Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 2, 2022 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

2 Samuel 13:1-16, 21-22+Psalm 103:1-17+(1 Thessalonians 2:9-12)+Mark 10:13-16

Forty years ago, a feminist biblical scholar published a book focused on four stories from the Old Testament about women. Phyllis Trible’s Texts of Terror was shocking for many reasons, not least of which is that these stories are rarely heard outside of intensive bible studies or classes. The one we read this morning from 2 Samuel is one of the four in her book. It does not appear in the three-year lectionary cycle, and I can’t imagine a preacher who does not preach from the lectionary ever choosing this particular text as one to explore from the pulpit.

The compiler of the lectionary we are using this year elected to include it for that very reason. Dr. Wil Gafney challenges the way we read scripture and who we pay attention to in those readings, shifting to the stories of women and not glossing over some of the abhorrent behavior we encounter. Why? So that we can see our world as it is, I think, and understand that many things, particularly the status of women and girls, have roots that go back thousands of years.

And so today, we heard “The Word of God for the people of God” after the tale of the rape of Tamar by her half-brother, Amnon. And the great king, David, did nothing about it.

One of my favorite preachers teaches at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. Anna Carter Florence writes and speaks a lot about the “repertory church,” a dramatic approach to the reading of scripture that highlights who gets to speak, what are the sights and sounds and smells, and zeroing in on the parts of speech, particularly the verbs. One of the bible stories she examines in her book Rehearsing Scripture is this story of Tamar.

The first thing Dr. Florence wants us to notice is that the passage opens with, “Some time passed” (2 Samuel 13:1) according to the NRSV translation which she uses. That should make us wonder where we are, because clearly, we are in the middle of a story. Yes, there was the defeat of the Ammonites, but that followed immediately on the heels of the story of David taking Bathsheba and having her husband killed. And David’s household, his children, watched this unfold. A few weeks ago, I sang a bit of “Children will listen” from Sondheim’s Into the Woods. They will listen and watch and learn from what they see the adults doing.

And Amnon saw his dad take what he wanted, and so he, Amnon, took what he wanted. He knew he could not have her, not because she was his sister or because she was unwilling but because she was a virgin, and if he took her, her marriage price would plummet. That was her value to the family. And if she had not already been married or betrothed, it meant that she was still a child. And Anna Carter Florence points us to the verbs in this passage. The ones given to Amnon are: was distressed, it seemed impossible, I love her, made himself sick, let Tamar come, send everyone out, bring, seized, come, overpowered, raped, hated, get out, would not listen.

For anyone who has ever been the victim of this kind of assault, these words are traumatizing, and so I will move on, but do note that no one – not Absalom, not David, and certainly not Amnon – did anything to help. How often have we heard, especially in the church, to keep quiet because we don’t want to hurt the priest or the pastor? We’ll just deal with it quietly. This is just that, a very long time ago.

So, you ask, where is God in all of this? Are we to just get buried in the awfulness of this story with no way out? Anna Carter Florence writes, “(But) reading and rehearsing a text, any text – and a text of terror most of all – defies a terminus of ruins. It defuses the power that wants only to brutalize. It opens the way to blessing and truth.”[1]

Here’s the first bit of good news. Unlike most women in scripture, Tamar has plenty to say about what has been perpetrated against her. Florence calls it “the case against rape, start to finish, in seven irrefutable points:

  1. No. I’m saying no.
  2. You’re my brother.
  3. We don’t do this in Israel. It’s not who we are.
  4. This act has an adjective: vile.
  5. What would happen to me. I would have nowhere to go.
  6. What would happen to you. You would be one of the scoundrels of Israel.
  7. If it has to happen, if it’s really about to happen, at least talk to Dad first – because we both know he won’t withhold me from you. ”[2]

And after Amnon has his way with her and throws her out, Tamar does the unexpected and the unthinkable – she rends her garment and throws ashes on her head. She is not going to keep this quiet. She has been wronged, and she wants everyone to know it.

What happens if we turn to the gospel lesson and take a look at the verbs surrounding Jesus? Jesus saw, was angry, said, let, do not prevent, belongs, tell, receive, enter, took them, laid his hands, blessed (Mark 10:13-16). Every one of these verbs is open, welcoming. Even that Jesus was angry was on behalf of these little ones. His “let them come” stands in stark contrast to Amnon’s “let (her) come.”

Phyllis Trible likens the women whose stories she tells to the suffering servant of Isaiah’s prophecies. Their stories never get told in places like this, but they are essential to our understanding of who we are, distorting God’s image in our lack of care of concern for the poor ones, the suffering ones. You might ask why these stories were even included in Holy Scripture, for goodness’ sake. First, they drive the narrative, and second, it would never have occurred to the early compilers of the bible not to include them just because they are painful to women. Women simply did not matter. They had no agency. Just like those children Jesus gathers in his loving embrace.

And so, we wrestle with these hard stories. We can see in later readings the sorrow and loss that come from them, and we also see how God turns even these tales into blessings.

For all of you who hurt, who have been harmed, who carry the wounds in your psyche and in your body, God sees you. Jesus gathers you into the embrace of those everlasting arms – just like the children – and offers you a blessing of peace.

[1] Anna Carter Florence, Rehearsing Scripture: Discovering God’s Word in Community (Grand Rapids: William B. Eeerdmans, 2018) 142.

[2] 137-38.

ASEPSermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 2, 2022 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas