Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

sermon

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

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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


IMG_6738

(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.

 


A Lament for Violence

Holy Wednesday Sermon

Cross on calvary, Jerusalem

In the Name of God who hears our cries, bear our tears on her wings and empowers us to dry each other’s tears. Amen.

Today is a day for lament, even though we will celebrate the Eucharist. The lessons call for lament. The state of the world calls for lament. The state of our nation calls for lament. The state of the Church calls for lament. And some of us have deep personal laments.

I am lamenting the reassertion of white supremacy in our public and political discourse and in the church. I am lamenting the murders of black and brown trans and cis women and men by police and anyone else who thinks they can get away with it. I am lamenting the language of hate and fear that targets Muslims and Arabs and immigrants. I am lamenting the occupation and oppression of the Palestinians. I am lamenting violence in the streets of Jerusalem. I am lamenting terrorist attacks in Istanbul, Cote D’Ivoire and Brussels. I am lamenting rampant sexism, heterosexism and patriarchy especially in the church. And I am lamenting violence in the world particularly violence enacted against women and girls by Boko Haram, the violence perpetrated by all sides in Syria and the ravening violence of Daesh that looks a lot like the violence remembered in our lessons today.

Today’s texts commemorate the great sorrow of Israel, the fall of Judah, Jerusalem and the temple. My students will know, should know, that the trauma of the fall gave birth to the scriptures in written form, in order to piece together a theology that accounted for the trauma of Jerusalem’s destruction and to pass something of their heritage to the next generation.

Psalm 74 reads like a first hand account of the sack of the temple, an event often neglected in the Christian rush to get to Jesus and the New Testament. The assault and its success were unfathomable. The last time barbarians appeared at the gates of Jerusalem, they were miraculously turned back. Not even the historical record can explain why the mighty Assyrian Empire could not capture Jerusalem in 704 BCE. The Judeans had a theological answer; Jerusalem was the home of the living God and inviolable. That’s why Ps 46 proclaims and promises:

God is in the midst of the city; she shall not be moved;
God will help her when the morning dawns.

Yet more than a century later the Babylonians razed Jerusalem and raged into the temple unopposed. Asaph describes the Babylonians hacking with hammers and axes, smashing and burning the temple and everything in it to the ground. The God of cloud and pillar, fire and smoke, quaking ground and swallowing earth didn’t so much as rumble. No fire fell from heaven, no stones thrown from above. No miracles. No magic. No resistance. No deliverance. No salvation.

The book of Lamentations describes the assault and its aftermath: people desperate for food, elders succumbing to starvation, screaming babies and crying children begging for food, women eating their young, unburied bodies of young and old piled up because no one has the strength to bury them, the bodies of executed rulers impaled and hung on display and the systematic rape of women and girls and a hint of a similar fate for boys. The psalmist Asaph appealed to the Sovereign God who works salvation in the earth and asked why. Why God? Why?

Lamentations and the major theological voice in the scriptures, the Deuteronomistic school, provides a answer. We religious folk seek to make God-sense out of the world’s brokenness and our own. But the theology of Lamentations is painfully inadequate: It says God, not the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem. The text will go on to blame Judah and Jerusalem for their own destruction. It is a theology of sin and retribution. The kind of Iron Age theology we still hear, blaming people for hurricanes, floods, outbreaks of disease and personal tragedies.

The Gospel buys in to this theology to some degree: The wicked tenants are the people of Israel who reject the messengers of God and even God’s beloved child. This is the kind of text that lends itself to anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism and at times perverted what should be a holy week of reflection into a macabre reenactment of the Babylonian violence against Jerusalem.

What then can we learn from these texts in spite of their Iron Age theology?

What is eternal about Lamentations is the lament itself, raising your voice to God about God. No matter how limited our understanding or theology, we have the right and responsibility to cry out to God. In the psalm Asaph models this for us: Why, God? Why? And the Gospel promises that no matter how depraved, how murderous, how violent humanity becomes, God will not abandon us to our own devices. God has entered into our world, into our very flesh, despite our history, theology and rhetoric. The Church has failed in the past to stand up to white supremacist and fascist rhetoric. Lamentably we have another opportunity to confront this evil that is entrenched in the church as well as in the wider world.

In the gospel God sent wave after wave of messengers and servants to do the work that must be done to reform and transform the world. In one reading we are those servants. The work is dangerous and sometimes deadly. The world would rather kill us than hear our Gospel. In a world in which we have to insist that #BlackLivesMatter this is not an exaggeration.

If we do not purify the Church of its white supremacy, anti-Judaism, hetero-patriarchy and transphobia we may find that we are stone that the builder rejects and God will do her work in the world without us.

On this Wednesday in Holy Week, we lament the faults and failings of the church as we lament the brokenness of the world. We bring our laments and those of the people for we care to this holy place, and every place where God meets her people that together we may rise and build in their memory a world that will be worthy of those for whom Jesus lived and died. Amen.

Prayers of the People, for the Nation and for Elections (BCP)

Almighty God, to whom we must account for all our powers and privileges: Guide the people of the United States in the election of officials and representatives; that, by faithful administration and wise laws, the rights of all may be protected and our nation be enabled to fulfill your purposes; through Jesus Christ our Redeemer.

Holy and Righteous God our Governor, bless the leaders of our land, that we may be a people at peace among ourselves and a blessing to other nations of the earth.

Lord, keep this nation under your care.

To the President and members of the Cabinet, to Governors of States, Mayors of Cities, and to all in administrative authority, grant wisdom and grace in the exercise of their duties.

Give grace to your servants, O Holy God.

To Senators and Representatives, and those who make our laws in States, Cities, and Towns, give courage, wisdom, and foresight to provide for the needs of all our people, and to fulfill our obligations in the community of nations.

Give grace to your servants, O Holy God.

To the Judges and officers of our Courts give understanding and integrity, that human rights may be safeguarded and justice served.

Give grace to your servants, O Holy God.

And finally, teach our people to rely on your strength and to accept their responsibilities to their fellow citizens, that they may elect trustworthy leaders and make wise decisions for the well-being of our society; that we may serve you faithfully in our generation and honor your holy Name.

For yours is all governance, Sovereign God, and you are exalted as head above all. Amen.

We continue to pray for the world saying Holy One: Save us, heal us.

For peace among nations we pray, Holy One: Save us, heal us.

For an end to violence as a political tool we pray, Holy One: Save us, heal us.

That we not surrender to fear or terror we pray, Holy One: Save us, heal us.

That we might wage peace  as furiously as others wage war we pray, Holy One: Save us, heal us.

That our prayers for reconciliation would be word and deed we pray, Holy One: Save us, heal us. Amen.


Christ Our Mother

EdwinaSandysChrista-WEB

Image credit:  Christa by Edwina Sandys

Let us pray:

God of our mothers, Hagar, Sarah and Keturah, fold us under the shelter of your wings with all your children of every race and every faith. Amen.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

Jesus was doing the kind of preaching that few women or men do today, the kind of preaching that will get you killed. When some Pharisees come to warn Jesus that Herod is going to kill him he has to take it seriously. Herod is from a family where murder is a causal pastime. His father Herod the Great had murdered three of his sons, one of his wives and one of his mothers-in-law along with former friends and servants, and according to Matthew’s Gospel, he tried to kill Jesus before he was out of the cradle. (But Luke doesn’t seem to know that tradition.) Some folk believe the Pharisees were setting Jesus up, trying to get him to stop preaching and leave town with a fictitious threat. Others believe that the threat was deadly earnest because Herod was his father’s son and every bit as lethal.

However he understood the threat, Jesus looked at them and said, “Bring it!” Jesus told them to tell Herod he would be right there in Jerusalem whenever he was ready. Jesus knew that death was the likely, if not inevitable outcome of his ministry and he was ready. Even though he would have a reality check in the garden – no one wants to be brutalized, tortured, humiliated and executed, especially in front of their mama – Jesus would not back down; he would not run scared. As the Gospel of Luke presents the story, Jesus came to Jerusalem to die.

Jerusalem, the city of peace – Ir Shalom – never seems to have lived into its name, except perhaps for a few glorious golden years during the reigns of David and Solomon. The people of Jerusalem were Jerusalemites long before they were Israelites – in truth some of them never became Israelites. They were Canaanites. Thirty-five hundred years before the time of Jesus, more than fifty-five hundred years before our time, the people of what we now call Jerusalem were striking fear in the heart of Egypt. Then they were conquered by a Canaanite people the bible calls Jebusites. And David conquered them. David brought some measure of peace to Jerusalem before he died, but it was a bloody peace. He passed that fragile peace to Solomon under whom it withered and died from internal strife. Almost six hundred years before Jesus the Babylonians ravaged Jerusalem, the Persians liberated Jerusalem from the Babylonians but did not free it. They were followed by the Greeks and the Romans and alternating Christian and Muslim empires, then the Ottoman Turks and the British. Each wave of occupation was brutal. Jerusalem has long been acquainted with death. But that wasn’t the death Jesus spoke of in response to the warning about Herod.

Jesus spoke of the death of prophets like himself. Women and men who stood up to power. Jesus wasn’t willing to die because he was the son of God. He was willing to die because he was the kind of man who stood with the poor and oppressed peoples of earth against the demonic corrupting power of empire. Jesus preached in the lineage of prophets like Amos and Micah who stood with the poor and Noadiah who stood against Nehemiah who aligned himself with the Persian Empire. They didn’t stand up because they were immortal. They stood up because they were moral.

Prophesying in Jerusalem could be dangerous because Jerusalem was a wealthy religious city. Wealth is not intrinsically evil but it can be seductive and corrupting as is the privilege it engenders. Jerusalem is where the monarchy and priesthood organized and institutionalized religion, leaving the prophets largely outside of the formal structure. For the Israelites Jerusalem was the only city that mattered, and theirs the only God or at least the only one that mattered. Preaching against empire, those who designed and implemented it and those who benefitted from it is dangerous, as is me preaching against the current manifestations of empire, white supremacy, wealth and privilege built on the backs of enslaved and exploited black and brown peoples. I don’t believe my fellow Episcopalians are likely to kill me but I know Episcopalians like other Christians have been on the wrong side of slavery and civil and human rights as well as on the right side.

Jesus knew that prophet could be a terminal occupation because prophet is also a religious vocation. Prophets don’t just have to worry about those who hold political power. Prophets have to contend with those who hold religious authority and are every bit as lethal. This congregation isn’t going to rise up and stone me if they don’t like my preaching but baptized and communing Christians are responsible for the Crusades and slave trade, the Holocaust, burning and bombing of churches, lynching, and now, the murderous martyrdom of black Christians in church at bible study and demonization of Muslims and Mexicans, some of whom have also been murdered. There is an ugly side to religion, including ours. Sometimes religious folk, Christian folk, are willing to kill or to die to prove a theological point. Jerusalem had a reputation for being the place where folk killed prophets they didn’t want to hear from.

The tradition of murdered prophets, particularly in Jerusalem was an old one by the time of Jesus. The author of Luke is seemingly obsessed by those murders; he mentions them four times including in Acts. The most outrageous murder of a prophet was that of the Zechariah ben Jehoida who was stoned at the king’s (Joash) command on the holy ground of the temple, (2 Chr 24:20-22). Two hundred years later Jeremiah tells of the prophet Uriah ben Shenaiah who preached the same things that Jeremiah did and was executed by another king, (Jehoiakim in Jer 29:20). The outrage that someone would kill a messenger of God, reject the word of God with lethal violence was so strong that stories of the murdered prophets found their way into the Quran.

God says in surah 5:70: Certainly We made a covenant with the children of Israel and We sent to them apostles; whenever there came to them an apostle with what that their souls did not desire, some did they call liars and some they slew.

And in surah 2:87: And most certainly We gave Musa (Moses) the [Torah] Book and We sent apostles after him one after another; and We gave Isa (Jesus), the son of Marium (Mary), clear arguments and strengthened him with the Holy Spirit. And, what, whenever then an apostle came to you with that which your souls did not desire, you were insolent so you called some liars and some you slew.

Jesus didn’t turn from Jerusalem, the place where prophets are killed. He went to Jerusalem. He went to Jerusalem because he loved Jerusalem. He loved Jerusalem at the cost of his life. We too are Jerusalem. We may not have a reputation for killing priests, pastors or prophets but we break the heart of God every bit as much. And Jesus loved and loves us too, even at the cost of his life.

Love is at the heart of this lesson. Jesus opening his arms wide and sweeping us up and into his embrace. In choosing for himself the image of a mother hen collecting and protecting her brood Jesus gives birth to some of the most enduring imagery to shape the church’s prayer language.

I suspect that St. Julian of Norwich reflected on this passage when she wrote: …Christ is our mother, brother and savior…. Our natural mother, our gracious mother, because he willed to become our mother in everything, took the ground for his work most humbly and most mildly in the maiden’s womb… A mother can give her child milk to suck, but our precious mother, Jesus, can feed us with himself.

Some of us are unwilling to be mothered. And some have never been mothered at all. In the Gospel Jesus says, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” What does it look like to refuse to mothered by Jesus? At one level it means to accept a Jesus who troubles our notions of gender and sexuality.

An unmarried Jewish man was a scandal and a man without children was pitiable. As a Jewish man who would not have accepted the tradition of giving thanks for not being a woman, which came into Judaism from Greek philosophers as the gospels were being produced, Jesus offers a masculinity and a divinity that is neither patriarchal nor even androcentric in this text. But some want no part of that kind of Jesus; nor any kind of Jesus who doesn’t agree with what they agree with or hate who they hate. For some the bible’s androcentric grammar and predilection for masculinizing God has become an idol, so much so that folk would rather be unmothered by God than embrace God or Christ as our mother. Yet God is so far beyond gender that in scripture God has a womb, birthed the sea and fathered the rain – though the bible stops short of giving God male parts; no one gender can contain God. God is trans, transgressive, trans-gender, transcontinental, transnational, trans-religious. God’s love transverses and encompasses all things.

Our first lesson reminds us that Abraham is the father of many peoples, many different peoples. We don’t all have the same stories, memories or traditions. We don’t even share the same prayers or scriptures. But we do share the same God. The one God who is known by many names. We don’t all believe the same things about that God, not even in the Church, not even in the Episcopal Church. God is big enough to weather our disagreements. God is who God is whether we understand or accept someone else’s understanding of God. God doesn’t need us to argue or fight or prove who God is or isn’t. Our job is to bear witness, by loving as God loves – which though impossible for us is still a worthy goal.

The promise of God to Abraham is not for Israel only. It is for all of Abraham’s descendants. We are children of Abraham and the one God, whether Hagar, Sarah or Keturah was our foremother. The Hebrew Bible traces more peoples than I could reasonably count to Father Abraham including but not limited to the ancient Israelites and their Jewish descendants and the Ishmaelites and their Arab descendants. Those peoples have one father but many mothers; they are all our kin. Family has always been complicated. Some of us have more than one mother, some have had mothers who were fathers and fathers who were mothers. We were mothered by godmothers, grandmothers, aunties and big sisters. Their love was God’s love in human form as is Jesus. I have always had trouble with the trinity but Christ as brother, mother and savior makes sense to me. This is love incarnate.

The love of God for us is so deep and wide that there are not enough words or images in any language to tell it. Lent is an opportunity for us to reflect on and rest in that love. We relinquish things that that give us pleasure that we might take more pleasure in the love of God. We let go of things that distract us from the love of God. We take on disciplines and practices that draw us more deeply into the embrace of God’s wings. In the austerity of Lent it is a great comfort to find not a stern father but a loving mother. As we explore new patterns of prayer during Lent today’s Gospel is an invitation to embrace God in new language and different images as open, free and boundless as is the love of God for us.

When we come to the table, we dine on love. When we come to that table we are one. Our differences don’t disappear; they bear witness to our love which is not reserved just for folk who are like us. When we get up from our knees, there is a whole wide world that needs that love. Amen.


Black and Christian: An MLK Day Sermon

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Let us pray:

God who dreams in flesh and blood, teach us to respond to the cries of your people with justice, compassion and unfailing hope. Amen.

God told Moses to say: I have heard the cry of the Israelites and I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them, press them, squeeze them. Exodus 3:9

We all have multiple identities at the same time, aspects of which may be more dominant from time to time but which are not separable from other aspects. For example, when I hear that women make 77 cents for every dollar men make, I correct that to white women make 77 cents for every dollar men make. Black women make 69 cents for every dollar black men make. And, Latinas make 58 cents for every dollar Latino men make according to the 2012 census. I am a black woman. There are things I hold in common with women of all races and things I do not, things I hold in common with black men and things I do not. That is true for all of us.

We have multiple identities, sometimes in harmony, sometimes in conflict. Sometimes we elevate one identity above others. As Christians we are called to live out of our Christian identity which is not separate from but co-exists with our other identities. Dr. King’s Christianity looked different than the Christianity of the white clergy who wrote an open letter telling the black folk in their community not to demonstrate with King, who they called an outsider and to wait for the local political leadership in Alabama to work on segregation themselves. How long might that have taken? How much longer did the good white folk think that black folk should wait for the full dignity of human and civil rights? The clergymen – and they were all men – called the demonstrations “unwise” and “untimely.” It was too soon to talk about voting rights for black folk, even if they were serving in the military like my father. They accused Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement of inciting “hatred and violence.”

The undersigned included:

The Rt. Rev. Charles Colcock Jones Carpenter, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, The Rt. Rev. Joseph A. Durick, Auxiliary Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Mobile, Rabbi Hilton L. Grafman, Temple Emanu-El, Birmingham, Bishop Paul Hardin of the Alabama-West Florida Conference of the Methodist Church, Bishop Nolan B. Harmon of the North Alabama Conference of the Methodist Church, The Rt. Rev. George M. Murray, Bishop Coadjutor of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, Edward V. Ramage, Moderator of the Synod of Alabama in the Presbyterian Church in the United States, and Pastor Earl Stallings of the First Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama.

They penned this letter 12 April, 1968, more than a decade after the speech from which we heard a portion of as our Epistle reading. They were leaders of church and synagogue, interpreters of scripture, they prayed – many of them – the same prayers we pray, many sang same the same songs we sing and they were fundamentally on the wrong side of God’s love. To be fair, none of them were saying black folk shouldn’t have the same rights, at least not in that letter. They were saying it wasn’t the right time, and Dr. King wasn’t the right man and he wasn’t using the right methods. Folk are saying the same things today about the Black Lives Matter movement and its leaders.

This wasn’t the first time the church has been wrong. The very first slave ship to reach the American continent was named Jesus, a British ship, given to its captain by the head of the Church of England, Queen Elizabeth. She gave him two ships so he could make her more money in the slave trade. It would be a long time before the church, Anglican and otherwise determined to live up to and into what is now in our baptismal covenant, to respect the dignity of every human person. Sometimes we still fail at that. As church and as individuals. Sometimes we get it right.

We in the Episcopal Church have decided that all of the sacraments are for all of the people. We do not restrict the sacrament of ordination to male people and we do not restrict the sacrament of holy matrimony to heterosexual people. And again some of those who read the same scriptures we do and pray the same prayers we do and sing the same songs as we do and perhaps live in the same houses as we do say our actions are “unwise” and “untimely.” In fact, the Anglican Communion has given us a time out.

And Dr. King is still saying: We have not learned the simple art of loving our neighbors, and respecting the dignity and worth of all human personality…

Dr. King preached a strong word to the Conference on Christian Faith and Human Relations in Nashville back in 1957. A word that is still uncomfortably and maddeningly relevant. I would like to think that Dr. King would marvel at the progress we have made, not just the success of extraordinary individual figures in politics, sports and entertainment but the fundamental integration of our society at many levels and the real and meaningful relationships people have with folk who are different from them at work and church and school and in our neighborhoods, sometimes in our own families. So much in our world is different. And yet so much remains unchanged. There is still deep and abiding racial animus; the old race hatred lingers on and other biases have come out of their closets, biases against Muslims and Arabs – who aren’t all Muslim though it shouldn’t matter, biases against Spanish speaking folk, particularly Mexicans which is interesting in Texas where Mexicans pre-date Texans in many places and now, biases against those who have been driven from their homes with nothing but their children in their arms fleeing from war, even though some of those wars have our nation’s fingerprints on them.

Our lesson from Exodus gives us another reason to cast our lot on the side of the oppressed. God is watching. And more than that, God is there. God told Moses to say: I have heard the cry of the Israelites and I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them, press them, squeeze them. Do not be deceived by the fact that God has not and will not wipe all violence and oppression from the earth. God sends us and accompanies us. Will we go? We might be afraid like Moses that we aren’t up to the task. God knows and offers us companions along the way. Moses did not go alone. He had his sister, the prophet Miriam. He had his brother Aaron. He had his wife Zipporah – and then after a messy divorce, another wife. He had his father-in-law. Moses was a great and humanly flawed leader. And God used him and sent him some help.

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Dr. King was a great man. And he was a flawed man. And God used him. But he wasn’t out there alone. Dr. King was surrounded by Dorothy Height, Diane Nash, Amelia Boynton, Fannie Lou Hamer and more the way Moses was surrounded by Yocheved, Shifra, Puah, Miriam and Pharaoh’s daughter. Dr. King also had the sage counsel of his friend Bayard Rustin, an openly gay black man.

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We in this Episcopal Church and in our larger global church are talking seriously about race and reconciliation. That requires us to have some uncomfortable conversations; we have begun that work. It will mean having more, especially when we get to the point that folk are saying enough already, it’s too much. We also have to look deeply and honestly at our own past, in our nation, in our church and in our families. We have to tell the whole truth, the hard truth, for we know that confession is a reconciling sacrament. Confession is liberating and healing and makes room for repentance. Too many folk are trying to be reconciled without confession or repentance, even in the church and we know better.

We have these multiple identities as women and men, gay, straight, bi and trans, black and white, Caribbean and Latino, American and Episcopalian, members of Trinity and the five o’clock gang. And in all of these things we are God’s children and we are Christian. Sometimes some of us look more like the Egyptians doing the oppressing and sometimes some of us look more like the Israelites being oppressed. And God is watching all of us, listening for the cry of the broken-hearted, raising up deliverers from among us to do the work of justice.

God is watching. God is listening. God is with us. Amen.


Embracing the Light & the Darkness in the Age of Black Lives Matter

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Madonna and Child, Laura James

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

In the beginning… Those words mark the beginning of the story of our faith.

In the beginning God… At the birth of all things when nothing yet was birthed, there was God pregnant with all creation.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. God spoke and the cosmos was born in light.

It was to this story that John turned to explain the magnitude of Jesus’ birth, the only story that could partner it, the birth of the earth and all of the undiscovered worlds.

John looked back at the world’s birth story and saw a different trinity, the Word, Light and Life that had been present at the dawn of creation and were present in the man he knew as Jesus, the man he’d grown up with played with and perhaps fought with, his cousin.

John is telling us who Jesus is and for him, the manger story doesn’t cut it. It’s not big enough; it’s not grand enough. Jesus is nothing less than the Word of God in human flesh – the word that spoke creation into being, the promise and promises of God, the teachings, judgments, warnings and revelation of God – all in a mortal human body. Jesus is the eternal Light from the dawn of creation that shines in the darkness and no matter how long or deep the shadows can never be extinguished. And, Jesus is Life itself, life that transcends death.

John’s Jesus is the place where earth and heaven meet.

John’s Jesus transcends time and space; which is a good thing because we are a time-traveling church.

Today, the Baby Jesus is just a couple of days old, on his way to Jerusalem where his Holy Mother will make her childbirth offering and he will be circumcised on the eighth day. Think of the weariness of our Blessed Mother particularly in this chapel we’ve dedicated to her: She has traveled from her home in Nazareth south to her family home in Bethlehem while nine months pregnant, 70 miles as the crow flies and then days after giving birth, 7 miles north to Jerusalem. Jesus will be circumcised on what we now call the Feast of the Holy Name, 1 January. That’s in one time stream.

In another time stream Jesus is a year old and living with his mother in a little house somewhere and it’s not clear what has happened to Joseph. There are sages and scholars traveling to see the king whose star pierces the heavens no matter how long it takes. They will arrive on 6 January, the Feast of the Epiphany also called the Feast of the Three Kings (even though scripture doesn’t say they were kings or that there were three). In Epiphany we will leap through time and space again for the baptism of Jesus as an adult. In John Jesus is more adult than child. John’s trinity, the Living Word, Unending Light and One who is Eternal Life is good news for us in a world in which shadows stretch across the globe brushing us all with the icy fingers of death. It’s good news in a world in which death is not always welcome nor a gentle embrace.

This good news is framed in the stark language of light and dark, shadow and glory. And it is far too easy for us as Americans to hear those words through our history of race and racism. We are taught from a young age that everything light and white is good and everything dark and black is bad. Even when we are not thinking about it, it is in the back of our minds. Race is always in the room for us. But it wasn’t for John, Jesus and their world. Identity mattered, whether you were Greek or Jew, slave or free, woman or man, but not the brown of your skin – and most skin was brown in Israel then, even Roman legions were largely black and brown having been filled with conscripts from Africa and Asia.

The mystic Howard Thurman taught us that somewhere between the light and the darkness, between the shadow and glory, there is a space that he called the luminous darkness, others have called it radiant blackness. Think of the night sky spangled with stars or the sheen on black silk or satin, or the glow of beautiful ebony skin. In the age of Black Lives Matter I invite you to take another look at the light and the darkness and see them on their own terms.

In the beginning before God created light there was darkness.

We are afraid of the dark but God is not. Darkness is a creative space to God. Out of darkness God created everything that is, including light. I like to think that light and dark are not in conflict, but in balance. Perhaps it’s because I’ve recently seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens. We like to think in polar opposites, good/bad, light/dark, God/the devil – whoa when was the last time you heard about the devil in an Episcopal Church? Let’s start there; the devil isn’t God’s equal. God doesn’t have any competition. Even life and death are not opposites. We are born to die and die to live. We pass through death to live again.

We are called to a mature faith in a complex world. There is light and dark, shadow and more than fifty shades of gray. The darkness and light co-exist. There is always shadow. We can’t see in the dark. We trip over the smallest thing. But it is not the dark that hurts us. It is our own limitations. Because of our blindness Christ lights our way. Christ is the light that allows us to see the light in all people and all situations.

The world is filled with shadow. We have seen those shadows recently. Tomorrow will be the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the children and babies murdered on Herod’s orders as he sought kill the Virgin’s miraculous child during the time warp in which the scholars and sages are following the star. And we remember the innocents of all generations who have been slaughtered for every reason and no reason including in the name of God and religion: in the Crusades, during ocean-crossing of the Atlantic slave trade, the native peoples of North, South and Central America, in the Holocaust, those who have been murdered at the hands of parents, neighbors and strangers including those in Newtown CT and every day since then in Philadelphia, Palestine, Chicago, Congo, Dallas and Detroit, around this nation and around this world. And since I last preached this Christmas Sunday, those slaughtered in a Charleston church, on live television in Parisian cafes and concert halls, in health clinics and at Christmas parties. Even Jerusalem the city of peace is not peaceful.

Our sweet little Jesus boy, holy infant so tender and mild, was born under the shadow of death. And, every year at Christmas families grieve the loss of loved ones who were there the Christmas before but are not here this Christmas. In many places the church keeps saying, “Merry Christmas!” and ignoring the shadows. We light our candles, wreathe our homes with light, wrap our trees in light and bask in glow of our fireplaces, but there remain shadows in the corners of our rooms, in the corners of our eyes and in the corners of our hearts. Christmas has always been touched by, attended by, the shadow of death. But we proclaim that the light and life of Christ transform the shadow of death.

Death is everywhere, in the darkness and in the light. This is the scandal of the Incarnation, God descended into shadow, even into Shadow-Valley Death and walked its lonely yet crowded pathways passing through a woman’s body and all of its ins and outs. For it is through human bodies that shadows are deepened in and lengthened on the world. And while there are evil forces at work in the world, the old claim “the devil made me do it,” does not account for the evil in the world. We humans have done more than our fair share.

So God became human, woman-born. To be human is to be carnal, fleshly, to dwell in shadow. The Gospels remind us continually that Jesus was fully human: he was born and he died, and in between, his body experienced hunger and thirst and exhaustion and pain.

God became flesh and dwelled among us. Jesus was like us and we are like him. We are mortal, frail, embodied, humans. We ache for human companionship. We worry about our parents as we come to grips with our own mortality. In our desperate pain we search for a familiar comforting face. And we pray that when it comes our time to die, we won’t have to face it alone.

We do not walk alone among the shadows of earth because God is Immanu El, God with us. In our brokenness, in our fullness, God is with us. God is with us when the bullets are flying, when the ground is shaking, when the planes are crashing, when the waters are rising, when the ship is sinking, when the winds are howling, when death is knocking, when the shadow of death stretches out and touches even Christmas – God is with us! God is with us when we are falsely accused and unjustly imprisoned. God is with us when we are raped and tortured and murdered. God is with us when our children, our precious children, are stolen from us. God is with them in their fear and horror! God is with us in our rage and sorrow and grief! God is with us! God is with the suffering and the dying, comforting and accompanying through that valley of death that we cannot yet enter. This is the Gospel, not that we’re untouchable, not that we’re inviolable, for even the Son of God was violated. But that we are never alone, never forsaken, never absent from the Divine presence is the Gospel of light and life.

This is the season of hope and peace and joy and light. The days are getting longer; light is literally filling the world (our side of it anyway). The Twelve Days of Christmas are days of light. The Feast of Epiphany is a feast of light.

For What has come into being in the Word was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness [cannot] not overcome it.

When beginning in Genesis, the first thing God created was light. When Mary’s boy child was born, even more light flooded the world. Each of us has become a light-bearer through our professions and confessions of faith and in the water of our baptisms. How bright is your light? How do you kindle, nurture and stoke its flame? How often do you join your flame with the flames of your sisters and brothers in prayer and worship and at the table?

The light of God lives with and in us; we are the light of God. And there is no darkness, no shadow that cannot be overcome by the holy light of God. This light will shine through the ages. One day the whole of creation will be transformed by that holy light. Let the light of Christ shine in and through you to the ends of the earth. Amen.

Postscript: The sermon worked well with the Eucharistic Prayer (2), Enriching Our Worship. 

We praise you and we bless you, holy and gracious God, source of life abundant. From before time you made ready the creation. Your Spirit moved over the deep and brought all things into being: sun, moon, and stars; earth, winds, and waters; and every living thing. You made us in your image, and taught us to walk in your ways. But we rebelled against you, and wandered far away; and yet, as a mother cares for her children, you would not forget us. Time and again you called us to live in the fullness of your love. And so this day we join with Saints and Angels in the chorus of praise that rings through eternity, lifting our voices to magnify you…

Glory and honor and praise to you, holy and living God. To deliver us from the power of sin and death and to reveal the riches of your grace, you looked with favor upon Mary, your willing servant, that she might conceive and bear a son, Jesus the holy child of God. Living among us, Jesus loved us. He broke bread with outcasts and sinners, healed the sick, and proclaimed good news to the poor. He yearned to draw all the world to himself yet we were heedless of his call to walk in love. Then, the time came for him to complete upon the cross the sacrifice of his life, and to be glorified by you…

 


Love. Sex. Money. Power. Death.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Solomon’s Interfaith Prayer

Solomon

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

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

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

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

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


Bathsheba & Black Lives Matter

Our first lesson could easily be and should be translated:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Pentecost: Something Old, Something New

IMG_4621

My farewell sermon at the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. (I decided to publish this unchanged because I believe this is a fit word for today.)

I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
and your daughters and your sons shall prophesy;
your young men shall see visions,
and your elder men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, women and men.
In those days I will pour out my Spirit
and they shall prophesy.

Let us pray:
My prayer is Miriam’s prayer, Mother Mary’s prayer – Let it be.
Let it be with your woman-servant according to your word.
With these words
the word of God was formed in the woman of God.
On this day, as on that day,
let your bat-kol, the daughter-voice of God
bring forth your word again. Amen.

Some thing old, something new. Nothing borrowed and no one is blue. It was the ancient festival of Shavuot, already 1500 years old when the Church was newly born. It was an old, old festival but this year there was something new. Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks, marks the end of the holy days that begin with Passover just as Pentecost now marks the end of Easter season. It was an old, old festival but this year there was something new.

This year things were tense. The Romans had staged a mass execution just before Passover. Yeshua ben Miryam – you know him as Jesus, Mary’s Baby, was handed over to the Romans for execution by the Judean religious authorities on the eve of the OG, old school Paschal feast, casting a shadow over this joyous time. Shavuot, Pentecost, was supposed to be a time of celebration rejoicing in the fact that God had sent forth God’s spirit and renewed the face of the earth. It was the sweet spot between springtime and summertime. Crops were being harvested and there was an abundance of fresh food. Passover had a serious underpinning, but Pentecost was pure joy.

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.

It 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. The traffic was terrible, especially around the temple. You could hardly get two donkeys side-by-side down the street. The festival was so important that even when Paul was traveling around the world spreading the gospel the next year in Acts 20:16, he stopped and came back to Jerusalem to observe the feast. It was an old, old feast, but in our lesson it was about to be given new meaning.

Something old, something new. As that something new prepared to come forth, the air was thick with tension, but tension isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes tension is creative, generative, giving birth to new life and new expressions of life. Sometimes tension is anticipatory. Acts chapter 1 says waiting in that tension was a community of about 120 folk that were in an upper room. There were 11 disciples who had become apostles, there was the first family: the Virgin Mother, the sisters of Jesus, and their four brothers. The rest of the crowd was made up by “certain women” along with, perhaps, the two candidates for the open apostle position violently vacated by Judas.

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.

The story of Pentecost is a reality check for the Church. The folks who became the first Church were in position to receive the power of God because they were in the house. The folks who became the first Church were in position to receive the power of God because they were already followers of Jesus. They were already praying and praising together. The Blessed Mother had been with him from the beginning. Some like the disciples had abandoned him at the cross but came running back after the resurrection. Some were new to the game brought in by the testimony of those who had seen the risen Christ. It didn’t matter how long any of them had been a follower of Jesus they all got the same fire, the same power. It didn’t matter if someone had only been following Jesus for one day. But they had to be in the house. The power of Pentecost did not extend to Bedroom Baptist, Pillow Presbyterian, or even St. Mattress and the Holy Comforter. You had to be in the house. Something old, something new.

The power of Pentecost was a new force in the world but its instruction manual was an old stand-by. Peter was in position to announce the birth of the Church because he was in the house and because he was in the scriptures. Peter knew that he was seeing the word of God come to life all around them because he knew the word of God. Peter was able to do what God called him to do because at some point in his life he had put some time in the word. Peter’s prophetic preaching is also a reality check for the church; a prophetic church needs preaching that is in the word. The women and men who were empowered by that Holy Ghost fire went into the word and traveled with the word and preached from the word to build the church.

But lastly and most importantly, the folks who became the first Church were transformed by the power of God to be the Church that God designed to meet the needs of the world. The Church that God birthed in wind and fire was born to be a prophetic church. It is no accident that Peter turned to Joel who once prophesied that we would all become prophets as Moses once prayed. Joel makes it clear that we are all called to prophesy. 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 priest like me. Ah, but the God who knows what the church needs sent the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas one of the world’s foremost experts in prophecy eleven years ago so that I could tell you this:

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 Mandela and Maya. There were scholar prophets like Huldah who knew more of the word of God than any man around her. There were social justice prophets like Micah and Amos and Martin and Malcolm. There were praying prophets and prophets who saw visions and prophets who dreamed of a better world.

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. The black church has always been a prophetic church not just because of its leaders but because of its members. 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.

The God who blew the breath of life into the nostrils of the first human handcrafted from the wet clay of earth, the God who exhaled and the Red Sea parted, the God who read a benediction down on a baptism in the river Jordon, that same God blew in and through that house. The breath of God blew on those disciples and they caught fire like kindling. It was a fire that burned but did not consume, just like the old, old story of the burning bush. Here was something old and something new. That holy fire was only visible for a time but we know it remains by the power it generates.

That fire is heart-changing fire. That fire is life-changing fire. That fire is world-changing fire. That fire changed a man who cursed everybody who asked him if he knew Jesus into a man who preached to a crowd of folk who couldn’t see what he saw. That fire changed men who had left Jesus to die on the cross with the women who followed into to apostles who were worthy of the title, who preached the gospel to the ends the earth, who would die for the name of Jesus, some of them crucified on their own crosses. That fire changed women who had been commissioned as apostles to the apostles from second class citizens whose testimony could not believed unless a man confirmed it to the first preachers of the Gospel before Pentecost. The power of Pentecost is something old and something new.

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 was the same power that raised Jesus from the dead. That Holy Ghost fire was the same fire that burned a bush on Sinai and did not consume it. The wind that swept through the house was the same wind that blew open a pathway through the Red Sea. The God who set the Church on fire on her birthday is the same God who set the sun blazing in the heavens. The fire of Pentecost is something old and something new.

I thank God for that fire. We need it now as they needed it then. You see while the outpouring of Pentecost was a new thing, the world in which it happened was the same old world with the same old empire, the same old oppressions, the same old heartbreaks, the same old abuses, the same old hurts. The fire of Pentecost came to earth in the same old crucifying world, just as the power of the Holy Spirit is present in this broken world where children are being denied an education, veterans are being denied health care, working folk are being denied a living wage, black and brown folk are denied justice in the system called “justice,” and too many women and girls are denied basic human dignity, safety and security walking down the street or trying to get an education.

But we have the same Jesus in this old world: Jesus who demonstrated beyond all doubt that he was God in the flesh: even if anyone doubted the stories about his conception and birth they had seen for themselves when he multiplied meager meals and walked on water. They were with him when he opened blind eyes, unstopped deaf ears, loosened stilled tongues, dried up bloody flows, unbent crooked spines and restored diseased and paralyzed flesh. They were in the procession when he canceled funerals and raised the dead while they were lying in their coffins. We have their stories of Jesus because they didn’t keep them to themselves.

Jesus, the embodiment of God’s everlasting love in a new package used the old words of the holy Scriptures to proclaim the love of God, the life God gives, abundant and eternal, the liberty God gives even to people under the tyranny of an evil empire. It is the same old world but God’s mercies are new every morning. There is new life everywhere we look. Babies are being born and being baptized. People are finding new life with God in Christ, in the Church. Some are finding new life in a new world of sobriety. Even the earth in the city of Philadelphia is giving birth to new life now that spring has finally sprung.

This city, this nation and this world needs the Holy Ghost fire of a prophetic church. That is what Pentecost is calling us to be, a prophetic church. Peter returns to the old, old scriptures of their shared faith to interpret the events that were unfolding around them. He sees in the prophet Joel God’s vision for the church. He sees the church as a community of prophets. Prophets are more than preachers; they are folk who speak with and for God. There was a time when the black church was known as a prophetic church because we used our voice, our gifts, our power to speak out against that which was wrong and to speak up for those who could not speak for themselves. The world still needs the black church. The Pentecost model of church is one in which every one of us woman and man, girl and boy, old and young, well off and struggling to get by, take to the streets empowered by that Holy Ghost fire to change the world. The power of the Holy Spirit, the word of God in the heart and in the mouth of the believer are a fire that cannot be extinguished.

Prophesy church. Prophesy. Bring the words of scripture to pass in your mouth. Show the world the power of God in your life because God has poured out God’s Spirit on us all and we are the Church of God, new life in this old world. Amen.

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Church in A World that Kills

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

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The Psalmist cried out:

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

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

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

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

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

They even make fun of the psalmist’s faith:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Color Purple: A Lenten Sermon

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As we begin our Lenten pilgrimage, my theme is the borrowed title of Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple. Because I do believe that “it pisses God off if you pass by the color purple and don’t even notice,” I chose a text that I know no one ever preaches for Lent, if at all: Numbers 4:13 They shall take away the ashes from the altar, and spread a purple cloth over it.

Thomas Gray said that purple is ‘the light of love.’ For William Shakespeare purple is ‘the color of love’s wound’ and the ‘testament of a bleeding war.’ According to John Milton ‘Bacchus from the purple grape first crushed the sweet poison of misused wine.’ John Keats found in purple the ‘riot of sudden thoughts.’ Edgar Allen Poe’s Raven was accompanied by ‘the silken, sad rustling of each purple curtain.’ Gelett Burgess ‘never saw a purple cow.’ Alfred Lord Tennyson mused on the ‘pilots of the purple twilight’ as Emily Dickinson saw the setting sun ‘blazing in gold and quenching in purple.’ Katharine Lee Bates saw ‘purple mountains’ majesty.’ Jimi Hendrix had a ‘purple haze in his brain.’

Purple is also the color of deep bruises. Purple is the color of angry skin and dried blood. Purple is the color of the shrunken lips and swollen tongues of lynched women and men. Purple is the color of the excruciating pain of death by crucifixion. Purple is expensive. At one time, purple dye was ground out of the tiny bodies of snails. For the snails, being purple was a death sentence.

In the Ancient Near East, the color purple came from the murex snail; a little over 6 pounds of snail glands, that’s roughly 12,000 snails, were needed to dye one pound of wool. In ancient Israel purple was associated with aristocracy and especially with royalty. Purple was used in the garments of the high priest, who was decked out in royal splendor from the first rustic robe in the wilderness to the Maccabean regalia of the rededicated Temple between the times of the Two Testaments. And, the drapery of the Tabernacle, from the external walls of fabric to the most interior double curtain that veiled the residence of the I AM, were also purple. Exodus 26:1 – ‘you shall make the tabernacle with ten curtains of fine twisted linen, and blue, purple, and crimson yarns; you shall make them with cherubim skillfully worked into them… You shall make a screen for the entrance of the tent, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen, embroidered with needlework.’

Where did all of this purple come from in the wilderness? Exodus 35:25-26 records, ‘All the wise-hearted women spun with their hands, and brought what they had spun in blue and purple and crimson yarns and fine linen; all the women whose hearts were elevated in wisdom used their skill and spun the goats’ hair.’ The people who were at one time not a people, left slavery with nothing, yet arrived in the wilderness with the treasures of Egypt heaped upon them in hopes that they would intercede with their god for dying first-born not covered by the purple clotted blood of a lamb. The women of Israel fashioned all of this royal purple into vestments for the seen things of their unseen God. They were called wise of heart because the ancients did not separate craftsmanship or craftswomanship from intellectual ability, however most translators reduce them to merely skillful. These folk had nothing, and when faced with an embarrassment of riches gave it all back to God who had just enriched them, and whom they believed would continue to enrich them. They didn’t hoard their purple; they gave it to God.

The wilderness-wandering women and their meandering men, along with their circumlocuting children, were on a pilgrimage. The Book of Numbers is a continuation of the pilgrimage from privation to promise begun in what Bob Marley called the Exodus movement of Jah-people. Our pericope begins with the people of God on the move in verse 5. After moments of sweet rest, however long and however frequent, the congregation of Israel would be summoned to resume their journey by the motion of the theophoric God concealed in the pillars of smoke and fire. In response to the move of God the priestly families prepared the sacred space of the sanctuary and its sacred objects for the next leg of the journey. God provided detailed instructions on how to move God when moving with God – for God was understood to be alternately enthroned and riding astride on the chariot-throne of the Sacred Coffer of Divine-Human Commitment, the Ark of the Covenant.

‘They shall take away the ashes from the altar, and spread a purple cloth over it.’ The Ark and the altar of sacrifice were dressed in pure purple clothes. Of all of the sacred objects in the sanctuary only these two rated purple. They framed the most immediate manifestations of the Presence of God. The Ark as the early parallel to the heavenly throne and the altar of sacrifice as the place where God heard prayer. The veil and the screening curtain protected humanity from the presence of God. The color purple signaled the presence of the Holy in the objects dressed in royal robes. Holiness is infectious, not just infectious, but contagious, and contagion is lethal.

No one could see the face of God and live. No one could even gaze upon the places where God’s presence had been known to dwell. The people of Israel needed to be protected from the presence of their Holy, wholly consuming God. No mortal could stand in the presence of God and live. One day a year the high priest would gamble with his life and enter the presence of God to plead for his people, but even then he was screened from gazing on God by the veil of incense between them. God is holy, consuming all that is unholy in holy fire that has no equal on this earth. We who are but dust are reduced to ashes in the face of that all-consuming fire. We cannot stand the gaze of God. All that we are, all that we have done, all that has been done to us, all that we want to do is exposed in the heat of God’s nearness. All of our motives and intentions melt away like wax from a wick beneath the inscrutable gaze of the Eternal. God sees us for who we are, and we are undone in the sight of God.

Even though God was leading the Israelite pilgrims to the land of promise in the form of a pillar, the people knew that the holiness of God had in fact not left the building. They had to pack up God’s stuff that had been permeated by God’s presence and therefore still bore traces of Godself. I know that I’m skating on the edge of heresy by suggesting that God left a tangible residue, but the holiness of God is so pervasive, so real, that it supercedes the laws of physics as they pertain to particulate matter. The people of Israel, God’s people, were in more danger from the Holy One in their midst than they ever were from all of the ‘-ites’ surrounding them. [Canaanites, Moabites, Hivites, Hittites, Jebusites, Midianites, you know the -ites…] The power of the presence of God is explosive, and the people needed to be protected. So the priests carried the screening curtain before them so that they couldn’t see the Ark and dressed it in that purple veil. And then they draped the altar of sacrifice in its royal purple gown. The people of God led by the Presence of God were on the move. The color purple represented God’s power contained but not restrained.

Our God has not changed. Our God is still holy. Have we forgotten that we risk our very loves by coming into sacred spaces any old way? Or does God still permeate our sanctuaries in such a way as to leave a trace of the Holy Presence? Is God still here? If so, then we ought to be so very careful coming into the presence of God. We ought to prepare ourselves and even this space. We ought to be wrapped not in purple clothes but in the incense of prayer. And when we move, is it at the leading of God? Are we following God? Or are we going off on our own, waiting for God to catch up with us?

Our second point of refection is the ‘Power of the Passage.’ Let me remind you of the power of the passage in Israelite experience. Out of the crucible of Egyptian slavery, economic exploitation, cultural bias, social oppression, political disenfranchisement, torture, brutality, and attempted genocide God brought a rag-tag mob of refugees. God chose them not because they were the most shining example of humanity, or even because they were the worst, but because they were a useful case-in-point to tell a story. Their passage through the Sea of Reeds was their passage from God’s womb to life as a fledgling nation. God was pregnant with the children of Israel and her labor pains were felt throughout the double kingdom of the Upper and Lower Niles. God had ten contractions and everyone in Egypt felt her pain. Mitzrayim, Egypt in Hebrew, means ‘narrow place;’ from that narrow place God pushed her people into a brave new world. James Weldon Johnson once wrote that at the dawn of creation the great God Almighty like a mammy bending over her children knelt down. I want to suggest that God squatted down over the Sea of Reeds and pushed her squalling newborn nation into the waters that would become bloody with the decomposing bodies of the Egyptians.

The indication of the onset of Divine labor was blood in the water. Then came the birth pains, frogs, gnats, flies, the baby was coming. Next came pestilence, boils and hail, the baby was almost here. Last came locusts, darkness and death; the nation of Israel was born. There is power in the passage.

The power of God that delivered the Hebrew children from the Egyptians did not abate at the Sea of Reeds. That power led them through the wilderness of scorching heat, fire snakes, earthquakes, pestilence and rebellion. The power of God would lead them across the Jordan River in the same manner as their birth from the waters of Egypt. Individuals may not enter a second time into their mother’s wombs, but apparently nations can.

The Israelites never knew where they were going on the way to the land to which they knew they were going. They never knew what awaited them. They thought their journey was all about the destination, because they forgot that there is power in the passage. Their wilderness wandering was as much about the journey as it was about the destination. For it was while they were on the way to where they were going that God revealed Godself to them. It was along the way that God fed them. It was on the road to somewhere that God fed and clothed and healed and protected them. It was before they got to where they were going that God instituted a system of worship in which mortal creatures could commune with their eternal Creator. It was in the midst of the passage of the children of Israel from slavery to freedom that God demonstrated what real, faithful, tender, forgiving divine love was.

What is God bringing us through today? As a people? As a nation? As individuals? Where have we come from and where are we going? Do we appreciate the power of the passage of this wilderness journey through patriotism parading as justice, revenge masquerading as righteousness? Do we understand that people of color are still politically disenfranchised as evidenced by the last so-called election? We are in the wilderness in which there is inadequate health insurance, elder care, day care and minimum wages that couldn’t feed families if God did not still provide manna and quails. Yet there is power in the passage, God is with us, and if we follow, we will be led to the other side as a new people. [I wrote this in 2007 and it is still true.]

‘They shall take away the ashes from the altar, and spread a purple cloth over it.’ The old ashes were removed for the journey to make room for new sacrifices. The ashes came from the burnt offering, the peace offering or offering of wellbeing, the grain offering, the purification or sin offering, and reparation offerings. The burnt offering – ‘ola – from whence we get the word holocaust, was one which was entirely burnt on the altar and so its smoke and scent were directed toward the heavenly realm, leading to a harmonious relationship between humanity and divinity or simply between different peoples. Offerings of wellbeing include the thanksgiving sacrifice, the vowed sacrifice and the freewill offering. The purification or sin offering both restored the sinner and sanctified people and places in situations that have no relation to sin, for example: new mothers, the person suffering from a disease, the Nazirite who completes a vow, or the installation of a new altar. The basic feature of guilt offering is reparation; unlike other sacrifices, this offering could be converted into a monetary equivalent and simply paid to a debtor.

The ashes from all of these offerings were removed in preparation for new sacrifices. The very last point of reflection is that the color purple symbolizes preparation for penitence. Out with the old, and in with the new. It is time to make new sacrifices and offerings. That is what our Lenten pilgrimage is all about, another year’s journey with the LORD, another opportunity for sacrificial offerings, another opportunity to repent for the sins of the past year.

For what do we have to repent as a people and as individuals? Racism, sexism, classism, ageism, heterosexism, Islamophobia. If we have broken one part of the revealed law then we have broken all of it. We are all accountable for abused children, abused elders, rape, incest, hungry bellies and lonely souls, religious violence profaning the Name of God. We who were charged as stewards of this creation are responsible for polluting and misusing its resources. We were charged with building a church without spot or wrinkle, a place of prayer where all people will stream to the mountain of God, and we don’t want to let some folk in the door. Not to mention our own spots and wrinkles all over God’s upholstery.

There is another purple cloth in our scriptures. It was hanging in the Temple that Herod built, enlarging Solomon’s Temple. It was protecting the people from the presence of God, reminding those who knew the old ways of wilderness wandering of the power of the passage. And it hung there in preparation, for one day it would be the banner of penitence. It was a Friday afternoon, just about three o’clock. They tell me that the sun’s light failed and the earth was cold and dark. On a hill far away, there stood an old rugged cross, an emblem of suffering and shame. And on that old cross, hung a thin, ragged, naked man, beaten black and blue and even purple. There was strange fruit hanging from that tree on that Friday afternoon. As the Prince of Peace breathed out his spirit, the earth shook and the rocks split open and the veil in the Temple, you know the one – it was the one that was the color purple – the veil in the Temple split in two.