Blessed among women…

This is the sermon I preached today at Putney Methodist Church today. It was Mothering Sunday but I chose texts that focussed on the role of women in scripture: Exodus 1:13-21; 1 Samuel 19:8-13; Luke 8:1-3.

Mothering SundayA few years ago, when I was at the Christian festival Greenbelt, I was lucky enough to hear John Bell speak. If you ever get the chance to do so yourself, I strongly recommend it, as he is a most fascinating, challenging and engaging speaker. You may indeed have heard him on Thought for the Day. Not only is he a Church of Scotland minister and an active member of the Iona Community, but he is also a prolific hymn writer and actually contributed more hymns to our new book, Singing the Faith, than anyone other than Charles Wesley. Quite a feat!

When I saw him, he was talking, in part, about one of those new hymns; in fact, the one we have just sung – ‘God it was who said to Abraham’ (full text reproduced below). He told us how he had been inspired to write it because of the serious lack of knowledge he found in the Church concerning the role of women in our Bible. As you will have noted, in the hymn he pairs a well-known male figure in each verse with an often less well-known, or less valued, female one. When he spoke, he really challenged my Biblical knowledge by citing individuals and incidents that I often barely recognised, such as the three passages we have just heard read. He confronted us all forcibly with the almost inevitable male bias with which we encounter scripture.

Many of us will be only too familiar with some of the more unfortunate texts in the Bible that seem to denigrate or undermine the role of women. Verses such as those we find in 1 Corinthians, which read:

As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. (1 Cor. 14:33-36)

No wonder, so many of us struggle with Paul at times! On this Mothering Sunday, therefore, I thought it might be appropriate for us all to recall the vital role that women have played in the story of our salvation with a quick gallop through the Bible.

Beginning at the beginning, we immediately tackle the problem of how women are represented in the Bible with Eve. She, of course, tempted Adam and led him astray, causing all the problems in the world. Is that what the Bible says? No! If we actually read the text, Genesis 3 tells us that Adam and Eve were together when they ate of the forbidden fruit, and there is no mention of temptation whatsoever (Gen. 3:6). Adam needed no help from anyone to sin by himself!

Sarah and AbrahamLater in Genesis, among many other women, we have Sarah, the wife of Abraham, the first of the women in John Bell’s hymn. While Abraham is always – rightly – lauded as an exemplar of faith, it is the elderly Sarah who actually had to risk her own life in the extremely dangerous act of giving birth to Isaac (Gen. 18:9-14). Even today, with all our medical advances, we sadly all know the continuing and very real dangers that still surround childbirth.

Then in Exodus (and do not fear, we are not going to tackle each book of the Bible!), when women seem barely to be mentioned for 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, we have Miriam (Exodus 15:20). She is the prophetess, who played her tambourine after the Israelites escaped Egypt and passed through the Red Sea, dancing before the people. Later, the prophet Micah will list her alongside Moses and Aaron as those whom God sent to guide God’s people at a time of crisis (Micah 6:4).

Shiphrah and PuahBefore that, though, we have the two midwives we encountered in our reading, Shiphrah and Puah (Exodus 1:13-21). Definitely not the weaker, feeble sex, they stood before the mighty, but clearly not terribly bright, Pharaoh and saved the children of the Israelite slaves. It seems very appropriate that God worked through two midwives when, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, God is described as a deliverer or midwife – someone who brings humanity to birth:

Shall I open the womb and not deliver?
says the Lord;
shall I, the one who delivers, shut the womb?
says your God. (Isaiah 66:9)

The book of Judges is replete with rather dubious male ‘heroes’, like the deeply flawed Gideon and Samson. But we also encounter women like Deborah, who ruled Israel as a judge for forty years and secured its peace (Judges 4-5). Also, her contemporary Jael, one of my favourite Biblical characters. She cleverly let the wicked Canaanite general Sisera – a man whom entire armies were searching for – sleep in her tent (Judges 4:17-22). This supposedly feeble woman, though, then did what no other man in Israel had been able to do. She took a mallet and a tent peg, and nailed it through his head, freeing her people from tyranny and oppression. As John Bell observed in that talk I attended, a difficult story, the moral of which perhaps is never to go camping! But it certainly shows that God has as much use for women in his plan of deliverance as he does for men, and that they are definitely not the weaker sex!

Abigail and DavidNext, we have Hannah, the mother of Samuel, who pleaded with God for a child and had to risk the insults of Eli the old priest at the Temple, who thought she was drunk, but eventually bore the great prophet and kingmaker Samuel (1 Sam. 1:12-18). Less well-known in the same book of the Bible, we have Abigail, the wife of Nabal (1 Sam. 25). David, who at this stage is something of an outlaw, comes to the rich Nabal’s farm and seeks provisions for him and his men. The foolish Nabal ignores all the duties of hospitality and sends them off with a flea in his ear. David with 400 armed men at his side is not about to take this insult lying down and is just telling his men to strap on their swords and prepare for a raid, when the wise Abigail appears with plenteous supplies of wine and food. She placates the future king, thus saving her husband and her household from certain rape and pillage. Would it really have been better if she had obeyed Paul’s instructions, kept silent, and deferred to her idiot husband? Later in the same story, we have the account of Michal, David’s wife, which we also heard read. An ingenious woman who again ensures that the Lord’s will is not frustrated.

Indeed, we could go on for some time in the Old Testament, and recite the well-known stories of Ruth and Esther, as well as the lesser-known ones like Susanna, Rizpah and Tamar. We could think of the feminine images used in the Psalms and Proverbs, where Wisdom is of course a woman, or in Isaiah, where God speaks through the prophet, promising:

As a mother comforts her child,
so I will comfort you. (Isa. 66:13)

We need to move on, though, and mention something of the New Testament, where we have even more famous examples like Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah, and of course Mary, the mother of Jesus. Now there is much we could say here but suffice to note that it is clear that Mary herself was no shrinking violet, but a strong woman who had to endure much, and who played a vital role in the upbringing and life of our Lord, and helped continue his work after his Ascension.

Anna and SimeonWe also have Anna the prophetess, who recognised the infant Jesus as the long-promised Messiah (Luke 2:36-38), and of course those women that we heard about in the reading from Luke (8:1-3). The women who actually funded Christ’s earthly mission, and allowed him and his male disciples to do their work. It was these same women too who, unlike the male disciples, would remain faithful to Jesus until the bitter end, and who would be rewarded by the first sight of the empty tomb on the first Easter Sunday.

It is not only the individuals that are important, though, but how we read these precious texts that needs to be challenged too. We all know that Jesus had twelve male apostles, whom we see endlessly depicted in art and stained-glass windows, but how much do we actually know about most of them? Compare what the gospels say about them to what we know about the Samaritan woman at the well in John’s gospel, for example (John 4): the only person in the gospels, other than Jesus, to get nearly a whole chapter devoted to her!

More words are written about the Syro-Phoneciean woman Jesus encounters in Mark (7:24-30) and the woman who bathed Jesus’ feet with perfume (Luke 7:36-50) than about eight of the twelve male disciples! (And the former was arguably the only person in the gospels who made Jesus change his mind!)

Woman at the wellConsider the the way Jesus speaks to women as well. Can you think of an example of Jesus berating his male disciples for their stupidity or lack of faith? Of course, you can; just read Mark’s gospel! But can you think of a time he berates the women? I cannot. But I am able to recall the woman with internal bleeding being regarded by Jesus as a model of faith (Matt. 9:20-22); and the woman who put two coins in the Temple treasury being the model of generosity (Luke 21:1-4); and the woman who persistently pestered the judge for justice as being a model of prayer (Luke 18:1-8).

And finally, despite the fact that Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 14 are all that many people seem to know about women in the New Testament, it is absolutely clear that women played a vital role in the life of the Early Church. Women like Lydia, the dealer in purple cloth, who became the first European we know about to become a Christian (Acts 16:14-15). Chloe, who led the church in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:11); Phoebe, who served as a minister alongside Paul (Rom. 16:1); Aquila, who fearlessly hosted one of the earliest churches in her own home (1 Cor. 16:19, Rom. 16:3); and many others.

Now, at the end of the service today, there will be a short Bible quiz to see how many of these women you have remembered and where they came in the Bible! Not really.

If you remember any one of those examples, I will be delighted. What I really want us to go away with today, though, is a clear recognition of the role that women play in our scriptures, both as mothers and not. Sadly, to do so we must often peer through the grime of 2,000 years of intentional and unintentional misogyny practised by God’s Church. Despite their best efforts, though, the role of women in God’s plan for our salvation shines through, and the only way that we can deny that is by selectively reading the Bible. By saying that we like this story but we do not like that one, because it makes us think too hard or challenges our comfortable world view. That is a bad habit that Christians have clung on to for far too long.

If we ignore the role of women in scripture and the femininity of God’s divine nature, which the scriptures speak about so clearly, then we only see part of the picture. We are like the blind man in the gospels, who sees something like trees walking when Jesus first heals him (Mark 8:24). Or as Paul put it, “we see through a glass darkly” (1 Cor.13:12, KJV).

For too long, we have acted as though we have to be ashamed of our own Bible because it seems to contradict the evidence and experience of our own lives about the talents and abilities of women. Let us reclaim our scriptures and show the world with confidence that it is full of wonderful stories relevant to our own age, and every age. That when we think we are being terribly modern and revolutionary, we actually find that God has been there all the time, waiting for us to catch up! Let us always hold on to the incredible power of those words we find right at the beginning of our story with God:

So God created humankind in his image,
   in the image of God he created them;
   male and female he created them. …
And it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. (Gen. 1:27-31)

Amen.

 

1. God it was who said to Abraham,
‘Pack your bags and travel on.’
God it was who said to Sarah,
‘Smile and soon you’ll bear a son.’
Travelling folk and aged mothers
wandering when they thought they’d done —
this is how we find God’s people,
leaving all because of One.

2. God it was who said to Moses,
‘Save my people, part the sea.’
God it was who said to Miriam,
‘Sing and dance to show you’re free.’
Shepherd-saints and tambourinists
doing what God knew they could —
this is how we find God’s people,
liberating what they should.

3. God it was who said to Joseph,
‘Down your tools and take your wife.’
God it was who said to Mary,
‘In your womb, I’ll start my life!
Carpenter and country maiden
leaving town and trade and skills —
this is how we find God’s people,
moved by what their Maker wills.

4. Christ it was who said, ‘Zacchaeus,
I would like to eat with you.’
Christ it was who said to Martha,
‘Listening’s what you need to do.’
Civil servants and housekeepers,
changing places at a cost —
this is how Christ summons people,
calling both the loved and lost.

5. In this crowd which spans the ages,
with these saints whom we revere,
God wants us to share their purpose
starting now and starting here.
So we celebrate our calling,
so we raise both heart and voice,
as we pray that through our living
more may find they are God’s choice.

John L. Bell (b. 1949) and Graham Maule (b. 1958)

Reproduced from Singing the Faith Electronic Words Edition, number 464
Words: From Love From Below © 1989, WGRG, Iona Community, Glasgow G2 3DH  Scotland. www.wgrg.co.uk

 .

True reconciliation

This is the sermon I preached this morning at Barnes Methodist Church on the first Sunday in Lent, on the theme of reconciliation. The texts were Matthew 5:21-25 and Romans 5:6-11.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAReconciliation is much in the news at the moment. Recently, Prince William joined the Queen, and many others, in urging the nation to ‘come together‘ at a time of deep divisions, revealed by the never-ending Brexit debate. Both the Labour and Conservative parties are seeking to reconcile different strands of their party, after a number of MPs formed an independent group. And across the world, we are seeing desperate attempts at reconciliation both between nations, such as India and Pakistan, and within them, as in Venezuela.

These calls for reconciliation chime very well with the season of Lent, which started this week. The liturgy for Ash Wednesday reminds us all about the origins of the season:

At first this season of Lent was observed by those being prepared for Baptism at Easter and by those seeking restoration to the Church’s fellowship.

In other words, Lent was a time when people who had become estranged from the Church for whatever reason, could return to full fellowship through observing a season of penitence and fasting. It was a time for encouraging people to be reconciled to each other as well, to put aside old disputes and bitterness, and come together at the foot of the cross.

As our readings today demonstrate, though, the theme of reconciliation is not limited to Lent but runs right through our Bible. In our gospel reading from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, Jesus reminds his hearers that they cannot be at peace with God, unless they are at peace with their neighbour (Matt. 5:21-25). In Romans (5:6-11), and in our call to worship from Colossians (1:19-20), Paul is clear that in Jesus, God was seeking to reconcile humanity, and indeed all creation, to himself, saving us all from the deadly effects of sin. All of these themes come together, additionally, in our celebration Holy Communion today, where we are celebrating that gracious act of reconciliation between God and his creation, and by extension between ourselves.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI have had cause to reflect upon this theme of reconciliation in the few last week: upon how it can work, and why it so often does not. My thoughts began during my half term holiday the other week, when I was lucky enough to visit Madrid. While there visited the ‘Valley of the Fallen’. This is a vast site, about an hour’s drive from the city centre. It was clearly visible when we flew over on our way into Madrid airport and the complex includes an enormous underground basilica, a monastery and the world’s largest cross, reaching 500 feet into the sky. The site was created following the conclusion of Spain’s violent and bloody Civil War (1936-39), which was waged between the Republican / Socialists on one side, and the, ultimately triumphant, Nationalists / Fascists, led by Franco, on the other. This is a conflict that will be known to many of us through the enormous amount of literature and art it inspired, not least George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and Picasso’s Guernica, among many others.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFranco directed the construction of the site as a “national act of atonement” and reconciliation but sadly it failed to achieve this lofty aim. Visiting the site is a somewhat chilling experience. Everything is built on a monumental scale, not least the vast, industrial-looking concrete Pieta above the entrance door and, of course, the enormous cross. The basilica itself can only be described as ‘sepulchral’ – vast and empty, with no natural light. At the very heart of the worship space, you find the tomb of the great Caudillo himself, Franco – with fresh flowers seemingly laid most days. It is shocking to see it, and remember that this man was a direct contemporary of Hitler and Mussolini, sharing their views and happily murdering thousands of his fellow citizens.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe truth is that as an act of reconciliation, this site is an abysmal failure. Built largely by Republican prisoners of war, it is utterly unrepentant about the crimes of the Franco regime and makes no real attempt to reach out to those who fought on the ‘wrong side’. The adoption of so much Christian iconography and narratives, such as the frightening scenes from Revelation depicted on the basilica’s walls, seem not so much to be an attempt at reconciliation, as an assertion that ‘God was on Franco’s side’. It is little wonder that since its construction, the Valley has been a source of contention, rather than reconciliation. Most recently, there is a vigorous national debate about the Socialist government’s attempts to exhume Franco’s body and remove him from the basilica. The debate has illuminated the deep, unreconciled, tensions within Spanish society over how it commemorates and understands the Civil War – tensions that show few signs of abating at present.

When I returned to work the following Monday, one of the first tasks I faced was reconciliation on a slightly smaller – and less historic stage – when I attended a meeting of the District Reconciliation Committee. This group of lay and ordained Methodists, from across London, meets together to share the work of bringing individuals together in our local churches. Most often, we are dealing with cases referred to us, when a complaint has been made and attempts are being made to avoid formal processes and encourage the different parties to talk through their difficulties together. I often reflect that the situations with which we deal are remarkably similar to those that Paul writes about in his epistles to the early Christians: strong personalities within churches, the temptations of sex and money, and the misuse of spiritual authority!

As I sat in the meeting, having read the morning’s newspaper, full of stories of our total failure to reconcile as a nation over Brexit, I reflected upon what makes true reconciliation possible. There is much I could say on this subject, but I will just briefly mention three requirements this morning.

The first is truth. In our gospel reading, Jesus describes a true worshipper of God as someone who is honest before God and with themselves. If you have a disagreement with another, he states, admit it freely and go and do something about it (Matt. 5:23-24). Elsewhere, Jesus famously said, I have come that you might “know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32). So often, though, we shy away from the truth because it is to hurtful and painful.

In the District Reconciliation Committee, as with all reconciliation work, our first step is always to allow people to tell their truth independently and uninterrupted. Only when this has been done, if it is appropriate, will we try to bring people together and listen to the others’ truth. Often, of course, we will have to help people sort out the lies from the truth but very often what you hear is actually truth from two different perspectives.

First Be ReconciledThat recognition that the truth must be heard is the vital foundation of reconciliation. It is no surprise that the post-Apartheid government in South Africa did not establish a Reconciliation Committee but a Truth and Reconciliation Committee. It is also why the Valley of the Fallen fails as a tool of reconciliation – because there is space for only one side of the truth. That is not to say that all Republicans were heroes and all Nationalists evil: it is to allow space for an honest re-telling of the past from different perspectives.

It is also why our current Brexit debate has become so poisonous. The first casualty of the campaign seemed to be the truth, and the campaign itself was the culmination of years of denial and a refusal to hear certain voices within our nation. I am so desperately sorry that we seem never able to raise up leaders and politicians who can say sorry or acknowledge faults. Nor seemingly raise up journalists who are interested in presenting a rounded view of our world. Nor, perhaps most importantly, raise up people who are interested in having their views challenged by the truth of others.

Coming to our communion table today, we come ‘just as we are’: fully known by God, with no falsehood or deceit possible. We come unable to hide the truth about ourselves from God, yet miraculously knowing that we are somehow still fully loved. That is the beginning of true reconciliation.

bread-and-wineThat brings me to the second vital aspect of reconciliation: a genuine desire to be reconciled. Again, our gospel reading speaks of someone who wishes to be at peace with God and his neighbour, and therefore is willing to run across town to attempt reconciliation (Matt. 5:25). And again, reflecting on the work of reconciliation within our churches, I am reminded of how, too often, we have to shake our heads with sorrow because one or either of the parties simply has no desire whatsoever to be reconciled. They want to go straight to the complaints process and be vindicated, even when it is quite clear to everyone else that there is fault (and truth) on both sides.

As we look at our world and its history, we see very clearly that reconciliation and true peace come about only when those involved genuinely want it and are willing to make the sacrifices necessary for it to come about. In our modern age, we have seen it with France and Germany after the Second World War. To a considerable extent, we have seen it in Northern Ireland too, but even in both these cases there are always those who would rather turn the clock back. Reconciliation can happen after conflict, when people have seen the horrors of conflict and division, and want something different for the future. But they must want it to happen. One of the deeply challenging questions hanging over the Valley of the Fallen is whether this can ever be considered as a genuine attempt at reconciliation. Did it ever represent a real desire to be reconciled or merely a bold testament that one side of the conflict ‘won’. At its inauguration in 1959 (nearly 20 years after work had started), Franco, according to his biographer Paul Preston:

gloated over the enemy that had been obliged ‘to bite the dust’ and showed not the slightest trace of desire to see reconciliation between Spaniards.

Here, and elsewhere, it would seem that there is little desire to pay the heavy price that true reconciliation requires.

As we turn our hearts to the communion table this morning, we recall that the sacrifice it represents is an open invitation to be reconciled with our God and with each other. To be reconciled, though, involves a genuine desire from us – to take that all important first step toward reconciliation.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis leads me neatly to my third and final point this morning. As Christians, we believe that the intervention of Jesus Christ is essential for true reconciliation. As I mentioned earlier, I felt somewhat sickened at the Valley of the Fallen by the adoption of Christian iconography for something that seemed to have so little to do with Christ. In our human life together, too often reconciliation seems absolutely impossible – be that within our world, our nation or even our own families. The feelings, the history, the pain is too strong. As we look at the conflicts and divisions of our world, not least in our own nation at present, we could perhaps be forgiven for just shaking our heads and believing that reconciliation is simply impossible.

What is required is a mediator. Someone to show us a better way; to set us an example that we may find impossible to follow. But follow it we must, if our world is to have any future at all. As Paul reminded his listeners, 2,000 years ago (Romans 5:8-10):

But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. … For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.

In Christ, God took the initiative to reach out across the chasm that had come to separate humanity from its creator, and from one another. Through love, pain and sacrifice, Christ made reconciliation possible; he broke the chains of sin and division that bind humans to a never-ending cycle of violence and death; he spread wide his arms on the cross to show the depths of God’s love for each one of us.

It is that example that we must follow today, if we are to have any hope for the future. It is that reconciling love we celebrate in our communion today. It is that work of reconciliation, in his name, to which we pledge ourselves today. It is that divine intervention, opening human hearts and minds to the possibilities of peace and reconciliation, for which we pray today. Let us lift high the cross of Christ. Not as the symbol of factional triumph as in the Valley of the Fallen, but of true reconciliation with God and with each other, brought about by the precious blood of our Lord and Saviour. As we shall sing in a moment in Charles Wesley’s hymn Jesus, Lord, we look to thee:

Free from anger and from pride,
let us thus in God abide;
all the depth of love express,
all the height of holiness.

Amen.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA