March 3: Strong Women: Still Waters, Deep River with Sherry Meyer and Rev. Mike Tupper

Still Waters, Deep River

Luke 1: 26-31, 38 and Luke 10:38-42

March 3, 2024 (Preached with Sherry Meyer)

            This four part message series will highlight strong women. It’s a follow-up to my last message which said that we oppose sexism. One of the ways we can express our opposition to sexism is by celebrating strong women.

We’re surrounded by strong women, aren’t we? John Reid in his comments after the sermon last Sunday talked about the strength of his mother.

We find strong women in the Scriptures. We find strong women in our lives. We find strong women amongst us.      

            This sermon series will not only talk about strong women, but also feature the preaching of strong women.

We are a part of a denomination that encourages women to preach. It started back in 1853 with the ordination of Antoinette Brown in the Congregational Church of Butler, New York. The first ordination recognized by a Congregational Association was in 1889 in Wyanet, Illinois. Her name was Mary Moorland and she served as a minister for 19 years in four different congregations. That leads us to talking about Mary’s. There are many Mary’s in our New Testament. We’ll be looking at them today.

Thank you Sherry for stepping up and preaching for us today.

Still Waters, Deep River

Fortis mulieres

Domus mulieresque cano…

There is a disconnect between our daily lives and the fearsome troubles of our world.  Where we ourselves so often encounter goodness, kindness, honesty, compassion and consideration, the world is full of hatred, lies, violence.  The world, to paraphrase Marianne Williamson, intrudes on our lives.  In this discussion of strong women, I want to emphasize the everyday role of these heroes.  We overlook and, perhaps, take for granted this goodness.  And so, domus mulieresque cano, I sing of home and the women.

Women are all too often overlooked in the Bible, even Mary, mother of Jesus.  (She is, however, the only woman named in the Quran, and has more citations – as Maryam – in the Quran than in the Bible – seventy compared to eighteen.)  Nor is the Bible famous for emphasizing the role of women who were so integral to the success of so many of the men therein.  I embarrass myself when I think of how I, too, have overlooked and underestimated most of the women in my life.

As I thought about my personal female heroes, I wondered about writing of Ruth Bader Ginsberg or other lofty world presences.  And then I was annoyed.  How is it that we so often under appreciate the lives of those women who are foundational to our lives, and yet little more than background -if even that – to the wider world?

Is there not great truth in the dictum that “they also serve who sit and wait” – working, taking care of everything on the home front, including raising the kids, maintaining the household, all while worrying about the safety of the one who is away? And yet … very little thanks are given for such women’s service and sacrifice while “we sing of arms and the man” – or almost anything and the man.  So my heroes are the unsung women, the sustainers of the men about whom great songs are written.

I came to choose Mary and poor Martha for their daily courage as wives, mothers, the very glue of home and family.  As I was doing research for the Lullaby Cantata, I was taken by some unusual images of Mary as spinner, washer of diapers, homemaker. We’re more used to the miraculous, halos and auras. The more domestic images speak volumes about women in Mary’s world – and, indeed,  today.

Your usual everyday mother, as Vivian would point out, is essential to running the world.  So let me begin with my memories of a very humble West African woman whom I met in 1969 in Sansanné Mango, a village in Togo, West Africa.

Her name was Nana Mola.  Nana Mola was an elderly wife of the Tchokossi chief, Natchaba, one of seventeen wives. When ruling not on divorce but on relationship disputes between two men, disputes about women resulted in the chief taking them as wives – to eliminate strife among the men. By the time I met Nana Mola, she had been relegated to the background, replaced in her household duties by the younger wives, many of whom were acquired as the chief administered civil law.  I never learned whether Nana Mola was chosen by the chief himself, or the result of such a dispute.  No matter, she was largely ignored because she was elderly (so was the chief…). 

Nana Mola was able to support herself by making peanut oil, a byproduct of which was kolikoli, a stick of savory peanut candy.  And so we met; I purchased  kolikoli  regularly; we conversed without really any grasp of the other’s language. While I did know the complex greetings in Tchokossi, I was limited to explaining N se ko kadashi or N se ko kumanou. (I’m going to the school or the marsh/river.) 

Nana was a regular stop on my route to and from school, so we exchanged greetings twice each day.  Tchokossi has fairly elaborate greetings which include lots of questions about the household, the husband, etc.  Nana loved to ask about my husband, because one of the few sentences I could say was N na houm; n koruma houm – with emphatic gesture.  I don’t have a husband; I don’t want a husband.  She and her friend Danzaka found this response hilarious. Every day.

We chatted, somehow. And once when Nana offered to apply ground stone, perhaps antimony, to my inner eyelids, I thought it was a fun idea: ancient eyeliner a la Cleopatra. The applicator was a dull nail.  (I, myself, used Q-tip sticks when I applied the same makeup, which was sold in the market in small goatskin containers.)

With her friend Danzaka, Nana Mola moved from the chief’s compound to a mud home across the street from me (maybe a block away from the chief).  Over the course of three years, we visited often and held long conversations – with lots and lots of pantomime.  We discussed family, politics, travel and amazed and amused each other almost daily.

Nana Mola had to have been a strong woman to survive. I know that women in Togo, even when Nana was old, had dozens of pregnancies. Over two-thirds of the children were miscarried, still born, or died before the age of five.  A tough life for women.

What became so clear to me during my three years in Mango, was how automatically and authentically Nana Mola had trusted me from our first meeting.  A peasant woman who never left the village after becoming one of the chief’s wives, she embodied the spirit of “be here now.”  I was there; and – therefore – I was a human to respect, love and trust unconditionally. No qualifiers, no doubts, no hesitations. We came to love each other.  Our worlds’ apart experiences never conflicted with our worlds’ together days.

I have lived my life striving to practice Nana’s philosophy; to honor, respect and love people automatically and authentically without judging their different circumstances.  I know that Nana Mola would be proud of the career I made, especially in terms of my relationships with the families of my students.

I am grateful that I was able to revisit Nana Mola ten years after leaving the Peace Corps, keeping a promise that I would come back to see her.  I am proud that I gave her a gift of the cloth that she would ultimately save for her shroud.

I have chosen Nana Mola as one of the many strong women I revere, although perhaps there are few if any living souls who knew and remember Nana Mola. She would never have described herself as particularly special or strong.  And yet … aren’t everyday women the real heroes of this world?

Let me share this poem by The Reverend Dor. Alla Reneé Bozarth:

            Maria Sacerdota, Mary, Protopriest of the New Covenant

            Before Jesus was his mother.

            Before supper in the upper room, breakfast in the barn.

Before the Passover Feast, a feeding trough. 

And here, the altar of earth, fair linens of hay and seed.

Before his cry, her cry.

Before his sweat of blood, her bleeding and tears.

Before his offering, hers.

Before the breaking of bread and death, the breaking of her body in birth.

Before the offering of the cup, the offering of her breast.

Before his blood, her blood.

And by her body and blood alone,

his body and blood and the whole human being.

The wise ones knelt to hear the woman’s word in wonder.

Holding up her sacred child, her God in the form of a babe,

She said: “Receive and let your hearts be healed

And your lives be filled with love,

For this is my body, this is my blood.”

Mike: Let me tell you the story of another strong woman who is right now shaking up the world of Biblical scholarship. Her name is Elizabeth Schrader Polczar. She was a singer-songwriter in New York City for a dozen years in her twenties and early thirties. She is an Episcopalian who loves praying with the saints. One day she heard a call to follow Mary Magdalene. She wrote a song about Mary Magdalene called Magdalene. But that didn’t seem like enough. She felt the call to learn more about Mary Magdalene. She wondered how she could do that. She called up the Episcopal seminary near her and they said, “You could always attend seminary here and learn that way.”

So that’s what she did. She worked on a Master’s degree in New Testament and asked her advisor about focusing on Mary Magdalene. The advisor told Elizabeth about how the earliest Greek manuscripts were now online. As she did her research, Elizabeth came to discover some amazing things.

There was a person who is called Martha in the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead. It’s said that she was the sister of Mary. Mary and Martha. We’ll hear more about Martha later. But in the earliest manuscript, Elizabeth realized that it actually said Mary and Mary, not Mary and Martha. And she concluded that that this was probably the same Mary as Mary Magdalene. This person was the first follower of Jesus who recognized Jesus as the Christ. As Elizabeth did more research, she came to discover that this Mary Magdalene was not from the town of Magdala. Instead, she found out the term Magdalene means tower.

Elizabeth realized that in the earliest church just as some thought Peter was the Rock; Mary was considered the Tower. This same Mary the Tower was the first person to announce the resurrection of Jesus after she met Jesus in the garden. Thereafter, many followers of Jesus gathered around this Mary, the Tower.

Unfortunately, some men in the early Christian community decided that it would be better if the church focused its attention and built the church on Peter the Rock instead of Mary, the Tower. So they edited the Scripture to decrease Mary’s stature.

 But Elizabeth Schrader Polcar, the young lady who was a song writer, but who is now a Biblical scholar with a PhD from Duke University says that we should once again look to Mary, the Tower as central to the beginnings of our church. It’s all about Mary…

But let’s not forget Martha from our Scripture today in Luke. Martha was said to be working in the kitchen while Mary sat at Jesus’ feet.

Sherry is going to talk more about this Martha. Listen to her message of everyday women…

In the Bible, Martha, of course, is scolded for running the household and preparing a meal for Jesus, the disciples, and her family.  Her role was truly important in her own household, her community and for Jesus’ success.  Somebody had to feed him, to deal with the mundane aspects of his life. Everyday women…

Keeping Martha in mind, my second choice of strong women is my maternal grandfather’s sister, Ida Belle Richmond McCluer. I don’t know much about her background or education, except that she grew up very poor with an alcoholic preacher father and married Uncle Franc McCluer.  Franc was nicknamed Bullet for his rapid fire debating style, when he worked on rewriting the Missouri constitution in the early decades of the twentieth century.  I believe that this is where Uncle Franc met Harry S. Truman.

At any rate, Uncle Franc wanted to restart a college lecture program after World War II.  He and Aunt Ida Belle were fishing in northern Minnesota, discussing whom to invite. When he mentioned Churchill, Aunt Ida Belle’s response was, “What do we have to lose?”  Franc wrote to Truman, noting that the Midwest was starting to become isolationist again after the war and that a visit by Churchill might help to reverse that. Ultimately President Truman and Prime Minister Churchill traveled to Fulton, Missouri, where Churchill first used the term “Iron Curtain” in his speech at the college.

So how is this about Aunt Ida Belle?  Who do you think had to organize the visit, prepare the guest rooms, plan the menus, and serve as hostess for these men?  The food was locally sourced and prepared by many women in Fulton. Churchill reputedly loved it, “the best meal of his whole trip.”  Aunt Ida Belle was much less enamored of Churchill who, she complained (according to family lore), drank too much and used very inappropriate language. However, naturally, she was the perfect hostess during the visit.

In the past year I’ve learned much more about Aunt Ida Belle and Uncle Franc.  Since I mostly knew them in my adolescence, you can imagine that I rarely had long conversations with them.  Never did I ask about the Churchill visit, or their lives, or how they met…  I regret that I was so typically self-centered.

 At any rate, Uncle Franc was president at several colleges in Missouri. The last was Lindenwood – now a university – where my grandmother and her sisters had attended college at the behest of my great grandmother.  When she told my great grandfather that their daughters would attend college, he asked why.  “Because I say so,” was her response.

Visiting Lindenwood was an eye opener for me.  A long wall in the media center is filled with images of both Uncle Franc and Aunt Ida Belle.  They entertained students in their home weekly.  While I know that they had a wonderful man working for them, a cook, butler, etc.; I also know that Aunt Ida Belle was the great organizer for so many of these college events while also raising their son.  Strong women – not super women – take their daily routines for granted. And so I am certain that Aunt Ida Belle would never consider herself a strong woman or anyone’s hero. A woman who entertained prime ministers and presidents because it was her role in life.  Both Nana Mola and Aunt Ida Belle accepted their respective roles and lived into them without hesitations, questions or regrets.

I wanted to find a poem about Martha, celebrating her same acceptance of her role. I couldn’t find a poem celebrating her because all the poems about Martha celebrated her sister. So I wrote my own poem:

                                                Martha Unsung

            The younger sister all too often slides,

            The older sister early took on the mantle: –

                        Raising younger sibs – check.

                        Taking on household chores – check.

            A tale as old as Biblical time.

            So, Martha, rebuked (although not scorned) by Jesus.

            All she wanted was a little help preparing the meal and home

                        For a roomful of disciples, her brother, her sister & Jesus.

            No refrigerated meats, no boxes or cans of food, no frozen veggies…

            At best a few pitchers of water and wine.

            So did our Martha join the seated for a parable or two?

            If we’re honest, we know she remained standing: –

                        To kill and dress the lamb or poultry (or both)

                        To pick the fruits and vegetables from the garden

                        To chop and dice and crush the ingredients and herbs

                        To prepare the table in the absence of her friends

                        (Not to be anointed with oil).

            In fact, her cup runneth over with so many necessary chores.

            For even a prophet and messiah must eat

            Even a prophet and messiah expects dinner on the table on time

            Even a prophet and a messiah knows better than to scorn the woman who

                        Prepares his table before him

                        Prepares his bath and washes his clothing

                        Prepares his bed.

            Wouldn’t we like to believe that Martha, at the very least,

            Received gracious and sincere thanks from Mary, Jesus and the gang?

            Except the older sister is too often taken for granted –

            Which I (the younger sister) should know.

And so I sing of women and the home.

 Thank you so much Sherry.

This month, Women’s History Month, we celebrate women. We celebrate the Mary’s – Mary Magdalene: the Tower of the Church, Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary, the sister of Martha. But we also celebrate the Martha’s, the ordinary women, who take their daily routines for granted. But are equally strong. We celebrate them all.

Let’s listen now to Alexandra as we each think about the strong women in our lives.

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