Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Three Rich Men and Jesus

Taking a little break from the stories of women to look at three encounters with Jesus by rich men: Nicodemus, The Rich Young Ruler, and Zaccheus--These stories are parables of individuals—we can apply them to our own spiritual lives—but they are also parables of churches, denominations, the church universal. Jesus walks among the churches, we read in Revelation, and he has something to say to each congregation, each denomination, the whole of Christianity.

These individuals were all rich. Two of them had the approval of society, influence and spiritual authority. One had coercive power over others, backed up by the government, but was despised. When Jesus met each of them, he didn’t say the same thing. To the first, he said you must be born again; to the second, he said sell everything you have and give it to the poor; to the third, he said today I must stay at your house

What can we learn from these differences?
We can see that
1) Jesus speaks particular truth to particular individuals or groups.
2) We can see that if we want to have Jesus come to our house, we need to set aside the ways we protect ourselves from what Jesus brings to us, a life at the mercy of the Spirit of God.
3) And we need to quit caring about being approved of by our culture or cultures. Jesus cares more about openness to truth than about approval by others
4) And we show we’re serious about Jesus by being generous and by repenting of what we’ve done wrong and making it right.

Nicodemus came by night. He was a man of position and influence and a Pharisee. His coming by night suggests caution and care about appearances.

He is polite, even complimentary: Rabbi, he says to Jesus, we know you have come from God as a teacher because no one could do what you have done unless God is with him. Nicodemus states that he approves of Jesus’s ministry in a quiet way. He finds out that Jesus doesn’t care about approval. Jesus cares about something else—Nicodemus himself.

Jesus replies, no one can see the kingdom of God unless that person is born again.

Nicodemus says, “how can an old man be born again when he is old?” What I hear in this question is self-defense. What does it mean to be reborn? I think it means I need to make a completely new start, without the protection and mask of influence and position—complete vulnerability, complete dependence, complete openness. It confronts my fear of change.

Jesus makes it even worse for the cautious: This new life is based in the Spirit, and it is not predictable or safe. It is like being the wind, without boundaries, without excuses. A person who is born of the spirit will not seek Jesus under the cover of night. Jesus speaks repeatedly in the passage that follows in John 3 about openness, the public nature of God’s kingdom and the daylight redemption for those who believe in God’s Son.

He warns Nicodemus about preferring the darkness, and he suggests to Nicodemus that such a preference means that he fears that his sinfulness will be exposed. It’s not that the darkness that defines night is outside of God’s love; but Nicodemus takes cover behind influence, power, age, privilege; this state of his heart is revealed when Nicodemus bestows on Jesus his “seal of approval.” Approving of Jesus allows Nicodemus to keep his distance from the new life Jesus brings.

Jesus says to Nicodemus: Set all that down in order to see God’s kingdom with newborn eyes and be one with the wind of God’s spirit sweeping across the countryside.

Second story:
The (nearly) Perfect Young Man

This story is prefaced in Matthew, Mark, and Luke with Jesus blessing the children and saying that whoever doesn’t receive the kingdom of God like a child won’t enter it at all. This intriguingly echoes the “born again” advice given to Nicodemus above.

In fact, the youthfulness and openness of this nearly perfect man sets him apart from Nicodemus, though like Nicodemus, he is a ruler. To all appearances, he has the courage of his curiosity, and he approaches Jesus in broad daylight. “Good Teacher (or rabbi),” he says, “what good thing shall I do in order to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call me good?” says Jesus in Mark and Luke; “Why are you asking me about what is good?” reports Matthew. Jesus reacts to the man bestowing his approval on Jesus with the word good. Jesus pulls him up short. “You know only God is good.” Don’t try to flatter Jesus.

I notice that Jesus resists flattery. I wish I always did that, also. When someone comes up to me and identifies me as a somehow superior being, I have a hard time finding fault with that person, particularly if he or she is from a position of influence. Oh, I say to myself, I have the seal of approval. I am now ok. I will be careful not to lose that standing.

Suppose I were Jesus; I would see flattery for the temptation it is, the temptation to compare myself with other people to my advantage which is based on the weakness of thinking I am not really ok.

This applies to churches, too. Do churches compare themselves with others? And why do they do so? Are churches open to flattery? Can whole churches and denominations be manipulated to buy into the dominant culture or to prove they are counter-cultural?

Why can Jesus resist this temptation and call out the tempters? Jesus finds his identity in obedience to God. Whatever God tells me to say and do, that’s what I say and do, he says repeatedly. Put down your burden and be in this kind of relationship with me; just like oxen in a yoke, you and I will obey God together.

Back to our story: Jesus meets the perfect young man where he is, measuring himself by the law; Jesus says to him, “do the commandments given by God who is good. “

Now the nearly perfect young man’s façade cracks just a bit: he asks, “which ones? “ This young man is not stupid. He knows he can’t obey all the commandments. As St. Paul said, the law exposes our need for grace; Paul’s own particular downfall was the “do not covet” commandment which went past appearances into the heart. This young man already knows he hasn’t kept ALL the commandments.

The list in Luke are these:
Do not murder
Do not commit adultery
Do not steal
Do not bear false witness
Honor your father and mother

Mark adds: do not defraud; again, the young man can check this off.

Matthew adds: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

I don’t know why these lists are not identical. But I can tell you that the perfection façade cracks wide open with this last commandment. And we know it has broken open when Jesus says, “Give everything you have to the poor—your neighbors—and follow me.” Suddenly that emotional word love has real dimensions—generosity. Generosity outside the family, generosity to the beggar and the undeserving. Be gracious, Jesus tells him. Don’t be legalistic.

So we’ve seen Jesus confront the heart issues of two men of influence and position. Give it up, Jesus says. Lay it down. Give it away. Just you, come follow me with just you. The kingdom is open to those who just drop everything and run into it. The kingdom is being seized violently, he said, urgently, by those with nothing to lose and nowhere else to turn.

Third story:
One more rich man, but this time a tax-gatherer. I’m sure you know that the tax system under Rome was filled with corruption, that a tax-gatherer could collect much more than was actually required by Rome. Tax-gatherers were beneath contempt, collaborators with the occupying army, not admirable people at all, certainly not in the moral class of the other two rich men.

This particular tax-gatherer, Zaccheus, is a short man. I sympathize with him. He can’t see through a crowd, and so when Jesus comes through town, Zaccheus climbs a tree because he is trying to see who Jesus is. Well, so much for dignity, so much for status; a grown-up throwing aside his fancy clothes, climbing a tree and perching on a limb. That sounds like something a child would do.

And Jesus stops right below the tree, looks up, and says, “Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” Surprise! Jesus wants to see who Zaccheus is, too. Tumbling out of the tree, Zaccheus receives Jesus gladly. Imagine how he beams, sheer pleasure lighting up his face.

He stands right there in public in his under-tunic, and says to Jesus, “I will give half of everything I own to the poor, and I will repay four times any fraud I’ve committed.” Jesus doesn’t say to him, “Sell everything and give it all away.” He doesn’t need to. He sees how much Zaccheus wants to see who Jesus is. Zaccheus knows what God wants him to do and he rushes to do it. Even if he remains rich, he will be a new person.

What makes this story different from the other two? Zaccheus’s energetic determination to see who Jesus is and the delightful discovery that Jesus knows him by name and by heart. Zaccheus is like a little child, tumbling into the kingdom without dignity, influence, position, wealth, or even most of his clothes.

As I said at the beginning, these stories are parables of individuals—we can apply them to our own spiritual lives; one hearer remarked that she can see herself in each of these at different points in her life. These are also parables of churches, denominations, the church universal. The same questions can be asked of individuals, congregations, denominations: Do we come to Jesus after cover of darkness because we are afraid of change? Do we come to him with the list of everything we’ve done right because we are unwilling to admit our need for grace? Or do we do whatever we can to see who Jesus is, and then out of sheer joy, turn to make life easier for our neighbors and to make things right with those we’ve wronged?

Friday, January 7, 2011

Tamar and Immortality

One of the signs that the Bible depicts continuing revelation is the institution of levirate marriage among the early Hebrews. The only kind of immortality these people believed in was found in having children who carried on their father’s patrimony. So the practice, which was written into the Law later, was that if a man died without fathering a child, a brother or the nearest male relative must father a child with the widow, and that child would be the dead man’s child. (Barren women were considered to be failures, and their failure to produce children legitimized polygamy.) We don't do this nowadays because we no longer believe it to be God's plan--thus, continuing revelation.

This is the context for the story of Tamar—a Canaanite woman, by the way—from from the book of Genesis, chapter 38. Tamar was married to Er, eldest son of the famous patriarch Judah (by his Canaanite wife Shuah). Er died without any children, so Judah gave Tamar to his second son, Onan. Onan was selfish and cared nothing for his duty to his brother, so when he had sex with Tamar, he interrupted coitus and spilled his semen on the ground. God struck him dead.

One misreading of this story is that birth control is wrong. Subsequent understanding of reproduction tells us that “pulling out” is not a sure method of birth control, so Tamar could have been impregnated by Onan despite his stinginess. Further, semen has millions of sperm in it, only one of which is not “wasted” if pregnancy results. Natural reproduction for humans is immensely wasteful of the potential for life contained in sperm and ova, particularly if we add in the number of spontaneous miscarriages, many of which occur before women have any idea they are pregnant.

Another misreading of this story is that masturbation is wrong. In fact, masturbation doesn’t appear in it at all. The only possible Biblical reference is in Leviticus where “nocturnal emissions” make a man unclean the following day. More about uncleanness laws another time. If anything, Onan’s selfish action is sexual fraud, and we can see how God feels about that.

Judah blamed Tamar. Something about her had killed two of his sons (his own hope for immortality, by the way). He sent her back to her own family. This was a huge disgrace for her, and it is obvious that she felt it as such. Her duty—a sacred duty—was to provide a child to carry on her husband’s patrimony. Before God she felt bound to do this work. She waited for Judah to carry out his promise to give her to his youngest son, but it became clear over the years that Judah did not intend to do so. She was stuck in childless widowhood with no way out.

Because Tamar’s duty to her dead husband is so embedded in and infected with patriarchal values, it is hard to see how she is an example of the inclusion of women in the love and plan of God. However, note that she represents a woman who put her own sense of right and wrong ahead of propriety or fear. If having a baby for her husband was her sacred calling, she was determined to fulfill it.

The rest of the story is a wonderful trickster tale. Tamar hears that Judah is coming into her part of the country. She dresses up like a Canaanite religious prostitute and waits for him by the road. He does not recognize her behind her veil, and he takes advantage of her availability to have sex with her. (No one takes him to task for sex with a supposed idolater, or for sex outside his marriages. This is another evidence of the profound stranglehold patriarchalism had on this culture.) He is short on cash, so he gives her his ring and walking stick in pledge. When he sends money to redeem these items, no one knows that religious prostitute, so he keeps his money and keeps his mouth shut.

Tamar goes home to her father. In a few months, someone tells Judah that his daughter-in-law has turned up pregnant. “Bring her out and burn her to death,” he rages. Now this is interesting; it is apparently the case that she was not free of her marriage despite being a widow, at least until she birthed a child who could be legally attributed to her dead husband. Judah is angry because she has not fulfilled her sacred duty to his household, but at the same time he has made it impossible for her to do so. What a double or triple bind she is in.

But Tamar speaks up on her own behalf: “The man who owns this ring and walking stick made me pregnant.” “Oops, those are mine,” says Judah. “Never mind that stuff I said about burning her. God has taught me a big lesson here; Tamar was doing what she could to fulfill what she thought God wanted of her.”

Some of this story is infuriating—the culture that required Tamar to make herself vulnerable to the opportunism of a sexual exploiter like Onan; the culture that allowed Judah to have sex with a prostitute and then to require his pregnant widowed daughter-in-law to be burned for adultery.

More of this story is inspiring—a Canaanite woman does what she believes is her religious duty, even though she risks death, and she lives to tell about it. Some of the story is empowering—God validates Tamar by including her and her children in the line of the Messiah, and the record is there for all time in both Old and New Testaments. Some of the story is simply deeply satisfying—the powerless person tricks the powerful person, and the outcome is comedy.

It is interesting to think ahead to Mary, whose baby could be attributed to no human male. Like Tamar, Mary chooses for herself. She chooses to accept God’s will for her, which involves scandal and humiliation and potential death by stoning. As it turns out, through Mary’s son, no single male became immortal, no one family or clan continued its existence, but instead all humanity is invited into eternal life, starting now and continuing through death.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Bible, Inclusion, and Sarah and Hagar

Because the Bible came out of patriarchal culture, whenever women's stories are told it is unexpected. In fact, I've come to see these women as signs of inclusion at many points in the Bible. Inclusion often involves some sort of conflict or trouble, which may cause people to consider women as causes of trouble rather than signs that trouble is implicit in the cultural norms.

Recently I looked into various marriages in the Bible, starting with Abraham and Sarah, because St. Peter refers to Sarah as a model for all wives in her submission to her husband, calling him, “Lord.” So I went to read the story. There are two places where Sarah joins Abraham in lying about their relationship, acquiescing to being known as his sister (which is apparently half-true, showing again that this culture is not the same as ours). First, before they are known as Abraham and Sarah—before God renames them—they take refuge from famine in Egypt. Sarai is barren, so it is easy for them to mislead the Egyptians. Because Sarai is beautiful, Pharaoh takes her into his house and gives Abram gifts, perhaps even the slave-girl Hagar. God sends plagues, Pharaoh wises up, sends Sarai back to Abram, and complains about being deceived. Much later, Abraham asks Sarah again to join him in his half-truth in the land of King Abimelech; again, the king takes Sarah; this time, God warns him in a dream that Sarah is married. (As an aside, this shows God speaking directly to a Canaanite king and the king’s immediate obedience.) So two times, Sarah follows Abraham’s lead in misrepresenting their relationship.

In the rest of the story, her submission is less obvious. When she can’t conceive, she decides to help God fulfill God’s promise by offering Abram her Egyptian slave, Hagar, as a surrogate; Abram listens to Sarai and has sex with Hagar, who becomes pregnant. Sarai accuses Hagar of having contempt for Sarai and treats her so harshly Hagar runs away.

God meets the pregnant girl in the wilderness and speaks directly to her. Think about this: not only does God reveal God’s self to the chosen man Abram, he also speaks to a Canaanite king and to an Egyptian slave-girl. God tells her to go back to Sarai and be respectful, and God promises that her son will be the father of multitudes too numerous to count. She names her son Ishmael—“God hears”—and names God as “the God of seeing,” marveling that she really saw God and remained alive. Remember this—a runaway Egyptian slave-girl saw God, received a command which she obeyed, received a promise like the one given to Abram, and lived to tell about it.

In the past, some may have read this passage as defining the duty of slaves to be submissive and respectful to their owners. We wouldn’t do that nowadays, now that we know slavery is wrong. But we don’t hear the rest of the amazing truth in this passage. God meets Hagar face to face and reminds her that he is taking care of her and her unborn son. (I want to write it this way: God. Meets. Hagar. Face. To. Face.) He also confronts her with her contempt for Sarai. Hagar affirms her human dignity by choosing to obey God.

Fourteen years later, Isaac was born to Sarah. When Sarah saw Ishmael and Isaac together, she said to Abraham, “Cast out the slave woman and her son.” Really Sarah is saying, “Cast out your son who is not my son.” Abraham loves Ishmael; he doesn’t want to send him away. God says, “Don’t worry about Ishmael and Hagar; I will make a nation of his descendants also. Do whatever Sarah says because Isaac is the one I promised you and intend to work through.” God can say this because God is the one taking care of Hagar and Ishmael. So in the morning, Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael off into the wilderness with a canteen of water and some bread.

When they run out of water, she places Ishmael under a bush and goes far enough away that she cannot see him. She does not want to watch him die, and she weeps aloud. God hears Ishmael, who must also be moaning, and God’s messenger says to Hagar, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard Ishmael’s moans. Go raise him up and hold his hand. Remember that I will make a great nation of him.” Then God shows her a well of water. They live in the wilderness, Ishmael learns to hunt, and eventually his Egyptian mother finds him a wife from Egypt.

Notice this: God again communicates supernaturally with Hagar. God cares for her again in the wilderness. God makes sure she and her son (and Abraham’s son) do not die. God does not berate her for forgetting his promise. God treats her tenderly and rescues them. God includes the father of the Arabs in his care, knowing full well that there will be enmity and war between the descendents of Abraham, just as there has been enmity between the mothers.

The lessons from this are so challenging: God is the God of Hebrew and Arab. Indeed, with all the attention paid to the supernatural nature of Isaac’s birth, it is easy to overlook the supernatural care given to Hagar and Ishmael. God includes them. This ought to challenge Christians who see Zionism as the will of God, and it ought to challenge Christians who see patriarchy and sexism as the will of God as well.

It has to be noted that Hagar’s worst enemy is not Abraham but Sarah; yet the grounds of their animosity is in the patriarchal system that values women because they give birth. Barrenness is shameful to a woman for the same reason a woman must have a child on behalf of a dead husband; the important achievement is to provide the man with immortality through descendants. Sarah wants a child for Abraham for reasons Tamar will understand. In a patriarchal system, women compete with women to be valuable to men. If what men want is a son to carry on the patrimony, women will value themselves as they are able to produce that son.

However, Sarah, who somewhere in her life called her brother/husband “Lord,” has intrinsic value before God. It isn’t enough that Ishmael was born on her knees, symbolically her child. She wants her own child. She cannot reconcile herself to the legal fiction that makes Ishmael her child. Sarah also wants to birth a child for her own sake, and her jealousy of Hagar has to do with Sarah’s own hunger for immortality. When she went through menopause, she must have despaired. No wonder she laughs bitterly when she overhears God’s messengers repeating the promise to Abraham that Sarah herself will bear a child. No wonder she laughs with joy when Isaac is born. The gift of Isaac, the gift of laughter, the gift of immortality comes courtesy of God only, not from the legal fictions of human beings. No wonder the child of Hagar is an intolerable intruder on this gift as Sarah sees it. Sarah behaves cruelly to Hagar; God does not punish this cruelty, perhaps because God knows that patriarchy has crippled Sarah’s understanding of what gives a woman value.

A few generations later, Jacob’s two wives, Leah and Rachel, compete to give Jacob sons. Leah is far more fertile, producing three sons; so to compete, Rachel gives Jacob her servant girl Bilhah as a surrogate; those two sons count for Rachel. When Leah quits having children, she gives Jacob another servant girl Zilpah as surrogate; those two sons count for Leah, who leads five to two. When Leah’s son brings her mandrakes, which supposedly help make women fertile, Rachel begs for the mandrakes. In exchange, she sends Jacob in to sleep with Leah. Leah had two more sons and a daughter.

When God opens Rachel’s womb, as the Bible puts it, she has a son. Significantly, she rejoices by saying, “God has taken away my reproach.” What is reproachful about being barren? In this culture, the wife has failed in her main duty to her husband—the duty to make sure his line does not die out. Much later, Rachel dies birthing her second son, whom she names “son of my sorrow.” Her sorrow is not just the hard labor, but the sorrow of being unable to measure up to others. Despite being genuinely loved by her husband, she values herself for her fertility, and Jacob’s willingness to go elsewhere sexually in order to have children shows that he too believes a wife’s barrenness requires the remedy of more sexual partners to ensure descendants.

Women are primarily property in these times. Adultery is a property crime in a culture that permits polygamy. It isn’t having sex with more than one woman that is a crime; it is having sex with someone else’s wife. If a wife has more than one sexual partner, who knows which man’s descendant the child is—who has gained immortality thereby? So the response, as seen in the story of Tamar (which will be for another day), is to kill the woman. This ostensibly will reinforce the faithfulness of women so that husbands can be sure the children are theirs. Comically, it is after her sojourn in the house of King Abimelech that Sarah gives birth to Isaac. This seems to me to be a small divine joke at the expense of patriarchal anxieties.

It makes me sad that because of the mistaken use of the Bible to perpetuate patriarchy, people who know in their hearts that God doesn't favor men over women and patriarchy is wrong have felt that they must stop respecting the Bible as an authority for faith and practice. They dismiss and devalue a text that is an enormous resource for understanding the relationship between God and humanity—that tells us over and over that even at our worst, God loves us and is committed to making us whole and holy. They don’t get to know the historical Jesus with his tender heart and tough mind, his focused obedience to his Father, his full humanity in such unimaginable tension with divinity. How sad to know little to nothing of how God has touched the lives of humans in one small tribal group, how God has insisted that other tribal groups matter to God also, how God has entered the circle God drew, as William Blake challenged him (William Blake: "To God/ If you have formed a Circle to go into/Go into it yourself & see how you would do."), and how God has made available to all a new way of living in this world and a hope for joy after death.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Little Girl, Wake Up

From July 2009 until November 2010, my granddaughter and her parents have been living with us. Abby sometimes likes me to tell her stories about Jesus. She turned four in October, so I keep them simple and steer away from the complex confrontations with the Pharisees. What Jesus did when he was on earth makes for good stories.

One evening, Abby, her mother, and I were all piled on my bed, and she asked, “Nana, will you tell me a story about Jesus?” So I told her this one, and it turned out to be the one I needed to hear.

This story tells how Jesus feels about little girls.

Jesus was walking down the road when a man named Jairus came running up to him and said, “My daughter is very sick. Can you come see her and heal her?” Jesus told a couple of his friends to come with him, and he hurried toward her house. As he was approaching, a servant came out and told Jairus, “Don’t bother Jesus anymore. Your daughter has died.” Jesus said to Jairus, “Don’t be afraid; she’s just sleeping.” Jesus entered the house, and the people who were there made fun of him. He went into the room where the little girl lay on her bed.

Jesus bent over the little girl, and he said to her, “Little girl, wake up.” She opened her eyes and sat up.

It turns out that Jesus likes girls, and he wants them to wake up. He doesn’t want to hear that they are dying, he doesn’t want to see them dead; he wants them to wake up, get out of bed, and thrive.

When I tell this story from memory out loud, it makes me cry. I want to believe that Jesus cares that much about girls. I want my granddaughters, my daughters, my friends, my mother, and myself to know this kind of love—the love that wants women alive and awake. Jesus loves this little girl in a day in which Jewish men thanked God they were born neither Gentile nor female.

What I have to admit to myself, and to Jesus, is that many women in the church cannot be truly alive, truly awake, truly grateful for being a woman because the church makes it so tough for women to be who God made them to be. I am so angry to think of how the church has wasted the gifts and energy of women. God’s kingdom is smaller and narrower than it should be. Women in the church are sickening and dying for lack of freedom to be their whole selves in the church.

I am part of the Friends (Quaker) denomination. Quakers have a history of equality for men and women in ministry—public, spoken witness to the power and love of God. First generation Quaker women in the 1600s preached in public, journeyed overseas to preach to the unconverted, stood up for their freedom to practice religion as God revealed it to them, and, with many men, died imprisoned or executed for their convictions. This is close to my heart because I am also called to preach and recorded as a minister. And yet, in my yearly meeting, there are only three women who are released full-time to pastor a church. The other 64 churches have either men as pastors or none.

My own home meeting has three full-time paid men as pastors and four paid part-time women and one part-time man as pastors. The full-time men are the lead pastor, the pastor for spiritual health and care, and the pastor for youth ministries; the part-time man is the pastor for worship ministries; the part-time women are the pastor for women’s ministries, the pastor for children and families, the pastor for seniors, and the pastor for administration. I love them all, but there seems to be a hierarchy of significance in who is full-time and who is part-time, even though they are all graced with the name “pastor.” And I know of churches in my yearly meeting that do not allow women to carry the title pastor, even part-time.
What is wrong with the church, with my church? Why is the Quaker testimony on equality of the sexes not borne out in practice?

And why is the entire church not committed to equality? When we visited lovely cathedrals across Europe this spring, my husband would say to me, “You could be preaching from that pulpit.” He meant to be supportive to me, but I knew the impossibility of that ever happening. It made me sad and angry. Think of 2000 years of little girls with gifts given to them for the church that they were never allowed to use. Think of how they were required to die inside in order to live faithfully as defined by the church. Think of how Jesus feels about that.

At least in the story about Jairus’s daughter, the house was filled with mourners because the little girl had died. There are few mourners in the church for all the dying little girls and comatose women whose gifts are refused and whose calls are denied. There is the hope offered by Jesus that these women and girls are just sleeping, and their whole selves can be raised from the dead by the word of God.

Where is the sin and who are the sinners? Who would dare call unclean what God has called clean? Men and women alike have resisted the clear teaching of Jesus and Paul that the kingdom of God needs women who are awakened, called, obedient ministers in private and in public. It is easy to blame men for perpetuating power structures of patriarchy which clearly violate the spirit and letter of the law of love; it is more difficult to understand why women themselves resist and even reject women who are called to public ministry. Are they afraid? And if so, of what? Of the love and calling of God?

Most dismaying is the fact that the “emergent” movement in today’s church, with its missional emphasis and flexible structure, is again resisting the clear teaching of Jesus that both men and women are called to faithful stewardship of their gifts and will be held accountable for how they are used to build God’s kingdom, and that all is called to go into the world and preach the gospel. Women took to the road with Jesus, gave him their money and loyalty, listened to and understood his message, witnessed his resurrection and reported the good news to others, waited for the Holy Spirit and received the Spirit in all ways, hosted churches, preached, prophesied, taught. Paul valued the women who were leaders in the church, including some among the apostles.

Every woman who remains loyal to the church while knowing that her fellow Christians do not encourage her to acknowledge and use her gifts in the church shows that God does indeed give grace to those who suffer. Women do suffer when they feel called and empowered and then rejected. The mission field, education, non-profits all have benefited from women whose gifts have been thrust out of the church, but the church itself has been diminished and is even now being diminished.

The parable of the three stewards is for women, too. When you read it remembering that, it seems that women are damned if they don’t and damned if they do. Even in my own denomination, the sexism of our society has ruined the good news that if God’s Son sets you free, you are free indeed. Instead of noting the clear teaching of this parable that if you do not use your God-given gifts to further the kingdom of God, you will be cast out of it, and thinking of those women with gifts of public ministry, my own denomination has congregations that will not place women on elders, will not call women as pastors, and will not recommend women for recording (analogous to ordination).

While Christians are happy to eat pork and shellfish since God said that pigs in a blanket are clean if God says so, Christians are not happy to say that God has declared women and men to be equal. Yet Paul writes that in Christ there is no male nor female. This is so clear it demands that we ask why it is so rarely visible in the church.

Undoubtedly, someone will blame the Bible for the perpetuation of patriarchal Christianity. I blame Bible readers who refuse to see. The message always comes to those with ears to hear, eyes to read, hearts to follow, not to those looking for confirmation of the status quo and permission to resist change.