A sermon by Mary E. Johnson, Guest Preacher
Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
Saint Paul, MN
Do any of these names sound familiar to you: Patricia Locke, Jacqueline Left Hand Bull, Zilpha Elaw, Julia Foote, Sojourner Truth, Ada Marie Isasi-Diaz, how about Grace Ji-Sun Kim? More on this in a moment.
When I was a little girl, probably around 8 or 9 years old, I came to my mother one day with a lament. She was usually a reliable source of consolation. I don’t clearly remember the details of my complaint. One of my little friends had likely hurt my feelings or I had witnessed some playground injustice. In response to my complaint, my mother said something to me that day that I have never forgotten. We lived in a small town and she knew everyone. So she probably knew things about other people that I didn’t know. She said, “Mary, people are generally doing the best they can.” I don’t think her response was all that helpful at the time. But the sentiment has stayed with me throughout my entire adulthood. People are generally doing the best they can. A message of compassion, kindness, understanding. And a gift from my mother to me for the rest of my life.
A prophet is a person regarded as an inspired teacher or proclaimer of the will of God. The word comes from the Greek – prophetes – to speak for God.
There are plenty of prophets included in, what Dr. Wilda Gafney calls, The First Testament. We heard from Isaiah this morning. The Hebrew scriptures also include Jeremiah, Ezekial, Lamentations, Daniel. The major prophets.
Minor prophets include Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah – there’s a whole bunch of them.
There are no books of the Bible devoted to preserving the prophecies of women. But the Bible does record prophetic words from some women: Deborah, Abigail, the nameless “women with Good News”, the “wailing women”.
Apparently the jury is still out on whether or not women were prophets. If you do a Google search of “women prophets in the Bible” you will get these results: 8 female prophets in the Bible; Who are the 3 female prophets in the Bible?; 5 righteous women called prophetess in the Bible; and my favorite, dangerous women prophets in the New Testament.
Dr. Gafney, the author of the lectionary we are using for this Season of Epiphany, reminds us that: “There are untold numbers of female prophets hiding in the masculine grammar and androcentric focus of the Hebrew scriptures. There were women prophets in the communities around biblical Israel, existing for hundreds of years and even a thousand years before the Israelite and Judean prophets recorded their messages.”
Untold numbers of hidden female prophets. Predating the Israelite and Judean prophets by hundreds or thousands of years.
Why is it that the voices of women prophets are, as Gafney points out, “hidden in the masculine grammar of the Hebrew scriptures” and thus, not expressly included as prophecy in the biblical text? A sign of the times? Cultural? Editorial selection? Perhaps another example of the devaluing of women’s’ voices?
I am not asking this question just because I am a shrill, old feminist. I ask because in today’s gospel we witness Jesus teaching those gathered around him about prophets. About who qualifies as a prophet. Challenging them to consider who they were expecting to find:
What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A person dressed in luxurious robes from a royal house?
Jesus is schooling his followers. He is, once again, turning convention on its head, challenging assumptions, crashing through tired old boundaries, provoking his followers with the idea that someone as odd and marginal as John – the prophet standing right in their midst – could not only be their prophet, but the chosen, the sent prophet.
Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you and more than a prophet. He is the one about whom it is written, Look, I am sending you my messenger ahead of you who will prepare your way before you.
Do you know anyone you consider to be a prophet in your life? Someone who speaks with the voice of God in your life? Someone who speaks the voice of truth to you in your life?
Or perhaps you have experienced a prophetic moment in your life.
Today’s Gospel begs the question: From whom are we willing to recognize and accept prophecy? Recognize and accept the voice of God in our lives?
I have to ask myself these questions. I am sure I have missed numerous opportunities to hear the voice of God in my life. I am sure I have disqualified several potential prophets because they didn’t, in my view, qualify as messengers speaking with the voice of God in my life.
Maybe they were odd or non-conforming , unexpected, easy to dismiss, or scary.
Or maybe I just didn’t want to hear what they had to say. We’re not always ready for the truth. We’re not always ready for the voice of God.
Maybe this is what happened to the voices of women prophets in the Hebrew scriptures. They seemed odd or non-conforming, unexpected or scary.
In 2003 there was a remarkable television program about an adolescent girl who talks with God. The show was called, “Joan of Arcadia.” Joan was an ordinary high school student in many ways. Her concerns were the concerns of her adolescent peers. Her preoccupations seemed quite normal for a young woman of her age. But Joan had a certain humility, a certain maturity that opened her to hearing God’s voice as it was spoken to her.
Joan wasn’t sitting in a church pew when God spoke to her. She wasn’t out in nature trying to connect. She wasn’t in yeshiva or catechism class.
Joan’s first encounter with the Divine involved a “boy at school” who approached her out of the blue and said, “Joan, I need to talk to you.” When she resisted because he was a stranger, the boy demonstrated an encyclopedic knowledge of Joan’s life – her history, her family, even her favorite color and fear of clowns. He said, “I knew you before you were born.” Joan was so frightened by this stranger that she looked him in the eye and yelled, “Don’t you ever talk to me again.
Imagine being approached by such a stranger. What would you do? What would you do when you realized the stranger knew you. Knew you, as Psalm 139 says, before you were born. What would you do?
Joan’s first encounter with God frightened her. But as the story unfolds, she becomes increasingly comfortable with her encounters because she learned to listen to the way God speaks to her. And God comes to her in many forms – the lunch lady at school, the homeless person on the park bench, the neuro-diverse kid in the bookstore. And, no surprise, all of the manifestations of God were easy to dismiss. Like John. Like the women teachers and prophets. Like the kidnapped, slave girl in last week’s reading from 2 Kings.
By the way – Those names I asked you about at the beginning: They are all Native American, Hispanic, African American, and Asian theologians and modern-day prophets. All women.
In 1993 two Native American women – Patricia Locke and Jacqueline Left Hand Bull – address the Parliament of World Religions, a global gathering of world religions. They said, “The profoundly religious Original Peoples of the Western Hemisphere have been uninvited for the past 100 years. We are still here and still struggling to be heard for the sake of Mother Earth and our children.” A prophetic challenge.
The voices of Black women have historically been silenced, especially in theological and religious contexts. Nineteenth-century Black women preachers Zilpha Elaw, Julia Foote and Sojourner Truth are not usually presented in systematic theology classes or texts and not often cited in sermons for their biblical interpretations nor are they taught in church history courses. They should be.
Ada Maria Isai-Diaz was a Cuban-American theologian who innovated Hispanic theology in general and mujerista or feminist theology in particular. She was instrumental in bringing the Hispanic, feminine voice to the proclamation of liberation theology but her contributions are rarely mentioned.
Grace Ji-Sun Kim is Associate Professor of Theology at Earlham School of Religion. Dr. Kim has been cited for her seminal work entitled, Healing Our Broken Humanity. She says, “In order to really heal the world we need the “wisdom of darkness.” This can be the developing world, people different from us, or our own shadows – all the things we do not want to confront within ourselves. I think we need “endarkment,” not enlightenment, to heal the world.”
All of these women embody that “still, small voice” of God. Teachers and prophets. They join the kidnapped slave girl from 2 Kings, my mother, and the prophets in your lives.
Today we are called to listen to the voice of God, to open our hearts to God’s voice as it is spoken to us. The messengers may not be – at all – who we were expecting.