Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

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Scripture Begets Scripture

 

Image: The Samaritan Torah

Today’s lessons offer the perfect paradox for interpreters of scripture, Deut 4:2 You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it… The Samaritan Jews take this torah literally—do not add anything to the canon. So their bible, the Samaritan Pentateuch ends with Deuteronomy. There are no Prophets; there are no Writings. This is only one of the issues at stake when Jesus talked to the Samarian woman at the well in Sunday’s gospel. There are also significant differences between the two Torahs which she likely knew. When she said we worship on this mountain, meaning Mt. Gerizim, she was referring to the site of the Samaritan temple. And the temple was on that site because Deut 27:4 identifies Gerizim as the place where the Israelites built their first alter upon entering Canaan. That’s what it says in the Samaritan Pentateuch. In the Judean Torah that we share, it says Mt. Ebal. And history and scholarship have born out that the minority tradition, the Samaritan tradition, is right.

You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it… The paradox inherent in this text is revealed in the continuing development, canonization and interpretation of the scriptures by other communities of its adherents: the Prophets, the Hebrew Writings, the Greek Writings, and then Christians got our hands on it.

You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it… Each addition seems to have had its own prohibition on revision. It is the final word.

The Judean Jews added Proverbs (30:6): Do not add to God’s words, or else God will rebuke you, and you will be found a liar. Then the Hellenistic Jews based in Africa added Sirach (42:21): God has set in order the splendors of God’s wisdom…Nothing can be added or taken away. Next, the Christians added Matthew (5:18): until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.

The Babylonian Talmud (B. Meg. 14a) explains that Israel had 180 prophets who neither took anything away from the Torah nor added anything to it but for the reading of the Megillah, the book of Esther, on Purim. At some point that gemara was revised to “forty-eight male and seven female prophets.”

This wonderful tweet popped up just in time for this sermon: Him (@skrongmeat_): 2000 years n god still ain’t dropped the Bible 2 yet. Her (Yasmin Yonis): Aslaama Alakum. It’s the Quran shawty.

We could go further and cite the scriptures of the Baha’i. Truly there is no end to scripturalizing. So what have we learned? Scripture is flexible and expansive, and that scares folk who try to fix its boundaries at the place of their comfort. And so it would appear that each generation cries out, “This far and no further! Don’t change anything else, but keep the changes we made.”

Speaking of changing the text, the lectionary has cut out that nasty bit in Deuteronomy about Baal Peor that became the pretext for genocide and mass abductions, rapes and forced pregnancies.

The lectionary wants us to read these texts a-contextually. But I am a biblical scholar and this is a divinity school. We know that a text without a context is a pretext. So let’s do better in our reading, teaching and preaching. Let’s not skip over the ugly stuff, because there’s plenty of ugly stuff in our world that can no longer be ignored in the two-thirds world and ghettos and barrios of the imperializing world. The complex contexts of the Israelite scriptures might just be the hermeneutical key we need to proclaim a relevant and living word in or complicated context.

Deuteronomy is addressed to Israel, Israel-in-the-wilderness Israel. Who are we when we read this text? Are we Israel? We have a theological claim to being in the family, but should we just read from the perspective of Israel without reflection? (As we do, far too often.) By we here, I mean Christians. The answer may vary depending on what type of Christian we are. For example, in Deut 4:1 this Israel “will occupy the land.” How do you read that if your people are living under occupation or are a dispersed person? Are you Israel then? How do we as American Christians read this text? We are, all of us on occupied land. Some of us played no part in the theft of that land and were stolen ourselves. Some distance themselves from the actions of their ancestors, other identify fully with the tortured legacy of ours. Are we Israel? Should we be reading from their perspective?

I would like to suggest that the key to understanding this passage is the word “live,” as in “so that you may live,” and then “occupy” and “land” as in “so that you may live and occupy the land.”

The text is presented as a recipe, formula or perhaps incantation for how to succeed in the promised land. And it is, but it is a retrospective, composed after the monarchy had failed and lost the land that nine of those tribes had occupied to the Assyrians, edited into final form after Babylon had seized the rest. It is a tragic retrospective: If only we had…

There is classical Deuteronomistic theology underlying this text. Israel lost their land because they were disobedient. It was their fault for failing to obey God sufficiently, not because Assyria and Babylon and Persia were bigger or stronger, not because what empires do is gobble up smaller nations as Israel had done when they got the chance.

So who are we in that formulation? Do we as Americans, as Christians identify with Israel in this text, no matter our theology of adoption? What is our “land” in this paradigm? How is this text available to us giving its originating context and content are long past?

Christian exegesis has tended to focus on the import on teaching God’s commandments called for by the passage without necessarily addressing the “why” and “wherefore” of the text.

This is the context of “For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Holy One our God is whenever we call on God?”

We have a claim on this God as our God just as we have a claim on this text as our scripture. How do we read this passage in its context and our own with all that we are as American Christians?

If we are to read ourselves as Israel then perhaps we are the Israel that composed, edited and canonized these texts: a failed would-be empire rewriting its history. This text is also also a message from the past to a people returning to their homeland with their complicated history of prayer and promise, conquest and colonization, immigration and infiltration, deliverance and deportation, rescue and return. If their descendants will truly follow these commands, just maybe they will re-create the society their ancestors dreamed of and articulated in the cultural and religious idiom of this text.

And we, with our empire tottering and no place for us to return, what shall we do? We have inherited these commandments with all of their baggage and ours. We must wrestle with them for they are enduring.

Jesus, himself a bar mitzvah, a son of these commandments promised:

Matt 5:17-18 Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.

As we wrestle with these texts to live into their vision of a just and ethical community articulated in Iron Age idiom, we may just find that the God they disclose is indeed: a god so near as the Holy One our God is whenever we call to her. Amen.

Thirsty

 

 

You know you want it. You’re so thirsty. It’s all you can think about. You’re just thirsty.

Some may know that the word thirst denotes much more than longing for water. It speaks of a deep craving, one might even say a carnal craving.

Thirst is a primeval biological imperative. Thirst is a reminder that your life is fragile. Neglecting your thirst can have dangerous, even deadly consequences. Satisfying your thirst will save your life. Maybe not in that moment but it provides your body what it needs to keep accelerated death processes at bay—I say accelerated because we are all actively dying, and on the way to our journey’s end, which is not the end.

Thirst is an equalizer on the scale of death. All humans, all animals, all plants, thirst. All forms of life that we know thirst for something that will sustain such life as they possess. All of us will die if we do not quench our thirst. Thirst is more lethal than hunger. A person can survive much longer without food than without liquids.

But not all liquids are created equal. While some swear by Gatorade and others like a Red Bull now and then, (and Ty is having a long-term relationship with Diet Coke), and others keep a personal flask at hand so they’re never without their drink of choice, there is nothing on, above or below the face of the earth like water.

We are made of water. Some of us were recently reminded with ashes that from the dust we have come and to the dust we shall return. Some were reminded with glitter that we are star stuff. Dust and ashes, starlight and glitter, yet we are still more water than any of these.

We came from the water. We were enwombed in water. We were born in blood and water. We are water born.

Our ancestral story in Genesis tells us we were crafted from soil that was formed when the sea waters were called to assemble leaving dry land exposed. Science tells us all life evolved from the waters of the seas.

When we thirst we crave that which we are.

In this day and age, it is so easy for most of us to satisfy our thirst. Potable water is all around us, brought to our homes and jobs and schools and sanctuaries and any other place we might find ourselves, including fountains outdoors with bowls for our fur friends and family.

But we don’t have to drink that water. We can buy water we think tastes more like what water should taste like. We can buy flavored water and vitamin water and carbonated water.

For most of us that is true. But it has been 1044 days since [21 April 2014] the government of Michigan poisoned their people in Flint, and they still do not all have clean water to drink. The water protectors of the Lakota peoples are trying to protect the waters that feed not only their homes, but sustain the life of the world – waters that are in danger because the North Dakota Access Pipeline was routed away from the suburbs out of fear of what an oil spill might do to their land and water supply, and rerouted towards what remains of native land under native control because they and their children are expendable and oil is more valuable than water to some folk.

But you can’t drink oil. Our treatment of this planet may well result in all of us being thirsty with an unquenchable thirst particularly without a functional Environmental Protection Agency in this country under the current regime.

Thirst is maddening. Thirst makes people desperate. Out of desperation, sailors stranded at sea without fresh water drink salt water knowing it could cause their deaths, but they cannot resist the thirst. Migrants crossing into this country looking for a better life sometimes lose their lives to thirst, or violent quarrels over what ever liquids they have, some even consuming their own bodies’ wastewater. And while decent folk leave water for these desperate souls out in the desert, against the law, border agents seize and pour it out into the dirt. Life giving water, sinking back into the earth from which it has come without ever nourishing or saving a life.

Today we have the story of another group of migrants. They had just started out on their trek. In the previous chapter they had had some kind of feast, chicken of the desert and biscuits from heaven. But roasted quail can be salty and bread—even if it did fall from heaven—can be dry. The people were thirsty.

And Moses didn’t have any water to give to them. He was their leader. Or was he?

Miriam and Moses, his sister-prophet were on this journey with their people. They were all in this together. A common basic humanity unites pastor and people the same way mortality unites shepherd and sheep. Moses and Miriam—whom our text neglects—were leading the people, but their leadership looked more like followship. They were following God and trusting her to provide for her people. According to Jewish tradition, God provided water through Miriam, she always knew where to find it because it was God’s gift to her people through her.

But in this story, Miriam is silent and her well is missing. Perhaps one lesson of this story is when women are written out, counted out, put out and kept out, communities, congregations, societies, nations and the world suffer a loss that will lead to their demise. We cannot survive without the gifts of women any more than we can live without water. All of the hierarchical and patriarchal organizations, institutions and structures that keep women out of power, and try to keep us in an imaginary place are built on women’s unacknowledged labor, intellect, and our money without which they could not survive.

Moses became what he was because his mother Yocheved made her own reproductive choices, saved his life from a state that had a cradle to grave pipeline with the help of a community of women: the midwives Shiphrah and Puah who organized the resistance, his sister Miriam who shepherded him before he became a shepherd, and his wife Zipporah who stood in the face of God and snatched his life back from the gates of death. Oh, if it weren’t for the women… Now those women and their children are thirsty and the people are looking to him to do what Miriam did. But he didn’t have Miram’s gifts.

Moses hadn’t been in the God game long but he had some experiences with and of God. He knew what he had seen, a bush that burned and was not consumed, staffs turning to serpents and eating other serpents that had been staffs, plagues of blood and boils, frogs and flies, and death, dust and disease. He had seen the seas crack open and the dry land appear; he had walked on that land from slavery to freedom behind Miriam who led the way. And right now he was looking at a pillar of cloud guiding his way. He knew what he had heard: I am that I am and I will be what I will be. I am with you. And he knew what he believed: God was able to deliver her people. He believed God would lead her people to safety, he believed God would provide food for her children—out of thin air if necessary, because she had just done so, and Moses believed God would provide water in the desert.

The essence of Moses’s leadership was trust that God was who she said she was and that she could and would do what she said she would do. Moses spoke for God because he had been speaking with God; he spoke from a position of deep trust and intimacy.

That intimacy was not limited to Moses. The writers and editors of the scriptures saw hierarchy in everything and crafted portrayals of God that fit their understanding. But the God I know does not love the one whose name is called more than the one whose name is forgotten. The intimacy of God and Moses was special but God’s love is abundant, inexhaustible, ever-present and free to all without precondition.

That love broke out into water in the desert then the people needed it. The people came to Moses who was for them the visible presence of the invisible God. Unlike the pillar of fire and cloud, they could talk to him and get an answer they could comprehend. They poured on him all their fears and anxieties: What if we die out here? What if our children die out here? What if we have to watch our children die out here? What if God isn’t able to save us, keep us, deliver, us? What if God can’t do or won’t do what she said she would do?

They turned to Moses because they had not yet learned to turn to God for themselves. They knew that Moses met God on a mountain one day and was changed forever. And until the people had their own moment of change they looked to him to mediate between them and God. But I’m so glad this morning, that I don’t have to rely on anyone, woman or man, prophet or pastor to speak to God for me.

Moses turned to God, the God of creation, the God of Exodus, the God of Sinai, his mama’s God, his wife’s God and his God. And God said: I will be there with you. I will go before you and stand before you so that whatever you face, you will not face it alone. I won’t say that you’ll never be hungry or thirsty, but I will provide what you need through you or someone else, and it falls to you to share what I provide with those in need.

Moses struck the rock as he had been told and there was water, the source of life, pouring forth from the rock. But Moses didn’t keep that water for himself. He didn’t charge the people for access. He didn’t check their papers to see if they were Israelites or some of the other folk who left Egypt with them. He didn’t build a wall around God’s life-giving water. He didn’t dump chemicals into God’s fountain.

Moses let God use him and the resources he had—the riches of his relationship with God and the staff that God had given him—he gave it all back to God and someone else who had a need got their need met. There was water for everyone. Moses was the only one with a special staff but he offered it up, not knowing if it would be smashed on the rock and he would lose it forever. He gave his gifts back to God and the power of God was revealed, one more time.

The stories of Miriam and Moses are set in a time of mystery, magic and miracles. That was the vocabulary of God’s providence and power for teh biblical authors and editors. Your vocabulary may rely less on mystery, magic and miracles, but the God of this text and God beyond the text won’t be confined to the realm of logic and reasoning.

There is a power in the world that brings the dead to life and breaks out into fountains in the wilderness. There is a power in the world that makes a way out of no way and provides for the immigrant and the refugee and even the felon. Or did you forget that Moses caught a case and was wanted for homicide?

What are you thirsty for today? What will you do to quench your thirst? What gifts will you bring to help someone else quench their thirst? And where will you go once you realize there are some thirsts water cannot quench?

In the gospel that will be read in many churches today, Jesus meets a woman at a well where water is freely available. Some folk at that well spend their time passing judgment on other folk who are drinking from the same well as they are. And Jesus shows up. Jesus shows up in the place where private lives become public fodder and stories of betrayal and broken hearts come bubbling up like water from the rock. Jesus is there in the place where people have different understandings of God and scripture, welcoming all. Jesus is there in the place where those who have been stigmatized and isolated because of who they loved and how they loved, thirst.

And to them and to us, Jesus offers water from a well that will never run dry, water that nurtures and sustains our life in this world and the next. Miriam’s well passed from this world when she did. Moses and his staff are long gone. He who was born in water and blood from the womb of Miriam of Nazareth, offers us the waters of life that we might live and love, fully and freely. Amen.

[For a special treat, stay through the consecration elements and hear my dear heart-brother, Rev. Robert Griffin’s beautiful chant starting at 23:48.]

Smashing the Biblical Patriarchy

Gen 12:1 Now the Holy One said to Avram, “Get-you-gone from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great. Now, be a blessing! 3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and they shall be blessed in you, all the families of the earth.” 4 So Avram went, as the Holy One had told him; and Lot went with him. Avram was seventy-five years old in his exodus from Haran. (Translation, Wil Gafney)

Let us pray:

May my teaching pour like the rain, my word go forth like the dew; like rains on grass, like showers on new growth. Amen.

I am deeply appreciative of the opportunity to share my teaching with you this weekend, and my preaching today, thinking about how to decenter whiteness, patriarchy and heteronormativity from biblical interpretation. And as a joke or perhaps as a challenge, you have invited me on a day in which the lectionary begins the story Abraham who will become the patriarch without peer, with patriarchy itself portrayed as God’s gift and blessing. And as much as I like the hashtags #smashtheatriarchy and #burnitalldown, peeling back layers of patriarchy and heteronormativity from the biblical text requires a somewhat softer touch if one seeks to preserve and peruse the text for a living word.

I could just preach from another text. For rejecting the constraints of the lectionary with its own patriarchal and androcentric agenda is most certainly a legitimate strategy to decenter that which has taken up entirely too much space in the biblical imagination and those of its interpreters. Even so I believe that any text, including the very epitome of a patriarchal text, can be preached as a relevant living word free from those encumbrances that keep us from living fully into God’s image and creation of us.

And still, patriarchy, androcentrism, misogyny, heterosexism, xenophobia and whiteness are hard to disentangle from the biblical text and its interpretation. They are sticky and clingy. Yet I believe that if we wrestle with this text we will find a living word from these sacred but troubling stories, one that is as true for Hagar, Sarah, Keturah and Lot’s daughters as it is for Abraham and Lot.

Wrestling a life-giving word out patriarchal and heteronormative constraints in the text and whiteness spackled on in interpretation of it is a labor of love and a life giving and saving enterprise. All too often the text confronts me with a god I recognize but do not serve, love or even want to know. There are texts of terror in both testaments. There are rapes and rape-based metaphors, slavery and slave-based imagery, canonized and sanctified, even placed on the lips of God, incorporeal and incarnate in the person of Jesus. And, as we who studied together yesterday have seen, the text is then often whitewashed in interpretation, particularly cultural, iconic and artistic interpretation, with no better image of whiteness sanctified than the idol that is white jesus.

The God who dwelt among us as mortal-immortal human yet divine Afro-Asiatic Palestinian Jew is present in a biblical text that is itself both human and divine, intricately interwoven. God is in the text and God is behind the text and beyond the text, in the characters the authors and editors hold up for us, and in the ones they neglect and turn away from, in the Canaanites and Moabites, in the trafficked and enslaved, in the women and the children, in the gentiles and foreigners, in the conquered and the subjugated.

[I am a black woman who knows she is made in the image of God and sees the divine in myself and my people, and in all of the other despised peoples of the earth. I see the holy and living God in the faces of neighbors and strangers, transgender and non-binary, genderqueer and cisgender, same gender loving and bisexual, heterosexual, coupled, parenting or child free, every shade of black, brown, beige, tan, pink, peach and cream.]

In these stories about Abraham and Lot, the psalmist and her God, Jesus, Nicodemus, and the Mother of All from whom we must be born again, I see the God of my ancestors, the God of my faith, the God of my experience and the God of Jesus, the Son of Woman. I find her in these texts when I sit with the characters on the margins, those who have been cut out of the lectionary, and those whose names have been erased from the scriptures.

The lectionary has cut our first lesson off before Sarai can be named, perhaps because in the very next verse, Avram takes Sarai and Lot along with his possessions, as though they too were also possessions along with the “goods” he acquired in Haran. Or maybe the verse is excluded because it spells out—more clearly in Hebrew than in English—that those possessions are all the persons he has “acquired”—not people and possessions, but people as possessions. Abraham’s patriarchy is rooted and grounded in slavery, sanctified in the text and by the god of this text. Abraham’s house will become great in number, in part, because of the fecundity of his slaves, some of whom he will undoubtedly impregnate himself. Because that is how slavery works and we ought not pretend that biblical slavery was some holy beneficent enterprise.

So then, is this story useful for anything other than asserting a divine claim for patriarchy? Is there a living word here? Is there a blessing to be had that is not nationalistic or steeped in patriarchy? Responsible biblical interpretation has always called for more than simply attempting to imitate an ancient text in our contemporary context. For example, most ancient and contemporary readers understood that incestuous sibling marriage was something best left behind in this text. While on the other hand, the founding fathers and their slaveholding cronies wanted to hold onto the patriarchal promise of wealth to Abraham that explicitly included slaves. Most folk have since let that go, but not all. What then is left in the promise if we let go of the patriarchy, androcentrism, misogyny, and heterosexism in the story, and the whiteness that is so often spackled onto it? A paradigm for leaving behind the things we need to let go.

In the text, the Living Loving God says: Get-you-gone from your country and your kindred and your father’s house…” Abraham has made his journey. His story and the story of his descendants and their nation-building have been told. Today let us focus on Abram’s personal exodus from the household of his father and what that may have signified for his family, those present in and those absent from the text, and what that might just mean for us.

Get-you-gone from your country and your kindred and your father’s house…”

Abraham’s father’s house was rife with incest, but far too many preachers hesitate to use the word—even when acknowledging that Sarah and Abraham have the same father. Abraham and Sarah may well have been products of incest themselves, so common was it in their father’s house. Their mothers are unidentified so we cannot know. What we can know is that Abraham’s brother Nahor had children with his niece Milcah, the daughter of their brother Haran. [Abraham, and his brothers Nahor and Haran shared both parents.] Bethuel, Laban and Rebekah would come from that line descended from Milcah and her uncle.

Though Abraham eventually leaves his father’s house, some of his father’s values stay with him; he insists his son Isaac must marry a woman who is also their relative. In a later story Lot will father children with his daughters. The text will blame the daughters but a womanist reading of the text interprets it through the experiences of victims of sexual abuse who are blamed for their victimization and often charged with seducing the men, sometimes their own fathers, who rape them. Lot left the house of his grandfather, but he didn’t go far enough.

Get-you-gone from your country and your kindred and your father’s house…”

The house of Abraham’s father represents all of the social and sexual dysfunction that would keep Abraham and his parents and partners and their kith and kin, descendants and dependents from living and loving freely and fully. It will take Abraham a while to put the sexual ethics his father’s house behind him, if he ever does. Abraham’s family’s sexual ethics were rooted in patriarchy. Patriarchy resides in his father’s house, though it was not conceived there. Motivated by fear but made feasible by patriarchal reasoning, twice or once in two different tellings, Abraham sells Sarah to a foreign king for his sexual use—including in this chapter—and it takes an act of God to get her back. At some point after leaving his father’s house, Abrahams marries again, Keturah, a woman of his own choosing, a woman who is not from his father’s house. I would like to think that union marks a new beginning for him, a step towards the promise and blessing.

Sarah too is a product of patriarchy and women can and do subjugate other women and sometimes men under patriarchy’s dominion. Sarah employs the lessons she learned in her father’s house against Hagar and, to some degree, against Abraham. Sarah will seize the body of a girl she considers her property and subject her to physical and sexual violence and a forced pregnancy while turning the tables on the husband who sold her for sheep, camels, donkeys and human chattel. Later, her abuse of Hagar will be so violent, so oppressive, that it is described with the same word that Exodus uses to describe Egyptian oppression and affliction of the Israelites, a word that includes rape as one of its primary meanings.

Sarah and Abraham are not the only folk who have needed to leave home to become fully who they were called to be. Sarah and Abraham are not the only folk who have had to leave ancestral and familial teachings about sexuality and gender behind. If we take this lesson to heart we too will leave ignorant, willfully ignorant, and harmful sexual ethics and practices behind. We don’t preach polygamy or incestuous sibling marriages as normative simply because they are in the text. There is no reason to preach ancient Israel’s ignorance about human sexuality, orientation, gender construction or performance as normative either. We can begin to talk about blessing all of the peoples of the earth when we understand them to be equally blessed without regard to gender or its performance and no person is forced into a union against their will.

This text also teaches us it may take some time to be able to leave the house of patriarchy and all that comes with it behind. The passage states: Abram was seventy-five years old in his exodus… The text describes Abraham’s departure from his father’s house as his exodus, using the same word that will describe the Israelite’s liberation for Egypt. Based on Isaac’s birth narrative where she is ninety and Abraham is one hundred we can also say Sarah was sixty-five in her exodus from her father’s house.]

In our lesson, God does not call Abraham to leave the house of his father until he is seventy-five and Sarah is sixty-five. In our world, some folk spend their entire lifetimes trying to figure out how to leave the hopes and hurts, dreams and schemes of our past behind so we can live into who we are called to be. A person can spend a lifetime putting abuse and trauma behind her, unlearning destructive patterns, responses and behaviors, and relearning how to live and love as a whole and healthy person. Life lessons take a lifetime to accrue and Abraham needed seventy-five years before he could draw on that account. However since Abraham lived to be one hundred and seventy-five according to the story, he had another hundred years, an entire lifetime to live into his fullest self, apply the lessons he learned, make mistakes along the way and try again. Perhaps one lesson we are to learn from the length of Abraham’s days is you’re never too old to leave behind that which will not bless you.

Get-you-gone from your country and your kindred and your father’s house…”

Who is your father that needs to be left behind? Maybe it’s the whole patriarchal system and not your dad. Maybe it’s some of the things your dad says that were passed down from his dad. Whose house are you leaving and what are you leaving behind? While you’re making your list, I’ve got a few suggestions for you:

Leave patriarchal interpretations of the scriptures behind in the house of patriarchy. Maybe leave the androcentic lectionary behind as well along with the idea that adding a few more stories about women is good enough. Leave heterosexist biblical interpretation behind in that father’s house. Leave the sanctification of whiteness and refusal to examine its privileges behind in that house. Leave any theology or biblical interpretation that does not lead to the full humanity, liberation and just treatment of any human person behind. Leave biblical literacy behind. Leave willful ignorance of the complexity of scripture behind. Leave predatory preachers behind. Leave kindergarten theology behind if you’re not a child. Leave using the name of God to harm God’s children behind. Leave those things that don’t lead to life, health, wholeness and justice behind and don’t look back.

And you will be blessed, and your name will be blessed and all of the families of the earth will be blessed.

Bring us out of the houses that imprison us, that we may leave behind those things that will hinder us, that all peoples may be blessed in your name. Amen.

Jesus Rewrites Scripture and So Can We

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said [this one thing]…but I say unto you [this other thing].” Y’all, Jesus is changing the bible! Not that there was a bible in his day or later when the gospels were being written, but there were scriptures: loose, separate scrolls, a very few with more than one book on them, and not necessarily all the books we have today. Plus they were reading some books as scripture that are not even in our Episcopal bible—which already has more books in it than Protestant bibles. Today’s lessons demonstrate that in more ways than one, Jesus’s understanding of scripture is different than ours and it just might be worth our while to figure out how so.

For example, it does not appear that Jesus took the bible literally, at least not all the time. Very Episcopalian of him. He doesn’t understand himself to be limited to or constrained by the words on the page. Jesus’s basic understanding of scripture here is that the scriptures are flexible and open to reinterpretation. He treats the scriptures as a living word to be read and interpreted anew. And he’s not alone in that. Heaven knows Paul and those writing in his name did the same thing, but that is an entirely different sermon. Sometimes I think the church has become so fixed on the words of scripture that we have lost sight of the models of if biblical interpretation in them.

Sometimes Jesus says something entirely contradictory to the text. Mostly he seems to be making it harder to do the right thing and some of what he says just seems flat out impossible. In the passages he reinterprets in our gospel today, Jesus accepts the basic meaning but recrafts them to say surprisingly more than they previously said. Jesus takes biblical interpretation to a whole other level.

Jesus quotes the commandment: ‘You shall not murder’ and then quotes something that is not in the bible with the authority of scripture: ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ What the Torah says was the same in his time as in ours: Anyone who kills a human being shall be put to death. No need for judgment, the sentence was already established. Taking it further, Jesus adds to the text: But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire…

He does it again and again:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart…

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Holy One.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all…

These are some serious upgrades. What on earth is Jesus doing? I have an idea about that.

Jesus is teaching us how to read and interpret the scriptures.

Jesus is our example in all things. He is out teacher, our rabbi. We are to do what he did to the best of our ability. In this case, that means we are to wrestle with scripture, wrestle with the meaning, and when necessary, wrestle a blessing out of it, which means wrestling with those bruising passages that have been used to hurt us and so many others. That includes some of today’s lesson, verses of which have been used to keep folk in unsafe marriages, or ostracize other marriages, even in church.

It is tempting to say that these verses mean what Jesus said they mean for all time. But I believe that would miss the point of Jesus’s lesson here. Jesus is showing us, not just telling us—he understands pedagogy—Jesus is showing is that the scriptures are to be interpreted and reinterpreted in the context of their readers and hearers. His context wasn’t the same as what was already “in ancient times” by his time. And our context is not the same as his. In order to interpret the text, you have to know it. That means we’ve got to wade deeply into it and sometimes wrestle with it.

The bible is a complex text, actually it is a series of complex texts and it requires multiple reading strategies. Jesus calls us into a deep and mature faith and a deep and thoughtful relationship with the scriptures.

Again, Jesus is our exemplar. Jesus knew scripture. They were his scriptures and the scriptures of his people. They were in his language. He knew the inside jokes and cultural customs. Yes, Jesus embodied scripture, but don’t get hung up on him being the Son of God. For a moment, focus on the parts of Jesus’ life and example that we can emulate. Let’s not use his divinity as an excuse not to delve deeply into scripture. Jesus, Jesus, studied scripture. He taught scripture. And we are to be like him.

We need to immerse ourselves in the scriptures. Not just the ones we like, or the lectionary, but even the ones we don’t like or understand. Jesus doesn’t change scripture willy-nilly. His reinterpretations get to the heart of the text and go deeper. In all honesty he makes it harder.

Most of us can say I’ve never murdered anyone. But who on this earth has never been angry, never insulted anyone? That’s not possible. Jesus knows that. His revision of the text is not literal. But wait! What about murder? Shouldn’t we take that bit literally? Yes. But he’s mixing literal and non-literal readings. We can’t do that. Yes we can. He did and so can we.

The scriptures need to be interpreted and reinterpreted, continually. What’s more, we are to do the same thing, read and reread, interpret and reinterpret the scriptures in light of our context which is not the same as his, just as the first century wasn’t the same as the Middle Bronze Age in which so much of the bible is set.

So what about what Jesus says in the gospel? What are we to do with that? We are not to imagine that because we are not axe murderers that we are above reproach. Jesus is calling us to think seriously about more than what we do, but also about what we say and how we even think about other people. Whether in a killing rage or a shouting match, if we dehumanize another person and devalue their life in any way God will hold us accountable. Whether you understand the lake of fire to be a rhetorical device or an eternal destination, Jesus is trying to get our attention.

It matters how we treat people. It matters how we speak to them or about them. It doesn’t matter where they’re from, what religion they follow, what language they speak, whether they have documentation or not, who they love, or how their bodies are shaped or function.

He’s also saying that sin, moral and ethical failures are not about crossing a particular sharply etched line in the sand. When he speaks of marriage and adultery here he’s saying that an affair doesn’t have to be physical to be a violation. He’s also saying that the ties of marriage run deep, are and should be difficult to break and can linger even when one party marries another.

He’s calling people to integrity, to honor vows and commitments, to not make a vow you can’t keep and keep the vows you make. And, if you say yes when you mean yes and no when you mean no, you won’t have to make elaborate promises or take extravagant oaths.

What happens when follow Jesus’s example and reinterpret his words in our time? If we take seriously Jesus’s model of biblical interpretation, we might say, “You have heard that it was said, whoever says ‘You fool,’ will be liable to the hell of fire. But I say unto you your words matter. But the intent behind them matters more. Your words reveal whether you truly love your neighbor as yourself and recognize them as your sisters and brothers, as children of God.”

Not bad. But one of my students interprets the gospel this way:

You have heard that it was said, “Do not call black people the n-word” and whoever discriminates based on race shall be liable to judgment.  But I say to you that if you stay silent in the wake of violence against black bodies, you will be liable to judgment; and if you suggest that the black men and women had it coming, you will be liable to their families; and if you say, “Peace, peace” when there is no peace, you will be liable to the hell of fire.

The same God who holds us as accountable for angry and ugly words as for lethal violence is calling us into the scriptures and into deeper relationship with God and each other. God is calling us to love one another deeply and faithfully, in word and deed. We are the children of God who is love. Let us live and love like it. Amen.

Resistance Is Not Futile

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Image: Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes

Resistance is Not Futile

#Resist. There was a man who rose to great power and became very wealthy along the way. He expected his whims to be met with instant acquiescence and held grudges against those who did not comply. He kept lists of his enemies and used his power to destroy those who defied him. I’m talking about Nebuchadnezzar as he’s portrayed in the book of Judith, but since Judith is scripture and scripture lives and speaks beyond its originating context, surely these sacred words speak to today when grudge-holding tyrants target those who didn’t support them fully or soon enough or contradict them or mock them.

The tyrant in this story set his sights on Judith’s people and her land. Judith can be read as an archetype for the land of Judea, the Jewish people, Jewish womanhood or Jane Q. Public, make that Judith Q. Jewish Public. Yehudit, the feminine of Yehudah, Judah—also feminine in form reminding us gender is more complicated than binaries even in binary languages and systems—Yehudit, Judith, is the quintessential Jewish woman. She is Daughter Zion herself or just a faithful daughter of Zion. More importantly, Judith is not captive Daughter Zion; Judith is the resistance of Zion; she is an agent-provocateur, a provocatrix. She is a woman who resists tyranny because she knows resistance is not futile; it is essential.

The tyrant sent his second-in-command, Holofernes, to do his will. Some quibble over the historicity of Judith, and characters like Holofernes, I am not among them. Judith may well be less historical than other biblical texts, and more so than yet others. What is sure is that scripture, in or out of the book of Judith, does not have to be historical to be true. Judith is true in more ways than one. Take the tyrant’s second-in-command. A whole lot of folk are exorcized about the tyrant in the story and the modern day exemplar he may evoke, but they forget that tyrants are not singular occurrences. They are the fruit of tyranny, nurtured, cultivated, harvested and deployed. And, they are waiting in line, waiting in the wings, waiting for their shot. That’s why empires don’t die when emperors do. Tyranny’s bench is deep. Tyranny survives violent upheaval even when tyrants and their functionaries are swept aside and tyranny does not even blink at the peaceful transfer of power.

The tyrant in our text decided to punish the people who hadn’t stood with him in his previous campaign. (This is just the literary background of Judith, a book some folk cut out of their bibles because they couldn’t find a living word in this story about a woman who resisted tyranny with her fully sexualized woman’s body—but I’m getting ahead of myself.) The tyrant sent his second to execute his policies. They decided to deprive the people of the basic resources they needed to live, to punish them for their disloyalty. In our story the resource that is snatched back from the people is water, the very fabric of life for this earth and her creatures. Tyrants are still depriving communities and their children of water, poisoning it, rerouting it, outright stealing it and then selling it back to them befouled.

The text says that for thirty-four days Edomite and Ammonite armies that had sworn fealty to the tyrant did to Judith’s people what had surely been done to them. Don’t miss that the foot-soldiers of tyranny are often oppressed peoples themselves. Some of them have been taken captive, pressed or sold into service, but some of them have sold themselves, coveting the privilege and power of the empire that was never meant for them, which they will never be granted. It will continually be dangled before their eyes, poisonous fruit from a poisonous tree. And even though they will never get to dine at the table where tyrants dine, they will be thrown a few scraps and convince themselves that they aren’t as bad off as those the empire disdains most. And maybe if they work hard and pull themselves up by their bootstraps they too can get a seat at the table.

Then when every well was dry and humans and animals began to collapse some people said: It would be better for us to be captured by them. We shall indeed become slaves, but our lives will be spared, and we shall not witness our little ones dying before our eyes, and our wives and children drawing their last breath. (Jdt 7:27)

What they were really saying was that resistance is futile. The empire was saying submit and they were ready to say yes, not because they were cowards, not because they wanted to be collaborators, but because they were desperate. It’s easy to judge them from outside the text. But what do you do when the empire seizes the resources you need to live? What do you do when your child is lying listless, dehydrated, dying or dead and there is no water, milk or medicine? This is how empire works. Those it doesn’t destroy outright it grinds into submission, sometimes making its subjects beg for the degradation of being dominated by them.

One member of the governing council conveniently named Uzziah, God hears, begged the people to hold out a little while longer, to pray and trust God. In so doing he offers the only resistance he can muster. But he says, if God doesn’t come through, he will personally hand over whoever is left to the regime, surrender and accept whatever depredation, whatever indignity, whatever retribution the tyrant has in mind for those he governs but doesn’t consider to be his people. Uzziah doesn’t see that he has any other options if he wants to save his people. For him the paths of resistance and submission collide at the intersection where the bodies of his people lay dying. What else can he do?

Then Judith, whose sixteen-generation genealogy—the longest of any woman in scripture—which traces her back to Jacob-become-Israel through the womb of Leah, Judith began to speak. She called the members of her governing council and began her resistance by opening her mouth (sometimes you’ve got to call the folk who govern you and tell them about themselves):

Jdt 8:11 What you have said to the people today is not right; you have even sworn and pronounced this oath between God and you, promising to surrender the town to our enemies unless the Holy One turns and helps us within so many days. 12 Who are you to put God to the test today, and to set yourselves up in the place of God in human affairs? 13 You are putting the Sovereign God to the test, but you will never learn anything! 14 You cannot plumb the depths of the human heart or understand the workings of the human mind; how do you expect to search out God, who made all these things, and find out God’s mind or comprehend God’s thought?

Judith calls for prayer as an act of resistance. Her language is so powerful and compelling that the men of the governing council asked her to pray for them. They want her to pray that it might rain and buy them a little more time. But Judith understood the real fight wasn’t about the resources that the tyrant cut them off from. The issue wasn’t the tyrant’s latest tweet, plot, plan or rant. The problem was the tyrant and his tyranny. So she prayed starting with the sexual violence against women that accompanies every war. We ought not be surprised to see tyrants boasting about sexual assault as proof of the deformed manhood that passes for their twisted notion of masculinity.

Judith prayed that God would use her deceit because she didn’t plan to fight fair for she understood there were no rules of engagement that the empire would honor. Sometimes resisting the empire means doing things that will get you branded a terrorist. Judith’s ethics of resistance were revolutionary. Sometimes the only difference between a revolutionary and a terrorist is in the mouth of the one who gets to tell the story.

Judith’s prayer was an act of resistance but it wasn’t her only strategy. I believe there is a real critique to be had of folk who only talk, even if they’re talking to God and do nothing to resist that might cost them some skin. Judith put her whole skin in the game, but first she prayed the line that makes her a liberation theologian:

For your strength does not depend on numbers, nor your might on the powerful. But you are the God of the lowly, helper of the oppressed, upholder of the weak, protector of the forsaken, savior of those without hope. (Jdt 9:11)

Judith got up from her knees and she got to work. If you know the story, you know that Judith intentionally used her body, her sexuality, as a weapon; more to the point, she used Holofernes’s sexism, patriarchy, and lust against him. She stripped her body. She bathed her body. She anointed her body. She perfumed her body. She adorned her body. She dressed herself to show herself, covered in jewels from her tiara to her toes.

Judith took herself to the tyrant’s camp, displayed herself before his eyes, just in reach but out of his grasp. She batted her eyelashes and stroked his ego, she told him what he wanted to hear about how he was perceived, admired and feared. She dined with him and drank with him. While he drank his private stock she drank her kosher wine and when they were through only she was still standing. She cut off his head with his own sword and put it in her little kosher dinner bag and carried it back to her people as a trophy.

Be clear, I am not calling for the assassination of tyrants in our day. We do not live in the Iron Age. The fact that our scriptures are rooted in the Iron Age does not limit us to their theology or ethics, in spite of what those who bow down at the altars of patriarchy and homophobia preach. Judith, like all scripture, offers much more than a literal paradigm to be blindly followed.

The triumph of Judith teaches me that tyrants do fall. Judith teaches me that prayer is an act of resistance, but it is not enough by itself. Judith teaches me that that we must resist together as a community. Judith teaches me that the strategies for our resistance are not always going to come from our leaders. Judith teaches me that respectability politics won’t lead to a revolution. The revolution will not happen without the sisters and we won’t be at the back of the bus. We will be seen and heard and folk will have to get over their issues about what we wear and how we do our hair. Judith teaches me that sometimes someone from your community has to be in the room to take a tyrant down. And Judith teaches me that something else. It is the lesson I believe our author wanted to pass on: Judith doesn’t have to get into bed with the tyrant to take him down. There is a line she will not cross. You don’t have to sacrifice your integrity or moral authority to resist tyranny.

Lastly, even though empires don’t collapse upon the deaths of their tyrants, they can be dismantled and placed under new management. Resistance is not futile. Amen.

Benediction:

May the God of Judith and Jesus strengthen our hearts and hands for the work ahead.

May we stand with the people of God, standing for what is right.

May we resist tyranny wherever it is found.

And may we never be cut off from the water of life. Amen.

You can view the entire service here.

 

Postscript: There is a wonderful blog by Judith Robinson chronicling images of Judith.

Choose Your Messiah Carefully

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JESUS MAFA. The first two disciples, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

John 1:41 Andrew first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed).

We have found the Messiah. When we read these words, their meaning is clear to us: The soon-to-be disciples of Jesus have found him and found in him the promise of God made flesh. We bring two thousand years of Christian faith, practice, doctrine and, confession to these sacred words that were unavailable to the evangelist who wrote them and which would be heard as new-fangled ideas to the first readers and hearers of this gospel.

These sacred words were written to convey and construct the Christ story—may I say Christory?— with no small degree of urgency. For their author and readers believed the world could not go on much longer, and that Jesus would surely come back before it all spun out of control, collapsed or simply exploded. Many of us too are waiting and watching for Jesus as we also watch our crucified and crucifying world lurch from tragedy to catastrophe to disaster, often at our own hands.

And as with all texts, there is a story behind the story and a story between the lines of the story, stories known to the writer and first hearers that we may not all know. Listening for echoes of those first tellings across the gulfs of space and time may just enable us to hear it anew even if we can’t quite hear it as they did so long ago.

We have found the Messiah. We have found the Anointed One. We have found the one designated by God to, to—to what? We say easily, “to save God’s people from their sin,” “to redeem Israel,” “to extend salvation to the Gentiles,” and “to save the whole world.” But they were still working all of that out. John the Baptizer says in the gospel attributed to that other John, perhaps the beloved disciple who appears at the end of the gospel, the Johns say: Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! He says nothing about being anointed. He doesn’t identify Jesus as the Messiah. He may still be working some of it out too. But he’s further along than anyone else except for Mariam Theotokas, Mary the Mother of God.

We have found the Messiah. We have found the Anointed One. From the beginning of Israel’s story being anointed meant being physically anointed with oil, then commissioned or ordained to serve God by serving her people in some official capacity. The first priests in ancient Israel were anointed with oil and blood. Successive generations of priests, kings and queens who ruled alone would have also been anointed with oil. Exodus (30:23-25) gives a recipe for that oil that sounds like your grandmother wrote it: 23 Take the finest spices: of liquid myrrh five hundred shekels, and of sweet-smelling cinnamon half as much, that is, two hundred fifty, and two hundred fifty of aromatic cane, 24 and five hundred of cassia—measured by the sanctuary shekel—and a hin of olive oil; 25 and you shall make of these a sacred anointing oil blended as by the perfumer; it shall be a holy anointing oil.

Every place our scriptures refer to someone as anointed, they are using the word “messiah.” Think about that for a minute. Even though you may only see the word “messiah” in the New Testament, it is all over the Hebrew Scriptures. You just may not recognize it when it is translated as “anointed.” And when the scriptures were translated into Greek after Alexander the Great left his mark upon the world—the reason our gospels are in Greek and not the Hebrew and Aramaic Jesus spoke, read and prayed in—when those scriptures are read in Greek, you hear the Greek word for messiah, anointed, christ.

Clutch your pearls if you need to, but Jesus wasn’t the first christ, the first messiah in the scriptures or in Israel. All of those priests and kings and a few queens, they were anointed as messiahs, christs. When Samuel was looking over Jesse’s sons, he was looking for God’s anointed, God’s christ. When David referred to Saul as God’s anointed, he was saying God’s christ. And when Samuel’s lament for David after his death called him the anointed of God, it was saying David was the christ of God. Then when the prophet in Isaiah called the Gentile king, Cyrus of Persia, God’s anointed, she or he was calling Cyrus God’s christ. What they all had in common was that they were entrusted with the safety and preservation of Israel—Cyrus receives the title for returning the Jews from Babylonian exile.

The Jewish disciples of Jesus knew this, as he did. They also knew every christ, every anointed monarch—and anointing is still a part of many coronations— every anointed monarch wasn’t appointed by God. Kings and queens murdered their way onto the throne, and sorry sons replaced their righteous fathers. You’ve got to choose your messiahs carefully, like Andrew did in our gospel because there are a lot of self-appointed messiahs out there.

Sometimes a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. That goes double when it’s knowledge of the bible. In 1990 a man who knew a little of the bible in Hebrew changed his name to David and Cyrus, using the Hebrew and Aramaic pronunciation of Cyrus, Koresh. David Koresh was a self-proclaimed messiah and good Christian folk who didn’t know enough about the bible to see that in the name he chose for himself went to their deaths because of him. You’ve got to choose your messiah carefully.

Our gospel was written and first spoken in a world in which messiah was a word used to describe religious and political leaders who ruled Israel, and that would have included Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great. Herod Antipas (I’ll call him Junior) was legitimately anointed king; he inherited the throne from his father. But some folk would never accept him as their king. His mother was a Samaritan and his father Herod Senior was from a family that was more Ishmaelite than Israelite in spite of their somewhat recent conversion. And perhaps worst of all, the Herods were appointed and anointed by Rome. The Herods are a reminder that you can govern legally and illegitimately at the same time. Choose your messiah wisely.

Andrew’s exclamation that he had found the messiah was subversive and treasonous. He saw in Jesus someone who could do what no king could do, live and die as the promise of God in human skin. Andrew’s messiah was poor whereas his king was rich. Andrew’s messiah walked everywhere he needed to go if he couldn’t borrow a donkey but his king had horses and chariots. Andrew’s messiah didn’t always have a roof over his head but his king built palaces, towers and fortresses, some of which are still standing. Andrew’s messiah would not let bible-thumping hypocrites kill a woman for adultery but his king was sleeping with his brother’s wife and killed John the Baptizer over it.

Andrew’s messiah and his king had one thing in common though. Andrew’s messiah and his king both lived under Roman occupation. Andrew’s messiah refused to call wrong right and stood with the people under Roman oppression and the collusion of collaborators. But Andrew’s king supported the occupation and benefitted from it to the detriment of his people and his own soul. Choose your messiah wisely.

John saw in Jesus the Lamb of God. John’s disciples saw in Jesus a rabbi, a teacher worth following and leaving their own teacher behind. Andrew saw in Jesus the Messiah, the one anointed to save, heal, deliver and make whole, not just Israel, but the whole world. Choose your messiah wisely. Amen.

Hidden Figures/Exposed Inequities

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I loved Hidden Figures and cheered throughout and cried at the end. It was powerful. Go and see it and take your children. One my favorite images in the movie was Octavia Spencer as Vaughan under her car in full mechanic mode laying on a tarp with her lovely pump clad legs sticking out from under the car and her skirt. The accomplishments of Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan were due to their brilliance, tenacity, nurture of the black community, and opportunities grudgingly granted them but denied most other black people. 
But I was most particularly struck by the depiction of segregation and its impact on black wealth and upward mobility. There was no pretense of separate but equal segregated education when engineering courses were only offered at whites-only schools and books on computing were only in the whites-only section of the library, protected by police. (Virginia has a longer, uglier history of closing public schools rather than integrate and white churches opening whites-only schools leaving black folk to fend for themselves and their children with virtually no resources for their tax dollars.)
This intentional under-education, miseducation, and constant changing of job qualifications to exclude African Americans-along with excluding black veterans from the GI Bill-was designed to build the white middle class at the expense of and on the plundered wealth of black folk.
The legacy of segregation left generations of black folk perpetually behind white folk in every social and financial index by design on top of the inequities resulting from slavery, anti-Reconstruction policies, and Jim and Jane Crow.
At the same time the Johnson, Jackson and Vaughan were dealing with entrenched racism they were also dealing with entrenched sexism. (Note the adversarial and antagonistic posture of the white women under the same patriarchal hierarchy. Notice the colored-only bathroom was only addressed when Katherine Johnson’s commute to pee interfered with the larger project.) The idea that there needed to be protocols for women to attend Pentagon briefings or an engineering course wasn’t taught for women-meaning at their level-would be laughable it it weren’t also intentional structural discrimination.
Lastly, as much as these women are being celebrated now and their work was acknowledged to some degree then, don’t miss that Katherine Johnson could not put her own name on her own computations, not even in a subordinate position, and the man whose name was on the report could not do the math. (How did their salaries and benefits compare?) But it was her position in the group that was no longer needed–until they figured out they could not do the moonshot without her.
Hidden Figures was a wonderful, powerful movie that made me so appreciative for the love and nurture of the black community, especially teachers who see and saw what we and our children are capable of and help us succeed against the odds.

Are You My Sister?

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Update: The image (below) I first used for the post was apparently altered by someone else without my knowledge. The original is above. I have decided to keep both. The truth is I and meany others understand “great” in the Trumpian context to mean “white.”

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My bones ache with the memories of white women’s betrayal encoded in their marrow.

Plantation mistresses equally responsible for the rape and ravagement of black girls and women, spinning their savagery into black gold, ever lighter. Brutalizing, burning, maiming, cutting, blinding, disfiguring enslaved black women for having been raped by their husbands, fathers, brothers, sons. Choosing white privilege and white supremacy over humanity and solidarity. And calling it Christian. Their betrayal is in my bones. Passed down through the wombs of my mothers. It greets me in the mirror in my less-than-black black skin.

Suffragettes whose commitment to women’s right to vote included black women as long as it was understood they were there on suffrage and they and their men would be sent to the hungry arms of lynch mobs if their forgot their place, behind white women.

Too many colleagues and coworkers from too many jobs, white before feminist, white before woman, white before colleague, white before scholar, white before administrator. White before all. 

And let us not forget the Church and its good Christian white women. My sisters in Christ. White bread and white Jesus surround you reminding you that you and your lily white skin are created in the image of the white god fantasized and fetishized by your fathers.

Are you my sister?

Or does your whiteness preclude you from seeing me in my blackness as human?

Do not tell me that you are my sister.

You have already shown me who you are.

America, Amerika, Amerikkka

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America has revealed its true colors. Its core values are racism, sexism, misogyny, Islamophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia. White folk, look to your uncles and aunties, sons and sisters. You have heard their jokes around your tables and left them unchallenged. They are you. These are your values. Misanthropy is a pitiful rallying cry.

The fall of the Amerikan empire is inevitable. All empires fall. Often from within. Will we be decimated in its wake?

Interpreting the Bible in a Non-Biblical World

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Elections are unbiblical. That’s all right because not everything biblical is godly. Too often I hear the adjective “biblical” used uncritically as a synonym for good, right, and the will of God. The desire to affirm what is biblical comes from a good place, love of the text and love of the One who inspired it, desire to walk with God and please God. But you don’t have to go very far into the text to discover that what is biblical includes the very worst of humanity interspersed with occasional good faith attempts at faithfulness, and sometimes some pretty horrible theology.

The bible is, well, complicated. Literal readings of the scriptures can justify slavery, rape, genocide, and other atrocities. It is not a misreading to say the text considers the wealth of the patriarchs, measured in part in enslaved human beings as chattel as the gift and blessing of God. It is not a misinterpretation to say Israelite soldiers were granted permission to take women captive after the defeat of their people and rape them into to bearing children for them. The command to exterminate peoples, cities and towns, killing all within, including babies at the breast, is the literal reading of the text in many cases, those horrific verses placed on the lips of God and carried out by heroes of the faith. Again I say, everything biblical is not godly, no more than everything legal is ethical. Slavery, segregation and discrimination against people of color and women, even if they had white privilege, was legal. Discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans folk is still legal. Legal doesn’t mean ethical or moral and biblical doesn’t mean godly.
The bible’s many difficult texts can make it hard for folk to engage it deeply. Living with complexity and tension is uncomfortable. And there is a certain comfort in just focusing on the love and promises of God. For these and other reasons many churches turn to a lectionary that constructs an alternate, somewhat sanitized, version of the bible. As a result the breadth and depth of the biblical text is largely unplumbed.
When hard texts do pop up in the lectionary, sometimes excuses are made for the text or God—that’s just the way it was back then, or silence is kept, and truths remained untold. A preacher might mention Sarah and Abraham’s shared father but few tell the truth their relationship was incestuous. Some may talk about the use of slaves as surrogates to bear children for their masters but few will call it rape. There is a reluctance to confront, name and, own the ugliness of our scriptures because of what that might mean about our God. What are we to do when we encounter a god in the text who is not the God of our faith? Is the god of the text the god of your faith? Always and forever, in every text? Are you sure you know what is in your bible? Or is there a God beyond the text who transcends the text even when the text bears a faithful resemblance to her?
The Iron Age may have spawned the great stories of our faith but some of us are not so sure we want to replicate that world and its values in our world. Just how much of that Iron Age theology is still valid for us? A God who handcrafts creation? I want to hold on to that, but not try to make it a how-to text or a lab report. A God who saves and delivers? Yes. A God who takes 400 hundred years to deliver? Not my preference, I’d like justice and liberation now but I’m too old to believe in fairy tales and I know sometimes it takes that long, just ask my people.
What about the Israelites’ Iron Age ethics and constructions of gender and sexuality? What do we do with those? Do we pretend not to know or remain willfully ignorant that the Israelite people needed people capable of producing children to produce as many as possible to meet their food production, labor and military needs in the face high infant, child and maternal mortality, and wave after wave of defeat and conquest, and those needs have direct bearing on the texts that regulate sexuality? We must take seriously our own context and how different it is from theirs. But it can be hard to figure out just how we’re supposed to use the bible in our contemporary lives when deeper engagement with the sacred text reveals how great is the gulf between the world of the scriptures and our own. Yet how we relate to the bible has direct implications for how we relate to God.
Our lessons offer us two different perspectives on scripture: Job reflects on the power of the written word. Job thinks that if he just writes, actually engraves his words, they will last forever:
O that my words were written down!
O that they were inscribed in a book!
O that with an iron pen and with lead
they were engraved on a rock forever!
In the world that produced the scriptures, the written word was powerful. Most people were not literate and those who were may not have been able to do more than recognize enough words to engage in trade and read and write their names with few exceptions. Writing was the province of the elite; monarchs and religious officials used writing to awe their people. There is power in the written word. That power endures today.
The written word serves a similar purpose within the scriptures. God calls upon Moses repeatedly to write what he hears that he might not only teach it to the Israelites in song but they would also pass it down through the generations. And God uses the written word to form the backbone of the community she crafts from slaves and refugees, the Ten Commandments and the Torah.
The questioner in the gospel (Luke 20:27-38) presents a different aspect of scripture, that it needs to be interpreted. The questioner knows what the Torah teaches and wants to know how to interpret and apply it. The questioner knows that world is not limited to the words on the page, even when the words, the page and the One who inspired them are holy. The questioner knows the real world is more complex than our sacred texts. It is not always so simple a thing to directly apply the scriptures to our lives even when it seems like they would be directly applicable.
To read is to interpret. And to read in another language is to lose something unrecoverable. The scriptures in English are not entirely the same as they are in Hebrew and Greek. They are good enough, but that might not always be good enough. When we read in English we are reading a text that has already been interpreted to and for us to some unknown degree. Then we read and interpret through who we are, what we have experienced, and what we know. What we don’t know also shapes our interpretation, closing off possibilities we don’t know we don’t know exist. It has always been this way, but previous generations of scholars, translators and interpreters presumed the cultural baggage they brought to the text was normative and God-ordained unlike the values of those they pushed to the margins. Who we are matters when we read.
We are, I suggest, in that uncomfortable space between the word and its interpretation, and we can’t diminish the space between them by wishing it away. The church has struggled in that place from the beginning, wrestling with the spoken and written word as did God’s people before us, and we bear the addition burden of being a largely Gentile church staking a claim on Jewish scripture. Our relationship with the scriptures is complicated.
Which brings me back to my original observation. Elections are unbiblical. Should we even be voting?—Not we black folk, we paid for our right to vote in blood, with lynchings, burnings, rapes and castrations. Not we womenfolk, that ship has sailed, though the ship with the black women on it was held back by white suffragettes. Should we be voting? Because there’s nothing about elections in the bible.
If you think Samuel was outraged when the people said we want another king because everyone else has one—you do know that Saul wasn’t the first king in Israel and Avimelek (Abimelech) ruled for three years in the book of Judges?—If you think Samuel was fit to be tied when presented with a monarchal mutiny, how do think he would have responded when the people came and said, “We want to vote. We want leaders we can get rid of every two or four years if they don’t do what we want.” That’s not biblical. But the proof is all around us that we know we are not constrained by the constraints of scripture: we don’t observe the Sabbath, Sunday is not the Sabbath, we don’t stone. We deposed an anointed king and set up a government that would not be beholden to any religion, not even biblical religion. We know that we are not limited to what is biblical even if we don’t want to acknowledge it.
We are standing at a precipitous intersection in the life of our country and we’ve got a treasured resource of sacred texts passed down through the generations for millennia, through which our ancestors and we ourselves have heard and encountered God. What do we do with it between now and Tuesday? Do we open it to a random page or swipe on our iPads and see what word our fingers land on try to figure out if that word has more to do with one person than another on our ballots? Or do we honestly acknowledge we bring more than biblical values with us into the voting booth?
We are like the questioner in the gospel. We’ve heard the sacred story and tried to make sense of it in our world and we are still left with questions. And the responses we get, should we be so fortunate to have a direct, clear word from God in our wrestling, provoke more questions than answers. Every time we think we’ve got a handle on what it means to interpret the text faithfully in our context, we realize it’s not as simple as it seems.
Let me offer a couple of interpretive principles from my Episcopal context: Taking the scriptures seriously does not mean taking them literally in every case. But every time we add one more passage to the list of texts we’re not taking literally, some of us feel a twinge of guilt because we’ve been conditioned—but only in the past fifty years or so—to take the texts, all of them, literally as if they have no nuance, rhetoric, or genre.
We may know in our guts that there are some things in the text that are just not binding on us or authoritative for us but we don’t always know how to say that. We Episcopalians also say: The word of God is in the bible but everything in the bible isn’t the word of God. We take seriously that the scriptures are human and divine just as Jesus is human and divine. The scriptures cannot be more divine than Jesus. Any claim that elevates them above him is idolatrous. There’s a special name for this kind of idolatry, bibliolatry.
So much of our public discourse about the bible is slogans and electioneering: The Bible Is Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. The bible is our owner’s and operator’s manual. That’s nice. But what do we do with it? How does that help us know how to read, understand, interpret and apply it? If we have the words, there can be no misunderstanding, right? The text says what it means and means what it says, right? One thing I’ve learned about reading scripture is that interpretive rules that make good t-shirt logos are poor exegetical guides.
That is why the questioner in the gospel says I have the words, I’ve read them but I don’t how to apply them. If we are to meet a living God in a living text we must be prepared to be stretched in our growth, and sometimes that hurts. When we wrestle with God and the text and God in the text, God wrestles with us, not intentionally oppositionally but occasionally we get dislocated when we text-wrestle and God-grapple. It hurts sometimes to relinquish a cherished belief or determine a doctrinal or biblical claim doesn’t have a solid foundation. It can be a bruising process, but it leaves us blessed.
In our wrestling with the text and its god we have no better examples than Job and the questioner in our gospel lesson. Job proclaims the power of the written word its enduring testimony. Job teaches us that we can argue with God, shout into the whirlwind, with our grief, anger, and our questions even when that defies the theological norms of the larger community. Job teaches us that God is with us in our shouting and questioning, and after the storm passes by, God is still with us.
And our questioner in the Gospel teaches us to bring our questions to Jesus. He may tell us we’ve got the whole thing wrong and there are dimensions to the greater story beyond our texts and our comprehension, but he will hear our questions. And he will guide us to the path that leads to life no death can extinguish.
Elections may not be biblical but questioning God and the text is. Bring your questions and be prepared to wrestle and wrangle your own answers in the company and embrace of God. Then on Tuesday as on every other day, our choices are not limited to or by the limitations of the biblical text. Amen.