May 1st, 2018
This sermon was preached at St. Lydia’s Dinner Church on Sunday March 25 and Monday March 26, 2018
Hello! I have the sad position of closing out our #SheSaysLent series, and the difficult task of figuring out how to weave together a queer sermon about #MeToo and Palm Sunday. Now, I know, Palm Sunday does not seem ripest scriptural text for queerness and feminism. But, I found this day was actually one of the best ends to our series. Something I certainly never imagined. Why? Because when viewed through a queer feminist lens the day is something completely different and wildly resonant with our time.
Now before I get too far, I have to admit that I’m not the best queer on the block, and I’ve lost my better, queer-er half, Liz Edman. However, she taught me that to see something queer and feminist in a story is to:
(1) interrogate whose voices we are hearing
(2) to see the role of power,
(3) and to ask what this means for how we interact with one another.
But before we get into the Palm Sunday story, a time so far away from ours, I’d like you to imagine something with me:
Close your eyes and remember the last protest march you attended. Maybe it was this weekend’s March for Our Lives, or one of the Women’s Marches, or a Black Lives Matter rally.
You’ve got a clever sign in your hand and a few drops of paint splattered on your shirt. A burst of cold air and clear light send you stumbling up the steps at 72nd street, but it’s no matter as suddenly every New Yorker is your friend. “Great sign!” they say, hand under your elbow as they catch you and set you back on your feet. With each step you’re moving to the rhythmic pulse of political chants: ‘Hey hey, ho ho, the patriarchy has got to go!’ The air whips excitedly about your ears carrying the cheers of the multitudes. It feels, if just for these few hours, despair is being changed into hope, and all has the chance to be right with this country.
Are you there? Do you remember the feeling? That, my friends, is the energy of Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday wasn’t merely a joyous event, or even just a peaceful event. Palm Sunday was a boisterous, cantankerous, rebellious event.
Palm Sunday’s message then, as it is today, is queer, feminist, revolutionary: oppressive systems must be dismantled and replaced with radical love we build ourselves from Jesus’s example. Hand in hand, with love and righteous anger, we have to build our new society. But to get there, we have to look at the text a little more deeply, with a little more imagination.
As I said, part of a queer and feminist perspective is to interrogate whose voices we are hearing. And as Hannah showed us last week, while women’s voices were so often overlooked as Scripture was written, their presence can still be felt and understood. Turning to our text, a strange thing grabbed me. You see how the crowd is cutting off branches to line the streets? The Greek verb used here for ‘cut’ is kopto, which seems to most often mean to smite or to wail and beat one’s self in mourning. That’s odd, no? We think of palms as symbols of peace, joy, harmony. But here they are: smited, cut down, chopped down in the prime of life, and they’re screaming, wailing, howling as feet and hooves alike trample them into the ground. Their screams remain silent in this story like the screams of so many women around us, and yet they are here, if we listen.
And those aren’t the only screams. In fact that screams we hear most are from the people. Mark says the crowd going before and following after is shouting excerpts of Psalm 118, including, “HOSANNA,” “HOSANNA,” אָנָּ֣א יְ֭הוָה הוֹשִׁ֘יעָ֥ה נָּ֑א. They’re screaming it, they’re shouting it—and in fact the verb in Greek means to croak out as if ravens. This scream is guttural, it is visceral, it is primal. And it literally betrays a deeper uncertainty of Palm Sunday and so many protests: see “Hosea-na” is Hebrew for “Save us! Deliver us!” But it’s said joyfully. Is this an exhortation or an adoration — or both? Are they demanding, or celebrating, salvation?
In my mind, the voices we hear and have to imagine, tell us something more to this story. I can’t help but hear the Women’s March when I think of the wailing branches and croaking ravens demanding—and yet celebrating—liberation.
Which takes me to another feminist and queer perspective: what’s the role of power here? There’s an interesting scholarly theory floated that as Jesus and his peasant parade walk eastward into the capital city Jerusalem, Pontius Pilate and his army march westward into the city. It’s a literal war of dueling visions on the eve of Passover, a festival of liberation. While I like that vision, I’ll offer another.
See, what separated Jesus’s procession wasn’t just its peasant makeup, or its message of a realm of God, but specifically Jesus’s version of a realm of God, and I’ll focus in on one aspect of that: how he treated women, and how those women responded, and moreover, how he was moved by their responses. I’m not just talking about all the times he saves women from would-be murderers or shunning neighbors, I’m talking about the times he gets his words served back to him on a platter by the women he’s empowered and how he rises to the occasion:
When Mary of Bethany, his shining example discipline, sends her sorrow like a dagger at Jesus when her brother Lazarus dies, it is Jesus who weeps, and is moved to raise Lazarus.
When Jesus chastises his mother at the wedding in Cana that his time hasn’t come to perform miracles, she doesn’t care and tells the servants to do whatever he says, and in the next line there goes Jesus instructing the servants in order to turn water into wine.
When Jesus compares a Canaanite woman to a dog, she spits back his version of a God who loves all of God’s creation, and by God there goes Jesus praising her faith and healing her daughter.
Jesus so often defied the patriarchal rules of his time, not only to the chagrin of his society, but even in the face of his male followers. The women at his tomb never lost faith, and it was to these women he revealed his resurrection, all the while his few good men doubted. Jesus didn’t just raise up women’s voices, he heard their voices so as to be moved by their voices. There is a powerful difference. These women are in the march with Jesus. They aren’t just celebrating a savior, they’re championing his vision of radical love that gave power to their voices.
This takes me to my last observation about Palm Sunday for us and how we are to interact with one another.
A week from now, in the story, some of the women who no doubt were marching will be sitting around the tomb after his body is lain within. I can imagine them commiserating saying, “Our people just wanted a good guy to fix it all, they didn’t realize he gave us the tools to fix it ourselves if only we would changes ourselves.” It’s no surprise to me that Jesus comes back to these women first, and it’s no surprise these women are doubted by the men. And as a side note, I love how Jesus chastises the men for not believing. Finally someone who takes her at her word.
But these ladies don’t dawdle in the despair of being dismissed, or of being left again by their savior when he ascends. I mean, let’s get real, Mary Magdalene doesn’t have time for that, neither do Martha and Mary. These women, and men, go empowered with the good news to change each other’s despair into hope, to change their cities, their country, and our hearts, so many thousands of years later.
The message of Palm Sunday isn’t about celebrating a savior who is going to “fix” everything for us and usher in an easy peace. Jesus is moved when we demonstrate how our faith has changed our actions and ways. The reckoning we’re in with #MeToo is that time. Palm Sunday shows us it’s our holy work to truly listening to voices of women, queers, people of color, in order to be motivated to action. Palm Sunday commands us join in the thousands marching and lend our voices jubilant and boisterous. Palm Sunday demands we wait not for a king but see the king among us and create the society he inspires in us; egalitarian, just, peaceful.
At St. Lydia’s this season we will take time after the sermon to reflect and confess. We’ll write our confessions and hang them from the branches above. For our time of confession, I’ll offer you the following reflection: where will you lend your voice, or if your voice has power, where will you lend your hearing, to create the society Jesus promoted?
Alicia Fowler lives in Brooklyn but will soon be calling New Haven home, where she’ll be attending Yale Divinity School. She loves exploring and coming home with wild tales and deeper gratitude. When she’s not on the road (behind a fist full of fries and a camera) you can usually find her at St Lydia’s, at CBST most Friday nights, or occasionally posting travel stories online.
“Queer Virtue: What LGBTQ People Know about Life and Love and How It Can Revitalize Christianity,” by Elizabeth M. Edman
The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem” by John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg
April 4th, 2018
This is a place for our Song Leaders, as well as congregants, and anyone else who’s interested, to learn the songs we sing at St. Lydia’s.
Happy Easter! Christ is risen indeed, alleluia! We’ve got lots of alleluias this season (April 8 – May 14). Click the linked song titles to hear the recording, and bookmark this page so that you can check in often to listen to the pieces and practice.
1) Gathering Song
2) Candle Lighting Song
“The Lord is My Light,” Lillian Bouknight.
The Lord is My Light and my salvation (not to be confused with other songs we sing using the first half of that sentence).
3) Eucharistic Prayer Setting
“Festive Table Acclamation,” Paul Vasile
4) Prayer Song
Song Leader’s Choice. A selection of songs may be found here.
5) Song at the Offering
6) Closing Hymn
April 8 – 23
“Now the Green Blade Rises,“ French Carol
April 29 – May 14
“Jesus Christ is Risen Today“
April 4th, 2018
We’ll be singing this Alleluia by Nora Duncan IV during the season of Easter while we pass the offering plate.
For the first few weeks, it would be good to wait a moment until all three parts are taught before passing the plate. Use the pitch pipe to find a D or C or mayyyybe B or Bb if your voice is feeling low that day.
The recording of the “Duncan Alleluia” is in the key of D.
You can see the sheet music here.
March 27th, 2018
This sermon was preached at St. Lydia’s Dinner Church on Sunday Mar. 18 and Monday Mar. 19, 2018
Usually at this point in the service we would read our scripture passage, and meditate on it together. But tonight, we are going to do things in a slightly different order. I am going to begin with a story and introduction, and we will read the scripture a little later.
I grew up surrounded by books. My parents’ house has always been overflowing with books. And, as a kid, I loved reading. When I was reading a book I felt like I disappeared into another world. I would identify strongly with the characters, and I felt like the things that were happening to them were happening to me.
This is why we love reading, right? It can be such an immersive experience, more so than watching a movie. For a while we can inhabit someone’s story, think their thoughts, feel their feelings. And I had a pretty vivid imagination – I was good at inhabiting another person’s experience.
Sometimes, if I had run out of my own books to read, I would just pick up something off a shelf that looked interesting. Sometimes I read things that were not, shall we say, age appropriate!
And sometimes, those things were in the Bible.
At various points in my childhood, reading the Bible, I came across what Feminist Theologian Phyllis Trible calls the ‘Texts of Terror.’ These are the texts, mostly in the Old Testament, that talk about violence – often sexual violence – against women.
Some well-known texts of terror are: The way that Abraham and Sarah treat Hagar, Jephthah’s daughter who is killed by her father, the famous story about Sodom and Gomorrah, and the rape and murder of the unnamed woman in Judges 19, which is our text this evening.
I remember the first time I read one of these texts of terror. It was Sodom and Gomorrah. I was probably about eleven years old.
You might know the story – There are some male visitors travelling, they come to the city of Sodom and a man named Lot invites them to stay in his house. Late at night Lot’s house is surrounded, by ‘all the men of the city’, who say “send out the men who are staying here, we want to have sex with them.” Lot goes outside and says to the men, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Look, I have two virgin daughters; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men.”[i] At this point angels step in and save all those in the household, by blinding the men who want to harm them.
Reading this story as an eleven year-old – which characters do you think I identified with?
Lot’s young daughters. Girls not yet old enough for marriage, probably young teenagers or pre-teens. Like me. As I had learned to do in my years of reading, I experienced this story viscerally from the perspective of these young women. And I was horrified.
A couple of months ago, when a group of us here at St. Lydia’s sat down to plan this Lent sermon series, ‘She says Lent’, responding to the #MeToo movement, those of us who would be preaching shared the Bible passages we wanted to talk about.
For me, as I heard the flood of stories that thousands of people, mostly women, were sharing about their experiences of being sexually harassed and assaulted, my mind went straight to these texts of terror. These stories of sexual violence against women, right there in our Holy Scriptures. So that’s what I’m preaching about. And, the Bible passage we are reading tonight is a rough one. It is the very worst of the texts of terror, but in a series like this, I think it is one we need to face. However I am going to give a content warning – as we read the Bible passage now, if you need to step out or take a break, please feel free to do so.
Before we read the passage – a little bit of context: In the text we are about to read, once again, travellers come to a city and need a place to stay. This time the travellers are a man and his concubine, a woman who does not have the status of a wife, she is a sexual partner whose position is closer to that of a servant. They are offered hospitality by an old man in the city.
When Debbie preached here in the second week of Lent, she told us that, ‘the book of Judges is largely a story about the suffering of women. It’s about the downward spiral of a nation that is lawless, that is forgetting its God, and neglecting the oppressed and powerless.’[ii]
Bear that in mind as we hear the text read.
JUDGES 19: 22-30
22 While they were enjoying themselves, the men of the city, a perverse lot, surrounded the house, and started pounding on the door. They said to the old man, the master of the house, “Bring out the man who came into your house, so that we may have intercourse with him.” 23 And the man, the master of the house, went out to them and said to them, “No, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Since this man is my guest, do not do this vile thing. 24 Here are my virgin daughter and his concubine; let me bring them out now. Ravish them and do whatever you want to them; but against this man do not do such a vile thing.” 25 But the men would not listen to him. So the man seized his concubine, and put her out to them. They wantonly raped her, and abused her all through the night until the morning. And as the dawn began to break, they let her go. 26 As morning appeared, the woman came and fell down at the door of the man’s house where her master was, until it was light.
27 In the morning her master got up, opened the doors of the house, and when he went out to go on his way, there was his concubine lying at the door of the house, with her hands on the threshold. 28 “Get up,” he said to her, “we are going.” But there was no answer. Then he put her on the donkey; and the man set out for his home. 29 When he had entered his house, he took a knife, and grasping his concubine he cut her into twelve pieces, limb by limb, and sent her throughout all the territory of Israel. 30 Then he commanded the men whom he sent, saying, “Thus shall you say to all the Israelites, ‘Has such a thing ever happened since the day that the Israelites came up from the land of Egypt until this day? Consider it, take counsel, and speak out.’
I was a few years older when I first read that one, probably in my early teens. I have a memory of reading this passage and being so angry that I physically threw the Bible across the room. I also felt sick. For days. I couldn’t stop thinking about that story. I couldn’t bring myself to pick up my Bible. Later I couldn’t bear to hear about this story, to read it, to even think about it. I felt like this for years. In a way I still do.
Occasionally as an adult, I tried to read the Bible all the way through from cover to cover, you know, like a good theology student should! But I always got stuck at Judges 19. I was always so angry I just didn’t want to read any more.
You see, I was taught a very devotional approach to reading the Bible. I was told things like ‘the Bible is a Rule book for life,’ or ‘the Bible is God’s love letter to you.’ I was told that the Bible was the Word of God. I was kind of taught that God wrote the Bible.
The way I had been taught to read the Bible meant I had no way to cope with passages like this. Because a literal reading of this text, and of the story of Sodom, tells us that it is worse to rape a man than to rape a woman.
The women in these stories do not have names, they never speak, they have no agency. Their lives are treated as worthless by the men around them, even their fathers and partners. They are property to be bartered with, whose bodies are disposable, to ensure the safety and protection of men.
So, I thought: If the Bible is God’s word, is that how God thinks? Did God not care about the woman in this story? Does God care less about women and girls? Does God not care about me?
I never heard any exegesis of this passage, any sermons on it. And I soon realized that people only talked about Sodom and Gomorrah when they wanted to argue that people shouldn’t be gay. No-one ever talked about Lot’s daughters.
Every sermon I heard in my childhood was given by a white man. In the past three years I have heard two sermons on Judges 19, both of them by African-American women. I do not think this is a coincidence.
One of these talks was by Womanist Theologian Dr. Cheryl Anderson, given at a conference I attended in LA. She is professor of Old Testament at Garrett-Evangelical Theological seminary.
Anderson says that many of the interpretations of the Bible that we have inherited and have been told are unbiased, neutral, or ‘the correct interpretation’, are simply interpretations from the perspective of powerful, white, European men.
She argues that we have been given this idea – and ideal – of unbiased exegesis, which doesn’t really exist! In fact, we all come to the text and interpret it through our own unique identity and lived experience.[iii] We are all biased in different ways, and that’s ok!
This doesn’t mean that we are trying to ‘twist’ scripture to make it say what we want it to say. It means that when people from different cultures, with different identities and lived experience read the same text, they will notice different things, resonate with different parts, and even draw different conclusions. This diversity of interpretation adds to the richness of scripture, and draws out new truths that we may otherwise have missed.
We need to stop only reading scripture through the eyes of one tiny section of humanity. Even if they have given us some wonderful insights, there are other insights to learn! Cheryl Anderson suggests that when we encounter passages like these texts of terror, we should interpret them from the perspective of the marginalized, and offer an alternative exegesis.
Phyllis Trible says a very similar thing when she tells us to ‘wrestle with the text until it gives you a blessing.’ This idea is based on the Biblical story of Jacob wrestling with God.
Trible says, ‘Jacob’s defiant words to the stranger, I take as a challenge to the Bible itself: “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” I will not let go of the book unless it blesses me. I will struggle with it. I will not turn it over to my enemies that use it to curse me. Neither will I turn it over to friends who wish to curse it.’[iv]
In this quote she is saying – I will not allow Fundamentalists or Biblical literalists to use the Bible as a weapon against me, denying my equality or full humanity. But equally, I will not allow folks who disregard my faith to curse the Bible, or say that it is wrong, irrelevant or outdated. Instead I must wrestle. We must wrestle. Interpret these old texts in new ways. And not give up until we receive a blessing.
So, tonight I am asking: What new things can we see in this passage if we interpret it from the perspective of the marginalized? From the perspective of the unnamed woman. How should we wrestle with this text? And how can this terrible story possibly give us a blessing?
I am going to offer a few attempts.
The first is this:
This story, and honestly a large part of the book of Judges, shows patriarchy taken to its logical conclusion. The idea that women’s lives and bodies are less valuable than men’s is patriarchy at its most extreme.
And it is evil.
Patriarchy is not God’s intention. Patriarchy is sinful, and it is an inherent part of our calling as Christians to work against it, and instead to usher in the realm of God. When we interpret these stories from the perspective of the marginalized we put ourselves in their place, and see the world through their eyes. In doing so, we affirm the full humanity of people created in the image of God.
For those of us who are privileged, who walk through the world without worrying about when the next sexual assault, racist or homophobic attack will come, we need to learn to see the world through the eyes of marginalized people. To do so, even for the few minutes it takes to read these texts, should motivate us to work for a better world now. To work for safety and protection for women and other folks who are still victims of abuse like this, today.
Nobel laureate and holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said, ‘Any human being is a sanctuary. Every human being is a dwelling of God – man or woman or child… Any person, by virtue of being a son or daughter of humanity, is a living sanctuary whom nobody has the right to invade.’[v]
So that’s the first thing. Patriarchy is evil. Fight it.
The second thing I want to offer is a question – Where can we see Jesus in this story, and in the other texts of terror?
And the answer I am going to suggest is… Jesus is the victim.
Phyllis Trible says that in these stories it is the ‘women [who] are suffering servants and Christ figures’[vi]. Jesus too was stripped naked, mocked and assaulted by a gang, and ultimately murdered in a horrifically public, humiliating and painful way.
Reading Judges 19 again this week through this lens, I noticed for the first time that the text tells us that this unnamed woman came from Bethlehem in Judah. We are not even told her name, yet we are told that she comes from Bethlehem in Judah. Just like Jesus. The woman in this story is a Christ figure, an innocent person who suffers a cruel death at the hands of sinful men, and an unjust system.
She is almost certainly unnamed in the Biblical text because of the patriarchal system that did not value her humanity, did not bother to remember or record her name, did not see her as a dwelling of God. But maybe she is also unnamed in this text because she represents all the unnamed, unnumbered multitudes who have suffered violence, exploitation and abuse at the hands of sinful men.
The third thing that I noticed is that the men inside the house in this story judge the men outside for their wickedness, but they are just as bad themselves. They are absolutely complicit in the violence suffered by the woman.
In this ‘MeToo moment’ it can be easy for us to judge the behavior of individuals, but remain complicit in a system that continues to allow the powerful to exploit the vulnerable. We do this when we call out individual men for abuse of power, or talk about ‘a few bad apples,’ but don’t challenge a system that gives power and authority predominantly to men.
We also need to mention hospitality when we talk about this text.
This story shows just why hospitality is such a big deal in the Bible – people who are travelling, who have no safe place to stay at night, are incredibly vulnerable. And this remains the case today. Refugees and homeless people are some of the most vulnerable in our world.
Theologian Jayme Reaves talks about the need for ‘Protective Hospitality,’ which she defines as, ‘The provision of welcome and sanctuary to the threatened other, often at great risk to oneself.’[vii]
She gives examples from World War 2, when people in Europe hid Jewish folks in their homes, to protect them from the Nazis, often at great risk to themselves. Or the Sanctuary Movement, where churches and other places of worship take in people who are in danger of deportation, also at risk to themselves – some Pastors have been arrested for this.
In Judges 19 the old man sets out to provide protective hospitality, but is not willing to follow through with it. When the men are threatened, they sacrifice the most vulnerable person, the person with the least power, protection and social status.
How do we provide refuge for the threatened other? And do we give up when it starts to create risk for ourselves? Jayme Reaves says we have to ask ourselves ‘Is my life more valuable than the person who is in need of refuge?’
An Irish Proverb says ‘It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.’ We are called to be shelter for people who are at risk.
And finally, in light of all this – where is the Gospel? What hope is there to draw? Where is the blessing?
I recently watched a video where bell hooks, one of the preeminent voices on feminism and race, talks about her faith. As she daily encounters sexism and racism, she says that it is her faith that sustains her.
She says, “My faith keeps me from having some notion that men are bad and women are good; [My faith] always keeps me on the transcendent path knowing that we are always more than our race, our gender, our sexual practice – that we are, in fact, transcendent spirit.”[viii]
St. Paul put it like this: ‘In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith…There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’[ix]
This is the Gospel of Christ. Thanks be to God!
At St. Lydia’s this season we take time after the sermon to reflect and confess. What do you feel moved to confess?
I invite you to consider these questions:
- How have I been complicit in a system that gives power and authority predominantly to men?
- How can I be a shelter for people at risk?
Hannah Johnston is Community Coordinator at St Lydia’s Dinner Church, Brooklyn. She was born and raised in the UK, and is a graduate of St. Mellitus College, an Anglican Seminary in London.
Hannah is passionate about making church inclusive, creating fun and caring communities, empowering women, and working with people of other faiths. She loves hot weather, interesting ideas, wine, singing, and anything with melted cheese.
[i] Genesis 19:7-8
[ii] She Says Lent – Week 2, Torches of Hope, by Debbie Holloway http://stlydias.org/blog/2018/02/torches-hope-by-debbie-holloway/
[iii] Exploring an Autobiographical Exegesis, Dr. Cheryl Anderson. Recorded 10/21/2016 at The Reformation Project Conference, Los Angeles, CA https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q_5bsOtQB-0
[iv] ‘Wrestling with faith’, Phyllis Trible, Biblical Archeology Review, September/October issue, 2014 https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/bar-issues/september-october-2014/
[v] ‘The Refugee,’ Elie Wiesel, in Sanctuary: A resource guide for understanding and participating in the Central American Refugees’ struggle, Gary MacEoin Ed., Harper and Row, San Francisco, CA, p 9
[vi] Texts of Terror: Literary-feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives, Phyllis Trible, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, PA 1984, p.3
[vii] Safeguarding the Stranger: An Abrahamic Theology and Ethic of Protective Hospitality, Jayme R Reaves, Wipf and Stock, Eugene ,OR, 2016
[viii] SNC Agape Latte, bell hooks. Recorded 4/3/2017 at St. Norbert College, De Pere, WI https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hSyrNCcCeRo
[ix] Galatians 3:26-28
- · Ancient Laws and Contemporary Controversies: The Need for Inclusive Biblical Interpretation, Cheryl Anderson, Oxford University Press, 2009.
- ·Safeguarding The Stranger, Interview with Jayme Reaves. Nomad Podcast(N166) http://www.nomadpodcast.co.uk/jayme-reaves-safeguarding-stranger-n166/
March 27th, 2018
This sermon was preached at St Lydia’s Dinner Church on Sunday March 11 and Monday March 12, 2018
Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!”[a] and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here` I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
Some important voices are hard to hear. They might be quiet, confusing, weak, or deceptively ordinary. They might be hard to hear because they speak truths that are painful or messy or threaten our comfort zone or hit a nerve we have been numbing. They might say things we know are true but have turned into items on a self-improvement to-do list we’re currently avoiding. They might say things that seem too big to face.
Last summer, I got an email from a woman I know peripherally – like me, she’s a tenor saxophonist here in NYC – announcing the formation of an advocacy group for women in jazz, and inviting me to join. I skimmed the email with a feeling of vague irritation, marked it unread, and let it sink into the shallow grave that is page two of my inbox.
A couple of months later, I was at an Artist Residency in Washington state with five other artists I hadn’t met before. Upon introduction, one of the artists asked, “Oh, you’re a saxophonist? Maybe you know my daughter? She plays tenor, too.”
Yup. That would be the author of the buried email.
But I was there to write music, to get away from the my normal life and the normal world with all its loud demands, the shouting voices demanding I justify my existence according to the terms of capitalism and adequate woke-ness and the canon of music history and innovation and just the right balance of ambition and cool.
I was there to get away from, for example:
Wow, a chick playing saxophone, that’s hot!
But, how do you make your living?
Are you the singer?
and so on.
So, I did not want to read that email, I did not want to spend my time at this retreat complaining about The Patriarchy, jazz or otherwise… or so I thought.
At this residency, we spent most time on our own, working, but we came together every evening for a meal, and we often lingered, talking into the evening. Six people – at first strangers, and then friends, and then almost like family – at dinner together every night for a month. There were four women, including me, whose ages coincidentally represented each decade from 30s through 60s, a gay man in his 50s, and a straight man in his 70s who we’ll call George.
You know George. We all know George. George talked a lot. Loudly. Frequently over and through other people. While the other artists treated me as a peer despite our age difference, George told me, wow, he could be my grandfather. (But, like, a grandfather who still made some questionable comments about my appearance.) George is a non-fiction writer, and he just didn’t seem to “get” art: he was always trying to justify or reduce his own work and our work to measurable terms of the market.
George was more or less an embodiment of the things I was at the residency to avoid. He was, like the Man, man. Naturally, I want to stick it to the man.
But in that scenario, when I most want to prove myself as a capable individual, everything freezes. There is this opaque, dense, hot feeling in my chest… my vision goes blank. My words stick.
The loudness of the imagined argument between that guy who, explicitly or implicitly, says that I can’t do it or I’m not welcome because I’m a woman and the “me” who wants to prove that women can be anything (even saxophonists!) is so loud that it overwhelms the the “me” who wants to learn/grow/make mistakes/recover/follow my curiosity and, like, make music!
I recently learned that this phenomenon has a name: stereotype threat.
Stereotype threat – that unique form of choking that proves you are exactly the thing you’re trying to prove you’re not. For example, In a Stanford study, a situation was designed to activate a negative stereotype about scholastic ability; the African-American students underperformed. When the same test was done without activating the stereotype, the African American students performed up to their abilities.
When I feel like I’m carrying the weight of my entire gender’s reputation on my back, the load is too heavy to bear. Stereotype threat makes quote-unquote “small” acts of sexual harassment that much more impacting, because they inflame the imagined, internal provoker – they are evidence for the truth of the loud argument that is overshadowing the quieter self.
When I thought about George I had that feeling. A crushing feeling that I guess we can call also call dread: a chronic warning. On guard because my boundaries are being tested, and there’s no way to know if George’s similarities to dangerous men in my past are real or imagined.
I played past incidents over in my mind, and I felt powerless. I should have been stronger: I should have reported, I should have quit, I should have yelled. As the residency progressed, I started to lock my door. I began to have dreams about George: George had a knife to my throat – he was taking away my voice.
But surely I was being paranoid! Over-reacting.
Why was I letting this guy bother me so much? Why did I have to be so sensitive all the time?
I felt those things, but I still didn’t know what I was listening for. Then, it was October, I was back home, and people were tweeting #MeToo. And I was listening.
Listening to women speak despite the twitter trolls, to hear those thousands of small voices clearly telling the truth.
Saying what Le Tigre sings in the song On Guard:
You can comment all day til dark.
You can call me any name you want.
You can look me up and down.
I won’t stop, no, I won’t fall apart.
That’s the truth, and it’s one I needed to hear. I needed to know I wasn’t alone and that I wouldn’t fall apart.
I was listening to other women describe things that have happened to me, but which I hadn’t wanted to name. Wanted to ignore because I didn’t want to be the kind of weak or sensitive person – weak and sensitive woman – who would be affected by something like that. I was listening to other women describe how they hadn’t reported, hadn’t quit, hadn’t yelled. And I understood that I was not alone. I didn’t want to admit that part of me is invested in the status quo, the kind of manipulative power that women are supposed to settle for, along with the way my whiteness and accent and education give me access and perks and safety… Saftey that is contingent on following the Man’s conditions. And they come at much too high a cost.
The many stories of women, the voices of truth were pointing back to the reality that our workplaces, schools, streets, and churches need to change. We can’t build our world on the Man’s terms any more.
In the same way that it took me a while to wake up to the truth that was being spoken, Samuel starts out confused, too. God speaks to Samuel with such an ordinary voice that it takes him a while to realize the magnitude of the situation.
Let’s get a bit of backstory of Samuel.
Samuel is the son of Hannah. Hannah could not have children, but prayed and promised God that if she could finally conceive after so many years of being unable, she would give her child to God as a nazirite consecrated to the service of God. Samuel is that miracle baby, who is raised in the Temple serving the priest Eli.
Eli’s own sons, priests themselves, were no. good. They were eating the sacrificial meat – even insisting that people bring it raw so they could cook it to their taste – and, proving that workplace sexual harassment is hardly new, “they lay with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting.” Eli is warned, but he can’t seem to stop his sons.
So this word comes from God to Samuel, the nazirite, son of Hannah:
“I have told [Eli] that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.”
Eli is going down.
This message is uncomfortable for Samuel not only because Eli is a sort of father figure, but because he has to tell him what God said. Like, “Good morning Eli, God says you’re f-ed.”
But the truth is, God has a better world in store for Israel than one with priests like those sons of Eli. That is what Hannah trusted in when she gave her son Samuel to God. Hannah was willing to give up even the thing she prayed for because she had such faith in God to provide a different future, a future beyond the constraints she currently felt.
When Hannah gives birth to Samuel, she sings this song:
The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven,
but she who has many children is forlorn.
The Lord kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low, he also exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honor.
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
and on them he has set the world.
The pillars of the earth are the Lord’s.
If we are building on man-made pillars, we are not living in the truth. But, as humans, we are notoriously bad a knowing what’s good for us. Soon after he hears his first prophecy, Samuel gets stuck mediating between with the people of Israel, loudly shouting for a king, and God saying, “Hey! A king is just going to take advantage of you and make your lives miserable.”
But Israel says we don’t care we just want to be NORMAL.
Luckily, God knows how to get our attention, and God doesn’t stop trying.
Hannah’s song foreshadows another song in the Bible, sung by the mother of another, even more miraculous son. Mary, mother of Jesus, sings a very similar song which has become known as the Magnificat. The mighty will fall, the small shall be raised. And that song announces Jesus as a new kind of king who’s supposed to get us out of the earthly king business forever.
The contrast between this new kingdom, the realm of God, and our own narrow views of authority can be seen at the end of Jesus’ life. In his encounter with Pontius Pilate, Jesus encounters the kind of narrow fathoming my pal George was trying to do to art. Pilate asks him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And Jesus replies:
“You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
How can we listen to Jesus’ voice?
Prayer transforms our dread and our numbness and our pain in a way which can be uncomfortable and even scary, but is revealing, and healing. Repenting – loosing the hold of the world’s flaws – converts listening to allow for the truth to be heard.
In case you were wondering: remember that email? I replied, I joined. I am listening, and I am praying.
Asking God to look where I’m afraid to look. Asking God to be with me while I dare to turn and face what’s been following just behind my peripheral vision. Listening to the quiet voices I’m prone to dismiss.
Here’s what the Dutch priest and writer Henri Nouwen has to say about prayer:
Prayer is a revolutionary matter because once you begin, you put your entire life in the balance. If you really set about praying, that is, truly enter into the reality of the unseen, you must realize that you are daring to express a most fundamental criticism, a criticism which many are waiting for, but which will be too much for many others.
When you pray, you open yourself to the influence of the Power which has revealed itself as Love.
At St. Lydia’s this season we take time after the sermon to reflect and confess. We’ll write our confessions, and hang them from the branches above.
I invite you to reflect on this question: Where do you have selective hearing around a small voice, inside or outside yourself?
Angela Morris is a saxophonist-composer and other things in Brooklyn via Toronto. Her performance schedule and recordings can be found at angelamorrismusic.com. At St. Lydia’s, Angela coordinates music and liturgy, and curates a monthly experimental performance series called Brackish.
Le Tigre. “On Guard.” Feminist Sweeptakes, Mr. Lady, 2001.
Nouwen, Henri J.M. With Open Hands. Ave Maria Press 1972.
February 28th, 2018
This sermon was preached at St Lydia’s Dinner Church on Sunday Feb. 25 and Monday Feb. 26, 2018
JUDGES 4:1-9 After Ehud died, The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. 2 So the Lord sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-ha-goiim. 3 Then the Israelites cried out to the Lord for help; for [Sisera] had nine hundred chariots of iron, and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly [for] twenty years.
4 At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. 5 She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment. 6 She sent and summoned Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you, ‘Go, take position at Mount Tabor, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun. 7 I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.’”
8 Barak said to her, “If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” 9 And she said, “I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” Then Deborah got up and went with Barak to Kedesh.
Before we get into the meat of the message, let me set the scene for this passage a little more clearly.
After the Israelites emerged triumphant from the land of Egypt (what is known as the Exodus) they were commanded to wander in the desert for a generation, to temper their rebellion and strengthen their faith in the Lord who had rescued them. Then when Moses died, Joshua led Israel into the conquest of Canaan – the land the Lord had promised to their children. But the conquest was messy and riddled with compromise and disobedience. In the end, Israelites were living with the people they were supposed to drive out, displacing their own daughters by marrying their sons to Canaanites, worshipping foreign gods, and even slipping back under the rule of pagan leaders. They were no longer set apart. They were no longer seen as the Lord’s people.
During this period, 6 Israelite leaders arose – called Judges – who made a name for themselves (both in good and bad ways) amongst both the people of Canaan and the people of the Lord. The first two, Othniel and Ehud, were like knights from a storybook. They defeated enemies, won the hand of clever maidens, and used their smarts to play crafty tricks resulting in Israelite liberation. But a few decades after each noble judge died, the people of Israel would return to a common refrain:
Again, they would do evil in the eyes of the Lord. Read the passage again, you’ll see.
Political, social, and religious “movements” are a little nerve-wracking to me. I never quite know where to put myself, or how loudly to assert myself, during “movements.” I have never changed the filter of my facebook profile picture to any symbol or any flag. I don’t copy and paste statuses. I’ve somehow never ended up at a march or a protest. This hesitancy isn’t because I lack strong convictions. Only that I find myself a little lost, sometimes, in knowing how Who I Am relates to What I Think and How I Express That to Others. Or perhaps it’s that I need more time to watch, wait, and wonder, before I can piece together how my experiences fit in with the larger human story going on around me.
I remember the sorrow, and disappointment, and quietness I felt the week that the women on my facebook and twitter feeds began changing their statuses to read “me, too.” Sometimes those posts came with stories, or exhortations. Often, it was just those two small words: “me, too.”
Isn’t it wild that two words can somehow carry so much weight? The weight of being pushed aside, of not being listened to, of not being treated with humanity. The weight of being hurt. Maybe most dangerously, the weight of losing confidence in our own voices, losing community, losing hope, and losing direction. Reading “me, too” meant knowing that someone I love had been caught inside the teeth of the destructive power systems which rule our world, and acknowledging that, of course, I have been too. When we face uphill battles like sexism, workplace harassment, and abuse, it’s easy to feel crushed. It’s easy to lose sight of our identity…to lose hope that things can ever be better.
Followers of Christ choose to emulate Christ – to lift up where others tear down. To value and honor where others debase. But it’s hard to do that. Choosing courage and joy is actually a rough road to walk. Sometimes it feels impossible for us to light the path for others, when our own paths feel so dark and difficult.
That’s why I’m grateful for Deborah. And tonight I want to share more about that gratitude with all of you. Because I think sometimes, in the midst of the darkness and quietness in a season like Lent, we have to take time for stories like hers.
For those of you who haven’t spent as much time with the Hebrew Bible, the book of Judges is largely a story about the suffering of women. It’s about the downward spiral of a nation that is lawless, that is forgetting its God, and neglecting the oppressed and powerless. Our beloved coordinator Hannah is tackling some of these “texts of terror” in a few weeks, so I won’t trod on her stories. Suffice it to say, for now, that Deborah is a shining beacon of light that pierces the darkness of this book.
This character, Deborah, lived in a very different-looking world. The only god she served was the warrior God YHWH, so holy and mighty that he could supercede the powers of every Egyptian god, part seas for his followers, and drop food from the heavens every morning to sustain his children in the desert. This was a land of burnt offerings and blood; a land where the command from a man could mean the instant death of his wife, daughter, or slave. A world where, in the stories told around the fires at night, many female characters went nameless, or were entirely defined by their fathers and brothers.
And then in Judges 4, sitting beneath her palm tree, we meet Deborah. She is the one holding court and settling disputes. She is the one Israel looks to as its leader. She is the one receiving words from YHWH and commanding soldiers. If this isn’t already music to your ears, the best is yet to come.
Her military general, Barak, won’t go into battle without her. Why? we are left to wonder. Is he testing her authority? Disbelieving her because she is a woman? Is he simply scared, one member in the parade of cowardly men scattered throughout the book of Judges? The text isn’t explicit. But Deborah makes it clear that because of his reluctance, the world will know that this battle – at least this one Israelite victory – is credited to a woman.
But it gets even better than that. The victory goes to two women. First, there was Deborah, who made the call and led the charge. Bringing up the rear was Jael, another woman whose story has become quite famous. After offering food and shelter to the oppressive general Sisera, enemy of Israel, Jael drives a tent peg through his face, securing a resounding defeat over the now-scattered Canaanite army.
I’ll be the first to admit, war is an ugly way to talk about hope. But we have to step back into the world of the Ancient Near East and let go of our modern sensibilities for a just few minutes. For the Israelites, military losses and victories helped to define their early relationship to the power they knew as YHWH. They had no Bible; they had no creeds. They had experiences with this powerful, holy, Spirit. Losses forced them to examine their own faithlessness, disobedience, and cruelty. Victories reminded them that they were not alone in the universe. That their God was looking out for them. And usually, when YHWH was involved, the circumstances were so unusual that they had no choice but to step back and give ALL credit to the Lord.
When the battle was over, Deborah sang a joyful song.
“Hear, O ye kings;
give ear, O ye princes;
I, even I, will sing unto the Lord;
I will sing praise to the Lord God of Israel.”
She sang like Miriam sang, after Israel escaped Pharaoh through the red sea:
“I will sing to the Lord!
He has done great things.
He threw horse and rider
into the sea.”
Like Christ’s mother Mary sang, after God’s Angel honored her as the vessel of the coming Messiah:
“God brought down rulers from their thrones
and raised up the humble people.
He filled the hungry with good things,
but he sent the rich away with nothing.”
Even though some of my faith traditions seem as old as stone, and sometimes shrouded in much violence and, yes, patriarchy, I am so grateful to have the songs and victories of these women to light the way for me in times that seem so dark. The songs of Miriam and Deborah are thought by many scholars to be the oldest Hebrew poems – some of the first parts of what we now call The Bible to be written down. That’s cool, right?
If you look at your reading again, you’ll notice one detail I haven’t mention yet. Deborah is described as the “wife of Lappidoth.” And while that is probably a correct translation of the Hebrew, another valid reading of that phrase could be “woman of fire.” There is no distinction between the words “woman” and “wife” in Hebrew; “lappidoth” is a plural of the word for “flame” or “fire.” Names are incredibly meaningful in the Hebrew Bible, and Deborah here is no exception. Her given name means “honey bee” – evoking images of sweet nourishment, sustenance. Remember the Promised Land was called “the land of milk and honey”? But she is also a woman of fire – a torch that Israel was able to follow into the darkness, which eventually culminated in a celebration of victorious light.
The gospel is at work here. Not only in Mary’s song, and the life of her son, our Christ. The gospel is at work in Miriam’s song. The gospel is at work here with Deborah. The gospel is at work in Rosemarie Aquilina, a modern day judge who recently allowed more than 100 young female athletes to give testimony before sentencing their sexual abuser to prison. The gospel is at work in the 98% of black female voters who stood up, and showed up, to keep a child molester out of office in Alabama.
YHWH gave the Israelites a miraculous pillar of fire to light their way by night as they fled Pharaoh’s army. And these stories, old and new, are the torches that God is giving us to warm ourselves when the world freezes; to light our way in dark times. We must still walk the path ourselves, make no mistake. But we need light to see by! Light won’t make our feet move. Light won’t sustain us, or make us take that next step. But the light gives us bravery to know where we are going. To know who goes before us. To know that we are not alone.
Who am I in this world of movements and arguments and resistance? Who am I when I’m not sure if I can make a difference? When I’m tempted to just keep to the status quo or remain silent or back down from a challenge?
I am Deborah.
It’s not just something on my driver’s license or what I sign on the back of checks. This name has been a part of me for twenty-eight years, the most visible part of my identity. The strange power of names to shape and guide has led me to study and fall so deeply in love with the story of this first Deborah, which so many others miss or forget about even if they grow up in church.
I have been told many untruths. I have been told that women were never meant to occupy traditionally male spaces, like the courtroom, the battlefield, or the white house. I have been told that God only places women in leadership as a backup plan – when there are no men around to do anything. But I know that I don’t have to listen to those words. Because I have Deborah. Here, in the most patriarchal part of my holy book, is Deborah, woman of the flames, who lights the way into battle and claims victory in YHWH’s name – and her own name. My name.
What do you have to cling to when the world seems broken beyond repair, and when you have been discouraged for so many years, and it seems like justice and equality are so far off? You have Mary and Martha, as Kirstin reminded us last week. You have Miriam. You have Deborah. You have Mother Teresa and Annie Lee Cooper. Saint Joan of Arc and Sojourner Truth. Harriet Tubman and Corrie Ten Boom. We each fight our different battles, but in looking to our sisters in faith, all of us can learn to be confident in our own individual destiny, mission, identity, and worth. We can be reminded that we are beloved, capable, godly leaders. These torches help us grasp on again to who we are – they help us become better and stronger and braver. We are not without hope. We are not without light.
At St. Lydia’s this season we will take time after the sermon to reflect and confess. We’ll write our confessions and hang them from the branches above.
What do you feel moved to confess?
Who are some torches you can pay attention to, to help light your way in times of darkness? How can you go on to light the way for others? What stands in your way of finding hope and light in Christ?
Debbie Holloway makes her home in Brooklyn, New York. She loves film critique, creativity, advocating for kindness, Mexican food, yoga, GIFs, getting rush tickets for Broadway shows, and reading on the subway. You can find her songleading at cooking at St. Lydia’s, writing at Narrative Muse, and occasionally making pictures here.
Women’s Bible Commentary, Carol Ann Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe
February 23rd, 2018
This sermon was preached at St Lydia’s Dinner Church on Sunday Feb. 17 and Monday Feb. 18, 2018
Revisiting Martha and Mary
Luke 10:38 – 42: Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
This scripture may be familiar. It shares the story of Mary, Martha and Jesus. A traditional interpretation of this story tells the reader that Martha, the domestic diva who is waiting on Jesus, chastises her sister Mary by telling Jesus he has to tell Mary to help her. Jesus retorts that Martha is worrying about things which are unimportant; Mary has made the better choice.
Who are you, Martha, to worry about food prep and dishes when there are lessons to learn at the feet of Jesus?
I chose to preach from this scripture because I heard in it a lesson about how Jesus treated the women in his life. I felt that, in this #metoo moment, we needed to look at Jesus’ actual interactions with women to develop a response that is compassionate and authentically Christian.
Today St. Lydia’s begins a series of sermons inspired by the #metoo movement. In the last several months, women and men around the country have shared their stories of harassment and violence using the #metoo hashtag.
One day last year, I took to Facebook and posted a status expressing my own frustration at the Church’s lack of response to the avalanche of allegations tumbling from Hollywood sets, the corridors of Congress and the White House, the quiet offices where night crews clean, and the hot fields where farm workers harvest. Women across the country were calling out for healing and the church felt eerily silent. This is an issue of justice, of equality. Churches were standing up against the hate and anger sweeping our country, issuing statements on immigration, on white supremacy, on economic injustice.
Where was the church’s voice on this?
This Facebook post prompted fellow congregant Angela Morris to reach out and let me know that my post impacted her, and asked if I would consider preaching on this issue. That blossomed into the series of conversations St. Lydia’s will be having this week and for the next five weeks as we observe Lent.
Last Wednesday, St. Lydia’s joined with churches around the world to mark the beginning of Lent. This is a season of the church year that calls people to look at their lives and consider whether they are responding fully to God’s call. As part of this reflection, during Lent, St. Lydia’s takes on the discipline of confession.
This season, you will hear the voices of several St. Lydia’s women try to weave together a tapestry of understanding, to present stories and experiences that point towards Jesus and how his example calls us to respond. Together, we will also reflect on how we may unwittingly perpetuate the conditions of patriarchy which led to the need for this movement, and then turn, and do better.
Maybe our first confession needs to be about Martha and Mary.
I have a mother who one could say is firmly on the Mary side of the Martha-Mary dichotomy. She is rarely in the kitchen preparing meals when company is over; she’d rather cater so as to not miss any of the action, and encourages a casual, potluck approach. She lives a life that challenges conceptions about a woman’s place: an ordained deacon, she left the Roman Catholic Church when my brother was a baby. In the book of advice my bridesmaids passed around at my bridal shower she wrote: “a clean house is a sign of a life not lived.” Clearly, a Mary.
My grandmother, her mother-in-law, was firmly a Martha. She taught me sewing, how to make bookmarks from plastic canvas, the importance of perfectly filed nails, and how to set a well-appointed table. She baked, she cooked, and her home was always impeccably clean. Towards the end of her life she complained that her home health aide couldn’t vacuum without leaving tracks behind in the wall-to-wall carpeting.
She had standards. Martha, all the way.
These two women are, we are traditionally told, who we need to choose between.
Are you a Martha?
Or a Mary?
Or are you sometimes one or the other?
And what does Jesus have against Martha anyway?
What if I told you, “nothing”?
That maybe Martha is suffering from the same linguistic assumptions that punish modern women for being aggressive, or loud, or strong?
That maybe we got Martha and Mary all wrong?
OK, so here is where I am going to get a little granular and take a close look at language. Because sometimes what a writer writes is different than what a reader reads. What we hear is always shaped by context.
So first: where is this story in the Bible and who are the characters?
This story is part of the Gospel according to Luke, one of the four books in the Bible that tells the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. The author of Luke also wrote the Acts of the Apostles, the story of the early church immediately following Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Remember this: it’s important later.
Mary and Martha are sisters, and have a brother named Lazarus. They live in Bethany, outside of Jerusalem. In another Gospel, the Gospel according to John, we hear more of the close relationship between Jesus, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. In John, Jesus comes to Bethany to respond to the sisters’ call for help when Lazarus falls ill and dies. Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. These siblings are Jesus’ friends and disciples. He loves them and they love him.
This is important too.
Let’s dive, then, into this story from Luke.
Luke 10:40 says: “Martha was distracted with much serving.” Feminist theologian Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza casts doubt on a key component of the traditional interpretation of this text. Fiorenza focuses on the Greek word for “serve”, diakonia. This word is the origin of the word “deacon.” While this word could be interpreted as serving food, this is not how the word must be interpreted. Assuming that Martha must have been serving food says more about what we hear as listeners than what Martha was actually doing.
Might Martha instead be burned out from her work as a deacon? Could her ministry in Bethany be wearing her out? Let’s dig a little bit deeper.
Biblical scholar Mary Stromer Hanson has delved deeply into the language of this passage, and I highlight two of her concerns with the traditional interpretation here. First: many translations of this passage leave out a key word: “also”. As in “Mary, who also sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching.” Does this mean Martha did too? And if our translation of diakonia was off, what else are we missing here?
In the Book of Acts, Paul, one of Christianity’s earliest and most prolific writers and missionaries, describes himself in his pre-conversion life as one who sat at the feet of Gamaliel. An important detail of Paul’s life is that, before he converted to Christianity, he was not only Jewish, but persecuted followers of Jesus. Gamaliel trained Paul; you could say that, before Paul became a Christian, he was Gamaliel’s disciple. Now remember: Luke wrote the book of Acts. Could this phrase, “sit at the feet of,” used in two places by the same author, have a non-literal meaning?
Traditionally, the image of Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus conjures up a different scene than Paul at the feet of Gamaliel.
Google it. You’ll see what I mean. Paul, at the feet of Gamaliel, is hard at work as a scholar. Mary, at the feet of Jesus, looks like a love-sick teenager. She doesn’t even have a notebook!
Hanson suggests that this phrase, “to sit at the feet of,” is an idiom referring to one who follows, one who is a disciple. In this rendering, Mary and Martha are disciples of Jesus, on equal footing with each other, and partners in his work on earth.
Are you with me so far? OK. Let’s take another step away from the usual scene.
What if Mary is not even there?
What if it’s just Martha and Jesus?
A second point from Hanson is that there is no direct evidence in the text that Mary is present.
She never actually speaks.
Now imagine a different scene. Martha is worn out from her work as a disciple in Bethany. Jesus arrives and she greets him…and launches right into the complaints. Mary is so busy with what Jesus has her doing that Martha is struggling to get all her ministry done herself. She asks Jesus to redeploy the resources he has in Bethany: assign Mary to me!
Let’s listen to a different translation of this scripture, one Hanson proposes:
As they were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha received him. She had a sister called Mary, who also was one who sat at the Lord’s feet, always listening to his words. But Martha was constantly torn apart concerning much ministry. She suddenly approached him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister regularly leaves me to minister alone? Tell her therefore that she may give me a hand.”
But the Lord answered her saying, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and agitated concerning much, but only one thing is needed: For Mary has chosen good and it will not be taken away from her.”
Jesus tells Martha not that Mary’s choice is better, but that it is her calling. Martha’s got to re-focus. Mary has her ministry, and Martha’s got hers. These ministries are both good; each is suited to the woman who carries them out. Each woman needs to be free to live into her call.
What is not abundantly clear is what ministry Mary and Martha are engaged in. Some scholarship suggests Martha is engaged in some sort of home-based ministry, something along the lines of a house church, while Mary is more of an itinerant missionary, out in the world sharing the message of Jesus. This could be an additional source of distress for Martha: she loves her sister and worries for her safety as she engages in this outwardly-focused ministry.
So what does this mean for #metoo? What does this little corner of the tapestry tell us today?
First: Jesus was a good boss! He knew from his relationship with Mary and Martha what Martha needed to hear to get going again. I imagine his words not like a reproach, but as a soothing response – and I would like to imagine the conversation continuing.
Secondly: everyone gets burned out at work. We all need to be able to bring our concerns to our bosses and get support – not a quid pro quo proposition.
Finally: women’s work is valuable, valued, and varied. There is no one way for women to live and move in this world: each of us has a call to answer. You do not have to choose between Martha and Mary. You only have to choose Jesus, and then choose you.
At St. Lydia’s this season we will take time after the sermon to reflect and confess. What do you feel moved to confess?
Here’s a question to consider: how has your language been shaped by perceptions of gender, or your perceptions of gender shaped your language?
Kirstin Swanson lives and works in Staten Island, NY. Sometimes you’ll find her posting to her blog, writing for d365, or helping community organizations find funding. A regular Waffle Church attendee at St. Lydia’s, she’s recently begun serving as a song leader at Dinner Church. She has worshiped and served in lay leadership in Episcopal churches in the New York City area, and is blessed to share her home with her husband and two young children.
A New View of Mary and Martha: https://eewc.com/new-view-mary-martha/
Mary of Bethany: Her Leadership Uncovered:
What was Martha Doing? Diakonia in Luke 10:38-42
February 20th, 2018
The season of Lent is a time to turn down the noise and listen to God’s voice. We have heard: “me, too.” When these stories travel towards the cross of Christ’s death and resurrection, what is revealed?
Over the six weeks of Lent, the women of St. Lydia’s will trouble the waters of #MeToo and the church’s paltry response, dismantle patriarchy, reclaim women in the Bible, rupture male-female binaries, and bring Jesus’s voice back into the conversation.
This Lent the discussion on power, love, and Christian witness is more important than ever.
You are very welcome here.
February 13th, 2018
Lent is the time when we wander in the wilderness together, and find still quiet spaces to listen for the voice of God. Everything gets a little more spare, our music included.
1) Gathering Song
A Kyrie Eleison, which means, “Lord, Have Mercy.” This Kyrie is from the Iona Community in Scotland.
John Bell Kyrie
2) Candle Lighting Song
This juicy tune, “Here is Bread for the Hungry Soul,” which reminds us we are forgiven, and also that we’re going to eat soon! The harmonies are recorded for you, but folks will mostly improvise off the melody.
Note: we usually flip the words to, “here is bread for the hungry heart, here is wine for the thirsty soul, because I think the alliteration sounds better and makes the song easier to remember!
“Here is Bread for the Hungry Soul,” words: Mary Kay Beall; music: John Carter
3) Table Acclamation
We’ll use the very simple Lent Table Acclamation
4) Prayer Song
What We Need Is Here, written by the students of the Episcopal Student Group at MIT. A lovely setting of the first line of the poem by Wendall Berry.
5) Offering Song
Love and Faithfulness Shall Lead
6) Closing Hymn
What Wondrous Love is This
*Please note, the harmonies on this recording are not the harmonies from our current sheet music.
December 21st, 2017
Happy New Year! Here’s the music we’ll be singing this Epiphany season.
1) Gathering Song
Jyothi Dho Prabhu (Give Us Light)
2) Candle Lighting Song
The Light of Christ Has Come Into the World
3) Table Acclamation
Ordinary Table Acclamation (Scott)
4) Prayer Song
Song Leader’s Choice
5) Offering Song
6) Final Hymn
Songs of Thankfulness and Praise