Defy Gravity!

It is by far my family’s favorite Broadway production. We have enacted it for COVID birthday greetings, karaoke, and one-liners. It is the show Wicked. Telling the back story to The Wizard of Oz, it focuses on a green, female witch, Elphaba, who is made fun of and bullied for being different. She is loathed by her peers and told that her amazing magical skills can never be appropriately used. At a pivotal point of self-definition, Elphaba sings:

Something has changed within me.

Something is not the same.

I’m through playing by the rules

of someone else’s game.

Too late for second-guessing.

Too late to go back to sleep;

It’s time to trust my instincts.

Close my eyes and leap!

It’s time to try

defying gravity.

I think I’ll try

defying gravity.

And you can’t pull me down!

In talking with female clergy all over the United States, I listen to stories of call and know that to answer that call is defying gravity.

I hear about challenges with committee chairs and know that female clergy defy gravity every time they display confidence by taking a stand.

I watch women stand in pulpits occupied by males for centuries and wipe away my tears as they defy gravity with messages of love and grace.

I cringe with every “honey,” “dear,” and “darling” as we are told “Don’t be getting above your raising.”

How do you defy the gravitational pull that longs to keep you in your place, silence your voice, and undermine your confidence?

Jesus defies gravity. While teaching in a synagogue on a Sabbath, he heals a woman who is literally bent in half by the cultural gravity of being a woman and of the “sins” that others say caused her to be sick.  She is such a regular in her attendance, that she is invisible to those gathered. Except to Jesus. He sees her, heals her, and sets her free to live outside the cultural laws of gravity. In response, she stands upright and praises God.

I suspect that you have experienced gravity.  Simone Weil says, “Obedience to the force of gravity is the greatest sin.”  If this is true, what might it look like to be set free from the chains of gravity. How do we keep rising when gravity wants to pull us down?

Jesus gives us some encouraging examples by answering his own question of, “What is the Kingdom of God like?” His examples are not of great movements or impassioned speeches. They are of tiny, common things that through their faithfulness bring great results: a mustard seed that grows into a tree in which the birds may nest and a woman who uses a small bit of yeast to leaven her bread.

On my kitchen counter, most days, sits a mason jar of bread start. All day, I watch as the yeast bubbles and foams. Like a lava lamp, the start is alive with eruptions as it feeds. When thinking logically, it would seem that the weight of the liquid would be enough to stifle the growth. When gravitational pull is added into the equation, again, logic would say, “It’s not possible.”

When I mix the start with flour, I would think that six cups of flour would discourage the yeast from having any affect at all. But the dough rises. Not once, not twice, but three times because of the tiny, invisible yeast.

Jesus says that the Kingdom of God is like that yeast, and I believe that the women who breaks bread within a community who makes a place for all at the Lord’s Table, is an act of defiance. Going against all logic, pushing back against cultural bias, and responding to the call of Jesus that nay-sayers refuse to acknowledge, female clergy keep rising to love the broken, heal the soul, pray for the sick, and proclaim a gospel of grace, love, and truth. 

So my friends, if you know something has changed within you, keeping you from playing the rules of someone else’s game, trust your instincts. Close your eyes and leap! Don’t let anyone pull you down. No, instead, defy gravity! 

Sarah Jackson Shelton is the Pastor Emeritus of Baptist Church of the Covenant in  Birmingham, AL where she served as senior pastor for seventeen years. She is currently acting as a strategist with female clergy through The Center of Pastoral Excellence on Samford University’s campus. She is the wife of Lloyd C. Shelton and together they have two adult sons, David and Dannelly.

This blog series made possible in part by a gift from Myers Park Baptist Church, Charlotte, NC.