Sunday, August 27, 2017

Creative Civil Disobedience with the Midwives

In Israel this summer, my group went to the ruins of the synagogue at Magdala, a little town on the Sea of Galilee where Mary called the “Magdalene” probably came from. In the brand new Roman Catholic church on the site, among other fascinating iconography which I will talk about this fall when I do my class on this portion of my sabbatical, there is a chapel dedicated to Mary Magdalene, with a mosaic behind the altar of a scene from her life in the Gospel. Now, if you were going to represent Mary Magdalene in a scene in which she is prominently featured in scripture, what would you choose? (Congregation said “Easter!”)

Exactly… If it were up to me, I would choose the resurrection appearance in John—where she weeps in the Garden, sees Jesus, and then is sent out as the “apostle to the apostles.” She’s in all four resurrection stories—but John’s gospel is the fullest story of her faith. Maybe, if you wanted a different emphasis, you could depict Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross; it’s more of a supportive role, but again, very biblically based and central to her role as a witness to Good Friday and Easter.

The church in Magdala depicted Luke 8:2, a single verse that refers to Mary Magdalene “from whom seven demons had come out.” That’s not included in any of the other gospels, and it’s just a reference in one verse—not even an event or a story. Jesus doesn’t come to Magdala, meet Mary, and cast out seven demons in any of the Gospels—it’s just a throwaway line.

So here, the powerful story of a woman who is the first witness to the resurrection, the Apostle to the Apostles, is diminished to an insignificant side note. That didn’t (totally) surprise me, because in our history, both as churches and as nations, we have often tended to hold up stories of men being in power, and ignored stories of powerful women. And frankly, if I’m looking for somewhere that will uphold the stories of powerful female church leaders, I am not likely to look to the Roman church… But it still saddened me. And it’s not an accident. If may not be conscious, but it is a deliberate choice, and it carries a message: this is not a place of women’s leadership; it is a place where women are demon possessed and in need of exorcism.

This is all a prelude to my central question to you today: how many of you had heard the names Shiphrah and Puah before today? (No one at 10:30am raised their hands). Exactly. And yet, before Moses delivered Israel, Shiphrah and Puah delivered Moses. And a lot of other Hebrew babies. Shiphrah and Puah commit the first acts of civil disobedience in scripture. They quietly disobey Pharaoh; they shrewdly lie to keep themselves—and their families—safe; they fear God, and act with compassion. They give life.

Shiphrah and Puah should be household names.

But they’re not. I don’t think that’s an accident either.

Riffing on that first verse of Exodus today, “There arose in the world a church that did not know Shiphrah and Puah.” We do not always know our history of civil disobedience on the side of justice—because it has been deliberately hidden—perhaps unconsciously, but hidden nonetheless. We are hearing this story today only because it is part of the “new” Revised common lectionary that the Episcopal Church adopted about 10 years ago, which changes the relationship between the Hebrew Bible readings and the Gospels; instead of reading a Hebrew Bible reading that directly relates to the Gospel, we get an option for a series of continuous Hebrew Bible readings over a number of weeks—which is why this summer we have heard about Abraham and Isaac and Jacob—and Sarah and Rebekah and Rachel and Leah and Bilhah and Zilpah.

We do not always know the stories of women of faith because they have been hidden and ignored, and sometimes deliberately erased. Sometimes it is the scripture itself that does the erasing--but sometimes it’s been right there all along! Sometimes the authors of scripture are far more open and progressive than the generations of faithful people that follow them. (And sometimes, lets be fair, they’re not.) We don’t have to invent a separate feminist Bible or something—we just have to use what we have!

Shiphrah and Puah are our good news today—tell us, sisters from so long ago, how can we be midwives? What should we do when we are tasked with committing acts of injustice—how can we refuse to carry them out? How can we be surrounded by frightened leaders—and have the courage in everyday life to do what is right. What rules and laws that we encounter have been created to oppress people—and how can we creatively disobey them to give life?

And how do we tell this story to our children, especially in the context of the larger story. At Vacation Bible School this week, where we were focusing on Bible stories about heroes, I wish we’d had this story—we should have little girls and boys wanting to be like Shiphrah and Puah.

And that larger context matters too: “A new king arose in Egypt, who knew not Joseph.” The new pharaoh did not know the dreamer. He did not remember his history—he did not know that Joseph was the savior not just of Israel but of Egypt, and that Egypt and Israel were friends! The new Pharaoh had inherited a history that held up the wrong things: it held up the power of Egypt—but did not remember that the power of Egypt was interdependent with the power of Israel. The history Pharaoh knew did not hold up Joseph, and so Pharaoh knew him not and enabled his own destruction by setting the stage for Moses. Instead of working with the people of Israel, Pharaoh was frightened of them; and as they grew ever more numerous, Pharaoh grew more and more frightened, more and more threatened, and became crueler and crueler in how he oppressed them, until finally there was no veneer of “These are just slaves who must work,” but Pharaoh is literally decreeing that all their male children will die.

Pharaoh fears people—even though he is powerful and the king and has no real cause to fear the Israelites. But the midwives fear God. Even though they are poor and vulnerable and would have good cause to fear Pharaoh. And because they fear God rather than Pharaoh they deliver those babies, they hear their first cries, they give them into the waiting and loving arms of their mothers, and they follow God’s calling to life rather than death. And it strikes me as curious—from the distance of over 3,000 years—that Pharaoh’s fear focuses on the male children, when it’s the Israelite women who are doing all the acts of disobedience. It’s Shiphrah, Puah, Miriam, and Moses’ mother who are planting the seeds for rebellion—not the men. Pharaoh’s fear is misplaced, in so many ways.

And that fear informs so much of why the women’s history is quieted. It does not take anything away from Moses’ story leading the children of Israel out of Egypt to also tell the story of Shiphrah and Puah as important. We can have both examples. It doesn’t take anything away from Saint Peter, and his role as the rock of the church (today’s Gospel reading) to also have Mary Magdalene as the Apostle to the Apostles. If we assume that the stories that are below the surface are subversive, they will be—but if we bring them into the light and celebrate them, there will be room for all of us. Israelites and Egyptians.

Where do you see yourself in this story from Exodus today? There’s lots of choices—Pharaoh, the Egyptians, the Israelites, the midwives, Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses’s sister and mother… where do you see your story and their story intersecting? And what do you fear? Do you fear God more than people?

I wrote a prayer for Shiphrah and Puah this week; I couldn’t find one already written—like I said, they aren’t in a lot of things. But let us pray and let them guide us:

God of all people, give us the courage of Shiphrah and Puah. When we see unjust power, help us have the courage and creativity to disobey and give life rather than death. Give us faith that our actions—small though they may seem—can bring about freedom, if not for us personally, then for the generations that follow us. We ask this in the name of God who loves us, Amen. 

Sunday, August 13, 2017

"Sing a song, and it will turn your fear into determination"

Nada te turbe, nada te espante,
quien a dios tiene nada le falta
Nada te turbe, nada te espante
solo Dios basta

Those are the words of Theresa of Avila, the 16th Century Spanish mystic and nun who suffered many illnesses and visions and recorded them for our spiritual edification. In English:

Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten,
those who seek God shall never go wanting;
Nothing can trouble nothing can frighten,
God alone fills us.

When Jesus tells the disciples today, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” It is the chant of Teresa’s words that come to me. Peaceful, soothing, almost like a mother’s lullaby. Words that when you are afraid—and you have good reason to be afraid, because you are on a stormy sea and you don’t know how you will make it to shore—you can sing to sooth your nerves, calm your soul, and give you strength and courage for whatever comes next. I read the following from a guide for the counter-protestors in Charlottesville yesterday: “If you’re scared, sing a song that is familiar to everyone and it will turn your fear into determination.”

Take heart. Jesus is here. Do not be afraid.

Earlier this week, I commented that I suspected that whatever sermon I started writing was likely going to change based upon the events of the week; how right I was—but I thought I was going to be preaching to a congregation that was mostly concerned about the nuclear sabre rattling with North Korea; I hadn’t anticipated that we would be reeling from images of a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, VA. But the Good News speaks to both: Take heart. Jesus is here. Do not be afraid. If you’re scared, sing a song that is familiar to everyone and it will turn your fear into determination.

What is it like to step out of the boat and onto the water—with the wind still blowing? It sounds like something a hero would do.

A week from now, Epiphany will begin our Vacation Bible School. This year’s theme is Hero Central: discover your strength in God. We picked it because it had some good bible stories and because we haven’t done a superhero-themed VBS before—and maybe in at least my case, because this was the summer of Wonder Woman and I figured that for once the concept of “heroes” would be just as potent and popular with girls as it is with boys.

But the curriculum asks, “Who are God’s heroes?” and “What makes someone a hero?” Each day, we learn a Bible story and one piece of what makes a hero: God’s heroes have heart, God’s heroes have courage, God’s heroes have wisdom, God’s heroes have hope, and God’s heroes have power. And it's very clear that we are all called to be God's heroes.

I am finding our VBS theme far more relevant to our world, the news, and our lives than perhaps I had expected this week. Sabre rattling and war posturing; the torchbearing white nationalists that surrounded a prayer service at an Episcopal Church with torches chanting hateful slogans on Friday night (a church whose rector, Will Peyton, is known to many of us from his years on the staff of St. James, Madison Avenue). There are a lot of examples of what I consider anti-heroes surrounding us. People who do not seem to exhibit heart, courage, wisdom, hope, and power.

There are anti-heroes in scripture, too. Look at our readings today: In Genesis we begin with a story about a father preferring one son above the others; out of jealousy the other brothers conspire to kill their brother. “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”

Who are the heroes of the Joseph story? It’s not Jacob, who sets all this in motion with his disaffected parenting. The point of the Joseph story is not that 9 of the brothers are heroes because they take bold action. Nor is it that Reuben is a hero because he saves Joseph’s life by sending him into the pit, and nor is it Judah who decides he'd rather sell his brother into slavery than kill him.  And that’s the hard one because I bet there are a lot of us who identify as Reuben and Judah—not quite as bad as the other brothers. But Reuben and Judah are not heroes of the story.  They are is not the ones who gets out of the boat and walk on the water.  Being "less bad" is not heroic. 

Joseph is the hero of the Joseph story—the one who is beaten and oppressed and imprisoned is the hero. The dreamer is the hero. He is the one who shows heart and courage and wisdom and rises into a place where those who were oppressors are forced to come begging to him for help.

And let’s admit it: Joseph, the hero, isn’t all that fun to be around. His dreams that show his brothers bowing down to him aren’t easy to hear. His dreams later, warning Pharaoh of the years of plenty and the years of famine are not easy to hear. That’s true of real heroes today, too: they may not be pleasant to be around, because they speak hard truths.

And Joseph ultimately helps the people who had oppressed him. That’s hard—and another qualification of a hero in my book. Joseph has heart. And I bet he sang while he was in the pit. Sing a song, and it will turn your fear into determination.

It strikes me that the Charlottesville white supremacist rally was called there because of the decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee. Now, I’m from California, so I didn’t grow up in the south, and only knew General Lee as the car from the Dukes of Hazzard, but it seems that the issue of who is a hero is central here: some people, mostly in the South still believe that it was and is heroic to fight to defend slavery and oppression. However, in a little research yesterday, I did find a redeeming quote from General Lee about monuments for the Confederacy: “I think it wiser moreover not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavoured to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.” Amen. Now take it down, like General Lee would have wanted.

It was not lost to me that the roots of the need for the Raising my Voice-Kin graduation that we celebrated yesterday at Epiphany begin right there in the time of slavery, and the new Jim Crow of mass incarceration is one of the most vicious forms of institutional racism today. And I am a white priest and I must name that racism from this pulpit because it cannot be only our sisters and brothers of color who are responsible to end racism. It is white people who need to stand up and decry white supremacy in all its forms—the institutional and the public. Let me be absolutely clear: it is impossible to be a white supremacist and a Christian.

Have courage. I am here. Do not be afraid.

What about the Gospel? I will give Peter credit as a hero, but is it because he has the courage to walk on the water? Or is he a hero because he cries out “Lord, save me!” Maybe both.

It is lonely climbing out of the boat and walking on faith. The other 11 disciples don’t manage it. They are supportive, but they’re scared. It is dangerous. But when Jesus says, “come,” we need to go. Once you get out of the boat, walking on faith, you may sink from time to time. Ask for Jesus. Jesus will save you. It’s ok to sink some—you’re not Jesus. But to follow Jesus we need to get out of the boat—which is heroic. And that is out of every one of our comfort zones. Heroes don’t get to be comfortable.

I had decided a few weeks ago to sing a Hildegard of Bingen chant today as my offertory anthem. She’s a hero of mine---she was an 11th Century German scientist, nun, preacher, composer, and justice leader. The chant I chose is a celebration of Wisdom. God’s heroes have wisdom! Hildegard began having visions in her mid-40s, and was an amazing woman-licensed to preach by the Roman Church, a healer, founder of convents and an incredibly creative person. But also so full of courage. “God’s heroes have courage!”

One example of this is that at age 80, Hildegard allowed the burial of a man who had once been excommunicated in the churchyard of her convent in Rupertsberg; when commanded to disinter his body because authorities said he was still excommunicated when he died, she refused to exhume the body, and instead removed all traces of its burial so it couldn’t be disturbed by others. Hildegard engaged in creative civil disobedience and she accepted the consequences: in response, Catholic officials denied Hildegard’s convent the right to hear mass and to sing the offices; the nuns were forced to speak their prayers in a low voice. The interdict was only lifted six months before Hildegard died. (read pg. 123-125, silence and “womanish time” She wrote one heck of a letter to the authorities to protest this silencing:

Therefore, those who, without just cause, impose silence on a church and prohibit the singing of God’s praises and those who have on earth unjustly despoiled God of His honor and glory will lose their place among the chorus of angels, unless they have amended their lives through true penitence and humble restitution. Moreover, let those who hold the keys of heaven beware not to open those things which are meant to be kept closed nor to close those things which are to be kept open, for harsh judgment will fall upon those who rule, unless, as the apostle says (cf. Rom 12.8), they rule with good judgment. (Letter to the Prelates of Mainz)

She closed that letter with an image that is challenging to us today, but I think is worth hearing and contemplating in our own time:

This time is a womanish time, because the dispensation of God’s justice is weak. But the strength of God’s justice is exerting itself, a female warrior battling against injustice so that it might fall defeated.

A “womanish” time. To Hildegard, who evidently used that phrase often in her works, it was a time when the male leaders of church and state were incapable of virile leadership. And yet, she balances out that negative image of womanhood with one where Hildegard sees herself as a woman warrior, bringing spiritual discipline and growth to a church in the absence of their official leaders.

We may live in a womanish time, by Hildegard’s definition. And we may live in a time when both male and female spiritual warriors are called to battle injustice so that it may fall defeated.

Sing a song, and it will turn your fear into determination.

Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten,
those who seek God shall never go wanting;
Nothing can trouble nothing can frighten,
God alone fills us. 

Go to the following link to hear the chant of Nada te Turbe