Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Preaching A Feminist Faith From Priscilla’s Epistle

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A great cloud of witnesses surrounds us…

Let us pray: Holy One of Old, open our eyes that we may see. Amen.

If your preacher preached about faith last week, she or he might have ended with, “To be continued…” The more than forty verses in Hebrews 11 and the beginning of what is now chapter 12 have been spread out over two Sundays in our lectionary, but they are part of one sermonic whole. Last week the text began: Hebrews 11:1, Faith is the essence of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen… And continued in v 3, By faith we understand… Then there is that famous roll call of faith: By faith AbelBy faith EnochBy faith NoahBy faith Abraham and Sarah… By faith IsaacBy faith JacobBy faith JosephBy faith MosesBy faith Rahab… And then the big finish:

Hebrews 11:32 And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. 35 Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— 38 of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. 

Hebrews 11:39 Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect. 12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

I’ve seen preachers read that and sit down. It is already a powerful sermon. It was so powerful that for the mothers and fathers of the church it ceased to be a sermon about scripture and became scripture itself. That’s powerful. It is a powerful word meeting a powerful need, the need for faith in a seemingly faithless time. The world in which this snail-mail sermon was sent was full of brokenness, full of hurt people hurting people, a world in which the forces of evil and chaos moved through and independently of human hosts. It was an awful lot like this world, but without the internet or modern medicine because people and their evil were and are more or less the same.

It was a single lifetime from the death and resurrection of Christ, fifty to sixty years later. The earliest possible dates for the Epistle to the Hebrews puts it during the reign of Nero (who followed Caligula). It would have been at the end of his reign when Rome burned under Nero for a biblical six days and seven nights and he inaugurated the lethal persecution of Christians on an institutionalized, state sanctioned and sponsored industrial scale. His own historians relate that he crucified Christians and set them on fire to provide illuminations for his garden parties. The tortures of Hebrews 11:35-38 sound like the Neronian persecutions.

It could have been after those horrific days during the year of civil war when Rome had four emperors in a single year. It could have been during the reign of Vespasian, the survivor of that war, during the time the Jews rebelled against Rome and the empire struck back. That war like all war had so many conflicting rationales and mixed motives: patriotism, faith, freedom, greed, power, resources, corruption, death, glory, sin, bias against those who were different, different religions, different ethnicities. It could have been in the days when Emperor Vespasian destroyed the holy temple in Jerusalem. The temple had been destroyed before. Imagine if the hallowed ground at the World Trade Center were bombed again. But the temple was more holy than Ground Zero, it was the Vatican and Mecca and more and Rome razed it to the ground.

And some preacher-woman started talking about faith. The author of Hebrews – and I like the notion advanced by some scholars that she was Priscilla – she uses scripture stories to vividly illustrate her teaching on faith. Last week it was Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Jacob. I noted that she left out Hagar and Keturah and Rebekah and Rachel and Leah and Bilhah and Zilpah.

This week Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets bear witness to the God who is worthy of our faith. Reading Priscilla’s sermon to the Hebrews in light of its setting – Nero’s persecution, the destruction of the temple and the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul, along with the backdrop of Roman oppression and financial exploitation by the Romans and their Jewish collaborators, it is easy to understand why some would doubt God and others would lose their faith all together. Especially if they had just watched God’s home on earth be torn down stone from stone, heard Roman hob-nailed boots stomping and storming into the Holy of Holies without a single answering rumble of thunder and smiting bolt of lightening. Was God dead? Was their faith in vain?

Add to that, being a marginalized member of that minority community. A Jew who believe that the executed Jesus of Nazareth was the son of the living God and even God incarnate. And, even though everyone knew he was dead and buried, believing, claiming, witnessing, that he was no longer dead, that his grave was not robbed and that he was as alive as anyone of us. He was also more alive, transcended beyond time and space and, coming back again. Being persecuted for those beliefs – not what passes for persecution in the minds of some today – you have to respect the religious rights of others; that’s not being persecuted. But they like their Jewish kin through the ages would be scapegoated for the ills of gentiles among whom they lived and worked and worshipped, with whom they traded, bartered, bought and sold as neighbors and strangers.

Hebrews 11 and 12 offer a look through Israel’s sacred stories for the saintly souls who accompany the hearers of this semonic epistle through their own treacherous journey in a world where being a Christian was scandalous, dangerous, sometimes even treasonous. And in response to all that, faith… Faith in a God who is worthy of our faith. Faith in a God whose worthiness is testified to by our own cloud of witnesses, prophets and martyrs, ancestors and elders, angels and archangels. A great cloud of witnesses surrounds us…

Isn’t it good to know that we’re not alone? I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel like I’m all alone in this whole wide world. I have been blessed with friends and family and life companions along the way but there are times when I go through what I go through all by myself. I know I’m not alone. We all have sorrow. We all have struggles, heartaches, grief and deep disappointment.

Life can be hard, even when you’re a person of relative privilege in the world. It often looks and feels like we’re all alone as we navigate life’s vicissitudes. Friends and family can and do abandon and betray us. Lovers leave, employers resend contracts and church folk, well church folk are some of God’s most special children. There are times when we might prefer to be alone given human nature. Yet we are never alone. We are always accompanied by an invisible cloud of witnesses. Witnesses, testifying to what they have seen and heard and know. We are not alone. None of us walks our path alone, no matter how rough, how crooked, how steep, how treacherous, how exhausting, how perilous. We are not alone. We are accompanied. We are accompanied by angels and ancestors guiding and guarding us. A great cloud of witnesses surrounds us…

Our troubles like the troubles of the first Jewish Christians are no trifling matters: slaughter in Syria, rampaging violence in Egypt, folk gunning police officers down in the street on the days they’re not shooting and killing each other, innocent bystanders, children on the playground or folk in their houses struck by errant bullets. We too lurch from war to war, from economic instability to and through cycles of recession, depression, collapse and recovery. We have our own shady financiers pillaging the people. And we have our own Priscillas preaching faith. A great cloud of witnesses surrounds us…

But unlike that Priscilla, I can’t preach a patriarchal faith; I must preach a feminist faith, a womanist faith. Don’t get me wrong, a “heroes of the bible” approach has great appeal. These texts have been preached that way for at least two thousand years. Many of us learned in Sunday school, Vacation Bible School and church camp to put ourselves in the roles of the biblical heroes, and occasionally one or two heroines. And that’s all right I suppose. But in a fame and celebrity obsessed culture, comparing yourself to great luminaries can be damaging and devastating, just as never seeing yourself represented in media images, or only represented as a stereotype. It is damaging to women and men, boys and girls to construct wholly masculine images and idols of God, base liturgy and hymnody on male experience and preach a gospel of “add women and stir,” but only a pinch, only a token, if you mention us at all.

Perhaps our preacher Priscilla just hit the highlights because she knew she was writing to a biblically literate audience who could fill in the blanks for themselves. But here and now, more than two thousand years and five thousand miles away, I’m pretty sure folk need some help filling in those blanks. In a world where imperial and individual greed and lust consume the people of God like raging fire or ravenous beasts, we need the same faith the Priscilla preached about, faith in the God of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David and Samuel and more.

We need the faith of Deborah, not Barak. Barak who? Barak who hid behind Deborah’s skirts? Let’s talk about warrior-woman faith. Deborah had a sword – and I believe a good right hook. You see Deborah’s people had immigrated to Canaan without checking with the Canaanites. And there were some fights – and to hear Joshua tell it, he killed everybody, but the truth is he didn’t and they had to figure out how to get along together, and they still do. Killing everybody on one side or the other wasn’t the answer in the Iron Age and it’s not the answer today. Deborah helped her people live in the real world after Joshua and his war stories were laid to rest. She didn’t go looking for trouble. But when it found her, Deborah went in and went in hard, hard as a mother, in Israel. I believe the motto on her coat of arms if she had one would have been: “Don’t start nothing, won’t be nothing. But if you start it, I will finish it.” Deborah had faith in the God who called and empowered her.

I don’t know why Deborah isn’t in Hebrews and Barak is. And God knows I don’t know why Jephthah is in it at all. There was a time when he had faith and won a few victores. But killing his daughter in the name of God was the evisceration of that faith. Now his daughter had faith, faith in God and faith in the father who betrayed and butchered her. We don’t need that kind of faith. Too many women and girls die at the hands of men and boys who are supposed to love them. There was nothing redemptive or faithful in her death.

And David, David. Lord have mercy. David had faith, but let’s talk about the faith of the ten women he married or was engaged to, the eight women or more he made babies with, the six women he was legally married to when he bypassed all their rooms to rape Bathsheba because rape is not about sex. It is about power. Let’s talk about the faith of Bathsheba. Let’s talk about the faith it took for her to go to the man who raped her and murdered her husband and live and sleep and make babies with him so she could survive. And Bathsheba survived David. And after he died she thrived on the throne Solomon had installed for her.

Let’s talk about the faith of David’s daughter Tamar whom he refused to comfort or even see after her brother raped her following in his daddy’s footsteps. Let’s talk about her shattered faith and body, and her broken heart when the brother who avenges her by killing her rapist is killed in turn. And then David’s tears flow. But not for her.

Let’s talk about the faith of Samuel’s mother Hannah who taught us all that God hears the prayers of our hearts. That’s what Priscilla was preaching, that no matter what it looks like, no matter how bad it is, whether the perverse persecutions of narcissistic Nero or the savaging of Syrians by Assad’s assassins, whether economic catastrophe or Egyptian carnage, faith, the essence of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen, points us to that great cloud of witnesses where all who have been saved, redeemed and delivered before us watch and wait, with and for us with Jesus, the pioneer and perfector, author and architect of our faith.

God can and will heal, change and transform the world with and for and through us. The empire doesn’t not have the last word, not even our own. Priscilla’s people survived Rome and passed into the cloud of witnesses. We will survive political regimes and corporate schemes. A great cloud of witnesses surrounds us… They are here with us now. They are here with us now. One day we shall join them. Jesus is in that cloud.  And he and Priscilla, prophets and martyrs, mothers and fathers, ancestors and elders, angels and archangels testify to the faithfulness of God, the One who is worthy of our faith. Amen.

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