Image: Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes
Resistance is Not Futile
#Resist. There was a man who rose to great power and became very wealthy along the way. He expected his whims to be met with instant acquiescence and held grudges against those who did not comply. He kept lists of his enemies and used his power to destroy those who defied him. I’m talking about Nebuchadnezzar as he’s portrayed in the book of Judith, but since Judith is scripture and scripture lives and speaks beyond its originating context, surely these sacred words speak to today when grudge-holding tyrants target those who didn’t support them fully or soon enough or contradict them or mock them.
The tyrant in this story set his sights on Judith’s people and her land. Judith can be read as an archetype for the land of Judea, the Jewish people, Jewish womanhood or Jane Q. Public, make that Judith Q. Jewish Public. Yehudit, the feminine of Yehudah, Judah—also feminine in form reminding us gender is more complicated than binaries even in binary languages and systems—Yehudit, Judith, is the quintessential Jewish woman. She is Daughter Zion herself or just a faithful daughter of Zion. More importantly, Judith is not captive Daughter Zion; Judith is the resistance of Zion; she is an agent-provocateur, a provocatrix. She is a woman who resists tyranny because she knows resistance is not futile; it is essential.
The tyrant sent his second-in-command, Holofernes, to do his will. Some quibble over the historicity of Judith, and characters like Holofernes, I am not among them. Judith may well be less historical than other biblical texts, and more so than yet others. What is sure is that scripture, in or out of the book of Judith, does not have to be historical to be true. Judith is true in more ways than one. Take the tyrant’s second-in-command. A whole lot of folk are exorcized about the tyrant in the story and the modern day exemplar he may evoke, but they forget that tyrants are not singular occurrences. They are the fruit of tyranny, nurtured, cultivated, harvested and deployed. And, they are waiting in line, waiting in the wings, waiting for their shot. That’s why empires don’t die when emperors do. Tyranny’s bench is deep. Tyranny survives violent upheaval even when tyrants and their functionaries are swept aside and tyranny does not even blink at the peaceful transfer of power.
The tyrant in our text decided to punish the people who hadn’t stood with him in his previous campaign. (This is just the literary background of Judith, a book some folk cut out of their bibles because they couldn’t find a living word in this story about a woman who resisted tyranny with her fully sexualized woman’s body—but I’m getting ahead of myself.) The tyrant sent his second to execute his policies. They decided to deprive the people of the basic resources they needed to live, to punish them for their disloyalty. In our story the resource that is snatched back from the people is water, the very fabric of life for this earth and her creatures. Tyrants are still depriving communities and their children of water, poisoning it, rerouting it, outright stealing it and then selling it back to them befouled.
The text says that for thirty-four days Edomite and Ammonite armies that had sworn fealty to the tyrant did to Judith’s people what had surely been done to them. Don’t miss that the foot-soldiers of tyranny are often oppressed peoples themselves. Some of them have been taken captive, pressed or sold into service, but some of them have sold themselves, coveting the privilege and power of the empire that was never meant for them, which they will never be granted. It will continually be dangled before their eyes, poisonous fruit from a poisonous tree. And even though they will never get to dine at the table where tyrants dine, they will be thrown a few scraps and convince themselves that they aren’t as bad off as those the empire disdains most. And maybe if they work hard and pull themselves up by their bootstraps they too can get a seat at the table.
Then when every well was dry and humans and animals began to collapse some people said: It would be better for us to be captured by them. We shall indeed become slaves, but our lives will be spared, and we shall not witness our little ones dying before our eyes, and our wives and children drawing their last breath. (Jdt 7:27)
What they were really saying was that resistance is futile. The empire was saying submit and they were ready to say yes, not because they were cowards, not because they wanted to be collaborators, but because they were desperate. It’s easy to judge them from outside the text. But what do you do when the empire seizes the resources you need to live? What do you do when your child is lying listless, dehydrated, dying or dead and there is no water, milk or medicine? This is how empire works. Those it doesn’t destroy outright it grinds into submission, sometimes making its subjects beg for the degradation of being dominated by them.
One member of the governing council conveniently named Uzziah, God hears, begged the people to hold out a little while longer, to pray and trust God. In so doing he offers the only resistance he can muster. But he says, if God doesn’t come through, he will personally hand over whoever is left to the regime, surrender and accept whatever depredation, whatever indignity, whatever retribution the tyrant has in mind for those he governs but doesn’t consider to be his people. Uzziah doesn’t see that he has any other options if he wants to save his people. For him the paths of resistance and submission collide at the intersection where the bodies of his people lay dying. What else can he do?
Then Judith, whose sixteen-generation genealogy—the longest of any woman in scripture—which traces her back to Jacob-become-Israel through the womb of Leah, Judith began to speak. She called the members of her governing council and began her resistance by opening her mouth (sometimes you’ve got to call the folk who govern you and tell them about themselves):
Jdt 8:11 What you have said to the people today is not right; you have even sworn and pronounced this oath between God and you, promising to surrender the town to our enemies unless the Holy One turns and helps us within so many days. 12 Who are you to put God to the test today, and to set yourselves up in the place of God in human affairs? 13 You are putting the Sovereign God to the test, but you will never learn anything! 14 You cannot plumb the depths of the human heart or understand the workings of the human mind; how do you expect to search out God, who made all these things, and find out God’s mind or comprehend God’s thought?
Judith calls for prayer as an act of resistance. Her language is so powerful and compelling that the men of the governing council asked her to pray for them. They want her to pray that it might rain and buy them a little more time. But Judith understood the real fight wasn’t about the resources that the tyrant cut them off from. The issue wasn’t the tyrant’s latest tweet, plot, plan or rant. The problem was the tyrant and his tyranny. So she prayed starting with the sexual violence against women that accompanies every war. We ought not be surprised to see tyrants boasting about sexual assault as proof of the deformed manhood that passes for their twisted notion of masculinity.
Judith prayed that God would use her deceit because she didn’t plan to fight fair for she understood there were no rules of engagement that the empire would honor. Sometimes resisting the empire means doing things that will get you branded a terrorist. Judith’s ethics of resistance were revolutionary. Sometimes the only difference between a revolutionary and a terrorist is in the mouth of the one who gets to tell the story.
Judith’s prayer was an act of resistance but it wasn’t her only strategy. I believe there is a real critique to be had of folk who only talk, even if they’re talking to God and do nothing to resist that might cost them some skin. Judith put her whole skin in the game, but first she prayed the line that makes her a liberation theologian:
For your strength does not depend on numbers, nor your might on the powerful. But you are the God of the lowly, helper of the oppressed, upholder of the weak, protector of the forsaken, savior of those without hope. (Jdt 9:11)
Judith got up from her knees and she got to work. If you know the story, you know that Judith intentionally used her body, her sexuality, as a weapon; more to the point, she used Holofernes’s sexism, patriarchy, and lust against him. She stripped her body. She bathed her body. She anointed her body. She perfumed her body. She adorned her body. She dressed herself to show herself, covered in jewels from her tiara to her toes.
Judith took herself to the tyrant’s camp, displayed herself before his eyes, just in reach but out of his grasp. She batted her eyelashes and stroked his ego, she told him what he wanted to hear about how he was perceived, admired and feared. She dined with him and drank with him. While he drank his private stock she drank her kosher wine and when they were through only she was still standing. She cut off his head with his own sword and put it in her little kosher dinner bag and carried it back to her people as a trophy.
Be clear, I am not calling for the assassination of tyrants in our day. We do not live in the Iron Age. The fact that our scriptures are rooted in the Iron Age does not limit us to their theology or ethics, in spite of what those who bow down at the altars of patriarchy and homophobia preach. Judith, like all scripture, offers much more than a literal paradigm to be blindly followed.
The triumph of Judith teaches me that tyrants do fall. Judith teaches me that prayer is an act of resistance, but it is not enough by itself. Judith teaches me that that we must resist together as a community. Judith teaches me that the strategies for our resistance are not always going to come from our leaders. Judith teaches me that respectability politics won’t lead to a revolution. The revolution will not happen without the sisters and we won’t be at the back of the bus. We will be seen and heard and folk will have to get over their issues about what we wear and how we do our hair. Judith teaches me that sometimes someone from your community has to be in the room to take a tyrant down. And Judith teaches me that something else. It is the lesson I believe our author wanted to pass on: Judith doesn’t have to get into bed with the tyrant to take him down. There is a line she will not cross. You don’t have to sacrifice your integrity or moral authority to resist tyranny.
Lastly, even though empires don’t collapse upon the deaths of their tyrants, they can be dismantled and placed under new management. Resistance is not futile. Amen.
May the God of Judith and Jesus strengthen our hearts and hands for the work ahead.
May we stand with the people of God, standing for what is right.
May we resist tyranny wherever it is found.
And may we never be cut off from the water of life. Amen.
You can view the entire service here.
Postscript: There is a wonderful blog by Judith Robinson chronicling images of Judith.
As I prepared today’s sermon I found I could not get past the first verse: Jesus told a parable about the need to pray and not lose heart. Jesus told this parable because he knows we need to pray. We need to pray. Full stop. We need to pray. We need it. God doesn’t need it. We do.
We need to pray because we need to connect with God; we need to be in God’s presence. That is where our peace, power, strength and healing come from. As a church we (as Episcopalians) are steeped in prayer. Our entire liturgy is prayer. Prayer and scripture are the hallmarks of our faith. Our BCP is a collection prayers most of which are based on, or drawn from, scripture. Those prayers frame every day of our lives—if we let them. As individuals, our prayer practices vary widely: Some pray every morning when they rise, give thanks before every meal, and pray again before they sleep. Some pray all the offices of the Church—morning prayer, noonday prayer, evening prayer and compline. Some pray through their day as they see situations unfold around them, like praying when you drive past an accident, fire or funeral procession. Some set aside time daily to remember the concerns of those they hold dear. Some pray in traffic—I maintain that some of those curses are actually prayers. Some pray when—and only when—in distress.
However we pray, however much we pray, there is space and grace for us to grow deeper in our practices of prayer. We need to pray and not lose heart because our practice of prayer is not like someone else’s or even like ours used to be. God is glad to hear from us and does not berate us for how long it has been since we called; in other words God is not like some of our mothers. God’s arms, ears and heart are open to us whether we just spoke this morning or it’s been so long we figure we ought to start off by reintroducing ourselves.
Pray and don’t lose heart. Pray like there’s a God who hears. Pray when you feel like it and even when you don’t. Pray and don’t worry about whether you’re doing it right. Just pray. Don’t worry about how you pray or how someone else prays. Just open your heart to God. Stand, sit, kneel; pray in bed or while walking or driving. There are many kinds of prayer: adoration—blessing God, prayers of confession, contrition and repentance—surrendering our faults and failures to the forgiving grace of God, prayers of thanksgiving—prayers of pure gratitude for all God is and all God does, and prayers of supplication—prayers in which we ask God for what we, others and the world need, and sometimes what we want. There are many who think supplication for ourselves and intercession for others are the only kinds of prayer. It is alright to ask but prayer is so much more than asking.
Prayer is our conversation with God, our time with God. Whatever the form of our prayer, words from our hearts or the shared language of the Church from our prayerbooks, what we often lack is silent time with God. We need to sit in God’s presence and listen, wait and be present. This is hard. There are so many distractions and we have so much to say, not just on our behalf but on behalf of this crucified and crucifying world. Jesus said, we need to pray and not lose heart. No matter how broken the world, how impossible the problems, we need to pray and not lose heart. That means now, in this election cycle. Pray and don’t lose heart. When bodies are piling up in the street, pray and don’t lose heart. When women’s bodies are reduced to objects to be grabbed and groped, pray and don’t lose heart. When your own private griefs are known by no one else, pray and don’t lose heart. Pray like there’s a God who hears.
We need to pray and that means we need to listen to and for God as well as pouring out our hearts. Most of us will not hear God speak in an audible voice. So we need to spend enough time with God that we learn to recognize how she speaks to us, though our own conscience and inner voice, through the words of scripture, through the words of others—I don’t mean through the folk who love to say God told me to tell you… Sometimes God speaks through folk who don’t know that they are bearing a word for someone else. Prayer is listening, as much as if not more than, speaking. Above all we need to sit in prayer whether we feel like it or not, whether we hear back or not, whether we feel anything or not, even whether we feel God’s presence or not. We are nurturing a relationship and being transformed by it, and that takes time.
Jesus said we need to pray and not lose heart. God knows it’s easy to lose heart. Honestly, anyone with good sense would lose heart. Have you seen our world? Do you watch the news? Read the paper? Have you looked at social media? We live in a world in which the empire that would swallow the world killed Jesus and our empires are no better. We are surrounded on every side by rising tides of death, and destruction. Black folk are still being killed by police at rates unequal to any other group and often being denied the right to a trial by execution in the street. Financially vulnerable countries that we have helped exploit suffer catastrophic losses of human life on our doorstep. As we are reminded every October, victims of domestic violence are killed by those they trusted to love them every day of the year. In the face of so much death, despair, destruction, disease and crushing debt, people are living with anguish and anxiety. Prayer grants us the strength and courage to face these difficult times, the clarity to know what it is we must do when there is something we can do, and the peace to trust God with all that is beyond our strength.
Jesus used the story of an unjust judge—a broken justice system—and a widow—one of the most vulnerable members of society, normally emblematic of deep poverty though she is not described as poor here. She is due justice no matter her financial means. She resorts to the justice system expecting to find justice and instead finds injustice and indifference. Two thousand years later many women are still looking for justice from legal and social systems that that don’t hold men accountable for sexual assault and harassment while blaming women for their own assaults or calling them liars, and sometimes both.
In this age of #BlackLivesMatter, people are crying out for justice to the very ones entrusted with delivering that justice just like that widow and being met with anything but justice. And just like that widow we are committed to showing up day and night until we get justice, even if things get a little rough. The judge knew that protest over justice denied inevitably escalates. The NRSV translation that we use says “so that she may not wear me out.” That is one possible translation, but the verb hupopiazo also means slap or punch in the face and blacken an eye or two. Saint Jerome translated it as “beat me black and blue.” (Vulgate: suggillet; Peshitta: mahro,“harm”) Other bibles have “beat me down.” (ESVS) Justice cannot be continually denied with no expectation of upheaval or uprising. The judge knew that he could not continue to deny her justice and remain unscathed. And so, out of concern for his skin and only his skin, he ruled in her favor.
Jesus and his imaginary widow make it look easy. In the space of three verses the judge gives the woman the justice she is due. It has been 2000 years since Jesus was lynched for preaching and protesting against injustice and telling folk to demand justice and not give up. We have found that it takes a bit longer than it looks like in the gospels. My ancestors were enslaved for four hundred years. They prayed and didn’t lose heart. Oh, I’m sure some did, but there were others praying to take up the slack. Black folk petitioning unjust judges in counties and states for the right to vote were just like that woman. It took longer than in that parable but they prayed and didn’t lose heart.
Our lesbian and gay sisters and brothers petitioned the church and the state for the right to marry even though both had long histories of discriminating against them. Some of them were prayerful people who prayed and didn’t lose heart. Unjust judges and county clerks are granting marriage licenses they withheld for too long and our church is not alone in saying all of the sacraments are for all of God’s children. When I start to lose heart I look at all praying people have accomplished and I don’t lose heart.
Three years ago I was wrestling with why I pray for peace in this world that seems to have never known peace this side of the Garden. I revisit these words when I need to be encouraged to keep praying:
We pray not because we believe it is magic, not because we are certain that God will do what we ask, but because we can and we must. The world’s burdens are too great and too many for any of us to bear, its problems impossible in our strength, knowledge and capacity. We pray knowing there is a God who hears, loves, aches and moves. We pray knowing our ancestors prayed for freedom until they died, not receiving it in their lifetimes, passing the mantle of prayer down through the generations. We don the ancestral mantle of prayer because it is our time. And we pray knowing that we may die before we see peace in the world. But we pray because we know the world will see peace whether we, our children or our children’s children live to see it. We take up the garments of prayer passed down through the centuries until the time comes to exchange it for a burial shroud and pass it on to the next generation.
Luke 13:10 Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had ailed her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” (translation, Wil Gafney)
Let us pray: In the Name of God who loves, is Love and bids us love one another.
The miracles of Jesus present a particular problem for me. I cannot do what Jesus did. But I am not free to turn the page. Walk with me through this gospel and let us see together what it is that we can do to heal the hurting in the church and in the world. The academic in me is struck by the fact that Jesus was in synagogue on shabbes, teaching the scriptures. I love this so much and am rebuked by it. There is no such thing as being so advanced as a biblical scholar, so holy, so saved that you do not need to assemble with the people of God and study and pray. If anybody had an excuse not to go to worship on a regular basis, it was Jesus. And here he is sharing his gifts. So before I lament about how I can’t heal anybody like Jesus, let me ask myself am I following his example in the places where I can? OK, I’m preaching and teaching and celebrating the sacraments. But I’m not going to rush to pat myself on the back, because I know there is more coming. How about you? How are you doing in your worship attendance? What are the gifts you bring to God’s people?
I can’t do what Jesus did and I am suspicious of churches and pastors that say they can heal miraculously. Yet at the same time the church is supposed to be a place of healing. I could preach about spiritual healing for the well-being of our spirits is a primary concern of the gospel. But there is a danger in reading the gospel as only or primarily concerned with our spirits. Our bodies are sacred. We live in these bodies. The health of our bodies matter, even when we have made our peace with their limitations, frailty and failings, snaps, crackles, and pops, disease and disability. The scandal of the gospel is that God became flesh. Jesus spent his life in human flesh touching and healing diseased and despised flesh. It is in the flesh of our bodies that we encounter Christ and each other.
Sometimes those encounters are burdened by the biases and beliefs we bring with us. This gospel is about the unbreaking of a woman’s body but it is also about breaking the habit of uncritical literal reading of the bible. Jesus came from a society that blamed any difference among human bodies in sight, hearing or mobility on the devil. In some texts he will say that people who are mute or deaf or epileptic or mentally ill are demon possessed. We know better but we haven’t always been taught how to say so without sounding like we’re throwing out Jesus and the gospels. The Gospel is the truth of our faith swaddled in the culture, beliefs and biases of those who recorded and preserved it. It is true even when it isn’t factual.
What is true is that the Church and wider society has a body problem. The Church has held a long grudge against physical, human, bodies – especially the bodies of women. You can find that discomfort, suspicion and downright dislike throughout the breadth of the scriptures. The Church also has a long history of elevating the spiritual at the expense of the body. This is an alien philosophy inimical to the Gospel. It comes from Greek philosophy which colonized the church just as Alexander the Great colonized the world three hundred years previous to the Jesus movement, leaving Greek language and culture in his wake. The subordination of the spirit to the flesh is dangerous because it denies the inherent goodness of our bodies, all they do and all of which they are capable. The Olympians we celebrate are victors not just because of their never-say-die spirits. They are Olympians because of their beautiful, marvelous, well-conditioned, powerful bodies in every shape, size, color, gender and configuration.
The ancient world believed that if something was wrong with you then someone did something wrong. Remember the question from another story: Rabbi, who sinned that this man was born blind? Jesus got it right that time; no one sinned. That question didn’t die out in the ancient world for some. There is also for many whose bodies function differently than others around them – especially when in an obvious way – a lifetime of stares and questions. Sometimes a longing to be different, whole, healthy, normal. But sometimes there is also a deep acceptance of yourself and your abilities and limitations constantly assailed by the rudeness and ignorance of people around you.
Our society has come a long way from the times in which people with physical, emotional or developmental ranges that differ from our own were shut away, often abandoned and abused. Sometimes we put people who are different from us up on pedestals because of all they have overcome. That’s not always a good thing. The ordinariness of a synagogue service in which the bent and the straight sat together and prayed together is a lesson for us. Our congregations are reflections of the family of God. Everyone should be welcome and made to feel welcome. So we need to be thoughtful about the language we use even when it is in the gospel. We have to ask ourselves if we are truly welcoming to all and if our members and visitors are as diverse as the whole people of God. Are we accessible to those with mobility challenges? Are we sensitive to them? Does our language say that there is only one way to pray? What if you can’t stand or kneel or fold your hands? What if bowing your head means you can’t read the priest’s lips and can’t follow the service? Are we truly accessible and more than that, welcoming, inclusive?
For eighteen years this woman lived with the stares and pious pronouncements. She could have been an older woman with eighteen years of osteoporosis or she could have been a younger woman with eighteen years of scoliosis from her childhood or anything in between. And she was living the life she had in the body she had. That life included prayer and study. Neither ability nor disability made her any different than anyone else in that regard. She knew she was a daughter of Abraham. It was Sabbath and she went to synagogue.
Jesus is there, in the place of prayer and study and he sees her. Jesus sees her and diagnoses her need. He calls her to him. She does not seek him out. Unlike other women and men in the gospels she doesn’t seek out Jesus to be healed. She is just living her life and healing comes to her. It is only natural, only human, to desire wholeness, health and healing. It is also the case that some folk are at home in bodies we could not imagine living in, at peace with themselves their abilities and what others call disabilities.
I am still stumped by Jesus’ healing. But I believe in it. I can’t reproduce it. But I believe in it. What I can do is bless those who can and do heal and be present with those who are seeking healing and work for a world in which all have access to healthcare. Let God be God. Let the power of the Holy Spirit heal all who she will. On this day she was willing and a body that was bent and broken was unbroken.
Jesus’s touch offered more than the miracle. It was the bond of their shared humanity. So many folk are starving for human touch—even when they live in homes with other folk. We do a lot of hugging in the black church; we say a hug in church may be the only hug some folk receive all week. So let the church be a place where folk can be loved on, safely. And let us always be respectful of the boundaries of people’s bodies and never use our status as adults to press a touch, hug or kiss on a child. We must teach them that they own their bodies and can say no. We pass the peace because we understand that we are to offer a holy touch, a loving touch, a healing touch to each other as a part of our worship because our bodies matter.
The touch of Jesus accomplishes that which others cannot. It heals. It frees. It liberates. It reconfigures. It restores. It unbreaks that which is broken. That is the primary mission of Jesus, to free us so that we may live fully and serve and worship God without constraint or restraint. Some folk do have a healing touch. There were prophets and apostles who could heal. I am certain there are folk in this world whom God has granted the grace to heal with a touch or a prayer. For some the healing touch is nurtured through years of nursing and medical training. What I know to be true is that those folk who advertise and monetize healing are not the ones I trust.
We can’t always count on miracles but we should be able to count on medical care. There is no good reason that this state and this nation cannot provide healthcare to all who need it starting with our children, especially when we say that we are a Christian nation – not true but we say it – and one nation under God. Texas should not lead the world in maternal mortality. This isn’t the Iron Age. But some folk in leadership are trumpeting Iron Age theology and values and they are killing women and children. The exact opposite of Jesus. We may not be able to heal with a touch and a word like Jesus but we can work to make a world where every child, every senior, every person with a disease or disability has access to healthcare. Jesus could have charged anything he wanted for his healing touch. He could have reserved healing for only those who could pay. But then he wouldn’t be Jesus. Jesus was, as the meme goes, a brown-skinned socialist revolutionary.
It seems the only thing folk like less than priests who preach politically or caustion against reading every text in the bible literally is seeing Jesus intervene for good in someone else’s life. The synagogue leader sees the power of God at work before his very eyes and is mad about it. How many of you have seen a miracle? Can you imagine? And he says: It’s shares. She’s been bent over for 18 years, one more day isn’t going to hurt her. I didn’t come to the house of God to experience God in real time. I came to read and hear about God, not see God act in the world. My God is a character in a story, not a real and living God active in the world. I don’t want to see anybody else get better in any way because that might mean I’ll have to change. And I’m too used to my own brokenness to give it up. All that praising is just unseemly. She’s standing up when the rest of us are sitting down. I’m not here for that. Besides, there’s no room for healing in the order of service.
Look at our worship bulletin. We have had this service for four hundred years or so if you count from when we started using the Book of Common Prayer. And while there are prayers for healing there is no space for the healing or the praise that is sure to follow. Jesus’s touch is not only loving, healing and transformational, it is disruptive. Even when we’re doing well – going to synagogue or church – we still need to be shaken out of our complacency, as one of my role models, the Rev. Dr. Renita Weems, taught me when I heard her preach this text a good 20 years ago.
Finally, one thing that hasn’t changed from the time of Jesus to our own is that there are some folk who love animals more than they love people. I love animals. I am a proud cat mama. But I understand that though animals are part of God’s good creation and we owe them faithful care, they do not bear the image of God as we do. There are folk who turn their back on suffering humanity – particularly if they are a different race or religion, like the Muslim Syrian refugees – and lavish attention on animals even when lives are at stake. One example that burns me is the folk who continue to call for Michael Vick to be thrown out of the NFL for a crime that he has acknowledged, apologized for, served time for, paid reparations for and made restitution for as though he doesn’t qualify for forgiveness while at the same time the league and the Cowboys who my godfather played for for fourteen years are full of unrepentant rapists and wife beaters.
To them Jesus says, You ought to do for your sister what you do for your animals. And she is your sister. She is a daughter of Abraham. You can’t call yourselves the children of Abraham and advocate against the well-being of another of God’s children. And we have a presidential candidate talking about throwing an entire branch of Abraham’s family tree out of the country. Well, the brother in the text had the good sense to ashamed of himself after Jesus finished telling him about himself but it seems he wasn’t alone. There was a crowd of folk egging him own. They were put to shame too. Maybe you can’t heal like Jesus but do you use your voice to speak against those who would deny basic human dignity to another person?
After Jesus had unbroken her body and their biases, the folk in the synagogue instead of getting back to the day’s liturgy joined the woman in celebrating the liberating acts of God through Jesus. They didn’t just give thanks for the miracle of the healing but for everything that Jesus did: for seeing our need, for calling us, for touching us, for healing us, for teaching us, for rebuking us, for defending us, for showing us how to live and love, for being with us, for being God among us. For all these things we too give thanks. Amen.
Most of the sermon can be viewed here: https://www.facebook.com/wil.gafney/posts/10209498062188831
Joshua 2:1 Yehoshua ben Nun, Joshua the son of Nun, sent from Shittim two men, spies, secretly saying, “Go, survey the land including Jericho.” So they went and entered the house of a woman, a sex-selling woman, a prostitute, a harlot, a whore, a ‘ho – her name was Rachav, Rahab – and they lay down there.
Pray we me as I ask on behalf of Rahab and her sisters, Who Are You Calling a Whore? Let us pray:
Brukah at Yah eloheynu lev ha’olam
asher lev eleynu v’shama’at qol libeynu
rachami aleynu v’yishma qol d’mamah daqah.
Blessed are You, Yah our God, Heart of the Universe,
who attends to us and hears the voice of our hearts;
mother-love us and make audible the soft, still voice Amen.
James Lewis photography used with permission.
Rahab is the deliverer of her people, her family. She saves her (at least) two sisters and (at least) two brothers and their spouses and their children. Parents and slaves swell the ranks of her kindred she saved from several dozen to perhaps a hundred people depending on how many siblings she has, how many children they have and how many servants and/or slaves they all have. Rahab determined to save as many of her people as she could, and she succeeded yet she is remembered as a whore, slut-shamed by the bible and its readers for all time. I can imagine Rahab looking her people in the eye after she saved their behinds saying, “Now, who are you calling a whore? This whore is your savior.”
We’re talking about what happens when women preach this weekend. One thing that happens when this woman preaches is I look for those women that other interpreters and preachers pass up, like Rahab’s sisters. Rahab’s sisters are women who stand out to me as precariously perched on the pages of scripture. Rahab asks for the protection of “my mother and father and sister[s] and brothers” in Josh 2:14. How many of you know that when you move to freedom you have a holy obligation to take somebody with you? How many of you are invested in the liberation of your sisters?
Rahab’s sisters are vulnerable in the passage. They keep disappearing in the mouths of the Israelites. When the spies agree to her terms in 2:18, they agree to save her “mother and father, brothers and her father’s household.” They have erased her sisters and imposed their sense of hierarchy on her household by giving her father a household that is not his in the passage. The text doesn’t say her father heads a household, but it does say she does. Rahab works with them in spite of their patriarchy because sometimes you have to work with what you got and everybody aint free and everybody aint trying to get free. Even the bible doesn’t seem fully committed to the liberation of Rahab’s sisters. When the Israelites take Jericho in chapter 6, they preserve the lives of Rahab, “her mother, father, brothers, all who belong to her – her whole family.” If it weren’t for Rahab, we wouldn’t know that she even had sisters. Rahab’s sisters exist only on her lips. She has saved them in and into the scriptures. If we don’t call the names of our sisters, no one else will. #SayHerName and don’t call her out of it. Who are you calling a whore?
I wonder whether Rahab’s sisters and mother are also sex-workers. I wonder whether Rahab is the eldest of her siblings, how she came to be the home-owner, whether she was the bread-winner for her entire family, and why she betrayed or abandoned the rest of her own people according to the Israelite chronicle. So I turn to my sanctified imagination and encounter a womanish, womanly woman, Rahab the courtesan, consort of kings (and queens if called upon), purveyor of pleasure to the working man, hostess of an oasis of delight, supported and protected by the embracing city wall.
Rahab presides confidently over her emporium in garments softer than any woven by the local craftswomen; she shares a weaver with the prince of her people. Her affluence surrounds her like clouds of incense, the aroma of balsam perfume priced beyond reach of ordinary mortals wafts before and behind her. She tinkles with ornaments of the finest quality, hammered gold jewelry with silver beads and precious stones, even pearls.
Her establishment is an embassy of sorts. She pays taxes on a fraction of her income because she offers intelligence drawn out from her many customers, locals and foreigners alike. Knowledge is power; this is the real currency in her world. For the promise of her reports she is granted a house in the city wall under the watchful eye of the royal guard. She and her girls, her sisters, are all under the protection of the king. He knows that she doesn’t pass everything on to him, just as she knows that she must provide services for him and his most trusted emissaries free of charge.
She begins to hear stories about a horde of people like locusts emerging from the wilderness infiltrating, suborning, overwhelming and sometimes annihilating the peoples in their path. Gathering, sifting and weighing the intelligence she collects, Rahab determines that not all of the stories are wild exaggerations, not all of them are true, but some of them are. She senses the currents of power shifting around her and sets out to navigate them. Providentially, two young men hungry for the touch of her sisters from that very nation appear in her establishment. Rahab sees them well satisfied as her girls draw every drop of information from them about the strength and location of their people and their plans. She may be a whore but she is also so much more.
Who are you calling a whore?
The voices that keep telling us in the text that Rahab is a sex-worker like that’s a bad thing also keep reminding us that she’s not an Israelite, like that’s a bad thing. She is an outsider, an ethnic minority; she’s not one of us. I know Christians like to read the bible like we’re the Israelites but every once in a while we need to read from the perspective of the Canaanites. Rahab was everything that Israel hated and feared: a woman, a sexually active woman controlling her own sexuality, and a Canaanite woman to boot. But don’t count a sister out who fears God no matter how the deck is stacked against her. Because Rahab knew God her circumstances were about to change. And God was going to use the very thing that folk would shame her for to transform her life.
Rahab’s story begins before the two spies who were supposed to be surveying the land come to her place of business for the business which was her business. Rahab’s story begins when she is born and raised, perhaps loved and cherished, or even abandoned, sold or abused. The text doesn’t seem to care how she ended up selling herself and perhaps selling other women and girls. She may have even also had some male employees. However she got her start, Rahab is now at the top of her game. She has her own house and it is not just a residence; it is her place of business. And that is where Boo and Bae show up.
The brothers went to Rahab’s house and lay down. The first thing they do when they get to her house in verse 1 is “lay down.” Before the word got out that there were spies in town, they lay down. Before they spied out the land, they lay down. Before they fulfilled their mission, they lay down. Without interrupting another brother on his way to handle his business asking about the town’s defenses, they lay down. Do you really think those brothers made a beeline from the wilderness to the pleasure palace to get a good night’s sleep? They didn’t have Sheraton pillows in the Iron Age. Rahab’s night shift would have been putting in work right about then. Is that what they were supposed to be spying on? But they weren’t spying because as soon as they got there, they lay down.
The two brothers in the story are supposed to be on a mission. They have one job: Go, study the land. But the first thing they do, the only thing they do is go to Rahab’s. Later, after their escape, they go right back to Joshua and there is no land-spying in between. They only things they have seen was Rahab’s merchandise under and on Rahab’s roof. They never complete their mission. But they do lay down. The verb sh-k-v means to lie down for sleep and sexual intercourse. And while men (or women) may in fact sleep in a brothel; they do not generally seek out brothels as places to sleep. Those hourly rates add up; there are moans and groans, screams, laughter and weeping. In a brothel, beds and other flat surfaces aren’t for sleeping; they’re for working. Besides the verb for sleep does not occur in the passage. I have no doubt that the spies went to Rahab’s house for Rahab’s business. My only question about their transaction is whether they got their money’s worth before they were so rudely interrupted.
The brothers came to Rahab’s house to lay down but she is the one who is is known as a whore. So I’m going to keep asking in her name: Who are you calling a whore? Even today men who buy sex – even from under-aged girls are less likely to be punished than women who sell sex. And girls who are coerced into selling sex are more likely to be treated as criminals than victims. One thing that hasn’t changed from the Iron Age to our age is that there are women who sell sex of their own free will and there women and girls and men and boys who have been sold into selling themselves. It can be hard to tell the difference. Prostitution and trafficking go together. Even among those who are adults and say that they have chosen their lives as they are there are stories of abuse, abduction and abandonment raising the question who would they have been without the evil done to them.
The struggle for basic dignity, human and civil rights takes many forms. Even when we are well clothed, fed, educated and relatively free, we are subject to systemic injustice and oppression that affects us all in different ways. We are fighting multiple battles on multiple fronts – but we do not fight alone – we’re fighting racism in everyday life, systemic institutional bias against peoples of color, summary execution in the streets and we are fighting systems that tell women and girls we are less than, our only value is in our bodies, our appearance, that we are nothing unless we have a man or even a piece of a man to share. And sometimes the church is every bit as vicious and violent as the world for women and girls. All the time denying we are sexual beings, our bodies are designed for sexual pleasure, that we have the right to make our own sexual and reproductive decisions. And the church has failed to teach men and boys about a holy, healthy masculinity and sexuality or even the basic principles of consent for sexual activity. But the church has taught women and men to call non-compliant, non-conforming, independent, sexually free women whores. Who are you calling a whore?
Some say Rahab was an “innkeeper” and not a prostitute. That’s simply not what the text says in Hebrew. There has been across time, a concerted effort to whitewash and sanitize Rahab because she is a great-mother of the messianic line through David to Jesus. Even though they have sex, some religious folk don’t like to talk about sex let alone acknowledge that they and their saints and ancestors ever had sex – except for that one time it took to make them. Folk act like all sex is sinful or that when there is a sexual transgression that is somehow worse than any other sin, especially for women who are somehow guiltier than anybody else in the bed. But the thing I love about the scriptures is that they keep it real. And I love Rahab, because like most prostitutes she understands better than the undercover brothers that all the saints are sinners and God welcomes us with our skeletons and scandals.
When I look at Rahab’s story, I see the story of a woman who was once a girl-child, somebody’s baby girl, who became the kind of woman people whispered about, the kind of woman some folk spit at or on, the kind of woman other women blamed because their husband went to her house every chance they got, the kind of woman Jesus liked to hang out with, and the kind of woman who would always be known for one just thing.
Prostitutes often remind us that there is more than one way to sell sex. Just because no cash changes hands doesn’t mean you are not selling, bartering or trading sex. Some folk trade sex for merchandise. Some folk have sex for financial security. Some folk trade sex for status, for jobs and promotions. For other folk sex is the price they have to pay if they don’t want to be alone or in order to feel better about themselves because if they’re having sex that means at least somebody wants them some time for something. A whole lot of folk are selling themselves. They’re just not all on Craig’s List.
Yet Rahab refuses to be reduced to the stereotypes people have of women who sell sex. She is not all about the Benjamins or the Tubmans. She is not a cold-hearted witch. She has a family that she is going to save using her house of prostitution because God can take that thing in your past or even in your present that stains your name with shame and transform it into your deliverance and bring somebody else out with you. I don’t know if her roof was their roof, or her food was their food but when her family’s lives were in danger, Rahab saved them. She became the savior of her people, the Canaanite Deborah, Jericho’s Harriet Tubman.
But Joshua keeps calling her that woman who does that thing as though that thing was all she ever did, all she ever was or all she ever could be. Is somebody calling you out of your name today? Don’t let anybody, prophet or pastor define you by what you have done even if you’re still doing it. You are God’s child. Women are more than a collection of the body parts some want to reduce us to. That’s true even when parts of the bible can’t get over our parts, what we have done with them and what we might do with them. That women and girl-children are used for those parts then called whores whether they have sold it or had it stolen is more than an injustice, it is a blasphemy against the Spirit of God enwombed in woman-flesh, not just in the case of Christ but also of each of God’s handmade children. Reducing God’s daughters to a singular collection body parts for which we are desired and reviled, coveted and cursed is to deny of the full dignity of our creation in the image of God. And that makes it possible to perpetrate acts of physical and sexual violence against us.
God’s daughters are not the only ones who are sexually abused, exploited, trafficked, sold into prostitution and then blamed for their own brokenness. Rahab’s story could just as easily be Ray-Ray’s story. We need to stop telling the lie that when a grown woman molests a boy he’s lucky. But because we don’t understand sex we don’t understand how and why it is perverted. We can’t talk about Jesus saves and leave folk cowering in shame about what they have done and what has been done to them. God didn’t abandon Rahab to her fate or her previous life choices. We can’t save anybody like Jesus or Rahab anybody if we are to afraid or too embarrassed to speak the word of God to all of the situations God’s children find themselves in, especially those things that thrive in the dark.
We would do well to take a lesson from Rahab when she knew death was coming to her town. She didn’t say the rest of you are on your own, I’m the franchise player on this team. She said I need to get my people out. I need to do right by them. No matter what situation we find ourselves in we have the capacity to help somebody else. Rahab demonstrates a moral and ethical obligation to do right by other folk, no matter how they have treated you or what they have said about you. I don’t know what her mama and daddy thought about her selling herself. No matter how much money she made there would always be the hint of scandal and shame attached to her name. It’s entirely possible that they sold her as a child to make their ends meet. But she didn’t leave them to their fates. She made a way out of no way for her people.
The text says Rahab has brothers and sisters. She saved them too. I don’t know if her brothers were on her payroll or crossed the street when they saw her coming. I don’t know if they called her a whore to her face. You know hoe family can be. Whatever they thought or felt about her, however they treated her, she saved her brothers. She saved her sisters. It doesn’t matter whether her sisters were her flesh and blood, or her sisters working in the sheets and in the streets. Our ancestors had a saying: all my kinfolk aint my skinfolk and all my skinfolk aint my kinfolk. Rahab saved her sisters and everyone who belonged to her house and it didn’t matter what she did or had to do to build that house. She turned her whorehouse into an ark of safety.
Rahab was able to save her people because she put her trust – not in the men who came to her house to lie down – but in their God whom she knew for herself. Rahab was a Canaanite woman whose people were at war with Israel yet she believed that that she could and would be saved. Rahab told Bae and Boo, “your God is God in the heavens above and on the earth.” Rahab knew for herself what some folk are still figuring out, that God is worthy of our faith and trust. Rahab put her faith and trust in the God of all creation and was rewarded with the faithfulness of God. Rahab believed that the God who made her and know her and knew what she did for a living loved her. And she was right. Rahab knew that God knew she had sex, sold sex and sometimes liked sex and she knew that her sex life and sex work were not going to keep her from her salvation.
A thousand years before Jesus ministered to another Canaanite woman Rahab believed that God was no respecter of persons. Rahab believed that it didn’t matter what you had done or what had been done to you, there is a place for you in the people of God. Rahab knew it didn’t matter if folk call you out of your name when God calls you daughter. That’s who Rahab is, God’s daughter. Never mind that the Epistle to the Hebrews and James still call her a whore.
Some folk will continue to tell your old stories, but if God has brought you out there are new stories to be told. Matthew has some new stories of Rahab. They are there between the lines.
Matthew 1:1 An account of the genealogy of Yeshua, Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. 2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers and sisters, 3 and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, 4 and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5 and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rachav, Rahab, and Boaz the father of Oved, Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Yissai, Jesse, 6 and Jesse the father of King David.
One day Rahab found herself the mother of a bouncing baby boy named Boaz. Baby boy grew up and met a widow-woman, she was a foreigner just like his mama. Funny thing is, nowhere in the story of Ruth does anybody talk trash about Boaz’s mama. Rahab’s name lives long after her, not in infamy, but in testament to the faithfulness of God. God’s faithfulness to and through Rahab produced at least fifteen kings according Matthew. Jewish tradition traces the prophets Huldah and Jeremiah from her lineage.
Then one day one of Rahab’s daughters daughters daughters found herself pregnant in an usual way. People talked about her like she wasn’t even a child of God. But I believe she said, the God of Rahab is my God. The faithful God is my God. The trustworthy God is my God. And my baby will be in David’s line but he will also be in Rahab’s line so though he will sit high he will look low. He will be Lord of heaven and earth but he will dine with whores, ‘hos and tax collectors. He will be sought after by kings and emperors but he would rather play in the street with the little children.
Jesus had a particular commitment to doing right by women because he was raised by a single mother after Yosef, Joseph – I call him Yo – disappeared, but more than that, he was a child of the Hebrew Bible. Jesus’ passion for justice for all God’s children emerges from his Jewish identity and his scriptures which have become our shared scriptures with our Jewish and yes, in part with our Muslim, kinfolk. While he was yet God in child-sized flesh Jesus also knew God from the sacred stories of his people because his mama raised a biblically literate Jewish son. I believe Jesus knew the story of Rahab from his childhood scriptures, but also from his family tree.
I maintain that one of the reasons Jesus was so committed to justice for God’s daughters including his own sisters was because of his own family history. Jesus had some scandals in his family tree. His own mother was likely called out of her name, maybe even called a whore, for saying that her baby daddy was not the man she was going to marry. I don’t know if Joseph ever recovered from being told, Yo, you are not the father. That can be a heavy burden for a man to carry. But Jesus was not ashamed of his mama or any of his folk or the secrets and skeletons in their closets. That’s good news right there. Some of you are scandalous and some of you are scandalized and Jesus is not ashamed of any of us. I believe that he chose ministry to scandalous women in part because of his great-mother Rahab.
I’m so glad Rahab is in Jesus’s family tree. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the gospel of Rahab this afternoon, no matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done, no matter what has been done to you, nothing can keep you from the safety and salvation of God. Israelites and church folk may not want you at the table but God says pull up a seat and sit down. Jesus is not ashamed to have you in the family. They may still call you out of your name but you’ve got a place in the household of faith and nobody can put you out. They may still talk about what you used to do but you’re in the promised land with them anyhow. Salvation came to Rahab’s house. Rahab delivered salvation to her own house. God met her right where she was and brought her out of her old house to a brand new life.
If we’re going to follow the example of Jesus and do right by the Rahab’s of the world, we’re going to have to stop calling them out of their names and more than that, we must like Jesus welcome them to the table and family of God, whether they are reformed or not. And as we sit around that table with the scandalous and the scandalized we ought to remember that if weren’t for God loving us in and loving us through and loving us out of our own scandals, skeletons and closets none of us would be at the table. So I ask again: Who Are You Calling a Whore?
The Gospel of Rahab is a scandalous gospel. Rahab was reviled for spreading her legs and yet God chose to enter world through the spread legs of another woman. This Gospel is that God’s concern for women and the woman-born was manifested in God, Godself, becoming woman-born, for the redemption and liberation of women and all the woman-born from fear and from death itself. Yeshua the Messiah, the Son of Woman, came to seek out and save the lost and to give his life as a ransom for many, for Rahab and her sister. Now, who are you calling a whore? Amen.
In the name of God who loves us, who is Love and bids us love one another. Amen.
May I tell you the truth? As a Hebrew Bible scholar I’m always offended that in some parts of Easter and Pentecost the scriptures of Jesus are declared dispensable and replaced with the Acts of the Apostles. Then, to make matters worse, today’s lectionary looks like it was put together by children throwing darts at pages of the bible. The gospel is set at the dedication of the temple, that’s Hanukah, in the dark days of December. But we’re celebrating Easter which overlaps with Passover in the flower-filled spring, not Christmas and Hanukah.
Then there’s a passage from the Revelation of John instead of an epistle. John is seeing visions of a future that people have been saying is just around the corner for two thousand years and is still not here. The book of Revelation terrifies some, confuses others and leads more than a few into heresy and conspiracy. Let me simplify it for you: The world is going to get worse before it gets better. But it will get better. The end. And then a new beginning. The whole world will be resurrected.
And there is our beloved twenty-third psalm. When Christians read the scriptures we share with Judaism we should take seriously their original context and history of interpretation, particularly since Jesus was Jewish and interprets his ancestral scriptures from that context. Which is why I tell seminarians not to share the twenty-third psalm with Jewish patients during chaplaincy rotations – it has the same effect as a chaplain saying “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” over your hospital bed. The twenty-third psalm is a funerary psalm in Judaism. The psalmist becomes a sheep and comes to the end of his life in the house of God. The sheep gets the answer to his prayer. He will dwell in the house of God all the days of his life. But the day he enters the temple will be the last day of his life. You do know what happened to sheep at the temple don’t you? Let me put it this way, they’re delicious and priests got a special cut.
At least the Acts text is an Eastertide text. It’s a resurrection story. And more. We begin with the birth of a beautiful baby girl whose parents loved her and wanted the world for her. How do I know this? All babies are beautiful and without evidence to the contrary I will believe the best about everyone. Besides, Tabitha’s parents left us some of their hopes and dreams for her and pieces of their story in their naming of her.
What’s in a name? “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Tabitha’s name is revelatory. Her parents named her “Tabitha,” Tavitha, in Aramaic. They named her Tabitha, “gazelle,” strong, swift, graceful, nimble saying something of their hopes for her. They named her in Aramaic because that was the language of the empires that had dominated their people ages ago. Those empires waxed and waned but left their language behind continuing the work of colonization even as new empires and languages emerged. The imposition of Aramaic in the ancient world is not entirely dissimilar from the imposition of English in the modern world. The intentionality of her parents in naming her reminds me of the intentionality many African American families in naming their children, including creating new names out of the colonizers’ English. Even though Tabitha’s people spoke Aramaic, they still read their scriptures in Hebrew and Tabitha’s parents would have known that the Hebrew word for gazelle, zivyah, was also the name of one of Judah’s great queen mothers who ruled for her son when he ascended the throne at the tender age seven upon his father’s death.
Tabitha’s name stretches back to strength and glory, acknowledges oppression and subjugation and the ability to adapt to the present situation. Her parents gave her a name that could also be easily translated into Greek, the language of their most recent oppressors, so that when the author of Acts called her Dorcas, though he wasn’t calling her by her name he wasn’t calling her that far out of it. I have to admit that when the author switches to Dorcas in the middle of her story and never switches back, I am bothered. I think about the terrible habit some Americans have of telling people that their names are too hard or too foreign and giving them easier, English names. Whenever I read this story I think about Kunta Kinte who was willing to die and was horribly mutilated because he would not relinquish his ancestral African name and accept the slave name Toby. If you do not know who Kunta Kinte was you’re in luck, Roots has been remade and will be broadcast this summer.
The author of Acts names Tabitha something else, he names her as a disciple. In fact she is the only woman in scripture explicitly called a disciple. She is not the only woman disciple, but she is the only woman called one. Now, what the author does not say is as important as what he does say. He does not say that Peter or Paul or some other disciple – male or female – converted her. Rather he presents her as already being a disciple. She has her own faith story. I suggest that she has had her own encounter with Jesus after all, Yaffo, Joppa is only thirty-five miles away from Jerusalem and fifty-five miles from Nazareth.
Tabitha’s discipleship means serving God by serving those whom God loves. As a Jewish follower of Jesus Tabitha was living out the rabbinic principle of g’miluth hasadim “loving-kindness” as described in the sacred text of Pirke Avot (1:2): The world stands upon three things – upon Torah, upon divine service (avodah), and upon acts of loving-kindness (g’miluth hasadim). [In Hebrew Acts 9:36 describes her service to others as g’miluth hasadim, in Syriac as zedaqta, giving alms.] To be a disciple is to imitate your teacher and Tabitha imitated Christ in her love for those he loved and loves.
The story in Acts weaves all of these elements together building towards a breath-taking moment, the moment after Tabitha’s breath is taken. Tabitha is raised from the dead just as Jesus was raised. Peter raised her as Elijah raised the son of the widow in Zarephath. He raised her as Elisha raised the Shunamite woman’s son. He raised her as Jesus raised the widow’s son in Nain which was a new name for Shunem – teaching us that there are some places where the spirit is bursting out into new life and raising the dead again and again if we know where to look. And Peter raises Tabitha like Jesus raises Jairus’s daughter.
In fact Tabitha’s raising is suspiciously like the raising of Jairus’s daughter. Where Peter says “Tabitha get up,” Jesus says, “Lambkin, get up.” I know the gospel says “little girl” in Luke 8, but it’s actually “lamb” which is kind of sweet. But in Aramaic the two commands sound the same, Jesus says: Talitha qumi and Peter says Tavita qumi. Peter imitates Jesus in this miraculous moment and Tabitha imitates Jesus in her day-to-day life.
We too are called to imitate Jesus but resurrection is tricky. Preachers who promise to deliver resurrection are often fleecing the flock. Even medical professionals cannot predict and guarantee medical miracles. But they do happen. We live in hope that we will imitate Jesus in dying and being raised but before that we are called to imitate Jesus in our living and loving as Tabitha did.
There is another act of service in the text, one that most Christians no longer practice. The author tells us that the other disciples – identified later in the text as saints and widows – washed Tabitha’s body and carried it upstairs. As he related the details of her death-narrative, the Greek-speaking Gentile author uses a masculine plural verb to describe the preparation of Tabitha’s body. Even if she had a husband, which she does not in this text, he would not have washed her. The practice of washing a body for burial was carried out by members of the same gender. It is still practiced today in Judaism, Islam and some monastic Christian communities. The community of women, called widows in the text, would have included some widowed by death, some by abandonment, some who chose celibacy, some old, some young, women who also chose to follow Christ and follow Tabitha as she followed Christ prepared her body for her burial – just as their apostolic sisters had prepared the body of Christ before his burial.
And then God through Peter called her name. What’s in a name? Each of us has a name. Israeli poet Zelda Mishlowski puts it this way:
Each of us has a name
Given by God
And given by our parents
Each of us has a name
Given by our stature and given by our smile
And given by what we wear
Each of us has a name
Given by the mountains
And given by our walls
Each of us has a name
Given by the stars
And given by our neighbors
Each of us has a name
Given by our sins
And given by our longing
Each of us has a name
Given by our enemies
And given by our love
Each of us has a name
Given by our celebrations
And given by our work
Each of us has a name
Given by the seasons
And given by our blindness
Each of us has a name
Given by the sea
And given by
My ancestors sang: Hush, hush, somebody’s calling my name. Sounds like Jesus. Somebody’s calling my name. Jesus is still calling us by name, calling us to life and to discipleship. And one day he will call us to life beyond death with our sister Tabitha. Amen.
Womanists love their wombs. It seems whenever I’m in womanist space women are talking about, talking to, laying hands on their wombs, our wombs, my womb. But you don’t know my womb or its story. And it’s not just my womb or my story. Today I’m going to speak to and for wombs that hurt, wombs that hurt us.
In this room and every room in which womanists celebrate their wombs and their fruit – children and the spiritual, emotional, creative and ancestral conversations and processes that they locate not just in their bodies or bellies but in their wombs, some of us flinch. Some of us hurt. Some of us fold in on ourselves. Some of us hold our heads down in pain and shame even if we don’t move a muscle. Some of us hold our carefully composed masks as your words encircle us, negating our experiences and our truths. Our wombs hurt and they hurt us.
Some of us were born with broken wombs. Some of us were born with dead wombs. Some of us were born without our wombs. Some of us have been attacked by our wombs for as long as we can remember. Some of our wombs were broken into, raped and scraped into inhospitality and infertility when were too young for our wombs to recover. Some of us have wombs that cannot or will not hold onto life – and we have tried, cried, paid and prayed for womb-life. Our wombs trickle, leak and squeeze – in heart and flesh rending pulses – the life out our wombs. Our wombs bleed when they should not, not a cleansing, healing flow but a chunky, membranous, crimson tide running down our legs, staining our clothes, soiling our sheets, embarrassing and humiliating us in public and in private with our partners. Our wombs do not bleed when they should. They do not bleed because we have nothing to nurture with its rich blood. Our wombs don’t bother to bleed because they know we have no eggs, no ovaries or we have ovaries and eggs that are not worth its blood. Some of our wombs hurt so much that they must be taken from us and no matter how much they hurt us we don’t want to let them go.
Some of our wombs hurt because they have been taken away from us and ache for the children they will never bear. Some of our wombs hurt because the life we have given has been snatched away. Some of our wombs hurt because death came for our child and we had to carry that dead body in our body to term and push it into the world in a grotesque parody of the birth we had planned. Some of our wombs hurt because the child we birthed didn’t survive the birthing. She didn’t last the day, the night. He didn’t live a week, a month, a year. Some of our wombs hurt because we can never accept our child’s death at any age. Some of our wombs hurt because they were perfectly healthy and desperately empty having never found anyone to love or be loved by.
Sometimes, hearing our sister and mothers revel in their wombs and accomplishments, our wombs hurt all the more.
For my sisters and mothers whose wombs hurt and hurt them.
Our first lesson could easily be and should be translated:
2 Sam 11:4 David sent emissaries to kidnap Bathsheba and she came to him then he raped her. Then she cleansed herself from her defilement and returned to her house. 5 [After some time] the woman conceived; and she sent and told David, “I am pregnant.” (translation, Wil Gafney)
These are hard words. These are hard times. Hard times call for hard words.
Let us pray: Holy One of Old, open our ears that we may hear. Amen.
[Note: all of the tweet links are broken. I’ll fix them when I can.] As Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi watched Trayvon Martin being put on trial for his own murder they created the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Many have joined the movement and when others have tried to hijack the prophetic proclamation by focusing only on black male lives or heterosexual or cissexual black lives we who agitate and protest in social media and in the streets remind and correct them: all black lives matter. [tweet this] Black women’s lives matter. Black lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender lives matter. Black Muslim lives matter. All black lives matter because black life is sacred. [tweet that] The lives of Sandra Bland, Kindra Chapman and Jasmine Wright cut short this past week matter because they were the very image of God and someone could not or chose not to see God in them.
And when folk want to turn away from the death that is stalking black lives in the streets, in the church, in police custody, in WalMart, in public parks and in the case of 7 year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, shot by a cop in her own little bed, we say no. Don’t look away. Don’t change the subject. You don’t go to a breast cancer rally and change the subject to all cancer or another disease or all the people who aren’t killed by cancer or even blame folk for behavior choices that you think may have contributed to their cancer.
That’s what the folk who invented the all lives matter hashtag in response to black lives matter were doing. [tweet this] We said black lives matter. They said no, all lives matter. They said we will not acknowledge that black life is under siege. We will change the subject. We will look away.
We have a hard time talking about race in this country. At this moment we are looking at an escalating tide of black death and some of us are saying black lives matter. In the church we should also say Black life is sacred.
Our scriptures teach we are all created in the image of God. That is easy to say. Our history and our very present demonstrate that some of are not counted in that “we.” Our own Episcopal Church told my enslaved ancestors that freedom in Christ didn’t mean freedom from slavery. They would be free when they died. We weren’t counted in that “we.” The founders of this nation, many of whom were also founders of the Episcopal Church, both founded in my home Diocese of Pennsylvania, had no trouble excluding people of African descent from “we the people.” (Yes, they excluded others but we’re not going to look away or change the subject.) [tweet this] Those founders for whom the bible was scripture could appeal to its pages to support slavery. Yes, Paul said there is neither slave nor free – but he told Onesimus who freed himself from slavery he had to return to slavery and his master and also wrote “slaves obey your masters.” [tweet this] And for all his talk about freedom, Jesus never freed any slaves.
In the biblical world just as in ours there were people who counted and people who didn’t. Often those people were identified by ethnicity. Race as we know it didn’t exist in the biblical word but ethnicity functioned very much as it does now. Ethnicity in antiquity and modernity is identity rooted in people and place often with distinct language and cultural attributes. In their scriptures Israelites were the people who mattered and non-Israelites often did not. For me there is more than a little irony in Gentile Christians claiming the scriptures of Israel as our heritage. And, whether Israelite or non-Israelite, women in the scriptures often – but not always – but all too often – were treated as though they didn’t matter. And yes, there are those texts where women and foreigners and even foreign women turn the tables on exclusion and bias but don’t rush to those texts too quickly. Don’t look away from what is hard to see just yet.
Part of what is so infuriating to many us in the Black Lives Matter movement is that all too often our fellow God-crafted citizens whom we pay, support and need as police officers are killing us and our children. They have the power of the state at their disposal, a sacred trust to use lethal force only for the protection of all of us, for our common good. But some of them abuse that power. [tweet this] The sheer scope of extrajudicial killings of black folk by police is an abuse of power. Some take it further like Officer Daniel Hoytzclaw who spent his on-duty time targeting black women for sexual assault. [tweet this] He took at least 13 black women like David took Bathsheba. Don’t look away.
The church has a history of looking away. The church has looked away from David’s abuse of his power, running to his repentance. Don’t look away. [tweet this] The church has even looked to Bathsheba blaming her – some call her rape adultery – looking at her instead of David just as some folk have blamed victims of police killings: if they had just done what they were told… If she hadn’t mouthed off… The penalty for non-compliance and being mouthy is not summary execution, not in these United States. Besides, compliance won’t save us. Don’t change the subject. Don’t shift the blame. Don’t look away from the abuse of power in this text.
Hold David responsible for his actions. I tell my students and the preachers I mentor not to say “Bathsheba was raped” but to say “David raped Bathsheba.” When he sent his men to take her she didn’t have the option of saying no. She was a stranger in a strange land, her husband was away fighting his war and then he took her, raped her and tried to discard her. Having to prove David raped Bathsheba is uncomfortably similar to the plight in which many women and girls find themselves, having to prove to the police and general public that they were raped.
God, the prophet Nathan and the scriptures are clear that Bathsheba was not at fault for David’s sin. Only he is accused and held accountable. But the text doesn’t regard David’s rape of Bathsheba as a crime against her. In the bible her rape is a crime against her husband. That’s hard for me. But I won’t look away. As an Episcopalian and a biblical scholar I know the bible is more often descriptive than prescriptive, describing things as they were and not as they should be. [tweet this] We are called to learn from, not always imitate Iron Age theology. We are also called to look for those spaces where every once in a while Iron Age theology is revolutionary and revelatory. So don’t look away when the text and even God are hard to look at or you might miss it.
David who was so handsome when we met him is ugly in this text. David rapes because he can. Rape is about power and domination. It is not about sex. [tweet this] David had sex partners. He was married like so many other rapists. David has been engaged to Saul’s daughter Merab, then married to her sister Michal then married to Abigail after her husband died and, on the way home with Abigail he stops off and picks up Ahinoam.] Before he sends men to abduct Bathsheba so he can rape her, David has sexual access to a minimum of six wives whom we know, seven if you count the banished Michal and an unknown number of Saul’s wives whom he inherited. That does not include servants – or slaves since they could not say no – and prostitutes with which Israelite men could have sex without consequence because adultery at that time was only having sex with a married or engaged woman.
[Now those of you who have medical or public health training, tell me what does a person with multiple sexual partners run the risk of, particularly when those partners have more than one sexual partner themselves? Listen to David’s words in Psalm 38:
5 My wounds grow foul and fester
because of my foolishness;
6 I am utterly bent over and prostrate;
all day long I go around mourning.
7 For my loins are filled with burning,
and there is no soundness in my flesh.
[tweet this] David had an STD and wrote a psalm about it. If you asked him, I’m sure David would tell you, “It’s good to be king.” David’s rape of Bathsheba and murder-by-proxy of her husband need to be understood in light of his treatment of other women. [tweet that] He would go on to have children with seven women that we know by name: Abigail, Ahinoam, Bathsheba, Maacah, Haggith, Abital and, Eglah. He fathered another seven children with a group of nameless wives, and he still had Saul’s leftover women. But the church has looked away from David’s sexual ethics.
To cover up his crime, David killed Bathsheba’s husband. And as a result she had no place else to go. I guess she could be grateful that David didn’t just kill her too. I wonder if she had had a choice would she have chosen death over marrying her rapist. Perhaps some days the answer was yes. Sadly, all that most people seem to remember about Bathsheba is the worst day of her life, maybe the worst two or three days: the day David raped her, the day David killed her husband, the day she realized she would have to marry her rapist. I don’t know how she did it. But it seems to me that she made up her mind to have the best life she could under the circumstances. I imagine that she said to David, “You are not going to shut me away like you did your first wife Michal. You stole the life I had with my husband. You stole our future and you stole our children. I can’t get that back but I can have your children and the security that comes with them. It’s good to be king and I will be the mother of kings.”
I don’t know if she really said that, but that’s what I imagine her saying. I have to imagine something because she keeps living and sleeping with David, having his babies – four of them – in spite of everything that he has done to her and her husband. She stayed in that marriage like so many women married to a monster with no place to go. I’m not saying that women who are being abused or even raped by their husbands should stay with them. I am simply acknowledging that she had no other choice, and that in our time many women feel like they have no choice either. Bathsheba made the best she could out of the situation.
In so doing she changed the course of history. Bathsheba and the prophet Nathan decide between them, without an old, then-impotent David at the end of his life, that her son Solomon and not David’s oldest son Amnon or even his favorite, Absalom will be king. [tweet this] Bathsheba put her son on the throne. And after David died, Solomon put her on a throne. In 2 Kings 2, Solomon enthrones his long-suffering mother who has survived her rape, her rapist and their forced marriage. Bathsheba became the right-hand woman in the kingdom. And when Solomon got up off of his throne and bowed at her feet, everyone else in the throne room did too.
Solomon learned it’s good to be king and followed in the footsteps of his father David. Where did you think he got the habit of collecting women? It is good to be king. But Jesus didn’t want to be king. He knew that there was nothing romantic about being king. Many monarchs, kings, some queens and pharaohs – male and female – were bloodthirsty, power-hungry, egomaniacal and rapists. [tweet this] David and Solomon represented the golden age of Israelite monarchy and Jesus didn’t want to be anything like them. David and Solomon collected women for their own personal use. [tweet] Jesus collected and respected women disciples like Mary Magdalene, the Apostle to the Apostles whose feast was this past Wednesday.
Yet the Church and the scriptures have given the title “king” to Jesus. His disciples then and now never seem to get that he never wanted to be king. In today’s Gospel, after he has demonstrated his power by feeding five thousand people with a child’s lunch Jesus has to run away and hide because the people want to make him king. Just after his resurrection and ascension, the disciples asked again, “Now are you going to restore the kingdom?” If he could raise himself from death to life surely he could put Herod and even Caesar to death. Because the one sure way to become king was to kill the previous king. But Jesus would die, not kill.
[tweet this] Kings take. But Jesus gives. A king will take your sister, wife or daughter. But Jesus gives women dignity. A king will take and tax your crops. But Jesus gives the Bread of Heaven and earthly food to the hungry. [tweet this] A king will take your life if you get in his way, but Jesus gives eternal life.
As king David had the power of life and death at his command. He used that power to rape and murder. There were good kings in Israel and terrible kings and kings who did good things and terrible things. There are good people and horrible people with the power of life and death over others. And there are people who do good things and terrible things with the power of life and death over others. Some of those things are so terrible we may want to look away and change the subject. [tweet] But the lesson of Bathsheba and Black Lives Matter is that the victimized and the vulnerable matter to God and none of the biases of text or culture, in the Iron Age or this age will ever change that.
In the Name of God who is Love, Jesus the Love that is stronger than death and the Holy Spirit who covers us and fills us with her Love. Amene.
2014 Susan Draper White Lectures at the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, New Brighton, MN. The talk is based on my book Daughters of Miriam and previews the approach in my forthcoming book Womanist Midrash.
A sermon on the Purification of the Virgin Mary from Luke 2:22-39
Hymn of Preparation: “Home,” from the Wiz.
There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. For good and for ill, there’s no place like home. Sometimes we just want to go home. Sometimes we just want to run away from home. Some just want a home to turn to, loving arms to embrace and comfort us.
How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?
For many the emblem of home is the kitchen, often mama’s kitchen table. The table is a sacred place. It is the altar of the home. Home. Table. Altar. Presence. Themes of the Presentation – add in the light of Epiphany, candles on the altar and table for Candlemass and we’ve got the full suite. We could almost pronounce the benediction. Almost.
These festivals may not be your festivals, and that’s all right because obscure liturgy is the order of the day in the gospel. Luke is counting on that obscurity and the good will of his hearers and readers to accept his liturgical reimaginings. The Feast of the Presentation is a combination liturgical midrash and time travel. The baby Jesus was a newborn at Christmas, a toddler at Epiphany, an adult at his baptism and is now a babe in arms again. He was eight days old in the previous verse just before our lesson at his bris, his circumcision. He is forty days and forty nights old in the first verse of today’s gospel when he comes to the temple remembered here today. (Does being brought to the temple at his mother’s breast at the appointed time for the appointed service count as “suddenly the Lord will come to his temple” from Malachi?) Until Malachi, only Isaiah called God “the Lord” using that particular word, ha’adon, and only five times; each of those times God came as the Holy God of Warriors, or Lord of Hosts. I don’t think Sweet Baby Jesus was that cranky.
But that’s the story isn’t it? That this baby was that God. That is certainly Luke’s point. And if he has to rewrite Torah to make his point, so be it. Luke has that it was “their” purification, but the Torah only calls for the purification of the mother after childbirth. That is the Torah-obligation; there is no liturgy prescribed for a “presentation.” Luke subtly acknowledges the change, they were there for “their purification,” and brought the baby along, secondary clause.
This is the purification of Miryam, Mary, forty days after giving birth to a male child – a different interval would be called for in case of a daughter. Some scholars reckon the difference as an indication of the different amounts of labor each contributes to the society. She is taboo for seven days, hence her availability for the circumcision on the eighth day and restricted to a lesser degree for thirty-three days. She owes a restoration offering – the translation of hattat as “sin” here misses the mark; she has not sinned and not just because she was a virgin mother. She will also contribute to the ongoing, established twice-daily regular burnt offerings. The restoration offering is a small bird but the burnt offering was a lamb, because God really likes a good barbeque, is something of a red meat eater or smeller and is attracted to and soothed by the smell of roasting flesh according to the Torah. If a woman was too poor to afford a lamb for the burnt offering she could double up on the poultry offering as did the Blessed Virgin. (Is that why you have to have chicken for a church supper?)
It is her offering, her practice of her Judaism, her fidelity to Torah that we celebrate today. Today the Virgin is contributing the sacred meal, setting a most holy kosher table. She sets the table for the holy meal and feeds her family – not Joseph or the Holy Infant here, but Elizabeth and Zachariah are priest clan, their rations come from the holy table. Mary has fed them today. When Joseph disappears from the pages of the Gospel it will be Mary who keeps a kosher Jewish home, celebrates the High Holy Days from Rosh HaShannah to Yom Kippur and the pilgrim festivals Passover and Pentecost all at the altar of her table. Where do you think Jesus learned the importance of table fellowship or even how to set a table? Today’s offerings mark her return to her community, she can go home and be welcomed in the homes of others and at their tables and show off her new baby.
The Virgin’s offerings mark her transformation and restoration. It is her day. In the Church, the language Presentation rather than Purification came about in part as a desire to move away from the old concept of blood taboo that has been particularly stigmatizing to women. And that’s not a bad thing. But in naming the feast the Presentation of Jesus, the Church has moved the focus of the feast from the Virgin Mother to her Son, making it one more literal, wooden, proof-text. The Church couldn’t help itself. It read “suddenly he will come to his temple” from Malachi through the lens of the John the Baptist and perhaps also through the eyes of today’s gospel in which Luke adds in the separate tradition about the redemption of the firstborn. And rewrites Torah, again.
Exodus 13:2 calls for the consecration of “everything” and therefore everyone that “opens the womb,” Hebrew scholars, that’s kol, “all,” “each,” “every.” All the firstborn are holy to God, not just “males” as Luke has rewritten the Torah: Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord. The Torah doesn’t say “male.” Not even the LXX has “male” there, nor even the Targum. All of us who are firstborn are holy to God, including me and the Blessed Virgin. Sorry little brother. Luke has mixed and mangled in the tradition about the redemption or ransom of firstborn children from later in Exodus. That’s tricky because God calls for the sacrifice of the firstborn animals and ransom of firstborn human males but girls are not ransomed, but fortunately not sacrificed either. Now there is a Jewish ritual of redeeming the firstborn son, pidyon haben, but it was not practiced in the time of Jesus.
Being included or excluded from religious rituals and language because of your gender, race, orientation, theological convictions or other attributes is part of what makes a sacred community feel like home or utterly alien. Many look at the purification of women after childbirth and find it to be completely alienating. But perhaps it was a welcome and welcoming experience for the Blessed Virgin. She was returning home.
The temple and its liturgies offered a home space for the itinerant family. Home in Galilee was behind them and ahead of them for now; the Egyptian sojourn a couple-few years away. But the temple was familiar, beloved, home to their God and the visible manifestation of their faith. Home. Table. Altar. Presence. After immersion, separately in one of the mikveh pools on the Temple Mount, they come through the Huldah gates across from the tomb of the prophet Huldah, the only woman buried in the temple complex. Surely the prophet Anna prayed at her grave. The gates are twelve great-stones high – I was only two and a half stones high when I stood at the gate. There are another six stones above the twelve-stone gate in the outer wall. And it is only a third as high as the 60 foot (40 cubit) Holy of Holies. The Virgin would be half the size of my fingernail here.
Passing through the prophet’s gates they would cross the Court of the Gentiles where they could buy their offering and entered through one of many gates, perhaps the Gate of Offering (mid, back, right), into the Court of the Women – which wasn’t just for women. Here they would have met Anna and Simeon. Somewhere on the stairs leading up to Nicanor’s Gate – rich folk have been naming stuff in God’s house after themselves for a long time – on the stairs Virgin would lay her hand on her offering and hand it to the priest who would take it through the gate into the court of the Israelites where the outdoor altar was. Joseph could have gone with him and taken the baby. The wall between the two was open as were the gates. Mary could have watched the sacrifice and offering. On the other side, in the court of the Israelite Men there were cages and kennels and the altar so broad and wide a dozen men could walk around tending three or four different fires, each big enough to burn a whole ox. They had a ramp to drag the dead weight of the big ones up, having slit their throats, hung them on hooks and drained the blood before placing them on the altar.
All of this because of the One present, dwelling within the soaring height of the Holy of Holies. Home. Table. Altar. Presence. The temple was God’s home on earth. The altar of burnt sacrifice was God’s table. The Holy of Holies was God’s private space where God was present within. It is the presence of God that makes a building a temple just as it’s the presence of love and family that makes a house a home.
A chair is still a chair
Even when there’s no one sittin’ there
But a chair is not a house
And a house is not a home.
When we gather at this table, will you see yourself as coming home? Visiting? A welcome guest? A tolerable and tolerated guest? Or do you feel unwelcome? This is Black History Month when home takes on a different resonance for me than it may for you. I am reminded that I have not always been welcome at this table, that I have not always been seen as fit to preside at this table. But I have been extended a radical welcome, anchored in the womb of the Virgin Mother, the kitchen space where Baker-Woman God crafted the Bread of Life in her very body and blood.
Let me extend to you that radical welcome. It is the welcome of today’s gospel. The point of all Luke’s rewriting is this: The Holy God of the awesome, towering, holy temple has come into our midst as Mary’s child. And we who are gentiles, who would be stoned if we crossed the low row or tombstone-shaped stones at the inner boundary of the Court of the Gentiles, we are welcome. We are welcome as women and men together, like Anna and Simeon. We are welcome whether we are called by God like the prophet Hannah, Anna or are lay folk like Simeon. We are welcome whether our offerings are the stuff of our poverty like the Virgin, or the sign of privilege like Nicanor. We are welcome. You are welcome. Welcome home.
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 Abel… By faith Enoch… By faith Noah… By faith Abraham and Sarah… By faith Isaac… By faith Jacob… By faith Joseph… By faith Moses… By 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.
Genesis 15:6, Abraham trusted in God… Hebrews 11:1, Faith is the essence of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen… 3 By faith we understand…
Let us pray: Holy One of Old, open our eyes that we may see. Amen.
|I believe I can fly
I believe I can touch the sky
I think about it every night and day
Spread my wings and fly away
I believe I can soar
I see me running through that open door
I believe I can fly…
What do you believe this morning? I know we shall all recite some of our commonly held beliefs in the Creed after the sermon, but what else do you believe? What do you believe that other folk call cray? You know, cray is when you’ve gone all the way past crazy and just kept going. What do you believe?
I’m not asking what or who do you believe in, because that is not the limit of what faith is about in scripture. There are folk who wear their belief in Jesus like a t-shirt; they are team JCeezy and like good sports fans, talk trash about all the other teams. That is not faith. That is fandom. What do you believe? But before you tell me, show me.
Genesis says that Abraham trusted in God. You know the Hebrew word for this kind of trusting belief already; it is amen. Abraham said “yes” and “amen” to everything God said. But belief is more than just words. As she tells the story, the author of Hebrews writes – by the way, I’m not the only scholar who believes that Priscilla wrote Hebrews – she writes in verse 8: By faith Abraham obeyed… v 9, by faith he stayed… v 10 he looked… and in v 11, he received… Abraham didn’t just believe, think or feel, he got up and got busy (that too). Faith is evidence – that’s a legal term for proof in Greek – and Abraham proved his faith with his actions. What do you believe Abraham? Watch and I’ll show you. So what do you believe church? What are you showing? What are you showing the world about your faith in God?
Whether the author of Hebrews was a woman or not, she probably wasn’t a feminist. Oh sure, she mentioned Sarah, but the rest of her exemplars were men and if you read the whole chapter, especially the end when she brings this sermon home, she includes some men whose supposed faithfulness includes abusing and killing women. But that’s next week’s sermon, and I’ll be on the road again. This week our exemplars in the faith are Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Jacob. What do you believe? Don’t tell me; show me.
I believe the faith of biblical women even if it was in a God their men said was male like them is a faith I can’t live without in a world that still marginalizes women and girls, allowing us to be snatched off our neighborhood streets, thrown into dungeons, used and abused with no one looking for us if we’re not the right sort of girl from the right sort of family. I believe God is our God too. I believe God cares about our stories too, even when the media doesn’t. I believe.
I believe in, trust in, hope in, the God of Hagar, Keturah, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah because of their faith – their amens and their actions – in the God of Israel, in spite of every good reason to choose another path. Even the stories that tell their stories don’t always tell their side of their stories, their faith stories, they’re too busy telling how God used them in the faith stories of their men. This morning, I’m going to do a little womanist midrash and fill in those blanks. For those of you who don’t know, womanism is the deeper, richer feminism of black women, like purple to lavender. And midrash is classical and contemporary Jewish interpretation of the scriptures, asking questions and filling in the blanks when need be.
So I believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob this morning. But I also believe in the God of Hagar, Sarah, Keturah, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah. Their stories teach me about faith, even though they weren’t good enough for the author of Hebrews, with the exception of Sarah, the acceptable token. You know some folk like to include one woman on an all-male committee and call it “balanced.”
Hagar believed in God in spite of what Sarah said – and it was her idea – Hagar believed in spite of Sarah’s claim that she and Abraham were entitled to use Hagar’s body without her consent to secure their piece of the promise. Hagar believed in God in spite of Sarah and Abraham’s faith in a god who sanctioned her rape. Sometimes faith requires believing in spite of the faith claims of religious folk. And we need to check Abram and Sarah on what they felt entitled to in the name of their faith. Claiming a shared faith doesn’t give you a free pass to do whatever you want in the name of God.
Keturah, Abraham’s other, other woman and baby mama had to believe God because Abraham’s notion of child support was a couple of presents, one time. Gen 25:6: to the sons of his other women Abraham gave gifts, while he was still living, then he sent them away… But Keturah believed that God would make a way out of no way and no child support for six of Abraham’s sons. And God did; God took care of Keturah and her children. One of her grandsons was Sheba, and one of his descendants was a Sista-Queen who turned Solomon’s head and turned him out.
Rebekah believed in God when she struggled with a high-risk pregnancy. Later, she struggled in her parenting. She had two boys who were at each other’s throats. And she wasn’t perfect by any means; she chose one over the other. But God believed in her and used her anyway. I believe that God doesn’t write us off for making mistakes.
Rachel believed in God while she waited for her promised husband, while her wedding day was ruined, when her father betrayed her, while she watched her beloved marry her own sister. And when she finally got her man, he kept going back to her sister’s bed, even though he had an heir and a spare, even though he kept telling her she was the one he loved. And Rachel believed God for a child. And God gave her an heir and a spare. And when her first long-awaited child was taken from her and she didn’t know if he was dead or alive, and her husband sent her baby off to a foreign land, she believed that God who gave her those children was able to bring at least one of them home, and God returned both her sons to her.
Leah believed in God who made her in God’s image no matter what anybody else thought about how she looked or didn’t look. Leah’s father used her to betray her sister, saying he did it for her own good. And when everyone in the whole world was mad at her, laughing at her, God was with her. God blessed her with children to love and raise and parent better than she was parented. And when she cried in the night over a man who slept with her but told everybody he didn’t love her, God’s love was there for her whether she knew it or not.
I believe that Bilhah believed in God even though she found herself enslaved to Rachel’s father, passed down to Rachel like a family heirloom and then turned over to Jacob to impregnate because Rachel didn’t have enough faith to wait on God. Or perhaps Bilhah couldn’t see her way clear to have faith in the god of her enslavers and abusers. Leah’s son, Reuben whom she had known since he was a baby raped her when she was an old woman. Yet I’d like to believe that Bilhah had the kind of faith in God that our enslaved ancestors had – it doesn’t matter what you do to us or our children. We are free in God. You can touch our bodies but not our souls. You can kill us like dogs in the street but there is a God of justice, who sits high and looks low. Vengeance is mine says God-Whose-Name-Is-Holy.
Zilpah, Leah’s maid had to believe there was a God somewhere when Leah turned her over to be impregnated, out of spite.
The faith stories of Israel are full of the good, the bad, the ugly, the dirty, the nasty, the crazy and the cray-to-the-cray. Maybe you think your faith doesn’t count this morning, maybe the author Hebrews wouldn’t think your story is important enough to tell the church folk about – you know some people think we shouldn’t talk about sex and violence and rape and murder and hurt and pain and death and disease and grief and depression in church.
Oh but faith! Faith says bring it all to God because God can handle it. God will handle it with you. God will handle it for you. Only believe. Believe that God can bring you through and deliver you from harm. God can. And sometimes God will. But also know that faith doesn’t mean that you won’t have sorrow or grief or pain or even have a horrific act of violence inflicted on your person. Real faith says that even if the worst should happen, God will be right there with you and bring you through.
Let me leave you with what might sound like some strange advice: Listen to the voices in your head. Listen for the voice of God with your heart. Follow the voice of God with your behind, hands, feet and mouth. The faithful folk of scripture didn’t just wear their faith on donkey bumper stickers; they got up and followed God, walked with God, spoke with and for God and sometimes, died for God. Faith without works is dead. Belief without action is invalid. If you believe God, get up and do something.
Believe God. Believe God about you. Believe God about the world. Believe God against the opposition. Believe God against the world. Believe God and trust in God. Trust God’s yesses and amens. I don’t know about you, but I have a personal soundtrack: I believe I can fly… And, I believe that God used R. Kelly in spite of the horrific violence and degradation he rained down on God’s daughters. And I believe we need to tell the truth and hold folk accountable at all times. And I believe that none of us is all good or all bad.
Sometimes, when I’m out walking, particularly if there is a body of water nearby, I play Donald Lawrence, O Peter (Walk Out On the Water). And I hear Jesus saying to me as he says in that song, I am Mary’s Baby, don’t you be afraid; walk out on the water, don’t be afraid… That is my shouting song.
Finally, when I need to hear God sing to me, I play Lena Horne singing Believe in Yourself As I Believe in You from The Wiz:
If you believe
I know you will
Believe in yourself, right from the start
You’ll have brains
You’ll have a heart
You’ll have courage
To last your whole life through
If you believe in yourself
As I believe in you.
What do you believe? Don’t let anybody tell you, you, your faith or your story don’t count.
Donald Lawrence and the Tri-City Singers, O Peter (Walk Out On the Water):
Believing God means believing in yourself. Let the Holy Spirit incarnate in Lena Horne prophe-sing to you:
[I prepared this meditation for the Logan Legacy Prayer Breakfast, celebrating the life and legacy of the Rev. Canon Thomas Wilson Stearly Logan, the longest lived priest of African descent in the Episcopal Church who died at the age of 100, at the request of the committee who assigned me the theme of “Engendering Prophecy” from the story of Deborah.]
One of my favorite stories about Father Tom was how he lived long enough to change his mind about women in ministry – and it wasn’t a last minute deathbed conversion either. He lived long enough to hear from God and see God at work in women priests, pastors and preachers who I will call today the daughters of Deborah, who was herself a daughter of Miriam, the Mother of Prophets.
The committee asked me to talk about Engendering the Prophetic from Deborah’s story. It’s an easy topic because God engendered the prophetic in women and men like Anna and Amos, Miriam and Moses, Huldah and Hosea, Noadiah and Nehemiah.
Today we are going to hear from Deborah:
Judges 5:6 “In the days of Shamgar ben Anath,
in the days of Yael, caravans ceased
and travelers kept to the byways.
7 Then the peasantry prospered in Israel,
they grew fat on plunder,
because I, Deborah, arose,
I arose as a mother in Israel.
As the hip-hop heads say, Deborah went H.A.M.: Hard as a Mother (in Israel). Let us pray: Holy One of Old, open our eyes that we may see. Amen.
Judges chapter 5 is one of the oldest passages in the Hebrew Bible, describing events more than a thousand years before the birth of Jesus. That makes our Scripture lesson over three thousand years old. Older even than Fr. Tom of blessed memory, may his name and legacy endure as long.
Deborah was the sixth Judge in the line of succession: From Moses to Joshua, from Joshua to Othniel, from Othniel to Ehud, from Ehud to Shamgar and from Shamgar to Deborah. Unlike women preachers today who are regularly called by some folk only to give a “women’s message” Deborah governed the whole people and commanded the whole army in which she was the chief warrior as well. Her word was law and she proclaimed from a throne near a large palm tree between Beth-El and Ramah. That is, when she wasn’t kicking Philistine and Canaanite butt that sorely needed kicking. Deborah was H.A.M. – hard as a mother.
When God appointed Deborah to lead the nation, eighty years of peace and prosperity had just come to a crashing halt under the hooves, heels and wheels of Canaanite cavalry and infantry. Then for twenty long years the Philistines ground the Israelites into the very ground. Judge Shamgar beat back the Philistines single handedly when they joined the Canaanites to double team Israel, but it wasn’t enough. And then he died.
And Deborah suffered with her people. You see a prophet is of the people and for the people. A prophet loves the people and leads the people. A prophet weeps with and for the people and when necessary, bleeds with and for the people. There are a whole lot of folk calling themselves “prophet” and “prophetess” in this day and age. Some of them have it printed right on their business cards.
Well, Deborah didn’t have a business card. She had a sword – and I believe a good right hook. Because you can lose your weapon in a battle, but when your body is your weapon, an extension of your will, then fists and fingers become the weapons of your warfare when you run out of rocks and sharp, pointed sticks. Any other veterans in the house know what I’m talking about? Deborah was hard and hardcore. That was the context of her ministry.
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.”
The big story moves from conflict to conflict, from oppression to oppression, scarcely taking account of the individual people and families struggling to survive day after day. And Deborah was there between the lines of the text. She was there in good times and bad. She was there for births and deaths, weddings and funerals, accidents and illness, good harvests and famine. She was there when folk acted a fool and had to be locked up and when the whole people of God worshipped on one accord. She didn’t just show up when there was a press conference. She was there on the front lines when it was time to go to war calling the shots – she was the shot-caller. Those of us who have served our country know that we cannot expect our soldiers to go where we are unwilling to lead them. Deborah led her people from peril to prosperity.
There were many bitter, vicious battles and terrible losses on all sides. Just when the Israelites had carved out a little space and paid for their peace in the blood of their fallen, within four generations they were overrun. Canaanite oppression was accompanied by an economic depression. It didn’t matter how much or hard people worked, they couldn’t always feed their families or keep their homes. Their savings weren’t being gambled away on Wall Street; they were being burned in the field, and stolen as their livestock was driven off. They lived through hard times. The loss, pain, anger, rage and fear were the same that people feel today. People were hurting. And they took their pain to God.
Deborah’s people cried out to God. She cried out with them and for them. That’s what a prophet does. She speaks to and for God, praying, preaching and when necessary, weeping, wailing, shrieking, shouting and cursing. And Deborah cursed – she cursed the tribes who didn’t show up for battle because they had it good and weren’t concerned about their sisters and brothers. One of those tribes, Machir, has never been heard from since. Deborah cursed them right out of this world.
Deborah prayed. And God answered. But it wasn’t fast and it wasn’t easy. God didn’t wave a magic wand and fix it. That’s a hard lesson, because there are still desperate, hurting, frightened people, losing their security through no fault of their own. And so to God who created the warrior-prophet in her own image and the quintessential churchman, priest and canon in his image we give thanks and we pray:
God of prophets, priests and praying people everywhere, hear our prayer. Continue to raise up faithful servants from among your people to lead and inspire your people, to speak truth to power, to stand firm in the face of overwhelming odds, to serve you by serving your people. God of prophets, priests and praying people everywhere, hear our prayer.
Keep up us in peace that our prophets and people no longer have to learn the ways of war. Teach us to live together in mutual respect with all of the peoples of the earth at home and abroad. God of prophets, priests and praying people everywhere, hear our prayer.
We give you thanks for the life and legacy of the Rev. Canon Thomas Stearly Wilson Logan and we give you thanks for all of those women prophets and priests who welcomed him into glory, Sarah, Rebekah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Huldah, Noadiah, Esther, Anna, Junia the Apostle to Florence Li-Tim O, the first woman ordained in the Anglican Communion. God of prophets, priests and praying people everywhere, hear our prayer. Amen.
One thing for sure, the History Channel's mini-series has people watching, talking and blogging. But are people reading the bible? Some are I think. I hope that this series leads to deeper and richer conversations with and about the text than are possible in any multi-media production. I'd like to see folk read the narratives that were shown in the series to see how they compare to the production and read stories which were left on the cutting room floor. I'd like to offer a list of characters, an A-Z (as much as is possible translating, transcribing and transliterating Semitic names into English) of just some of the biblical characaters and their stories yet to be told by the History Channel.
Here is a list of just some of my favorite biblical women missing in action, erased from the History Channel's abridged Hebrew Bible/Old Testament:
The Abigails (one David's wife, one his sister),
Abishag (David's last woman),
Basemath (Esau's wife),
Bilhah (slave-mother of the Israelite people),
Cozbi (murdered by Aaron for marrying an Israelite like Moses and both of his wives),
Dinah (one of Jacob's daughters),
Deborah (both of them),
Elisheba (Aaron's wife),
Ephrath (Caleb's wife),
Gomer (the woman, not the man of the same name),
Hannah (who becomes a prophet in Jewish tradition),
Hammutal (one of the last Queen-Mothers of Judah),
HaSophereth (the female scribe who served in the time of Solomon),
Hoglah (one of the sisters for whom God changed the Torah),
Iscah (neice of Sarah & Abraham whose daughter married their uncle in the incestuous first family),
Jael (avenger of raped women),
Judith (both of them),
Jemimah (not the slave-era distortion),
Keren-happuch (beautiful, wealthy sister of Jemimah & Keziah),
Keziah (along with her sisters above shared her name with many enslaved African women),
Keturah (Abraham's other, other woman),
Lillith (the one Isaiah knew about),
Maacah (all five of them),
Mahalath (both of them),
Mahlah (both of them),
Milcah (both of them),
Noah (the woman, not the dude),
Nehushta (the last of the Queen-Mothers marking the end of an era),
Noadiah (the prophet who led all of the prophets of Jerusalem),
Penninah (who lived with a man who loved another woman but kept sleeping with her),
Puah (one of the deliverers who delivered Moses),
Rizpah (her body was used by men but she used her body to teach a king or two a thing or two),
Serach (daughter of a patriarch whose stories extend far beyond scripture),
Sheerah (who built three cities, naming one of them after herself),
Shelomith (all four of them),
Tamar (all three of them),
Zillah (the first woman dragged into polygamy),
Zeruiah (David's other sister),
Zilpah (the other slave-mother of the Israelite people), and
Zipporah (Moses' wife).
For a reminder of what the History Channel focused on instead, see the twitter archives below:
Twitter Stream on The Bible, March 17 episode #3
Rape is at the forefront of our civil discourse in ways it has not been in my memory or experience: A young woman raped to the point of death in India has been the focus of international media. During the run up to the presidential election Rep. Todd Akin articulated his belief in legitimate and illegitimate rape as medical certainty proved by whether or not a woman conceived as evidence that women lie about being raped to get abortions. There were so many egregious GOP statements about rape that many conservative women and some men are horrified that their party has become lampooned as the "party of rape." But rape is not a Republican problem, an American problem, an Indian, Darfurian or Congolese problem. It is a human problem, and because many humans are religious, it is also a religious problem.
Rape is normative in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. The texts in which women are raped are legion: Num 31:15-18; Deut 21:10-14; Judg 19:22-26. Shockingly, for many religious readers, God, Moses and the Torah call for the rape of women (and killing of their infants) as a normative practice in war. (I present at some length on sanctioned rape in the scriptures here.) Perhaps most shocking of all is that the God of the text – who for many readers is their God – uses the language of rape normatively to describe his [in this case I yield to tradition] justified punishment of Israel, positioning himself as the rapist of his errant and deserving wife. Dr. Kate Blanchard expresses the horror of the unsuspecting reader:
Quick – which famous religious personality voiced this angry tirade: “Remove your veil, take off the skirt, uncover the thigh… Your nakedness shall be uncovered, your shame will be seen; I will take vengeance”? Or this: “It is for the greatness of your iniquity that your skirts are lifted up, and you suffer violence… I myself will lift up your skirts over your face, and your shame will be seen”? Or this: “She did not give up her whorings… in her youth men had lain with her and fondled her virgin bosom and poured out their lust upon her.Therefore I delivered her into the hands of her lovers, for whom she lusted. They uncovered her nakedness… and they killed her with the sword. Judgment was executed upon her, and she became a byword among women”?
Yep, you guessed it: The God of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures (Isaiah 47, Jeremiah 13, and Ezekiel 23). The translations of these shining examples of victim-blaming are clear enough, despite the old-fashioned language: I’m angry and you’re going to suffer for it. You deserve to be raped because of your sexual exploits. You’re a slut and it was just a matter of time till you suffered the consequences. Let this be a lesson to you and to all other uppity women.
Dr. Blanchard's blog, Rape is God's Problem Too, points to the ways assumptions about the right of males (human and divine) to do whatever they want to the bodies of women – no feminine divines here – especially in the name of "love" is deeply embedded in our civil and religious cultures.
How and why does it matter that rape-language is used in the bible for God? (It's just metaphorical, right?) In Ancient Laws and Contemporary Controversies: The Need for Inclusive Biblical Interpretation, The Rev. Dr. Cheryl Anderson tells the story of a young woman, who when confronted with rape-narratives in her scriptures says, "This is the word of God. If it says slavery is okay, slavery is okay. If it says rape is okay, rape is okay." The authority of the bible – accorded and wielded – mean that biblical gender norms, however patriarchal, misogynistic and rapacious are presumed to divinely articulated and intended and not the product of an Iron Age patriarchal, misogynistic and rapacious society engaged in Stone Age theology.
What has helped me as a religious reader for whom these texts are scripture is understanding how and why this violent rhetoric was deployed. Seeing that language as a tool of persuasion and not a divine articulation of right relationships between women and men has been liberating for me. The Rev. Dr. Renita J. Weems' classic exposition of the rhetoric of rape in Battered Love: Marriage, Sex and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets ably demonstrates how the Hebrew prophets took the normative violence against women and turned it against men in ancient Israel casting them in the role of the sex-crazed disobedient wife whose physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her husband (God) is justified.
While we as women and men decry rape and rape culture in civil society, we must not neglect its roots in our sacred texts and the ways in which it contributes to theologies of the human person, gender and God. It is clear to me that biblical tradents were not able to envision a world in which rape was not normative. Fortunately, I can.
This Epiphany as we reflect on the ways in which Jesus the Messiah is revealed I celebrate that his life giving Body and Blood were consubstantiated in the Virgin's womb and that he is Son of God, Son of Woman and Child of Earth. While hailed as the Son of David, Jesus is also the Son of Ruth, the only woman who figures in both his and David's genealogy.
Ironically, most of the women in biblical genealogies are erased even as their reproductive labor and child-nurture perpetuate and preserve their people. The genealogy below reclaims women whose names are given in the scriptures and re-inserts them in Matthew's genealogy.
A genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of Miriam, the daughter of Anna:
Sarah was the mother of Isaac,
And Rebekah was the mother of Jacob,
Leah was the mother of Judah,
Tamar was the mother of Perez.
The names of the mothers of Hezron, Ram, Amminadab,
Nahshon and Salmon have been lost.
Rahab was the mother of Boaz,
and Ruth was the mother of Obed.
Obed’s wife, whose name is unknown, bore Jesse.
The wife of Jesse was the mother of David.
Bathsheba was the mother of Solomon,
Naamah, the Ammonite, was the mother of Rehoboam.
Maacah was the mother of Abijam and the grandmother of Asa.
Azubah was the mother of Jehoshaphat.
The name of Jehoram’s mother is unknown.
Athaliah was the mother of Ahaziah,
Zibiah of Beersheba, the mother of Joash.
Jecoliah of Jerusalem bore Uzziah,
Jerusha bore Jotham; Ahaz’s mother is unknown.
Abi was the mother of Hezekiah,
Hephzibah was the mother of Manasseh,
Meshullemeth was the mother of Amon,
Jedidah was the mother of Josiah.
Zebidah was the mother of Jehoiakim,
Nehushta was the mother of Jehoiachin,
Hamutal was the mother of Zedekiah.
Then the deportation of Babylon took place.
After the deportation to Babylon
the names of the mothers go unrecorded.
These are their sons:
Jechoniah, Shealtiel, Zerubbabel,
Abiud, Eliakim, Azor and Zadok,
Achim, Eliud, Eleazar,
Matthan, Jacob and Joseph, the husband of Miriam.
Of her was born Jesus who is called Christ.
The sum of generations is there: fourteen from Sarah to David’s mother;
fourteen from Bathsheba to the Babylonian deportation;
and fourteen from the Babylonian deportation to Miriam, the mother of Christ.
“A Genealogy of Jesus Christ: Alternative to Matthew 1” was complied by Ann Patrick Ware of the Women’s Liturgy Group of New York, who has graciously put this text in the public domain for all to use.
Exodus 1:1 These are the names (shemoth) of the sons of Yisra’el who came into Egypt with Ya‘akov…
Baniym can of course mean "sons" or "children" and usually I err on the side of inclusion. But in this text, it is clear that only male progeny are indicated, demonstrated by the list of names that follow. These are the names of Israel’s sons, but what about his daughters?
5 So it was that all the souls, the ones who went out from Ya‘akov’s loin, יוצאי ירך יעקב, were seventy souls.
“The ones who exited, went out” – dare I say “squirted out”? – of Jacob’s singular loin, a euphemism for the specific male organ rather than “genitals” in general usually indicated by the plural or “thigh” when ירך is singular in other contexts, were seventy souls. There are twelve names given for those sons in v 1 and seventy souls altogether in v 5. Perhaps then, Jacob had fifty-eight daughters with Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah – the text being clear that Rachel had only Benjamin and died giving birth to him. Who were these fifty-eight benei-or perhaps better-banoth-Ya‘akov? We know Dinah’s name. What about the other fifty-seven? Were they all daughters or were there lesser sons deemed insignificant by the authors of the text?
Today I’d like to reflect on the stories of Shemoth from the perspective of Jacob’s daughters, daughters-in-law and the other women whose stories become intertwined with those of Israel: Shiphrah, Puah, Yocheved, Miriam, an African princess, nearly invisible servant girls, Zipporah and her seven shepherding sisters – and their mother along with the daughters of Israel…
In response to this prompt the Dorshei Derekh Minyan engaged with me in some contemporary midrash – not bound to the rules of the classical schools – but allowing ourselves to retell the sacred stories in order to ask questions of and answer questions left by the Torah.
Here are some of the fruits of our sanctified imaginations (to use the language of the Black Church):
- Were Shiphrah and Puah Hebrew women or women who provided midwifery services for the Hebrew people? (The Hebrew is ambiguous.) Their names are Semitic: Shiphrah’s name is sh-ph-r, “to be beautiful” in Hebrew and “to be pleasing” in Aramaic; perhaps sapphire. Puah’s name might be Ugaritic for “girl-child,” like Nina in Spanish and Walidah in Arabic.
- What does it mean that Pharoah spoke to Shiphrah and Puah in person? Did he know them? How did he know them or know of them? What did it mean for them to speak to a man who was a living god in their world?
- Was the Egyptian princess who became Moshe's adoptive mother infertile? (Was she even married?) Did Moses grow up alone, a child among adults in a palatial home?
- Did Yocheved, Moshe's mother, arrange for him to be taught the ways of his people aftershe weaned him? Did she recommend a tutor? Did she and the princess collaborate in raising him? Did she send Miryam in to be his teacher? Did Miryam send herself in to be Moshe's teacher? (How many years were there between Miryam and Moshe? – enough that Miryam was old enough to watch over her baby brother: 5, 10, more?)
- How did Yocheved's experience growing up in Egypt watching things go from bad to worse after one Pharoah with whom her people had good relations was replced by one who would seek to anihilate them all affect her choices? It strikes me that Yocheved prefigures European Holocaust victims, watching the governments and people they knew turn into monsters whom they no longer knew or recognized. Then Yocheved became an agent of resistance: the very decision to give birth was an act of defiance.
- Yocheved’s experience, trying to maintain family unity as a slave-woman – albeit one with a beneficent mistress – was comparable to the experiences of enslaved African women in the American south, regularly separated from spouses and children, even if they labored on the same plantation. Indeed the experience of Moshe having more than one mother has ongoing corollaries in many African diasporic contexts where mothering is not limited to women who give birth. Many black churches in the Americas celebrate birth mothers, adoptive mothers, foster mothers, heart-mothers, other-mothers and single fathers on Mother’s Day.
- What happened in Moshe's life in exile that prepared him for his encounter with the Burning Bush and for leadership. How did the hotheaded murderer become patient enough to observe that the Burning Bush was not being consumed?
- What effect did Zipporah's worship of the God whose Name Moshe did not know have in preparing Moshe to fulfill his vocation? What on earth is going on when God later tries to kill Moshe – I call it a Divine Drive-By – and Zipporah has to stave God off with a penile blood offering.
- What's going on in Moshe's family that he sends his wife Zipporah away – divorcing her – takes them back when her father brings them back to him but doesn't speak to them again in the text? Why are the biblical authors unclear about how to spell the name of Moshe's younder son? Why does their family virtually disappear from the pages of scripture?
- When the tribes are arrayed before the Presence of God with the tents of Aaron and Moshe in the fromt, in the vanguard of the tents of Levi, where is Miryam's tent? Isn't she in the vangard with them?
Today, Shabbat Shemoth, Sabbath of the Names, we remembered that not all names are named in the scriptures. We looked for their stories if not their names in the text, behind the text and in the spaces in and between the words in the text. And when necessay, we named them ourselves. Shabbat shalom. שבת שלם
Psalm 68:11 The Sovereign-Commander gives an order; the preaching women are a great army.
Woman, go up to a high mountain, you who proclaim good news to Zion.
Woman, raise your woman’s voice with power – proclaiming good news to Jerusalem.
Raise it woman, do not fear woman; woman, say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
1 Chronicles 7:24 His daughter was Sheerah, who built both Lower and Upper Beth-horon, and Uzzen-sheerah.
“An Army of Preaching Women” a sermon delivered at the the William Harvey III Memorial Malawi Mission Portrait of Excellence Banquet, 20 October 2012. Click to listen to audio of the sermon An Army of Preaching Women Sermon (mp3).
[Dons feather boa.] I love drag queens. I love the way they make me think about gender, its construction and its performance. Drag queens like RuPaul, Sharon Needles and Latrice Royale are some of my favorite critical gender theorists and theologians. Now drag queens are not female impersonators; for the most part they don’t want to be women. They can be gay men and there are straight men who drag it out. There are women who perform as drag kings. Drag performers are folk who have chosen to express themselves and (hopefully) make a living by publically performing another gender. While all gender performances including those of us here today who are not professional gender performers, choose some elements of gender presentation over others to represent publicly, drag performers tend to center their performance in the stereotypical: voluminous hair, curvy bodies, sequined eveningwear, feathers and eyelashes that would shame a giraffe.
While there are a few petite queens – Ongina boasted of being a size 4 – many queens are well over 6 feet without their 5-inch platform heels and some are so full-figured that they could play professional football. One of my favorite queens, Latrice Royale is famous for what she calls her “curves and swerves,” for being “chunky yet funky.” Drag queens have also been subject to public censure, ridicule, harassment and violence. RuPaul, the reigning Queen of Queens is famous for saying “wearing drag in a male dominated society is an act of treason.” Ru knows that choosing any kind of female gender performance by intentionally surrendering and/or sabotaging male privilege is an act of treason – or resistance – against the androcentrism is this planet’s original sin, pervading the scriptures and on display in the Gospel, on the lips of Jesus, no less.
You don’t have to be a drag queen to feel the wrath of some sections society – church and society even – for your gender performance and presentation: If you are a man who is deemed not to be appropriately masculine whether because you’re gay, bisexual, transgendered, or heterosexual and in some way non-compliant – you knit or love babies, puppies, kittens, manicures and mascara, and think women are your equal… If you are a woman who is deemed not to be appropriately feminine whether because you’re lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, or heterosexual and in some way non-compliant – you earn more than some men, coach sports, wear your hair short and spikey, hate make up or love trucks and wrenches, think men are your equal… Or because you’re a man, woman or child who has been raped or sexually abused and no longer fit in the hierarchy in the same way. In this rigid gender binary masculinity and femininity are immutable and fixed characteristics of immutable and fixed genders and those genders are not equal. The gender binary serves to keep women and feminine folk in their place and has little patience for folk who occupy an unanticipated, unscripted place in the hierarchy.
Like other marginalized members of society, drag queens have taken the hateful language spewed at them and transformed it into community and self-affirmation, like the Syrophoenician woman in the Gospel. Latrice Royale has taken one of the more hateful epithets thrown at all kinds of women and folks who perform as women and redefined it: Being In Total Control of Herself. The b-word in case you didn’t catch it, a female dog.
In a gospel that does not sound like good news to me, Jesus said to a woman kneeling at his feet begging for help for her child, “Let the children be filled first, for it is not good to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Did Jesus just call that woman a b—-? I know this is Jesus and we’ve been trained to read him and hear him religiously, more than religiously, divinely, incarnationally. But where I come from you cannot call a child a dog without calling her mama a dog and you cannot call a woman a dog without calling her a b—-.
In my best Queen Latifah – I want to ask Jesus, “Who you calling a b—-?” (I know some of you don’t know that song, U.N.I.T.Y., it’s from the previous century.) In our supposed-to-be-good-news Gospel lesson Jesus calls a woman like me, a non-Jewish woman, a b—. There is no honest way around it. Jesus was not talking about a pet dog. Yes, he or the evangelist used the term kunarion, which sometimes meant a smaller dog like those kept indoors in other cultures; but the Israelites did not keep pet dogs. Dogs were filthy animals to the Israelites, something like a cross between a hyena and a rat, often paired with pigs in the literature of the wider Ancient Near East, all of them scavengers. “Dog” was also the code word for a man who sold sex to other men – voluntarily surrendering his proper place in the gender hierarchy. Dr. Mounce’s dictionary makes the point that a kunarion is a worthless specimen of a dog, reminding me of the way some folk who love big dogs think about little yapping dogs – that they’re not even worthy of the title “dog.”
When Jesus talks about throwing food to dogs, he is not talking about feeding family pets. He’s talking about taking your good food that you have prepared for your family off the table, walking it outside and throwing it in the gutter – Greek students note the ballistic verb in the text – so that the scavengers that are rooting through the garbage and maybe even eating the corpses of other dead animals can dine on what you prepared for your children. And the children in the analogy are the Israelites, the Syrophonecian, Canaanite, Gentile woman and her daughter are not even human in his metaphor.
The woman’s response, emerging from her context – after all Jesus is in her country, at the beach, blissfully outside of Herod’s jurisdiction – she reframes Jesus’ words and changes that context. She does that. In her words, not those of Jesus, dogs are if not pets, at least not scavengers; they eat under the table. Now she has already humbled herself. She is now kneeling at the feet of a strange man. She is begging him for help. She probably knows that he is a Jew and what Jews thought of Gentiles. And while there is no reason to believe that androcentrism was any worse in ancient Israel than any other place in the Ancient Near East, she is dealing with a religious leader from a tradition that alternated between suspicion of and outright hostility towards women.
And taking the words that David Henson calls “racist and sexist,” (in Jesus Was Not Color Blind on Patheos), and that Matt Skinner (on WorkingPreacher) calls “palpable rudeness” while being “caught with his compassion down,” she shows Jesus what it is to Be In Total Control of Herself. She doesn’t ask, “Who you calling a b—-?” But she does werk. She werks the Word. And because of what she said, what she did, not what she believes – this is werk without articulated faith, Jesus healed her daughter. In v 29 he is converted by her logos, “that saying” not “saying that” – rendered as a verb in the NRSV, but her word, her logos. She is the embodiment of the divine Word.
Now, many will say that Jesus didn’t really call her the b-word. He just made an analogy in which the healing she wanted was compared to food for those whom he intended to heal, who were children and she and her child were dogs. So she was only a b-word by analogy. And that’s not the same thing. Well, one day I was in the chapel of another seminary and a seminarian walked up to me and said to me “I grew up calling black folk n-words – and the seminarian actually said the word, to me in chapel, then asked – what word should I use to refer to black people now?” She used the n-word about people like me while talking to me, in the chapel. When I discussed this with a variety of folk I was surprised that some of my colleagues said, “She didn’t reallycall you the n-word, she just used it in a sentence while talking to you.” They were of the belief that was a distinction that mattered. To me, that was a distinction without a difference.
And that’s how I feel about this text, that the difference between comparing the woman and her daughter to dogs in an analogy and calling her and her daughter the b-word is a distinction without a difference. Now I understand that not everyone experiences this passage that way. And I’m not claiming that this is the only way to hear this Gospel. I’m sharing with you how I hear it because the principles of womanist preaching include affirming the dignity of black women as legitimate interpreters of the Scriptures whether or not our interpretations converge with those of the dominant culture, because our interpretations are God-breathed and revelatory, Gospel to more than folk who look and think like us.
It’s alright if you have your own way of understanding this text. But I ask you to proclaim this Gospel in such a way that it doesn’t take lightly how deeply entrenched gender bias is in the world of the Scriptures, the Scriptures themselves and our world, that you don’t dismiss the concerns of girls and women who feel marginalized by the Church and even by the Scriptures and that you don’t empower people who call women outside of our names.
The church has taught that Jesus was fully human and fully divine, taught and fought, killed and died over that notion and it’s implications. But most of us are not ready for Jesus who was quite that human. Who you calling a b—-? A fully human Jesus is a product of his culture. Perhaps he was influenced by his own scriptures, Sirach who shared the same Jesus says in 26:25: A headstrong woman is regarded as a dog, but one who has a sense of shame will fear the Lord. The Anchor Bible Commentary (Skehan and Di Lella) has, The unruly [woman] will be thought of as a bitch… Even Jesus is affected by the androcentrism and ethnocentrism that characterize his people and their time. As am I.
I’m a black woman living in an American context that alternately demonizes and exploits my womanhood. If the Gospel isn’t relevant to my context then it’s not Gospel, good news to me. And I stand with and in the place of all of those girls and women who are called the b-word by men and boys and other girls and women. Who hear the word on television and in the movies and in the music that is marketed to them, to us. I stand with the women and feminine-gender performing folk of various subcultures who use the word affectionately and with those who have redefined it for themselves.
And I’m standing up to Jesus, talking to and about women like me using language like that. Some of you maybe asking, where is the Jesus I know and love? Well, I think I caught a glimpse of him, in the midrashic space between their words. The listening, learning Jesus is the one I know and love. In this story, this nameless woman is also a Christ-figure. She is the one who humbles herself and will endure whatever is dished out to her in order to bring healing and new life. She is the rabbi, who teaches Jesus the value of all human life. She is the prophet who preaches the reign of God for all of God’s children. She is the one who transforms the narrowly ethnocentric Jesus into the savior of the whole world. Apparently even Jesus needed a little help. In becoming her student Jesus becomes our teacher.
As a colleague recently reminded me, this is a passage that will sort out your Christology. How human, how divine is your Jesus? Is he human enough to be bigoted and biased? Or does your preconceived notion of the divinity of Jesus mean that whatever he said was holy, therefore comparing a woman to a female dog isn’t really the same as calling her a b—–, or it’s alright as long as it’s Jesus. How divine is your Jesus? That Jesus listens and responds to the woman, is that an indication of humanity or divinity? Or is it both? I think the humanity and divinity of Jesus are all tangled up in this passage, sometimes thick and sometimes thin, neither distinguishable from the other, impossible to sort out.
In this troubling story, Jesus teaches me the value of listening, the value of hearing, and the value of being able to grow and change your mind. Perhaps Jesus is a process theologian. In either case he models divinity and humanity in a muddy, godly, morass. Jesus is God enough/human enough/man enough to change his mind. And that is Good News.
This Gospel is that God’s concern for the woman-born was manifested in God, Godself, becoming woman-born, for the redemption and liberation of all the woman-born from fear and from death itself. Jesus, the Son of Woman, came to seek out and save the lost and to give his life as a ransom for many. Amen.
Our first lesson says, “Solomon’s throne was firmly established…” And, “Solomon loved the Lord…” In so doing the text jumps from 1 Kings 2:12 to 1 Kings 3:3. There is a gap in the text. The story as we have it framed by the lectionary presents a smooth transition from David to Solomon. But it wasn’t that smooth. You may not be surprised, because if you’re like me, you know that life is not always smooth. And if you know anything about the biblical narrative, you know that life in the bible is most certainly, not always smooth. If you’ve been hearing David’s story preached this summer, you know that his life was not always smooth. The lectionary framers skipped something, cut something out. Don’t you want to know what it is? This morning I’m preaching the gap, “Bathsheba Restored.”
As David lay dying just before our lesson, with his professional and personal impotence on display, his sons began fighting over his throne. Even before David was in the ground one of his sons, Adonijah, began trying to claim some of what was his. Adonijah wanted David’s throne and his last woman, Abishag. She had been brought in as a bed warmer for David, to warm up his old bones. But he wasn’t the man he used to be. And he could do nothing with her. And when she got up from what became David’s deathbed, his son Adonijah began asking for her.
This didn’t sit well with everyone. Solomon and Bathsheba understood that by asking for a royal woman even if she had only been a royal woman for a very little time, Adonijah was making a claim on the throne. While he was David’s fourth son, he was now at the head of the line. His oldest brother, Amnon was executed by his third brother Abshalom who was in turn executed by their cousin Joab. (Forget the Borgias, David’s family put the “OG” in original gangstas.) The second brother probably died in infancy because the bible says nothing about him after his name.
The king is dead! Long live the king! As David lay dying, folk began maneuvering, choosing sides. Who would be the new king? There were a lot of options because as quiet as it’s kept, David had a whole lot of children with a whole lot of women:
2Samuel 3:2 Sons were born to David at Hebron: his firstborn was Amnon, of Ahinoam of Jezreel; 3 his second, Chileab, of Abigail the widow of Nabal of Carmel; the third, Absalom son of Maacah, daughter of King Talmai of Geshur; 4 the fourth, Adonijah son of Haggith; the fifth, Shephatiah son of Abital; 5 and the sixth, Ithream, of David’s wife Eglah. These were born to David in Hebron.
But hold on! Chronicles continues chronicling David’s children:
1Chronicles 3:5 These were born to him in Jerusalem: Shimea, Shobab, Nathan, and Solomon, four by Bath-shua, daughter of Ammiel; 6 then Ibhar, Elishama, Eliphelet, 7 Nogah, Nepheg, Japhia, 8 Elishama, Eliada, and Eliphelet, nine. 9 All these were David’s children, besides the children of his secondary wives; and Tamar was their sister.
In case you missed it, Solomon was David’s tenth son out of nineteen. Adonijah was way ahead of Solomon in the line for the throne. But he didn’t count on Bathsheba. Today we’re talking about “Restoring Bathsheba.” Bathsheba had been so callously used by David. When he sent his men to take her she didn’t have the option of saying no. She was a stranger in a strange land, her husband was away fighting the king’s war and the king took her, used her, raped her and tried to discard her. But she became pregnant and David tried to get rid of her and the baby by setting them up to be claimed by her husband. And when that didn’t work, he got rid of her husband by murdering him. I guess she could be grateful that David didn’t just kill her too. I wonder if she had had a choice would she have chosen death over marrying her rapist. Perhaps some days the answer was yes.
That’s all that most people remember about Bathsheba, the worst day of her life, maybe the worst two or three days: the day she was raped, the day David killed her husband, the day she realized she would have to live with David as his wife. I don’t know how she did it. But it seems to me that she made up her mind to have the best life she could under the circumstances. I imagine that she said to David, “You are not going to shut me away like you did your first wife Michal. You stole the life I had with my husband in the sight of God, the man I love, the husband I chose to live with. You stole our future and you stole our children. I can’t get that back but I can have your children and the security that comes with them. I will be the mother of kings.”
I don’t know if she really said that, but that’s what I imagine her saying. I have to imagine something because she keeps living and sleeping with David, having his babies in spite of everything that he has done to her and her husband. She stayed in that marriage like so many women married to a monster with no place to go. Now don’t get it twisted, I’m not saying that women who are being abused or even raped by their husbands must stay with them. I am simply acknowledging that in her time she had no other choice, and that in our time many women feel like they have no choice either. She made the best she could out of the situation and God was with her.
God was with her in the form of Nathan. The one man who stood up to David. He had no way of knowing whether or not David would kill him, but he told David what he was doing wasn’t right and he told him in such a way that David pronounced judgment on himself. I believe that Nathan became a friend, advisor and perhaps a father figure to Bathsheba. She even named one of her children after him. And then there was the confusion as David lay dying, who would be king after him? Nathan and Bathsheba worked it out.
The king is dead! Long live the king! But who would be the new king? Adonijah is sure that he will be king. He had the support of David's chief enforcer, his nephew Joab, the man that killed one of David's sons and then told the king to stop crying because his grief was taking too long. The rest of the warriors didn’t back him; the priesthood was split. They didn’t have another candidate; they just knew that they didn’t want Adonijah. And yet, Adonijah throws a big party; he invited all of his brothers except for Solomon and he left Nathan off the list too.
David’s oldest surviving son, Adonijah, was making moves, claiming royal property, claiming David’s last woman. And Solomon is only tenth in line; even with the death of three of his older brothers he only moved up to sixth place. And Mama stepped in. I believe Bathsheba said “Baby, let Mamma handle that.” While the man who would be king was partying the night away, Nathan went to see Bathsheba. He said to her look, “If this boy becomes king he will kill you and your son. You and I are going to make sure that doesn’t happen. You and I are going to put your son on the throne. You’re going to go into his room and remind him that he promised to put Solomon on the throne.” Of course, there is no record of that promise in the Bible. Scholars are divided over whether or not David actually made that promise. Some of us think that Nathan and Bathsheba simply decided that Solomon should be king and used David's old age and failing memory against him.
Bathsheba went in and asked the question while David was lying there with his latest pretty young thing curled up with him in the bed. She spoke to his pride saying, “Aren’t you still the king? Why is it that Adonijah can proclaim himself king while you’re still alive?” She closes by reminding him that Adonijah will surely kill her and Solomon and the rest of her children with David. She doesn’t have to say the rest out loud; she just looks him in the eyes and reminds him of everything he did to her and why she is even in his house. Then, just as they planned, Nathan walked in on cue and Bathsheba slipped out. “Did you say that Adonijah was supposed to be king? He has proclaimed himself king and is throwing a party – and he knew better than to invite me. And by the way, the people are saying long live the king!” David called for Bathsheba to come back in and said to her, “I promised you that I would make Solomon king and I am going to keep my word.” At that very moment, David proclaimed Solomon King. Then David died. The king is dead! Long live the king!
Our last verse before the break says, “Solomon’s throne was firmly established…” But there’s a gap in the text. In that gap in the text, in the space between the two pieces of text of assigned for us today, there’s a whole lot going on. Adonijah knew that the tide had turned against him; he tried to cut a deal with Bathsheba. He said, in the text between our texts, “You know the throne was mine, but I’m going to step aside for your boy because I’m sure that’s God’s will. I do want just one thing for my trouble, that girl.” Bathsheba said, “I will speak to the king about you.” What she meant was, “I’m going to see to it you get exactly what you deserve.”
She knew that if he had a royal woman and got her pregnant he could claim the throne. And she knew that Solomon knew that too. She raised him well. She also knew that Solomon had to decide on his own what to do about Adonijah. So she asked for the girl for him. Solomon’s response did not disappoint her:
1 Kings 2:22 King Solomon answered his mother, “And why do you ask Abishag the Shunammite for Adonijah? Ask for him the kingdom as well!… 23 Then King Solomon swore by the Holy God, “So may God do to me, and more also, for Adonijah has devised this scheme at the risk of his life! 24 Now therefore as the Holy God lives, who has established me and placed me on the throne of my father David, and who has made me a house as God promised, today Adonijah shall be put to death.” 25 So King Solomon sent Benaiah son of Jehoiada; he struck him down, and he died.
The violence in this text and much of the bible is symptomatic of the barbarity of the times. God met folk where they were and they were in the Iron Age. Three thousand years later we haven’t learned that power to hurt and kill is not strength; it does not last and does not bring happiness. In this city plagued with murderous violence and sexual assault God is still trying to show the Davids of the world that they cannot do whatever they want just because they have power. There is seemingly no end to those who use their power against others. I wonder how many Nathans there are, willing to stand up and say that what you have done is wrong; you can’t do whatever you want to people.
After the death of Adonijah, the words of the text came true: “Solomon’s throne was firmly established…” And Bathsheba, the woman who had been stolen and raped and stolen again, who had married, lived with and lay down with the man who raped her – a man who collected women like dolls and set them aside when he was no longer interested in them – Bathsheba survived him. Bathsheba survived and thrived. Her agency, her ability to make decisions for herself, her life and her body was restored, in part because of Nathan’s friendship and in part because of Solomon.
In that scene in the throne room where Bathsheba is making sure that Adonijah will never threaten her son or his throne again, Solomon elevates his mother in 1 Kings 2:19: “The king rose to meet her, and bowed down to her; then he sat on his throne, and had a throne brought for the king’s mother, and she sat on his right.” He places her on a throne that he has set on his right hand side; from now on she will be the right hand woman in the kingdom. How different this is from her first encounter with an Israelite king! The physical postures are reversed; now she is elevated above him and it’s voluntary. And in the generations to follow in the monarchy of Judah the king’s mother, the Queen Mother will rule with her son. Bathsheba is no longer the broken woman David used to flex his power. God has transformed her brokenness, given her back her power and more power than she could ever imagine. God restored Bathsheba.
This is the point where poor preachers will say that there is a reason for everything and that everything happens for a reason and that everything happens for our good. I’m here to tell you that’s bad theology and bad preaching. God who can create anything out of no thing can transform any situation and restore any brokenness but God does not need us to be broken, devastated, raped or abused to elevate us. It’s true that Bathsheba would not have had Solomon if David had not kidnapped and raped her; it’s true that she would not have had this life. But we will never know what kind of life she and Uriah would have had. Perhaps, just perhaps, he would have risen up through the ranks of David’s army and when after David died one of David’s fool sons made a mess out of the kingdom, he could have stepped in and stepped up making Bathsheba the right-hand woman with out all that mess.
It could happen. It did happen. That’s what happened with the general and his wife after Solomon died and one of his fool sons made a mess out of the kingdom. He became king in his place. Bathsheba made the best out of a bad situation. And God was with her. Our text says, “Solomon’s throne was firmly established…” And, “Solomon loved the Lord…” But that’s not the whole story. There’s a gap in the text. And God is in the gap, restoring Bathsheba.
May God the restorer of broken hearts, minds and bodies
Accompany you through the gaps and brokenness in your life
Nurture, sustain and transform you to change the world around you. Amen.
19 August 2012
Episcopal Church of St. Andrew & St. Monica
Let us pray: In the name of the One who waded in the waters of Miryam’s womb, walked the way of suffering as one of the woman-born, and woke from the grasp of death in the deep darkness of the morning. Amen.
Sarah’s daughter was bleeding from her vagina, again, still. It wasn’t the not-so-secret monthly blood whose scent was part of the cacophony of smells which perfused the Iron Age and passed largely without comment from anyone else. This was something else entirely. This was a flow that never quite stopped. It dwindled from time to time, giving birth to aborted hope that this time it had stopped for good. A day or two of respite, and then the bleeding started again. There were some years that she had gone for months without bleeding at all. And just a few months – she could count them on one hand – that she bled like other women. She had bled this way since her first bleeding. It was nothing like what her mother and aunts told her to expect. Her sisters didn’t bleed like this. She drank the teas the midwife gave her, tied the knots in the cord around her body as prescribed by the healing prophets (like those in Ezekiel 13), nothing helped. She never felt clean. There were stains on all her clothes, her chair, her bed. She was tired, tired of bleeding and just tired.
She had moved to a town where no one knew – or admitted that they knew – her story. She couldn’t stay at home any more; all of her sisters were married and having children. She loved her sisters and their children and yet every time she saw one of them blossoming with yet another pregnancy or putting a baby to her breast she felt an ache in her empty, broken, bleeding womb. The other mothers in town wouldn’t consider her for their sons. She could have married an older, widowed man to help him with his children, but that wasn’t the life she wanted for herself. And she made a decent life for herself, as a midwife, a healer, hoping to learn something that she could use to heal herself. She also became a midwife because she hoped no one would think twice if they saw blood on her skirts. All of the money she earned, all of the goods and services she received, she sold or bartered away in hopes of healing herself. She spent all of her income on every healer and physician in her town, within walking distance and sometimes beyond. She was Sarah’s daughter and she decided to do whatever it took to heal herself, save herself, to live.
Her vaginal hemorrhage didn’t affect her day-to-day life as much as people might have imagined when the flow wasn’t too heavy. After all, being ritually not-yet-ready for worship – a better translation than “unclean” in terms of illness or naturally occurring bodily cycles – was quite common and in most cases remedied by bathing and an inexpensive offering. Some cases also required physical inspection by a priest or for women – I believe – a woman who was both the daughter of and the wife of (another) priest with the pronouncement of restoration being made by the priest. But her vaginal bleeding would have to stop first, long enough for her to qualify for and pass inspection. And in the past twelve years it hadn’t and as a result she couldn’t go to Jerusalem and worship in the temple, and she wanted to go. She had been there as a child, but she wanted to go as an adult and take her own offerings and say her prayers facing the place where the living God resided, bathed in clouds of incense. It wasn’t required for women, but so many women went that there were mikvahs – baths – dedicated for them, there was a plaza named in their honor and, special gates and balconies for women who didn’t want to mix with men.
Even though she poured herself into the healing arts and her life-giving work, rejoicing at each new life born into her hands, Sarah’s daughter longed to be free of her terrible illness, the weakness, the pain, the constant washing and cleaning and to have some new things, new clothes, unstained. Her affliction also affected her sense of herself, her sense of her own value and beauty and worth. She was distant from her own family and had no family in this town. She had no one with whom to share Shabbat meals, she lit the candles by herself. Sometimes families she helped invited her for celebrations but she was always afraid her body would betray her, like that one time she thought she had enough padding and then it broke through in front of everyone. She had moved again after that. She was keenly aware that her body didn’t work like other women. She felt broken. And she knew she could die from this.
But Sarah’s daughter refused to be destroyed by her pain or paralyzed by fear. She didn’t know why her body was the way it was, but she knew it didn’t have to be. She knew it could be, should be, would be different. And she would do whatever it took to save herself, be healed, be made whole, be restored, to live – the verb means all of those things. She had heard that there was a miracle-working rebbe, Yeshua ben Miryam, (Jesus, Mary’s child) based in Capernaum who regularly crossed the Sea of Galilee. And today he was here. She was going to see him.
As she hurried after the crowd, she thought about what she was going to say. She followed the sound of the commotion and saw more people gathered than lived in her town. All of them pushing towards a group in the middle, and one of them… Yes him. He’s the one. She pushed. Not caring if some stepped out of her path because they saw or smelled the blood that was flowing even harder. She had to reach him, had to get his attention…
But he was walking with Ya’ir (who the Greeks called Jairus). Ya’ir’s daughter – what was her name? was it Me’irah? Named for “light” like her father? I think so – Me’irah had died. A child whose whole life was the length of her disease, twelve years. And now she was dead. Sarah’s daughter said to herself, I won’t bother the Rabbi. He must go to comfort Me’irah’s mother.
She was all alone as she watched her daughter die, she was all alone as she planned and began the funeral of her child. She was like so many mothers left alone to do the difficult work of holding her remaining family together through the most trying of times. Her husband had not abandoned them, but he had left them. He missed the moment when the light left his baby girl’s eyes as she passed from life to death. He left her on her deathbed and her Mama in her deathwatch in the hope that he could persuade Rebbe Yeshua, Rabbi Jesus, to come and lay his hands on her. But she died in his absence and they started her funeral without him…
Yet Sarah’s daughter couldn’t walk away; she couldn’t take her eyes off of him and found herself within a hand’s breadth. Falling to her knees, reaching out, not knowing what she would do until she did it; (according to the other two gospels) she touched his tzit-tzit, the knotted fringe on the corners of his clothing – the sign of an observant Jew. She believed that this time she would be healed. She had believed before and been disappointed, but that didn’t matter. Sarah’s daughter had resilient, indefatigable, inexhaustible, inextinguishable faith. She said, “If I but touch his clothes, I shall be saved.”
More than healed, saved, saved from the death that was surely coming closer. Twelve years of pain, disappointment, sorrow and struggle did not diminish her faith; it was a living thing, carried inside of her, extended through her hand to One who was so worthy of her faith that he didn’t have to see her, speak to her or even touch her to save her, heal her, make her whole, grant her life and transform her.
And it was so. She drew the healing power from his body. She did it. The text is full of her verbs: She endured, she spent, she was no better, she grew worse, she heard, she came up, she touched, she said, she felt, she was saved/healed/restored and then she told him everything. Everything. All her pain, all her grief, all her hope, all her faith. All. She is the active agent in her healing eleven times, and once passive – her hemorrhage stopped.
And Ya’ir, Jairus, is waiting and watching. He left his child on her deathbed to find Rabbi Yeshua, Rabbi Jesus. He didn’t know if she would be living or dead when he got back; but he knew that if Yeshua, Jesus, just laid his hands on her, she would be alright. Ya’ir started his journey in faith. He said, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be saved, and live.” (There’s that verb again.) And Ya’ir ended his journey in faith. When he found Jesus, he found resurrection and life at the same time Sarah’s daughter found restoration and life.
One of the great ironies of the aftermath of this text is that the church of Jesus Christ and nominally Christian societies like ours have become so scandalized by women and our bodies that we dare not name our parts or the problems with our parts in polite company according to some folk. It is ironic, because silencing women and censuring our bodies denies the Gospel story itself: That God became flesh and blood in the body of a woman, was nourished by her blood in her body passed through an umbilical cord attached to a placenta, rooted in the wall of her uterus, and one day pulsed into this world through her cervix and vagina. Just like the rest of us – give or take the occasional caesarian.
This is the scandal of the Gospel, the Incarnation of a woman-born God. At the heart of Incarnation theology is the notion that the human body – and women are fully human – is neither accidental nor unworthy of the habitation of God. The scandal of the Incarnation is the scandal of the human body in all of its forms, genders, expressions, orientations, nationalities, ethnicities, abilities, limitations, communicable diseases, poverties. And this is what God became, for Sarah’s daughter and Ya’ir and his daughter and her mother and you and me, for the whole world, for all of groaning creation. To paraphrase Brother (Cornell) West: Jesus was born too close to urine, excrement and sex for the comfort of many. God became human to touch and be touched by the broken, bleeding, dead and dying and to be broken, bleed and die. And in so doing transformed that brokenness into a sacrament, body and blood, bread and wine, the shadow of death, grave-robbing resurrection.
This Gospel is that God’s concern for the woman-born was manifested in God, Godself, becoming woman-born, for the redemption and liberation of all the woman-born from fear and from death itself. Yeshua the Messiah, the Son of Woman, came to seek out and save the lost and to give his life as a ransom for many. Amen.
Looking forward to next week's Gospel and reflecting on the censuring of a Michigan State Representative, I discuss the woman with a vaginal hemorrhage in light of contemporary politcal and public discourse in my latest Huffington Post bog entry.
The book of Chronicles tells many of the stories of the scriptures all over again beginning at the beginning. The first word of Chronicles is “Adam.” And for 9 chapters, in 407 verses, Chronicles chronicles the peoples of the scriptures in a genealogy that runs from Adam to Saul’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandsons, Azrikam, Bocheru, Ishmael, Sheariah, Obadiah, and Hanan. Now I know we are in uncharted territory for some of you; I have found that most folk don’t choose genealogies to study in the church or in the academy. But I have to confess that I love the begats. You know, “this one begat that one,” and “that one begat this other one.” The begats.
However, the massive genealogy in Chronicles is more than a list of begettings and birthings. Chronicles also tells the story of many women who were left out of the stories from Adam to David – from Eve to Bathsheba – in other parts of the scriptures. There are stories woven into the fabric of Chronicles like the one in chapter 7 that forms our primary lesson.
1 Chronicles 7:20 The descendants of Ephraim were Shuthelah, and Bered his son, Tahath his son, Eleadah his son, Tahath his son, 21 Zabad his son, Shuthelah his son, and Ezer and Elead. Now the people of Gath, who were born in the land, killed them, because they came down to raid their cattle. 22 And their father Ephraim mourned many days, and his relatives came to comfort him. 23 Ephraim went in to his wife, and she conceived and gave birth to a son; and he named him Beriah (weeping), because disaster had befallen his house. 24 His daughter was Sheerah, who built both Lower and Upper Beth-horon, and Uzzen-sheerah.
Sheerah was a daughter-descendant of Ephraim, who was the son of Joseph. Now Joseph was living in Egypt when he married. He married an African sister, an Egyptian woman named Asenath. Their children Manasseh and Ephraim who were counted among the tribes of Israel were half-Egyptian, half-African, or as one of my bi-racial friends would say, “hafrican.” And Sheerah, the sister-builder was their daughter-descendant.
Eprhaim’s offspring are listed in a confusing jumble in 1 Chronicles 7, some are his children, some are his grandchildren, some may even be his great-grandchildren, v 20: The descendants of Ephraim were Shutelach, and Bered his son, Tahath his son, Eleadah his son, Tahath his son, Zabad his son, Shutelach his son, and Ezer and Elead.
But something happened to those young and perhaps even older men. A whole generation, maybe more, was lost, wiped out, because of the choices they made, v 21: Now the people of Gath, who were born in the land, killed them, because they came down to raid their cattle. Now I’m half-Texan which you may know was once a nationality and is now a culture, a language and some might argue a religion. And in Texas we have ways of dealing with cattle rustlers, you might say biblical ways, such as the ways employed by the people of Gath. And while it’s easy to read this text in light of Western classics like The High Plains Drifter and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Ephraim’s children and grand-children weren’t extras in a movie; they were his hope for the future and they were dead. The thug life killed everyone of them because they tried to be gangstas – but that’s another sermon…
The death of all of his descendants, children or children’s children, devastates Ephraim, v 22: And their father Ephraim mourned many days, and his relatives came to comfort him. Some folk in the house today have had to bury children, and some may have had to bury more than one. You know this is devastating. You don’t get over it, even as you figure out how to go on, the pain remains. And in inexplicable and unjustifiable mercy God chose to do something for Ephraim and his wife that doesn’t happen for everyone, God gave them another family.
Apparently, Ephraim has a little juice left in him, 23: Ephraim went into his wife, and she conceived and gave birth to a son; and he named him Beriah (weeping), because disaster had befallen his house. This is the only text in which Ephraim’s wife appears. When the Ephraimites are counted in Numbers, the other place where some of this genealogy is found, there is not even a passing reference to an ancestral mother. It was as if all of those birthings and begettings happened by magic, like menfolk could do that all on their own. Like it was the men who were throwing up and swelling up, walking around with their hands on their backs looking for their puffy ankles. It’s all right to tell the truth and say there’s a little sexism in the text, after all we’re talking about the Bronze Age after which the Iron Age will be cutting edge – no pun intended.
This is one of the things I like about the book of Chronicles, while the author is chronicling the begettings and birthings in Israel she – and the Chronicler could have been a woman – she stops to tell us about dozens of women in short stories and half-verses, many of whom we would know nothing about if it were not for the work of the Chronicler: There is Abraham’s other, other woman, Keturah, David’s sisters, Abigail and Zeruiah, some of David’s baby mamas, (a different) Abigail, Ahinoam, Haggith, Maacah, Abital and Eglah along with Sheerah the city-builder.
The scriptures tell us that she built three cities, but nothing else about her, v 24: His daughter was Sheerah, who built both Lower and Upper Beth-horon, and Uzzen-sheerah. Two of the three cities, Lower Beth-Horon and Upper Beth-Horon were on a hillside, one high above the other. The third city, Uzzen-Sheerah, is my favorite because she named it after herself – like all the men who built cities in the ancient and modern worlds. Uzzen-Sheerah means “listen to Sheerah.”
Using my sanctified imagination, I’m listening to Sheerah this morning. I hear her saying: I’ve got work to do. You don’t just build a city, whether you are a woman or a man, with no planning or preparation, not even in the Bronze or Iron Age. So then, how did Sheerah become a city-builder? Maybe it was it her childhood dream. We’ve got to stop telling children that can’t do something because we wouldn’t, couldn’t or didn’t. Maybe her family nurtured her dreams. But maybe her family and friends, neighbors and strangers told her she was crazy: You can’t build a city. What makes you think you can build a city? What city was ever built by a woman? Go get yourself a man and make some babies – or go cry about why you can’t get a man. Your people aren’t city-builders. Your people are thieves. Everybody knows what kind of people you came from. You can’t do it. If there were any naysayers, Sheerah didn’t listen them.
Sheerah started building. She had a dream, she had a plan, she had a vision, she had a calling; she had a commission. She was born to do this work; it was in her bones and in her blood, in her heart and in her hands. And it didn’t matter if nobody else understood. It didn’t matter what the other women and men were doing or saying.
She planned her work and she worked her plan. Somehow she learned to design and build cities. She chose the sites for her cities, taking into account water and other natural resources with an eye to defense. Maybe she had to go back to the drawing board, over and over again. Visions and dreams don’t always come to fruition the first time out. She didn’t quit when it got hard – and it got hard – she had to hire and supervise contactors and subcontractors. She had to manage her workforce: paid labor, forced labor and slave labor were the only options. She couldn’t be everywhere on the construction sites so she had to mentor some other women and maybe men to share in the responsibility. Maybe she had to make or commission architectural drawings. Could she even read? I don’t know, but I know she planned her work and she worked her plan.
Since it was the Iron Age or perhaps the Middle Bronze Age it may have mattered to some folk that the chief architect, and project manager was a woman, they could be kind of sexist in those days… And we’re no longer living in those days, right? I mean we’ve figured out that God has been using women to build, lead and change the world for more than four thousand years. Right? Sheerah didn’t let nobody turn her around. She got it done. She built her cities. She planned her work and she worked her plan. But she didn’t do it alone. She needed a whole city to get the work done: Her dream wasn’t hers alone. Someone else had to buy into it. It took a whole village to raise that city, clearing the land, quarrying the stone, transporting the stones – there had to be some men who didn’t mind taking orders from a woman, men who could see the vision, or men who if they couldn’t see the vision themselves trusted the woman with the vision, the plan, the call and the commission.
Before Sheerah built, she had to dig. She had to dig canals and trenches, sewers and ditches. I don’t imagine that she stood around giving orders all the time – although I’m sure she had to do that some of the time. I see her tying up her hair, rolling up her sleeves and doing the work with her own hands. When you’re giving birth to a vision, when you’re making your own dreams come true, when you’re doing what God called you to do, you don’t mind getting a little dirty, you don’t mind putting in the hard work and long hours.
She had to build her city in the right order. She couldn’t start with the wallpaper and the flower arrangements. She had to start in the dirt. She had to lay her foundation. She had to build her walls and those walls had to hold – they were still at war with some of the Canaanite nations. She had to choose which buildings would be built first. Sheerah built her own house; maybe she built a house for her mama and daddy if they were still alive. She built houses for her people and perhaps for folk she didn’t even know. And when she finished building her city, Sheerah didn’t retire. She built another city. And then she built one more. Sheerah never married or gave birth. That wasn’t her calling. Sheerah became the mother of cities. And her name lives on in the scriptures through her cities, the works of her hands.
The bible tells us about two of Sheerah’s cities, Upper Beth Horon and Lower Beth Horon. Many people know the story in Joshua about the day the sun stood still. But did you every why did the sun stand still at that exact moment in that exact place?
Joshua’s memoirs as preserved in the book that bears his name are full of war stories and he is their hero. Joshua claims a spectacular victory at Jericho and Ai, the archaeological record disagrees and Judges says that the Canaanites remained in the land, but something happened. Something big. And everyone knew it and told somebody who didn’t. Anyone who has spent time with veterans knows that each soldier’s story is different from another's, and all are different from the official story and they’re all true. More or less.
Word came to Gibeon that Israel was on the march, and they decided not to take any chances. They disguised themselves as travelers from far away and struck a deal with Joshua to spare them. Their neighbors, the five Amorite monarchs became furious and attacked them. And Joshua and Israel were duty-bound to protect them. So Joshua and his army marched all night – and there was no road from the camp in Gilgal to Gibeon. They must have been exhausted. They were in no condition to fight. But they had to fight; they had given their word. God held them to their word.
God could have told them to stand back and see the victory of the Lord, but that was another story. This time God said, “Don’t be afraid. I have handed them over to you.” Yet the Israelites had to do their part. They had to stand and fight even though they were exhausted. God confused the enemy and sent them into a panic; it was an easy victory for Israel.
And then something happened. They were all on the slope of a hill between two towns, Upper Beth-Horon and Lower Beth-Horon. The Israelites were already winning, the enemy was already panicked. They had already been beat back over 15 miles to Azekah and Makkedah. All of a sudden God began to hurl down stones from the heavens. Then came Joshua’s prayer for the sun to stand still which God granted.
Joshua 10:10 And the Holy One threw them into a panic before Israel, who inflicted a great slaughter on them at Gibeon, then chased them by the way of the ascent of Beth-horon, and struck them down as far as Azekah and Makkedah. 11 As they fled before Israel, while they were going down the slope of Beth-horon, the Ruler of Heavens and Earth threw down huge stones from the heavens on them as far as Azekah, and they died; there were more who died because of the hailstones than the Israelites killed with the sword. 12 On the day when the Holy One gave the Amorites over to the Israelites, Joshua spoke to the Holy One; and he said in the sight of Israel,
“Sun, stand still at Gibeon,
and Moon, in the valley of Aijalon.”
13 And the sun stood still, and the moon stopped,
until the nation took vengeance on their enemies.
But why did God add the hailstones? I think it has everything to do with Sheerah’s cities, Upper Beth-Horon and Lower Beth-Horon. For it was when the battle came to Sheerah’s front door that God stood up, stepped in and personally fought the battle. I’m going to suggest to you that God listened to Sheerah, who named her third city after herself, Uzzen-Sheerah, “listen to Sheerah.” God listened to her hopes and prayers for her cities and the people in them and when Sheerah’s cities were in trouble, God came to the rescue. God saved Sheerah’s cities. God’s saved Sheerah’s work. The work that she did speaks for her. The very stones bear witness to her faithfulness.
I said the stones bear witness, not bore witness, because Sheerah built on a firm foundation. Sheerah’s cities lasted for centuries after her death: Two hundred fifty years after Sheerah built her cities and God protected them, Solomon fortified her cities in 1 Kings 9:17. 2 Chronicles 8:5 explains that Solomon only added walls and towers and bars – you see the city was built on a firm foundation. Solomon didn’t have to relay Sheerah’s foundation.
Sheerah’s cities endured through the end of the Old Testament into the period of the Maccabees, more than a thousand years after she built them, the Maccabean warriors who took back the Temple of God in Jerusalem from the Greeks who desecrated it used Sheerah’s cities as their base of operations. And today, more than 3000 after Sheerah built her cities, the remains of Upper Beth Horon and Lower Beth Horon are visible in the Palestinian villages Beit Ur al Fuqua and Beit Ur al Tahat. Their foundations are still visible.
Sistren and brethren, let me ask you this morning? What are you building? What are you building for God? What are you building for your community? What are you building for those who will come after you? What legacy will you leave behind for the people of God to build on? And how are you building? Do you have a plan? Maybe you started out with a good blueprint but something went wrong along the way.
Are you building on a firm foundation? Are you building on level ground? Are you building on solid rock? Did you remember to lay a sewer system to remove all that pollutes or infects? Or has your building become infested and infected with dirt and disease? Is it time for you to clean house? Did you choose a good cornerstone to bear the weight of your building for generations to come? Are your walls straight? Are your windows cracked and crooked? Is your roof leaking? Or do you need to go back to the drawing board and start over? Brothers, if called has called you to work on a building project would you turn up your nose if God chooses a woman to be the foreman?
Build your own cities if that’s what God called you to do. Or help the woman or man called to lead the building project. Survey the promise that the Holy One of Sinai, your God, Sheerah’s God has given you. Draft a sketch of the contours of your city, from corner to corner. Remember you have to see your land in order to know how to build on it, how to account for the hills and valleys, and the even ground. Building a city is hard work. And when you lay your foundation, make sure you use solid rock. Build on the rock that is higher than you.
Build on your foundation. Build your city. Raise the walls; let the towers touch the skies. Fill it with your folk: family and friends, neighbors and strangers. And when your city comes under siege, and it will, when your enemies surround you like a flood, and they will, God will fight for you from the heavens to protect God’s work and if God lets it fall God will stay with you after the fall and strengthen your hands to build again. Now I can’t say that the s-u-n will stand still for you as it did for Sheerah, but I know the S-o-n will stand with and stand for you until he welcomes you to a city not made with hands. And who knows there just might be a little renovation going on in heaven since Sheerah the City-Builder crossed over from labor to reward.
In this season of celebration, stand on the promises of God. Claim your own inheritance. And particularly if you are God’s daughter, don’t let anyone get in your way. Stand in halls of power. Speak truth to power. Build your own city. And may your works praise you in the gates of the city you have built, for the builder of a house or city has more honor than the house or city.
In the name of the One who waded in the waters of Miryam’s womb, walked the way of suffering as one of the woman-born, and woke from the grasp of death in the deep darkness of the morning. Amen.
Union Baptist Church
20 May 2012
In these last and evil days someone needs to be reminded and someone else needs to learn that the word of God about a woman through a woman to women on Women’s Day works for men too, because women are the image of God, not once removed, but in everyway, image-bearers. And it’s a good thing for men who are used to being at the center of the story – even sharing pronouns with God in some preacher’s mouths – to have to think about where they fit into the story and find their place in a woman’s story.
The inability to see some people as fully human, hand-crafted by God, is potentially lethal as we saw once again in the past month. But it is not only white folk (or half-Hispanic folk as it’s mow being said) who willfully ignore the divine image in other people’s bodies. There is enough murder, rape, forced prostitution, and child abuse in the black community to bear witness to our own failings. As we advocate for our Trayvons, let us not forget our Trayvinas, little (and big) black girls who suffer physical, sexual and emotional abuse at the hands of black men and boys, sometimes with the knowledge or willful ignorance or even participation of black women. So let us women and men pray over the theme “If You Mess Up, Then You’d Better Step Up”:
My prayer is Miriam’s prayer, Mother Mary’s prayer – Let it be.
Let it be with your woman-servant according to your word.
With these words
the word of God was formed in the woman of God.
On this day, as on that day,
let your bat-kol, the daughter-voice of God
bring forth your word again. Amen.
There are two hundred and seventy-four shopping days until Christmas. There are forty weeks until Christmas. There are nine months until Christmas. Today, the Good News is that God became incarnate in the Virgin’s womb. This Good News is that God’s concern for the woman-born was manifested in God, Godself, becoming woman-born, for the redemption and liberation of all the woman-born from sin – the sin that we’ve done and the sin that has been done to us – and from death itself. Yeshua HaMeshiach, Jesus the Messiah, the Son of Woman, came to seek out and save the lost and to give his life as a ransom for many. In my church we celebrate the announcement of that holy mystery today, with the Feast of the Annunciation.
The Feast of the Annunciation was once so important in Christendom that the date of the year changed then, in the middle of March, for time could no longer be the same once the Holy Spirit wrapped her glory around the Virgin of Nazareth and quickened life in her womb.
The Ever-Blessed Virgin Mary, as we call her in my church, was bat Zion, a daughter of Zion, of the tribe of Judah. But her name wasn’t Mary; it was Miriam. Names in your New Testaments have been translated from Hebrew to Greek to Latin, and to German in some cases, and then into English, rendering many familiar and beloved names distantly related to their original forms.
Miriam is the most popular woman’s name in the New Testament because it was the most popular woman’s name in Jewish communities for as much as five hundred years before the time of this Miriam and her son Yeshua, Jesus of Nazareth. All of those Marys, all of those Miriams, were named for one woman, the mother of them all although she never married and never gave birth, the prophet Miriam.
One of the things I like best about the prophet Miriam is that when she messed up, she stepped up. Miriam made mistakes, but she was more than her mistakes. She left a good name, a great name and an enduring legacy. Miriam is one of the most important women in the bible. She is mentioned in more books than any other woman. And she is the only woman to have her childhood, adulthood, old age, death and burial recorded in the scriptures.
You may be familiar with the first story about Miriam in the bible. She saved her baby brother Moses so that he could save their people. She saw him safely to the waters of the Nile where he could be rescued and adopted by an Egyptian princess. We don’t know how old she was but she was old enough to negotiate an employment contract for her mother and make sure that Moses was placed in an open adoption so that he would always know who his people were.
And then there is a great space in her story. The bible is full of these spaces, many, disproportionately, in the stories about women. Did Miriam continue her relationship with the Princess? Did she and her mother live in the palace while Moshe was nursing? Why did she never marry? How did she become a prophet? How did she serve God and her people? We do know that at some point in her life she becomes recognized as a woman of God, not Moses’ prophet like Aaron, but a prophet of God in her own right. God spoke to her and through her and she spoke for God in song and verse. The bible’s oldest passages are songs and poems composed by the prophets Miriam and Deborah.
Moses and the Israelites sing Miriam’s song, the Song of the Sea, at the water’s edge. But the people wouldn’t move, they wouldn’t walk through the waters. So Miriam took a small hand-drum – I know your bibles say a tambourine in Ex 15, that’s a translation error, it was a tambourine-shaped drum without the metal pieces – she took a drum in her hand and led the people through the water singing her song. First she sang by herself and danced by herself. Moses was on the side holding his arms in the air. He didn’t lead the people through the water. The prophet Miriam led her people to freedom beginning with the sisters. The women joined Miriam in the Song of the Sea and Dance of Deliverance. Leading her people through the danger water, Miriam was the first Israelite to set foot on the other side.
And when Miriam led her people to the other side of the sea she was at least ninety years old. For Moses was eighty and Aaron was eighty-three when they told Pharaoh to let God’s people go. And Miriam was their older sister, old enough to negotiate on behalf of the baby Moses.
And then one day, Miriam messed up. She messed up and then she stepped up. She got sat down. But she didn’t stay down. She got up and moved on. She messed up, stepped up, sat down, got up and moved on. She messed up. She made a mistake. Yet the sum of her life is so much more than her most infamous mistake. Some of you have made some mistakes.
In our lesson, Miriam has something to say about the state of Moses’ household. She was right in her criticism. Moses wasn’t God’s only prophet; she was God’s prophet too. But she was wrong in talking about Moses and not talking to him. And don’t get it twisted, Moses needed talking to. He had just shown up with a shiny new wife. Black and shiny. A Nubian sister, perhaps blacker than the range of beige, brown and black that made up Israel and the multitude that left slavery on their dime. But perhaps not. Skin color wasn’t an issue in their time. The issue was that Moses just showed up with a new woman having put out his old woman and their children. Polygamy was acceptable to the Israelites, child abandonment was a whole ‘nother issue.
In Exodus 18:2, Moses sent away his first wife Zipporah and their children. Some of you may know the passage in Malachi 2:16 where God says “I hate the sending away,” sometimes and appropriately translated as “divorce.” That’s the same word used here but some translators can’t bring themselves to write that Moses divorced his wife. Yet in Exodus 18:3 his father-in-law Jethro shows up with his wife and their children in an attempt to put the family back together, and Moses hugs his father-in-law and only his father-in-law, asks about his welfare and never says a mumbling word to his family. In fact there are no stories about Moses’ sons in the wilderness, unlike Aaron’s, suggesting that he sent them away again. Some scholars speculate that’s why Moses’ descendants were banned from the priesthood; they weren’t around to be trained with or instead of Aaron’s sons. We don’t hear anything more about Moses and his family business until he shows up in our lesson with a brand new wife.
Miriam was right to want to hold him accountable for his personal conduct. Preachers and prophets don’t get an ethical pass. But she was wrong to talk about him and not to him. Moses messed up and God would deal with him. But today we are telling Miriam’s story. Miriam messed up. She messed up and then she stepped up.
When God called her name, calling her on the carpet, calling her to account, she didn’t shuck and jive, she didn’t duck and dodge, she stepped up. She stepped up and stepped to God, placing herself, her life, her skin, her beautiful face, in the hands of a living God. First God said, all three of you, come here! And she went. She messed up so she stepped up. Then God said to Miriam and Aaron, you two, come a little closer to the Fire. And she stepped up again. She was woman enough to take responsibility for messing up. She stood up on her own two feet in her big girl pants to hear the judgment of the Fire of Sinai. She didn’t make excuses, she didn’t pass the blame or the buck; she stepped up.
She messed up, stepped up and then she got sat down.
Miriam – and in my reading Aaron – were punished by God with a skin disease. The text doesn’t clearly say Aaron was afflicted but the Hebrew allows for that possibility reading between the lines. Since the biblical disease is never described with the numbness and loss of body parts associated with leprosy in other parts of the world and because houses, clothing and other inanimate objects could be contaminated, most biblical scholars identify this disease as something else. What ever it was, it was disfiguring: flaky patches, oozing sores and peeling skin.
Miriam bore her punishment and never uttered a complaining word. She didn’t know how long she would be afflicted. Yet she didn’t throw Aaron under the bus for going along with her at every turn. But Aaron, her partner in crime, confessed his own part and begged Moses to intercede, and he did. And she was healed instantly, but she still had to bear the consequences of her actions. And it was decided that Miriam had to leave the community and stay in the camp beyond the camp. She was banished to the place were those who were taboo for periods ranging from one day to the rest of their lives were quarantined apart from the rest of the people. And so Miriam went into exile among the last and the least. She no longer stood up front with Moses and Aaron at the Tent of Meeting in front of the congregation. She sat down, exiled, banished.
But she didn’t sit alone. The people sat with her, and get this; they sat down on God and so God waited for her too. Ordinarily, the people followed the leading of God in the form of a pillar of cloud by day, watching over them by night as a pillar of fire by night. But Numbers 12:15 says that the people would not get up and go without their prophet. They knew she was more than her most public mistake.
I always imagine that God picked up the cloud and started out on the next day’s journey… and no one followed. So God waited on Miriam, with her waiting people, waiting on her restoration.
Miriam messed up, she stepped up, sat down and then she got up.
And when Miriam got up, God and the people got up with her. And then they got going. Miriam messed up, stepped up, sat down, got up and then she moved on. She moved on past her mistake. She didn’t hang on to it and she didn’t hang around with anyone who wanted to tie her to her past. She went on with her life and her life’s work. And then, one day, she died. In Israelite culture, a person had immortality through their children, specifically through their name passed down to and through their children. But Miriam didn’t have any children. She never married. Yet her name lives on forever.
There was something about Miriam. Sure some people would never allow her or anyone else to forget that one time she messed up big time. Look at Deuteronomy 24:9, Remember what the Holy One your God did to Miriam on your journey out of Egypt.
But that’s not the only was Miriam was remembered, in 1 Chronicles 4:17, another Egyptian princess married into the tribe of Judah and named her newborn baby daughter Miriam. Miriam’s legacy to her people – and to those who were not even her own people – is more than her mistakes.
And then there is God. And when God looked back on Miriam’s life and death, all God saw was her gifts. It was how Miriam conducted herself before and after her mistakes – and I’m sure she made more than one – it was Miriam’s service to God, serving God by serving God’s people that God remembered and testified to in her memory.
Do you remember when God took the witness stand and testified about Miriam? You probably know the verdict:
God has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Holy One require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
But a text without a context is a pretext. The Rev. Dr. Dennis Proctor told me that. You see in Micah 6, more than six hundred years after the death of the prophet Miriam, God is being sued by Israel. The bailiff speaks, calling the court to order in Micah 6:1-2:
Hear what the Holy One says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
Hear, you mountains, the dispute of the Holy One,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the Holy One has a dispute with God’s people,
and God will litigate with Israel.
Then God takes the stand and testifies in verses 3-4:
“O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses,
Aaron, and Miriam.
God’s testimony, God’s self-defense was Miriam. The proof of how good God was to Israel was that God sent not just Moses, not just Moses and Aaron, but God sent Moses, Aaron and Miriam. And the mountains and hills, serving as the jury, ruled in God’s favor.
I like to think that it was the memory of Miriam that decided things in God’s favor. Yes Miriam messed up.
She messed up and then she stepped up.
She messed up, stepped up and then she got sat down.
She messed up, stepped up, sat down and then she got up.
She messed up, stepped up, sat down, got up and then she moved on. She moved past her mistakes.
God used the prophet Micah to vindicate and validate the prophet Miriam, she was more than the one mistake that some folk wouldn’t let her forget and talked about after her death. And her people began naming their daughters after her so frequently that in the first century her name was the most popular woman’s name among her people.
And one of the daughters of her name, named for the most famous and beloved of Israel’s women prophets elevated her name to a whole new level. Listen now to the geology behind the genealogy in Matthew 1:
A genealogy of Miriam, the daughter of Hannah called Anna:
Of her was born Jesus who is called Christ.
Sarah was the mother of Isaac,
And Rebekah was the mother of Jacob,
Leah was the mother of Judah,
Tamar was the mother of Perez.
The names of the mothers of Hezron, Ram, Amminadab,
Nahshon and Salmon have been lost.
Rahab was the mother of Boaz,
and Ruth was the mother of Obed.
Obed’s wife, whose name is unknown, gave birth to Jesse.
The wife of Jesse was the mother of David.
Bathsheba was the mother of Solomon,
Naamah the Ammonite, was the mother of Rehoboam.
Maacah was the mother of Abijam and the grandmother of Asa.
Azubah was the mother of Jehoshaphat.
The name of Jehoram’s mother is unknown.
Athaliah was the mother of Ahaziah,
Zibiah of Beersheba was the mother of Joash.
Jecoliah of Jerusalem gave birth to Uzziah,
Jerusha gave birth to Jotham; Ahaz’s mother is unknown.
Abi was the mother of Hezekiah,
Hephzibah was the mother of Manasseh,
Meshullemeth was the mother of Amon,
Jedidah was the mother of Josiah.
Zebidah was the mother of Jehoiakim,
Nehushta was the mother of Jehoiachin,
Hamutal was the mother of Zedekiah.
Then the deportation of Babylon took place.
After the deportation to Babylon
the names of the mothers go unrecorded.
The sum of generations is therefore: fourteen from Sarah to David’s mother;
fourteen from Bathsheba to the Babylonian deportation;
and fourteen from the Babylonian deportation to Miriam, the mother of Christ.
Miriam, the prophet-woman, messed up, stepped up, sat down, got up and then she moved on. When you mess up – when and not if – when you mess up, step up. Take responsibility for your mistakes. Own it. Give it to God. And know that that you may have to pay a price and that you may have to bear the consequences, in public, in your community. You can’t run and you can’t hide. And then take the time that you need to get your life back on track. Don’t run from mistake to mistake. Sit down in the company of folk who know what it is to go through what you’re going through. And if no one sits you down, sit your own self down. But when you sit down then don’t stay down. Get up. And move on. Go forward; go with God. You have no way of knowing how God will use you, your name, your legacy, to change the world.
In the name of the One who waded in the waters of Miryam’s womb, walked the way of suffering as one of the woman-born, and woke from the grasp of death in the deep darkness of the morning. Amen.