Church of the Scarlet Thread : 7.26.2020
Featuring Rev. Wil Gafney and Anasuya Isaacs
Sermon begins at 34:33
The Magdala Stone represents a tangible connection to the world of Mary Magdalene whether she attended the synagogue there or not.
God of our mothers, Hagar, Sarah and Keturah, fold us under the shelter of your wings with all your children of every race and every faith and may God who is Majesty, Mercy, and Mystery speak words of life, love, and liberation through these words. Amen.
When I teach an intro to the Hebrew Bible, I start by saying that the beginning of the scriptures could be in this verse in Genesis or that verse in Lamentations, in the book of Psalms or the books of Kings, that the story of the sacred stories has many beginnings and many tellings. So it is with many, if not all stories. It is so for the stories of Jesus and the stories of the women and men who first followed him, and the stories of the church they built. The story of how stories were and are told holds lessons for those who will hear whether you are part of the story of Jesus or not. Indeed, I welcome the sisters and other kinfolk from diverse traditions gathered on clouds of electrons to consider the tellings of your own sacred stories, official and unofficial, as I offer a telling of this one.
The story of Jesus and those who tell his story may begin for some with the gospels and the story of a miraculous pregnancy. At least that is what the table of contents suggest. Tables of contents are implicitly suggested reading sequences. But suggested by whom? All of our stories have editors behind the curtains who curate or shape what we read. Scholars of the text will tell us that another beginning to the story of Jesus is the epistles, the letters written by the presumptively male followers of his followers to tell his story because the first hand eye-witnesses had died or were dying. Some of the accounts of those witnesses would later be written down as gospels and some of them would be canonized, receiving official table of contents status. Again, hidden hands, male hands, shape the contours of the story of these sacred stories.
Some may well ask, why bother with these stories when the voices of women and gender-full kin are so few and far between and the words on their lips – even if not placed there by men – are edited to serve their interests, articulating their theology that places them at the center of all things and creates a god in their male image who is as patriarchal and, in many cases, as misogynistic, murderous and slave-holding as they. We do so, I do so, because I have found in them words of life and a God who transcends every idol constructed in or out of the text, even those constructed with the words of the text.
I’m asked over and over again why I stick with these scriptures and their androcentrism and their marginalization of women and their portraits of God that sometimes look like a small-minded human man. The answer is the same: In spite of their Iron Age theology and all of its limitations – and sometimes because of it and them – the word of God shines through all the cobwebs and encrustations and with it, the God who is too big to be confined to text or tradition or religion or denomination, the God who Is and who loves and who is Love.
Even ordinary literature transcends the hands that write it and the context and limitations of its production. Great literature and art and music soar across continents and cultures and peoples and places and language and limitations. The scriptures are more even than this. They are, in my reading and hearing and praying and preaching, imbued with the voice of God. Not in the strictures of literalism, for that would not be possible with their many originating manuscripts with their many differences or in their many translated languages – some of which don’t even have the same grammatical structures as their original languages, but in the power that illumines, transforms, convicts, inspires and, reveals.
And so, I turn to the scriptures knowing that there are stories within the stories, stories among the stories, stories between the stories, and stories behind the stories if we know where to look and listen. And in the story of Paul and his chest-thumping exploits, late to the apostle game, always chasing the legacy of the Apostle to the Apostles, Miriam of Magdala whom you know as Mary Magdalene, there is another story, the story of Priscilla, preacher, pastor, professor and – I will postulate – apostle, indeed, there are some scholars who credit her with authoring the epistle to the Hebrews in whole or in part.
Identities are complex things; we are all of us, many things at once. Priscilla was a Jewish Christian woman living in Rome with her husband Aquila, also Jewish, also a follower of Jesus and, a Turk in today’s reckoning; he was from the Pontus region of what is now Turkey on the shores of the Black Sea. This story is set in a time when the Jewish followers of Jesus still understood themselves to be Jewish, and attended synagogue and the pilgrim festivals at the temple in Jerusalem and kept kosher and in all ways were faithful observant Jews. That’s why Paul would take time off from his evangelizing and go back to Jerusalem for the holy days (Acts 20:16).
Priscilla and her husband were thrown out of Italy when the emperor Claudius expelled the Jews as so many world leaders, including Christian leaders, would do throughout the ages. Ironically, following Jesus didn’t make them any less Jewish to him any more than the Nazis would spare Jews who converted. Priscilla and Aquila traveled to Corinth in Greece where Paul who was from the southern, Mediterranean, side of Turkey – then a collection of Roman provinces – sought them out. He stayed with them and they worked together as tentmakers, their shared previous occupation.
These scant verses reveal some things that we might overlook if we focus too closely on who the larger story centers. The story of Priscilla and Aquila is in service to the story of Paul. But if we leave him to his tents and his travels we might note that the different storytellers of these epistles, from Romans 16:3 at Paul’s hand to 2 Timothy 4:19, perhaps at the hand of one of his imitators and, the Acts account penned by the author of the Gospel of Luke, all name Priscilla first, before her husband, if not smashing the patriarchy, then inverting the common hierarchy. Priscilla and Aquila were known to Paul, he sought them out and accepts them and their marriage on their terms. There is no women’s work or men’s work or keep your woman in the house, barefoot and pregnant. They all have the same job without regard to gender or its performance. It is hot heavy strenuous work and they do it together.
Priscilla and Aquila and Paul share another vocation; they are all of them, preachers and teachers of the gospel. Perhaps having raised enough money to fund a missionary journey with their tentmaking, Priscilla and Aquila and Paul travel homewards to Syria where they recede into the background while Paul has some adventures. They travel together again, this time to Ephesus in Turkey where they part company. Here they encounter a Jewish man who is learned in their shared scriptures but seemingly new to the path of Jesus. He is by birth an African, native to Egypt where there were colonies of Jews from the time of the Babylonian invasion including later his home, Alexandria. Identities are complex things. His name was Apollos and perhaps he had only just finished his first year of seminary. He had learned of John’s baptism but apparently not that of Jesus or that of and in the Holy Spirit. But he worked well with what he knew and was well regarded as a passionate fiery preacher deeply rooted in the scriptures.
Then Priscilla and Aquila got their hand on him, the sequence of their names suggesting to many scholars that she was the theological heavyweight and lead pastor and teaching elder. They got Apollos some supplemental theological education, some continuing ed; Priscilla took him to school and he went on his way preaching better because he knew better. Where Priscilla and Aquila went next or stayed is not entirely clear. In his epistle to the Romans (16:3-5), Paul bids his hearers and readers to greet them as his coworkers (and I argue) as his fellow – make that sibling – apostles. He describes all the gentile churches giving thanks to them, Priscilla and Aquila, calling her by a shortened version of her name Prisca, still positioned before her husband and, Paul commends his hearers and readers to greet the church in their house. The church that they, or perhaps just she, pastors.
In 1 Corinthians 16:19 Paul extends greeting on behalf of Aquila and Prisca, reversing the order of their names. In 2 Timothy 4:19 the writer speaking as Paul urges his hearers and readers to greet Prisca and Aquila. They are revered elders in the fledgling community, sending and receiving greetings and gratitude for their ministry in and through the correspondence of Paul. These few verses tell the story of a woman, wife, preacher, teacher, pastor and I will say, apostle, whose story is folded within the seams of the story of a towering figure of the faith whose shadow looms long, one of the “great men” of the bible. Finding, unraveling and reweaving Priscilla’s story drives home how much it matters who tells the stories of our lives and our faiths, what stories they choose to reveal the heart of God, the love of God, the incarnation of God.
What stories will you choose to tell? Whose stories will you give voice to with paint and pen, poetry and preachment? Who are the women and men and nonbinary folk in your religious heritage, in your ancestry, in your community whom you will seek out and bring into focus for others out of the shadows of towering figures and officially designated heroes? Will you stand on the shoulders of Priscilla the Apostle as she stood on the shoulders of those who came before her?
Since I’m a black preacha-woman, let me go into the bag of my sanctified imagination and have a little talk with Apostle Priscilla – I won’t take the liberty of being overfamiliar and addressing her as Prisca without an invitation because I’m from a people who know to put a handle on the names of our elders. Madam Apostle, what made you think you could stand alongside men like Paul and your husband and do what they did, traveling the world to preach the gospel and making tents?
Well child, it never occurred to me that I couldn’t. I serve a God who will call anybody because she calls everybody to do something at one time or another. I serve the God from whose womb the universe was born, the God who took Job (38:8-9, 29) to school and asked him,
“Who shut in the sea with doors
when it burst out from my womb,
when I crocheted the clouds as its onsie,
and knitted thick darkness as its blankie?
From whose womb did the ice come forth,
and who has given birth to the hoarfrost of heaven?”
I serve the God of Shifra and Puah who heard what that man on the throne had to say and went on about their business, women’s business, life-saving business. I serve the God of Miriam, the mother of all prophets and her prophet-daughters Deborah, Huldah, Noadiah and that woman Isaiah had all those children with. I serve the God of women whose names menfolk chose to omit and forget but whom God has never forgotten. I serve the God of Judean queens who held the throne when their menfolk were murdered and their boy-folk were yet toddling. I serve the God of Yael and Yehudit, Jael and Judith, who weren’t afraid to cut a man who needed cutting. I serve the God who trusted women with the Word of God on their tongues and in their wombs. I serve the God of Miriam of Nazareth and Miriam of Magdala whom she trusted to love and nurture her son from womb to tomb. I serve the God who called Miriam of Magdala, Mary Magdalen, as the Apostle to the Apostles and not Paul. How could I not stand and preach? How could I not go and teach?
No man, no woman, no person of any kind or any sort will keep me from preaching and teaching the love of God embodied, incarnate in Christ Jesus. I serve a God who called me and sent me and I went. I went and I told the story of Jesus. And no matter how much or how many folk try to make the story about Paul and his failings and his biases and the time he said or someone said he said that women couldn’t or shouldn’t teach, he came to me; he worked with me and when he told the story, he called me by my name and he called my name first.
When we tell the story of the scriptures and the stories they contain, we create a new world of stories in and from those sacred stories. Imagine if the way we entered into the story of the Church and the gospel she proclaims was this passage from Romans 16:
Romans 16:1 I commend to you all our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae, 2 so that you all may receive her in Christ as is worthy of the saints, and stand by her in whatever thing she may need of you, for she has been a benefactress of many, and of myself as well. 3 Greet Prisca and Aquila, my coworkers in Christ Jesus, 4 and who for my life risked their necks, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles 5 and (greet), the church in their house. Greet Epaenetus my beloved, who was the first fruit in Asia for Christ. 6 Greet Mary, who has worked much among you all. 7 Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kin and my fellow prisoners; they are eminent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was. 8 Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in Christ. 9 Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ, and Stachys my beloved. 10 Greet Apelles, who is proven in Christ. Greet those who belong to Aristobulus. 11 Greet Herodion, my kinsman. Greet those who belong of Narcissus in Christ. 12 Greet Tryphaena and Tryphosa (sisters) who toil in Christ. Greet the beloved Persis who has worked much in Christ. 13 Greet Rufus, chosen in Christ, and greet his mother who is also mine. 14 Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the sisters and brothers who are with them. 15 Greet Philologus and Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints with them. 16 Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you.
If our Christian scriptures started with this passage, we might get the idea that women and men built the church of God together with likeminded folk from diverse places. We might then need to read the other stories in light of this story and our determination about which model of leadership in the early church was normative might shift so that we see collaboration and partnership as the norm and anything else as missing the mark, or perhaps even heresy. It matters how we tell our stories. It matters who tells our stories. It matters who we include in our stories and who we leave out.
Recently folk told the story of women’s suffrage but they only told the story of white women. They kept saying “women” got the vote but black women did not get the right to vote with white women. Our right to vote, my mother’s right to vote wasn’t guaranteed – and we need to talk about how weak that eventual guarantee was and still is – until January 23rd 1964; two years later, I was born on January 23rd 1966. I don’t take my right to vote for granted. And if we tell the whole story of white women’s suffrage, we have to tell the story of white supremacist icons like Elizabeth Cady Stanton who saw suffrage as a choice between black men and white women and used the language of lynching incitement demonizing black men to argue for why they should not get the vote before white women. Black women were not on their platform at Seneca Falls; not a single one was in attendance. I can’t help but wonder if she had encountered the scriptures in a less hierarchal, patriarchal and domineering construct, would she have seen the world differently? The irony is, of course, that she was a lay biblical scholar invested in telling a different story about women than the ones she heard preached. But when all the women in your stories are white women your stories are not for all women.
It matters how we tell our stories. It matters who tells our stories. It matters who we include in our stories and who we leave out. Today some of us are saying Black Lives Matter. But if we listen closely, the names of black women brutalized, raped and murdered by the police are often missing. So some of us started saying Say Her Name to say that all black lives matter. Then we realized that some folk, including some black folk, were acting like transfolk were not as human as are we are and that black trans women were being murdered at astronomical rates by folk inside and outside of the community, so we said Black Trans Lives Matter to make it clear that when we say Black Lives Matter, we mean all black lives matter. But other folk try to tell our story and say that we are anti-police or corrupt our story to “all lives matter” or “blue lives matter.” But our story is America’s story, where black folk who are women, men and non-binary folk, gay, straight, trans, and uncategorizably queer folk are subject to over-policing grounded in racist stereotypes and white supremacist ideals. And just as the Apostle Priscilla had to correct Apollos’s telling of the sacred story, we who would stand and speak and write in her name, lineage and tradition need to be prepared to correct the folk who need correcting and if you find yourself more Apollos than Apostle, allow yourself to be corrected so the story doesn’t get corrupted. Sometimes you’re the storyteller, but sometimes you’re the one being told a story that’s different than the way you heard or learned it.
Priscilla, Aquila and for that matter Paul, were called to tell a new story, a story that ruffled feathers, a story that led to upheaval and changes that were not always welcome. It’s a story that leads to new stories, new heroes, new names and new identities. It’s a story that gives life, life that passes through Shadow-Valley Death and comes out on the other side, early in the morning. As we tell those new stories let us live into the new life they proclaim.
In the name of the One who waded in the waters of Miryam’s womb, walked the way of suffering, and woke from the grasp of death in the deep darkness of the morning. Amen.
Acts 18:1 …Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. 2 And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with Priscilla his wife. Because Claudius had commanded all Jews be removed from Rome, Paul went to see them. 3 And, because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them, and they worked together, for they were tentmakers.
18 Paul stayed there for some time, said farewell to the sisters and brothers and, sailed for Syria, accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila…
24 Now a certain Jewish man, Apollos by name, a native of Alexandria, an eloquent man well-versed in the scriptures, came to Ephesus. 25 This man had been instructed in the Way of the Messiah and spoke with a fiery spirit and, taught accurately the things concerning Jesus though he knew only the baptism of John. 26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue; but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him in and explained the Way [of God] to him more accurately. 27 And when he wished to cross over into Achaia, the sisters and brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him; upon his arrival he greatly helped those who had through grace come to believe.
Translations, the Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D.