Who’s Blocking Your Light? – Rev. Dr. Harvard Stephens, Jr.

ThomasLinda“…a message situated between the Charlottesville protests and [today’s] solar eclipse” is how this week’s author, the Rev. Dr. Harvard Stephens, described the sermon he preached yesterday – and that we are featuring on the blog this week. It is one thing to be seen as a human being, still another to be seen as a child of God, still another to be told – as was the Canaanite woman by Jesus himself – that she was a dog (Matthew 15:21-28). It’s a good reading as we sit with the situation of the country and ask ourselves how does God want us to act/do in our troubled times. Read, comment, and share!

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of the LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”

Sermon on Matthew 15:21-28, preached on August 20, 2017 at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Racine, Wisconsin


I am looking forward to [today’s] total solar eclipse.  When the moon comes between the earth and the sun and is positioned to block out most of the sun’s light for just a few minutes, a great shadow appears.  We’ll then be able to see the corona, a circle of light around the sun that seems a lot like a halo – but be warned: it’s dangerous to look at all of this without some serious protection for your eyes.

I believe that a solar eclipse can teach us something valuable about our life together as a human family in the light of God’s own amazing grace.  Today’s story from Matthew 15 is also hard to look at and even hard to believe.  Jesus has traveled far from Jerusalem, to the north, near the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.  He is face to face with a woman that his ethnic and religious tradition has taught him to reject because she’s spiritually unclean and culturally offensive.  That’s a lot of judgment to make about someone he has just met.  This is a snapshot of bias, prejudice, and religious intolerance even impacting the Son of God.  Whoever this woman is, whatever her character, her contributions to society, her place in her community – all of this is hidden from us.


Now, instead of labeling her a Canaanite woman, let’s call her a child of God.  Let’s offer her the same kind of consideration we would like for ourselves.  Let’s go even farther and say this: this woman is the light of the world – and maybe she has heard, in her own way, about the Sermon of the Mount, where Jesus tells those gathered: you are the light of the world; let your light so shine so that others may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.  Well, guess what I see happening?  I see an eclipse.  I see something blocking her light.  I see something in the way that keeps us from seeing her as she really is.

The same kind of problem impacts our world today.  So much has happened since the protests in Charlottesville, Virginia – which are about a lot more than the place of Confederate monuments on public land.  Yes, that is the topic at one level of debate, but what we are actually encountering is deep division, hatred, and violence.  Many World War II veterans and Holocaust survivors are shocked by what they’ve seen, saying: this is the same hatred we saw during WWII; don’t they know what these things mean?  These political discussions have caused another kind of eclipse, a failure of people to recognize one another as siblings in the same human family because something is in the way.  This is what happens when someone’s truth, someone’s humanity, and someone’s value as a child of God is denied.  Today, the Canaanite woman’s light is shining, but there are religious and cultural traditions that refuse to respect her and listen to her plea for help.

NEW YORK, NY – MARCH 21: Ligia (Li) Guyamier poses for a portrait for a “C-Section Scar” photo series in New York on March 21, 2017. (Photo by Damon Dahlen, Huffington Post).

I especially am moved because this brave woman is a mother – a strong mother who embodies the strengths we would like to see for ourselves – for our families – for our communities – and especially for our churches.  Mother church: here’s a role model for you!  Refuse to be eclipsed by the traditions that will keep you down and hold you back.  I am also reminded of the mother of Heather Heyer, the young woman who lost her life in the protests in Charlottesville, who says that her daughter’s legacy of courage is meant to shine brightly against the forces of hatred and intimidation – calling us to overcome the fears that threaten to smother and eclipse the light of freedom’s story unfolding in our own day.

Heather Hayer (1985-2017) – killed during the Charlottesville, VA protests.

In our Bible story, the disciples say: send her away, because she won’t stop shouting at us.  And Jesus seems to take their side as he explains that his mission is only for the lost sheep of Israel.  Another eclipse!  But as the persistent woman continues to plead, help me, she sets into motion a timeless exchange about what is actually fair.  What is the children’s food, and why does Jesus seem so stingy?  This story is purposely placed in between two stories about feeding thousands of people, because the issue is not that there’s not enough food on the table.  The issue is this: the benefits of having a place at this table are not being offered to this woman – but she refuses to be denied.  Even something falling from the table will be enough for me, if you insist on treating me like a dog.

This is some of the strongest language you’ll ever hear Jesus use.  It is basically a racial slur, a way of speaking that equates this woman’s heritage with the dogs that live with households across the land.  Scraps are enough for them.  But this brave woman’s words actually cause Jesus to pivot.  That’s a word we use in our political discourse today.  Who will pivot?  Who will find an alternative path?  Who will compromise?  Who will respect the views of someone not in their group or party or economic class?  Who will pivot because they believe in fairness and justice and compassion?  Jesus certainly did.

Woman, great is your faith!  I can see your light shining brightly.  It is showing me a way forward that I needed to recognize.  Yes, I will heal your daughter.  And the daughter lived!

who am
Who do you say that I am?

Next week’s reading will ask the question: who do you say Jesus is?  If today’s story had not taken this turn, I’m not sure what kind of Jesus we would have been left with.  Is Jesus a bigot?  Is he imprisoned by the social and cultural customs that perpetuate prejudice and hatred generation after generation?  Can he see the humanity of a woman from another land whose daughter is being tormented by a demon?  Can he respond and show mercy for the sake of her suffering child?

Matthew writes this story, we are told, because these are exactly the questions that the church was facing.  I want you to remember this: the four gospels are not books written by the disciples – but they are written in their names.  It’s as if you had the incredible experience of walking with Jesus with nothing separating you from him.  There is no eclipse blocking the light of his presence, and you didn’t spend your time writing.  Disciples told stories – and their children listened and repeated the stories.  Eventually their grandchildren began to write them down – so they wouldn’t forget.  And sometime in this process of experience and memory and story-telling, the practice of writing became more and more important.  And stories that the children and grandchildren told were mixed with stories of their own experiences as the early church struggled to come to terms with prejudice – and doubt and fear and persecution – and also tremendous opportunities to form communities that demonstrated generosity and compassion and especially love.

Generosity, compassion, courage, and love are signs of God’s light in us.  So is wisdom – and the ability to make difficult choices that may not be popular.  The Jesus-path leads us through seasons ripe with questions.  How do we let our light shine?  How do we overcome the barriers that keep us in fear and turmoil?  What does it mean to make room at the table – and refuse to settle for a standard that says: the crumbs that fall are all we have to offer people like you.

You are the light of the world, and that light is the gift of faith that is resilient and compassionate.  That light is our stories coming together in the great mystery of the body of Christ.  It’s about congregations full of veterans and children, people like me, born in a segregated Alabama, and people from all over the world, including those born and raised right here.  We are all people with experiences that show God’s light in hundreds of different ways.  The light is our journey past the silence of disciples to the emergence of a church that stands with those caught in a cultural eclipse.

There is a way to shine this light in today’s world – with integrity, wisdom, and confidence that God is with us and calls us to celebrate the promises such a light reveals.  When the light of God’s love is hidden by shadows of prejudice, fear, and violence, we have the gift of faith that leads us with courage to let our own light shine as we work for justice and peace – in the name of Jesus, our Lord.  Amen.

harvardHarvard Stephens, Jr., is the pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Racine, Wisconsin. He is the former dean of the chapel at The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and at Carthage College. He previously served as the Senior Pastor of Frederick Evangelical Lutheran Church in the United States Virgin Islands and also as the Lutheran Campus Pastor at Howard University. A published devotional writer, he also teaches Tai Chi Ch’uan and performs improvisational sacred music on his soprano saxophone. In a time of unprecedented cultural and social changes, he urges everyone to believe: this is no time to live an uninspired life!


The Church and Gender Inequality – Rev. Fatima Bass Thomas

Picture 002The history of the Christian church in Africa is a complicated one, and when associated with anything of US-European heritages the relationship moves from complicated to abusive and destructive. But when empowered by the Holy Spirit, and as free from colonial influence as possible, it has – since its beginning – as a light against inequality and a vehicle for justice. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in The Gambia (ELCTG), and specifically one of its founders – the Rev. Fatima Bass Thomas – shares with us her story, rebelling against sexism in her society and working to provide freedom and education to women and girls in her community. Read, comment, and share!

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor –“We Talk. We Listen.”


My story begins like this: I am Fatima from a family of 8 children of a peasant farmer in the Gambia, and I was the first child.

I was denied going to school because I was a girl-child.

I knew my future would be composed of getting married, engaging in domestic work and raising children.

However, at the age of nine I fantasized about something more, the chance to go to school.

I believed that going to school was a prosperous direction to a brighter future for every individual person. It provided me with empowerment, self-confidence, reasoning capacity, ability to acquire knowledge, self-dependence, the  ability to handle differences, and interact with other people from different cultures, tribes, and races.

I have seen a few girls in my community who were given the opportunity to go to school. Their lives were different from those who were not in school, for several reasons. If women are educated, their family structure will be quite different. A great deal of evidence has shown this in my life.  I was able to attain education for my children, good health nutrition, a decent life and be respected by my husband as well as the communities I belong to compared to uneducated mothers.

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A class I taught on personal health (I am on the far right).

These women are solely dependent on their husband’s income.  School elevated me to be at the level I am today, benefit my family, serve my country and the church, despite many years of challenges during my primary and high school years. I could proceed on to teacher training college, and I was posted at a school a few hours from my village.

It was there that I met my spouse, a teacher also and volunteer evangelist in a 95 percent Muslim context, who was inspired to serve our Lord Jesus Christ. However, this idea came to Samuel Thomas when he encountered the Lutheran church in Sierra Leone during his studies. When he came back to the Gambia he served the government that send to study for 15 years. In 2000, he left his job and decided to establish the Evangelical Lutheran church of the Gambia.

Because of my educational level I was able to acquire a job and was the only bread winner of the family which was at the beginning a bit tough and challenging, but with the grace of God we were able to overcome those obstacles.

We applied for scholarships in 2007 from Lutheran the World Federation and we were accepted, went to Tanzania to study for the Bachelor of Divinity for five years. We came back for our internship in 2010. We went back again to complete our courses and in 2012, we were ordained.

Some of our leaders and their families.

The church we started has grown to 2,500 members and it has been expanded to our neighboring country Guinea Bissau by an evangelist who was sent there to start the work. Through the leadership of the church, we have influenced the outreach priorities of the Gambia church, which is engaged in helping girls in a specific approach of not only primary education, but also high school and higher education. The leadership of the Evangelical Lutheran church believes in gender equality. The government of the Gambia advocates for free education for girls only in primary school. The government will pay half of the cost of middle school and high school. Still some parents cannot afford it, so most of the girls do not go further.  As the church grows, women in particular will be given the opportunity to be trained in theological schools and come back and be ordained to serve the church. However, for those who drop out of school, the church is making all efforts to train those girls in other areas in the church, so they will be able  to handle various positions.


In 2015, we were invited to participate with other women from Lutheran backgrounds around the world at the Crossroad of the Reformation Seminar hosted by the ELCA’s International Women Leaders program.

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Immediately when we returned to the Gambia, I summoned women from the different parishes to give them feedback from the leadership seminar. I used the opportunity to conduct a workshop on how to educate these women to stand for the church just like the women of the reformation. I encouraged them to be actively involved in the activities of the church, participate fully and share the love of Christ among ourselves, support each other in times of need, and to teach our children the doctrine of the church. I also encouraged them to regularly attend the church. Most often I coordinate training seminars to equip the women with skills such as soap making, tie-dye, sewing, and many other things. I teach them how to read and write in order for  them to have self-confidence and the ability to participate effectively in the society.



My story fits into the wider context of gender inequality. Girls’ education in the 1970-80s in the Gambia was regarded as a waste of resources.

Most parents believed that these girls will become married women and dependent on their husbands so there is no need to send them to school.  Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza emphasizes this in her essay “Breaking the Silence—Becoming Visible,.” she writes “that it is justified by the assumption that all women are either temporary workers or work for pin-money because they will get married and become pregnant.”[1] Since it is believed that house work and child care are women’s natural vocations, they are not be remunerated or counted in the gross domestic product.

Our school children – see all the girls!

According to Chelala, in” Girls’ Education”, “inequality and unequal access to education holds millions of girls and women backward across the world,”[2] especially in Africa. This has contributed to Africa poverty where by women are dependent on their husband’s income.  In the Gambia, three-fourths of the population in 1980-90 were uneducated women, who had no means of generating income than the vulnerable in the society.  Chelala continues to argue that “girls are still at a disadvantage, particularly in getting access to high school education.”[3] Like in the Gambia most Muslim men marry three to four wives. Let say each of the women has four or five children. The husband must put these children to school, and in most cases boys stand the chance to attendant compared to girls.


I am advocating for the young women in the Gambia, especially the youths who are coming up in the church to be able to do something for themselves in the future.  Without higher education, they would not be able to have the confidence or ability to advocate for themselves and the generation coming after them. Carr insists in “Women, Work, and  Poverty”  that patriarchal structure which is embedded in home and society and which are  the source of the denigration of women’s labor are sadly what? women do much the  of work in the churches but it is  often on a volunteer or unpaid basis.”[4] As Lutherans around the world, we need to advocate for our children. It is especially important to support the ELCA and their initiative ministries through financial and prayer support. Without the support of the ELCA I would not be where I am today. Carr insists that it a situation which calls upon Christians everywhere, but especially those of us in more privileged contexts, for attention, analysis, and active transformation,” for the lives of other women around the globe.[5]

Gambian women working on developing relationships with Muslims in their area.

When we look at the African continent, women are the poorest and vulnerable. They don’t have a voice to contribute because the women are surrounded by a culture of silence and the most important factor that leads to this is lack of education. For my life experiences, as first female Lutheran pastor in the Gambia, I will use all my powers to encourage and influence women especially young girls in the church to be actively involved in the development of our church. My prayer is that girls do not have to go through what I went through to get an education.

2014.02.19.03.jpgRev. Fatima bass Thomas is married with three kids and is the first female Lutheran pastor in the Gambia. She received her first degree in Tanzania at Tumaini University -Makumira  and presently is in a Master’s program  at Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.  

[1] Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, “Breaking the Silence—Becoming Visible,” The Power of Naming: A Concilium Reader in Feminist Liberation Theology,ed. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza(Maryknoll, New York:ORIBS BOOK,1996),164.

[2] Chelala, Cesar. 2016. “Girls’ Education.” Hamdard Islamicus 39, no. 2: 100-101. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed March 7, 2017) 100.

[3] Ibid

[4] Anne Carr, “Women,Work, and Poverty,” in The Power of Naming: A Concilium Reader in Feminist Liberation Theology,ed. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza(Maryknoll, New York:ORIBS BOOK,1996),85.

[5] Ibid,83.