1-31-16 Taking the Lead: Including Women in Liturgy

I Kings 17: 8-16  Then the word of Yhwh came to him, saying, 9 “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” 10 So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” 11 As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” 12 But she said, “As Yhwh your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” 13 Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. 14 For thus says Yhwh the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that Yhwh sends rain on the earth.” 15 She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. 16 The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of Yhwh that he spoke by Elijah.

Every week, Lillian Harris, our secretary, is kind of enough to type out the scripture reading for the following Sunday from a Bible called “The Inclusive Bible.” The resulting reading on our screen is slightly different than what we find in the Bibles in our pews or in most of our homes. We hear the original Hebrew word Yhwh a lot instead of later English word Lord. Why do we go to all this trouble when it is sometimes annoying to people? I used to send letters home to my parents addressed to “Mrs. and Mr. Louise Tatgenhorst” to try to call attention to how our language itself makes us put women second or make them invisible. So I’m not above an annoying tweak now and then. Today’s sermon, I hope, makes the point more from Jesus’ perspective.

Luke 4:21-30: Then Jesus said to them, “Today in your hearing, this scripture passage is fulfilled.” All who were present spoke favorably of him; they marveled at the eloquence of the words on Jesus’ lips. They said, “Surely this isn’t Mary and Joseph’s son!” Jesus said to them, “Undoubtedly you’ll quote me the proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself,’ and say, ‘Do hear in your own country the things we heard you did in Capernaum.’ But the truth is, prophets never gain acceptance in their hometowns. “The truth is, there were many women who were widowed in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens remained closed for three and a half years and a great famine spread over the land. It was to none of these that Elijah was sent, but to a woman who had been widowed in Zarephath, near Sidon. Recall too, that many had leprosy in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one was cured except Naaman the Syrian.”  At these words, the whole audience in the synagogue was filled with indignation. They rose up and dragged Jesus out of town, leading him to the brow of the hill on which the city was built, with the intention of hurling him over the edge. But he moved straight through the crowd and walked away.

January 31, 2016

Taking the Lead: Including Women in Liturgy

When I was young and naive in the late 1970’s and still thought I knew everything, a friend of mine asked me to do a job with her. She and a couple other friends were asked to teach a course at Upper Darby High School in “non-sexist education.” It was an experimental course obviously, designed to teach high school students to value girls and women in the school.

It was a disaster. And I was a disaster at it. We tried to gently uncover the students’ prejudice and hostile attitudes toward women and girls and we found out how protective people could be of their prejudices. Talk about hostility, – after school, there were some students who would wait to call us names as we walked out of the building. Maybe they weren’t waiting for us, but they called us some pretty vile names. They were clearly threatened by the things we were trying to teach them.

So I am no stranger to hostility. The subject of using language that includes and respects women, of having a society that respects women and girls on all levels is somehow threatening to a lot of people, and not just to men. In the churches that I have served, I have always nudged people about our image of God as a white-bearded old white man in the sky, and have suggested many times that we might grow by imagining God as a woman, even as a woman of color. Often, women have raised the strongest objections to this suggestion. I could only assume that the closeness they felt to that opposite sex image of Father God was intimately tied to the closeness they felt with their own fathers. I got the message that I was messing with some touchy territory.

As I’ve sat in the choir for the last 20 years, I have often suggested that we change the language of a song we sing. I’m especially insistent about changing “Man” and “mankind” to “human” and “humankind” because (I insist) our language no longer includes the word woman in man. I also often ask that we change God language into more inclusive language. That’s a little more tricky since we worship the man Jesus as part of God. My personal take on that is that the predominance of male language for God makes it all the more important that we balance that with female imagery. Our new hymnals have tried to do better at that, but the newest songs have tended to lapse back into all male language.

Part of the reason I push on this is that my female colleagues tell me that they, for the most part, cannot do it. It’s difficult enough for them just to be in the pulpit themselves. They face latent hostility just for that and if they try to change anything else in church, like our language, to be more inclusive, the hostility increases even more.

 

Let me give an example here from my own life, using our assigned scripture for the morning. I didn’t choose this Luke reading specifically for this example, this was a God-incidence – and I wouldn’t have chosen it because it certainly makes me look bad(!)

In seminary, I took a course in Hebrew scripture with a brilliant feminist professor by the name of Phyllis Trible. I could talk for a long time about the wonderful things I learned from her about studying the Bible, and her unique perspective on including a feminine perspective in ancient text which where women are often demonized, unnamed, or discounted.

The mid-term exam came along and there was a question on the test about the “widow of Zarephath.” I had no idea who the widow of Zarephath was in the stories of Elijah and I got the question wrong. Most of the class got it wrong, I think. I was really angry, because this did not seem like important information to store in our head. Who cares about the widow of Zarephath? Dr. Trible insisted that this information was important and that we should have known it. Whatever, I thought.

Low and behold on the end of the semester final exam, the same question appeared, and I got it wrong again. I still hadn’t learn about what happened with the widow of Zarephath. I still didn’t consider this unnamed woman in the Bible important! And I still resented the teacher insisting that this information was important.

And that’s when we get a little hostile, you see. Somebody else thinks something is important that I think is insignificant, but somehow it feels like they are forcing me to agree with them or to pay attention to their point of view.

So let me tell you just a little about the widow of Zarephath. It’s a wonderful story, really – from I Kings, the story that C.C. read for us this morning. The story goes that there was a major drought in the land during the time of Elijah the prophet. Elijah was parched and hungry and counting on God to take care of him. He prayed and God sent him to ask the widow of Zarephath to feed him and give him something to drink.

The widow of Zarephath was starving herself and tells Elijah that if she is down to her last little bit of flour and if she feeds it to Elijah she and her son will die. Elijah tells her to feed it to him and that God will make sure she doesn’t run out of food or drink. This poor woman gives her last little bit of food to Elijah and her food miraculously continues to feed her and her son.

Unfortunately, later her son gets sick and dies. Elijah brings him back to life. When people in Jesus’ hometown are asking him to heal them and perform miracles among them, he points to Elijah and the widow of Zarephath. He notes that the generosity and trust of this widow who was not a Jew, who was an outsider in every way, and points out that God works in a special way with such people, who they would rather ignore.

These people from Jesus hometown are incensed at what Jesus is saying and they try to throw him over a cliff(!) Jesus manages to slip away to begin his ministry – to preach good news to the poor, pardon to prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, and the year of God’s favor to all who are oppressed.

This message is popular – until we are personally challenged to change, until we are asked to keep the widow of Zarephath in mind and in our hearts, until we are asked to understand God differently or sing different words to familiar songs, or read favorite Bible passages that now say “fishers of people” instead of “fishers of men.” Who wants to be bothered?

Jesus invites us, his loyal hometown folks to notice our annoyance and to notice who we are leaving out of our language, who we are leaving out of our songs, who we are leaving out of our prayers, who we are leaving out of our consideration. This is why we bother to use an inclusive language translation of the Bible that uses the original Hebrew word Yhwh instead of the masculine and hierarchal word “Lord.” This is why we try to use creative ways to make our music include feminine pronouns instead of all male pronouns. This is why we bother to make a special effort to train women for the top leadership positions in our church – pastor, district superintendent, bishop.

Because God has anointed us to preach good news to the poor, pardon to prisons, recovery of sight to the blind, and the year of God’s favor to all who are oppressed. This is God’s good news.