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Is It Too Late for Liberation?

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I wonder at the choices of lessons we read each week.

Do you wonder at the stories that are told, and why they were chosen? Why these stories, and not others? Whose stories are highlighted while others aren’t? Whole books of scripture go unmentioned. Whole people groups go unmentioned. Whole perspectives go unmentioned. And oftentimes, this gives us a more-than-slanted view of the world. This week, for example, not a single woman appears. 

None of today’s readings would pass the Bechdel test. Not a woman is mentioned. Not a woman is visible. And all this on the Sunday before International Women’s Day!

This is the patriarchy in full force. And I’m not just talking about the compilers of the lectionary here. 

Today’s reading from Genesis is, of course, the patriarchal text of the Old Testament. This is the foundational patriarchal story in our history, the story where God sends Abram out from his father’s house to become the father of a great nation, that through him, all the families of the earth may be blessed. When we talk about the history of Israel and her God, we often refer to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But why wouldn’t we talk about the God of Sarah and Hagar, of Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah?

In the twelfth chapter of Genesis, Sarah is finally mentioned in verse five, where the scripture reads: 

“Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan.”

When Sarah shows up in these scriptures, it’s on Abram’s packing list for his journey. Just one more thing on a spreadsheet alongside his CPAP machine and shaving kit. In that world she is not his equal, but his property. 

On one hand, we might say, “Thank God we’ve moved on from those days.” On the other, we might catch ourselves saying, “girlfriend, do we ever have a long way to go.” The fight for justice and equality continues in our world, to be sure, but also in our church.

So what do we do with this?  What do we do with these scriptures and the reality of our own lives? As we come week after week to this ancient library, with stories from a culture so different from our own, a culture altogether like our own, how are we to respond, and what might become, for us, God-breathed good news for this time and place?  

As I was working through this passage this week, I opened up a commentary from womanist Biblical Scholar the Rev. Dr. Wilda Gafney. Dr. Gafney is a seminary prof and Episcopal priest. Most recently, she’s been working on a project called the Women’s Lectionary. This lectionary centers the stories of women, the women far too often hidden and excluded, cast as backup dancers in the shadows of the Bible’s male protagonists. 

Digging just below the surface here, Gafney reminds us that both Abraham and Sarah are products of patriarchy and all the assumptions that entails. “Abraham’s father’s house,”  she writes, “was rife with incest, but far too many preachers hesitate to use the word—even when acknowledging that Sarah and Abraham have the same father.”

Later in Genesis, Abraham’s nephew Lot will father children with his daughters. Any guesses as to who gets blamed for that?

It’s the girls. We know the script. Hyper-sexual seductresses. He just couldn’t control himself. Just made a mistake. The usual excuses are made by him, and on his behalf. 

But here’s the thing. If there’s to be good news, it’s not going to come from blaming the victims of abuse for their victimization. It’s not going to come from dehumanizing the victim. It’s not going to come by referring to them as simply “the complainant,” when there is a verified acknowledgment of sexual misconduct. It’s going to come from telling the truth. 

What I’m saying here is meant to be neither vague nor abstract. It relates to real cases in the Anglican Church of Canada. Today.

A year ago at Ash Wednesday, an open letter was sent to the Primate and Council of General Synod. It’s a letter I signed alongside 400 others that focused on the devastating mishandling of several Clergy Sexual Abuse cases by the National Church. The identities of three victims of abuse, who were guaranteed anonymity by the Anglican Journal, were revealed in documents sent by the Primate’s office. To this day, neither the Primate nor the General Secretary have taken responsibility, let alone accountability for this. 

A letter from the Council of General Synod was later released, which claimed a false choice between caring for the victimized with the responsibility to care for the institution. 

In so doing, the church put the interests of the abusers ahead of those of the victims. 

And then this week, another letter was sent. A letter in which a person abused by former Archbishop Mark MacDonald shared their story. The story highlights the victimization as well as the ways in which the church’s process fell short. The way it played out marginalized and retraumatized the person who had suffered this acknowledged abuse. How the Primate and COGS will respond is, at this point, anybody’s guess. I hope it’s not as poorly as last time.

Which is all to say that our reading from our faith history is all too relevant today.

Not just what’s happening with the hierarchy in Toronto, but also, I think for all of us who  love God, and who wish to grow more deeply into Christian Community, it comes at just the right time as we explore our relationships with God and one another. 

Our reading from Genesis, the reading that leaves out the perspectives of women comes at just the right time. If we read between the lines, and if we read around the edges, this is where we will find the truth.

This week as I was studying and listening, God took my mind to the scene where Mary and Elizabeth meet on the margins, in the hill country, Mary running away from village scrutiny after she finds out she’s pregnant with Jesus. When she arrives, she and Elizabeth look knowingly into one another's eyes. They see each other for who they are, for who God is inviting them to be. They support one another in this crazy time.

They see the situation they and their world are in, they see the injustices they face, and they burst forth with song. But not just any song. Not bubble gum pop. A rebellious song of liberation. A guttural, heart-felt, top-of-lungs imaginative performance of a world that might be, a world that they can imagine but have yet to experience. These are the women who will teach Jesus—in word, in action, and in song—what it is to embody God’s dream against the odds. 

It is at the feet of these women that Jesus and his cousin John will learn to live lives centering women, centering the poor, calling out and casting down the mighty and the powerful who see no problem with treading on the powerless again and again and again. 

Not only does the story of Mary and Elizabeth pass the Bechdel test, but it also shows us what our God is all about. If this story teaches us anything, it’s this: 

It’s on the margins, amongst the poor and vulnerable, the traumatized and victimized that God is to be found. This is where God shows up to offer comfort. This is how God will show us a new way. Not amongst those at the center of power and importance. God turns the logic of bureaucratic self-preservation on its head.

In leaving Abraham’s father’s house, there is new opportunity to break with the abuses and oppressions of the past. And yet, it must have been a monumental decision to leave stability for the disorientation of the desert, following God without all the familiar furniture of their family practice. 

Sarah and Abraham leave their father’s house. And while, as Dr. Gafney points out, “some of his father’s values stay with him,” Abraham leaves many of those practices behind. This happens imperfectly, of course. How can it not? 

But when they leave home, they’re not 18. Not 30. Not 40. Sarah is 65. Abraham 75.

I can’t imagine staying in my parents’ basement until I turn 75, but with the economy going the way it is, perhaps that’s exactly what my kids will end up doing.

Sarah and her husband leave home, nearly the age of many in this room, stepping not into any certainty other than God’s unrevealed promise. It’s a dream. A world they don’t yet know. A world as yet experienced. A world still uncertain. Abraham makes some wise decisions, and plenty more that demonstrate the captivity of his imagination. Same goes for Sarah. Sometimes it takes generations to unlearn the harmful practices we’ve been taught.

And yet they step out in faith. I wonder if Abraham’s father painted the wilderness beyond their camp as a world of chaos and confusion. I wonder if he threatened them when they said they were leaving. I wonder what he did to try to maintain a death grip on control. But this is more than a story about leaving home. This is a story of making a more beautiful home, a more just home, a home of blessing—not just for those who live in it, but for everyone around. 

How many of us spend a lifetime working up the courage to leave? To step out into the wilderness. To leave the certainty—however painful—and step beyond? How many of us spend a lifetime thinking through, working through all the ways in which we can make this situation to work, to change someone, to change something, before we have to step out into a new way of living, come what may? 

If we have endured abuse, it can take a lifetime to escape. Sometimes we catch ourselves weighing the certainty of the world we know with the uncertainty of the world beyond. If we have felt ourselves trapped in somebody else’s expectations—a parent, a partner, a friend, a church—it can be risky to step out. 

On the other hand, if we have been taught all our lives to be self-reliant, it can take forever to learn to trust others—to trust God again, for the first time. 

But what does Jesus say later in John’s gospel? The truth will set us free. And what is the truth? The truth is that you are loved. The truth is that you are enough. The truth is that you are God’s beloved child, and that God’s got your back. The truth is that God will be with you every step of the way. The truth will set you, will set me, will set all of us free. 

The truth sets us free. And sometimes the truth of it all asks us, invites us, demands that we step out in faith. I don’t know what that looks like for you today. Maybe there’s some letting go that needs to happen. Or maybe there’s something you need to take up. 

This week I’m wrestling not only with what this looks like for my own liberation, but for the liberation of folks who have suffered abuse at the hands of the church, at the hands of clergy, at the hands of those in leadership. What does it look like to step out, to step forward, to demand and to embody freedom from these patterns of abuse? 

This week, it struck me that sometimes it takes years, decades, even a lifetime to undo the damaging lessons of our earlier years. But if Abraham and Sarah are any example, it’s never too late. It’s never too late to respond to God’s invitation into liberation.

It’s never too late to throw our lot in with God, the one who calls us out of cages of fear and oppression, of violence and sin, of bravado and self-neglect; the God who calls us into the vast and untapped promises of a love that is good news for us, and when we embrace it, good news for the entire world.