The Rape of Tamar

Desolation of Tamar
Desolation of Tamar

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.

Ashes as a symbol of mourning
Ashes as a symbol of mourning

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.

People came.

Tamar's story is alive and on that Sunday is was very clear she was sitting in our pews.

Urban Farming: Bokashi Fermenting System

The Interconnected Way of Life in the Soil.
The Interconnected Way of Life in the Soil.

I learned of the Bokashi fermenting system last year on sabbatical while visiting the Edible Churchyard at Union Seminary (where all wonderful and dysfunctional things happen). Bokashi is a practice developed centuries ago by Japanese farmers. The farmers would cover food with nutrient rich, local soil full of microorganisms that would ferment the food waste. Bokashi is a ramped-up, high-speed composting type method. What's the difference between this and regular composting?  Think of the difference between wine and grape juice, and you've got it.

What does Bokashi create?


Mircoorganisms are vital for healthy soil. Healthy soil is vital for growing yummy veggies and beautiful plants. It's also crucial for the well-being of the planet. TRUTH.  These sometimes visible, sometimes microscopic organisms are part of the soil food web underneath our feet. These critters are needed to create soil structure, fertility, and eat the bad stuff that comes along.

With a diversity of organisms in the soil, there is a reduction in soil erosion, water runoff, sedimentation, soil compaction ( a condition that creates conditions for weeds), weed growth, and a rise in water quality, organic matter, carbon sequestration (capturing carbon from the air), and plant fertility.

Bokashi puts these microorganisms into your soil to do all the wonderful things above.

How does it work?

Typical composting needs oxygen as part of the process of breaking down veggies and brown stuff to create soil. Bokashi uses microbes that come to live without oxygen (anaerobic). This is the basic type of process that gives us pickles, wine, and kimchi.

Pink Peeps in Bokashi bucket.
Pink Peeps in Bokashi bucket.

Bokashi works really quickly--weeks instead of months (or a year, ahem) like compost. Bokashi is great for urban areas since you just need a bucket that's kept indoors rather than a compost bin that needs to be outside.

With Bokashi, ALL food waste goes into the bucket. With compost, I only put in veggies, fruits, tea bags, coffee grounds, etc. No meat, dairy, cooked food, etc.  By all food waste I mean everything, including pink Peeps leftover from Easter.

How to create Bokashi:

I bought a Bokashi "kit" online. It comes with a the Bokashi bucket and the Bokashi mix. The mix contains wheat bran, molasses, and EM1, the efficient organisms that drive the fermentation process.

Dump leftover food in the bucket--cereal with milk, meat, bread, scrambled eggs, peeps, name it. After 1-2 inches of food in the bucket, sprinkle with the mix. Have another meal, take leftovers, dump in bucket, and add mix. Rinse. Repeat.

When the bucket is full, you close up the air-tight lid and let it sit for two weeks.

As the food wastes ferment, the microbes create a diverse array of beneficial substances: enzymes, vitamins, amino acids, trace minerals, and organic acids. The fermenting process controls pathogens and damages seeds (no more volunteer plants!)  in the container.

After two weeks, you dump the bucket of pickled food into a 1 foot deep trench in your garden or area with crap-ass soil. Dump food, cover with soil. Wait two weeks before planting. Worms, insects, and other beneficial microbes finish the process of digestion by gobbling up the pickled food waste in the soil.  The result---over a couple of weeks is increased microbe populations and bio-available nutrients supplied to the soil and plants.

From soil we have come, to soil we shall return says the Book of Genesis or New Beginnings. Bokashi is one way of tending to the soil in my eco-location.

Garbage Can Turned into a Font

Robin Nagle, anthropologist in residence for Dept of Sanitation, NYC
Robin Nagle, anthropologist in residence for Dept of Sanitation, NYC

While on sabbatical, I met with Robin Nagle, anthropologist-in-residence for the Dept of Sanitation in New York City. Robin taught a seminar at Union Seminary in NYC on "Garbage and Sacredness" and once I saw this title, I wanted to meet her. I found Robin's email on Google, fired off some emails and soon enough, had a time set-up. This is what I learned from my time with Robin---everything is sacred, and everything is garbage.

All of life is temporal---everything will and must die. I'll die. You'll die. The computer I'm typing on will become garbage. Everything will be discarded--making it garbage.

And everything is sacred.

If everything is garbage and sacred, Nagle argues, then why are sanitation workers treated like garbage, their role in the public health of an urban landscape like NYC deemed invisible? What's sacred? What's profane? And who the hell gets to decide?

What environmental crises can we trace back to garbage? What do we learn about the values of a home, community, city, and planet by what people discard?

This is what I love about work like Robin's:

1) It makes me feel more creative.  Sacredness and garbage? Never thought of that connection before. That's creativity.

2) I love nerding out on a theory or methodology, seeing how it's translated into liturgical life.

When I returned from sabbatical, I preached that Sunday of Labor Day weekend. It was also the 50th anniversary remembering the March on Washington. MLK, Jr. was executed while marching with striking sanitation workers in Memphis, TN.

I seized the moment and focused on sanitation workers in liturgy.

I prepped by watching "At the River I Stand", a documentary of the Memphis sanitation workers. It shows the horrors of being a sanitation worker in Memphis and the community organizing efforts that eventually gained the workers a contract with the city.

In the documentary, sanitation workers and their supporters were shown at a rally in a church sanctuary a few days before MLK, Jr. arrived the first time in Memphis. The offering that night was collected in.....garbage cans.

*light bulb*

We can do that. Off to Home Depot I went to buy two large metal trashcans and several small ones.

i am a man
i am a man

I spray painted "I Am A Man" on the sides of each can---the words on striking sanitation worker's signs.

Three of the small cans were used to collect our offering during the worship service.

One big can was placed in front of the communion table.

One big can became our font. I took the big glass bowl off our baptismal stand and placed it one top of the garbage can. I put garbage in the font. Why?

Garbage Can as Pilgrims Font
Garbage Can as Pilgrims Font

Because everything is sacred, and everything is garbage. Our font symbolizes the Church will honor our sacredness throughout all of life, even through death when we become dust and compost. In our baptism, we tend to the planet as sacred. The words, "I Am a Man?" That's baptismal language.

As I reflect, "garbage can as font" informed my energy for taking ashes into the streets on Ash Wednesday-- being present with workers considered irrelevant, invisible, and the bottom of the labor chain. Ashes claim solidarity in life and death. It's the role of liturgy, in a sanctuary and on the streets, to make that solidarity visible.