Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

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Holy Leviticus! Justice is True Holiness

Riggio-Lynch Interfaith Chapel at CDF Alex Haley Farm
built as an ark of safety for children

There are some verses from Leviticus 19 that we don’t often hear, in part because the verses we do often hear have been decontextually weaponized and which, even when contextually comprehended, speak more to ancient biases than to actual biology. Yet just as Jesus the Son of Woman is fully human and fully divine, so too are the scriptures in which we prepare for and encounter him, the scriptures he interpreted and reinterpreted when necessary with an, “It is written… but I say unto you…”

In that spirit and with that permission we turn to the beloved, and also oft-cited, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” and the equally familiar–if you came up in a black church–“You shall be holy for I the Holy One your God am holy.” Can I get a “holiness is yet right”? Between “you shall be holy” and “love your neighbor” hang all the law and the prophets, to borrow a phrase. Pray with me if you will, on the subject, “No Justice Without Love, No Love Without Justice.” 

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

You shall love your neighbor as yourself is the end of the teaching in this passage of Torah. And while Jesus gave us a vivid exegesis of the passage, the truth is it was always self-explanatory as his debate partners knew full well. Their question was not what does it look like to love your neighbor, but who can I exclude from the God-given charge to love my neighbor, and still be holy. (Yes, I am an Episcopal priest preaching holiness from Leviticus. God is a wonder to my soul.) See, I believe that Leviticus, the heart of Torah, has gotten a bad rap and is in need of rebranding. Leviticus is a holiness text and:

  • Leviticus is a community organizing text.
  • Leviticus is a public health text.
  • Leviticus is a get right and get your people right text.

You shall be holy for I the Holy One your God am holy. What follows that autobiographical declaration is a twelve-step plan to holiness in the idiom, vernacular, and culture of the Iron Age. (Don’t count my steps; it’s a metaphorical number and as a black preacher I really only need three anyway.) I thought I just might, for the time that is mine, translate this way to holiness into the idiom, vernacular, culture, and dialect of this anti-Christic neo-fascist white supremacist violently lethal misogynistic transphobic homophobic anti-Muslim, anti-brown immigrant and refugee – Norwegians and Swedes welcome – punitive poverty police state. Because none of that is holy. 

What is holy: When you all reap the harvest of your land, it shall not be completed to the very edges of your field for harvesting, and thegleanings of your harvest shall not be gathered. Your vineyard you shall not scrape bare, and the fallen grapes of your vineyard you shall not gather; you shall leave them for those oppressed through poverty and for the alien who resides [in your land]: I am the Holy One your God. [All translations of the biblical texts are mine.] Translation: You shall use your economic resources to relieve poverty and hunger. You shall not extract every drop of profit from your enterprises, rather you shall make it possible for others to benefit from your wealth and success. You are not entitled to all of the fruits of your labors when other folk are going hungry. Companies that don’t pay taxes to contribute to the wellbeing of their neighbors and community while paying poverty producing wages is not love of neighbor, and since corporations are now people, they are subject to the same call to holiness. Our tolerance and maintenance of poverty is not love and it is not holy.

What is holy: None of you shall steal… I am God Whose Name Is Holy. Translation: You shall not steal anything or anyone. You shall not steal people’s land­–and I know full well the biblical framers gleefully endorsed the theft of Canaanite land and their subjugation while bemoaning their own enslavement and serial occupation. You can’t have it both ways beloved. You shall not steal. No exceptions. And none are needed because the previous verses guaranteed that the poor would eat as long as the rich were eating so there would be no need to steal to feed yourself or your family. 

Let me translate further: You shall not steal land or lives or livelihoods. You shall not steal nations or their resources. You shall not steal drinkable water or breathable air. You shall not rob the earth of life or livability or species. You shall not steal wages or rob workers of their health, healthcare, or dignity. You shall not steal children or their childhoods, or their innocence. You shall not steal hope or dreams. You shall not steal! The theft, despoliation, and plunder of God’s children particularly on this land, from attempted genocide to enslavement to chain gangs to Chinese labor to Japanese internment, to convict leasing, to child-napping and caging is not love and is not holy.

You shall not steal and you shall not lie. None of you shall deceive, and none of you shall lie to a compatriot. And none of you shall swear by my Name to a lie and so profane the Name of your GodI am God Whose Name Is Holy. Lies are incompatible with love and incompatible with holiness. I just don’t believe that lying liars and their lies will ever be the oracle or instrument of God. I know some of us were raised that the worse thing you could do was to call someone a lie, not even a liar, but a lie, even when it was true. But I’m grown now and I’m going to call a lie a lie and a liar a liar.

The lies that come between us and the true holiness that is love of neighbor are legion. The lie of whiteness, white supremacy and its idol, white Jesus, have made it impossible for some folk to love their neighbors and for some folk to love themselves. The lie that human beings only come in two diametrically opposed forms has kept parents from loving their children, and precious queer and trans children from loving themselves or even loving their very lives. It ceases to be a limited understanding or misunderstanding of human biology and sexuality when you refuse and ignore the science because that’s not how an Iron Age writer with his own biases thought God thought about human flesh. 

The lie that patriarchy protects women has robbed women of their autonomy, agency, health, and lives. The lie that war leads to peace has scorched the earth and left legions of dead and dying, wounded and refugee. The lie that is American justice has incarcerated and enslaved, raped and pillaged and pimped out and rented out black and brown women and men and children and their labor. These lies are killing us and our children. And then they dare to lie on God and lie in her name. They choose the least loving and most harmful interpretation of scripture, willfully ignorant about and uncaring of its context. They sculpt idols out of their lies who bear unsurprising resemblances to themselves. There is no God and no Christ in these lies. There is no love or holiness in these lies. 

What is holy: You shall not defraud your neighbor, you shall not steal, and you shall not keep overnight for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. Translation: You shall not cultivate and maintain a permanent underclass. You shall not further oppress those already ground down by an unjust immigration and migrant labor system. You shall not use the undocumented status of your workers to pay them poverty cycle wages under the table while stealing a kickback out of that. You shall not enrich yourself and your corporate shareholders at the expense of the health and wealth of your employees. This point is so important that the passage circles back to it again and again. There is no holiness or love of neighbor without economic justice. 

What is holy: Translation:You shall not mock the deaf and, you shall not put a stumbling block before the blind… You shall love every human person and every human body. You shall marvel at the diversity of God’s creation. And you shall not just not hinder or injure your sistren, bindren, and brethren, but you shall actively work together against their harm and exclusion.

What is holy: You shall not render justiceunjust…you shall judge your compatriot rightly. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand by the blood of your neighbor. Translation: You shall not call what is just unjust and you shall not call injustice justice. You shall not railroad the immigrant and the indigent. You shall not call desperate migrants rapists and gang members. You shall not throw babies in cages and make a profit off of their suffering. You shall not deny a rape victim justice with a “boys will be boys” and “let’s not ruin this nice young man’s future.” You shall not treat black folk like targets in a shooting gallery. You shall not kill our children, our sisters, our brothers, our mothers, or our lovers. You shall not lock up black and brown folk for selling the weed that you and your kids smoke while investing in the marijuana conglomerates of your friends and allies. You shall not stand by the blood of your neighbor. You shall not just stand by when black blood is flowing in the street. Holiness demands justice. Love demands justice.You shall not standby. Love won’t let you stand by. Holiness won’t let you stand by. 

What is holy: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. We know these words but most of us know them out of context. In context it is: You shall not hate in your heart your compatriot. Rebuke –yes rebuke!– your compatriot, and do not incur guilt on their account. You shall not take vengeance or nurture anger against any of your people; you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Translation: You shall not hate the haters. You shall love those who don’t love, those who by every reasonable standard would seem to be undeserving of love. You shall love and rebuke. Love them and rebuke them. Love them and not call them names. Love them and not start a twitter fight with them­–though it may turn into that–I’m talking to myself here. Love them and rebuke them. Rebuke Donald Trump. Rebuke Franklin Graham. Rebuke black preachers who hate black women while using their bodies and their money. Rebuke preachers who hate gay folk. Rebuke white supremacist Christianity. Rebuke bad preaching and worse exegesis. Tell the truth about the love of God and her call for us to love our neighbor as a demonstration of our holiness, her holiness, because we understand that she who is our God is holy.

Lastly, what is holy: The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Holy One your God. This should require no translation: 

Love treasures children and is incapable of considering them as instruments of deterrence.
Love would wash the feet of detainees not deny them showers and toothbrushes.
Love would provide a refuge for those terrorized fleeing violence at home.
Love would welcome the stranger.
Love would feed the hungry.
Love would comfort the frightened child.
Love would provide water in the desert instead of pouring it out and prosecuting those who leave it for the thirsty.

Love your neighbor as yourself and love yourself. Love yourself. Love your flesh. Love your fat. Love your freckles. Love your edges. Love your bald spot. Love your sag and your swag. Love your melanin. Love your kinks and your kink. Love yourself through your failures. Love yourself too much to let anyone love you less. 

The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Holy Oneyour God.

The way of holiness is hard because it is the way of love. And the way of love is hard. Justice is elusive when it is not grounded in love. But we are not left to figure out how and who to love on our own. We bore witness to the love of God incarnate in the womb and at the breast of a mother whose love would stand at the cross and at the tomb. We saw the Beloved love out loud and in public in touch and word. Jesus the love of God incarnate is the way of love and our teacher and guide on the way. Jesus is love incarnate and love in action. It was love that nailed him to the cross and love that held him on the cross. A love that would not die even when the lover’s flesh was dead and buried. A love that transcended heaven and earth and life and death and every other binary burst forth into life from the womb of the tomb, still loving, still teaching, still touching, and because we love to eat, still grubbing, still greasing, still frying fish. That’s love. 

The power to love poured out on Pentecost. The Holy Spirit who moves between us with love, calling us to love empowers us to love those we don’t think we can love, those we don’t want to love, and those we don’t even like. We are the children of the God of love, who loves us to and through death to life. We were bathed in the love of God in our baptisms and we are nourished by the bread of life and love at the table. The tongue-twerking power of the Holy Spirit poured out on Pentecost gave us the strength to love. But the will is ours. Will we? Will we love? Will we love this world into justice for all God’s children? Amen.

May you love and be loved and do justice from a heart of love. In the Name of God who is Love, Jesus the Love that is stronger than death and the Holy Spirit who is the Love that covers us and fills us with her Love.


Exegeting the Times: An Ordination Sermon

The Reverends Wil Gafney and Christian Briones
Sermon on the occasion of the ordination of Christian Briones to the ministry on 25 May 2019 at First Congregational Church, Fort Worth, TX.

Speak life through words ancient and new, that we might serve you, serving those whom you love in life, in death, and in life beyond death. Amen.

As I thought about what I want to say to Christian on the occasion of his ordination, remembering my first ordination 23 years and one day ago, it is perhaps, Exegete. As we shared in teaching and learning going both ways in the classrooms of Brite Divinity School, together we read the text, the text behind the text, the text in front of the text, and the text between the lines of the text. People are texts too and need to be exegeted just as carefully, as do the times in which we live. Exegete the texts, plural. Not just the biblical texts; collect and curate an ever-expanding canon as we did in the Black Lives Matters and the Bible course: scholarship and scripture–from more than one tradition, poetry, art and film, music and theatre, spit your own rhymes, tell your own stories. Exegete yourself, your heart, your intentions, your call, your gifts. And when you have done the work of exegesis: reading, listening, hearing, studying, questioning, imagining, translating, and wrestling, then do the work of interpreting God and the world to each other and to yourself. Most simply to exegete is to seek meaning, even more simply the primary verb just means to seek. Seek God in the world and in the text. Seek God in yourself and others. And when you find that which is not God in the world, in the text, in yourself, in others, call it out, to its face. 

Exegete the times. In many regards we’ve never seen times like these, and today’s pastors and today’s church must develop completely new strategies for old and new problems. But on the other hand, human beings haven’t changed a lot in in the five thousand years covered by our sacred texts, nor in the millennia that precede them. So, we continue to seek God and words from God in ancient texts like the one read earlier in your hearing. (2 Chronicles 28:1-15, my translation of the full text is at the end.)

8 The Israelites captured two hundred thousand of their kinfolk: women, [and their] daughters and sons, and they also plundered from them much booty and brought the booty to Samaria. 9 Yet there was a prophet of the Living God, Oded was his name; he went out in the face of the army coming to Samaria, and said to them, “Look, it was out of fury over Judah that the Holy One of Old, the God of your mothers and fathers, gave them into your hands, but you have killed them in a rage that has struck the heavens. 

This passage from a time when a nation was divided into two factions, where one followed a charismatic but incompetent leader, the other, leaders who had the requisite credentials, has something to say to all of us who live out our vocations in such a time as this. Context is everything. 

My students know that the keys to exegesis are content and context, that a text without a context is a pretext, which is fine as long as you are honest about constructing an out of context reading from the biblical content. So, my former students might not be surprised to hear me say that in order to make sense of the text and its content we need to know some things about its context, like what does the word Israel mean in the content and context of this text.

Communication is such an important part of the vocation we are confirming here today. So often we use our theological and religious words meaning entirely different things and never imagining that anyone else means something else, sometimes not even conceiving that there are other meanings, let alone that biblical authors are operating out of a completely different paradigm. We ought always be aware of our relationship status with these texts; it’s complicated. We have been invited into the family by Jesus as his siblings. We are part of the family. We are not thefamily.

As Christian readers of the Hebrew Scriptures we often look to the role of Israel with which to identify as God’s beloved, an impulse we need to check because sometimes we are the Canaanites, and sometimes we are the scorched earth, especially we whose Christianity is not white supremacist Christianity American-style. We can’t determine if we want to read as Israel or from another perspective if we don’t even know who or what Israel is in the text. 

The truth is that Israel does not have a fixed value. You’ve got to exegete it like everything else in life. Sometimes Israel is a person who has had his name changed after wrestling what he thinks might just be God down into the dirt, walking away forever bruised and blessed. Sometimes Israel is a people ground into the dust by slavery and its brutality. Sometimes Israel is a redeemed people dancing and drumming their way to freedom led by the Mother of Prophets. Sometimes Israel is a people with their eyes on someone else’s land and a story about their God that justifies them taking your land. Sometimes, Israel is a struggling monarchal confederation of twelve tribes at the mercy of empires that want to chew them up and spit them out. Sometimes Israel is a breakaway monarchy that includes the majority of the founding tribes and is also called Ephraim from time to time. And sometimes, Israel is actually Judah, all that’s left of the people called Israel after the destruction and dispersion of the breakaway northern nation. We don’t have time to talk about all the things Israel means in the New Testament, or even just to Paul. 

Now we come to our text knowing that in its context “Israel” means one of those two newer nations resulting from a split after the rise of a would-be despot who was equal parts incompetent and cruel. Some things haven’t changed at all since the Iron Age. In this text, Israel is the breakaway nation currently ruled by a man with no royal blood–no credentials or relevant experience in the world of the text–who murdered his way onto the throne. Israel and its kings are not in God’s favor at this point in the story, a story we should note is curated and collected by Judah. Judah, ruled continuously by descendants of David, is the embodiment of God’s beloved in the scriptures they and their descendants preserved. Judah is also where God dwelt with her people. Exegeting the text, its content and context, means exegeting the biases in the text, in the world, and in your own heart.

This, shall we say God-fearing nation, that some may have once thought of as one nation under God, was fractured into two ragged chunks and the national wound was still raw and bloody more than three hundred years later. Unresolved issues linger, even when their proponents, provocateurs, and perpetrators are long dead or long gone. Now here they are again, knives at each other’s throats, again, not recognizing their kinship to each other, again, not recognizing each other’s humanity, again. Not recognizing that the lives of the most vulnerable among them mattered, again. In fact, they were actively working to subjugate and exploit each other. It would happen again in the return from exile. They felt entitled to the other’s labor, resources, and flesh, the bodies of their women and their reproductive functions, the lives of their precious children who they didn’t see as precious, and perhaps not even as children.

As I exegete the time in which we are reading this text, in which we are calling, ordaining, blessing, and sending Christian, I find the sorry state of affairs in the text also characterizes this country. We live in a nation divided with unhealed wounds. And like ancient Israel, we live in a land inhabited by other peoples whose fate some previous generations attributed to God while they occupied and colonized the land on the back of enslaved peoples between attempted genocides of indigenous peoples. The founding fathers were being more ironic than they knew when they proclaimed this land the new Canaan and themselves Israel. 

Yet as we know all too well, being from the right folk, on the right side of the wall, and claiming the right faith in the right God doesn’t make you right. The prophet Lauren Hill in the Doo-Wop chapter of Miseducation Revelation asked, “How you gon’ win when you not right within?” In our divided nation, all of the hate, hurt, and harm are not on just one side of the borders, boundaries, and beliefs that divide us. They’re not even in separate congregations. We can’t do the work we are called to do with and for God’s people by demonizing folk with whom we disagree profoundly even on the most significant issues of our times, or by denying their humanity, human, and civil rights. Sometime the work of a pastor is holding together differing understandings of God, the text, and the world, no matter the right of it, in order to hold space for folk to do their own seeking, their own exegesis, and still remain part of the beloved community.

Israel and Judah were separate nations at war in our text, but they were still one people. The prophet has to remind them that they are kinfolk. They are still people of the same God, though there were others who said for good reason, we can’t possibly be worshipping the same God based on what you’re saying and doing in the name of God. As our nation deepens the divides between us, and some of us like Oded stand at boundaries, borders and crossroads, we will need to take the lessons of this passage to heart and remember the folk against whom we struggle are our kinfolk every bit as much as the folk who have been drawn out of our communities by borders on maps written in blood. So, when we call them to account for the ways they have failed our shared humanity, we won’t descend to the depths of depravity that only become possible when you lose sight of that shared humanity and interrelatedness of every human person. If we tell the truth, sometimes, the bible doesn’t help us in our work, gleefully disposing of those designated the enemies of God, or sometimes just the enemy of whatever crooked king, would be king, or even righteous king with the right lineage. Learning from the bible doesn’t always mean reproducing or reenacting the biblical script because everything biblical just isn’t godly, good, or even right. 

Speaking of right, the text tells us Ahaz did not do what was right like David. That’s a literal biblical double entendre. You could read it as: Ahaz did not do what was right like David did what was right. Most translations push you in that direction. You can also read it as: Ahaz did not do what was right just like David didn’t do what was right – and if you know David, you know he was wrong on a regular basis. Sometimes you may need to preach a text one way, sometimes in the opposite direction. Exegete the times as you exegete the text. 

Here, Judah’s king, Ahaz, representing the “right” folk, was all the way wrong. Ahaz murdered his own children offering their slaughter and butchered bodies to foreign gods through fire. That should have been enough, but the text goes out of its way to say that he worshipped everything but God, everywhere he possibly could. And so, in the Iron Age logic of the text that I charge you, Christian, to wrestle with every time you stand to teach or preach, God handed him and the people for whom he was responsible – but who were not responsible for him and his choices – over to the Israelites.

One of the lessons of this text that is coming to pass in our time is that righteous or unrighteous, all regimes fall, all empires fail, and all tyrants topple or are toppled. Unfortunately, they take a lot of folk out with them and leave other of folk to pick up the pieces behind them. And there in the middle, at the mercy of governments that fail their people, the people of God living under these rotten, rotting, regimes, God’s people were being savaged. Ahaz was at war with Israel in the north and Aram on the west. He’s at war with his kinfolk and skinfolk and, at war with a nation his people had invaded on the regular that was now looking for some get back. One hundred and twenty thousand people died. 

In the world in which you are being ordained, lives are at stake. Decisions about healthcare, who decides about whose healthcare, housing and supplemental nutrition for the most impoverished among us, police policies, practices and culture, immigration law enforcement, and the ever-present white supremacist patriarchy and misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, and xenophobia in which they are rooted are life and death issues. Bad governance kills people every bit as much as warmongering. And it seems like some folk are trying to do all of the above right now.

In the text the war is barely over when the human trafficking starts. One hundred twenty thousand dead. Two hundred thousand enslaved, trafficked. In order to go to war and kill, you have to accept that someone is your enemy, that you have a right or responsibility to take their life. It is such a heavy ethical burden that even those who act in self-defense can be left with crushing moral injuries. Human trafficking has always been a part of war, sometimes skirting its edges, sometimes war’s pretext, and sometimes the strategy for immigration reform; it also relies on not seeing people as people like you.

The text says: The Israelites captured two hundred thousand of their kinfolk: women, [and their] daughters and sons… I don’t know how some people decide other people aren’t people, are property, and they have the right to own and control them. I do know that particular blasphemy is as at home in the Digital Age as it was in the Bronze Age. Sadly, we know that folk traffic neighbors and strangers, families and friends, kin, just like in our text. 

The Israelites took their Judean kin captive, robbed them and enslaved them. They degraded and dehumanized them, stripped them, and since there is no army and no slaveholding system that does not deploy sexual violence, we know that some of those naked women and girls and boys and men were violated. But the text says: Yet there was a prophet of the Living God…There was a person who answered the call. There was a person who went where she was sent. There was a pastor miles away from any parish building protesting and critiquing the economic, military and political machinations of the government. There was a servant of God who said yes because Jesus said yes.

The Israelites captured two hundred thousand of their kinfolk: women, [and their] daughters and sons, and they also plundered from them much booty and brought the booty to Samaria. Yet there was a prophet of the Living God, Oded was his name; he went out in the face of the army coming to Samaria, and said to them, “Look… Now hear me, and send back the captives whom you have captured from your kinfolk, for the raging fury of the God Who Thundersis upon you.”

I want to suggest that as much as it matters that the people listened to the prophet, it also matters that he stood up and spoke up. It also matters that he did so at risk to himself, that he got in their faces, in the face of an oncoming marching army, and told them no, that he understood that there were some things that were not merely theological disagreements, not when lives and the integrity of human bodies were at stake. 

there was a prophet of the Living God.There was a person who accepted their call. This particular call didn’t require ordination; not all prophets are priests or pastors. Not all pastors and priests are prophets. This isn’t just Christian’s call. This is the call of all who follow Jesus, to stand up in the face of evil, to stand with the crucified of this world, to stand against those who savage and ravage the flock of God, to stand for the unshakable inexhaustible love of God. Amen.

2 Chronicles 28:1 Ahaz was twenty years old at his reign; he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem. He did not do what was right in the sight of the God Whose Name is Holylike David his ancestor. 2 Rather he walked in the ways of the king of Israel. He even made cast images for the Baals. 3 Then he made smoky offerings in the valley of the son of Hinnom, and made his children pass through fire, according to the abhorrent practices of the nations whom the Holy One of Olddrove out before the women, children, and men of Israel. 4 He also sacrificed and made smoky offerings on the high places, on the hills, and under every green tree.

5 So the Holy One his God gave him into the hand of the king of Aram, who smote him and captured from him a great number of captives and brought them to Damascus. He was also given into the hand of the king of Israel, who smote him a great smiting: 6 [The king of Israel,] Pekah ben Remaliah, killed one hundred twenty thousand in Judah in one day, all noble warriors, because they had abandoned the Fire of Sinai, the God of their mothers and fathers. 7 And Zichri, a mighty warrior of Ephraim, killed Maaseiah the king’s son, along with Azrikam commander of the palace, and Elkanah, second to the king. 

8 The Israelites captured two hundred thousand of their kinfolk: women, [and their] daughters and sons, and they also plundered from them much booty and brought the booty to Samaria. 9 Yet there was a prophet of the Living God, Oded was his name; he went out in the face of the army coming to Samaria, and said to them, “Look, it was out of fury over Judah that the Holy One of Old, the God of your mothers and fathers, gave them into your hands, but you have killed them in a rage that has struck the heavens. 

10 And now, you all speak of subjugating the daughters and sons of Judah and Jerusalem as your slaves: as enslaved women [and girls], as enslaved men [and boys]. But what do you actually have except offenses against the Righteous Oneyour God? 11 Now hear me, and send back the captives whom you have captured from your kinfolk, for the raging fury of the God Who Thunders is upon you.” 

12 Then men from among the leaders of the Ephraimites, Azariah ben Johanan, Berechiah ben Meshillemoth, Jehizkiah ben Shallum, and Amasa ben Hadlai, stood up against those who were coming from the war. 13 And they said to them, “You shall not bring the captives here, for offenses against the Holy Godyou pronounce on us in addition to our own sins and offenses. For our offence is already great, and there is raging fury against Israel.” 14 So the troops abandoned the captives and the plunder before the officials and the whole assembly. 15 Then the men who were mentioned by name got up and took custody of the captives, and with the booty they clothed all that were naked among them. They clothed them, they gave them sandals, they fed them, they gave them drink, and they anointed them. And carrying all those who staggered on donkeys, they led them, and they brought them to their kinfolk at Jericho, the City of Palms. Then they returned to Samaria.


Rejoice and Repent

Annunciation Tryptich by Robert Moore

Let us pray:

Blessed Mother, teach us to say yes to God. Amen.

This is Joy Sunday. If we still spoke Latin as a Church, we’d know it as GaudeteSunday in part because before it tells us not to worry about anything, Philippians says: Rejoice in the Lord always! Again, I say, Rejoice! Gaudete (rejoice) in Domino (in the Lord – Domino’s pizza is not the Lord’s pizza)! Gaudete in Domino semper! (You may know Semper Fi.) Gaudete in Domino semper! Rejoice in the Lord always! Iterum dico gaudete. Again, I say, Rejoice! Never thought I’d use my Catholic school Latin as an Episcopal priest and I’m sure none of the nuns ever thought I’d be a priest. In addition to Gaudetein Philippians,

Philippians also says:Do not worry about anything. (4:6)

Zephaniah tells us: Fear not! (3:16)

Isaiah tells us: I will trust and will not be afraid!(2:12)

And in the Gospel of Luke John the Baptizer says: You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? (3:7) Or in other words, “Maybe you should be a little bit concerned.”

Our lectionary stitches together four disconnected passages to quilt a whole new image. We can see each distinct patch and recall its original setting and we can see the new image they craft when woven together.

Zephaniah is an image of the end of the world, its breaking and its remaking. It’s set in a time when things are actually going pretty well for the moment. The young king Josiah, buttressed by his Queen Mother who raised him and ruled for him when he was too young to rule on his own and the prophet Huldah who certified the first written collection of scripture as God’s word, was reforming the worship practices of the community. But Zephaniah knew the world doesn’t stand still and fidelity to God doesn’t shield you from hard times down the road. Rather fidelity to God–and more importantly God’s fidelity to us–ensures we are accompanied through hard times. God is with us and will be with us, whatever may come. Zephaniah knew the Babylonians were coming and that was going to look and feel and smell like the end of the world with the temple on fire, bodies rotting in the street, and the people taken into captivity or left behind with nothing. It would be the end of the kingdom of Judah, the last piece of Israel, as an independent nation. From then on one nation or another would hire and fire kings and governors to serve their own interests. It is in this context that Zephaniah preaches to Zion, Jerusalem, representing the people of God as God’s beloved daughter: Fear not Daughter Zion! The Holy One, your God is within your midst!When the worst happens–and it will happen–you are not alone. God is with you, in your very midst.

To respond to Zephaniah our lectionary uses Canticle 9 from Isaiah 12:

Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid,

for the Holy One of Old is my strength and my might;

God has become my salvation.

Now Isaiah is a century earlier than Zephaniah and the Babylonians weren’t a threat to anybody; rather it was the Assyrians in his time. It was the Assyrians who first broke the back of Israel, swarming the northern monarchy like locusts, deporting the survivors from nine out the twelve tribes all over their empire to be swallowed up, some tribes were never heard from again. In the face of one of the bloodiest regimes on the planet–their barbarism inspired Vlad the Impaler who took his name from their favorite form of execution–in the face of an unstoppable war machine, from the losing side Isaiah proclaimed the salvation of God. Not in some far-off future, not even the saving work of Jesus. Isaiah prophesied about his present moment. They needed God then and She was with them. Isaiah said: God has become my salvation. Here, now, among the survivors and refugees. Even in their defeat, God has saved God’s people from total destruction and annihilation.

In sequence or out of sequence these texts reveal the pattern of God’s presence with God’s people in times of trouble, whatever and whoever the cause. For two thousand years, Christians have read these texts through the story of Jesus and seen him in them to the exclusion of their original contexts. But it is those original stories that teach us God is trustworthy, God is with us, and God is our salvation. In this season of gift giving it is worthwhile to remember that the gift of scripture is truly the gift that keeps on giving. It speaks to us in each generation without losing the meanings it has held for previous generations, even when those meanings don’t fit our world or our circumstances.

This rich understanding of scripture is also our gift to the world as Anglicans and Episcopalians, but not everyone appreciates complexity and mystery. On this Joy Sunday, sitting in St. Mary’s Chapel, in the Chapel of the Blessed Virgin, I want to invite you into some of that mystery by asking you to imagine with me what these texts might have meant to her, for the reason we have these texts grouped together is that the lectionary framers thought they spoke to the Advent of Christ’s birth and the Advent of his return.

One of the traditions of this Sunday is to put a pink candle in the Advent wreath for the Blessed Mother, in whose womb lay the reason for our joy. (Some churches even have rose pink vestments for today. We’ll have to ask the next rector about that.) How might the young pregnant not-yet-married Mary have read these scriptures about God’s presence with Israel in times of trouble in light of the very real fear that she could be stoned for adultery?

Both Isaiah and Zephaniah have the wonderful line: “God is in your midst.” And because of the way Hebrew works and because Zion, Jerusalem, is feminine, that “your” is feminine. Zephaniah says: The Everlasting God, your God (woman), is in your midst (daughter). Isaiah says: Great in your midst (daughter) is the Holy One of Israel. And if Mary knew these scriptures–and truly, we have no way of knowing what she knew though we do know that Elizabeth knows scripture, so maybe…so if she is one of the reasons Jesus knew so much scripture–and using my sanctified imagination I’d like to believe she was–then perhaps, in her hour of need she read or recited these texts to herself hearing in them God’s promise and presence not only to her, but within her. She could easily have read the text as speaking to her much like we do today.

Mary is not only a daughter of God, she is also a daughter of Zion; Jerusalem was her spiritual home. She was the daughter of Zion waiting for the first Advent of Christ and she could say, “God is with me and within me because of the power of the Holy Spirit.” That’s also why Paul could write from a jail cell: Gaudete! Gaudete in Domino semper! Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice… The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Paul, also God’s child waiting for the second Advent of Christ could say, “God is with me and within me because of the power of the Holy Spirit through baptism.”

And here’s where that wild-eyed locust eater from the desert, John the Baptizer, comes in. John had a vision of the world to come, its breaking and remaking, similar to that in parts of Zephaniah we did not read. He sees it coming soon and he is eager for it and for the people to get on board. And for whatever reason­­–it seems like we’re missing part of the story–John is impatient and frustrated with the people: Repent already. Let’s get this show on the road. I mean real repentance. This is not a performance for your benefit. There’s no playing along. In the prophets we read today, God’s presence was a comforting embrace; in the Baptizer’s sermon it is unquenchable fire burning away all that cannot stand in the presence of God.

What accounts for this difference? In all three texts the people of Israel are at the mercy one foreign oppressor or another. In the first two, God comforts the people in their affliction. But in Luke John calls out those who had power over others and were abusing it. Some of them were Israelites like the tax collectors and some were Gentiles like soldiers who could have been from anywhere in the Roman empire. He called them out for extortion and brutality and he called out those who had more than they could wear or eat while others were going without. For John you simply could not sign up to follow him or Jesus later and exploit God’s people. You can’t receive God’s abiding presence in baptism and continue being a crook, or greedy, or indifferent to needs of people around you. That abiding presence of God available to us through baptism is also what links these passages.

How do we read theses texts today, in our own time? What do they have to say to us about the things that matter? Who are the people of God to whom God is speaking I am with you, even in your midst? Who is God calling to rejoice? Who is God telling to get their ethics straight because you can’t live out your baptism and exploit other children of God? Is God offering us the tender assurance of salvation or is God bringing the fire?

On the one hand we have God’s faithfulness to her people and on the other the demand that we be faithful to the requirements of the gospel. The Baptizer gets in our collective face to tell us to get off our collective pews and do the work we were called to in baptism. We were not called to lay around and wait for Jesus to come back. We are to welcome him with the fruit of our labor and our repentance, that means putting an end to systems and practices that oppress God’s people.

If there’s anything that these lessons agree on it’s that no child of God is disposable in God’s sight and God’s presence with us is not just about us. But God is also with migrants in the desert, holding them in her arms as they die of thirst before they’ve ever really lived. God is in Yemen where starving children shelter in battered buildings bombed with ordinance stamped with USA. God is in prisons with the justly and wrongly convicted. God is in the street with gay and trans teens thrown out of homes and families because some folk can’t see God’s image in and presence with them.

I admit I was annoyed with John the Baptizer when I started to prepare this sermon. But when children are in tents and cages with numbers being written on their arms and dying of heat and exhaustion and thirst and taken from their parents and being told their parents don’t want them anymore, I want to stand in front of the churches where Christian folk defend those practices and blame desperate parents for being desperate and get up in their faces and yell: You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’ [or Jesus Christ is my personal Lord and Savior]; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. [And by the way, Abraham’s children are not just Christians and Abraham’s children are not God’s only children.] 9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

John the Baptizer is an old school in-your-face prophet. He calls it like he sees it: I see what you’re doing to God’s children and I’m here to tell you God will chop your branch off of the family tree and set it on fire. That too is the work of the Holy Spirit. I wonder if John was so wild because he like Dr. King knew that he would be killed for preaching the gospel God gave him.

Our prophets teach us God is our salvation. They also teach us She is the salvation of those whom we exploit, those who are oppressed in our name, and those whose death, hunger, thirst, and starvation are paid for with our tax dollars. How can we rejoice in these days? We rejoice in the God who promises to deal with those who oppress in Zephaniah. We rejoice in those repented at the prophet’s preaching. And we rejoice in being God’s agents in the world, in Zephaniah’s words, gathering the outcast. Repent, then rejoice. Amen.


Strategies of Resistance: A Lesson From Daniel


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canticle 13 A Song of Praise Benedictus es, Domine:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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