Rebuilding Sex and Gender

Today we face one of Scripture’s most sexually frank and disturbing chapters, the story of David and Bathsheba. As we prepared for this Sunday, some of the staff thought perhaps we should opt for a different lesson. We are here to celebrate two remarkable women heading to seminary, why cloud the message with this awful story?

The work of faith means allowing God’s light to shine, even in the deepest places, even among those secrets we wish would stay hid. Scripture knows that David, the beloved King, got this moment horribly wrong. Today we will spend some time with David and with Bathsheba, with sexuality and gender.

To touch on gender I will use phrases like “men’s work” and “women’s work” in this reflection. I do this reluctantly, but I’m a bit stuck by language. We code certain messages about desire and behavior through a gender binary. Take that as you will, and feel free to hear that you have work to do that does not correspond with your assigned gender. God will always take additional work. As we are discovering, gender is more beautifully complicated than a simple binary can express. But let’s get to the Bible, shall we?

The Crisis of Toxic Masculinity

This Common English translation of the Bible we are using this summer is pretty frank. There is no euphemism. David “had sex” with Bathsheba. Now commentators from John Calvin on down have tried to put at least some of the blame on Bathsheba. They have asked, “why was this woman bathing on a rooftop in the nude?” I haven’t yet found a woman commentator who has tried to shift the blame to Bathsheba for seducing David. Indeed, those who think of Bathsheba as a seductress would do well to stick closer to the Bible.

To keep close to the text, notice the word that is repeated again and again in this story: “sent.” David “sent” Joab and all the Israelites to do battle, and though it is the season when kings go off to war, David stayed behind. He sent others in his place. David sent someone to ask about the woman. He sent messengers to go get her. Afterward she sent a message to him, “I’m pregnant.” So he sent a message to Joab. “Send me Uriah the Hittite.” When Uriah, preoccupied with war, refused to sleep with his wife and cover David’s sin, the king sent another message to his commander, ensuring Uriah would killed, eliminated.

David “sends” again and again. This word helps us to understand exactly who is in control. David has all the power, and he uses his power to have sex with another man’s wife. We never hear her voice, her desire, her consent. David sends for and takes what he wants. David is an archetype of toxic masculinity. He does what he can because he can, and because no one can question him.

The Rev. Beth Scriven last fall preached a phenomenal sermon from this pulpit about the #MeToo movement. I commend her sermon to you. You can listen again on our website. She talked about the importance of believing the stories of women, the need we have as a society to listen to women. Bathsheba’s story is a prototypical story. Men have done this to women again and again. How can we break this cycle?

If we are serious about change around sex and gender and #metoo, I want to venture that men’s work involves listening and challenging: listening to women yes, and challenging the voices of men. Men must challenge the messages society continues to communicate to men. Sociologists tell us that at least since the time of David men have been subtly (and not so subtly) taught to associate sexuality with power. Through media, through family, through friendships, through “locker room talk” men are taught to be competitive about sex, to compare notes and bed post notches, to display dominance in the realm of sexuality.

The Franciscan priest Richard Rohr has said that

“Sex has become more like a video game with the goal of winning rather than part of the deep religious core of cosmic evolution.”

-Richard Rohr

God hopes for more. It seems to me that men’s work around sexuality involves a lot of unplugging (some of it literal). Push back when other men use dehumanizing language and treat people as sexual objects. When you find yourself in a moment of desire, slow down, ask “am I really seeing a whole person? Am I treating someone as a set of body parts or as a human being created in God’s image?” Imagine if David had slowed down.

It seems to me the work ahead for men involves slowing down, listening, yes to their partners and also to their own inner voices. Sexuality is a gift from God, it has the capacity to be an immense blessing. Sex can teach us about the deep structure of the universe, about how we capable of giving and receiving love, but not if we treat it as a contest to be won. Learning to embrace God’s gift of sexuality, for men, involves a lot of laying aside what we have been taught, involves opting out of games and displays of power. This work will not be easy, but it will matter. We need to do this work for the sake of every little girl and boy, every child out there.

There is such a thing as a Biblical Feminist

I’ve spoken a lot about “men’s work,” and as I hinted in my introduction, the very phrase makes me nervous. Some in our world would have you believe that the Bible neatly divides men and women’s work, that there is a picture of the ideal Biblical woman who cooks, and cleans, and wears high heels and pearls while she vacuums. Thankfully there are very few of those women in the Bible. But women also have work.

There are powerful women in the Bible, Bathsheba is one of them. She is powerful not because, as John Calvin strangely believed, she seduced a king. No, we know Bathsheba is powerful because she does an entirely different kind of women’s work.

The very beginning of the New Testament, Matthew chapter one, is a genealogy. Usually we dismiss and skip over geneologies, for good reason. They are a list of “begats.” “Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob” and so on and so on down to Jesus. It seems boring, all those 42 generations, but look closely. There are five women listed: Tamar (who tricked her father-in-law into giving her a child); Rahab (a prostitute who betrayed her people); Ruth (an ethnically impure Moabitess who tricked her kinsman into sex); Bathsheba herself; and Mary (the mother of Jesus, pregnant out of wedlock). The only women named in Jesus’ genealogy are women who don’t behave according to society’s expectations about sex and gender. Bathsheba is among them.

In her new show “Nannette,” the Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby tells some jokes, and she tells her story. Her story is beautiful and painful. She talks about her close relationship with her mother years after coming out as a lesbian. She also tells of her history of sexual abuse and the violence she faced due to homophobia and gender-nonconformity. Hannah does not leave you with a laugh, but she leaves you with a powerful line. It’s a line about her story, and Bathsheba’s story, and the story of so many women:

“There is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself.”

-Hannah Gadsby

To see the power of women, you have to look in the margins of society and at the edges of the Biblical text. The women are there, rebuilding. Women have been taking the wreckage and rebuilding a better world since the very beginning. Women have been there, defying the roles their society would ascribe to them. Women who behaved badly have re-written history. That is Biblical women’s work. The Bible says so, and no less so with Bathsheba. Jesus stands in Bathsheba’s lineage, because Bathsheba took an awful situation, an abusive terrible situation, and she re-built. Biblical women’s work is re-building, often an ability to trust, to feel worthy, to love. Women’s work is rebuilding, and nothing could be stronger.

That is why today is so awfully important. Meg and Mary, you carry a lot on your shoulders. You both have stood in this pulpit and talked about ways in which you have rebuilt your own lives. You are both strong women. Now you go to take your place at the center of the rebuilding effort in the life of the church, in the first generations of women the church has finally trusted with the role of priest. We are proud of the work you have already done, and you go with our blessing. You stand in a long lineage. Never forget that you have a community of saints who have your back in this work.

Redeeming Sex and Gender

The work ahead, rebuilding, re-imagining gender and sexuality, belongs to you and to me as followers of Jesus. Don’t forget about Jesus. Notice, notice, when they want to make Jesus king by force in today’s Gospel story, he avoids them. He takes refuge. Jesus refused to be a king. Jesus did not behave the way his society thought a powerful man should. Jesus also often invited women to defy gender norms. In Christ, Paul tells us, there is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave nor free, there is no longer woman or man. Jesus offers reconciliation between society’s perceived opposites. Jesus engages gender differently. David sought power, exploited power. Jesus refused that kind of power over other human beings. The way of Jesus is a way of listening, of offering, of letting go of power.

The way of love that we learn from Jesus, it requires kneeling, slowing down, finding the humanity that is within every ethnic group and family, gender expression and orientation. To have the power to grasp love’s “width and length, height and depth” we must learn like Christ to kneel before the diversity of God’s blessed creation. We have to learn to slow down. We have to let go of the messages about power and sexuality that are so loud and dominant in our culture.

Sexuality is a gift from God. In a sexual relationship we can learn that we are capable of love, that we are able to receive love. We can learn to trust, and to be trusted. We can generate life. But we won’t learn the deep lessons of sexuality if we treat sex as a game to be won or lost. We won’t know the full beauty of God’s creation if we continue to shove some stories, some human beings off to the side. If we allow the voices, the protests, the stories of women and others we find inconvenient to be shoved aside, we will never know the breadth and height and depth of God’s love.

Thankfully we stand in a lineage of women and men, human beings who have been broken and who have rebuilt. From Tamar, to Bathsheba, to Mary, to Jesus, we stand in a long line of believers who witness that we can choose not to play by the rules of gender. We can stand in hope, in praise, and in love. God stands with us. God hopes for better. With God, we can rebuild.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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