Saturday, 27 February 2010

Sermon - Lent 2

Luke 13:31-35 (New International Version)

Jesus' Sorrow for Jerusalem
 31At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, "Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you."
 32He replied, "Go tell that fox, 'I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.' 33In any case, I must keep going today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!
 34"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! 35Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'

In the reading this morning we have Jesus using a feminine image as a metaphor, that of a hen protecting  her chicks, and it started me thinking a bit about feminine images in the Bible. I’d like to tell you a couple of stories and end with a couple of thoughts.

I moved house a little while back.. moved to a cottage in Wheatley. Before I moved my prime job was to make sure that my internet connection was going to be available on the day that I moved in. I did everything by internet – banking, chatting to my mates, working from home, finding out information… it was vital to me. So I rang up the week before we moved, and did everything they asked, and rang up on the day we moved, it should be all set. When we got there the phone didn’t work, and so we arranged for a service engineer to come in a couple of days time. He said that the line had been accidentally cut by the previous occupant being rather zealous with some shears on the bush around the door and he would put a new line in. He put a new box inside the cottage and took his cable outside but discovered that there was no way he could get it to the pole as there were trees in the way, and hence it needed to go under the road. I was dismayed… it had already been two days without internet access and there was going to be at least another day’s delay. He booked the work in and taped the coil of cable to the side of my cottage.

It was actually 115 days before we got our connection back and I won’t bore you with the whole story, but in the middle of this saga I rang up BT for the 100th time to be told that the engineer had connected the cable and there must be a problem with the exchange. I told him that the engineer had not connected the cable and it was still taped to the side of the cottage… at which point he said it wasn’t and the engineer had been and it would take a couple of days to trace the problem at the exchange. I then said that the engineer had not been because I could see with my own eyes the loose end of the cable, at which point the man on the end of the phone told me in a patronizing tone that I shouldn’t worry about it and they would soon sort it out at their end. In desperation I passed the phone to my husband who said ‘the cable is still coiled up and taped to the side of our cottage’, at which point the man on the end of the phone said ‘ok sir, I’ll send an engineer to sort it out’.

As a woman it is sometimes hard to be heard, sometimes hard to be treated as an equal. And I feel that living in the 21st century in England… how much harder it is for women across the world and across the ages… how much harder it must have been for the women in the Bible. I sometimes think that the Bible doesn’t help with the equality of women, but then is it the Bible, or is it the way we use it?

I’ll give you an example of this from John Bell – it is a story he told at Greenbelt a couple of years back. He was asked to preach at Westminster abbey at Evening Prayer and was given a sheet with the readings on it. He thought it would be interesting to see what had been preached on at Morning Prayer. So he found that it was Exodus 1:1-12. This text is about how a King rose up that did not know Joseph and oppressed the people by making them work hard. John Bell’s text was Exodus 3:1-12, which is about the call of Moses. Now he was intrigued that so much of the text had been skipped over and looked at what the missing stories were.

There was the story of how the King had decided to get rid of all the Israelite boys, and he called in the midwives, two of which were called Shiphrah and Puah, and told them to kill the male children of the Israelite women. However, they disobeyed this command. So, when the King looked out of his window and saw all the little Israelite boys running around who should in fact be dead, he called them back in for an explanation. They said oh, the Israelite women aren’t like Egyptian women, you know. Oh no – Egyptian women make such a fuss, in labour for 28 hours, but not the Israelite ones, a huff and a puff and the baby is out before we can even get there. Guess what – God was so pleased with these two women who disobeyed the Pharaoh and lied to him that he blessed them with lots of kids.

Then there was the story of how Moses was born and hidden until they could hide him no more, so his mum made a basket and put him in it, then his sister kept watch, and then the Pharaoh’s daughter found him and took him in. Another story where three women are active in defying male authority, and that gave birth to Moses, the saviour of the Israelites.

When John Bell got up to speak in Westminster Abbey he said that he was sorry to announce that between the 11.30 service of Morning Prayer and the 4.30 Evensong, five middle eastern women had gone missing in the abbey. It gave a few people a heart attack!

The stories of women can sometimes disappear from the Bible because we don’t preach on them, but also the feminine side of God can disappear in translation:

For instance the word for Spirit in the Old Testament is ‘ruah’, a feminine noun in a language that doesn’t have many feminine nouns, so when God is brooding over the waters in Genesis, that is in the feminine tense. God’s womb is referred to in Isaiah 46:3-4 and Job 38:29. Also, a common term for God in the Old Testament is El Shaddai, Shad means breast, and hence the term literally means God of the Breasts. There are many times where God is portrayed in feminine roles, such as a midwife or mother. However, the most shocking thing for me when I first heard it was that in Revelation, Jesus is portrayed as having breasts (Revelation 1:13). Of course in the NIV translation we have the word ‘chest’, but the King James Version translates the Greek word ‘mastos’ as paps. There is a Greek word for chest that was applied to men and that is ‘stethos’. So, we have the God the Spirit, God the Father and God the Son, all very definitely described as feminine at times in the Bible, but it lost in translation.

You could say ‘so what?’ I think it matters to me as a woman that I can be made in God’s image and the feminine parts of me are also within God, not some aberration. Secondly, I think that some of the stereotypes we have in church and operate under may be related to thinking of God as male. So if Jesus is the groom and we are the bride, that infers that the male is perfect and sinless and the female is the opposite. If God is male and the shepherd, are the rather silly sheep female? If Jesus is male and the leader, is the female bride always destined to be led? How does it change things for you if you think of God as a woman? Does it shift your feelings about women in society, and if isn’t a big deal then why do we get so uptight if we call him her, for I’m sure She won’t mind. Calling God female almost feels like an insult, so what does that say about the way we feel about women?

Let me finish by reading those famous words by Dorothy Sayers:

Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man. There never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as "The women, God help us!" or "The ladies, God bless them!"; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as He found them and was completely unself-conscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything "funny" about woman's nature.


  1. Thanks for this - it isn't what I said this morning, but it was worth saying. I hope folks appreciated your words.

  2. Yeah - produced loads of interesting conversation :)