By: Kyle Brooks
July 25, 2013
This homily was given during the final worship gathering at the FTE Leaders in the Academy Conference, “Exploring the Edges of Theological Scholarship,” at Chicago Theological Seminary.
Prayer: So let us, God, in this moment, catch a glimpse of what is to come, to behold the beautiful eschaton in which reality, justice, love, and peace are already manifest in ways we are still reaching for.
Scripture is a funny thing, if you ever take the time to truly read it. I’m reminded of Howard Thurman writing about how his grandmother refused to have him read certain texts, certain passages from the Pauline epistles, because of the way they conceptualized the bodies and livelihoods of people like her. People who knew about a history of enslavement; people who knew about the death-dealing tactics and strategies of empire; people who knew that colonialist tactics had tried to break their spirits and had been unsuccessful. So she refused to have him repeat these texts written by our dear friend Paul.
I’d venture to say more than one person here has had a problem with something Paul has written. Let’s take, for example, I Corinthians 11:15. It says, “but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory, for it is a covering to her.” (KJV) Now I don’t know if Paul was on “Team Natural” or “Team Weave” or “Team Short Hair Don’t Care” or whatever the case may be. But Paul, speaking in this context and writing in this scripture, had some kind of issue with women’s hair not looking quite like he expected. There were some social expectations around the physical presentation, around this representation in a space of worship. A woman’s hair was her glory.
“I think about a God who stood on the edge of the waters (Genesis 1), who stood on the edge of chaos and uncertainty, and began a work of maintenance.”
Well, they say something in my church tradition: behind the glory, there is a story. Behind the glory of hair is a story called your edges. Now, my sisters, tell me if I’m wrong, but there’s something about the edges of the hair that tell you something about the health of the entire head. When the maintenance of these edges falls off, something might be shaky in the rest of hairstyle. And I’m not getting on the sisters; brothers, some of us have some rough edges, too. Sometimes you can see where there’s breakage, where it is unkempt, where that line wasn’t quite so straight, when the razor’s edge didn’t quite tame your edge and things were a little shaky. Edges require maintenance. Edges are not healthy on their own. Edges are symptomatic of what’s happening at the heart, what’s happening at the center.
Now, when I think edges, I think of many things. I think of new growth. I think of the possibility that’s right there on the edge of that hair. I think of the possibility that is often broken and mishandled when folks try to pull it back into a space it’s not quite ready for. Sometimes we try to braid it and get it just right, but it’s a little too tight. Sometimes that new growth needs cultivation. It needs time. It needs some loving care. It needs some tenderness. The edges need maintenance.
We came to the FTE Leaders in the Academy Conference to talk about edges: work on the edges, the work that is around the perimeter of life, in those places where people don’t want to go, in those margins where people feel uncomfortable because folks get touchy when you talk about their edges. If somebody says, “Brother, I think you need a shape up,” you feel some kind of way. If somebody says your edges are looking a little troubled and tense because they haven’t been relaxed in a moment, you might feel some kind of way.
I think about a God who stood on the edge of the waters (Genesis 1), who stood on the edge of chaos and uncertainty, and began a work of maintenance. I imagine God saying these waters need to be tightened up a bit, this chaos needs to be brought into order. There needs to be some work done to maintain the edges. And God said, let there be light. God spoke from the edge of nothingness. God spoke with a voice that cut through to the heart of chaos and said, from the edge of this chaos, I will create a world. I will bring into a being a radical possibility that doesn’t even exist yet outside of my mind. Can you imagine what it meant for God to say let there be light when there had never been light before? What does it mean for us to stand on the edges and to proclaim that which does not yet exist? Something that will cause people to say you are crazy to believe in it because it has never been and never will be?
“It takes something to be like Jesus, to stand on the edge of the cliff and survey all the things that have been offered…”
When you live on the edge, when we work on the margins, when we decide to step into an academy that coalesces itself at the center of importance, arrogance, and the height of institutionalization, it costs something to be a part of this. But it also costs something to stand on the edge, to say yes, I am here, but I will not be complicit. To say, yes, I am here but will not be seduced by what you are offering. It takes something to be like Jesus, to stand on the edge of the cliff and survey all the things that have been offered if we will only cast ourselves upon the stones.
But there are a couple of exegetes, a few brothers known as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, who knew a little something about being on the edge. When you operate on the edge, folks are going to try and push you. They will try to tell you who you are and who you can’t be. We are on the edge for a reason. We came here to get things tight, to do the kind of soul work that will represent the work we will do in the world. We came together to create a safe space where none exists. We came together to speak life and truth into one another, to say, brother, sister, I know your edges are rough, but mine are too, and we’re going to get it tight together, It’s like that new feeling when you walk out of the barbershop or the salon and you know that barber or stylist hooked it up that day and nobody can tell you anything because you know your edges are right.
“We are still on the edge; I pray we never leave.”
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five offered these words:
“don’t push me cause I’m close to the edge/I’m trying not to lose my head/it’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how I keep from going under…”
And maybe underneath it all
Could it be that a God beyond my imagination animates from behind the mixing boards
And the whole of a universe we cannot comprehend is just a flat disc beneath deified fingertips
And the ends of the edges are just the beginning of the music
A voice cutting through the constant chaos is the needle threaded with the breath of life
Dropping into space until touches the lip, the groove, the edge of the record
Suddenly, the galaxy is just the scratch, the pop, ripping through white noise
The black radio radiating infinite waves of music
Earth is just a song playing on repeat, and we are waiting for a break in the beat
Perched on the edge of notes, tying our bodies to the rhythms like we were backpacking
Our back stories into someone’s soul
We are the linkage where there is no bridge; the last gasp of a long-forgotten story
Being remembered through our members, so limber we dislocate dichotomies
Became the remix revisited, we are the gray album manifested
And “don’t push me, cause I’m close to the edge…”
Of your overlaps, and I can only wonder if our destinies have been holding hands since birth
Teaching us to synchronize our claps until they bleed into a clotted staccato Until they fall with the cadence of raindrops, the promise to refresh the ground
Maybe that is why we are not afraid of floods, not afraid to cry freedom and pour justice,
Onto a concrete jungle like spray paint, growing roses between the cracks,
Contradicting the deadness of stillborn dreams
“I’m trying not to lose my head…” because the edges are the beginning of the unknown the glistening razor that severs security from our bodies before we are even born.
Cry out from the wilderness, birth a nation out of Jordan’s watery grave, And they will have your head on a platter, for the seduction of a song and a dance.
They will make us instant vintage, a pastime known only in present memory Fading as quickly as the sun sets, as light and warmth give way to cold absence.
This is no country for old men or young prophets “It’s like a jungle sometimes…” and the demons are persistent, the hatred is real.
Perhaps we will be like Amos; no, I am not the prophet, not the one you have called by that name
Just a humble shepherd, leading from the rear, flocks behind me only because they choose to follow.
I only speak the words I was given.
“It makes me wonder how I keep from going under…” the weight of intoxication, the seduction of a world that offers me everything was told to want, everything that is never quite enough.
Taught to mine for gold and diamonds but never the soul from which I live We can’t go under, but must remain, on the edges where new growth still happens,
Where our wounds have not yet lied to us and told us barrenness is what we were born with.
We are still on the edge; I pray we never leave.