Like many women, for years (decades even) of my life, I have felt anxiety, fear, and outrage about sexual harassment. The public accusations of the #MeToo movement brought this into our common consciousness this past fall.
In my family, we’ve had conversations about our own experiences of gender and the workplace. We’ve discussed the downfalls of the rich and famous and debated how our legal system could speak and act against such injustices.
Surely, Christians are called to create spaces where women and men receive equitable emotional, financial, and physical benefits at work. Such a culture would manifest the true reign of God: each person, regardless of their sex, fulfilling their purpose as God’s beloved children.
Last week I ventured up the steep stairs into my freezing-cold and dusty attic to find a cardboard box of sermons. These manuscripts only exist in hard-copy because they come from 1989-99, the decade when I served as a pastor at LaSalle Street Church-Chicago.
I was looking for a particular sermon, one that talked about the U.S. Senate hearings with now-Professor Anita Hill on the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. It was a memorable sermon to me because at the end of the worship service, a church member chastised me for bringing politics into the church, calling me out for speaking “inappropriately.”
Up in the attic, I found the sermons organized in colorful file folders and arranged in biblical canonical order: Genesis to Revelation. The title of each was carefully printed on the tab as well. But what Bible passage could have inspired me to mention the Clarence Thomas hearings? Genesis 38, the story of Tamar and Judah? Something from the Book of Judges, where many of the women suffer greatly? A narrative about Mary Magdalene or the woman caught in adultery?
Hmmm. I had to start at the beginning and riffle through each one. Finally I found it. The date was October 20, 1991, and the title was “What We Want.” The sermon text was Mark 10:35-45, where James and John ask Jesus for the special privilege of sitting next to him in his glory.
Now, in my memory, I had spoken as one of God’s prophets, advocating for justice and respect for women at work and in the world. And the sermon does open with that theme:
“They just don’t get it. Men really just don’t get it.” I was listening to a woman friend last Friday. She repeated the phrase used by many women in the last few weeks regarding sexual harassment in the workplace.
But the next sentences go in a slightly different direction:
I disagree with her blanket condemnation of men. In my experience there are some men that do get it, and also some women who don’t get it. But the phrase came back to me as I studied the text from Mark. It’s a judgment that could easily be applied to the Twelve, the disciples who were in Jesus’ inner circle. . . . They just didn’t get what Jesus was about.
The rest of the sermon explores what happens when people, like James and John, desire power–and that’s where I named some powerful people, including Clarence Thomas, President Bush, the U.S. senators, and other politicians.
I was thinking about the Gospel story through the lenses of gender, power, and faith. With a false sigh of relief, I stated:
It looks to me like the politicians and the Twelve are all the same kind of power-hungry people. And we can thank God that we are not at all like them, right? . . . I mean, after all, these twelve disciples and the politicians we saw on TV last week– they’re all men, and I’m a woman. So that lets me, and some of you, off the hook.
Perhaps women are immune from seeking power. The Gospel of Mark portrays the women disciples in a very positive light. They leave everything and follow him all the way to the cross, where they do not abandon him, as the Twelve did. In a society that valued power, they understand and practice true Christian leadership, which is: to be a servant to all.
The problem is, if I’m going to be honest, I know that many women want power, too. We may want different kinds of power and we may try to get it in different ways than men do. In Matthew’s Gospel, it’s not James and John who come directly to Jesus asking for positions of power. It’s their mother, Mary who approaches Jesus, seeking to increase her own status through her sons’ accomplishments.
We all want power. Any one of us might have asked Jesus for a position of power if we were given the opportunity. That is the system the disciples grew up in, and we still experience it today. It’s a system where you’re either up or down. [If I were preaching this sermon today, I would definitely use the word “patriarchal” to describe the ladder-like social system.]
There’s a whole ladder of who’s higher than whom. And it’s hurtful to be down rather than up the ladder. People on the bottom get stepped on in many ways. Their mental and physical health suffers because of the prejudice and bigotry of those above them. They find it hard to move up the ladder in significant ways. They’re told to stay in their place. Maybe that’s happened to you or to someone you know.
It was eye-opening to re-read an old sermon, and I felt especially discouraged to realize that our society still promotes gender stereotypes that entangle our God-created humanity in sinful attitudes and behaviors. And yet, I had concluded with a hopeful image, one that even now I hold in my heart:
In this teaching, Jesus says that the ladder of power, status, and domination must be abolished in his fellowship. That ladder needs to be replaced by a new form of leadership: a circle of equal servanthood. It is the Spirit of this Jesus who is with us today, holding out a new way to form relationships, and giving us the power to create a community of equal servants here and around the world.