Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

sermon

How Deep Is Your Love

Photo Icon of Rebekah by James Lewis

Let us pray: God of love, teach us to love as you love. Amen.

The Bee Gees, Dru Hill, Calvin Harris, and a few folk I’ve never heard of have all asked, “How deep is your love.” If they were to ask the biblical characters, more often than not the answer might seem be, “not very deep.” In some cases, downright superficial, in others, plumb shallow. It is something of a virtue that the faults and failings of our biblical ancestors are on full display in the sacred pages, lest we think we must reach unattainable perfection before God will have anything to do with us.

Many of the stories in Genesis are etiological; they are the way the Israelites explained how and why things were the way they were. And whatever one wants to make of these accounts of pre-history, there is something about many of the relational and familial stories that ring true. How many of us, when it comes to our own family stories, tell a sanitized version of our history even though plenty of folk know the full story? That happens in the bible too, in today’s lesson. It is, perhaps, familiar but do we know, do we tell, the full story? [Gen 25:19ff]

These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac…

Actually, (what had happened was more like…): These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son with his sister Sarah after he raped her slave Hagar at her suggestion and fathered a son Ishmael who he sent into the desert to die with his mother. We need to tell that story. All of it. Because it has shaped our story here in the Americas and impacted the rest of the world. We need to tell the story that Abraham did not love his children the same. Even though God made him incredibly wealthy, he did not provide for all of his children. He gave “gifts” to Ishmael and his children with his last wife but gave Isaac everything he had.

Tell that story. Tell the full story.

Last weekend over the 4th of July holiday many celebrated American independence without telling the full story. They skipped over or rushed through the parts in the Declaration of Independence that called Native Americans “savages” and objected to slaves seeking to liberate themselves. When they read, “all men are created equal” they didn’t acknowledge that didn’t apply to black folk or white women folk. They didn’t tell the whole story. The founders of this nation including a quarter of our presidents and a fair number of Supreme Court justices held other human beings in slavery and justified it using scriptures like God’s blessing of Abraham with wealth that included slaves.

And when over this last weekend the room was uncovered in which Thomas Jefferson kept and raped Sally Hemmings, the 14 year-old girl he enslaved, many news outlets referred to her as his mistress. (Sally, the sister of Jefferson’s wife Martha, was herself likely the product of rape.) The version of the story that is told is not like the version of the story that Sally and other enslaved girls and women lived; they had no legal capacity to consent and disobedience was punishable by death. Though some will say Jefferson loved Hemmings, he refused to free her ensuring that she would remain a slave and that her children—his children—would be born in slavery. His love for humanity had its limits. How deep is your love?

… Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah…

… Isaac was forty years old when he married his cousin Rebekah because his family married within their own family like his uncle Nahor who married his niece Milcah who gave birth to the man who would become Isaac’s father-in-law, which may help explain Isaac’s own incestuous parents Sarah and Abraham. We should stop sanitizing these stories, and stop reading them uncritically, especially in the church.

Isaac prayed to the Holy One for his wife, because she was barren; and the Holy One granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived.

Isaac assumed like all men in the Stone Age and some now that only women could be infertile. And by infertile they meant like inhospitable soil; they didn’t know that women contributed anything two children other than space to grow.

“Genesis 25:26 states that Isaac is sixty when the twins are born; he was forty when he married Rebekah. That means that Rebekah lived with her infertility for twenty years…Yet the text never mentions Isaac taking another woman or fathering children with anyone else.” Tell the story that you don’t have to reproduce the dysfunction with which you were raised. Isaac’s love for Rebekah stands out in the biblical text and even in his own family. Tell that story.

The children struggled together within Rebekah; and she said, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” So she went to inquire of the Holy One. And the Holy One said to her,
“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
the elder shall serve the younger.’’

To these cousins, Rebekah and Isaac whose love was deep, twins were born after a period of infertility. And they loved their children, just not equally. How deep is your love?

Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game…

Isaac loved his son Esau because he was a hunter and he loved fresh meat. He loved his son because of what he did for him. But did he love him before he could do anything for him? I know folk—and you may too—who only love folk for what they do for them, and that includes their children and family

…but Rebekah loved Jacob…

Isaac loved one son and Rebekah loved the other. The boys were rivals from the womb and rivals in the womb. They were rivals for their parents’ love before Esau threw away his birthright. How deep is your love? Is it deep enough that you don’t have to ration it? Or perhaps better, how uneven is your love? It is an unhappy truth that we don’t love all of our dear ones the same. Some love one child more than another. Some love their children more than their spouse. Some don’t love one or more of their children at all.

These parents of our faith are a hot mess. They are imperfect in their life and their loves. As are we.

It is long established tradition that we read biblical characters as moral exemplars. But an honest reading requires acknowledging when they are not worthy of our emulation, and digging deeper to find what is.

That may just be this: We are fragile and flawed. We are often stingy with our love and our love is often self-interested. And yet, God loves us. God works with us and through us in spite of our faults and failures. God chooses to be in relationship with us. God even chose to be one of us.

Our love is imperfect. And yet we do love, sometimes the best we can, sometimes the best we know how. But there are moments when our ability to love transcends our human limitations, when we give, share, sacrifice, risk, stand, tell the truth, and when necessary, die with or for someone else.

We are God’s handiwork and the capacity to love is part of what it means to be created in the image and likeness of God. True love, rooted in God’s love, is inexhaustible and self-fueled. A well that will never run dry. How deep is your love? If you are drawing from the reservoir of God’s love in you, it is endless. That love equips you to hear hard truths, tell the whole story and write a new story for the next generation. Amen.


A New/Old Psalm of Lament

 

If you don’t mind, I’m going to take some liberties with Psalm 13.

How long Holy One? Will you forget us forever?
How long will you let them kill us?
How long will you let them deny us justice?
How long O Lord?
How long will you hide your face from us? From what they do to us?
How long?
How long must we bear this pain in our souls?
How long must we have sorrow in our broken hearts? How long?
How long shall those who have made themselves our enemies be exalted, over us?
How long?
Look at us! Answer us! We are crying out to you. How long?
Show us something. Because right now they are putting us down like dogs in the street.
Then they walk out of court saying, “I have prevailed.”
They rejoice and we are shaken, more than shaken; we are shook.
How long?

If you were following along in the psalm you may be looking for the shift to trusting in God’s faithful love and rejoicing in her salvation.

I’ve got to tell the truth in church today. Today, for me, it is too soon to move to rejoicing. I have so much more to lament. Four verses is not enough space to lament Amadou Diallo, Alberta Spruill, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Miriam Carey, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Rekia Boyd, Kimani Gray, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, John Crawford, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Philando Castille, Sandra Bland, Jordan Edwards, and those I’ve had to add since starting to write this sermon—Charlene Lyles and Ava Le’Ray Barrin, and now Bianca Roberson—and the many whose names I don’t know to lament. How long, O Lord? How many more?

Praise is important and perhaps we’ll get there but sometimes the church just needs to lament, to cry out our grief and rage, anguish and anger. But some folk think Christians shouldn’t lament, that our every word should be praise. And so some folk try. They go through the motions. Haven’t you seen folk who mouth the words of praise because they believe that’s what they must do no matter how they feel, and their praise doesn’t quite reach their eyes? Their eyes tell the story of their soul’s sorrow. But the church isn’t comfortable with lament.

Look what happens all too often on Good Friday. Some preachers can’t just sit at the foot of the cross or contemplate waking up the next day in a world in which Jesus is still dead so they fast forward to Easter Sunday morning and preach the resurrection while his body is yet warm. Sometimes you just have to sit at the tomb with the sights, sounds and, smells of death, and lament.

This world, this broken heartbreaking world, this crucified and crucifying world, calls for lament when it doesn’t call for screams of rage or fits of cursing. Maybe it’s just me but sometimes I need to scream and sometimes I do curse. (Cursing is biblical. The bible has some strong curses. And indeed there are some forces and practices that need to be damned, but that is another sermon.)

I just came by to give you permission if you needed it to pour out your heart to God, to tell her everything you think, fear and feel, because she knows it anyway. Lament unburdens our hearts from a load that too much for us to bear alone. Scripture teaches the power of lament over and over again, in the psalms, in the prophets, in Job and Lamentations.

Jeremiah knew the power of lament and he knew he couldn’t do it on his own. He called for the wailing women to come and raise a song of lament that the people might weep; he called for the women to pass the song down through the generations because one day they would need it again. Today we are singing that same song:

Jeremiah 9:21 “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 public squares.”

Even dirty David laments. He laments for Saul and Jonathan. And he laments for his murdered son Absalom. In between David’s laments, Bathsheba lamented for the husband David murdered and Tamar lamented for her ravishment at the hands of her brother, and her father’s silence, broken only to lament for the son who raped her, but not his own daughter. We need to lament for our daughters as well as our sons. In spite of the fact that the Black Lives Matter Movement was started by three women, including queer women, women color, the movement and the media seem only to focus on murdered sons and fathers. So we said #SayHerName! Don’t let them murder our memories too. We need to lament. People know this in their bones. That’s why people gather and light candles and leave flowers and even stuffed animals. They have had to create their own liturgies for lament because the Church in too many cases isn’t meeting their need.

The poets of Israel composed an entire book of laments that that has become scripture for us; that means it is our example. It is to that book of Lamentations that we turn on Good Friday for the Stations of the Cross (Lam 1:12):

Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?
Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow…

Is there any sorrow like our sorrow? Has any people in the history of the world been done like our people? How long Holy One? When they asked us to sing one of the songs of Zion, they meant a happy song, but sometimes the songs of Zion are songs of lament.

But where are our laments? We have praise songs and protest songs, but what are our songs of lament? I have to confess I took me a minute to think of the songs of lament in our tradition, but then Facebook came through.

The lament refrain of the scriptures may be, “How long O Lord,” but we have learned to sing “Precious Lord, take my hand.” When we’re marching in protest, “Walk With Me, Lord.” When the world has broken our hearts one too many times, “I Must Tell Jesus.” When one more child is gunned down in the street, “Come Ye Disconsolate.” When they keep getting away with our murders, “I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray.”

Songs of lament are holy songs. Songs of lament are healing songs. Songs of lament are heart-changing songs, ours and theirs. Hammer the heavens with your lament and you will discover that we are not alone in our cry.

There is one who shares our pain and one who bears our grief. Our Blessed Mother shares our pain because it is her pain. She watched the sons and daughters of her people snatched up by Roman soldiers and temple police, and one day they came for her boy. Mary’s baby, ripped from her breast by men who knew they could do anything to him they wanted because of the uniform they had on, and they did. They beat her boy bloody, torturing him within an inch of his life. They put her boy on trial but there was no hope of justice because the whole damn system was corrupt. They put her boy on death row and they killed in him in what the poet Crystal Valentine called “the blackest way possible—with his hands up, with his mother watching,” in public on a state sponsored lynching tree.

Yes, there is one who shares our pain, and there is also one who bears our grief. Our Blessed Mother shares our pain but it is Jesus who bears our grief. Jesus bears our griefs and those of our slaughtered sisters and sons. He bears our grief in his own body. We do not sorrow alone. We cry out “How long” because we know God is listening. We cry out to God about God like Job and Elijah, knowing that God hears, not from afar, but in the midst of our storm for God is with us. God is with us. Jesus is the proof that God is with us for it is he that is God-With-Us. Our gospel teaches us that what we do to one another we do to Jesus, even if it’s just offering a cup of water or a word of welcome. That also means that what they do to us, they do to Jesus. When they kill us they kill him.

It is because we know that God is with us and we do not bear our pain alone we can hear and affirm the psalmist’s words and say with her:

I will trust in your faithful love.
I like that it says “I will” because some days I’m not there, but I will get there.
My heart will rejoice—
one day my lament will be stilled and my heart shall rejoice in your salvation
I will sing to the God Who Hears My Cry
for God has been good to me
even in the midst of my tears.

Let the saints of God, on, above and even under the earth cry out. God hears, is here, and weeps with us. Amen.


Exorcising America’s Murderous Demons

The Creation of Adam by Harmonia Rosales

 

[In an earlier version the title was misspelled as “exercising.”]

In the Name of the God who loves we who are hated, those who hate, and those whom we hate. Amen.

Forty-nine. Forty-nine lives cut short. Forty-nine people murdered. Forty-nine souls martyred. Forty-nine of God’s children executed for living and loving out loud as gay, trans, bi and lesbian human beings, and for loving them, being with them, dancing with them, serving them, entertaining them, and protecting them. They were targeted on Latin Night at the Pulse Nightclub one year ago, an evening that was known to draw in the Hispanic gay brown and black community.

They were killed because a man decided they didn’t deserve to live, that they weren’t deserving of God’s gifts of life and love to them. Who was he to say who was worthy of God’s love, worthy of life, worthy of being created in the image of God? He was someone who chose an image of God to worship that was as broken and twisted as he was, a god who hated what he hated and feared, perhaps even what he hated and feared about himself. We may never fully understand all the reasons why he chose a god who hates over the God who loves.

Here I do not speak of Allah or al-Islam. Allah is one of many names for the One true God whom we share with Muslims and Jews—in spite of Trinitarian arithmetic. Allah it is the name in which Arabic-speaking Christians have always prayed because it is God’s name. Islam like Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and even Buddhism, has followers who choose the most hateful and violent texts and traditions, interpretations, misinterpretations and misunderstandings of their religion. The hate cult to which the murderer pledged allegiance is as far beyond mainstream Islam as the Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan are beyond mainstream Christianity.

Nine. Nine lives cut short. Nine people murdered. Nine souls martyred. Nine of God’s children executed for being black in a Charleston church two years ago this week.

Our nation and our world are full people who choose hate and death for others, and sometimes for themselves. The Alexandria shooter who hated Republicans for being sexist and racist also chose hate and death. He too took it upon himself to decide who should live and who should die because of his personal and political beliefs.

The Pulse shooter represented a particular ultra-conservative ideology and the Alexandria shooter an über-progressive one, and what they have in common is the self-righteous justification of their own lethal violence. They share a belief that other human beings with whom they don’t agree have neither a God-given right to life nor a constitutionally protected right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They both chose hate and death, but God offers us life and love.

God proves God’s love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. [and]…God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:8, 5)

We have the Spirit of God within us. She breathed us to life with our first breath and she was poured into us at our baptism. And the defining characteristic of that Spirit, of God, is love. God is Love. And God loves. God loves all, without exception. God loves those who hurt and hurt others and God loves those who hate. God loves those we do not yet know how to love, those we do not want to love, and God loves those we hate. Some of us hate. It’s hard not to in the crucified and crucifying world.

Love is a choice. In the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony we ask if the beloveds will love and they answer, “I will.” The real question is not “do you,” today, but “will you,” next week, next year, in some cases, once all the guests leave. Will you love? Will you love when it’s hard? Will you love when you don’t want to? Will you love? That question is not just for those who take vows of love, marriage and life-partnership.

The question is for us as well. Will we love? Will we choose life and love?

The choice to love is a difficult one. Have you met people? They’re horrible! But… God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. We are not on our own. God’s Spirit, God’s Love, is with us and in us and among us. And that love comes with responsibilities. It is not for us alone. It is for the world, for the healing of the world’s hurts and hates.

Some of those hurts and hates have been baked into our American bones.

Philando. Philando Castile. Sitting in his car with his baby girl and her mother. Live on Facebook. Like many here in Texas and across the US, legally exercising his Second Amendment rights with a licensed handgun tucked away in its holster. He even notified the officer so there would be no misunderstanding. But he was black. Black like me, black like Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd and 6 year old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, shot in her own bed, black like Walter Scott who was running away unarmed when shot in the back by a police officer and blackness is terrifying, in part because this nation was founded on the idea that to be black is to be inhuman and there fore not entitled to life, liberty or justice.

We have to talk about how this culture inculcates fear of blackness because it is killing us. Some of us more than others. It is not simply racism, biased opinions. It is a white supremacist structural system that infects all of us including black and brown police officers and jurors who believe it is so reasonable to be so in fear of blackness that no one should be punished for killing unarmed black folk because they too share that fear. It is the unholy communion[1] of the American enterprise. [American religious scholar Candace Benbow puts it more strongly: “Black bodies and Black blood. The holy communion of Whiteness.]

There is a deep-seated loathing of blackness and black people in this country. It is at best a disease, at worst a demonic affliction, perhaps both. It feels overwhelming but we are neither helpless nor hopeless.

Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. (Matthew 10:1)

Jesus has authority over death, disease and demons and that includes white supremacy, racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, transphobia and all the hatreds and hurts that infect and plague our world, including toxic masculinity that batters at home then terrorizes in public. (The two things most mass-shooters and perpetrators of domestic terror have in common is being men and having a history of domestic violence.) And Jesus has given that authority to us. Jesus called his disciples, empowered his disciples, then he sent them out to do the work of the reign of God. That work is now ours: Proclaim the good news, ‘The reign of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.

That is our work, the dismantling of white supremacy, systemic racism and the hate and fear of non-white peoples and cultures that are behind them. Those are the demons that bedevil us. Those are the diseases that sicken our nation and the church. We do this work by accepting our calling to it, by identifying the demons and diseases, cutting the infection out of our society and its systems—educational, health and justice—and where it cannot be cut out or cut off, let it die. For we are also called to raise the dead and some of what is broken in this world simply needs to die and be raised to new life in Christ Jesus, and that includes the Church.

The gospel is that the reign of God is among us, the love of God is among us, the antidote to all that is broken and diseased is among us. We are the ones we have been waiting for. The work is ours. It begins in earnest when we go out of these doors. Our gospel less says that Jesus first sent his disciples to his own people, their own people. The work of dismantling all of these structures and the hatreds on which they are built begin at home, in homes and families, and friendships and congregations and classrooms, move theatres and surgical theatres. Every place that we are, we must affirm the human dignity of all God’s children and call out and stand against every indignity and every injustice.

If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town. “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Amen.

 

[1] Martha Simmons, modified “holy” to “unholy” in response to Candace Benbow, Facebook, 16 June 2017.


Ascended to Where?

The Ascension of Christ, Salvador Dali, 1958

Open our eyes that we may see. Amen.

We are here in no small part because of the power of the story Jesus. That power permeates the words of the story and extends far beyond them. It is a power that defies the rules of logic and science. The touchstone confessions of our faith are mind-boggling: a spirit impregnation, a virgin birth, a life of miracles, revelations, divine appearances, transfigurations and voices from heaven, a brutal but ultimately ineffective execution, a resurrection, spontaneous post-mortem live physical appearances while walking through walls and closed doors. And now, an ascension to heaven, not one but two—the story in Luke is earlier than the story in Acts, in fact it is set on that very first Easter Sunday evening.

This festival of the church celebrates the triumphant power of Jesus whom neither death nor earth’s gravity could hold. The ascension is a truly astonishing display of divinity. I love that the story has the disciples gazing up into the skies—I imagine with their mouths hanging open—until a messenger from God asks them how long do they plan on staring up into the sky. If their answer had been recorded it might have been something like, “Until this all makes sense…”

Try to wrap your twenty-first century mind around how the followers of Jesus wrapped their first century minds around Jesus ascending to heaven on a cloud. Maybe they knew the ancient Hebrew stories, that Enoch walked with God and was not for God took him, that God swung down a sweet chariot, stopped and let Elijah ride. And they had already seen Jesus perform so many miracles. But this was simply eye popping and jaw dropping.

Try to imagine what they knew of the skies above them. They may well have thought the stars were angels of God or other gods. We know Mars, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn as planets, but those are the Roman names of gods; folk in the ancient world identified the lights in the sky with those gods, even if they didn’t worship them themselves. And, it’s not entirely clear if they would have known the difference between a star or a planet, let alone that stars are balls of fire like our sun and planets are balls of dirt like our earth.

As you contemplate the mystery of this miracle, consider whether all we know about space, from moonwalks to the Mars rover and Hubble telescope leave us any better prepared to explain what they saw. Where did Jesus go? Our knowledge of astronomy—and maybe science fiction—tell us he went somewhere more than just up. Many if not most of us fly in, through and above the clouds on a regular basis and we know that’s not where heaven is, at least not in a physical sense. Now, I’m not about to claim Jesus was some kind of inter-dimensional being, but I’m not prepared to rule it out.

The Feast of the Ascension calls us to figure out what it is we mean by “heaven.” I believe that heaven is a place that is as far beyond us as the moon was beyond the imagination or literal reality of the disciples. There is no technology that we can use to get ourselves to heaven, no more than they could build a tower to the moon. Heaven is the realm where God resides and reigns, and whatever that means about the stars or astral plane, God brought heaven to earth in Jesus. Now heaven is as much with us and in us as it is beyond us.

And yet there is at the same time a realm where God exists beyond our imagining. The Rev. Broderick Greer, an Episcopal priest in Memphis says, “The Ascension isn’t about Jesus literally ascending to a literal physical place called “heaven.” It is Jesus being swallowed by love.” The Ascension bears witness to the mystery and majesty of God, by refusing to answer all of our questions: Where is the physical place of heaven? Where is God apart from us? Where does she live? Where exactly did Jesus go? What do you believe and what are your questions?

The disciples in the story certainly had questions: Now that you’ve got all this power and are using it to do supernatural stuff, are you going to use it on the Romans and return Israel to self-rule? And Jesus said, “Mind your beeswax. It is not for you to know…” God has plans that are bigger than any one nation. Sometimes we forget this. At times the church has tried to be a nation, kingdom and empire, conquering and killing, colonizing, converting and enslaving. The Ascension reminds us that ultimate power is God’s. And God’s plans for God’s power don’t resemble our plans.

God’s plan was to gift the same power by which Jesus was raised from the dead and ascended into heaven to the followers of Jesus, to bathe us in it in a holy fire baptism that will burn within us but not destroy us. God’s plan is that we be in communion with God and each other, fueled by the power of the Holy Spirit to love as God loves. The Ascension is a sign, pointing towards what is to come. The church, God’s body on earth, will be filled with the Holy Spirit, the love of God incarnate in Jesus, and the world will never be the same.

Look up. Look inward. Look into your neighbor’s face. That is where God dwells, with us, among us and within us. Amen.

Luke 24:50 Jesus led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God. (NRSV, adapted)

Acts 1:1 In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2 until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3 After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the realm of God. 4 While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

6   So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (NRSV)

Naturally I used the Star Wars Eucharistic Prayer C:

“God of all power, Ruler of the Universe, you are worthy of glory and praise.
Glory to you for ever and ever.

At your command all things came to be: the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home.
By your will they were created and have their being.”


She is God

Annunciation Tryptich by the late Robert Moore of the African Episcopal Church of St Thomas where it hangs in Philadelphia PA.

Alleluia! Christ is risen! For fifty days the Jewish and Gentile Christians of the early church told the stories of Jesus, his life, his death and his life-from-death over and over. Jesus was raised from the dead as he said he would be. I imagine everyone knew someone who had seen him, touched him, broken bread with him. They kept telling the story to those who knew and loved him, and to those who knew him not. The story was just too good not to share.

Here in our fifty days of Easter, many of us have lost track of the days. Some have forgotten that it is still Easter. Perhaps we should mark the days. In Judaism you count the forty-nine days from Passover to Shavuoth, the Festival of Weeks, and mark them with special prayers and meditations. That fiftieth day, called Pentecost was a huge festival with pilgrims coming from all over to observe the holy day. This year, this first year of the newly born church, was going to be different, so different that the day of Pentecost would become a holy day for Christians.

While some in the church were counting the days to Pentecost because they were still, like Paul, Jews, others were waiting. Jesus made some promises before his death and now that he had risen from the dead there could be no doubt that his word was true. Our gospel takes us to one of those promises, back before Jesus’s arrest, back before his agony in Gethsemane, to the Last Supper after Judas had gone to betray him. There John’s gospel has Jesus make a farewell speech.

In it Jesus says, If you love me, keep my commandments. In the gospel of John, Jesus only gives us one commandment. Just before his farewell he says: I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. (Jn 13:34) Shortly after he repeats it: This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. (Jn 15:12) And Jesus says repeatedly before and after: If you love me, you will keep my commandments… You are my friends if you do what I command you… I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. (Jn 14:15; 15:14, 17)

That’s all Jesus asks of us, that we love one another. What could be simpler? Jesus calls us to love. Well, if you know the church, you know we made it complicated. But Jesus is the Good Shepherd who knows his flock so he knew we cannot even love faithfully and consistently—without preconditions and caveats—on our own, so Jesus promised that we would not have to try to love or do anything else in our own strength. The Spirit of God who is with us, who was already with the disciples, would now be with them—and us—in a whole new way. The gospel says the Spirit is with us already but now will be in us, a deep and intimate bond that can never be broken.

This Spirit is the Spirit of God; She is God. She is the fullness of God without limits, the Font of Creation, the Fire of Sinai, Water in the Wilderness. She is the one who hears the cries of the battered, abandoned and betrayed, and she is the one who guides and accompanies, saves, heals, and delivers. And, she is the one who folded her majesty into the womb of the Ever-Blessed Virgin and brought forth a life that could not be extinguished by death.

It is she who is with us, with us and in us. And yes, She. Jesus spoke Hebrew and Aramaic, and in those languages the Spirit is only “she.” Translated from my Hebrew New Testament our gospel says: This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees her nor knows her. You know her, because she abides with you, and she will be in you. This is what Jesus said. Grammatically it was impossible for him to say it any other way.

In the Greek of the gospels, the Spirit has no gender. A more literal translation of the text would be: This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees it nor knows it. You know it, because it abides with you, and it will be in you. There is no masculine pronoun for the Spirit in Greek. It is simply not there.

So consider that in neither of the biblical languages is God’s Spirit ever male. A couple of hundred years after the gospels were written, literally centuries later, they were translated into Latin which used male pronouns for the Spirit of God. And since Latin became the language of the church we—well, not me—the church uses male pronouns as in the creed and most of its liturgy and wrote them into the scriptures.

Some might say it doesn’t matter. Any pronoun will do because God is beyond gender. And she is, but we are not, not yet, though we may be on our way. I want to suggest that it does matter and that how we see and describe God has everything to do with how and whether we love one another as Jesus commanded. It matters that we can see God in us and us in God, which is the point of the incarnation. God became human, to be like us, to be with us, to live as us, to love us to and through death, as Jesus commanded us to love each other.

As long as we do not see each other as fully the image God we cannot love each other as Jesus commanded us to love. And the measure for whether we truly see each other as the image of God is whether we can conceive of God in each other’s image. If your God cannot be female, feminine, or femme because that is too weak, unfit for power and leadership then your love for God and humanity is constrained by your love for masculinity and male power. And anything you love more than God is an idol.

Sometimes it is hard to see the image of God in others or even ourselves because the church has deified whiteness, even to the point of largely rejecting the historical Palestinian Jewish Jesus, for pale imitations. Can you see yourself in the images of God: on the walls, in the windows, and in the words of liturgy? What about in the Bread? It has been important to me that the body of Christ I proclaim is at least, sometimes, brown like me.

The insistence that God is male and only male in spite of all of the places scripture paints a broader and more nuanced picture served and serves to buttress patriarchal power and baptize it as the natural order and God’s will. In Deuteronomy God is the father who creates and the rock who gives birth. (Dt 32:6; 18) In Job God is the one whose womb birthed the seas and the frost and the ice and, God is the father of the rain and dew. (Jb 38:8; 28-29)

God’s womb is the source of her love for us. Over and over again the scriptures proclaim God’s love using a verb that means both the womb and the love that springs from it. The love that Jesus commands of us is an extension of that love. God is Love. We who love God love each other with the love of God within us. And in that love there can be no hierarchy, no domination, no bias, no privilege.

Any system of domination that subjugates one group of humans to another is not love. The love that Jesus calls us to is incompatible with patriarchy and sexism, just as it is incompatible with racism, homophobia, and transphobia.

We are in difficult days as a nation and around the world. The shouting we hear in the streets and on the news is not hallelujah. Not everyone is counting the days until Jewish or Christian Pentecost. Many are counting down to the next tweet, scandal or tweet about a scandal. Even in this we are commanded to love. It is here that we see love is not weak, does not condone or cooperate with evil. Love speaks truth, unwanted, unwelcome truth. Love holds accountable. Love resists injustice at any cost. And when necessary, love leads to death that others may live.


Confessing Christ and Christian Anti-Semitism

Mary of Zion Icon by Robert Lentz

What do you believe? What do you believe about Jesus? What do you believe about the scriptures that tell his story? What do you believe about the God he proclaimed with his life and death and what happened after his death? What do you believe happened after his death? What do you believe?

We will say what we believe as a church using the ancient words of the Christian tradition after the sermon. But what would it look like if you wrote your own creed? I encourage you to do so. Know that it’s all right if you find yourself disagreeing with the Creed we say or have questions about something you thought you were sure of before. It’s all right if your creed is more question that statement. Your creed need not be long. Your creed can be as short as: I know God is real and I know she loves me, or: Jesus is God’s love in human form.

In our Acts lesson, Peter is telling the version of the Jesus story that he believes. It is also the Pentecost story but the lectionary is saving some of it for Pentecost Sunday. Peter is speaking to men who are his fellow Jews but who do not believe what he believes about Jesus. Both of those facts about Peter’s audience are important. These men are questioning the behavior of the folk who are in the street speaking in foreign languages they have never spoken before. If those folk are the same ones who were in the upper room waiting for the extravagant outpouring of the Holy Spirit that was to come—the remaining apostles, Jesus’s four brothers, Mary and the “certain women” who rounded the group of sixteen men up to the one hundred and twenty present in the beginning of the story—then Peter was explaining to these men why more than one hundred women along with some men were behaving this way. Peter understood their outrage because some or all of the men Peter was speaking to may have believed certain things about what women should or could do as he may have at one time, or still. What do you believe?

Peter turned to the prophet Joel to explain that God’s spirit falls on women and men, the old and the young, the free and enslaved. Peter and his generation believed that it was acceptable and normal for one human being to hold another in in slavery. I don’t believe that and I suspect you don’t either. Sometimes what we believe conflicts with or even contradicts what our scriptures say, and for good reason. What do you believe?

Peter had come to believe that Jesus was God’s chosen and beloved son who was crucified and raised from death by the power of God. What do you believe? But Peter is speaking to other Jews who do not share his newly found beliefs. Have you ever had a conversation with someone who just found religion? Veganism? Recycling? Running? Atheism? Ever had a neighborhood missionary, environmental or anti-fur activist show up on your doorstep? Ever been backed into a corner by someone whose political and conspiracy theories explain the answers to questions you never asked? Ever comment on a game and had every statistic on every player in franchise history rattled off for you? Or their latest work from home/pyramid scheme? Or the newest diet/detox? Or the latest self-help book or program? And, let’s not forget TCU (or Dallas Cowboys) football.

Peter had the religious zeal of a new convert buttressed by the experience of a person who has seen things they wouldn’t have believed possible. He knows what he believes and he believes—he knows—his beliefs would be good for you too. He also knows his audience. They are his people. He is one of them and he stood where they stood not long ago. He understands their disbelief because he shared it. But more than that, Peter denied Christ. Peter denied knowing Jesus, his friend and companion, and left him to die alone with the sight of that betrayal as the last image of his friend.

Peter projected all of his guilt onto his brothers saying, “You that are Israelite men…” The NRSV unnecessarily makes the text inclusive. Peter is not speaking to all the Israelites present there. He addresses only the men because the women stood with Jesus at the cross and went to him at the tomb. His language is harsh because he is indicting himself though he may not know this. It may be unconscious.

Hear Peter’s confession as an act of contrition:

Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to me by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him before me, as I myself knew full well—this man, I handed over according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, him I crucified and this man I killed with my own lawless hands.

The weight of his complicity in the death of Jesus was too much for him to bear, even with the forgiveness Jesus offered from the death grip of the cross, so Peter projected it onto his people.

Read without an understanding of Peter’s interior landscape, the text can easily be read as an indictment of “the Jews” for the death of Jesus. And to our eternal shame as Christians, it has been, and not just from this text. Christians throughout the ages from popes and their crusading armies to Hitler’s Nazi party to today’s alt-right neo-Nazis have blamed the Jews for the death of Jesus and used that charge to justify slaughter, theft and extermination campaigns not limited to the Crusades and the Holocaust.

Some will say that because these folk betray the teaching and example of Jesus, they should not be called Christians. However, if we exclude the perpetrators of every reprehensible deed done in the name of Christ from Christianity, we are left with an unrealistically innocent faith that avoids responsibility for the slavery, genocide, exploitation and holocausts perpetuated in its name with the backing of its faithful from pulpit to pew.

As the sun sets here and now a new day dawns according to Jewish tradition. That day is Yom HaShoah, the Holocaust Day of Remembrance.

We owe it to the living and the dead to reject anti-Semitism in and out of the Church, and to never deny our complicity in the deaths of our fellow human beings, children of God, beloved of God, created in the divine image as are we. This I believe.

John—or someone writing in his name—I don’t believe John wrote this gospel since his name was added to it much later— the author found himself in the same theological space as Peter, a Jew who believed some things about Jesus his fellow Jews did not. The gospel also represents a time when belief in Jesus as messiah by Jews led to a conflicted identity that was ultimately rejected by other Jews. For this reason in the gospels, the expression “the Jews” can almost always be translated, “the other Jews.” Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and the overwhelming majority of the disciples and early church were Jews. And those who followed Jesus did not understand themselves to have left Judaism that was more a cultural identity than a faith one could convert to or from.

The author of the gospel of John wrote in order that we who read might believe what he believed:

These [things] are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

The person who wrote this gospel identified himself as the one whom Jesus loved as though he believed Jesus loved him more than the rest of us. I don’t believe that.

Here’s what I do believe, that Jesus, the love of God in human form, the fullness of the formless eternal God passed through the womb of an unmarried teenage girl and loved the world into a new reality even as the old reality continued to crucify, ravage, enslave and subjugate. The Roman Empire, a system of domination, acquisition and occupation that transcended and survived individuals, soldiers, senators, emperors and caesars, put Jesus to death along with anyone who threatened or resisted them.

Jesus defied the empire with his life and the empire put him to death, not a religion but the worship of power, nor an ethnic culture, for empire transcends and transforms identities. But the power of empire cannot stand against God. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead proves that neither the empire nor death itself can stand against God or the life and love she gives to the world.

We are called to live in that love, among ourselves and with those who do not believe what we believe. As we remember the Holocaust we remember with sorrow that far more Christians sided with the empire and the cult of death than with the life and love of the resurrection. We also remember that people were consigned to death for being Jews, Roma, lesbians and gay men, people with physical and intellectual disabilities and more.

We celebrate Easter for fifty days to practice living into the life and love of God made manifest on that first Easter day. May we like the disciples who feared those who did not share their beliefs find the risen Christ in the place of that fear and come to believe in a love that is greater than fear or death. And may we be known as a people through whom God loves the world into life. I believe God is life and love. What do you believe?

I believe in one God,
Mother and Father, Sovereign and Almighty,
maker of the heavens and the earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

I believe in one Redeemer, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Sovereign,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Sovereign.
Through whom all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made human.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Sovereign.

He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his dominion will have no end.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Creatrix, the giver of life.
With the Father and the Son She is worshiped and glorified.
She has spoken through the Prophets.
I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
I acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
I look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.


When the Crucified Rise: A Black Lives Matter Easter Sermon

 

After the Sabbath… Those three little words can’t possibly convey the emotions of that morning. After the sleepless night that turned into a Sabbath that was anything but a day of rest… After another sleepless night that turned the Sabbath into mundane time on a day that was anything but mundane… After wrestling night and day with the shrieking memory of Jesus’s execution, the hammer falls echoing, echoing, echoing…

After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.

The prophet Miriam lived on in these daughters of her name including the absent Virgin Mother. In this gospel Miriam of Migdala—who wasn’t an English school girl named Mary—and another woman also named Miriam, these Miriams, these so-called Marys, went to see the tomb. Just to see it. To see if it had really happened. In other gospels, yes to prepare the body of Jesus for his burial after the fact, but here, just to see it. Maybe then it would feel real.

They barely had time to process the sight of Jesus’s tomb when their world was turned upside down again. Indeed, the very earth could be said to be turned upside down herself.

The earthquake, the angel, the blinding clothes, the paralyzed guards, one sensory shock after another, piled up, with no time to process what it all meant. And now the tomb is open, maybe they could go and sit with him, see him, touch him one last time. But this creature who is not of this earth speaks… Fear not. They were way past fear.

And then, those words: He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.

This is the gospel. This is the heart of our faith.

The love of God incarnate in Yeshua ben Miryam, Jesus the son of Mary, transcends the evil and brokenness of this world—betrayal and abandonment, empire and occupation, torture and execution, even death itself. God’s love is real, tangible and present. Jesus is God’s love is poured into this world, this crucified and crucifying world. God’s love is also poured into us. And God’s love is powerful. God’s love is stronger than death, sin, hell, hate and hurt. The loving, liberating, life-giving relationship God began with us at the moment of our creation transcends death. This is the good news.

Come, see the place where he lay, then go and tell… “Come and see” is an invitation to experience that death and remember it. That is what we are doing today, remembering, with our bodies, our whole selves. There are a couple of traditions about the place where he lay, more than a couple. You can see them, touch them, pray in them in Jerusalem. I have, and one in particular is holy to me. But it strikes me as I read this gospel that the place where he lay is more than the place his body was laid in death.

Jesus lay at the place where the poor and dispossessed are ground underfoot by the powerful and power hungry. Jesus lay at the place where people of one race, religion and ethnicity dominate people of another race, religion and ethnicity. Jesus lay at the place where the unjust render judgment over the just. Jesus lay at the place where police brutality goes unchecked and deaths in custody go unremarked. Jesus lay at the place where capital punishment is used to shape the social order, executing the innocent and guilty alike. Jesus lay at the place where the cost of protest and resistance was death. Jesus lay at the place where a doomed empire thought itself invincible. Jesus lay at the place where mothers and lovers wept, where the bodies kept falling in death because Rome kept killing, kept crucifying. Come, see the place where he lay, then go and tell

Go and tell his disciples… “His disciples.” What were they, these Marian evangelists and apostles? Mary Magdalene will come to be known as the Apostle to the Apostles, but the gospels hoard the title “disciple” for men. Jesus also lay at the place where hierarchies were challenged, rejected and reasserted.

Jesus lay at the place where Hannah’s Hymn and Mary’s Magnificat prophesied those on the underside of all the structures of power would subvert those very structures and be elevated by God herself as tyrants and their empires were dashed to the ground. And so God appointed two women to witness the resurrection, women who could not legally testify to anything in the courts of their own people because they were women. In the place where Jesus lay there were hierarchies within and without. Some gospels will have one or more men come and see but not here. Here the women’s word will be sufficient. The men will obey these apostles. But then the movement they start will wrestle with those old hierarchies and the empire that could not hold Jesus in death will gain a toehold and more in the Church that will be built with women’s labor. [As the students in my Bible and Black Lives Matter class pointed out:] People will remember the names of the disciples who were neither at the cross nor at the tomb but the women who were at both will be collapsed into a cloud of Marys, in the same way no one quite remembers the three black queer women who started Black Lives Matter, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometti and Patrisse Cullors.

Why am I talking about Black Lives Matter on Easter Sunday? Because Jesus died with those who were deemed criminals, who got what some folk say they had coming to them. Jesus died, not just with them, but as them, as a victim of state violence, miscarried justice and public execution. And Jesus died for them, for those who are not thought to be worthy of him. And, because Jesus’s life was a black life that was deemed not matter. And, because the intentional misrepresentation of the Afro-Asiatic Israelites and Palestinian Jews as white is anti-black violence in our sacred spaces. My former student Lura Groen warns: “If we don’t crucify the idol of the white male Jesus, he will continue to crucify the rest of us.”

The angel sent the women to proclaim the gospel in a world in which crucifixions continued and violence between persons and between nations has never abated. We are called to proclaim the gospel in that world, in this world where transwomen of color are murdered in the state of Texas at a rate that eclipses all other states. We are called to proclaim the gospel in this world where we have closed our doors to refugees while we bomb them at home. We are called to proclaim the gospel in this world where our nation was built on stolen land by stolen bodies and builds walls rather than come to terms with the legacy of that past even as it plays our before us. We are called to proclaim the gospel in this world where immigrants are welcome as long as they are white and Christian. We are called to proclaim a gospel so radical, so threatening to the entrenched powers – in fact we may be the threatened entrenched power – we are called to proclaim a gospel that like the gospel Jesus proclaimed with his life may ultimately lead us to the place where he lay. And in that place is death.

But in that place is also life. Jesus lives in the places where he lay dying and dead. He lives with us and in us as we live out his gospel with those whom the world wants to crucify. Come and see. Go and tell. And listen for the rumbling, not the grumbling. Listen for the rumbling of the hierarchies and inequities, empires and tyrants falling never to rise again. Jesus has been raised as he said. The world will never be the same. When those whom the world crucify rise, the world cannot help but change. Amen.


Scripture Begets Scripture

 

Image: The Samaritan Torah

Today’s lessons offer the perfect paradox for interpreters of scripture, Deut 4:2 You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it… The Samaritan Jews take this torah literally—do not add anything to the canon. So their bible, the Samaritan Pentateuch ends with Deuteronomy. There are no Prophets; there are no Writings. This is only one of the issues at stake when Jesus talked to the Samarian woman at the well in Sunday’s gospel. There are also significant differences between the two Torahs which she likely knew. When she said we worship on this mountain, meaning Mt. Gerizim, she was referring to the site of the Samaritan temple. And the temple was on that site because Deut 27:4 identifies Gerizim as the place where the Israelites built their first alter upon entering Canaan. That’s what it says in the Samaritan Pentateuch. In the Judean Torah that we share, it says Mt. Ebal. And history and scholarship have born out that the minority tradition, the Samaritan tradition, is right.

You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it… The paradox inherent in this text is revealed in the continuing development, canonization and interpretation of the scriptures by other communities of its adherents: the Prophets, the Hebrew Writings, the Greek Writings, and then Christians got our hands on it.

You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it… Each addition seems to have had its own prohibition on revision. It is the final word.

The Judean Jews added Proverbs (30:6): Do not add to God’s words, or else God will rebuke you, and you will be found a liar. Then the Hellenistic Jews based in Africa added Sirach (42:21): God has set in order the splendors of God’s wisdom…Nothing can be added or taken away. Next, the Christians added Matthew (5:18): until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.

The Babylonian Talmud (B. Meg. 14a) explains that Israel had 180 prophets who neither took anything away from the Torah nor added anything to it but for the reading of the Megillah, the book of Esther, on Purim. At some point that gemara was revised to “forty-eight male and seven female prophets.”

This wonderful tweet popped up just in time for this sermon: Him (@skrongmeat_): 2000 years n god still ain’t dropped the Bible 2 yet. Her (Yasmin Yonis): Aslaama Alakum. It’s the Quran shawty.

We could go further and cite the scriptures of the Baha’i. Truly there is no end to scripturalizing. So what have we learned? Scripture is flexible and expansive, and that scares folk who try to fix its boundaries at the place of their comfort. And so it would appear that each generation cries out, “This far and no further! Don’t change anything else, but keep the changes we made.”

Speaking of changing the text, the lectionary has cut out that nasty bit in Deuteronomy about Baal Peor that became the pretext for genocide and mass abductions, rapes and forced pregnancies.

The lectionary wants us to read these texts a-contextually. But I am a biblical scholar and this is a divinity school. We know that a text without a context is a pretext. So let’s do better in our reading, teaching and preaching. Let’s not skip over the ugly stuff, because there’s plenty of ugly stuff in our world that can no longer be ignored in the two-thirds world and ghettos and barrios of the imperializing world. The complex contexts of the Israelite scriptures might just be the hermeneutical key we need to proclaim a relevant and living word in or complicated context.

Deuteronomy is addressed to Israel, Israel-in-the-wilderness Israel. Who are we when we read this text? Are we Israel? We have a theological claim to being in the family, but should we just read from the perspective of Israel without reflection? (As we do, far too often.) By we here, I mean Christians. The answer may vary depending on what type of Christian we are. For example, in Deut 4:1 this Israel “will occupy the land.” How do you read that if your people are living under occupation or are a dispersed person? Are you Israel then? How do we as American Christians read this text? We are, all of us on occupied land. Some of us played no part in the theft of that land and were stolen ourselves. Some distance themselves from the actions of their ancestors, other identify fully with the tortured legacy of ours. Are we Israel? Should we be reading from their perspective?

I would like to suggest that the key to understanding this passage is the word “live,” as in “so that you may live,” and then “occupy” and “land” as in “so that you may live and occupy the land.”

The text is presented as a recipe, formula or perhaps incantation for how to succeed in the promised land. And it is, but it is a retrospective, composed after the monarchy had failed and lost the land that nine of those tribes had occupied to the Assyrians, edited into final form after Babylon had seized the rest. It is a tragic retrospective: If only we had…

There is classical Deuteronomistic theology underlying this text. Israel lost their land because they were disobedient. It was their fault for failing to obey God sufficiently, not because Assyria and Babylon and Persia were bigger or stronger, not because what empires do is gobble up smaller nations as Israel had done when they got the chance.

So who are we in that formulation? Do we as Americans, as Christians identify with Israel in this text, no matter our theology of adoption? What is our “land” in this paradigm? How is this text available to us giving its originating context and content are long past?

Christian exegesis has tended to focus on the import on teaching God’s commandments called for by the passage without necessarily addressing the “why” and “wherefore” of the text.

This is the context of “For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Holy One our God is whenever we call on God?”

We have a claim on this God as our God just as we have a claim on this text as our scripture. How do we read this passage in its context and our own with all that we are as American Christians?

If we are to read ourselves as Israel then perhaps we are the Israel that composed, edited and canonized these texts: a failed would-be empire rewriting its history. This text is also also a message from the past to a people returning to their homeland with their complicated history of prayer and promise, conquest and colonization, immigration and infiltration, deliverance and deportation, rescue and return. If their descendants will truly follow these commands, just maybe they will re-create the society their ancestors dreamed of and articulated in the cultural and religious idiom of this text.

And we, with our empire tottering and no place for us to return, what shall we do? We have inherited these commandments with all of their baggage and ours. We must wrestle with them for they are enduring.

Jesus, himself a bar mitzvah, a son of these commandments promised:

Matt 5:17-18 Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.

As we wrestle with these texts to live into their vision of a just and ethical community articulated in Iron Age idiom, we may just find that the God they disclose is indeed: a god so near as the Holy One our God is whenever we call to her. Amen.


Thirsty

 

 

You know you want it. You’re so thirsty. It’s all you can think about. You’re just thirsty.

Some may know that the word thirst denotes much more than longing for water. It speaks of a deep craving, one might even say a carnal craving.

Thirst is a primeval biological imperative. Thirst is a reminder that your life is fragile. Neglecting your thirst can have dangerous, even deadly consequences. Satisfying your thirst will save your life. Maybe not in that moment but it provides your body what it needs to keep accelerated death processes at bay—I say accelerated because we are all actively dying, and on the way to our journey’s end, which is not the end.

Thirst is an equalizer on the scale of death. All humans, all animals, all plants, thirst. All forms of life that we know thirst for something that will sustain such life as they possess. All of us will die if we do not quench our thirst. Thirst is more lethal than hunger. A person can survive much longer without food than without liquids.

But not all liquids are created equal. While some swear by Gatorade and others like a Red Bull now and then, (and Ty is having a long-term relationship with Diet Coke), and others keep a personal flask at hand so they’re never without their drink of choice, there is nothing on, above or below the face of the earth like water.

We are made of water. Some of us were recently reminded with ashes that from the dust we have come and to the dust we shall return. Some were reminded with glitter that we are star stuff. Dust and ashes, starlight and glitter, yet we are still more water than any of these.

We came from the water. We were enwombed in water. We were born in blood and water. We are water born.

Our ancestral story in Genesis tells us we were crafted from soil that was formed when the sea waters were called to assemble leaving dry land exposed. Science tells us all life evolved from the waters of the seas.

When we thirst we crave that which we are.

In this day and age, it is so easy for most of us to satisfy our thirst. Potable water is all around us, brought to our homes and jobs and schools and sanctuaries and any other place we might find ourselves, including fountains outdoors with bowls for our fur friends and family.

But we don’t have to drink that water. We can buy water we think tastes more like what water should taste like. We can buy flavored water and vitamin water and carbonated water.

For most of us that is true. But it has been 1044 days since [21 April 2014] the government of Michigan poisoned their people in Flint, and they still do not all have clean water to drink. The water protectors of the Lakota peoples are trying to protect the waters that feed not only their homes, but sustain the life of the world – waters that are in danger because the North Dakota Access Pipeline was routed away from the suburbs out of fear of what an oil spill might do to their land and water supply, and rerouted towards what remains of native land under native control because they and their children are expendable and oil is more valuable than water to some folk.

But you can’t drink oil. Our treatment of this planet may well result in all of us being thirsty with an unquenchable thirst particularly without a functional Environmental Protection Agency in this country under the current regime.

Thirst is maddening. Thirst makes people desperate. Out of desperation, sailors stranded at sea without fresh water drink salt water knowing it could cause their deaths, but they cannot resist the thirst. Migrants crossing into this country looking for a better life sometimes lose their lives to thirst, or violent quarrels over what ever liquids they have, some even consuming their own bodies’ wastewater. And while decent folk leave water for these desperate souls out in the desert, against the law, border agents seize and pour it out into the dirt. Life giving water, sinking back into the earth from which it has come without ever nourishing or saving a life.

Today we have the story of another group of migrants. They had just started out on their trek. In the previous chapter they had had some kind of feast, chicken of the desert and biscuits from heaven. But roasted quail can be salty and bread—even if it did fall from heaven—can be dry. The people were thirsty.

And Moses didn’t have any water to give to them. He was their leader. Or was he?

Miriam and Moses, his sister-prophet were on this journey with their people. They were all in this together. A common basic humanity unites pastor and people the same way mortality unites shepherd and sheep. Moses and Miriam—whom our text neglects—were leading the people, but their leadership looked more like followship. They were following God and trusting her to provide for her people. According to Jewish tradition, God provided water through Miriam, she always knew where to find it because it was God’s gift to her people through her.

But in this story, Miriam is silent and her well is missing. Perhaps one lesson of this story is when women are written out, counted out, put out and kept out, communities, congregations, societies, nations and the world suffer a loss that will lead to their demise. We cannot survive without the gifts of women any more than we can live without water. All of the hierarchical and patriarchal organizations, institutions and structures that keep women out of power, and try to keep us in an imaginary place are built on women’s unacknowledged labor, intellect, and our money without which they could not survive.

Moses became what he was because his mother Yocheved made her own reproductive choices, saved his life from a state that had a cradle to grave pipeline with the help of a community of women: the midwives Shiphrah and Puah who organized the resistance, his sister Miriam who shepherded him before he became a shepherd, and his wife Zipporah who stood in the face of God and snatched his life back from the gates of death. Oh, if it weren’t for the women… Now those women and their children are thirsty and the people are looking to him to do what Miriam did. But he didn’t have Miram’s gifts.

Moses hadn’t been in the God game long but he had some experiences with and of God. He knew what he had seen, a bush that burned and was not consumed, staffs turning to serpents and eating other serpents that had been staffs, plagues of blood and boils, frogs and flies, and death, dust and disease. He had seen the seas crack open and the dry land appear; he had walked on that land from slavery to freedom behind Miriam who led the way. And right now he was looking at a pillar of cloud guiding his way. He knew what he had heard: I am that I am and I will be what I will be. I am with you. And he knew what he believed: God was able to deliver her people. He believed God would lead her people to safety, he believed God would provide food for her children—out of thin air if necessary, because she had just done so, and Moses believed God would provide water in the desert.

The essence of Moses’s leadership was trust that God was who she said she was and that she could and would do what she said she would do. Moses spoke for God because he had been speaking with God; he spoke from a position of deep trust and intimacy.

That intimacy was not limited to Moses. The writers and editors of the scriptures saw hierarchy in everything and crafted portrayals of God that fit their understanding. But the God I know does not love the one whose name is called more than the one whose name is forgotten. The intimacy of God and Moses was special but God’s love is abundant, inexhaustible, ever-present and free to all without precondition.

That love broke out into water in the desert then the people needed it. The people came to Moses who was for them the visible presence of the invisible God. Unlike the pillar of fire and cloud, they could talk to him and get an answer they could comprehend. They poured on him all their fears and anxieties: What if we die out here? What if our children die out here? What if we have to watch our children die out here? What if God isn’t able to save us, keep us, deliver, us? What if God can’t do or won’t do what she said she would do?

They turned to Moses because they had not yet learned to turn to God for themselves. They knew that Moses met God on a mountain one day and was changed forever. And until the people had their own moment of change they looked to him to mediate between them and God. But I’m so glad this morning, that I don’t have to rely on anyone, woman or man, prophet or pastor to speak to God for me.

Moses turned to God, the God of creation, the God of Exodus, the God of Sinai, his mama’s God, his wife’s God and his God. And God said: I will be there with you. I will go before you and stand before you so that whatever you face, you will not face it alone. I won’t say that you’ll never be hungry or thirsty, but I will provide what you need through you or someone else, and it falls to you to share what I provide with those in need.

Moses struck the rock as he had been told and there was water, the source of life, pouring forth from the rock. But Moses didn’t keep that water for himself. He didn’t charge the people for access. He didn’t check their papers to see if they were Israelites or some of the other folk who left Egypt with them. He didn’t build a wall around God’s life-giving water. He didn’t dump chemicals into God’s fountain.

Moses let God use him and the resources he had—the riches of his relationship with God and the staff that God had given him—he gave it all back to God and someone else who had a need got their need met. There was water for everyone. Moses was the only one with a special staff but he offered it up, not knowing if it would be smashed on the rock and he would lose it forever. He gave his gifts back to God and the power of God was revealed, one more time.

The stories of Miriam and Moses are set in a time of mystery, magic and miracles. That was the vocabulary of God’s providence and power for teh biblical authors and editors. Your vocabulary may rely less on mystery, magic and miracles, but the God of this text and God beyond the text won’t be confined to the realm of logic and reasoning.

There is a power in the world that brings the dead to life and breaks out into fountains in the wilderness. There is a power in the world that makes a way out of no way and provides for the immigrant and the refugee and even the felon. Or did you forget that Moses caught a case and was wanted for homicide?

What are you thirsty for today? What will you do to quench your thirst? What gifts will you bring to help someone else quench their thirst? And where will you go once you realize there are some thirsts water cannot quench?

In the gospel that will be read in many churches today, Jesus meets a woman at a well where water is freely available. Some folk at that well spend their time passing judgment on other folk who are drinking from the same well as they are. And Jesus shows up. Jesus shows up in the place where private lives become public fodder and stories of betrayal and broken hearts come bubbling up like water from the rock. Jesus is there in the place where people have different understandings of God and scripture, welcoming all. Jesus is there in the place where those who have been stigmatized and isolated because of who they loved and how they loved, thirst.

And to them and to us, Jesus offers water from a well that will never run dry, water that nurtures and sustains our life in this world and the next. Miriam’s well passed from this world when she did. Moses and his staff are long gone. He who was born in water and blood from the womb of Miriam of Nazareth, offers us the waters of life that we might live and love, fully and freely. Amen.

[For a special treat, stay through the consecration elements and hear my dear heart-brother, Rev. Robert Griffin’s beautiful chant starting at 23:48.]


Smashing the Biblical Patriarchy

Gen 12:1 Now the Holy One said to Avram, “Get-you-gone from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great. Now, be a blessing! 3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and they shall be blessed in you, all the families of the earth.” 4 So Avram went, as the Holy One had told him; and Lot went with him. Avram was seventy-five years old in his exodus from Haran. (Translation, Wil Gafney)

Let us pray:

May my teaching pour like the rain, my word go forth like the dew; like rains on grass, like showers on new growth. Amen.

I am deeply appreciative of the opportunity to share my teaching with you this weekend, and my preaching today, thinking about how to decenter whiteness, patriarchy and heteronormativity from biblical interpretation. And as a joke or perhaps as a challenge, you have invited me on a day in which the lectionary begins the story Abraham who will become the patriarch without peer, with patriarchy itself portrayed as God’s gift and blessing. And as much as I like the hashtags #smashtheatriarchy and #burnitalldown, peeling back layers of patriarchy and heteronormativity from the biblical text requires a somewhat softer touch if one seeks to preserve and peruse the text for a living word.

I could just preach from another text. For rejecting the constraints of the lectionary with its own patriarchal and androcentric agenda is most certainly a legitimate strategy to decenter that which has taken up entirely too much space in the biblical imagination and those of its interpreters. Even so I believe that any text, including the very epitome of a patriarchal text, can be preached as a relevant living word free from those encumbrances that keep us from living fully into God’s image and creation of us.

And still, patriarchy, androcentrism, misogyny, heterosexism, xenophobia and whiteness are hard to disentangle from the biblical text and its interpretation. They are sticky and clingy. Yet I believe that if we wrestle with this text we will find a living word from these sacred but troubling stories, one that is as true for Hagar, Sarah, Keturah and Lot’s daughters as it is for Abraham and Lot.

Wrestling a life-giving word out patriarchal and heteronormative constraints in the text and whiteness spackled on in interpretation of it is a labor of love and a life giving and saving enterprise. All too often the text confronts me with a god I recognize but do not serve, love or even want to know. There are texts of terror in both testaments. There are rapes and rape-based metaphors, slavery and slave-based imagery, canonized and sanctified, even placed on the lips of God, incorporeal and incarnate in the person of Jesus. And, as we who studied together yesterday have seen, the text is then often whitewashed in interpretation, particularly cultural, iconic and artistic interpretation, with no better image of whiteness sanctified than the idol that is white jesus.

The God who dwelt among us as mortal-immortal human yet divine Afro-Asiatic Palestinian Jew is present in a biblical text that is itself both human and divine, intricately interwoven. God is in the text and God is behind the text and beyond the text, in the characters the authors and editors hold up for us, and in the ones they neglect and turn away from, in the Canaanites and Moabites, in the trafficked and enslaved, in the women and the children, in the gentiles and foreigners, in the conquered and the subjugated.

[I am a black woman who knows she is made in the image of God and sees the divine in myself and my people, and in all of the other despised peoples of the earth. I see the holy and living God in the faces of neighbors and strangers, transgender and non-binary, genderqueer and cisgender, same gender loving and bisexual, heterosexual, coupled, parenting or child free, every shade of black, brown, beige, tan, pink, peach and cream.]

In these stories about Abraham and Lot, the psalmist and her God, Jesus, Nicodemus, and the Mother of All from whom we must be born again, I see the God of my ancestors, the God of my faith, the God of my experience and the God of Jesus, the Son of Woman. I find her in these texts when I sit with the characters on the margins, those who have been cut out of the lectionary, and those whose names have been erased from the scriptures.

The lectionary has cut our first lesson off before Sarai can be named, perhaps because in the very next verse, Avram takes Sarai and Lot along with his possessions, as though they too were also possessions along with the “goods” he acquired in Haran. Or maybe the verse is excluded because it spells out—more clearly in Hebrew than in English—that those possessions are all the persons he has “acquired”—not people and possessions, but people as possessions. Abraham’s patriarchy is rooted and grounded in slavery, sanctified in the text and by the god of this text. Abraham’s house will become great in number, in part, because of the fecundity of his slaves, some of whom he will undoubtedly impregnate himself. Because that is how slavery works and we ought not pretend that biblical slavery was some holy beneficent enterprise.

So then, is this story useful for anything other than asserting a divine claim for patriarchy? Is there a living word here? Is there a blessing to be had that is not nationalistic or steeped in patriarchy? Responsible biblical interpretation has always called for more than simply attempting to imitate an ancient text in our contemporary context. For example, most ancient and contemporary readers understood that incestuous sibling marriage was something best left behind in this text. While on the other hand, the founding fathers and their slaveholding cronies wanted to hold onto the patriarchal promise of wealth to Abraham that explicitly included slaves. Most folk have since let that go, but not all. What then is left in the promise if we let go of the patriarchy, androcentrism, misogyny, and heterosexism in the story, and the whiteness that is so often spackled onto it? A paradigm for leaving behind the things we need to let go.

In the text, the Living Loving God says: Get-you-gone from your country and your kindred and your father’s house…” Abraham has made his journey. His story and the story of his descendants and their nation-building have been told. Today let us focus on Abram’s personal exodus from the household of his father and what that may have signified for his family, those present in and those absent from the text, and what that might just mean for us.

Get-you-gone from your country and your kindred and your father’s house…”

Abraham’s father’s house was rife with incest, but far too many preachers hesitate to use the word—even when acknowledging that Sarah and Abraham have the same father. Abraham and Sarah may well have been products of incest themselves, so common was it in their father’s house. Their mothers are unidentified so we cannot know. What we can know is that Abraham’s brother Nahor had children with his niece Milcah, the daughter of their brother Haran. [Abraham, and his brothers Nahor and Haran shared both parents.] Bethuel, Laban and Rebekah would come from that line descended from Milcah and her uncle.

Though Abraham eventually leaves his father’s house, some of his father’s values stay with him; he insists his son Isaac must marry a woman who is also their relative. In a later story Lot will father children with his daughters. The text will blame the daughters but a womanist reading of the text interprets it through the experiences of victims of sexual abuse who are blamed for their victimization and often charged with seducing the men, sometimes their own fathers, who rape them. Lot left the house of his grandfather, but he didn’t go far enough.

Get-you-gone from your country and your kindred and your father’s house…”

The house of Abraham’s father represents all of the social and sexual dysfunction that would keep Abraham and his parents and partners and their kith and kin, descendants and dependents from living and loving freely and fully. It will take Abraham a while to put the sexual ethics his father’s house behind him, if he ever does. Abraham’s family’s sexual ethics were rooted in patriarchy. Patriarchy resides in his father’s house, though it was not conceived there. Motivated by fear but made feasible by patriarchal reasoning, twice or once in two different tellings, Abraham sells Sarah to a foreign king for his sexual use—including in this chapter—and it takes an act of God to get her back. At some point after leaving his father’s house, Abrahams marries again, Keturah, a woman of his own choosing, a woman who is not from his father’s house. I would like to think that union marks a new beginning for him, a step towards the promise and blessing.

Sarah too is a product of patriarchy and women can and do subjugate other women and sometimes men under patriarchy’s dominion. Sarah employs the lessons she learned in her father’s house against Hagar and, to some degree, against Abraham. Sarah will seize the body of a girl she considers her property and subject her to physical and sexual violence and a forced pregnancy while turning the tables on the husband who sold her for sheep, camels, donkeys and human chattel. Later, her abuse of Hagar will be so violent, so oppressive, that it is described with the same word that Exodus uses to describe Egyptian oppression and affliction of the Israelites, a word that includes rape as one of its primary meanings.

Sarah and Abraham are not the only folk who have needed to leave home to become fully who they were called to be. Sarah and Abraham are not the only folk who have had to leave ancestral and familial teachings about sexuality and gender behind. If we take this lesson to heart we too will leave ignorant, willfully ignorant, and harmful sexual ethics and practices behind. We don’t preach polygamy or incestuous sibling marriages as normative simply because they are in the text. There is no reason to preach ancient Israel’s ignorance about human sexuality, orientation, gender construction or performance as normative either. We can begin to talk about blessing all of the peoples of the earth when we understand them to be equally blessed without regard to gender or its performance and no person is forced into a union against their will.

This text also teaches us it may take some time to be able to leave the house of patriarchy and all that comes with it behind. The passage states: Abram was seventy-five years old in his exodus… The text describes Abraham’s departure from his father’s house as his exodus, using the same word that will describe the Israelite’s liberation for Egypt. Based on Isaac’s birth narrative where she is ninety and Abraham is one hundred we can also say Sarah was sixty-five in her exodus from her father’s house.]

In our lesson, God does not call Abraham to leave the house of his father until he is seventy-five and Sarah is sixty-five. In our world, some folk spend their entire lifetimes trying to figure out how to leave the hopes and hurts, dreams and schemes of our past behind so we can live into who we are called to be. A person can spend a lifetime putting abuse and trauma behind her, unlearning destructive patterns, responses and behaviors, and relearning how to live and love as a whole and healthy person. Life lessons take a lifetime to accrue and Abraham needed seventy-five years before he could draw on that account. However since Abraham lived to be one hundred and seventy-five according to the story, he had another hundred years, an entire lifetime to live into his fullest self, apply the lessons he learned, make mistakes along the way and try again. Perhaps one lesson we are to learn from the length of Abraham’s days is you’re never too old to leave behind that which will not bless you.

Get-you-gone from your country and your kindred and your father’s house…”

Who is your father that needs to be left behind? Maybe it’s the whole patriarchal system and not your dad. Maybe it’s some of the things your dad says that were passed down from his dad. Whose house are you leaving and what are you leaving behind? While you’re making your list, I’ve got a few suggestions for you:

Leave patriarchal interpretations of the scriptures behind in the house of patriarchy. Maybe leave the androcentic lectionary behind as well along with the idea that adding a few more stories about women is good enough. Leave heterosexist biblical interpretation behind in that father’s house. Leave the sanctification of whiteness and refusal to examine its privileges behind in that house. Leave any theology or biblical interpretation that does not lead to the full humanity, liberation and just treatment of any human person behind. Leave biblical literacy behind. Leave willful ignorance of the complexity of scripture behind. Leave predatory preachers behind. Leave kindergarten theology behind if you’re not a child. Leave using the name of God to harm God’s children behind. Leave those things that don’t lead to life, health, wholeness and justice behind and don’t look back.

And you will be blessed, and your name will be blessed and all of the families of the earth will be blessed.

Bring us out of the houses that imprison us, that we may leave behind those things that will hinder us, that all peoples may be blessed in your name. Amen.


Jesus Rewrites Scripture and So Can We

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said [this one thing]…but I say unto you [this other thing].” Y’all, Jesus is changing the bible! Not that there was a bible in his day or later when the gospels were being written, but there were scriptures: loose, separate scrolls, a very few with more than one book on them, and not necessarily all the books we have today. Plus they were reading some books as scripture that are not even in our Episcopal bible—which already has more books in it than Protestant bibles. Today’s lessons demonstrate that in more ways than one, Jesus’s understanding of scripture is different than ours and it just might be worth our while to figure out how so.

For example, it does not appear that Jesus took the bible literally, at least not all the time. Very Episcopalian of him. He doesn’t understand himself to be limited to or constrained by the words on the page. Jesus’s basic understanding of scripture here is that the scriptures are flexible and open to reinterpretation. He treats the scriptures as a living word to be read and interpreted anew. And he’s not alone in that. Heaven knows Paul and those writing in his name did the same thing, but that is an entirely different sermon. Sometimes I think the church has become so fixed on the words of scripture that we have lost sight of the models of if biblical interpretation in them.

Sometimes Jesus says something entirely contradictory to the text. Mostly he seems to be making it harder to do the right thing and some of what he says just seems flat out impossible. In the passages he reinterprets in our gospel today, Jesus accepts the basic meaning but recrafts them to say surprisingly more than they previously said. Jesus takes biblical interpretation to a whole other level.

Jesus quotes the commandment: ‘You shall not murder’ and then quotes something that is not in the bible with the authority of scripture: ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ What the Torah says was the same in his time as in ours: Anyone who kills a human being shall be put to death. No need for judgment, the sentence was already established. Taking it further, Jesus adds to the text: But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire…

He does it again and again:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart…

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Holy One.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all…

These are some serious upgrades. What on earth is Jesus doing? I have an idea about that.

Jesus is teaching us how to read and interpret the scriptures.

Jesus is our example in all things. He is out teacher, our rabbi. We are to do what he did to the best of our ability. In this case, that means we are to wrestle with scripture, wrestle with the meaning, and when necessary, wrestle a blessing out of it, which means wrestling with those bruising passages that have been used to hurt us and so many others. That includes some of today’s lesson, verses of which have been used to keep folk in unsafe marriages, or ostracize other marriages, even in church.

It is tempting to say that these verses mean what Jesus said they mean for all time. But I believe that would miss the point of Jesus’s lesson here. Jesus is showing us, not just telling us—he understands pedagogy—Jesus is showing is that the scriptures are to be interpreted and reinterpreted in the context of their readers and hearers. His context wasn’t the same as what was already “in ancient times” by his time. And our context is not the same as his. In order to interpret the text, you have to know it. That means we’ve got to wade deeply into it and sometimes wrestle with it.

The bible is a complex text, actually it is a series of complex texts and it requires multiple reading strategies. Jesus calls us into a deep and mature faith and a deep and thoughtful relationship with the scriptures.

Again, Jesus is our exemplar. Jesus knew scripture. They were his scriptures and the scriptures of his people. They were in his language. He knew the inside jokes and cultural customs. Yes, Jesus embodied scripture, but don’t get hung up on him being the Son of God. For a moment, focus on the parts of Jesus’ life and example that we can emulate. Let’s not use his divinity as an excuse not to delve deeply into scripture. Jesus, Jesus, studied scripture. He taught scripture. And we are to be like him.

We need to immerse ourselves in the scriptures. Not just the ones we like, or the lectionary, but even the ones we don’t like or understand. Jesus doesn’t change scripture willy-nilly. His reinterpretations get to the heart of the text and go deeper. In all honesty he makes it harder.

Most of us can say I’ve never murdered anyone. But who on this earth has never been angry, never insulted anyone? That’s not possible. Jesus knows that. His revision of the text is not literal. But wait! What about murder? Shouldn’t we take that bit literally? Yes. But he’s mixing literal and non-literal readings. We can’t do that. Yes we can. He did and so can we.

The scriptures need to be interpreted and reinterpreted, continually. What’s more, we are to do the same thing, read and reread, interpret and reinterpret the scriptures in light of our context which is not the same as his, just as the first century wasn’t the same as the Middle Bronze Age in which so much of the bible is set.

So what about what Jesus says in the gospel? What are we to do with that? We are not to imagine that because we are not axe murderers that we are above reproach. Jesus is calling us to think seriously about more than what we do, but also about what we say and how we even think about other people. Whether in a killing rage or a shouting match, if we dehumanize another person and devalue their life in any way God will hold us accountable. Whether you understand the lake of fire to be a rhetorical device or an eternal destination, Jesus is trying to get our attention.

It matters how we treat people. It matters how we speak to them or about them. It doesn’t matter where they’re from, what religion they follow, what language they speak, whether they have documentation or not, who they love, or how their bodies are shaped or function.

He’s also saying that sin, moral and ethical failures are not about crossing a particular sharply etched line in the sand. When he speaks of marriage and adultery here he’s saying that an affair doesn’t have to be physical to be a violation. He’s also saying that the ties of marriage run deep, are and should be difficult to break and can linger even when one party marries another.

He’s calling people to integrity, to honor vows and commitments, to not make a vow you can’t keep and keep the vows you make. And, if you say yes when you mean yes and no when you mean no, you won’t have to make elaborate promises or take extravagant oaths.

What happens when follow Jesus’s example and reinterpret his words in our time? If we take seriously Jesus’s model of biblical interpretation, we might say, “You have heard that it was said, whoever says ‘You fool,’ will be liable to the hell of fire. But I say unto you your words matter. But the intent behind them matters more. Your words reveal whether you truly love your neighbor as yourself and recognize them as your sisters and brothers, as children of God.”

Not bad. But one of my students interprets the gospel this way:

You have heard that it was said, “Do not call black people the n-word” and whoever discriminates based on race shall be liable to judgment.  But I say to you that if you stay silent in the wake of violence against black bodies, you will be liable to judgment; and if you suggest that the black men and women had it coming, you will be liable to their families; and if you say, “Peace, peace” when there is no peace, you will be liable to the hell of fire.

The same God who holds us as accountable for angry and ugly words as for lethal violence is calling us into the scriptures and into deeper relationship with God and each other. God is calling us to love one another deeply and faithfully, in word and deed. We are the children of God who is love. Let us live and love like it. Amen.


Resistance Is Not Futile

donatello-judith-halofernes-detail

Image: Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes

Resistance is Not Futile

#Resist. There was a man who rose to great power and became very wealthy along the way. He expected his whims to be met with instant acquiescence and held grudges against those who did not comply. He kept lists of his enemies and used his power to destroy those who defied him. I’m talking about Nebuchadnezzar as he’s portrayed in the book of Judith, but since Judith is scripture and scripture lives and speaks beyond its originating context, surely these sacred words speak to today when grudge-holding tyrants target those who didn’t support them fully or soon enough or contradict them or mock them.

The tyrant in this story set his sights on Judith’s people and her land. Judith can be read as an archetype for the land of Judea, the Jewish people, Jewish womanhood or Jane Q. Public, make that Judith Q. Jewish Public. Yehudit, the feminine of Yehudah, Judah—also feminine in form reminding us gender is more complicated than binaries even in binary languages and systems—Yehudit, Judith, is the quintessential Jewish woman. She is Daughter Zion herself or just a faithful daughter of Zion. More importantly, Judith is not captive Daughter Zion; Judith is the resistance of Zion; she is an agent-provocateur, a provocatrix. She is a woman who resists tyranny because she knows resistance is not futile; it is essential.

The tyrant sent his second-in-command, Holofernes, to do his will. Some quibble over the historicity of Judith, and characters like Holofernes, I am not among them. Judith may well be less historical than other biblical texts, and more so than yet others. What is sure is that scripture, in or out of the book of Judith, does not have to be historical to be true. Judith is true in more ways than one. Take the tyrant’s second-in-command. A whole lot of folk are exorcized about the tyrant in the story and the modern day exemplar he may evoke, but they forget that tyrants are not singular occurrences. They are the fruit of tyranny, nurtured, cultivated, harvested and deployed. And, they are waiting in line, waiting in the wings, waiting for their shot. That’s why empires don’t die when emperors do. Tyranny’s bench is deep. Tyranny survives violent upheaval even when tyrants and their functionaries are swept aside and tyranny does not even blink at the peaceful transfer of power.

The tyrant in our text decided to punish the people who hadn’t stood with him in his previous campaign. (This is just the literary background of Judith, a book some folk cut out of their bibles because they couldn’t find a living word in this story about a woman who resisted tyranny with her fully sexualized woman’s body—but I’m getting ahead of myself.) The tyrant sent his second to execute his policies. They decided to deprive the people of the basic resources they needed to live, to punish them for their disloyalty. In our story the resource that is snatched back from the people is water, the very fabric of life for this earth and her creatures. Tyrants are still depriving communities and their children of water, poisoning it, rerouting it, outright stealing it and then selling it back to them befouled.

The text says that for thirty-four days Edomite and Ammonite armies that had sworn fealty to the tyrant did to Judith’s people what had surely been done to them. Don’t miss that the foot-soldiers of tyranny are often oppressed peoples themselves. Some of them have been taken captive, pressed or sold into service, but some of them have sold themselves, coveting the privilege and power of the empire that was never meant for them, which they will never be granted. It will continually be dangled before their eyes, poisonous fruit from a poisonous tree. And even though they will never get to dine at the table where tyrants dine, they will be thrown a few scraps and convince themselves that they aren’t as bad off as those the empire disdains most. And maybe if they work hard and pull themselves up by their bootstraps they too can get a seat at the table.

Then when every well was dry and humans and animals began to collapse some people said: It would be better for us to be captured by them. We shall indeed become slaves, but our lives will be spared, and we shall not witness our little ones dying before our eyes, and our wives and children drawing their last breath. (Jdt 7:27)

What they were really saying was that resistance is futile. The empire was saying submit and they were ready to say yes, not because they were cowards, not because they wanted to be collaborators, but because they were desperate. It’s easy to judge them from outside the text. But what do you do when the empire seizes the resources you need to live? What do you do when your child is lying listless, dehydrated, dying or dead and there is no water, milk or medicine? This is how empire works. Those it doesn’t destroy outright it grinds into submission, sometimes making its subjects beg for the degradation of being dominated by them.

One member of the governing council conveniently named Uzziah, God hears, begged the people to hold out a little while longer, to pray and trust God. In so doing he offers the only resistance he can muster. But he says, if God doesn’t come through, he will personally hand over whoever is left to the regime, surrender and accept whatever depredation, whatever indignity, whatever retribution the tyrant has in mind for those he governs but doesn’t consider to be his people. Uzziah doesn’t see that he has any other options if he wants to save his people. For him the paths of resistance and submission collide at the intersection where the bodies of his people lay dying. What else can he do?

Then Judith, whose sixteen-generation genealogy—the longest of any woman in scripture—which traces her back to Jacob-become-Israel through the womb of Leah, Judith began to speak. She called the members of her governing council and began her resistance by opening her mouth (sometimes you’ve got to call the folk who govern you and tell them about themselves):

Jdt 8:11 What you have said to the people today is not right; you have even sworn and pronounced this oath between God and you, promising to surrender the town to our enemies unless the Holy One turns and helps us within so many days. 12 Who are you to put God to the test today, and to set yourselves up in the place of God in human affairs? 13 You are putting the Sovereign God to the test, but you will never learn anything! 14 You cannot plumb the depths of the human heart or understand the workings of the human mind; how do you expect to search out God, who made all these things, and find out God’s mind or comprehend God’s thought?

Judith calls for prayer as an act of resistance. Her language is so powerful and compelling that the men of the governing council asked her to pray for them. They want her to pray that it might rain and buy them a little more time. But Judith understood the real fight wasn’t about the resources that the tyrant cut them off from. The issue wasn’t the tyrant’s latest tweet, plot, plan or rant. The problem was the tyrant and his tyranny. So she prayed starting with the sexual violence against women that accompanies every war. We ought not be surprised to see tyrants boasting about sexual assault as proof of the deformed manhood that passes for their twisted notion of masculinity.

Judith prayed that God would use her deceit because she didn’t plan to fight fair for she understood there were no rules of engagement that the empire would honor. Sometimes resisting the empire means doing things that will get you branded a terrorist. Judith’s ethics of resistance were revolutionary. Sometimes the only difference between a revolutionary and a terrorist is in the mouth of the one who gets to tell the story.

Judith’s prayer was an act of resistance but it wasn’t her only strategy. I believe there is a real critique to be had of folk who only talk, even if they’re talking to God and do nothing to resist that might cost them some skin. Judith put her whole skin in the game, but first she prayed the line that makes her a liberation theologian:

For your strength does not depend on numbers, nor your might on the powerful. But you are the God of the lowly, helper of the oppressed, upholder of the weak, protector of the forsaken, savior of those without hope. (Jdt 9:11)

Judith got up from her knees and she got to work. If you know the story, you know that Judith intentionally used her body, her sexuality, as a weapon; more to the point, she used Holofernes’s sexism, patriarchy, and lust against him. She stripped her body. She bathed her body. She anointed her body. She perfumed her body. She adorned her body. She dressed herself to show herself, covered in jewels from her tiara to her toes.

Judith took herself to the tyrant’s camp, displayed herself before his eyes, just in reach but out of his grasp. She batted her eyelashes and stroked his ego, she told him what he wanted to hear about how he was perceived, admired and feared. She dined with him and drank with him. While he drank his private stock she drank her kosher wine and when they were through only she was still standing. She cut off his head with his own sword and put it in her little kosher dinner bag and carried it back to her people as a trophy.

Be clear, I am not calling for the assassination of tyrants in our day. We do not live in the Iron Age. The fact that our scriptures are rooted in the Iron Age does not limit us to their theology or ethics, in spite of what those who bow down at the altars of patriarchy and homophobia preach. Judith, like all scripture, offers much more than a literal paradigm to be blindly followed.

The triumph of Judith teaches me that tyrants do fall. Judith teaches me that prayer is an act of resistance, but it is not enough by itself. Judith teaches me that that we must resist together as a community. Judith teaches me that the strategies for our resistance are not always going to come from our leaders. Judith teaches me that respectability politics won’t lead to a revolution. The revolution will not happen without the sisters and we won’t be at the back of the bus. We will be seen and heard and folk will have to get over their issues about what we wear and how we do our hair. Judith teaches me that sometimes someone from your community has to be in the room to take a tyrant down. And Judith teaches me that something else. It is the lesson I believe our author wanted to pass on: Judith doesn’t have to get into bed with the tyrant to take him down. There is a line she will not cross. You don’t have to sacrifice your integrity or moral authority to resist tyranny.

Lastly, even though empires don’t collapse upon the deaths of their tyrants, they can be dismantled and placed under new management. Resistance is not futile. Amen.

Benediction:

May the God of Judith and Jesus strengthen our hearts and hands for the work ahead.

May we stand with the people of God, standing for what is right.

May we resist tyranny wherever it is found.

And may we never be cut off from the water of life. Amen.

You can view the entire service here.

 

Postscript: There is a wonderful blog by Judith Robinson chronicling images of Judith.


Choose Your Messiah Carefully

The First Two Disciples - John 1:35-42

JESUS MAFA. The first two disciples, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

John 1:41 Andrew first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed).

We have found the Messiah. When we read these words, their meaning is clear to us: The soon-to-be disciples of Jesus have found him and found in him the promise of God made flesh. We bring two thousand years of Christian faith, practice, doctrine and, confession to these sacred words that were unavailable to the evangelist who wrote them and which would be heard as new-fangled ideas to the first readers and hearers of this gospel.

These sacred words were written to convey and construct the Christ story—may I say Christory?— with no small degree of urgency. For their author and readers believed the world could not go on much longer, and that Jesus would surely come back before it all spun out of control, collapsed or simply exploded. Many of us too are waiting and watching for Jesus as we also watch our crucified and crucifying world lurch from tragedy to catastrophe to disaster, often at our own hands.

And as with all texts, there is a story behind the story and a story between the lines of the story, stories known to the writer and first hearers that we may not all know. Listening for echoes of those first tellings across the gulfs of space and time may just enable us to hear it anew even if we can’t quite hear it as they did so long ago.

We have found the Messiah. We have found the Anointed One. We have found the one designated by God to, to—to what? We say easily, “to save God’s people from their sin,” “to redeem Israel,” “to extend salvation to the Gentiles,” and “to save the whole world.” But they were still working all of that out. John the Baptizer says in the gospel attributed to that other John, perhaps the beloved disciple who appears at the end of the gospel, the Johns say: Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! He says nothing about being anointed. He doesn’t identify Jesus as the Messiah. He may still be working some of it out too. But he’s further along than anyone else except for Mariam Theotokas, Mary the Mother of God.

We have found the Messiah. We have found the Anointed One. From the beginning of Israel’s story being anointed meant being physically anointed with oil, then commissioned or ordained to serve God by serving her people in some official capacity. The first priests in ancient Israel were anointed with oil and blood. Successive generations of priests, kings and queens who ruled alone would have also been anointed with oil. Exodus (30:23-25) gives a recipe for that oil that sounds like your grandmother wrote it: 23 Take the finest spices: of liquid myrrh five hundred shekels, and of sweet-smelling cinnamon half as much, that is, two hundred fifty, and two hundred fifty of aromatic cane, 24 and five hundred of cassia—measured by the sanctuary shekel—and a hin of olive oil; 25 and you shall make of these a sacred anointing oil blended as by the perfumer; it shall be a holy anointing oil.

Every place our scriptures refer to someone as anointed, they are using the word “messiah.” Think about that for a minute. Even though you may only see the word “messiah” in the New Testament, it is all over the Hebrew Scriptures. You just may not recognize it when it is translated as “anointed.” And when the scriptures were translated into Greek after Alexander the Great left his mark upon the world—the reason our gospels are in Greek and not the Hebrew and Aramaic Jesus spoke, read and prayed in—when those scriptures are read in Greek, you hear the Greek word for messiah, anointed, christ.

Clutch your pearls if you need to, but Jesus wasn’t the first christ, the first messiah in the scriptures or in Israel. All of those priests and kings and a few queens, they were anointed as messiahs, christs. When Samuel was looking over Jesse’s sons, he was looking for God’s anointed, God’s christ. When David referred to Saul as God’s anointed, he was saying God’s christ. And when Samuel’s lament for David after his death called him the anointed of God, it was saying David was the christ of God. Then when the prophet in Isaiah called the Gentile king, Cyrus of Persia, God’s anointed, she or he was calling Cyrus God’s christ. What they all had in common was that they were entrusted with the safety and preservation of Israel—Cyrus receives the title for returning the Jews from Babylonian exile.

The Jewish disciples of Jesus knew this, as he did. They also knew every christ, every anointed monarch—and anointing is still a part of many coronations— every anointed monarch wasn’t appointed by God. Kings and queens murdered their way onto the throne, and sorry sons replaced their righteous fathers. You’ve got to choose your messiahs carefully, like Andrew did in our gospel because there are a lot of self-appointed messiahs out there.

Sometimes a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. That goes double when it’s knowledge of the bible. In 1990 a man who knew a little of the bible in Hebrew changed his name to David and Cyrus, using the Hebrew and Aramaic pronunciation of Cyrus, Koresh. David Koresh was a self-proclaimed messiah and good Christian folk who didn’t know enough about the bible to see that in the name he chose for himself went to their deaths because of him. You’ve got to choose your messiah carefully.

Our gospel was written and first spoken in a world in which messiah was a word used to describe religious and political leaders who ruled Israel, and that would have included Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great. Herod Antipas (I’ll call him Junior) was legitimately anointed king; he inherited the throne from his father. But some folk would never accept him as their king. His mother was a Samaritan and his father Herod Senior was from a family that was more Ishmaelite than Israelite in spite of their somewhat recent conversion. And perhaps worst of all, the Herods were appointed and anointed by Rome. The Herods are a reminder that you can govern legally and illegitimately at the same time. Choose your messiah wisely.

Andrew’s exclamation that he had found the messiah was subversive and treasonous. He saw in Jesus someone who could do what no king could do, live and die as the promise of God in human skin. Andrew’s messiah was poor whereas his king was rich. Andrew’s messiah walked everywhere he needed to go if he couldn’t borrow a donkey but his king had horses and chariots. Andrew’s messiah didn’t always have a roof over his head but his king built palaces, towers and fortresses, some of which are still standing. Andrew’s messiah would not let bible-thumping hypocrites kill a woman for adultery but his king was sleeping with his brother’s wife and killed John the Baptizer over it.

Andrew’s messiah and his king had one thing in common though. Andrew’s messiah and his king both lived under Roman occupation. Andrew’s messiah refused to call wrong right and stood with the people under Roman oppression and the collusion of collaborators. But Andrew’s king supported the occupation and benefitted from it to the detriment of his people and his own soul. Choose your messiah wisely.

John saw in Jesus the Lamb of God. John’s disciples saw in Jesus a rabbi, a teacher worth following and leaving their own teacher behind. Andrew saw in Jesus the Messiah, the one anointed to save, heal, deliver and make whole, not just Israel, but the whole world. Choose your messiah wisely. Amen.


Interpreting the Bible in a Non-Biblical World

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Elections are unbiblical. That’s all right because not everything biblical is godly. Too often I hear the adjective “biblical” used uncritically as a synonym for good, right, and the will of God. The desire to affirm what is biblical comes from a good place, love of the text and love of the One who inspired it, desire to walk with God and please God. But you don’t have to go very far into the text to discover that what is biblical includes the very worst of humanity interspersed with occasional good faith attempts at faithfulness, and sometimes some pretty horrible theology.

The bible is, well, complicated. Literal readings of the scriptures can justify slavery, rape, genocide, and other atrocities. It is not a misreading to say the text considers the wealth of the patriarchs, measured in part in enslaved human beings as chattel as the gift and blessing of God. It is not a misinterpretation to say Israelite soldiers were granted permission to take women captive after the defeat of their people and rape them into to bearing children for them. The command to exterminate peoples, cities and towns, killing all within, including babies at the breast, is the literal reading of the text in many cases, those horrific verses placed on the lips of God and carried out by heroes of the faith. Again I say, everything biblical is not godly, no more than everything legal is ethical. Slavery, segregation and discrimination against people of color and women, even if they had white privilege, was legal. Discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans folk is still legal. Legal doesn’t mean ethical or moral and biblical doesn’t mean godly.
The bible’s many difficult texts can make it hard for folk to engage it deeply. Living with complexity and tension is uncomfortable. And there is a certain comfort in just focusing on the love and promises of God. For these and other reasons many churches turn to a lectionary that constructs an alternate, somewhat sanitized, version of the bible. As a result the breadth and depth of the biblical text is largely unplumbed.
When hard texts do pop up in the lectionary, sometimes excuses are made for the text or God—that’s just the way it was back then, or silence is kept, and truths remained untold. A preacher might mention Sarah and Abraham’s shared father but few tell the truth their relationship was incestuous. Some may talk about the use of slaves as surrogates to bear children for their masters but few will call it rape. There is a reluctance to confront, name and, own the ugliness of our scriptures because of what that might mean about our God. What are we to do when we encounter a god in the text who is not the God of our faith? Is the god of the text the god of your faith? Always and forever, in every text? Are you sure you know what is in your bible? Or is there a God beyond the text who transcends the text even when the text bears a faithful resemblance to her?
The Iron Age may have spawned the great stories of our faith but some of us are not so sure we want to replicate that world and its values in our world. Just how much of that Iron Age theology is still valid for us? A God who handcrafts creation? I want to hold on to that, but not try to make it a how-to text or a lab report. A God who saves and delivers? Yes. A God who takes 400 hundred years to deliver? Not my preference, I’d like justice and liberation now but I’m too old to believe in fairy tales and I know sometimes it takes that long, just ask my people.
What about the Israelites’ Iron Age ethics and constructions of gender and sexuality? What do we do with those? Do we pretend not to know or remain willfully ignorant that the Israelite people needed people capable of producing children to produce as many as possible to meet their food production, labor and military needs in the face high infant, child and maternal mortality, and wave after wave of defeat and conquest, and those needs have direct bearing on the texts that regulate sexuality? We must take seriously our own context and how different it is from theirs. But it can be hard to figure out just how we’re supposed to use the bible in our contemporary lives when deeper engagement with the sacred text reveals how great is the gulf between the world of the scriptures and our own. Yet how we relate to the bible has direct implications for how we relate to God.
Our lessons offer us two different perspectives on scripture: Job reflects on the power of the written word. Job thinks that if he just writes, actually engraves his words, they will last forever:
O that my words were written down!
O that they were inscribed in a book!
O that with an iron pen and with lead
they were engraved on a rock forever!
In the world that produced the scriptures, the written word was powerful. Most people were not literate and those who were may not have been able to do more than recognize enough words to engage in trade and read and write their names with few exceptions. Writing was the province of the elite; monarchs and religious officials used writing to awe their people. There is power in the written word. That power endures today.
The written word serves a similar purpose within the scriptures. God calls upon Moses repeatedly to write what he hears that he might not only teach it to the Israelites in song but they would also pass it down through the generations. And God uses the written word to form the backbone of the community she crafts from slaves and refugees, the Ten Commandments and the Torah.
The questioner in the gospel (Luke 20:27-38) presents a different aspect of scripture, that it needs to be interpreted. The questioner knows what the Torah teaches and wants to know how to interpret and apply it. The questioner knows that world is not limited to the words on the page, even when the words, the page and the One who inspired them are holy. The questioner knows the real world is more complex than our sacred texts. It is not always so simple a thing to directly apply the scriptures to our lives even when it seems like they would be directly applicable.
To read is to interpret. And to read in another language is to lose something unrecoverable. The scriptures in English are not entirely the same as they are in Hebrew and Greek. They are good enough, but that might not always be good enough. When we read in English we are reading a text that has already been interpreted to and for us to some unknown degree. Then we read and interpret through who we are, what we have experienced, and what we know. What we don’t know also shapes our interpretation, closing off possibilities we don’t know we don’t know exist. It has always been this way, but previous generations of scholars, translators and interpreters presumed the cultural baggage they brought to the text was normative and God-ordained unlike the values of those they pushed to the margins. Who we are matters when we read.
We are, I suggest, in that uncomfortable space between the word and its interpretation, and we can’t diminish the space between them by wishing it away. The church has struggled in that place from the beginning, wrestling with the spoken and written word as did God’s people before us, and we bear the addition burden of being a largely Gentile church staking a claim on Jewish scripture. Our relationship with the scriptures is complicated.
Which brings me back to my original observation. Elections are unbiblical. Should we even be voting?—Not we black folk, we paid for our right to vote in blood, with lynchings, burnings, rapes and castrations. Not we womenfolk, that ship has sailed, though the ship with the black women on it was held back by white suffragettes. Should we be voting? Because there’s nothing about elections in the bible.
If you think Samuel was outraged when the people said we want another king because everyone else has one—you do know that Saul wasn’t the first king in Israel and Avimelek (Abimelech) ruled for three years in the book of Judges?—If you think Samuel was fit to be tied when presented with a monarchal mutiny, how do think he would have responded when the people came and said, “We want to vote. We want leaders we can get rid of every two or four years if they don’t do what we want.” That’s not biblical. But the proof is all around us that we know we are not constrained by the constraints of scripture: we don’t observe the Sabbath, Sunday is not the Sabbath, we don’t stone. We deposed an anointed king and set up a government that would not be beholden to any religion, not even biblical religion. We know that we are not limited to what is biblical even if we don’t want to acknowledge it.
We are standing at a precipitous intersection in the life of our country and we’ve got a treasured resource of sacred texts passed down through the generations for millennia, through which our ancestors and we ourselves have heard and encountered God. What do we do with it between now and Tuesday? Do we open it to a random page or swipe on our iPads and see what word our fingers land on try to figure out if that word has more to do with one person than another on our ballots? Or do we honestly acknowledge we bring more than biblical values with us into the voting booth?
We are like the questioner in the gospel. We’ve heard the sacred story and tried to make sense of it in our world and we are still left with questions. And the responses we get, should we be so fortunate to have a direct, clear word from God in our wrestling, provoke more questions than answers. Every time we think we’ve got a handle on what it means to interpret the text faithfully in our context, we realize it’s not as simple as it seems.
Let me offer a couple of interpretive principles from my Episcopal context: Taking the scriptures seriously does not mean taking them literally in every case. But every time we add one more passage to the list of texts we’re not taking literally, some of us feel a twinge of guilt because we’ve been conditioned—but only in the past fifty years or so—to take the texts, all of them, literally as if they have no nuance, rhetoric, or genre.
We may know in our guts that there are some things in the text that are just not binding on us or authoritative for us but we don’t always know how to say that. We Episcopalians also say: The word of God is in the bible but everything in the bible isn’t the word of God. We take seriously that the scriptures are human and divine just as Jesus is human and divine. The scriptures cannot be more divine than Jesus. Any claim that elevates them above him is idolatrous. There’s a special name for this kind of idolatry, bibliolatry.
So much of our public discourse about the bible is slogans and electioneering: The Bible Is Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. The bible is our owner’s and operator’s manual. That’s nice. But what do we do with it? How does that help us know how to read, understand, interpret and apply it? If we have the words, there can be no misunderstanding, right? The text says what it means and means what it says, right? One thing I’ve learned about reading scripture is that interpretive rules that make good t-shirt logos are poor exegetical guides.
That is why the questioner in the gospel says I have the words, I’ve read them but I don’t how to apply them. If we are to meet a living God in a living text we must be prepared to be stretched in our growth, and sometimes that hurts. When we wrestle with God and the text and God in the text, God wrestles with us, not intentionally oppositionally but occasionally we get dislocated when we text-wrestle and God-grapple. It hurts sometimes to relinquish a cherished belief or determine a doctrinal or biblical claim doesn’t have a solid foundation. It can be a bruising process, but it leaves us blessed.
In our wrestling with the text and its god we have no better examples than Job and the questioner in our gospel lesson. Job proclaims the power of the written word its enduring testimony. Job teaches us that we can argue with God, shout into the whirlwind, with our grief, anger, and our questions even when that defies the theological norms of the larger community. Job teaches us that God is with us in our shouting and questioning, and after the storm passes by, God is still with us.
And our questioner in the Gospel teaches us to bring our questions to Jesus. He may tell us we’ve got the whole thing wrong and there are dimensions to the greater story beyond our texts and our comprehension, but he will hear our questions. And he will guide us to the path that leads to life no death can extinguish.
Elections may not be biblical but questioning God and the text is. Bring your questions and be prepared to wrestle and wrangle your own answers in the company and embrace of God. Then on Tuesday as on every other day, our choices are not limited to or by the limitations of the biblical text. Amen.


Faith without Faithfulness is Faithlessness

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God has told you, children of earth, what is good.
And what does the Holy One require of you?
To do justice, love faithfully,
and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

James 2:14 Of what benefit is it, my sisters and brothers, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Does faith have the power to save you? 15 If a sister or brother is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; stay warm and eat as much as you like,” and yet you do not meet the needs of their bodies, of what benefit is that? 17 So also, faith alone is dead if it has no works.

Faith without Faithfulness is Faithlessness. Let us pray: Holy One of Old, open our eyes that we may see. Amen.

I’m not so sure I believe in faith, the idea that there is a set of religious propositions which when assented to—believed in, in which we have faith—define a person or community in relationship to God. I’m not so sure I believe in that. When I hear faith articulated as a set of beliefs, constructed as orthodox, heterodox, heretical and just plain heathen, I get itchy. I mean theologically itchy. I know that Europeans used theological categories like “heathen” to justify enslaving non-Christian peoples. After which they did what they perceived to be their Christian duty (apparently their only Christian duty) and converted the heathen. Which left them in a quandary. These enslaved now-Christian converts shared their beliefs, shared their faith.

But that would be no impediment to slavery on this side of the Atlantic in North and South America and in the Caribbean. In Great Britain, conversion resulting in shared faith between enslaver and enslaved led slowly to the liberation of black Christian folk and even more slowly towards abolition of slavery. But in the American slavocracy, faith, orthodox belief in the same set of theological propositions, did not lead to the liberation of enslaved people. Rather it led to a redefinition of the slaveholding enterprise itself, to be based solely on race and in perpetuity. Now shared faith was no obstacle to buying, selling, enslaving, using, maiming, raping or killing one’s fellow Christian. Faith was irrelevant to the enterprise of slavery. In fact, slaveholding folk exercised their Christian faith, regularly if not faithfully, building the great institutions of the faith—churches, colleges, seminaries—many of which still stand all while profiting off of the exploitation of enslaved people, often sister and brother Christians.

But they had faith. Faith, if there is such a thing, seems to me to be woefully inadequate to meet the righteous demands of a just God. I conclude with the author of the Jacobian epistle—the name is Ya’aqov, Jacob, not James—I conclude with him if there is such a thing as faith, then faith that cannot be seen is no faith at all. Faith that is no more substantial than a shout, tweet, bumper sticker or t-shirt logo is, even if it be a Bill of Rights or Declaration of Independence, is no faith at all if it does not do justice. Faith without Faithfulness is Faithlessness.

One reason I view the faith enterprise with such skepticism is that there is no word for faith in Biblical Hebrew or Aramaic, which means no one in the bible, including Jesus, operated with the concept of faith as a religious category—that is until the Church invented it and incorporated it into its telling of the Jesus story in the epistles and gospels after the fact. For all intents and purposes, faith as many understand it, is wholly a Christian invention, a repurposing of older concepts adapting words already in use in Greek and Hebrew. The Greek word pistis and its older Hebrew antecedent amunah both mean faithfulness and not faith. They are about what you do, not what you think or believe. Before there was such a thing as faith, there was faithfulness. We are called to be faithful because our God is faithful.

But the Church has reduced faithfulness to faith, to belief, what one thinks and affirms, largely in one’s head, which is why in the New Testament faith is primarily faith in Jesus, meaning assent to a set of theological propositions about his origin, identity, nature and relationship to God. That particular Christian understanding is then injected into the scriptures, including back into the Hebrew Scriptures so that faith has replaced faithfulness. As a result, I am convinced too many believe what God requires of us is merely faith, an internal matter the limitations of which are best demonstrated in the concern for salvation without regard for liberation which is no more a relic of the past than the white supremacist ideology that found it to be the perfect companion to slaveholding Christianity.

The stories of scripture like the stories of our nation’s history are stories of infidelity punctuated with occasionally sincere, often failing, attempts at fidelity. Faithfulness is one of the primary attributes of God who declares (somewhat hopefully) that we who are created in her image share her nature. God is faithful and true. God is aman, the source of “amen,” which means that God is trustworthy. In response, those in relationship with God in scripture trust God; they don’t simply believe a set of propositions about God. They trust God and follow God and work at being faithful to God, and sometimes they doubt on the way. Trust in God’s trustworthiness is more than intellectual or even emotional commitment to God’s attributes; it is committal of oneself and one’s life to God’s faithfulness.

But what does faithfulness look like? There is a text in Micah 6 that teaches what is means to be faithful through what at the time was likely a dramatic performance, because sometimes theological articulations and sermonic proclamations are insufficient. Unfortunately we don’t have digital or even video recordings from the Iron Age but we do have the script. Since we don’t live in the Iron Age I’ve take the liberty of providing a contemporary title for this performance piece: Law and Order: DoC. The courtroom drama begins with the bailiff:

Micah 6:1 Hear ye what the Just One says:
All rise. Litigate before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
2 Hear ye, mountains, the litigation of the Righteous One,
and you everlasting foundations of the earth;
for the Judge of All Flesh has a lawsuit against God’s people,
and God will prosecute Israel personally.

In the next scene, the almighty God takes the stand:

3 “My people, what have I done to you?
And how have I wearied you?
[We might say, “How have I gotten on your nerves?”]
Answer me!
4 For I brought you up from [dragged you out of] the land of Egypt;
I redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.
5 My people, please remember what King Balak of Moab plotted,
what Balaam son of Beor answered him,
also the righteous deeds of the Faithful God from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know them.”

 

Then things get really interesting. Israel takes the stand. Israel doesn’t seem to have had the benefit of counsel. You may know the joke that a lawyer who represents themselves has a fool for a client. This is much worse; Israel isn’t even a lawyer. Israel’s legal strategy—if you could call it a strategy—is passive-aggressive angry sarcasm against the Living God who has granted them a hearing. Needless to say this isn’t going to go well.

 

6 “With what shall I come before the Incomparable,
[only imagining them saying, “Your High and Mightiness”]
and bow before God on high?
Shall I come before God with burnt offerings,
with year old calves? Well?
7 Will the Eternal be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

God doesn’t even dignify that foolishness with a response. God just leaves the courtroom and lets the verdict speak for her. Most know the verdict apart from the farsical legal dramedy in which it appears.

8 God has told you, children of earth, what is good.
And what does the Holy One require of you?
To do justice, love faithfully,
and to walk humbly with your God. 

This is Micah’s way of explaining what faithfulness is. Framing God’s expectations for our faithfulness in terms of her faithfulness. God testifies to some off her greatest hits with three points and a poem. Exhibit A) God delivered Israel from slavery. Exhibit B) God provided Israel with a diversity of religious leaders in Miriam, Moses and Aaron. Don’t miss that—one of the witnesses of God’s faithfulness is diversity: lay and ordained, prophet and priest, women and men. And Exhibit C) every single thing God did from Shittim, on the edge of the Sinai desert, to Gilgal in the heart of the promised land.

Micah’s prophetic performance echoes across the ages because the poetry is timeless as is the command of God it discloses: Do justice, love faithfully, walk humbly with your God. The poem even presents itself in three more ready-made points for preaching, the measure of the faithfulness God expects from us: Do justice, love faithfully, and walk humbly with our God.

Do justice. This world is crying out for it. The nation is crying out for it. The blood of my people is crying out for justice. Cis and trans women and men, sleeping little girls and grandmothers in their homes slaughtered by police at a rate that has no comparison in white society. Do justice for them.

Do justice. Dismantle the very systems of privilege that empower you and from which you benefit.

Do justice. Use your privilege, your money, your access and everything at your disposal to wage war against every unjust structure in this nation and this world.

Do justice. Do justice for women who continue to be underpaid and at a greater rate when we are black or Latina or Native American.

Do justice. Do justice for LGBTQI persons who can still be fired for no reason, or denied housing in too many jurisdictions, and who regularly are subject to violence and death on a bigoted whim.

Do justice. Do justice for victims of sexual assault. Believe them. Support them. Stand with them. Prosecute perpetrators, no matter who they are. Work to end the stigma of rape. Work to end the backlog of untested rape kits.

Do justice. Do justice for the children in underfunded school districts right here in North Texas.

Do justice. Do justice for the impoverished, under housed, underfed, uninsured, unemployed and under employed.

Do justice. Do justice for our neighbors and strangers, whether they live like you or not, whether they love like you or not, whether they worship like you or not. Do justice for refugees and immigrants. Do justice for the persecuted. Do justice for our Muslim sisters and brothers who are under siege.

Do justice. Do justice for this planet. Do justice for the air and water and species that are disappearing. Do justice for our native sisters and brothers who are standing with the earth, standing with the water, standing with the buffalo, standing with their ancestors and standing at Standing Rock.

Do justice when it costs you something. Do Justice when you’d rather not. Do justice when it’s hard. Do justice when it hurts. Do justice.

Do justice. Do justice because you can’t talk about faithfulness or faithful love without justice. Do justice because you cannot stand in injustice and walk with God. Do justice. Do justice because faith without faithfulness is faithlessness. It is written, “faith alone is dead if it has no works” but I say unto you: Faith without Faithfulness is Faithlessness.

 


Love God Herself

2016_10_20 Wil Gafney from Candler School of Theology on Vimeo.

Yes, I am black! and radiant–
O city women watching me–
As black as Kedar’s goathair tents
Or Solomon’s fine tapestries.

Will you disrobe me with your stares?
The eyes of many morning suns
Have pierced my skin, and now I shine
Black as the light before the dawn.

And I have faced the angry glare
Of others, even my mother’s sons
Who sent me out to watch their vines
While I neglected all my own.[1]

Normally I only preach from my translation of the scriptures believing you can’t preach what you don’t read, and reading the bible in English is like eating when you’ve lost your sense of smell. Rabbi Marcia Falk’s translation of the Most Excellent of Songs, the Song of Songs, is itself most excellent so I invite you to consider for the time that is ours the following lines:

The eyes of many morning suns
Have pierced my skin, and now I shine
Black as the light before the dawn.

And I have faced the angry glare
Of others, even my mother’s sons
Who sent me out to watch their vines
While I neglected all my own.

Black is beautiful. Not just some black is beautiful. Not just that light, bright, almost white, mixed with something, Becky with the good hair, Beyoncé, video girl type A or B (but not so much C or D) black is beautiful. My black is beautiful. Your black is beautiful.

Whether hailed as luminous darkness or radiant blackness, our black is beautiful. Hand-crafted sun-kissed shades from cream to coffee—no sugar, no cream—to blacker than a thousand midnights to the bluest black, from the bluest eye to the grey, green, brown, black eyes deeper than the well of souls, crowned with cottony soft puffed crowns, regal ropes, intricate braids, coifs and cuts in every color imaginable and some you couldn’t, or smooth shaved like Luke Cage. All of these studies in black are beautiful. Black is beautiful. Blackness is beauty. Blackness is worshipful. All blackness is divine. It is the imprint of the holy darkly radiant God in whose image we are created. Look in the mirror and love God herself in you, in your fam, in your heart and skin kin, in your neighbors and strangers, enemies and allies.

The eyes of many morning suns
Have pierced my skin, and now I shine
Black as the light before the dawn.

In the black church we trumpet our love for our blackness—Imma come back to that—but we don’t always love our black bodies. The black church loved us and taught us to love ourselves when nobody else would and folk were out here in these streets hating our skin, our hair, our lips, our noses, our thighs, our buttocks, our thickness, our swish, our sway. And at the same time some in the black church were separating us like goats from sheep based on brown paper bags and talking about good hair. Perhaps even more insidious, too many black churches still privilege whiteness in theology and culture, expectations about dress and deportment, trying to please an abusive white supremacist culture that does not love us and despises our flesh.

The whiteness against which we have been defined, measured and found lacking has been deified and is hanging on the wall in too many churches and homes. The white-Christ-idol hanging on the wall denies the bruised black beauty of God in human flesh killed by the uniformed arm of the empire like too many of our trans and cis sisters and sons. Be very clear, white Jesus is does not love you and cannot save you; he is the god of white supremacy and the demonization of blackness is its gospel.

But…

The eyes of many morning suns
Have pierced my skin, and now I shine
Black as the light before the dawn.

This beautiful blackness is the gift of God. It is delicate and diamond strong, fragile and fearless, resilient and resplendent. Our blackness is more than the skin we’re in, it is the treble of our souls, the multi-strand web of our culture that binds us to all our folk—and the rest of God’s folk too, for we are all children of the same mother, from the African earthen womb of the God who writhed in labor with us and Rock who gave us birth. (Deut 32:18) And like all of God’s good creation we are charged with its care, care for ourselves, our bodies, our minds, our souls, the sacred trust of our blackness.

I believe that we ought to be passionately in love with ourselves, our bodies and our blackness. For this I take my lesson from the Song of Songs which has scandalized so many Jewish and Christian interpreters because it does not talk about God explicitly, instead it focuses on the love of two people expressed sensuously, sexually. It is all about the love of and between two black bodies—offered as scripture and revelation. Now, one of those bodies is blacker than your average brown-to-black ancient Afro-Asiatic person. She is black as a black-haired goat. Y’all can have them white cotton ball sheep, I’m going to hang out with the goats. Let me let her tell you about herself as we walk through this text together:

shechorah ani v’ navah

I am black…

Actually, it’s the other way around. Black am I… Black is the first word. Blackness a priori. Black before all else, intentionally, by design, according to the will (and the Wil) of God for my life. Black am I…

Black am I and resplendent.
Black am I and radiant.
Black am I and exquisite.
Black am I and beautiful.

It seems the city-women can’t keep their eyes off of her. They keep staring, looking her up and down. And you know how we do; she asks them if they like what they see:

Will you disrobe me with your stares?

The shout out to the daughters of Jerusalem is an acknowledgement that our bodies are always under scrutiny. We are weighed and measured, consumed and labeled acceptable or defective in a glance. The black beauty Shahorah—we can call her Ebony, Raven, Jet or Onyx—Shahorah says you call me black like that’s an insult. Let me tell you, I am black, as silky-black as the luxurious coat of a Kedari goat, like mink, only blacker. I see you looking, you can’t keep your eyes off of all this good black. And neither can the sun.

The eyes of many morning suns
Have pierced my skin, and now I shine
Black as the light before the dawn. 

She says, don’t stare at me because my beautiful black skin has gotten even darker while I bask in the sun. Our black beauty revels in the blackness of her skin and has the nerve to get a tan on top—we hadn’t destroyed the ozone layer yet so she didn’t have to worry about melanoma—she embraces the kiss of the sun and some folk are out here bleaching their black.

And I have faced the angry glare
Of others, even my mother’s sons
Who sent me out to watch their vines
While I neglected all my own. 

The angry glare is a reminder that everyone won’t look at us and see the glory that God created. Some folk are mad that we’re still here. Mad that we haven’t been destroyed. Mad that we survived the hells of the middle passage, slavery, Jim Crow and lynch law. Mad that we have the right to vote. Mad we’re exercising our right to vote. Mad that it looks like we’re benefitting from affirmative action when it benefits more white women than black women or men. Mad we’re in their schools and on their jobs. Mad some of us are in charge of some of them. Mad this continent once peopled by red and brown peoples is turning brown again. Mad we don’t back down, step aside, shuffle when we’re not dancing and scratch when we’re not itching. There are some angry folk out there and you can see it in their eyes long before they open their mouths or send the first tweet.

And I have faced the angry glare
Of others, even my mother’s sons

Sometime the angry glare is more than a look. Sometimes it’s a catcall. Sometimes it’s a death sentence executed in the street because you refused to acknowledge a cat call, smile, or give out your phone number. Our blackness is under assault, verbal assault and even physical assault. Sexual harassment and predation is a matter for the church because it happens in church to church folk and is perpetrated by church folk.

We can’t talk about taking care of black bodies in or out of the Black Church without talking about the perils black women and girls face from black men and sometimes boys in and out of the church, and in and out of the pulpit. That peril is often physical and sexual violence as Shahorah knows first hand. She tells the story of her sexual assault in 5:7:

The men who roam the streets,
guarding the walls,
beat me and tear away my robe.

Don’t miss that the men who assault Shahorah are the men who guard the walls. If we read them religiously they are the men responsible for maintaining order in the city where God dwells. If we read them civilly they are the men responsible for protecting the city and her citizens from those who would prey upon her. Pastors and police can be equally dangerous to black girl magic.

And I have faced the angry glare
Of others, even my mother’s sons

Later in the text (8:8-9), Shahorah describes the efforts of her own brothers to constrain and confine her, to make her conform to their notions of comportment.

We have a young sister
Whose breasts are but flowers.
What shall we do
When the time comes for suitors?

If she’s a wall
We’ll build turrets of silver,
But if she’s a door
We will plank her with cedar.

Being unapologetically black out loud and in public sometimes means scrutiny and censure from your own people who still believe that respectability politics will save them, and all too often what is respectable, civilized, decent and professional is what white supremacist culture demands. Like so many good church women Shahorah’s self-care has been side-tracked while she takes care of everybody but herself.

And I have faced the angry glare
Of others, even my mother’s sons
Who sent me out to watch their vines
While I neglected all my own. 

It’s time to tend our own vines and their sweet, luscious, intoxicating fruit. It’s well past time for us to love God herself in ourselves and each other. Too long the church has taught us to love others at the expense of ourselves. It doesn’t work that way boo. As Rev. RuPaul asks, How the hell you going to love somebody else if you don’t love yourself? Can I get an amen up in here? The answer is you can’t. You cannot love anyone else—or tell them how and where to love you, how exactly it is you like to be loved—if you do not love yourself, all of yourself, in every way.

But some of us don’t love ourselves. We have been told for so long that our blackness is bestial, fit only for the end of a rope. Our despised bodies were raped and plundered by those who hated us, literally hating on us with their unwanted bodies. Their descendants plunder the creative riches of our culture all the while denying we have a culture, compounding the theft of our labor while relegating us to under-resourced schools and neighborhoods, all the while pathologizing our beautiful blackness when they’re not hunting us down in city street safaris. They work so hard to cast our blackness as the demonic so they won’t have to accept the fact that they have been killing God herself. All the while appropriating our hairstyles and recreating our contours.

It is no wonder some children looking at the world unfolding around them don’t want to be black and can’t see the gift it truly is. Some of us can’t help our children find the holiness in God’s touch on their skin because we have been so brutalized in and because of our skin, hair, diction and mannerisms we wish we could be somebody else too. It can be hard to love yourself, no matter how woke you are, when you are bombarded with so much hate for your person and your people, passed down as an intergenerational curse millennia after millennia. Isn’t any wonder so many of our bodies, minds and souls are unhealthy? You can’t care for your black body if you don’t love your black body.

It’s time to tend our vines. It’s time to tend our own vines. It’s time to tend the vines of our minds. It’s time to tend the vines of our souls. It’s time to tend the vines of our beautiful black bodies. It is time to love ourselves and love on ourselves. It is time to be our own best lover. It is time to know every inch of our flesh, revel and delight in it: every curve, every roll, every wrinkle, every freckle. How are we going to know when something feels wrong in our breasts or testes when we don’t know what they feel like when nothing is wrong?

What happens to your vine is a community affair. Our vines are all planted in the same vineyard. What happens to your vine affects my vine and what happens to my vine affects your vine. What we do or fail to do in the care and nurture of our vines is not just confined to our own bodies. In our strength we can strengthen others. A strong vine can help support a weaker vine. But a diseased vine can infect the whole vineyard.

When you hurt me, you hurt yourself
Don’t hurt yourself
When you diss me, you diss yourself
Don’t hurt yourself
When you hurt me, you hurt yourself
Don’t hurt yourself, don’t hurt yourself
When you love me, you love yourself
Love God herself [2]

Gafney Candler Black Church

[1] Translation of Song of Songs Poem 2 (1:5-6) by Rabbi Marcia Falk (The Song of Songs: Love Lyrics from the Bible. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2004.

[2] “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” Beyoncé, Lemonade, Parkwood Entertainment/Columbia Records, 2016.


Pray Like There’s A God Who Hears

 

 

Lawrie, Lee, 1877-1963. Deborah Judging Israel, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

Lawrie, Lee, 1877-1963. Deborah Judging Israel, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

As I prepared today’s sermon I found I could not get past the first verse: Jesus told a parable about the need to pray and not lose heart. Jesus told this parable because he knows we need to pray. We need to pray. Full stop. We need to pray. We need it. God doesn’t need it. We do.

We need to pray because we need to connect with God; we need to be in God’s presence. That is where our peace, power, strength and healing come from. As a church we (as Episcopalians) are steeped in prayer. Our entire liturgy is prayer. Prayer and scripture are the hallmarks of our faith. Our BCP is a collection prayers most of which are based on, or drawn from, scripture. Those prayers frame every day of our lives—if we let them. As individuals, our prayer practices vary widely: Some pray every morning when they rise, give thanks before every meal, and pray again before they sleep. Some pray all the offices of the Church—morning prayer, noonday prayer, evening prayer and compline. Some pray through their day as they see situations unfold around them, like praying when you drive past an accident, fire or funeral procession. Some set aside time daily to remember the concerns of those they hold dear. Some pray in traffic—I maintain that some of those curses are actually prayers. Some pray when—and only when—in distress.

However we pray, however much we pray, there is space and grace for us to grow deeper in our practices of prayer. We need to pray and not lose heart because our practice of prayer is not like someone else’s or even like ours used to be. God is glad to hear from us and does not berate us for how long it has been since we called; in other words God is not like some of our mothers. God’s arms, ears and heart are open to us whether we just spoke this morning or it’s been so long we figure we ought to start off by reintroducing ourselves.

Pray and don’t lose heart. Pray like there’s a God who hears. Pray when you feel like it and even when you don’t. Pray and don’t worry about whether you’re doing it right. Just pray. Don’t worry about how you pray or how someone else prays. Just open your heart to God. Stand, sit, kneel; pray in bed or while walking or driving. There are many kinds of prayer: adoration—blessing God, prayers of confession, contrition and repentance—surrendering our faults and failures to the forgiving grace of God, prayers of thanksgiving—prayers of pure gratitude for all God is and all God does, and prayers of supplication—prayers in which we ask God for what we, others and the world need, and sometimes what we want. There are many who think supplication for ourselves and intercession for others are the only kinds of prayer. It is alright to ask but prayer is so much more than asking.

Prayer is our conversation with God, our time with God. Whatever the form of our prayer, words from our hearts or the shared language of the Church from our prayerbooks, what we often lack is silent time with God. We need to sit in God’s presence and listen, wait and be present. This is hard. There are so many distractions and we have so much to say, not just on our behalf but on behalf of this crucified and crucifying world. Jesus said, we need to pray and not lose heart. No matter how broken the world, how impossible the problems, we need to pray and not lose heart. That means now, in this election cycle. Pray and don’t lose heart. When bodies are piling up in the street, pray and don’t lose heart. When women’s bodies are reduced to objects to be grabbed and groped, pray and don’t lose heart. When your own private griefs are known by no one else, pray and don’t lose heart. Pray like there’s a God who hears.

We need to pray and that means we need to listen to and for God as well as pouring out our hearts. Most of us will not hear God speak in an audible voice. So we need to spend enough time with God that we learn to recognize how she speaks to us, though our own conscience and inner voice, through the words of scripture, through the words of others—I don’t mean through the folk who love to say God told me to tell you… Sometimes God speaks through folk who don’t know that they are bearing a word for someone else. Prayer is listening, as much as if not more than, speaking. Above all we need to sit in prayer whether we feel like it or not, whether we hear back or not, whether we feel anything or not, even whether we feel God’s presence or not. We are nurturing a relationship and being transformed by it, and that takes time.

Jesus said we need to pray and not lose heart. God knows it’s easy to lose heart. Honestly, anyone with good sense would lose heart. Have you seen our world? Do you watch the news? Read the paper? Have you looked at social media? We live in a world in which the empire that would swallow the world killed Jesus and our empires are no better. We are surrounded on every side by rising tides of death, and destruction. Black folk are still being killed by police at rates unequal to any other group and often being denied the right to a trial by execution in the street. Financially vulnerable countries that we have helped exploit suffer catastrophic losses of human life on our doorstep. As we are reminded every October, victims of domestic violence are killed by those they trusted to love them every day of the year. In the face of so much death, despair, destruction, disease and crushing debt, people are living with anguish and anxiety. Prayer grants us the strength and courage to face these difficult times, the clarity to know what it is we must do when there is something we can do, and the peace to trust God with all that is beyond our strength.

Jesus used the story of an unjust judge—a broken justice system—and a widow—one of the most vulnerable members of society, normally emblematic of deep poverty though she is not described as poor here. She is due justice no matter her financial means. She resorts to the justice system expecting to find justice and instead finds injustice and indifference. Two thousand years later many women are still looking for justice from legal and social systems that that don’t hold men accountable for sexual assault and harassment while blaming women for their own assaults or calling them liars, and sometimes both.

In this age of #BlackLivesMatter, people are crying out for justice to the very ones entrusted with delivering that justice just like that widow and being met with anything but justice. And just like that widow we are committed to showing up day and night until we get justice, even if things get a little rough. The judge knew that protest over justice denied inevitably escalates. The NRSV translation that we use says “so that she may not wear me out.” That is one possible translation, but the verb hupopiazo also means slap or punch in the face and blacken an eye or two. Saint Jerome translated it as “beat me black and blue.” (Vulgate: suggillet; Peshitta: mahro,“harm”) Other bibles have “beat me down.” (ESVS) Justice cannot be continually denied with no expectation of upheaval or uprising. The judge knew that he could not continue to deny her justice and remain unscathed. And so, out of concern for his skin and only his skin, he ruled in her favor.

Jesus and his imaginary widow make it look easy. In the space of three verses the judge gives the woman the justice she is due. It has been 2000 years since Jesus was lynched for preaching and protesting against injustice and telling folk to demand justice and not give up. We have found that it takes a bit longer than it looks like in the gospels. My ancestors were enslaved for four hundred years. They prayed and didn’t lose heart. Oh, I’m sure some did, but there were others praying to take up the slack. Black folk petitioning unjust judges in counties and states for the right to vote were just like that woman. It took longer than in that parable but they prayed and didn’t lose heart.

Our lesbian and gay sisters and brothers petitioned the church and the state for the right to marry even though both had long histories of discriminating against them. Some of them were prayerful people who prayed and didn’t lose heart. Unjust judges and county clerks are granting marriage licenses they withheld for too long and our church is not alone in saying all of the sacraments are for all of God’s children. When I start to lose heart I look at all praying people have accomplished and I don’t lose heart.

Three years ago I was wrestling with why I pray for peace in this world that seems to have never known peace this side of the Garden. I revisit these words when I need to be encouraged to keep praying:

We pray not because we believe it is magic, not because we are certain that God will do what we ask, but because we can and we must. The world’s burdens are too great and too many for any of us to bear, its problems impossible in our strength, knowledge and capacity. We pray knowing there is a God who hears, loves, aches and moves. We pray knowing our ancestors prayed for freedom until they died, not receiving it in their lifetimes, passing the mantle of prayer down through the generations. We don the ancestral mantle of prayer because it is our time. And we pray knowing that we may die before we see peace in the world. But we pray because we know the world will see peace whether we, our children or our children’s children live to see it. We take up the garments of prayer passed down through the centuries until the time comes to exchange it for a burial shroud and pass it on to the next generation.

Amen.

 

 

 


St. Francis, Monsters and #BlackLivesMatter

http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54855 [retrieved October 5, 2016]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/laurapadgett/3376394362/.

Dragon, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

Francis of Assisi was a rich, spoiled young man who liked to drink and dropped out of school. He daydreamed of being a heroic knight and went off to war in fancy armor that saved his life—not by deflecting blows but by marking him as someone who could be held for a ransom. It was in his jail cell that he began to become the man we remember today after discovering the horror of war was nothing like his fairytales or daydreams. It was there that he had his first visions of God, and there he experienced hunger and disease in his own body. Upon his release he began to minister to lepers and ultimately accepted God’s call to abject poverty and service. Today we remember Francis for his care of the earth and her creatures. He taught us:

“If you have [persons] who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have [persons] who will deal likewise with their fellow [persons].”

I’d like to think this is a sermon St. Francis would preach or at least appreciate it. Psalm 148 could well be the inspiration of the Canticle of Brother Sun.

Halleluyah. Praise the Womb of Life. Let all her creation praise her. Praise her aardvarks, bats, cats, doves, eagles, fireflies, gophers, horses and ibex—jaguars, kangaroos, lemmings, mice, newts, orangutans, pythons and quails—rabbits, sheep, tigers, urchins, vermin, wombats, xenopus, yaks and zebra. Praise her earth, wind and fire, rain, snow and hail. Praise her mountain and hill, river and valley, ocean shore and desert sand. Praise her children of earth in all your diverse glory. Praise her and love what she had made. Love her earth and its creatures. Love them. Care for them. Tend them. Preserve them.

Love her children made in her image. Love them. Don’t kill them. Don’t starve them. Don’t turn them away. Don’t bomb them. Don’t torture them. Don’t rape them. Don’t demonize them. Don’t dehumanize them. Do not think that you can love God Herself without loving her children. As Beyoncé taught us, we are called to love God herself.

My favorite verse of the psalmist’s “Franciscan” love song to all creation is v 7:

Halleluyah. Praise the Womb of Life from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps!

Sea monsters! The tanning are monsters of the deep, dragons whose most famous exemplar is Leviathan. In the wider ANE these beasts are harbingers of chaos, their destructive power is formidable enough to go to war with the gods and win. This background is assumed in the Hebrew Bible where God is always victorious over them and anyone symbolized by them. But here in our psalm as well as in their first appearance in Genesis they are part of God’s good creation. They are subject her and they praise her.

For Iron Age women and men these sea monsters were terrifying. Their genus would include human-eating sharks, whales, and any fish big enough to overturn a boat and drown a person. The psalmist’s insistence that the tanninim are part of God’s chorus of praise is a claim that Francis would recognize. Francis and our psalmist saw the handiwork of God in faces that others called monstrous.

We live in a time were some folk look into human faces and do not see the image of God. The white supremacist values that form the foundation for our American culture and pervade it say that black folk are monsters to be shot on sight. The policies of the Governor of Texas say that refugees are not members of the human family who merit Christian—or even human—compassion and hospitality. The demonization of Muslims and Mexicans is a denigration of their humanity. The entire conversation about undocumented immigrants is about brown Spanish-speaking immigrants from beyond our southern border for whom Mexican is a codeword. No one is concerned about Canadians and Germans who overstay or work without valid documentation. Others look at the marriages, partnerships and unions of lesbian and gay couples and those where one partner is trans and fail to see the love of God and instead see something monstrous.

The word monster encodes our fear. It says nothing about God’s vision for her own creation. We have the power to name what we see. We can redefine our monsters and strip our fear and loathing from them. When we do that, the terrifying tanninim become tunnanu and for us tuna. The terror of the Sumerian seas has become a child’s lunch. Who will take up Francis’s path to teach the love of God’s creation to those who call us monsters? Who will like Francis relinquish privilege —not wealth—but white privilege and become enemy and traitor to those who formed you to proclaim the humanity and divinity of God’s creation. You cannot love God without loving her creation. Amen.

 

 

 


Unbreaking Her Body

Christ healing the [ailing] woman who was bent over, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=51253 [retrieved August 21, 2016]. Original source: Collection of J. Patout Burns and Robin M. Jensen.

Christ healing the [ailing] woman who was bent over, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=51253 [retrieved August 21, 2016]. Original source: Collection of J. Patout Burns and Robin M. Jensen.

Luke 13:10 Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had ailed her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” (translation, Wil Gafney)

Let us pray: In the Name of God who loves, is Love and bids us love one another.

The miracles of Jesus present a particular problem for me. I cannot do what Jesus did. But I am not free to turn the page. Walk with me through this gospel and let us see together what it is that we can do to heal the hurting in the church and in the world. The academic in me is struck by the fact that Jesus was in synagogue on shabbes, teaching the scriptures. I love this so much and am rebuked by it. There is no such thing as being so advanced as a biblical scholar, so holy, so saved that you do not need to assemble with the people of God and study and pray. If anybody had an excuse not to go to worship on a regular basis, it was Jesus. And here he is sharing his gifts. So before I lament about how I can’t heal anybody like Jesus, let me ask myself am I following his example in the places where I can? OK, I’m preaching and teaching and celebrating the sacraments. But I’m not going to rush to pat myself on the back, because I know there is more coming. How about you? How are you doing in your worship attendance? What are the gifts you bring to God’s people?

I can’t do what Jesus did and I am suspicious of churches and pastors that say they can heal miraculously. Yet at the same time the church is supposed to be a place of healing. I could preach about spiritual healing for the well-being of our spirits is a primary concern of the gospel. But there is a danger in reading the gospel as only or primarily concerned with our spirits. Our bodies are sacred. We live in these bodies. The health of our bodies matter, even when we have made our peace with their limitations, frailty and failings, snaps, crackles, and pops, disease and disability. The scandal of the gospel is that God became flesh. Jesus spent his life in human flesh touching and healing diseased and despised flesh. It is in the flesh of our bodies that we encounter Christ and each other.

Sometimes those encounters are burdened by the biases and beliefs we bring with us. This gospel is about the unbreaking of a woman’s body but it is also about breaking the habit of uncritical literal reading of the bible. Jesus came from a society that blamed any difference among human bodies in sight, hearing or mobility on the devil. In some texts he will say that people who are mute or deaf or epileptic or mentally ill are demon possessed. We know better but we haven’t always been taught how to say so without sounding like we’re throwing out Jesus and the gospels. The Gospel is the truth of our faith swaddled in the culture, beliefs and biases of those who recorded and preserved it. It is true even when it isn’t factual.

What is true is that the Church and wider society has a body problem. The Church has held a long grudge against physical, human, bodies – especially the bodies of women. You can find that discomfort, suspicion and downright dislike throughout the breadth of the scriptures. The Church also has a long history of elevating the spiritual at the expense of the body. This is an alien philosophy inimical to the Gospel. It comes from Greek philosophy which colonized the church just as Alexander the Great colonized the world three hundred years previous to the Jesus movement, leaving Greek language and culture in his wake. The subordination of the spirit to the flesh is dangerous because it denies the inherent goodness of our bodies, all they do and all of which they are capable. The Olympians we celebrate are victors not just because of their never-say-die spirits. They are Olympians because of their beautiful, marvelous, well-conditioned, powerful bodies in every shape, size, color, gender and configuration.

The ancient world believed that if something was wrong with you then someone did something wrong. Remember the question from another story: Rabbi, who sinned that this man was born blind? Jesus got it right that time; no one sinned. That question didn’t die out in the ancient world for some. There is also for many whose bodies function differently than others around them – especially when in an obvious way – a lifetime of stares and questions. Sometimes a longing to be different, whole, healthy, normal. But sometimes there is also a deep acceptance of yourself and your abilities and limitations constantly assailed by the rudeness and ignorance of people around you.

Our society has come a long way from the times in which people with physical, emotional or developmental ranges that differ from our own were shut away, often abandoned and abused. Sometimes we put people who are different from us up on pedestals because of all they have overcome. That’s not always a good thing. The ordinariness of a synagogue service in which the bent and the straight sat together and prayed together is a lesson for us. Our congregations are reflections of the family of God. Everyone should be welcome and made to feel welcome. So we need to be thoughtful about the language we use even when it is in the gospel. We have to ask ourselves if we are truly welcoming to all and if our members and visitors are as diverse as the whole people of God. Are we accessible to those with mobility challenges? Are we sensitive to them? Does our language say that there is only one way to pray? What if you can’t stand or kneel or fold your hands? What if bowing your head means you can’t read the priest’s lips and can’t follow the service? Are we truly accessible and more than that, welcoming, inclusive?

For eighteen years this woman lived with the stares and pious pronouncements. She could have been an older woman with eighteen years of osteoporosis or she could have been a younger woman with eighteen years of scoliosis from her childhood or anything in between. And she was living the life she had in the body she had. That life included prayer and study. Neither ability nor disability made her any different than anyone else in that regard. She knew she was a daughter of Abraham. It was Sabbath and she went to synagogue.

Jesus is there, in the place of prayer and study and he sees her. Jesus sees her and diagnoses her need. He calls her to him. She does not seek him out. Unlike other women and men in the gospels she doesn’t seek out Jesus to be healed. She is just living her life and healing comes to her. It is only natural, only human, to desire wholeness, health and healing. It is also the case that some folk are at home in bodies we could not imagine living in, at peace with themselves their abilities and what others call disabilities.

I am still stumped by Jesus’ healing. But I believe in it. I can’t reproduce it. But I believe in it. What I can do is bless those who can and do heal and be present with those who are seeking healing and work for a world in which all have access to healthcare. Let God be God. Let the power of the Holy Spirit heal all who she will. On this day she was willing and a body that was bent and broken was unbroken.

Jesus’s touch offered more than the miracle. It was the bond of their shared humanity. So many folk are starving for human touch—even when they live in homes with other folk. We do a lot of hugging in the black church; we say a hug in church may be the only hug some folk receive all week. So let the church be a place where folk can be loved on, safely. And let us always be respectful of the boundaries of people’s bodies and never use our status as adults to press a touch, hug or kiss on a child. We must teach them that they own their bodies and can say no. We pass the peace because we understand that we are to offer a holy touch, a loving touch, a healing touch to each other as a part of our worship because our bodies matter.

The touch of Jesus accomplishes that which others cannot. It heals. It frees. It liberates. It reconfigures. It restores. It unbreaks that which is broken. That is the primary mission of Jesus, to free us so that we may live fully and serve and worship God without constraint or restraint. Some folk do have a healing touch. There were prophets and apostles who could heal. I am certain there are folk in this world whom God has granted the grace to heal with a touch or a prayer. For some the healing touch is nurtured through years of nursing and medical training. What I know to be true is that those folk who advertise and monetize healing are not the ones I trust.

We can’t always count on miracles but we should be able to count on medical care. There is no good reason that this state and this nation cannot provide healthcare to all who need it starting with our children, especially when we say that we are a Christian nation – not true but we say it – and one nation under God. Texas should not lead the world in maternal mortality. This isn’t the Iron Age. But some folk in leadership are trumpeting Iron Age theology and values and they are killing women and children. The exact opposite of Jesus. We may not be able to heal with a touch and a word like Jesus but we can work to make a world where every child, every senior, every person with a disease or disability has access to healthcare. Jesus could have charged anything he wanted for his healing touch. He could have reserved healing for only those who could pay. But then he wouldn’t be Jesus. Jesus was, as the meme goes, a brown-skinned socialist revolutionary.

It seems the only thing folk like less than priests who preach politically or caustion against reading every text in the bible literally is seeing Jesus intervene for good in someone else’s life. The synagogue leader sees the power of God at work before his very eyes and is mad about it. How many of you have seen a miracle? Can you imagine? And he says: It’s shares. She’s been bent over for 18 years, one more day isn’t going to hurt her. I didn’t come to the house of God to experience God in real time. I came to read and hear about God, not see God act in the world. My God is a character in a story, not a real and living God active in the world. I don’t want to see anybody else get better in any way because that might mean I’ll have to change. And I’m too used to my own brokenness to give it up. All that praising is just unseemly. She’s standing up when the rest of us are sitting down. I’m not here for that. Besides, there’s no room for healing in the order of service.

Look at our worship bulletin. We have had this service for four hundred years or so if you count from when we started using the Book of Common Prayer. And while there are prayers for healing there is no space for the healing or the praise that is sure to follow. Jesus’s touch is not only loving, healing and transformational, it is disruptive. Even when we’re doing well – going to synagogue or church – we still need to be shaken out of our complacency, as one of my role models, the Rev. Dr. Renita Weems, taught me when I heard her preach this text a good 20 years ago.

Finally, one thing that hasn’t changed from the time of Jesus to our own is that there are some folk who love animals more than they love people. I love animals. I am a proud cat mama. But I understand that though animals are part of God’s good creation and we owe them faithful care, they do not bear the image of God as we do. There are folk who turn their back on suffering humanity – particularly if they are a different race or religion, like the Muslim Syrian refugees – and lavish attention on animals even when lives are at stake. One example that burns me is the folk who continue to call for Michael Vick to be thrown out of the NFL for a crime that he has acknowledged, apologized for, served time for, paid reparations for and made restitution for as though he doesn’t qualify for forgiveness while at the same time the league and the Cowboys who my godfather played for for fourteen years are full of unrepentant rapists and wife beaters.

To them Jesus says, You ought to do for your sister what you do for your animals. And she is your sister. She is a daughter of Abraham. You can’t call yourselves the children of Abraham and advocate against the well-being of another of God’s children. And we have a presidential candidate talking about throwing an entire branch of Abraham’s family tree out of the country. Well, the brother in the text had the good sense to ashamed of himself after Jesus finished telling him about himself but it seems he wasn’t alone. There was a crowd of folk egging him own. They were put to shame too. Maybe you can’t heal like Jesus but do you use your voice to speak against those who would deny basic human dignity to another person?

After Jesus had unbroken her body and their biases, the folk in the synagogue instead of getting back to the day’s liturgy joined the woman in celebrating the liberating acts of God through Jesus. They didn’t just give thanks for the miracle of the healing but for everything that Jesus did: for seeing our need, for calling us, for touching us, for healing us, for teaching us, for rebuking us, for defending us, for showing us how to live and love, for being with us, for being God among us. For all these things we too give thanks. Amen.

 


Biblical Biases


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(This is an attempt to recreate the sermon I preached today, 12 June 2016, commemorating the homophobic terrorist attack that killed 50 and wounded 53 at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando FL.)

As we pray for living and the dead let us also offer a word of consolation to God whose heart is broken as she grieves her children killing her children.

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. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.”

In the Name of God who loves us all.

You know what kind of woman she is. The kind of woman folk call a sinner. In and out of the bible that often means she’s doing something with her body of which somebody else disapproves. She’s free, but some will say she’s loose. Or she’a a victim of their fantasies about what women who look like her or are shaped like her really want or do. Or she’s a victim of someone else’s lust and rage and blamed for surviving. Or she is a race or ethnicity that has been constructed as perpetually promiscuous. She might be a sex-worker. She might be an accomplished lover with stories to tell. But what she is known as is a sinner.

But the bible tells me “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” She was a sinner. And so was the man who called her a sinner. And Jesus invited both of them to the table, the same table where we who call names and are called out of our names are welcome.

The woman who anointed Jesus might have been called a Jezebel in another time. African American women have a long history of being called Jezebels. It goes back to the abuse of African women who were held as slaves and then blamed for their own abuse, called lascivious and insatiable. Some ads for slaves in newspapers actually called African women being sold “lusty.” The characterization of black women as jezebels didn’t end with slavery. For a long time after black women could not get justice for sexual assaults; officers wouldn’t take reports. Prosecutors wouldn’t press rape charges but black women were prosecuted for assault if they fought their attackers, some were even put to death. So while for some women and girls, being called a jezebel means you’re fast and loose, for black women being called a jezebel could lead to devastating consequences. Calling someone a jezebel is about controlling them, their body and self-expression.

What does any of that have to do with our First Lesson? (2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15) The bible is fairly biased against Jezebel from the beginning because she was a foreign woman who married into Israel’s royal family. Jezebel wasn’t promiscuous or seductive. She didn’t bat her lashes or wiggle her hips at Naboth. Jezebel used the power she had available to her, including her husband’s authority and seized a man’s property, an Iron Age case of imminent domain. Jezebel was a queen and she did what queens do. More importantly, she was a woman whom men could not control.

Reading scripture faithfully means reading it honestly. There is ethnic bias in the bible. There is gender bias in the bible. There is bias against same-gender loving people, particularly men in the bible. That particular bias stems from an Israelite cultural bias, in part of the horror of rape of men in war – not matched by equal concern for the rape of women. The bible reflects the biases of those who wrote it, yet the light of God shines and speaks through it.

The bible also proclaims that God created us all from the same source we are all her children, she is the rock who gave birth to us and one day all nations will stream to the mountain of God. The bible has biases and we have to figure out how we are going to deal with those biases. When the church has taken the biases of the bible uncritically, we’ve been culpable in murder. The church is responsible for poor biblical exegesis. We can choose whether we will perpetuate the narrow biases of the Iron Age or whether we will elevate those texts that transcend ancient hatreds and those of our own day.

The church has blood on its hands. We have been too quick to take on the biases of the bible and too slow to reject them. Look at our shameful history with slavery, colonialism, patriarchy. The church is quick to demonize. You can see it in the gospels where Miriam of Magdala is accused of having seven demons. Often in the New Testament demons are invoked when folk don’t know what else to say: Can’t speak? You have a demon. Can’t hear? You have a demon. Have epilepsy? You have a demon. Have schizophrenia or another mental illness? You have a demon. Just plain evil? You have a demon.

Whatever it was that afflicted the women at the beginning of Luke 8 previously, they were now free, free to follow Jesus and provide for him. And even though some of them have husbands, they seem free of them too because none of them were bankrolling Jesus. Jesus received those women as disciples as he received the woman who anointed him because he did not accept the cultural bias his scriptures had against women.

And Jesus said not one word in support of the Hebrew Bible bias against same gender-loving men. Instead he says to those who embrace him “Your faith has saved you.” Jesus speaks life and if we are his church, his word must be our word. We have a word of light and a word of love to offer this crucified and crucifying world. We must speak those words because too many know only the hateful and hurtful words the church has spoken.

 


Remixed Gospel of Rahab: Who Are You Calling A Whore

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.

RahabRahab 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.


Naming and Numbering: God of Many Names on Trinity Sunday

Updated for Trinity Sunday 2016. (These were the lessons in 2012 when I preached the sermon.)

Seraphim

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

It was a set-up. Yeshayahu, Isaiah was set up. God set Isaiah up. Isaiah was minding his own business. He was asleep and dreaming. Or he was awake and taken out of this world. One moment he was in the world he knew and the next he was in a world he could only imagine. He was in heaven – and he wasn’t even dead. He was in a large throne room, in a temple that was not entirely of this world – he couldn’t have gotten into the most sacred space of the Israelite temple. Most of the temple was what we would call a compound and most of its real estate was outside, plazas and patios. The large sacrificial altar was outside. The only building was the most holy place, the smallest but tallest part of the complex with the small incense altar and menorah in the front part and the ark of the covenant – which was a theoretical throne – inside behind the veil. Only priests could enter the building and only the High Priest could enter behind the and then only once a year. Isaiah could have never gotten in on his own; he was not a priest. Yet there he was. The temple seems larger and grander in his vision than it was in the sixth century BCE, during his own lifetime.

Perhaps in his vision Isaiah was transported to a reconfigured version of the temple, like in a Harry Potter movie, so that the insides were bigger than the outsides and there was room for the throne and its occupant and attendants. Isaiah was somewhere in the back, perhaps behind a pillar. And no one seemed to notice him. Perhaps I should say no thing noticed him, because there were things in there that he couldn’t imagine. There were great balls of fire, talking, singing, shouting and flying – although how they could see where they were going, I don’t know because they covered their faces with two of their wings and… I think they were naked because they were covering their lower halves – although how can anyone tell if a flying ball of fire is naked let alone what’s below the waist – and I use the word “waist” loosely, I don’t know. I say this because the Hebrew word for “feet” or “legs” includes everything below the waist and frequently means above the thighs and below the waist.

I imagine Isaiah’s eyes bugging out of his head. I tell my students that “angels” for lack of a better word – messengers in Hebrew includes ordinary human message-bearers and supernatural beings – divine messengers such as those Isaiah saw were something like aliens in our culture. There were stories about them, and a few folk claimed to have seen them, but they were special people and not always in the good sense: There are volumes of scholarship dedicated to figuring out if Ezekiel was bipolar, schizophrenic or on hallucinogenic mushrooms or something else. In fact the word that is usually translated as “lo” or “behold” – what most folk say when they see angels in the bible is much more like “Holy **** look at that!”

And Isaiah is not just seeing fire-seraphim, who were technically not angels or messengers – the Hebrew bible treats seraphim, cherubim and divine messengers as different species and doesn’t interchange their titles. Isaiah is seeing God. Wait. That can’t be right, can it? Sure the prophet Micaiah said that he had seen the God of Heaven enthroned in glory, but he was one of those controversial prophets and no one knew quite what to make of him. And, he said that God intentionally mislead God’s people. (1 Kgs 22) And since the scriptures hadn’t been written down yet it’s not clear if Isaiah even knew that story or viewed it as credible, let alone canonical. The elders of Israel saw God in the wilderness, but then there was that one time that God hid Moses and only let him look at God’s—well… Does God have a rump? Could a human being see God and live? Was Isaiah going to die? Was he already dead? Might he make it out of this alive-ish as long as he didn’t try to look at God’s face? No worries on that score; Isaiah was clinging to my imaginary pillar as though his life depended on it.

So Isaiah is peeping around this pillar, I think, it helps me understand why nobody saw him. But surely God knew he was there. It’s not like Isaiah turned the wrong corner out on his daily walk and wound up in heaven. He had been brought here, some kind of way. Set up, I say. But no one is talking to him. Yet, they’re just going about their business which oddly enough seems to be talking about God and not talking to God. They say to one another:

קדוש קדוש קדוש יהוה צבאות מלא כל-הארץ כבודו

Holy, holy, holy, the Sovereign-Commander of angel-armies; the whole earth is full of God’s glory.

Their voices rolled like the thunder in our Psalm and the doors shook in their frames. Isaiah couldn’t tell if the doors were the only thing shaking or if everything was shaking. The whole world was topsy-turvy and his world was decidedly flat. It was after all, the Iron Age. And then this smoke filled the room, fragrant smoke, unlike any incense he had ever smelled. Incense in heaven? Isaiah didn’t have the language to describe God as a high church Anglican. But on the other hand, this was God’s home and people did burn incense in their houses, especially rich people. But Isaiah was a bit unsettled by the apparently self-tending incense altar. There was no attendant!

And not feeling particularly bold, not bold at all, overcome and overwhelmed, Isaiah said: אוי-לי, Woe is meI am undone, for I am a person of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the One-Who-Rules, the Sovereign-Commander of angel-armies! 

And as soon as the words left his mouth, he clapped his hands over his mouth but it was too late. They heard him and one of them started flying in his direction. Isaiah held on to that pillar for all he was worth. And he couldn’t figure out why he hadn’t passed out yet. Half the people who had ever claimed to have seen an angel collapsed or passed plumb out. So why was he still on his feet? The death grip he had on that pillar I see when I imagine this story kept him upright.

The seraph that flew towards him stopped above the altar of heavenly incense and picked up a lit coal from the altar with a pair of tongs. Wait, how is she, he, it holding a pair of tongs with fingers of flame? And how hot is that coal if a creature made out of fire needs tongs to pick it up? And what is he – ok the grammar says it’s male but grammatical gender isn’t always biological gender, but then again biology doesn’t really apply here – so what is he going to do with that coal? The seraph flew to Isaiah and touched his lips with that coal. There are no words to describe what he felt. The text doesn’t give us any and I can’t imagine any. And I have a pretty vivid imagination.

The seraph pronounced the words of kippurim, the words of atonement that the high priest would only pronounce once a year. And God spoke. For a moment Isaiah had forgotten that God was there! On the throne, veiled in smoke. God spoke and Isaiah couldn’t see who God was talking to. God wasn’t talking to him. God was just talking. And he, Isaiah, was eavesdropping. Except that it was a set up. He had been brought here for a reason.

God said, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us. And Isaiah just happened to be in the right place at the right time, to hear God’s need for somebody, in a place he couldn’t have gotten into if he tried. That coal has had some kind of effect on him. He finally let go of that pillar. And Isaiah said: הנני שלחני, Holy **** it’s me; send me translated as “Here am I; send me.” The text doesn’t tell us how Isaiah got back to our world, or whether he experienced the whole thing as a dream or vision.

But we do know that Isaiah told his story. He told it and people were affected by it whether they believed it or not. And in the days when all they had were the stories of their people and the stories of their God, someone said this story is important. We have to remember this story and tell it to our children. We have to teach them to teach their children and those who come after them so that they will know who we were and who our God is.

Some 740-odd years later, Isaiah and his story, vision, experience, sending and embrace of his commission have been written into the scriptures of his people. They will become the scriptures of peoples beyond his people, in addition to his people because of one person: Yeshua ben Miryam l’Natzeret, Jesus of Nazareth, Mary’s child.

Yeshayahu and Yeshua, Isaiah and Jesus, shared a naming tradition, rooted in the word for salvation in their native Hebrew – we have German to thank for the “J” in Jesus and Latin for the “I” in Isaiah, but they both begin with the same letter in Hebrew, a yud, a “y.” Yeshayahu and Yeshua, Isaiah and Jesus also shared elements of a divine commission. They were each sent. They were each sent to bear a message for and from God. They both preached and prophesied their messages. But Yeshua, Jesus, was also the message that he preached:

For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but will have everlasting life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

We celebrate the relationship between Jesus and his God and Father who sent him into this world, to us, today on Trinity Sunday. Jesus speaks of God as his Father, of himself as the Son of Woman – I know your translations say “Son of Man” but the Greek can mean either and we shall shortly affirm in the Creed that Jesus got his humanity on his mother’s side. And Jesus speaks of the Spirit who gives birth to us. Throughout the gospels Jesus speaks of God by many names, inviting us to do the same: Wisdom who is justified by her deeds and her children, the male farmer who plants the mustard seed, the baker-woman who kneads yeast into her loaf, the male shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep to find the one lost sheep; the woman house-holder who sweeps her house looking for her precious lost coin; the Advocate and the Comforter and many, many more.

Isaiah named God as “Lord,” and LORD or Commander of Heaven’s armies, and then as the One Who Rules, Commander of Heaven’s armies. First Isaiah calls God “lord” with lower case letters; something like “honored sir,” a human title shared by Moses and other important men. Then Isaiah calls God something like “LORD” with capital letters, representing God’s Most Holy Name that cannot be pronounced by human tongues and is related to the verb “I AM;” LORD or Commander of Heaven’s armies or “hosts.” God is not throwing a party – not yet – God’s hosts are brigades or battalions of heavenly warriors. And lastly Isaiah calls God “the King” or “the One Who Rules, Commander of Heaven’s armies.”

The church has largely settled on one way of naming God to our great poverty. The blessed, holy Trinity is one way and  only one way of naming the God of many names, the God of Isaiah, the God of Jesus and our God. It is not the only way and it is not my way. If you know me you are not surprised by that. I once famously – or perhaps infamously – responded to a question during a job interview about the Trinity in the Hebrew Bible by saying I didn’t believe the Trinity. There’s a reason some preachers call Trinity Sunday Heresy Sunday.

God is beyond numbering and naming. The scriptures use many more than three names or images to describe God and do not limit us to any. And the scriptures do not mention the Trinity at all. Three names make a nice poetic flourish. But God is not bound or limited by our limitations. God is One, and Two – Incarnate and Incorporeal, and Three and Seven (the “seven spirits of God” in Rev 3:1; 4:5; 5:6) and God is Many and Ineffable.

But since today is Trinity Sunday, Let’s name God in Threes:

Author, Word and Translator;

Sovereign, Savior and Shelter;

Majesty, Mercy and Mystery;

Creator, Christ, and Compassion;

Parent, Partner, and Friend;

Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer and Life-Giver;

Holy Incarnate Majesty, Holy Incarnate Word, Holy Abiding Spirit;

Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer;

God who brings us to life, calls us to freedom, and moves between us with love;

The God of Isaiah, the God of Jesus and our God.

The God of many names is our God, Isaiah’s God and the God of Jesus the Messiah. How do you name God?

warrior, king, mother, father, righteous judge, 

shepherd,  banner,  rock, fortress, deliverer,

peace, light, salvation, 

strength and shield, 

 devouring fire

abiding presence.

I had recently discovered the Game of Thrones series of books when I first wrote this sermon. In one of the realms of the books there is a religion based on the Seven: Mother, Father, Maid, Warrior, Crone, Smith and Stranger. Sometimes the Seven speak to me as a more complete metaphor for God than do the Three. And there are the two religions in Lois Bujold’s Curse of Challion. The religion is either Quadrene (Four) or Quintarian (Five) depending on which you believe is orthodox rendering the other heterodox or downright heretical. The agreed upon Four are the Mother, Daughter, Father and Son. The disputed fifth is the Bastard – ask Job about that one, that’s another sermon.

However you name God, the Many-Named God transcends and defies our attempts to number and name. Instead, God conspires. To conspire is con spiro, to breathe together, not just deceitful or treacherous planning. God breathes with us, breathes in us, breathes through us in this Pentecost season to change the world through the Church.

We like Isaiah have been set up. We like Isaiah and Jesus have been sent. We have been commissioned to tell the story of the God who loves us, who is Love and bids us love one another, world without end. Amen.


Between Babel and Babble: Pentecost

 

Pentecost at St George's Cathedral Jerusalem 2011

Pentecost at St George’s Cathedral Jerusalem 2011

Let us pray: Holy Spirit, transform us, our hearts and our homes, the Church and the world. Amen.

The Church! The Church! The Church is on fire! We don’t need no water let the Holy Spirit burn!

Pentecost is dramatic. It’s noisy. And it is Episcopalian. We are a Pentecostal church, but we tend to be long, low and slow burning compared to some of our Christian kinfolk. There are many kinds of fire or flame. The orange flames with which we are most familiar burn in luminous flame. They give us light and heat. Fire comes in many other colors. Blue and white, yellow and green. Those flames are generally produced from equipment like blow torches and Bunsen burners. The same piece of equipment can produce different color flames depending on how much and what type of fuel it receives. While there are some flames that are fueled by chemicals and a wide variety of fuel, the flames we are talking today are fueled by oxygen, like the breath of God, the Spirit of God. The spirit of God is the womb of creation; her breath is our breath. And She is our Mother.

John 14:17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees her nor knows her. You know her, because she abides with you, and she will be in you.

I mentioned at the beginning of the service that I translated today’s Gospel from Hebrew, the language in which Jesus heard and read the scriptures. In it as well as in Aramaic the language he spoke, the spirit is feminine. The scriptures present God as masculine and feminine, Mother and Father. In the First Testament God is the Rock who gave birth to us and the sea and in the New Testament God is the father of Jesus and ours, the woman who searches for her lost coin and the shepherd who looks for his lost sheep.

The diversity of the church and the world that our lessons display is represented within God but too much of the church and the world is lopsided, as the scriptures are lopsided but God is perfectly, harmoniously, balanced.

That is the message of the epistle we could have heard today: Romans 8:14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God… 16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God. We are all God’s children. The lessons of our other readings are that God’s family is diverse and her church ought to be as diverse as the family of God.

In the same way that flames burn at different strengths, intensities and colors, we are fueled by God’s Spirit and we each burn differently. The Church is supposed be diverse, made up of people from every nation under the heavens. That is what the catalogue of nations in our Acts lesson is telling us. We are one body, one family, but we are not the same. And we’re not supposed to be. Some of our churches have a lot of work to do to look like the church in Acts. Some folk have forgotten that the Church doesn’t belong to us. It is God’s and we are all welcome to her table. Sometimes, well-meaning folk invite others to their church hoping to include them as long as they don’t change anything: You are welcome to our church but it is ours, you are a guest; know your place. Pentecost reminds us that we are all guests at God’s table. We have to learn to scoot over and make room for each other without staking a claim on the table itself.

If you saw the installation of our Presiding Bishop you saw the beauty and wealth of culture and diversity that is in our Episcopal church: Native American dancers, African American gospel choirs, Mexican American guitars, people who pray and sing in all of the languages represented by the nations in Acts and our original, English, Anglican heritage. Too often our congregations and our worship fail to live up to and into our Pentecostal heritage. You know, there are Episcopal and Anglican churches where people say “hallelujah” out loud, spontaneously and not just during the psalm reading or dismissal.

Genesis 11:1 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words… 5 The Holy One came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 6 And the Holy One said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”

It may not seem like it but even the tower of Babel story is about God’s preference for diversity in the family of God. Yes, at one level the story is about the Israelite low opinion of Babylon. That’s where the story is set. The story is the Israelite version of Babylonian history, not exactly unbiased. We are supposed to think that those Babylonians are so arrogant to build a tower to reach up into heaven. And we are supposed to notice that their efforts were so puny that God had to come down to even reach the top. But if we just ridicule the Babylonians, we miss the point that they wanted to reach heaven, to be in contact with their God, they wanted a direct path. That’s not a terrible thing. And even though the Israelites considered them to be enemies, God came down to see about them just as God came down to see about Israel.

The Babel story is a topsy turvy story. People reach out to heaven and are pushed away. People working together harmoniously are separated and confused. God doesn’t need towers or temples to reach God’s people so God directs their creative energy elsewhere. God creates diversity out of uniformity. What looks like chaos and confusion is community building. The babble of Babel is not non-sense. People found themselves able to understand some of the people around them, those people became their people and each group grew into a distinct people with their own language and culture, enriching the beauty of God’s creation. God scattered them across the earth that the world might be filled with diversity. The lessons of Babel and Pentecost are much the same. The aftermath of both stories is a changed people transforming the world.

Pentecost is about transformation. The Acts Pentecost was itself a transformation of Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks, which marks the end of the holy days that begin with Passover just as Pentecost now marks the end of Easter season. Passover marked redemption from slave labor. Pentecost was marked by rest from honest labor. Passover memorialized a bitter harvest with the bread of affliction. Pentecost memorialized the new harvest with its first fruits. Passover commemorated the procession out of Egypt and the death of their firstborn. Pentecost was commemorated with a procession of newborns as the first fruits of their families. The Passover table was set with hard, flat, unleavened bread, bitter herbs and salt water. The Pentecost table was set with fresh baked goods from newly harvested wheat and barley, fresh, ripe olives and fresh pressed extra virgin olive oil, fresh sweet grapes and new wine.

The Jewish feast of Shavuoth called Pentecost by Greek-speakers was one of the three great pilgrim festivals when everyone who was able traveled from wherever they were in the world to bring their gifts to God in Jerusalem. It was like Thanksgiving with in-laws and outlaws crowded into family homes and inns and elbowing each other at the table. Now for the Church Pentecost is one the three great principle feasts with Christmas and Easter.

Acts 2:1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them, women and men, were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

On that day when the old festival acquired a new meaning, the breath of God blew a new fire from heaven fueled by an ancient and eternal power and stirred up the old gifts of the apostles and disciples and gave them new ones. At the intersection of heavenly fire and human speech the Church that is mother to us all came into being. Her birth cries were the voices of women and men prophesying as Joel prophesied they would:

 

I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

The previous chapter in Acts tells that the eleven surviving apostles, Mary the mother of Jesus, his siblings – and he had sisters – and certain women made up the one hundred and twenty people who were gathering together the pray. That’s one hundred and five women and fifteen men if you’re counting. It was those women and men and whoever joined then on subsequent days on whom the spirit descended which is why Peter explained what was going on to the men of Jerusalem by quoting Joel talking about God’s gifts granted to the diverse fullness of humanity – woman or man, slave or free, old or young. All will speak for God. And Peter said Pentecost is the day that comes to pass. We are a Pentecost church and we are called to speak for God.

I know some think that being a prophet is all about predicting the future. I know some think that prophetic preaching is the call of preachers like Peter and priests like me. There is more than one way to be a prophet and the church needs them all. Prophets stand between God and the people bringing God’s word to the people and the people’s words to God like Moses, prophets lead the people from slavery to freedom singing new songs and dancing new dances like Miriam. Prophets demonstrate the power of God doing things that no one else can do like Elijah and Elisha. Prophets protect the people and when the enemy comes against the people of God, prophets take up arms to defend them like Deborah. Prophets whisper in the ears of Queens and Kings, Presidents and Prime Ministers, whether they listen or not like Nathan and Noadiah. There were scholar prophets like Huldah and illiterate prophets like Jeremiah. There were social justice prophets like Micah and Amos. There were praying prophets and prophets who saw visions and prophets who dreamed of a better world like Habakkuk.

Oh but I hear you saying God didn’t call me to preach or lead the people. I’m going to just set here on my pew and let the priests and pastors do all that prophetic work. You don’t have to be a priest or pastor to cry out against injustice. You have the same power as the ordinary women and men in that upper room. You have the same holy fire fueling you and your voice. Speak. Speak up. Speak for those who cannot. Let us be the church God called us to be. The power of God that transformed women and men and boys and girls, rich and poor, slave and free, Jerusalem Jew and Arabian Arab into the church is the same power that raised Jesus from the dead. That is the power that sustains and empowers the church. That fire is burning inside of you. Let it burn and change the world.


Tabitha’s Story Before & After Her Resurrection

One of my favorite places in Yafo (biblical Joppa).

One of my favorite places in Yafo (biblical Joppa).

In the name of God who loves us, who is Love and bids us love one another. Amen.

May I tell you the truth? As a Hebrew Bible scholar I’m always offended that in some parts of Easter and Pentecost the scriptures of Jesus are declared dispensable and replaced with the Acts of the Apostles. Then, to make matters worse, today’s lectionary looks like it was put together by children throwing darts at pages of the bible. The gospel is set at the dedication of the temple, that’s Hanukah, in the dark days of December. But we’re celebrating Easter which overlaps with Passover in the flower-filled spring, not Christmas and Hanukah.

Then there’s a passage from the Revelation of John instead of an epistle. John is seeing visions of a future that people have been saying is just around the corner for two thousand years and is still not here. The book of Revelation terrifies some, confuses others and leads more than a few into heresy and conspiracy. Let me simplify it for you: The world is going to get worse before it gets better. But it will get better. The end. And then a new beginning. The whole world will be resurrected.

And there is our beloved twenty-third psalm. When Christians read the scriptures we share with Judaism we should take seriously their original context and history of interpretation, particularly since Jesus was Jewish and interprets his ancestral scriptures from that context. Which is why I tell seminarians not to share the twenty-third psalm with Jewish patients during chaplaincy rotations – it has the same effect as a chaplain saying “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” over your hospital bed. The twenty-third psalm is a funerary psalm in Judaism. The psalmist becomes a sheep and comes to the end of his life in the house of God. The sheep gets the answer to his prayer. He will dwell in the house of God all the days of his life. But the day he enters the temple will be the last day of his life. You do know what happened to sheep at the temple don’t you? Let me put it this way, they’re delicious and priests got a special cut.

At least the Acts text is an Eastertide text. It’s a resurrection story. And more. We begin with the birth of a beautiful baby girl whose parents loved her and wanted the world for her. How do I know this? All babies are beautiful and without evidence to the contrary I will believe the best about everyone. Besides, Tabitha’s parents left us some of their hopes and dreams for her and pieces of their story in their naming of her.

What’s in a name? “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Tabitha’s name is revelatory. Her parents named her “Tabitha,” Tavitha, in Aramaic. They named her Tabitha, “gazelle,” strong, swift, graceful, nimble saying something of their hopes for her. They named her in Aramaic because that was the language of the empires that had dominated their people ages ago. Those empires waxed and waned but left their language behind continuing the work of colonization even as new empires and languages emerged. The imposition of Aramaic in the ancient world is not entirely dissimilar from the imposition of English in the modern world. The intentionality of her parents in naming her reminds me of the intentionality many African American families in naming their children, including creating new names out of the colonizers’ English. Even though Tabitha’s people spoke Aramaic, they still read their scriptures in Hebrew and Tabitha’s parents would have known that the Hebrew word for gazelle, zivyah, was also the name of one of Judah’s great queen mothers who ruled for her son when he ascended the throne at the tender age seven upon his father’s death.

Tabitha’s name stretches back to strength and glory, acknowledges oppression and subjugation and the ability to adapt to the present situation. Her parents gave her a name that could also be easily translated into Greek, the language of their most recent oppressors, so that when the author of Acts called her Dorcas, though he wasn’t calling her by her name he wasn’t calling her that far out of it. I have to admit that when the author switches to Dorcas in the middle of her story and never switches back, I am bothered. I think about the terrible habit some Americans have of telling people that their names are too hard or too foreign and giving them easier, English names. Whenever I read this story I think about Kunta Kinte who was willing to die and was horribly mutilated because he would not relinquish his ancestral African name and accept the slave name Toby. If you do not know who Kunta Kinte was you’re in luck, Roots has been remade and will be broadcast this summer.

The author of Acts names Tabitha something else, he names her as a disciple. In fact she is the only woman in scripture explicitly called a disciple. She is not the only woman disciple, but she is the only woman called one. Now, what the author does not say is as important as what he does say. He does not say that Peter or Paul or some other disciple – male or female – converted her. Rather he presents her as already being a disciple. She has her own faith story. I suggest that she has had her own encounter with Jesus after all, Yaffo, Joppa is only thirty-five miles away from Jerusalem and fifty-five miles from Nazareth.

Tabitha’s discipleship means serving God by serving those whom God loves. As a Jewish follower of Jesus Tabitha was living out the rabbinic principle of g’miluth hasadim “loving-kindness” as described in the sacred text of Pirke Avot (1:2): The world stands upon three things – upon Torah, upon divine service (avodah), and upon acts of loving-kindness (g’miluth hasadim). [In Hebrew Acts 9:36 describes her service to others as g’miluth hasadim, in Syriac as zedaqta, giving alms.] To be a disciple is to imitate your teacher and Tabitha imitated Christ in her love for those he loved and loves.

The story in Acts weaves all of these elements together building towards a breath-taking moment, the moment after Tabitha’s breath is taken. Tabitha is raised from the dead just as Jesus was raised. Peter raised her as Elijah raised the son of the widow in Zarephath. He raised her as Elisha raised the Shunamite woman’s son. He raised her as Jesus raised the widow’s son in Nain which was a new name for Shunem – teaching us that there are some places where the spirit is bursting out into new life and raising the dead again and again if we know where to look. And Peter raises Tabitha like Jesus raises Jairus’s daughter.

In fact Tabitha’s raising is suspiciously like the raising of Jairus’s daughter. Where Peter says “Tabitha get up,” Jesus says, “Lambkin, get up.” I know the gospel says “little girl” in Luke 8, but it’s actually “lamb” which is kind of sweet. But in Aramaic the two commands sound the same, Jesus says: Talitha qumi and Peter says Tavita qumi. Peter imitates Jesus in this miraculous moment and Tabitha imitates Jesus in her day-to-day life.

We too are called to imitate Jesus but resurrection is tricky. Preachers who promise to deliver resurrection are often fleecing the flock. Even medical professionals cannot predict and guarantee medical miracles. But they do happen. We live in hope that we will imitate Jesus in dying and being raised but before that we are called to imitate Jesus in our living and loving as Tabitha did.

There is another act of service in the text, one that most Christians no longer practice. The author tells us that the other disciples – identified later in the text as saints and widows – washed Tabitha’s body and carried it upstairs. As he related the details of her death-narrative, the Greek-speaking Gentile author uses a masculine plural verb to describe the preparation of Tabitha’s body. Even if she had a husband, which she does not in this text, he would not have washed her. The practice of washing a body for burial was carried out by members of the same gender. It is still practiced today in Judaism, Islam and some monastic Christian communities. The community of women, called widows in the text, would have included some widowed by death, some by abandonment, some who chose celibacy, some old, some young, women who also chose to follow Christ and follow Tabitha as she followed Christ prepared her body for her burial – just as their apostolic sisters had prepared the body of Christ before his burial.

And then God through Peter called her name. What’s in a name? Each of us has a name. Israeli poet Zelda Mishlowski puts it this way:

 

Each of us has a name
Given by God
And given by our parents
Each of us has a name
Given by our stature and given by our smile
And given by what we wear
Each of us has a name
Given by the mountains
And given by our walls
Each of us has a name
Given by the stars
And given by our neighbors
Each of us has a name
Given by our sins
And given by our longing
Each of us has a name
Given by our enemies
And given by our love
Each of us has a name
Given by our celebrations
And given by our work
Each of us has a name
Given by the seasons
And given by our blindness
Each of us has a name
Given by the sea
And given by
Our death.

My ancestors sang: Hush, hush, somebody’s calling my name. Sounds like Jesus. Somebody’s calling my name. Jesus is still calling us by name, calling us to life and to discipleship. And one day he will call us to life beyond death with our sister Tabitha. Amen.