Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

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#What2Preach When Blood Is Running in the Street?

black-lives-matter-african-americans-killed-by-police-2016On 14 December 2012 (my father’s birthday) I posted an angry tweet about pastors who didn’t know what to say in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting sit down rather than preach something stupid like God needed more angels. Someone asked me what to preach instead, a serious question as they were struggling with the horror and the assigned texts in the preaching lectionary used by many Christian denominations. I held my first-ever tweetchat using the hashtag #what2preach.

I have brought that hashtag back after shooting after shooting and atrocity after atrocity. I realized today that it has become a macabre protocol for me as a priest, seminary professor and biblical scholar to help other priests and pastors who are struggling to proclaim a meaningful word in God’s name.

And Goddammit– yes, may God damn and curse the murderous violence in our society to the pits of hell – God damn it we are here again.

#what2preach…

Preach the truth: There are hard, ugly truths to confront in our preaching: an enduring history of American violence and its legacy, the history of race, racism and racialized violence in America, access to guns and military weapons in particular. This will be hard to do if you have never addressed these truths before.

Preach the context: Cooption of one #BlackLivesMatter protest among many simultaneous BLM protests around the country because of two more killings of black men by police on video that depicts the killings as little more than assassinations. If you have never preached about BLM before you will need to introduce it to your congregation in its own words, not the words or opinions of others. You will need to do some homework and I won’t do that for you.

Preach to your context: Sermons in white, multiracial, lightly integrated and black congregations will be and should be different because we do not have the same experiences of being American and encountering police. Some will have the luxury generated by white privilege to construct a service of lament for the murdered officers without any regard to the larger context. That may be what your congregation wants and expects. Preaching to your context doesn’t mean doing what they want; what they want is not always what they need.

Avoid religious tropes: Folk waiting for Jesus to make this right are dying and being killed. God’s love extends to all but so what. We may believe that God will exact perfect justice in the world to come but we live in this one. Prayer is powerful but it is too often used as an excuse to avoid doing the difficult work of holding our society accountable for its ills and working to dismantle and rebuild it. Jesus’ execution and triumph over death are the powerful heart of the Christian faith and need to be more than a sermonic flourish or rhetorical performance to be relevant.

Exorcise the demonic: Name the evils in our midst – white supremacy, systemic racism, interpersonal racism, callous disregard for human life, corrupt authorities and legal systems, murder, hate.

Heal the hurt: Begin the process – you are not responsible for all of it or even finishing it. The healing process begins with creating the space for healing and naming the hurts. Acknowledge the deep pain and fear. Address the grief and anger of the police officers and their families in Dallas any the larger police community. Address the fear, anger and rage of the black community in the face of continuing recorded police killings for where there are few indictments and even fewer convictions. Give voice to the pain. Lament and let the lament be unresolved. This lament will endure.

Wrestle with the text: If a text doesn’t fit, don’t use it. Don’t contort the text. Change texts if need be. Don’t be so enslaved to a preaching cycle that you abdicate your responsibility to proclaim a living word. Don’t choose a fallback text that is irrelevant because you’ve worked out some sermonic theatre.

Theologize well: Where is God in all of this? In the killings of black folk? In the lack of justice for their deaths? In the rage of the black community? In the decision to spawn murder from that rage? In the killing and wounding of police officers and civilians? In the response of congregations and civil society to all of these acts of violence and the society that produces them? What enduring truths will give meaningful comfort without scapegoating or being cliché?

Offer hope: Stand on the promises and convictions of your faith in spite of all of the evidence to the contrary. If you have preached well – or at least honestly and thoughtfully – this will not be heard as meaningful platitudes.

Call to action: What will you and your congregation do to help heal the world that is meaningful and concrete inside and outside of your walls? This will vary depending on the ethnicity of your congregation.

In all of these approaches, it’s all right to say you don’t know. It’s all right to be silent, even and especially when it becomes uncomfortable.

Originally written for RevGalBlogPals  https://revgalblogpals.org/2016/07/08/11th-hour-preacher-party-what2preach-when-blood-is-running-in-the-streets/


Prayer for Police Officers

Heavily armed police continue to patrol the neighborhoods of Watertown, Mass. Friday, April 19, 2013, as they continue a massive search for one of two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing. A second suspect died in the early morning hours after an encounter with law enforcement. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

Heavily armed police continue to patrol the neighborhoods of Watertown, Mass. Friday, April 19, 2013, as they continue a massive search for one of two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing. A second suspect died in the early morning hours after an encounter with law enforcement. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

I am praying for police officers of all races and ethnicities today.

I am praying that they who are so brave in the face violence, anticipated and unanticipated, criminality, terrorism and the unknown would be so brave when they see their sister and brother officers of every race and ethnicity violate the civil and human rights of their sister and brother human beings.

I pray that police officers who stand in the face of certain danger would stand up to their colleagues and culture and protect and serve all of us, equally, under the law.

I pray for the protection of those officers who do speak up at great personal and professional cost. I pray for the protection of their lives and families.

I am praying for police officers today.


Returning to our ROOTS

Both actors played Kunta Kinte

LeVar Burton and Malachi Kirby

I admit that I was disturbed at the news of a ROOTS remake, particularly at the hands of the History Channel that did such violence to the Bible in its whitewashed fan-fiction offering. I was somewhat mollified when I heard LeVar Burton was one of the folk behind it. Then I read Awesomely Luvvie’s (Luvvie Ajayi’s) endorsement. So I decided to watch it for myself with some hopeful anticipation.

ROOTS re-imagined was in a word: searing.

It was beautifully shot and powerfully effective. It was not as impactful on me as the original, nor could or should it have been. The original Roots mini-series was like nothing I or the world had ever seen. Its impact was devastatingly powerful on me as a child, even as a child raised by parents who taught me the unflinching truth about slavery.

Fortunately the new production did not try to recreate the old one but told the story in a new way for a new audience. I did not set out to track differences between the two productions however one stood out to me; Kunta Kinte’s Muslim faith was much more visible. ROOTS is a necessary lesson in American history. I hope families watched with their children as they did before. I hope teachers will incorporate it. I hope clerics will preach about it. I hope America will learn from it.

The musical cultural of the free and enslaved Africans was powerfully portrayed – the use of a trope to sing a subversive conversation about overtaking the slave ship and escaping was breathtakingly beautiful. In it I hear resonances with chanted Torah and Jewish and Christian liturgies and recitation of the Quran. I also loved the way that Kunta and Kizzy were able to connect to their parents across time and space.

I live-tweeted each episode and have storified my tweets. I am not surprised but am disappointed by the number of white apologists for slavery and those white and black folk who want to advocate for a Christianity that doesn’t include slavery, genocide, patriarchy or any other systemic failing so they can hold only individual persons accountable for their sins. We will not have learned the lessons of ROOTS then or now, of our ancestors – enslaved or free – or the history of this nation, the Church or the world if we do not understand that white supremacy and its get are systemic and endemic.

It is apparent to me from the questions and comments I received online that too few white people know the history of slavery in the Atlantic basin, not the fact of it – though there are those who still deny it – the history of daily degradation, malnourishment, torture, rape and incest, maiming, forced breeding, selling of family members and murder. Unlike when ROOTS first aired, the testimonies of former slaves are readily available and scholarship on American chattel slavery is widely accessible. We can’t rely on the educational system to teach meaningfully about slavery. Most of the African American people I know included myself were educated by our parents, other black folk and ourselves. I’m still waiting for white folk especially those who present themselves as allies to do the same in comparable numbers.

Finally let me say something about the truth of ROOTS. ROOTS is not factual in some ways such as the life details, genealogy and identities of some characters. Alex Haley was widely assailed for historical inaccuracies and embellishing. But ROOTS is true. It is true like the bible is true in spite of the places in which is not historically or factually true. Truth is broader, deeper and wider than fact. ROOTS tells the truth about America.


Shall We Kill Him? A Reflection on the Death Penalty

Leviticus 24:13 The Holy One of Sinai said to Moses, saying: 14 Take the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands on his head, and let the whole congregation stone him. 15 And speak to the people of Israel, saying: Anyone who curses God shall bear the sin. 16 One who blasphemes the Name of the Holy One shall be put to death; the whole congregation shall stone the blasphemer. Aliens as well as citizens, when they blaspheme the Name, shall be put to death. 17 Anyone who kills a human being shall be put to death. 18 Anyone who kills an animal shall make restitution for it, life for life. 19 Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return: 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered. 21 One who kills an animal shall make restitution for it; but one who kills a human being shall be put to death. 22 You shall have one law for the alien and for the citizen: for I am the Eternal One your God. 23 Moses spoke so to the people of Israel; and they took the blasphemer outside the camp, and stoned him to death. The people of Israel did as the Living God had commanded Moses.

There is a part of me that doesn’t wrestle with the death penalty. I know our justice system is not just. I know that we have executed innocent women and men and that is abominable. I know that black and brown and poor defendants are overrepresented on the system because they are targeted, over arrested, over convicted and over executed. And at the same time, some crimes are so heinous that I fully understand the Iron Age theology that says such must not be named among you, take them outside of the camp and stone them. I also know that the death penalty is not a deterrent and the appeals system is broken, flawed and skewed. And yet the case of John David Battaglia gives me pause. He shot his 6 and 9 year old daughters to death, Faith, 9, three times and Liberty, 6, 5 times – while on the phone with their mother saying Merry Fucking Christmas after making Faith ask her mother, “Why do you want Daddy to go to jail?” Their mother also had to listen to her daughter beg “No Daddy, please don’t.” If the death penalty is immoral it is alway immoral, even in this case. But if human beings have sufficient moral agency to adjudicate life and death and can do so justly – a standard which has rarely if ever been met – then there are times when the death penalty is merited. This may be one of them. Whatever his fate, may God have mercy on his soul.

 

 

 

 


Slaughter of the Innocents: A Lament for Tamir

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We are a nation that kills children. We are a nation whose protectors do not protect children. We are a nation whose justice system does not render justice for children.

We failed Tamir. We failed Ayanna. We failed the children of Newtown. We failed every child shot since Newtown. We failed the multitudes of children whose names we will never know in spite of the proliferation of body cameras.

We do not have the excuse of being held in thrall by a tyrant like Herod with an army at his disposal. We have the power of our votes and our voices. What we do not have is collective will. We face a different kind of tyranny with a different kind of army.

Today the church remembers the Holy Innocents slaughtered by Herod as he sought to kill a king whose fame in infancy threatened him: When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Matt 2:16

Herod didn’t invent state-sponsored genocide. Nor did it end with him.

My people are being slaughtered in the street, in our doorways, in our homes, in our beds, in our churches, in jail cells.

We can be murdered in public, on film and then be blamed for our own murder, with none held accountable.

Rachel, the heart-mother of Israel was said to have wept for the slaughter of the Holy Innocents as her spirit did in Jeremiah’s time, (Jer 31:15; Matt 2:18). She refused to be comforted because her children were gone.

These precious children are gone. Whatever you believe about the next life does not change that their lives and gifts here among us have been snatched away in horrific violence, that they died terrified and uncomforted.

I sit with my hand over my mouth because if I take it away I might start screaming and never stop.


What If Jesus Doesn’t Return

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What if Jesus doesn’t come back?
We are waiting. And we have been waiting. We have ritualized our waiting, renewing it every Advent.
But what if Jesus doesn’t come back? I think perhaps it shouldn’t matter.
Our wait is not idle. We work while we wait. Our world is broken and we are mending it. Or are we waiting idly? For what are we waiting? Judgement. Grace. Mercy. To see what the end shall be?
But what if Jesus doesn’t come back? And we knew he weren’t coming back? What would that change? Would we stop working for the betterment of the world?
Why do we feed the hungry? Because Jesus said so? Or even because Jesus did so?
Perhaps we should take a page from our atheist and agnostic friends and feed the hungry because they’re hungry.
If Jesus doesn’t come back, in our lives or at all, it shouldn’t affect us in or out of the church. The world needs folk to care and work.
I think the promise that God will renew all things is a dangerous promise. It can lull us into thinking that God will fix everything by-and-by; the world is too big and too broken for us to fix.
What if we worked to repair the world as though it depended solely on us?
Something is coming, the future.
But if Jesus is coming back wouldn’t it be something for him to find us so busy healing the world we don’t have time to argue about or decode biblical prophecy.

Note: The black ribbon on the Advent wreath proclaims that Black Lives Matter and the Incarnation bears witness to this holy truth.


Terror and Despair

The earth is utterly broken. I have been praying for a long time. I have been praying for a just and peaceful end to the Israeli occupation of Palestine and for safety and security for Israeli and Palestinian people for longer than I can say. I have been praying for peace in the Middle East on a regular basis since the first Gulf War. I have been praying for the peoples of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan regularly since the Second Gulf War. I have been praying about and against violent, extremist interpretations of Islam since I first knew what the Taliban was. I have been praying about and against the manipulation of Islam since the bombing of the US embassy in Kenya when I began to learn about Al Qaida. I have been praying about and against the perversion of Islam by Daesh since they started proclaiming themselves as a caliphate and Islamic state founded on rape, decapitation and crucifixion. I have been praying for the people of Syria since I learned about the bombardment of civilians by their own government before the mass exodus.

I have been praying and praying because I know not what else to do. (I’ve written my congress critters and the White House.)

I look at the sheer evil loosed upon the peoples of the world and I despair…the earth is torn asunder… The litany of destruction continues: travelers shot down from the skies over Sinai, Beirut, Bagdad, Paris…the earth is utterly broken, the earth is torn asunder, the earth is violently shaken…

I read my sacred text and turn away from those that promise things will get better, eventually, on the cosmic scale. That’s not good enough for me right now.

I need texts that shriek rage with howls I can add to my own.

Right now I don’t want to hear good news. I don’t want to be comforted.

I am grieving.

And screaming.

Isaiah 24:17 Terror, and the pit, and the snare are upon you, O inhabitant of the earth!
18 Whoever flees at the sound of the terror shall fall into the pit;
and whoever climbs out of the pit shall be caught in the snare.
For the windows of heaven are opened, and the foundations of the earth tremble.
19 The earth is utterly broken, the earth is torn asunder, the earth is violently shaken.
20 The earth staggers like a drunkard, it sways like a hut;
its transgression lies heavy upon it, and it falls, and will not rise again.


Weeping With Jerusalem

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Just stop it! This rash of stabbings and vehicle assaults must end. So too must the occupation and explosion of settlements which fuels some of this rage. There must be a just peace in Jerusalem, Israel and Palestine in whatever configuration. That means the cessation of all violence in all of its forms: terroristic actions by persons, policies, governments and their agents, legal fictions and economic violence. Violence on all sides must cease. There is no other way. Just peace.


When Your Womb Hurts You

FEM082Womanists love their wombs. It seems whenever I’m in womanist space women are talking about, talking to, laying hands on their wombs, our wombs, my womb. But you don’t know my womb or its story. And it’s not just my womb or my story. Today I’m going to speak to and for wombs that hurt, wombs that hurt us.

In this room and every room in which womanists celebrate their wombs and their fruit – children and the spiritual, emotional, creative and ancestral conversations and processes that they locate not just in their bodies or bellies but in their wombs, some of us flinch. Some of us hurt. Some of us fold in on ourselves. Some of us hold our heads down in pain and shame even if we don’t move a muscle. Some of us hold our carefully composed masks as your words encircle us, negating our experiences and our truths. Our wombs hurt and they hurt us.

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 in 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 have 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 our 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.

Sometimes, hearing our sister and mothers revel in their wombs and accomplishments, our wombs hurt all the more.

For my sisters and mothers whose wombs hurt and hurt them.


Love. Sex. Money. Power. Death.

Adam and EveLove. Sex. Money. Power. Death. All of these things are present in and behind our lessons, particularly the first two, especially if you know where to look. Let us look with eyes wide open at the treasure house of the scriptures and see what they have to say to us across the expanse of time, that we might find a living word from the Living God in these words we share today. Let us pray:

Holy One of Old, open our eyes that we may see and our ears that we may hear. Amen.

[Adam and Eve by James Lewis; Song of Solomon by He Qi]

SongOfSolomon(A) HeQiToday’s lesson from the Song (2:8-13) is part of a larger work celebrates human sexuality as part of God’s good creation. In the Song, the woman and man are in harmony with one another and with the natural world; the brokenness of relationships between humans and, between humans and the earth is healed, (Phyllis Trible in God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality). The garden in the Song is a sustaining oasis nourishing its human, plant and animal occupants. The woman and man are in what some have described as an egalitarian, non-hierarchical relationship. That may be too generous but it is clear the relationship between the woman in the Song and her man is unlike any other in the scriptures. Yet the world of the Song is not paradise; there are threats: There is some degree of societal and familial disapproval of their love demonstrated by the attempts of some men to regulate the woman’s sexual expression, (5:7; 8:8-9). The bible is, after all, an Iron Age text.

In our lesson this Sunday the lovers articulate their love for each other’s flesh. This text is a lovely reminder that our physical bodies are beautiful and beloved, and that loving relationships occur within and not in spite of human bodies. [tweet that] The lectionary portion begins with the woman extolling the way the man moves in v 8. Then she exclaims over the way he stands still and looks out the window in v 9; she is besotted with every little thing he does. She repeats some of his words to her – it is unclear when he first spoke them. (There is little underlying narrative or chronological order in the Song.) The man asks his love to run away with him; they aren’t running away from anything or towards anything. They just want to be together in a world as beautiful as their love. The natural beauty of the world around them reflects their love, blossoming flowers, fruit-laden trees, singing birds. Maybe it is paradise, or the Garden Isle of Kauai.

The natural world evokes all of the senses as does the love between the couple. The very physicality of this text as scripture is its gift. The woman, man, their love and their world are all God’s good, very good, creation. There is no division between body and soul. The Greek philosophical tradition that will become so important to the Church Fathers as many of them reject and restrict sensuality, sexual love and bodiliness is unknown here. This text does not share the later dualism separating flesh and spirit inspired by Greek philosophy in which the body and its desires are regarded as being lower or lesser than spiritual things. Body and soul are one here, united in love.

[tweet this] The Song of Songs is a celebration of erotic love, by which I mean explicitly sex. Not surprisingly its literal reading was quickly abandoned in favor of allegorical readings in much of Judaism and Christianity where it has been read as symbolizing the love of God or Christ for Israel or the Church. No small feat given that neither Christ nor Israel, nor even God are mentioned in the Song. It’s about sex and love and death to some small degree. [tweet this] We dare to love though we die. We risk death because we love. Love and sex, sex and death have been intertwined since the first stories in that other garden where love went wrong and started looking like the heteropatriarchy because of a curse. [tweet that]

But here in this garden there is love and some degree of equanimity in spite of the old curse. Here a woman dares to tell the world about her love, her desire, her sexual desire, her intent to fulfill it without shame. She does so in the only biblical book in which a woman is the dominant character and speaks the majority of the lines. The Song of Songs is unique in the scriptures for its passionate lyrics extolling the physical love between a woman and a man, and for the dominance of the woman – in voice and agency – in the composition. It is a marvel – perhaps a miracle, an intentional act of God defying the previous order of things – that the Song was received as scripture. It was resisted and rejected by men before it was grudgingly accepted.

[tweet this] A literal reading of the Song requires coming to terms with the raw sexual desire and gratification called for by this woman to her man in the scriptures which many readers found – and find – incompatible with their notion of scripture in spite of the fact that these verses are enshrined and canonized. In many readings that do celebrate the sexual love between the couple, their marriage is asserted in spite of the fact that the text does not state that they are married. The man does refer to the woman as his bride (Song 4:8–12; 5:1) and sometimes as his sister (Song 4:9–10, 12; 5:1–2; 8:8) though no one seems to want to take that literally – it is not clear whether they are betrothed or married, and if they are married why she spends so much time looking for him or they feel the need to sneak around. All that sex talk, conveniently excised from today’s lesson which ends as they run away together, inconveniently ending before the most luscious descriptions of their love-making.

And then for some reason the lectionary shapers gave us an equally truncated piece of Ps 45. Perhaps they reached into their grab bag of bible verses and it was on top. It too is about love. But not the kind of love in the Song. I’m a Black Church Episcopalian so I need you talk back to me. To whom is the Psalm written? I love the NRSV translation of v 1 – not something I say often:

My heart overflows with a goodly theme;
I address my verses to the king…

So, to whom is the Psalm written? If we just read that verse, we might say, “Well, God is often described as a king (in spite of not actually being male).” But look at v 2:

You are the most handsome of men…
therefore God has blessed you forever…

This is a psalm about a human king. Is there any love here? Does the psalmist love the king? Or does he love his wealth and power? It sure seems like the psalmist has some kind of love for him. [tweet this] When was the last time you read a psalm praising someone other than God? You can find the whole psalm on p 647 in the prayerbook – I have little love for that translation. Take a quick look at the love of the psalmist for the king: v 3 his thighs and his might, v 4 truth, justice and the Israelite way, v 5 his hands and his strength. In v 7 I think editor of the psalter said we have to have something about God in here so we get a one liner about God’s throne then back to the man of the hour. He’s better than all the other dude-bro-kings, his clothes and cologne are better, his women and their bling are better and look! a wedding at the end of the psalm. But there is no love there; this is a political wedding. This is the wedding of Jezebel to Ahab; her titles, “daughter of Tyre” and “king’s daughter,” are present in the text, rendered “people of Tyre” – a deliberate mistranslation – and “princess.” Jezebel is the only Tyrian princess to marry an Israelite king; the psalmist addresses her directly. In v 10 the psalmist tells her to forget the people and the place she loves. He does not believe that she can love her new people and her own people. The psalmist’s notion of love is very different from the lovers’ understanding. It is much smaller.

In the Song there is more than enough love to go around. It is practically sprouting out of the earth like flowers. In the psalm, all love and loyalty go to the king. Even God gets short-changed in the psalmist’s praise. We ought not be surprised. [tweet this] When love and sex intersect with money and power, love often seems constrained and reduced to shadow of itself.

James (1:17-27) offers another vision of love, love beyond that of lovers for each other. One of the songs of my people asks, “Have you got good religion?” The response: “Certainly, certainly, certainly Lord.” What is the evidence? The second verse asks, “Do you love everybody?” “Certainly, certainly, certainly Lord.” Perhaps today’s lesson from James was the inspiration. He teaches that what we say and what we do matters. We cannot say we love God, have good religion – or any religion at all – and say anything to anybody. This is an election season Gospel: one measure of your religion is what you say, including about candidates. And, [tweet thiswe cannot say we love God and have good religion and not care for God’s children, widows and orphans yes, and the homeless, hungry, uninsured and under-insured, imprisoned – rightly or wrongly – diseased and afflicted, trafficked, migrants with and without papers, the hurting and even the hateful. I love that James doesn’t limit “religion” to Christianity. We are not alone in doing the work of God’s love in the world.

The Song teaches us to love with abandon. The Psalm shows us how wealth and power can warp love. The Epistle reminds us that love extends far beyond us, that it is not something we feel but something we do.

And Jesus, Jesus who is love seems to be talking about anything but. It seems the lesson of the Song has been forgotten. Folk are worried about controlling the body; all that flesh and its potential for pleasure makes a lot of religious folk uncomfortable – and not just in the Iron Age. And [tweet thisJesus makes what I think is an overlooked point (in Mark 7:15): The body is not evil nor the source of evil. He says: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.

Yes, Jesus just made a poop joke. But more than that, by focusing on what folk say and do with their bodies and not their bodies themselves, Jesus aligns himself with our lovers. That ought not surprise us because Jesus overcame his culture’s aversion to Gentile flesh and never seemed to share their aversion to woman flesh. [tweet that] Jesus also offered his flesh to touch and be touched by folk whose flesh was said to be polluted and polluting.

After all Jesus is the one who emerged into the world in scandalous flesh, clothed in the flesh and bathed in the blood of an unmarried woman with a damaged sexual reputation. Jesus entered the world between a woman’s thighs uncomfortably close to urine and feces – not just in the stable but also in that most intimate female space. And perhaps most scandalous of all, Jesus did this as God, taking on human flesh, joyful, loving, touching, sexually maturing and capable flesh. In Jesus, God is all kinds love and, all of our love, which comes from God, is worthy of God and therefore an extension of God’s love. [tweet this] We are the beloved of God, with and in these bodies and their loves, not in spite of them.

In the Name of God who is Love, Jesus the Love that is stronger than death and the Holy Spirit who covers us and fills us with her Love. Amen.


Solomon’s Interfaith Prayer

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1 Kings 8:41 And, when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, when such a one comes from a faraway land because of your Name— 42 For they shall hear of your great Name, and your powerful hand and your outstretched arm—when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, 43 you, you shall hear in the heavens, your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls out to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your Name to be in awe of you, as your people Israel, and so that they may know that your Name has been invoked on this house that I have built. (RGT, Revised Gafney Translation)

I preached on this text the last time it came around in the Revised Common Lectionary. (You can find that sermon here.) Today, hearing it read again I was struck by it all over again.

Solomon prays an interfaith prayer. He does not just pray that God would hear him and his people – which is a fine prayer. He prays that God would hear the prayers of foreign people who come to this holy house to pray. Solomon doesn’t pray that they would be converted to his religion which is often how Christians pray for peoples who are not Christian. More than that, his prayer bespeaks radical welcome to holiest place on earth from his perspective. When I was in India in 2007 I was struck by the way in which churches opened themselves to Hindus who worshipped Jesus as their God in the Hindu cosmology, making room for them, sometimes building additions to welcome and accommodate them. American Christians are far less welcoming to sister and brother Christians across lines of race, ethnicity, denomination and theology – especially of sexuality and gender performance.

I think about the conflict over who can pray and how and with what holy objects at the Kotel, the Western Wall, all that remains of the structure towards which Solomon is praying and it seems that Solomon’s male descendants who are so busy policing his female descendants have missed the lesson he is teaching here.

All of us I believe could benefit form some of Solomon’s Iron Age theology. He had his problems to be sure. But he has said more than a mumbling word here.


Spike’s Tut: An Honest Fiction

Avan Jogia as kingtut Ben Kingsley as AY Kylie Bunburytut-nonso-anonzie

 

Disclaimer: I have no hate-snark for Tut. Read at your own risk!

I first became aware of Spike’s miniseries TUT surfing for streaming media to watch while resting an injured knee.  Given the whitewash of the ancient world in projects for the large and small screen in recent years I had low expectations and decided not to invest two let alone six hours on it. However, I noticed a bit of slick advertising for a pre-publicity piece on Egyptian culture, Egyptian Vice (in two parts), and rolled the dice.

The documentaries were visually stunning and included more than promotional clips of the miniseries; they shot new material for the stories they told far beyond the 18th dynasty. I was pleased to see a variety of skin colors, though most of the Egyptians were post-Arab-Egyptian-beige, there was a fair amount of black and brown. Pharaoh Khufu for example, was portrayed by a beautiful dark chocolate brother. While Khufu would not be in the Tut series, I was pleased to see that Nonso Anonzie would play General Horemheb (who would become the last pharaoh of that dynasty). There were some decidedly odd choices, Nefertiti’s signature crown was replaced by an afro the exact same shape and, the Mitanni who hailed from Syria and Turkey were as dark as central Africans wearing terrible euro-textured wigs. Their Cleopatra was, unsurprisingly (virtually) white. Even so the casting for documentaries and miniseries was clearly diverse even given the extremely low bar set by biblical epics of recent memory. My one real disappointment was Akhenaton for whom I and many black folk have a particular love. Neither his character nor his appearance  suited. Even making allowances for the need to teach a young son harsh lessons before he died, none of the beauty captured in his images was present in the actor.akhenaton

The documentaries made good use of Egyptology and archeology, interviewing several prominent scholars. There was also an unfortunate perpetuation of the old wives’ tale about temple prostitution – a particular source of ire to many a biblical scholar. From the tie-ins it was clear the production put significant effort into reproducing the material world of ancient Egypt with 60+ live action sets on location in Morocco, no CGI and breath-taking handmade wardrobes – hand-pleated silk gowns! – and props. When the director described the storyline as “a life Tut could have lived rather than the life he lived” I was intrigued.

By being honest about their historical fiction they were free to spin whatever tale they wished without the charge of misrepresenting history (at least from me). And what a story!

I watched the first episode and was hooked: drama, intrigue, deceit, epic battles, love and a tragic untimely death drawing near. Sir Ben Kingley is without peer and was a brilliant Ay, destined (to no small degree by his own hand) to become pharaoh after Tutankhamen. Sudanese-born Alexander Siddig* was riveting as High Priest Amun; I was never clear to what degree he believed his own faith. *[Siddig’s glorious birth name is: Siddig El Tahir El Fadil El Siddig Abderahman Mohammed Ahmed Abdel Karim El Mahdi.] And, I was totally captivated by the love-story between Tut and the fictitious Suhad played beautifully by Kylie Bunbury.

Lastly, Avan Jogia, who shares Gujarati (Indian) ancestry with Kingsley, won me over as the Sa Ra Tutankhamen Heru Ka Nakht Tut Mesut Nebty Nefer Hepu Segereh Taui Heru Nebu Wetches Khau Sehotep Neteru Nesu Bity Nebkheperura.

The series was thoroughly entertaining and well-worth watching. There was even some history to go along with the fiction.


Bathsheba & Black Lives Matter

Our first lesson could easily be and should be translated:

2 Sam 11:4 David sent emissaries to kidnap Bathsheba and she came to him then he raped her. Then she cleansed herself from her defilement and returned to her house. 5 [After some time] the woman conceived; and she sent and told David, “I am pregnant.” (translation, Wil Gafney)

These are hard words. These are hard times. Hard times call for hard words.

Let us pray: Holy One of Old, open our ears that we may hear. Amen.

sandrabland2[Note: all of the tweet links are broken. I’ll fix them when I can.] As Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi watched Trayvon Martin being put on trial for his own murder they created the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Many have joined the movement and when others have tried to hijack the prophetic proclamation by focusing only on black male lives or heterosexual or cissexual black lives we who agitate and protest in social media and in the streets remind and correct them: all black lives matter. [tweet thisBlack women’s lives matter. Black lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender lives matter. Black Muslim lives matter. All black lives matter because black life is sacred. [tweet that] The lives of Sandra Bland, Kindra Chapman and Jasmine Wright cut short this past week matter because they were the very image of God and someone could not or chose not to see God in them.Jasmine Wrightkindra-chapman-photojpg-cbd8bfa919366ce9

And when folk want to turn away from the death that is stalking black lives in the streets, in the church, in police custody, in WalMart, in public parks and in the case of 7 year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, shot by a cop in her own little bed, we say no. Don’t look away. Don’t change the subject. You don’t go to a breast cancer rally and change the subject to all cancer or another disease or all the people who aren’t killed by cancer or even blame folk for behavior choices that you think may have contributed to their cancer.

That’s what the folk who invented the all lives matter hashtag in response to black lives matter were doing. [tweet thisWe said black lives matter. They said no, all lives matter. They said we will not acknowledge that black life is under siege. We will change the subject. We will look away.

We have a hard time talking about race in this country. At this moment we are looking at an escalating tide of black death and some of us are saying black lives matter. In the church we should also say Black life is sacred.

Our scriptures teach we are all created in the image of God. That is easy to say. Our history and our very present demonstrate that some of are not counted in that “we.” Our own Episcopal Church told my enslaved ancestors that freedom in Christ didn’t mean freedom from slavery. They would be free when they died. We weren’t counted in that “we.” The founders of this nation, many of whom were also founders of the Episcopal Church, both founded in my home Diocese of Pennsylvania, had no trouble excluding people of African descent from “we the people.” (Yes, they excluded others but we’re not going to look away or change the subject.) [tweet thisThose founders for whom the bible was scripture could appeal to its pages to support slavery. Yes, Paul said there is neither slave nor free – but he told Onesimus who freed himself from slavery he had to return to slavery and his master and also wrote “slaves obey your masters.” [tweet thisAnd for all his talk about freedom, Jesus never freed any slaves.

In the biblical world just as in ours there were people who counted and people who didn’t. Often those people were identified by ethnicity. Race as we know it didn’t exist in the biblical word but ethnicity functioned very much as it does now. Ethnicity in antiquity and modernity is identity rooted in people and place often with distinct language and cultural attributes. In their scriptures Israelites were the people who mattered and non-Israelites often did not. For me there is more than a little irony in Gentile Christians claiming the scriptures of Israel as our heritage. And, whether Israelite or non-Israelite, women in the scriptures often – but not always – but all too often – were treated as though they didn’t matter. And yes, there are those texts where women and foreigners and even foreign women turn the tables on exclusion and bias but don’t rush to those texts too quickly. Don’t look away from what is hard to see just yet.

Part of what is so infuriating to many us in the Black Lives Matter movement is that all too often our fellow God-crafted citizens whom we pay, support and need as police officers are killing us and our children. They have the power of the state at their disposal, a sacred trust to use lethal force only for the protection of all of us, for our common good. But some of them abuse that power. [tweet this] The sheer scope of extrajudicial killings of black folk by police is an abuse of power. Some take it further like Officer Daniel Hoytzclaw who spent his on-duty time targeting black women for sexual assault. [tweet this] He took at least 13 black women like David took Bathsheba. Don’t look away.

The church has a history of looking away. The church has looked away from David’s abuse of his power, running to his repentance. Don’t look away. [tweet this] The church has even looked to Bathsheba blaming her – some call her rape adultery – looking at her instead of David just as some folk have blamed victims of police killings: if they had just done what they were told… If she hadn’t mouthed off… The penalty for non-compliance and being mouthy is not summary execution, not in these United States. Besides, compliance won’t save us. Don’t change the subject. Don’t shift the blame. Don’t look away from the abuse of power in this text.

Hold David responsible for his actions. I tell my students and the preachers I mentor not to say “Bathsheba was raped” but to say “David raped Bathsheba.” When he sent his men to take her she didn’t have the option of saying no. She was a stranger in a strange land, her husband was away fighting his war and then he took her, raped her and tried to discard her. Having to prove David raped Bathsheba is uncomfortably similar to the plight in which many women and girls find themselves, having to prove to the police and general public that they were raped.

God, the prophet Nathan and the scriptures are clear that Bathsheba was not at fault for David’s sin. Only he is accused and held accountable. But the text doesn’t regard David’s rape of Bathsheba as a crime against her. In the bible her rape is a crime against her husband. That’s hard for me. But I won’t look away. As an Episcopalian and a biblical scholar I know the bible is more often descriptive than prescriptive, describing things as they were and not as they should be. [tweet this] We are called to learn from, not always imitate Iron Age theology. We are also called to look for those spaces where every once in a while Iron Age theology is revolutionary and revelatory. So don’t look away when the text and even God are hard to look at or you might miss it.

David who was so handsome when we met him is ugly in this text. David rapes because he can. Rape is about power and domination. It is not about sex. [tweet this] David had sex partners. He was married like so many other rapists. David has been engaged to Saul’s daughter Merab, then married to her sister Michal then married to Abigail after her husband died and, on the way home with Abigail he stops off and picks up Ahinoam.] Before he sends men to abduct Bathsheba so he can rape her, David has sexual access to a minimum of six wives whom we know, seven if you count the banished Michal and an unknown number of Saul’s wives whom he inherited. That does not include servants – or slaves since they could not say no – and prostitutes with which Israelite men could have sex without consequence because adultery at that time was only having sex with a married or engaged woman.

[Now those of you who have medical or public health training, tell me what does a person with multiple sexual partners run the risk of, particularly when those partners have more than one sexual partner themselves? Listen to David’s words in Psalm 38:

5 My wounds grow foul and fester
because of my foolishness;
6 I am utterly bent over and prostrate;
all day long I go around mourning.
7 For my loins are filled with burning,
and there is no soundness in my flesh.

[tweet this] David had an STD and wrote a psalm about it. If you asked him, I’m sure David would tell you, “It’s good to be king.” David’s rape of Bathsheba and murder-by-proxy of her husband need to be understood in light of his treatment of other women. [tweet that] He would go on to have children with seven women that we know by name: Abigail, Ahinoam, Bathsheba, Maacah, Haggith, Abital and, Eglah. He fathered another seven children with a group of nameless wives, and he still had Saul’s leftover women. But the church has looked away from David’s sexual ethics.

To cover up his crime, David killed Bathsheba’s husband. And as a result she had no place else to go. I guess she could be grateful that David didn’t just kill her too. I wonder if she had had a choice would she have chosen death over marrying her rapist. Perhaps some days the answer was yes. Sadly, all that most people seem to remember about Bathsheba is the worst day of her life, maybe the worst two or three days: the day David raped her, the day David killed her husband, the day she realized she would have to marry her rapist. I don’t know how she did it. But it seems to me that she made up her mind to have the best life she could under the circumstances. I imagine that she said to David, “You are not going to shut me away like you did your first wife Michal. You stole the life I had with my husband. You stole our future and you stole our children. I can’t get that back but I can have your children and the security that comes with them. It’s good to be king and I will be the mother of kings.”

I don’t know if she really said that, but that’s what I imagine her saying. I have to imagine something because she keeps living and sleeping with David, having his babies – four of them – in spite of everything that he has done to her and her husband. She stayed in that marriage like so many women married to a monster with no place to go. I’m not saying that women who are being abused or even raped by their husbands should stay with them. I am simply acknowledging that she had no other choice, and that in our time many women feel like they have no choice either. Bathsheba made the best she could out of the situation.

In so doing she changed the course of history. Bathsheba and the prophet Nathan decide between them, without an old, then-impotent David at the end of his life, that her son Solomon and not David’s oldest son Amnon or even his favorite, Absalom will be king. [tweet this] Bathsheba put her son on the throne. And after David died, Solomon put her on a throne. In 2 Kings 2, Solomon enthrones his long-suffering mother who has survived her rape, her rapist and their forced marriage. Bathsheba became the right-hand woman in the kingdom. And when Solomon got up off of his throne and bowed at her feet, everyone else in the throne room did too.

Solomon learned it’s good to be king and followed in the footsteps of his father David. Where did you think he got the habit of collecting women? It is good to be king. But Jesus didn’t want to be king. He knew that there was nothing romantic about being king. Many monarchs, kings, some queens and pharaohs – male and female – were bloodthirsty, power-hungry, egomaniacal and rapists. [tweet thisDavid and Solomon represented the golden age of Israelite monarchy and Jesus didn’t want to be anything like them. David and Solomon collected women for their own personal use. [tweet] Jesus collected and respected women disciples like Mary Magdalene, the Apostle to the Apostles whose feast was this past Wednesday.

Yet the Church and the scriptures have given the title “king” to Jesus. His disciples then and now never seem to get that he never wanted to be king. In today’s Gospel, after he has demonstrated his power by feeding five thousand people with a child’s lunch Jesus has to run away and hide because the people want to make him king. Just after his resurrection and ascension, the disciples asked again, “Now are you going to restore the kingdom?” If he could raise himself from death to life surely he could put Herod and even Caesar to death. Because the one sure way to become king was to kill the previous king. But Jesus would die, not kill.

[tweet this] Kings take. But Jesus gives. A king will take your sister, wife or daughter. But Jesus gives women dignity. A king will take and tax your crops. But Jesus gives the Bread of Heaven and earthly food to the hungry. [tweet this] A king will take your life if you get in his way, but Jesus gives eternal life.

As king David had the power of life and death at his command. He used that power to rape and murder. There were good kings in Israel and terrible kings and kings who did good things and terrible things. There are good people and horrible people with the power of life and death over others. And there are people who do good things and terrible things with the power of life and death over others. Some of those things are so terrible we may want to look away and change the subject. [tweet] But the lesson of Bathsheba and Black Lives Matter is that the victimized and the vulnerable matter to God and none of the biases of text or culture, in the Iron Age or this age will ever change that.

In the Name of God who is Love, Jesus the Love that is stronger than death and the Holy Spirit who covers us and fills us with her Love. Amene.

 


She Washed My Feet

TheFootWashingServiceJANICEHUSE

Foot washing is a sacred ritual in many black churches. Most often done as part of Maundy Thursday services in Holy Week, some churches wash feet before each communion service. The practice stems from the gospels, from Jesus himself, what he did, instituted and commanded and what was done to him. (Janice Hughes, artist)

John 13:3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4 got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him…12 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14 So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 

Luke 7:36 One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37 And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38 She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.

When we wash feet in the church feet have generally been cleaned and prepared, though there is always some dirt. The symbolism is important even though is is a ritual reenactment of the gospel not an exact emulation.

11204911_10207256072460489_4512697554670293447_nA few days ago I inured my knee badly at the beach and spent some time in the emergency room. Hours later when I was being released, a nurse asked if she could clean the sand off of my feet. I gratefully said yes and she proceeded to wash my feet. She did not pour water over them and blot them dry as we often do in church. She wiped sticky sand and salt off of each foot and from between each toe, gently cradling my feet, protecting my injured knee.

I had wept – sobbed – earlier from the pain of putting my kneecap back in place. But there tears in my eyes as she washed my feet were different tears. I don’t know if she has a religious affiliation, but she was the Gospel Incarnate, Christ to me.

 

 


We Have Already Redefined Marriage

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(Saints Serge and Bacchus being united by Christ in what many consider a same sex marriage. For more read John Boswell’s controversial and provocative Same-Sex Union in Pre-Modern Europe.)

I’d like to think that by now most folk know that biblical marriage includes rape, abduction, forced pregnancy and surrogacy and polygamy.

I’ve lectured and written on biblical marriage for a while now and I hear the same conversation engaged again and again and I find myself reflecting on the charge that human beings are changing marriage  – like that’s a new thing.

The biblical text bears witness to many ways in which humans have fundamentally changed what is called marriage and God’s response or in many cases, lack thereof.

The “one woman, one man” relationship of Eve and Adam becomes one man and two women in Genesis 4:19, one man and an untold number of prepubescent girl war captives in Numbers 31:18 and in many other texts, e.g. Deut. 21:10ff, Judges 21:10-14, 20ff. The evolution of polygamy (both consensual and forcible) as a human-initiated cultural practice in the scriptures is particularly striking because of God’s lack of condemnation, (and according to Deuteronomy, God’s sanction of abduction or rape-marriage during armed conflicts). God even gives David Saul’s wives (as a coronation present? in 2 Sam 12:8). It is also clear that when inviting individuals and their descendants into eternal covenant relationships with God, that God never required that the matriarchs and patriarchs revert to an Eve-Adam, monogamous pairing.

It appears that God has left it to humanity to decide who are appropriate intimate partners and under what circumstances. In other words, humans invented polygamy and God accepted it. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all accept(ed) polygamy as normative even with texts that in some cases that make its all-too-human innovation clear. The end of polygamy in the West is due more to Roman abhorrence of the practice than to any religious motives among Christians or Jews to get back to the original form of biblical marriage.

Even when Jesus teaches on divorce and refers to the Genesis account in Mt 19 and Mk 10 he does not go so far as to speak directly against polygamy.

While there are some claims that in some contexts polygamy was a culturally appropriate way to form households and families to provide for women and children that would otherwise be without support or resources in those cultures I do not find any merit in those arguments today. I recognize that some communities practice polygamy drawing on sacred texts, but in each broader tradition that I am aware of some portion of the same religious tradition rejects the practice.

The biblical account of Lamech in Gen 4:19 taking two women for himself just as he hit back hard against anyone who even slightly injured or offended him makes it clear that his women were status symbols in that narrative. An argument can be made that the first time humans men changed the definition marriage the ([slightly] more) egalitarian union of Eden became patriarchal and hierarchal. And the world did not end. If it had, perhaps we could have started over without patriarchy and misogyny.

Humanity has reconfigured marriage again and again – from women as property whose consent was not needed to a dizzying array of contemporary practices, some like interracial union in the US only recently legal – accounting for all of the variations would require a book.

By some accounts same gender unions were performed in the Church as far back as the first century. And the world kept spinning. In modernity Denmark legalized same sex marriages more than a quarter of a century ago. And the world keeps spinning.

Recognizing and consecrating same sex unions in civil and sacred discourse is neither new nor earth-shattering.


When You Slaughter Us You Slaughter God

We should not have to tell you, we should not have to teach you, that we are the very image of God. You should see God when you see us.

But you worship a pale deformed perversion of God that mirrors your biases.

I find myself saying again: We affirm that black lives matter and are sacred in the face of actions that communicate the opposite. This is not a philosophical conversation on the value of all life because all life is not equally imperiled in the United States of America.

We are your fellow citizens, your neighbors, your sisters and brothers sharing a common humanity, we are all children of the same God.

I should not have to remind you that we who are blessed with radiant blackness are the image of God.

When you grind our faces into the dirt, you grind the very face of God into the dirt.

When you slaughter us you slaughter God.

Whether we share a religious worldview or not we are co-citizens of a common humanity.

We call on you to live up to and into your own humanity by respecting our humanity and that of our children.

On days like today I think you would rather slaughter God than accept that she is black like me.


Black Girl Bodies

 


There are somethings you will never know if you don’t have a black-girl-body, if you are not or have not been a black girl or woman. Here’s what too many of us know, groping hands and sexually explicit requests and demands from girlhood, long before womanhood and frenzied demands for compliance from the first emergence of the slightest curve on our frames.

Our bodies are torn from us, gobbled up by relatives and strangers of all races. We have been put on display alive and dead, fetishized, coveted, demonized, ridiculed and raped on an industrial scale to produce more of us.

One particularly enduring experience of being a black girl or woman anywhere on this world is the right white women and men assert over our bodies. They put their hands in our hair and think they have done us a favor if they have asked permission first. Then become enraged when we say no. One woman offered me a Christian apology and hug to which I foolishly/innocently consented to find her stroking my now accessible hair. They demand explain we explain our skin – can we tan? do we burn? – our grooming and account for all of blackness everywhere.

[Some will look for me to say not all white folk and talk about my white allies, friends, loves and family members. If you need to hear that to hear me you are not hearing me.]

When I saw the video of Dajerria Becton with a white male police officer grabbing her by her hair and head pushing her face down into the ground, at one point dragging her on the ground by her arm, pressing himself onto her body, his knee in her back, his body clad in the uniform of the community in which she lives, adorned with the badge and gun funded by her parents’ taxes, her body clad in the bikini uniform of summer sun and fun leaving her body exposed for his grasping hands, I remembered too. I recognized what I was seeing because I have a black-girl-body too.

She will remember those hands. She will remember the weight of an unfamiliar, unwanted man pressing her down into the ground, trying to force her to submit, to comply. She will remember the entitlement with which he cursed her, snatched her, positioned her and released her at his leisure. Her memories will be located in the beautiful brown flesh of her black-girl-body.


Church in A World that Kills

[Holding the Ethiopian Israelis in prayer as they fight racism in their country. Their uprising came after I finished the sermon.]

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The Psalmist cried out:

God did not despise or detest the affliction of the afflicted.
God did not hide God’s face from me.
God heard when I cried out to God.

That doesn’t always feel like the truth. Sometimes it feels like everyone including God despises the wretched of the earth, the broken, the downtrodden, the hurting and the hated, the afflicted and their afflictions. Especially when that’s your story. We should extend our comfort and faith to those who are suffering, but we should also understand that may not be enough. There are some hurts that only heaven can heal and for which the balm is time.

People are crying out to God all over this world. This week we hear their cries in Nepal clearly. But they are still crying out in Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria and more. People are crying out to God all over this country. This week we hear their cries in Baltimore most clearly. But they are still crying out in Ferguson, Sanford, New York and more.

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Before Psalm 22 became the Psalm of the Cross, the psalm Jesus prayed while dying, it was already scripture. It is a psalm associated with David, written for him – either at his request or dictated by or composed and written by someone else and dedicated to him. It is the lament of a person who is not even viewed as human, despised, mocked, abused to the point of feeling abandoned by God:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me,
from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest…
I am a worm and not even human
scorned by others, and despised by the people
All who see me mock at me
they make mouths at me, they shake their heads…

They even make fun of the psalmist’s faith:

“Roll on over to the HOLY ONE OF OLD; let God save!
Let God deliver the one in whom God delights!”

But the psalmist knows who her God is and that God has been with her from birth and will be with her to and through death:

Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
On you I was cast from my birth,
and since my mother gave birth to me you have been my God.

It is so easy to fast forward through time and read these verses about Jesus and only Jesus. But that misses the point. Psalm 22 the lament of someone who was in serious trouble a thousand years before Jesus. That person’s prayer became part of Israel’s Book of Common Prayer because it reflected a common experience. Every once in a while, if you live long enough, you will come up against something that will make you cry out to God like the psalmist and even Jesus. Some of us are crying out to God because our post-Easter world still looks too much like a Good Friday world.

Jesus became one of us to experience what we experience. Human beings treating each other like dogs in the street, as though we weren’t all human, children of God, hand-crafted in the very image of God. Some people are still viewed as less than human and treated that way. Mahalia Jackson sang in Sweet Little Jesus Boy:

They treat me mean Lord.
They treat you mean too.

In killing Jesus, the state treated him just like everyone else. People were crucified before Jesus died and they continued to be crucified after Jesus died. James Cone makes the point that in the American context, the cross is the lynching tree.

We can’t escape the violence in the scriptures or in the streets. The violence imposed on the body of Jesus was neither the beginning nor the end of his story. And it was not only his story. His people were subject to lethal violence whether guilty or innocent on individual and national levels. The story of the Jewish people is one of slavery, deliverance, occupation and subjugation as oppressed and as oppressor and, in times of desperation, resistance, rebellion and retaliation. Aspects of the Israelite story are shared with the poor, marginalized and oppressed in every time and place, including ours.

It may not be your experience, but many poor black and brown people experience the police as an occupying force, at best daily harassment at worse lethal violence. Twenty-three years ago anger and pain boiled over in Los Angeles. Last summer it boiled over in Ferguson, MO. This week it boiled over in Baltimore, MD.

When violence erupted in 1966 the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said:

I will agree that there is a group in the Negro community advocating violence now. I happen to feel that this group represents a numerical minority. Surveys have revealed this. The vast majority of Negroes still feel that the best way to deal with the dilemma that we face in this country is through non-violent resistance, and I don’t think this vocal group will be able to make a real dent in the Negro community in terms of swaying 22 million Negroes to this particular point of view. And I contend that the cry of “black power” is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro. I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard. And, what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years.

Dr. King’s words are as always prophetic and challenging and ultimately cost him his life.

Will we hear him? Will we hear the voices of today’s street-prophets? Or will we allow the spectacle of violence to become an excuse to turn away? No matter what we do, God hears.

God hears the cries of all who are treated as less than fully human.

Our world, including our nation and the church have a long history of treating some folk as less than we ought as God’s children: people of color, women and same gender-loving people. Transgender, gay, bisexual and lesbian people are often targeted with lethal violence that neither began nor ended with the lynching of Matthew Shepherd. Transwomen in particular are being killed at alarming rates including here in TX. And sadly, not all churches are safe places for all people.

Our lesson in Acts 8 has something to say about that:

The messenger of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was a Nubian eunuch, a senior official of the Kandake, queen of the Nubians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship.

At the intersection of race and ethnicity, the Greek gentile (now Christian) apostle Philip crosses paths with the black Jewish bureaucrat serving an African queendom. In order to work for most monarchs in much of the ancient world, men had to be surgically neutered, often as young boys. Most eunuchs formed intimate partnerships with other eunuchs or intact males, not the royal women they were trusted to guard. That would have been treason, earning a death sentence even without the possibility of children.

The treatment of eunuchs in the ancient world and in the scriptures is similar to the treatment of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people. Eunuchs may be seen as those who do not fit into our neatly constructed gender paradigms as neatly as we might wish – this is what it means to be male, to be a man, to live and love as a man. At one point the scriptures even say eunuchs are not welcome in the house of God. But the same Isaiah scroll that this one is reading cancels out that passage, welcoming eunuchs specifically. But he hasn’t gotten to that verse yet.

The Ethiopian eunuch has no name in the text but could have been called Abdimalkah, servant of the queen, a common title that functioned as a name. Without a name we might keep calling him “the eunuch” and reduce him to a missing part of his body. Our transgender friends, family and neighbors have taught us how inappropriate is fixation on the parts of someone else’s body. We could call him “he.” But should we? We are learning how important it is to call people by the pronouns they choose for themselves.

This person by any name and any pronoun has been to worship in Jerusalem which suggests he is a Jew even though he would not be able to fully participate as a eunuch. The original audience would have known the story of the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon and the tradition that she left him pregnant and their descendants not only preserved his faith but remained in contact so no one would have been surprised that this man had been born Jewish. As a eunuch he would not have qualified for conversion.

The queen’s servant – Kandake is a title, she is the Kandake – the Kandake’s servant is reading the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. In the ancient world people read out loud just as they prayed out loud. (Hannah invented silent prayer but it didn’t really catch on for a while.) He reads from a portion of Isaiah that like Psalm 22 has come to be identified with Jesus even though it has its own separate history and origin. It is the poem-prayer of another person who was unjustly put to death, five hundred yeas before Jesus.

While he reads, Philip has followed God’s call to go down a country road with no explanation, overhears. I don’t know what Philip expected to see, but probably not that limousine. He didn’t know why he was going other than God sent him. He went to be present where God sent him and gives us a model for evangelism. He had no agenda, no pre-planned speech. He went to listen first and speak second. And Philip finds a welcome occasion to share his faith. Contrary to popular opinion, harassment is not a tool for spreading the Gospel.

The queen’s man was reading what is now Isaiah 53; there were no chapter and verse numbers then. The holy words spoke of the suffering of the innocent with the guilty and on behalf of the guilty from the time when the Babylonians destroyed their nation. When Philip tells him what these words mean, he doesn’t go back to the time in which they were written or their meaning for their original audience – he hasn’t been to seminary.

He reads the scriptures in light of the events of his days which means reading them in light of Jesus. He tells the story of Jesus and tells it well because it is personal to him. And his companion and conversation partner asks to be baptized right then and there. And in that moment the Holy Spirit builds the church through these two very different people, different ethnicity, background, social status and even different ways of living and loving.

It strikes me that these lessons are all about hearing and being heard.

God hears the cry of the psalmist as surely as God hears the cries from the streets and those of mothers like our Blessed Virgin Mother who have lost their sons to police violence. Philip listened to God. He listened to the eunuch. The eunuch listened to Philip. And God used them to transform the world, starting with each other because they listen to and hear each other. The Church has listened to these stories read and preached for millennia, but have we truly heard them?

Holy One of Old, open our eyes that we may see.
Holy One of Old, open our ears that we may hear.
Holy One of Old, open our lips that we may speak.

May God the restorer of broken hearts, minds and bodies
Accompany you through the gaps and brokenness in your life
Nurture, sustain and transform you to change the world around you. Amen.


Call the Wailing Women to Weep for Us

Death is in the house. My ancestors sang it like this:

‘Soon one morning, death come creepin’ in my room,
‘Soon one morning, death come creepin’ in my room,
‘Soon one morning, death come creepin’ in my room.

That morning is today. And yesterday. And tomorrow. Death is in the house. So it is time to call for the wailing women to weep for us.

In the ancient Near East there was a profession that was passed down from woman to woman, from neighbor-woman to girlfriend. The initiates or trainees were called ‘daughters’ and the guild directors were called ‘mothers,’ just as the disciples of prophets were called their children. It was the mourner’s guild, called ‘the keening or weeping women’ in Jeremiah. They were trained and paid to perform the public ritual of funerals; they were funeral directors and grief counselors. These women walked with the body, wept and wailed with the family and sang and chanted hymns, psalms and laments composed for the occasion. They created space and community for the family and friends to grieve without embarrassment, and never be alone. Some guilds included musicians, both male and female, but the professional mourners were usually women.

I’ve been watching (predominantly Christian) folk call for men and Christian men to take to the streets in Baltimore and end/prevent the looting. I’ve heard folk say that only a man can tell another man how to be a man. While our cites are on fire and our children are being slaughtered I want to be charitable to those in my community who are surely in as much pain as I am. So I am going to allow for the possibility that they did not mean to slight all the women, mothers, godmothers, play mothers, grandmothers, church mothers sisters and aunties who have been raising boys and men and women and girls with and without help. I’m just going to sit down and weep at the thought I might have to justify why I’m out in the streets that black women are dying in too.

I’ll be honest. I don’t know what to do or what I can do to keep the police from shooting, strangling, suffocating and now, severing our spines in vehicular lynchings. I’m tired of praying. I feel like screaming. So that is what I will do. I know I’m not alone. I turn to the scriptures and see God says, “Call for the wailing women.”

Jeremiah 9:17 So says the SOVEREIGN of Warriors:
Reason within yourselves,
and call for the keening women to come;
send for the wise, skilled women to come;
18 let them quickly raise a wailing over us,
so that our eyes may run down with tears,
and our eyelids flow with water.
19 For a sound of wailing is heard from Zion:
“How we are ruined! We are completely ashamed,
because we have forsaken the land,
because they have cast down our dwellings.”
20 Hear, O women, the word of the HOLY ONE,
and let your ears receive the word of God’s mouth;
teach to your daughters a wailing,
and each woman her neighbor-woman a keening:
21 “Death has come up into our windows,
it has entered our palaces,
to cut off the children from the streets
and the young women and young men from the squares.”

In this text, the sound of weeping and wailing breaks forth from Zion, the heart of God’s home in Jerusalem. Yerushalayim, the city of peace has been torn to pieces. The first stanza of the funeral hymn composed by God in Jeremiah speaks of the shame of being run out of the Promised Land that God provided. For when their tabernacles were overthrown, they had to leave, because there was nothing left for them there anymore. Even God lost the tabernacle of the Temple. For some the lost tabernacle was that of the sanctity of their bodies; many were raped, tortured and killed. For others the tabernacles lost were the sacred spaces of their God-given homes. Violence and warfare have always affected women in a particularly intimate manner.

Professionals are called to lament on behalf of the people of Jerusalem. In Jeremiah, God tells the people to consider among the weeping women and to select the wisest. In ancient Israelite tradition, wisdom was head knowledge, heart knowledge and hand knowledge. Skilled theologians, skilled poets and skilled artisans are all wise in this understanding. In Ezekiel, the prophet will call the women of the ancient African nation of Nubia to join in the lament and to weep for all of their people.

The United States were never intended to be a land of promise for African Americans. We survived and sometimes we thrive in spite of all the death-dealing structures and strictures in the law and all the social and economic structures founded on and steeped in white supremacy. There have been moments of incredible jubilation and long seasons of grief. It is indeed a time to organize and protest, interrupt and inconvenience and give voice to holy rage. It is also time to lament, weep, wail, scream and keen our grief. Voices of lamentation are being raised all across our nation and world from Nepal to Baltimore. Let me add my voice to them: We call your names. Ashé.

The book of Exodus records the journey from slavery to freedom beginning with he words v’elleh shemoth, “these are the names…” These are the names of our dead. These are only some of the names. (Courtesy of Abagond.)

2015: Jamar Clark (Minneapolis, MN)
2015: India Kager (Virginia Beach, VA)
2015: Christian Taylor (Arlington, TX)
2015: Sam Dubose (Cincinnati, OH)
2015: Sandra Bland (Prairie View, TX)
2015: Icarus Randolph (Witchita, KS)
2015: Freddie Gray (Baltimore, MD)
2015: Walter Scott (North Charleston, SC)
2015: Tony Robinson (Madison, WI)
2015: Anthony Hill (Chamblee, GA)
2014: Akai Gurley (New York, NY)
2014: Tamir Rice (Cleveland, OH)
2014: Victor White III (Iberia Parish, LA)
2014: Dante Parker (San Bernardino County, CA)
2014: Ezell Ford (Los Angeles, CA)
2014: Michael Brown (Ferguson, MO)
2014: Tyree Woodson (Baltimore, MD)
2014: John Crawford III (Beavercreek, OH)
2014: Eric Garner (New York, NY)
2014: Yvette Smith (Bastrop, TX)
2014: Donitre Hamilton (Milwaukee, WI)
2014: Jordan Baker (Houston, TX)
2013: Barrington Williams (New York, NY)
2013: Carlos Alcis (New York, NY)
2013: Deion Fludd (New York, NY)
2013: Jonathan Ferrell (Bradfield Farms, NC)
2013: Kimani Gray (New York, NY)
2013: Kyam Livingstone (New York, NY)
2013: Larry Eugene Jackson, Jr. (Austin, TX)
2013: Miriam Carey (Washington, DC)
2013: Tyrone West (Baltimore, MD)
2012: Chavis Carter (Jonesboro, AR)
2012: Dante Price (Dayton, OH)
2012: Duane Brown (New York, NY)
2012: Ervin Jefferson (Atlanta, GA)
2012: Jersey Green (Aurora, IL)
2012: Johnnnie Kamahi Warren (Dotham, AL)
2012: Justin Slipp (New Orleans, LA)
2012: Kendrec McDade (Pasadena, CA)
2012: Malissa Williams (Cleveland, OH)
2012: Nehemiah Dillard (Gainesville, FL)
2012: Ramarley Graham (New York, NY)
2012: Raymond Allen (Galveston, TX)
2012: Rekia Boyd (Chicago, IL)
2012: Reynaldo Cuevas (New York, NY)
2012: Robert Dumas Jr (Cleveland, OH)
2012: Sgt. Manuel Loggins Jr (Orange County, CA)
2012: Shantel Davis (New York, NY)
2012: Sharmel Edwards (Las Vegas, NV)
2012: Shereese Francis (New York, NY)
2012: Tamon Robinson (New York, NY)
2012: Timothy Russell (Cleveland, OH)
2012: Wendell Allen (New Orleans, LA)
2011: Alonzo Ashley (Denver, CO)
2011: Jimmell Cannon (Chicago, IL)
2011: Kenneth Chamberlain (White Plains, NY)
2011: Kenneth Harding (San Francisco, CA)
2011: Raheim Brown (Oakland, CA)
2011: Reginald Doucet (Los Angeles, CA)
2010: Aaron Campbell (Portland, OR)
2010: Aiyana Jones (Detroit, MI)
2010: Danroy Henry (Thornwood, NY)
2010: Derrick Jones (Oakland, CA)
2010: Steven Eugene Washington (Los Angeles, CA)
2009: Kiwane Carrington (Champaign, IL)
2009: Oscar Grant (Oakland, CA)
2009: Shem Walker (New York, NY)
2009: Victor Steen (Pensacola, FL)
2008: Tarika Wilson (Lima, OH)
2007: DeAunta Terrel Farrow (West Memphis, AR)
2006: Sean Bell (New York, NY)
2005: Henry Glover (New Orleans, LA)
2005: James Brisette (New Orleans, LA)
2005: Ronald Madison (New Orleans, LA)
2004: Timothy Stansbury (New York, NY)
2003: Alberta Spruill (New York, NY)
2003: Orlando Barlow (Las Vegas, NV)
2003: Ousmane Zongo (New York, NY)
2003: Michael Ellerbe (Uniontown, PA)
2001: Timothy Thomas (Cincinnati, OH)
2000: Earl Murray (Dellwood, MO)
2000: Malcolm Ferguson (New York, NY)
2000: Patrick Dorismond (New York, NY)
2000: Prince Jones (Fairfax County, VA)
2000: Ronald Beasley (Dellwood, MO)
1999: Amadou Diallo (New York, NY)
1994: Nicholas Heyward Jr. (New York, NY)
1992: Malice Green (Detroit, MI)
1985: Edmund Perry (New York, NY)
1984: Eleanor Bumpurs (New York, NY)
1983: Michael Stewart (New York, NY)
1981: Ron Settles (Signal Hill, CA)
1979: Eula Love (Los Angeles, CA)
1969: Mark Clark (Chicago, IL)
1969: Fred Hampton (Chicago, IL)
1964: James Powell (New York, NY)

This is a wailing; and it shall be wailed.
The women of the world shall wail it.
Over Nubia and all its nations they shall wail it,
says the SOVEREIGN God. (Ezekiel 32:16)

What shall we do when death is in the house? Lament. Even Jesus said: “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.” Cry to heaven, weep and wail.

Daughters of Nubia, we need to weep for ourselves; we need to weep for our daughters; we need to weep for our sons. We need to weep for our cities. We need to weep for our leaders. We need to weep for our preachers. We need to weep for our teachers. We need to weep for our cities. We need to weep for our sanctuaries. We need to weep for our nation. We need to weep for all nations. We need to weep for the earth. Death is in the house.

Daughters of Nubia, we need to weep for politicians and police. We need to weep for those who perpetuate the culture of violence and retaliation, and those who fall prey to it. We need to weep for unrepentant racists. We need to weep for those who cannot see our beautiful bodies as being created in the image of God. We need to weep with rage and determination.

We need to weep for Baltimore and Ferguson and New York. We need to weep for Nigeria and Nepal and Palestine and Pakistan. Death is in the house.

Weep. Wail. Cry. Scream. And may the God who hears, hear and heal and help us.


Translating Iron Age Prophets into a Digital Age

 

DoMHuldah

HuldahImages of the prophet Huldah by Rabbi Me’ira Iliinsky and (photo) James Lewis

A recent conversation between two leading public intellectuals has brought renewed attention to the ways in which we, pastors, preachers, academics, activists, commentators and the public at large use the lexicon of the prophetic to define our work or the work of others. In my seminary classroom I am constantly stretching my students to expand their understanding of prophets, those who prophesy prophecies, and the prophecies they prophesy, beyond the predictive. In the public square, with its emphasis on social and political commentary, the understanding needs to be stretched beyond social critic or even champion of social justice or truth-teller talking back to power (or empire).

An analysis of prophecy in ancient Israel within the scope of its closest Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) corollaries demonstrates that prophets engaged in a variety of tasks, all of which were part of their prophetic portfolio. (This list and basis for my commentary here is drawn from my own work on prophets, Daughters of Miriam, which includes overviews of Israelite and ANE prophets and prophecy.) Prophetic practices include:

(1) interceding with [God] on behalf of human beings,
(2) performing musical compositions,
(3) commanding military forces,
(4) performing miracles,
(5) appointing monarchs,
(6) advising monarchs,
(7) archiving monarchal reigns,
(8) evaluating and legitimating Torah [scripture and religious/legal rulings],
(9) making, teaching, and leading disciples,
(10) mediating human disputes,
(11) archiving prophetic utterances,
(12) constructing and guarding the temple,
(13) serving as executioner,
(14) inquiring of the Divine, and
(15) proclaiming the word of [God].

Most simply, biblical prophets were divine intermediaries, facilitating communication between God and humanity at the instigation of either party. Prophets enjoyed perhaps the ultimate authority in biblical Israel given they could “fire” a monarch and appoint a new one while the previous one was still living.

One reason there is such a limited understanding of prophets and prophecy is the relative ignorance of the broader prophetic tradition in and behind Israel’s scripture. Reducing the prophetic enterprise to the men with biblical books named after them unnecessarily and inappropriately curtails the prophetic witness in limited ways. In order to know what biblical prophets do, it’s helpful to know who the biblical prophets. Explicitly identified women prophets are in bold, gender inclusive categories that could mask women prophets are italicized.)

Torah: Moses, Miriam, prophesying elders, Balaam

Prophetic Books: Deborah, Anonymous (Jdges 6:7-10), Prophetic Communities (1 Sam 10:1-13, 19:18-24); Nathan; Gad; Ahijah the Shilonite; Unnamed (1 Kgs 13, 20; 2 Kgs 9:1-13; Jehu ben Hannai, Azariah ben Oded; Elijah, Micaiah ben Imlah, Zedekiah the Canaanite, Elisha, Huldah, Isaiah, mother of Isaiah’s child(ren), Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Women’s Prophetic Community (Ezekiel 13:17-19), Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zecharaiah, Malachi (following Hebrew canon, Jewish classification in which Daniel is not a prophet)

Writings: Noadiah, Heman Family Singers (1 Chr 25:1-8), Iddo, Azariah ben Oded, Eliezer ben Dodavahu, Oded

Prophets in ancient Israel engaged in a broad range of activities. They interceded with [God] on behalf of human beings; performed musical compositions; commanded military forces; performed miracles; saw things that no one else could see; determined life expectancy; appointed monarchs; advised monarchs; archived monarchal reigns; mediated human disputes; archived prophetic utterances; validated divine proclamation; made, taught, and led disciples; constructed and guarded the temple; inquired of the divine; and proclaimed the word of [God]. The proclamation of the divine word is the dominant component of prophetic activity. The proclaimed word regularly focused on social, political, and religious matters; concern for right relations between humanity and divinity; relationships between humans; and appropriate religious practices. The receipt of the divine word was an extraordinary, extrasensory experience. Some prophets saw or envisioned the word; others experienced it intimately, literally “the word of [God] happened (hayah)” to the prophet. Some prophets experienced divine communication in more than one medium. Proclamation of the divine message was multifaceted: singing, preaching, and performing were regular modes of prophetic expression. The most common expression of prophetic utterance included the introductory formula “So says [God].” (Gafney, Daughters of Miriam, 47)

A frequent myth I regularly encounter in the public square, classroom and congregation is that all biblical prophets were male. (I’ve had to correct at least one public intellectual with a Ph.D. in a religious discipline on that point recently.) Others know better and may include Dorothy Day with Martin Luther King and Howard Thurman as modern day prophets. The idea that there are contemporary prophets is a contested notion. I find it more palatable and useful to think and speak in terms of prophetic work, action, ministry or service.

Attempts to translate Iron Age prophetic culture in to contemporary American, digital, social media culture regularly fail to take note of the theo-political context of Israelite and ANE prophecy: monarchy. A court prophet is not the same as presidential surrogate and a street prophet is not the same as a commentator who critiques both political parties – or for that matter a socially conscious rapper. While some may presume that (some) American presidents are or have been divinely appointed and elected and others wish for a theocracy, the religious role of the monarch in the ANE, including Israel has no corollary in our democracy (nor even in extant monarchies).

Regardless or one’s religious beliefs about whether prophecy or prophets exist in the world today, the biblical lexicon does not fit in the digital age in the same way as it did in the Iron Age. That is not to say that we ought give up the language, rather to point out the futility of trying to shove square peg pundits and preachers into the round holes of biblical era prophetic roles.

Yet the image and model of the biblical and ANE prophets are available for interpretation and reinterpretation. There are I contend, warrior prophets like Deborah, scholar prophets like Huldah, poet prophets like Micah, politically savvy prophets like Nathan, but perhaps more, legions of unknown prophets whose names we shall never know. Without worrying about who is a prophet (or for that matter an apostle) or legitimate heir to a prophetic mantle, women and men are simply doing the work, crying out to and for God and God’s folk.


ReWriting, ReMembering the Resurrection

A.D. The Bible Continues

According to Mark: After the sabbath Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome bought spices to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body. They also saw a young man dressed in a white robe. The stone had already been rolled away.

According to Matthew:  After the sabbath at first light, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to the tomb, experienced an earthquake and witnessed an angel descend from heaven and roll away the stone opening Jesus’ tomb. The angel had a substantial conversation with the women, commissioning them to preach the Gospel which they left to do.

According to Luke: After observing Shabbat as faithful Jews, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and other unnamed women who followed Jesus went to the tomb at dawn the next day with spices and ointments for Jesus’s body. The encounter two men in dazzling white clothes. The stone had already been rolled away.

According to John: Mary Magdalene went to the tomb alone and empty handed. The stone had already been rolled away. She leaves and reports to Peter and perhaps John. Somewhat out of sequence, she then announces the resurrection to other disciples. Peter and his companion enter the empty tomb then leave. Mary returns, encounters two angels in white and has a conversation with them. Jesus appears and tells her not to cling to him then disappears.

A.D. The Bible Continues

According to Roma Downey and Mark Burnett: Immediately after the crucifixion, Joseph of Arimathea takes the body of Jesus to his own tomb with Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene who brings water to wash his body accompanied by James (I believe). The say kaddish (the mourner’s prayer) over his body in Aramaic. A tender, touching but ahistoric scene. Kaddish is said outside of the tomb once it is closed. They also neglected to tear their garments.

A.D. The Bible Continues Their ignorance of and carelessness with Jewish tradition is neither new nor unexpected, both characterize their previous Bible series. That series like this one was also characterized by an erasure of biblical women. The series is loosely based on John’s gospel which is not the earliest (Mark), which offers the minority report on the presence of women at this most sacred moment, and presents the one woman, running to and fro like a chicken with her head cut off. I believe it is an intentional choice. Rather than tell the story of Jesus’ women disciples – “last at the cross first at the tomb” as we preach in the Black Church – they erase them all but for a token Mary and give us instead the wife of the high priest. Certainly he had one, but she is not in the Gospel.

She is not an apostle to the apostles. Mary of Magdala was. As were her sisters in the gospels, Mary the mother of James, Salome and many other women whose names have been stolen from us.

A.D. The Bible ContinuesWomen are not all that has been erased from this production. Jesus’ ethnicity is no where to be found.

His limp wig successfully communicates his separation from the semitic Jewishness of other characters who have curly hair and in three isolated cases, brown skin.

Jesus is not brown or visibly Jewish and that is intentional. The whitewash of Jesus from the last iteration is a key component of the gospel they are creating, one in which white identity is core, crucial and sanctified.

In order to tell their story they ran between the gospels of John and Matthew and back to John in a dizzying loop. Then let to Acts for the Ascension. There was one stunning image of the Ascension: billowing golden clouds with what I believe we are to understand as angels in them at intervals forming a sort of pyramid. (I couldn’t find the image.) However, it was less an ascension than a descent in that Jesus was never taken up to heaven: He walked up a hill in a beam of light to the top where heaven met earth then the camera cut away, A bit of a cinematic let-down.

I confess, I feel suckered into watching this thing. I’ll probably watch and tweet and comment the rest. I have a hard time leaving anything unfinished. But Hollywierd, I am seriously through with your white bible epics after Noah. (I haven’t watched God and Kings and shall not.)


Faithful Thomas

FinalStationoftheCross

Today’s Gospel focuses on St. Thomas who is significant to me for many reasons: My home church in Philly is St. Thomas. It is a very special St. Thomas, the first Episcopal Church formed by and for persons of African descent, dating from 1792. The African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas is one of the treasures of our Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion and I encourage you to visit it. There are some other St. Thomas churches I think you should know about.

The Mar Thoma Church is not a congregation but a denomination. It is a Syriac-speaking Orthodox Church – Syriac is a dialect of the Aramaic that Jesus spoke. The Mar Thoma Churches were founded in India and spread across the world, including the United States, including Dallas, Carrolton and Mesquite. What is it about St. Thomas that inspired such devotion?

He doesn’t seem like much in our Gospel lesson. Here’s some backstory: His name only appears eleven times in the bible. He doesn’t even get the full dozen. Apparently at one time they used to call him “the twin.” He shows up pretty far down on the list of disciples drafted in the first round, nine of twelve. Thomas is in only one story apart from today’s text. Earlier in our Gospel, in John 11 Thomas is a bit of a drama queen. When he heard that his friend Lazarus was dead he said, “Let’s go and die with him.”

And today he is the one who doubted Jesus was raised from the dead. And he did doubt, in spectacular fashion.

I want to tell you that Thomas had good reason to doubt. He had seen folk crucified before. Beaten, tortured, bloodied, flesh hanging from their bodies in shreds, broken bones, strangling, suffocating, drowning in their own fluids. And this was Jesus. He had power like they had never seen before, and only heard of in the days Moses and Elijah. And these petty men, religious leaders that he could preach circles around and bureaucrats who had no power to make miracles, they caught him and convicted him and he didn’t defend himself. And that voice from the heavens didn’t speak on his behalf. And he died. He died with two no-count thieves. Jesus died and the next morning it wasn’t a horrible dream. He was still dead. And the next day too.

The Church does not spend enough time sitting with the death of Jesus. It makes us uncomfortable. We rush to Easter – sometimes on Saturday, so we don’t have to deal with the spectacle of his death. Jesus’ death was designed to be a spectacle, state- sponsored terrorism. But not just his. The whole point of crucifixion was to demonstrate what the Romans were capable and that it was useless, hopeless to defy them. Terrorists and thugs do the same thing. We see it in the horrific acts of the warlords who call themselves an Islamic State. We see it in the savagery of the Mexican crime syndicate Los Zetas. We’ve seen it among ourselves in the spectacle lynchings that took place in this country and in this very state where people brought their children and even had picnics, sometimes right after church. That’s why it is so traumatic for many of us see to black bodies lying in the street for hours, to see people posting photos of the massacred and martyred Kenyan university students. The spectacle of death, especially intentionally violent death to teach a lesson about power and dominance is traumatizing.

Thomas was traumatized, grieving, dealing with the triumph of the Pax Romana. What the Romans called peace secured with the blood and death of anybody and everybody who got in their way or thought about getting in their way. Just like they did with Jesus. All he did was preach and teach and love and heal. It wasn’t much as revolutions go. But it was enough. And then it was over. But then the stories started. People said they saw Jesus. Women said they saw Jesus. The men he followed Jesus with said they saw Jesus. Every time someone said they saw Jesus, Thomas was conveniently not in the room. Now what were the odds of that? Thomas said, I need to see him for myself. I don’t blame him. I would have said the same thing.

I believe Thomas needed to see Jesus. Not just for proof. But he needed to see his friend and teacher, the man who he had followed from town to town for the better part of three years. I imagine Thomas leaving his friends, shaking his head, hoping against hope wanting to believe. I imagine him going home, waiting to see if Jesus would meet him there. Waking up to the memory of that horribly violent death playing over and over again in his mind and those stories. People insisting that they had seen the Lord. Some said they had touched him.

The days passed. The Gospel jumps to the next week. But I want to stay with Thomas, in his grief, and hope and yes, doubt, all mixed up together. A night and a day. And another. And another. Where did he go? What did he do? Did he ask his friends to tell their stories over and over again? Did he tell them to stop talking about it because he just couldn’t stand it?

Eight days later – the NRSV rounds down for some reason – eight days later, had he given up? How many times had they all been together in that room, trying to figure out what to do next? Had he come to believe in the resurrection on his own? Perhaps, though that is not the story the text wants to tell. Eight days later and they are all there – who? The male disciples who did not go to the tomb with the women? Had they collected a larger group of disciples? Whoever they were, they were there. But only two mattered: Thomas and Jesus.

Jesus came back, just to show himself to Thomas.

Jesus came back for Thomas to strengthen his faith. He still does that by the way, though not necessarily in such dramatic fashion. But I won’t doubt you if you tell me you’ve had a spectacular vision or experience. Thomas has said what he needs, to see and touch Jesus, his hands and his side. I wonder if he thought they might try to pull a fake over on him. Jesus gives him what he needs, exactly what he asks for – but of course, he didn’t ask, he demanded.

Even that is a lesson, we can tell God what we need. And God gets it. Jesus understands. Jesus tells Thomas that those of us who will not physically see or touch Jesus will receive a special blessing because he knows how hard it is. Jesus knows that it is hard to believe sometimes. And that’s all right. He doesn’t rebuke or chastise Thomas. He gives Thomas what he needs.

ShrineSignThomas ceased to be the doubter that day. The Western church still calls him that. But the Eastern church calls him apostle and seafarer. After Thomas saw Jesus and had his faith strengthened he took the story of Jesus’ resurrection to those who would not have the blessing of seeing and believing but could receive the blessing of believing through faith. And who better to teach about faith in what sounds like an impossibility but one who believed in Jesus, heard his teaching, saw him perform miracles, witnessed his death, doubted his resurrection and then saw and touched him alive after his gruesome death. Thomas took this Gospel to India, where he founded the Church in India. In a few hundred years at least one Indian bishop from this lineage would be a signatory of our Nicene Creed.

St. Thomas had what I like to call a reasonable doubt. But he moved past it when nearly everyone else was holding on to it. For the disciples of Jesus who believed in his resurrection were only a tiny fraction of the people in their towns and in the world. Most people believed what they had seen. Jesus had died. It would take some time and the work of the Holy Spirit to change that.

TombSignThomas went on his way telling the world-changing story of Jesus. The church he founded is our elder by more than a thousand years and we are in full communion. The story of Jesus remains so influential in India, in part because of St. Thomas, that Jesus is revered as a God among many Hindus who choose him to worship. There are more Hindus who worship Jesus in India than there are baptized Indian Christians. So many Hindus go to church that many congregations have enlarged their sanctuaries to accommodate them. That too is the legacy of Thomas, there is room for all in the church even if they do not believe in the same way as the one sitting next to them. St. Thomas died in India around the year 72, and joins St. Peter in Rome and St. James in Spain as the only apostles with basilicas where they were buried. I had the great pleasure of visiting his basilica in Mylapore India where he is remembered not for his doubt, but for his faith.

We are all of us so much more than our worst or even our most infamous moments. All of us have moments of doubt. But faith is stronger than doubt.

 

May the Risen Christ meet you in your times of doubt and lead you to new places in faith that you might proclaim to those near and far that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead. In the Name of God who is Love, Jesus the Love that is stronger than death and the Holy Spirit who covers us and fills us with her Love. Amen.

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Photos from St. Thomas Hill, Mylepore, India. St. Thomas’s tomb is below the sanctuary floor and can be viewed through the glass on accessed on the lower level.


Resurrected: The Bible Continues

A.D. The Bible Continues

Premiering on Easter Sunday, AD the Bible Continues needs must go through the cross and the empty tomb (again). The Resurrection is at the heart of the Christian faith. It is borne witness to in the theological discourses of the earliest Christian writing, the Epistles, followed by narrative accounts in the four Gospels that were eventually canonized along with more gospels and other writings that were composed and circulated without official sanction. The accounts differ in the details – the number and sequence of human and angelic witnesses and, presence, prominence or exclusion of women. Like all interpreters the producers must choose an account or create a sequence by harmonizing the texts.

The passion story was presented largely from the Gospel of John, including some direct quotes. There was also some Matthew thrown in and a bit of shared material form Matthew and Luke. It’s clear that the Gospels were not understood as separate literary traditions with their own way of telling their different accounts of the larger shared story. They were treated as a collection of interchangeable parts to be assembled piecemeal.

I am as interested in the visual text with which the sacred story – my faith story – is told. The Israel of Jesus was as is the modern state of Israel, at the juncture of West Asia and North-East Africa. Jesus like his fellow Jews, Judeans, were Afro-Asiatics, the scholarly classification give the region and its languages stretching across North Africa into the Arabian peninsula. Europeans were not unknown; they were not interchangeable with Palestinian Jews. The subjugation of Greece and Rome led to an influx of Europeans but not to the transformation of Afro-Asiatic Semites into white (or white-skinned) Gentiles is suggested by the casting choices. A.D. The Bible Continues Christian Testament scholar Mitzi Smith describes the diversity of the first century Roman Empire this way: The Roman Empire of the first century CE was vast and diverse extending into the deserts of the continent of Africa. [And m]ost Roman soldiers came from outside Rome including from Africa and… were Roman citizens.

This series has already provided some small improvement on the diversity of main characters and extras that reflects some of the diversity of the ancient world. They have a long way to go. The series has work to do in telling the stories of the women at the heart of the Gospel. There were some very powerful scenes with Mary the Mother of God, but the many women who followed Jesus seemed to be compressed into one Mary. Their absence from the crucifixion scene was particularly notable.  

A.D. The Bible Continues

I would like to highlight two visual choices that I applaud in the series: The recreation of the Jerusalem temple is stunning and seems to correspond well to the authoritative sources. Only a bit was shown last night. I have looked at some of the publicity images. And, I love the militant depiction of the divine messengers or angels as well as their diversity. (They were present in the last series as well.) I even enjoyed the completely unbiblical meteor-landing the angel made.

There was some good conversation on Twitter. Here are a few of my favorites:


AD the Bible (Redux)

AD1

After the epic whitewash that was the History Channel’s The Bible Series Produced by Roma Downey and Mark Burnett, I had no intention of watching their latest installation, AD the Bible Continues, focusing on the book of Acts (of the Apostles). In the publicity build-up to the premier, the producers emphasized the casting of a number of actors of color, including some of African descent in significant roles this time. Downey and Burnett acknowledged the criticism of their past work and sought to remedy it. (At the time, this blog was the only scholarly one that engaged every episode. I did attempt to engage the producers repeatedly on Twitter but heard nothing from them. I was pleasantly surprised to hear of their change in casting – and would like to think my unacknowledged critique played some role in that.) The change is welcome however their basic paradigm appears unchanged: They seem have created another predominantly white world in lieu of Afro-Asiatic context from which the scriptures emerged and added a few people of color. The portrayal of Jews particularly of Jesus and his mother as white-skinned is historically inaccurate and, symptomatic of and perpetuation of the white supremacy that pollutes the Church. (Juan Pablo de Pace plays Jesus and Greta Scacchi plays his mother.)

A.D. The Bible Continues

As a scholar and a priest I am interested in how the stories of my faith, church and scriptures are told. I am concerned about the ways in which the biblical text and Christian story have been used to buttress systems of domination from sexism, racism and heteropatriarchy to white supremacy and slavocracy. The previous series failed miserably on gender balance – the androcentric scriptures are more inclusive than their portrayal and it failed in fidelity to the biblical text.

Keeping to their previous practice, this series has been heavily marketed to Christian communities with a specific push to the Black community. Last time around T.D. Jakes and Jamal Bryant headlined those efforts. This time Vashti McKenzie and Joshua DuBois are promoting it. The series is also partnering with  Urban Ministries Inc. That kind of marketing makes me wary. Never-the-less I have decided to watch and engage the series (again), in part because of the casting choices. I will do so in conversation with UrbanFaith.com using their hashtag #ADBibleTalk. My participation in this conversation is by no means an endorsement of the program or UMI, Urban Faith or any of their programming or commentary. Join me as I live-tweet the program and look for blog posts after.