Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Posts tagged “naming God

Majesty, Mercy, and Mystery

Welcome to Trinity on the last Sunday of the Christian calendar, the Sunday in which we proclaim Christ’s sovereignty and wrestle with the limitations of human language.

Let us pray:

May God who is Majesty, Mercy, and Mystery travel with us from cradle to cross. Amen.

Our lessons are trying to do two things, end the year with and exaltation of Christ and set the stage to tell the story again in the new year which begins on the first Sunday of Advent. So don’t forget to say Happy New Year next week. The Church traditionally calls this Sunday Christ the King. Some call it the Reign of Christ. And a whole bunch of us don’t know what to call it. The word king just sticks in the craw. It comes with so much baggage.

We start with the myth of David. Having just come from Thanksgiving where the myth of hungry pilgrims and friendly natives crowds out ugly truths like settler colonialism, conquest, genocide, land theft, rape, and when things got really bad, cannibalism. We understand that the stories we tell ourselves and our children about Thanksgiving are strategically incomplete or often just flat out wrong, but the myth endures. It speaks to something in us, so we cling so some shreds of the story that may have historicity and close our eyes to the rest. And if we did that here in Fort Worth, we did it on Wichita and Comanche land.

Similarly, the Church turns to mythos of David to exalt Jesus. We don’t turn to the David who raped Bathsheba; or handed his nephews over to be lynched to pay for blood he spilled, or who killed children with their mothers and fathers while stealing all of their possessions. Instead, we turn to the David whom God chose for greatness, to whom God made promises that speak to us across time. There is danger in telling one story without the other. And I believe, in crowning Jesus with the bloody crown of David.

To be fair, I don’t imagine that David was much worse than any other Bronze or Iron Age monarch. They were all thugs and warlords, who took what they wanted. We have a bad habit or romanticizing monarchy, past and present. We see the glittering crown jewels and ignore their theft from the forcibly subjugated colonies and all the slavery and death that clings to them. King is entirely to violent a title with which to crown Jesus from my perspective. David’s crown was drenched in the blood of his enemies. The blood on Jesus’ crown was his own. Besides which, we seem to have forgotten that a king is a human monarch and by definition is fatally flawed.

Our Psalm celebrates David for bringing the Ark of the Covenant, God’s throne on earth, to Jerusalem so that in time it could be enshrined in the temple built by his son. And then there is God’s promise, God’s conditional promise, to David: One of the sons of your body I will set on your throne.If (everybody say if) If your sons keep my covenant and my decrees that I shall teach them, their sons also, forevermore, shall sit on your throne. However within two generations David’s kingdom was ripped apart. Five hundred years later, it ceased to exist. The Maccabees and the Herods would rule as kings but neither group were descended from David.

Jesus’ descent from David fired the imaginations of his followers and interpreters, some looking backwards to a kingdom that would never rise again–like the old south–rather than towards the new world of which Jesus spoke. That gets further complicated by the fact that Jesus and the gospels use the language of king and kingdom. Yet at every turn Jesus says something to the effect of that’s not what I mean by kingdom. He and his biographers used the old language, the language with which folk were most familiar to usher in a world view that transcends both this world and its deeply impoverished language. A kingdom is a patch of land and Jesus is talking about another world–not necessarily another planet, but I’m not ruling it out–but an entirely new reality that has no need for skull crushing monarchs and their axe swinging troops to keep the “peace.”

Jesus says, You say that I am a king. But this is why I was born and why I came into the world, to testify to the truth. That truth is that God is not an old man on a throne, white or otherwise. God is not a bigger, badder, richer, more powerful, king, tyrant, warlord, or chieftain. Human systems of power and dominion are not accurate reflections of God’s way of being in the world. That truth to which Jesus testifies with his being is that the God who cannot be fully known in any word of human devising is here with us, on this planet, in this world. God is with us. God is not in the palace. God is in the street. In Jesus God was not reclining on the throne of the king but rather subject to the king’s justice, stretched out on a Roman cross with a crown of thorns beaten into his skull.

We proclaim the sovereignty and majesty of Christ today as a way of proclaiming our faith that Jesus is God incarnate and that God is sovereign over all the worlds, all that was, all that is, all that will be, all that can be, all that we can imagine and that which we cannot conceive. In short, we say Christ is King because we say God is King. In so doing, we neglect one crucial fact: God is not a king. At best, our ancestors simply lacked the imagination and language to describe God other than in human terms.

At worst, by giving God a title they reserved for themselves, human men gave voice to their secret wish to be idolized. In the ancient Afro-Asian context in which this the scriptures are set, a king is a warlord who batters his opponent to submission. Kings didn’t lead from the back like presidents and generals in secret bunkers and protected command and control centers. They led in the slaughter, hacking and clubbing their enemies to death, treading through the brains and blood of the slaughtered, building monuments out of their bones. That is not God. Kings schemed against their fellow–and occasional sister–kings; they stole each other’s land, enslaved each other’s people, raped each other’s daughters and sons. That is not God.

Jewish poet Ruth Brin, (A Woman’s Meditation), put it this way:

When men were children, they thought of God as a father;
When men were slaves, they thought of God as a master;
When men were subjects, they thought of God as a king.
But I am a woman come not a slave, not a subject,
not a child who longs for God as father or mother.
I might imagine God as a teacher or friend, but those images,
like king, master, father or mother, are too small for me now.
God is the force of motion and light in the universe;
God is the strength of life on our planet;
God is the power moving us to do good;
God is the source of love springing up in us.
God is far beyond what we can comprehend.

Like God, Jesus transcends all of our language, petty ambitions, and self-aggrandizing titles. We need new language for Jesus and God and Jesus as God that is not rooted in vengeance and violence, submission and slaughter, or domination and damnation. We need to employ a little sanctified imagination and call God by names that allow us to see ourselves in her but don’t reduce her to paradigms we know have failed. But all we have is these human tongues and colonized imaginations. As parents and teachers have often said, “Use your words.” Use your wholly inadequate human words and know that they are insufficient because God is more. But even with our limitations we can craft language for God that is not rooted in slavery and subjugation like lord and king. Drawing on the spirit of my ancestors I will say God is a mother to the motherless and a father to the fatherless. God is a doctor in the sickroom and a lawyer in the courtroom. God is the one who brings us to life, calls us to freedom, and moves between us with love.

God is:

Sovereign, Savior and Shelter;
Author, Word and Translator;
Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer and Life-Giver;
Holy Incarnate Majesty, Holy Incarnate Word, Holy Abiding Spirit;
Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer;
Parent, Partner, and Friend.

And God is available to any and everyone whether warrior, prophet, king, laborer, immigrant, transchild, felon, politician, trafficked woman, president, pastor, professor or seminarian, patriarchal misogynist or white supremacist, once we understand that the titles with which we have crowned ourselves and in which we name God in our image become idols. God is the living God and Risen Christ in our midst, reigning over the commonwealth of God in this world and in the next. Amen.


Of God, Men, and Kings


 

[Errata: Originally I confused Samuel’s sons with Eli’s. The manuscript is corrected below.]

(Preached at the Schooler Institute on Preaching at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio)

Let us pray:

ברוכה את יה אלהינו לב העלם אשר שמה לב עלינו ושומעת קול לבינו

רחמי עלינו וישמע קול דממה דקה

Blessed are You, Yah our God, Heart of the Universe, who attends to us and hears the voice of our hearts; mother-love us and make audible the soft, still voice. Amen.

James Lewis Icons, with permission

“Give us a king!”
“Give us a man-king!
“Give us a man!”
“Give us a man-king to rule over us.”

When Shmuel, Samuel, reached a certain point in years, the point when everyone agrees you’re old, but just short of too old, when Shmuel, Samuel, became old, he appointed his sons as judges, rulers, governors, all-but-kings without crowns. I have to stop here and repeat that Samuel appointed his sons, not God. Every judge in the book of Judges, and Moses before them, was appointed by God. But Samuel, in a fit of nepotism, appointed his own children to an office for which they were neither qualified nor equipped. Can you imagine a leader entrusted with the security and wellbeing of a people handing over critical jobs at the uppermost levels of governance to their own spawn?

Eli’s boys, unnamed in the tex couldn’t do the job. Their sins were spelled out in the tex. They were at the southernmost region of Eli and Samuel’s territory, perhaps thinking they were too far away for their father to know what they were doing in an age without social media. But the narrator knows, the people know, and surely Eli knows that his boys are robbing the house of God blind. They are taking from the people’s offerings what they want before it can even be offered to God. But more importantly, this passage (1 Samuel 2:22) reveals that Eli’s sons were guilty of sexual misconduct with the women who ministered at the sanctuary. In fact the lack of the preposition in Hebrew–they “lay” the women, not “lay with”–indicates rape and not consent even in the world of the text. In our world, from our context we see women clergy who said #metoo passed over for promotion for men who lacked the character or integrity called for but who had connections.

I mean, we’ve already had one female judge. Just because Deborah was excellent doesn’t mean there’s any reason to take a chance on another woman. We’ve already had one non-white-male president. Just because Barack was excellent—although I have some serious critiques–doesn’t mean there’s any reason to take a chance on another non-white-male president. Meanwhile, Samuel was sitting in Deborah’s seat of judgment at Ramah. In my sanctified imagination I hear folk saying Deborah and her chief goon Jael had a way of dealing with rapists. Ask Sisera’s mama who’s still waiting for her boy to come home.

I’m trying to get to the text but a text without a context is a pretext. Please don’t miss that Avi and Joe were fired for messing with people’s money. No one says anything about Eli’s sons messing with women’s bodies. When the narrator mentions their transgressions in verse 3, financial crimes and their sheer and utter failure to do their job as judges—to do justice—are the charges. Eli’s sons disappear but not their record of sexual assault was well documented with all of the receipts on display. But suddenly, their time was up. None of them, Eli’s sons or Samuel’s sons would get that sweet government job after all.

The people got together and voted. Understand that while we have sanctified voting, in the ancient Israelite context it was a rebellious, even treasonous, act against God. But treason seems to be all the rage these days. Be very clear that your biblical authors and editors would consider democracy a godless system. So we can’t just read Israelite texts about governance into and onto our world without any nuance. Ironically, our own ancestral overthrow of our anointed sovereign would have also been considered treasonous and rebellious, because contexts change, in and out of the bible, and what was once considered a rejection of God later became a messianic construct. Nevertheless, our American ancestors thought that voting for a leader was a good idea though they didn’t think that everyone should vote, and some still don’t think some of us should be able to vote right now.

After throwing Samuel’s age in his face and charging his sons with bribery and incompetence but giving them a pass on rape, the people ask for a human-sovereign to do what Samuel has been doing–judging, ruling, governing–but this time with the full regalia of monarchy. They don’t ask for anyone with any better morals, training, preparation, or calling than his boys. They say:

“Give us a king!”
“Give us a man-king!
“Give us a man!”
“Give us a man-king to rule over us.”

They are looking not just to replace his kleptocratic sexual assailant sons; they are looking to replace him too. Samuel, you’re fired.

The people have been watching Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and they want what they see. They want the pageantry of the one percent. They want a privileged, entitled man with no experience or preparation to hold the highest office in the land. They just want to be like the other nations, the heathen nations. I’m using that word deliberately because of how they in their ethnocentrism characterized everyone else who didn’t share their beliefs, practices, and culture as other, yet they emulate them in every way. Reminds me of the folk who would rather be poor and white than rich and black but who speak and sing in our vernacular—or try—dance to our music—or try—wear our fashion, copy our hairstyles and then spew anti-black bile like the white nationalist fool who was looking for material on dreadlocking his hair that didn’t have references on Rastas and all that n-word ish. They seem to think that the wealth and status of a privileged moneyed leader will somehow trickle down to them. That such a man–and they wanted a man–such a man would be competent to or even care to raise their status.

And they want Samuel as prophet and pastor to bless that mess. Samuel, the people’s pastor, heir to the throne of Deborah and Moses that only those three fully occupied with the dual callings of prophet and judge, Samuel went to his God. I like Samuel. His relationship with God is instructive. I believe that Samuel tells God his whole mind. At least that is how I understand the text’s omission of the words of his first prayer. I believe like many of us Samuel says some things in that prayer that would burn the ears and shock the souls of those who think preachers shouldn’t cuss. After he prays whatever he prays God says give them what they want. God also tells Samuel some of what she is feeling and doesn’t hold back. In this three-way breakup God says: It’s not you; it’s me. But it’s really them. This is how they do. Give them what they want but let them know what this will cost them.

Tell them what they’re buying and how they will pay for it. And Samuel told them: When you choose a man based on plutocratic standards—Give us a man-king to rule us like the heathen nations with their golden thrones and palaces—when you choose a leader out of covetousness because you really want to see yourself reflected in his gold painted shine, not only will you not benefit from his expanded wealth and privilege but you will pay dearly in the currency that matters most to you.

You say, “Give!” But he will take.
Your sons he will take.
Your daughters he will take.
Your fields and vineyards and olive orchards, he will take.
Your grain and your vineyards he will take.

Your male slaves and your female slaves he will take. Imma come back to the social inequity and oppression that Samuel lets go unchallenged because I do not accept the enslavement of human persons as a matter of course in any world at any time.

He will take your cattle and donkeys.

He will take your children and chew them up and spit them out of the engines of his warfare. He will spill the blood of their precious lives in his self-aggrandizing military provocations. He will use them up as low-wage workers with no benefits to enrich himself his hangers-on. But he has special plans for your daughters. On the surface of the text it looks like he wants professional skilled women to work in his enterprises. But we know no amount of professional acumen will protect women and girls from a disproportionate amount of sexual harassment and assault by those whose power, privilege, and position lead them to think they can grab whatever they want by whatever they want to do whatever they want to whomever they want.

He will take your income and the assets for which you have worked so hard. And those of you who are trying to live like kings, exploiting other people; he will take the people you exploit from you to exploit for his own needs. And then after all of that, he will use your flocks to tithe on the wealth he has taken from you. He will pay his taxes with your money. But at least he’s paying taxes. When he is through with you all, you will be even more broke than you are now. And you will be enslaved by the system you coveted.

He will take you for a ride and take you to the cleaners and take you to places you never imagined existed and leave you broken and battered, begging by the side of the road while his chariot-cade passes by. You will see yourselves reflected in the shine on his seal of office and cry out: My God, what have we done?

There is another context for this text: aftermath. The crowd of people who thought when they got a plutocrat who shared their values thought they would ride the gold gravy train will find out what will trickle down on them isn’t gold. You all will cry out on that day in the face of your human-sovereign, whom you have chosen for yourselves; and God Whose Name is Holy will not answer you all on that day.

They wound up with a leader who lacked the mental stability for the job. But beware of forcing the text to exactly parallel our world. Saul’s story is a tragic one. He and all of the women in his life are broken by David, and arguably by God who doesn’t accept Saul’s repentance but will accept David’s over and over and over again. But that is another sermon. Samuel’s opposition to the monarchy is preserved because it is entangled with the story of David, the monarch who will be all but deified.

There is more to take away from this passage than the hubris firing God then demanding she find a lesser qualified man to do a pale imitation of her job. Monarchy comes with a price. It is an expensive proposition; it will cost them more than they know. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Lord Acton was speaking of the church when he penned those famous words. The monarchy was already a failed experiment in Israel when they made their request. In the book of Judges one of Gideon’s seventy children, Avimelek, the one he seems to have rejected and not provided with an inheritance, kills all of his siblings (but one who escaped) and reigns in Israel for three years. He, not Saul, is the first king in Israel. He was eventually mortally wounded by a woman while besieging her town and killed himself so no one would say a woman killed him in Judges 9.

Traditional understandings of this text say what is at stake is what happens when you consider anyone other than God your king. That sounds real good to Americans and other post-colonial subjects who threw off the shackles of monarchy long ago. That is certainly Samuel’s perspective. The Deuteronomist will counter by constructing David as the first messiah-king. And if you want to know how that turned out ask Bathsheba, and Rizpah, and, Tamar and all the unnamed women, children, and men David slaughtered while thugging for hire on behalf of his Philistine lord.

Perhaps the most overlooked lesson in this text is that God is not a king. At best, our ancestors simply lacked the imagination and language to describe God other than in human terms. At worst, by giving God a title they reserved for themselves, human men gave voice to their secret wish to be idolized. In the ancient Afro-Asian context in which this narrative is set, a king is a warlord who batters his opponent to submission. Kings didn’t lead from the back like presidents and generals in secret bunkers and protected command and control centers. They led in the slaughter, hacking and clubbing their enemies to death, treading through the brains and blood of the slaughtered, building monuments out of their bones. That is not God. God is not a king. Kings schemed against their fellow–and occasional sister–kings; they stole each other’s land, enslaved each other’s people, raped each other’s daughters and sons. That is not God. God is not a king.

God transcends all of our language, petty ambitions, and self-aggrandizing titles. We need new language for God that is not rooted in vengeance and violence, submission and slaughter, or domination and damnation. We need to employ a little sanctified imagination and call God by names that don’t bring her down to our level. But all we have is these human tongues and colonized imaginations. Drawing on the spirit of my ancestors I will say God is a mother to the motherless and a father to the fatherless. God is a doctor in the sickroom and a lawyer in the courtroom. God is the one who brings us to life, calls us to freedom, and moves between us with love.

God is:

Sovereign, Savior and Shelter;
Author, Word and Translator;
Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer and Life-Giver;
Holy Incarnate Majesty, Holy Incarnate Word, Holy Abiding Spirit;
Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer;
The God of Isaiah, the God of Jesus and our God;
Parent, Partner, and Friend.

God is:

shepherd, banner, rock, fortress, deliverer,
peace, light, salvation, 
strength and shield, 
devouring fire,
abiding presence.

God is twelve and seven and three and one and legion. God is. And God is available to any and everyone whether warrior, prophet, king, laborer, immigrant, transchild, felon, politicion, trafficked woman, president, pastor, professor or seminarian, patriarchal misogynist or white supremacist, once we understand that the titles with which we have crowned ourselves and in which we name God in our image become idols. And one day if we are not careful, God will leave us to them.

You all will cry out on that day in the face of your human-sovereign, whom you have chosen for yourselves; and God Whose Name is Holy will not answer you all on that day.

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

1 Samuel 8:4 All the elders of Israel gathered themselves together and came to Samuel yonder at Ramah, 5 and they said to him, “You—you are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways; now then, set up for us a human-sovereign to judge us, like all the heathen nations.” 6 But the thing was evil in Samuel’s sight when they said, “Give us a human-sovereign to judge us.” Then Samuel prayed to the Holy One of Old.

7 And the Holy One said to Samuel, “Hearken to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for it is not you they have rejected, but it is me they have rejected from being sovereign over them. 8 Like everything else they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this very day, forsaking me and serving other gods; they are doing the same to you. 9 Now then, hearken to their voice; but—you shall testify against them, and show them the judgment of the human-sovereign who shall reign over them.”

10 So Samuel relayed all the words of the Holy One to the people who were asking him for a human-sovereign. 11 Samuel said, “This will be the judgment of the human-sovereign who will reign over you: your sons he will take and set them aside for himself in his chariots and in his cavalry, and to run before his chariots; 12 and he will set aside for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his plowing and to reap his reaping, and to make his furnishings of war and the furnishings of his chariots. 13 Your daughters he will take to be apothecaries and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards, he will take and give to his servants. 15 One-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards he will take and give to his eunuchs and his slaves. 16 Your male slaves and your female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, he will take and put them to his work. 17 Your flocks he will tithe…and you, you shall be his slaves. 18 And you all will cry out on that day in the face of your human-sovereign, whom you have chosen for yourselves; and God Whose Name is Holy will not answer you all on that day.”