Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Posts tagged “Priscilla

Preaching A Feminist Faith From Priscilla’s Epistle

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A great cloud of witnesses surrounds us…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Believe God: Listen to the Voices in Your Heart & Head

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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.

My former classmate at the Howard University School of Divinity, Yolanda Adams sings I Believe I Can Fly:

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: