Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Posts tagged “gospel

Yeshua ben Miryam, the Son of Woman

This Epiphany as we reflect on the ways in which Jesus the Messiah is revealed I celebrate that his life giving Body and Blood were consubstantiated in the Virgin's womb and that he is Son of God, Son of Woman and Child of Earth. While hailed as the Son of David, Jesus is also the Son of Ruth, the only woman who figures in both his and David's genealogy.

 

Ironically, most of the women in biblical genealogies are erased even as their reproductive labor and child-nurture perpetuate and preserve their people. The genealogy below reclaims women whose names are given in the scriptures and re-inserts them in Matthew's genealogy. 

 

A genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of Miriam, the daughter of Anna:

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, bore 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, the mother of Joash.

Jecoliah of Jerusalem bore Uzziah,

Jerusha bore 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.

These are their sons:

Jechoniah, Shealtiel, Zerubbabel,

Abiud, Eliakim, Azor and Zadok,

Achim, Eliud, Eleazar,

Matthan, Jacob and Joseph, the husband of Miriam.

Of her was born Jesus who is called Christ.

The sum of generations is there: 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.

 

“A Genealogy of Jesus Christ: Alternative to Matthew 1” was complied by Ann Patrick Ware of the Women’s Liturgy Group of New York, who has graciously put this text in the public domain for all to use.


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


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

RuOaul

(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.


Scandalized By Jesus: Some Lessons for Vocation

Crucifixion

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.


(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.


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 

Buddhism

Treat not others in ways 
that you yourself would find hurtful
.

– The Buddha, Udana-Varga 5.18

Confucianism

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

Hinduism

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

– Mahabharata 5:1517

Islam

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

– The Prophet Muhammad, Hadith

Jainism

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

– Mahavira, Sutrakritanga

Zoroastrianism

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