Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

sermon

Majesty, Mercy, and Mystery

Welcome to Trinity on the last Sunday of the Christian calendar, the Sunday in which we proclaim Christ’s sovereignty and wrestle with the limitations of human language.

Let us pray:

May God who is Majesty, Mercy, and Mystery travel with us from cradle to cross. Amen.

Our lessons are trying to do two things, end the year with and exaltation of Christ and set the stage to tell the story again in the new year which begins on the first Sunday of Advent. So don’t forget to say Happy New Year next week. The Church traditionally calls this Sunday Christ the King. Some call it the Reign of Christ. And a whole bunch of us don’t know what to call it. The word king just sticks in the craw. It comes with so much baggage.

We start with the myth of David. Having just come from Thanksgiving where the myth of hungry pilgrims and friendly natives crowds out ugly truths like settler colonialism, conquest, genocide, land theft, rape, and when things got really bad, cannibalism. We understand that the stories we tell ourselves and our children about Thanksgiving are strategically incomplete or often just flat out wrong, but the myth endures. It speaks to something in us, so we cling so some shreds of the story that may have historicity and close our eyes to the rest. And if we did that here in Fort Worth, we did it on Wichita and Comanche land.

Similarly, the Church turns to mythos of David to exalt Jesus. We don’t turn to the David who raped Bathsheba; or handed his nephews over to be lynched to pay for blood he spilled, or who killed children with their mothers and fathers while stealing all of their possessions. Instead, we turn to the David whom God chose for greatness, to whom God made promises that speak to us across time. There is danger in telling one story without the other. And I believe, in crowning Jesus with the bloody crown of David.

To be fair, I don’t imagine that David was much worse than any other Bronze or Iron Age monarch. They were all thugs and warlords, who took what they wanted. We have a bad habit or romanticizing monarchy, past and present. We see the glittering crown jewels and ignore their theft from the forcibly subjugated colonies and all the slavery and death that clings to them. King is entirely to violent a title with which to crown Jesus from my perspective. David’s crown was drenched in the blood of his enemies. The blood on Jesus’ crown was his own. Besides which, we seem to have forgotten that a king is a human monarch and by definition is fatally flawed.

Our Psalm celebrates David for bringing the Ark of the Covenant, God’s throne on earth, to Jerusalem so that in time it could be enshrined in the temple built by his son. And then there is God’s promise, God’s conditional promise, to David: One of the sons of your body I will set on your throne.If (everybody say if) If your sons keep my covenant and my decrees that I shall teach them, their sons also, forevermore, shall sit on your throne. However within two generations David’s kingdom was ripped apart. Five hundred years later, it ceased to exist. The Maccabees and the Herods would rule as kings but neither group were descended from David.

Jesus’ descent from David fired the imaginations of his followers and interpreters, some looking backwards to a kingdom that would never rise again–like the old south–rather than towards the new world of which Jesus spoke. That gets further complicated by the fact that Jesus and the gospels use the language of king and kingdom. Yet at every turn Jesus says something to the effect of that’s not what I mean by kingdom. He and his biographers used the old language, the language with which folk were most familiar to usher in a world view that transcends both this world and its deeply impoverished language. A kingdom is a patch of land and Jesus is talking about another world–not necessarily another planet, but I’m not ruling it out–but an entirely new reality that has no need for skull crushing monarchs and their axe swinging troops to keep the “peace.”

Jesus says, You say that I am a king. But this is why I was born and why I came into the world, to testify to the truth. That truth is that God is not an old man on a throne, white or otherwise. God is not a bigger, badder, richer, more powerful, king, tyrant, warlord, or chieftain. Human systems of power and dominion are not accurate reflections of God’s way of being in the world. That truth to which Jesus testifies with his being is that the God who cannot be fully known in any word of human devising is here with us, on this planet, in this world. God is with us. God is not in the palace. God is in the street. In Jesus God was not reclining on the throne of the king but rather subject to the king’s justice, stretched out on a Roman cross with a crown of thorns beaten into his skull.

We proclaim the sovereignty and majesty of Christ today as a way of proclaiming our faith that Jesus is God incarnate and that God is sovereign over all the worlds, all that was, all that is, all that will be, all that can be, all that we can imagine and that which we cannot conceive. In short, we say Christ is King because we say God is King. In so doing, we neglect one crucial fact: God is not a king. At best, our ancestors simply lacked the imagination and language to describe God other than in human terms.

At worst, by giving God a title they reserved for themselves, human men gave voice to their secret wish to be idolized. In the ancient Afro-Asian context in which this the scriptures are set, a king is a warlord who batters his opponent to submission. Kings didn’t lead from the back like presidents and generals in secret bunkers and protected command and control centers. They led in the slaughter, hacking and clubbing their enemies to death, treading through the brains and blood of the slaughtered, building monuments out of their bones. That is not God. Kings schemed against their fellow–and occasional sister–kings; they stole each other’s land, enslaved each other’s people, raped each other’s daughters and sons. That is not God.

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.

Like God, Jesus transcends all of our language, petty ambitions, and self-aggrandizing titles. We need new language for Jesus and God and Jesus as God that is not rooted in vengeance and violence, submission and slaughter, or domination and damnation. We need to employ a little sanctified imagination and call God by names that allow us to see ourselves in her but don’t reduce her to paradigms we know have failed. But all we have is these human tongues and colonized imaginations. As parents and teachers have often said, “Use your words.” Use your wholly inadequate human words and know that they are insufficient because God is more. But even with our limitations we can craft language for God that is not rooted in slavery and subjugation like lord and king. Drawing on the spirit of my ancestors I will say God is a mother to the motherless and a father to the fatherless. God is a doctor in the sickroom and a lawyer in the courtroom. God is the one who brings us to life, calls us to freedom, and moves between us with love.

God is:

Sovereign, Savior and Shelter;
Author, Word and Translator;
Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer and Life-Giver;
Holy Incarnate Majesty, Holy Incarnate Word, Holy Abiding Spirit;
Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer;
Parent, Partner, and Friend.

And God is available to any and everyone whether warrior, prophet, king, laborer, immigrant, transchild, felon, politician, trafficked woman, president, pastor, professor or seminarian, patriarchal misogynist or white supremacist, once we understand that the titles with which we have crowned ourselves and in which we name God in our image become idols. God is the living God and Risen Christ in our midst, reigning over the commonwealth of God in this world and in the next. Amen.


Redeeming Qayin (Cain)

Cain and Abel by Adolf von Hildebrand Marburg, 1890 www.metmuseum.org

In the name of God whose mercy is just and whose justice is merciful. Amen.

Zillah gave birth to Tuval Qayin, who forged every kind of implement of bronze and iron. And the sister of Tubal Qayin was Naamah.

In my sanctified imagination I envision what it was like being Tuval Qayin, saddled with the name of his most infamous ancestor. Can you imagine with me and put yourself in his shoes? Tuval Qayin was the great-oh-so-many-greats-grandson of that Qayin, whom you may know as Cain. They may not have remembered all of the generations in between. But they remembered that name. Qayin. It may be startling or even disorienting to hear names with which you are familiar spelled and pronounced in ways with which you may not familiar. Womanists place a high value on naming and in my practice that means not defaulting to European names for Afro-Asiatic biblical characters. If you look up images of Qayin and Abel, you will find more than a few of a black or significantly darker Qayin murdering a white Abel. (As we say on twitter #fightme.)

Can’t you hear the folk tormenting Tuval Qayin? We know who you are. We know where you come from. We know who your people are. We know they and you ain’t ish. You Qayin’s people, and errbody knows your great-great-whatever-granddaddy was a murderer. He merked his own brother. You one of them. Add to that his own father would become infamous for killing a man himself. Folk would say the apple don’t fall far from the tree. Tuval Qayin never stood a chance. Anything he ever did wrong, folk would point back to his people–never mind that most of his family weren’t murders, but two was two too many.

And then there was his parents’ marriage. His father Lamech was a poster boy for the patriarchy. He is credited with inventing polygamy because he wanted more. As a side note, Lamech’s invention of polygamy presents a challenge for biblical marriage enthusiasts and literalists–some of them anyway; others are far too excited by the prospects. On the other hand, Lamech’s redefinition of marriage was not only not challenged by God but eventually accepted and normalized providing an unexpected biblical model for the intentional crafting and redefinition of marriage norms.

Nevertheless, I don’t imagine it went over well with the neighbors: Your daddy ain’t nothing (and your mama ain’t much, neither one of them). Tuval Qayin and his siblings were the first to have two mommies, and if our more recent history is any example, he would have been teased mercilessly because his family was different. And if human beings haven’t really changed that much in the past five thousand years, some folk may have been violently opposed to Lamech’s marriage and meted that out upon the most vulnerable members of his family, particularly the boy with the OG murderer’s name.

And the thing was, they weren’t wrong about Qayin. Qayin was a murderer. A fratricide. A brother killer. He was guilty. He did it. One of the hard truths of this world is that even in an unjust justice system some folk locked up are guilty. Somebody’s son, father, uncle, cousin, brother, sister, mother, daughter, auntie is locked up and locked down because they did it, whatever it was. And some folk want to throw them away forever, use them for cheap labor, profit off of their bodies, throw their bodies at forest fires, leave them behind to die in hurricanes, and if they make it out, make it darn near impossible for them to find legal work to support themselves and their families. Especially if they’re black or brown. And then as the icing on the cake, strip their voting rights from them so they can’t help reform the system that they know better than anyone else. Everybody ain’t innocent and even when they are the privilege of innocence ain’t extended to everybody. Some folk are guilty as charged. Qayin was caught red-handed. The red was literally and literarily the blood of his brother, the brother he murdered with his own hands. Qayin destroyed a life with an act of horrific violence and that violence had repercussions.

Qayin’s act would have destroyed more than one life; the lives of his parents who were also the parents of his victim would have also been devastated. In the narrative world of Genesis there were only a handful of people around–don’t ask me where he got his wife; the narrator isn’t interested in a seamless story. Qayin’s actions impacted all of them. You could say his crime shook and shaped the entire world. If ever there was a candidate for original sin, this would be it. The text actually uses the word sin here; it is the first time the word appears in the canon. Eating forbidden fruit in pursuit of wisdom doesn’t qualify, but that is another sermon. Qayin also changed the course of his own life. It was circumscribed by the choice he made. There was no denying it; no boys will be boys, no unjust judge, no biased jury.

Qayin was like a lot of guilty folk. He was responsible for his choices and their consequences. He had a price to pay and he paid it. And at the same time, he was also a product of circumstances that seemed designed to set him up to fail. The story tells us flat out that God has biases, or if that’s too strong for you, preferences. God prefers brisket to broccoli. Who doesn’t? The narrator’s unvarnished account of God’s preference makes it sound like there was nothing Qayin could have done to make his offering acceptable. Perhaps one way of reading God’s preference is that it represents the structural inequity into Qayin and Hevel were born, into which we were all born. Hevel was born into privilege and Qayin was born into peril. That’s not a good look on God so interpreters have worked overtime blaming Qayin for bringing second rate crops though the text says no such thing. So what then, within the confines of the story, could Qayin have done differently?

Qayin wasn’t responsible for the circumstances in which he found himself. He was responsible for the choice he made. Sometimes we find ourselves on the wrong side of circumstances we can’t control. And it sure seems like God is either actively against us or refusing to help us. Structural inequity isn’t an excuse, but it is a contributing factor. Did Qayin have to tools to overcome his structural disadvantage? Did his parents have the talk with him, teaching him how to navigate the meat-loving world as a grain-gatherer? Or were they too caught up in their own drama to see that one of their boys was different from dominant culture expectations? I don’t think any of us are that far removed from Qayin given the right circumstances. Surely you’ve noticed how much more violent our world seems to be.

Folk are quick to speak violent words and raise violent hands. And violence begets violence. Everywhere I look I see violence: violent rhetoric, violent encounters with police, violence against women, violence against children, violent theologies, violence against gay folk, violence against trans folk, violence against the earth and her creatures, violent government domestic policies, violent government international policies, violent economic policies.

Now I have been raised as a bible reader to view Qayin with contempt, and in some settings to view the mark of Qayin as the imposition of vampirism–but that too is another sermon, or perhaps an elective. And yet in the previous century when I was a seminarian, I learned to question the way I always read and to read from the position of characters with whom I didn’t hold any sympathy, who were not, or were not supposed to be, God’s people in the text–people like Qayin and peoples like the Canaanites, Jezebel and Jephthah, Pharaoh and Potiphar’s wife, Qayin and those who bore his mark, whether in their flesh like Qayin or in their name like Tuval Qayin.

It’s hard for some of us to read from Qayin’s point of view. Most of us can say we have never killed. Qayin’s killing of Hevel represents more than the commission of murder; it is also the first act of violence committed by a one person against another in the world that Genesis crafts for us. Let us not deceive ourselves that we cannot also be Qayin because we may not have killed. Qayin’s repertoire of violence was severely limited; ours is much broader. Qayin embodies all of the violence of which we are all capable and which some of us have indeed committed.

Let me be honest in one particular regard it’s hard for me to preach from Qayin’s perspective at the present moment. I have hierarchies of with which guilty folk I can be sympathetic. My rage at men who violate women’s bodies is not interested in their redemption. (I just thought I should tell the truth today.) But unlike those men who evade the consequences of their actions, Qayin served his sentence. Qayin lived with the consequences of his actions for the rest of his life. And that ought to be enough. But not for some folk. There are folk who will never let Qayin or anyone associated with him forget what he did that one time. Nothing else matters. No mark necessary.

Some folk hold onto Qayin’s crime out of their deep grief. Others simply refuse to see beyond the worst moment and worst choice of his life. And our contemporary conversations about forgiveness are of little use. I watch as victims and survivors, often marginalized people targeted by folk who wield power individually or societally, are urged and shamed into making immediate statements of forgiveness before they’ve even processed their loss to be model Christians so as not to burden the white supremacist bomber or trigger-happy cop with their unforgiveness. All too often we’re given a false choice in what is passing for forgiveness these days: we’re told to forget about what is past in the same breath in which we’re told it didn’t happen or we can’t remember, and the other option is ruining someone’s life by holding what they’ve done or are accused of doing over their heads for the rest of their lives. Neither of these is satisfying. Neither involves confession or reparation and where no reparation can be made, conviction and execution of a just sentence, but above all and before all repentance. Not bold-faced lies and denials or lawyer-crafted PR statements admitting nothing and saying less.

Qayin is a felon and he is also one of us. But unlike those who have never been held to account for what they have done, Qayin paid the price and served his time. Like many felons, he would never be able to live down the infamy of his name or his crime. And like other felons, he is more than the worst thing he had ever done. Qayin murdered his brother. He failed miserably at being his brother’s keeper. But we don’t get to wash our hands of him. We are still Qayin’s keeper. Some of us have been falling down on the job. Some of us don’t want that job. Some of us are using our grief about Hevel to justify abandoning Qayin to the aftermath of his bad decisions and the circumstances from which he was unable to extricate himself. But you know who didn’t abandon Qayin? God.

God accompanied Qayin into exile to hold the rest of the world to account for how they treated Qayin as much as to hold Qayin accountable. Qayin was still God’s child. God is with Qayin as he rebuilds his life. He marries and becomes a father, signaling his readmittance to society. He makes something of himself. He builds a city and names it after his child, not himself as other women and men city-builders would do. In so doing he makes his life’s work about the generations to come. And let’s hear it for the unnamed sister who took a chance on a man with a bad name.

It was that bad name with which I imagine Tuval Qayin was taunted. He was Qayin’s fifth-generation descendant gifted with Qayin’s name as his own. He and his brothers by another mother, Yuval and Yaval, lived with that legacy and they transformed it. The passage in which they occur is both genealogy and etiology. Yuval ben Adah brought gifts of wind instruments and stringed instruments into the world. And Tuval Qayin ben Zillah, the boy with the bad name, brought metallurgy and manufacturing to the world.

Throwing away Qayin would have meant throwing away all that he and his descendants produced and achieved, including Tuval Qayin, Yuval and Yaval and their sister Naamah. Throwing them away would have cost the world pillars of civilization as the ancient Israelites conceived it: music and the arts and cutting age technology. Without Qayin or Tuval Qayin there would have been no Prince or B.B. King, no Sister Rosetta Thorpe or Alicia Keys, no Alex Byrd or Yo Yo Ma.

God didn’t throw away Qayin. God didn’t even take his life. God created space for him to live into who he could be while living with who he was, and the world is the better for it. There are folk I want to throw away. There are folk through whom I can’t imagine–even within the realm of my sanctified imagination–that there will ever be any worthwhile contribution to our world from them or their spawn. Their hands are every bit as bloody as Qayin’s. But I believe in a God whose mercy is just and whose justice is merciful. The God who heard Hevel’s blood cry from the earth is also the God who kept Qayin. The God who cares for Qayin is the God who demands justice for Hevel.

God’s justice is as inescapable as God’s mercy, is as inescapable as God, God with us, God with even Qayin. That same God became a child, begotten, birthed, breastfed, bathed, baptized, and buried. God came to us in our own failing and fragile human flesh. In living, in loving, in healing, in teaching, in dying, in rising God in Jesus is the God who will not abandon us to our circumstances, our choices, or their consequences. The God who sentenced Qayin is the God who keeps Qayin, leaving us to wrestle with what it means to be the keeper of kinfolk in these days. Amen.  

 

Genesis 4:1Now the human had known his woman Chava, Eve, and she conceived and gave birth to Qayin, Cain, saying, “I have crafted a person with the Creator of Heaven and Earth.”2Then she went again to give birth, to his brother Hevel, Abel. Now Hevel was a shepherd of the flock, and Qayin a cultivator of the ground. 3And it was after some days Qayin brought to Earth’s Creatoran offering of the fruit of the ground, 4and Hevel brought some of the firstborn ewes of his flock, and their fat portions. And the God Who Chooseshad regard for Hevel and his offering, 5but for Qayin and his offering the Inscrutable Godhad no regard. So Qayin was very angry, and his face fell. 6The God Who Attendssaid to Qayin, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen?7If you do well, will it not ascend? And if you do not do well, at the opening sin reclines; its desire directed towards you, but you will master it.”

8Then Qayin said something to his brother Hevel; now they had gone into the field. And when they were in the field Qayin rose up against his brother Hevel and killed him. 9Then theGod of All Fleshsaid to Qayin, “Where is your brother Hevel?” He said, “I don’t know; am I my brother’s keeper?” 10Then the Just Godasked, “What have you done? A voice…your brother’s blood-spills are crying out to me from the ground! 11And now cursed are you from the ground, which has opened her mouth to receive your brother’s blood-spills from your hand. 12Therefore, when you cultivate the earth, she will no longer yield to you her strength; you will be one who wanders and staggers throughout the earth.” 13Qayin said to the Gracious God, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! 14Look! Today you have driven me away from the soil on the face of the earth, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be one who wanders and staggers throughout the earth, and anyone who meets me will kill me.” 15Then the God Who Hearssaid to him, “It shall not be so! Upon anyone who kills Qayin there will be sevenfold vengeance.” And the God Who Watchesput a mark on Qayin, so that no one who came upon him would kill him. 16Then Qayin went out from the presence of the God Who Saves, and settled in the land of Wandering called Nod, east of Eden.

17Qayin knew his woman, and she conceived and gave birth to Chanokh, Enoch; and he built a city, and named it Chanokh after his child Chanokh. 18Born to Chanokh was Irad; and Irad fathered Mehuyael, and Mehuyael (Mehijael) fathered Methushael, and Methushael fathered Lemech, (Lamech). 19Lemech took two women; the name of the one was Adah, and the name of the second Zillah. 20Adah gave birth to Yaval; he was the ancestor of those who live in tents surrounded by livestock. 21Yaval’s brother’s name was Yuval; he was the ancestor of all those who take up the lyre and pipe. 22Then Zillah gave birth to Tuval Qayin, who forged every kind of implement of bronze and iron. And thesister of Tuval Qayin was Naamah.

Translation, the Rev. Wil Gafney, PhD


God Is Bigger

 

I could preach all four readings in one sentence: God Is Bigger. But we live in a time when clichés and bumper sticker theology won’t cut it, even if they’re true. We face serious issues, serious life-threatening, heart-rending issues. In the face of incarcerated children crying for mothers they’ve been told abandoned them, politicians threatening each other with bodily harm and some inflicting harm, the daily harassment black folk are subjected to by white folk using the police to harass us for simply being in public, women learning that the folk in their lives–parents, friends and sometimes pastors–aren’t safe to confide in their histories of sexual assault, the war in Syria that the news isn’t covering anymore, the starving children in Yemen caught up in their government’s conflict with Saudi Arabia and the weapons we sell used in this slaughter, in the face of all of this, “God is bigger” sounds like a cop out.

            Yet that’s exactly what God says to Job. Well, not exactly. It takes God one hundred and twenty-six verses between Job chapter 38 and 41 to say it. And she says it poetically, and indirectly. God calls Job to contemplate the wonders of creation and God’s revelation in and through it that Job might see God and God’s power in it, but also see Job’s own insignificant place in it.

1 ”Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. 2 Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? 3 Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. 4 Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. 5 Who determined its measurements–surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? 6 On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone 7 when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? 8 Or who shut in the sea with doors w hen it burst out from the womb? 9 when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, 10 and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, 11 and said, Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped? 12 Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place, 13 so that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth, and the wicked be shaken out of it?

        Well, have you? God says, “This is who I am. Who are you?” Eventually Job will say, “I’ve said too much,” and put his hand over his mouth because he knows God is bigger and he is comparatively insignificant. But there’s a twist in Job’s story. In order to understand it, we need to understand how Job found himself in this place being interrogated by God veiled in a whirlwind, face to force.

Job was beset by horror. He lost everything in the building waves of a tsunami of catastrophe. Job lost everything he owned; he lost it all through violence. He didn’t make a bad deal or risk the wrong stock. He went from the Forbes list to having no way to feed himself or his family. It doesn’t matter how much you have or how you got it, losing everything hurts. Contemporarily we have a lot of shame about money and its loss, trying to keep up appearances, needing help, hunger and poverty in the suburbs, even in nice churches like this.

            Job didn’t even have a moment to muster up the strength to ask for help when he was beset by unfathomable tragedy. All of his children were murdered. The book of Job may be a story the Israelites used to teach and debate theology, but the scenarios it constructs are deeply rooted in reality. These stories are somebody’s stories. People knew folk who had had those kinds of losses in the ancient world, and we do too. In part the book of Job exists because there are no good answers to why such awful things happen to people. And the truth is, even the best theology falls flat when you’re looking at a murdered child.

Job gives voice to our desire to ask – no – demand God explain this mess: this broken world, murdered children shot in school, others killed by their own parents, women and girls and some boys and men subject to sexual harassment and assault, some for years, disbelieved if they report, blamed if they don’t, hungry children in a world of abundance, new obstacles and some of the same old obstacles to voting set up just fifty years after the assassination of Dr. King, white supremacists marching in the streets, the police being used and letting themselves be used to harass black folk for being black in public, shopping or trying to enter our own homes. And though the world and the news cycles have moved on some of are still saying Black Lives Matter as the faces of new victims fill our TV screens. Like Job I have questions for God. And while I’ve never seen that particular whirlwind I too shouted into the wind.

Job took all of his hurt and horror to God. He also took his faith that there had to be a way to make sense of his world that didn’t involve bad theology. There’s a lot of bad theology out there. Some of it’s in churches. Some of it’s on TV. Some of it’s in churches on TV. Some of it’s on the lips of politicians. And some of it is ours as we do our best to make sense of the world with the tools we have, the sermons we’ve heard, the folk wisdom of our families, and too many self-help books and TV shows. And then there are the folk who love us who have definite opinions about what is going on in our lives, what we’ve done, what we need to do and what it all means.

Job had the kind of friends who stayed with him through the worst of his grief; then they started explaining how he was ultimately responsible for what happened to him. There are people today who blame women for being abused at home, harassed at work, or assaulted in the street. There are folk who buy into new age theologies that say you get whet you give and draw bad energy to you. There are even Christians who will say you didn’t pray enough, or have enough faith.

But Job knew there was nothing he could have ever done to bring any of what he suffered on himself, so he went to God. But it didn’t turn out quite like he expected in our lesson. He went to God holding the pieces of his broken heart in his hands to ask God why and God said, “I am bigger.” All of our lessons make that claim. Our psalm: Bless the Living God, O my soul. Holy One my God, you are very great.God is bigger. Our epistle: Jesus having been made perfect became the source of eternal salvation. God is bigger. Our gospel: Are you big enough to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? I know you think so. This is what bigger really looks like: whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Woman came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. Even when confined to human flesh God is bigger.

God is bigger than our circumstances, preconceptions, and misconceptions. God is bigger that our faults and our failures, our dreams and our schemes, our hope and our hurt. God is bigger than this crucified and crucifying world. God is bigger than this nation and its borders. God is bigger than our theologies and our politics. God is bigger than our church. God is bigger. God is even bigger than the bible. God is bigger than it’s slave-holding culture. God is bigger than the bible’s patriarchy and the sexism and misogyny of its interpreters. God is bigger than the understanding of gender in its pages. God is bigger than the bible’s Iron Age theology. And yet and still God still speaks through it just as God spoke to Job through the whirlwind.

God spoke to Job but didn’t explain why. The people who put together the book of Job knew that even when you find your way to or back to God after a tragedy you don’t get all the answers if any. You may never hear God speak to you about your sorrow. But you will find, as Job found, a God who is present, and yes bigger and greater and grander and more exalted and more majestic than you can imagine, but also a God who sees your tears and hears your cries shouted into the wind. And sometimes, even when not answering the questions you asked–and it’s ok to ask–God will choose to answer the question you need. For Job it was that he was not wrong, nothing that had happened to him was his fault, and his friends and their bad theology were all the way wrong.

The God who attended Job in the whirlwind is the God who in the psalm is clothed with honor and majesty, wrapped in light as with a garment, stretches out the heavens like a tent, sets the beams of her chambers on the waters, makes the clouds her chariot, rides on the wings of the wind, and makes the winds her messengers. That same God became a child, begotten, birthed, breastfed, bathed, baptized, and buried. God came to us in a form less terrifying and more fragile than a whirlwind, in our own human flesh. In living, in loving, in healing, in teaching, in dying, in rising God in Jesus is the answer to questions we did not ask as much as the answer to the questions we shouted into to wind. And unlike Job’s whirlwind, Jesus remains and stays with us through the storms and through the calm and all that will come our way. Whatever it may be, God is bigger.

God is bigger. God’s love is bigger. God’s grace is bigger. God’s mercy is bigger. Bigger than our need. Bigger than the world’s hurt and hunger. God is bigger. God is enough. Amen.

For today’s scripture lessons (Track 1) click here.


How Long Shall Justice Be Aborted?

Violence. A single word of scripture begets a thousand words.

The prophet cried violence, screamed violence; hurled it at the skies and the God veiled within. Violence. Violence all around. Habakkuk’s people were under siege. He doesn’t tell us when he prophesied but we know ancient Israel lurched perpetually from one catastrophe to another, captured, colonized, and conveyed from conqueror to conqueror–when they were not doing the colonizing and conquering themselves. Spoiler alert: The same people, sometimes even the very same person, can be both victim and perpetrator. There was and is violence all around.

Habakkuk doesn’t name his people’s oppressor because a boot on the neck feels the same whether the foot is Assyrian or Babylonian. To some degree it doesn’t even matter because each of those nations devastated Israel. Assyria decimated Israel. Decimation was a much later Roman practice from after the time of Habakkuk but it is relevant. When Roman soldiers failed spectacularly, mutinied, or fled from the field of battle an entire cohort would be sentenced to decimation. The men would draw lots and every tenth man would be marked. The men who were spared would then have to beat their fellow soldiers to death, purging the unit of a tenth of its men, a decimal place, decimation.

The Assyrians went further. They didn’t destroy just a tenth of Israel, a tribe or even two; they enslaved, exiled, or outright killed the bulk of nine of the twelve tribes. They broke the fractured nation into two unequal pieces and depopulated the north only to repopulate it with captives from all over the empire who like enslaved Africans on southern plantations spoke so many different languages that it was almost impossible to organize and resist collectively.

The Assyrians were infamous for their tortures and brutality. Back in Hezekiah’s day they left images of themselves herding their Judean captives to torture, slicing them open, cutting them down to the bone while they were yet alive, peeling off their skin and hanging them on slightly sharpened sticks to die slowly in the sun. You could say they revolutionized lynching in their time. Whether peacetime or war you could always count on Assyrian soldiers to be spoiling for a fight. Even when they were not immediately present the Israelites lived under the shadow their immanent violence.

The Babylonians were no better. They were so brutal, so vicious that even the voices in the bible that would say Israel got what she deserved for her sins said, no, that’s too much, nobody deserves that after the Babylonians starved the people in and around Jerusalem to the point that some of them turned to cannibalism. And then there were the perpetual border incursions, annexations, and rebellions between what was left of Israel and the border states, Ammon, Moab, and Edom. And then there was Egypt, always looking for an opportunity to rebuild its empire. Habakkuk’s people were squeezed between mighty, once mighty, and would be mighty empires. Empires are born of violence. Empires are inherently violent. And empires beget violence.

Yet not all of the violence inflicted on Habakkuk’s people came from without. Not all of the violence we experience comes from outside our communities either. The violence that Habakkuk saw all around him went both ways. Violence behind closed doors. Violence on the same streets through which the prophet walks to preach the word or go to the house of God. On those same streets the bodies of young folk have been sprawled in the anguished postures of violent deaths. Some left as spectacles denied the dignity owed to every human being in life or in death.

In the same streets raped women had struggled with trembling hands to cover their bodies with what’s left of the clothing torn from them. Behind closed doors on those streets and sometimes in the street men beat women with impunity. Behind closed doors and sometimes in the street parents beat children with the same impunity. Behind other doors caregivers beat elders who depend on them, sometimes the very ones who birthed and raised them. And then there is the government. Not just some far off entity, but people, sometimes from these same streets who collude with the very empire that oppressed their own people. Violence perpetrated by the government in the name of and against those they govern by people who are no different than the ones they govern. Habakkuk’s people were under siege, from within and without. He cried “Violence!” because there was violence all around him.

I don’t know how long Habakkuk cried out. But I know he didn’t give up. I don’t know if he took a break from time to time, or if he cried out until he lost his voice, but I know he didn’t give up. Habakkuk cried out because he knew there was a God who hears. He cried out because he had expectations of his God. He cried out because he expected God to give a damn. He expected God to care. He expected God to do right by him and his people. Habakkuk is God’s prophet but he is also the people’s prophet. He doesn’t just work for God he works for the people. IN fact you can’t work for God if you don’t work for the people. There are a whole lot of folk claiming to be God’s prophets and apostles who don’t work for her folk and cannot be found in the blood-soaked streets but they always have time for a FOX News interview or a presidential photo-op. Habakkuk cried out on behalf of his people and expected God to live up to and into his expectations of God. He believed God would come through.

Habakkuk’s prophetic outcry was, “Violence!” Sometimes you just get to the point where you can’t even form a coherent sentence. Everywhere I look I see violence: violent rhetoric, violent encounters with police, violence against women, violence against children, violent theologies, violence against gay folk, violence against trans folk, violence against the earth and her creatures, violent government domestic policies, violent government international policies, violent economic policies. Violence!

Habakkuk had been crying out to God. The book opens when he is at his wits end. Tired of praying the same prayer. This is wearying work y’all. Sick and tired of being sick and tired, he prayed one more prayer. How long? How long O God?Holy One, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear?I been crying out to you. I been praying. I been fasting. I been laying prostrate. I been laying it all on the altar. I been doing everything I know how to do. I been crying out to you and I haven’t heard a mumbling word from you. And violence is still all around me snatching the lives and breaking the bodies of my people. How much more? How long? How long O God? How long?

The cry “How long, Holy One?” echoes from those shackled in and by slavery’s chains, through those systematically oppressed by law and tradition enforced by night riders with flaming crosses, to those shot and strangled, beaten and wrestled down by those trusted to protect and serve. It is the cry of black women whose families and bodies have been systematically ravaged by the benefactors, adherents, and evangelists of white supremacy. “How long?” is the cry of the oppressed. It is the cry of those on the bottom of power curves and hierarchies. It is the cry of women of all races, people of color of all genders, non-gender-conforming people, people with particular ranges of mobility and ability, the poor, undocumented immigrants, and minority communities who do not see themselves reflected in those with power over them or in the cultural norms they produce. “How long?” is the cry of a faithful prophet and likewise the cry of faithful people. For those who need it, Habakkuk grants permission to question God, not just about the state of the world, but what God is doing in it and about it. Habakkuk offers a womanish model of faithfulness through his questioning God, demanding a response, and determining for himself if God’s response is valid. Habakkuk is bold y’all.

We don’t know how long Habakkuk had been a prophet before this, what words he had proclaimed to the people and the nations. We don’t know why nothing else of him was preserved. What we do know in that when his people were being ground into the dust by enemies within and without he didn’t wait on a word from God. He went to God looking not for a word to proclaim in the midst of suffering, or the promise of deliverance from suffering, or even the promise that God was with them in suffering. Habakkuk wanted answers, an explanation.

How long Holy One…? Holy One, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? I cry out to you “Violence!” and you do not save. Why do you make me see wrong-doing?

Habakkuk teaches us that sometimes God comes to see about us and sometimes we have to go see about God. Habakkuk is a witness that prayer works, but you have to persevere. He is a witness that sometimes you pray and all you get is silence. He is a witness that there are no easy answers and no easy fixes. But Habakkuk is also a witness that there is a God who hears, even when we don’t hear back, even when the world is on fire, even when there is blood in the streets, even when women aren’t safe outdoors or indoors, even when children aren’t safe in church, even when legal protections are being rolled back for queer folk, even when the door is shut in the face of the stranger, the refugee, and the immigrant, even when walls are being built to divide humanity and children are being put into cages there is a God who hears her people’s cry. There is a God who sees her people’s pain. And there is a God who will respond even when a mere human being asks without sin or shame, “What are you doing? We are dying down here! There is violence all around!”

Habakkuk and God had that kind of relationship. So Habakkuk had expectations of God because they were in that long-term relationship. And it was long-term, intergenerationally long-term. Here is a hard truth; every generation that cries out doesn’t get liberation in their generation. The Israelites had 420 years of Egyptian slavery, 120 years of Assyrian decimation, 300 years of Babylonian domination, 200 years of Greek subjugation, and 720 years of Roman occupation until the fall of the Western Empire. Liberation is a long-term multi-generational project. We cry to heaven for our own sakes, for the sake of our children, and for those yet to come just as our ancestors did for us during the 400 years of American and European chattel slavery, almost 100 years of Jim and Jane Crow, and down until the present day. And we are still not all free.

The work of liberation takes a long time. Folk died waiting on their freedom. We do this work–work and pray, pray and work, pray for the strength to do the work and work while praying. We pray with our bodies, standing, kneeling, marching with our fists up. We pray with our votes and driving other folk to vote. We pray and work for our freedom, our children’s freedom and the freedom of those who will come after knowing we may not see it. Not all of our ancestors died free. We work and pray for liberation any way knowing our work is not just for us. Like Habakkuk we do it for the people. We do it for the fam. We do it for the culture. We do it for those not yet born as our ancestors worked and prayed for us. And we join Habakkuk and the ancestors across time crying out:

2 HOLY ONE, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? I cry out to you “Violence!” and you do not save. 3 Why do you make me see wrong-doing and behold trouble? Despoliation and violence are before me; litigation and contention arise. 4 So the law becomes powerless and justice has been aborted. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

Slave catchers wear new badges, free black folk are a threat for standing, breathing, blinking, selling lemonade, playing with toys, shopping, drinking coffee, using the restroom, sitting on your own damn couch in your own damn home. They’ve been trying to take back our vote from the moment they “gave” it to us. Incarceration has replaced plantation while still providing low cost labor whose lives are even cheaper. Need a chain gang? Rent a prisoner. Forrest fire? Rent a prisoner. Arrest, conviction, incarceration, execution all at greater rates per capita than other folk. There is no justice and no peace in these streets and so we kneel, and rage, and pray, and shout, “How long?!”

How long? How long will black women have to fear sexual assault from men inside our communities and homes in addition to the predation of colonizers? How long? How long will our children in Flint be poisoned by their own government? How long? How long will the wicked prosper? How long? How long will liars thrive? How long? How long will lying, hypocrisy, cheating, violent rage, and a history of sexual assault be qualifications for leadership? How long?

Then the God who is Immanu-El, Emmanuel, God with us, with us in our suffering, the God who welcomes our heart’s cries even when other folk say you can’t talk to God like that, the Holy God who accompanied her people in freedom and captivity, answered her prophet’s cry. She didn’t say, “I call prophets; you don’t call me.” She didn’t say, “Don’t come if I didn’t send for you.” She said, “Baby, I got this. I got you.” God said, “I been planning my work and working my plan. Empires fall. Colonizers get colonized. Conquerors get conquered. If you live by the sword you die by the sword.”

5 Look at the nations, and see! Be astonished! Be astounded! For a work is being worked in your days that you would not believe if you were told. 6 Look! It is I who rouses the Chaldeans, that fierce and impetuous nation, that stomps through the breadth of the earth to seize dwellings not their own. 7 Dreadful and frightful are they; they invent their own justice and majesty. 8 Swifter than leopards are their horses, and more menacing than wolves at dusk; then their cavalry charges. Their cavalry comes from far away; they fly like an eagle swift to devour. 9 They all come for violence, advancing face front; they gather captives like sand. 10 At monarchs they scoff, and of rulers they make sport. At every fortress they laugh, and heap up earth to take it.

Then Habakkuk, bless his heart–if you’re from Texas you know that’s not really a blessing–Habakkuk says, “What else you got?” Boy, don’t you know that you’re talking to the Living God? You can’t just come out of your mouth any way you want! But Habakkuk and God are in a serious relationship; they got a thang going on. They know each other well enough to know how they can talk to each other because there is the kind of respect and trust that comes from putting in the time. Habakkuk and God had been together long enough to be comfortable in that thing.

But yet and still, Habakkuk comes correct:  Are you not from time-before-time, ANCIENT ONE, my God, my Holy One? You will never die.

After giving honor to the head of his life and protocol to the one he knew to call, Habakkuk gave God a piece of his mind. The Chaldeans? The Chaldeans are your plan? They are seriously bad news and need to be on their way to their own judgment:

HOLY ONE, it is for judgment that you have marked them; O Rock, for discipline that you have positioned them. Your eyes are too pure to behold evil, and you cannot look on wrongdoing; why then do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?

Habakkuk gives God a piece of his mind. He doesn’t hold back. He tells God his whole mind, continuing past our lesson. It is this almost womanist Habakkuk talking back to God because she or he loves the people so much who draws me to this text. Habakkuk is in good company. Job teaches us that crying out and talking back to God is not limited to prophets. Job also teaches not to worry about whether anyone else thinks our theology is correct or even if everyone else thinks we need to apologize to God, say your piece anyway. God is big enough to handle it. Rebekah and Hannah teach us that you can cry out to God on your own behalf. And the Syro-Phoenician woman teaches us that crying out to God is not limited to Israelites. There is a God who hears and will hear anybody and everybody.

God hears. Even when God does not intervene. Even then God is with you in the midst of the violence. God is with you when you are violated. God is with you on lockdown. God is with you in the streets. God is with you when you’re calling God on the carpet for the senseless violence all around and arguing with God about how to handle it.

Having said his piece Habakkuk waited on God. Sometimes you have to wait.

I will stand at my watchpost and station myself on the rampart. I will keep watch to see what God will say to me…If God tarries, I will wait for God…

For it is God who makes all things new. It is God who tears tyrants from their thrones. It is God who sets the captives free. It is God who holds wicked men to account for their wicked deeds. It is God who will answer Habakkuk’s prayer and ours. It is God who will set us free from every unjust structure. It is God. It is God to whom Habakkuk turned. For it is God who will not only deliver us but it is God who will strengthen our arms to tear down and uproot every structural oppression, white supremacy, patriarchy, misogyny, heterosexism, homophobia, and transphobia and to strike down ever policy, law, bias, and hatred that props them up. It is God who accompanies us in the Spirit, in the Word, and in the world. It is God who came to be one of us in a woman’s intimate flesh. It is God who subjected Godself to the frailty of human skin. It is God who lived and loved, cried and died as one of us. It is God who stood against the colonizing gospel of empire perched on an upraised cross. It is God who refused to give death the final word. It is God who turned the world upside down, inside out, and shook the saints out of their graves, rising to commission the apostles to the apostles, women whose words about life and death, violence and violation would be scorned to the present day. It is God who will answer Habakkuk’s prayer and ours. One day. Amen.

 

The lesson in three parts with three readers; my translation.

(Narrator) Habakkuk 1:1 The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.

(Habakkuk) 2 HOLY ONE, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? I cry out to you “Violence!” and you do not save. 3 Why do you make me see wrong-doing and behold trouble? Despoliation and violence are before me; litigation and contention arise. 4 So the law becomes powerless and justice has been aborted. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

(God) 5 Look at the nations, and see! Be astonished! Be astounded! For a work is being worked in your days that you would not believe if you were told. 6 Look! It is I who rouses the Chaldeans, that fierce and impetuous nation, that stomps through the breadth of the earth to seize dwellings not their own. 7 Dreadful and frightful are they; they invent their own justice and majesty. 8 Swifter than leopards are their horses, and more menacing than wolves at dusk; then their cavalry charges. Their cavalry comes from far away; they fly like an eagle swift to devour. 9 They all come for violence, advancing face front; they gather captives like sand. 10 At monarchs they scoff, and of rulers they make sport. At every fortress they laugh, and heap up earth to take it. 11 Then a spirit swept them; and they passed through and became guilty; they whose own strength was their god.

(Habakkuk) 12 Are you not from time-before-time, ANCIENT ONE, my God, my Holy One? You will never die. HOLY ONE, it is for judgment that you have marked them; O Rock, for discipline that you have positioned them. 13 Your eyes are too pure to behold evil, and you cannot look on wrongdoing; why then do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?


When Gomer Looks More Like God

Some men love to call women whores. Some women do too. The biblical writers use the word whore and accusations of whoring freely and freely attribute them to God. Reading a text like Hosea can easily have you convinced God–or somebody–is fixated on women’s bodies and sexuality as though we are the genesis of everything that is wrong with the world. (I’m looking at you Tertullian and your modern day disciples who are too numerous to name.) Today I want to talk about what happens when that pastor you respect and believe hears from and speaks for God starts slut-shaming women from the pulpit and then before you know it, you are the woman he is calling a whore and it is your children he is publicly denouncing as bastards. What would you do if he was your pastor? What would you do if he was your husband?

When I shared these questions online I got two interesting responses. From a woman, “I hope I would gather my little ones and walk out. But that kind of insult could render a woman almost unable to move. Shame on that pastor!” From a man, “Curb stomp him into the pavement as the congregation watched.” To each of them I replied, “That’s not how people treat the book of Hosea or any other biblical book in which women are accused of whoredom or Israel is accused of whoring just like a woman.”

Reading Hosea as scripture means taking seriously that as a part of the canon it holds authority; however that authority is assessed from community to community and person to person. For me that means I can’t easily write Hosea off, not as a pastor, priest, or preacher, and certainly not as a black woman who is a womanist. The spittle-laced violence with which this word has been imposed on women and girls often accompanying or preceding physical violence, and the enduring emotional and spiritual violence it begets mean that I cannot remain silent on this text. Neither can I by any means leave its proclamation and interpretation solely to the lips of those who will never hear this epithet hurled towards them.

But I don’t run from a fight or a hard text or a fight with a hard text. I believe in wrestling the bruising words until I squeeze a blessing out of them, no matter how down and dirty it gets or how out of joint I get. So I’ve been preaching about women called whores and the men, prophets, and God who use that language for some time now. I also don’t run away from the word whore or soften it to harlot because that’s not a word we use, but every day some woman somewhere is being called a whore.

            I let Rahab speak for herself and ask while looking pointedly at the two dude-bros who were supposed to be spying out the land and gathering intel but instead were shacking up at her place, “Who you callin’ a whore?” I sat with Jeremiah’s rebuke to Israel, “You have the forehead of a whore,” and understand that language is not just any metaphor but rooted in a system that shames women whose sexuality it cannot control and elevates that shame as a horror by telling men that’s what they are in God’s sight. My response to Jeremiah was to take the power back from that word following 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.” Instead I say unto you: You have the forehead of the kind of woman some men, especially religious men like Hosea and 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 church, or 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 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 your 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 then I turned to Hosea, and he and God have that very same whore talk in their mouths, again. 

The texts of Hosea and Jeremiah present prophets who heard and spoke for God in and through the vernacular of their culture. As Dr. Weems taught us (in Battered Love), that vernacular was androcentric with a mean misogynistic streak, and in a shame/honor society the worst thing you can call a man is a bad woman. But I know that God is bigger than all of our images and idioms including biblical ones, and I know no one is disposable no matter how the text frames them. While some of you can roll with Hosea’s God I needed a different vision of God, so I went looking for and to Gomer and her daughter, Lo-Ruhamah, she whose name meant She-Will-Not-Be-Mother-Loved, there will be no mercy, pity, or compassion for her.

That name is assigned to Gomer’s baby girl before her birth and waiting for her at the exit from her mother’s womb to shape her destiny and serve as an example to Israel. She is a sermon illustration, whether God’s or Hosea’s. But how did we get here? The text would have us believe God told Hosea, “Go find you a ho.” I have questions for male religious leaders who condemn women’s expressions of sexuality but find loopholes for their own.

Then we meet Gomer bat Diblaim. In spite of the way the deck of the text has been stacked against her, not even the text calls Gomer a whore. What it does call her is daughter of Diblaim. Whether Diblaim is her mother’s name, her father’s name or her home town she is somebody. She is somebody’s child. She comes from somewhere. She has a name. She has people. Whore is not her name. Her name is Gomer and unlike the vast majority of women in the Hebrew Bible her name is among the nine percent of all names in the Hebrew Bible that belong to a woman. Her name is Gomer. Whore is not her name. 

In chapter two God will accuse Israel of whoring, threatening her with violence. The portrait of Hosea’s God in these two chapters is more batterer than beloved, even with the wilderness reconciliation and second honeymoon in the promised land; it all reads like a domestic violence cycle. In chapter two with all the references to land it is clear that Israel is the whore, a slur intended to infuriate and humiliate into repentance the men who led Israel. Yet in our text Gomer is never called a whore.

The reader/hearer is supposed to assume that Gomer is a whore because she is who Hosea chose. In fact there is nothing in what the text discloses about Gomer that makes her out to be a whore if that is supposed to be code for prostitute. The standard translations, wife of whoredom, harlotry, or prostitution, seem to miss the fact that the word at stake, zanah, is one letter away from the word that means sex-worker, zonah. Dr. Gale Yee (in the Woman’s Bible Commentary) teaches that promiscuous is the better translation. Translation matters. And who translates matters. Gomer is a promiscuous woman; woman and wife are conflated into a single word in Hebrew. Now I hear the charge to Hosea differently: God called Hosea to marry a promiscuous woman.

God called Hosea to marry a woman who had more sexual experiences and sexual experience than the world and especially the religious folk thought was good for her. God told Hosea to marry the kind of woman people then and now would say no one would ever want because there are different rules for women and men. God told Hosea to marry a woman who exercised control over her own sexuality, as yes, a sermon illustration. Gomer and her alleged promiscuity–with no evidence supplied–are held up not as a simple allegory for Israel but to some degree in contrast to Israel. Whereas Gomer is framed with and for promiscuity; Israel is charged with wanton whorishness. Both descriptions are still rooted in a desire to control and criminalize women’s sexual agency, yet there are more spaces in the text than I previously imagined in which I can hear God in and beyond the text even in the idiom of the Iron Age. 

Now, somehow the good prophet knew exactly where to find a promiscuous woman. And he knew how to woo and wed a woman who made her own choices about her own body. It would seem that Hosea had untapped depths. Then Gomer did what faithful wives in that context did, she gave birth to a son for him. Let’s say they were married for ten months and a day. I hear babies actually take a little longer than nine months to cook. Because her child is a prophetic sign like Isaiah’s children, God names him. You know, no one talks much about the fact that Isaiah had at least two children with a woman who was also a prophet to whom he was not married, but let’s keep talking about what Gomer was accused of in her previous life. We see you male clergy and some of the sisters too.

Gomer, like Isaiah’s partner, partners with God in the production of this prophetic sign-child. She is more than a clergy spouse who types, edits, and gives feedback on sermons. Without her there would be no sermonic baby for God to name. God names Gomer’s baby Yizrael, one letter away from Yisrael, just as promiscuous is one letter away from whorish in Hebrew articulation. Yizrael, Jezreel, is the place where Jehu went on a killing spree and assassinated Jezebel’s son King Jehoram of Israel and King Ahaziah of Judah after Elijah anointed him. He then had Jezebel thrown to her death and trampled under horse and hoof on the killing ground that was Jezreel in Jehu’s bloody game of thrones. God said name the baby Jezreel, “…for I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel.” Gomer’s son is a living word of prophecy that she birthed into the world proclaiming judgment against a man who thought his anointing entitled him to do anything he wanted. 

Some years pass, one, two, perhaps five, while Gomer wifes and mothers with scandal hanging on her name but no evidence of scandalous behavior since her marriage. Whoever she was in the past is past, but folk just won’t let it go. Then Gomer and Hosea have another child, another living breathing word of prophecy that Gomer births into the earth. This child, Gomer’s daughter, has an even heavier name to bear. Her name testifies to the withholding of mother-love, that love that is rooted in and includes the womb like the heart in heartache or the head in headache. The cycle repeats and the child that represents a third prophetic production incubated in Gomer’s womb is born and he is named, Lo-Ami, Not My People.

But there is a note between the births of Gomer’s second and third child that was not present between the first two: When Gomer had weaned Lo-ruhamah,…My friend Mark Brummitt points out that the baby, then toddler, at Gomer’s breast named She Will Be Devoid of Mother-Love: “has been so, so loved and nourished all along” at her mother’s breast. And there it is, the place where I see God’s promiscuously extravagant love in the text, not in Hosea’s words or even God’s, but in Gomer holding to her breast that baby girl who had to go through the world with a label on her saying she would be bereft of maternal love, pity, or compassion the same way Gomer has had to go through world of the text and its interpreters with the label whore hanging over her head. Gomer persisted in loving that child no matter who said otherwise.

It is there in Gomer’s mother-love that the love of God so often couched as mother-love in the scriptures but translated as mercy, pity, or compassion shines. That is why translation matters and who translates matters. Gomer is a representation of God to me. She shamelessly mother-loves her children no matter how their names are rightly or wrongly tarnished. She loves those who others say don’t matter. She loves the folk some preachers count out as dirty, soiled, ruined. And she loves promiscuously.

God’s love is promiscuous. She just can’t keep it to herself. She loves wildly and widely, freely and without fetters. She loves those who have been deemed unlovable, illegitimate in who they are or how they are, the circumstances over which they have no control, or might not even want to change. God loves with a flagrant love those who have been told they are or unworthy because of who what they are, who they love, how they love, what they have done, or even what has been done to them. God’s love is insatiable. She is not content with a single beloved people, church, denomination, or even religion. All the earth is the fruit of her womb and she loves us all fiercely. She even loves men like Hosea and his interpreters who relish shaming and subordinating women, men who inflict violence with their words and hands and weaponize their bodies and sometimes our bodies against us. It’s as though God doesn’t have any standards about who she loves.

But God does have standards about how those whom she loves are treated at the hands of those she also loves. Gomer’s first child was named Jezreel as an indictment of all the blood spilled by Jehu who was one of God’s chosen anointed kings; he was beloved by God but ultimately he was held accountable for his actions. Some of the blood that Jehu spilled was the blood of Jezebel; she didn’t even serve the God of Israel and yet she too was beloved. The name of Gomer’s first prophetic child covers even her blood shed in violence.

I see God in Gomer’s love and in God I see a love that has no equal. And I see Gomer in God’s scandalous, flagrant, and promiscuous love. A love that would see a young girl in Nazareth called every name that Gomer was ever called by Hosea and everyone else for conceiving a child but not with her partner. I see the shameless love of God enter the world through the parts of women that men like some of the bible’s prophets and some men and women today see as unclean, dirty, and shameful. I see the inexhaustible love of God in human form held to the breast of that scandalous, infamous mother. I see the steadfast love of God in that child turned man who sought out the company of women like Gomer rather than the company of men like Hosea. And I see the love of God begin to come full circle when one of those women put her hands and her hair on that man’s body in a shockingly intimate scene. I see it when scandalous women and those who might have called them scandalous stood together at the foot of that cross watching their beloved, God’s beloved, die at the hands of violent men. And I see the death destroying love of God in the commission of God to those infamous women to preach the gospel of that grave shattering love whether men would believe them or not.

They called her a whore but nevertheless Gomer persisted in loving a child called Loveless and her love we see God’s love. Amen.

 

Hosea 1:1The word of the Holy One that was to Hosea ben Beeri, in the days of Kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah of Judah, and in the days of King Jeroboam ben Joash of Israel: 2This is the beginning of the Holy One speaking through Hosea: The Holy One said to Hosea, “Go, take for yourself a promiscuous wife and children of promiscuity for the land whores perpetually by forsaking the Holy One.” 3So Hosea went and took Gomer bat Diblaim, and she conceived and gave birth to a son for him. 4Then the Holy One said to Hosea, “Call his name Yizrael, (Jezreel); for in a little while I will visit the blood of Yizrael, upon the house of Jehu, and I will put an end to the monarchy of the house of Israel. 5On that day I will break the bow of Yisrael, Israel, in the valley of Yizrael, Jezreel.”6Gomer conceived again and she gave birth to a daughter. Then the Holy One said to him, “Name her Lo-ruhamah, (meaning deprived of mother-love), for no longer will I mother-love the house of Israel or forgive them. 7But I will mother-love the house of Judah, and I will save them by the Holy One their God; I will not save them by bow, or by sword, or by war, or by horses, or by cavalry.” 8Now when she had weaned Lo-ruhamah, Gomer conceived and gave birth to a son.

 


Wisdom’s Table is God’s Table

A vision of Wisdom, “Her Eye On the World” by Shiloh Sophia

In the name of God who reveals herself to be more than we ever expected. Amen.

The insistence that God is male and only male has not rung true to more than half the people on planet from the time the Israelite Judean elite began to codify their sacred texts shaping the religions that have descended from them. It does not ring true to many of us who are women, femme, or non-binary; it doesn’t ring true to many who see themselves reflected by design in the dominant portraits of God. I postulate it never rang true to authors and editors of the Hebrew Scriptures and Greek deuterocanonical writings, to Jesus or the voices in the New Testament. The claim is easy to defend because the scriptures use a wealth of language, feminine and masculine, to name and describe God starting with the very first two verses of scripture where God is He who created the heavens and the earth, and She who fluttered over the face of the deep. Today we have Wisdom, she who when compared with the light is found to be superior, for the light is succeeded by the night, but against wisdom evil does not prevail. And, we have she who when listened to will grant security and ease. And, we have she who though not Mary is also the mother of Jesus.

In spite of being conveyed in a binary language, the God of the Hebrew Scriptures and of those that followed is not constrained in a binary box, or even a singular box, not even a Trinitarian box. God and her divinity transcend all of the names, descriptions, imagery, and attributes ascribed to her in the scriptures. She is more. In the previous century when I was in seminary, the Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas taught me that language is a tool and when it comes to naming or describing God, an inadequate one. Yet it is the only tool we have. We wield it like the back end of a screwdriver when we need to drive a nail but have no hammer. It gets the job done but is less than perfect, less than elegant.

In the scriptures the Wisdom of God is presented as a capital-P-person. She is a companion and co-creator and, and in some texts enables God’s creation of the world. It seems to me that the sorting out the relationship between God and Wisdom is much like what Christians do trying to explain the Trinity. We love us some fuzzy math. It could be said that she, Wisdom, precedes from God in the same way Jesus and the Holy Spirit are said to precede from God while at the same time also being God. So is the Trinity a Quaternity? This is what I mean by fuzzy math. But, no, God and Wisdom are no more separable than you are from your shadow or I argue than God is from her spirit. It’s not much of a secret that I fail at fuzzy math and am not much of a Trinitarian. Eventually some Greek-speaking Christians would identify Wisdom with Jesus linking wisdom and the word. But Jesus did not identify Wisdom with himself. Rather he identifies himself as her son.

In today’s gospel Jesus responds to his critics by saying, “Wisdom is vindicated by all her children,” situating himself as her child. He would not have understood wisdom as a mere character trait, adept in head, heart, and hand as it means so often in the Torah and Prophets. It is in the poetic texts beginning with Proverbs that Wisdom makes her debut as a personage speaking in the first person and sashaying down the street looking to gather those who would be her children. In the book of Wisdom she gets her own body of literature, an autobiographical midrash of her Proverbs portrait. And then somewhere in the sources of Matthew and Luke’s gospels there is a tradition about Jesus appealing to the person of Wisdom in his self-defense when people call him a drunken gluttonous party animal with bad taste in friends. Later on in Luke Wisdom also speaks in the first person, Jesus quotes her: “Therefore also the Wisdomof God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute…’ No one knows where this is written outside of the gospel but there is a later allusion to it in the Quran.

What are we to say to these things? God is more than we think or imagine. God is and is in all of the flesh the world loves to despise. We are seeing the low regard men and some women have for women’s bodies even as some of them covet them and gain access by any means necessary. Women and that which is perceived to be feminine often–but not always–represented weakness, secondary status, and subordination in the world of the scriptures and more so for ancient Israel that its neighbors. The rhetoric many prophets found most effective for shaming the men who led and failed to lead Israel was rooted in women’s bodies and our bodily processes and what could and did happen when those bodies and processes were not subject to male control.

It is I find, a witness to an eternal truth that in the same collection of texts that calls women whores, likens the offenses of the nation to menstrual waste, and describes the capture of foreign cities as rapes with lurid details occasionally perpetrated by God that there are portrayals of God that transcend the categories of gender as they understood them then. That truth is that God refuses to be imprisoned in the idiom of domination, even when that idiom supplies the most common vernacular for God. That is certainly what Jesus demonstrated reveling with those who enjoyed the pleasure their bodies afforded with food and wine. Sinners, tax collectors, drunks and gluttons can easily be read as sex workers and women outside of male control, the wealthy whose practices exploit the poor, drunks and addicts of all kinds, and people whose bodies were uses as a pretext for fat and body shaming. Sometimes prostitutes are specified as his companions other times included or represented by “sinners.” It’s the tax collectors who mess me up. They are not on my politically correct marginalized team. But Jesus still rolls with them, finding God’s presence in each one. The diversity of his companions, the diversity of humanity and the human condition are all markers for the expansiveness of God’s nature and love. He learned that love from both his mamas. Mama Mary taught him a love that put puts one’s vey body on the line for the beloved and Mother Wisdom taught him to find his beloveds in the streets and welcome them home.

God is so much bigger than our culture and customs, vernacular and idiom, and if we listen to Wisdom and her child Jesus and follow their holy example we will find so much more than new language for God. These diverse portraits tell me that God cannot be fully known on the upside of power curves. Here the presence of the tax collectors helps me. Partying with Jesus exposes them to a side of humanity they may have never seen or forgotten, reminding them that the world is bigger than their world and there is something much more valuable than money, the knowledge of the fullness of God represented by the diversity of her children.

I put it more strongly: The tycoon cannot know God fully with out knowing her as a hungry child knows her. A white supremacist cannot know God without knowing the God of black church mothers who is a mother to the motherless. The homophobic heterosexist cannot know God without knowing the queer God in all zir transcendent trans-ness. The law and order cop cannot fully know God without knowing the God of the black person executed in the street without the benefit of a trial. The supercessionist cannot know God fully without knowing how her Jewish and Muslim children experience her.

The boundary crossing God inhabits and transcends all of our categories, marking each one, each aspect of ourselves, our identities, our bodies, as holy, as fit for the divine, for after all it was in the much demonized reproductive space of a woman’s body that God became incarnate in a family of choice that defied their own categories: A God who fathered without genitalia, a woman who made her own reproductive choice, a celibate partner (for a time), and another mother, or if you distinguish Wisdom from the Holy Spirit, two. Come, let us sup at Wisdom’s table. Amen.

Luke 7:31 “To what then will I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? 32 They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another,

‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; 
we wailed, and you did not weep.’

33 For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon’; 34 the Son of Mary has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ 35 Nevertheless, wisdom is vindicated by all her children.”

Wisdom 7:26 For she is a reflection of eternal light,
a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness.
27 Although she is but one, she can do all things,
and while remaining in herself, she renews all things;
in every generation she passes into holy souls
and makes them friends of God, and prophets;
28 for God loves nothing so much
as the person who lives with wisdom.
29 She is more beautiful than the sun,
and excels every constellation of the stars.
Compared with the light she is found to be superior,
30 for it is succeeded by the night,
but against wisdom evil does not prevail.
8:1 She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and she orders all things well.

Proverbs 1:20 Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice.
21 At the busiest corner she cries out;
at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:
22 “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
and fools hate knowledge?
23 Give heed to my reproof;
I will pour out my thoughts to you;
I will make my words known to you.
24 Because I have called and you refused,
have stretched out my hand and no one heeded,
25 and because you have ignored all my counsel
and would have none of my reproof,
26 I also will laugh at your calamity;
I will mock when panic strikes you,
27 when panic strikes you like a storm,
and your calamity comes like a whirlwind,
when distress and anguish come upon you.
28 Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer;
they will seek me diligently, but will not find me.
29 Because they hated knowledge
and did not choose the fear of the Holy One,
30 would have none of my counsel,
and despised all my reproof,
31 therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way
and be sated with their own devices.
32 For waywardness kills the simple,
and the complacency of fools destroys them;
33 but those who listen to me will be secure
and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.”


The Gospel and the Cross Are Political

In the name of the crucified God who bids us take up our cross in this crucifying world, Amen.

by He Qi

In the scriptures the Wisdom of God is presented as a capital-P-person. She is a companion and co-creator and, in some texts enables God’s creation of the world. It seems to me that the sorting out the relationship between God and Wisdom is much like what Christians do trying to explain the Trinity. We love us some fuzzy math. It could be said that she, Wisdom, precedes from God in the same way Jesus and the Holy Spirit are said to precede from God while at the same time being God. So is the Trinity a Quaternity? This is what I mean by fuzzy math. But, no, God and Wisdom are no more separable than you are from your shadow. Eventually some Greek-speaking Christians would identify Wisdom with Jesus linking wisdom and the word. But Jesus did not identify her with himself. Rather he identifies himself as her son. In the Eucharistic gospel for this Wednesday, Jesus responds to his critics by saying, “Wisdom is vindicated by all her children,” meaning himself. That gospel fits much better with our lesson and canticle. But I’m not going to count today’s gospel out. It too offers the wisdom of God, and as we shall see, it is a hard lesson.

“Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am?” Peter gets to go to the head of the class by saying, “You are the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ, the son of the Living God.” Most folk hear those words, “Anointed One, Messiah, and Christ,” and think of Jesus and only Jesus. But in the scriptures of the Jewish Jesus and his Jewish first disciples the term anointed, or meshiachin Hebrew from which we get the word messiah, is used first for priests, and then for kings, and not just Israelite kings. When the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek because after the rise of Alexander the Great everybody spoke Greek, the word that was used for God’s anointed whether priest or king waschristos, christ, long before Jesus was born.

Peter’s confession then, was that he understood Jesus to have been anointed by God like King Cyrus of Persia who ended the Babylonian exile, the last person called christ or messiah in the Greek and Hebrew versions of the scriptures at that time. Peter also understood that Jesus was more than someone anointed by God to perform a specific task, even one as great as delivering the Jews from the Romans which what the disciples seemed to think and want and for good reason. Peter knew that Jesus was more: “You are…the son of the Living God.”

            This is the core confession of our faith. Jesus is more than a good man or even a great man. He is more than a good or great teacher. He is more than a worthy role model in faith, piety, and righteous rabble-rousing. Jesus is more than a gospel preacher and social justice activist. He is all of those things, and more. He is more. Jesus is the son of the God who lives without beginning or end. Jesus is God’s son in a way that differs from the way we are all God’s children. And Peter got that.

            Peter correctly identified Jesus as the one God in her wisdom anointed with her spirit as the incarnate gospel, the love of God poured into human flesh through woman-flesh to birth the commonwealth of God and its commonweal into our broken, crucified and crucifying world. Then Jesus teaches his disciples a lesson they were not expecting on what that really means. The first thing Jesus taught them after Peter’s confession was that the mortal yet immortal son of the Living God would have his mortality tested and proved.

I imagine Jesus asking, “Do you know what all of that really means? It means I’m going to be hurt, I’m going to be broken. The same authorities and powers that chew you up and spit you out are going to grind me into the dust. They are going to leave me battered and bruised and bloody. They are going to kill me. And the next day when you wake up I will still be gone, dead and gone. And the next. And the next. Who will you say I am then? What will your wisdom say then?”

            And Peter confident in his wisdom said, “Stop talking like that.” Peter rebuked Jesus the way Jesus often rebuked his own disciples and the occasional demon including just previously. Jesus’s language was pretty strong, “Get behind me, Satan!” But he wasn’t calling Peter the devil. The original meaning for satan is an adversary, human or divine. It didn’t always mean the devil or even an evil figure. When the angel only his donkey could see blocked Balaam’s path it was described as a satan. Here Jesus isn’t calling Peter the devil, there’s an entirely different word in Greek for that. He is telling him that he is positioning himself in the way of, in opposition to, God’s work through Jesus by trying to shush any talk of Jesus getting hurt or killed. Peter is so consumed by the thought of Jesus dead at the hands of violent men that he seems to have missed “and after three days rise again.”

            In Mark’s gospel, “Who do you say that I am?” functions like an invitation to say a slightly different creed. The key points are in the gospel. Jesus is the woman-born, child of earth and God’s child–in more than one way. The translation “Son of Man” is inadequate and misleading. Jesus is the son of the Living God. Jesus like every preacher or prophet worth her salt is going to be rejected some point by those at the top of the hierarchy. Woe to the people whose prophets are always praised by those in power and in positions of privilege. Jesus will not just die. He will be killed, violently. And he will rise from death–not be raised by somebody else like he and other prophets did for other people, but he will rise; he will raise himself. That is what he was anointed to do. That is what it means for Jesus to be Christ. And that was part one of the answer to, “Who do you say that I am.”

            Jesus made clear that the full answer wasn’t in just knowing his identity, titles, or the history of those titles. It was in taking up the cross and following him. That is what Jesus calls us to as disciples. There are real costs to following Jesus, living and loving as he did, welcoming as he did, speaking out as he did. So what is your cross? It’s not just some hardship like a cranky boss. The cross is the price you pay for living the gospel you confess. It’s rooted in the place God calls you to to live out your confession. It’s the place where your faith meets the harsh realities of this world. Jesus’s cross was a Roman one; it was the empire’s death sentence for revolutionaries. Is your faith revolutionary enough for anyone to notice? Is your faith visible outside of the walls of this sanctuary? Jesus call us to take up our cross and follow him, follow him into the world’s broken places and make a difference.

            What does it look like to bear a cross on which you might be tortured and killed today? It means standing against policies that consign people, and primarily people of color, to death, incarceration, exile, and poverty absent access to healthcare. Our government is cutting funds to refugee service organizations in the Palestinian Territories. That means they are cutting funds that provide food, healthcare, and education through the Anglican Province there and through the Lutheran Church. They are cutting funds to the only hospital in the Palestinian Territories that can treat cancer with radiation and chemotherapy. Taking up the cross on which Palestinians are being crucified will see you crucified along side of them as anti-Israel by some folk.

Jesus walked among the poor, hungry, and downtrodden. He didn’t stay in the safety of the sanctuary, or use scholarship and scholarly debates as a surrogate for doing the work. He spent time in the temple and he studied in the synagogue and then he took it to the streets. He also took some time to himself and then did it all over again. Jesus fed the people, food for their bodies and food for their souls. There are hungry people in this land of abundance, not because there isn’t enough, not because they’re just poor, not because they can’t manage what they have. We have poverty because of inequities that are built into all of our systems. Some of those same systems existed in Jesus’ day so he didn’t just hand out food. He publically came against the systems that kept some people poor and other folk rich, naming names of those at the top of the system. That’s what gets you a cross to bear, although opening a food pantry and feeding the homeless in some neighborhoods and business districts will get you the same treatment.

            Jesus called us to provide water for the thirsty. Flint Michigan still does not have clean water. An entire generation of children have been poisoned with lead and other pollutants and had their IQ lowered. Those children may have health and behavioral problems, and later difficulty getting into college and finding jobs. Their income potential and quality of life has already been drastically changed for the worse. Calling for affirmative action to even the playing ground for them will sho nuff get you a cross to bear. Wading into the race-based politics that saw the state strip a black city of its mayor, city council, and ability to self-govern, then put them and only them on a poisoned water supply and give the army permission to blow up abandoned buildings in town without out notifying residents who thought they were under a terrorist attack–calling out the institutional and individual racism at play in Flint Michigan and here at home will get you a cross to bear.

            It’s not just Flint. Desperate people seeking refuge from violence and crippling poverty also seek legal access to petition if they meet the qualifications for refugee status. Asking the question isn’t a crime. Putting in the application isn’t a crime. We’ve got a legal process. But this government has set it up so that there are no legal routes to that legal process so if you make it in they will detain you and your children in cages like animals for the illegal entry that they forced you into. And that’s if you don’t die of thirst in the crossing. And woe to you if you help somebody survive in that desert by leaving water along the way. You will find yourself in the crosshairs of your cross.

            A final example, Jesus called out the police brutality of his day. He stood with the people and spoke up for the people as one of the people. He didn’t just stand with good men like Botham Shem Jean, but he stood with and died with the criminally corrupt bearing his cross along with them, receiving a final beating at the hands of the police before his execution.

            Taking up your cross is political. It is as political as the Gospel. It is as political as Christianity has always been. As political as our Church has always been, sometimes on the right side, and sometimes on the wrong. Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him though it mean our death. He meant that as literally as he meant his own death in the preceding verses. “Who do you say that I am? If you say that I am the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the Living God, then take up your cross though you may die on it and follow me.”

            We can no longer pretend that we can follow Christ without following him into the broken places of the world. We can no longer pretend that we can follow Christ without paying an exorbitant price at some point. We can no longer claim we follow Christ if we never leave our places of safety and never raise the ire of those who construct and benefit from the systems that impoverish and imprison. Take up your cross because Christ bids you to, and you will find him in that place of need and service with the power to raise you when you fall, even from the grasp of death. Amen.

Lessons

Wisdom 7:26 For she is a reflection of eternal light,
a spotless mirror of the working of God,
and an image of his goodness.
27 Although she is but one, she can do all things,
and while remaining in herself, she renews all things;
in every generation she passes into holy souls
and makes them friends of God, and prophets;
28 for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom.
29 She is more beautiful than the sun,
and excels every constellation of the stars.
Compared with the light she is found to be superior,
30 for it is succeeded by the night,
but against wisdom evil does not prevail.
8:1 She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other,
and she orders all things well.
 
Proverbs 1:20 Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice.
21 At the busiest corner she cries out;
at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:
22 “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
and fools hate knowledge?
23 Give heed to my reproof;
I will pour out my thoughts to you;
I will make my words known to you.
24 Because I have called and you refused,
have stretched out my hand and no one heeded,
25 and because you have ignored all my counsel
and would have none of my reproof,
26 I also will laugh at your calamity;
I will mock when panic strikes you,
27 when panic strikes you like a storm,
and your calamity comes like a whirlwind,
when distress and anguish come upon you.
28 Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer;
they will seek me diligently, but will not find me.
29 Because they hated knowledge
and did not choose the fear of the Holy One,
30 would have none of my counsel,
and despised all my reproof,
31 therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way
and be sated with their own devices.
32 For waywardness kills the simple,
and the complacency of fools destroys them;
33 but those who listen to me will be secure
and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.”

 Mark 8:27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ.” 30 Then Jesus rebuked them, ordering them not to tell anyone about him.

31 And then Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Mary must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

34 Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Mary will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”


This Is My Body: The Womb of God

Christ: Our Mother, Our Brother, Our Savior

[Title from Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love]

I didn’t stay quite long enough in Hawaii to avoid the bread and circuses season of preaching that has “bread of life” texts padding our lectionary with metaphysical carbohydrates through the end of the summer. And having sat through all of them, I have concluded that I like last week’s lesson better, and next week’s even better.

The sixth chapter of the Gospel of John is seventy-one verses about bread, mystical and mundane. Bread was the primary form of nourishment in the world in which Jesus lived and the production of bread and maintenance of bread producing crops was an ongoing daily task. This meant that people often lived and ate hand to mouth. They didn’t stockpile bread though they stored flour and grain. Often the word bread was shorthand for any solid food, including meat. Jesus teaches his contemporary disciples to ask for today’s bread and tomorrow’s in a world in which blight, mildew, fungus, rats, or a poor crop could greatly imperil food security and survival. Bread in the scriptures is the stuff of life, that without which we cannot survive, and that which enables us to do more than survive, creates the possibility that we will have the opportunity to thrive.

The Gospel of John talks about bread nearly twenty times, twelve of those are in this chapter. This is a crucial point for the evangelist who focuses on this language and imagery instead of–or perhaps as–a Last Supper Eucharistic moment. This is the context for Jesus’s shocking statement: “I am the living bread that from heaven came down. If anyone eats of this bread they will live forever, and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

            This text invokes the spectre of cannibalism which explains the responses of those around Jesus at the time. In this gospel that many want to read theologically, Jesus is emphatic that his hearers, his fellow Judeans, (and by extension, we who hear ourselves addressed in this text) eat his flesh. The uproar that followed was understandable: Then the Judeans, Jesus’s fellow Jews, argued among themselves, saying, “How can he give us his flesh to eat?”

            Written nearly a century after Jesus’s resurrection, the author of John is heavily invested in differentiating Christians from Jews, a distinction that did not exist in the life of Jesus. He and his Judean disciples were Jewish. They were “the Jews” as much as the people John prefers to identify as Jews, folk who disagree or debate with Jesus. The one word, Ἰουδαῖοι, means both people from Judea and people who followed the religion of Judea, Judaism. What gets complicated is that Ἰουδαῖοιis also used for followers of Jesus who are both native Judeans and continue to understand themselves to be Jewish. While the gospel written almost a century later is trying to put people in different piles, we will not. Jews who followed Jesus and those who did not would have equal difficulty with this command.

            [So Jesus said to them,] “Very truly, I say to you all, unless you all eat the flesh of the Son of Woman and drink his blood, you have no life in yourselves.”

            Jesus uses an expression from his childhood faith, from his scriptures which we now share that means human child, son of humanity, human-born, woman-born, emphasizing his mortality and that God’s power would be wielded through someone who from the outside looked like every other person born of a woman. Ἀνθρώπουmeans human and includes women and men just as anthropology from the same root is the study of all people, not just one gender. It has always struck me as bizarre that the Church translated this as “Son of Man” while at the same time claiming that Jesus was woman-born but had no human father. The degree to which Son of Woman is hard for some folk to hear is the degree to which “man” is perceived as a normative category and woman is still not quite representative of humanity. That’s why some of us are working on the language we use and hear in liturgy and in preaching in the Episcopal Church.

            Jesus whose life story up to this point was already mindboggling–healing miracles, meal multiplication miracles, and resurrection miracles–Jesus now says, “I am the living bread that from heaven came down. If anyone eats of this bread they will live forever, and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” and, “Very truly, I say to you all, unless you all eat the flesh of the Son of Woman and drink his blood, you have no life in yourselves.”

Eating blood was and still is taboo for Jews and cannibalism is taboo for practically everyone. And were that not enough, it looks like we have now moved from cannibalism to vampirism. Can the zombies be far behind? Just the other day I saw someone on Twitter claiming that Christians practice witchcraft citing this verse. It would have been so much easier if Jesus had said “spiritually” or explained his saying as a parable or metaphor. But he insisted:

            Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will also raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood in me they abide, and I in them…whoever eats me that one will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like what your ancestors ate; they died. The one who eats this bread will live forever.”

We read and hear this gospel long after church fathers fought and sometimes had each other excommunicated over what all of this means while shaping the way we hear this text. We also read knowing, if not fully understanding, that the divine mystery that is the Blessed Sacrament conveys Christ in its bread and wine, that Christ is very present in the sacrament and therefore in us. And so we too will live as he lives–beyond death. We read knowing that Jesus’s flesh was and is human and divine – because he was born of a woman and killed by a man, raised from death to life after which was touched and held, and dropped by for breakfast on the shore after his resurrection. The church fathers had fits over whether the rest of his digestion system worked after resurrection–how could there be latrines in heaven?

Too much blood and ink has been spilled over trying to understand and explain what happens–or does not happen–when a priest says the ancient words that go back to Jesus himself, “This is my body.” Each of the other gospels and Corinthians preserves these words from Jesus which are the heart of our Eucharistic feast. You will hear them today. But the author of John whom Bishop Spong urges us to read as a theologian leaves us with a much more visceral image: Very truly, I say to you all, unless you all eat the flesh of the Son of Woman and drink his blood, you have no life in yourselves… for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.

Over and over this gospel makes this claim. Jesus says these elements are his body and blood and we must consume them to share his life. He must become part of us, literally and physically as well as spiritually. And since we are Episcopalians, we are free to come to our own determination about what that means to us and are still welcome to the table no matter what understanding or doubt we hold. This table is a place of welcome and transformation.

It is this transformation that equips us to survive the evils of the world and to do more than just survive them, transform the world that has spawned them to the image of the reign of God. We have all the strength we need in God no matter how often we commune. The Eucharist does not wear off. But coming to the table regularly reminds of who it is that empowers us. The same Jesus whom the grave could not hold stands with us and within us when we stand up to bigotry and hatred. The same Jesus who started throwing furniture in the temple when God’s house was polluted stands with us when we stand against the abuse of God’s children by clergy in every church–including ours. The same Jesus surrounded himself with Samaritans and Syro-Phoenicians stands with us when we stand up to bullies at the border. Christ within us empowers us to do his work in the world. And we are reminded of that every time we receive the bread of life and cup of salvation.

            The elements are transformed and we who consume them are transformed by Christ’s very presence working in us. We are nourished by Christ’s body and blood just as we are nourished by the body and blood of our mothers in the womb. Pregnancy offers a way to think about what it means to consume the body and blood of Christ that isn’t cannibalistic, vampiric, or zombie-geist. Julian of Norwhich who wrote the song of praise we used earlier called the church to contemplate the mystery of Christ as Mother, Bother, and Savior:

Our highest Father, God Almighty, who is ‘Being’, has always known us and loved us: because of this knowledge, through his marvellous and deep charity and with the unanimous consent of the Blessed Trinity, He wanted the Second Person to become our Mother, our Brother, our Saviour.

It is thus logical that God, being our Father, be also our Mother. Our Father desires, our Mother operates and our good Lord the Holy Ghost confirms; we are thus well advised to love our God through whom we have our being, to thank him reverently and to praise him for having created us and to pray fervently to our Mother, so as to obtain mercy and compassion, and to pray to our Lord, the Holy Ghost, to obtain help and grace.

            Today when you receive the Blessed Sacrament feel yourself surrounded by the enveloping womb of God’s love wherein you will receive all that you need to survive and thrive, grow and become who you are called to be, and live in this world and the next. Amen.

 

John 6:51[Jesus said,] “I am the living bread that from heavencame down. If anyone eats of this bread they will live forever, and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

52 Then the Judeans, his fellow Jews, argued among themselves, saying, “How can he give us his flesh to eat?” 53So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I say to you all, unless you all eat the flesh of the Son of Woman and drink his blood, you have no life in yourselves. 54Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will also raise them up on the last day; 55for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood in me they abide, and I in them. 57Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me that one will live because of me. 58This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like what your ancestors ate; they died. The one who eats this bread will live forever.” [Translation, Wil Gafney]

Song of Praise, (adapted from Julian of Norwich (1342-1416), Revelations of Divine Love)

Just as God is our Father, so God is also our Mother.
Jesus Christ who himself overcame evil with good,
is our true Mother.
We received our Being from Him
–and this is where His Maternity starts–
And with it comes the gentle Protection
and Guard of Love
which will never cease to surround us.
Just as God is our Father, so God is also our Mother.
As if to say, I am the power and the Goodness of the Father,
I am the Wisdom of the Mother,
I am the Light
and the Grace which is blessed love,
I am the Trinity,
I am the Unity,
I am the One who makes you love.
God Almighty has always known us and loved us:
and with the unanimous consent of the Blessed Trinity,
God wanted the Second Person to become our Mother,
our Brother, our Saviour.
Just as God is our Father, so God is also our Mother.


Michal: Redux and Remix

For those of you who are interested in sermon craft, here is the revised form of my Michal sermon, Why Michael Rightly Despised David, edited for my Episcopal parish. The long form was preached at a WomanPreach event.

Let us pray: In the name of the God who declares we are all worthy of love. Amen.

 Our first lesson proclaims: Michal despised David in her heart. A text without a context is a pretext. There is context to be found, but not in the snippings of the lectionary. Michal despised David in her heart. And she had every reason to do so. It’s well past time to listen to the voices of women in the biblical texts telling their stories about characters we have been taught to romanticize like certain now-fallen Hollywood idols. This is the whole point of the Me Too movement: Listen to women, believe us. Believe us about assault and harassment, believe us about discrimination and underrepresentation and overwork and underpay, and believe us when we say the Church’s fixation on masculine language and imagery for God is harmful to us.

We are wrestling with this as a Church. Soon we will wrestle more intently with the language we use in prayer. While we wait to wrestle with the prayerbook we will explore a wider range of language for God, and perhaps, one day, we will revisit our lectionary. (Notice today Michal is paired with Herodias, two allegedly bad women pitted against the men that everybody knows are the real heroes of the story.) That’s actually my next book project, a woman centered lectionary which will ask “what does it look like to tell the good news through the stories of women who are often on the margins of scripture and often set up to represent bad news.” The story of Michal is one of those stories for me. Michal despised David in her heart because he was despicable and I imagine God said, “I understand.”

We love royalty in this country, particularly now that we are couple hundred years away from it and no longer subject to it. Now we romanticize it and fantasize about it, and some apply those fantasies to royal characters in the biblical texts. Many of us also learned from an early age who the heroes were or were supposed to be in biblical stories. Our forbears built this nation and brutally reorganized the world on reading strategies like these: cowboys and Indians as the new Canaanites and Israelites, enslavers and enslaved, and subordination of women to men and in each pairing certainty on whose side God was supposed to be.

Along the way we’ve begun to ask questions of the texts just as we asked questions about the world we inherited along with the responsibility to shape it for those who follow. Scripture is our heritage and it been both badly exploited and underutilized. One of the most important questions we can ask of scripture is what am I missing by reading as I have always read? Whose voice is missing or ignored? Many have read the text with and as David–that’s why our lectionary is set up for us to read his story through the summer–but few have read from the perspective of Michal, his first wife, Saul’s youngest daughter. We’re going to talk about Michal and how and why she came to despise David and in so doing we shall see that pink princess fantasies don’t belong anywhere near the biblical texts.

Is there a word from the God who loves David so much it seems it doesn’t matter what he does to any body or their body for Michal? I maintain God is God of all creation and that includes the folk on the margins of the very scriptures that proclaim God’s love for David while demonstrating how deeply unworthy he was of that love on his own, let alone Michal’s.

Michael is the only woman in scripture said to love a man who is not her son. She loved David. And David loved Jonathan, and apparently himself. She may have been in love with him already when she watched him become engaged to her older sister first. How she would have rejoiced when her father called it off. How high her hopes would have been when her father offered her to him. What might she have thought of the cost? Reading from the margins means we can’t look at the brideprice of one hundred Philistine foreskins as the mighty act of a great warrior as we might have once. Now we stop and remember that this represents the murder and mutilation of human beings as beloved by God as we are. We stop and proclaim the good news that no one is disposable; no one is beyond God’s love. And we are to love neighbor and stranger, even in a time of war.

Michal was used by her father to trap David and used by David to escape the trap. He left her behind to suffer the consequences at the hands of her increasingly violent father. Her father used her body to punish David, giving her to another man as his wife – still married to David in the eyes of the law and in her heart, probably still in love with him in spite of having abandoned her, now she has to sleep with the strange new man her father has given her body to. How she must have longed for David, the swashbuckling hero and rebel bandit to come to her rescue. And when he did, it was with two other women in tow.

Michal might have been content to live with David and his new wives, that was the way of kings and she was a king’s daughter. But David didn’t want her as a woman or a wife. He wanted her back as a possession. She was his and no one else could have her. He took her back and then he abandoned her. He failed to do for her what was commanded by the Torah; he failed to provide her with children. The text does not say that Michal was barren, that would mean she and David were having sex. It says she does not have a child, meaning that David did not give her one. David withheld himself, his body and his seed from her, forcing her to live in isolation as he married and fathered again and again and again–nine women plus Saul’s leftover wives plus two more groups of unnamed, uncounted women and their children. (Learn more about Michal and other royal women in Womanist Midrash.)

Michal had to watch as David impregnates Abigail and Ahinoam. Michal watches as David passes her by and married and impregnates Maacah multiple times. Michal watches as David passes her by and married and impregnates Haggith. Michal watches as David passes her by and married and impregnates Abital. Michal watches as David passes her by and married and impregnates Eglah. I imagine she would have heard the news every time David married another woman and fathered a child and by this point in the story there would be many. Is there any wonder she despised him in her heart? It may have even been the first time she had seen him in person since he took her back abandoning her to a living widowhood.

Michal’s childlessness is an opportunity to discuss something else the Church doesn’t do well with, unwanted childlessness, infertility, and miscarriages. It’s not all the Church’s fault. The bible is incredibly unhelpful here claiming God gives and withholds children to reward and punish. That is clearly how our forbears thought but we are not limited to their theology any more than we are limited to their knowledge of reproductive biology–in which men plant seeds that are miniature people into women who like good and bad soil are fertile or barren, contributing nothing to the child.

In the bible, barren women get miraculous conceptions, pregnancies, and live births. But in this world in which the bible is enshrined, the miracles are few and far between. Some, few women, miraculously conceive against the odds. The overwhelming majority do not. God does not plant a little patriarch or savior in their womb. It’s not like the bible stories in this world in which the bible has become scripture. Our task as faithful interpreters is to bridge the gaps between the text and the world with the good news that God does not toy with us but holds in in our brokenness and heartbreak.

I know Michal is not just a character in David’s story, that there are childless, lonely, hurting women, women longing for the love a man that will never love them and women who lost the one who did. To say nothing of the heartbreak men experience but society tells them they’re not entitled to feel as real men. Longing for children or intimacy is limited by gender or orientation. Heartbreak, betrayal, and abandonment are not the sole province of women. And no matter what some of us may say in sorrow or anger, they are not all the fault of men. And not all heartbreak is romantic. Parents can wound as deeply as partners. Loss of employment and financial losses can be devastating. I dare say all of us have been brokenhearted, abandoned, or betrayed by someone or something beyond our control, beyond fixing, with which we simply have to live.

To all of us who like Michal have been brokenhearted saints at one time or another, God is Immanuel. God is Immanuel to Michal and to me. And to you. In our brokenness, in our wholeness, in our fullness, in our emptiness. God is with us. God is within us. God is and we are. Still here. Here and not alone. We are surrounded by the love of God that is greater than the failing love of friend, father or lover. In our places of isolation, abandonment, and self-exile we are held by the God who loves, heals, and restores, a God who is not swept away by romanticized readings of David and the despicable things he did to women. A God who loves even David, though perhaps in spite of rather than because of. We are held and loved by a God who chooses the weak, the vulnerable, the abused and mis-used.

This is good news for the ones who don’t get that happy ending in spite of how much you fast and pray. You are living with stuff you can’t tell anyone about. And you need a word for your life as it is right now. This is good news for those saints they don’t write songs about or include in Eucharistic prayers, saints like you and me.

The promise of God throughout all of scripture is Immanuel. If it is for anyone, it is for you, whether you are a Michal or a David. God’s love is for you. God is with you, loving you through this life you didn’t choose and may not want. Amen.


Why Michal Rightly Despised David

2 Samuel 6:16 As the ark of the Holy God came into the city of David, Michal bat Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Holy God; and she despised him in her heart… 23 And Michal bat Saul had no child to the day of her death.

I heard a voice say preach Michal’s story. Preach the story of a woman who loved a man who didn’t love her. Preach the story of a woman who never had children and died alone. Preach the story of a woman who loved a man of God who had other women and chose all of them over her. Preach the story of a woman who got left holding the bag when she helped the man she loved break out. Preach the story of a woman who got passed around from man to man by another man. Preach the story of a woman locked up and abandoned by the man she had risked everything for. Preach the story of a woman who found someone who loved her after everything she had been through and had that man and his love by the man she had once loved who never loved her. Preach the story of a woman who doesn’t get a happy ending in the bible. Preach that. But nobody wants to hear that.

In the bible, barren women get miraculous conceptions, pregnancies and live births. But not always. When people call the roll of barren or otherwise childless women for whom God provides children of their own flesh: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Samson’s mother, Hannah, the woman from Shunem – though she wasn’t asking for a child and Elizabeth they forget about Michal.

The psalmist (113:9) says: God gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. 

Wisdom (3:13) says: …blessed is the barren womanwho is undefiled, who has not entered into a sinful union; she will have fruit when God examines souls.

But in this world in which the bible is enshrined, the miracles are few and far between. Some, few women miraculously conceive against the odds. The overwhelming majority do not. God does not plant a little patriarch or savior in their womb. It’s not like the bible stories in this world in which the bible has become scripture. But we speak as though it is. Perhaps you’ve heard it. In the mostly black Christian circles in which I was formed and continue to seek my soul’s nurture I hear women spoken of with reference to their wombs, our wombs, my womb. Sometimes there’ll be an acknowledgement of those who cannot or do not choose to have children in a line, a single sentence. But here’s what they do not say:

Some of us were born with broken wombs. Some of us were born with dead wombs. Some of us were born without our wombs. Some of us have been attacked by our wombs for as long as we can remember. Some of our wombs were broken into, raped and scraped into inhospitality and infertility when were too young for our wombs to recover. Some of us have wombs that cannot or will not hold onto life – and we have tried, cried, paid and prayed for womb-life. Our wombs trickle, leak and squeeze – in heart and flesh rending pulses – the life out our wombs. Our wombs bleed when they should not, not a cleansing, healing flow but a chunky, membranous crimson, tide running down our legs, staining our clothes, soiling our sheets, embarrassing and humiliating us in public and private with our partners. Our wombs do not bleed when they should. They do not bleed because we have nothing to nurture with its rich blood. Our wombs don’t bother to bleed because they know we have no eggs, no ovaries or we ovaries and eggs that are not worth its blood. Some of our wombs hurt so much that they must be taken from us and no matter how much they hurt us we don’t want to let them go.

Some of our wombs hurt because they have been taken away from us and ache for the children they will never bear. Some of our wombs hurt because the life we have given has been snatched away. Some of our wombs hurt because death came for our child and we had to carry that dead body in our body to term and push it into the world in a grotesque parody of the birth we had planned. Some of our wombs hurt because the child we birthed didn’t survive the birthing. She didn’t last the day, the night. He didn’t live a week, a month, a year. Some of our wombs hurt because we can never accept out child’s death at any age. Some of our wombs hurt because they were perfectly healthy and desperately empty having never found anyone to love or be loved by.

I’m telling the story of Michal and her lonely, empty, abandoned womb. For a moment I’m going to do what I argue against, reduce a woman to a hunk of meat, tie her identity to whether or not her body has performed the herteonormative act to which it has been reduced in patriarchy. Michal is a supporting character in David’s story. The story isn’t about her. It’s not interested in her well-being or whether she has her own relationship to God.

Now, some blame Michal for telling David about himself. This is dangerously close to victim blaming. We have been so conditioned to read with David and to read against women that many of us miss that Michal was telling the truth about him. David was dancing before his Lord but he was also dancing for the servingslavewomen: by the women of whom you have spoken, by them I shall be held in honor. In other words, they like it and I know it. Yes, Michal despised him in her heart and she had every reason to do so.

Michal had been used by her father to trap David and used by David to escape the trap. Her father used her body to punish David, giving her to another man as his wife – still married to David in the eyes of the law and in her heart, probably still in love with him, now she has to sleep with the strange new man her father has given her body to. How she must have longed for David the swashbuckling hero and rebel bandit to come to her rescue. And then he did, with two other women in tow.

Michal might have been content to live with David and his new wives, that was the way of kings and she was a king’s daughter. But David didn’t want her as a woman or a wife. He wanted her back as a possession. She was his and no one else could have her. He took her back and then he abandoned her. He failed to do for her what was commanded by the Torah; he failed to provide her with children. The text does not say that Michal was barren, that would mean she and David were having sex. It says she does not have a child, meaning that David did not give her one. David withheld himself, his body and his seed from her.

Michal had to watch as David impregnates Abigail and Ahinoam. Michal watches as David passes her by and married and impregnates Maacah multiple times. Michal watches as David passes her by and married and impregnates Haggith. Michal watches as David passes her by and married and impregnates Abital. Michal watches as David passes her by and married and impregnates Eglah. All of these wives and their children are listed before Michal sees David cutting a fool. Is there any wonder she despised him in her heart? It may have been the first time she had seen him in person since he took her back. Michal will later have to watch as David passes her by and rapes and impregnates and then marries Bathsheba.

Is there a word from the God who loves David so much it doesn’t matter what he does to any body or their body for Michal? I maintain God is God of all creations and that includes the folk on the margins of the very scriptures that proclaims God’s love for David while demonstrating how deeply unworthy he was of that love, let alone Michal’s. Because I know Michal is not just a character in David’s story, that there are childless, lonely, hurting women, women longing for the love a man that will never love them and women who lost the one who did, I have to ask where is God for Michal? Is there a word for her?

I might have to go beyond the bible to find a word for her because the bible isn’t concerned about her. But I am. Michal, I have a word for you:

Michal, baby, you are not your womb. Your value is not in what it does or doesn’t do, what you do, don’t or can’t do with it.

Michal, baby, live. Live. Live with it. And live without him. Live with it when it hurts. And it will. You don’t have to pretend it doesn’t hurt. Live with it. Live fully in joy and pain. Don’t let it cripple you. There are things you can’t do. There are things beyond your control. There are things you want that you’ll never have. Live with it. Live through it. And survive. You survived David; you can survive this.

The promise of God throughout all of scripture is Immanuel. If it is for anyone, it is for you. For you were despised and rejected men and deemed as one of no account. You were one from whom women and men hid their faces. God is with you, loving you through this life you didn’t choose and do not want.

There is a word from the Living, Loving God for you. It came through the poet who spoke for Isaiah and is numbered as the 54th chapter of that serial collaboration. It is written to Jerusalem after the Babylonian invasion slaughtered her children in the street and carried others off to Babylon to remake in their image. To comfort Jerusalem, Next-Gen-Isaiah draws on the image of a woman who never had children to lose. Lost in most translations is that the entire chapter is written in feminine grammar. Looking beneath and beyond the Jerusalem exile, I hear God speaking to Michal and all of the women whose wombs and hearts have been bruised, broken or broken in to.

Sing childless woman,
never-given-birth-woman;
Woman, break out a song and rejoice, woman,
never-in-labor-woman.
For more are the children of the devastated woman
than the children of the espoused woman,
says Yah.

Do not fear woman
for you will not be ashamed woman;
do not feel humiliated woman
for you will not be disgraced woman.
For the shame of your youth woman,
you will forget woman,
and the stigma of your widowhood, woman,
you will never remember, woman.

For your spouse woman,
is the One who made you woman.
Sovereign God of *Women Warriors
is God’s name.

And the Holy One of Israel
will redeem you woman ~
who is called God of all the earth.

For like a wife abandoned and abject in spirit ~
God has called you woman ~
For you were a rejected young bride,
says your God, woman.

For a brief space I abandoned you woman,
but in great mother-love I will gather you woman.

For a minute moment
I hid my face briefly from you woman.
But in eternally bonded love
I will mother-love you woman.
Your Redeemer, Woman, has spoken.

For the mountains may depart
and the hills may be shaken,
but my bonded love
will never be removed from you woman;
neither will my covenant of well-being
ever be shaken,
says God who **mother-loves you woman.

Afflicted woman,
stormy-weather-woman,
uncomforted woman,
Look! I will set your bones with
ornamentation city-woman
and lay your foundation in sapphires woman.

I will give you ruby sunshine woman
and for your openings woman,
jewel stones
and for your boundary woman,
precious stones.

In righteousness will you be established, woman;
you will be far from oppression woman
so you will not fear woman
from terror
for it will not come on you, woman.

No weapon formed against you woman,
will succeed,
and every tongue that rises against you
woman for judgment,
you will condemn woman.
This is the heritage of the servants of God
And their righteousness is from me,
An oracle of God.

This is good news for the ones who don’t get that happy ending in spite of how much you fast and pray: You didn’t get married. You didn’t have a child. Your child did die. You lost your job, you lost your home, you lost your wife. Your husband took his life. Your child is going to die in that prison. God has not removed that cancer from your body. You were raped; you were incested and those memories won’t just go away. You are living with stuff you can’t tell anyone about. And you need a word for your life as it is right now. This is good news for those saints they don’t write songs about. For those of you who have named it and claimed it but didn’t get it. It good news for you who couldn’t take back what the devil stole for you.

God is Immanuel. And if God is Immanuel to anyone, God is Immanuel to Michal. God is Immanuel to Jerusalem, to Michal and to me. And to you. In our brokenness, in our wholeness, in our fullness, in our emptiness. God is with us. God is within us. God is and we are. Still here. Here and not alone. We are surrounded by the love of God that is greater than the failing love of friend, father or lover. In our places of isolation, abandonment, and self-exile we are held by the God who loves, heals, and restores, a God who is not swept away by romanticized readings of David and the despicable things he did to women. But we are held and loved by a God who chooses the weak, the vulnerable, the abused and mis-used.

It’s well past time to listen to the voices of women in the biblical text telling their Me Too stories about characters we have been taught to romanticize like certain now-fallen Hollywood idols. Michal despised David in her heart because he was despicable and I imagine God said, “I understand.”

 

[All translations of the biblical text are mine. In Isaiah 51 I used *Women-Warriors to highlight that צבאות is feminine plural and as a nod to some traditional rendering of angels as female, not to claim that the celestial beings are human or are gendered as we are. I translate רחם-love as **mother-love because the root also means womb.]

You can read more about Michal and the other women in David’s life in Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and of the Throne.

Revised for preaching in an Episcopal congregation here. Originally preached at a WomanPreach event.


Holy Fire

 

The Church turns its attention to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Pentecost. But we cannot turn to the Jerusalem of scripture, history, and memory and neglect the Jerusalem of the present moment, or those living and dying within and beyond her walls and call ourselves Church, Christians, or followers of Jesus. For, though the world has moved on to weddings and school shootings our lessons take us back to Jerusalem where the anguished cry of Jesus remains: Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! (Luke 13:34)

            The story of Pentecost begins: Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. (Acts 2:5) But there were not only Jews. The city that would become known as Jerusalem has been inhabited since the Stone Age. It was inhabited when the sacred texts we share with Judaism say God called Abraham and sent him into a land that was inhabited by other people and promised it to him and his descendants. We need to talk hear that story from the point of view of peoples who have had their land taken by folk who say their god gave them permission. We should all sit at the feet of native and indigenous scholars and pastors like Robert Allen Warrior, George Tinker, and our own Episcopal bishops, Carol Gallagher and Steven Charleston.

These stories have not only shaped our faith, they have shaped the business of the Church, conquest, colonization, conversion. These stories led to church sanctioned slavery, the conquest and colonization of virtually every African, Asian, and American nation, in the case of our continent’s nations, the near eradication of native nations and persons – all resting on an interpretation of the promise to Abraham, the Exodus story, and the vile, violent rhetoric of Joshua, biblical ethnic cleansing, claiming to have depopulated Canaan for Israel to fulfill God’s promise.

These verses underlie much of American and European and Israeli theology and politics. The so-called pacification of the American West was portrayed as biblical, it was described as the conquest of the new Canaan. And it didn’t matter that the old Canaan was not conquered the way Joshua said. The archaeology is clear on this. There was some conflict but more than a dozen cities claimed as destroyed were already ruins and hadn’t been inhabited in some case for centuries. And the editors of the bible would intentionally place Judges, a book that directly contradicted Joshua, saying the Israelites lived with the Canaanites together,immediately after it so Joshua would not be taken without a heaping mouthful of salt, (see Judg 1:21, 27-36). Yet what mattered to interpreters bent on using the bible to prove God gave them land already inhabited by other people was that there was a biblical model for land theft, settler colonialism, and both slavery and genocide as legitimate, biblical, options deal with the inhabitants of the land seized.

            What has this to do with Jerusalem? Joshua and Judges both agree when it comes to Jerusalem that the Israelites lived with the Canaanites together, two peoples in one land:

…the people of Judah could not drive out the Jebusites, the inhabitants of Jerusalem; so the Jebusites live with the people of Judah in Jerusalem to this day. (Joshua 15:63) And: But the Benjaminites did not drive out the Jebusites who lived in Jerusalem; so the Jebusites have lived in Jerusalem among the Benjaminites to this day... (Judg 1:21)

            There is language in the bible that promises the land in what is now Israel and the Palestinian Territories and part of Jordan and part of Syria and part of Lebanon to the descendants of Abraham which include Palestinians and other Arab peoples. It depends on what passage you’re reading, how much land. In other places scripture promises land specifically to ancient Israel, the ancient nation which fell and was dispersed but never occupied all of that land even when restored to it. What does that language mean now, to us as interpreters of the biblical text and concerned citizens of the world? And what does that mean to the modern state of Israel which is a different entity that the ancient nation, but connected to it by peoplehood?

            It means that we have learn to read the scriptures in light of the world in which they were created–a world in which Israel had been enslaved, defeated, conquered, exiled, and occupied by the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians to the point that they were not even a nation any more, more like a county–in that world the Israelites told their story looking back, shaped by those sorrows. And we have to read the scriptures in a world where we know that the love of God extends to all people, and that the moral and spiritual authority of the scriptures should not be used for nationalist ends, a world in which both Israelis and Palestinians have legitimate claims to Palestine and Israel and Jerusalem. We have to read in light of the reality of the modern state of Israel occupying and confining the Palestinians, denying them freedom of movement and resources, rationing water and electricity, subjecting them to daily indignities. We have to read in light of the history of past violence and the violence being perpetrated now while working towards a peace that is just even if it doesn’t make everyone or even anyone happy. We read knowing that both peoples have deep ancient connections to an impossibly weighty tiny piece of land.

            And we read through the story of Jesus, the stories of the gospels and the stories of Pentecost. We read through today’s lesson describing people from every nation including Arab nations traveling freely to visit Jerusalem. Jerusalem, the place where the church was birthed in the fires of Pentecost has been a multi-ethnic city for more than three thousand years. It was multi-ethnic when David conquered it. It was multi-ethnic after David conquered it and made it his capital. It was multi-ethnic when the Babylonians captured it. It was multi-ethnic when the Persians took it from the Babylonians. Jerusalem was multi-ethnic when Jesus walked its streets and it was a blessed cacophony of languages and cultures on Pentecost, even before the Holy Spirit added new languages to the mix: there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem…Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and converts, Cretans and Arabs

            When the fires of Pentecost burned in Jerusalem, the city was packed to the brim with even more people from even more places than usual. There were those who were born Jews, those who became Jews, and those who were neither Jewish nor interested in conversion. And since it was a convention, there were vendors–selling everything from sacrificial animals to souvenirs to kebabs, and there were pickpockets and thieves and every segment of humanity, rich and poor and everything in between, from soldiers to shepherds, country folk who had never been to the big city and sadity sophisticated folk. Some were native born, some were permanent residents, some were visitors, some were immigrants, and none of them were anything less than God’s beloved children created in the image of God. Not even those for whom the crowds were unlimited opportunities for plunder and prey–because people have not changed in forever–they too were nothing less than God’s children. And like God’s children today, deserving of full human dignity and respect whether they treat themselves or anyone else that way.

            I have to confess, sometimes that is hard for me. When I hear about the atrocious things that some folk do, like men who murder their children to punish their mothers, I have a hard time reconciling them with the image of God. And I call them some things that reflect none of God’s love or mercy. And frankly, I’m not always interested in mercy, just justice. But I know God is as gracious and merciful in her tender love as she is unflinchingly just and righteous. And I know that no one is beyond God’s love or power to redeem, because I remember that when Jesus was hanging on that cross he used one of his last breaths to pray for the forgiveness of those who crucified him. He did not call them animals. He did not deny their humanity. He died showing us a better way, a harder way.  

You might have heard that yesterday our Presiding Bishop preached the love of God at a fancy wedding. And let me say this about weddings. I think we romanticize them because of what they represent at their best, love. A love that is unashamed to own us and profess love for us for the rest of our lives in public. That kind of love is a gift and a sacrament. And many long for it. But the truth is, God loves us all just as passionately, more so. That love is incarnate in Jesus and poured into us through the Holy Spirit. It’s easy to love on your wedding day, even at someone else’s wedding. It can be harder to remember down the road that love is deeper than passion which comes and goes and that God’s love, for us and in us, is stronger than even the most romantic fairytale love. That abiding unshakable love is the gift of the Holy Spirit poured into the Church at Pentecost and poured into us at our baptism.

The Holy Spirit is the Mother of the Church, and as is the case in many families, she is the glue that holds it together. The Holy Spirit fluttering over the waters of creation, herself the breath of life that breathes us into existence, She, the Fire of Sinai, and whirling winds through which God speaks, and in our first lesson, She is Breath of Life that raises the dead. In Ezekiel’s dry bones vision the dead are the people of his nation and the nation itself, dead and destroyed, left to decay. God’s promise to him and those who survived in exile and captivity was that God would breathe them to life again. And She did.

That is what the Holy Spirit does for us and for the Church. She breathes us to life, pouring out onto all of her people without regard for age, gender, or social standing filling us with that love embodied in Jesus.


The Shadows of Easter

Let us pray: In the name of the One who waded in the waters of Miryam’s womb, walked the way of suffering as one of the woman-born, and woke from the grasp of death in the deep darkness of the morning. Amen.

 

Easter is beautiful. The warmth of the vigil fire; the light of the flames blending into the dawn sky. The light of the breaking dawn shining through stained glass windows. The flowers, their scent mingling with the scent of incense. The fragrance of warm bread–risen bread!–ascending with our prayers. Easter is beautiful. But it rests on an ugly foundation.

The glory of the triumph of Easter can make it easy to move past the oppressive systems and institutions that ensnared and extra-judicially executed Jesus, those which survived his death, and endure in the aftermath of his resurrection, still taking lives, still placing the tortured pierced bodies of daughters and sons in the arms of their mothers. After all, crucifixion continued after Jesus’s death, perhaps the next day, week, or month. Crucifixion continued after his resurrection. James Cone tells us that crucifixion continued in the lynching trees of the American south and in the north, including right here in Texas. Black Lives Matter activists keep telling us that crucifixion continues whether bullets or nails pierce the bodies of the crucified. And our trans siblings are crying out in their crucifixions, often at the hands of those they trusted to love them, all too often fathers and brothers. I know its Eastertide, but the world is still crucifying and crucified. After all we are singing our alleluias under armed guard in a sanctuary in which bullets as well as blossoms can be found. We are singing these alleluias while bombs are dropping on Syria, devastated by slaughter that has left half a million dead yet the doors of this so-called Christian nation under God are shut to all but eleven refugees.

I’m thinking about the Shadows of Easter this morning. The Church is built on more than the rock that is Christ. (Sorry Peter, you are not the rock.) The faults and failings of the world in which the Church was founded are also part and parcel of the Church and always have been. Cultural and institutional biases were incorporated into the Church from its founding, along with a general human predilection to do the wrong thing at any given time. I’m from a tradition that describes the Church as an “ark of safety.” Well, the ark was filled with shitstuff. And some of that stuff is in the Church.

Don’t miss that we have so many accounts of the resurrection in part because Jesus chose women as the apostles to the apostles but the pervasive sexism of the age would not accept women as witnesses, evangelists, and apostles in spite of what was already scripture at that time saying that women’s words and witness are enough for God: We’ve got a gospel that says women saw the resurrection and told the story; that’s preaching the gospel. We’ve got gospels that say that women saw the resurrection and went to get a man so he could preach the gospel. We’ve got a gospel in which men compete with each other to get there first–but still after the women–and eventually Jesus has to do a supernatural break-in to get them, the men, to get out and preach the gospel. And yet and still, in 2018 we had launch a major campaign to get men and women to “believe women” when we tell you the ways we’ve been harassed and harmed in every space in our world, including in the Church. And still some folk are asking, what does he have to say about it? He says he didn’t do it. I believe him.

There are systems which rank and categorize people and their worth that have been with us since the one person blamed the other person for eating a food he put into his own mouth. Outside of the sacred stories, people figured out how to dominate one another through brute strength, by withholding resources, and wielding of social power as soon as there were enough of them to divide into groups. Power takes many forms. One of those forms is the power to tell the version of the story that will become the Authorized Version. That is what our scriptures are: The Authorized Version of God’s story through particular perspectives.

In the Acts lesson (Acts 3:12-19 below) a number of different kinds of power come together to tell the story of Easter that is beautiful and glorious, and also shadowed by some of the ugliness it has spawned, ugliness that is still with us. It takes place in the aftermath of Peter’s miraculous healing of a man at the gate on the temple grounds. When confronted with the amazement of the people in response to the miracle he performed, Peter, perhaps still reeling from guilt over betraying and abandoning Jesus yet seeing the undeniable power of God working through his own unfaithful self, remembers his own denials and projects all of his emotional stuff onto the people who are his own Jewish people: You handed Jesus over to death. You rejected him. You killed him. You killed the author of Life. All the while what I think he was really saying was: I handed Jesus over to death. I rejected him. I killed him. I killed the author of Life

Peter’s language along with the Gospel of John that we read on Good Friday detailing Jesus’ encounters with the police which were nothing less than brutal, and a few other passages, form the basis of what has come to be called the “teaching of contempt” towards Jews and Judaism, literally blaming them for Jesus’s crucifixion at the hands of Roman soldiers under the power and authority of the Roman government, a power Jewish leaders didn’t have and a power that the eagle of Rome would not use to resolve what was for them a petty religious dispute. Instead, Rome executed Jesus as an insurrectionist, as a threat to the throne, and to the empire.

But the teaching of contempt blames Jews for the death of Christ. And that teaching from pulpits and podiums in congregations and classrooms has led to the murder of Jews by Christians, sometimes with the blessing of the Church. From the First Crusade in which Jews in Jerusalem were burned alive in synagogues to the Third Crusade in which Jews in England were given the choice of death or baptism and those who did not commit suicide were murdered. To Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic rages instructing to Christians to “First set fire to their schools and synagogues…This is to be done in honor of our Lord…Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed…Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings…be taken from them…Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb…” From Martin Luther to the Holocaust which was perpetrated “by Christian hands in Christian lands,” (Johanna van Wijk Bos)[1]with pastors, theologians, biblical scholars and, everyday Christians lending their religious and moral authority to that genocide which we recalled this past week on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, an Orthodox Jew who is also a New Testament professor, calls for us to do better with our theology and preaching, because anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism are counter to the “good news” of Jesus.”[2]

Easter, the glorious celebration of the glorious resurrection is overshadowed by anti-Semitism in our time as well, lest we forget the Nazi-saluting torch-bearing white supremacists who identify as Christian shouting “You will not replace us” and in some cases “Jew will not replace us.” Our celebrations of the resurrection are tainted by what we do in Christ’s name and in Christ’s Church, what we permit to be done in Christ’s name and in Christ’s Church, what we are silent about in the face of Christ, and what we deny in the face of Christ like Peter.

The whole of the Christian year stretches towards this moment when we reach back to acclaim the power of God over death manifest in the resurrected life of Jesus. The passion and pageantry of the eight days from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday enable us to mystically live in these ancient holy moments across time. And at the same time we are very much present in a world that is anything but resurrected.

This is the world in which we celebrate Easter. We dare not look away from the ugliness that stains its petals or turn our backs to its looming shadows, for Jesus bids us take up our cross on a way that leads through Shadow-Valley Death, even in Eastertide. Taking up the cross of the wrongfully convicted Jesus means not allowing the words of life in the gospel to be twisted into words of death for his Jewish kin. It means teaching and learning that the language of “Jews” in the New Testament is used by Jews to other Jews with whom they are wrestling with what it means to be a Jew when some Jews believed in Jesus and some Jews did not. It would take Jewish Christians hundreds of years to sort themselves out or be sorted out. We need to understand that these were internal Jewish conversations and we who are not Jews might just need to see ourselves out.

In Acts 3, Peter calls his Jewish community to repentance and I think the text also calls we who are Christians without Jewish roots to repent. It calls some of us to repent for bad theology, bad exegesis, and bad preaching. It calls all of us to repent for using the scriptures to subordinate and dominate others, to conquer and colonize, for failing to rise above hatred and bias even when it can be found in the text; it calls us to repent for our silences and turning away from the shadows. We as Church are called to repent for the ways in which we have used the scriptures violently against folk denying them liberty, denying them access to the sacraments, sometimes denying them their very lives. The Church needs to repent for its own white supremacy and anti-Semitism, past and present, its silencing of voices–women’s voices, gay voices, trans voices, and non-white voices–when they say what it doesn’t want to hear, or is tired of hearing.

To repent is to do more than to apologize, though apologies are good. Repentance begins with confession and involves a complete turning away from the transgression. In some cases, repentance involves restoration, not just of the soul of the transgressor, but of the one violated. You can’t repent for stealing and hold onto the stolen property. Sometimes repentance involves reparations. Sometimes there is no reparation that can be paid, but that is not the call of the transgressor.

The beauty of Easter is rooted in the ugliness of crucifixion, an entirely legal process that is also wholly immoral. It is still the case that what is legal is not necessarily, ethical, moral, or right. We are called to be on the side of the crucified, not the empire that crucifies. That is the way of Jesus. The way of Jesus is also life and love. It is easy to find the broken places in our world and those that deal death. Where are the resurrection spaces? Where do we look to see that death does not, in fact, have the last word? And what is our work in bridging the gap between death and life?

Jesus rose in the realm of death and decay, his resurrected body still bearing the marks of the crucifixion on his body. The broken man in Acts found new life in his own body. The disciples in the gospel (Luke 24:36-48) encountered the resurrection in their grief. It is here in this broken world that we encounter the power of the resurrection. It is in the power of that first glorious resurrection that we have power to heal what is broken in our Church, in our world, and in ourselves. And that is good news. Amen.

 

Acts 3:12 When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, “You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? 13 The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. 14 But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, 15 and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. 16 And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.

17   “And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. 18 In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. 19 Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out…

 

 

[1]Making Wise the Simple: The Torah in Christian Faith and Practice, xviii.

[2]The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, 110.


Strategies of Resistance: A Lesson From Daniel


 

Teach us to use the power of our words to tell the story that liberates us all. Amen.

There is more than one way to tell a story, especially a story as important as the Christian story; this also applies to the stories that make up our sacred stories. Today we explore that plurality in a lectionary of my devising, rather revising–because I think there is danger in only re-telling the same stories, no matter how beloved. (The lessons follow the sermon text.)

Among our sacred trove of stories are two versions of the Daniel story–there are even more outside of the Christian canons. One of those canonical stories was preserved in Hebrew and Aramaic by the descendants of the Judeans who survived the Babylonian exile and created the mother text for the Hebrew Bible and the Protestant version of the story. That is the source of our Second Lesson and Canticle. The other canonical story was preserved in Greek by the descendants of the Judeans who fled to Egypt instead. That is the source of our First Lesson. Together those lessons and canticle are in narrative order telling a more complete story.

The book of Daniel is a text of resistance. It is a cagey strategic piece of resistance. It is an anti-imperial text disguised as an anti-imperial text. Empires don’t mind their subjects mocking failed and fallen empires. In their egocentrism they read that calumny as their own praise because they are top dog now. So the cagey authors of Daniel disguised a critique of the lingering and declining Greek Empire in a retroactive critique of the centuries past Babylonian Empire. And they put that critique on the lips and at the pen of Daniel, a beloved figure whose origins were even older than the Babylonian Empire or its predecessor Assyrian Empire or the great dynasties of Egypt, or even the founding of the people of Israel. Daniel was a figure of legend whose stories were told in each generation with new stories added to his canon from time to time. I use the perpetually open canons of the DC and Marvel Comics Universes to explain this phenomenon in my infamous “Santa, Daniel, and the Zombie Apocalypse” lecture.

Today, I invite you to hear the story as as subversive as it really is. In the First Lesson three young people have been taken captive by the empire and forced to assimilate to its culture, made to wear its clothing, eat its food, speak its language, and answer to the names they give them–names which stuck to them even in the stories of their own people. The tentacles of empire reach deep, even into the hearts of people who are working faithfully to decolonialize themselves. It matters that these are young people. In the larger story of Daniel they are taken as children to be assimilated so that they will love the empire that colonized their people more than they love their own selves. Empires have always underestimated young people, whether it was civil rights protestors, dreamers, or high school gun reform activists.

When our lesson begins these young people are being enculturated in the worship of the empire and required to pray to the gods of the empire at the cost of their subjugated, colonized lives. One of the lessons of this text is that empire is rapacious and insatiable. They were already speaking the language of empire. They had already had their names changed from Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. But it wasn’t enough. The empire wanted more, more of them, more of their souls.

As long as there is a corner of your soul that is free, uncolonized, unconquered, unbought, and unbossed, empire will by any means necessary seek to uproot that liberty and colonize the last vestige of your right mind, heart, and soul. African and Native Americans know this story all too well as do the indigenous peoples of every nation conquered by an empire. In the face of the empire’s ravenous desire for their abject and total submission, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah clung fast to God of their foremothers and fathers and rejected the empire’s religion.

I’m calling this sermon “Strategies of Resistance,” ours, not theirs, because they didn’t really strategize. They just said no. No to the god of empire. No to its worship and veneration. They didn’t negotiate; they didn’t equivocate. Sometimes we just need to say no to the manifestations of empire in our world. No to the slaughter of school children. No to military grade weaponry in the streets. No to families ripped apart by militarized immigration assault troops. No to bad preaching. No to death-dealing theology. No to violence against women. No to bullying gay and trans teens to death. No to incompetent and corrupt government. No to everything that stands against the life-giving love of God and the liberty it grants. No and hell no.

The empire responded to their rejection of its attempt to colonize their minds, their spirits, their souls, and their ancestral religion with lethal rage. The empire covets good religion. It knows if it gets a toehold in pulpits and pews, seminaries and sanctuaries, books and blogs, texts and tweets, it can sanctify its hierarchies and disparities as the word and will of God. The empire prepared to kill Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. It was to be a spectacle lynching. A spectacle lynching was when good white folk would make an event out of a lynching, bring their sweetheats, wives, children and a basket of goodies to nibble while they watched the show. They’d often set their victims on fire–as Nebuchadnezzar planned to do in the text, pose with their burning corpses, and later cut off pieces of them to take home as souvenirs. Activist-archivist James Allen collected one hundred and forty-five photos of spectacle lynchings in the US, including here in Texas. They are featured in the volume Without Sanctuary which I commend to you. The strategies of resistance required to outlaw lynching lasted well into the twentieth century. Sometimes resistance is an intergenerational struggle.

The most significant strategy of resistance employed by the three young people was to be willing to let the empire spill their blood. Sometimes resistance means being willing to die. Sometimes it means preparing to die. Sometimes it means dying. Sometimes it means rising from the dead–but I’m getting ahead of next week’s story. We are not far from the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination and martyrdom of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He and many others in the Civil Rights Movement resisted not just segregation but white supremacy with their very lives. White supremacy is a colonizing force that transcends national borders and is every bit as much a manifestation of empire as any nation with imperial imagination and aspirations. The three young people prepared to die in resistance to the empire.

The Hebrew text moves quickly to a story of miraculous deliverance–but not so fast–there is more to the story. The Greek story picks up where the Hebrew one leaves off and fills in the gap. The young people responded to their impending extra-judicial killing with the songs of their ancestors. They sang to the God no empire could strip from them. They told the story of God’s faithfulness to their people. As the empire’s rage burned against them in literal fire they used the breaths they thought would be their last to deny the empire power over them, over their story, and over their song, because our stories and our songs are tools of resistance. The empire set out to destroy this last act of resistance. But something happened when they refused to surrender their heart and minds, songs and prayers, poetry and theology, even if they had to lay their bodies down. God appeared in the midst of the resistance.

The resistance writers used the book of Daniel to tell their people that the empire would not be defeated with the master’s tools. They couldn’t defeat it with military might. They couldn’t defeat it with economic might. But if they kept their minds right and stayed on the God who delivered their ancestors, no empire would ever be able to destroy them, no matter what their political reality. In the words of the gospel, “you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

Our words have power. That is why fascists burn books, ban films, silence scholars, censure artists, and assassinate prophets. They bully and sue, intimidate and obfuscate, and they use their words to rewrite our stories, revise our histories and stamp their image on our art and culture. And they lie. They lie about us. They lie about our culture. They lie about our history. They lie about God. With their lies they construct a god who is not God and expect us to bow down and worship it.

But these young activists on the page and the older activists behind the pen have shown us how to resist: Don’t let the empire tell you who you are. Don’t let the empire assimilate you into its culture. Don’t let the empire tell you your cultural and culinary practices are inferior. Don’t let the empire clothe you–body or mind. Don’t let the empire tell you who God is. Don’t let the empire use your life to advertise its glory. Resistance is not futile. But resistance is costly. We follow one who resisted empire to the cost of his life and we are called to do the same. How much more ought we be willing to put our lives on the line knowing the promise of resurrection than those young people, literal or literary, who were willing to go to a death from which they had no sure promise of escape? Amen.

Three Youths in the Fiery Furnace, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

Collect: Almighty God, Mother and Father to us all, renew in us the gifts of your tender love; increase our faith, strengthen our hope, enlighten our understanding, widen our imaginations, grant us grace in giving, and make us ready to serve you; through Jesus Christ our Redeemer, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and everAmen.

First Lesson Daniel 3:14-20, 24-29 (New English Translation of the Septuagint, adapted)*

Daniel 3:14 So when King Nebuchadnezzar saw them, he said to them, “O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, for what reason do you not serve my gods and do not do obeisance to the gold image, which I have set up? 15 And now, if you are now prepared, as soon as you hear the horn and all the sounds of musical instruments to fall down and do obeisance to the gold image that I set up… But if not—know that if you do not do obeisance, you will be thrown immediately into the furnace blazing with fire, and what god will deliver you out of my hands?”

16 But Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to King Nebuchadnezzar, “O king, we have no need to answer you about this command, 17 for there is God who is in heaven, our one Sovereign, whom we fear, who is able to deliver us from the furnace of fire, and out of your hands, O king, he will deliver us. 18 And then it will be clear to you, that we will neither serve your idol nor will we do obeisance to your gold image, which you have set up.”

19 Then Nebuchadnezzar was filled with anger, and the form of his face was distorted against them. And he ordered that the furnace be heated sevenfold more than it was necessary for it to be heated 20 and ordered very strong men, who were in his command, after they had tied those with Azariah, to throw them into the furnace blazing with fire…

24 So, therefore, Hananiah and Azariah and Mishael prayed and sang hymns to the Sovereign God, when the king ordered them to be thrown into the furnace. 25 Then Azariah stood and prayed in this way. And he opened his mouth, and he acknowledged the Sovereign God together with his companions in the middle of the fire, while the furnace was being heated exceedingly by the Chaldeans, and he said:

26 Blessed are you, Holy One, God of our ancestors,
and praiseworthy and glorified is your name forever!
27 For you are just in all you have done for us,
and all your works are genuine and your ways right,
and all your judgments are genuine.
28 And you have executed true judgments in all you have brought upon us
and upon Jerusalem, your holy city of our ancestors,
because in truth and judgment you have done all these things because of our sins.

Canticle 13 A Song of Praise Benedictus es, Domine:

Song of the Three Young Men, (Daniel 3:29–34, Septuagint, Book of Common Prayer adapted) *

Glory to you, Holy God of our mother and fathers;
you are worthy of praise; glory to you.
Glory to you for the radiance of your holy Name;
we will praise you and highly exalt you for ever.

Glory to you in the splendor of your temple;
on the throne of your majesty, glory to you.
Glory to you, seated between the Cherubim;
we will praise you and highly exalt you for ever.

Glory to you, beholding the depths;
in the high vault of heaven, glory to you.
Glory to you, Creator God, Crucified God, and Comforting God;
we will praise you and highly exalt you for ever.

Second Lesson: Daniel 3:24-29 (New Revised Standard Version)*

Daniel 3:24 Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up quickly. He said to his counselors, “Was it not three men that we threw bound into the fire?” They answered the king, “True, O king.” 25 He replied, “But I see four men unbound, walking in the middle of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the fourth has the appearance of a god.” 26 Nebuchadnezzar then approached the door of the furnace of blazing fire and said, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out! Come here!” So Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego came out from the fire. 27 And the satraps, the prefects, the governors, and the king’s counselors gathered together and saw that the fire had not had any power over the bodies of those men; the hair of their heads was not singed, their tunics were not harmed, and not even the smell of fire came from them. 28 Nebuchadnezzar said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent God’s own angel and delivered the servants of God servants who trusted in God. They disobeyed the king’s command and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God.

Gospel: John 8:31-42 (New Revised Standard Version)*

John 8:31 Then Jesus said to the Judeans who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”

34 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36 So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. 37 I know that you are descendants of Abraham; yet you look for an opportunity to kill me, because there is no place in you for my word. 38 I declare what I have seen in the Father’s presence; as for you, you should do what you have heard from the Father.”

39 They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing what Abraham did, 40 but now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. 41 You are indeed doing what your father does.” They said to him, “We are not illegitimate children; we have one father, God himself.” 42 Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now I am here. I did not come on my own, but God sent me.

*Person and place name spellings from the NRSV are used throughout along with inclusive language and redress for other linguistic issues. The Canticle includes the addition of a Christian doxology for its use in liturgies. Inclusive language is used there as well.


A New Covenant, Enduring Faithfulness

In the name of the faithful God who has redeemed us, Amen.

The days are surely coming, says the Holy One, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. Jeremiah 31:31

It is almost impossible for Christians to not read the new covenant in Jeremiah 31 as the new relationship between God and humanity inaugurated by Jesus or as the New Testament. We just can’t help ourselves. The disciples and early church read the Hebrew Bible in light of and looking for Jesus. Jesus himself is recorded as speaking tantalizingly about the ancient scriptures referring to him but he didn’t say how. Did he mean as himself, Jesus ben Mary; did he mean as the God who is ever present in the text?

There is a real temptation to read prophetic texts as predictive and only predictive. But that misses the contemporary ministry prophets offered in their own time: speaking to the current circumstances in which folk found themselves. When we start by reading ourselves into the text we miss or even erase the faithfulness of God to her people across time. We need the witness and promise of that faithfulness. We need to know that God will be faithful because God has been faithful.

God makes this promise of a new covenant to Israel and Judah at a specific moment in history. The period in which Jeremiah 31:31-34 is set might well be called a post-apocalyptic horror-scape. I’m not certain hearers of this text always understand what all is implied by the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests, deportations, and exile of Israel Judah because we in the US do not have the experience of sustained warfare on our shores. To understand this text, envision the news accounts of the war in Syria: rubble and destruction everywhere, smoking ruins everywhere else except those things that are already on fire, brutal executions, bodies in the streets, even the targeting of children to terrorize the population, starving, desperate people.

Jeremiah is addressing the decimation of Israel by the Assyrians a century earlier followed by the Babylonian invasion and its aftermath in his own time. His message is that Israel will be made whole. God had not forgotten, even though their near annihilation by the Assyrians was unresolved, even though the Babylonians had now savaged the remnant that was left.

The nation was broken. Jeremiah, like many in his time, blamed all of Israel’s misfortunes on them; it was all their fault because they were sinners. Unfortunately that theology didn’t die with him. Yet, Jeremiah did get something right. He knew that God was faithful. He knew that God’s desire for her people was wholeness. He also came to know that nothing Israel did justified the brutality they experienced. That theology inevitably fails, usually when the person blaming others suffers some misfortune they know they did not bring upon themselves.

And Jeremiah knew the brokenness of the world wouldn’t be made whole overnight. In the verses before the ones we read, Jeremiah describes how it will be: The land that was ravaged will be replanted, human and non-human life will thrive. Seasons of planting and harvesting, and of construction and reconstruction will replace the seasons of terror and devastation Israel had experienced.

It is in this context that God says: I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures God’s covenant with Israel is torah, which means teaching more than it does law. This constitution, if you will, was not a document signed by founding fathers or first mothers; it was a covenant with God. Now God says: I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. (Jer 31:31)

Some may hear “another” covenant in the “new” covenant but God isn’t throwing out the Torah, the teaching, the laws that distinguished Israel to some degree from other nations. Rather God is doubling down on it: I will put my torah, my teaching, my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jer 31:33) The tablets on which God had written the prologue to the first covenant were gone. Their shattered pieces were kept in the Ark of the Covenant and no one had seen that since the Babylonians assaulted the temple with axes and with fire.

To these broken and devastated people who had lost all of their institutions of statehood and peoplehood–monarchy and worship, liturgy, and sanctuary–Jeremiah offers a word of hope. The nation, which is also the religious community of the faithful, will be reconstituted. They will be rebuilt, reborn. They are getting a second chance. Jeremiah’s prophecy was good news to his people living in the last tribal enclave of Israel after the Assyrians demolished every tribe outside of Judah, good news to those deported by them, and good news to those who survived the Babylonian onslaught. And it is good news to us, even though we are not in the same circumstances.

Because scripture is living, it is pluripotent and can do more than one thing. It testifies to God’s faithfulness in the past, and promises the surety of that continued faithfulness in our time and beyond. Jeremiah describes a world in which people who saw their nation ripped apart, their fellow citizens deported, their families torn asunder, their economy ruined, and another nation ruling them through a puppet they installed. I know Jeremiah has something to say to us in our time: God will be faithful because God has been faithful.

It is these values, the trustworthiness and power of God to redeem and restore that the evangelists saw as contiguous with the life and teaching of Jesus. In short, Jeremiah does not so much predict Jesus, (though he and his writings may); rather the text renders a portrait of the God whom Jesus incarnates. This God embodied in Jesus stands against empires and their domination. The Assyrian Empire fell. The Babylonian Empire that replaced it fell. The Persian Empire that replaced it fell. The empire of Alexander the Great that replaced it fell. The Roman Empire that succeeded it fell. The Holy Roman Empire fell. The Byzantine Empire fell. The Ottoman Empire fell. The sun set on the British Empire. Imperial power is based on subjugation, the antithesis of the liberty God offers through Jesus. Empires fall and we as Americans need to take heed.

The backs of tyrants and their empires will be broken. But the people ground into the dirt by them, and even those who have served them are the people whom Jesus draws to himself, even as the empire of his age put him to death: Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. (John 12:31-32)

The ancient Israelites and Judeans partnered with God in their restoration. They lived into the covenant that was the teaching of God, passing it down to every generation that followed. We are watching things change around us, with the echoes of their testimony in scripture in our ears. And we can see the workings of empires no longer limited to nations states in the way in which peoples are treated, subjugated, used for cheap labor, and discarded. Now as then, God calls us back to the commandments, the teachings, the torah, the law of God, not just in our ears or before our eyes, but engraved upon the tablets of our hearts.

While God rights the world, restoring all that is broken and Jesus draws all–no exceptions, all–to him, we are called to live that covenant, its commandments, teachings, and laws. For God will not right the world by a sweep of a divine hand; we will feed the poor, house and clothe the homeless, work for peace between people and nations, leaving only the impossible up to God. The possible, the difficult, the undesirable; that is all our work.

In this season of Lent we start our services with that covenant to remind ourselves and recommit ourselves to this covenant: We will have no other gods but God. We will not make anything an idol. We will not dishonor the Name of God. We will honor the sanctity of the Sabbath. We will honor our parents. We will not break faith with our beloveds and we will honor the sacrament of marriage. We will not steal. We will not lie. We will not covet our neighbor’s possessions or position. We will love our neighbors as ourselves. (Ex 20:3-17; Lev 19:18) We affirmed this covenant when we said, “Amen, God have mercy.” We were saying, “God have mercy on us if we fail to uphold this covenant.” We say that, because we know that we will fail and we trust in God to have mercy.

We trust in God’s love, faithfulness, and mercy, and in her promise. I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Amen.


Of God, Men, and Kings


 

[Errata: Originally I confused Samuel’s sons with Eli’s. The manuscript is corrected below.]

(Preached at the Schooler Institute on Preaching at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio)

Let us pray:

ברוכה את יה אלהינו לב העלם אשר שמה לב עלינו ושומעת קול לבינו

רחמי עלינו וישמע קול דממה דקה

Blessed are You, Yah our God, Heart of the Universe, who attends to us and hears the voice of our hearts; mother-love us and make audible the soft, still voice. Amen.

James Lewis Icons, with permission

“Give us a king!”
“Give us a man-king!
“Give us a man!”
“Give us a man-king to rule over us.”

When Shmuel, Samuel, reached a certain point in years, the point when everyone agrees you’re old, but just short of too old, when Shmuel, Samuel, became old, he appointed his sons as judges, rulers, governors, all-but-kings without crowns. I have to stop here and repeat that Samuel appointed his sons, not God. Every judge in the book of Judges, and Moses before them, was appointed by God. But Samuel, in a fit of nepotism, appointed his own children to an office for which they were neither qualified nor equipped. Can you imagine a leader entrusted with the security and wellbeing of a people handing over critical jobs at the uppermost levels of governance to their own spawn?

Eli’s boys, unnamed in the tex couldn’t do the job. Their sins were spelled out in the tex. They were at the southernmost region of Eli and Samuel’s territory, perhaps thinking they were too far away for their father to know what they were doing in an age without social media. But the narrator knows, the people know, and surely Eli knows that his boys are robbing the house of God blind. They are taking from the people’s offerings what they want before it can even be offered to God. But more importantly, this passage (1 Samuel 2:22) reveals that Eli’s sons were guilty of sexual misconduct with the women who ministered at the sanctuary. In fact the lack of the preposition in Hebrew–they “lay” the women, not “lay with”–indicates rape and not consent even in the world of the text. In our world, from our context we see women clergy who said #metoo passed over for promotion for men who lacked the character or integrity called for but who had connections.

I mean, we’ve already had one female judge. Just because Deborah was excellent doesn’t mean there’s any reason to take a chance on another woman. We’ve already had one non-white-male president. Just because Barack was excellent—although I have some serious critiques–doesn’t mean there’s any reason to take a chance on another non-white-male president. Meanwhile, Samuel was sitting in Deborah’s seat of judgment at Ramah. In my sanctified imagination I hear folk saying Deborah and her chief goon Jael had a way of dealing with rapists. Ask Sisera’s mama who’s still waiting for her boy to come home.

I’m trying to get to the text but a text without a context is a pretext. Please don’t miss that Avi and Joe were fired for messing with people’s money. No one says anything about Eli’s sons messing with women’s bodies. When the narrator mentions their transgressions in verse 3, financial crimes and their sheer and utter failure to do their job as judges—to do justice—are the charges. Eli’s sons disappear but not their record of sexual assault was well documented with all of the receipts on display. But suddenly, their time was up. None of them, Eli’s sons or Samuel’s sons would get that sweet government job after all.

The people got together and voted. Understand that while we have sanctified voting, in the ancient Israelite context it was a rebellious, even treasonous, act against God. But treason seems to be all the rage these days. Be very clear that your biblical authors and editors would consider democracy a godless system. So we can’t just read Israelite texts about governance into and onto our world without any nuance. Ironically, our own ancestral overthrow of our anointed sovereign would have also been considered treasonous and rebellious, because contexts change, in and out of the bible, and what was once considered a rejection of God later became a messianic construct. Nevertheless, our American ancestors thought that voting for a leader was a good idea though they didn’t think that everyone should vote, and some still don’t think some of us should be able to vote right now.

After throwing Samuel’s age in his face and charging his sons with bribery and incompetence but giving them a pass on rape, the people ask for a human-sovereign to do what Samuel has been doing–judging, ruling, governing–but this time with the full regalia of monarchy. They don’t ask for anyone with any better morals, training, preparation, or calling than his boys. They say:

“Give us a king!”
“Give us a man-king!
“Give us a man!”
“Give us a man-king to rule over us.”

They are looking not just to replace his kleptocratic sexual assailant sons; they are looking to replace him too. Samuel, you’re fired.

The people have been watching Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and they want what they see. They want the pageantry of the one percent. They want a privileged, entitled man with no experience or preparation to hold the highest office in the land. They just want to be like the other nations, the heathen nations. I’m using that word deliberately because of how they in their ethnocentrism characterized everyone else who didn’t share their beliefs, practices, and culture as other, yet they emulate them in every way. Reminds me of the folk who would rather be poor and white than rich and black but who speak and sing in our vernacular—or try—dance to our music—or try—wear our fashion, copy our hairstyles and then spew anti-black bile like the white nationalist fool who was looking for material on dreadlocking his hair that didn’t have references on Rastas and all that n-word ish. They seem to think that the wealth and status of a privileged moneyed leader will somehow trickle down to them. That such a man–and they wanted a man–such a man would be competent to or even care to raise their status.

And they want Samuel as prophet and pastor to bless that mess. Samuel, the people’s pastor, heir to the throne of Deborah and Moses that only those three fully occupied with the dual callings of prophet and judge, Samuel went to his God. I like Samuel. His relationship with God is instructive. I believe that Samuel tells God his whole mind. At least that is how I understand the text’s omission of the words of his first prayer. I believe like many of us Samuel says some things in that prayer that would burn the ears and shock the souls of those who think preachers shouldn’t cuss. After he prays whatever he prays God says give them what they want. God also tells Samuel some of what she is feeling and doesn’t hold back. In this three-way breakup God says: It’s not you; it’s me. But it’s really them. This is how they do. Give them what they want but let them know what this will cost them.

Tell them what they’re buying and how they will pay for it. And Samuel told them: When you choose a man based on plutocratic standards—Give us a man-king to rule us like the heathen nations with their golden thrones and palaces—when you choose a leader out of covetousness because you really want to see yourself reflected in his gold painted shine, not only will you not benefit from his expanded wealth and privilege but you will pay dearly in the currency that matters most to you.

You say, “Give!” But he will take.
Your sons he will take.
Your daughters he will take.
Your fields and vineyards and olive orchards, he will take.
Your grain and your vineyards he will take.

Your male slaves and your female slaves he will take. Imma come back to the social inequity and oppression that Samuel lets go unchallenged because I do not accept the enslavement of human persons as a matter of course in any world at any time.

He will take your cattle and donkeys.

He will take your children and chew them up and spit them out of the engines of his warfare. He will spill the blood of their precious lives in his self-aggrandizing military provocations. He will use them up as low-wage workers with no benefits to enrich himself his hangers-on. But he has special plans for your daughters. On the surface of the text it looks like he wants professional skilled women to work in his enterprises. But we know no amount of professional acumen will protect women and girls from a disproportionate amount of sexual harassment and assault by those whose power, privilege, and position lead them to think they can grab whatever they want by whatever they want to do whatever they want to whomever they want.

He will take your income and the assets for which you have worked so hard. And those of you who are trying to live like kings, exploiting other people; he will take the people you exploit from you to exploit for his own needs. And then after all of that, he will use your flocks to tithe on the wealth he has taken from you. He will pay his taxes with your money. But at least he’s paying taxes. When he is through with you all, you will be even more broke than you are now. And you will be enslaved by the system you coveted.

He will take you for a ride and take you to the cleaners and take you to places you never imagined existed and leave you broken and battered, begging by the side of the road while his chariot-cade passes by. You will see yourselves reflected in the shine on his seal of office and cry out: My God, what have we done?

There is another context for this text: aftermath. The crowd of people who thought when they got a plutocrat who shared their values thought they would ride the gold gravy train will find out what will trickle down on them isn’t gold. You all will cry out on that day in the face of your human-sovereign, whom you have chosen for yourselves; and God Whose Name is Holy will not answer you all on that day.

They wound up with a leader who lacked the mental stability for the job. But beware of forcing the text to exactly parallel our world. Saul’s story is a tragic one. He and all of the women in his life are broken by David, and arguably by God who doesn’t accept Saul’s repentance but will accept David’s over and over and over again. But that is another sermon. Samuel’s opposition to the monarchy is preserved because it is entangled with the story of David, the monarch who will be all but deified.

There is more to take away from this passage than the hubris firing God then demanding she find a lesser qualified man to do a pale imitation of her job. Monarchy comes with a price. It is an expensive proposition; it will cost them more than they know. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Lord Acton was speaking of the church when he penned those famous words. The monarchy was already a failed experiment in Israel when they made their request. In the book of Judges one of Gideon’s seventy children, Avimelek, the one he seems to have rejected and not provided with an inheritance, kills all of his siblings (but one who escaped) and reigns in Israel for three years. He, not Saul, is the first king in Israel. He was eventually mortally wounded by a woman while besieging her town and killed himself so no one would say a woman killed him in Judges 9.

Traditional understandings of this text say what is at stake is what happens when you consider anyone other than God your king. That sounds real good to Americans and other post-colonial subjects who threw off the shackles of monarchy long ago. That is certainly Samuel’s perspective. The Deuteronomist will counter by constructing David as the first messiah-king. And if you want to know how that turned out ask Bathsheba, and Rizpah, and, Tamar and all the unnamed women, children, and men David slaughtered while thugging for hire on behalf of his Philistine lord.

Perhaps the most overlooked lesson in this text is that God is not a king. At best, our ancestors simply lacked the imagination and language to describe God other than in human terms. At worst, by giving God a title they reserved for themselves, human men gave voice to their secret wish to be idolized. In the ancient Afro-Asian context in which this narrative is set, a king is a warlord who batters his opponent to submission. Kings didn’t lead from the back like presidents and generals in secret bunkers and protected command and control centers. They led in the slaughter, hacking and clubbing their enemies to death, treading through the brains and blood of the slaughtered, building monuments out of their bones. That is not God. God is not a king. Kings schemed against their fellow–and occasional sister–kings; they stole each other’s land, enslaved each other’s people, raped each other’s daughters and sons. That is not God. God is not a king.

God transcends all of our language, petty ambitions, and self-aggrandizing titles. We need new language for God that is not rooted in vengeance and violence, submission and slaughter, or domination and damnation. We need to employ a little sanctified imagination and call God by names that don’t bring her down to our level. But all we have is these human tongues and colonized imaginations. Drawing on the spirit of my ancestors I will say God is a mother to the motherless and a father to the fatherless. God is a doctor in the sickroom and a lawyer in the courtroom. God is the one who brings us to life, calls us to freedom, and moves between us with love.

God is:

Sovereign, Savior and Shelter;
Author, Word and Translator;
Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer and Life-Giver;
Holy Incarnate Majesty, Holy Incarnate Word, Holy Abiding Spirit;
Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer;
The God of Isaiah, the God of Jesus and our God;
Parent, Partner, and Friend.

God is:

shepherd, banner, rock, fortress, deliverer,
peace, light, salvation, 
strength and shield, 
devouring fire,
abiding presence.

God is twelve and seven and three and one and legion. God is. And God is available to any and everyone whether warrior, prophet, king, laborer, immigrant, transchild, felon, politicion, trafficked woman, president, pastor, professor or seminarian, patriarchal misogynist or white supremacist, once we understand that the titles with which we have crowned ourselves and in which we name God in our image become idols. And one day if we are not careful, God will leave us to them.

You all will cry out on that day in the face of your human-sovereign, whom you have chosen for yourselves; and God Whose Name is Holy will not answer you all on that day.

May God who is Majesty, Mercy, and Mystery speak words of life, love, and liberation through these words. Amen.

1 Samuel 8:4 All the elders of Israel gathered themselves together and came to Samuel yonder at Ramah, 5 and they said to him, “You—you are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways; now then, set up for us a human-sovereign to judge us, like all the heathen nations.” 6 But the thing was evil in Samuel’s sight when they said, “Give us a human-sovereign to judge us.” Then Samuel prayed to the Holy One of Old.

7 And the Holy One said to Samuel, “Hearken to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for it is not you they have rejected, but it is me they have rejected from being sovereign over them. 8 Like everything else they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this very day, forsaking me and serving other gods; they are doing the same to you. 9 Now then, hearken to their voice; but—you shall testify against them, and show them the judgment of the human-sovereign who shall reign over them.”

10 So Samuel relayed all the words of the Holy One to the people who were asking him for a human-sovereign. 11 Samuel said, “This will be the judgment of the human-sovereign who will reign over you: your sons he will take and set them aside for himself in his chariots and in his cavalry, and to run before his chariots; 12 and he will set aside for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his plowing and to reap his reaping, and to make his furnishings of war and the furnishings of his chariots. 13 Your daughters he will take to be apothecaries and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards, he will take and give to his servants. 15 One-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards he will take and give to his eunuchs and his slaves. 16 Your male slaves and your female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, he will take and put them to his work. 17 Your flocks he will tithe…and you, you shall be his slaves. 18 And you all will cry out on that day in the face of your human-sovereign, whom you have chosen for yourselves; and God Whose Name is Holy will not answer you all on that day.”


Conspire With the Spirit

In the Name of the God who breathed us into life, breathes through us, and will return our breath to us at the resurrection. Amen.

In beginning, when beginning, at origin… Our story begins with a word that takes us to the dawn of time. In beginning of what would become the world, God created, God crafted, the world with a power that breathes through us still. I translate it this way in Womanist Midrash:

Genesis 1:1 In beginning, He, God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was formless and shapeless and darkness covered the face of the deep, while She, the Spirit of God pulsed over the face of the waters. [my trans, Womanist Midrash, 19]

In the first phrase, In beginning, He, God created—just two words in Hebrew  בראשית ברא, God is grammatically masculine, which doesn’t necessarily mean that God is male, but does give us the masculine language we use so often in the church. In beginning the work of creation, God created the heavens and the earth, which in a world that only knew one planet that they thought was the center of creation, that didn’t know the word “planet” or that the stars were planets and other worlds—in that world “the heavens and the earth” meant everything in creation, even what they never could have imagined beyond the stars.

The world that God created was formless and shapeless and bathed in life giving darkness. In the scriptures from Exodus to Deuteronomy, from Psalms to Samuel, from Kings to Chronicles, darkness is the holy abode of God. (Ex 20:21; Deut 4:11; 5:23; 2 Sam 22:12; Ps 18:12; 1 Kgs 8:12; 2 Chr 6:1; Isa 45:3) It is in shadow that the Holy Spirit wraps the Virgin Mary, “over-shadowing” her and the holy life in the holy darkness of her womb. And there in the life-giving darkness before the dawn of creation, She, the Spirit of God, pulsed over the waters like the wings of a butterfly. The God we meet in Genesis teaches us there is nothing to fear in the darkness, for that is where God spins her web of life. Indeed the scriptures teach “the light and the dark are alike to thee.” (Psalm 139:12) And in that life-giving darkness:

She, the Spirit of God, She-who-is-also-God, at the dawn of creation fluttered over the nest of her creation at the same time as He, the more familiar expression of divinity, created all. They, Two-in-One, are the first articulations, self-articulations, of God in (and the God of) the Scriptures. God is female and male, and when God gets around to creating creatures in the divine image, they will be female and male, as God is. [WM, 19]

Genesis 1 marks the beginning of our world if not the beginning of all things, the beginning of Israel’s story, and the beginning of our scriptures. It is God’s resume and self-introduction. The God we meet in Genesis is more than we could have imagined and has spawned a whole industry of interpreters, theologians, and biblical scholars who spend a lot of time on basic math: God is One; there is God and the Spirit of God in this passage. How many is that?

If you want a classic explanation of the Trinity, call Father Andrew, or just wait until Trinity Sunday (also known as Heresy Sunday for the many folk failing at holy arithmetic). Today I don’t want to distinguish God from the Holy Spirit, I want to talk about the Holy Spirit as the manifestation of God that is active in our world, speaking it into life, breathing through it and through us. The Spirit of God is the Breath of God, a mighty wind moving through the world, stirring up holy trouble, fanning the flames of holy passion. When was the last time you got into holy trouble? When was the last time you were caught in the grip of a holy passion?

The Spirit of God unites our lessons from Genesis and Mark. In Mark she bears witness to her beloved son, Jesus, and is promised to those who are baptized. The gender of God gets really interesting when you thing about the Incarnation—the Holy Spirit who spoke life into the womb of the Blessed Virgin is also feminine. No man will be able to claim Jesus as his son; he is more the Son of Woman than the Son of Man. And the same Holy Spirit who spoke creation with “Let there be…” and crafted a holy child, with a word that was not heard, that God, that Spirit is the inheritance of the baptized. This is our God and she loves us dearly, to life, to and through death, back to life.

In Mark 1, the Virgin’s son was baptized, his baptism a visible sign of the baptism of the Holy Spirit that enveloped him and also envelops us at our baptism. The same Holy Spirit who pulsed over the waters of creation fluttered visibly from heaven to earth to claim Jesus as her child. In our baptisms she claimed us as well. We have the same Holy Spirit as Jesus. We walk through this world animated by the breath of the living God. The troubles of the world are many and great but no match for the God who fills us and breathes in and through us. The image of God claiming Jesus in baptism is for us, so that we might have an image of ourselves forever in the embrace of God and know that there are no limits for what God can do through us.

In Acts 19, the promise of the Holy Spirit appears to have been hindered by an inadequate baptism, the baptism of John rather than the baptism of Jesus. When the group was properly instructed and baptized in the name of Jesus, the Spirit poured out on the little band with dramatic evidence. (A cynical or uncharitable reading might see Paul being presented similarly to Jesus and John—right down to the twelve disciples—to establish his credibility.) This is an important story but let us not get stuck there, policing other people’s baptisms and executions of the sacraments.

In these three texts the Spirit is powerful beyond measure, and at the same time, tenderly loving and immanently present. We are never alone. God is always with us. God’s Spirit has been present in and on the world since the dawn of creation and has never left. The fires of the Spirit will burn even higher at Pentecost but she has always been here, loving us, claiming us, empowering us.

The power of God’s spirit is on full display in Psalm 29; the power of words whispered in a holy wind. God’s thundering voice unites Psalm 29 with Mark 1. The voice that shook the world in the psalm is the voice that splits the heavens in Mark. In the psalm God’s voice is the orchestra of creation: rumbling thunder, crashing waves and the crackle of lightning and fire. The power of that voice can peel the leaves and bark off the trees and shatter them into splinters. And God uses that voice to speak to us of her love.

What shall we do with the power that God has breathed into us? How shall we use our words? The world is hungry for God-breathed holy words. How do you tell the story of God’s love? To whom are you telling the story of God’s love? When was the last time you conspired with God? To conspire is to breathe together. When was the last time you returned your God-given breath to its source to breathe with God in the holy kiss that is prayer?

The season of Epiphany is a season of revelation, illumination, and discovery. I invite you to discover the power of the Holy Spirit in your life. Let her speak life-giving words through your words. Feel her in your every breath, for God’s voice still speaks in wind and water and her Spirit still bathes the baptized. Listen for her whispers on the winds. Amen.

1 Epiphany 2018

Gen 1:1–5; Ps 29:0–11; Acts 19:1–7; Mark 1:4–11


Live Your Theology Out Loud in Public

National Black Catholic Magnificat

Today is a commissioning service of sorts. [Hooding, conferral of academic hoods at Brite Divinity School, December 2017.] We confer degrees and the regalia that pertains to them to send you forth, forth across town, across the state, across an ocean, across the world, sometimes just around the corner, sometimes back to us for another go ‘round. We are sending you forth to a world that needs a wisdom we may not have imagined this time last year. It seems to me that this world which we inhabit, serve and with which we wrestle calls for a particular kind of wisdom. It is my hope, and I believe that of my colleagues of the faculty, administration, and staff, that we have nurtured and refined the wisdom that was already in you, perhaps adding something of our own. I am mindful that all of us are already navigating this world together with what wisdom we have; too often it seems insufficient. Part of what I believe distinguishes us at Brite is that we are a community that is deeply invested in the world around us and that does not begin or end with hooding. Yet hooding marks a moment of transition to living out our calling in new ways, whether in new contexts, jobs, yet another degree, or in a space in which nothing else has changed outwardly. You may not all have jobs when you leave this place, but you have a job in this world.

Let us pray: May God who is Majesty, Mercy, and Mystery speak words of life, love, and liberation through these words. Amen.

The preaching lectionary of the Episcopal Church turns to the vocational declaration in Isaiah 61 and to the Magnificat tomorrow to tell anew the story of Jesus. In that telling, the church tells its own story. It is a particular and particularly denominational Christian framing of these texts. And if we have taught and learned anything together then we have learned there is more than one way to tell the story of the text.

            Hearing Isaiah through Jesus makes it easy to say to Jesus of the text, “That’s your job, your calling.” But Isaiah wasn’t written by, or even particularly for, Jesus. (We did teach that, right?) The speaker, a poet-prophet,[1] from the community or school of Isaiah who continued the great work begun earlier in his name, this very human prophet receives a vocational call that in fact does not require a god, god-man, or the offspring of a god to fulfill. It is a very human vocation, albeit a daunting one. It is a particularly fit job description for someone who has completed her theological education, [though it does not require one].

            It is also a contextual job description. The poet-prophet is called to serve in world in which there are deeply impoverished people,[2] a world in which the hearts and hopes of people have been shattered. She is called to serve in a world in which some people’s bodies are treated like they were property—that’s what it meant to be “taken captive” in the world of the text, to be used—usually sexually—as someone else saw fit. She is called to serve in a world in which some folk were imprisoned and foreclosed from the possibility of flourishing, locked away, rightly or wrongly, literally and metaphorically. She is called to serve in a world in which there was deep grief and aching losses leaving deficits that could only partially be addressed through reparations, even if paid by God. And she is called to serve in a world in which the vaunted institutions of her ancestors had failed, in which walls had failed to keep her people safe, in which the man who governed was the puppet of a foreign master. She is called to serve in a world in which the things she held dear had been set on fire, and perhaps, one in which there were other things which she wished to see set on fire.

            Maybe this job calls for a god-woman or god-man after all. But the poet-prophet is not on her own. She has the power of the Mother of Creation, She Who Was—flexing her winged embrace over the chaotic currents from which she birthed the world, and She who would pour herself into a virgin’s womb and create a life that would shake the heavens and the earth in another story, from another time, in another testament. The Matrix of Life anointed our poet-prophet, not with the oil of priests or kings, oil that would fade as those offices passed away or morphed into entirely different institutions—sometimes retaining the same names. Rather, Mama God anointed her prophet, infusing her and her words with an anointing that lingered through the first century when a holy child born of her Holy Spirit recited these words to articulate his contextual calling, and down through every age in which these words have been received as holy writ, including our own.

            A student of scripture in its earliest form, the poet-prophet looked to the words of the poet-prophet Isaiah, and found, received and accepted her metaphorical hood and the calling that goes with it, and wrote herself (or perhaps himself) into the text that would become the double or triple book of Isaiah. Her holy boldness was not as transgressive as it may sound for she was one of the many (or few) who picked up the pen of Isaiah and continued his work. She did not come to this work on her own. God called her. So she penned the story of her calling, her commissioning, her hooding, to explain what God was up to in the world. She wrote: The spirit of God whose name is holy is upon me

The poet-prophet goes out into the world with more than the words on the page, the ink on the degree, or the books on the shelves. She goes with a clear sense of mission having been prepared for the world that is hers. Its needs are many and great but she is ready. She has all she needs to do the work at hand. She has her voice, her words, her pen, her poetry, her preaching. She has her congregation beyond the walls of any sanctuary or sanctum for study; her people are the broken and dispossessed, the disenfranchised, convicts, felons, and those on death row. She is called to preach wholeness and liberation and she is called to preach God’s favor and God’s recompense. She is called to preach life and love. She is called to take a stand, to acknowledge that everything isn’t all relative in the sight of God. There are things that her provoke to action because there are things that provoke God to action on behalf of her people.

            Now, because she went to a good, fully accredited divinity school, she has more than one skill set. Good thing because folk also need care for their souls. Her call is to the souls the diseased, the dis-eased, the dying, and the grieving. She is called to offer more than words and above all to avoid cheap theological platitudes and t-shirt slogans. She will need to draw on the wealth of pastoral theology she has learned, integrated, and embodies to do grief work with her community corporately and individually. She can’t do that work without knowledge of their history or an understanding of her own spirituality. She can be confident of her preparation because life in the Isaiah school was one long supervised ministry practicum.

            Above all she is called to do transformational work, facilitating the healing and recovery of her people. And then they, a people who have been transformed because one person translated her theological education into her own poetry, they reimagined and rebuilt their world, together. But it didn’t happen overnight. It took generations, centuries to rebuild Jerusalem and its institutions, and even its walls. But walls cannot stop change and they fall down. Curiously the text doesn’t call for rebuilding walls; perhaps the Holy Muse, or better Holy Nudge, was trying to nudge folk away from structures that divide.

            The walls would fall again and again and one collaborator would be replaced by another and no matter how much changed between our two texts or between us and them, the world still needs folk to live their theology out loud, in public, in partnership with the God who shakes up the world and its hierarchies and binaries, institutions, occupations, and oppressions. And so we turn to another prophetic poetic voice, and as is the case with so many women in scripture, we aren’t quite sure who she is because some manuscripts say Mariam or Maria, Mary, and others say Elisabet, Elisabel, and Elisabeth.[3]

She is another poet who wrote of what God was and is up to in the world, in her very intimate world, the intimate spaces of her body, and beyond, in the wider world. Her poetry proclaims an unparalleled intimate relationship with God but with none of the smug sanctimony of those who construct a personal salvation apart from the beloved community. She professes faith in a God whose mercy transcends time and is not limited to her and those who see the world exactly as she sees it. She proclaims a God who is partial to the plight of the poor and is a terror to the tyrant.

The Magnificat recalls an ancestral promise and she bears witness, in her very body, to a God of promise. Today I call you to proclaim the faithful promises of a faithful God to this world and its people. And when the originating context of the promise impinges on it so that it is too narrow for this world that is our context of ministry, take up the pen of the poet-prophet and extend the promise. Sometimes you will have to use your sanctified imagination to draw forth the words. Other times you will simply have to go back to the text for a close reading to remind yourself and those with whom you read that a promise made to Abraham and his descendants is a promise to the Muslim and Christian descendants of Hagar and Keturah as well as the Jewish and Christian descendants of Isaac.

The end of the Magnificat speaks of a memorial to God’s mercy in the text. That memorial was not a monument of stone, but the love of God poured into human flesh, woman-flesh, scandalously passing through scandalized flesh. Today I call you to be scandalous. Scandalously accept, love, serve, and nurture human beings in and not in spite of their bodies, their flesh, particularly those whose flesh the world disdains.

Above all the Magnificat is political. It speaks directly to and against those enthroned in power. I call you to be political. Speak to those who can and will hear you and speak against those who hoard power and resources while others hunger and hurt.

May God continue to write her story of promise in and through you for the hope and healing of the world. Amen.

Isaiah 61:1 The spirit of the Holy God is upon me,
because God has anointed me;
God has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberation to the captives,
and opening up, release, to the prisoners;
2 to proclaim the year of the Holy One’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who grieve;
3 to pay reparations those who grieve in Zion—
to give to them a glorious garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of grieving,
the mantle of praise instead of a diminished spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of God, for God to display God’s own glory.
4 They shall build up the ancient ruins,
the former devastations they shall raise up;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of untold generations.

Luke 1:46 Miriam, Mary, said,
“My soul magnifies the Holy One,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s own servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is God’s name.
50 God’s loving-kindness is for those who fear God
from generation to generation.
51 God has shown the strength of God’s own arm;
God has scattered the arrogant in the intent of their hearts.
52 God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 God has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 God has helped God’s own child, Israel,
a memorial to God’s mercy,
55 just as God said to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Translations by Wil Gafney, Ph.D.

[1] For the speaker as a prophet, see the Targum of Is 61:1, The prophet said… On the role of women prophets in Isaiah, see my Daughters of Miriam, 103-107.

[2] The “humble-poor,” ענוים.

[3] See Joseph A. Fitzmyer’s Anchor Bible Commentary on Luke, 365.


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.