Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

sermon

Mary of God

Annunciation Tryptich by Robert Moore

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.

Our liturgical calendar is a spiral tracing the contours of the same story across time. At this moment we are celebrating the Ever-Blessed Virgin Mary in the midst of the season we recall the Church’s first flush of growth. There is another layer to the spiral: in March we added a new liturgical season, Coronatide, and as a result, the Feast of the Annunciation passed almost unobserved. On that date, nine months before Christmas, we commemorate the whisper of God putting on flesh in the womb of Mary of Nazareth. And according to that turn of the spiral, the Blessed Virgin has been navigating the unfamiliar territory of a miraculous pregnancy for about five months now. We celebrate all of the layers of this spiral in the life, legacy and ministry of the mother of our faith, the mother of our Redeemer whom some would call the Matrix of Redemption and others the Theotokas, the God-Bearer, the Mother of God and, the Mother of Sorrows. Her story unfolds in nine chapters:

Chapter 1: A Holy Name

Miriam the mother of all prophets saves Israel’s savior while just a child herself (Exodus 2:5-10); it was she who led Israel through the sea while Moses held the waters open through the power of God (Exodus 15:20) and, she grows up to become a prophet so beloved that the fledgling nation sat down on God and went on strike, refusing to move without her (Numbers 12:15). Her name Miryam, would become the name so many Jewish families chose for their daughters that we can’t keep them straight in the gospels. Mary of Nazareth was Miriam of Nazareth.

Chapter 2: An Inconceivable Conception

Young Miriam of Nazareth, on the cusp of womanhood, innocent and wise, ordinary and extraordinary (Luke 1:27-56) and on her way to being the kind of woman, wife and mother the scriptures often overlook when heaven and earth collide in an angelic annunciation. She draws on the sacred songs of her people, Hannah’s hymn in 1 Samuel 2 and, on Psalm 113. She seeks the company of her cousin like so many young girls who find it easier to talk to a favorite aunt about sex and sexuality and unexpected pregnancies. And there she hears the words that will follow her through the ages as they had followed others: Blessed are you among women. We will return to those words. 

Chapter 3: A Marriage on the Rocks

            Young Mary’s matrimonial plans come to a screeching halt (Matthew 1:18-20). The truth is that there are not a lot of men who will raise someone else’s child and even fewer who will do so when their bride has supposedly been saving herself for him but turns up pregnant with a whale of a tale. But Joseph trusted God over his bruised ego.

Chapter 4: Blood of My Blood; Flesh of My Flesh

            The virgin bride has become the Virgin Mother and heaven and earth rejoice (Luke 2:15-51). Angels sing and shepherds and sages seek her son. She is an observant Jew and will raise him as one from the moment of his birth so they travel, even in her tender state, to honor God with their gifts, sacrifices and offerings and mark the baby as a son of Sarah and Abraham through his circumcision.

Chapter 5: A Life on the Run

            Happiness turns to horror as Herod puts out a hit on the baby and sends his goons to butcher any baby boys they find (Matthew 2:13-15). God sends the brown-skinned family into hiding someplace where they will blend in, pre-Arab North Africa when skin tones would have been even darker than they are now.

Chapter 6: Preacher and Prophet

In the story of the wedding of Cana (John 2:1-12) the Blessed Mother tells her God-born son that it is time for him to live into who he is publicly as only mothers can do. And for those around her who do not yet know who her Son is, she preaches a powerfully simple sermon that we would do well to heed ourselves, “Do what he tells you to do.” Do what he tells you to do. Is there any finer sermon that gets to the heart of what we are called to as Christians?

Chapter 7: His First Teacher and First Disciple

            She who was his first teacher was also his very first disciple. She was with him (Mark 3:31-35) when he taught that “Whoever does the will of God is my sister and brother and mother.” One day a woman was so taken by his teaching that she shouted out a blessing for her (Luke 11:27), “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!”

Chapter 8: Heartbreak and Hope

There is line from Lamentations that we pray on Good Friday, casting our sanctified imaginations to imagine her praying it at the foot of the cross, “Is there any sorrow like my sorrow?” We move quickly through those three holy days, too quickly and too easily, knowing the end of the story where she had only hope, fierce and fleeting, soaring and stumbling, and the memories of his life, birth, death and her pregnancy, all jumbled up with an unbelievable moment of tenderness at the moment of his death (John 19:23b-27). Jesus said to her and to one he loved and trusted, “He shall be your son and you shall be his mother.” She is silent on Saturday and on Sunday. Perhaps another trip to the tomb of her son was just too much, too soon. We rush her past her grief instead of sitting in silence with her like Job’s friends.

We cannot comfort her in her grief but we can remember it. And in her name we can comfort Geneva Reed-Veal the mother of Sandra Bland and, Judy Shepherd the mother of Matthew Shepherd and, Lezley McSpadden the mother of Mike Brown and, Sybrina Fulton the mother of Trayvon Martin and, Allison Jean the mother of Bothan Jean, and all of the mothers who have lost children to the violence of the state and its actors and would-be actors.

Chapter 9: Touched by God, Again

On the day of Pentecost, the Blessed Mother was in the house when the Holy Spirit she knew more intimately than anyone else fell on her and the other women, men, disciples and followers of Jesus in the upper room. (Acts 1:14)

The text is silent on her after that. There are traditions that she and John retired to a little house in what is now Turkey. There is a church there you can visit. There is also the tradition that after her death, her body was taken up into heaven.

The life of her Son, his love – for her, for us, for God – all bear witness to her as do those resounding and redounding words, “Blessed are you among women.” Elizabeth drew those words from the treasury of scripture. We heard those words in our First Lesson, spoken to the widow and warrior Judith by one of the town magistrates:

Judith 13:18 Uzziah said to Judith, “O daughter, you are blessed by the Most High God above all other women on earth, and blessed be the Holy God, who created the heavens and the earth, who has guided you to cut off the head of the leader of our enemies. 19 Praise of you will never depart from the hearts of women and men who remember the power of God. 20 May God do these things for you as an eternal exaltation, and may God visit you with blessings, because you did not withhold your life when our nation was humiliated, rather you rallied against our demise, walking straight before our God.” And all the people said, “Amen. Amen.”

The context of Judith’s blessing might make it seem a strange or even unwelcome blessing for the Virgin Mother. After all, Judith prayed for God to make her deceit believable and successful and, that deceit was that she was succumbing to the charms of the king blockading the city. She allowed him to think he was seducing her, got him drunk and sawed off his head with his own sword. That is a most unsettling blessing story.

And before Judith, there was Jael. When she killed the enemy of her people by hammering a tent peg into his skull, he was likely attempting to rape her which is why he fell between her legs or in biblical idiom at her feet. His mother, not knowing he is dead, thinks he is late because he is abusing women as spoils of war.

Perhaps you’re thinking this sermon has taken an ugly turn. I am convinced that this ugliness is exactly why Elizabeth drew on her knowledge of her scriptures and chose these words and these women to bless her cousin. Redemption is a bloody business because this crucifying world is a bloody place. While she was presenting her baby at the temple, blessed Simeon spoke over the Holy Child to the Blessed Mother (Luke 2:34-35):

This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.

Today, we remember and commemorate and celebrate a woman who is more than a two-dimensional Christmas card. We remember a life of joy and sorrow, faith and discipleship, a woman who loved God enough to say yes to the unimaginable, a woman who speaks across the ages and bids us come and follow Jesus and do whatever he tells us to do knowing that we too may come to our death and in so doing, yet live.

In the Name of God who is Love, Jesus the Love that is stronger than death and the Holy Spirit who covers us and fills us with her Love. Amen.


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.


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.


Exegeting the Times: An Ordination Sermon

The Reverends Wil Gafney and Christian Briones
Sermon on the occasion of the ordination of Christian Briones to the ministry on 25 May 2019 at First Congregational Church, Fort Worth, TX.

Speak life through words ancient and new, that we might serve you, serving those whom you love in life, in death, and in life beyond death. Amen.

As I thought about what I want to say to Christian on the occasion of his ordination, remembering my first ordination 23 years and one day ago, it is perhaps, Exegete. As we shared in teaching and learning going both ways in the classrooms of Brite Divinity School, together we read the text, the text behind the text, the text in front of the text, and the text between the lines of the text. People are texts too and need to be exegeted just as carefully, as do the times in which we live. Exegete the texts, plural. Not just the biblical texts; collect and curate an ever-expanding canon as we did in the Black Lives Matters and the Bible course: scholarship and scripture–from more than one tradition, poetry, art and film, music and theatre, spit your own rhymes, tell your own stories. Exegete yourself, your heart, your intentions, your call, your gifts. And when you have done the work of exegesis: reading, listening, hearing, studying, questioning, imagining, translating, and wrestling, then do the work of interpreting God and the world to each other and to yourself. Most simply to exegete is to seek meaning, even more simply the primary verb just means to seek. Seek God in the world and in the text. Seek God in yourself and others. And when you find that which is not God in the world, in the text, in yourself, in others, call it out, to its face. 

Exegete the times. In many regards we’ve never seen times like these, and today’s pastors and today’s church must develop completely new strategies for old and new problems. But on the other hand, human beings haven’t changed a lot in in the five thousand years covered by our sacred texts, nor in the millennia that precede them. So, we continue to seek God and words from God in ancient texts like the one read earlier in your hearing. (2 Chronicles 28:1-15, my translation of the full text is at the end.)

8 The Israelites captured two hundred thousand of their kinfolk: women, [and their] daughters and sons, and they also plundered from them much booty and brought the booty to Samaria. 9 Yet there was a prophet of the Living God, Oded was his name; he went out in the face of the army coming to Samaria, and said to them, “Look, it was out of fury over Judah that the Holy One of Old, the God of your mothers and fathers, gave them into your hands, but you have killed them in a rage that has struck the heavens. 

This passage from a time when a nation was divided into two factions, where one followed a charismatic but incompetent leader, the other, leaders who had the requisite credentials, has something to say to all of us who live out our vocations in such a time as this. Context is everything. 

My students know that the keys to exegesis are content and context, that a text without a context is a pretext, which is fine as long as you are honest about constructing an out of context reading from the biblical content. So, my former students might not be surprised to hear me say that in order to make sense of the text and its content we need to know some things about its context, like what does the word Israel mean in the content and context of this text.

Communication is such an important part of the vocation we are confirming here today. So often we use our theological and religious words meaning entirely different things and never imagining that anyone else means something else, sometimes not even conceiving that there are other meanings, let alone that biblical authors are operating out of a completely different paradigm. We ought always be aware of our relationship status with these texts; it’s complicated. We have been invited into the family by Jesus as his siblings. We are part of the family. We are not thefamily.

As Christian readers of the Hebrew Scriptures we often look to the role of Israel with which to identify as God’s beloved, an impulse we need to check because sometimes we are the Canaanites, and sometimes we are the scorched earth, especially we whose Christianity is not white supremacist Christianity American-style. We can’t determine if we want to read as Israel or from another perspective if we don’t even know who or what Israel is in the text. 

The truth is that Israel does not have a fixed value. You’ve got to exegete it like everything else in life. Sometimes Israel is a person who has had his name changed after wrestling what he thinks might just be God down into the dirt, walking away forever bruised and blessed. Sometimes Israel is a people ground into the dust by slavery and its brutality. Sometimes Israel is a redeemed people dancing and drumming their way to freedom led by the Mother of Prophets. Sometimes Israel is a people with their eyes on someone else’s land and a story about their God that justifies them taking your land. Sometimes, Israel is a struggling monarchal confederation of twelve tribes at the mercy of empires that want to chew them up and spit them out. Sometimes Israel is a breakaway monarchy that includes the majority of the founding tribes and is also called Ephraim from time to time. And sometimes, Israel is actually Judah, all that’s left of the people called Israel after the destruction and dispersion of the breakaway northern nation. We don’t have time to talk about all the things Israel means in the New Testament, or even just to Paul. 

Now we come to our text knowing that in its context “Israel” means one of those two newer nations resulting from a split after the rise of a would-be despot who was equal parts incompetent and cruel. Some things haven’t changed at all since the Iron Age. In this text, Israel is the breakaway nation currently ruled by a man with no royal blood–no credentials or relevant experience in the world of the text–who murdered his way onto the throne. Israel and its kings are not in God’s favor at this point in the story, a story we should note is curated and collected by Judah. Judah, ruled continuously by descendants of David, is the embodiment of God’s beloved in the scriptures they and their descendants preserved. Judah is also where God dwelt with her people. Exegeting the text, its content and context, means exegeting the biases in the text, in the world, and in your own heart.

This, shall we say God-fearing nation, that some may have once thought of as one nation under God, was fractured into two ragged chunks and the national wound was still raw and bloody more than three hundred years later. Unresolved issues linger, even when their proponents, provocateurs, and perpetrators are long dead or long gone. Now here they are again, knives at each other’s throats, again, not recognizing their kinship to each other, again, not recognizing each other’s humanity, again. Not recognizing that the lives of the most vulnerable among them mattered, again. In fact, they were actively working to subjugate and exploit each other. It would happen again in the return from exile. They felt entitled to the other’s labor, resources, and flesh, the bodies of their women and their reproductive functions, the lives of their precious children who they didn’t see as precious, and perhaps not even as children.

As I exegete the time in which we are reading this text, in which we are calling, ordaining, blessing, and sending Christian, I find the sorry state of affairs in the text also characterizes this country. We live in a nation divided with unhealed wounds. And like ancient Israel, we live in a land inhabited by other peoples whose fate some previous generations attributed to God while they occupied and colonized the land on the back of enslaved peoples between attempted genocides of indigenous peoples. The founding fathers were being more ironic than they knew when they proclaimed this land the new Canaan and themselves Israel. 

Yet as we know all too well, being from the right folk, on the right side of the wall, and claiming the right faith in the right God doesn’t make you right. The prophet Lauren Hill in the Doo-Wop chapter of Miseducation Revelation asked, “How you gon’ win when you not right within?” In our divided nation, all of the hate, hurt, and harm are not on just one side of the borders, boundaries, and beliefs that divide us. They’re not even in separate congregations. We can’t do the work we are called to do with and for God’s people by demonizing folk with whom we disagree profoundly even on the most significant issues of our times, or by denying their humanity, human, and civil rights. Sometime the work of a pastor is holding together differing understandings of God, the text, and the world, no matter the right of it, in order to hold space for folk to do their own seeking, their own exegesis, and still remain part of the beloved community.

Israel and Judah were separate nations at war in our text, but they were still one people. The prophet has to remind them that they are kinfolk. They are still people of the same God, though there were others who said for good reason, we can’t possibly be worshipping the same God based on what you’re saying and doing in the name of God. As our nation deepens the divides between us, and some of us like Oded stand at boundaries, borders and crossroads, we will need to take the lessons of this passage to heart and remember the folk against whom we struggle are our kinfolk every bit as much as the folk who have been drawn out of our communities by borders on maps written in blood. So, when we call them to account for the ways they have failed our shared humanity, we won’t descend to the depths of depravity that only become possible when you lose sight of that shared humanity and interrelatedness of every human person. If we tell the truth, sometimes, the bible doesn’t help us in our work, gleefully disposing of those designated the enemies of God, or sometimes just the enemy of whatever crooked king, would be king, or even righteous king with the right lineage. Learning from the bible doesn’t always mean reproducing or reenacting the biblical script because everything biblical just isn’t godly, good, or even right. 

Speaking of right, the text tells us Ahaz did not do what was right like David. That’s a literal biblical double entendre. You could read it as: Ahaz did not do what was right like David did what was right. Most translations push you in that direction. You can also read it as: Ahaz did not do what was right just like David didn’t do what was right – and if you know David, you know he was wrong on a regular basis. Sometimes you may need to preach a text one way, sometimes in the opposite direction. Exegete the times as you exegete the text. 

Here, Judah’s king, Ahaz, representing the “right” folk, was all the way wrong. Ahaz murdered his own children offering their slaughter and butchered bodies to foreign gods through fire. That should have been enough, but the text goes out of its way to say that he worshipped everything but God, everywhere he possibly could. And so, in the Iron Age logic of the text that I charge you, Christian, to wrestle with every time you stand to teach or preach, God handed him and the people for whom he was responsible – but who were not responsible for him and his choices – over to the Israelites.

One of the lessons of this text that is coming to pass in our time is that righteous or unrighteous, all regimes fall, all empires fail, and all tyrants topple or are toppled. Unfortunately, they take a lot of folk out with them and leave other of folk to pick up the pieces behind them. And there in the middle, at the mercy of governments that fail their people, the people of God living under these rotten, rotting, regimes, God’s people were being savaged. Ahaz was at war with Israel in the north and Aram on the west. He’s at war with his kinfolk and skinfolk and, at war with a nation his people had invaded on the regular that was now looking for some get back. One hundred and twenty thousand people died. 

In the world in which you are being ordained, lives are at stake. Decisions about healthcare, who decides about whose healthcare, housing and supplemental nutrition for the most impoverished among us, police policies, practices and culture, immigration law enforcement, and the ever-present white supremacist patriarchy and misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, and xenophobia in which they are rooted are life and death issues. Bad governance kills people every bit as much as warmongering. And it seems like some folk are trying to do all of the above right now.

In the text the war is barely over when the human trafficking starts. One hundred twenty thousand dead. Two hundred thousand enslaved, trafficked. In order to go to war and kill, you have to accept that someone is your enemy, that you have a right or responsibility to take their life. It is such a heavy ethical burden that even those who act in self-defense can be left with crushing moral injuries. Human trafficking has always been a part of war, sometimes skirting its edges, sometimes war’s pretext, and sometimes the strategy for immigration reform; it also relies on not seeing people as people like you.

The text says: The Israelites captured two hundred thousand of their kinfolk: women, [and their] daughters and sons… I don’t know how some people decide other people aren’t people, are property, and they have the right to own and control them. I do know that particular blasphemy is as at home in the Digital Age as it was in the Bronze Age. Sadly, we know that folk traffic neighbors and strangers, families and friends, kin, just like in our text. 

The Israelites took their Judean kin captive, robbed them and enslaved them. They degraded and dehumanized them, stripped them, and since there is no army and no slaveholding system that does not deploy sexual violence, we know that some of those naked women and girls and boys and men were violated. But the text says: Yet there was a prophet of the Living God…There was a person who answered the call. There was a person who went where she was sent. There was a pastor miles away from any parish building protesting and critiquing the economic, military and political machinations of the government. There was a servant of God who said yes because Jesus said yes.

The Israelites captured two hundred thousand of their kinfolk: women, [and their] daughters and sons, and they also plundered from them much booty and brought the booty to Samaria. Yet there was a prophet of the Living God, Oded was his name; he went out in the face of the army coming to Samaria, and said to them, “Look… Now hear me, and send back the captives whom you have captured from your kinfolk, for the raging fury of the God Who Thundersis upon you.”

I want to suggest that as much as it matters that the people listened to the prophet, it also matters that he stood up and spoke up. It also matters that he did so at risk to himself, that he got in their faces, in the face of an oncoming marching army, and told them no, that he understood that there were some things that were not merely theological disagreements, not when lives and the integrity of human bodies were at stake. 

there was a prophet of the Living God.There was a person who accepted their call. This particular call didn’t require ordination; not all prophets are priests or pastors. Not all pastors and priests are prophets. This isn’t just Christian’s call. This is the call of all who follow Jesus, to stand up in the face of evil, to stand with the crucified of this world, to stand against those who savage and ravage the flock of God, to stand for the unshakable inexhaustible love of God. Amen.

2 Chronicles 28:1 Ahaz was twenty years old at his reign; he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem. He did not do what was right in the sight of the God Whose Name is Holylike David his ancestor. 2 Rather he walked in the ways of the king of Israel. He even made cast images for the Baals. 3 Then he made smoky offerings in the valley of the son of Hinnom, and made his children pass through fire, according to the abhorrent practices of the nations whom the Holy One of Olddrove out before the women, children, and men of Israel. 4 He also sacrificed and made smoky offerings on the high places, on the hills, and under every green tree.

5 So the Holy One his God gave him into the hand of the king of Aram, who smote him and captured from him a great number of captives and brought them to Damascus. He was also given into the hand of the king of Israel, who smote him a great smiting: 6 [The king of Israel,] Pekah ben Remaliah, killed one hundred twenty thousand in Judah in one day, all noble warriors, because they had abandoned the Fire of Sinai, the God of their mothers and fathers. 7 And Zichri, a mighty warrior of Ephraim, killed Maaseiah the king’s son, along with Azrikam commander of the palace, and Elkanah, second to the king. 

8 The Israelites captured two hundred thousand of their kinfolk: women, [and their] daughters and sons, and they also plundered from them much booty and brought the booty to Samaria. 9 Yet there was a prophet of the Living God, Oded was his name; he went out in the face of the army coming to Samaria, and said to them, “Look, it was out of fury over Judah that the Holy One of Old, the God of your mothers and fathers, gave them into your hands, but you have killed them in a rage that has struck the heavens. 

10 And now, you all speak of subjugating the daughters and sons of Judah and Jerusalem as your slaves: as enslaved women [and girls], as enslaved men [and boys]. But what do you actually have except offenses against the Righteous Oneyour God? 11 Now hear me, and send back the captives whom you have captured from your kinfolk, for the raging fury of the God Who Thunders is upon you.” 

12 Then men from among the leaders of the Ephraimites, Azariah ben Johanan, Berechiah ben Meshillemoth, Jehizkiah ben Shallum, and Amasa ben Hadlai, stood up against those who were coming from the war. 13 And they said to them, “You shall not bring the captives here, for offenses against the Holy Godyou pronounce on us in addition to our own sins and offenses. For our offence is already great, and there is raging fury against Israel.” 14 So the troops abandoned the captives and the plunder before the officials and the whole assembly. 15 Then the men who were mentioned by name got up and took custody of the captives, and with the booty they clothed all that were naked among them. They clothed them, they gave them sandals, they fed them, they gave them drink, and they anointed them. And carrying all those who staggered on donkeys, they led them, and they brought them to their kinfolk at Jericho, the City of Palms. Then they returned to Samaria.


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.


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.”


The Gospel and the Cross Are Political

In the name of the crucified God who bids us take up our cross in this crucifying world, Amen.

by He Qi

In the scriptures the Wisdom of God is presented as a capital-P-person. She is a companion and co-creator 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 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. Eventually some Greek-speaking Christians would identify Wisdom with Jesus linking wisdom and the word. But Jesus did not identify her with himself. Rather he identifies himself as her son. In the Eucharistic gospel for this Wednesday, Jesus responds to his critics by saying, “Wisdom is vindicated by all her children,” meaning himself. That gospel fits much better with our lesson and canticle. But I’m not going to count today’s gospel out. It too offers the wisdom of God, and as we shall see, it is a hard lesson.

“Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am?” Peter gets to go to the head of the class by saying, “You are the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ, the son of the Living God.” Most folk hear those words, “Anointed One, Messiah, and Christ,” and think of Jesus and only Jesus. But in the scriptures of the Jewish Jesus and his Jewish first disciples the term anointed, or meshiachin Hebrew from which we get the word messiah, is used first for priests, and then for kings, and not just Israelite kings. When the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek because after the rise of Alexander the Great everybody spoke Greek, the word that was used for God’s anointed whether priest or king waschristos, christ, long before Jesus was born.

Peter’s confession then, was that he understood Jesus to have been anointed by God like King Cyrus of Persia who ended the Babylonian exile, the last person called christ or messiah in the Greek and Hebrew versions of the scriptures at that time. Peter also understood that Jesus was more than someone anointed by God to perform a specific task, even one as great as delivering the Jews from the Romans which what the disciples seemed to think and want and for good reason. Peter knew that Jesus was more: “You are…the son of the Living God.”

            This is the core confession of our faith. Jesus is more than a good man or even a great man. He is more than a good or great teacher. He is more than a worthy role model in faith, piety, and righteous rabble-rousing. Jesus is more than a gospel preacher and social justice activist. He is all of those things, and more. He is more. Jesus is the son of the God who lives without beginning or end. Jesus is God’s son in a way that differs from the way we are all God’s children. And Peter got that.

            Peter correctly identified Jesus as the one God in her wisdom anointed with her spirit as the incarnate gospel, the love of God poured into human flesh through woman-flesh to birth the commonwealth of God and its commonweal into our broken, crucified and crucifying world. Then Jesus teaches his disciples a lesson they were not expecting on what that really means. The first thing Jesus taught them after Peter’s confession was that the mortal yet immortal son of the Living God would have his mortality tested and proved.

I imagine Jesus asking, “Do you know what all of that really means? It means I’m going to be hurt, I’m going to be broken. The same authorities and powers that chew you up and spit you out are going to grind me into the dust. They are going to leave me battered and bruised and bloody. They are going to kill me. And the next day when you wake up I will still be gone, dead and gone. And the next. And the next. Who will you say I am then? What will your wisdom say then?”

            And Peter confident in his wisdom said, “Stop talking like that.” Peter rebuked Jesus the way Jesus often rebuked his own disciples and the occasional demon including just previously. Jesus’s language was pretty strong, “Get behind me, Satan!” But he wasn’t calling Peter the devil. The original meaning for satan is an adversary, human or divine. It didn’t always mean the devil or even an evil figure. When the angel only his donkey could see blocked Balaam’s path it was described as a satan. Here Jesus isn’t calling Peter the devil, there’s an entirely different word in Greek for that. He is telling him that he is positioning himself in the way of, in opposition to, God’s work through Jesus by trying to shush any talk of Jesus getting hurt or killed. Peter is so consumed by the thought of Jesus dead at the hands of violent men that he seems to have missed “and after three days rise again.”

            In Mark’s gospel, “Who do you say that I am?” functions like an invitation to say a slightly different creed. The key points are in the gospel. Jesus is the woman-born, child of earth and God’s child–in more than one way. The translation “Son of Man” is inadequate and misleading. Jesus is the son of the Living God. Jesus like every preacher or prophet worth her salt is going to be rejected some point by those at the top of the hierarchy. Woe to the people whose prophets are always praised by those in power and in positions of privilege. Jesus will not just die. He will be killed, violently. And he will rise from death–not be raised by somebody else like he and other prophets did for other people, but he will rise; he will raise himself. That is what he was anointed to do. That is what it means for Jesus to be Christ. And that was part one of the answer to, “Who do you say that I am.”

            Jesus made clear that the full answer wasn’t in just knowing his identity, titles, or the history of those titles. It was in taking up the cross and following him. That is what Jesus calls us to as disciples. There are real costs to following Jesus, living and loving as he did, welcoming as he did, speaking out as he did. So what is your cross? It’s not just some hardship like a cranky boss. The cross is the price you pay for living the gospel you confess. It’s rooted in the place God calls you to to live out your confession. It’s the place where your faith meets the harsh realities of this world. Jesus’s cross was a Roman one; it was the empire’s death sentence for revolutionaries. Is your faith revolutionary enough for anyone to notice? Is your faith visible outside of the walls of this sanctuary? Jesus call us to take up our cross and follow him, follow him into the world’s broken places and make a difference.

            What does it look like to bear a cross on which you might be tortured and killed today? It means standing against policies that consign people, and primarily people of color, to death, incarceration, exile, and poverty absent access to healthcare. Our government is cutting funds to refugee service organizations in the Palestinian Territories. That means they are cutting funds that provide food, healthcare, and education through the Anglican Province there and through the Lutheran Church. They are cutting funds to the only hospital in the Palestinian Territories that can treat cancer with radiation and chemotherapy. Taking up the cross on which Palestinians are being crucified will see you crucified along side of them as anti-Israel by some folk.

Jesus walked among the poor, hungry, and downtrodden. He didn’t stay in the safety of the sanctuary, or use scholarship and scholarly debates as a surrogate for doing the work. He spent time in the temple and he studied in the synagogue and then he took it to the streets. He also took some time to himself and then did it all over again. Jesus fed the people, food for their bodies and food for their souls. There are hungry people in this land of abundance, not because there isn’t enough, not because they’re just poor, not because they can’t manage what they have. We have poverty because of inequities that are built into all of our systems. Some of those same systems existed in Jesus’ day so he didn’t just hand out food. He publically came against the systems that kept some people poor and other folk rich, naming names of those at the top of the system. That’s what gets you a cross to bear, although opening a food pantry and feeding the homeless in some neighborhoods and business districts will get you the same treatment.

            Jesus called us to provide water for the thirsty. Flint Michigan still does not have clean water. An entire generation of children have been poisoned with lead and other pollutants and had their IQ lowered. Those children may have health and behavioral problems, and later difficulty getting into college and finding jobs. Their income potential and quality of life has already been drastically changed for the worse. Calling for affirmative action to even the playing ground for them will sho nuff get you a cross to bear. Wading into the race-based politics that saw the state strip a black city of its mayor, city council, and ability to self-govern, then put them and only them on a poisoned water supply and give the army permission to blow up abandoned buildings in town without out notifying residents who thought they were under a terrorist attack–calling out the institutional and individual racism at play in Flint Michigan and here at home will get you a cross to bear.

            It’s not just Flint. Desperate people seeking refuge from violence and crippling poverty also seek legal access to petition if they meet the qualifications for refugee status. Asking the question isn’t a crime. Putting in the application isn’t a crime. We’ve got a legal process. But this government has set it up so that there are no legal routes to that legal process so if you make it in they will detain you and your children in cages like animals for the illegal entry that they forced you into. And that’s if you don’t die of thirst in the crossing. And woe to you if you help somebody survive in that desert by leaving water along the way. You will find yourself in the crosshairs of your cross.

            A final example, Jesus called out the police brutality of his day. He stood with the people and spoke up for the people as one of the people. He didn’t just stand with good men like Botham Shem Jean, but he stood with and died with the criminally corrupt bearing his cross along with them, receiving a final beating at the hands of the police before his execution.

            Taking up your cross is political. It is as political as the Gospel. It is as political as Christianity has always been. As political as our Church has always been, sometimes on the right side, and sometimes on the wrong. Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him though it mean our death. He meant that as literally as he meant his own death in the preceding verses. “Who do you say that I am? If you say that I am the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the Living God, then take up your cross though you may die on it and follow me.”

            We can no longer pretend that we can follow Christ without following him into the broken places of the world. We can no longer pretend that we can follow Christ without paying an exorbitant price at some point. We can no longer claim we follow Christ if we never leave our places of safety and never raise the ire of those who construct and benefit from the systems that impoverish and imprison. Take up your cross because Christ bids you to, and you will find him in that place of need and service with the power to raise you when you fall, even from the grasp of death. Amen.

Lessons

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.”

 Mark 8:27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ.” 30 Then Jesus rebuked them, ordering them not to tell anyone about him.

31 And then Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Mary must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

34 Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Mary will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”


This Is My Body: The Womb of God

Christ: Our Mother, Our Brother, Our Savior

[Title from Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love]

I didn’t stay quite long enough in Hawaii to avoid the bread and circuses season of preaching that has “bread of life” texts padding our lectionary with metaphysical carbohydrates through the end of the summer. And having sat through all of them, I have concluded that I like last week’s lesson better, and next week’s even better.

The sixth chapter of the Gospel of John is seventy-one verses about bread, mystical and mundane. Bread was the primary form of nourishment in the world in which Jesus lived and the production of bread and maintenance of bread producing crops was an ongoing daily task. This meant that people often lived and ate hand to mouth. They didn’t stockpile bread though they stored flour and grain. Often the word bread was shorthand for any solid food, including meat. Jesus teaches his contemporary disciples to ask for today’s bread and tomorrow’s in a world in which blight, mildew, fungus, rats, or a poor crop could greatly imperil food security and survival. Bread in the scriptures is the stuff of life, that without which we cannot survive, and that which enables us to do more than survive, creates the possibility that we will have the opportunity to thrive.

The Gospel of John talks about bread nearly twenty times, twelve of those are in this chapter. This is a crucial point for the evangelist who focuses on this language and imagery instead of–or perhaps as–a Last Supper Eucharistic moment. This is the context for Jesus’s shocking statement: “I am the living bread that from heaven came down. If anyone eats of this bread they will live forever, and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

            This text invokes the spectre of cannibalism which explains the responses of those around Jesus at the time. In this gospel that many want to read theologically, Jesus is emphatic that his hearers, his fellow Judeans, (and by extension, we who hear ourselves addressed in this text) eat his flesh. The uproar that followed was understandable: Then the Judeans, Jesus’s fellow Jews, argued among themselves, saying, “How can he give us his flesh to eat?”

            Written nearly a century after Jesus’s resurrection, the author of John is heavily invested in differentiating Christians from Jews, a distinction that did not exist in the life of Jesus. He and his Judean disciples were Jewish. They were “the Jews” as much as the people John prefers to identify as Jews, folk who disagree or debate with Jesus. The one word, Ἰουδαῖοι, means both people from Judea and people who followed the religion of Judea, Judaism. What gets complicated is that Ἰουδαῖοιis also used for followers of Jesus who are both native Judeans and continue to understand themselves to be Jewish. While the gospel written almost a century later is trying to put people in different piles, we will not. Jews who followed Jesus and those who did not would have equal difficulty with this command.

            [So Jesus said to them,] “Very truly, I say to you all, unless you all eat the flesh of the Son of Woman and drink his blood, you have no life in yourselves.”

            Jesus uses an expression from his childhood faith, from his scriptures which we now share that means human child, son of humanity, human-born, woman-born, emphasizing his mortality and that God’s power would be wielded through someone who from the outside looked like every other person born of a woman. Ἀνθρώπουmeans human and includes women and men just as anthropology from the same root is the study of all people, not just one gender. It has always struck me as bizarre that the Church translated this as “Son of Man” while at the same time claiming that Jesus was woman-born but had no human father. The degree to which Son of Woman is hard for some folk to hear is the degree to which “man” is perceived as a normative category and woman is still not quite representative of humanity. That’s why some of us are working on the language we use and hear in liturgy and in preaching in the Episcopal Church.

            Jesus whose life story up to this point was already mindboggling–healing miracles, meal multiplication miracles, and resurrection miracles–Jesus now says, “I am the living bread that from heaven came down. If anyone eats of this bread they will live forever, and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” and, “Very truly, I say to you all, unless you all eat the flesh of the Son of Woman and drink his blood, you have no life in yourselves.”

Eating blood was and still is taboo for Jews and cannibalism is taboo for practically everyone. And were that not enough, it looks like we have now moved from cannibalism to vampirism. Can the zombies be far behind? Just the other day I saw someone on Twitter claiming that Christians practice witchcraft citing this verse. It would have been so much easier if Jesus had said “spiritually” or explained his saying as a parable or metaphor. But he insisted:

            Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will also raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood in me they abide, and I in them…whoever eats me that one will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like what your ancestors ate; they died. The one who eats this bread will live forever.”

We read and hear this gospel long after church fathers fought and sometimes had each other excommunicated over what all of this means while shaping the way we hear this text. We also read knowing, if not fully understanding, that the divine mystery that is the Blessed Sacrament conveys Christ in its bread and wine, that Christ is very present in the sacrament and therefore in us. And so we too will live as he lives–beyond death. We read knowing that Jesus’s flesh was and is human and divine – because he was born of a woman and killed by a man, raised from death to life after which was touched and held, and dropped by for breakfast on the shore after his resurrection. The church fathers had fits over whether the rest of his digestion system worked after resurrection–how could there be latrines in heaven?

Too much blood and ink has been spilled over trying to understand and explain what happens–or does not happen–when a priest says the ancient words that go back to Jesus himself, “This is my body.” Each of the other gospels and Corinthians preserves these words from Jesus which are the heart of our Eucharistic feast. You will hear them today. But the author of John whom Bishop Spong urges us to read as a theologian leaves us with a much more visceral image: Very truly, I say to you all, unless you all eat the flesh of the Son of Woman and drink his blood, you have no life in yourselves… for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.

Over and over this gospel makes this claim. Jesus says these elements are his body and blood and we must consume them to share his life. He must become part of us, literally and physically as well as spiritually. And since we are Episcopalians, we are free to come to our own determination about what that means to us and are still welcome to the table no matter what understanding or doubt we hold. This table is a place of welcome and transformation.

It is this transformation that equips us to survive the evils of the world and to do more than just survive them, transform the world that has spawned them to the image of the reign of God. We have all the strength we need in God no matter how often we commune. The Eucharist does not wear off. But coming to the table regularly reminds of who it is that empowers us. The same Jesus whom the grave could not hold stands with us and within us when we stand up to bigotry and hatred. The same Jesus who started throwing furniture in the temple when God’s house was polluted stands with us when we stand against the abuse of God’s children by clergy in every church–including ours. The same Jesus surrounded himself with Samaritans and Syro-Phoenicians stands with us when we stand up to bullies at the border. Christ within us empowers us to do his work in the world. And we are reminded of that every time we receive the bread of life and cup of salvation.

            The elements are transformed and we who consume them are transformed by Christ’s very presence working in us. We are nourished by Christ’s body and blood just as we are nourished by the body and blood of our mothers in the womb. Pregnancy offers a way to think about what it means to consume the body and blood of Christ that isn’t cannibalistic, vampiric, or zombie-geist. Julian of Norwhich who wrote the song of praise we used earlier called the church to contemplate the mystery of Christ as Mother, Bother, and Savior:

Our highest Father, God Almighty, who is ‘Being’, has always known us and loved us: because of this knowledge, through his marvellous and deep charity and with the unanimous consent of the Blessed Trinity, He wanted the Second Person to become our Mother, our Brother, our Saviour.

It is thus logical that God, being our Father, be also our Mother. Our Father desires, our Mother operates and our good Lord the Holy Ghost confirms; we are thus well advised to love our God through whom we have our being, to thank him reverently and to praise him for having created us and to pray fervently to our Mother, so as to obtain mercy and compassion, and to pray to our Lord, the Holy Ghost, to obtain help and grace.

            Today when you receive the Blessed Sacrament feel yourself surrounded by the enveloping womb of God’s love wherein you will receive all that you need to survive and thrive, grow and become who you are called to be, and live in this world and the next. Amen.

 

John 6:51[Jesus said,] “I am the living bread that from heavencame down. If anyone eats of this bread they will live forever, and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

52 Then the Judeans, his fellow Jews, argued among themselves, saying, “How can he give us his flesh to eat?” 53So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I say to you all, unless you all eat the flesh of the Son of Woman and drink his blood, you have no life in yourselves. 54Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will also raise them up on the last day; 55for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood in me they abide, and I in them. 57Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me that one will live because of me. 58This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like what your ancestors ate; they died. The one who eats this bread will live forever.” [Translation, Wil Gafney]

Song of Praise, (adapted from Julian of Norwich (1342-1416), Revelations of Divine Love)

Just as God is our Father, so God is also our Mother.
Jesus Christ who himself overcame evil with good,
is our true Mother.
We received our Being from Him
–and this is where His Maternity starts–
And with it comes the gentle Protection
and Guard of Love
which will never cease to surround us.
Just as God is our Father, so God is also our Mother.
As if to say, I am the power and the Goodness of the Father,
I am the Wisdom of the Mother,
I am the Light
and the Grace which is blessed love,
I am the Trinity,
I am the Unity,
I am the One who makes you love.
God Almighty has always known us and loved us:
and with the unanimous consent of the Blessed Trinity,
God wanted the Second Person to become our Mother,
our Brother, our Saviour.
Just as God is our Father, so God is also our Mother.


Michal: Redux and Remix

For those of you who are interested in sermon craft, here is the revised form of my Michal sermon, Why Michael Rightly Despised David, edited for my Episcopal parish. The long form was preached at a WomanPreach event.

Let us pray: In the name of the God who declares we are all worthy of love. Amen.

 Our first lesson proclaims: Michal despised David in her heart. A text without a context is a pretext. There is context to be found, but not in the snippings of the lectionary. Michal despised David in her heart. And she had every reason to do so. It’s well past time to listen to the voices of women in the biblical texts telling their stories about characters we have been taught to romanticize like certain now-fallen Hollywood idols. This is the whole point of the Me Too movement: Listen to women, believe us. Believe us about assault and harassment, believe us about discrimination and underrepresentation and overwork and underpay, and believe us when we say the Church’s fixation on masculine language and imagery for God is harmful to us.

We are wrestling with this as a Church. Soon we will wrestle more intently with the language we use in prayer. While we wait to wrestle with the prayerbook we will explore a wider range of language for God, and perhaps, one day, we will revisit our lectionary. (Notice today Michal is paired with Herodias, two allegedly bad women pitted against the men that everybody knows are the real heroes of the story.) That’s actually my next book project, a woman centered lectionary which will ask “what does it look like to tell the good news through the stories of women who are often on the margins of scripture and often set up to represent bad news.” The story of Michal is one of those stories for me. Michal despised David in her heart because he was despicable and I imagine God said, “I understand.”

We love royalty in this country, particularly now that we are couple hundred years away from it and no longer subject to it. Now we romanticize it and fantasize about it, and some apply those fantasies to royal characters in the biblical texts. Many of us also learned from an early age who the heroes were or were supposed to be in biblical stories. Our forbears built this nation and brutally reorganized the world on reading strategies like these: cowboys and Indians as the new Canaanites and Israelites, enslavers and enslaved, and subordination of women to men and in each pairing certainty on whose side God was supposed to be.

Along the way we’ve begun to ask questions of the texts just as we asked questions about the world we inherited along with the responsibility to shape it for those who follow. Scripture is our heritage and it been both badly exploited and underutilized. One of the most important questions we can ask of scripture is what am I missing by reading as I have always read? Whose voice is missing or ignored? Many have read the text with and as David–that’s why our lectionary is set up for us to read his story through the summer–but few have read from the perspective of Michal, his first wife, Saul’s youngest daughter. We’re going to talk about Michal and how and why she came to despise David and in so doing we shall see that pink princess fantasies don’t belong anywhere near the biblical texts.

Is there a word from the God who loves David so much it seems it doesn’t matter what he does to any body or their body for Michal? I maintain God is God of all creation and that includes the folk on the margins of the very scriptures that proclaim God’s love for David while demonstrating how deeply unworthy he was of that love on his own, let alone Michal’s.

Michael is the only woman in scripture said to love a man who is not her son. She loved David. And David loved Jonathan, and apparently himself. She may have been in love with him already when she watched him become engaged to her older sister first. How she would have rejoiced when her father called it off. How high her hopes would have been when her father offered her to him. What might she have thought of the cost? Reading from the margins means we can’t look at the brideprice of one hundred Philistine foreskins as the mighty act of a great warrior as we might have once. Now we stop and remember that this represents the murder and mutilation of human beings as beloved by God as we are. We stop and proclaim the good news that no one is disposable; no one is beyond God’s love. And we are to love neighbor and stranger, even in a time of war.

Michal was used by her father to trap David and used by David to escape the trap. He left her behind to suffer the consequences at the hands of her increasingly violent father. Her father used her body to punish David, giving her to another man as his wife – still married to David in the eyes of the law and in her heart, probably still in love with him in spite of having abandoned her, now she has to sleep with the strange new man her father has given her body to. How she must have longed for David, the swashbuckling hero and rebel bandit to come to her rescue. And when he did, it was with two other women in tow.

Michal might have been content to live with David and his new wives, that was the way of kings and she was a king’s daughter. But David didn’t want her as a woman or a wife. He wanted her back as a possession. She was his and no one else could have her. He took her back and then he abandoned her. He failed to do for her what was commanded by the Torah; he failed to provide her with children. The text does not say that Michal was barren, that would mean she and David were having sex. It says she does not have a child, meaning that David did not give her one. David withheld himself, his body and his seed from her, forcing her to live in isolation as he married and fathered again and again and again–nine women plus Saul’s leftover wives plus two more groups of unnamed, uncounted women and their children. (Learn more about Michal and other royal women in Womanist Midrash.)

Michal had to watch as David impregnates Abigail and Ahinoam. Michal watches as David passes her by and married and impregnates Maacah multiple times. Michal watches as David passes her by and married and impregnates Haggith. Michal watches as David passes her by and married and impregnates Abital. Michal watches as David passes her by and married and impregnates Eglah. I imagine she would have heard the news every time David married another woman and fathered a child and by this point in the story there would be many. Is there any wonder she despised him in her heart? It may have even been the first time she had seen him in person since he took her back abandoning her to a living widowhood.

Michal’s childlessness is an opportunity to discuss something else the Church doesn’t do well with, unwanted childlessness, infertility, and miscarriages. It’s not all the Church’s fault. The bible is incredibly unhelpful here claiming God gives and withholds children to reward and punish. That is clearly how our forbears thought but we are not limited to their theology any more than we are limited to their knowledge of reproductive biology–in which men plant seeds that are miniature people into women who like good and bad soil are fertile or barren, contributing nothing to the child.

In the bible, barren women get miraculous conceptions, pregnancies, and live births. But in this world in which the bible is enshrined, the miracles are few and far between. Some, few women, miraculously conceive against the odds. The overwhelming majority do not. God does not plant a little patriarch or savior in their womb. It’s not like the bible stories in this world in which the bible has become scripture. Our task as faithful interpreters is to bridge the gaps between the text and the world with the good news that God does not toy with us but holds in in our brokenness and heartbreak.

I know Michal is not just a character in David’s story, that there are childless, lonely, hurting women, women longing for the love a man that will never love them and women who lost the one who did. To say nothing of the heartbreak men experience but society tells them they’re not entitled to feel as real men. Longing for children or intimacy is limited by gender or orientation. Heartbreak, betrayal, and abandonment are not the sole province of women. And no matter what some of us may say in sorrow or anger, they are not all the fault of men. And not all heartbreak is romantic. Parents can wound as deeply as partners. Loss of employment and financial losses can be devastating. I dare say all of us have been brokenhearted, abandoned, or betrayed by someone or something beyond our control, beyond fixing, with which we simply have to live.

To all of us who like Michal have been brokenhearted saints at one time or another, God is Immanuel. God is Immanuel to Michal and to me. And to you. In our brokenness, in our wholeness, in our fullness, in our emptiness. God is with us. God is within us. God is and we are. Still here. Here and not alone. We are surrounded by the love of God that is greater than the failing love of friend, father or lover. In our places of isolation, abandonment, and self-exile we are held by the God who loves, heals, and restores, a God who is not swept away by romanticized readings of David and the despicable things he did to women. A God who loves even David, though perhaps in spite of rather than because of. We are held and loved by a God who chooses the weak, the vulnerable, the abused and mis-used.

This is good news for the ones who don’t get that happy ending in spite of how much you fast and pray. You are living with stuff you can’t tell anyone about. And you need a word for your life as it is right now. This is good news for those saints they don’t write songs about or include in Eucharistic prayers, saints like you and me.

The promise of God throughout all of scripture is Immanuel. If it is for anyone, it is for you, whether you are a Michal or a David. God’s love is for you. God is with you, loving you through this life you didn’t choose and may not want. Amen.


Why Michal Rightly Despised David

2 Samuel 6:16 As the ark of the Holy God came into the city of David, Michal bat Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Holy God; and she despised him in her heart… 23 And Michal bat Saul had no child to the day of her death.

I heard a voice say preach Michal’s story. Preach the story of a woman who loved a man who didn’t love her. Preach the story of a woman who never had children and died alone. Preach the story of a woman who loved a man of God who had other women and chose all of them over her. Preach the story of a woman who got left holding the bag when she helped the man she loved break out. Preach the story of a woman who got passed around from man to man by another man. Preach the story of a woman locked up and abandoned by the man she had risked everything for. Preach the story of a woman who found someone who loved her after everything she had been through and had that man and his love by the man she had once loved who never loved her. Preach the story of a woman who doesn’t get a happy ending in the bible. Preach that. But nobody wants to hear that.

In the bible, barren women get miraculous conceptions, pregnancies and live births. But not always. When people call the roll of barren or otherwise childless women for whom God provides children of their own flesh: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Samson’s mother, Hannah, the woman from Shunem – though she wasn’t asking for a child and Elizabeth they forget about Michal.

The psalmist (113:9) says: God gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. 

Wisdom (3:13) says: …blessed is the barren womanwho is undefiled, who has not entered into a sinful union; she will have fruit when God examines souls.

But in this world in which the bible is enshrined, the miracles are few and far between. Some, few women miraculously conceive against the odds. The overwhelming majority do not. God does not plant a little patriarch or savior in their womb. It’s not like the bible stories in this world in which the bible has become scripture. But we speak as though it is. Perhaps you’ve heard it. In the mostly black Christian circles in which I was formed and continue to seek my soul’s nurture I hear women spoken of with reference to their wombs, our wombs, my womb. Sometimes there’ll be an acknowledgement of those who cannot or do not choose to have children in a line, a single sentence. But here’s what they do not say:

Some of us were born with broken wombs. Some of us were born with dead wombs. Some of us were born without our wombs. Some of us have been attacked by our wombs for as long as we can remember. Some of our wombs were broken into, raped and scraped into inhospitality and infertility when were too young for our wombs to recover. Some of us have wombs that cannot or will not hold onto life – and we have tried, cried, paid and prayed for womb-life. Our wombs trickle, leak and squeeze – in heart and flesh rending pulses – the life out our wombs. Our wombs bleed when they should not, not a cleansing, healing flow but a chunky, membranous crimson, tide running down our legs, staining our clothes, soiling our sheets, embarrassing and humiliating us in public and private with our partners. Our wombs do not bleed when they should. They do not bleed because we have nothing to nurture with its rich blood. Our wombs don’t bother to bleed because they know we have no eggs, no ovaries or we ovaries and eggs that are not worth its blood. Some of our wombs hurt so much that they must be taken from us and no matter how much they hurt us we don’t want to let them go.

Some of our wombs hurt because they have been taken away from us and ache for the children they will never bear. Some of our wombs hurt because the life we have given has been snatched away. Some of our wombs hurt because death came for our child and we had to carry that dead body in our body to term and push it into the world in a grotesque parody of the birth we had planned. Some of our wombs hurt because the child we birthed didn’t survive the birthing. She didn’t last the day, the night. He didn’t live a week, a month, a year. Some of our wombs hurt because we can never accept out child’s death at any age. Some of our wombs hurt because they were perfectly healthy and desperately empty having never found anyone to love or be loved by.

I’m telling the story of Michal and her lonely, empty, abandoned womb. For a moment I’m going to do what I argue against, reduce a woman to a hunk of meat, tie her identity to whether or not her body has performed the herteonormative act to which it has been reduced in patriarchy. Michal is a supporting character in David’s story. The story isn’t about her. It’s not interested in her well-being or whether she has her own relationship to God.

Now, some blame Michal for telling David about himself. This is dangerously close to victim blaming. We have been so conditioned to read with David and to read against women that many of us miss that Michal was telling the truth about him. David was dancing before his Lord but he was also dancing for the servingslavewomen: by the women of whom you have spoken, by them I shall be held in honor. In other words, they like it and I know it. Yes, Michal despised him in her heart and she had every reason to do so.

Michal had been used by her father to trap David and used by David to escape the trap. Her father used her body to punish David, giving her to another man as his wife – still married to David in the eyes of the law and in her heart, probably still in love with him, now she has to sleep with the strange new man her father has given her body to. How she must have longed for David the swashbuckling hero and rebel bandit to come to her rescue. And then he did, with two other women in tow.

Michal might have been content to live with David and his new wives, that was the way of kings and she was a king’s daughter. But David didn’t want her as a woman or a wife. He wanted her back as a possession. She was his and no one else could have her. He took her back and then he abandoned her. He failed to do for her what was commanded by the Torah; he failed to provide her with children. The text does not say that Michal was barren, that would mean she and David were having sex. It says she does not have a child, meaning that David did not give her one. David withheld himself, his body and his seed from her.

Michal had to watch as David impregnates Abigail and Ahinoam. Michal watches as David passes her by and married and impregnates Maacah multiple times. Michal watches as David passes her by and married and impregnates Haggith. Michal watches as David passes her by and married and impregnates Abital. Michal watches as David passes her by and married and impregnates Eglah. All of these wives and their children are listed before Michal sees David cutting a fool. Is there any wonder she despised him in her heart? It may have been the first time she had seen him in person since he took her back. Michal will later have to watch as David passes her by and rapes and impregnates and then marries Bathsheba.

Is there a word from the God who loves David so much it doesn’t matter what he does to any body or their body for Michal? I maintain God is God of all creations and that includes the folk on the margins of the very scriptures that proclaims God’s love for David while demonstrating how deeply unworthy he was of that love, let alone Michal’s. Because I know Michal is not just a character in David’s story, that there are childless, lonely, hurting women, women longing for the love a man that will never love them and women who lost the one who did, I have to ask where is God for Michal? Is there a word for her?

I might have to go beyond the bible to find a word for her because the bible isn’t concerned about her. But I am. Michal, I have a word for you:

Michal, baby, you are not your womb. Your value is not in what it does or doesn’t do, what you do, don’t or can’t do with it.

Michal, baby, live. Live. Live with it. And live without him. Live with it when it hurts. And it will. You don’t have to pretend it doesn’t hurt. Live with it. Live fully in joy and pain. Don’t let it cripple you. There are things you can’t do. There are things beyond your control. There are things you want that you’ll never have. Live with it. Live through it. And survive. You survived David; you can survive this.

The promise of God throughout all of scripture is Immanuel. If it is for anyone, it is for you. For you were despised and rejected men and deemed as one of no account. You were one from whom women and men hid their faces. God is with you, loving you through this life you didn’t choose and do not want.

There is a word from the Living, Loving God for you. It came through the poet who spoke for Isaiah and is numbered as the 54th chapter of that serial collaboration. It is written to Jerusalem after the Babylonian invasion slaughtered her children in the street and carried others off to Babylon to remake in their image. To comfort Jerusalem, Next-Gen-Isaiah draws on the image of a woman who never had children to lose. Lost in most translations is that the entire chapter is written in feminine grammar. Looking beneath and beyond the Jerusalem exile, I hear God speaking to Michal and all of the women whose wombs and hearts have been bruised, broken or broken in to.

Sing childless woman,
never-given-birth-woman;
Woman, break out a song and rejoice, woman,
never-in-labor-woman.
For more are the children of the devastated woman
than the children of the espoused woman,
says Yah.

Do not fear woman
for you will not be ashamed woman;
do not feel humiliated woman
for you will not be disgraced woman.
For the shame of your youth woman,
you will forget woman,
and the stigma of your widowhood, woman,
you will never remember, woman.

For your spouse woman,
is the One who made you woman.
Sovereign God of *Women Warriors
is God’s name.

And the Holy One of Israel
will redeem you woman ~
who is called God of all the earth.

For like a wife abandoned and abject in spirit ~
God has called you woman ~
For you were a rejected young bride,
says your God, woman.

For a brief space I abandoned you woman,
but in great mother-love I will gather you woman.

For a minute moment
I hid my face briefly from you woman.
But in eternally bonded love
I will mother-love you woman.
Your Redeemer, Woman, has spoken.

For the mountains may depart
and the hills may be shaken,
but my bonded love
will never be removed from you woman;
neither will my covenant of well-being
ever be shaken,
says God who **mother-loves you woman.

Afflicted woman,
stormy-weather-woman,
uncomforted woman,
Look! I will set your bones with
ornamentation city-woman
and lay your foundation in sapphires woman.

I will give you ruby sunshine woman
and for your openings woman,
jewel stones
and for your boundary woman,
precious stones.

In righteousness will you be established, woman;
you will be far from oppression woman
so you will not fear woman
from terror
for it will not come on you, woman.

No weapon formed against you woman,
will succeed,
and every tongue that rises against you
woman for judgment,
you will condemn woman.
This is the heritage of the servants of God
And their righteousness is from me,
An oracle of God.

This is good news for the ones who don’t get that happy ending in spite of how much you fast and pray: You didn’t get married. You didn’t have a child. Your child did die. You lost your job, you lost your home, you lost your wife. Your husband took his life. Your child is going to die in that prison. God has not removed that cancer from your body. You were raped; you were incested and those memories won’t just go away. You are living with stuff you can’t tell anyone about. And you need a word for your life as it is right now. This is good news for those saints they don’t write songs about. For those of you who have named it and claimed it but didn’t get it. It good news for you who couldn’t take back what the devil stole for you.

God is Immanuel. And if God is Immanuel to anyone, God is Immanuel to Michal. God is Immanuel to Jerusalem, to Michal and to me. And to you. In our brokenness, in our wholeness, in our fullness, in our emptiness. God is with us. God is within us. God is and we are. Still here. Here and not alone. We are surrounded by the love of God that is greater than the failing love of friend, father or lover. In our places of isolation, abandonment, and self-exile we are held by the God who loves, heals, and restores, a God who is not swept away by romanticized readings of David and the despicable things he did to women. But we are held and loved by a God who chooses the weak, the vulnerable, the abused and mis-used.

It’s well past time to listen to the voices of women in the biblical text telling their Me Too stories about characters we have been taught to romanticize like certain now-fallen Hollywood idols. Michal despised David in her heart because he was despicable and I imagine God said, “I understand.”

 

[All translations of the biblical text are mine. In Isaiah 51 I used *Women-Warriors to highlight that צבאות is feminine plural and as a nod to some traditional rendering of angels as female, not to claim that the celestial beings are human or are gendered as we are. I translate רחם-love as **mother-love because the root also means womb.]

You can read more about Michal and the other women in David’s life in Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and of the Throne.

Revised for preaching in an Episcopal congregation here. Originally preached at a WomanPreach event.


Holy Fire

 

The Church turns its attention to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Pentecost. But we cannot turn to the Jerusalem of scripture, history, and memory and neglect the Jerusalem of the present moment, or those living and dying within and beyond her walls and call ourselves Church, Christians, or followers of Jesus. For, though the world has moved on to weddings and school shootings our lessons take us back to Jerusalem where the anguished cry of Jesus remains: 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! (Luke 13:34)

            The story of Pentecost begins: Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. (Acts 2:5) But there were not only Jews. The city that would become known as Jerusalem has been inhabited since the Stone Age. It was inhabited when the sacred texts we share with Judaism say God called Abraham and sent him into a land that was inhabited by other people and promised it to him and his descendants. We need to talk hear that story from the point of view of peoples who have had their land taken by folk who say their god gave them permission. We should all sit at the feet of native and indigenous scholars and pastors like Robert Allen Warrior, George Tinker, and our own Episcopal bishops, Carol Gallagher and Steven Charleston.

These stories have not only shaped our faith, they have shaped the business of the Church, conquest, colonization, conversion. These stories led to church sanctioned slavery, the conquest and colonization of virtually every African, Asian, and American nation, in the case of our continent’s nations, the near eradication of native nations and persons – all resting on an interpretation of the promise to Abraham, the Exodus story, and the vile, violent rhetoric of Joshua, biblical ethnic cleansing, claiming to have depopulated Canaan for Israel to fulfill God’s promise.

These verses underlie much of American and European and Israeli theology and politics. The so-called pacification of the American West was portrayed as biblical, it was described as the conquest of the new Canaan. And it didn’t matter that the old Canaan was not conquered the way Joshua said. The archaeology is clear on this. There was some conflict but more than a dozen cities claimed as destroyed were already ruins and hadn’t been inhabited in some case for centuries. And the editors of the bible would intentionally place Judges, a book that directly contradicted Joshua, saying the Israelites lived with the Canaanites together,immediately after it so Joshua would not be taken without a heaping mouthful of salt, (see Judg 1:21, 27-36). Yet what mattered to interpreters bent on using the bible to prove God gave them land already inhabited by other people was that there was a biblical model for land theft, settler colonialism, and both slavery and genocide as legitimate, biblical, options deal with the inhabitants of the land seized.

            What has this to do with Jerusalem? Joshua and Judges both agree when it comes to Jerusalem that the Israelites lived with the Canaanites together, two peoples in one land:

…the people of Judah could not drive out the Jebusites, the inhabitants of Jerusalem; so the Jebusites live with the people of Judah in Jerusalem to this day. (Joshua 15:63) And: But the Benjaminites did not drive out the Jebusites who lived in Jerusalem; so the Jebusites have lived in Jerusalem among the Benjaminites to this day... (Judg 1:21)

            There is language in the bible that promises the land in what is now Israel and the Palestinian Territories and part of Jordan and part of Syria and part of Lebanon to the descendants of Abraham which include Palestinians and other Arab peoples. It depends on what passage you’re reading, how much land. In other places scripture promises land specifically to ancient Israel, the ancient nation which fell and was dispersed but never occupied all of that land even when restored to it. What does that language mean now, to us as interpreters of the biblical text and concerned citizens of the world? And what does that mean to the modern state of Israel which is a different entity that the ancient nation, but connected to it by peoplehood?

            It means that we have learn to read the scriptures in light of the world in which they were created–a world in which Israel had been enslaved, defeated, conquered, exiled, and occupied by the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians to the point that they were not even a nation any more, more like a county–in that world the Israelites told their story looking back, shaped by those sorrows. And we have to read the scriptures in a world where we know that the love of God extends to all people, and that the moral and spiritual authority of the scriptures should not be used for nationalist ends, a world in which both Israelis and Palestinians have legitimate claims to Palestine and Israel and Jerusalem. We have to read in light of the reality of the modern state of Israel occupying and confining the Palestinians, denying them freedom of movement and resources, rationing water and electricity, subjecting them to daily indignities. We have to read in light of the history of past violence and the violence being perpetrated now while working towards a peace that is just even if it doesn’t make everyone or even anyone happy. We read knowing that both peoples have deep ancient connections to an impossibly weighty tiny piece of land.

            And we read through the story of Jesus, the stories of the gospels and the stories of Pentecost. We read through today’s lesson describing people from every nation including Arab nations traveling freely to visit Jerusalem. Jerusalem, the place where the church was birthed in the fires of Pentecost has been a multi-ethnic city for more than three thousand years. It was multi-ethnic when David conquered it. It was multi-ethnic after David conquered it and made it his capital. It was multi-ethnic when the Babylonians captured it. It was multi-ethnic when the Persians took it from the Babylonians. Jerusalem was multi-ethnic when Jesus walked its streets and it was a blessed cacophony of languages and cultures on Pentecost, even before the Holy Spirit added new languages to the mix: there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem…Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and converts, Cretans and Arabs

            When the fires of Pentecost burned in Jerusalem, the city was packed to the brim with even more people from even more places than usual. There were those who were born Jews, those who became Jews, and those who were neither Jewish nor interested in conversion. And since it was a convention, there were vendors–selling everything from sacrificial animals to souvenirs to kebabs, and there were pickpockets and thieves and every segment of humanity, rich and poor and everything in between, from soldiers to shepherds, country folk who had never been to the big city and sadity sophisticated folk. Some were native born, some were permanent residents, some were visitors, some were immigrants, and none of them were anything less than God’s beloved children created in the image of God. Not even those for whom the crowds were unlimited opportunities for plunder and prey–because people have not changed in forever–they too were nothing less than God’s children. And like God’s children today, deserving of full human dignity and respect whether they treat themselves or anyone else that way.

            I have to confess, sometimes that is hard for me. When I hear about the atrocious things that some folk do, like men who murder their children to punish their mothers, I have a hard time reconciling them with the image of God. And I call them some things that reflect none of God’s love or mercy. And frankly, I’m not always interested in mercy, just justice. But I know God is as gracious and merciful in her tender love as she is unflinchingly just and righteous. And I know that no one is beyond God’s love or power to redeem, because I remember that when Jesus was hanging on that cross he used one of his last breaths to pray for the forgiveness of those who crucified him. He did not call them animals. He did not deny their humanity. He died showing us a better way, a harder way.  

You might have heard that yesterday our Presiding Bishop preached the love of God at a fancy wedding. And let me say this about weddings. I think we romanticize them because of what they represent at their best, love. A love that is unashamed to own us and profess love for us for the rest of our lives in public. That kind of love is a gift and a sacrament. And many long for it. But the truth is, God loves us all just as passionately, more so. That love is incarnate in Jesus and poured into us through the Holy Spirit. It’s easy to love on your wedding day, even at someone else’s wedding. It can be harder to remember down the road that love is deeper than passion which comes and goes and that God’s love, for us and in us, is stronger than even the most romantic fairytale love. That abiding unshakable love is the gift of the Holy Spirit poured into the Church at Pentecost and poured into us at our baptism.

The Holy Spirit is the Mother of the Church, and as is the case in many families, she is the glue that holds it together. The Holy Spirit fluttering over the waters of creation, herself the breath of life that breathes us into existence, She, the Fire of Sinai, and whirling winds through which God speaks, and in our first lesson, She is Breath of Life that raises the dead. In Ezekiel’s dry bones vision the dead are the people of his nation and the nation itself, dead and destroyed, left to decay. God’s promise to him and those who survived in exile and captivity was that God would breathe them to life again. And She did.

That is what the Holy Spirit does for us and for the Church. She breathes us to life, pouring out onto all of her people without regard for age, gender, or social standing filling us with that love embodied in Jesus.