Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

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Hagar, Sarah and Black Lives Matter

Hagar and Ishmael by Alan Jones

Ahmaud Arbery, 23 Feb 2020
Breonna Taylor, 13 March 2020
George Floyd, 25 May 2020
Rayshard Brooks, 12 June 2020

And–and still: Trayvon and Ayanna and Sandra and Mike and Amidou and Freddie and Miriam and Rekia and, and, and…

And Juneteenth and the millions who lived and died enslaved and did not see even delinquent freedom. And the millions who died, who were murdered–raped, butchered, thrown overboard, fed to sharks–millions who were murdered in the bloody waters of the maafa

And the ninety-ninth anniversary of the white supremacist massacre of black folk and evisceration of black wealth in the Greenwood district of Tulsa Oklahoma. An anniversary whitejacked™️ by the the most openly avowed white supremacist president in recent history–by no means the first–overwhelmingly elected by white women who turned on one of their own. 

Then comes Sunday and before that, the preacher at her desk, my only pulpit these days as I am in a wilderness of my own. In the Episcopal Church and many Protestant denominations, the first lesson proclaimed will be: Black Lives Matter – for those who have the eyes to see.

Translation, Gafney

It is a Black Lives Matter text not simply because as an African Hagar is black–which blackness is not on a binary scale with some mythological whiteness spackled onto Sarah and biblical peoples writ large in furtherance of white supremacist domination. It is a Black Lives Matter text because it is a text that normalizes and sacralizes slavery by its very existence, unrebuked, in scripture, a foundation stone in the bulwark of American slavocracy. 

I explore the story in detail in Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and of the Throne

 

We will not come to terms with the legacy of slavery in this country nor all the horrors that descend from it which continue to shape our world without  engaging – rebuking and rejecting – the normalization and sanctification of slavery in the text and views of the authority of scripture that require uncritical acceptance. That will not be the end of white supremacy, in the church, in biblical interpretation, or in this country, but it will be an unhooding.

If we tell the truth, Hagar’s life matters to God in the framing of the story because she is the mother of a son of Abraham, her inability to consent to sex or impregnation or surrogacy, irrelevant in the text. The reason her black life matters to those who told her story is not the reason her black life and that of her son matter to the God who transcends the sexist and ethnocentric portrait in these texts. The cry “Say her name” accompanies “Black lives matter” as a reminder that violence is often gendered as is the response and outcry which often follows.

All black life matters because black life is sacred, reflecting and embodying the God who dwells in the holiest of deep darkness.

The Fires of Pentecost 2020

A check-cashing business burns as a protester raises his fist late Friday in Minneapolis. John Minchillo / AP

What does Pentecost look like when the world is on fire? A rushing wind. Does it blow out the flames or does it whip them into and even more furious inferno?
What meaning does the ancient imagery hold today, human tongues forked like fire? What are those tongues saying? To whom are they speaking? Who can even hear or understand them in the roar of the flames?
I say forked tongues instead of divided tongues because some of those tongues are serpentine.
The assembly is in the street. There is no church house. The temple is there but it serves another purpose. (Too many people conflate church and temple.)
Today’s fire is not metaphorical. Neither is the presence of the spirit. She is there, in those flames, in those crowds, with the insurrectionists and the revolutionaries, with the dead and the dying, with the grieving and the mourning.
Yet, I look at the world and I ask: Where is your power now?

Three Days Later: A Womanist Midrash

Not every woman was at the tomb. Not everyone was in that locked room. Some picked up the broken pieces of their hearts and went home. Some would have visitors bursting into their homes to tell them unbelievable news. Some would be snatched by the arm in the market and dragged under an archway to furious whispers. For some, the news would travel more slowly than for others. How long did some of them mourn him before they heard the first whisper of life?

It’s been three days. I still can’t believe it. I haven’t left my house since… since Friday. I was there, so many of us were. There, in the crowd. We tried to pretend we didn’t know each other, know him. I couldn’t stay away. But I wasn’t brave enough to stand with his mother. How can I explain it to you? It was like nothing I had ever seen before, like nothing I had ever heard before, like nothing I had ever smelled before. You could taste the blood in the air. The stench, the smell of death, rotting pieces of people, unwashed bodied, fetid breath. The crowd roaring and hooting. It was nothing new for them, but it was too much a horror to ever be routine, even knowing they’ll be back at it again. Soon. With some of us who followed him.

Some of us sisters found our voice and blessed him and his mama and he blessed those of us who would never birth a child to die on their crosses. His poor mother. She did what she could for him before Shabbat. I know she was there again first thing this morning to bury her child properly. My heart aches for her and for us all.

It’s been three days now. The sun is up, I hear people going about their business, but I can’t just yet. When I woke there was a moment when I didn’t remember and then it all came crashing in. I can’t imagine a world without him in it. I can’t imagine going to the market, baking bread, like it’s any other first day.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll venture out…

This Easter required reimagining for so many of us. Without a sunrise service or any of the trappings of Easter, I returned to the story and all of the stories folded into the story and thought about those who went through the day and perhaps the next day, grieving, not knowing, shut up in their houses, not out of fear or pandemic, but out of profound grief. Grief for him and all he promised and embodied. Grief for the world his words and love created. Grief for all of their hopes and the future they had touched for a moment.

The Church is notoriously impatient with Holy Saturday. Each year I watch vigils begin earlier and earlier for the convenience of this or that constituency. This year I’m keeping vigil with a sister I suspect had many counterparts whose stories weren’t the dramatic point of the resurrection narrative. Sooner or later someone will come to tell her the news. There will be many different versions, all jumbled up, contradicting each other. She won’t know what to believe. But she will hope…

This year, may the Good News find us wherever we are, however we are. No sick house, no plague house, no house of mourning is shut up so tight that the Gospel can’t breach our doors. It just may take awhile. Such a death is not easily gotten over. Such trauma is not miraculously healed by a miraculous outcome. The grief will fade; joy is infectious. But there will always be a tender spot, just there.

Resurrection Sunday, 2020

 

Mother of a Movement

Her child hung dying on a cross, Mary the mother of Jesus.

Her child was snatched off the road and said to have hung herself, Geneva Reed-Veal the mother of Sandra Bland.

Her child was slaughtered in a maelstrom of forty-one police bullets, Kadijatou Diallo the mother of Amadou Diallo.

Her child hung dying on a fence, Judy Shepherd the mother of Matthew Shepherd.

Her child was robbed of his life-breath, Gwen Carr the mother of Eric Garner.

Her child was shot dead in the street, Angela Helton the mother of Rekia Boyd.

Her child just wanted to listen to his music, Lucy McBath the mother of Jordan Davis.

Her child was held down by one cop and shot in the back by another, Wanda Johnson the mother of Oscar Grant.

Her child’s body was left in the street like a dead dog, Lezley McSpadden the mother of Mike Brown.

Her sleeping seven year-old child was shot in the head in her own home by a SWAT officer, Dominika Stanley the mother Ayanna Stanley-Jones.

Her child was murdered because some folk think trans lives don’t matter, Brenda Scurlock the mother of Chanelle Scurlock.

Her child’s last supper was Skittles and Arizona ice tea, Sybrina Fulton the mother of Trayvon Martin.

There are mothers whose names I do not know whose children died in cages at the border.

Police forces, wannabe police forces and self-appointed policers of love and life and liberty have left a trail of mothers whose deepest griefs launched a movement. To them and to us as to John and his own mother Jesus says, “This is your mother.” And your mother’s heart is being ripped out of her chest daily because her children are being crucified by powers and principalities and those who bow down at the blood-encrusted feet of those tin-plated idols.  These are all your mothers and their children are all your children, your siblings, entrusted to you. There’s a certain romance in saying I will take your mother Jesus, I will honor and care for her and she will want for nothing. But Geneva and Dominika, Lezley, Lucy and, Judy are also all his mother. Their care is in our hands and what will comfort them is justice, and an end to all crucifixions.

Carrying the cross by himself… Carrying the burden of the empire’s hatred for his very existence and the liberation it enfleshed on his battered black, blue and bloodied back, Jesus went to the place where severed heads and disarticulated skulls gave name to the empire’s notion of justice.

There they crucified him… There they murdered him, executed him as a revolutionary, as an insurrectionist, as a person whose threat to the systems that dominate and decimate and dehumanize could only be extinguished in a spectacle lynching. Lethal violence is the resort of individuals and institutions confronted with realities that contradict their own world view: Free black children, women and men, relishing our blackness, our culture, our music, our love, unapologetically black and unafraid. Queer folk who are not going back into crucifying closets. Transfolk who refuse to answer to dead names. Non-binary folk whose very being teaches us there are more than two kinds of people.

There they crucified him…and there they crucified so many of us. Jesus was not alone on that cross. In some accounts, he was crucified with thieves, in others, bandits, who having no way to feed themselves or provide for their family under the tyrannical whims of the empire were crushed into desperate intergenerational poverty with no accessible offramps. More than that, Jesus was crucified with everyone that Rome found threatening, disposable, inconvenient or potentially entertaining on any given day. And Jesus is crucified again and again with every murdered child of every mother and father unwillingly baptized into this movement with blood and tears.

There they crucified him…and there we crucified him too. There our shame hung and hangs upon the cross for we too crucified him. We joined in with the crowd shouting “Crucify him!” because we were afraid to stand up and die for him the way he would stand up, though beaten down, and die for us. We were right to fear, for there are empty hills and available crosses, wood and nails and executioners standing by. His was not the last crucifixion. There would be one or more the next day or the day after, the week after, exchanging the cross for lynching trees and pickup trucks with chains and police-issued ammunition and hands and fists and guns and knives and clubs. So we shouted, crying on the inside, terrified. We did not stand for him and we did not stand for his kin. And then he took all of our fear and guilt to the cross for us too.

And there his mother stood, she the first priest of the new world she had birthed. Did she say at the foot of that cross, “This is my body, this is my blood, given for you”? She stood there, mother of a dying child and the mother of a movement. Like Sabrina Fulton and Judy Shepherd and Lezley McSpadden, she found herself a member of a club she never wanted to join but not alone. Jesus bids us stand with them and not just as comfort in grief, stand with them in ensuring that not one other mother’s child ends up on the cross of hate.

Not everyone was afraid to stand with her and stand with and for Jesus. Those who stood in the face of the empire’s power were those it deemed less than threatening or they would have embraced their own crosses. Mary and her sisters in love and horror and grief, forever bound by this moment, one sister her own sister, others made family in Jesus along with one lone man, unafraid to be known as the beloved of Jesus, unconcerned about speculation and conclusions drawn, right or wrong. There they stood, his mother, his aunt, his aunties – family formed and forged in the bonds of love without regard for biology – and, his beloved. Patriarchal masculinity failed as it does and will; the men in whose names women would be marginalized in his movement were not there.

Then he spoke and the whole world was in that first word: Woman. Woman. You are the world to me. You have been my entire world from the first spark of my miraculous life. Woman. You were scarcely more than a child when you had to make a decision that would change your life and the life of the world forever. Woman. I know what this cost you, your childhood dreams and your name and reputation, and friends and family. Woman. I know who this cost you, who is not standing by you. Woman, if I call you mother will they take you away from me? Woman. There is only one person I trust to love you as I do. Woman. He needs you and your love. Woman. You can’t be to him what I was to him but if you love him as your son, it will be enough. And to his beloved, no name, no title of endearment, just the sacred trust of his mother’s love and care.

There suspended between heaven and earth and life and death Jesus loved, loved with his last breath. He loved those who stood with him and those who could not because that was his way. And that love became a movement, a movement that lives and loves and endures. And we are the caretakers of that movement and stewards of his love. The love of Jesus on that bloody cross is the love that transforms mourning into a movement that will transform this crucified and crucifying world.

Let us pray in the words of Kahlil Gibran, (from Jesus, the Son of Man):
Since your hasty visit and our brief welcome… your mother is with us,
I have beheld the sheen of her face in all mothers;
Her hand rocks cradles with gentleness,
Her hand folds shrouds with tenderness.
And Mary Magdalene is yet in our midst,
She who drank the vinegar of life and then its wine…
Your voice fathered their thoughts and their understanding.
Your voice mothered their words and their breath.
High or low, you name is upon our lips,
The master of infinite compassion…
Betwixt the cradle and the coffin…
The heart of the world quivers with the throbbing of your heart,
But it burns not with your song…
You are despised and mocked,
A man too weak and infirm to be God,
A God too [hu]man to call forth adoration…
May our God bless your name,
And the womb that held you, and the breasts that gave you milk.
And may God forgive us all. [Amen.]

John 19:17 Carrying the cross by himself, Jesus went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha. 18 There they crucified him, also with him, two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. 19 Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” 20 Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city and, it was written in Aramaic, in Latin, and in Greek. 21 Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ rather, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” 22 Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.” 23 When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothing and divided it into four parts, one for each soldier. As for his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. 24 So they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.” This was to fulfill what the scripture says,
            “They divided my clothing among themselves,
            and for my clothing they cast lots.”
25 And that is what the soldiers did.

Yet standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas and, Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” 27 Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

Preached Good Friday, 10 April, 2020 through All Saints Pasadena steaming.

Torah of the Earth

Ecowomanism by Rev. Dr. Melanie L. Harris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I hear Job say in response:

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

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

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

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

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

A Pastoral Epistle on Texts of Terror

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

Gentle Students,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be well,

Dr. G+

Holy Blackness: The Matrix of Creation

Image by needpix.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holy Leviticus! Justice is True Holiness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exegeting the Times: An Ordination Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was It All A Dream? A Resurrection Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.

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

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

What if it’s true?

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

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