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.

  **

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.

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.

“You Don’t Like Me! You Really Don’t Like Me!” Why I Am Embracing Charges of Divisiveness in Trump’s America

divisive

When I was a young teenager, I voiced my own version of #notallwhites. My mentors and peers of color, most often lovingly but sometimes exasperatedly, directed me toward understanding it is #notaboutyou. Endlessly asking others to assuage my goodness or affirm my nonthreatening whiteness sidetracked discussions. Since I was shown this, I haven’t been able to unsee it. Every now and again, I slip and offer up a more sophisticated version, but the impetus is the same: please affirm to me that I am not racist.

I’m racist. I actively fight against it, but I’m racist because I continue to benefit from systems that are built on a foundation of racist oppression.

In my late teens and early twenties I flirted with what is now called Meninism. I have a horrible memory that haunts me that I might one day write about, but I am still so mortified it is overwhelming. Let’s just say that in college I hijacked a presentation on sexual violence made by fellow female students and demanded that an asterisk be applied to everything they said. #notallmen

Really, this memory plagues me. It causes me to physically shudder and groan. Five years after it happened I was married to a feminist scholar, and while the marriage didn’t last, her impact on me did. #yesallmen is pretty much spot on, at least for me.

I converted to Christianity about 15 years ago and I have often said that I feel part of the ministry laid before me is #notallChristians. I used to think this would arise from saying the right things, making it clear that I decry the sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, racism, and other prejudices that too often are present in the Body of Christ. In the past two years I’ve realized that much, much more important than what I say is what I do. I no longer ask people to trust me, I try to show them. To earn their trust. To live my life as though I am a walking safety pin.

I delivered a sermon yesterday that has proved to be controversial, and appears to have caused one person to leave the church. The charges: I was univitational. Divisive. 

I did not sleep much last night. I wrote an email in which I attempted to thread the needle between lamenting that my words caused distress while maintaining that I do not accept that anything I said was outside of the Word. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that over 700 incidents of hateful harassment and violence have occurred since the election of November 8th.  I’ve already blocked white dudes on my Facebook page who continued to argue for “isolated incidents,” or more often: “Emails! Benghazi! Foundation!” I don’t think I have even written Secretary Clinton’s name in a blog or a Facebook post since the election, but even if I have it is in passing or secondary to the larger point. I reject the notion that speaking about acts of violence and racism is in itself an act of violence and racism. My decrying these acts has now become more controversial and problematic than the acts themselves. And I do not want to be part of a Church that acts like our duty is to assuage the feelings of those who want to claim that this past election was like all the others we’ve had since 1864.

But the impetus to be liked is still in me. Part of me wants to apologize and smooth things over so that I am not regarded as controversial. After a rough patch with the Session of the congregation I serve, we had a powerful, transformative meeting on Thursday and I am not eager for more conflict. It would be easier for me to give a mea culpa and to start crafting sermons that are feel-good, milquetoast offerings that sand down the rough edges of God’s word and emphasizes that while we are different in the world we are all the same in the Body of Christ.

Frankly, if I ever do that I hope one of y’all will grab the clerical collar from my neck and tell me to go back to bartending. We don’t need another white male pastor who affirms the status quo. Despite its best efforts, even the European-American Church couldn’t turn Jesus into such a person, so I’m determined not to let it happen to me, either.

Jesus did not come to earth to make us in the dominant culture feel better about ourselves; Jesus came to earth to show us how to lovingly, yet boldly live our lives as ongoing protests against that which suffocates, oppresses, marginalizes, inhibits, and deceives. Jesus taught us that #Samaritanlivesmatter. Jesus taught us to #loveyourenemies, and part of that love is speaking truth to power, even with a shaking voice.

I won’t pretend that this is easy, but my struggles are not what is important here. While I want the Church to always be a welcoming place, if you are looking for a worship experience that confirms your prejudices and doesn’t hold up the Gospel like a mirror, I’m not the right pastor. I try very hard to not castigate people–a point I make repeatedly, despite my detractors never hearing it–but I rail against existential and spiritual realities that devastate people’s lives because that has been God’s call on God’s people for 6,000 years. 

I pray that the person who feels alienated by my sermon accepts my offer to speak in person. I certainly plan to listen, and even if I disagree to make sure that I understand the objections and concerns. This does not mean I will acquiesce. And if I am labeled as divisive, I will embrace that; if speaking out against violence, sexism, racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and the myriad other hatreds that are occurring across the country makes me more divisive than the actual acts themselves, so be it. I’ll channel my inner Sally Field and proclaim my unlikability.

 

If Racism Don’t Live Here, It Sure Do Visit A Lot

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I know only what Ms. Brown has reported. I am not speaking to the facts. I am responding to someone in my larger community putting out a call. Until there is any provable reason to think otherwise, I take this as something to which I must draw attention. I wasn’t there, and this blog is more about the issues the story raises rather than litigating the narrative.  

The door of the car that Dietrina Brown worked so hard to acquire, now a daily reminder of a recent trip to the Kroger on Dayton-Yellow Springs Road that so many of us frequent. You can read the whole story here. In full disclosure, I do not know Ms. Brown. Her story was brought to my attention by a member of the Beloved Community Project (BCPYS), of which I am Founding Director of Interfaith Spirituality and Education. She’s my neighbor, though. Our towns are right next door. She’s a child of God. She is someone who has to drive by the hundreds of Trump signs in every corner of our county.  She has to think about her race each and every moment of the day because we have a society that won’t let her forget it, but shuns her when she talks about it. It is stuff like this that requires we say Black Lives Matter. This, and the bodies left in the streets while communites reel in disgust, grief, anger, and desperation. 

The denomination I serve, the Presbyterian Church (USA), has called for its majority white membership and clergy to stop with the thoughts and prayers. To stop with damaging theology that asks the oppressed to suffer for a greater glory and yet does nothing to afflict the comfortable. This is not about demonizing people. I am tired of hearing that I am ashamed to be “white” or that I am advocating self-hatred. I am not trying to guilt or shame anyone; I used to think that dealing with my own racism and implicit biases meants admitting I’m a bad person. Luckly, growing up in YS, being surrounded by diversity and living in a place in which social justice commitment is in the water, I learned that no one wants guilt. It does nothing but destroy. Awareness and compassion, though, are vital; when they replace guilt and shame, persons get in touch with their own call to this movemet. To this transformation of consciousness. They own their own part in being within a larger community that rises up in love and solidarity around issues such as stopping racial terror. 

I believe that we all are created imago dei. If I want to see God, I cannot hold out for a burning bush or theophonic speech. I have to look into the eyes of my neighbor. I have to be so counter-culture that I actually love myself. Not engage in Trumpian narcissism. But love myself. Understanding that God has planted within me, within all of us,, something divine. Our bodies are made with star dust and our minds can unravel mysteries and bring things into creation. My denomination has called for me to use every ounce of privilege I have in standing up and shoutin’: ENOUGH.
In our neighborhood, this has happened. The n-word scratched onto a car. The open disdain that is being boldly paraded around our streets is new only in its audacity; for those of us who have lived here for decades, we have always known. Every single one of my friends of color from here or who have visited here has had a racist incident in Fairborn. I am not claiming that Yellow Springs doesn’t have racist incidents; we do. Generally of very different flavors, but racism just the same. And I certainly am not saying that all people who live in Fairborn are racist. So let’s not get it twisted and start arguing against things that are not there. I know, not all white people. Not all Fairbornites. 

But the car-scratching type of racism visits here. A lot. I know because I see it every weekend when people who obviously despise everything we as a village stand for, come in and gawk at us and talk loudly and point. Who glare at me, pastor of a congregation that has been around since 1855, when I go bounding down the steps of the church because…well, I look the way I do. They take pictures of “hippies,” and we locals always laugh because those aren’t hippies and they don’t live here. YS cosplay is real, except the only people in on it are the locals. We don’t dress up. We live up. These types of tourists walk by each shop and say, “that’s diff’rnt.”They glare at two men holding hands, or feel it is incumbent upon themselves to bring Jesus to Yellow Springs, seeming to forget that we have a house of worship for every 300 or so citizens in the village. We’ve got spiritual life covered, and Jesus is well-represented. Come find out on Sundays, 10:30 at First P resby. Or visit any of the other wonderful  spiritual communities to which we are home; the pointing tourists don’t care to actually learn about this, though. They shout “All Lives Matter” at us because of our BLM signs and T-shirts. They generally try to do a beeline to D.C., one of our favorite sons, and then townies like me gotta jump in and let them know that this is not a photo op. This is home. He’s not Rick James, bitch. We hear the snide remarks about Obama, or how drugs are legal here, or how if you order the right way Ha-Ha’s will give you psychedelic mushrooms on your pie. I know the owner. He is way too cheap to ever do something like that 😉 Each weekend we are visited by people who make it known how the abhor us. Again, not all tourists. Not saying that. Let’s not go tilting at windmills.

Our local commerce is not important enough for us to tolerate some of the behavior that is going on; the racists don’t really care anymore because too often there are not consequences. I know that I am going to be accused of being racist or prejudiced against white people, but I am not casting aspersions. There are well-meaning whites who feel so attacked and backed into a corner, and their internalizing of racist fallacies is so deep they feel like they are losing something that belongs to them; they feel heard and understood by someone like Trump. They genuinely don’t see their own racism, and their own circumstances are challenging enough that learning you play a role in other people’s oppression is not exactly great leisure time activity. I get it. It is because white supremacy thinkimg is so ingrained in our culture and sense of self, extricating oneself from it is hard work, yo. 

I thank Ms. Brown for sharing her story. The attention should be on her, helping her to feel more safe, more heard, more empowered, more confident that this will not go unchecked. I am asking for everyone who reads my blog and lives in this area, share Ms. Brown’s original post. I don’t want this to seem like an effort to up my own traffic. The spotlight needs to be on the incident. If you do repost this blog though, thank you and let’s make sure we keep our eyes on the prize.

For those who cannot help Ms. Brown directly, there is something you can do. I can’t tell you exactly what because I don’t know your life and situation. But there are organizations thatcan help, like BLM or SURJ. If you are interested in being part of something new, the BCPYS is in the process of forming. There’s tons of information on our FB page and we are in the process of launching a website; we are also proudly affiliated with the national boycott to end police brutality that starts December 5.

Speaking up is hard. Not looking away is hard. But white people, we have got to step up in the real world. That is scary which is why we all need to be talking to each other on the regular. We have to talk about race. We have to listen to our friends of color bear witness. God is calling for us to be present and acknowledge the very real pain and fear that traditionally marginalized and oppressed people bear. These experiences are literally written onto the body. If you have never held a 300 lb black man with a PhD as he sobs into your embrace because the latest racial slight from the academy is final proof that he would never actually be accepted, you might not understand why I cannot be silent. I cannot look away. God has blessed me with so many friends. And it is like the rainbow coalition up in my social world. If you can’t do it yet, if you can’t speak out or take a lead that’s okay. But I ask that you start doing a little work each day.  We cannot shrug this off. Black people are literally begging us to not be indifferent to their murders and marginalizing, and we’re like, “Well, I’m not racist so I don’t know what else I can do.”

This happened in our neighborhood because we have a culture in which it is allowed to happen. I’m not saying the police; I’m not saying Kroger. I’m saying us. The people who live here. We are letting is happen unless we release a primal scream that will make the devil himself shift uncomfortably in his throne.

To Ms. Brown. I hear you. I see you. I thank you.

All things in love, friends, and in love all things.

 

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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The Pessimism Post

Last night, Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-New York) became the first woman to accept the presidential nomination for a major political party. Both my grandmothers were born during the time when women were still unable to vote. Watching the coverage, I thought of them–both Republicans–and their strength. My maternal grandmother watched her father die at the dining room table when she was sixteen, and weeks before her high school graduation she had to quit school to provide for her siblings. She became a maid and spent the rest of her life trying to make sure that the desperation of the Great Depression was not felt by her children. My paternal grandmother, the child of Finnish immigrants, left school after the 8th grade, moved from her farm in Minnesotta to Detroit, where she and my grandfather, also the son of Finnish immigrants, started a family. Grandma did the Sunday New York Times crossword in ink. She could insult you in English and Finnish, but do so with such a smile you’d never know what just happened. And when Hillary spoke of her mother, of her struggle, I melted. I caved. I surrendered. I went from voting against Trump to voting for Hillary.

I lost my Progressive cred last night. I became a mindless idiot crying over words deviously crafted in a DNC laboratory, falling as easy prey for a sadistic war criminal who has left a trail of bodies and destruction in her wake. At least according to my friends on the far Right. And the Left. The far Left. The Left that I have now left. The pessimism is too much for me. It is too crushing, too limiting, too angry, too self-righteous, too absent of nuance. I’m not unware of the drone strikes that terrorize communities around the world, mainly in Muslim-heavy countries. Civilians continue to bear the brunt of our disastrous invasion of Iraq; Syria is teeming with suffering and uncertainty. Our globalism continues to serve the oligarchs who control the means of production and the media that too often fails to inform rather than incite. I’m not unaware of the subtle and not-so-subtle racism of Democratic policies. Our for-profit prison system keeps entire populations locked into a pipeline that’s more dangerous than the  Keystone project. Trans* women are still dying. Black and Brown people are still oppressed and struggling. I’m aware of these and the myriad other deficiencies in the DNC platform. And contrary to what some think, I am not just shrugging my shoulders and waving an American flag certain Republicans think were absent from the DNC and belong only to them. 

But the pessimism is too much. The notion that we are so corrupted that the entire system needs to be blown apart doesn’t resonate with me. I’m not down with the revolution. In fact, I’m with Bono. Fuck the revolution. I’m going to give up caring when people say I am selling out, or believing hype, or being duped, or that I am playing into the hands of a system that is inherently evil.  I’m not going to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. 

So I’ll say it for the detractors, and they can move on to bigger game. To people who will perhaps find the pessimism more useful to motivate them toward positive action: I drank the Kool-Aid. I surrendered my will. I let the big, bad DNC throw my brain into the machine with extra bleach, and a nice dryer sheet to finish it off. I have let the mistress manipulator tie me into pretzels until I shouted “I’m with her!”

Of course, I did nothing of the kind. And if you are still not convinced to vote for Hillary, that’s fine. It is really not my business. But keep your pessimism to yourself. I have no use for it. I’m about building up, making a difference, trying to forge relationships that are significant and lasting, and to do that with people with whom I may disagree on a lot of things,  but with whom I can work. Serve. Form community. I’m okay with not being pure enough, not being a true revolutionary if it means I can stop feeling so angry and sad. I’m sure this is privilege, or at least it will be labeled so. That’s cool. I really don’t care. 

Well, I’m trying not to care. 

Since converting to Christianity, I’ve gotten really use to people telling me I believe in things that are not true. I’ve learned to smile and nod, and go about following my heart. So with that, I’m with her.