The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Evensong      19th February 2017
Learning from Woman Wisdom
Diana Young

Sermon Sunday 19 February 2017 Evensong Year A Proverbs 8: 1, 22 – 31; Revelation 4; Psalm 148
Learning from Woman Wisdom
When I was quite a small child I can remember saying to my parents.  “I know where God changes his clothes, but where does He go to bed?”  I had spied a cassock hanging up in the vestry at church and had completely confused God and the Vicar in my mind.  A few years later, when my theology had developed a little I have another memory.  A moment when I noticed that clergy were always male.  At the time I put this into my box of useful information about possible future careers and continued to speculate as to whether I was going to be a famous actress or a singer or perhaps write books when I grew up.  It was many years after this that I first experienced a woman presiding at the Eucharist.  It was in one sense no different - yet in another completely different.  I found it extraordinary that women really were welcome in the sanctuary.  Women in the same way as men could represent God in this very special way.  My theology grew some more!  Both my sense of God and my sense of self changed. And some time later one of my previous assumptions – that being clergy was not for me - had to go!
I don’t know whether you have been following the debate in the General Synod in the last week.  In brief, Synod voted, by a narrow margin, to reject a recent report on sexuality and marriage from the House of Bishops.  The Bishops’ report called for a "culture of welcome and support" for gay Christians.  But it maintained that marriage in church should only be between a man and a woman, and services should not be held to bless same-sex relationships.  By rejecting the report Synod effectively said that this was not good enough. 

The subject of inclusivity in church has been in the air for a long time.  Here in Hampstead Parish Church we state that we aim to “Build a lively and loving community that is welcoming and hospitable to all.”   On 29 January in the morning we held our All Age Eucharist for Candlemas; at this service we worked very hard to try to include the youngest as well as the oldest members of our community.  Inclusivity has many aspects – age, sexuality, gender and ethnicity.  We are all sometimes unaware of the ways in which we exclude others.  It’s been called ‘unconscious bias’.  We all have work to do on this.

It’s true for us all I think – not just for me - that our understanding of what God is like fundamentally affects the way in which we live out our faith.  The creeds tell us that God is apparently male - Father, Son and Holy Spirit (although the Hebrew word for Spirit is female, so there’s possible ambiguity there).  The more Catholic churches also reverence Mary, the mother of God and female as well as male saints as a way of including the feminine within the divine. 
I can’t deal with all aspects of inclusivity today, but our reading from Proverbs today offers a very ancient and very radical way of including the feminine within the Godhead. 
The first nine Chapters of the Book of Proverbs are likely to have been written about three centuries before Christ, and are devoted to Woman Wisdom.  It is probably no accident that the Hebrew word for wisdom, like the word for Spirit,  is feminine.  Proverbs  Chapter 8 gives a vivid description of wisdom;  her origins, her role, her relationship to God and to humanity.  She is an entrancing and commanding figure.  A teacher, the giver of life, wealth, honour and prosperity.  She is the queen of heaven who chooses and gives life and counsel to the kings of the earth.  God’s governance department! 
She is present and involved in Creation.  We heard the Creation story from the first Chapter of Genesis this morning.  Here the Spirit of God is shown brooding over the waters; the first Chapter of John’s Gospel speaks of the Word as God’s companion at Creation.  |Here we find Woman Wisdom accompanying the Creator.  She is the first created being.  She sees Creation as it unfolds and participates like a master-worker or an architect in God’s design.  She rejoices before God in all that He has made and provides a link between the creator and the created world.  She delights in the human race and invites us to seek wisdom. The divine wisdom used by God in creating and sustaining the world is now offered to human beings. 
Here are masculine and feminine aspects of God working in harmony and offering goodness and blessing to humankind. 
For the Book of Proverbs Wisdom is not, of course, a person, but an imaginative concept.  A metaphorical personification of a divine attribute.  It’s perhaps only fully possible to grasp the idea by using the imagination as the poet has done, by immersing oneself in the poem.  How I wish I could read it in the original Hebrew. 
But the idea of Woman Wisdom offers us a theological language for portraying the feminine character and activity of God.  If we were able to take on such a view of God as truly encompassing the feminine in this way.  If our theology, our mental picture of God, developed in this way, we might begin to find ways of challenging the sexism of so much of modern culture.  It seems highly ironic that such an ancient piece of writing offers the potential to equip the church for a more rounded and inclusive representation of God.  And perhaps if we were more truly able to shape our understanding of God as including both masculine and feminine aspects we might be able to begin to move towards a much deeper, fuller inclusiveness.  
As Wisdom herself says, “whoever finds me finds life”. (8:32, 35)

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