Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Posts tagged “Christmas

Holy Blackness: The Matrix of Creation

Image by needpix.com

In the velvet darkness of the blackest night
Burning bright, there’s a guiding star
No matter what or who, who you are
There’s a light (Over at the Frankenstein Place)
There’s a light (Burning in the fireplace)
There’s a light, light in the darkness of everybody’s life.

Let us pray:
God of fire and light who dwells in thick darkness,
the light and the dark are alike to thee,
open the eyes of our hearts that we might see. Amen.

In the velvet darkness, darker than a thousand midnights down in a cypress swamp, this luminous darkness, this radiant blackness, the wholly black and holy black womb of God pulsed life into the world against a tapestry of holy life-giving darkly radiant blackness, shaping, molding, knitting, coalescing earthstuff from starstuff from Godstuff. All before uttering the first word.
This more than binary God articulated in the binary idiom of Iron Age folk recalling the testimony of their Stone Age forebears, limited to two gender signifiers but using both to signal to the best of their ability that neither was sufficient even if some would use one more, to the near exclusion of the other, this pluripotent God whose breath-crafted children would bear her, hir, his, zir, our, their image, this God, conjured, confected, and crafted creation out of holy darkness.
The Poet and poetry of creation birth a story made of stories that tells us who we are, who we have been and, who we could be. We are born of blackness, starry night and fertile earth, our first human parents in science and in scripture have Africa’s soil on their feet and in their skin. But somewhere along the way we were taught to fear the dark, to fear the night, to fear the holy blackness that is the swaddling blanket of creation.
Some of our fear of the dark is ancient and instinctual from a time when we were not sure the sun would return from setting or storm or eclipse: Stay with us Lord of Light for the night is dark and full of terrors. The prayer to the Red God on Game of Thrones is in many ways the perfect embodiment of this and perhaps a worthy Advent prayer, (at least in a service where There’s a Light Over at the Frankenstein House from the Rocky Horror Picture Show is the Advent hymn). But some of our fear of the dark is carefully calculated and mercenary.
Some lost sight of or chose not to see the beauty of the diversity of creation having lost the memory of their own ancestral African roots and, when encountering a suddenly much larger world saw that our black beauty was valuable, profitable, salable. Then beginning in 1619 on this continent those ancient fears were seized upon and weaponized to build this nation on a foundation of slavery and genocide and the rhetoric of blackness became all that was wrong in the world just as Malik el-Haj al-Shabazz taught us when he was Malcom X: blackball, black sheep, blackmail, black hearted, black people.
My over-used but nowhere near retirement Black Lives Matter sign says, “Black Lives Are Sacred.” Blackness is sacred. But the world has lost sight of the goodness and sanctity of blackness. That is why it is so easy to kill us and our children and so easy to justify our deaths with fear, fear of the dark. Public Enemy prophesied rightly on Fear of A Black Planet. Fear of blackness. Fear of black people. All in service to a divinization of whiteness and light to the point of idolatry. To this Bishop Stephen Charleston says:
I have heard that the afterlife is a place of perpetual light. That’s a problem. Heaven needs night. Darkness is not evil, but a realm of mystery and imagination. The day is constant, but the night is creative. The stars dance. The moon dreams. The comets write poetry of fire. Without the night there is no dawn or twilight, no moments of sacred ambiguity, no subtle changes of perception, no promises kept or just made, a holy pledge of healing or of hope. No, please, we need the night in heaven. We need that glorious darkness, that obscure beauty, drifting on wedding gown clouds of white across an obsidian sky.
Thus, this the darkest time of the year is one of the holiest times of the year. The bleakest shadows of solar night hold the light in passionate embrace, and where they touch, shades of gray and, every color of the rainbow prism including those we cannot yet see. Our encultured fear, our tribalism, have kept us from seeing that all creation is inherently good. All God’s creatures are good by design. All of God’s children are good, born good, created good, created for goodness, good enough, even when they, we, fail to live up and into the goodness of God within us, it is still there.
We start this new Christian year in this Advent season with the goodness of God and the poetry of creation manifest in the liturgy of the earth. God is Poet and this good God-given earth is her poetry. Indeed, the earth is also both poet and poem, poetry groaning in creation. The liturgy of the earth, its cycles of sun and shadow, ripening and rotting, blossoming and blowing away, drenching and drying, feast and famine, storm and stillness, deep sea and desert wide are fluid ever-changing witnesses to and stanzas in the poetry of our lives, of our world. For we too are her poems, sonnets and ballads, dissertations of rap, rhythm and, rhyme and, more than a few limericks, quatrain and haiku and, forms for which there are yet no names. This great liturgy of creation is a liturgy of transition and transcendence. And so it is with life and death; they are not two separate polar realities for between them lies living.
It is into this life that brown baby Jesus comes to dwell, inhabit, teach, guide, accompany, heal, forgive, redeem, love and, live. And thus are we too called dwell in this good earth in our good incarnations, living, loving, forgiving, healing, accompanying each other on our pilgrim journey. We live in the waiting for the second Advent. Live in a world waiting for the fullness of redemption, restoration and, reparation. Live in this world where people don’t always see our poetry, our obscure beauty, our incarnations as Godstuff, our loving as the goodness of God in this world.
This earth is given into our care and we are given into each other’s care. Advent prepares us to encounter a God who dwells with us in the waiting earth. And Advent tells us that we are loved and worthy of love. Most of the world outside of a very specific set of churches doesn’t know that it is Advent. It is pre-Christmas sale season which began after, or even before, Halloween. Even in the Church Advent is often crushed into Christmas and the first Advent, the Nativity of black baby Jesus, often overshadows the second Advent, the return of the rainbow Christ, the fullness of humanity encompassing the poetry of all flesh, all kinds of flesh, transformed, human and divine, yet retaining enough of the poetry of the past to be recognized as the very same person, Mary’s baby.
Mary’s poor brown migrant baby. Christians the world over will sing their love for the baby Jesus for the next five weeks. But for many their love will not extend to Guatemalan baby Jesus or Muslim baby Issa who share his name. In far too many churches the stories of Advent and Christmas are used to sanctify white supremacy in the church. Introducing children to and reifying adult belief in a white Jesus who is not simply an aesthetic choice but a statement of power and domination. White Jesus is a colonized and colonizing Christ. Until the deaths of black and brown mother’s children mean as much as the deaths of white parent’s children and the windows and walls of our churches do not silently whitewash the brownness and Jewishness of Jesus, his family, friends and followers and his ancestors, the whiteness of Christian art and nativity plays will always be in service to white supremacy.
When Christ returns every system that holds people captive, dominates and subordinates will be unmade. And so we long for the second Advent. But I don’t think we’re all waiting for the same thing. The Church has been waiting millennia and in that waiting, has not only not healed the ruptures that form when we forget that we are all a handful of the same dirt, but in some cases has dug and deepened those fissures. And in some parts of the Church, the more you believe in the literal return of Jesus, the less you believe in or care about climate change because Jesus will just fix it after while.
Some read today’s gospel and see the immanent and unexpected return of Christ and all they can think of is who is going with him and who will be left behind. But that’s not the Jesus I know. The Jesus I know is in the field with the agricultural workers in the gospel. He’s with the women doing undervalued work in that same gospel. He’s not making a list and checking it twice. That’s someone else’s bag. And, I believe he is telling us this story so that we will take notice of who is around us and might not be able to make it alone.
We already live in a world where some people get left behind. In this world, people are left behind if they’re black or brown or poor or gay or trans or women or femme, or felons, or, or, or. But it won’t always be that way. While a traditional Advent reading might focus on Jesus’s return, I want to offer another reading. I don’t believe we have to wait for the return of Jesus for things to get better. I don’t believe that our problems are so big that only God can sort them out. I don’t believe that there is nothing that we can do about the quality of human life or the capacity of the earth to sustain life.
Jesus showed us by how he lived and died and lived again on the other side of death that nothing is too big, too much, too hard for God, that human dignity and flourishing are God’s dream for us no matter under what oppressive systems we find ourselves. The Jesus who allied himself with the poor and disenfranchised by becoming poor and disenfranchised will not abandon us to a world that does not love us, fears us and seeks to harm us. Rather Jesus stands with us as we remake the world that is our heritage, our sacred trust, as we rediscover its poetry and the poetry inside of each of us.
The time between the Advents is a pregnant time, indeed the earth is already in labor in apostle’s view. Now is a waiting time. Now is a watching time. And now is a working time. Jesus calls our attention to the people the world, and sometimes the church, says will be left behind. For much of human history women have been kept behind if not left behind. But the One for whose Advent we wait chose the flesh of a woman for the glory of the incarnation, that intimate bleeding flesh that the world of men wanted to leave behind, thus forever sanctifying woman-flesh and all human-flesh. And, for much of our history folk have wanted to leave gay folk and queer folk behind, yet Jesus comes to us through a miracle that transcends and queers gender roles, God-beyond-gender yet disclosed as the feminine spirit conceived a child with a human woman. From as soon as one person had two sticks while another had only one, we have left people behind in poverty and inequity. Yet Jesus came to us poor and underhoused. We are building walls – lying about building physical walls – while building legislative walls and the border-crossing Jesus is an asylum seeker. If we are not careful, we might just leave Jesus behind, not recognizing him because we’ve lost the sight and sound of the divine poetry in every human person.
We wait for the Advent return of the One whose incarnational gender poetry transcends the grammatical categories of frail human poets and translators, with that Advent will come the majesty of God, the manifestation of God’s perfect justice and love, for where God is, there can be no injustice. And dare I say, in God’s perfect justice none will be left behind.

About the texts: The Women’s Lectionary is the project of the Rev. Wil Gafney, PhD, Professor of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas, an Episcopal Priest canonically resident in the Diocese of Pennsylvania and Licensed in the Diocese of Fort Worth. Dr. Gafney selected and translated the readings using an expansive gender-explicit approach and, in the Psalms, explicit feminine language and pronouns for God. Church House, the Episcopal press, will publish the Lectionary.

Year A
Advent 1: Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 8; Romans 8:18-25; Matthew 24:32-44
Genesis 1:1 When beginning he, God, created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was shapeless and formless and bleakness covered the face of the deep, while the Spirit of God, she, fluttered over the face of the waters. 3 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good; so God separated the light from the bleakness. 5 Then God called the light Day, and the bleakness God called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, day one.

Psalm 8
1 WOMB OF LIFE, our Sovereign, *
how exalted is your Name in all the earth!
2 Out of the mouths of children and nursing babes *
your majesty is praised above the heavens.
3 You have founded a stronghold against your adversaries, *
to put an end to the enemy and the avenger.
4 When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, *
the moon and the stars you have established,
5 What are we that you should be mindful of us? *
the woman-born that you attend to them?
6 You have made us a little lower than God; *
you adorn us with glory and honor;
7 You give us mastery over the works of your hands; *
you put all things under our feet:
8 All sheep and oxen, *
even the wild beasts of the field,
9 The birds of the air, the fish of the sea, *
and whatsoever walks in the paths of the sea.
10 WOMB OF LIFE, our Sovereign, *
how exalted is your Name in all the earth!

Romans 8:18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the daughters and sons of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the daughters and sons of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Matthew 24:32 Jesus said, “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 33 So also, when you see all these things, you know that the Son of Woman is near, at the very gates. 34 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Creator. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Woman. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Woman. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Redeemer is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, the owner would have stayed awake and would not have let the house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Woman is coming at an unexpected hour.

Sources for opening:
Richard O’brien, “There’s a Light (Over at the Frankenstein Place)” Rocky Horror Picture Show, 1975 © Warner Chappell Music, Inc.
(Sources for first paragraph in order: Richard O’brien, Rocky Horror; James Weldon Johnson, “The Creation,” Howard Thurman (title, This Luminous Darkness); “black and radiant,” Rabbi Marcia Falk trans. “The Song of Songs”; “darkly radiant,” Mia McKenzie, The Thing About Being A Little Black Girl In the World: For Quvenzhané Wallis.


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

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Madonna and Child, Laura James

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the beginning before God created light there was darkness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


A Very Violent Christmas

10501674_10205425020685339_6064819075938599308_nEven without the litany of horrors that have made 2014 a year to forget if we could – hundreds of Nigerian girls abducted, sold and raped into slave marriages, their teachers and male classmates slaughtered, a plane with all souls aboard inconceivably disappeared into thin air, another plane from the same airline is shot down as Russia invaded and annexed Crimea – this Christmas is marked by violence the likes of which I have no comparison in my lifetime.

The deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner and lack of consequences faced by their killers are the tip of an iceberg of death. Black boys and men and, women like Renisha Boyd and girls like 7 year-old Aiyana Jones are being killed with abandon, particularly at the hands of the police. Black people are being killed by police at rates ranging from one every 72 hours to one every 28 hours by some accounts. (These accounts cannot be verified because of the lack of reporting by individual police departments.)

The racist biases against black people in this country and individual internalization of that bias lead to the disparate treatment of black folk at the hands of police. Unarmed black people, including children in their beds are shot to death and armed white folk are not even checked to see if they are in compliance with Open Carry and other firearm laws while white cop-killers are brought in alive to stand trial.

Too many black families are grieving the loss of their loved ones, many during these holidays and holy days. And many of us mourn with them, not as they mourn, but we mourn. And some of us are afraid for our brothers, sons, fathers, nephews and husbands. It is all too much. How can this be Christmas?

What does Christmas have to say to our broken fearful hearts? I’ll tell you the truth, the promise of eternal life is not comforting right now, neither is forgiveness of sins. I want to know what Christmas has to do with, say to, say about black life being snuffed out in American streets with little consequence.

There is one reason I haven’t thrown my bible against the wall and walked away long ago. One word actually. Immanu-El. God with us. God is with us. God is with us, dying in the street. That comforts me.

 

Mahalia Jackson’s Sweet Little Jesus Boy is one of my favorite Christmas carols. It is a poignant articulation of how much the story of the poor Babe of Bethlehem has in common with that of the black person in racist America. It is decades old, originating in Jim Crow and still relevant.

This Christmas I remember Jesus born to a fast-tailed girl and God was there, with her. Pregnant, single, presumed promiscuous. I remember a marginalized man, born into a world in which his people were subject to brutality at the whim of the people who oppressed his people. And God was with them. I remember a man who didn’t stick around for long eventually leaving a single mother to manage on her own, but God was with her. I remember a man whose protests against the powers of this world, including the collusion of some of his own folk led to death row. I remember a sorrowful mother told in his infancy that she would feel pain like being stabbed in the heart because of what the world would do to her child. And God remained with her. Even when the state executed her child and placed his bloody corpse in her arms.

The violence of this Christmas season is not new. It is not new for African Americans who survived the Maafa,  slavocracy, Jim and Jane Crow, state-supported lynchings, the prison industrial complex. We have survived because God has been with us. It is not new in the history of the world. We will survive trigger-happy police trained by their fear and society’s racism to demonize and exterminate black people. We will survive because God is with us.

We will survive and the world will change. Empires, conquerors and oppressors fall, rot and die and the world continues to turn. Another favorite song is The Canticle of the Turning, a modern take on the Virgin’s hymn, The Magnificat. Mary’s response to threat of death she was under as an unwed pregnant girl in a society that policed women’s bodies and sexuality with lethal violence was to look back at how her people made it over because God was with them. Mary looked back to one of the Mothers of her faith, Hannah who would be known as a prophet in Judaism – perhaps she was by then – Hannah for whom tradition teaches Mary’s own mother was named.

Hannah sang that God is a World-Turner (using the imperfect signaling future or even present action). Mary sang that Hannah’s prophecy was true (using the past tense). The empires that occupied Hannah’s Israel were long gone. Mary’s Song survived the empire that oppressed her and executed her son.

Finally (but perhaps not finally!), Immanu-El is with us in death and beyond death, transforming death into life.

The violence of that first Christmas, and of this one, those between and those to come will never have the last word because God is Immanu-El. God is with us. We will survive. We will thrive. And we will turn this world around.

The fires of your justice burn in us and will not be extinguished. With you we proclaim that our black lives are sacred. And this crucifying, lynching world does not have the last word. It is Christmas and you are Immanu-El. God is with us.

If you cannot be merry or happy this Christmas, be blessed. Blessed Christmas.


Shalom Miryam, Hail Mary

A miracle happened today. We will see it in nine months on Christmas Day. In reflection an Annunciation sermon (from 2004).

[On this day when people are arguing for the right to prevent women from accessing health services under the rubric of birth control (and abortion) because of their own religious biases, I am mindful that God does not share their fear of women’s bodies, in spite of what they say in Her name.]

For many centuries most European countries took 25 March, not 1 January, as the day when the number of the year changed, so that 24 March 1203 was followed by 25 March 1204. If you had asked a Christian of that time why the calendar year changed so oddly in the middle a month, she might have said: “This is the beginning of a new year in the Christian era, which began a thousand years ago today when God was made human, when God took upon Godself a carnal body and human nature in the womb of the Virgin.”
I like to imagine that Mary was praying the scriptures. Perhaps she was praying Psalm 46 which describes:
4 …the holy tabernacle of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved:
God will help her, when the morning dawns…
8 Come, behold the works of the Holy One…
10 Be still, and know that I am God!…
11 The Sovereign-Commander of celestial armies is with us; the God of Jacob
[and Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah] is our refuge.
Perhaps she prayed the prophet Zephanyah, Zephaniah, chapter 3:
15 …The Sovereign of the Heavens and Earth,
is in your midst daughter;
you shall fear disaster no more daughter…
16 Fear not daughter, O daughter of Zion;
do not let your hands grow weak daughter.
17 The Ever-Present One, your God, is in your midst daughter,
a warrior who gives victory;
Who will rejoice over you with gladness daughter,
and will renew you in love daughter;
Who will exult over you daughter with loud singing
18 as on a day of festival.
I will remove disaster from you daughter,
so that you will not bear reproach for this daughter.
I imagine that since Miryam did not suffer from our masculinist translations, that she would remember those texts with all of their girl-God-talk to the Daughter of Zion. She too was God’s daughter. And God sent God’s messenger to this daughter of Zion.
The angel said, “Shalom lakh, peace to you woman, wholeness to you woman, may it be well with you woman. If as a member of an oral, aural culture Miryam recognized those words, she might not have felt well at all. The old Benjaminite householder in Judges 19 greeted the wife of the traveling Levite with those very words: Shalom lakh, peace to you woman, wholeness to you woman, may it be well with you woman. That night he stood by as her husband forced her out of the house and into the clutching grasp of the men who raped and murdered her, leaving her to die on the doorstep of the man who greeted her with peace.
These words were also put to the Shunnamite woman on Elisha’s behalf in question form: Is it shalom to you woman? Is it shalom to your husband woman? Is it shalom to your child woman? She said ‘It is shalom.’ But her child was dead. Yet her child would live again. But how often could that happen? No wonder Miryam was deeply troubled by Gavri’el’s, Gabriel’s, words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.
Then Miryam was greeted with a ‘Fear-not.’ (The standard greeting in angelic discourse.) Once upon a time, to the woman who received the first angelic annunciation there was “Fear not Hagar…” More recently there was “Fear not, Zecharyah, Zechariah,: for your prayer has been heard; and your wife Elisheva, Elisabeth, will give birth to a son, and you will name him Yochanon, John.” There would be “Fear not Yosef (Joseph) ben David, take Miryam as your wife…” “Fear not, shepherds. Look! I am bringing you good tidings of great joy, which are for all people.” And one day there would be to her again, this time with her sister-friends: “Fear not women: for I know that you seek Yeshua, Jesus, who was crucified…”
The word of the divine messenger was ‘fear not’ because God is with you. Already. Before the spirit of God transubstantiates the flesh and blood of your womb into the body and blood of the Messiah. God is with you now, in your ordinary-extraordinary first century, Iron Age life. In the midst of the Roman occupation, God is with you. After the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, God is with you. After the destruction of the temple in Samaria, God is with you. During the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem, God is with you. While God is breathing life into the dead womb of Elisheva, God is with you. Here. Now.
The word of the divine messenger was not that God would be Immanu-El, with all of us, but that God was with her. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved. When the fabric of space and time collapse into the secret spaces of her body, God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved. Even if her spouse were to drag her down to the temple by her hair so her cousin could intone the malediction of the sotach – the woman suspected of adultery, God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved. Even if she were forced to drink the bitter waters of cursing, cursing her body and its secret places – she whose own name meant bitter-water-woman. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved.
Because God had been with her, was with her and continues to be with her, God is with us also. Immanu-El. As we continue our Lenten and annual liturgical journeys, let us reflect on the expansion of Immanu-El within us. I would like to invite you to grow with God in a Marion year.
On Palm Sunday, feel the neonatal Gospel quickening deep within you. During Pesach, Passover, including Good Friday and Easter, imagine nibbling on matzah to quell burgeoning waves of nausea as morning sickness comes morning or noon or night or all of the above. On Pentecost as faithful Jews celebrate the First Fruits hear Elisheva’s benediction “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” ‘Your first fruit.’  Imagine Ordinary Time transformed into Extraordinary Time as Miryam’s womb, now the Ark of Throbbing Promises expanded to encompass the ineffable. Imagine Advent waiting to see what on earth, what under the heavens he will look like. Will he have 10 fingers and 10 toes? Imagine Christmas as Frances Croake Frank envisions it:
‘Did the woman say,
When she held him for the first time in the dark of a stable,
After the pain and the bleeding and the crying,
“This is my body, this is my blood”?’
The fusion of divinity and humanity in the dark softness of womb-space has forever changed both of us. God’s knowledge of being human is experiential. Our experience of God-being is being human. The Incarnation provides a glimpse of God’s anthropology: It is just possible that human beings are capable of nurturing and protecting the most precious gift ever conceived. There is hope for us.
In this Women’s History Month, the Incarnation also provides a glimpse of God’s gynecology: Women, our bodies and their possibilities, our intimate relationships, our family ties, our calls and our confessions are God-space.
But in our world, women are the poorest people on the planet – their children are often poorer, but regularly shorter-lived. Women and girls are the most frequent victims of physical violence and sexual abuse. Palestinian women give birth to dying babies at Israeli checkpoints. Iraqi women and girls are more likely to be kidnapped if venturing outside of their homes after Operation Iraqi Freedom than before it. More women in the Armed Forces of the United States haven been raped by their comrades-in-arms than by the designated enemies in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait – where there are presumably only allies. Professional sex-workers serve as recruiting sub-contractors for colleges and universities with billion-dollar endowments. A father murders his daughters and their children, some of whom are also his children. A prison guard reports of the two weeks she was held hostage by inmates “Fortunately the sexual assaults didn’t happen very often.” The broken body of girl-child is stuffed behind a toilet in a library whose shelves offer story of the Annunciation and Incarnation.
Shalom lakh, peace to you woman, wholeness to you woman, may it be well with you woman. God is with you. In your brokenness, in your fullness, God is with you. How can this be? The power of the Holy Spirit, She covers you, She enfolds you, She transforms you inside and out, and She is transforming the world through you – one man at a time.
May God the Mother and Father
of Avraham, Yitza’ak and Ya’acov,
Sarah, Hagar, Rivqah, Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah,
Who took the tangled threads of their lives
And wove a tapestry of Redemption
In the Body and Blood of Miryam l’Natzeret
Continue to weave the strands of your life
In the Divine design
Amen.

 


Yo, You Are Not the Father: A Meditation on St. Joseph

St. Joseph, Patron Saint of Fathers
Patron Saint of Step-Fathers
Patron Saint of Adoptive Fathers
Patron Saint of Dead-Beat Dads

 

Every year during Christmas and Advent, I think about St. Joseph. I remember a sermon I heard from his perspective more than a decade ago. The preacher-man was saying how hard it is for men to raise children that are not theirs, particularly when they feel that they have been deceived. It’s one thing for a man to marry a widow, divorced mom or single mother, or for a couple to decide to adopt or even use a reproductive technology that involves donor sperm. It is an entirely different matter for a man to stay with a woman who has been impregnated by someone else after they made a commitment to each other. It must have been unimaginable for Yosef, Yusif, José, or Joseph to hear his woman saying that she had never cheated, never been unfaithful and was pregnant and the Holy Spirit – She! – was the Father.
I wonder if Yo thought Miryam or Mary or Maria was mentally ill. I’d like to believe that he loved her. That the quiet divorce was to spare her shame, protect her family honor and his, and to save her life. It’s also possible that he wanted to annul their betrothal quietly so that he wouldn’t lose face. Even if Yo came to believe Miryam’s crazy [@$$] story – and let’s not be so sanctified that we think that makes sense – even if he believed her,  his family and his boys wouldn’t. They would say that he got punked; that he was a punk; that he was pitiful for staying with a girl that played him so badly, so publicly.
Yo doesn’t get a lot of ink in the bible. But what he does get is continual reassurance from God through his dreams, for a while. God appears to him over and over again. And like his eponymous ancestor, he doesn’t need anyone to interpret his dreams for him.
To his eternal credit and well-earned sanctification, Yo stays with his woman. But he doesn’t touch her, for a while – a long while. I can’t believe that he didn’t feel bitter, betrayed and trapped at least some of the time. But he stayed.
Although he is absent from the Epiphany story. Where was he? Were they separated then? If so, they worked through it. And they had a real marriage. The scriptures are clear that they had four sons and an unknown number of daughters. (The perverse interpretation of the scriptures denies them their holy, healthy, God-given sexuality is blasphemy.)
But Joseph eventually disappears. He may well have died. But that is not the only possibility. As the strange boy-child became an even stranger man-child it became more and more clear that he was a stranger. And in spite of all of that God-talk the memories of those dreams were faded memories. The boy was trouble, running off, getting lost, causing a scene in the temple before the elders, reminding everyone about the possibility that Yo had been cuckolded. Joseph left.
Miriam was widowed by death, by abandonment or indifference. When she needed him, he wasn’t there. When her son – not his – was arrested; Yo wasn’t there. When her son – not his – was executed; Joseph wasn’t there. When her son – not his – was taken down from his lynching tree; Yusif wasn’t there. When her son – not his – was bathed after his death for his burial; Yosef wasn’t there.
José didn’t come back when people started saying that her son – not his – had risen from the grave. Joseph didn’t gather in Yerushalyim to see if her son – not his – would really meet his disciples including his mother, sisters and brothers for Shavuoth. Perhaps he was dead. Perhaps he heard all that miraculous, unbelievable resurrection talk and was ashamed of leaving, after all he hadheard from God in his dreams.
The silence in the scriptures surrounding Joseph’s absence at the end (and new beginning) of Jesus’ life is intriguing. If he was dead, why not say so? If he was a great age when he married Miryam and impotent and had children from a previous marriage, why not say so?
But if he left, left God’s son fatherless, how could that be explained? If he lost his faith, how could the rest of us come to believe?
I think he left. I think that the very humanity of Christ made the Incarnation harder and harder for him to believe. And I believe that as a saint who lost his faith, St. Joseph has much to teach us. Our faith is not rational. It is nearly unsustainable in the real world. I wonder if Joseph had other dreams that he disregarded. I wonder if having received his last divine visitation he believed he needed one more, and then another, and another, like an addict. I wonder if he ever really believed. I wonder if his pride got in the way of him asking Jesus the man, “Who are you really? Where did you come from? I need to know.”
Perhaps the disappearance of St. Joseph teaches us that we have to invest in our faith on a daily basis, making ourselves vulnerable to ridicule and the scandal of the gospel. I have to believe that when God called Miryam and Yosef into service God knew that they were capable of living into and up to their calling. And, God knew that they were capable of failing.
St. Joseph’s disappearance and likely abandonment of his family, God’s family, the family that he had promised God he would nurture on God’s behalf, also teach us that marriages fail and families rupture even when God is Incarnate in their  midst. And, we learn that a single mother can raise a child who will change the world by her [d@mn] self. And we learn that children from single-parent homes may be a little odd, lacking in a few social graces, but full repositories of God’s gifts and graces.
St. Joseph, I’m not mad at you. I think I understand as much as I can how hard was your calling. I’m just glad you were able to hang in there as long as you did. You guided them to safety and saved their lives, risking your own. I honor you for that. And I think you can claim some of what he grew into. Your mark is on him and no one can take that away from you.

St. Joseph, Patron Saint of Fathers
Patron Saint of Step-Fathers
Patron Saint of Adoptive Fathers
Patron Saint of Dead-Beat Dads
I call your name. I bless your memory. Ashé.

When the Shadow of Death Touches Christmas

Let us pray:

Come thou Wisdom from on high

and order all things far and nigh

To us the path of knowledge show

and cause us in Her ways to go. Amen.

It was for the author of the gospel attributed to John as if time had stopped and started all over again. Or been rewound. Or spiraled back on itself. This new beginning was another beginning, not the same beginning. But it changed everything. I know the “in the beginning” language is beloved, traditional and familiar, but grammatically it’s more like “when beginning…”

John 1:1 When beginning there was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 The Word was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through the Word, and without the Word not one thing came into being. That which has come into being 4 in the Word was life, and the life was the light of humanity. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

God begins with a word, the logos, in the Gospel. God begins with the Aramaic word for word, Memra, in the mystical tradition of Judaism on which Yochannan whom you know as John is drawing – if he indeed wrote the gospel penned in his name – just as God began with the d’var, the Hebrew word for word when beginning all things in Genesis. When beginning each time, each beginning was a word, a divine word, a holy word, a spoken but not yet written word, perhaps a word whispered in a still small voice.

That word was light and life; it was more than alive; it was life itself. The word was the God of life and the life of God to be breathed, poured, into humanity giving us life in the image of God. This eternal living light cannot be extinguished and shines forever as God lives forever, as we too will one day live forever. This living light has been infused into and through creation and we – and the whole of creation – are suffused with it. But that light coexists with darkness.

The light is shining in the darkness. The darkness cannot overcome, overwhelm, diminish or suppress the light. Yet what John does not say (in verse five) is that the light does not overcome the darkness. The darkness and light co-exist. There is always shadow. The world is filled with shadow. We have seen those shadows recently. Friday was the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the children and babies murdered on Herod’s orders as he sought kill the Virgin’s miraculous child. And we remember the innocents of all generations who have been slaughtered for every reason and no reason: in the Crusades, during ocean-crossing of the Atlantic slave trade, the native peoples of North, South and Central America, in the Holocaust, those who have been murdered at the hands of parents, neighbors and strangers including those in Newtown CT and every day since then in Philadelphia, Palestine, Chicago, Congo, around this nation and around this world.

I didn’t tell you the title of the sermon because it might have seemed too dark without some introduction. Today’s sermon is “When the Shadow of Death Touches Christmas.” The juxtaposition of the first Sunday of Christmas with the Feast of the Holy Innocents marking the slaughter of the Holy Innocents is intentional in our calendar. The sweet little Jesus child, holy infant so tender and mild, was born into a dark world, in which children were murdered for financial and political gain. And, every year at Christmas families grieve the loss of loved ones who were there the Christmas before but are not here this Christmas. Some will die doing the holiday season. Others will fall ill; there will be fires and accidents and other tragedies. Christmas has always been touched by, attended by, the shadow of death. Yet the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.

And in many places the church keeps saying, “Merry Christmas!” and ignoring the shadows. We light our candles, wreathe our homes with light, wrap our trees in light and bask in glow of our fireplaces, but there remain shadows in the corners of our rooms, in the corners of our eyes and in the corners of our hearts.

Death is everywhere, in the darkness and in the light. This is the scandal of the Incarnation, God descended into shadow, even into Shadow-Valley Death and walked its lonely yet crowded pathways. Perhaps even more scandalous is how God did it: The scandal of the Incarnation is the scandal of the human body, a woman’s body and all of its ins and outs. The scandal of the Gospel may have been the crucifixion for Paul. But for far too many others it is the specific circumstances of the Incarnation: human flesh and blood, the secret places of a woman’s peculiar biology.

For it is through human bodies that shadows are deepened in and lengthened on the world. And while there are evil forces at work as well, encouraging, facilitating, instigating; the old claim “the devil made me do it,” does not account for all of the evil in the world. We humans have done more than our fair share.

So God became human, woman-born. Son of God, Son of Woman, Child of Earth: mortal, frail, embodied, human. To be human is to be carnal, fleshly, to dwell in shadow. 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. 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. To be human is also to be in relationship as God is in relationship within Godself.

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

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

This 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.

This is the season of hope and peace and joy and light. One of the reasons Christmas was placed at this point on the calendar is because the days are getting longer; light is literally filling the world (our side of it anyway). The Twelve Days of Christmas are days of light. The Feast of Epiphany is a feast of light.

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

When beginning in Genesis, the first thing God created was light. When Mary’s boy child was born, even more light flooded the world. Each of us has become a light-bearer through our professions and confessions of faith and in the water of our baptisms. The light of God lives with and in us; we are the light of God. And there is no darkness, no shadow, that cannot be overcome by the holy light of God.

How bright is your light? How do you kindle, nurture and stoke its flame? How often do you join your flame with the flames of your sisters and brothers in prayer and worship and at the table? Let the light of Christ shine in and through you to the ends of the earth, with all of its nooks, crannies, corners, crevices and crevasses and even that Shadow-Valley, Death.

This light will shine through the ages; it cannot be overcome and one day it will banish all darkness. One day when the shadow of death extends itself to the Christmas season its touch will be rebuffed; it will fade in the light of Christ. Whether we join God in heaven or God and heaven join us on earth, the whole of creation will be transformed by that holy light. For where God dwells, there is no darkness or shadow at all.

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

 

The Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D.

Memorial Church of the Good Shepherd

East Falls Philadelphia

30 December 2012


My Advent Practice

This year I am tweeting President Obama (@BarackObama) every day during Advent, Hanukah and the 12 Days of Christmas urging him to push for a just peace between Israel and Palestine. Join me (@WilGafney)! Huffington Post Religion features my practice here.


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: