Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

sermon

Extraordinary and Everyday Saints

Robert Moore
The African Episcopal Church of Saint Thomas

See what love our Creator has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know God. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when God is revealed, we will be like God, for we will see God as ze is. And all who have this hope in God purify themselves, just as ze is pure. 1 John 3:1-3

In the Name of the God who loves us to life and through death back into life:

Beloved, we are God’s children now…as we are, at this very moment. We are God’s children as we are. And we are beloved. As we are. We are loved. I don’t think we can say it or hear it enough especially at the present moment. You are loved as you are, with all of the places you are broken, all the rules you break, you are loved as you are. You don’t have to change to earn or even merit God’s love. You are loved as you are. We are loved as we are. I am loved as I am. This snippet from a non-pastoral epistle is in fact pastoral, far more so for me than the hierarchies of the epistles called pastoral. (Whether First John is even an epistle is a question for another day.)

See what love our Creator has given us, that we should be called children of God. See what love the Womb of Life who birthed us has given us that we might be called her children. See what love the Fount of Creation has for us that we might love ourselves, each other, all that she has made, and collaborate with her in the care of this earth.

See! See that love for you and in you and all around you. Sometimes it is hard to see love in this world, in ourselves, in others whose words, ways, and whims are not lovely, loving or lovable. The imperative, “See!” bids us look, search, seek the love that is in us, that is in the world, and to seek in hope, to seek in faith. Perhaps most of all, to look for the imprint of love on and in the world when there is no evidence of it, when you’ve lost your faith and have nothing to believe in or hope for, even when you’ve stopped believing in love. See! Look for it. That is all you have to do, open your eyes, and perhaps your heart one more time. For God’s love is there, in you, in me, in the world, this world, this broken, crucified and crucifying world, as it is, as we are. See it. See God’s love at work in this too-often loveless world.

The world spends a lot of time telling many of us that we unloved and unworthy of love. But that is a lie. God calls us beloved. We are loved even when we do not or cannot love ourselves. We are loved when others do not or will not love us. And in this gospel—and it is gospel in an epistle that is not an epistle—in this gospel it is an article of faith that we are loved as we are. We don’t have to change who or what we are to be loved. We are enough as we are. Some of us may have had to work to accept that we are loved and worthy of love; some of us may be still doing this work, and others yet to begin it.

Others may wrestle with the beloved status of those who do not love those whom God loves. That God loves us as we are also means that God loves them as they are. Some of us are wrestling with loving folk who hate, loving them while hating what they do and say, teach, preach, and believe.

This breathtaking text is radically egalitarian if you understand its message is not limited to the members of the Jesus movement then or now. The title “children of God” is not limited to Christians in the later scriptures nor to the Israelites in the earlier scriptures; though there are texts in which each group is proclaimed (or proclaims itself) the particular beloved favorite child of God. The notion that we Christians are better beloved by God than our siblings has been the source of much of the pain and violence inflicted on the world and set a pattern for establishing and maintaining other hierarchies, including within Christianity.

The tiny church in the shadow of empire from which this text emerged was a vastly different church than we are. They needed the affirmation of their place in God’s heart in a world that saw them as a heretical Jewish sect at best and a treasonous cabal conspiring against the emperor at worst. Not surprisingly, for that ancient community and those who received and canonized this text along with many of its earliest and some contemporary interpreters, this text only applies to members of the Christian community.

On this day when we celebrate all the saints evoked by this text for the lectionary framers, it’s worth asking who are the saints. Whom do we commemorate today? A post by St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Ivy, VA frames it as “the living and the dead, the revered and the forgotten.” The saints are all the holy people of God, made holy by the work and love of God. As we rightly venerate those holy ones whose life and legacy bear extraordinary witness to the love and power of God, we ought not neglect the everyday holiness of everyday folk. I invite you to think of the folk whose extraordinary holiness and everyday holiness has touched your life and nurtured your faith. Who are the prayer partners and conversation partners who heard your questions and supported you in your doubt. Who are the pastors and professors, Sunday school teachers and skeptics two nurtured your faith? Who are the heretics and hope-dealers whose questions you just couldn’t shake? Who are the writers and thinkers whose words echo across the years and centuries power undimmed? Who are your saints?

The church tends to identify the saints as holy people of God within its own midst, among the baptized faithful. At the same time we recognize the holiness is not the exclusive domain any one community. The saints are “the living and the dead, the revered and the forgotten.”

At this holy season I like to think of as the fall “triduum” we celebrate God’s children on both sides of the grave. On All Hallows Eve we celebrated the powerlessness of the realm of death and all it terrors, celebrating the sweetness of life, teaching our children that ghosts and goblins are as empty of power over us as are the costumes in their image. Or maybe we just dressed up, got drunk and gave out candy and ate too much of it. Today on the Feast of All Saints we celebrate the living and the dead and tomorrow we will celebrate and remember the holy dead who yet live on All Souls Day.

These three days are built on the tradition of the Communion of the saints, the interconnectedness of the family of God between the living and those beyond death. We are not only the beloved children of God, we are her children and part of a family that transcends space and time and death. That holy communion, the communion of the saints, is for many of us a lively space in which we commune with our ancestors and those we love who have gone before us whether at a Dia de los Muertos shrine, family grave or in the sanctuary of our prayer. The communion of the saints is one of the often neglected spaces in which testimonies of God’s love abound and extend to us in the love of those who have gone before. Praying to and through the saints is a venerable and often misunderstood practice. Prayer is conversation. Invoking the aid of those who can see clearly from beyond the veil of death is no different than asking those on this side of death for their aid and prayers. Who are your saints?

Beloved we are loved. We are God’s children. We are the saints of God whom others will call holy and on whom others yet unborn will call in prayer. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when God is revealed, we will be like God, for we will see God as ze is. Amen.


The Forehead of a Whore


#MeToo. I am one of the many, many women who have been targeted, touched, sexually harassed or assaulted and lived to tell the tale. But all of us did not survive our attackers. We were exposed to that which we did not want to see or touch, forced to experience that to which we did not consent. We were at home in our beds, at school in the bathroom, in the doctor’s office under sedation, walking home, at a trusted friend’s apartment, in the arms of a lover, on our grandfather’s lap, at work and at church.

And when we mustered up the strength to tell, they asked: What were you wearing? What were you doing there/with him/that late? Didn’t you have sex with him or someone else earlier that day/week/year?

As a biblical scholar, what I hear them saying, those folks who ask why you didn’t tell then don’t believe you when you do, what I hear them saying is: You have the forehead of a whore.

Have you ever noticed that Israel and Judah become female when the prophets want to use sexualized rhetoric to shame and verbally batter them? On the one hand it’s: out of Egypt have I called my son (Hosea 11:1), and on the other: You have polluted the land with your whoring (here in Jeremiah 3). It is: I will surely gather all of you, O Jacob, (Mic 2:12), and: a spirit of whoredom has led my people astray, (Hos 4:12). There is: How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? (Hos 11:18) And then there is: you have the forehead of a whore and you refuse to be ashamed.

When we talk about the rape culture that permeates every facet of our society—and we need to talk about it—we also need to talk about the rape culture that permeates the text we hold sacred and acknowledge that every sexist and misogynistic reading of scripture is not merely a matter of poor biblical interpretation. Sometimes the trouble is in the text itself. But I believe in a God, who though she can be found in, and is revealed by the text, is not limited to or by the text and its limitations. I believe in a God who transcends the text and is not revealed in literal or literary rape rhetoric.

I also believe Jeremiah’s preaching would benefit if he had a womanist conversation partner. A womanist is a black woman whose feminism is so rich, deep, thick, broad, and wide, it moves beyond the mere self-interest of paler feminisms to embrace the wellbeing of the whole community. Womanism is brash, bold, and brazen—like the forehead of a whore. Womanism is womanish and talks back—with a hand upon her hip. And if you don’t mind, I’m going to be so womanist, so womanish, that I’m going to talk back to Jeremiah this morning. And I just believe that the God who answered Rebekah’s prayer when she thought her pregnancy was going to kill her can bear the weight of critical reflection. It’s a mighty poor excuse for a god that cannot bear scrutiny.

So let us take a womanist walk through the text together. In our lesson today, Jeremiah is speaking out of his culture and identity. He is saying: In my day, men don’t take a woman back whom they have divorced, and even those who would, will not if she has moved on to someone else. But I am here to tell you this morning that God will take us back no matter where we have gone, what we have done, or what has been done to us.

Jeremiah is saying a woman who has moved on is polluted. But I am here to tell you what our ancestors passed down because womanist wisdom is motherwit and ancestral wisdom: the love of God reaches from the uttermost to the gutter-most. Ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no valley low enough, to keep God’s from loving you.

In Jeremiah’s sermonic analogy, the woman like—some in his congregation and perhaps in this one—was put out. We know that because women in ancient Israel didn’t have the ability to divorce. They were divorced. And now that she has moved on and picked up the pieces of her life the best way she knows how, he wants to call her out of her name. You know black women don’t stand for that.

Abandoned black women have been making a way out of no way while being called out of our names for more than four hundred years on this continent. And even if some daughter of God chooses a strategy for survival that does not represent the best God has in store for her, she is still never separate from the love or faithfulness of God.

Jeremiah’s analogy doesn’t hold water with me because doesn’t break God’s promises, commitments or covenants. God has never divorced or abandoned God’s people. But God’s people have been hurt, on God’s watch. Israel and Judah fell. Their people were enslaved by one regime after another, defeated, deported, disbanded, diasporized. Their daughters subject to all the violence Jeremiah uses in his sermon. We too have been harmed. Our people were subject to the same depredations.

Jeremiah here is like a lot of folk who want to know what you did that made it possible for this catastrophe to happen to you. He sounds almost like a prosperity preacher. He asks with no pastoral presence whatsoever, where have you not been violated? Jeremiah is confusing sex and rape and blaming the cast off woman for what has happened to her in his own metaphor. For Jeremiah, like some folk in our time, being raped makes you a whore. In verse 2, the word shugalt’ is passive. (The root שגל means abducted and ravaged.) It means to have been violated. You didn’t do it; it was done to you. There is no preposition indicating participation, no “with,”  no consent. When Isaiah uses the same word the text says, “ravished,” (Isa 13:16); in Zechariah (14:2) it is “raped.” The reason some women and men can’t stand up and say #MeToo is some folk will blame them for their own rape thinking and saying: You have the forehead of a whore.

Bishop Yvette Flunder taught us that as preachers and theologians the prophets and epistle-writing apostles are our colleagues and we can respectfully disagree with them. I say to Jeremiah what I would say to any preacher, male or female, ancient or contemporary, you don’t have to sexualize, brutalize, or slut-shame women to call the people back to the God who loves them more parent or partner. Your prophetic vocabulary is too rich to be limited to that misanthropic trope. You can do better. You need to do better. God’s people deserve better. And God requires better of you. Stop being petty Jeremiah. Jealous ex doesn’t look good on God. God is bigger than that.

Some might say that’s just the way it was or everybody spoke like that back then. After all we’re talking about the Iron Age, not the most progressive of times. Well I’m here to tell you that the prophets Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Nathan, Gad, Iddo, Elijah, Elisha, Obadiah, Jonah, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi never once fixed their lips to pass off their pornotropic fantasies as the word of God. Jesus never used that language, perhaps because that’s how some folk talked about his mama.

Not all prophets use the specter of rape as God’s punishment for sin. Not all prophets call God’s people whores. But Jeremiah did and he wasn’t alone; Isaiah and Ezekiel, Hosea and Nahum fall into what I call homiletical heresy. Out of one side of their mouths they proclaim Israel and Judah are God’s beloved daughters. On the other side of their mouths, or perhaps talking out of their necks, when Israel and Judah fall and fail as do all finite and frail human beings and institutions, they suddenly become these brazen whores who deserve to be beaten and raped because that’s what you do when you catch your woman cheating on you, in their world view which is not mine, nor is it God’s, in spite of what texts like these say. The very idea is rooted in the sanctification of physical and sexual domestic violence.

The Dean of womanist biblical interpretation, the Rev. Dr. Renita Weems taught us why the prophets use such language, (in Battered Love). They did the best they knew if not the best they could. They used what they saw in their world and in themselves, and recounted a God who looked more like an Iron Age warrior king bigger and badder than the one next door than a God whose grace and mercy are sufficient and unmerited. They used human relational paradigms to describe their relationship with God but humans and our institutions are fatally flawed. Humans can turn any relationship, system or institution designed for love and nurture, caring, companionship, and mutual support, liberation and justice, into violent abusive parodies of their intended purpose. All of the models Israel has given us are flawed because they are human as we are human.

We say God is the righteous judge of all flesh. But we know that justice is not blind. She sees skin color and bank balances and perverts justice accordingly. We know that judges are partial and though we may say that God is not, we like Israel expect God to judge in our favor whether we are right or wrong.

We say God is our parent, some say father; some say mother. Our ancestors said God is a mother to the motherless and a father to the fatherless. But sadly we know mother and father are not always pillars of safety and security. They can be violent, abusive, and emotionally crippling. The scriptures portray God as loving father but also one who rages against his children. And like any other Iron Age male in the bible God is invested in controlling the sexual purity of women whose value is tied up in their virginity, ability to make babies, and the degree to which they were under male control. Interestingly, when the scriptures portray God as mother she is not as violent.

We have been taught to say God is king but kings in the ancient world were warlords who secured their thrones with the broken and battered bodies of their enemies, often killing their wives and children.

We have been taught to say God is lord and master but those are slaveholding terms. And slaves in the ancient world as in our own ancestry were used like beasts of burden, maimed, raped, sold, and killed with neither thought nor consequence. Even when lord becomes a title of nobility it still rests on the notion of some human beings lorded over others.

We have been taught to say God is husband but it is in the role of husband that the prophets who proclaim liberation also proclaim words of violence rooted in violence against women and call it the word of God.

You have the forehead of a whore…

Jeremiah heard and spoke for God in and through the vernacular of his culture. From our perch in this century we see and hear differently through our own vernacular. I know it seem like I’ve been rough on Jeremiah. But I’m not giving up on him anymore than I’m giving up on any other passage in the bible that fails to live up to or into God’s liberating love. I’m just going to follow the example of Jesus who said, you have seen it written, but I say unto you…

You have seen it written, “You have the forehead of a whore.” But I say unto you:

You have the forehead of the kind of woman some men, especially religious men like Jeremiah, will call a whore. You have the forehead of a woman who will make her own decisions about her body and sexuality. You have the forehead of a woman who will decide for herself whether or when to have children. You have the forehead of a woman who will not submit to male domination in or out of the sacred texts. You have the forehead of a woman who will resist theology and biblical interpretation that does not affirm who you are, who and how you love, or who God created you to be. You have the forehead of a woman whom men will call a whore to put you in your place. You have the forehead of a woman who is unbought and unbosssed. You have the forehead of a woman who has survived rape and sexual assault and domestic violence. You have the forehead of a woman who has been blamed for the violence others visited upon her person and you brazenly rejected it.

You are brazen in your womanishness. You brazenly talk back to the text and its God. You brazenly talk back to Jeremiah and say you can miss me with that whore talk. And you can tell him: But I’m with you on the God who calls backsliders (משבה) and backstabbers (בגודה) to faithfulness. I’m down with the God who says, I will not fall on you in anger, for I am faithful. And yes, you can have it both ways. You don’t have to subject yourself to Iron Age brutality or theology to turn to the God Jeremiah burdens with the biases of his culture.

At the end of our lesson God promises to give her people shepherds after her own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding. In Jeremiah’s context, that meant restoring the monarchy, but those days are long gone. In our time shepherds are priests, preachers, and pastors, not presidents or potentates.

Through Jeremiah who has survived this womanist critique, God promises to send us shepherds who will feed us with knowledge and understanding. I know there are some shepherds out there preaching like it’s still the Iron Age, talking about women and our bodies like we’re everything but daughters of God. But when God sends the shepherd, her heart will be patterned after God’s heart and she will leave you with knowledge not shame, understanding, not name-calling.

Then we can create a world where all men teach other men and boys not to rape, where there are no women or men, girls or boys who are violated or violate another’s body or consent. Then we will stop equating rape with sex. Then we will stop punishing women for being raped or having sex. Then we will hear women and men who say #MeToo. Then we will be empowered to use the richness of our theological imaginations to name God in ways that don’t hurt or harm.

Jewish poet Ruth Brin, (A Woman’s Meditation), put it this way:
When men were children, they thought of God as a father; When men were slaves, they thought of God as a master; 
When men were subjects, they thought of God as a king. 
But I am a woman come not a slave, not a subject, not a child who longs for God as father or mother. I might imagine God as a teacher or friend, but those images, like king, master, father or mother, are too small for me now. God is the force of motion and light in the universe; 
God is the strength of life on our planet; God is the power moving us to do good; God is the source of love springing up in us. 
God is far beyond what we can comprehend.

No one has the right to call you a whore to put you in the place they think you belong. But if they do, tell them: I have the forehead of a whore and I am not ashamed.

Jeremiah 3:1 Look here! If a man divorces his wife and she goes from him
and becomes another man’s wife, will he return to her?
Would not such a land be greatly polluted?
You have played the whore with many lovers; would you return to me, says the Holy One.
2 Lift your eyes upon the bare heights, and see! Where have you not been violated?
By the waysides you have sat waiting for lovers, like a nomad in the wilderness.
You have polluted the land with your whoring and wickedness.
3 So, rain showers have been withheld, and the late rain has not come;
yet you have the forehead of a whore, you refuse to be ashamed.
4 Have you not just now called to me, “My Father, you are the companion of my youth!
5 Will God be angry forever, will God rage for eternity?”
This is how you have spoken, but you have done all the evil you could.
6 The Holy One said to me in the days of King Josiah, “Have you seen what backsliding Israel did, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and whored there? 7 I said, ‘After she has done all this she will return to me’; but she did not return, and her backstabbing sister Judah saw it. 8 Surely I saw it; for because of all the adulteries backsliding Israel committed, I put her out and gave her a divorce decree; yet her backstabbing sister Judah did not fear, so she also went and whored. 9 Because she took her whoredom lightly, she polluted the land, committing adultery with stone and wood. 10 Yet for all this her backstabbing sister Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but only in deceit,” says the Holy One.
11   Then the Holy One said to me, “Backsliding Israel has shown herself less guilty than backstabbing Judah. 12 Go, and proclaim these words toward the north, and say:
Turn back, backsliding Israel, says the Holy One.
I will not fall on you in anger, for I am faithful, says the Holy One; I will not be angry forever.
13 Only acknowledge your guilt, that you have rebelled against the Holy One your God,
and there are paths to you for strangers scattered under every green tree, 
and my voice you all have not obeyed, says the Holy One.
14 Return, O backsliding children, says the Holy One,
for I am your master; I will take you all, 
one from a city and two from a family, and I will bring you all to Zion.
15 And I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.

 
Translation by the Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D.+


The Bull in the Church Isn’t Idolatry

 

 

 

Exodus 32:1-14

Moses came down from the mountain where he experienced the glory of God face to face to discover that there was some bull in the Israelite community. They were worshipping bull at the foot of God’s holy mountain. They had their bull all up in God’s face when they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”

            We have our own bull in the church. Who are the idol-makers in the church? There’s a lot of bull in the church. And we know better. We have three thousand years of faith stories to tell us who God is. And we have more than these sacred stories our ancestors passed down. We have our experiences of and with God. We have what our eyes have seen. We know who God is and we know there is no substitute for God. We have no excuse for bowing down before that which we know is not God.

            And at the same time, I have a lot of sympathy for the Israelites here. Really. I know the bull is problematic, but there is more to the story. They had stories of God. And they had their ancestors’ experiences of God. And they had their own hard experiences. They were enslaved for centuries. Elders watched their children and grandchildren be born into the same brutal estate in which they would die, dreaming of but never seeing freedom. We don’t always get our prayers answered, for us, in our generation. Sometimes the beneficiaries of our prayers are the next generation, people we may not even get to meet. For every Israelite who marched out with Moses there were entire families dead and buried who did not live to see that day. God did not save them. God did not free them. Some of them surely gave up on God who seemed to have given up on them.

            And then this man Moses came along. He was one of them but he didn’t share their fate. He didn’t live under the lash. He wasn’t kept hungry enough to work but not full enough to rise up. But living like a prince wasn’t good enough for him; he threw away the good life and ran off to have one adventure after another. And now, here he is saying the God of your ancestors, our ancestors, spoke to me. Oh, he had signs and wonders, but so did Pharaoh’s magicians.

            Somehow he convinced Pharaoh to let the people go. Maybe it was the power of God. Surely God opened the waters like that. But why didn’t the pillar of cloud and fire take them straight to freedom, blazing a path across the desert? Was God lost? Because Moses sure was. They should have been able to cross the Sinai desert in eleven days. Even going to Mt. Sinai first should have not even taken a month. Yet it would take them forty years, walking over their own footsteps, passing under Canaan then crossing the river from the other side. Two months into the journey they ran out of food, (Ex 16). They ate up their few provisions, went hungry and thirsty, and the solution was hitting a rock (Ex 17:1-7), scraping up something that was probably an insect by-product, and happening across the occasional flock of quails. They are hungry and frightened. They had just escaped slavery and no one knew how long that would last. The world’s greatest army is on their track.

            Along the way they were attacked by the Amalekites who were supposed to be their kinfolk, (Ex 17:8). Moses didn’t lead them to freedom. He led them in circles, to hunger, thirst, and war. Then there was the gossip about Moses. He sent his wife packing and her father publically brought her back to him, (Ex 18:2). Maybe he got lost because he was preoccupied. All of that in the first three months, (Ex 19:1).

            But then again, there was that moment at Sinai when they saw a mountain that was not a volcano on fire, and they heard thunder and trumpets from heaven playing a duet while lightning danced a solo. They heard God declaim the Ten Commandments for themselves. They stayed in that place, in sight of the mountain that quaked and smoked for a long time. While Moses and God discussed the fine points of nation and community building and worship and liturgy they were on their own. In the inhospitable desert. No closer to freedom.

            No one had seen Moses in days, weeks, or even longer. According to Exodus 24:18 Moses was with God for forty days and forty nights which is the Hebrew equivalent of a month of Sundays. God and Moses promised the people a land flowing with milk and honey but they are still here in the desert and as our lesson says, no one knew what happened to Moses, if he was alive or dead on that mountain. They gave up on him, and God.

            We can say what they woulda, shoulda, oughta do. But we have our own bull. Our idols are not statues or icons—though sometimes the liturgy can be an idol in the Episcopal Church. The bull we worship is whiteness and patriarchy and sexism and guns and money and fame and power and sex and our imaginations about how it used to never be and never will be again… We worship other people’s opinions and their possessions and our own. We worship people who don’t love us or even respect us. We devote our time, our money, our resources, our passion to everyone and everything but God, sometimes. Sometimes. American bull has become the church’s bull. We worship anthems and flags idolizing patriotism, sometimes even in church. And yet none of these things, like Israel’s bull is inherently evil. It is our worship of them. Prioritizing them over God and God’s priorities, the flourishing and wellbeing of God’s children, starting with the least, the last and the lost.

            Now Aaron and the guys built this bull trying to connect to the One who had brought them this far. They weren’t really looking for another God. They just didn’t know how to be in relationship with the God who seemed so distant even though they were at the foot of God’s mountain. They had become so dependent on Moses they didn’t think they could speak to or hear from God without him. Aaron had already been ordained a priest, (Ex 28:41). It’s safe to say he failed his first parish assignment. And where was the prophet Miriam? The text says Aaron sent the men to rip out, פרק, not just take off, the earrings of their wives, daughters, and sons. (The rabbis read this to mean that Miriam and the other women fought them but lost.)

            Then God, God starting snorting just like a bull. There’s a reason the Israelites so often identified God as a bull. In the old written language before the more familiar Hebrew letters, the first sign in the word God was an image of a bull. And when the text talks about God’s wrath burning hot, the literal expression is God’s nose or nostrils, just like a bull. God is so angry, smoke is pouring out of God’s nostrils. Add to that, in the text, God is rather bull headed. Moses has to talk God out of killing the Israelites by shaming God. The Egyptians are already talking bad about you, what with the killing of the first-born and all. If you kill your own people, you’ll never live it down!

            Then God changes God’s mind. Moses reminds God of God’s promises, at the same time reminding the people. I love that Moses prayed for people who were flat out wrong. He fully expected God to redeem and liberate people who were flawed and had already failed to live up to God’s expectation, because a God that expects perfection is an idol. God and Moses show the people that God hears and responds and that good prayer is sometimes giving God a piece of your mind. A God who can’t take it is an idol, not worth our worship.

            False constructions of god are sculpted out of more than color and shape. For some, god is the only one who hates the folk they love to hate more than they do. God is more than our symbols, images, and language.

            I don’t claim to know what God looks like. But I know who God is. God is a pillar of smoke by day and tower of fire by night. God is a rock in a weary land. God is mother to the motherless and a father the fatherless. God is the restorer of broken hearts, minds and bodies. God is an outstretched wing and a strong right arm. God is shepherd and sacrificial lamb. God is a still, small voice and the sound of roaring thunder.

            In the Psalm, (106:1-6, 19-23), God is the one who is worthy of all or praise, whose witness is passed down from generation to generation. In the Epistle, (Philippians 4:1-9), God is the one who builds bridges between broken hearts, mending the relationship between Euodia and Syntyche. And God is the one who called those women to peach and pastor. And in the Gospel, (Matthew 22:1-14), God is the one who welcomes all to the table, both good and bad.

            God is Sovereign, Savior and Shelter. God is the Author, the Word and the Translator. God is Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer and Life-Giver. God is Majesty, Mercy and Mystery. God is Divine Love, the Eternal Beloved, and the Faithful Lover. God is. God is beyond all language and imagination.

            A God who is anything less than Life, Liberation and, Love is an idol and that is some bull. The Israelites would continue to build bulls, some as God and some as thrones for God. We are not much different. Who are the idol-makers in the church? Who is bringing bull into the church? And perhaps more importantly, how do we clean it up?

In the Name of God, Potter, Vessel, and Holy Fire. Amen.

 

 

 


When Scripture is Violent

 

Pixaby

I love the Hebrew Scriptures and their stories but I understand why some folk have a hard time with them, particularly as scripture. Many of these epic stories include epic episodes of violence, sometimes at the bequest of God, sometimes enacted by God. It is easy to treat these stories like novels, movies, or video games, something we enjoy then put down to return to real lives where we do not behave like those characters. Speaking for myself, I love action movies: crime capers, shoot ‘em ups, superheroes, intergalactic battles, the occasional vampire or werewolf rampaging…

There is a difference, I believe, between turning to a movie or book you know is fiction for entertainment and reading your scriptures for inspiration, guidance, to discern God’s voice, or for a pattern on which to model your life. We are in a time when we are reassessing our ancestral legacies as a nation and as Church, and grappling with the horrific violence that is often our unwelcome inheritance. We are having serious conversations—when we’re not shouting at each other—about what to do with the physical reminders of our painful past, not just statues, but also churches in which all of the images of the holy people of God are white people. In these conversations I understand my role as a biblical scholar and priest to be to help us think about the ways in which we, nation and Church, have used the stories of scripture to harm rather than heal.

I also know that not all of the harm resulting from our interaction with the scriptures is just a matter of poor interpretation or even my personal nemesis, bad translation. Sometimes the stories themselves are the problem, and sometimes a well-worn and beloved story suddenly starts to look and sound different—like when you first started to understand how violent and downright gruesome some fairytales and nursery rhymes really are.

Sometimes the violence in scripture is illustrative and reflective, it tells some hard truths about who human beings have been and continue to be. Sometimes the violence in scripture encourages us to choose sides, good guys/bad guys, and we may find ourselves cheering for what happens to them, because they deserve it for what they did to us.

Exodus 14 tells the saga of the Red Sea crossing, one of the great stories in our heritage. Our lesson begins in verse 19 where the Israelites are safely ensconced in the wings of divine protection on their perilous journey. There is an angel in font of them and God herself, the divine hijabi, veiled in the pillar of cloud and fire behind them, protecting them from the army that wants to drag them back in chains to slavery. It is no small irony that the founders of this nation, who identified themselves with Israel and as God’s chosen, felt no compunction about enslaving others even as they celebrated Israel’s own deliverance from slavery. But then again, to tell the truth—especially in church—neither did Israel. They went on to be a slaveholding nation as well.

But at this point in the story assigned to us today, Israel is walking into their liberation, guided and guarded by God. Then God enables Moses to open the sea. We can imagine the spectacle much more easily than our ancestors because we have movies with special effects like CGI. Some of the disaster movies are better than the many versions of the Ten Commandments and other bible epics at portraying waters that reach up and out as far as the eye can see.

Understandably, the Egyptians flee. But that isn’t good enough. In the text God tells Moses to put the waters back in place which will drown the Egyptian soldiers. The text doesn’t care about the Egyptian soldiers as people, who have lives, families and loved ones, whose lives have value. In the text and in their world the Egyptian soldiers were simply an extension of the Pharaoh and they become casualties in his losing contest with God, one that he could not back down from even when he wanted to because God hardened his heart and made him stay in a losing fight. These are difficult portrayals of God mixed in with the shepherding sheltering images that are much more inviting and trustworthy.

This is not the one-dimensional God of our childhood’s faith. This is a complex and complicated character who is often inscrutable. The scriptures teach we are made in the image of God while offering a God who sometimes seems to be made in the image of humanity, showcasing all the worst parts. I ask my students if these portrayals tell us more about who God is or more about who ancient folk were and how they understood God. Sometimes I find it’s one, sometimes the other, sometimes a bit of both.

Can we, as thoughtful readers still treasure this story of divine deliverance without celebrating the deaths of men whose families would ache for their loss as much as you would for your brother, father, husband, or son? I believe we can because what makes these texts scripture, the living word of a living God, is their ability to transcend their context and its limitations even when it is reflected in their content. Indeed the psalm models that for us. Psalm 114 remembers the exodus by celebrating God’s power over the elements. It doesn’t glorify or gloat over the loss of life—though other psalmists will. Savoring the richness of scripture means savoring its complexity the way we savor bitter and sweet mingled on our tongues.

I find the gospels are increasingly bittersweet. There we encounter in Jesus an image of God that is radical and revolutionary, and rooted in the culture and context into which Jesus was born. Jesus models and teaches a beloved community and sovereign realm that is and will be nothing like the petty vicious kingdoms of this world yet does so using the same language that describes them, the language of kings and slaves, both of which are inherently violent concepts. And when Jesus teaches us how to live and love in this world that is being transformed by his redemption of it and us, his language and teaching examples often include the irredeemable practice of slavery without critique.

This too is violent. There is real danger in normalizing or even minimizing the brutality that underlies slaveholding in the ancient world, in the scriptures, in our own past, and at the present moment when black lives are taken without consequence. Yet, I am convinced that neither the casual violence of slavery as an inescapable element of the biblical world nor the romanticizing of God as a king in a world when kings were little more than warlords, nor even the graphic violence in some of scripture’s great stories are grounds for leaving it behind. Rather they call us to listen, read, and hear deeply, what the Spirit is saying to her people.

In Matthew 18 Jesus tells a story to answer Peter’s question how often he has to forgive his sister or bother, meaning another Christian. Rather than focus on this text as a how-to-resolve-conflict-in-the-Church resource, which is a fine reading, I want to point out that Peter is talking about a world in which there is still an us and a them. He feels no moral responsibility to anyone outside their circle. He doesn’t consider that he has an ethical obligation to them the same as he does to those who are part of his community. Forgiveness is what God demands; it is justice in this text. And Peter like too many folk in our justice system and wider society have different ideas about justice when it comes to us and them.

In response to Peter’s question Jesus tells the story of a king and his slaves, their debt, and its consequences presenting an opportunity for us to examine the way we read scripture then to read more deeply. For example, we hear Jesus tell a story about a king and may get ahead of ourselves and say, “I know how this works. God is king. Done. Got it. Next.” But is the king in this parable God? I sure hope not. Just because Jesus is telling the story and using this character to teach us doesn’t make the king God or even a good example to follow.

Look at this guy. The king’s first impulse when his slave fails is to sell him, his wife, and their children. That is the opposite of the God who saves, delivers, redeems, and liberates though we hear this kind of theology all the time, in and out of the bible. I don’t believe in a God who sells people into slavery to punish them. Then, when the king hears that the first slave failed to show the mercy he was shown, the king had him tortured. That is not my God. But there are many who believe in a God who punishes with tornado and hurricane and every bad thing that befalls a person or community. You can hear them on TV blaming the storms or earthquakes or devastating diseases on other people and their supposed or imagined sins. The king in this parable makes an insufficient, inadequate and, unworthy God. We can look to him no more for justice than we can look to a society that has not exorcised the demon of white supremacy for justice.

The gospel in the text is not that God is a king who can do whatever he wants to a person so you’d better watch out, that is a deeply impoverished theology. Rather, the gospel in the text is that even a person of immense privilege whose wealth results from the exploitation of other human beings is made in the image of God and has the capacity to do the right thing which the king demonstrates in forgiving his slave. Yes, the gospel is that we ought to forgive one another, especially in the church but a deep reading reveals so much more. The gospel is also that the king relinquishes his claim on some of the benefits conferred on him by the privilege he held in an unjust society. And the gospel is that however much privilege you have in society when you’re not at the top, you still have the agency and holy responsibility to act justly, particularly to those who are vulnerable.

This gospel also tells us what we already know, that people who are ground down by oppression oppress others in turn. That helps me understand the passage in Exodus. Israel who had been enslaved and oppressed, defeated, conquered, occupied, deported and occupied again and again by the Egyptians, Assyrians and Babylonians and later the Persians, Greeks and Romans, tells its sacred stories in such a way that they could envision a god who would not forgive what they could not.

Yet God is present in that troubling text, in the waters and on the dry land, with the drowning Egyptians and with the liberated Israelites. God is present in all of creation and with all of her children. She reminds us we are not limited by our history and need not be hindered by our heritage. More importantly, God is not limited by or to our limitations, imagination or theology. The God who loves invites us into relationship with her and each other and in that space there is no enemy, friend, sister, brother, king or slave, only Love, the Beloved, and those who love. Amen.

 


The Woman Who Changed Jesus

 

There are certain ways that the church tends to focus on the humanity of Jesus, especially at certain times of the year. I’ve just spent a week and Bethlehem and have Advent and Christmas on my mind. At Advent we marvel that the fullness of God could be contained in a tiny baby with clutching fingers and curling toes. For some of the ancients, it was a scandal that God was nourished in and passed through intimate womanflesh. In Passion Week we contemplate the horror of a crucified God, tortured and executed by an unjust state, placed back in the arms of the mother who nursed him, and who watched him die. In between we make note of the signs of his humanity and mortality: his hunger, thirst, and naps, his friendships with their attendant joys and sorrows, weddings and funerals, and even sneaking off as a child and exasperating his mother.

I have not heard a lot of reflection or speculation on Jesus’s humanity beyond what is indicated by the holy texts. It seems we don’t like to think of his humanity in terms that make us uncomfortable, particularly those aspects of ourselves with which we still wrestle, like sexuality and sexual orientation. We don’t talk in the church about what it means that Jesus was an adult sexually mature human male who survived puberty with all of its impulses and urges. Did he suffer the indignity of his voice cracking when he told his mother he was about his Father’s business? Did he have that one pimple that just wouldn’t go away? To be human is to be at turns itchy and scratchy and dirty and smelly. The incarnation is a much more down to earth gospel than we may be comfortable imagining.

First, Jesus went to the beach, as you do. Because Galilee is hot—not as hot as Texas, I literally went to the Middle East to get a break from the Texas heat. But the Galil is hot, two changes of clothes a day hot—in August, but we really don’t know when this was. Even in the winter chill the beach is still a destination for some. If you look a map of Israel in the first century, you’ll notice not only that Tyre and Sidon are sea towns, but perhaps more importantly, they are outside of Herod’s territory. Jesus just wanted to get away and stay off of the police radar.

Here he is on vacation, low key famous, perhaps infamous, and here comes a woman calling, yelling, after him. Not just any woman, a Canaanite woman. Jesus was fully but not generically human. He was a first century Palestinian Jewish man who was religiously observant and a product of his culture, including its biases. Israel claimed God had given them Canaanite land, a notion the Canaanites did not share, and Israel occupied the land of Canaan every bit as much as Rome occupied Israel. Add to that the Israelite notions about Canaanites were no more generous than Roman ideas about the Jews. Perhaps more germane to us, as a Canaanite, specifically a Phoenician, she was a Gentile—like us—and Jesus is not shy about his opinions of Gentiles in Matthew’s gospel.

Initially, Jesus did not seem to understand his ministry to be to the Gentiles, to us. He says to his disciples earlier in this same gospel (Matthew 10:5-6): Do not go any way leading to Gentiles, and do not enter any Samaritan town, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. All of the ministry that follows is to be to his people. Not us. Jesus has decided who will receive the gospel and we are not on the list.

He also says (Matthew 5:47): If you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” That is not a compliment. (Matthew 6:7-8): When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them… That’s not very nice either. (Matthew 6:31-32): Do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. Whatever you do, don’t pray like a Gentile. And notice that in Jesus’s language, God is their heavenly Father, [not ours. At least not yet.]

Some of you may need to release the death grip you have on your pearls right about now. You might be thinking, “I believe in the Incarnation, but this Jesus is a little too human.” To be human is not actually such a bad thing—I say from experience. For to be human is to be made in the image of God with something of her capacity to love, and to be human is to learn and grow and change, to open up our hearts and minds, expand our beliefs and relinquish our biases. I believe Jesus shares some of this with us else he wouldn’t be fully human.

We are at our best as human beings when we listen to and learn from someone who is so different from us that everything in our culture and raising tells us she is other. This woman whose name isn’t important to the gospel—just her otherness—is in the land of her ancestors to which the Israelites and their Jewish descendants were more recent arrivals. But they see her as foreign—like Mexicans in Texas. She cries out that she needs help for her daughter. She is a desperate mother. Her child is afflicted by something that prevents her from living fully in the image of God. Something in her is broken in some way, physically, spiritually, emotionally, psychologically. And Jesus doesn’t say a mumbling word. He ignores her.

Right about now I want to pull Jesus to the side and have a few words with him. In my prayers, I say all those things. It helps me and doesn’t hurt him. Since he doesn’t acknowledge her, his disciples take a cue from him and urge him to get rid of her because she keeps yelling, after them. Not one of them asked if he would or could help or why he wouldn’t. Then Jesus says what he has said before, I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. The gospel doesn’t say that he says those words to her. He just says it loud enough for her to hear. She is undeterred. You could say that she persisted.

She kneels at his smelly, dusty, human, man feet to beg the man from another culture who hasn’t said one word to her to help her daughter. She begs him again, Lord help me. The gospels use “lord” (capital L) as a religious title for God and therefore Jesus, but it is also the title of slave masters, which is why I don’t use it in my prayers. At the same time she is the image of the faithful Christian petitioning her Lord—though from the Israelite and Jewish perspective she would have been considered an idolater—she is also a free woman abasing herself at the feet of a man from the historic enemies of her people like a slave. Her people worshipped Baal and the Phoenician god Melkart. Yet here she is at the feet of Jesus, calling him Lord.

Finally Jesus speaks. I would help you but… He doesn’t say that part aloud but I can hear it behind the gospel text. He says, It isn’t fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs. She and her daughter are dogs in his proverb and in his mouth. Ancient Israelites and Jews in the first century and rabbinic period despised dogs. They were unclean scavengers that ate dead flesh. An orthodox rabbi once told me he’d even never heard of an orthodox rabbi who owned a dog. Jesus has for all intents and purposes called this woman a bitch and she leans in to his proverb to turn it back on him. She said, Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their lord’s table. She uses the same word, lord, throughout I believe challenging him to show what kind of “lord” he will be. Loving God or slavemaster?

In that moment, something happened to and in Jesus. He starts looking and sounding like the Jesus we know and love. He praises her faith—faith in him as Lord? Faith that as a man who had his own mother he would do the right thing? Faith that whatever it was she had heard about the man called the Son of David was true? Faith that there was more to him than the first impression suggested?—He healed her daughter in that very moment.

She left that place with her daughter (whom we never see and don’t know was even present) restored to wholeness, and Jesus left that place walking towards a whole new understanding of his ministry. The closing words of this gospel, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” teach us that Jesus has made room at the table for everyone, Jew and Gentile alike, because, I believe, of this woman.

In spite of the open welcoming arms of Jesus, everyone hasn’t always been welcome at the table, not in the United States, not in the Church. We have a history of genocide here, particularly in the West, including right here in Texas; the attempted eradication of Native Americans was largely successful for many tribal communities. And we have our own holocaust, the Maafa, the Middle Passage during which two million Africans died before they reached these shores in chains and another 10-15 million died on forced marches between the dock and auction block. Twelve to seventeen million who didn’t survive long enough to be enslaved. (The Digital History Project from the School of Education at the University of Houston)

And we have our own history of white supremacy in the Church, nor all of which is history. The creation and deployment of white jesus remain an enduring witness to a theology and world view that not only misrepresents Jesus and his Afro-Asiatic people but conflates whiteness and divinity.

Our history is an open wound bleeding all over our hopes and dreams, so long untended that its infection is poisoning the whole body. We have not learned from Israel who survived a holocaust, Germany who perpetrated a holocaust or Rwanda who survived and perpetrated a holocaust that you have to confront it. Tell the stories, learn from them, lament them. In the language of the church, confess, and repent. Silence about our sins breeds the corruption that lies about or denies who we are and what we have done.

One of the truths we have to tell is that the bible is a slaveholding document from a slaveholding era. We have to tell the truth that the bible justifies the Israelite’s terrible ethnic biases and even ethnic cleansings, against other peoples in the name of God, and that we used that language to justify slavery an these shores and wiping out our own Canaanites. And, we have to tell the truth that Jesus never condemned slavery, used the language of slavery as though it was normal, and in some cases, healed or raised folk who then went back to being slaves. [That’s really hard for me because I sing with my ancestors: Before I’d be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.].

Yet, this same Jesus also shows us what it is to be human, to wrestle with ancestral legacies of bias. The Syro-Phoenician woman and her daughter are not the only ones who emerge from that encounter changed. Jesus goes forward to proclaim a gospel in which all are welcome to the table because as one social media commentator put it: She taught him that Syro-Phoenician lives matter. Amen.

Post script: For a recent humorous take on Jesus’s humanity, see this Darin Bell comic.

 


How Deep Is Your Love

Photo Icon of Rebekah by James Lewis

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

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

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

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

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

Tell that story. Tell the full story.

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

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

… Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game…

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

…but Rebekah loved Jacob…

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

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

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

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

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

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


A New/Old Psalm of Lament

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeremiah 9:21 “Death has come up into our windows, it has entered our palaces,
to cut off the children from the streets and the young women and young men from the public squares.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Exorcising America’s Murderous Demons

The Creation of Adam by Harmonia Rosales

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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


Ascended to Where?

The Ascension of Christ, Salvador Dali, 1958

Open our eyes that we may see. Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Naturally I used the Star Wars Eucharistic Prayer C:

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

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


She is God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Confessing Christ and Christian Anti-Semitism

Mary of Zion Icon by Robert Lentz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hear Peter’s confession as an act of contrition:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


When the Crucified Rise: A Black Lives Matter Easter Sermon

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Scripture Begets Scripture

 

Image: The Samaritan Torah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thirsty

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When we thirst we crave that which we are.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Smashing the Biblical Patriarchy

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

Let us pray:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Jesus Rewrites Scripture and So Can We

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

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

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

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

He does it again and again:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Resistance Is Not Futile

donatello-judith-halofernes-detail

Image: Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes

Resistance is Not Futile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Benediction:

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

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

May we resist tyranny wherever it is found.

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

You can view the entire service here.

 

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


Choose Your Messiah Carefully

The First Two Disciples - John 1:35-42

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Interpreting the Bible in a Non-Biblical World

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

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


Faith without Faithfulness is Faithlessness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Love God Herself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But…

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

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

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

shechorah ani v’ navah

I am black…

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

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

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

Will you disrobe me with your stares?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gafney Candler Black Church

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

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


Pray Like There’s A God Who Hears

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

 

 


St. Francis, Monsters and #BlackLivesMatter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 


Unbreaking Her Body

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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