I had the privilege of guest preaching at Mosaic Church in my hometown last Sunday. Below is my written sermon message. As a scholar of sermons I am always interested in the difference between the written text and the oral delivery. You will find that my written text is longer and different in places. I made spur of the moment decisions while preaching to cut and sometimes I just spoke off the cuff (which I shouldn’t have in one instance). I think I like my written version better, but I’ll let you decide. I’m not a preacher, y’all, and I have already critiqued myself thoroughly (including the microphone wire hanging out of my pocket and that I went too long). But in both the written and the oral versions, the heart of my message is clear—Christianity is bigger than this historical moment; God is bigger than white evangelicalism.
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I also loved being at Mosaic! Y’all, they let me have the entirety of Hebrews 11:1-12:2 read at the beginning of the service. I can’t tell you how much I loved that! I mean, how else can we preach without having the entire passage for context? The video of my preached sermon is below, too. Enjoy!
I don’t usually preach.
This may seem strange to some of you. I mean, I advocate for women preaching. My primary field of research is sermons (did you know that?). I love teaching and am comfortable in the classroom—wouldn’t that prepare me for preaching? And I’m married to a pastor who is preaching at this very moment too, so this is all very familiar to me.
I mean, I understand why folk ask me to preach. And I understand why they are confused when I say no. There was this one church when I told them what I am telling you right now that said, “oh, we understand. Totally. What if we just schedule a 25-30 minute talk from you. It can be on any topic. We’ll host it in the sanctuary. Is Sunday morning at 10:30 an okay time?”……….
So why don’t I preach?
Honestly, part of it is logistics. It is difficult having two preachers in the house. And I teach Sunday School at our very small church. Which means on mornings like this, my class isn’t meeting.
The other part of it is that I just know too much. Remember what I said about my field of research? I study sermons. Which means I know what a sermon is.
When I teach my medieval sermons seminar, my students learn the academic definition of a sermon given by Beverly Kienzle, a medieval sermon studies scholar, professor emeritus at Harvard. This is how she explains (along with her co-editor a sermon in her classic text, “The Sermon” (I’ve streamlined it some): an oral discourse given by a preacher to an audience for the purpose of instruction and exhortation on a topic concerned with faith and morals based on a sacred text. (I quote this Kienzle in my article on medieval sermons here.)
Did you catch the emphasis in that definition?
I’ll read it again: an oral discourse given by a preacher to an audience for the purpose of instruction and exhortation on a topic concerned with faith and morals based on a sacred text.
Key parts: for the purpose of teaching & exhorting from scripture to an audience about our faith—about why we believe what we believe and how that belief should make a difference in our actions.
The emphasis is on the purpose of the sermon; not so much on who delivers the sermon. Does it seem to you that our evangelical world emphasizes the opposite? That we think a lot more about who the preacher is than what is being preached? I can tell you, from my current research, that defining who gets to be a pastor (and subsequently preach in my Baptist world) often has more to do with tax laws (i.e. money) than with spiritual gifting. Doesn’t that seem a pretty accurate reflection of our evangelical world?
We spend so much time drawing artificial boundaries around who we think should preach that I think we have forgotten why we need preaching.
While more generally about ministry gifting than preaching specifically, Ephesians 4:11-16 provides us some reasons for why gathering together as the body of Christ to listen to a sermon still matters. Listen to what it says.
Christ himself granted that some are apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
The purpose of preaching isn’t to define who is in charge; it isn’t to clarify boundaries of authority or justify money spent on massive wooden pulpits, see-through acrylic music stands, or famous personalities. Preaching isn’t about the preacher. It is about the message—“equipping the saints for the work of ministry”, “building up the body of Christ”, and “speaking truth in love”.
You see, I understand the significance of sermons, which is why I mostly don’t preach. I’d much rather critique my husband than preach myself. I’m sure he is enjoying his morning off from me….
For those of you counting, I still haven’t answered my question.
Why am I preaching today?
Your pastors can testify that the first time they asked me, I said no.
I did change my mind and say yes.
Me standing here is evidence of that.
I’ll confess that I will do a lot of things for Malcolm Foley [co-pastor at Mosaic and one of my colleagues at Baylor]. He is certainly part of the reason I am here. I can also tell you that I’ve had second thoughts, especially when I learned that Sandra Glahn was driving down from Dallas Theological Seminary to hear me. (Although, frankly, I think it was because she learned I have titled a chapter in my next book “Peter, Paul, and Mary” and that has made her a fan for life…)
Y’all, I said yes to preaching today fully understanding the gravity of the task. My eyes were wide open. I said yes to preaching today for the same reason I said yes to writing The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth—because I think God has given me something that can help.
In about 20 minutes or so you can tell me if I am right.
So let’s go to the text. I’m not going to read the entirety of Hebrews 11:1-12:2 again—I just want to highlight a few points.
1. If this was my Sunday School (and actually I’m teaching through Hebrews starting next August), I’d start with the background and context of Hebrews. In brief, we don’t know who authored Hebrews but it has always been considered canonical. There are some good contenders for authorship—like Barnabas, Apollos, and Prisca with her husband Aquilla.
2. The focus of this particular section is not only faith but also the faithful. The author defines faith—(1) being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. The author explains the significance of faith—(6) without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. And the author shows what faith looks like in the lives of believers. (7) by faith Noah when warned about things not yet seen in holy fear built an ark to save his family and by his faith he condemened the world and became heir of the righteouess that is in keeping with faith (8) By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later received as his inherence, obeyed and went even though he did not know where he was going (20) By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future (21) By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons (22) By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions concerning the burial of his bones……I think you get the idea. It is the faith walk of fame, right?
3. This section not only explains to us what faith is, it reminds us that this world is not our home. Just look at verses 13-16: “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance , admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one..” Can’t you almost hear the music for the Christian Band Building 429 song “Where I Belong.” --“All I know is I’m not home yet. This is not where I belong. Take this world and give me Jesus. This is not where I belong.”
4. In probably my favorite seciton the anonymous author of Hebrews reminds us that we are never alone. (12:1-12) “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”
We could probably just stop here and let the scripture speak for itself.
But I want to tell you why this particular scripture passage is important to me.
For those of you who don’t know, a little over two years ago I published a book that made a few waves—The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth.
Since that time, doors have opened for me to have conversations with people all over the world. I have lost count of how many interviews and podcasts I have done. I have found that people, regardless of their age or where they live, often come to me with the same questions. The most frequently asked question I get from folk is what bible translation do I use now? I have been asked this question so often that the folk who have asked me blur together.
There is one question, however, that I remember the people who ask it. I don’t get asked it as often, but it always makes me stop when I do. The first time I think I was asked this question was early after the book release. I agreed to an interview with a woman that I had actually met in another podcast. I knew this woman had walked away from the church. She had grown up in conservative evangelicalism at the height of purity culture. Our age difference was such that she could have been in my youth group. She had experienced so much trauma that she eventually walked away.
And she wanted to know why I had stayed.
I mean, I could see her point. I had just published a book baring my testimony about the dark underbelly of white evangelical gender theology. I had shared the trauma experienced by my family after my husband lost his job as youth pastor as well as my own personal trauma from years earlier when I had found myself in an abusive relationship with a young man whose family was deeply influenced by the teachings of Bill Gothard. I had talked about the sex abuse scandal rocking the Southern Baptist world, and I had argued that it was rooted in the white evangelical gender theology known as complementarianism. Ideas about women matter, I wrote. When we teach that women are less than men, it shouldn’t surprise us when women are treated as less than men. I had written a book about a dangerous theology rampant in my world of white evangelicalism that hurt women, yet I still identified as Christian—evangelical even, as a Baptist.
She knew all this because she had read my book. She also knew it because she had lived it herself. She had walked away for reasons I understood. And she wanted to know why I hadn’t done the same.
“Why do you still believe?”
I have talked with so many people over the last two years that I can tell you this woman is not the only one with this question. Given the reality that Christianity in North America today is more easily identified by White Christian Nationalism, by sex abuse scandals that protect the perpetrators and shame the survivors, by political commentators who are caught verbally abusing their pregnant wives on video and yet will still be defended by some of their ‘Christian’ followers [actually, I may be wrong about folk defending Steven Crowder; I’m pleased by how many folk are standing against his actions, such as Candace Owens], by bizzare teachings about sex that sound like pagan fertility worship yet are endorsed by ‘good Christian people” at the Gospel Coalition, by Christians (pastors?) on social media hatefully harassing a woman like Nelba Marquez-Greene who speaks out against gun violence because she lost a child at Sandy Hook Elementary. She lost her daughter Ana Grace. Listen to what she said just last week: “No one has been meaner to men [on twitter] than those men of the PCA church. I don’t even know what those letters mean, but no one has been meaner.” This woman lives by the mantra of “I Know that My Redeemer Lives,” yet she publicly states “I felt abandoned by the church saying, ‘God will be with you’. I want to know what the church is going to do about gun violence.”
Y’all, is it any wonder that people want to know why we still believe?
When we are known for mean-spiritedness, hate, racism, sexism, and caring more about our political affiliations than helping the poor, is it any wonder people are walking away? Is it any wonder that a 2021 Pew survey of the religious composition of the United States finds the people walking away from Christianity rising? The article released on December 14, 2021, proclaims the subtitle: “self-identified Christians make up 63% of U.S. population in 2021, down from 75% a decade ago.” Roughly 3 in 10 adults (29%) are religiously unaffiliated—6 percentage points higher than 5 years ago and 10 points higher than a decade ago. “The secularizing shifts evident in American society so far in the 21st century show no signs of slowing.” These people describe themselves as atheists, agnostics, or nothing in particular. While Catholicism has remained “relatively steady in recent years”, Protestantism has not. “The recent declines within Christianity are concentrated among Protestants.” In 2007, 30% of U.S. adults described themselves as evangelical Protestants; in 2021 that percentage was 24%. [see my note below]
And, honestly, can you blame them?
Have you ever stopped to think about what evangelical Christianity looks like from the outside? It is sobering. I understand when people walk away.
Maybe some of you are even now wondering why you are staying—why you still believe?
I can tell you why I stay—why I still believe, and my answer is rooted in Hebrews 11 & 12.
I believe because my faith is bigger than this historical moment.
Just think back to Hebrews 11. Do you know how many centuries that Hebrews walk of faith covers—from Cain and Abel to Sara and Rahab (y’all God always includes women) to David, Samuel, and the prophets? Do you know how many people of faith walked during that time? People who knew even less than us but still believed in the same God that we do? For thousands of years before white evangelical Christianity was even a historical glimmer, people believed and worshipped the same God that I do today.
I believe because Sarah believed—because she considered the words of God faithful even though she was past childearing age. I believe because in a patriarchal world, God made sure Sarah’s faith was remembered.
I believe because Rahab believed—because in a world that didn’t value women my God remembered the faith of a prostitute and recorded her in the lineage of Jesus.
I believe because a fifteenth-century woman named Margery Kempe called out to the same God I worship when she feared for her life, “Lord you have brought me to this place for love of you. Be with me and bless me.”
I believe because I have read the prayer book of a sixteenth-century woman (Folger Library MS V a 482). She prayed to the same God that I do and believed God would be with her till the end. “God be in my head and in my understanding. In mine eyes, and in my looking. In my mouth and in my speaking, In my heart and in my thinking. At my end and in my departing.”
Why do I believe?
I believe because we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.
I believe because history shows me my faith has never walked alone.
Which brings me to my final point.
I believe because our God is bigger than white evangelical Christianity.
Y’all—we have always walked by faith and not by sight. There is a reason the anonymous author of Hebrews reminds us to fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, instead of on the ruin of this world. Now, this doesn’t mean we don’t try to fix the problems of this world, it just means that we don’t mistake people claiming God for who God actually is. I can’t help but think about the words of Rev. Wilda Gaffney, Ph.D., a Womanist Hebrew Scholar up the road at Brite Divinity School. When confronted with the atrocities committed against women in the Old Testament, she reminds us of the gulf between the patriarchy of biblical text, the “god of the text,” and “God beyond the texts.” (Womanist Midrash, p. 83). God who transcends the text. She reminds us that despite the “fundamentally androcentric” and “regularly patriarchal” nature of biblical text, there are also “texts in which God or the narrator addresses women directly, texts in which women and their children and other vulnerable people are the primary concern of God and the text (not to mention texts in which feminine language and imagery is used for God)…These passages illuminate the gulf between the god of the text and God beyond the texts.”
Y’all, God is bigger than human corruption. I am not Christian because of people or pastors or denominations. I am Christian because I believe in Jesus Christ.
I can’t help but think about one of my favorite medieval theologians—a woman who lived through the horror of the Black Death and the difficult decades of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth-century in England. Although her point his bigger than my point, I still find her imagery helpful. In one of her most famous revelations, she writes that “God showed me a little thing the size of a hazelnut, in the palm of my hand, and it was as round as a ball. I looked at it with my mind's eye and I thought,
'What can this be?'
And the answer came, 'It is all that is made'. I marvelled that it could last, for I thought it might have crumbled to nothing, it was so small.
And the answer came into my mind, 'It lasts and ever shall because God loves it'. And all things have being through the love of God.”
Julian of Norwich, a late medieval woman, understood that all of creation is like a hazelnut. We are so tiny and fragile. And yet, because God made the hazelnut, even the tiny hazelnut is beautiful and good. God loves us still and has promised to care for us.
If the entirety of creation is this small when compared to God, so tiny that Julian fears it will crumble into nothingness, can you imagine how much smaller this blip of white evangelical Christianity is in comparison to the vastness of God’s creation, the vastness of God’s love?
Why do I believe? I believe because I know that God is so much bigger than this moment of white evangelicalism.
As the author of Hebrews writes in 11:30—we have not yet received what we have been promised. God has planned something that is so much bigger, so much better than we can yet imagine. You see, God has always taken care of the hazelnut.
I have two pictures for you that sum up my sermon.
The first is from the Priscilla Catacombs in Rome where one of the earliest Christian communities met together for communion, worship, and to bury their dead. I find the images on the ancient walls historically comforting because they show me that what I believe to be true about God today is what my brothers and sisters in Christ believed two thousand years ago.
The second image is from a pilgrimage I took with three graduate students to the anchorage of Julian of Norwich. It is mostly reconstructed today as the church was bombed during an air raid. But it is the same space that a late medieval woman learned that the God who made the universe is the same God who made the hazelnut, and that the love of God is so much bigger than we have ever imagined.
Why do I believe?
Because I know that just like Noah and Rahab, we have not yet received what was promised. This world will pass. This moment of white evangelicalism will pass. But God never will. Our God is so much bigger than our circumstances and he has planned something so much better for us than white evangelical Christianity.
Why do I believe? I believe because, as the author of Hebrews recommends to us, my eyes are fixed on Jesus.
You can watch/listen to the oral delivery here.
[Erratum from oral sermon below images]
*Well, I ad libbed in sermon and while it is true that Protestantism has grown smaller than Catholicism during the last few years, evangelical Protestantism has not diminished more than other forms of Protestantism. People are leaving Protestantism in general. Fortunately (unfortunately) I am really good at questioning myself (did I speak correctly?) and so quickly realized I had not done so here. We are all hemorrhaging. “Today, 24% of U.S. adults describe themselves as born-again or evangelical Protestants, down 6 percentage points since 2007. During the same period, there also has been a 6-point decline in the share of adults who are Protestant but not born-again or evangelical (from 22% to 16%).”
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Oh, Beth, THANK YOU. I needed these words so much TODAY. I am in the midst of a small maelstrom because I recently taught that BOTH men and women were created equally in the image of God, the meaning of the Hebrew words for woman, Ezer Kenegdo in Gen 2, and called out the sin of Patriarchy in Scripture. Thank you for reminding me that the reason I continue on in my evangelical church is about JESUS, not the people in the church. Keep up the good words.
I AM 83 YRS OLD. I FOUND YOUR SERMON SO STRAIGHT FORWARD AND HOPEFUL. EYES ON JESUS IS MY HOPE AND THE HOPE OF MANY I LIVE WITH. ITS A TIJME FOR ME TO BE THANKFUL FOR YOU AND MANY OTHER WOMAN WHO FOCUS US ON WHAT IS FOUNDATIONAL TO FAITH THANK YOU FOR THIS.