about Eve

The serpent was craftier than any other wild animal the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman answered, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die’.” The serpent said, “You will not die, for God knows when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” When the woman saw the tree was good for food, and it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.(1)

The Fall and Expulsion from the Garden (1508-1512), Michelangelo (1475-1564)

And ever since, Eve, the first woman, thus, the metaphorical mother of humankind, has borne the mark of guilt for committing the first sin, a veritable trifecta of lost wagers – falling prey to temptation, disobeying God, and seducing her husband, Adam, into sharing her betrayal.

More than 2000 years ago, Yeshua ben Eleazar ben Sira wrote: From a woman sin had its beginning and because of her we all die.(2) At the close of the first century, the Apostle Paul added his disapprobation: I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.(3)

These views, o’er centuries, when, indeed, as illumined and magnified as truth in the teaching and preaching of the church, have been used, rather misused to substantiate the idea of the inferiority of Eve to Adam and, by extension, women to men.(4) This unjustly and wrongly perceived inherent inferiority, I believe, has contributed to the individual and societal assessment and treatment of women as powerless subordinates to men.

As I read the Genesis account of the first sin and the fall from grace, I interpret it as a mythological – that is, not a false, but rather an ahistorical (it didn’t happen!) – story that expresses a number of truths about life in this world, among them:
• That we humans, women and men, are equally endowed with a knowledge of right and wrong.(5)
• That we, women and men, are called in the chance and circumstance of life to choose between the two (alway being mindful that life is laden with ambiguity).
• That when we, women and men, choose rightly, wisely, there are blessings and consequences for choosing wrongly.
• That we, women and men, in choosing wrongly, are equally subject to the temptation of disavowing our responsibility and casting blame on someone or something else.(6)

Thus, it seems to me that it is not Eve’s image that needs rehabilitation, but rather the restoration of humankind’s…mankind’s view of women as equal. For so it was in the Garden of Eden.

 

Illustration: The Fall and Expulsion from the Garden (1508-1512), Michelangelo (1475-1564), Sistine Chapel, Rome. Note: In The Fall (the left side of the panel), Michelangelo depicts the serpent (following medieval custom, portrayed as a woman; thus, amplifying the woman-as-temptress theme) handing a piece of the fruit from the tree to Eve, and, notwithstanding the Apostle Paul’s declaration that “Adam was not deceived” (1 Timothy 2.14), Adam, not waiting for Eve to offer the fruit to him, reaches for his own!

Footnotes:

(1) Genesis 3.1-6
(2) Ecclesiasticus (or The Wisdom of Jesus, Son of Eleazar, Son of Sirach or Sirach, for short) 25.24
(3) 1 Timothy 2.12-14
(4) In this regard, sometimes I think that traditional church teaching about Mary as perpetually virginally pure and wholly virtuous in her obedience to the will of God that she become Theotokos, God-bearer, is intended not only to make a statement about who Jesus is as God’s Son, but also to redeem the image of Eve.
(5) By whatever sources and means, e.g., civil code, natural law, religious ethical instruction.
(6) The Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.” (Genesis 3.9-13, emphases mine).

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an assault on creation

The air abounds with allegations of sexual harassment and assault. Mostly by women against men. The responses of the accused have fallen into two primary camps. Admissions of responsibility coupled with expressions of accountability and apology. And abjurations of impropriety and, equally sadly, following a now age-old, morally bankrupt playbook of the best defense being a good offense, further attacks on the character and motives of the accusers.

As I continue to reflect on the stunning social phenomenon of the #MeToo movement, I think, I hope that it harbors the potential, indeed, that it is the portent for grand cultural change; moving us – humankind – farther along the path of the equality of women and men…

equal

Instantly, as I reflect on what I just wrote, I realize that moving us farther along is truly moving us back to the path of equality; therefore, making the #MeToo movement inherently radical (that is, from the Latin radix, taking us back to the root, the origin, the beginning).

As a Christian whose worldview is fundamentally biblically-based, I refer to the Book of Genesis; principally the first creation story of chapter 1, and especially: God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.(1)

The Creation of Eve (1508-1512), Michelangelo (1475-1564)

It is later, after the disobedience of the man and woman in the Garden of Eden, after their fall from the state of grace of creation, that God, in response, speaks, in part: To the woman he said… “(your husband) shall rule over you.”(2)

In a word, man and woman were, are made equal. The inequality of man’s domination and woman’s subordination is an insidious sign of the human sin of the rebellion against God, the rejection of the divine intention of creation, and the repulsion of human nature itself. May the #MeToo movement help us to go back to the way it was meant to be back in the day.

 

Illustration: The Creation of Eve (1508-1512), Michelangelo (1475-1564)

Footnotes:

(1) Genesis 1.27

(2) Genesis 3.16a, c. As I read it, “your husband”, by extension, can be interpreted “man” (as in all men).

rebirth redux (a reflection on yesterday morn)

crow

Why was I surprised that the cawing,
the calling
of crows would signal
a Spirit-rebirth of joy and gratitude
after days of sorrowing o’er the world’s ills?

For crows are a symbol,
yes, in some civilizations, of death and grief,
yet, in biblical tradition,

an emissary of God’s sanctification sent forth by…

Noah from the ark to test whether the waters of the Great Flood had receded(1)
God to feed the prophet Elijah amidst a drought in the land(2)

and a beneficiary of God’s benediction(3) of whom Jesus said, “Consider the ravens…”(4)

Yea, tho’ surprised,
quickly I realized
a Franciscan (truly, a pax et bonum)-moment
of heavenly portent
in the cawing,
the calling
of my brother and sister crows;
reminding me
(remanding in the custody of my memory; ne’er again, I pray, to forget)
that, whate’er betide, God is good, always and in all ways.

 

Footnotes:

(1) Genesis 8.6-7

(2) 1 Kings 17.4-6

(3) Psalm 147.9; Job 38.41

(4) Luke 12.24

of loyalty & love

a sermon, based on Matthew 22.15-22, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, October 22, 2017

Charles Dudley Warner,[1] essayist, novelist, and friend of Mark Twain, among his many bon mots was noted to have said “Politics makes strange bedfellows.” The expediency of self-interest has the magnetic power to draw together folk who otherwise stand apart, indeed, who otherwise can’t stand each another.

The Pharisees and the Herodians Conspire Against Jesus (Les pharisiens et les hérodiens conspirent contre Jésus) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)

The Pharisees, devoted to the Law of God, detest the oppressive Roman Empire. The Herodians, a political party of King Herod, the puppet ruler of Judea set on the throne and kept in power by Rome, are loyal to Caesar. These two strange bedfellows, at best, begrudgingly tolerate each another. Yet they agree on one thing. They despise Jesus, whose proclamation of “repentance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”[2] poses a threat to their religious and political status quo. They set a trap, first with deceitful flattery, “Oh, Jesus, you’re so sincere, truthful, and impartial”, then the zinger, “Is it lawful to pay Caesar’s tax?” Gotcha, Jesus! For if you say “lawful”, the people, who hate the Roman Empire and the burdensome tax, will hate you, and if you say “unlawful”, you will be guilty of sedition against the Empire.

But Jesus, more than wiggling out of a well-laid trap, takes the matter, as he always does, to a higher level of meaning. But first he says, “Show me the coin used for the tax.” Jesus’ pockets are empty. He doesn’t have a coin. The Pharisees and Herodians do. Thus, Jesus, by the very fact of their possession of the coin for the tax, exposes their entanglement in the exploitative economics of the empire. I can hear Jesus say, “Gotcha!”

Regarding the higher level of meaning, I do not believe that it is either the separation of politics and religion or the importance of obedience to the government. The issue, simply, profoundly is this: To what, to whom do we owe our greatest loyalty, our greatest love.

Caesar_s Coin (Moeda de César) (1790), Domingos Sequeira (1768-1837)

Jesus looked at the coin, which bore Caesar’s image and title. Thus, it belonged to him and to pay the tax is to return to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. However, long before Caesar, indeed, at the dawn of creation, this was, is, always is God’s intention: “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.”[3] Thus, we, bearing the image, the likeness of God, in all that we are and all that we have, belong to God. Thus, in all of our living, we return to God what belongs to God.

In our daily living we deal with manifold competing, at times, conflicting loyalties, and Jesus calls us alway to discern, to be clear – and to act accordingly – that our greatest loyalty, greatest love is to the One in whose image we are made.

 

Illustrations:

The Pharisees and the Herodians Conspire Against Jesus (Les pharisiens et les hérodiens conspirent contre Jésus) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)

Caesar’s Coin (Moeda de César) (1790), Domingos Sequeira (1768-1837). Note: I love Sequeira’s depiction of the encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees and the Herodians. As I view and interpret the painting, Jesus, literally center stage, elevated above the one handing him the coin for the tax, and with his right hand pointing upward, gives visual testimony that he, in his teaching, is about to take the matter to a higher level.

Footnotes:

Charles Dudley Warner 91829-1900), photo c 1897[1] Charles Dudley Warner (1829-1900) (photograph c. 1897). The saying ostensibly was adapted from a line in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.”

[2] Matthew 4.17

[3] Genesis 1.26

Charlottesville redux: part 2, stepping back from the edge of pessimism’s ledge

thinkingI’ve been struggling…

Since identifying, naming and claiming my abiding, burdening existential angst about American bigotry in my August 22 blog post, Charlottesville redux: America the beautiful?, I’ve been struggling to discern a faithful and hopeful way forward; a way out of the deep valleys and darkened alleys of my quintessential pessimism.[1] For, as I wrote previously, thinking that we, as a nation, have come to another moment in history when a conversation about our communal American identity is absolutely necessary, I believe the dynamism of our current and revivified cultural discord, expressed, in major part, in virulent anti-Semitism and racism, sadly renders such opportunities moot.

I am grateful for my bride, Pontheolla Mack Abernathy, my dear sister, Loretta Anne Woodward Veney, my newfound (though, given my sense of our spiritual simpatico, long-lived) sister, Gayle Fisher-Stewart, and my brother from another mother, Grady Hedgespeth, to a person, buoyantly optimistic souls, through whose sage and stalwart words of counsel and comfort, I have come to a new, renewed place of perceiving, of being.

To wit…

Considering it always important for me to define my terms and declare the ground on which I stand, I am a theist. I believe in God as creator of all life, who, from the formless void brought forth a divine differentiation – in other words, not some, any semblance of holy sameness – and called it all “good”.[2] I am a Christian. I believe in God as revealed through the Holy Spirit in Jesus of Nazareth, whose story is recorded in scripture and conveyed through two millennia of Christian tradition.

From this stance, I summon myself and all people of good will to repent, to turn away from, verily, to step over and beyond the barriers and boundaries of my and our phobias and prejudices, my and our numbing fears and negative judgments of “the other.”

If your, my phobia or prejudice is about or against a person who is:

  • African American
  • agnostic or atheist
  • anti-Semitic
  • Democrat
  • gay or lesbian
  • Hispanic
  • Islamophobic
  • Jewish
  • Muslim
  • Native American
  • racist
  • Republican
  • white
  • white supremacist
  • (or any other categorization of humankind),

then, I bid that you and I seek out and engage in conscious conversation, and with honesty and humility, one who is:

  • African American
  • agnostic or atheist
  • anti-Semitic
  • Democrat
  • gay or lesbian
  • Hispanic
  • Islamophobic
  • Jewish
  • Muslim
  • Native American
  • racist
  • Republican
  • white
  • white supremacist
  • (or any other categorization of humankind).

And I boldly predict that you and I will discover that that wholly different human being is utterly similar to you and me in possessing a personal history and a set of memories, thoughts and feelings, desires and needs, hopes and dreams, fears and failings, phobias and prejudices, struggles and successes and, in these unmistakable, irreducible similarities, that we all have more in common than we may have dared to dream.

My point is this. You and I can think and feel, hope and pray for a better world of comity and concord. But if you and I daily do not do something, anything different than remain secure, self-imprisoned in the towers of our ideological and existential sanctuary from “the other”, then you and I silently are complicit in maintaining the status quo. And given what we all beheld in Charlottesville, that doesn’t look at all good to me.

How about you?

 

Footnotes:

[1] For reasons tracing back to my formative years (the root, I believe, of most of our personal characteristics and ways of being and doing, both good and bad), I tend to assume and await the worst.

[2] See Genesis 1.1-2.3

dying to live

 

Epiphany 1-22-17 a sermon, based on Genesis 22.1-14, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 4th Sunday after Pentecost, July 2, 2017

 

God said to Abraham, “Take your son…Isaac…whom you love…and offer him…as a burnt offering.”

A bit of the back story…

God called Abraham to leave his home and go to a land that God would show him, where he would become a progenitor of nations. But Abraham and Sarah, his wife, were old and childless.[1] Without at least one child, it would be impossible for them to be the forebears of multitudes. Finally, when Abraham was 100[2] and Sarah 90,[3] Isaac was born.[4]

Then Abraham, with Sarah, having left their homeland, sacrificing their past for God’s sake, is told by God to kill their son, thereby sacrificing their long-hoped-for present, now fulfilled, and the promise of their future. For to kill their one child would make it impossible for them to be the forebears of multitudes.

Nevertheless, “Abraham rose early in the morning…and set out” to do as God had commanded.

What? Suppose any of us who are parents heard what we believed was a word from the Lord or whatever higher authority to which we ascribe ordering us to murder our children. What would we think, feel, do? Or suppose, as a child, we heard what we believed was a word from the Lord or whatever higher authority to our parents commanding that they kill us. What would we think, feel, do?

Sometimes when I reflect on this story, an image comes to mind of Sarah watching her husband and son walk toward the horizon with wood for a burnt offering, but no animal for the burnt offering and wondering, fearing what was to be.

The Sacrifice of Isaac (1657-1659), Juan de Valdés Leal (1622-1690)

Now, God’s command was intended as a test of Abraham’s love and loyalty. A test, we are assured that God had no intention of seeing through to its terrible end. A test that Abraham, in his willing obedience, passed.

Nevertheless it was a test, at first and second glance, monstrously cruel.

It may not assuage the sensitive human conscience to claim that this story is a biblical protest against the ancient practice of child sacrifice. Nor might it be comforting to claim some theological justification for God’s aggression. That God’s command to Abraham to kill his only son is a portent of the sacrifice of Jesus, the only Son of God, to redeem the world. That the sacrifice of Jesus is foreshadowed in Abraham’s response to Isaac’s wonderment about the whereabouts of the sacrificial animal, “God will provide the lamb.” That this explains why we Christians, thankful for the sacrifice of Jesus, pray, “O Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”

But sacrifice is sacrifice. Violence is violence. And in a world, whether ancient, modern, or post-modern, filled with gratuitous cruelty, how can this story appeal to wounded human conscience? How can this story assuage souls ravaged by the brutalities of humankind throughout history?

Maybe it can’t!

Or maybe this story is meant to be a biblical wide-eyed, unblinking stare, glare at us demanding that we answer this question: For what greater good are we willing to sacrifice our lives?

In two days, we Americans will celebrate the 241st anniversary of the birth of our nation. A nation established on the foundation of great ideals – human equality (though honesty compels the confession that we alway need continue to expand that definition from its original intention; for, our founding fathers, in their time of their dreaming and writing, had not in mind women or me as an African American!) and the Creator-endowed “certain unalienable Rights…(of) Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” An establishment involving the sacrifice of life against the might of an empire to secure liberty long-sought.

In the bright light of our celebration, again I ask: For what greater good are we willing to sacrifice our lives?

Speaking always and only for myself, I am a Christian. I am a follower of Jesus. Jesus who died for his cause, proclaiming, embodying the kingdom of God’s unconditional love and justice. O’er many years, daily I have prayed, in the words of the hymn, to see Jesus more clearly so to follow Jesus more nearly so to love Jesus more dearly.[5] And I am convinced that real living, living in liberty, living unfettered and free from undue restraint – whether without by another’s hand or force or within from fear of loss – so to be and to become who God created me to be is a matter of doing what Jesus did. To be ready and willing to lay down my life. And, in the words of another hymn, as I daily decide to follow Jesus,[6] his cause is my cause. For the sake of loving and being just with you and all people, I am willing to die.

For what are you willing to die, so to live?

 

Illustration: The Sacrifice of Isaac (1657-1659), Juan de Valdés Leal (1622-l690)

Footnotes:

[1] See Genesis 12.1-4.

[2] See Genesis 17.17, 21.5.

[3] See Genesis 17.17.

[4] See Genesis 21.1-3.

[5] A reference to the words attributed to Richard of Chichester (1197-1253): Day by day, dear Lord, of Thee three things I pray: to see Thee more clearly, love Thee more dearly, follow Thee more nearly, day by day.

[6] Words ascribed to an Indian prince of Garo, Assam:

I have decided to follow Jesus (sung 3 times); no turning back, no turning back.

Though none go with me, I still will follow (3); no turning back, no turning back.

My cross I’ll carry, till I see Jesus (3); no turning back, no turning back.

The world behind me, the cross before me (3); no turning back, no turning back.

behold our God!

a sermon, based on Genesis 1.1-2.4 and Matthew 28.16-20, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on Trinity Sunday, June 11, 2017

A story is told that Voltaire,[1] that French Enlightenment philosopher known, among many things, for his complicated relationship with religion, once doffed his hat at the passing of a funeral procession. A friend, surprised, said, “I thought you did not believe in God.” Voltaire replied, “We acknowledge each other, though we are not on speaking terms.”[2]

We, declining to share Voltaire’s sensibilities, claim the annual grace of Trinity Sunday (if not on any other day, then surely this day!) to acknowledge and speak of the threefold nature of God: alway transcendent, beyond all things, immanent, with all things, and spiritually in all things.

The Trinity - Fernando Yáñez de la Almedina

The word “trinity” is not found in the Bible. Still, the Bible, in one sense, is our record of our religious ancestors’ encounters with what 20th century German theologian Rudolph Otto[3] termed the mysterium tremendum et fascinans; that mystery called “God” before which we, in fascinated reverence and fear, tremble. Therein, we behold their attempts to make sense of that mystery, putting into language their experiences and perceptions.

Through the lens of this understanding, let us see what our spiritual forebears have to tell us about God and about us.

Before we do, I share a word about words. Words are symbols. Whether spoken or written, they are meant to conjure up the in the minds of the speaker and hearer, the writer and reader the realities to which they point. Hence, the word “God”, as a symbol, is not God, but only the term we use in our attempt to communicate our understanding of the reality of that mysterium tremendum et fascinans. And, as God is mystery (not a riddle to be resolved, but that which, in its totality, is beyond the reach of our reason), try as we might, we never can comprehend God completely. In a word (pun intended!), we never fully “get”, grasp God. Yet, in our continued quest for understanding, we hope, we believe that what we do get is fully God. For that reason, through prayer, study, and worship, we keep trying, remaining steadfast in the quest to behold our God!

Now, back to the Bible!

The first Genesis creation story is a rhapsodic Hebrew poem testifying that God is almighty! For through the agency of “wind”, in the Hebrew, ruach, Spirit, “sweeping over the face of the waters”, God creatio ex nihilo, creates out of the nothing of “formless void and darkness.” Whenever we humans “create” we always must take things that already exist to fashion something new. God begins with nothing and, through word, “Let there be…”, comes light, sky, earth, and sea, suns and stars, flora and fauna, and humankind. And this unfolding differentiation continues unto this day. Our God always is creating and we, made in God’s image, are called to create, not destroy. Our dominion over the earth is not, is never to be domination, but rather creative caretaking, loving stewardship.

In the Gospel of Matthew, the risen Jesus declares unto his first disciples the Great Commission, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” As important as this mission of baptizing and teaching has been and is for the spread of Christianity, the most important word Jesus says is “therefore.” Jesus can  (is able to) command his disciples because “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Jesus claims the authority, the right to exercise power, of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the God of whom Genesis speaks as the almighty Creator.

It is this God revealed in this Jesus who, in the Spirit, is “with (us) always, to the end of the age.”

Behold our God!

 

Illustration: The Trinity, Fernando Yáñez de la Almedina (1475-1536)

Footnotes:

François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire) (1694-1778)

[1] Voltaire, the nom de plume of François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778) famous or infamous, depending on one’s point of view, for his attacks on the established church, and his advocacy of freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and separation of church and state.

[2] Recorded in David Head’s He Sent Leanness: a book of prayers for the natural man (The MacMillan Company, 1959), page 36.

iottoru001p1

[3] Rudolf Otto (1869-1937), German Lutheran theologian and philosopher.