Wednesday, June 17, 2009

"Woman thou art Blessed" - Rev. Mpho Tutu's Sermon-June 14th at St. Andrew & St. Monica in Philadelphia

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13
Samuel went to Ramah; and Saul went up to his house in Gibeah of Saul. Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the LORD was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel.
The Lord said to Samuel, "How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons." Samuel said, "How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me." And the Lord said, "Take a heifer with you, and say, `I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.' Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you." Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, "Do you come peaceably?" He said, "Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice." And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.
When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, "Surely the Lord's anointed is now before the Lord." But the Lord said to Samuel, "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart." Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, "Neither has the Lord chosen this one." Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, "Neither has the Lord chosen this one." Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, "The Lord has not chosen any of these." Samuel said to Jesse, "Are all your sons here?" And he said, "There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep." And Samuel said to Jesse, "Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here." He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, "Rise and anoint him; for this is the one." Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

Mark 4:26-34
Jesus said, "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come."
He also said, "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade."
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables but he explained everything in private to his disciples. In the name of the One, Holy, and Living God who is and who was and who is to come. Amen

To his listeners, people who lived close to the land who were familiar with the patterns of planting, growth, and harvest; people who knew the seasons and could read the clouds for messages of rain; people who knew where the fish spawned and could mend a net or a boat with equal ease Jesus explained the kingdom of God in these ways: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed...
the kingdom of heaven is like a farmer...
the kingdom of heaven is like vine-grower...”

Few of us know of these things any more. Our sheep come cut or cubed and covered in cellophane. Or they come in little plastic containers for the microwave. Our grains come in bars and flakes or other configurations mother-nature wouldn’t recognize as having anything to do with her. When we hear the stories Jesus told we have to listen through a three layers of translation. First we need the words translated from the language Jesus spoke into one that is familiar to our ears. Then we need to have explained the farming language that would have been mother-tongue to Jesus audience. Only then we can begin to plumb the wisdom of his words.

So rather than seeds I’ll talk about something more familiar. I’ll talk about shoes.
Now, I know that it’s Women’s Day and some of the ladies are thinking “Really? Is she really going to go there?” Some of the gentlemen are pretending to tune out. But I have seen some of my brothers in all their sartorial splendor; and you can not pretend those shoes found their way to your feet with no effort on your part. And DSW has never been empty unless the lights are out. So I am guessing more than a few of us know a little something about shoes.

I was in Canada last week and a teenager asked me about the shoes I had to fill and that set me thinking.

The kingdom of heaven is like the workshop of a master shoe-smith; where each customer has her shoes or his custom designed, made, and tailored to fit.

Let me explain. Let us begin with the sole, the foundation of the shoe Proverbs 22:6 reminds us to “train a child in the way she should go and when she is old she will not stray from it.” For many of us that first foundation was the one formed and loving laid by women. Sometimes the women were very conscious of their handiwork: they were the people who taught us how to pray, the ones who ironed our clothes and combed our hair and marched us off to church. They were the ones who marched us back out of church to ‘explain’ the finer points of in church behavior before marching us back in to church again. Other times they tanned the sole leather of our kingdom shoes unawares.
The most vivid visual memory I have of my father’s mother is of her walking away down the dusty street that wound past her township home. It’s Thursday, it must be Thursday because that day was holy to black women in the days of apartheid. It was the day that domestic workers had off (not Friday or Monday to inconvenience their white employers, not Sunday - who would wash the dinner dishes?) - but Thursday. So it was Thursday and the short round form of my grandmother was walking away. She was dressed in her Mother’s Union uniform - black skirt black tight black hat that looked like a tea-cosy - on her way to her manyano, her gathering of “o mama bo’m thandazo” the mothers of prayer, the back-bone of the township congregation. One piece of that foundation in faith I learned from her while she wasn’t looking: Gather with your sisters to pray.

My own mother had lessons of her own to share: When we were younger it seemed every weekend was a procession of weddings and funerals. On Friday nights we would trail along with her armed with basins, knives and potato-peelers to help prepare the wedding banquet or funeral collation for an assortment of friends and family. Caterers have come only lately to the townships. When we were young friends and family gathered to make the meals for whomever showed up. And, since no one is turned away from a wedding banquet or a funeral repast, hundreds of people might have been served before the day was done. I hold in my mind a recent memory of my mother in a friend’s back yard washing the big pots that had held food for the wedding feast. It is said that fifty percent of ministry consists in showing up. The lives of women are the first seminary. Think then to the fore-mothers and the foundation in the faith that they loving stitched for you. Know the word of God for them: Woman thou art blessed for you pour out your cup of blessing to the next generation.

As a mother myself I have seen another stitch sewed in the sole of that shoe of faith. I have been delighted to see my daughter’s excitement at the prospect of going to Sunday School, I heard the same squeal of excitement last night when a child from your own Sunday school heard that her Sunday school teacher was at the door. In many congregations we seldom see them the teachers. Often they forgo adult worship and enrichment in favor of forming our children in the faith. Some Sunday school teachers are men and they have our admiration, thanks and blessing, but most are women. Woman thou art blessed who attend to our children’s spiritual lives.

The insole of the shoe provides comfort when we need it and stability as we walk. The insole is the Word of faith, the scripture that the collect (proper 28 in the Book of Common Prayer) admonishes us to “...hear read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest”. I am not one who can quote, chapter and verse, wide swathes of scripture. I admire those who have learned the bible in that way. In my own time I joined the Mother’s Union and those women taught me by example what is meant by God’s “true and lively word”. The living testaments of our faith. Our family lived in Grahamstown for a year. Grahamstown is a university town in the poorest province in South Africa. Grahamstown is achingly beautiful, nestled among the grassy hills of the Eastern Cape. And Grahamstown is poor. In Rhini, what used to be the black township, unemployment hovers around fifty percent and that average is only so low because of the temporary employment afforded by the influx of tourists and performers for the annual arts festival. The women of the Mother’s Union made the words of scripture leap off the page into lived experience. They opened the book to me as Philip had done for the Ethiopian Eunuch in the eighth chapter of the Acts of the apostles. At one of our prayer meetings a young woman stood at the front of the gathering paging anxiously through her Bible as she tried to decide a text for the day. “I am paging through this book as though I do not know it, as though it is not mine.” The book was hers. She could find a scripture to describe her day, any day. God spoke to her from the Bible and she spoke back. Those women showed how the words of scripture challenge or chide us, how they comfort or cure us, how they lead or guide us, we have only to look. Woman, thou art blessed who studies the Bible and teaches others to study it too.

The uppers of our kingdom shoes consist of our education, book knowledge and street smarts, eduction in academy and the world. If we are fortunate we will encounter many gifted teachers in our lives. Some are gifted street teachers who have learned their art in the school of life. Some are talented academics who change or challenge us to become our best selves. The gifted teacher is like the householder described in the thirteenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel who brings out of his storeroom new treasure and old. She brings out treasures in due season. In high school I met people who taught me to think, to exercise my mind. In seminary I met two amazing people. One was a brilliant gentleman who was so thrilled by his subject that every class he led us on a roller-coaster ride of “aha” moments, confused pauses and delighted discoveries. The student’s verdict was ‘he makes my brain hurt, and I love it! The second was a woman whose pedagogy, whose way of teaching, gave us the keys to our own treasure-houses. She called on us to draw on every skill and resource at our disposal to answer the questions she posed. Then she taught us to pose our own questions. Woman, teacher, thou art blessed you who open for us our own treasure houses and teach us to draw out the gifts hidden there.

The color of our shoes is determined the sisters and brothers, friends, spouses and others who people our relationships. Sometimes the color is hard to make out (is that black or navy blue?). Our relationships are what decorate our lives making our lives rich and beautiful. The relationships we choose and the ones we choose to hold on to will determine how deep and lustrous is the sheen of kingdom shoes. Woman thou are blessed who can maintain deep loving relationships.

The embellishments on our kingdom shoes are the embellishments of our lives. Honors and accolades are the ribbons, bows, and buckles of our kingdom shoes. These things that can change or fall away without damage to the structure don’t set your heart on things that perish set your heart on what endures. Woman thou art blessed when you recognize the kudos and still cling to what endures.

Now ladies, I don’t know that men have this issue, but I know some of my sisters do. Fit. You know the times when the shoe looks so good, it’s so pretty it makes you smile to look at it, it matches your favorite dress to a “t” but oh how does that shoe kill your feet. You’ve worn it for five minutes and you’re waling like a duck. The pinch is the relationship that doesn’t work, the work that doesn’t work. The pinch is that thing that looks good on paper but is impossible to live.
When the shoe looks good but is unwearable it is because we are seeing as humans see not as God sees. When we are seeing as humans see it’s time to get back on our knees take our shoes back to the cobbler fit them for the kingdom. Woman, thou art blessed who knows when she needs to be back on her knees.

The polish on our shoes is love. Love applied by family, friends, and strangers; sisters under the skin. Love that removes the scuff marks left by fear, failure and frustration. The nurses who held our hands through child birth, the strangers whose smiles shimmered through the gloom of a bad day the sisters who showed up with advice when perplexity had overwhelmed us. The friends who turned up with a shoulder to cry on and an ear to hear our woes. Love is the shoe cream and the buffing cloth that keeps our kingdom shoes in proof against the worst that the world has to offer. It is Love that brings friends and family to our celebrations to share our joys and rejoice with us at our successes. I don’t have to name them for you. Every day uncounted women meet you with the polish of love. Woman thou art blessed who can give love and receive love.

In this life neither you nor I have to wear anyone else’s shoes. The master cobbler has made a custom-fit pair for you. They are as beautiful as you want them, as comfortable as can be, as strong and sturdy and fit for your life as only a master cobbler could make them. The kingdom of heaven has come near you. Woman thou art blessed.

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