listening to tamar

This is the (w0)manuscript for a sermon for Advanced Preaching. The text is based off of 2 Samuel 13:1-22. 

This is a cruel text, a text of terror, and yet there is wisdom to be found here. What we find is a reckless regard of women as God’s creation, that men are not held accountable for their actions and inactions. How do we as a faith community hear and stand-up for Tamar? Even more, how to we who identify as United Methodists stand up for Tamar? We are called, as those who follow Jesus, to stand-up and speak against the abuse of bodies, all bodies.

Every time I read and hear this text, I yell and groan. How many of you were keeping it in today? So many men failed Tamar in this scripture. They failed in big ways, to protect her, to listen to her, and to see her as a human being. Tamar is seen as an object, not as a daughter or a sister, or a relative, her body is a possession and not her own. Let’s go through the highlights, more low lights.

Amnom basically says that Tamar is asking for it, even though what she would have worn as a royal virgin would have covered most of her body. The cousin, Jonadab, was cunning, like the serpent, almost removing responsibility from Amnom. Another excuse of removing responsibility from a man. David appears blameless, yet, the man who lusted over the body of Bathsheba would have known what his first born was wanting. Then there is Abasalom, her full brother, who does not stand up and decry the actions, although 2 years later he will revenge his sister’s rape by murdering Amnom.

Where is God in this scripture? Where is the Good News? Remember. Tamar speaks. Tamar acts. As much as she is violated and tossed aside, she is not silenced. “But she said to him, “No, my brother! Don’t rape me. Such a thing shouldn’t be done in Israel. Don’t do this horrible thing. Think about me—where could I hide my shame? And you—you would become like some fool in Israel! Please, just talk to the king! He won’t keep me from marrying you.”

Tamar speaks wisdom. But she is not heard. Her body is raped, it is objectified, violated, and then Amnom tosses her aside. Yet after all the horror, she is not silent. “No, my brother!” she said. “Sending me away would be worse than the wrong you’ve already done.” Again, he does not listen to his sister. As she is tossed out, Tamar is not done.

“Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the long-sleeved robe she was wearing. She put her hand on her head and walked away, crying as she went.” Her torn long-sleeves denote her taken virginity, she puts ashes on her head, so visually people know something is wrong… and she isn’t silent, she cries out loud. Tamar taps into her own agency, her God-given agency and freedom to take action, to seek justice, to refuse her oppressor.

This is good news. Tamara is not silent. Though it doesn’t feel like good news does it? In the midst of her rape, she does speak out, articulately and wisely. It feels a little weak though, right? But, the mere fact that Tamar’s experiences and her own words are part of the story is good news. I celebrate her agency, for not remaining silent and therefore letting others know what had happened. It is rare to find a women’s voice in the Bible, rarer still to include her own words.

 While the Scripture gives Tamar voice, our liturgical tradition is too horrified by this story to include it. It is not in our lectionaries. Our tradition silences the very woman that our Scriptures give voice to and it’s no wonder why many women and men remain silent after being victimized as Tamar. The story of Tamar reflects Christianity in a sharp, realistic light. As a woman, Tamar is shown as less than, as an object, as something to be controlled, ignored, and contained.

Time and time again, our Christian tradition has acted like the men in this story. Objectifying women, plundering, blatant disregard for women, sexism, using the Bible to oppress women. Biblical narratives have been used to harm women, to silence their voices from preaching and leading faith communities. To encourage women to suffer as it’s their cross to bear. Our historic Christian tradition sucks when it comes to women and objectification… instead of caring for women, for creation, we have neglected.

Women have stepped into leadership and power roles in the church. Paul writes about women in his letters, meaning if they made the cut, they must have had a mighty presence. The event is always bigger than the recorded text. If women were speaking in church, that’s why someone had to write it that they needed to be silent. In the Middle Ages, women started their own religious orders and started reclaiming their freedom through religious life, shortly after this the backlash against women began with the Spanish Inquisition.

Last week at our General Conference, The United Methodist Church’s body issues took center stage and in many ways, we moved backwards. Women’s bodies through reproductive health, choice, and justice, took a hit as we voted to remove our membership in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, even though no money goes into it and we were the founding members. We barely survived adding more restrictions to the church’s stance on abortion. While Responsible Parenthood got voted down for a small part on abortion, despite it being more than that topic. Other legislation on women and girls got abandoned. We moved backwards.

As Christians, we were not given dominion over creation, but stewardship. We are not reflecting this as a denomination. But we can move forward. As a faith community, we can start having these conversations about bodies and objectification. About how we treat women and how we can as a faith community can treat everyone as equal. Because until all are equal, we aren’t living into the promise of creation, into the Kin-dom of God.

During General Conference we celebrated 60 years of women’s ordination, only 60 years. Methodism has been alive as long as the United States has been a sovereign nation, yet officially only 60 years. We were ahead of the curve of many Protestant denominations, but we are now falling behind in regards to women’s rights in comparison to our mainline sisters and brothers.

Ladies and gentlemen, we live in the third wave of feminism; but, our tradition still doesn’t show up for women, for Tamar’s, as we should. Women deserve to be heard and to have a voice over their bodies. Women’s agency over our bodies, is not against God’s will.

Most of us here today, okay all of us, are the results of women owning their own sense of agency. We all have mothers and women in our lives who have mentor, taught, preached, and formed us. Reading Tamar and all the people who failed her does not match some of our experiences, yet, for some of us in the room today, this hits close to home.

Physically, women’s bodies are still being objectified. I know that my own personal experience with objectification started in middle school by being called derogatory names based on my anatomy. I get nervous walking by construction sights and am extra careful in my appearance when I guest preach. But worse than being catcalled, is objectification that leads to violence as it did for Tamar.

As a woman, I am aware that every 107 seconds in America, someone is sexuality assaulted. 44% are under the age of 18, 80% are under the age of 30. 68% of sexual assaults do not get reported to the authorities, therefore a whooping 98% of rapists do not see any jail time. 4 out of 5 people are sexually assaulted by someone they know.[1]

There are movements on college campus teaching consent, that no never means yes. That women aren’t asking for it by how we dress. That it isn’t a women’s fault, or it’s okay if she is intoxicated. Statistically we have all known a Tamar, or have been Tamar. If we as a church and society were serious about equality, and the un-objectification of women, then we would be on the forefront of this, but sadly we are not.

The church has much work to do on the objectification of women, and a good starting point is starting to talk about objectification in scripture. Yet we rarely go there and avoid the topic like the plague. Uniting the experience of women today with this difficult text of terror gives them voice. Looking at the texts gives us a lens to look at the problems we still struggle with in society.

What do we do with our scripture, our tradition, and the experiences we have all had? How do we learn and move forward? As United Methodists we actually have resources about the body and objectification of it because scripture, tradition, and experience lead us to reason and how we synthesize it all.

The United Methodist Church has in our Social Principles a section called the Rights of Women. Here are some pieces of it.

We affirm women and men to be equal in every aspect of their common life… We affirm the right of women to equal treatment in employment, responsibility, promotion, and compensation… We affirm the importance of women in decision-making positions at all levels of Church and society and urge such bodies to guarantee their presence through policies of employment and recruitment… We affirm the right of women to live free from violence and abuse and urge governments to enact policies that protect women against all forms of violence and discrimination in any sector of society.[2]

How do we live it? What happens in our churches that let’s people know that United Methodists really affirm the equality for women and men? Studies tell us that women still make 77 cents on a man’s dollar. Women do 2.1 hours of housework while men do 1.4 in duel income homes[3], and a woman’s lifetime earning power is $400,000 less than a man’s[4]? What is the church’s role in changing that reality? How do we do it in our nation? And how do we care about it around the world? What would it take to get people interested in learning and action?

It’s great to have all these words in our Social Principle, wonderful words that I will fight to have remain in our Book of Discipline, but they mean nothing if we do not talk or discuss them. If anything, we as a church are going backwards. We have taken for granted women’s agency over our bodies. I believe that we are called to action and moving forward is vital for us as Christians to take equality seriously as we have clearly not reached it.

The ways we interact with each other reflects the way Jesus lived in the world. How do we teach our children about gender roles in ways that bring fullness and life? Heck, how do we teach adults about gender roles in a way that brings fullness and life? What are the best practices in society for helping women and girls discover their God-given agency? How do we change a culture that objectifies and harms women and girls?

As Tamar was crying out with with ashes on her face, many of us were crying out over the objectifying of women at General Conference and the legislating of our bodies by men. There is work to be done. God calls us to seek justice, to see all creation as reflections of the Divine. The Good News is that God is with us, emboldening us to speak, to be heard, and to be equal.

[2]United Methodist Publishing House (2013-01-01). The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 2012 (Kindle Locations 3587-3594). United Methodist Publishing House. Kindle Edition.