Today was the WELCA (Women of the ELCA) Bold Women Sunday. So, I took the opportunity to change the lectionary readings (that one from Luke today was just awful, anyway) to talk about some bold women in the Bible. Instead of writing one sermon on all of the women, I did brief meditations on each woman. The women I chose were Rahab (Joshua 2:1-24), Deborah & Jael (Judges 4:1-24), Dorcas (Acts 9:36-43) and Martha & Mary (Luke 10:38-42). Following are the meditations on these women.
A Meditation on Rahab, Former “Pretty Woman” and an Ancestress of Jesus
The movie Pretty Woman, starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, was a story about a prostitute who posed as a rich man’s girlfriend for a week. As a result of that encounter, the prostitute decided to change her life around and no longer be a member of the oldest profession in the world. Many people said that this was a Hollywood fairy tale that could never come true. And yet, here we find in the book of Joshua the same kind of story: a prostitute whose heart was touched by the Lord, the God of Israel; a prostitute who was a traitor to her own people because she hid the Israelite spies and protected them from the city government; a prostitute who boldly stepped forward in faith and got the Israelite spies to promise to protect her and her family when they came to conquer the city of Jericho; a Canaanite prostitute ( a double whammy, to be sure!) who nevertheless married a man of Israel and had children with him, thereby becoming the ancestress not only of King David, but of the greater David, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Not only was Rahab honored by becoming an ancestress of Jesus, she was also praised by the author of the letter to the Hebrews, who said, “By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.” We will never know exactly how the Holy Spirit worked in Rahab to bring her to that faith in the Lord—the ways of God are indeed mysterious. But however it happened, Rahab had that faith in the God of the Israelites, and she believed that because of that God, she could leave her past sinful life behind and become a member of God’s family. That is boldness indeed.
Rahab was further praised by James in his letter: “Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road?” We’re not going to get into the whole “faith vs. works” debate here. It is important today to note that Rahab’s bold faith in the God of Israel resulted in the bold actions she took to welcome and hide the Israelite spies. Our faith in God will likewise demand of us such bold actions from time to time.
Perhaps knowing this story of his ancestress was part of what persuaded Jesus to hang out with those who had been rejected by society: the tax collectors and the “sinners”. After all, if a conversion happened once, it could certainly happen again. Like the lost sheep, Jesus would search out those whom society rejected and offer them love and forgiveness, hoping to bring them into his family. Let us likewise take a look around us here in Powell. Who are the outcast ones in our town? Who are our modern-day “tax collectors and sinners”? Who are the lost sheep that we can welcome into God’s family?
A Meditation on Deborah & Jael, Warrior Women of Israel
This story does not appear—at all—in the regular cycle of readings appointed to be read on Sundays in the church. Probably with good reason. Not only would the strong women and the weak men be off-putting to a lot of people, but it is a rather bloodthirsty story. Killing a man by driving a tent peg through his temple? Yeesh.
But, this is in our Holy Scriptures, and because of that, it is something that we as Christians need to think about and try to understand. When I was still in the Missouri Synod, Deborah was my hero, and she still is. Deborah was a woman, a wife, and a prophetess. She led Israel in her own right—not because she had a husband, for aside from the one mention of his name, we don’t hear from him ever again—and the people of Israel came to her for justice. We don’t hear from the Bible how she came to this lofty position—probably because it’s not important to the story, even though I’m dying to know—but there she is. God was using her to dispense justice to his people. God was using her as his mouthpiece. And as a woman in the Missouri Synod, where women’s voices tend not to be valued as they should be, this story gave me hope that God could indeed use me in a position of leadership, to effect change.
But what do we make of this story? Barak was unwilling to go into battle without Deborah, even though he respected her enough to believe that God was speaking through her. There is no mention of her being a warrior, but she agreed to go with him, perhaps strapping on some protective gear that belonged to a younger man. And she said that the honor and glory of killing the enemy general, Sisera, would go to a woman because of the way Barak was behaving. Perhaps, instead of trusting in God, Barak wanted Deborah along as some kind of good luck charm.
Then, when the battle is won, the enemy leader, Sisera, flees the field like a coward and expects to find sanctuary in the tent of a woman. Instead, he is lured to his death, and in those times, for a man to be killed by a woman was an extremely dishonorable way to die. But for some reason Jael doesn’t flinch. She takes a deep breath and does what is necessary to execute God’s judgment by executing the enemy general, and then showing his bloodied corpse to Barak as he comes searching for Sisera.
So, perhaps the lesson here is that God can use anyone, at any time, in any way, to lead his people and bring about his justice. Deborah and Jael were both bold women who defied female stereotypes in order to do what God asked of them. It didn’t matter if they were married women—God valued them as individuals, not simply as the wives of their husbands, and knew that they were the right ones for the job that needed to be done. How is God calling us, women of God, to be bold and to do his work in spite of the stereotypes of our culture?
A Meditation on Dorcas, Servant of the Sick and Poor
We see here in Acts that, from the beginning of the Christian church, women as well as men were both named as disciples of Jesus. Dorcas, whose name in Aramaic was Tabitha, was a disciple of Jesus who lived out her faith by following Jesus’ command to care for the poor. We don’t know what caused her illness or even what the illness was that she died from. The Greek does not give us a clue either—the word used can mean either “to be weak” or “to be sick”. So here is my idea of what may have happened to Dorcas.
The Scripture says that Dorcas “was devoted to good works and acts of charity”. When she died and Peter arrived, “all the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them”. I think it is possible that Dorcas was so devoted to clothing the naked that she simply overworked herself. The zeal of the Holy Spirit consumed her so that she did many good things to live out her vocation, but perhaps she neglected to care for herself. And after God raised Dorcas back to life through Peter, perhaps Peter took her aside and said, “What you are doing is good, but remember to get some rest, or else the same thing is going to happen again.”
St. Francis of Assisi, who lived from 1181 to 1226, said, “Preach the gospel always. If necessary, use words.” Dorcas, who lived much earlier than Francis did, seemed to take that motto to heart. As we follow in Dorcas’ footsteps, caring for those around us who are in physical need, by making quilts, donating food and distributing it, volunteering to help at the Heart Mountain Volunteer Clinic, the Powell Valley Care Center, and however else we do this, let us remember to also care for ourselves, so that God can continue using us to help others and spread his love in the world.
A Meditation on Martha & Mary: Both Service & Worship Are Needed
These two women are two of the most beloved characters in the New Testament. Whole books have been written on them as women seek to be more godly: Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World is probably the most well-known, but there is also The Mary Martha Principles: Discovering Balance between Faith and Works, Mary in a Martha’s World: Quiet Times for Busy Mothers, and so on. Poor Martha just gets a bum rap: all she’s trying to do, after all, is to extend hospitality to this honored teacher. She wants everything to be perfect, and she’s annoyed with her sister for just sitting there. I’m sure all of us can identify a time like this in our lives.
The key to understanding this story is found in Jesus’ gentle rebuke: Martha is “worried and distracted by many things.” Extending hospitality in the form of preparing food is a good thing, and such hospitality is praised throughout the Bible. But, when the preparations for a meal and a clean house take over actually sitting and visiting with the guest—as they seem to have done in Martha’s case—then there is a problem. I believe that Jesus was pleased with whatever preparations Martha had been making, but that he would have been just as pleased to sit and visit with her as he was visiting with her sister, Mary.
And then there’s Mary. Mary, the bold woman who defied female stereotypes that said she should have been helping her sister in the kitchen. Mary, who felt that she had just as much right to sit at Jesus’ feet and learn from him as a man did. Part of me can identify with Mary, too, because aside from baking bread and cookies, I’m pretty helpless in the kitchen. I’d much rather be sitting and learning something than have to think about preparing food to eat. And don’t even get me started on how much I dislike grocery shopping. Erasmus, who was a contemporary of Martin Luther, said, “When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.” Yes, that is me.
But the point of the story of Mary and Martha is not to elevate worship and learning over service, or service over worship and learning. Both are needed. We each need to strive to find a way to balance both in our lives. Jesus commanded us in Matthew to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the prisoners. But in John, Jesus also said, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” As Christians, our lives are to be both that of service and of worship, but of neither one eclipsing the other. And so, when Martha boldly complains to Jesus as a child to a parent that her sister is not helping her with all the work, Jesus lifts up what Mary is doing, boldly sitting at his feet and learning from him, to put Mary’s act of hospitality on equal footing with Martha’s. May the Holy Spirit help us as we strive to keep these things in balance in our lives.