Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Archive for May, 2019

Exegeting the Times: An Ordination Sermon

The Reverends Wil Gafney and Christian Briones
Sermon on the occasion of the ordination of Christian Briones to the ministry on 25 May 2019 at First Congregational Church, Fort Worth, TX.

Speak life through words ancient and new, that we might serve you, serving those whom you love in life, in death, and in life beyond death. Amen.

As I thought about what I want to say to Christian on the occasion of his ordination, remembering my first ordination 23 years and one day ago, it is perhaps, Exegete. As we shared in teaching and learning going both ways in the classrooms of Brite Divinity School, together we read the text, the text behind the text, the text in front of the text, and the text between the lines of the text. People are texts too and need to be exegeted just as carefully, as do the times in which we live. Exegete the texts, plural. Not just the biblical texts; collect and curate an ever-expanding canon as we did in the Black Lives Matters and the Bible course: scholarship and scripture–from more than one tradition, poetry, art and film, music and theatre, spit your own rhymes, tell your own stories. Exegete yourself, your heart, your intentions, your call, your gifts. And when you have done the work of exegesis: reading, listening, hearing, studying, questioning, imagining, translating, and wrestling, then do the work of interpreting God and the world to each other and to yourself. Most simply to exegete is to seek meaning, even more simply the primary verb just means to seek. Seek God in the world and in the text. Seek God in yourself and others. And when you find that which is not God in the world, in the text, in yourself, in others, call it out, to its face. 

Exegete the times. In many regards we’ve never seen times like these, and today’s pastors and today’s church must develop completely new strategies for old and new problems. But on the other hand, human beings haven’t changed a lot in in the five thousand years covered by our sacred texts, nor in the millennia that precede them. So, we continue to seek God and words from God in ancient texts like the one read earlier in your hearing. (2 Chronicles 28:1-15, my translation of the full text is at the end.)

8 The Israelites captured two hundred thousand of their kinfolk: women, [and their] daughters and sons, and they also plundered from them much booty and brought the booty to Samaria. 9 Yet there was a prophet of the Living God, Oded was his name; he went out in the face of the army coming to Samaria, and said to them, “Look, it was out of fury over Judah that the Holy One of Old, the God of your mothers and fathers, gave them into your hands, but you have killed them in a rage that has struck the heavens. 

This passage from a time when a nation was divided into two factions, where one followed a charismatic but incompetent leader, the other, leaders who had the requisite credentials, has something to say to all of us who live out our vocations in such a time as this. Context is everything. 

My students know that the keys to exegesis are content and context, that a text without a context is a pretext, which is fine as long as you are honest about constructing an out of context reading from the biblical content. So, my former students might not be surprised to hear me say that in order to make sense of the text and its content we need to know some things about its context, like what does the word Israel mean in the content and context of this text.

Communication is such an important part of the vocation we are confirming here today. So often we use our theological and religious words meaning entirely different things and never imagining that anyone else means something else, sometimes not even conceiving that there are other meanings, let alone that biblical authors are operating out of a completely different paradigm. We ought always be aware of our relationship status with these texts; it’s complicated. We have been invited into the family by Jesus as his siblings. We are part of the family. We are not thefamily.

As Christian readers of the Hebrew Scriptures we often look to the role of Israel with which to identify as God’s beloved, an impulse we need to check because sometimes we are the Canaanites, and sometimes we are the scorched earth, especially we whose Christianity is not white supremacist Christianity American-style. We can’t determine if we want to read as Israel or from another perspective if we don’t even know who or what Israel is in the text. 

The truth is that Israel does not have a fixed value. You’ve got to exegete it like everything else in life. Sometimes Israel is a person who has had his name changed after wrestling what he thinks might just be God down into the dirt, walking away forever bruised and blessed. Sometimes Israel is a people ground into the dust by slavery and its brutality. Sometimes Israel is a redeemed people dancing and drumming their way to freedom led by the Mother of Prophets. Sometimes Israel is a people with their eyes on someone else’s land and a story about their God that justifies them taking your land. Sometimes, Israel is a struggling monarchal confederation of twelve tribes at the mercy of empires that want to chew them up and spit them out. Sometimes Israel is a breakaway monarchy that includes the majority of the founding tribes and is also called Ephraim from time to time. And sometimes, Israel is actually Judah, all that’s left of the people called Israel after the destruction and dispersion of the breakaway northern nation. We don’t have time to talk about all the things Israel means in the New Testament, or even just to Paul. 

Now we come to our text knowing that in its context “Israel” means one of those two newer nations resulting from a split after the rise of a would-be despot who was equal parts incompetent and cruel. Some things haven’t changed at all since the Iron Age. In this text, Israel is the breakaway nation currently ruled by a man with no royal blood–no credentials or relevant experience in the world of the text–who murdered his way onto the throne. Israel and its kings are not in God’s favor at this point in the story, a story we should note is curated and collected by Judah. Judah, ruled continuously by descendants of David, is the embodiment of God’s beloved in the scriptures they and their descendants preserved. Judah is also where God dwelt with her people. Exegeting the text, its content and context, means exegeting the biases in the text, in the world, and in your own heart.

This, shall we say God-fearing nation, that some may have once thought of as one nation under God, was fractured into two ragged chunks and the national wound was still raw and bloody more than three hundred years later. Unresolved issues linger, even when their proponents, provocateurs, and perpetrators are long dead or long gone. Now here they are again, knives at each other’s throats, again, not recognizing their kinship to each other, again, not recognizing each other’s humanity, again. Not recognizing that the lives of the most vulnerable among them mattered, again. In fact, they were actively working to subjugate and exploit each other. It would happen again in the return from exile. They felt entitled to the other’s labor, resources, and flesh, the bodies of their women and their reproductive functions, the lives of their precious children who they didn’t see as precious, and perhaps not even as children.

As I exegete the time in which we are reading this text, in which we are calling, ordaining, blessing, and sending Christian, I find the sorry state of affairs in the text also characterizes this country. We live in a nation divided with unhealed wounds. And like ancient Israel, we live in a land inhabited by other peoples whose fate some previous generations attributed to God while they occupied and colonized the land on the back of enslaved peoples between attempted genocides of indigenous peoples. The founding fathers were being more ironic than they knew when they proclaimed this land the new Canaan and themselves Israel. 

Yet as we know all too well, being from the right folk, on the right side of the wall, and claiming the right faith in the right God doesn’t make you right. The prophet Lauren Hill in the Doo-Wop chapter of Miseducation Revelation asked, “How you gon’ win when you not right within?” In our divided nation, all of the hate, hurt, and harm are not on just one side of the borders, boundaries, and beliefs that divide us. They’re not even in separate congregations. We can’t do the work we are called to do with and for God’s people by demonizing folk with whom we disagree profoundly even on the most significant issues of our times, or by denying their humanity, human, and civil rights. Sometime the work of a pastor is holding together differing understandings of God, the text, and the world, no matter the right of it, in order to hold space for folk to do their own seeking, their own exegesis, and still remain part of the beloved community.

Israel and Judah were separate nations at war in our text, but they were still one people. The prophet has to remind them that they are kinfolk. They are still people of the same God, though there were others who said for good reason, we can’t possibly be worshipping the same God based on what you’re saying and doing in the name of God. As our nation deepens the divides between us, and some of us like Oded stand at boundaries, borders and crossroads, we will need to take the lessons of this passage to heart and remember the folk against whom we struggle are our kinfolk every bit as much as the folk who have been drawn out of our communities by borders on maps written in blood. So, when we call them to account for the ways they have failed our shared humanity, we won’t descend to the depths of depravity that only become possible when you lose sight of that shared humanity and interrelatedness of every human person. If we tell the truth, sometimes, the bible doesn’t help us in our work, gleefully disposing of those designated the enemies of God, or sometimes just the enemy of whatever crooked king, would be king, or even righteous king with the right lineage. Learning from the bible doesn’t always mean reproducing or reenacting the biblical script because everything biblical just isn’t godly, good, or even right. 

Speaking of right, the text tells us Ahaz did not do what was right like David. That’s a literal biblical double entendre. You could read it as: Ahaz did not do what was right like David did what was right. Most translations push you in that direction. You can also read it as: Ahaz did not do what was right just like David didn’t do what was right – and if you know David, you know he was wrong on a regular basis. Sometimes you may need to preach a text one way, sometimes in the opposite direction. Exegete the times as you exegete the text. 

Here, Judah’s king, Ahaz, representing the “right” folk, was all the way wrong. Ahaz murdered his own children offering their slaughter and butchered bodies to foreign gods through fire. That should have been enough, but the text goes out of its way to say that he worshipped everything but God, everywhere he possibly could. And so, in the Iron Age logic of the text that I charge you, Christian, to wrestle with every time you stand to teach or preach, God handed him and the people for whom he was responsible – but who were not responsible for him and his choices – over to the Israelites.

One of the lessons of this text that is coming to pass in our time is that righteous or unrighteous, all regimes fall, all empires fail, and all tyrants topple or are toppled. Unfortunately, they take a lot of folk out with them and leave other of folk to pick up the pieces behind them. And there in the middle, at the mercy of governments that fail their people, the people of God living under these rotten, rotting, regimes, God’s people were being savaged. Ahaz was at war with Israel in the north and Aram on the west. He’s at war with his kinfolk and skinfolk and, at war with a nation his people had invaded on the regular that was now looking for some get back. One hundred and twenty thousand people died. 

In the world in which you are being ordained, lives are at stake. Decisions about healthcare, who decides about whose healthcare, housing and supplemental nutrition for the most impoverished among us, police policies, practices and culture, immigration law enforcement, and the ever-present white supremacist patriarchy and misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, and xenophobia in which they are rooted are life and death issues. Bad governance kills people every bit as much as warmongering. And it seems like some folk are trying to do all of the above right now.

In the text the war is barely over when the human trafficking starts. One hundred twenty thousand dead. Two hundred thousand enslaved, trafficked. In order to go to war and kill, you have to accept that someone is your enemy, that you have a right or responsibility to take their life. It is such a heavy ethical burden that even those who act in self-defense can be left with crushing moral injuries. Human trafficking has always been a part of war, sometimes skirting its edges, sometimes war’s pretext, and sometimes the strategy for immigration reform; it also relies on not seeing people as people like you.

The text says: The Israelites captured two hundred thousand of their kinfolk: women, [and their] daughters and sons… I don’t know how some people decide other people aren’t people, are property, and they have the right to own and control them. I do know that particular blasphemy is as at home in the Digital Age as it was in the Bronze Age. Sadly, we know that folk traffic neighbors and strangers, families and friends, kin, just like in our text. 

The Israelites took their Judean kin captive, robbed them and enslaved them. They degraded and dehumanized them, stripped them, and since there is no army and no slaveholding system that does not deploy sexual violence, we know that some of those naked women and girls and boys and men were violated. But the text says: Yet there was a prophet of the Living God…There was a person who answered the call. There was a person who went where she was sent. There was a pastor miles away from any parish building protesting and critiquing the economic, military and political machinations of the government. There was a servant of God who said yes because Jesus said yes.

The Israelites captured two hundred thousand of their kinfolk: women, [and their] daughters and sons, and they also plundered from them much booty and brought the booty to Samaria. Yet there was a prophet of the Living God, Oded was his name; he went out in the face of the army coming to Samaria, and said to them, “Look… Now hear me, and send back the captives whom you have captured from your kinfolk, for the raging fury of the God Who Thundersis upon you.”

I want to suggest that as much as it matters that the people listened to the prophet, it also matters that he stood up and spoke up. It also matters that he did so at risk to himself, that he got in their faces, in the face of an oncoming marching army, and told them no, that he understood that there were some things that were not merely theological disagreements, not when lives and the integrity of human bodies were at stake. 

there was a prophet of the Living God.There was a person who accepted their call. This particular call didn’t require ordination; not all prophets are priests or pastors. Not all pastors and priests are prophets. This isn’t just Christian’s call. This is the call of all who follow Jesus, to stand up in the face of evil, to stand with the crucified of this world, to stand against those who savage and ravage the flock of God, to stand for the unshakable inexhaustible love of God. Amen.

2 Chronicles 28:1 Ahaz was twenty years old at his reign; he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem. He did not do what was right in the sight of the God Whose Name is Holylike David his ancestor. 2 Rather he walked in the ways of the king of Israel. He even made cast images for the Baals. 3 Then he made smoky offerings in the valley of the son of Hinnom, and made his children pass through fire, according to the abhorrent practices of the nations whom the Holy One of Olddrove out before the women, children, and men of Israel. 4 He also sacrificed and made smoky offerings on the high places, on the hills, and under every green tree.

5 So the Holy One his God gave him into the hand of the king of Aram, who smote him and captured from him a great number of captives and brought them to Damascus. He was also given into the hand of the king of Israel, who smote him a great smiting: 6 [The king of Israel,] Pekah ben Remaliah, killed one hundred twenty thousand in Judah in one day, all noble warriors, because they had abandoned the Fire of Sinai, the God of their mothers and fathers. 7 And Zichri, a mighty warrior of Ephraim, killed Maaseiah the king’s son, along with Azrikam commander of the palace, and Elkanah, second to the king. 

8 The Israelites captured two hundred thousand of their kinfolk: women, [and their] daughters and sons, and they also plundered from them much booty and brought the booty to Samaria. 9 Yet there was a prophet of the Living God, Oded was his name; he went out in the face of the army coming to Samaria, and said to them, “Look, it was out of fury over Judah that the Holy One of Old, the God of your mothers and fathers, gave them into your hands, but you have killed them in a rage that has struck the heavens. 

10 And now, you all speak of subjugating the daughters and sons of Judah and Jerusalem as your slaves: as enslaved women [and girls], as enslaved men [and boys]. But what do you actually have except offenses against the Righteous Oneyour God? 11 Now hear me, and send back the captives whom you have captured from your kinfolk, for the raging fury of the God Who Thunders is upon you.” 

12 Then men from among the leaders of the Ephraimites, Azariah ben Johanan, Berechiah ben Meshillemoth, Jehizkiah ben Shallum, and Amasa ben Hadlai, stood up against those who were coming from the war. 13 And they said to them, “You shall not bring the captives here, for offenses against the Holy Godyou pronounce on us in addition to our own sins and offenses. For our offence is already great, and there is raging fury against Israel.” 14 So the troops abandoned the captives and the plunder before the officials and the whole assembly. 15 Then the men who were mentioned by name got up and took custody of the captives, and with the booty they clothed all that were naked among them. They clothed them, they gave them sandals, they fed them, they gave them drink, and they anointed them. And carrying all those who staggered on donkeys, they led them, and they brought them to their kinfolk at Jericho, the City of Palms. Then they returned to Samaria.