Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

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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).

The Shadows of Easter

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

Biblical Studies in an Age of Unhooded White Supremacy

Andrew Shurtleff, The Daily Progress

Invited lecture in response to white nationalist marches in Charlottesville.

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

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

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

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

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

The full talk (audio) is available here.

Strategies of Resistance: A Lesson From Daniel


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canticle 13 A Song of Praise Benedictus es, Domine:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A New Covenant, Enduring Faithfulness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of God, Men, and Kings


 

[Errata: Originally I confused Samuel’s sons with Eli’s. The manuscript is corrected below.]

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

Let us pray:

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

רחמי עלינו וישמע קול דממה דקה

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

James Lewis Icons, with permission

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

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

Eli’s boys, unnamed in the tex couldn’t do the job. Their sins were spelled out in the tex. They were at the southernmost region of Eli and Samuel’s territory, perhaps thinking they were too far away for their father to know what they were doing in an age without social media. But the narrator knows, the people know, and surely Eli knows that his boys are robbing the house of God blind. They are taking from the people’s offerings what they want before it can even be offered to God. But more importantly, this passage (1 Samuel 2:22) reveals that Eli’s sons were guilty of sexual misconduct with the women who ministered at the sanctuary. In fact the lack of the preposition in Hebrew–they “lay” the women, not “lay with”–indicates rape and not consent even in the world of the text. In our world, from our context we see women clergy who said #metoo passed over for promotion for men who lacked the character or integrity called for but who had connections.

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

I’m trying to get to the text but a text without a context is a pretext. Please don’t miss that Avi and Joe were fired for messing with people’s money. No one says anything about Eli’s sons messing with women’s bodies. When the narrator mentions their transgressions in verse 3, financial crimes and their sheer and utter failure to do their job as judges—to do justice—are the charges. Eli’s sons disappear but not their record of sexual assault was well documented with all of the receipts on display. But suddenly, their time was up. None of them, Eli’s sons or Samuel’s sons would get that sweet government job after all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He will take your cattle and donkeys.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God transcends all of our language, petty ambitions, and self-aggrandizing titles. We need new language for God that is not rooted in vengeance and violence, submission and slaughter, or domination and damnation. We need to employ a little sanctified imagination and call God by names that don’t bring her down to our level. But all we have is these human tongues and colonized imaginations. Drawing on the spirit of my ancestors I will say God is a mother to the motherless and a father to the fatherless. God is a doctor in the sickroom and a lawyer in the courtroom. God is the one who brings us to life, calls us to freedom, and moves between us with love.

God is:

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

God is:

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

God is twelve and seven and three and one and legion. God is. And God is available to any and everyone whether warrior, prophet, king, laborer, immigrant, transchild, felon, politicion, trafficked woman, president, pastor, professor or seminarian, patriarchal misogynist or white supremacist, once we understand that the titles with which we have crowned ourselves and in which we name God in our image become idols. And one day if we are not careful, God will leave us to them.

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

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

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

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

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