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.

On Christology, Part II: “But what is Truth?”

As I’ve written about beforeJesus Christ Superstar has been formative to my faith journey. My earliest memory is connected to Pilate counting the lashes and asking my sister, “Are they nailing him to the cross?” Portraying Pilate planted the seed of needing to know who Jesus is, a seed that germinated in my becoming a religion major in college. But what is Truth, is truth unchanging law? We both have truths, are mine the same as yours? 

My Christology is somewhere between “Personal Jesus” and “Losing My Religion.” A Jesus who guarantees us personal salvation but allows us to spend most of our times telling people what they cannot do or be is odious; a Christianity that permits us to do whatever we want, to engage in pleasure while simultaneously causing and contributing to suffering is equally problematic. One detail that is non-negotiable to me is that Jesus pulls us into community. I simply cannot understand how one can follow Jesus outside of being a servant of God for others. This does not have to be a church. I love the church, but I came to faith as an adult and have been lucky enough to find communities in which an others-based, radical love approach to Christianity is practiced. Many others have not been so lucky, so they have formed their own communities. That’s our hope with the Beloved Community Project. But I reject out of hand the idea that confessing faith in Christ is the alpha and omega of salvation.

As I wrote yesterday, my aim here is to set forth a working Christology. There are two goals: the first is presenting a cohesive vision of Jesus, the second is that in so doing I will create a starting point for conversations with others that are not initiated by me. Over the next several years, I will write an entire systematic theology but I gots to get that doctorate first. So, if I am working with someone else and they want to know what I think of Jesus, we can start with this and then talk in person. Enough qualifications, let’s get into it.

“Be you angels? Nay, we are but men.” –Tenacious D

One of the biggest intellectual stumbling blocks I’ve had even post-conversion is the divinity of Christ. The doctrine of “fully human, fully divine” took several centuries to develop, and a not insignificant number of lives were cut short for daring to hold contrary views. And while I have always been fascinated with theology and the study of religion, I grew up outside the Church. I was not indoctrinated, I was not abused. So while I have been and continue to be disgusted with how supposed followers of Christ have used God to justify horrendous things, I believe in a Jesus who has helped me battle demons while growing in love. Still, one cannot claim to know Jesus and not have a biblically-based understanding of the man from Nazareth.

I am not intending to inundate the reader with lots of biblical references and theological jargon. I have other writings for that if people are interested. When I do use specialist language, I will define it but this obviously is not meant to be the Christology section of an ordination paper. This is honest reflections on a vastly complicated subject.

The first thing to establish is Jesus’ relationship to God. There are myriad texts that present him as a preacher, a teacher, a miracle worker, a revolutionary, as one predicted by the prophets, a Son of God, and even as God himself. I have found that those who take Scripture literally rarely emphasize the various aspects equally. To be fair, that is true for me as well. The difference is that I emphasize the things that will help me be a servant to others while far too much of Christian history has been filled with and those by who emphasize the things that make others afraid. Vulnerable. Subject to persecution. A person who is willing to wield violence unto death in order to extract a confession that Jesus is fully divine does not seem like the sort of person who really knows Jesus Christ. But what do I mean by that?

For most of human history, people lived in a comfortable gray area as it concerns human-divine hybridity. Across cultures and time, it has been reported that heavenly beings came to earth, often using rape as a tactic, to impregnate. An early documented accounting of Haley’s comet postulated that the streaking across the sky was the soul of Julius Caesar becoming fully divine. Comic books are filled with modern examples of ancient cosmogony. Full humanity and full divinity became a modern sticky wicket, though, especially for monotheism. How can corporeal flesh, with all its attenuating limitations and imperfections, contain the fullness of the divine, which is the ur-perfection of all things? This rabbit hole is interesting, but it is filled with sub chambers that burrow to the center of the earth. We’re aiming with a bird’s eye view.

My Christology began in and with Buddhism. Siddhartha taught that we are the cause of our own suffering, which we perpetuate as a result of constructing and defending ego. I read widely and deeply on the Four Noble Truths, particularly the Eightfold Path. I examined myself regularly to untangle the web of ego within myself, an ongoing process. I began to understand that this is what Paul writes about in Romans 6-8. When I am feeling anger or I’m engaged in envy, I remind myself that such feelings more often than not are rooted in egotism. Dying to that self and being clothed in Christ, to me, means that love, compassion, mercy, and grace are always abundant, but only if I commit to seeing them. If I am not able to love even as the temporary situation elicits other emotions, I have some dying to do. This does not mean allowing oneself to be trod upon as if a doormat; rather, it means that in this walk of life, one steps mindfully and aware of how the footfall impacts others. Jesus has helped me understand that sometimes we need to love people from a distance, as their toxicity cannot be addressed by anyone but themselves.

Buddhism also helped me to wrestle with the human-divine conundrum. From the beginning, Christianity has been home to metaphorical and allegorical hermeneutics. In other words, interpretations of Jesus Christ have always included symbolism. Jesus used parables to teach; does it change the truth of the stories if factually there was no prodigal son? Of course not, so how does it follow that the evangelists wrote only what is literally true? Jesus used stories, so did the evangelists, and so do we as followers of Christ. There’s a Buddhist teaching that I have consulted much over the past 15 years. The unenlightened person is like one who will ask the master about the location of the moon, only to stare at the pointing finger rather than the object in the sky.

I began with understanding Jesus as the master pointing to the sky, showing the way to the moon (God), but not as the moon itself. This is not unique or original to me, and in fact, stretches back to primitive Christianity.

This intellectual conception of God allowed me to engage more confidently in following Christ and working for Christ within both Christian and non-Christian circles. I came to God through Jesus, which satisfies a basic requirement for those who wish to seek ordination. But more importantly, it propelled me into relationships with others while focusing on service and genuine community. Jesus transgressed cultural and religious lines, proclaiming as the Beloved those especially who had been abused and shut out by prevailing powers. Following Jesus means loving your enemies, and not just saying that you do. It means not looking at others as inferior or less-than; again, this does not mean anything goes. It does not mean that people aren’t held responsible here and now for what they do. It means, though, that God doesn’t say, “take care of those who think like you, look like you, and only those whom you feel deserve it.” God says that we are our siblings’ keeper. And everyone is a child of God. Following Jesus means abhorring the argument that everyone who cannot meet all of their needs is lazy, asking for a handout, is holding others back, or is asking for special treatment. It means that you are more disgusted by a society that has failed to clothe, feed, affirm, and protect all people than you are by the needy people themselves.

Jesus being fully human means that we do not lack an example of how to live an authentic life. The fully human Jesus does not have anything extra or lack anything necessary; he is one of us.

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The trite expression “What Would Jesus Do?” sadly was more marketing tool than ministry truth, but there is a kernel of usefulness present. Knowing what I know about Jesus, where would he see God in this situation and what would be his response as a servant of God to and for others?

Beginning with the fully human aspect of Jesus helped me explore the divine. I don’t say “fully divine” because I think the phrase is overused by those who don’t fully understand what it entails beyond being a litmus test for those who want to be card-carrying members of Team Jesus. Right now, I believe this: through his life, Jesus was filled with the Spirit of God. His manner of life led him to an execution at the hands of religious and civil authorities who saw his message as inherently dangerous. Jesus submitted himself to judgment because he knew no other way to live a genuine life, and if this world wouldn’t let him he would simply leave. He did all things in love. I remain agnostic as to whether Jesus is ontologically God–that is, eternally and absolutely divine–or if Jesus experienced an awakening that, like others across time and space, propelled him to perfect union with God. In other words, I can make arguments that Jesus’ identity was an evolutionary process, just as it is for all other humans. I’m a modified Gnostic (or perhaps a Gentile Hasidic) in that I believe there is a spark of divinity in all of us; the purpose of our lives is to identify the spark, and allow the Spirit to stoke it into an all-consuming flame.

Through following Jesus, submitting to the Gospel, orientating myself toward the priorities Jesus identified, I have grown closer and closer to God. I’ve done a shit-ton of drugs and drank oceans of booze, but the all-encompassing feeling of being connected to the source of Love is beyond the high produced by anything I ever put into my body. The more I live the Gospel, the more I am able to let go of the false self. I know that there are some things worth dying for, and while I do not wish to perish I know that the spiritual death of being a slave to capitalism and American nationalism will be far worse than even crucifixion. We turn to Rome to sentence Nazareth. 

Is Jesus God? In my mind, there is no separation between Jesus and God. I refuse, though, to participate in theological-purity witch hunts. A fully-human Jesus who reveals God, but whose resurrection is symbolic is still a very powerful cat. A Jesus who provides us the perfect paradigm for how to live an authentic life? Why would we want to shut that out? How does that understanding prevent someone from following the Gospel? I’ve Hindu and Buddhist acquaintances who see Jesus as an istadevata (a figure to whom one dedicates one’s religious life in exchange for divine benefits) or as a great teacher. The respect they accord to him and the ways in which they live their lives is far preferable to the hateful destruction I’ve seen from Christological purists.

For me, Jesus is the way, the truth, and the light. But I believe in a God much bigger than one interpretation or even one religion.

In the next installment, we will consider how Jesus does or does not alter human anthropology. Please share this with friends!

Rejecting Whiteness

There were four of us guys in the van. Driving through a neighborhood of Dayton known for money. Racist money. Don’t read that as a castigation of people who live in the neighborhood. Like most other places where we Americans lay our heads, there is a mix of people. Good people and bad people. Giving people and taking people. Privilege and responsibility. But this neighborhood has a history and scars.

Four of us. Three Black. And me.

“You don’t really want to be caught on the side streets here after dark. You will get pulled over.” I advised. One guy responded: “We need a White person in the car.” A second looked back at me in the rear seat and said, “Not you, Aaron. You Black.”

We all laughed, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that my heart swelled. I felt a not insignificant degree of pride. And why that is the case is complicated.

Cultural appropriation is real. It is damaging. It is insulting. And sometimes, it is literally deadly, like when Whites take the intellectual or creative property of a person of color and monetizes it for their benefit and not for the benefit of the artist. Read about the history of rock and roll. Black artists saw their creations repackaged and made palatable for White America; record companies and managers got rich; artists like Elvis Presley, even though he personally despaired of the inequities, made millions off the creations of Black writers and musicians, many of whom died in penury and obscurity.

I’ve written before (and before and before and before) about issues of race and Whiteness. I feel like anyone who knows me and wants to actually follow my philosophy and theology needs to read my blog. And I think it is fair to say that; I have grown tired of having the same conversations around Whiteness. I am exhausted by White fragility. And that has become clear to some people. As a result, I have been called divisive. Exclusionary. Angry. It pains me to hear this, and believe me I have done everything I reasonably can do to make people who accuse me of this to feel heard and listened to. To me, the problem is that I just won’t say, “We can agree to disagree.” If you want people of color to simply stop talking about their race or experiences and just see everyone else as “the same,” I’m not going to say I’m okay with it. People have the right to their opinions, yes. But your right to your opinion does not mean I have to stop talking about mine because your feelings will get hurt.

I just spent the week with fellow doctoral students at United Theological Seminary. We heard from Rev. Dr. F. Willis Johnson, Pastor Rudy Rasmus, Pastor Roz Picardo, incredible men of color who are bringing the light of Christ into the world in loving, positive, affirming ways. Each of them took time to talk with me or pray with me, to encourage me and ask about what the Lord has laid upon my heart. Yet, I know that each one of them, pulled over at the wrong time by the wrong cop or in the wrong situation, they could die. Sure. Any of us could. But their chances are much, much higher. Seriously. Click on the hyperlinks and check out these men and what they are doing. It is incredible.

I attend an amazing seminary.

I have locs. I wore a zoot suit at my wedding. I’m loud and wear wild clothes and shoes. As I write this, I am listening to Miles Davis. My favorite filmmaker is Spike Lee. James Cone’s God is Black changed my life and my theology. I’m the only one who is not a person of color in my cohort, including the mentor. United’s doctoral studies student body is predominately non-white. I feel completely at home and have never been given the stinkeye. In other contexts, I have been accused of being a wigger. Of wanting to be Black.

And, honestly, I guess that’s kinda true.

I hate the concept of Whiteness. I hate what it represents and what it has done. I hate how it has attempted to homogenize complicated and different European and Scandinavian cultures into some boring amalgamation that is also violent. Destructive. There are very few places left on the earth where this insidious creation has not imprinted itself. It has pervaded my faith tradition. It violates those of others. It necessitates something like Black Pride. Latinx Pride. Native Pride. No culture or group should have to shout and scream that their cultures or lives matter. Whiteness does that. Whiteness causes that. And I want no part of it.

But I can’t just pretend that I’m not “White.” I am. I reject the label, but not the consequences. Not the reality. Not the responsibilities that come with the privilege. And I will use my privilege until I don’t have it anymore.

I use that line a lot. Recently, someone asked me what I meant by it. “Well,” I said. “I see three ways I lose it. One, I end up in prison because of justice work. Two, I die. Three, the culture changes and it no longer exists. And if I can only chose two out of the three that I think will actually happen, I know my decision.”

It’s not that I want to be Black in that I want to change my skin tone. I don’t. I love my parents and my family. I am deeply proud to be my parents’ son, and that includes being fiercely attached to my Irish and Finnish heritages. And the way that I choose to be American is heavily influenced by African-American history, culture, religious practices, intellectual contributions, and entertainment. I don’t want to be color blind. I love African-American culture and attitudes; the fierce ways that love and faith are expressed; how laughter is often loud and raucous, smiles quick to come, individuality encouraged.

But I know I’m not Black. I can shave my beard, cut my hair, cover my tats, and close my mouth. Well, theoretically I can do those things but anyone who knows me will attest that Aaron doesn’t shut up easily. And Aaron is gonna do Aaron.

I’ve got a couple dear friends who are designers. They run a rad shop in YS I will be blogging about at some point in the future, but I’m pitching a T-shirt idea and if you think you might want one, comment and let me know. I think if we can gather enough interest, we might be able to get it done. The shirt will say: “I’m not White.”

The great thing is, almost everybody gets to wear it. POC can obviously wear it, and it might spark some interesting conversation. But the thought of White people wearing a shirt saying “I’m not White” is provocative. It makes a statement. I don’t accept that label. At all. I now check “other” and write in that I identify as Sami, the indigenous people of Finland. While there are no genetic tests that can “prove” this, genealogy and family lore lead me to believe the chances are good enough that saying so is not appropriative. The beard and locs honor my ancestors and the culture that is part of my heritage.

But when it comes to understanding myself as an American and a Christian, rejections of Whiteness are most authentic to me. For me. And while I try not to judge those who embrace Whiteness or see things differently than do I–and I certainly try to show respect–the notion that my speaking about these issues consistently and loudly is somehow divisive will simply not fly. I will not sit down. I will not shut up. I lead with love, but love does not always speak words you want to hear. Love isn’t always about feeling good. Sometimes love is about feeling bad. And I don’t mean that as suggesting persons should feel bad about themselves: I mean that love is sometimes about making us feel the bad that results from our impacting someone else in a negative way.

Racism is real. We have major, important changes to make. We are in the midst of another Civil Rights movement and I plan to play my part, to do what I can when I can with who I can for as long as I can. I will make mistakes. I may not see them, but if they are pointed out I will respond and make changes. I will apologize. I will try to see my error first next time.

But I will not ever stop. Not until I’m dead and gone or racism has given up the ghost.

This week has been amazing. I love my cohort and I feel filled with the Spirit of God. I’m going to enjoy the rest of this day that the Lord hath made by taking a nap while snuggling with a cat. Be well, do good works, and love one another. I’ll try to do the same.

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And That’s the Truth, Ruth: Of Moabites and Muslims

There are some ridiculous things in Scripture. Head-scratching things. Make you slap your mama things. But then there are those things that make me wonder how I ever didn’t believe. I mean, really believe. In God, yes. But even deeper than that; believe that there’s a reason why billions of people across space and time keep reading this book. This damn book. This book that makes me cringe and weep; a book that I can’t stop reaching for, a book that keeps revealing things about myself. About who we are as persons. About how we get so much wrong in the pursuit of doing right.

And I’ll be goddamned if the Book of Ruth isn’t laying the smack down on me right now.

Since I rapped at you last week, there’ve been goings on in the macro and micro. We all know about the shit show that is Drumpf; in my ministry world, people are dealing with a tremendous amount of pain and fear. My therapy is unearthing some stuff I didn’t know was there, and I am asking a lot of people to put a lot of trust in me as I attempt to launch The Beloved Community Project of Yellow Springs. I start teaching at Xavier again next week; well, not really. I’ll be in doctoral seminars for the first week, but classes start. So it’s more like

I’ve been living with the second chapter of the Book of Ruth all week, reading it each day, doing the research and study that normally attenuate sermon prep. Faithful Reader knows that I started preaching without a manuscript during Lent and have continued since; the congregation has indicated that with this style they feel more connected to me, and I admit that it forces me to prepare much more thoroughly, and also to rely on the Holy Spirit. I generally go into the service having bullet points in my mind; I craft about three lines in advance that I use as tent poles, and the sermon is built and advanced by my knowing what fifteen minutes feels like, and attempting to end with both an affirmation and a challenge, something that will hopefully stay with people after they leave the sanctuary. That’s the goal. Sometimes I hit the target, sometimes I don’t.

But I’ve been living with the Book of Ruth as a parable. I can’t remember where I read ti first–it might be from The New Interpreters Bible or one of the articles I read by Hebrew scholars–but as soon as I made that connection, it was like I was able to read the book in a whole new way. And, honestly, the Book of Ruth has always been a struggle for me. Many of the interpretations that I encountered in graduate school and seminary left me flat. I just didn’t see how the story was relevant outside of highly spiritualized readings that are anachronistic or ahistorical. But Ruth as parable?

The Moabites have a how you say, interesting history. They arise from Lot’s daughters raping him. Through various time in history, they are both inside and outside of the covenant community. As I wrote about last time, scholars are divided as to when the Book of Ruth was penned, but I am swayed by a later dating from the time of return under Cyrus the Persian. Why does this matter? Because it reflects a time in which the community as a whole is thinking about who is in and who is out, having just experienced for themselves a multi-generational period of diaspora. In the story world, we have Naomi, an Israelite, who has lost all the males in her family. Kinda. In Ruth 2, we learn that Boaz is a kinsman of Elimelech, Naomi’s deceased hubby. And if that is the case, we might expect that Boaz marry Naomi. Maybe. But since she is beyond childbearing years, she has no cultural value and therefore has fallen through the sparsely woven safety net that exists for women. And who does she bring in tow with her? A Moabite foreigner who exists as a threat to good Jewish men whose children would not be legitimate, given that Judaism is a matrilineal religion, were they to bed her. The Moabites were much like the Samaritans: distrusted and seen as dangerous.

And let’s look at the Jewish man who is present. There are some odd details in the story. Scholars point out that Boaz and Naomi both speak in a more ancient and formal Hebrew, perhaps meaning to indicate that they are traditionalists that act in nontraditional ways. Even Boaz’s name is significant, given that he bears the moniker of a pillar in the Temple of Solomon which, if we go with a later dating, has been destroyed by the time of Ruth’s authorship. In the story world, though, Boaz is the pillar upon which these relationships will be built. He seems to push the boundaries of the law, which requires leavings for gleaning, to be more generous and inclusive than strict, literal adherence to the law would permit or facilitate. So, too, does Naomi act beyond tribalism. She refers to Boaz as “our kinsman” to Ruth; her legal obligations to her son’s widow ended with his death. But Ruth’s loyalty, expressed in chapter one in terms that scholars regard as the “first conversion,”results in Naomi ignoring law in favor of relationships.

When you think about this story as a parable, you begin to see that God works in contradictions, but also contradictions that lead to more life.

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I was going to preach a different sermon until I read the story last night of an imam and his assistant being gunned down in the light of day. Granted, there is no evidence yet that this is a hate crime. But the shooting is not just a shooting. Of course, no matter the specific details it is a terribly sad situation. The fact that the victims were Muslim, though, cannot be ignored. We cannot just think of them as two victims of a violent society. We must think of them as Muslims before anything else. Whether good or bad, that is the case. And that’s because we have done a terrible job as Americans equating Islam with positive attributes. We don’t think of Islam as just another religion, even though if you watch the Why We Fight propaganda series during WWII you’ll see that Mohammad is cited as one of the historical influences on democracy. Since 9/11, Muslims has been the other. The Moabite. We don’t see them as Americans or New Yorkers or even men. We think of them as Muslim, and for too many people that automatically makes them suspect.

Sweet Jesus forgive us.

So what are we doing to be Naomi or Boaz? I write this to Christians especially, but to all Americans in general. What are we doing to bring the Ruths of our communities into the fullness of relationship? To do more than just glean on the leavings, but to be inheritors of the crops? What are we doing to listen to the Moabites, the ones about whom we have preconceived notions or improper preconceptions? What are we doing as pillars in our community? As ones who can speak in terms of “we” in order to make that more expansive?

What are we doing?

 

 

 

 

Looking for a Job: God’s Nationalism

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I’ve written previously on deciding to move to the Narrative Lectionary, which has included a series on 2 Corinthians and Job. Job is always a tough one; it is a long book, with the most complicated poetry in the Tanakh; there are vast differences in hermeneutical positioning; and it has some unsettling details, such as God and Satan wagering and individual human life seeming not to matter (like how Job’s children are “replaced” at the end with new kids). Job is one of those texts that requires a big commitment from both pastor and congregation if a sermon series is going to work.

There are so many great books and articles about Job that even a half-assed literature review would take months to compile. So, I have given some links above that provide a good starting place for anyone wanting to make a serious go at Jobian theory; personally, I recommend Gustavo Gutierrez‘s seminal work On Job: God-talk and the Suffering of Innocents, which presents the biblical narrative as being the foundation of liberation theology. One of my best memories from early in graduate school–I think I was 24 or so–is of studying the text under the guidance of a Jesuit priest who was instrumental in my coming to Jesus Christ in the wake of my brother’s suicide. Job is a text that I have been wrestling with on and off for about fifteen years. And the recent world events have once again confirmed the contention that God is still speaking through the scriptures.

A little history is necessary, and you’ll forgive me for not providing links to every historical point I make; if anyone questions something or would like some citations, I can provide those in comments or IM. But in the main, being able to make claims about history is why I have accrued these degrees over the years, and seeing that this is a blog and not a dissertation, I’m going to forego the bibliography except to say that this is a great place to start.

If you look at the covenant between God and the people as mediated by Moses, the covenant is not with individuals. It is with a community; a community that will become a theocracy under the leadership of the kings: Saul, David, and Solomon. Scriptures are divided as to the wisdom of a monarchy. Of course, with the death of Solomon in 922 BCE we see a split in the kingdoms, with the Omri and Jehu Dynasties operating up north, and the Davidic line continuing down south. Rival fiefdoms impact subsequent theologies. Nationalism reigns. Then the North falls to the Assyrians around 721 BCE; the South hangs on until the Babylonians destroy the First Jerusalem Temple c.587/6 BCE, which begins the Diaspora, ending the period often known as Classical Judaism.

What faces the people during this time are fundamental questions: Who are we outside of the land, the Temple, and the Davidic line? Who are we when these are taken away? How do we know God? How do we know ourselves? Who are we? The answer that emerges is: We are a People of the Book.

So we have to ask, was it false sense of nationalism that did in the people? Is there anything to suggest that a faulty understanding of community can pollute the individual life? 

Let’s resume the history. The Babylonians are defeated by Cyrus the Persian, who enacts a much more benign and enlightened formed of occupation. Cyrus allows for those in exile to return to their homeland; Cyrus gives them money to build another Temple, and promises religious freedom (pay your taxes; always pay your taxes); but Cyrus reasons that peace will more likely prevail if people are allowed to keep their languages, customs, religions, and traditions. The problem becomes, a lot of people living in exile did not want to return. They have intermarried; converted; have no memories or attachments to Hebrew culture. So those that do return are among the more religious and devout. And in return for his kindness, Cyrus is declared a messiah (anointed one) in Hebrew scripture.

Until this time, individuality didn’t really exist. Certainly not in the way that it exists today. God’s concern was with the survival of the community; and the theology that develops is one in which the community is punished corporately for individual sin. (See, for example, the defeat at Ai as a result of the sin of Achan.) We can see it as a cycle that runs from the Book of Joshua through II Kings. The people turn to other gods; Hashem raises up an enemy; the people cry out, and God takes pity upon them; God raises up a shofet (temporary, charismatic leader or judge) who establishes peace throughout their lifetime; the leader dies, and the cycle repeats.

The human person, therefore, is a microcosm of the macrocosm. How so? Well, what is wrong within our own lives can be explained with the same interpretative lens. Physical or mental disability? Sin. Poverty or poor social standing? Sin. Notice how in the Book of Job, all the comforters essential offer the same advice? “Repent!” And Job remains insistent that he has done no wrong, which we are listener/readers in the story know to be true. God kinda allows God’s self to be pulled into a grotesque wager that has odious consequences for Job and those around him. Job challenges the notion that he deserves punishment because he is without sin, and Job is right.

Generally, I think, it is our instinct to side with Job. We feel his righteous indignation. This God who wagers and seems almost as insecure as a current presidential nominee is not a God with whom I am comfortable being in relationship. Job’s question are our questions. Job’s defiance our defiance. But what if we are being led down the garden path?

Let’s take a step back and really look at what is going on. It is understandable why, but Job is pretty focused on himself. He keeps saying that he does not deserve what is happening to him because he is not a sinner. We can argue all day long about how this can be true, as every person but Jesus (for us Christians) is a sinner, but the narrative is clear: Job is pious in every way. He is God’s pride and joy. So we should take that for what it is meant to be: a statement regarding the relationship between calamity and sin. Maybe the point of the book is not Job’s innocent suffering, but rather it is about our continuing belief that sin and punishment are related. We see the effect, personal disaster or catastrophe, and we assume that it is deserved because of a sinful cause; if we see destruction in our own lives and maintain that we are sinless, we begin to point at others we believe to be deserving of punishment but are left unscathed. This is the foundation of the theodicy question: why do bad things happen to good people. Or, perhaps even more puzzling, why do good things happen to a hate-filled, orange umpaloompa who can’t rub two brain cells together?

Believe me, believe me. It’s puzzling.

What if the Book of Job is about tearing down bad theology? Maybe Job’s piety arises because he believes he is rewarded for it. And maybe the authors of the Job text are setting forth a corrective to theologies that do a great deal to separate people, to make us afraid of one another, that embolden our judgments and mute our compassion. Because if someone deserves what they are getting, are we really motivated to help them in times of need?

In chapter 14, Job cries out that even the cut down tree has a hope of rebirth and resurrection, but the human person does not. The best for which we can hope is Sheol and the soothing darkness of eternal death. A belief in an afterlife and/or bodily or spiritual resurrection has not yet taken root in Judaism at this point; the Book of Job is part of that. Job’s use of imagery is part of a long tradition in Hebrew writings to employ tree metaphors in connection with messianic figures. God will act for the survivial of the corporate body, for the community, for the covenant people. Job demands justice and hope for himself. He argues for the dignity of the individual. And he is criticizing, I think, the nationalism that had overtaken people’s compassion and sense of connectedness.

We will discuss the ending of Job next week, but for right now let us wrestle with this: maybe God promises to stay with communities because we are most fully human when we are in relationship with one another? But God will not support those communities that place their identity into nationalism. And perhaps God is asking us to pull down those structures and systems that keep people out of relationships? Systems that keep people from affirming one another where they are instead of trying to convince them that they deserve their pain. Perhaps when we ask God why there is not justice and equality, God asks us the same thing. Maybe God is saying, I gave you everything you need to understand what is important. What have my prophets said unto you? What outrages have I sublimated out of love for you? Why do you keep hurting each other? Why do you mistake the nation for the community?

We are living at a time in which a politician is promising that he is the only one who can save us. He wants to build walls both literal and metaphorical. He promises that he is our voice. Our redeemer. When Job says, “I know my redeemer lives” we must ask ourselves, what does this mean? If God is our redeemer, how is God operating in our lives? What has God given to use individually that we can contribute to the larger community? What are the fruits of the Spirit that allow us to comprehend the ways in which persons are deemed “others.”

We Christians should be very wary when a person promises to be imbued with the unique ability to save us. Because we kinda already have that covered pretty well. Like, full coverage with zero deductible covered. What comes with that assurance, though, is the responsibility to speak truth to power, to set ourselves against signs and symbols that deny persons their full humanity and dignity. And we should understand that God calls us to be in relationships. We cannot be concerned with ourselves more than we are with others; we are intimately connected. All as part of God’s plan.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

 

American Manicheanism at the RNC

Before Augustine of Hippo acceded to the pleas of his besainted mother Monica and St. Ambrose, he was a Manichean. This religion was a melange of Zoroastrianism, folk traditions, and Buddhism. But above all it was heavily dualistic, visioning the world as a fierce, clear battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. In some ways they were not unlike the Essenes that some scholars believe influenced John the Baptizer. The traces of the Essenes are not seen as heavily on Christian theology as are the large stains of dualism, and much of that has to do with Augustine’s misreadings of Paul’s epistles. While he didn’t create the notion of original sin, he did propagate the term concupiscence which essentially characterizes the human experience as being an ongoing battle between the lower appetites (what Paul calls sarx or flesh) and the soul; in this way the human person is a microcosm of the heavenly macrocosm, which will play itself out in an apocalyptic battle. Hatred of the body can be laid at the feet of Augustine, although not him alone, and by the Middle Ages flagellation and other bodily mortification were prevalent ascetic practices for monks trying to overcome the power of the flesh to elevate the spirit. This was borrowed directly from dualistic traditions of the ancient world. See, for example, the War Scroll of the Qumran community, which foretells the impending clash between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness. The scroll depicts graphic scenes in which the enemies (the Sons of Darkness) are laid to waste by the heroes (Sons of Light). As they awaited this war, the members of the community lived under strict conditions and practiced extreme austerity. While this paragraph blurs some lines and loses nuance for the sake of expediency, it is safe to say that Gnostic influences can be found all over the formative years of Christian theology and tradition.

One might think that with the advent of science, philosophy, history, and knowledge over the last two millennia human religion–especially Christianity, which has under its umbrella an estimated 33,000 denominations— would have evolved beyond fantastical visions of an Earth that will be little more than a massive Risk board for God and Satan. One might think, but one would be wrong. Gnosticism is on full display at the Republican National Convention that sadly is being hosted in my beloved home state of Ohio. I thank God I am on the other side of the Heart of it All lest I be attacked.

Gird up your loins and give this a look. Or, if that’s too much read the text below. Or both. Your choice. I pride myself on service.

RNC prayer

Derrick Weston has written a good piece on how this is bad theology; Mark Sandlin has offered how he would have delivered the prayer; and the New York Post has reported that a Muslim-led prayer in the same place was met with screams of derision. I don’t want to rehash what has already been done well, but I do want to offer a new perspective that, perhaps, can add to intelligent conversation.

It seems clear that the GOP has abandoned even extreme Evangelical Christianity  in favor of what I’m calling American Manicheanism, a mix of nationalism, apocalyptic Christianity, and a heavily dualist view of politics, society, religion, and policy. It is evident not only in the prayer offered by Burns–notice all the blame assigned to one side; the descriptors are violent and divisive; and the name of God is invoked in a call to destroy so that peace may come–but also the language of Trump, for whom people are either winners or losers. Seriously. The New York Times ran an article detailing the 239 people Trump has dumped upon. We have seen Chris Christie, Newt Gingrich, and a whole host of other people have tried to get back into Trump’s good graces to once again be labeled a winner. Ted Cruz, it seems, did not achieve that with his non-endorsement of the nominee on Wednesday evening. Trump made his displeasure known.

gettyimages-578133654.jpg    Shudder. I keep expecting him to release the flying monkeys. 

These sort of quasi-intellectual posts might be fun, or an opportunity for me to momentarily stop crying over the nearly $150k student loan debt I’ll have by the time I finish the doctorate in early 2018 and show that all this education is not for naught. I can be witty and sarcastic with footnotes! The average person probably does not care that what we are seeing is a repeat of what has happened for millennia when empires begin to teeter. It might make me feel witty to quip that Commodus is about to take over for Marcus Aurelius. Time for guffaws is long over. We are faced with a terrifying situation. Out of fear, the GOP has retreated to their corners to prepare for an epic battle; they believe themselves to be led by a higher power who has charged them with defeating an enemy, one that is sly and difficult to detect. One that is close, familiar, and perhaps was once a friend. They have cast complicated issues as either/or propositions, and depict the world as dark and dire with suffering to come, unless those who are in the right gather together behind a leader and overthrow the demons.And have done so with a buffoon as a candidate who, according to experts, could create chaos in the world.

This is pretty much what messianic expectations have detailed for thousands of years. A time of crisis; fear gripping the land; and the cries to God to send an agent of delivery. Take a look at Burns’ prayer again; look familiar? But gone are the subtleties and finer points; absent are notions of grace, compassion, and love; peace is pitched as occurring only in the wake of destruction. Blessings are bestowed only upon those with the secret knowledge, the proper pedigree, the anointing of the divine. Hope is placed in the idea that the destruction of the many is necessary for the salvation of the few.

And Trump is expected to win the Evangelical vote.

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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.