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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Wombs, Babies, and Christmas--A Sermon

Wombs, Babies, and Christmas
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

First Sunday of Advent
November 27, 2011

Infancy Gospel of James, 1-5

Genesis 29:31-30:24
When the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren. Leah conceived and bore a son, and she named him Reuben; for she said, ‘Because the Lord has looked on my affliction; surely now my husband will love me.’ She conceived again and bore a son, and said, ‘Because the Lord has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also’; and she named him Simeon. Again she conceived and bore a son, and said, ‘Now this time my husband will be joined to me, because I have borne him three sons’; therefore he was named Levi. She conceived again and bore a son, and said, ‘This time I will praise the Lord’; therefore she named him Judah; then she ceased bearing.


When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister; and she said to Jacob, ‘Give me children, or I shall die!’ Jacob became very angry with Rachel and said, ‘Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?’ Then she said, ‘Here is my maid Bilhah; go in to her, that she may bear upon my knees and that I too may have children through her.’ So she gave him her maid Bilhah as a wife; and Jacob went in to her. And Bilhah conceived and bore Jacob a son. Then Rachel said, ‘God has judged me, and has also heard my voice and given me a son’; therefore she named him Dan. Rachel’s maid Bilhah conceived again and bore Jacob a second son. Then Rachel said, ‘With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister, and have prevailed’; so she named him Naphtali.


When Leah saw that she had ceased bearing children, she took her maid Zilpah and gave her to Jacob as a wife. Then Leah’s maid Zilpah bore Jacob a son. And Leah said, ‘Good fortune!’ so she named him Gad. Leah’s maid Zilpah bore Jacob a second son. And Leah said, ‘Happy am I! For the women will call me happy’; so she named him Asher.


In the days of wheat harvest Reuben went and found mandrakes in the field, and brought them to his mother Leah. Then Rachel said to Leah, ‘Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes.’ But she said to her, ‘Is it a small matter that you have taken away my husband? Would you take away my son’s mandrakes also?’ Rachel said, ‘Then he may lie with you tonight for your son’s mandrakes.’ When Jacob came from the field in the evening, Leah went out to meet him, and said, ‘You must come in to me; for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.’ So he lay with her that night. And God heeded Leah, and she conceived and bore Jacob a fifth son. Leah said, ‘God has given me my hire because I gave my maid to my husband’; so she named him Issachar. And Leah conceived again, and she bore Jacob a sixth son. Then Leah said, ‘God has endowed me with a good dowry; now my husband will honour me, because I have borne him six sons’; so she named him Zebulun. Afterwards she bore a daughter, and named her Dinah.


Then God remembered Rachel, and God heeded her and opened her womb. She conceived and bore a son, and said, ‘God has taken away my reproach’; and she named him Joseph, saying, ‘May the Lord add to me another son!’



Welcome to the First Sunday of Advent.

It is a season “pregnant with possibility”. One of the leading metaphors for Advent is pregnancy. Pregnancy is a condition that lends itself to metaphor as shown by Sylvia Plath’s poem, Metaphors:
I’m a riddle in nine syllables,
An elephant, a ponderous house,
A melon strolling on two tendrils.
O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!
This loaf’s big with its yeasty rising.
Money’s new-minted in this fat purse.
I’m a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
I’ve eaten a bag of green apples,
Boarded the train there’s no getting off.
The hope of Advent traditionally is realized in the birth of Jesus, the Son of God. Jesus’s mother, Mary, was considered to be Theotokos or the Mother of God. The Divine Spirit passed through her womb. She was pregnant with God. The spiritual life is conceived (conceived!) as re-birth. We are to be like Mary, a vessel, or in the words of Sylvia Plath, “a means, a stage, a cow in calf” for Christ to be born in us. The spiritual life is not mine, but Christ in me.

“Not my will, but thine be done,” so goes the expression.

The early Christians were clever enough to appropriate Winter Solstice as the time this divine birth occurred, making Jesus the Light of the world, born in the darkest hour. Wombs, babies, and Christmas. Advent is full of it.

During Autumn we have been exploring the myths of Genesis. These myths are patriarchal myths. You may wonder why I keep bringing up patriarchy. The reason is that if we don’t acknowledge that these stories are patriarchal stories, we may conclude that they are universal human stories, or even supernatural or divinely created stories. They are human stories created by human beings within the context of patriarchy. Patriarchy literally means father-rule or father-power.

Patriarchy is one answer to the question, “Where do babies come from?” That is an important question. How that question is answered determines how power is managed and who manages it. Who has control over babies and birthing? Whose womb is it? All of these debates that we are having regarding abortion are about power. Who controls the womb? Christianity’s answer is that the Holy Church controls every womb. Christianity, Islam and Judaism were formed, birthed, if you like, in the context of patriarchy—“father—power”. That is based on a particular answer to the question, “Where do babies come from?”

“Father-power” influences our contemporary discussions on sex and marriage. Who gets to have sex with whom? Who gets to be married? Who decides what marriage is? Who decides what the appropriate living arrangements are for human beings? Who decides gender roles? Who is responsible for reproduction? In short, who controls the womb?

We ought to be reading these stories, these myths of the Bible with great care. Not just the myths of Genesis, also the myths of Jesus. We ought not on one hand appropriate their spirituality into our lives without discernment. Nor should we on the other hand dismiss and ignore them. Because they have power, we need to understand them.

The church is obsessed with sex and wombs. Why is reason, rationality, and equality met with so much resistance by the church? The power structures of the church have advocated for a certain power arrangement, namely, father-power. These defenders of “traditional marriage” and “family values” claim that God is the one who set all of these laws in His Bible. When we begin to actually read these stories in the Bible and we begin to unravel these claims we discover that at least in part, probably in large part, the “God” who supposedly made up all of these rules is a projection of patriarchy itself. It is patriarchy writ in the heavens.

Patriarchal spirituality is taking human power arrangements and projecting them onto the heavens as if these arrangements were absolute, divine truth. So Jesus being born of the Father to a virgin is most definitely a story only patriarchy could create.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Where do babies come from?

In pre-modern societies, that is before the modern science of reproduction, there were and are many theories. Anthropologist, Carol Delaney, in her book Abraham on Trial suggests a few:

In Australian aboriginal society the male opens the passage for a fetus to come by other means. Repeated intercourse is a process by which the male feeds the fetus. Delaney writes that in “China and some African societies, the male contributes a particular substance such as bones.” P. 27

Only in patriarchal societies, is the “male imagined as the primary, engendering, creative agent.” P. 27

That is the way Genesis and the Jesus mythology understand procreation. The male has the seed which is the identity and creative agent or the life that is planted in the womb, like a seed is planted in the garden. The womb or ground nurtures the seed.

In this theory of procreation, the father owns the seed, and ultimately, the child and the womb. Marriage was the process of trading wombs from one man to another. The key here is that the male has the life-giving role and the male is symbolized as divine creativity. (Delaney, p. 28)

In this very odd story of Rachel and Leah, we can see what is at stake for these two sisters competing for the affections of their husband by having as many sons as possible. The story assumes that wombs, like ground, can be barren as opposed to fruitful. There is status on behalf of the women to be able to nurture the patriarch’s seed. Jacob owns these two women. He controls their wombs for the most part.

But there is also a hierarchy of control. For instance the slave women of Rachel and Leah have children on behalf of their mistresses. Rachel and Leah have some control over “the ground” or the wombs of their slaves, so the seed planted in the slave belongs to the owner, as much as the seed can belong to the female.

God in this view is imagined as the ultimate Father, the primary patriarch. He speaks for the most part to the men. He makes promises and establishes covenants with the men. He has the men be circumcised as a sign of this covenant. The sign of circumcision reminds everyone that all seed belongs to him. All seed belongs ultimately to God the Father. Not only that, but God the Father owns all the wombs. He opens them and closes them as he is wont to do.

It is a set up for conflict. The sibling rivalry between Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, and Rachel and Leah is about who will win the Father’s favor. The stories are written such that God the Father simply chooses who he will favor and who he will not. The power arrangements are seen as “the way it is supposed to be” and divinely ordained. I find this story of Rachel and Leah to be comically depressing. That is it? The value of your whole life is to please a man?

When we get to the New Testament and then into the speculations of the early church, not much has changed. Jesus comes to be seen as the Divine Son of God, the Divine Seed that passed through and is nurtured by Mary’s womb. Mary, even though the church bestowed upon her the title of Theotokos or Mother of God, did not contribute anything to Christ’s identity. Jesus is not part Mary and part God. Her role was to be a pure, receptive, vessel.

The story in the Infancy Gospel of James, created likely in the middle of the second century, is concerned that Mary was pure enough to be the ground so it tells the story of Mary’s birth as miraculous. The “barren” Anna gives birth to Mary. This makes Mary pure enough to be the holy ground that nurtures the divine seed. Now, Jesus is absolutely "untainted" by humanity. Still, Mary contributes nothing to the creativity or identity of Jesus.

This is all mythology, of course. Jesus would turn over in his grave if he were to know the religion that was made about him. Nevertheless, the mythology is what captures our interest especially during seasons like Advent and Christmas. I am not suggesting that we do away with the mythology. What I am saying is that the mythology might be richer if we challenge the patriarchal assumptions behind it.

Christians are called to the spiritual life of being a vessel for the divine. We are to be like Mary and give birth to divine creativity. We are to deny ourselves so that Christ lives in us. As Mary says to the angel:
“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
That comes from a patriarchal understanding of God that is not necessarily bad. But before we jump into it, before we decide that our wills and our identity ought to be replaced, we should consider what we are doing.

There is an assumption in this spirituality that human beings are by nature sinful and bad and that our salvation requires a total replacement of our will by God’s will. We have nothing to contribute except to be a vessel. I grew up with that and my guess is that you have as well and to challenge such a notion might be seen as arrogant or rude. As always, you have the freedom to accept or reject anything I say.

My spirituality is changing in that if God and I are going to have babies together then I will contribute equally to this birth. My life or my identity is important and it is part of me and it has value. I will be a partner with Christ but I won’t merely be a vessel. I am playing with metaphors, of course. But metaphors shape who we are, how we live, and what we value. Humans created these metaphors. We can create new ones.

The consequences of human beings giving up their identity, saying that we are all bad and in need of replacement, are not always so good. Think of the whole Christ vs. Culture thing. In this view, culture is bad and is in opposition to and inferior to Christ. This has led to the aggressive nature of Christianity that needs to take everything over. In this view, the secular and the material is nothing but inert ground, barren, lifeless until the divine seed of creativity, male creativity at that, impregnates it.

One of the insights of science and reproduction is that we might imagine spirituality in a different way. As men and women can be equal partners in reproduction, we are co-creators with the Divine, not just vessels. A spirituality that imagines the Divine not just as a seed or a spark within us, but as totally mixed with us is far more appealing to me. Everything is divine. All is sacred. Every cell is holy.

When I think of Advent hope, I don’t think of myself as a lowly vessel giving birth to God. Rather, I am an active participant in this creative work. Each of us is an active participant in this creative work. Earth itself is an active participant in this work. We are less in need of a divine savior to take us over and to whom we must submit. We are more in need of taking responsibility for our lives and for our future.
Advent hope is not sitting around waiting for Jesus to come again and make everything right. We are the ones we have been waiting for.
This Advent we can take responsibility for the future we hope to see. We are giving birth and what is being born is a product of our intelligence, energy, imagination, and love as it interacts with divine creativity, or as the late theologian Gordon Kaufman called it, serendipitous creativity.

What are your hopes?
Advent is a good time to dream them.
--our personal hopes, hopes for our relationships, and our global hopes.
As we dream them we create them.
We, women and men both, are creative agents in this holy work.

Amen.