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

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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.

Genesis 1: Natural disasters are consequences, not judgments

 

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In the late 19th century, the Babylonian creation story in the epic Enuma Elish was published, sparking a new era in biblical studies. Scholars often fretted not only over the perceived similarities between the Enuma Elish and Genesis 1 but also the connections with myriad others ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian accounts.

Are we dealing with a second-rate knockoff?

Putting yourself there

Have you ever thought about what it must have been like to be alive 5,000 years ago? It is almost unfathomable. Births were often followed quickly by funerals. Life expectancy was maybe 40 years. Food, shelter, safety: all were accomplished only through violent, exhausting processes. Natural disasters would arrive quickly and with little warning. Life is certainly beautiful, but it is also brutal.

So it makes sense that creation epics would reflect this violent brutality. In the aforementioned Enuma Elish, the created world only arises as a result of the struggles between Marduk and Tiamat. Violence is in the very DNA of all creation.

Not so with Genesis 1. God begins the act of creation (in Hebrew, bā-rā בָּרָ֣א) with a mighty wind (in Hebrew, ר֣וּחַ or ruach). There is no inherent violence here; it is the original breath of life. Across the churning waters of chaos, God begins to bring order.

Genesis 1 is the ultimate click bait: you won’t believe what happened next!

Does God actually create anything? 

Of course, the answer is yes; the Hebrew text is clear that God engages in acts of creation. But what exactly is going on here? Is God bringing into existence something new, or is God providing permission for already existing things to make themselves known?

Twice the Hebrew word יְהִ֣י is utilized, which Strong’s Concordance translates as “to exist” or “to be.” When God declares “Let there be light,” is this an act of creation or of permission? Is Genesis 1 showing us the totality of creation or just a glimpse? Perhaps is both/and rather than either/or?

When God says, “Let there be light,” is this the first time God is seeing light? Is the declaration that light is good an evaluation made in the moment, or the expressing of an a priori reality? Is it like declaring a pizza “very good” because you have tasted it, or declaring pizza very good because, in order for there to be Good, pizza much exist? We could ask similar questions regarding the other days of creation: was the land already there under the water? Did God bring into existence something new, or simply grant permission to that which was dormant under the chaotic waters?

In one sense, these are perhaps just entertaining exercises in semantics, but in another more real way, these questions get to the heart of our understanding of theological ecology. How is God present and accounted for in the natural world? Does God act alone or in cooperation with creation itself, therefore passing responsibility to us?

Most other creation epics have male and female actors, generally Father Sky and Mother Earth. And we have a titillating possibility in Gen 1:26-27 in which the plural is used: “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” Male and female God created them, the text says.

It is the land that brings forth vegetation, that provides the seeds and the fruits. Yes, God is active, but this is an act of cooperation. God is present, in our realm, establishing our human time with evening and then morning, a full day.

God is an active creator, but God also bestows the power of creation upon the created.

The concept of time

God either orders the world or allows for the intrinsic order to come forth. Regardless, God is intimately involved and experiences time in the way that we do. In each of the days, God experiences evening and morning. From the outset, the Abrahamic religions have a bifurcated sense of time. First, the timelessness of God that stands outside the act of creation, called καιρός (kairos) in Greek. Second, the time by which we chronicle our lives, χρόνος (chronos) in Greek.

This is an important point. If we take this passage literally, which I do not suggest, it still points us to the same reality as does a figurative reading: God experiences temporality with us. We need not think of God as being remote and distant from us. God’s life is marked by the six days of working such that a day of rest is needed by God. We can ask all sorts of metaphysical questions like, did God need a nap? Does God drink coffee and if so, where can I find the brew because if it’s good enough to get God up in the morning I think it’ll be just fine for me?

But these would be the wrong questions to ask. Notice that God rests, but nowhere in the text does it say that creation itself rested with God. While God rests the waters lap the shores, dew forms on the fruit trees, birds chirp as the sun launches from the horizon. God creates a day of rest to marvel at creation, and we may speculate, to refill God’s own well. Regardless, this is not a God unaffected or disinterestedly involved in creation.

God in the storm

I wrote yesterday about the absurdity of claiming that the recent onslaught of devastating storms is somehow the harbinger of the Parousia or the Day of the Lord. What the Genesis 1 narrative shows us is that if we are looking for a text that suggests God sends storms or is in control of them, this is not that text. God has a relationship with creation, but creation functions by itself while God rests. That is literally on page 1.  

God gives human beings יִרְדּוּ֩ (literally “let them have dominion”) rule over the created world. Sadly, this continues to be interpreted by some as human beings have mastery, and God will not let the natural resources run. I think we have seen where that has gone. Yes, there are natural cycles for storms, but there is no doubt that the rest of creation is feeling the impact of our poor dominion.

I reject out-of-hand the idea that God sends storms to punish people for sins. But it seems to me, in reading Genesis 1, that God is also going to let the natural world do what it needs to do. These storms are not judgments, they are consequences. We cannot think that what we do as individuals does not have communal repercussions. Certainly, human activity is not responsible for every single storm that occurs; hurricanes existed long before we did. What we can see is that there is a delicate balance within creation that allows it to function as it should. This includes the good and the bad. Hurricanes are part of the natural order. But perhaps the frequency and ferocity of these storms are the words of God’s partner in creation crying out in anguish and pain?

If we seek to find God in these storms, let it be in the actions we take and the changes we make as those charged with dominion over the natural world.

 

 

No, the end-times are not coming and stop saying so

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Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray.  Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.  When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.  For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.
Mark 13:5-8

As millions of people are displaced from Harvey and are fleeing from the path of Irma as Jose is poised to strike the same areas, we see once again a parade of religious charlatans declaring these natural disasters to be evidence of God’s wrath against gays, or liberals, or pescatarians who secretly go to the Long John Silver’s three towns away every other Tuesday.

I just spent the last month preaching on Revelation; click here to read the first installment in the series. Apocalyptic literature such as Ezekiel, Daniel, Enoch, and Revelation, are not meant to be read literally. This is not a heretical or even a mildly radical statement. By design, the literature type plays with storytelling conventions, presents seeming contradictions, uses coded and unsettling language to describe how one survives calamities. The basic message always is, no matter how bad it gets don’t stop being a good person. Don’t stop loving, seeking justice, and taking care of one another. There will be lots of distractions, but don’t be fooled.

I wear many hats, but the one I have worn the longest as a person in the field of theology and religion is that of a Markan scholar. Mark 13 is errantly called the little apocalypse, but the chapter perfectly reflects ancient wisdom about what to avoid when disaster has struck, as was the case in 70 CE, the year when the Romans razed the Second Jerusalem Temple and expelled Jews from the city. Jesus followers gathered around the Markan narrative were a mixed lot, meaning there were Jews and there were Gentiles. They heard the promises of safety and comfort from the religious establishment and the Roman government. Beware, the Markan Jesus says, of those who come with motives other than the love of God.

These hurricanes are unimaginably awful. They are powerful, destructive, capricious, and uncaring. They do not have in them motive or judgment, but if we are to perhaps take one away let it be this: we are seeing the ravages of climate change faster than predicted. The continued assault on reason and cooperative action must stop. These storms will keep coming, not as a result of God’s wrath, but because of our own intransigence and capitalist greed.

So to all those saying this is an act of God, I say: Keep Jesus’ name out your mouth.

 

The Revelation Equation: Is God a Hater?

revelation.jpgRead Revelation 1:9-2:7

A Troubling History

The Book of Revelation tends to bring out the worst in people. Hucksters with collars and racists with badges are disposed to like the enigmatic text because it is intimidating. The Eastern Orthodox do away with it completely in liturgy;* the pre-Vatican II, Tridentine Catholic Church required laity to have a family Bible, but only to record vital statistics and to be regarded with awed reverence. Revelation inspires terror of a coming, violent judgment, something religious art and literature has captured for centuries. Revelation was like a loaded gun left in an infant’s crib.

Protestantism scoffed at the Church keeping the Bible out of the hands of the laity; this has had mixed results. Scholarship has been an important part of Protestant traditions, and there is no doubting the impact this has had on religious literacy. But once the doctrine of sola scriptura mixed with anti-intellectualism, white supremacy culture, and the notion that anyone claiming to be anointed by the Spirit can call themselves pastor, Christianity found a new way to be hate-filled and violent.

I wrote earlier about my trepidation regarding Revelation. And once again, I feel like this month-long examination of the text via passages selected by Luther Seminary’s Narrative Lectionary Project was directed by the Holy Spirit. Why? This is the time in which all of us need to be confronting our fears and misconceptions, and determine who we are.

On ἀποκάλυψις 

The Greek word is ἀποκάλυψις, a combination of ἀπό (away) and καλύπτω (cover), is used in at least three distinctive ways that impact our study.

  1. An apocalypsis is a revealing or uncovering of something. In its simplest sense, it is a vision or a dream that reveals something previously hidden. The Hebrew Bible is filled with examples of dreams and interpretations of dreams. These are apocalypses, but the meaning is not to be found in a literal reading of the dream. Symbolism abounds.
  2.  The term can also refer to the revealing of the true natures of good and evil. This is generally tied to eschatological expectations, that is, the end of time as we know it and the uncovering of God’s eternal rule. This is the most common interpretation that Evangelicals offer for the Book of Revelation, but as Christopher Rowland points out in the New Interpreter’s Commentary, there is no definitive argument to be made that John of Patmos, the author of the text, was describing a vision from God portending a literal future event. While there is also no irrefutable evidence that the text is an account of a symbolic dream only, there is more of a case to be made for the latter.
  3. Which brings us to the third point: ἀποκάλυψις refers to a literature type. Clear-cut examples are the Book of Daniel and the Enoch cycle. Again, according to Rowland, the purpose of this literature type is to present contradictions and cognitive dissonance to shake us from our realms of comfort. These texts are made to be unsettling, for the message is about how to follow God in a world that is openly hostile to God’s call.

Working Interpretations

In Revelation 1:9-20, we are presented with a fantastical description of the Risen Christ. To argue that this, in any conceivable way, is a depiction of the historical Jesus is ludicrous. It is part of the problem with American Christianity. How could anyone think that Jesus literally had a sword for a tongue or furnace eyes? Frankly, I am sick of hearing that we must agree to disagree or to allow others to present opinions as fact. This is clearly symbolism.

Notice that this Christ whom John sees is surrounded by lampstands, but not lamps. Seven, a number that appears throughout the text, is symbolic for, among many things, completion. The seven churches do not provide a complete, detailed list of all in existence–there were certainly more by the time John wrote in the late first century. Rather, it symbolizes the unbroken and complete Body of Christ. The Risen Christ stands surrounded by the seven lampstands because he is the light of the world. The double-edged sword as a tongue might represent how having the gospel on your lips will help you defend yourself in an evil world. It’s two edges might mean that Christ’s call brings us both God’s comfort and God’s requirements.

In Revelation 2:1-7, we read of people who were zealous and eager when they first accepted Christ, and in their jubilant love, they performed good deeds. They fought off the temptations that lead to a life outside of gospel commands, but the world wore them down. No longer do they love as they once did; no longer do they act as divine agents. He calls them to remember the circumcised hearts they had before they became jaded.

But what about…

A parishioner waited until I had greeted everyone before pulling me aside after the sermon and he said, “All this information helps and I am feeling better about a month of this, but you didn’t talk about God hating people. I’m wrestling with that part. Aren’t we supposed to love everyone?” I told him I struggle with 2:6 as well, that I plan to approach it in subsequent weeks, which is true. What I didn’t say, but will now, is that I was afraid if I opened that can of worms, I might say something that I regret.

I have made no secret about my commitment to justice, specifically for trans persons, Muslims, and persons of color. I have been criticized for alienating others. I am not looking to relitigate these issues because I feel they have been settled to various degrees, but I am acutely aware of the weight my words can have, especially in worship. Given what has happened over the last 48 hours, my heart has been filled with anger, disgust, frustration, and even hatred. I’ve been drinking the poison of my own making. I think others have as well.

But address it we must. John of Patmos writes that God hates the Nicolaists, a Gnostic group whose beliefs are not entirely known. Perhaps they followed a form of antinomianism, the notion that the Law is abolished completely by Christ. We are rightly wary of the notion that God hates anyone. This wariness is largely owed to the genocidal history of the Church. Jesus calls us to love our neighbors, yes, but he prioritized those who were most oppressed by both religion and the State. Jesus stood up to those who abused their power so as to victimize others. Jesus did not let his heart be filled with anger and vengeance, but he made it clear that there are requirements. To argue otherwise is to ignore why Jesus went to the cross to die. When we blithely say it was for the forgiveness of sins, but ignore Jesus going to the cross in solidarity with those whom God calls blessed, we turn the Gospel into something that supports the vile, ugly, pervasive, and violent prejudice that has been with this country since its founding.

I’m okay with God hating white supremacism. It is foolish of us to think that reason and listening with compassion will gain anything except people more people in harm’s way because we don’t have the courage to stand up and be of account. We should not let ourselves hate people–which is most difficult because white supremacists are not good people–but that does not mean we have to act like they have a reasonable position. In fact, there is no room at the table.

I have no doubt that detractors will go to the trope, “Here’s the so-called tolerance of the Left; they only tolerate what they agree with.” Bullshit. It is a pernicious lie that all worldviews must be given equal credence. And while those on the far Right will claim that it is “PC culture” that has descended us into a world of relativism and hostility to facts, that is not the case. I argue that it is directly related to anti-intellectualism, faux-patriotism, and two political parties that don’t care about anything except “winning.”

What’s It All About? 

What do we do in a world that is full of hatred, lies, corruption, and deception? We look to the light of Christ. And I am not talking about some pie-in-the-sky, abstract notion of Jesus. Rather, the Jesus who stepped between religious fanatics and a woman about to be stoned to death. The Jesus who hung on a cross and showed compassion for one hanging next to him. The Jesus who went to a man chained by villagers on the outskirts of town. The Jesus who walked into Gentile territory, let a perpetually menstruating woman touch him, spoke truth to power, stood up for God’s message and never descended into hatred. In a world in which there are lots of lampstands without lamps, the light of Christ can help us see.**
*Many thanks to Rev. Lathe Snider for this bit of information.

**Just a reminder, I am not an exclusivist. I acknowledge that there are infinite paths to God, the Spirit, Creator, the Truth. This is the one I choose and I write from within the tradition but do make claims that I am right and everyone else is wrong.

Yada Yada Yada: (T)ruth on the Threshing Floor

Click here to read Ruth 3.

The Yiddish expression yada yada yada derives from the Hebrew word yada (pronounced with a long first a), which means “know.” So yada yada yada essentially means “you know, you know, you know.” A way to indicate that you’re cutting to the chase, making a long story short.

Above is a clip of one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes, when Elaine yada yadas sex. In Hebrew, the word “know” can also mean to know someone sexually. Same with the Hebrew word for “lie down.” It can be literal, like lying down with someone. Or it can mean to know someone carnally. Similar to our English word sleep. If I were to say, “I slept with someone not my wife last night,” you would probably ask for clarification before smacking me in the face. Maybe not 😉

The words “know” and “lie down,” along with the idioms used in connection with a cloak or wing being spread for protection are throughout Ruth 3. The Hebrew is filled with double entendres; and add to that the fact Ruth and Boaz meet on the threshing floor, biblically the site where prostitutes meet their johns, and you’ve got yourself an exegetical stew going.

Seminary is not the most risque place. Most of what we study is really important and heavy. We have to be prepared to deal with a wide variety of possibilities. But every now and then, things get juicy. I’ve found there are two types of religious people when it comes to talk about sex. There are those who shift in their seats because things are about to get interesting; and there are those who shift in their seats because things are about to get uncomfortable. I’m certainly the former.

The Book of Ruth is one of the shortest in the canon, but also one of the most enigmatic. Lots of congregants have come up to me after service over the past few weeks to express they feel like they are understanding the story for the first time. I mention this not to commend my own preaching, but rather to say that sometimes English translations fall flat. What is at play here in Ruth 3 are commentaries on the nature of power. Who is really in control? Is it Naomi, who sets the plot into motion? Is it Ruth, who goes to the threshing floor to uncover Boaz’s “feet,” which is clearly a euphemism for male genitalia? Is it Boaz, who wants to bed Ruth but is looking for a way to make it culturally justifiable? Numerous books and articles have been written claiming one over another.

Power is as power does.

Boaz clearly has no levitical responsibility to Ruth,that is no legal requirement to marry her as a next of kin. She is a Moabite and not a blood relation. He might have a legal responsibility to Naomi, but most likely not, as she is beyond child-bearing age. We must ask why Naomi forms her plan: is it for her safety or for Ruth’s? Both? Why does Ruth go along? Because she has pledged herself to Naomi? Or because she understands this will be the only way she can discover any sort of protection.

Also at question is the sort of protection she is asking for; is it marriage? Is it permission to live on the land and do more than glean for food? Does she present herself to Boaz to seduce him and trick him into protection? Or does Boaz meet her there so he can purchase her services. The bestowing of six barley complicates the matter even more, as it could be seen as a bridal price, a payment for, ahem, services rendered, or something even more symbolic, like the restoration of six generations of Elimilech’s line. Interpretations abound.

What is the protection here? What is the security? What is the bond between Boaz and Ruth, Boaz and Naomi, Ruth and Naomi? What kind of family will they be?

The system has let Naomi down, and Ruth is an outsider. Can it be made to work for her, and in turn for Naomi, too?

God is in the business of redemption, or forgiveness, of bringing wholeness out of brokenness. But God does not work with magic wands. God works through people and situations. And here, in this beautifully complicated story, we see the ultimate outsider, Ruth, being an agent of redemption. Being one open to God using her to bring together what life has rent asunder.

So often we think we know what a good person looks like; we imagine that if God were going to use someone for good in our lives, those people will likely look like us. Think the same things as us. But this story shows us that God works in mysterious ways, unusual ways, ways that may seem foreign or even uncomfortable for us.

For Christians, the example of Christ mirrors that of Ruth. Jesus went to those who were forced to the periphery and affirmed their blessedness. He brought them into the center of his community because they are at the center of God’s heart. Are we open to that happening with us? For us? To us?

I’ll meet you on the threshing floor.

In Which the Book of Ruth Passes the Bechdel Test

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(A Sermon Essay on Ruth 1)

Only two books in the Tanakh bear women’s names: Ruth and Esther. I was in my thirties before I learned that my maternal grandmother, who I had always known as Maxine, was actually named Esther. But that’s another story for another time. We’re gathered here today to talk about the Book of Ruth.

There are two differing hermeneutical schools weighing in on Ruth; one holds that the book was written, possibly by Samuel, during the time of the monarchy. Using rough estimates and the assumption that while the monarchy technically begins with Saul, it really doesn’t start until the reign of David (although the author of the above link disagrees), that means that Ruth was written sometime between 1000 BCE-922 BCE. This argument holds that the purpose of the Book of Ruth is to show the transformation from barrenness, darkness, despair, and brokenness–set during the time of the shofet–into the fecundity, light, hope, and transformation of the monarchy.

I am not swayed by this scholarship for a few reasons (Hebrew usage; influence of Aramaic upon language structure; narrative components and theological composition), but mainly because the alternate theory makes more sense, at least for me as a pastoral theologian with substantial training in biblical exegesis.

This view, which is masterfully argued by Dr. Pieter Venter from the Department of Old Testament Studies at University of Pretoria, South Africa, holds that early Second Temple literature (that is, written after 515 BCE, when the Second Temple was consecrated) has certain hallmark features, and particularly thematic ones at that. And while this is essential in the development of Judaism, which is what must always be given primacy when considering texts from the Tanakh, it is seminal in the development of Christianity. In fact, one might argue that without Ruth Christianity would not exist.

Bible nerds probably chuckled at the last sentence of the paragraph. Or maybe not. It is a quotidian observation to note that Jesus would not exist without Ruth, as Ruth is the great-grandmother of David, who is listed as one of Jesus’ direct forebears in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. (Some Markan scholars, but not me, argue that Davidic lineage is present in the Gospel of Mark as well; but again, that’s for another discussion.) But my joke that’s not really much of a joke is pointing toward something else.

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The Book of Ruth, just like the ministry of Jesus, is about radical inclusivity. Naomi is like a female Job. Calamity has befallen her and she is questioning what she has done to deserve it. Not only has her husband died, but also her sons. In terms of social standing, she is going to fall through the net. She is not of child-bearing age. No one is gonna marry her.  The Levitical laws that seek to protect her–not my type of feminism, but on a historical level we have to acknowledge that the Hebrew law codes did try to provide some manner of cultural protection for women, even if we may find said attempts to be sorely insufficient–are not going to be of use. She encourages her daughters-in-law to return to their homelands, to find some manner of protection or social standing. Naomi is going to return home in bitterness, a fact that she makes plain at the end of the first chapter.

We cannot underestimate what is happening here. Although the Book of Ruth is only four chapters long, it contains one of the longest continuous stories recorded in the Hebrew Bible. And elements of the first chapter will even pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test. Here we have a woman, Ruth, who is a foreigner; in time of chaos and uncertainty, she pledges herself to Naomi in language that is similar to wedding vows. She takes on a new God; she is willing to go to a new land; she will renounce her people and take on a new identity. She forsakes everything that can identify her and protect her.

In many ways, what we see is similar to the covenant renewal ceremony preserved in Joshua 24. But this one is cast in terms of women.

Which is why I introduced you to the prevalent theories regarding when the Book of Ruth was authored; if we go with the latter theory, that is, authorship post-515 BCE, we know that there were ongoing battles regarding what religious observance consisted of. With the destruction of the First Jerusalem Temple (often called Solomon’s Temple), religion began to shift away from being defined by possession of land, the existence of the Temple, and a Davidic king sitting upon the throne. In exile, the religion of the Hebrews morphed into Judaism, a religion of the book. Knowledge and adherence to the Torah, teaching, made one Jewish. The externals of religion must be matched by the internals of faith; circumcised penises matter less than circumcised hearts. With the return of the people under Cyrus the Persian, the most fundamentalist of Jews were living in Jerusalem. They wanted to make the rules. They argued that marriages to foreign spouses made the children illegitimate. A new Temple required around the clock sacrifices, but some argued that rites and rituals were empty if there was not a spirit of the Lord in the place.

And in the midst of that, in the middle of such an argument, about who is in and who is out, comes a story about a Hebrew woman and her Moabite, foreign daughter-in-law. This foreigner, this interloper, this woman sings a song matched only by Hannah and later Mary. She throws down the gauntlet and displays a faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The radical nature of this story cannot escape our minds as we prepare to move to chapter two. We have two women, one who just made marriage-like vows to the other who has returned home only to say, “Y’all best not call me Naomi anymore. My name is Bitter, and you best not get it twisted.” Can you feel their strength? Their defiance? Their willingness to go up against the rules of men if it keeps them out of relationship? With God. With one another. With themselves. And while the rest of the story may bother us (or maybe not), let us remember them as they are now. Standing tall. Chin up. Chest out. Bodies not there for gazing but to be asserted. To announce their presence. Their power is written on the body.

Let us recognize that these two women are badasses.

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Street Gospel in C-Sharp Minor

I saw him first out of the corner of my eye as I walked from the church to Speedway for my morning gallon of caffeine. Early 20s, solid build. Astride a lowrider bicycle, one hand was upon the handlebars and the other clutched something against his leg. A bag was slung snugly against his back as he rode aimlessly in between and around the pumps. Clear blue skies and a not-too-warm sun shone down through morning cool air. My first thought was, That’s kinda dangerous. I wonder if I should say something? 

Initially, I meant it in reference to riding amidst gas pumps with distracted people driving and playing Pokemon simultaneously. I just worried he would get hit or someone would start yelling at him (likely a tourist in my mind, but one never knows). But then I realized that I was wanting to say something for another reason. Black kid riding a bike can be a justification for a stop. A questioning. A shooting. And if you had told me a five years ago that I would think this, I would have responded: Outside Y.S. Sure. But not here. Never here. Then Paul was killed. Violent behavior in the YSPD has occurred very recently as well. Of course, there are wonderful officers on the force and I personally speak to the Chief rather frequently, in both support and a taking to task, all to try to make sure that officers and villagers know one another; but that sadly doesn’t matter. Paul was known in the village. The two people recently subjected to excessive (and despite the internal investigation conclusions many believe unjustifiable) force were locals. As Roland Deschain of The Dark Tower says, the world has moved on. This is not the same village it once was, at least in terms of policing. The thought of potential violence was heavy on my mind as I walked into the station to get my ridiculously large cup of Diet Pepsi. I resolved myself to not say anything to him because I didn’t want him to feel unwelcome, and I also didn’t want to appear to be a White person trying to tell an adult Black man what to do. He’s grown, I thought. And knows much better than I what it takes to live while Black. 

I exited and started back to the church. And then I heard him.                                           “Would you like to hear a word?”                                                                                                                 I wheeled around. “A word on what?”                                                                                                       “The only word that matters,” he said. I realized for the first time that he was holding a Bible in the hand not controlling the bike. He opened to a page in Revelation as I sidled up to him and smiled. He read. I closed my eyes. Normally, I am almost repulsed by Revelation, at least the way it is presented and used. I’ll be honest that I like my apocalypses from Daniel and my eschatology from Isaiah. But the selected passage was lovely. About humility. About seeking glory not from riches of the coin but rather wealths of the spirit. A wealth of justice. A wealth of compassion. A wealth of comfort, residing in the bosom of Christ. He finished and I smiled.

“Amen,” I said. I did not move as we smiled at each other.                                                                  “May I tell you something, brother?” I asked. He nodded.                                                                   “I’m pastor of that church right there,” I said, pointing at the stately stone structure of First Presbyterian. His eyes widened. “No way!” he exclaimed. I held out my arms, showing him my many religious tattoos. “Jesus Christ is the foundation of everything I do, everything I am, everything I am called to be.” I could tell that he was starting to think this was a reproach or a haughty rebuke. I caught his eye. “Thank you. Thank you for sharing a word of Scripture with me. You have ministered to me at a moment when I needed it.” I remained silent about my earlier fears and thoughts. I simply existed in the moment. I asked his name, which he told me. And there in the Speedway lot, we held hands and prayed.

He told me that he felt the tug of the Holy Spirit, prompting him to speak. I affirmed that his presence had been a great blessing to me. We laughed and praised God and parted ways. I fell into church work: finishing the bulletin, taking a meeting, completing a paper for the doctoral program, putting together details for the Gospel Fest. When the office manager left I hadn’t looked at the clock in hours. The rumbling in my stomach made it known that food needed to happen or not even a gallon of Diet Pepsi was going to keep me upright. I was about to walk into Tom’s when I saw the young man across the street attempting to proselytize a local (and international) celebrity we all know and love. I’ll call this celebrity Big Homie. For those of us who grew up here, seeing Big Homie is not a big deal but for others it is, so we locals try to be really protective of him. Big Homie was with some locals I know well so I sauntered over and began chatting with the director of the African American Culture Works, which sponsors the Gospel Festival held at First Presbyterian. “Hey, Rev.” Big Homie shot at me. It seemed I had alighted upon a solid theological discussion; the young man had voiced frustration that people were not wanting to listen to the Word.

“You can’t go up to them and use it like an assault weapon,” Big Homie said. “You don’t know their path. You’ve got to show them with how you live.” He got up. “I don’t smoke crack,” he said, walking quickly to the edge of the flower shop and then back toward us like a man on the hustle. “So if somebody comes by whispering offers of crack, I’m not going listen. In fact, I might be hostile. You see, you don’t know if people are interested in your product.” Big Homie had made his way back to the flower show; he leaned up against the edge of the building. “But if you post up and wait, the people who need you are going to come.” I nodded and smiled.

Big Homie is a deep Muslim, yo’.

He kinda nodded at me and I picked up the conversation; we talked about the parable of the sower, and how our responsibility is to sow the seed. “We cannot be responsible for the quality of the soil or where the seed lands. What we have to do is be as gracious and abundant as possible in spreading the seed, confident that in God roots will be developed in fertile soil. Your passion of the ministry is awesome; I love that you are out here sweating and trying to share with people your joy. Christ has changed your life and you want to share that. But know that, as Big Homie said, your call is to people who want to receive what you have to offer. Please come worship with us, brother.” We hugged and I took the picture you see above.

Street Gospel in C-sharp minor.