Saturday, 29 December 2012

A New Year Calling?

This is my sermon for Christmas 1C.
The readings are 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26, and Luke 2:41-52.

Last week, we heard about Jesus being born. This week we hear in our reading how his destiny begins to unfold.

It's rather like flipping through the family album. On page one - ahhh! Baby Jesus in the manger, surrounded by shepherds, Mary and Joseph and the shepherds all beaming at the camera. Do you remember how that donkey kept us awake all night with its eeyore? And the smell of that goat!

On page two - oh my goodness, that takes me back! Do you remember when that one was taken? Jesus just twelve years old and we thought we had lost him- you thought he was with your mum and dad, I thought he was with Mrs Nextdoor and her kids, and then those awful three days of panic before we finally found him in the temple. Look how cross he was at being dragged off home!

We are working with lots of different calendars today. On one timescale, Jesus was born just a few days ago. He is now five days old, perhaps just beginning to establish feeding to Mary's great relief. He is not yet sleeping through the nights, and Mary and Joseph are shattered. Even though they've registered for the census now, they can't begin to face the long journey home just yet. And to top it all,this enormous star is shining above the inn. We know, but they don't yet know, that it is acting as a beacon for the magi from the East, who saw it shine when Jesus was born and are even now travelling to find this new born king. On this calendar, they'll arrive next week, and Mary and Joseph will then flee before the jealous King Herod can find them and slaughter Jesus.

On the other calendar, our lectionary, we catch a rare glimpse into Jesus' childhood. In our gospel reading today we see him at 12 years old, on what we're told was his annual visit to Jerusalem with a great crowd of extended family and friends. It's fascinating to think that when Jesus went into Jerusalem as an adult, he was returning to somewhere he'd been many times as a child, the place of happy holiday memories. Even the temple, where he was to throw out the money changers and engage in a hostile and ultimately fatal confrontation with the scribes and Pharisees, was somewhere where, as a child, he had longed to be and had sat at the feet perhaps of some of those same scribes and Pharisees, or their fathers, asking eager questions.

And on our secular calendar, we are at the cusp of a new year, with most of 2012 behind us and 2013 stretching ahead. We've read the annual letters from assorted friends, relations and distant acquaintances, summarising what 2012 meant for them, and we may well have written our own, or taken mental stock of a year now ending. And we begin to turn to the new year, whether with New Years resolutions, new gym memberships, new diets, or simply with new holiday planning to look forward to. we have new diaries to fill, we may well know were about to be given new objectives and targets at work, we may be looking forward to a forthcoming birth or a wedding, or a special trip. Christmas can suddenly, even though it was only five days ago, seem so last year.

So many different calendars. All held together, today, by the central figure of Jesus, and his unfolding destiny, and what that means for us.

Both our readings this morning give us little glimpses into the childhood lives of great Biblical figures, the prophet Samuel as well as Jesus. The focus is very much on pointing out their destinies, that even as children they were part of Gods plan and were serving God's purposes. Samuel in particular is well known as the child who heard Gods voice, calling in the night - 'Samuel! Samuel!' - and thinking it was his mentor Eli who was calling, until Eli realises it must be God and advises him to reply 'here I am Lord, your servant is listening'.

And in our gospel reading today, we hear about Jesus, as a twelve year old, getting himself left behind in Jerusalem because he was so caught up in debating and learning in the temple.
We often focus, when we hear this story, on the human drama of a lost child. I'm sure those of you who are or have been parents or in any sort of caring relationship will know the surge of adrenaline you get when you realise the child you're responsible for is out of sight for a second - and the overwhelming relief, and anger, that comes when you find them again!

But I want to focus today on where these two stories coincide. Both end with an almost identical sentence:

Samuel, and Jesus, we are told, both continued to grow. They grew both naturally in size and age as children do, and they grew in favour with God and people.

It is unusual for the heroes of one, let alone two of our daily readings to be children. In these readings Jesus is 12, and Samuel about 7. And it is very noticeable that whilst they are both growing - there is a clear sense of future destiny for both - they are also both serving God and being the people they are called to be now, too. Jesus is sitting and learning from the temple authorities  - effectively sending himself to extra school because the subject fascinates him. Samuel is serving in the temple, being visited annually by his mother - I suppose the closest equivalent today is a choirboy at boarding school. They are both still learning from the masters, but they are also really doing religion themselves too, not just having it done to them. These children are demonstrating something of what it means for children to be the church of today as well as the church of tomorrow. They are still growing, but they aren't waiting until they are fully grown to get started on their life's work. Even as children, they are participating fully in the life of Gods church.

Sometimes we all feel that we will do something good, something important, but we are not ready just yet. We will make changes in our life, but not yet. The time isn't quite right just now. When we've learnt more, earned more, seen more, been more, then, then maybe then....but the time never seems to be quite right.

These stories of Samuel and Jesus as children show us, perhaps, that we can get on with things even as we are growing. We don't have to feel we've made it as Christians before we can be useful to God and others. God works with us as we grow and change and learn.

Just as God called Jesus to certain tasks and to a certain life, so God calls each one of us. We aren’t all called to the same things, and we are called to different things at different times. But we are all called to do something. We are all invited to co-operate with God in bringing his kingdom about. The start of a new year is a good time to take stock, and to make plans. And I want to suggest that it is also a good time for us to think and pray about what God is calling us to do and be. Because one thing I am absolutely sure of is that God has something for you to do in 2013. It might be more of the same. It might be radically different.

Think for a minute about the idea of us as God’s children, his heirs. One of the important things about that image is that there is a future dimension to it. Like Samuel, like Jesus, we are always growing and changing. We learn more and more about God, about ourselves, and about the world around us. We ask questions. We are constantly faced with choices to make about our lives. And what God wants from us can change too.

So as we stand at the start of a new year, what is God is calling you to in 2013?

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Monday, 17 December 2012

Rough Guide to Feminism 3: Recovering Women's Voices

A key area in which a distinctively Christian feminism has been revitalising Christian theology is in recovering women’s voices from the past.

An early and very influential book was Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s work ‘In Memory of Her’, which focused on the women who are either barely mentioned, or not mentioned at all in the Bible, but whose presence can be inferred. Since then it has become part of mainstream biblical scholarship and preaching to note the presence of women in the biblical texts.

Some are obvious, and the first step on this journey was simply to read and use the stories of the women that are indeed in the texts. The role of the Virgin Mary has been rediscovered in the Protestant tradition, for example, and Old Testament heroines such as Esther, Deborah and Jael are now much more commonly cited when we are doing a Sunday school series on Old Testament Stories or biblical heroes, in a way that simply didn’t happen a generation ago.

 More subtly, Christian feminism has pointed out the presence of other women who are relatively hidden in the texts. To take perhaps the most obvious example: The feeding of the 5000. We still call it that, don’t we? Yet what we’re told in Mark 6 is that those present ‘numbered five thousand men’, and in Luke ‘those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children’. Woah! This isn’t the feeding of the 5,000. It might be the feeding of the 10,000, or the 15 or 20 or 25, 000.

That passage is a very stark demonstration of how feminism can open our eyes to the extent that the Biblical texts were very much a product of their time. It would have suited the writers purposes to give us a bigger number, as it would have made the miracle even more impressive. It simply doesn’t seem to have occurred to them to count the women and children – literally, only men counted.

This is why Christian feminism is deeply sceptical of arguments against women’s ordination which are based on the so-called fact that Jesus only called male disciples. Really? We don’t actually know that.

What we know, as a strict matter of historical evidence, is that the biblical texts written between 70 and 200 or so years after Jesus’ ministry, describe 12 of his male followers as a special category of disciples. They also mention several female followers, often with an extremely close relationship to Jesus. Amazingly, in fact, we know that far more of these women were with Jesus at his death than the only male disciple recorded; and that women were the first witnesses of the resurrection. Feminist theologians wonder, therefore. Was there in fact such a distinction between the men and the women at the time, or might this be a later interpretation imposed on the record? The question is worth asking.

Similarly, another major strand of work amongst feminist theologians is the recovery and critical study of the work of female theologians of the past. It is still relatively common to see lists of major theologians, or anthologies of Christian writings, which include either no women at all, or only one or two examples, often Julian of Norwich or another of the medieval mystics. This is often defended on the basis that, sadly, the way the world was in the past meant that women simply weren’t given the education or the opportunity to write. The giants of Christian theology were indeed all male and there is not a lot we can do about that, runs the argument.

Yet in mainstream history we have largely discarded the ‘great men’ way of doing history in favour of a much more nuanced and multi-vocal approach. Historians are very used nowadays to seeking out the stories and voices wherever possible of those normal members of society who were having history, in the old model, done to them. And as feminist theologians have gone looking for women theologians of the past, they have found them, working away in whatever ways were just about deemed culturally acceptable and open to them at the time.

The amazing role of the early abbesses, for example,has been rediscovered in recent decades. Double monasteries, containing communities of both monks and nuns, were relatively common in England before they were banned in the papal reforms of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. And double monasteries were always headed by an Abbess, who was in overall charge of both communities; the most famous example, of course, being Hilda of Whitby.

The medieval mystics, of which Julian of Norwich is only the best known example, were very often women, and this was clearly a way in which women with great spiritual wisdom or theological gifts were able to use those in an acceptable – indeed, in a very highly valued – way.

Another aspect of women’s theological writing that has been rediscovered in recent years has been particular genres that were available to women. The most well known of these is poetry. Women writing poetry was very widely accepted, and with the invention of printing women’s poetry could even be published acceptably and enjoy a very wide readership. Some of these poems, such as those by Aemilia Lanyer – who is best known as one candidate for being Shakespeare’s ‘Dark Lady’ – are in fact carefully argued theological treatises, simply arranged in poetic form.

Another genre that was particularly available to women in the sixteenth and seventeenth century was the ‘Mother’s Legacy’. This was a book of theology written, or supposedly written, whilst a woman was pregnant. It took the form of a letter to her unborn child, the idea being that, if she were to die in childbirth, this is the substance of the faith that she would otherwise have taught the child in infancy. These were often substantial theological treatises, and again were frequently published and enjoyed wide sales. They were often published with a foreword pointing out that since the initial composition of the letter, the mother had found that other mothers of her acquaintance had found it helpful in teaching their own children, and that on the advice and entreaty of the local bishop it was now offered to a wider public.

So Christian feminism points out that our view of what is a theological writing has itself been skewed through a patriarchal lens.

Women were writing theology, they were simply having to use alternative genres to achieve acceptance and publication opportunities. If we continue to limit our view of what comprises the canon of classics to the university texts written by male theologians, after becoming aware of this other history, then we are complicit in continuing and extending the suppression of women’s voices.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Rough Guide to Feminism 2: Raising Awareness

The first key task of feminism is awareness raising.

And the first thing that feminism has contributed to modern Christianity is an increasing awareness that issues of sex and gender are issues at all. In particular, feminism has hoped to make people realize how much our cultural assumptions about what it is to be human have been based on what it is to be a particular type of adult man.

In the early days of feminism this needed saying again and again and again. Feminists have sometimes have been accused of being ‘strident’, and we’ve all had the experience of raising a point about gender in a meeting and seeing everyones eyes roll – there she goes again! But sometimes, when one is saying something that a culture doesn’t want to hear, you have to shout repeatedly to be heard at all.

Feminism is first and foremost about raising awareness of issues of sex and gender.

The two  terms 'sex' and 'gender' are often used interchangeably, but they represent slightly different aspects of the issues. In broad terms, ‘sex’ is a matter of biological reproductive fact. It concerns the variety of sexual and reproductive differentiation in both plants and animals. So when we speak of issues of sex we are properly speaking referring to issues regarding the spectrum of physical and biological differences between the male and female of the species.

‘Gender’, on the other hand, refers to a much wider variety of culturally determined understandings of what it is to be male or female. Sex, we might say, is a given; gender is performed. And there are a wide variety of gender identities, which often change over time: simple examples are girl/woman/mother/grandmother, or boy/man/father/grandfather. Each word encapsulates a distinct set of cultural expectations as to how that gendered role will be performed, and what it is to be a good boy, woman, father, grandmother. Once we grasp the idea of gender as performance and as a cluster of cultural expectations, we can see clearly just how much variety there is and has been historically.

In the past, the category of eunuch was a distinct male gender identity (there is a fascinating chapter on eunuchs in Teresa Berger's excellent book Gender Differences and the Making of Liturgical History). Nowadays, the category of gay man is clearly differentiated from the category of heterosexual adult male, or ‘family man’. In our culture, too, heterosexual adults who remain childless often find that they are problematised by society as not fitting neatly into any of our main cultural gender stereotypes.

In the early days of feminism this emphasis on raising awareness of sex and gender was heard as being about ‘women’s issues. But maleness is, of course, as gendered a concept as femaleness. I say ‘of course’, but in fact this is one of those seemingly obvious statements that people seem to find it very hard to fully accept.

Feminism has done quite well at this core task of awareness raising, though the task is by no means over. But the very fact that we are having arguments about women bishops, and that in those arguments nobody is suggesting that the women we have in senior roles now wouldn’t make excellent bishops, shows how far we have come.

Writing in the Church Times in the autumn, Rowan Williams argued that our current position in having women priests but not bishops is anomalous, and doesn’t reflect a proper theology of the priesthood of all believers. And he acknowledged the debt that Christian theology owes to this awareness raising task of feminism. He said: whilst ‘Wanting to move beyond this anomaly is not a sign of giving in to secular egalitarianism… we must be honest, and admit that, without secular feminism, we might never have seen the urgency of this, or the inconsistency of our previous position.’