Bad Women of the Bible – 12/09/21

Opening Music: ‘Chalice meditation – Gather us In’ by David Kent

Words of Welcome and Chalice Lighting: Welcome to this day and to this gathered community of Kensington Unitarians here on Zoom. Our Unitarian faith welcomes all people of goodwill who seek a faith to guide our steps, to stir our hearts and challenge our thinking. Let’s gather to remind the world that it’s important to explore the nature of truth, it’s healthy to be uncertain and not always have the answer, and it’s comforting to make deep connections – connections with ourselves, connections with one another and connections with that which we hold to be of greatest worth. So let’s take a moment to sense all those connections, …… (light chalice) and may this our simple chalice flame, worldwide symbol of our Unitarian and Unitarian Universalist faith, remind us of the oneness from which all else unfolds.

If you are here for the first time today with us on Zoom – a particular welcome to you. I hope you find something of value to you here. Please do stay afterwards for a chat or drop us an email to introduce yourself if you’d like. Or think about coming to one of our small-group gatherings during the week as they’re a good way to get to know people and find out more about us as a congregation. And if you’re a regular here – thank you for all that you do to build our togetherness. Even on Zoom, we each help to co-create this sacred space, this sense of community. So whoever you are, however you are, whatever has brought you here, know you are welcome, just as you are.

As we always say, feel free to do what you need to do to be comfortable this hour – it’s lovely to see your faces in the gallery and to have a sense of togetherness – but we know for some it will feel more comfortable to keep your camera mostly-off and that’s fine. Similarly there’ll be opportunities to join in as we go along there’s no compulsion to do so. You can quietly rest back with our blessing.

Candles of Joy and Concern: Each week when we gather together, whether it’s in person at the church in Kensington or here as an online congregation, we share a simple ritual of candles of joy and concern, an opportunity to light a candle and share something that is in our heart with the community. So we’ve got a good few minutes now, for anyone who would like to do so, to light a candle (real or imaginary) and say a few words about what it represents.

When you’re ready to speak, unmute your microphone so we can all hear you, and then re-mute yourself once you’ve finished. If you are going to speak, let’s all be aware of how long we’re speaking for, so that there’s time for others to say something too. Don’t worry if two people end up speaking at the same time, or there’s a technical hitch of some sort – these things happen on Zoom – please do persevere as we want to hear from you. And if your device allows, do switch to gallery view at this point so we can all see everybody.

I’ve got one more candle here and – as we often do – I’m going to light that candle to represent all those joys and concerns that we might be holding silently in our heart today. Let’s take a moment now to think of the issues for people in our community and their connections with our wider world. We might think too of something that we’re aware of and didn’t speak about. …. All life is represented here – matters small and great, sources of both joy and anxiety – let’s imagine that the whole world rests here and that our loving compassion and thoughtful actions may be a comfort and a support to those in need… and let’s hold them – and each other – in compassion and loving-kindness, as we move into an extended time of prayer now, which will include some words of remembrance for all those affected by the terrorists attacks of 9/11, some twenty years ago and the events that followed on the world stage.

So let’s each do what we need to do to get ourselves into the right state of body and mind for it – perhaps shift your position, finding a position that helps you turn inwards – close your eyes or soften your gaze – whatever helps you get your heart in the right place to be fully present with yourself, each other, and that greater life which holds us all.

Time of Prayer and Reflection: Great spirit of all life and all love be with us now. Remind us that we are part of something greater than ourselves, nudging us beyond dualities of right and wrong, good and bad. Help us find a way of viewing the complexities of our world, within which we know a reality where all is one, where each includes all, where separation is a trick of the human mind.

This weekend we remember the terrorist attacks in the United States known as 9/11. We remember too the so called ‘war on terror’ which followed. We think of those who lost their lives, their loved ones or their communities and we recognise the problems faced in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan to this day.

We know too in our own lives the times when our attempts to do right have caused more difficulties. Many of us struggle to live in right relationship within human societies that are so very imperfect. Many of us yearn for a more peaceful, just and creative way of living one with another.

Help us to move beyond polarities in our thinking, to a place where all is one – one life force inhabiting one planet earth home, a wondrous diversity of expression, of which we are one small element. In a few moments of silence now I invite you to focus on your own particular cares and prayers this day ……

Great spirit of all that is,
Be for us a guiding light.
Be for us calm in every storm.
Be for us stillness in our turmoil.
Let Your Grace now rest upon us and upon all beings, this day and all days. And to that aspiration let each of us, if we so wish say Amen, so may it be.

Reading: from ‘The Power of Myth’ by Joseph Campbell

This reading comes from an interview with Joseph Campbell, the American educator and professor of comparative mythology and religion. He was interviewed by Bill Moyers who asked him: Why myths? Why should we care about myths? What do they have to do with my life?

Campbell replied: My first response would be, “Go on, live your life, it’s a good life–you don’t need mythology.” I don’t believe in being interested in a subject just because it’s said to be important. I believe in being caught by it somehow or other. But you may find that, with a proper introduction, mythology will catch you. And so, what can it do for you if it does catch you?

One of our problems today is that we are not well acquainted with the literature of the spirit. We’re interested in the news of the day and the problems of the hour. It used to be that the university campus was a kind of hermetically sealed-off area where the news of the day did not impinge upon your attention to the inner life and to the magnificent human heritage we have in our great tradition–Plato, Confucius, the Buddha, Goethe, and others who speak of the eternal values that have to do with the centering of our lives. When you get to be older, and the concerns of the day have all been attended to, and you turn to the inner life–well, if you don’t know where it is or what it is, you’ll have missed out.

Greek and Latin and biblical literature used to be part of everyone’s education. Now, when these were dropped, a whole tradition of mythological information was lost. It used to be that these stories were in the minds of people. When the story is in your mind, then you see its relevance to something happening in your own life. It gives you perspective on what’s happening to you. With the loss of that, we’ve really lost something because we don’t have a comparable literature to take its place. These bits of information from ancient times, which have to do with the themes that have supported human life, built civilizations, and informed religions over the millennia, have to do with deep inner problems, inner mysteries, inner thresholds of passage, and if you don’t know what the guide-signs are along the way, you have to work it out yourself. But once this subject catches you, there is such a feeling, from one or another of these traditions, of information of a deep, rich, life-vivifying sort, that our living is deepened through mythology.

Hymn: The theme of this morning’s service is based on the Bible and that’s probably why I chose this first hymn – called Isaiah the Prophet. It’s about God’s yearning for a better world and it uses some beautiful imagery from the Book of Isaiah. We’ll all be muted so do feel free to join in singing or simply sit and listen to this recording from our congregation in Kensington – you might recognise a cough or a rustle or a scrape of a chair on the floor.

Isaiah the prophet has written of old
how God’s new creation shall come.
Instead of the thorn tree, the fir tree shall grow
and the wolf shall lie down with the lamb, the lamb,
the wolf shall lie down with the lamb.

The mountains and hills shall break forth into song,
the peoples be led forth in peace;
the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of God
as the waters cover the sea, the sea,
as the waters cover the sea.

Yet nations still prey on the meek of the world,
and conflict turns parent from child.
Your people despoil all the sweetness of earth;
and the brier and the thorn tree grow wild, grow wild,
and the brier and the thorn tree grow wild.

God bring to fruition your will for the earth,
that no one shall hurt or destroy,
that wisdom and justice shall reign in the land
and your people shall go forth in joy, in joy,
your people shall go forth in joy.

Meditation, Silence, Music: ‘I’ve been in the storm so long’

I know quite a few of us are drawn to Sufism as the mystical expression of Islam, and to the writings of Jellaludin Rumi, 13th century Persian poet and teacher. And one of the key messages of any mystic path is for us to go beyond polarities in our thinking. The human mind is drawn towards ‘this or that’ thinking, towards dualities. We associate our identity with our preferences and our opinions. Non-duality and mysticism offer a far more expansive view of reality.

We’re moving into the meditative part of our gathering now – when after a few words of introduction, we’ll hold a couple of minutes silence with our chalice flame video and that will then lead into a piece of piano music, which you might recognise as based on an African American spiritual known as Been in the Storm So Long.

So I invite you to ready yourself for six minutes or so of meditation, find a comfy position that works for you, maybe turn off your camera if that’s more restful for you, and do a scan of your body to see if there are tensions that might be released, perhaps lifting your shoulders and rolling them back and down, straightening your back, taking one of those belly deep breaths that help settle us, allowing the gentle rhythm of your breathing to soften your whole being, enjoying a sense of sinking down a bit towards the floor, knowing that the earth holds us. And with a softened gaze or closed eyes listen to these words of wisdom from Rumi:

Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’
doesn’t make any sense.
Let’s enter this time of silence together now.

Address: Biblical Bad Women

I adapted today’s service title from a book called Bad Girls of the Bible and What we Can Learn from Them by Liz Curtis Higgs. Curtis Higgs went on to write two further books called Slightly Bad Girls of the Bible and Really Bad Girls of the Bible. I’d give her a prize for entertaining book titles, but her books only came my way when I was reading some training material from the Unitarian Universalists over in the States. The training was about how to appeal to ordinary people in our services rather than going way over their heads. And the example given was of someone arriving in a new town, wondering which church to attend. Outside each church was a poster displaying the title of next Sunday’s service. The Unitarian service was ‘On Consciousness’ and the progressive Christians down the road were advertising ‘Bad Girls of the Bible’ – and the question was asked which would you choose to attend. I know what a brainy lot you are so you’d probably all choose ‘consciousness’ but I think in most of us there’s an attraction to the bad and the disreputable. And that’s why the biblical writers, when telling a story involving a woman – if they needed to make her bad, they’d make her very, very bad indeed.

Now any of you who are already Biblical scholars will know that women don’t get many starring roles in either the Old or the New Testament. Hardly any of them are identified by name. Liz Curtis Higgs writes that “More than 100 women are simply described in Scripture as ‘daughter of’ ‘wife of’ ‘witch of’ ‘woman of’ ‘concubine of’ ‘widow of’ ‘nurse of’ ‘Queen of’ and naturally ‘mother of’ someone more famous than she is”.
If I was giving a lecture now about the portrayal of women in the Bible I’d put forward a feminist viewpoint. I’d argue that the multiple texts we have collected into one seeming book were written down thousands of years ago by men, in patriarchal times when women and children were regarded as possessions of men – they could be bought and sold like sheep, punished or even slaughtered as their owners thought fit. I’d suggest that we gain more by exploring women in the Bible within their historical context but also by going further and considering their very existence in these stories as mythic rather than real.

I’m not alone in doubting that some of the women mentioned in the Bible ever existed. Their presence in the text is to make the point the writers wanted to make. I suggested in the Friday email advertising today’s service that we make a list of women whose names we remember from the Bible. I wonder how many you came up with. It’s not straightforward to count those named in the Bible but a conservative estimate would say women are less that 15% of the named characters. And of those around 130 or so named women we tend to remember the very good and the very bad.

(Show slides) Here are some depictions of a few Biblical women – Eve, Deborah, Esther, Jael, Jezebel, Mary Magdalene, Delilah. We may not remember the whole story or the context in which it was placed but we humans tend to remember the names. It’s worth for example looking closely at the story of Samson and Delilah in the Book of Judges – this cannot be a true story – nobody could be that foolish as to give the secret of their strength to a woman called Delilah – the very name itself in Hebrew means temptress, amorous one. The Biblical Delilah is secretly working as a spy for the Philistines – and we know what a mythically, dreadfully uncultured lot they were. Delilah manages to find out that Samson’s strength lies in his long, uncut hair. The Philistines cut his hair, gouge out his eyes and imprison him. But hair of course grows again and Samson regains his strength and brings the mighty hall down on the Philistines, killing many of them and himself as well. It’s a marvellously dramatic tale, beautifully told and I don’t believe a word of it. You could argue that it’s one of many stories justifying the Israelites’ invasion of other people’s lands. These people are not cultured like us, the Lord has promised this land to us. It should now be ours.

The story and imagery of Samson and Delilah is within us at a mythic level. The idea of woman as temptress is pervasive in human culture, and we know how very damaging it can be. It’s in the very first book of the Bible, in the story of Adam and Eve, a story from thousands of years ago. It’s still heard as a defence in rape trials to this day I’m ashamed to say. We heard Pat earlier reading to us from the work of Joseph Campbell – who did so much to bring an awareness of the importance of myth to us today. If we don’t name and explore certain myths they can perpetuate and harm us. If we do have an understanding of the mythic we have some powerful tools for better understanding human existence.

If we take our Biblical studies a little further there’s more to discover. The name Delilah can also hold another meaning – linked to the Hebrew word ‘laylah’ meaning ‘night’. And Samson means ’sun’ – so this story could also relate to the polytheistic religions of the Middle East, where a battle between day and night, sun and moon was a common theme. This brings us to another important understanding about the purposes of the Biblical writers. If we remember that much of the Hebrew Scriptures were only written down once the people had been taken into exile in Babylon – when the priests collected the oral traditions of thousands of years into written form lest they otherwise be lost. The Hebrew people were in danger of being assimilated into Babylonian culture and so these written texts helped preserve their religious tradition – the key distinction of which was that it was monotheistic – one god, Yahweh – distinct from the polytheistic religions all around the region.

The Hebrew Scriptures mark this important transition from the worship of many Gods to the worship of one god. Bear in mind that the old polytheistic religions had originally involved worship of the Goddess, the supreme mother of all, and had been part of matriarchal cultures where inheritance had passed through the female rather than male line and you may start to get a sense of why the Hebrew Scriptures are not women friendly. There are bad girls in the Bible because male writers wanted to discredit women-centred societies and religions – they’re not to be trusted, they’re not acceptable, they’re connected with witchcraft and other bad behaviours. I always remember an enlightened lecturer pointing out to us that Delilah would have had heroine status in the Philistine Bible – but we don’t get to read a Philistine holy text because history is written by the winning side.

For every woman portrayed in a poor light in the Bible there is a subtext that paints a very different picture. This subtext only began to be revealed in the late 1800s. Here’s a quotation from the writings of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a committed anti-slavery campaigner who in the 1890s published The Women’s Bible – which really marks the start of feminist biblical criticism. She wrote: ‘When women understand that governments and religions are human inventions; that Bibles, prayer-books, catechisms, and encyclical letters are all emanations from the brains of man, they will no longer be oppressed by the injunctions that come to them with the divine authority of Thus sayeth the Lord.

She really was one of the first people to say publicly that Biblical texts are the word of men not of God – an issue still today.

Just one story from her life that is instructive: (from a book by Ann Loades called Searching for Lost Coins) – ‘She had as a 17 year old joined a church group to finance the education of a young minister. The women sewed, baked, brewed and stewed, held fairs and ‘sociables’ etc. When the young man graduated they bought him a black suit and a high hat and a cane and they invited him to preach. And he chose as his text the line from 1 Timothy, ‘I suffer not a woman to speak in church’. She and the other young women walked out.’

That line of scripture, and similar lines from other sacred texts, are still used today as reasons for women’s inequality in our world. There’s still so much work to be done isn’t there, education to be gained, equalities to be campaigned for – and thank goodness we’re part of a Unitarian movement that strives towards equality for all – and allows women to speak in church. I never forget the good fortunes of my freedoms, nor all those who suffered in achieving them. Amen

Hymn: ‘Lady of the Seasons’ Laughter’

Another opportunity to sing again now, although this hymn which will appear on our screens soon is not one we often sing. But I like the words with their earth centred focus and feminine perspective on the changing of the seasons. See what you think.

Lady of the seasons’ laughter,
in the summer’s warmth be near;
when the winter follows after,
teach our spirits not to fear.
Hold us in your steady mercy,
Lady of the turning year.

Sister of the evening starlight,
in the falling shadows stay
here among us till the far light
of tomorrow’s dawning ray.
Hold us in your steady mercy,
Lady of the turning day.

Mother of the generations,
in whose love all life is worth
everlasting celebrations,
bring our labours safe to birth.
Hold us in your steady mercy,
Lady of the turning earth.

Goddess of all times’ progression,
stand with us when we engage
hands and hearts to end oppression,
writing history’s fairer page.
Hold us in your steady mercy,
Lady of the turning age.

Announcements: A few brief announcements this morning: Thanks to Jeannene Powell and John Davies for hosting, Pat for reading, and Peter, Trevor and David Kent for lovely music. Don’t forget we’ll have virtual coffee-time after the service, to chat together, if you’d like. If that’s not your thing, as I said at the start of the service, do get in touch via email if you’d like to introduce yourself, as it’s harder to get to know people during online services. We’ll be back next week on Zoom at 10am when Jane will be here. Do feel free to share the link with your friends.

As ever there are a number of opportunities to connect congregationally in the week ahead: Coffee morning 10.30 Tuesday – always excellent conversation – newcomers always welcome. Heart & Soul, our contemplative spiritual gathering – on ‘Small Acts’ – tonight and Friday at 7pm. Even if you’ve not been before it’s an open gathering and newcomers are welcome. The congregation very much has a life beyond Sunday mornings; we encourage you to keep in touch during the week, drop each other a line, meet up for a walk and a chat. For those of you who find the natural world a source of your spiritual connection, then do make a note of the next West London GreenSpirit group gathering on Weds 22nd Sept at 10.30am – when we’ll be celebrating the autumn equinox, harvesting our many sources of light to warm the autumn and winter.

As you’ll have seen in recent Friday emails our church committee is actively seeking more helpers to get involved in running the church ‘behind-the-scenes’. There are various ways in which you might be able to contribute according to how much time and energy you have to spare and what your particular skills and interests are. Get in touch with Jane Blackall our ministry co-ordinator or John Humphreys our chair person if you would like to have a chat about how you can help this community to flourish in the months and years ahead.

We’ve just got our closing words and music now. So I invite you to select gallery view at this point, if you can, so we can all see each other and get a sense of our gathered community as we close.

Closing Blessing: And so I extinguish this chalice flame but not the warmth of this community. May we carry its warmth and its light to those who yearn for a sense of connection and belonging.

Let’s celebrate all that we are this day: the glorious and the petty, the inspirational and the mean, our complexities and contradictions. And let’s resolve to be more ourselves in the days ahead – revealing the richness of our being, allowing others to know more of us so that we too may know more of them. Amen, go well and blessed be.

Music: ‘Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit’ sung by Trevor Alexander, accompanied by Peter Crockford

Rev. Sarah Tinker

12th September 2021