I want to confess to feeling a bit guilty about or uneasy in preaching about biblical women for the summer – as though I should perhaps apologize for a focus on females – as though being a woman preaching about women, I’m somehow taking us out on a limb, or taking the risk of alienating half the congregation, or that we might be wasting time on an irrelevant topic.
And then I wonder, in the history of church, if any male preacher felt guilty about preaching only about men. I’m guessing it never occurred to them. And I’m truly not intending to put men down in saying that. It is the tradition. In four years of seminary class and daily chapel, I never heard a sermon or a lecture about these biblical women we have met this summer. There was not even a glancing reference to female prophets in either of the two prophet classes I took, and yet there are at least seven women prophets named in the Bible.
We’ve all heard about Eve, but in seminary it was an apologetic in which professors stressed that the fall from grace was not Eve’s fault alone – as though refuting the temptress designation is all there is to say about Eve.
Sara, Rebekah, and Hannah are noted because they were barren women whom God blessed with child – for nothing is impossible with God. And I’m a bit suspicious that the reason we hear about their husband’s other wives and children is so that we know it is the woman’s womb and not the husband’s sperm at issue in their failure of issue. Would it be less a miracle if Gabriel fixed old Zechariah and not Elizabeth making John the Baptist possible?
The Hebrew midwives, Puah and Shiphrah, Pharaoh’s daughter and Miriam are part of Moses’ story – so is his wife, Zipporah, but did you know their names? They aren’t talked about in Christian tradition, merely mentioned in relation to Moses, the main attraction, if at all. The Revised Common Lectionary carves out the verses about the midwives acting against Pharoah’s order to save the male newborns. Just skips over it. That is the pattern – making passages about women optional reading, if selecting them at all. Even Mary’s magnificent Magnificat does not have a Sunday in the lectionary. And on it goes.
My intention in this summer-long series is to educate, elucidate, and acknowledge the content of the Bible and the failures of the lectionary that deny women biblical role models – and all people the gifts of women in the history of salvation. I think this is important. I did not intend it to be the summer’s project, but the more I read, the more reason I find to continue – and so we will. I hope you will come along.
This week I’m going to make it more personal, hoping that in doing so, you, too, will consider the biblical characters given to us by ancient, inspired writers – and look for your own spiritual doppelgängers.
There are a few gospel women who I really like and in whom I see bits of myself reflected. I’ve mentioned the woman with the flow of blood who sneaks up behind Jesus and touches just the hem of his garment. I identify with her shame, if not her condition, and her hidden approach, hoping to be unseen, believing and doubtful in equal measure. She sees her opportunity and takes the chance – it’s impulsive, working her way through the crowd, wanting just a touch. She’s got it in her head that that would be enough. Just to touch the trailing edge of his cloak – maybe even to put her palm in a fresh footprint in the dust. If he’s who she thinks he is, then that will be enough. Earth to earth, dust to dust, God’s creating power of life in the dust. She didn’t want to interrupt the procession. He and the crowd were following Jairus, the leader of the synagog, a good man who is seeking healing for his little daughter who is near death. She doesn’t want to be a spectacle, she doesn’t want to be noticed, or be made a fool of or embarrassed or shamed or ‘outed’ – just simply, invisibly, to be okay, normal, well. I understand all of that.
When I was a kid we had a family friend who drove a great big, light blue Cadillac. He worked at the Country Club, we lived on Country Club Road, so that car drove past our house at least twice a day. We spent the summers living at a lake home cottage 20 miles out of town. The summer I turned 13 I was allowed to ride my bike into town once in a while to spend some time with a friend. On this particular day, her plans changed, so I had the day to myself and I was walking into town and be a tourist. It was hot and I still had about a mile to go when a great big light blue Cadillac pulled up beside me and the door opened. In that moment it never occurred to me that there could be another car like that. I got in. And then I realized my mistake and the doors locked. He asked where I was going, but instead of turning right, he turned left, away from town and took me down an old logging road. I had no idea what was happening to me; what he was doing. I was barely 13 and had a very sheltered life. But when he finally let me out of the car I ran into the woods and found my way home. I knew that it was shameful. I knew that I was hurt and would have to explain black eyes and bruises and that I could never tell my parents what happened, because I knew it was my fault, and couldn’t face the consequences and my dad’s explosive anger. So I never did tell them. I said I slipped in the gravel and fell off my bike. And I kept that confusing shame and self blame to myself for another 12 years before I told a counselor about it and began the process of forgiving myself for something I knew was not my fault and believed was my fault in equal measure. I didn’t have the trailing edge of Jesus’ cloak to touch, but healing has come over the years through others acting out of their faith and compassion.
On a lighter note, I identify with the Syrophoenician woman in quite another way. She is the one who begs Jesus to heal her daughter and he replies, “Let the children be fed first. It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Dogs being a derogatory term Jews used for Gentiles. She comes right back saying, ”Sir, even the dog under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
I don’t think I have her boldness or her ability to think so quickly on her feet when encountering a holy man face to face. But I know that mother love for her child. I can feel a deep connection to her desperation for her daughter’s life. I think I would go, too, to seek the agent of healing, to look into his eyes, vulnerable, knowing you are nothing to him, but believing he can be everything you need and plead and long for for your child.
And I identify with her in being blond. I don’t think she was blond, but I am. What I mean is the way she takes his “dog” comment and uses it to her advantage. She doesn’t argue with him, she doesn’t shrink back at this insult, she says ‘yes, but’ and disarms him. “Yes, I’m a dog, but even dogs get the children’s crumbs.”
I have learned that “being blond” allows me to be a fool, to ask awkward, honest questions, to be vulnerable, to admit that I don’t have the answer, to come in from underneath people’s defenses. I’ve learned that knocking heads gives us both headaches and doesn’t advance the problem, but being ‘blond’, being a dog, being conciliatory – can appeal to the other’s better nature and lower blood pressure and change the dynamic. I’ve learned how helpful it can be to be a servant to those expecting a fight. On a good day, I use ‘being blond’ as a way of acknowledging my failures, but hanging in there at the same time, like this Syrophoenician mother who acknowledged her status, but taught Jesus that his mission is broader than he imagined.
The Samaritan woman at the well is a story I’m growing into. I love her story, maybe in part because it’s a long conversation that we overhear – the longest conversation Jesus has with anyone in Scripture – and I like long conversations. Shy people fantasize about conversations that go on and on. The part I’m growing into is imagining what it is she’s drawing up from Jacob’s well, and what that living water Jesus offers is. It’s not water, but it quenches. What in me is thirsting? What is parched and dry like our ground? What would quench the deep thirsts I or you have?
I have too many questions to go much further with her, but she’s one I think about.
The last woman for today is Sara. She’s the one who has gotten me where I am.
God spoke to Abram. God shared a vision of a grand adventure and a promise. And told Abram to pack up and go where God would show him. I have to believe that Sara did the packing. She wasn’t really consulted in the matter, however.
I loved living in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It’s so beautiful. I had friends. I had a job. I had a female doctor who I really liked. Marquette was 20 minutes away and is a wonderful little city. I love Lake Superior. The kids had soccer and ballet and violin lessons. They all had friends. I was settled and happy. And God spoke to Mike and told him it was time to go. I didn’t want to. Moving to Luck was a step down financially for us since the synod pay scale was lower. I wasn’t licensed in Wisconsin so couldn’t work as an OT without getting re-certified and there weren’t jobs here at that time. And there was no Marquette, no Lake Superior with its sandy beaches and crystal water. I asked Mr. Nichols, the school principal we met with, if the music department included strings… and got a blank, confused look. He said they might teach guitar. I didn’t want to come here.
But, being dutiful Sara, I did the packing and followed my Abram.
We arrived in Family Camp. I spent the first three days here learning names of people who left on July 4th. The essential kitchen boxes – being the last ones packed – were the first off the truck and buried the deepest in the garage. But people were kind. And friendly. And we gradually moved in and made it our home.
And somewhere along the line, God spoke to Sara and made her a promise, too. And she laughed. And I went to seminary and was ordained into the ministry of word and sacrament at this communion rail with all the circling saints wondering what a female was doing there. And many in the congregation were wondering that, too, and some maybe laughed, and a few left, but mostly you were kind.
Sarah and Abraham had a bit of a kerfuffle over Hagar and Ishmael, but God looked after Hagar and things worked out. Mike and I had a bit of a kerfuffle, too, about sharing a single call when we had different callings, but it worked out. And we’ve lived here for 21 years and raised our kids, and grew up ourselves, and I’m still learning about this wonderful theology of nature-loving-servant-hearted unpretentious, singing Danes. And I’m happy here. Fortunately, Mike wasn’t asked to sacrifice any of our children. Sarah falls out of the story at about that time. We only hear of her death. Maybe she never spoke to Abraham or God again after that. We don’t know.
What I hold in common with Sarah besides the packing up and moving part is that her story is long and complicated and God is both surprising and steadfast.
And that it matters who tells the story.
So, when we recognize ourselves in Mary and Martha, or the midwives, or Esther who was called for just such a time, or Ruth caring for her mother-in-law, or mighty Deborah who was wise and a warrior and a prophet, or Vashti who said NO and turned the kingdom upside down, or Naaman’s wife’s servant girl who sent Naaman to Elisha, we begin to live with scripture and it lives in us. The Bible is a living word and not a law book or history book or self-help manual or answer book.
Jesus was the Word. And the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
It is a word that informs and transforms and heals and inspires and goads us forward only when we take it in, only when we incarnate the stories by giving them flesh in our lives. Otherwise it’s literature. There’s nothing wrong with literature – which can also inspire and inform. But there’s a difference. Isn’t there?
I mentioned last week that there are 189 named women in the Bible. I have since found that it depends on the translation, and that there is confusion even among scholars, but it remains true that women bear between 6 and 15 percent of the total names in the Bible. Minimal representation and frequent misrepresentation of women and women’s stories is harmful to us. That’s my premise. This is made worse since it is the women associated with sinfulness that have historically found their way into sermons, and sin is assigned or assumed where none is mentioned (as in the case of Mary Magdalene). This long history reflects, influences and justifies society’s attitudes and behaviors toward women. Biblical stories and their interpretations have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower and to humanize, to repair broken dignity. When we reject a single, assumed storyline, when we dig around into the Bible’s corners and read about those that the lectionary doesn’t choose, we realize the involvement of God in all of life, God’s concern for all the roles and situations we, too, find ourselves experiencing, male and female alike. But we’re looking at women this summer, and finding our reflections.
Women in the Bible are victors and victims, women who change the course of historical events, and women who are powerless to affect even their own destinies. Genesis names a number of women as co-actors on the stage. Eve, of course, the first to suffer the death of a child by violence, and her first-born branded with shame. And the Matriarchs: Among our friends and acquaintances might be found a devoted but mistreated and disappointed Sarah; or Hagar who became the depository of Sarah’s pain and jealousy. We might know a version of the doting, slightly twisted motherhood and favoritism of Rebekah. Rachel was favored, but her “charm vanishes into an envious and petulant old age,” and Leah – who seems a tragic figure, always second best. These are the women through whom a chosen ‘one’ become a nation. How interesting it is, that none of the first families are success stories in a people’s own historical telling. That point will be made again later.
Still in Genesis, Potiphar’s wife, it is said, “moves through today’s gossip columns in a variety of guises,” in her attempted seduction of Joseph and false accusations when he refused her that led to his imprisonment. We heard about Shiphrah and Puah last week, two Hebrew midwives who disobey Pharaoh’s command to kill all newborn Hebrew boys. Pharaoh’s daughter rescues and cares for the infant Moses. His sister, Miriam, not only had a hand at saving him at birth, but joined with him as a co-leader of her people in the Exodus. And later, Moses’ wife Zipporah saves his life when God intends to kill him in a very weird bit of the story. At crucial points, the great figure Moses is saved by women.
The Hebrew Bible often portrays the named women as victors, leaders, and heroines with qualities Israel should emulate. Women such as Hagar, Miriam, Tamar, Rahab, Deborah, Esther, and Jael are a few examples of women who turned the tables on men with power and are among many female “saviors” of Israel. Biblical scholar, Tykva Frymer-Kensky, says “victor stories follow the paradigm of Israel’s central sacred story: the lowly are raised, the marginal come to the center, the poor boy makes good.”She goes on to say these women conquered the enemy “by their wits and daring, were symbolic representations of their people, and pointed to the salvation of Israel.” Hannah and Mary sing of these reversals in their respective Magnificats.
Rahab’s story is in the book of Joshua. In this case, a clever, bold woman who is not an Israelite is a hero. She is a resident (and prostitute) of Jericho, who houses two spies sent by Joshua to prepare for an attack on the city. The king of Jericho knew the spies were there and sent soldiers to her house to capture them, but she hid them, sent the soldiers off in misdirection, and lied to the King on their behalf. For her brave deeds, Rahab and her whole family were saved before Joshua blew the horns and Jericho came a’tumblin down.
Women were prophets, though I haven’t heard of some of them. I have heard of Deborah. She was among the ruling judges of Israel, a warrior, a mother, and a prophet. She is unique among biblical women in that she holds both political and spiritual power. The people of Israel had been oppressed by the king of Canaan for twenty years. Deborah sent a prophetic message to Israel’s military ruler, Barak, to raise an army and fight, but Barak refused to do so without her. “I will surely go with you;’ she said, “nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” The battle is fought (led by Barak with Deborah beside him), and Sisera, the enemy commander, was routed and fled on foot. Barak pursued the chariots and army, and all Sisera’s troops fell by the sword. Sisera, meanwhile, fled on foot to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber because there was an alliance with her husband’s family. Jael gave him a drink of milk, covered him with a blanket, and when, exhausted from battle, Sisera slept, she picked up a tent peg and a hammer and drove the peg into his temple all the way into the ground. When Barak came hunting him, she lifted her tent flap. As a nomadic woman who were responsible for the assembly of their tents, she had the skill to kill with a single blow. Her’s was the hand into which the mighty king fell. As a result of Deborah and Jael’s courage, their land was at peace for forty years.
We meet Abigail when she is married to a rather horrible man named Nabal. While running a “protection racket” in the area, David asks for provisions for himself and his men, but Nabal refuses, so young warrior David prepares for retribution. Abigail quickly intervenes, sending a feast ahead and greeting David on the way. In an eloquent speech, she persuades him to shed no blood and prophesies that he will be king. Upon hearing what she has done, Nabal up and dies. David then sends for Abigail to become his wife. She bears him a son, who never becomes a contender for the throne, and, although she is a prophet and wise woman, and the only woman in the Hebrew Bible to be described as both intelligent and beautiful, she plays no further role in court history.
David doesn’t come off so well with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah. David sees her bathing, is captured by her beauty, has her brought to him, and, in the way of things, she becomes pregnant. David then successfully plots the death of her husband in a cover-up of his actions, and takes her as one of his wives.This first child doesn’t live, but Bathsheba later has another son, Solomon.
Another prophet we don’t hear of is Huldah. In the eighteenth year of Josiah’s reign, during renovations of the Temple, Hilkiah, the High Priest, found a copy of “the Book of the Law”. This was a big deal. The Book of the Law of Moses had been lost and forgotten. Hilkiah gave it to Shaphan the Scribe, who read the book to King Josiah. The king tore his robes in distress and said “Go and inquire of the Lord for me …” Josiah commanded his entire entourage of high officials (including the High Priest and scribe) to take the book to Huldah, wife of Shallum, for interpretation. At that point, Huldah confirmed King Josiah’s worst fears: God would bring disaster upon Judah for its religious apostasies, but she also declared that Josiah himself would not live to see this disaster. He would have a long reign and die in peace. Only after hearing from her, does Josiah go on to make the reforms he is known for, ridding the temple of idols, attempting to bring his people back to worship of God. She was regarded as a prophet who spoke the word of God, she is the first person who is sought for interpretation of scripture, she told kings and nations their fates, and yet, we are left knowing more about her husband’s background than hers. There are no oracles, no visions in her own words for us to read.
We also get a glimpse of clever women who aren’t good role models. Delilah, for example. The Philistines offered her an enormous amount of money to betray Samson. Delilah uses emotional blackmail and Samson’s genuine love for her to betray him. No other Hebrew biblical hero is ever defeated by an Israelite woman. Samson does not suspect, perhaps because he can’t think of a woman as dangerous, but Delilah is determined, bold and dangerous indeed. The entire Philistine army could not bring him down. Delilah did.
And there’s Jezubel the wife of King Ahab of Israel. According to the books of Kings, Jezebel incited her husband to abandon the worship of Yahweh and encourage worship of the deities Baal and Asherah instead. Jezebel persecuted the prophets of the Lord, and fabricated evidence of blasphemy against an innocent landowner who refused to sell his property to King Ahab, causing the landowner to be put to death. For these transgressions against the God and people of Israel, Jezebel met a gruesome death—thrown out of a window by members of her own court retinue, and the flesh of her corpse eaten by stray dogs. Yet, their daughter is the really evil one.
The Hebrew Bible portrays women as victims as well as victors. We are more familiar with the theme of barren women, but rape and sexual assault is a common feature of these ancient tales. In the first example, it is Dinah, the daughter of Jacob by Leah. Dinah was abducted and raped near the city of Shechem, by a Hivite named Shechem. Because Shechem then wished to marry Dinah, his father suggested to Jacob that their two peoples initiate a policy of commercial and social intercourse. Dinah’s brothers Simeon and Levi pretended to agree to the marriage and the covenant if Shechem and all the other males of the city were circumcised. After the operations, while the men were still weakened, Simeon and Levi attacked the city, killed all the males, including Shechem and Hamor, and freed Dinah. They then joined in plundering the city. Jacob rebuked Simeon and Levi for arousing the neighbouring tribes and, on his deathbed, gave his blessing to their younger brother Judah, passing over Simeon and Levi for their cruelty. This did nothing for Dinah. In 19th-century, “Dinah” became a generic name for an enslaved African woman. Think about that for a moment.
There is a story of a Levite and his concubine who travel to a strange town where they are vulnerable because they’re traveling alone without extended family to protect or rescue them, and strangers attack. To protect the Levite, his host offers his own daughter to the mob and the Levite sends out his concubine. This scene is similar to one in the Sodom and Gomorrah narrative when Lot turned out his daughters to placate the mob, but in Genesis angels save them; in the book of Judges God is no longer intervening. The concubine … well, imagine the worst. Phyllis Trible comments on this text: “The brevity of this section on female rape contrasts sharply with the lengthy reports on male carousing and male deliberations that precede it. Such elaborate attention to men intensifies the terror perpetrated upon the woman. She was nothing to write about.”
David’s daughter, Tamar is another one. She is fought over by her brother and half-brother. As the story unfolds, they move between protecting and polluting, supporting and seducing, comforting and capturing her. These sons of David compete with each other through the beautiful woman, she is simply an object to win, and a justification for hatred between brothers.
The story of Jephthah’s daughter in Book of Judges is another tale of terror. It begins as an archetype of a hero’s tale. The Ammonite army is on the move. The situation is grave. Jephthah’s response reveals negotiation skills and deep piety. He attempts to negotiate peace with Ammon but fails. War comes, with all of Israel vulnerable. Before the battle he makes a naive, uncalled for, and tragic vow: “If you give the Ammonites into my hand…the first one who comes out of the doors of my house shall be the Lord’s, to be offered as a burnt offering.” God had never asked this of him or of anyone else, it came from his own anxiety about the battle, for his own bolstering – one of those foolish pledges made in the height of danger. And after victory, who comes out to celebrate and greet him, but his daughter with timbrels and dancing. She was his only child. Jephthah’s reaction expresses his horror. He foresees his doom in either keeping or breaking his vow. Jephthah’s daughter responds with a request for two months to wander in the mountains with her companions to bewail her death, and then she returns to her father to fulfill his vow to the Lord.
Frymer-Kensky says the Bible author uses vulnerable women symbolically “as images of an Israel that is also small and vulnerable…”She adds “This is not misogynist story-telling but something far more complex in which the treatment of women becomes the clue to the morality of the social order.” The prophet Hosea named his children along this same symbolic line of thinking. His daughter, Lo-Ruhamah is named to show the ruined condition of the kingdom of Israel. Her name means, “not receiving mercy, or not to be pitied”. The decline of Israel is reflected in the violence against women that takes place when government fails to protect the vulnerable, the orphan and widow.
If the treatment of women becomes a clue to the morality of the social order, how far have we come, I wonder? If the treatment of the most vulnerable in a society – poor, women of color in ours – reveals the moral compass of the nation, then we have not advanced as far as those of us with privilege would like to think or assume. The morality of our current culture is nothing to boast about, and not something we can remain complacent about.
These have not been pleasant stories. How many of them have been familiar to you? I could go on for pages – and I deleted quite a lot of my researched bits even as it is. Three of these women are listed in the genealogy of Jesus found in the Gospel of Matthew: Tamar, Rahab, the “wife of Uriah”(Bathsheba), as well as Ruth and Mary.
Women named in the Hebrew scriptures were not descriptive of the norm of daily life. These are not housewives or weavers or those responsible for fashioning various household implements and containers (grinding tools, stone, and ceramic vessels, baskets, weaving implements, and sewing tools). Everyday life for women was varied and demanding; many of their tasks were not only time-consuming and physically hard, but also technologically sophisticated, given what they had available. Their stories are told only in the margins of scripture. The named women are surprisingly large in their agency and significance to Israel’s formation and survival. I imagine, though I don’t know for sure, that their stories are known and told in Jewish circles. Women’s mention and roles diminish as they move closer to the New Testament era. The exile changed things. Very few women are mentioned from that time period onward. The prophets of the exilic period were all men, the rulers and deciders all male. And things did not improve in the Greek and Roman periods of the New Testament.
The amazing thing is that we have these stories at all. They are oral histories, written by men, transmitted by male scribes, collected into holy writ by male rabbis and priests, and yet these strong, courageous, provocative, wise, dangerous women have names and stories, though not much dialogue. They were obviously considered to be important for more than breeding and feeding – even though they came through a patriarchal culture. God’s presence, God’s work through them was so obvious that it couldn’t be edited out of the story of Israel.
But… they have been silenced from ours. We have been taught and conditioned to believe that women had the expected roles of motherhood and wife as extolled in Proverbs, unless they were akin to woman Folly. It is still, in the 21st century, questioned whether women can be bearers and preachers of God’s word. Culture has done that, not the Bible. Cultural assumptions have molded interpretation to downplay women’s experience and turn the pages past these stories. What are we missing in this? What are we blinded to? What assumptions do we make about God, or the on-going work of God’s Spirit among us, that limit understanding and inspiration and encouragement of at least half of the human population when we acquiesce to a piety threatened by females? I’m going to be on this question for a long time, I’m afraid. It diminishes us all.
Because I believe the images of God in relation to us form early and can be very unhelpful. And it’s never too late (always exactly the right time) to reexamine our spiritual life and assumptions and fears. It’s always the right time to adjust our image of self and neighbor and God, and cracking open some of these ancient (yet current) depictions of women might just help. We’ll see.
Biblical Women: Creative/Positive Role Models
Each week I ask myself why I’m spending this time on women’s stories from the Bible. Why do I think this is important? Is it actually important?
I do think so. For one thing, women’s stories are everywhere in the Bible. We don’t realize that. We don’t realize it because pastors haven’t preached on them. The Revised Common Lectionary which is followed in most mainline churches, doesn’t cover them. Even the two books in the Bible that are named after women, Ruth and Esther, don’t make yearly appearances in the preaching schedule. There are 189 women named in the Bible. There are also scores of women known only as the wife of, or mother of, or the woman. That’s not a problem if their stories were regularly incorporated into the life of the church, but they have not been. We have not been properly introduced. Even now, I am picking out just a few to represent the whole. I’d like to say women have been left out of the preaching cycles by accident because… well… that’s the problem. Why? There’s no good reason outside of patriarchy. They do have significant parts in scripture, but too often, the women who make it into sermons have been misrepresented or chosen as examples of sinfulness (following the traditional interpretation of Eve as the original temptress) not chosen for positive examples of faithfulness.
Also, I am the first female pastor here. This congregation was founded in 1873, women began to be ordained in the Lutheran church in 1988, and mine is the first female voice interpreting Scripture that has been officially and consistently heard here. I think that is important to recognize, to realize that hearing scripture written by males from a patriarchal society then interpreted by males in a still somewhat patriarchal society, has created an expectation of what we hear and how we hear it. Illustrations, imagery, ideas are bound to be different when a woman is telling a story than when it’s being ‘mansplained.’ (Sorry, but you can’t deny it happens.) Interpreting and teaching the word of God, helping my congregation develop an imagination for scripture so that you can hear it spoken to you, relevant to all of our lives, is in my letter of call. For thousands of years, women’s voices were silenced by the church. As I said before, that limits all of us, male and female, in imagining the ways God works through our lives, and in hearing the possibilities of God being known. The gospel (good news) did not begin with Jesus, but with God intervening, ‘coming to earth’, in real people’s lives – for hope and healing and wisdom – from the beginning of our human awareness of self and other.
So, today we hear of four clever women who made their made their voices heard – even though they aren’t always given dialog. Each story highlights the power differential between women and the men around them. Each woman used the power available to her in an effort to make a difference for herself or her people. In the fascinating world of thrones and scepters, opulent palaces and kingly caravans that we enter, the voices of women also arise for justice and compassion.
Puah and Shiphrah: Exodus 1:8-21
8 Now a new king arose over Egypt. 9He said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.’ 11Therefore they set taskmasters over the Israelites to oppress them with forced labour. …13The Egyptians became ruthless …14and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labour. 12But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.
15 The Pharaoh said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16‘When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.’ 17But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, ‘Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?’ 19The midwives said to Pharaoh, ‘Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.’ 20So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own.
Certainly, Pharaoh’s edict was meant to instill fear and to force compliance, his oppressive authority was legendary. Who are two simple midwives in the face of such power? But Puah and Shiphrah, feared and loved God, not the Egyptian king, and chose life for those around them. They are the only women in Exodus to act in an overtly political sphere having direct contact with Pharaoh. The irony of this story is that females were considered of such little consequence as to be no threat – newborn girls could live. And yet ultimately, the Pharaoh’s plan of control was thwarted by women. As those who aid birth, Puah and Shiphrah are the first to assist in the birth of the Israelite nation. Their work reveals the connection between transformation and risk in matters of justice – although the means by which they rebel against Pharaoh repeats the biblical pattern of female deception, they used the power they had – and their quick wits are are perhaps the spark of a divine image within them.
Queen of Sheba: 1 Kings 10:1-13
In the opening of Solomon’s story, he chose wisdom over wealth and honor, gaining the favor of God, though God then promised riches and honor as well. Wisdom is represented in Hebrew scripture as a female, who teaches young men to stay away from foreign (strange) women and follow the wise woman to wholeness and a thriving life. King Solomon’s wisdom is proven by his ability to bring order and justice to the chaos represented by two prostitutes – strange women – in the wisdom genre, when he solves the dispute of which one is the true mother. Now, the Queen of Sheba comes to test him with riddles – a form of speech that is crucial to the wisdom tradition. The Queen is Woman Wisdom cast in narrative form. True to her role, she fulfills God’s earlier promise by bringing the riches and honor that should accompany Solomon’s choice for wisdom. She is also, paradoxically, a strange or foreign woman, so it is important that Solomon should best her by answering her riddles and, after all due ceremony, see her on her way.
When the Queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon, (fame due to the name of the Lord), she came to test him with hard questions. 2She came to Jerusalem with a very great retinue, with camels bearing spices, and very much gold, and precious stones; and when she came to Solomon, she told him all that was on her mind. 3Solomon answered all her questions; there was nothing hidden from the king that he could not explain to her. 4When the Queen of Sheba had observed all the wisdom of Solomon, the house that he had built, 5the food of his table, the seating of his officials, and the attendance of his servants, their clothing, his valets, and his burnt-offerings that he offered at the house of the Lord, there was no more spirit in her.
6 So she said to the king, ‘The report was true that I heard in my own land of your accomplishments and of your wisdom, 7but I did not believe the reports until I came and my own eyes had seen it. Not even half had been told me; your wisdom and prosperity far surpass the report that I had heard. 8Happy are your wives! Happy are these your servants, who continually attend you and hear your wisdom! 9Blessed be the Lord your God, who has delighted in you and set you on the throne of Israel! Because the Lord loved Israel, he has made you king to execute justice and righteousness.’ 10Then she gave the king one hundred and twenty talents of gold, a great quantity of spices, and precious stones; never again did spices come in such quantity as that which the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon.
13 Meanwhile, King Solomon gave to the Queen of Sheba every desire that she expressed, as well as what he gave her out of Solomon’s royal bounty. Then she returned to her own land, with her servants.
The story of the Queen of Sheba’s visit to King Solomon is an exotic tale, you might say erotic as well. Legends abound about the great affair these two had during her stay in Jerusalem. Ethiopian kings trace their lineage to the union between them. Given that Solomon, by reputation had 1005 wives and concubines, his attraction to foreign women, and both the queen’s charisma and the awe in which she held him, it is not difficult to believe they exchanged more than gifts and clever words. He did, after all, fulfill every desire that she expressed. The Queen of Sheba likely resembled the queenly maiden so sensuously described in the Song of Solomon – black and beautiful, stately as a palm tree, her neck encircled with strings of jewels, her skin fragment with oil, her hair flowing locks. The story of her bold visit is recorded twice in Scripture. She traveled from western Arabia, an arduous journey of some 1200 miles over mostly desert terrain, with a caravan laden with treasures. Known as a clever woman, she went all that way to test the king’s wisdom, to see if stories she had heard about him were true. She spoke her mind. She posed her riddles. An example from a Jewish legend says, “The Queen said, “Seven depart, nine enter, two pour, one drinks.” And Solomon replied, “Seven days is the period of a woman. Nine months is her pregnancy. Two pouring is in reference to her breasts, one drinking is the baby.” The Queen of Sheba had enough poise to visit a faraway king and match wits and wealth with him. She is an example of womanhood that is daring, self-confident, and sensual. The Queen of Sheba was a woman at ease with herself, her power, and with her world.
Vashti: Esther 1:1-21
This morning’s last story occurs in the days of King Aha-suerus who ruled over one hundred and twenty-seven provinces from India to Ethiopia. 2In those days when the King sat on his royal throne in the citadel of Susa, 3in the third year of his reign, he gave a banquet for all his officials and ministers. The army of Persia and Media and the nobles and governors of the provinces were present, 4while he displayed the great wealth of his kingdom and the splendor and pomp of his majesty for many days, one hundred and eighty days in all.
5 When these days were completed, the king gave for all the people present in the citadel of Susa, both great and small, a banquet lasting for seven days, in the court of the garden of the king’s palace. 6There were white cotton curtains and blue hangings tied with cords of fine linen and purple on silver rings and marble pillars. There were couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of marble, mother-of-pearl, and coloured stones. 7Drinks were served in golden goblets and the royal wine was lavished in accordance with the bounty of the king. 8Drinking was by flagons, without restraint; for the king had given orders to all the officials of his palace to do as each one desired. 9Furthermore, Queen Vashti gave a banquet for the women in the palace of King Aha-suerus.
10 On the seventh day, when the king was merry with wine, he commanded the seven eunuchs who attended him, 11to bring Queen Vashti, wearing the royal crown, in order to show the peoples and the officials her beauty; for she was fair to behold. 12But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command conveyed by the eunuchs. At this the king was enraged, and his anger burned within him.
13 The king consulted the sages: 15‘What is to be done to Queen Vashti because she has not performed the command of the King?’ 16Then said one Memucan, in the presence of the king and the officials, ‘Not only has Queen Vashti done wrong to the king, but also to all the officials and all the peoples who are in all the provinces of King Aha-suerus. 17For this deed of the queen will be made known to all women, causing them to look with contempt on their husbands, since they will say, “King Aha-suerus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, and she did not come.” 18This very day the noble ladies of Persia and Media who have heard of the queen’s behavior will rebel against the king’s officials, and there will be no end of contempt and wrath! 19If it pleases the king, let a royal order go out from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes so that it may not be altered, that Vashti is never again to come before King Aha-suerus; and let the king give her royal position to another who is better than she. 20So when the decree made by the king is proclaimed throughout all his kingdom, vast as it is, all women will give honor to their husbands, high and low alike.’
21 This advice pleased the king and the officials, and the king did as Memucan proposed; 22he sent letters to all the royal provinces, to every province in its own script and to every people in its own language, declaring that every man should be master in his own house.
Her husband was the most powerful monarch in the world at the time. His wealth was legendary – as were his parties. He had expensive taste, and he clearly enjoyed flaunting them. He also had the power and the wealth, as well as the people in his service, to get his way in all matters. But then there was this woman. Vashti. His queen. She decided it was not in her best interest to parade before a hall of lustful, raucous, drunken men, even if the king commanded it, and she refused.
Even today, we can feel the tension and horror of that moment. The king had boasted, had called for his wife, and she did not come. All eyes in the banquet hall were on him, and surely all of the women’s eyes were on Vashti. Her refusal was perceived by the men as a grave threat to the dominance of every husband in the kingdom.What if other women got the same idea, that they could deny their husbands? What if noble ladies begin snickering behind the backs of the king’s officials? What if men were no longer in control? Well, indeed, there would be no end of contempt and wrath! Something had to be done. The king and his courtiers are in a panic before the calm strength of Vashti. In the end, she was ghosted back into the harem, never to see the king’s favor or chambers again. Ironically, that is probably exactly what she wanted!
On the surface it would be difficult to find a woman more unlike Vashti than Sojourner Truth. One was a queen who lived in a luxurious palace the other, a slave who never had a home of her own. One refused to stand before a gathering of men; the other refused to keep her seat.
This story comes from a book by Arthur Huff Fauset, as quoted in Clothed with the sun: biblical women, justice and us, by Joyce Hollyday, pages 77,78.
“In 1852, while she was lecturing against slavery around the country, Sojourner Truth stopped in at a women’s rights convention in Ohio. Dressed in a plain gray dress and sunbonnet this tall, gaunt woman made a stir as she marched up the aisle of the church where the meeting was held and took a seat on the pulpit steps. She stayed still as various ministers spoke vehemently against the rights of women, declaring that Jesus Christ was a man, and that Eve had brought sin into the world. But after a few hours, she could stay silent no longer. A hissing rush of disapproval greeted her as she stepped to the pulpit. Sojourner Truth wheeled to face one of the earlier speakers. ‘That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helped me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gave me any best place. And ain’t I a woman?’ Her voice grew more fervent. ‘Look at me. Look at my arm. I have plowed and planted and gathered into barns, and no man could head me. And ain’t I a woman?’
A murmur surged through the crowd, and Sojourner thundered on. ‘I have borne five children and seen them most all sold off into slavery, and when I cried out with a mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard —and ain’t I a woman?’
The crowd began to rock the church with applause and tears, pointing scornful fingers at the ministers they had applauded just moments before. Sojourner continued.
‘Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, because Christ wasn’t a woman. Where did your Christ come from?’ She repeated the question, her words thundering. ‘Where did your Christ come from?’ She paused a moment. ‘From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with it.’ Pandemonium broke loose in the church. She turned to the man who had mentioned Eve. ‘If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down, all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back and get it right side up again. And now that they are asking to do it, the men better let ‘em.’ She took her seat amid deafening cheers.”
There is no one, right way to be a woman, and I think we are versed in creative ways of using our power. But I don’t think that’s the way it was meant to be. Adam and Eve – our creative beginnings – were equal, set into the garden – and out into the world – to work and discover and thrive – together. Different skills, different approaches, one shared life moving forward. God created diversity, why must we force conformity and control? Because grace is too hard? Too threatening? Because we are small and the forces of nature are strong? Where is that spark of divine image within you? Can you locate it, recognize it? That is your core goodness and it wants to shine out!
I’m staring the summer season with a series of sermons looking at Women, God and the Bible. One of the few benefits of this pandemic is that it has focused our attention in ways that our “normal” life does not. Systemic racism, patriarchy, white privilege, inequality of health care access and delivery, gun violence – we have known these strains run through our culture. And I’d like to say we oppose them. But mostly, we’ve been able to ignore them. This last year has made it harder to pretend. The pandemic and the convergence of political and racial crisis have revealed what lies beneath the surface, beneath the myth of America the beautiful. It has given us a chance, again, to change, to open our eyes and see the world anew.
As you likely know, I watch British murder mysteries – cozies, as they’re called, where the sex and violence occur out of view, the detective is an amateur sleuth, and detection is the point, not excitement or suspense. One of these amateur detectives is Father Brown. In an episode, the police Inspector is trying to question a woman about the death of her husband, who was the Mayor. He says, “Mrs. Mayor,”… but she breaks in asking if he’d like to hear her husband’s favorite joke: “A young boy and his father go out for a ride one day. There’s an accident and the car goes off a cliff. The boy is rushed to the hospital where the surgeon, who almost collapses from shock, says, “That’s my son on the operating table.”
The Inspector looks confused and says, “That’s not funny. It doesn’t even make sense.”
Father Brown interprets, “The surgeon was a woman.”
The Inspector looks annoyed. ‘Mrs Mayor’ looks down.
The assumptions we make, the gut reactions we have to gender roles convicts each of us. I think that’s fair to say. Judeo-Christian teaching, the Church, has, perhaps more than any other influence, formed the patriarchal system we are still struggling with. I hope to look at several biblical women in an effort to open our eyes, to rethink, reimagine what we read there, and look beyond the surface not only to see how it affects us or relates to our lives, but also how a new view might expand our image of God.
We are limited by language. In not being able to read ancient Hebrew or Greek we have to rely on translations – which are interpretations. To peal back a layer I want to go through today’s reading slowly. The same Hebrew word can often be translated several ways into English – the choices that have been made have been made by men. Intentionally or not, these translations have created even more patriarchy than the original text. Two important ones for today are adam and ishah. As I’ve said in other sermons, adam means the earth’s soil. Ha-adam in a literal translation means the earthling. It has grammatical gender, but not inherent biological gender. It’s like Spanish: la mesa = the table in English is an it, but in Spanish the table is a she. So it is with adam – the soil is a masculine noun, not necessarily a male. It can be a generic term for a mortal, or a human being. Isha is the word for woman and for wife. Why, I wonder is the woman called a wife in this story? It’s the same word in Hebrew that one sentence is Adam’s wife and in the next is the woman, spoken to by the snake. Wives in the culture of Israel were possessions. Men had control over them. I suspect that’s the reason. This prototypical woman, this life source Eve, this human who listened to what the serpent said needed to be controlled.
Genesis 1:27, in the afternoon of day 6: So God created [ha-adam] in his own image, in the image of God he created, male and female he created them.
In the Bible’s first story, there is complete equality of males and females from God’s perspective. Females and males both bear the image of God and are both made from earth.
Chapter two’s version is an older tradition. 2: 7The Lord God formed ha-adam from the soil of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and ha-adam became a living being.
15The Lord God placed ha-adam in the orchard in Eden to care for it and to maintain it. 16Then the Lord God commanded ha-adam, “You may freely eat fruit from every tree of the orchard, 17but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will surely die.”
Then God decides it’s not good for ha-adam to be alone. “I will make a helper” and God tries out animals to be this companion. The experiment serves to populate the world with living creatures but doesn’t quite meet God’s intentions. So back to the drawing board. Some medieval Jewish commentaries felt that the original human was androgynous. And since no other created animal form was a fit companion, God eventually chose to divide the earthling into two gendered beings.
God performs surgery removing one “side” to form a second person.
In Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes tells a very similar story of how human beings originally were androgynous creatures with two faces, and four arms and legs. Threatened by the power of these humans, Zeus decided to weaken them by cutting them in two. These two halves were miserable, continuously longing for its other half.
The Hebrew word is translated as ‘rib’ only in this one instance. In all other uses the word refers to the side of a ship or hillside or mostly, as the side of building elements in the construction of the temple. That seems like a very evocative connection to Eve, but my point is that the English word ‘rib’ is not very well supported. It makes so much more sense for it to be ha-adam’s side – bone of bone and flesh of flesh. To be fully partnered. Equal mates. It’s a beautiful image of our human need for love and companionship and the longing to get back to the wholeness of our original self. Love calls together the separated halves of our original nature; it tries to make one out of two and heal the wounds of human loss. Each of us, then, is a ‘matching half’ of a whole…and we seek that half that matches us.
Adam could do quite well without a rib. And a rib is not much of my being. But a side… ? The beauty of this interpretation is that it opens up the idea the “bone of my bone” and “flesh of my flesh” going beyond what traditionally has been described as the love between a man and a woman. Partners and companions, completed wholes, can and do come in all shapes and forms.
25The ish [man] and isha were both naked, but they were not ashamed. Naked children, perfect in their lack of self-awareness; naive, unburdened, unbiased, innocent.
3 1Now the serpent was more [crafty, shrewd, or sensible are the translators choices for this word] than any of the wild animals that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Is it really true that God said, ‘You must not eat from any tree of the orchard’?” 2The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit from the trees of the orchard; 3but concerning the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the orchard God said, ‘You must not eat from it, and you must not touch it, [this is her embellishment of the law] or else you will die.’” 4The serpent said to the woman, “Surely you will not die, 5for God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will open and you will be like divine beings who know good and evil.”
6When the woman saw that the tree produced fruit that was good for food, was attractive to the eye, and was desirable for making one wise, she took some of its fruit and ate it. She also gave some of it to the man who was with her, and he ate it. 7Then the eyes of both of them opened, and they knew they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.
So, now we’ve gotten to it. The snake and the woman and forbidden fruit. Look at the expression on Eve’s face in the painting, and at Adam’s passivity. Who are you going to blame for this? Is it equal responsibility?
Again, close reading could dispel some misinformation.
First, it is not an apple – not explicitly an apple no matter what the felt boards of our childhood Sunday School or Children’s Bible pictures show. But think of Snow White. Who do you suppose the evil stepmother who tempts poor innocent Snow White with a polished, poisoned apple is modeled after? Well, it’s not Eve! But of course it is – and a really bad reading of the text, which has subconsciously perpetuated the idea that this female prototype is devious and the cause of sin.
Second, did the serpent deceive the woman? Not a bit. What he said is actually true, though not exactly what God told Adam. God might have had the bigger consequence in mind, but didn’t explain the reason. “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will surely die.” The serpent, being sensible and crafty, said, “Surely you will not die, 5for God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will open and you will be like divine beings who know good and evil.”
The serpent spoke the truth, if not the whole truth. The fruit did not cause death. It wasn’t poisoned which an innocent understanding of the prohibition might assume. It was forbidden because – well why, do you think? Why did God not want his creatures to have eyes that see? Why did God not want them to know the difference between good and evil, for their right hand to know what their left hand was doing? Why was Eden to be a place of perennial innocence and moral ignorance? How would that have worked long term?
Well, it would mean that humans would have much more in common with the creatures – with cattle, and birds of the air, and every animal of the field and forest. Nature is a-moral, operating on drives, instincts, the abilities and attributes of each species. There is a balance, that web of life that humans have pretty much fouled up for the detriment of all. It’s interesting that the original vocational plan was for humans to have dominion over all other creatures. But by the time God clothes Adam and Eve and sends them out, their vocations are limited to self preservation. Adam to work hard tending and tilling earth that will mostly provide thickets and thorns, Eve to work hard and be pregnant, providing sustenance for her expanding family.
So, maybe Eve spoiled the chance of that peaceable kingdom. It might have been an easier world, one with fewer extinctions and more equality – but maybe it was necessary.
As far as we know, gazelles and otters and hummingbirds are not made in God’s image. That seems to come with our creative prefrontal cortex that was given free will, and curiosity, and imagination. Maybe in Eden, the human creatures would not have been able to grow into the image designed for them, but would have remained as children, incomplete, passive like Adam.
In these earliest Hebrew stories, we discover that Yahweh God is on learning curve, too. Experimenting, adapting, learning about and from his glorious creatures. The woman was not an animal. She was curious. She was interested. She observed that the fruit was good for food, was attractive, and was desirable for making one wise. She took some of it and ate it and she shared it with the man who was with her the whole time and said nothing. And their eyes opened, and they knew that they were naked, vulnerable, disobedient, shamed by their new understanding, visible through and through.
The woman isn’t called Eve until they leave the garden. Adam chooses it because it means life, and she alone has the capacity to bear and bring forth more earthlings.
And the man knew Eve, the woman, and she conceived and bore Cain and said, “I have created a man with Yahweh.” And she again bore – this time his brother Abel.”
The word for “create” used here is the same as the word used in the Bible for the creative power of God. Women in the Bible are said to “bear children,” not “create a man”; and creating a man “with” God puts female creative power right alongside that of God. It’s a statement of incredible strength and standing.
Eve’s creative force also may help us reclaim a female image for God that was banned in Israel’s history. Ashera, the female consort of Yahweh was a thing for centuries of early Hebrew scriptural tradition. But it was dangerous as a holdover from pagan fertility cults and a threat to monotheism. As a result, the God who comes to us as rock, fortress, shepherd, king, flame, light is not described in female guise. What does it say when the church has limited images, names and pronouns of God to those exclusively male? What does that do to our understanding and imagination for God – all of us, not only females. When female is seen as second class or as too dangerous to develop as characters in their own right – when the power of creation is subverted into sinful activity? What is the social consequence of that?
I started with that riddle from Father Brown. I didn’t get the answer until Father Brown told me. I am just as wound up in patriarchy as you might be. The danger is that we’re so used to it, that we promote and perpetuate the system with our conditioned behavior that we despise with our rational brains and hearts. As with racism, it is deeply embedded into our cultural, social, historical, and educational ethos. And it is going to take more than a few weeks of sermons to help us see it for what it is: a limitation not only on women and men, but a dismissal of God – of the half of God who brought forth women in her divine image.
I’m still holding out hope for Mother Hen Lutheran Church.
Below is the worship bulletin for May 23rd, along with an audio recording!
Today’s sermon comes to you from me with help and words from Mary Hinkle Shore, a seminary professor of mine, and a devotion from Dan Dick, posted on the United Methodist web, shared by Carolyn.
Today is the day the church celebrates the Holy Spirit. It’s a bit difficult to do, of course, since we know virtually nothing about it. We can’t see it, smell it, hear it, taste, or touch it – hardly even imagine it. The Bible describes the Holy Spirit as a wind, a flame, a love. In the Gospel of John, the risen Jesus breathes on the disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
As we have been made painfully aware between the pandemic and the killing of George Floyd, where there is breath, there is life, and the breath that enlivens Christ in the resurrection is his gift to those he loves. His risen life becomes their life. What was in John a gentle exhale, becomes in Acts the rush of violent wind with tongues as of fire coming to rest on the assembled followers of Jesus. All of the New Testament reports of the Spirit have two things in common: (1) they identify the Spirit as specific and specifically tied to the identity of the risen Christ, and (2) the Spirit’s work is to draw human beings into a relationship with God like that shared between the Father and Son.
In popular culture, “spiritual” is a generic term that describes any mystical experience or otherworldly sense. If I were to ask you what being spiritual means, I imagine I would get a wide variety of responses. Something akin to the blind men and the Elephant – the part we have in front of us, the elephant’s ear or tail or twisting trunk – our experience – is all we can claim to know. But in John, Acts, and Galatians, the Spirit that Jesus shares with his followers is his Spirit, his life. And as such, it is known. I love verse 6 from today’s reading, “6 And because we are his children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” It’s an exclamation of joy and recognition and deep belonging.
Abba is better translated as Daddy in our context, or Papa. It is a word of tenderness and intimacy. Paul must like it, too. It shows up again in his letter to the Romans.
When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:12-17)
Both the identity of the Spirit and the Spirit’s work are specific, known and shown. Christ’s living presence is knitting human community back together and bringing humanity back into a relationship of love and family commitment with God. In John, Jesus breathes on his disciples the Spirit so that they may continue his work. In Acts 2, the gift of tongues is not an ecstatic display that leaves the people excluded from the spiritual experience of the few; but rather, the disciples speak in languages not their own precisely so native speakers of those languages may hear the good news of Jesus Christ addressed to them directly and come to be included in the family.
The work of Father, Son, Holy Spirit is to fulfill God’s vision and will to reconcile all inclined people into one beloved household. We are family (whether we like it or not!) and as long as we live in God’s house we are expected to live up to the house rules. And what are they? Well, gleaned from Old and New Testaments, here’s a list: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. Do nothing from selfish ambition but consider others more highly than we think of ourselves. Rejoice in the Lord always, and whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, and commendable – think on these things.
In Galatians, Paul posts more guidance on the fridge:
5:19Now the works of the flesh are obvious: adultery, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, murder, drunkenness, sexually unprincipled behavior….. and things like these that destroy community and break relationships. By contrast, he writes, “22the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
5:13 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
Paul’s message is not to be missed: “if we live by the Spirit, let us also walk in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25). We are, indeed, children of the living God. But transformation into the family resemblance of God and the Son by the Spirit doesn’t occur by accident. It can’t actually be legislated. That was Paul’s argument against the Law. It transforms us, calls us out, is evoked, drawn out of us by the Spirit -we put ourselves in the way by actively following in the footsteps of the Son. It’s not to earn our salvation, but to demonstrate it.
By the very nature of God, our experiences and gifts are varied. Paul says in another letter that there are many gifts but the same Spirit is giving them, that to each person is given the particular manifestation of the Spirit according to each of our unique natures. God comes to us, among us, in ways particular to our own constitution and character and that the Spirit works these gifts in us, using us for Christ’s work in the world.
So the Spirit of God using us through faith will not look the same; faith is not one thing, it is everything. Faith does not look a certain way or produce a generic fruit – it is mysterious, organic, living, maturing, wisening. It changes and grows, challenges and confounds us – each stage of our lives is the testing ground for the next.
Perhaps for you, faith has worked itself into your being gradually, almost imperceptibly, like a steady drizzle softening hard ground; or perhaps you have been felled, stopped in your tracks like having your knees give way; or perhaps is has been for you an awakening – like the dazzle of sun after a spring shower awakens us to a world we know but have never seen in quite this way.
Our inheritance as a child of God is the Holy Spirit manifested, made real, in love. So what does the Spirit look like? It looks like love – love acted out toward the earth and creation – nurturing, stewarding, protecting – love acted out toward our families and neighbors and even our enemies and our own selves – love acted out toward the things and the people whom God, the Father, Abba, Papa, loves and entrusts to us. The Holy Spirit is the working of love for the sake of a story, a remembering, a witness, a relationship between God and you and all people. The Holy Spirit is certainly a mystery, but we celebrate it, when we claim our inheritance as a child of God and let it take us wherever the wind blows.
We’ve made changes to the look of this post – using the print bulletin for the in-person worship service. The sermon is printed below the bulletin.
Update – the audio recording didn’t work out, so there won’t be one this week. We hope to have it figured out for next week.
Today we hear again from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Last week we heard him scolding the church he had founded there. A controversy had arisen when a new group of Christian Jews came to town saying that converts needed to first meet the demands of Jewish tradition – namely that males must be circumcised – before they could be true Christians. Paul reminded them that all are equal in God’s gracious love, there is no place for exclusion in the mystical body of Christ. There is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female – all are one. God had promised provision for the nations through Abraham long before the law was given. All that was required was to trust the promise. The mark of belonging was not circumcision, but faith.
In this part of his letter, Paul writes more about this freedom – beginning with his own transformation from a Pharisee, passionate about each detail of the law, to one awakened to the vision of promise and of hope rather than judgment and fear.
Galatians 1:13-17; 2:11-21
13 You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.
These are Paul’s credentials. He admits to his former life of violence against the early followers of Jesus Christ. He says he was zealous for the traditions of his ancestors. But, as is true for many who keep traditions, he had been a stickler for the details of performance – the things you had to do to maintain the tradition – without remembering the “why.” The core of the law is love – love of God with heart, mind, body, soul – and love of our neighbor as ourselves – even if our neighbor is one of those people.
We pick up the reading again with Paul describing an example of the battle between tradition and transformation – this time in Peter’s behavior.
2:11 When Cephas (Peter) came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray. But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.
But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.
As I’ve been thinking about this reading – and complaining to myself and our cats about how hard it is to preach on Paul – it occurred to me that there are several topics we circle around and can’t avoid if we try, like Paul, to come to terms with faith in Christ. Each one of them relies on a mix of personal experience, of communal practice and witness, and the ability or willingness to be inwardly honest, vulnerable, to open our minds and hearts to trust in things we can’t know.
Following a strict set of rules is a lot easier.
The first of these unavoidable topics might be the biggest leap – we’ve got to come to terms with the existence of God. If something in your experience and inner being accepts this, then we might venture a claim about the nature of God. I think we all have feelings or images that we individually associate with God. Is God kind and benevolent, or a critical judge your behavior, or a one-time creator who’s not that invested in daily life, or a wise and loving grandparent with a big lap and warm arms? Is exclusion or inclusion the ultimate purpose of God? And for all or for some? Those are some God questions to grapple with.
The next item on my short list of things that are hard to avoid is the birth of Jesus, and the messy configuration of incarnation. Paul wrote his letters before the gospels were written, and he doesn’t ever mention the incarnation or talk about personal stories or the parables of Jesus – he writes only about the consequence of belief in Jesus… about how it altered his life, and the claim that faith makes on one as a follower of Christ. But still, it seems obvious to say that a Christian has to believe that in some way, God is present in Jesus in a way that is not the normal way God is present in human lives. In Jesus, there is something more than the wonderful, but generic, sense of being created in the image of God. That “something more” is evident in the witness of his disciples and of those who recorded the stories and memories of his life and death. They clearly came to believe that Jesus was the Son of God.
Third on the list is the resurrection. We have recently heard again the Easter stories – how first the women, and then all the disciples experienced something so transformative that they believed without doubt that Jesus had risen from the dead – present with them for a time afterwards – and then not, but entered into the ever-present- living-ness of God, as a continuing, though invisible, presence. The book of Acts records accounts, stories, of how ordinary people within the early gathering of the church were so charged, so changed by the Holy Spirit and the reality of the risen Christ, that they shared the story, they risked their lives because of this new insight, and they lived it out in ways that spread the gospel throughout Jerusalem, to Judea, Samaria and beyond – to Jewish, Gentile, pagan, soldier, eunuch, slave…. This is the Jesus that Paul encountered on the road to Damascus.
We met Paul first – using his Jewish name, Saul – as he watched over the coats at the stoning of Steven and approved of the lawful right to kill those who claimed Jesus as Lord – Paul took up his mission as the defender of the Jewish faith and began a rigorous persecution of Christians. As we’ve heard this morning, he “was violently persecuting the church of God trying to destroy it.” He goes on, “I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.” But Paul had a visitation. God intruded. The invisible presence of Jesus dropped him to the dust, and turned his world around. He changed from feared persecutor of the faith, to fearless promoter of the faith. And in his turning Paul saw all things with new eyes.
He brings us to the fourth point on my list of unbelievable things we have to reckon with as Christians: and that is Freedom. We heard about it last week, in the form of the specific example of circumcision. What are the indicators that you are one of those following the Way of Christ? How does belonging in this community show? The council at Jerusalem decided that the ancient, God-given, scriptural law of circumcision was not necessary. What is necessary is faith – and the marker of faith is the way one lives, the witness of daily life.
Now, no one is going to argue that point, but it is so open-ended, and, therefore, seems likely that it will quickly fall back into the law – because what defines the right or acceptable witness of daily life? What does it look like? What kind of things do we have to do? It doesn’t take our brains any time at all to format a little checklist – wouldn’t an indicator bar be helpful? Like those that show the strength of a password you choose. And then we’re back to trusting the laws and traditions and indicator bars, and not venturing into the wonderful mystery of freedom, the grace God promises. Peter – who took the lead in arguing against the burden of circumcision last week – is having problems getting his mind around the freedom of faith this week.
The conflict was over kosher and the works of the law.
At his time, there were 613 rules of behavior that had sprung up around the 10 commandments. These extra layers of law functioned to buffer the core of God’s law and to protect the faithful from straying into sin. If a good Jew followed all of those laws, they could expect favorable judgment from their community and from God. The works of the law governed every aspect of life from the food you could eat, the cooking methods and the manner in which you could eat it, to personal hygiene, cleanliness, and childbirth; from housekeeping to animal husbandry; from harvest practices to financial management and legal arbitration if you happen to be gouged by your neighbor’s bull.
The works of the law covered all your basic life questions and oriented one onto a straight path to God. Peter wasn’t so sure that all these helpful laws should be tossed out with the baptismal bath water. He waffled on the issue of kosher, but Paul sets him straight. We know from the gospels that Jesus didn’t put much stock in the works of the law or bother about eating with the right people. Jesus was more interested in loving God and loving your neighbor as you love yourself, and even loving your enemy – loving the law didn’t make his list. Peter’s withdrawal from table fellowship with the Gentile Christians implied that they were second-class citizens in the kingdom of God, that they could only become acceptable table companions if they learned not to bring hot dogs and jello to the pot luck. By leaving the table, Peter silently bore witness to fellowship based on Jewish law, rather than through God’s loving law of inclusion.
Paul writes, “… we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but only through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.”
It would be so much easier to understand this, if he wouldn’t use words like justify 5 times in the same sentence. “Justified” does not mean, “I can justify my behavior; let me explain my motivations and the extenuating circumstances that led me to act this way.” Justify means being put straight, getting your life in right order. We might know this use of the word from word processing on computers. There are little boxes on the menu bar that shift lines of writing so they all line up on the left side of the page. If you click another button or set a new tab, they will immediately shift and line up along the right side of the page. Those buttons justify the margins. They shift and align your words.
Paul says faith shifts and aligns our lives. We will act differently because we have been justified by Christ aligning us with God. If we believe that God is ultimately invested in a relationship of love with and for us; and if we believe that somehow Jesus was God incarnate, in the flesh; and if we believe that somehow God’s love is more powerful than death, and if we affirm that it’s not by our own doing or within our own power to make things right or even to live a life we’re proud of, the life we intend — but that those things, that power comes from God’s love claiming and freeing us as a gift of mercy — then, because of all that, we are made new, we are re-oriented; we are justified, re-aligned.
Priorities, values, relationships shift. They are put in a good order because we are acting out of faith in Christ. And it should… will… does show. Like Paul’s scolding of Peter, the actions of our lives should be consistent with our belief. As aspiring followers of Christ, we try to look beyond the first impulse of self (self- centeredness, ego) and see ourselves living within the grace of God – gifted and gifting. Through Christ, God intrudes in our lives to mend and straighten those relationships with God and neighbor and self.
I started out saying that there were four unbelievable things to come to terms with in the life of faith. Freedom sounds like it shouldn’t be difficult. It sounds like recess, spring break, the long days of summer. However, the freedom Paul is talking about isn’t freedom to do whatever you feel like doing. It is freedom to let go of fear and checklists. It’s freedom to trust divine encouragement and inspiration more than your ability to forge ahead and make it happen. You can’t bring yourself up to a satisfactory level of redemption. For Paul it isn’t so much a works versus faith thing, but a matter of trusting God. Good works are still good. But, do those good deeds and noble actions redeem you, or does God? Does willing yourself to believe save you, or does God’s Spirit claim you? Paul sees that the law he loves and killed for, can’t and won’t save or give freedom from doubt and sin and death – it has no power to do that – and, in the end, it will actually enslave you.
It is God alone who can offer life and changed mindsets and a right course for living – because it has to come from within, from an inner passion for God, not from duty or obedience. It is Christ living within you that transforms your life. The good works we do are then for the sake of a world that needs good work, a world that in all of its diversity and oddity and wonder, is beloved by God. We don’t believe so that we will be saved, we believe that we are saved. God has already shifted the margins, justifying our lives through Jesus so that we are recipients of that gift of mercy and are truly free to live into it joyfully and generously. The freedom of a Christian is to not fear.
Order of Service
|Prelude||Chris Johansen, piano|
|Gathering Song||Golden Light|
Chris Johansen, piano
|Prayer of the Day||Pastor Linda|
|Confession & Forgiveness||Pastor Linda|
|Baptism of Magnus James Hanson||Pastor Linda|
|Psalm 84||vs. 8-12||Harry Johansen|
Chris Johansen, piano
|Scripture||Galatians 3: 1-9; 23-29||Pastor Linda|
|Hymn||Mothering God, You Gave Me Birth|
Chris Johansen, piano
|Prayers of Intercession||Pastor Linda|
|Closing Hymn||Go, My Children, with My Blessing|
Chris Johansen, piano
|Postlude||Chris Johansen, piano|
I’m taking things out of order today because we have a baptism! Covid has postponed it, but today we welcome Magnus James Hanson into the family God, holding him – together with his mom, Karn; dad, Hans; and sister Kirsten – in prayer and celebration, rejoicing in the gift of his life and in the God of his being.
We are also celebrating Mother’s Day, giving thanks for those who bore us and those – biological or not – who have nurtured and fed us.
And, because the Church recognizes her in the historical, spiritual life of the church, we’re celebrating Julian of Norwich, who is commemorated each year on May 8th.
Julian was most likely a Benedictine nun living in an isolated cell attached to the Priory in Norwich England. When she was 30 years old, she contracted an illness so serious and came so near death they gave her last rites. But, she survived and at the end of her illness, she experienced several visions that she understood to have come from God – visions which declared love as the meaning of all life; love provided by Christ who is love for the purpose of love.
This is one of her visions: “And in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus, ‘It is all that is made.’ I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God. In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it. But what is this to me? Truly, the Creator, the Keeper, the Lover.”
Julian died around the year 1416.
We’ll be hearing more from her presently.
We are also hearing today from Paul’s letter to the church he founded in Galatia. I mention this now, because it is pertinent both to Julian’s message of Love as the meaning and purpose of the spiritual life, and to baptism.
Paul’s letter is a polemic, a scolding of the newbie church for doubting the free, outright gift of love and divine embrace that’s found in Christ. Paul had belabored this point during his time among them, but then later heard that they were being swayed by misinformation from another group of missionaries who insisted that males must be circumcised first – that converts to Christianity must first succumb to the laws of Jewish inclusion as the people of God. Circumcising a baby boy at eight days old was the sign of the covenant of belonging given to Moses. Paul rightly assumed that circumcision as a prerequisite to inclusion might be a stumbling block to faith for fully grown men. That topic is the occasion for his letter.
So, what is it that is being asked of us – what is being promised – when we bring our child to baptism? When we come to the Lord’s table in holy communion? When we profess that we are aspiring disciples of this one we call Christ, the living word of a living God? What are the rules of engagement, the parameters of inclusion, the laws governing faith and its benefits?
These are the questions for today.
Golden light of morning bright
The sky is now adorning;
As sleeping child in mother’s arm.
My God has shielded me from harm;
I thank Him for the morning.
Golden light of morning bright
Is shed upon my labor;
As birds their morning songs employ,
I praise my God for life and joy
To me and to my neighbor.
Golden light of morning bright
To me is life and gladness;
For I am happy every day
I walk upon God’s holy way,
In joy as well as sadness.
Now I pray that God today
Will send to me His blessing;
My daily task I then fulfill,
According to His holy will,
His wondrous peace possessing.
With the sun my course is run
Until it has descended;
Oh, may this fleeting life of mine,
Just like the sun, for others shine
Until life’s day is ended.
Text: N.F.S. Grundtvig
In you, Father all-mighty we have our preservation and our bliss. In you, Christ, we have our restoring and our saving. You are our mother, brother, and Saviour. In you, our Lord the Holy Spirit, is marvellous and plenteous grace. You are our clothing; for love you wrap us and embrace us. You are our maker, our lover, our keeper. Teach us to believe that by your grace all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. Amen
~Julian of Norwich
P: Trusting in the promise of God’s word, we admit the sin that confronts and confounds us.
Silence for reflection and self-examination.
Most faithful God,
C: We confess that we have failed to walk in the way of your Son. We have shut our ears to your call to
serve as Christ served us. We have shut our eyes to the suffering of your people and of your world.
We have closed our minds to the possibilities of life and the mysteries of faith.
Call us out, gracious God, and grant us life.
P: God who is rich in mercy and love, gives us a new birth into a living hope through the waters of baptism. By the water and the Word God delivers us from sin and death and raises us to a new life in Jesus Christ. We are united with all the baptized into the one body of Christ, anointed with the gift of God’s Spirit, and joined together in God’s mission for the life of the world.
Karn and Hans, called by the Holy Spirit, trusting in the love of God, do you desire to have your child baptized into Christ?
In receiving this gift, you also accept responsibilities to help your little one as he grows and matures, and with him, to:
live among God’s faithful people,
to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s Supper,
to care for others and the world God made,
and to seek to know Christ through God’s living Word.
Do you promise to help Magnus grow in faith and live the Christian life as you are empowered to do so by God’s Spirit and supported through this community?
Sponsors and families (as you stand in for the community silenced by zoom), do you promise to nurture and support this family and Magnus, and to pray for him in his new life in Christ?
At the Font:
Blessed are you, holy God. You are the creator of the waters of the earth. You are the fire of rebirth. You poured out your Spirit on your people Israel. You breathe life into our dry bones. Your Son Jesus promised to send the Spirit to us that the world may know your peace and truth.
Pour out your Spirit, and breathe new life into this child being baptized today. By your Spirit adopt us all as your children, heirs through our savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen
Magnus James, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Loving Father, sustain Magnus with the gifts of your Spirit: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of curiosity and love of the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence, both now and forever. Amen.
Magnus, child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked wit the cross of Christ forever. Amen.
Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will have the light of life.” Let your light shine, little one, so that others will be drawn to the love of God.
We welcome this brother into the body of Christ, the family of God, the mighty, holy mission of Love. Thanks be to God.
8 Lord God of hosts, | hear my prayer;
give ear, O | God of Jacob.
9 Behold our defend-|er, O God;
and look upon the face of | your anointed.
10 For one day in your courts is better than a | thousand elsewhere.
I would rather stand at the threshold of the house of my God than dwell in the tents | of the wicked.
11 For the Lord God is both sun and shield, bestowing | grace and glory;
no good thing will the Lord withhold from those who walk | with integrity.
12 O | Lord of hosts,
happy are they who put their | trust in you!
1You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified! 2The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? 3Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? 4Did you experience so much for nothing? —if it really was for nothing. 5Well then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard?
6Just as Abraham “believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” 7so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham. 8And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.” 9For this reason, those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed. 23Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 25But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.
The word of the Lord
Paul is difficult to read – worse to listen to. For one thing he uses too many commas and clauses for most of us to keep up with. Even reading it to myself, I find it hard to stay with the main thought. And secondly, we can tell that he’s angry, but he argues with people and ideas we don’t have access to. So even if we follow the sentence structure, we are still likely to miss the point. Basically, in the first part of the reading, Paul is urging the Galatians not to fall back into the power of the law, but to experience God’s love as freedom and faith.
This was to say that Christ is the completion of the law – the finale, and that in Jesus, God’s love has come, full stop. The law is a teacher, a tutor, a disciplinarian for our relationships with one another so that we don’t trample the rights of the poor or powerless. But the law Jesus fulfills is that of God’s love for all that is, all that exists. It is a gracious embrace –
There once was a mother named God. God had three daughters – Faith, Prudence, and Elska.
Faith was a very trusting soul. She believed everything her mother told her – even when it didn’t seem like it could possibly be true. On more than one occasion, Faith could be heard to say, “Nothing is impossible for God.” And she was right. Faith was a simple person, loyal, believing the best of her friends, trusting people’s motives and her sisters’ love. Faith was, however, often disappointed in relationships out among the neighbors and found her fidelity ignored, taken advantage of, or not returned. God loved her eldest daughter and held Faith in high regard.
Her sister Prudence had a sharper edge. Prudence was a stickler for rules. She kept track of all the slights and infringements. Even as a youngster, Prudence could catch her mother’s inconsistencies and demanded to know which rule was really the rule. Prudence tended to be like Miss Marple – Agatha Christie’s spinster detective – who says, “I always believe the worst about people. What is so sad is that one is usually justified in doing so.” Prudence knew the depths to which people would go to justify themselves and she had little compassion for those who disregarded the rules.
To protect the vulnerable (like her older sister), Prudence made up new rules to give clarity to the old rules. These could not as easily be explained away as suggestions or good advice. Prudence didn’t like to leave room for interpretation.
When she was involved in a project, however, everyone knew what was expected of them. They knew the parameters of their job and the consequences for slacking in their duties. She was an organizer. And perhaps unexpectedly, Prudence loved children – they were so teachable – she was a nanny for many years, filling in for absent parents, protecting, disciplining, teaching the proper ways of doing all things well. Prudence was a strong woman and a force to be reckoned with, but beneath the unbending exterior Prudie was motivated by compassion and a strong sense of justice.
Elska was considerably younger than her two sisters, but she was far from an afterthought. In fact, it was almost as though she had always been there, a promise in God’s apron pocket. She was a free spirit. Elska threw herself into everything, loved everyone, and had a wild, unrestrained joy that seemed to attract people from the fringes. Elska didn’t pay much attention to Prudence’s warnings and fears. She was respectful, but unimpressed with the rules of proper behavior. She ignored traditions and social niceties, not to make Prudence mad, but because the rules no longer served the purpose they once held. Instead of helping people, these rules and traditions now kept people from loving and being loved, they kept people segregated into categories and aware of their divisions. Elska could drive Prudence crazy with just a word, and truth be told, it seemed as though she enjoyed doing that.
Faith watched these interactions, shook her head and smiled. “Elska has life,” she thought, “and she has it abundantly, gloriously. Elska brings out the best in us – even in law-loving Prudie.”
And Faith was right.
God loved her daughters – each with their own gifts, each fulfilling a need, each serving a place in God’s household. But it was Elska’s love that completed the work begun by Faith and Prudence.
The work of Elska – the work of love – is what cuts across the barriers that divide and separate us.
“For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
These closing lines from today’s reading stand as an enduring eliminator of those hierarchies that the law – sister Prudence – establishes among us. When we use race, ethnicity, or status as an inherent reason to look down on others or when we think that anatomical, physiological, or genetic traits make some people more deserving of power, influence, and respect than others … this verse serves as a corrective.
At this point we will all nod our heads and say, we know these things aren’t really important …. but if these distinctions don’t matter, why are we so invested in them? Why do we work so hard at maintaining them? Why does it matter what status others enjoy, what work they do, what lifestyle they lead, what they look like, where they live, what color their skin? Most of us do get confused on this point: we know that our worth – and the value of others – is in God’s eyes and that we all fall short of the glory of God, of what God desires for us and of us. And we trust in the words of Paul and other voices of scripture that God’s love is far greater than the sum of our failings…. but still we behave and believe as though all sorts of minor things matter more. We judge ourselves, and often we judge others, based on a host of value markers like education, income, industriousness, age, body size, table manners—whatever. Over and over again, we set up structures like those Paul was describing.
But, Paul says, “It’s over. Let it go.” Holding on to those distinctions as value markers is to risk becoming enslaved once again by the binary structures of Jew/Greek, slave/free, male/female, in/out. Paul tells us that those distinctions exist only in the minds of humans, not in the mind of God.
Let that really sink in. The distinctions we make are only ours – manmade, so to speak – and not God’s. God likely has other categories of value than the ones we consider noteworthy. There’s no future in our hierarchies and certainly no freedom. We’ll forever be measuring where we stand and worrying about what the neighbors think. We’ll forever be looking in the mirror and finding flaws, looking at our neighbor and, by the necessity of our egos, finding even more flaws. Paul states his insight in one of scripture’s most radical sentences, with implications so unsettling that throughout the ages people have tried to show why it should not be taken literally, but domesticated, tamed, brought back into the realm of the old law, handed back to Prudence to manage and order. Don’t let her have it!
“Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery,” Paul implores.
And for those of us who call ourselves children of God through faith, letting the implications of that sentence find expression in our lives will require a radical openness to God’s relentless efforts to crack our shells and make us useful. Being one in Christ Jesus is a frightening, tradition blasting, gracious, beautiful gift of God.
And among the things that matter in the Christian life we pray for Magnus, this sentence, “there are no longer the old distinctions…for you are all one in Christ ” surely rides near the top. It is the work of Love for each and every child, love of which there is always more – like a mother’s love – a mother named God.
Mothering God, you gave me birth
in the bright morning of this world.
Creator, source of ev’ry breath,
you are my rain, my wind, my sun.
Mothering Christ, you took my form,
offering me your food of light,
grain of new life, and grape of love,
your very body for my peace.
Mothering Spirit, nurt’ring one,
in arms of patience hold me close,
so that in faith I root and grow
until I flow’r, until I know.
Text: Jean Janzen; based on Julian of Norwich
Music: Carolyn Jennings
text adapted from Barbara Bruneau, a retired Lutheran pastor in southern Minnesota, posted on RevGalBlogPals. Our response today is silence for prayer as you fill in the blanks.
we thank you for this day, especially for the women in our lives who have borne us along…
We pray for this beloved and troubled world…
For those who have jumped but not yet landed…
For those who have committed to an action but have not yet reached the result…
For those whose life and health are in the hands of others…
For those who seem brave only because they have no other choice…
For those living in regions of pandemic or violence who are hoping to get through just one day without a friend or family member dying…
For those who wait… for health… for justice… for love… for an answer… for an ending…
For those who know that even a safe landing may be messy and painful…
God of the beginning and the end and the in-between, support us in our moments and days and years of being suspended in mid-air. Let us trust fully in the landing. Amen
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come, your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread and forgive us our sins
as we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever. Amen
“Go, my children, with my blessing, never alone.
Waking, sleeping, I am with you, you are my own.
In my love’s baptismal river
I have made you mine forever.
Go, my children, with my blessing, you are my own.”
“Go, my children, sins forgiven, at peace and pure.
Here you learned how much I love you, what I can cure.
Here you heard my dear Son’s story,
here you touched him, saw his glory.
Go, my children, sins forgiven, at peace and pure.”
“Go, my children, fed and nourished, closer to me.
Grow in love and love by serving, joyful and free.
Here my Spirit’s power filled you,
here my tender comfort stilled you.
Go, my children, fed and nourished, joyful and free.”
Text: Jaroslav J. Vajda
Music: Welsh traditional; arr. Ralph Vaughan Williams
Go into this week with the strength you have.
Go simply, lightly, gently
Go in search of Love.
And trust that the Spirit of God goes with you. Amen