Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Archive for 2014

‘Hood Theology

You shall be called the repairer of brokenness, the restorer of neighborhood streets.

Let us pray: Holy One of Old, open our eyes that we may see. Amen. (sermon audio here)

Free at last! Free last! Thank God almighty we’re free at last! Our people are free. We have the right to vote. One of us is President of the United States. But, freedom doesn’t seem like what our ancestors struggled and died for, marched and died for, voted and died for. Slavery was replaced by sharecropping, Jim Crow and Jane Crow, lynching, denial of voting rights, segregation, work place discrimination, police brutality, economic disenfranchisement and discrimination in every facet of life, often reinforced with lethal violence. And now our right to vote is under attack again, schools in our neighborhoods are falling apart, understaffed, under-resourced and overcrowded, and folk are shooting our children like dogs in the street and getting away with it. Adding insult to injury, all of those killing us and our children are not other folk. There is brutality in our own house, in our own neighborhoods, in own our schools. Blood is on our hands. How is this freedom? Our neighborhoods are broken. We need some ‘hood theology.

The people of Judah in our first lesson were also asking: How is this freedom? Isaiah’s people had returned to their holy land; the Babylonians who exiled them were crushed by Persians and they were free at last, free at last, thank God almighty they were free at last. But freedom didn’t look like what they expected. Times were hard. They were not prepared for the wreckage they found when they returned home. The temple, the palaces, the government buildings and their homes were all scorched piles of rubble. Their fields were torn up, overrun, unproductive. There was no milk and honey. They were poor and hungry. Some were poorer and hungrier than others. Some turned on their own. They bought and sold each other and, to get their money’s worth, some took what they wanted from the girls sold to pay their family’s debts before their fathers’ could buy them back. Blood was on their hands. How was that freedom? Their neighborhoods were broken. They needed some ‘hood theology.

To them and to us, God speaks through Isaiah’s seminary students writing in his name and says:

You shall be called the repairer of brokenness, the restorer of neighborhood streets.

But first, God and Isaiah’s disciples say: Tell my people they’re rebellious sinners. That’s kind of harsh. The folk are already beat down. It certainly doesn’t make me feel any better. It sounds like God is blaming me and you for everything that’s wrong in the world. Sin language is hard. It is so easily corrupted into blame. Some folk have made a career out of blaming folk for the terrible things that befall them. Others unravel every social contract and support system and when desperate, frustrated, undereducated, underemployed people make terrible choices they are there to point fingers.

But that’s not what God is doing. God is not saying it’s your fault you’re poor, it’s your fault you’re hurting, it’s your fault you’re struggling. God is not saying it’s your fault violence came to your home. God is not saying it’s your fault federal and local government are dysfunctional. God is saying sin poisons the world, corrupts the nation and destroys people and, we are part of that sinful world. God is not talking about personal, individual sin here. God is talking about national sin.

Me they seek, day after day and delight to know my ways, just like a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the judgments of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments.

As Episcopalians, we know something about communal sin. We confess our sin together, saying the same words. We don’t say, I don’t have to say this part right here – I haven’t done any of that, but brother, you need to say that line right there twice. We understand that by virtue of being human we are prone to sin and when two or three of us are together in any community or institution that society reflects and magnifies our human, frailty and failings. We are broken and broken down and some of us are just plain broke.

The text seems to be written specifically for folk like us, good religious folk who honestly wonder why the world is as bad as it is. It is an especially timely word before Lent:

Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why do we humble our souls and you do not know?

We and the Judeans have the same issues. All too often religion is something we do – especially when folk are looking – when it should be who we are, whether there’s anyone around to see or not. Who are you when nobody’s looking? What’s your religion look like then? What’s your prayer life look like then?

Here is what God observed:

Look! On your fast day, you find your own delight, and oppress all your workers.

Here’s where the comparison breaks down, right? We don’t do that. We’re not all bosses, ballers, business owners, job creators, shot callers. Isaiah and ‘em need to go on over to the First Church of the Tea Party Patriots. I know that’s right. But the words of Isaiah 58:2 keep coming back to haunt me: You act like a nation that practiced righteousness. The state of your ‘hood is directly related to the state of your nation. That’s ‘hood theology 101. Whether you live in a gated community or a garbage dump, we’re all in this together.

What’s going on in your ‘hood? Is there crime in the streets? Are brothas and sistas slinging on the corners because they’re desperate and don’t have any other opportunities or because they just don’t care about anybody or anything but the Benjamins? Maybe that’s a little too downtown for your ‘hood. Is your ‘hood is a historic neighborhood with manicured lawns and gardens but you wouldn’t go for a walk there after dark? Maybe your ‘hood is picture perfect, but behind the immaculately painted shutters is lovelessness and loneliness, violence and addiction, depression and family secrets.

And don’t get me started about the neighbors. Do we even know our neighbors? How are you going to love your neighbors if you don’t even speak to them? If we do know our neighbors, do we do more than nod and speak? Maybe we can’t end gang violence in Chicago or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but we can forge links in a chain of communities to anchor our neighborhoods during storms. Many have done just that in this here winter of our discontent, but too many will return to indifference once the crisis passes. This entire nation is also our ‘hood, and its brokenness is our brokenness. As we go to church week after week, observe Lent year after year, sometimes praying for our ‘hood, sometimes not, the text calls us to account by asking what are we doing to heal and transform our ‘hood ourselves. The power is in our hands. We are the salt and light of the gospel. We are agents of change and transformation. What are we doing with our power? Are we sitting on it like so many sit on the power of their vote?

That we are responsible for the state of our nation – not to blame, there’s a difference – ought not be a surprise. After all we live in a participatory democracy where the right to vote is a right, and a responsibility, as is serving for jury duty. But the text is talking about more than that. The national sin that God and Isaiah are talking about is not simply a matter of public and foreign policy. Then we could wash our hands and say we’re not responsible. Judah could say the king used to make all those decisions; now we have a Persian governor. None of this is our fault. We could say I can’t stop drone attacks under Obama any more than I could keep Bush from invading the wrong country or one with no WMDs. See, it’s not our fault either. But the text doesn’t let us off the hook.

Isaiah describes a situation where instead of being focused on God – in the text it is a fast day – the people were focused on themselves and as a result were unjust in their dealings with others but never missed fast or feast day. It was as though they thought they could do whatever they wanted to anybody all week long then come and say a few prayers, erase the slate and go back to doing the same old things with no intention to change, no attempt to try to do better. God says I’m not interested in those prayers; I’m not interested in that kind of Lent:

Your fasting, just as on today will not make your voice heard on high.

It’s not enough to fast and hope the world changes. It’s not enough to fast and pray somebody else does something about your ‘hood. It’s not enough to go to church, pledge and tithe, serve on committees and neglect the world around us, lest we forget that there is no one who is not our neighbor. God says:

 Is not this the fast that I choose: to open the shackles of injustice, to release the straps of the imprisoning-yoke, to set the downtrodden free, and to tear off every yoke?

Where is the injustice in your ‘hood? That’s where we should be. In addition to celebrating our Civil Rights sheroes and heroes, we should be making our own black history. We are called to tear off every yoke, every shackle that imprisons. In our lives, the old Jim Crow has been replaced by the new Jim Crow, with prison shackles replacing slave shackles. We’ve got work to do opposing the criminalization of black boys from the third grade, targeted to fill up prisons being built instead of schools. Let’s clean up our ‘hood.

Is not this the fast that I choose… Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the vulnerable poor home; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide from your own flesh-and-blood?

God, can’t I just write a check to fix my ‘hood? No baby, you’ve got to get some skin in the game. Every homeless person is related to somebody. And yes, there are often difficult, complicated situations. It’s one thing to try and help someone and have it fall apart and another to never even bother make the effort. We’ve got to share what we have because it’s not even ours. Everything we have, we have been given by God for maintenance and restoration of God’s ‘hood on earth. The earth is the Lord’s. The world is God’s ‘hood, and she’s sweeping the streets, cleaning the curb and taking out the garbage whether we help or not. But if we work with God, partner with God, then we will experience God in a whole new way. We won’t have to go looking for God because we will be where God is, doing the work of God with God. We are the ones we are waiting for. We can heal our nation and our world. One broken neighbor, one neglected street, one decimated ‘hood at a time.

You shall be called the repairer of brokenness, the restorer of neighborhood streets.

Let’s get to work church.

The Torah-Observant Virgin Mary

A sermon on the Purification of the Virgin Mary from Luke 2:22-39

Hymn of Preparation: “Home,” from the Wiz.

There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. For good and for ill, there’s no place like home. Sometimes we just want to go home. Sometimes we just want to run away from home. Some just want a home to turn to, loving arms to embrace and comfort us.

How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

For many the emblem of home is the kitchen, often mama’s kitchen table. The table is a sacred place. It is the altar of the home. Home. Table. Altar. Presence. Themes of the Presentation – add in the light of Epiphany, candles on the altar and table for Candlemass and we’ve got the full suite. We could almost pronounce the benediction. Almost.
These festivals may not be your festivals, and that’s all right because obscure liturgy is the order of the day in the gospel. Luke is counting on that obscurity and the good will of his hearers and readers to accept his liturgical reimaginings. The Feast of the Presentation is a combination liturgical midrash and time travel. The baby Jesus was a newborn at Christmas, a toddler at Epiphany, an adult at his baptism and is now a babe in arms again. He was eight days old in the previous verse just before our lesson at his bris, his circumcision. He is forty days and forty nights old in the first verse of today’s gospel when he comes to the temple remembered here today. (Does being brought to the temple at his mother’s breast at the appointed time for the appointed service count as “suddenly the Lord will come to his temple” from Malachi?) Until Malachi, only Isaiah called God “the Lord” using that particular word, ha’adon, and only five times; each of those times God came as the Holy God of Warriors, or Lord of Hosts. I don’t think Sweet Baby Jesus was that cranky.
But that’s the story isn’t it? That this baby was that God. That is certainly Luke’s point. And if he has to rewrite Torah to make his point, so be it. Luke has that it was “their” purification, but the Torah only calls for the purification of the mother after childbirth. That is the Torah-obligation; there is no liturgy prescribed for a “presentation.” Luke subtly acknowledges the change, they were there for “their purification,” and brought the baby along, secondary clause.
This is the purification of Miryam, Mary, forty days after giving birth to a male child – a different interval would be called for in case of a daughter. Some scholars reckon the difference as an indication of the different amounts of labor each contributes to the society. She is taboo for seven days, hence her availability for the circumcision on the eighth day and restricted to a lesser degree for thirty-three days. She owes a restoration offering – the translation of hattat as “sin” here misses the mark; she has not sinned and not just because she was a virgin mother. She will also contribute to the ongoing, established twice-daily regular burnt offerings. The restoration offering is a small bird but the burnt offering was a lamb, because God really likes a good barbeque, is something of a red meat eater or smeller and is attracted to and soothed by the smell of roasting flesh according to the Torah. If a woman was too poor to afford a lamb for the burnt offering she could double up on the poultry offering as did the Blessed Virgin. (Is that why you have to have chicken for a church supper?)

It is her offering, her practice of her Judaism, her fidelity to Torah that we celebrate today. Today the Virgin is contributing the sacred meal, setting a most holy kosher table. She sets the table for the holy meal and feeds her family – not Joseph or the Holy Infant here, but Elizabeth and Zachariah are priest clan, their rations come from the holy table. Mary has fed them today. When Joseph disappears from the pages of the Gospel it will be Mary who keeps a kosher Jewish home, celebrates the High Holy Days from Rosh HaShannah to Yom Kippur and the pilgrim festivals Passover and Pentecost all at the altar of her table. Where do you think Jesus learned the importance of table fellowship or even how to set a table? Today’s offerings mark her return to her community, she can go home and be welcomed in the homes of others and at their tables and show off her new baby.
The Virgin’s offerings mark her transformation and restoration. It is her day. In the Church, the language Presentation rather than Purification came about in part as a desire to move away from the old concept of blood taboo that has been particularly stigmatizing to women. And that’s not a bad thing. But in naming the feast the Presentation of Jesus, the Church has moved the focus of the feast from the Virgin Mother to her Son, making it one more literal, wooden, proof-text. The Church couldn’t help itself. It read “suddenly he will come to his temple” from Malachi through the lens of the John the Baptist and perhaps also through the eyes of today’s gospel in which Luke adds in the separate tradition about the redemption of the firstborn. And rewrites Torah, again.
Exodus 13:2 calls for the consecration of “everything” and therefore everyone that “opens the womb,” Hebrew scholars, that’s kol, “all,” “each,” “every.” All the firstborn are holy to God, not just “males” as Luke has rewritten the Torah: Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord. The Torah doesn’t say “male.” Not even the LXX has “male” there, nor even the Targum. All of us who are firstborn are holy to God, including me and the Blessed Virgin. Sorry little brother. Luke has mixed and mangled in the tradition about the redemption or ransom of firstborn children from later in Exodus. That’s tricky because God calls for the sacrifice of the firstborn animals and ransom of firstborn human males but girls are not ransomed, but fortunately not sacrificed either. Now there is a Jewish ritual of redeeming the firstborn son, pidyon haben, but it was not practiced in the time of Jesus.
Being included or excluded from religious rituals and language because of your gender, race, orientation, theological convictions or other attributes is part of what makes a sacred community feel like home or utterly alien. Many look at the purification of women after childbirth and find it to be completely alienating. But perhaps it was a welcome and welcoming experience for the Blessed Virgin. She was returning home.
The temple and its liturgies offered a home space for the itinerant family. Home in Galilee was behind them and ahead of them for now; the Egyptian sojourn a couple-few years away. But the temple was familiar, beloved, home to their God and the visible manifestation of their faith. Home. Table. Altar. Presence. After immersion, separately in one of the mikveh pools on the Temple Mount, they come through the Huldah gates across from the tomb of the prophet Huldah, the only woman buried in the temple complex. Surely the prophet Anna prayed at her grave. The gates are twelve great-stones high – I was only two and a half stones high when I stood at the gate. There are another six stones above the twelve-stone gate in the outer wall. And it is only a third as high as the 60 foot (40 cubit) Holy of Holies. The Virgin would be half the size of my fingernail here.
Passing through the prophet’s gates they would cross the Court of the Gentiles where they could buy their offering and entered through one of many gates, perhaps the Gate of Offering (mid, back, right), into the Court of the Women – which wasn’t just for women. Here they would have met Anna and Simeon. Somewhere on the stairs leading up to Nicanor’s Gate – rich folk have been naming stuff in God’s house after themselves for a long time – on the stairs Virgin would lay her hand on her offering and hand it to the priest who would take it through the gate into the court of the Israelites where the outdoor altar was. Joseph could have gone with him and taken the baby. The wall between the two was open as were the gates. Mary could have watched the sacrifice and offering. On the other side, in the court of the Israelite Men there were cages and kennels and the altar so broad and wide a dozen men could walk around tending three or four different fires, each big enough to burn a whole ox. They had a ramp to drag the dead weight of the big ones up, having slit their throats, hung them on hooks and drained the blood before placing them on the altar.

All of this because of the One present, dwelling within the soaring height of the Holy of Holies. Home. Table. Altar. Presence. The temple was God’s home on earth. The altar of burnt sacrifice was God’s table. The Holy of Holies was God’s private space where God was present within. It is the presence of God that makes a building a temple just as it’s the presence of love and family that makes a house a home.

A chair is still a chair
Even when there’s no one sittin’ there
But a chair is not a house
And a house is not a home.

When we gather at this table, will you see yourself as coming home? Visiting? A welcome guest? A tolerable and tolerated guest? Or do you feel unwelcome? This is Black History Month when home takes on a different resonance for me than it may for you. I am reminded that I have not always been welcome at this table, that I have not always been seen as fit to preside at this table. But I have been extended a radical welcome, anchored in the womb of the Virgin Mother, the kitchen space where Baker-Woman God crafted the Bread of Life in her very body and blood.
Let me extend to you that radical welcome. It is the welcome of today’s gospel. The point of all Luke’s rewriting is this: The Holy God of the awesome, towering, holy temple has come into our midst as Mary’s child. And we who are gentiles, who would be stoned if we crossed the low row or tombstone-shaped stones at the inner boundary of the Court of the Gentiles, we are welcome. We are welcome as women and men together, like Anna and Simeon. We are welcome whether we are called by God like the prophet Hannah, Anna or are lay folk like Simeon. We are welcome whether our offerings are the stuff of our poverty like the Virgin, or the sign of privilege like Nicanor. We are welcome. You are welcome. Welcome home.