“Because of Biblical Women” – Sermon, June 1, 2014

Proverbs 31.10-31
Judges 11.34-40
Luke 7.36-50

Did you hear the news over the holiday weekend? Perhaps now it seems like old news. Perhaps now, a full week past, we have already forgotten – if we stopped to pay much woman with veilattention in the first place.

I don’t blame you if you tune out the news. I tend to do so most of the time. It’s as though my ears and my brain just can’t hear or absorb any more words. Anymore, it seems hard enough to sift through the headlines and sensationalist breaking news to find where the news actually is.

But if you were paying attention, perhaps you heard about the shooting. Another shooting.  In the dark of night, in California, last weekend. Elliot Rodger killed six people before turning his gun on himself. Rodger leaves a legacy of angry You Tube videos and a 137-page manifesto, wherein he declares his hatred for all women, because he has been rejected over and over again in his overtures toward them. It is clear that he sought revenge because women he lusted after rejected him and denied his advances. Those who have read and commented, analyzed, his manifesto point out that, while his words are obsessive, and the product of an imbalanced mind, they call to question the patterns in our society, where beauty and strength receive recognition, and women are still regarded as prizes to be won. Those who are rejected, lonely, poor, outcast, are rendered invisible.

Buried even farther back (because it’s been over a month) in our news is the story of the Nigerian girls. In mid-April, approximately 276 girls were abducted from a Government Secondary School in Nigeria. The kidnappings were claimed by an Islamist jihadist group, Boko Haram. This is not the first time the group has perpetrated such crimes against children. They have been known to kidnap young girls – particularly from schools – because they do not believe they should be educated. So, they take them and use them as cooks and sex slaves. These kidnappings are just one piece of the story – so far Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for attacks that have killed over 4,000 people this year. News broke earlier this week that the Nigerian government has located the missing girls, but cannot yet rescue them, because it is unsafe to use force.

Following last weekend’s shooting, the trending response on twitter – or one voice of it – argued that “Not All Men” are like that. It is true. Not all men are violent. Not all men are sexist. Not all men are abusers. And thank God for that.

And yet. Sexism and violence linked to sexism, and sex-related crimes are far too common. 1 in 3 women have experienced or will experience violence in their lifetime. The counter-response to “Not all Men” was in a hashtag “#yesallwomen” – because  not all men are “like that,” but yes, all women understand the reality of sex-based violence. This internet response revealed the deep and pervasive sexism throughout our culture and the world.

Likewise, another hashtag, #yesallbiblicalwomen emerged – calling to mind the ways that the Bible often forgets, or our interpretation and translation, have manipulated, twisted, forgotten the stories of women throughout.

Part of why I wanted to read Proverbs 31 – or at least the part of the Proverb we all know so well – today is because we so often misunderstand it. We so often misunderstand much about the bible – not least of which is how the bible portrays women.

I remember hearing in college other females talk about how they wanted to be a “P-31 woman,” referring to Proverbs 31, which was essentially code for “a submissive and domesticated housewife.” With this association, it will surprise no one that I resisted anything related to Proverbs 31. Submissive and Domestic I am not. And so I threw the biblical baby out with the bath water, so to speak.

A couple of years ago, Rachel Held Evans, a popular Christian blogger took on the project of rediscovering, and exploring what exactly biblical womanhood is all about. The primary assumption she debunked is that there is only one specific definition or understanding of “biblical womanhood.”

The Bible depicts all kinds of women – good, bad, but mostly human just like all of us. It also depicts all kinds of men – good, bad, but mostly human just like all of us. The Bible does not show us only one way to be man or woman – but brings to light and life the myriad ways there are to be human – the reality that we are all broken. And we are all loved.

In her book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Evans spends a chapter delving into Proverbs 31. She discovered many things –some of the most important include:

The verses from Proverbs 31 we heard today are poetry. It’s meant to be read and understood as such – not as a job description for all womankind. Genre matters.

Second, the target audience for these verses is not women; it is men. Evans discovered that men would memorize the words of this Proverb in order to sing praise to the women in their lives – not to offer a requirement list around the home. These words were not read by women as a laundry list (pun intended) to keep their husbands happy. Evans further notes that, the only instructive verse is this one: “Praise her for all her hands have done.”

Third, the verses primarily are set up to celebrate valor. “A woman of valor who can find?” Valor isn’t about what but how. Therefore, it isn’t about completing a checklist, but doing whatever work you do with valor. [1]

Rachel Held Evans’ work has reminded me – and been instructive for hosts of other men and women – that we still have work to do to understand what it means to see all persons as equal as God sees us.

We still have work to do to understand what the biblical portrayal of personhood. We still have work to do to understand the Bible as a text that has been interpreted and translated over millennia and demands our critical reading lest we rest on the comforts of mere surface reading.

The reason I mentioned the hashtags earlier (though I know much of that is just gibberish to many of us) is that it has reminded me that there are so many names and voices of women in the Bible and part of our Christian heritage that have been silenced and forgotten. If I am being perfectly candid, I had to google more biblical women’s names and stories than I care to admit. I’d like to spend some time reading (or paraphrasing) some of the content from Twitter. I’d like to take the time to hear these names and stories out loud as a reminder of the work we have to do, and as a way to honor the women who are part of our family tree who have been neglected, abused, forgotten.

Because we know so few biblical women’s names

But their stories matter…

And matter a great deal – Sarah, of whom God told Abraham, “Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you.” She matters.

Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel birthed the covenant, but are left out of God’s name – God who is often referred to as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

It matters because of stories like Tamar’s – whose half-brother raped her, and her uncle helped him.

And because the Levite woman was offered up by her father for rape by his guests.

These stories matter because Laban thought so little of his daughter Leah, he tricked Jacob into marrying her, even though he really wanted to buy Rachel.

And when Hannah prayed differently she was judged and called a drunk.

Jepthah had the right to use his daughter as a burnt offering to the Lord, the story we heard earlier this morning.

These women matter; women like Hagar, alone, pregnant, in the desert, names God and finds faith, and yet is barely mentioned today. She named God, El-roi, asking, “Have I really seen God and remained alive?”

Because women saved the lives of countless Hebrew baby boys, and yet are often ignored in our preaching about the Exodus.

And because Miriam was more than a sister with one song – she was a prophet and a worship leader.

We need to tell stories like Esther’s, the queen who first had to win a beauty pageant first in order to have a platform from which to speak to prevent a genocide.

And Queen Vashti, whom Esther succeeds, is remembered as wicked and vain, rather than strong and powerful, when she refused to come and parade in front of the people, at the King’s drunken command.

We need to hear the voice that cries out in Ramah – to hear Rachel weeping for her children. And we need to hear God’s promise to turn her mourning into dancing.

The stories of women continue to matter in the New Testament record –

Jesus had four scandalous women in his family tree: Rahab, Tamar, Bathsheba and Ruth.

Women were first at the crib, last at the cross

Their stories are worth revisiting and reclaiming…

Because we consider Mary Magdalene a prostitute even though we don’t have evidence, but we fail to consider her an apostle even though we do have evidence.

We hear Jesus say of the woman who anointed him at Bethany that she would always be remembered, and yet we do not know her name. But we have heard her read story today – and heard how Jesus honored her.

The ways we understand biblical womanhood matter because Martha criticized Mary for sitting and listening to the end of the sermon, rather than get to the chores in the kitchen. And because we so quickly assume that Martha’s work is cooking and cleaning – women’s work.

It matters because the Samaritan woman having 5 husbands says less about her character than it does about the misogyny of her time and place.

We know that Jesus trusted a woman first to proclaim the resurrection and some churches still won’t let women preach – or even teach.

We need to hear these names: the name Junia. Paul calls her an apostle in Romans, but her names has been frequently re-translated as the masculine version, Junias.

And the stories and names of women have continued to matter in Christian history.

We call to mind the names of so many women in the past two millennia who were denied priesthood, but became Saints all the same. And other women who served the church without recognition.

Because women leaders in the church are treated as an anomaly, while the texts prohibiting women leaders are the anomaly in scripture.

Because women pastors are still referred to as women pastors, not simply pastors.

It matters as Christians that we speak up for women – that we listen to women’s voices – that we resist the culture of sexualized violence.

It matters because women are told not to let men treat them as objects, but so rarely do we teach with the same emphasis men the lesson that women are not toys.

Because we still have politicians who cling to lies that a woman’s reproductive system can resist rape: otherwise she was asking for it.

Because we still have politicians who believe that woman “ask” for rape.

Because we still so often teach our girls how not to get raped than teach our boys not to rape.

Rachel Held Evans notes that the way we talk about women in the church still matters, “Because the emails I get from women whose abuse was justified as “biblical submission” stopped surprising me 2 years ago.”

We tell these stories – we hear these names – to understand that biblical womanhood is about smartness, boldness, fearlessness; not about submission and being subdued. Biblical womanhood is really about biblical personhood.

We could continue this morning. Perhaps – and likely – what we have heard this morning is overwhelming. It is understandably more than we can absorb. But these names and these stories are worth naming and hearing again and again.

But here’s why else it matters – Because there is room for all of us in the Kingdom of God.

Because the Kingdom requires all of us. We are all called to full humanity – which also means seeking the full humanity of our neighbors, male and female, Jew and Greek, slave and free.

 

 

[1] Rachel Held Evans, http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/3-things-you-might-not-know-about-proverbs-31

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Fierce? Let’s talk fierce.

Let’s talk about Beyoncé. I love Beyoncé. My good friend Erin taught me (and some other friends) how to really dance to Beyoncé at dinner in the seminary cafeteria. Since her days as the anchor of Destiny’s Child (sorry Kelly & Michelle), she’s been a favorite of mine. And I have nothing but admiration for the lady who can snag Jay-Z.

destinys-child-600

Fierce.

Then came her halftime show.

Then came the response to her halftime show.

Even though I couldn’t hear the audio very well, her performance was stunning.

I abandoned a game of Uno Roboto at the church Super Bowl party to catch Beyoncé’s show (at first also hoping for a cameo by Jay Z, then, surprisingly relieved when it never came). I’m a sucker for a good halftime show – the mashups, the choreography, the “surprise” guests, the fireworks – and this was no different. And yet this was different.

I had a hard time putting my finger on why.

Then I read this post on Patheos, shared by a number of Facebook friends Monday morning.

And lots of other people have written about this. But I just need to riff on it a bit.

The Super Bowl is already sexist enough. Organizing church events – or even youth group specific events – centered on this sporting event runs counter to a lot of my idealistic ethical bars. But I suppose the allure of cocktail weenies, monkey bread, queso, hot wings, brownies, bacon explosion, cookies, salsa, etc., etc., has numbed my call to higher standards. Just drown out the sexism and violence with gluttony, that’s my tack.

The appropriate response to our own unease at seeing Beyoncé – a strong female performer – in less clothing than we would like, or at choreography than reminds us of (shhhh) sex – is not to lock her away, drape her in more layers of clothing – it is not to deny her sexuality at all. I think that the conversation is a good one, and it is a revealing one. Are we really okay with adults embracing their sexuality (Beyoncé is after all, an adult), or is any form of sexual expression a violation of our latent puritanical weak stomachs? The difference between an over-sexualized culture – think of any number of ads that run during any sporting event – and Beyoncé’s performance, is that her sexuality is clearly her sexuality. She owns her body, her strength, her voice – it is no one else’s but her own. Which is why, although I love Jay Z, I was glad he didn’t cameo. She doesn’t belong to him. She doesn’t need him on stage with her to control the stage, the arena, herself. Quite the opposite. And think of the message that gets communicated with most female performers who dance around with men – Christina Aguilera, Madonna, Britney Spears, etc., – they are dancing for the men, or they are play-acting some sort of sexualized dynamic where they control the men – through their sexuality. The women in this case are valuable only insofar as their sexuality can manipulate or subdue males.

So should Beyoncé’s performance set some kind of model we should show off to our daughters. Not necessarily. As my friend Jon pointed out on Facebook: “Beyoncé is not 3 years old; she is in her 30s, married, and a mother.” It’s a false dynamic on any level to hold up an adult human as a perfect role model for a child – especially a young child. There are lots of things adults do that children should not imitate, but that doesn’t make those things wrong. Just because we don’t want our young children imitating sexualized behavior (and this is not exclusive to choreography – though have you seen the kind of dance moves high school – or younger – dance teams perform? “Dance Moms,” anyone?) does not mean adults embracing sexuality as part of mature and appropriate adult identity is wrong. Jon went on to say this: “What should be emulated from Beyoncé, in general and among others, are her singing talent, her athleticism, or dancing talent, her choreography, and her song writing, along with all the hard work it took to be as good at those things as she is. Focusing simply on her body, the way she moves and the images it creates in our minds, is missing the point.”

I would also add to that, that to throw the burden of responsibility for how we respond to adult sexuality back on the individual (i.e. to blame Beyoncé because “she made me think dirty thoughts”) is just all kinds of twisted. What I wrote on my original Facebook post was this: “For her to show her body, move her body, own her body, does not necessarily turn her into a sex object. I appreciate Beyoncé because she so clearly owns her body, her curves, her sexuality and sensuality outside of any man’s claims on that. She cannot or should not…be held accountable for how men look at her. It’s the whole trouble with a culture that would rather tell young women not to get raped than to tell young boys not to rape or violate females.” And this same kind of motif gets played out over and over again.

In many ways it’s a good chunk of the reason young girls and young women make some of the questionable clothing choices they do: we as a culture have communicated to females that the primary – or perhaps only – source of our power is in our bodies, our sexuality. And not in how we claim that for ourselves and celebrate it as a piece of our whole identity, but in how we use our bodies, our sexuality, to manipulate, to woo, to seduce.

The whole thing is twisted.

So. Was Beyoncé’s halftime show some kind of apex of wholesome family entertainment? No. Of course not. But neither is professional football. Or most of the commercials that are as much part of our entertainment. We celebrate and embrace violence, hyper-masculinity, the civil religion of first downs and special teams, and then turn around and flip out because a woman knows how to move her hips. We laugh at commercials that play into the dumb-girl-who-doesn’t-know-football stereotype, and shrug off the bro-talk about babes and beer – all of that is innocent, right? (wrong.)

Did I feel a little odd watching the halftime show in the church fellowship hall surrounded by at least three other generations? Maybe. But if so, I should have also felt as odd for watching the whole thing at church, surrounded by at least three other generations.

One more video for good measure:

an improvisation on gender

I sometimes forget that I am a woman.  Okay, not really.  But forget, quite often, that I am a woman in ministry. By that I mean this: I am only me – Meredith – with the story that only I know from the inside out. I forget that my sex and gender make what I do – my exterior identity – somewhat unique, to say the least, and in many parts of the world, yet a novelty.

Many days – in fact, most days – I remember and carry that burden with honor.  There are other days, however, if I’m being honest, that it feels like a burden I’d rather shrug off, throw across the room, and stomp away in a huff.

I am coming up on two months in my first full time ministry position. Though in lots of ways this is not my first rodeo, so to speak. At a small Baptist college, I was an outspoken female in my religion classes. I went to a Presbyterian seminary, where I could listen, speak, learn, and question without feeling like my gender made me an anomaly (though my preaching class being one significant exception to that statement). Then I returned to Baptist higher education, and again felt in waves the burden of the expectation to represent and speak for all women everywhere. Didn’t they know I was just Meredith? I willingly shared what insight I brought to bear on religious experience and theology, but it would be patently and boldly erroneous for me to speak for, or anyone else to accept my perspective as universal for all women. And yet, that is the expectation.  As I started to sense my vocational calling was bigger and broader than academia, I was spoiled, and thought the battle was over. I had been fortunate beyond all calculation to be surrounded by amazing, gifted, brilliant women in seminary, and finding churches, friends, denominational support along the way that encouraged me to pursue my own calling – in and outside the classroom, in and outside congregational ministry. No one lied to me – no one told me the fight was over. But I also didn’t quite believe the amount of work yet to be done.

I am grateful, blessed, humbled, emboldened to have been called to and sent from churches that embrace women in ministry. But beyond that, these churches did not ordain me, did not call me because they wanted to make some political point, or fill a quota. They recognize Meredith – with the story that only I know from the inside out – but also with the story they are helping me write from the outside in – as a minister.

Here’s the thing: I don’t like to think of myself as “lucky” with all the connotations of randomness, but I’m feeling lucky. I know that the road has been much more difficult for others of my sisters in ministry – especially those older than me, but even for females my age and younger.

Recently on Rachel Held Evans’ blog, her husband wrote a post, and in that said this:

“If you don’t think women deal with a double standard, especially in churches, you’re probably a guy. I know because I’m a guy and for most of my life I didn’t really give that sort of thing a second thought.”

He’s right. My guess is – though, obviously, I can’t assume this is universally true – that most women who have thought about, pursued, and/or are in ministry or religious fields, understand the barriers, hurdles, walls that get in the way of feeling like we are fully accepted or acceptable as clergy persons.

And here’s where I pull out the f-word.

This is why I am a feminist. And why I believe feminism is not, and must not be dead.  As long as women serve as tokens or novelties in any given field, we aren’t there yet. I like this pithy summation: “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people too.”[1] As long as I, along with other women, continue to have the feelings, expectations, abilities, and intelligence of an entire gender projected onto by others, we are not there yet.  Maybe it will take another generation or so, though the thought of continuing the struggle to convince people that I, too, can be called to ministry, that my sister can be a pastor, that my other female friends and colleagues have been called and moved by God’s spirit to preach, to pray, to offer the bread and wine at God’s table – that we have to work even harder to convince others of that is exhausting. But the truth is, it’s worth it. It’s worth every frustrating encounter, it’s worth every setback, every cold shoulder, because it’s also worth every time we will get to lay hands on each other as sisters and brothers in ministry, it’s worth every time a new congregation, person, or even denominational body can look past the anatomy, the make-up, the jewelry, the whatever, and not just see a singular female, but see a minister, a person sent out, called by, and challenged with the work of God.  Because the thing is, (and forgive me for speaking for others), we often forget that we are women. We just know that we are ourselves, and we are called.


[1] I have seen this quote attributed to several women, including Rebecca West, Gloria Naylor, and Cheris Kramarae.