When I was 16 year old, living in Wichita, Kansas, freshman year in high school, I got a chance to join a group of teen leaders, call The Wichita’s Promise Youth Council. Each high school had 2 representatives throughout the city and about 20 of us were brought together to tackle issues that adolescents faced in our city. We arranged a focus study to be done throughout various youth groups, juvenile intakes, teen programs and asked, “what are top 3 issues we teens face today?”
The result of the focus study tallied to #1. Nothing to do, 2. Teen pregnancy, 3. Drugs.
From the study, we concluded that teen pregnancy and drugs stemmed from the first issue, because when you have nothing to do that’s fun or healthy, kids end up having sex and doing drugs. From our finding we presented a solution, to come up with a club for teens. It would have a dance floor with a DJ and lights, a game section with arcades and pool table, and even an information center where you can get pamphlets about STD’s and drugs. The proposal was taken to the city council. We got to present at the city council meeting, we were even on TV! And got a grant to build a club! We shopped around for venues and found an old country line dancing club that was closing down, and turned it into the teen club. I don’t remember how we did all this. I only remember having one adult staff who helped us out. But it’s one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had, where I discovered that if you voice your concerns and take action to solve problems, it can be done.
This is one of the reasons why today’s Bible story is so interesting to me. We’ve been in the series called The Ways of Passion and Courage, highlighting some stories from the Old Testament that don’t get told too often. This story, the story of the daughters of Zelophehad is from the book of Numbers. The name of the book really doesn’t sell it. Like, who’s gonna read a book called, Spreadsheets. It does have a lot of Numbers. Alot of census and lists of clans and descendents. Numbers is a part of the Books of the Laws, that follow Exodus, after the Isrealites leave Egypt, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy capture much of the rules and law, that set their nation apart, as a unique people of God. It sought to create new ways to live as a small growing nation, finding and setting boundaries and guidelines to exist as a people. And today’s story captures 5 women who had the courage to speak out about the injustice of their existing inheritance laws. I think the story can show us a few things about how we too can participate in the law of God. I want to invite us to take a look through 3 different perspectives, First, seeing how the daughters carried out their actions and what we can learn from their ways, Second, how Moses and the leaders responded, from the perspective of those in power to see how those of us with privilege can respond, and Third, how God invites us to join in and abide in God’s law and what that means. So 3 points, 1 what are the daughters doing, 2, what Moses is doing, 3 what God’s doing.
So, the daughters, Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah. I love that the Bible included their names. Like last week’s story that pastor Ivy shared about the 2 midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, names of female characters in the Bible are significant, especially because they were often left out, like the woman at the well, the bleeding woman, or most the genealogy records. Verse 3 says that they approached, “the entrance to the Tent of Meeting and stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders and the whole assembly”. This is significant that they approached this place, because the Tent of Meeting was the tabernacle entrance, which means, “dwelling” or “presence”, meaning where God dwelled. A holy sacred place. It’s where only the leaders of the leaders were allowed in. There were a few different names of this area, some called it the Holy of Holies, it might have also referred to even Moses’ personal tent. Either way, it’s not a place definitely any women would think to enter.
When I first arrived to Reservoir, Steve gave me a tour of the building and gave me some history behind it. One of the most striking things that I immediately fell in love with was this sanctuary right here. I remembered learning in seminary the careful theological reflections that were thoughtfully implemented in the architecture of sacred buildings like this. That the ceilings were built high, to draw our eyes up, to gaze upon the high and lofty one. It sure is beautiful, and I don’t know if you know how lucky we are to be able to worship weekly in such a beautiful building. But what I loved the most was the story of when Reservoir came in. That originally this was the back of the sanctuary, and the dome you see behind yourself was the front. Renovations were made after some miraculous fundraising campaigns I hear, to close the back entrance up, and make the dome the front where everyone entered through. Now, I don’t know if that was a theological decision, but it meant something so beautiful to me. That the place where only the priests would stand, were opened wide for all to enter through, making us priesthood of all believers, having access to God, all who enter those doors, a royal priesthood. I loved that. As Jesus said, “so the last will be first and first will be last”.
If you’ve ever been left out, rejected, glazed over, this is good news to you. That’s why Jesus offended so many of those who were not outcasts. Those with power. To me, the Gospel offers such good news especially as a woman. Jesus was always turning things upside down. You see, I grew up in asian culture that really reinforces hierarchy. I think there’s some good and bad to it, but just to give you an example, the culture is that whenever you meet someone, you should assume that they are at first older than you and speak in the formal manner of the language. That’s respect. If they are truly older, there’s a lot of random, even not too antiquated rules like, when you are at a bar drinking with an older person, you would cheers and then younger person would have to turn away to drink. Really!
Growing up at the dinner table, you weren’t supposed to touch, lift your silverware, and start eating until the oldest person had done so. There are bazillion little hierarchy rules like this. And some I still respect, but some were difficult. It means that many daughters grew up with less respect and adoration from adults than sons.
And not even in just my culture but, in my religion, I’ve been told by some that I shouldn’t be a pastor, that I shouldn’t teach or preach because women aren’t supposed to speak in church, because they decided to do a reading of Paul’s letter to a specific congregation having conflict especially with women that were causing trouble, to mean it as a rule for all women in all church for the rest of time. But look at me now. preaching . At the the back of the sanctuary that’s been turned upside down by the miracles of Jesus. I’m so honored to be here and share my gifts and my passions with you today. And I do it with great respect and humility. That I know it wasn’t my “RIGHT” to be here, but a gift. That God’s great mercy to me, a sinner was to restore me to one who bears God’s image, a child of God. None of us deserves to be the first.
That’s why I all the more respect how the daughters handled the situation. They come to the entrance to the Tent of Meeting and says, “Our father died in the desert. He was not among Korah’s followers, who banded together against the Lord, but he died for his own sin and left no sons. Why should our father’s name disappear from his clan because he had no son? Give us property among our father’s relative.” You see their plea was to honor their father. They sought to restore their father’s name. They defended his name, pointing out the fact that he was not part of the rebellion that had been going on apparently with this guy name Korah. They called to his innocence in this matter and appealed their inheritance for his sake. How wise and persuasive they were! And it was probably a smart and witty way to approach these men. They were humble and respectful, even in the face of injustice. I think THAT takes courage. Courage doesn’t look like a superhero rising up with epic music in the background and muscles in tights. Real courage sometimes looks like stooping low, with a bowed head, in humble posture of service.
And for these daughters, this isn’t even an inconvenience or a small thing, it would have been a tragedy for them, because without the inheritance, they would been left with no home, even pushed out of the land. Their family just journeyed 40 years through the desert, coming out of slavery in Egypt, and right when they were getting to the promise land, they would’ve been excluded. Just after losing their father, now about to lose their house. But even in this desperate situation, their courage was to not lose themselves to anger in the face of unfairness, but taking extra care to put on graciousness and respect. I respect that.
So, upon hearing the daughters’ plea, how did Moses respond? V. 5 says, “so Moses brought their case before the Lord.” His response was first take it to God. Maybe he didn’t know how to respond. He might even have been offended that the women showed up to the leaders meeting unannounced. They probably weren’t on the agenda and he probably had to deal with the other elders who demanded some order and rebuke for the situation. Not knowing what to do, Moses took it to the Lord. He was probably conflicted and unsure what the right decision was. It had always been passed on to next of kin who’s male. It had never been done this way. Daughters were never the heirs of land. Leaders who really listen to the voice of the oppressed absolutely have to rely on courage to be able to carry out the just way. Giving the land to the daughters was not just a matter of generosity or charity. It rubbed up their very laws that sought to mirror God’s just ways for God’s people. Justice work doesn’t come easy. It may not even be obvious. It’s different from doing good works, volunteering, or even helping the needy. Deep transformative life changing justice work may conflict with what seems even natural. What was traditionally thought as lawful was challenged by people’s experiences and voices crying out.
Reinhold Niebuhr, an American theologian and pastor from 1930’s talked about justice rooted deep in love, in his work, Love and Justice. He says,
“Justice requires discriminate judgement between conflicting claims.” And he talked about various forms in which love can be expressed, including in the form of charity or philanthropy, making the case for a higher form of love as doing justice. He says, “Love in the form of philanthropy is, in fact, on a lower level than a high form of justice. For philanthropy is given to those who make no claims against us, who do not challenge our goodness or disinterestedness. An act of philanthropy may thus be an expression of both power and moral complacency. An Act of justice on the hand requires the humble recognition that the claim that another makes against us may be legitimate.”
Mere good works doesn’t take courage. But to really hear someone, that you may not agree with at first, and listen to the cries of the oppressed actually takes, courage. Because it challenges us. Because it conflicts with what we thought we knew, what we were comfortable with. And when we are challenged and conflicted, we can take the issue and our conflicted hearts to the Lord, trusting that the Holy Spirit is alive within us to speak truth to our times. To submit our knowledge to the work of the Spirit takes courage, the courage to be humbled, the courage to take a cost to ourselves. And not only so, it gives us the power to love, not with giveaways in ways that’s convenient to us but to love sacrificially towards retributive, restorative justice for others.
You might be thinking, yeah leaders and people in power need to hear this! And I’m like the daughters of Zelophehad, I need to speak up with courage. But I want you to imagine that you are Moses for a moment. Because actually many of us, are in place of power. And we hear the voices but we just say, well I’m not in power. Yes you are. Right where you are, you always have the power to stand up for those who have even less voice than you. What does it look like for you to speak up to stir things in your systems, that’s frankly worked for you? When a woman shows discomfort with sexual jokes, maybe you weren’t offended, do you say something to the guy? When someone’s idea gets co-opted by someone else in a meeting, do you point it out? When the housing market doesn’t affect you, do you hear stories of struggles for those who can’t afford a home? We hold so much power actually in various fields of industry and realms of privilege. When someone speaks up about their experience and it doesn’t affect you, what do you do about it? It might take courage to even try to get passionate about it. Do you get passionate about injustices that doesn’t affect you? Do you care?
I think there’s something to be learned about the way Moses handled the situation. He was humble enough to not immediately respond but wrestle the issue with God and hear from God where he should stand on this issue. How can we do that with the issues that are brought to us? With the voices of oppression that you see and hear? How can you bring their concerns to your conversation with God? Wrestling on their behalf?
Last point, What is God doing in this story? God is promising us, even the least likely ones of us, to be the heirs of the land. The inheritance of the land to the daughters has real spiritual significance because the promise land, Cannan, was not only a place to live but an actualized dream of New Jerusalem where God was in fellowship with God’s people. It wasn’t just about land but relationship. Not only does God say that the daughters of the Zelophehad are right in what they are saying, but God goes further to to make the decree a law of the land, permanently. It says, v. 11, “you shall give his inheritance to the nearest kinsman of his clan, and he shall possess it.” Nearest kinsman. Here, in this story, even the daughters are counted as kin. This is how God’s land works. We are all kins.
In the last few decades biblical scholars have come to wrestle with a word that’s central to the Gospel, the kingdom of God. This word, “kingdom” is used in our english translation of the Bible to describe God’s reign. God’s realm. A land that is under God’s love and God’s law. But it’s also been problematic word, as word often get, due to things lost in translation, which as a bilingual person, trust me ALOTS can get lost in translation and some things just do not translate. Like there are Korean pun jokes that are so funny but I cannot explain to most of you. Like what did the car say to the bread? Bang bang! Because bread in korean is, bang, and the onomatopoeia of a car horn in Korean is ppang, so it’s funny. But see, not that funny. Anyways, I digress.
The word “kingdom” has its roots in human structure of governance. It draws from the familiar economy of power known to mankind, where a king rules and the people his subjects. However the kingdom of God that Jesus talked about was a whole new different kind of place than we could imagine. It was actually like an un-kingdom, an anti-kingdom, where peace reigned. But Kingdom still conjures up our historical memories of power, war, hierarchy, domination, which goes to undermine the heart of God’s promised land. It’s inaccurate.
Nowadays many strands of theologians have begun to use the word kin-dom, k, i, n, like kinship or kinsman. It was popularized by a mujerista theologian named Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, who bore theology out of the experiences of Latina women in America. Her work of expounding on the kin-dom is biblically rooted in the faith that God does not seek to oppress us but to liberate us into living a radically different lives than the one we know, that we are all kins, family. In Matthew 12:49, Jesus, when he was with his disciples, pointed to them saying, “these are my mother and brothers.” It is the interrelatedness that defines us as children of God. It’s not how to be, it’s who we are. The kingdom of God isn’t about what law to follow, the point is that we are God’s own children. Which changes everything about how we should live! You are God’s beloved daughter. You are God’s beloved son. You will have my inheritance. Do you believe that?
The story the daughters of Zelophehad invites us to be completely a part of, without exclusion, as one of God’s own children, in the kin-dom of God. What is God doing in this story? God is making us heirs to the kin-dom.
Let me wrap up and summarize with the fill in in our program.
Like the daughters of Zelophehad, let us seek justice with humility.
Like Moses and the leaders, let us listen to the voice of the oppressed and bring their case before the Lord.
But above all, Remember, God’s promise, that God welcomes all. No one is excluded. And YOU, YOU have a place in the kin-dom of God.
May we live our lives deeply rooted in the knowledge of this, as we usher in and participate in the kin-dom of God here and now.
Jesus you are the light of the world. What are mere human beings that you are mindful of them? Oh that’s right, you have adopted us as your children. And you delight in us. You love us. You’re so in love with us that you gave everything up for us. Help us to receive you now, and again, to welcome you in our lives daily, to every part of our lives, with you kindness, your law, and your love. We pray, Amen.