Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Latest

How Long Shall Justice Be Aborted?

Violence. A single word of scripture begets a thousand words.

The prophet cried violence, screamed violence; hurled it at the skies and the God veiled within. Violence. Violence all around. Habakkuk’s people were under siege. He doesn’t tell us when he prophesied but we know ancient Israel lurched perpetually from one catastrophe to another, captured, colonized, and conveyed from conqueror to conqueror–when they were not doing the colonizing and conquering themselves. Spoiler alert: The same people, sometimes even the very same person, can be both victim and perpetrator. There was and is violence all around.

Habakkuk doesn’t name his people’s oppressor because a boot on the neck feels the same whether the foot is Assyrian or Babylonian. To some degree it doesn’t even matter because each of those nations devastated Israel. Assyria decimated Israel. Decimation was a much later Roman practice from after the time of Habakkuk but it is relevant. When Roman soldiers failed spectacularly, mutinied, or fled from the field of battle an entire cohort would be sentenced to decimation. The men would draw lots and every tenth man would be marked. The men who were spared would then have to beat their fellow soldiers to death, purging the unit of a tenth of its men, a decimal place, decimation.

The Assyrians went further. They didn’t destroy just a tenth of Israel, a tribe or even two; they enslaved, exiled, or outright killed the bulk of nine of the twelve tribes. They broke the fractured nation into two unequal pieces and depopulated the north only to repopulate it with captives from all over the empire who like enslaved Africans on southern plantations spoke so many different languages that it was almost impossible to organize and resist collectively.

The Assyrians were infamous for their tortures and brutality. Back in Hezekiah’s day they left images of themselves herding their Judean captives to torture, slicing them open, cutting them down to the bone while they were yet alive, peeling off their skin and hanging them on slightly sharpened sticks to die slowly in the sun. You could say they revolutionized lynching in their time. Whether peacetime or war you could always count on Assyrian soldiers to be spoiling for a fight. Even when they were not immediately present the Israelites lived under the shadow their immanent violence.

The Babylonians were no better. They were so brutal, so vicious that even the voices in the bible that would say Israel got what she deserved for her sins said, no, that’s too much, nobody deserves that after the Babylonians starved the people in and around Jerusalem to the point that some of them turned to cannibalism. And then there were the perpetual border incursions, annexations, and rebellions between what was left of Israel and the border states, Ammon, Moab, and Edom. And then there was Egypt, always looking for an opportunity to rebuild its empire. Habakkuk’s people were squeezed between mighty, once mighty, and would be mighty empires. Empires are born of violence. Empires are inherently violent. And empires beget violence.

Yet not all of the violence inflicted on Habakkuk’s people came from without. Not all of the violence we experience comes from outside our communities either. The violence that Habakkuk saw all around him went both ways. Violence behind closed doors. Violence on the same streets through which the prophet walks to preach the word or go to the house of God. On those same streets the bodies of young folk have been sprawled in the anguished postures of violent deaths. Some left as spectacles denied the dignity owed to every human being in life or in death.

In the same streets raped women had struggled with trembling hands to cover their bodies with what’s left of the clothing torn from them. Behind closed doors on those streets and sometimes in the street men beat women with impunity. Behind closed doors and sometimes in the street parents beat children with the same impunity. Behind other doors caregivers beat elders who depend on them, sometimes the very ones who birthed and raised them. And then there is the government. Not just some far off entity, but people, sometimes from these same streets who collude with the very empire that oppressed their own people. Violence perpetrated by the government in the name of and against those they govern by people who are no different than the ones they govern. Habakkuk’s people were under siege, from within and without. He cried “Violence!” because there was violence all around him.

I don’t know how long Habakkuk cried out. But I know he didn’t give up. I don’t know if he took a break from time to time, or if he cried out until he lost his voice, but I know he didn’t give up. Habakkuk cried out because he knew there was a God who hears. He cried out because he had expectations of his God. He cried out because he expected God to give a damn. He expected God to care. He expected God to do right by him and his people. Habakkuk is God’s prophet but he is also the people’s prophet. He doesn’t just work for God he works for the people. IN fact you can’t work for God if you don’t work for the people. There are a whole lot of folk claiming to be God’s prophets and apostles who don’t work for her folk and cannot be found in the blood-soaked streets but they always have time for a FOX News interview or a presidential photo-op. Habakkuk cried out on behalf of his people and expected God to live up to and into his expectations of God. He believed God would come through.

Habakkuk’s prophetic outcry was, “Violence!” Sometimes you just get to the point where you can’t even form a coherent sentence. Everywhere I look I see violence: violent rhetoric, violent encounters with police, violence against women, violence against children, violent theologies, violence against gay folk, violence against trans folk, violence against the earth and her creatures, violent government domestic policies, violent government international policies, violent economic policies. Violence!

Habakkuk had been crying out to God. The book opens when he is at his wits end. Tired of praying the same prayer. This is wearying work y’all. Sick and tired of being sick and tired, he prayed one more prayer. How long? How long O God?Holy One, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear?I been crying out to you. I been praying. I been fasting. I been laying prostrate. I been laying it all on the altar. I been doing everything I know how to do. I been crying out to you and I haven’t heard a mumbling word from you. And violence is still all around me snatching the lives and breaking the bodies of my people. How much more? How long? How long O God? How long?

The cry “How long, Holy One?” echoes from those shackled in and by slavery’s chains, through those systematically oppressed by law and tradition enforced by night riders with flaming crosses, to those shot and strangled, beaten and wrestled down by those trusted to protect and serve. It is the cry of black women whose families and bodies have been systematically ravaged by the benefactors, adherents, and evangelists of white supremacy. “How long?” is the cry of the oppressed. It is the cry of those on the bottom of power curves and hierarchies. It is the cry of women of all races, people of color of all genders, non-gender-conforming people, people with particular ranges of mobility and ability, the poor, undocumented immigrants, and minority communities who do not see themselves reflected in those with power over them or in the cultural norms they produce. “How long?” is the cry of a faithful prophet and likewise the cry of faithful people. For those who need it, Habakkuk grants permission to question God, not just about the state of the world, but what God is doing in it and about it. Habakkuk offers a womanish model of faithfulness through his questioning God, demanding a response, and determining for himself if God’s response is valid. Habakkuk is bold y’all.

We don’t know how long Habakkuk had been a prophet before this, what words he had proclaimed to the people and the nations. We don’t know why nothing else of him was preserved. What we do know in that when his people were being ground into the dust by enemies within and without he didn’t wait on a word from God. He went to God looking not for a word to proclaim in the midst of suffering, or the promise of deliverance from suffering, or even the promise that God was with them in suffering. Habakkuk wanted answers, an explanation.

How long Holy One…? Holy One, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? I cry out to you “Violence!” and you do not save. Why do you make me see wrong-doing?

Habakkuk teaches us that sometimes God comes to see about us and sometimes we have to go see about God. Habakkuk is a witness that prayer works, but you have to persevere. He is a witness that sometimes you pray and all you get is silence. He is a witness that there are no easy answers and no easy fixes. But Habakkuk is also a witness that there is a God who hears, even when we don’t hear back, even when the world is on fire, even when there is blood in the streets, even when women aren’t safe outdoors or indoors, even when children aren’t safe in church, even when legal protections are being rolled back for queer folk, even when the door is shut in the face of the stranger, the refugee, and the immigrant, even when walls are being built to divide humanity and children are being put into cages there is a God who hears her people’s cry. There is a God who sees her people’s pain. And there is a God who will respond even when a mere human being asks without sin or shame, “What are you doing? We are dying down here! There is violence all around!”

Habakkuk and God had that kind of relationship. So Habakkuk had expectations of God because they were in that long-term relationship. And it was long-term, intergenerationally long-term. Here is a hard truth; every generation that cries out doesn’t get liberation in their generation. The Israelites had 420 years of Egyptian slavery, 120 years of Assyrian decimation, 300 years of Babylonian domination, 200 years of Greek subjugation, and 720 years of Roman occupation until the fall of the Western Empire. Liberation is a long-term multi-generational project. We cry to heaven for our own sakes, for the sake of our children, and for those yet to come just as our ancestors did for us during the 400 years of American and European chattel slavery, almost 100 years of Jim and Jane Crow, and down until the present day. And we are still not all free.

The work of liberation takes a long time. Folk died waiting on their freedom. We do this work–work and pray, pray and work, pray for the strength to do the work and work while praying. We pray with our bodies, standing, kneeling, marching with our fists up. We pray with our votes and driving other folk to vote. We pray and work for our freedom, our children’s freedom and the freedom of those who will come after knowing we may not see it. Not all of our ancestors died free. We work and pray for liberation any way knowing our work is not just for us. Like Habakkuk we do it for the people. We do it for the fam. We do it for the culture. We do it for those not yet born as our ancestors worked and prayed for us. And we join Habakkuk and the ancestors across time crying out:

2 HOLY ONE, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? I cry out to you “Violence!” and you do not save. 3 Why do you make me see wrong-doing and behold trouble? Despoliation and violence are before me; litigation and contention arise. 4 So the law becomes powerless and justice has been aborted. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

Slave catchers wear new badges, free black folk are a threat for standing, breathing, blinking, selling lemonade, playing with toys, shopping, drinking coffee, using the restroom, sitting on your own damn couch in your own damn home. They’ve been trying to take back our vote from the moment they “gave” it to us. Incarceration has replaced plantation while still providing low cost labor whose lives are even cheaper. Need a chain gang? Rent a prisoner. Forrest fire? Rent a prisoner. Arrest, conviction, incarceration, execution all at greater rates per capita than other folk. There is no justice and no peace in these streets and so we kneel, and rage, and pray, and shout, “How long?!”

How long? How long will black women have to fear sexual assault from men inside our communities and homes in addition to the predation of colonizers? How long? How long will our children in Flint be poisoned by their own government? How long? How long will the wicked prosper? How long? How long will liars thrive? How long? How long will lying, hypocrisy, cheating, violent rage, and a history of sexual assault be qualifications for leadership? How long?

Then the God who is Immanu-El, Emmanuel, God with us, with us in our suffering, the God who welcomes our heart’s cries even when other folk say you can’t talk to God like that, the Holy God who accompanied her people in freedom and captivity, answered her prophet’s cry. She didn’t say, “I call prophets; you don’t call me.” She didn’t say, “Don’t come if I didn’t send for you.” She said, “Baby, I got this. I got you.” God said, “I been planning my work and working my plan. Empires fall. Colonizers get colonized. Conquerors get conquered. If you live by the sword you die by the sword.”

5 Look at the nations, and see! Be astonished! Be astounded! For a work is being worked in your days that you would not believe if you were told. 6 Look! It is I who rouses the Chaldeans, that fierce and impetuous nation, that stomps through the breadth of the earth to seize dwellings not their own. 7 Dreadful and frightful are they; they invent their own justice and majesty. 8 Swifter than leopards are their horses, and more menacing than wolves at dusk; then their cavalry charges. Their cavalry comes from far away; they fly like an eagle swift to devour. 9 They all come for violence, advancing face front; they gather captives like sand. 10 At monarchs they scoff, and of rulers they make sport. At every fortress they laugh, and heap up earth to take it.

Then Habakkuk, bless his heart–if you’re from Texas you know that’s not really a blessing–Habakkuk says, “What else you got?” Boy, don’t you know that you’re talking to the Living God? You can’t just come out of your mouth any way you want! But Habakkuk and God are in a serious relationship; they got a thang going on. They know each other well enough to know how they can talk to each other because there is the kind of respect and trust that comes from putting in the time. Habakkuk and God had been together long enough to be comfortable in that thing.

But yet and still, Habakkuk comes correct:  Are you not from time-before-time, ANCIENT ONE, my God, my Holy One? You will never die.

After giving honor to the head of his life and protocol to the one he knew to call, Habakkuk gave God a piece of his mind. The Chaldeans? The Chaldeans are your plan? They are seriously bad news and need to be on their way to their own judgment:

HOLY ONE, it is for judgment that you have marked them; O Rock, for discipline that you have positioned them. Your eyes are too pure to behold evil, and you cannot look on wrongdoing; why then do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?

Habakkuk gives God a piece of his mind. He doesn’t hold back. He tells God his whole mind, continuing past our lesson. It is this almost womanist Habakkuk talking back to God because she or he loves the people so much who draws me to this text. Habakkuk is in good company. Job teaches us that crying out and talking back to God is not limited to prophets. Job also teaches not to worry about whether anyone else thinks our theology is correct or even if everyone else thinks we need to apologize to God, say your piece anyway. God is big enough to handle it. Rebekah and Hannah teach us that you can cry out to God on your own behalf. And the Syro-Phoenician woman teaches us that crying out to God is not limited to Israelites. There is a God who hears and will hear anybody and everybody.

God hears. Even when God does not intervene. Even then God is with you in the midst of the violence. God is with you when you are violated. God is with you on lockdown. God is with you in the streets. God is with you when you’re calling God on the carpet for the senseless violence all around and arguing with God about how to handle it.

Having said his piece Habakkuk waited on God. Sometimes you have to wait.

I will stand at my watchpost and station myself on the rampart. I will keep watch to see what God will say to me…If God tarries, I will wait for God…

For it is God who makes all things new. It is God who tears tyrants from their thrones. It is God who sets the captives free. It is God who holds wicked men to account for their wicked deeds. It is God who will answer Habakkuk’s prayer and ours. It is God who will set us free from every unjust structure. It is God. It is God to whom Habakkuk turned. For it is God who will not only deliver us but it is God who will strengthen our arms to tear down and uproot every structural oppression, white supremacy, patriarchy, misogyny, heterosexism, homophobia, and transphobia and to strike down ever policy, law, bias, and hatred that props them up. It is God who accompanies us in the Spirit, in the Word, and in the world. It is God who came to be one of us in a woman’s intimate flesh. It is God who subjected Godself to the frailty of human skin. It is God who lived and loved, cried and died as one of us. It is God who stood against the colonizing gospel of empire perched on an upraised cross. It is God who refused to give death the final word. It is God who turned the world upside down, inside out, and shook the saints out of their graves, rising to commission the apostles to the apostles, women whose words about life and death, violence and violation would be scorned to the present day. It is God who will answer Habakkuk’s prayer and ours. One day. Amen.

 

The lesson in three parts with three readers; my translation.

(Narrator) Habakkuk 1:1 The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.

(Habakkuk) 2 HOLY ONE, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? I cry out to you “Violence!” and you do not save. 3 Why do you make me see wrong-doing and behold trouble? Despoliation and violence are before me; litigation and contention arise. 4 So the law becomes powerless and justice has been aborted. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

(God) 5 Look at the nations, and see! Be astonished! Be astounded! For a work is being worked in your days that you would not believe if you were told. 6 Look! It is I who rouses the Chaldeans, that fierce and impetuous nation, that stomps through the breadth of the earth to seize dwellings not their own. 7 Dreadful and frightful are they; they invent their own justice and majesty. 8 Swifter than leopards are their horses, and more menacing than wolves at dusk; then their cavalry charges. Their cavalry comes from far away; they fly like an eagle swift to devour. 9 They all come for violence, advancing face front; they gather captives like sand. 10 At monarchs they scoff, and of rulers they make sport. At every fortress they laugh, and heap up earth to take it. 11 Then a spirit swept them; and they passed through and became guilty; they whose own strength was their god.

(Habakkuk) 12 Are you not from time-before-time, ANCIENT ONE, my God, my Holy One? You will never die. HOLY ONE, it is for judgment that you have marked them; O Rock, for discipline that you have positioned them. 13 Your eyes are too pure to behold evil, and you cannot look on wrongdoing; why then do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?

When Gomer Looks More Like God

Some men love to call women whores. Some women do too. The biblical writers use the word whore and accusations of whoring freely and freely attribute them to God. Reading a text like Hosea can easily have you convinced God–or somebody–is fixated on women’s bodies and sexuality as though we are the genesis of everything that is wrong with the world. (I’m looking at you Tertullian and your modern day disciples who are too numerous to name.) Today I want to talk about what happens when that pastor you respect and believe hears from and speaks for God starts slut-shaming women from the pulpit and then before you know it, you are the woman he is calling a whore and it is your children he is publicly denouncing as bastards. What would you do if he was your pastor? What would you do if he was your husband?

When I shared these questions online I got two interesting responses. From a woman, “I hope I would gather my little ones and walk out. But that kind of insult could render a woman almost unable to move. Shame on that pastor!” From a man, “Curb stomp him into the pavement as the congregation watched.” To each of them I replied, “That’s not how people treat the book of Hosea or any other biblical book in which women are accused of whoredom or Israel is accused of whoring just like a woman.”

Reading Hosea as scripture means taking seriously that as a part of the canon it holds authority; however that authority is assessed from community to community and person to person. For me that means I can’t easily write Hosea off, not as a pastor, priest, or preacher, and certainly not as a black woman who is a womanist. The spittle-laced violence with which this word has been imposed on women and girls often accompanying or preceding physical violence, and the enduring emotional and spiritual violence it begets mean that I cannot remain silent on this text. Neither can I by any means leave its proclamation and interpretation solely to the lips of those who will never hear this epithet hurled towards them.

But I don’t run from a fight or a hard text or a fight with a hard text. I believe in wrestling the bruising words until I squeeze a blessing out of them, no matter how down and dirty it gets or how out of joint I get. So I’ve been preaching about women called whores and the men, prophets, and God who use that language for some time now. I also don’t run away from the word whore or soften it to harlot because that’s not a word we use, but every day some woman somewhere is being called a whore.

            I let Rahab speak for herself and ask while looking pointedly at the two dude-bros who were supposed to be spying out the land and gathering intel but instead were shacking up at her place, “Who you callin’ a whore?” I sat with Jeremiah’s rebuke to Israel, “You have the forehead of a whore,” and understand that language is not just any metaphor but rooted in a system that shames women whose sexuality it cannot control and elevates that shame as a horror by telling men that’s what they are in God’s sight. My response to Jeremiah was to take the power back from that word following 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.” Instead I say unto you: You have the forehead of the kind of woman some men, especially religious men like Hosea and 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 church, or 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 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 your 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 then I turned to Hosea, and he and God have that very same whore talk in their mouths, again. 

The texts of Hosea and Jeremiah present prophets who heard and spoke for God in and through the vernacular of their culture. As Dr. Weems taught us (in Battered Love), that vernacular was androcentric with a mean misogynistic streak, and in a shame/honor society the worst thing you can call a man is a bad woman. But I know that God is bigger than all of our images and idioms including biblical ones, and I know no one is disposable no matter how the text frames them. While some of you can roll with Hosea’s God I needed a different vision of God, so I went looking for and to Gomer and her daughter, Lo-Ruhamah, she whose name meant She-Will-Not-Be-Mother-Loved, there will be no mercy, pity, or compassion for her.

That name is assigned to Gomer’s baby girl before her birth and waiting for her at the exit from her mother’s womb to shape her destiny and serve as an example to Israel. She is a sermon illustration, whether God’s or Hosea’s. But how did we get here? The text would have us believe God told Hosea, “Go find you a ho.” I have questions for male religious leaders who condemn women’s expressions of sexuality but find loopholes for their own.

Then we meet Gomer bat Diblaim. In spite of the way the deck of the text has been stacked against her, not even the text calls Gomer a whore. What it does call her is daughter of Diblaim. Whether Diblaim is her mother’s name, her father’s name or her home town she is somebody. She is somebody’s child. She comes from somewhere. She has a name. She has people. Whore is not her name. Her name is Gomer and unlike the vast majority of women in the Hebrew Bible her name is among the nine percent of all names in the Hebrew Bible that belong to a woman. Her name is Gomer. Whore is not her name. 

In chapter two God will accuse Israel of whoring, threatening her with violence. The portrait of Hosea’s God in these two chapters is more batterer than beloved, even with the wilderness reconciliation and second honeymoon in the promised land; it all reads like a domestic violence cycle. In chapter two with all the references to land it is clear that Israel is the whore, a slur intended to infuriate and humiliate into repentance the men who led Israel. Yet in our text Gomer is never called a whore.

The reader/hearer is supposed to assume that Gomer is a whore because she is who Hosea chose. In fact there is nothing in what the text discloses about Gomer that makes her out to be a whore if that is supposed to be code for prostitute. The standard translations, wife of whoredom, harlotry, or prostitution, seem to miss the fact that the word at stake, zanah, is one letter away from the word that means sex-worker, zonah. Dr. Gale Yee (in the Woman’s Bible Commentary) teaches that promiscuous is the better translation. Translation matters. And who translates matters. Gomer is a promiscuous woman; woman and wife are conflated into a single word in Hebrew. Now I hear the charge to Hosea differently: God called Hosea to marry a promiscuous woman.

God called Hosea to marry a woman who had more sexual experiences and sexual experience than the world and especially the religious folk thought was good for her. God told Hosea to marry the kind of woman people then and now would say no one would ever want because there are different rules for women and men. God told Hosea to marry a woman who exercised control over her own sexuality, as yes, a sermon illustration. Gomer and her alleged promiscuity–with no evidence supplied–are held up not as a simple allegory for Israel but to some degree in contrast to Israel. Whereas Gomer is framed with and for promiscuity; Israel is charged with wanton whorishness. Both descriptions are still rooted in a desire to control and criminalize women’s sexual agency, yet there are more spaces in the text than I previously imagined in which I can hear God in and beyond the text even in the idiom of the Iron Age. 

Now, somehow the good prophet knew exactly where to find a promiscuous woman. And he knew how to woo and wed a woman who made her own choices about her own body. It would seem that Hosea had untapped depths. Then Gomer did what faithful wives in that context did, she gave birth to a son for him. Let’s say they were married for ten months and a day. I hear babies actually take a little longer than nine months to cook. Because her child is a prophetic sign like Isaiah’s children, God names him. You know, no one talks much about the fact that Isaiah had at least two children with a woman who was also a prophet to whom he was not married, but let’s keep talking about what Gomer was accused of in her previous life. We see you male clergy and some of the sisters too.

Gomer, like Isaiah’s partner, partners with God in the production of this prophetic sign-child. She is more than a clergy spouse who types, edits, and gives feedback on sermons. Without her there would be no sermonic baby for God to name. God names Gomer’s baby Yizrael, one letter away from Yisrael, just as promiscuous is one letter away from whorish in Hebrew articulation. Yizrael, Jezreel, is the place where Jehu went on a killing spree and assassinated Jezebel’s son King Jehoram of Israel and King Ahaziah of Judah after Elijah anointed him. He then had Jezebel thrown to her death and trampled under horse and hoof on the killing ground that was Jezreel in Jehu’s bloody game of thrones. God said name the baby Jezreel, “…for I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel.” Gomer’s son is a living word of prophecy that she birthed into the world proclaiming judgment against a man who thought his anointing entitled him to do anything he wanted. 

Some years pass, one, two, perhaps five, while Gomer wifes and mothers with scandal hanging on her name but no evidence of scandalous behavior since her marriage. Whoever she was in the past is past, but folk just won’t let it go. Then Gomer and Hosea have another child, another living breathing word of prophecy that Gomer births into the earth. This child, Gomer’s daughter, has an even heavier name to bear. Her name testifies to the withholding of mother-love, that love that is rooted in and includes the womb like the heart in heartache or the head in headache. The cycle repeats and the child that represents a third prophetic production incubated in Gomer’s womb is born and he is named, Lo-Ami, Not My People.

But there is a note between the births of Gomer’s second and third child that was not present between the first two: When Gomer had weaned Lo-ruhamah,…My friend Mark Brummitt points out that the baby, then toddler, at Gomer’s breast named She Will Be Devoid of Mother-Love: “has been so, so loved and nourished all along” at her mother’s breast. And there it is, the place where I see God’s promiscuously extravagant love in the text, not in Hosea’s words or even God’s, but in Gomer holding to her breast that baby girl who had to go through the world with a label on her saying she would be bereft of maternal love, pity, or compassion the same way Gomer has had to go through world of the text and its interpreters with the label whore hanging over her head. Gomer persisted in loving that child no matter who said otherwise.

It is there in Gomer’s mother-love that the love of God so often couched as mother-love in the scriptures but translated as mercy, pity, or compassion shines. That is why translation matters and who translates matters. Gomer is a representation of God to me. She shamelessly mother-loves her children no matter how their names are rightly or wrongly tarnished. She loves those who others say don’t matter. She loves the folk some preachers count out as dirty, soiled, ruined. And she loves promiscuously.

God’s love is promiscuous. She just can’t keep it to herself. She loves wildly and widely, freely and without fetters. She loves those who have been deemed unlovable, illegitimate in who they are or how they are, the circumstances over which they have no control, or might not even want to change. God loves with a flagrant love those who have been told they are or unworthy because of who what they are, who they love, how they love, what they have done, or even what has been done to them. God’s love is insatiable. She is not content with a single beloved people, church, denomination, or even religion. All the earth is the fruit of her womb and she loves us all fiercely. She even loves men like Hosea and his interpreters who relish shaming and subordinating women, men who inflict violence with their words and hands and weaponize their bodies and sometimes our bodies against us. It’s as though God doesn’t have any standards about who she loves.

But God does have standards about how those whom she loves are treated at the hands of those she also loves. Gomer’s first child was named Jezreel as an indictment of all the blood spilled by Jehu who was one of God’s chosen anointed kings; he was beloved by God but ultimately he was held accountable for his actions. Some of the blood that Jehu spilled was the blood of Jezebel; she didn’t even serve the God of Israel and yet she too was beloved. The name of Gomer’s first prophetic child covers even her blood shed in violence.

I see God in Gomer’s love and in God I see a love that has no equal. And I see Gomer in God’s scandalous, flagrant, and promiscuous love. A love that would see a young girl in Nazareth called every name that Gomer was ever called by Hosea and everyone else for conceiving a child but not with her partner. I see the shameless love of God enter the world through the parts of women that men like some of the bible’s prophets and some men and women today see as unclean, dirty, and shameful. I see the inexhaustible love of God in human form held to the breast of that scandalous, infamous mother. I see the steadfast love of God in that child turned man who sought out the company of women like Gomer rather than the company of men like Hosea. And I see the love of God begin to come full circle when one of those women put her hands and her hair on that man’s body in a shockingly intimate scene. I see it when scandalous women and those who might have called them scandalous stood together at the foot of that cross watching their beloved, God’s beloved, die at the hands of violent men. And I see the death destroying love of God in the commission of God to those infamous women to preach the gospel of that grave shattering love whether men would believe them or not.

They called her a whore but nevertheless Gomer persisted in loving a child called Loveless and her love we see God’s love. Amen.

 

Hosea 1:1The word of the Holy One that was to Hosea ben Beeri, in the days of Kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah of Judah, and in the days of King Jeroboam ben Joash of Israel: 2This is the beginning of the Holy One speaking through Hosea: The Holy One said to Hosea, “Go, take for yourself a promiscuous wife and children of promiscuity for the land whores perpetually by forsaking the Holy One.” 3So Hosea went and took Gomer bat Diblaim, and she conceived and gave birth to a son for him. 4Then the Holy One said to Hosea, “Call his name Yizrael, (Jezreel); for in a little while I will visit the blood of Yizrael, upon the house of Jehu, and I will put an end to the monarchy of the house of Israel. 5On that day I will break the bow of Yisrael, Israel, in the valley of Yizrael, Jezreel.”6Gomer conceived again and she gave birth to a daughter. Then the Holy One said to him, “Name her Lo-ruhamah, (meaning deprived of mother-love), for no longer will I mother-love the house of Israel or forgive them. 7But I will mother-love the house of Judah, and I will save them by the Holy One their God; I will not save them by bow, or by sword, or by war, or by horses, or by cavalry.” 8Now when she had weaned Lo-ruhamah, Gomer conceived and gave birth to a son.

 

Wisdom’s Table is God’s Table

A vision of Wisdom, “Her Eye On the World” by Shiloh Sophia

In the name of God who reveals herself to be more than we ever expected. Amen.

The insistence that God is male and only male has not rung true to more than half the people on planet from the time the Israelite Judean elite began to codify their sacred texts shaping the religions that have descended from them. It does not ring true to many of us who are women, femme, or non-binary; it doesn’t ring true to many who see themselves reflected by design in the dominant portraits of God. I postulate it never rang true to authors and editors of the Hebrew Scriptures and Greek deuterocanonical writings, to Jesus or the voices in the New Testament. The claim is easy to defend because the scriptures use a wealth of language, feminine and masculine, to name and describe God starting with the very first two verses of scripture where God is He who created the heavens and the earth, and She who fluttered over the face of the deep. Today we have Wisdom, she who when compared with the light is found to be superior, for the light is succeeded by the night, but against wisdom evil does not prevail. And, we have she who when listened to will grant security and ease. And, we have she who though not Mary is also the mother of Jesus.

In spite of being conveyed in a binary language, the God of the Hebrew Scriptures and of those that followed is not constrained in a binary box, or even a singular box, not even a Trinitarian box. God and her divinity transcend all of the names, descriptions, imagery, and attributes ascribed to her in the scriptures. She is more. In the previous century when I was in seminary, the Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas taught me that language is a tool and when it comes to naming or describing God, an inadequate one. Yet it is the only tool we have. We wield it like the back end of a screwdriver when we need to drive a nail but have no hammer. It gets the job done but is less than perfect, less than elegant.

In the scriptures the Wisdom of God is presented as a capital-P-person. She is a companion and co-creator and, and in some texts enables God’s creation of the world. It seems to me that the sorting out the relationship between God and Wisdom is much like what Christians do trying to explain the Trinity. We love us some fuzzy math. It could be said that she, Wisdom, precedes from God in the same way Jesus and the Holy Spirit are said to precede from God while at the same time also being God. So is the Trinity a Quaternity? This is what I mean by fuzzy math. But, no, God and Wisdom are no more separable than you are from your shadow or I argue than God is from her spirit. It’s not much of a secret that I fail at fuzzy math and am not much of a Trinitarian. Eventually some Greek-speaking Christians would identify Wisdom with Jesus linking wisdom and the word. But Jesus did not identify Wisdom with himself. Rather he identifies himself as her son.

In today’s gospel Jesus responds to his critics by saying, “Wisdom is vindicated by all her children,” situating himself as her child. He would not have understood wisdom as a mere character trait, adept in head, heart, and hand as it means so often in the Torah and Prophets. It is in the poetic texts beginning with Proverbs that Wisdom makes her debut as a personage speaking in the first person and sashaying down the street looking to gather those who would be her children. In the book of Wisdom she gets her own body of literature, an autobiographical midrash of her Proverbs portrait. And then somewhere in the sources of Matthew and Luke’s gospels there is a tradition about Jesus appealing to the person of Wisdom in his self-defense when people call him a drunken gluttonous party animal with bad taste in friends. Later on in Luke Wisdom also speaks in the first person, Jesus quotes her: “Therefore also the Wisdomof God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute…’ No one knows where this is written outside of the gospel but there is a later allusion to it in the Quran.

What are we to say to these things? God is more than we think or imagine. God is and is in all of the flesh the world loves to despise. We are seeing the low regard men and some women have for women’s bodies even as some of them covet them and gain access by any means necessary. Women and that which is perceived to be feminine often–but not always–represented weakness, secondary status, and subordination in the world of the scriptures and more so for ancient Israel that its neighbors. The rhetoric many prophets found most effective for shaming the men who led and failed to lead Israel was rooted in women’s bodies and our bodily processes and what could and did happen when those bodies and processes were not subject to male control.

It is I find, a witness to an eternal truth that in the same collection of texts that calls women whores, likens the offenses of the nation to menstrual waste, and describes the capture of foreign cities as rapes with lurid details occasionally perpetrated by God that there are portrayals of God that transcend the categories of gender as they understood them then. That truth is that God refuses to be imprisoned in the idiom of domination, even when that idiom supplies the most common vernacular for God. That is certainly what Jesus demonstrated reveling with those who enjoyed the pleasure their bodies afforded with food and wine. Sinners, tax collectors, drunks and gluttons can easily be read as sex workers and women outside of male control, the wealthy whose practices exploit the poor, drunks and addicts of all kinds, and people whose bodies were uses as a pretext for fat and body shaming. Sometimes prostitutes are specified as his companions other times included or represented by “sinners.” It’s the tax collectors who mess me up. They are not on my politically correct marginalized team. But Jesus still rolls with them, finding God’s presence in each one. The diversity of his companions, the diversity of humanity and the human condition are all markers for the expansiveness of God’s nature and love. He learned that love from both his mamas. Mama Mary taught him a love that put puts one’s vey body on the line for the beloved and Mother Wisdom taught him to find his beloveds in the streets and welcome them home.

God is so much bigger than our culture and customs, vernacular and idiom, and if we listen to Wisdom and her child Jesus and follow their holy example we will find so much more than new language for God. These diverse portraits tell me that God cannot be fully known on the upside of power curves. Here the presence of the tax collectors helps me. Partying with Jesus exposes them to a side of humanity they may have never seen or forgotten, reminding them that the world is bigger than their world and there is something much more valuable than money, the knowledge of the fullness of God represented by the diversity of her children.

I put it more strongly: The tycoon cannot know God fully with out knowing her as a hungry child knows her. A white supremacist cannot know God without knowing the God of black church mothers who is a mother to the motherless. The homophobic heterosexist cannot know God without knowing the queer God in all zir transcendent trans-ness. The law and order cop cannot fully know God without knowing the God of the black person executed in the street without the benefit of a trial. The supercessionist cannot know God fully without knowing how her Jewish and Muslim children experience her.

The boundary crossing God inhabits and transcends all of our categories, marking each one, each aspect of ourselves, our identities, our bodies, as holy, as fit for the divine, for after all it was in the much demonized reproductive space of a woman’s body that God became incarnate in a family of choice that defied their own categories: A God who fathered without genitalia, a woman who made her own reproductive choice, a celibate partner (for a time), and another mother, or if you distinguish Wisdom from the Holy Spirit, two. Come, let us sup at Wisdom’s table. Amen.

Luke 7:31 “To what then will I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? 32 They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another,

‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; 
we wailed, and you did not weep.’

33 For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon’; 34 the Son of Mary has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ 35 Nevertheless, wisdom is vindicated by all her children.”

Wisdom 7:26 For she is a reflection of eternal light,
a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness.
27 Although she is but one, she can do all things,
and while remaining in herself, she renews all things;
in every generation she passes into holy souls
and makes them friends of God, and prophets;
28 for God loves nothing so much
as the person who lives with wisdom.
29 She is more beautiful than the sun,
and excels every constellation of the stars.
Compared with the light she is found to be superior,
30 for it is succeeded by the night,
but against wisdom evil does not prevail.
8:1 She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and she orders all things well.

Proverbs 1:20 Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice.
21 At the busiest corner she cries out;
at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:
22 “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
and fools hate knowledge?
23 Give heed to my reproof;
I will pour out my thoughts to you;
I will make my words known to you.
24 Because I have called and you refused,
have stretched out my hand and no one heeded,
25 and because you have ignored all my counsel
and would have none of my reproof,
26 I also will laugh at your calamity;
I will mock when panic strikes you,
27 when panic strikes you like a storm,
and your calamity comes like a whirlwind,
when distress and anguish come upon you.
28 Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer;
they will seek me diligently, but will not find me.
29 Because they hated knowledge
and did not choose the fear of the Holy One,
30 would have none of my counsel,
and despised all my reproof,
31 therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way
and be sated with their own devices.
32 For waywardness kills the simple,
and the complacency of fools destroys them;
33 but those who listen to me will be secure
and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.”

The Gospel and the Cross Are Political

In the name of the crucified God who bids us take up our cross in this crucifying world, Amen.

by He Qi

In the scriptures the Wisdom of God is presented as a capital-P-person. She is a companion and co-creator and, in some texts enables God’s creation of the world. It seems to me that the sorting out the relationship between God and Wisdom is much like what Christians do trying to explain the Trinity. We love us some fuzzy math. It could be said that she, Wisdom, precedes from God in the same way Jesus and the Holy Spirit are said to precede from God while at the same time being God. So is the Trinity a Quaternity? This is what I mean by fuzzy math. But, no, God and Wisdom are no more separable than you are from your shadow. Eventually some Greek-speaking Christians would identify Wisdom with Jesus linking wisdom and the word. But Jesus did not identify her with himself. Rather he identifies himself as her son. In the Eucharistic gospel for this Wednesday, Jesus responds to his critics by saying, “Wisdom is vindicated by all her children,” meaning himself. That gospel fits much better with our lesson and canticle. But I’m not going to count today’s gospel out. It too offers the wisdom of God, and as we shall see, it is a hard lesson.

“Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am?” Peter gets to go to the head of the class by saying, “You are the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ, the son of the Living God.” Most folk hear those words, “Anointed One, Messiah, and Christ,” and think of Jesus and only Jesus. But in the scriptures of the Jewish Jesus and his Jewish first disciples the term anointed, or meshiachin Hebrew from which we get the word messiah, is used first for priests, and then for kings, and not just Israelite kings. When the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek because after the rise of Alexander the Great everybody spoke Greek, the word that was used for God’s anointed whether priest or king waschristos, christ, long before Jesus was born.

Peter’s confession then, was that he understood Jesus to have been anointed by God like King Cyrus of Persia who ended the Babylonian exile, the last person called christ or messiah in the Greek and Hebrew versions of the scriptures at that time. Peter also understood that Jesus was more than someone anointed by God to perform a specific task, even one as great as delivering the Jews from the Romans which what the disciples seemed to think and want and for good reason. Peter knew that Jesus was more: “You are…the son of the Living God.”

            This is the core confession of our faith. Jesus is more than a good man or even a great man. He is more than a good or great teacher. He is more than a worthy role model in faith, piety, and righteous rabble-rousing. Jesus is more than a gospel preacher and social justice activist. He is all of those things, and more. He is more. Jesus is the son of the God who lives without beginning or end. Jesus is God’s son in a way that differs from the way we are all God’s children. And Peter got that.

            Peter correctly identified Jesus as the one God in her wisdom anointed with her spirit as the incarnate gospel, the love of God poured into human flesh through woman-flesh to birth the commonwealth of God and its commonweal into our broken, crucified and crucifying world. Then Jesus teaches his disciples a lesson they were not expecting on what that really means. The first thing Jesus taught them after Peter’s confession was that the mortal yet immortal son of the Living God would have his mortality tested and proved.

I imagine Jesus asking, “Do you know what all of that really means? It means I’m going to be hurt, I’m going to be broken. The same authorities and powers that chew you up and spit you out are going to grind me into the dust. They are going to leave me battered and bruised and bloody. They are going to kill me. And the next day when you wake up I will still be gone, dead and gone. And the next. And the next. Who will you say I am then? What will your wisdom say then?”

            And Peter confident in his wisdom said, “Stop talking like that.” Peter rebuked Jesus the way Jesus often rebuked his own disciples and the occasional demon including just previously. Jesus’s language was pretty strong, “Get behind me, Satan!” But he wasn’t calling Peter the devil. The original meaning for satan is an adversary, human or divine. It didn’t always mean the devil or even an evil figure. When the angel only his donkey could see blocked Balaam’s path it was described as a satan. Here Jesus isn’t calling Peter the devil, there’s an entirely different word in Greek for that. He is telling him that he is positioning himself in the way of, in opposition to, God’s work through Jesus by trying to shush any talk of Jesus getting hurt or killed. Peter is so consumed by the thought of Jesus dead at the hands of violent men that he seems to have missed “and after three days rise again.”

            In Mark’s gospel, “Who do you say that I am?” functions like an invitation to say a slightly different creed. The key points are in the gospel. Jesus is the woman-born, child of earth and God’s child–in more than one way. The translation “Son of Man” is inadequate and misleading. Jesus is the son of the Living God. Jesus like every preacher or prophet worth her salt is going to be rejected some point by those at the top of the hierarchy. Woe to the people whose prophets are always praised by those in power and in positions of privilege. Jesus will not just die. He will be killed, violently. And he will rise from death–not be raised by somebody else like he and other prophets did for other people, but he will rise; he will raise himself. That is what he was anointed to do. That is what it means for Jesus to be Christ. And that was part one of the answer to, “Who do you say that I am.”

            Jesus made clear that the full answer wasn’t in just knowing his identity, titles, or the history of those titles. It was in taking up the cross and following him. That is what Jesus calls us to as disciples. There are real costs to following Jesus, living and loving as he did, welcoming as he did, speaking out as he did. So what is your cross? It’s not just some hardship like a cranky boss. The cross is the price you pay for living the gospel you confess. It’s rooted in the place God calls you to to live out your confession. It’s the place where your faith meets the harsh realities of this world. Jesus’s cross was a Roman one; it was the empire’s death sentence for revolutionaries. Is your faith revolutionary enough for anyone to notice? Is your faith visible outside of the walls of this sanctuary? Jesus call us to take up our cross and follow him, follow him into the world’s broken places and make a difference.

            What does it look like to bear a cross on which you might be tortured and killed today? It means standing against policies that consign people, and primarily people of color, to death, incarceration, exile, and poverty absent access to healthcare. Our government is cutting funds to refugee service organizations in the Palestinian Territories. That means they are cutting funds that provide food, healthcare, and education through the Anglican Province there and through the Lutheran Church. They are cutting funds to the only hospital in the Palestinian Territories that can treat cancer with radiation and chemotherapy. Taking up the cross on which Palestinians are being crucified will see you crucified along side of them as anti-Israel by some folk.

Jesus walked among the poor, hungry, and downtrodden. He didn’t stay in the safety of the sanctuary, or use scholarship and scholarly debates as a surrogate for doing the work. He spent time in the temple and he studied in the synagogue and then he took it to the streets. He also took some time to himself and then did it all over again. Jesus fed the people, food for their bodies and food for their souls. There are hungry people in this land of abundance, not because there isn’t enough, not because they’re just poor, not because they can’t manage what they have. We have poverty because of inequities that are built into all of our systems. Some of those same systems existed in Jesus’ day so he didn’t just hand out food. He publically came against the systems that kept some people poor and other folk rich, naming names of those at the top of the system. That’s what gets you a cross to bear, although opening a food pantry and feeding the homeless in some neighborhoods and business districts will get you the same treatment.

            Jesus called us to provide water for the thirsty. Flint Michigan still does not have clean water. An entire generation of children have been poisoned with lead and other pollutants and had their IQ lowered. Those children may have health and behavioral problems, and later difficulty getting into college and finding jobs. Their income potential and quality of life has already been drastically changed for the worse. Calling for affirmative action to even the playing ground for them will sho nuff get you a cross to bear. Wading into the race-based politics that saw the state strip a black city of its mayor, city council, and ability to self-govern, then put them and only them on a poisoned water supply and give the army permission to blow up abandoned buildings in town without out notifying residents who thought they were under a terrorist attack–calling out the institutional and individual racism at play in Flint Michigan and here at home will get you a cross to bear.

            It’s not just Flint. Desperate people seeking refuge from violence and crippling poverty also seek legal access to petition if they meet the qualifications for refugee status. Asking the question isn’t a crime. Putting in the application isn’t a crime. We’ve got a legal process. But this government has set it up so that there are no legal routes to that legal process so if you make it in they will detain you and your children in cages like animals for the illegal entry that they forced you into. And that’s if you don’t die of thirst in the crossing. And woe to you if you help somebody survive in that desert by leaving water along the way. You will find yourself in the crosshairs of your cross.

            A final example, Jesus called out the police brutality of his day. He stood with the people and spoke up for the people as one of the people. He didn’t just stand with good men like Botham Shem Jean, but he stood with and died with the criminally corrupt bearing his cross along with them, receiving a final beating at the hands of the police before his execution.

            Taking up your cross is political. It is as political as the Gospel. It is as political as Christianity has always been. As political as our Church has always been, sometimes on the right side, and sometimes on the wrong. Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him though it mean our death. He meant that as literally as he meant his own death in the preceding verses. “Who do you say that I am? If you say that I am the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the Living God, then take up your cross though you may die on it and follow me.”

            We can no longer pretend that we can follow Christ without following him into the broken places of the world. We can no longer pretend that we can follow Christ without paying an exorbitant price at some point. We can no longer claim we follow Christ if we never leave our places of safety and never raise the ire of those who construct and benefit from the systems that impoverish and imprison. Take up your cross because Christ bids you to, and you will find him in that place of need and service with the power to raise you when you fall, even from the grasp of death. Amen.

Lessons

Wisdom 7:26 For she is a reflection of eternal light,
a spotless mirror of the working of God,
and an image of his goodness.
27 Although she is but one, she can do all things,
and while remaining in herself, she renews all things;
in every generation she passes into holy souls
and makes them friends of God, and prophets;
28 for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom.
29 She is more beautiful than the sun,
and excels every constellation of the stars.
Compared with the light she is found to be superior,
30 for it is succeeded by the night,
but against wisdom evil does not prevail.
8:1 She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other,
and she orders all things well.
 
Proverbs 1:20 Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice.
21 At the busiest corner she cries out;
at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:
22 “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
and fools hate knowledge?
23 Give heed to my reproof;
I will pour out my thoughts to you;
I will make my words known to you.
24 Because I have called and you refused,
have stretched out my hand and no one heeded,
25 and because you have ignored all my counsel
and would have none of my reproof,
26 I also will laugh at your calamity;
I will mock when panic strikes you,
27 when panic strikes you like a storm,
and your calamity comes like a whirlwind,
when distress and anguish come upon you.
28 Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer;
they will seek me diligently, but will not find me.
29 Because they hated knowledge
and did not choose the fear of the Holy One,
30 would have none of my counsel,
and despised all my reproof,
31 therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way
and be sated with their own devices.
32 For waywardness kills the simple,
and the complacency of fools destroys them;
33 but those who listen to me will be secure
and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.”

 Mark 8:27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ.” 30 Then Jesus rebuked them, ordering them not to tell anyone about him.

31 And then Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Mary must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

34 Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Mary will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

This Is My Body: The Womb of God

Christ: Our Mother, Our Brother, Our Savior

[Title from Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love]

I didn’t stay quite long enough in Hawaii to avoid the bread and circuses season of preaching that has “bread of life” texts padding our lectionary with metaphysical carbohydrates through the end of the summer. And having sat through all of them, I have concluded that I like last week’s lesson better, and next week’s even better.

The sixth chapter of the Gospel of John is seventy-one verses about bread, mystical and mundane. Bread was the primary form of nourishment in the world in which Jesus lived and the production of bread and maintenance of bread producing crops was an ongoing daily task. This meant that people often lived and ate hand to mouth. They didn’t stockpile bread though they stored flour and grain. Often the word bread was shorthand for any solid food, including meat. Jesus teaches his contemporary disciples to ask for today’s bread and tomorrow’s in a world in which blight, mildew, fungus, rats, or a poor crop could greatly imperil food security and survival. Bread in the scriptures is the stuff of life, that without which we cannot survive, and that which enables us to do more than survive, creates the possibility that we will have the opportunity to thrive.

The Gospel of John talks about bread nearly twenty times, twelve of those are in this chapter. This is a crucial point for the evangelist who focuses on this language and imagery instead of–or perhaps as–a Last Supper Eucharistic moment. This is the context for Jesus’s shocking statement: “I am the living bread that from heaven came down. If anyone eats of this bread they will live forever, and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

            This text invokes the spectre of cannibalism which explains the responses of those around Jesus at the time. In this gospel that many want to read theologically, Jesus is emphatic that his hearers, his fellow Judeans, (and by extension, we who hear ourselves addressed in this text) eat his flesh. The uproar that followed was understandable: Then the Judeans, Jesus’s fellow Jews, argued among themselves, saying, “How can he give us his flesh to eat?”

            Written nearly a century after Jesus’s resurrection, the author of John is heavily invested in differentiating Christians from Jews, a distinction that did not exist in the life of Jesus. He and his Judean disciples were Jewish. They were “the Jews” as much as the people John prefers to identify as Jews, folk who disagree or debate with Jesus. The one word, Ἰουδαῖοι, means both people from Judea and people who followed the religion of Judea, Judaism. What gets complicated is that Ἰουδαῖοιis also used for followers of Jesus who are both native Judeans and continue to understand themselves to be Jewish. While the gospel written almost a century later is trying to put people in different piles, we will not. Jews who followed Jesus and those who did not would have equal difficulty with this command.

            [So Jesus said to them,] “Very truly, I say to you all, unless you all eat the flesh of the Son of Woman and drink his blood, you have no life in yourselves.”

            Jesus uses an expression from his childhood faith, from his scriptures which we now share that means human child, son of humanity, human-born, woman-born, emphasizing his mortality and that God’s power would be wielded through someone who from the outside looked like every other person born of a woman. Ἀνθρώπουmeans human and includes women and men just as anthropology from the same root is the study of all people, not just one gender. It has always struck me as bizarre that the Church translated this as “Son of Man” while at the same time claiming that Jesus was woman-born but had no human father. The degree to which Son of Woman is hard for some folk to hear is the degree to which “man” is perceived as a normative category and woman is still not quite representative of humanity. That’s why some of us are working on the language we use and hear in liturgy and in preaching in the Episcopal Church.

            Jesus whose life story up to this point was already mindboggling–healing miracles, meal multiplication miracles, and resurrection miracles–Jesus now says, “I am the living bread that from heaven came down. If anyone eats of this bread they will live forever, and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” and, “Very truly, I say to you all, unless you all eat the flesh of the Son of Woman and drink his blood, you have no life in yourselves.”

Eating blood was and still is taboo for Jews and cannibalism is taboo for practically everyone. And were that not enough, it looks like we have now moved from cannibalism to vampirism. Can the zombies be far behind? Just the other day I saw someone on Twitter claiming that Christians practice witchcraft citing this verse. It would have been so much easier if Jesus had said “spiritually” or explained his saying as a parable or metaphor. But he insisted:

            Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will also raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood in me they abide, and I in them…whoever eats me that one will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like what your ancestors ate; they died. The one who eats this bread will live forever.”

We read and hear this gospel long after church fathers fought and sometimes had each other excommunicated over what all of this means while shaping the way we hear this text. We also read knowing, if not fully understanding, that the divine mystery that is the Blessed Sacrament conveys Christ in its bread and wine, that Christ is very present in the sacrament and therefore in us. And so we too will live as he lives–beyond death. We read knowing that Jesus’s flesh was and is human and divine – because he was born of a woman and killed by a man, raised from death to life after which was touched and held, and dropped by for breakfast on the shore after his resurrection. The church fathers had fits over whether the rest of his digestion system worked after resurrection–how could there be latrines in heaven?

Too much blood and ink has been spilled over trying to understand and explain what happens–or does not happen–when a priest says the ancient words that go back to Jesus himself, “This is my body.” Each of the other gospels and Corinthians preserves these words from Jesus which are the heart of our Eucharistic feast. You will hear them today. But the author of John whom Bishop Spong urges us to read as a theologian leaves us with a much more visceral image: Very truly, I say to you all, unless you all eat the flesh of the Son of Woman and drink his blood, you have no life in yourselves… for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.

Over and over this gospel makes this claim. Jesus says these elements are his body and blood and we must consume them to share his life. He must become part of us, literally and physically as well as spiritually. And since we are Episcopalians, we are free to come to our own determination about what that means to us and are still welcome to the table no matter what understanding or doubt we hold. This table is a place of welcome and transformation.

It is this transformation that equips us to survive the evils of the world and to do more than just survive them, transform the world that has spawned them to the image of the reign of God. We have all the strength we need in God no matter how often we commune. The Eucharist does not wear off. But coming to the table regularly reminds of who it is that empowers us. The same Jesus whom the grave could not hold stands with us and within us when we stand up to bigotry and hatred. The same Jesus who started throwing furniture in the temple when God’s house was polluted stands with us when we stand against the abuse of God’s children by clergy in every church–including ours. The same Jesus surrounded himself with Samaritans and Syro-Phoenicians stands with us when we stand up to bullies at the border. Christ within us empowers us to do his work in the world. And we are reminded of that every time we receive the bread of life and cup of salvation.

            The elements are transformed and we who consume them are transformed by Christ’s very presence working in us. We are nourished by Christ’s body and blood just as we are nourished by the body and blood of our mothers in the womb. Pregnancy offers a way to think about what it means to consume the body and blood of Christ that isn’t cannibalistic, vampiric, or zombie-geist. Julian of Norwhich who wrote the song of praise we used earlier called the church to contemplate the mystery of Christ as Mother, Bother, and Savior:

Our highest Father, God Almighty, who is ‘Being’, has always known us and loved us: because of this knowledge, through his marvellous and deep charity and with the unanimous consent of the Blessed Trinity, He wanted the Second Person to become our Mother, our Brother, our Saviour.

It is thus logical that God, being our Father, be also our Mother. Our Father desires, our Mother operates and our good Lord the Holy Ghost confirms; we are thus well advised to love our God through whom we have our being, to thank him reverently and to praise him for having created us and to pray fervently to our Mother, so as to obtain mercy and compassion, and to pray to our Lord, the Holy Ghost, to obtain help and grace.

            Today when you receive the Blessed Sacrament feel yourself surrounded by the enveloping womb of God’s love wherein you will receive all that you need to survive and thrive, grow and become who you are called to be, and live in this world and the next. Amen.

 

John 6:51[Jesus said,] “I am the living bread that from heavencame down. If anyone eats of this bread they will live forever, and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

52 Then the Judeans, his fellow Jews, argued among themselves, saying, “How can he give us his flesh to eat?” 53So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I say to you all, unless you all eat the flesh of the Son of Woman and drink his blood, you have no life in yourselves. 54Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will also raise them up on the last day; 55for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood in me they abide, and I in them. 57Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me that one will live because of me. 58This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like what your ancestors ate; they died. The one who eats this bread will live forever.” [Translation, Wil Gafney]

Song of Praise, (adapted from Julian of Norwich (1342-1416), Revelations of Divine Love)

Just as God is our Father, so God is also our Mother.
Jesus Christ who himself overcame evil with good,
is our true Mother.
We received our Being from Him
–and this is where His Maternity starts–
And with it comes the gentle Protection
and Guard of Love
which will never cease to surround us.
Just as God is our Father, so God is also our Mother.
As if to say, I am the power and the Goodness of the Father,
I am the Wisdom of the Mother,
I am the Light
and the Grace which is blessed love,
I am the Trinity,
I am the Unity,
I am the One who makes you love.
God Almighty has always known us and loved us:
and with the unanimous consent of the Blessed Trinity,
God wanted the Second Person to become our Mother,
our Brother, our Saviour.
Just as God is our Father, so God is also our Mother.

She Who Birthed Us

 

 

 

Before and during the 79th General Convention of the Episcopal Church I tweeted out a number of examples of feminine God-language and imagery from with the scriptures to demonstrate what new and revised liturgies could look like. I’ve decided to post the thread as a blog with the help of #unroll on threadreaderapp.com


 

 

Michal: Redux and Remix

For those of you who are interested in sermon craft, here is the revised form of my Michal sermon, Why Michael Rightly Despised David, edited for my Episcopal parish. The long form was preached at a WomanPreach event.

Let us pray: In the name of the God who declares we are all worthy of love. Amen.

 Our first lesson proclaims: Michal despised David in her heart. A text without a context is a pretext. There is context to be found, but not in the snippings of the lectionary. Michal despised David in her heart. And she had every reason to do so. It’s well past time to listen to the voices of women in the biblical texts telling their stories about characters we have been taught to romanticize like certain now-fallen Hollywood idols. This is the whole point of the Me Too movement: Listen to women, believe us. Believe us about assault and harassment, believe us about discrimination and underrepresentation and overwork and underpay, and believe us when we say the Church’s fixation on masculine language and imagery for God is harmful to us.

We are wrestling with this as a Church. Soon we will wrestle more intently with the language we use in prayer. While we wait to wrestle with the prayerbook we will explore a wider range of language for God, and perhaps, one day, we will revisit our lectionary. (Notice today Michal is paired with Herodias, two allegedly bad women pitted against the men that everybody knows are the real heroes of the story.) That’s actually my next book project, a woman centered lectionary which will ask “what does it look like to tell the good news through the stories of women who are often on the margins of scripture and often set up to represent bad news.” The story of Michal is one of those stories for me. Michal despised David in her heart because he was despicable and I imagine God said, “I understand.”

We love royalty in this country, particularly now that we are couple hundred years away from it and no longer subject to it. Now we romanticize it and fantasize about it, and some apply those fantasies to royal characters in the biblical texts. Many of us also learned from an early age who the heroes were or were supposed to be in biblical stories. Our forbears built this nation and brutally reorganized the world on reading strategies like these: cowboys and Indians as the new Canaanites and Israelites, enslavers and enslaved, and subordination of women to men and in each pairing certainty on whose side God was supposed to be.

Along the way we’ve begun to ask questions of the texts just as we asked questions about the world we inherited along with the responsibility to shape it for those who follow. Scripture is our heritage and it been both badly exploited and underutilized. One of the most important questions we can ask of scripture is what am I missing by reading as I have always read? Whose voice is missing or ignored? Many have read the text with and as David–that’s why our lectionary is set up for us to read his story through the summer–but few have read from the perspective of Michal, his first wife, Saul’s youngest daughter. We’re going to talk about Michal and how and why she came to despise David and in so doing we shall see that pink princess fantasies don’t belong anywhere near the biblical texts.

Is there a word from the God who loves David so much it seems it doesn’t matter what he does to any body or their body for Michal? I maintain God is God of all creation and that includes the folk on the margins of the very scriptures that proclaim God’s love for David while demonstrating how deeply unworthy he was of that love on his own, let alone Michal’s.

Michael is the only woman in scripture said to love a man who is not her son. She loved David. And David loved Jonathan, and apparently himself. She may have been in love with him already when she watched him become engaged to her older sister first. How she would have rejoiced when her father called it off. How high her hopes would have been when her father offered her to him. What might she have thought of the cost? Reading from the margins means we can’t look at the brideprice of one hundred Philistine foreskins as the mighty act of a great warrior as we might have once. Now we stop and remember that this represents the murder and mutilation of human beings as beloved by God as we are. We stop and proclaim the good news that no one is disposable; no one is beyond God’s love. And we are to love neighbor and stranger, even in a time of war.

Michal was used by her father to trap David and used by David to escape the trap. He left her behind to suffer the consequences at the hands of her increasingly violent father. Her father used her body to punish David, giving her to another man as his wife – still married to David in the eyes of the law and in her heart, probably still in love with him in spite of having abandoned her, now she has to sleep with the strange new man her father has given her body to. How she must have longed for David, the swashbuckling hero and rebel bandit to come to her rescue. And when he did, it was with two other women in tow.

Michal might have been content to live with David and his new wives, that was the way of kings and she was a king’s daughter. But David didn’t want her as a woman or a wife. He wanted her back as a possession. She was his and no one else could have her. He took her back and then he abandoned her. He failed to do for her what was commanded by the Torah; he failed to provide her with children. The text does not say that Michal was barren, that would mean she and David were having sex. It says she does not have a child, meaning that David did not give her one. David withheld himself, his body and his seed from her, forcing her to live in isolation as he married and fathered again and again and again–nine women plus Saul’s leftover wives plus two more groups of unnamed, uncounted women and their children. (Learn more about Michal and other royal women in Womanist Midrash.)

Michal had to watch as David impregnates Abigail and Ahinoam. Michal watches as David passes her by and married and impregnates Maacah multiple times. Michal watches as David passes her by and married and impregnates Haggith. Michal watches as David passes her by and married and impregnates Abital. Michal watches as David passes her by and married and impregnates Eglah. I imagine she would have heard the news every time David married another woman and fathered a child and by this point in the story there would be many. Is there any wonder she despised him in her heart? It may have even been the first time she had seen him in person since he took her back abandoning her to a living widowhood.

Michal’s childlessness is an opportunity to discuss something else the Church doesn’t do well with, unwanted childlessness, infertility, and miscarriages. It’s not all the Church’s fault. The bible is incredibly unhelpful here claiming God gives and withholds children to reward and punish. That is clearly how our forbears thought but we are not limited to their theology any more than we are limited to their knowledge of reproductive biology–in which men plant seeds that are miniature people into women who like good and bad soil are fertile or barren, contributing nothing to the child.

In the bible, barren women get miraculous conceptions, pregnancies, and live births. But in this world in which the bible is enshrined, the miracles are few and far between. Some, few women, miraculously conceive against the odds. The overwhelming majority do not. God does not plant a little patriarch or savior in their womb. It’s not like the bible stories in this world in which the bible has become scripture. Our task as faithful interpreters is to bridge the gaps between the text and the world with the good news that God does not toy with us but holds in in our brokenness and heartbreak.

I know Michal is not just a character in David’s story, that there are childless, lonely, hurting women, women longing for the love a man that will never love them and women who lost the one who did. To say nothing of the heartbreak men experience but society tells them they’re not entitled to feel as real men. Longing for children or intimacy is limited by gender or orientation. Heartbreak, betrayal, and abandonment are not the sole province of women. And no matter what some of us may say in sorrow or anger, they are not all the fault of men. And not all heartbreak is romantic. Parents can wound as deeply as partners. Loss of employment and financial losses can be devastating. I dare say all of us have been brokenhearted, abandoned, or betrayed by someone or something beyond our control, beyond fixing, with which we simply have to live.

To all of us who like Michal have been brokenhearted saints at one time or another, God is Immanuel. God is Immanuel to Michal and to me. And to you. In our brokenness, in our wholeness, in our fullness, in our emptiness. God is with us. God is within us. God is and we are. Still here. Here and not alone. We are surrounded by the love of God that is greater than the failing love of friend, father or lover. In our places of isolation, abandonment, and self-exile we are held by the God who loves, heals, and restores, a God who is not swept away by romanticized readings of David and the despicable things he did to women. A God who loves even David, though perhaps in spite of rather than because of. We are held and loved by a God who chooses the weak, the vulnerable, the abused and mis-used.

This is good news for the ones who don’t get that happy ending in spite of how much you fast and pray. You are living with stuff you can’t tell anyone about. And you need a word for your life as it is right now. This is good news for those saints they don’t write songs about or include in Eucharistic prayers, saints like you and me.

The promise of God throughout all of scripture is Immanuel. If it is for anyone, it is for you, whether you are a Michal or a David. God’s love is for you. God is with you, loving you through this life you didn’t choose and may not want. Amen.

Why Michal Rightly Despised David

2 Samuel 6:16 As the ark of the Holy God came into the city of David, Michal bat Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Holy God; and she despised him in her heart… 23 And Michal bat Saul had no child to the day of her death.

I heard a voice say preach Michal’s story. Preach the story of a woman who loved a man who didn’t love her. Preach the story of a woman who never had children and died alone. Preach the story of a woman who loved a man of God who had other women and chose all of them over her. Preach the story of a woman who got left holding the bag when she helped the man she loved break out. Preach the story of a woman who got passed around from man to man by another man. Preach the story of a woman locked up and abandoned by the man she had risked everything for. Preach the story of a woman who found someone who loved her after everything she had been through and had that man and his love by the man she had once loved who never loved her. Preach the story of a woman who doesn’t get a happy ending in the bible. Preach that. But nobody wants to hear that.

In the bible, barren women get miraculous conceptions, pregnancies and live births. But not always. When people call the roll of barren or otherwise childless women for whom God provides children of their own flesh: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Samson’s mother, Hannah, the woman from Shunem – though she wasn’t asking for a child and Elizabeth they forget about Michal.

The psalmist (113:9) says: God gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. 

Wisdom (3:13) says: …blessed is the barren womanwho is undefiled, who has not entered into a sinful union; she will have fruit when God examines souls.

But in this world in which the bible is enshrined, the miracles are few and far between. Some, few women miraculously conceive against the odds. The overwhelming majority do not. God does not plant a little patriarch or savior in their womb. It’s not like the bible stories in this world in which the bible has become scripture. But we speak as though it is. Perhaps you’ve heard it. In the mostly black Christian circles in which I was formed and continue to seek my soul’s nurture I hear women spoken of with reference to their wombs, our wombs, my womb. Sometimes there’ll be an acknowledgement of those who cannot or do not choose to have children in a line, a single sentence. But here’s what they do not say:

Some of us were born with broken wombs. Some of us were born with dead wombs. Some of us were born without our wombs. Some of us have been attacked by our wombs for as long as we can remember. Some of our wombs were broken into, raped and scraped into inhospitality and infertility when were too young for our wombs to recover. Some of us have wombs that cannot or will not hold onto life – and we have tried, cried, paid and prayed for womb-life. Our wombs trickle, leak and squeeze – in heart and flesh rending pulses – the life out our wombs. Our wombs bleed when they should not, not a cleansing, healing flow but a chunky, membranous crimson, tide running down our legs, staining our clothes, soiling our sheets, embarrassing and humiliating us in public and private with our partners. Our wombs do not bleed when they should. They do not bleed because we have nothing to nurture with its rich blood. Our wombs don’t bother to bleed because they know we have no eggs, no ovaries or we ovaries and eggs that are not worth its blood. Some of our wombs hurt so much that they must be taken from us and no matter how much they hurt us we don’t want to let them go.

Some of our wombs hurt because they have been taken away from us and ache for the children they will never bear. Some of our wombs hurt because the life we have given has been snatched away. Some of our wombs hurt because death came for our child and we had to carry that dead body in our body to term and push it into the world in a grotesque parody of the birth we had planned. Some of our wombs hurt because the child we birthed didn’t survive the birthing. She didn’t last the day, the night. He didn’t live a week, a month, a year. Some of our wombs hurt because we can never accept out child’s death at any age. Some of our wombs hurt because they were perfectly healthy and desperately empty having never found anyone to love or be loved by.

I’m telling the story of Michal and her lonely, empty, abandoned womb. For a moment I’m going to do what I argue against, reduce a woman to a hunk of meat, tie her identity to whether or not her body has performed the herteonormative act to which it has been reduced in patriarchy. Michal is a supporting character in David’s story. The story isn’t about her. It’s not interested in her well-being or whether she has her own relationship to God.

Now, some blame Michal for telling David about himself. This is dangerously close to victim blaming. We have been so conditioned to read with David and to read against women that many of us miss that Michal was telling the truth about him. David was dancing before his Lord but he was also dancing for the servingslavewomen: by the women of whom you have spoken, by them I shall be held in honor. In other words, they like it and I know it. Yes, Michal despised him in her heart and she had every reason to do so.

Michal had been used by her father to trap David and used by David to escape the trap. Her father used her body to punish David, giving her to another man as his wife – still married to David in the eyes of the law and in her heart, probably still in love with him, now she has to sleep with the strange new man her father has given her body to. How she must have longed for David the swashbuckling hero and rebel bandit to come to her rescue. And then he did, with two other women in tow.

Michal might have been content to live with David and his new wives, that was the way of kings and she was a king’s daughter. But David didn’t want her as a woman or a wife. He wanted her back as a possession. She was his and no one else could have her. He took her back and then he abandoned her. He failed to do for her what was commanded by the Torah; he failed to provide her with children. The text does not say that Michal was barren, that would mean she and David were having sex. It says she does not have a child, meaning that David did not give her one. David withheld himself, his body and his seed from her.

Michal had to watch as David impregnates Abigail and Ahinoam. Michal watches as David passes her by and married and impregnates Maacah multiple times. Michal watches as David passes her by and married and impregnates Haggith. Michal watches as David passes her by and married and impregnates Abital. Michal watches as David passes her by and married and impregnates Eglah. All of these wives and their children are listed before Michal sees David cutting a fool. Is there any wonder she despised him in her heart? It may have been the first time she had seen him in person since he took her back. Michal will later have to watch as David passes her by and rapes and impregnates and then marries Bathsheba.

Is there a word from the God who loves David so much it doesn’t matter what he does to any body or their body for Michal? I maintain God is God of all creations and that includes the folk on the margins of the very scriptures that proclaims God’s love for David while demonstrating how deeply unworthy he was of that love, let alone Michal’s. Because I know Michal is not just a character in David’s story, that there are childless, lonely, hurting women, women longing for the love a man that will never love them and women who lost the one who did, I have to ask where is God for Michal? Is there a word for her?

I might have to go beyond the bible to find a word for her because the bible isn’t concerned about her. But I am. Michal, I have a word for you:

Michal, baby, you are not your womb. Your value is not in what it does or doesn’t do, what you do, don’t or can’t do with it.

Michal, baby, live. Live. Live with it. And live without him. Live with it when it hurts. And it will. You don’t have to pretend it doesn’t hurt. Live with it. Live fully in joy and pain. Don’t let it cripple you. There are things you can’t do. There are things beyond your control. There are things you want that you’ll never have. Live with it. Live through it. And survive. You survived David; you can survive this.

The promise of God throughout all of scripture is Immanuel. If it is for anyone, it is for you. For you were despised and rejected men and deemed as one of no account. You were one from whom women and men hid their faces. God is with you, loving you through this life you didn’t choose and do not want.

There is a word from the Living, Loving God for you. It came through the poet who spoke for Isaiah and is numbered as the 54th chapter of that serial collaboration. It is written to Jerusalem after the Babylonian invasion slaughtered her children in the street and carried others off to Babylon to remake in their image. To comfort Jerusalem, Next-Gen-Isaiah draws on the image of a woman who never had children to lose. Lost in most translations is that the entire chapter is written in feminine grammar. Looking beneath and beyond the Jerusalem exile, I hear God speaking to Michal and all of the women whose wombs and hearts have been bruised, broken or broken in to.

Sing childless woman,
never-given-birth-woman;
Woman, break out a song and rejoice, woman,
never-in-labor-woman.
For more are the children of the devastated woman
than the children of the espoused woman,
says Yah.

Do not fear woman
for you will not be ashamed woman;
do not feel humiliated woman
for you will not be disgraced woman.
For the shame of your youth woman,
you will forget woman,
and the stigma of your widowhood, woman,
you will never remember, woman.

For your spouse woman,
is the One who made you woman.
Sovereign God of *Women Warriors
is God’s name.

And the Holy One of Israel
will redeem you woman ~
who is called God of all the earth.

For like a wife abandoned and abject in spirit ~
God has called you woman ~
For you were a rejected young bride,
says your God, woman.

For a brief space I abandoned you woman,
but in great mother-love I will gather you woman.

For a minute moment
I hid my face briefly from you woman.
But in eternally bonded love
I will mother-love you woman.
Your Redeemer, Woman, has spoken.

For the mountains may depart
and the hills may be shaken,
but my bonded love
will never be removed from you woman;
neither will my covenant of well-being
ever be shaken,
says God who **mother-loves you woman.

Afflicted woman,
stormy-weather-woman,
uncomforted woman,
Look! I will set your bones with
ornamentation city-woman
and lay your foundation in sapphires woman.

I will give you ruby sunshine woman
and for your openings woman,
jewel stones
and for your boundary woman,
precious stones.

In righteousness will you be established, woman;
you will be far from oppression woman
so you will not fear woman
from terror
for it will not come on you, woman.

No weapon formed against you woman,
will succeed,
and every tongue that rises against you
woman for judgment,
you will condemn woman.
This is the heritage of the servants of God
And their righteousness is from me,
An oracle of God.

This is good news for the ones who don’t get that happy ending in spite of how much you fast and pray: You didn’t get married. You didn’t have a child. Your child did die. You lost your job, you lost your home, you lost your wife. Your husband took his life. Your child is going to die in that prison. God has not removed that cancer from your body. You were raped; you were incested and those memories won’t just go away. You are living with stuff you can’t tell anyone about. And you need a word for your life as it is right now. This is good news for those saints they don’t write songs about. For those of you who have named it and claimed it but didn’t get it. It good news for you who couldn’t take back what the devil stole for you.

God is Immanuel. And if God is Immanuel to anyone, God is Immanuel to Michal. God is Immanuel to Jerusalem, to Michal and to me. And to you. In our brokenness, in our wholeness, in our fullness, in our emptiness. God is with us. God is within us. God is and we are. Still here. Here and not alone. We are surrounded by the love of God that is greater than the failing love of friend, father or lover. In our places of isolation, abandonment, and self-exile we are held by the God who loves, heals, and restores, a God who is not swept away by romanticized readings of David and the despicable things he did to women. But we are held and loved by a God who chooses the weak, the vulnerable, the abused and mis-used.

It’s well past time to listen to the voices of women in the biblical text telling their Me Too stories about characters we have been taught to romanticize like certain now-fallen Hollywood idols. Michal despised David in her heart because he was despicable and I imagine God said, “I understand.”

 

[All translations of the biblical text are mine. In Isaiah 51 I used *Women-Warriors to highlight that צבאות is feminine plural and as a nod to some traditional rendering of angels as female, not to claim that the celestial beings are human or are gendered as we are. I translate רחם-love as **mother-love because the root also means womb.]

You can read more about Michal and the other women in David’s life in Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and of the Throne.

Revised for preaching in an Episcopal congregation here. Originally preached at a WomanPreach event.

Holy Fire

 

The Church turns its attention to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Pentecost. But we cannot turn to the Jerusalem of scripture, history, and memory and neglect the Jerusalem of the present moment, or those living and dying within and beyond her walls and call ourselves Church, Christians, or followers of Jesus. For, though the world has moved on to weddings and school shootings our lessons take us back to Jerusalem where the anguished cry of Jesus remains: Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! (Luke 13:34)

            The story of Pentecost begins: Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. (Acts 2:5) But there were not only Jews. The city that would become known as Jerusalem has been inhabited since the Stone Age. It was inhabited when the sacred texts we share with Judaism say God called Abraham and sent him into a land that was inhabited by other people and promised it to him and his descendants. We need to talk hear that story from the point of view of peoples who have had their land taken by folk who say their god gave them permission. We should all sit at the feet of native and indigenous scholars and pastors like Robert Allen Warrior, George Tinker, and our own Episcopal bishops, Carol Gallagher and Steven Charleston.

These stories have not only shaped our faith, they have shaped the business of the Church, conquest, colonization, conversion. These stories led to church sanctioned slavery, the conquest and colonization of virtually every African, Asian, and American nation, in the case of our continent’s nations, the near eradication of native nations and persons – all resting on an interpretation of the promise to Abraham, the Exodus story, and the vile, violent rhetoric of Joshua, biblical ethnic cleansing, claiming to have depopulated Canaan for Israel to fulfill God’s promise.

These verses underlie much of American and European and Israeli theology and politics. The so-called pacification of the American West was portrayed as biblical, it was described as the conquest of the new Canaan. And it didn’t matter that the old Canaan was not conquered the way Joshua said. The archaeology is clear on this. There was some conflict but more than a dozen cities claimed as destroyed were already ruins and hadn’t been inhabited in some case for centuries. And the editors of the bible would intentionally place Judges, a book that directly contradicted Joshua, saying the Israelites lived with the Canaanites together,immediately after it so Joshua would not be taken without a heaping mouthful of salt, (see Judg 1:21, 27-36). Yet what mattered to interpreters bent on using the bible to prove God gave them land already inhabited by other people was that there was a biblical model for land theft, settler colonialism, and both slavery and genocide as legitimate, biblical, options deal with the inhabitants of the land seized.

            What has this to do with Jerusalem? Joshua and Judges both agree when it comes to Jerusalem that the Israelites lived with the Canaanites together, two peoples in one land:

…the people of Judah could not drive out the Jebusites, the inhabitants of Jerusalem; so the Jebusites live with the people of Judah in Jerusalem to this day. (Joshua 15:63) And: But the Benjaminites did not drive out the Jebusites who lived in Jerusalem; so the Jebusites have lived in Jerusalem among the Benjaminites to this day... (Judg 1:21)

            There is language in the bible that promises the land in what is now Israel and the Palestinian Territories and part of Jordan and part of Syria and part of Lebanon to the descendants of Abraham which include Palestinians and other Arab peoples. It depends on what passage you’re reading, how much land. In other places scripture promises land specifically to ancient Israel, the ancient nation which fell and was dispersed but never occupied all of that land even when restored to it. What does that language mean now, to us as interpreters of the biblical text and concerned citizens of the world? And what does that mean to the modern state of Israel which is a different entity that the ancient nation, but connected to it by peoplehood?

            It means that we have learn to read the scriptures in light of the world in which they were created–a world in which Israel had been enslaved, defeated, conquered, exiled, and occupied by the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians to the point that they were not even a nation any more, more like a county–in that world the Israelites told their story looking back, shaped by those sorrows. And we have to read the scriptures in a world where we know that the love of God extends to all people, and that the moral and spiritual authority of the scriptures should not be used for nationalist ends, a world in which both Israelis and Palestinians have legitimate claims to Palestine and Israel and Jerusalem. We have to read in light of the reality of the modern state of Israel occupying and confining the Palestinians, denying them freedom of movement and resources, rationing water and electricity, subjecting them to daily indignities. We have to read in light of the history of past violence and the violence being perpetrated now while working towards a peace that is just even if it doesn’t make everyone or even anyone happy. We read knowing that both peoples have deep ancient connections to an impossibly weighty tiny piece of land.

            And we read through the story of Jesus, the stories of the gospels and the stories of Pentecost. We read through today’s lesson describing people from every nation including Arab nations traveling freely to visit Jerusalem. Jerusalem, the place where the church was birthed in the fires of Pentecost has been a multi-ethnic city for more than three thousand years. It was multi-ethnic when David conquered it. It was multi-ethnic after David conquered it and made it his capital. It was multi-ethnic when the Babylonians captured it. It was multi-ethnic when the Persians took it from the Babylonians. Jerusalem was multi-ethnic when Jesus walked its streets and it was a blessed cacophony of languages and cultures on Pentecost, even before the Holy Spirit added new languages to the mix: there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem…Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and converts, Cretans and Arabs

            When the fires of Pentecost burned in Jerusalem, the city was packed to the brim with even more people from even more places than usual. There were those who were born Jews, those who became Jews, and those who were neither Jewish nor interested in conversion. And since it was a convention, there were vendors–selling everything from sacrificial animals to souvenirs to kebabs, and there were pickpockets and thieves and every segment of humanity, rich and poor and everything in between, from soldiers to shepherds, country folk who had never been to the big city and sadity sophisticated folk. Some were native born, some were permanent residents, some were visitors, some were immigrants, and none of them were anything less than God’s beloved children created in the image of God. Not even those for whom the crowds were unlimited opportunities for plunder and prey–because people have not changed in forever–they too were nothing less than God’s children. And like God’s children today, deserving of full human dignity and respect whether they treat themselves or anyone else that way.

            I have to confess, sometimes that is hard for me. When I hear about the atrocious things that some folk do, like men who murder their children to punish their mothers, I have a hard time reconciling them with the image of God. And I call them some things that reflect none of God’s love or mercy. And frankly, I’m not always interested in mercy, just justice. But I know God is as gracious and merciful in her tender love as she is unflinchingly just and righteous. And I know that no one is beyond God’s love or power to redeem, because I remember that when Jesus was hanging on that cross he used one of his last breaths to pray for the forgiveness of those who crucified him. He did not call them animals. He did not deny their humanity. He died showing us a better way, a harder way.  

You might have heard that yesterday our Presiding Bishop preached the love of God at a fancy wedding. And let me say this about weddings. I think we romanticize them because of what they represent at their best, love. A love that is unashamed to own us and profess love for us for the rest of our lives in public. That kind of love is a gift and a sacrament. And many long for it. But the truth is, God loves us all just as passionately, more so. That love is incarnate in Jesus and poured into us through the Holy Spirit. It’s easy to love on your wedding day, even at someone else’s wedding. It can be harder to remember down the road that love is deeper than passion which comes and goes and that God’s love, for us and in us, is stronger than even the most romantic fairytale love. That abiding unshakable love is the gift of the Holy Spirit poured into the Church at Pentecost and poured into us at our baptism.

The Holy Spirit is the Mother of the Church, and as is the case in many families, she is the glue that holds it together. The Holy Spirit fluttering over the waters of creation, herself the breath of life that breathes us into existence, She, the Fire of Sinai, and whirling winds through which God speaks, and in our first lesson, She is Breath of Life that raises the dead. In Ezekiel’s dry bones vision the dead are the people of his nation and the nation itself, dead and destroyed, left to decay. God’s promise to him and those who survived in exile and captivity was that God would breathe them to life again. And She did.

That is what the Holy Spirit does for us and for the Church. She breathes us to life, pouring out onto all of her people without regard for age, gender, or social standing filling us with that love embodied in Jesus.

Salaam, Shalom, Shanti

Salaam. Shalom. Shanti.

Seek the shalom of Yerushalayim: and pray for the peace of Palestine.

There are not enough words of peace in any language to bridge the lethal divides between human beings that were revealed again yesterday as Gazans continued to protest their confinement on what is essentially an intentionally starved under-resourced reservation while the leaders of my government and some Israelis celebrated the move of an embassy to the contested yet-still-holy space that is Jerusalem.

I turn to the words I know love and with which I wrestle, the words of scripture.

My translation of Psalm 122 follows, an intentionally womanist and feminist interpretive translation.

Psalm 122:1 A Song of Women’s Aspirations,1 for the Beloved2
I was glad when they said to me, “The house of Yah!3 Let us go!”
2 Our sister-feet4 are standing within your sister-gates, O Yerushalayim.
3 O Yerushalayim, She5 is the one built as an indivisible city, She is bound in unity.
4 To Her the tribes go up, the tribes of Yah’s witness to and for Israel, to give thanks to the Name of Yah.
5 For there the thrones for judgment were set up, the thrones of the house of the Beloved.
6 Seek the shalom of Yerushalayim: and pray for the peace of Palestine.
May your lovers be secure.
7 May there be wellbeing within your walls, and security within your citadels.
8 For the sake of my sister-friends and companions I will say, “There will be shalom within you now.”
9 For the sake of the house of Yah our God, I will seek good for you.

My prayer is that all who love Jerusalem would be “secure” – the language of the psalm – having the security of a homeland that is itself secure, that all whole and live in Jerusalem might indeed “prosper.” (“Prosper” and “secure” are both possible translations of shlh in verses 6 and 7.)

Seek the shalom of Yerushalayim: and pray for the peace of Palestine.

 

[1]A Psalm of Ascent; “women’s aspirations” is a play on the feminine plural hama‘alot, “ascents.”

[2]The Hebrew consonants, dwd, can be uncle, beloved or David. 

[3]The Divine is represented by the abbreviation Yah to avoid the use of the common kyriarchal rendering, “LORD.” In addition “Yah” is grammatically feminine.

[4]Paired body parts are generally feminine in Biblical Hebrew.

[5]I am reading the Yerushalayim, Jerusalem, as a metaphor for God, who is One (or United echad).