“Lament is the power of truth that makes the powerful tremble and gives the powerless strength.”
A powerful sermon amplifying the voices of women lamenting the abuse and subjugation experienced by women through the ages – and calling the church to break its silent complicity in the creation of a culture that dehumanizes women.
For further reading, see the work of the Reverend Dr. Wil Gaffney and her Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne: http://www.wilgafney.com/.
Sermon preached at All Saints Church on Sunday, December 3, 2017, by Mike Kinman.
The wisdom of this sermon comes from six women. The primary work of the preacher was to edit and amplify. The primary authors of this sermon are:
Dr. Emilie Townes, Dean, Vanderbilt Divinity School.
Enslavement and Freedom: Emilie Townes – Lament https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3BJI0SJ1OJQ
The Rev. Dr. Wilda Gafney, Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible, Brite Divinity School, Fort Worth, Texas.
Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah ad the Throne (http://www.vromansbookstore.com/book/9780664239039).
Lisa Sharon Harper, Founder, Freedom Road (http://freedomroad.us/)
Lisa Sharon Harper on Lament and Asking Forgiveness – http://kenwytsma.com/2014/09/23/lisa-sharon-harper-on-lament-and-asking-forgiveness/
The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right (http://www.vromansbookstore.com/book/9781601428578)
The Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, Dean, Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary; Canon Theologian at Washington National Cathedral
“The Blues: A Signifying Lament” in Sexuality and the Sacred: Sources for Theological Reflection – http://www.vromansbookstore.com/book/9780664233662
Author of multiple books – http://www.vromansbookstore.com/search/site/kelly%20brown%20douglas
Alice Walker, author
The Way Forward is with a Broken Heart – http://www.vromansbookstore.com/book/9780345407955
The Rev. Traci Blackmon, Executive Minister for Justice and Witness, United Church of Christ – http://www.ucc.org/about-us_meet-our-officers
“¡Oh, si rompiese los cielos, y descendieras, y a tu presencia se escurriesen los montes!”
“Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would shake before you!”
Advent begins in silence. And then silence is broken.
There is a cry. A scream. A plaintive, exhausted, angry, voice-trembling yet profoundly powerful wail.
We begin this new liturgical year not in blinding light but in the holy darkness of the lengthening nights and shortening days. The darkness that provides holy safety for things first to be whispered before they can be shouted. The holy darkness that has seen it all and provides the cover and courage for silence to be broken and truth to be told. We begin this journey toward Christmas, this season of expectation not by looking forward but by looking back, and looking around, and looking deep inside.
Advent begins in silence. And then silence is broken with a cry of deep lament.
“Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would shake before you!”
Lament shatters the silence. That is one of its greatest gifts. For silence imprisons as much as any chain. Lament is liberation. Lament is the found voice of those who have been told they might as well keep quiet because their voice will never be heard or believed. Lament is Dr. King’s riot that is the language of the unheard. Lament is the telling of truth that makes the powerful tremble and that gives the powerless strength. And it is hard. And it is raw. And it will not be denied.
In the words of womanist theologian and scholar Dr. Emilie Townes, “A true corporate lament … calls the entire community into the conversation. It gives us a way of saying ‘this is what I’m experiencing, this is what is happening to me, this is what I’ve seen happen to others. This is what we need. This is what we want.”
And then she reminds us: “The Biblical laments have no guarantee that God will come through. The whole point of lament is to tell the truth of what is going on in the community. It just so happens that God always comes through. But for that corporate group of people, they don’t know it at the time. We get to know it by reading the Bible and seeing what happens afterwards.
Townes asks, “So how can we then, as contemporary people of faith, live in that kind of faithfulness? That ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen but I know I’ve got to tell the truth and I know I’ve got to go to God because God is the only thing, person, being, essence, whatever you find God to be in your lives, it’s that God that can hold this and get us through.’ And then once you’ve got the truth out you can talk about it.”
Advent begins with silence. And then the silence is broken with a cry of deep lament. Lament for what has been and is being done to us. Lament for what we have done and are doing to one another. It is a lament that not only echoes today but is growing in strength and urgency.
It is a lament of many voices. It is the lament in the face of an abomination of a tax bill passed early yesterday morning that has reversed the anthem of this season, the Magnificat, a tax bill that has enthroned the mighty and cast out the lowly, a tax bill that will fill the rich with good things and the hungry send empty away.
It is a lament of many voices. And this Advent, this season of Mary and Magnificat, it is appropriate and so long overdue that we are hearing most clearly the voices, the laments of women. Women whose oppression and pain and suffering have long been normalized. Women who have been silenced not just for years or generations but for millennia.
It is Advent, and before God comes. before the Christ comes, there is a great cry. There is a great scream of pain and injustice and deep, deep rage. The cries we are hearing now are the living voices of the cries of millennia of ancestral women.
We have been normalizing and even celebrating the sexual abuse and subjugation of women for thousands of years and we know this because we have been doing it in the very scriptures we read and study and look to for revelations of God’s love and purpose for us.
I cannot recommend enough Dr. Wilda Gafney’s new book, Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne. She takes a detailed tour through all the women in the Bible – those named and the countless that are not – and points out the atrocities we have been hearing and accepting as normal and even good for thousands of years.
In Genesis alone, Gafney reminds us that our spiritual matriarch, Sarah, was not only a “survivor of sexual violence and domestic abuse” with the consent and complicity of her husband, Abraham, but also orchestrates Abram’s sexual abuse of Hagar and is not only a party to it but a beneficiary of it.
In the next generation, Rebekah, like Sarai, before her, is given into sex slavery by a husband who orders her to pose as his sister instead of his wife for fear that he might be killed so a more powerful man could have her.
Still a generation later, the story of Rachel is problematic from the beginning. Gafney notes that “Jacob kisses Rachel before telling her (or the men with her) that he is related to her, and no one is disturbed by this intimate contact. There is no other narrative in the Hebrew scripture where a man kisses a woman who is not related to him.” Both Rachel and her sister Leah are property whose bodies are sold by their father to Jacob for use at his pleasure not theirs.
And then there are the women whose only purpose in the narrative is to be objects of rape and abuse. Bilhah is what Gafney calls a “womb-slave” of Rachel, ordered by Rachel to have sex with Jacob so she could bear his child. Bilhah, and another womb-slave, Zilpah, had their bodies taken and used to produce one third of the twelve tribes of Israel. Gafney notes “The reader must imagine how many times the slave-women were forced to have sex with these men in order to provide their mistresses with the children they craved.”
I could go on and on and on and on. These are stories we have been reading for thousands of years and we are taught to nod our heads. And even if we dismiss these stories, as most, but certainly not all, do Biblical stories of slavery and polygamy. Even if we dismiss them as products of a different time in human history, our silence about them has and continues to nurture a climate where violence against women Is seen as an acceptable part of life. Telling the story of Sarah, Hagar and Abraham without confronting the evil in it sends a subtle yet powerful message that sexual harassment and abuse of women are to be an accepted part of daily life – the Bible says so.
Telling the story of Rachel, Leah and Jacob without confronting the evil in it sends a subtle yet powerful message to every girl that hears it that it’s OK to be touched and kissed without consent, and to every boy that it is OK to touch and kiss someone else without their consent. – the Bible says so.
Not telling the story of Bilhah and Zilpah at all – their story is noticeably absent from our lectionary — is erasing the story of every enslaved woman who was raped to bear children for the man who claimed ownership of her body, erasing the story of every woman whose sexual abuse as a child led to her being sold on the streets a short time later, the story of every woman who has had control over their body taken away from them.
These stories – told and untold — have shaped us. They are part of a common narrative about the usability and disposability of anyone who is not cis-gender male. And once we dehumanize one group of people it is a small step to dehumanizing another, so our narrative of usability and disposability expands to include people of color and people living in poverty, and LGBTQ persons and the list goes on and on and on – and that’s how you get the tax bill that was passed this weekend with its operative ethic of human disposability. There is an intersectionality to all these oppressions. There is a deep and painful harmony to all these songs of lament.
We have been telling these stories and normalizing rape and violence against women and human disposability and nodding our heads for a long, long, time. Oh, this lament is a long time in coming. And as a church we are struggling to respond. We are struggling because of our own deep complicity in sexual abuse not just in our scriptures but in our behavior.
We are struggling because, as theologian, author and prophet Lisa Sharon Harper says “The American church is shaped and its vision limited by its experience of the world, and ours is an experience shaped by triumph, not tragedy. American cultural legends, myths, symbols and heroes, shape our understandings of ourselves in relationship to the world. The Lone Ranger, Manifest Destiny, the city on a hill, and John Wayne live at the heart of the American identity. This triumphal identity causes us to gravitate to triumphal narratives in scripture.
“For example, while African Americans have a profound relationship with the story of the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt, that is not the identity defining narrative of the general public in the U.S. Our nation’s formative story is that of those same Hebrews entering their promised land. Our nation’s founders forged that mythical comparison in the early years of our nation’s history.”
She continues: “What use does a culture built on the myth of triumph have for lament? …Not much. As a result, when confronted with the outcomes of the realities of our world: racism, gender injustice, nativism, the degradation of God’s creation, sin against immigrants and people of other religions, then we are dumbstruck. We don’t know how to respond.”
That’s where we find ourselves now. We don’t know how to respond. Or maybe we just want to respond in some way that will make it stop and make us comfortable again. So how do we respond to lament?
And it’s here that another brilliant womanist theologian, The Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, gives us some guidance for how we can respond. She reminds us that “lament was both a pastoral activity and a prophetic activity. It was pastoral as it provided a means for the Israelites to give voice to their suffering. It was prophetic in that it allowed them not simply to name the crisis they were facing, but also to recognize any responsibility they may have had in producing or sustaining the named crisis. With such recognition, they were then equipped to discern the power they had to end the crisis. ..It … served … as a vehicle for self-critique and accountability.”
Dr. Douglas reminds us there are two purposes for lament, the pastoral and the prophetic. Each is important and we must not rush through the first to get to the second.
The pastoral is where we are right now. It is the people crying out “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would shake before you!” It is the #MeToo hashtags and the stories that are being shouted and the ones that are still being whispered in the silence of the hearts of those who are not ready and may never be ready to speak.
Yes, Christmas is coming. Yes, Jesus is coming. And there will be healing. And there will be justice. But for now, it is Advent. For now it is time to cry. For now it is time to scream. For now it is time to wail.
And as the silence is broken. As those voices cry and scream and wail, we need to stop, and we need to center those voices, we need to listen to those voices, we need to believe those voices. Emilie Townes is right — a true corporate lament does call the entire community into the conversation. And, in the words of Alice Walker, the role for some people in this conversation right now is to speak earnestly and for others it is to listen fearlessly. And right now, people like me who are used to talking a lot need to shut up enough so those who need to talk can be listened to fearlessly – so I’m going to sit down in just a minute here.
Lament has a pastoral and a prophetic purpose, and the pastoral is where we are right now. And that means recognizing that there is a cost to the cry. That truth-telling takes its toll on the truth-teller. And so, the questions we must ask are how can we create and hold space for one another in this time? How can we care for one another in this time? How can we honor the stories and recognize that for the abused, the telling of the stories is both healing and retraumatizing so we provide both space and care at no cost to those who have already paid so steep a price?
Advent begins in silence. And then the silence is broken.
Lament shatters the silence. That is one of its greatest gifts. For silence imprisons as much as any chain. Lament is the telling of truth that makes the powerful tremble and that gives the powerless strength. And it is hard. And it is raw. And it is abrasive. And if it makes some of us uncomfortable, we need to heed the words of the Rev. Traci Blackmon and “sit down in our discomfort. And listen, listen, and listen some more. And when we’re done listening the first question we ask is ‘have I heard you correctly?’”
Christmas is coming. And as Dr. Townes reminds us, God will come through because she always does. And there will be healing. And there will be justice. And we must dedicate ourselves to letting God work through us so the prophetic purpose of lament will be served. That responsibility will be claimed. Reparations will be made. Systems will be changed and cycles of rape, oppression and abuse will be broken.
Christmas is coming. And God will show up. But for now, it is Advent.
Now it is time to cry.
Now it is time to scream.
Now it is time to wail.
Now it is time to listen. Amen.