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.
A 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!
Later 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).
Before 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!
Next, 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.
We 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!)
Consider 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)
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