Saturday, June 16, 2007

Women and The Bible

17 June 2007 * Pentecost 3 * 1 Kings 21:1-21a * Luke 7:36-8:3

The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills

Women, Tradition and Inclusiveness

I hope you saw the church sign on Frederick Road in Catonsville this past week: “Women be subject to your own husbands as unto the Lord.” A curious rewrite of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and an all too familiar stripping of that one line out of its context in that letter – a letter which bears witness to attempts by Paul, of all people, to grant women equality with men in the church and in marriage. I digress, but this is related to the matters at hand.

There are at least two somewhat related, greatly important things going on in our lessons about Jezebel and the unnamed woman in Luke: one is what Walter Brueggemann calls “the traditioning” of women in the Bible, and the other has to do with attempts throughout history to “purify” Biblical religion. There are, of course matters to do with land ownership, prophetic actions and pronouncements, and a realization that Jonathan Edwards was at least right in part: we are all sinners in need of God’s forgiveness.

Back to the two women in our stories: A quick look at Webster’s yields the evolution of “Jezebel” as coming to mean a scheming, shameless woman as well as the 9th Century BCE wife of Ahab, king of the Northern kingdom of Israel. And Luke, through some literary mind-reading trick involving Simon the Pharisee, labels the unknown woman anointing Jesus as a “sinner.”

Now what is interesting to note here, without getting too detailed about it, is that the offending character in the first story ought to be Ahab’s father Omri who through marriage and diplomatic alliances attempts to supplant the religion of Israel and the God Yahweh with the religion of the God Baal. It does not take much analysis of the text to sense that what the narrator attempts to do, once again [recall the Genesis Fruit eating Story], is to pin it all on a woman, when in fact it was Omri and his sons who have caused all the trouble.

Are we really to believe this farcical portrayal that a mighty King of Israel is reduced to having an infantile tantrum on his bed over a vineyard, of which he seems to have many to spare? Besides, the offense here revolves around tradition – the land was not Naboth’s to give away according to Israelite tradition. The land is God’s, and Naboth’s family has been tasked to tend the land in perpetuity. So corrupted by Baal (who may as well be a golden calf) is Ahab that he has utterly forgotten the tradition.

Eventually enters Elijah to announce that the unfair transgressions against God and Naboth will not go un-avenged. But now it is Elijah, good defender of the faith, Jezebel corruptor of the faith. But it turns out that Jezebel and Elijah have a lot in common – Elijah has just slain a large number of Baal’s prophets, Jezebel arranged for the death of one man, both do so to defend their respective faith traditions. Ah, the complexities of religious pluralism seem not to be so modern after all! Elijah represents, in Northern Israel, a detrimental and minority opinion – an exponent of a militant fundamental Yahwism. Elijah might be called today a Yahwismofascist - espousing a fundamental purification of Israelite religion.

Meanwhile, the negation of Jezebel is the result of a deep ideological dispute within Israel, leaving us with no possible attempt to understand her as anything but ultimate evil opposing ultimate good – and such negation is underlined and given a harsher nuance by her simply being a woman. Big surprise there! Yet, Jezebel could be held in as high esteem as Elijah for remaining faithful to her religious convictions, for upholding the prerogatives of royalty, for supporting her husband and children, and for opposing her enemies until death.

Similarly, Luke seems to have taken the earlier story in Mark of an unknown woman anointing Jesus just before his passion, placed it earlier in the narrative, called her a sinner (which was not so in Mark), and has her anoint his feet instead of his head to make her appear even more questionable of character. Anointing the head is a the job of a prophet to appoint a King for Israel on God’s behalf, while anointing and kissing feet is made to look more like the actions-in-trade of what we might call “a woman of the night.” All this, it seems, so that Luke can give some radical new interpretive meaning to the parable of forgiving the two debtors which occurs in other narrative clothing in other gospels.

Understand, a woman in a story who was once portrayed as a prophet like Moses or Elijah anointing Jesus as King has been reduced to some sort of Galilean floozy so that Luke can editorialize on forgiveness. Though the outcome may be good, the utility of the woman and the original story is at least questionable, and decidedly deplorable.

I know, it is Father’s Day, and perhaps it seems as if someone like Mary Marguerite should be giving this sermon, but to avoid all this would only be to make the problem of the traditioning of women in the Bible as evil and sinners worse and ongoing. Men need to take the lead in this conversation.

There is hidden good news in all of this – Jesus never ever is portrayed as supporting the exclusivist purity tradition both of these stories are portraying. We get a full dose in 1 Kings of how evil and awful gentile foreign religionists can be, while in Luke how easy it is to look at an allegedly sinful woman and look down our Pharisaic noses at her with Simon and his cohort.

But Jesus does two things that are remarkable: 1) he allows the woman to touch him in public and forgives her and interprets her actions as acts of love on the part of someone who has recognized and accepted God’s forgiveness in Jesus, and 2) he allows women of all kinds, sorts, conditions and economic status, we are told, to travel alongside him and his disciples. He does not, in fact, allow them, he welcomes them and invites them. There is an important difference in that fact.

Paul’s letters, which predate all four gospels, give ample witness to the leadership of women in the early church. Their eventual marginalization seems to reflect the customs and social world of the emerging Christian community rather than any exclusionary policy of Jesus.

Put differently, Jesus refutes exclusionary-purity religion at every possible turn of events. No doubt this contributed to the fate he faced in Jerusalem. A look at how women, minorities, resident aliens, widows, orphans, homosexuals and anyone considered “others” are treated in the church and society today must begin with a realization that Jesus would have no part in marginalizing anyone. For Jesus the purity code was a thing of the past – an inclusive invitation and welcome for all to participate fully in God’s kingdom was to be the future.

The sad news is that the ideological disputes of 1 Kings and Luke are still with us today. The good news is that Jesus secured the victory over such exclusionary policies on the cross and beyond the empty tomb. To him we give glory, now and forever – we are to respond in love like the un-named woman and take our place alongside her as one of his true disciples. Amen.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Trinity Sunday

Trinity Sunday 2007

The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, Maryland

All Those Shoes

If you ever want to empty a roomful of clergy, try this. Tell them they all have to write a sermon about the doctrine of the Trinity and then watch them head for the doors and jump out the windows! It is truly funny how we shy away from the one church feast day dedicated not to a person or an event but to a doctrine – a doctrine of God no less. Each year we struggle to find something to say, something new, something fresh, something to bring a lump to someone’s throat, or set a bush on fire in their mind’s eye.

The Blessed Augustine remarked concerning the subject of the Trinity that ‘in no other subject is error more dangerous, or inquiry more laborious, or the discovery of truth more rewarding’.

The story is told of St Augustine thinking on the problem of the Holy Trinity while walking on a beach. "How could God be three distinct persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost and somehow all be one unity as the nature of God?" He spotted a little boy who was running to the sea with a sea shell where he would scoop some water and then run back to the sand where he had dug a little hole. He would then empty the shell into the hole and repeat his procedure. Thinking this a bit strange, Augustine stopped the boy and asked him what he was doing. "Sire, I am emptying the sea into the hole." "Child, that is clearly impossible," Augustine retorted. The little boy then said, "Far easier for me to finish my task than for you to find an answer to your problem." And then the little boy vanishes in a poof: little boy? Or, an angel of God? That’s for you to decide.

Which may point us in the right direction. Religion itself can be said to be mystical. Moses tending flocks in Midian, Buddha under a tree, Jesus up to his knees in the waters of the River Jordan – each of them, writes Frederick Buechner [Alphabet of Grace], responds to something “for which words like shalom, oneness, God even, are only pallid, alphabetic souvenirs. I have seen things, Aquinas told a friend, that make all my writings seem like straw. Religion as an institution, as ethics, as dogma, as social action – all of this comes later and in the long run maybe counts for less. Religions start, as Frost said poems do, with a lump in the throat, to put it mildly, or with the bush going up in flames, the rain of flowers, the dove coming down out of the sky.” (p.74)

All talk about the Trinity in the end is the attempt to describe our experiences of God. That is experiences, plural. For they are many, and for the most part they are mundane and not nearly as exciting as burning, talking bushes. Made even more mundane by the simple fact that to describe the most ineffable and transcendent of human experiences our innermost thoughts must be pressed into words beginning with A, B, C and having O, M, N and the rest of the 26 letters as the limit of human expression. To be forced into describing the limitless power, grace and love of God with only 26 letters to draw upon makes emptying the ocean into a hole on the beach look like a walk in the park. Mixed metaphors abound when speaking of God. Just read Paul!

The words Father, Son and Holy Spirit are simply agreed upon words to describe our limitless experiences of God. So they say more about us than they do about God. But it is the best we can do. It is particularly true when indeed many experiences of God come out of silence and solitude. Which can happen at the least silent, least alone times of our lives.

One day, for instance, I was in a bookstore in my hometown of Oak Park, Kroch’s and Brentano’s. I picked up a book by Thomas Merton and opened to a chapter marked Love and Solitude. Merton writes:

No writing on the solitary, meditative dimensions of life can say anything that has not already been said better by the wind in the pine trees. These pages seek nothing more than to echo the silence and peace that is “heard” when the rain wanders freely among the hills and forests. But what can the wind say where there is no hearer? There is then a deeper silence: the silence in which the Hearer is No-Hearer. That deeper silence must be heard before one can speak truly of solitude.

Without ever having heard of the Blessed Augustine I had the strange sensation of no longer being in Kroch’s and Brentano’s, and no longer holding a book, but rather being on the beach as a rather impressive wave was breaking over the top of my head. As the waters pulled back into the sea I can remember the distinct sensation of hearing nothing of the Christmas shoppers all around me, nothing of the cash register ringing up its seasonal sales, but only a still, small voice, or an awareness really, that seemed to say, “You are going to seminary to learn more about all this.” The silence and solitude whispering the presence of God was with me in a crowded, noisy bookstore. I may have been standing there for a few moments, I may have been standing there for half an hour or half a year, I just don’t know.

Around the same time I was singing in a choir at Grace Episcopal Church in Providence, Rhode Island. This was after not having gone to church for a good number of years. Singing in the choir seemed a safe way to re-enter. The Director of Music, Gregg Romatowski, liked to keep the basses in the front row to keep tabs on us. It was chancel-choir seating. During communion we would be singing anthems or hymns while kneeling in the front choir stall. All I could see were people’s feet going to and from the altar – walking steadily in a stream to receive God’s body and blood only to return to the world to be the Body of Christ for others and for the world.

I could see how each person’s shoes wear in different ways – some on the inside, some on the outside of the shoe, some with heels worn down, all different kinds, shapes and colors of shoes, some bulging here others bulging there. Week after week, month after month, year after year, for two thousand years all these shoes represented all the people of God who have walked to and from God’s communion rail – all those shoes, I thought, all those people, I thought, and I mean to be one too, we sang. It was like an extended vision or meditation that stretched over several years looking at all those shoes – those shoes mediating the presence of God and God’s love in my heart. Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I used to lie in the pews late at night and listen to Gregg play Olivier Messiaen and Cesar Franck. I Googled his name last night to see where he is – only to discover his name on several internet sites listing the names of musicians and artists who have died of AIDS. He was 37. He is now and forever as close to God's Love, Grace and Forgiveness as one can be.

You can see how difficult it is to put it all into words with only 26 letters at our disposal to describe the limitless yearning of God for us and us for God. The notes of Messiaen and Franck echoing in the empty church could say more about God, all those shoes could say more about God, Merton’s reflections on solitude and silence can say more about God than any doctrine or Creed. And yet, we need something to say, something to hang our experiences on, some words to describe that which is indescribable. We say them week in and week out knowing the inherent impossibility of the task, but wishing to express our thanks for those moments we have felt the presence of God’s love, grace and forgiveness. Next year we will try again! Amen.