On 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.
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/
Most of the sermon can be viewed here: https://www.facebook.com/wil.gafney/posts/10209498062188831
Joshua 2:1 Yehoshua ben Nun, Joshua the son of Nun, sent from Shittim two men, spies, secretly saying, “Go, survey the land including Jericho.” So they went and entered the house of a woman, a sex-selling woman, a prostitute, a harlot, a whore, a ‘ho – her name was Rachav, Rahab – and they lay down there.
Pray we me as I ask on behalf of Rahab and her sisters, Who Are You Calling a Whore? Let us pray:
Brukah at Yah eloheynu lev ha’olam
asher lev eleynu v’shama’at qol libeynu
rachami aleynu v’yishma qol d’mamah daqah.
Blessed are You, Yah our God, Heart of the Universe,
who attends to us and hears the voice of our hearts;
mother-love us and make audible the soft, still voice Amen.
James Lewis photography used with permission.
Rahab is the deliverer of her people, her family. She saves her (at least) two sisters and (at least) two brothers and their spouses and their children. Parents and slaves swell the ranks of her kindred she saved from several dozen to perhaps a hundred people depending on how many siblings she has, how many children they have and how many servants and/or slaves they all have. Rahab determined to save as many of her people as she could, and she succeeded yet she is remembered as a whore, slut-shamed by the bible and its readers for all time. I can imagine Rahab looking her people in the eye after she saved their behinds saying, “Now, who are you calling a whore? This whore is your savior.”
We’re talking about what happens when women preach this weekend. One thing that happens when this woman preaches is I look for those women that other interpreters and preachers pass up, like Rahab’s sisters. Rahab’s sisters are women who stand out to me as precariously perched on the pages of scripture. Rahab asks for the protection of “my mother and father and sister[s] and brothers” in Josh 2:14. How many of you know that when you move to freedom you have a holy obligation to take somebody with you? How many of you are invested in the liberation of your sisters?
Rahab’s sisters are vulnerable in the passage. They keep disappearing in the mouths of the Israelites. When the spies agree to her terms in 2:18, they agree to save her “mother and father, brothers and her father’s household.” They have erased her sisters and imposed their sense of hierarchy on her household by giving her father a household that is not his in the passage. The text doesn’t say her father heads a household, but it does say she does. Rahab works with them in spite of their patriarchy because sometimes you have to work with what you got and everybody aint free and everybody aint trying to get free. Even the bible doesn’t seem fully committed to the liberation of Rahab’s sisters. When the Israelites take Jericho in chapter 6, they preserve the lives of Rahab, “her mother, father, brothers, all who belong to her – her whole family.” If it weren’t for Rahab, we wouldn’t know that she even had sisters. Rahab’s sisters exist only on her lips. She has saved them in and into the scriptures. If we don’t call the names of our sisters, no one else will. #SayHerName and don’t call her out of it. Who are you calling a whore?
I wonder whether Rahab’s sisters and mother are also sex-workers. I wonder whether Rahab is the eldest of her siblings, how she came to be the home-owner, whether she was the bread-winner for her entire family, and why she betrayed or abandoned the rest of her own people according to the Israelite chronicle. So I turn to my sanctified imagination and encounter a womanish, womanly woman, Rahab the courtesan, consort of kings (and queens if called upon), purveyor of pleasure to the working man, hostess of an oasis of delight, supported and protected by the embracing city wall.
Rahab presides confidently over her emporium in garments softer than any woven by the local craftswomen; she shares a weaver with the prince of her people. Her affluence surrounds her like clouds of incense, the aroma of balsam perfume priced beyond reach of ordinary mortals wafts before and behind her. She tinkles with ornaments of the finest quality, hammered gold jewelry with silver beads and precious stones, even pearls.
Her establishment is an embassy of sorts. She pays taxes on a fraction of her income because she offers intelligence drawn out from her many customers, locals and foreigners alike. Knowledge is power; this is the real currency in her world. For the promise of her reports she is granted a house in the city wall under the watchful eye of the royal guard. She and her girls, her sisters, are all under the protection of the king. He knows that she doesn’t pass everything on to him, just as she knows that she must provide services for him and his most trusted emissaries free of charge.
She begins to hear stories about a horde of people like locusts emerging from the wilderness infiltrating, suborning, overwhelming and sometimes annihilating the peoples in their path. Gathering, sifting and weighing the intelligence she collects, Rahab determines that not all of the stories are wild exaggerations, not all of them are true, but some of them are. She senses the currents of power shifting around her and sets out to navigate them. Providentially, two young men hungry for the touch of her sisters from that very nation appear in her establishment. Rahab sees them well satisfied as her girls draw every drop of information from them about the strength and location of their people and their plans. She may be a whore but she is also so much more.
Who are you calling a whore?
The voices that keep telling us in the text that Rahab is a sex-worker like that’s a bad thing also keep reminding us that she’s not an Israelite, like that’s a bad thing. She is an outsider, an ethnic minority; she’s not one of us. I know Christians like to read the bible like we’re the Israelites but every once in a while we need to read from the perspective of the Canaanites. Rahab was everything that Israel hated and feared: a woman, a sexually active woman controlling her own sexuality, and a Canaanite woman to boot. But don’t count a sister out who fears God no matter how the deck is stacked against her. Because Rahab knew God her circumstances were about to change. And God was going to use the very thing that folk would shame her for to transform her life.
Rahab’s story begins before the two spies who were supposed to be surveying the land come to her place of business for the business which was her business. Rahab’s story begins when she is born and raised, perhaps loved and cherished, or even abandoned, sold or abused. The text doesn’t seem to care how she ended up selling herself and perhaps selling other women and girls. She may have even also had some male employees. However she got her start, Rahab is now at the top of her game. She has her own house and it is not just a residence; it is her place of business. And that is where Boo and Bae show up.
The brothers went to Rahab’s house and lay down. The first thing they do when they get to her house in verse 1 is “lay down.” Before the word got out that there were spies in town, they lay down. Before they spied out the land, they lay down. Before they fulfilled their mission, they lay down. Without interrupting another brother on his way to handle his business asking about the town’s defenses, they lay down. Do you really think those brothers made a beeline from the wilderness to the pleasure palace to get a good night’s sleep? They didn’t have Sheraton pillows in the Iron Age. Rahab’s night shift would have been putting in work right about then. Is that what they were supposed to be spying on? But they weren’t spying because as soon as they got there, they lay down.
The two brothers in the story are supposed to be on a mission. They have one job: Go, study the land. But the first thing they do, the only thing they do is go to Rahab’s. Later, after their escape, they go right back to Joshua and there is no land-spying in between. They only things they have seen was Rahab’s merchandise under and on Rahab’s roof. They never complete their mission. But they do lay down. The verb sh-k-v means to lie down for sleep and sexual intercourse. And while men (or women) may in fact sleep in a brothel; they do not generally seek out brothels as places to sleep. Those hourly rates add up; there are moans and groans, screams, laughter and weeping. In a brothel, beds and other flat surfaces aren’t for sleeping; they’re for working. Besides the verb for sleep does not occur in the passage. I have no doubt that the spies went to Rahab’s house for Rahab’s business. My only question about their transaction is whether they got their money’s worth before they were so rudely interrupted.
The brothers came to Rahab’s house to lay down but she is the one who is is known as a whore. So I’m going to keep asking in her name: Who are you calling a whore? Even today men who buy sex – even from under-aged girls are less likely to be punished than women who sell sex. And girls who are coerced into selling sex are more likely to be treated as criminals than victims. One thing that hasn’t changed from the Iron Age to our age is that there are women who sell sex of their own free will and there women and girls and men and boys who have been sold into selling themselves. It can be hard to tell the difference. Prostitution and trafficking go together. Even among those who are adults and say that they have chosen their lives as they are there are stories of abuse, abduction and abandonment raising the question who would they have been without the evil done to them.
The struggle for basic dignity, human and civil rights takes many forms. Even when we are well clothed, fed, educated and relatively free, we are subject to systemic injustice and oppression that affects us all in different ways. We are fighting multiple battles on multiple fronts – but we do not fight alone – we’re fighting racism in everyday life, systemic institutional bias against peoples of color, summary execution in the streets and we are fighting systems that tell women and girls we are less than, our only value is in our bodies, our appearance, that we are nothing unless we have a man or even a piece of a man to share. And sometimes the church is every bit as vicious and violent as the world for women and girls. All the time denying we are sexual beings, our bodies are designed for sexual pleasure, that we have the right to make our own sexual and reproductive decisions. And the church has failed to teach men and boys about a holy, healthy masculinity and sexuality or even the basic principles of consent for sexual activity. But the church has taught women and men to call non-compliant, non-conforming, independent, sexually free women whores. Who are you calling a whore?
Some say Rahab was an “innkeeper” and not a prostitute. That’s simply not what the text says in Hebrew. There has been across time, a concerted effort to whitewash and sanitize Rahab because she is a great-mother of the messianic line through David to Jesus. Even though they have sex, some religious folk don’t like to talk about sex let alone acknowledge that they and their saints and ancestors ever had sex – except for that one time it took to make them. Folk act like all sex is sinful or that when there is a sexual transgression that is somehow worse than any other sin, especially for women who are somehow guiltier than anybody else in the bed. But the thing I love about the scriptures is that they keep it real. And I love Rahab, because like most prostitutes she understands better than the undercover brothers that all the saints are sinners and God welcomes us with our skeletons and scandals.
When I look at Rahab’s story, I see the story of a woman who was once a girl-child, somebody’s baby girl, who became the kind of woman people whispered about, the kind of woman some folk spit at or on, the kind of woman other women blamed because their husband went to her house every chance they got, the kind of woman Jesus liked to hang out with, and the kind of woman who would always be known for one just thing.
Prostitutes often remind us that there is more than one way to sell sex. Just because no cash changes hands doesn’t mean you are not selling, bartering or trading sex. Some folk trade sex for merchandise. Some folk have sex for financial security. Some folk trade sex for status, for jobs and promotions. For other folk sex is the price they have to pay if they don’t want to be alone or in order to feel better about themselves because if they’re having sex that means at least somebody wants them some time for something. A whole lot of folk are selling themselves. They’re just not all on Craig’s List.
Yet Rahab refuses to be reduced to the stereotypes people have of women who sell sex. She is not all about the Benjamins or the Tubmans. She is not a cold-hearted witch. She has a family that she is going to save using her house of prostitution because God can take that thing in your past or even in your present that stains your name with shame and transform it into your deliverance and bring somebody else out with you. I don’t know if her roof was their roof, or her food was their food but when her family’s lives were in danger, Rahab saved them. She became the savior of her people, the Canaanite Deborah, Jericho’s Harriet Tubman.
But Joshua keeps calling her that woman who does that thing as though that thing was all she ever did, all she ever was or all she ever could be. Is somebody calling you out of your name today? Don’t let anybody, prophet or pastor define you by what you have done even if you’re still doing it. You are God’s child. Women are more than a collection of the body parts some want to reduce us to. That’s true even when parts of the bible can’t get over our parts, what we have done with them and what we might do with them. That women and girl-children are used for those parts then called whores whether they have sold it or had it stolen is more than an injustice, it is a blasphemy against the Spirit of God enwombed in woman-flesh, not just in the case of Christ but also of each of God’s handmade children. Reducing God’s daughters to a singular collection body parts for which we are desired and reviled, coveted and cursed is to deny of the full dignity of our creation in the image of God. And that makes it possible to perpetrate acts of physical and sexual violence against us.
God’s daughters are not the only ones who are sexually abused, exploited, trafficked, sold into prostitution and then blamed for their own brokenness. Rahab’s story could just as easily be Ray-Ray’s story. We need to stop telling the lie that when a grown woman molests a boy he’s lucky. But because we don’t understand sex we don’t understand how and why it is perverted. We can’t talk about Jesus saves and leave folk cowering in shame about what they have done and what has been done to them. God didn’t abandon Rahab to her fate or her previous life choices. We can’t save anybody like Jesus or Rahab anybody if we are to afraid or too embarrassed to speak the word of God to all of the situations God’s children find themselves in, especially those things that thrive in the dark.
We would do well to take a lesson from Rahab when she knew death was coming to her town. She didn’t say the rest of you are on your own, I’m the franchise player on this team. She said I need to get my people out. I need to do right by them. No matter what situation we find ourselves in we have the capacity to help somebody else. Rahab demonstrates a moral and ethical obligation to do right by other folk, no matter how they have treated you or what they have said about you. I don’t know what her mama and daddy thought about her selling herself. No matter how much money she made there would always be the hint of scandal and shame attached to her name. It’s entirely possible that they sold her as a child to make their ends meet. But she didn’t leave them to their fates. She made a way out of no way for her people.
The text says Rahab has brothers and sisters. She saved them too. I don’t know if her brothers were on her payroll or crossed the street when they saw her coming. I don’t know if they called her a whore to her face. You know hoe family can be. Whatever they thought or felt about her, however they treated her, she saved her brothers. She saved her sisters. It doesn’t matter whether her sisters were her flesh and blood, or her sisters working in the sheets and in the streets. Our ancestors had a saying: all my kinfolk aint my skinfolk and all my skinfolk aint my kinfolk. Rahab saved her sisters and everyone who belonged to her house and it didn’t matter what she did or had to do to build that house. She turned her whorehouse into an ark of safety.
Rahab was able to save her people because she put her trust – not in the men who came to her house to lie down – but in their God whom she knew for herself. Rahab was a Canaanite woman whose people were at war with Israel yet she believed that that she could and would be saved. Rahab told Bae and Boo, “your God is God in the heavens above and on the earth.” Rahab knew for herself what some folk are still figuring out, that God is worthy of our faith and trust. Rahab put her faith and trust in the God of all creation and was rewarded with the faithfulness of God. Rahab believed that the God who made her and know her and knew what she did for a living loved her. And she was right. Rahab knew that God knew she had sex, sold sex and sometimes liked sex and she knew that her sex life and sex work were not going to keep her from her salvation.
A thousand years before Jesus ministered to another Canaanite woman Rahab believed that God was no respecter of persons. Rahab believed that it didn’t matter what you had done or what had been done to you, there is a place for you in the people of God. Rahab knew it didn’t matter if folk call you out of your name when God calls you daughter. That’s who Rahab is, God’s daughter. Never mind that the Epistle to the Hebrews and James still call her a whore.
Some folk will continue to tell your old stories, but if God has brought you out there are new stories to be told. Matthew has some new stories of Rahab. They are there between the lines.
Matthew 1:1 An account of the genealogy of Yeshua, Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. 2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers and sisters, 3 and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, 4 and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5 and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rachav, Rahab, and Boaz the father of Oved, Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Yissai, Jesse, 6 and Jesse the father of King David.
One day Rahab found herself the mother of a bouncing baby boy named Boaz. Baby boy grew up and met a widow-woman, she was a foreigner just like his mama. Funny thing is, nowhere in the story of Ruth does anybody talk trash about Boaz’s mama. Rahab’s name lives long after her, not in infamy, but in testament to the faithfulness of God. God’s faithfulness to and through Rahab produced at least fifteen kings according Matthew. Jewish tradition traces the prophets Huldah and Jeremiah from her lineage.
Then one day one of Rahab’s daughters daughters daughters found herself pregnant in an usual way. People talked about her like she wasn’t even a child of God. But I believe she said, the God of Rahab is my God. The faithful God is my God. The trustworthy God is my God. And my baby will be in David’s line but he will also be in Rahab’s line so though he will sit high he will look low. He will be Lord of heaven and earth but he will dine with whores, ‘hos and tax collectors. He will be sought after by kings and emperors but he would rather play in the street with the little children.
Jesus had a particular commitment to doing right by women because he was raised by a single mother after Yosef, Joseph – I call him Yo – disappeared, but more than that, he was a child of the Hebrew Bible. Jesus’ passion for justice for all God’s children emerges from his Jewish identity and his scriptures which have become our shared scriptures with our Jewish and yes, in part with our Muslim, kinfolk. While he was yet God in child-sized flesh Jesus also knew God from the sacred stories of his people because his mama raised a biblically literate Jewish son. I believe Jesus knew the story of Rahab from his childhood scriptures, but also from his family tree.
I maintain that one of the reasons Jesus was so committed to justice for God’s daughters including his own sisters was because of his own family history. Jesus had some scandals in his family tree. His own mother was likely called out of her name, maybe even called a whore, for saying that her baby daddy was not the man she was going to marry. I don’t know if Joseph ever recovered from being told, Yo, you are not the father. That can be a heavy burden for a man to carry. But Jesus was not ashamed of his mama or any of his folk or the secrets and skeletons in their closets. That’s good news right there. Some of you are scandalous and some of you are scandalized and Jesus is not ashamed of any of us. I believe that he chose ministry to scandalous women in part because of his great-mother Rahab.
I’m so glad Rahab is in Jesus’s family tree. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the gospel of Rahab this afternoon, no matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done, no matter what has been done to you, nothing can keep you from the safety and salvation of God. Israelites and church folk may not want you at the table but God says pull up a seat and sit down. Jesus is not ashamed to have you in the family. They may still call you out of your name but you’ve got a place in the household of faith and nobody can put you out. They may still talk about what you used to do but you’re in the promised land with them anyhow. Salvation came to Rahab’s house. Rahab delivered salvation to her own house. God met her right where she was and brought her out of her old house to a brand new life.
If we’re going to follow the example of Jesus and do right by the Rahab’s of the world, we’re going to have to stop calling them out of their names and more than that, we must like Jesus welcome them to the table and family of God, whether they are reformed or not. And as we sit around that table with the scandalous and the scandalized we ought to remember that if weren’t for God loving us in and loving us through and loving us out of our own scandals, skeletons and closets none of us would be at the table. So I ask again: Who Are You Calling a Whore?
The Gospel of Rahab is a scandalous gospel. Rahab was reviled for spreading her legs and yet God chose to enter world through the spread legs of another woman. This Gospel is that God’s concern for women and the woman-born was manifested in God, Godself, becoming woman-born, for the redemption and liberation of women and all the woman-born from fear and from death itself. Yeshua the Messiah, the Son of Woman, came to seek out and save the lost and to give his life as a ransom for many, for Rahab and her sister. Now, who are you calling a whore? Amen.
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.
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.
[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 this] Black 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.
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 this] We 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 this] Those 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 this] And 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 this] David 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.
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.
Thomas 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.
Thomas 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.
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.
Open the doors of our hearts. Open the doors of our hearts to the word we would hear and the word we would not. Open the doors of our hearts. Open the doors of our hearts to those whom it is easy to love and those who it is not. Open the doors of our hearts. Open the doors of our hearts to the stranger when it is convenient and when it is not. Open the doors of our hearts. Open the doors of our hearts wider than the fears that limit us. Open the doors of our hearts. Amen.
Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak;
let the earth hear the words of my mouth.
May my teaching pour like the rain and may my word go forth like the dew.
Exodus invites us to imagine that someday someone will ask you about why you do what you do. In order for someone to ask the question, they have to see you doing something provocative. In the text, telling the story of liberation to the next generation is an act of living liturgy.
The story of Passover and its ritual instructions are not directly applicable to Christians and other Gentiles. But there are lessons to be learned here. It’s easy to focus on the story of the exit – as my dictation program typed instead of Exodus, a story of liberation – and then talk about all the ways in which we have been liberated and are seeking liberation for ourselves and for others. We may move easily into conversations about liberation of slaves here in America in the previous century and, here in America and around the world in this century.
But what about the command to tell the story? What about the liturgy of the telling? We have our own capital S story as Christians and individual stories. An important part of our faith is telling the story; that is the heart of evangelism. It is important, some would say crucial, for Christians to be able to tell the story of Jesus. But that’s not the kind of telling the text is talking about. The text calls for the Israelites to become living texts, to tell their stories with their actions and then when asked with their words. The living comes before the telling.
The text about telling comes with an expectation that the descendants of Israel will live the story in a particular way. The text foresees the future in which the daily lives and routine of people will be framed, not interrupted, but shaped by the liturgy they live. As cultural religions, Judaism and its ancient Israelite ancestor shape and shaped the daily lives and seasonal lives of the people born to them and those who choose them. While there are daily and seasonal Christian observances, they don’t shape the daily lives of its followers in the same way. Yet here in this time, when our living liturgies of the Three Days intersect with the living liturgy of Passover is an opportune time to ask how these liturgies affect our daily living. And looking beyond these days, what are the stories our lives tell?
Today is 14 Nissan 5774, Erev Pesach. Tomorrow is the first day of Passover (in our time zone). Jews all over the world engage in the liturgy of story telling at table in their homes, some tonight, some tomorrow night. Some unknown number of Gentiles like me will sojourn at those tables and share in telling that story.
Today, I would like you to focus on what if anything you do in your daily or seasonal life that tells the story of your faith. What are your living liturgical practices? What is it that you do that someone might see you do ask why do you do that? What does it mean? How do you mark the seasons of our collective story in your home? What do you do to tell your story when you’re not at church?
Today we are going to talk to our neighbors about our stories. In groups of two tell your story using these questions:
1- When was the last time someone asked you about your faith based on something they saw you do?
2- Are their ways you live out your faith in your home (other than Advent, Christmas and Easter decorations)?
3- How/where/when do you share your story outside of your home?
Talk to a neighbor and Dr. Krentz will play us back together at the end of our time. (6 min)
So, what’s your story? The stories of Israel and the church are interrelated. Each is a study of a people who move from oppressed to oppressor. Each used their theology to justify dominating those with different theologies. And they continue to tell their stories. But the people who watched them didn’t always tell the same stories. The Canaanites didn’t tell the story of Israelite presence in the land the way Israel did. And folk on the bottom of the Church’s power curves don’t tell the same stories as those on top. Women and men, people of color and white folk, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender folk and heterosexual and cisgender folk tell different stories. But we’re part of the same great story. Privilege is seductive and the memories of marginalization loom large justifying using privilege to protect privilege.
You are telling a story with your life and when they ask you why do you do the things you do, what will you say about the story you have already told with your commitments, actions and inactions when they contradict the story you tell with your words? We are writing and being written as the Church, the story of God. Can anyone see Jesus in or story? That poor, Jewish, brown-skinned, non-gender compliant, establishment-critical, Hebrew Bible reading and preaching Jesus? What about that infuriating violence provoking Jesus? Anybody get mad when you preach? Anybody care when you preach?
In our first lesson, a portion of the Torah portion for the first day of Pesach, Passover, God tells Israel to tell their story and more than that, to live their story. Live the story you tell. And let it be the story of God. The story of redemption and transformation, the story of blending fellow travelers escaping the same slavery into a new people.
Our second lesson, a portion of the haftarah, the prophets portion for the first day of Pesach shows the Israelites telling their story of salvation in the living liturgy they had been given. There will be no record of Israel keeping the Passover in the bible again until the prophet Huldah canonizes the Torah scroll brought to her in the reign of Josiah, some six hundred years later, a reminder that if you neglect to tell your story, it will not die. It will wait for those who know its power to tell it again.
What’s your story? This place has a story, and old story and now you are writing new lines. What will you say when they ask you why you’re doing what you’re doing?
My time here has added new lines to my story. One is the certainty that the hijacking of the term evangelism by those who have redefined it by their example as religious intolerance, harassment, arrogance and bible bashing conversion drive-bys is a story that does not lead to liberation or even invite conversation.
When they ask me why I tweet, blog and insist on reading hearing and preaching from God’s word in God’s mother tongue, I have a story, one in which I hope my words reflect my actions, compelling, inviting, engaging, challenging and convicting, probing and prophetic. As we have lived our stories together, I have learned to tell my story in the public square in a way I couldn’t imagine, as drag-inspired womanist midrash, including vampire theology and critical analysis of race and its representations in popular culture, from the Masoretic Text to the movie theatre. That’s the story of this theological dominatrix. What’s yours? As we go our separate ways will the story you live be the story you tell? Will the story you tell be the story you live? The library is open.
I found my self advising preachers, pastors and priests on what not to say about God in relationship to the savage atrocity at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT on December 14, 2012 in which twenty children and six adults were mowed down and murdered by a young man who also took his own life. All I could think of was bad theology and preaching that I had heard too many times by well-meaning clergy after tragedy. (I’m not considering the intentionally misanthropic theology spewed by those of ill will such as the Westboro Baptist Church, James Dobson and Pat Robertson.)
I was concerned about what and how people would preach after the slaughter of the innocents in Newtown CT. I started writing a blog post called A Word to Preachers and couldn’t finish it as I was wracked with grief and stunned into silence at the thought of those murdered children, lying in their own blood as police and medical examiners did their grisly work for as many hours as it took. I took the few coherent sentences I wrote, tweeted them and posted them on Facebook.
- Don’t you dare blame God or claim this was God’s will. God did not want those babies (or adults) in heaven today, this way.
- If your theology is inadequate to make sense of human evil, the love and sovereignty of God say so.
- Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know what to say when you don’t know what to say. Sit down if you need to. Weep. Let the musicians minister – without words when no words can be found.
- Stand in integrity. Be honest. Acknowledge your pain.
- If you’re a lectionary preacher admit the “rejoicing” in the texts doesn’t fit. We’re in too much pain to rejoice.
- If you observe Rose Sunday perhaps the concern of a mother, the Virgin, for her Child is a starting place.
- For me Job is a resource. Cry to heaven, scream at God, even curse God.
- This is an Immanuel moment. God is with us. This is a sure promise. God was with the dying. God is with the grieving.
A clergy colleague in the blogging community RevGalBlogPals to which I belong, the Rev. Martha Spong asked me to help think and articulate what we should preach rather than what we should not preach. In consultation with the RevGals and two other online communities to which I belong, WomanPreach! and Move And Shake (a private Facebook group for women in the academy) I came up with the hashtag #What2Preach and facilitated a conversation on Twitter, Facebook and the RevGal Preacher Party.
Social media made it possible for me to hold multiple conversations with struggling clergy wresting with the lectionary texts, and those seeking a word and a text from God. For lectionary preachers the texts included: Zephaniah 3:14-30, “Sing aloud…Rejoice with all your heart…” Surely inappropriate and insensitive for many. Canticle 9 in the Episcopal Church, “Surely it is God who saves me” from Isaiah 12:2-6 – but so many perished. “Rejoice in the Lord always…!” The exhortation to rejoice seems so out of place. And then there was the gospel, “You brood of vipers…” Hardly comforting.
I left that Tweet Chat encouraged by the priests and pastors I met there and grateful for the opportunity to use my gifts as a priest, preacher and seminary professor to respond to this atrocity in a meaningful way.
The #What2Preach Twitter thread – captured as an image 12/18/2012.
Entries continue to be posted since this image was captured – click to go to the Twitter feed.
Looking forward to next week's Gospel and reflecting on the censuring of a Michigan State Representative, I discuss the woman with a vaginal hemorrhage in light of contemporary politcal and public discourse in my latest Huffington Post bog entry.
My commentary on Genesis 45:1-15 for WorkingPreacher.org.
The story of Joseph's reunion with his brothers is among the most tender in the scriptures.
His own brothers hated him, (Genesis 37:4), and kidnapped him, (Genesis 37:23). They had even planned to murder him, (Genesis 37: 18ff). They "settled" for selling him into slavery, (Genesis 37:28), a possible if not likely death sentence.
And now, in today's lesson Joseph is in a position to get revenge on them. They need him. He does not need them. The famine that he Pharaoh has dreamed about has come to pass, (Genesis 41:17ff); Egypt has grain in abundance because of Joseph's interpretation of the Pharaoh's dream and their mutual stewardship in preparation, (Genesis 41:49). Yet Joseph does not take revenge on his brothers. He provides for them and their families. He receives them as his brothers. He embraces and forgives them.
The lesson of forgiveness in this passage is particularly poignant; combined with Joseph's rags-to-riches story, it is something like a fairy tale. Unfortunately those lessons are entwined with a deeply problematic theological gloss: that the human trafficking in the story was a tool of God to save the lives of Joseph and his family from the impending famine, verses 5-8, justifying the actions of his brothers in selling him into slavery. While that narrative device makes for great theater in the story of Joseph, it paints an unrealistic glaze over the institution of slavery in and beyond the bible.
Joseph's experience of slavery in the narrative was one in a million and does not mitigate against the unjust dehumanizing institution utilized by the Egyptians and other ancient peoples including the Israelites, or American chattel slavery in North and South America and the Caribbean or the contemporary sexual trafficking of women, girls and boys. The claim of verse 8, "it was not you who sent me here but God" should perhaps be understood in this story as Joseph's perception of his circumstances and not as a broader religious sanction of slavery, human trafficking or any other social ill over which an individual triumphs. Joseph does what so many people do, which is try to make sense out of what he has experienced by drawing on his own limited understanding of God.
The focus on Joseph, his perceptions and his experiences in the narrative is a reminder that biblical literature, like all literature, has its own perspectives and biases. The text is not interested in the wellbeing of any of Pharaoh's other slaves and indeed has reported on Pharaoh's idiosyncratic practices of imprisoning, freeing and executing them at will in Genesis 40:20-21.
Today's lesson presents an opportunity to think about the claim that the God of the scriptures is the God of all and, the Israelite perspective in the scriptures that God is on their side and not that of the Egyptians or the Canaanites or any other peoples. While subsequent biblical writings will proclaim a God of universal fidelity and justice, this is not one of them.
Christian readers have been quick historically to identify ourselves with the Israelites, as a result many have never thought about the fate of the ordinary Egyptian, Canaanite, Babylonian, Persian and other peoples who are decimated at the margins of the Israelite scriptures. Yet Joseph himself stands as a bridge between cultures. He lives as an Egyptian with an Egyptian name, Zaphenath-paneah and an Egyptian wife, Asenath, (see Genesis 41:45). Their children Ephraim and Manasseh (and the tribes they represent) are half-Egyptian. His brothers Judah and Simeon also marry and have children with women from the surrounding communities, (see Genesis chapter 38 and 46:10). His grandfather Laban, Rachel's father (who was also his great uncle as the brother of his grandmother Rebekah), was an Aramean, Genesis 25:20. And his great-grandparents Abraham and Sarah were from Chaldea which would later become Babylonia and in our time, Iraq.
Joseph's complicated family history teaches us that Israelite identity was a cultural and religious one and not an ethnic or even national one in his time — and for some time to come. In Joseph's story the Israelites and Egyptians are not pitted against one another. There will be enough food for all because of his stewardship. Indeed the later oppressive relationship between the Egyptians and the Israelites will develop because of the ascension of a Pharaoh who does not remember Joseph, who does not know anything about him or what he did for both of their peoples, (Exodus 1:8).
Remembering Joseph, telling his story, means remembering that some family relationships are deeply troubled, even violent. Remembering Joseph means reminding ourselves that even in the most deeply troubled family that has experienced unimaginable rupture, that forgiveness and healing are possible. Remembering Joseph and telling his story through this lessen provides an opportunity to reflect on our stewardship, generosity and relationships with others, neighbors and strangers. And lastly, today's lesson with its focus on Joseph reminds us that our actions have consequences that we may not be able to foresee.
One of the unexpected legacies of Joseph and his administration in Egypt was that he who had been sold into slavery and been raised to power and privilege, developed and deployed the very institution of slavery under which his own people would suffer for four hundred years. As he represented his adopted land and people during the great famine, Joseph took everything the Egyptian people had in exchange for food: their money (Genesis 47:14), their livestock (Genesis 47:16), and their land (Genesis 47:20), but it was not enough. In Genesis 47:21, Joseph "enslaved the Egyptian people from one end of Egypt to the other." Joseph may have been forgotten, but his wholesale commodification of people, their bodies and their labor was not.
My commentary on Genesis 32:22-31 from WorkingPreacher.com
In Genesis 32, Jacob and his family have finally left the homestead of his father-in-law Laban who is responsible for much of Jacob's present circumstances:
Laban had deceived him into marrying sisters, Leah and Rachel whose conflict and competition with each other resulted in dozens of children with them and with their slaves whom he dutifully impregnated upon command. (For estimates of the total number of children fathered by Jacob see Genesis 46:15 and 46:26.) Laban is also responsible for Jacob's wealth, indirectly, he agreed to give Jacob all of his spotted and speckled livestock not knowing that Jacob would use magical means to multiply them while suppressing the fertility of the solidly colored stock (Genesis 30:32ff).
As Jacob leaves his father-in-law he crosses paths with his brother Esau. Jacob is terrified and for good reason, the last words of Esau reported to him by their mother Rebekah was that Esau intended to kill for taking his birthright. (See Genesis 27:41-45.) First Jacob sends word to his brother that he is coming, that he is quite wealthy, and that he wishes to find favor in his brother's sight in Genesis 32:3-5. The response is swift; Esau approaches with four hundred men. Jacob is terrified, he prays for divine assistance and then takes matters into his own hands by setting aside a significant portion of his holdings and sending them ahead as a gift to appease Esau (Genesis 32:7-21).
All of this happens before our lesson begins. It is with a very real fear that Esau will kill him for taking his birthright that we encounter Jacob in Genesis 32:22-31. He has not heard back from his messengers; he does not know if Esau has accepted his gifts. He does not know if his servants are even still alive. And yet he sends his wives and children into the path of Esau and his riders — without him in verse 23. (NB: there is a discrepancy between the Hebrew and English verse numbers; I am using the English versification in the NRSV.)
Jacob has evaded his greatest fear up to that point. The danger is across the water from him. He is safe, for a while; so he thinks. A person or personage he does not know (or does not recognize) grapples him to the ground. There is a pun in verse 24: the verb "wrestle" has the same letters as a word for dust, (abaq, in Exodus 9:9; Deuteronomy 28:24; Is 5:24, etc.). Jacob gave as good as he got. There was a stalemate. And then, the person did something to Jacob's hip and put it out of joint. Because the same verb means "touch," "strike," or "plague," it is not clear if it was a great violent blow or a gentle touch with more-than-human strength and/or abilities behind it.
Jacob the Heel whose name in Hebrew, (Yaaqov), is a reminder that he came into this world with his chubby baby fist wrapped around his brother's heel, (aqev), now finds his own heels under assault. He can no longer balance on them quite so easily. His injury and its imposition are revelatory. Jacob knows he wrestles with one whose blessing matters. The one with whom he wrestles knows that even wounded Jacob is tenacious. The mysterious wrestler reveals a concern for the coming dawn. Is the wrestler concerned about what the sunlight will reveal? Does it matter whether or not Jacob can see his assailant's face? The wrestler demands freedom.
Jacob demands a blessing. Jacob has decided that he will not let go of the wrestler whose power he knows is more than his own and, the wrestler who wounds with a touch has neither destroyed nor rejected him. He may just get his blessings if he holds on long enough. The wrestler asks Jacob's name and Jacob answers with no ancestors, clan or people. He wrestles alone, stands alone and names only one name, "Yaaqov — Jacob — a Heel."
Then the wrestler grants him with a new name: "God-wrestler — Israel." Once again Jacob asks the name of the wrestler. Once again the wrestler refuses to answer. Now the wrestler (formally) blesses him in the text. In the literary context of the scriptures, the blessing would have been spoken. Yet the whole struggling, questioning, name-changing encounter can be read as a blessing, albeit a bruising one.
The reader, like Jacob, seeks to unfold the mystery of the wrestler whose departure before the dawn breaks is not described. There are tantalizing hints with which the reader must wrestle: The text says "a person/a man" in verse 24 and the wrestler tells Jacob that he has wrestled with God in verse 28 to which Jacob assents in verse 30. Jacob says that he saw God "face to face" in verse 30. Was he granted a glimpse of the wrestler's face in the pre-dawn light in the space between verses 29 and 30, between the blessing and the parting?
By following these clues and assembling them into a coherent picture the reader like Jacob comes to the conclusion that the wrestler is God. The injunction of Exodus 33:19, that "no one can see God and live" is either unknown or non-binding to the authors and editors of this text. God appears on earth (sometimes disguised as a messenger called "the angel of the Lord" in many translations who speaks as God in the first person and perhaps as Melchizedek in Genesis 14:18ff) frequently in Genesis. See Genesis 3:8; 11:5; 16:10-13; 17:1; 18:1; Genesis 26:2, 24. In the rest of the Torah, God will hide from the people in smoke and fire, but God will later appear to Solomon in 1 Kings 3:5 and 9:2.
In the closing verse of the lesson, Jacob limps away from site of his transformation. He will never be the same again. Each step he takes is marked by the divine touch.
My commentary on Genesis 29:15-28 from WorkingPreacher.com.
This is the story of the Mothers and Fathers of Israel and their descendents, the people of Israel. Rebekah and Isaac have sent their son Jacob to his mother's brother Laban, with instructions to marry one of his daughters, (the as yet unnamed Leah and Rachel in Genesis 27:46-28:1).
Their family practices internal marriage among relatives: Jacob's grandparents Sarah and Abraham were siblings, his grand-uncle Nahor married his own niece, Jacob's aunt Milcah, his cousin Lot fathered children with his own daughters in a bizarre set of circumstances, and he, Jacob, has been given instructions to marry one of his cousins. Leah and Rachel are the only two women who meet his parents' requirements.
In the back-story, Jacob meets Rachel first while she is shepherding her father's flocks. He tells her and eventually her father who he is and who his mother is, identifying himself as Rebekah's son (ben Rivkah) but never as Isaac's son, (29:12). And he spends an undescribed month with them before the subject of marriage is brought up. At some point during that month Jacob decides that he wants Rachel, but the text tells us nothing about their relationship or her feelings about the matter. Rachel and Leah's mother is missing from the story; it is not clear whether the authors and editors found her irrelevant or whether she was truly absent, either through death or some other circumstances.
In our lesson, the story is told from Jacob's perspective. Jacob is famously described as loving Rachel, so much so that when he is thwarted in his desire to marry her, he soldiers on in servitude to her for a total of fourteen years that pass in the blink of an eye for him. The story has no interest in Rachel's or Leah's lives or experience of those years. Rachel's feelings for Jacob are never described. (In fact no woman in the scriptures is described as "loving" anyone else, using the primary Hebrew verb ahav or even "love" in the NRSV.) This is a reminder that even when the text seems inclusive or even egalitarian, it is an androcentric text, that is, it is written from (and primarily for) a male perspective.
This lesson has a number of challenges for women and other readers: Rachel and Leah are given to Jacob like chattel. This contrasts dramatically with his own mother's marriage, to which she consented (24:57) after a ten-day deliberation period. Laban's claim that he could not give his younger daughter in marriage before the elder has no foundation in the text. If that were the case why did he not tell Jacob?
Laban may well have lied, adding dishonesty to his deceit. He may have thought that he could only marry Leah off through deception. The larger narrative says that there was something peculiar about Leah's eyes — a notoriously difficult to translate expression. Whatever Leah's circumstance she was compared unfavorably to Leah. And perhaps, the largest challenge: How could Jacob not know with whom he was being intimate? The story conjures up images of complete darkness, total silence, and perhaps drunkenness, perverting the biblical sense of intimate "knowing."
Whether Rachel and Leah had a difficult relationship prior to their marriage is not revealed in the text. But there is a suggestion that Leah was regularly devalued in comparison with her sister in the way that they are described. Laban's deception, combined with the assessment that Rachel was more desirable — including to Jacob, set the stage for a sororal sibling rivalry that would plague Jacob and populate Israel at the same time. Leah, Rachel and their slaves, Bilhah and Zilpah would become the mothers of the Twelve Tribes while competing for Jacob's time and attentions.
This story demonstrates that "love is not enough." Even if Jacob's love for Rachel is not based on her appearance or the fact that he was limited in his choice to Rachel and her (in some way undesirable) sister Leah, his love does not translate into a happy, healthy family.
In modernity, some people elevate romantic and sexual love as the highest expressions of love. Neither form of love brings enduring happiness to Jacob who loves Rachel or to Rachel or to Leah who compete to sleep with Jacob and bear his children in the aftermath of the text. This story also illustrates the common practice of reducing people, women in particular, to their physical appearance: Rachel was beautiful; there was something odd about Leah's eyes.
Yet both women found themselves in the same situation. Only in death were they separated. Rachel was buried alone on the road to Bethlehem, (Genesis 35:19). Leah was buried in the ancestral tomb with Sarah and Abraham, Rebekah and Isaac, (Genesis 49:31). And before he died, Jacob gave Joseph instructions to send his bones back to that family tomb, (Genesis 50:13). He was buried with Leah.