[Holding the Ethiopian Israelis in prayer as they fight racism in their country. Their uprising came after I finished the sermon.]
The Psalmist cried out:
God did not despise or detest the affliction of the afflicted.
God did not hide God’s face from me.
God heard when I cried out to God.
That doesn’t always feel like the truth. Sometimes it feels like everyone including God despises the wretched of the earth, the broken, the downtrodden, the hurting and the hated, the afflicted and their afflictions. Especially when that’s your story. We should extend our comfort and faith to those who are suffering, but we should also understand that may not be enough. There are some hurts that only heaven can heal and for which the balm is time.
People are crying out to God all over this world. This week we hear their cries in Nepal clearly. But they are still crying out in Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria and more. People are crying out to God all over this country. This week we hear their cries in Baltimore most clearly. But they are still crying out in Ferguson, Sanford, New York and more.
Before Psalm 22 became the Psalm of the Cross, the psalm Jesus prayed while dying, it was already scripture. It is a psalm associated with David, written for him – either at his request or dictated by or composed and written by someone else and dedicated to him. It is the lament of a person who is not even viewed as human, despised, mocked, abused to the point of feeling abandoned by God:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me,
from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest…
I am a worm and not even human
scorned by others, and despised by the people
All who see me mock at me
they make mouths at me, they shake their heads…
They even make fun of the psalmist’s faith:
“Roll on over to the HOLY ONE OF OLD; let God save!
Let God deliver the one in whom God delights!”
But the psalmist knows who her God is and that God has been with her from birth and will be with her to and through death:
Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
On you I was cast from my birth,
and since my mother gave birth to me you have been my God.
It is so easy to fast forward through time and read these verses about Jesus and only Jesus. But that misses the point. Psalm 22 the lament of someone who was in serious trouble a thousand years before Jesus. That person’s prayer became part of Israel’s Book of Common Prayer because it reflected a common experience. Every once in a while, if you live long enough, you will come up against something that will make you cry out to God like the psalmist and even Jesus. Some of us are crying out to God because our post-Easter world still looks too much like a Good Friday world.
Jesus became one of us to experience what we experience. Human beings treating each other like dogs in the street, as though we weren’t all human, children of God, hand-crafted in the very image of God. Some people are still viewed as less than human and treated that way. Mahalia Jackson sang in Sweet Little Jesus Boy:
They treat me mean Lord.
They treat you mean too.
In killing Jesus, the state treated him just like everyone else. People were crucified before Jesus died and they continued to be crucified after Jesus died. James Cone makes the point that in the American context, the cross is the lynching tree.
We can’t escape the violence in the scriptures or in the streets. The violence imposed on the body of Jesus was neither the beginning nor the end of his story. And it was not only his story. His people were subject to lethal violence whether guilty or innocent on individual and national levels. The story of the Jewish people is one of slavery, deliverance, occupation and subjugation as oppressed and as oppressor and, in times of desperation, resistance, rebellion and retaliation. Aspects of the Israelite story are shared with the poor, marginalized and oppressed in every time and place, including ours.
It may not be your experience, but many poor black and brown people experience the police as an occupying force, at best daily harassment at worse lethal violence. Twenty-three years ago anger and pain boiled over in Los Angeles. Last summer it boiled over in Ferguson, MO. This week it boiled over in Baltimore, MD.
When violence erupted in 1966 the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said:
I will agree that there is a group in the Negro community advocating violence now. I happen to feel that this group represents a numerical minority. Surveys have revealed this. The vast majority of Negroes still feel that the best way to deal with the dilemma that we face in this country is through non-violent resistance, and I don’t think this vocal group will be able to make a real dent in the Negro community in terms of swaying 22 million Negroes to this particular point of view. And I contend that the cry of “black power” is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro. I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard. And, what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years.
Dr. King’s words are as always prophetic and challenging and ultimately cost him his life.
Will we hear him? Will we hear the voices of today’s street-prophets? Or will we allow the spectacle of violence to become an excuse to turn away? No matter what we do, God hears.
God hears the cries of all who are treated as less than fully human.
Our world, including our nation and the church have a long history of treating some folk as less than we ought as God’s children: people of color, women and same gender-loving people. Transgender, gay, bisexual and lesbian people are often targeted with lethal violence that neither began nor ended with the lynching of Matthew Shepherd. Transwomen in particular are being killed at alarming rates including here in TX. And sadly, not all churches are safe places for all people.
Our lesson in Acts 8 has something to say about that:
The messenger of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was a Nubian eunuch, a senior official of the Kandake, queen of the Nubians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship.
At the intersection of race and ethnicity, the Greek gentile (now Christian) apostle Philip crosses paths with the black Jewish bureaucrat serving an African queendom. In order to work for most monarchs in much of the ancient world, men had to be surgically neutered, often as young boys. Most eunuchs formed intimate partnerships with other eunuchs or intact males, not the royal women they were trusted to guard. That would have been treason, earning a death sentence even without the possibility of children.
The treatment of eunuchs in the ancient world and in the scriptures is similar to the treatment of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people. Eunuchs may be seen as those who do not fit into our neatly constructed gender paradigms as neatly as we might wish – this is what it means to be male, to be a man, to live and love as a man. At one point the scriptures even say eunuchs are not welcome in the house of God. But the same Isaiah scroll that this one is reading cancels out that passage, welcoming eunuchs specifically. But he hasn’t gotten to that verse yet.
The Ethiopian eunuch has no name in the text but could have been called Abdimalkah, servant of the queen, a common title that functioned as a name. Without a name we might keep calling him “the eunuch” and reduce him to a missing part of his body. Our transgender friends, family and neighbors have taught us how inappropriate is fixation on the parts of someone else’s body. We could call him “he.” But should we? We are learning how important it is to call people by the pronouns they choose for themselves.
This person by any name and any pronoun has been to worship in Jerusalem which suggests he is a Jew even though he would not be able to fully participate as a eunuch. The original audience would have known the story of the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon and the tradition that she left him pregnant and their descendants not only preserved his faith but remained in contact so no one would have been surprised that this man had been born Jewish. As a eunuch he would not have qualified for conversion.
The queen’s servant – Kandake is a title, she is the Kandake – the Kandake’s servant is reading the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. In the ancient world people read out loud just as they prayed out loud. (Hannah invented silent prayer but it didn’t really catch on for a while.) He reads from a portion of Isaiah that like Psalm 22 has come to be identified with Jesus even though it has its own separate history and origin. It is the poem-prayer of another person who was unjustly put to death, five hundred yeas before Jesus.
While he reads, Philip has followed God’s call to go down a country road with no explanation, overhears. I don’t know what Philip expected to see, but probably not that limousine. He didn’t know why he was going other than God sent him. He went to be present where God sent him and gives us a model for evangelism. He had no agenda, no pre-planned speech. He went to listen first and speak second. And Philip finds a welcome occasion to share his faith. Contrary to popular opinion, harassment is not a tool for spreading the Gospel.
The queen’s man was reading what is now Isaiah 53; there were no chapter and verse numbers then. The holy words spoke of the suffering of the innocent with the guilty and on behalf of the guilty from the time when the Babylonians destroyed their nation. When Philip tells him what these words mean, he doesn’t go back to the time in which they were written or their meaning for their original audience – he hasn’t been to seminary.
He reads the scriptures in light of the events of his days which means reading them in light of Jesus. He tells the story of Jesus and tells it well because it is personal to him. And his companion and conversation partner asks to be baptized right then and there. And in that moment the Holy Spirit builds the church through these two very different people, different ethnicity, background, social status and even different ways of living and loving.
It strikes me that these lessons are all about hearing and being heard.
God hears the cry of the psalmist as surely as God hears the cries from the streets and those of mothers like our Blessed Virgin Mother who have lost their sons to police violence. Philip listened to God. He listened to the eunuch. The eunuch listened to Philip. And God used them to transform the world, starting with each other because they listen to and hear each other. The Church has listened to these stories read and preached for millennia, but have we truly heard them?
Holy One of Old, open our eyes that we may see.
Holy One of Old, open our ears that we may hear.
Holy One of Old, open our lips that we may speak.
May God the restorer of broken hearts, minds and bodies
Accompany you through the gaps and brokenness in your life
Nurture, sustain and transform you to change the world around you. Amen.
Death is in the house. My ancestors sang it like this:
‘Soon one morning, death come creepin’ in my room,
‘Soon one morning, death come creepin’ in my room,
‘Soon one morning, death come creepin’ in my room.
That morning is today. And yesterday. And tomorrow. Death is in the house. So it is time to call for the wailing women to weep for us.
In the ancient Near East there was a profession that was passed down from woman to woman, from neighbor-woman to girlfriend. The initiates or trainees were called ‘daughters’ and the guild directors were called ‘mothers,’ just as the disciples of prophets were called their children. It was the mourner’s guild, called ‘the keening or weeping women’ in Jeremiah. They were trained and paid to perform the public ritual of funerals; they were funeral directors and grief counselors. These women walked with the body, wept and wailed with the family and sang and chanted hymns, psalms and laments composed for the occasion. They created space and community for the family and friends to grieve without embarrassment, and never be alone. Some guilds included musicians, both male and female, but the professional mourners were usually women.
I’ve been watching (predominantly Christian) folk call for men and Christian men to take to the streets in Baltimore and end/prevent the looting. I’ve heard folk say that only a man can tell another man how to be a man. While our cites are on fire and our children are being slaughtered I want to be charitable to those in my community who are surely in as much pain as I am. So I am going to allow for the possibility that they did not mean to slight all the women, mothers, godmothers, play mothers, grandmothers, church mothers sisters and aunties who have been raising boys and men and women and girls with and without help. I’m just going to sit down and weep at the thought I might have to justify why I’m out in the streets that black women are dying in too.
I’ll be honest. I don’t know what to do or what I can do to keep the police from shooting, strangling, suffocating and now, severing our spines in vehicular lynchings. I’m tired of praying. I feel like screaming. So that is what I will do. I know I’m not alone. I turn to the scriptures and see God says, “Call for the wailing women.”
Jeremiah 9:17 So says the SOVEREIGN of Warriors:
Reason within yourselves,
and call for the keening women to come;
send for the wise, skilled women to come;
18 let them quickly raise a wailing over us,
so that our eyes may run down with tears,
and our eyelids flow with water.
19 For a sound of wailing is heard from Zion:
“How we are ruined! We are completely ashamed,
because we have forsaken the land,
because they have cast down our dwellings.”
20 Hear, O women, the word of the HOLY ONE,
and let your ears receive the word of God’s mouth;
teach to your daughters a wailing,
and each woman her neighbor-woman a keening:
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 squares.”
In this text, the sound of weeping and wailing breaks forth from Zion, the heart of God’s home in Jerusalem. Yerushalayim, the city of peace has been torn to pieces. The first stanza of the funeral hymn composed by God in Jeremiah speaks of the shame of being run out of the Promised Land that God provided. For when their tabernacles were overthrown, they had to leave, because there was nothing left for them there anymore. Even God lost the tabernacle of the Temple. For some the lost tabernacle was that of the sanctity of their bodies; many were raped, tortured and killed. For others the tabernacles lost were the sacred spaces of their God-given homes. Violence and warfare have always affected women in a particularly intimate manner.
Professionals are called to lament on behalf of the people of Jerusalem. In Jeremiah, God tells the people to consider among the weeping women and to select the wisest. In ancient Israelite tradition, wisdom was head knowledge, heart knowledge and hand knowledge. Skilled theologians, skilled poets and skilled artisans are all wise in this understanding. In Ezekiel, the prophet will call the women of the ancient African nation of Nubia to join in the lament and to weep for all of their people.
The United States were never intended to be a land of promise for African Americans. We survived and sometimes we thrive in spite of all the death-dealing structures and strictures in the law and all the social and economic structures founded on and steeped in white supremacy. There have been moments of incredible jubilation and long seasons of grief. It is indeed a time to organize and protest, interrupt and inconvenience and give voice to holy rage. It is also time to lament, weep, wail, scream and keen our grief. Voices of lamentation are being raised all across our nation and world from Nepal to Baltimore. Let me add my voice to them: We call your names. Ashé.
The book of Exodus records the journey from slavery to freedom beginning with he words v’elleh shemoth, “these are the names…” These are the names of our dead. These are only some of the names. (Courtesy of Abagond.)
2015: Jamar Clark (Minneapolis, MN)
2015: India Kager (Virginia Beach, VA)
2015: Christian Taylor (Arlington, TX)
2015: Sam Dubose (Cincinnati, OH)
2015: Sandra Bland (Prairie View, TX)
2015: Icarus Randolph (Witchita, KS)
2015: Freddie Gray (Baltimore, MD)
2015: Walter Scott (North Charleston, SC)
2015: Tony Robinson (Madison, WI)
2015: Anthony Hill (Chamblee, GA)
2014: Akai Gurley (New York, NY)
2014: Tamir Rice (Cleveland, OH)
2014: Victor White III (Iberia Parish, LA)
2014: Dante Parker (San Bernardino County, CA)
2014: Ezell Ford (Los Angeles, CA)
2014: Michael Brown (Ferguson, MO)
2014: Tyree Woodson (Baltimore, MD)
2014: John Crawford III (Beavercreek, OH)
2014: Eric Garner (New York, NY)
2014: Yvette Smith (Bastrop, TX)
2014: Donitre Hamilton (Milwaukee, WI)
2014: Jordan Baker (Houston, TX)
2013: Barrington Williams (New York, NY)
2013: Carlos Alcis (New York, NY)
2013: Deion Fludd (New York, NY)
2013: Jonathan Ferrell (Bradfield Farms, NC)
2013: Kimani Gray (New York, NY)
2013: Kyam Livingstone (New York, NY)
2013: Larry Eugene Jackson, Jr. (Austin, TX)
2013: Miriam Carey (Washington, DC)
2013: Tyrone West (Baltimore, MD)
2012: Chavis Carter (Jonesboro, AR)
2012: Dante Price (Dayton, OH)
2012: Duane Brown (New York, NY)
2012: Ervin Jefferson (Atlanta, GA)
2012: Jersey Green (Aurora, IL)
2012: Johnnnie Kamahi Warren (Dotham, AL)
2012: Justin Slipp (New Orleans, LA)
2012: Kendrec McDade (Pasadena, CA)
2012: Malissa Williams (Cleveland, OH)
2012: Nehemiah Dillard (Gainesville, FL)
2012: Ramarley Graham (New York, NY)
2012: Raymond Allen (Galveston, TX)
2012: Rekia Boyd (Chicago, IL)
2012: Reynaldo Cuevas (New York, NY)
2012: Robert Dumas Jr (Cleveland, OH)
2012: Sgt. Manuel Loggins Jr (Orange County, CA)
2012: Shantel Davis (New York, NY)
2012: Sharmel Edwards (Las Vegas, NV)
2012: Shereese Francis (New York, NY)
2012: Tamon Robinson (New York, NY)
2012: Timothy Russell (Cleveland, OH)
2012: Wendell Allen (New Orleans, LA)
2011: Alonzo Ashley (Denver, CO)
2011: Jimmell Cannon (Chicago, IL)
2011: Kenneth Chamberlain (White Plains, NY)
2011: Kenneth Harding (San Francisco, CA)
2011: Raheim Brown (Oakland, CA)
2011: Reginald Doucet (Los Angeles, CA)
2010: Aaron Campbell (Portland, OR)
2010: Aiyana Jones (Detroit, MI)
2010: Danroy Henry (Thornwood, NY)
2010: Derrick Jones (Oakland, CA)
2010: Steven Eugene Washington (Los Angeles, CA)
2009: Kiwane Carrington (Champaign, IL)
2009: Oscar Grant (Oakland, CA)
2009: Shem Walker (New York, NY)
2009: Victor Steen (Pensacola, FL)
2008: Tarika Wilson (Lima, OH)
2007: DeAunta Terrel Farrow (West Memphis, AR)
2006: Sean Bell (New York, NY)
2005: Henry Glover (New Orleans, LA)
2005: James Brisette (New Orleans, LA)
2005: Ronald Madison (New Orleans, LA)
2004: Timothy Stansbury (New York, NY)
2003: Alberta Spruill (New York, NY)
2003: Orlando Barlow (Las Vegas, NV)
2003: Ousmane Zongo (New York, NY)
2003: Michael Ellerbe (Uniontown, PA)
2001: Timothy Thomas (Cincinnati, OH)
2000: Earl Murray (Dellwood, MO)
2000: Malcolm Ferguson (New York, NY)
2000: Patrick Dorismond (New York, NY)
2000: Prince Jones (Fairfax County, VA)
2000: Ronald Beasley (Dellwood, MO)
1999: Amadou Diallo (New York, NY)
1994: Nicholas Heyward Jr. (New York, NY)
1992: Malice Green (Detroit, MI)
1985: Edmund Perry (New York, NY)
1984: Eleanor Bumpurs (New York, NY)
1983: Michael Stewart (New York, NY)
1981: Ron Settles (Signal Hill, CA)
1979: Eula Love (Los Angeles, CA)
1969: Mark Clark (Chicago, IL)
1969: Fred Hampton (Chicago, IL)
1964: James Powell (New York, NY)
This is a wailing; and it shall be wailed.
The women of the world shall wail it.
Over Nubia and all its nations they shall wail it,
says the SOVEREIGN God. (Ezekiel 32:16)
What shall we do when death is in the house? Lament. Even Jesus said: “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.” Cry to heaven, weep and wail.
Daughters of Nubia, we need to weep for ourselves; we need to weep for our daughters; we need to weep for our sons. We need to weep for our cities. We need to weep for our leaders. We need to weep for our preachers. We need to weep for our teachers. We need to weep for our cities. We need to weep for our sanctuaries. We need to weep for our nation. We need to weep for all nations. We need to weep for the earth. Death is in the house.
Daughters of Nubia, we need to weep for politicians and police. We need to weep for those who perpetuate the culture of violence and retaliation, and those who fall prey to it. We need to weep for unrepentant racists. We need to weep for those who cannot see our beautiful bodies as being created in the image of God. We need to weep with rage and determination.
We need to weep for Baltimore and Ferguson and New York. We need to weep for Nigeria and Nepal and Palestine and Pakistan. Death is in the house.
Weep. Wail. Cry. Scream. And may the God who hears, hear and heal and help us.