Image credit: Christa by Edwina Sandys
Let us pray:
God of our mothers, Hagar, Sarah and Keturah, fold us under the shelter of your wings with all your children of every race and every faith. Amen.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!
Jesus was doing the kind of preaching that few women or men do today, the kind of preaching that will get you killed. When some Pharisees come to warn Jesus that Herod is going to kill him he has to take it seriously. Herod is from a family where murder is a causal pastime. His father Herod the Great had murdered three of his sons, one of his wives and one of his mothers-in-law along with former friends and servants, and according to Matthew’s Gospel, he tried to kill Jesus before he was out of the cradle. (But Luke doesn’t seem to know that tradition.) Some folk believe the Pharisees were setting Jesus up, trying to get him to stop preaching and leave town with a fictitious threat. Others believe that the threat was deadly earnest because Herod was his father’s son and every bit as lethal.
However he understood the threat, Jesus looked at them and said, “Bring it!” Jesus told them to tell Herod he would be right there in Jerusalem whenever he was ready. Jesus knew that death was the likely, if not inevitable outcome of his ministry and he was ready. Even though he would have a reality check in the garden – no one wants to be brutalized, tortured, humiliated and executed, especially in front of their mama – Jesus would not back down; he would not run scared. As the Gospel of Luke presents the story, Jesus came to Jerusalem to die.
Jerusalem, the city of peace – Ir Shalom – never seems to have lived into its name, except perhaps for a few glorious golden years during the reigns of David and Solomon. The people of Jerusalem were Jerusalemites long before they were Israelites – in truth some of them never became Israelites. They were Canaanites. Thirty-five hundred years before the time of Jesus, more than fifty-five hundred years before our time, the people of what we now call Jerusalem were striking fear in the heart of Egypt. Then they were conquered by a Canaanite people the bible calls Jebusites. And David conquered them. David brought some measure of peace to Jerusalem before he died, but it was a bloody peace. He passed that fragile peace to Solomon under whom it withered and died from internal strife. Almost six hundred years before Jesus the Babylonians ravaged Jerusalem, the Persians liberated Jerusalem from the Babylonians but did not free it. They were followed by the Greeks and the Romans and alternating Christian and Muslim empires, then the Ottoman Turks and the British. Each wave of occupation was brutal. Jerusalem has long been acquainted with death. But that wasn’t the death Jesus spoke of in response to the warning about Herod.
Jesus spoke of the death of prophets like himself. Women and men who stood up to power. Jesus wasn’t willing to die because he was the son of God. He was willing to die because he was the kind of man who stood with the poor and oppressed peoples of earth against the demonic corrupting power of empire. Jesus preached in the lineage of prophets like Amos and Micah who stood with the poor and Noadiah who stood against Nehemiah who aligned himself with the Persian Empire. They didn’t stand up because they were immortal. They stood up because they were moral.
Prophesying in Jerusalem could be dangerous because Jerusalem was a wealthy religious city. Wealth is not intrinsically evil but it can be seductive and corrupting as is the privilege it engenders. Jerusalem is where the monarchy and priesthood organized and institutionalized religion, leaving the prophets largely outside of the formal structure. For the Israelites Jerusalem was the only city that mattered, and theirs the only God or at least the only one that mattered. Preaching against empire, those who designed and implemented it and those who benefitted from it is dangerous, as is me preaching against the current manifestations of empire, white supremacy, wealth and privilege built on the backs of enslaved and exploited black and brown peoples. I don’t believe my fellow Episcopalians are likely to kill me but I know Episcopalians like other Christians have been on the wrong side of slavery and civil and human rights as well as on the right side.
Jesus knew that prophet could be a terminal occupation because prophet is also a religious vocation. Prophets don’t just have to worry about those who hold political power. Prophets have to contend with those who hold religious authority and are every bit as lethal. This congregation isn’t going to rise up and stone me if they don’t like my preaching but baptized and communing Christians are responsible for the Crusades and slave trade, the Holocaust, burning and bombing of churches, lynching, and now, the murderous martyrdom of black Christians in church at bible study and demonization of Muslims and Mexicans, some of whom have also been murdered. There is an ugly side to religion, including ours. Sometimes religious folk, Christian folk, are willing to kill or to die to prove a theological point. Jerusalem had a reputation for being the place where folk killed prophets they didn’t want to hear from.
The tradition of murdered prophets, particularly in Jerusalem was an old one by the time of Jesus. The author of Luke is seemingly obsessed by those murders; he mentions them four times including in Acts. The most outrageous murder of a prophet was that of the Zechariah ben Jehoida who was stoned at the king’s (Joash) command on the holy ground of the temple, (2 Chr 24:20-22). Two hundred years later Jeremiah tells of the prophet Uriah ben Shenaiah who preached the same things that Jeremiah did and was executed by another king, (Jehoiakim in Jer 29:20). The outrage that someone would kill a messenger of God, reject the word of God with lethal violence was so strong that stories of the murdered prophets found their way into the Quran.
God says in surah 5:70: Certainly We made a covenant with the children of Israel and We sent to them apostles; whenever there came to them an apostle with what that their souls did not desire, some did they call liars and some they slew.
And in surah 2:87: And most certainly We gave Musa (Moses) the [Torah] Book and We sent apostles after him one after another; and We gave Isa (Jesus), the son of Marium (Mary), clear arguments and strengthened him with the Holy Spirit. And, what, whenever then an apostle came to you with that which your souls did not desire, you were insolent so you called some liars and some you slew.
Jesus didn’t turn from Jerusalem, the place where prophets are killed. He went to Jerusalem. He went to Jerusalem because he loved Jerusalem. He loved Jerusalem at the cost of his life. We too are Jerusalem. We may not have a reputation for killing priests, pastors or prophets but we break the heart of God every bit as much. And Jesus loved and loves us too, even at the cost of his life.
Love is at the heart of this lesson. Jesus opening his arms wide and sweeping us up and into his embrace. In choosing for himself the image of a mother hen collecting and protecting her brood Jesus gives birth to some of the most enduring imagery to shape the church’s prayer language.
I suspect that St. Julian of Norwich reflected on this passage when she wrote: …Christ is our mother, brother and savior…. Our natural mother, our gracious mother, because he willed to become our mother in everything, took the ground for his work most humbly and most mildly in the maiden’s womb… A mother can give her child milk to suck, but our precious mother, Jesus, can feed us with himself.
Some of us are unwilling to be mothered. And some have never been mothered at all. In the Gospel Jesus says, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” What does it look like to refuse to mothered by Jesus? At one level it means to accept a Jesus who troubles our notions of gender and sexuality.
An unmarried Jewish man was a scandal and a man without children was pitiable. As a Jewish man who would not have accepted the tradition of giving thanks for not being a woman, which came into Judaism from Greek philosophers as the gospels were being produced, Jesus offers a masculinity and a divinity that is neither patriarchal nor even androcentric in this text. But some want no part of that kind of Jesus; nor any kind of Jesus who doesn’t agree with what they agree with or hate who they hate. For some the bible’s androcentric grammar and predilection for masculinizing God has become an idol, so much so that folk would rather be unmothered by God than embrace God or Christ as our mother. Yet God is so far beyond gender that in scripture God has a womb, birthed the sea and fathered the rain – though the bible stops short of giving God male parts; no one gender can contain God. God is trans, transgressive, trans-gender, transcontinental, transnational, trans-religious. God’s love transverses and encompasses all things.
Our first lesson reminds us that Abraham is the father of many peoples, many different peoples. We don’t all have the same stories, memories or traditions. We don’t even share the same prayers or scriptures. But we do share the same God. The one God who is known by many names. We don’t all believe the same things about that God, not even in the Church, not even in the Episcopal Church. God is big enough to weather our disagreements. God is who God is whether we understand or accept someone else’s understanding of God. God doesn’t need us to argue or fight or prove who God is or isn’t. Our job is to bear witness, by loving as God loves – which though impossible for us is still a worthy goal.
The promise of God to Abraham is not for Israel only. It is for all of Abraham’s descendants. We are children of Abraham and the one God, whether Hagar, Sarah or Keturah was our foremother. The Hebrew Bible traces more peoples than I could reasonably count to Father Abraham including but not limited to the ancient Israelites and their Jewish descendants and the Ishmaelites and their Arab descendants. Those peoples have one father but many mothers; they are all our kin. Family has always been complicated. Some of us have more than one mother, some have had mothers who were fathers and fathers who were mothers. We were mothered by godmothers, grandmothers, aunties and big sisters. Their love was God’s love in human form as is Jesus. I have always had trouble with the trinity but Christ as brother, mother and savior makes sense to me. This is love incarnate.
The love of God for us is so deep and wide that there are not enough words or images in any language to tell it. Lent is an opportunity for us to reflect on and rest in that love. We relinquish things that that give us pleasure that we might take more pleasure in the love of God. We let go of things that distract us from the love of God. We take on disciplines and practices that draw us more deeply into the embrace of God’s wings. In the austerity of Lent it is a great comfort to find not a stern father but a loving mother. As we explore new patterns of prayer during Lent today’s Gospel is an invitation to embrace God in new language and different images as open, free and boundless as is the love of God for us.
When we come to the table, we dine on love. When we come to that table we are one. Our differences don’t disappear; they bear witness to our love which is not reserved just for folk who are like us. When we get up from our knees, there is a whole wide world that needs that love. Amen.
As we begin our Lenten pilgrimage, my theme is the borrowed title of Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple. Because I do believe that “it pisses God off if you pass by the color purple and don’t even notice,” I chose a text that I know no one ever preaches for Lent, if at all: Numbers 4:13 They shall take away the ashes from the altar, and spread a purple cloth over it.
Thomas Gray said that purple is ‘the light of love.’ For William Shakespeare purple is ‘the color of love’s wound’ and the ‘testament of a bleeding war.’ According to John Milton ‘Bacchus from the purple grape first crushed the sweet poison of misused wine.’ John Keats found in purple the ‘riot of sudden thoughts.’ Edgar Allen Poe’s Raven was accompanied by ‘the silken, sad rustling of each purple curtain.’ Gelett Burgess ‘never saw a purple cow.’ Alfred Lord Tennyson mused on the ‘pilots of the purple twilight’ as Emily Dickinson saw the setting sun ‘blazing in gold and quenching in purple.’ Katharine Lee Bates saw ‘purple mountains’ majesty.’ Jimi Hendrix had a ‘purple haze in his brain.’
Purple is also the color of deep bruises. Purple is the color of angry skin and dried blood. Purple is the color of the shrunken lips and swollen tongues of lynched women and men. Purple is the color of the excruciating pain of death by crucifixion. Purple is expensive. At one time, purple dye was ground out of the tiny bodies of snails. For the snails, being purple was a death sentence.
In the Ancient Near East, the color purple came from the murex snail; a little over 6 pounds of snail glands, that’s roughly 12,000 snails, were needed to dye one pound of wool. In ancient Israel purple was associated with aristocracy and especially with royalty. Purple was used in the garments of the high priest, who was decked out in royal splendor from the first rustic robe in the wilderness to the Maccabean regalia of the rededicated Temple between the times of the Two Testaments. And, the drapery of the Tabernacle, from the external walls of fabric to the most interior double curtain that veiled the residence of the I AM, were also purple. Exodus 26:1 – ‘you shall make the tabernacle with ten curtains of fine twisted linen, and blue, purple, and crimson yarns; you shall make them with cherubim skillfully worked into them… You shall make a screen for the entrance of the tent, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen, embroidered with needlework.’
Where did all of this purple come from in the wilderness? Exodus 35:25-26 records, ‘All the wise-hearted women spun with their hands, and brought what they had spun in blue and purple and crimson yarns and fine linen; all the women whose hearts were elevated in wisdom used their skill and spun the goats’ hair.’ The people who were at one time not a people, left slavery with nothing, yet arrived in the wilderness with the treasures of Egypt heaped upon them in hopes that they would intercede with their god for dying first-born not covered by the purple clotted blood of a lamb. The women of Israel fashioned all of this royal purple into vestments for the seen things of their unseen God. They were called wise of heart because the ancients did not separate craftsmanship or craftswomanship from intellectual ability, however most translators reduce them to merely skillful. These folk had nothing, and when faced with an embarrassment of riches gave it all back to God who had just enriched them, and whom they believed would continue to enrich them. They didn’t hoard their purple; they gave it to God.
The wilderness-wandering women and their meandering men, along with their circumlocuting children, were on a pilgrimage. The Book of Numbers is a continuation of the pilgrimage from privation to promise begun in what Bob Marley called the Exodus movement of Jah-people. Our pericope begins with the people of God on the move in verse 5. After moments of sweet rest, however long and however frequent, the congregation of Israel would be summoned to resume their journey by the motion of the theophoric God concealed in the pillars of smoke and fire. In response to the move of God the priestly families prepared the sacred space of the sanctuary and its sacred objects for the next leg of the journey. God provided detailed instructions on how to move God when moving with God – for God was understood to be alternately enthroned and riding astride on the chariot-throne of the Sacred Coffer of Divine-Human Commitment, the Ark of the Covenant.
‘They shall take away the ashes from the altar, and spread a purple cloth over it.’ The Ark and the altar of sacrifice were dressed in pure purple clothes. Of all of the sacred objects in the sanctuary only these two rated purple. They framed the most immediate manifestations of the Presence of God. The Ark as the early parallel to the heavenly throne and the altar of sacrifice as the place where God heard prayer. The veil and the screening curtain protected humanity from the presence of God. The color purple signaled the presence of the Holy in the objects dressed in royal robes. Holiness is infectious, not just infectious, but contagious, and contagion is lethal.
No one could see the face of God and live. No one could even gaze upon the places where God’s presence had been known to dwell. The people of Israel needed to be protected from the presence of their Holy, wholly consuming God. No mortal could stand in the presence of God and live. One day a year the high priest would gamble with his life and enter the presence of God to plead for his people, but even then he was screened from gazing on God by the veil of incense between them. God is holy, consuming all that is unholy in holy fire that has no equal on this earth. We who are but dust are reduced to ashes in the face of that all-consuming fire. We cannot stand the gaze of God. All that we are, all that we have done, all that has been done to us, all that we want to do is exposed in the heat of God’s nearness. All of our motives and intentions melt away like wax from a wick beneath the inscrutable gaze of the Eternal. God sees us for who we are, and we are undone in the sight of God.
Even though God was leading the Israelite pilgrims to the land of promise in the form of a pillar, the people knew that the holiness of God had in fact not left the building. They had to pack up God’s stuff that had been permeated by God’s presence and therefore still bore traces of Godself. I know that I’m skating on the edge of heresy by suggesting that God left a tangible residue, but the holiness of God is so pervasive, so real, that it supercedes the laws of physics as they pertain to particulate matter. The people of Israel, God’s people, were in more danger from the Holy One in their midst than they ever were from all of the ‘-ites’ surrounding them. [Canaanites, Moabites, Hivites, Hittites, Jebusites, Midianites, you know the -ites…] The power of the presence of God is explosive, and the people needed to be protected. So the priests carried the screening curtain before them so that they couldn’t see the Ark and dressed it in that purple veil. And then they draped the altar of sacrifice in its royal purple gown. The people of God led by the Presence of God were on the move. The color purple represented God’s power contained but not restrained.
Our God has not changed. Our God is still holy. Have we forgotten that we risk our very loves by coming into sacred spaces any old way? Or does God still permeate our sanctuaries in such a way as to leave a trace of the Holy Presence? Is God still here? If so, then we ought to be so very careful coming into the presence of God. We ought to prepare ourselves and even this space. We ought to be wrapped not in purple clothes but in the incense of prayer. And when we move, is it at the leading of God? Are we following God? Or are we going off on our own, waiting for God to catch up with us?
Our second point of refection is the ‘Power of the Passage.’ Let me remind you of the power of the passage in Israelite experience. Out of the crucible of Egyptian slavery, economic exploitation, cultural bias, social oppression, political disenfranchisement, torture, brutality, and attempted genocide God brought a rag-tag mob of refugees. God chose them not because they were the most shining example of humanity, or even because they were the worst, but because they were a useful case-in-point to tell a story. Their passage through the Sea of Reeds was their passage from God’s womb to life as a fledgling nation. God was pregnant with the children of Israel and her labor pains were felt throughout the double kingdom of the Upper and Lower Niles. God had ten contractions and everyone in Egypt felt her pain. Mitzrayim, Egypt in Hebrew, means ‘narrow place;’ from that narrow place God pushed her people into a brave new world. James Weldon Johnson once wrote that at the dawn of creation the great God Almighty like a mammy bending over her children knelt down. I want to suggest that God squatted down over the Sea of Reeds and pushed her squalling newborn nation into the waters that would become bloody with the decomposing bodies of the Egyptians.
The indication of the onset of Divine labor was blood in the water. Then came the birth pains, frogs, gnats, flies, the baby was coming. Next came pestilence, boils and hail, the baby was almost here. Last came locusts, darkness and death; the nation of Israel was born. There is power in the passage.
The power of God that delivered the Hebrew children from the Egyptians did not abate at the Sea of Reeds. That power led them through the wilderness of scorching heat, fire snakes, earthquakes, pestilence and rebellion. The power of God would lead them across the Jordan River in the same manner as their birth from the waters of Egypt. Individuals may not enter a second time into their mother’s wombs, but apparently nations can.
The Israelites never knew where they were going on the way to the land to which they knew they were going. They never knew what awaited them. They thought their journey was all about the destination, because they forgot that there is power in the passage. Their wilderness wandering was as much about the journey as it was about the destination. For it was while they were on the way to where they were going that God revealed Godself to them. It was along the way that God fed them. It was on the road to somewhere that God fed and clothed and healed and protected them. It was before they got to where they were going that God instituted a system of worship in which mortal creatures could commune with their eternal Creator. It was in the midst of the passage of the children of Israel from slavery to freedom that God demonstrated what real, faithful, tender, forgiving divine love was.
What is God bringing us through today? As a people? As a nation? As individuals? Where have we come from and where are we going? Do we appreciate the power of the passage of this wilderness journey through patriotism parading as justice, revenge masquerading as righteousness? Do we understand that people of color are still politically disenfranchised as evidenced by the last so-called election? We are in the wilderness in which there is inadequate health insurance, elder care, day care and minimum wages that couldn’t feed families if God did not still provide manna and quails. Yet there is power in the passage, God is with us, and if we follow, we will be led to the other side as a new people. [I wrote this in 2007 and it is still true.]
‘They shall take away the ashes from the altar, and spread a purple cloth over it.’ The old ashes were removed for the journey to make room for new sacrifices. The ashes came from the burnt offering, the peace offering or offering of wellbeing, the grain offering, the purification or sin offering, and reparation offerings. The burnt offering – ‘ola – from whence we get the word holocaust, was one which was entirely burnt on the altar and so its smoke and scent were directed toward the heavenly realm, leading to a harmonious relationship between humanity and divinity or simply between different peoples. Offerings of wellbeing include the thanksgiving sacrifice, the vowed sacrifice and the freewill offering. The purification or sin offering both restored the sinner and sanctified people and places in situations that have no relation to sin, for example: new mothers, the person suffering from a disease, the Nazirite who completes a vow, or the installation of a new altar. The basic feature of guilt offering is reparation; unlike other sacrifices, this offering could be converted into a monetary equivalent and simply paid to a debtor.
The ashes from all of these offerings were removed in preparation for new sacrifices. The very last point of reflection is that the color purple symbolizes preparation for penitence. Out with the old, and in with the new. It is time to make new sacrifices and offerings. That is what our Lenten pilgrimage is all about, another year’s journey with the LORD, another opportunity for sacrificial offerings, another opportunity to repent for the sins of the past year.
For what do we have to repent as a people and as individuals? Racism, sexism, classism, ageism, heterosexism, Islamophobia. If we have broken one part of the revealed law then we have broken all of it. We are all accountable for abused children, abused elders, rape, incest, hungry bellies and lonely souls, religious violence profaning the Name of God. We who were charged as stewards of this creation are responsible for polluting and misusing its resources. We were charged with building a church without spot or wrinkle, a place of prayer where all people will stream to the mountain of God, and we don’t want to let some folk in the door. Not to mention our own spots and wrinkles all over God’s upholstery.
There is another purple cloth in our scriptures. It was hanging in the Temple that Herod built, enlarging Solomon’s Temple. It was protecting the people from the presence of God, reminding those who knew the old ways of wilderness wandering of the power of the passage. And it hung there in preparation, for one day it would be the banner of penitence. It was a Friday afternoon, just about three o’clock. They tell me that the sun’s light failed and the earth was cold and dark. On a hill far away, there stood an old rugged cross, an emblem of suffering and shame. And on that old cross, hung a thin, ragged, naked man, beaten black and blue and even purple. There was strange fruit hanging from that tree on that Friday afternoon. As the Prince of Peace breathed out his spirit, the earth shook and the rocks split open and the veil in the Temple, you know the one – it was the one that was the color purple – the veil in the Temple split in two.
Lent is coming and I am almost out of laments – and I do not want any more.
Lent is coming and I do not want to spend any time in self-reflection because the world is on fire.
Lent is coming and I can’t focus on my personal frailties and foibles because people are being shot like dogs, beheaded, crucified and burned alive.
Lent is coming and working on my own soul’s health feels shallow when Nigerian and Yazidi girls have been sold into sex slavery and nobody is bringing back our girls.
Lent is coming and my prayers are screams.
Lent is coming and all I can see in the scriptures is the hurt, pain, violence and death.
Lent is coming and I want to sit in dust and ashes all 40 days.
And after Lent comes…I can’t even think of it. The world is crucified and crucifying. The scent of lilies cannot cover the stench of death.
A miracle happened today. We will see it in nine months on Christmas Day. In reflection an Annunciation sermon (from 2004).
[On this day when people are arguing for the right to prevent women from accessing health services under the rubric of birth control (and abortion) because of their own religious biases, I am mindful that God does not share their fear of women’s bodies, in spite of what they say in Her name.]
Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection…I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word…
I usually take the invitation to the observance of Lent in the Book of Common Prayer as an adjuration to have a holy Lent and bear it with me through the season. I don’t know if I shall have a holy Lent this season. I am too busy having a cranky Lent and we are barely 15 hours into it.
It started in the last couple of weeks when folk on social media started talking about what they would do. Some made reference to those post a picture a day for Lent projects and my skin just crawled. I suffered through them last year and tried to figure out how many folk I would have to block or mute this year. Apparently I had a somewhat cranky Lent last year too.
Then I saw all of those “Ashes2Go” pictures today and I got grumpier. Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea – and practice – of offering ashes to those who cannot come to church in the morning. We are dependent on each other’s labor and I honor those who work hours that I have the privilege to avoid. It was all the posts of folk doing that ministry that rubbed me the wrong way.
Now let me be clear, I am not judging anyone, individual or church. The title of the post is about me having a cranky Lent not anyone else having an inappropriate Lent. I am doing the work of self-reflection and have discerned that I am cranky. Perhaps it is because I have wrestled mightily in my soul and with my spiritual director about what I do and don’t do for Lent, what works, at what I feel like a failure, what brings grace and freedom. I do know about myself that my practices need to be private at this phase in my life – it was not always so and need not be so for anyone else.
Confronted with everyone else’s notion of what is a holy Lent I am tempted to compare and second guess and perhaps compete. I’m also aware that I am doing the work of self-examination, one way respond to the gracious invitation (or solemn adjuration) to have a holy Lent. Looking at my inner crankiness is holy work, holy, cranky, work. I am having a holy Lent. A holy, (wholly) cranky Lent.
And now, having blogged about it, I think I’ll tweet and Facebook my post because I didn’t give up social media for Lent. But before I do, I will pray the beautiful words of the Ash Wednesday collect:
Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made…
No matter how cranky I am, God loves me. Amen.
God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
God has filled the hungry with good things,
God has helped God’s servant Israel,
The Magnificat properly belongs at the Visitation, traditionally 31 May – an unspecified amount of time after the Annunciation, observed on 25 March (often in Lent, occasionally on Good Friday) – In those days Miryam, Mary, set out… Luke 1:39. It is “repeated” in Advent, though many missed it earlier.