Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Light of the World (12/25/11)

The Light of the World
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

Christmas Day 2011
John 1:1-18 (Scholars' Version)

Light was shining in the darkness,
And darkness did not master it.

Is that true?   
Is that true for you?
Is that true for our world?

We all know about darkness in our world and in our own lives.  You can fill in the blanks regarding specifics.   We know the darkness is powerful.  Whether it be the darkness of greed, war, cruelty, or our own personal sadness and loss.    We can feel lost in the dark and without hope. 

We can even make a religion out of darkness.  Apocalyptic religion is based on the belief that our world is a lost cause.   It believes that the forces of darkness are so powerful that they control the world and that to destroy the darkness, the world must be destroyed with it.   It is a tempting religion for those who have lost hope or who have had engrained in them the belief that humanity is fallen, sinful, and evil. 

I don’t think that was the belief of Jesus or Buddha or Muhammad or of other great spiritual leaders.  They saw instead that there is light in this world and that it shines and that it shines in you and in me.   This is not a matter of will or of moralizing or of claims that some people are more special and enlightened than others.  It is a matter of promise and hope and trust.  It is a matter of being in a position to see, of letting our eyes adjust so that we can see enough light to take another step.

During the season of Winter that started a few days ago, we will find each day get progressively longer.  More light each day.   Christmas borrowed from more ancient traditions and placed the birth of Jesus near the winter solstice.     Jesus took on the role of the sun god who brings light to the world.   It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that symbols change and that our sacred stories are borrowed.    It is only when we get literalistic about it and think our symbols are facts or historical events that we develop a tin ear. 

When we allow symbol, myth, and legend to become a kaleidoscope of light, we can see that our ancient stories and symbols are true in a deeper sense than we previously thought and that our various religious traditions are more alike than different.     The symbol of light shining in the darkness is a universal symbol that is as old as the old star watchers who had enough time to spend figuring out the patterns of the night sky and the rhythms of Earth.    

Our modern era based on the magic of fossil fuels gives us light 24-7.  With that we have lost the need and the skill to watch with eyes adjusted and open to the patterns of Earth and sky.   Those who have insight are alerting us that we may be needing those skills again.   

I have borrowed from theologian Matthew Fox and his four paths or four vias.   For each season of the year we honor a spiritual path.  
  • During summer we travel the path of awe and wonder, the via positiva.  
  • Fall is the path of letting go and letting be, the via negativa.
  • Spring is the way of compassion and justice making, the via tranformativa and 
  • Winter is the path of creativity and imagination, the via creativa
There is nothing absolute about any of that.   I just decided to arrange our celebrations and rituals that way.   I have chosen for this season of Winter, the via creativa, to read the Gospel of John in a new way.    For the next thirteen weeks we will be reflecting on scenes from the Gospel of John from a naturalistic or mystical perspective. 

The Jesus Seminar who looked through all the traditions of Jesus to separate what they thought went back to the historical person of Jesus found virtually nothing in the Gospel of John to go back to Jesus.  That doesn’t mean the Gospel of John is bad or doesn’t have value, it is just that it is a creative, imaginative reconstruction.   

In the Gospel of John, Jesus the historical person was transformed into the cosmic Christ.  This process happened before John, but you really see it in John.     What that means to me is that the author of John felt that he had permission to cast the Jesus story in this way.    If he had permission to tell the story of Jesus in a way that made sense, inspired, and told his truth, maybe we do as well. 

Since it is Christmas it is a good time to tell the truth, or at least to be honest about what we think is truthful.   To regard Jesus in a first century way as a supernatural being who comes to Earth, dies for sins, comes back to life, and goes back to heaven in the sky with the promise that he will come back again, is less than compelling for many of us.    If we don’t find it compelling it isn’t because we are bad or that we don’t have faith.  It is that we don’t live in that world and the symbols of that world don’t translate easily. 

That supernatural story fits the Gospel of John’s world.  He lived in what he thought was a geocentric universe and he saw the gods inhabiting the heavens and breaking into the world.   The scandal of John’s gospel is not that Jesus was a supernatural being and so forth, but that all of that elevated language was attributed to Jesus, as opposed to say, Augustus. 

Jesus was a nobody who was executed by the government as a criminal.    The elevated supernatural god language and miracles and what have you is not the scandal or the interesting part.  That all of that was applied to Jesus is the interesting part.  That is the scandal.  It can be life-changing if we let it.

I have been a minister for nearly twenty years preaching on these same texts and talking with people.  I find the same thing again and again.   We have been told all our lives that faith is about believing stuff, virgin birth, miracles, Jesus dying and rising, and that God is a supernatural being.    We end up wondering what is the least amount of stuff we have to believe and be OK.   I say none of that stuff matters.    Defining faith as belief in impossible things misses the point.   At least I think so.     

I see Jesus as John presents him as the myth of the authentic human.   Jesus 'shows us the Father" which I take to mean Jesus shows us how to become human, how to become real and authentic, how to live a life that matters.    That we can live a life that matters takes a great deal of faith. 

Here is the deal.  If Jesus represents the light that comes into the world at Christmastime, a light that the darkness does not overcome, what kind of light is that?   Further, if Jesus said that we are that light, what does that mean for us?  What does it mean to be light in the world? 

What I know of the historical person of Jesus is that he stood up for people who were put down.  He was accused of eating with sinners.   He knew that sinners were more fun.   He lived courageously.  He saw the wool that was being pulled over people’s eyes by those who were in charge.   He challenged the pretensions of the elite, and he told people who were nobodies like him, that they mattered.

“You are the light of the world,” he said to them.   

He talked about sharing, giving your coat and your shirt, going the second mile, turning the other check.   He said to give to those who beg from you.   He said live life as a passerby and travel lightly.    He talked about loving neighbors and loving enemies and forgiving people who wrong you.  He congratulated the poor.   He valued fairness, mercy, and compassion. 

The world said that is no way to run a government.  He said it is in my world.    He got on the wrong side of somebody and ended up being executed along with thousands of other “disturbers of the peace”.   

Then something strange happened.   His life and teachings touched a nerve, warmed a heart, transformed a mind, and people who remembered who he was and what he stood for wouldn’t let him go.   They decided to live his vision of a life that matters.   They felt his presence with him when they decided to live counter to values that they saw as darkness and injustice.     They felt empowered by the light of compassion and hope for the least of these.     They collected what they remembered of what he said and did.   They made a bunch of things up, but in many cases they were good things.  They attributed miracles to him because that is how they honored people then. 

After years had passed his life was put in story form.  The gospels were written including the Gospel of John.  The scandal of John’s gospel, like the others, is that they saw in this counter-cultural figure, this social prophet, this teacher of a strange kind of wisdom that the elite called foolish, they saw in him the way the world could be and really is at its heart.   

They decided that this is the light. 
This is the light that is in the world. 
This is the light that darkness cannot overcome. 
It is the light of joy at every child’s birth.   
It is the light of compassion for those who hurt in mind, body, and spirit. 
It is the light of concern for those mistreated.
It is the light of truth for the lies that are told to keep the powerful in power. 
It is the light of laughter. 
It is the light of delight in simple things like lilies and sparrows. 
It is the light of friendship. 
It is the light of simple decency. 
It is the light of Christ.  
It is in us.  
They decided to live the light.
It will never go out as long as we never forget who we are. 
That was their faith.  

That is the light we celebrate at Christmas. 
Light was shining in the darkness,
And darkness did not master it.

Is that true? 

My faith says yes it is true.
That light may be little more than a single candle.
But it is enough light to take the next step. 

A book about Christmas that I particularly like is Howard Thurman’s, The Mood of Christmas.  I have taken a number of passages from it during this season as prayers and reflections for the bulletin.    Howard Thurman died in 1981.  He was influential in the life of Martin Luther King.    Thurman understood Christmas and its symbols as well as Christmas as a symbol.     I will let him have the last word on this Christmas Day.
The symbol of Christmas—what is it?  It is the rainbow arched over the roof of the sky when the clouds are heavy with foreboding.  It is the cry of life in the newborn babe when, forced from its mother’s nest, it claims its right to live.   It is the brooding Presence of the Eternal Spirit making crooked paths straight, rough places smooth, tired hearts refreshed, dead hopes stir with newness of life.  It is the promise of tomorrow at the close of every day, the movement of life in defiance of death, and the assurance that love is sturdier than hate, that right is more confident than wrong, that good is more permanent than evil.    P. 3  

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Myth of Power (12/18/11)

The Myth of Power:  Two Josephs
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 18, 2011

Today I finish my sermon series on the myths of Genesis.   We have been working our way through these patriarchal myths through Fall.  We finish with the story of Joseph, Jacob’s favored son from his favored wife, Rachel.     It is a long story in terms of Biblical space.   It spans 13 chapters.   It took only eleven chapters to get from the creation of the universe through Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood, the scattering of the people at Babel up to Abraham.     But it takes 13 longer chapters to tell the saga of Joseph.

When we get to Joseph, God, who is a literary character in our text, becomes more removed from daily life.    He doesn’t swoop in sending fire and brimstone down on bad cities.  He does not negotiate like he did with Abraham, or wrestle with people like he did Jacob, or walk in the garden in the cool of the day as he liked to do with Adam.   By the time we get to Joseph, God is distant.   He is not directly involved in human affairs.   He acts behind the scenes.  He communicates through dreams.

Joseph dreamed that his brothers would one day bow down to him.  They didn’t like his dreams.  So they sold him to some traders and told their father he had been killed by an animal.    Joseph’s dreams came true.  He became the most powerful person in Egypt next to the Pharaoh himself thanks to dreams.  

He interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh about the seven skinny cows eating the seven fat cows.   Joseph said the dream meant that there would be seven fruitful years followed by seven lean years.  So he engineered a plan to store up grain when the sun shined and sell it to all the poor saps who didn’t get in on the dream.    Those saps included his brothers who during the lean period came to him to buy grain.  They bowed down to him, not recognizing who he was.  After a lot of manipulation, Joseph finally revealed himself to them.    He said to them:
“And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.”
This is the heart of the patriarchal myth, brothers reconciled.     Patriarchal mythology is not all negative.    It resides in the hope that brothers will make amends and live in peace.    Joseph has his father and brothers all come to live with him in Egypt.     The irony is that Joseph is the one responsible for buying up all of the land and the wealth in trade for this grain.  Through this process the people lose their land and become slaves.   This eventually leads to the slavery of his own descendants.     That is the setting for the next series of stories, with a new hero, Moses.

We are familiar with another Joseph in our scriptural tradition.  He takes the stage at Christmastime.  He is Joseph the wife of Mary and according to the mythology he is the surrogate father of Jesus.     In Matthew’s gospel, angels communicate with Joseph in dreams.    The angel tells Joseph to take Mary as a wife.   Later when Herod kills all the boys under two years old, angels communicate to Joseph to escape to Egypt and then to return when all is safe.   This is an echo of the Exodus story, where Pharoah tries to kill the Hebrew boys and Moses is hid in the bulrushes.   

These are birth of hero stories and divine providence stories.    It is more than coincidence that both characters are named Joseph and that they are dreamers.    They both participate in this divine plan of salvation.   The dreams are about providence, destiny, and power.    I am going to talk more about power in a bit.

I should say something about the virgin birth.    As far as the gospels are concerned, it is a minor event really.   It is like the pagan birth of the hero stories.    Miraculous births were common in mythology.      Why was Augustus such an incredibly gifted and powerful ruler?  Well, he must have been born of a god.   Stories were created of his miraculous birth.

In the Hebrew tradition as well, a miraculous birth indicated the hand of God’s providence.     The birth of Isaac was miraculous.   Isaac was born to Sarai who at 90 was long past child-bearing age.    Moses, too, was miraculously destined to be a hero.   The whole point of these myths is to call attention to the hero or to divine guidance.    The storytellers, Matthew and Luke in particular wanted folks to know that Jesus was important and used the storytelling device of miraculous birth to make that point.   

Christianity made much more of the virgin birth than was warranted in the texts.  It became a doctrine of faith.   The reason it was important for Christianity is because of the sin of Adam and Eve.    According to the dogma, because they disobeyed God they brought punishment upon themselves and the entire human race.  Their sin is passed down through procreation.     

The Virgin Birth allows the hero, in this case, Jesus, to save the world from sin because he is not tainted by sin.  He is the seed of God who is planted in Mary’s womb.   This is pre-modern patriarchal procreation.   In this understanding, the woman contributes nothing to the child.   She is the fertile ground, the vessel, the oven.   Jesus is thus the son of God in a literal sense.

Christianity ran with that.   From the Apostle’s Creed to the Fundamentalists at Princeton in the early 1900s, belief in the virgin birth was an essential of the faith.    Fundamentalists today still insist that unless you believe that the virgin birth is an historical event (as opposed to a legend) you can’t be a true Christian.    O.K.  Others of us think the whole notion is rather silly.   Although we still like to sing Christmas carols. 

The other day my Lovely asked me if I experienced the magic of Christmas.  I lied to her and said I didn’t.    But I really do.   I love it.  I love it all.   I do love the stuff of it and the busy-ness of it.   I love the music.   I love the mythology and the legends.  There really is something magical about it.  There is a feeling that something might break in to our mundane existence at Christmas.   

At Christmas, if we allow ourselves to get beyond our “bah humbugs”, we notice that maybe people are nicer than we give them credit for being.    And maybe we are not so bad ourselves.  Perhaps there is hope for humanity after all.   There is something beyond us that we cannot see or touch that is on the side of goodness.   Therefore we can trust.

I also like the radical message of hope for the powerless in the Christmas texts.    Mary when she learns she is pregnant sings a song with some very radical lyrics.     Listen to this:

My soul extols the Lord,
Ad my spirit has taken notice of the low status of his slave girl.
So behold, from now on every generation will congratulate me.
The Mighty One has done great things for me,
And holy is his name,
And his mercy will come to generation after generation
Of those who fear him.
He has shown strength of this arm,
He has routed the arrogant, along with their private schemes;
He has toppled the mighty down from their thrones,
And exalted the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And sent the rich away empty.
--Luke 1:46-55 Scholars' Version

Sounds like she was part of the Occupy Nazareth movement.

The scandal of Christmas is not that Jesus was son of God.    Images of the son of God were seen everywhere.  The Roman Imperial cult was filled with son of God propaganda.   Lest there be any doubt, Caesar was the son of God and he had the standing armies to prove it.    That is what a son of God has—power.   Power to fund armies.  Power to move populations from one place to another.    Power to build.  Power to destroy.  Power to feed and power to let starve.   

The scandal is not that Jesus is son of God as if that is something supernatural.  No, the scandal is that Jesus, the nobody,
the one without any army,
who wrote nothing,
who held no office,
who owned no property,
who was nobody in his own lifetime,
whose legacy is
welcoming and offering dignity to the marginalized,
pointing out and poking fun of the hypocrisy of the elite,
and resisting evil with non-violent transformative love,
that nobody who was tortured and executed by authority of Caesar, the son of God,
was the son of God.   

That is what the gospel writers claimed.  And everyone laughed at them for making up such preposterous stories.   These stories  weren’t preposterous and scandalous because of the legendary material, such as the virgin birth or other miracles like walking on water, turning water to wine, and rising from the dead.   Those stories in that culture were a dime a dozen.   Those stories were preposterous and scandalous in the gospels because they were attributed to a peasant not a king—to Jesus and not Caesar—to the 99% not the 1%.

The scandal of Christmas is a choice.   It asks us where is divine power?  Which side will we take?  Where is the sacred?  Where is the holy?  Is it found in the powerful, the wealthy, and the 1 percent?    Are the powerful ones those with the most weapons?  Are the powerful ones those who control buying and selling?   Are the powerful ones those who have the politicians in their pockets?   Are they the sons of God?

In a world in which divine favor was seen as power over, it would be obvious who the son of God was.  It sure wasn’t Jesus.     The scandal of Christmas says no, not Caesar, not the 1%.  It is in the 99% that we see holy, sacred, liberating, transformative power.    It is power with.     I am not making this up.   If you think it is not seemly to be political at Christmas then listen to Mary, the virgin mother of God:

He has routed the arrogant, along with their private schemes;
He has toppled the mighty down from their thrones,
And exalted the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And sent the rich away empty.

You know those politicians who love to court the “Christian vote” and wear their Christian jewelry and hold up their Bibles while they allow corporate greed to destroy our mountains, I say to them, “Merry Christmas.   By the way, whose side is the son of God on?”

The scandal of Christmas is a choice. 
The choice is not whether or not to believe that Jesus was historically and biologically born of a virgin.    
The choice is where do we want to put our energies. 
To whom do we want to share our lives?    
It isn’t about judgment and heaven and hell.  
It is about what is sacred for you and what matters.   
Where will you put your energy, intelligence, imagination, and love? 
Where do see sacred power?  
Power that shares, strengthens, liberates, and sustains. 
Power for everyone including Earth and our more than human relations.   
Christmas is that magic time.
It is time to allow that sacred power to be born in us.   

It is in the interests of the powerful to turn our religious texts and traditions into superstitious trivia.       That is why I sound so critical of Christianity.    Much of it is superstitious trivia.   Despite that, I find that its message, its scandalous message is far deeper and far more interesting than believing in life after death or supernaturalism.  It is about the possibility of living a life that matters here and now.  Not a big life, just one that matters.  In fact, Jesus, more than anyone, was one who didn’t matter in the scheme of things.   The story of Jesus is the story of a non-person who is every person who was no person.    

Historically, we know virtually nothing about him, but his legacy is the legacy that giving your life to good things is a good thing.   Jesus, the son of God wasn’t great.    Augustus was great.   Jesus was instead good.  

That is the calling isn’t it? 
To be decent. 
To be good. 
To be on the side of those who are hungry and without health care. 
To be on the side of our mountains, trees and streams.  
To value intelligence over greed.  
To think of the future in terms of generations of lives not just next quarter’s profits. 
To provide a decent wage for decent work. 
To not blame the poor for being poor.   

Being good is a powerful force.

The two Josephs have a common theme.   That is providence.    Through their dreams both are guided by Divine Providence.    I don’t always know what to make of Divine Providence.  I am suspicious because it is so trivialized.   God led me to score this touchdown.   It can be used to justify the status quo.    In the Christmas story, in Joseph’s story, in Mary’s story, and in Jesus’ story, Providence is on the side of the poor and the hungry.    Providence is on the side of those who have been put down.  

Providence means that there is something beyond us that we do not know and cannot touch and see, but yet it guides.   Intellectually, I am not sure I know about that.  But my heart says, “Yes.”  There are times when we feel urged, called, and guided.   There are times that I know what I need to be doing and that it wasn’t my own doing that put me here.    Most of the time I don’t know.  I don’t have a clue.   I just show up.

You may wonder what your life is to be about, what it is you want to be.   It could be a transition time for you.    Enter the magic of Christmas and the magic of the Winter Solstice.  It is one of those times when the fabric between the divine and the human is thin, and that we might get a notion, a dream, a nudge, a word that all will be well and that the Sacred is guiding us,
so we can trust,
and try to be on the good side. 


Sunday, December 4, 2011

Icons of Sorrow (12/4/11)

Icons of Sorrow
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

December 4, 2011
Second Sunday of Advent

Genesis 35:8,16-20; Jeremiah 31:15-17
And Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and she was buried under an oak below Bethel. So it was called “The oak of weeping.”

Then they journeyed from Bethel; and when they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel was in childbirth, and she had a difficult labor. When she was in her difficult labor, the midwife said to her, ‘Do not be afraid; for now you will have another son.’ As her soul was departing (for she died), she named him Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin. So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem), and Jacob set up a pillar at her grave; it is the pillar of Rachel’s tomb, which is there to this day.

Thus says the Lord:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.
Thus says the Lord:
Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work,
says the Lord:
they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
there is hope for your future,
says the Lord:
your children shall come back to their own country.

We are nearing the end of our series on the myths of Genesis. Next week our choir will present an Advent musical celebration. On the 18th we will look at a tale of two Josephs, the dreamer Joseph in Genesis and another dreamer named Joseph who according to the gospels was the husband of Mary who was in turn the mother of Jesus.

Today we are going to honor Rachel and the other women of Genesis, but particularly Rachel, because she is the icon of sorrow. She is mentioned again in Jeremiah and in Matthew as one who weeps for her children and refuses to be consoled. Sorrow is the work of the via negativa, the way of letting go and letting be. It is appropriate, or to use liturgical language it is “meet and right” to make space for sorrow during Advent. Advent is about hope, but the first word is longing for what is not. It is recognition that things are not as they might be, that a future of promise awaits.

As we move to the end of the via negativa and into the via creativa with the coming winter solstice there is a coming together with these myths of Genesis--these the sorrows of patriarchy--and Advent.

With Advent we can become conscious of patterns of living that we need to let go so that a new creativity might be born within us. It is no accident that the myth of the birth of Jesus is placed near the winter solstice. In the northern hemisphere at the darkest time of the year, Divine Creativity dispels the darkness in the cry of a tiny babe.

Before we get to that cry, we have to journey through some other tears first.

As I have been saying during this series of sermons, the myths of Genesis are patriarchal myths and that fact should not be understated. Patriarchy or father-power is based on a particular theory of procreation. It is a pre-modern theory to be sure, but it is not just pre-modern as if all pre-modern societies had the same theory.

The patriarchal theory of procreation is seen in the myths of Genesis and in the myth of Jesus in the metaphor of the seed. In this theory of procreation, the male possesses the seed that contains the identity or the creativity of the human that is planted in the womb or “the ground.” The ground or womb does not contribute identity to the new life that is formed. The womb, like ground, nurtures the seed.

The seed belongs to the father in a way it does not belong to the mother. Thus father has father-power, that is power-over the seed and the womb. Thus Abraham is allowed to “sacrifice” his own seed, Isaac, without even needing to consult Isaac’s mother. It is a deal between the males, Father Abraham and his Father God.

This Father God promises Abraham seed as many as there are stars in the sky. He also promises Abraham, land, ground, in which he might plant his seed. This promise is extended to the other patriarchs, Isaac, and Jacob, and their sons. When you own both seed and ground you own the world. Just ask Monsanto.

It is a patriarchal notion that the promise to Abraham and the patriarchs is land and plenty of seed. This is the promise of a patriarchal god. One could imagine other versions of hope and the good life other than the males of a particular tribe owning all the land and seed. 

 is not the way it has to be or the way it always has been everywhere. It is the way of a particular and peculiar patriarchal way of understanding and organizing life that ended up becoming the basis for three monotheistic and patriarchal religions and the dominant mythology of western culture. (Carol Delaney, Abraham on Trial)

The myths of Genesis and the characters that are constructed in these stories including "God" have an agenda. That agenda is to sustain father-power and make it sacred. Now I do think that at times these stories transcend that and at least offer a self-critique. Nonetheless, these stories on the whole serve to make father-power or patriarchy normative. The god of Genesis and of pretty much the whole Bible is a male god. As theologian Mary Daly pointed out in her book, Beyond God the Father, when god becomes male, the male becomes god.

It is important to say here that this isn’t about males being bad and females being good. We are talking about patriarchy or father-power which is a particular way of organizing society. While father-power can give some males privilege and material advantage, father-power ultimately is sorrowful for men and women alike as well as sorrowful for Earth and its creatures. Advent hope, in my view, is about re-ordering power. If we can provide a critique of power structures we can also imagine and create new power structures.

Where might we begin? The myths of Genesis contain interesting subtleties that challenge this father-power agenda. These subtleties are seen in the cracks of the stories, at the seams, in what appear to be throwaway verses or asides. These subtleties appear in some cases in the stories of the women. When we read the stories of the women of Genesis we might ask ourselves some questions.
  • Do they have voice?
  • If they have it, how do they use it?
  • How do they exercise agency?
  • How do they exercise and manipulate power?
  • What are the limits of their autonomy?
  • How do they access the sacred?
  • How do the storytellers utilize them and view them?
  • To what extent are they stereotypes and part of the storyteller’s agenda?
  • To what extent do they speak back and undercut the storyteller?
  • How does the overarching promise of seed and land relate to them?
One of the critiques in the father-power agenda is found in the epitaph of Deborah, Rebekah’s maid. Another is in Rachel’s naming of her son, Benoni. Peter Pitzele, in his book, Our Father’s Wells, does a magnificent midrash of Deborah. He creates a story from her point of view that is his own critique of the patriarchal myths. Pitzele introduced me to these two verses.

Deborah’s first:
And Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and she was buried under an oak below Bethel. So it was called “The oak of weeping.”
That is it. That is all we know about her. Yet there is a sense in which that verse speaks volumes. Rebekah, the wife of Isaac and mother of Jacob and Esau had a nurse, a slave, that appears only here in her death, but has been with her throughout the whole narrative, including that of Jacob, Rachel, Leah, and all the birthing of the 11 sons and one daughter, to Jacob, his wives, and their slaves.

What is the weeping? Who was Deborah? What is her story? We don’t know. We have to tell it.

The second series of verses:
Then they journeyed from Bethel; and when they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel was in childbirth, and she had a difficult labor. When she was in her difficult labor, the midwife said to her, ‘Do not be afraid; for now you will have another son.’ As her soul was departing (for she died), she named him Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin. So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem), and Jacob set up a pillar at her grave; it is the pillar of Rachel’s tomb, which is there to this day.
Rachel dies in childbirth. Rachel previously had a son Joseph. This is her second son. She names him Benoni, which means, “son of my sorrow.” But that isn’t the name we know. Rachel’s husband, Jacob, re-named him Benjamin, which means “son of the right hand.”

I have two questions for these stories. Questions that I won’t get answers to except that I make them up. The first question is why the weeping? What are they weeping over? Why weep over Deborah, a character who we don’t know and who says nothing? What is Deborah’s sorrow? And what is Rachel’s sorrow, a sorrow so deep she wants it remembered in the naming of her son? The first question is why the weeping and the second question is why did the author include these verses?

We might say, there you go, Jacob the heel, doesn’t even honor his dying wife’s freedom to name her own son. Yes, that is right. But, why does the author tell us that? Why does the patriarchal storyteller keep that detail, or create it?

I don’t know. But my answer is the point of my sermon. I think the weeping, the sorrow that is seen in the epitaph for Deborah and in Rachel naming her son is sorrow over the wound of patriarchy. The storytellers include the weeping, perhaps in spite of themselves, because something is not right about patriarchy and they know it.

The women of Genesis, Eve, who gets blamed for original sin, Sarah, Hagar, Rebekah, Leah, Bilhah, Rachel, Zilpah, Deborah, Dinah, Tamar, are windows into the wounds of patriarchy. They show us the dark side of father-power in large part by what they don’t say.
As her soul was departing she named him ‘son of my sorrow’.
That sentence is enough to unravel all the pretensions of patriarchy. Rachel becomes the icon of sorrow. In the period of Exile, she is used by the author of Jeremiah as a symbol for the reality of exile and defeat and the symbol for hope for return and restoration. In Matthew’s gospel, she is used in the story of the slaughter of the innocents by Herod. That is a fictional story. But I think Matthew is using that story and that icon to reflect on the sorrow of the destruction of Jerusalem that occurred just a decade or so before he wrote his gospel.

The sorrow and the weeping is not weakness. The sorrow and the weeping of Rachel is strength. You cannot save, you cannot advocate, you cannot give your life for that which you cannot weep. When we stop weeping, we stop caring.

When I am talking about father-power I am talking about power over. It is not just about gender. It is about a way of living that owns, controls, and ultimately exploits, abuses and destroys. It is about who gets to speak and who must remain silent. It is about who controls the land and the seed and who gets slaughtered and removed from it.

I joked earlier about Monsanto and the seed and land. But it wasn’t really a joke. It isn’t about Monsanto alone. It is about father-power, empire-power, corporation-power, militaristic-power, exploitative power that wants all the land and all of the seed for itself. That is patriarchy and women can be patriarchal as well as men.

Our hope is in the weeping.

About five years ago, in March, I remember waking up in the middle of the night sobbing. For several months previous to that night, I felt like had taken a crash course in everything that was wrong with the world, from Peak Oil, to oceans filled with plastic crap, to species going extinct by the thousands, to the religious sanction of prejudice, and wars without end, amen and amen, and it overwhelmed me. I wept. Through it all I was anxious about my own self. And I felt ashamed for being so self-absorbed. But that is what depression is. I struggled with this depression for some time.

Slowly, I have come to regard this depression and this weeping as a calling. It is an invitation from Spirit to compassion. It is an invitation to use my voice while I have it to speak for Rachel and her son, Benoni, son of my sorrow. If we cannot weep, we cannot care. If we cannot care, we cannot act. Sometimes even when we care we cannot act. That is when we wait and we watch and we let our mortal flesh keep silence. We allow Rachel to weep for her children and put off consolation.

I also know there is a light. I have felt it and seen it. I see it in my fellow weepers, who weep for our mountains, for children, for justice, and for the 99 percent. I see that light of creativity, courage, and compassion. I know no more and probably no less than the experts know what is coming in regards to the foundations that are shaking. But I don’t lose hope. My weeping has made my hope stronger, not that everything will turn out as I want, but that the light, the light of creativity that we honor and anticipate in Advent will shine in us and in our world.

That light will change us. That light will open up ways of living and sharing power that we had no idea were possible. We will find ways to share and care beyond our imagination.

Unexpected things happen.
That is the Advent hope.

In Jeremiah, to the weeping Rachel, the Holy One speaks:
Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work,
says the Lord:
they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
there is hope for your future,
says the Lord:
your children shall come back to their own country.
That to me is a hope embedded in these patriarchal texts that transcends patriarchy. There is hope for our future and for our children that will come as we care to weep and to allow those tears to open our minds and hearts for the creative, life-giving, Earth-sustaining, dignity-granting, peace-enabling power of the Sacred.

May this Advent season transform your tears into a calling and into hope.