So… I wrote a sermon…

* waves *

It’s been a while. I seem to have some writer’s block, and I’ve been extra busy at work and home. But I did, in fact, write something, and it (sort of) relates. Ish. Very tangentially. Also, some very kind folks on Twitter expressed an interest in reading this (after, I should note, I asked if anyone would be interested. I’m not pretending to unsolicited interest, here.)

In late August, I gave a sermon at my church. I’m of the Episcopal persuasion, so I was assigned a set a readings on which to write a reflection. I don’t talk about my faith all that often — there never seems to be much point, and the risk of getting into an argument with someone who feels very passionately that I Am Wrong is just too high — but I’m hoping that sharing my homily will help me push past my lame writer’s block, so I can get back to talking about awesome romance novels. Fingers crossed.

Anyway, read on if you’re interested in what I said to a bunch of people at my church. (I managed to do it mostly without cursing… a miracle.)

A few weeks ago, Deacon Ann preached about the power of names and identity. I’d like to share one of the (many) names that identifies me: I am a reader.

I read a lot. While 24% of American adults surveyed by the Pew Resource Center earlier this year reported not having read a book in all of 2013, I read well over 150 books. I don’t just read, either. I write about books online, I talk about books to anyone foolish enough to ask, and I edit. Words, stories, and narratives are a huge part of my life, and I devote a considerable amount of my attention span to thinking about the stories I encounter from a personal and political perspective.

Let’s talk about story for a bit. Stories and humanity go hand in hand. They help us relate to each other and to make sense of our world. You know how it is: The world is huge and full of information, but stories allow us to organize and prioritize all the data in our lives to make quicker, theoretically better, decisions and to feel more in control of our lives. Data points — information — without stories to explain them are bewildering. Stories can be as simple as causal relationships — for example I might witness my daughter Allie attempt to be a bossy pants to her sister, and I might see Sophia pull her hair, and I can safely assume the two events are connected — or stories can be elaborate retellings of past events or fictional ones. The important thing to consider is that no story — even a simple one — is strictly true, in an absolute sense. All are influenced by the storyteller, by what she found important enough to tell or by what he hoped to accomplish with the story.

I am concerned about the messages that lurk in stories, in the truths those stories reveal, whether or not those truths are the intent of the narrative.

Christ with Mary and Martha, oil on wood, 125 x 118 cm Kunsthistorisches Museum

Christ with Mary and Martha, oil on wood, 125 x 118 cm Kunsthistorisches Museum

It’s time for full disclosure: I have a hard time with the Bible. As a woman, I feel like it is full of negative messaging. “Hey women,” it seems to say, “here’s a whole chapter on what it takes to be a perfect, virtuous wife: be quiet, keep a good house, and work on your embroidery.” (There is not, to my knowledge, a corresponding chapter on how to be a perfect, virtuous husband, and that’s unfortunate.) Don’t get me started on Esther, Ruth, and, especially, Bathsheba. And you might not want to know what I think about the ending of Miriam’s story. And that’s all in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, sure, we have all the faithful (but mostly unnamed) women who stuck by Christ to the bitter end; we have Jesus’ at the time radical views toward women — that we’re fun to be around and that maybe uncleanliness isn’t such a big deal — but we also have some of Paul’s more vitriolic writing and lots of fun gems from the gospels like the hypothetical woman who has to marry seven brothers.

I do not think the Bible is actually anti-woman, nor do I think that God is opposed to lady folks — quite the opposite — but I do believe that Biblical scholars throughout the centuries have tended to focus on some of the more troubling narratives (or have obscured and conflated some narratives about women to make them more troubling) and have tended to use the Bible to support their own narrow views toward women. Sometimes I wonder if we’re all caught in an elaborate and rather ironic (in a dramatic sense) game of telephone involving the messages God actually wants us to receive, the way those messages appear in writing, and the way they’ve been interpreted throughout the centuries.

Consider the story we heard this morning from Exodus. It’s a familiar story, right? It’s also a clear example of dramatic irony. The Pharaoh’s adoptive grandson ends up — with some significant woo-woo courtesy of the great I AM — overthrowing the status quo and leading the Israelites to freedom (via 40 years in the desert, but who’s counting?). I see a bit more more dramatic irony when I look at the story from another angle: The Pharaoh’s entire plan for maintaining the status quo — once forced labor proved ineffective — hinged on removing all the young males of Israel from the equation, but his downfall was ultimately orchestrated by a bunch of women. That’s funny.

I watched the Charlton Heston version of The Ten Commandments a lot when I was a kid. So when I think about the story of the Exodus, I think about it from the context of Moses as the main character. After all, in this passage, he is the only — other than the super awesome midwives — the only character who is actually given a name (rather than just a title; and Wikipedia suggested that even the midwives’ names are titles.). You have the Pharaoh, his daughter, the Levite man, the Levite woman, but Moses gets a name, so obviously he’s the main character.

In this passage, Moses is the least interesting character in the story, and not just because he’s a baby. Yet he’s the character that we always think of. He’s the central figure, the one who was raised apart from his family and his people and eventually is sort of like a spy, right? He’s sent to be raised among the very people that he’s going to end up vanquishing. And that is an interesting narrative in a lot of ways… it plays into our concepts of what are compelling characters and stories, the types of narratives that we want to hear about.

Anselm Feuerbach - http://www.bildindex.de

Anselm Feuerbach – http://www.bildindex.de

But I want to hear about Miriam, his sister, who was older than her brother and was already born, maybe, at a time when Hebrew boy babies were to be killed, and she was allowed to live, essentially because she is unimportant. And to grow up with that knowledge, to grow up knowing that the only reason you’re alive is because you’re so far beneath the notice of the ruling elites, because nobody expects you do anything… that… that is interesting to me, and that’s what I want to hear about. And of course that’s not the story that we get, but in the narrative of this passage from Exodus, she’s one of the most important characters. Pharaoh’s daughter finds the baby, sure, but it’s Miriam who comes forward and is sort of sly and tricksey, saying, “Hey, I see you found a baby… I know a wetnurse,” and then taking Moses back to his own mother to be nursed. And no one knows, right? It’s very sneaky. And that from somebody whom nobody expected to upset the status quo. The narrative does not name her; she’s not considered important; but she’s as crucial as her mother and the Pharaoh’s daughter in enabling the disruption that is to come.

Sometimes we get stuck in the perspectives we bring to bear on a narrative, on whatever we expect that story to tell.  If we are stuck thinking that Moses is the main character, the important one, even as a baby, so fortunate and lucky to be found in those circumstances, or perhaps that God was looking over him and graced him as the central figure of the story; if we get locked up in that, then we are missing another part of the story. God can use unlikely characters to bring about disruption. But I want to add a caution: while it behooves all of us as a society to give some attention to stories about unlikely characters, maybe we should stop thinking of them that way, as “unlikely.” After all, it shouldn’t be in any way shocking or surprising that it’s the women in this story that brought about so much change… the midwives, who defied the Pharaoh’s orders; the Levite woman, who hid her child; the sister who made it so that Moses didn’t starve; the Pharaoh’s daughter, who defied her father by harboring and raising the instrument that would bring about his downfall; all of these women…  it should not be surprising. We should not go, “Oh my God, that’s surprising!” because, well… of course they were able to do it, and I don’t think it was in any way surprising to God… but as long as we continue to be surprised by it, we buy into the casual sexism — that elaborate game of telephone — that exists both in the narrative and in our culture, and it’s time for us to move beyond that.

Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter by Pietro Perugino (1481-82) Fresco, 335 x 550 cm Cappella Sistina, Vatican.

Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter by Pietro Perugino (1481-82) Fresco, 335 x 550 cm Cappella Sistina, Vatican.

Today’s Gospel lesson is also an example of dramatic irony. In that passage, Jesus declares Peter, the same dude that will later deny him thrice, “the rock” on which the church will be built. That’s hilarious, when seen from one view. Modern readers of the scripture can approach that passage the same way we would Romeo and Juliet. You know, the entire time, that these two crazy kids are going to off themselves, but you still get caught up in the action. (That’s dramatic irony for you.) So Peter being called “the rock” can, if you’re cynical enough, be a bit of comedy when you consider what’s to come. (Also when you consider that Peter is “the rock,” but all the faithful women are unnamed and largely ignored by history… Ha.) But that’s if you focus only on Peter’s failure and neglect to remember what he does with failure once he reaches it and repents of it.

I’m cynical, sure, but I also believe to the depths of my soul in the redemptive power of Christ’s love. So here’s how I view that passage: I think Jesus is showing us just how deep his forgiveness goes, and he’s giving Peter the means to get past his eventual failure. I don’t know if Jesus knew the future or just knew human nature — I’m no authority on that kind of musing — but I like to believe that Jesus knew the possibility of Peter’s human frailty and chose to bolster his spirit with a glimpse of some of the better things Peter was capable of. I mean, yes. Peter, like all of us, was capable of acting through fear and littleness of spirit, but he was also — like all of us — capable of great things, of courage and love and resolute action. And maybe Jesus knew that Peter, once he had failed, might — like all of us — despair and worry that he was good for nothing. And maybe his words, that label, “the rock,” are what helped Peter climb out of it, find his courage and hope, and Act.

Maybe.

And maybe that’s the real dramatic irony, that God can take a scene that would set a cynic’s heart aflame with bitter mirth and make it — seen from another view — an example of unending redemption, acceptance, and limitless love.

That’s my perspective, and it definitely impacts my interpretation of various stories. I have to admit that it’s terrifying to put it all out there for you. Thanks to my background, cynicism and general irreverence, I make an odd biblical scholar. (In fact, I’m not one.) But that doesn’t make my perspective less valid or even less interesting. It is good for us to listen to one another, to learn slightly different versions of the well-known stories. And the more we all — even those of you who are like, “Wait… what did she mean by that reference to the end of Miriam’s story?” — the more we all share with each other what we think about the stories collected in the Bible (or the stories omitted from it), the more we’ll learn about each other, ourselves, and our relationships with God, and we’ll break free of that game of telephone. The truth lies in there somewhere.

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4 thoughts on “So… I wrote a sermon…

  1. I love this. I would love to see more stories written about the Bible characters in the margins. I think it’s such a huge thing to think about that stories of any kind of never without the slant of the writer and the culture…which makes them not “true” in the real sense of the word. At least, it was huge for me. It took a long time to go from “this is exactly what God said and what happened” to “this is what the writer wanted to point out to us”. We don’t know all those things that happened on the side lines and I think it would be awesome to make some stories about them.

    • I’m with you — making that switch is huge, and I totally get why people resist. I was raised in a fairly wacky church (you might also call it a cult…sans kool aid), and the messaging was clear and forceful: We are Right. This is Truth. Believe it, without questioning, because Satan LOVES him some doubters. Srlsly. Also, give us all your money. Because… God said so (through us, obvs.) I was twelve, I think, when my family left that crazy, and — because I was so young and hadn’t been as traumatized as the others — I’m the only one who doesn’t have an ingrained aversion to churches and the evils they can propagate. But, even though I wasn’t traumatized, the experience seriously shaped my perspective vis a vis the Bible and anyone claiming that such and such an interpretation is “The Truth, not to be questioned.” Nah, man, fuck that. Question all the things, and if you still choose to believe it after all the questioning, good on you for your hard-earned faith.

      But, you know, that’s not exactly a popular point of view when it comes to Christian-type faith and the Bible.

      And maybe that’s because so many churches take a strictly binary view of true/false, right/wrong. It’s comforting to their members to believe that they stand on the right side of true/right. What would happen to the institutions if more of them started admitting that they believe rather than know, that no one can truly know the mind of God. I’d like to think that they’d start paying more attention to the spirit of the Bible, that they’d be more loving and accepting in their approach to others, but… who knows when people are involved, right?

  2. Things! 🙂 Fantastic essay and thank you for sharing it. I agree and think a lot of the gender issues in the bible are often completely ignored. Of course, members of the clergy across denominations are by and large still exclusively male, so no surprise there…

    • Exactly! I’m lucky that the Episcopal Church is groovy with its women clergy, but — even still — I wrote that essay and delivered it before my parish because I’d never heard that message, or anything even approaching that message, preached in ten years of attending an Episcopal church every Sunday. In fact, the message that tends to get preached — whenever women are mentioned — is how awesomely radical Jesus was because he didn’t hate the lady folks. Like… for reals… it’s crazy how radical he was! Did you know that he actually sat down and talked to his women followers like they were real people?! WHUT!! Madness… madness… radical love.

      And that message tends to just burn my butt. Like it’s a fucking news flash: Guess what, ladies?! Turns out God doesn’t hate you. Isn’t that AMAZING?!

      No, no I don’t think it’s amazing. I think it should be a fucking given because we’re people.

      Um. Anyway. Apparently it’s a sore point. And I don’t think I’m alone in being annoyed by all those sermons. After the service was over, nearly every woman in attendance that Sunday made it a point to thank me for saying those things, and they all said it the same way: Thank you! I’d been thinking that, too, but I thought I was the only one.” it was definitely a relief to me, too, because I also thought I was alone in thinking that way.

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