“Five Thousand Men”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

September 30, 2018

Mark 6:30-44

 

Yesterday, seeing the sun in the sky after so many days of rain and gray and gloom, we took our son out for a walk by the river in Putnam.  We were, as you can imagine, not alone.  Much of the Quiet Corner seems to have had the same idea we did on a beautiful late-September day:  breathe the fresh air, enjoy the changing leaves, make some Vitamin D while you can.

As we passed one of the parking areas along the path, I watched a man get out of his car.  He was wearing a dark gray t-shirt that said, on the front, in big white capital letters, I LOVE MY WIFE.  I smiled and looked to see if she was with him, but he was accompanied instead by a school-age girl who, I presume, was his daughter.  As we drew nearer, I noticed that there were other, smaller letters in between the lines of what I had read from farther off.  Read in full, the shirt carried a different message:  I LOVE it when MY WIFE gets me a beer.

 

On Thursday morning, I was sitting with my laptop and a cup of coffee at the Vanilla Bean in Pomfret, putting the finishing touches on my newsletter article (a day late—sorry, Ellen) and about to begin writing my sermon.  Three older white men sat down at the next table.  They began chatting, in carrying voices, and I couldn’t help overhearing as they discussed their friend’s recent surgery and recovery, a bathroom renovation under way in one of their homes, local and national politics, car trouble, and the road work that’s going on all over the place.  And then, one of them began to describe the croquet league he was organizing, and he asked another if he would join, and I heard his friend reply, laughing loudly, “I don’t know, I’ll have to investigate your sex life in high school before I make up my mind.”

 

Misogyny and patriarchy are much on my mind and heart this week, as I know they are for you—not only because of these two incidents (two among the many that happen every week) but because of our national discourse and the way it is being covered in the news and social media.  The stories that have been told this week, and the responses they have received, are triggering for many of us in this room, in this community, in this world.

Because I am your pastor, I would first say this:  if current events are bringing up painful, traumatic memories for you, please know that I believe you.  What happened to you matters, no matter how long ago it was or who was involved.  It was not your fault.  I am here to listen.  I am praying for you.  If you choose to tell your story, I support you.  If you choose not to tell your story, I support you.  You are made in God’s image, beautiful in God’s sight, and nothing anyone has done to you could ever change that.  If you are struggling or hurting, please reach out.  You are not alone.

Because I am your pastor, and because I am a disciple of Jesus, I would also say this:  this is not just politics.  It goes much deeper than that.  It is true that there is plenty, more than plenty, of partisanship on display.  It is true that there are significant political repercussions for however the current confirmation process unfolds.  But that is not why I am speaking of it today.  I am speaking of it today, here, in church, because the violation of women’s bodies, the silencing of women’s voices, the disbelief of women’s stories, the tendency to define women’s value by the benefits we provide to men (all the more so if the woman in question happens to be black, or brown, or lesbian, or transgender, or gender-nonconforming)… these are issues of morality, issues of dignity, issues of how we decide who deserves respect, who deserves protection, who deserves the benefit of the doubt, who counts as fully human—and as such, they are issues to which our faith must speak.  Regardless of your perspective on Dr. Blasey Ford or Judge Kavanaugh, I hope we can agree that sexism in its interpersonal and institutional forms is a problem for us and a problem for God.

These issues, these tendencies, these problems have been on full display this week, both in the halls of power and in the everyday corners of our lives.  The fact that I feel as nervous as I do about telling even the relatively innocuous stories I just told indicates just how insidiously embedded these issues, these tendencies, these problems are in our culture and in all of us.

But this is hardly the first moment when women’s voices have been silenced, when women’s presence has been ignored, when women’s work has been discounted.  It happened even in today’s scripture reading.

 

It is an amazing, miraculous story.  Jesus invited his disciples to come with him for a time of quiet retreat.  But even there, in that deserted place, multitudes of people followed them, so desperate was their need and so great was their hope in these itinerant preachers and healers.  Jesus taught them for a time while his disciples took their rest.  And then, as it was growing late, those weary disciples came to their teacher and said, “It’s starting to get dark.  Don’t you think it’s time for them to be going?  Send them away to find some dinner.”

Jesus replied, “You give them something to eat.”  And somehow, from five barley loaves and two fishes, there was enough food to feed the whole multitude.  They all ate and were satisfied, and there were twelve baskets of leftovers for the people to take home.

But did you catch the last line?  Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.  The Greek word used here for men is a gendered one, typically used not to indicate humans in general (there is another word for that), but male humans in specific, and adult male humans at that.  Indeed, in the footnotes of one of my study Bibles, this verse is annotated with the comment, “Women and children were not normally counted.”

There are several other versions of this same story included in the gospels, and in some of them, the number of people present is named in a gender-neutral way.  In others, the number is specified as 5,000 men, besides women and children (still not counted, but at least acknowledged).  There is no reason to think that the crowd was made up only of men, given the way other versions of the same story are told and what we know about who was present at other instances in Jesus’ life and ministry.  But here, at this point in Mark’s gospel, women’s presence—our presence—is erased from the story altogether.  Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.  “Women and children were not normally counted.”

Of course, it has happened at other times, too.  Think of the Easter story, the resurrection paradox that dwells at the center of our faith.  The story of Easter morning is a story of women who went to bear witness to their beloved friend’s suffering and death, discovered the empty tomb, told their stories, and were not believed.

 

And yet, those stories, those women’s memories, form the foundation of our faith.

And yet, those stories, those women’s memories, gave us the gospel good news that brings hope to our heartbreak, joy to our despair, courage to our trembling, purpose to our lives.

Because even though the author of the gospel of Mark erased women from today’s story, Jesus recognized women’s full humanity and treated them—treats us—accordingly.  He healed a woman suffering from gynecological illness.  He stood in solidarity with a woman accused of adultery and saved her from death by stoning.  He met a Samaritan woman at the well and listened deeply to the story of her life.  He taught and traveled with women disciples and relied on them.  Even when he was on the cross, he attended to his mother’s grief and to her needs.  And for that matter, he arrived on this earth by way of another woman’s story people found hard to believe:  Mary’s mysterious pregnancy.

Even though our human institutions and communities are infected by misogyny and patriarchy, the truth of our faith is this:  God made every human being in God’s own image, and God has been working through women, and non-binary folks, as well as through men, from the get-go.

The stories of the book of Exodus tell us of renegade Hebrew midwives named Shiprah and Puah who saved the Israelites from destruction by defying Pharaoh’s infanticidal decrees.  Without them, there would be no Moses, and without Moses, there would be no Jesus.

The stories of the book of Esther tell us of women who wielded power to stymie injustice and protect those who were vulnerable, and did so in spite of the constraints of the patriarchal societies in which they lived.

Paul’s letters to the early churches of the ancient Mediterranean include specific greetings sent to Phoebe, Junia, Prisca, Mary, and other women by name, and so we know that there were female leaders in the earliest communities of Jesus-followers, in spite of how the institutional church later confused the issue.

Male and female and everywhere else on the gender spectrum, every human being bears a reflection of God’s likeness.  Every human being is holy; every human being is whole; every human being is a child of God—worthy of attention, worthy of care, worthy of safety, worthy of respect, worthy of dignity, worthy of listening, worthy of love.  And anything that would deny the voice or diminish the full humanity of any child of God—even the women and children who are not normally counted—is not of God, but is a harmful, sinful distortion that must be overturned, for it wounds a part of God’s beloved creation and denies the rest of us the gospel truth that person has to tell.

In some ways, this feels like a sermon that should go without saying.  But this has been a hard week for women and those who love us.  This is a hard world for women and those who love us.  In a hard week in a hard world, sometimes the truths that should go without saying need to be said anyway.

And in the midst of this hard week in this hard world, friends, know this:  in spite of the trauma and pain and violence of this week, of this world, I still believe that the Realm of God is even now breaking in.  And in that Realm, those who hold power use it on behalf of the most vulnerable among us.  In that Realm, all people’s stories are heard and honored.  In that Realm, inspired by the Holy Spirit, people of all genders are working together to dismantle all the structures and systems that divide and diminish us, and building up a world of abundant life for all, all, ALL of God’s people.

 


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