Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Posts tagged “bible

O Little Occupied Town of Bethlehem

I spent much of the summer of 2010 in Israel. I also spent some of that summer in Palestine, in Bethlehem in particular. Now in 2012, in the aftermath of the Gaza War and failure of Israel and Palestine to return to the negotiating table and work out a just peace for both nations, I have been thinking about the little, occupied town of Bethlehem again. This Advent, Chanukah, and Christmas I pray for a just and lasting peace and two secure homelands, for the security and prosperity of those who live in each and generous hospitality for neighbor and stranger. I keep wondering if the Incarnation happened today whether the Blessed pregnant Virgin would have had to scale the wall to give birth in Bethlehem or if she would have given birth at a checkpoint like so many Palestinian women, some of whom have had their babies die at the checkpoints.

You could say I was following a star. As they say, it’s always Christmas in Bethlehem. The beautiful art in the newest building of the Bethlehem Bible College portrays the signal moment in Bethlehem’s – and some say the world’s – history. But a few things have changed since then.

“Security” is tighter. And of course, one woman’s security is another woman’s occupation. The icon of both is the wall, the so-called “security fence.” According to Dr. Alex Awad, Dean of Students, local pastor and United Methodist missionary, 80% of the security wall was built on Palestinian land. The wall looms over Bethlehem and cast its shadow over my visit.

In order to enter Bethlehem I had to walk through the checkpoint and its cattleshoots made of bars and razorwire.

The wall has become a site of resistance. One primary form of that resistance is art. Here is some of the art on the wall:

The wall has also inspired art. These three souvenirs re-imagine three bible stories through the shadow of the wall. In one the trumpets are blown as in the story of Jericho, but this wall does not come tumbling down. In another, the Blessed Virgin and Sweet Baby Jesus are on the wall, Joseph is preparing to cross with them. And in the wall runs smack dab in the middle of the Nativity scene, as it cuts off some Palestinian residents from their homes, family and olive trees.

A final piece of art from the checkpoint, a prayer and I hope, a prophecy:

Neither Jew or Gentile, Slave or Free, Male or Female: Did Paul REALLY Mean That?

Nehemiah 8:1 All the people gathered as though they were a single person into the square before the Water Gate. They told the Torah-scholar Ezra to bring the scroll of the Torah of Moses, which the Holy One of Sinai had commanded to Israel. 2 So, the priest Ezra brought the Torah before the assembly, both women and men and all who could hear with understanding…



Psalm 148:

11 rulers of the earth and all peoples, princes and all judges of the earth;

12 young men and women alike, old and young together…

and Galatians 3:

Galatians 3:26 All of you indeed are children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Judean nor Greek (that is neither Jew nor Gentile), there is neither slave nor free, there is not male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

The Legacy of Slavery in Flesh, Blood and Scar-Tissue

Let us pray on the theme: “Neither Jew Nor Gentile, Neither Slave Nor Free, Neither Male Nor Female – Did Paul Really Mean That?”

>[Listen to the sermon here.]<

May my teaching pour like the rain, my word go forth like the dew;

like rains on grass, like showers on new growth. Amen.

U.N.I.T.Y. (That’s A Unity) The Queen, Latifah, put it down. Unity. There’s a lot of talk about unity in the Bible. But when you scratch the surface, there is always something more, much more going on. The Israelite monarchy was united, for a while. But the golden age of the Israel was only about one hundred years. At the same time that Israel was beginning its great decline a curious migration was happening in Europe. Warriors who painted their pale skins blue crossed from their island home onto the mainland and began making their way through Spain and Austria to France, Italy and Greece. It would take them hundreds of years to reach the Mediterranean in large numbers. Some of them would eventually settle in the mountains of Turkey where their military dominance would cause one region in the land to be named after them. They were Celtic peoples from what became known as Ireland and Scotland – think “Braveheart” back when Mel Gibson wasn’t acting like he was raised by wolves, and about 1000 years before that story – and when they dealt with the Greeks and Romans they were called Galatois, meaning “barbarians” and became known as Gauls and Galatians.

By the time that Paul began traveling in the south of Galatia the peoples descended from those ancient Celtic warriors had intermarried with the descendants of the great Hittite Empire for generations. Their descendants intermarried with the peoples brought and left behind by Alexander the Great and his successors. And it was to some of their descendants that Paul penned these famous words: [drash – you who the barbarous Romans called barbarians, someone else baptized you, Word for the saints, but you chose to put on Christ; it is a done deal; what it says, what it means; ethnic differences; class differences; gender differences]

Galatians 3:26 All of you indeed are children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Judean nor Greek (that is neither Jew nor Gentile), there is neither slave nor free, there is not male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.


Women Bishops in the Anglican Communion

These words have become something of a bumper sticker in the church for unity. But unity is much more than a slogan or even a beloved bible verse. The context which occasioned the writing of these words, the notion that the Galatians were so barbarian that they didn’t even count as Greeks meant that they heard Paul saying it doesn’t matter if the world counts you out – and the Greeks were the world, God counts you in. It doesn’t matter if the greatest empire known to the world, the Romans who conquered and inherited the Greek empire, the height of culture and class thinks you are not worthy to be part of their republic, their empire.

You know how the Galatians felt. Perhaps they were told people like you don’t belong here. You don’ t get a say in how we run this joint. You don’t have the right to vote. You aren’t intelligent enough to vote. We can’t have one of you in the White House. We can’t have the White House turned into the Black House. Your people are barbarians and savages. We only let you into this here church so that we could civilize you but you are not equal to us; you are not one of us and you never will be. I’m not saying that the Galatians were the black folk of the Bible because they were actually whiter than the black, brown and beige folk who made up most of the other biblical folk, but they were on the margins of the Jewish Christianity represented by Paul.

It wasn’t an issue of race as Americans have come to think about race. It wasn’t about skin color or hair texture or the shape of nose and lips, thighs or hips. There was plenty of bias in the ancient world around ethnic identity, national identity, religion and culture without the concept of race which was invented to facilitate the North African slave trade. In the bible, it was more about who your mama was and where she came from than what she looked like. And that was just on the Roman side that inherited and magnified the old Greek prejudices. I haven’t even gotten to the Judean or Jewish side with the deep suspicion of and hostility towards Gentiles. Some Judean Christians – the word Yudaoi doesn’t always mean “Jew” in opposition to “Christian” – some Jewish Christians believed that Gentiles who wanted to follow Jesus would have to make a full conversion to Judaism first and then they could receive the Jewish Messiah.

A council of elders met in Jerusalem to decide this matter and determined that there were certain ethical obligations that fell on Gentiles but they, we, didn’t have to convert. In Acts 15 the elders of Jerusalem decided that Gentiles who seek to follow Jesus must also follow a greatly abridged and reduced Torah including keeping a small part of the kosher laws. We must abstain from the pollutions of idols. This mostly referred to eating meat that had been sacrificed to other gods but Paul would reject that eventually because there were some people who were so poor that that was the only meat they could afford so that commandment would eventually be waived. The next command was to avoid illicit sexual activity. Most you know the word translated as “fornication,” but pornea is a more complicated term that has to do with unsanctioned sexual activity. The question of what is sanctioned and what is unsanctioned sexual activity is a question for another day. I know I’m in a COGIC house, so suffice it to say that the traditional understanding of sexual purity and holiness in this and other Pentecostal churches won’t get you into any trouble. It’s alright to live holy as big mama taught holiness. There is much more sexual activity that is permissible under a biblical understanding that most of us are comfortable with, but I’m in a COGIC house and that is a sermon for another day.

The elders of Jerusalem also prescribed a modified form of keeping kosher for Gentile converts. In addition to avoiding meat that was sacrificed to idols, they were to avoid meat that was strangled and not slaughtered according to kosher law, including meat that hadn’t had the blood drained out of it properly. And yet here is Paul in his epistle to the Galatians saying it doesn’t matter if you’re a Jew or a Gentile, it doesn’t matter if you’re a Greek or a barbarian. You don’t have to keep the Jewish Torah and then Paul breaks faith with the elders of Jerusalem and says that Gentile converts don’t even have to keep the modified Torah that the elders approved. For you and I are one in Christ no matter who our people are or where we came from. When writing to the church at Ephesus in lands through which the Celtic Galatians passed and some surely settled in ancient days, also now in Turkey Paul writes:

Ephesians 2:14 For Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups, Jews and Gentiles, into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.

Paul spends most of his apostolic career tearing down walls between Jews and Gentiles. Surely Paul is preaching unity this morning, unity between different ethnic groups. We need to hear Paul today. Our nation needs to hear that we are one people. In the Christian community our oneness comes from Christ. So those who claim to claim the name of Christ need to claim another name if they’re going to keep hating on our President and First Lady. Because we are one in Christ. In fact whether you are Christian or not we are one flesh with all humanity. We are one and we need to act like it.

And Paul says more: there is neither male nor female in Christ Jesus. Now this is really something, because women were often second-class citizens in much of the ancient world and in biblical Israel. And at the same time, there were women with power and authority like the prophets Miriam and Deborah and Isaiah’s Baby Mama and Huldah and Noadiah and those whose names we do not know. There were queens in Israel like Bathsheba, Zeruah and Jezebel and Queen-Mothers in Judah like Naamah, Micaiah, Maacah, Azubah, Athaliah, Zibiah, Jehoaddin, Yecoliah, Jerushah, Avi/Aviyah, Hephzibah, Meshullemeth, Yedidah, Hammutal, Zevidah and Nehushta who ruled with and without husbands and sons. And if you don’t know those women prophets and queens it is perhaps because the gender bias of the bible has been multiplied in the church and we don’t study women in the scriptures the way we study men even when the bible remembers to tell us their names. And only 8% of the names the bible tells us are the names of women.

Gender bias didn’t end in the bible. Folk have been using iron age theology suppress, repress and oppress women and girls from the moment Adam blamed Eve to the disciples asking Jesus why are you wasting your time and our time talking to women, to Paul himself saying neither male nor female out of one side of his mouth but men are supposed to be the head out of the other. I haven’t forgotten that one of the great questions of our time was whether women – and they meant white women – should be given the vote before or after coloreds – and they meant colored men. For many the issue was clear neither women nor colored folk should be able to vote in this country, and forget about black women. There are still little girls being told, you can’t do that, you can’t play football, you can’t be a Supreme Court Justice, you can’t be President, you can’t be a priest, you can’t be a bishop in the Church of God in Christ or in the Church of England. You can’t run this shop, you can’t be the boss of men, you can’t be an astronaut or Army officer, you can’t make more money than your honey.

You’re just a girl and you’re not the same as a boy, God made you different, you know, separate but equal. You woulda thought black folk had learned already that separate is not equal. We’ve got politicians and corporate raiders talking about I don’t have to pay women as much as men if I don’t want to. I don’t have to provide them health insurance if I don’t want to. I can use my power to keep them out of the workforce, out of college at home and pregnant, even raped and pregnant. Because for them women are not people, not the image of God and not the same as them, not one in Christ as Paul says here.

Paul is teaching there is no longer male nor female in Christ Jesus. And if this is true then this changes a whole lot in Scripture: then there are no women’s roles and men’s roles in the home, in the world or in the church. And if there are really no genders or no difference in gender then why does it matter so much to some folk who can marry who. I know I’m in a COGIC house, so I’m not going to go any further with that but Paul raises the question for us.

And Paul also falls short of his own preaching. Paul does not work as hard for unity between women and men as he does for unity between Jews and Gentiles. Paul preaches tradition and superstition, he talks about women covering their heads; he admits he doesn’t have a word from God on that but he tells them to do it anyway. But more than that this is a piece of a divine revelation of Paul seems not to like. He doesn’t spend much time preaching on it; he doesn’t spend much time teaching on it and he regresses and allows the church to regress without prophetic critique. Paul had a little trouble with the Jewish/Gentile thing: he told Timothy that he had to be circumcised as a grown man in spite of this revelation that God gave him. Unity is a hard thing, it’s an expensive thing, it will cost you standing, privilege and position if you are on the inside or if you are on top. Paul had a hard time relinquishing power and control, sharing that with other folk, especially women. But he gave it the old college try in Romans 16. You ought to read that and see how many women Paul worked with, along side of, celebrated, shouted out, women with whom he was working as fellow laborers and co-laborers, even sisters he recognized as apostles including a woman named Junia who was chief among the apostles in his book. But he couldn’t stay there. He lost sight of the unity God called him to proclaim.

There was a third category of unity in this revolutionary epistle: slave and free. Paul also had a hard time with this one. He had never known a world without slavery and truth be told he couldn’t imagine a world without slavery. Paul sounded a lot like the white slaveholders of this country, believing that freedom was all in your head or in the world to come but not necessarily for your body in this world. He wished the saints wouldn’t hold slaves but he would not use his apostolic authority to forbid buying and selling and holding of human beings in bondage. In fact when one of the Christian brothers ran away from another Christian bother holding him in slavery Paul sent him back into slavery saying he hoped he would be free one day but Paul couldn’t see his way clear to insist on his freedom in the Gospel. Paul did not proclaim this word of unity to Onesimus and Philemon; that there is neither slave nor free in Christ Jesus.

Paul has hit all of the major categories that still divide us in our times. Ethnic identity which we now experience as racial and cultural identity, speaking to bias against black folk and Hispanic folk and Arab and folk – we are one in Christ Jesus, gender identity which includes lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex identities, bodies and a variety of gender performances – there is more than one way to be a man and more than one way to be a woman and we are one in Christ Jesus. And Paul spoke of the major class division in his day: slavery. We still have slavery in many parts of the world. Sex trafficking of women and girls and boys and sometimes men is modern-day slavery and pervades the United States in the prostitution industry. Some of our favorite corporations like Nike and Apple and Martha Stewart use and have used slave labor at their factories around the world. But the class divide in our time is not limited to sex trafficking or other forms of slavery. The divisions between the haves and have-nots, the 99% and the 1% and let’s not forget about the 47% – those class distinctions divide the country and cost one man the election.

Yet there is unity in Christ. Or at least there should be. The fact that Paul was writing this letter is a testament to how things really were. And if we tell the truth, and we ought always tell the truth – at least in church – then Paul knew perfectly well that the church was not unified. At best we are unity in diversity. Even a casual reading of Paul’s epistles and those who wrote later in his name illustrate that there were some folk trying to reform the church, trying to unify it while some were trying to go back to the old ways men with power and women without, Christians holding slaves and instead of Jews and Gentiles it became Christians were somehow better than heathens. Yet then as now there was diversity of practice, diversity of belief, diversity of interpretation. I for one don’t believe that is a bad thing. I don’t believe that unity requires uniformity.

Take a look at any choir that wears a uniform, whether robes or classic black and white. Their robes may be identical; they may have sprung for identical button-down white shirts and identical pants and/or skirts. But that choir is still made up of individuals with different facial features, skin tones and hair-styles. Even the world-famous Rockettes are not uniform. Before they started hiring black, brown and beige dancers, they had blondes, brunettes and redheads, and even when they were wearing identical wigs or Santa hats they were not identical, yet they move as one. I don’t know much about music but I know what makes a choir work is that they don’t all sing the same notes the same way. There is harmony and melody. Even when they are singing in unison there are treble voices and bass voices; there is diversity in their unity.

So there should always be ethnic diversity in a healthy church because God’s house is to be a house of prayer for all peoples. And there will be gender diversity in church but not just in the pews – at every level of power. And there should be class diversity in church, folk at every level of income. Maybe one day those differences will no longer matter as Paul wrote, but that day is not today. Because those at the top of the power curve have benefitted for so long from holding other folk back it is not necessarily just to try to erase everyone’s identity without reforming the systems that privilege some folk more than others.

I believe that God gave Paul these words for the church. And I believe that they were too hard for Paul to live up to and into. Paul worked hard to get it right on Jews and Gentiles. But he didn’t get it right with women. And he didn’t get it right on slavery. Paul tells us how church should be – there should be no distinctions and there should be no divisions. And Paul also tells us how it really is, it’s hard to erase distinctions and it’s doubly hard to do so when your distinction holds the power. That works the other way too: When someone who doesn’t look like you uses their power to keep you down, to keep your people down, to hold your children back, to suppress your vote, to count you out, it’s hard to see them as the image of God, let alone part of the body of Christ.

On this your Unity Day, the day on which you celebrate the ministries of women and men together, let me suggest to you that you can have unity without uniformity. Just like that beautiful choir. You can make beautiful music together without all looking the same or sounding the same. There is unity in diversity. The Psalmist takes it farther than Paul can go. She – and why do some folk imagine all the Psalmists were male when 1 Chronicles 25:5-6 says: God had given Heman fourteen sons and three daughters. 6 They were all under the direction of their father for the music in the house of the Lord… The Psalmist has a vision of unity that I’d like to leave you with. One day all of nature will be united in praise of God:

Psalm 148:7 Praise the Holy One of Old from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps:

8 fire and hail, snow and frost, storm wind executing God’s command;

9 the mountains and every one of the hills, trees with fruit and those of cedar;

10 animals wild and tame, creeping ones and flying birds;

11 rulers of the earth and all peoples, princes and all judges of the earth;

12 young men and women alike, old and young together.

13 Praise the name of the Holy One of Sinai, for God’s Name alone is exalted;

God’s splendor covers earth and heaven.

14 God has raised up a horn for God’s people, praise for all God’s faithful,

for the sons-and-daughters of Israel, the people who are close to God.

Praise the God-Whose-Name-is-Holy!

             Whoever your people are, whatever your gender is, whatever your financial situation, you are God’s child and Christ has redeemed you. And there is nothing anyone can say, nothing anyone can do to count you out when God has counted you in. You are God’s. Amen.

25 November 2012

Sanctuary Church of God in Christ, Mt. Airy, Philadelphia PA




St. Publia the Confessor: a Patrona for Public Theology

The young widow Publia became a deaconess in Antioch in the fourth century. She was commended for raising her son John later Bishop of Antioch, in the faith. She was sainted for her own confession and defense of the faith. She was a public theologian who used the scriptures of the First Testament to articulate her faith. She and her sisters are said to have recited all or some of Pss 113-115 and 68 when Julian the apostate Roman emperor came to her community. Most commentators point to the language against idolatry in Ps 115 as the reason for Publia’s proclamation. Yet I find in those Psalms some of the most interesting feminine and dare I say feminist language in the scriptures.

Psalm 113 opens and closes with Hallelu Yah, using the short form of the divine Name, Yah which is actually a feminine form grammatically. It is used in some contemporary Jewish prayers as an explicitly feminine articulation of God. Psalm 113 is also one of the few that may have been outhored in whole or in part by a woman. Verses 7-9 quote Hannah’s prayer from 1 Sam 1:7-8 and may have functioned liturgically as a prayer for infertility. The canonization of Hannah’s prayer extends into the New Testament where it is adapted by the Blessed Virgin Mary as the Magnificat in Luke 1, particularly verses 52-53. Those themes are repeated in Ps 68:7-8. Ps 68 also includes a line translated as “the company of preachers” in Handel’s Messiah. However the preachers in the text are all women. The Hebrew verb b-s-r, “to proclaim good news” becomes euangelizo, “to preach the gospel” in Greek. And, these gospel preaching women are a great “army.” Using the word that describes God’s heavenly armies, tzavaoth, the women preachers are not jus a numerous “host” but a well-organized military formation.

Some time after Julian’s 362 visit, Saint Publia died of natural causes, perhaps hastened by the beating she took. The Ecclesiastical History of Theodoretus records:

I will now include in my history the noble story of a right excellent woman, for even women, armed with divine zeal, despised the mad fury of Julian. In those days there was a woman named Publia, of high reputation, and illustrious for deeds of virtue. For a short time she wore the yoke of marriage, and had offered its most goodly fruit to God, for from this fair soil sprang John, who for a long time was chief presbyter at Antioch, and was often elected to the apostolic see, but from time to time declined the dignity. She maintained a company of virgins vowed to virginity for life, and spent her time in praising God who had made and saved her. One day the emperor was passing by, and as they esteemed the Destroyer an object of contempt and derision, they struck up all the louder music, chiefly chanting those psalms which mock the helplessness of idols, and saying in the words of David   “The idols of the nations are of silver and gold, the work of men’s hands,” and after describing their insensibility, they added “like them be they that make them and all those that trust in them.” Julian heard them, and was very angry, and told them to hold their peace while he was passing by. She did not however pay the least attention to his orders, but put still greater energy into their chant, and when the emperor passed by again told them to strike up “Let God arise and let his enemies be scattered.” On this Julian in wrath ordered the choir mistress to be brought before him; and, though he saw that respect was due to her old age, he neither compassionated her gray hairs, nor respected her high character, but told some of his escort to box both her ears, and by their violence to make her cheeks red. She however took the outrage for honour, and returned home, where, as was her wont, she kept up her attack upon him with her spiritual songs, just as the composer and teacher of the song laid the wicked spirit that vexed Saul. 

As we pray these psalms let us listen to their theology:



Psalm 113:1 Hallelu Yah!

Praise, you servants of the One God; praise the Name of the Living God.


2  May the Name of the Eternal God be blessed from this time on and forevermore. 

3  From the rising of the sun to its setting the Name of the Ageless God is to be praised. 

4  High above all nations is the Sovereign God, and above the heavens is God’s glory.


5 Who is like the Saving One our God, the one enthroned on high? 

6  Looking far down on the heavens and the earth? 

7  God raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap, 

8  to seat them with nobles, with the nobles of God’s people. 

9  God sets the barren woman in a home, the joyous mother of children. Hallelu Yah!


Psalm 114:1 When Israel went out from Egypt,

the house of Jacob from a people of strange speech, 

2  Judah became God’s sanctuary, Israel God’s dominion.  

3 The sea looked and fled; Jordan turned back. 

4  The mountains danced like rams, the hills like lambs.

5 Why sea, do you flee? Why Jordan, do you turn back? 

6  Why mountains do you dance like rams and hills, like lambs?


7 Tremble, earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob, 

8  who turns the rock into a pool of water, the flint into a spring of water.


Psalm 68:1  Let God rise up, let God’s enemies be scattered;

let those who hate God flee before God. 


2 Just as smoke is dispersed, so disperse them;

as wax melts before the fire, let the wicked perish before God. 

3 And let the righteous rejoice; let them exult in God’s presence; let them be jubilant with joy.


4 Sing to God, sing praises to God’s Name;

lift up a song to God who rides upon the clouds—

God’s Name is Too-Holy-to-be-Uttered—

Exult in God’s presence.

5 Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in God’s holy habitation. 

6  God provides a home for the lonely; God leads out the prisoners to prosperity.

But – ah! – the rebellious, they dwell in a parched land.


7 God, when you went out before your people, when you marched through the wilderness  ~ Selah ~

8  the earth quaked, indeed the heavens poured down rain at the presence of God, 

the God of this Sinai, at the presence of God, the God of Israel. 

9  You showered abundant rain God; when your inheritance languished you sustained it. 

10  Your creatures dwell in it; in your goodness you provided for the needy God. 


11 The commander gives an order; the preaching women are a great army.  


Let us pray:

Holy One of Old, you called your daughter Publia to the vocational life of a public theologian. Grant that we who remember her here today may find as she found, in the words of scripture words of proclamation, resistance, life and transformation. And may our readings of scripture empower those who follow. Amen.

Drag Queens and Did Jesus Just Call that Woman a B—-?


(Listen to or download the sermon as recorded in chapel – mp3 format)

[Dons feather boa.] I love drag queens. I love the way they make me think about gender, its construction and its performance. Drag queens like RuPaul, Sharon Needles and Latrice Royale are some of my favorite critical gender theorists and theologians. Now drag queens are not female impersonators; for the most part they don’t want to be women. They can be gay men and there are straight men who drag it out. There are women who perform as drag kings. Drag performers are folk who have chosen to express themselves and (hopefully) make a living by publically performing another gender. While all gender performances including those of us here today who are not professional gender performers, choose some elements of gender presentation over others to represent publicly, drag performers tend to center their performance in the stereotypical: voluminous hair, curvy bodies, sequined eveningwear, feathers and eyelashes that would shame a giraffe.

While there are a few petite queens – Ongina boasted of being a size 4 – many queens are well over 6 feet without their 5-inch platform heels and some are so full-figured that they could play professional football. One of my favorite queens, Latrice Royale is famous for what she calls her “curves and swerves,” for being “chunky yet funky.” Drag queens have also been subject to public censure, ridicule, harassment and violence. RuPaul, the reigning Queen of Queens is famous for saying “wearing drag in a male dominated society is an act of treason.” Ru knows that choosing any kind of female gender performance by intentionally surrendering and/or sabotaging male privilege is an act of treason – or resistance – against the androcentrism is this planet’s original sin, pervading the scriptures and on display in the Gospel, on the lips of Jesus, no less.

You don’t have to be a drag queen to feel the wrath of some sections society – church and society even – for your gender performance and presentation: If you are a man who is deemed not to be appropriately masculine whether because you’re gay, bisexual, transgendered, or heterosexual and in some way non-compliant – you knit or love babies, puppies, kittens, manicures and mascara, and think women are your equal… If you are a woman who is deemed not to be appropriately feminine whether because you’re lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, or heterosexual and in some way non-compliant – you earn more than some men, coach sports, wear your hair short and spikey, hate make up or love trucks and wrenches, think men are your equal… Or because you’re a man, woman or child who has been raped or sexually abused and no longer fit in the hierarchy in the same way. In this rigid gender binary masculinity and femininity are immutable and fixed characteristics of immutable and fixed genders and those genders are not equal. The gender binary serves to keep women and feminine folk in their place and has little patience for folk who occupy an unanticipated, unscripted place in the hierarchy.

Like other marginalized members of society, drag queens have taken the hateful language spewed at them and transformed it into community and self-affirmation, like the Syrophoenician woman in the Gospel. Latrice Royale has taken one of the more hateful epithets thrown at all kinds of women and folks who perform as women and redefined it: Being In Total Control of Herself. The b-word in case you didn’t catch it, a female dog.

In a gospel that does not sound like good news to me, Jesus said to a woman kneeling at his feet begging for help for her child, “Let the children be filled first, for it is not good to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Did Jesus just call that woman a b—-? I know this is Jesus and we’ve been trained to read him and hear him religiously, more than religiously, divinely, incarnationally. But where I come from you cannot call a child a dog without calling her mama a dog and you cannot call a woman a dog without calling her a b—-.

In my best Queen Latifah – I want to ask Jesus, “Who you calling a b—-?” (I know some of you don’t know that song, U.N.I.T.Y., it’s from the previous century.) In our supposed-to-be-good-news Gospel lesson Jesus calls a woman like me, a non-Jewish woman, a b—. There is no honest way around it. Jesus was not talking about a pet dog. Yes, he or the evangelist used the term kunarion, which sometimes meant a smaller dog like those kept indoors in other cultures; but the Israelites did not keep pet dogs. Dogs were filthy animals to the Israelites, something like a cross between a hyena and a rat, often paired with pigs in the literature of the wider Ancient Near East, all of them scavengers. “Dog” was also the code word for a man who sold sex to other men – voluntarily surrendering his proper place in the gender hierarchy. Dr. Mounce’s dictionary makes the point that a kunarion is a worthless specimen of a dog, reminding me of the way some folk who love big dogs think about little yapping dogs – that they’re not even worthy of the title “dog.”

When Jesus talks about throwing food to dogs, he is not talking about feeding family pets. He’s talking about taking your good food that you have prepared for your family off the table, walking it outside and throwing it in the gutter – Greek students note the ballistic verb in the text – so that the scavengers that are rooting through the garbage and maybe even eating the corpses of other dead animals can dine on what you prepared for your children. And the children in the analogy are the Israelites, the Syrophonecian, Canaanite, Gentile woman and her daughter are not even human in his metaphor.

The woman’s response, emerging from her context – after all Jesus is in her country, at the beach, blissfully outside of Herod’s jurisdiction – she reframes Jesus’ words and changes that context. She does that. In her words, not those of Jesus, dogs are if not pets, at least not scavengers; they eat under the table. Now she has already humbled herself. She is now kneeling at the feet of a strange man. She is begging him for help. She probably knows that he is a Jew and what Jews thought of Gentiles. And while there is no reason to believe that androcentrism was any worse in ancient Israel than any other place in the Ancient Near East, she is dealing with a religious leader from a tradition that alternated between suspicion of and outright hostility towards women.

And taking the words that David Henson calls racist and sexist,” (in Jesus Was Not Color Blind on Patheos), and that Matt Skinner (on WorkingPreacher) calls “palpable rudeness” while being “caught with his compassion down,” she shows Jesus what it is to Be In Total Control of Herself. She doesn’t ask, “Who you calling a b—-?” But she does werk. She werks the Word. And because of what she said, what she did, not what she believes – this is werk without articulated faith, Jesus healed her daughter. In v 29 he is converted by her logos, “that saying” not “saying that” – rendered as a verb in the NRSV, but her word, her logos. She is the embodiment of the divine Word.

Now, many will say that Jesus didn’t really call her the b-word. He just made an analogy in which the healing she wanted was compared to food for those whom he intended to heal, who were children and she and her child were dogs. So she was only a b-word by analogy. And that’s not the same thing. Well, one day I was in the chapel of another seminary and a seminarian walked up to me and said to me “I grew up calling black folk n-words – and the seminarian actually said the word, to me in chapel, then asked – what word should I use to refer to black people now?” She used the n-word about people like me while talking to me, in the chapel. When I discussed this with a variety of folk I was surprised that some of my colleagues said, “She didn’t reallycall you the n-word, she just used it in a sentence while talking to you.” They were of the belief that was a distinction that mattered. To me, that was a distinction without a difference.

And that’s how I feel about this text, that the difference between comparing the woman and her daughter to dogs in an analogy and calling her and her daughter the b-word is a distinction without a difference. Now I understand that not everyone experiences this passage that way. And I’m not claiming that this is the only way to hear this Gospel. I’m sharing with you how I hear it because the principles of womanist preaching include affirming the dignity of black women as legitimate interpreters of the Scriptures whether or not our interpretations converge with those of the dominant culture, because our interpretations are God-breathed and revelatory, Gospel to more than folk who look and think like us.

It’s alright if you have your own way of understanding this text. But I ask you to proclaim this Gospel in such a way that it doesn’t take lightly how deeply entrenched gender bias is in the world of the Scriptures, the Scriptures themselves and our world, that you don’t dismiss the concerns of girls and women who feel marginalized by the Church and even by the Scriptures and that you don’t empower people who call women outside of our names.

The church has taught that Jesus was fully human and fully divine, taught and fought, killed and died over that notion and it’s implications. But most of us are not ready for Jesus who was quite that human. Who you calling a b—-? A fully human Jesus is a product of his culture. Perhaps he was influenced by his own scriptures, Sirach who shared the same Jesus says in 26:25: A headstrong woman is regarded as a dog, but one who has a sense of shame will fear the Lord. The Anchor Bible Commentary (Skehan and Di Lella) has, The unruly [woman] will be thought of as a bitch… Even Jesus is affected by the androcentrism and ethnocentrism that characterize his people and their time. As am I.

I’m a black woman living in an American context that alternately demonizes and exploits my womanhood. If the Gospel isn’t relevant to my context then it’s not Gospel, good news to me. And I stand with and in the place of all of those girls and women who are called the b-word by men and boys and other girls and women. Who hear the word on television and in the movies and in the music that is marketed to them, to us. I stand with the women and feminine-gender performing folk of various subcultures who use the word affectionately and with those who have redefined it for themselves.

And I’m standing up to Jesus, talking to and about women like me using language like that. Some of you maybe asking, where is the Jesus I know and love? Well, I think I caught a glimpse of him, in the midrashic space between their words. The listening, learning Jesus is the one I know and love. In this story, this nameless woman is also a Christ-figure. She is the one who humbles herself and will endure whatever is dished out to her in order to bring healing and new life. She is the rabbi, who teaches Jesus the value of all human life. She is the prophet who preaches the reign of God for all of God’s children. She is the one who transforms the narrowly ethnocentric Jesus into the savior of the whole world. Apparently even Jesus needed a little help. In becoming her student Jesus becomes our teacher.

As a colleague recently reminded me, this is a passage that will sort out your Christology. How human, how divine is your Jesus? Is he human enough to be bigoted and biased? Or does your preconceived notion of the divinity of Jesus mean that whatever he said was holy, therefore comparing a woman to a female dog isn’t really the same as calling her a b—–, or it’s alright as long as it’s Jesus. How divine is your Jesus? That Jesus listens and responds to the woman, is that an indication of humanity or divinity? Or is it both? I think the humanity and divinity of Jesus are all tangled up in this passage, sometimes thick and sometimes thin, neither distinguishable from the other, impossible to sort out.

In this troubling story, Jesus teaches me the value of listening, the value of hearing, and the value of being able to grow and change your mind. Perhaps Jesus is a process theologian. In either case he models divinity and humanity in a muddy, godly, morass. Jesus is God enough/human enough/man enough to change his mind. And that is Good News.

This Gospel is that God’s concern for the woman-born was manifested in God, Godself, becoming woman-born, for the redemption and liberation of all the woman-born from fear and from death itself. Jesus, the Son of Woman, came to seek out and save the lost and to give his life as a ransom for many. Amen.

Solomon’s Theology, Solomon’s Catechism

SolomonSolomon’s prayer tells us what he believes. Today I’d like to share with you Solomon’s Theology, Solomon’s Catechism.

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

The dedication of the temple is a moment without peer in Israelite history. They are at the peak of their power; the borders that David enforced have grown wider under Solomon. They are wealthier than they could have ever imagined. No longer thinking of going back to Egypt because now they’ve got their own. And Solomon built a temple that became known as one of the wonders of the ancient world. And he built himself a house that was many times larger than the house he built for his God but on this day, the dedication of the temple, all that was forgotten. 

As we pray in this house today we still face towards that house. That's why the high altar in many churches faces east. Muslims, Christians and Jews historically and traditionally face east when we pray. Some Christians are losing that tradition, only facing east when we are in a church that is built that way; some know nothing about that practice. I didn’t do it on purpose but my bed is set at true east so that when I kneel at the foot of my bed I am facing east when I pray. Even after the Temple was destroyed twice there was still something about that place, something special, something holy. Later on the Holy of Holies would be encompassed by the Dome of the Rock to make sure that place would remain a place of prayer. Its name in Arabic, Al Quds, means the Holy Place.

Thousands of years before Jesus prayed for us, Solomon prayed for us in that place. He was light-years ahead of his time. In a time when most folk wouldn’t marry outside of their tribe or clan – Solomon did, too much so – and perhaps as a result, Solomon had a vision of a God who was bigger than he was, bigger than his family, bigger than his nation, bigger than folk who thought they had a monopoly on God. Or perhaps, having so many people in his family from so many different places opened his eyes to God in the world beyond the world which he knew. Solomon believed in a God who was not his alone, a God who would be the God of people he would never meet. And so Solomon prayed for us alternately standing and kneeling with his arms outstretched towards the temple building.

The Israelite temple was more of a complex than a building. Most of the worship took place outside in the courtyard. Solomon was outside the temple building when he prayed. Only the priests and Levites could go into the temple building, and then only by turns as they exercised their duties. There was the small altar of incense to tend inside, lamps to keep lit on the great menorah lampstand and the tables of bread before the Holy of Holies to maintain. The great altar was outside, as large as the chancel area. The priests actually walked on the altar which was a large platform; it was big enough that that an entire bull could be burned on it while the priests stoked the fire and added incense by the shovelful. Solomon prayed next to the altar and facing the temple, while inside the temple the throne of God had just been installed. The Ark of the Covenant, with its cherubim was the place where God would sit – as much as an invisible and formless God could be said to sit – and dwell in the midst of God’s people in the temple that Solomon built. Somehow, the great God of all would dwell in a building made by human hands. So Solomon prayed towards but not in the house, “Will God truly dwell on the earth? Look! The heavens and the heavens beyond the heavens cannot contain you, how much less this house that I have built!” Solomon is not ashamed to take credit for building the house; he reminds God of this every few moments.

And Solomon prayed, “Turn towards the prayer of your servant and his plea, Holy One my God, and hear the cry and the prayer that your servant prays to you today; that your eyes may be open night and day toward this house, the place of which you said ‘My Name shall be there,’ that you may hear the prayer that your servant prays toward this place. Hear the supplication of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place; may you hear in the heavens, your dwelling place; hear and forgive.

Solomon prayed for forgiveness. For himself. For his people. On general principle. Because we all need forgiveness. That is why we confess our sins corporately when we come together to worship. Solomon’s prayer is teaching today.

When Solomon prayed, the word “Jew” hadn’t been invented yet but in Israel’s perspective there was them and the rest of the world. They were “the people;” everyone else was “the nations,” goyim in Hebrew and ethnoi in Greek. That’s where we get the words “ethnic/ethnicity” and in a roundabout way “gentile.” Yet in this moment where Solomon can ask God for anything he wants, he famously asks God for wisdom and for God to hear the prayers of people from other lands. 

Solomon believes that people around the world will hear of the Name and fame of God – of course he meant across the surface of the earth, because Solomon believed it was a flat plane as did everyone of his day. It strikes me that Solomon doesn’t put any conditions on his prayer for outsiders. They don’t have to believe what he believes. He still asks God to hear their prayers, our prayers. Solomon’s prayer reveals his faith and if you will, his catechism.

I know we have a formal catechism in the Episcopal Church and in the Anglican Communion. But this morning I’d like you to think about Solomon’s catechism. First, he prays for foreigners, those who are not of the people Israel. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus made a sharp distinction between Jews and Gentiles. He was very clear that he came to save the lost sheep of the house of Israel. It was not until he was converted by a Canaanite woman seeking his healing touch for her daughter that he opened up his ministry to Jews and Gentiles alike. Later, he would go on to teach that everyone who does the will of his father in heaven is his sister and brother, father and mother, part of the family, part of the people Israel. Paul would teach that we who are faithful Gentiles are grafted into the tree of Israel. 

But Solomon prayed this prayer long before any of that theology had been worked out. He just believed in a God who was big enough to hear anybody no matter who they were. So let me ask you this morning, how big is your God? Is your God big enough to hear the prayers of people who don’t think like you, don’t talk like you, don’t even pray like you? Is your God big enough to hear the prayers of people who don’t vote like you, who don’t go to church like you, don’t look like you, don’t eat like you, don’t live and love like you? Solomon doesn’t say, “Hear their prayers Lord except for the Egyptians because you know they did us wrong.” (And not just because he was married to an Egyptian princess.) Is your God big enough to hear the prayers of your enemies?

Next, Solomon says, “When the foreigner, the outsider, comes to your house…” Are you prepared to let outsiders in the house? Are you prepared to give a royal welcome to whoever shows up, no matter what they look like or how they are dressed, pierced or tattooed? Notice that Solomon doesn’t say that they’ve been to new members class or learned basic church etiquette. Now Solomon is talking about people going to Israel, going to Jerusalem to the temple that he built. That temple is no longer standing but its Western Wall remains. And I encourage you at least once in your life to make that pilgrimage. It is a holy place. This is also a holy place. Where the people of God are gathered, there God’s Spirit is. And, God in Christ Jesus is present in a particular way through the sacrament of his body and blood. God is in this place. And we are the temple of the living God. Our bodies are the habitation of the Most High God. God dwells in all of these places and more. How are you treating your temple? How is your temple treating God’s other temples?

Solomon prays, “They shall come for they shall hear…” Are you telling the story? Do you have a story to tell? Are you telling the Good News? Do you know the Good News? Do you know anybody who doesn’t already know the story? Or are the only people you talk to people like you who already know what you believe? Solomon is so certain that people from everywhere will hear of God’s fame yet he never assembles a committee to go out knocking on doors, stopping people at bus stops, harassing or annoying people. He just believes the word will get out. 

Solomon prays that God who dwells in heaven will hear the prayer of the foreigner. Solomon knows that God is present in the temple that he has built but he also knows that God can’t be contained by four walls. He knows that God exists in a world beyond his world, in a place that he cannot see or enter. Yet God from the height of heaven, the heavens beyond the heavens, can hear the prayer of anyone on earth. Solomon is teaching theology today. He’s teaching ecclesiology, the nature of the church. And Solomon adds that God would answer the prayers of the foreigner; that God would do whatever the outsider asks God to do. It's hard to catch this if you're reading in English but in Hebrew Solomon doesn't ask God to grant the prayer of the foreigner; Solomon tells God that God will grant the prayer of the foreigner. Solomon believes that God will be gracious to aliens and outsiders because that’s the God he knows and the one in whom he has placed his trust. 

Solomon doesn’t put limits on God. He doesn’t ask for the prayers to be granted only if they’re in his best interest for the best interest of his people. He asks God to grant the prayers of outsiders so that people will know that his God is real and that the stories they have heard are true. Ultimately he wants people to fear God, to revere God, to be in awe of God’s Name. He wants to draw people from the four corners of the earth into relationship with his God. 

That is Solomon’s prayer. What is your prayer today?

In the Name of God, Sovereign, Savior and Shelter. Amen.

25 August 2012

Restoring Bathsheba

David and Bathsheba

Our first lesson says, “Solomon’s throne was firmly established…” And, “Solomon loved the Lord…” In so doing the text jumps from 1 Kings 2:12 to 1 Kings 3:3. There is a gap in the text. The story as we have it framed by the lectionary presents a smooth transition from David to Solomon. But it wasn’t that smooth. You may not be surprised, because if you’re like me, you know that life is not always smooth. And if you know anything about the biblical narrative, you know that life in the bible is most certainly, not always smooth. If you’ve been hearing David’s story preached this summer, you know that his life was not always smooth. The lectionary framers skipped something, cut something out. Don’t you want to know what it is? This morning I’m preaching the gap, “Bathsheba Restored.”

As David lay dying just before our lesson, with his professional and personal impotence on display, his sons began fighting over his throne. Even before David was in the ground one of his sons, Adonijah, began trying to claim some of what was his. Adonijah wanted David’s throne and his last woman, Abishag. She had been brought in as a bed warmer for David, to warm up his old bones. But he wasn’t the man he used to be. And he could do nothing with her. And when she got up from what became David’s deathbed, his son Adonijah began asking for her.

This didn’t sit well with everyone. Solomon and Bathsheba understood that by asking for a royal woman even if she had only been a royal woman for a very little time, Adonijah was making a claim on the throne. While he was David’s fourth son, he was now at the head of the line. His oldest brother, Amnon was executed by his third brother Abshalom who was in turn executed by their cousin Joab. (Forget the Borgias, David’s family put the “OG” in original gangstas.) The second brother probably died in infancy because the bible says nothing about him after his name. 

The king is dead! Long live the king! As David lay dying, folk began maneuvering, choosing sides. Who would be the new king? There were a lot of options because as quiet as it’s kept, David had a whole lot of children with a whole lot of women:

2Samuel 3:2 Sons were born to David at Hebron: his firstborn was Amnon, of Ahinoam of Jezreel; 3 his second, Chileab, of Abigail the widow of Nabal of Carmel; the third, Absalom son of Maacah, daughter of King Talmai of Geshur; 4 the fourth, Adonijah son of Haggith; the fifth, Shephatiah son of Abital; 5 and the sixth, Ithream, of David’s wife Eglah. These were born to David in Hebron.

But hold on! Chronicles continues chronicling David’s children:

1Chronicles 3:5 These were born to him in Jerusalem: Shimea, Shobab, Nathan, and Solomon, four by Bath-shua, daughter of Ammiel; 6 then Ibhar, Elishama, Eliphelet, 7 Nogah, Nepheg, Japhia, 8 Elishama, Eliada, and Eliphelet, nine. 9 All these were David’s children, besides the children of his secondary wives; and Tamar was their sister.

In case you missed it, Solomon was David’s tenth son out of nineteen. Adonijah was way ahead of Solomon in the line for the throne. But he didn’t count on Bathsheba. Today we’re talking about “Restoring Bathsheba.” Bathsheba had been so callously used by David. When he sent his men to take her she didn’t have the option of saying no. She was a stranger in a strange land, her husband was away fighting the king’s war and the king took her, used her, raped her and tried to discard her. But she became pregnant and David tried to get rid of her and the baby by setting them up to be claimed by her husband. And when that didn’t work, he got rid of her husband by murdering him. I guess she could be grateful that David didn’t just kill her too. I wonder if she had had a choice would she have chosen death over marrying her rapist. Perhaps some days the answer was yes.

That’s all that most people remember about Bathsheba, the worst day of her life, maybe the worst two or three days: the day she was raped, the day David killed her husband, the day she realized she would have to live with David as his wife. I don’t know how she did it. But it seems to me that she made up her mind to have the best life she could under the circumstances. I imagine that she said to David, “You are not going to shut me away like you did your first wife Michal. You stole the life I had with my husband in the sight of God, the man I love, the husband I chose to live with. You stole our future and you stole our children. I can’t get that back but I can have your children and the security that comes with them. I will be the mother of kings.”

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

God was with her in the form of Nathan. The one man who stood up to David. He had no way of knowing whether or not David would kill him, but he told David what he was doing wasn’t right and he told him in such a way that David pronounced judgment on himself. I believe that Nathan became a friend, advisor and perhaps a father figure to Bathsheba. She even named one of her children after him. And then there was the confusion as David lay dying, who would be king after him? Nathan and Bathsheba worked it out.

The king is dead! Long live the king! But who would be the new king? Adonijah is sure that he will be king. He had the support of David's chief enforcer, his nephew Joab, the man that killed one of David's sons and then told the king to stop crying because his grief was taking too long. The rest of the warriors didn’t back him; the priesthood was split. They didn’t have another candidate; they just knew that they didn’t want Adonijah. And yet, Adonijah throws a big party; he invited all of his brothers except for Solomon and he left Nathan off the list too.

David’s oldest surviving son, Adonijah, was making moves, claiming royal property, claiming David’s last woman. And Solomon is only tenth in line; even with the death of three of his older brothers he only moved up to sixth place. And Mama stepped in. I believe Bathsheba said “Baby, let Mamma handle that.” While the man who would be king was partying the night away, Nathan went to see Bathsheba. He said to her look, “If this boy becomes king he will kill you and your son. You and I are going to make sure that doesn’t happen. You and I are going to put your son on the throne. You’re going to go into his room and remind him that he promised to put Solomon on the throne.” Of course, there is no record of that promise in the Bible. Scholars are divided over whether or not David actually made that promise. Some of us think that Nathan and Bathsheba simply decided that Solomon should be king and used David's old age and failing memory against him. 

Bathsheba went in and asked the question while David was lying there with his latest pretty young thing curled up with him in the bed. She spoke to his pride saying, “Aren’t you still the king? Why is it that Adonijah can proclaim himself king while you’re still alive?” She closes by reminding him that Adonijah will surely kill her and Solomon and the rest of her children with David. She doesn’t have to say the rest out loud; she just looks him in the eyes and reminds him of everything he did to her and why she is even in his house. Then, just as they planned, Nathan walked in on cue and Bathsheba slipped out. “Did you say that Adonijah was supposed to be king? He has proclaimed himself king and is throwing a party – and he knew better than to invite me. And by the way, the people are saying long live the king!” David called for Bathsheba to come back in and said to her, “I promised you that I would make Solomon king and I am going to keep my word.” At that very moment, David proclaimed Solomon King. Then David died. The king is dead! Long live the king!

Our last verse before the break says, “Solomon’s throne was firmly established…” But there’s a gap in the text. In that gap in the text, in the space between the two pieces of text of assigned for us today, there’s a whole lot going on. Adonijah knew that the tide had turned against him; he tried to cut a deal with Bathsheba. He said, in the text between our texts, “You know the throne was mine, but I’m going to step aside for your boy because I’m sure that’s God’s will. I do want just one thing for my trouble, that girl.” Bathsheba said, “I will speak to the king about you.” What she meant was, “I’m going to see to it you get exactly what you deserve.” 

She knew that if he had a royal woman and got her pregnant he could claim the throne. And she knew that Solomon knew that too. She raised him well. She also knew that Solomon had to decide on his own what to do about Adonijah. So she asked for the girl for him. Solomon’s response did not disappoint her:

1 Kings 2:22 King Solomon answered his mother, “And why do you ask Abishag the Shunammite for Adonijah? Ask for him the kingdom as well! 23 Then King Solomon swore by the Holy God, “So may God do to me, and more also, for Adonijah has devised this scheme at the risk of his life! 24 Now therefore as the Holy God lives, who has established me and placed me on the throne of my father David, and who has made me a house as God promised, today Adonijah shall be put to death.” 25 So King Solomon sent Benaiah son of Jehoiada; he struck him down, and he died.  

The violence in this text and much of the bible is symptomatic of the barbarity of the times. God met folk where they were and they were in the Iron Age. Three thousand years later we haven’t learned that power to hurt and kill is not strength; it does not last and does not bring happiness. In this city plagued with murderous violence and sexual assault God is still trying to show the Davids of the world that they cannot do whatever they want just because they have power. There is seemingly no end to those who use their power against others. I wonder how many Nathans there are, willing to stand up and say that what you have done is wrong; you can’t do whatever you want to people.

After the death of Adonijah, the words of the text came true: “Solomon’s throne was firmly established…” And Bathsheba, the woman who had been stolen and raped and stolen again, who had married, lived with and lay down with the man who raped her – a man who collected women like dolls and set them aside when he was no longer interested in them – Bathsheba survived him. Bathsheba survived and thrived. Her agency, her ability to make decisions for herself, her life and her body was restored, in part because of Nathan’s friendship and in part because of Solomon.

In that scene in the throne room where Bathsheba is making sure that Adonijah will never threaten her son or his throne again, Solomon elevates his mother in 1 Kings 2:19: “The king rose to meet her, and bowed down to her; then he sat on his throne, and had a throne brought for the king’s mother, and she sat on his right.” He places her on a throne that he has set on his right hand side; from now on she will be the right hand woman in the kingdom. How different this is from her first encounter with an Israelite king! The physical postures are reversed; now she is elevated above him and it’s voluntary. And in the generations to follow in the monarchy of Judah the king’s mother, the Queen Mother will rule with her son. Bathsheba is no longer the broken woman David used to flex his power. God has transformed her brokenness, given her back her power and more power than she could ever imagine. God restored Bathsheba.

This is the point where poor preachers will say that there is a reason for everything and that everything happens for a reason and that everything happens for our good. I’m here to tell you that’s bad theology and bad preaching. God who can create anything out of no thing can transform any situation and restore any brokenness but God does not need us to be broken, devastated, raped or abused to elevate us. It’s true that Bathsheba would not have had Solomon if David had not kidnapped and raped her; it’s true that she would not have had this life. But we will never know what kind of life she and Uriah would have had. Perhaps, just perhaps, he would have risen up through the ranks of David’s army and when after David died one of David’s fool sons made a mess out of the kingdom, he could have stepped in and stepped up making Bathsheba the right-hand woman with out all that mess. 

It could happen. It did happen. That’s what happened with the general and his wife after Solomon died and one of his fool sons made a mess out of the kingdom. He became king in his place. Bathsheba made the best out of a bad situation. And God was with her. Our text says, “Solomon’s throne was firmly established…” And, “Solomon loved the Lord…” But that’s not the whole story. There’s a gap in the text. And God is in the gap, restoring Bathsheba.

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.

19 August 2012
Episcopal Church of St. Andrew & St. Monica
Philadelphia PA

Scandalized By Jesus: Some Lessons for Vocation


Is not this the carpenter, the son of Miriam called Mary and brother of Ya‘akov called James and Yosef called Joses and Yehudah called Judas and Shimon called Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they were scandalized by him.

Jesus is simply scandalous. More than notorious or shocking, eskandalizonto in Greek means to offend, to drive away, to force to stumble, to push into betraying or deserting, to cause to sin. Some people love Jesus, particularly what he does for them. And in the previous chapters in Mark he has done extraordinary things for ordinary people. But at the same time some are deeply troubled by Jesus, especially by what he says. It’s not easy being a biblical scholar in the public eye or a public theologian. Teaching and preaching the scriptures means taking unpopular positions with political implications, challenging cultural norms, systems of power and prestige and offending somebody sometime – or you’re not doing it right. It means being accused of all sorts of things, few of them true and it means that scandal of one sort or another is never far away – especially in the case of Jesus and those who follow him, imitate him – that’s what a disciple is, one who imitates a teacher with mathematical precision. And there is a price to pay for scandal: marginalization, and in the case of Jesus, abandonment, imprisonment, assault, execution.

The very humanity of Jesus was a scandal: The Gospels remind us continually that the Messiah was fully human: He was woman-born, his body experienced hunger and thirst and exhaustion and pain and death. Even his post-resurrection body was tangible and capable of digestion along with walking on water and through walls. 

The child conceived in holy mystery, whose tiny human heart beat underneath his mother’s heart emerged from his mother’s womb in blood and water as did we all. He was the Son of God, the Son of Woman and a Child of Earth: mortal, frail, embodied, human. To be human is to be carnal, fleshly. For millennia Christians have struggled with this dimension of Jesus’ nature. Some have done away with the human aspect of the Incarnation altogether, and have been properly condemned as heretics. Others turned to Greek philosophy to interpret Christianity and concluded that the body and all its functions are lower than the spirit and its possibilities. Sometimes this spirit/body dualism is expressed in terms of good and evil. But we are wholly God’s good, very good, creation. We are created in the image of God, not in spite of our bodies and their possibilities, but with our bodies and their possibilities. And God became one of us through Jesus.

The gospel writers almost seem to take his infancy and childhood for granted, they were presumably so normal – so human – that they scarcely rated comment. The notable exceptions were his conception, birth and teaching the elders as a child. But of his nursing and burping and diapers and teething and weaning and crawling and toddling there is not a word. Not because these things didn’t happen, but because they did as they did for all of us. He lost his baby teeth, his voice cracked and grew deeper; his Adam’s apple grew more prominent; he grew darker, thicker hair all over his body. And there were other changes. He was a teenage boy, he slept, he dreamed, he imagined, he was human. Dare I say he experimented? He was human. James Nelson in his classic treatise on theology and sexuality, Embodiment asks, “Is the notion of Jesus as a sexual person inherently blasphemous, or at least scandalous?” I say, if we say yes, the problem is with us, not with God’s design and implementation. Jesus was scandalous and people were scandalized by him, by his humanity.

Jesus was like us in his need for human intimacy because he was one of us. He loved, he hurt, he touched, he embraced, he kissed, he wept, he was lonely. He was frustrated when his family didn’t understand him. He was hurt when his dear ones betrayed him. And in his last hours, he didn’t want to be alone to face the coming storm and darkness. He needed human companionship. He cherished his friends and adored his mother.

In our gospel text, Jesus left the place where he healed a woman with a twelve-year vaginal hemorrhage or perhaps she healed herself with her own faith. And he left the place where he raised a girl on the cusp of womanhood from death to life as easily as waking a sleeping baby. He left that place and came to this place, without all of the miracles. This place, his hometown was most likely Capernaum on the shore of the same sea that he had just crossed to perform his most recent miracles rather than Nazareth farther away in the hill country. 

He came as biblical scholar and Torah teacher and gave the d’var Torah, (the word of Torah) in the synagogue on Shabbat because he was an observant Jew and did not see his ministry as something other than Judaism. His teaching was amazing, astounding, provoking his hearers to ask where did he study Torah? Who was his rabbi? How could this locust-eater from the desert, as Khalil Gibran would later say, teach like this? And it seems no matter how often folk exclaimed over his teaching, each time he taught; he surprised them all over again. I want to know, what did he teach this time? And why didn’t the gospel writers share his teaching with us this time?

And the people in the synagogue asked how can the same man be both a master teacher and a miracle-worker? Isn’t that just too much giftedness for one man? And because this was his hometown they knew him, they knew his people, they knew his mama. They knew the stories about his daddy – that he might not be his son and perhaps that’s why he didn’t stick around. Joseph disappears from the gospels during Jesus’ adolescence, those difficult teen years and the text does not say that he died. They knew his sisters and brothers by name (their Hebrew, Jewish, names, not the Greek names that have replaced them) and maddeningly to me – the gospel writers still to do not tell us the names of Jesus’ sisters, let alone how many of them there were. 

And perhaps, because they knew him, knew where he came from, knew that he was no different from them or at least ought not be any different from them since they all came from the same place, they were scandalized by him, offended by him and rejected him.

This wasn’t, I’d like to suggest, a rejection of Jesus as the son of God; this was a rejection of the local boy who made it big. This was sociology, not theology. Who do you think you are? I know who you are and where you came from. You came from the same place I did. Why do you get to be famous? I came from the same place as you. You’re not special. You’re just like me and I’m not special either. 

There is something about the hometown crowd, in big cities and small ones. Sometimes they do celebrate the local girl or boy who has made it big. But in the case of prophets, Jesus says there is no honor to be found at home. How can God speak through such an ordinary person? A person I know is flawed. I remember when… We have these ideas about who can be God’s messenger: men, white men, heterosexual white men, with long beards and robes, projecting our notions about race and gender and sexuality onto the text. So many think of Charlton Heston but not Harriet Tubman or Toni Morrison or Maya Angelou when we imagine prophets. We don’t think to look to our children for a prophetic word, not always to our elders, especially when they are no longer strong and vibrant, to people whose bodies don’t work like ours, or to people who don’t live and love like we think they ought. [I have to say here that I am guilty of this, thinking that today’s guest musician must be an adult, and I was wrong and happily so! Thank you Abigail, for sharing your gifts with us.] All of the biblical prophets are larger than life in the text, but they were just women and men from home towns where folk scratched their heads and said “How can Yocheved’s daughter and son both be prophets? Please! I remember when they were children…” Of course Yocheved’s daughter and son were both prophets, Miriam and Moses.

They took offense at him. They were scandalized by him. The people in their hometown, knowing Jesus and his family and stories that we’ll never know about them said, I just can’t believe this is the guy everyone is talking about, but he sure is some kind of slick preacher. Their disbelief in Jesus, in his ability to do miracles that they couldn’t do and to interpret the scriptures in ways that they could not was an extension of their disbelief in themselves. They did not meet him with the faith of the bleeding woman or grieving father and as a result, Jesus was unable to do the miracles in his hometown that he was able to do in other places. This is a hard text for me, the idea that Jesus is limited by other people’s disbelief, by my disbelief. So I pray regularly the line from another Gospel story: “Lord I believe, but help my unbelief.” 

There is so much irony in this text. They, the faithful folk, the Jews in the pews – and we – are why God became human, woman-born. This is, I think, the true scandal of the Gospel, the Incarnation. Those of you who have taken to reading my sermons online, bear with me because I need to repeat some of what I said last week. The scandal of the Incarnation is the scandal of the human body in all of its forms, genders, expressions, orientations, nationalities, ethnicities, abilities, limitations, communicable diseases, poverties and, the scandal of the human condition from mortality to mental illness. I see the scandal in today’s Gospel in terms low self-esteem and holding others in equally low regard. Nobody from our hometown has any right being famous, powerful, respected by important people, recognized for making a difference. I can’t put my trust in this guy from the old neighborhood. Even if he did do all those miracles.

Let’s face it, if folk wouldn’t believe in Jesus when there were other folk saying he healed me, he raised my child from the dead, how on earth are we going to get a committee together to do the work of the church? How can we pursue our calling and fulfill our vocation if none of the people who know us best believe in us? If we have a hard time believing in ourselves? Look to Jesus:

Here he is in our text with the family that has accompanied him in the Gospel for these past two months, caring for him, worrying about him, scolding him and occasionally getting in his way. But they are here with him. Every one of them won’t be with him every moment. But they won't all abandon him. In his most desperate hour, his mother will stand by him and with him, at the foot of his cross. Two of his brothers will carry on his work in his name and give up their own lives for his Gospel.

And for those desperate few hometown folk willing to believe that the boy down the street had the power to touch, heal and transform lives, their faith in him was justified. He did heal them. They were small in number but they bore witness to the possibility of transformation of those who could not let themselves believe in a human, common, familiar Jesus. He marveled at their unbelief and he kept on teaching, kept on serving, kept on healing. Jesus did not stop doing what God called him to do. Not even death stopped him or slowed him. Even when those closest to him did not believe, doubted him, abandoned him, he did the work God sent him to do. 

This Gospel is that God’s concern for the woman-born was manifested in God, Godself, becoming woman-born, for the redemption and liberation of all the woman-born from fear and from death itself. Yeshua the Messiah, the Son of Woman, came to seek out and save the lost and to give his life as a ransom for many. Amen.

The Scandalous Gospel According to a Bleeding Woman: A Re-Telling

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.

Sarah’s daughter was bleeding from her vagina, again, still. It wasn’t the not-so-secret monthly blood whose scent was part of the cacophony of smells which perfused the Iron Age and passed largely without comment from anyone else. This was something else entirely. This was a flow that never quite stopped. It dwindled from time to time, giving birth to aborted hope that this time it had stopped for good. A day or two of respite, and then the bleeding started again. There were some years that she had gone for months without bleeding at all. And just a few months – she could count them on one hand – that she bled like other women. She had bled this way since her first bleeding. It was nothing like what her mother and aunts told her to expect. Her sisters didn’t bleed like this. She drank the teas the midwife gave her, tied the knots in the cord around her body as prescribed by the healing prophets (like those in Ezekiel 13), nothing helped. She never felt clean. There were stains on all her clothes, her chair, her bed. She was tired, tired of bleeding and just tired.

She had moved to a town where no one knew – or admitted that they knew – her story. She couldn’t stay at home any more; all of her sisters were married and having children. She loved her sisters and their children and yet every time she saw one of them blossoming with yet another pregnancy or putting a baby to her breast she felt an ache in her empty, broken, bleeding womb. The other mothers in town wouldn’t consider her for their sons. She could have married an older, widowed man to help him with his children, but that wasn’t the life she wanted for herself. And she made a decent life for herself, as a midwife, a healer, hoping to learn something that she could use to heal herself. She also became a midwife because she hoped no one would think twice if they saw blood on her skirts. All of the money she earned, all of the goods and services she received, she sold or bartered away in hopes of healing herself. She spent all of her income on every healer and physician in her town, within walking distance and sometimes beyond. She was Sarah’s daughter and she decided to do whatever it took to heal herself, save herself, to live.

Her vaginal hemorrhage didn’t affect her day-to-day life as much as people might have imagined when the flow wasn’t too heavy. After all, being ritually not-yet-ready for worship – a better translation than “unclean” in terms of illness or naturally occurring bodily cycles – was quite common and in most cases remedied by bathing and an inexpensive offering. Some cases also required physical inspection by a priest or for women – I believe – a woman who was both the daughter of and the wife of (another) priest with the pronouncement of restoration being made by the priest. But her vaginal bleeding would have to stop first, long enough for her to qualify for and pass inspection. And in the past twelve years it hadn’t and as a result she couldn’t go to Jerusalem and worship in the temple, and she wanted to go. She had been there as a child, but she wanted to go as an adult and take her own offerings and say her prayers facing the place where the living God resided, bathed in clouds of incense. It wasn’t required for women, but so many women went that there were mikvahs – baths – dedicated for them, there was a plaza named in their honor and, special gates and balconies for women who didn’t want to mix with men.

Even though she poured herself into the healing arts and her life-giving work, rejoicing at each new life born into her hands, Sarah’s daughter longed to be free of her terrible illness, the weakness, the pain, the constant washing and cleaning and to have some new things, new clothes, unstained. Her affliction also affected her sense of herself, her sense of her own value and beauty and worth. She was distant from her own family and had no family in this town. She had no one with whom to share Shabbat meals, she lit the candles by herself. Sometimes families she helped invited her for celebrations but she was always afraid her body would betray her, like that one time she thought she had enough padding and then it broke through in front of everyone. She had moved again after that. She was keenly aware that her body didn’t work like other women. She felt broken. And she knew she could die from this. 

But Sarah’s daughter refused to be destroyed by her pain or paralyzed by fear. She didn’t know why her body was the way it was, but she knew it didn’t have to be. She knew it could be, should be, would be different. And she would do whatever it took to save herself, be healed, be made whole, be restored, to live – the verb means all of those things. She had heard that there was a miracle-working rebbe, Yeshua ben Miryam, (Jesus, Mary’s child) based in Capernaum who regularly crossed the Sea of Galilee. And today he was here. She was going to see him. 

As she hurried after the crowd, she thought about what she was going to say. She followed the sound of the commotion and saw more people gathered than lived in her town. All of them pushing towards a group in the middle, and one of them… Yes him. He’s the one. She pushed. Not caring if some stepped out of her path because they saw or smelled the blood that was flowing even harder. She had to reach him, had to get his attention…

But he was walking with Ya’ir (who the Greeks called Jairus). Ya’ir’s daughter – what was her name? was it Me’irah? Named for “light” like her father? I think so – Me’irah had died. A child whose whole life was the length of her disease, twelve years. And now she was dead. Sarah’s daughter said to herself, I won’t bother the Rabbi. He must go to comfort Me’irah’s mother. 

She was all alone as she watched her daughter die, she was all alone as she planned and began the funeral of her child. She was like so many mothers left alone to do the difficult work of holding her remaining family together through the most trying of times. Her husband had not abandoned them, but he had left them. He missed the moment when the light left his baby girl’s eyes as she passed from life to death. He left her on her deathbed and her Mama in her deathwatch in the hope that he could persuade Rebbe Yeshua, Rabbi Jesus, to come and lay his hands on her. But she died in his absence and they started her funeral without him…

Yet Sarah’s daughter couldn’t walk away; she couldn’t take her eyes off of him and found herself within a hand’s breadth. Falling to her knees, reaching out, not knowing what she would do until she did it; (according to the other two gospels) she touched his tzit-tzit, the knotted fringe on the corners of his clothing – the sign of an observant Jew. She believed that this time she would be healed. She had believed before and been disappointed, but that didn’t matter. Sarah’s daughter had resilient, indefatigable, inexhaustible, inextinguishable faith. She said, “If I but touch his clothes, I shall be saved.” 

More than healed, saved, saved from the death that was surely coming closer. Twelve years of pain, disappointment, sorrow and struggle did not diminish her faith; it was a living thing, carried inside of her, extended through her hand to One who was so worthy of her faith that he didn’t have to see her, speak to her or even touch her to save her, heal her, make her whole, grant her life and transform her.

And it was so. She drew the healing power from his body. She did it. The text is full of her verbs: She endured, she spent, she was no better, she grew worse, she heard, she came up, she touched, she said, she felt, she was saved/healed/restored and then she told him everything. Everything. All her pain, all her grief, all her hope, all her faith. All. She is the active agent in her healing eleven times, and once passive – her hemorrhage stopped.

And Ya’ir, Jairus, is waiting and watching. He left his child on her deathbed to find Rabbi Yeshua, Rabbi Jesus. He didn’t know if she would be living or dead when he got back; but he knew that if Yeshua, Jesus, just laid his hands on her, she would be alright. Ya’ir started his journey in faith. He said, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be saved, and live.” (There’s that verb again.) And Ya’ir ended his journey in faith. When he found Jesus, he found resurrection and life at the same time Sarah’s daughter found restoration and life.

One of the great ironies of the aftermath of this text is that the church of Jesus Christ and nominally Christian societies like ours have become so scandalized by women and our bodies that we dare not name our parts or the problems with our parts in polite company according to some folk. It is ironic, because silencing women and censuring our bodies denies the Gospel story itself: That God became flesh and blood in the body of a woman, was nourished by her blood in her body passed through an umbilical cord attached to a placenta, rooted in the wall of her uterus, and one day pulsed into this world through her cervix and vagina. Just like the rest of us – give or take the occasional caesarian. 

This is the scandal of the Gospel, the Incarnation of a woman-born God. At the heart of Incarnation theology is the notion that the human body – and women are fully human – is neither accidental nor unworthy of the habitation of God. The scandal of the Incarnation is the scandal of the human body in all of its forms, genders, expressions, orientations, nationalities, ethnicities, abilities, limitations, communicable diseases, poverties. And this is what God became, for Sarah’s daughter and Ya’ir and his daughter and her mother and you and me, for the whole world, for all of groaning creation. To paraphrase Brother (Cornell) West: Jesus was born too close to urine, excrement and sex for the comfort of many. God became human to touch and be touched by the broken, bleeding, dead and dying and to be broken, bleed and die. And in so doing transformed that brokenness into a sacrament, body and blood, bread and wine, the shadow of death, grave-robbing resurrection. 

This Gospel is that God’s concern for the woman-born was manifested in God, Godself, becoming woman-born, for the redemption and liberation of all the woman-born from fear and from death itself. Yeshua the Messiah, the Son of Woman, came to seek out and save the lost and to give his life as a ransom for many. Amen.

Saying “Vagina” In the Pulpit

Looking forward to next week's Gospel and reflecting on the censuring of a Michigan State Representative, I discuss the woman with a vaginal hemorrhage in light of contemporary politcal and public discourse in my latest Huffington Post bog entry.

It Takes A Village: In the Shadow of David

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

The author of the book of Samuel wants you to know that good things come in small, or better, seemingly insignificant packages. David’s own father – Happy Father’s Day! –  overlooked him because he was the baby. Samuel wasn’t much better, focusing his attention on the tall, dark and handsome brother. But God says, “I do not see the way that humans do: you all look at a person’s face and body; I look at a person’s heart.” 

Samuel and God were having this conversation because God had decided to replace Saul as king. Saul, the second king in Israel after Avimelek in the book of Judges, has turned out to be something of a disappointment. And God breaks up with him. Saul is devastated and never recovers, and I really feel for him. Samuel seems to take it equally hard. But the bible and God move on to David – ah new love!

God has had God’s eye on David’s family and decided on David as the next King of Israel. What was it God saw in the young David? I’d like to think it was promise and possibility. I’d hate to think that God saw all of the things that David would do and chose him anyway, not caring. I’d rather think that God saw that David had it in him to be a great man, to inspire people, to lead people, to love passionately, to pray faithfully, yes, to sin, but then to repent sincerely. So God sent Samuel to Jesse, to anoint one of his sons – as yet unidentified. God tells Samuel to invite Jesse and leaves the rest of the details up to him. And that’s where things get interesting.

  I’m calling this sermon “It Takes A Village: In the Shadow of David” because while David is the obvious focus of this story, he’s not the only one in it. David is anointed as king to lead God’s people, but not for his own benefit – although he did benefit. David was called to service, a type of service that exists in only a small part of our world. People all over the world recently reflected on the tradition of monarch as servant with Queen Elizabeth II as she celebrated her Diamond Jubilee. David’s service was to and for people the bible rarely mentions, the little people, the insignificant people, people passed over based on birth order or what they look like. Just like David; the irony abounds. So, I invite you to look at and look for all of the people who made David’s reign possible including his royal family because, quite frankly, David isn’t someone who I’d like to model my life and faith on. So I’m going to do a feminist reading of the story this morning. You don’t mind me using the f-word in the pulpit do you? As a feminist, I’m keenly aware of who is in the story and who is missing from this story. 

Today we’re going to talk to each other a bit. Who do you think is missing from this story? Think of the sacrifice like a big family celebration. Who is around your table at Thanksgiving?

I’ll give you a moment to answer while I remind you what is going on. Samuel comes to Bethlehem and the elders of the city meet him at the gate, shaking with fear and want to know, “Do you come in peace?” That’s because one verse before our lesson in the previous chapter Samuel kills the Amalekite king, Agag, chopping him into pieces: 

1 Samuel 15:32 Then Samuel said, “Bring Agag king of the Amalekites here to me.” And Agag came to him haltingly. Agag said, “Surely this is the bitterness of death.” 33 But Samuel said, “As your sword has made women childless, so your mother shall be childless among women.” And Samuel chopped Agag in pieces before the Holy One in Gilgal. 34 Then Samuel went to Ramah… [Our lesson picks up here]

So the elders of Bethlehem were understandably concerned when Samuel showed up. The text doesn’t leave any space between the two stories so for all we know Samuel may have come straight from the execution, having his conversation with God on the road. So Samuel invites the elders to the sacrifice, perhaps to prove the only thing getting killed is the cow. 

Back to your quiz: God has sent Samuel to Jesse to anoint the king that God has chosen. Samuel invites all of Jesse’s sons – but we know one, David, is missing – and Samuel invites the elders. Now, who do you think is missing from this story? [David’s mother and sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc.]

David was only available for God because his parents produced and raised him. We know a bit about his father, Jesse the grandson of Ruth and Boaz. But what about his mother whose name is not preserved? How do I know that David’s mother is alive and that he has sisters?

Later on in 1 Sam 22:3-4, David asks the king of Moab – his great-grandmother Ruth was Moabite – David asks the king: “Please let my father and mother come to you, until I know what God will do for me.” He left them with the king of Moab, and they stayed with him all the time that David was in the stronghold.

  So David’s mother was alive. And either Samuel excluded her from the sacrifice only inviting Jesse and the boys or the author of the text ignores her only focusing on Jesse and the boys. Where else would she have been but at her home when the national prophet showed up? Even if she was at market wouldn’t she have gone straight home after that scene at the city gates with the elders? Even if they weren’t invited to the sacrifice, don’t you think everyone in town was as close to the sacrifice as possible? And since sacrifices were done outside there was nothing to keep anyone away – and ancient Israel didn’t practice gender segregation at sacrifices. I think she was there, along with her daughters. Did she at some point offer hospitality to Samuel, a meal and a place to stay and water for his feet? I think so.

David comes from a large family and the names of all of David’s brothers and sisters are given in 1 Chronicles chapter 2. David’s brothers: Eliab firstborn, Abinadab the second, Shimea the third, Nethanel the fourth, Raddai the fifth, Ozem the sixth, David the seventh (1 Chron 2:13-15) and David’s sisters: Zeruiah and Abigail (1 Chron 2:16) They will become the royal family, the village that makes it possible for David to be who he will be and perhaps could be.

Why does it matter who counts and who gets erased? It matters as we try to understand what lessons this story has for us. Many folk read the scriptures through the lenses of the major characters. But we can’t all be David. Who are you in this story? Are you even in this story? Are you David’s parents or sisters? Think about the fact that we know their names unlike the sisters of Jesus from last week. Are you one of David’s brothers, one of his nephews – I’ll tell you about them in a bit – or even one of the many, many, women in his life? (Solomon got that thing honestly, from his father.)

The lessons for us today in this passage of scripture are not literal – we will not be anointed king of Israel or America. Yet this is a scriptural story passed down to us. It may be that God has seen something in us like David, that we are full of promise and possibility. And there is the promise and potential of all the other folk in our village, some of which gets overshadowed by the radiant gifts of a select few. But none of us will be who we are and who we will be, who we can be, on our own. We come from families that shape us for good and for ill, and from communities, neighborhoods, schools and our larger culture. And many if not most of us participate in more than one culture. And we are also responsible for our own choices, including the choice to nurture the dreams and aspirations of other folk in our villages. How will we live up to and into our own possibilities and promise and at the same time, how will we help those around us live up to and into theirs?

David’s family supports him; his successes are largely family affairs. David is supported by three men who have his back at every turn, his nephews, the sons of his sister Zeruiah: Abishai, Joab, and Asahel. Contrary to much of biblical tradition, their father is erased from the text; his name is not preserved and they are known by their mother’s name. David’s nephews are the commanders of his military forces and his personal guard. They hunted down and killed everyone who rebelled against David personally – including David’s son Absalom. David didn’t put himself on that throne and he didn’t keep himself on that throne. And when one of Saul’s men killed one of David’s nephews in battle they hunted him down and killed him after the battle was over.

David’s other sister, Abigail, gave birth to his nephew Amasa, unfortunately he sided with Absalom and was killed by Joab, one of those first three nephews. (1 Chron 2:16-17) Amasa’s father, David’s brother-in-law was Jether the Ishmaelite, so David is related to the children of Ishmael and Israel in addition to being the great-grandson of a Moabite woman. David’s village transcended socially acceptable boundaries. The Gospel of Matthew will take it farther and say that Boaz, David’s great-grandfather is descended from Rahab, the Canaanite prostitute. 

David’s complicated family history is a reminder that royal families are not different from our families in most ways. We’ve all got stories and skeletons. The feminist practice of naming those rendered invisible and silent paints the Israelite royal family in a whole new light. David’s family would be right at home in a reality show, but they are nearly lost to the long shadow cast by David in the glare of the light shone on David by the writers of the scriptures, nearly eclipsing everyone else. 

And of course, there are all of David’s women: Merab whose engagement to David was broken by her father Saul, Michal whose marriage to David was ended by her father Saul who gave to another man; she was taken back and imprisoned by David, Abigail with whom he apparently never had children. And then there are all of the women with whom he did have children: Ahinoam whom he married on the way home with Abigail after their wedding – ick!, Maacah, Haggith, Abital, Eglah, and Bathsheba. 

When I teach the biblical account of David’s rape of Bathsheba I start with the fact that David has at least six wives with whom he is living, sleeping and making babies. They are in addition to his banished wife, Michal. David has also two collections of women described as “other primary and secondary wives taken in Jerusalem” and he inherited “Saul’s former wives.” David has sexual access to as many as a dozen women if not more when he walks out onto that roof sees Bathsheba and gives the order to have her abducted and brought to him so that he can do as he pleases.

There were consequences to all of David’s womanizing which he admits in his lesser-known psalm of repentance, Ps 38:

1 Holy One of Old, do not rebuke me in your anger, or discipline me in your wrath. 

2 For your arrows have sunk into me, and your hand has come down on me.

3 There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation;

there is no health in my bones because of my sin. 

4 For my iniquities have gone over my head; they weigh like a burden too heavy for me.

5 My wounds grow foul and fester because of my foolishness; 

6 I am utterly bowed down and prostrate; all day long I go around mourning. 

7 For my loins are filled with burning, and there is no soundness in my flesh.

David has apparently contracted a sexually communicated disease. And, lastly, there was Abishag with whom he was impotent before he died – yes that is in the bible. Did God really know that David would do all of these things and choose him anyway?

Saint Augustine famously described God as omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. However in the bible, God seems to never be more than two o’s at a time. When God looks on David’s heart, what does God see? Perhaps God did see all of David’s brokenness and knew that it was still possible for David to be the man that God called him to be. And I think that’s good news for the rest of us. Amen.

If We Can’t See God Then Give Us a King: Incarnational Monarchy

A Bejeweled Crown

It’s not you it’s me. That’s the stereotypical and clichéd way to break up with someone. But what happens in the book of Samuel (and it’s a single book in Hebrew) is even tackier: The one partner (Israel) won’t talk to the other partner (God) and tells a third party (Samuel) that it’s time to redefine their relationship. Awkward!

But they’re also dissing Samuel – we wouldn’t need a king if you had done a better job raising your boys… Verse 5: You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways… Ouch! Samuel’s sons were greedy and corrupt. Listen to the beginning of chapter 18 excluded from our lectionary:

1Samuel 8:1 When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel. 2 The name of his firstborn son was Yo’el, and the name of his second, Aviyah; they were judges in Be’er-sheba. 3 Yet his sons did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice. 

The people had already been through this with Eli, Samuel’s mentor and predecessor. He was a good judge, but his sons were thieves – they stole the peoples’ offerings, God’s offerings, right out of the collection plates and they forced the women who ministered at the sanctuary to sleep with them, clergy misconduct in every way. Hannah gave her firstborn son Samuel to God and God gave him to Eli to be his replacement, but there were no fine young men or women waiting in the wings this time around. Just the thought of going through that again must have been traumatic.

But what I can’t figure for the life of me is why the Israelites thought a monarch would be any better. What guarantee would they have that the king’s sons wouldn’t be despots or tyrants? None! That's exactly what happened and the monarchy of Israel was broken into two shrinking pieces from which it never recovered, just as the gospel says, a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. The request was illogical and irrational. It wasn’t about Samuel; he was just the excuse. It was peer pressure on an epic, national and international scale. We want a king like everybody else. We want to be like the modern Iron Age nations, on the cutting edge.

Now this is a tricky text for Americans because we’re rather smug in our rejection of monarchy, particularly here in Philadelphia, the cradle of American liberty. But the aftermath of this text, which we often forget, is that God sanctifies monarchy –the Israelite monarchy and perhaps those that extend from it – making our own patriotic rebellion scripturally questionable. This text is also difficult to translate into our contemporary reality. If we agree that neither God nor Samuel thought that the monarchy was a good idea but held their collective noses and let their spoiled brats have what they thought they wanted to teach them a lesson, then what was the preferred alternative? Theocracy? Theocracy doesn’t have a positive track record in our world outside of the scriptures. It doesn’t work terribly well in the scriptures. We know that theocracies are dangerous.

Moses was arguably the first theocratic ruler in Israel’s history. And yet, in spite of the very real, visible presence of God in the pillars of cloud, smoke and fire, miraculous provision of manna and quail, earthshaking miracles, sand, serpents, plagues and other punishments, there were constant complaints, rebellions and more than one attempted coup. At more than one point God had enough, decided to kill everybody and start all over again with new people – as though they would be more faithful the next time around than the old people – and Moses had to talk God out of killing rages repeatedly, interceding with incense, placing his own body between the wrath of God and the dying.

Then came the judges. They were a mixed bunch at best. The judges were warlords and whoremongers, prophets and priests; one sacrificed his own daughter, slaughtering her like an animal in the name of God, a human sacrifice. And they had a bad habit of appointing their own questionable offspring after them. They may not have called themselves kings, queens or monarchs, but they sure acted like them – right down to the thrones of Moses, Deborah, Eli and Samuel.

So God tells Samuel, “it’s not you; it’s me,” that the people are really rejecting God in v 7:  “Obey the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from reigning over them.

But on the other hand, it is about you too in v 8: Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, abandoning me and serving other gods, so too they are doing to you.

As a priest, I appreciate that God got that Samuel was taking this personally and ministered to him: they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me… It’s not you; it’s me. God gives Samuel what he needs, divine comfort. And God gives the people what they say they need, a king. But that wouldn’t be enough. Because kings are not gods. They do terrible things, as bad as any of the transgressions of the sons of Eli and Samuel. 

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 woman while besieging her town and killed himself so no one would say a woman killed him in Judges 9. 

So the Israelites knew that monarchy was an imperfect solution. They also had the example of all the queens, kings, pharaohs, princes, and other sovereigns around them. The Middle Bronze and Iron Ages weren’t exactly known for their advances in human and civil rights. So why were they so desperate for a monarch in spite of all of the evidence around them? Because of what a monarch represented in their world, what I’ll call representational incarnation, the woman or man on the throne was the beloved of God, sometimes child, sometimes spouse, and God was with her or him in a particular, intimate way and that person was the visible presence of God in their midst. 

They just wanted to be able to see and touch God. At any cost. 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. They certainly apply to the monarchy of which Israel dreamed. So Samuel warned them, “this is what a king will do, he will take….” in vv 11-17:

he will take your sons… he will take your daughters… he will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards… he will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards…  he will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys… he will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall all be his slaves.

And the people said, “We don’t care!” Verse 19: 

No! We are determined to have a monarch over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our monarch may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.

Perhaps they thought God would still be on their side and fight their battles through this king they demanded – which is how it eventually worked out, for a while. Perhaps they felt entitled to divine protection. Perhaps they weren’t faithless. But perhaps – and this is what I really think – perhaps they were just being human, craving institutional structures and hierarchy as bulwarks against the chaos of their world and a monarch, a king, as a tangible symbol of God’s presence with them. That’s why I call it representational incarnation.

As is so often the case, the symbol is more important than the reality. We want to see someone fighting on our side. We don’t want to have to imagine an invisible God or trust that God is really here with us or have faith in that which we cannot see with our own eyes or hear with our own ears or touch with our own hands – one could touch a king in certain circumstances, circumspectly. We want a king, even if he is a puppet. 

I don’t blame them. I understand them. They were not the generation who had seen the power of God in the deliverance of the Exodus, plagues of Egypt and miracles in the wilderness. Those were their ancestral stories. They are sort of like us, hearing the stories of scripture, whether the stories of Miriam and Moses or Mary and Jesus. Those are our ancestral stories, and they require faith because we were not there. And sometimes faith is hard. Samuel wasn’t enough. He was the heir of Moses and Deborah – only the three of them were both prophet and judge – but he wasn’t a miracle-worker or lawgiver like Moses and he wasn’t a warrior-poet like Deborah. He and his ministry weren’t enough.

We are not so different from them. We also need tangible symbols. Israelite worship like Episcopal worship was sensual. There were sights, sounds, smells, touches and tastes. A monarch was a religious symbol of divine power throughout the ancient world, not terribly different from a Christ Pantocrator icon come to life. And some still venerate the prophet, priest and pastor as God’s representative.

The need to have the power and presence of God in the midst of the community in a tangible, visible way endured and endures. And so God became incarnate in the womb of Miriam of Nazareth. An answer to that ancient prayer. But without the traditional trappings of monarchy. In fact so ordinary that his own family thought he was crazy from time to time, or least needed protection from himself, so that he wouldn’t wear himself out.

Jesus’ family, his mother, his sisters – we don’t know how many there were, just that there were more than one, his four brothers – Joseph Jr., James, Jude and Simon, his absent father Joseph Sr. and all whom he welcomes into his family, we who will do the will of God, find a monarch who refused to behave like a king and an incarnational presence who embraced and transcended death. A continuing, abiding, accompanying, guiding presence, reigning in our hearts with our consent. 

When we cry out, “Give us a king” because we cannot see where God is in our lives and in our world, may God disregard our demand and respond to the cry of our hearts with what we need, the living God and Risen Christ in our midst, reigning over the commonwealth of God in this world and in the next. Amen. 

She Built A City: Sheerah the Biblical City-Builder

Woman Construction Worker

The book of Chronicles tells many of the stories of the scriptures all over again beginning at the beginning. The first word of Chronicles is “Adam.” And for 9 chapters, in 407 verses, Chronicles chronicles the peoples of the scriptures in a genealogy that runs from Adam to Saul’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandsons, Azrikam, Bocheru, Ishmael, Sheariah, Obadiah, and Hanan. Now I know we are in uncharted territory for some of you; I have found that most folk don’t choose genealogies to study in the church or in the academy. But I have to confess that I love the begats. You know, “this one begat that one,” and “that one begat this other one.” The begats.

However, the massive genealogy in Chronicles is more than a list of begettings and birthings. Chronicles also tells the story of many women who were left out of the stories from Adam to David – from Eve to Bathsheba – in other parts of the scriptures. There are stories woven into the fabric of Chronicles like the one in chapter 7 that forms our primary lesson.

1 Chronicles 7:20 The descendants of Ephraim were Shuthelah, and Bered his son, Tahath his son, Eleadah his son, Tahath his son, 21 Zabad his son, Shuthelah his son, and Ezer and Elead. Now the people of Gath, who were born in the land, killed them, because they came down to raid their cattle. 22 And their father Ephraim mourned many days, and his relatives came to comfort him. 23 Ephraim went in to his wife, and she conceived and gave birth to a son; and he named him Beriah (weeping), because disaster had befallen his house. 24 His daughter was Sheerah, who built both Lower and Upper Beth-horon, and Uzzen-sheerah.

Sheerah was a daughter-descendant of Ephraim, who was the son of Joseph. Now Joseph was living in Egypt when he married. He married an African sister, an Egyptian woman named Asenath. Their children Manasseh and Ephraim who were counted among the tribes of Israel were half-Egyptian, half-African, or as one of my bi-racial friends would say, “hafrican.” And Sheerah, the sister-builder was their daughter-descendant.

Eprhaim’s offspring are listed in a confusing jumble in 1 Chronicles 7, some are his children, some are his grandchildren, some may even be his great-grandchildren, v 20: The descendants of Ephraim were Shutelach, and Bered his son, Tahath his son, Eleadah his son, Tahath his son, Zabad his son, Shutelach his son, and Ezer and Elead. 

But something happened to those young and perhaps even older men. A whole generation, maybe more, was lost, wiped out, because of the choices they made, v 21: Now the people of Gath, who were born in the land, killed them, because they came down to raid their cattle. Now I’m half-Texan which you may know was once a nationality and is now a culture, a language and some might argue a religion. And in Texas we have ways of dealing with cattle rustlers, you might say biblical ways, such as the ways employed by the people of Gath. And while it’s easy to read this text in light of Western classics like The High Plains Drifter and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Ephraim’s children and grand-children weren’t extras in a movie; they were his hope for the future and they were dead. The thug life killed everyone of them because they tried to be gangstas – but that’s another sermon…

The death of all of his descendants, children or children’s children, devastates Ephraim, v 22: And their father Ephraim mourned many days, and his relatives came to comfort him. Some folk in the house today have had to bury children, and some may have had to bury more than one. You know this is devastating. You don’t get over it, even as you figure out how to go on, the pain remains. And in inexplicable and unjustifiable mercy God chose to do something for Ephraim and his wife that doesn’t happen for everyone, God gave them another family. 

Apparently, Ephraim has a little juice left in him, 23: Ephraim went into his wife, and she conceived and gave birth to a son; and he named him Beriah (weeping), because disaster had befallen his house. This is the only text in which Ephraim’s wife appears. When the Ephraimites are counted in Numbers, the other place where some of this genealogy is found, there is not even a passing reference to an ancestral mother. It was as if all of those birthings and begettings happened by magic, like menfolk could do that all on their own. Like it was the men who were throwing up and swelling up, walking around with their hands on their backs looking for their puffy ankles. It’s all right to tell the truth and say there’s a little sexism in the text, after all we’re talking about the Bronze Age after which the Iron Age will be cutting edge – no pun intended.

This is one of the things I like about the book of Chronicles, while the author is chronicling the begettings and birthings in Israel she – and the Chronicler could have been a woman – she stops to tell us about dozens of women in short stories and half-verses, many of whom we would know nothing about if it were not for the work of the Chronicler: There is Abraham’s other, other woman, Keturah, David’s sisters, Abigail and Zeruiah, some of David’s baby mamas, (a different) Abigail, Ahinoam, Haggith, Maacah, Abital and Eglah along with Sheerah the city-builder. 

The scriptures tell us that she built three cities, but nothing else about her, v 24: His daughter was Sheerah, who built both Lower and Upper Beth-horon, and Uzzen-sheerah. Two of the three cities, Lower Beth-Horon and Upper Beth-Horon were on a hillside, one high above the other. The third city, Uzzen-Sheerah, is my favorite because she named it after herself – like all the men who built cities in the ancient and modern worlds. Uzzen-Sheerah means “listen to Sheerah.” 

Using my sanctified imagination, I’m listening to Sheerah this morning. I hear her saying: I’ve got work to do. You don’t just build a city, whether you are a woman or a man, with no planning or preparation, not even in the Bronze or Iron Age. So then, how did Sheerah become a city-builder? Maybe it was it her childhood dream. We’ve got to stop telling children that can’t do something because we wouldn’t, couldn’t or didn’t. Maybe her family nurtured her dreams. But maybe her family and friends, neighbors and strangers told her she was crazy: You can’t build a city. What makes you think you can build a city? What city was ever built by a woman? Go get yourself a man and make some babies – or go cry about why you can’t get a man. Your people aren’t city-builders. Your people are thieves. Everybody knows what kind of people you came from. You can’t do it. If there were any naysayers, Sheerah didn’t listen them.

Sheerah started building. She had a dream, she had a plan, she had a vision, she had a calling; she had a commission. She was born to do this work; it was in her bones and in her blood, in her heart and in her hands. And it didn’t matter if nobody else understood. It didn’t matter what the other women and men were doing or saying. 

She planned her work and she worked her plan. Somehow she learned to design and build cities. She chose the sites for her cities, taking into account water and other natural resources with an eye to defense. Maybe she had to go back to the drawing board, over and over again. Visions and dreams don’t always come to fruition the first time out. She didn’t quit when it got hard – and it got hard – she had to hire and supervise contactors and subcontractors. She had to manage her workforce: paid labor, forced labor and slave labor were the only options. She couldn’t be everywhere on the construction sites so she had to mentor some other women and maybe men to share in the responsibility. Maybe she had to make or commission architectural drawings. Could she even read? I don’t know, but I know she planned her work and she worked her plan. 

Since it was the Iron Age or perhaps the Middle Bronze Age it may have mattered to some folk that the chief architect, and project manager was a woman, they could be kind of sexist in those days… And we’re no longer living in those days, right? I mean we’ve figured out that God has been using women to build, lead and change the world for more than four thousand years. Right? Sheerah didn’t let nobody turn her around. She got it done. She built her cities. She planned her work and she worked her plan. But she didn’t do it alone. She needed a whole city to get the work done: Her dream wasn’t hers alone. Someone else had to buy into it. It took a whole village to raise that city, clearing the land, quarrying the stone, transporting the stones – there had to be some men who didn’t mind taking orders from a woman, men who could see the vision, or men who if they couldn’t see the vision themselves trusted the woman with the vision, the plan, the call and the commission.

Before Sheerah built, she had to dig. She had to dig canals and trenches, sewers and ditches. I don’t imagine that she stood around giving orders all the time – although I’m sure she had to do that some of the time. I see her tying up her hair, rolling up her sleeves and doing the work with her own hands. When you’re giving birth to a vision, when you’re making your own dreams come true, when you’re doing what God called you to do, you don’t mind getting a little dirty, you don’t mind putting in the hard work and long hours. 

She had to build her city in the right order. She couldn’t start with the wallpaper and the flower arrangements. She had to start in the dirt. She had to lay her foundation. She had to build her walls and those walls had to hold – they were still at war with some of the Canaanite nations. She had to choose which buildings would be built first. Sheerah built her own house; maybe she built a house for her mama and daddy if they were still alive. She built houses for her people and perhaps for folk she didn’t even know. And when she finished building her city, Sheerah didn’t retire. She built another city. And then she built one more. Sheerah never married or gave birth. That wasn’t her calling. Sheerah became the mother of cities. And her name lives on in the scriptures through her cities, the works of her hands.

The bible tells us about two of Sheerah’s cities, Upper Beth Horon and Lower Beth Horon. Many people know the story in Joshua about the day the sun stood still. But did you every why did the sun stand still at that exact moment in that exact place? 

Joshua’s memoirs as preserved in the book that bears his name are full of war stories and he is their hero. Joshua claims a spectacular victory at Jericho and Ai, the archaeological record disagrees and Judges says that the Canaanites remained in the land, but something happened. Something big. And everyone knew it and told somebody who didn’t. Anyone who has spent time with veterans knows that each soldier’s story is different from another's, and all are different from the official story and they’re all true. More or less.

Word came to Gibeon that Israel was on the march, and they decided not to take any chances. They disguised themselves as travelers from far away and struck a deal with Joshua to spare them. Their neighbors, the five Amorite monarchs became furious and attacked them. And Joshua and Israel were duty-bound to protect them. So Joshua and his army marched all night – and there was no road from the camp in Gilgal to Gibeon. They must have been exhausted. They were in no condition to fight. But they had to fight; they had given their word. God held them to their word.

God could have told them to stand back and see the victory of the Lord, but that was another story. This time God said, “Don’t be afraid. I have handed them over to you.” Yet the Israelites had to do their part. They had to stand and fight even though they were exhausted. God confused the enemy and sent them into a panic; it was an easy victory for Israel.

And then something happened. They were all on the slope of a hill between two towns, Upper Beth-Horon and Lower Beth-Horon. The Israelites were already winning, the enemy was already panicked. They had already been beat back over 15 miles to Azekah and Makkedah. All of a sudden God began to hurl down stones from the heavens. Then came Joshua’s prayer for the sun to stand still which God granted. 

Joshua 10:10 And the Holy One threw them into a panic before Israel, who inflicted a great slaughter on them at Gibeon, then chased them by the way of the ascent of Beth-horon, and struck them down as far as Azekah and Makkedah. 11 As they fled before Israel, while they were going down the slope of Beth-horon, the Ruler of Heavens and Earth threw down huge stones from the heavens on them as far as Azekah, and they died; there were more who died because of the hailstones than the Israelites killed with the sword. 12 On the day when the Holy One gave the Amorites over to the Israelites, Joshua spoke to the Holy One; and he said in the sight of Israel,

“Sun, stand still at Gibeon,

and Moon, in the valley of Aijalon.” 

13 And the sun stood still, and the moon stopped,

until the nation took vengeance on their enemies.

But why did God add the hailstones? I think it has everything to do with Sheerah’s cities, Upper Beth-Horon and Lower Beth-Horon. For it was when the battle came to Sheerah’s front door that God stood up, stepped in and personally fought the battle. I’m going to suggest to you that God listened to Sheerah, who named her third city after herself, Uzzen-Sheerah, “listen to Sheerah.” God listened to her hopes and prayers for her cities and the people in them and when Sheerah’s cities were in trouble, God came to the rescue. God saved Sheerah’s cities. God’s saved Sheerah’s work. The work that she did speaks for her. The very stones bear witness to her faithfulness. 

I said the stones bear witness, not bore witness, because Sheerah built on a firm foundation. Sheerah’s cities lasted for centuries after her death: Two hundred fifty years after Sheerah built her cities and God protected them, Solomon fortified her cities in 1 Kings 9:17. 2 Chronicles 8:5 explains that Solomon only added walls and towers and bars – you see the city was built on a firm foundation. Solomon didn’t have to relay Sheerah’s foundation.

Sheerah’s cities endured through the end of the Old Testament into the period of the Maccabees, more than a thousand years after she built them, the Maccabean warriors who took back the Temple of God in Jerusalem from the Greeks who desecrated it used Sheerah’s cities as their base of operations. And today, more than 3000 after Sheerah built her cities, the remains of Upper Beth Horon and Lower Beth Horon are visible in the Palestinian villages Beit Ur al Fuqua and Beit Ur al Tahat. Their foundations are still visible.

Sistren and brethren, let me ask you this morning? What are you building? What are you building for God? What are you building for your community? What are you building for those who will come after you? What legacy will you leave behind for the people of God to build on? And how are you building? Do you have a plan? Maybe you started out with a good blueprint but something went wrong along the way. 

Are you building on a firm foundation? Are you building on level ground? Are you building on solid rock? Did you remember to lay a sewer system to remove all that pollutes or infects? Or has your building become infested and infected with dirt and disease? Is it time for you to clean house? Did you choose a good cornerstone to bear the weight of your building for generations to come? Are your walls straight? Are your windows cracked and crooked? Is your roof leaking? Or do you need to go back to the drawing board and start over? Brothers, if called has called you to work on a building project would you turn up your nose if God chooses a woman to be the foreman? 

Build your own cities if that’s what God called you to do. Or help the woman or man called to lead the building project. Survey the promise that the Holy One of Sinai, your God, Sheerah’s God has given you. Draft a sketch of the contours of your city, from corner to corner. Remember you have to see your land in order to know how to build on it, how to account for the hills and valleys, and the even ground. Building a city is hard work. And when you lay your foundation, make sure you use solid rock. Build on the rock that is higher than you. 

Build on your foundation. Build your city. Raise the walls; let the towers touch the skies. Fill it with your folk: family and friends, neighbors and strangers. And when your city comes under siege, and it will, when your enemies surround you like a flood, and they will, God will fight for you from the heavens to protect God’s work and if God lets it fall God will stay with you after the fall and strengthen your hands to build again. Now I can’t say that the s-u-n will stand still for you as it did for Sheerah, but I know the S-o-n will stand with and stand for you until he welcomes you to a city not made with hands. And who knows there just might be a little renovation going on in heaven since Sheerah the City-Builder crossed over from labor to reward.

In this season of celebration, stand on the promises of God. Claim your own inheritance. And particularly if you are God’s daughter, don’t let anyone get in your way. Stand in halls of power. Speak truth to power. Build your own city. And may your works praise you in the gates of the city you have built, for the builder of a house or city has more honor than the house or city. 

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.  


Union Baptist Church

Baltimore MD

20 May 2012

Black, Jewish and Queer: The Ethiopian Eunuch

The Ethiopian Eunuch

The story in Acts 8 takes place on the side of the road in the wilderness, and at a crossroads, an intersection. I am not referring to the wilderness of the roads from Jerusalem to Gaza – there was no single road in the Roman era that transversed the fifty miles from Jerusalem to Gaza. One would have to travel a series of spider-web zig-zagging roads from Jerusalem south to Hebron, west to the Ephrathah Valley crossroads, south to Beersheba and northwest to Gaza on the coast, if one wanted a chariot-capable road. (Hebrew Bible students should be checking their atlases and reminding themselves for whom the Ephrathah Valley is named in preparation for next week’s examination.) 

The other wilderness in which this story from Acts takes place is the wilderness of biblical interpretation. This wilderness is also marked by a crossroad. At the intersection of race and ethnicity, the Greek gentile Philip crosses paths with the black Jewish bureaucrat whom I’ll name shortly. 

In this same wilderness, Jewish Scripture intersects Christian Scripture and Jesus is right in the middle, literally at the crossroads. For Philip, the Gentile, the whole bible is apparently all about Jesus. But to be fair, he was probably taught this system of exegesis by Jews, who although and perhaps because, they recognized Yeshua ben Miryam L’Natzeret, Jesus of Nazareth, Mary’s Baby, as the Messiah of whom their prophets prophesied, still identified themselves as Jews, as Israel.

What can we learn from this wilderness encounter at this particular crossroad? Should you who have been laboring for the better part of a year to supplement your Christian interpretive lenses with ancient Near Eastern and Israelite contextual lenses grind those new spectacles under foot and return to wearing your former prescription? Does the story in Acts mean that the Hebrew Scriptures are really the Old Testament and are in fact all about Jesus who is in fact lurking under every bush in the bible? Is this going to be on the final?

What if I were forced to answer the question I keep asking my students: What is a faithful Christian reading of Isaiah 53 that preserves its ancestral contextual integrity? What if I were in that chariot? What would I say? And perhaps most importantly, would the Kandake’s servant still be baptized? 

Let me begin (again) by retelling the story and filling in a few details. There is a biblical tradition that extends to modern Ethiopia of naming royal servants after their monarchs. Some of the names of biblical servants and eunuchs that are attested in Amharic, the contemporary Semitic language of Ethiopia include: Avimelek – my father is king, (this name is also found in the bible for men who are not royal – or other – eunuchs or servants.) Abdimelek – servant of the king and Melech – literally “king” but used as an indication of servitude. These two names belonged to Ethiopian eunuchs who served in the Roman Era in Rome.

Borrowing from this tradition, I will call the official Abdimalkah, “servant of the Queen.” Because he has a name and, the fact that it has been lost to us does not mean that he should be stripped of his dignity along with whatever else he may have had to surrender for his career. We’ll come back to his sacrifice.

I have named him Abdimalkah, because he was in fact, a servant of a queen. The Kandakes were the Queens and Queen Mothers of Meroe on the Nile – the Anchor Bible Dictionary persists in calling it a “kingdom” in spite of the fact that women and ruled there individually and only occasionally had male co-regents. The Kandakes were well-regarded warriors; some taking on the mighty Roman Empire and, the Kandakes were also priestesses of Isis. A second century BCE historian said that the Kandakes were the only real rulers in what I translate as “a queendom.”

While the Kandake in Acts is not named, she is very likely Kandake Amanitore, the co-regent of Meroe, called Kush in the Hebrew Scriptures who reigned from about 1 to 20 or perhaps as long as 50 CE. Kush was later called Nubia and finally, Ethiopia. It corresponds with parts of contemporary Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt.

Kandake Amanitore is the most likely referent because her monuments that exist to this day would have been well known during the first century. Her successor, Amantitere, is also a possibility. 

The writer of Acts may well have expected readers to know all of these things. There is another relevant tradition, that of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, that when Solomon and I quote 2 Kings – “gave the Queen of Sheba her every desire” she returned home pregnant and the two monarchies maintained friendly diplomatic relations across time, exchanging gifts including the scriptures of Israel after their production.

This tradition maintains that Abdimalkah as I call him, was reading Kandake Amanitore’s copy of Isaiah on that wilderness road when he arrived at that crucial intersection. There is some support for this in the text; Abdimalkah has been to worship in Jerusalem. He is a Jew. Israelite religion would have been introduced to the people in the broader Ethiopian cultural context by the Sheba-Solomon connection.

So let us use what my ancestors called sanctified imagination and see what would happen if I were Phillipa and I joined Abdimalkah in his chariot. I would say, “Abdimalkah these words:

And he, because he has been ill–treated,

does not open his mouth;

like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,

and as a lamb is silent before the one shearing it,

so he does not open his mouth.

In his humiliation his judgment was taken away.

Who will describe his generation?

Because his life is being taken from the earth…

These words are from the Greek Scroll of the prophet Isaiah and were written more than four hundred years ago. I know that they are a bit different from the Hebrew Scroll of this same prophet; that line about this man’s life being taken from the earth isn’t in the Hebrew one. 

You ask of whom does the holy prophet speak? I tell you, it is Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified, and more than that, who rose from the dead in our very days. I knew him; I sat at his feet and learned the scriptures of Israel from with and through him. I heard him teach that we should touch the untouchable, love the unlovable and forgive the unforgivable because that is how God loves us. And more, this virgin-born Jesus, who was and is God-in-Human-Flesh, Immanuel in the Hebrew tongue which I know is related to your own language, has power that no one has seen since the days of the prophets of old. When I hear these texts, I hear Jesus because of my experience with Jesus.

But they have other meanings as well. The ancestors of the followers of Jesus from Judea believed that these words spoke of people in Judah in days gone by. The holy words spoke to them of those who suffer as they did when the Babylonians destroyed their nation. It spoke of the suffering of the innocent with the guilty and perhaps of the suffering of the innocent on behalf of the guilty. For many believe that the sins of their ancestors brought the destruction of the nation and even the Temple in which God dwelled on earth. But they were not all guilty. Yet they all suffered. In ancient days, people believed that to be cut off from the land of the living in this text was a description of Israel in exile and, the lengthening of days refers to the restoration of the monarchy. This caused no end of confusion when Jesus was teaching among us; some believed that he would launch an armed revolt against the Romans. 

I have learned from studying the scriptures of Israel with the Judeans that even when sacred scripture was understood in a completely different way in another time, it speaks to those of us who hear and read it today in our time. And some say, that it will continue to speak to generations, yet unborn across the ages.

Abdimalkah, I believe that these verses speak of Jesus of Nazareth who waded in the waters of the Virgin’s womb, walked the way of suffering, and woke from the grasp of death in the deep darkness of the morning.

And, seminary community, I believe that interpreting the scriptures of Israel in their own context does not diminish the proclamation of the Gospel. It is in fact a greatly impoverished gospel that can only stand on texts whose sure foundation has been eradicated. 

And I believe, that when God decided to give birth to the African Church, a Church that survives into modernity without schism or reformation, and God appointed Philip as its midwife, and that Abdimalkah the eunuch becomes God’s firstborn in this new and continuing community.

In order to work for most monarchs in the ancient Near East and North Africa, men had to be surgically neutered. The monarchs did not want top-level employees trying to pass on power to their children and establishing dynasties of their own, or forming adulterous liaisons and undermining the government. Ironically, most eunuch formed intimate partnerships with other eunuchs or intact males, not royal women.

What then are we to make of these things as we prepare to leave this place for all time or for some time? There are several ways in which we can consider eunuchs. 

First, we can consider them to be anachronisms; that is, they are relics of an ancient time and antiquated social system and do not have parallels in our modern-techno-web-based society. For who among us would voluntarily sacrifice his plumbing for a job? There is at least one contemporary parallel, in a nuclear reactor in a small town, nearly destroyed by unemployment some years ago, some women were hired at an unimaginable cost. Those who were of child-bearing age had to agree to be sterilized, so that there would be no possibility of lawsuits over babies with birth defects. That employment contract was eventually overturned.

The last way we can understand eunuchs is as social and sexual outsiders. There are many who view lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and those in the process of having their gender surgically altered as outsiders from the fold of God and society at large. Those who are born with an indeterminate gender or who have been injured – burn patients often loose all of their extremities including their genitalia – quadriplegics, paraplegics and infertile women and couples can also feel like sexual and social outsiders. 

All of these folk for one reason or another do not fit in the dominant image of the American dream in which every woman was born to be a mother and every man was born to be a father in a hetero-patriarchal marriage that produces 2.4 children. There are many who consider anyone who doesn’t want to, or is not able to have a ‘traditional’ family as outsiders to the American dream and ‘traditional family values’ advocated by churches in the name of God.

Eunuchs can then be seen as those who do not fit into our neatly constructed gender paradigms as neatly as we might wish. If we understand eunuchs to be social and sexual outsiders whether born or made, then God chose to birth the faithful African Church though a queer person’s body.

This Gospel is that God’s concern for the woman-born was manifested in God, Godself, becoming woman-born, for the redemption and liberation of all the woman-born: gay, straight, crooked and confused, from fear and from death itself. Yeshua the Messiah, the Son of Woman, came to seek out and save the lost and to give his life as a ransom for many.

13 May 2009

The Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Hebrew and Hebrew Bible

The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia


(Where) Is Jesus in the Old Testament?

Luke 24:44 Then Jesus said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the Torah of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.

            Let us pray: Holy One of Old, open our eyes that we may see wondrous things out of your word. Amen.

The belief that the Scriptures of the ancient Israelite people bear witness to, testify to, Jesus of Nazareth is one of the most cherished beliefs of our faith. It is so important to some people that they twist the Scriptures in to being only and all about Jesus forgetting that there were real people wrestling with real issues to whom God spoke in their own days, in their time of need, faithfully. I’m so glad that God spoke to God’s people about their need, their hurt, their hope, in their time, using words that are so powerful that they continued and continue to speak to each generation about their own concerns – and ours – while teaching the faithfulness of God through God’s relationship with the Israelites to whom God first spoke these words of scripture, so that we can trust in God’s love for and faithfulness to us. And that’s good news. My students have heard me say, it’s ok if you see Jesus when you look in the scriptures, just make sure you know that’s not how people first heard them, and learn something about how the scriptures spoke to their first hearers.

In today's Gospel Jesus comes to his brokenhearted disciples and offers the most unimaginable comfort. He offers them the comfort of his presence. His presence is unimaginable because they had watched him die, buried him and mourned him. Yet here he is alive, risen, walking and talking to them, soon to break bread with them. When Jesus reveals himself to his disciples, he reveals himself to them bodily, relationally and in the Scriptures:

“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the Torah of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.

In his way, Jesus says that the whole bible that existed in his time speaks of him. Now, the bible in Jesus’ time was not the bible in our time – there was no New Testament. You might say that Jesus was the New Testament as the embodiment of the Gospel of God’s love and faithfulness. And there was no single bible, books had not yet been invented and each biblical book was written on a scroll, some had more than one book, like Torah scrolls. And communities had different collections of scrolls, perhaps only the Temple holding a copy of all of them.

The Jewish Bible existed in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek and the books were in a different order than they are in our bibles, in our Old Testaments. Jewish Bibles were – and still are – divided into three parts: The Torah of Moses, (sometimes called the Law), The Prophets which include Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, and a third section, now called the Writings in which every other kind of book was placed. But that third section wasn’t complete in the day of Jesus, the only thing in it was the book of Psalms. The other books weren’t official yet. However people still read and discussed them because a true student of scripture must read more than scripture and be prepared to encounter scripture in unexpected – even unauthorized – places. And so Jesus says: “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the Torah of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”

Yet he does not tell us what those verses are, he allows us to wrestle throughout the history of the church, to search him out in the Scriptures: Where is Jesus in the Old Testament? Where do the scriptures testify to him? It would be easy to say “every single verse” or “everyplace you see God, you see Jesus.” It’s in my nature to dig a little deeper, bypassing the easy and the obvious, looking for the mystery and adventure. And, I simply do not believe we can know what Jesus said to his companions on the road during that incredible bible study. I believe the Gospel invites us to wonder. And in our wonder to turn to the scriptures, to seek and search the Word for words pointing to the one who was and is the Word made flesh. I searched and sought and found myself drawn to Israel’s prophets.

As a biblical scholar I know that Isaiah 9:6-7 is written in the past tense, and I know that Jesus wasn’t born when they were written. And while I can’t explain how and why this past tense prophecy celebrating the birth of a royal child with a throne name that makes him sound more God than human would have been heard as speaking of David, Hezekiah or Josiah to most folk to their satisfaction, I know it is an extravagant celebration pointing to the God of the child-king for whom these titles really apply. And, at the same time, along the church across time, I confess that I also see Jesus when I read:

Isaiah 9:6 For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Holy One of heaven’s armies will do this.

Now, I know that Isaiah 11:4 speaks of the return of the Israelite monarchy after the Babylonian exile hundreds of years before Jesus quickened in his holy mother’s womb, but I also see Jesus and his teaching when I read:

with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.

And when Israel is longing to leave exile and God is promising to deliver them, to bring them home in their days, to keep God’s promise to God’s people, God spoke of a servant who I know can be identified as King Cyrus of Persia who sent the Israelites home with gifts to rebuild the temple. And I know that God’s servant can also be Nehemiah who got permission from King Darius of Persia to bring even more of his people home and continue the work of rebuilding. Yet when I read Isaiah 42:1-9, I see also Jesus:

Isaiah 42:1 Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
2 He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
3 a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
4 He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

And just a few weeks ago, we reenacted Zechariah 9:9-10 which I know is a hopeful prophecy that one day Israel will be governed by a king who is not a warrior, and in that hope I see Jesus – in fact I also see the Blessed Virgin:

Zechariah 9:9 Rejoice greatly, daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, daughter of Jerusalem!
Look! Your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

And I know that I am not alone in seeing Jesus in these verses from Isaiah 52-53:

Isaiah 52:14 Just as there were many who were astonished at him
—so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of mortals— 
2 For he grew up before God like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.
4 Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the Sovereign God has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
8 By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people.
9 They made his grave with the wicked
and his tomb with the rich,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.
10 Yet it was the will of the Holy God to crush him with pain.
When you make his life an offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days;
through him the will of the One God shall prosper.
11 Out of his anguish he shall see light;
he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.
The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he poured out himself to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.

I don’t know what verses Jesus recited when he revealed himself in the scriptures to his disciples on the road to Emmaus. Quite frankly, I don’t need to know. To tell the truth I love the mystery of it all. I don’t know that he even spoke to them to teach them, verse 45 says: Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.

Perhaps Jesus didn’t say a single word. Perhaps he did a Vulcan mind-meld. Perhaps he opened their minds with a thought or a touch. Or perhaps he opened their minds with a single word, yehi, “Let there be!” – the word with which God began to create, or perhaps he spoke the first word of the scriptures, b’reshit, “In beginning…” I don’t know how he did it, I just know that Jesus showed up, traveled with them, accompanying them, transforming their journey, transforming their hearts, transforming their grief, transforming their minds and transcending their expectations.

But I’m so glad that Jesus showed up. I’m so glad that when his friends and followers were hurting and had given up, Jesus came to see about them. I’m so glad that Jesus eavesdrops on us from time to time. I’m so glad that Jesus breaks into our grief with the promise of resurrection. I’m so glad that Jesus draws us into the scriptures. I’m so glad that Jesus meets us at the table, breaks bread with us and is our bread. I’m so glad that Jesus lives and offers that eternal life to all of us. I’m so glad that Jesus leaves us mysteries to ponder. I’m so glad that Jesus still transforms and transcends. And I’m so glad that Jesus is in the pages of scripture, in expected and unexpected places, waiting to meet us.

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.

Was Jesus’ Last Supper a Seder Meal

The answer is: "Maybe." And you can quote me on that… Read the rest of this post here.

Prophetic Resistance: A Conversation with Elaine Pagels

Revelations - Elaine Pagels

I interview Elaine Pagels on her new book, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy and Politics in the book of Revelation for Religious Dispatches. You can find it here.

Lessons from the Prophet Miriam: When You Mess Up, Step Up

Harriet Tubman

In these last and evil days someone needs to be reminded and someone else needs to learn that the word of God about a woman through a woman to women on Women’s Day works for men too, because women are the image of God, not once removed, but in everyway, image-bearers. And it’s a good thing for men who are used to being at the center of the story – even sharing pronouns with God in some preacher’s mouths – to have to think about where they fit into the story and find their place in a woman’s story.

The inability to see some people as fully human, hand-crafted by God, is potentially lethal as we saw once again in the past month. But it is not only white folk (or half-Hispanic folk as it’s mow being said) who willfully ignore the divine image in other people’s bodies. There is enough murder, rape, forced prostitution, and child abuse in the black community to bear witness to our own failings. As we advocate for our Trayvons, let us not forget our Trayvinas, little (and big) black girls who suffer physical, sexual and emotional abuse at the hands of black men and boys, sometimes with the knowledge or willful ignorance or even participation of black women. So let us women and men pray over the theme “If You Mess Up, Then You’d Better Step Up”:

My prayer is Miriam’s prayer, Mother Mary’s prayer – Let it be.

Let it be with your woman-servant according to your word.

With these words

the word of God was formed in the woman of God.

On this day, as on that day,

let your bat-kol, the daughter-voice of God

bring forth your word again. Amen.

There are two hundred and seventy-four shopping days until Christmas. There are forty weeks until Christmas. There are nine months until Christmas. Today, the Good News is that God became incarnate in the Virgin’s womb. This Good News is that God’s concern for the woman-born was manifested in God, Godself, becoming woman-born, for the redemption and liberation of all the woman-born from sin – the sin that we’ve done and the sin that has been done to us – and from death itself. Yeshua HaMeshiach, Jesus the Messiah, the Son of Woman, came to seek out and save the lost and to give his life as a ransom for many. In my church we celebrate the announcement of that holy mystery today, with the Feast of the Annunciation.

The Feast of the Annunciation was once so important in Christendom that the date of the year changed then, in the middle of March, for time could no longer be the same once the Holy Spirit wrapped her glory around the Virgin of Nazareth and quickened life in her womb.

The Ever-Blessed Virgin Mary, as we call her in my church, was bat Zion, a daughter of Zion, of the tribe of Judah. But her name wasn’t Mary; it was Miriam. Names in your New Testaments have been translated from Hebrew to Greek to Latin, and to German in some cases, and then into English, rendering many familiar and beloved names distantly related to their original forms.

Miriam is the most popular woman’s name in the New Testament because it was the most popular woman’s name in Jewish communities for as much as five hundred years before the time of this Miriam and her son Yeshua, Jesus of Nazareth. All of those Marys, all of those Miriams, were named for one woman, the mother of them all although she never married and never gave birth, the prophet Miriam.

One of the things I like best about the prophet Miriam is that when she messed up, she stepped up. Miriam made mistakes, but she was more than her mistakes. She left a good name, a great name and an enduring legacy. Miriam is one of the most important women in the bible. She is mentioned in more books than any other woman. And she is the only woman to have her childhood, adulthood, old age, death and burial recorded in the scriptures.

You may be familiar with the first story about Miriam in the bible. She saved her baby brother Moses so that he could save their people. She saw him safely to the waters of the Nile where he could be rescued and adopted by an Egyptian princess. We don’t know how old she was but she was old enough to negotiate an employment contract for her mother and make sure that Moses was placed in an open adoption so that he would always know who his people were.

And then there is a great space in her story. The bible is full of these spaces, many, disproportionately, in the stories about women. Did Miriam continue her relationship with the Princess? Did she and her mother live in the palace while Moshe was nursing? Why did she never marry? How did she become a prophet? How did she serve God and her people? We do know that at some point in her life she becomes recognized as a woman of God, not Moses’ prophet like Aaron, but a prophet of God in her own right. God spoke to her and through her and she spoke for God in song and verse. The bible’s oldest passages are songs and poems composed by the prophets Miriam and Deborah.

Moses and the Israelites sing Miriam’s song, the Song of the Sea, at the water’s edge. But the people wouldn’t move, they wouldn’t walk through the waters. So Miriam took a small hand-drum – I know your bibles say a tambourine in Ex 15, that’s a translation error, it was a tambourine-shaped drum without the metal pieces – she took a drum in her hand and led the people through the water singing her song. First she sang by herself and danced by herself. Moses was on the side holding his arms in the air. He didn’t lead the people through the water. The prophet Miriam led her people to freedom beginning with the sisters. The women joined Miriam in the Song of the Sea and Dance of Deliverance. Leading her people through the danger water, Miriam was the first Israelite to set foot on the other side.

And when Miriam led her people to the other side of the sea she was at least ninety years old. For Moses was eighty and Aaron was eighty-three when they told Pharaoh to let God’s people go. And Miriam was their older sister, old enough to negotiate on behalf of the baby Moses.

And then one day, Miriam messed up. She messed up and then she stepped up. She got sat down. But she didn’t stay down. She got up and moved on. She messed up, stepped up, sat down, got up and moved on. She messed up. She made a mistake. Yet the sum of her life is so much more than her most infamous mistake. Some of you have made some mistakes.

In our lesson, Miriam has something to say about the state of Moses’ household. She was right in her criticism. Moses wasn’t God’s only prophet; she was God’s prophet too. But she was wrong in talking about Moses and not talking to him. And don’t get it twisted, Moses needed talking to. He had just shown up with a shiny new wife. Black and shiny. A Nubian sister, perhaps blacker than the range of beige, brown and black that made up Israel and the multitude that left slavery on their dime. But perhaps not. Skin color wasn’t an issue in their time. The issue was that Moses just showed up with a new woman having put out his old woman and their children. Polygamy was acceptable to the Israelites, child abandonment was a whole ‘nother issue.

In Exodus 18:2, Moses sent away his first wife Zipporah and their children. Some of you may know the passage in Malachi 2:16 where God says “I hate the sending away,” sometimes and appropriately translated as “divorce.” That’s the same word used here but some translators can’t bring themselves to write that Moses divorced his wife. Yet in Exodus 18:3 his father-in-law Jethro shows up with his wife and their children in an attempt to put the family back together, and Moses hugs his father-in-law and only his father-in-law, asks about his welfare and never says a mumbling word to his family. In fact there are no stories about Moses’ sons in the wilderness, unlike Aaron’s, suggesting that he sent them away again. Some scholars speculate that’s why Moses’ descendants were banned from the priesthood; they weren’t around to be trained with or instead of Aaron’s sons. We don’t hear anything more about Moses and his family business until he shows up in our lesson with a brand new wife.

Miriam was right to want to hold him accountable for his personal conduct. Preachers and prophets don’t get an ethical pass. But she was wrong to talk about him and not to him. Moses messed up and God would deal with him. But today we are telling Miriam’s story. Miriam messed up. She messed up and then she stepped up.

When God called her name, calling her on the carpet, calling her to account, she didn’t shuck and jive, she didn’t duck and dodge, she stepped up. She stepped up and stepped to God, placing herself, her life, her skin, her beautiful face, in the hands of a living God. First God said, all three of you, come here! And she went. She messed up so she stepped up. Then God said to Miriam and Aaron, you two, come a little closer to the Fire. And she stepped up again. She was woman enough to take responsibility for messing up. She stood up on her own two feet in her big girl pants to hear the judgment of the Fire of Sinai. She didn’t make excuses, she didn’t pass the blame or the buck; she stepped up.

She messed up, stepped up and then she got sat down.

Miriam – and in my reading Aaron – were punished by God with a skin disease. The text doesn’t clearly say Aaron was afflicted but the Hebrew allows for that possibility reading between the lines. Since the biblical disease is never described with the numbness and loss of body parts associated with leprosy in other parts of the world and because houses, clothing and other inanimate objects could be contaminated, most biblical scholars identify this disease as something else. What ever it was, it was disfiguring: flaky patches, oozing sores and peeling skin.

Miriam bore her punishment and never uttered a complaining word. She didn’t know how long she would be afflicted. Yet she didn’t throw Aaron under the bus for going along with her at every turn. But Aaron, her partner in crime, confessed his own part and begged Moses to intercede, and he did. And she was healed instantly, but she still had to bear the consequences of her actions. And it was decided that Miriam had to leave the community and stay in the camp beyond the camp. She was banished to the place were those who were taboo for periods ranging from one day to the rest of their lives were quarantined apart from the rest of the people. And so Miriam went into exile among the last and the least. She no longer stood up front with Moses and Aaron at the Tent of Meeting in front of the congregation. She sat down, exiled, banished.

But she didn’t sit alone. The people sat with her, and get this; they sat down on God and so God waited for her too. Ordinarily, the people followed the leading of God in the form of a pillar of cloud by day, watching over them by night as a pillar of fire by night. But Numbers 12:15 says that the people would not get up and go without their prophet. They knew she was more than her most public mistake.

I always imagine that God picked up the cloud and started out on the next day’s journey… and no one followed. So God waited on Miriam, with her waiting people, waiting on her restoration.

Miriam messed up, she stepped up, sat down and then she got up.

And when Miriam got up, God and the people got up with her. And then they got going. Miriam messed up, stepped up, sat down, got up and then she moved on. She moved on past her mistake. She didn’t hang on to it and she didn’t hang around with anyone who wanted to tie her to her past. She went on with her life and her life’s work. And then, one day, she died. In Israelite culture, a person had immortality through their children, specifically through their name passed down to and through their children. But Miriam didn’t have any children. She never married. Yet her name lives on forever.

There was something about Miriam. Sure some people would never allow her or anyone else to forget that one time she messed up big time. Look at Deuteronomy 24:9, Remember what the Holy One your God did to Miriam on your journey out of Egypt.

But that’s not the only was Miriam was remembered, in 1 Chronicles 4:17, another Egyptian princess married into the tribe of Judah and named her newborn baby daughter Miriam. Miriam’s legacy to her people – and to those who were not even her own people – is more than her mistakes.

And then there is God. And when God looked back on Miriam’s life and death, all God saw was her gifts. It was how Miriam conducted herself before and after her mistakes – and I’m sure she made more than one – it was Miriam’s service to God, serving God by serving God’s people that God remembered and testified to in her memory.

Do you remember when God took the witness stand and testified about Miriam? You probably know the verdict:

God has told you, O mortal, what is good;

and what does the Holy One require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with your God?

But a text without a context is a pretext. The Rev. Dr. Dennis Proctor told me that. You see in Micah 6, more than six hundred years after the death of the prophet Miriam, God is being sued by Israel. The bailiff speaks, calling the court to order in Micah 6:1-2:

Hear what the Holy One says:

Rise, plead your case before the mountains,

and let the hills hear your voice.

Hear, you mountains, the dispute of the Holy One,

and you enduring foundations of the earth;

for the Holy One has a dispute with God’s people,

and God will litigate with Israel.

Then God takes the stand and testifies in verses 3-4:

“O my people, what have I done to you?

In what have I wearied you? Answer me!

For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,

and redeemed you from the house of slavery;

and I sent before you Moses,

Aaron, and Miriam.

God’s testimony, God’s self-defense was Miriam. The proof of how good God was to Israel was that God sent not just Moses, not just Moses and Aaron, but God sent Moses, Aaron and Miriam. And the mountains and hills, serving as the jury, ruled in God’s favor.

I like to think that it was the memory of Miriam that decided things in God’s favor. Yes Miriam messed up.

She messed up and then she stepped up.

She messed up, stepped up and then she got sat down.

She messed up, stepped up, sat down and then she got up.

She messed up, stepped up, sat down, got up and then she moved on. She moved past her mistakes.

God used the prophet Micah to vindicate and validate the prophet Miriam, she was more than the one mistake that some folk wouldn’t let her forget and talked about after her death. And her people began naming their daughters after her so frequently that in the first century her name was the most popular woman’s name among her people.

And one of the daughters of her name, named for the most famous and beloved of Israel’s women prophets elevated her name to a whole new level. Listen now to the geology behind the genealogy in Matthew 1:

A genealogy of Miriam, the daughter of Hannah called Anna:

 Of her was born Jesus who is called Christ.

Sarah was the mother of Isaac,

And Rebekah was the mother of Jacob,

Leah was the mother of Judah,

Tamar was the mother of Perez.

The names of the mothers of Hezron, Ram, Amminadab,

            Nahshon and Salmon have been lost.

Rahab was the mother of Boaz,

            and Ruth was the mother of Obed.

Obed’s wife, whose name is unknown, gave birth to Jesse.

The wife of Jesse was the mother of David.

Bathsheba was the mother of Solomon,

Naamah the Ammonite, was the mother of Rehoboam.

Maacah was the mother of Abijam and the grandmother of Asa.

Azubah was the mother of Jehoshaphat.

The name of Jehoram’s mother is unknown.

Athaliah was the mother of Ahaziah,

Zibiah of Beersheba was the mother of Joash.

Jecoliah of Jerusalem gave birth to Uzziah,

Jerusha gave birth to Jotham; Ahaz’s mother is unknown.

Abi was the mother of Hezekiah,

Hephzibah was the mother of Manasseh,

Meshullemeth was the mother of Amon,

Jedidah was the mother of Josiah.

Zebidah was the mother of Jehoiakim,

            Nehushta was the mother of Jehoiachin,

Hamutal was the mother of Zedekiah.

Then the deportation of Babylon took place.

After the deportation to Babylon

the names of the mothers go unrecorded.

The sum of generations is therefore: fourteen from Sarah to David’s mother;

            fourteen from Bathsheba to the Babylonian deportation;

            and fourteen from the Babylonian deportation to Miriam, the mother of Christ.

Miriam, the prophet-woman, messed up, stepped up, sat down, got up and then she moved on. When you mess up – when and not if – when you mess up, step up. Take responsibility for your mistakes. Own it. Give it to God. And know that that you may have to pay a price and that you may have to bear the consequences, in public, in your community. You can’t run and you can’t hide. And then take the time that you need to get your life back on track. Don’t run from mistake to mistake. Sit down in the company of folk who know what it is to go through what you’re going through. And if no one sits you down, sit your own self down. But when you sit down then don’t stay down. Get up. And move on. Go forward; go with God. You have no way of knowing how God will use you, your name, your legacy, to change the world.

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

Noah’s Earth, Ark and our Creation

Genesis 9:8-10: God says, “I, yes I, am establishing my covenant with you all and your offspring after you, and with every living creature that is with you, from birds to herds, every living thing on earth with you, as many as came out of the ark.” And, Mark 1:13: “Jesus, was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by the Satan; and he was with the wild animals; and the angels ministered to him.” This morning I invite you to consider a ‘Cosmic Covenant with Creation.’

Let us pray: In the name of the Author, the Word and the Translator. Amen.

From the day before days when all days began with a divine inhalation, exhalation and articulation, “Let there be,” to the moment the mountains were submerged beneath the hull of Noah’s ark, creation followed by corruption coincide with this cosmic covenant. The Divine Wordsmith spoke and life happened. All manner of life with all manner of feet and none, every kind of tooth, and none, and all sorts of coverings: feathers, fur, scales and skin. A peculiar earthling was pulled from the womb of earth. New, human souls had been breathed into hand-crafted, God-crafted earthen vessels. Then one became two and two became one. In between creation and corruption was Shabbat and its promise of peace from the work of the world.

Smaller cycles of creation and corruption spiraled through the ages. And Lamech, the murderer who invented polygamy fathered a son with one of his wives, either Adah or Zillah. And he called his son’s name Noah. I Enoch, from the scriptural collection of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, tells us Lamech knew Noah was a special child because he was born with a beautiful demdema, which is an old Ethiopic word for a halo of curly hair, in other words, an afro.

Noah’s famous story in today’s first lesson is a call for reflection on consumption and creation. This is our first Lenten reflection. We began this season with the reminder that we are dust; from dust we were crafted and to the dust we shall return. This week’s readings teach that the very dust, and we who were shaped from it, are precious in the sight of God. And we find that we dust-folk have dust-kin in all of the creatures of earth, and the earth herself. As the Jewish poet Marge Piercy (The Art of Blessing the Day: Poems with a Jewish Theme, 2006) writes, “We stand in a a great web of being.”

Our first lesson is a lesson in ecology, a lesson in which in which humans are responsible for safeguarding all creation. Noah is our role model. Noah is righteous, at that time and for a while, although after his salvation narrative he would abuse God’s good gifts of time and wine and call for the oppression of some of his own offspring in a drunken, hung-over rage.

But today, Noah has saved the world. He has saved aardvarks, bats, cats, doves, eagles, fireflies, gophers, horses and an ibex, actually two. Four times the covenant partners of the Creator are identified as every living creature.” This cosmic covenant is with all of creation. God has covenanted with jaguars, kangaroos, lemmings, mice, newts, orangutans, pythons and quails. Five times the covenant partners are “all flesh.” God has made a covenant with every living thing on the ark including, rabbits, sheep, tigers, urchins, vermin, wombats, maybe even a xenopithicus – probably two, yaks and zebra.

The author of the Petrine Epistle, our second lesson, completely misses the boat – pardon the pun. He says that eight souls were preserved through water – No! Noah and his family saved the whole world. Our epistoleer completely discounted animal creation and the plant life that sustains human and animal creation as cosmic covenant partners with the Creator of the universe. The natural world that God also hand-crafted was irrelevant to him, and too many in our world today. The diversity of life aboard the ark is a lesson in and of itself. The world is more than human beings. We can’t survive without plants and animals. We can’t survive without bacteria. Yet under our watch, animals are hunted to extinction, driven from sustainable land as the land itself is used up, even plants driven to extinction.

Noah probably took care of things that he didn’t want to. I don’t imagine that it was easy for Noah and his family – or the animals, if fact I think it may have been downright awful. The Rabbis asked much like Bill Cosby, ‘God, who’s going to clean that up?’ And they answered Noah. Noah was the caretaker and steward of every living thing on the ark, which meant that he was the caretaker and steward of every living thing on earth – except of course for the sea creatures who were more or less on their own. The fate of the entire ecosystem rested in Noah’s hands.

Yet Noah wasn’t in this thing alone, he had help, his wife, their sons, their wives and God, the Creator and Sustainer of all life. The Creator of the cosmos made a covenant with all creation, saying: in verses 8-10, “I, yes I, am establishing my covenant with you all and your offspring after you, and with every living creature that is with you, from birds to herds, every living thing on earth with you, as many as came out of the ark.”

The cosmic sign of the covenant was given in verse 13: God says, “I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.” Here God is laying down a weapon of war – for it was believed that God used that bow to shoot arrows from heaven in the form of hail and lightning. The bow of the original rainbow warrior has become a Divine sticky note. The weapon of war has become an implement of preservation. God says ‘I will remember.’ And Noah says ‘I will remember.’

The story of Noah teaches us that when God wants to destroy the earth and all we who dwell therein, when God wants to wash away our sins and our capacity to sin forever, when God wants to wash her hands of us and there are tears in heaven falling to the earth, God sees the rainbow and remembers. Even when all we can see is clouds, God can see the rainbow, for her vision is far better than ours. God sees her former weapon and keeps her word. And we are saved from destruction again.

The Psalmist understood this when he cried out to his Creatrix: Remember me! In verse 6:

Be mindful of your mother-love, O Yah,

and of your faithful love,

for they have been from the time before time.

The Psalmist also understood that the feelings – rechamim, of God that flowed from the womb – rechem, of God was the tender love of a pregnant mother for a wanted, cherished child. The Psalm concludes with the Psalmist promising to wait for God to remember him, but not him alone. He begs God to ‘redeem Israel out of all of its troubles.’

            The evangelist who shaped today’s Gospel knew that Yeshua L’Natzeret ben Miryam, Jesus, Mary’s boy-child from Nazareth, was the one for whom the Psalmist prayed, the one who would redeem Israel out of all of its troubles. And so we journey to the wilderness where the Son of Woman, the Son of God, the redeemer of Israel and the savior of the whole world, sojourns as the companion of creation. After his surrender to the waters of Baptism, Yeshua, Jesus, the one who is salvation, went to the desert and found an oasis. There was the full diversity of creation, humanity and divinity in his person, natural and supernatural in his companion caretakers – animals and angels.

            Jesus’ desert sojourn prepared him for the proclamation of the Gospel. The Gospel is forged in the heart of the wilderness, a wilderness that is overflowing with life. All desert creatures know how to find water in the wilderness. And they know how to live together in harmony. When all creation is in harmony – humankind, animal-kind, angel-kind – the reign and realm of God is at hand. This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Repent, in this Lenten season and believe in this Good News.

            But are we at harmony with creation? God does not expect us to round up critters in a pilot for a new reality show, “Hoarders: The Noah’s Ark Edition.” Nor does God expect us to bring heaven and earth together in harmony like Jesus in the wilderness. But we do have a role to play in caring for creation. This earth is our home and God’s good gift to us. Yet it seems we prefer consumption to conservation. Many like the author of the Petrine epistle seem to have discounted God’s non-human creation. Some don’t think about animals as more than food, or occasionally pets. We have forgotten that our survival on this planet depends on their survival. It seems that we care even less for plants, for water – oceans, rivers, lakes and streams – and we even seem to care nothing for the air we breathe. We have forgotten that we are covenant partners with all creation. The whole world is ours, to tend, to save or perhaps, to destroy.

            It seems to me that it never occurred to Noah that he couldn’t save the world. God comes to him with this crazy plan that must have sounded like a pipe dream – I mean really, what was he smoking? – and the scripture simply says that “Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.” Some of us also want to save the world. But it may be that we’d rather God asked us to build a titanic ark, seal up us and our folk and some cuddly creatures from the local zoo and leave the unrighteous to their fate than really conserve the earth. But Noah didn’t save the world all at once. He did it bit by bit, as Anne Lamotte would say, bird by bird. With every creature Noah saved, he was saving the world. Every critter counted. As we harvest the treasures of earth – and we need them to survive, I invite you to consider whether our consumption is partnered with conservation.

            Consider for a moment a few of your favorite things – chocolate, coffee, cotton. Consider their county of origin, the indigenous flora and fauna displaced by their plantations; consider the pesticides poured into their native soil and waters. Compare the wages of the workers with the profits of the corporations, consider the packages in which these products come and their final disposition, the petroleum products required to manufacture them and their packaging, and to transport them. And then make wiser choices, life-saving, earth-saving choices.

Noah and God made a covenant that is still binding on us today. We are all partners in a cosmic covenant with all creation. And that means no one gets left behind. We are not to sail off into a future with God and leave the world to drown in corruption. God has saved, is saving and will save more than a handful of folk from one family. Or rather, we are all one human family. There is no sailing off to a world without the rest of human society. Some say that the church is the ark of God in this world, but unlike Noah’s ark, we are not to batten down the hatches and nail the doors shut to keep some in and others out. In this ark with open doors exists all the diversity of the world.

Look around us, search above us, below, behind.

We stand in a great web of being joined together.

Let us praise, let us love the life we are lent
passing through us

in the body of Israel
and our own bodies, let's say amen.

Time flows through us like water.

The past and the dead speak through us.

We breathe out our children's children, blessing.

Blessed is the earth from which we grow,

Blessed the life we are lent,

blessed the ones who teach us,

blessed the ones we teach,

blessed is the word that cannot say the glory

that shines through us and remains to shine

flowing past distant suns on the way to forever.

Let's say amen.

Blessed is light, blessed is darkness,

but blessed above all else is peace
which bears the fruits of knowledge
on strong branches, let's say amen.

Peace that bears joy into the world,

peace that enables love, peace over Israel

blessed and holy is peace, let's say amen.

For the gospel writers, for his disciples and for us, Jesus of Nazareth is the one who unites all creation in peace. Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world is the one who brings all of creation into right relationship with our Creator. The time is fulfilled, and the reign and realm of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news. In the Name of God, Creator, Christ and Comforter. Amen.

Deborah Speaks: A Call to Arms, A Call to Service

Judges 4:3 And the women-and-men-of-Israel cried out to the Faithful One for help; for King Jabin had nine hundred chariots of iron, and had oppressed the women-and-men-of-Israel cruelly twenty years. 4 Deborah, a woman, a female prophet, a fiery woman, she was judging Israel at that time. 

I want to thank the All Saints ohana for your wonderful gift of hospitality to me, especially Ben, Linda, Cooper, Chris, Warren and Wendy, Lacee and Jeff my hiking partners, the congregation at Christ Memorial and the hona [giant sea-turtle] who swam with me in Poipu. I knew when I saw the lessons for today that I wanted to preach on Deborah, having written – if not the book on Deborah – then a major contribution to her study. I love this woman-prophet-military-commander-strategist-and-head-of-state. Sometimes I think my Hebrew name should have been Deborah, but Rabbi Lynne Gottllieb named me Huldah; that works too. And I find as a veteran a message that honors the service of all veterans and everyone else who serves their community in her story: A Call to Arms, A Call to Serve. But I’m not going to preach it. I’m going to let her do that.

In the Name of the Author, the Word and the Translator. Amen.

Good morning, my name is D’vorah, you call me Deborah. Fr. Wil asked me to preach for her today because she is getting ready to go to San Francisco before returning to Philadelphia. As I said before, I am Deborah, the former Judge of Israel; my people call me “Mother,” even though I never married and never had any children of my own. They were all my children. What may seem to be two disparate roles, prophetic mother of the nation and professional martial strategist are in fact united by the single focus of answering the call of God in and through God’s people. You heard part of my story read to you earlier today. I am the sixth Judge in the line of succession: From Moses to Joshua, from Joshua to Othniel, from Othniel to Ehud, from Ehud to Shamgar and from Shamgar to me.

Judges did more than settle disputes; we ruled the tribes from actual thrones – mine was near the large palm tree beside the intersection of Beth-El Boulevard and Ramah Road. As judges we governed the people and led the army – well more of a militia. And I’m more than just a judge. I’m also a prophet and in one sense Moshe’s heir, (you know him as Moses). I know most folk think Joshua was Moses’ heir, but he was no prophet. But he could tell a good story. His book is full of war stories – he reminds me of some other veterans I know, to hear them tell the story every skirmish was a major battle, our side never lost a battle and he was in the center of all the action. Nobody else remembers the stories quite like he told them; but each veteran is entitled to their memories and their stories even when they don’t agree with the official history. They have earned the right to tell their stories however they want. How many of you like Fr. Wil served in the military? I salute you, veteran to veteran.

Joshua’s story comes before my story and our stories together are each part of a larger story. Some of my story is recorded in chapters 4-5 of the book of Judges. The first part in Judges 4 is something like liner notes for an album; it was written after my song in Judges 5 which was at the top of the charts in my day, to tell my story to the folk who only knew my songs. You see when God appointed me to lead the nation, 80 years of rest and prosperity had just come to a crashing end under the hooves, heels and wheels of Canaanite cavalry and infantry. For twenty long years they rode us into the ground. Judge Shamgar beat back the Philistines singlehandedly when they joined in, but it wasn’t enough. And Judge Ehud had died. The version of the story you have says that the people sinned after Ehud died. The old story actually says the people sinned and Ehud died. It might be that their wicked ways sent him to an early death. I had that on my mind when God called me to be the mother of the nation, but I still answered the call to serve.

For twenty years we suffered under Canaanite oppression; I suffered with my people before God called me as a prophet and judge, to walk in Moshe’s oversize footsteps – no wonder Joshua felt the need to tell so many outsized stories! No one tells the stories of how I came to be a prophet or judge. No one remembers that I answered the call to serve when no one knew my name like so many soldiers, sailors, marines and air force service members. I just did my duty. And I wasn’t in the military at first.

The truth is all of our communities need more than one type of service. I just did what I could with the gifts God had given me to help my family, my community. That’s how we made it through the difficult days, every day, every week, every month, every year for twenty years until I went to war, we worked together as a community. We each did our part to hold it together and support each other, with no one calling our names or remembering our service. Your sacred story doesn’t tell you what happened in the 20 years that Israel was oppressed during my time. In fact the big story moves from conflict to conflict, from oppression to oppression, scarcely taking account of the individual people and families struggling to survive day after day focusing on kings and prophets.

You see our people had immigrated to Canaan without checking with the Canaanites. And there were some fights – and to hear Joshua tell it, he killed everybody, but the truth is we figured out how to get along together, more or less.

Joshua (24:11) says, “When you went over the Jordan and came to Jericho, the citizens of Jericho fought against you, and also the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and I handed them over to you.

Just before my story the sacred story says:

Judges (3:5-6) says, “So the Israelites lived among the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and they took their daughters as wives for themselves, and their own daughters they gave to their sons; and they worshiped their gods.

Now all that mixing was a problem for some, but in most cases we were just building community and making families with our hearts the way so many kama’ina [locals] do here in Hawaii. Sometimes what looked like the worship of other Gods was the development of new and different ways of worshipping the God of our ancestors whom we found was also worshipped by some of our neighbors. But there were folk who completely turned their back on the God who brought us so far, so faithfully. I’ll never understand that.

All of the Canaanites didn’t welcome us into their families and land. There were many bitter, vicious battles and terrible losses on all sides. Just when we had carved out a little space and paid for our peace in the blood of our fallen, within four generations we were overrun. Canaanite oppression was physically violent, often lethal. And it was accompanied by an economic depression. It didn’t matter how much or hard people worked, they couldn’t always feed their families or keep their homes. Their savings weren’t being gambled away on Wall Street; they were being burned in the field, and stolen as their livestock was driven off. We lived through hard times, a whole generation of privation. The loss, pain, anger, rage and fear were the same that people feel today and express through the Tea Party and Occupy  Movements. People were hurting. And we took our pain to God.

My people cried out to God. I cried out with them and for them. And God answered. But it wasn’t fast and it wasn’t easy. For twenty long years we struggled under the burdens laid on us by someone else. And while I believe that God heard every prayer and touched every tear, God didn’t wave a magic wand and fix it. That’s a hard lesson, because there are still desperate, hurting, frightened people, losing their security through no fault of their own. And while God hears their cries and touches their tears, in many cases God is moving at a pace that feels far to slow for those who are suffering today.

Yet God heard and God responded. God called me. I seem like a pretty unlikely candidate. No one remembers much about me or my family. They called me a fireball – I think that’s why Fr. Wil likes me so much – but some folk pretend that lappidoth, fireball, is a man’s name so that they could claim I was married. My culture didn’t know what to do with single women. I answered the call like so many men and women who volunteered or were drafted into military service. No one starts out as a hero or leader of a nation. We just answer a call to serve. No one even remembers the call I answered or how I served before I was appointed commander-in-chief. Like so many veterans, much of my service was anonymous. And like many veterans, I also have a couple of good war stories.

When God called me to serve God by serving God’s people, I issued my own call to service. I called for war. It wasn’t a popular call. Your people have been at war in Afghanistan and Iraq for ten years. And some of your people and families have borne the war-fighting burden, answering the call to serve while others remain scarcely touched. That’s how it was in our time. We were spread out and everybody didn’t show up when I called, everyone didn’t answer the call. Some couldn’t. Some could but didn’t. Some let others take the risks for them.

I took the troops I had and deployed them. My plan was to lead one flank and send my second-in-command, General Barak to lead the other. But he wouldn’t go without me. He wasn’t ashamed to say he needed the woman of God. The previous generation had Joshua, and the generation before had Moses and Miriam as their prophets, and Barak wasn’t going anywhere without his prophet. And he did not care that the senior warrior gets the glory. Barak wanted victory, not glory. I led and accompanied Barak, fulfilling my calling and enabling him to fulfill his. We led a force of 10,000 and defeated our enemies even though some of our own people, the tribes of Reuben, Gad and Asher along with the clans of Meroz failed to honor the call to serve.

We prevailed even though we were out-classed and out gunned. They had the Iron Age equivalent of mechanized infantry or an armored tank division, almost a thousand iron-plated armored chariots. We had some iron-tipped arrows and spears and a few iron swords for hand to hand, but we also had a lot of bronze. And our troops were not professional soldiers. But they answered the call. And God made the difference. God took our service and multiplied it and used it to protect our families, homes and community.

I also had a battle-buddy, a sister-in-arms, her name was Ya‘el Eshet Heber; she was a covert operations specialist, an assassin, she had a license to kill, or if you prefer, to terminate her objectives with extreme prejudice. She was an assassin, but not a sniper. She went in close for her kills. I wrote a song about her, I called her “most blessed among women” after she took down the Canaanite general, Sisera, a notorious rapist. In one of the saddest comments on the whole affair, his mother doesn’t even worry when he is late coming home from the war because she knows it is his custom to violate the women of his enemies.

More than six hundred years later the Israelites sang my song to another Mother-Savior, Judith after she assassinated the enemy general oppressing her people who wanted to rape her. That’s one thing that has not changed from my time to yours, the use of rape as a tool of war against women and men and boys and girls. Many veterans and active duty soldiers bear scars that can’t be seen because of sexual assault. Those assaults are not limited to enemy troops; some soldiers are raped by our own colleagues-in-arms. And there are some folk who take pleasure in using their power and physical strength against the most vulnerable among us off the field of battle in their personal campaigns of conquest.

Father Wil tells me that there are many folk who long for an Old Testament solution for child predators and rapists, and she counts herself among them in times like these when the news cycle is full of atrocities. Yet even in my day a person who was accused of horrific acts was brought before a judge. Hearing all of the evidence before passing sentence, particularly when that sentence is life-or-death is a sacred duty, and for some that is their call to service.

Some six hundred years after the elders of Israel sang my song to Judith, the pregnant prophet Elizabeth sang my song to her young cousin, the mysteriously pregnant Miriam, soon to be the mother of not just a nation, but the mother of God. Let me suggest that what each woman had in common was her willingness to offer her body in the service God. In spite of the lives of these women most of us do not expect God to use us to accomplish Divine purpose through assassination and unwed pregnancy.

These women teach us that there are some, not all, whose callings lead them to do incredible things in the Name of God, most of which we would not be comfortable doing. They teach us that leadership is not without cost and that God calls whomever God wills. All of us are not called to be assassins or prophets, maybe some of us are. But we all are called. The question that each of us must answer is whether or not we are living out our divine calling.

Lastly, Fr. Wil wants me to tell you that you may not have legions of warriors at your disposal, experienced military commanders, assassins or even anti-rape activists at your beck and call, but if you go where God calls and sends you, God will go with you and before you and will meet you there. You will not go alone. Perhaps you will be able to follow a seasoned prophet. Perhaps you will be accompanied by angels. You will not go alone.

There is an afterword to today’s story. Fame is fickle. Hebrews asks (11:32-34) “And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.

The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews has a gendered recollection of history without the herstory of Deborah and Ya‘el. You can do what God called you to do and people may forget that it was you God chose to use. Someone may rewrite your story in their own image, but God will not forget. God will be with you when others forget you.     

May God the Mother and Father of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,

Sarah, Hagar, Rebekkah, Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah,

Who took the tangled threads of their lives

And wove a tapestry of Redemption

In the Blood of Jesus

Continue to weave the strands of your life

In the Divine design.

13 November 2011

All Saints Episcopal Church

Kapaa HI

Saints Alive!

For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord Jesus, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord Jesus, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord Jesus himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ Jesus will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord Jesus in the air; and so we will be with the Lord Jesus forever. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)

Saints Alive!We are continuing to celebrate the Feast of All Saints focusing on those whom the Church has named saints and those whom we personally regard as saints; some celebrations were on All Hallows Eve, Halloween, seemingly disconnected from the Church’s day for many. We celebrate the Feast of All Souls focusing on all of the dead of all times, the holy dead and the unholy, saint and sinner, in and out of the Church. And now, we are talking about the return of Christ to the earth, the Second Coming, the Rapture. Yep, I’m a Church nerd, happily at home in the Episcopal Church, and I hope you are too, at home that is, and only nerdy if you want to be.

Our epistle lesson deals with some of the bedrock beliefs of the early and enduring Church: the resurrection of Jesus and those who believe in him, the eternal lives and communion of the saints who have died and, the return of the Messiah, the Christ, Jesus, to the world. We do not want you to be uninformed, sisters and brothers, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.

These ancient words were crafted to comfort the early believers, some of the saints and souls whose feast days we celebrate. They were paying a terrible price for their faith. They were being mutilated and murdered, martyred. A deep and heavy grief permeated the early church, and I would say some fear. Some of the saints and martyrs were surely fearless, others I think were faithful in spite of their fear, transcending their fear, standing firm in the face of their fear, showing courage over fear. And there were those who wondered if it was all for nothing. Confessing Christ – not saying the words of a creed among our own folk with a few visitors sprinkled in – but publicly admitting to following a convicted felon, an executed traitor and rebel was to set oneself up to lose family and home, property and income, wealth and standing, status and freedom, one’s life and possibly the lives of one’s family by being burned alive, by claw and tooth of lions and other wild animals, by crucifixion, impaling or hanging, by torture, through blunt and sharp force trauma. Many had confessed Christ and so many of those had paid the price in blood and suffering. To those who loved them and ached for them, wept for them, longed for them, mourned for them, grieved for them, Paul wrote: We do not want you to be uninformed, sisters and brothers, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.

It was easy to be hopeless then as it is now. There was violence and injustice at every level, from interpersonal relationships to the highest reaches of government. There were corrupt officials, and predatory institutions, and wolves in sheep’s clothing in religious assemblies, there was rampant police brutality and crushing poverty, abysmal public health policies and no safety nets for vulnerable peoples, gender discrimination, class discrimination, ethnic discrimination and religious discrimination, and there were also all the usual personal betrayals, broken hearts, neglected hopes and battered dreams.

There was also, particularly among those who believed that Yeshua ben Miryam L’Natzeret, Jesus born of Mary of Nazareth, was the Messiah promised in Israel’s scriptures, faith in the power of life over death, a power demonstrated in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. A power witnessed by countless saints and souls who saw him alive, touched him and were touched by him, sat at table with him, walked and talked with him and, a power testified to in faith and sometimes the bloody deaths of their own loved ones. With that power was a promise, that death is not the end, that none of their loved ones was truly lost. They would see them again, be with them again: For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.

But it’s a complicated promise and has caused no small measure of confusion in the Church and in the world since then, Harold Camping the man who has recently (wrongly and repeatedly) promised the return of Christ on a specific date is in good company. And there’s no small measure of distance between the idea of the return of Christ mentioned in this and other places in the scriptures and the idea of the rapture which developed quite a bit later and was related back to these verses in Thessalonians. Many have predicted the return of Christ and all of their predictions have failed. Even Paul thought he knew when Jesus would return: For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord Jesus, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord Jesus, will by no means precede those who have died. It’s been two thousand years since Paul wrote “we who are alive” and neither he nor his readers are still alive. Or are they? It’s clear that Paul and his readers expected Jesus to come back in their time. In that regard he was like Harold Camping, but Paul did not pick a specific date – again and again and again. Paul didn’t stake his name or reputation on specificity, but he did proclaim in solidarity with the teaching of Jesus that the dead were in fact alive. So whenever Jesus comes, those who have already died will in fact be alive in the life beyond life and the life beyond death. Paul proclaimed that those who have died in the faith were not forgotten by God and would not miss out on the promises of God yet to unfold.

Those saints and souls who have passed on, are part of what one writer calls “a great cloud of witnesses” and what the Church calls “the communion of the saints.” They are all around us and sometimes we are more aware of their presence than others. That’s why so many churches like this one surround themselves with graveyards and others house crypts and columbaria. The three holy days when Christians and pagans attend to our ancestors in the world beyond our world and also all around us are not the only moments when our worlds connect. The saints and ancestors are always with us. Bishop Steven Charleston puts it this way:

Can you hear them? Can you hear them as they pass by, whispering on the wind? Can you feel them, feel their warmth, when they draw near, standing just beside you? They are the ones who have gone before, the saints who have touched our lives, whose memories shape us still. They are the family to which we each belong, ancient and never ending. Our ancestors watch over us, their constant vigil keeping. Their wisdom and care surrounds us, a river of healing flowing just beneath the sands of time. Can you hear them? They speak of a love they have seen, love beyond imagining, a love that holds us safe, until we rise to meet them.

“Until we rise to meet them…” Paul and Bishop Charleston speak of a resurrection in which we shall all share. For the Lord Jesus himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ Jesus will rise first.

There are many stories about the return of Christ, many teachings, many interpretations, some confusion and more than a few jokes. One rabbi proposed settling the question of whether or not Jesus was the Messiah by asking the Messiah whom he believed would come to Jerusalem one day, “Nu, it this your first trip to Jerusalem?”

These promises in scripture hold as many questions as answers. The disciples of Jesus asked, “When will this be? And what will be the sign of your coming?” And Jesus warned them (and us) “Don’t let anyone lead you astray. Many will come in my name…” Some may remember that Jesus also said that there would be “wars and rumors of wars,” in other words nothing would change between now and then, but few remember that he said right after that, “but the end is not yet.”

In Matthew 24, the chapter before the one assigned today – which I think is a better fit with the epistle, Jesus mentioned famines and earthquakes, both common occurrences as “the beginning of birth-pangs;” those labor pains must have begun with the dawn of creation for there have always been earthquakes, and famine was an even more regular phenomenon in the ancient world as it is now. Jesus spoke of the suffering his followers would endure for his sake and every generation of persecuted Christians has seen themselves in his words. And by persecuted, I mean the Anabaptists whose murders Martin Luther sanctioned and the Catholics murdered by our own ancestral Church of England and English and Irish Protestants murdered by English and Irish Catholics, and the French Huguenots and Joan of Arc sainted by the same church that killed her and American and European Christian women burned at the stake and African Christians enslaved, raped, tortured and murdered. I’m not talking about someone arguing over posting the Ten Commandments or a cross on public property, I’m talking about Christians whose very identity threatens the powers that be who take them out of the world they are making in their image as a warning to others.

Jesus uses the ancient words of Daniel’s vision of a mortal and immortal one coming with the clouds in glory. Paul writes: Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord Jesus in the air; and so we will be with the Lord Jesus forever. 

These are issues that confound the wise. Our canticle today reminds us: The beginning of wisdom is the most sincere desire for instruction, and concern for instruction is love of her.

We do not want you to be uninformed, sisters and brothers, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. Our hope is 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. 

6 November 2011

Christ Memorial Episcopal Church

Kilauea Kauai

An Unholy Empire

Give the things that are Caesar’s to Caesar, and the things that are God’s to God.

Caesars, emperors, pharaohs, oh my! Claims about earthly dominion and heavenly sovereignty undergird and perfuse the scriptures and the societies that emerged from them, deeply influencing us across time, including here, today.

Give the things that are Caesar’s to Caesar, and the things that are God’s to God.

Sounds easy doesn’t it? But does Jesus mean that his ancient hearers should have given all of their money or even just all of the coins with the imperial image to Caesar? And he can’t mean that we, his contemporary hearers, should give all of our money back to the government that minted and printed it, can he? But then again, doesn’t everything belong to God? Does Jesus mean that we should give all of our money to the Church? Or offer it up directly to God without the middlemen (or women) by setting it on fire as an old-fashioned, biblical-style offering? What does he mean, “Give the things that are Caesar’s to Caesar, and the things that are God’s to God,” and how are we supposed to do that anyway?

Is Jesus talking about Tiberius Caesar, his Caesar in particular, or is he using Caesar generically to mean emperor? Remember Caesar was a family name of the Julii, whose infamous son Gaius Julius passed it down to his adopted son Octavian Augustus who passed it down to Tiberius, his stepson. Much later emperors like Nero and Hadrian who were not related to the Julii claimed the title for themselves and it ceased to be a family name by the time the gospels were being written down, so both senses could be at play here.

We just celebrated the feast day of Hawaii’s beloved sovereigns, Queen Emma and King Kamehameha IV. Monarchy is a tender subject for Hawaiians and a touchy subject for mainlanders and post-colonial peoples around the world. Yet the language of monarchy, which is human language, is used to describe God, the abode of God and God’s relationship to everyone and everything else in the world, in the bible. And in today’s gospel lesson there is an apparent conflict between a human monarch and God. The monarch in question is no mere king, he is an emperor – empire is monarchy on steroids, I’ll get back to that – and not just any emperor, but a Caesar, taking that whole empire thing to a completely new level.

Monarchy is the practice of recognizing some family lineages as legitimate rulers over other people. Historically monarchy has been tricky because not all of the would-be subjects accept the would-be monarchs as their rightful rulers. Monarchal claims and rejection of those claims have led to thousands of years of warfare on this planet, formation of new nations, republics and at least one last state admitted to the United States of America. It’s really only in the last century that warfare and monarchy have enjoyed some separation.

The question of what makes one family, tribe or lineage royal and entitled to rule others in their extended community is for many a theological question. For many royals and some of their subjects, God, the gods and/or the ancestors bestowed the right to rule on them, making rebellion against a monarch a religious crime, a sin, as well as a criminal, political, treasonous matter. Religion is a powerful motivating force and the intentional intersection between monarchy and religion in virtually every culture deliberately exploits this power.

From the perspective of ancient peoples including the Israelites, monarchy was just how the world works: everybody had kings and queens, on earth and in the heavens. If there were monarchs below there were surely monarchs above. From the Israelite perspective, as soon as there were enough people living together in one place to call a city or town, there were monarchs. Early in Genesis, the biblical writers list groups of kings at war with each other in the lands that Sarah and Abraham are supposed to cross and eventually settle. In the book of Judges a man named Avimelek, Abimelech, became the first monarch in Israel, ruling for three years, about a hundred and fifty years before Saul’s kingship. Later, when the Israelites ask God for a monarchy, it is because all the other nations have one and they want one too.

In one of the funniest passages of scripture, the prophet Samuel is beside himself that the people have asked for a human monarch. God has to calm him down and soothehis hurt feelings. So Israel got their own monarchy for a little while – in their glory days the nation wasn’t any bigger than New Jersey although they did have one of the great wonders of the ancient world, the temple in Jerusalem. And God partnered with the Israelite monarchs– some more than others, yet all of them were anointed by their prophets in the name of God, whether the bible calls them good or bad.

Israel’s little monarchy gave it a good run for as long as they could but they couldn’t compete against the big dogs: Empires, those monarchies on steroids. The difference between monarchies and empires can be summed up in one word: colonization. Monarchs rule their own people in their own land but empires rule peoples in other lands, frequently by destroying their monarchies.

Monarchies can be beloved and an immense source of pride to their own people as is the case here in Hawaii and elsewhere around the world. Monarchies can have complicated relationships with each other – who sits where at a royal weddings.

But empires gobble up monarchies, depose, execute or imprison anointed monarchs and sovereigns. Empires are voracious, devouring lands and peoples and their resources to fuel their engines of war for more and more conquest. Many ancient monarchies held slaves, but empires tended to fund their expansion on the backs of slaves, exporting them to new lands to build up outpost colonies and spread the dominion of the empire to new places over new peoples.

And so the Roman Empire had replaced what was left of Alexander the Great’s empire that was built on the bones of the Persian Empire that toppled the Babylonian Empire which destroyed the Israelite monarchy when it was thinking about becoming an empire like the Egyptian empire from which it had so recently – in global terms – escaped.

And Rabbi Jesus, Rav Yeshua, the son of a people that had not ruled their own land for nearly six hundred years says, Give the things that are Caesar’s to Caesar, and the things that are God’s to God.

Jesus is beating the Pharisees at their own game, outdebating them. And he calls them hypocrites, the term for actors at the time. They are pretending to seek him and study God with him, but of course they have another agenda and he lets them know that he knows exactly what they are doing. Well, two can play that game. He will answer pretending that they are really confused about whether they ought to pay their taxes.

Rabbi, is it permitted to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?

Give the things that are Caesar’s to Caesar, and the things that are God’s to God.

However unjust empires may be, and injustice is the bread and butter – or in biblical terms, the bread and salt – of empires, the power of the empire is real and lethal. Jesus’ death warrant was granted on the charge that he claimed to be a monarch, an emperor, a Caesar. Brutality is the stock and trade of empire which brooks no competition. Empires are lethal inventions. Yet empires are comprised of people and people can be redeemed. The work of redemption pitted Jesus against empire and with the people being ground underfoot – the 99% of his time and for the redemption of the purveyors of imperial power.

Jesus and his followers were very practical about government even as they were critical of its injustices; paying taxes was practical advice. And Jesus did not provoke the empire to lethal action until he was ready to die. They would have cut his ministry down in its prime if he had let them. For Jesus there was no competition between the imperial and religious worlds. He didn’t call for people to give all of their money to the temple and boycott the government. He saw a role in the world for both. And to the degree that there were injustices in both he preached against them all. And ultimately an unholy alliance between the empire and their supporters in the religious community took his life, not understanding that he was freely giving it.

We still have taxes in our world and we still ought to pay them. I’d be really concerned about a church or religion that says none of the citizens of a country or state should pay taxes to support that state or country in which they live. We still have empires, but they look quite a bit different from those in the time of Jesus. The Roman Empire that ruled Jesus fell to Germanic tribes in 476 CE. And the sun set on the last of the old-world traditional empires when Great Britain gave back the city of Hong Kong to the Chinese people in 1997. The title emperor no longer means what it once meant; the role of Japan’s Emperor Akihito is vastly different than that of Emperor Hirohito. And he’s not alone, the crowned heads of Europe are regularly trotted out for occasions of state, but they are only titular heads of state.

Earlier this morning, people on the mainland gathered to celebrate the life of another man who gave his life while another empire thought it was taking it from him. The national memorial honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was dedicated today. Most know that he opposed the imperial forces of racism and segregation; some know that the night the was assassinated, murdered and martyred he was opposing economic imperial forces in partnership with the working poor. A few will know that he was killed after he began to speak out against the immorality of corporations in terms of racial and economic injustice. He called some banks and corporations by name and recommended that folk stop putting their money in the local segregated banks and stop buying some products. He called for the economic support of black banks and insurance companies. He called for an economic boycott on the 3rd of April 1968 of Coca-Cola, Sealtest Milk, Wonder Bread, Hart’s Bread; those companies are no longer segregated, but the price was blood. On the 4th of April, less than twenty-four hours later, he was dead. Empires are lethal, particularly when their financial interests are challenged.

Give the things that are Caesar’s to Caesar, and the things that are God’s to God.

So who’s running this world? Who are our Caesars? The protestors on Wall Street and in cities across the country including in Honolulu might say corporations and/or their boards and officers. Others might say that nations like the United States, China and India are competing to rule economic empires with commercial rather than military might. Sadly, even Jesus doesn’t envisage a world in which there are no more empires. But he does see the image of God stamped on the face and body of every human soul, just as the image of Tiberius Caesar was stamped on every coin he minted.

Give the things that are Caesar’s to Caesar, and the things that are God’s to God.

You are the image of God and you belong to God, lock, stock – stocks and bonds – and barrel. Amen. 

The All Saints Episcopal Church

Kapaa HI

16 October 2011

Torah on One Foot

While you’re still standing, if you’re willing and able, please stand on one foot and repeat after me: “What is hateful to me I will not do to another.” You may put your feet down. This is the law and the prophets. All the rest is commentary.

In the name of God who fathered our Redeemer Jesus Christ, Christ our Savior and the Blessed Holy Spirit. Amen.

The story goes that a certain gentile approached two of the famous rabbis teaching in and around Jerusalem in the first century. The person told the first rabbi, Rabbi Shammai, that he would convert to Judaism if the rabbi could teach him the whole Torah while standing on one foot.

Torah is frequently translated as “law,” as in “the Law and the Prophets” and, law is torah but torah is more than law. The word torah comes from one of the words for rain. Torah is everything that God rains down or reveals from heaven. Sometimes torah is translated as teaching orrevelation. The first five books of the bible are called the Torah. The Torah contains law and story and poetry and song and genealogy and more. There is also torah in every part of the scripture and in each testament. I like to say that there is torah in the Torah and more than torahin the Torah and there is torah outside of the Torah. In the Jewish congregation to which I also belong my sermons are called d’vrei torah, words of Torah. And it’s not uncommon for someone to say to me after I have taught, “thank you for sharing your torah with us.”

Back to our story, when the would be convert told the rabbi that he would convert if he taught him the whole Torah while standing on one foot, he was asking to be taught the whole revelation of God, everything that God had revealed to humankind. And the second rabbi’s answer, Rabbi Hillel’s answer was, “What is hateful to me I will not do to another. All the rest is commentary.”

Some of you may recognize this as one formulation of the Golden Rule. There are many others:

Baha’i Faith

Lay not on any soul a load that you would not wish to be laid upon you,
and desire not for anyone the things you would not desire for yourself.

– Baha’u’llah, Gleanings 


Treat not others in ways 
that you yourself would find hurtful

– The Buddha, Udana-Varga 5.18


One word which sums up the basis of all good conduct
. . .loving kindness. 
Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.

– Confucius, Analects 15.23


This is the sum of duty: 
do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you

– Mahabharata 5:1517


Not one of you truly believes 
until you wish for others what you wish for yourself.

– The Prophet Muhammad, Hadith


One should treat all creatures in the world as
one would like to be treated.

– Mahavira, Sutrakritanga


Do not do unto others whatever is injurious to yourself.

– Shayast-na-Shayast 13.29


This principle is the essence of good religion and is shared by religious and ethical communities around the world and across time. But all of our churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, ashrams, ethical and humanist societies are full of people. And people don’t always agree on religion and ethics. In fact, people are responsible for most of what’s wrong with religion, even and especially when they – we – blame it on God or our scriptures.

For some folk, rules and regulations dominate religion, for others, religion is all about relationship. And depending on your perspective, the Ten Commandments offer proof of one viewpoint or the other.

Let’s take a vote. How many say religion is about rules? How many say religion is about relationships? How many say religion is about rules and relationships? I voted all three times, because I think it’s all of the above and more than all of the above. Let’s see if we can get a little more clarity.

To make a definitive ruling I suggest we ask a Rabbi. Rebbe Yeshua ben Miryam l’Natzeret, Rabbi Jesus, the son of Mary of Nazareth – you know, the one with the questionable parentage – is the authoritative Christian Rabbi. Not because he was ever Christian, he was not, and is not – he is for those who believe in his Resurrection, still alive and still Jewish. But he is one of the Rabbis to whom Christians turn for our Torah, arguably the preeminent Rabbi, although there are some who turn to Sha’ul L’Tarsus, Saul or Paul of Tarsus, I’m not one of them.

In order to consult Rabbi Jesus, I’m going to offer another Gospel lesson:

Mark 12:28 One of the torah-teachers, (biblical scholars or scribes) came near and heard Yeshua, Jesus, some Pharisees and some Sadducees interpreting the scripture and debating with one another, and seeing that Yeshua/Jesus answered them beautifully, the torah-teacher asked him, “Which commandment, is the first of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Sovereign our God, the Sovereign is One. 30 And, you shall love the Holy One your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength/substance.’ 31 The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 Then the torah-teacher said to him, “Beautiful, Rabbi! You have truly said that ‘God is One, and besides God there is no other’; 33 and ‘to love God with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 When Yeshua, Jesus, saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the reign of God.” After that no one dared to ask him another question.

The question focused on rules. Jesus offered them an alternative rabbinic opinion, focusing on relationships. In his answer, Jesus changed the rules by changing the Torah. Jesus modifies the “you-shall-love” commandment by adding a category for loving God with one’s mind, understanding or intellect that is not present in the original verse in the Torah. This makes sense in a world in which Greek philosophy is being articulated as the highest of intellectual pursuits. In that context it would be unreasonable to proclaim a religion that does not account for the intellectual capacities of human beings. I argue that today Jesus would add “You shall love the Holy One your God with all of your deoxyribonucleic acid, your DNA,” and perhaps even your quarks, avatars and social media personas.

You might not see “love” in the Ten Commandments as they are presented in the Church’s readings today. If you look closely, verses five and six are missing. That’s because God says in verse 5, “You shall not bow down to or worship idols; for I the Holy One your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me.” That wasn’t considered very PC, so they cut it out. But God also says in verse 6, “I show steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

Reflecting on the Ten Commandments and the question, “Is religion about rules or relationships?” The answer is neither “yes” nor “no;” rather the answer is a word that is behind the text, underneath the text and between the lines of the text, and that word is “love.” What is the most important commandment? Love! What kind of relationship should I have with God? Love! What kind of relationship should I have with my neighbors? Love! What about strangers? Love! What about my enemies? Love! What about me? Love! So this religion is about relationships. Yes, based on love. What about the rules? The rule is love!

Whether you’re a “half-empty” or “half-full” person when you see eight ounces of Dr. Pepper in a sixteen ounce glass, whether you believe the commandments, bible, God and religion are about rules or relationship, the answer is still love!

It is the love God that surrounds us in this and every place. It is the love of God that speaks to us through the scriptures and commandments and in our hearts. And it was love that conceived Christ Jesus in the Virgin’s womb, love that raised him to love Jew and Gentile, women and men, whole and broken, guilty and innocent. It was love that suffered, bled and died. And it was love that rose with the sun offering light and life to all in its embrace. And it is love that remains in the broken, hurting world, shining beyond the sin, grief, disease and death. Love.

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.

Christ Memorial Episcopal Church

Kilauea Kauai

2 October 2011

Hearing Voices and Seeing Visions

In our world, people who talk about hearing voices and seeing visions are liable to be thought to be eccentric, odd or perhaps seriously mentally ill. All of these options – and more – have been proposed by biblical scholars who study Ezekiel to characterize the prophet whose physical prophecies included dramatic performances: lying in the dirt for months at a time, first on one side and then on the other, shaving his head and beard with a sword and sharing visions of flying back and forth from his refugee camp in Babylon to Jerusalem held aloft only by the hairs of his head and that one about the walking dead who weren’t quite zombies, just to name a few. And then there was the conversation he had with God about excrement in which one might argue that he proved that he was holier than God, at least the way he wrote it.

And then there was Ezekiel’s theology. That was really crazy. He believed that the God of Israel was not confined to Israel, that his God had not been defeated when Judah was defeated and their temple was destroyed. And everyone knew that that was how it worked. Wars were won by the people with the strongest God. And Israel and Judah lost. And Ezekiel swore that he saw God, in exile, in captivity, in Babylon – and everyone knew that the holy land was in Israel and Judah.

Ezekiel even claimed that he saw God and lived despite what the stories about Moses said. But because God is invisible, Ezekiel said he saw the “appearance of the likeness of the glory” of the God who is enthroned above the cherubim – and he saw them too, not their sculpted images on the now-missing Ark of the Covenant, but the living, flying originals. Ezekiel claimed that God followed God’s people into exile and was even now accompanying them in their sorrow.

And as if that wasn’t enough, Ezekiel turned centuries of theology – including the sacred stories that had been passed down for generations and were now being written down as scripture on their head. Ezekiel taught that people did not suffer because of their parents’ or ancestors’ sins but only because of their own. And Ezekiel taught that God prefers forgiveness to punishment. Ezekiel’s “Old Testament God” was more tender, loving parent than fire and brimstone thunderbolt hurler in this regard – in spite of everything around them suggesting the contrary.

And on one level, everything around them denied the existence, power and presence of God. The dirt under their feet was the foreign soil of Babylon where they had been force-marched in defeat. The rivers by which they sat down, by which their psalmists chanted that they hung their harps on willow trees and refused to sing the Lord’s songs in a strange land did not empty into the River Jordan, Reed Sea or even the Salt Sea. These were strange waters, danger waters. The very air was full of the scent of incense burning to strange gods. Their ears heard cursing and mocking of them, their army, their king, their God and the multitude of laments from other conquered peoples added to their own. And their hearts were full of grief, when they were not frozen with numbness and post-traumatic shock.

The Judean Israelites had lost more than a war; the only world that they knew crumbled before them under the hatchets and hammers of their enemies, and then everything that they knew and loved was put to the fire or looted. They were the survivors of Assyria’s decimation of their once twelve-tribe nation one hundred and thirty-six years ago. And now they too had been destroyed as a nation. They had lost their king. They had lost their queen-mother. They had lost their army. They had even lost their bureaucrats. [I don’t know that any one missed them much.] They had lost their land. They had lost their homes. They had lost the house of God.

What if anything did they have left? God. While Ezekiel lacked the poetry of his predecessor Isaiah, Ezekiel preached his own version of Immanu-El, God is with us. Ezekiel’s visions were proof that God was with God’s people in exile while the voices he heard taught that God had not been defeated. And God’s word to God’s people in the disaster they could never have imagined, was one of comfort:

As I live, says the Sovereign God, I do not delight in the death of the wicked, rather that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn, turn from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?

Swearing by God’s own eternal life, God swears that God’s desire is for repentance, not punishment and, that no matter what their eyes see and ears hear, they, their people and even their nation are not doomed to destruction. The God of Life will preserve their lives as surely as God lives forever and ever.

All they have to do is repent. Turn, turn away from everything that separates them from God and turn, turn back to God. God doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about sin here. God simply acknowledges that everyone in the community bears some guilt. There is no one who does not need to repent. There is no one whom God wants to lose; no one from whom God wants to be separated. And it is not too late to seek God’s forgiveness and restoration. Even in the hell of their captivity, it was not too late for their redemption, release and restoration.

All of these things came to Ezekiel in visions no one else could see and voices no one else could hear. It would have been easy to write him off as a crazy person, or even a dreamer. Dreamers and visionaries often seem like impractical people in the harsh, cold light of reality with practical needs, real contexts and deep skepticism of the non-rational, improbable, improvable and particularly the supernatural.

But God calls dreamers, daydreamers and visionaries, people who see the world beyond the world, the world as it is and the world as it could be. God calls to people who believe in the supernatural, and sometimes those who don’t. And God speaks to hearts and minds and even ears. Perhaps not everyone who hears voices hears from God, but that does not mean that God is not speaking. I don’t hear from God the way Ezekiel did, but I do hear from God. I’m a thoroughly modern woman, yet I believe in what I can’t see and in what perhaps only I can see. And I listen, with my heart and head and hands.

I pray with the psalmist:

Teach me Holy One, the way of thy statutes and I shall keep them unto the end. Let me ask you All Saints, are you letting God teach you even if God chooses to do so through dreams and visions and voices?

What about the voices and visions, like those of Ezekiel that have been preserved for us? Do you read and study the scriptures? Do you teach the scriptures to your children? Do you read the lessons of the week? Do you know where and how to find them? Do you read the lessons of the day? Do you know where and how to find them?

Teach us Holy One, the way of thy statutes and we shall keep them unto the end. We need to be taught, all of us, clergy and lay. There is so much we don’t know about the scriptures and yet we claim as our redeemer, a rabbi, a teacher. Teach us Holy One, the way of thy statutes and we shall keep them unto the end.

God spoke to Ezekiel, not for his own sake, but for the sake of his community. God came to God’s people when they were in desperate need, at the point many would have said that it was already too late. In our own times of desperation, are you listening to and looking for God? Are you the visionary dreamer through whom God will call us once again to faithfulness, to repentance and ultimately to restoration? In the words we teach our children: Stop! Look! And listen!

If we were serious when we prayed the psalm earlier, we asked God to reveal Godself to us, to teach us and guide us. The psalm does not place any conditions on God: “I’d appreciate it if you’d remember that this is the twenty-first century, and we are modern professional people who scoff and sneer at the supernatural. So please don’t send us any wild-eyed preachers hearing voices. We are Episcopalian after all.”

Rather, we prayed:


Psalm 119:33 Teach me, Holy One,

the way of your statutes,

and I will observe it to the end.

34 Give me understanding, that I may keep your teaching

and observe it with my whole heart.

35 Lead me in the path of your commandments,

for I delight in it.

36 Turn my heart to your decrees,

and not to selfish gain.

37 Turn my eyes from looking at vanities;

give me life in your ways.

38 Confirm to your servant your promise,

which is for those who fear you.

39 Turn away the disgrace that I dread,

for your ordinances are good.

40 See, I have longed for your precepts;

in your righteousness give me life.


Ezekiel invites, and perhaps compels us to embrace the mystery of a God who transcends all that we see, hear, think and feel. Teach us Holy One, the way of thy statutes and we shall keep them unto the end.

In the Name of the Author, the Word and the Translator. Amen.

The Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D.

All Saints Episcopal Church

Kapaa HI


Giving God a Piece of Your Mind

Sometimes I’m up; sometimes I’m down. Sometimes I’m almost level to the ground. Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, a long way from home.

Sometimes, I want to do like Hezekiah, and take my stuff – my hopes and my hurts – to God in person, or at least as close as a mortal woman can get. Sometimes like Job, I want to give God a piece of my mind, and not even a sanctified piece. This morning, I’d like to invite you to tell God how you really feel because God already knows and God can take it. God can handle it. God can work it out. God can. God is able. Giving God a Piece of Your Mind.

Let us pray:

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 let us hear the soft, still voice. Amen.

Some things in this world just aren’t right: Children die. Babies are brutally murdered. They are shot while playing in their front yards or run down by drunk, distracted or texting drivers who don’t even have the decency to stop or call for help. Children are brutalized by the people who should love and care for them, their own parents. It’s not right.

There is so much violence in our world, in our streets, in our schools, in our homes. Pregnant women are more likely to die at the hands of some man beating on them than any biological complication from pregnancy or childbirth. One in four women and girls and one in five men and boys have been sexually assaulted and live with the trauma and after-effects, rarely receiving the help they need or even seeing justice in their days. It’s just not right.

People suffer terribly all over the world. Crops fail. Jobs disappear. Economies collapse. Hard work and education seem to mean nothing. The only thing that endures is the bills, bills, bills. Our own bodies betray us, dissolving into sickness, disability and unexpected, unwelcome and untimely death. It’s not right God.

The ones we love betray us even more. I learned in seminary that hurt people hurt people. But knowing that doesn’t make it hurt any less. Some things in this life just aren’t fair. People work hard, pay their bills and lose their jobs and their homes because of someone else’s accounting tricks. People invest in their children’s upbringing and education and watch them chase after all that they tried to protect them from, or see them cut down as an innocent bystander while they were doing the right thing. So many of our young men and women are locked up, locked down and locked out.

And there is war and terrorism on every continent in the world. The drug war in Mexico regularly crosses the border. Our sons and daughters, wives and husbands, neighbors and strangers are fighting, killing and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan and in other places around the world. The impending tenth anniversary of 9/11 reminds us that not even the morning commute can be taken for granted – may we never see another day like that one in which airplanes became guided missiles and three thousand people left this life, some in agony burning alive while others choked to death, and yet others jumped to their deaths.

There is real evil in this world, much of it at the hands of other people. You know, sometimes it seems that this world would be a much better place if it weren’t full of all those other folk. I’m talking about me right now; you may have never felt like this. Or perhaps you have. Sometimes it seems like what is needed is for someone to just tell God all about it. Not because we doubt that God knows, but perhaps because it seems that God is so busy birthing new galaxies and stars, keeping all of the planets aligned in their courses, maintaining the moon’s proper orbit, keeping the sun from burning out or burning us up, sending the rain – and snow and sleet and hail, stirring the storms and calming the seas, blowing the evening breeze and trade winds across the Caribbean and Pacific, raising life from the dead husks of buried seeds entombed in the womb of the earth, feeding the birds and the bees, painting the flowers and the trees that it feels like God needs to be reminded that we need some help right here, right now.

We may know that God is attending to us every moment of every day, breath by breath, heartbeat by heartbeat, counting our hairs, freckles and wrinkles, but sometimes it feels like we’re out here all on our own, when life gives us lemons and we don’t have honey or sugar with which to make lemonade, especially when other folk start messing with us – hurting our feelings, hurting our hearts, hurting our families, messing with our livelihoods. And as much as we might like to see it, the earth does not open up her mouth and swallow them whole, no fire from heaven comes down and smites them, we don’t even hear voices saying, “Touch not my anointed and do my prophet no harm.” (And if we do hear voices, no one else hears them with us.)

Sometimes we need to call on God, to call God’s attention to our immediate circumstances in a particular way. Whether we believe that God is already actively, intimately involved with the details of our lives or think that God is so busy we need to cry out, “Come see about us!” there are ancestral stories passed down in the scriptures that speak to us about giving God a piece of our minds. Pray with me as I tell you the truth this morning: Sometimes I Feel Like Giving God a Piece of My Mind.

The first lesson, from the book of Kings is one such story. Seven hundred and twenty some-odd years before the scandalous birth of a Palestinian Jew with questionable parentage, Yeshua ben Miryam, Jesus, Mary’s child, the world as Hezekiah knew it changed for all time. The Northern Monarchy, the largest realm in the divided Israel was decimated and depopulated by King Shalmaneser of Assyria. He spent three years marching from the north: the peoples and produce, military and materiel of the tribe of Naphtali – gone, the peoples and possessions of the tribe of Issachar – gone, the citizens of the tribe of Manasseh and all their stuff, including the capital city of Samaria – gone. Burned to the ground and their people marched off and resettled as essentially slave labor in the Assyrian empire. And in their wake, unburied corpses, raped women, murdered children, hunger, desolation, grief, rage and cries to heaven.

Refugees from the other tribal lands poured into Benjamin, Judah and what was left of Simeon. There was no one left to govern in the north, even if the Assyrians didn’t march on every town and village, they irrevocably broke the Israelite monarchy, government and society in the tribal lands of Manasseh, Asher, Naphtali, Zebulon and Issachar, and Gad, Ephraim, Reuben and Dan. On the local level it was sheer anarchy; on the national level it was a return to foreign bondage. And Hezekiah watched it happen from his perilous perch on his own tottering throne.

And to make sure that there would be no one to rise up against him, Shalmaneser depopulated Israel of all its royal and military power, intellectuals and entrepreneurs, artisans and most skilled craftswomen and craftsmen. Then to keep the economy going and funneled into his coffers, he repopulated Israel with people he had taken captive and forced off their lands in other battles in other nations. The new inhabitants of Samaria were from Babylon, Cuthah, Hamath, Avva and Sepharvaim. They made what lives they could with the peoples who were considered too useless to deport. Their descendants became known as the Samaritans – as distinct from the former Samarians – the Samaritans were despised, not because their religion differed some from the religion in Judah, (and it did), but also because they were multicultural, multiethnic, multinational and living proof of the fall of Israel. That is why the Samaritans were considered impure.

Now let’s think about that for a moment. Who and what were the Israelites to talk about ethnic and national purity? (Remember race did not exist as a concept until less than five hundred years ago.) The founding parents of Israel, Abraham and Sarah were incestuous Chaldeans or proto-Babylonians; today they’d be Iraqis. They came from a family where incest was accepted; they were sister and brother from the same father; then their brother Nahor married their other brother, Haran’s daughter, Milcah, his own niece. She was the grandmother of Rebekah who married her cousin Isaac. Milcah was also the sister of Lot who claims to have been abused by his daughters – even though we know that many abusers blame their victims. Incest was common and inner-family marriage was the norm in the founding family of what would become Israel – a familial and religious designation, not an ethnic identity. One of the mothers of Israel, Rebekah and her brother Laban were Arameans, and Rebekah required her son Jacob to marry one of her nieces – he married both, but that’s another story. Jacob’s twelve leading sons – he had more and many daughters but that’s another sermon – Jacob’s sons and their women became the ancestors of Israel:

Judah had children with Tamar who was not from the founding family; she was a local Canaanite girl who had married into his family; she was his daughter-in-law. Simeon also had children with a Canaanite woman. And Joseph married Asenath, an Egyptian woman so that two of the latter tribes, Ephraim and Manasseh, were half-Egyptian, half-African. Even Moses married Midianite and Nubian women. So the claim from later generations of Israelites that the Samaritans were “impure” is something like the pot calling the kettle black. And all of that stems from the events Hezekiah watched unfold around him.

I say that Hezekiah was perilously perched on his throne because four years after Hezekiah was placed upon it, Shalmaneser and his army came back down from the north and this time, there was no Israelite army to slow them down. This time he pushed into Judah and took all of Hezekiah’s fortified towns, killing, maiming, raping and looting as he went. The Judean army was broken. There was nothing to keep Shalmaneser from ransacking and ravaging Judah. Nothing, but God.

But was God even paying attention? God did not intervene when Shalmaneser destroyed Israel. You know God does not intervene every time disaster befalls us. At least not in my life. I have had heartache and grief. I have watched folk I love cut down in their prime or linger in affliction savaged by disease. And like Hezekiah I have tried to do the right thing in my own life, and sometimes I have even managed to do so. But there was always someone around pointing fingers at every setback and tragedy, blaming me for my own misfortunes just as the Judeans blamed the Israelites for their devastation.

The Judeans comforted themselves by blaming the Israelites. Surely they were sinful and brought the disaster on themselves. Nothing like that could happen around here. We are God’s people. God is on our side. And there were plenty of prophets who agreed with them. But there were some prophets who said that Judah had their own issues with sin. And the surviving Israelites told the Judeans, just wait; your turn is coming. And to Hezekiah, this was more than an academic question; was God going to let Shalmaneser destroy Judah too?

Hezekiah prayed. He more than prayed, he gave God a piece of his mind. Hezekiah went to the house of God and literally laid his petition before God. You see the Assyrian military commander had presented Hezekiah with a letter detailing everything that he was going to do to him and his people, and naming all of the peoples and gods he had already come through to get to his front door. And as far as the commander was concerned, Hezekiah and his god was one more obstacle before dinner.

Hezekiah wanted God to see the disrespect of the Assyrian commander with God’s own eyes. Hezekiah took the letter dissing God and showed it to God: Look what they are saying about you! Look what they say they will do to your people. Look what they say they will do to your house. Look what they say they will do to the place where your name and your glory abide. Look at this mess! Every time they have sent somebody one of these letters, they have destroyed them and their gods – know I know there’s a big difference between you and their gods, but they don’t know you like I know you! Save us I pray, not for our sake alone – although we’d appreciate it. Show them who you are and whose we are.”

Hezekiah’s story has a happy ending, a miraculous ending. God heard his prayer and answered his prayer affirmatively. There was a rumor about an African monarch, Tirhaka, assaulting the Assyrians on another side. They left to face his formidable threat and never came back. They could have and should have turned back around and continued their siege. But they didn’t. There was no earthly reason for the Assyrians to refrain from attacking Judah. It was a miracle. Hezekiah gave God a piece of his mind and God listened to Hezekiah. But Hezekiah’s story isn’t the only story in the bible. He’s not the only person standing in the need of prayer. Some of you may be Hezekiah, come to church, say your prayers and everything works out all right. But me, I’m Job. Every once in a while God and I have issues. We need to work some stuff out. And like Job, if I knew where to find God, I’d give God a piece of my mind. It’s all right. God can handle it. God knows what I’m thinking anyway. I might as well get it off my chest. And who knows, God just might come to see about me. That’s what Job thought.

The book of Job is the story of a man who sues God. His name Iyov, means “enemy.” And it sure feels like God is his enemy. Job loses everything he has. His cattle and camels aren’t just money in the bank, they are the food in his belly, milk for his children, clothes on his back, the tractors with which he plowed his fields, fertilizer and fuel and transportation, social security and Medicare rolled up in one. His slaves are people and he has made it his business to treat them as justly as he knows how and he grieves their loss. And then there is the loss of all of his children at one time, a grief that overshadows everything else including the disgusting, oozing sores all over his body. All of his children are dead and gone – murdered – and nothing will ever bring them back. Even if he has children later – and he will – those precious lives have been destroyed in a fit of violence.

And God did nothing. God permitted it. And if Job knew what we know – that his life was crap because God was playing craps with his life – he might have wanted to do more than sue God. But Job doesn’t know that God set him up, used him and his children to prove a point. But Job does know that God is and that God is just even when he doesn’t understand how a just God could let all of this happen. He knows that God is real and that if he can just find God and serve the Most High a subpoena and give God a piece of his mind, everything will be all right.

I’ve been saying that Job sues God because the Hebrew text is full of legal terminology and presents Job’s claim as a personal injury lawsuit. Words like “contend” and “reason” in English bibles are all translations of the word that means lawsuit, riyv, in Hebrew. The basis of Job’s suit is that God has done him wrong by allowing his all of children to be butchered, him to be afflicted with a disfiguring disease and all of his possessions to be stolen or destroyed. He knows that none of this is his fault, no matter what the saints, aints and his fair-weather friends say. Job knows that he is blameless in God’s sight. He also knows that the prevailing theology of the day is that if bad things happen to you, it’s your own fault, you deserve whatever you get and you get whatever you deserve. But that’s not working for Job. Job knows that he is a good man. He knows that he does not deserve his misfortune and neither do his children. Job spends the majority of the book looking for God so that he can have his day in court. And Job believes that he will get a fair trial and a fair hearing from God because he believes in a just God. Job 23 could be translated,

Job 23:3 Who will grant that I might know where I might find God,

that I might come to God’s abode? [And serve God a subpoena]

4 I would set my [legal] case in order before God,

and fill my mouth with [legal] arguments.

5 I might know what God would answer me, [under oath]

and understand what God would say to me [from the witness stand].

6 Would God counter-sue me in the greatness of God’s power?

Ah, no! God would make space for me [to have my day in court].

7 There an upright person could be found to be right with God [to be acquitted],

and I would be delivered for all time by my judge.

Job seeks to draw a real, living God into court, and gets more than he bargains for. God shows up. God shows up. God shows up in chapter 38 and tells Job to tie up the man-flesh dangling between his legs and demands that Job answer, “Who is this that darkens counsel by speech without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you will answer me!”

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Don’t you know that I am the mother of ice and snow, birthing them out of my own womb? Don’t you know that I am the father of the rain? Have you given marching orders to the sun every morning from the time before time? Did you plant the stars in the heavens joining them into constellations? Who do you think you are? Don’t you know who I am? And Job put his hand over his mouth.

The book of Job doesn’t whitewash pain and suffering. Its scandalous theology is that God is gambling with your life and the lives of your children. And at the same time, the book of Job affirms a God who is there, a God who responds, albeit a God who does not do what we want or think, but an all-powerful, sovereign God. When Job meets God, Job says, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you. I reject all of this and am comforted in dust and ashes.”

The book of Job is an ancient theodicy; it is a theology of pain and suffering. Why is there evil in the world? Because God said to God’s chief prosecuting attorney, the satan – lower case, he has not yet evolved in biblical literature into the capital “S” embodiment of evil – God said to God’s chief prosecuting attorney, “Have you set your heart on my servant Job?…” One of the biblical answers to the problem of suffering is that God did it.

The book of Job is in the bible to bear witness to the truth of the victimized and devastated who know that life is not fair, you don’t always get what you deserve, the innocent do suffer and God is inscrutable. Ah, God. God is in the book of Job. God is behind the book of Job. God is underneath the book of Job. Belief in God in the face of the unbelievable and insurmountable pervades the book of Job. God is real and God is there and God will listen when you give God a piece of your mind. Even if you’re crazy enough to try to sue God, God will come to meet you where you are, God will speak a word – that if it doesn’t change your circumstances, will change you. God spoke to Job from chapter 38 to chapter 41. God spoke to Job for one hundred and twenty nine verses. And in that time, God didn’t change a single thing in God’s life. God changed Job.

I say with Job, I have suffered unbelievable loss, but it’s all right. I’ve faced the limits of my own mortality, and it’s all right. I’ve called God on the carpet and been blown out of the water, and it’s still all right. How can it be all right? I’m going to tell God. Women are being raped to death in Congo. Tell God. Children are being slaughtered with machetes in Darfur. Tell God all about it. The city of brother love and sisterly affection has been turned into Kill-a-delphia. Children and young folk who know better are running wild in the streets. Tell God. London is burning. Tell God. People who work forty, sixty, eighty hours a week are losing their homes through no fault of their own. Tell God all about it. There are people without running water and electricity in the United States of America. Children are starving to death while others throw food away. Tell God. Our country is going deeper into debt while the rich are getting richer and paying fewer taxes if they pay any at all. Tell God. Our president is under assault because of who he is and what he looks like. People are threatening his life. People are threatening his wife. People are even threatening their children. Tell God. It’s not always safe in the church for children or adults. Tell God all about it. Give God a piece of your mind.

If I knew where God was I’d sue. Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is right? Surely there is one who will take my case. I know that I have a living advocate to plead my cause. Somewhere there is a goel for me, a redeeming relative; some kin to help me save my skin. If I could just get God into court, I know I could get justice. I know I can’t win against God, but if I could just have my day in court, if I could just have my say, if I could just give God a piece of my mind, then I’d know there’s still justice and righteousness in the universe. If I could just see God.

God appeared to Job in a whirlwind. God was hidden from Hezekiah by the veil between the holy place and the most holy place. God appeared to a virgin girl named Miriam, called Mary in the flesh and blood of her own body.  God appeared to prophets and kings, shepherds, philosophers and astrologers as a baby in the stench of a stable. God appeared to the people of Israel as a rabbi who couldn’t keep his more 5000-member congregation together. And God appeared to the world on a cross-shaped lynching tree. God appeared to the women, Mary and Salome and Johanna and the other Mary who were the apostles to the apostles. And I’m here to tell you that God still appears. Not in the body that walked the earth two thousand years ago – although I hear it’s making a comeback – but God appears in the bodies and lives and ministries of God’s servants. God is here. Right now. And in the presence of God, all of our brokenness is welcome, redeemed and transformed. Tell God all about it. And if you can’t say a mumbling word. That’s all right too.

In the Name of God, the Author, the Word and the Translator. Amen