Clothed in Christ and Running Nude: My Holy Week with Hatred

day after easter.jpgResurrection consciousness is a process, not a moment. Mary’s Easter morning proclamations uttered in Aramaic were, in the coming days, whispered in Greek and Coptic, Semitic dialects and Latin. Resurrection consciousness requires both the seed finding purchase in good soil and the reaping of the harvest fruits: we must cultivate Christ in our intentions, express Christ in our speech, and manifest Christ in our actions. Resurrection consciousness is what emerges when we decrease so that God may increase (John 3:30).

However, the cultural Evangelical Christianity that has won out—a Christianity that seems to serve Mammon rather than God—puts all the Easter eggs in one theological basket: “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching has been in vain and your faith has been in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14b). Proponents of this view ignore Paul’s belief that the Parousia, the Second Coming, was going to happen in his lifetime (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17); it should be noted that this same text indicates that no one has ascended to heaven yet: everyone who is buried is still awaiting their bodily resurrection. Evangelicals ignore these contradictions but furiously insist that complete and total assent to the literal, bodily resurrection of Christ is necessary.

Why do I bring this up? Because for the first time in my practicing Christian life, I went through Holy Week feeling pretty disconnected from God. I was also called into some very challenging ministry situations and preached three sermons. It was a shitty time for God and me not to be clicking on all cylinders. Now that we’re past Resurrection Sunday, here’s why I’m disillusioned:

How did Holy Week gain national attention this week, other than the actions of the Pope? A Fox News commentator used Christianity as a shield to deflect criticism, and the occupier of the Oval Office cynically delivered one of the most uncomfortable Easter and Passover addresses I have ever watched, unloaded a tweetstorm, and then barked out ignorant lies before going in to worship.

Yet, the one they call forty-five sees his approval numbers grow, supported largely by white, Evangelical voters. The seminary I attend has a number of self-identified white Evangelicals; for them, this is primarily a theological identifier. Evangelical theology largely is rooted in having a born-again experience, attesting to the inerrancy of the Bible, believing that Jesus is the only way to God, preparing for a coming judgment, and spreading the message. To be sure, there are more nuances but in the main, these are the core beliefs. (I don’t know a single theologically-serious Evangelical who supports the current Administration, by the way.)

Attenuating the theology, though, is all manner of political and cultural flotsam awash in hypocritical and demagogical jetsom. It is what allows someone to claim that God has anointed as divine leader a man who is incapable of summarizing the Easter story  I watched this week as white, self-proclaimed Christians made threats against survivors of school shootings, who ridiculed and victim-blamed as more names were added to the growing number of people of color who are shot and killed by police. Metaphorically, I looked around and saw people who look like me and claim the same God as me and they were screaming for Barabbas and supporting Herod. I was overcome with hatred.

I know that hatred solves nothing.  I know that it is a poison that harms only me. I know that I should not have approached the altar with hatred in my heart, that I should’ve prayed (I did) and fasted (medically, I can’t) and loved (I really tried). Believe me, I know all these things.

Resurrection consciousness is a process, not a moment. Paul writes in Galatians 3:27 that through our baptisms we are clothed in Christ. Well, this past week, I have been like the mystery man in Mark’s gospel who shows up at the arrest wearing only a loincloth, which is ripped off before he runs away nude (Mark 14:51-2). It has been hard for me to feel resurrection hope.

To be sure, I am not questioning my faith. I am just being honest that this year I was locked much more within Good Friday. I am questioning what it is I represent. Do I really believe that the Body of Christ is manifest in Church? Who is the Risen Christ the Church proclaims, and does he have any relationship with Jesus? Perhaps more than ever, I have felt the anguish and anger and hatred empire can produce.

Comfort comes, methinks, in the fact that resurrection happens without our assent; transformation occurs whether we notice or affirm; the feelings of hatred and anger I have are subsiding because I have not shamed them or guilted them, but rather have examined them, experienced them, and soon will discard them, as new emotions and experiences arise.

I slept with the window wide open last night, only to awake with snow covering the ground and trees. Now, the snow is melted, save the pockets of shade and secret corners, where flashes of white stand out against the deepening greens and bright purples. If we reduce resurrection to a single moment, there is so very much we miss.

An Easter Sermon: Running home scared is a perfectly good response to rumors of resurrection

 

empty tomb mafa
“Empty Tomb” by Anonymous, c. 1970s

Our first scripture reading this Easter morning comes from the Gospel of Mark, which contains the earliest intact account of Jesus’ resurrection. Interestingly, it reports a rumor from an unknown character rather than an actual resurrection appearance. We don’t see the Risen Christ, we just hear about him from someone we’ve never met and never encounter again.

 

As the story goes, Mary Magdalene, Salome, and Mary, mother of James set out for Jesus’ tomb at the first light after the Sabbath, fretting about the large stone they will have to move in order to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. They arrive, only to find the stone moved. In the tomb is a man dressed in a white robe.

Who is he? Could he be the mysterious man who appeared at Jesus’ arrest clad only in a loincloth, who was stripped nude and ran away? Could it be the author of Mark’s gospel? Scholars have speculated wildly, but in the end, we just don’t know.

Mystery man tells the women to not be afraid, which is both logical—fear seems a reasonable response on their part—and is reminiscent of Jesus’ own words spoken frequently. Do not be afraid. Mystery man then tells them a fantastical tale: Jesus, who was crucified, has been raised. His body is gone, evidence enough, it seems, at least for the time, that what the man says is true; he orders the women to tell the disciples, even Peter, who denied Jesus and ran, to get to Galilee, where Jesus will meet them.

The women flee the tomb, the account tells us, and say nothing, for they are afraid.

End of story.

Our second scripture reading contains a resurrection account written decades later; this one, from the Gospel of John, contains an actual appearance of the Risen Christ. It shares some details with the narrative from Mark, though. Both take place after the Sabbath has drawn to a close, although in John, morning has not yet broken. Both feature the stone having been rolled away. Both detail the absence of Jesus’ body. Both feature dumbfounded people trying to make sense of a bizarre situation.

In John, though, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb alone. Upon seeing that the stone has been removed she runs to find Simon Peter and the enigmatic Beloved Disciple. Mary, at least it seems to me, assumes that Jesus’ body has been stolen and has been taken to an undisclosed location, which will prevent him from having an honorable, religious burial. This seems to cause Mary no small degree of distress, as she is the one tasked with preparing Jesus’ corpse, or, perhaps, given the early hour, Mary has secreted herself away before anyone else can undertake it themselves.

Seeing the stone rolled away is in itself too much for Mary to face alone. We can hardly blame her.

Freshly alerted, a race is afoot between Peter and the Beloved Disciple. The disciple whom Jesus loves arrives at the tomb first, we are told, but is stopped short by the sight of the linens, limply laying where Jesus once was; funeral clothes without a corpse can be unsettling.

Upon arriving, Peter blows past the disciple whom Jesus loves, making it into the tomb itself before coming to a halt. He, too, sees the linens, but it is the cloth which had covered Jesus’ head now rolled up and set aside that commands his attention.

Doesn’t the relating of this detail seem so intimate, as though that little act is what stops Peter in his tracks?

The Beloved Disciple comes in and, the author tells us, believes. What he believes we’re not sure because we’re told specifically that they, both of them together, do not yet understand the fullness of the events, that Jesus’ resurrection is the fulfillment of scripture. What the Beloved Disciple believes we know not; what strikes Peter about the cloth neatly folded remains a mystery as well. But there they are, these details that changed lives.

Overcome, they run.

John’s narrative continues. Mary, alone at the tomb again, is crying. We can only imagine the depth of her trauma, having been, by all accounts, one of the few who witnessed the totality of the crucifixion and now discovers the empty tomb. Have bandits taken his body? Religious or Roman enemies?  We should take a moment to enter her sense of loss, her confusion: her rabbi is dead, and the avenue through which she can religiously and culturally mourn and honor him, preparing his body for burial, has suddenly been denied her.

The chaos of the last week, the heady entry into Jerusalem followed by the events in the Temple, the unexpected revelations in the Upper Room, the arrest, trials, crucifixion, death, and vigil must have left Mary raw. We can imagine that coming to the tomb she was expecting to have some moments of mooring, to be with Jesus’ body, to honor and love him. Imagine the trauma of having that, too, ripped away.

So, I think we can forgive Mary that she is so overcome with grief and distress that she does not even bat an eye when two angels appear and ask her what is wrong.

“They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him,” she says.

Suddenly, Jesus appears, but Mary does not recognize him, mistaking him for a gardener. We can speculate why this is the case: his resurrected form is different than his earthly one; Mary is an emotional, spiritual, and mental wreck and it takes her a few beats to catch up; she is so focused on locating the body she is not aware of her surroundings; perhaps Jesus as a gardener is meant to be a play on images, reminding us of Jesus’ parables of seeds and harvests. Regardless, when Jesus says her name and she turns around, Mary recognizes him and goes to hug him, which he does not allow because he has not yet ascended.

I’m gonna go ahead and punt that last detail until next Easter’s sermon.

The Gospel of John is clear about what happens next, though: Mary becomes the chief apostle, the one sent out to deliver the good news of the resurrection: she tells the disciples of what she has seen and heard. The post-Easter story begins with Mary. It’s sad that this has ever been a controversial observation.

But what I take from both of these narratives is that running home scared is a perfectly good response to rumors of resurrection.

The story of Jesus being raised from the dead defies logic, to such an extent that for some it is the ultimate stumbling block of faith, especially since it has been placed at the center of Christian confession, thanks largely to Paul. If Christ is not raised, he wrote, our faith is in vain.

It seems that the further we have gotten away from the historical resurrection, the more we Christians have required each other to believe it completely and entirely, proclaiming it as the alpha and omega of following Jesus. Yet, with today’s passages, in both the earliest and latest canonical resurrection stories, we see confusion, fear, and very human concerns preventing people from understanding immediately and fully.

To be sure, as a pastor and as a devout Christian, I proclaim with every fiber of my being, “He is risen, he is risen, indeed!” But as I preached on Good Friday, I believe that one of the central, beautiful truths of Christianity is that God, through the Incarnation, came to understand that we can still have faith while being confused and scared. There’s room for questions in the resurrection story.

Sometimes we’re Mary looking for Jesus’ body to bury, sometimes we’re Mary proclaiming that Christ has been raised. Sometimes we’re racing to the tomb to get there first, sometimes we’re high-tailing it home to hide away in fear.

The pain of Good Friday is still there on the original Easter morning. It lingers for others in the weeks and months ahead as they each puzzle out what this whole, “raised from the dead” thing means. For some of us, resurrection joy may come quickly and easily. Understanding and living an Easter faith may be foundational to who we are, and that it a true blessing.

For others, it may be an ongoing process. A cyclical journey in which we annually race to and fro, from cross to tomb, from despair to assurance. The great comfort is that our sacred Scriptures make room for us. He is risen, he is risen indeed, even if we are hiding under the bed uncertain of what to do. Amen.

Choosing the Wrong Son of Daddy: On Adults Threating Kids, Holy Week 2018

There were no childhoods in the ancient world. At least, not in the way we picture them in the post-Industrial Revolution West. Childhood was to be survived. If you look closely at ancient Western art—at least, art through the Medieval period—children often are depicted with the features and bodies of miniature adults (homunculi).

uglybabyandmother.jpgMadonna and Child from 1304

There’s a bit of a chicken and the egg debate regarding whether art imitates life or life imitates art. Some claim that early Christian artistic renderings of children as adults stem from the theological notion that Jesus Christ is unchanging. In other words, when Jesus was born he looked like a grown ass man. Like, the original Simon Birch. Therefore, when shown as a pup Jesus looks like an angry longshoreman with a Napoleon complex and bruises from his last comeuppance. The argument goes, Christian art—or, more properly, art from Christian cultures—portrayed all children in a like manner. This could very well be the case.

More likely, though, was the notion that children were adults waiting to happen. They were to be loved, for sure, but they were to be trained, molded, prepared, and prayed over.  In the main, if you made it to the age of ten, chances were good that you could live to adulthood, which, depending on the culture and your gender, began anywhere from the early- to late-teen years.

This ish is rough

I would not want to be a young person today. Not with Snapchat, YouTube, Twitter, and all the other platforms I’m too old and uphip to know about; but I have been working with Millennials for over a decade. And I’m not quite sure how this whole generation thing is breaking down, but I’m pretty certain Generation Z will soon be on their way into my classroom. I’ve been marching with them, listening to them, teaching them, learning from them, and just being a fellow human being with them.

Most of the young people I’ve heard from, either directly or on television, want help from adults. (Seriously, how weird is it fellow Xers that we’re the adults in the room? Last I checked, I was in line for Tool tickets and somebody was going on a beer run.) This past weekend, though, millions of youth grabbed microphones, held signs, peacefully protested, and made it clear that they are tuned in and they are not dropping out. It is absolutely inspirational and I am so grateful for their energy and excitement because, to be honest, I’ve kinda chubby and I’ve got a lot of health problems, so my days of marching are probably over.

I don’t agree with everything they are calling for, especially as it comes to proposals to amend privacy rights for those with mental illnesses. I might write more on this later, but I don’t want to criticize these activists right now. I want to lift them up, but I also want to be one of the voices crying out at the adults who are berating them, especially those focusing on Emma Gonzalez.*

To be clear, I am NOT comparing Emma Gonzalez to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. But the irrational hatred that is being levied at this young woman seems akin to that visited upon Jesus. Reading the inhumane things adults write about Emma has caused my skin to crawl, they refer to her as an “it.” She’s too brown to be “American,” she wears a Cuban flag patch, so she’s a “commie,” she’s a “lesbian,” she’s a crisis actor, she’s ISIS, she’s apparently everything they fear is “taking over” America. They RAGE behind their keyboards, on their phones, liking one another’s posting, working each other up into a lather, until, almost invariably, someone will post an undisguised threat. She thinks she’s bulletproof. She’s gone fully automatic r****d.

It’s happening on local FB pages and Twitter feeds. And while I try to ignore it, I know that I cannot, so I click on the pages and profiles of the people doing it and, almost invariably, they claim to be Christians. Again and again. White, angry Christians.

Do you even Bible, bro? 

Most of us who go to church on Good Friday are already the churchgoing type. The Christmas and Easter types generally aren’t thinking, “Hey, I know! Let’s go to worship on Friday night to partake in the darkest service of the year!” But if you’re reading this, I am going to assume that you’re interested and, if nothing else, maybe you’ll have something to help you when you yell answers at the Jeopardy! box.

In the Gospel of Mark, it is reported that every year Pilate releases a criminal for Passover as a sign of good will. Never mind that there is no record of this tradition anywhere outside of the gospels (and we have lots of records from this time) and we know that Pilate had no love for the Jews. So, this most likely did not happen historically. That’s fine, the meaning is not in the literal meaning of the text.

The year that Jesus is arrested, there’s this guy named Barabbas. That’s a pretty nifty moniker, especially if you know Aramaic. Bar means “son of,” abba means “daddy.” It is often translated as “father,” but most linguists say abba is meant to be a term of endearment used by little children for their daddies.

But do you see it yet? Do you?

The crowd is given the choice of one Son of the Father, Jesus, who will be murdered and in-so-doing, release the crowd (and humanity) from sin and death. Or, they may choose another son of the father, who is accused of murder but is freed from rightful punishment by the bloodthirsty crowd. So blind has their hatred made them, so certain are they that Jesus cannot be from God, that he cannot speak the truth about the death and destruction wrought by the people, that he cannot bear witness to the changes that must come, that they are willing to overlook murder just to see the one they hate bleed and suffer. He can’t be a real agent of God. He has no right to say the things he does. Who the hell does he think he is?!?!?! We’ve got to shut his fucking mouth for him, don’t we?! 

The Church has a clear-cut choice to make this Holy Week. Do we have our eyes fixed on Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace? Do we allow the Advocate to animate us, to propel us to stand with the oppressed and the victimized? When children who don’t want to be shot going to school are debased and dehumanized by scores of people claiming to follow Christ, something is wrong. And it’s not the people being criticized. It’s we in the Church who just shake our heads and say, “well, I’m not that kind of Christian.”

This Easter, let’s resurrect our sense of purpose and mission. Not to convert people, but to serve people. Not to build the Church, but to restore the Church to something resembling the principles of Jesus Christ. Because, to be honest, I’m in the need of some resurrection right now, surrounded as I am by people clamoring for Barabbas to be saved.

*I’m not going to post any screen captures. I’ll leave it at this and move on.

Your Own, Personal Pilate: A Pastor Pottymouth Production

 

Screenshot 2018-03-17 12.13.29Pontious Pilate, by all extrabiblical accounts, was a sociopathic asshole.  That documents produced by nascent Christianity, with the Roman sandal on its neck, paint Pilate as a reluctant pawn in a larger cosmic game is not surprising. From the earliest credal proclamations, Jesus died under Pontious Pilate but not because of him. It makes sense in a way: why poke an already enraged bear? By the time the Gospel of Mark was penned in 70 CE, the Second Jerusalem Temple was razed, never to rise again.

But let us dissuade ourselves from the romantic notion of Christians dying en mass at the hands of the Romans for the greater glory of God. A vast majority of the martyrdom stories from the second century are akin to novellas, stories that fit nicely within a culture that values dying for a cause. The risks were real, to be sure, but there was a choice to be made. You could stand up to the Empire, as did Jesus, or you could accommodate it. An overwhelming number of Christians did the latter. Many of us, myself included, make the same sort of choices.

Like the East Coast crowd and Snoop Dogg at the 1995 Source Awards, Pilate had no love for the Jews. His first day on the job he showed up flying the Roman standards, a direct violation of the previous agreement struck between Rome and the Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish legal authority. The result? Perhaps the first ever non-violent sit it. Pilate caved, lowered the standards, but he never forgot. He raided the Temple treasury to build the aqueducts, something akin to the mayor of Washington D.C. raiding the offertory of the National Cathedral. Finally, Pilate terrorized and executed Samaritan pilgrims, an action that led to his being recalled to Rome for brutality.

Think about that. Recalled to Rome for brutality.

If scripture were made of tweets, Pilate’s would have looked something like the one sent out by the small, fat thumbs of Der Twittler last night after our racist, jelly-spined Attorney General Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions fired FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe. (Click here and here for facts and analyses.) McCabe himself issued a statement earlier today. pointing out that he and his family have been bullied and ridiculed by the chief executive for over a year.

The occupier of the Oval Office’s lawyer John Dowd is calling for Special Counsel Robert Mueller III’s investigation to cease. Again, this thoroughly corrupt Administration blurs the lines of any propriety, Dowd first claimed to be speaking for his boss but then claimed to speak only for himself, as if anyone would give a flying fuck what this troglodyte thinks were it not for his client. And across the Twitterverse and discussion threads throughout the interwebz, Russian bots and their American enablers are screaming that Pilate really tried to save Jesus. The corruption and abuse of power is breathtaking.

Lent is not symbolic. Good Friday is not about wearing black. We have choices to make. If we are serious about following Jesus, we have to call out the forces that killed him. That continue to kill people today. That kills us spiritually if we excuse evil, or even worse, rally to its side and become agents of destruction. I hold no delusions about the sanctity of the office of the presidency. Andrew Jackson was a genocidal racist. Woodrow Wilson loved Birth of a Nation, the first film screened in the White House. Let’s stop this faux patriotism bullshit. The office is only as great as we make it, and we have let it sink into the sewer and that is how it should be regarded. But I also think it is ridiculous to argue that there is some basic decency in the country that always reveals itself. That has been patently false time and time again; it takes proactive, sustained efforts and a willingness to not tolerate evil presented as being “good at heart.”

There are those who say that faith and politics should not mix. And then there are those who have read the words of Jesus. What we are seeing right now is biblical. If Pilate had anything to do with the historical Jesus’ death—and there are reasons why he might not have—it is much more likely that he took great glee in watching this rebel, this arrogant man who dared take on the Empire suffer a public and brutal humiliation.

Anyone who tries to justify the horrid things this sociopathic man-child does is siding with the Empire, not with Jesus Christ.

Sermon—Hearing “Me, too” in the Bible

bathsheba1.jpgFor those of us who spend time on social media, we might have noticed the frequent appearance of two words, “Me, too.” Across age, race, religion, sexual orientation, and cultural background, women throughout the country have been making public their experiences of sexual harassment and violence. To add potency to this organic effort, dozens of women have spoken out publicly about their violations at the hands of one extremely powerful Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein.

I’m here today to shine a light on another voice, another woman, one who was abused by King David, an extremely powerful figure in our history: Bathsheba.

Like so many other examples of abusers throughout time and history, we have to make our way through the minefield of, “But he’s a really good guy.” No doubt. David was and is an important figure without whom, at least according to the biblical witness we have, Judaism would not have survived and then thrived.

First, he is God’s anointed. Today’s passage shows us Samuel, the Moses for a new age, still mourning the fact that God has withdrawn his favor and is selecting a new king who will rise to rival Saul. Samuel is led to the house of Jesse, who has eight sons. Together, Samuel, Jesse, and seven of the sons engage in a ritual sacrifice and purification. God gives specific instructions not to use human standards when speculating about who will be anointed. One by one, the older and physically impressive sons are set aside. Finally, God tells Samuel to have Jesse send for the youngest child who is tending sheep, our David. He is anointed, and thus begins the David cycle of stories.

Second, God forms a covenant with David and the “line of Jesse” in 2 Samuel 7 in which there is an everlasting covenant between the God and this new royal house. This shapes a new theology and a new sense of community hierarchy. We’ll talk more about this next week.

Third, David did some incredible things. He moved the Hebrews away from the loose tribal confederacy. He put national identity over tribal identity by developing a small town run by the Jebusites called Jerusalem as a political and religious capital. The Sanhedrin, the highest court of Jewish law was tethered to Jerusalem. And the Ark of the Covenant, which had been captured by the Philistines, was brought to Jerusalem, where it remained until lost to history. The Hebrews became Israelites, a vital development in what we now understand as Judaism.

Finally, David secured peace that his son Solomon was able to enjoy and undertake a massive building campaign. He did this through warfare and strategic marriage, taking wives and concubines as the nascent empire grew into power. Women were currency, and David cashed in.

The best example of this comes with Bathsheba. According to biblical witness of 2 Samuel 11, David spies Bathsheba on her roof. Most English translations render this in rather benign terms: Bathsheba is bathing. But Bathsheba is engaged in bathing to become ritually clean after her menstrual cycle. With no mikvah in her house, she goes to the roof, strips nude, and is subsequently viewed by a voyeur who sends for her so that he may possess her.

Here is where disagreement most often gets heated. Was the sex consensual? The scripture simply reports that Bathsheba lay with David, and subsequently becomes pregnant. But we must ask ourselves, could she have declined? David knew that she was married; further, he knew she was married to one of his military leaders. Her objections on these fronts would not have been heeded. David knew what he was doing when he sent for her. Even in the case of genuine mutual attraction, there is not mutual parity. There is no equality in this situation. David sent for her so that he may lay with her. Bathsheba had very little choice.

Let us address the most common objection: cultural context. “Well, that’s just the way things were,” we hear. I argue that we should accept such claims from persons in history to the same degree that we accept it from ourselves. David was king. He could have led by example, at the very least, treating the women around him as more than chattel and incubators. Further, let us stop accepting the idea that men have the right to summon women at will and demand that they submit to sexual acts. If it’s problematic in Hollywood, it’s problematic in Jerusalem.

The biblical story, as many of us know, becomes even more horrific. Bathsheba is pregnant; when she tells David, he unfolds a winding scheme that results in launching a military attack designed simply to get Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, killed. God causes Bathsheba to have a miscarriage and requires her to marry David. God and Samuel spend a good deal of time showing for David his sins against God. David repents and shows true remorse…to God. Not to Bathsheba. There is no sign that he made any attempts to atone for his horrific actions. Sadly, powerful men seldom do.

Let us hear Bathsheba say, “me, too.” Let us not use her actions after the rape to somehow mollify ourselves, “Oh, she was fine. I mean, her son became KING; she was a manipulator who used royal power to secure the place of her son.” These details are not relevant to the trauma inflicted upon her by a man lionized in popular religious imaginations. Let us not say, “Well, it wasn’t rape-rape,” as though there are only a set number of incidents that deserve the acknowledgment of being bestial violations of human persons made in God’s image.

And God does not get off easy here, either. God causes a miscarriage. God’s law requires victims to wed their rapists. And I don’t have some slick interpretation or word study to do to change the bright light that shines on this part of our sacred tradition. This view of God is the perfect example of patriarchy and toxic masculinity. All that matters is the man. It is his redemption that matters. It is his sin against God, not against the ones he violated, that matter. God’s endless covenant is with a line containing sexual abusers.

This matters in the course of religious history. There are billions of women throughout history crying out “me, too.” There are women sitting in pews or reading this online with their own, “me, too” stories. I see the irony of a man speaking about women’s experiences with righteous indignation; it is most certainly not lost on me. But one response to the “me, too” men can have is, “I was him.” I was him who engaged in misogynistic thinking; I was him who enjoyed the patriarchy while comparing to Nazis feminists who sought to dismantle it. I was him who did not heed the first no. There are so many ways.

Sometimes all we can content ourselves with is playing the role of Israel, meant literally as “one who wrestles with God.” As for my own efforts, I am no longer erring on the side of interpreting David with, “Oh, that’s awful, but really he’s a great guy, so I bet he didn’t mean it.” Seldomly do we hold up sexual abuse without trying to explain it away, victim shame, make accusations about the timing of reports or the manner in which they were reported. Let us wrestle with God, constantly hearing the “me, toos” that surround. We must never stop wrestling.

 

Not that kind of God: American Pharaoh and Exodus 3

 

bushIn the ancient world, if you were enslaved it was because your deity had been bested in the heavenly realm. The battles of human beings simply played out what had already been decided in the noumenal world, the realm of reality far removed from the puny humans. The realm perfection. So the enslavement of the Hebrew peoples was confirmation that their God was, well, not much of a god.

In the main, ancient cosmogony operated on the principle that the deities should be the main concern of humans, not the other way around. If calamity befell an individual or community, it was because the patron(ess) deity(ies) had been wronged or were upset. The capriciousness of these goddesses and gods is well-captured in myths. Over 5,000 years ago, humans could not fathom a divinity who would not place self-interest first over the well-being of persons.

But there was the belief that staying in the good graces of these powerful forces would result in divine benefits and protections. Dances, songs, sacrifices, offerings, rituals: all of these were efforts to appease the fickleness and fecklessness of the mighty spirits. Defeat in war, enslavement, occupation, and destruction were seen as the gods’ problems, though. The notion that God could raise another army to humble and chastise God’s people was pioneered by the Israelites.

But we’re talking about the Hebrews. Israel at the time of Moses was just an idea, a name attached to Jacob. Israel, which means “wrestling with God,” was not yet a place. The use of “Israelites” in the text reveals at least two things: the account was written from a point of retrospection and after the establishment of Israel proper, which doesn’t really happen until the time of King David, c. 1000 BCE.

The theology in Exodus 2 is revolutionary. Let’s read it again: “After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God.  God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.”

Notice the verbs, the actions: groaned, cried, rose, heard, remembered, looked, took notice. This shapes a theology.

  1. Human cries and groans of suffering rise to God. Certainly, other gods have heard cries of affliction, but not from slavery. These reach the noumenal world.
  2. The cries are heard. These are not ritual actions, dances, ceremonies, etc. These are laments and anguishes directly related to the culturally assumed defeat of the Hebrew God, at this point still known as El-Shaddai.
  3. God remembers an agreement, not to point out human error but as an act of self-discovery. It is hard to picture this as an omniscient God though, right? Did God forget?
  4. God looks upon the Israelites. Imagine being told that you are seen even in the most horrendous of circumstance. Not only seen, but…
  5. God notices the cries of suffering. Your pain matters. It does not go unaddressed.

These actions largely frame what is described in 3:1-15. The Burning Bush is like God’s first Skype call. But let’s go deeper than literalism. God has mastery over the natural world. Fire needs fuel. It is the only way that fire can sustain itself. But fire is not so good for the kindling. Yet here, fire and fuel are in symbiosis. The fire does not consume the bush, yet it need not spread elsewhere to remain alive.

From this harmony comes God’s voice.

“Moses, Moses,” God calls. Moses responds with the words we first heard from Abraham, then Isaac, then Jacob, and now, from one not of their genetic line. “Here I am.”

God’s response is theological. “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham…” Abraham’s descendants are not determined by blood alone, but also by faith.

God does not demand that those enslaved offer sacrifices to him. Not yet. This God does not send a tweet saying that these cries of anguish and affliction are unfair because liberation is a communal effort. God does not sigh and say that the damn Hebrews want everything done for them. No. God does not.

God lays out a plan. Notice the action words: observed, heard, know, deliver, bring. And God does not expect worship until the people have been delivered to Sinai, just as God promises.

The revelation of God’s name is a sermon unto itself, and one that I’ve already delivered in past years. Today, let us notice, though, that one translation of YHWH is “I am.” From Abraham to Isaac and on through Jacob, we’ve understood their words “Here I am” to be a reference to themselves.

Let’s perform a through experiment. Picture the words “here I am” as though they are hovering before you, like the Sesame Street reading lessons. Now, place a comma after “here.” Here comma, I am. What happens if we read their words as though they are calling upon God, not identifying themselves.

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What happens in Exodus 4 is fascinating from an anthropology of religion perspective. We see the commissioning of two new roles within the nascent faith. The first is that of prophet, literally “mouthpiece.” Moses is charged with proclaiming the words that God has just delivered to him. Moses, as will many after him, claims that he is not up for the job. This ticks God off a bit, so he suggests Moses’ brother.

This just goes to show you, if you want something done just get a loudmouth named Aaron.

Aaron is a Levite, which from this point forward is the tribe of priests. Moses is the first prophet, Aaron the first High Priest, at least according to the Israelites who wrote down this story nearly a millennia after it happened. However it happened.

However, it happened. On some level, significant things occurred that allowed for these theological breakthroughs. A God who hears. Who cares. Who will send human agents to bring about liberation and community. A God who is in this with us. A God of verbs.

There are cries of anguish and suffering coming from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. The storm was not punishment for sins. It does not represent the defeat of a god or the failures of the peoples on the islands.

We have a president who is centering himself and his ego whilst people are enduring an unimaginable hell. Let us call out to God both here comma I am, and here I am. We are God’s people. Us. I know that it’s overwhelming. We can’t do everything. In trying to do so, we do nothing. Not well, anyway.

But we can always remind ourselves that if God observes, hears, knows, delivers, and brings, we should as well. We may not be Moses or Aaron, but we are those who stand in relationship with a God who models for us the proper response, especially when we are being ruled by a despotic Pharaoh.

God understand the anger and cries of frustration whilst an inept, bumbling clod makes haphazard decisions that crush lives, while then using the State-enforced propaganda to gaslight people into disbelieving their own lying eyes. What are you talking about, the Nile isn’t red! Don’t believe the FAKE NEWS, there is plenty of food, water, and assistance. The place is teeming with it because of the beneficence of Pharaoh.

Let us all remember our verbs, our action words, and follow God. Amen.

When We Don’t Like God: A Sermon Reflection on the Binding of Isaac

isaac sacrifice.jpg
The Binding of Isaac by Caravaggio, inspired by the Genesis narrative

Stories convey meaning. This is a simple observation on its face, but it is important to keep at the center of any consideration of scripture. No matter the context in which a story is situated, is told, is received: there is meaning conveyed. Imagine that you have just heard this Abraham/Isaac story for the first time. You know that it is meant to tell. you something about God, something about the nature of faith, and perhaps something about ourselves. These seem reasonable, general assumptions to hold. A story does not exist for the sake of itself.

So you’ve heard this for the first time. You’ve learned that this God made a covenant with Sarah, that she would conceive and bear a son for Abraham named Issac, and this God–whom you may or may not know from previous stories is named El Shaddai–has fulfilled the promise. You may or may not know that Abraham also has a son named Ishmael, who was born to an Egyptian handmaiden, Hagar.* You may or may not know that Hagar was visited by an angel and told that God was going to fulfill the covenant promise to Abraham, that of a bloodline and land, through two sons. Ishmael and Isaac.

Perhaps you are surprised, then, to hear it said by this God, “Take your son, your only son Isaac…” But it is not his only son, you might retort. Perhaps Sarah’s only biological son, but not Abraham’s.  With or without the knowledge, I imagine what really grabs your attention is God’s request to take Isaac, of whom God explicitly states to Abraham I know you love this child, and take him to a land called Moriah for the purpose of sacrifice.

Deeply unsettling, no? What kind of God would do this? 

You may not know of Moriah or how far away it is when the place is first mentioned but you quickly learn that it takes three days to get there. And Abraham has brought along two other young men, who are unnamed. You might speculate about whether Ishmael might be one of them, but such is a rabbit hole you need not burrow. You have enough to consider.

Three days. A party of four and a donkey. Hours of walking. It seems unlikely that they do so in silence. There is no evidence to suggest that Abraham has told the unnamed duo of God’s request. Three days of walking, eating, drinking, passing conversations settling into silence with only the sound of footfalls to be heard, morning greetings, and evening prayers. The mind boggles to think about what transpires on the journey.

The text beckons us to inhabit Abraham’s heart and mind. The details offered in the text are remarkable, from the gathering of the wood, the loading of the donkey, the instructions to the young men, the journey to the altar by father and son. So. Much. Detail.

Do you find yourself tortured by what isn’t written? So many questions. How could you, Abraham? How did you keep anyone from knowing? And what of the boy? The eagerness and excitement on his face. An important journey with his father, going to a mountain to meet God. Oh, Isaac. No matter what occurs, you will be forever changed. 

And then, the call of Isaac to Abraham.

“Father?”

“Here I am,” the patriarch responds. In Hebrew, hin-nē(h) anî bēn, the same reply that Abraham gives when God calls his name. You likely notice this but have little time to reflect upon it, carried away as you are by the developing plot. Isaac notes the presence of wood and fire, but wonders of the sacrifice.

Where’s the lamb, papa? 

Dagger to the heart! I can’t imagine a person of any compassion not feeling punched in the gut. The trusting child looking to his father. Oh, Abraham–what must you be feeling? One of the two sons born to him, necessary elements to covenant fulfillment, looking up at him with well-known eyes. A child who trusts his earthly father is told to trust a heavenly one as well.

“God will provide the lamb for a burnt offering,” Abraham says, knowingly. Is he angry? Scared? Is he questioning God? Does he have moments in which he almost tells Isaac, he has words on his lips only to stop, confused and frightened? One does not mess with gods. 

It’s in the knowing that we have pain, is it not? Isaac is blissfully unaware until the moment in which he is not. Caught by patriarch, he is trussed up upon the altar with knife at the ready.

It is almost too much. Artists as disparate as Caravaggio and Bob Dylan have speculated upon, have envisioned, have embodied that moment described in the Hebrew as שְׁחֹ֖ט (lish·chot), as sacrifice. Suddenly, a voice comes from the heavens, but it is not the voice of God. It is the voice of an angel of the Lord (mal·’ach Yah·weh) that calls out, speaking first Abraham’s name–again, “here I am”–before instructing him to replace the child with a ram caught in the thicket. Abraham then conducts the first Jewish rite of substitutionary sacrifice.

The angel also relays God’s reasoning: Because I know that you fear me, I won’t make you kill your son. The Hebrew word for fear, יְרֵ֤א (yā·rē), is used in a variety of contexts so we cannot limit its meaning to a specific one. Fear of God, it seems, is what we must give.

You may or may not notice that this story is attached to a place name; I think that depends on who you are and how you hear.

But there we have it, the story that is supposed to tell us something about God, about the nature of faith, and about ourselves. Millions of pages have been written on this story. Far too much to even hit upon in one sermon-length reflection.

Let us, however, consider how the three Abrahamic faiths relate to the story. In general–again, space constraints–Judaism notes the prohibition of child sacrifice as practiced by the Canaanites, and the nature of faith. What these observations mean specifically once again depend on how you locate yourself in the story, and of whose faith we are speaking. Abraham’s? Isaac’s? What about Sarah, the mother who has been told nothing, who has no idea that when her husband and only biological son set out, it is with the intention that only one return? Who’s faith?

In Christianity, it is difficult not to draw parallels to Jesus. God substitutes a ram for Isaac only to later substitute the paschal lamb, the sacrificial lamb, with God’s son, Jesus. Therefore, the passage is about the nature of faith and also of God’s sacrificial love.

In Islam, the specific son is not named. It might be Isaac, it might be Ishmael. Interestingly, neither Sarah nor Hagar is mentioned by name, either. The story is not limited to one son, one moment, one act of faith; it is so universal, we can find ourselves in a variety of roles within a single lifetime. Sometimes Abraham. Sometimes Isaac. Sometimes Sarah. Sometimes the donkey. 

What can we take from this that is of use?

That within the three religions that were launched by Abraham, we have three general viewpoints that have infinite specifics between them. Yet the story continues to do what it is meant to do, to bring us into a space in which we seek, we discern, we look for a God we cannot ignore. Despite our objections, our heartsick, our anger, our desperation, we are pulled, inextricably, back to this tale.

I may love you God, but right now I don’t like you very much.

Sometimes, it is the struggle that matters more than what happens at the end. It is about the impossible choices we make and why we make them. And it is about a God who is to be found, even in the midst of the unthinkable. Amen.

*I’m selective about linking Wikipedia, but this article is an example of how valuable such a free source of researched information can be.