Published on 21 Aug 2012
Holy Women of the Old Testament – August 19, 2012
The Rev. Linda St. Clair
Christ Church Cathedral
Click here to listen to an audio mp3 of the sermon
O Holy One, present with us now, may the stories we hear and share open our hearts to you and support us as we seek to know your will and follow in your ways. Amen
Our focus for this Sunday is on the Holy Women of the Hebrew Scriptures. It was a hard decision to make, but am sure you will be relieved to know that I have selected only two of the many listed in our Sunday Bulletin.
One of the exciting things about being here at the Cathedral is that it is known and accepted that we are all on a journey seeking God’s holy will for us and that we are in different places along that way.
But first I think we need to reclaim the word holy from common usage. Perhaps you too grew up hearing it bandied about embedded in expressions such as: Holy Smoke, Cow, Mackerel and many others. I had a cousin referred to as a holy terror and a neighbor who was labeled “holier than thou” and while I didn’t know what it meant, I knew I did not want to be one!
However, when we reclaim the word holy we are faced with its claim on us. Scripture (Holy Bible) states that the chosen people of Israel are called to holy. The Lord, speaking through Moses declares: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. (Leviticus 19:2). Later, this same pronouncement is given to Christians and appears in many epistles. In a letter ascribed to Peter …he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, ‘you shall be holy for I am holy’. (1 Peter 15-16)
I think part of the process of becoming holy is found in Dag Hammarskjold’s (former Secretary General of the United Nations) record of his encounter one Whitsunday in 1961 : I don’t know Who—or what—put the question, I don’t know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone—or Something—and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal. (Markings, p. 169)
While Hammarskjold in this writing did not express the same understanding of the Divine as did Deborah and Miriam who I have chosen to explore with you today, he still embraced core steps toward holiness which I see in their lives as well: being open to the Holy One; listening and hearing the still small voice within and responding with YES in words and deeds.
When we respond to the call to be holy, we are seeking to become part of God’s plan and will to be done on earth. That moves us to be apart from how the world so often wags one way and another. The more we seek and respond to this relationship with the Holy One, the more we will find ourselves bridging what is, with what God wants and that stretches those seeking to be holy. We find like Deborah and Miriam, often swimming against the current of the culture. To be holy, these Holy Women found, often meant moving from their country’s safety zone and still with determination and confidence not being held back by fear. Richard Holloway would call this Dancing at the Edge and I suspect Miriam danced just that way after the people crossed the Red Sea.
To be holy, I suggest is to be in a close relationship with God. Being in that relationship implies that we are placing what God wants us to be and do – first and foremost. Maybe the most holy time is when we are most totally God’s or w-h-o-l-l-y God’s.
Many definitions refer to holy people and holy things as being set apart, outside of the ordinary. But Rowan Williams take a different slant. Rather he writes: Holiness is a matter of connecting the ordinary matter of earth with its depths in the life of God. The saint (Holy Person) he goes on to write, is not primarily the high achiever of the moral life, or the honours graduate in discipleship, but the person in whom the depths of the ordinary become visible.
With these ideas in mind, let us start with Deborah first. The poetic account of Deborah’s accomplishments is considered one of the oldest parts of the Hebrew scripture and is found in the book of Judges. In contemporary terms, Deborah took the art of multi tasking to a new level. She went well beyond the traditional and acceptable roles of wife and mother, to be called a prophet, a judge and later a military leader.
As a prophet it is clear she had listened to the Holy One of Israel, for directions to the people were spoke through her. Deborah was told to summon Barak the commander of the Israelite army and to give him the message that he was to take their much smaller and less equipped force against their Canaanite oppressors. The Lord promised to deliver the enemy into Israel’s hands. Barak apparently believed Deborah but he also needed her leadership and spiritual presence. This line must have been true for no male scribe would make up what this military commander said to her: If you go with me, then I will go but if you will not go with me, then I will not go. (Judges 4:80)
Without missing a heart beat Deborah responds, I will surely go with you. In other words, she seemed to say, if this is what it takes to fulfill God’s plan for Israel, I will do it. She trusted what the Holy One of Israel had told her. The battle was won and the results of that victory are summed up in the closing line of her story: And the land had rest forty years. (Judges 5:31b) This is probably the longest time Israel has ever known peace.
For me, Deborah represents one who was open, listening to and trusting God, responding with a resounding yes and took whatever risks were necessary to fulfill God’s plan for the people of Israel, to make God’s kingdom come!
The prophet Miriam had different challenges to face as she moved in her relationship with God serving those she has been given to care for. Miriam took risks and saw both positive and negative results.
The first part of her story is very familiar. As a very young girl she guarded her baby brother Moses as his reed-cradle rocked in the rushes along the Nile. She was both courageous and clever for when she saw the Pharaoh’s daughter take Moses up in her arms, Miriam stepped forward to this most powerful woman and offered to find her a nurse for the infant the Princess had “found.” His own mother could then raise Moses as a child. Credit must be given to Miriam for how well she carried out the mission she had been given.
Later when Moses liberated the people from their Egyptian oppressors Miriam led the women of Israel in a dance and song in of praise to the Lord. Here her role as one of the leaders and prophets of Israel was at its heights. She was named one of the prophets along with her brother Aaron and together they followed and supported their brother Moses, the Lord’s appointed liberator.
Miriam’s tale takes a twist here for when Moses marries a woman outside the tribes of Israel and both Miriam and Aaron object, seeing this as a terrible mistake. Whether they were right or wrong was not the issue. Rather, this confrontation attacked the Lord’s chosen in a public forum, making his leadership role vulnerable. Miriam was punished and struck with leprosy. This lasted only seven days for her brother Moses interceded. As much as we might want to explore why Aaron was not punished too, of greater importance here for our pursuit of understanding holiness raises a different question. Why was not the Lord consulted for guidance?
The learning from Miriam’s story is that holiness requires that we stay open to the voice of God, even when we don’t want to hear it. Doing the work of God’s work, independent of the God’s guidance is counter-productive. Miriam is human and therefore can make mistakes and the rest of her story although not recorded must have seen her redeemed for when she died Israelites honored her with a funeral that lasted thirty days as they would Moses many years later.
These two Holy Women of Hebrew Scripture are representative of many women who did much to further the Holy One’s plan for the people of Israel and all their stories are worthy of study and reflection. Let us now together in prayer give thanksgiving for their servant leadership:
Let us pray: O Holy One, we lift to you your people and give thanks for these Holy Women of Israel who have gone before us. May we who follow, learn from their journey with you and may we who gathered here today, work together as Holy Women and Holy Men to bring your creation closer to all you would have it be.
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