Rev. Annich’s sermon begins around minute 21.
If we take the reading from 1 Timothy, that Dorothy Herd just read, literally–this could be a very short sermon. By way of explanation, that verse is part of our Picks from the Pews sermon series where you all have suggested interesting or difficult passages as sermon topics. I am, however, responding to Peg Weissbrod’s request that I not keep silent today, but rather speak about this troubling text from 1 Timothy.
Those of you who have had the privilege of seeing the musical “Hamilton”, will recognize my sermon title as one of the central questions of the show–“Who Tells Your Story?” Who interprets what’s happened to you and what you’ve done with your life? Diving head first into this piece of scripture that would keep me, and any other woman, from telling stories about how God’s love has played out in all the moments of our lives caught me up short and raised an important question. How would our lives be different if we had never heard Jean Reinhold, Shannon Headen, Carol Wedell, Sally Wile, Barbara Essex, Clover Beal, Eileen Vizcaino or even me, preach in this church and connect the dots about our lives in God?
Perhaps there’s another woman preacher or teacher who really changed your life. Who would you be if her voice had been silenced?
Just take a moment and think about it. Who would any of us be if we’d only ever heard men telling the story of God’s Spirit at work in the world and in our own lives?
This whole topic may feel irrelevant to some of us since the Presbyterian church has been ordaining women elders since the 1930s and women pastors since 1956. Our denomination’s Brief Statement of Faith written in 1983 affirms that the Spirit “calls women and men of faith to all ministries of the church.” The third woman to ever be ordained in our denomination, Marideen Visscher, worked right here at Forest Hill Church in the 1950s. So what’s the big deal?
As much as I would like to rest on our laurels and claim that we’ve got this whole thing about equitable, well-balanced leadership in hand, I can’t. While I personally have never given a single thought to whether I had a true call to the ministry because of my gender, I know that others have not fared so well. There are still many women around the world whose talents have been squelched and voices silenced.
This passage from 1 Timothy is so hard to listen to. (I know Dorothy Herd struggled to read it because it’s so offensive. Thank you, Dorothy! You did a noble job!) Interestingly enough, I believe the Spirit is working through this challenging text to remind us of how we read Scripture.
As Presbyterians we affirm that Scripture is the authoritative witness to Jesus Christ, the defining document of our faith, and we take it very seriously. To that end, our largest governing body, the General Assembly, encourages us to read texts intelligently by understanding their historic and literary contexts as well as the broader context of the whole Bible, so we can apply them to our lives in wise and loving ways.
But the first step is reading our Bible! John leads a wonderful Bible and Bagels group every Wednesday morning at 7:30 if you’d like to study with a thoughtful, congenial group of people. Sunday morning Adult Education always features a variety of interesting Bible studies. Why not make a commitment to join them this fall to learn more about the Gospel of Matthew? Pat Seeders will begin signing people up next Sunday after church!
The Bible is a library of 66 books– historical texts, memoirs, letters, poems and sermons– and if we’re going to study them we have to understand how they came to be, what the context was in which each was written. And in the end, as pastor Jack Haberer writes in a Presbyterian Publishing article called “Leader Reader,” we need to consider any topic in the context of the Bible’s broadest themes. “How,” he writes, “does this passage help the reader better fulfill Scripture’s highest law to Love the Lord with all your heart, your soul, your mind, and your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself?”
I’ve marinated in this passage from 1 Timothy for some time now and I can tell you that there are an endless number of opinions on how to understand it. Some scholars rather optimistically propose that the writer of the letter, Paul or possibly one of his followers, demanded silence so women could better learn. Others play with the translation of the word “teach”, trying to soften the blow by saying that it really means “don’t teach arrogantly.” Still others believe this was a problem in one particular community and not a general commandment.
After much study I agree with the many interpreters who see it as evidence of a longstanding belief that women were by nature inferior to men. For starters we know that women were subordinate to men in ancient times, needing husbands, fathers, or sons to validate their existence. Furthermore, the writer justifies his rule of silence by stating that Eve was deceived by the devil and Adam was not. As I read the story of Adam and Eve they both chose to disobey. Frankly I get more annoyed with Adam than Eve because of his whiny attempt to make her responsible for his choice, “The woman made me do it.” But the writer of 1 Timothy clearly believes Eve is the problem and therefore can only be saved through childbearing.
What a limited, condemning belief system about the essential nature of women!
This sermon can’t possibly bear the weight of what could be a year-long class on biblical interpretation. That said, several points leap out at me.
First of all, as we evolve we understand that certain texts reflect, and are limited to, times and beliefs we no longer embrace. For example, in the 19th century people who defended America’s original sin of slavery could find any number of Bible passages about slavery in ancient times to support their beliefs. Today we don’t give those passages a second thought because we have renounced the sin of slavery. In fact, even members of extremely conservative churches now speak and work against modern day human trafficking.
Secondly, this passage doesn’t square with the powerful movement of the Spirit throughout the Bible that breaks down every barrier that would separate us from God and one another. For example, read Chapter 10 in the Book of Acts. See how the Holy Spirit led Peter to change his mind about the Gentiles– for generations thought to be unclean, unworthy people– and include them in sharing the Good News of Jesus.
Nor does this passage square with other writings of Paul where he praises all the women who are partners with him in ministry. Nor does it square with the fact that Jesus had women disciples. The brilliant theologian Jurgen Moltmann, who delightfully claims to be so old that he doesn’t care if people call him a heretic says, “Without women preachers we would have no knowledge of the resurrection.” Indeed, Mary Magdalene was charged with the task of announcing Jesus’ resurrection, even though the Gospel of Mark tells us that the men didn’t believe her. Thankfully, the fact that she was told by Jesus and an angel to proclaim the resurrection is recorded in different ways in all four Gospels. Mary Magdalene–the first woman preacher–clearly made history!
Who tells your story–the story of your life in God? Who tells your story of rising from the many deaths you’ve faced? What different voices and perspectives enrich your understanding of who you are as a precious, beloved child of God? And conversely, what voices have been silenced by ignorance, bigotry, and fear? Where are ages-old mythologies about the essential inferiority of women still leaching into the well-water of our collective consciousness and keeping us from listening to women who could make a real difference in our lives?
Make no mistake–any system of oppression oppresses everyone because wisdom, strength, and beauty are always lost in the process of keeping anyone down.
I’m so excited that Forest Hill Church is seeking to call an African American woman co-pastor. I’m so excited for the unique voice and rich perspectives she will bring to this congregation. My prayer for you is that you will be open to the stories the Spirit wants to speak through her. At times the stories may be challenging and confounding, but they will always witness to God’s presence– speaking, reforming, and beckoning us to greater expressions of faith and life.
Thank you, God, for calling women to tell your stories and our stories as well.
May our ears always be open!