Well in the years before the COVID pandemic, Peter Black, Jeff Spangler and I were doing Sunday afternoon worship services for the residents of Grace of Douglas nursing home here in Douglas. We were doing that on a semi regular rotating basis with other local churches. And I remember back then Reverend Sarah Turlough, who's the pastor of the First Congregational Church in Saugatuck, told us about her first Sunday doing services there.
There she was standing in her robe and in her stole. And one of the nursing home residents came up to her and said, “When is the pastor getting here” And when Reverend Sarah explained that she was the pastor, she said, the resident looked all confused, and said, “You can't be a pastor. You're a lady.”
I'm sure it was the very first time in this elderly man's life that he ever saw a woman pastor, or even knew that they existed. Now, although women make up 50 percent of doctors in our country, and almost 50 percent of lawyers, they only make up 9% of Christian pastors in the United States. If you took our new members class here at Douglas UCC, you learned about the history of our denomination, the United Church of Christ, and among our rich history of many firsts, we were the first to ordain a woman minister, something we're very proud of. But yet, here we are in 2023. And most Christian churches do not ordain women as pastors. And many of those don't even have women as deacons or leaders or elders in their churches. And when you ask them why, their reasoning is, ‘Well, it's in the Bible.’ It's the law of the Bible.
And they point to First Timothy, chapter two, which says, women are not permitted to teach or exercise authority over a man. And they point to First Corinthians, 14, which says, women are to be silent in churches, they are not permitted to speak.
Now we, of course, know that the Bible was written by men, men of the ancient world. At that time, they considered women to be inferior to men. In fact, they believed women were the property of men. And that is part of what Jesus is getting at in this very difficult reading from today's Gospel. He's actually getting to talk about their views on women, and adultery, and divorce, about how women are viewed as objects, and property.
Now, this passage comes from Jesus's famous sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, which we've been reading for the past several Sundays. And notice in this reading, Jesus says not once, but seven times, ‘The law says, but I say…” “The law says this, but I see this…”
You understand what Jesus was doing? He was taking scripture, what we now call the Old Testament, and he was reinterpreting it for the people of his time and place.
I know sometimes we get accused of picking and choosing passages from the Bible, but that's what Jesus did. And that's what Father Richard Rohr, our New Mexico friend reminded us of, in today's Words of Integration and Guidance – that Jesus ignored passages from the Bible, dismissed some, and interpreted the Scripture based on his time and place, based on his life experience. That Jesus did not read the Scripture literally.
In fact, what Father Rohr reminds us is that reading the Bible, solely from a literal level is the lowest level of meaning. He says it's immature to read the Bible that way. And that immature reading, he says is obvious. When the Bible is used to justify misogyny and homophobia and nationalism.
Jesus here is saying, ‘Yes, the law says that women are your property, but I say they are not.’ And Jesus, in fact, had women as leaders in his movement, in his ministry. So what Jesus is saying in the Sermon on the Mount is, it is no longer about following the letter of the law. It's about following the Spirit, and the Spirit is always pushing us forward and drawing the circle ever wider.
Now notice what else Jesus does here. He says, ‘Yes, it says in the law, in the 10 commandments, that you shall not commit adultery. But I say, if you look at a woman with lust in your mind, you already committed adultery. And it says that You shall not murder but I say, if you have a grudge against somebody, in your mind, you've already committed murder.’
Jesus is saying, it's our thoughts, or the things that we believe that are going to affect how we view the world. So of course, if you think that women are inferior to men, well, then of course, you're not going to promote them into leadership positions, of course, you're not going to give them equal pay. And of course, you're going to want to create laws that that are going to control their bodies.
If you believe that being gay is a sin, is immoral is a disorder, then of course, you're going to want to create laws to keep gay people from getting married and adopting children.
And if you believe that Christianity is the only way, then you're going to judge everyone else who's following a different faith tradition, and view them as wrong.
And that's the problem with our world today. People are so entrenched in their beliefs that anyone else who thinks other than what they think, is wrong. There's this phrase, cognitive dissonance, it means that your brain has difficulty interpreting something that goes against your long-held beliefs.
So it's like that man in the nursing home. His brain literally could not compute a woman pastor, because it went against everything, he was told, everything he believed.
I see that today with some of you with the gender issue. I hear some of you say, ‘I don't get it, this non-binary, they-them pronouns, I just don't get it. This, this is wrong.’ Your mind just shuts it down. Instead of wanting to understand, instead of expanding your thinking, talking to people, trying to understand other viewpoints.
Now, the good news is that we have seen so many attitudes and beliefs change, just in our lifetimes alone. In the long-standing history of human beings on this planet, in the short, little blip, in which we're living. We've seen civil rights and women's rights and gay rights expanding. People's thinking and beliefs are changing. It's such a wonderful thing.
You know, just a little more than 100 years ago, women in this country couldn't vote. And a little more than 50 years ago, women in this country couldn't even open a credit card in their own name without their husbands’ permission. And now we have a woman as the Vice President of the United States.
But while we might get excited about drawing the circle ever wider and including more and more people, whenever that happens, there are people who are in fear. They don't like change. And so what they want to do is shut it down.
And that is why we see people wanting to ban books and not teach certain subjects in school anymore. It's fear. But the good news is that we get to choose, we get to choose the world we want to live in. And that's what that first reading from Deuteronomy is about. God says, I've given you prosperity and adversity. I've given you life and death.
You understand? God's saying you get to choose. You can choose the world you want to live in. You can choose unity over division. You can choose understanding over judgment. And you can choose love over fear.
It's your choice. So choose wisely.
Mahatma Gandhi said, our thoughts become our beliefs. And our beliefs become our actions. And our actions become our destiny.
So let's choose wisely. So that we can continue our Christian calling of building the beloved community, a just world that works for all people. May we the people of Douglas UCC, we the people of salt and light in this season of Epiphany, go forth and continue to build the kingdom of heaven.
Let us make it so, right here on Earth.
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration & Guidance
Father Richard Rohr
I attempt to interpret scripture as I see that Jesus did. It is rather clear in Jesus’ usage that not all scriptures are created equal. He consistently ignored or even denied exclusionary and punitive texts in his own Jewish scriptures in favor of passages that emphasized inclusion and mercy. He knew what passages were creating a highway for God and which passages were merely cultural, self-serving, paranoid, tribal, and legalistic additions. Jesus read his own inspired scriptures in a spiritual and highly selective way, which is why he was accused of “teaching with authority and not like our scribes.” He even told the fervent and pious “teachers of the law” that they had entirely missed the point: “You understand neither the scriptures nor the power of God.” The New Testament was written in Greek—a language which Jesus did not understand—and was composed thirty to seventy years after Jesus’ death. We can conclude that the exact words of Jesus were apparently not that important for the Holy Spirit or for us. We have only a few snippets of Jesus’ actual words in his native Aramaic. This should keep us all humble and searching for our own experience of the Risen Christ instead of arguing over Greek verbs and tenses. Literalism is invariably the lowest and least level of meaning. For deep readers, sacred texts open up the endless possibilities for life and love. The immature approach is obvious when scriptures are used to justify slavery, apartheid, Western capitalism, nationalism, consumerism, and almost any other “-ism” that serves our egocentricity. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus repeats seven times in a row, “The Law says and I say.” Jesus relied upon both his enlightened reading of story and his own experience, too. He relied on both, and so can we.
What did you think?