This week’s sermon request was more topic than question… Broadly speaking, it asked us to take a look at the role or work of women in the community of faith. I could do a full summer, maybe even a full year’s worth of sermons on women in scripture, in the history of the Christian church, and in the modern church.
I should say, I could now… there was a time that i had no idea how many women were mentioned in scripture. Growing up, most of the Bible Stories we read focused on the patriarchs, or Jesus and the disciples. Many of the passages that focus primarily on women are left out of the Revised Common Lectionary. And they don’t always fit neatly into the sort of topics commonly used for sermon series.
Oh sure, there are a few whose stories are told often enough to be familiar…
Like Sarah, whose age made it laughable that she and Abraham would ever see their promised heirs outnumber the stars in the sky. And then, when she finally bore a son, she laughed with joy.
Or there’s Mary and her story of persistence and obedience, trusting that with God all things are possible, even parenting the Messiah.
And of course Esther, the young jewish woman unwillingly placed in the court of a ruthless king. Esther turned out to be stronger and more capable than she ever imagined and saved her people from genocide.
Most advent seasons, we hear a little bit about the women listed in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus:
Tamar, the twice-widowed daughter-in-law of Judah, who has to trick him into providing for her as 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, coerced into a relationship with David that cost her a husband and son.
There are many more women in the Bible who we can and should claim as our forebears in faith. Their stories are less often told, AND their stories are often less carefully told.Too often, 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 primarily as the property of men.
Like the daughters of Zelophehad, whose story is easy to skim right past, tucked as it is into several chapters outlining the census of the children of Israel… essentially a long list of nothing but the names of men and their sons and grandsons and nephews and cousins.
Listen to their story from beginning of Numbers, chapter 27:1-11
This is powerful stuff -surprising stuff- dropped into the mundane cataloguing of some 603,000 people and their belongings… all based on their clans and lineage. It is powerful because that cataloguing is all about knowing who you are and where you belong. These women understood very well the way things worked in this patriarchal society. They understood that, as women, they were in danger because they had no brothers and no father – no men – in their lives.
They also understood that there was a bigger problem at play in their situation. A problem of belonging. Their lack of brother and father meant that they no longer belonged, that their whole family would be forgotten.
At this point, the promised land was to be divided among tribes and clans and families, each plot assigned according to the number of people. Their problem of belonging nowhere was about to be magnified by the problem of having no place in the promise that God had made to their ancestors. This is tragic, a situation made all the more poignant by its being told in the middle of 603,000 others who could say precisely where they belonged.
What did they do?
These women had already followed the system used by the people that started at the local judge, where small grievances and questions were handled. Only the hardest cases got passed up through the layers of judges to Moses for a decision.
According to system in place, the answer should have been no. Based on the previous three books of law, these women should have been sent off to marry to find a place in the community. But that’s not what happened. Instead, each judge at each level of the system has taken them seriously. They are all aware of the seriousness of the problem, of a family of faithful Israelites being forgotten and left out of the promise.
And so Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milca, and Tirza found themselves in front of Moses at the tent of meeting. Where they asked for exactly what they wanted: to inherit their father’s place in the community of God’s people. It was a risk for the women to ask the community to do something that had never been tried before.
But when Moses asked, God’s answer was clear: “the daughters of Zelophehad are right” In essence, God said to Moses: we have been too restrictive and closed and it is hurting my people.
I don’t want anyone left behind, because each of them matters.
Each one deserves to be remembered. Honored.
Thus their stories are recorded and told and retold.
Even the stories of women.
In the midst of all these stories – both familiar and lesser-known – 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.
So I mostly ignored it, until I read a modern story. A few years back I picked up a book by Rachel Held Evans called A Year of Biblical Womanhood. I was intrigued because had read one of the books that inspired her- a mostly tongue in cheek effort by a guy in New York to live according to the Old Testament for a year.
In her book, Rachel spent 12 months exploring 12 different laws, rules or customs for women that are often tagged as Biblical, She describes how these ideas came to have significance in the broader Christian community, how they have been understood, enforced, and sometimes reinterpreted over the centuries.
One month she focused on how women are to live according to Proverbs 31.
As she began feeling overwhelmed by attempting to live up to this virtuous woman, Rachel sought advice from a friend in Israel, a woman who is a practicing Orthodox Jew. She laughed and 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 a Hebrew “You go, girl” or verbal high five.
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.
Like our Jewish sisters, we come from that long line of women of valor: Deborah, Lydia, Rachel, Miriam, Anna, and those women whose stories have been passed down, but whose names are lost to history.
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 who, by the way, was mother to the men who (with their wives) repopulated the earth; Eshet chayil…
Her story is one of commitment and sacrifice, of following through on a promise that she didn’t even make. As he led his people against the Ammonites, Jephtha swore an oath on behalf of Israel, saying to God
“If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering.”
He is victorious, and on his return is met by his daughter, his only daughter… his only child. Dancing out of the door in celebration. Jephtha’s vow to God was rash, to be sure. Not a covenant like Abraham’s, but just as serious, and just as binding. His daughter soon knew what was happening, and it was clear that there would be no last minute reprieve, no ram to replace the child.
What did she do?
Facing her death, she asked for time. The scriptures say 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, faithful one”
There was the Samaritan woman, the one Jesus met at the well. Jesus offered the woman water… living water that will assure that she never thirsts. Water that will become a wellspring of eternal life.
The woman first takes Jesus literally, but when he talks with her about the details of her life, she begins to see something else… Perhaps he is a prophet…
As Jesus speaks to her of worshiping God in spirit and truth, she reveals that she knows about the promised messiah,the one who will come and make everything clear. Jesus says, “I who speak to you, am he.”
It is at this moment… heavy with revelation and expectation… that the disciples return and interrupt. As Jesus begins to talk with them about food, the woman returns to her village, so distracted by this conversation that she leaves behind her jug of water, the reason she came to the well in the first place. This man was no mere prophet. And this woman would never see the world the same way again.
What did she do?
She ran home and told the story to all who would listen. Like an excited child, she must have pointed back down the road toward the well. “He is there- and he told me everything about my life… Could he be the one? Could it be true? Come on! Come and see…”
The people came, walking from the town to the well where they would meet this man who offered living water. They came, they saw, they listened, and they believed. Many believed because of the woman’s testimony.
Eshet Chayil, your words have the power to change a community.
I could go on…
The fact that women are welcome to lead worship on this chancel, that I get to preach here week after week, bears witness 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 serve 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 more narrowly than in our denomination. And so each time I put on my preaching shoes- no matter what color – I give thanks for the women of valor who were among the first ordained as ministers of word and sacrament in our denomination. They are celebrating 60 years, even as I will mark my first anniversary of ordained ministry in a couple of days. And I give thanks for this congregation taking that step of faith with me a year ago.
That is really what it comes down to, if we want to understand what God hopes for women in the Body of Christ… faith.
Faith that allows us to remember that we were claimed from the very beginning, how we have been and are being transformed, and where we belong, what we have inherited.
Faith that allows us – all of us – whatever gender – to live into the calling, the life, for which we were made by our loving God.
Remember these words from the letter to the Galatians, as translated by Eugene Peterson:
By faith in Christ you are in direct relationship with God. Your baptism in Christ was not just washing you up for a fresh start. It also involved dressing you in an adult faith wardrobe— Christ’s life, the fulfillment of God’s original promise.
In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ.
Also, since you are Christ’s family, then you are Abraham’s famous “descendant,” [Sarah’s famous descendant!]heirs according to the covenant promises.
This is where rubber meets the road for those of us who claim to be followers of Christ
When we understand what Christ puts to right by making us one — equally claimed, equally blessed, equally called to the ministry of reconciliation, regardless of what labels we place on one another…
When we see the gap between men and women filled by the waters of baptism…
We better understand the sin, “the misunderstandings”, the misapplication or misinterpretation that humanity has brought to God’s original design. In other words, Christ’s divine repairs allow us to see more clearly what human nature broke.
Women were never meant to be property, treated like servants or breeding cattle – merely the means for securing heirs… From the very beginning, Adam’s Ezer, Eve, was meant to be a partner, she was the completion of God’s creation. When the church chose to place the weight of the fall squarely on the woman’s shoulders, it chose to ignore the contributions of warrior judges like Deborah and bold women like Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milca, and Tirzah to our understanding of community.
For generations, the church has chosen to treat the very women that our forbears celebrated as of women of valor by including their stories – more like anomalies or oddities.
Segments of today’s church pretend that the women of the early church- the ones who led among the first apostles, who were among the first preachers- actually just did behind the scenes work like baking pita chips…
When we silence the witness of women in scripture, we give permission to our families and our culture at large to diminish the contribution of women to our society.
When we choose not to tell the stories of violence against women in our sacred texts, ignoring torture, kidnap, human sacrifice and rape, or if we choose to tell them with euphemisms and make excuses for the men and our patriarchal God… we are saying “boys will be boys”
We end up with women told they should stay in abusive relationships and pray because that is what good, submissive Christian women do.
We end up telling our girls and women to cover themselves, to be careful where they go and how they dress, holding them responsible for the catcalling, the inappropriate comments and worse.
We end up with nameless victims raped behind dumpsters by young men who see women as objects to be claimed and used and left behind.
Dear ones, this is not ok. This is not God’s design
And no- it’s not all on the church, but yes, we have contributed to the mess in which we find ourselves.
But we also find ourselves in a position to make a difference. We are part of God’s plan.
We have inherited a place in God’s family. Being part of the family means that we have inherited the family business…healing, setting free, reconciling
Loving the world.
Proclaiming the good news.
Speaking truth to power
Speaking in the power of the truth.
Let us pray…