Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

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Was It All A Dream? A Resurrection Story

A narrative sermon in first person, delivered without notes, Easter 2019.

Sri Lankan Christ
Sri Lankan image of Christ given to me years ago.
Used in honor of the victims and survivors of the bombing on Easter, 2019.

I’ve been sleepwalking through the last three days. It’s been a living nightmare. You don’t know if you weren’t here. I told myself not to go, but I went anyway. I told myself not to look, but I looked anyway. Almost every day the Romans hang someone from one of their crosses or invent some new form of public humiliation. But this was different. He was such a gentle soul. You should see the way children climbed all over him. He could get loud and he could be sharp. His words could cut you to the bone and leave you in tears, but it was always the truth, whether you wanted to hear it or not. And if you would listen, he would always tell you what would make you whole. I didn’t want it to be true, but I saw it with my own eyes.

I’ve spent the last three days trying to come to terms with it, and now I hear people saying he’s back. At first, I was angry. What a horrible cruel thing to say. People are grieving. People poured their hearts and hopes into that man. There was something about him; it wasn’t just the children who were enamored with him. He made miracles, like the prophets of old. I saw for myself. They say he was God’s son. I don’t know. But I know God gave him those gifts and never struck him down, not even he said that he was the one who was to come.

And then, the Romans got him. The things they did to him. I can’t talk about it. But it wasn’t just soldiers running wild or every day brutality. It was deliberate, to humiliate him and discredit his name and even his memory.

Finally, after a couple of days, I’ve been able to eat a little and sleep a little. And I hear these stories. And I hear these words: Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.

You heard it too? I don’t want to hear it. You weren’t there. You didn’t see. You didn’t hear. You didn’t smell. You don’t know what death smells like, that kind of bloody, wretched death.

Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.

At first it was only a couple of folk. But now it’s spreading like wildfire. You know how rumors fly. But this is different. If it were just Mary Magdalene, I’d put it down to her terrible grief. But it’s not just her. And Peter, well he’s so eaten up by guilt. I understand but I wouldn’t take his word. But there was Joanna–you know her husband Chuza? Big time! He works for the big man Herod himself. Personal assistant. Anyway, Joanna, and Mary–you know the one I’m talking about? No, the other one. Not that James, though his mother’s a Mary too. Every other woman and girl in Judea is named for the prophet Miriam. Anyway, little James’s mother Mary, Suzanna, one of the other Marys–it was a whole bunch of them–they all said they same thing. They said they saw him. I don’t know. I don’t really believe in group hallucinations.

And Mary said she touched him. No, not that one. Magdalene. Keep up. I forgot about John. He was with Peter, actually, he got there first. And there are others. All saying: Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.

What if it’s true?

What does it mean in this world that looks the same, where there are still crosses on that hill?

There is a hope that the empire cannot take away from us, even with the threat of death, even with the certainty of death.

Lament for Jerusalem and Genocidal Violence


Luke 13:31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Go! And get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32 He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘See here, I am casting out demons and restoring health today and tomorrow, and on the third I finish. 33 Yet today, tomorrow, and the next, I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to perish outside of Jerusalem.’ 34 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you all were not willing! 35 Look now, your house is released to you. And I tell you all, you will not see me until the time comes when you all say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

Let us pray:
In the name of the in whose image we all we created. Amen.

The sermon can be heard here.
The entire gospel of Luke can be described as facing Jerusalem. Where Luke deviates from Mark and Matthew, it is often in the sequence and geography of Jesus’s life building towards a single momentous trip to Jerusalem in contrast to multiple trips in the other gospels. Jerusalem for Luke is the place where God redeems the world in the resurrected death-canceling life of Jesus. But Jerusalem is so much more. Lent, like Luke, is taking us to the cross and the tomb, not just anywhere, but in Jerusalem.
The sacred geography matters. Jerusalem matters. The Rector of the historic African American St. James parish in Baltimore explained the saga, story, and significance of Jerusalem this way:
“Jerusalem was once a place where there was room for everybody. And yet as the years have gone by, human beings have refused to listen to the lesson of love. [He’s been preaching about love for a long time.] There have been more wars, more fighting, more chaos over the holy city than anywhere else on the rest of the earth…In 2500 BC, Jerusalem was a Canaanite enclave, inhabited by the Canaanite peoples…In 1000 BC King David came and he conquered the city and made it part of the nation of Israel…In 587 King Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem and destroyed it and made it part of the Babylonian Empire…In 537 BC King Cyrus of Persia came, conquered the Babylonians and took over Jerusalem…In 392 the Selucids took it over. In 198 the Ptolomes took it over. In 63, Pompey from Rome came and conquered it. In 70 AD the Romans destroyed it. In 135 AD the Romans destroyed it again. In the 4th century, Constantine made it a Christian city. In the 7th century, the Muslims took it over. In 1099 Christians took it from the Muslims. In 1187 Muslims took it back. In 1517 the Ottoman Turks took it from the other Muslims. In 1870 the British took it over. 1949, the United Nations…” (I give him an A- and play this clip for my students.)
His recitation – without notes – doesn’t even include the time Jerusalem was subject to the Assyrian Empire or a Pharaoh picked his own king for Judah, more than once, or how Jerusalem and the rest of the word fell under the control of Alexander the Great. Stopping before the founding of the modern State of Israel and the forced resettlement of Palestinians or the resulting wars and continuing intifadas, (then Fr.) Michael Curry cried out, “How long O Lord?”
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!
Jerusalem. The name fires the imagination, conjures up awe, holiness, and violence. It is a legendary place of sacred story and a thriving prosperous city, and a divided inequitable city, and a holy city, and a mecca for tourists and pilgrims. It is a legendary city and a real city. It is a place with a bloody history and a bloody reality. Jerusalem is the place where the stories of scripture are made real in stone and bone. Jerusalem is a place that Americans politicize, and Christians romanticize.
Some parts of what makes up Jerusalem have been inhabited since the Stone Age before there was such a thing as an Israeli or Palestinian, Israelite or Canaanite. As far as I’m concerned, everyone after the Natufians is a late-comer and an immigrant. Between the mighty empires of Egypt and those of Mesopotamia, Jerusalem and Canaan and ancient Israel were not just on the road to war and imperial expansion, they were the road to war and empire building.
Jerusalem is forcibly dragged into Israel’s story when David conquers it to provide a neutral base from which to rule so as not to show any favoritism to northern or southern tribes. We’ve been taught all our lives to read from the perspective of the Israelites and give no consideration to the Canaanites. A whole lot of us grew up cheering Joshua’s genocidal slaughter of the Canaanites and gave no thought to what it was like for the people of Jerusalem to be occupied by David for the convenience of a well-situated capital city. That kind of thinking made it easy to identify the native peoples of this land as the new Canaanites and attempt to eradicate them like the old Canaanites. That kind of thinking causes some to conflate the ancient nation of Israel with the modern state of Israel. They are not the same. They are connected. There is a largely direct line between them, but they are not the same.
Romanticizing Joshua’s conquest of Canaan and David’s conquest of Jerusalem leaves genocidal language unchallenged in the scriptures, our genocidal past unrepented, and, provides theological language, and sanction for those calling for genocides today. We saw a horrific, chilling, glimpse of that in the massacres at the mosques in New Zealand, a man who murdered children, three and four years old so they wouldn’t grow up to be adult Muslims and have and raise Muslim children. That is genocidal white supremacist violence wrapped up in a toxic empire of Christiandom shell. Jesus’s lament over Jerusalem must be heard in its ancient and our contemporary contexts.
The ancient Jerusalemites were people created in the image of God like the rest of us, both victims and perpetrators of violence. Their tiny home was invaded and conquered by a warlord in the name of a God they may or may not have worshipped. The shining moments of the Davidic and Solomonic monarchies were purchased in blood. Their Jerusalem passed into Assyrian control where it was squeezed for every shekel, including the silver on the doors of the temple. They were subject to wanton acts of violence like the siege and razing of Lachish where the Assyrians tortured Israelites by hanging them on only slightly sharpened sticks and cutting their still living bodies open down to the bone. Archeological sources record that when they took tribute and hostages from King Hezekiah, they even took his daughters–who are never mentioned in the bible, likely because of the shame.
Then the Babylonians came, and Jerusalem was subject to more violence than they had ever experienced or could ever had imagined. So much so that when Cyrus of Persia defeated Babylon and allowed the Israelites to return home, he was hailed as God’s messiah in Isaiah. (There are multiple messiahs in the bible, but that is another sermon.) Alexander’s conquest was relatively mild, but those who followed him were savage. And then Herod got Jerusalem and Judea in part by knowing which backstabbing Roman general to back.
Jesus’s Jerusalem had a bloody history. But it wasn’t just conquerors, colonizers, and occupiers who were spilling blood. Like all other peoples they shed their fair share of their own blood. And among the most notorious crimes were the murders and attempted murders of several prophets. It wasn’t just that the prophets were preaching a word of God that the people didn’t want to hear, but that the prophets were also preaching highly political words that that challenged the power, authority, and sometimes competence, of civil and religious leaders. Prophets and preaching have always been political. These prophets preached against Jerusalem. They preached against their puppet-kings and their puppet-masters. They preached against the inequities in Jerusalem among her own people. And they proclaimed the inevitable fall of the holy city where God dwelt and which God had previously protected from invading armies, because not even in Jerusalem could those systemic institutionalized inequities stand.
And so the prophets were targeted rather than heeded. One of those puppet-kings, Jehoiakim, sentenced the prophet Uriah to death, and when he escaped to Egypt, had him killed there and his body brought back to Jerusalem, Jeremiah 26:20–23. When Jeremiah preached the fall of Jerusalem, after beating him and throwing him in jail, the people of Jerusalem called for his death, and Zedekiah, the last king of Judah appointed by Nebuchadnezzar, let them have him. Jeremiah was only saved because someone remembered the prophet Micah–whom everyone agreed was a trustworthy prophet unlike Jeremiah, who wasn’t believed until after his death¬–Micah had said virtually the same thing, Jeremiah 38:4–6. And then there was the infamous murder of the prophet Zechariah, not the one who wrote a book of the bible¬–everyone, including Matthew and Jesus mixed them up–Zechariah was murdered on the temple grounds, in the court, in sight of the altar, 2 Chronicles 24:20–22. Jerusalem’s reputation as a place that kills prophets even makes it into the Quran five hundred years later:
We gave Musa, Moses, the Book, and followed up after him with the messengers, and We gave Isa, Jesus, son of Marium, Mary, clear signs, and supported him with the Holy Spirit. (But) whenever a messenger brought you what you yourselves did not desire, you become arrogant, and some you called liars and some you killed. Sura 2:87
According to New Testament scholar Joseph A. Fitzmeyer, when Jesus said, “it is impossible for a prophet to perish outside of Jerusalem,” he was saying, “it is not destined that Herod will kill me, but that Jerusalem will,” (Anchor Bible Commentary on Luke, p 1032).
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!
I am struck that Jesus’s response to the threat from Herod and murderous history of Jerusalem was not to resort to a toxic masculinity, call for force of arms, or even call down fire and brimstone. Instead he portrayed himself as the most ridiculous of animals, the very image of protective motherly devotion, almost mindlessly so. I imagine mother hen Jesus wanting to gather all of the disparate chicks of his, her, Jerusalem under her, his, wings: Not just Israelites, but Geeks and Romans, and Syrians and Libyans, and everyone else from everywhere else. Jesus wasn’t distinguishing citizens from immigrants and refugees; he wasn’t even distinguishing between the oppressed and their oppressors. He just wanted to hold them all to his heart, and like a mama hen, sit on then when they looked to get out and get up to trouble. Some will see in this image a call for mass conversion, certainly that is how the church has operated, often to its shame. But I want to point out that Jesus didn’t lay any requirements on those he wanted to embrace in the city for which he lamented.
The City of Peace has never known lasting peace. Neither have the rest of us. There is still blood in the streets of Jerusalem. Jerusalem is still a city of many peoples from many nations with many faiths; there are still those who are occupied and those who occupy. And there are still prophetic voices crying out against inequitable governing structures and policies that cannot and will not stand. Now those prophetic voices are Palestinian, and sometimes Israelis, and sometimes, other voices. Those voices crying out against the occupation of Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza, and the targeted shooting of unarmed protestors, and the continuing eviction of Arab residents of Jerusalem to hand their houses over to Jewish citizens is not anti-Semitic. Critiquing the policies of state of Israel is not anti-Semitic. That’s a lie that has to be prophetically called out because there is real, vile, lethally violent anti-Semitism in the world.
Antisemitism and Islamophobia are the both the spawn of white supremacy as we have seen acted out in blood in the Linwood Islamic Center and Masjid al-Noor in Christchurch, New Zealand, and at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg PA, and at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston SC, and at the Oak Creek Sikh Temple in Oak Creek WI, and at the Overland Park Jewish Center in Kansas City KS, and at the Islamic Center of Quebec City, and, and, and… [h/t @Michael Skolnik https://twitter.com/MichaelSkolnik/status/1106534709302042624]
In the Lenten season we are called to the holy practices of self-examination and study of and meditation on scripture. Today that means reflecting seriously on the stories we tell and the stories we were told. This Lenten season I bid you join me in repenting for the violence of Christians against Jews and Muslims, for Christian complicity in the occupation of Palestine, and for those of you who have white privilege, for silence and inertia in the face of the rising tide of white supremacist violence, in word and deed.
Let us teach and tell new stories about Jerusalem and all of her peoples and those who love her. I will begin by praying Psalm 122 in a new way.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem,
and pray for the peace of Palestine:
May they all prosper who love you.
Peace be within your walls,
and security within your towers,
and may the walls that divide be torn down.
For the sake of my Muslim and Jewish relatives and friends
I will say, “Peace be within you.”
For the sake of all the houses of God,
I will seek your good. Amen.

Ritualizing Bathsheba’s Rape

Bathsheba with her dead or dying child produced from David's rape while he prays for the child.
Pauline Williamson by permission

In the powerful image by Pauline Williamson (who creates as Sea), Bathsheba sits with her dead or dying child produced from David’s rape while he prays for the child. See her own interpretive work on this passage here.

It is Shrove Tuesday, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday when Christians traditionally went to confession and were shriven, and celebrated the sweetness they would deny in Lent with delicacies or full-on Mardi Gras and Carnival. Some of us still go to confession; now we call it the Sacrament of Reconciliation or Reconciling a Penitent.

Perhaps we need to repent for how we have ritualized Bathsheba’s rape while excluding her from the penitence it generated while the bodies of women and girls (and not just) are still being plundered, desecrated, and profaned in the church and by anointed leaders.

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday and Psalm 51 will be our corporate litany. It is ostensibly David’s psalm of repentance after his abduction, rape, and forced impregnation of Bathsheba, and his subsequent murder of her husband. Yet he does not mention her or his specific transgressions against her in it. To be fair, the biblical text constructs David’s sin as being against God and Uriah, her husband, but not against her.

A titular verse likely from the hand of an editor – and it is questionable whether a shepherd boy turned bandit possessed the literacy to write a psalm though he could have composed it and had it recorded – a titular verse proclaims the context of the psalm as that time he “went to” Bathsheba: When Nathan the prophet went to him on account of his going to Bathsheba. (my translation)

He didn’t go to her. He had her brought to him. “His going to her” is perhaps supposed to evoke a Hebrew euphemism for intercourse. It does not describe her as an active participant, an adulteress, as many would later wrongly claim. But it does not make clear the nature of his crimes.

In the (Episcopal) Book of Common Prayer, the psalm appears without the superscription so no reference to Bathsheba remains, misleading, fallacious, or otherwise. We will in David’s voice confess to sinning against God alone, with no specificity (unlike our Jewish kin who collective own a litany of transgressions on Yom Kippur).

In the Litany of Penance that follows we will confess our transgressions against others. But it is striking that we have so abstracted Psalm 51. Now that we are really talking about sexual violence and harassment in and out of the church, #MeToo and #ChurchToo, and calling once beloved figures to account for their sexual predations – Bill Cosby, R. Kelly, Michael Jackson – and laicizing priests, bishops, and cardinals, perhaps we should stop allowing David to get away with structuring his act of contrition around an abstract concept and tell him to leave his gift on the altar and first make peace with his sister.

And perhaps we should repent for our treatment of the survivors of rape in and out of scripture, our coddling of rapists, our refusal to hold great men accountable, and our love of occasionally disembodied liturgy.

In the spirit of Phyllis Trible, when we pray Psalm 51 as our prayer of repentance, we plead the blood of Bathsheba:

She was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon her was the punishment that made us whole,
and by her bruises we are healed.

For more on Bathsheba’s story see: Womanist Midrash.

Rejoice and Repent

Annunciation Tryptich by Robert Moore

Let us pray:

Blessed Mother, teach us to say yes to God. Amen.

This is Joy Sunday. If we still spoke Latin as a Church, we’d know it as GaudeteSunday in part because before it tells us not to worry about anything, Philippians says: Rejoice in the Lord always! Again, I say, Rejoice! Gaudete (rejoice) in Domino (in the Lord – Domino’s pizza is not the Lord’s pizza)! Gaudete in Domino semper! (You may know Semper Fi.) Gaudete in Domino semper! Rejoice in the Lord always! Iterum dico gaudete. Again, I say, Rejoice! Never thought I’d use my Catholic school Latin as an Episcopal priest and I’m sure none of the nuns ever thought I’d be a priest. In addition to Gaudetein Philippians,

Philippians also says:Do not worry about anything. (4:6)

Zephaniah tells us: Fear not! (3:16)

Isaiah tells us: I will trust and will not be afraid!(2:12)

And in the Gospel of Luke John the Baptizer says: You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? (3:7) Or in other words, “Maybe you should be a little bit concerned.”

Our lectionary stitches together four disconnected passages to quilt a whole new image. We can see each distinct patch and recall its original setting and we can see the new image they craft when woven together.

Zephaniah is an image of the end of the world, its breaking and its remaking. It’s set in a time when things are actually going pretty well for the moment. The young king Josiah, buttressed by his Queen Mother who raised him and ruled for him when he was too young to rule on his own and the prophet Huldah who certified the first written collection of scripture as God’s word, was reforming the worship practices of the community. But Zephaniah knew the world doesn’t stand still and fidelity to God doesn’t shield you from hard times down the road. Rather fidelity to God–and more importantly God’s fidelity to us–ensures we are accompanied through hard times. God is with us and will be with us, whatever may come. Zephaniah knew the Babylonians were coming and that was going to look and feel and smell like the end of the world with the temple on fire, bodies rotting in the street, and the people taken into captivity or left behind with nothing. It would be the end of the kingdom of Judah, the last piece of Israel, as an independent nation. From then on one nation or another would hire and fire kings and governors to serve their own interests. It is in this context that Zephaniah preaches to Zion, Jerusalem, representing the people of God as God’s beloved daughter: Fear not Daughter Zion! The Holy One, your God is within your midst!When the worst happens–and it will happen–you are not alone. God is with you, in your very midst.

To respond to Zephaniah our lectionary uses Canticle 9 from Isaiah 12:

Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid,

for the Holy One of Old is my strength and my might;

God has become my salvation.

Now Isaiah is a century earlier than Zephaniah and the Babylonians weren’t a threat to anybody; rather it was the Assyrians in his time. It was the Assyrians who first broke the back of Israel, swarming the northern monarchy like locusts, deporting the survivors from nine out the twelve tribes all over their empire to be swallowed up, some tribes were never heard from again. In the face of one of the bloodiest regimes on the planet–their barbarism inspired Vlad the Impaler who took his name from their favorite form of execution–in the face of an unstoppable war machine, from the losing side Isaiah proclaimed the salvation of God. Not in some far-off future, not even the saving work of Jesus. Isaiah prophesied about his present moment. They needed God then and She was with them. Isaiah said: God has become my salvation. Here, now, among the survivors and refugees. Even in their defeat, God has saved God’s people from total destruction and annihilation.

In sequence or out of sequence these texts reveal the pattern of God’s presence with God’s people in times of trouble, whatever and whoever the cause. For two thousand years, Christians have read these texts through the story of Jesus and seen him in them to the exclusion of their original contexts. But it is those original stories that teach us God is trustworthy, God is with us, and God is our salvation. In this season of gift giving it is worthwhile to remember that the gift of scripture is truly the gift that keeps on giving. It speaks to us in each generation without losing the meanings it has held for previous generations, even when those meanings don’t fit our world or our circumstances.

This rich understanding of scripture is also our gift to the world as Anglicans and Episcopalians, but not everyone appreciates complexity and mystery. On this Joy Sunday, sitting in St. Mary’s Chapel, in the Chapel of the Blessed Virgin, I want to invite you into some of that mystery by asking you to imagine with me what these texts might have meant to her, for the reason we have these texts grouped together is that the lectionary framers thought they spoke to the Advent of Christ’s birth and the Advent of his return.

One of the traditions of this Sunday is to put a pink candle in the Advent wreath for the Blessed Mother, in whose womb lay the reason for our joy. (Some churches even have rose pink vestments for today. We’ll have to ask the next rector about that.) How might the young pregnant not-yet-married Mary have read these scriptures about God’s presence with Israel in times of trouble in light of the very real fear that she could be stoned for adultery?

Both Isaiah and Zephaniah have the wonderful line: “God is in your midst.” And because of the way Hebrew works and because Zion, Jerusalem, is feminine, that “your” is feminine. Zephaniah says: The Everlasting God, your God (woman), is in your midst (daughter). Isaiah says: Great in your midst (daughter) is the Holy One of Israel. And if Mary knew these scriptures–and truly, we have no way of knowing what she knew though we do know that Elizabeth knows scripture, so maybe…so if she is one of the reasons Jesus knew so much scripture–and using my sanctified imagination I’d like to believe she was–then perhaps, in her hour of need she read or recited these texts to herself hearing in them God’s promise and presence not only to her, but within her. She could easily have read the text as speaking to her much like we do today.

Mary is not only a daughter of God, she is also a daughter of Zion; Jerusalem was her spiritual home. She was the daughter of Zion waiting for the first Advent of Christ and she could say, “God is with me and within me because of the power of the Holy Spirit.” That’s also why Paul could write from a jail cell: Gaudete! Gaudete in Domino semper! Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice… The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Paul, also God’s child waiting for the second Advent of Christ could say, “God is with me and within me because of the power of the Holy Spirit through baptism.”

And here’s where that wild-eyed locust eater from the desert, John the Baptizer, comes in. John had a vision of the world to come, its breaking and remaking, similar to that in parts of Zephaniah we did not read. He sees it coming soon and he is eager for it and for the people to get on board. And for whatever reason­­–it seems like we’re missing part of the story–John is impatient and frustrated with the people: Repent already. Let’s get this show on the road. I mean real repentance. This is not a performance for your benefit. There’s no playing along. In the prophets we read today, God’s presence was a comforting embrace; in the Baptizer’s sermon it is unquenchable fire burning away all that cannot stand in the presence of God.

What accounts for this difference? In all three texts the people of Israel are at the mercy one foreign oppressor or another. In the first two, God comforts the people in their affliction. But in Luke John calls out those who had power over others and were abusing it. Some of them were Israelites like the tax collectors and some were Gentiles like soldiers who could have been from anywhere in the Roman empire. He called them out for extortion and brutality and he called out those who had more than they could wear or eat while others were going without. For John you simply could not sign up to follow him or Jesus later and exploit God’s people. You can’t receive God’s abiding presence in baptism and continue being a crook, or greedy, or indifferent to needs of people around you. That abiding presence of God available to us through baptism is also what links these passages.

How do we read theses texts today, in our own time? What do they have to say to us about the things that matter? Who are the people of God to whom God is speaking I am with you, even in your midst? Who is God calling to rejoice? Who is God telling to get their ethics straight because you can’t live out your baptism and exploit other children of God? Is God offering us the tender assurance of salvation or is God bringing the fire?

On the one hand we have God’s faithfulness to her people and on the other the demand that we be faithful to the requirements of the gospel. The Baptizer gets in our collective face to tell us to get off our collective pews and do the work we were called to in baptism. We were not called to lay around and wait for Jesus to come back. We are to welcome him with the fruit of our labor and our repentance, that means putting an end to systems and practices that oppress God’s people.

If there’s anything that these lessons agree on it’s that no child of God is disposable in God’s sight and God’s presence with us is not just about us. But God is also with migrants in the desert, holding them in her arms as they die of thirst before they’ve ever really lived. God is in Yemen where starving children shelter in battered buildings bombed with ordinance stamped with USA. God is in prisons with the justly and wrongly convicted. God is in the street with gay and trans teens thrown out of homes and families because some folk can’t see God’s image in and presence with them.

I admit I was annoyed with John the Baptizer when I started to prepare this sermon. But when children are in tents and cages with numbers being written on their arms and dying of heat and exhaustion and thirst and taken from their parents and being told their parents don’t want them anymore, I want to stand in front of the churches where Christian folk defend those practices and blame desperate parents for being desperate and get up in their faces and yell: You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’ [or Jesus Christ is my personal Lord and Savior]; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. [And by the way, Abraham’s children are not just Christians and Abraham’s children are not God’s only children.] 9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

John the Baptizer is an old school in-your-face prophet. He calls it like he sees it: I see what you’re doing to God’s children and I’m here to tell you God will chop your branch off of the family tree and set it on fire. That too is the work of the Holy Spirit. I wonder if John was so wild because he like Dr. King knew that he would be killed for preaching the gospel God gave him.

Our prophets teach us God is our salvation. They also teach us She is the salvation of those whom we exploit, those who are oppressed in our name, and those whose death, hunger, thirst, and starvation are paid for with our tax dollars. How can we rejoice in these days? We rejoice in the God who promises to deal with those who oppress in Zephaniah. We rejoice in those repented at the prophet’s preaching. And we rejoice in being God’s agents in the world, in Zephaniah’s words, gathering the outcast. Repent, then rejoice. Amen.

Majesty, Mercy, and Mystery

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

Let us pray:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God is:

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

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

Redeeming Qayin (Cain)

Cain and Abel by Adolf von Hildebrand Marburg, 1890 www.metmuseum.org

In the name of God whose mercy is just and whose justice is merciful. Amen.

Zillah gave birth to Tuval Qayin, who forged every kind of implement of bronze and iron. And the sister of Tubal Qayin was Naamah.

In my sanctified imagination I envision what it was like being Tuval Qayin, saddled with the name of his most infamous ancestor. Can you imagine with me and put yourself in his shoes? Tuval Qayin was the great-oh-so-many-greats-grandson of that Qayin, whom you may know as Cain. They may not have remembered all of the generations in between. But they remembered that name. Qayin. It may be startling or even disorienting to hear names with which you are familiar spelled and pronounced in ways with which you may not familiar. Womanists place a high value on naming and in my practice that means not defaulting to European names for Afro-Asiatic biblical characters. If you look up images of Qayin and Abel, you will find more than a few of a black or significantly darker Qayin murdering a white Abel. (As we say on twitter #fightme.)

Can’t you hear the folk tormenting Tuval Qayin? We know who you are. We know where you come from. We know who your people are. We know they and you ain’t ish. You Qayin’s people, and errbody knows your great-great-whatever-granddaddy was a murderer. He merked his own brother. You one of them. Add to that his own father would become infamous for killing a man himself. Folk would say the apple don’t fall far from the tree. Tuval Qayin never stood a chance. Anything he ever did wrong, folk would point back to his people–never mind that most of his family weren’t murders, but two was two too many.

And then there was his parents’ marriage. His father Lamech was a poster boy for the patriarchy. He is credited with inventing polygamy because he wanted more. As a side note, Lamech’s invention of polygamy presents a challenge for biblical marriage enthusiasts and literalists–some of them anyway; others are far too excited by the prospects. On the other hand, Lamech’s redefinition of marriage was not only not challenged by God but eventually accepted and normalized providing an unexpected biblical model for the intentional crafting and redefinition of marriage norms.

Nevertheless, I don’t imagine it went over well with the neighbors: Your daddy ain’t nothing (and your mama ain’t much, neither one of them). Tuval Qayin and his siblings were the first to have two mommies, and if our more recent history is any example, he would have been teased mercilessly because his family was different. And if human beings haven’t really changed that much in the past five thousand years, some folk may have been violently opposed to Lamech’s marriage and meted that out upon the most vulnerable members of his family, particularly the boy with the OG murderer’s name.

And the thing was, they weren’t wrong about Qayin. Qayin was a murderer. A fratricide. A brother killer. He was guilty. He did it. One of the hard truths of this world is that even in an unjust justice system some folk locked up are guilty. Somebody’s son, father, uncle, cousin, brother, sister, mother, daughter, auntie is locked up and locked down because they did it, whatever it was. And some folk want to throw them away forever, use them for cheap labor, profit off of their bodies, throw their bodies at forest fires, leave them behind to die in hurricanes, and if they make it out, make it darn near impossible for them to find legal work to support themselves and their families. Especially if they’re black or brown. And then as the icing on the cake, strip their voting rights from them so they can’t help reform the system that they know better than anyone else. Everybody ain’t innocent and even when they are the privilege of innocence ain’t extended to everybody. Some folk are guilty as charged. Qayin was caught red-handed. The red was literally and literarily the blood of his brother, the brother he murdered with his own hands. Qayin destroyed a life with an act of horrific violence and that violence had repercussions.

Qayin’s act would have destroyed more than one life; the lives of his parents who were also the parents of his victim would have also been devastated. In the narrative world of Genesis there were only a handful of people around–don’t ask me where he got his wife; the narrator isn’t interested in a seamless story. Qayin’s actions impacted all of them. You could say his crime shook and shaped the entire world. If ever there was a candidate for original sin, this would be it. The text actually uses the word sin here; it is the first time the word appears in the canon. Eating forbidden fruit in pursuit of wisdom doesn’t qualify, but that is another sermon. Qayin also changed the course of his own life. It was circumscribed by the choice he made. There was no denying it; no boys will be boys, no unjust judge, no biased jury.

Qayin was like a lot of guilty folk. He was responsible for his choices and their consequences. He had a price to pay and he paid it. And at the same time, he was also a product of circumstances that seemed designed to set him up to fail. The story tells us flat out that God has biases, or if that’s too strong for you, preferences. God prefers brisket to broccoli. Who doesn’t? The narrator’s unvarnished account of God’s preference makes it sound like there was nothing Qayin could have done to make his offering acceptable. Perhaps one way of reading God’s preference is that it represents the structural inequity into Qayin and Hevel were born, into which we were all born. Hevel was born into privilege and Qayin was born into peril. That’s not a good look on God so interpreters have worked overtime blaming Qayin for bringing second rate crops though the text says no such thing. So what then, within the confines of the story, could Qayin have done differently?

Qayin wasn’t responsible for the circumstances in which he found himself. He was responsible for the choice he made. Sometimes we find ourselves on the wrong side of circumstances we can’t control. And it sure seems like God is either actively against us or refusing to help us. Structural inequity isn’t an excuse, but it is a contributing factor. Did Qayin have to tools to overcome his structural disadvantage? Did his parents have the talk with him, teaching him how to navigate the meat-loving world as a grain-gatherer? Or were they too caught up in their own drama to see that one of their boys was different from dominant culture expectations? I don’t think any of us are that far removed from Qayin given the right circumstances. Surely you’ve noticed how much more violent our world seems to be.

Folk are quick to speak violent words and raise violent hands. And violence begets violence. Everywhere I look I see violence: violent rhetoric, violent encounters with police, violence against women, violence against children, violent theologies, violence against gay folk, violence against trans folk, violence against the earth and her creatures, violent government domestic policies, violent government international policies, violent economic policies.

Now I have been raised as a bible reader to view Qayin with contempt, and in some settings to view the mark of Qayin as the imposition of vampirism–but that too is another sermon, or perhaps an elective. And yet in the previous century when I was a seminarian, I learned to question the way I always read and to read from the position of characters with whom I didn’t hold any sympathy, who were not, or were not supposed to be, God’s people in the text–people like Qayin and peoples like the Canaanites, Jezebel and Jephthah, Pharaoh and Potiphar’s wife, Qayin and those who bore his mark, whether in their flesh like Qayin or in their name like Tuval Qayin.

It’s hard for some of us to read from Qayin’s point of view. Most of us can say we have never killed. Qayin’s killing of Hevel represents more than the commission of murder; it is also the first act of violence committed by a one person against another in the world that Genesis crafts for us. Let us not deceive ourselves that we cannot also be Qayin because we may not have killed. Qayin’s repertoire of violence was severely limited; ours is much broader. Qayin embodies all of the violence of which we are all capable and which some of us have indeed committed.

Let me be honest in one particular regard it’s hard for me to preach from Qayin’s perspective at the present moment. I have hierarchies of with which guilty folk I can be sympathetic. My rage at men who violate women’s bodies is not interested in their redemption. (I just thought I should tell the truth today.) But unlike those men who evade the consequences of their actions, Qayin served his sentence. Qayin lived with the consequences of his actions for the rest of his life. And that ought to be enough. But not for some folk. There are folk who will never let Qayin or anyone associated with him forget what he did that one time. Nothing else matters. No mark necessary.

Some folk hold onto Qayin’s crime out of their deep grief. Others simply refuse to see beyond the worst moment and worst choice of his life. And our contemporary conversations about forgiveness are of little use. I watch as victims and survivors, often marginalized people targeted by folk who wield power individually or societally, are urged and shamed into making immediate statements of forgiveness before they’ve even processed their loss to be model Christians so as not to burden the white supremacist bomber or trigger-happy cop with their unforgiveness. All too often we’re given a false choice in what is passing for forgiveness these days: we’re told to forget about what is past in the same breath in which we’re told it didn’t happen or we can’t remember, and the other option is ruining someone’s life by holding what they’ve done or are accused of doing over their heads for the rest of their lives. Neither of these is satisfying. Neither involves confession or reparation and where no reparation can be made, conviction and execution of a just sentence, but above all and before all repentance. Not bold-faced lies and denials or lawyer-crafted PR statements admitting nothing and saying less.

Qayin is a felon and he is also one of us. But unlike those who have never been held to account for what they have done, Qayin paid the price and served his time. Like many felons, he would never be able to live down the infamy of his name or his crime. And like other felons, he is more than the worst thing he had ever done. Qayin murdered his brother. He failed miserably at being his brother’s keeper. But we don’t get to wash our hands of him. We are still Qayin’s keeper. Some of us have been falling down on the job. Some of us don’t want that job. Some of us are using our grief about Hevel to justify abandoning Qayin to the aftermath of his bad decisions and the circumstances from which he was unable to extricate himself. But you know who didn’t abandon Qayin? God.

God accompanied Qayin into exile to hold the rest of the world to account for how they treated Qayin as much as to hold Qayin accountable. Qayin was still God’s child. God is with Qayin as he rebuilds his life. He marries and becomes a father, signaling his readmittance to society. He makes something of himself. He builds a city and names it after his child, not himself as other women and men city-builders would do. In so doing he makes his life’s work about the generations to come. And let’s hear it for the unnamed sister who took a chance on a man with a bad name.

It was that bad name with which I imagine Tuval Qayin was taunted. He was Qayin’s fifth-generation descendant gifted with Qayin’s name as his own. He and his brothers by another mother, Yuval and Yaval, lived with that legacy and they transformed it. The passage in which they occur is both genealogy and etiology. Yuval ben Adah brought gifts of wind instruments and stringed instruments into the world. And Tuval Qayin ben Zillah, the boy with the bad name, brought metallurgy and manufacturing to the world.

Throwing away Qayin would have meant throwing away all that he and his descendants produced and achieved, including Tuval Qayin, Yuval and Yaval and their sister Naamah. Throwing them away would have cost the world pillars of civilization as the ancient Israelites conceived it: music and the arts and cutting age technology. Without Qayin or Tuval Qayin there would have been no Prince or B.B. King, no Sister Rosetta Thorpe or Alicia Keys, no Alex Byrd or Yo Yo Ma.

God didn’t throw away Qayin. God didn’t even take his life. God created space for him to live into who he could be while living with who he was, and the world is the better for it. There are folk I want to throw away. There are folk through whom I can’t imagine–even within the realm of my sanctified imagination–that there will ever be any worthwhile contribution to our world from them or their spawn. Their hands are every bit as bloody as Qayin’s. But I believe in a God whose mercy is just and whose justice is merciful. The God who heard Hevel’s blood cry from the earth is also the God who kept Qayin. The God who cares for Qayin is the God who demands justice for Hevel.

God’s justice is as inescapable as God’s mercy, is as inescapable as God, God with us, God with even Qayin. That same God became a child, begotten, birthed, breastfed, bathed, baptized, and buried. God came to us in our own failing and fragile human flesh. In living, in loving, in healing, in teaching, in dying, in rising God in Jesus is the God who will not abandon us to our circumstances, our choices, or their consequences. The God who sentenced Qayin is the God who keeps Qayin, leaving us to wrestle with what it means to be the keeper of kinfolk in these days. Amen.  

 

Genesis 4:1Now the human had known his woman Chava, Eve, and she conceived and gave birth to Qayin, Cain, saying, “I have crafted a person with the Creator of Heaven and Earth.”2Then she went again to give birth, to his brother Hevel, Abel. Now Hevel was a shepherd of the flock, and Qayin a cultivator of the ground. 3And it was after some days Qayin brought to Earth’s Creatoran offering of the fruit of the ground, 4and Hevel brought some of the firstborn ewes of his flock, and their fat portions. And the God Who Chooseshad regard for Hevel and his offering, 5but for Qayin and his offering the Inscrutable Godhad no regard. So Qayin was very angry, and his face fell. 6The God Who Attendssaid to Qayin, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen?7If you do well, will it not ascend? And if you do not do well, at the opening sin reclines; its desire directed towards you, but you will master it.”

8Then Qayin said something to his brother Hevel; now they had gone into the field. And when they were in the field Qayin rose up against his brother Hevel and killed him. 9Then theGod of All Fleshsaid to Qayin, “Where is your brother Hevel?” He said, “I don’t know; am I my brother’s keeper?” 10Then the Just Godasked, “What have you done? A voice…your brother’s blood-spills are crying out to me from the ground! 11And now cursed are you from the ground, which has opened her mouth to receive your brother’s blood-spills from your hand. 12Therefore, when you cultivate the earth, she will no longer yield to you her strength; you will be one who wanders and staggers throughout the earth.” 13Qayin said to the Gracious God, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! 14Look! Today you have driven me away from the soil on the face of the earth, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be one who wanders and staggers throughout the earth, and anyone who meets me will kill me.” 15Then the God Who Hearssaid to him, “It shall not be so! Upon anyone who kills Qayin there will be sevenfold vengeance.” And the God Who Watchesput a mark on Qayin, so that no one who came upon him would kill him. 16Then Qayin went out from the presence of the God Who Saves, and settled in the land of Wandering called Nod, east of Eden.

17Qayin knew his woman, and she conceived and gave birth to Chanokh, Enoch; and he built a city, and named it Chanokh after his child Chanokh. 18Born to Chanokh was Irad; and Irad fathered Mehuyael, and Mehuyael (Mehijael) fathered Methushael, and Methushael fathered Lemech, (Lamech). 19Lemech took two women; the name of the one was Adah, and the name of the second Zillah. 20Adah gave birth to Yaval; he was the ancestor of those who live in tents surrounded by livestock. 21Yaval’s brother’s name was Yuval; he was the ancestor of all those who take up the lyre and pipe. 22Then Zillah gave birth to Tuval Qayin, who forged every kind of implement of bronze and iron. And thesister of Tuval Qayin was Naamah.

Translation, the Rev. Wil Gafney, PhD

God Is Bigger

 

I could preach all four readings in one sentence: God Is Bigger. But we live in a time when clichés and bumper sticker theology won’t cut it, even if they’re true. We face serious issues, serious life-threatening, heart-rending issues. In the face of incarcerated children crying for mothers they’ve been told abandoned them, politicians threatening each other with bodily harm and some inflicting harm, the daily harassment black folk are subjected to by white folk using the police to harass us for simply being in public, women learning that the folk in their lives–parents, friends and sometimes pastors–aren’t safe to confide in their histories of sexual assault, the war in Syria that the news isn’t covering anymore, the starving children in Yemen caught up in their government’s conflict with Saudi Arabia and the weapons we sell used in this slaughter, in the face of all of this, “God is bigger” sounds like a cop out.

            Yet that’s exactly what God says to Job. Well, not exactly. It takes God one hundred and twenty-six verses between Job chapter 38 and 41 to say it. And she says it poetically, and indirectly. God calls Job to contemplate the wonders of creation and God’s revelation in and through it that Job might see God and God’s power in it, but also see Job’s own insignificant place in it.

1 ”Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. 2 Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? 3 Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. 4 Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. 5 Who determined its measurements–surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? 6 On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone 7 when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? 8 Or who shut in the sea with doors w hen it burst out from the womb? 9 when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, 10 and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, 11 and said, Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped? 12 Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place, 13 so that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth, and the wicked be shaken out of it?

        Well, have you? God says, “This is who I am. Who are you?” Eventually Job will say, “I’ve said too much,” and put his hand over his mouth because he knows God is bigger and he is comparatively insignificant. But there’s a twist in Job’s story. In order to understand it, we need to understand how Job found himself in this place being interrogated by God veiled in a whirlwind, face to force.

Job was beset by horror. He lost everything in the building waves of a tsunami of catastrophe. Job lost everything he owned; he lost it all through violence. He didn’t make a bad deal or risk the wrong stock. He went from the Forbes list to having no way to feed himself or his family. It doesn’t matter how much you have or how you got it, losing everything hurts. Contemporarily we have a lot of shame about money and its loss, trying to keep up appearances, needing help, hunger and poverty in the suburbs, even in nice churches like this.

            Job didn’t even have a moment to muster up the strength to ask for help when he was beset by unfathomable tragedy. All of his children were murdered. The book of Job may be a story the Israelites used to teach and debate theology, but the scenarios it constructs are deeply rooted in reality. These stories are somebody’s stories. People knew folk who had had those kinds of losses in the ancient world, and we do too. In part the book of Job exists because there are no good answers to why such awful things happen to people. And the truth is, even the best theology falls flat when you’re looking at a murdered child.

Job gives voice to our desire to ask – no – demand God explain this mess: this broken world, murdered children shot in school, others killed by their own parents, women and girls and some boys and men subject to sexual harassment and assault, some for years, disbelieved if they report, blamed if they don’t, hungry children in a world of abundance, new obstacles and some of the same old obstacles to voting set up just fifty years after the assassination of Dr. King, white supremacists marching in the streets, the police being used and letting themselves be used to harass black folk for being black in public, shopping or trying to enter our own homes. And though the world and the news cycles have moved on some of are still saying Black Lives Matter as the faces of new victims fill our TV screens. Like Job I have questions for God. And while I’ve never seen that particular whirlwind I too shouted into the wind.

Job took all of his hurt and horror to God. He also took his faith that there had to be a way to make sense of his world that didn’t involve bad theology. There’s a lot of bad theology out there. Some of it’s in churches. Some of it’s on TV. Some of it’s in churches on TV. Some of it’s on the lips of politicians. And some of it is ours as we do our best to make sense of the world with the tools we have, the sermons we’ve heard, the folk wisdom of our families, and too many self-help books and TV shows. And then there are the folk who love us who have definite opinions about what is going on in our lives, what we’ve done, what we need to do and what it all means.

Job had the kind of friends who stayed with him through the worst of his grief; then they started explaining how he was ultimately responsible for what happened to him. There are people today who blame women for being abused at home, harassed at work, or assaulted in the street. There are folk who buy into new age theologies that say you get whet you give and draw bad energy to you. There are even Christians who will say you didn’t pray enough, or have enough faith.

But Job knew there was nothing he could have ever done to bring any of what he suffered on himself, so he went to God. But it didn’t turn out quite like he expected in our lesson. He went to God holding the pieces of his broken heart in his hands to ask God why and God said, “I am bigger.” All of our lessons make that claim. Our psalm: Bless the Living God, O my soul. Holy One my God, you are very great.God is bigger. Our epistle: Jesus having been made perfect became the source of eternal salvation. God is bigger. Our gospel: Are you big enough to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? I know you think so. This is what bigger really looks like: whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Woman came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. Even when confined to human flesh God is bigger.

God is bigger than our circumstances, preconceptions, and misconceptions. God is bigger that our faults and our failures, our dreams and our schemes, our hope and our hurt. God is bigger than this crucified and crucifying world. God is bigger than this nation and its borders. God is bigger than our theologies and our politics. God is bigger than our church. God is bigger. God is even bigger than the bible. God is bigger than it’s slave-holding culture. God is bigger than the bible’s patriarchy and the sexism and misogyny of its interpreters. God is bigger than the understanding of gender in its pages. God is bigger than the bible’s Iron Age theology. And yet and still God still speaks through it just as God spoke to Job through the whirlwind.

God spoke to Job but didn’t explain why. The people who put together the book of Job knew that even when you find your way to or back to God after a tragedy you don’t get all the answers if any. You may never hear God speak to you about your sorrow. But you will find, as Job found, a God who is present, and yes bigger and greater and grander and more exalted and more majestic than you can imagine, but also a God who sees your tears and hears your cries shouted into the wind. And sometimes, even when not answering the questions you asked–and it’s ok to ask–God will choose to answer the question you need. For Job it was that he was not wrong, nothing that had happened to him was his fault, and his friends and their bad theology were all the way wrong.

The God who attended Job in the whirlwind is the God who in the psalm is clothed with honor and majesty, wrapped in light as with a garment, stretches out the heavens like a tent, sets the beams of her chambers on the waters, makes the clouds her chariot, rides on the wings of the wind, and makes the winds her messengers. That same God became a child, begotten, birthed, breastfed, bathed, baptized, and buried. God came to us in a form less terrifying and more fragile than a whirlwind, in our own human flesh. In living, in loving, in healing, in teaching, in dying, in rising God in Jesus is the answer to questions we did not ask as much as the answer to the questions we shouted into to wind. And unlike Job’s whirlwind, Jesus remains and stays with us through the storms and through the calm and all that will come our way. Whatever it may be, God is bigger.

God is bigger. God’s love is bigger. God’s grace is bigger. God’s mercy is bigger. Bigger than our need. Bigger than the world’s hurt and hunger. God is bigger. God is enough. Amen.

For today’s scripture lessons (Track 1) click here.

How Long Shall Justice Be Aborted?

Violence. A single word of scripture begets a thousand words.

The prophet cried violence, screamed violence; hurled it at the skies and the God veiled within. Violence. Violence all around. Habakkuk’s people were under siege. He doesn’t tell us when he prophesied but we know ancient Israel lurched perpetually from one catastrophe to another, captured, colonized, and conveyed from conqueror to conqueror–when they were not doing the colonizing and conquering themselves. Spoiler alert: The same people, sometimes even the very same person, can be both victim and perpetrator. There was and is violence all around.

Habakkuk doesn’t name his people’s oppressor because a boot on the neck feels the same whether the foot is Assyrian or Babylonian. To some degree it doesn’t even matter because each of those nations devastated Israel. Assyria decimated Israel. Decimation was a much later Roman practice from after the time of Habakkuk but it is relevant. When Roman soldiers failed spectacularly, mutinied, or fled from the field of battle an entire cohort would be sentenced to decimation. The men would draw lots and every tenth man would be marked. The men who were spared would then have to beat their fellow soldiers to death, purging the unit of a tenth of its men, a decimal place, decimation.

The Assyrians went further. They didn’t destroy just a tenth of Israel, a tribe or even two; they enslaved, exiled, or outright killed the bulk of nine of the twelve tribes. They broke the fractured nation into two unequal pieces and depopulated the north only to repopulate it with captives from all over the empire who like enslaved Africans on southern plantations spoke so many different languages that it was almost impossible to organize and resist collectively.

The Assyrians were infamous for their tortures and brutality. Back in Hezekiah’s day they left images of themselves herding their Judean captives to torture, slicing them open, cutting them down to the bone while they were yet alive, peeling off their skin and hanging them on slightly sharpened sticks to die slowly in the sun. You could say they revolutionized lynching in their time. Whether peacetime or war you could always count on Assyrian soldiers to be spoiling for a fight. Even when they were not immediately present the Israelites lived under the shadow their immanent violence.

The Babylonians were no better. They were so brutal, so vicious that even the voices in the bible that would say Israel got what she deserved for her sins said, no, that’s too much, nobody deserves that after the Babylonians starved the people in and around Jerusalem to the point that some of them turned to cannibalism. And then there were the perpetual border incursions, annexations, and rebellions between what was left of Israel and the border states, Ammon, Moab, and Edom. And then there was Egypt, always looking for an opportunity to rebuild its empire. Habakkuk’s people were squeezed between mighty, once mighty, and would be mighty empires. Empires are born of violence. Empires are inherently violent. And empires beget violence.

Yet not all of the violence inflicted on Habakkuk’s people came from without. Not all of the violence we experience comes from outside our communities either. The violence that Habakkuk saw all around him went both ways. Violence behind closed doors. Violence on the same streets through which the prophet walks to preach the word or go to the house of God. On those same streets the bodies of young folk have been sprawled in the anguished postures of violent deaths. Some left as spectacles denied the dignity owed to every human being in life or in death.

In the same streets raped women had struggled with trembling hands to cover their bodies with what’s left of the clothing torn from them. Behind closed doors on those streets and sometimes in the street men beat women with impunity. Behind closed doors and sometimes in the street parents beat children with the same impunity. Behind other doors caregivers beat elders who depend on them, sometimes the very ones who birthed and raised them. And then there is the government. Not just some far off entity, but people, sometimes from these same streets who collude with the very empire that oppressed their own people. Violence perpetrated by the government in the name of and against those they govern by people who are no different than the ones they govern. Habakkuk’s people were under siege, from within and without. He cried “Violence!” because there was violence all around him.

I don’t know how long Habakkuk cried out. But I know he didn’t give up. I don’t know if he took a break from time to time, or if he cried out until he lost his voice, but I know he didn’t give up. Habakkuk cried out because he knew there was a God who hears. He cried out because he had expectations of his God. He cried out because he expected God to give a damn. He expected God to care. He expected God to do right by him and his people. Habakkuk is God’s prophet but he is also the people’s prophet. He doesn’t just work for God he works for the people. IN fact you can’t work for God if you don’t work for the people. There are a whole lot of folk claiming to be God’s prophets and apostles who don’t work for her folk and cannot be found in the blood-soaked streets but they always have time for a FOX News interview or a presidential photo-op. Habakkuk cried out on behalf of his people and expected God to live up to and into his expectations of God. He believed God would come through.

Habakkuk’s prophetic outcry was, “Violence!” Sometimes you just get to the point where you can’t even form a coherent sentence. Everywhere I look I see violence: violent rhetoric, violent encounters with police, violence against women, violence against children, violent theologies, violence against gay folk, violence against trans folk, violence against the earth and her creatures, violent government domestic policies, violent government international policies, violent economic policies. Violence!

Habakkuk had been crying out to God. The book opens when he is at his wits end. Tired of praying the same prayer. This is wearying work y’all. Sick and tired of being sick and tired, he prayed one more prayer. How long? How long O God?Holy One, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear?I been crying out to you. I been praying. I been fasting. I been laying prostrate. I been laying it all on the altar. I been doing everything I know how to do. I been crying out to you and I haven’t heard a mumbling word from you. And violence is still all around me snatching the lives and breaking the bodies of my people. How much more? How long? How long O God? How long?

The cry “How long, Holy One?” echoes from those shackled in and by slavery’s chains, through those systematically oppressed by law and tradition enforced by night riders with flaming crosses, to those shot and strangled, beaten and wrestled down by those trusted to protect and serve. It is the cry of black women whose families and bodies have been systematically ravaged by the benefactors, adherents, and evangelists of white supremacy. “How long?” is the cry of the oppressed. It is the cry of those on the bottom of power curves and hierarchies. It is the cry of women of all races, people of color of all genders, non-gender-conforming people, people with particular ranges of mobility and ability, the poor, undocumented immigrants, and minority communities who do not see themselves reflected in those with power over them or in the cultural norms they produce. “How long?” is the cry of a faithful prophet and likewise the cry of faithful people. For those who need it, Habakkuk grants permission to question God, not just about the state of the world, but what God is doing in it and about it. Habakkuk offers a womanish model of faithfulness through his questioning God, demanding a response, and determining for himself if God’s response is valid. Habakkuk is bold y’all.

We don’t know how long Habakkuk had been a prophet before this, what words he had proclaimed to the people and the nations. We don’t know why nothing else of him was preserved. What we do know in that when his people were being ground into the dust by enemies within and without he didn’t wait on a word from God. He went to God looking not for a word to proclaim in the midst of suffering, or the promise of deliverance from suffering, or even the promise that God was with them in suffering. Habakkuk wanted answers, an explanation.

How long Holy One…? Holy One, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? I cry out to you “Violence!” and you do not save. Why do you make me see wrong-doing?

Habakkuk teaches us that sometimes God comes to see about us and sometimes we have to go see about God. Habakkuk is a witness that prayer works, but you have to persevere. He is a witness that sometimes you pray and all you get is silence. He is a witness that there are no easy answers and no easy fixes. But Habakkuk is also a witness that there is a God who hears, even when we don’t hear back, even when the world is on fire, even when there is blood in the streets, even when women aren’t safe outdoors or indoors, even when children aren’t safe in church, even when legal protections are being rolled back for queer folk, even when the door is shut in the face of the stranger, the refugee, and the immigrant, even when walls are being built to divide humanity and children are being put into cages there is a God who hears her people’s cry. There is a God who sees her people’s pain. And there is a God who will respond even when a mere human being asks without sin or shame, “What are you doing? We are dying down here! There is violence all around!”

Habakkuk and God had that kind of relationship. So Habakkuk had expectations of God because they were in that long-term relationship. And it was long-term, intergenerationally long-term. Here is a hard truth; every generation that cries out doesn’t get liberation in their generation. The Israelites had 420 years of Egyptian slavery, 120 years of Assyrian decimation, 300 years of Babylonian domination, 200 years of Greek subjugation, and 720 years of Roman occupation until the fall of the Western Empire. Liberation is a long-term multi-generational project. We cry to heaven for our own sakes, for the sake of our children, and for those yet to come just as our ancestors did for us during the 400 years of American and European chattel slavery, almost 100 years of Jim and Jane Crow, and down until the present day. And we are still not all free.

The work of liberation takes a long time. Folk died waiting on their freedom. We do this work–work and pray, pray and work, pray for the strength to do the work and work while praying. We pray with our bodies, standing, kneeling, marching with our fists up. We pray with our votes and driving other folk to vote. We pray and work for our freedom, our children’s freedom and the freedom of those who will come after knowing we may not see it. Not all of our ancestors died free. We work and pray for liberation any way knowing our work is not just for us. Like Habakkuk we do it for the people. We do it for the fam. We do it for the culture. We do it for those not yet born as our ancestors worked and prayed for us. And we join Habakkuk and the ancestors across time crying out:

2 HOLY ONE, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? I cry out to you “Violence!” and you do not save. 3 Why do you make me see wrong-doing and behold trouble? Despoliation and violence are before me; litigation and contention arise. 4 So the law becomes powerless and justice has been aborted. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

Slave catchers wear new badges, free black folk are a threat for standing, breathing, blinking, selling lemonade, playing with toys, shopping, drinking coffee, using the restroom, sitting on your own damn couch in your own damn home. They’ve been trying to take back our vote from the moment they “gave” it to us. Incarceration has replaced plantation while still providing low cost labor whose lives are even cheaper. Need a chain gang? Rent a prisoner. Forrest fire? Rent a prisoner. Arrest, conviction, incarceration, execution all at greater rates per capita than other folk. There is no justice and no peace in these streets and so we kneel, and rage, and pray, and shout, “How long?!”

How long? How long will black women have to fear sexual assault from men inside our communities and homes in addition to the predation of colonizers? How long? How long will our children in Flint be poisoned by their own government? How long? How long will the wicked prosper? How long? How long will liars thrive? How long? How long will lying, hypocrisy, cheating, violent rage, and a history of sexual assault be qualifications for leadership? How long?

Then the God who is Immanu-El, Emmanuel, God with us, with us in our suffering, the God who welcomes our heart’s cries even when other folk say you can’t talk to God like that, the Holy God who accompanied her people in freedom and captivity, answered her prophet’s cry. She didn’t say, “I call prophets; you don’t call me.” She didn’t say, “Don’t come if I didn’t send for you.” She said, “Baby, I got this. I got you.” God said, “I been planning my work and working my plan. Empires fall. Colonizers get colonized. Conquerors get conquered. If you live by the sword you die by the sword.”

5 Look at the nations, and see! Be astonished! Be astounded! For a work is being worked in your days that you would not believe if you were told. 6 Look! It is I who rouses the Chaldeans, that fierce and impetuous nation, that stomps through the breadth of the earth to seize dwellings not their own. 7 Dreadful and frightful are they; they invent their own justice and majesty. 8 Swifter than leopards are their horses, and more menacing than wolves at dusk; then their cavalry charges. Their cavalry comes from far away; they fly like an eagle swift to devour. 9 They all come for violence, advancing face front; they gather captives like sand. 10 At monarchs they scoff, and of rulers they make sport. At every fortress they laugh, and heap up earth to take it.

Then Habakkuk, bless his heart–if you’re from Texas you know that’s not really a blessing–Habakkuk says, “What else you got?” Boy, don’t you know that you’re talking to the Living God? You can’t just come out of your mouth any way you want! But Habakkuk and God are in a serious relationship; they got a thang going on. They know each other well enough to know how they can talk to each other because there is the kind of respect and trust that comes from putting in the time. Habakkuk and God had been together long enough to be comfortable in that thing.

But yet and still, Habakkuk comes correct:  Are you not from time-before-time, ANCIENT ONE, my God, my Holy One? You will never die.

After giving honor to the head of his life and protocol to the one he knew to call, Habakkuk gave God a piece of his mind. The Chaldeans? The Chaldeans are your plan? They are seriously bad news and need to be on their way to their own judgment:

HOLY ONE, it is for judgment that you have marked them; O Rock, for discipline that you have positioned them. Your eyes are too pure to behold evil, and you cannot look on wrongdoing; why then do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?

Habakkuk gives God a piece of his mind. He doesn’t hold back. He tells God his whole mind, continuing past our lesson. It is this almost womanist Habakkuk talking back to God because she or he loves the people so much who draws me to this text. Habakkuk is in good company. Job teaches us that crying out and talking back to God is not limited to prophets. Job also teaches not to worry about whether anyone else thinks our theology is correct or even if everyone else thinks we need to apologize to God, say your piece anyway. God is big enough to handle it. Rebekah and Hannah teach us that you can cry out to God on your own behalf. And the Syro-Phoenician woman teaches us that crying out to God is not limited to Israelites. There is a God who hears and will hear anybody and everybody.

God hears. Even when God does not intervene. Even then God is with you in the midst of the violence. God is with you when you are violated. God is with you on lockdown. God is with you in the streets. God is with you when you’re calling God on the carpet for the senseless violence all around and arguing with God about how to handle it.

Having said his piece Habakkuk waited on God. Sometimes you have to wait.

I will stand at my watchpost and station myself on the rampart. I will keep watch to see what God will say to me…If God tarries, I will wait for God…

For it is God who makes all things new. It is God who tears tyrants from their thrones. It is God who sets the captives free. It is God who holds wicked men to account for their wicked deeds. It is God who will answer Habakkuk’s prayer and ours. It is God who will set us free from every unjust structure. It is God. It is God to whom Habakkuk turned. For it is God who will not only deliver us but it is God who will strengthen our arms to tear down and uproot every structural oppression, white supremacy, patriarchy, misogyny, heterosexism, homophobia, and transphobia and to strike down ever policy, law, bias, and hatred that props them up. It is God who accompanies us in the Spirit, in the Word, and in the world. It is God who came to be one of us in a woman’s intimate flesh. It is God who subjected Godself to the frailty of human skin. It is God who lived and loved, cried and died as one of us. It is God who stood against the colonizing gospel of empire perched on an upraised cross. It is God who refused to give death the final word. It is God who turned the world upside down, inside out, and shook the saints out of their graves, rising to commission the apostles to the apostles, women whose words about life and death, violence and violation would be scorned to the present day. It is God who will answer Habakkuk’s prayer and ours. One day. Amen.

 

The lesson in three parts with three readers; my translation.

(Narrator) Habakkuk 1:1 The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.

(Habakkuk) 2 HOLY ONE, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? I cry out to you “Violence!” and you do not save. 3 Why do you make me see wrong-doing and behold trouble? Despoliation and violence are before me; litigation and contention arise. 4 So the law becomes powerless and justice has been aborted. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

(God) 5 Look at the nations, and see! Be astonished! Be astounded! For a work is being worked in your days that you would not believe if you were told. 6 Look! It is I who rouses the Chaldeans, that fierce and impetuous nation, that stomps through the breadth of the earth to seize dwellings not their own. 7 Dreadful and frightful are they; they invent their own justice and majesty. 8 Swifter than leopards are their horses, and more menacing than wolves at dusk; then their cavalry charges. Their cavalry comes from far away; they fly like an eagle swift to devour. 9 They all come for violence, advancing face front; they gather captives like sand. 10 At monarchs they scoff, and of rulers they make sport. At every fortress they laugh, and heap up earth to take it. 11 Then a spirit swept them; and they passed through and became guilty; they whose own strength was their god.

(Habakkuk) 12 Are you not from time-before-time, ANCIENT ONE, my God, my Holy One? You will never die. HOLY ONE, it is for judgment that you have marked them; O Rock, for discipline that you have positioned them. 13 Your eyes are too pure to behold evil, and you cannot look on wrongdoing; why then do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?

When Gomer Looks More Like God

Some men love to call women whores. Some women do too. The biblical writers use the word whore and accusations of whoring freely and freely attribute them to God. Reading a text like Hosea can easily have you convinced God–or somebody–is fixated on women’s bodies and sexuality as though we are the genesis of everything that is wrong with the world. (I’m looking at you Tertullian and your modern day disciples who are too numerous to name.) Today I want to talk about what happens when that pastor you respect and believe hears from and speaks for God starts slut-shaming women from the pulpit and then before you know it, you are the woman he is calling a whore and it is your children he is publicly denouncing as bastards. What would you do if he was your pastor? What would you do if he was your husband?

When I shared these questions online I got two interesting responses. From a woman, “I hope I would gather my little ones and walk out. But that kind of insult could render a woman almost unable to move. Shame on that pastor!” From a man, “Curb stomp him into the pavement as the congregation watched.” To each of them I replied, “That’s not how people treat the book of Hosea or any other biblical book in which women are accused of whoredom or Israel is accused of whoring just like a woman.”

Reading Hosea as scripture means taking seriously that as a part of the canon it holds authority; however that authority is assessed from community to community and person to person. For me that means I can’t easily write Hosea off, not as a pastor, priest, or preacher, and certainly not as a black woman who is a womanist. The spittle-laced violence with which this word has been imposed on women and girls often accompanying or preceding physical violence, and the enduring emotional and spiritual violence it begets mean that I cannot remain silent on this text. Neither can I by any means leave its proclamation and interpretation solely to the lips of those who will never hear this epithet hurled towards them.

But I don’t run from a fight or a hard text or a fight with a hard text. I believe in wrestling the bruising words until I squeeze a blessing out of them, no matter how down and dirty it gets or how out of joint I get. So I’ve been preaching about women called whores and the men, prophets, and God who use that language for some time now. I also don’t run away from the word whore or soften it to harlot because that’s not a word we use, but every day some woman somewhere is being called a whore.

            I let Rahab speak for herself and ask while looking pointedly at the two dude-bros who were supposed to be spying out the land and gathering intel but instead were shacking up at her place, “Who you callin’ a whore?” I sat with Jeremiah’s rebuke to Israel, “You have the forehead of a whore,” and understand that language is not just any metaphor but rooted in a system that shames women whose sexuality it cannot control and elevates that shame as a horror by telling men that’s what they are in God’s sight. My response to Jeremiah was to take the power back from that word following the example of Jesus who said, you have seen it written, but I say unto you…

You have seen it written, “You have the forehead of a whore.” Instead I say unto you: You have the forehead of the kind of woman some men, especially religious men like Hosea and Jeremiah, will call a whore. You have the forehead of a woman who will make her own decisions about her body and sexuality. You have the forehead of a woman who will decide for herself whether or when to have children. You have the forehead of a woman who will not submit to male domination in or out of the church, or in or out of the sacred texts. You have the forehead of a woman who will resist theology and biblical interpretation that does not affirm who you are, who God created you to be. You have the forehead of a woman whom men will call a whore to put you in your place. You have the forehead of a woman who is unbought and unbosssed. You have the forehead of a woman who has survived rape and sexual assault and domestic violence. You have the forehead of a woman who has been blamed for the violence others visited upon your person and you brazenly rejected it. You are brazen in your womanishness. You brazenly talk back to the text and its God. You brazenly talk back to Jeremiah and say you can miss me with that whore talk. And then I turned to Hosea, and he and God have that very same whore talk in their mouths, again. 

The texts of Hosea and Jeremiah present prophets who heard and spoke for God in and through the vernacular of their culture. As Dr. Weems taught us (in Battered Love), that vernacular was androcentric with a mean misogynistic streak, and in a shame/honor society the worst thing you can call a man is a bad woman. But I know that God is bigger than all of our images and idioms including biblical ones, and I know no one is disposable no matter how the text frames them. While some of you can roll with Hosea’s God I needed a different vision of God, so I went looking for and to Gomer and her daughter, Lo-Ruhamah, she whose name meant She-Will-Not-Be-Mother-Loved, there will be no mercy, pity, or compassion for her.

That name is assigned to Gomer’s baby girl before her birth and waiting for her at the exit from her mother’s womb to shape her destiny and serve as an example to Israel. She is a sermon illustration, whether God’s or Hosea’s. But how did we get here? The text would have us believe God told Hosea, “Go find you a ho.” I have questions for male religious leaders who condemn women’s expressions of sexuality but find loopholes for their own.

Then we meet Gomer bat Diblaim. In spite of the way the deck of the text has been stacked against her, not even the text calls Gomer a whore. What it does call her is daughter of Diblaim. Whether Diblaim is her mother’s name, her father’s name or her home town she is somebody. She is somebody’s child. She comes from somewhere. She has a name. She has people. Whore is not her name. Her name is Gomer and unlike the vast majority of women in the Hebrew Bible her name is among the nine percent of all names in the Hebrew Bible that belong to a woman. Her name is Gomer. Whore is not her name. 

In chapter two God will accuse Israel of whoring, threatening her with violence. The portrait of Hosea’s God in these two chapters is more batterer than beloved, even with the wilderness reconciliation and second honeymoon in the promised land; it all reads like a domestic violence cycle. In chapter two with all the references to land it is clear that Israel is the whore, a slur intended to infuriate and humiliate into repentance the men who led Israel. Yet in our text Gomer is never called a whore.

The reader/hearer is supposed to assume that Gomer is a whore because she is who Hosea chose. In fact there is nothing in what the text discloses about Gomer that makes her out to be a whore if that is supposed to be code for prostitute. The standard translations, wife of whoredom, harlotry, or prostitution, seem to miss the fact that the word at stake, zanah, is one letter away from the word that means sex-worker, zonah. Dr. Gale Yee (in the Woman’s Bible Commentary) teaches that promiscuous is the better translation. Translation matters. And who translates matters. Gomer is a promiscuous woman; woman and wife are conflated into a single word in Hebrew. Now I hear the charge to Hosea differently: God called Hosea to marry a promiscuous woman.

God called Hosea to marry a woman who had more sexual experiences and sexual experience than the world and especially the religious folk thought was good for her. God told Hosea to marry the kind of woman people then and now would say no one would ever want because there are different rules for women and men. God told Hosea to marry a woman who exercised control over her own sexuality, as yes, a sermon illustration. Gomer and her alleged promiscuity–with no evidence supplied–are held up not as a simple allegory for Israel but to some degree in contrast to Israel. Whereas Gomer is framed with and for promiscuity; Israel is charged with wanton whorishness. Both descriptions are still rooted in a desire to control and criminalize women’s sexual agency, yet there are more spaces in the text than I previously imagined in which I can hear God in and beyond the text even in the idiom of the Iron Age. 

Now, somehow the good prophet knew exactly where to find a promiscuous woman. And he knew how to woo and wed a woman who made her own choices about her own body. It would seem that Hosea had untapped depths. Then Gomer did what faithful wives in that context did, she gave birth to a son for him. Let’s say they were married for ten months and a day. I hear babies actually take a little longer than nine months to cook. Because her child is a prophetic sign like Isaiah’s children, God names him. You know, no one talks much about the fact that Isaiah had at least two children with a woman who was also a prophet to whom he was not married, but let’s keep talking about what Gomer was accused of in her previous life. We see you male clergy and some of the sisters too.

Gomer, like Isaiah’s partner, partners with God in the production of this prophetic sign-child. She is more than a clergy spouse who types, edits, and gives feedback on sermons. Without her there would be no sermonic baby for God to name. God names Gomer’s baby Yizrael, one letter away from Yisrael, just as promiscuous is one letter away from whorish in Hebrew articulation. Yizrael, Jezreel, is the place where Jehu went on a killing spree and assassinated Jezebel’s son King Jehoram of Israel and King Ahaziah of Judah after Elijah anointed him. He then had Jezebel thrown to her death and trampled under horse and hoof on the killing ground that was Jezreel in Jehu’s bloody game of thrones. God said name the baby Jezreel, “…for I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel.” Gomer’s son is a living word of prophecy that she birthed into the world proclaiming judgment against a man who thought his anointing entitled him to do anything he wanted. 

Some years pass, one, two, perhaps five, while Gomer wifes and mothers with scandal hanging on her name but no evidence of scandalous behavior since her marriage. Whoever she was in the past is past, but folk just won’t let it go. Then Gomer and Hosea have another child, another living breathing word of prophecy that Gomer births into the earth. This child, Gomer’s daughter, has an even heavier name to bear. Her name testifies to the withholding of mother-love, that love that is rooted in and includes the womb like the heart in heartache or the head in headache. The cycle repeats and the child that represents a third prophetic production incubated in Gomer’s womb is born and he is named, Lo-Ami, Not My People.

But there is a note between the births of Gomer’s second and third child that was not present between the first two: When Gomer had weaned Lo-ruhamah,…My friend Mark Brummitt points out that the baby, then toddler, at Gomer’s breast named She Will Be Devoid of Mother-Love: “has been so, so loved and nourished all along” at her mother’s breast. And there it is, the place where I see God’s promiscuously extravagant love in the text, not in Hosea’s words or even God’s, but in Gomer holding to her breast that baby girl who had to go through the world with a label on her saying she would be bereft of maternal love, pity, or compassion the same way Gomer has had to go through world of the text and its interpreters with the label whore hanging over her head. Gomer persisted in loving that child no matter who said otherwise.

It is there in Gomer’s mother-love that the love of God so often couched as mother-love in the scriptures but translated as mercy, pity, or compassion shines. That is why translation matters and who translates matters. Gomer is a representation of God to me. She shamelessly mother-loves her children no matter how their names are rightly or wrongly tarnished. She loves those who others say don’t matter. She loves the folk some preachers count out as dirty, soiled, ruined. And she loves promiscuously.

God’s love is promiscuous. She just can’t keep it to herself. She loves wildly and widely, freely and without fetters. She loves those who have been deemed unlovable, illegitimate in who they are or how they are, the circumstances over which they have no control, or might not even want to change. God loves with a flagrant love those who have been told they are or unworthy because of who what they are, who they love, how they love, what they have done, or even what has been done to them. God’s love is insatiable. She is not content with a single beloved people, church, denomination, or even religion. All the earth is the fruit of her womb and she loves us all fiercely. She even loves men like Hosea and his interpreters who relish shaming and subordinating women, men who inflict violence with their words and hands and weaponize their bodies and sometimes our bodies against us. It’s as though God doesn’t have any standards about who she loves.

But God does have standards about how those whom she loves are treated at the hands of those she also loves. Gomer’s first child was named Jezreel as an indictment of all the blood spilled by Jehu who was one of God’s chosen anointed kings; he was beloved by God but ultimately he was held accountable for his actions. Some of the blood that Jehu spilled was the blood of Jezebel; she didn’t even serve the God of Israel and yet she too was beloved. The name of Gomer’s first prophetic child covers even her blood shed in violence.

I see God in Gomer’s love and in God I see a love that has no equal. And I see Gomer in God’s scandalous, flagrant, and promiscuous love. A love that would see a young girl in Nazareth called every name that Gomer was ever called by Hosea and everyone else for conceiving a child but not with her partner. I see the shameless love of God enter the world through the parts of women that men like some of the bible’s prophets and some men and women today see as unclean, dirty, and shameful. I see the inexhaustible love of God in human form held to the breast of that scandalous, infamous mother. I see the steadfast love of God in that child turned man who sought out the company of women like Gomer rather than the company of men like Hosea. And I see the love of God begin to come full circle when one of those women put her hands and her hair on that man’s body in a shockingly intimate scene. I see it when scandalous women and those who might have called them scandalous stood together at the foot of that cross watching their beloved, God’s beloved, die at the hands of violent men. And I see the death destroying love of God in the commission of God to those infamous women to preach the gospel of that grave shattering love whether men would believe them or not.

They called her a whore but nevertheless Gomer persisted in loving a child called Loveless and her love we see God’s love. Amen.

 

Hosea 1:1The word of the Holy One that was to Hosea ben Beeri, in the days of Kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah of Judah, and in the days of King Jeroboam ben Joash of Israel: 2This is the beginning of the Holy One speaking through Hosea: The Holy One said to Hosea, “Go, take for yourself a promiscuous wife and children of promiscuity for the land whores perpetually by forsaking the Holy One.” 3So Hosea went and took Gomer bat Diblaim, and she conceived and gave birth to a son for him. 4Then the Holy One said to Hosea, “Call his name Yizrael, (Jezreel); for in a little while I will visit the blood of Yizrael, upon the house of Jehu, and I will put an end to the monarchy of the house of Israel. 5On that day I will break the bow of Yisrael, Israel, in the valley of Yizrael, Jezreel.”6Gomer conceived again and she gave birth to a daughter. Then the Holy One said to him, “Name her Lo-ruhamah, (meaning deprived of mother-love), for no longer will I mother-love the house of Israel or forgive them. 7But I will mother-love the house of Judah, and I will save them by the Holy One their God; I will not save them by bow, or by sword, or by war, or by horses, or by cavalry.” 8Now when she had weaned Lo-ruhamah, Gomer conceived and gave birth to a son.

 

Wisdom’s Table is God’s Table

A vision of Wisdom, “Her Eye On the World” by Shiloh Sophia

In the name of God who reveals herself to be more than we ever expected. Amen.

The insistence that God is male and only male has not rung true to more than half the people on planet from the time the Israelite Judean elite began to codify their sacred texts shaping the religions that have descended from them. It does not ring true to many of us who are women, femme, or non-binary; it doesn’t ring true to many who see themselves reflected by design in the dominant portraits of God. I postulate it never rang true to authors and editors of the Hebrew Scriptures and Greek deuterocanonical writings, to Jesus or the voices in the New Testament. The claim is easy to defend because the scriptures use a wealth of language, feminine and masculine, to name and describe God starting with the very first two verses of scripture where God is He who created the heavens and the earth, and She who fluttered over the face of the deep. Today we have Wisdom, she who when compared with the light is found to be superior, for the light is succeeded by the night, but against wisdom evil does not prevail. And, we have she who when listened to will grant security and ease. And, we have she who though not Mary is also the mother of Jesus.

In spite of being conveyed in a binary language, the God of the Hebrew Scriptures and of those that followed is not constrained in a binary box, or even a singular box, not even a Trinitarian box. God and her divinity transcend all of the names, descriptions, imagery, and attributes ascribed to her in the scriptures. She is more. In the previous century when I was in seminary, the Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas taught me that language is a tool and when it comes to naming or describing God, an inadequate one. Yet it is the only tool we have. We wield it like the back end of a screwdriver when we need to drive a nail but have no hammer. It gets the job done but is less than perfect, less than elegant.

In the scriptures the Wisdom of God is presented as a capital-P-person. She is a companion and co-creator and, and in some texts enables God’s creation of the world. It seems to me that the sorting out the relationship between God and Wisdom is much like what Christians do trying to explain the Trinity. We love us some fuzzy math. It could be said that she, Wisdom, precedes from God in the same way Jesus and the Holy Spirit are said to precede from God while at the same time also being God. So is the Trinity a Quaternity? This is what I mean by fuzzy math. But, no, God and Wisdom are no more separable than you are from your shadow or I argue than God is from her spirit. It’s not much of a secret that I fail at fuzzy math and am not much of a Trinitarian. Eventually some Greek-speaking Christians would identify Wisdom with Jesus linking wisdom and the word. But Jesus did not identify Wisdom with himself. Rather he identifies himself as her son.

In today’s gospel Jesus responds to his critics by saying, “Wisdom is vindicated by all her children,” situating himself as her child. He would not have understood wisdom as a mere character trait, adept in head, heart, and hand as it means so often in the Torah and Prophets. It is in the poetic texts beginning with Proverbs that Wisdom makes her debut as a personage speaking in the first person and sashaying down the street looking to gather those who would be her children. In the book of Wisdom she gets her own body of literature, an autobiographical midrash of her Proverbs portrait. And then somewhere in the sources of Matthew and Luke’s gospels there is a tradition about Jesus appealing to the person of Wisdom in his self-defense when people call him a drunken gluttonous party animal with bad taste in friends. Later on in Luke Wisdom also speaks in the first person, Jesus quotes her: “Therefore also the Wisdomof God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute…’ No one knows where this is written outside of the gospel but there is a later allusion to it in the Quran.

What are we to say to these things? God is more than we think or imagine. God is and is in all of the flesh the world loves to despise. We are seeing the low regard men and some women have for women’s bodies even as some of them covet them and gain access by any means necessary. Women and that which is perceived to be feminine often–but not always–represented weakness, secondary status, and subordination in the world of the scriptures and more so for ancient Israel that its neighbors. The rhetoric many prophets found most effective for shaming the men who led and failed to lead Israel was rooted in women’s bodies and our bodily processes and what could and did happen when those bodies and processes were not subject to male control.

It is I find, a witness to an eternal truth that in the same collection of texts that calls women whores, likens the offenses of the nation to menstrual waste, and describes the capture of foreign cities as rapes with lurid details occasionally perpetrated by God that there are portrayals of God that transcend the categories of gender as they understood them then. That truth is that God refuses to be imprisoned in the idiom of domination, even when that idiom supplies the most common vernacular for God. That is certainly what Jesus demonstrated reveling with those who enjoyed the pleasure their bodies afforded with food and wine. Sinners, tax collectors, drunks and gluttons can easily be read as sex workers and women outside of male control, the wealthy whose practices exploit the poor, drunks and addicts of all kinds, and people whose bodies were uses as a pretext for fat and body shaming. Sometimes prostitutes are specified as his companions other times included or represented by “sinners.” It’s the tax collectors who mess me up. They are not on my politically correct marginalized team. But Jesus still rolls with them, finding God’s presence in each one. The diversity of his companions, the diversity of humanity and the human condition are all markers for the expansiveness of God’s nature and love. He learned that love from both his mamas. Mama Mary taught him a love that put puts one’s vey body on the line for the beloved and Mother Wisdom taught him to find his beloveds in the streets and welcome them home.

God is so much bigger than our culture and customs, vernacular and idiom, and if we listen to Wisdom and her child Jesus and follow their holy example we will find so much more than new language for God. These diverse portraits tell me that God cannot be fully known on the upside of power curves. Here the presence of the tax collectors helps me. Partying with Jesus exposes them to a side of humanity they may have never seen or forgotten, reminding them that the world is bigger than their world and there is something much more valuable than money, the knowledge of the fullness of God represented by the diversity of her children.

I put it more strongly: The tycoon cannot know God fully with out knowing her as a hungry child knows her. A white supremacist cannot know God without knowing the God of black church mothers who is a mother to the motherless. The homophobic heterosexist cannot know God without knowing the queer God in all zir transcendent trans-ness. The law and order cop cannot fully know God without knowing the God of the black person executed in the street without the benefit of a trial. The supercessionist cannot know God fully without knowing how her Jewish and Muslim children experience her.

The boundary crossing God inhabits and transcends all of our categories, marking each one, each aspect of ourselves, our identities, our bodies, as holy, as fit for the divine, for after all it was in the much demonized reproductive space of a woman’s body that God became incarnate in a family of choice that defied their own categories: A God who fathered without genitalia, a woman who made her own reproductive choice, a celibate partner (for a time), and another mother, or if you distinguish Wisdom from the Holy Spirit, two. Come, let us sup at Wisdom’s table. Amen.

Luke 7:31 “To what then will I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? 32 They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another,

‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; 
we wailed, and you did not weep.’

33 For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon’; 34 the Son of Mary has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ 35 Nevertheless, wisdom is vindicated by all her children.”

Wisdom 7:26 For she is a reflection of eternal light,
a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness.
27 Although she is but one, she can do all things,
and while remaining in herself, she renews all things;
in every generation she passes into holy souls
and makes them friends of God, and prophets;
28 for God loves nothing so much
as the person who lives with wisdom.
29 She is more beautiful than the sun,
and excels every constellation of the stars.
Compared with the light she is found to be superior,
30 for it is succeeded by the night,
but against wisdom evil does not prevail.
8:1 She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and she orders all things well.

Proverbs 1:20 Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice.
21 At the busiest corner she cries out;
at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:
22 “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
and fools hate knowledge?
23 Give heed to my reproof;
I will pour out my thoughts to you;
I will make my words known to you.
24 Because I have called and you refused,
have stretched out my hand and no one heeded,
25 and because you have ignored all my counsel
and would have none of my reproof,
26 I also will laugh at your calamity;
I will mock when panic strikes you,
27 when panic strikes you like a storm,
and your calamity comes like a whirlwind,
when distress and anguish come upon you.
28 Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer;
they will seek me diligently, but will not find me.
29 Because they hated knowledge
and did not choose the fear of the Holy One,
30 would have none of my counsel,
and despised all my reproof,
31 therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way
and be sated with their own devices.
32 For waywardness kills the simple,
and the complacency of fools destroys them;
33 but those who listen to me will be secure
and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.”