Today is Women’s Thankoffering Sunday!
Women who encountered God in very powerful and unexpected ways – that’s the theme of this morning’s three scripture readings.
Today we celebrate Women’s Thankoffering Sunday; but I don’t want any of you men to feel excluded. You’ll see that the end of this morning’s journey is the realization that, for God, our gender does not matter.
But to start our, we need to acknowledge that, throughout history, in the powers, principalities and perceptions of humanity, gender has ALWAYS mattered. With rare exceptions, to be female has meant to have less power, less autonomy, less control over your own destiny; and in some cases it has meant being considered to be the property of men, to be inferior, to be expected to acquiesce to the authority of men in all areas of life.
The oppression of women isn’t the point of this sermon; but we do need to acknowledge that for many women in our world today this hasn’t changed much. And before we start patting ourselves on the back for our own advancements, it might be helpful to remember that in this 500th anniversary year of the Protestant Reformation, we have only ordained women in the Lutheran church for the past 47 years. It took 453 years to break that barrier!
The reason this matters, is because the radical nature of God’s inclusive love can only be understood when we realize that the women in today’s Bible stories experienced God in ways that the religious establishment of their day would have dismissed as absurd. But since God is notoriously unconcerned with observing the arbitrary boundaries that human beings erect, God touched the lives of these women in ways that can only be seen as extraordinarily Good News for every person who hungers to know God.
While human systems of status and righteousness would have deemed them unworthy by reason of their gender, God apparently saw only their faith.
Story No. 1: Hannah
Hannah bore the shame of what could arguably be called the greatest curse of God that any woman could know: the curse of childlessness. Among the ancient Hebrews, it was understood that you lived on in the community after your death through your children and grandchildren and their offspring for generations to come. To be childless meant that when you died, you were cut off from the community for all time. And of course, the failure to conceive was always attributed to the woman.
Hannah longed to know that she was not cursed by God. The scriptures record that Hannah’s husband, Elkanah, loved her very much and tried to console her. But then, Elkanah had children by his other wife who would carry on his name for generations to come, while Hannah had none.
And so Hannah prayed, begging God to give her a son. Her fervent praying was such an unexpected sight that at first the priest assumed that she was intoxicated.
But God answered the fervent prayers of this faithful woman, and she went on to give birth to Samuel who became priest and prophet in the reign of King Saul, Israel’s first king. Hannah’s song of thanksgiving for God’s blessing to her is believed to be the model for Mary’s song of thanksgiving when Gabriel told her that she would bear God’s son.
Story No. 2: The Raising of Tabitha
In this remarkable story, God answered the prayers of an entire community of faithful women to raise from the dead their fellow disciple and sister in faith, Tabitha. This short and simple story is actually not as simple and straightforward as it seems.
First of all, to call Tabitha a “disciple” is to grant her full equality with all of the men who were sharing the message of Jesus.
The fact that the writer of Acts shared both her Aramaic name (Tabitha) and her Greek name (Dorcas) probably indicates that she was known in both the Jewish and the Greek communities, and makes it likely that she was a missionary to the Gentile communities.
Tabitha’s ministry was not described as one of preaching sermons, but that she was apparently a gifted seamstress who made tunics and clothing. St. Francis of Assisi once said that the faithful should “Preach the gospel at all times, when necessary, use words.”
Peter was not summoned until after her death, and was in Lydda, about 12 miles away. He would not have arrived at least a couple days after her death, so this would certainly be seen as a story of resurrection. We are told she was laid in an upstairs room. Upper chambers were usually rooms reserved for special events, like the Passover meal Jesus celebrated in an upper room.
That we are told her story and given her name indicates that she played a significant part in the establishment of the early church.
It wouldn’t take long before the male-dominated culture began to control the leadership of the church, but in its early days, God’s call to both men and women was recognized and celebrated.
Story No. 3: The Woman at the Well
The culture of Jesus’ day is so different from our own, that it can be difficult to grasp how radical this story is. Jewish men did NOT interact publicly with women, and for a Rabbi it was absolutely unheard of. Add to that the fact that the woman at the well was a Samaritan, a race of people who had long ago abandoned the Orthodox, ritual religion of the Temple, and you have a set-up for an encounter that is extraordinarily scandalous. The disciples, by the way, are left speechless. Even for them, this encounter is incomprehensible.
All of which is of no consequence to Jesus, who simply sees an opportunity to reveal himself to a woman who has been longing for the coming of God’s promised Messiah.
When she begins to comprehend who this astonishing stranger is, she becomes what may very well be the New Testament’s first missionary as she runs to her village to encourage others to “Come and see!”
A special call
We human beings are often very good at drawing lines between people, defining what we consider appropriate roles based on categories that often reflect our own bias, popular culture or even fear of differences we don’t understand.
The stories of God’s encounters with faithful women in cultures and historical circumstances where only men are assumed to have that privilege reveals God’s disregard for the lines and categories and boundaries we human beings invent.
When Samuel, son of Hannah, was following God’s direction to choose David as the next king of Israel, the guidance he was given was:
“The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
And so perhaps we who are women have a special call to preach the Gospel truth that God’s love is not contained within any boundaries that human beings may invent.
When any of us, because of our gender, have been judged by human standards to be inferior, the wisdom of God is that only mortals look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.
Thanks be to God!