As an ordained man in the church, I have long taken my status and power for granted. When I stand to preach in my black “crow” robe (I call it such because when one raises arms in this garment, it looks for all the world like a crow taking flight), trimmed with blue, blue chevrons embroidered on the sleeves to announce loudly that I have a PhD, I expect to be taken seriously as one who actually knows a little bit about what he is trying to say. I pray that God will forgive such hubris, but I admit that I love my robe of power, and feel a bit naked when I preach without its protective shell around me.
As a teacher of preaching for nearly 30 years at Perkins School of Theology, I had in my classes increasing numbers of women students. In fact, just before my retirement I had a group of twelve students in an introductory preaching class, and eleven of them were women. When I began my teaching career, a class like that would simply never have happened. From those women students, and from the hundreds of women I was privileged to teach with and learn from over the years, I learned a great deal about power and its lack. More than a few of those women said to me that they always felt that they had to earn the right to preach, because, unlike us men, such a right was not to be assumed as a given. My black robe of power I draw around me as a symbol of my preaching authority, but these women taught me that their black robes were for them not merely a symbol of their authority; it was an announcement to their congregations that they really were preachers, and not Christian education directors or musicians only pretending that day to be preachers. Those robes were crucial statements of power, far more than a public proclamation of a power already bestowed. I was automatically handed power due to my maleness; they had to claim it, since no one was giving it to them on any plate.
It has been only 60 years since the Methodist Church (now the United Methodist Church) ordained women as clergy, a mere two generations. I was certainly alive when that happened, when Maud Keister Jensen in 1958 was the first woman ordained in our denomination. So where are we now in the matter of woman’s ordination? In a survey of 2008, only 94 women were the senior pastors of the 1200 UM churches that reported more than 1000 members. That same survey revealed that 27% of the clergy of our church were women. Hence, as of eight years ago, fewer than 8% of women were leaders of large churches. It appears clear that increasing numbers of women are entering the ministry, if my classes be any guide, but at all levels of the church’s power, women remain underrepresented despite their growing numbers. Some of these disparities may be chalked up to years of experience in ministry, but not all; the acceptance of women of power is still problematic.
This reality seems surprising when we examine a passage like 1 Samuel 2:1-10, for here we find a woman of power who expresses that power in ringing words that were so memorable, so astonishing, that they served as the model for another woman’s powerful testimony to the coming of the one we call Christ, namely Mary in Luke 1:46-55, her so-called “Magnificat,” a song of praise to the God who selected her to bear the Messiah. The earlier woman’s name is Hannah, formed from the Hebrew word for “grace” or “favor,” and her prayer is a response to YHWH’s gift to her of a son, who will become the prophet Samuel. Hannah’s ecstatic poem is much more than an expression of thanks, however. It is a prophetic proclamation of what YHWH has in mind for the people as they are called to follow the demands of their God; it is Hannah who is the prophet who calls. Just listen
My heart rejoiced through YHWH;
my horn (power) is raised high through YHWH.
My mouth is wide to swallow my foes;
for I was gladdened by your deliverance (I Sam 2:1).
At the level of the story, Hannah is exulting in the fact that she has at last given birth to a child for whom she had fervently prayed in the Temple at Shiloh. In the face of her childlessness, her co-wife Penninah, blessed with numerous offspring from the husband, Elkanah, made fun of her flat belly and brought nothing but misery to her life in the village (I Sam 1:6-7). But finally YHWH answered her desperate call for a child, so now she shouts with unalloyed joy that power is now hers at last.
In verse 3 Hannah still speaks quite personally against those who taunted her as she cries, “Do not go on talking high and mighty—arrogance fairly slides from your mouth!—for a God all-knowing is YHWH; God is the final measure of actions!” Hannah warns Penninah, and all other members of her community that God will not forget the pain they have caused her; now the shoe is on the other foot!
If the poem were to stop there, we have little more than another psalm of vengeance of which the Hebrew Bible has more than a few. But the successive verses move in a much more general and universalizing direction. “The warrior’s bow is shattered, and the stumblers gird on strength. The sated are hired for bread, while the hungry cease evermore. The barren woman bears seven and the many-sonned woman is sad” (I Sam 2:4-5). Hannah now proclaims that her child’s birth has implications far beyond her private triumph. With the birth of Samuel, against all expectations and against all those who spewed their hate against her, YHWH is about to turn the whole world upside down! Not only will the formerly barren give birth again and again, while the fertile one will cease her birthing, so too will warrior’s bows shatter, the poor will be rich, and rich poor (I Sam 2:7), and the needy will rise from the ash heap to sit with princes on seats of honor (I Sam 2:8). This will all come about, shouts Hannah, because “the earth’s pillars belong to YHWH, and upon them YHWH founded the earth” (I Sam 2:8b). Hannah is prophet, speaking the powerful words of YHWH, announcing the will of YHWH, a will that YHWH has proclaimed through the miraculous birth of the child, Samuel.
I envision this extraordinary prayer being uttered right after she has left her son with the addled old priest, Eli, that temple official who first accused the praying Hannah of drunkenness in her desperate praying (I Sam 1:14), and who now remains confused about just who this woman is and equally confused about why she intends to leave her young child for him to raise in the temple. I imagine his near-blind eyes opening wide and his priestly mouth parted to remonstrate with her about her God-directed plan for her son. But Hannah has made up her mind; Samuel will stay in the temple and Eli will raise and mentor the boy. She concludes her poem with this: “YHWH watches the steps of the faithful; all the wicked in darkness turn mute, because not by might does a male prevail!” I translate that final line literally, because it concludes the actions of the upside down YHWH by the claim that masculine might and power, male strength that works to control the world, is no longer the way of YHWH, if ever it was. Males can no longer expect their superior muscle to win; those days, announces Hannah, are past.
Little wonder that Luke built his own potent woman’s prayer on this ancient one from I Samuel. How well the ideas fit with the coming of the one Luke knew to be Messiah, the one who would turn his world upside down, the one who “would scatter the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, bring down the powerful from their thrones, lift the lowly, fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich empty away” (Luke 1:51-53). And he would perform all these deeds not with traditional male strength, but by the offering of himself in humble obedience on a cross, refusing the ways of human power and might.
These new acts of God/YHWH were proclaimed by women, as well as by other women who followed this Jesus in his ministry, women who became the first to witness and proclaim his resurrection from the grave. Methodists may have ordained women only for 60 years, but women have been ordained by God from the very beginning of all things. After all, was not Lady Wisdom the first of the acts of God, creating with God and playing before God from the foundation of the world (Prov 8)? How grateful we are, we Methodists, we Christians, for the ministries of women! May their tribe increase, and may we men enable, support, and applaud these ministries at every opportunity.