Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

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Torah of the Earth

Ecowomanism by Rev. Dr. Melanie L. Harris

It is for you that paradise is opened, the tree of life is planted, the age to come is prepared, plenty is provided, a city is built, rest is appointed, goodness is established and wisdom perfected… 2 Esdras 8:50

Let us pray: In the name of the One who waded in the waters of Miryam’s womb, walked the way of suffering as one of the woman-born, and woke from the grasp of death in the deep darkness of the morning. Amen.

Western discourses of wisdom often situate wisdom in the head and identify it with maleness, intentionally in opposition to femaleness. Yet in spite of crushing waves of Hellenism colonizing Israel and its scriptures and, the near deification of Greek philosophy and its philosophers, the scriptures of Israel and, those of the Jewish Jesus movement and early church, are an Eastern canon. There, wisdom is not a matter of the head but, of heart and hand.

Consider Deuteronomy 6:5: You shall love the Holy One your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and, with all your might. When Jesus taught it, he had to add the category of “mind” to make it contemporary and relevant in a world in conversation with those philosophers. He said: You shall love the Holy One your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and, with all your might. (Mark 12:30) Today he might say You shall love the Holy One your God with all your DNA and your quarks and quirks, your baryons, mesons, hadrons and protons – depending on the scientific literacy of his audience.

More than head knowledge, Hebrew wisdom is heart knowledge, the kind of knowledge one gets from study and contemplation, not as an academic exercise, but as a lifepath to seek and study the One who reveals herself that she might be found, studied, apprehended, comprehended. In Hebrew, wisdom, hokhmah, and understanding, binah, rhyme with torah; they are each grammatically feminine and each used as synonyms for the other. The way to wisdom is to study and learn torah – God’s revelation, God’s teaching and only perhaps thirdly “law” which is an insufficient translation on its own. Such study produces a wise heart, in the world of the scriptures a wise heart is one that is motivated to act in accordance with God’s revelation to and through her prophets, to and through her word and words, and to and through her world and its wonders.

We would do well to regain the notion of the heart as the seat of the soul, consciousness, wisdom and, volition. To stop thinking we can think our way out of the brokenness, disfunction and inequities of the world. We need wise and discerning hearts nurtured on God’s revelation of her vision for the world and for us. A wise heart is an understanding heart and a willing heart. It is more than euphemistically connected to a sage and skilled hand.

One of the most overlooked aspects of wisdom in the world of the scriptures was its skill component. To be wise of hand – an artisan like those who crafted the tabernacle and temple – is every bit as valued in the world of the text as setting one’s heart to torah. This too we need to regain, to see the wisdom of the sculptor’s hands on par with the scientist’s hypothesis. To see the knitter and the painter and the tinkerer as we see musicians whose handicraft we already value well. Wisdom’s well is wide and deep.

It is with these understandings that I invite your attention to Baruch, Jeremiah’s partner in ministry and ultimately in life, sharing his conquest by Babylon, then later, his abduction to Egypt, disappearing in and from the text along with Jeremiah. The setting of our reading is the immediate aftermath of the fall of Judah, Jerusalem and, the temple. The people who were left, a mere fraction of the nation itself a fraction of once united Israel, barely survived a blood drenched invasion and conquest. Those who were able were force marched past the unburied dead, the weak, the infirm, the aged, the pregnant, infants, small children – anyone who would hinder them – brutally dispatched or simply abandoned. The poor and unskilled left behind to eke out a harvest from the blood-soaked soil and scorched earth to feed the insatiable empire while those with wisdom and skill had their hearts and hands brought into the service of the empire to embellish and declare their glory.

The conditions under which the people lived were brutal, inhumane. An earlier chapter tells of cannibalism. Reckoned a prophet in Judaism, Baruch’s writings differ from others who promised miraculous deliverance like that of Miriam and Moses at the Red Sea. Baruch like Jeremiah has a different response, a pastoral response, prepare to stay. Bow the head, bend the neck, and bend your shoulders and knees, even in the presence of their gods, just say in your heart, “It is you O God whom we serve.” (Letter of Jeremiah vv 3-6) The wisdom of Baruch is a survival strategy for life under occupation and subjugation. Wisdom’s well is practical.

In the portion of Baruch set aside for our hearing today the prose of his prayers for his people gives way to the poetry of preaching as he calls his people back to the ways of wisdom, ways he saw neglected as Israel’s own tiny would-be empire spiraled out of control. He calls them to the study of the torah of the earth. Torah is all that God reveals and by extension, all that reveals God, the work of her heart and hands, She Who Is Wisdom, the Wisdom of the Ages, the Wisdom of the Worlds, worlds her hands have made, in wisdom, with wisdom, by wisdom. Baruch (3:14-18) calls us to:

14 Learn where there is wisdom,
where there is strength,
where there is understanding,
so that you may at that moment know
where there is length of days and life,
where there is light for the eyes and peace.
15 Who has found her place?
And who has entered her storehouses?
16 Where are the rulers of the nations,
and those who wield dominion over the animals on earth?
17 Those who toy with the birds of the air,
and who hoard silver and gold
in which people put their trust [where are they]?
There is no end to their getting.
18 [Where are] those who schemed to get silver and were anxious,
but there is no trace of their works?

Baruch’s questions are designed to remind his audience that might doesn’t make right, that the trappings of the empire are fool’s gold. Baruch speaks of a wisdom that is accessible to an occupied and oppressed people, an understanding that there is length of days and life and, light for the eyes and peace in the midst of the depredations and degradations of war. Those treasures are not located in the power and predations of the empire but in the heart of the wise; a wisdom not dependent on rolls of scrolls piled up in the libraries of the rich. Rather, a storehouse of treasures long left abandoned by those who seek only power and control of everything from the birds of the heavens to the fish of the sea and every one and every nation in between. Baruch knows that empires fall and tyrants topple. So he directs his people to that which does not change, the revelation of God in the world.

The heavens and the earth are God’s torah, God’s revelation, God’s teaching. They show us God in the world when she might be hard to see in our circumstances, a God in the world who is bigger, greater, grander than any gold-plated tyrant. The splendor of the skies puts to shame the trappings of tyrants. The chorus of the clouds silences the braying of battle hymns. The trumpets of thunder shame the hootings of the horns of war. The migration and susurration of the birds of heaven overshadow the mechanical maneuverings of military marches. Even as the empire grinds his people under, Baruch denies them their power and their legacy.

We who read the scriptures of Israel in our time must ask ourselves where we might find ourselves in them. Where their characters, editors and authors might place us once they get over their shock at an entire new set of continents on the other side of a world that is not quite flat. This nation is more conqueror than conquered. Its citizens as much a part of this empire as those who chart its course, benefitting from stolen land, plundered labor, ill-gotten gains, blood-soaked privilege built on a white supremacist foundation. And at the same time some of us enjoy the diminishing privileges of citizenship which can be nullified by legalized militias and a contemporary version of slave patrols executing us in the streets or our very homes for having been made monstrous by them for having been made in blackly radiant image of God.

Who are you in Baruch’s story? Are you being ripped from your land – a land to which Israel had at best a contested claim – or are you enjoying the fruits of a land that is not yours? If you found your very humanity denied by the empire that commodifies your life can you look beyond the temporality of their works to behold and study the torah of the earth?

Baruch’s reflection on wisdom and call to her embrace with heart and hand occurs in a context where common wisdom might say surrender. But he knows there is a wisdom in the revelation of God in all of her texts, wind and wing, sea and sky, mountain and meadow. Using my sanctified imagination in the preaching tradition of my people I imagine Baruch in conversation with Job.

16 Where are the rulers of the nations,
and those who wield dominion over the animals on earth?
17 Those who toy with the birds of the air,
and who hoard silver and gold
in which people put their trust [where are they]?
There is no end to their getting.
18 [Where are] those who schemed to get silver and were anxious,
but there is no trace of their works?

And I hear Job say in response:

Job 12:7 Now then, ask the animals, and they will teach you;
the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
8 or the plants of the earth, and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will expound to you.

Written in a completely different context, Job’s words send us to the torah of the earth for her wisdom. Indeed, the very words for teaching in this text are the word torah in verb form. There is a wisdom in the earth that many have neglected along with her care. But Baruch and Job remind us that earth and her creatures are a sacred scroll. Were we to listen more closely to the wisdom and torah of the earth, we might seek to mend rather than master, for empires devastate flora and fauna as much as they do flesh.

There is one other model of wisdom that I wish to leave with you, wisdom as the mother of the living and enduring word that is Jesus. Jesus of God, Jesus of Mary, Jesus of the Holy Spirit, Jesus of Wisdom. When folk questioned the wisdom of Jesus hanging with those who feasted and partied and drank and got drunk and sold their bodies and were abused, and were disdained, his response was nevertheless – in other words, yes, all that is true – yet nevertheless Wisdom is vindicated by her children. (Luke 7:35) For, a wisdom that does not speak to the despised is no wisdom at all.

Jesus, the one of wisdom calls us to those who are being ground down by the ravages of imperial violence, to the powerless, to those who survive when they cannot thrive and thrive in what they should not survive, for there too is wisdom. Jesus who also preached from the torah of the earth stands with those relegated to oppression, subjugation and, degradation. What we do to others we do to him. And for those of us who find ourselves more colonized than colonizer, Jesus is with us and what they do to us they do to him. We are accompanied and surrounded by wisdom, within and without.

The wisdom of God is all around us, including under our very feet. And when God completes the redemption of the world and all her creatures, she will redeem and renew the earth herself. The wisdom of the earth, the torah of the earth, is the richness and wideness of God’s love for each soul, each life, each plant, each critter, each clod of dirt, a love that in expressed in her great gifts to us from creation to Christ. Amen.

A Pastoral Epistle on Texts of Terror

Yesterday we covered grotesque violence in Judges in my Introduction to Interpreting the Hebrew Bible in Context course at Brite Divinity School. The texts were traumatizing. I was traumatized. I felt the trauma of my students and held it through the night. This morning I sent them this pastoral professorial epistle.

Gentle Students,

Yesterday’s readings were traumatizing and you may not have rested well after reading and re-hearing them. While many of us learned to look for the good news in a text or preach it through the cross and resurrection to connect it to the Good News, not every text has good news and not every text needs to go through the cross and resurrection – this is difficult in many contexts and a non-starter in some, including the black church tradition in which I was raised and was first licensed and ordained. (I’ll come back to this.)

We are learning to read and interpret these texts in their literary and cultural contexts and a move to Jesus can absolve us of our responsibility to grapple with the text on its own terms. Sometimes we need to sit with the horror like Job’s friends did for the first seven days with our hands over our mouths bearing witness. Sometimes we need to sit with the exposed decaying bodies of the murdered like Rizpah and Mamie Till and call the world to see if “there is any sorrow like my sorrow.” Sometimes we need to pronounce the judgement of God on a world in which fathers kill daughters because of family honor, because they are lesbians, because they are trans.

And those of us for who these texts are scripture, who believe God is somewhere in this collection of texts that includes pornotropic violence needs must articulate a theology of God that accounts for these texts and a world that looks just like them in some places.

For me, that is a God who accompanies, God with us. God with us in horror. And God with us in grief. God with us in the rapine and butchery. God with us in the rationalization and weaponizing of trauma. God who refuses to abandon us no matter what is done to us or what we do, to ourselves or to others. I find that God in Isaiah, in the scriptures Jesus turned to so often. 

Yes, Jesus. I do this work as a Christian, ordained to the gospel of Jesus Christ. And so I also turn to the cross and the crucified Jesus – but not because the Hebrew Scriptures are inadequate to the task of interpreting themselves or providing a sufficient theology of the God of the suffering. I turn to Jesus in he words of a song I can only hear in the voice of Mahalia Jackson, Sweet Little Jesus Boy:

Sweet little Jesus boy
The world treats you mean Lord
Treats me mean too
But that’s how things are down here…

I sit with the Virgin Mother, the mother of another black boy executed by the state and draw upon the strength of the Stabat Mater, the mother who is somehow still on her feet. I walk home with her, like her. Dazed but unbowed. And I wait to see what the morning will bring.

I am a Holy Saturday preacher. I wake in the aftermath – if I have slept – to the knowledge that the Beloved is still dead. And I take comfort in the God who is and has said I AM with you. And I rail and scream and curse at God knowing God hears and is there with me to hear. And I try to sleep one more night to see if it will be easier the next day.

And that is where the sermon ends. It is still too soon to talk about resurrection. But God-with-us sits in her chair grieving with us. Waiting with us, walking with us as we make our way through and make sense of our grief.

Be well,

Dr. G+

Holy Blackness: The Matrix of Creation

Image by needpix.com

In the velvet darkness of the blackest night
Burning bright, there’s a guiding star
No matter what or who, who you are
There’s a light (Over at the Frankenstein Place)
There’s a light (Burning in the fireplace)
There’s a light, light in the darkness of everybody’s life.

Let us pray:
God of fire and light who dwells in thick darkness,
the light and the dark are alike to thee,
open the eyes of our hearts that we might see. Amen.

In the velvet darkness, darker than a thousand midnights down in a cypress swamp, this luminous darkness, this radiant blackness, the wholly black and holy black womb of God pulsed life into the world against a tapestry of holy life-giving darkly radiant blackness, shaping, molding, knitting, coalescing earthstuff from starstuff from Godstuff. All before uttering the first word.
This more than binary God articulated in the binary idiom of Iron Age folk recalling the testimony of their Stone Age forebears, limited to two gender signifiers but using both to signal to the best of their ability that neither was sufficient even if some would use one more, to the near exclusion of the other, this pluripotent God whose breath-crafted children would bear her, hir, his, zir, our, their image, this God, conjured, confected, and crafted creation out of holy darkness.
The Poet and poetry of creation birth a story made of stories that tells us who we are, who we have been and, who we could be. We are born of blackness, starry night and fertile earth, our first human parents in science and in scripture have Africa’s soil on their feet and in their skin. But somewhere along the way we were taught to fear the dark, to fear the night, to fear the holy blackness that is the swaddling blanket of creation.
Some of our fear of the dark is ancient and instinctual from a time when we were not sure the sun would return from setting or storm or eclipse: Stay with us Lord of Light for the night is dark and full of terrors. The prayer to the Red God on Game of Thrones is in many ways the perfect embodiment of this and perhaps a worthy Advent prayer, (at least in a service where There’s a Light Over at the Frankenstein House from the Rocky Horror Picture Show is the Advent hymn). But some of our fear of the dark is carefully calculated and mercenary.
Some lost sight of or chose not to see the beauty of the diversity of creation having lost the memory of their own ancestral African roots and, when encountering a suddenly much larger world saw that our black beauty was valuable, profitable, salable. Then beginning in 1619 on this continent those ancient fears were seized upon and weaponized to build this nation on a foundation of slavery and genocide and the rhetoric of blackness became all that was wrong in the world just as Malik el-Haj al-Shabazz taught us when he was Malcom X: blackball, black sheep, blackmail, black hearted, black people.
My over-used but nowhere near retirement Black Lives Matter sign says, “Black Lives Are Sacred.” Blackness is sacred. But the world has lost sight of the goodness and sanctity of blackness. That is why it is so easy to kill us and our children and so easy to justify our deaths with fear, fear of the dark. Public Enemy prophesied rightly on Fear of A Black Planet. Fear of blackness. Fear of black people. All in service to a divinization of whiteness and light to the point of idolatry. To this Bishop Stephen Charleston says:
I have heard that the afterlife is a place of perpetual light. That’s a problem. Heaven needs night. Darkness is not evil, but a realm of mystery and imagination. The day is constant, but the night is creative. The stars dance. The moon dreams. The comets write poetry of fire. Without the night there is no dawn or twilight, no moments of sacred ambiguity, no subtle changes of perception, no promises kept or just made, a holy pledge of healing or of hope. No, please, we need the night in heaven. We need that glorious darkness, that obscure beauty, drifting on wedding gown clouds of white across an obsidian sky.
Thus, this the darkest time of the year is one of the holiest times of the year. The bleakest shadows of solar night hold the light in passionate embrace, and where they touch, shades of gray and, every color of the rainbow prism including those we cannot yet see. Our encultured fear, our tribalism, have kept us from seeing that all creation is inherently good. All God’s creatures are good by design. All of God’s children are good, born good, created good, created for goodness, good enough, even when they, we, fail to live up and into the goodness of God within us, it is still there.
We start this new Christian year in this Advent season with the goodness of God and the poetry of creation manifest in the liturgy of the earth. God is Poet and this good God-given earth is her poetry. Indeed, the earth is also both poet and poem, poetry groaning in creation. The liturgy of the earth, its cycles of sun and shadow, ripening and rotting, blossoming and blowing away, drenching and drying, feast and famine, storm and stillness, deep sea and desert wide are fluid ever-changing witnesses to and stanzas in the poetry of our lives, of our world. For we too are her poems, sonnets and ballads, dissertations of rap, rhythm and, rhyme and, more than a few limericks, quatrain and haiku and, forms for which there are yet no names. This great liturgy of creation is a liturgy of transition and transcendence. And so it is with life and death; they are not two separate polar realities for between them lies living.
It is into this life that brown baby Jesus comes to dwell, inhabit, teach, guide, accompany, heal, forgive, redeem, love and, live. And thus are we too called dwell in this good earth in our good incarnations, living, loving, forgiving, healing, accompanying each other on our pilgrim journey. We live in the waiting for the second Advent. Live in a world waiting for the fullness of redemption, restoration and, reparation. Live in this world where people don’t always see our poetry, our obscure beauty, our incarnations as Godstuff, our loving as the goodness of God in this world.
This earth is given into our care and we are given into each other’s care. Advent prepares us to encounter a God who dwells with us in the waiting earth. And Advent tells us that we are loved and worthy of love. Most of the world outside of a very specific set of churches doesn’t know that it is Advent. It is pre-Christmas sale season which began after, or even before, Halloween. Even in the Church Advent is often crushed into Christmas and the first Advent, the Nativity of black baby Jesus, often overshadows the second Advent, the return of the rainbow Christ, the fullness of humanity encompassing the poetry of all flesh, all kinds of flesh, transformed, human and divine, yet retaining enough of the poetry of the past to be recognized as the very same person, Mary’s baby.
Mary’s poor brown migrant baby. Christians the world over will sing their love for the baby Jesus for the next five weeks. But for many their love will not extend to Guatemalan baby Jesus or Muslim baby Issa who share his name. In far too many churches the stories of Advent and Christmas are used to sanctify white supremacy in the church. Introducing children to and reifying adult belief in a white Jesus who is not simply an aesthetic choice but a statement of power and domination. White Jesus is a colonized and colonizing Christ. Until the deaths of black and brown mother’s children mean as much as the deaths of white parent’s children and the windows and walls of our churches do not silently whitewash the brownness and Jewishness of Jesus, his family, friends and followers and his ancestors, the whiteness of Christian art and nativity plays will always be in service to white supremacy.
When Christ returns every system that holds people captive, dominates and subordinates will be unmade. And so we long for the second Advent. But I don’t think we’re all waiting for the same thing. The Church has been waiting millennia and in that waiting, has not only not healed the ruptures that form when we forget that we are all a handful of the same dirt, but in some cases has dug and deepened those fissures. And in some parts of the Church, the more you believe in the literal return of Jesus, the less you believe in or care about climate change because Jesus will just fix it after while.
Some read today’s gospel and see the immanent and unexpected return of Christ and all they can think of is who is going with him and who will be left behind. But that’s not the Jesus I know. The Jesus I know is in the field with the agricultural workers in the gospel. He’s with the women doing undervalued work in that same gospel. He’s not making a list and checking it twice. That’s someone else’s bag. And, I believe he is telling us this story so that we will take notice of who is around us and might not be able to make it alone.
We already live in a world where some people get left behind. In this world, people are left behind if they’re black or brown or poor or gay or trans or women or femme, or felons, or, or, or. But it won’t always be that way. While a traditional Advent reading might focus on Jesus’s return, I want to offer another reading. I don’t believe we have to wait for the return of Jesus for things to get better. I don’t believe that our problems are so big that only God can sort them out. I don’t believe that there is nothing that we can do about the quality of human life or the capacity of the earth to sustain life.
Jesus showed us by how he lived and died and lived again on the other side of death that nothing is too big, too much, too hard for God, that human dignity and flourishing are God’s dream for us no matter under what oppressive systems we find ourselves. The Jesus who allied himself with the poor and disenfranchised by becoming poor and disenfranchised will not abandon us to a world that does not love us, fears us and seeks to harm us. Rather Jesus stands with us as we remake the world that is our heritage, our sacred trust, as we rediscover its poetry and the poetry inside of each of us.
The time between the Advents is a pregnant time, indeed the earth is already in labor in apostle’s view. Now is a waiting time. Now is a watching time. And now is a working time. Jesus calls our attention to the people the world, and sometimes the church, says will be left behind. For much of human history women have been kept behind if not left behind. But the One for whose Advent we wait chose the flesh of a woman for the glory of the incarnation, that intimate bleeding flesh that the world of men wanted to leave behind, thus forever sanctifying woman-flesh and all human-flesh. And, for much of our history folk have wanted to leave gay folk and queer folk behind, yet Jesus comes to us through a miracle that transcends and queers gender roles, God-beyond-gender yet disclosed as the feminine spirit conceived a child with a human woman. From as soon as one person had two sticks while another had only one, we have left people behind in poverty and inequity. Yet Jesus came to us poor and underhoused. We are building walls – lying about building physical walls – while building legislative walls and the border-crossing Jesus is an asylum seeker. If we are not careful, we might just leave Jesus behind, not recognizing him because we’ve lost the sight and sound of the divine poetry in every human person.
We wait for the Advent return of the One whose incarnational gender poetry transcends the grammatical categories of frail human poets and translators, with that Advent will come the majesty of God, the manifestation of God’s perfect justice and love, for where God is, there can be no injustice. And dare I say, in God’s perfect justice none will be left behind.

About the texts: The Women’s Lectionary is the project of the Rev. Wil Gafney, PhD, Professor of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas, an Episcopal Priest canonically resident in the Diocese of Pennsylvania and Licensed in the Diocese of Fort Worth. Dr. Gafney selected and translated the readings using an expansive gender-explicit approach and, in the Psalms, explicit feminine language and pronouns for God. Church House, the Episcopal press, will publish the Lectionary.

Year A
Advent 1: Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 8; Romans 8:18-25; Matthew 24:32-44
Genesis 1:1 When beginning he, God, created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was shapeless and formless and bleakness covered the face of the deep, while the Spirit of God, she, fluttered over the face of the waters. 3 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good; so God separated the light from the bleakness. 5 Then God called the light Day, and the bleakness God called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, day one.

Psalm 8
1 WOMB OF LIFE, our Sovereign, *
how exalted is your Name in all the earth!
2 Out of the mouths of children and nursing babes *
your majesty is praised above the heavens.
3 You have founded a stronghold against your adversaries, *
to put an end to the enemy and the avenger.
4 When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, *
the moon and the stars you have established,
5 What are we that you should be mindful of us? *
the woman-born that you attend to them?
6 You have made us a little lower than God; *
you adorn us with glory and honor;
7 You give us mastery over the works of your hands; *
you put all things under our feet:
8 All sheep and oxen, *
even the wild beasts of the field,
9 The birds of the air, the fish of the sea, *
and whatsoever walks in the paths of the sea.
10 WOMB OF LIFE, our Sovereign, *
how exalted is your Name in all the earth!

Romans 8:18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the daughters and sons of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the daughters and sons of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Matthew 24:32 Jesus said, “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 33 So also, when you see all these things, you know that the Son of Woman is near, at the very gates. 34 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Creator. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Woman. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Woman. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Redeemer is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, the owner would have stayed awake and would not have let the house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Woman is coming at an unexpected hour.

Sources for opening:
Richard O’brien, “There’s a Light (Over at the Frankenstein Place)” Rocky Horror Picture Show, 1975 © Warner Chappell Music, Inc.
(Sources for first paragraph in order: Richard O’brien, Rocky Horror; James Weldon Johnson, “The Creation,” Howard Thurman (title, This Luminous Darkness); “black and radiant,” Rabbi Marcia Falk trans. “The Song of Songs”; “darkly radiant,” Mia McKenzie, The Thing About Being A Little Black Girl In the World: For Quvenzhané Wallis.

Holy Leviticus! Justice is True Holiness

Riggio-Lynch Interfaith Chapel at CDF Alex Haley Farm
built as an ark of safety for children

There are some verses from Leviticus 19 that we don’t often hear, in part because the verses we do often hear have been decontextually weaponized and which, even when contextually comprehended, speak more to ancient biases than to actual biology. Yet just as Jesus the Son of Woman is fully human and fully divine, so too are the scriptures in which we prepare for and encounter him, the scriptures he interpreted and reinterpreted when necessary with an, “It is written… but I say unto you…”

In that spirit and with that permission we turn to the beloved, and also oft-cited, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” and the equally familiar–if you came up in a black church–“You shall be holy for I the Holy One your God am holy.” Can I get a “holiness is yet right”? Between “you shall be holy” and “love your neighbor” hang all the law and the prophets, to borrow a phrase. Pray with me if you will, on the subject, “No Justice Without Love, No Love Without Justice.” 

Let us pray: May God who is Majesty, Mercy, and Mystery speak words of life, love, and liberation through these words. Amen.

You shall love your neighbor as yourself is the end of the teaching in this passage of Torah. And while Jesus gave us a vivid exegesis of the passage, the truth is it was always self-explanatory as his debate partners knew full well. Their question was not what does it look like to love your neighbor, but who can I exclude from the God-given charge to love my neighbor, and still be holy. (Yes, I am an Episcopal priest preaching holiness from Leviticus. God is a wonder to my soul.) See, I believe that Leviticus, the heart of Torah, has gotten a bad rap and is in need of rebranding. Leviticus is a holiness text and:

  • Leviticus is a community organizing text.
  • Leviticus is a public health text.
  • Leviticus is a get right and get your people right text.

You shall be holy for I the Holy One your God am holy. What follows that autobiographical declaration is a twelve-step plan to holiness in the idiom, vernacular, and culture of the Iron Age. (Don’t count my steps; it’s a metaphorical number and as a black preacher I really only need three anyway.) I thought I just might, for the time that is mine, translate this way to holiness into the idiom, vernacular, culture, and dialect of this anti-Christic neo-fascist white supremacist violently lethal misogynistic transphobic homophobic anti-Muslim, anti-brown immigrant and refugee – Norwegians and Swedes welcome – punitive poverty police state. Because none of that is holy. 

What is holy: When you all reap the harvest of your land, it shall not be completed to the very edges of your field for harvesting, and thegleanings of your harvest shall not be gathered. Your vineyard you shall not scrape bare, and the fallen grapes of your vineyard you shall not gather; you shall leave them for those oppressed through poverty and for the alien who resides [in your land]: I am the Holy One your God. [All translations of the biblical texts are mine.] Translation: You shall use your economic resources to relieve poverty and hunger. You shall not extract every drop of profit from your enterprises, rather you shall make it possible for others to benefit from your wealth and success. You are not entitled to all of the fruits of your labors when other folk are going hungry. Companies that don’t pay taxes to contribute to the wellbeing of their neighbors and community while paying poverty producing wages is not love of neighbor, and since corporations are now people, they are subject to the same call to holiness. Our tolerance and maintenance of poverty is not love and it is not holy.

What is holy: None of you shall steal… I am God Whose Name Is Holy. Translation: You shall not steal anything or anyone. You shall not steal people’s land­–and I know full well the biblical framers gleefully endorsed the theft of Canaanite land and their subjugation while bemoaning their own enslavement and serial occupation. You can’t have it both ways beloved. You shall not steal. No exceptions. And none are needed because the previous verses guaranteed that the poor would eat as long as the rich were eating so there would be no need to steal to feed yourself or your family. 

Let me translate further: You shall not steal land or lives or livelihoods. You shall not steal nations or their resources. You shall not steal drinkable water or breathable air. You shall not rob the earth of life or livability or species. You shall not steal wages or rob workers of their health, healthcare, or dignity. You shall not steal children or their childhoods, or their innocence. You shall not steal hope or dreams. You shall not steal! The theft, despoliation, and plunder of God’s children particularly on this land, from attempted genocide to enslavement to chain gangs to Chinese labor to Japanese internment, to convict leasing, to child-napping and caging is not love and is not holy.

You shall not steal and you shall not lie. None of you shall deceive, and none of you shall lie to a compatriot. And none of you shall swear by my Name to a lie and so profane the Name of your GodI am God Whose Name Is Holy. Lies are incompatible with love and incompatible with holiness. I just don’t believe that lying liars and their lies will ever be the oracle or instrument of God. I know some of us were raised that the worse thing you could do was to call someone a lie, not even a liar, but a lie, even when it was true. But I’m grown now and I’m going to call a lie a lie and a liar a liar.

The lies that come between us and the true holiness that is love of neighbor are legion. The lie of whiteness, white supremacy and its idol, white Jesus, have made it impossible for some folk to love their neighbors and for some folk to love themselves. The lie that human beings only come in two diametrically opposed forms has kept parents from loving their children, and precious queer and trans children from loving themselves or even loving their very lives. It ceases to be a limited understanding or misunderstanding of human biology and sexuality when you refuse and ignore the science because that’s not how an Iron Age writer with his own biases thought God thought about human flesh. 

The lie that patriarchy protects women has robbed women of their autonomy, agency, health, and lives. The lie that war leads to peace has scorched the earth and left legions of dead and dying, wounded and refugee. The lie that is American justice has incarcerated and enslaved, raped and pillaged and pimped out and rented out black and brown women and men and children and their labor. These lies are killing us and our children. And then they dare to lie on God and lie in her name. They choose the least loving and most harmful interpretation of scripture, willfully ignorant about and uncaring of its context. They sculpt idols out of their lies who bear unsurprising resemblances to themselves. There is no God and no Christ in these lies. There is no love or holiness in these lies. 

What is holy: You shall not defraud your neighbor, you shall not steal, and you shall not keep overnight for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. Translation: You shall not cultivate and maintain a permanent underclass. You shall not further oppress those already ground down by an unjust immigration and migrant labor system. You shall not use the undocumented status of your workers to pay them poverty cycle wages under the table while stealing a kickback out of that. You shall not enrich yourself and your corporate shareholders at the expense of the health and wealth of your employees. This point is so important that the passage circles back to it again and again. There is no holiness or love of neighbor without economic justice. 

What is holy: Translation:You shall not mock the deaf and, you shall not put a stumbling block before the blind… You shall love every human person and every human body. You shall marvel at the diversity of God’s creation. And you shall not just not hinder or injure your sistren, bindren, and brethren, but you shall actively work together against their harm and exclusion.

What is holy: You shall not render justiceunjust…you shall judge your compatriot rightly. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand by the blood of your neighbor. Translation: You shall not call what is just unjust and you shall not call injustice justice. You shall not railroad the immigrant and the indigent. You shall not call desperate migrants rapists and gang members. You shall not throw babies in cages and make a profit off of their suffering. You shall not deny a rape victim justice with a “boys will be boys” and “let’s not ruin this nice young man’s future.” You shall not treat black folk like targets in a shooting gallery. You shall not kill our children, our sisters, our brothers, our mothers, or our lovers. You shall not lock up black and brown folk for selling the weed that you and your kids smoke while investing in the marijuana conglomerates of your friends and allies. You shall not stand by the blood of your neighbor. You shall not just stand by when black blood is flowing in the street. Holiness demands justice. Love demands justice.You shall not standby. Love won’t let you stand by. Holiness won’t let you stand by. 

What is holy: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. We know these words but most of us know them out of context. In context it is: You shall not hate in your heart your compatriot. Rebuke –yes rebuke!– your compatriot, and do not incur guilt on their account. You shall not take vengeance or nurture anger against any of your people; you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Translation: You shall not hate the haters. You shall love those who don’t love, those who by every reasonable standard would seem to be undeserving of love. You shall love and rebuke. Love them and rebuke them. Love them and not call them names. Love them and not start a twitter fight with them­–though it may turn into that–I’m talking to myself here. Love them and rebuke them. Rebuke Donald Trump. Rebuke Franklin Graham. Rebuke black preachers who hate black women while using their bodies and their money. Rebuke preachers who hate gay folk. Rebuke white supremacist Christianity. Rebuke bad preaching and worse exegesis. Tell the truth about the love of God and her call for us to love our neighbor as a demonstration of our holiness, her holiness, because we understand that she who is our God is holy.

Lastly, what is holy: The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Holy One your God. This should require no translation: 

Love treasures children and is incapable of considering them as instruments of deterrence.
Love would wash the feet of detainees not deny them showers and toothbrushes.
Love would provide a refuge for those terrorized fleeing violence at home.
Love would welcome the stranger.
Love would feed the hungry.
Love would comfort the frightened child.
Love would provide water in the desert instead of pouring it out and prosecuting those who leave it for the thirsty.

Love your neighbor as yourself and love yourself. Love yourself. Love your flesh. Love your fat. Love your freckles. Love your edges. Love your bald spot. Love your sag and your swag. Love your melanin. Love your kinks and your kink. Love yourself through your failures. Love yourself too much to let anyone love you less. 

The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Holy Oneyour God.

The way of holiness is hard because it is the way of love. And the way of love is hard. Justice is elusive when it is not grounded in love. But we are not left to figure out how and who to love on our own. We bore witness to the love of God incarnate in the womb and at the breast of a mother whose love would stand at the cross and at the tomb. We saw the Beloved love out loud and in public in touch and word. Jesus the love of God incarnate is the way of love and our teacher and guide on the way. Jesus is love incarnate and love in action. It was love that nailed him to the cross and love that held him on the cross. A love that would not die even when the lover’s flesh was dead and buried. A love that transcended heaven and earth and life and death and every other binary burst forth into life from the womb of the tomb, still loving, still teaching, still touching, and because we love to eat, still grubbing, still greasing, still frying fish. That’s love. 

The power to love poured out on Pentecost. The Holy Spirit who moves between us with love, calling us to love empowers us to love those we don’t think we can love, those we don’t want to love, and those we don’t even like. We are the children of the God of love, who loves us to and through death to life. We were bathed in the love of God in our baptisms and we are nourished by the bread of life and love at the table. The tongue-twerking power of the Holy Spirit poured out on Pentecost gave us the strength to love. But the will is ours. Will we? Will we love? Will we love this world into justice for all God’s children? Amen.

May you love and be loved and do justice from a heart of love. In the Name of God who is Love, Jesus the Love that is stronger than death and the Holy Spirit who is the Love that covers us and fills us with her Love.

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.

Was It All A Dream? A Resurrection Story

A narrative sermon in first person, delivered without notes, Easter 2019.

Sri Lankan Christ
Sri Lankan image of Christ given to me years ago.
Used in honor of the victims and survivors of the bombing on Easter, 2019.

I’ve been sleepwalking through the last three days. It’s been a living nightmare. You don’t know if you weren’t here. I told myself not to go, but I went anyway. I told myself not to look, but I looked anyway. Almost every day the Romans hang someone from one of their crosses or invent some new form of public humiliation. But this was different. He was such a gentle soul. You should see the way children climbed all over him. He could get loud and he could be sharp. His words could cut you to the bone and leave you in tears, but it was always the truth, whether you wanted to hear it or not. And if you would listen, he would always tell you what would make you whole. I didn’t want it to be true, but I saw it with my own eyes.

I’ve spent the last three days trying to come to terms with it, and now I hear people saying he’s back. At first, I was angry. What a horrible cruel thing to say. People are grieving. People poured their hearts and hopes into that man. There was something about him; it wasn’t just the children who were enamored with him. He made miracles, like the prophets of old. I saw for myself. They say he was God’s son. I don’t know. But I know God gave him those gifts and never struck him down, not even he said that he was the one who was to come.

And then, the Romans got him. The things they did to him. I can’t talk about it. But it wasn’t just soldiers running wild or every day brutality. It was deliberate, to humiliate him and discredit his name and even his memory.

Finally, after a couple of days, I’ve been able to eat a little and sleep a little. And I hear these stories. And I hear these words: Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.

You heard it too? I don’t want to hear it. You weren’t there. You didn’t see. You didn’t hear. You didn’t smell. You don’t know what death smells like, that kind of bloody, wretched death.

Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.

At first it was only a couple of folk. But now it’s spreading like wildfire. You know how rumors fly. But this is different. If it were just Mary Magdalene, I’d put it down to her terrible grief. But it’s not just her. And Peter, well he’s so eaten up by guilt. I understand but I wouldn’t take his word. But there was Joanna–you know her husband Chuza? Big time! He works for the big man Herod himself. Personal assistant. Anyway, Joanna, and Mary–you know the one I’m talking about? No, the other one. Not that James, though his mother’s a Mary too. Every other woman and girl in Judea is named for the prophet Miriam. Anyway, little James’s mother Mary, Suzanna, one of the other Marys–it was a whole bunch of them–they all said they same thing. They said they saw him. I don’t know. I don’t really believe in group hallucinations.

And Mary said she touched him. No, not that one. Magdalene. Keep up. I forgot about John. He was with Peter, actually, he got there first. And there are others. All saying: Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.

What if it’s true?

What does it mean in this world that looks the same, where there are still crosses on that hill?

There is a hope that the empire cannot take away from us, even with the threat of death, even with the certainty of death.

Lament for Jerusalem and Genocidal Violence


Luke 13:31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Go! And get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32 He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘See here, I am casting out demons and restoring health today and tomorrow, and on the third I finish. 33 Yet today, tomorrow, and the next, I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to perish outside of Jerusalem.’ 34 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you all were not willing! 35 Look now, your house is released to you. And I tell you all, you will not see me until the time comes when you all say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

Let us pray:
In the name of the in whose image we all we created. Amen.

The sermon can be heard here.
The entire gospel of Luke can be described as facing Jerusalem. Where Luke deviates from Mark and Matthew, it is often in the sequence and geography of Jesus’s life building towards a single momentous trip to Jerusalem in contrast to multiple trips in the other gospels. Jerusalem for Luke is the place where God redeems the world in the resurrected death-canceling life of Jesus. But Jerusalem is so much more. Lent, like Luke, is taking us to the cross and the tomb, not just anywhere, but in Jerusalem.
The sacred geography matters. Jerusalem matters. The Rector of the historic African American St. James parish in Baltimore explained the saga, story, and significance of Jerusalem this way:
“Jerusalem was once a place where there was room for everybody. And yet as the years have gone by, human beings have refused to listen to the lesson of love. [He’s been preaching about love for a long time.] There have been more wars, more fighting, more chaos over the holy city than anywhere else on the rest of the earth…In 2500 BC, Jerusalem was a Canaanite enclave, inhabited by the Canaanite peoples…In 1000 BC King David came and he conquered the city and made it part of the nation of Israel…In 587 King Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem and destroyed it and made it part of the Babylonian Empire…In 537 BC King Cyrus of Persia came, conquered the Babylonians and took over Jerusalem…In 392 the Selucids took it over. In 198 the Ptolomes took it over. In 63, Pompey from Rome came and conquered it. In 70 AD the Romans destroyed it. In 135 AD the Romans destroyed it again. In the 4th century, Constantine made it a Christian city. In the 7th century, the Muslims took it over. In 1099 Christians took it from the Muslims. In 1187 Muslims took it back. In 1517 the Ottoman Turks took it from the other Muslims. In 1870 the British took it over. 1949, the United Nations…” (I give him an A- and play this clip for my students.)
His recitation – without notes – doesn’t even include the time Jerusalem was subject to the Assyrian Empire or a Pharaoh picked his own king for Judah, more than once, or how Jerusalem and the rest of the word fell under the control of Alexander the Great. Stopping before the founding of the modern State of Israel and the forced resettlement of Palestinians or the resulting wars and continuing intifadas, (then Fr.) Michael Curry cried out, “How long O Lord?”
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!
Jerusalem. The name fires the imagination, conjures up awe, holiness, and violence. It is a legendary place of sacred story and a thriving prosperous city, and a divided inequitable city, and a holy city, and a mecca for tourists and pilgrims. It is a legendary city and a real city. It is a place with a bloody history and a bloody reality. Jerusalem is the place where the stories of scripture are made real in stone and bone. Jerusalem is a place that Americans politicize, and Christians romanticize.
Some parts of what makes up Jerusalem have been inhabited since the Stone Age before there was such a thing as an Israeli or Palestinian, Israelite or Canaanite. As far as I’m concerned, everyone after the Natufians is a late-comer and an immigrant. Between the mighty empires of Egypt and those of Mesopotamia, Jerusalem and Canaan and ancient Israel were not just on the road to war and imperial expansion, they were the road to war and empire building.
Jerusalem is forcibly dragged into Israel’s story when David conquers it to provide a neutral base from which to rule so as not to show any favoritism to northern or southern tribes. We’ve been taught all our lives to read from the perspective of the Israelites and give no consideration to the Canaanites. A whole lot of us grew up cheering Joshua’s genocidal slaughter of the Canaanites and gave no thought to what it was like for the people of Jerusalem to be occupied by David for the convenience of a well-situated capital city. That kind of thinking made it easy to identify the native peoples of this land as the new Canaanites and attempt to eradicate them like the old Canaanites. That kind of thinking causes some to conflate the ancient nation of Israel with the modern state of Israel. They are not the same. They are connected. There is a largely direct line between them, but they are not the same.
Romanticizing Joshua’s conquest of Canaan and David’s conquest of Jerusalem leaves genocidal language unchallenged in the scriptures, our genocidal past unrepented, and, provides theological language, and sanction for those calling for genocides today. We saw a horrific, chilling, glimpse of that in the massacres at the mosques in New Zealand, a man who murdered children, three and four years old so they wouldn’t grow up to be adult Muslims and have and raise Muslim children. That is genocidal white supremacist violence wrapped up in a toxic empire of Christiandom shell. Jesus’s lament over Jerusalem must be heard in its ancient and our contemporary contexts.
The ancient Jerusalemites were people created in the image of God like the rest of us, both victims and perpetrators of violence. Their tiny home was invaded and conquered by a warlord in the name of a God they may or may not have worshipped. The shining moments of the Davidic and Solomonic monarchies were purchased in blood. Their Jerusalem passed into Assyrian control where it was squeezed for every shekel, including the silver on the doors of the temple. They were subject to wanton acts of violence like the siege and razing of Lachish where the Assyrians tortured Israelites by hanging them on only slightly sharpened sticks and cutting their still living bodies open down to the bone. Archeological sources record that when they took tribute and hostages from King Hezekiah, they even took his daughters–who are never mentioned in the bible, likely because of the shame.
Then the Babylonians came, and Jerusalem was subject to more violence than they had ever experienced or could ever had imagined. So much so that when Cyrus of Persia defeated Babylon and allowed the Israelites to return home, he was hailed as God’s messiah in Isaiah. (There are multiple messiahs in the bible, but that is another sermon.) Alexander’s conquest was relatively mild, but those who followed him were savage. And then Herod got Jerusalem and Judea in part by knowing which backstabbing Roman general to back.
Jesus’s Jerusalem had a bloody history. But it wasn’t just conquerors, colonizers, and occupiers who were spilling blood. Like all other peoples they shed their fair share of their own blood. And among the most notorious crimes were the murders and attempted murders of several prophets. It wasn’t just that the prophets were preaching a word of God that the people didn’t want to hear, but that the prophets were also preaching highly political words that that challenged the power, authority, and sometimes competence, of civil and religious leaders. Prophets and preaching have always been political. These prophets preached against Jerusalem. They preached against their puppet-kings and their puppet-masters. They preached against the inequities in Jerusalem among her own people. And they proclaimed the inevitable fall of the holy city where God dwelt and which God had previously protected from invading armies, because not even in Jerusalem could those systemic institutionalized inequities stand.
And so the prophets were targeted rather than heeded. One of those puppet-kings, Jehoiakim, sentenced the prophet Uriah to death, and when he escaped to Egypt, had him killed there and his body brought back to Jerusalem, Jeremiah 26:20–23. When Jeremiah preached the fall of Jerusalem, after beating him and throwing him in jail, the people of Jerusalem called for his death, and Zedekiah, the last king of Judah appointed by Nebuchadnezzar, let them have him. Jeremiah was only saved because someone remembered the prophet Micah–whom everyone agreed was a trustworthy prophet unlike Jeremiah, who wasn’t believed until after his death¬–Micah had said virtually the same thing, Jeremiah 38:4–6. And then there was the infamous murder of the prophet Zechariah, not the one who wrote a book of the bible¬–everyone, including Matthew and Jesus mixed them up–Zechariah was murdered on the temple grounds, in the court, in sight of the altar, 2 Chronicles 24:20–22. Jerusalem’s reputation as a place that kills prophets even makes it into the Quran five hundred years later:
We gave Musa, Moses, the Book, and followed up after him with the messengers, and We gave Isa, Jesus, son of Marium, Mary, clear signs, and supported him with the Holy Spirit. (But) whenever a messenger brought you what you yourselves did not desire, you become arrogant, and some you called liars and some you killed. Sura 2:87
According to New Testament scholar Joseph A. Fitzmeyer, when Jesus said, “it is impossible for a prophet to perish outside of Jerusalem,” he was saying, “it is not destined that Herod will kill me, but that Jerusalem will,” (Anchor Bible Commentary on Luke, p 1032).
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!
I am struck that Jesus’s response to the threat from Herod and murderous history of Jerusalem was not to resort to a toxic masculinity, call for force of arms, or even call down fire and brimstone. Instead he portrayed himself as the most ridiculous of animals, the very image of protective motherly devotion, almost mindlessly so. I imagine mother hen Jesus wanting to gather all of the disparate chicks of his, her, Jerusalem under her, his, wings: Not just Israelites, but Geeks and Romans, and Syrians and Libyans, and everyone else from everywhere else. Jesus wasn’t distinguishing citizens from immigrants and refugees; he wasn’t even distinguishing between the oppressed and their oppressors. He just wanted to hold them all to his heart, and like a mama hen, sit on then when they looked to get out and get up to trouble. Some will see in this image a call for mass conversion, certainly that is how the church has operated, often to its shame. But I want to point out that Jesus didn’t lay any requirements on those he wanted to embrace in the city for which he lamented.
The City of Peace has never known lasting peace. Neither have the rest of us. There is still blood in the streets of Jerusalem. Jerusalem is still a city of many peoples from many nations with many faiths; there are still those who are occupied and those who occupy. And there are still prophetic voices crying out against inequitable governing structures and policies that cannot and will not stand. Now those prophetic voices are Palestinian, and sometimes Israelis, and sometimes, other voices. Those voices crying out against the occupation of Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza, and the targeted shooting of unarmed protestors, and the continuing eviction of Arab residents of Jerusalem to hand their houses over to Jewish citizens is not anti-Semitic. Critiquing the policies of state of Israel is not anti-Semitic. That’s a lie that has to be prophetically called out because there is real, vile, lethally violent anti-Semitism in the world.
Antisemitism and Islamophobia are the both the spawn of white supremacy as we have seen acted out in blood in the Linwood Islamic Center and Masjid al-Noor in Christchurch, New Zealand, and at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg PA, and at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston SC, and at the Oak Creek Sikh Temple in Oak Creek WI, and at the Overland Park Jewish Center in Kansas City KS, and at the Islamic Center of Quebec City, and, and, and… [h/t @Michael Skolnik https://twitter.com/MichaelSkolnik/status/1106534709302042624]
In the Lenten season we are called to the holy practices of self-examination and study of and meditation on scripture. Today that means reflecting seriously on the stories we tell and the stories we were told. This Lenten season I bid you join me in repenting for the violence of Christians against Jews and Muslims, for Christian complicity in the occupation of Palestine, and for those of you who have white privilege, for silence and inertia in the face of the rising tide of white supremacist violence, in word and deed.
Let us teach and tell new stories about Jerusalem and all of her peoples and those who love her. I will begin by praying Psalm 122 in a new way.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem,
and pray for the peace of Palestine:
May they all prosper who love you.
Peace be within your walls,
and security within your towers,
and may the walls that divide be torn down.
For the sake of my Muslim and Jewish relatives and friends
I will say, “Peace be within you.”
For the sake of all the houses of God,
I will seek your good. Amen.

Ritualizing Bathsheba’s Rape

Bathsheba with her dead or dying child produced from David's rape while he prays for the child.
Pauline Williamson by permission

In the powerful image by Pauline Williamson (who creates as Sea), Bathsheba sits with her dead or dying child produced from David’s rape while he prays for the child. See her own interpretive work on this passage here.

It is Shrove Tuesday, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday when Christians traditionally went to confession and were shriven, and celebrated the sweetness they would deny in Lent with delicacies or full-on Mardi Gras and Carnival. Some of us still go to confession; now we call it the Sacrament of Reconciliation or Reconciling a Penitent.

Perhaps we need to repent for how we have ritualized Bathsheba’s rape while excluding her from the penitence it generated while the bodies of women and girls (and not just) are still being plundered, desecrated, and profaned in the church and by anointed leaders.

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday and Psalm 51 will be our corporate litany. It is ostensibly David’s psalm of repentance after his abduction, rape, and forced impregnation of Bathsheba, and his subsequent murder of her husband. Yet he does not mention her or his specific transgressions against her in it. To be fair, the biblical text constructs David’s sin as being against God and Uriah, her husband, but not against her.

A titular verse likely from the hand of an editor – and it is questionable whether a shepherd boy turned bandit possessed the literacy to write a psalm though he could have composed it and had it recorded – a titular verse proclaims the context of the psalm as that time he “went to” Bathsheba: When Nathan the prophet went to him on account of his going to Bathsheba. (my translation)

He didn’t go to her. He had her brought to him. “His going to her” is perhaps supposed to evoke a Hebrew euphemism for intercourse. It does not describe her as an active participant, an adulteress, as many would later wrongly claim. But it does not make clear the nature of his crimes.

In the (Episcopal) Book of Common Prayer, the psalm appears without the superscription so no reference to Bathsheba remains, misleading, fallacious, or otherwise. We will in David’s voice confess to sinning against God alone, with no specificity (unlike our Jewish kin who collective own a litany of transgressions on Yom Kippur).

In the Litany of Penance that follows we will confess our transgressions against others. But it is striking that we have so abstracted Psalm 51. Now that we are really talking about sexual violence and harassment in and out of the church, #MeToo and #ChurchToo, and calling once beloved figures to account for their sexual predations – Bill Cosby, R. Kelly, Michael Jackson – and laicizing priests, bishops, and cardinals, perhaps we should stop allowing David to get away with structuring his act of contrition around an abstract concept and tell him to leave his gift on the altar and first make peace with his sister.

And perhaps we should repent for our treatment of the survivors of rape in and out of scripture, our coddling of rapists, our refusal to hold great men accountable, and our love of occasionally disembodied liturgy.

In the spirit of Phyllis Trible, when we pray Psalm 51 as our prayer of repentance, we plead the blood of Bathsheba:

She was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon her was the punishment that made us whole,
and by her bruises we are healed.

For more on Bathsheba’s story see: Womanist Midrash.

Rejoice and Repent

Annunciation Tryptich by Robert Moore

Let us pray:

Blessed Mother, teach us to say yes to God. Amen.

This is Joy Sunday. If we still spoke Latin as a Church, we’d know it as GaudeteSunday in part because before it tells us not to worry about anything, Philippians says: Rejoice in the Lord always! Again, I say, Rejoice! Gaudete (rejoice) in Domino (in the Lord – Domino’s pizza is not the Lord’s pizza)! Gaudete in Domino semper! (You may know Semper Fi.) Gaudete in Domino semper! Rejoice in the Lord always! Iterum dico gaudete. Again, I say, Rejoice! Never thought I’d use my Catholic school Latin as an Episcopal priest and I’m sure none of the nuns ever thought I’d be a priest. In addition to Gaudetein Philippians,

Philippians also says:Do not worry about anything. (4:6)

Zephaniah tells us: Fear not! (3:16)

Isaiah tells us: I will trust and will not be afraid!(2:12)

And in the Gospel of Luke John the Baptizer says: You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? (3:7) Or in other words, “Maybe you should be a little bit concerned.”

Our lectionary stitches together four disconnected passages to quilt a whole new image. We can see each distinct patch and recall its original setting and we can see the new image they craft when woven together.

Zephaniah is an image of the end of the world, its breaking and its remaking. It’s set in a time when things are actually going pretty well for the moment. The young king Josiah, buttressed by his Queen Mother who raised him and ruled for him when he was too young to rule on his own and the prophet Huldah who certified the first written collection of scripture as God’s word, was reforming the worship practices of the community. But Zephaniah knew the world doesn’t stand still and fidelity to God doesn’t shield you from hard times down the road. Rather fidelity to God–and more importantly God’s fidelity to us–ensures we are accompanied through hard times. God is with us and will be with us, whatever may come. Zephaniah knew the Babylonians were coming and that was going to look and feel and smell like the end of the world with the temple on fire, bodies rotting in the street, and the people taken into captivity or left behind with nothing. It would be the end of the kingdom of Judah, the last piece of Israel, as an independent nation. From then on one nation or another would hire and fire kings and governors to serve their own interests. It is in this context that Zephaniah preaches to Zion, Jerusalem, representing the people of God as God’s beloved daughter: Fear not Daughter Zion! The Holy One, your God is within your midst!When the worst happens–and it will happen–you are not alone. God is with you, in your very midst.

To respond to Zephaniah our lectionary uses Canticle 9 from Isaiah 12:

Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid,

for the Holy One of Old is my strength and my might;

God has become my salvation.

Now Isaiah is a century earlier than Zephaniah and the Babylonians weren’t a threat to anybody; rather it was the Assyrians in his time. It was the Assyrians who first broke the back of Israel, swarming the northern monarchy like locusts, deporting the survivors from nine out the twelve tribes all over their empire to be swallowed up, some tribes were never heard from again. In the face of one of the bloodiest regimes on the planet–their barbarism inspired Vlad the Impaler who took his name from their favorite form of execution–in the face of an unstoppable war machine, from the losing side Isaiah proclaimed the salvation of God. Not in some far-off future, not even the saving work of Jesus. Isaiah prophesied about his present moment. They needed God then and She was with them. Isaiah said: God has become my salvation. Here, now, among the survivors and refugees. Even in their defeat, God has saved God’s people from total destruction and annihilation.

In sequence or out of sequence these texts reveal the pattern of God’s presence with God’s people in times of trouble, whatever and whoever the cause. For two thousand years, Christians have read these texts through the story of Jesus and seen him in them to the exclusion of their original contexts. But it is those original stories that teach us God is trustworthy, God is with us, and God is our salvation. In this season of gift giving it is worthwhile to remember that the gift of scripture is truly the gift that keeps on giving. It speaks to us in each generation without losing the meanings it has held for previous generations, even when those meanings don’t fit our world or our circumstances.

This rich understanding of scripture is also our gift to the world as Anglicans and Episcopalians, but not everyone appreciates complexity and mystery. On this Joy Sunday, sitting in St. Mary’s Chapel, in the Chapel of the Blessed Virgin, I want to invite you into some of that mystery by asking you to imagine with me what these texts might have meant to her, for the reason we have these texts grouped together is that the lectionary framers thought they spoke to the Advent of Christ’s birth and the Advent of his return.

One of the traditions of this Sunday is to put a pink candle in the Advent wreath for the Blessed Mother, in whose womb lay the reason for our joy. (Some churches even have rose pink vestments for today. We’ll have to ask the next rector about that.) How might the young pregnant not-yet-married Mary have read these scriptures about God’s presence with Israel in times of trouble in light of the very real fear that she could be stoned for adultery?

Both Isaiah and Zephaniah have the wonderful line: “God is in your midst.” And because of the way Hebrew works and because Zion, Jerusalem, is feminine, that “your” is feminine. Zephaniah says: The Everlasting God, your God (woman), is in your midst (daughter). Isaiah says: Great in your midst (daughter) is the Holy One of Israel. And if Mary knew these scriptures–and truly, we have no way of knowing what she knew though we do know that Elizabeth knows scripture, so maybe…so if she is one of the reasons Jesus knew so much scripture–and using my sanctified imagination I’d like to believe she was–then perhaps, in her hour of need she read or recited these texts to herself hearing in them God’s promise and presence not only to her, but within her. She could easily have read the text as speaking to her much like we do today.

Mary is not only a daughter of God, she is also a daughter of Zion; Jerusalem was her spiritual home. She was the daughter of Zion waiting for the first Advent of Christ and she could say, “God is with me and within me because of the power of the Holy Spirit.” That’s also why Paul could write from a jail cell: Gaudete! Gaudete in Domino semper! Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice… The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Paul, also God’s child waiting for the second Advent of Christ could say, “God is with me and within me because of the power of the Holy Spirit through baptism.”

And here’s where that wild-eyed locust eater from the desert, John the Baptizer, comes in. John had a vision of the world to come, its breaking and remaking, similar to that in parts of Zephaniah we did not read. He sees it coming soon and he is eager for it and for the people to get on board. And for whatever reason­­–it seems like we’re missing part of the story–John is impatient and frustrated with the people: Repent already. Let’s get this show on the road. I mean real repentance. This is not a performance for your benefit. There’s no playing along. In the prophets we read today, God’s presence was a comforting embrace; in the Baptizer’s sermon it is unquenchable fire burning away all that cannot stand in the presence of God.

What accounts for this difference? In all three texts the people of Israel are at the mercy one foreign oppressor or another. In the first two, God comforts the people in their affliction. But in Luke John calls out those who had power over others and were abusing it. Some of them were Israelites like the tax collectors and some were Gentiles like soldiers who could have been from anywhere in the Roman empire. He called them out for extortion and brutality and he called out those who had more than they could wear or eat while others were going without. For John you simply could not sign up to follow him or Jesus later and exploit God’s people. You can’t receive God’s abiding presence in baptism and continue being a crook, or greedy, or indifferent to needs of people around you. That abiding presence of God available to us through baptism is also what links these passages.

How do we read theses texts today, in our own time? What do they have to say to us about the things that matter? Who are the people of God to whom God is speaking I am with you, even in your midst? Who is God calling to rejoice? Who is God telling to get their ethics straight because you can’t live out your baptism and exploit other children of God? Is God offering us the tender assurance of salvation or is God bringing the fire?

On the one hand we have God’s faithfulness to her people and on the other the demand that we be faithful to the requirements of the gospel. The Baptizer gets in our collective face to tell us to get off our collective pews and do the work we were called to in baptism. We were not called to lay around and wait for Jesus to come back. We are to welcome him with the fruit of our labor and our repentance, that means putting an end to systems and practices that oppress God’s people.

If there’s anything that these lessons agree on it’s that no child of God is disposable in God’s sight and God’s presence with us is not just about us. But God is also with migrants in the desert, holding them in her arms as they die of thirst before they’ve ever really lived. God is in Yemen where starving children shelter in battered buildings bombed with ordinance stamped with USA. God is in prisons with the justly and wrongly convicted. God is in the street with gay and trans teens thrown out of homes and families because some folk can’t see God’s image in and presence with them.

I admit I was annoyed with John the Baptizer when I started to prepare this sermon. But when children are in tents and cages with numbers being written on their arms and dying of heat and exhaustion and thirst and taken from their parents and being told their parents don’t want them anymore, I want to stand in front of the churches where Christian folk defend those practices and blame desperate parents for being desperate and get up in their faces and yell: You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’ [or Jesus Christ is my personal Lord and Savior]; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. [And by the way, Abraham’s children are not just Christians and Abraham’s children are not God’s only children.] 9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

John the Baptizer is an old school in-your-face prophet. He calls it like he sees it: I see what you’re doing to God’s children and I’m here to tell you God will chop your branch off of the family tree and set it on fire. That too is the work of the Holy Spirit. I wonder if John was so wild because he like Dr. King knew that he would be killed for preaching the gospel God gave him.

Our prophets teach us God is our salvation. They also teach us She is the salvation of those whom we exploit, those who are oppressed in our name, and those whose death, hunger, thirst, and starvation are paid for with our tax dollars. How can we rejoice in these days? We rejoice in the God who promises to deal with those who oppress in Zephaniah. We rejoice in those repented at the prophet’s preaching. And we rejoice in being God’s agents in the world, in Zephaniah’s words, gathering the outcast. Repent, then rejoice. Amen.

Majesty, Mercy, and Mystery

Welcome to Trinity on the last Sunday of the Christian calendar, the Sunday in which we proclaim Christ’s sovereignty and wrestle with the limitations of human language.

Let us pray:

May God who is Majesty, Mercy, and Mystery travel with us from cradle to cross. Amen.

Our lessons are trying to do two things, end the year with and exaltation of Christ and set the stage to tell the story again in the new year which begins on the first Sunday of Advent. So don’t forget to say Happy New Year next week. The Church traditionally calls this Sunday Christ the King. Some call it the Reign of Christ. And a whole bunch of us don’t know what to call it. The word king just sticks in the craw. It comes with so much baggage.

We start with the myth of David. Having just come from Thanksgiving where the myth of hungry pilgrims and friendly natives crowds out ugly truths like settler colonialism, conquest, genocide, land theft, rape, and when things got really bad, cannibalism. We understand that the stories we tell ourselves and our children about Thanksgiving are strategically incomplete or often just flat out wrong, but the myth endures. It speaks to something in us, so we cling so some shreds of the story that may have historicity and close our eyes to the rest. And if we did that here in Fort Worth, we did it on Wichita and Comanche land.

Similarly, the Church turns to mythos of David to exalt Jesus. We don’t turn to the David who raped Bathsheba; or handed his nephews over to be lynched to pay for blood he spilled, or who killed children with their mothers and fathers while stealing all of their possessions. Instead, we turn to the David whom God chose for greatness, to whom God made promises that speak to us across time. There is danger in telling one story without the other. And I believe, in crowning Jesus with the bloody crown of David.

To be fair, I don’t imagine that David was much worse than any other Bronze or Iron Age monarch. They were all thugs and warlords, who took what they wanted. We have a bad habit or romanticizing monarchy, past and present. We see the glittering crown jewels and ignore their theft from the forcibly subjugated colonies and all the slavery and death that clings to them. King is entirely to violent a title with which to crown Jesus from my perspective. David’s crown was drenched in the blood of his enemies. The blood on Jesus’ crown was his own. Besides which, we seem to have forgotten that a king is a human monarch and by definition is fatally flawed.

Our Psalm celebrates David for bringing the Ark of the Covenant, God’s throne on earth, to Jerusalem so that in time it could be enshrined in the temple built by his son. And then there is God’s promise, God’s conditional promise, to David: One of the sons of your body I will set on your throne.If (everybody say if) If your sons keep my covenant and my decrees that I shall teach them, their sons also, forevermore, shall sit on your throne. However within two generations David’s kingdom was ripped apart. Five hundred years later, it ceased to exist. The Maccabees and the Herods would rule as kings but neither group were descended from David.

Jesus’ descent from David fired the imaginations of his followers and interpreters, some looking backwards to a kingdom that would never rise again–like the old south–rather than towards the new world of which Jesus spoke. That gets further complicated by the fact that Jesus and the gospels use the language of king and kingdom. Yet at every turn Jesus says something to the effect of that’s not what I mean by kingdom. He and his biographers used the old language, the language with which folk were most familiar to usher in a world view that transcends both this world and its deeply impoverished language. A kingdom is a patch of land and Jesus is talking about another world–not necessarily another planet, but I’m not ruling it out–but an entirely new reality that has no need for skull crushing monarchs and their axe swinging troops to keep the “peace.”

Jesus says, You say that I am a king. But this is why I was born and why I came into the world, to testify to the truth. That truth is that God is not an old man on a throne, white or otherwise. God is not a bigger, badder, richer, more powerful, king, tyrant, warlord, or chieftain. Human systems of power and dominion are not accurate reflections of God’s way of being in the world. That truth to which Jesus testifies with his being is that the God who cannot be fully known in any word of human devising is here with us, on this planet, in this world. God is with us. God is not in the palace. God is in the street. In Jesus God was not reclining on the throne of the king but rather subject to the king’s justice, stretched out on a Roman cross with a crown of thorns beaten into his skull.

We proclaim the sovereignty and majesty of Christ today as a way of proclaiming our faith that Jesus is God incarnate and that God is sovereign over all the worlds, all that was, all that is, all that will be, all that can be, all that we can imagine and that which we cannot conceive. In short, we say Christ is King because we say God is King. In so doing, we neglect one crucial fact: God is not a king. At best, our ancestors simply lacked the imagination and language to describe God other than in human terms.

At worst, by giving God a title they reserved for themselves, human men gave voice to their secret wish to be idolized. In the ancient Afro-Asian context in which this the scriptures are set, a king is a warlord who batters his opponent to submission. Kings didn’t lead from the back like presidents and generals in secret bunkers and protected command and control centers. They led in the slaughter, hacking and clubbing their enemies to death, treading through the brains and blood of the slaughtered, building monuments out of their bones. That is not God. Kings schemed against their fellow–and occasional sister–kings; they stole each other’s land, enslaved each other’s people, raped each other’s daughters and sons. That is not God.

Jewish poet Ruth Brin, (A Woman’s Meditation), put it this way:

When men were children, they thought of God as a father;
When men were slaves, they thought of God as a master;
When men were subjects, they thought of God as a king.
But I am a woman come not a slave, not a subject,
not a child who longs for God as father or mother.
I might imagine God as a teacher or friend, but those images,
like king, master, father or mother, are too small for me now.
God is the force of motion and light in the universe;
God is the strength of life on our planet;
God is the power moving us to do good;
God is the source of love springing up in us.
God is far beyond what we can comprehend.

Like God, Jesus transcends all of our language, petty ambitions, and self-aggrandizing titles. We need new language for Jesus and God and Jesus as God that is not rooted in vengeance and violence, submission and slaughter, or domination and damnation. We need to employ a little sanctified imagination and call God by names that allow us to see ourselves in her but don’t reduce her to paradigms we know have failed. But all we have is these human tongues and colonized imaginations. As parents and teachers have often said, “Use your words.” Use your wholly inadequate human words and know that they are insufficient because God is more. But even with our limitations we can craft language for God that is not rooted in slavery and subjugation like lord and king. Drawing on the spirit of my ancestors I will say God is a mother to the motherless and a father to the fatherless. God is a doctor in the sickroom and a lawyer in the courtroom. God is the one who brings us to life, calls us to freedom, and moves between us with love.

God is:

Sovereign, Savior and Shelter;
Author, Word and Translator;
Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer and Life-Giver;
Holy Incarnate Majesty, Holy Incarnate Word, Holy Abiding Spirit;
Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer;
Parent, Partner, and Friend.

And God is available to any and everyone whether warrior, prophet, king, laborer, immigrant, transchild, felon, politician, trafficked woman, president, pastor, professor or seminarian, patriarchal misogynist or white supremacist, once we understand that the titles with which we have crowned ourselves and in which we name God in our image become idols. God is the living God and Risen Christ in our midst, reigning over the commonwealth of God in this world and in the next. Amen.