Greetings! For today’s service we’ll be using the Matins liturgy from the hymnal. The service is led by Shawn Mai with Barb Kass offering a reflection. The readings for today, along with a recording, are posted below. Check back later for the text of Barb’s reflection.
15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”
The First Sin and Its Punishment
3 Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” 2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3 but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; 5 for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God,[a] knowing good and evil.” 6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. 7 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
8 They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” 10 He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” 11 He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” 12 The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” 13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”
Jesus Curses the Fig Tree
12 On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. 13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14 He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.
Jesus Cleanses the Temple
15 Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; 16 and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17 He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written,
‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’?
But you have made it a den of robbers.”
18 And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. 19 And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.
The Lesson from the Withered Fig Tree
20 In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. 21 Then Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” 22 Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. 23 Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. 24 So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.
25 “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.”
In reading the 2 texts for today, I was hard pressed to connect the two. The Matin’s committee had decided to look at Jesus’ encounters with nature this summer, and then a correlating Old Testament story. The encounter described by Mark is a harsh one. Why should the fig tree become collateral damage for not producing fruit during the off season! After reading a few commentaries on the passage, I realize it was a symbolic action about the temple which then Jesus went on to clear in dramatic fashion. Others said that even in the off season, fig trees would have had something edible on them, and the fact that this one had just foliage, meant that it looked good on the outside, but was not a healthy tree. Again, like the temple it needed to be cleared. Finally, there is the discussion about the power of prayer. Where was the prayer for the fig tree?
Obviously the Genesis story is familiar and fig trees figure into it: Adam and Eve sewed leaves of fig leaves to cover their nakedness. If you are looking in a garden for fabric and not fruit, this is your tree. The deeply-lobed leaves can be four to eight inches wide and as long as 10 inches. It’s an interesting fact to know and tell, but not very inspirational.
Again I read both texts, and several commentaries and finally found a thread: Walking! It’s one that Kristin Martin would be the expert to talk about! Walking is simple and profound at the same time! Maybe I was drawn to this because of a devotional I read the week my mom was dying called May I walk you home. In our neighborhood, we always walked each other home from school, church or the playground. That simple custom offered protection and guidance as well as the opportunity to reflect on our day, our life experience. Extending the same personal companionship to those are on their final journey gives both the caregiver and the person dying comfort, courage and hope.
In the Genesis story we hear how God is walking in the garden “at the time of the evening breeze”. The beauty of this image of a God who is present with us, walking with us, from the beginning is breath taking! The Old Testament is full of images of this accompanying God in times of great faith and also great faithlessness.
Barbara Brown Taylor has a chapter called ‘The practice of walking on the earth’ in her book: An Altar in the World. The following is the section that talks about Jesus and walking…
[text not included here]
I hope you will find time to walk this week with gratitude and the mindfulness that all around us is holy ground.
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!
Greetings! For today’s service we’ll be using the Matins liturgy from the hymnal. The service is led by Shawn Mai, along with music from Chris & Harry Johansen. The readings for today, along with Shawn’s sermon and a recording, are posted below.
Jesus Comforts the Sisters of Lazarus
17 On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Now Bethany was less than two miles[a] from Jerusalem, 19 and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.
21 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
Several weeks ago Linda preached about women in the Bible. She started the sermon by reminding all of us of how race and racism have gained more awareness this past year after the murder of George Floyd.
Linda did a nice job making connections with how patricarchal systems have had an impact on how we perceive power, gender, sexuality, and female identity. This past year has given me a new understanding of how life limiting my experience of being white is in a white supremacist culture. I’ve come to understand the impact of how much my own power and privelage have benefited me at the expense of other people.
Being more grounded in a faith that sees God as love, literally love, has implications about how I walk through this world. If I believe in the core of Jesus teaching “love your neighbor as yourself”, my life demands I become more conscious about how I love others AND myself….ALL parts of myself. Those I accept, those I don’t yet know, those I judge and try to cut off, and those I value as the best parts of myself.
I chose the raising of Lazarus Gospel story for this morning because of the power of its metaphor. We are born and baptized into our being and we enter into the world in our own unique belovedness. This unique inner self encounters a world that includes violence, disconnection, and fear. But our inner self is resilient and has ways of protecting itself. Our inner self protects itself by developing personas to defend it from annilation.
We experience the trauma of being out of control so we become controlling. We experience the trauma of being shamed for not doing it right so we become perfectionistic. We experience the abusive hurt of others’ woundedness so we learn to be defended to keep us safe.
Eventually, these become our tombs. Today as Jesus invites Lazarus out of the tomb, I invite you to hear those words yourself.
I have come to bring you life.
The death of Lazarus causes suffering. Jesus own tears point to the poignancy. However the story doesn’t end with Lazarus’ death, the story goes beyond just pausing and grieving. It acknowledges a greater truth and meaning.
Jesus pointed us to this truth when after four days of Lazarus being dead in the tomb, Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb to life.
The story of Jesus raising Lazarus is a compelling metaphor about our life’s work. God is “for us” to find freedom and spaciousness, not fear and isolation. The story seemed fitting for a time when we are seeking greater freedom and acceptance through important race and inclusion work.
Jesus said: I am the resurrection and the life! He who dies, yet shall he live.
I like the Greek which translates “yet shall he live as”: will have a life active and vigorous, the absolute fulness of life.
Paradoxically we have this absolute fullness AND we have life patterns that become tombs that we have little awareness of.
Growing up I always had a sense of being different. Somewhere along the way I internalized something that told me I needed to keep something hidden. Before I even put words around sexuality or difference I had a low level shame that kept me on guard for how I acted.
I think I knew for as long as I can remember that I was gay. I worked REALLY hard and intentionally to live a different truth. I didn’t utter a word to anyone about my sexuality until I was 24 years old. That is a goodly amount of time to build a tomb of reinforced brick, mortar, and to shore it up with some steel re-bar.
The external sources of tomb building were a belief system counter to God’s will for my freedom. When I was in junior high, I perused the pastoral care books in my father’s library where it was clear that homosexuality was a sin. The words of the church authors deepened feelings of shame that flooded my heart and mind.
Paradoxically, I loved church. I found community, comfort, and joy in the church while also knowing that certain words in church books rendered me a fundamentally flawed person. Somehow my naïve self was able to hold that paradox. Eventually that paradox would evolve into a complicated call to word and sacrament ministry and a call to an authentic relationship that was gifted into my life.
1992 was a very weird and confusing year. It was the year I was ordained and it was the year that my life-long partnered relationship began. I had to just trust that both calls in my life were truth for me. I didn’t know what else to do but to live into both of those calls. I remember a book by Bruce Bauer called “A Place At the Table” published in 1992 where he said “live your life as though things have changed.”
And that’s what I did, I lived as though things had changed. I took a call to congregational ministry in the city and I drove out evenings to our home in the western suburbs of Minneapolis to be a partner to Chuck and father to Anne and Blake.
Living this paradox took its toll in shame and hiddenness. Finally in the mid-90’s I began my process of coming out with friends and family. It was a step in the right direction but it challenged the tomb I had built for myself around don’t be who you are, be who you perceive what others want you to be.
Fast forward to 2004 I began a journey of certification as a Clinical Pastoral Education Supervisor. Along with coming out, my certification process as a CPE supervisor was the hardest and most life-giving journey I have ever embarked on. The process is challenging because it required me to address issues of shame, authority, conflict, and integration.
Integration is demonstrated in hour and a half long committee appearances where the committee looks for a level of theoretical, relational, integrated authenticity. If you haven’t done the work, it doesn’t take long for the shame and hiddenness to show itself.
In my first committee I decompensated. It was horrifying. The committee granted me entrance into the program with one of the committee members framing my having done good enough in this way: “You didn’t run away from the room!” The only reason I didn’t do that was I didn’t think of it as an option.
Eventually I made it far enough in the process to meet my associate committee in Memphis TN. The day before the committee my grandmother died. I also got a call from my presenter that day that my video for the committee presentation didn’t work. Needless to say things did not go well.
I flew back to Minneapolis, drove to Kansas for my grandma’s funeral, got back home in time to go to Urgent Care to be diagnosed with pneumonia and then went to bed for a week. Two weeks later my 16 year old Sheltie died.
You know what’s interesting? I look back at that month as one of the worst and one of the best months of my life.
The universe was telling me I needed to address the confines of my tomb. Therapy helped me to sort out my shame and hiddenness that had been so painfully outed.
My spiritual work was trusting Jesus words: I am the resurrection and the life! You will have a life active and vigorous, the absolute fulness of life.
I needed to step out of my tomb. That meant owning who I was, owning what I felt, and living authentically.
I decided I couldn’t live in the “don’t ask, don’t tell” environment of the church…I needed to go and tell my bishop about my life and ministry. I needed to claim the fullness of my call to both the church and to my many years long relationship that happened to be with a man.
That may not sound like a big deal, but I’m the guy who never challenges authority. I pride myself on being politically astute in the workplace and I’m a master at getting people to like me. Going to the bishop was none of those things.
I will never forget that day. I can still feel the space that opened up in my heart as I risked all that was comfortable to welcome more of myself into the light.
The conversation with the bishop surprised me. My energy ended up not being around coming out, my energy became focused on the grief I felt about the impact of the church’s policies on my children. In the 20 years of helping raise my partner’s daughter and son, they had come to experience the church as irrelevant as it didn’t connect with the truth of their lives.
That day was transformational as I grew the space within me…what others didn’t see and what I didn’t see became seen. That brought me deeper into the Shawn that God called me to be, my belovedness.
Gratefully I experienced the inclusive welcome of my bishop. More importantly the experience opened me up to greater self-inclusivity. I began to honor my thoughts, my feelings, and my identity.
The journey of slavery to freedom in the promised land took the Israelites through the wilderness.
Part of what I love about West Denmark is the setting. Looking out the window, we are close to wild spaces. Writer Anne Sutherland Howard talks about exploring our own wilderness as exploring our wild space.
Wild space is that part in each one of us that doesn’t fit our culture’s definition of the good life. She explains it to work this way: Imagine a circle. Within that circle is the dominant cultural model: white, male, middle-class, heterosexual, educated, able-bodied, Western, young, successful. Now, put your own model of yourself over that circle.
Some parts of you may fit, some parts may not.
The part of us that falls outside the conventional circle is our wild space. The parts that do not fit may be obvious: race or sexual orientation or physical characteristics. Other parts that do not match up with the conventional model may not be so obvious to others: surviving the death of a loved one, a lost job, struggle with addiction or depression, the vague disappointment about not “making it.” Anything that may be a source for feeling ‘not enough’ or causes us to question the definition of success is our wild space.
Our wild space is a source for transformation for both the world and us. Our wild space is an opportunity to see a different vision of life. Our wild space is where we find spaciousness, creativity, and imagination.
Where are those edges for you today? What presses your buttons? What leaves you unsettled? Where are you resisting? Look in those places because there is something there that needs hospitality. Be patient, be kind, be affirming, and hold space.
Faith tells us that God will move us through something huge and our lives will be broken open. In the poetic words of Charles Wesley, we will be changed from glory into glory….lost in wonder, love, and praise. AMEN
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.
Greetings! For today’s service we’ll be using the Matins liturgy from the hymnal. The service is led by Christy & Jeff Wetzig and Carolyn Saunders, along with music from Chris & Harry Johansen. The readings for today, along with Carolyn’s sermon, are printed below.
Jesus Walks on the Water
22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
The Healing of Naaman
5 Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. 2 Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. 3 She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” 4 So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. 5 And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.”
He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. 6 He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” 7 When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.”
8 But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” 9 So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. 10 Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” 11 But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! 12 Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage. 13 But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” 14 So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.
Isn’t it nice to be outside this morning?
Up here in the Northwoods, we truly appreciate nature and its beauty: green grass, spring flowers, the mesmerizing sound of a rippling stream, whistling wind in tall pines, birdsong, pollinators, gentle breezes.
As I was contemplating the lessons for today, another text came to mind: Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” In the beginning, truly a time of chaos, God was…
Both of today’s lessons tell of times of personal chaos.
In Matthew, Jesus learns that John the Baptizer has been beheaded. In an effort to find a quiet space, he gets into a boat. But thousands of people follow and soon he and the disciples are enveloped by people in need and it’s supper time. What to do? Jesus compels the disciples to get into the boat and take it over to the other side of the lake. After feeding, then dismissing the crowd, Jesus goes up a mountain still seeking a quiet place. When evening came, the boat was far from land and was being tormented by the wind and waves.
In the early morning, Jesus came walking toward them … not by land but on the water!
Can you imagine! Being in a boat, tormented by wind, wet and cold … and now this! Truly a fear-filled moment! A ghost! … Scared to death!
And then, a voice … “Take heart, it is I. Have no fear!”
Pure, unadulterated chaos!
Naaman, the military commander of Aram — a man whom the King esteemed — had everything going for him. Except that one day, his nagging suspicion about the strange things happening to his body became a certainty. He had leprosy. As the terrible realization of his new reality began to sink in, he must have thought, “Anything but this. Please, let it be something else!” There was no known cure for leprosy; it was a slow moving, debilitating, painful and socially isolating disease. Even his wealth, his status, and his connections were not likely to be of any use.
There was a young girl (an Israelite) who had been taken captive. She was the servant of Naaman’s wife. By faith, she knew of a prophet in Samaria; he would be able to cure Naaman.
Just like any chaotic situation, the story twists and turns: Naaman talks to the King of Aram who agrees to send a letter to the King of Israel.
First twist: The letter was presented to the King whose response was less than helpful: “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy?!”
Second twist: the prophet Elisha heard that the King of Israel had torn his clothes; he sent a message to the king: “Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.”
Naaman traveled to Elisha’s house.
Third twist: Elisha sent a messenger: “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.”
Fourth twist: Naaman became angry because Elisha did not greet him in person, but instead sent a messenger … and why couldn’t he just immerse himself 7 times in the rivers of Damascus, anyway?
He left in a huff … Fifth twist: his servants approached him saying, “If the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, “Wash, and be clean?”
And so Naaman went into the Jordan … and as was prophesied by Elisha, his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.
Complete disorder and confusion … that’s CHAOS!
Friends, throughout life, you and I experience moments of complete disorder and confusion; it comes, it goes. But during these last 15 months, we have experienced a multi-faceted chaos … and it seemed like as the months passed by, the level of chaos kept rising.
No toilet paper to be purchased ~ loved ones diagnosed with Covid-19 ~ schools, libraries, restaurants, churches and other small businesses ~ all closed their doors.
No holiday gatherings with family or friends
The killing of George Floyd
The ensuing devastation to neighborhoods in the Twin Cities
Virtual workspace, family time, education, worship
The great mask controversy
Demeaning Partisan Politics
January 6 in Washington DC
To vaccinate or not
The list is endless … all adding to the chaos that had the power to kill our spirits.
In those times, we, like Peter and Naaman, were facing certain death…
Peter … as he was overwhelmed by the wind and waves and began to sink.
But he didn’t. In his moment of need, he called out to Jesus: “SAVE ME!” And Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him. Peter was restored to wholeness.
Naaman by letting his ego get in his way and nearly walking away from the healing that was being offered to him.
But he didn’t. His servants risked to get in his face. Even in his anger, Naaman listened … and immersed himself 7 times in the Jordan River. He was restored to wholeness.
And what about us? Can we be restored to wholeness?
The chaos of the last year is quieting down. There is a new horizon, perhaps one that didn’t exist before, one formed at the point where our vulnerability and trust in God have come together to create something new. The glimmer of light on the horizon shines a glimmer of hope in our hearts.
God asks only that we are open to the working of the Spirit. From the beginning, we have known that we could not survive this chaotic time without trusting God to lead us through. Unseen yet ever-present, God’s Spirit lifts us when we stumble, supports us when we are weak, guides us when we lose our way, gives us a nudge when we are hesitant.
We were wise enough to not let our egos get in the way. We took baby steps. Went to bed at night and got up in the morning. Day by day, in the midst of frustration and heartache, we trusted that life is worth living because God loves us AND God will love us into a new tomorrow.
When we find ourselves being tormented by the storms of life or facing an overwhelming situation, I invite you to look back on these 2 stories. They will remind us that the path to wholeness is full of obstacles and that crossing back is not necessarily a return to “normal”, the way things used to be. But if we humble ourselves before God, God will bring us, individually and corporately, to wholeness … and like Peter and Naaman, we, too, will find peace.