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Sunday, December 04, 2011

Icons of Sorrow--A Sermon

Icons of Sorrow
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

December 4, 2011
Second Sunday of Advent

Genesis 35:8,16-20; Jeremiah 31:15-17
And Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and she was buried under an oak below Bethel. So it was called “The oak of weeping.”

Then they journeyed from Bethel; and when they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel was in childbirth, and she had a difficult labor. When she was in her difficult labor, the midwife said to her, ‘Do not be afraid; for now you will have another son.’ As her soul was departing (for she died), she named him Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin. So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem), and Jacob set up a pillar at her grave; it is the pillar of Rachel’s tomb, which is there to this day.

Thus says the Lord:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.
Thus says the Lord:
Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work,
says the Lord:
they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
there is hope for your future,
says the Lord:
your children shall come back to their own country.


We are nearing the end of our series on the myths of Genesis. Next week our choir will present an Advent musical celebration. On the 18th we will look at a tale of two Josephs, the dreamer Joseph in Genesis and another dreamer named Joseph who according to the gospels was the husband of Mary who was in turn the mother of Jesus.

Today we are going to honor Rachel and the other women of Genesis, but particularly Rachel, because she is the icon of sorrow. She is mentioned again in Jeremiah and in Matthew as one who weeps for her children and refuses to be consoled. Sorrow is the work of the via negativa, the way of letting go and letting be. It is appropriate, or to use liturgical language it is “meet and right” to make space for sorrow during Advent. Advent is about hope, but the first word is longing for what is not. It is recognition that things are not as they might be, that a future of promise awaits.

As we move to the end of the via negativa and into the via creativa with the coming winter solstice there is a coming together with these myths of Genesis--these the sorrows of patriarchy--and Advent.

With Advent we can become conscious of patterns of living that we need to let go so that a new creativity might be born within us. It is no accident that the myth of the birth of Jesus is placed near the winter solstice. In the northern hemisphere at the darkest time of the year, Divine Creativity dispels the darkness in the cry of a tiny babe.

Before we get to that cry, we have to journey through some other tears first.

As I have been saying during this series of sermons, the myths of Genesis are patriarchal myths and that fact should not be understated. Patriarchy or father-power is based on a particular theory of procreation. It is a pre-modern theory to be sure, but it is not just pre-modern as if all pre-modern societies had the same theory.

The patriarchal theory of procreation is seen in the myths of Genesis and in the myth of Jesus in the metaphor of the seed. In this theory of procreation, the male possesses the seed that contains the identity or the creativity of the human that is planted in the womb or “the ground.” The ground or womb does not contribute identity to the new life that is formed. The womb, like ground, nurtures the seed.

The seed belongs to the father in a way it does not belong to the mother. Thus father has father-power, that is power-over the seed and the womb. Thus Abraham is allowed to “sacrifice” his own seed, Isaac, without even needing to consult Isaac’s mother. It is a deal between the males, Father Abraham and his Father God.

This Father God promises Abraham seed as many as there are stars in the sky. He also promises Abraham, land, ground, in which he might plant his seed. This promise is extended to the other patriarchs, Isaac, and Jacob, and their sons. When you own both seed and ground you own the world. Just ask Monsanto.

It is a patriarchal notion that the promise to Abraham and the patriarchs is land and plenty of seed. This is the promise of a patriarchal god. One could imagine other versions of hope and the good life other than the males of a particular tribe owning all the land and seed.

Genesis
is not the way it has to be or the way it always has been everywhere. It is the way of a particular and peculiar patriarchal way of understanding and organizing life that ended up becoming the basis for three monotheistic and patriarchal religions and the dominant mythology of western culture. (Carol Delaney, Abraham on Trial)

The myths of Genesis and the characters that are constructed in these stories including "God" have an agenda. That agenda is to sustain father-power and make it sacred. Now I do think that at times these stories transcend that and at least offer a self-critique. Nonetheless, these stories on the whole serve to make father-power or patriarchy normative. The god of Genesis and of pretty much the whole Bible is a male god. As theologian Mary Daly pointed out in her book, Beyond God the Father, when god becomes male, the male becomes god.

It is important to say here that this isn’t about males being bad and females being good. We are talking about patriarchy or father-power which is a particular way of organizing society. While father-power can give some males privilege and material advantage, father-power ultimately is sorrowful for men and women alike as well as sorrowful for Earth and its creatures. Advent hope, in my view, is about re-ordering power. If we can provide a critique of power structures we can also imagine and create new power structures.

Where might we begin? The myths of Genesis contain interesting subtleties that challenge this father-power agenda. These subtleties are seen in the cracks of the stories, at the seams, in what appear to be throwaway verses or asides. These subtleties appear in some cases in the stories of the women. When we read the stories of the women of Genesis we might ask ourselves some questions.
  • Do they have voice?
  • If they have it, how do they use it?
  • How do they exercise agency?
  • How do they exercise and manipulate power?
  • What are the limits of their autonomy?
  • How do they access the sacred?
  • How do the storytellers utilize them and view them?
  • To what extent are they stereotypes and part of the storyteller’s agenda?
  • To what extent do they speak back and undercut the storyteller?
  • How does the overarching promise of seed and land relate to them?
One of the critiques in the father-power agenda is found in the epitaph of Deborah, Rebekah’s maid. Another is in Rachel’s naming of her son, Benoni. Peter Pitzele, in his book, Our Father’s Wells, does a magnificent midrash of Deborah. He creates a story from her point of view that is his own critique of the patriarchal myths. Pitzele introduced me to these two verses.

Deborah’s first:
And Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and she was buried under an oak below Bethel. So it was called “The oak of weeping.”
That is it. That is all we know about her. Yet there is a sense in which that verse speaks volumes. Rebekah, the wife of Isaac and mother of Jacob and Esau had a nurse, a slave, that appears only here in her death, but has been with her throughout the whole narrative, including that of Jacob, Rachel, Leah, and all the birthing of the 11 sons and one daughter, to Jacob, his wives, and their slaves.

What is the weeping? Who was Deborah? What is her story? We don’t know. We have to tell it.

The second series of verses:
Then they journeyed from Bethel; and when they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel was in childbirth, and she had a difficult labor. When she was in her difficult labor, the midwife said to her, ‘Do not be afraid; for now you will have another son.’ As her soul was departing (for she died), she named him Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin. So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem), and Jacob set up a pillar at her grave; it is the pillar of Rachel’s tomb, which is there to this day.
Rachel dies in childbirth. Rachel previously had a son Joseph. This is her second son. She names him Benoni, which means, “son of my sorrow.” But that isn’t the name we know. Rachel’s husband, Jacob, re-named him Benjamin, which means “son of the right hand.”

I have two questions for these stories. Questions that I won’t get answers to except that I make them up. The first question is why the weeping? What are they weeping over? Why weep over Deborah, a character who we don’t know and who says nothing? What is Deborah’s sorrow? And what is Rachel’s sorrow, a sorrow so deep she wants it remembered in the naming of her son? The first question is why the weeping and the second question is why did the author include these verses?

We might say, there you go, Jacob the heel, doesn’t even honor his dying wife’s freedom to name her own son. Yes, that is right. But, why does the author tell us that? Why does the patriarchal storyteller keep that detail, or create it?

I don’t know. But my answer is the point of my sermon. I think the weeping, the sorrow that is seen in the epitaph for Deborah and in Rachel naming her son is sorrow over the wound of patriarchy. The storytellers include the weeping, perhaps in spite of themselves, because something is not right about patriarchy and they know it.

The women of Genesis, Eve, who gets blamed for original sin, Sarah, Hagar, Rebekah, Leah, Bilhah, Rachel, Zilpah, Deborah, Dinah, Tamar, are windows into the wounds of patriarchy. They show us the dark side of father-power in large part by what they don’t say.
As her soul was departing she named him ‘son of my sorrow’.
That sentence is enough to unravel all the pretensions of patriarchy. Rachel becomes the icon of sorrow. In the period of Exile, she is used by the author of Jeremiah as a symbol for the reality of exile and defeat and the symbol for hope for return and restoration. In Matthew’s gospel, she is used in the story of the slaughter of the innocents by Herod. That is a fictional story. But I think Matthew is using that story and that icon to reflect on the sorrow of the destruction of Jerusalem that occurred just a decade or so before he wrote his gospel.

The sorrow and the weeping is not weakness. The sorrow and the weeping of Rachel is strength. You cannot save, you cannot advocate, you cannot give your life for that which you cannot weep. When we stop weeping, we stop caring.

When I am talking about father-power I am talking about power over. It is not just about gender. It is about a way of living that owns, controls, and ultimately exploits, abuses and destroys. It is about who gets to speak and who must remain silent. It is about who controls the land and the seed and who gets slaughtered and removed from it.

I joked earlier about Monsanto and the seed and land. But it wasn’t really a joke. It isn’t about Monsanto alone. It is about father-power, empire-power, corporation-power, militaristic-power, exploitative power that wants all the land and all of the seed for itself. That is patriarchy and women can be patriarchal as well as men.

Our hope is in the weeping.

About five years ago, in March, I remember waking up in the middle of the night sobbing. For several months previous to that night, I felt like had taken a crash course in everything that was wrong with the world, from Peak Oil, to oceans filled with plastic crap, to species going extinct by the thousands, to the religious sanction of prejudice, and wars without end, amen and amen, and it overwhelmed me. I wept. Through it all I was anxious about my own self. And I felt ashamed for being so self-absorbed. But that is what depression is. I struggled with this depression for some time.

Slowly, I have come to regard this depression and this weeping as a calling. It is an invitation from Spirit to compassion. It is an invitation to use my voice while I have it to speak for Rachel and her son, Benoni, son of my sorrow. If we cannot weep, we cannot care. If we cannot care, we cannot act. Sometimes even when we care we cannot act. That is when we wait and we watch and we let our mortal flesh keep silence. We allow Rachel to weep for her children and put off consolation.

I also know there is a light. I have felt it and seen it. I see it in my fellow weepers, who weep for our mountains, for children, for justice, and for the 99 percent. I see that light of creativity, courage, and compassion. I know no more and probably no less than the experts know what is coming in regards to the foundations that are shaking. But I don’t lose hope. My weeping has made my hope stronger, not that everything will turn out as I want, but that the light, the light of creativity that we honor and anticipate in Advent will shine in us and in our world.

That light will change us. That light will open up ways of living and sharing power that we had no idea were possible. We will find ways to share and care beyond our imagination.

Unexpected things happen.
That is the Advent hope.

In Jeremiah, to the weeping Rachel, the Holy One speaks:
Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work,
says the Lord:
they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
there is hope for your future,
says the Lord:
your children shall come back to their own country.
That to me is a hope embedded in these patriarchal texts that transcends patriarchy. There is hope for our future and for our children that will come as we care to weep and to allow those tears to open our minds and hearts for the creative, life-giving, Earth-sustaining, dignity-granting, peace-enabling power of the Sacred.

May this Advent season transform your tears into a calling and into hope.

Amen.
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