Sunday, June 28, 2009

Pride and Oppression

A Sermon by The Rev. Angela Yarber | June 28, 2009 | Pride 2009

Scriptures: 2 Samuel 1:17-27 and Mark 5:21-34

This morning I would like to share 2 stories with you. Stories from scripture and stories from my own life. In fact, the two stories we’ve read from scripture had such a profound impact on my faith and theology that they shifted it altogether. Incidentally, both stories are our lectionary texts for today. The first story comes from the Gospel of Mark. It’s the story of a woman. It’s a story that I first read as a young woman who was recently handed a close-minded dose of Christianity, the kind of Christianity that says women are less than, unordainable, subservient. And since I had never experienced Christianity growing up, I set aside my feminist self and naively accepted this form of Christianity for a brief time. Until I read our text from Mark 5. Well, I suppose it wasn’t quite this simple, but it was, indeed, my translation, exegesis, and experience with the New Testament texts that deal with the relationship between Jesus and women that changed my life and affirmed my call. Well, enough of that! Onto the story within my story. The story of a woman.

We don’t know this particular woman’s name. During her time, her name wasn’t really that important. She was just a woman, and a sickly woman at that. Her place in society meant nothing. She was a nobody. At one time in her life she probably dreamed of her future: getting married, having children, growing old. She probably never imagined what life would be like if she didn’t find a husband. Her options were slim. Either her father could take care of her into adulthood, which was highly unlikely. Or she could roam the streets. After all, women without husbands in that day and age were useless and only created a void in society.

This nameless woman’s dream was probably so different than what her life had become. You see, this woman was sick. Very sick. She had been ill for 12 years. For 12 years she had been bleeding. And during that day and age, blood was not an option. It was unclean, impure. In fact, according to Leviticus 15 this woman was not allowed in the temple because she was ceremonially unclean due to her sickness. Priests couldn’t go near her. No one could touch her, because if they did, they too would become unclean and be ostracized from the temple and community.

So, she sought help. For 12 long years she looked for physicians to heal her. For 4,380 days in a row she bled; she hurt. For 12 years she went without a family, a worship service, a touch. For 4,380 days this lonely woman did not receive a hug, a hand-shake, a high-five, a pat on the back, a touch. For 12 long years she searched, without the affirmation of a touch—never being touched by anyone. Ever. She couldn’t go to friends for help. In fact, she probably didn’t have many friends. You see, the community saw her as bad news. They felt that sin and disease went hand-in-hand. She must be sick because she’s done something horribly sinful in her past. Her bleeding for 12 years must be the result of her inappropriate lifestyle. She couldn’t go to priests for help, for they would become unclean. Furthermore, these priests didn’t help women. According to the Rabbinic Tosefta, rabbis began each temple meeting by praying, “Blessed art Thou, O Lord, for Thou hast not made me a woman!” No help there! She tried to go to doctors. According to Mark’s account, she spent all she had on doctors and, instead of getting better, she felt worse. It’s no wonder when we look at the Talmud’s record of remedies for bleeding: garden crocuses dissolved in wine, sawdust from a lotus tree, ashes from an ostrich egg. If you ate those things, you’d probably feel worse too! No one could heal her: not friends, not rabbis, not doctors. It didn’t even seem that she could ask God for help because, by law, she couldn’t even go in the temple. So, Jesus solved that problem. He came out of the temple and into the streets where she could approach him one-on-one.

This nameless, bleeding outcast had heard of this Jesus character. What she heard must have been good because she traveled over 30 miles to see him—30 miles without a bed to sleep in, a friend to chat with, a hand-shake from an acquaintance. Penniless, tired, sick, drained, and probably very sad she walked to find this one called Jesus. Something had to have kept her tired feet going.

After 30 miles, she arrived in Capernaum. Jesus was in a crowed of people and had just been stopped by Jarius, an elected ruler of the local synagogue, a man in power. Jesus was on his way to help Jarius’s daughter. As he walked along the dusty road, mobs of people crowded all around him, all trying to catch a glimpse of what might happen next. In enters our nameless woman. The trip to Jarius’s house would be interrupted, the plans would be disheveled, and a life would be touched forever. This silent woman, her face covered with the dirt from 30 miles and the tears of a dozen years, reached out an unclean hand. This woman steps out into the public arena, the arena that was considered the space of male power and male negotiations; and she takes action in this public place. She touches the fringe of the cloak of a Jewish rabbi surrounded by eager listeners. She has broken through the socio-cultural and religious barriers that would otherwise render her powerless. Will Jesus respond accordingly? Or will Jesus supersede the actions of his predecessors? Would she still be silenced? Would she leave this place with her voice and her pain unheard?

No. She touched and she would be touched—for the first time in 12 long years. We find that immediately she is freed from her suffering. Her bleeding stops. We discover that when she touches Jesus’ robe that power left him. This word for power, strength, or miracle is the Greek word δυναμασ. From this word, we derive our English word for dynamite. Jesus did not just heal this woman. He empowered this woman. And then Jesus speaks. “Who touched me?!” he asks. Perhaps this was a kenotic moment for Jesus or perhaps he had a hunch and wanted to give this nameless woman a chance to break the silence. The disciples remind Jesus that the crowd is pressing in all around him and there is no way to know who touched him. I would speculate that at this time, Jesus looked into the teary eyes of our nameless woman and repeats his question: “who touched me?” And then our nameless woman breaks the silence. She is empowered and her voice will go unheard no longer. She speaks. She shares her story. And Jesus speaks again. Keep in mind that priests don’t speak to women in public. I would imagine that this priest leaned over, held her tired hand, and spoke sweetly, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.” Jesus noticed that this woman was worth stopping for. Worth listening to. Worth talking to. Worth healing. Worth touching. Worth empowering. She was worth it. All people are.

Jesus empowered this nameless woman and in so doing I was empowered. Like many women, I realized that Jesus’ relationship with women was one of empowerment, and this relationship emboldened me to accept my call to ministry and recognize that Jesus was one of feminism’s greatest allies. The responsibility of Christians is to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and empower those who are silenced, oppressed, and marginalized in our own society.

And such empowerment is happening at this very moment in an unexpected, subverted, yet incredibly powerful way. In fact, at the exact moment we gathered for worship his morning (10:30am), thousands of people from the Bay Area, the state of California, and likely the world, gathered on Market Street in San Francisco for the 39th annual Pride Parade. This weekend is the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Pride Celebration whose mission is to “educate the world, commemorate our heritage, celebrate our culture, and liberate our people.”

I’m sure that you’re familiar with Pride since both its good and bad stereotypes cover our television screens, magazines, and newspapers throughout this weekend and month of June. For some, Pride brings to mind bright, rainbow colors, feather boas, leather, people who are “different,” and lewd and licentious behavior—something “Christians” should never be a part of. It’s true that these things are, indeed, part of the Pride celebration. For others, Pride brings to mind bright, rainbow colors, the denial of rights to some of God’s children, and the 1969 March on Stonewall, a protest against discrimination and violence against gays in NYC—something “Christians” should certainly be a part of.

I’ll admit that when Pastor Greg asked me to preach over a month ago on this Sunday, I wondered whether or not Pride would be something I should mention in my sermon. I thought about theologian Karl Barth’s admonition that a preacher should prepare a sermon with a bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. So, rather than ducking my head in the sand and ignoring what is going on in the world, I decided, perhaps I’ll mention Pride. And then, also following Barth’s admonition, I looked up the lectionary texts for today. 2 Samuel 1 and Mark 5. When I discovered that these were the texts for the day, I actually laughed out loud. “You’ve got to be kidding me?!” I thought. “Jonathan’s love to David was wonderful, passing the love of women.” You mean to tell me, oh-wise-lectionary-used-by-Christians-all-over-the-world, that the text for Pride Sunday is the text that overtly tells of David and Jonathan’s loving relationship? The second story that shook my faith and theology to the core. Serendipitous, maybe? Coincidental, perhaps? If ever I believed in Divine providence…I don’t think I’ll go that far!

Then I decided, “forget about Pride for a moment,” Angela. And just preach from the texts. “Jonathan’s love to David was wonderful, passing the love of women.” Now many biblical scholars of a more conservative stripe have gone to great lengths with the David and Jonathan narratives to prove that these men were best friends, like brothers. David was married to Michal, or was it Bathsheba, or was it both, after all. David was described as a “man after God’s own heart,” despite his rock hurling at Goliath, rooftop spying on Bathsheba, murder of her husband Uriah, dancing and exposing himself in front of the arc of the covenant. Could it be that brave King David, the man after God’s heart, was in love with Jonathan? I’d say that the text Jodie read indicates so, especially when you read the rest of the David and Jonathan narratives from 1 Samuel. These texts tell us that “David became one in spirit with Jonathan and he loved him as himself,” much like the two becoming one in Genesis. David and Jonathan later kiss and share clothing.

And if you’re anything like I was the first time I translated these passages from Hebrew, you’re probably thinking, “Enough is enough. Now is not the time or the place…church, worship, is not the forum to discuss such a relationship between two men: loving and becoming one in spirit and kissing and sharing clothing and surpassing love for women. Inappropriate…even if we read of it in our bible!”

If you’re feeling that way, let me say that I understand. When the “church” has always told you that the bible is adamantly against homosexuality, that it’s an abomination against God, then I would imagine that such an interpretation of the text could be jarring. It certainly was for me the first time I encountered it this way. When I sat next to Randall Bailey, a leading Hebrew Bible scholar and ordained Baptist minister, with my Hebrew bible open, pencil in hand, and tears streaming down my cheeks, I was quite shocked to translate this text. “Jonathan’s love to David was wonderful, passing the love of women.” This text, my translation, did not fit into the close-minded version of Christianity that had been handed to me. Every Christian I’d ever known told me that God hates gays. Dr. Randall Bailey told me that God loves all God’s children, no matter their sexual orientation.

So, after reading these texts from the bible and after experiencing homophobia primarily from Christians who purport that the bible is unequivocally against homosexuality, how could I NOT speak of Pride this morning?
“Yes,” many of you could be thinking, “of course, but we’re a ‘welcoming and affirming’ congregation. We clearly don’t think that God hates LGBTQ persons!” You’re right. And I’m incredibly proud to serve as a minister here at Shell Ridge. I’m honored to minister along side an amazing group of Christians who are committed to justice and peace for ALL God’s children. At the same time, many of us at Shell Ridge have expressed concern that we want to “open the door to the closet a little wider;” we’ve voted to officially be “welcoming and affirming,” but now what?
Well, according to the HRC, there is no dearth of issues for which we can stand.
When LGBTQ citizens can be fired on the basis of their sexual orientation without any legal recourse in 30 states, then we have a responsibility to say “enough is enough.” When the United States does not allow same-sex couples the same immigration rights as heterosexual couples, we have a responsibility to say “enough is enough.” When only 10 states allow a same-sex couple to jointly file for adoption of a child, we have a responsibility to say “enough is enough.” When only 6 states allow same-sex marriages and 29 states (including CA) have passed state-wide constitutional amendments banning gay marriage, thus denying one of the partners over 1,000 federal protections granted to heterosexuals, we have a responsibility to say “enough is enough.” When only 13 states (CA included) have laws that prohibit bullying, discrimination, or harassment in public schools against LGBTQ students, we have a responsibility to say “enough is enough.”
It’s no small thing to boldly proclaim, as Christians and as Baptists, that we are a welcoming and affirming congregation. Can we also take it one step further and DO something about these injustices that afflict the LGBTQ community. And before we propose that these statistics are just numbers or are small injustices that don’t compare with the plight of global warming, poverty, or the need for healthcare, imagine for a moment that you were the parent of the Atlanta middle schooler that committed suicide only months ago because of gay bashing at his school. Imagine for a moment that you are deeply in love and have shared your entire life with your partner, and that partner is sick and dying in the hospital and you are denied the right to visit because the state doesn’t consider you “family.” Imagine for a moment that, in this time of economic crisis, you are fired from your job simply because you’re gay. These are no small injustices that we’re talking about here. What can we do, Shell Ridge, to say “enough is enough.”
In our time and context of Pride Parades and oppression, this text from 2 Samuel isn’t simply a trite love story between David and Jonathan. It’s a blatant cry to all those “Christians” who told me or you or anyone that God doesn’t love gay people to stop hating and start loving. The story of David and Jonathan, I would propose, is a perfect theme text for Pride. Because the entire point behind the concept of Pride is to empower and embolden those who have been silenced and told that they are unworthy, unloved, and damned to hell. The story of David’s love for Jonathan can tell persons in the LGBTQ community that they are worthwhile, loved, and that they’re deep love for another is not only valued by God, but commended.
This story of David and Jonathan, like the story about our nameless woman, can serve as a paradigm for the voices of so many that have been silenced. Who are we silencing? Whose voice goes unheard in our society, in our church, in our own homes? And what are we going to do about it?