Songs Celebrating Biblical Women: Inclusive Songs for Resistance & Social Action

Many biblical females have been ignored, excluded, demeaned, misinterpreted, and defamed. In an effort to reclaim and revalue some of these women in Scripture, I have written songs in celebration of them.

One of the features of Inclusive Songs for Resistance & Social Action is the inclusion of songs that honor biblical women, such as Eve, Shiphrah, Puah, Lydia, and Phoebe. These songs celebrate the power of the Divine image embodied by women in Scripture.

Prophet Anna,
by artist Aurelio Bruni

Apostle Junia

Some of the songs lament the church’s marginalization of biblical women and current women, while also celebrating their resilience and persistence. “And Still We Rise” names women leaders in Scripture, like the prophet Anna and the apostle Junia, concluding by connecting overlooked biblical women to current women. This song draws from Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise,” as well as from biblical passages.

Poet Maya Angelou

And Still We Rise

“Still I Rise,” Maya Angelou; Luke 1:46-55, 2:36-38, 8:1-3; Acts 18:24-27; Romans 16:1-2,7; Proverbs 3:17

The women long ignored
still rise from sacred page;
with Wisdom they explored
the truth for every age.
And still they rise,
and still they rise with hope alive,
and still they rise.

The women preached the Word;
the Bible makes it clear;
still many have not heard
these sisters through the years.
And still they rise,
and still they rise with hope alive,
and still they rise.

The prophet Anna sees
her vision come to light,
and Mother Mary frees
oppressed from painful plight.
And still they rise,
and still they rise with hope alive,
and still they rise.

Apostle Junia leads,
and Deacon Phoebe prays.
Joanna does good deeds;
Priscilla shows the Way.
And still they rise,
and still they rise with hope alive,
and still they rise.

Like sisters long ago,
we often are ignored;
still Holy Wisdom shows
us all Her Way to soar.
And still we rise,
and still we rise with hope alive,
and still we rise.                                   

Words © 2016 Jann Aldredge-Clanton      DARWALL

Our Lady of Guadalupe

Deacon Phoebe

Mary Magdalene, Susanna, & Joanna,
by artist Janet McKenzie

 

 

 

Priscilla

 

 

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How to Be a More Inclusive Community: Equity for Women in the Church Workshop at Memphis Theological Seminary

It was a joy to co-lead with Rev. Andrea Clark Chambers an Equity for Women in the Church “Calling in the Key of She” workshop at Memphis Theological Seminary’s Scholars Week. Our workshop, “How to Be a More Inclusive Community,” addressed changing church and society from patriarchal to egalitarian so that the gifts of all are equally valued and included.

We began by talking about the importance of language to this transformation. Words matter. Recent events in our country show the power of words to hurt and to heal. Words have consequences. Racist and anti-Semitic words have stirred people to commit horrific hate crimes.

Misogynistic and sexist language also stirs up violence. What we seldom hear is that almost all the perpetrators of these violent acts are male. They are the products of toxic masculinity resulting from the sin of patriarchy. Church historian Rev. Dr. Courtney Pace states: “Patriarchy is at the root of every systemic evil, including slavery, racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, and every other form of oppression.”

In our workshop Andrea and I focused on the power of language to bring healing from patriarchy and to transform church and society. Words matter. How we speak about people and about God matters. Words shape our beliefs and values, which drive our actions. How do we speak about females? Are our words demeaning, abusive, oppressive, controlling? Are women referred to by their titles/positions in our churches just as men are? Are women in leadership referred to positively or negatively?

How do we name the Divine? Are our names for the Divine exclusively or predominantly male? At the foundation of patriarchy is a male God, sanctioning patterns of dominance and submission. Making the Ultimate Power of the universe male gives the strongest support imaginable to the dominance of men. Theologian Elizabeth Johnson states that if we use male names for Deity without balancing them with female names, “we become a culture that values and enthrones men and masculinity.”

Rev. Andrea Clark Chambers

Equity for Women in the Church’s “Calling in the Key of She” program, created by Rev. Clark Chambers, works to change patriarchal culture and religion. The purpose of this program is to develop “female-friendly” congregations that will contribute to this change in our world. “Female-friendly” congregations value females and males as created equally in the divine image, and they work towards gender justice and equality. Female-friendly” congregations believe, based on Genesis 1, that God equally loves, calls, values, and affirms the gifts of females as well as males in the church. These congregations intentionally work to create an inclusive environment where all females are included, welcomed, and affirmed.

In our workshop we went on to illustrate ways faith communities can change language to become more inclusive and “female-friendly.” Inclusive language for humanity and divinity provides a strong foundation for justice and equality. Some people use the term “inclusive” to mean “gender-neutral,” but we use it to mean language that includes females and all genders. Just as the Black Lives Matter movement has taught us that, though all lives matter, we need to name that black lives matter because they have not mattered enough in our culture, so we need to name females in the divine image, though all genders are in the divine image, because the Female Divine has not been named and valued. We need to name that which has been unnamed, demeaned, devalued, and oppressed.

Female names for God are in the Bible. Reclaiming these biblical female divine names affirms the sacred value of females and all people. Here are some of the many biblical female names for God that we pointed out.

  • Ruah (Hebrew word for “Spirit”), Genesis 1:1-2
  • Mother Eagle, Deuteronomy 32:11-12
  • Divine Midwife, Psalm 22:9-10
  • Woman in labor, (Isaiah 42:14)
  • Nursing woman (Isaiah 49:15)
  • Comforting Mother (Isaiah 66:13)
  • Mother Hen (Matthew 23:37)
  • Divine Wisdom (Hokmah in Hebrew, Proverbs 1, 3, 4, 8; Sophia in Greek, 1 Corinthians 1:24, 30)

To illustrate how a biblical divine female name can be used in worship, we showed this video with the song “Listen, Wisdom Is Calling,” from Imagine God! A Children’s Musical Exploring and Expanding Images of God.

In our workshop at Memphis Theological Seminary, Andrea and I talked about changing imagery and practice, as well as language, to create inclusive communities.

Visual images in our churches are also powerful. What messages are sent and received by the images used in churches? Are the pictures representative of a diversity of races, genders, and cultures. Do the images suggest that women have as much value as men, or that women are for the benefit, use, entertainment, and pleasure of men? Do congregants regularly see females in the rituals and ministries of the church? Are all or most of the visual images of the Divine male? Predominantly male imagery of the Divine legitimizes patriarchal power in the culture.

Inclusive imagery for people and for the Divine forms a foundation for gender and racial equality. Our words and visual images can contribute to racial justice by changing the traditional symbolism of darkness as negative and light as positive, naming darkness as sacred and imaging the Divine as dark to emphasize the sacred value of people of color. Including multicultural female divine names and images in worship contributes to gender and racial equality, which intersects with care of creation, economic justice, and other justice concerns.

Inclusive practices also contribute to inclusive communities. Are our churches purposefully inclusive in practices? How do patriarchy, sexism, male privilege, and gender discrimination influence the practices of the church? Do only men move tables and chairs and take out the trash, and only women cook in the kitchen and work in the nursery? Are there equal numbers of men and women on church committees? Are children invited to lead in worship?

How do we create inclusive communities? Clergypersons and laypersons can work together to create inclusive communities.

  • Refuse to perpetuate traditional gender stereotypes in the church or in society.
  • Refuse to participate in conversations where women and girls are not valued.
  • Look for ways to speak positively about women and girls.
  • Don’t make sexist jokes or remarks or laugh at them. Call out those who make these jokes and remarks. Remember that your silence gives consent.
  • Affirm and support the women in leadership.
  • Listen to females and refrain from dismissing their opinions.
  • Include female names and images of God.
  • Use female examples when talking about biblical topics and social issues.
  • Encourage our sons and daughters to see all genders as equal.
  • Include women in every aspect of the church.

We can create inclusive communities by using inclusive language, imagery, and practices.

We concluded our workshop by asking what difference it would make if…

  • Little girls grow up in an environment where they know they are loved, valued, and affirmed?
  • Females are an active, vital part of the life of the church?
  • Little girls hear females in the Bible in a positive light?
  • Little girls hear God’s name and it sounds like their own?
  • Women and girls feel equal and just as valued as men and boys?
  • Males believe that females must fully partner with them to truly fulfill the mission of the church?

We closed with this video with the song “Midwife Divine Now Calls Us,” illustrating a biblical female divine name and multicultural imagery, and challenging us all to move out from our “safest place” to give birth to inclusive communities.

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The Gathering: A Womanist Church

Co-Pastors: Rev. Dr. Irie Lynne Session, Rev. Kamilah Hall Sharp, Rev. Yvette Blair-Lavallais

Rev. Dr. Irie Lynne Session, Rev. Kamilah Hall Sharp, Rev. Yvette Blair-Lavallais

Equity for Women in the Church collaborated with Memphis Theological Seminary (MTS) to present Scholars Week. Rev. Kamilah Hall Sharp’s workshop, “The Gathering: A Womanist Pastoral Model,” got a standing ovation! Her workshop was indeed impressive, and especially helpful to Equity for Women in the Church and to New Wineskins Community as we continue to develop our ministries.

Rev. Sharp began her workshop by answering the question: “How did I get here?” She told her inspiring story of her call to ministry and acceptance of the invitation to co-pastor The Gathering: A Womanist Church. Currently, she is also fulfilling her call as she completes her Ph.D. in Biblical Interpretation-Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School. She plans to teach and to continue her social justice work.

“A womanist is committed to the liberation of all people,” Rev. Sharp said. “Womanism is about care for everyone.” She quoted Alice Walker, “Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.” As a womanist preacher and theologian she looks deeply at biblical texts through a lens of liberation. “Womanism” is “rooted in the experiences of black women solving everyday problems; is against all forms of oppression against all people; is situated at the intersection of race, class, and gender oppression; seeks to empower women by emphasizing their strengths, resourcefulness, ingenuity and creativity; exposes patriarchal oppression in the biblical text and names it evil.”

In founding The Gathering: A Womanist Church, Rev. Kamilah Hall Sharp, Rev. Dr. Irie Lynne Session, and Rev. Yvette Blair-Lavallais agreed to serve as co-pastors. They found inspiration for this pastoral model in Ecclesiastes: “A threefold cord is not quickly broken” (4:12, NRSV). Looking for a place to meet, they sent out emails to churches. That same day five churches responded that they would welcome The Gathering.

Rev. Sharp continued her workshop at MTS by answering the question, “What do we care about?” She listed The Gathering’s social justice priorities:

  • Racial Equity: eliminating white supremacy
  • Dismantling PMS (patriarachy, misogyny, & sexism): affirming gender equality and justice
  • LGBTQIA Equality: affirming and welcoming all

She went on to list The Gathering’s Missional Priorities:

  • Create worship experiences that address social justice issues through womanist preaching and action
  • Be an authentic and compelling faith community for people who feel a disconnect with the institutional church
  • Be a healing, learning, and growing fellowship for persons marginalized in society
  • Dismantle Patriarchy one womanist sermon at a time
  • Discover together how the ministry of Christ calls us to welcome all, really.

The worship services of The Gathering are one hour each Saturday, and they include:

  • Greet & Tweet
  • Weekly communion
  • Womanist preaching
  • Talk Back to the Text

Rev. Sharp continued to describe this womanist church that has three black women pastors and creates sacred space for self and others. Developing an egalitarian structure, The Gathering has what they call “ministry partners,” instead of “members,” who partner together in social justice work. The Gathering nurtures mind, body, and spirit in worship and in mentoring and leadership development.

This womanist church model is different from other churches in that there is no hierarchy and that three theologically trained black women share the load. Sometimes they are asked about who is really leading the church, because people have a hard time believing an organization can be egalitarian when all they have seen are hierarchical organizations. But the co-pastors of The Gathering believe that to fulfill their mission of dismantling patriarchy, they have to level organizational structure to develop an egalitarian church. The three co-pastors share in preaching, creating liturgies, pastoral care, administration, and all other pastoral responsibilities. To symbolize egalitarian ministry, they stand on the floor, instead of the platform, and involve ministry partners in leading worship.

The Saturday evening after Rev. Sharp’s presentation at MTS Scholars Week, I had the joy of going to The Gathering with my good friend and colleague Rev. Colette Numajiri, one of the co-leaders of New Wineskins. I’d connected with the community through the worship celebrations online, and had been wanting to attend in person.

One of the ministry partners, Winner Laws, welcomed us and guided us to the sanctuary where Rev. Sharp and Rev. Dr. Session warmly greeted us. Rev. Blair-Lavallais, they explained, wasn’t able to be there that evening.

It was evident from the beginning of the worship celebration that The Gathering walked the talk of being an egalitarian church, and that this alternative model of a non-hierarchical church works well. Worship began with Anaya Sharp, eight years old, giving the welcome in a strong, clear voice. Her mother, Rev. Kamilah Sharp, led the call to worship and opening prayer, followed by this litany led by Winner Laws:

Leader: blessed are you who are raging.
People: blessed are you who are mourning.
Leader: blessed are you who feel sick. and tired. and sick and tired.
People: blessed are you who have been organizing.
Leader: blessed are you who have been testifying.
People: blessed are you who have been hearing.
Leader: blessed are you who have been resisting.
People: blessed are you who are marching.
Leader: blessed are you who are weeping.
People: blessed are you who preach and know that divinity resides in despised, abused, violated flesh.
Leader: blessed are you who know deep in your bones that you are good. and beautiful. and beloved. and sacred. and worth. and believed. and held. and capable of healing beyond their wildest imagination.
People: blessed are we when we dare to dream of a world without sexual violence, without white supremacy, without misogyny, without police brutality, without anti-trans and anti-queer violence.
All: blessed are we when we labor together to make it so.
–from litany by Rev. Anna Blaedel

Colette and I with Winner Laws

Colette and I with Faith Manning

One of the most innovative and fun parts of the worship service was “Greet & Tweet.” Many services have a time for people to greet one another and “pass the peace.” But this was the first time I’d ever experienced a time to greet people, take selfies, and post them on social media. This is a wonderful way to spread the Good News of The Gathering!

Holy Communion was open to all. Rev. Sharp welcomed everyone to the table. She and Winner Laws, a ministry partner, served communion from the floor, not the platform, as everyone in the congregation moved forward to participate.

Minister of Music Faith Manning contributed her talents throughout the service, playing meditative piano music during prayers, communion, and between parts of the service. And her strong, beautiful voice blessed us when she sang a solo, “My God Is Real.”

On this evening Co-Pastor Rev. Dr. Irie Session delivered the sermon titled “Deliver Us from the Lies We Believe,” with Psalm 140:1-8 as her text. It was the first sermon I’d ever heard focused entirely on the evil of domestic/patriarchal violence.

Before her sermon Rev. Dr. Session prayed for guidance, beginning with “God Our Mother, Father, Creator, Restorer.” Rev. Sharp also included “Our Mother” in her prayers. They understand the importance of dismantling the foundation of patriarchy through including female names for God.

Rev. Dr. Session began her sermon stating that “The Gathering doesn’t worry about making people mad” by addressing social justice issues, like domestic violence. It’s evident that working for social justice is one of The Gathering’s missions.

Quoting Psalm 140:1, “Deliver me from evildoers; protect me from those who are violent,“ Rev. Dr. Session asked, “What does deliverance look like in a relationship with one person having power over another?” We need deliverance from the lies people believe about Ephesians 5, the “misogynistic interpretations” that give husbands power over wives.

“As a womanist preacher I have concern for all,” she proclaimed. “Violence against the vulnerable is not an individual, but a systemic problem. Black women are about three times as likely as white women to die from domestic violence. It is one of the leading causes of death of black women.”

Drawing from author bell hooks, Rev. Dr. Session called for using the term “patriarchal violence,” instead of “domestic violence,” because “domestic” makes the violence seem like an “intimate and private matter, overlooking the roots in male dominance. Violence stems from male domination and sexism.” Patriarchy makes it acceptable for the more powerful to dominate, to exercise power over others.

The Bible, she said, has been used as a “trap that keeps women in abusive relationships.” Survivors of patriarchal violence “believe lies” that come from the “misinterpretation of the Bible.”

Rev. Dr. Session pointed out that these lies also come from church fathers who taught unhealthy theology. Tertullian called woman “the devil’s gateway.” Augustine wrote that women’s only value came through childbearing. Origen taught that men should never listen to women. These lies, along with the lies from misinterpretations of the Bible, led to patriarchal Christianity that creates an unsafe environment for women and girls and silences them.

“The church is infected with the virus of patriarchal Christianity,” she declared. “Patriarchal Christianity is not the Gospel, not the Good News. When Scripture is interpreted to perpetuate patriarchal Christianity, it is not Good News. Patriarchal Christianity creates toxic masculinity, which leads to violence. God does not approve of patriarchy. God does not approve of any kind of abuse. Patriarchal Christianity that leads to patriarchal violence is based on lies. Patriarchal privilege, patriarchal violence, and patriarchal Christianity are evil. They are lies we have believed.”

Rev. Dr. Session concluded her powerful sermon by challenging us to stop believing lies, to speak out against these lies, to interpret Scripture correctly. For example, Ephesians 5 teaches mutual submission. “We can speak truth,” she proclaimed. “God created humankind, male and female, in the divine image.”

You can listen to the entire sermon and worship celebration online.

After the sermon during the “Talk Back to the Text” time, several people commented on how refreshing it was to hear a sermon proclaiming the truth about patriarchal violence and patriarchal Christianity. People in the online congregation also left comments, for example, “We need a collective deliverance…YES!”

The Gathering celebrated one year of ministry on Saturday, October 27. It was a glorious occasion with powerful sermons by the co-pastors and wonderful music by the Voices of the Gathering.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Irie Lynne Session believes that her gifts are for teaching biblical texts in ways that help women discover and reclaim their unique voice and value. She brings “all of who she is” to every aspect of her teaching ministry. Her style is interactive, energetic and empathetic. Her passion is through the ministry of preaching, teaching and writing to empower and honor women, and to dismantle those forces that are grounded in patriarchy, that inhibit women from believing they are indeed GOD’s Masterpiece. She earned a Doctor of Ministry from Colgate Rochester Crozier Divinity School, specializing in Transformative Leadership and Prophetic Preaching. She holds a M.Div. from Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University and a B.S. in Social Work from Oklahoma Christian University. She serves on the Board of Equity for Women in the Church. She is the author of Murdered Souls, Resurrected Lives: Postmodern Womanist Thought in Ministry with Women Prostituted and Marginalized by Commercial Sexual Exploitation.

Kamilah Hall Sharp is a native of St. Louis, Missouri and resides in Desoto, Texas with her spouse Nakia and daughter Anaya. She is currently a Ph.D. student in Biblical Interpretation-Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University. Kamilah also holds a B.S. in Business Economics from Florida A&M University, a M.Div. from Memphis Theological Seminary, and a J.D from Indiana University-Bloomington. She is an ordained minister in the Disciples of Christ (Christian Church) and believes she was created to help and serve others.

Yvette Blair-Lavallais is a 2017 academic fellow of Princeton Theological Seminary’s prestigious Black Theology and Leadership Institute.  A licensed pastor, Yvette has served in ministry, teaching and preaching the Gospel at numerous churches and faith-based organizations. Most recently, Yvette served as an elder in the United Methodist Church. She is a Magna Cum Laude graduate of Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, and she holds a BA in Journalism from the University of North Texas in Denton. Prior to full-time ministry, Yvette worked in corporate communications, non-profit, and served as a public relations specialist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. She is the founder of Her Sister’s Situation Ministry, and the author of Being Ruth: Pressing Through Life’s Struggles with Fearless Faith.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Rev. Julie Pennington-Russell, “The Contemplative Pastor”

Rev. Julie Pennington-Russell

At the opening worship service at the Nevertheless She Preached Conference in Waco, Texas, Rev. Julie Pennington-Russell brought the words I needed to hear. The night before I had trouble sleeping. I lay awake feeling overwhelmed by all the suffering of women and others, wondering what I could do that would make any difference. Also, I’d been hearing from people in some of my activist groups that we needed more time for silence and meditation.

In her sermon, “The Contemplative Pastor,” Rev. Pennington-Russell encouraged us to nurture our spirits with mindfulness meditation. She said that after pastoring four churches for a total of 32 years, “contemplative practices are saving” her “daily.” She told about receiving a message that she was the best pastor the church had ever had and, on the same day, another message that she was the worst pastor they’d had.

My memory took me back to the first time I heard of Julie Pennington-Russell, and to the years before when I served as Associate Pastor of St. John’s United Methodist Church in Waco. My mother, a devout Baptist with deep Baptist roots, expressed delight that I had this opportunity to pastor, but she had trouble accepting the reality that no Baptist church would accept her daughter as a minister. She kept asking if I had gone to Calvary Baptist, right across the street from St. John’s, to inquire about ministry openings. At that time Calvary Baptist didn’t have women deacons or women in any leadership roles.

Ironically, ten years later Calvary became the first Baptist church in Texas to call a woman—Julie Pennington-Russell—as senior pastor. On her first Sunday at Calvary Baptist, 30 men in a conservative Baptist group from Mount Enterprise, Texas, picketed the church with signs that called her “Jezebel” and accused her and other working mothers of moral corruption and child abuse. That Sunday might have been the beginning of her contemplative practices that save her!

The first time I heard Rev. Pennington-Russell preach was at a Christians for Biblical Equality Conference in Dallas. She told her story about learning that the Bible teaches the equality of women in church and society. “And then more sky opened up,” she said. She continued to describe her awakening to the fullness of her pastoral gifts and her divine call, saying, “And then more sky opened up.” This metaphor of an opening sky described what I had felt when I witnessed Rev. Martha Gilmore’s ordination at Cliff Temple Baptist Church in Dallas, the first time I’d ever seen a woman receive this sacred blessing.

So I was excited to learn that that Rev. Pennington-Russell was delivering the first sermon at the Nevertheless She Preached Conference. Her words continue to calm and renew my spirit.

“Contemplation,” she said, is simply “paying attention and being present.” She challenged us to “be mindful of what’s in front of us if we want to know what God is up to.” She quoted Jesus’ words in Luke 21: “Look at the fig tree,” and you will know “your redemption is drawing near.” Contemplative spirituality is “not about getting it right,” but about bringing our attention back to the present, trying to “be fully present” in each moment.

Rev. Pennington-Russell said that contemplative practices help her especially in stressful times. She thinks of the mantra one of her pastor friends uses when she feels stressed or upset: “I’m still in contemplative prayer. I’m still in contemplative prayer.” I’m also finding this mantra helpful in these difficult days!

Rev. Pennington-Russell reminded me that activism and contemplation are not mutually exclusive. In fact, contemplation empowers our activism. Her preaching, writing, and other social justice work illustrate the power of her combined contemplation and activism. In a recent blog article, “Welcoming the Stranger,” she calls out Christians for our tepid response to welcoming the world’s most vulnerable children and adults—refugees who are fleeing danger to seek asylum within our borders. She cites a Pew Research Center study that found the percent of religiously unaffiliated people higher than the percent of Christians of every category who affirm our responsibility to welcome refugees seeking safety within our borders. “How we treat the foreigner and the stranger says a lot about our understanding of God,” she states. “The Bible has a lot to say about immigrants and immigration. The Hebrew word ger, the closest word to our concept of an immigrant, appears 92 times in the Old Testament alone. The Israelites were “illegal aliens” when they arrived in the Promised Land. It was famine and death (read: economic hardship) that compelled “undocumented” Ruth to migrate with her mother-in-law Naomi. Notably, Boaz didn’t deport her back to Moab. And Jesus himself tells us in Matthew 25: Every stranger you see, especially the least of these, is really me. He promised that one day we’d hear him say these words: Whenever you welcomed the stranger you were welcoming me. Whenever you turned away from a stranger you were turning away from me.”

Sometimes I wonder if meditation is a waste of time, a luxury when there’s so much social justice work that cries out for our time and energy. But Rev. Pennington-Russell’s sermon helps me remember how important contemplative practices are to keep us going in our activism.

“Be present in whatever moment you happen to be,” she encouraged us. “Be alive to this moment. Let go. Let be. Receive the Spirit in all things. Move out of the analytical mind to experience Mystery.”

Rev. Julie Pennington-Russell currently serves as senior pastor of First Baptist Church, Washington, DC. Previously, she served as associate pastor and then pastor of Nineteenth Avenue Baptist Church in San Francisco, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, and pastor of First Baptist Church in Decatur, Georgia. She earned her B.A. from the University of Central Florida in Orlando and her M.Div. from Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Mill Valley, California. Her messages have been featured on the television broadcast 30 Good Minutes, Day-1 Radio and at the Festival of Homiletics. She currently serves as a member of the advisory board for the religion department of Carson-Newman University and has served as a trustee for Mercer University, member of the board for the Center for Christian Music Studies at Baylor University, and member of the board of directors for the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good.

 

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Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney, “When Gomer Looks More Like God”

Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney

At the Nevertheless She Preached Conference, Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney nourished my mind and spirit with her life-giving, female-affirming sermon on the book of Hosea.

Sermons I have heard on this biblical book have focused on the unfaithfulness of Israel, imaged as Gomer, the “adulterous” wife of Hosea. In these interpretations of the relationship between God and Israel as a marriage, Hosea represents God, and Gomer represents Israel. Hosea forgives Gomer, as God finally forgives the repentant Israel.

In her sermon Rev. Dr. Gafney sets the record straight, reversing the symbolism of the Divine as male and the sinful as female. Her sermon illuminates Gomer as the most compelling image of the Divine in the book of Hosea.

Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney

You can read the full text of  Rev. Dr. Gafney’s powerful sermon, “When Gomer Looks More Like God,” on her blog. Here are excerpts:

Some men love to call women whores. Some women do too. The biblical writers use the word whore and accusations of whoring freely and freely attribute them to God. Reading a text like Hosea can easily have you convinced God–or somebody–is fixated on women’s bodies and sexuality as though we are the genesis of everything that is wrong with the world. (I’m looking at you Tertullian and your modern day disciples who are too numerous to name.) Today I want to talk about what happens when that pastor you respect and believe hears from and speaks for God starts slut-shaming women from the pulpit and then before you know it, you are the woman he is calling a whore and it is your children he is publicly denouncing as bastards. What would you do if he was your pastor? What would you do if he was your husband?

When I shared these questions online I got two interesting responses. From a woman, “I hope I would gather my little ones and walk out. But that kind of insult could render a woman almost unable to move. Shame on that pastor!” From a man, “Curb stomp him into the pavement as the congregation watched.” To each of them I replied, “That’s not how people treat the book of Hosea or any other biblical book in which women are accused of whoredom or Israel is accused of whoring just like a woman.”

Reading Hosea as scripture means taking seriously that as a part of the canon it holds authority; however that authority is assessed from community to community and person to person. For me that means I can’t easily write Hosea off, not as a pastor, priest, or preacher, and certainly not as a black woman who is a womanist. The spittle-laced violence with which this word has been imposed on women and girls often accompanying or preceding physical violence, and the enduring emotional and spiritual violence it begets mean that I cannot remain silent on this text. Neither can I by any means leave its proclamation and interpretation solely to the lips of those who will never hear this epithet hurled towards them.

But I don’t run from a fight or a hard text or a fight with a hard text. I believe in wrestling the bruising words until I squeeze a blessing out of them, no matter how down and dirty it gets or how out of joint I get. So I’ve been preaching about women called whores and the men, prophets, and God who use that language for some time now. I also don’t run away from the word whore or soften it to harlot because that’s not a word we use, but every day some woman somewhere is being called a whore. . . .      

The texts of Hosea and Jeremiah present prophets who heard and spoke for God in and through the vernacular of their culture. As Dr. Weems taught us (in Battered Love), that vernacular was androcentric with a mean misogynistic streak, and in a shame/honor society the worst thing you can call a man is a bad woman. But I know that God is bigger than all of our images and idioms including biblical ones, and I know no one is disposable no matter how the text frames them. While some of you can roll with Hosea’s God I needed a different vision of God, so I went looking for and to Gomer and her daughter, Lo-Ruhamah, she whose name meant She-Will-Not-Be-Mother-Loved, there will be no mercy, pity, or compassion for her.

That name is assigned to Gomer’s baby girl before her birth and waiting for her at the exit from her mother’s womb to shape her destiny and serve as an example to Israel. She is a sermon illustration, whether God’s or Hosea’s. But how did we get here? The text would have us believe God told Hosea, “Go find you a ho.” I have questions for male religious leaders who condemn women’s expressions of sexuality but find loopholes for their own.

Then we meet Gomer bat Diblaim. In spite of the way the deck of the text has been stacked against her, not even the text calls Gomer a whore. What it does call her is daughter of Diblaim. Whether Diblaim is her mother’s name, her father’s name or her home town she is somebody. She is somebody’s child. She comes from somewhere. She has a name. She has people. Whore is not her name. Her name is Gomer and unlike the vast majority of women in the Hebrew Bible her name is among the nine percent of all names in the Hebrew Bible that belong to a woman. Her name is Gomer. Whore is not her name. 

In chapter two God will accuse Israel of whoring, threatening her with violence. The portrait of Hosea’s God in these two chapters is more batterer than beloved, even with the wilderness reconciliation and second honeymoon in the promised land; it all reads like a domestic violence cycle. In chapter two with all the references to land it is clear that Israel is the whore, a slur intended to infuriate and humiliate into repentance the men who led Israel. Yet in our text Gomer is never called a whore.

The reader/hearer is supposed to assume that Gomer is a whore because she is who Hosea chose. In fact there is nothing in what the text discloses about Gomer that makes her out to be a whore if that is supposed to be code for prostitute. The standard translations, wife of whoredom, harlotry, or prostitution, seem to miss the fact that the word at stake, zanah, is one letter away from the word that means sex-worker, zonah. Dr. Gale Yee (in the Woman’s Bible Commentary) teaches that promiscuous is the better translation. Translation matters. And who translates matters. Gomer is a promiscuous woman; woman and wife are conflated into a single word in Hebrew. Now I hear the charge to Hosea differently: God called Hosea to marry a promiscuous woman. . . .

Now, somehow the good prophet knew exactly where to find a promiscuous woman. And he knew how to woo and wed a woman who made her own choices about her own body. It would seem that Hosea had untapped depths. Then Gomer did what faithful wives in that context did, she gave birth to a son for him. . . .

Gomer, like Isaiah’s partner, partners with God in the production of this prophetic sign-child. She is more than a clergy spouse who types, edits, and gives feedback on sermons. Without her there would be no sermonic baby for God to name. God names Gomer’s baby Yizrael, one letter away from Yisrael, just as promiscuous is one letter away from whorish in Hebrew articulation. Yizrael, Jezreel, is the place where Jehu went on a killing spree and assassinated Jezebel’s son King Jehoram of Israel and King Ahaziah of Judah after Elijah anointed him. He then had Jezebel thrown to her death and trampled under horse and hoof on the killing ground that was Jezreel in Jehu’s bloody game of thrones. God said name the baby Jezreel, “…for I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel.” Gomer’s son is a living word of prophecy that she birthed into the world proclaiming judgment against a man who thought his anointing entitled him to do anything he wanted. 

Some years pass, one, two, perhaps five, while Gomer wifes and mothers with scandal hanging on her name but no evidence of scandalous behavior since her marriage. Whoever she was in the past is past, but folk just won’t let it go. Then Gomer and Hosea have another child, another living breathing word of prophecy that Gomer births into the earth. This child, Gomer’s daughter, has an even heavier name to bear. Her name testifies to the withholding of mother-love, that love that is rooted in and includes the womb like the heart in heartache or the head in headache. The cycle repeats and the child that represents a third prophetic production incubated in Gomer’s womb is born and he is named, Lo-Ami, Not My People.

But there is a note between the births of Gomer’s second and third child that was not present between the first two: “When Gomer had weaned Lo-ruhamah,…” My friend Mark Brummitt points out that the baby, then toddler, at Gomer’s breast named She Will Be Devoid of Mother-Love: “has been so, so loved and nourished all along” at her mother’s breast. And there it is, the place where I see God’s promiscuously extravagant love in the text, not in Hosea’s words or even God’s, but in Gomer holding to her breast that baby girl who had to go through the world with a label on her saying she would be bereft of maternal love, pity, or compassion the same way Gomer has had to go through world of the text and its interpreters with the label whore hanging over her head. Gomer persisted in loving that child no matter who said otherwise.

It is there in Gomer’s mother-love that the love of God so often couched as mother-love in the scriptures but translated as mercy, pity, or compassion shines. That is why translation matters and who translates matters. Gomer is a representation of God to me. She shamelessly mother-loves her children no matter how their names are rightly or wrongly tarnished. She loves those who others say don’t matter. She loves the folk some preachers count out as dirty, soiled, ruined. And she loves promiscuously.

God’s love is promiscuous. She just can’t keep it to herself. She loves wildly and widely, freely and without fetters. She loves those who have been deemed unlovable, illegitimate in who they are or how they are, the circumstances over which they have no control, or might not even want to change. God loves with a flagrant love those who have been told they are unworthy because of who or what they are, who they love, how they love, what they have done, or even what has been done to them. God’s love is insatiable. She is not content with a single beloved people, church, denomination, or even religion. All the earth is the fruit of her womb and she loves us all fiercely. She even loves men like Hosea and his interpreters who relish shaming and subordinating women, men who inflict violence with their words and hands and weaponize their bodies and sometimes our bodies against us. It’s as though God doesn’t have any standards about who she loves.

But God does have standards about how those whom she loves are treated at the hands of those she also loves. Gomer’s first child was named Jezreel as an indictment of all the blood spilled by Jehu who was one of God’s chosen anointed kings; he was beloved by God but ultimately he was held accountable for his actions. Some of the blood that Jehu spilled was the blood of Jezebel; she didn’t even serve the God of Israel and yet she too was beloved. The name of Gomer’s first prophetic child covers even her blood shed in violence.

I see God in Gomer’s love and in God I see a love that has no equal. And I see Gomer in God’s scandalous, flagrant, and promiscuous love. A love that would see a young girl in Nazareth called every name that Gomer was ever called by Hosea and everyone else for conceiving a child but not with her partner. I see the shameless love of God enter the world through the parts of women that men like some of the bible’s prophets and some men and women today see as unclean, dirty, and shameful. I see the inexhaustible love of God in human form held to the breast of that scandalous, infamous mother. I see the steadfast love of God in that child turned man who sought out the company of women like Gomer rather than the company of men like Hosea. And I see the love of God begin to come full circle when one of those women put her hands and her hair on that man’s body in a shockingly intimate scene. I see it when scandalous women and those who might have called them scandalous stood together at the foot of that cross watching their beloved, God’s beloved, die at the hands of violent men. And I see the death destroying love of God in the commission of God to those infamous women to preach the gospel of that grave shattering love whether men would believe them or not.

They called her a whore but nevertheless Gomer persisted in loving a child called Loveless and in her love we see God’s love.

Read the full text of Rev. Dr. Gafney’s sermon.

 

The Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas. She is the author of Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to Women of the Torah and of the Throne, Commentary on Nahum, Habakkuk, and ZephaniahDaughters of Miriam: Women Prophets in Ancient Israel and co-editor of The Peoples’ Bible and The Peoples’ Companion to the Bible. She is an Episcopal priest canonically resident in the Diocese of Pennsylvania and licensed in the Diocese of Fort Worth, and a former Army Chaplain. A former member of the Dorshei Derekh Reconstructionist Minyan of the Germantown Jewish Center in Philadelphia, she has co-taught courses with and for the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Seminary in Wyncote, Pennsylvania. She holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible and a Graduate Certificate in Women’s Studies from Duke University, and the M.Div. with Special Recognition in Homiletics and Hebrew Bible from Howard University School of Divinity.

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