On 14 December 2012 (my father’s birthday) I posted an angry tweet about pastors who didn’t know what to say in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting sit down rather than preach something stupid like God needed more angels. Someone asked me what to preach instead, a serious question as they were struggling with the horror and the assigned texts in the preaching lectionary used by many Christian denominations. I held my first-ever tweetchat using the hashtag #what2preach.
I have brought that hashtag back after shooting after shooting and atrocity after atrocity. I realized today that it has become a macabre protocol for me as a priest, seminary professor and biblical scholar to help other priests and pastors who are struggling to proclaim a meaningful word in God’s name.
And Goddammit– yes, may God damn and curse the murderous violence in our society to the pits of hell – God damn it we are here again.
Preach the truth: There are hard, ugly truths to confront in our preaching: an enduring history of American violence and its legacy, the history of race, racism and racialized violence in America, access to guns and military weapons in particular. This will be hard to do if you have never addressed these truths before.
Preach the context: Cooption of one #BlackLivesMatter protest among many simultaneous BLM protests around the country because of two more killings of black men by police on video that depicts the killings as little more than assassinations. If you have never preached about BLM before you will need to introduce it to your congregation in its own words, not the words or opinions of others. You will need to do some homework and I won’t do that for you.
Preach to your context: Sermons in white, multiracial, lightly integrated and black congregations will be and should be different because we do not have the same experiences of being American and encountering police. Some will have the luxury generated by white privilege to construct a service of lament for the murdered officers without any regard to the larger context. That may be what your congregation wants and expects. Preaching to your context doesn’t mean doing what they want; what they want is not always what they need.
Avoid religious tropes: Folk waiting for Jesus to make this right are dying and being killed. God’s love extends to all but so what. We may believe that God will exact perfect justice in the world to come but we live in this one. Prayer is powerful but it is too often used as an excuse to avoid doing the difficult work of holding our society accountable for its ills and working to dismantle and rebuild it. Jesus’ execution and triumph over death are the powerful heart of the Christian faith and need to be more than a sermonic flourish or rhetorical performance to be relevant.
Exorcise the demonic: Name the evils in our midst – white supremacy, systemic racism, interpersonal racism, callous disregard for human life, corrupt authorities and legal systems, murder, hate.
Heal the hurt: Begin the process – you are not responsible for all of it or even finishing it. The healing process begins with creating the space for healing and naming the hurts. Acknowledge the deep pain and fear. Address the grief and anger of the police officers and their families in Dallas any the larger police community. Address the fear, anger and rage of the black community in the face of continuing recorded police killings for where there are few indictments and even fewer convictions. Give voice to the pain. Lament and let the lament be unresolved. This lament will endure.
Wrestle with the text: If a text doesn’t fit, don’t use it. Don’t contort the text. Change texts if need be. Don’t be so enslaved to a preaching cycle that you abdicate your responsibility to proclaim a living word. Don’t choose a fallback text that is irrelevant because you’ve worked out some sermonic theatre.
Theologize well: Where is God in all of this? In the killings of black folk? In the lack of justice for their deaths? In the rage of the black community? In the decision to spawn murder from that rage? In the killing and wounding of police officers and civilians? In the response of congregations and civil society to all of these acts of violence and the society that produces them? What enduring truths will give meaningful comfort without scapegoating or being cliché?
Offer hope: Stand on the promises and convictions of your faith in spite of all of the evidence to the contrary. If you have preached well – or at least honestly and thoughtfully – this will not be heard as meaningful platitudes.
Call to action: What will you and your congregation do to help heal the world that is meaningful and concrete inside and outside of your walls? This will vary depending on the ethnicity of your congregation.
In all of these approaches, it’s all right to say you don’t know. It’s all right to be silent, even and especially when it becomes uncomfortable.
Originally written for RevGalBlogPals https://revgalblogpals.org/2016/07/08/11th-hour-preacher-party-what2preach-when-blood-is-running-in-the-streets/
Our first lesson could easily be and should be translated:
2 Sam 11:4 David sent emissaries to kidnap Bathsheba and she came to him then he raped her. Then she cleansed herself from her defilement and returned to her house. 5 [After some time] the woman conceived; and she sent and told David, “I am pregnant.” (translation, Wil Gafney)
These are hard words. These are hard times. Hard times call for hard words.
Let us pray: Holy One of Old, open our ears that we may hear. Amen.
[Note: all of the tweet links are broken. I’ll fix them when I can.] As Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi watched Trayvon Martin being put on trial for his own murder they created the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Many have joined the movement and when others have tried to hijack the prophetic proclamation by focusing only on black male lives or heterosexual or cissexual black lives we who agitate and protest in social media and in the streets remind and correct them: all black lives matter. [tweet this] Black women’s lives matter. Black lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender lives matter. Black Muslim lives matter. All black lives matter because black life is sacred. [tweet that] The lives of Sandra Bland, Kindra Chapman and Jasmine Wright cut short this past week matter because they were the very image of God and someone could not or chose not to see God in them.
And when folk want to turn away from the death that is stalking black lives in the streets, in the church, in police custody, in WalMart, in public parks and in the case of 7 year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, shot by a cop in her own little bed, we say no. Don’t look away. Don’t change the subject. You don’t go to a breast cancer rally and change the subject to all cancer or another disease or all the people who aren’t killed by cancer or even blame folk for behavior choices that you think may have contributed to their cancer.
That’s what the folk who invented the all lives matter hashtag in response to black lives matter were doing. [tweet this] We said black lives matter. They said no, all lives matter. They said we will not acknowledge that black life is under siege. We will change the subject. We will look away.
We have a hard time talking about race in this country. At this moment we are looking at an escalating tide of black death and some of us are saying black lives matter. In the church we should also say Black life is sacred.
Our scriptures teach we are all created in the image of God. That is easy to say. Our history and our very present demonstrate that some of are not counted in that “we.” Our own Episcopal Church told my enslaved ancestors that freedom in Christ didn’t mean freedom from slavery. They would be free when they died. We weren’t counted in that “we.” The founders of this nation, many of whom were also founders of the Episcopal Church, both founded in my home Diocese of Pennsylvania, had no trouble excluding people of African descent from “we the people.” (Yes, they excluded others but we’re not going to look away or change the subject.) [tweet this] Those founders for whom the bible was scripture could appeal to its pages to support slavery. Yes, Paul said there is neither slave nor free – but he told Onesimus who freed himself from slavery he had to return to slavery and his master and also wrote “slaves obey your masters.” [tweet this] And for all his talk about freedom, Jesus never freed any slaves.
In the biblical world just as in ours there were people who counted and people who didn’t. Often those people were identified by ethnicity. Race as we know it didn’t exist in the biblical word but ethnicity functioned very much as it does now. Ethnicity in antiquity and modernity is identity rooted in people and place often with distinct language and cultural attributes. In their scriptures Israelites were the people who mattered and non-Israelites often did not. For me there is more than a little irony in Gentile Christians claiming the scriptures of Israel as our heritage. And, whether Israelite or non-Israelite, women in the scriptures often – but not always – but all too often – were treated as though they didn’t matter. And yes, there are those texts where women and foreigners and even foreign women turn the tables on exclusion and bias but don’t rush to those texts too quickly. Don’t look away from what is hard to see just yet.
Part of what is so infuriating to many us in the Black Lives Matter movement is that all too often our fellow God-crafted citizens whom we pay, support and need as police officers are killing us and our children. They have the power of the state at their disposal, a sacred trust to use lethal force only for the protection of all of us, for our common good. But some of them abuse that power. [tweet this] The sheer scope of extrajudicial killings of black folk by police is an abuse of power. Some take it further like Officer Daniel Hoytzclaw who spent his on-duty time targeting black women for sexual assault. [tweet this] He took at least 13 black women like David took Bathsheba. Don’t look away.
The church has a history of looking away. The church has looked away from David’s abuse of his power, running to his repentance. Don’t look away. [tweet this] The church has even looked to Bathsheba blaming her – some call her rape adultery – looking at her instead of David just as some folk have blamed victims of police killings: if they had just done what they were told… If she hadn’t mouthed off… The penalty for non-compliance and being mouthy is not summary execution, not in these United States. Besides, compliance won’t save us. Don’t change the subject. Don’t shift the blame. Don’t look away from the abuse of power in this text.
Hold David responsible for his actions. I tell my students and the preachers I mentor not to say “Bathsheba was raped” but to say “David raped Bathsheba.” When he sent his men to take her she didn’t have the option of saying no. She was a stranger in a strange land, her husband was away fighting his war and then he took her, raped her and tried to discard her. Having to prove David raped Bathsheba is uncomfortably similar to the plight in which many women and girls find themselves, having to prove to the police and general public that they were raped.
God, the prophet Nathan and the scriptures are clear that Bathsheba was not at fault for David’s sin. Only he is accused and held accountable. But the text doesn’t regard David’s rape of Bathsheba as a crime against her. In the bible her rape is a crime against her husband. That’s hard for me. But I won’t look away. As an Episcopalian and a biblical scholar I know the bible is more often descriptive than prescriptive, describing things as they were and not as they should be. [tweet this] We are called to learn from, not always imitate Iron Age theology. We are also called to look for those spaces where every once in a while Iron Age theology is revolutionary and revelatory. So don’t look away when the text and even God are hard to look at or you might miss it.
David who was so handsome when we met him is ugly in this text. David rapes because he can. Rape is about power and domination. It is not about sex. [tweet this] David had sex partners. He was married like so many other rapists. David has been engaged to Saul’s daughter Merab, then married to her sister Michal then married to Abigail after her husband died and, on the way home with Abigail he stops off and picks up Ahinoam.] Before he sends men to abduct Bathsheba so he can rape her, David has sexual access to a minimum of six wives whom we know, seven if you count the banished Michal and an unknown number of Saul’s wives whom he inherited. That does not include servants – or slaves since they could not say no – and prostitutes with which Israelite men could have sex without consequence because adultery at that time was only having sex with a married or engaged woman.
[Now those of you who have medical or public health training, tell me what does a person with multiple sexual partners run the risk of, particularly when those partners have more than one sexual partner themselves? Listen to David’s words in Psalm 38:
5 My wounds grow foul and fester
because of my foolishness;
6 I am utterly bent over and prostrate;
all day long I go around mourning.
7 For my loins are filled with burning,
and there is no soundness in my flesh.
[tweet this] David had an STD and wrote a psalm about it. If you asked him, I’m sure David would tell you, “It’s good to be king.” David’s rape of Bathsheba and murder-by-proxy of her husband need to be understood in light of his treatment of other women. [tweet that] He would go on to have children with seven women that we know by name: Abigail, Ahinoam, Bathsheba, Maacah, Haggith, Abital and, Eglah. He fathered another seven children with a group of nameless wives, and he still had Saul’s leftover women. But the church has looked away from David’s sexual ethics.
To cover up his crime, David killed Bathsheba’s husband. And as a result she had no place else to go. I guess she could be grateful that David didn’t just kill her too. I wonder if she had had a choice would she have chosen death over marrying her rapist. Perhaps some days the answer was yes. Sadly, all that most people seem to remember about Bathsheba is the worst day of her life, maybe the worst two or three days: the day David raped her, the day David killed her husband, the day she realized she would have to marry her rapist. I don’t know how she did it. But it seems to me that she made up her mind to have the best life she could under the circumstances. I imagine that she said to David, “You are not going to shut me away like you did your first wife Michal. You stole the life I had with my husband. You stole our future and you stole our children. I can’t get that back but I can have your children and the security that comes with them. It’s good to be king and I will be the mother of kings.”
I don’t know if she really said that, but that’s what I imagine her saying. I have to imagine something because she keeps living and sleeping with David, having his babies – four of them – in spite of everything that he has done to her and her husband. She stayed in that marriage like so many women married to a monster with no place to go. I’m not saying that women who are being abused or even raped by their husbands should stay with them. I am simply acknowledging that she had no other choice, and that in our time many women feel like they have no choice either. Bathsheba made the best she could out of the situation.
In so doing she changed the course of history. Bathsheba and the prophet Nathan decide between them, without an old, then-impotent David at the end of his life, that her son Solomon and not David’s oldest son Amnon or even his favorite, Absalom will be king. [tweet this] Bathsheba put her son on the throne. And after David died, Solomon put her on a throne. In 2 Kings 2, Solomon enthrones his long-suffering mother who has survived her rape, her rapist and their forced marriage. Bathsheba became the right-hand woman in the kingdom. And when Solomon got up off of his throne and bowed at her feet, everyone else in the throne room did too.
Solomon learned it’s good to be king and followed in the footsteps of his father David. Where did you think he got the habit of collecting women? It is good to be king. But Jesus didn’t want to be king. He knew that there was nothing romantic about being king. Many monarchs, kings, some queens and pharaohs – male and female – were bloodthirsty, power-hungry, egomaniacal and rapists. [tweet this] David and Solomon represented the golden age of Israelite monarchy and Jesus didn’t want to be anything like them. David and Solomon collected women for their own personal use. [tweet] Jesus collected and respected women disciples like Mary Magdalene, the Apostle to the Apostles whose feast was this past Wednesday.
Yet the Church and the scriptures have given the title “king” to Jesus. His disciples then and now never seem to get that he never wanted to be king. In today’s Gospel, after he has demonstrated his power by feeding five thousand people with a child’s lunch Jesus has to run away and hide because the people want to make him king. Just after his resurrection and ascension, the disciples asked again, “Now are you going to restore the kingdom?” If he could raise himself from death to life surely he could put Herod and even Caesar to death. Because the one sure way to become king was to kill the previous king. But Jesus would die, not kill.
[tweet this] Kings take. But Jesus gives. A king will take your sister, wife or daughter. But Jesus gives women dignity. A king will take and tax your crops. But Jesus gives the Bread of Heaven and earthly food to the hungry. [tweet this] A king will take your life if you get in his way, but Jesus gives eternal life.
As king David had the power of life and death at his command. He used that power to rape and murder. There were good kings in Israel and terrible kings and kings who did good things and terrible things. There are good people and horrible people with the power of life and death over others. And there are people who do good things and terrible things with the power of life and death over others. Some of those things are so terrible we may want to look away and change the subject. [tweet] But the lesson of Bathsheba and Black Lives Matter is that the victimized and the vulnerable matter to God and none of the biases of text or culture, in the Iron Age or this age will ever change that.
In the Name of God who is Love, Jesus the Love that is stronger than death and the Holy Spirit who covers us and fills us with her Love. Amene.
Open the doors of our hearts. Open the doors of our hearts to the word we would hear and the word we would not. Open the doors of our hearts. Open the doors of our hearts to those whom it is easy to love and those who it is not. Open the doors of our hearts. Open the doors of our hearts to the stranger when it is convenient and when it is not. Open the doors of our hearts. Open the doors of our hearts wider than the fears that limit us. Open the doors of our hearts. Amen.
Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak;
let the earth hear the words of my mouth.
May my teaching pour like the rain and may my word go forth like the dew.
Exodus invites us to imagine that someday someone will ask you about why you do what you do. In order for someone to ask the question, they have to see you doing something provocative. In the text, telling the story of liberation to the next generation is an act of living liturgy.
The story of Passover and its ritual instructions are not directly applicable to Christians and other Gentiles. But there are lessons to be learned here. It’s easy to focus on the story of the exit – as my dictation program typed instead of Exodus, a story of liberation – and then talk about all the ways in which we have been liberated and are seeking liberation for ourselves and for others. We may move easily into conversations about liberation of slaves here in America in the previous century and, here in America and around the world in this century.
But what about the command to tell the story? What about the liturgy of the telling? We have our own capital S story as Christians and individual stories. An important part of our faith is telling the story; that is the heart of evangelism. It is important, some would say crucial, for Christians to be able to tell the story of Jesus. But that’s not the kind of telling the text is talking about. The text calls for the Israelites to become living texts, to tell their stories with their actions and then when asked with their words. The living comes before the telling.
The text about telling comes with an expectation that the descendants of Israel will live the story in a particular way. The text foresees the future in which the daily lives and routine of people will be framed, not interrupted, but shaped by the liturgy they live. As cultural religions, Judaism and its ancient Israelite ancestor shape and shaped the daily lives and seasonal lives of the people born to them and those who choose them. While there are daily and seasonal Christian observances, they don’t shape the daily lives of its followers in the same way. Yet here in this time, when our living liturgies of the Three Days intersect with the living liturgy of Passover is an opportune time to ask how these liturgies affect our daily living. And looking beyond these days, what are the stories our lives tell?
Today is 14 Nissan 5774, Erev Pesach. Tomorrow is the first day of Passover (in our time zone). Jews all over the world engage in the liturgy of story telling at table in their homes, some tonight, some tomorrow night. Some unknown number of Gentiles like me will sojourn at those tables and share in telling that story.
Today, I would like you to focus on what if anything you do in your daily or seasonal life that tells the story of your faith. What are your living liturgical practices? What is it that you do that someone might see you do ask why do you do that? What does it mean? How do you mark the seasons of our collective story in your home? What do you do to tell your story when you’re not at church?
Today we are going to talk to our neighbors about our stories. In groups of two tell your story using these questions:
1- When was the last time someone asked you about your faith based on something they saw you do?
2- Are their ways you live out your faith in your home (other than Advent, Christmas and Easter decorations)?
3- How/where/when do you share your story outside of your home?
Talk to a neighbor and Dr. Krentz will play us back together at the end of our time. (6 min)
So, what’s your story? The stories of Israel and the church are interrelated. Each is a study of a people who move from oppressed to oppressor. Each used their theology to justify dominating those with different theologies. And they continue to tell their stories. But the people who watched them didn’t always tell the same stories. The Canaanites didn’t tell the story of Israelite presence in the land the way Israel did. And folk on the bottom of the Church’s power curves don’t tell the same stories as those on top. Women and men, people of color and white folk, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender folk and heterosexual and cisgender folk tell different stories. But we’re part of the same great story. Privilege is seductive and the memories of marginalization loom large justifying using privilege to protect privilege.
You are telling a story with your life and when they ask you why do you do the things you do, what will you say about the story you have already told with your commitments, actions and inactions when they contradict the story you tell with your words? We are writing and being written as the Church, the story of God. Can anyone see Jesus in or story? That poor, Jewish, brown-skinned, non-gender compliant, establishment-critical, Hebrew Bible reading and preaching Jesus? What about that infuriating violence provoking Jesus? Anybody get mad when you preach? Anybody care when you preach?
In our first lesson, a portion of the Torah portion for the first day of Pesach, Passover, God tells Israel to tell their story and more than that, to live their story. Live the story you tell. And let it be the story of God. The story of redemption and transformation, the story of blending fellow travelers escaping the same slavery into a new people.
Our second lesson, a portion of the haftarah, the prophets portion for the first day of Pesach shows the Israelites telling their story of salvation in the living liturgy they had been given. There will be no record of Israel keeping the Passover in the bible again until the prophet Huldah canonizes the Torah scroll brought to her in the reign of Josiah, some six hundred years later, a reminder that if you neglect to tell your story, it will not die. It will wait for those who know its power to tell it again.
What’s your story? This place has a story, and old story and now you are writing new lines. What will you say when they ask you why you’re doing what you’re doing?
My time here has added new lines to my story. One is the certainty that the hijacking of the term evangelism by those who have redefined it by their example as religious intolerance, harassment, arrogance and bible bashing conversion drive-bys is a story that does not lead to liberation or even invite conversation.
When they ask me why I tweet, blog and insist on reading hearing and preaching from God’s word in God’s mother tongue, I have a story, one in which I hope my words reflect my actions, compelling, inviting, engaging, challenging and convicting, probing and prophetic. As we have lived our stories together, I have learned to tell my story in the public square in a way I couldn’t imagine, as drag-inspired womanist midrash, including vampire theology and critical analysis of race and its representations in popular culture, from the Masoretic Text to the movie theatre. That’s the story of this theological dominatrix. What’s yours? As we go our separate ways will the story you live be the story you tell? Will the story you tell be the story you live? The library is open.
Psalm 68:11 The Sovereign-Commander gives an order; the preaching women are a great army.
Woman, go up to a high mountain, you who proclaim good news to Zion.
Woman, raise your woman’s voice with power – proclaiming good news to Jerusalem.
Raise it woman, do not fear woman; woman, say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
1 Chronicles 7:24 His daughter was Sheerah, who built both Lower and Upper Beth-horon, and Uzzen-sheerah.
“An Army of Preaching Women” a sermon delivered at the the William Harvey III Memorial Malawi Mission Portrait of Excellence Banquet, 20 October 2012. Click to listen to audio of the sermon An Army of Preaching Women Sermon (mp3).