16th September 2018
Thank God for wild , excitable women.
Exodus 15: 19-21 and 2 Samuel 6: 12-15
So last week I promised I would return to the other great leader of early Israel who is remembered for music, amongst many other things. Miriam. Miriam’s not quite so well-remembered as David, David gets two whole books, plus a lot of other mentions everywhere else, not to mention all those psalms. But, you know, patriarchy. The fact that Miriam’s there at all speaks volumes about who she was, how important she was at her time. Number one, she’s in it. Not many women make their way into the canon of Scripture after it’s been thoroughly edited. And other things – we know where she died and where she was buried. It’s in Numbers 20, she died and was buried at Kadesh in the desert. Now we know that of only two other people who took part in the Exodus and in the wandering in the desert. Moses, and Aaron the high priest. So there’s another clue. Also, she is ‘Miriam, the prophetess’. They’re very clear about that. The other one that we’ve got in the early bits of the Bible is Deborah, who judged and ruled Israel for however many years it was in the book of Judges.
Now some commentators like to downplay that, ‘Oh well, that’s not the same as a prophet.’ But me, I think it is. I think that maybe we know about Miriam because she was part of Moses and Aaron’s family, but all that means is that they had less excuse to forget her and push her under the carpet than most of the other women who were leading and prophesying in those days.
So, Miriam. We first meet her when she’s a little girl, in the second chapter of Exodus. She’s Moses’ big sister, and when Pharaoh has declared that all the baby boys born to Israel are to be killed the moment they are born, Moses mother hides him by placing him in a watertight basket wrapped safely and put in the reeds by the side of the river, the Nile. The Nile was seen as divine, she gives him to the Nile because she can’t protect him. She’s hoping against hope that God will. But obviously Miriam’s not so confident, she stays and watches over her baby brother, and when Pharaoh’s daughter pulls the basket out of the water and sees the baby, and decides to keep the baby, she has the wit and audacity to say ‘Shall I go and find you a wet-nurse from amongst the Hebrew women?’ (because, as in many cultures across time, wealthy upper-class women are apparently made of porcelain and don’t feed their own babies. And in any case she wasn’t actually the baby’s mother) But Miriam, clever little cookie, has the audacity to go and fetch Moses’ own mother. So she gets, not only to raise her own baby instead of watching him be killed, she gets paid for it! I think that’s great.
Then you meet Miriam again, and she is Miriam the prophetess, leading the singing and dancing by the Sea of Reeds after they’d passed through. And Moses might have had to be raised in Pharaoh’s household, commit murder, run off, keep sheep in the desert and see a burning bush, but Miriam’s managed to become a prophet all by herself. She did it as a slave. And she’s clearly in this scene a leader and a prophet. And we do hear about her later. She’s quite unfairly punished I think, because I do think Aaron was equally guilty if anyone was guilty, for what happened, but anyway, Aaron and Miriam decide Moses has got a bit above himself. They go to see him and they say – and this is the important bit – ‘Are we not also prophets? Has not God also spoken through us?’ now whether they were right or whether they were wrong about Moses (God said, yes, you’re prophets, but Moses is special and you’re just going to have to get used to that) nevertheless it’s clear that Miriam is being placed on an equal level with Aaron. Miriam is a leader of Israel and someone who has the Spirit if God. Numbers 12, if you want to look it up.
What it seems to me, is that when religion starts to get itself organised, when it starts to have buildings and books and structures and hierarchies and things, it moves away from prophecy, it moves away from Spirit. This is a human thing, it’s a thing we do. We prefer safety and structure, we don’t like not knowing what’s coming next. But when this happens, suddenly, the women and the foreigners, the ones who weren’t part of the people of Israel, the poor, the ones without a classical or formal education, the slightly crazy – and I say that in a good way – are also shunted out of the picture and cease to have a voice. Because whilst the Spirit chooses all these people, we tend not to, as human beings.
And in the early days of the church, after the canon of scripture as we know it had been written and more or less agreed on, there was this big movement to separate themselves from all these groups that they had decided were heretical. And there were lots of them that came up over the whole history of the church, 2,000-odd years. One of them was called Montanism. Followers of Montanus. That’s not what they called themselves, they called themselves the Church of the New Prophecy. Because they believed in prophecy. It had sort of drained away and died out, amongst the organised, what became the mainstream, the people that write the history because they won. They were more about apostolic succession and the laying on of hands by the bishops being how the Spirit worked, but Montanus and his followers, they believed that God was still speaking, that the Spirit was still inspiring people. That there were new truths to be told, that people could still be prophets.
What’s interesting is that none of what they said was actually heretical. It was pretty much the same as what everyone else was saying, but they were counted as heretics because of this prophesying thing. They were very unreliable, they were too Spirit-driven! Also, they kept being led by women! And these prophets were loudly-spoken women who were prophesying, strong-minded, strong-willed leaders. Obviously the bishop of Rome and so forth didn’t like them much. It was scary.
And in fact a modern commentator writing about the way in which the church dealt with Montanism, said that wasn’t it good that Montanism had been treated as a heresy and died out, because otherwise the church ‘would have developed, not under the guidance of rational and educated people’ (by which he means, well-off men) ‘but wild and excitable women.’?
But the Spirit is wild and excitable. And actually, if you’re going to use the Hebrew name for the Spirit, Ruach, which is feminine, you might as well say that the Spirit is a wild and excitable woman! (not literally, obviously, because gender and God isn’t something I like to pin together much, God being way, way bigger than all that rubbish). But the Spirit is wild and excitable, and all those things that culture has considered not very masculine and not very safe. The Spirit is uncomfortable, the Spirit makes us uncomfortable, the Spirit is counter to our structures and our orderliness.
Like David and his dancing. When they brought the Ark up to Jerusalem, David risks, and gets, the complete scorn of his wife for dancing around in a loincloth. It’s just not very dignified. And even Saul has his moment. The sign that Samuel had correctly told him that he would be king one day, is when he meets these prophets the Spirit would come on him and he would dance round madly in a frenzy, prophesying. And he did. Just the once. The thing is, that’s all right for Saul and for David. But when the not-normative speak up. The women, the LGBT folk, the foreigner and the refugee, the poor person without a formal education, the people we think of as being a bit mad. Especially if they’ve got a real, true Spirit message. They’re often accused of wildness. Of instability. Of unreliability. They’re only respected if they’re proved true in retrospect. And sometimes not even then. Rev Dr Martin Luther King was accused of that. Troy Perry was accused of that. Jesus was accused of that.
And history has proved them right. The belief that the gospel, the good news, that God’s church, truth, hope, peace and all those things require the removal of emotionality, of variety and changeability, of upheaval and inspiration – it just doesn’t hold true. It’s not how the good news works.
Now me, I am no prophet. I don’t see visions, I’m not particularly excitable. But I’m not afraid of such things anymore. I was. I was uneasy. But I’ve learned through my life that actually, you have to be willing for upheaval to happen. And you have to be OK with the things that you might see as thoroughly crazy and unstable. I know it because I’ve been there and I’ve seen what I thought of as the meltdowns and the crazy-fits and all these things, and I learned that they weren’t. I learned that they were people with truth. OK their truth at that point in time was angry, or frightened. But it wasn’t less true.
And I’ve also learned from seeing the fear in other people’s eyes. I am disruptive without doing anything. I am disruptive by existing. And I have seen the fear in people’s eyes when I disrupt the status quo by existing. So I know how scary I am. I try to be as nice and gentle as possible, but sometimes I’m just scary by standing there. And we are all, sometimes, just scary by being. By being LGBTQI, by being someone who will speak up about climate change, or animal cruelty or homelessness. By being someone who does things differently, we’re disruptive. And that’s a good thing, because there are some things that need disrupting.
I’ve been at two conferences this week. One as a delegate, to a conference about trans stuff in churches. One as a PA to a delegate, about Disability Studies. To be honest I learned more from the disability studies. I taught quite a lot in trans awareness, but I learned quite a lot in disability studies. And what I saw was the way that the scholars, mostly people with disabilities themselves of one kind or another, have turned the tide on the idea that it’s all about helping people be more ‘normal’. What one speaker described as ‘striving valiantly to be like everyone else’. And actually put their foot down, or their wheel down, and said ‘No. I’m not going to ‘strive valiantly’ to be a little less good then you at x, whatever x is, when I could strive brilliantly to be uniquely better than you at something else, which is just for me’ And I thought, yes. That’s it, that’s what I needed to learn.
Which meant learning what we all hate to learn, which is that orderliness, and containment, (and that doesn’t matter whether it’s containment of the body, or the emotions, or the way that your brain works which isn’t neurotypical) aren’t actually the highest good that we can attain to. That actually striving not to be messy or different or difficult is not the greatest thing that we could try to achieve. And God proves that, because what could be more messy than mixing those beautifully neat characters of ‘God’ and ‘human being’, and getting Jesus?
Stagnation is not a spiritual gift. Even if you try and disguise it as stability. Real stability isn’t something we can create, and isn’t something that we can impose. We don’t build the Rock, we build on the Rock.
I can be sometimes wonderfully messily unstable. But deep down I will always know that I am built on the Rock. That my stability is not something I create. It is something I was given. It’s God, and on that I build. And sometimes I knock down what I built and build something else. But the Rock is there. The beautiful chaos of God is a pattern so big, and so interconnected and so diverse that we will never be able to grasp it as individuals. But I think it very likely that wild, excitable prophets with open hearts are going to grasp an awful lot more of it than when we try to organise bits of it into tiny boxes that we can grasp. Is it frightening? Oh yes. It’s terrifying and I am often still terrified. Because there’s a lot of Jesus’ teachings that frighten me. The bits where I have to give up my personal safety-nets and privileges for the sake of other people. The bits where I have to die to live. Oh well. Still in there. Scary or not.
We say ‘better the devil you know’? Gospel doesn’t say so. The Israelites would have stayed in Egypt. The church would have stayed in Jerusalem. They didn’t because they listened to the Spirit. To strange people like Peter and Paul and so on. So thank God for wild excitable women, and others and all those who know that the Spirit will not be contained. If we forget it, we’re just another organisation. As long as we remember it, we will be MCC as it was called to be. We will be Good News.