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?