12 September, 2021 – Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19
The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
There is another version of this story…the story of the first confession of Jesus as the anointed one…The Messiah. Actually there are four different versions, but 3 of them, Matthew, Mark, and Luke are all pretty similar, and they all focus on Peter.
But there is a fourth version, in John (John11:25-26)…where Peter is not even mentioned. It goes like this: “Now, there was a certain sick man, Lazarus of Bethany, from the village of Mary and her sister Martha.” (Countryman translation, The Mystical Way in the Fourth Gospel. p.81ff). Are you with me? Remember the story? Remember that Jesus delays going until he hears Lazarus is dead, and arrives only after Lazarus has been in the tomb four days. A crowd has gathered, consoling the sisters, and as Jesus approaches, Martha goes out to meet him. And they have a fairly intimate and intense conversation out on the road. Jesus says, “Your brother will rise.” Martha replies, “I know that he’ll rise in the resurrection at the last day.” Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life…do you believe this?” And Martha says almost exactly the same thing Peter says today, “Yes, sir. I have believed that you are the anointed, God’s son, the one who is coming into the cosmos.” (John 16:27, Countryman trans.). Peter’s confession…but also Martha’s confession.
Now, it’s possible that there were no women around when the conversation Mark describes today took place. It’s also possible that Mark, Matthew, and Luke simply didn’t bother to record what any of the women who followed Jesus said in response to his question: “who do you say that I am?” Whatever the reason, we have three versions focused on Peter, and one focused on Martha. Of course, John is the Gospel where women are almost always the ones who are most receptive of and most responsive to the Good News of Jesus…His mother Mary at the wedding in Cana (John 2), “Do what he tells you,” we need water turned to wine. The woman at the well (John 4), who becomes the first evangelist to the Samaritans, and of course Mary Magdalene, whom John places not only at the foot of the cross as Jesus dies (John 19), but as the first at the tomb to see the resurrected Christ (John 20).
Three versions to one. I started wondering about this because of our reading from Proverbs…and this figure who cries out in the streets…Who raises HER voice in the square…at the busiest corners. Wisdom in Proverbs and elsewhere in the Hebrew scriptures is personified as female (wisdom is a female noun in Hebrew). But it’s not just Wisdom…next week we’re going to meet the “woman of strength” who shows up at the end of Proverbs.
I have to admit: Proverbs is not my favorite book of the bible. I find it tedious and full of odious platitudes that may have passed for “wisdom” in the distant past, but today are in desperate need of revision. It is a text by a privileged man to his privileged son about how to continue being privileged. But. It also contains these remarkable, towering female figures, who show up at the beginning and end and in interludes all throughout the book. Female figures who prophetically cry out in the streets.
Elsewhere in Proverbs, Wisdom is described as even more than just a female prophetic figure: she is the very first of God’s creations…Before even the deep, before the mountains, before there was anything…“I was with God” she says, (Proverbs 8:30, Jewish Study Bible). She is God’s confidant, God’s companion…”a source of delight every day” (Proverbs 8:31).
There is this powerful female voice interwoven through this very patriarchal book…Just as there are female voices threaded all through the scriptures…but are often overwhelmed by male voices…(three of Peter’s confessions to one of Martha’s)…As I pondered this, I started thinking about the dominance of male voices in our culture…About how male voices are often so prevalent, that it is hard to hear anyone else…anyone who speaks “in a different voice,”…in a different register…anyone who speaks from the margins…as the Syrophoenician woman did last week…Women have always been half the population of the entire world, and yet, wise female voices are still too easily lost…drowned out…even when they are standing in the middle of the square…crying out…”how long?”
And I started thinking about contemporary examples: I thought of Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi the women who founded the Black Lives Matter network. Tarana Burke who worked largely unknown for decades “at the intersection of racial justice […] and gender equity,” until her “metoo” work with survivors of sexual violence turned into the #metoo movement… Greta Thunberg sounding the prophetic alarm on climate change as she stood in front of the UN Climate Action Summit declaring: “How dare you!…Entire ecosystems are collapsing!”
I thought of one of my heroes Ella Baker. Most people have never heard of Ella Baker,* but they know all the men she worked alongside of and/or mentored over her five decades of social justice organizing: W. E. B. Du Bois,Thurgood Marshall, Stokely Carmichael, and a young preacher named Martin Luther King Jr. Ella believed that “strong people don’t need strong leaders,”and frequently reminded people that, it was “the movement that made Martin, rather than Martin making the movement,” and this she thought is how it should be. Sort of like, it was the movement that made Peter, and not the other way around.
Who personifies wisdom for you? What other voices do you need to hear?
What the scriptures—Wisdom and Martha—helped me remember this week, is that I will always see the world first through a lens of privilege; and the world will more often than not reflect that interpretation back to me, because of the preponderance of voices like mine…Here’s a story about Peter, and here’s a story about Peter, and here’s a story about Peter…must be a story about Peter…but what about Martha? What about Martha’s voice? What about the Samaritan Woman, and Mary, and all of those other non-male, and non-gendered voices crying out?
Let us be intentional about listening for Wisdom…listening for the Gospel…that speaks in different voices…Let us be intentional about letting go of the narratives that no longer serve all of us…that no longer uplift and sustain everyone…and let us follow the way, and the truth that most certainly leads to life for all. Amen.
*Full disclosure, I interned at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, CA for a summer while in seminary.