Prepared and delivered at Maitland Pres on their PW’s Celebration of the Gifts of Women Sunday. Texts Judges 11:29-40 and Matthew 26:6-13. Big huge hat tip, shout out and thank you to Rachel Held Evans. Be sure to check out her book: A Year of Biblical Womanhood.
I had my first opportunity to preach on Christmas Eve this last year, and I must confess it made me a little nervous. It felt a little like the high expectations that cooks face as they pull the Thanksgiving turkey from the oven…
So I called my mentor and was whining about it and she said, “Laura, Christmas Eve is easy. You read the story. And then you help people understand how they are part of God’s larger story of redemption that starts in Bethehem.” And of course, she was right.
But what to preach today – on a day that celebrates the gifts of women? What story lifts up and honors the faithfulness, creativity and love with which women have served God for generations? There’s Mary’s familiar story of persistence and obedience, trusting that with God all things are possible. But the planning team thought perhaps it was too familiar…
Or perhaps we could back up a bit, and look at the women Matthew lists in his genealogy of Jesus?
There’s Tamar, the twice-widowed daughter-in-law of Judah, who has to trick him into providing for her as a husband;
Rahab, the prostitute who helped Joshua’s spies in Jericho;
Ruth, the Moabite whose loyalty to Naomi brought redemption and security through marriage to Boaz;
And Bathsheba, whose affair with David cost her a husband and son, but was also the mother of Solomon.
Like many women in our scriptures, their stories are less often told, and their stories are often less carefully told. They become caricatures, stock figures, or object lessons. It is easy to lose sight of the depth of their humanity, to miss the pain of their struggles and sacrifice, to underestimate the faith required to be such bold women in a culture that viewed them as the property of men.
In the midst of all the possible stories sits a Proverb that tells of a different woman.
I have to say that – like many modern Christian women – I have a love-hate relationship with Proverbs 31. You know, the one that starts by saying how hard it is to find a capable or virtuous woman. It then goes on to describe someone who runs the household, AND runs a business, AND is the perfect wife, mother, worshiper and citizen.
It’s as if someone created a “Godly woman” Pinterest board and filled it with Martha Stewart crafts, Frontier Woman recipes, Suzy Ormand investment recommendations and Oprah’s charitable efforts…. and then challenged everyone else to “get to it!” It’s just a little overwhelming. Ok maybe more than a little.
But just as I was about to drop that idea entirely, I ran across something from Rachel Held Evans. As part of a year-long project for a book, she was seeking to follow the laws, rules and guidelines for women in scripture. One month she was set to focus on Proverbs 31.
As Rachel started feeling overwhelmed by this virtuous woman, she turned to a friend in Israel, a woman who is a practicing Orthodox Jew. She reminded Rachel that the Proverb is a poem. Not a to-do list. And in the Orthodox Jewish tradition, do you know who reads and memorizes the poem? Not the wife, but the husband. The husband recites this poem as a way to celebrate his wife.
He calls her an ESHET CHAYIL. A capable woman, a virtuous woman, or an even better translation: A woman of valor.
ESHET CHAYIL! is also a blessing offered from woman to woman, acknowledging that small daily victories matter. Like conquering that pile of dirty laundry, filing the taxes on time, or figuring out logistics of getting a busy family everywhere they need to be week to week. Eshet chayil- you’ve survived the day!
ESHET CHAYIL also honors the larger battles –loving and living with the partner with dementia, loving and praying for a child who struggles with addiction, facing a diagnosis, chemo and radiation treatments with grace. Eshet chayil… Hail woman of valor.
Just like our Jewish sisters, we come from a long line of women of valor: Sarah, Deborah, Lydia, Rachel, Miriam, Anna, and those women whose stories have been passed down, but whose names are lost to history.
Noah’s wife. We never learn her name, but we honor the woman who remained faithful to the man who built a boat and waited for a flood while there was no rain and was mother to the men who (with their wives) repopulated the earth;
Jephtha’s daughter…whose story we heard this morning. Her story is one of commitment and sacrifice, of following through on a promise that she didn’t even make. Jephtha’s vow to God was rash, to be sure. Not a formalized covenant like the one between Abraham and God, but just as serious, and just as binding. His daughter knew what was happening, and it was clear that there would be last minute reprieve, no ram.
Facing her death, she asked for time. In our scripture it said she mourned her virginity. But I think we can take that a little further – she mourned the husband she would never marry, the love they would never share, the children she would never hold… the days that she would not live. She took time to mourn her lost future. And after those two months, she was killed, just as Jephthah had promised. We read that the daughters of Israel went out to lament Jephthah’s daughter each year. They must have wept their blessing, eshet chayil.
There are the women healed by Jesus, like the one so crippled by a spirit for 18 years that she could not see anything but her feet. Or the woman who bled , used all of her resources and had sought out healers to no avail, but she found her way to Jesus, reached out to touch the hem of his robe. Eshat chayil, Your faith has healed you.
And there was the woman who anointed Jesus. There was no way to replace that valuable ointment once she had emptied the jar. But rather than rebuking her as the disciples did, Jesus honored her, promising that she would be remembered wherever the gospel story was told. And we do remember her!
The fact that women are welcome to lead worship on this chancel, that I am preaching here today, is testament to generations of women of valor.
The women Paul mentioned in his letters to the early church and the thousands whose contributions are now known only to God
The women who were martyred and the ones who survived to plant and nurture new churches across the Roman Empire and beyond.
The women who contemplated God in the desert.
The women who opened their homes to reformers, women who crossed an ocean in search of the freedom to worship God as they desired;
The women who travelled the world as missionaries – alone and with their families.
And women who have given millions of hours and millions of dollars to help the helpless, the outcasts, the little ones that Christ held so dear.
We need not drive very far from this sanctuary to find churches where the contributions of women are defined much more narrowly than in our denomination. And so each time I put on my preaching shoes, I give thanks for the women of valor who were first ordained as elders and deacons and ministers. And I give thanks for the men of valor in pulpits and in pews who have blessed and honored women who are gifted and called to lead.
Remembering, honoring and celebrating are important to us as believers . It is important to us as human beings. This past Monday was Yom Hashoah. The day set aside to remember the lives cut short by the Holocaust.
February 1 is set aside by NASA each year as a Day of Remembrance, honoring the lives lost in the Columbia, Challenger, and Apollo 1 accidents.
Memorial Day is coming up in a few weeks. What started as a day to honor those who perished on both sides of the US Civil War, is now a day to remember and honor women and men who have died in any military action.
I suspect that if we went around this room with a calendar, we could mark almost every day as one to set aside to remember and honor a loved one on the anniversary of his or her death. In fact, that is what ultimately brings us together this morning… and every Sunday morning
Yes, we are here to celebrate the gifts of women who give of themselves radically and obediently today… But we are primarily here to celebrate the life, death and resurrection of the One to whom we offer those very gifts. We come to remember who Jesus was. We come to remember who we are in Christ.
We come to this place where the sacraments are celebrated–
Where we trust and claim the saving work of Jesus n the waters of baptism
Where we break the bread and pour the wine, just as Jesus commanded his disciples “In remembrance”
But not just to remember — to proclaim his death until he comes.
In baptism, we take on Christ. In communion, we take in Christ.
We become the Body, a living breathing reminder to the world of the One who took on flesh and lived among us.
And each week, we go out to love our neighbors and make disciples.
We gather and remember
And then we go out telling stories of the women and men who came before, who experienced God’s faithfulness…
And we go out telling our own stories of loss and sacrifice, confusion and doubt, and the ways that the Spirit confronted, comforted and empowered us to go on.
We gather and remember
And we go out spurring one another on.
And we go out listening, inviting others to tell their stories and helping them see the part God is playing
We gather and remember.
And we go out so that all might remember.
Let us pray.
With your Word to remind us, how could we forget your faithfulness?
With your Body to surround us, how could we forget those who came before?
With your Spirit to inspire us, how could we forget the reconciling work you’ve called us to?
We remember, Lord.
Send us out as women and men of valor, reflecting your glory.
In the name of Jesus the Christ we pray