The United Church of Christ will celebrate Women's Week this year during the first week of March, March 6-12, 2016. This coincides with other denominational and secular observances of Women's Week including International Women's Day on March 8.
Whole Stories; Holy Stories: Bible Study and Service Prayers for Women’s Week
An invitation to explore Women's Week in worship based on Bad Girls of the Bible by the Rev. Barbara Essex and inspired by women’s experience in the current media, especially women involved in campaigns for election to high office, not only candidates seeking election, but also journalists covering campaigns.
Reflection from UCC Worship Ways (Download)
Today’s service takes a form somewhat different from our usual lectionary-based Service of the Word. In the current campaign for President of the United States, women are running for high office, in both major parties. Women journalists are prominent in the coverage of the campaigns, questioning candidates on backgrounds, competencies, and issues. Like anyone choosing to participate in such high-profile activities, these women have been subject to pointed critiques and challenges. Across the political spectrum from conservative to liberal, from progressive to traditional, however, there has been a certain unexpected commonality in the tone and content of many of these critiques: they are often sexist, having less to do with the content of the candidates’ or journalists’ position on issues, than on how these women are perceived through the filter of what a woman’s appropriate place in the world may be. Stereotypes, jokes, sexualized insults, barely-veiled threatening statements are infiltrating political discourse in this season, in unhelpful ways.
Alas, this has ancient precedent! This is nothing new--stories in scripture often use women as foils or scapegoats for the story; often they are unnamed, without background or context, subject to stereotype, prejudice and blame (See Job’s wife, or Lot’s wife). The stories of these women are often distorted or hidden to fit into and even justify the narrative of the males involved. Even when women are more fully rounded characters, they are shaped to bear the blame of the bad things that may happen in the story (See Jezebel, or Delilah). Interpreters of scripture have carried on in the tradition of no-representation or misrepresentation through the ages.
Barbara Essex’s classic works: Bad Girls of the Bible, I and II, offer a model for cutting through stereotype and prejudice in order to see clearly the gifts and limitations of women, famous or infamous, in scripture. With the discipline of Feminist and Womanist theological and scriptural studies, Rev. Essex invites us to put the stories of women at the center of our telling of the story of God. Surprising insight emerges when we use tools of scripture scholarship to fill in the gaps in the background of famous women, and ask some questions about their actions, hopes, motives. Eve may throw off the shadow of blame for reaching out to the tree of knowledge and emerge as someone vitally curious about her world. One of Mrs. Job’s two lines may point us to the heart of the meaning of that painful story. We may never find Jezebel to be an appropriate model of faithfulness for the people of Israel, but we may begin to see her in three dimensions--a loyal and feisty representative of the Canaanite culture which formed her. We may not like her, but we can come to respect her.
Further, exploring the stories of these women will offer insight into the larger story being told; bringing their stories out of the shadows of stereotype or even oblivion may help fill in missing pieces of the wider story, and offer a deeper understanding of the movement of God in the world. Recognizing women as full human beings, actors, agents with motives and experience to contribute helps to make our story whole—more true and right and real, and, therefore, holy.
In today’s service we will explore some scriptural women with reputations of being “Bad Girls”, and some of the women of prominence in our political scene today who are confronted with such stereotyping. We will invite Wisdom—that female face of the Holy in our tradition—to guide us. She was with the Creator at the beginning, and longs for nothing more than to be known fully in the experience of our lives and our world.
Order of Worship from UCC Worship Ways* (Download)
Call to Worship adapted from Ecclesiasticus 24 (with echoes of John 1)
Leader: Wisdom is telling her story in the mist of her people:
People: “I came forth from the heart of the Most High”, she says.
“Alone I searched for a place to rest.
I looked everywhere to find a place to live.
Then the Creator of all things instructed me:
‘Pitch your tent here in this place.’
So in the beloved community I took up residence.
I have taken root in these people.
I have grown tall as an oak tree,
I have taken on many colors.
I have spread out my branches like a candelabra.
My blossoms bear the fruit of openness and care.
Approach and take your fill.”
Come, let us seek Wisdom at work in all lives,
and especially in the lives of her daughters!
We gather today to celebrate your presence
in the lives of all women.
Send your Spirit to meet us here
and guide us into your depths
that we may begin to glimpse your grace:
what eye has not seen, nor ear heard,
nor the human heart conceived--
all you have prepared for those who love you.
We pray this in the name of Jesus,
your Mystery, your Glory, your Wisdom.
Holy One, you have made human beings in your image:
Complex, whole and holy.
When we forget that your grace is at work
shaping all the lives you have created:
Holy Wisdom, have mercy.
When we fail to greet one another
With compassion, curiosity and care:
Beloved Christ, have mercy.
When we succumb to the skewed vision
of gossip, stereotype, half-truth—
Truth-loving Spirit, have mercy.
Assurance of Grace and Peace
Friends, the love of God revealed in Jesus
Reconciles us, heals us and sets us free
To see one another clearly
To challenge one another honestly
To work with one another for God’s vision of justice, love and peace.
With thanksgiving, let us offer one another a sign of Peace.
Passing of the Peace
Scripture: Choose verses from Proverbs 8: 1-36, the many facets of Wisdom
Sermon Prompts: Some advance homework is needed for this service:
- Invite members of the congregation to take different chapters of Bad Girls of the Bible and prepare a short summary for the congregation. Invite some conversation: what emerges from the chapter that contradicts the popular characterization of the woman being studied?
- Invite members of the congregation to do some research on one of the women involved in the presidential campaign—preferably someone they don’t agree with! Try to articulate a balanced, nuanced statement of her background, perhaps with the hope of understanding her position on a controversial topic. The intent is not to persuade others to her position, but to try to see her in three-dimensions, without stereotype or prejudice.
- Create a litany of prayer for all women involved in politics and the media at this time, not just in the presidential campaign, but in local campaigns and on local media outlets. Name names, pray for Wisdom, that their gifts, given for the good of all, may truly bless all, and contribute to God’s vision of love and justice in the world.
Perhaps include some of the “Bad Girls” in the litany.
Christ calls us to let our lives and our work
give witness to the reign of God in our midst.
Let us generously offer our gifts
of time, talent and treasure,
that the glory of God
may be recognized and celebrated in our world.
O God, please take these gifts and multiply them;
let them be a means to create the justice and peace
you long for in this world.
In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
Wisdom is building a house in our world;
she needs the work of all to complete it.
Let’s go forth and foster
the gifts of women and men—
and to recognize and celebrate God’s presence in all.
- Justice for Women
- Women Change the World
- Common Lot - A magazine for the women of the United Church of Christ
- UCC Clergywomen Leadership Conference 2016
*Call to Worship adapted from Wisdom’s Feast. Cady, Ronan, Taussig, 1989.
Thanks to Kathryn Matthews, Dean of Amistad Chapel for helpful insight.
Whole Stories, Holy Stories: Bible Study and Service Prayers for Women’s Week was written by the Rev. Susan A. Blain, Minister for Faith Formation; Curator of Worship and Liturgical Arts, Local Church Ministries.
Worship Ways Copyright 2016 Local Church Ministries, Congregational Vitality and Discipleship Ministry Team, United Church of Christ, 700 Prospect Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44115-1100. Permission granted to reproduce or adapt this material for use in services of worship or church education. All publishing rights reserved.