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.
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.
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.
Listen to the recording (mp3 file)
Hosea 11:3 I, I taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
yet they did not know that I healed them.
4 I pulled them along with humane restraint,
with ties of love.
And I was to them
like those who lift babies to their cheeks,
I reached to them and fed them.
Let us pray: In the Name of the Author, the Word and the Translator. Amen.
For the last few years I have been engaging in the work of public theology in social media. I do so because I am often frustrated with and disgusted by the misrepresentations of my God and my scriptures in the public square. I am an evangelical Episcopalian, like our Archbishop of Canterbury who is so evangelical he speaks in tongues; I want to share the love of God in and through the scriptures. I’m active on social media in part because I want people to know the loving faithful God of Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament – and all the books in between – and not just a few carefully curated verses reflecting Iron Age, flat-earth theology.
This morning’s First Lesson holds one of my favorite images of God, that I’d like to share with you and with the world, one whom I’m in desperate need of, a tender, loving, mothering God. I don’t know about you, but this has been a summer of sorrows, for me and for people about whom I care. It has been sorrowful for people in our neighborhoods, nation and around the world. It has been sorrowful for people who look like me and my little brother and my nephews. Sometimes random tragedies and natural disasters leave sorrow in their wake. But all too often sorrow is caused by human beings, intentionally inflicting great harm and pain on other people.
Hosea may seem like a strange place in which to find a tender loving mothering God, especially if you heard or read last week’s First Lesson option from Hosea chapter 1. Hosea claims God told him to marry a woman of prostitution. I say “claims” because, come on… We’re trained to hear these texts religiously which is not always a good thing. Imagine if your rector came back and said God told him to marry a porn star and his next sermon series will be based on their children so he needs to get busy making those babies and is doing all of this as a sermon example so you can see God in him and in his wife who’s going to go back to her porn-making ways and eventually he’s going to have to buy out her contract. I can’t say Hosea didn’t hear the voice of God. I can say the story provides us an opportunity to explore how we know what we are hearing, thinking or imagining is or is not the voice of God. But that was last week.
Now about this week… I’m guessing this is not the sermon you thought you were getting. Perhaps equally unexpected are the ways, plural, in which Hosea thought about and named God in what has become scripture for us. Whatever you make of the marry-and-impregnate-a-woman-who-sells-herself-and-will-return-to-selling-herself-so-you-will-have-to-buy-her-back-story of the beginning of the book, it paints a particular, familiar, traditional, image of God. God is Israel’s long-suffering, betrayed, jealous husband, who loves his – I said his – wife in spite of how she has treated him and will take her back. This image of God has its problems; God is often a violent, abusive husband in these Iron Age theological portraits, particularly in the prophets, which assume that jealous men beat their wives and have every right to do so, and worse.
We should be honest about the limitations and danger of that image and language. All of our language and imagery falls short when we speak of God, for human language is woefully inadequate for the task. Even our most familiar and beloved God-language can become an idol – that which is not God but which we treat as though it were. For some, masculine god-language is an idol; it is a limited, finite, incomplete articulation of who God is in and beyond the scriptures treated and worshipped as though it were God. God is not our language about God, even our most cherished and traditional language, father language, Trinitarian language, falls short of who God is. We need multiple images of God, more than one set of words, like Hosea. In most of Hosea God is Israel’s husband but in chapter 11 she is Israel’s mother.
God says: I, I taught Ephraim how to walk – using a double subject in Hebrew for emphasis. Imagine God holding out her fingers for her toddling child to grasp as he teeters and totters.
God says: I lifted them up in my arms. Imagine God holding her child in her arms, not just one, but all of them at the same time. No matter how many, no matter how wriggly, there is room in God’s lap for all of her children.
God says: I was to them like those who lift babies to their cheeks. The way I cared for them – the nation who is my child – was like when you hold a baby up to your face and rub his soft, plump little cheek against your own.
God says: I reached to them and fed them. I fed my babies as all mothers have from the founding of the world until some of you all figured out how to bottle milk. I nursed my babies at my own breast; I didn’t farm them out to a milk-nurse. The image of God as mother is older than Hosea and endures into the New Testament and earliest theology of the Church. Feminists didn’t start it; we are Janies-come-lately.
The Spirit who is always feminine in Hebrew and never male in any biblical text, was the mother hen of all creation in Genesis. In Exodus, at the founding of the nation, God gave birth to Israel becoming their mother. The Hebrew word for Egypt, mitzrayim, means “narrow place.” It is a metaphor for the womb from whose violent contractions Israel was delivered. The passage through the Sea is the passage through the birth canal, complete with blood and water. In Numbers 11 while arguing with God, Moses complains that he did not give birth to Israel and is unable to nurse them and tells her – Moses uses a feminine pronoun for God – Moses tells her to nurse her own babies because he doesn’t have the equipment to do so. He then quits as God’s nanny but they make up and he goes back to work. Then God whips up a batch of chicken and biscuits for her ungrateful children. (That’s the manna and quails for the literalists among you.)
Deuteronomy 32:18 charges the ancient Israelites, and us: The Rock who gave birth to you, you have neglected; and you have forgotten the God who writhed in labor with you. 1 Peter 2:2 urges new Christians to desire the milk of the gospel; the gospel is mother’s milk and God is our mother. Julian of Norwich, that great mystic of the Church wrote of the motherhood and fatherhood of God and repeatedly of “Christ our Mother” who feeds us in the Sacrament from his own body as a mother from her breast.
Hosea preached of the tender mothering love of God as he preached about a second Exodus, a do-over. Anybody else want to turn back the hands of time and start over? Israel was going to get one, but it wouldn’t be like they thought. God wasn’t going to wave a magic wand and erase all of their problems and the consequences of their decisions, choices, actions and inactions. But God would accompany them on their journey, through and beyond their sorrows, no matter where they led or how long it took.
Hosea 11 with its tender portrait of Mother God has a tragic, reverse Exodus:
Hosea 11:5 …return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king,
because they have refused to repent.
6 The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their divisions,
devouring because of their schemes…
Israel will go back to Egypt. Juxtaposed with the Assyrian invasion and defeat of Samaria, the capital of the Northern Monarchy, resulting in the decimation of nine and a half of the twelve tribes, God announces that Israel – meaning the North, not the whole – will return to Egypt. This is unimaginable, going back to the place of slavery.
Perhaps it is not so unimaginable. Violence rages in our cities too, violence from a time we thought long past all. The legal right to kill based on your feelings, even when those feelings are rooted in racism. Are we going back in time? Perhaps not going back to the days of slavery, but are we going back to pre-Civil Rights, pre-Voting Rights Amendment America? Are we going back to the time when my daddy wore the uniform of the United States Army and didn’t have the right to vote? We can’t go back! Surely God won’t send us back there.
Are we going back to a time when women didn’t have any control over our own bodies, medical or other decisions, couldn’t walk down the street without a male escort to avoid being seen as one of those women – the kind who can be taken off the street, used and abused and held for a decade? Well, maybe no one but the predators thinks that’s acceptable anymore but one in five women are raped and only three percent of rapes lead to convictions and rape victims and survivors still have to prove they were really raped. We’ve made so little progress here. We can’t go back! But it looks like we’re going anyway. For once we want Mama to say, “I will turn this car around…” But this time she won’t. Israel is going back to Egypt and we are backtracking too. But how far back are we going to go?
After four hundred years of bondage, it took the Israelites another forty years to reach Canaan, and everyone who started the journey with them did not make it. A whole generation died on the way, a whole generation of dreamers. American chattel slavery lasted four hundred sixty years. Its aftermath gave birth to generations of dreamers and their dreams; one dream marched on Washington fifty years ago this month. Will we let the fabric of their dreams be unraveled?
We have done so much since then, learned so much, built so much, changed so much. Are we going to lose it all? Civil Rights and women’s rights and the dignity of every human person, gay, straight, and crooked, cis, trans and in transition, able-bodied and varying abilities, documented and undocumented, wealthy, comfortable, struggling, working poor, deeply and desperately impoverished… I imagine Hosea’s congregation reflecting on their own history.
After leaving Egypt, the Israelites fought their way into Canaan, when they were not fighting the indigenous population who understandably objected to what they experienced as illegal immigration, they were fighting the land. We will continue to fight against the dreams of a new generation of dreamers? Are we willing to offer the stranger welcome to this nation built on bones and broken promises and the sad history of cutting off many of its First Nations from the same promises?
Now, the prophet says God will let the Assyrians invade them as they themselves invaded Canaan. Yet this is not an easy decision for God. God laments:
8 How can I give you away Ephraim? How can I hand you over Israel?
How can I make you like Admah, treat you like Zeboiim?
[cities destroyed with Sodom and Gomorrah]
My heart turns within me; kindling my tenderness and heart together.
9 I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath. No!
But you will go back to Egypt. God, we can’t go back there! We can’t go back in time here in America. But it looks like we too are going back to Egypt. And God promises us as God promised Israel, no matter what happens, no matter how bad it looks, no matter how bad it gets, not to destroy us, not to abandon us, to accompany us wherever we go and when necessary to bring us home, again and again.
But this time it will be different trip. We and Egypt have changed – and I’m not even talking about the most recent changes in Egypt. Those who go to Egypt as Hosea prophesies will not be enslaved; their former oppressors have become welcoming neighbors – for a while. Those who seek refuge in Egypt will be saved from Babylonian annihilation. More than one hundred and fifty years later, the prophet Jeremiah was forcibly taken to Egypt and he and an entire community of Jews escaped the Babylonian invasion. They built a thriving community in North Africa. They learned Greek and translated the scriptures. Many generations later that community welcomed the Holy Family into their midst when they too went back to Egypt in response to the dream of a new generation, giving new meaning to God’s words to Hosea: Out of Egypt have I called my son… And the gospel in which Hosea was quoted was written in Greek because of the influence of that community and their descendants.
Israel will be defeated by the Assyrians and deported to Egypt and to Assyria, but God will bring them home again, in a second Exodus.
Hosea 11:10 They shall follow the God Who Is Mother and Husband,
who roars like a lion; for when God roars–
God’s children shall come trembling from the west.
11 They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt,
and like a dove from the land of Assyria;
and I will return them to their homes,
says the Mothering God.
Sometimes we go back to go forward. And wherever we go, our Mothering God goes with us. That’s Iron Age theology that still works in the digital age. In the words of Ps 107:43, Let those who are wise give heed to these things…
May God the Mother and Father
of Avraham, Yitza’ak and Ya’acov,
Sarah, Hagar, Rivqah, Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah,
Who took the tangled threads of their lives
And wove a tapestry of Redemption
In the Body and Blood of Miryam l’Natzeret
Continue to weave the strands of your life
In the Divine design. Amen.
Nehemiah 8:1 All the people gathered as though they were a single person into the square before the Water Gate. They told the Torah-scholar Ezra to bring the scroll of the Torah of Moses, which the Holy One of Sinai had commanded to Israel. 2 So, the priest Ezra brought the Torah before the assembly, both women and men and all who could hear with understanding…
11 rulers of the earth and all peoples, princes and all judges of the earth;
12 young men and women alike, old and young together…
and Galatians 3:
Galatians 3:26 All of you indeed are children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Judean nor Greek (that is neither Jew nor Gentile), there is neither slave nor free, there is not male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
Let us pray on the theme: “Neither Jew Nor Gentile, Neither Slave Nor Free, Neither Male Nor Female – Did Paul Really Mean That?”
May my teaching pour like the rain, my word go forth like the dew;
like rains on grass, like showers on new growth. Amen.
U.N.I.T.Y. (That’s A Unity) The Queen, Latifah, put it down. Unity. There’s a lot of talk about unity in the Bible. But when you scratch the surface, there is always something more, much more going on. The Israelite monarchy was united, for a while. But the golden age of the Israel was only about one hundred years. At the same time that Israel was beginning its great decline a curious migration was happening in Europe. Warriors who painted their pale skins blue crossed from their island home onto the mainland and began making their way through Spain and Austria to France, Italy and Greece. It would take them hundreds of years to reach the Mediterranean in large numbers. Some of them would eventually settle in the mountains of Turkey where their military dominance would cause one region in the land to be named after them. They were Celtic peoples from what became known as Ireland and Scotland – think “Braveheart” back when Mel Gibson wasn’t acting like he was raised by wolves, and about 1000 years before that story – and when they dealt with the Greeks and Romans they were called Galatois, meaning “barbarians” and became known as Gauls and Galatians.
By the time that Paul began traveling in the south of Galatia the peoples descended from those ancient Celtic warriors had intermarried with the descendants of the great Hittite Empire for generations. Their descendants intermarried with the peoples brought and left behind by Alexander the Great and his successors. And it was to some of their descendants that Paul penned these famous words: [drash – you who the barbarous Romans called barbarians, someone else baptized you, Word for the saints, but you chose to put on Christ; it is a done deal; what it says, what it means; ethnic differences; class differences; gender differences]
Galatians 3:26 All of you indeed are children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Judean nor Greek (that is neither Jew nor Gentile), there is neither slave nor free, there is not male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
These words have become something of a bumper sticker in the church for unity. But unity is much more than a slogan or even a beloved bible verse. The context which occasioned the writing of these words, the notion that the Galatians were so barbarian that they didn’t even count as Greeks meant that they heard Paul saying it doesn’t matter if the world counts you out – and the Greeks were the world, God counts you in. It doesn’t matter if the greatest empire known to the world, the Romans who conquered and inherited the Greek empire, the height of culture and class thinks you are not worthy to be part of their republic, their empire.
You know how the Galatians felt. Perhaps they were told people like you don’t belong here. You don’ t get a say in how we run this joint. You don’t have the right to vote. You aren’t intelligent enough to vote. We can’t have one of you in the White House. We can’t have the White House turned into the Black House. Your people are barbarians and savages. We only let you into this here church so that we could civilize you but you are not equal to us; you are not one of us and you never will be. I’m not saying that the Galatians were the black folk of the Bible because they were actually whiter than the black, brown and beige folk who made up most of the other biblical folk, but they were on the margins of the Jewish Christianity represented by Paul.
It wasn’t an issue of race as Americans have come to think about race. It wasn’t about skin color or hair texture or the shape of nose and lips, thighs or hips. There was plenty of bias in the ancient world around ethnic identity, national identity, religion and culture without the concept of race which was invented to facilitate the North African slave trade. In the bible, it was more about who your mama was and where she came from than what she looked like. And that was just on the Roman side that inherited and magnified the old Greek prejudices. I haven’t even gotten to the Judean or Jewish side with the deep suspicion of and hostility towards Gentiles. Some Judean Christians – the word Yudaoi doesn’t always mean “Jew” in opposition to “Christian” – some Jewish Christians believed that Gentiles who wanted to follow Jesus would have to make a full conversion to Judaism first and then they could receive the Jewish Messiah.
A council of elders met in Jerusalem to decide this matter and determined that there were certain ethical obligations that fell on Gentiles but they, we, didn’t have to convert. In Acts 15 the elders of Jerusalem decided that Gentiles who seek to follow Jesus must also follow a greatly abridged and reduced Torah including keeping a small part of the kosher laws. We must abstain from the pollutions of idols. This mostly referred to eating meat that had been sacrificed to other gods but Paul would reject that eventually because there were some people who were so poor that that was the only meat they could afford so that commandment would eventually be waived. The next command was to avoid illicit sexual activity. Most you know the word translated as “fornication,” but pornea is a more complicated term that has to do with unsanctioned sexual activity. The question of what is sanctioned and what is unsanctioned sexual activity is a question for another day. I know I’m in a COGIC house, so suffice it to say that the traditional understanding of sexual purity and holiness in this and other Pentecostal churches won’t get you into any trouble. It’s alright to live holy as big mama taught holiness. There is much more sexual activity that is permissible under a biblical understanding that most of us are comfortable with, but I’m in a COGIC house and that is a sermon for another day.
The elders of Jerusalem also prescribed a modified form of keeping kosher for Gentile converts. In addition to avoiding meat that was sacrificed to idols, they were to avoid meat that was strangled and not slaughtered according to kosher law, including meat that hadn’t had the blood drained out of it properly. And yet here is Paul in his epistle to the Galatians saying it doesn’t matter if you’re a Jew or a Gentile, it doesn’t matter if you’re a Greek or a barbarian. You don’t have to keep the Jewish Torah and then Paul breaks faith with the elders of Jerusalem and says that Gentile converts don’t even have to keep the modified Torah that the elders approved. For you and I are one in Christ no matter who our people are or where we came from. When writing to the church at Ephesus in lands through which the Celtic Galatians passed and some surely settled in ancient days, also now in Turkey Paul writes:
Ephesians 2:14 For Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups, Jews and Gentiles, into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.
Paul spends most of his apostolic career tearing down walls between Jews and Gentiles. Surely Paul is preaching unity this morning, unity between different ethnic groups. We need to hear Paul today. Our nation needs to hear that we are one people. In the Christian community our oneness comes from Christ. So those who claim to claim the name of Christ need to claim another name if they’re going to keep hating on our President and First Lady. Because we are one in Christ. In fact whether you are Christian or not we are one flesh with all humanity. We are one and we need to act like it.
And Paul says more: there is neither male nor female in Christ Jesus. Now this is really something, because women were often second-class citizens in much of the ancient world and in biblical Israel. And at the same time, there were women with power and authority like the prophets Miriam and Deborah and Isaiah’s Baby Mama and Huldah and Noadiah and those whose names we do not know. There were queens in Israel like Bathsheba, Zeruah and Jezebel and Queen-Mothers in Judah like Naamah, Micaiah, Maacah, Azubah, Athaliah, Zibiah, Jehoaddin, Yecoliah, Jerushah, Avi/Aviyah, Hephzibah, Meshullemeth, Yedidah, Hammutal, Zevidah and Nehushta who ruled with and without husbands and sons. And if you don’t know those women prophets and queens it is perhaps because the gender bias of the bible has been multiplied in the church and we don’t study women in the scriptures the way we study men even when the bible remembers to tell us their names. And only 8% of the names the bible tells us are the names of women.
Gender bias didn’t end in the bible. Folk have been using iron age theology suppress, repress and oppress women and girls from the moment Adam blamed Eve to the disciples asking Jesus why are you wasting your time and our time talking to women, to Paul himself saying neither male nor female out of one side of his mouth but men are supposed to be the head out of the other. I haven’t forgotten that one of the great questions of our time was whether women – and they meant white women – should be given the vote before or after coloreds – and they meant colored men. For many the issue was clear neither women nor colored folk should be able to vote in this country, and forget about black women. There are still little girls being told, you can’t do that, you can’t play football, you can’t be a Supreme Court Justice, you can’t be President, you can’t be a priest, you can’t be a bishop in the Church of God in Christ or in the Church of England. You can’t run this shop, you can’t be the boss of men, you can’t be an astronaut or Army officer, you can’t make more money than your honey.
You’re just a girl and you’re not the same as a boy, God made you different, you know, separate but equal. You woulda thought black folk had learned already that separate is not equal. We’ve got politicians and corporate raiders talking about I don’t have to pay women as much as men if I don’t want to. I don’t have to provide them health insurance if I don’t want to. I can use my power to keep them out of the workforce, out of college at home and pregnant, even raped and pregnant. Because for them women are not people, not the image of God and not the same as them, not one in Christ as Paul says here.
Paul is teaching there is no longer male nor female in Christ Jesus. And if this is true then this changes a whole lot in Scripture: then there are no women’s roles and men’s roles in the home, in the world or in the church. And if there are really no genders or no difference in gender then why does it matter so much to some folk who can marry who. I know I’m in a COGIC house, so I’m not going to go any further with that but Paul raises the question for us.
And Paul also falls short of his own preaching. Paul does not work as hard for unity between women and men as he does for unity between Jews and Gentiles. Paul preaches tradition and superstition, he talks about women covering their heads; he admits he doesn’t have a word from God on that but he tells them to do it anyway. But more than that this is a piece of a divine revelation of Paul seems not to like. He doesn’t spend much time preaching on it; he doesn’t spend much time teaching on it and he regresses and allows the church to regress without prophetic critique. Paul had a little trouble with the Jewish/Gentile thing: he told Timothy that he had to be circumcised as a grown man in spite of this revelation that God gave him. Unity is a hard thing, it’s an expensive thing, it will cost you standing, privilege and position if you are on the inside or if you are on top. Paul had a hard time relinquishing power and control, sharing that with other folk, especially women. But he gave it the old college try in Romans 16. You ought to read that and see how many women Paul worked with, along side of, celebrated, shouted out, women with whom he was working as fellow laborers and co-laborers, even sisters he recognized as apostles including a woman named Junia who was chief among the apostles in his book. But he couldn’t stay there. He lost sight of the unity God called him to proclaim.
There was a third category of unity in this revolutionary epistle: slave and free. Paul also had a hard time with this one. He had never known a world without slavery and truth be told he couldn’t imagine a world without slavery. Paul sounded a lot like the white slaveholders of this country, believing that freedom was all in your head or in the world to come but not necessarily for your body in this world. He wished the saints wouldn’t hold slaves but he would not use his apostolic authority to forbid buying and selling and holding of human beings in bondage. In fact when one of the Christian brothers ran away from another Christian bother holding him in slavery Paul sent him back into slavery saying he hoped he would be free one day but Paul couldn’t see his way clear to insist on his freedom in the Gospel. Paul did not proclaim this word of unity to Onesimus and Philemon; that there is neither slave nor free in Christ Jesus.
Paul has hit all of the major categories that still divide us in our times. Ethnic identity which we now experience as racial and cultural identity, speaking to bias against black folk and Hispanic folk and Arab and folk – we are one in Christ Jesus, gender identity which includes lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex identities, bodies and a variety of gender performances – there is more than one way to be a man and more than one way to be a woman and we are one in Christ Jesus. And Paul spoke of the major class division in his day: slavery. We still have slavery in many parts of the world. Sex trafficking of women and girls and boys and sometimes men is modern-day slavery and pervades the United States in the prostitution industry. Some of our favorite corporations like Nike and Apple and Martha Stewart use and have used slave labor at their factories around the world. But the class divide in our time is not limited to sex trafficking or other forms of slavery. The divisions between the haves and have-nots, the 99% and the 1% and let’s not forget about the 47% – those class distinctions divide the country and cost one man the election.
Yet there is unity in Christ. Or at least there should be. The fact that Paul was writing this letter is a testament to how things really were. And if we tell the truth, and we ought always tell the truth – at least in church – then Paul knew perfectly well that the church was not unified. At best we are unity in diversity. Even a casual reading of Paul’s epistles and those who wrote later in his name illustrate that there were some folk trying to reform the church, trying to unify it while some were trying to go back to the old ways men with power and women without, Christians holding slaves and instead of Jews and Gentiles it became Christians were somehow better than heathens. Yet then as now there was diversity of practice, diversity of belief, diversity of interpretation. I for one don’t believe that is a bad thing. I don’t believe that unity requires uniformity.
Take a look at any choir that wears a uniform, whether robes or classic black and white. Their robes may be identical; they may have sprung for identical button-down white shirts and identical pants and/or skirts. But that choir is still made up of individuals with different facial features, skin tones and hair-styles. Even the world-famous Rockettes are not uniform. Before they started hiring black, brown and beige dancers, they had blondes, brunettes and redheads, and even when they were wearing identical wigs or Santa hats they were not identical, yet they move as one. I don’t know much about music but I know what makes a choir work is that they don’t all sing the same notes the same way. There is harmony and melody. Even when they are singing in unison there are treble voices and bass voices; there is diversity in their unity.
So there should always be ethnic diversity in a healthy church because God’s house is to be a house of prayer for all peoples. And there will be gender diversity in church but not just in the pews – at every level of power. And there should be class diversity in church, folk at every level of income. Maybe one day those differences will no longer matter as Paul wrote, but that day is not today. Because those at the top of the power curve have benefitted for so long from holding other folk back it is not necessarily just to try to erase everyone’s identity without reforming the systems that privilege some folk more than others.
I believe that God gave Paul these words for the church. And I believe that they were too hard for Paul to live up to and into. Paul worked hard to get it right on Jews and Gentiles. But he didn’t get it right with women. And he didn’t get it right on slavery. Paul tells us how church should be – there should be no distinctions and there should be no divisions. And Paul also tells us how it really is, it’s hard to erase distinctions and it’s doubly hard to do so when your distinction holds the power. That works the other way too: When someone who doesn’t look like you uses their power to keep you down, to keep your people down, to hold your children back, to suppress your vote, to count you out, it’s hard to see them as the image of God, let alone part of the body of Christ.
On this your Unity Day, the day on which you celebrate the ministries of women and men together, let me suggest to you that you can have unity without uniformity. Just like that beautiful choir. You can make beautiful music together without all looking the same or sounding the same. There is unity in diversity. The Psalmist takes it farther than Paul can go. She – and why do some folk imagine all the Psalmists were male when 1 Chronicles 25:5-6 says: God had given Heman fourteen sons and three daughters. 6 They were all under the direction of their father for the music in the house of the Lord… The Psalmist has a vision of unity that I’d like to leave you with. One day all of nature will be united in praise of God:
Psalm 148:7 Praise the Holy One of Old from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps:
8 fire and hail, snow and frost, storm wind executing God’s command;
9 the mountains and every one of the hills, trees with fruit and those of cedar;
10 animals wild and tame, creeping ones and flying birds;
11 rulers of the earth and all peoples, princes and all judges of the earth;
12 young men and women alike, old and young together.
13 Praise the name of the Holy One of Sinai, for God’s Name alone is exalted;
God’s splendor covers earth and heaven.
14 God has raised up a horn for God’s people, praise for all God’s faithful,
for the sons-and-daughters of Israel, the people who are close to God.
Praise the God-Whose-Name-is-Holy!
Whoever your people are, whatever your gender is, whatever your financial situation, you are God’s child and Christ has redeemed you. And there is nothing anyone can say, nothing anyone can do to count you out when God has counted you in. You are God’s. Amen.
25 November 2012
Sanctuary Church of God in Christ, Mt. Airy, Philadelphia PA
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).