SERMON: On listening to the voices of women

  Jael, Deborah, and Barak - Salomon de Bray

 Jael, Deborah, and Barak - Salomon de Bray

A sermon given at Ascot Vale Uniting Church on the 18th of November. 

 

Readings: 

1 Samuel 1.4-20

Mark 13.1-8

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God may my words be loving and true, and may those who listen discern what is not. Amen.

One of the challenges when we read the Bible is understanding how this collection of ancient stories connects to our own stories: our own lives, the people we care about, the issues and concerns that demand a response from us.

Moving between the ancient stories of the people of Israel, and the early Church, on the one hand, and the all too modern stories of our personal biographies, and the events of contemporary social and political life, on the other hand, requires some reflection.

In today’s readings religious leaders - particularly those serving in the ancient Jewish temple - do not come off terribly well. In our reading from Samuel, the Priest, Eli, fails to listen to Hannah offering a prayer of petition to God. Instead he accuses her of being drunk. In our reading from Mark Jesus narrates with foreboding the destruction of the temple, and warns against supposed religious leaders leading people astray.

In reading these texts we are led to ask: Where do we see ourselves in these stories? Where do I see myself?

How we answer these questions will shape how we draw connections between these ancient stories and our own experiences.

One of the things I want to acknowledge at the start of my sermon today is the extent to which any sermon is shaped by assumptions about how we answer these critical questions about our own relation to the text. The task of navigating between the ancient stories of the Bible, and the modern stories that we live, is always shaped by our own history, our own social status and identity.

It is for this reason that I open my sermons with a prayer that reflects my aspiration that my words would be loving, true, and helpful, but also the aspiration that everyone who hears or reads my words would be empowered to discern what they think is loving, true, and helpful - or, indeed, unloving, untrue, or unhelpful - in what I say. This is why I am thankful that this prayer has been sewn into my new preaching scarf: as a reminder of the aspirations of my preaching, and in recognition of the responsibility I bear in this role.

It also does not escape me that our reading from Samuel tells the story of a woman who is initially unheard because she is dismissed by a religious leader. And I stand in front of you as a man, who occupies a role of influence within a religious community.

This is only compounded by my being white, and educated, and articulate, and married to a woman.

Highlighting the reality of my own identity in this way is not intended to be a show of some sort of overt political correctness. Rather, recognising the contested nature of our identities is not simply a modern concern, it helps to open up what is already at stake in the rather ancient texts we read in Scripture. And so acknowledging our identities helps us to connect the dots between these ancient texts and our live today.

Let us turn then to our readings to try and understand what these ancient stories mean for us today.

In the story we read from Samuel we find ourselves entering the story seemingly in the middle. The introduction to Hannah, Eli, and the other characters in the story is not included in the lectionary. The scheduled readings the lectionary offers jumps straight from Ruth to our reading from Samuel. It is worth, then, taking a little bit of a step back to understand the larger story of which this story is a part.

Actually, there isn’t just one story that sets the scene for our reading from Samuel, there are multiple stories all bubbling away in the background. Our reading from Samuel intervenes in all of these stories in slightly different ways. I want to focus particularly on two of these background stories:

First, the book of Samuel continues the retelling of the story of the history of Israel that begins with the book of Joshua, and the Jewish people beginning to occupy ancient Palestine. Continues through the book of Judges, as the Jewish people are ruled by various charismatic religious leaders (including the female warrior Judge Deborah, whose picture is up on the slide). And continues on through Samuel, Kings, Chronicles and beyond, as ancient Israel transitions from a newly established nation and into a monarchy, ruled by various Kings.

The bit of the story of Israel we are told in Samuel is really about the establishment of the monarchy. Hannah is important in this story because she is the mother of Samuel, who really serves as the last Judge, and anoints the first Kings to rule over Israel. Samuel, Hannah’s son, is the turning point, the connection, between the rule of Judges and the rule of Kings. Part of what the book of Samuel aims to do, then, is to validate the rule of the later Kings, by connecting their reign to the leadership of the last Judge, Samuel.

While this seemingly important dispute about power and leadership is going on, there is another story going on underneath. The other story, which is perhaps less obvious, is the story of women in ancient Israel. There is much to be said about the transition from Judges to Kings, and how there are no women counted among Kings - even while it seems at least one woman was counted among the Judges. But I want to focus on what the story of Hannah might tell us about the place of women within these broader discussions of power and leadership.

Hannah is at one level an insignificant character in the story of Israel. She doesn’t come from royal blood, or some great family. She is simply introduced as one of the wives of Elkanah, who himself is sort of just some dude. What makes Hannah particular is that we are told she is unable to have children, “because the Lord had closed her womb.” (v5b) The connection between a woman’s worth and a woman’s ability to have children in the ancient - and not so ancient - world is on display in today’s reading.

The shame that Hannah is forced to endure because of this expectation leads her to express her experience of misery before God in prayer. This petition to God, mindful that we are told it is God himself who has closed her womb, serves as a protest against God. Hannah’s prayer in the midst of the story of Israel challenges the seemingly God ordained order of things.

Against the backdrop of the larger story of Israel’s history, that is seeking to establish the divine mandate for Kings, Hannah’s prayer of petition cuts across the grain. Hannah resists the imposition of God’s will on her body, by decrying the misery it places her under. For Hannah “the way things are,” the so-called “natural order of things” is resisted.

Hannah is a strong woman who challenges the situation she is in, even while she seems to have no power.

As we take in the sweep of the narrative that recounts the machinations of power and politics in the history of Israel, we might recall one of those questions from earlier:

Where do we see ourselves in these stories?

Perhaps we might reflect on Hannah’s story. On Hannah’s strength.

We might reflect on the initial response she receives - and perhaps which we have been prone to give - from the Priest, the religious leader at the temple in which Hannah prays. The Priest, Eli, sees Hannah praying and dismisses her voice. Dismisses the protest she raises in the name of the misery of women.

Whose voices are we listening to?

Eli accuses Hannah, in her strength and resilience, of being drunk. Of being frivolous.

Still Hannah refuses to back down.

“I am a woman deeply troubled …

I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord …

Do not regard [me] as a worthless woman …

For I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.”

These words resonate and resound throughout the stories of women all around the world, and throughout history.

“I am a woman deeply troubled …

I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord …

Do not regard [me] as a worthless woman …

For I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.”

We are blessed to call these Scripture.

We are blessed to hear the voices of women cutting across the seemingly important stories of men with power.

We are blessed by the many women throughout the world, and throughout history that have channelled the strength and resilience of Hannah. The women who have refused the order of things, have refused the misery imposed upon them.

Our reading from Mark challenges us, as a Christian community, to recognise and participate in the ways women move towards and create hope. Mark 13 challenges us to discern the activity of God in the world in the midst of catastrophe. The not so ancient catastrophe of the plight of women - lacking in access to education, sold into slavery, transgressed bodies, killed by intimate partners -- The not so ancient plight of women is a catastrophe. We are tasked with discerning the activity of God in the midst of this.

Here is where I want to make a controversial opinion. The activity of God today, may well be akin to the activity of God that Jesus himself points to: tearing down the temple. In the story of Mark, our reading comes after Jesus’ condemnation of religious leaders in the temple for exploiting the vulnerable - particularly widows. We might imagine an aged Hannah once again standing her ground in the holy place, mistreated once again by a Priest in the temple. We might imagine the strength of Hannah repeated again and again in the lives and voices of women throughout the world.

And, if we are half as strong as them, we might join in their prayer:

“There are women deeply troubled …

They have been pouring out their souls before the Lord …

Do not regard them as worthless women …

For they have been speaking out of great anxiety and vexation all this time.”

In listening to the voices of women, standing with them, learning from their resilience … we may just discern the hopeful activity of God in the world, and be drawn into her life. Amen.