“Summer Saints VI – A Woman before her time”
Commenting on our lessons for today, Professor Karoline Lewis wonders, “The ‘Word of God’ is an elusive and complicated topic, isn’t it? What comes to mind for people in the pews when they hear ‘Word of God’? What do they picture? What do they envision?
"A big, dusty Bible on a shelf in the family room that they never read? A worn and tattered-paged confirmation Bible on their bedside table that they read every night? The lessons that are printed in the bulletin every week that they then toss in the garbage or the recycling bin if there is one? Just what is the Word of God anyway?”
And she continues this way, “The biblical passages for this week, particularly from Isaiah and Matthew, suggest that the Word of God is an experience. And listening is the key to that experience.
The Gospel lesson is “not about how much fruit is produced. It’s about the way in which God’s Word has taken hold in you.”
So, continuing our Summer Saints series, let me offer to you a real life example of what Professor Lewis meant by being taken hold by the Word of God.
The year 1502. A ten year old girl received perhaps an unexpected gift – An iPad! Well, not literally an iPad, but what a little over five hundred years ago it may have been the equivalent of the most advanced piece of technology. She got a book. And the book was not an ordinary book, but the recently published Bible in German!
Just to give you a little bit of background, Spanish colonists establishing themselves in present-day Florida in the early 1500s. French and English began settling in present day Canada and America in the early 1600. Quite a long time before Pilgrims, Thanksgiving, and Matoaka!
There is a supplement to the Book of Common Prayer including material to commemorate numerous saints and occasions, aptly named Lesser Feasts and Fasts. In its pages it offers a glimpse of the extraordinary sixteenth century woman by the name of Argula von Grumbach.
“Argula von Grumbach would have been a remarkable woman in any age, but her brilliance shines especially brightly in her setting—Germany in the sixteenth century. She became the first published Protestant woman writer, and participated publicly in the theological and political debates of her time.
“Argula was born in 1492 into a noble family in the Bavarian countryside. When she was ten, her father presented her with an illustrated copy of the German Bible—a lavish gift which seems to have made an impression on the young Argula. Her education continued when she was a lady-in-waiting at the court, in a time when renaissance and reform were stirring the air in Munich and Germany.
“Her parents died when she was 17; she married at 18 and moved to another country town, where she managed the household, finances, and land; bore, raised, and oversaw the education of four children; and pursued her interests in theology.
“Argula took on a more public role when, in September of 1523, she learned that the theologians at the nearby University of Ingolstadt had forced a young Lutheran tutor to recant his beliefs in public. He was saved from burning at the stake but was to be exiled and imprisoned.
“Argula wrote a letter to these clerics, accusing them of ‘foolish violence against the word of God.’ And she noted that ‘nowhere in the Bible do I find that Christ, or his apostles, or his prophets put people in prison, burnt or murdered them, or sent them into exile.’ She defends the writings of ‘Martin [Luther] and Melancthon,’ [books] which she has read. And, also decries the University’s failed attempts to hide the truth of these reformers and of Scripture.
“Despite her being a lay person and a woman, she says she is compelled to speak by her divine duty as a Christian to confess God’s name (she quotes Matthew 10) and to be unashamed of Christ (Luke 9).
“Her knowledge of Scripture and artful use of it was striking to her readers of the time, and is striking now. Her letter is a composition with texts from across the Bible, picking up Gospels, Psalms, and prophets to form the skeleton and teeth of her impassioned arguments.
She closed her letter by writing, ‘What I have written to you is no woman’s chit-chat, but the word of God; and (I write) as a member of the Christian Church, against which the gates of Hell cannot prevail.’
The distinguished professors threw the letter away and ignored Argula and her letter. “Who dare to challenge the superior wisdom of such a prestigious university dons?” “And a woman at that?”
However, “her letter was immediately printed as a pamphlet, which was then reprinted in fourteen editions over two months. [‘It went viral’ we would say today!] More pamphlets, letters, and poems followed, and consequences followed too.
Attacks to her and to her family followed. Of course, Twitter did not exist in those days, so people had no other choice that to write letters. One scoundrel, hiding himself anonymously wrote her,
“You are a creature wild and saucy, yet think yourself so very brainy…To salvage your honor from this take, discard your pride, your vain opinions and your spindle you should take; an edging make or a bonnet knit”.
But Argula was not one to take such humiliation lying down. Oh no! So, she shot back,
“He tells me to mind my knitting. To obey my man indeed is fitting, but if he drives me from God’s word… Home and child we must forsake, when God’s honor is at stake”
“After 1524 Argula von Grumbach wrote no more for public consumption, but because of her, her husband lost his post. She held to her evangelical convictions, went to Coburg in 1530 to dine with Luther, and in 1563 was imprisoned briefly for presiding at burial services. She died in 1568.”
Her family and, naturally, the “patriarchs” of the Reformation would have no room for such a feisty woman. So, she was almost erased from human history. However, she was re-discovered about forty years ago. And so, today we honor her memory as we encourage ourselves to follow in the steps of such courageous and saintly woman.
“Argula did not seem ever to regret that she—like her beloved forebears Judith, Esther, and Jael—had been called by God into decisive action.”
Or as Professor Lewis suggested, the Word of God took hold on Argula’s life.
Every so often someone claims about his or her beliefs, or about the beliefs of a particular church this way, “We hold the Bible as our supreme authority.” As a political or theological soundbite, sounds great.
But as St Matthew tells us, it is not whether someone holds the Bible but whether it is the Word of God that has taken hold on someone’s life – or not!
In fact, Jesus himself said that God’s Word is meant to take root in our lives – by listening and by understanding and certainly not by grandstanding!
First, Jesus said, we are asked to listen. And listening is not easy. Remember how many times you may have to say to someone “Listen!” – or being told to listen!
Listening is not a matter of what we wish to hear, but to hear what actually has been said.
And second, says Jesus, the Word is to be understood. First, in the original language, the word used for “understanding” is not only meant to signify listening in a language that can be understood, although it is part of the process.
It is worthy of note that in the parable Jesus uses the seed as a paradigm of the Word of God. And, as you know, a seed if it is to be of any use it has to be used in its completeness. A piece of a seed is good for nothing. Picking up pieces of a seed may suit our fancy, but in the process of being picked apart, its quality as a seed is lost. And so it is with the Word of God.
Further, in the original language, “understanding” actually means putting things together or even better, wrestling with the Word to actually grasp it into its wholeness. The author of the Second Letter of Peter himself acknowledged that sometimes the Word may be “difficult to understand” and so, it is easy to be used for selfish interests.
English teachers know that a baby will not make sense of the Encyclopedia, even if the baby can put together the letters. And this is why there are graded books.
It could be said that “understanding” is akin to the action that transforms flour, yeast, water, and heat into bread. Indeed, understanding implies development and a process.
During Argula’s time, the powers that be were opposed to the public reading the Bible – “It will create confusion,” they said. And up to a point, they were right.
In Second Peter we can read that, “The main thing to keep in mind is that no Scripture is a matter of private opinion. And why? Because it’s not something concocted in the human heart.” (2 Peter 1:20-21).
To listen and to understand what the Word actually said is what Argula did. And the same could be said of Martin Luther or of William Tyndale.
Of course, it created confusion. But not because the Argula and the Reformers were wrong, but because they put into evidence that the traditional interpretation of the Scriptures was heavily biased if not plainly wrong.
We live at a time when some church leaders shroud themselves with the cloak of Biblical perfection to support what they want the Scripture to say. So, it is our duty to do as Jesus said we should do. To actually listen to what the Word of God says, and to wrestle with the Scriptures to seek understanding. Even if it challenges our traditional understanding.
Argula’s life teaches us that going against the grain may be upsetting to many. Beginning with ourselves, let me suggest. Because listening and understanding requires us to surrender to what God actually says – or to realize that sometimes God never said what we believe He actually said.
Take, for instance, the Lord’s Prayer. We love the traditional language. It may sound right but praying for God to not lead us into temptation is obviously wrong. Great English language may be but not only bad translation but also bad theology.
Finally, let me say that there is one of the key lessons of the parable of the sower that is often missed – the seed that remains on the ground is lost. The seed that produces fruit is the one that goes deep and takes root – a disquieting and unsettling process.
Let us pray that the Spirit may break us so that the Word of God, the Living Water may take root in us for the harvest of the Kingdom.
Let us pray the Collect for the Commemoration of Argula von Grumbach,
Almighty God, who gave your servant Argula von Grumbach a spirit of wisdom and power to love your Word and to boldly draw others to its truth: Pour out that same spirit upon us, that we, knowing and loving your Holy Word, may be unashamed of Christ and may not sin against the Holy Spirit that is within us. Amen.