Rev. Danielle K Bartz November 13, 2022
John 2:1-11 “A Year with the Womanist Lectionary”
Next week we will conclude our year within the Womanist Lectionary. Next Sunday is Christ the King Sunday, the traditional way to end all lectionary years, and I will keep my focus on that – but today, on the penultimate Sunday of this special year within our worship life, I want to reflect a bit on what it has meant. I don’t know if Rev. Dr. Wilda Gafney expected most preachers to reflect in this way today – but she seems to have picked the perfect scripture for it. I will get to that in a minute, but I first want to take a longer-view on what it has meant to have our scriptures focused on the oft-excluded voices of the Bible.
The Womanist Lectionary was one that was put together with the intentional of centering marginalized voices – specifically the women of the scriptures. Womanism, for those who don’t know, is the theological interpretative lens that approaches scripture from the perspective of women of color. Womanism became a substantial theological movement in the 80s and 90s, and has only grown sense then. It was a continuation, and in some ways a response, to the feminist theological movement. Feminist Biblical interpretation was launched around the same time as the feminist movement was in the United States. But just as the early feminism movement in the United States centered the experiences of white women, feminist Biblical interpretation did the same. It continued to exclude, or at the very least de-center, the experiences of women of color. Womanist theology widens the interpretative lens and gives space to all voices, particularly those who had previously been excluded. Rev. Traci Blackmon, Associate General Minister of the United Church of Christ, herself a Black woman, said that, “Womanist theology is the only theology that doesn’t leave anyone out.” I agree, so when Traci challenged all local UCC churches to spend this last year with the Womanist Lectionary, I accepted the challenge and we have done just that.
During Advent we focused on Mary, and the remarkable bravery and faith of a young, unwed pregnant woman who placed her trust in God. In Epiphany we spent several weeks on the miracles of Jesus, those miracles in which Jesus healed women who had been excluded from society. During Lent we spent our time in the Garden of Eden, examining closely the creation stories and finding in them the undeniable conclusion that God created men and women to be equal partners in this world. And as we moved through the longest season of the church year, called Common Time, the season after Pentecost which we are concluding today, we heard Gospel stories and teachings from the Epistles that were focused on disrupting the status quo, a reminder that the hope God has for God’s creation is not one of exclusion or hierarchy, but instead one of equality, acceptance, partnership, and hope. Much of the scripture we considered was very familiar, and some was likely new to your ears because it was portions of scripture left out by the more broadly used Revised Common Lectionary.
But through it all, what we have considered is not a sub-set of scripture, a corner of the Gospel message that caters to a particular ideology or viewpoint. What we have studied is the basis of the entire Jesus-movement. A movement that views the world not as a place to gain power and control, but to give and share freely and gladly. A movement that does not see just some as worthy of God’s love, but a movement in which everyone, everyone is seen as a perfect reflection of God. A movement that says the Kingdom of God cannot be found in the kingdoms of this world, but can only be realized when we let go of our need to control or demean others in order to maintain our privilege. Our year with the Womanist Lectionary has not been one on the fringes of the Gospel message, rather it has been one that has unapologetically returned to the very heart of Jesus’ message: that we must love God and neighbor as ourselves.
Something else the Womanist Lectionary has reminded us is that the exclusion of women in the history of the Church, and in many parts of the Church still today, simply cannot be justified by any reading of scripture. Many who continue to silence women’s voices in Christianity use two verses in one of the letters to Timothy as all the evidence they need to proclaim a woman cannot teach or preach the Good News of Jesus Christ. But by doing so they ignore the entirety of the Gospel message – and ignore the ways in which the women around Jesus were the first to preach and teach the Good News.
Today’s lesson is a perfect example. The wedding at Cana, in which Jesus turns water into wine, is incredibly well-known. The water into wine miracle has made its way into secular thinking and discourse. And while the miracle is vitally important as the first of Jesus’ signs in the Gospel of John, it is how the miracle came to be that I want to focus on today. Because it was a woman who was the first to notice a problem, to turn to Jesus for help, and to instruct the people to listen to Jesus’ instructions.
Mary is not named in this scripture, she is just referred to as the ‘mother of Jesus.’ The Gospel of John, along with Mark, does not include the story of Jesus’ birth, so Mary does not play a prominent role in that way. Instead she plays what I believe is an even more prominent role in this first of Jesus’ signs in the Gospel, the public acts that led people to believe in him. When Mary noticed that the wedding party had run out of wine, she instantly knew it was a tremendous problem. To run out of wine at a wedding, a muti-day affair in which the host’s ability to provide was a direct reflection on their status in the community, to run out of wine was a huge problem. Not only for the host, but also for the steward, who – like it usually happens – would be blamed for the host’s miscalculation. Livelihoods were quite literally on the line, so Mary turns to Jesus and asks him for an intercession. She does not need to be told who he is, she doesn’t need to be convinced to believe in him. She, the one who birthed and cared for him, understood that her son was set-apart and carried within him a flame of the divine not found in others. “They have no wine,” she says to Jesus. She knew and trusted that he could respond to this need.
Jesus at first resisted, and while I could preach an entirely different sermon just on that, we will instead see that Mary did not worry about that initial resistance. She goes to the servants and says, “Do whatever he tells you.” With this simple instruction, Mary sets in motion what is perhaps the best-known miracle of Jesus. “They have no wine” – a prayer of intercession. And “Do whatever he tells you,” a sermon that requires just one sentence. Mary is the first minister of the faith, pointing to Jesus and telling people to believe and follow.
The Gospel of John actually surrounds the ministry of Jesus with the words of women. His ministry began with the faith and prayers of Mary at the wedding in Cana, and it was another Mary, Mary Magdalene who was the first proclaim in the Good News, the Good News we continue to proclaim today – that we are Easter people. Mary Magdalene, who modern day scholars are beginning to understand was a key disciple of Jesus, was the one who discovered the empty tomb. And even after the other disciples had left, she remained in the garden outside of the empty tomb, weeping. When the resurrected Jesus calls her by name, she is the first to see and understand. And in the first proclamation of the Gospel message, she runs to the other disciples and says, “I have seen the Lord.”
It is the words of women that ushered in the religious beliefs we have today. “Do whatever he tells you,” instructed Mary the mother of Jesus. “I have seen the Lord,” proclaimed Mary Magdalene the disciple. Those who continue to say that women have no place in the teaching and preaching of the Gospel seem to forget that without women, the Gospel may never have been heard at all.
I have been so grateful to spend this last year in the Womanist Lectionary with you. And while I admit I was a bit hesitant to do so because I was worried you would think I was trying to justify my own ministry as your first woman pastor, I realized quite quickly I felt no need to justify myself. But I did feel the need for all of us, myself very much included, to step outside the status quo and look at the scriptures with a fresh perspective. By doing so we see not only the vital role women and all marginalized people play in the Kingdom of God, but that our faith is one in which everyone finds inclusion, acceptance, and hope. And we discover this not by ignoring our scriptures, but instead holding fast to them as the wisdom of our faith built upon the foundation of God’s love and Jesus’ ministry. Next week we will conclude the year with the traditional Christ the King text, and we will continue with the message of today – that our religion is not one about power and hierarchy. But that is for next week. Today, I want to simply say a word of thanks to you and to Rev. Dr. Wilda Gafney, and to God for the gift of this last liturgical year. May the lessons we all learned be carried into all we do. Amen.
God of all, you have used the voices and experiences of some of the most unlikely people to share your hope for us with us. For that hope expressed through the voices of the marginalized, we give you thanks. And it is in this spirit of gratitude that we come before you now in prayer.
God, today we lift to you the prayers we have for those whose voices have been silenced. We pray today for the men and women of history and today whose words of equality and hope and possibility threatened those in power and were therefore dismissed or rejected. Help us to listen for their voices through the whirlwind of hatred, and find in them the instructions we need to continue to proclaim the Good News we carry as your people.
We also lift to you in certain knowledge that you hear and respond all the prayers we carry within our hearts and spirits, prayers that are often too deep for words…
God, we pray all of this in the name of Jesus Christ, whose ministry and teachings did not exclude but instead included everyone around him. We pray all of this and so much more now in his name and with the words he taught by saying together…Our Father…