroyed more than one life; the lives of his parents who were also the parents of his victim would have also been devastated. In the narrative world of Genesis there were only a handful of people around–don’t ask me where he got his wife; the narrator isn’t interested in a seamless story. Qayin’s actions impacted all of them. You could say his crime shook and shaped the entire world. If ever there was a candidate for original sin, this would be it. The text actually uses the word sin here; it is the first time the word appears in the canon. Eating forbidden fruit in pursuit of wisdom doesn’t qualify, but that is another sermon. Qayin also changed the course of his own life. It was circumscribed by the choice he made. There was no denying it; no boys will be boys, no unjust judge, no biased jury.

Qayin was like a lot of guilty folk. He was responsible for his choices and their consequences. He had a price to pay and he paid it. And at the same time, he was also a product of circumstances that seemed designed to set him up to fail. The story tells us flat out that God has biases, or if that’s too strong for you, preferences. God prefers brisket to broccoli. Who doesn’t? The narrator’s unvarnished account of God’s preference makes it sound like there was nothing Qayin could have done to make his offering acceptable. Perhaps one way of reading God’s preference is that it represents the structural inequity into Qayin and Hevel were born, into which we were all born. Hevel was born into privilege and Qayin was born into peril. That’s not a good look on God so interpreters have worked overtime blaming Qayin for bringing second rate crops though the text says no such thing. So what then, within the confines of the story, could Qayin have done differently?

Qayin wasn’t responsible for the circumstances in which he found himself. He was responsible for the choice he made. Sometimes we find ourselves on the wrong side of circumstances we can’t control. And it sure seems like God is either actively against us or refusing to help us. Structural inequity isn’t an excuse, but it is a contributing factor. Did Qayin have to tools to overcome his structural disadvantage? Did his parents have the talk with him, teaching him how to navigate the meat-loving world as a grain-gatherer? Or were they too caught up in their own drama to see that one of their boys was different from dominant culture expectations? I don’t think any of us are that far removed from Qayin given the right circumstances. Surely you’ve noticed how much more violent our world seems to be.

Folk are quick to speak violent words and raise violent hands. And violence begets violence. Everywhere I look I see violence: violent rhetoric, violent encounters with police, violence against women, violence against children, violent theologies, violence against gay folk, violence against trans folk, violence against the earth and her creatures, violent government domestic policies, violent government international policies, violent economic policies.

Now I have been raised as a bible reader to view Qayin with contempt, and in some settings to view the mark of Qayin as the imposition of vampirism–but that too is another sermon, or perhaps an elective. And yet in the previous century when I was a seminarian, I learned to question the way I always read and to read from the position of characters with whom I didn’t hold any sympathy, who were not, or were not supposed to be, God’s people in the text–people like Qayin and peoples like the Canaanites, Jezebel and Jephthah, Pharaoh and Potiphar’s wife, Qayin and those who bore his mark, whether in their flesh like Qayin or in their name like Tuval Qayin.

It’s hard for some of us to read from Qayin’s point of view. Most of us can say we have never killed. Qayin’s killing of Hevel represents more than the commission of murder; it is also the first act of violence committed by a one person against another in the world that Genesis crafts for us. Let us not deceive ourselves that we cannot also be Qayin because we may not have killed. Qayin’s repertoire of violence was severely limited; ours is much broader. Qayin embodies all of the violence of which we are all capable and which some of us have indeed committed.

Let me be honest in one particular regard it’s hard for me to preach from Qayin’s perspective at the present moment. I have hierarchies of with which guilty folk I can be sympathetic. My rage at men who violate women’s bodies is not interested in their redemption. (I just thought I should tell the truth today.) But unlike those men who evade the consequences of their actions, Qayin served his sentence. Qayin lived with the consequences of his actions for the rest of his life. And that ought to be enough. But not for some folk. There are folk who will never let Qayin or anyone associated with him forget what he did that one time. Nothing else matters. No mark necessary.

Some folk hold onto Qayin’s crime out of their deep grief. Others simply refuse to see beyond the worst moment and worst choice of his life. And our contemporary conversations about forgiveness are of little use. I watch as victims and survivors, often marginalized people targeted by folk who wield power individually or societally, are urged and shamed into making immediate statements of forgiveness before they’ve even processed their loss to be model Christians so as not to burden the white supremacist bomber or trigger-happy cop with their unforgiveness. All too often we’re given a false choice in what is passing for forgiveness these days: we’re told to forget about what is past in the same breath in which we’re told it didn’t happen or we can’t remember, and the other option is ruining someone’s life by holding what they’ve done or are accused of doing over their heads for the rest of their lives. Neither of these is satisfying. Neither involves confession or reparation and where no reparation can be made, conviction and execution of a just sentence, but above all and before all repentance. Not bold-faced lies and denials or lawyer-crafted PR statements admitting nothing and saying less.

Qayin is a felon and he is also one of us. But unlike those who have never been held to account for what they have done, Qayin paid the price and served his time. Like many felons, he would never be able to live down the infamy of his name or his crime. And like other felons, he is more than the worst thing he had ever done. Qayin murdered his brother. He failed miserably at being his brother’s keeper. But we don’t get to wash our hands of him. We are still Qayin’s keeper. Some of us have been falling down on the job. Some of us don’t want that job. Some of us are using our grief about Hevel to justify abandoning Qayin to the aftermath of his bad decisions and the circumstances from which he was unable to extricate himself. But you know who didn’t abandon Qayin? God.

God accompanied Qayin into exile to hold the rest of the world to account for how they treated Qayin as much as to hold Qayin accountable. Qayin was still God’s child. God is with Qayin as he rebuilds his life. He marries and becomes a father, signaling his readmittance to society. He makes something of himself. He builds a city and names it after his child, not himself as other women and men city-builders would do. In so doing he makes his life’s work about the generations to come. And let’s hear it for the unnamed sister who took a chance on a man with a bad name.

It was that bad name with which I imagine Tuval Qayin was taunted. He was Qayin’s fifth-generation descendant gifted with Qayin’s name as his own. He and his brothers by another mother, Yuval and Yaval, lived with that legacy and they transformed it. The passage in which they occur is both genealogy and etiology. Yuval ben Adah brought gifts of wind instruments and stringed instruments into the world. And Tuval Qayin ben Zillah, the boy with the bad name, brought metallurgy and manufacturing to the world.

Throwing away Qayin would have meant throwing away all that he and his descendants produced and achieved, including Tuval Qayin, Yuval and Yaval and their sister Naamah. Throwing them away would have cost the world pillars of civilization as the ancient Israelites conceived it: music and the arts and cutting age technology. Without Qayin or Tuval Qayin there would have been no Prince or B.B. King, no Sister Rosetta Thorpe or Alicia Keys, no Alex Byrd or Yo Yo Ma.

God didn’t throw away Qayin. God didn’t even take his life. God created space for him to live into who he could be while living with who he was, and the world is the better for it. There are folk I want to throw away. There are folk through whom I can’t imagine–even within the realm of my sanctified imagination–that there will ever be any worthwhile contribution to our world from them or their spawn. Their hands are every bit as bloody as Qayin’s. But I believe in a God whose mercy is just and whose justice is merciful. The God who heard Hevel’s blood cry from the earth is also the God who kept Qayin. The God who cares for Qayin is the God who demands justice for Hevel.

God’s justice is as inescapable as God’s mercy, is as inescapable as God, God with us, God with even Qayin. That same God became a child, begotten, birthed, breastfed, bathed, baptized, and buried. God came to us in our own failing and fragile human flesh. In living, in loving, in healing, in teaching, in dying, in rising God in Jesus is the God who will not abandon us to our circumstances, our choices, or their consequences. The God who sentenced Qayin is the God who keeps Qayin, leaving us to wrestle with what it means to be the keeper of kinfolk in these days. Amen.  

 

Genesis 4:1Now the human had known his woman Chava, Eve, and she conceived and gave birth to Qayin, Cain, saying, “I have crafted a person with the Creator of Heaven and Earth.”2Then she went again to give birth, to his brother Hevel, Abel. Now Hevel was a shepherd of the flock, and Qayin a cultivator of the ground. 3And it was after some days Qayin brought to Earth’s Creatoran offering of the fruit of the ground, 4and Hevel brought some of the firstborn ewes of his flock, and their fat portions. And the God Who Chooseshad regard for Hevel and his offering, 5but for Qayin and his offering the Inscrutable Godhad no regard. So Qayin was very angry, and his face fell. 6The God Who Attendssaid to Qayin, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen?7If you do well, will it not ascend? And if you do not do well, at the opening sin reclines; its desire directed towards you, but you will master it.”

8Then Qayin said something to his brother Hevel; now they had gone into the field. And when they were in the field Qayin rose up against his brother Hevel and killed him. 9Then theGod of All Fleshsaid to Qayin, “Where is your brother Hevel?” He said, “I don’t know; am I my brother’s keeper?” 10Then the Just Godasked, “What have you done? A voice…your brother’s blood-spills are crying out to me from the ground! 11And now cursed are you from the ground, which has opened her mouth to receive your brother’s blood-spills from your hand. 12Therefore, when you cultivate the earth, she will no longer yield to you her strength; you will be one who wanders and staggers throughout the earth.” 13Qayin said to the Gracious God, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! 14Look! Today you have driven me away from the soil on the face of the earth, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be one who wanders and staggers throughout the earth, and anyone who meets me will kill me.” 15Then the God Who Hearssaid to him, “It shall not be so! Upon anyone who kills Qayin there will be sevenfold vengeance.” And the God Who Watchesput a mark on Qayin, so that no one who came upon him would kill him. 16Then Qayin went out from the presence of the God Who Saves, and settled in the land of Wandering called Nod, east of Eden.

17Qayin knew his woman, and she conceived and gave birth to Chanokh, Enoch; and he built a city, and named it Chanokh after his child Chanokh. 18Born to Chanokh was Irad; and Irad fathered Mehuyael, and Mehuyael (Mehijael) fathered Methushael, and Methushael fathered Lemech, (Lamech). 19Lemech took two women; the name of the one was Adah, and the name of the second Zillah. 20Adah gave birth to Yaval; he was the ancestor of those who live in tents surrounded by livestock. 21Yaval’s brother’s name was Yuval; he was the ancestor of all those who take up the lyre and pipe. 22Then Zillah gave birth to Tuval Qayin, who forged every kind of implement of bronze and iron. And thesister of Tuval Qayin was Naamah.

Translation, the Rev. Wil Gafney, PhD


God Is Bigger

 

I could preach all four readings in one sentence: God Is Bigger. But we live in a time when clichés and bumper sticker theology won’t cut it, even if they’re true. We face serious issues, serious life-threatening, heart-rending issues. In the face of incarcerated children crying for mothers they’ve been told abandoned them, politicians threatening each other with bodily harm and some inflicting harm, the daily harassment black folk are subjected to by white folk using the police to harass us for simply being in public, women learning that the folk in their lives–parents, friends and sometimes pastors–aren’t safe to confide in their histories of sexual assault, the war in Syria that the news isn’t covering anymore, the starving children in Yemen caught up in their government’s conflict with Saudi Arabia and the weapons we sell used in this slaughter, in the face of all of this, “God is bigger” sounds like a cop out.

            Yet that’s exactly what God says to Job. Well, not exactly. It takes God one hundred and twenty-six verses between Job chapter 38 and 41 to say it. And she says it poetically, and indirectly. God calls Job to contemplate the wonders of creation and God’s revelation in and through it that Job might see God and God’s power in it, but also see Job’s own insignificant place in it.

1 ”Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. 2 Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? 3 Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. 4 Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. 5 Who determined its measurements–surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? 6 On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone 7 when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? 8 Or who shut in the sea with doors w hen it burst out from the womb? 9 when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, 10 and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, 11 and said, Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped? 12 Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place, 13 so that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth, and the wicked be shaken out of it?

        Well, have you? God says, “This is who I am. Who are you?” Eventually Job will say, “I’ve said too much,” and put his hand over his mouth because he knows God is bigger and he is comparatively insignificant. But there’s a twist in Job’s story. In order to understand it, we need to understand how Job found himself in this place being interrogated by God veiled in a whirlwind, face to force.

Job was beset by horror. He lost everything in the building waves of a tsunami of catastrophe. Job lost everything he owned; he lost it all through violence. He didn’t make a bad deal or risk the wrong stock. He went from the Forbes list to having no way to feed himself or his family. It doesn’t matter how much you have or how you got it, losing everything hurts. Contemporarily we have a lot of shame about money and its loss, trying to keep up appearances, needing help, hunger and poverty in the suburbs, even in nice churches like this.

            Job didn’t even have a moment to muster up the strength to ask for help when he was beset by unfathomable tragedy. All of his children were murdered. The book of Job may be a story the Israelites used to teach and debate theology, but the scenarios it constructs are deeply rooted in reality. These stories are somebody’s stories. People knew folk who had had those kinds of losses in the ancient world, and we do too. In part the book of Job exists because there are no good answers to why such awful things happen to people. And the truth is, even the best theology falls flat when you’re looking at a murdered child.

Job gives voice to our desire to ask – no – demand God explain this mess: this broken world, murdered children shot in school, others killed by their own parents, women and girls and some boys and men subject to sexual harassment and assault, some for years, disbelieved if they report, blamed if they don’t, hungry children in a world of abundance, new obstacles and some of the same old obstacles to voting set up just fifty years after the assassination of Dr. King, white supremacists marching in the streets, the police being used and letting themselves be used to harass black folk for being black in public, shopping or trying to enter our own homes. And though the world and the news cycles have moved on some of are still saying Black Lives Matter as the faces of new victims fill our TV screens. Like Job I have questions for God. And while I’ve never seen that particular whirlwind I too shouted into the wind.

Job took all of his hurt and horror to God. He also took his faith that there had to be a way to make sense of his world that didn’t involve bad theology. There’s a lot of bad theology out there. Some of it’s in churches. Some of it’s on TV. Some of it’s in churches on TV. Some of it’s on the lips of politicians. And some of it is ours as we do our best to make sense of the world with the tools we have, the sermons we’ve heard, the folk wisdom of our families, and too many self-help books and TV shows. And then there are the folk who love us who have definite opinions about what is going on in our lives, what we’ve done, what we need to do and what it all means.

Job had the kind of friends who stayed with him through the worst of his grief; then they started explaining how he was ultimately responsible for what happened to him. There are people today who blame women for being abused at home, harassed at work, or assaulted in the street. There are folk who buy into new age theologies that say you get whet you give and draw bad energy to you. There are even Christians who will say you didn’t pray enough, or have enough faith.

But Job knew there was nothing he could have ever done to bring any of what he suffered on himself, so he went to God. But it didn’t turn out quite like he expected in our lesson. He went to God holding the pieces of his broken heart in his hands to ask God why and God said, “I am bigger.” All of our lessons make that claim. Our psalm: Bless the Living God, O my soul. Holy One my God, you are very great.God is bigger. Our epistle: Jesus having been made perfect became the source of eternal salvation. God is bigger. Our gospel: Are you big enough to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? I know you think so. This is what bigger really looks like: whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Woman came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. Even when confined to human flesh God is bigger.

God is bigger than our circumstances, preconceptions, and misconceptions. God is bigger that our faults and our failures, our dreams and our schemes, our hope and our hurt. God is bigger than this crucified and crucifying world. God is bigger than this nation and its borders. God is bigger than our theologies and our politics. God is bigger than our church. God is bigger. God is even bigger than the bible. God is bigger than it’s slave-holding culture. God is bigger than the bible’s patriarchy and the sexism and misogyny of its interpreters. God is bigger than the understanding of gender in its pages. God is bigger than the bible’s Iron Age theology. And yet and still God still speaks through it just as God spoke to Job through the whirlwind.

God spoke to Job but didn’t explain why. The people who put together the book of Job knew that even when you find your way to or back to God after a tragedy you don’t get all the answers if any. You may never hear God speak to you about your sorrow. But you will find, as Job found, a God who is present, and yes bigger and greater and grander and more exalted and more majestic than you can imagine, but also a God who sees your tears and hears your cries shouted into the wind. And sometimes, even when not answering the questions you asked–and it’s ok to ask–God will choose to answer the question you need. For Job it was that he was not wrong, nothing that had happened to him was his fault, and his friends and their bad theology were all the way wrong.

The God who attended Job in the whirlwind is the God who in the psalm is clothed with honor and majesty, wrapped in light as with a garment, stretches out the heavens like a tent, sets the beams of her chambers on the waters, makes the clouds her chariot, rides on the wings of the wind, and makes the winds her messengers. That same God became a child, begotten, birthed, breastfed, bathed, baptized, and buried. God came to us in a form less terrifying and more fragile than a whirlwind, in our own human flesh. In living, in loving, in healing, in teaching, in dying, in rising God in Jesus is the answer to questions we did not ask as much as the answer to the questions we shouted into to wind. And unlike Job’s whirlwind, Jesus remains and stays with us through the storms and through the calm and all that will come our way. Whatever it may be, God is bigger.

God is bigger. God’s love is bigger. God’s grace is bigger. God’s mercy is bigger. Bigger than our need. Bigger than the world’s hurt and hunger. God is bigger. God is enough. Amen.

For today’s scripture lessons (Track 1) click here.


How Long Shall Justice Be Aborted?

Violence. A single word of scripture begets a thousand words.

The prophet cried violence, screamed violence; hurled it at the skies and the God veiled within. Violence. Violence all around. Habakkuk’s people were under siege. He doesn’t tell us when he prophesied but we know ancient Israel lurched perpetually from one catastrophe to another, captured, colonized, and conveyed from conqueror to conqueror–when they were not doing the colonizing and conquering themselves. Spoiler alert: The same people, sometimes even the very same person, can be both victim and perpetrator. There was and is violence all around.

Habakkuk doesn’t name his people’s oppressor because a boot on the neck feels the same whether the foot is Assyrian or Babylonian. To some degree it doesn’t even matter because each of those nations devastated Israel. Assyria decimated Israel. Decimation was a much later Roman practice from after the time of Habakkuk but it is relevant. When Roman soldiers failed spectacularly, mutinied, or fled from the field of battle an entire cohort would be sentenced to decimation. The men would draw lots and every tenth man would be marked. The men who were spared would then have to beat their fellow soldiers to death, purging the unit of a tenth of its men, a decimal place, decimation.

The Assyrians went further. They didn’t destroy just a tenth of Israel, a tribe or even two; they enslaved, exiled, or outright killed the bulk of nine of the twelve tribes. They broke the fractured nation into two unequal pieces and depopulated the north only to repopulate it with captives from all over the empire who like enslaved Africans on southern plantations spoke so many different languages that it was almost impossible to organize and resist collectively.

The Assyrians were infamous for their tortures and brutality. Back in Hezekiah’s day they left images of themselves herding their Judean captives to torture, slicing them open, cutting them down to the bone while they were yet alive, peeling off their skin and hanging them on slightly sharpened sticks to die slowly in the sun. You could say they revolutionized lynching in their time. Whether peacetime or war you could always count on Assyrian soldiers to be spoiling for a fight. Even when they were not immediately present the Israelites lived under the shadow their immanent violence.

The Babylonians were no better. They were so brutal, so vicious that even the voices in the bible that would say Israel got what she deserved for her sins said, no, that’s too much, nobody deserves that after the Babylonians starved the people in and around Jerusalem to the point that some of them turned to cannibalism. And then there were the perpetual border incursions, annexations, and rebellions between what was left of Israel and the border states, Ammon, Moab, and Edom. And then there was Egypt, always looking for an opportunity to rebuild its empire. Habakkuk’s people were squeezed between mighty, once mighty, and would be mighty empires. Empires are born of violence. Empires are inherently violent. And empires beget violence.

Yet not all of the violence inflicted on Habakkuk’s people came from without. Not all of the violence we experience comes from outside our communities either. The violence that Habakkuk saw all around him went both ways. Violence behind closed doors. Violence on the same streets through which the prophet walks to preach the word or go to the house of God. On those same streets the bodies of young folk have been sprawled in the anguished postures of violent deaths. Some left as spectacles denied the dignity owed to every human being in life or in death.

In the same streets raped women had struggled with trembling hands to cover their bodies with what’s left of the clothing torn from them. Behind closed doors on those streets and sometimes in the street men beat women with impunity. Behind closed doors and sometimes in the street parents beat children with the same impunity. Behind other doors caregivers beat elders who depend on them, sometimes the very ones who birthed and raised them. And then there is the government. Not just some far off entity, but people, sometimes from these same streets who collude with the very empire that oppressed their own people. Violence perpetrated by the government in the name of and against those they govern by people who are no different than the ones they govern. Habakkuk’s people were under siege, from within and without. He cried “Violence!” because there was violence all around him.

I don’t know how long Habakkuk cried out. But I know he didn’t give up. I don’t know if he took a break from time to time, or if he cried out until he lost his voice, but I know he didn’t give up. Habakkuk cried out because he knew there was a God who hears. He cried out because he had expectations of his God. He cried out because he expected God to give a damn. He expected God to care. He expected God to do right by him and his people. Habakkuk is God’s prophet but he is also the people’s prophet. He doesn’t just work for God he works for the people. IN fact you can’t work for God if you don’t work for the people. There are a whole lot of folk claiming to be God’s prophets and apostles who don’t work for her folk and cannot be found in the blood-soaked streets but they always have time for a FOX News interview or a presidential photo-op. Habakkuk cried out on behalf of his people and expected God to live up to and into his expectations of God. He believed God would come through.

Habakkuk’s prophetic outcry was, “Violence!” Sometimes you just get to the point where you can’t even form a coherent sentence. Everywhere I look I see violence: violent rhetoric, violent encounters with police, violence against women, violence against children, violent theologies, violence against gay folk, violence against trans folk, violence against the earth and her creatures, violent government domestic policies, violent government international policies, violent economic policies. Violence!

Habakkuk had been crying out to God. The book opens when he is at his wits end. Tired of praying the same prayer. This is wearying work y’all. Sick and tired of being sick and tired, he prayed one more prayer. How long? How long O God?Holy One, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear?I been crying out to you. I been praying. I been fasting. I been laying prostrate. I been laying it all on the altar. I been doing everything I know how to do. I been crying out to you and I haven’t heard a mumbling word from you. And violence is still all around me snatching the lives and breaking the bodies of my people. How much more? How long? How long O God? How long?

The cry “How long, Holy One?” echoes from those shackled in and by slavery’s chains, through those systematically oppressed by law and tradition enforced by night riders with flaming crosses, to those shot and strangled, beaten and wrestled down by those trusted to protect and serve. It is the cry of black women whose families and bodies have been systematically ravaged by the benefactors, adherents, and evangelists of white supremacy. “How long?” is the cry of the oppressed. It is the cry of those on the bottom of power curves and hierarchies. It is the cry of women of all races, people of color of all genders, non-gender-conforming people, people with particular ranges of mobility and ability, the poor, undocumented immigrants, and minority communities who do not see themselves reflected in those with power over them or in the cultural norms they produce. “How long?” is the cry of a faithful prophet and likewise the cry of faithful people. For those who need it, Habakkuk grants permission to question God, not just about the state of the world, but what God is doing in it and about it. Habakkuk offers a womanish model of faithfulness through his questioning God, demanding a response, and determining for himself if God’s response is valid. Habakkuk is bold y’all.

We don’t know how long Habakkuk had been a prophet before this, what words he had proclaimed to the people and the nations. We don’t know why nothing else of him was preserved. What we do know in that when his people were being ground into the dust by enemies within and without he didn’t wait on a word from God. He went to God looking not for a word to proclaim in the midst of suffering, or the promise of deliverance from suffering, or even the promise that God was with them in suffering. Habakkuk wanted answers, an explanation.

How long Holy One…? Holy One, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? I cry out to you “Violence!” and you do not save. Why do you make me see wrong-doing?

Habakkuk teaches us that sometimes God comes to see about us and sometimes we have to go see about God. Habakkuk is a witness that prayer works, but you have to persevere. He is a witness that sometimes you pray and all you get is silence. He is a witness that there are no easy answers and no easy fixes. But Habakkuk is also a witness that there is a God who hears, even when we don’t hear back, even when the world is on fire, even when there is blood in the streets, even when women aren’t safe outdoors or indoors, even when children aren’t safe in church, even when legal protections are being rolled back for queer folk, even when the door is shut in the face of the stranger, the refugee, and the immigrant, even when walls are being built to divide humanity and children are being put into cages there is a God who hears her people’s cry. There is a God who sees her people’s pain. And there is a God who will respond even when a mere human being asks without sin or shame, “What are you doing? We are dying down here! There is violence all around!”

Habakkuk and God had that kind of relationship. So Habakkuk had expectations of God because they were in that long-term relationship. And it was long-term, intergenerationally long-term. Here is a hard truth; every generation that cries out doesn’t get liberation in their generation. The Israelites had 420 years of Egyptian slavery, 120 years of Assyrian decimation, 300 years of Babylonian domination, 200 years of Greek subjugation, and 720 years of Roman occupation until the fall of the Western Empire. Liberation is a long-term multi-generational project. We cry to heaven for our own sakes, for the sake of our children, and for those yet to come just as our ancestors did for us during the 400 years of American and European chattel slavery, almost 100 years of Jim and Jane Crow, and down until the present day. And we are still not all free.

The work of liberation takes a long time. Folk died waiting on their freedom. We do this work–work and pray, pray and work, pray for the strength to do the work and work while praying. We pray with our bodies, standing, kneeling, marching with our fists up. We pray with our votes and driving other folk to vote. We pray and work for our freedom, our children’s freedom and the freedom of those who will come after knowing we may not see it. Not all of our ancestors died free. We work and pray for liberation any way knowing our work is not just for us. Like Habakkuk we do it for the people. We do it for the fam. We do it for the culture. We do it for those not yet born as our ancestors worked and prayed for us. And we join Habakkuk and the ancestors across time crying out:

2 HOLY ONE, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? I cry out to you “Violence!” and you do not save. 3 Why do you make me see wrong-doing and behold trouble? Despoliation and violence are before me; litigation and contention arise. 4 So the law becomes powerless and justice has been aborted. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

Slave catchers wear new badges, free black folk are a threat for standing, breathing, blinking, selling lemonade, playing with toys, shopping, drinking coffee, using the restroom, sitting on your own damn couch in your own damn home. They’ve been trying to take back our vote from the moment they “gave” it to us. Incarceration has replaced plantation while still providing low cost labor whose lives are even cheaper. Need a chain gang? Rent a prisoner. Forrest fire? Rent a prisoner. Arrest, conviction, incarceration, execution all at greater rates per capita than other folk. There is no justice and no peace in these streets and so we kneel, and rage, and pray, and shout, “How long?!”

How long? How long will black women have to fear sexual assault from men inside our communities and homes in addition to the predation of colonizers? How long? How long will our children in Flint be poisoned by their own government? How long? How long will the wicked prosper? How long? How long will liars thrive? How long? How long will lying, hypocrisy, cheating, violent rage, and a history of sexual assault be qualifications for leadership? How long?

Then the God who is Immanu-El, Emmanuel, God with us, with us in our suffering, the God who welcomes our heart’s cries even when other folk say you can’t talk to God like that, the Holy God who accompanied her people in freedom and captivity, answered her prophet’s cry. She didn’t say, “I call prophets; you don’t call me.” She didn’t say, “Don’t come if I didn’t send for you.” She said, “Baby, I got this. I got you.” God said, “I been planning my work and working my plan. Empires fall. Colonizers get colonized. Conquerors get conquered. If you live by the sword you die by the sword.”

5 Look at the nations, and see! Be astonished! Be astounded! For a work is being worked in your days that you would not believe if you were told. 6 Look! It is I who rouses the Chaldeans, that fierce and impetuous nation, that stomps through the breadth of the earth to seize dwellings not their own. 7 Dreadful and frightful are they; they invent their own justice and majesty. 8 Swifter than leopards are their horses, and more menacing than wolves at dusk; then their cavalry charges. Their cavalry comes from far away; they fly like an eagle swift to devour. 9 They all come for violence, advancing face front; they gather captives like sand. 10 At monarchs they scoff, and of rulers they make sport. At every fortress they laugh, and heap up earth to take it.

Then Habakkuk, bless his heart–if you’re from Texas you know that’s not really a blessing–Habakkuk says, “What else you got?” Boy, don’t you know that you’re talking to the Living God? You can’t just come out of your mouth any way you want! But Habakkuk and God are in a serious relationship; they got a thang going on. They know each other well enough to know how they can talk to each other because there is the kind of respect and trust that comes from putting in the time. Habakkuk and God had been together long enough to be comfortable in that thing.

But yet and still, Habakkuk comes correct:  Are you not from time-before-time, ANCIENT ONE, my God, my Holy One? You will never die.

After giving honor to the head of his life and protocol to the one he knew to call, Habakkuk gave God a piece of his mind. The Chaldeans? The Chaldeans are your plan? They are seriously bad news and need to be on their way to their own judgment:

HOLY ONE, it is for judgment that you have marked them; O Rock, for discipline that you have positioned them. Your eyes are too pure to behold evil, and you cannot look on wrongdoing; why then do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?

Habakkuk gives God a piece of his mind. He doesn’t hold back. He tells God his whole mind, continuing past our lesson. It is this almost womanist Habakkuk talking back to God because she or he loves the people so much who draws me to this text. Habakkuk is in good company. Job teaches us that crying out and talking back to God is not limited to prophets. Job also teaches not to worry about whether anyone else thinks our theology is correct or even if everyone else thinks we need to apologize to God, say your piece anyway. God is big enough to handle it. Rebekah and Hannah teach us that you can cry out to God on your own behalf. And the Syro-Phoenician woman teaches us that crying out to God is not limited to Israelites. There is a God who hears and will hear anybody and everybody.

God hears. Even when God does not intervene. Even then God is with you in the midst of the violence. God is with you when you are violated. God is with you on lockdown. God is with you in the streets. God is with you when you’re calling God on the carpet for the senseless violence all around and arguing with God about how to handle it.

Having said his piece Habakkuk waited on God. Sometimes you have to wait.

I will stand at my watchpost and station myself on the rampart. I will keep watch to see what God will say to me…If God tarries, I will wait for God…

For it is God who makes all things new. It is God who tears tyrants from their thrones. It is God who sets the captives free. It is God who holds wicked men to account for their wicked deeds. It is God who will answer Habakkuk’s prayer and ours. It is God who will set us free from every unjust structure. It is God. It is God to whom Habakkuk turned. For it is God who will not only deliver us but it is God who will strengthen our arms to tear down and uproot every structural oppression, white supremacy, patriarchy, misogyny, heterosexism, homophobia, and transphobia and to strike down ever policy, law, bias, and hatred that props them up. It is God who accompanies us in the Spirit, in the Word, and in the world. It is God who came to be one of us in a woman’s intimate flesh. It is God who subjected Godself to the frailty of human skin. It is God who lived and loved, cried and died as one of us. It is God who stood against the colonizing gospel of empire perched on an upraised cross. It is God who refused to give death the final word. It is God who turned the world upside down, inside out, and shook the saints out of their graves, rising to commission the apostles to the apostles, women whose words about life and death, violence and violation would be scorned to the present day. It is God who will answer Habakkuk’s prayer and ours. One day. Amen.

 

The lesson in three parts with three readers; my translation.

(Narrator) Habakkuk 1:1 The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.

(Habakkuk) 2 HOLY ONE, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? I cry out to you “Violence!” and you do not save. 3 Why do you make me see wrong-doing and behold trouble? Despoliation and violence are before me; litigation and contention arise. 4 So the law becomes powerless and justice has been aborted. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

(God) 5 Look at the nations, and see! Be astonished! Be astounded! For a work is being worked in your days that you would not believe if you were told. 6 Look! It is I who rouses the Chaldeans, that fierce and impetuous nation, that stomps through the breadth of the earth to seize dwellings not their own. 7 Dreadful and frightful are they; they invent their own justice and majesty. 8 Swifter than leopards are their horses, and more menacing than wolves at dusk; then their cavalry charges. Their cavalry comes from far away; they fly like an eagle swift to devour. 9 They all come for violence, advancing face front; they gather captives like sand. 10 At monarchs they scoff, and of rulers they make sport. At every fortress they laugh, and heap up earth to take it. 11 Then a spirit swept them; and they passed through and became guilty; they whose own strength was their god.

(Habakkuk) 12 Are you not from time-before-time, ANCIENT ONE, my God, my Holy One? You will never die. HOLY ONE, it is for judgment that you have marked them; O Rock, for discipline that you have positioned them. 13 Your eyes are too pure to behold evil, and you cannot look on wrongdoing; why then do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?