By Rev. Ashley Harness
Our scripture this morning is from Jeremiah 31. It was written during the exile, when the temple and city were destroyed and there was no good reason to hope. Starvation, death and displacement were the norm. And yet, this is what the prophet claims – a kind of radical hope of God’s presence:
“The days are surely coming, says our God, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their partner, says the Holy One. 33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says our God: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know God’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Holy One; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
As one scholar I read this week put it, the law that had been written as the ten commandments was now to be “installed in their ‘hearts.’ It would be intertwined into their emotions, hopes and dreams. It was a move from commandments to conversation, from rules to relationship. More than knowing the rules of God, they were to know God with their being.”
This week was a painful week in our national political conversation. So painful, we cancelled our regular adult education program this morning so we could talk about the heart of what reared its ugly head in the debate and as the week wore on – rape culture. Rape culture is a term that encapsulates the many ways survivors are blamed for sexual violence and also the ways sexual violence has been normalized as a part of masculinity – hence, “Locker room talk.” In short and in theological terms, it is a violation of the rules of God AND the God within each of us.
As I sat down to write this sermon, I felt my heart broken by this. Well, I actually felt numb and found myself eating too much candycorn and feeling sick to my stomach which was my body’s way of telling me I felt heart broken. So I’m not preaching a normal sermon today. These are not normal times. Instead, I wrote a letter this week to the women – cis and trans – who have taught me to live in defiance of rape culture throughout my life. Men, this is not meant to exclude you. Instead, this is meant to honor you by letting you listen. You can learn from these powerful women too.
To the women who raised me and continue to raise me to be fiercely, kindly, wholey me, to the women whose wisdom is written on my heart:
I love you. And on days like this one, in times like this one, I am so aware of how much I need you. I am fighting off the numbness the news cycle induces in me with too much candy and Facebook. But that weight on my chest doesn’t seem to leave, no matter how sweet my mouth tastes or how many cute kitten videos I watch.
But you, you are written on my heart, the surest sign of God as close to me as the rhythm in my chest. You help me to know the Holy, even in weeks like this. This is a note of thanksgiving. Because I can’t seem to write a normal sermon this week. I am too raw and tired.
For my moms: From my beginning, you raised me to be a feminist, to believe in my innate equality with boys and then men. You put me in a “question authority” t-shirt as a baby and perhaps it was osmosis but it stuck. You taught me to love my girlness and then my womanness and then my queerness and to see systems of sexism for what they were and not to internalize them. As much as I groaned as a teenager when you pointed out moments in movies that were objectifying to women, you were right. And your lessons stuck with me even through my whining. You dragged me to book readings and speeches by our foremothers like Gloria Steinem and though I was often the only kid in the audience, I soaked up their wisdom. I heard Gloria say she would vote for me for president if I ran for office some day when I was just 8 years old as she signed my copy of her book. But more importantly, you reminded me that she said it, and that you would too. You lived and live outside the gender roles prescribed to you by your own upbringings and you taught me to do the same. You wrote your wisdom, your experience, on my heart.
To the women of my childhood church: You were and are spectacular. You taught me that the freedom song of my moms and Gloria Steinem were so much louder than just their voices and came from voices from so much further back in history. You taught me to see my story in the biblical story, to see myself as a part of the lineage of powerful women stretching back thousands of years. You told the stories of Eve, of Sarah, of Miriam, of Hannah, of Ruth, of Naomi, of Esther, of Mary and the other Mary as part of my own story of resilience. You also taught me that feminism and fabulousness are not mutually exclusive. It was from cis and transwomen in this community that I learned the power of gold lame fabric and high heels to turn a gray day golden, if only in my own head. You know I still wear shiny shoes when I need a reminder of joy in a long day. You wrote your fabulousness and your stories of our shared history on my heart.
To the women who taught me in school and through books: You believed from the start that girls could be as smart as boys, that we could thrive at whatever we dedicated our minds and time to learning. You taught me to embrace my inner nerd. You fed me words that grew my imagination, that expanded what I knew was possible. You taught me to read and write, literally, and my words became a part of how I learned to define myself for myself. You gave me poetry and psalms, gender theory and feminist liberation theology. You gave me the pen I needed to write my own divinity onto my heart and hear Her speak back to me.
To the sister-friends who have been my mirrors: You have taught me to fill my woman skin with confidence. You have held up a mirror to some of the raw places in my soul and helped me to love them, sit with them, learn from them. You sat with me after men reached out on the street and grabbed my breast and my behind (yes, that happened more than once), stealing a feel as though I was a piece of produce on a shelf that needed to be tested for ripeness and was for sale. You have been shaken with me after a man cornered us on the street at night, exposed and erect. You have understood what it feels like to be told to smile by a stranger, to be cat-called, to be looked at too long or too close, to be left anonymous notes at work, to be entirely understood in service to somebody else’s sexuality. You have been fiercely gorgeous, letting your beauty be purely of service to your own delight and nobody else’s. You have yelled back, and taught me to find my yell. You have danced too long and too late just because it felt good in your bones. You have dedicated your lives to our collective well-being, our truths, our thriving. You have put my heart back inside my body, tucking it in cozy and reminding me it is safe and strong.
To my wife: You are now a part of my heart, too precious to describe. You honor my spark of divinity daily.
To the women and girls of this community of Lyndale UCC: Wow. You are stunning. Each and every one of you. You are glowing incarnations of divine power who teach me each time I have the honor of spending time with you. And my amazing job is to remind you of that, to hold up the proverbial mirror and say “Look at you.” Look at all the ways the Divine has stitched herself into your heart, at all the ways you embody Her so brilliantly even when you are hurting or the world hurtles hurt your way. May you remember that you are fearfully, and wonderfully made exactly as you are in God’s image and any violation of you is a violation of God. May you trust yourself as freely as you trust your God. May you honor the wisdom of your life experience as fully as you honor the wisdom we call scripture. You are each written on my heart, holding a piece of divine love in place that I might know it more clearly. For each of you, I give profound thanksgiving.
 Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, Boak, page 174
 After church, I was reminded of the importance of naming that men also survive sexual assault and men are also hurt by rape culture. I completely agree and recognize that I failed to include them in this capacity this Sunday. Thanks for holding me accountable, as usual, Lyndale!