Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Archive for 2012

(Where) Is Jesus in the Old Testament?

Luke 24:44 Then Jesus said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the Torah of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.

            Let us pray: Holy One of Old, open our eyes that we may see wondrous things out of your word. Amen.

The belief that the Scriptures of the ancient Israelite people bear witness to, testify to, Jesus of Nazareth is one of the most cherished beliefs of our faith. It is so important to some people that they twist the Scriptures in to being only and all about Jesus forgetting that there were real people wrestling with real issues to whom God spoke in their own days, in their time of need, faithfully. I’m so glad that God spoke to God’s people about their need, their hurt, their hope, in their time, using words that are so powerful that they continued and continue to speak to each generation about their own concerns – and ours – while teaching the faithfulness of God through God’s relationship with the Israelites to whom God first spoke these words of scripture, so that we can trust in God’s love for and faithfulness to us. And that’s good news. My students have heard me say, it’s ok if you see Jesus when you look in the scriptures, just make sure you know that’s not how people first heard them, and learn something about how the scriptures spoke to their first hearers.

In today's Gospel Jesus comes to his brokenhearted disciples and offers the most unimaginable comfort. He offers them the comfort of his presence. His presence is unimaginable because they had watched him die, buried him and mourned him. Yet here he is alive, risen, walking and talking to them, soon to break bread with them. When Jesus reveals himself to his disciples, he reveals himself to them bodily, relationally and in the Scriptures:

“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the Torah of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.

In his way, Jesus says that the whole bible that existed in his time speaks of him. Now, the bible in Jesus’ time was not the bible in our time – there was no New Testament. You might say that Jesus was the New Testament as the embodiment of the Gospel of God’s love and faithfulness. And there was no single bible, books had not yet been invented and each biblical book was written on a scroll, some had more than one book, like Torah scrolls. And communities had different collections of scrolls, perhaps only the Temple holding a copy of all of them.

The Jewish Bible existed in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek and the books were in a different order than they are in our bibles, in our Old Testaments. Jewish Bibles were – and still are – divided into three parts: The Torah of Moses, (sometimes called the Law), The Prophets which include Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, and a third section, now called the Writings in which every other kind of book was placed. But that third section wasn’t complete in the day of Jesus, the only thing in it was the book of Psalms. The other books weren’t official yet. However people still read and discussed them because a true student of scripture must read more than scripture and be prepared to encounter scripture in unexpected – even unauthorized – places. And so Jesus says: “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the Torah of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”

Yet he does not tell us what those verses are, he allows us to wrestle throughout the history of the church, to search him out in the Scriptures: Where is Jesus in the Old Testament? Where do the scriptures testify to him? It would be easy to say “every single verse” or “everyplace you see God, you see Jesus.” It’s in my nature to dig a little deeper, bypassing the easy and the obvious, looking for the mystery and adventure. And, I simply do not believe we can know what Jesus said to his companions on the road during that incredible bible study. I believe the Gospel invites us to wonder. And in our wonder to turn to the scriptures, to seek and search the Word for words pointing to the one who was and is the Word made flesh. I searched and sought and found myself drawn to Israel’s prophets.

As a biblical scholar I know that Isaiah 9:6-7 is written in the past tense, and I know that Jesus wasn’t born when they were written. And while I can’t explain how and why this past tense prophecy celebrating the birth of a royal child with a throne name that makes him sound more God than human would have been heard as speaking of David, Hezekiah or Josiah to most folk to their satisfaction, I know it is an extravagant celebration pointing to the God of the child-king for whom these titles really apply. And, at the same time, along the church across time, I confess that I also see Jesus when I read:

Isaiah 9:6 For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Holy One of heaven’s armies will do this.

Now, I know that Isaiah 11:4 speaks of the return of the Israelite monarchy after the Babylonian exile hundreds of years before Jesus quickened in his holy mother’s womb, but I also see Jesus and his teaching when I read:

with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.

And when Israel is longing to leave exile and God is promising to deliver them, to bring them home in their days, to keep God’s promise to God’s people, God spoke of a servant who I know can be identified as King Cyrus of Persia who sent the Israelites home with gifts to rebuild the temple. And I know that God’s servant can also be Nehemiah who got permission from King Darius of Persia to bring even more of his people home and continue the work of rebuilding. Yet when I read Isaiah 42:1-9, I see also Jesus:

Isaiah 42:1 Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
2 He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
3 a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
4 He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

And just a few weeks ago, we reenacted Zechariah 9:9-10 which I know is a hopeful prophecy that one day Israel will be governed by a king who is not a warrior, and in that hope I see Jesus – in fact I also see the Blessed Virgin:

Zechariah 9:9 Rejoice greatly, daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, daughter of Jerusalem!
Look! Your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

And I know that I am not alone in seeing Jesus in these verses from Isaiah 52-53:

Isaiah 52:14 Just as there were many who were astonished at him
—so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of mortals— 
2 For he grew up before God like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.
4 Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the Sovereign God has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
8 By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people.
9 They made his grave with the wicked
and his tomb with the rich,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.
10 Yet it was the will of the Holy God to crush him with pain.
When you make his life an offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days;
through him the will of the One God shall prosper.
11 Out of his anguish he shall see light;
he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.
The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he poured out himself to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.

I don’t know what verses Jesus recited when he revealed himself in the scriptures to his disciples on the road to Emmaus. Quite frankly, I don’t need to know. To tell the truth I love the mystery of it all. I don’t know that he even spoke to them to teach them, verse 45 says: Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.

Perhaps Jesus didn’t say a single word. Perhaps he did a Vulcan mind-meld. Perhaps he opened their minds with a thought or a touch. Or perhaps he opened their minds with a single word, yehi, “Let there be!” – the word with which God began to create, or perhaps he spoke the first word of the scriptures, b’reshit, “In beginning…” I don’t know how he did it, I just know that Jesus showed up, traveled with them, accompanying them, transforming their journey, transforming their hearts, transforming their grief, transforming their minds and transcending their expectations.

But I’m so glad that Jesus showed up. I’m so glad that when his friends and followers were hurting and had given up, Jesus came to see about them. I’m so glad that Jesus eavesdrops on us from time to time. I’m so glad that Jesus breaks into our grief with the promise of resurrection. I’m so glad that Jesus draws us into the scriptures. I’m so glad that Jesus meets us at the table, breaks bread with us and is our bread. I’m so glad that Jesus lives and offers that eternal life to all of us. I’m so glad that Jesus leaves us mysteries to ponder. I’m so glad that Jesus still transforms and transcends. And I’m so glad that Jesus is in the pages of scripture, in expected and unexpected places, waiting to meet us.

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.

Was Jesus’ Last Supper a Seder Meal

The answer is: "Maybe." And you can quote me on that… Read the rest of this post here.

Prophetic Resistance: A Conversation with Elaine Pagels

Revelations - Elaine Pagels

I interview Elaine Pagels on her new book, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy and Politics in the book of Revelation for Religious Dispatches. You can find it here.

Lessons from the Prophet Miriam: When You Mess Up, Step Up

Harriet Tubman

In these last and evil days someone needs to be reminded and someone else needs to learn that the word of God about a woman through a woman to women on Women’s Day works for men too, because women are the image of God, not once removed, but in everyway, image-bearers. And it’s a good thing for men who are used to being at the center of the story – even sharing pronouns with God in some preacher’s mouths – to have to think about where they fit into the story and find their place in a woman’s story.

The inability to see some people as fully human, hand-crafted by God, is potentially lethal as we saw once again in the past month. But it is not only white folk (or half-Hispanic folk as it’s mow being said) who willfully ignore the divine image in other people’s bodies. There is enough murder, rape, forced prostitution, and child abuse in the black community to bear witness to our own failings. As we advocate for our Trayvons, let us not forget our Trayvinas, little (and big) black girls who suffer physical, sexual and emotional abuse at the hands of black men and boys, sometimes with the knowledge or willful ignorance or even participation of black women. So let us women and men pray over the theme “If You Mess Up, Then You’d Better Step Up”:

My prayer is Miriam’s prayer, Mother Mary’s prayer – Let it be.

Let it be with your woman-servant according to your word.

With these words

the word of God was formed in the woman of God.

On this day, as on that day,

let your bat-kol, the daughter-voice of God

bring forth your word again. Amen.

There are two hundred and seventy-four shopping days until Christmas. There are forty weeks until Christmas. There are nine months until Christmas. Today, the Good News is that God became incarnate in the Virgin’s womb. This Good News is that God’s concern for the woman-born was manifested in God, Godself, becoming woman-born, for the redemption and liberation of all the woman-born from sin – the sin that we’ve done and the sin that has been done to us – and from death itself. Yeshua HaMeshiach, Jesus the Messiah, the Son of Woman, came to seek out and save the lost and to give his life as a ransom for many. In my church we celebrate the announcement of that holy mystery today, with the Feast of the Annunciation.

The Feast of the Annunciation was once so important in Christendom that the date of the year changed then, in the middle of March, for time could no longer be the same once the Holy Spirit wrapped her glory around the Virgin of Nazareth and quickened life in her womb.

The Ever-Blessed Virgin Mary, as we call her in my church, was bat Zion, a daughter of Zion, of the tribe of Judah. But her name wasn’t Mary; it was Miriam. Names in your New Testaments have been translated from Hebrew to Greek to Latin, and to German in some cases, and then into English, rendering many familiar and beloved names distantly related to their original forms.

Miriam is the most popular woman’s name in the New Testament because it was the most popular woman’s name in Jewish communities for as much as five hundred years before the time of this Miriam and her son Yeshua, Jesus of Nazareth. All of those Marys, all of those Miriams, were named for one woman, the mother of them all although she never married and never gave birth, the prophet Miriam.

One of the things I like best about the prophet Miriam is that when she messed up, she stepped up. Miriam made mistakes, but she was more than her mistakes. She left a good name, a great name and an enduring legacy. Miriam is one of the most important women in the bible. She is mentioned in more books than any other woman. And she is the only woman to have her childhood, adulthood, old age, death and burial recorded in the scriptures.

You may be familiar with the first story about Miriam in the bible. She saved her baby brother Moses so that he could save their people. She saw him safely to the waters of the Nile where he could be rescued and adopted by an Egyptian princess. We don’t know how old she was but she was old enough to negotiate an employment contract for her mother and make sure that Moses was placed in an open adoption so that he would always know who his people were.

And then there is a great space in her story. The bible is full of these spaces, many, disproportionately, in the stories about women. Did Miriam continue her relationship with the Princess? Did she and her mother live in the palace while Moshe was nursing? Why did she never marry? How did she become a prophet? How did she serve God and her people? We do know that at some point in her life she becomes recognized as a woman of God, not Moses’ prophet like Aaron, but a prophet of God in her own right. God spoke to her and through her and she spoke for God in song and verse. The bible’s oldest passages are songs and poems composed by the prophets Miriam and Deborah.

Moses and the Israelites sing Miriam’s song, the Song of the Sea, at the water’s edge. But the people wouldn’t move, they wouldn’t walk through the waters. So Miriam took a small hand-drum – I know your bibles say a tambourine in Ex 15, that’s a translation error, it was a tambourine-shaped drum without the metal pieces – she took a drum in her hand and led the people through the water singing her song. First she sang by herself and danced by herself. Moses was on the side holding his arms in the air. He didn’t lead the people through the water. The prophet Miriam led her people to freedom beginning with the sisters. The women joined Miriam in the Song of the Sea and Dance of Deliverance. Leading her people through the danger water, Miriam was the first Israelite to set foot on the other side.

And when Miriam led her people to the other side of the sea she was at least ninety years old. For Moses was eighty and Aaron was eighty-three when they told Pharaoh to let God’s people go. And Miriam was their older sister, old enough to negotiate on behalf of the baby Moses.

And then one day, Miriam messed up. She messed up and then she stepped up. She got sat down. But she didn’t stay down. She got up and moved on. She messed up, stepped up, sat down, got up and moved on. She messed up. She made a mistake. Yet the sum of her life is so much more than her most infamous mistake. Some of you have made some mistakes.

In our lesson, Miriam has something to say about the state of Moses’ household. She was right in her criticism. Moses wasn’t God’s only prophet; she was God’s prophet too. But she was wrong in talking about Moses and not talking to him. And don’t get it twisted, Moses needed talking to. He had just shown up with a shiny new wife. Black and shiny. A Nubian sister, perhaps blacker than the range of beige, brown and black that made up Israel and the multitude that left slavery on their dime. But perhaps not. Skin color wasn’t an issue in their time. The issue was that Moses just showed up with a new woman having put out his old woman and their children. Polygamy was acceptable to the Israelites, child abandonment was a whole ‘nother issue.

In Exodus 18:2, Moses sent away his first wife Zipporah and their children. Some of you may know the passage in Malachi 2:16 where God says “I hate the sending away,” sometimes and appropriately translated as “divorce.” That’s the same word used here but some translators can’t bring themselves to write that Moses divorced his wife. Yet in Exodus 18:3 his father-in-law Jethro shows up with his wife and their children in an attempt to put the family back together, and Moses hugs his father-in-law and only his father-in-law, asks about his welfare and never says a mumbling word to his family. In fact there are no stories about Moses’ sons in the wilderness, unlike Aaron’s, suggesting that he sent them away again. Some scholars speculate that’s why Moses’ descendants were banned from the priesthood; they weren’t around to be trained with or instead of Aaron’s sons. We don’t hear anything more about Moses and his family business until he shows up in our lesson with a brand new wife.

Miriam was right to want to hold him accountable for his personal conduct. Preachers and prophets don’t get an ethical pass. But she was wrong to talk about him and not to him. Moses messed up and God would deal with him. But today we are telling Miriam’s story. Miriam messed up. She messed up and then she stepped up.

When God called her name, calling her on the carpet, calling her to account, she didn’t shuck and jive, she didn’t duck and dodge, she stepped up. She stepped up and stepped to God, placing herself, her life, her skin, her beautiful face, in the hands of a living God. First God said, all three of you, come here! And she went. She messed up so she stepped up. Then God said to Miriam and Aaron, you two, come a little closer to the Fire. And she stepped up again. She was woman enough to take responsibility for messing up. She stood up on her own two feet in her big girl pants to hear the judgment of the Fire of Sinai. She didn’t make excuses, she didn’t pass the blame or the buck; she stepped up.

She messed up, stepped up and then she got sat down.

Miriam – and in my reading Aaron – were punished by God with a skin disease. The text doesn’t clearly say Aaron was afflicted but the Hebrew allows for that possibility reading between the lines. Since the biblical disease is never described with the numbness and loss of body parts associated with leprosy in other parts of the world and because houses, clothing and other inanimate objects could be contaminated, most biblical scholars identify this disease as something else. What ever it was, it was disfiguring: flaky patches, oozing sores and peeling skin.

Miriam bore her punishment and never uttered a complaining word. She didn’t know how long she would be afflicted. Yet she didn’t throw Aaron under the bus for going along with her at every turn. But Aaron, her partner in crime, confessed his own part and begged Moses to intercede, and he did. And she was healed instantly, but she still had to bear the consequences of her actions. And it was decided that Miriam had to leave the community and stay in the camp beyond the camp. She was banished to the place were those who were taboo for periods ranging from one day to the rest of their lives were quarantined apart from the rest of the people. And so Miriam went into exile among the last and the least. She no longer stood up front with Moses and Aaron at the Tent of Meeting in front of the congregation. She sat down, exiled, banished.

But she didn’t sit alone. The people sat with her, and get this; they sat down on God and so God waited for her too. Ordinarily, the people followed the leading of God in the form of a pillar of cloud by day, watching over them by night as a pillar of fire by night. But Numbers 12:15 says that the people would not get up and go without their prophet. They knew she was more than her most public mistake.

I always imagine that God picked up the cloud and started out on the next day’s journey… and no one followed. So God waited on Miriam, with her waiting people, waiting on her restoration.

Miriam messed up, she stepped up, sat down and then she got up.

And when Miriam got up, God and the people got up with her. And then they got going. Miriam messed up, stepped up, sat down, got up and then she moved on. She moved on past her mistake. She didn’t hang on to it and she didn’t hang around with anyone who wanted to tie her to her past. She went on with her life and her life’s work. And then, one day, she died. In Israelite culture, a person had immortality through their children, specifically through their name passed down to and through their children. But Miriam didn’t have any children. She never married. Yet her name lives on forever.

There was something about Miriam. Sure some people would never allow her or anyone else to forget that one time she messed up big time. Look at Deuteronomy 24:9, Remember what the Holy One your God did to Miriam on your journey out of Egypt.

But that’s not the only was Miriam was remembered, in 1 Chronicles 4:17, another Egyptian princess married into the tribe of Judah and named her newborn baby daughter Miriam. Miriam’s legacy to her people – and to those who were not even her own people – is more than her mistakes.

And then there is God. And when God looked back on Miriam’s life and death, all God saw was her gifts. It was how Miriam conducted herself before and after her mistakes – and I’m sure she made more than one – it was Miriam’s service to God, serving God by serving God’s people that God remembered and testified to in her memory.

Do you remember when God took the witness stand and testified about Miriam? You probably know the verdict:

God has told you, O mortal, what is good;

and what does the Holy One require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with your God?

But a text without a context is a pretext. The Rev. Dr. Dennis Proctor told me that. You see in Micah 6, more than six hundred years after the death of the prophet Miriam, God is being sued by Israel. The bailiff speaks, calling the court to order in Micah 6:1-2:

Hear what the Holy One says:

Rise, plead your case before the mountains,

and let the hills hear your voice.

Hear, you mountains, the dispute of the Holy One,

and you enduring foundations of the earth;

for the Holy One has a dispute with God’s people,

and God will litigate with Israel.

Then God takes the stand and testifies in verses 3-4:

“O my people, what have I done to you?

In what have I wearied you? Answer me!

For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,

and redeemed you from the house of slavery;

and I sent before you Moses,

Aaron, and Miriam.

God’s testimony, God’s self-defense was Miriam. The proof of how good God was to Israel was that God sent not just Moses, not just Moses and Aaron, but God sent Moses, Aaron and Miriam. And the mountains and hills, serving as the jury, ruled in God’s favor.

I like to think that it was the memory of Miriam that decided things in God’s favor. Yes Miriam messed up.

She messed up and then she stepped up.

She messed up, stepped up and then she got sat down.

She messed up, stepped up, sat down and then she got up.

She messed up, stepped up, sat down, got up and then she moved on. She moved past her mistakes.

God used the prophet Micah to vindicate and validate the prophet Miriam, she was more than the one mistake that some folk wouldn’t let her forget and talked about after her death. And her people began naming their daughters after her so frequently that in the first century her name was the most popular woman’s name among her people.

And one of the daughters of her name, named for the most famous and beloved of Israel’s women prophets elevated her name to a whole new level. Listen now to the geology behind the genealogy in Matthew 1:

A genealogy of Miriam, the daughter of Hannah called Anna:

 Of her was born Jesus who is called Christ.

Sarah was the mother of Isaac,

And Rebekah was the mother of Jacob,

Leah was the mother of Judah,

Tamar was the mother of Perez.

The names of the mothers of Hezron, Ram, Amminadab,

            Nahshon and Salmon have been lost.

Rahab was the mother of Boaz,

            and Ruth was the mother of Obed.

Obed’s wife, whose name is unknown, gave birth to Jesse.

The wife of Jesse was the mother of David.

Bathsheba was the mother of Solomon,

Naamah the Ammonite, was the mother of Rehoboam.

Maacah was the mother of Abijam and the grandmother of Asa.

Azubah was the mother of Jehoshaphat.

The name of Jehoram’s mother is unknown.

Athaliah was the mother of Ahaziah,

Zibiah of Beersheba was the mother of Joash.

Jecoliah of Jerusalem gave birth to Uzziah,

Jerusha gave birth to Jotham; Ahaz’s mother is unknown.

Abi was the mother of Hezekiah,

Hephzibah was the mother of Manasseh,

Meshullemeth was the mother of Amon,

Jedidah was the mother of Josiah.

Zebidah was the mother of Jehoiakim,

            Nehushta was the mother of Jehoiachin,

Hamutal was the mother of Zedekiah.

Then the deportation of Babylon took place.

After the deportation to Babylon

the names of the mothers go unrecorded.

The sum of generations is therefore: fourteen from Sarah to David’s mother;

            fourteen from Bathsheba to the Babylonian deportation;

            and fourteen from the Babylonian deportation to Miriam, the mother of Christ.

Miriam, the prophet-woman, messed up, stepped up, sat down, got up and then she moved on. When you mess up – when and not if – when you mess up, step up. Take responsibility for your mistakes. Own it. Give it to God. And know that that you may have to pay a price and that you may have to bear the consequences, in public, in your community. You can’t run and you can’t hide. And then take the time that you need to get your life back on track. Don’t run from mistake to mistake. Sit down in the company of folk who know what it is to go through what you’re going through. And if no one sits you down, sit your own self down. But when you sit down then don’t stay down. Get up. And move on. Go forward; go with God. You have no way of knowing how God will use you, your name, your legacy, to change the world.

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

A Lesson in Public Theology: Men’s Religion & Women’s Healthcare

The recent political discourse in which some politicians are seeking to modify the public square, denying access to birth control, hormone therapy and further restrict access to abortions by imposing their religious values on on society led me to reflect on the ways in which Christian faith informed the Civil Rights Movement. My reflection on the two very different appeals to religion in the public square can be found here.

Noah’s Earth, Ark and our Creation

Genesis 9:8-10: God says, “I, yes I, am establishing my covenant with you all and your offspring after you, and with every living creature that is with you, from birds to herds, every living thing on earth with you, as many as came out of the ark.” And, Mark 1:13: “Jesus, was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by the Satan; and he was with the wild animals; and the angels ministered to him.” This morning I invite you to consider a ‘Cosmic Covenant with Creation.’

Let us pray: In the name of the Author, the Word and the Translator. Amen.

From the day before days when all days began with a divine inhalation, exhalation and articulation, “Let there be,” to the moment the mountains were submerged beneath the hull of Noah’s ark, creation followed by corruption coincide with this cosmic covenant. The Divine Wordsmith spoke and life happened. All manner of life with all manner of feet and none, every kind of tooth, and none, and all sorts of coverings: feathers, fur, scales and skin. A peculiar earthling was pulled from the womb of earth. New, human souls had been breathed into hand-crafted, God-crafted earthen vessels. Then one became two and two became one. In between creation and corruption was Shabbat and its promise of peace from the work of the world.

Smaller cycles of creation and corruption spiraled through the ages. And Lamech, the murderer who invented polygamy fathered a son with one of his wives, either Adah or Zillah. And he called his son’s name Noah. I Enoch, from the scriptural collection of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, tells us Lamech knew Noah was a special child because he was born with a beautiful demdema, which is an old Ethiopic word for a halo of curly hair, in other words, an afro.

Noah’s famous story in today’s first lesson is a call for reflection on consumption and creation. This is our first Lenten reflection. We began this season with the reminder that we are dust; from dust we were crafted and to the dust we shall return. This week’s readings teach that the very dust, and we who were shaped from it, are precious in the sight of God. And we find that we dust-folk have dust-kin in all of the creatures of earth, and the earth herself. As the Jewish poet Marge Piercy (The Art of Blessing the Day: Poems with a Jewish Theme, 2006) writes, “We stand in a a great web of being.”

Our first lesson is a lesson in ecology, a lesson in which in which humans are responsible for safeguarding all creation. Noah is our role model. Noah is righteous, at that time and for a while, although after his salvation narrative he would abuse God’s good gifts of time and wine and call for the oppression of some of his own offspring in a drunken, hung-over rage.

But today, Noah has saved the world. He has saved aardvarks, bats, cats, doves, eagles, fireflies, gophers, horses and an ibex, actually two. Four times the covenant partners of the Creator are identified as every living creature.” This cosmic covenant is with all of creation. God has covenanted with jaguars, kangaroos, lemmings, mice, newts, orangutans, pythons and quails. Five times the covenant partners are “all flesh.” God has made a covenant with every living thing on the ark including, rabbits, sheep, tigers, urchins, vermin, wombats, maybe even a xenopithicus – probably two, yaks and zebra.

The author of the Petrine Epistle, our second lesson, completely misses the boat – pardon the pun. He says that eight souls were preserved through water – No! Noah and his family saved the whole world. Our epistoleer completely discounted animal creation and the plant life that sustains human and animal creation as cosmic covenant partners with the Creator of the universe. The natural world that God also hand-crafted was irrelevant to him, and too many in our world today. The diversity of life aboard the ark is a lesson in and of itself. The world is more than human beings. We can’t survive without plants and animals. We can’t survive without bacteria. Yet under our watch, animals are hunted to extinction, driven from sustainable land as the land itself is used up, even plants driven to extinction.

Noah probably took care of things that he didn’t want to. I don’t imagine that it was easy for Noah and his family – or the animals, if fact I think it may have been downright awful. The Rabbis asked much like Bill Cosby, ‘God, who’s going to clean that up?’ And they answered Noah. Noah was the caretaker and steward of every living thing on the ark, which meant that he was the caretaker and steward of every living thing on earth – except of course for the sea creatures who were more or less on their own. The fate of the entire ecosystem rested in Noah’s hands.

Yet Noah wasn’t in this thing alone, he had help, his wife, their sons, their wives and God, the Creator and Sustainer of all life. The Creator of the cosmos made a covenant with all creation, saying: in verses 8-10, “I, yes I, am establishing my covenant with you all and your offspring after you, and with every living creature that is with you, from birds to herds, every living thing on earth with you, as many as came out of the ark.”

The cosmic sign of the covenant was given in verse 13: God says, “I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.” Here God is laying down a weapon of war – for it was believed that God used that bow to shoot arrows from heaven in the form of hail and lightning. The bow of the original rainbow warrior has become a Divine sticky note. The weapon of war has become an implement of preservation. God says ‘I will remember.’ And Noah says ‘I will remember.’

The story of Noah teaches us that when God wants to destroy the earth and all we who dwell therein, when God wants to wash away our sins and our capacity to sin forever, when God wants to wash her hands of us and there are tears in heaven falling to the earth, God sees the rainbow and remembers. Even when all we can see is clouds, God can see the rainbow, for her vision is far better than ours. God sees her former weapon and keeps her word. And we are saved from destruction again.

The Psalmist understood this when he cried out to his Creatrix: Remember me! In verse 6:

Be mindful of your mother-love, O Yah,

and of your faithful love,

for they have been from the time before time.

The Psalmist also understood that the feelings – rechamim, of God that flowed from the womb – rechem, of God was the tender love of a pregnant mother for a wanted, cherished child. The Psalm concludes with the Psalmist promising to wait for God to remember him, but not him alone. He begs God to ‘redeem Israel out of all of its troubles.’

            The evangelist who shaped today’s Gospel knew that Yeshua L’Natzeret ben Miryam, Jesus, Mary’s boy-child from Nazareth, was the one for whom the Psalmist prayed, the one who would redeem Israel out of all of its troubles. And so we journey to the wilderness where the Son of Woman, the Son of God, the redeemer of Israel and the savior of the whole world, sojourns as the companion of creation. After his surrender to the waters of Baptism, Yeshua, Jesus, the one who is salvation, went to the desert and found an oasis. There was the full diversity of creation, humanity and divinity in his person, natural and supernatural in his companion caretakers – animals and angels.

            Jesus’ desert sojourn prepared him for the proclamation of the Gospel. The Gospel is forged in the heart of the wilderness, a wilderness that is overflowing with life. All desert creatures know how to find water in the wilderness. And they know how to live together in harmony. When all creation is in harmony – humankind, animal-kind, angel-kind – the reign and realm of God is at hand. This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Repent, in this Lenten season and believe in this Good News.

            But are we at harmony with creation? God does not expect us to round up critters in a pilot for a new reality show, “Hoarders: The Noah’s Ark Edition.” Nor does God expect us to bring heaven and earth together in harmony like Jesus in the wilderness. But we do have a role to play in caring for creation. This earth is our home and God’s good gift to us. Yet it seems we prefer consumption to conservation. Many like the author of the Petrine epistle seem to have discounted God’s non-human creation. Some don’t think about animals as more than food, or occasionally pets. We have forgotten that our survival on this planet depends on their survival. It seems that we care even less for plants, for water – oceans, rivers, lakes and streams – and we even seem to care nothing for the air we breathe. We have forgotten that we are covenant partners with all creation. The whole world is ours, to tend, to save or perhaps, to destroy.

            It seems to me that it never occurred to Noah that he couldn’t save the world. God comes to him with this crazy plan that must have sounded like a pipe dream – I mean really, what was he smoking? – and the scripture simply says that “Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.” Some of us also want to save the world. But it may be that we’d rather God asked us to build a titanic ark, seal up us and our folk and some cuddly creatures from the local zoo and leave the unrighteous to their fate than really conserve the earth. But Noah didn’t save the world all at once. He did it bit by bit, as Anne Lamotte would say, bird by bird. With every creature Noah saved, he was saving the world. Every critter counted. As we harvest the treasures of earth – and we need them to survive, I invite you to consider whether our consumption is partnered with conservation.

            Consider for a moment a few of your favorite things – chocolate, coffee, cotton. Consider their county of origin, the indigenous flora and fauna displaced by their plantations; consider the pesticides poured into their native soil and waters. Compare the wages of the workers with the profits of the corporations, consider the packages in which these products come and their final disposition, the petroleum products required to manufacture them and their packaging, and to transport them. And then make wiser choices, life-saving, earth-saving choices.

Noah and God made a covenant that is still binding on us today. We are all partners in a cosmic covenant with all creation. And that means no one gets left behind. We are not to sail off into a future with God and leave the world to drown in corruption. God has saved, is saving and will save more than a handful of folk from one family. Or rather, we are all one human family. There is no sailing off to a world without the rest of human society. Some say that the church is the ark of God in this world, but unlike Noah’s ark, we are not to batten down the hatches and nail the doors shut to keep some in and others out. In this ark with open doors exists all the diversity of the world.

Look around us, search above us, below, behind.

We stand in a great web of being joined together.

Let us praise, let us love the life we are lent
passing through us

in the body of Israel
and our own bodies, let's say amen.

Time flows through us like water.

The past and the dead speak through us.

We breathe out our children's children, blessing.

Blessed is the earth from which we grow,

Blessed the life we are lent,

blessed the ones who teach us,

blessed the ones we teach,

blessed is the word that cannot say the glory

that shines through us and remains to shine

flowing past distant suns on the way to forever.

Let's say amen.

Blessed is light, blessed is darkness,

but blessed above all else is peace
which bears the fruits of knowledge
on strong branches, let's say amen.

Peace that bears joy into the world,

peace that enables love, peace over Israel

blessed and holy is peace, let's say amen.

For the gospel writers, for his disciples and for us, Jesus of Nazareth is the one who unites all creation in peace. Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world is the one who brings all of creation into right relationship with our Creator. The time is fulfilled, and the reign and realm of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news. In the Name of God, Creator, Christ and Comforter. Amen.

Ash Wednesday: We’ve Got Work to Do

2Corinthians 6:1 As we work together with Christ, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain.

Let us pray: In the Name of the Author, the Word and the Translator. Amen.

We’ve got work to do. As we work together with Christ. Fasting and bearing witness to our fast may be important markers of our faith and of our community, but today’s texts put little value on them. Perhaps you have already made your Lenten commitments, what practices you will take on, what pleasures you will give up. Let me suggest a new list from Isaiah. I do so knowing that there is at best an uneasy relationship with works in this community. Such much so that work – no “s” in the epistle – might be viewed with suspicion. Yet the Epistle urges, As we work together with Christ, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain.

For the next few minutes, let us privilege the voices speaking through the epistle and the latter portion of Isaiah, and hear them in concert as we work together with Christ, for whom the words of God through Isaiah were basarah, good news, gospel. On your fast day you find your own pleasure and oppress all your workers. It would easy to say that this does not apply to us; very few of us are entrepreneurs or job-creators. Perhaps this verse is for the one percent. But let’s do pause to ask ourselves the question: on this day are we oppressing others even as we outwardly afflict our souls? Now we don’t all have employees, but we are part of institutions that do. And how do we treat those on whose labor our world, our institutions and our lives depend? In this broken but rebounding economy, it’s easy to balance our budgets on the backs of the working poor, the used to be, want to be, middle class. We down-size and right-size and expect those who remain to do the work of those who have been voted off our islands, in our churches, schools, businesses, local, state and national governments.

And then there are the workers who make our very lives possible. The laborers who pick and produce our food and clothing and homes and gadgets work for all of us. And to the degree any are oppressed, we are all complicit. As Martin King wrote in Strength to Love, “When we arise in the morning, we go into the bathroom where we reach for a sponge provided for us by a Pacific Islander. We reach for soap that is created for us by a Frenchman. The towel is provided by a Turk. Then at the table we drink coffee which is provided for us by a South American, or tea by a Chinese, or cocoa by a West African. Before we leave for our jobs, we are beholden to more than half the world.” We have become, perhaps, even more beholden in the decades since his martyrdom. We are accountable to and for that half of the world and the other half as well.

And so before we immerse ourselves in our Lenten disciplines, seeking to experience the presence of God anew in the coming wilderness, may we heed God’s difficult words in Isaiah: Your fasting today will not make your voice heard on high. Should we persist in fasting, afflicting our souls in the language of my childhood church, God through Isaiah and those writing in Isaiah’s name, describe the fast that pleases God. And there is no mention of chocolate or alleluias:

Is not this the fast that I choose, to unlock the bonds of wickedness,

to release the yoke-ties that burden, to set the oppressed free, and to tear off the yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and the homeless poor, bring into your house?

When you see the naked, cover them, and from your own kin do not to hide yourself.

This is also the work of Christ, the work we are to do together with him. What would it mean to the world, to our Christian witness, if our Lenten practice were to lift burdens from the down-trodden, break the chains of oppression – and if those goals are to lofty and too abstract – feed the hungry and house the homeless, even and especially when they are our own kin? God and Isaiah know that sometimes it’s easier to deal with strangers than our own relatives and that poverty and despair touch us all.

And in what may be the most difficult language for contemporary exegetes, God makes our experience of the Divine Presence dependent on this true fast. If we do these things, im in Hebrew, if, then, az, then:

Then you shall call, and the Holy One of Old shall answer;

you shall cry for help, and God shall say, Here am I …

In this text God and Isaiah declare that there is a link between God’s response to us and our response to those ground down by the world. And there is one more set of conditions: if you remove the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil.

It is not enough for us to refrain from oppressing God’s children or even to work towards their liberation, especially when they are in our very midst, but we must also refrain from finger pointing and the kind of language that is the very antithesis of the good news. Do God and Isaiah know that it’s election season? And there follows a reiteration of what seems to matter most to God: offer to the hungry your own substance and satisfy the needs of the afflicted. People are starving, dying. Do something. Don’t just fast. Your hunger will not ameliorate their hunger.

Then and only then will God respond with an explosion of life in the wilderness of our lives:

The Holy One of Old will guide you always, and satisfy your soul in parched places,

and will fortify your bones; and you shall be like a watered garden,

like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.

Lastly, I’m struck by the context of the Isaiah passage, restoration after exile. The prophet is speaking to folk who don’t have much themselves and are longing for a return to a Golden Age long gone, you know, the way it used to (never) be. The horrors of the exile have ended but the Israelites – really what remains of Judah with representatives from Benjamin and a few scattered tribes thrown in – are not back in paradise. Everything is harder than they imagined it would be. They are poorer than they thought they would be. The Persians are intentionally keeping them too poor to mount a successful rebellion. And yet they have reinscribed old class stratifications on their renewed society. The rolls of returnees in Ezra and Nehemiah stipulate that there is at least one servant or slave for every six returnees, some of whom have become so indebted to their fellow Israelites that they have had to sell their children, and watch while their daughters were used by their neighbors. And while the temple has been restored, well if not fully restored, at least rebuilt, the good government jobs of the temple-industrial complex on Davidic and Solomonic scales are long gone.

To those who might feel that they have every right to say each man for himself, God through Isaiah’s legacy says, You are not too poor to do justice. Times are not so hard that you’re relieved of the obligation to do what is right. It doesn’t matter how bad the economy is; we have work to do.

But we will not do that work alone. We work with Christ. We work with Christ because Christ is already doing that work. Christ lived and died doing that work and lives again continuing that work. We who say that we have been transformed into his image by his work must join, imitate and replicate his work. We’ve got work to do. As we work together with Christ, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. Amen.

The text of this sermon is also available as a Lenten meditation on the Huffington Post.

Sabbath of Just-Laws and My Two Cents

Jean-Leon Gerome: Selling Slaves in Rome

Shabbat Mishpatim & Shabbat Shekalim 5772

On this Shabbat that we examine toroth, laws, that we hope are rooted in mishpat, justice I offer my mechatzi shekalim, my half-shekel, my two cents on this double-shabbat.

Imagine with me. We are our ancestors. We have been liberated from Egyptian slavery. There are Israelites and Nubians and Phoenicians and peoples from every nation conquered by the Egyptians, perhaps even a few Egyptians in the great Exodus. We are all looking for a new start. We have been on this journey long enough that we’re taking it for granted. We no longer wonder where we are when we wake up. The miraculous events of the past few weeks seem like a dream except the pillar of cloud is there and there is rumbling from heaven whenever Moshe goes in to the Mishkan. We have the water and food we need each day even though we are in a desert with no oasis in sight.

From time to time Moshe comes to us with Torah, words of teaching from God of Fire and Cloud who accompanies and guides us. God and Moshe are teaching us how to be a people, how to govern and conduct ourselves, how to treat others and how to revere God, so that when we get to freedom in our new home, we will know how to live, not as the Egyptians live, not as any of the other nations of earth live, but we will model a new way of living, we think, we hope. And yes, there are other nations with codes of law and we have some laws in common, but ours is special, different, singular, like our one God.

Those of us on this journey were born in slavery as were our parents and their parents before them, generation after generation. The freedom of this journey is the only freedom any of us have ever known. We can scarcely imagine what it would be like to have land, vines and fig trees, sheep and goats, our own homes with our families, to labor for ourselves and our community, to be free of the brutality and ravishment – but we don’t talk about that. We speak of our enslavement without ever mentioning how women and girls are treated by the slaveholders of every time and place, and sometimes boys and men as well. We tell the story of Yosef who got away from that evil woman, but we never mention those who did not escape their predators.

Today, Moshe’s words include something that we thought we’d never hear again. Some of us will be sold back into slavery. And there will be no escape, no Exodus. Lo tetze. She shall not go out. There shall be no Exodus, no liberation, no freedom for her.

Exodus 21:7 When a man sells his daughter as a slave, lo tetze, she shall not go out as the male slaves go out. 8 If she is unacceptable in the sight of her lord, who designated her for himself, then he shall let her be ransomed; he shall not sell her to a foreign people – he does not have the authority to do so because of his treachery against her. 9 If he designates her for his son, he shall treat her justly as a daughter. 10 If he takes another woman for himself, he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or intercourse of the first woman. 11 And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing – no money.

In Exodus 20-23 the treatment of Israelite and non-Israelite slaves is repeatedly addressed. The passage begins (Ex 20:10) and ends (Ex 23:12) with Shabbat rest for the Israelites, their livestock and any resident aliens within their midst; the call for Shabbat is universal. Yet there is an omission of the free women in the household.

Ex 21:7-11 speaks of unmarried women and girls who are sold into slavery by their own fathers, (or perhaps parents), setting this Torah in the middle of the Exodus journey, allowing for the literary possibility that some young women left Egypt as freedwomen but were sold off along the way or entered Canaan as slaves. Their own fathers nullified the freedom that God gave them through Moshe, for money. A critical reading of this text looks at this passage in light of its much later composition, and sees it speaking to a period of desperate poverty in Judea, perhaps after the restoration as in Neh 5:5 Now our flesh is the same as that of our kindred; our children are the same as their children; and yet we are forcing our sons and daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have been ravished; we are powerless, and our fields and vineyards now belong to others.”  

But this torah isn’t set in Nehemiah. It is plumb in the middle of Exodus. My first question is how are we to understand this torah in its literary context? Why would a father newly freed from slavery sell his daughter? It is striking that the text doesn’t require the family to be in debt, he can just sell her at a whim. Perhaps the best thing that I can say about this text is that it was revised in the canon, Deuteronomy 15:12-18 grants release to these enslaved women in the same circumstances as enslaved men and sens them both out with resources to help them establish themselves in the world.

Since yatza is the primary verb of the Exodus, I hear the “going out” as emancipation – but in this case, denial of emancipation, from slavery. In other words, women and girls who are sold into slavery shall not be released from bondage except as specified in this text. Yet there are some slight protections for her: The man her father sells her to cannot use her sexually and then sell her to non-Israelites. It seems he must be an Israelite himself. Her buyer cannot use her sexually if he designates her for his son’s sexual use and he cannot reduce her material provisions – food, clothing and the opportunity to conceive – if he acquires another woman. While these provisions leave much to be desired, they are clearly aimed at preventing sexual use and abandonment of vulnerable women having been sold by their fathers. I think that the very existence of this passage indicates that this is exactly what was going on, that girls were being sold, used sexually and then resold. The text refers to this as “treachery” “against” or “in” her, bevigdo-vah. The penalty – if one can call it that – for the slaveholder who does any of these things is that he forfeits all rights to the woman or girl. Verse 8 says that her enslaver shall let her be ransomed; it is not clear who will ransom her. It is hard to imagine her father buying her back.

Lastly, verse 11 says that the emancipated woman shall go out “for nothing, chinam,” “no money, ayin keseph,” that is, if someone does ransom her from slavery. She will not plunder her former enslaver as did the Israelite women plundered the Egyptians, and she will not be led to a land flowing with milk and honey. She will be on her own to make her own way in a world that may not value a formerly enslaved woman with a sexual history.

The fate of these women slaves, whether or not they are eligible for this conditional emancipation depends entirely on whether they “please” their lords or better, “if she is ra‘ah in his eyes.” So then if the woman sold by her father is not attractive to her new owner and he has sex with her anyway and then decides to get rid of her then the provisions of Ex 21:7-11 come into play. However, according to the logic of the text, if the slaveholder refrains from having sex with her, then he can sell her to a foreigner or give her to his son for his sexual and reproductive use. Then, lo tetze, she shall not go out to freedom.

My questions: How are we to understand this torah in its literary context? How does the tradition value individuals in relationship to the community? Then, reading beyond it’s context into our own, there is a belief that some people have the right to dominate and control the bodies of other people. This notion is fundamental to the scriptures but older than them even though it is sanctified by them – and by the scriptures of many if not all religions. The radical patriarchy assumed by the text is not a thing of the past. Men (and women) still sell their daughters. Some due to extreme poverty, others out of greed or addiction. Contemporary sex-trafficking and slavery keep this torah relevant. How do we fight the assumptions of this text as patriarchy continues to infect our public, religious and political discourses.

Lastly, I’d like to suggest that perhaps, Moshe’s promulgation of patriarchal toroth in the Divine Name, had something to do with his being barred from setting foot in the Promised Land. Perhaps. Shabbat shalom.

(The image: Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904): "Selling Slaves in Rome," Public Domain Photos)

A Radical, Threatening Love

 The Commemoration of Fr. Absalom Jones

(read today's lessons)

This morning I’d like to talk to you about Radical, Threatening Love.

By the rivers of Babylon, Israel sat down and there they wept when they remembered Zion. By the rivers Mississippi, Potomac and Chattahoochee, our ancestors sat down and there they wept when they remembered Mother Africa. On the willows, Israel hung up their harps, one translation says, “on the poplars.” From American poplar trees our ancestors were hung:

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

In Babylon, Israel’s captors asked them for words of songs and their tormentors for joy saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.” In America and the Caribbean, our ancestors’ captors asked them for songs and minstrelsy, saying, “Sing us one of those Negro Spirituals.” How could they sing the song of the God of Mt. Sinai, in Egypt, in Africa, on foreign ground? How could we sing on command, shuck and jive, shuffle and scratch where we were not itching? If they forget Jerusalem, may their right hands wither and their tongues cling to the roofs of their mouths. If we forget Mother Africa, may our right hands wither and our tongues cling to the roofs of our mouths. If they do not remember, from whence they came… If we do not remember, from whence we came… There’s no place like home.

And home is also where the heart is, here, in Jerusalem, in Africa, Europe and the Caribbean, throughout our diasporas. Persons of African descent do not seek to return to our ancestral homeland as a collective any more than do all the world’s Jews seek to immigrate to Israel. These rivers have become our rivers. This land has become our land. And because of the lives and deaths of our ancestors, the land that once held us captive has become home for many of us here today. Here, biblical stories have been re-enacted and reinterpreted and reincarnated, from Harriet Moses Tubman to Canadian Canaan and back again with radical, threatening love, the kind of love that transforms people, places and even politics.

The Israelites eventually made a home in Babylon in spite of the violence with which they were transported. They transformed Babylon and left their own stamp on its culture. From then on, the name of Babylon would be linked with the Jewish theological tradition in the form of the Babylonian Talmud. Africans in America also made a home here in spite of the violence with which our ancestors were first deposited on these shores, surviving and thriving, changing American culture even as we were changed by our ancestors’ violent encounter with it.

Here in this Episcopal Church our ancestors made a home, carving it out of the ignorance, racism and sometimes, hatred that infested and infected it. We must never forget that our Church as did many others – once told enslaved Africans that the promises of freedom in the Gospels and in the Baptismal Covenant did not apply to them in a literal, physical sense. They would get the only freedom they needed to worry about in the next world. Yet our ancestors like blessed Absalom Jones found a home or the makings of a home in this church in spite of the racism and white supremacy that stained it, and transformed it into our home, with radical, threatening love. Those who were threatened by their claims of God’s love for them burned this church down. More than once, I believe. But look at us now, bishops, priests, deacons, acolytes, vergers, lay-readers, vibrant multi-cultural congregations; we are the Church along with a myriad of sisters and brothers from all nations and races. Now it is our task to continue to make this church home for all of God’s children, preaching the gospel of Isaiah and Jesus:

… good news to the oppressed,
…bind up the brokenhearted,
…preach to the captives, liberty,
and to the prisoners, release, freedom…

We need that gospel today, for though we’ve come a long way, oppression endures. People and institutions use their privilege and power to trample the rights and dignity of other people. Nearly twenty-five hundred years after the time when it is thought that the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites because they were different, ethnically, culturally and religiously, cultural, ethnic, religious and racial hatred endures in our world, in our nation and, if the truth be told, in our Church. There is still systematic oppression of women and girls in our world. Bullying of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth and adults, and in far too many cases, assaults and murders or coerced suicides. The poor, the working poor and the desperate poor are ground down by the wealthy and sometimes by the middle class, even though most of the middle class is just a paycheck or serious illness away from becoming desperately poor themselves. The oppressed are yet with us and if we tell the truth, sometimes we are complicit in their oppression. We participate in and benefit from a system where workers in China and Indonesia make our electronic gadgets and tennis shoes at slave wages. Our economy depends migrant labor toiling for pennies an hour with no benefits so we can have fresh fruit and vegetables and coffee and tea. Even slavery persists, in factories, and in private homes. And then there are the untold numbers of women, girls and boys sold into sexual slavery each year. Radical threatening love requires unpopular truth-telling. That is also the Gospel.

The world needs this Gospel, this good news. We need to be reminded of the good news, that the Spirit of God has already anointed us, already sent us to proclaim this gospel with our words and with our lives. And it is good news. The good news is God’s love made flesh in Jesus the Messiah. God’s response to the brokenness of this world is divine love, not a warm, fuzzy feeling, but living, breathing, redeeming, transforming love active in the world, a radical, threatening love. As Fr. Absalom reminds us in his sermon, God came down into human history to deliver Israel from her oppressors. That’s good news.

This good news was also clothed in the Virgin’s womb. Jesus is the good news, his very existence, his life, his love, his witness, his example, his teaching is good news to those broken down by the mighty of this world. Even his suffering and death were transformed into good news by his glorious resurrection. The good news is also that God continues to redeem and to save, intervening in our lives and in our world, bringing real, literal freedom to those in bondage. God came down into our very nation, across the Atlantic, even to Great Britain, Spain and Portugal to wipe out the Atlantic slave trade. But this time, God didn’t come down into a virgin’s womb. God didn’t raise up a Moses, woman or man. God worked through women and men in houses of worship and government. The abolition of slavery, renunciation of Jim Crow and securing of civil rights for all Americans were the fruit of the Spirit of God moving through the hearts of women and men without number. Sometimes I think we forget that.

Sometimes, I think we get so fixated on individual heroes that we forget that we all have a role to play in proclaiming the good news, binding up the broken hearted and preaching liberty, freedom and release to captives and prisoners. And for all the freedom we have, we are still captive to so much in our world, in our lives and sometimes in our minds.  Yet whatever the forces marshaled by the tyrants of this world, they will not stand because it is the Spirit of the Living Loving God who anoints, enables, empowers us.

The Spirit of God. The Spirit who fluttered over the waters of chaos giving birth to creation. The spirit embodied in fire and cloud leading her people from slavery to freedom. The Spirit who thunders like mighty waters, crashes like breaking rocks and speaks in a small, still voice – the sound of sheer silence. The Spirit who accompanied her people into Babylonian exile and shepherded them back to their homeland, keeping her promise. The Spirit who spoke new and unimaginable life in the womb of the Virgin of Nazareth. The same Spirit who taught and guided and accompanied Jesus of Nazareth, empowering him and raising him from the dead – that same Spirit calls us, sends us, anoints us, prepares us, enables us, empowers us.

And that is why we can proclaim good news to the oppressed. How could we not? Bind up the broken pieces of the broken hearts around us and even our own broken hearts. It’s possible because of the power of the Spirit. Preach liberty, release and freedom and know that it is coming because the Spirit has never failed to deliver. Proclaim that this is the year of God’s favor. As was last year and the year before that, and the ancient year in which this text was first composed. And we who have just buried our dear Billy Valentine, and those mourning Whitney Houston, the Spirit comforts us and accompanies us as we comfort each other. And while we are waiting the long years it may take for God to break open our prisons and change the heart of nations, God is always with us, hearing our prayers, accompanying us on our journey, sharing in our suffering. This too is good news. We are never alone. And that’s a good thing, because the path of love is not always an easy path.

And yet what neither Jesus nor Absalom Jones did was check the prevailing cultural and political winds before opposing the religious authorities in the name of love in their day. They did not choose the easy path, the popular path. They chose the path of love, radical, threatening love. Threatening the establishments of their day, threatening their spiritual power and economic interests. With love. The love our Gospel calls for, life-surrendering, life-saving love. The love Fr. Absalom had for his wife when he bought her freedom from slavery, when he could have used that money for himself – he had no way of knowing if he would ever get his hands on that much money again. But he chose to lay his life down in the bonds of slavery so that she and their children would be free. That’s love.

This is the good news that Father Absalom Jones preached. This is the Gospel. This Gospel is that God’s love for the woman-born was manifested in God, Godself, becoming woman-born, for the redemption and liberation of all the woman-born from every oppression and from death itself. Jesus the Messiah, the Son of Woman and the Son of God, came to seek out and save the lost and to give his life as a ransom for many.

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

The Lessons for the Day:

Isaiah 61:1 The spirit of the Sovereign God is upon me,
because the Holy God has anointed me;
God has sent me to proclaim good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to preach to the captives, liberty,
and to the prisoners, release, freedom;
2 to proclaim the year of the Gracious God’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion,
to give them a wreath instead of refuse,
the oil of jubilation instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a fainting spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Faithful God, to wreathe God in glory.
4 They shall build up the ancient ruins,
the former desolations, they shall raise;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the desolations of many generations.

Psalm 137 

1 By the rivers of Babylon,
there we sat and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows there we hung up our harps.
3 For there they who took us captive
asked us for words of songs,
and our tormentors for joy, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion.” 
4 How could we sing the song of the God of Sinai
on foreign ground?
5 If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand wither.
6 May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.

Thanksgiving Sermon, 1 January 1808  An Epistle from Fr. Absalom Jones,

The history of the world shows us, that the deliverance of the children of Israel from their bondage, is not the only instance, in which it has pleased God to appear in behalf of oppressed and distressed nations, as the deliverer of the innocent, and of those who call upon his name. He is as unchangeable in his nature and character, as he is in his wisdom and power. The great and blessed event, which we have this day met to celebrate, is a striking proof, that the God of heaven and earth is the same, yesterday, and to-day, and for ever…He has heard the prayers that have ascended from the hearts of his people; and he has, as in the case of his ancient and chosen people the Jews, come down to deliver our suffering countrymen from the hands of their oppressors. He came down into the United States, when they declared, in the constitution which they framed in 1788, that the trade in our African fellow-men, should cease in the year 1808: He came down into the British Parliament, when they passed a law to put an end to the same iniquitous trade in May, 1807…

Let not our expressions of gratitude to God for his late goodness and mercy to our countrymen, be confined to this day, nor to this house: let us carry grateful hearts with us to our places of abode, and to our daily occupations; and let praise and thanksgivings ascend daily to the throne of grace, in our families, and in our closets, for what God has done for our African brethren. Let us not forget to praise him for his mercies to such of our colour as are inhabitants of this country; particularly, for disposing the hearts of the rulers of many of the states to pass laws for the abolition of slavery; for the number and zeal of the friends he has raised up to plead our cause; and for the privileges, we enjoy, of worshiping God, agreeably to our consciences, in churches of our own. This comely building, erected chiefly by the generosity of our friends, is a monument of God's goodness to us, and calls for our gratitude with all the other blessings that have been mentioned.

The Gospel

John 15:12 “This is my commandment, that you keep on loving one another just as I have loved you. 13 A greater love than this has no one, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 No longer do I call you servants any, because the servant does not know what the lord is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 

(return to the sermon)

Christian Zionist Messianism Run Amok: Eddie Long’s Torah Coronation

Eddie Long from the YouTube VideoI am writing this response to a YouTube video circulating widely on the Internet in in which Eddie Long, the troubled pastor of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta GA, is apparently crowned king with the ritual use of a Jewish Torah scroll. The reader may know Long for the recent scandal in which he was accused by five young men of sexual misconduct. After initially denying the allegations, he went into settlement talks with them. A number of specious claims are made during the ritual which I would like to refute. (right: image of Eddie Long from the YouTube video)

The unidentified man represents himself as a Jew (in the YouTube video to which I had access he is identified subsequently as Ralph Messer). He may well be some sort of Messianic Jew, a person who claims Jewish heritage and recognizes Jesus as the Son of God, but who is not part of one of the major Jewish movements: Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, Renewal. He does not, however, represent recognizable Jewish thought or practice in his (mis-)representations of the Torah and other Jewish sancta – or for that matter, New Testament and Christian biblical interpretation and theology. 

  1. The claim that Holocaust Torahs cannot be insured “because there are no more” is patently false. They are regularly insured as are other one of a kind objectsd’art, i.e. the works of Picasso.
  2. The Torah cover is not a “foreskin.” Hyper-masculine, hyper-sexualization of the Torah reduces the holy Torah to a problematic phallic symbol – God’s? or Long’s? – and categorizes the most destructive behaviors associated with New Birth ministries in recent years. Grammatically and symbolically, the Torah is feminine in Hebrew and is personified as “She,” as in “She is a Tree of Life,” in Prov. 3:18.
  3. The Temple in Jerusalem was not a synagogue or Beth Midrash, where Torah scrolls were kept and studied.
  4. The Torah wrapper is not referred to as a “belt of righteousness.”
  5. The tree in the vision in the book of Revelation whose “leaves are for the healing of the nations,” (22:2), is a fruit tree – not a Torah scroll – and the text does not say that there are “39 leaves” as claimed in the video.
  6. The claim that “only one of great authority” is given a “finger” to touch the scroll is patently false. Any bar or bat mitvah, girl or boy, woman or man, who has completed the rite of passage, can chant the Torah according to the (minhag) custom in their congregation. Torah scroll pointers, called “hands,” (yadayim), not “fingers” are common gifts and possessions in Jewish families and communities.
  7. The claim that 90% of the Jews in the world have “never seen, approached or touched” Torah scrolls is utterly without foundation. The Torah is taken out of the Ark during Shabbat and other services; it is processed through the assembly twice where people reverence it (Her!) by touching and kissing it/Her.
  8. The frequent references to significant numbers may be an attempt to mimic the Jewish mystical tradition of Gematria that elicits meanings from numbers and their contexts.  The speaker is devising his own system without reference to any of the classical texts in Judaism, frequently by simple free- and word-association.
  9. There is no verse in the scriptures where Jesus calls himself “the eternal government of God” as claimed by the speaker.
  10. The point that “these” – presumably Torah scrolls or just Holocaust Torah scrolls are only given to “cities in need of anointing” is false. Individuals, families and religious communities own and commission Torah scrolls and keep or give them as they see fit, to synagogues, Jewish seminaries and other schools and museums.
  11. Even if the speaker identifies as a Jew and has Israeli citizenship, he does not speak for “the Jewish people,” “the land of Israel” or “the state of Israel.”
  12. His address of Eddie Long as a biblical or Israelite king is without foundation in the scriptures or in reality.
  13. The notion that there is such a thing as a “king chromosome” is a fiction, as is the claim that it is kohenic, that is priestly; the Israelite and Judean monarchs – there were queens as well – were not priests.
  14. The man’s articulation of what “God wants,” is to say the least unsubstantiated outside that particular setting.
  15. The man never says how he knows that none of Long’s ancestors or relatives has ever seen a Torah scroll.
  16. While there are some traditional reflections on the human body – including DNA and chromosomes – in the mystical Kabbalistic tradition, the speaker is crafting a verbal montage without reference to the classical texts or their theologies.
  17. He attributes a quote to “Jewish doctors” stereotyping an entire community as conflating cellular biology with his Hebrew mysticism without actually naming or quoting any single “Jewish doctor” who holds such an opinion.
  18. The “crowns” in Torah scrolls stem from a particular – now-normative – calligraphy style, but other types of calligraphy have been used through the ages to produce legitimate Torah scrolls.
  19. The claim that the kings of Israel were crowned with Torah scrolls wrapping them has no foundation in the biblical text. According to the bible’s own chronology the written Torah did not come into existence until the reign of King Josiah in the sixth century BCE (2 Kgs 22), some four hundred years after the time of David. However, the great second century rabbi Hanina ben Teradion, was however wrapped in a Torah scroll and burned alive in his martyrdom. Perhaps he has confused or conflated the traditions.
  20. While the Torah poles are called, etzim, “trees,” they are not known as “justice and blessing.”
  21. The speaker’s claim that his speaking “life” to Eddie Long as a Jew has some meaning, is utterly without meaning.
  22. The speaker’s prediction that the ritual – his antecedent is unclear – will arouse either “death” or “life” in someone – Long? Or the congregation? – is his own Gnosticism, knowledge that is not shared by those outside that particular setting.
  23. There is no precedent for presenting anyone, even a fictitious Israelite-ish monarch with the Torah wrapper.
  24. The donning of the tallit, prayer shawl, is done by those who have completed their bar or bat mitzvah – whatever it was that just occurred, it had none of the requisite elements of a bat or bar mitzvah. In addition the tallit is donned by pulling it over one’s head and reciting the traditional prayer, which was not done. It is also not draped like a clergy stole.
  25. The elevation of Long lifted in the chair by four men seems to have been borrowed from Jewish wedding festivities and has noting to do with coronation; there is no evidence of this practice among Israelite or Judean monarchs.
  26. The Aaronic blessing (Num 6:24-26) is a blessing for the people and not a putative leader.

It is unfortunate that the speaker chose to plunder the sacred traditions of Judaism as he invented novel interpretations of biblical texts and imagery to affirm and elevate an individual who had admittedly broken the sacred trust between pastor and congregant.

A version of this post ran first on A quote appears in Anthea Butler's commentary on