Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

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The Shadows of Easter

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.

 

Easter is beautiful. The warmth of the vigil fire; the light of the flames blending into the dawn sky. The light of the breaking dawn shining through stained glass windows. The flowers, their scent mingling with the scent of incense. The fragrance of warm bread–risen bread!–ascending with our prayers. Easter is beautiful. But it rests on an ugly foundation.

The glory of the triumph of Easter can make it easy to move past the oppressive systems and institutions that ensnared and extra-judicially executed Jesus, those which survived his death, and endure in the aftermath of his resurrection, still taking lives, still placing the tortured pierced bodies of daughters and sons in the arms of their mothers. After all, crucifixion continued after Jesus’s death, perhaps the next day, week, or month. Crucifixion continued after his resurrection. James Cone tells us that crucifixion continued in the lynching trees of the American south and in the north, including right here in Texas. Black Lives Matter activists keep telling us that crucifixion continues whether bullets or nails pierce the bodies of the crucified. And our trans siblings are crying out in their crucifixions, often at the hands of those they trusted to love them, all too often fathers and brothers. I know its Eastertide, but the world is still crucifying and crucified. After all we are singing our alleluias under armed guard in a sanctuary in which bullets as well as blossoms can be found. We are singing these alleluias while bombs are dropping on Syria, devastated by slaughter that has left half a million dead yet the doors of this so-called Christian nation under God are shut to all but eleven refugees.

I’m thinking about the Shadows of Easter this morning. The Church is built on more than the rock that is Christ. (Sorry Peter, you are not the rock.) The faults and failings of the world in which the Church was founded are also part and parcel of the Church and always have been. Cultural and institutional biases were incorporated into the Church from its founding, along with a general human predilection to do the wrong thing at any given time. I’m from a tradition that describes the Church as an “ark of safety.” Well, the ark was filled with shitstuff. And some of that stuff is in the Church.

Don’t miss that we have so many accounts of the resurrection in part because Jesus chose women as the apostles to the apostles but the pervasive sexism of the age would not accept women as witnesses, evangelists, and apostles in spite of what was already scripture at that time saying that women’s words and witness are enough for God: We’ve got a gospel that says women saw the resurrection and told the story; that’s preaching the gospel. We’ve got gospels that say that women saw the resurrection and went to get a man so he could preach the gospel. We’ve got a gospel in which men compete with each other to get there first–but still after the women–and eventually Jesus has to do a supernatural break-in to get them, the men, to get out and preach the gospel. And yet and still, in 2018 we had launch a major campaign to get men and women to “believe women” when we tell you the ways we’ve been harassed and harmed in every space in our world, including in the Church. And still some folk are asking, what does he have to say about it? He says he didn’t do it. I believe him.

There are systems which rank and categorize people and their worth that have been with us since the one person blamed the other person for eating a food he put into his own mouth. Outside of the sacred stories, people figured out how to dominate one another through brute strength, by withholding resources, and wielding of social power as soon as there were enough of them to divide into groups. Power takes many forms. One of those forms is the power to tell the version of the story that will become the Authorized Version. That is what our scriptures are: The Authorized Version of God’s story through particular perspectives.

In the Acts lesson (Acts 3:12-19 below) a number of different kinds of power come together to tell the story of Easter that is beautiful and glorious, and also shadowed by some of the ugliness it has spawned, ugliness that is still with us. It takes place in the aftermath of Peter’s miraculous healing of a man at the gate on the temple grounds. When confronted with the amazement of the people in response to the miracle he performed, Peter, perhaps still reeling from guilt over betraying and abandoning Jesus yet seeing the undeniable power of God working through his own unfaithful self, remembers his own denials and projects all of his emotional stuff onto the people who are his own Jewish people: You handed Jesus over to death. You rejected him. You killed him. You killed the author of Life. All the while what I think he was really saying was: I handed Jesus over to death. I rejected him. I killed him. I killed the author of Life

Peter’s language along with the Gospel of John that we read on Good Friday detailing Jesus’ encounters with the police which were nothing less than brutal, and a few other passages, form the basis of what has come to be called the “teaching of contempt” towards Jews and Judaism, literally blaming them for Jesus’s crucifixion at the hands of Roman soldiers under the power and authority of the Roman government, a power Jewish leaders didn’t have and a power that the eagle of Rome would not use to resolve what was for them a petty religious dispute. Instead, Rome executed Jesus as an insurrectionist, as a threat to the throne, and to the empire.

But the teaching of contempt blames Jews for the death of Christ. And that teaching from pulpits and podiums in congregations and classrooms has led to the murder of Jews by Christians, sometimes with the blessing of the Church. From the First Crusade in which Jews in Jerusalem were burned alive in synagogues to the Third Crusade in which Jews in England were given the choice of death or baptism and those who did not commit suicide were murdered. To Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic rages instructing to Christians to “First set fire to their schools and synagogues…This is to be done in honor of our Lord…Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed…Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings…be taken from them…Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb…” From Martin Luther to the Holocaust which was perpetrated “by Christian hands in Christian lands,” (Johanna van Wijk Bos)[1]with pastors, theologians, biblical scholars and, everyday Christians lending their religious and moral authority to that genocide which we recalled this past week on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, an Orthodox Jew who is also a New Testament professor, calls for us to do better with our theology and preaching, because anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism are counter to the “good news” of Jesus.”[2]

Easter, the glorious celebration of the glorious resurrection is overshadowed by anti-Semitism in our time as well, lest we forget the Nazi-saluting torch-bearing white supremacists who identify as Christian shouting “You will not replace us” and in some cases “Jew will not replace us.” Our celebrations of the resurrection are tainted by what we do in Christ’s name and in Christ’s Church, what we permit to be done in Christ’s name and in Christ’s Church, what we are silent about in the face of Christ, and what we deny in the face of Christ like Peter.

The whole of the Christian year stretches towards this moment when we reach back to acclaim the power of God over death manifest in the resurrected life of Jesus. The passion and pageantry of the eight days from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday enable us to mystically live in these ancient holy moments across time. And at the same time we are very much present in a world that is anything but resurrected.

This is the world in which we celebrate Easter. We dare not look away from the ugliness that stains its petals or turn our backs to its looming shadows, for Jesus bids us take up our cross on a way that leads through Shadow-Valley Death, even in Eastertide. Taking up the cross of the wrongfully convicted Jesus means not allowing the words of life in the gospel to be twisted into words of death for his Jewish kin. It means teaching and learning that the language of “Jews” in the New Testament is used by Jews to other Jews with whom they are wrestling with what it means to be a Jew when some Jews believed in Jesus and some Jews did not. It would take Jewish Christians hundreds of years to sort themselves out or be sorted out. We need to understand that these were internal Jewish conversations and we who are not Jews might just need to see ourselves out.

In Acts 3, Peter calls his Jewish community to repentance and I think the text also calls we who are Christians without Jewish roots to repent. It calls some of us to repent for bad theology, bad exegesis, and bad preaching. It calls all of us to repent for using the scriptures to subordinate and dominate others, to conquer and colonize, for failing to rise above hatred and bias even when it can be found in the text; it calls us to repent for our silences and turning away from the shadows. We as Church are called to repent for the ways in which we have used the scriptures violently against folk denying them liberty, denying them access to the sacraments, sometimes denying them their very lives. The Church needs to repent for its own white supremacy and anti-Semitism, past and present, its silencing of voices–women’s voices, gay voices, trans voices, and non-white voices–when they say what it doesn’t want to hear, or is tired of hearing.

To repent is to do more than to apologize, though apologies are good. Repentance begins with confession and involves a complete turning away from the transgression. In some cases, repentance involves restoration, not just of the soul of the transgressor, but of the one violated. You can’t repent for stealing and hold onto the stolen property. Sometimes repentance involves reparations. Sometimes there is no reparation that can be paid, but that is not the call of the transgressor.

The beauty of Easter is rooted in the ugliness of crucifixion, an entirely legal process that is also wholly immoral. It is still the case that what is legal is not necessarily, ethical, moral, or right. We are called to be on the side of the crucified, not the empire that crucifies. That is the way of Jesus. The way of Jesus is also life and love. It is easy to find the broken places in our world and those that deal death. Where are the resurrection spaces? Where do we look to see that death does not, in fact, have the last word? And what is our work in bridging the gap between death and life?

Jesus rose in the realm of death and decay, his resurrected body still bearing the marks of the crucifixion on his body. The broken man in Acts found new life in his own body. The disciples in the gospel (Luke 24:36-48) encountered the resurrection in their grief. It is here in this broken world that we encounter the power of the resurrection. It is in the power of that first glorious resurrection that we have power to heal what is broken in our Church, in our world, and in ourselves. And that is good news. Amen.

 

Acts 3:12 When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, “You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? 13 The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. 14 But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, 15 and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. 16 And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.

17   “And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. 18 In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. 19 Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out…

 

 

[1]Making Wise the Simple: The Torah in Christian Faith and Practice, xviii.

[2]The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, 110.

Biblical Studies in an Age of Unhooded White Supremacy

Andrew Shurtleff, The Daily Progress

Invited lecture in response to white nationalist marches in Charlottesville.

I, or rather my title, have misled you—if you were led at all: “Biblical Studies in an Age of Unhooded Racism.” White supremacy in biblical studies, like its get, racism, has never been hooded. Racism in the US has never been hooded. Racism in the West has never been hooded. Racism has been thinly obscured by the tawdry yet seductive negligee of privilege-purchased naïveté. Or, racism has been obscured by willful ignorance, but again, not completely—the will not to see. (I am a very different Wil.) All the while racism has taken its place on the pages and at the podiums of biblical studies, and in the seats of power in the institutions that promulgate it.  

            Those hoods have always been visible. Like their literal forbears, the hoods are least visible to their wearers, even though the hoods distort their vision, their wearers normalize their impaired vision. Ironically, the hoods should be more visible to wearers looking at other wearers. But to comment upon someone else’s hood is to comment upon your own, and the negligee of privilege purchased naïveté is so seductive. The metaphorical of hoods white supremacy are, of course, most visible to those whom they were originally intended to subjugate and terrorize. Titus Kaphar’s series, Behind the Myth of Benevolence, illustrates this poignantly for me. (The images are copyrighted, you may view them here. Scroll down for the third.)

            Unhooding, or rather drawing attention to the unhooded and naked white supremacist history of biblical studies and biblical interpretation, is a necessary part of a of an education in the text and its interpretation whether for classroom or congregation. Dismantling racism in the biblical guild, broader academy, and wider world is a reluctant vocation; that work most properly falls to its maintenance engineers—its original architects no longer accessible—and this work most properly belongs to those who have inherited the legacy of white supremacy. All too often that work is left to people of color. All too often I find myself addressing it. By all too often, I mean at all.

            I do this work and accept these engagements all too often I don’t hear my white colleagues address the white supremacy that is baked into foundations of the Western critical biblical enterprise, even when decrying the anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism that are also its spawn. To be fair, some dominant culture colleagues have turned critical eyes to white supremacy and to other dominating structures and had done so in advance of this age of apocalyptic dissonance, which I read as having been inaugurated with the murder of Trayvon Martin. (That is a subject of contemplation for me in an on-going project.)

Recently, the tolerance for white supremacist rhetoric, slogans, and salutes in the public square and at the highest levels of government has made white supremacy more visible. The negligee has slipped off; its wearer fully exposed, under the glare of spotlights–not all of which are the harsh lights of hostile interrogations, some are the soft lights of romantic adoration…

The full talk (audio) is available here.

Strategies of Resistance: A Lesson From Daniel


 

Teach us to use the power of our words to tell the story that liberates us all. Amen.

There is more than one way to tell a story, especially a story as important as the Christian story; this also applies to the stories that make up our sacred stories. Today we explore that plurality in a lectionary of my devising, rather revising–because I think there is danger in only re-telling the same stories, no matter how beloved. (The lessons follow the sermon text.)

Among our sacred trove of stories are two versions of the Daniel story–there are even more outside of the Christian canons. One of those canonical stories was preserved in Hebrew and Aramaic by the descendants of the Judeans who survived the Babylonian exile and created the mother text for the Hebrew Bible and the Protestant version of the story. That is the source of our Second Lesson and Canticle. The other canonical story was preserved in Greek by the descendants of the Judeans who fled to Egypt instead. That is the source of our First Lesson. Together those lessons and canticle are in narrative order telling a more complete story.

The book of Daniel is a text of resistance. It is a cagey strategic piece of resistance. It is an anti-imperial text disguised as an anti-imperial text. Empires don’t mind their subjects mocking failed and fallen empires. In their egocentrism they read that calumny as their own praise because they are top dog now. So the cagey authors of Daniel disguised a critique of the lingering and declining Greek Empire in a retroactive critique of the centuries past Babylonian Empire. And they put that critique on the lips and at the pen of Daniel, a beloved figure whose origins were even older than the Babylonian Empire or its predecessor Assyrian Empire or the great dynasties of Egypt, or even the founding of the people of Israel. Daniel was a figure of legend whose stories were told in each generation with new stories added to his canon from time to time. I use the perpetually open canons of the DC and Marvel Comics Universes to explain this phenomenon in my infamous “Santa, Daniel, and the Zombie Apocalypse” lecture.

Today, I invite you to hear the story as as subversive as it really is. In the First Lesson three young people have been taken captive by the empire and forced to assimilate to its culture, made to wear its clothing, eat its food, speak its language, and answer to the names they give them–names which stuck to them even in the stories of their own people. The tentacles of empire reach deep, even into the hearts of people who are working faithfully to decolonialize themselves. It matters that these are young people. In the larger story of Daniel they are taken as children to be assimilated so that they will love the empire that colonized their people more than they love their own selves. Empires have always underestimated young people, whether it was civil rights protestors, dreamers, or high school gun reform activists.

When our lesson begins these young people are being enculturated in the worship of the empire and required to pray to the gods of the empire at the cost of their subjugated, colonized lives. One of the lessons of this text is that empire is rapacious and insatiable. They were already speaking the language of empire. They had already had their names changed from Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. But it wasn’t enough. The empire wanted more, more of them, more of their souls.

As long as there is a corner of your soul that is free, uncolonized, unconquered, unbought, and unbossed, empire will by any means necessary seek to uproot that liberty and colonize the last vestige of your right mind, heart, and soul. African and Native Americans know this story all too well as do the indigenous peoples of every nation conquered by an empire. In the face of the empire’s ravenous desire for their abject and total submission, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah clung fast to God of their foremothers and fathers and rejected the empire’s religion.

I’m calling this sermon “Strategies of Resistance,” ours, not theirs, because they didn’t really strategize. They just said no. No to the god of empire. No to its worship and veneration. They didn’t negotiate; they didn’t equivocate. Sometimes we just need to say no to the manifestations of empire in our world. No to the slaughter of school children. No to military grade weaponry in the streets. No to families ripped apart by militarized immigration assault troops. No to bad preaching. No to death-dealing theology. No to violence against women. No to bullying gay and trans teens to death. No to incompetent and corrupt government. No to everything that stands against the life-giving love of God and the liberty it grants. No and hell no.

The empire responded to their rejection of its attempt to colonize their minds, their spirits, their souls, and their ancestral religion with lethal rage. The empire covets good religion. It knows if it gets a toehold in pulpits and pews, seminaries and sanctuaries, books and blogs, texts and tweets, it can sanctify its hierarchies and disparities as the word and will of God. The empire prepared to kill Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. It was to be a spectacle lynching. A spectacle lynching was when good white folk would make an event out of a lynching, bring their sweetheats, wives, children and a basket of goodies to nibble while they watched the show. They’d often set their victims on fire–as Nebuchadnezzar planned to do in the text, pose with their burning corpses, and later cut off pieces of them to take home as souvenirs. Activist-archivist James Allen collected one hundred and forty-five photos of spectacle lynchings in the US, including here in Texas. They are featured in the volume Without Sanctuary which I commend to you. The strategies of resistance required to outlaw lynching lasted well into the twentieth century. Sometimes resistance is an intergenerational struggle.

The most significant strategy of resistance employed by the three young people was to be willing to let the empire spill their blood. Sometimes resistance means being willing to die. Sometimes it means preparing to die. Sometimes it means dying. Sometimes it means rising from the dead–but I’m getting ahead of next week’s story. We are not far from the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination and martyrdom of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He and many others in the Civil Rights Movement resisted not just segregation but white supremacy with their very lives. White supremacy is a colonizing force that transcends national borders and is every bit as much a manifestation of empire as any nation with imperial imagination and aspirations. The three young people prepared to die in resistance to the empire.

The Hebrew text moves quickly to a story of miraculous deliverance–but not so fast–there is more to the story. The Greek story picks up where the Hebrew one leaves off and fills in the gap. The young people responded to their impending extra-judicial killing with the songs of their ancestors. They sang to the God no empire could strip from them. They told the story of God’s faithfulness to their people. As the empire’s rage burned against them in literal fire they used the breaths they thought would be their last to deny the empire power over them, over their story, and over their song, because our stories and our songs are tools of resistance. The empire set out to destroy this last act of resistance. But something happened when they refused to surrender their heart and minds, songs and prayers, poetry and theology, even if they had to lay their bodies down. God appeared in the midst of the resistance.

The resistance writers used the book of Daniel to tell their people that the empire would not be defeated with the master’s tools. They couldn’t defeat it with military might. They couldn’t defeat it with economic might. But if they kept their minds right and stayed on the God who delivered their ancestors, no empire would ever be able to destroy them, no matter what their political reality. In the words of the gospel, “you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

Our words have power. That is why fascists burn books, ban films, silence scholars, censure artists, and assassinate prophets. They bully and sue, intimidate and obfuscate, and they use their words to rewrite our stories, revise our histories and stamp their image on our art and culture. And they lie. They lie about us. They lie about our culture. They lie about our history. They lie about God. With their lies they construct a god who is not God and expect us to bow down and worship it.

But these young activists on the page and the older activists behind the pen have shown us how to resist: Don’t let the empire tell you who you are. Don’t let the empire assimilate you into its culture. Don’t let the empire tell you your cultural and culinary practices are inferior. Don’t let the empire clothe you–body or mind. Don’t let the empire tell you who God is. Don’t let the empire use your life to advertise its glory. Resistance is not futile. But resistance is costly. We follow one who resisted empire to the cost of his life and we are called to do the same. How much more ought we be willing to put our lives on the line knowing the promise of resurrection than those young people, literal or literary, who were willing to go to a death from which they had no sure promise of escape? Amen.

Three Youths in the Fiery Furnace, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

Collect: Almighty God, Mother and Father to us all, renew in us the gifts of your tender love; increase our faith, strengthen our hope, enlighten our understanding, widen our imaginations, grant us grace in giving, and make us ready to serve you; through Jesus Christ our Redeemer, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and everAmen.

First Lesson Daniel 3:14-20, 24-29 (New English Translation of the Septuagint, adapted)*

Daniel 3:14 So when King Nebuchadnezzar saw them, he said to them, “O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, for what reason do you not serve my gods and do not do obeisance to the gold image, which I have set up? 15 And now, if you are now prepared, as soon as you hear the horn and all the sounds of musical instruments to fall down and do obeisance to the gold image that I set up… But if not—know that if you do not do obeisance, you will be thrown immediately into the furnace blazing with fire, and what god will deliver you out of my hands?”

16 But Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to King Nebuchadnezzar, “O king, we have no need to answer you about this command, 17 for there is God who is in heaven, our one Sovereign, whom we fear, who is able to deliver us from the furnace of fire, and out of your hands, O king, he will deliver us. 18 And then it will be clear to you, that we will neither serve your idol nor will we do obeisance to your gold image, which you have set up.”

19 Then Nebuchadnezzar was filled with anger, and the form of his face was distorted against them. And he ordered that the furnace be heated sevenfold more than it was necessary for it to be heated 20 and ordered very strong men, who were in his command, after they had tied those with Azariah, to throw them into the furnace blazing with fire…

24 So, therefore, Hananiah and Azariah and Mishael prayed and sang hymns to the Sovereign God, when the king ordered them to be thrown into the furnace. 25 Then Azariah stood and prayed in this way. And he opened his mouth, and he acknowledged the Sovereign God together with his companions in the middle of the fire, while the furnace was being heated exceedingly by the Chaldeans, and he said:

26 Blessed are you, Holy One, God of our ancestors,
and praiseworthy and glorified is your name forever!
27 For you are just in all you have done for us,
and all your works are genuine and your ways right,
and all your judgments are genuine.
28 And you have executed true judgments in all you have brought upon us
and upon Jerusalem, your holy city of our ancestors,
because in truth and judgment you have done all these things because of our sins.

Canticle 13 A Song of Praise Benedictus es, Domine:

Song of the Three Young Men, (Daniel 3:29–34, Septuagint, Book of Common Prayer adapted) *

Glory to you, Holy God of our mother and fathers;
you are worthy of praise; glory to you.
Glory to you for the radiance of your holy Name;
we will praise you and highly exalt you for ever.

Glory to you in the splendor of your temple;
on the throne of your majesty, glory to you.
Glory to you, seated between the Cherubim;
we will praise you and highly exalt you for ever.

Glory to you, beholding the depths;
in the high vault of heaven, glory to you.
Glory to you, Creator God, Crucified God, and Comforting God;
we will praise you and highly exalt you for ever.

Second Lesson: Daniel 3:24-29 (New Revised Standard Version)*

Daniel 3:24 Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up quickly. He said to his counselors, “Was it not three men that we threw bound into the fire?” They answered the king, “True, O king.” 25 He replied, “But I see four men unbound, walking in the middle of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the fourth has the appearance of a god.” 26 Nebuchadnezzar then approached the door of the furnace of blazing fire and said, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out! Come here!” So Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego came out from the fire. 27 And the satraps, the prefects, the governors, and the king’s counselors gathered together and saw that the fire had not had any power over the bodies of those men; the hair of their heads was not singed, their tunics were not harmed, and not even the smell of fire came from them. 28 Nebuchadnezzar said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent God’s own angel and delivered the servants of God servants who trusted in God. They disobeyed the king’s command and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God.

Gospel: John 8:31-42 (New Revised Standard Version)*

John 8:31 Then Jesus said to the Judeans who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”

34 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36 So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. 37 I know that you are descendants of Abraham; yet you look for an opportunity to kill me, because there is no place in you for my word. 38 I declare what I have seen in the Father’s presence; as for you, you should do what you have heard from the Father.”

39 They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing what Abraham did, 40 but now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. 41 You are indeed doing what your father does.” They said to him, “We are not illegitimate children; we have one father, God himself.” 42 Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now I am here. I did not come on my own, but God sent me.

*Person and place name spellings from the NRSV are used throughout along with inclusive language and redress for other linguistic issues. The Canticle includes the addition of a Christian doxology for its use in liturgies. Inclusive language is used there as well.

A New Covenant, Enduring Faithfulness

In the name of the faithful God who has redeemed us, Amen.

The days are surely coming, says the Holy One, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. Jeremiah 31:31

It is almost impossible for Christians to not read the new covenant in Jeremiah 31 as the new relationship between God and humanity inaugurated by Jesus or as the New Testament. We just can’t help ourselves. The disciples and early church read the Hebrew Bible in light of and looking for Jesus. Jesus himself is recorded as speaking tantalizingly about the ancient scriptures referring to him but he didn’t say how. Did he mean as himself, Jesus ben Mary; did he mean as the God who is ever present in the text?

There is a real temptation to read prophetic texts as predictive and only predictive. But that misses the contemporary ministry prophets offered in their own time: speaking to the current circumstances in which folk found themselves. When we start by reading ourselves into the text we miss or even erase the faithfulness of God to her people across time. We need the witness and promise of that faithfulness. We need to know that God will be faithful because God has been faithful.

God makes this promise of a new covenant to Israel and Judah at a specific moment in history. The period in which Jeremiah 31:31-34 is set might well be called a post-apocalyptic horror-scape. I’m not certain hearers of this text always understand what all is implied by the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests, deportations, and exile of Israel Judah because we in the US do not have the experience of sustained warfare on our shores. To understand this text, envision the news accounts of the war in Syria: rubble and destruction everywhere, smoking ruins everywhere else except those things that are already on fire, brutal executions, bodies in the streets, even the targeting of children to terrorize the population, starving, desperate people.

Jeremiah is addressing the decimation of Israel by the Assyrians a century earlier followed by the Babylonian invasion and its aftermath in his own time. His message is that Israel will be made whole. God had not forgotten, even though their near annihilation by the Assyrians was unresolved, even though the Babylonians had now savaged the remnant that was left.

The nation was broken. Jeremiah, like many in his time, blamed all of Israel’s misfortunes on them; it was all their fault because they were sinners. Unfortunately that theology didn’t die with him. Yet, Jeremiah did get something right. He knew that God was faithful. He knew that God’s desire for her people was wholeness. He also came to know that nothing Israel did justified the brutality they experienced. That theology inevitably fails, usually when the person blaming others suffers some misfortune they know they did not bring upon themselves.

And Jeremiah knew the brokenness of the world wouldn’t be made whole overnight. In the verses before the ones we read, Jeremiah describes how it will be: The land that was ravaged will be replanted, human and non-human life will thrive. Seasons of planting and harvesting, and of construction and reconstruction will replace the seasons of terror and devastation Israel had experienced.

It is in this context that God says: I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures God’s covenant with Israel is torah, which means teaching more than it does law. This constitution, if you will, was not a document signed by founding fathers or first mothers; it was a covenant with God. Now God says: I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. (Jer 31:31)

Some may hear “another” covenant in the “new” covenant but God isn’t throwing out the Torah, the teaching, the laws that distinguished Israel to some degree from other nations. Rather God is doubling down on it: I will put my torah, my teaching, my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jer 31:33) The tablets on which God had written the prologue to the first covenant were gone. Their shattered pieces were kept in the Ark of the Covenant and no one had seen that since the Babylonians assaulted the temple with axes and with fire.

To these broken and devastated people who had lost all of their institutions of statehood and peoplehood–monarchy and worship, liturgy, and sanctuary–Jeremiah offers a word of hope. The nation, which is also the religious community of the faithful, will be reconstituted. They will be rebuilt, reborn. They are getting a second chance. Jeremiah’s prophecy was good news to his people living in the last tribal enclave of Israel after the Assyrians demolished every tribe outside of Judah, good news to those deported by them, and good news to those who survived the Babylonian onslaught. And it is good news to us, even though we are not in the same circumstances.

Because scripture is living, it is pluripotent and can do more than one thing. It testifies to God’s faithfulness in the past, and promises the surety of that continued faithfulness in our time and beyond. Jeremiah describes a world in which people who saw their nation ripped apart, their fellow citizens deported, their families torn asunder, their economy ruined, and another nation ruling them through a puppet they installed. I know Jeremiah has something to say to us in our time: God will be faithful because God has been faithful.

It is these values, the trustworthiness and power of God to redeem and restore that the evangelists saw as contiguous with the life and teaching of Jesus. In short, Jeremiah does not so much predict Jesus, (though he and his writings may); rather the text renders a portrait of the God whom Jesus incarnates. This God embodied in Jesus stands against empires and their domination. The Assyrian Empire fell. The Babylonian Empire that replaced it fell. The Persian Empire that replaced it fell. The empire of Alexander the Great that replaced it fell. The Roman Empire that succeeded it fell. The Holy Roman Empire fell. The Byzantine Empire fell. The Ottoman Empire fell. The sun set on the British Empire. Imperial power is based on subjugation, the antithesis of the liberty God offers through Jesus. Empires fall and we as Americans need to take heed.

The backs of tyrants and their empires will be broken. But the people ground into the dirt by them, and even those who have served them are the people whom Jesus draws to himself, even as the empire of his age put him to death: Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. (John 12:31-32)

The ancient Israelites and Judeans partnered with God in their restoration. They lived into the covenant that was the teaching of God, passing it down to every generation that followed. We are watching things change around us, with the echoes of their testimony in scripture in our ears. And we can see the workings of empires no longer limited to nations states in the way in which peoples are treated, subjugated, used for cheap labor, and discarded. Now as then, God calls us back to the commandments, the teachings, the torah, the law of God, not just in our ears or before our eyes, but engraved upon the tablets of our hearts.

While God rights the world, restoring all that is broken and Jesus draws all–no exceptions, all–to him, we are called to live that covenant, its commandments, teachings, and laws. For God will not right the world by a sweep of a divine hand; we will feed the poor, house and clothe the homeless, work for peace between people and nations, leaving only the impossible up to God. The possible, the difficult, the undesirable; that is all our work.

In this season of Lent we start our services with that covenant to remind ourselves and recommit ourselves to this covenant: We will have no other gods but God. We will not make anything an idol. We will not dishonor the Name of God. We will honor the sanctity of the Sabbath. We will honor our parents. We will not break faith with our beloveds and we will honor the sacrament of marriage. We will not steal. We will not lie. We will not covet our neighbor’s possessions or position. We will love our neighbors as ourselves. (Ex 20:3-17; Lev 19:18) We affirmed this covenant when we said, “Amen, God have mercy.” We were saying, “God have mercy on us if we fail to uphold this covenant.” We say that, because we know that we will fail and we trust in God to have mercy.

We trust in God’s love, faithfulness, and mercy, and in her promise. I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Amen.

Of God, Men, and Kings


 

(Preached at the Schooler Institute on Preaching at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio)

Let us pray:

ברוכה את יה אלהינו לב העלם אשר שמה לב עלינו ושומעת קול לבינו

רחמי עלינו וישמע קול דממה דקה

Blessed are You, Yah our God, Heart of the Universe, who attends to us and hears the voice of our hearts; mother-love us and make audible the soft, still voice. Amen.

James Lewis Icons, with permission

“Give us a king!”
“Give us a man-king!
“Give us a man!”
“Give us a man-king to rule over us.”

When Shmuel, Samuel, reached a certain point in years, the point when everyone agrees you’re old, but just short of too old, when Shmuel, Samuel, became old, he appointed his sons as judges, rulers, governors, all-but-kings without crowns. I have to stop here and repeat that Samuel appointed his sons, not God. Every judge in the book of Judges, and Moses before them, was appointed by God. But Samuel, in a fit of nepotism, appointed his own children to an office for which they were neither qualified nor equipped. Can you imagine a leader entrusted with the security and wellbeing of a people handing over critical jobs at the uppermost levels of governance to their own spawn?

Sam’s boys, Joe and Avi, Yoel, Joel, and Aviyah, were at the southernmost region of Samuel’s territory, perhaps thinking they were too far away for their father to know what they were doing in an age without social media. But the narrator knows, the people know, and surely Samuel knows that his boys are robbing the house of God blind. They are taking from the people’s offerings what they want before it can even be offered to God. But more importantly, when read literarily in sequence, this chapter comes after 1 Samuel 2:22 where it was revealed that Samuel’s sons were guilty of sexual misconduct with the women who ministered at the sanctuary. In fact the lack of the preposition in Hebrew–they “lay” the women, not “lay with”–indicates rape and not consent even in the world of the text. In our world, from our context we see women clergy who said #metoo passed over for promotion for men who lacked the character or integrity called for but who had connections.

I mean, we’ve already had one female judge. Just because Deborah was excellent doesn’t mean there’s any reason to take a chance on another woman. We’ve already had one non-white-male president. Just because Barack was excellent—although I have some serious critiques–doesn’t mean there’s any reason to take a chance on another non-white-male president. Meanwhile, Samuel was sitting in Deborah’s seat of judgment at Ramah. In my sanctified imagination I hear folk saying Deborah and her chief goon Jael had a way of dealing with rapists. Ask Sisera’s mama who’s still waiting for her boy to come home.

I’m trying to get to the text but a text without a context is a pretext. Please don’t miss that Avi and Joe were fired for messing with people’s money, not messing with women’s bodies. When the narrator mentions their transgressions in verse 3, financial crimes and their sheer and utter failure to do their job as judges—to do justice—are the only charges. Their record of sexual assault was well documented and they were still appointed to the highest office in the land, even with all of the receipts on display. But suddenly, their time was up.

The people got together and voted. Understand that while we have sanctified voting, in the ancient Israelite context it was a rebellious, even treasonous, act against God. But treason seems to be all the rage these days. Be very clear that your biblical authors and editors would consider democracy a godless system. So we can’t just read Israelite texts about governance into and onto our world without any nuance. Ironically, our own ancestral overthrow of our anointed sovereign would have also been considered treasonous and rebellious, because contexts change, in and out of the bible, and what was once considered a rejection of God later became a messianic construct. Nevertheless, our American ancestors thought that voting for a leader was a good idea though they didn’t think that everyone should vote, and some still don’t think some of us should be able to vote right now.

After throwing Samuel’s age in his face and charging his sons with bribery and incompetence but giving them a pass on rape, the people ask for a human-sovereign to do what Samuel has been doing–judging, ruling, governing–but this time with the full regalia of monarchy. They don’t ask for anyone with any better morals, training, preparation, or calling than his boys. They say:

“Give us a king!”
“Give us a man-king!
“Give us a man!”
“Give us a man-king to rule over us.”

They are looking not just to replace his kleptocratic sexual assailant sons; they are looking to replace him too. Samuel, you’re fired.

The people have been watching Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and they want what they see. They want the pageantry of the one percent. They want a privileged, entitled man with no experience or preparation to hold the highest office in the land. They just want to be like the other nations, the heathen nations. I’m using that word deliberately because of how they in their ethnocentrism characterized everyone else who didn’t share their beliefs, practices, and culture as other, yet they emulate them in every way. Reminds me of the folk who would rather be poor and white than rich and black but who speak and sing in our vernacular—or try—dance to our music—or try—wear our fashion, copy our hairstyles and then spew anti-black bile like the white nationalist fool who was looking for material on dreadlocking his hair that didn’t have references on Rastas and all that n-word ish. They seem to think that the wealth and status of a privileged moneyed leader will somehow trickle down to them. That such a man–and they wanted a man–such a man would be competent to or even care to raise their status.

And they want Samuel as prophet and pastor to bless that mess. Samuel, the people’s pastor, heir to the throne of Deborah and Moses that only those three fully occupied with the dual callings of prophet and judge, Samuel went to his God. I like Samuel. His relationship with God is instructive. I believe that Samuel tells God his whole mind. At least that is how I understand the text’s omission of the words of his first prayer. I believe like many of us Samuel says some things in that prayer that would burn the ears and shock the souls of those who think preachers shouldn’t cuss. After he prays whatever he prays God says give them what they want. God also tells Samuel some of what she is feeling and doesn’t hold back. In this three-way breakup God says: It’s not you; it’s me. But it’s really them. This is how they do. Give them what they want but let them know what this will cost them.

Tell them what they’re buying and how they will pay for it. And Samuel told them: When you choose a man based on plutocratic standards—Give us a man-king to rule us like the heathen nations with their golden thrones and palaces—when you choose a leader out of covetousness because you really want to see yourself reflected in his gold painted shine, not only will you not benefit from his expanded wealth and privilege but you will pay dearly in the currency that matters most to you.

You say, “Give!” But he will take.
Your sons he will take.
Your daughters he will take.
Your fields and vineyards and olive orchards, he will take.
Your grain and your vineyards he will take.

Your male slaves and your female slaves he will take. Imma come back to the social inequity and oppression that Samuel lets go unchallenged because I do not accept the enslavement of human persons as a matter of course in any world at any time.

He will take your cattle and donkeys.

He will take your children and chew them up and spit them out of the engines of his warfare. He will spill the blood of their precious lives in his self-aggrandizing military provocations. He will use them up as low-wage workers with no benefits to enrich himself his hangers-on. But he has special plans for your daughters. On the surface of the text it looks like he wants professional skilled women to work in his enterprises. But we know no amount of professional acumen will protect women and girls from a disproportionate amount of sexual harassment and assault by those whose power, privilege, and position lead them to think they can grab whatever they want by whatever they want to do whatever they want to whomever they want.

He will take your income and the assets for which you have worked so hard. And those of you who are trying to live like kings, exploiting other people; he will take the people you exploit from you to exploit for his own needs. And then after all of that, he will use your flocks to tithe on the wealth he has taken from you. He will pay his taxes with your money. But at least he’s paying taxes. When he is through with you all, you will be even more broke than you are now. And you will be enslaved by the system you coveted.

He will take you for a ride and take you to the cleaners and take you to places you never imagined existed and leave you broken and battered, begging by the side of the road while his chariot-cade passes by. You will see yourselves reflected in the shine on his seal of office and cry out: My God, what have we done?

There is another context for this text: aftermath. The crowd of people who thought when they got a plutocrat who shared their values thought they would ride the gold gravy train will find out what will trickle down on them isn’t gold. You all will cry out on that day in the face of your human-sovereign, whom you have chosen for yourselves; and God Whose Name is Holy will not answer you all on that day.

They wound up with a leader who lacked the mental stability for the job. But beware of forcing the text to exactly parallel our world. Saul’s story is a tragic one. He and all of the women in his life are broken by David, and arguably by God who doesn’t accept Saul’s repentance but will accept David’s over and over and over again. But that is another sermon. Samuel’s opposition to the monarchy is preserved because it is entangled with the story of David, the monarch who will be all but deified.

There is more to take away from this passage than the hubris firing God then demanding she find a lesser qualified man to do a pale imitation of her job. Monarchy comes with a price. It is an expensive proposition; it will cost them more than they know. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Lord Acton was speaking of the church when he penned those famous words. The monarchy was already a failed experiment in Israel when they made their request. In the book of Judges one of Gideon’s seventy children, Avimelek, the one he seems to have rejected and not provided with an inheritance, kills all of his siblings (but one who escaped) and reigns in Israel for three years. He, not Saul, is the first king in Israel. He was eventually mortally wounded by a woman while besieging her town and killed himself so no one would say a woman killed him in Judges 9.

Traditional understandings of this text say what is at stake is what happens when you consider anyone other than God your king. That sounds real good to Americans and other post-colonial subjects who threw off the shackles of monarchy long ago. That is certainly Samuel’s perspective. The Deuteronomist will counter by constructing David as the first messiah-king. And if you want to know how that turned out ask Bathsheba, and Rizpah, and, Tamar and all the unnamed women, children, and men David slaughtered while thugging for hire on behalf of his Philistine lord.

Perhaps the most overlooked lesson in this text is that 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 narrative is 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. God is not a king. 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. God is not a king.

God transcends all of our language, petty ambitions, and self-aggrandizing titles. We need new language for 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 don’t bring her down to our level. But all we have is these human tongues and colonized imaginations. 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;
The God of Isaiah, the God of Jesus and our God;
Parent, Partner, and Friend.

God is:

shepherd, banner, rock, fortress, deliverer,
peace, light, salvation, 
strength and shield, 
devouring fire,
abiding presence.

God is twelve and seven and three and one and legion. God is. And God is available to any and everyone whether warrior, prophet, king, laborer, immigrant, transchild, felon, politicion, 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. And one day if we are not careful, God will leave us to them.

You all will cry out on that day in the face of your human-sovereign, whom you have chosen for yourselves; and God Whose Name is Holy will not answer you all on that day.

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

1 Samuel 8:4 All the elders of Israel gathered themselves together and came to Samuel yonder at Ramah, 5 and they said to him, “You—you are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways; now then, set up for us a human-sovereign to judge us, like all the heathen nations.” 6 But the thing was evil in Samuel’s sight when they said, “Give us a human-sovereign to judge us.” Then Samuel prayed to the Holy One of Old.

7 And the Holy One said to Samuel, “Hearken to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for it is not you they have rejected, but it is me they have rejected from being sovereign over them. 8 Like everything else they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this very day, forsaking me and serving other gods; they are doing the same to you. 9 Now then, hearken to their voice; but—you shall testify against them, and show them the judgment of the human-sovereign who shall reign over them.”

10 So Samuel relayed all the words of the Holy One to the people who were asking him for a human-sovereign. 11 Samuel said, “This will be the judgment of the human-sovereign who will reign over you: your sons he will take and set them aside for himself in his chariots and in his cavalry, and to run before his chariots; 12 and he will set aside for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his plowing and to reap his reaping, and to make his furnishings of war and the furnishings of his chariots. 13 Your daughters he will take to be apothecaries and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards, he will take and give to his servants. 15 One-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards he will take and give to his eunuchs and his slaves. 16 Your male slaves and your female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, he will take and put them to his work. 17 Your flocks he will tithe…and you, you shall be his slaves. 18 And you all will cry out on that day in the face of your human-sovereign, whom you have chosen for yourselves; and God Whose Name is Holy will not answer you all on that day.”

Conspire With the Spirit

In the Name of the God who breathed us into life, breathes through us, and will return our breath to us at the resurrection. Amen.

In beginning, when beginning, at origin… Our story begins with a word that takes us to the dawn of time. In beginning of what would become the world, God created, God crafted, the world with a power that breathes through us still. I translate it this way in Womanist Midrash:

Genesis 1:1 In beginning, He, God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was formless and shapeless and darkness covered the face of the deep, while She, the Spirit of God pulsed over the face of the waters. [my trans, Womanist Midrash, 19]

In the first phrase, In beginning, He, God created—just two words in Hebrew  בראשית ברא, God is grammatically masculine, which doesn’t necessarily mean that God is male, but does give us the masculine language we use so often in the church. In beginning the work of creation, God created the heavens and the earth, which in a world that only knew one planet that they thought was the center of creation, that didn’t know the word “planet” or that the stars were planets and other worlds—in that world “the heavens and the earth” meant everything in creation, even what they never could have imagined beyond the stars.

The world that God created was formless and shapeless and bathed in life giving darkness. In the scriptures from Exodus to Deuteronomy, from Psalms to Samuel, from Kings to Chronicles, darkness is the holy abode of God. (Ex 20:21; Deut 4:11; 5:23; 2 Sam 22:12; Ps 18:12; 1 Kgs 8:12; 2 Chr 6:1; Isa 45:3) It is in shadow that the Holy Spirit wraps the Virgin Mary, “over-shadowing” her and the holy life in the holy darkness of her womb. And there in the life-giving darkness before the dawn of creation, She, the Spirit of God, pulsed over the waters like the wings of a butterfly. The God we meet in Genesis teaches us there is nothing to fear in the darkness, for that is where God spins her web of life. Indeed the scriptures teach “the light and the dark are alike to thee.” (Psalm 139:12) And in that life-giving darkness:

She, the Spirit of God, She-who-is-also-God, at the dawn of creation fluttered over the nest of her creation at the same time as He, the more familiar expression of divinity, created all. They, Two-in-One, are the first articulations, self-articulations, of God in (and the God of) the Scriptures. God is female and male, and when God gets around to creating creatures in the divine image, they will be female and male, as God is. [WM, 19]

Genesis 1 marks the beginning of our world if not the beginning of all things, the beginning of Israel’s story, and the beginning of our scriptures. It is God’s resume and self-introduction. The God we meet in Genesis is more than we could have imagined and has spawned a whole industry of interpreters, theologians, and biblical scholars who spend a lot of time on basic math: God is One; there is God and the Spirit of God in this passage. How many is that?

If you want a classic explanation of the Trinity, call Father Andrew, or just wait until Trinity Sunday (also known as Heresy Sunday for the many folk failing at holy arithmetic). Today I don’t want to distinguish God from the Holy Spirit, I want to talk about the Holy Spirit as the manifestation of God that is active in our world, speaking it into life, breathing through it and through us. The Spirit of God is the Breath of God, a mighty wind moving through the world, stirring up holy trouble, fanning the flames of holy passion. When was the last time you got into holy trouble? When was the last time you were caught in the grip of a holy passion?

The Spirit of God unites our lessons from Genesis and Mark. In Mark she bears witness to her beloved son, Jesus, and is promised to those who are baptized. The gender of God gets really interesting when you thing about the Incarnation—the Holy Spirit who spoke life into the womb of the Blessed Virgin is also feminine. No man will be able to claim Jesus as his son; he is more the Son of Woman than the Son of Man. And the same Holy Spirit who spoke creation with “Let there be…” and crafted a holy child, with a word that was not heard, that God, that Spirit is the inheritance of the baptized. This is our God and she loves us dearly, to life, to and through death, back to life.

In Mark 1, the Virgin’s son was baptized, his baptism a visible sign of the baptism of the Holy Spirit that enveloped him and also envelops us at our baptism. The same Holy Spirit who pulsed over the waters of creation fluttered visibly from heaven to earth to claim Jesus as her child. In our baptisms she claimed us as well. We have the same Holy Spirit as Jesus. We walk through this world animated by the breath of the living God. The troubles of the world are many and great but no match for the God who fills us and breathes in and through us. The image of God claiming Jesus in baptism is for us, so that we might have an image of ourselves forever in the embrace of God and know that there are no limits for what God can do through us.

In Acts 19, the promise of the Holy Spirit appears to have been hindered by an inadequate baptism, the baptism of John rather than the baptism of Jesus. When the group was properly instructed and baptized in the name of Jesus, the Spirit poured out on the little band with dramatic evidence. (A cynical or uncharitable reading might see Paul being presented similarly to Jesus and John—right down to the twelve disciples—to establish his credibility.) This is an important story but let us not get stuck there, policing other people’s baptisms and executions of the sacraments.

In these three texts the Spirit is powerful beyond measure, and at the same time, tenderly loving and immanently present. We are never alone. God is always with us. God’s Spirit has been present in and on the world since the dawn of creation and has never left. The fires of the Spirit will burn even higher at Pentecost but she has always been here, loving us, claiming us, empowering us.

The power of God’s spirit is on full display in Psalm 29; the power of words whispered in a holy wind. God’s thundering voice unites Psalm 29 with Mark 1. The voice that shook the world in the psalm is the voice that splits the heavens in Mark. In the psalm God’s voice is the orchestra of creation: rumbling thunder, crashing waves and the crackle of lightning and fire. The power of that voice can peel the leaves and bark off the trees and shatter them into splinters. And God uses that voice to speak to us of her love.

What shall we do with the power that God has breathed into us? How shall we use our words? The world is hungry for God-breathed holy words. How do you tell the story of God’s love? To whom are you telling the story of God’s love? When was the last time you conspired with God? To conspire is to breathe together. When was the last time you returned your God-given breath to its source to breathe with God in the holy kiss that is prayer?

The season of Epiphany is a season of revelation, illumination, and discovery. I invite you to discover the power of the Holy Spirit in your life. Let her speak life-giving words through your words. Feel her in your every breath, for God’s voice still speaks in wind and water and her Spirit still bathes the baptized. Listen for her whispers on the winds. Amen.

1 Epiphany 2018

Gen 1:1–5; Ps 29:0–11; Acts 19:1–7; Mark 1:4–11

Live Your Theology Out Loud in Public

National Black Catholic Magnificat

Today is a commissioning service of sorts. [Hooding, conferral of academic hoods at Brite Divinity School, December 2017.] We confer degrees and the regalia that pertains to them to send you forth, forth across town, across the state, across an ocean, across the world, sometimes just around the corner, sometimes back to us for another go ‘round. We are sending you forth to a world that needs a wisdom we may not have imagined this time last year. It seems to me that this world which we inhabit, serve and with which we wrestle calls for a particular kind of wisdom. It is my hope, and I believe that of my colleagues of the faculty, administration, and staff, that we have nurtured and refined the wisdom that was already in you, perhaps adding something of our own. I am mindful that all of us are already navigating this world together with what wisdom we have; too often it seems insufficient. Part of what I believe distinguishes us at Brite is that we are a community that is deeply invested in the world around us and that does not begin or end with hooding. Yet hooding marks a moment of transition to living out our calling in new ways, whether in new contexts, jobs, yet another degree, or in a space in which nothing else has changed outwardly. You may not all have jobs when you leave this place, but you have a job in this world.

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

The preaching lectionary of the Episcopal Church turns to the vocational declaration in Isaiah 61 and to the Magnificat tomorrow to tell anew the story of Jesus. In that telling, the church tells its own story. It is a particular and particularly denominational Christian framing of these texts. And if we have taught and learned anything together then we have learned there is more than one way to tell the story of the text.

            Hearing Isaiah through Jesus makes it easy to say to Jesus of the text, “That’s your job, your calling.” But Isaiah wasn’t written by, or even particularly for, Jesus. (We did teach that, right?) The speaker, a poet-prophet,[1] from the community or school of Isaiah who continued the great work begun earlier in his name, this very human prophet receives a vocational call that in fact does not require a god, god-man, or the offspring of a god to fulfill. It is a very human vocation, albeit a daunting one. It is a particularly fit job description for someone who has completed her theological education, [though it does not require one].

            It is also a contextual job description. The poet-prophet is called to serve in world in which there are deeply impoverished people,[2] a world in which the hearts and hopes of people have been shattered. She is called to serve in a world in which some people’s bodies are treated like they were property—that’s what it meant to be “taken captive” in the world of the text, to be used—usually sexually—as someone else saw fit. She is called to serve in a world in which some folk were imprisoned and foreclosed from the possibility of flourishing, locked away, rightly or wrongly, literally and metaphorically. She is called to serve in a world in which there was deep grief and aching losses leaving deficits that could only partially be addressed through reparations, even if paid by God. And she is called to serve in a world in which the vaunted institutions of her ancestors had failed, in which walls had failed to keep her people safe, in which the man who governed was the puppet of a foreign master. She is called to serve in a world in which the things she held dear had been set on fire, and perhaps, one in which there were other things which she wished to see set on fire.

            Maybe this job calls for a god-woman or god-man after all. But the poet-prophet is not on her own. She has the power of the Mother of Creation, She Who Was—flexing her winged embrace over the chaotic currents from which she birthed the world, and She who would pour herself into a virgin’s womb and create a life that would shake the heavens and the earth in another story, from another time, in another testament. The Matrix of Life anointed our poet-prophet, not with the oil of priests or kings, oil that would fade as those offices passed away or morphed into entirely different institutions—sometimes retaining the same names. Rather, Mama God anointed her prophet, infusing her and her words with an anointing that lingered through the first century when a holy child born of her Holy Spirit recited these words to articulate his contextual calling, and down through every age in which these words have been received as holy writ, including our own.

            A student of scripture in its earliest form, the poet-prophet looked to the words of the poet-prophet Isaiah, and found, received and accepted her metaphorical hood and the calling that goes with it, and wrote herself (or perhaps himself) into the text that would become the double or triple book of Isaiah. Her holy boldness was not as transgressive as it may sound for she was one of the many (or few) who picked up the pen of Isaiah and continued his work. She did not come to this work on her own. God called her. So she penned the story of her calling, her commissioning, her hooding, to explain what God was up to in the world. She wrote: The spirit of God whose name is holy is upon me

The poet-prophet goes out into the world with more than the words on the page, the ink on the degree, or the books on the shelves. She goes with a clear sense of mission having been prepared for the world that is hers. Its needs are many and great but she is ready. She has all she needs to do the work at hand. She has her voice, her words, her pen, her poetry, her preaching. She has her congregation beyond the walls of any sanctuary or sanctum for study; her people are the broken and dispossessed, the disenfranchised, convicts, felons, and those on death row. She is called to preach wholeness and liberation and she is called to preach God’s favor and God’s recompense. She is called to preach life and love. She is called to take a stand, to acknowledge that everything isn’t all relative in the sight of God. There are things that her provoke to action because there are things that provoke God to action on behalf of her people.

            Now, because she went to a good, fully accredited divinity school, she has more than one skill set. Good thing because folk also need care for their souls. Her call is to the souls the diseased, the dis-eased, the dying, and the grieving. She is called to offer more than words and above all to avoid cheap theological platitudes and t-shirt slogans. She will need to draw on the wealth of pastoral theology she has learned, integrated, and embodies to do grief work with her community corporately and individually. She can’t do that work without knowledge of their history or an understanding of her own spirituality. She can be confident of her preparation because life in the Isaiah school was one long supervised ministry practicum.

            Above all she is called to do transformational work, facilitating the healing and recovery of her people. And then they, a people who have been transformed because one person translated her theological education into her own poetry, they reimagined and rebuilt their world, together. But it didn’t happen overnight. It took generations, centuries to rebuild Jerusalem and its institutions, and even its walls. But walls cannot stop change and they fall down. Curiously the text doesn’t call for rebuilding walls; perhaps the Holy Muse, or better Holy Nudge, was trying to nudge folk away from structures that divide.

            The walls would fall again and again and one collaborator would be replaced by another and no matter how much changed between our two texts or between us and them, the world still needs folk to live their theology out loud, in public, in partnership with the God who shakes up the world and its hierarchies and binaries, institutions, occupations, and oppressions. And so we turn to another prophetic poetic voice, and as is the case with so many women in scripture, we aren’t quite sure who she is because some manuscripts say Mariam or Maria, Mary, and others say Elisabet, Elisabel, and Elisabeth.[3]

She is another poet who wrote of what God was and is up to in the world, in her very intimate world, the intimate spaces of her body, and beyond, in the wider world. Her poetry proclaims an unparalleled intimate relationship with God but with none of the smug sanctimony of those who construct a personal salvation apart from the beloved community. She professes faith in a God whose mercy transcends time and is not limited to her and those who see the world exactly as she sees it. She proclaims a God who is partial to the plight of the poor and is a terror to the tyrant.

The Magnificat recalls an ancestral promise and she bears witness, in her very body, to a God of promise. Today I call you to proclaim the faithful promises of a faithful God to this world and its people. And when the originating context of the promise impinges on it so that it is too narrow for this world that is our context of ministry, take up the pen of the poet-prophet and extend the promise. Sometimes you will have to use your sanctified imagination to draw forth the words. Other times you will simply have to go back to the text for a close reading to remind yourself and those with whom you read that a promise made to Abraham and his descendants is a promise to the Muslim and Christian descendants of Hagar and Keturah as well as the Jewish and Christian descendants of Isaac.

The end of the Magnificat speaks of a memorial to God’s mercy in the text. That memorial was not a monument of stone, but the love of God poured into human flesh, woman-flesh, scandalously passing through scandalized flesh. Today I call you to be scandalous. Scandalously accept, love, serve, and nurture human beings in and not in spite of their bodies, their flesh, particularly those whose flesh the world disdains.

Above all the Magnificat is political. It speaks directly to and against those enthroned in power. I call you to be political. Speak to those who can and will hear you and speak against those who hoard power and resources while others hunger and hurt.

May God continue to write her story of promise in and through you for the hope and healing of the world. Amen.

Isaiah 61:1 The spirit of the Holy God is upon me,
because God has anointed me;
God has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberation to the captives,
and opening up, release, to the prisoners;
2 to proclaim the year of the Holy One’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who grieve;
3 to pay reparations those who grieve in Zion—
to give to them a glorious garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of grieving,
the mantle of praise instead of a diminished spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of God, for God to display God’s own glory.
4 They shall build up the ancient ruins,
the former devastations they shall raise up;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of untold generations.

Luke 1:46 Miriam, Mary, said,
“My soul magnifies the Holy One,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s own servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is God’s name.
50 God’s loving-kindness is for those who fear God
from generation to generation.
51 God has shown the strength of God’s own arm;
God has scattered the arrogant in the intent of their hearts.
52 God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 God has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 God has helped God’s own child, Israel,
a memorial to God’s mercy,
55 just as God said to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Translations by Wil Gafney, Ph.D.

[1] For the speaker as a prophet, see the Targum of Is 61:1, The prophet said… On the role of women prophets in Isaiah, see my Daughters of Miriam, 103-107.

[2] The “humble-poor,” ענוים.

[3] See Joseph A. Fitzmyer’s Anchor Bible Commentary on Luke, 365.

Did Mary Say “Me Too”?

You will conceive—in your womb—and you will give birth to a son… 

Annunciation Tryptich by the late Robert Moore of the African Episcopal Church of St Thomas where it hangs in Philadelphia PA.

 

Did the Blessed Virgin say, “me too”? There is a moment in the Annunciation story when an ordinary girl on the cusp of womanhood is approached by a powerful male figure who tells her what is going to happen to her body, in its most intimate spaces. (#MeToo is a collection of women’s stories acknowledging their experiences of sexual assault and harassment following very public claims against a number of media executives.)

Sit with me in this moment, this uncomfortable moment, before rushing to find proof of her consent, or argue that contemporary notions of consent do not apply to ancient texts, or God knew she’d say yes so it was prophetic, or contend that (human) gender does not apply to divine beings, Gabriel or God, and the Holy Spirit is feminine anyway. Hold those thoughts and just sit in the moment with this young woman.

Even in the Iron Age in an androcentric and patriarchal culture, she knows her body belongs to her. She doesn’t ask what her intended will say, what her father will say, what about the shame this would likely bring on her, her family, and their name. Instead she testifies to the integrity of her body under her control. In her question, “How can this be?” I hear, “Since I have not done and will not do what you are suggesting—just in case you are really here to defraud me and my intended—how will this thing work.” I see her withholding consent at this moment. She has questions and has not agreed to this, glorious messianic prophecy notwithstanding. Not yet. 

It is in this moment between “this is what you will do, what will happen to and in your body,” and submission to what she accepts as God’s will that I ask, Does Mary say, “me too”? Does she have a choice here? The narrative and world that produced it may well say no. That is what makes this a “me too” story to me.

Yet in a world which did not necessarily recognize her sole ownership of her body and did not understand our notions of consent and rape, this very young woman had the dignity, courage, and temerity to question a messenger of the Living God about what would happen to her body before giving her consent. That is important. That gets lost when we rush to her capitulation. Before Mary said, “yes,” she said, “wait a minute, explain this to me.”

After the holy messenger explains the mechanics of the conception that is to take place—he is still saying, “this will happen to you”—then and only then does she consent, using the problematic language of the text and her world, “Indeed, I am the woman-servant-slave of the Lord (a slaveholding title).” Mary’s submission is in the vernacular of slavery, as is much of the Gospel. The language of “servitude” is a misnomer in biblical translation; even though they were not necessarily enslaved in perpetuity, they were enslaved. And while enslaved had no right to protect the integrity of their bodies or control of their sexuality or reproduction. We often soften the language to “servant” particularly with reference to God but the language of slavery runs through the whole bible and is often found without critique on the lips of Jesus.

In this light, her consent is troubled and troubling: Let it be with me according to your word. Given what we know about power dynamics and hierarchy, (not to mention the needs of the narrative), how could she have said anything else? I think that there is not much difference between “overshadowed” and “overwhelmed.” I also remember Jeremiah saying God had *seduced and **overpowered him. (*Translated “enticed” in Jer 20:7, פתה means “seduced” in Ex 22:16; Deut 11:16; Judg 14:15. **The second verb חזק, is one of two primary terms for rape in the Hebrew Bible.)

Did the Ever-Blessed Virgin Mary say, “me too?” Perhaps not. A close reading shows her presumably powerless in every way but sufficiently empowered to talk back to the emissary of God, determine for herself, and grant what consent she could no matter the power of the One asking. And yet in that moment after being told by someone else what would happen to her body, she became not just the Mother of God, but the holy sister to those of us who do say, “Me too.”

 

 

Extraordinary and Everyday Saints

Robert Moore
The African Episcopal Church of Saint Thomas

See what love our Creator has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know God. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when God is revealed, we will be like God, for we will see God as ze is. And all who have this hope in God purify themselves, just as ze is pure. 1 John 3:1-3

In the Name of the God who loves us to life and through death back into life:

Beloved, we are God’s children now…as we are, at this very moment. We are God’s children as we are. And we are beloved. As we are. We are loved. I don’t think we can say it or hear it enough especially at the present moment. You are loved as you are, with all of the places you are broken, all the rules you break, you are loved as you are. You don’t have to change to earn or even merit God’s love. You are loved as you are. We are loved as we are. I am loved as I am. This snippet from a non-pastoral epistle is in fact pastoral, far more so for me than the hierarchies of the epistles called pastoral. (Whether First John is even an epistle is a question for another day.)

See what love our Creator has given us, that we should be called children of God. See what love the Womb of Life who birthed us has given us that we might be called her children. See what love the Fount of Creation has for us that we might love ourselves, each other, all that she has made, and collaborate with her in the care of this earth.

See! See that love for you and in you and all around you. Sometimes it is hard to see love in this world, in ourselves, in others whose words, ways, and whims are not lovely, loving or lovable. The imperative, “See!” bids us look, search, seek the love that is in us, that is in the world, and to seek in hope, to seek in faith. Perhaps most of all, to look for the imprint of love on and in the world when there is no evidence of it, when you’ve lost your faith and have nothing to believe in or hope for, even when you’ve stopped believing in love. See! Look for it. That is all you have to do, open your eyes, and perhaps your heart one more time. For God’s love is there, in you, in me, in the world, this world, this broken, crucified and crucifying world, as it is, as we are. See it. See God’s love at work in this too-often loveless world.

The world spends a lot of time telling many of us that we unloved and unworthy of love. But that is a lie. God calls us beloved. We are loved even when we do not or cannot love ourselves. We are loved when others do not or will not love us. And in this gospel—and it is gospel in an epistle that is not an epistle—in this gospel it is an article of faith that we are loved as we are. We don’t have to change who or what we are to be loved. We are enough as we are. Some of us may have had to work to accept that we are loved and worthy of love; some of us may be still doing this work, and others yet to begin it.

Others may wrestle with the beloved status of those who do not love those whom God loves. That God loves us as we are also means that God loves them as they are. Some of us are wrestling with loving folk who hate, loving them while hating what they do and say, teach, preach, and believe.

This breathtaking text is radically egalitarian if you understand its message is not limited to the members of the Jesus movement then or now. The title “children of God” is not limited to Christians in the later scriptures nor to the Israelites in the earlier scriptures; though there are texts in which each group is proclaimed (or proclaims itself) the particular beloved favorite child of God. The notion that we Christians are better beloved by God than our siblings has been the source of much of the pain and violence inflicted on the world and set a pattern for establishing and maintaining other hierarchies, including within Christianity.

The tiny church in the shadow of empire from which this text emerged was a vastly different church than we are. They needed the affirmation of their place in God’s heart in a world that saw them as a heretical Jewish sect at best and a treasonous cabal conspiring against the emperor at worst. Not surprisingly, for that ancient community and those who received and canonized this text along with many of its earliest and some contemporary interpreters, this text only applies to members of the Christian community.

On this day when we celebrate all the saints evoked by this text for the lectionary framers, it’s worth asking who are the saints. Whom do we commemorate today? A post by St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Ivy, VA frames it as “the living and the dead, the revered and the forgotten.” The saints are all the holy people of God, made holy by the work and love of God. As we rightly venerate those holy ones whose life and legacy bear extraordinary witness to the love and power of God, we ought not neglect the everyday holiness of everyday folk. I invite you to think of the folk whose extraordinary holiness and everyday holiness has touched your life and nurtured your faith. Who are the prayer partners and conversation partners who heard your questions and supported you in your doubt. Who are the pastors and professors, Sunday school teachers and skeptics two nurtured your faith? Who are the heretics and hope-dealers whose questions you just couldn’t shake? Who are the writers and thinkers whose words echo across the years and centuries power undimmed? Who are your saints?

The church tends to identify the saints as holy people of God within its own midst, among the baptized faithful. At the same time we recognize the holiness is not the exclusive domain any one community. The saints are “the living and the dead, the revered and the forgotten.”

At this holy season I like to think of as the fall “triduum” we celebrate God’s children on both sides of the grave. On All Hallows Eve we celebrated the powerlessness of the realm of death and all it terrors, celebrating the sweetness of life, teaching our children that ghosts and goblins are as empty of power over us as are the costumes in their image. Or maybe we just dressed up, got drunk and gave out candy and ate too much of it. Today on the Feast of All Saints we celebrate the living and the dead and tomorrow we will celebrate and remember the holy dead who yet live on All Souls Day.

These three days are built on the tradition of the Communion of the saints, the interconnectedness of the family of God between the living and those beyond death. We are not only the beloved children of God, we are her children and part of a family that transcends space and time and death. That holy communion, the communion of the saints, is for many of us a lively space in which we commune with our ancestors and those we love who have gone before us whether at a Dia de los Muertos shrine, family grave or in the sanctuary of our prayer. The communion of the saints is one of the often neglected spaces in which testimonies of God’s love abound and extend to us in the love of those who have gone before. Praying to and through the saints is a venerable and often misunderstood practice. Prayer is conversation. Invoking the aid of those who can see clearly from beyond the veil of death is no different than asking those on this side of death for their aid and prayers. Who are your saints?

Beloved we are loved. We are God’s children. We are the saints of God whom others will call holy and on whom others yet unborn will call in prayer. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when God is revealed, we will be like God, for we will see God as ze is. Amen.

The Forehead of a Whore


#MeToo. I am one of the many, many women who have been targeted, touched, sexually harassed or assaulted and lived to tell the tale. But all of us did not survive our attackers. We were exposed to that which we did not want to see or touch, forced to experience that to which we did not consent. We were at home in our beds, at school in the bathroom, in the doctor’s office under sedation, walking home, at a trusted friend’s apartment, in the arms of a lover, on our grandfather’s lap, at work and at church.

And when we mustered up the strength to tell, they asked: What were you wearing? What were you doing there/with him/that late? Didn’t you have sex with him or someone else earlier that day/week/year?

As a biblical scholar, what I hear them saying, those folks who ask why you didn’t tell then don’t believe you when you do, what I hear them saying is: You have the forehead of a whore.

Have you ever noticed that Israel and Judah become female when the prophets want to use sexualized rhetoric to shame and verbally batter them? On the one hand it’s: out of Egypt have I called my son (Hosea 11:1), and on the other: You have polluted the land with your whoring (here in Jeremiah 3). It is: I will surely gather all of you, O Jacob, (Mic 2:12), and: a spirit of whoredom has led my people astray, (Hos 4:12). There is: How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? (Hos 11:18) And then there is: you have the forehead of a whore and you refuse to be ashamed.

When we talk about the rape culture that permeates every facet of our society—and we need to talk about it—we also need to talk about the rape culture that permeates the text we hold sacred and acknowledge that every sexist and misogynistic reading of scripture is not merely a matter of poor biblical interpretation. Sometimes the trouble is in the text itself. But I believe in a God, who though she can be found in, and is revealed by the text, is not limited to or by the text and its limitations. I believe in a God who transcends the text and is not revealed in literal or literary rape rhetoric.

I also believe Jeremiah’s preaching would benefit if he had a womanist conversation partner. A womanist is a black woman whose feminism is so rich, deep, thick, broad, and wide, it moves beyond the mere self-interest of paler feminisms to embrace the wellbeing of the whole community. Womanism is brash, bold, and brazen—like the forehead of a whore. Womanism is womanish and talks back—with a hand upon her hip. And if you don’t mind, I’m going to be so womanist, so womanish, that I’m going to talk back to Jeremiah this morning. And I just believe that the God who answered Rebekah’s prayer when she thought her pregnancy was going to kill her can bear the weight of critical reflection. It’s a mighty poor excuse for a god that cannot bear scrutiny.

So let us take a womanist walk through the text together. In our lesson today, Jeremiah is speaking out of his culture and identity. He is saying: In my day, men don’t take a woman back whom they have divorced, and even those who would, will not if she has moved on to someone else. But I am here to tell you this morning that God will take us back no matter where we have gone, what we have done, or what has been done to us.

Jeremiah is saying a woman who has moved on is polluted. But I am here to tell you what our ancestors passed down because womanist wisdom is motherwit and ancestral wisdom: the love of God reaches from the uttermost to the gutter-most. Ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no valley low enough, to keep God’s from loving you.

In Jeremiah’s sermonic analogy, the woman like—some in his congregation and perhaps in this one—was put out. We know that because women in ancient Israel didn’t have the ability to divorce. They were divorced. And now that she has moved on and picked up the pieces of her life the best way she knows how, he wants to call her out of her name. You know black women don’t stand for that.

Abandoned black women have been making a way out of no way while being called out of our names for more than four hundred years on this continent. And even if some daughter of God chooses a strategy for survival that does not represent the best God has in store for her, she is still never separate from the love or faithfulness of God.

Jeremiah’s analogy doesn’t hold water with me because doesn’t break God’s promises, commitments or covenants. God has never divorced or abandoned God’s people. But God’s people have been hurt, on God’s watch. Israel and Judah fell. Their people were enslaved by one regime after another, defeated, deported, disbanded, diasporized. Their daughters subject to all the violence Jeremiah uses in his sermon. We too have been harmed. Our people were subject to the same depredations.

Jeremiah here is like a lot of folk who want to know what you did that made it possible for this catastrophe to happen to you. He sounds almost like a prosperity preacher. He asks with no pastoral presence whatsoever, where have you not been violated? Jeremiah is confusing sex and rape and blaming the cast off woman for what has happened to her in his own metaphor. For Jeremiah, like some folk in our time, being raped makes you a whore. In verse 2, the word shugalt’ is passive. (The root שגל means abducted and ravaged.) It means to have been violated. You didn’t do it; it was done to you. There is no preposition indicating participation, no “with,”  no consent. When Isaiah uses the same word the text says, “ravished,” (Isa 13:16); in Zechariah (14:2) it is “raped.” The reason some women and men can’t stand up and say #MeToo is some folk will blame them for their own rape thinking and saying: You have the forehead of a whore.

Bishop Yvette Flunder taught us that as preachers and theologians the prophets and epistle-writing apostles are our colleagues and we can respectfully disagree with them. I say to Jeremiah what I would say to any preacher, male or female, ancient or contemporary, you don’t have to sexualize, brutalize, or slut-shame women to call the people back to the God who loves them more parent or partner. Your prophetic vocabulary is too rich to be limited to that misanthropic trope. You can do better. You need to do better. God’s people deserve better. And God requires better of you. Stop being petty Jeremiah. Jealous ex doesn’t look good on God. God is bigger than that.

Some might say that’s just the way it was or everybody spoke like that back then. After all we’re talking about the Iron Age, not the most progressive of times. Well I’m here to tell you that the prophets Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Nathan, Gad, Iddo, Elijah, Elisha, Obadiah, Jonah, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi never once fixed their lips to pass off their pornotropic fantasies as the word of God. Jesus never used that language, perhaps because that’s how some folk talked about his mama.

Not all prophets use the specter of rape as God’s punishment for sin. Not all prophets call God’s people whores. But Jeremiah did and he wasn’t alone; Isaiah and Ezekiel, Hosea and Nahum fall into what I call homiletical heresy. Out of one side of their mouths they proclaim Israel and Judah are God’s beloved daughters. On the other side of their mouths, or perhaps talking out of their necks, when Israel and Judah fall and fail as do all finite and frail human beings and institutions, they suddenly become these brazen whores who deserve to be beaten and raped because that’s what you do when you catch your woman cheating on you, in their world view which is not mine, nor is it God’s, in spite of what texts like these say. The very idea is rooted in the sanctification of physical and sexual domestic violence.

The Dean of womanist biblical interpretation, the Rev. Dr. Renita Weems taught us why the prophets use such language, (in Battered Love). They did the best they knew if not the best they could. They used what they saw in their world and in themselves, and recounted a God who looked more like an Iron Age warrior king bigger and badder than the one next door than a God whose grace and mercy are sufficient and unmerited. They used human relational paradigms to describe their relationship with God but humans and our institutions are fatally flawed. Humans can turn any relationship, system or institution designed for love and nurture, caring, companionship, and mutual support, liberation and justice, into violent abusive parodies of their intended purpose. All of the models Israel has given us are flawed because they are human as we are human.

We say God is the righteous judge of all flesh. But we know that justice is not blind. She sees skin color and bank balances and perverts justice accordingly. We know that judges are partial and though we may say that God is not, we like Israel expect God to judge in our favor whether we are right or wrong.

We say God is our parent, some say father; some say mother. Our ancestors said God is a mother to the motherless and a father to the fatherless. But sadly we know mother and father are not always pillars of safety and security. They can be violent, abusive, and emotionally crippling. The scriptures portray God as loving father but also one who rages against his children. And like any other Iron Age male in the bible God is invested in controlling the sexual purity of women whose value is tied up in their virginity, ability to make babies, and the degree to which they were under male control. Interestingly, when the scriptures portray God as mother she is not as violent.

We have been taught to say God is king but kings in the ancient world were warlords who secured their thrones with the broken and battered bodies of their enemies, often killing their wives and children.

We have been taught to say God is lord and master but those are slaveholding terms. And slaves in the ancient world as in our own ancestry were used like beasts of burden, maimed, raped, sold, and killed with neither thought nor consequence. Even when lord becomes a title of nobility it still rests on the notion of some human beings lorded over others.

We have been taught to say God is husband but it is in the role of husband that the prophets who proclaim liberation also proclaim words of violence rooted in violence against women and call it the word of God.

You have the forehead of a whore…

Jeremiah heard and spoke for God in and through the vernacular of his culture. From our perch in this century we see and hear differently through our own vernacular. I know it seem like I’ve been rough on Jeremiah. But I’m not giving up on him anymore than I’m giving up on any other passage in the bible that fails to live up to or into God’s liberating love. I’m just going to follow the example of Jesus who said, you have seen it written, but I say unto you…

You have seen it written, “You have the forehead of a whore.” But I say unto you:

You have the forehead of the kind of woman some men, especially religious men like Jeremiah, will call a whore. You have the forehead of a woman who will make her own decisions about her body and sexuality. You have the forehead of a woman who will decide for herself whether or when to have children. You have the forehead of a woman who will not submit to male domination in or out of the sacred texts. You have the forehead of a woman who will resist theology and biblical interpretation that does not affirm who you are, who and how you love, or who God created you to be. You have the forehead of a woman whom men will call a whore to put you in your place. You have the forehead of a woman who is unbought and unbosssed. You have the forehead of a woman who has survived rape and sexual assault and domestic violence. You have the forehead of a woman who has been blamed for the violence others visited upon her person and you brazenly rejected it.

You are brazen in your womanishness. You brazenly talk back to the text and its God. You brazenly talk back to Jeremiah and say you can miss me with that whore talk. And you can tell him: But I’m with you on the God who calls backsliders (משבה) and backstabbers (בגודה) to faithfulness. I’m down with the God who says, I will not fall on you in anger, for I am faithful. And yes, you can have it both ways. You don’t have to subject yourself to Iron Age brutality or theology to turn to the God Jeremiah burdens with the biases of his culture.

At the end of our lesson God promises to give her people shepherds after her own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding. In Jeremiah’s context, that meant restoring the monarchy, but those days are long gone. In our time shepherds are priests, preachers, and pastors, not presidents or potentates.

Through Jeremiah who has survived this womanist critique, God promises to send us shepherds who will feed us with knowledge and understanding. I know there are some shepherds out there preaching like it’s still the Iron Age, talking about women and our bodies like we’re everything but daughters of God. But when God sends the shepherd, her heart will be patterned after God’s heart and she will leave you with knowledge not shame, understanding, not name-calling.

Then we can create a world where all men teach other men and boys not to rape, where there are no women or men, girls or boys who are violated or violate another’s body or consent. Then we will stop equating rape with sex. Then we will stop punishing women for being raped or having sex. Then we will hear women and men who say #MeToo. Then we will be empowered to use the richness of our theological imaginations to name God in ways that don’t hurt or harm.

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.

No one has the right to call you a whore to put you in the place they think you belong. But if they do, tell them: I have the forehead of a whore and I am not ashamed.

Jeremiah 3:1 Look here! If a man divorces his wife and she goes from him
and becomes another man’s wife, will he return to her?
Would not such a land be greatly polluted?
You have played the whore with many lovers; would you return to me, says the Holy One.
2 Lift your eyes upon the bare heights, and see! Where have you not been violated?
By the waysides you have sat waiting for lovers, like a nomad in the wilderness.
You have polluted the land with your whoring and wickedness.
3 So, rain showers have been withheld, and the late rain has not come;
yet you have the forehead of a whore, you refuse to be ashamed.
4 Have you not just now called to me, “My Father, you are the companion of my youth!
5 Will God be angry forever, will God rage for eternity?”
This is how you have spoken, but you have done all the evil you could.
6 The Holy One said to me in the days of King Josiah, “Have you seen what backsliding Israel did, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and whored there? 7 I said, ‘After she has done all this she will return to me’; but she did not return, and her backstabbing sister Judah saw it. 8 Surely I saw it; for because of all the adulteries backsliding Israel committed, I put her out and gave her a divorce decree; yet her backstabbing sister Judah did not fear, so she also went and whored. 9 Because she took her whoredom lightly, she polluted the land, committing adultery with stone and wood. 10 Yet for all this her backstabbing sister Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but only in deceit,” says the Holy One.
11   Then the Holy One said to me, “Backsliding Israel has shown herself less guilty than backstabbing Judah. 12 Go, and proclaim these words toward the north, and say:
Turn back, backsliding Israel, says the Holy One.
I will not fall on you in anger, for I am faithful, says the Holy One; I will not be angry forever.
13 Only acknowledge your guilt, that you have rebelled against the Holy One your God,
and there are paths to you for strangers scattered under every green tree, 
and my voice you all have not obeyed, says the Holy One.
14 Return, O backsliding children, says the Holy One,
for I am your master; I will take you all, 
one from a city and two from a family, and I will bring you all to Zion.
15 And I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.

 
Translation by the Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D.+