Rev. Rick Chrisman
A Woman’s Worth
August 4, 2019
“The Mother’s Weeping”
[A reflection on Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac.]
The father lifted his eyes and a weeping roams--
wanders endlessly, namelessly;
the son lifts his heart: the mother’s weeping
flickers across heaven like a burning.
Generations climb and descend the pyre,
the slaughtered one is forgotten, the slaughterer, too--
but the mother’s weeping lives forever.
This poem turns our thoughts toward what is not told in the biblical story of Abraham and the near-sacrifice of his son Isaac that we meditated on last Sunday here. The poet names another sacrifice, not the near sacrifice of Isaac, but the sacrifice of the mother (not by the mother, of the mother)—the sacrifice of her hopes as a parent, of her standing as a person, of her worth alongside her husband.
In the Genesis account, Sarah, the mother of Isaac is very much a part of Abraham’s story, but she is not mentioned in this episode that follows the father’s preparations to take Isaac to the mountaintop for the ritual sacrifice that God commanded. Sarah has not been made aware of what’s proceeding—but we know what her reaction would have been had she known before the fateful trip, or learned after the father and the son returned pretending it was a routine religious pilgrimage.
It would have been shock and horrification and trauma—the poet writes, “the mother’s weeping flickers across heaven like a burning,” as if to accuse God with her tears.
If the father’s act was inhuman, as much as God’s demand was inhuman, the mother was not going to be able to protest and stop the inhumanity. “The mother’s weeping flickers across heaven like a burning.”
Women pay the price of male logic—in every generation women’s hearts are silently rent by the sacrifice of their children, like those who get offered up in the slaughter of war.
The biblical story reveals the chasm that exists between a woman’s worth and a woman’s fate.
And this story put me in mind of the many other evidences when women’s personal worth and their fate grossly and tragically diverge.
Before I knew anything much about life, I got early inklings of this chasm as a young teenager by living close to three particular women.
My mother, of course! Her name was Helen. She was the one in our family who was able to fix the car—herself. During WWII, she had taken some of the courses women took to develop skills and perform tasks done by the men who had left for war. Books of hers like The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan and Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit by Adele Davis were always on the kitchen table and up for discussion. She was a teacher, and when she became interested in Montessori education, she gave my father some written household instructions while she went and took a one-semester internship in Chicago!
Then, our housekeeper, Darline Holland, came once every two weeks, and we struck up a real friendship. I could talk to her all about the great issues important to teenagers—life and love and death and the whole world! I got to be a nuisance following her all morning Saturday around the house and keeping her on the porch steps for an hour after she was done. I learned later that Darline had been working all that time as a type-setting apprentice at the local paper, eventually securing a job there. I came back from college one summer to learn that she had been taking accounting classes, and eventually landed a position on the financial staff of Illinois Bell, becoming Comptroller in the Henry County office. Later on, she came to be involved with our public library and as Board Chair effected the funding and construction of a new building. They would have made her mayor! By the way, she was African-American, the only black family in Geneseo, a rural farm town of 3500 which had once been a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Earlier, Alice Husisian had come into our family as a refugee from Armenia, following the genocide there, by way of Tientsin, China, and Havana, Cuba, the route she had to pursue in order to gain entrance to the U.S. Alice was fluent in three or four languages, an expert stenographer, and whiplash organizer. When she moved away to Chicago, she worked for years as Executive Secretary for corporation heads there. She could have run them. She also had a trained voice and sang in the Chicago Lyric Chorus.
I knew that all three of these women paid a price because they were women. My mother was kicked out of Moody Bible Institute for working at Marshall Fields for some money and some independence (however, she never looked back). Darline fought off the union men (and never looked back). And Alice, well, a wealthy executive importuned her to marry him, only to be abused emotionally and physically by him, which only a hard-won divorce allowed her to escape (scarred, she tried hard not to look back).
Their stories were my introduction to the chasm between a woman’s worth and a woman’s fate. I was witness to three women who, nevertheless, persisted—and prevailed. It made me wonder—why do men scratch their heads and ask each other, “What do women really want?” Really? They want freedom from sexual subjugation; freedom from wrongful marriage; freedom from untimely childbearing; freedom to seek gainful employment; and so simply, freedom to claim their worth as anybody else under the sun.
But I didn’t have the whole picture back then. What other aspirations they may have had were invisible to me. I couldn’t see whether it was just a glass ceiling they were coping with, or a manhole cover.
In adulthood, I eventually learned that women everywhere contended with universal and comprehensive brakes on the wagon they had hitched to their star, and I wondered where women looked for models and inspiration. Were there any in the Bible? Where was the ratification there of a woman’s worth? All three of these women were regular and faithful church-goers—did they get their sustenance here?
But the Bible and its traditions are full of misogyny and violence against women and curbs on their aspirations.
The very attitudes and prohibitions for women in the general society have some of their roots in our Church, starting with “the Church Fathers” (there you have it) of the 2nd and 3rd centuries; capped by St. Augustine in the 4th century; perpetuated by the Cult of Mary as the perfect (self-abnegating) woman from the 5th century on until the Protestant Reformation; re-ignited by American Evangelical fundamentalism in the 20th century. You may remember how the Equal Rights Amendment (for women’s rights) was passed in 1974 by both houses of Congress and went out to the 50 states for ratification/ It had rolled to within 5 states of ratification when the Christian right succeeded in stopping it.
They claimed they had the Bible on their side. What they actually had on their side was just the sociology of the eras in which the Bible was written, which they claimed as God’s law. 150 years of biblical scholarship has helped us distinguish between the social customs of a given book in the Bible and the spiritual point of it.
Thus, women’s ordination in many denominations became possible for the first time. And it necessitated the rewriting of hymns which resulted in hymnals like our own New Century Hymnal.
It was the late Mary Daly, a Roman Catholic theologian on the faculty of Boston College, who gave a saucy whipping to the male church hierarchy by contending in “Beyond God the Father” in 1974, that, if God is male, then males are God—which she rejected and refuted. There ensued a crisis that everyone had, and still has to face individually—can the Bible of a misogynistic tradition be accepted?
This is where we are today. First of all, God is not male; God is beyond gender and time.
The first and only manifestation of God in the Bible is in the declaration read from Genesis this morning: Tell them my name is “I am that I am.”
And second of all, Jesus was understood to be outside of and beyond time, yet incarnating the divine principle at the very heart of Creation. And again, then, the New Testament does the same when it uses Greek philosophy to situate the Jesus experience within the pre-existing constitution of existence. “The Word was made flesh,” meaning Jesus. Jesus himself is reported as saying, “before Abraham was, I am,” meaning what I am has been with all the generations ever.
In this misogynistic Bible, Jesus stakes out his ground against the religious authorities and the surrounding culture as an egalitarian and as a feminist (although that term was unknown then, of course). All his interactions with women were marked by respect for their personhood (e.g., the woman at the well). And this is ratified by the great scene when the unnamed woman in Bethany came to a dinner for him, knelt down and anointed his feet with oil. Scholars widely attest to the fact that there were women among the disciples.
When Jesus addresses God as Father, it is only an anthropomorphic manner of speaking, which should not be misconstrued as defining God’s gender.
Maybe that Jesus was the One all three women experienced in their churches, despite it probably being a man who was preaching, which would have been Don Bartholomew (minister of the Geneseo Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, where they all attended), after whom I named my first son.
We come to this Communion table this morning to sit with Jesus as the Word of God. When he says, “This bread is my body,” (words that had to have shocked the disciples who were used to the regular Passover formulas), he is offering God’s Word to us figuratively for the literal sustenance that it is.
The Word made Flesh, is now Flesh made Bread, so that we can Taste and see that the Lord is good, that the Lord’s Word is good.
The women at the foot of the cross, among whom was Mary his mother, were witnesses to the patriarchal slaughter responsible for the death of Jesus, Jesus whose person and teachings and acts together created a democracy of the Spirit and accomplished the erasure of the chasm between a woman’s worth and a woman’s fate, until the day people can find their way to accepting it. In the meantime, “The mother’s weeping lives forever,” including Mary’s, because her children are sacrificed and re-sacrificed to the Moloch of the male’s will to power.
But we return now to Jesus’ Table having confessed our complicity in society’s wiles and ready to accept God’s forgiveness so that we can go forward with courage and joy into the world God created for us to love. Amen.
--Richard Chrisman, 8/4/2019