I was deposed from my pulpit this morning: the result of a coup pulled off by a band of militant females known as The United Methodist Women. These rebels are known to have sleeper cells across the United States. Here in Mattoon they occupied my pulpit, commandeered the offering, and completely took over the choir. Nary an an authoritative man could be found among all Mattoon's Methodists.
Don't, however, be overly alarmed for me. By the end of the morning the women had given me back my robe and my Bible, vacated the building, and allowed me to resume my pastorate. But their temporary takeover lingers as a reminder that mighty powers brew in any church where women get themselves organized.
Today's usurpation reminds me that much of life is caught up in the battle of the sexes. And religion has always been a primary combat zone for that strife.
In both Judaism and Christianity, men made the first move by studding the Bible itself with sexist insults and subtle insinuations. Think of what's in there: the man should be the head of the family, women are to be eternally blameworthy in revenge for Eve enticing her husband to eat the forbidden fruit, women were created solely for the wellbeing of men, women are ruinously manipulative and must be controlled, women must keep their mouths shut in church, women must not braid their hair or wear gold jewelry, wives must be submissive to their husbands... The Bible is full of such stink bombs. These might be relegated to historical curiosities, inviting us to learn from the mistakes of the past. But then along comes some oaf who wholesales all these sins into the present age and passes them off as "the will of God."
In one of my early episodes of pastoral counseling (four decades ago) I was listening to a woman talk of being beaten repeatedly by her husband. The reason she kept going back to him? She was scared of that biblical verse that tells a wife to be totally submissive to her husband. This woman was abused by her spouse. But she was trapped in that abuse by her church.
Who told her that she would go to hell if she sought liberation from her husband? Who over-interpreted the passage that urges victims to turn the other cheek when violently attacked, especially women who are being destroyed by their husbands? This precious soul had never heard a pastor, a Sunday School teacher, or a spiritual mentor thoughtfully explain those biblical texts that devalue women. These are verses that need to be researched and reoriented and reinterpreted in the spirit of the loving Christ who gives eternal and abundant life to all.
And what message was the institutional church subtly reinforcing when it had no women bishops and no women serving in large congregations? What messages were we sending our grandmothers and mothers and sisters, when up until 1956 we refused to fully ordain women? What is it like to grow up in a denomination that exemplifies its disdain for women by limiting their access to formal power structures?
To all who would feed Bible verses to the demon of sexism, there is this: a profound difference between biblical customs and biblical ethics. There are thousands of biblical customs: sometimes quaint, sometimes instructive, sometimes dangerous. But there is only one biblical ethic: love your neighbor.
Neither can sexists get away with spin control on the biblical narratives. Bible stories seldom reveal the eternal will of God for our lives. More usually such stories offer us invaluable glimpses into the good and bad of being human.
A single Bible story (such as Adam and Eve) almost never plumbs the depths of God's mysterious nature. Fortunately, however, the sum of all the biblical narratives gives us an artistic insight into the nature of God: a developmental format, describing one who increasingly renders divine justice and mercy. Biblical narratives mostly portray God as highly attentive and highly relational to humans: as we continually mature and regress and mature again.
Women have had to organize and fight back from the very beginning. And you can see traces of that too happening in the Bible. Powerful women, even though chauvinistically caricatured, break free from the margins and change the whole community: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Elizabeth, and the hosts of New Testament Marys.
How is it that women were entrusted to care for the battered and bloody body of the crucified Jesus on the day of his death, but many churches still do not allow women to handle the bread and wine (signs of the body and blood of Jesus) in worship? How is it that we overlook Paul's assertion that in Christ there is no male or female (Gal. 3:28)? How is it that many Christians overlook the entire life of Jesus as he exemplifies equanimity for the genders? (Okay...so the 12 disciples were all men. Personally? I'd trade in the whole dozen of them for just one New Testament Mary!)
Back in the old Methodist Church, women had to be subversive and conspiring if they were to be faithful to their discipleship. Men wouldn't let them do anything in the church! In order to find freedom for themselves and a path to serving others who were oppressed, they formed "below the radar" societies. The United Methodist Women organization of today is the descendent of those early rebels bands.
For historically dominated people everywhere, the world is different in 2016 than it was in 1816. Then there were disenfranchized women, oppressed people in colonial lands, black slaves, hidden homosexuals, and homeless American Indians. In some ways there has been progress. Thanks be to God.
But sin is sin and it doesn't go away. Nowadays a woman can get elected bishop...and a black man can get elected President of the United States. But hatred, bigotry, and domination yet abide. These evils just get deeper, more complex, and more deadly.
I was pleased to be overthrown by the United Methodist Women this morning. I just hope they find a way to really rock the church...and soon. For our daughters have no less a challenge than their great-great-great grandmothers. The struggle is just more sophisticated, hidden, and malevolent these days. Go UMW!!! --Mike