While doing sermon research this week on today's Gospel text, I read a statement written by one of my college professors - a statement that I had heard and read numerous times beginning when I first entered seminary; a statement I have glossed over numerous times, hardly giving it a passing thought.
The ancient world was patriarchal and women were regarded as property.
That seems obvious.
That statement is offered as historical background to a very difficult and controversial text, one which at the outset seems to be on divorce. In Jewish society only husbands had the prerogative of divorcing their wives, and so a prohibition of divorce provided a safeguard for women who could be left seriously disadvantaged after a divorce.
Jesus upholds marriage. Which was great for women then, because they needed protection from the system which, without a husband, would leave them destitute, unable to provide for themselves, and shunned by society.
Fast forward to more modern times when social expectations around property, gender, marriage, and divorce have changed. However, pain, shame, and brokenness still impact families that have experienced divorce.
This is a text that I never relish preaching on, but almost always choose to explore, mostly because of my own personal experience with divorce. I tend to hear this passage in an intensely personal way. Some of you may too.
So, I've always sought to be sensitive and offer healing to families who have experienced divorce. Because, despite the truth that Jesus upholds this law to protect women, this passage has historically been used to subjugate women and keep them in their place. This isn't to insinuate that men don't feel the same pain, shame, and brokenness that divorce can bring, rather it is a commentary on the historical baggage of the text.
One thing I've learned over the years is the Holy Spirit is tricky, surprising, unrelenting, and... honestly annoying. She will make me see and hear new things within Biblical stories that I have read and studied over and over again.
She pushes me, pushes us, to listen to the voices on the margins. In this text that is exactly what Jesus does - listens to and defends those on the margins, and upholds the laws that are in place to protect the vulnerable and hurting; upholds the laws which protect women and children.
Because, the ancient world was patriarchal and women were regarded as property.
And so, my first question for you today is: Is it any different today?
Before I go any further, I am aware that this question may come off sounding self-serving. I am, after-all a woman pastor. Men might not be struck be the dichotomy inherent in the statement: the ancient world was patriarchal and women were regarded as property.
But I am. I can't get away from it.
I often joke that someday I really want to preach a sermon that consists of 4 words:
God loves you unconditionally.
And then, I want to sit down.
Truly. I want to not feel pursued or compelled by the Holy Spirit to speak out on injustices, and oppression, and subjugation. I want to not worry about how offensive my sermon may sound. I really do.
And yet, that is not my call.
I am not a senator; I am not a lawyer; I am not an FBI agent.
I am a Pastor.
My job is to uphold and proclaim the law of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
At all times - that's actually in the paperwork for pastors. Unsurprisingly, most of us don't proclaim the Gospel of Jesus at all times and in all places.
It's a tall order. And it's scary. And it's tiring.
I had to laugh when I realized that preaching on the literal action of divorce seemed easier than dismantling the patriarchy. However, there are some moments when you need to be a theologian of the cross and call a thing what it is, with the clear and certain hope that death always leads to resurrection.
Today's world is patriarchal and women are regarded as property.
You may bristle at that statement. You may disagree. You may even think, "God, am I sick of hearing about this."
And yet, the sad truth is for many women, those in the LGBTQ community, and those other than Caucasian, the system is unfairly controlled.
Blaming women for sin is as old as the bible - Tamar was sentenced to death by fire for prostitution by the very man who impregnated her; Eve seduced Adam with an apple, somehow discounting Adam's ability to think on his own; Mary Magdalene wasn't believed simply because she was a woman; Mary, the mother of Jesus, was unfit and should be dismissed for being with child...
Somehow, the narrative has been it's the women's fault for the divorce, because she wasn't attentive enough, in all the ways that can be interpreted. Somehow, it's the women's fault because her skirt was too short or she'd had too much to drink. Somehow, it's the women's fault because she didn't say something earlier.
The list actually could go on, but that's not really necessary. I think you get my point.
In the text today God is upending oppressive social hierarchies. And I would offer that oppressive social hierarchies are being upended today.
The story that is playing out before us today, testing our hearts, is the basically the same narrative that tested the Pharisees hearts...
It seems shocking that I should even have to say this, and I'm going to assume that you all agree with me, regardless of political affiliation, however it must be said, mostly because there are plenty of women who need to hear it.
Women have worth. Women are capable. Women matter.
To God. And to the church.
And, I hope, to each of you.
And men, if I've made you bristle, please try to hear me with soft hearts... because women need you. Women need men to care about their equality, their worth, and their security, because it is the only way we can begin to live into the story we find told in Genesis 2. It's the story of the 'woman' being made from the rib of the 'man.' I won't get deep into the Hebrew, but the translation of 'man' in our gendered understanding is inaccurate. Basically, an androgynous being was split and pulled apart into two people. They were given to one another for mutual care and support, created as equals.
I don't want to debate whether Judge Kavanaugh or Dr. Ford is right. As I mentioned, that is NOT my job.
What I know is women, those identifying LGBTQ, and those of races other than white carry pain, shame, and brokenness simply because of who they are. The system has told them they are not valued; the system has told them they are worth less; the system
has told them they aren't trustworthy.
Now, I could recount economic disparities between genders; I could recount statistics which demonstrate how power is unequally distributed between genders and races; I could recount numerous stories of women being dismissed as too emotional, too bitchy, too pretty, too ugly...
We, as people of faith, need to step-back from the bi-partisan ugliness that is infesting our country and take a moment to see, and hear, and feel the pain, shame, and brokenness of women who are literally crying out to Jesus for healing and justice.
What I DO believe is my job is to recognize the enormous amount of pain, shame, and brokenness that has been laid bare in these past weeks.
My job is to reframe things from Jesus's perspective and to offer hope for a new world order.
My job is to wonder with you how through us God can redeem humanity and restore each of to our proper worth and dignity.
My job is to proclaim grace and forgiveness upon all - no exceptions.
My job is to point us to Jesus, the Son of God, who worked to overturn a broken system, which regarded women's bodies as belonging to men. And to wonder with you how we might all work together to build the kingdom of God today.
May we treat each other with honor and respect; with compassion and trust. The world seems to be groaning for that...
Not long ago I facilitated a discussion on a draft social statement that members of the ELCA have written. The document has flaws, for sure. That's often how drafts of large papers are. However, one of the things it does well is speak to the ways the church has and does actively participate in upholding the patriarchal system.
Things that we do without even noticing because they are so engrained in our piety.
One obvious way we do this is by always using 'He' when referring to God. The reason I mention this is because for ages (and to this day) we have inadvertently proclaimed in our worship services that God is a He. Intentionally or unintentionally we have participated in a system that values maleness over all else.
Even a simple thing like expanding our language begins to offer hope, healing, and grace to all. Dismantling systems which keep certain people in place is good news for all, not just for women.
Today's world is patriarchal and women are regarded as property.
It does not need to stay that way. It is not the way of the Kingdom. It is not the way of Jesus.
At the foot of the cross, God has joined us all together, making us equals, and giving us to one another for mutual care.... And promising to raise up new life from ashes.