Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Latest

Priscilla: Pastor, Preacher, Apostle

Church of the Scarlet Thread : 7.26.2020

Featuring Rev. Wil Gafney and Anasuya Isaacs

Sermon begins at 34:33

The Magdala Stone illustrates the temple with the oldest know image of the menorah.

The Magdala Stone represents a tangible connection to the world of Mary Magdalene whether she attended the synagogue there or not.

God of our mothers, Hagar, Sarah and Keturah, fold us under the shelter of your wings with all your children of every race and every faith and may God who is Majesty, Mercy, and Mystery speak words of life, love, and liberation through these words. Amen.

When I teach an intro to the Hebrew Bible, I start by saying that the beginning of the scriptures could be in this verse in Genesis or that verse in Lamentations, in the book of Psalms or the books of Kings, that the story of the sacred stories has many beginnings and many tellings. So it is with many, if not all stories. It is so for the stories of Jesus and the stories of the women and men who first followed him, and the stories of the church they built. The story of how stories were and are told holds lessons for those who will hear whether you are part of the story of Jesus or not. Indeed, I welcome the sisters and other kinfolk from diverse traditions gathered on clouds of electrons to consider the tellings of your own sacred stories, official and unofficial, as I offer a telling of this one.

The story of Jesus and those who tell his story may begin for some with the gospels and the story of a miraculous pregnancy. At least that is what the table of contents suggest. Tables of contents are implicitly suggested reading sequences. But suggested by whom? All of our stories have editors behind the curtains who curate or shape what we read. Scholars of the text will tell us that another beginning to the story of Jesus is the epistles, the letters written by the presumptively male followers of his followers to tell his story because the first hand eye-witnesses had died or were dying. Some of the accounts of those witnesses would later be written down as gospels and some of them would be canonized, receiving official table of contents status. Again, hidden hands, male hands, shape the contours of the story of these sacred stories.

Some may well ask, why bother with these stories when the voices of women and gender-full kin are so few and far between and the words on their lips – even if not placed there by men – are edited to serve their interests, articulating their theology that places them at the center of all things and creates a god in their male image who is as patriarchal and, in many cases, as misogynistic, murderous and slave-holding as they. We do so, I do so, because I have found in them words of life and a God who transcends every idol constructed in or out of the text, even those constructed with the words of the text.

I’m asked over and over again why I stick with these scriptures and their androcentrism and their marginalization of women and their portraits of God that sometimes look like a small-minded human man. The answer is the same: In spite of their Iron Age theology and all of its limitations – and sometimes because of it and them – the word of God shines through all the cobwebs and encrustations and with it, the God who is too big to be confined to text or tradition or religion or denomination, the God who Is and who loves and who is Love.

Even ordinary literature transcends the hands that write it and the context and limitations of its production. Great literature and art and music soar across continents and cultures and peoples and places and language and limitations. The scriptures are more even than this. They are, in my reading and hearing and praying and preaching, imbued with the voice of God. Not in the strictures of literalism, for that would not be possible with their many originating manuscripts with their many differences or in their many translated languages – some of which don’t even have the same grammatical structures as their original languages, but in the power that illumines, transforms, convicts, inspires and, reveals.

And so, I turn to the scriptures knowing that there are stories within the stories, stories among the stories, stories between the stories, and stories behind the stories if we know where to look and listen. And in the story of Paul and his chest-thumping exploits, late to the apostle game, always chasing the legacy of the Apostle to the Apostles, Miriam of Magdala whom you know as Mary Magdalene, there is another story, the story of Priscilla, preacher, pastor, professor and – I will postulate – apostle, indeed, there are some scholars who credit her with authoring the epistle to the Hebrews in whole or in part.

Identities are complex things; we are all of us, many things at once. Priscilla was a Jewish Christian woman living in Rome with her husband Aquila, also Jewish, also a follower of Jesus and, a Turk in today’s reckoning; he was from the Pontus region of what is now Turkey on the shores of the Black Sea. This story is set in a time when the Jewish followers of Jesus still understood themselves to be Jewish, and attended synagogue and the pilgrim festivals at the temple in Jerusalem and kept kosher and in all ways were faithful observant Jews. That’s why Paul would take time off from his evangelizing and go back to Jerusalem for the holy days (Acts 20:16).

Priscilla and her husband were thrown out of Italy when the emperor Claudius expelled the Jews as so many world leaders, including Christian leaders, would do throughout the ages. Ironically, following Jesus didn’t make them any less Jewish to him any more than the Nazis would spare Jews who converted. Priscilla and Aquila traveled to Corinth in Greece where Paul who was from the southern, Mediterranean, side of Turkey – then a collection of Roman provinces – sought them out. He stayed with them and they worked together as tentmakers, their shared previous occupation.

These scant verses reveal some things that we might overlook if we focus too closely on who the larger story centers. The story of Priscilla and Aquila is in service to the story of Paul. But if we leave him to his tents and his travels we might note that the different storytellers of these epistles, from Romans 16:3 at Paul’s hand to 2 Timothy 4:19, perhaps at the hand of one of his imitators and, the Acts account penned by the author of the Gospel of Luke, all name Priscilla first, before her husband, if not smashing the patriarchy, then inverting the common hierarchy. Priscilla and Aquila were known to Paul, he sought them out and accepts them and their marriage on their terms. There is no women’s work or men’s work or keep your woman in the house, barefoot and pregnant. They all have the same job without regard to gender or its performance. It is hot heavy strenuous work and they do it together.

Priscilla and Aquila and Paul share another vocation; they are all of them, preachers and teachers of the gospel. Perhaps having raised enough money to fund a missionary journey with their tentmaking, Priscilla and Aquila and Paul travel homewards to Syria where they recede into the background while Paul has some adventures. They travel together again, this time to Ephesus in Turkey where they part company. Here they encounter a Jewish man who is learned in their shared scriptures but seemingly new to the path of Jesus. He is by birth an African, native to Egypt where there were colonies of Jews from the time of the Babylonian invasion including later his home, Alexandria. Identities are complex things. His name was Apollos and perhaps he had only just finished his first year of seminary. He had learned of John’s baptism but apparently not that of Jesus or that of and in the Holy Spirit. But he worked well with what he knew and was well regarded as a passionate fiery preacher deeply rooted in the scriptures.

Then Priscilla and Aquila got their hand on him, the sequence of their names suggesting to many scholars that she was the theological heavyweight and lead pastor and teaching elder. They got Apollos some supplemental theological education, some continuing ed; Priscilla took him to school and he went on his way preaching better because he knew better. Where Priscilla and Aquila went next or stayed is not entirely clear. In his epistle to the Romans (16:3-5), Paul bids his hearers and readers to greet them as his coworkers (and I argue) as his fellow – make that sibling – apostles. He describes all the gentile churches giving thanks to them, Priscilla and Aquila, calling her by a shortened version of her name Prisca, still positioned before her husband and, Paul commends his hearers and readers to greet the church in their house. The church that they, or perhaps just she, pastors.

In 1 Corinthians 16:19 Paul extends greeting on behalf of Aquila and Prisca, reversing the order of their names. In 2 Timothy 4:19 the writer speaking as Paul urges his hearers and readers to greet Prisca and Aquila. They are revered elders in the fledgling community, sending and receiving greetings and gratitude for their ministry in and through the correspondence of Paul. These few verses tell the story of a woman, wife, preacher, teacher, pastor and I will say, apostle, whose story is folded within the seams of the story of a towering figure of the faith whose shadow looms long, one of the “great men” of the bible. Finding, unraveling and reweaving Priscilla’s story drives home how much it matters who tells the stories of our lives and our faiths, what stories they choose to reveal the heart of God, the love of God, the incarnation of God.

What stories will you choose to tell? Whose stories will you give voice to with paint and pen, poetry and preachment? Who are the women and men and nonbinary folk in your religious heritage, in your ancestry, in your community whom you will seek out and bring into focus for others out of the shadows of towering figures and officially designated heroes? Will you stand on the shoulders of Priscilla the Apostle as she stood on the shoulders of those who came before her?

Since I’m a black preacha-woman, let me go into the bag of my sanctified imagination and have a little talk with Apostle Priscilla – I won’t take the liberty of being overfamiliar and addressing her as Prisca without an invitation because I’m from a people who know to put a handle on the names of our elders. Madam Apostle, what made you think you could stand alongside men like Paul and your husband and do what they did, traveling the world to preach the gospel and making tents?

Well child, it never occurred to me that I couldn’t. I serve a God who will call anybody because she calls everybody to do something at one time or another. I serve the God from whose womb the universe was born, the God who took Job (38:8-9, 29) to school and asked him,

“Who shut in the sea with doors
when it burst out from my womb,
when I crocheted the clouds as its onsie,
and knitted thick darkness as its blankie?
From whose womb did the ice come forth,
and who has given birth to the hoarfrost of heaven?”

I serve the God of Shifra and Puah who heard what that man on the throne had to say and went on about their business, women’s business, life-saving business. I serve the God of Miriam, the mother of all prophets and her prophet-daughters Deborah, Huldah, Noadiah and that woman Isaiah had all those children with. I serve the God of women whose names menfolk chose to omit and forget but whom God has never forgotten. I serve the God of Judean queens who held the throne when their menfolk were murdered and their boy-folk were yet toddling. I serve the God of Yael and Yehudit, Jael and Judith, who weren’t afraid to cut a man who needed cutting. I serve the God who trusted women with the Word of God on their tongues and in their wombs. I serve the God of Miriam of Nazareth and Miriam of Magdala whom she trusted to love and nurture her son from womb to tomb. I serve the God who called Miriam of Magdala, Mary Magdalen, as the Apostle to the Apostles and not Paul. How could I not stand and preach? How could I not go and teach?

No man, no woman, no person of any kind or any sort will keep me from preaching and teaching the love of God embodied, incarnate in Christ Jesus. I serve a God who called me and sent me and I went. I went and I told the story of Jesus. And no matter how much or how many folk try to make the story about Paul and his failings and his biases and the time he said or someone said he said that women couldn’t or shouldn’t teach, he came to me; he worked with me and when he told the story, he called me by my name and he called my name first.

When we tell the story of the scriptures and the stories they contain, we create a new world of stories in and from those sacred stories. Imagine if the way we entered into the story of the Church and the gospel she proclaims was this passage from Romans 16:

Romans 16:1 I commend to you all our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae, 2 so that you all may receive her in Christ as is worthy of the saints, and stand by her in whatever thing she may need of you, for she has been a benefactress of many, and of myself as well. 3 Greet Prisca and Aquila, my coworkers in Christ Jesus, 4 and who for my life risked their necks, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles 5 and (greet), the church in their house. Greet Epaenetus my beloved, who was the first fruit in Asia for Christ. 6 Greet Mary, who has worked much among you all. 7 Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kin and my fellow prisoners; they are eminent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was. 8 Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in Christ. 9 Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ, and Stachys my beloved. 10 Greet Apelles, who is proven in Christ. Greet those who belong to Aristobulus. 11 Greet Herodion, my kinsman. Greet those who belong of Narcissus in Christ. 12 Greet Tryphaena and Tryphosa (sisters) who toil in Christ. Greet the beloved Persis who has worked much in Christ. 13 Greet Rufus, chosen in Christ, and greet his mother who is also mine. 14 Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the sisters and brothers who are with them. 15 Greet Philologus and Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints with them. 16 Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you.

If our Christian scriptures started with this passage, we might get the idea that women and men built the church of God together with likeminded folk from diverse places. We might then need to read the other stories in light of this story and our determination about which model of leadership in the early church was normative might shift so that we see collaboration and partnership as the norm and anything else as missing the mark, or perhaps even heresy. It matters how we tell our stories. It matters who tells our stories. It matters who we include in our stories and who we leave out.

Recently folk told the story of women’s suffrage but they only told the story of white women. They kept saying “women” got the vote but black women did not get the right to vote with white women. Our right to vote, my mother’s right to vote wasn’t guaranteed – and we need to talk about how weak that eventual guarantee was and still is – until January 23rd 1964; two years later, I was born on January 23rd 1966. I don’t take my right to vote for granted. And if we tell the whole story of white women’s suffrage, we have to tell the story of white supremacist icons like Elizabeth Cady Stanton who saw suffrage as a choice between black men and white women and used the language of lynching incitement demonizing black men to argue for why they should not get the vote before white women. Black women were not on their platform at Seneca Falls; not a single one was in attendance. I can’t help but wonder if she had encountered the scriptures in a less hierarchal, patriarchal and domineering construct, would she have seen the world differently? The irony is, of course, that she was a lay biblical scholar invested in telling a different story about women than the ones she heard preached. But when all the women in your stories are white women your stories are not for all women.

It matters how we tell our stories. It matters who tells our stories. It matters who we include in our stories and who we leave out. Today some of us are saying Black Lives Matter. But if we listen closely, the names of black women brutalized, raped and murdered by the police are often missing. So some of us started saying Say Her Name to say that all black lives matter. Then we realized that some folk, including some black folk, were acting like transfolk were not as human as are we are and that black trans women were being murdered at astronomical rates by folk inside and outside of the community, so we said Black Trans Lives Matter to make it clear that when we say Black Lives Matter, we mean all black lives matter. But other folk try to tell our story and say that we are anti-police or corrupt our story to “all lives matter” or “blue lives matter.” But our story is America’s story, where black folk who are women, men and non-binary folk, gay, straight, trans, and uncategorizably queer folk are subject to over-policing grounded in racist stereotypes and white supremacist ideals. And just as the Apostle Priscilla had to correct Apollos’s telling of the sacred story, we who would stand and speak and write in her name, lineage and tradition need to be prepared to correct the folk who need correcting and if you find yourself more Apollos than Apostle, allow yourself to be corrected so the story doesn’t get corrupted. Sometimes you’re the storyteller, but sometimes you’re the one being told a story that’s different than the way you heard or learned it.

Priscilla, Aquila and for that matter Paul, were called to tell a new story, a story that ruffled feathers, a story that led to upheaval and changes that were not always welcome. It’s a story that leads to new stories, new heroes, new names and new identities. It’s a story that gives life, life that passes through Shadow-Valley Death and comes out on the other side, early in the morning. As we tell those new stories let us live into the new life they proclaim.

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

Acts 18:1 …Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. 2 And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with Priscilla his wife. Because Claudius had commanded all Jews be removed from Rome, Paul went to see them. 3 And, because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them, and they worked together, for they were tentmakers.

18 Paul stayed there for some time, said farewell to the sisters and brothers and, sailed for Syria, accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila…

24 Now a certain Jewish man, Apollos by name, a native of Alexandria, an eloquent man well-versed in the scriptures, came to Ephesus. 25 This man had been instructed in the Way of the Messiah and spoke with a fiery spirit and, taught accurately the things concerning Jesus though he knew only the baptism of John. 26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue; but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him in and explained the Way [of God] to him more accurately. 27 And when he wished to cross over into Achaia, the sisters and brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him; upon his arrival he greatly helped those who had through grace come to believe.

Translations, the Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D.

Building on Sheerah’s Legacy

My “Smith Talk” at The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries Co-Creating with God Virtual Leadership Conference, 14 July 2020.


Hagar, Sarah and Black Lives Matter

Hagar and Ishmael by Alan Jones

Ahmaud Arbery, 23 Feb 2020
Breonna Taylor, 13 March 2020
George Floyd, 25 May 2020
Rayshard Brooks, 12 June 2020

And–and still: Trayvon and Ayanna and Sandra and Mike and Amidou and Freddie and Miriam and Rekia and, and, and…

And Juneteenth and the millions who lived and died enslaved and did not see even delinquent freedom. And the millions who died, who were murdered–raped, butchered, thrown overboard, fed to sharks–millions who were murdered in the bloody waters of the maafa

And the ninety-ninth anniversary of the white supremacist massacre of black folk and evisceration of black wealth in the Greenwood district of Tulsa Oklahoma. An anniversary whitejacked™️ by the the most openly avowed white supremacist president in recent history–by no means the first–overwhelmingly elected by white women who turned on one of their own. 

Then comes Sunday and before that, the preacher at her desk, my only pulpit these days as I am in a wilderness of my own. In the Episcopal Church and many Protestant denominations, the first lesson proclaimed will be: Black Lives Matter – for those who have the eyes to see.

Translation, Gafney

It is a Black Lives Matter text not simply because as an African Hagar is black–which blackness is not on a binary scale with some mythological whiteness spackled onto Sarah and biblical peoples writ large in furtherance of white supremacist domination. It is a Black Lives Matter text because it is a text that normalizes and sacralizes slavery by its very existence, unrebuked, in scripture, a foundation stone in the bulwark of American slavocracy. 

I explore the story in detail in Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and of the Throne

 

We will not come to terms with the legacy of slavery in this country nor all the horrors that descend from it which continue to shape our world without  engaging – rebuking and rejecting – the normalization and sanctification of slavery in the text and views of the authority of scripture that require uncritical acceptance. That will not be the end of white supremacy, in the church, in biblical interpretation, or in this country, but it will be an unhooding.

If we tell the truth, Hagar’s life matters to God in the framing of the story because she is the mother of a son of Abraham, her inability to consent to sex or impregnation or surrogacy, irrelevant in the text. The reason her black life matters to those who told her story is not the reason her black life and that of her son matter to the God who transcends the sexist and ethnocentric portrait in these texts. The cry “Say her name” accompanies “Black lives matter” as a reminder that violence is often gendered as is the response and outcry which often follows.

All black life matters because black life is sacred, reflecting and embodying the God who dwells in the holiest of deep darkness.

The Fires of Pentecost 2020

A check-cashing business burns as a protester raises his fist late Friday in Minneapolis. John Minchillo / AP

What does Pentecost look like when the world is on fire? A rushing wind. Does it blow out the flames or does it whip them into and even more furious inferno?
What meaning does the ancient imagery hold today, human tongues forked like fire? What are those tongues saying? To whom are they speaking? Who can even hear or understand them in the roar of the flames?
I say forked tongues instead of divided tongues because some of those tongues are serpentine.
The assembly is in the street. There is no church house. The temple is there but it serves another purpose. (Too many people conflate church and temple.)
Today’s fire is not metaphorical. Neither is the presence of the spirit. She is there, in those flames, in those crowds, with the insurrectionists and the revolutionaries, with the dead and the dying, with the grieving and the mourning.
Yet, I look at the world and I ask: Where is your power now?

Three Days Later: A Womanist Midrash

Not every woman was at the tomb. Not everyone was in that locked room. Some picked up the broken pieces of their hearts and went home. Some would have visitors bursting into their homes to tell them unbelievable news. Some would be snatched by the arm in the market and dragged under an archway to furious whispers. For some, the news would travel more slowly than for others. How long did some of them mourn him before they heard the first whisper of life?

It’s been three days. I still can’t believe it. I haven’t left my house since… since Friday. I was there, so many of us were. There, in the crowd. We tried to pretend we didn’t know each other, know him. I couldn’t stay away. But I wasn’t brave enough to stand with his mother. How can I explain it to you? It was like nothing I had ever seen before, like nothing I had ever heard before, like nothing I had ever smelled before. You could taste the blood in the air. The stench, the smell of death, rotting pieces of people, unwashed bodied, fetid breath. The crowd roaring and hooting. It was nothing new for them, but it was too much a horror to ever be routine, even knowing they’ll be back at it again. Soon. With some of us who followed him.

Some of us sisters found our voice and blessed him and his mama and he blessed those of us who would never birth a child to die on their crosses. His poor mother. She did what she could for him before Shabbat. I know she was there again first thing this morning to bury her child properly. My heart aches for her and for us all.

It’s been three days now. The sun is up, I hear people going about their business, but I can’t just yet. When I woke there was a moment when I didn’t remember and then it all came crashing in. I can’t imagine a world without him in it. I can’t imagine going to the market, baking bread, like it’s any other first day.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll venture out…

This Easter required reimagining for so many of us. Without a sunrise service or any of the trappings of Easter, I returned to the story and all of the stories folded into the story and thought about those who went through the day and perhaps the next day, grieving, not knowing, shut up in their houses, not out of fear or pandemic, but out of profound grief. Grief for him and all he promised and embodied. Grief for the world his words and love created. Grief for all of their hopes and the future they had touched for a moment.

The Church is notoriously impatient with Holy Saturday. Each year I watch vigils begin earlier and earlier for the convenience of this or that constituency. This year I’m keeping vigil with a sister I suspect had many counterparts whose stories weren’t the dramatic point of the resurrection narrative. Sooner or later someone will come to tell her the news. There will be many different versions, all jumbled up, contradicting each other. She won’t know what to believe. But she will hope…

This year, may the Good News find us wherever we are, however we are. No sick house, no plague house, no house of mourning is shut up so tight that the Gospel can’t breach our doors. It just may take awhile. Such a death is not easily gotten over. Such trauma is not miraculously healed by a miraculous outcome. The grief will fade; joy is infectious. But there will always be a tender spot, just there.

Resurrection Sunday, 2020

 

Mother of a Movement

Her child hung dying on a cross, Mary the mother of Jesus.

Her child was snatched off the road and said to have hung herself, Geneva Reed-Veal the mother of Sandra Bland.

Her child was slaughtered in a maelstrom of forty-one police bullets, Kadijatou Diallo the mother of Amadou Diallo.

Her child hung dying on a fence, Judy Shepherd the mother of Matthew Shepherd.

Her child was robbed of his life-breath, Gwen Carr the mother of Eric Garner.

Her child was shot dead in the street, Angela Helton the mother of Rekia Boyd.

Her child just wanted to listen to his music, Lucy McBath the mother of Jordan Davis.

Her child was held down by one cop and shot in the back by another, Wanda Johnson the mother of Oscar Grant.

Her child’s body was left in the street like a dead dog, Lezley McSpadden the mother of Mike Brown.

Her sleeping seven year-old child was shot in the head in her own home by a SWAT officer, Dominika Stanley the mother Ayanna Stanley-Jones.

Her child was murdered because some folk think trans lives don’t matter, Brenda Scurlock the mother of Chanelle Scurlock.

Her child’s last supper was Skittles and Arizona ice tea, Sybrina Fulton the mother of Trayvon Martin.

There are mothers whose names I do not know whose children died in cages at the border.

Police forces, wannabe police forces and self-appointed policers of love and life and liberty have left a trail of mothers whose deepest griefs launched a movement. To them and to us as to John and his own mother Jesus says, “This is your mother.” And your mother’s heart is being ripped out of her chest daily because her children are being crucified by powers and principalities and those who bow down at the blood-encrusted feet of those tin-plated idols.  These are all your mothers and their children are all your children, your siblings, entrusted to you. There’s a certain romance in saying I will take your mother Jesus, I will honor and care for her and she will want for nothing. But Geneva and Dominika, Lezley, Lucy and, Judy are also all his mother. Their care is in our hands and what will comfort them is justice, and an end to all crucifixions.

Carrying the cross by himself… Carrying the burden of the empire’s hatred for his very existence and the liberation it enfleshed on his battered black, blue and bloodied back, Jesus went to the place where severed heads and disarticulated skulls gave name to the empire’s notion of justice.

There they crucified him… There they murdered him, executed him as a revolutionary, as an insurrectionist, as a person whose threat to the systems that dominate and decimate and dehumanize could only be extinguished in a spectacle lynching. Lethal violence is the resort of individuals and institutions confronted with realities that contradict their own world view: Free black children, women and men, relishing our blackness, our culture, our music, our love, unapologetically black and unafraid. Queer folk who are not going back into crucifying closets. Transfolk who refuse to answer to dead names. Non-binary folk whose very being teaches us there are more than two kinds of people.

There they crucified him…and there they crucified so many of us. Jesus was not alone on that cross. In some accounts, he was crucified with thieves, in others, bandits, who having no way to feed themselves or provide for their family under the tyrannical whims of the empire were crushed into desperate intergenerational poverty with no accessible offramps. More than that, Jesus was crucified with everyone that Rome found threatening, disposable, inconvenient or potentially entertaining on any given day. And Jesus is crucified again and again with every murdered child of every mother and father unwillingly baptized into this movement with blood and tears.

There they crucified him…and there we crucified him too. There our shame hung and hangs upon the cross for we too crucified him. We joined in with the crowd shouting “Crucify him!” because we were afraid to stand up and die for him the way he would stand up, though beaten down, and die for us. We were right to fear, for there are empty hills and available crosses, wood and nails and executioners standing by. His was not the last crucifixion. There would be one or more the next day or the day after, the week after, exchanging the cross for lynching trees and pickup trucks with chains and police-issued ammunition and hands and fists and guns and knives and clubs. So we shouted, crying on the inside, terrified. We did not stand for him and we did not stand for his kin. And then he took all of our fear and guilt to the cross for us too.

And there his mother stood, she the first priest of the new world she had birthed. Did she say at the foot of that cross, “This is my body, this is my blood, given for you”? She stood there, mother of a dying child and the mother of a movement. Like Sabrina Fulton and Judy Shepherd and Lezley McSpadden, she found herself a member of a club she never wanted to join but not alone. Jesus bids us stand with them and not just as comfort in grief, stand with them in ensuring that not one other mother’s child ends up on the cross of hate.

Not everyone was afraid to stand with her and stand with and for Jesus. Those who stood in the face of the empire’s power were those it deemed less than threatening or they would have embraced their own crosses. Mary and her sisters in love and horror and grief, forever bound by this moment, one sister her own sister, others made family in Jesus along with one lone man, unafraid to be known as the beloved of Jesus, unconcerned about speculation and conclusions drawn, right or wrong. There they stood, his mother, his aunt, his aunties – family formed and forged in the bonds of love without regard for biology – and, his beloved. Patriarchal masculinity failed as it does and will; the men in whose names women would be marginalized in his movement were not there.

Then he spoke and the whole world was in that first word: Woman. Woman. You are the world to me. You have been my entire world from the first spark of my miraculous life. Woman. You were scarcely more than a child when you had to make a decision that would change your life and the life of the world forever. Woman. I know what this cost you, your childhood dreams and your name and reputation, and friends and family. Woman. I know who this cost you, who is not standing by you. Woman, if I call you mother will they take you away from me? Woman. There is only one person I trust to love you as I do. Woman. He needs you and your love. Woman. You can’t be to him what I was to him but if you love him as your son, it will be enough. And to his beloved, no name, no title of endearment, just the sacred trust of his mother’s love and care.

There suspended between heaven and earth and life and death Jesus loved, loved with his last breath. He loved those who stood with him and those who could not because that was his way. And that love became a movement, a movement that lives and loves and endures. And we are the caretakers of that movement and stewards of his love. The love of Jesus on that bloody cross is the love that transforms mourning into a movement that will transform this crucified and crucifying world.

Let us pray in the words of Kahlil Gibran, (from Jesus, the Son of Man):
Since your hasty visit and our brief welcome… your mother is with us,
I have beheld the sheen of her face in all mothers;
Her hand rocks cradles with gentleness,
Her hand folds shrouds with tenderness.
And Mary Magdalene is yet in our midst,
She who drank the vinegar of life and then its wine…
Your voice fathered their thoughts and their understanding.
Your voice mothered their words and their breath.
High or low, you name is upon our lips,
The master of infinite compassion…
Betwixt the cradle and the coffin…
The heart of the world quivers with the throbbing of your heart,
But it burns not with your song…
You are despised and mocked,
A man too weak and infirm to be God,
A God too [hu]man to call forth adoration…
May our God bless your name,
And the womb that held you, and the breasts that gave you milk.
And may God forgive us all. [Amen.]

John 19:17 Carrying the cross by himself, Jesus went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha. 18 There they crucified him, also with him, two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. 19 Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” 20 Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city and, it was written in Aramaic, in Latin, and in Greek. 21 Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ rather, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” 22 Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.” 23 When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothing and divided it into four parts, one for each soldier. As for his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. 24 So they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.” This was to fulfill what the scripture says,
            “They divided my clothing among themselves,
            and for my clothing they cast lots.”
25 And that is what the soldiers did.

Yet standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas and, Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” 27 Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

Preached Good Friday, 10 April, 2020 through All Saints Pasadena steaming.

Torah of the Earth

Ecowomanism by Rev. Dr. Melanie L. Harris

It is for you that paradise is opened, the tree of life is planted, the age to come is prepared, plenty is provided, a city is built, rest is appointed, goodness is established and wisdom perfected… 2 Esdras 8:50

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

Western discourses of wisdom often situate wisdom in the head and identify it with maleness, intentionally in opposition to femaleness. Yet in spite of crushing waves of Hellenism colonizing Israel and its scriptures and, the near deification of Greek philosophy and its philosophers, the scriptures of Israel and, those of the Jewish Jesus movement and early church, are an Eastern canon. There, wisdom is not a matter of the head but, of heart and hand.

Consider Deuteronomy 6:5: You shall love the Holy One your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and, with all your might. When Jesus taught it, he had to add the category of “mind” to make it contemporary and relevant in a world in conversation with those philosophers. He said: You shall love the Holy One your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and, with all your might. (Mark 12:30) Today he might say You shall love the Holy One your God with all your DNA and your quarks and quirks, your baryons, mesons, hadrons and protons – depending on the scientific literacy of his audience.

More than head knowledge, Hebrew wisdom is heart knowledge, the kind of knowledge one gets from study and contemplation, not as an academic exercise, but as a lifepath to seek and study the One who reveals herself that she might be found, studied, apprehended, comprehended. In Hebrew, wisdom, hokhmah, and understanding, binah, rhyme with torah; they are each grammatically feminine and each used as synonyms for the other. The way to wisdom is to study and learn torah – God’s revelation, God’s teaching and only perhaps thirdly “law” which is an insufficient translation on its own. Such study produces a wise heart, in the world of the scriptures a wise heart is one that is motivated to act in accordance with God’s revelation to and through her prophets, to and through her word and words, and to and through her world and its wonders.

We would do well to regain the notion of the heart as the seat of the soul, consciousness, wisdom and, volition. To stop thinking we can think our way out of the brokenness, disfunction and inequities of the world. We need wise and discerning hearts nurtured on God’s revelation of her vision for the world and for us. A wise heart is an understanding heart and a willing heart. It is more than euphemistically connected to a sage and skilled hand.

One of the most overlooked aspects of wisdom in the world of the scriptures was its skill component. To be wise of hand – an artisan like those who crafted the tabernacle and temple – is every bit as valued in the world of the text as setting one’s heart to torah. This too we need to regain, to see the wisdom of the sculptor’s hands on par with the scientist’s hypothesis. To see the knitter and the painter and the tinkerer as we see musicians whose handicraft we already value well. Wisdom’s well is wide and deep.

It is with these understandings that I invite your attention to Baruch, Jeremiah’s partner in ministry and ultimately in life, sharing his conquest by Babylon, then later, his abduction to Egypt, disappearing in and from the text along with Jeremiah. The setting of our reading is the immediate aftermath of the fall of Judah, Jerusalem and, the temple. The people who were left, a mere fraction of the nation itself a fraction of once united Israel, barely survived a blood drenched invasion and conquest. Those who were able were force marched past the unburied dead, the weak, the infirm, the aged, the pregnant, infants, small children – anyone who would hinder them – brutally dispatched or simply abandoned. The poor and unskilled left behind to eke out a harvest from the blood-soaked soil and scorched earth to feed the insatiable empire while those with wisdom and skill had their hearts and hands brought into the service of the empire to embellish and declare their glory.

The conditions under which the people lived were brutal, inhumane. An earlier chapter tells of cannibalism. Reckoned a prophet in Judaism, Baruch’s writings differ from others who promised miraculous deliverance like that of Miriam and Moses at the Red Sea. Baruch like Jeremiah has a different response, a pastoral response, prepare to stay. Bow the head, bend the neck, and bend your shoulders and knees, even in the presence of their gods, just say in your heart, “It is you O God whom we serve.” (Letter of Jeremiah vv 3-6) The wisdom of Baruch is a survival strategy for life under occupation and subjugation. Wisdom’s well is practical.

In the portion of Baruch set aside for our hearing today the prose of his prayers for his people gives way to the poetry of preaching as he calls his people back to the ways of wisdom, ways he saw neglected as Israel’s own tiny would-be empire spiraled out of control. He calls them to the study of the torah of the earth. Torah is all that God reveals and by extension, all that reveals God, the work of her heart and hands, She Who Is Wisdom, the Wisdom of the Ages, the Wisdom of the Worlds, worlds her hands have made, in wisdom, with wisdom, by wisdom. Baruch (3:14-18) calls us to:

14 Learn where there is wisdom,
where there is strength,
where there is understanding,
so that you may at that moment know
where there is length of days and life,
where there is light for the eyes and peace.
15 Who has found her place?
And who has entered her storehouses?
16 Where are the rulers of the nations,
and those who wield dominion over the animals on earth?
17 Those who toy with the birds of the air,
and who hoard silver and gold
in which people put their trust [where are they]?
There is no end to their getting.
18 [Where are] those who schemed to get silver and were anxious,
but there is no trace of their works?

Baruch’s questions are designed to remind his audience that might doesn’t make right, that the trappings of the empire are fool’s gold. Baruch speaks of a wisdom that is accessible to an occupied and oppressed people, an understanding that there is length of days and life and, light for the eyes and peace in the midst of the depredations and degradations of war. Those treasures are not located in the power and predations of the empire but in the heart of the wise; a wisdom not dependent on rolls of scrolls piled up in the libraries of the rich. Rather, a storehouse of treasures long left abandoned by those who seek only power and control of everything from the birds of the heavens to the fish of the sea and every one and every nation in between. Baruch knows that empires fall and tyrants topple. So he directs his people to that which does not change, the revelation of God in the world.

The heavens and the earth are God’s torah, God’s revelation, God’s teaching. They show us God in the world when she might be hard to see in our circumstances, a God in the world who is bigger, greater, grander than any gold-plated tyrant. The splendor of the skies puts to shame the trappings of tyrants. The chorus of the clouds silences the braying of battle hymns. The trumpets of thunder shame the hootings of the horns of war. The migration and susurration of the birds of heaven overshadow the mechanical maneuverings of military marches. Even as the empire grinds his people under, Baruch denies them their power and their legacy.

We who read the scriptures of Israel in our time must ask ourselves where we might find ourselves in them. Where their characters, editors and authors might place us once they get over their shock at an entire new set of continents on the other side of a world that is not quite flat. This nation is more conqueror than conquered. Its citizens as much a part of this empire as those who chart its course, benefitting from stolen land, plundered labor, ill-gotten gains, blood-soaked privilege built on a white supremacist foundation. And at the same time some of us enjoy the diminishing privileges of citizenship which can be nullified by legalized militias and a contemporary version of slave patrols executing us in the streets or our very homes for having been made monstrous by them for having been made in blackly radiant image of God.

Who are you in Baruch’s story? Are you being ripped from your land – a land to which Israel had at best a contested claim – or are you enjoying the fruits of a land that is not yours? If you found your very humanity denied by the empire that commodifies your life can you look beyond the temporality of their works to behold and study the torah of the earth?

Baruch’s reflection on wisdom and call to her embrace with heart and hand occurs in a context where common wisdom might say surrender. But he knows there is a wisdom in the revelation of God in all of her texts, wind and wing, sea and sky, mountain and meadow. Using my sanctified imagination in the preaching tradition of my people I imagine Baruch in conversation with Job.

16 Where are the rulers of the nations,
and those who wield dominion over the animals on earth?
17 Those who toy with the birds of the air,
and who hoard silver and gold
in which people put their trust [where are they]?
There is no end to their getting.
18 [Where are] those who schemed to get silver and were anxious,
but there is no trace of their works?

And I hear Job say in response:

Job 12:7 Now then, ask the animals, and they will teach you;
the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
8 or the plants of the earth, and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will expound to you.

Written in a completely different context, Job’s words send us to the torah of the earth for her wisdom. Indeed, the very words for teaching in this text are the word torah in verb form. There is a wisdom in the earth that many have neglected along with her care. But Baruch and Job remind us that earth and her creatures are a sacred scroll. Were we to listen more closely to the wisdom and torah of the earth, we might seek to mend rather than master, for empires devastate flora and fauna as much as they do flesh.

There is one other model of wisdom that I wish to leave with you, wisdom as the mother of the living and enduring word that is Jesus. Jesus of God, Jesus of Mary, Jesus of the Holy Spirit, Jesus of Wisdom. When folk questioned the wisdom of Jesus hanging with those who feasted and partied and drank and got drunk and sold their bodies and were abused, and were disdained, his response was nevertheless – in other words, yes, all that is true – yet nevertheless Wisdom is vindicated by her children. (Luke 7:35) For, a wisdom that does not speak to the despised is no wisdom at all.

Jesus, the one of wisdom calls us to those who are being ground down by the ravages of imperial violence, to the powerless, to those who survive when they cannot thrive and thrive in what they should not survive, for there too is wisdom. Jesus who also preached from the torah of the earth stands with those relegated to oppression, subjugation and, degradation. What we do to others we do to him. And for those of us who find ourselves more colonized than colonizer, Jesus is with us and what they do to us they do to him. We are accompanied and surrounded by wisdom, within and without.

The wisdom of God is all around us, including under our very feet. And when God completes the redemption of the world and all her creatures, she will redeem and renew the earth herself. The wisdom of the earth, the torah of the earth, is the richness and wideness of God’s love for each soul, each life, each plant, each critter, each clod of dirt, a love that in expressed in her great gifts to us from creation to Christ. Amen.

A Pastoral Epistle on Texts of Terror

Yesterday we covered grotesque violence in Judges in my Introduction to Interpreting the Hebrew Bible in Context course at Brite Divinity School. The texts were traumatizing. I was traumatized. I felt the trauma of my students and held it through the night. This morning I sent them this pastoral professorial epistle.

Gentle Students,

Yesterday’s readings were traumatizing and you may not have rested well after reading and re-hearing them. While many of us learned to look for the good news in a text or preach it through the cross and resurrection to connect it to the Good News, not every text has good news and not every text needs to go through the cross and resurrection – this is difficult in many contexts and a non-starter in some, including the black church tradition in which I was raised and was first licensed and ordained. (I’ll come back to this.)

We are learning to read and interpret these texts in their literary and cultural contexts and a move to Jesus can absolve us of our responsibility to grapple with the text on its own terms. Sometimes we need to sit with the horror like Job’s friends did for the first seven days with our hands over our mouths bearing witness. Sometimes we need to sit with the exposed decaying bodies of the murdered like Rizpah and Mamie Till and call the world to see if “there is any sorrow like my sorrow.” Sometimes we need to pronounce the judgement of God on a world in which fathers kill daughters because of family honor, because they are lesbians, because they are trans.

And those of us for who these texts are scripture, who believe God is somewhere in this collection of texts that includes pornotropic violence needs must articulate a theology of God that accounts for these texts and a world that looks just like them in some places.

For me, that is a God who accompanies, God with us. God with us in horror. And God with us in grief. God with us in the rapine and butchery. God with us in the rationalization and weaponizing of trauma. God who refuses to abandon us no matter what is done to us or what we do, to ourselves or to others. I find that God in Isaiah, in the scriptures Jesus turned to so often. 

Yes, Jesus. I do this work as a Christian, ordained to the gospel of Jesus Christ. And so I also turn to the cross and the crucified Jesus – but not because the Hebrew Scriptures are inadequate to the task of interpreting themselves or providing a sufficient theology of the God of the suffering. I turn to Jesus in he words of a song I can only hear in the voice of Mahalia Jackson, Sweet Little Jesus Boy:

Sweet little Jesus boy
The world treats you mean Lord
Treats me mean too
But that’s how things are down here…

I sit with the Virgin Mother, the mother of another black boy executed by the state and draw upon the strength of the Stabat Mater, the mother who is somehow still on her feet. I walk home with her, like her. Dazed but unbowed. And I wait to see what the morning will bring.

I am a Holy Saturday preacher. I wake in the aftermath – if I have slept – to the knowledge that the Beloved is still dead. And I take comfort in the God who is and has said I AM with you. And I rail and scream and curse at God knowing God hears and is there with me to hear. And I try to sleep one more night to see if it will be easier the next day.

And that is where the sermon ends. It is still too soon to talk about resurrection. But God-with-us sits in her chair grieving with us. Waiting with us, walking with us as we make our way through and make sense of our grief.

Be well,

Dr. G+

Holy Blackness: The Matrix of Creation

Image by needpix.com

In the velvet darkness of the blackest night
Burning bright, there’s a guiding star
No matter what or who, who you are
There’s a light (Over at the Frankenstein Place)
There’s a light (Burning in the fireplace)
There’s a light, light in the darkness of everybody’s life.

Let us pray:
God of fire and light who dwells in thick darkness,
the light and the dark are alike to thee,
open the eyes of our hearts that we might see. Amen.

In the velvet darkness, darker than a thousand midnights down in a cypress swamp, this luminous darkness, this radiant blackness, the wholly black and holy black womb of God pulsed life into the world against a tapestry of holy life-giving darkly radiant blackness, shaping, molding, knitting, coalescing earthstuff from starstuff from Godstuff. All before uttering the first word.
This more than binary God articulated in the binary idiom of Iron Age folk recalling the testimony of their Stone Age forebears, limited to two gender signifiers but using both to signal to the best of their ability that neither was sufficient even if some would use one more, to the near exclusion of the other, this pluripotent God whose breath-crafted children would bear her, hir, his, zir, our, their image, this God, conjured, confected, and crafted creation out of holy darkness.
The Poet and poetry of creation birth a story made of stories that tells us who we are, who we have been and, who we could be. We are born of blackness, starry night and fertile earth, our first human parents in science and in scripture have Africa’s soil on their feet and in their skin. But somewhere along the way we were taught to fear the dark, to fear the night, to fear the holy blackness that is the swaddling blanket of creation.
Some of our fear of the dark is ancient and instinctual from a time when we were not sure the sun would return from setting or storm or eclipse: Stay with us Lord of Light for the night is dark and full of terrors. The prayer to the Red God on Game of Thrones is in many ways the perfect embodiment of this and perhaps a worthy Advent prayer, (at least in a service where There’s a Light Over at the Frankenstein House from the Rocky Horror Picture Show is the Advent hymn). But some of our fear of the dark is carefully calculated and mercenary.
Some lost sight of or chose not to see the beauty of the diversity of creation having lost the memory of their own ancestral African roots and, when encountering a suddenly much larger world saw that our black beauty was valuable, profitable, salable. Then beginning in 1619 on this continent those ancient fears were seized upon and weaponized to build this nation on a foundation of slavery and genocide and the rhetoric of blackness became all that was wrong in the world just as Malik el-Haj al-Shabazz taught us when he was Malcom X: blackball, black sheep, blackmail, black hearted, black people.
My over-used but nowhere near retirement Black Lives Matter sign says, “Black Lives Are Sacred.” Blackness is sacred. But the world has lost sight of the goodness and sanctity of blackness. That is why it is so easy to kill us and our children and so easy to justify our deaths with fear, fear of the dark. Public Enemy prophesied rightly on Fear of A Black Planet. Fear of blackness. Fear of black people. All in service to a divinization of whiteness and light to the point of idolatry. To this Bishop Stephen Charleston says:
I have heard that the afterlife is a place of perpetual light. That’s a problem. Heaven needs night. Darkness is not evil, but a realm of mystery and imagination. The day is constant, but the night is creative. The stars dance. The moon dreams. The comets write poetry of fire. Without the night there is no dawn or twilight, no moments of sacred ambiguity, no subtle changes of perception, no promises kept or just made, a holy pledge of healing or of hope. No, please, we need the night in heaven. We need that glorious darkness, that obscure beauty, drifting on wedding gown clouds of white across an obsidian sky.
Thus, this the darkest time of the year is one of the holiest times of the year. The bleakest shadows of solar night hold the light in passionate embrace, and where they touch, shades of gray and, every color of the rainbow prism including those we cannot yet see. Our encultured fear, our tribalism, have kept us from seeing that all creation is inherently good. All God’s creatures are good by design. All of God’s children are good, born good, created good, created for goodness, good enough, even when they, we, fail to live up and into the goodness of God within us, it is still there.
We start this new Christian year in this Advent season with the goodness of God and the poetry of creation manifest in the liturgy of the earth. God is Poet and this good God-given earth is her poetry. Indeed, the earth is also both poet and poem, poetry groaning in creation. The liturgy of the earth, its cycles of sun and shadow, ripening and rotting, blossoming and blowing away, drenching and drying, feast and famine, storm and stillness, deep sea and desert wide are fluid ever-changing witnesses to and stanzas in the poetry of our lives, of our world. For we too are her poems, sonnets and ballads, dissertations of rap, rhythm and, rhyme and, more than a few limericks, quatrain and haiku and, forms for which there are yet no names. This great liturgy of creation is a liturgy of transition and transcendence. And so it is with life and death; they are not two separate polar realities for between them lies living.
It is into this life that brown baby Jesus comes to dwell, inhabit, teach, guide, accompany, heal, forgive, redeem, love and, live. And thus are we too called dwell in this good earth in our good incarnations, living, loving, forgiving, healing, accompanying each other on our pilgrim journey. We live in the waiting for the second Advent. Live in a world waiting for the fullness of redemption, restoration and, reparation. Live in this world where people don’t always see our poetry, our obscure beauty, our incarnations as Godstuff, our loving as the goodness of God in this world.
This earth is given into our care and we are given into each other’s care. Advent prepares us to encounter a God who dwells with us in the waiting earth. And Advent tells us that we are loved and worthy of love. Most of the world outside of a very specific set of churches doesn’t know that it is Advent. It is pre-Christmas sale season which began after, or even before, Halloween. Even in the Church Advent is often crushed into Christmas and the first Advent, the Nativity of black baby Jesus, often overshadows the second Advent, the return of the rainbow Christ, the fullness of humanity encompassing the poetry of all flesh, all kinds of flesh, transformed, human and divine, yet retaining enough of the poetry of the past to be recognized as the very same person, Mary’s baby.
Mary’s poor brown migrant baby. Christians the world over will sing their love for the baby Jesus for the next five weeks. But for many their love will not extend to Guatemalan baby Jesus or Muslim baby Issa who share his name. In far too many churches the stories of Advent and Christmas are used to sanctify white supremacy in the church. Introducing children to and reifying adult belief in a white Jesus who is not simply an aesthetic choice but a statement of power and domination. White Jesus is a colonized and colonizing Christ. Until the deaths of black and brown mother’s children mean as much as the deaths of white parent’s children and the windows and walls of our churches do not silently whitewash the brownness and Jewishness of Jesus, his family, friends and followers and his ancestors, the whiteness of Christian art and nativity plays will always be in service to white supremacy.
When Christ returns every system that holds people captive, dominates and subordinates will be unmade. And so we long for the second Advent. But I don’t think we’re all waiting for the same thing. The Church has been waiting millennia and in that waiting, has not only not healed the ruptures that form when we forget that we are all a handful of the same dirt, but in some cases has dug and deepened those fissures. And in some parts of the Church, the more you believe in the literal return of Jesus, the less you believe in or care about climate change because Jesus will just fix it after while.
Some read today’s gospel and see the immanent and unexpected return of Christ and all they can think of is who is going with him and who will be left behind. But that’s not the Jesus I know. The Jesus I know is in the field with the agricultural workers in the gospel. He’s with the women doing undervalued work in that same gospel. He’s not making a list and checking it twice. That’s someone else’s bag. And, I believe he is telling us this story so that we will take notice of who is around us and might not be able to make it alone.
We already live in a world where some people get left behind. In this world, people are left behind if they’re black or brown or poor or gay or trans or women or femme, or felons, or, or, or. But it won’t always be that way. While a traditional Advent reading might focus on Jesus’s return, I want to offer another reading. I don’t believe we have to wait for the return of Jesus for things to get better. I don’t believe that our problems are so big that only God can sort them out. I don’t believe that there is nothing that we can do about the quality of human life or the capacity of the earth to sustain life.
Jesus showed us by how he lived and died and lived again on the other side of death that nothing is too big, too much, too hard for God, that human dignity and flourishing are God’s dream for us no matter under what oppressive systems we find ourselves. The Jesus who allied himself with the poor and disenfranchised by becoming poor and disenfranchised will not abandon us to a world that does not love us, fears us and seeks to harm us. Rather Jesus stands with us as we remake the world that is our heritage, our sacred trust, as we rediscover its poetry and the poetry inside of each of us.
The time between the Advents is a pregnant time, indeed the earth is already in labor in apostle’s view. Now is a waiting time. Now is a watching time. And now is a working time. Jesus calls our attention to the people the world, and sometimes the church, says will be left behind. For much of human history women have been kept behind if not left behind. But the One for whose Advent we wait chose the flesh of a woman for the glory of the incarnation, that intimate bleeding flesh that the world of men wanted to leave behind, thus forever sanctifying woman-flesh and all human-flesh. And, for much of our history folk have wanted to leave gay folk and queer folk behind, yet Jesus comes to us through a miracle that transcends and queers gender roles, God-beyond-gender yet disclosed as the feminine spirit conceived a child with a human woman. From as soon as one person had two sticks while another had only one, we have left people behind in poverty and inequity. Yet Jesus came to us poor and underhoused. We are building walls – lying about building physical walls – while building legislative walls and the border-crossing Jesus is an asylum seeker. If we are not careful, we might just leave Jesus behind, not recognizing him because we’ve lost the sight and sound of the divine poetry in every human person.
We wait for the Advent return of the One whose incarnational gender poetry transcends the grammatical categories of frail human poets and translators, with that Advent will come the majesty of God, the manifestation of God’s perfect justice and love, for where God is, there can be no injustice. And dare I say, in God’s perfect justice none will be left behind.

About the texts: The Women’s Lectionary is the project of the Rev. Wil Gafney, PhD, Professor of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas, an Episcopal Priest canonically resident in the Diocese of Pennsylvania and Licensed in the Diocese of Fort Worth. Dr. Gafney selected and translated the readings using an expansive gender-explicit approach and, in the Psalms, explicit feminine language and pronouns for God. Church House, the Episcopal press, will publish the Lectionary.

Year A
Advent 1: Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 8; Romans 8:18-25; Matthew 24:32-44
Genesis 1:1 When beginning he, God, created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was shapeless and formless and bleakness covered the face of the deep, while the Spirit of God, she, fluttered over the face of the waters. 3 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good; so God separated the light from the bleakness. 5 Then God called the light Day, and the bleakness God called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, day one.

Psalm 8
1 WOMB OF LIFE, our Sovereign, *
how exalted is your Name in all the earth!
2 Out of the mouths of children and nursing babes *
your majesty is praised above the heavens.
3 You have founded a stronghold against your adversaries, *
to put an end to the enemy and the avenger.
4 When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, *
the moon and the stars you have established,
5 What are we that you should be mindful of us? *
the woman-born that you attend to them?
6 You have made us a little lower than God; *
you adorn us with glory and honor;
7 You give us mastery over the works of your hands; *
you put all things under our feet:
8 All sheep and oxen, *
even the wild beasts of the field,
9 The birds of the air, the fish of the sea, *
and whatsoever walks in the paths of the sea.
10 WOMB OF LIFE, our Sovereign, *
how exalted is your Name in all the earth!

Romans 8:18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the daughters and sons of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the daughters and sons of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Matthew 24:32 Jesus said, “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 33 So also, when you see all these things, you know that the Son of Woman is near, at the very gates. 34 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Creator. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Woman. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Woman. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Redeemer is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, the owner would have stayed awake and would not have let the house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Woman is coming at an unexpected hour.

Sources for opening:
Richard O’brien, “There’s a Light (Over at the Frankenstein Place)” Rocky Horror Picture Show, 1975 © Warner Chappell Music, Inc.
(Sources for first paragraph in order: Richard O’brien, Rocky Horror; James Weldon Johnson, “The Creation,” Howard Thurman (title, This Luminous Darkness); “black and radiant,” Rabbi Marcia Falk trans. “The Song of Songs”; “darkly radiant,” Mia McKenzie, The Thing About Being A Little Black Girl In the World: For Quvenzhané Wallis.

Holy Leviticus! Justice is True Holiness

Riggio-Lynch Interfaith Chapel at CDF Alex Haley Farm
built as an ark of safety for children

There are some verses from Leviticus 19 that we don’t often hear, in part because the verses we do often hear have been decontextually weaponized and which, even when contextually comprehended, speak more to ancient biases than to actual biology. Yet just as Jesus the Son of Woman is fully human and fully divine, so too are the scriptures in which we prepare for and encounter him, the scriptures he interpreted and reinterpreted when necessary with an, “It is written… but I say unto you…”

In that spirit and with that permission we turn to the beloved, and also oft-cited, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” and the equally familiar–if you came up in a black church–“You shall be holy for I the Holy One your God am holy.” Can I get a “holiness is yet right”? Between “you shall be holy” and “love your neighbor” hang all the law and the prophets, to borrow a phrase. Pray with me if you will, on the subject, “No Justice Without Love, No Love Without Justice.” 

Let us pray: May God who is Majesty, Mercy, and Mystery speak words of life, love, and liberation through these words. Amen.

You shall love your neighbor as yourself is the end of the teaching in this passage of Torah. And while Jesus gave us a vivid exegesis of the passage, the truth is it was always self-explanatory as his debate partners knew full well. Their question was not what does it look like to love your neighbor, but who can I exclude from the God-given charge to love my neighbor, and still be holy. (Yes, I am an Episcopal priest preaching holiness from Leviticus. God is a wonder to my soul.) See, I believe that Leviticus, the heart of Torah, has gotten a bad rap and is in need of rebranding. Leviticus is a holiness text and:

  • Leviticus is a community organizing text.
  • Leviticus is a public health text.
  • Leviticus is a get right and get your people right text.

You shall be holy for I the Holy One your God am holy. What follows that autobiographical declaration is a twelve-step plan to holiness in the idiom, vernacular, and culture of the Iron Age. (Don’t count my steps; it’s a metaphorical number and as a black preacher I really only need three anyway.) I thought I just might, for the time that is mine, translate this way to holiness into the idiom, vernacular, culture, and dialect of this anti-Christic neo-fascist white supremacist violently lethal misogynistic transphobic homophobic anti-Muslim, anti-brown immigrant and refugee – Norwegians and Swedes welcome – punitive poverty police state. Because none of that is holy. 

What is holy: When you all reap the harvest of your land, it shall not be completed to the very edges of your field for harvesting, and thegleanings of your harvest shall not be gathered. Your vineyard you shall not scrape bare, and the fallen grapes of your vineyard you shall not gather; you shall leave them for those oppressed through poverty and for the alien who resides [in your land]: I am the Holy One your God. [All translations of the biblical texts are mine.] Translation: You shall use your economic resources to relieve poverty and hunger. You shall not extract every drop of profit from your enterprises, rather you shall make it possible for others to benefit from your wealth and success. You are not entitled to all of the fruits of your labors when other folk are going hungry. Companies that don’t pay taxes to contribute to the wellbeing of their neighbors and community while paying poverty producing wages is not love of neighbor, and since corporations are now people, they are subject to the same call to holiness. Our tolerance and maintenance of poverty is not love and it is not holy.

What is holy: None of you shall steal… I am God Whose Name Is Holy. Translation: You shall not steal anything or anyone. You shall not steal people’s land­–and I know full well the biblical framers gleefully endorsed the theft of Canaanite land and their subjugation while bemoaning their own enslavement and serial occupation. You can’t have it both ways beloved. You shall not steal. No exceptions. And none are needed because the previous verses guaranteed that the poor would eat as long as the rich were eating so there would be no need to steal to feed yourself or your family. 

Let me translate further: You shall not steal land or lives or livelihoods. You shall not steal nations or their resources. You shall not steal drinkable water or breathable air. You shall not rob the earth of life or livability or species. You shall not steal wages or rob workers of their health, healthcare, or dignity. You shall not steal children or their childhoods, or their innocence. You shall not steal hope or dreams. You shall not steal! The theft, despoliation, and plunder of God’s children particularly on this land, from attempted genocide to enslavement to chain gangs to Chinese labor to Japanese internment, to convict leasing, to child-napping and caging is not love and is not holy.

You shall not steal and you shall not lie. None of you shall deceive, and none of you shall lie to a compatriot. And none of you shall swear by my Name to a lie and so profane the Name of your GodI am God Whose Name Is Holy. Lies are incompatible with love and incompatible with holiness. I just don’t believe that lying liars and their lies will ever be the oracle or instrument of God. I know some of us were raised that the worse thing you could do was to call someone a lie, not even a liar, but a lie, even when it was true. But I’m grown now and I’m going to call a lie a lie and a liar a liar.

The lies that come between us and the true holiness that is love of neighbor are legion. The lie of whiteness, white supremacy and its idol, white Jesus, have made it impossible for some folk to love their neighbors and for some folk to love themselves. The lie that human beings only come in two diametrically opposed forms has kept parents from loving their children, and precious queer and trans children from loving themselves or even loving their very lives. It ceases to be a limited understanding or misunderstanding of human biology and sexuality when you refuse and ignore the science because that’s not how an Iron Age writer with his own biases thought God thought about human flesh. 

The lie that patriarchy protects women has robbed women of their autonomy, agency, health, and lives. The lie that war leads to peace has scorched the earth and left legions of dead and dying, wounded and refugee. The lie that is American justice has incarcerated and enslaved, raped and pillaged and pimped out and rented out black and brown women and men and children and their labor. These lies are killing us and our children. And then they dare to lie on God and lie in her name. They choose the least loving and most harmful interpretation of scripture, willfully ignorant about and uncaring of its context. They sculpt idols out of their lies who bear unsurprising resemblances to themselves. There is no God and no Christ in these lies. There is no love or holiness in these lies. 

What is holy: You shall not defraud your neighbor, you shall not steal, and you shall not keep overnight for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. Translation: You shall not cultivate and maintain a permanent underclass. You shall not further oppress those already ground down by an unjust immigration and migrant labor system. You shall not use the undocumented status of your workers to pay them poverty cycle wages under the table while stealing a kickback out of that. You shall not enrich yourself and your corporate shareholders at the expense of the health and wealth of your employees. This point is so important that the passage circles back to it again and again. There is no holiness or love of neighbor without economic justice. 

What is holy: Translation:You shall not mock the deaf and, you shall not put a stumbling block before the blind… You shall love every human person and every human body. You shall marvel at the diversity of God’s creation. And you shall not just not hinder or injure your sistren, bindren, and brethren, but you shall actively work together against their harm and exclusion.

What is holy: You shall not render justiceunjust…you shall judge your compatriot rightly. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand by the blood of your neighbor. Translation: You shall not call what is just unjust and you shall not call injustice justice. You shall not railroad the immigrant and the indigent. You shall not call desperate migrants rapists and gang members. You shall not throw babies in cages and make a profit off of their suffering. You shall not deny a rape victim justice with a “boys will be boys” and “let’s not ruin this nice young man’s future.” You shall not treat black folk like targets in a shooting gallery. You shall not kill our children, our sisters, our brothers, our mothers, or our lovers. You shall not lock up black and brown folk for selling the weed that you and your kids smoke while investing in the marijuana conglomerates of your friends and allies. You shall not stand by the blood of your neighbor. You shall not just stand by when black blood is flowing in the street. Holiness demands justice. Love demands justice.You shall not standby. Love won’t let you stand by. Holiness won’t let you stand by. 

What is holy: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. We know these words but most of us know them out of context. In context it is: You shall not hate in your heart your compatriot. Rebuke –yes rebuke!– your compatriot, and do not incur guilt on their account. You shall not take vengeance or nurture anger against any of your people; you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Translation: You shall not hate the haters. You shall love those who don’t love, those who by every reasonable standard would seem to be undeserving of love. You shall love and rebuke. Love them and rebuke them. Love them and not call them names. Love them and not start a twitter fight with them­–though it may turn into that–I’m talking to myself here. Love them and rebuke them. Rebuke Donald Trump. Rebuke Franklin Graham. Rebuke black preachers who hate black women while using their bodies and their money. Rebuke preachers who hate gay folk. Rebuke white supremacist Christianity. Rebuke bad preaching and worse exegesis. Tell the truth about the love of God and her call for us to love our neighbor as a demonstration of our holiness, her holiness, because we understand that she who is our God is holy.

Lastly, what is holy: The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Holy One your God. This should require no translation: 

Love treasures children and is incapable of considering them as instruments of deterrence.
Love would wash the feet of detainees not deny them showers and toothbrushes.
Love would provide a refuge for those terrorized fleeing violence at home.
Love would welcome the stranger.
Love would feed the hungry.
Love would comfort the frightened child.
Love would provide water in the desert instead of pouring it out and prosecuting those who leave it for the thirsty.

Love your neighbor as yourself and love yourself. Love yourself. Love your flesh. Love your fat. Love your freckles. Love your edges. Love your bald spot. Love your sag and your swag. Love your melanin. Love your kinks and your kink. Love yourself through your failures. Love yourself too much to let anyone love you less. 

The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Holy Oneyour God.

The way of holiness is hard because it is the way of love. And the way of love is hard. Justice is elusive when it is not grounded in love. But we are not left to figure out how and who to love on our own. We bore witness to the love of God incarnate in the womb and at the breast of a mother whose love would stand at the cross and at the tomb. We saw the Beloved love out loud and in public in touch and word. Jesus the love of God incarnate is the way of love and our teacher and guide on the way. Jesus is love incarnate and love in action. It was love that nailed him to the cross and love that held him on the cross. A love that would not die even when the lover’s flesh was dead and buried. A love that transcended heaven and earth and life and death and every other binary burst forth into life from the womb of the tomb, still loving, still teaching, still touching, and because we love to eat, still grubbing, still greasing, still frying fish. That’s love. 

The power to love poured out on Pentecost. The Holy Spirit who moves between us with love, calling us to love empowers us to love those we don’t think we can love, those we don’t want to love, and those we don’t even like. We are the children of the God of love, who loves us to and through death to life. We were bathed in the love of God in our baptisms and we are nourished by the bread of life and love at the table. The tongue-twerking power of the Holy Spirit poured out on Pentecost gave us the strength to love. But the will is ours. Will we? Will we love? Will we love this world into justice for all God’s children? Amen.

May you love and be loved and do justice from a heart of love. In the Name of God who is Love, Jesus the Love that is stronger than death and the Holy Spirit who is the Love that covers us and fills us with her Love.