We receive your thankfulness, offer forgiveness, and accept that you now leave to minister elsewhere. We express gratitude for your time among us. We ask your forgiveness for our mistakes. Your influence on our faith and discipleship will not leave us at your departure.Read More
This summer at Church of the Pilgrims we are focusing on troubling texts, Biblical narratives that are cringe worthy because they bump up against deeply-held Biblical values. So far we've focused on texts that say women need to be silent in Church, violence that creates an occupied land, Jesus as "the way", and Sodom and Gomorrah.
I preached on the rape of Tamar in 2 Samuel 13:1-21. Tamar was raped by her brother, Amnon. Amnon's father was King David. Tamar was the beautiful sister of Absalom, who was also David’s son.
Context: My dear friend from Union Seminary in NYC, Anna Olson, preached on this text for a worship service we created for a Christian Ethics and Domestic Violence class our second year at Union. The professors for the class? Beverly Harrison, Mother of Christian Feminist Ethic and Annie Ruth Powell, then the pastor of Union.
This worship service included two amazing parts (other than Anna's sermon):
1) The hymn "Sacred the Body." It was created by Ruth Duck for our Union worship service:
[blockquote indent="]Ruth Duck was inspired to write this hymn after a conversation with Janet Walton, professor of worship at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Dr. Duck notes that Dr. Walton “called to ask if I knew of a congregational song that spoke to issues of battering and abuse using Paul’s concept of the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16-17).” This request came as a result of a conversation among students planning for a seminary worship service at Union Seminary who needed a song on this theme. None was to be found.
Dr. Duck states, “I didn’t know of existing hymn texts on that theme, but the idea inspired 'Sacred the Body.' Writing the text was a source of healing for my distress over a friend’s story of being sexually abused by a religious professional.” [/blockquote]
2) The action: After Anna's sermon, we invited people to come forward and mark their foreheads with ashes and tear burlap, both ancient mourning rituals of Israel Tamar embodied after her sexual assault.
We sang "Sacred the Body" and marked ourselves with ashes at Pilgrims as part of my sermon on Tamar.
Here are excerpts from my sermon (again, Anna's sermon deeply inspired my version):
Tamar’s story raises questions about God, and humanity that matter. The questions Tamar’s story lift up matter because in our Dupont Circle neighborhood, in our city of Washington, D.C., and on the planet on which we all live, desolation is the reality for many, and the ending of many stories isn’t always deliverance......
The Hebrew word for rape, or overpowered, in this story is the same word used for rape in other stories, including the rape of Dinah in Genesis and the rape of the Levite’s concubine in Judges. Just as importantly, it has a broader meaning of “to oppress” or “to afflict.” In that broad meaning, it is the same root word used to talk about the oppression of the Israelites under slavery in Egypt.......
So there was Tamar. Thrown out. Standing outside in her ornamented tunic, a dress for princesses, where all the servants who were asked to leave the room could see her. No place to hide her body, her feelings, her vulnerability. No place to feel safe.
In the moment, Tamar found enough of herself, her own power to put dust, or ashes, on her head and rent, or tear, the tunic she was wearing. She put her hands on her head, and walked away, screaming loudly as she went. The beautiful, princess daughter of King David, sister of Amnon, walked down the streets with dirt on her face and clothes torn, symbolizing her status, her body, her being had been torn to shreds.
She cried out, again invoking the story of the Israelites, as the word “cried out” is the same word used when the Israelites cry out under oppression in Egypt.
Right after my sermon, there was an invitation for people to come forward, take ashes from the communion table, mark their foreheads with the ashes, and remember themselves, a friend, family member, anyone who is a victim of assault. People had the choice to mark their forehead in silence or mark and say something about the person they were remembering.
One-by-one over ten people (in a sanctuary with 50+ people) came forward. Some marked in silence. Some shared a name and a short story.
During announcements I extended the invitation for those who needed to talk about the service to come by my office after worship.
Tamar's story is alive and on that Sunday is was very clear she was sitting in our pews.
In response to LA Clipper's owner Donald Sterling white supremacist plantation world view, the Clipper players performed a silent protest by walking on to the court, taking off their warm-up jackets, tossing them on the center court circle with the team logo, and went through their pregame rituals wearing their team t-shirts inside out so the Clipper logo couldn't be seen. Check it out:
Many things to love about this:
- The collective action of the team coming up and performing the protest ritual.
- It was a heavy, directed, and focused intent without words.
- The players used their bodies to express their dissent and their prophetic power as a team. Black bodies are seen and treated, as Sterling articulated, as menacing. In this act of protest, the players used their bodies to express solidarity and their world view.
- The Clippers used the public space of a basketball court to protest. Granted, you had to have a ticket (or a video stream) to see it live. The protest wasn't isolated to their locker room or Clipper office building. They used their court---the space where their blood, sweat, hopes, dreams, and tears are shed and played out.
- Those in attendance became part of the protest in their witnessing.
- The Clippers used the center of the court where the team logo is painted to place their jerseys. The deconstructed themselves by taking off the jersey and constructed themselves as a new team, disconnected from their white supremacist owner, with their t-shirts inside out.
- On center court is a circle, a sacred symbol with many layers of meaning.
The circle took me back to a paper I wrote my first year at Union Seminary in NYC on the Ring Shout.
The Ring Shout is one of the oldest African-American performance rituals in North America. Originating in West and Central Africa, the Ring Shout was brought to the coastal communities of South Carolina and Georgia, called Gullah communities, as Africans were enslaved on these barrier islands.
Creating a ring, or a circle, the Ring Shout is a counterclockwise dance-like movement performed with shuffling, shifting, call and response singing, hand clapping, and a stick creating a drum-like experience. The Ring Shout was performed at woods in the night, around church buildings, and it was performed for themselves.
In the Ring Shout, the participants move their bodies in a circle, creating a embodied symbol that represents the connection between past, present, and future. The past--life and cosmology in West/Central Africa. The present--enslaved on the barrier islands of SC and GA. The future---liberation and emancipation.
As white supremacist/plantation owners treated enslaved Africans as less than human, the Ring Circle affirmed African bodies as fully human, creating a sacred visibility and community in the face of an imperial reality.
The circle and the circular movement was a visual expression of life before the Middle Passage and considered necessary to access the Divine, all necessary and embodied connections for survival and liberation.
The LA Clippers didn't perform a Ring Shout. Yet I'm still taken by the players use of the circle in center court, how they gathered themselves loosely in a circle in center court, and how a circle was created in the Ring Shout. For me, the symbols are connected in the direct, embodied action to claim humanity, to claim black bodies as sacred/human/fully divine as white supremacist owners tried, in past and present, to dehumanize and make a profit off black bodies.
The Miami Heat acted out a "call and response" by doing the same protest a day or two later.
The circle on center court and the Ring Shout symbolizes an unbroken thread of agency in the face of white supremacy, and not just Sterling's supremacy, but in social structures and society at-large. These circles build a connection for me in public, protest ritual of past and present, cutting into white privilege that the actions of Donald Sterling are an isolated, one-time-only, outrageous event.
The Ring Shout put the Clippers protest into a historical and cultural context.
Life is slowly starting to lift itself out of the soil of my home garden, reaching itself above the threshold of a cold-ass winter. Every morning I go out to my garden and check on the progress of growth. How many more leaves came up over night on my coneflowers? How expansive has my oregano become? What has broken through the soil that I had forgotten about over the long winter?
I've been paying particular attention to one of my Shooting Star plants.
One of mine looks great and is on the verge of blooming. The second one is tiny, too tiny. I took a closer look the other day and noticed its roots are exposed, resting on top of the soil. Garden 101: roots need to be BELOW the soil.
I've gone back to this Shooting Star each day since, looking at the exposed roots, picturing the hard winter snow, wind, and cold slowing moving the soil off this plant, leaving it vulnerable to the chilly spring and die with roots exposed.
Then I caught myself this morning: Why do I just keep looking at this plant? Why don't I dig it up, transplant it and give it a chance at growth? Why am I just sitting here staring at it? Why am I acting all powerless with this plant?
I dug up the plant, created a hole in the soil, placed it down, covered the roots with soil, and watered.
Exposed roots leave plants vulnerable. Too vulnerable. The same with me.
Being a pastor is a public act. I work in community. Every Sunday I get up in front of 80 people and share interpretations of life and Biblical stories. I share parts of me, take risks in sharing parts of me in order to feel connected to the liturgical space and people of Pilgrims, and to also give others permission for others to express their own vulnerability.
There is a dance with sharing. If I share "this" will I be over-exposed? Will I share too much of my roots? What happens if I release too much of my essence? Can I get that back?
Soil contains plants. It covers up the roots in order for a plant to grow, flourish, give back to the planet, and release its beauty. The roots need to be covered up. If exposed I can be that plants agent, act on its behalf, and cover it up.
There is always a risk in transplanting. But there is a bigger risk in doing nothing at all.
My morning ritual is this: I get up, do legs up the wall for 5 minutes and count my inhales and exhales. I picture honeybees flowing gently in and out of my hive. I drink a homemade tea of lemon, honey, and raw apple cider vinegar.
This is my soil. This is what contains me each day. This ritual takes my roots and grounds them within me. I feel held. Contained. When I skip this ritual, especially several days in a row, I feel all ziggy-zaggy. As if my roots are exposed like the Shooting Star. Soil is a boundary against the elements. My morning ritual creates boundaries and builds boundary awareness--knowing when my roots are over exposed, when they are grounded within, and that each day I have the power to know the difference.