Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Archive for 2011

Torat Bilhah: The Torah of a Disposable Woman

African American Art - Eve

[This D’var Torah led to a rich and ongoing discussion at the Dorshe Derekh Reconstructionist Minyan of the Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia on the possibility of adding the names of the enslaved Mothers, Zilpah and Bilhah, to the liturgy. Some of that conversation can be found here. Ultimately it was decided that prayer leaders would have the option to invoke their names as Immahoth, Mothers of Israel.]

Today, I’d like to share with you Torat Bilhah, Bilhah’s Torah, the torah of a disposable woman. Today’s drash is based on an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Womanist Midrash. Womanism is black feminism by another name, coined by Alice Walker.

Genesis 30:3 Rachel said, “Look! My womb-slave Bilhah – come in her, and she will give birth on my knees that I may also build-babies, through her.”

Bilhah is one of two slave-women whose bodies were used to produce a full third of the twelve tribes of Israel. Bilhah and Zilpah are often overlooked – in prayers naming the matriarchs in Judaism and Christianity – and, in my experience as a congregant and student they are combined as a footnote to Israel’s story. Bilhah figures more prominently in the scriptures than does her sister in slavery, Zilpah. There are eleven references to Bilhah; in comparison there are only seven for Zilpah.

Both amahoth and shiphchoth are enslaved women or girls regularly associated with sexual and reproductive duties. Translating either as “maid” intentionally obscures the sexual nature of their servitude. Both terms seem to refer primarily to foreign women; Lev 25:44 stipulates that they should be bought from foreigners. However, a survey of the passages in which these terms occur does not indicate that these women are entirely or even preferentially non-Israelite.

In some cases I translate amah and/or shiphchah as “womb-slave.” In these cases, the girls are given by other women to men for sex for the express purpose of impregnating them. I believe that it is more appropriate to describe the womb-slaves as girls rather than as women because they were likely young enough to have been presumed fertile and possibly virginal in order that the paternity of their children not be disputed, however, it may be that in some cases, perhaps Bilhah’s, that they were already proven fertile. Bilhah is first enslaved to Lavan the father of Leah and Rachel before being passed on to his daughter Rachel. While she is enslaved to Lavan, Bilhah is initially referred to as a shiphchah. Later, she is called an amah. The two terms are used nearly interchangeably in the Hebrew Scriptures although there was likely once a distinction between them.

The text is not interested in how a girl (or woman) young enough to be presumed fertile came into Lavan’s household. Was Bilhah once the woman-servant of Lavan’s mysteriously missing wife? Was Bilhah born in captivity or captured as spoils of war? How long was she in Lavan’s service before he gave her to Rachel? And what sorts of services did she provide Lavan? Given the absence of Lavan’s wife from the narrative it is entirely possible that Lavan used Bilhah sexually.

Bilhah’s sexual subordination to Rachel (with or without the possibility that Lavan used her sexually previously) evokes for me the sexual abuse of enslaved Africans in the United States, Caribbean and other places. Religious readings that valorize Rachel place the descendants of those held as chattel in the American slavocracy in the position of identifying with slave-holding values and against the interests and experiences of our foremothers. Rachel, like her foremother Sarah does not to hesitate to use the body, womb and sexuality of another woman for her own purposes. Unlike the white women who benefited from slavery in the Atlantic, Rachel does not pretend not to know about sexual contact between her man and her slave. And, when Rachel gives Bilhah to Ya‘aqov, she gives her as a primary wife, an isshah. Yet Bilhah remains Rachel’s slave; she is regularly referred to as a shiphchah. Bilhah proves fertile and gives birth to Dan and Naphtali.

In each slave-surrogate story the text portrays a singular accounting of the sexual contact between Avraham and Hagar, Ya‘aqov and Bilhah and Ya‘aqov and Zilpah. The reader must imagine how many times the slave-women were forced/required to have sex with these men in order to provide their mistresses with the children they craved. Rachel like other women who use their slaves as child-bearing surrogates claims the children; this is not comparable to the vast experience of enslaved women of African descent forced to bear children at the whim of their enslavers, whose children were sold off or abused to punish them for a sin that was not theirs. (Perhaps a modern parallel to Rachel’s use of Bilhah’s body might be the women of privilege who travel to the two-thirds world to pay a surrogate to bear their children at a tenth of the cost of an American surrogate. While the poor women do consent to the practice, the financial disparities and cultural consequences of carrying someone else’s child in traditional societies complicate that consent.)

Bilhah’s body is used again in Gen 35:22. Re’uven ben Leah, Ya‘aqov’s firstborn son, rapes Bilhah. That Bilhah does not consent is indicated by the Hebrew, vayishcav et-bilhah, “he lay Bilhah.” There is no “with” indicating consent. Bilhah is the grammatical and sexual object of Re’uven’s actions. Re’uven is young enough to be her son. He may have been like a son or nephew to her. But he uses her nevertheless, whether for his own power and control needs or as a pawn in a battle with his father. The pain, anguish, rage and shame that Bilhah must have felt are and are not difficult to imagine. No punishment is meted out to Re’uven in the text at the time of the assault. (It is held against him and eventually given as the reason he is demoted from the privilege of being the firstborn.) No comfort is offered to Bilhah in the text. Was she supported by other slave women, by Zilpah who shared her lot in life? I cannot imagine Rachel or even Leah coming to her aid. Her body has belonged to Lavan, Rachel, Ya‘aqov and now Re’uven. Bilhah may be the woman with the most sexual partners in the scriptures, none of whom she chose. In the rape narrative Bilhah is described as a secondary wife, a pilegesh. She has been degraded in body and status.

Yet something of Bilhah endures and transcends the abuse heaped on her body. In 1 Chron 4:29 there is a town named Bilhah settled by the descendants of Simeon. Textually speaking, the town is likely the same town called Ba‘alah in Joshua 15:29. Since Ba‘alah and Bilhah are more than one letter apart, scribal error does not seem to be responsible for the discrepancy. There are likely two different traditions about the ancient city list. The space between the two traditions provides a midrashic space. I’d like to think that Bilhah is the Ba‘alah, (“lady” or “mistress”), for whom the town is named, regaining the dignity that had been stripped from her. Finally, in Genesis 46:23-25, Bilhah takes her place in the genealogy of Israel as a matriarch, credited with seven children and grandchildren; this is largely repeated in 1 Chron 7:13.

In a womanist reading, Bilhah represents the woman who has had more than one abusive relationship, the woman who has been raped by more than one perpetrator, the woman who has been betrayed by women and men, who has never known anyone to value her for more than what they think about her body in part or the whole. And Bilhah represents the woman survives her abuse.

There is a prayer in the Mass of my church, (Eucharistic Prayer C in the Holy Eucharist, Rite II, in the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church), in which the celebrant invokes “God of our Fathers, God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” I always add Hagar, Sarah, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah. Because Bilhah is one of the mothers of Israel and after all that she has been through – after all that was done to her, to erase her name from the chronicle of her descendants and their people is to do further violence to her. Likewise when I pray the Amidah, I add Hagar, Bilhah and Zilpah for the same reason.

Lastly, calling the names of familial and spiritual ancestors is a womanist practice with roots in a number of African societies. In ritual practice, the affirmation “Ashé!” from the Yoruba tradition concludes the name-calling of the ancestors. Mother Bilhah, womb-slave of Israel, we call your name. Ashé!

Questions:

Who are some of the marginalized characters in sacred writings that you would like to see in the center of discourse? Given that this text functions as scripture – with all that entails – what torah does Bilhah offer you? What (if anything) does midrash from the margins offer the broader interpretive tradition? I welcome your questions and comments.

D’Var Torah delivered in the Dorshei Derekh Minyan of the Germantown Jewish Centre for Shabbat Vayetzei 7 Kislev 5772/3 December 2011


Deborah Speaks: A Call to Arms, A Call to Service

Judges 4:3 And the women-and-men-of-Israel cried out to the Faithful One for help; for King Jabin had nine hundred chariots of iron, and had oppressed the women-and-men-of-Israel cruelly twenty years. 4 Deborah, a woman, a female prophet, a fiery woman, she was judging Israel at that time. 

I want to thank the All Saints ohana for your wonderful gift of hospitality to me, especially Ben, Linda, Cooper, Chris, Warren and Wendy, Lacee and Jeff my hiking partners, the congregation at Christ Memorial and the hona [giant sea-turtle] who swam with me in Poipu. I knew when I saw the lessons for today that I wanted to preach on Deborah, having written – if not the book on Deborah – then a major contribution to her study. I love this woman-prophet-military-commander-strategist-and-head-of-state. Sometimes I think my Hebrew name should have been Deborah, but Rabbi Lynne Gottllieb named me Huldah; that works too. And I find as a veteran a message that honors the service of all veterans and everyone else who serves their community in her story: A Call to Arms, A Call to Serve. But I’m not going to preach it. I’m going to let her do that.

In the Name of the Author, the Word and the Translator. Amen.

Good morning, my name is D’vorah, you call me Deborah. Fr. Wil asked me to preach for her today because she is getting ready to go to San Francisco before returning to Philadelphia. As I said before, I am Deborah, the former Judge of Israel; my people call me “Mother,” even though I never married and never had any children of my own. They were all my children. What may seem to be two disparate roles, prophetic mother of the nation and professional martial strategist are in fact united by the single focus of answering the call of God in and through God’s people. You heard part of my story read to you earlier today. I am the sixth Judge in the line of succession: From Moses to Joshua, from Joshua to Othniel, from Othniel to Ehud, from Ehud to Shamgar and from Shamgar to me.

Judges did more than settle disputes; we ruled the tribes from actual thrones – mine was near the large palm tree beside the intersection of Beth-El Boulevard and Ramah Road. As judges we governed the people and led the army – well more of a militia. And I’m more than just a judge. I’m also a prophet and in one sense Moshe’s heir, (you know him as Moses). I know most folk think Joshua was Moses’ heir, but he was no prophet. But he could tell a good story. His book is full of war stories – he reminds me of some other veterans I know, to hear them tell the story every skirmish was a major battle, our side never lost a battle and he was in the center of all the action. Nobody else remembers the stories quite like he told them; but each veteran is entitled to their memories and their stories even when they don’t agree with the official history. They have earned the right to tell their stories however they want. How many of you like Fr. Wil served in the military? I salute you, veteran to veteran.

Joshua’s story comes before my story and our stories together are each part of a larger story. Some of my story is recorded in chapters 4-5 of the book of Judges. The first part in Judges 4 is something like liner notes for an album; it was written after my song in Judges 5 which was at the top of the charts in my day, to tell my story to the folk who only knew my songs. You see when God appointed me to lead the nation, 80 years of rest and prosperity had just come to a crashing end under the hooves, heels and wheels of Canaanite cavalry and infantry. For twenty long years they rode us into the ground. Judge Shamgar beat back the Philistines singlehandedly when they joined in, but it wasn’t enough. And Judge Ehud had died. The version of the story you have says that the people sinned after Ehud died. The old story actually says the people sinned and Ehud died. It might be that their wicked ways sent him to an early death. I had that on my mind when God called me to be the mother of the nation, but I still answered the call to serve.

For twenty years we suffered under Canaanite oppression; I suffered with my people before God called me as a prophet and judge, to walk in Moshe’s oversize footsteps – no wonder Joshua felt the need to tell so many outsized stories! No one tells the stories of how I came to be a prophet or judge. No one remembers that I answered the call to serve when no one knew my name like so many soldiers, sailors, marines and air force service members. I just did my duty. And I wasn’t in the military at first.

The truth is all of our communities need more than one type of service. I just did what I could with the gifts God had given me to help my family, my community. That’s how we made it through the difficult days, every day, every week, every month, every year for twenty years until I went to war, we worked together as a community. We each did our part to hold it together and support each other, with no one calling our names or remembering our service. Your sacred story doesn’t tell you what happened in the 20 years that Israel was oppressed during my time. In fact the big story moves from conflict to conflict, from oppression to oppression, scarcely taking account of the individual people and families struggling to survive day after day focusing on kings and prophets.

You see our people had immigrated to Canaan without checking with the Canaanites. And there were some fights – and to hear Joshua tell it, he killed everybody, but the truth is we figured out how to get along together, more or less.

Joshua (24:11) says, “When you went over the Jordan and came to Jericho, the citizens of Jericho fought against you, and also the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and I handed them over to you.

Just before my story the sacred story says:

Judges (3:5-6) says, “So the Israelites lived among the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and they took their daughters as wives for themselves, and their own daughters they gave to their sons; and they worshiped their gods.

Now all that mixing was a problem for some, but in most cases we were just building community and making families with our hearts the way so many kama’ina [locals] do here in Hawaii. Sometimes what looked like the worship of other Gods was the development of new and different ways of worshipping the God of our ancestors whom we found was also worshipped by some of our neighbors. But there were folk who completely turned their back on the God who brought us so far, so faithfully. I’ll never understand that.

All of the Canaanites didn’t welcome us into their families and land. There were many bitter, vicious battles and terrible losses on all sides. Just when we had carved out a little space and paid for our peace in the blood of our fallen, within four generations we were overrun. Canaanite oppression was physically violent, often lethal. And it was accompanied by an economic depression. It didn’t matter how much or hard people worked, they couldn’t always feed their families or keep their homes. Their savings weren’t being gambled away on Wall Street; they were being burned in the field, and stolen as their livestock was driven off. We lived through hard times, a whole generation of privation. The loss, pain, anger, rage and fear were the same that people feel today and express through the Tea Party and Occupy  Movements. People were hurting. And we took our pain to God.

My people cried out to God. I cried out with them and for them. And God answered. But it wasn’t fast and it wasn’t easy. For twenty long years we struggled under the burdens laid on us by someone else. And while I believe that God heard every prayer and touched every tear, God didn’t wave a magic wand and fix it. That’s a hard lesson, because there are still desperate, hurting, frightened people, losing their security through no fault of their own. And while God hears their cries and touches their tears, in many cases God is moving at a pace that feels far to slow for those who are suffering today.

Yet God heard and God responded. God called me. I seem like a pretty unlikely candidate. No one remembers much about me or my family. They called me a fireball – I think that’s why Fr. Wil likes me so much – but some folk pretend that lappidoth, fireball, is a man’s name so that they could claim I was married. My culture didn’t know what to do with single women. I answered the call like so many men and women who volunteered or were drafted into military service. No one starts out as a hero or leader of a nation. We just answer a call to serve. No one even remembers the call I answered or how I served before I was appointed commander-in-chief. Like so many veterans, much of my service was anonymous. And like many veterans, I also have a couple of good war stories.

When God called me to serve God by serving God’s people, I issued my own call to service. I called for war. It wasn’t a popular call. Your people have been at war in Afghanistan and Iraq for ten years. And some of your people and families have borne the war-fighting burden, answering the call to serve while others remain scarcely touched. That’s how it was in our time. We were spread out and everybody didn’t show up when I called, everyone didn’t answer the call. Some couldn’t. Some could but didn’t. Some let others take the risks for them.

I took the troops I had and deployed them. My plan was to lead one flank and send my second-in-command, General Barak to lead the other. But he wouldn’t go without me. He wasn’t ashamed to say he needed the woman of God. The previous generation had Joshua, and the generation before had Moses and Miriam as their prophets, and Barak wasn’t going anywhere without his prophet. And he did not care that the senior warrior gets the glory. Barak wanted victory, not glory. I led and accompanied Barak, fulfilling my calling and enabling him to fulfill his. We led a force of 10,000 and defeated our enemies even though some of our own people, the tribes of Reuben, Gad and Asher along with the clans of Meroz failed to honor the call to serve.

We prevailed even though we were out-classed and out gunned. They had the Iron Age equivalent of mechanized infantry or an armored tank division, almost a thousand iron-plated armored chariots. We had some iron-tipped arrows and spears and a few iron swords for hand to hand, but we also had a lot of bronze. And our troops were not professional soldiers. But they answered the call. And God made the difference. God took our service and multiplied it and used it to protect our families, homes and community.

I also had a battle-buddy, a sister-in-arms, her name was Ya‘el Eshet Heber; she was a covert operations specialist, an assassin, she had a license to kill, or if you prefer, to terminate her objectives with extreme prejudice. She was an assassin, but not a sniper. She went in close for her kills. I wrote a song about her, I called her “most blessed among women” after she took down the Canaanite general, Sisera, a notorious rapist. In one of the saddest comments on the whole affair, his mother doesn’t even worry when he is late coming home from the war because she knows it is his custom to violate the women of his enemies.

More than six hundred years later the Israelites sang my song to another Mother-Savior, Judith after she assassinated the enemy general oppressing her people who wanted to rape her. That’s one thing that has not changed from my time to yours, the use of rape as a tool of war against women and men and boys and girls. Many veterans and active duty soldiers bear scars that can’t be seen because of sexual assault. Those assaults are not limited to enemy troops; some soldiers are raped by our own colleagues-in-arms. And there are some folk who take pleasure in using their power and physical strength against the most vulnerable among us off the field of battle in their personal campaigns of conquest.

Father Wil tells me that there are many folk who long for an Old Testament solution for child predators and rapists, and she counts herself among them in times like these when the news cycle is full of atrocities. Yet even in my day a person who was accused of horrific acts was brought before a judge. Hearing all of the evidence before passing sentence, particularly when that sentence is life-or-death is a sacred duty, and for some that is their call to service.

Some six hundred years after the elders of Israel sang my song to Judith, the pregnant prophet Elizabeth sang my song to her young cousin, the mysteriously pregnant Miriam, soon to be the mother of not just a nation, but the mother of God. Let me suggest that what each woman had in common was her willingness to offer her body in the service God. In spite of the lives of these women most of us do not expect God to use us to accomplish Divine purpose through assassination and unwed pregnancy.

These women teach us that there are some, not all, whose callings lead them to do incredible things in the Name of God, most of which we would not be comfortable doing. They teach us that leadership is not without cost and that God calls whomever God wills. All of us are not called to be assassins or prophets, maybe some of us are. But we all are called. The question that each of us must answer is whether or not we are living out our divine calling.

Lastly, Fr. Wil wants me to tell you that you may not have legions of warriors at your disposal, experienced military commanders, assassins or even anti-rape activists at your beck and call, but if you go where God calls and sends you, God will go with you and before you and will meet you there. You will not go alone. Perhaps you will be able to follow a seasoned prophet. Perhaps you will be accompanied by angels. You will not go alone.

There is an afterword to today’s story. Fame is fickle. Hebrews asks (11:32-34) “And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.

The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews has a gendered recollection of history without the herstory of Deborah and Ya‘el. You can do what God called you to do and people may forget that it was you God chose to use. Someone may rewrite your story in their own image, but God will not forget. God will be with you when others forget you.     

May God the Mother and Father of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,

Sarah, Hagar, Rebekkah, Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah,

Who took the tangled threads of their lives

And wove a tapestry of Redemption

In the Blood of Jesus

Continue to weave the strands of your life

In the Divine design.

13 November 2011

All Saints Episcopal Church

Kapaa HI


Saints Alive!

For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord Jesus, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord Jesus, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord Jesus himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ Jesus will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord Jesus in the air; and so we will be with the Lord Jesus forever. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)

Saints Alive!We are continuing to celebrate the Feast of All Saints focusing on those whom the Church has named saints and those whom we personally regard as saints; some celebrations were on All Hallows Eve, Halloween, seemingly disconnected from the Church’s day for many. We celebrate the Feast of All Souls focusing on all of the dead of all times, the holy dead and the unholy, saint and sinner, in and out of the Church. And now, we are talking about the return of Christ to the earth, the Second Coming, the Rapture. Yep, I’m a Church nerd, happily at home in the Episcopal Church, and I hope you are too, at home that is, and only nerdy if you want to be.

Our epistle lesson deals with some of the bedrock beliefs of the early and enduring Church: the resurrection of Jesus and those who believe in him, the eternal lives and communion of the saints who have died and, the return of the Messiah, the Christ, Jesus, to the world. We do not want you to be uninformed, sisters and brothers, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.

These ancient words were crafted to comfort the early believers, some of the saints and souls whose feast days we celebrate. They were paying a terrible price for their faith. They were being mutilated and murdered, martyred. A deep and heavy grief permeated the early church, and I would say some fear. Some of the saints and martyrs were surely fearless, others I think were faithful in spite of their fear, transcending their fear, standing firm in the face of their fear, showing courage over fear. And there were those who wondered if it was all for nothing. Confessing Christ – not saying the words of a creed among our own folk with a few visitors sprinkled in – but publicly admitting to following a convicted felon, an executed traitor and rebel was to set oneself up to lose family and home, property and income, wealth and standing, status and freedom, one’s life and possibly the lives of one’s family by being burned alive, by claw and tooth of lions and other wild animals, by crucifixion, impaling or hanging, by torture, through blunt and sharp force trauma. Many had confessed Christ and so many of those had paid the price in blood and suffering. To those who loved them and ached for them, wept for them, longed for them, mourned for them, grieved for them, Paul wrote: We do not want you to be uninformed, sisters and brothers, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.

It was easy to be hopeless then as it is now. There was violence and injustice at every level, from interpersonal relationships to the highest reaches of government. There were corrupt officials, and predatory institutions, and wolves in sheep’s clothing in religious assemblies, there was rampant police brutality and crushing poverty, abysmal public health policies and no safety nets for vulnerable peoples, gender discrimination, class discrimination, ethnic discrimination and religious discrimination, and there were also all the usual personal betrayals, broken hearts, neglected hopes and battered dreams.

There was also, particularly among those who believed that Yeshua ben Miryam L’Natzeret, Jesus born of Mary of Nazareth, was the Messiah promised in Israel’s scriptures, faith in the power of life over death, a power demonstrated in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. A power witnessed by countless saints and souls who saw him alive, touched him and were touched by him, sat at table with him, walked and talked with him and, a power testified to in faith and sometimes the bloody deaths of their own loved ones. With that power was a promise, that death is not the end, that none of their loved ones was truly lost. They would see them again, be with them again: For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.

But it’s a complicated promise and has caused no small measure of confusion in the Church and in the world since then, Harold Camping the man who has recently (wrongly and repeatedly) promised the return of Christ on a specific date is in good company. And there’s no small measure of distance between the idea of the return of Christ mentioned in this and other places in the scriptures and the idea of the rapture which developed quite a bit later and was related back to these verses in Thessalonians. Many have predicted the return of Christ and all of their predictions have failed. Even Paul thought he knew when Jesus would return: For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord Jesus, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord Jesus, will by no means precede those who have died. It’s been two thousand years since Paul wrote “we who are alive” and neither he nor his readers are still alive. Or are they? It’s clear that Paul and his readers expected Jesus to come back in their time. In that regard he was like Harold Camping, but Paul did not pick a specific date – again and again and again. Paul didn’t stake his name or reputation on specificity, but he did proclaim in solidarity with the teaching of Jesus that the dead were in fact alive. So whenever Jesus comes, those who have already died will in fact be alive in the life beyond life and the life beyond death. Paul proclaimed that those who have died in the faith were not forgotten by God and would not miss out on the promises of God yet to unfold.

Those saints and souls who have passed on, are part of what one writer calls “a great cloud of witnesses” and what the Church calls “the communion of the saints.” They are all around us and sometimes we are more aware of their presence than others. That’s why so many churches like this one surround themselves with graveyards and others house crypts and columbaria. The three holy days when Christians and pagans attend to our ancestors in the world beyond our world and also all around us are not the only moments when our worlds connect. The saints and ancestors are always with us. Bishop Steven Charleston puts it this way:

Can you hear them? Can you hear them as they pass by, whispering on the wind? Can you feel them, feel their warmth, when they draw near, standing just beside you? They are the ones who have gone before, the saints who have touched our lives, whose memories shape us still. They are the family to which we each belong, ancient and never ending. Our ancestors watch over us, their constant vigil keeping. Their wisdom and care surrounds us, a river of healing flowing just beneath the sands of time. Can you hear them? They speak of a love they have seen, love beyond imagining, a love that holds us safe, until we rise to meet them.

“Until we rise to meet them…” Paul and Bishop Charleston speak of a resurrection in which we shall all share. For the Lord Jesus himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ Jesus will rise first.

There are many stories about the return of Christ, many teachings, many interpretations, some confusion and more than a few jokes. One rabbi proposed settling the question of whether or not Jesus was the Messiah by asking the Messiah whom he believed would come to Jerusalem one day, “Nu, it this your first trip to Jerusalem?”

These promises in scripture hold as many questions as answers. The disciples of Jesus asked, “When will this be? And what will be the sign of your coming?” And Jesus warned them (and us) “Don’t let anyone lead you astray. Many will come in my name…” Some may remember that Jesus also said that there would be “wars and rumors of wars,” in other words nothing would change between now and then, but few remember that he said right after that, “but the end is not yet.”

In Matthew 24, the chapter before the one assigned today – which I think is a better fit with the epistle, Jesus mentioned famines and earthquakes, both common occurrences as “the beginning of birth-pangs;” those labor pains must have begun with the dawn of creation for there have always been earthquakes, and famine was an even more regular phenomenon in the ancient world as it is now. Jesus spoke of the suffering his followers would endure for his sake and every generation of persecuted Christians has seen themselves in his words. And by persecuted, I mean the Anabaptists whose murders Martin Luther sanctioned and the Catholics murdered by our own ancestral Church of England and English and Irish Protestants murdered by English and Irish Catholics, and the French Huguenots and Joan of Arc sainted by the same church that killed her and American and European Christian women burned at the stake and African Christians enslaved, raped, tortured and murdered. I’m not talking about someone arguing over posting the Ten Commandments or a cross on public property, I’m talking about Christians whose very identity threatens the powers that be who take them out of the world they are making in their image as a warning to others.

Jesus uses the ancient words of Daniel’s vision of a mortal and immortal one coming with the clouds in glory. Paul writes: Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord Jesus in the air; and so we will be with the Lord Jesus forever. 

These are issues that confound the wise. Our canticle today reminds us: The beginning of wisdom is the most sincere desire for instruction, and concern for instruction is love of her.

We do not want you to be uninformed, sisters and brothers, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. Our hope is in the name of the One who waded in the waters of Miryam’s womb, walked the way of suffering as one of the woman-born, and woke from the grasp of death in the deep darkness of the morning. Amen. 

6 November 2011

Christ Memorial Episcopal Church

Kilauea Kauai


An Unholy Empire

Give the things that are Caesar’s to Caesar, and the things that are God’s to God.

Caesars, emperors, pharaohs, oh my! Claims about earthly dominion and heavenly sovereignty undergird and perfuse the scriptures and the societies that emerged from them, deeply influencing us across time, including here, today.

Give the things that are Caesar’s to Caesar, and the things that are God’s to God.

Sounds easy doesn’t it? But does Jesus mean that his ancient hearers should have given all of their money or even just all of the coins with the imperial image to Caesar? And he can’t mean that we, his contemporary hearers, should give all of our money back to the government that minted and printed it, can he? But then again, doesn’t everything belong to God? Does Jesus mean that we should give all of our money to the Church? Or offer it up directly to God without the middlemen (or women) by setting it on fire as an old-fashioned, biblical-style offering? What does he mean, “Give the things that are Caesar’s to Caesar, and the things that are God’s to God,” and how are we supposed to do that anyway?

Is Jesus talking about Tiberius Caesar, his Caesar in particular, or is he using Caesar generically to mean emperor? Remember Caesar was a family name of the Julii, whose infamous son Gaius Julius passed it down to his adopted son Octavian Augustus who passed it down to Tiberius, his stepson. Much later emperors like Nero and Hadrian who were not related to the Julii claimed the title for themselves and it ceased to be a family name by the time the gospels were being written down, so both senses could be at play here.

We just celebrated the feast day of Hawaii’s beloved sovereigns, Queen Emma and King Kamehameha IV. Monarchy is a tender subject for Hawaiians and a touchy subject for mainlanders and post-colonial peoples around the world. Yet the language of monarchy, which is human language, is used to describe God, the abode of God and God’s relationship to everyone and everything else in the world, in the bible. And in today’s gospel lesson there is an apparent conflict between a human monarch and God. The monarch in question is no mere king, he is an emperor – empire is monarchy on steroids, I’ll get back to that – and not just any emperor, but a Caesar, taking that whole empire thing to a completely new level.

Monarchy is the practice of recognizing some family lineages as legitimate rulers over other people. Historically monarchy has been tricky because not all of the would-be subjects accept the would-be monarchs as their rightful rulers. Monarchal claims and rejection of those claims have led to thousands of years of warfare on this planet, formation of new nations, republics and at least one last state admitted to the United States of America. It’s really only in the last century that warfare and monarchy have enjoyed some separation.

The question of what makes one family, tribe or lineage royal and entitled to rule others in their extended community is for many a theological question. For many royals and some of their subjects, God, the gods and/or the ancestors bestowed the right to rule on them, making rebellion against a monarch a religious crime, a sin, as well as a criminal, political, treasonous matter. Religion is a powerful motivating force and the intentional intersection between monarchy and religion in virtually every culture deliberately exploits this power.

From the perspective of ancient peoples including the Israelites, monarchy was just how the world works: everybody had kings and queens, on earth and in the heavens. If there were monarchs below there were surely monarchs above. From the Israelite perspective, as soon as there were enough people living together in one place to call a city or town, there were monarchs. Early in Genesis, the biblical writers list groups of kings at war with each other in the lands that Sarah and Abraham are supposed to cross and eventually settle. In the book of Judges a man named Avimelek, Abimelech, became the first monarch in Israel, ruling for three years, about a hundred and fifty years before Saul’s kingship. Later, when the Israelites ask God for a monarchy, it is because all the other nations have one and they want one too.

In one of the funniest passages of scripture, the prophet Samuel is beside himself that the people have asked for a human monarch. God has to calm him down and soothehis hurt feelings. So Israel got their own monarchy for a little while – in their glory days the nation wasn’t any bigger than New Jersey although they did have one of the great wonders of the ancient world, the temple in Jerusalem. And God partnered with the Israelite monarchs– some more than others, yet all of them were anointed by their prophets in the name of God, whether the bible calls them good or bad.

Israel’s little monarchy gave it a good run for as long as they could but they couldn’t compete against the big dogs: Empires, those monarchies on steroids. The difference between monarchies and empires can be summed up in one word: colonization. Monarchs rule their own people in their own land but empires rule peoples in other lands, frequently by destroying their monarchies.

Monarchies can be beloved and an immense source of pride to their own people as is the case here in Hawaii and elsewhere around the world. Monarchies can have complicated relationships with each other – who sits where at a royal weddings.

But empires gobble up monarchies, depose, execute or imprison anointed monarchs and sovereigns. Empires are voracious, devouring lands and peoples and their resources to fuel their engines of war for more and more conquest. Many ancient monarchies held slaves, but empires tended to fund their expansion on the backs of slaves, exporting them to new lands to build up outpost colonies and spread the dominion of the empire to new places over new peoples.

And so the Roman Empire had replaced what was left of Alexander the Great’s empire that was built on the bones of the Persian Empire that toppled the Babylonian Empire which destroyed the Israelite monarchy when it was thinking about becoming an empire like the Egyptian empire from which it had so recently – in global terms – escaped.

And Rabbi Jesus, Rav Yeshua, the son of a people that had not ruled their own land for nearly six hundred years says, Give the things that are Caesar’s to Caesar, and the things that are God’s to God.

Jesus is beating the Pharisees at their own game, outdebating them. And he calls them hypocrites, the term for actors at the time. They are pretending to seek him and study God with him, but of course they have another agenda and he lets them know that he knows exactly what they are doing. Well, two can play that game. He will answer pretending that they are really confused about whether they ought to pay their taxes.

Rabbi, is it permitted to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?

Give the things that are Caesar’s to Caesar, and the things that are God’s to God.

However unjust empires may be, and injustice is the bread and butter – or in biblical terms, the bread and salt – of empires, the power of the empire is real and lethal. Jesus’ death warrant was granted on the charge that he claimed to be a monarch, an emperor, a Caesar. Brutality is the stock and trade of empire which brooks no competition. Empires are lethal inventions. Yet empires are comprised of people and people can be redeemed. The work of redemption pitted Jesus against empire and with the people being ground underfoot – the 99% of his time and for the redemption of the purveyors of imperial power.

Jesus and his followers were very practical about government even as they were critical of its injustices; paying taxes was practical advice. And Jesus did not provoke the empire to lethal action until he was ready to die. They would have cut his ministry down in its prime if he had let them. For Jesus there was no competition between the imperial and religious worlds. He didn’t call for people to give all of their money to the temple and boycott the government. He saw a role in the world for both. And to the degree that there were injustices in both he preached against them all. And ultimately an unholy alliance between the empire and their supporters in the religious community took his life, not understanding that he was freely giving it.

We still have taxes in our world and we still ought to pay them. I’d be really concerned about a church or religion that says none of the citizens of a country or state should pay taxes to support that state or country in which they live. We still have empires, but they look quite a bit different from those in the time of Jesus. The Roman Empire that ruled Jesus fell to Germanic tribes in 476 CE. And the sun set on the last of the old-world traditional empires when Great Britain gave back the city of Hong Kong to the Chinese people in 1997. The title emperor no longer means what it once meant; the role of Japan’s Emperor Akihito is vastly different than that of Emperor Hirohito. And he’s not alone, the crowned heads of Europe are regularly trotted out for occasions of state, but they are only titular heads of state.

Earlier this morning, people on the mainland gathered to celebrate the life of another man who gave his life while another empire thought it was taking it from him. The national memorial honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was dedicated today. Most know that he opposed the imperial forces of racism and segregation; some know that the night the was assassinated, murdered and martyred he was opposing economic imperial forces in partnership with the working poor. A few will know that he was killed after he began to speak out against the immorality of corporations in terms of racial and economic injustice. He called some banks and corporations by name and recommended that folk stop putting their money in the local segregated banks and stop buying some products. He called for the economic support of black banks and insurance companies. He called for an economic boycott on the 3rd of April 1968 of Coca-Cola, Sealtest Milk, Wonder Bread, Hart’s Bread; those companies are no longer segregated, but the price was blood. On the 4th of April, less than twenty-four hours later, he was dead. Empires are lethal, particularly when their financial interests are challenged.

Give the things that are Caesar’s to Caesar, and the things that are God’s to God.

So who’s running this world? Who are our Caesars? The protestors on Wall Street and in cities across the country including in Honolulu might say corporations and/or their boards and officers. Others might say that nations like the United States, China and India are competing to rule economic empires with commercial rather than military might. Sadly, even Jesus doesn’t envisage a world in which there are no more empires. But he does see the image of God stamped on the face and body of every human soul, just as the image of Tiberius Caesar was stamped on every coin he minted.

Give the things that are Caesar’s to Caesar, and the things that are God’s to God.

You are the image of God and you belong to God, lock, stock – stocks and bonds – and barrel. Amen. 

The All Saints Episcopal Church

Kapaa HI

16 October 2011


Torah on One Foot

While you’re still standing, if you’re willing and able, please stand on one foot and repeat after me: “What is hateful to me I will not do to another.” You may put your feet down. This is the law and the prophets. All the rest is commentary.

In the name of God who fathered our Redeemer Jesus Christ, Christ our Savior and the Blessed Holy Spirit. Amen.

The story goes that a certain gentile approached two of the famous rabbis teaching in and around Jerusalem in the first century. The person told the first rabbi, Rabbi Shammai, that he would convert to Judaism if the rabbi could teach him the whole Torah while standing on one foot.

Torah is frequently translated as “law,” as in “the Law and the Prophets” and, law is torah but torah is more than law. The word torah comes from one of the words for rain. Torah is everything that God rains down or reveals from heaven. Sometimes torah is translated as teaching orrevelation. The first five books of the bible are called the Torah. The Torah contains law and story and poetry and song and genealogy and more. There is also torah in every part of the scripture and in each testament. I like to say that there is torah in the Torah and more than torahin the Torah and there is torah outside of the Torah. In the Jewish congregation to which I also belong my sermons are called d’vrei torah, words of Torah. And it’s not uncommon for someone to say to me after I have taught, “thank you for sharing your torah with us.”

Back to our story, when the would be convert told the rabbi that he would convert if he taught him the whole Torah while standing on one foot, he was asking to be taught the whole revelation of God, everything that God had revealed to humankind. And the second rabbi’s answer, Rabbi Hillel’s answer was, “What is hateful to me I will not do to another. All the rest is commentary.”

Some of you may recognize this as one formulation of the Golden Rule. There are many others:

Baha’i Faith

Lay not on any soul a load that you would not wish to be laid upon you,
and desire not for anyone the things you would not desire for yourself.

– Baha’u’llah, Gleanings 

Buddhism

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

– The Buddha, Udana-Varga 5.18

Confucianism

One word which sums up the basis of all good conduct
. . .loving kindness. 
Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.

– Confucius, Analects 15.23

Hinduism

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

– Mahabharata 5:1517

Islam

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

– The Prophet Muhammad, Hadith

Jainism

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

– Mahavira, Sutrakritanga

Zoroastrianism

Do not do unto others whatever is injurious to yourself.

– Shayast-na-Shayast 13.29

 

This principle is the essence of good religion and is shared by religious and ethical communities around the world and across time. But all of our churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, ashrams, ethical and humanist societies are full of people. And people don’t always agree on religion and ethics. In fact, people are responsible for most of what’s wrong with religion, even and especially when they – we – blame it on God or our scriptures.

For some folk, rules and regulations dominate religion, for others, religion is all about relationship. And depending on your perspective, the Ten Commandments offer proof of one viewpoint or the other.

Let’s take a vote. How many say religion is about rules? How many say religion is about relationships? How many say religion is about rules and relationships? I voted all three times, because I think it’s all of the above and more than all of the above. Let’s see if we can get a little more clarity.

To make a definitive ruling I suggest we ask a Rabbi. Rebbe Yeshua ben Miryam l’Natzeret, Rabbi Jesus, the son of Mary of Nazareth – you know, the one with the questionable parentage – is the authoritative Christian Rabbi. Not because he was ever Christian, he was not, and is not – he is for those who believe in his Resurrection, still alive and still Jewish. But he is one of the Rabbis to whom Christians turn for our Torah, arguably the preeminent Rabbi, although there are some who turn to Sha’ul L’Tarsus, Saul or Paul of Tarsus, I’m not one of them.

In order to consult Rabbi Jesus, I’m going to offer another Gospel lesson:

Mark 12:28 One of the torah-teachers, (biblical scholars or scribes) came near and heard Yeshua, Jesus, some Pharisees and some Sadducees interpreting the scripture and debating with one another, and seeing that Yeshua/Jesus answered them beautifully, the torah-teacher asked him, “Which commandment, is the first of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Sovereign our God, the Sovereign is One. 30 And, you shall love the Holy One your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength/substance.’ 31 The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 Then the torah-teacher said to him, “Beautiful, Rabbi! You have truly said that ‘God is One, and besides God there is no other’; 33 and ‘to love God with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 When Yeshua, Jesus, saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the reign of God.” After that no one dared to ask him another question.

The question focused on rules. Jesus offered them an alternative rabbinic opinion, focusing on relationships. In his answer, Jesus changed the rules by changing the Torah. Jesus modifies the “you-shall-love” commandment by adding a category for loving God with one’s mind, understanding or intellect that is not present in the original verse in the Torah. This makes sense in a world in which Greek philosophy is being articulated as the highest of intellectual pursuits. In that context it would be unreasonable to proclaim a religion that does not account for the intellectual capacities of human beings. I argue that today Jesus would add “You shall love the Holy One your God with all of your deoxyribonucleic acid, your DNA,” and perhaps even your quarks, avatars and social media personas.

You might not see “love” in the Ten Commandments as they are presented in the Church’s readings today. If you look closely, verses five and six are missing. That’s because God says in verse 5, “You shall not bow down to or worship idols; for I the Holy One your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me.” That wasn’t considered very PC, so they cut it out. But God also says in verse 6, “I show steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

Reflecting on the Ten Commandments and the question, “Is religion about rules or relationships?” The answer is neither “yes” nor “no;” rather the answer is a word that is behind the text, underneath the text and between the lines of the text, and that word is “love.” What is the most important commandment? Love! What kind of relationship should I have with God? Love! What kind of relationship should I have with my neighbors? Love! What about strangers? Love! What about my enemies? Love! What about me? Love! So this religion is about relationships. Yes, based on love. What about the rules? The rule is love!

Whether you’re a “half-empty” or “half-full” person when you see eight ounces of Dr. Pepper in a sixteen ounce glass, whether you believe the commandments, bible, God and religion are about rules or relationship, the answer is still love!

It is the love God that surrounds us in this and every place. It is the love of God that speaks to us through the scriptures and commandments and in our hearts. And it was love that conceived Christ Jesus in the Virgin’s womb, love that raised him to love Jew and Gentile, women and men, whole and broken, guilty and innocent. It was love that suffered, bled and died. And it was love that rose with the sun offering light and life to all in its embrace. And it is love that remains in the broken, hurting world, shining beyond the sin, grief, disease and death. Love.

In the name of the One who waded in the waters of Miryam’s womb, walked the way of suffering as one of the woman-born, and woke from the grasp of death in the deep darkness of the morning. Amen.

Christ Memorial Episcopal Church

Kilauea Kauai

2 October 2011


Hearing Voices and Seeing Visions

In our world, people who talk about hearing voices and seeing visions are liable to be thought to be eccentric, odd or perhaps seriously mentally ill. All of these options – and more – have been proposed by biblical scholars who study Ezekiel to characterize the prophet whose physical prophecies included dramatic performances: lying in the dirt for months at a time, first on one side and then on the other, shaving his head and beard with a sword and sharing visions of flying back and forth from his refugee camp in Babylon to Jerusalem held aloft only by the hairs of his head and that one about the walking dead who weren’t quite zombies, just to name a few. And then there was the conversation he had with God about excrement in which one might argue that he proved that he was holier than God, at least the way he wrote it.

And then there was Ezekiel’s theology. That was really crazy. He believed that the God of Israel was not confined to Israel, that his God had not been defeated when Judah was defeated and their temple was destroyed. And everyone knew that that was how it worked. Wars were won by the people with the strongest God. And Israel and Judah lost. And Ezekiel swore that he saw God, in exile, in captivity, in Babylon – and everyone knew that the holy land was in Israel and Judah.

Ezekiel even claimed that he saw God and lived despite what the stories about Moses said. But because God is invisible, Ezekiel said he saw the “appearance of the likeness of the glory” of the God who is enthroned above the cherubim – and he saw them too, not their sculpted images on the now-missing Ark of the Covenant, but the living, flying originals. Ezekiel claimed that God followed God’s people into exile and was even now accompanying them in their sorrow.

And as if that wasn’t enough, Ezekiel turned centuries of theology – including the sacred stories that had been passed down for generations and were now being written down as scripture on their head. Ezekiel taught that people did not suffer because of their parents’ or ancestors’ sins but only because of their own. And Ezekiel taught that God prefers forgiveness to punishment. Ezekiel’s “Old Testament God” was more tender, loving parent than fire and brimstone thunderbolt hurler in this regard – in spite of everything around them suggesting the contrary.

And on one level, everything around them denied the existence, power and presence of God. The dirt under their feet was the foreign soil of Babylon where they had been force-marched in defeat. The rivers by which they sat down, by which their psalmists chanted that they hung their harps on willow trees and refused to sing the Lord’s songs in a strange land did not empty into the River Jordan, Reed Sea or even the Salt Sea. These were strange waters, danger waters. The very air was full of the scent of incense burning to strange gods. Their ears heard cursing and mocking of them, their army, their king, their God and the multitude of laments from other conquered peoples added to their own. And their hearts were full of grief, when they were not frozen with numbness and post-traumatic shock.

The Judean Israelites had lost more than a war; the only world that they knew crumbled before them under the hatchets and hammers of their enemies, and then everything that they knew and loved was put to the fire or looted. They were the survivors of Assyria’s decimation of their once twelve-tribe nation one hundred and thirty-six years ago. And now they too had been destroyed as a nation. They had lost their king. They had lost their queen-mother. They had lost their army. They had even lost their bureaucrats. [I don’t know that any one missed them much.] They had lost their land. They had lost their homes. They had lost the house of God.

What if anything did they have left? God. While Ezekiel lacked the poetry of his predecessor Isaiah, Ezekiel preached his own version of Immanu-El, God is with us. Ezekiel’s visions were proof that God was with God’s people in exile while the voices he heard taught that God had not been defeated. And God’s word to God’s people in the disaster they could never have imagined, was one of comfort:

As I live, says the Sovereign God, I do not delight in the death of the wicked, rather that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn, turn from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?

Swearing by God’s own eternal life, God swears that God’s desire is for repentance, not punishment and, that no matter what their eyes see and ears hear, they, their people and even their nation are not doomed to destruction. The God of Life will preserve their lives as surely as God lives forever and ever.

All they have to do is repent. Turn, turn away from everything that separates them from God and turn, turn back to God. God doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about sin here. God simply acknowledges that everyone in the community bears some guilt. There is no one who does not need to repent. There is no one whom God wants to lose; no one from whom God wants to be separated. And it is not too late to seek God’s forgiveness and restoration. Even in the hell of their captivity, it was not too late for their redemption, release and restoration.

All of these things came to Ezekiel in visions no one else could see and voices no one else could hear. It would have been easy to write him off as a crazy person, or even a dreamer. Dreamers and visionaries often seem like impractical people in the harsh, cold light of reality with practical needs, real contexts and deep skepticism of the non-rational, improbable, improvable and particularly the supernatural.

But God calls dreamers, daydreamers and visionaries, people who see the world beyond the world, the world as it is and the world as it could be. God calls to people who believe in the supernatural, and sometimes those who don’t. And God speaks to hearts and minds and even ears. Perhaps not everyone who hears voices hears from God, but that does not mean that God is not speaking. I don’t hear from God the way Ezekiel did, but I do hear from God. I’m a thoroughly modern woman, yet I believe in what I can’t see and in what perhaps only I can see. And I listen, with my heart and head and hands.

I pray with the psalmist:

Teach me Holy One, the way of thy statutes and I shall keep them unto the end. Let me ask you All Saints, are you letting God teach you even if God chooses to do so through dreams and visions and voices?

What about the voices and visions, like those of Ezekiel that have been preserved for us? Do you read and study the scriptures? Do you teach the scriptures to your children? Do you read the lessons of the week? Do you know where and how to find them? Do you read the lessons of the day? Do you know where and how to find them?

Teach us Holy One, the way of thy statutes and we shall keep them unto the end. We need to be taught, all of us, clergy and lay. There is so much we don’t know about the scriptures and yet we claim as our redeemer, a rabbi, a teacher. Teach us Holy One, the way of thy statutes and we shall keep them unto the end.

God spoke to Ezekiel, not for his own sake, but for the sake of his community. God came to God’s people when they were in desperate need, at the point many would have said that it was already too late. In our own times of desperation, are you listening to and looking for God? Are you the visionary dreamer through whom God will call us once again to faithfulness, to repentance and ultimately to restoration? In the words we teach our children: Stop! Look! And listen!

If we were serious when we prayed the psalm earlier, we asked God to reveal Godself to us, to teach us and guide us. The psalm does not place any conditions on God: “I’d appreciate it if you’d remember that this is the twenty-first century, and we are modern professional people who scoff and sneer at the supernatural. So please don’t send us any wild-eyed preachers hearing voices. We are Episcopalian after all.”

Rather, we prayed:

 

Psalm 119:33 Teach me, Holy One,

the way of your statutes,

and I will observe it to the end.

34 Give me understanding, that I may keep your teaching

and observe it with my whole heart.

35 Lead me in the path of your commandments,

for I delight in it.

36 Turn my heart to your decrees,

and not to selfish gain.

37 Turn my eyes from looking at vanities;

give me life in your ways.

38 Confirm to your servant your promise,

which is for those who fear you.

39 Turn away the disgrace that I dread,

for your ordinances are good.

40 See, I have longed for your precepts;

in your righteousness give me life.

 

Ezekiel invites, and perhaps compels us to embrace the mystery of a God who transcends all that we see, hear, think and feel. Teach us Holy One, the way of thy statutes and we shall keep them unto the end.

In the Name of the Author, the Word and the Translator. Amen.

The Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D.

All Saints Episcopal Church

Kapaa HI

 


Parshat Eqev – Neighbors and Strangers

Parshat Eqev 5771

Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25

Ya‘aqov ben Yosef, (also known as James), the brother of Yeshua ben Miryam, (also known as Jesus), once asked a she’elah: Does the same spring pour forth bitter and sweet water? The answer to his she’elah in his writings is “no,” but that principle does not always hold true for me. The Torah is a fountain of living water and like this parshah, is in turns bitter and sweet and bittersweet to me.

The bitter: Having just returned from Yerushalayim where literal interpretations of toroth such as those appointed for today have lethal consequences, I was really disheartened to read among the opening verses of the parshah:

Deut 7:16 You shall devour all the peoples that the Holy One your God is giving over to you, showing them לא-תחס, no compassion… 

 

Frankly the world doesn’t need any less compassion. We don’t need religious texts, religious traditions and religious leaders telling us in the name of God, the ancestors or the tradition to withhold compassion from anyone for any reason. One might understand the dispossession to be that claimed in Joshua’s conquest, or the more historical Assyrian and Babylonian conquests which dispossessed Israel as well, giving birth to revisionist history and aspirations. However, even a full exploration of the context that produced this text and its entirely comprehensible xenophobia doesn’t help. At least, it doesn’t help me in this present moment.

Then the sweet: I read near the end of the parshah:

Deut 10:17 For the Holy One your God is God of gods and Sovereign of sovereigns, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, 18 who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. 19 You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

 

And I thought, I can drash this part. After all Rav Yeshua ben Miryam the infamous brother of Ya‘aqov ben Yosef offered the world a famous drash on “Who is my neighbor” whose ethical teaching transcends religious identity.

 The גר is the stranger, sometimes called a sojourner, an alien, a resident alien. The גר is a person who lives in the midst of a people who are not her own. Because the גר lives in another community, he has some obligation to the ethical standards of that community even if they, like the religion of the community, are not his own. This a Toraic – is there such a word? – definition. For the rabbis, the גרים are converts. I’d like to resist the rabbinic reading and leave the גרים וגרות with their religious and cultural otherness and distinctions in tact. The Torah describes the participation of the sojourners in the religious life of ancient Israel, from observing shabbat and celebrating Pesach to offering their own offerings. There are also limits, many of the toroth that apply to the Israelites also apply to those who live in their communities: neither Israelites nor resident aliens can eat blood, for example.

So in the spirit of Rabbi Yeshua, who is the stranger? Who are the גרים? Solomon counted 153,600 resident aliens in his day. (2 Chr 2:17) Are there any limits on who can be a גר? Are there some folk who due to one aspect of their identity or another could not be welcomed in the Israelite community? Are some folk destined to be regarded as enemies, never welcome in Israelite communities? Can sojourners come from the peoples of whom today’s text also says:

Deut 7:22 The Holy One your God will clear away these nations before you little by little; you will not be able to make a quick end of them, otherwise the wild animals would become too numerous for you. 23 But the Holy One your God will give them over to you, and throw them into great panic, until they are destroyed. 24 God will hand their monarchs over to you and you shall blot out their name from under heaven; no one will be able to stand against you, until you have destroyed them. 

Deut 9:5 It is not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart that you are going in to occupy their land; but because of the wickedness of these nations the Holy One your God is dispossessing them before you, in order to fulfill the promise that the Holy One made on oath to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

Deut 11:22 If you will diligently observe this entire commandment that I am commanding you, loving the Holy One your God, walking in all God’s ways, and holding fast to God, 23 then the Holy One will drive out all these nations before you, and you will dispossess nations larger and mightier than yourselves.

 

In short, what is the difference between a sojourning stranger and an enemy stranger? I’d like to suggest that there are no ethnic, national, cultural or religious differences between the people reckoned as acceptable strangers in the community and those reckoned as unacceptable strangers outside the community. The Israelites have been individually and collectively sojourners in foreign lands and there are people from virtually every known nation who live as גרים in ancient Israel. Kings tells us that even an Amalekite was a sojourner in Israel in the time of David and Saul, serving in the Israelite army. (2 Sam 1:13) And the Amalekites were the most despised of enemy nations by most accounts, with regular calls in the Torah for their annihilation, extinction, genocide, what we call today ethnic cleansing. So then, it appears that sojourners are Amalekite, Canaanite, Jebusite, Amorite, Hittite, Hivite, Perizzite and every other “-ite” you can imagine. 

So how does an individual from a people whom the Torah says are wicked, have no longer any right to their own land, are to be faulted for following their own religion and culture, can have their women and girls abducted in to Israelite forced marriages, can have their men and boys – even – infants slaughtered and exterminated become a resident alien accepted into Israelite society, protected to some degree under the shelter of the Torah-tree of life?

One at a time. Perhaps even one family at a time. One relationship at a time. The sojourners are individuals who become known to their host community, and through that knowing become a part of the community themselves. Their unknown kinfolk remain the villains in sacred and secular stories alike, literary characters to be dispensed with at will. But they  who are known occupy a liminal, fertile space between stranger and neighbor.

It strikes me that the lack of knowing on an individual basis makes it possible for the stereotypes of xenophobia to blossom into the toxic blooms of violent rhetoric and rhetoric-fueled violence. When no one knows any of “them” it is easy to believe every horror story and consent to the most inhumane practices in the name of self-preservation. But when one person knows another person from the outsider-stranger community then it’s no longer possible to talk about all of them as a collective.

Every place that I experienced hope about the future of Palestinians and Israelis living in justice and peace was a space in which individual Israelis and Palestinians were in contact and conversation – not necessarily agreement, in fact, they were often in disagreement on many issues. But those who knew each other because they saw each other and spoke to each other, cared for each other and rejected the radical cries of לא-תחס, no compassion, for them from their own communities. Likewise, the spaces in which I grieved the most for the future were the spaces in which members from each group called for the annihilation of the other beyond the wall – literal as well as metaphorical walls – the other a stranger whom they’d never met in person, whose children, lovers, elders, hopes and dreams were mythical creatures to be written out of the story. 

 

Questions:

Who is the stranger?

Are there any people to whom we as Torah-readers-and-keepers do not have any ethical obligations?

What is the sweetness of Torah to you?

What is the bitterness of Torah to you?

How and where is the Torah bittersweet to you? 

 

Finally the bittersweet from today’s parshah: 

Deut 7:12 If you heed these ordinances, by diligently observing them, the Holy One your God will maintain with you the covenant loyalty that God swore to your ancestors; 13 God will love you, bless you, and multiply you; God will bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, your grain and your wine and your oil, the increase of your cattle and the issue of your flock, in the land that God swore to your mothers and fathers to give you. 14 You shall be the most blessed of peoples, with neither sterility nor barrenness among you or your livestock. 15 The Holy One will turn away from you every illness; all the dread diseases of Egypt that you experienced, God will not inflict on you, but God will lay them on all who hate you.

 

This is what I call incantational religion. If you do it just right you’ll get just what you want. If you don’t get what you want, it’s because you didn’t do it right. Anyone struggling with illness or infertility or economic losses is responsible for not dotting the I’s, crossing the t’s or curling the yuds in the Torah. Yet beneath this cause-and-effect religion is an image of a God who cares for, nurtures and provides for God’s people, extending that care to the strangers within their gates. And that’s not a bad thing. Especially from where I sit in this community. שבת שלם

 

 


Giving God a Piece of Your Mind

Sometimes I’m up; sometimes I’m down. Sometimes I’m almost level to the ground. Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, a long way from home.

Sometimes, I want to do like Hezekiah, and take my stuff – my hopes and my hurts – to God in person, or at least as close as a mortal woman can get. Sometimes like Job, I want to give God a piece of my mind, and not even a sanctified piece. This morning, I’d like to invite you to tell God how you really feel because God already knows and God can take it. God can handle it. God can work it out. God can. God is able. Giving God a Piece of Your Mind.

Let us pray:

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 let us hear the soft, still voice. Amen.

Some things in this world just aren’t right: Children die. Babies are brutally murdered. They are shot while playing in their front yards or run down by drunk, distracted or texting drivers who don’t even have the decency to stop or call for help. Children are brutalized by the people who should love and care for them, their own parents. It’s not right.

There is so much violence in our world, in our streets, in our schools, in our homes. Pregnant women are more likely to die at the hands of some man beating on them than any biological complication from pregnancy or childbirth. One in four women and girls and one in five men and boys have been sexually assaulted and live with the trauma and after-effects, rarely receiving the help they need or even seeing justice in their days. It’s just not right.

People suffer terribly all over the world. Crops fail. Jobs disappear. Economies collapse. Hard work and education seem to mean nothing. The only thing that endures is the bills, bills, bills. Our own bodies betray us, dissolving into sickness, disability and unexpected, unwelcome and untimely death. It’s not right God.

The ones we love betray us even more. I learned in seminary that hurt people hurt people. But knowing that doesn’t make it hurt any less. Some things in this life just aren’t fair. People work hard, pay their bills and lose their jobs and their homes because of someone else’s accounting tricks. People invest in their children’s upbringing and education and watch them chase after all that they tried to protect them from, or see them cut down as an innocent bystander while they were doing the right thing. So many of our young men and women are locked up, locked down and locked out.

And there is war and terrorism on every continent in the world. The drug war in Mexico regularly crosses the border. Our sons and daughters, wives and husbands, neighbors and strangers are fighting, killing and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan and in other places around the world. The impending tenth anniversary of 9/11 reminds us that not even the morning commute can be taken for granted – may we never see another day like that one in which airplanes became guided missiles and three thousand people left this life, some in agony burning alive while others choked to death, and yet others jumped to their deaths.

There is real evil in this world, much of it at the hands of other people. You know, sometimes it seems that this world would be a much better place if it weren’t full of all those other folk. I’m talking about me right now; you may have never felt like this. Or perhaps you have. Sometimes it seems like what is needed is for someone to just tell God all about it. Not because we doubt that God knows, but perhaps because it seems that God is so busy birthing new galaxies and stars, keeping all of the planets aligned in their courses, maintaining the moon’s proper orbit, keeping the sun from burning out or burning us up, sending the rain – and snow and sleet and hail, stirring the storms and calming the seas, blowing the evening breeze and trade winds across the Caribbean and Pacific, raising life from the dead husks of buried seeds entombed in the womb of the earth, feeding the birds and the bees, painting the flowers and the trees that it feels like God needs to be reminded that we need some help right here, right now.

We may know that God is attending to us every moment of every day, breath by breath, heartbeat by heartbeat, counting our hairs, freckles and wrinkles, but sometimes it feels like we’re out here all on our own, when life gives us lemons and we don’t have honey or sugar with which to make lemonade, especially when other folk start messing with us – hurting our feelings, hurting our hearts, hurting our families, messing with our livelihoods. And as much as we might like to see it, the earth does not open up her mouth and swallow them whole, no fire from heaven comes down and smites them, we don’t even hear voices saying, “Touch not my anointed and do my prophet no harm.” (And if we do hear voices, no one else hears them with us.)

Sometimes we need to call on God, to call God’s attention to our immediate circumstances in a particular way. Whether we believe that God is already actively, intimately involved with the details of our lives or think that God is so busy we need to cry out, “Come see about us!” there are ancestral stories passed down in the scriptures that speak to us about giving God a piece of our minds. Pray with me as I tell you the truth this morning: Sometimes I Feel Like Giving God a Piece of My Mind.

The first lesson, from the book of Kings is one such story. Seven hundred and twenty some-odd years before the scandalous birth of a Palestinian Jew with questionable parentage, Yeshua ben Miryam, Jesus, Mary’s child, the world as Hezekiah knew it changed for all time. The Northern Monarchy, the largest realm in the divided Israel was decimated and depopulated by King Shalmaneser of Assyria. He spent three years marching from the north: the peoples and produce, military and materiel of the tribe of Naphtali – gone, the peoples and possessions of the tribe of Issachar – gone, the citizens of the tribe of Manasseh and all their stuff, including the capital city of Samaria – gone. Burned to the ground and their people marched off and resettled as essentially slave labor in the Assyrian empire. And in their wake, unburied corpses, raped women, murdered children, hunger, desolation, grief, rage and cries to heaven.

Refugees from the other tribal lands poured into Benjamin, Judah and what was left of Simeon. There was no one left to govern in the north, even if the Assyrians didn’t march on every town and village, they irrevocably broke the Israelite monarchy, government and society in the tribal lands of Manasseh, Asher, Naphtali, Zebulon and Issachar, and Gad, Ephraim, Reuben and Dan. On the local level it was sheer anarchy; on the national level it was a return to foreign bondage. And Hezekiah watched it happen from his perilous perch on his own tottering throne.

And to make sure that there would be no one to rise up against him, Shalmaneser depopulated Israel of all its royal and military power, intellectuals and entrepreneurs, artisans and most skilled craftswomen and craftsmen. Then to keep the economy going and funneled into his coffers, he repopulated Israel with people he had taken captive and forced off their lands in other battles in other nations. The new inhabitants of Samaria were from Babylon, Cuthah, Hamath, Avva and Sepharvaim. They made what lives they could with the peoples who were considered too useless to deport. Their descendants became known as the Samaritans – as distinct from the former Samarians – the Samaritans were despised, not because their religion differed some from the religion in Judah, (and it did), but also because they were multicultural, multiethnic, multinational and living proof of the fall of Israel. That is why the Samaritans were considered impure.

Now let’s think about that for a moment. Who and what were the Israelites to talk about ethnic and national purity? (Remember race did not exist as a concept until less than five hundred years ago.) The founding parents of Israel, Abraham and Sarah were incestuous Chaldeans or proto-Babylonians; today they’d be Iraqis. They came from a family where incest was accepted; they were sister and brother from the same father; then their brother Nahor married their other brother, Haran’s daughter, Milcah, his own niece. She was the grandmother of Rebekah who married her cousin Isaac. Milcah was also the sister of Lot who claims to have been abused by his daughters – even though we know that many abusers blame their victims. Incest was common and inner-family marriage was the norm in the founding family of what would become Israel – a familial and religious designation, not an ethnic identity. One of the mothers of Israel, Rebekah and her brother Laban were Arameans, and Rebekah required her son Jacob to marry one of her nieces – he married both, but that’s another story. Jacob’s twelve leading sons – he had more and many daughters but that’s another sermon – Jacob’s sons and their women became the ancestors of Israel:

Judah had children with Tamar who was not from the founding family; she was a local Canaanite girl who had married into his family; she was his daughter-in-law. Simeon also had children with a Canaanite woman. And Joseph married Asenath, an Egyptian woman so that two of the latter tribes, Ephraim and Manasseh, were half-Egyptian, half-African. Even Moses married Midianite and Nubian women. So the claim from later generations of Israelites that the Samaritans were “impure” is something like the pot calling the kettle black. And all of that stems from the events Hezekiah watched unfold around him.

I say that Hezekiah was perilously perched on his throne because four years after Hezekiah was placed upon it, Shalmaneser and his army came back down from the north and this time, there was no Israelite army to slow them down. This time he pushed into Judah and took all of Hezekiah’s fortified towns, killing, maiming, raping and looting as he went. The Judean army was broken. There was nothing to keep Shalmaneser from ransacking and ravaging Judah. Nothing, but God.

But was God even paying attention? God did not intervene when Shalmaneser destroyed Israel. You know God does not intervene every time disaster befalls us. At least not in my life. I have had heartache and grief. I have watched folk I love cut down in their prime or linger in affliction savaged by disease. And like Hezekiah I have tried to do the right thing in my own life, and sometimes I have even managed to do so. But there was always someone around pointing fingers at every setback and tragedy, blaming me for my own misfortunes just as the Judeans blamed the Israelites for their devastation.

The Judeans comforted themselves by blaming the Israelites. Surely they were sinful and brought the disaster on themselves. Nothing like that could happen around here. We are God’s people. God is on our side. And there were plenty of prophets who agreed with them. But there were some prophets who said that Judah had their own issues with sin. And the surviving Israelites told the Judeans, just wait; your turn is coming. And to Hezekiah, this was more than an academic question; was God going to let Shalmaneser destroy Judah too?

Hezekiah prayed. He more than prayed, he gave God a piece of his mind. Hezekiah went to the house of God and literally laid his petition before God. You see the Assyrian military commander had presented Hezekiah with a letter detailing everything that he was going to do to him and his people, and naming all of the peoples and gods he had already come through to get to his front door. And as far as the commander was concerned, Hezekiah and his god was one more obstacle before dinner.

Hezekiah wanted God to see the disrespect of the Assyrian commander with God’s own eyes. Hezekiah took the letter dissing God and showed it to God: Look what they are saying about you! Look what they say they will do to your people. Look what they say they will do to your house. Look what they say they will do to the place where your name and your glory abide. Look at this mess! Every time they have sent somebody one of these letters, they have destroyed them and their gods – know I know there’s a big difference between you and their gods, but they don’t know you like I know you! Save us I pray, not for our sake alone – although we’d appreciate it. Show them who you are and whose we are.”

Hezekiah’s story has a happy ending, a miraculous ending. God heard his prayer and answered his prayer affirmatively. There was a rumor about an African monarch, Tirhaka, assaulting the Assyrians on another side. They left to face his formidable threat and never came back. They could have and should have turned back around and continued their siege. But they didn’t. There was no earthly reason for the Assyrians to refrain from attacking Judah. It was a miracle. Hezekiah gave God a piece of his mind and God listened to Hezekiah. But Hezekiah’s story isn’t the only story in the bible. He’s not the only person standing in the need of prayer. Some of you may be Hezekiah, come to church, say your prayers and everything works out all right. But me, I’m Job. Every once in a while God and I have issues. We need to work some stuff out. And like Job, if I knew where to find God, I’d give God a piece of my mind. It’s all right. God can handle it. God knows what I’m thinking anyway. I might as well get it off my chest. And who knows, God just might come to see about me. That’s what Job thought.

The book of Job is the story of a man who sues God. His name Iyov, means “enemy.” And it sure feels like God is his enemy. Job loses everything he has. His cattle and camels aren’t just money in the bank, they are the food in his belly, milk for his children, clothes on his back, the tractors with which he plowed his fields, fertilizer and fuel and transportation, social security and Medicare rolled up in one. His slaves are people and he has made it his business to treat them as justly as he knows how and he grieves their loss. And then there is the loss of all of his children at one time, a grief that overshadows everything else including the disgusting, oozing sores all over his body. All of his children are dead and gone – murdered – and nothing will ever bring them back. Even if he has children later – and he will – those precious lives have been destroyed in a fit of violence.

And God did nothing. God permitted it. And if Job knew what we know – that his life was crap because God was playing craps with his life – he might have wanted to do more than sue God. But Job doesn’t know that God set him up, used him and his children to prove a point. But Job does know that God is and that God is just even when he doesn’t understand how a just God could let all of this happen. He knows that God is real and that if he can just find God and serve the Most High a subpoena and give God a piece of his mind, everything will be all right.

I’ve been saying that Job sues God because the Hebrew text is full of legal terminology and presents Job’s claim as a personal injury lawsuit. Words like “contend” and “reason” in English bibles are all translations of the word that means lawsuit, riyv, in Hebrew. The basis of Job’s suit is that God has done him wrong by allowing his all of children to be butchered, him to be afflicted with a disfiguring disease and all of his possessions to be stolen or destroyed. He knows that none of this is his fault, no matter what the saints, aints and his fair-weather friends say. Job knows that he is blameless in God’s sight. He also knows that the prevailing theology of the day is that if bad things happen to you, it’s your own fault, you deserve whatever you get and you get whatever you deserve. But that’s not working for Job. Job knows that he is a good man. He knows that he does not deserve his misfortune and neither do his children. Job spends the majority of the book looking for God so that he can have his day in court. And Job believes that he will get a fair trial and a fair hearing from God because he believes in a just God. Job 23 could be translated,

Job 23:3 Who will grant that I might know where I might find God,

that I might come to God’s abode? [And serve God a subpoena]

4 I would set my [legal] case in order before God,

and fill my mouth with [legal] arguments.

5 I might know what God would answer me, [under oath]

and understand what God would say to me [from the witness stand].

6 Would God counter-sue me in the greatness of God’s power?

Ah, no! God would make space for me [to have my day in court].

7 There an upright person could be found to be right with God [to be acquitted],

and I would be delivered for all time by my judge.

Job seeks to draw a real, living God into court, and gets more than he bargains for. God shows up. God shows up. God shows up in chapter 38 and tells Job to tie up the man-flesh dangling between his legs and demands that Job answer, “Who is this that darkens counsel by speech without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you will answer me!”

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Don’t you know that I am the mother of ice and snow, birthing them out of my own womb? Don’t you know that I am the father of the rain? Have you given marching orders to the sun every morning from the time before time? Did you plant the stars in the heavens joining them into constellations? Who do you think you are? Don’t you know who I am? And Job put his hand over his mouth.

The book of Job doesn’t whitewash pain and suffering. Its scandalous theology is that God is gambling with your life and the lives of your children. And at the same time, the book of Job affirms a God who is there, a God who responds, albeit a God who does not do what we want or think, but an all-powerful, sovereign God. When Job meets God, Job says, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you. I reject all of this and am comforted in dust and ashes.”

The book of Job is an ancient theodicy; it is a theology of pain and suffering. Why is there evil in the world? Because God said to God’s chief prosecuting attorney, the satan – lower case, he has not yet evolved in biblical literature into the capital “S” embodiment of evil – God said to God’s chief prosecuting attorney, “Have you set your heart on my servant Job?…” One of the biblical answers to the problem of suffering is that God did it.

The book of Job is in the bible to bear witness to the truth of the victimized and devastated who know that life is not fair, you don’t always get what you deserve, the innocent do suffer and God is inscrutable. Ah, God. God is in the book of Job. God is behind the book of Job. God is underneath the book of Job. Belief in God in the face of the unbelievable and insurmountable pervades the book of Job. God is real and God is there and God will listen when you give God a piece of your mind. Even if you’re crazy enough to try to sue God, God will come to meet you where you are, God will speak a word – that if it doesn’t change your circumstances, will change you. God spoke to Job from chapter 38 to chapter 41. God spoke to Job for one hundred and twenty nine verses. And in that time, God didn’t change a single thing in God’s life. God changed Job.

I say with Job, I have suffered unbelievable loss, but it’s all right. I’ve faced the limits of my own mortality, and it’s all right. I’ve called God on the carpet and been blown out of the water, and it’s still all right. How can it be all right? I’m going to tell God. Women are being raped to death in Congo. Tell God. Children are being slaughtered with machetes in Darfur. Tell God all about it. The city of brother love and sisterly affection has been turned into Kill-a-delphia. Children and young folk who know better are running wild in the streets. Tell God. London is burning. Tell God. People who work forty, sixty, eighty hours a week are losing their homes through no fault of their own. Tell God all about it. There are people without running water and electricity in the United States of America. Children are starving to death while others throw food away. Tell God. Our country is going deeper into debt while the rich are getting richer and paying fewer taxes if they pay any at all. Tell God. Our president is under assault because of who he is and what he looks like. People are threatening his life. People are threatening his wife. People are even threatening their children. Tell God. It’s not always safe in the church for children or adults. Tell God all about it. Give God a piece of your mind.

If I knew where God was I’d sue. Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is right? Surely there is one who will take my case. I know that I have a living advocate to plead my cause. Somewhere there is a goel for me, a redeeming relative; some kin to help me save my skin. If I could just get God into court, I know I could get justice. I know I can’t win against God, but if I could just have my day in court, if I could just have my say, if I could just give God a piece of my mind, then I’d know there’s still justice and righteousness in the universe. If I could just see God.

God appeared to Job in a whirlwind. God was hidden from Hezekiah by the veil between the holy place and the most holy place. God appeared to a virgin girl named Miriam, called Mary in the flesh and blood of her own body.  God appeared to prophets and kings, shepherds, philosophers and astrologers as a baby in the stench of a stable. God appeared to the people of Israel as a rabbi who couldn’t keep his more 5000-member congregation together. And God appeared to the world on a cross-shaped lynching tree. God appeared to the women, Mary and Salome and Johanna and the other Mary who were the apostles to the apostles. And I’m here to tell you that God still appears. Not in the body that walked the earth two thousand years ago – although I hear it’s making a comeback – but God appears in the bodies and lives and ministries of God’s servants. God is here. Right now. And in the presence of God, all of our brokenness is welcome, redeemed and transformed. Tell God all about it. And if you can’t say a mumbling word. That’s all right too.

In the Name of God, the Author, the Word and the Translator. Amen


Joseph and Family Values

My commentary on Genesis 45:1-15 for WorkingPreacher.org.
The story of Joseph's reunion with his brothers is among the most tender in the scriptures.

His own brothers hated him, (Genesis 37:4), and kidnapped him, (Genesis 37:23). They had even planned to murder him, (Genesis 37: 18ff). They "settled" for selling him into slavery, (Genesis 37:28), a possible if not likely death sentence.

And now, in today's lesson Joseph is in a position to get revenge on them. They need him. He does not need them. The famine that he Pharaoh has dreamed about has come to pass, (Genesis 41:17ff); Egypt has grain in abundance because of Joseph's interpretation of the Pharaoh's dream and their mutual stewardship in preparation, (Genesis 41:49). Yet Joseph does not take revenge on his brothers. He provides for them and their families. He receives them as his brothers. He embraces and forgives them.

The lesson of forgiveness in this passage is particularly poignant; combined with Joseph's rags-to-riches story, it is something like a fairy tale. Unfortunately those lessons are entwined with a deeply problematic theological gloss: that the human trafficking in the story was a tool of God to save the lives of Joseph and his family from the impending famine, verses 5-8, justifying the actions of his brothers in selling him into slavery. While that narrative device makes for great theater in the story of Joseph, it paints an unrealistic glaze over the institution of slavery in and beyond the bible.

Joseph's experience of slavery in the narrative was one in a million and does not mitigate against the unjust dehumanizing institution utilized by the Egyptians and other ancient peoples including the Israelites, or American chattel slavery in North and South America and the Caribbean or the contemporary sexual trafficking of women, girls and boys. The claim of verse 8, "it was not you who sent me here but God" should perhaps be understood in this story as Joseph's perception of his circumstances and not as a broader religious sanction of slavery, human trafficking or any other social ill over which an individual triumphs. Joseph does what so many people do, which is try to make sense out of what he has experienced by drawing on his own limited understanding of God.

The focus on Joseph, his perceptions and his experiences in the narrative is a reminder that biblical literature, like all literature, has its own perspectives and biases. The text is not interested in the wellbeing of any of Pharaoh's other slaves and indeed has reported on Pharaoh's idiosyncratic practices of imprisoning, freeing and executing them at will in Genesis 40:20-21.

Today's lesson presents an opportunity to think about the claim that the God of the scriptures is the God of all and, the Israelite perspective in the scriptures that God is on their side and not that of the Egyptians or the Canaanites or any other peoples. While subsequent biblical writings will proclaim a God of universal fidelity and justice, this is not one of them.

Christian readers have been quick historically to identify ourselves with the Israelites, as a result many have never thought about the fate of the ordinary Egyptian, Canaanite, Babylonian, Persian and other peoples who are decimated at the margins of the Israelite scriptures. Yet Joseph himself stands as a bridge between cultures. He lives as an Egyptian with an Egyptian name, Zaphenath-paneah and an Egyptian wife, Asenath, (see Genesis 41:45). Their children Ephraim and Manasseh (and the tribes they represent) are half-Egyptian. His brothers Judah and Simeon also marry and have children with women from the surrounding communities, (see Genesis chapter 38 and 46:10). His grandfather Laban, Rachel's father (who was also his great uncle as the brother of his grandmother Rebekah), was an Aramean, Genesis 25:20. And his great-grandparents Abraham and Sarah were from Chaldea which would later become Babylonia and in our time, Iraq.

Joseph's complicated family history teaches us that Israelite identity was a cultural and religious one and not an ethnic or even national one in his time — and for some time to come. In Joseph's story the Israelites and Egyptians are not pitted against one another. There will be enough food for all because of his stewardship. Indeed the later oppressive relationship between the Egyptians and the Israelites will develop because of the ascension of a Pharaoh who does not remember Joseph, who does not know anything about him or what he did for both of their peoples, (Exodus 1:8).

Remembering Joseph, telling his story, means remembering that some family relationships are deeply troubled, even violent. Remembering Joseph means reminding ourselves that even in the most deeply troubled family that has experienced unimaginable rupture, that forgiveness and healing are possible. Remembering Joseph and telling his story through this lessen provides an opportunity to reflect on our stewardship, generosity and relationships with others, neighbors and strangers. And lastly, today's lesson with its focus on Joseph reminds us that our actions have consequences that we may not be able to foresee.

One of the unexpected legacies of Joseph and his administration in Egypt was that he who had been sold into slavery and been raised to power and privilege, developed and deployed the very institution of slavery under which his own people would suffer for four hundred years. As he represented his adopted land and people during the great famine, Joseph took everything the Egyptian people had in exchange for food: their money (Genesis 47:14), their livestock (Genesis 47:16), and their land (Genesis 47:20), but it was not enough. In Genesis 47:21, Joseph "enslaved the Egyptian people from one end of Egypt to the other." Joseph may have been forgotten, but his wholesale commodification of people, their bodies and their labor was not.

 


Elijah, You’re Fired!

My commentary on 1 Kings 19:9-18 for WorkingPreacher.com.
Elijah has had a good run, literally and figuratively.

He has decimated Queen Jezebel's religious community by personally executing her four hundred prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18:40. That he neither executed nor challenged her four hundred and fifty prophets of Asherah, (see verse 19ff), points to a broader acceptance of the Asherah tradition.

While the prophets uniformly condemn the worship of Baal, many are silent on the worship of Asherah regarded as complimentary to and not as competitive with the God of Israel. Isaiah only has two references to her, while Jeremiah and Micah have just one reference each. (Compare that to Jeremiah's ten references against Baal worship.) Hosea and Zephaniah both mention Baal worship, but not Asherah worship. The prophets who do not condemn the worship of Asherah at all include Ezekiel, who condemns the worship of other deities in the temple, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi.

As a result Elijah's actions, to mix metaphors, Jezebel has demanded Elijah's head on a platter. Elijah has fled to where he imagines he will be beyond Jezebel's grasp. He is safe for the moment, but he is anything but secure. God has provided him divine comfort and companionship along his journey and actual, edible food and potable water with supernatural benefits, (1 Kings 19:5-8). Elijah is sustained by his meal(s) for an unimaginably long time. ("Forty days and forty nights" is a euphemism for "a really long time." It is no more a mathematical formula than is "a month of Sundays.")

Passing through Beer-Sheba, as the crow flies, the Kishon wadi, (the site of the execution) is some 300 miles northwest of the mountain range home to the "mountain of God" called Sinai in some traditions and Horeb in this story. Traveling twenty miles or so a day (or night) and avoiding anyone who might have turned him in would have taken weeks — two at breakneck speed, likely more at his pace. Elijah's pace would also have been affected by whether or not he was mounted for all or part of the journey; the text suggests but does not specify that he was not. No mount is mentioned.

Sometime after Elijah falls asleep, God speaks to him, questioning him. What is he doing here? God is not always omniscient in the bible; that is a later theological claim. (God asks Adam, where he is and who told him he was naked and had he been eating the forbidden fruit in Genesis 2. In other places God knows what is in the human heart, see Genesis 6:5; 1 Kings 8:39; Psalm 44:21, etc.) As Elijah catches God up on recent events from his perspective, it is not immediately clear whether God's questions are informational or rhetorical. What Elijah does not say is that he is hiding from Jezebel or that he has come to seek God's help and protection.

God responds to Elijah's self-assessment with self-revelation. First God displayed historic and traditional signs of God's presence, a windstorm, an earthquake and fire (from heaven?). But God was not present among the usual suspects. Then there was a qol dammah daqah, a sound (or voice) of a fine silence. And that is where Elijah encountered God.

While Elijah encountered God-in-silence on a revered mountain, it strikes me that the setting was not necessary for the encounter. That was where Elijah was at the time. The divine appearance was not dependant on an indigenous feature, such as the bush that burned and was not consumed. Perhaps Elijah could have encountered God-in-silence at any point along his journey and even without taking a single step.

After his epiphany, God asks Elijah the same question that God asked him before. Now it is clear that this is a rhetorical question. Elijah gives essentially the same answer. His experience with God has not changed him. I think this is an important observation for contemporary readers and hearers of the scriptures who would like to imagine ourselves in the sacred stories. I know that I have thought how different my own faith story would have been had I been able to see, hear and experience what my spiritual ancestors saw, heard and experienced.

The story of Elijah says, not so fast. Elijah saw, heard and experienced God in fantastic ways. The power of God flowed through him to work miracles that were unequalled by anyone before him. Yet Elijah was essentially unchanged by this incredible encounter with God. And so God fired him, or at least announced his retirement. It is hard to know how Elijah heard the command to anoint another prophet to take his place in verse 16. It may have been quite troubling because the monarchs whom God was firing/retiring/replacing, Ben-Hadad of Aram and Ahab of Israel (who are not named in the text) were to be killed. There was no other retirement plan for kings.

God's last words to Elijah are that God does not need Elijah; God has untold thousands-upon-thousands (seven thousand is a figurative number) of faithful servants on whom God can depend. What is missing from the assigned lesson is Elijah's response. He accepts his assignment from God, knowing that his time as God's prophet is drawing to an end, not knowing what that end will be.

Elijah faithfully calls Elisha whom God has designated as his successor in the verses following the lesson. Hazael will assassinate Ben-Hadad in 2 Kings 8:15 and succeed him; it is not clear if Elijah (or Elisha) ever actually anointed him. And Elisha will complete Elijah's work and anoint Jehu in 2 Kings 9. (Ahab dies in battle, 1 Kings 22:20ff.) And along the way, God reveals a spectacular retirement plan for Elijah in 2 Kings 2:11, towards which Elijah journeys faithfully, not knowing the outcome.

 


A Bruising Blessing

My commentary on Genesis 32:22-31 from WorkingPreacher.com
In Genesis 32, Jacob and his family have finally left the homestead of his father-in-law Laban who is responsible for much of Jacob's present circumstances:

Laban had deceived him into marrying sisters, Leah and Rachel whose conflict and competition with each other resulted in dozens of children with them and with their slaves whom he dutifully impregnated upon command. (For estimates of the total number of children fathered by Jacob see Genesis 46:15 and 46:26.) Laban is also responsible for Jacob's wealth, indirectly, he agreed to give Jacob all of his spotted and speckled livestock not knowing that Jacob would use magical means to multiply them while suppressing the fertility of the solidly colored stock (Genesis 30:32ff).

As Jacob leaves his father-in-law he crosses paths with his brother Esau. Jacob is terrified and for good reason, the last words of Esau reported to him by their mother Rebekah was that Esau intended to kill for taking his birthright. (See Genesis 27:41-45.) First Jacob sends word to his brother that he is coming, that he is quite wealthy, and that he wishes to find favor in his brother's sight in Genesis 32:3-5. The response is swift; Esau approaches with four hundred men. Jacob is terrified, he prays for divine assistance and then takes matters into his own hands by setting aside a significant portion of his holdings and sending them ahead as a gift to appease Esau (Genesis 32:7-21).

All of this happens before our lesson begins. It is with a very real fear that Esau will kill him for taking his birthright that we encounter Jacob in Genesis 32:22-31. He has not heard back from his messengers; he does not know if Esau has accepted his gifts. He does not know if his servants are even still alive. And yet he sends his wives and children into the path of Esau and his riders — without him in verse 23. (NB: there is a discrepancy between the Hebrew and English verse numbers; I am using the English versification in the NRSV.)

Jacob has evaded his greatest fear up to that point. The danger is across the water from him. He is safe, for a while; so he thinks. A person or personage he does not know (or does not recognize) grapples him to the ground. There is a pun in verse 24: the verb "wrestle" has the same letters as a word for dust, (abaq, in Exodus 9:9; Deuteronomy 28:24; Is 5:24, etc.). Jacob gave as good as he got. There was a stalemate. And then, the person did something to Jacob's hip and put it out of joint. Because the same verb means "touch," "strike," or "plague," it is not clear if it was a great violent blow or a gentle touch with more-than-human strength and/or abilities behind it.

Jacob the Heel whose name in Hebrew, (Yaaqov), is a reminder that he came into this world with his chubby baby fist wrapped around his brother's heel, (aqev), now finds his own heels under assault. He can no longer balance on them quite so easily. His injury and its imposition are revelatory. Jacob knows he wrestles with one whose blessing matters. The one with whom he wrestles knows that even wounded Jacob is tenacious. The mysterious wrestler reveals a concern for the coming dawn. Is the wrestler concerned about what the sunlight will reveal? Does it matter whether or not Jacob can see his assailant's face? The wrestler demands freedom.

Jacob demands a blessing. Jacob has decided that he will not let go of the wrestler whose power he knows is more than his own and, the wrestler who wounds with a touch has neither destroyed nor rejected him. He may just get his blessings if he holds on long enough. The wrestler asks Jacob's name and Jacob answers with no ancestors, clan or people. He wrestles alone, stands alone and names only one name, "Yaaqov — Jacob — a Heel."

Then the wrestler grants him with a new name: "God-wrestler — Israel." Once again Jacob asks the name of the wrestler. Once again the wrestler refuses to answer. Now the wrestler (formally) blesses him in the text. In the literary context of the scriptures, the blessing would have been spoken. Yet the whole struggling, questioning, name-changing encounter can be read as a blessing, albeit a bruising one.

The reader, like Jacob, seeks to unfold the mystery of the wrestler whose departure before the dawn breaks is not described. There are tantalizing hints with which the reader must wrestle: The text says "a person/a man" in verse 24 and the wrestler tells Jacob that he has wrestled with God in verse 28 to which Jacob assents in verse 30. Jacob says that he saw God "face to face" in verse 30. Was he granted a glimpse of the wrestler's face in the pre-dawn light in the space between verses 29 and 30, between the blessing and the parting?

By following these clues and assembling them into a coherent picture the reader like Jacob comes to the conclusion that the wrestler is God. The injunction of Exodus 33:19, that "no one can see God and live" is either unknown or non-binding to the authors and editors of this text. God appears on earth (sometimes disguised as a messenger called "the angel of the Lord" in many translations who speaks as God in the first person and perhaps as Melchizedek in Genesis 14:18ff) frequently in Genesis. See Genesis 3:8; 11:5; 16:10-13; 17:1; 18:1; Genesis 26:2, 24. In the rest of the Torah, God will hide from the people in smoke and fire, but God will later appear to Solomon in 1 Kings 3:5 and 9:2.

In the closing verse of the lesson, Jacob limps away from site of his transformation. He will never be the same again. Each step he takes is marked by the divine touch.

 


Love Triangle: Leah, Rachel and Jacob

My commentary on Genesis 29:15-28 from WorkingPreacher.com.
This is the story of the Mothers and Fathers of Israel and their descendents, the people of Israel. Rebekah and Isaac have sent their son Jacob to his mother's brother Laban, with instructions to marry one of his daughters, (the as yet unnamed Leah and Rachel in Genesis 27:46-28:1).

Their family practices internal marriage among relatives: Jacob's grandparents Sarah and Abraham were siblings, his grand-uncle Nahor married his own niece, Jacob's aunt Milcah, his cousin Lot fathered children with his own daughters in a bizarre set of circumstances, and he, Jacob, has been given instructions to marry one of his cousins. Leah and Rachel are the only two women who meet his parents' requirements.

In the back-story, Jacob meets Rachel first while she is shepherding her father's flocks. He tells her and eventually her father who he is and who his mother is, identifying himself as Rebekah's son (ben Rivkah) but never as Isaac's son, (29:12). And he spends an undescribed month with them before the subject of marriage is brought up. At some point during that month Jacob decides that he wants Rachel, but the text tells us nothing about their relationship or her feelings about the matter. Rachel and Leah's mother is missing from the story; it is not clear whether the authors and editors found her irrelevant or whether she was truly absent, either through death or some other circumstances.

In our lesson, the story is told from Jacob's perspective. Jacob is famously described as loving Rachel, so much so that when he is thwarted in his desire to marry her, he soldiers on in servitude to her for a total of fourteen years that pass in the blink of an eye for him. The story has no interest in Rachel's or Leah's lives or experience of those years. Rachel's feelings for Jacob are never described. (In fact no woman in the scriptures is described as "loving" anyone else, using the primary Hebrew verb ahav or even "love" in the NRSV.) This is a reminder that even when the text seems inclusive or even egalitarian, it is an androcentric text, that is, it is written from (and primarily for) a male perspective.

This lesson has a number of challenges for women and other readers: Rachel and Leah are given to Jacob like chattel. This contrasts dramatically with his own mother's marriage, to which she consented (24:57) after a ten-day deliberation period. Laban's claim that he could not give his younger daughter in marriage before the elder has no foundation in the text. If that were the case why did he not tell Jacob?

Laban may well have lied, adding dishonesty to his deceit. He may have thought that he could only marry Leah off through deception. The larger narrative says that there was something peculiar about Leah's eyes — a notoriously difficult to translate expression. Whatever Leah's circumstance she was compared unfavorably to Leah. And perhaps, the largest challenge: How could Jacob not know with whom he was being intimate? The story conjures up images of complete darkness, total silence, and perhaps drunkenness, perverting the biblical sense of intimate "knowing."

Whether Rachel and Leah had a difficult relationship prior to their marriage is not revealed in the text. But there is a suggestion that Leah was regularly devalued in comparison with her sister in the way that they are described. Laban's deception, combined with the assessment that Rachel was more desirable — including to Jacob, set the stage for a sororal sibling rivalry that would plague Jacob and populate Israel at the same time. Leah, Rachel and their slaves, Bilhah and Zilpah would become the mothers of the Twelve Tribes while competing for Jacob's time and attentions.

This story demonstrates that "love is not enough." Even if Jacob's love for Rachel is not based on her appearance or the fact that he was limited in his choice to Rachel and her (in some way undesirable) sister Leah, his love does not translate into a happy, healthy family.

In modernity, some people elevate romantic and sexual love as the highest expressions of love. Neither form of love brings enduring happiness to Jacob who loves Rachel or to Rachel or to Leah who compete to sleep with Jacob and bear his children in the aftermath of the text. This story also illustrates the common practice of reducing people, women in particular, to their physical appearance: Rachel was beautiful; there was something odd about Leah's eyes.

Yet both women found themselves in the same situation. Only in death were they separated. Rachel was buried alone on the road to Bethlehem, (Genesis 35:19). Leah was buried in the ancestral tomb with Sarah and Abraham, Rebekah and Isaac, (Genesis 49:31). And before he died, Jacob gave Joseph instructions to send his bones back to that family tomb, (Genesis 50:13). He was buried with Leah.


Living in Jerusalem: 40 Days and 40 Nights

I am reflecting on what it is like to live in Jerusalem for forty days and forty nights, a month of Sundays, or, in my case, two months. Visit the blog, with reflections, images and slide shows: Living in Jerusalem: 40 Days and 40 Nights. There's a space on the blog to sign up for email updates.


Shabbat Bechukotai (My Statutes)

Somehow I’m in Leviticus again. I didn’t do it on purpose. This time. I know I’ve drashed this parsha before, but according to my files it was in a year that B’har and B’chukotai were together and I scrolled to the B’har side of the Torah. Today we are plumb in B’chukotai which I would like to sum up as:

If…then…If you…then I will…If you don’t…then I won’t…

Some of you may know that in the next phase of my sabbatical sojourn I will journey “up” as the saying goes, לישראל. I’ve been thinking a lot about the place and the land and how much it means to so many and at what cost. The recent speech by President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s response frame (some of) the issues once again. There are passionate feelings, opinions, hopes, schemes, dreams, and demands at play on all sides.

The Torah preserves the passion for the land enflamed by despair at its loss, stoked by hopes of reentry, reoccupation and more than that, domination by those who collected, edited and preserved the Torah. And for some, the Torah shapes current conversations about the land, all of its occupants and their collective and/or separate futures. The Judean exiles spread from Egypt to Babylon, even with a re-entrenched outpost around a not-quite-Solomonic temple could have hardly expected to occupy every inch of the land they had previously claimed at the height of the golden age of David and Solomon. Surely they did not expect to murder every man and man-child with blood of other peoples in their veins living in the land. They could not have sought to rape every woman and girl-child into bearing children who would be counted as Israelites so as to eradicate their own peoples. No matter what the Torah says in some of its most troubling texts. A text without a context is a pretext. The post-exilic context of the editing of the Torah helps me with some of these texts. 

When I teach difficult texts at the seminary I invite the students to employ a number of creative writing strategies to experience the text differently: how would it read as a newscast or newspaper article, as a social worker’s report, as an infomercial? What happens when one reverses the texts: trade insiders for outsiders, favored status among the nations, with reviled ancient enemy, reverse slave and slaveholder, swap monotheism for polytheism, reverse the genders of the characters and/or God? 

I’d like to reframe Leviticus 26:3-13 by reversing the “if…then…” that frames the passage. One could read the text as, if we, or the ancient Israelites or even current day Israelis do something, God will do something else. But today let’s look at the things that the Torah says God will do and see if God has ever done them and what there might be for us to think about in the “if…then…”

Leviticus 26:3 If you follow my statutes and keep my commandments and observe them faithfully, 4 I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit.

Well, it was raining when I wrote this. For the most part it rains when it should in Israel, and even in the United States. Sometimes we get too much, sometimes too little, but the seasons turn more or less as they should – global warming aside. The respective farm belts produce enough food to feed their peoples and arguably the rest of the world. In modernity our food scarcity problem seems to be one of distribution and, well, will. I am the Wil, but not that will. So we may conlude by the seasons of rain and other weather at the approriate time and the production of foodstuffs that Israel and even the United States are full of faithful commandment-keepers.

The rest of this should be a piece of cake.

5 Your threshing shall overtake the vintage, and the vintage shall overtake the sowing; you shall eat your bread to the full, and live securely in your land.

And cake it is, bread and booze. No lack of carbs in the US or Israel. Check. Wait, what was that last part?

… and live securely in your land. 6 And I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and no one shall make you afraid; I will remove dangerous animals from the land, and no sword shall go through your land.

Something of a hiccup here. There are real security issues in the United States and Israel and Palestine and everywhere else that I have ever heard of. I’ve never heard of a land or country in which no one was afraid. A number of animals, including predators, have disappeared from their natural habitats, due to extinction; we tend to think of that as a bad thing. A land without swords – may we say acts of violence? Has there ever been such since Qayin murdered Hevel west of Eden?

7 You shall give chase to your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword. 8 Five of you shall give chase to a hundred, and a hundred of you shall give chase to ten thousand; your enemies shall fall before you by the sword. 

Well, Israel has world-renouned military abilities. And the United States is still a super power, in spite of the changes in global and national economies. But there has never been an empire on the face of the earth that did not fall. Did the Israelites envision perpetual supremacy or that it just might be their turn again? (Egypt and Babylon each had multiple turns running the known world.)

9 I will look with favor upon you and make you fruitful and multiply you; and I will maintain my covenant with you.

Modernity has seen human reproduction and life-expectancies soar. Even in parts of the world in which women regularly die in childbirth and only a fraction of children survive into adulthood, the whole people is not endangered. 

10 You shall eat old grain long stored, and you shall have to clear out the old to make way for the new.

Back to the carbs. Americans have elevated storage to a hight art: basements, attics, pantries, freezers in basements and garages, storage units, and an entire industry represented by The Container Store.

11 I will place my dwelling in your midst, and I shall not abhor you. 12 And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people.

A few have claimed that God is in their midst and that they are the beloved of God. More than a few have feld abhored by God. The first of my questions for us: What does it mean to claim that the God of Torah or Tanak or ancient Israel is our God? What does it mean to be or call one’s people or nation the people of God? What do these things mean in light of this text and what has and hasn’t happened in the world? 

13 I am the Holy One your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be their slaves no more; I have broken the bars of your yoke and made you walk with straightened spines.

There is a particular rhetoric of salvation in some black churches: It is not enough to say what you are saved from – for example, slavery – but what is it that you are saved for?

 Leviticus 26:14 But if you will not obey me, and do not observe all these commandments, 15 if you spurn my statutes, and abhor my ordinances, so that you will not observe all my commandments, and you break my covenant, 16 I in turn will do this to you: I will bring terror on you…

The terror the text goes on to describe parallels accounts of the fall of Judah and   destruction of Jerusalem and its temple and includes a mention of the exile. Perhaps the “if…then…” of this parsha has already been applied.

Questions:

The book of Leviticus ends with the words: Leviticus 27:34 These are the commandments that the Holy One of Old gave to Moses for the people of Israel on Mount Sinai. Who are the Israelites? The Torah teaches that Abraham and Sarah were from the land that biblical folk would come to cla Babel, the home of Babylon, that we call Iraq. They had an incestuaous sibling marriage and their descendents inner-married nieces, uncles, aunts, nephews and cousins. And their descendents also intermarried with the peoples around them: Tamar with whom Hudah had children was not from the family. Other patriarchs also intermarried: Simeon married a Canaanite woman, and Joseph married Asenat, an Egyptian making two of the twelve tribes half Egyptian. And, an unknown number of peoples from unknown national contexts left Egypt with the Israelites and integrated to one degree or another. So then “Israelite” is more of a cultural, social and religious designation than it is an ethnic one.

What does it mean to claim that the God of Torah, Tanak, Bible or ancient Israel is our God? What does it mean to be or call one’s people or nation the people of God? What do these things mean in light of this text and what has and hasn’t happened in the world? Is the “if…then…” of this parsha ethically or theologically binding on us or anyone else? What does God’s behavior (past and present) teach us about this covenant? What does this Torah say to you?  

Lastly, in a Jewish Bible, the last words of Leviticus or any other book in the Torah are not actually the last words. Rabbinic bibles have a refrain: חזק חזק ונתחזק. The congregational response to the end of a book of Torah, “from strength, to strength and may we be strengthened” represents the work of interpretation. When necessary, add words to the Torah herself, even if you have to write on her pages. The rabbis and volumes of interprters have modeled the ongoing work of midrash for us. חזק חזק ונתחזק!

 

17 Iyar 5771

21 May 2011

Dorshei Derekh Minyan

Germantown Jewish Center

Philadelphia PA

 


Osama bin Laden and the Image of God

Yesterday I preached a sermon on the image of God. The death of Osama bin Laden provides an opportunity for me to practice what I preach and proclaim that even he, the mastermind of terrorist attacks on Spain, the United States, Tanzania, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and places that we may never know, responsible for the murders of thousands – more than three thousand on 9/11 alone – even Osama bin Laden was a bearer of the Divine image having been created in the image of God. And the notion of human beings as the Divine image is one shared by Muslims Christians and Jews. I offer a revision of that sermon below, explicitly naming bin Laden and reflecting on his life and his death in places. It is not the same sermon, but it proclaims and wrestles with the same truth.

God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them rule with fish in the sea, and fowl of the heavens, and with the herd-animal – the whole earth, and with every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God, God created humankind; male and female God created them.

We are created in the image of God. I am created in the image of God. You are created in the image of God. (You, and you, and you, are created in the image of God.) The image of God is female. The image of God is male. The image of God is black. The image of God is brown. The image of God is tan. The image of God is beige. The image of God is peachy-pink and, the image of God is white. The image of God is old, young, strong, weak, pregnant, infertile, nursing, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, straight and crooked, saint and sinner. The image of God has dredlocks, an afro, a jerri curl, a weave, hair that has turned gray and hair that has turned loose. The image of God wears a wig. The image of God is wearing a Sunday-go-to-meeting church hat. The image of God is disabled. The image of God is imprisoned. The image of God is suffering. The image of God is homeless. The image of God is hungry. The image of God is poor. The image of God is wealthy and stingy. The image of God is wealthy and generous. Donald Trump is the image of God. Barak Obama is the image of God. Michelle Obama and Michelle Bachman are the image of God. Osama bin Laden and every person he murdered is the image of the same God. The image of God is a babe in arms, a toddler who refuses to be civilized, a child who wants to do it all herself, her way, a teen who keeps you up at night. The image of God is that woman or man who lied to you, left you, cheated on you, stole from you, hurt you. I am the image of God. You are the image of God. Every violent criminal, felon and terrorist is the image of God. We are the image of God. And we are  good, very good in God’s sight in spite of what we do, our creation reflects the goodness of God. And we were created to rule with – not over – the rest of creation, but that’s another sermon. We are the spitting image of God. And yet, God is more than the assembly of all our images.

God reveals Godself in human language in Genesis. But language, even my beloved Biblical Hebrew, is incapable of fully capturing, disclosing, describing or revealing God. My Systematic Theology professor, Kelly Brown Douglas says that using human language to describe God is like trying to drive a nail with a scewdriver; you can make it work but you have to turn it this way and that way, you might make a mess, you might not even hit the nail on the head. The God in whose image we are created is ultimately beyond words. If we take all of the words, all of the descriptions, all of the word-images in the scriptures and the writings of the theologians, scholars, poets and plainfolk who think on God, we will come short of God. God is more than we can image, imagine, dream or articulate.
In the divine self-articulation within the shared Jewish and Christian scriptures, God used the four categories of Biblical Hebrew – masculine, feminine, singular and plural – to reveal Godself and in the process, collapsed and exploded those categories and categorizations so that God cannot be put in a box, or reduced to a single image. For a single image of God is not God, and to worship that which is not God is to commit idolatry. A false image of God is as much a false god as is anything else with which we replace God.
Genesis starts with a familiar image of God, masculine and singular: In beginning, He, God, created the heavens and the earth. In Hebrew gender is disclosed by verbs primarily and nouns secondarily. The first verb of the bible is ברא, “he created,” that is God, אלהים – subjects usually follow their verbs in Biblical Hebrew. But God cannot be put in a box; God will not be confined to a single image. We are all the image of God: So God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God, God created humankind; male and female God created them.
In the first verse in scripture, God reveals Godself to be masculine. In the second verse in scripture, God reveals Godself to be feminine: The earth was formless and shapeless and darkness covered the face of the deep, while She, the Spirit of God, fluttered over the face of the waters. The second verb used in the scripture is מרחפת, “she fluttered,” that is the Spirit, רוח. In the first two verses of scripture God reveals Godself as male and female and then in verse 27 when God creates us in God’s own image we are, male and female, just like God. In fact the adam  that God first created means both all of humanity and a single being. And in the case of creation, the adam  – the “the” means that it is not Adam, a man’s name – the adam was one being with feminine and masculine attributes split down the middle to make two persons, male and female. The word that is mistranslated as “rib," צלע actually means “side” and is used throughtout the bible but never again translated as “rib.”
It may be a surprise to some, that in the bible God’s Spirit is feminine. It may be a surprise to those who read scripture in translation to languages like English because unlike Hebrew (and some other languages) you cannot tell gender in English from verbs or most nouns. The way to identify gender in English is to use a subject pronoun in place of the subject. (Where are my educators and fellow grammarians in the house?) If you go from here and say that preacher preached – or didn’t preach – people who weren’t here will not know what flavor preacher you have today. But if you say she preached, or she didn’t say anything to me, then everyone will know what flavor preacher you had.
Every time God’s Spirit shows up in Hebrew in the First Testament, and even in the Second Testaments written in Hebrew for Hebrew-speaking people – every time the Spirit shows up She is feminine and She is God. There is not a single place in the bible in its original Hebrew and Greek languages where the Spirit is male or takes a masculine verb. That holds true for the New Testament as well. There the New Testament writers chose to use the neuter, “it.” The masculine, “he” was not applied to the Spirit of God until Jerome got his hands on her four hundred years after the time of Christ and preformed a gender-reassignment surgery on the scripture in his translation which endures in your English bibles even though that’s not what the earliest bibles say.
 If you look at every verse in which the Spirit of God appears in the Hebrew Bible – in what you may call the Old Testament – in any translation, you will always see “the spirit (with or without a capital ‘s’) did such and such.” You will never see “he” because the previous generation of translators knew what every first year Hebrew student, and every Jewish child who learns Hebrew in kindergarten know, that She is feminine. In ancient Israel, rabbinic Judaism, and throughout the history of the church, the communities who have preserved, translated, taught and preached the scriptures have been overwhelming male. And the god whom they have communicated, has been presented nearly exclusively in their own image. Translation matters, and as I explained to your pastor when we discussed my visit, that is why I translate the scriptures myself and teach my students to read Hebrew and translate for themselves.
Scripture is full of diverse descriptive images of God; many are masculine images: The Lord is a warrior, the Lord is king, the Lord is my shepherd, the Lord is God. God is a righteous judge. God is not a man or the son of man who lies.
Other images combine masculine grammar with images and objects that don’t necessarily have gender in our English-speaking world: the Lord is my banner, the Lord is peace, the Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer, the Lord is a stronghold, the Lord is my light and my salvation, the Lord is my strength and my shield, God is a devouring fire. Deuteronomy 32:18 puts it this way, The rock who birthed you, you neglected, and the God who writhed-in-labor with you, you forgot. Here both rock and God are masculine but they use traditionally female birth-giving verbs.
The scriptures are also pregnant with feminine imagery for God: The scriptures talk about God’s body parts: eyes, ears, nose, mouth, right arm – have you ever noticed that God doesn’t have a left arm in the bible? – God has hands, feet and a reproductive system. When God asks Job in 38:8 how he imagines the universe came to be, God asks, Who closed the sea behind doors when it gushed forth out of the womb? How would you answer God? From whose womb do you think the sea came? God also asks Job later in 38:28, Who gave birth to the frost of heaven? The answer is of course, God gave birth to the frost of heaven just as God closed the sea behind doors when it gushed forth from Her womb. Interestingly, God does not have male reproductive parts in the scriptures. When God fathered Jesus of Nazareth, God did so completely different than human fathers father their children.
And then there is the love of God. There are several words for love in Hebrew, one particular word that God uses over and over. The verb, רחם, expresses the feelings of the womb, רחם. The literal translation is “womb-love,” “mother-love” or “maternal love.” The standard translations produced by brother-translators, “compassion” and “pity” are not specific to the womb, and erase God’s maternal love. Imagine a headache without the head, or a heartache without the heart. The place from which the pain emmanates is included in the word. So too is the mothering-place, the womb, רחם, included in the word רחם, mother-love. Listen to some of the places where the bible speaks of mother-love:
[Solomon and the sex-workers] 1 Kings 3:26 The woman whose son was alive said to the king – because her mother-love for her son burned within her – “Please, my lord, give her the living boy; do not kill him!” The other woman said, “He shall be neither mine nor yours; cut-him-in-two!

Isaiah 49:15 Can a woman forget her nursing child,
or show no mother-love for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.

 

Hosea 1:6 Gomer conceived again and gave birth to a daughter. Then the Holy One of Old said to Hosea, “Name her No Mother-Love, for I will no longer have mother-love the house of Israel or forgive them. 7 But I will mother-love the house of Judah, and I will save them by the Holy One their God…”

 

Micah 7:19 God will again have mother-love upon us;
God will tread our iniquities under foot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.

Psalm 25:6 Be mindful of your mother-love, Holy One,
and of your faithful love, for they have been from of old
.


Psalm 51:1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your faithful love;
according to your abundant mother-love blot out my transgressions.

And then there is Jesus… Jesus also uses masculine and feminine language to describe God. He tells a familiar parable about God’s desire for the salvation of lost souls in Luke 15. Jesus tells the parable twice. In the first telling God is a male shepherd, human beings are sheep, ninety-nine are safe, one sheep-soul is lost and God the Shepherd of our souls searches for the lost one until He finds it. Then God calls all the neighbors and throws a party to celebrate the restoration of the lost soul.
In the second telling immediately after the first telling, God is a female house-holder, human beings are precious coins, nine precious souls are safe, one is lost and God our Mother searches for Her lost precious one and when She finds Her lost precious one, She calls all of Her girlfriends and neighbor-women, in Greek everyone at that party is a woman.
This is not the only place that Jesus uses feminine imagery for God. In Matthew 13:33, Jesus said, “The realm of heaven is like a mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field.” God is the creator, the planter of heaven, and here God is male. In the next verse, Jesus says, “The realm of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” Here, God the creator is Baker-Woman God in Her kitchen just like Big Mamma.
And, in Luke 7:35, when the ministry of John the Baptist is being demeaned, Jesus says, “Wisdom is vindicated by all her children.” He’s not talking about John’s birth-mother, Jesus is talking about Mother God. As a rabbi and master of the sacred texts, Jesus knew that God is referred to in feminine and masculine terms throughout the scriptures. And his hearers, particularly his Hebrew-speaking audience knew this as well. The Epistles speak of desiring the milk of the gospel, in those days there was no formula, gospel milk is mother’s milk.
We who are created in the image of God are created in the image of a God who reveals Godself as female and male. Yet God is so much more. The late, great theologian Mary Daly put it this way, “God is more than a Ken doll and a Barbie doll scotch-taped together.” This morning I just came by to remind you that God is more than we can imagine or understand and we are all made in God’s image.
In our text God says, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…” Not only does God reveal Godself to be male and female, but God also reveals Godself to be one and many. No single category can contain God. I’m going to suggest to you today that the “us” and “our” in Genesis 1:26 is not the Trinity, because the Trinity is a post-biblical theological concept – but it can be the Trinity for you you like. I suggest that the “us” and “our” in Genesis 1:26 is the plurality of God-images in the scriptures. God is a rock who gives birth and we are made in Her image. God is a mighty warrior who fights our battles and we are made in His image. God is One and more than One and we are made in God’s image.
Our images of ourselves are as revelatory as are the biblical images of God; they tell us not only what we think of ourselves, but what we think of God. Would we continue to condemn ourselves and hang on to our mistakes and misdeeds if we truly accepted that we are made in the image of God and that shapes who we are and who we will be?

There is a huge space between who we are and what our image is. The images we have in our heads and the images in the minds of those around us may have little or no anchor in reality. We may be stuck in a time warp. We may think we are who we were when we had a full head of hair, when we had our youthful figure, before we had kids, before we saw that first wrinkle. It works the other way too, we may think we are who we were when we were the most frightened, vulnerable, powerless, victimized. Our own images of who we are, are related to who we are but are not who we really are.

Our creation and indeed the whole creation tells us and the world something about the God whose image we reflect.  What we think and say about ourselves and each other is a direct reflection on God, for we are all God’s handiwork, manifesting and reflecting the image of God. When we criticize and demean ourselves we are criticiizng and demeaning the image of God. When we insult and abuse others, we are insulting and demeaning the image of God. When men disrespect women, they are disrespecting the image of God. When women disrespect men, they are disrespecting the image of God. When straight folk disrespect gay folk, they are disrespecting the image of God. When gay folk disrespect straight folk, they are disrespecting the image of God.
There is no one who is not created in the image of God. No not one. Not Hitler, not bin Laden. Yet, at the same time, we the imago Dei, the image of God, are called to be the imitatio Christi, the imitation of Christ, reminding us that there is an even greater space between who we are and who God is. And none of us have loved each other so much that we threaten the security of earthly kingdoms and are condemned to death because of the disruption we present to the present order. Our discipleship is just not that serious. Our love is just not that world-changing.
But what would happen if we took seriously the image of God in ourselves and others? What would the world look like? Would every child be a wanted, welcome child? Would children no longer make up the largest percentage of the homeless in America? Would we even have a homeless population? Would we take in our folk, provide for our folk and help our folk provide for themselves starting with our own relatives? And if there is someone out there who doesn’t have any people, would we be their family?
Would there be an end to sexual assault if we saw each person as a reflection of God’s image? Would it no longer be the case that one in four girls and women and one in six boys and men are sexually assaulted in the church and out, by men and sometimes women who are themselves in the church and out, in the pastorate, in our families? Would there be an end to domestic violence? Would murder no longer be the primary cause of death for pregnant women? Would there be an end to terror and terrorism?
 How would our language change if we took seriously that what we say about each other and ourselves we say to and about God? How would we talk to children? Would we make jokes about beating children within an inch of their lives and inflicting violence on them to teach them a lesson because that’s how we were raised? Would we humiliate children for our own entertainment? Would we stand by as sombody’s child is bullied to death because we think he’s kind of funny and there’s not enough room in our limited understanding of the image of God for children like that?

When we fail to recognize the image of God in one another or ourselves we can justify doing anything to each other or even ourselves. Osama bin Laden was not alone in willfully denying the image of God in his sisters and brothers in creation and even in his own Muslim community. We are the image of God, and sometimes we reject God's image in other souls. Yet, because love is a two-way street, a feedback loop between the lover and beloved, God put on human flesh and reconfigured Godself in our image. God became flesh and dwelled among us as Yeshua ben Miryam l’Natzeret, Jesus Mary’s baby from Nazareth, the mortal immortal, Son of God, Son of Woman and Child of Earth. He was like us from the womb to the tomb and we are like him.

I’d like to suggest one more thing – before I take my seat – that the crowd included people who cheered the execution of another person created in the image of God that Friday two thousand years ago lost sight of the image of God in him and in themselves, in spite of his living and loving, in spite of his preaching and teaching, in spite of his touching and healing. There were people there watching the Roman spectacle because Jesus had opened their eyes. There were people there listening to the shouts and cries because Jesus opened their ears. There were people there able to cry out “Crucify him! Crucify him!” because he had loosened their tongues. There were people there walking the Way of Sorrows along with him because he had healed their bodies, straightened out their spines, reversed their paralysis, and lifted them off of their sick beds. There were people there listening to him beg for water who had been wined and dined by him. There were mothers there clutching the children that he had raised from the dead for them, wondering who would do the same for his mother. And all the time, their eyes were watching God.
They didn’t know that their eyes were watching God. They didn’t know that they had been co-opted by their own religious authorities to participate in their own oppression by trying to liquidate their liberator. They didn’t know that when then they told Pilate to give them Yeshua Bar-abba, Jesus Barabbas whose name meant “son of the father,” they were asking for the wrong Jesus, the wrong son of the wrong father. They didn’t know that calling on the name of Yeshua Bar-abba would only set him free but calling on the Name of Yeshua l’Natzaret would set them all free. They didn’t know that encouraging police brutality was an invitation to their own eventual brutalization. They didn’t know that they were murdering the Messiah. They didn’t know that they were crucifying the Christ. They didn’t know that their eyes were watching God because Jesus looked just like one of them, and they had apparently forgotten that they were the very image of God.


Holy God, Mother to the motherless and father to the fatherless, your concern for the woman-born was manifested in becoming woman-born, for the redemption and liberation of all the woman-born from fear and from death itself as Jesus the Messiah, the Son of Woman, came to seek out and save the lost and to give his life as a ransom for everyone created in the image of God. Amen.


Beyond Zombie Theology and More than a Mummy

Today’s sermon is Beyond Zombie Theology and More than a Mummy. In the Name of the Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer and Life-Giver. Amen.

Act I: Scene One

The setting is what would on another day be a lovely, lush valley. But today it is full of human carnage. It is a scene out of a horror movie. It is a horror movie. There are bodies and body parts everywhere, decayed down to the bone. It is as though someone uncovered a mass grave. The bones are jumbled together in an apocalyptic, post-modern, nightmarish sculpture. This is holy ground and accursed ground. This place was a killing field, plague site or the site of some other unfathomable catastrophe. Every once in a while a lonely bird of prey disturbs a ragged cluster of bones looking for some long dissolved morsel of flesh. There is the stench of death. Not the wet, rotting smell of decaying flesh, but the deeply permeating scent of death in the air, in the grass, in the trees. The smell of death is everywhere.

Act I: Scene Two

The setting is a rocky hillside dotted with natural and fabricated caves. Lightly carved and rounded stones secure the entrances to the cave-tombs, keeping some out and others in. The air is thick with the smell of vegetation. The air is full of life. A small group of mourners prays, keens and beats their breasts.

Act II: Scene One

A ragged refugee-prophet escapes his prison camp through a wormhole that sucks him up into the air and spits him out into the valley of dry bones. The wormhole collapses in on itself and transforms into a being made of pure light, without color and all colors at the same time. The special affects are amazing! The God of Light gives the prophet-man a task – conjure life from death, draw the spirit-winds from the four corners of the earth into the valley and animate the bones. The prophet speaks the words he was given:

So says the Sovereign God to these bones: Look! I will cause spirit-breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will place sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put spirit-breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am God-Whose-Name-Is-Holy.’”

Act II: Scene Two

A road-weary traveling prophet, teacher and healer joins the mourners outside the cave-tombs and, this man speaks his own words of power:

El‘azar! Come out!”  

Montage:

The camera cuts back and forth between the two scenes: A man transported by the power of his God and a God-in-flesh walking on his own two feet; an open valley full of decayed bodies at the end of their decomposition cycle, a closed tomb with one body just beginning to decompose; the prophet from ancient days being guided by his God, the itinerant teacher needs no guidance.

Act III: Scene One

All of the bones in the valley begin to shake, rattle and roll. It sounds like an earthquake. The ground shakes and the bones rise. They whirl and swirl and connect to each other forming complete skeletons. There are all sorts of skeletons. All of them have broken bones or marks on their bones from swords and clubs and other weapons. They all died violent deaths. Some are tall, some are short, some have the tell-tale pelvic girdles of women, some are children. The bones begin to thicken, their white turns pink and then shades of beige, tan and brown as layers of flesh, muscle, tendons, cartilage, nerves and finally skin covers them. The special effects director is going to win an Oscar for this movie! Finally there is a whole nation of people standing in the valley. Yet there was no spirit-breath in them – they were like an army of zombies: formerly dead, reanimated, moving, standing but without the breath of life – true, authentic, God-given human life. But they became something more than zombies. They had spirit-breath poured into them and returned fully to life, resurrected.

Act III: Scene Two

No one sees what is going on in the tomb: the bloated body contracts, the ripening flesh regains its firmness, the chest begins to rise and fall, the eye lashes flutter. He sits up, swings his legs off the rocky ledge on which he was so recently lain, and struggles to walk towards the light where he hears someone calling his name. He is like a mummy, wrapped in sheets of linen that have loosened as his body swelled in the first stages of decomposition. He shuffles out of the tomb. But he is not a mummy, or a zombie. He has had the breath of life spoken back into him and he has returned fully to life, resurrected.

Act IV: Scene One

God tells the prophet from days gone by that the people he has seen resurrected are the prophet’s people, living in exile. Their nation has been hacked and burned to death and dismembered. And God promised them resurrection, national resurrection:

And I will put my spirit within you all and you all shall live, and I will place you all on your own soil; then you all shall know that I, the Holy One of Old, have spoken and have done this,” says God-Whose-Name-Is-Holy.

The prophet was returned through the wormhole to his captive people. Eventually his people were returned to their ancestral land. But it was a hard life. Foreign nations fell on them like hoards of B-movie zombies. Yet they survived. The resurrected nation would not die.

Act IV: Scene Two

God-in-flesh, Jesus – Yeshua in Hebrew and Aramaic – of Nazareth, tells Miryam who you know as Mary:

I am the resurrection and the life! Whoever believes in me will live, even if they die; and everyone living and believing in me will never die.

As the credits roll we who are in the audience have to come to terms with what we have seen just as we have to come to terms with these lessons from the scriptures. Over and over again God reveals Godself to be the God of life and light, even when God’s people are dwelling and dying in darkness. Ezekiel had lived through the worst horror to plague his people since the days of Egyptian slavery, a horror that traumatized his people for more than four hundred years.

The destruction of the temple by Nebuchadnezzar was theologically incomprehensible. Nebuchadnezzar’s assault was as unimaginable as – not the events that we remember from September 11th, for the towers had been struck previously – but rather as unimaginable as the assault on Pearl Harbor, and, as incomprehensible as the bombs we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and as unfathomable as was Japan’s ultimate surrender to her own citizens.

There was a time when no one could enter the most holy space in the temple except the high priest, and then only once a year. Tradition says that he wore bells so that people would know if he was able to survive in the presence of God and, that he had a rope around him so that if he dropped dead from proximity to the holiness of God, his mortal remains could be pulled out for burial.

And yet, Nebuchadnezzar’s troops not only entered the most holy place, they butchered it with battle axes, hatchets and hammers, chopping it to bits, burning everything that would burn, melting down the gold and silver and bronze for the Babylonian treasury. And they took a few choice vessels, used to worship the God of Israel back to Babylon for the king and his court to toy with.

And there was not even a puff of smoke. There was no strike of holy lightening; no burst of fire from heaven, no hailstones, plagues of Egypt, earthquake or sinkhole; the earth did not swallow them whole. Nothing happened. It was almost as if the temple was empty.

It must have seemed like the stories of Miriam and Moses and the promises God made to their descendents either never happened or were null and void. It may have seemed like the stories of Exodus were irrelevant fairy tales. Imagine, if you can, what it would have been like if the assault on and collapse of the Twin Towers was followed by an assault on and collapse of our government, defeat of our military and forced exile of our citizens: no homes, no jobs, no healthcare, parents separated from children, dead bodies heaped in the streets, everyone subject to robbery, rape – if not murder – on the way to incarceration in an over populated refugee camp with out any social services.

Some will not have to imagine Native persons herded onto reservations, Japanese American citizens interned in camps, South Africans banned to Bantustans, European Jews crowded into European ghettos, American Blacks crowded into inner city ghettos, political dissidents sentenced to gulags and reeducation camps.

We may not be internationally displaced persons struggling for clean drinking water, firewood and food, and while some of us may be fearful of physical or sexual assault or murder, those atrocities do not shape our daily lives in most cases. But many of our sisters and brothers around the world and in our own country are desperately hungry, homeless or facing the loss of their homes, unemployed, underemployed, lacking sufficient or any health care and subject to private and public explosions of violence. To all of these, God offers the vision of a resurrected society in Ezekiel. Not only is the society resurrected but so are all the people who make it what it is. There are all there, restored from the confusing jumble of death. It does not matter how or where their bones were scattered, piled up, decayed, dissolved or even cremated, God sorts them out.

And to those devastated by the loss of a dear one, Jesus comes to us in our grief, walks with us, mourns with us, weeps with us and promises us resurrected life in the community of the redeemed. But unlike the movies in which the main characters seem to escape death at every turn, we may die, we will die, and even if and when we die, not even death has the power to separate us from the life-giving Spirit of God. We go to our deaths knowing that Jesus has gone before us, accompanies us and waits for us to transform our dying into living.

The life that the God of Ezekiel and Jesus grants us is individual and corporate life; no national or personal tragedy can destroy us. Where ever we are, no matter how we got there, God will find us and bring us home. The Judeans in the Babylonian internment camp did not believe that God could or would leave the temple, not even to see about them. Ezekiel’s crazy visions and even crazier antics – he will go so far as to use poop to make a prophetic point in the sequel – all demonstrate that the people claimed by God will never be abandoned by God, no matter what happens to their national structures and monuments.

And even when it seems like it is too late – and Jesus was four days late to the funeral – the universal laws of earth and heaven can be swept away that we might live again. The life that God calls us to is this life and the life beyond this one. Lazarus was raised and restored to his human life, for a while. The same folk who sought to kill Jesus turned their attention to Lazarus and planned to kill him too. The gospel doesn’t tell us if they succeeded because it doesn’t matter. Lazarus’ resurrection in this life was a promise of our resurrection in the next.

Fade to black.

All Saint's Episcopal Church, Kapaa HI