Shawna Atteberry

Baker, Writer, Teacher

Good Friday Sermon: The Only Begotten Daughter

Picture: Jephthah’s Daughter at The Art Institute of Chicago.

Judges 11:29-40; Psalm 22; Hebrews 12:1-4; Luke 22:14–23:56 (Readings from A Woman’s Commentary for the Whole Church, Year A: Good Friday)

“For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son…” (John 3:16, Common English Bible [CEB]).

“God said, “Take your son, your only son whom you love…” (Gen. 22:2 CEB)

“Only she, an only child…” (Judges 11:35, A Woman’s Commentary for the Whole Church, Year A: Good Friday. Unless other noted, all Scripture quotations are from A Woman’s Commentary.)

Many of us know about the only sons: Isaac and Jesus. But how many of us know about the only daughter in Judges 11? I suspect not many. The Revised Common Lectionary skips her story. So does The Daily Lectionary in The Book of Common Prayer. Churches that use lectionaries have been trained to skip her story. After all, who wants to hear about a human sacrifice on Sunday morning, the Eucharistic Prayer notwithstanding?

But tonight we hear The Only Daughter’s story. Unfortunately, we cannot call her by name because the men who compiled the book of Judges didn’t think her name was important—just her father’s name is recorded.

The God of Jephthah

The story of The Only Daughter and her father is one straight out of a soap opera or telenovela. Jephthah, the father, is himself an abused son. His mother was a sex worker. His father took him from his mother, and his half-brothers and his stepmother heaped abuse on him. They ran him out of the country, and he became a mercenary. By now the area where he grew up—Gilead—is being attacked by another country, Ammon. Now the people of Gilead want Jephthah and his mercenary army to come and defend them. Jephthah only agrees to do this when the elders say they will make him the head of the region if he drives off the Ammonites. That’s where our reading begins.

For years Jephthah has been a wheeling and dealing manipulator. He knows what to say and what to do to get what he wants. So when the Spirit of the Holy One comes upon him, he does not take it at face value. This is a man who does not take anything at face value—even God. The Spirit of God isn’t enough. So the manipulator begins to wheel and deal because he wants to lead the people who drove him off. This is the deal: If God gives victory to Jephthah, he will offer “the one who comes out—whoever comes out—of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return” to God as a burnt offering.

Who Jephthah thought might be the first out of the door when he returned home after his victory is unclear. The Only Daughter, following the tradition of Miriam and Deborah, greets her father with drums, songs, and dance. And now Jephthah’s foolish and rash vow comes back on him. In his attempt to manipulate God because God’s Spirit was not good enough for him, he stands to lose his only begotten daughter.

Let’s be clear on one point from here on out: Jephthah could have repented of his foolish and rash vow. He could have admitted he was trying to manipulate God with his grandiose vow, humbled himself before God, and admitted his sin of unbelief in the power of God’s Spirit. But he didn’t. Even when the first person to greet him was his daughter-his only child. Instead of admitting his own sin, he blames her telling her, “You have become my trouble.”

The god Jephthah made his vow to will not let Jephthah out of his vow. This petty tyrant is not the Holy One who freely gave her Spirit to Jephthah, to begin with. The god of Jephthah is a rigid and unbending god who cannot forgive a foolish oath. The god Jephthah vowed his vow to makes him keep it—even if keeping it means human sacrifice, which is forbidden by the Torah. Jephthah does not question his own theology, and neither does he bargain with God as Abraham did for Lot’s life. Jephthah’s god does not forgive or relent. What is vowed must be done even if it violates the Torah that was given at Mount Sinai.

The Only Daughter’s response is as troubling as Jephthah’s vow and proclamation: “My father, you have opened your mouth to the Holy One, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth.” The Only Daughter, not only accepts her fate, she binds Jephthah to his unfaithful words. Both father and daughter trap themselves in a vow that could have and should have been broken and repented of.

But the daughter does set a condition on her obedience: “Release me for two months, and I will go and go down among the hills, and weep for my virginity, I and my women-friends.” The Only Daughter might submit to her manipulative father’s foolish vow, but she will not spend the last months of her life with him: she chooses to spend that time with her women-friends. And those women remember her, and they teach their daughters about her. The daughters remember her, and The Only Daughter becomes “an observance in Israel. Year by year the daughters of Israel would go out to tell the story of the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite for four days.” The Only Daughter weeps for her virginity, for she will not have children who remember her, but the faithful women in her life make sure she is not forgotten after her death.

In an interview with Christian Century, the author of A Woman’s Lectionary for the Whole Church, Dr. Wilda Gafney, said she intentionally chose each Psalm to be the woman’s or women’s response in the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures. So now we turn to Psalm 22, and hear the Only Daughter cry out: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?/ Why are you so far from my deliverance, from the words of my groaning?/ My God, I cry by day, and you do not answer;/and by night, and there I find no rest.”

The God of Psalm 22

When we think of these words being cried out, we hear them cried out by Jesus on the Cross. In Dr. Phyllis Trible’s groundbreaking book, Texts of Terror, Dr. Trible applies these words to the daughter: “My God, my God why hast thou forsaken her,” but I have never thought about making these words the Only Daughter’s prayer as she wept and mourned with her friends. Just as God’s only Son felt abandoned on the cross, so Jephthah’s only daughter feels abandoned as well. Jesus prayed in Gethsemane the night before: “Abba, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” The cup was not taken away for either Only Child.

As we read Psalm 22 the God of the Psalmist is entire universes away from the god of Jephthah: “Yet it was you who drew me from the womb;/keeping me safe on my mother’s breast./On you was I cast from birth,/and since my mother’s womb you have been my God.” The God of Psalm 22 is a nurse and midwife who brings life into the world and helps that life to flourish. This God is loving, caring, and trustworthy, and this is the God Jesus and the Only Daughter call out to in their time of despair.

Who Do We Say God Is?

Dr. Gafney comments that each of these texts requires us to ask who do we think God is. Are we talking about the vengeful tyrant of Judges 11 or the midwife and nurse of Psalm 22? This question matters—because this is the god we bring to tonight’s Passion Reading. Are we looking through Jephthah’s eyes seeing a petty and vengeful god who sends the only Son to be tortured and slaughtered for our sins, so that god’s wrath can be spent on Jesus, just so that same god can forgive us? Or do we bring the loving midwife and nurse of Psalm 22 to our reading of Luke’s Passion? Is God the Holy Midwife who is always bringing new life into this world, and that is the reason God sent the only Son into the world? Jesus died because those in power do not want to hear about the loving God who has no favorites. The powerful do not want the lowly to be raised. And God mourns and weeps with the women at the foot of the cross as Jesus dies just as the Only Daughter’s friends wept and mourned with her. As God weeps, God is preparing to answer this travesty. Yes, those in power—the occupying force of Rome–did the worse they could do to Jesus. But that isn’t the last word. God’s last word will come on Sunday morning.

On this holy night, we believe that Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. Now I’m supposed to stop there, but I’m not. We believe that Jesus descended to the dead—to Sheol—the Hebrew underworld. In many Eastern icons, when Jesus is raised from the dead, he brings Adam, Eve, and all of God’s people from Sheol with him. He brings the Only Daughter with him, and Jesus KNOWS her name. The men who compiled the book of Judges may have forgotten this precious daughter’s name, but God did not.

But it is not Sunday yet. Tonight we mourn. We mourn with the other women in our readings. We mourn with the Only Daughter’s friends, and we mourn with Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, Salome, and the other female disciples at the cross. These women do not leave when Jesus is taken off of the cross. After Joseph lays Jesus in the tomb Luke tells us “The women followed, the ones who had come with him from Galilee, and they saw the tomb and how his body was placed.” Matthew tells us: “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting in front of the tomb” holding vigil. Both Jesus and the Only Daughter have cried out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from my deliverance, from the words of my groaning?” And now there is silence, and we hold vigil.

As we sit in this silence, in this holy and liminal space in the darkness of the tomb, we must remember Jesus Emmanuel: God is with us. God is with us in our lowest and bleakest times. God was with the Only Daughter as she submitted to a father that could not conceive of a God who could forgive a foolish oath. God was with Jesus as his male disciples fled, and the Roman government condemned him to death. Here the promise given at Jesus’ birth is the promise we must hold onto as Jesus lies in the tomb in the silence of Holy Saturday. God is with us. And just as God called the Only Daughter by her name, just as Jesus will call Mary Magdalene by her name, God calls each of us by name as we wait.

What I’m Reading: Nonfiction

selective focus photo of pile of assorted title books

Wintering by Katherine Mays is a memoir written when Mays’ health forced her to take a sabbatical from her job. Her own personal winter (depression) happened during an actual winter. Mays brilliantly interweaves navigating her depression while navigating winter. As she explores winter as a time when we do pull away from the world to survive the cold weather, she compares it to navigating her own internal winter of depression, and the withdrawal and introspection that is called for in both circumstances. She also illustrates the paradox of winter’s withdrawal with the need to keep close to family and friends as well to survive both the cold months and depression as they rage on. I appreciate the fact that Mays has no easy answers, and it is a wonderful memoir of how navigating depression (any time of the year) is both a solitary and communal endeavor.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

What I’m Reading: Fiction

opened book on tree root

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich is a surreal, eerie novel that combines the concreteness of the pandemic and the social unrest of 2020 with a ghost story set in a bookstore in Minneapolis. Erdrich captures 2020 perfectly in her main character Tookie, who has to navigate both the pandemic and the protests and riots that followed George Floyd’s murder as a Native American woman while dealing with the ghost of a woman who constantly appropriated Native American culture while she lived.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Can Everyday Creativity Change the World?

Can baking save the world?

I’ve had two ideas swirling around my head for a couple of years. The first Patricia McKillip gave me in her book Solstice Wood. The book features a group of women who use their arts and crafts to keep the land of Fairy at bay in their woods. This led me to think about a group of primarily women who use their arts and crafts to keep evil at bay in the world. Instead of fighting evil things like demons, mages gone bad, or their local alderperson (sorry, I live in Chicago) with swords, guns, or magical monsoons, they fight with their knitting needles, crochet hooks, wooden spoons and Dutch Ovens, paints, pottery wheels, and/or sewing machines.

This idea became extremely personal to me in March 2020 when COVID-19 shut down the world. When I started thinking about cracking a bottle of wine open and 10:00 am, I knew I was going to have to come up with a better way to deal with the stress. As I had been maniacally binge-watching The Great British Baking Show on Netflix, and I love to bake, that’s what I did. A couple of months earlier a friend had shared a sourdough starter with me, and I was already learning that, so I continued to learn and bake. My incredible husband found me 50 pounds of flour and a stock of yeast when everyone else jumped on the baking bandwagon, and off I went.

Of course, I thought that I’d bake for a couple of months then life would go back to normal. Two years later I’m still baking to keep my sanity and to make my friends happy. In December I baked and gave gift boxes to my friends, and saw firsthand how much an everyday craft can bring happiness and joy to our bleak world (and winter in Chicago is bleak my friends).

These two ideas keep feeding each other: that the everyday arts and crafts we do in our everyday lives, not only make our lives better but make our world a better place to live. This idea shouldn’t be so revolutionary to me. After all, I’m a Christian who believes that God is the Creator of everything. I also believe that this God made all human beings in her image. So of course we are all creators–we are made in the Creator God’s image.

But the connection that God’s creative action that changed The Void into something else in Genesis 1 could be connected to my baking (or knitting) changing the world into something else has only been an idea that clicked with me in the last couple of years. But I’m discovering that being made in the image of God means exactly that: our creative work, no matter how small or ordinary, changes the world we live in: it makes creation more of the place God intended it to be. (The crazy thing is I wrote an article about how writing does this in Writing the World Right years ago. I never thought to apply it to baking and knitting.)

This idea is what I’m going to be exploring on this blog for the next few months. I will be telling my stories and hopefully telling stories from friends and family as well. And I want to hear your stories. How are using your creative ability, your arts and crafts, to make yourself, your family, your home, your community, and your world a better, more beautiful, and divine place?

Trinity Sunday Sermon: The Earth Is Full of God’s Glory

The Earth Is Full of God’s Glory (Isaiah 6:1-8; John 3:1-17: Trinity Sunday, Year B)

“In the year King Uzziah died,” Isaiah said, and those who were listening shuddered and looked at their feet instead of at him. It would be the equivalent of saying “In the year terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center.” Or “In the year Covid-19 shut down the world.” The year King Uzziah died was not a good time for the country of Judah. The empire of Assyria was expanding its power through conquest. The end of Uzziah’s reign would be the last time Judah was an independent country in the middle of the empires of the Middle East and Egypt. The Syro-Ephraimitic War was just beginning. As a response to Assyria’s growing dominance, Syria and Israel had joined together to fight Assyria. When Judah refused to join them, they decided to attack Judah and make King Ahaz, Uzziah’s successor, join them one way or the other. So when Isaiah began his story of how he was called by God with “In the year King Uzziah died,” the people were not expecting a story with a happy ending.

Then Isaiah told where he was when he saw his vision of God: the Temple. And the people thought, “Oh that must be nice. To be one of the few people who can go into the Temple and be safe. How nice for him.”

Because here is what we modern-day Christians tend to forget: the Temple in Jerusalem was not like our churches. Not just anyone could get into the Temple itself: you had to be descended from Aaron. Only Aaron’s male descendants could be priests, and priests were the only ones allowed into the Temple itself. Women could go into the outer court, and men could go into the inner court, but only priests went into the temple. Isaiah was part of a very select group. The only reason he could pray in the Temple where God appeared to him was that he was born into the right family.

But God isn’t going to let Isaiah stay in the Temple. Although Isaiah had a vision of God’s robe filling the Temple, the seraphs who wait before the throne declare: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The WHOLE earth is full of God’s glory—not just the Temple or even the Temple Mount. The seraphs declare God is found in all of the world, and God wants someone to go into that world and tell the people God is with them wherever they are.

The Temple hierarchy is still firmly in place when Nicodemus visits Jesus one night in John 3. In fact, Jesus had just let the priests know what he thought of the way they controlled access to God in the previous chapter by throwing the merchants and money changers out of the Temple’s outer court. The only place women and Gentile proselytes could worship was also a noisy marketplace full of merchants selling animals to sacrifice and exchanging unclean pagan money for the Temple shekel. Jewish men could get away from the chaos in the inner court of the Temple, and of course, the priests could still go into the silent Temple, so the noise and hoopla from the outer court didn’t bother them in the least.

Jesus makes it clear to Nicodemus that God hasn’t changed her mind about being out and about in the world. The two have an interesting and befuddling theological conversation:

Jesus begins: “‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?’”

I don’t know if Nicodemus is actually confused by this conversation, or if he is being deliberately obtuse. Nicodemus is part of the Temple hierarchy: he benefits as a leader who has access to God and denies that same access to most of the Jewish people and all of the Gentile proselytes. But if Jesus is right–if there is another birth after the physical birth that gave Nicodemus the privileged access to God he has, and that birth of the Spirit grants equal access to God regardless of what tribe or family that one is born into–then who needs to the Temple? And who needs the Temple hierarchy to mediate between God and her people? If “the wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” is true, and this birth of the Spirit is as mysterious as the wind coming and going then how is the Temple hierarchy able to control access to the God of the heavens and the earth?

So when Nicodemus asks: “How can these things be?” he may not be asking about how being born from above by the Spirit is possible. He may be asking how can it be that everyone is able to have equal access to God.

So you may be wondering what all of this has to do with Trinity Sunday. Here’s the takeaway: it doesn’t matter which member of the Trinity we’re talking about: the Father or Mother, the Son, or the Holy Spirit: there is one thing the entire Godhead is agreed on: everyone on this planet has equal access to God the Father and Mother, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The whole earth is full of God’s glory. The Spirit blows wherever she wants and makes whoever she wills a child of God, regardless of birth, family, race, nationality, religion, or creed. The family of the Trinity wants everyone to come into the fold, and the Godhead has always been actively working against all of the ways we humans come up with to limit access to God.

God appeared to Isaiah in the Temple because that was the only place Isaiah thought God would be and found out otherwise. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night and discovers Jesus’ clearing out the Temple of salespeople was just the start of his radical idea that God was everywhere. And this is where my brain has been all week. Seeing the power structures in place in these Scripture Readings to keep most of the people away from God. Thanks to this last year I’ve been thinking A LOT about power structures anyway, as I’m sure most of us have. Both the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement have shown us the unequal access to health care, justice, and being able to walk down the street safely whole swaths of Americans have to live with. The last thing the church should be doing is upholding these power structures. Unfortunately, the opposite is true: the white church in the U. S. not only upholds these power structures, but we created them. Then we claimed they were God’s will just as Isaiah and Nicodemus thought it was God’s will to so severely limit access to God through the Temple hierarchy.

You’d think at some point God would just get tired of us stupid humans doing the same thing over and over and over again. Seriously, we’ve been creating power structures to limit access to God and to the resources God created for everyone to share in since the beginning. All the selfishness, greed, and power hoarding going on in this country isn’t new. Just ask the people of Judah after King Uzziah died. The human race has been acting this way for a very long time. And God just keeps coming to us and showing us there is another way to live. The WHOLE EARTH is still full of God’s glory. God the Creator is still creating and re-creating the world. God the Son is still teaching the world what it looks like to live the way God wants us to live. God the Holy Spirit is still blowing through the world making us children of God with unlimited access to the Holy and Undivided Trinity. The Trinity never gives up on us. So we can’t give up on ourselves either.

I’m proud of the work Grace has done to address our own prejudices and the way we are complicit in these power structures. I’m proud we want to repent of these sins, and we want to do things that will start taking down these structures. As we do this work of making the South Loop and Chicago a more equitable place for everyone, we need to remember that the Holy Trinity has already gone before us. The Godhead has been at work in this city for a very long time challenging these power structures, and leading churches across the city to address different aspects of the power structures that try to hoard as much as possible for the fewest people possible.

As we enter Ordinary Time—the time the church is called to take Christ out into the world–we need to remember Christ is already in the world working. The Holy Spirit is still blowing through the world. And the Creator is still fine-tuning her creation. We just need to pay attention. Pay attention to where the Trinity is already at work. Then join the Creator, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in the continuing work of redeeming the entire world for God because the whole earth is full of God’s glory.

Women of Holy Week: At the Cross & Tomb

women of holy week
The Two Marys by James Tissot

The women of Holy Week frame the Passion of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. Mark’s Passion Narrative began in chapter 14 with the female prophet who anointed Jesus as king and prepared him for his burial. Mark’s Passion ends with Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, Salome, and “many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem” bearing witness at the cross, and the two Marys holding vigil in front of the tomb. The stories of women embrace Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, denial, trial, and crucifixion. They followed “him and ministered to him when he was in Galilee,” and they followed him to Jerusalem (Mark 15:41).

Women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. They had followed him and ministered to him when he was in Galilee. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there. That evening, because it was the Preparation Day (that is, the day before the Sabbath), Joseph of Arimathea came. He was a prominent council member who was also looking forward to the reign of Godde. He dared to go to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. Pilate was amazed that he might already be dead. He called the centurion and asked him whether Jesus had been dead long. When he confirmed it with the centurion, he gave the body to Joseph. He bought a linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been cut from rock. He rolled a stone to the door of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Joses’ mother Mary saw where he was laid (Mark 15:40-47, New Testament: Divine Feminine Version [DFV]).

At the Cross

In Mark those who follow Jesus are disciples. Minister comes from the Greek word group from diakonos, which means to serve. Diakonos is the word we get our word deacon from. Originally meaning “table service,” in the New Testament it became a specialized term for ministers of the Word and Eucharist. Mark uses minister when the angels ministered to Jesus after his temptation and when Peter’s mother-in-law ministered to Jesus after he healed her. Jesus used minister when he said “the Son of Woman came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life to liberate many” in Mark 10:45 (DFV).

The only time serve or minister is used for a man in The Gospel of Mark it describes Jesus. The other times the words are used they refer to angels or women. Elizabeth Struthers Malbon notes “Not only does Jesus take up women’s work, but women take up Jesus’ work. Women, from near the bottom of the hierarchy of power, have served and remained faithful followers to the end–although even they are ‘looking on from afar’….It is striking that Mark chooses to emphasize the presence of women followers in the absence of the male disciples at the crucial moment of Jesus’ death. Those with power can learn from those with less power” (“Gospel of Mark,” Women’s Bible Commentary, 491).

At the Tomb

Mary Magdalene, Mary, Salome, and the other women continued to faithfully minister to Jesus until the end. The women of Holy Week did not run away, they did not hide. Even if it was at a distance, they stayed with Jesus. They bore witness to his death, and they made sure he did not die alone. Mary Magdalene and Mary watched Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus then remained at the tomb holding vigil. On Sunday morning they would be the first ones back at the tomb to finish anointing Jesus’ body for burial. We come full circle: at the beginning of the Passion Narrative the female prophet anointed Jesus to prepare him for the days ahead, and now Mary Magdalene and the other women who followed Jesus from Galilee now come to finish anointing Jesus’ body.

God rewarded them for their tenacity, perseverance, and faithfulness: they are the first to hear of the resurrection and see the risen Jesus. As they bore witness to the death and burial of Jesus, they now bear witness to the resurrection of Christ. The messenger at the tomb commissioned to tell the rest of the disciples that God has raised Jesus from the dead.

It is time for the church to stop overlooking the women of Holy Week, and to tell their stories in the context of Holy Week. These women show what Christ-like service looks like. Unlike the male disciples, they did not let their own ambitions blind them to Jesus’ teaching that he would die. They listened and understood. They ministered to him, and they bore witness. The women of Holy Week did not leave him alone during his darkest hours. The church needs to recognize and praise these women for their great faithfulness instead of pushing them into the shadows and forgetting them.

The is part two of my Holy Week series on The Women of Holy Week. The first post on The Widow and Prophet can be read here.

Women of Holy Week: The Widow & the Prophet

women of holy week
The Widow’s Mite by James C. Christensen

The women of Holy Week have always fascinated me. Apart from a passing glance at the foot of the cross, the church ignores them. It doesn’t help that The Revised Commentary Lectionary places some of their stories outside of Holy Week, and rips them out of their theological context.

When I did my own study of the women of Holy Week, I was surprised to find the first woman mentioned in Holy Week was the widow who gave her last two pennies as an offering in the Temple. I never connected her story with Holy Week, and for good reason: before her story is a list of controversies and debates Jesus was having with the religious leaders in the Temple. After her story, Jesus described the destruction of the Temple and what would happen before his second coming. Big stories with lots of drama are on either side of this humble, generous widow.

The Widow

Jesus sat down across from the treasury and watched the crowd throw money into the treasury. Many who were rich threw in large amounts. A widow who was poor came and threw in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. He called his disciples and said, “Believe me when I say that this widow who was poor gave more than all those who are contributing to the treasury because they all gave out of their abundance, but she, poor as she is, gave everything she had – all she had to live on” (Mark 12:41-44, New Testament: Divine Feminine Version [DFV]).

This happened right after Jesus finished criticizing religious leaders who “devour widows’ houses and show off with long prayers” (v. 40). Normally stewardship campaigns praise this woman as a person who gave unselfishly to God. She trusted God would provide. But that interpretation does this woman a great disservice.

Elizabeth Struthers Malbon notes: “The poor widow is unlike the self-centered scribes and instead like Jesus–one who gives all. The last words of her story could well be translated ‘but she from her need cast in all of whatever she had, her whole life.’ Perhaps we are to assume that the poor widow has been victimized by the greedy scribes and by the authority of traditional religious teaching. But in this again she is like Jesus, who teaches with ‘authority, and not as the scribes’ (1:22), yet is victimized by those who hold authority in the temple and in the broader religious tradition” (Women in Scripture, 432).

Jesus’ praise of this woman–who lived her life the same way he called his disciples to live–is the last thing Jesus said before he left the Temple for the last time. Her offering of everything she had foreshadows Jesus’ own offering of his life on the cross. We praise this woman for pointing the way to Christ and for living the same kind of life, that Jesus himself lived: an all-encompassing sacrifice to God. The stewardship campaigns need to tell her full story instead of simply praising her for giving her last two cents.

The Prophet

After Jesus praised this woman and left the Temple, he described the future destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. In chapter 14 we discover this end of times discourse nestled between two stories of women and their Christlike generosity. In Mark 14:1-11 we meet the woman who anointed Jesus as king and prepared him for his death and burial. This happened the day before he celebrated the Last Supper (for her story see my sermon, Anointing the King).

Once again Mark contrasts the thoughts and actions of corrupt religious men with the Christlike actions of a woman:

When he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the house of Simon who had leprosy, a woman approached him with an alabaster jar of very expensive ointment made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured it over his head. But some got angry. “Why has this ointment been wasted?” they said to one another. “This ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to those who are poor.” They scolded her.

But Jesus said, “Leave her alone! Why are you bugging her? She has done a good deed for me. You will always have people who are poor with you, and you can help them whenever you want to; but you won’t always have me. She did what she could. She poured this ointment on my body to prepare me for burial. Believe me when I say that wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what this woman has done will be talked about in memory of her” (Mark 14:3-9, DFV).

This is the first scene in Mark’s passion narrative. This woman who acted as a prophet (or priest) and anointed Jesus as king began Jesus’ journey to the cross. Like the widow, we see another selfless act of generosity. As the people in the Temple ignored the widow, Jesus’ fellow dinner guests criticized this woman’s offering as wasteful. Jesus rebuked the critics and praised the woman for preparing him for his burial. Jesus knew his road to kingship led to the cross, and he promised this prophet would be remembered wherever the Gospel is preached.

The First Two Women of Holy Week

In comparing these two women Malbon notes: “One woman gives what little she has, two copper coins; the other gives a great deal, ointment of pure nard worth more than three hundred denarii; but each gift is symbolically or metaphorically priceless. The irony that the poor widow’s gift occurs in the doomed temple is matched by the irony that the anointing of Jesus Christ, Jesus Messiah, Jesus the anointed one, takes place not in the temple but in a leper’s house (14:3), and not at the hands of the high priest but at the hands of an unnamed woman” (Women in Scripture, 433).

The widow and the prophet close Jesus’ public ministry in Mark and begin his journey to the cross. They foreshadow Jesus’ coming death. They also live the life of sacrificial faith that Jesus will live through his arrest, crucifixion, and death. These two women won’t be the last women we meet this Holy Week. In Mark, stories of women surround the entire Passion Narrative: The prophet who anointed Jesus opens the Passion Narrative and the women who stood vigil at the tomb close the narrative. The women who followed Jesus embraced him in this narrative as he lived through his betrayal, arrest, denial, and death on the cross. They obeyed him, and they did not forsake him.

How will we follow these women’s Christlike examples through Holy Week? What do the widow and the prophet have to teach us about living Christlike lives?

The second part of this series, The Women at the Cross and Tomb, will be posted on Wednesday.

Keeping Lent in the Pandemic: Practicing Contentment


Last year in February I started planning my birthday. It was my 50th, and I planned a bash. We rented out our building’s Party Room, planned the menu with my good friend Kim Callis (an excellent personal chef), sent out invitations, and The Hubby and I were shopping for party favors and decorations. A week and a half before Shawna’s 50th Birthday Bash, we canceled–the state of Illinois was shutting down and sheltering-in-place for two months (hah!). I thought I could reschedule for June. Then a friend with a yard talked about having a cook-out for those of us who had pandemic birthdays at the end of the summer. Now I’m looking at my second pandemic birthday still sheltering-in-place. Needless to say, I haven’t done much planning this year. I did see a cool cake recipe on Nadia Bakes that I am going to make for myself Friday.

As you know I was determined to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and practiced joy that week. I feel pretty ambivalent about my birthday. But practicing ambivalence doesn’t sound like a practice I should intentionally do.

It’s the Little Things

So I’m practicing contentment. Am I going out for my birthday this year? No. Will I see my friends? No. That’s OK. I am content. My husband and I are healthy and so are our families. Our moms and older family members have all been vaccinated. We are having gorgeous spring weather in Chicago (I have windows open as I write this). We are financially sound and have a comfortable home that is more sanctuary and less prison to us even after a year of this. I have plenty in my life to be happy about and feel content about. So maybe a party next year.

Like gratitude and joy, you have to be paying attention and be mindful to practice contentment. Once again it is normally the small things that bring the most contentment: a hug, a smile, sunlight through the window, a cup of coffee before anyone else is up, enjoying the quiet.

Contentment and Consumerism

I think this is an important practice to cultivate in our consumer culture. We are constantly told we aren’t enough, and we don’t have enough, or what we have isn’t good enough. But this company’s product will solve all of our problems! I think one of the most counter-cultural actions American Christians can practice is to be content–being content with who we are and with what we have. Not to say we shouldn’t have ambitions and plans, but those ambitions and plans should be about more than getting another tech toy or car or another diet to lose 15 pounds.

I am content with my quiet birthday at home this year. I’m also content with another virtual Holy Week and Easter. I am looking forward to being vaccinated and finally seeing and hugging (there will be a lot of hugging) my friends and finally returning to our church building and worshiping in Grace’s sanctuary. I am also looking forward to not being anxious when there are too many people around. But until I can do that safely for all of the people I love, I am content to shelter-in-place and celebrate (hopefully my last) pandemic birthday.

What about you? What are feeling content about? Where do you find contentment in your life?

Sermon: The Hour Has Come

Podcast: The Hour Has Come

John 12:20-36 (Lent 5B)

A lot has happened in the Gospel of John by the time today’s reading happened. On the First Sunday of Christmas, we heard about how the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us. Jesus’ first sign of turning water into wine rolled into signs of healing, feeding the 5,000, and walking on water. In chapter 11 the signs of Jesus climax in raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus has also raised some eyebrows like befuddling poor Nicodemus and openly talking to a woman in Samaria. He caused controversy when he chased out the money exchangers and animal sellers from the Temple, and the Temple authorities have had it out for him since then.

Now we come to the hinge in the Gospel of John. In fiction, we call this the point of no return. In novels that is when the final climax of the book becomes inevitable. Sam and Frodo begin their ascent of Mt. Doom. Meg refuses to leave Camazotz without Charles Wallace. Harry drops the Resurrection Stone and enters the Forbidden Forest. It’s the beginning of the final act.

Last week we heard the familiar verse “For God so loved the world,” and Jesus explained that when he is lifted up all who believe will have eternal life. Now the world comes to Jesus. Greeks—Gentiles, probably proselytes—come to see Jesus. The phrase come and see echoes throughout the Gospel as a call to discipleship and now Gentiles, representing the world have come to be disciples.

When Philip and Andrew tell Jesus about the Greeks, Jesus sees this as the point of no return for God’s plan of reconciliation: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” As with the Synoptic Gospels when Jesus predicts his death he then goes on to tell his followers what it means to be his disciple: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.”

Then we get John’s version of the Transfiguration and Gethsemane in three sentences:

“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”

No mountain top experience here. No agonizing prayer in the garden while disciples sleep. Not for John’s Jesus. In John God’s will and the will of Jesus are always in sync. As Jesus said earlier in this Gospel—he is here to do God’s work. This Jesus doesn’t have to wrestle with his destiny because the Word which has always been with God knew what was going to happen when he pitched his tent among us. For John, the Incarnation and the Cross are intimately linked. For the community of John’s Gospel the fact that the Word became flesh always leads to Jesus’ death or in John’s vocabulary: Jesus’ glorification.

What do you think about when you think of the word glorify? Government-sponsored terrorism? State-sanctioned executions? Crucifixions? No? Then why does the author of John and the community that this gospel came out of think that way? Why do they think the Crucifixion is the ultimate act that glorifies God (and by extension glorifies Jesus)?

Throughout John’s Gospel Jesus makes it clear that God has much bigger and grander things in store for the human race than how we’re living. Jesus makes clear that there is no end to God’s generosity or grace. The first sign in the gospel isn’t Jesus just turning a little water into a little wine in order to get to the end of the wedding feast. Nope. Jesus turns 120-180 gallons of water into 120-180 gallons of wine. And he doesn’t skimp on the quality either. The steward praises the groom saying: “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” The abundance of this first sign is staggering. There isn’t just enough to go around: there’s more than enough of God’s grace and abundance for everyone!

That theme continues in John: Jesus comes not only so the disciples can live—but so they can live abundantly. Jesus doesn’t want his followers to have just enough joy to get through the day—he wants their joy to be complete, which in Greek means literally filled up. In John, Jesus doesn’t just heal any blind man—he heals a man who’s blind from birth, and everyone thinks there’s no hope whatsoever for this sinner or his sinful parents. Jesus not only gives him hope, but he also gives him a new life with endless possibilities ahead of him.

Then we come to the final sign Jesus gives on the absolutely outrageous, abundant love of God. He doesn’t just raise the dead. He raises a guy who’s been dead for four days. In the Middle East at that time, you didn’t get any deader than that. There was hope for three days because that’s how long the soul hung around, but once the soul was gone, that was it. As Miracle Max would say: that’s all dead, and there’s only one thing you can do. So Lazarus wasn’t mostly dead—he was all dead when Jesus finally showed up four days after his death. Jesus doesn’t care. God’s love can handle it. Jesus says three words, and there Lazarus is alive and well, fully restored to life, to his sisters, and to his community.

In John the word glory, and all of its cognates, is the length God will go to reconcile her errant creation back to herself. Glory is what God will do to show us how much she loves us, and how desperately she wants to be in a relationship with us and give us abundant life. The Crucifixion of Jesus glorifies God because it shows us how far God will go to reconcile us. She will not withhold her Son, her only Son, if it means she can give us the abundant life she planned for us from the moment she said, “Let there be light.”

Jesus has performed all of the signs. He has shown through his own life and teachings what God wants for the world. Now the world–both Jews and Greeks–are in Jerusalem. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified….And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” But those weren’t Jesus’ last words in this story in John. These are: “‘The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.’” After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.”

This is the turning point in the Gospel of John. This is where Jesus’ public ministry ends in this gospel. From this point until his arrest, he will teach his disciples in private. There will not be another public appearance until his trial. In fact, this story happens on Sunday in the gospel. Chapter 13 will start four days later on Thursday. John’s gospel is silent on what Jesus and the disciples were doing for three days. The time for public teaching and signs has come to an end. Jesus’ hour is at hand, and there is no going back.

There is no going back for us either. This is the Fifth Sunday in Lent. Next week is Palm Sunday. We will cry “Hosanna!” Sunday morning and by Friday night we will be shouting, “Crucify him!” We will be witnesses and participants of the final week before Jesus is lifted up to draw all people to himself. We will betray him like Judas. We will deny him like Peter. And we will stand at his cross and bear witness with his mother, Mary Magdalene, and the Beloved Disciple.

While we participate and bear witness to another Holy Week, we need to remember these words: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.” “Whoever serves me must follow me.” We who serve Jesus follow him: to the Upper Room, to the garden, through his trial, and to the cross. Just as Jesus was willing to do whatever it took to show how much God loved the world, so we are called to do the same.

I have to say I’m finding the world hard to love these days. Or I guess I should say I find our country hard to love these days. I’m tired of selfish people who won’t wear masks and get vaccinated because that somehow makes them strong and self-reliant. I’m tired of white supremacy and my own complicity in that atrocious sin. I’m tired of hearing about another mass shooting because of our country’s obsession with the weapons of death. And to be honest with you, I have no idea of how to love this world I’m part of, let alone show them the love God has for them, and follow Jesus where he has already gone.

But I will be thinking about that and praying about that as I follow Jesus where he goes this last week of Lent and entering into Holy Week. And I hope you will be thinking and praying as you follow Jesus to the cross as well. This is what we are called to do as both individual followers of Christ and the church. I am glad we are on this road together. I know I can’t love this world the way God wants me to alone, but I think I can do it with all of you. I think together we can figure out a way to follow Jesus to the cross and show our corner of the world just how much God loves all of us.

You can listen to or read more of my sermons here.

Keeping Lent in the Pandemic: Practicing Joy

practicing joy

When a few different friends told me they weren’t sure if they were going to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day this year, I knew what Lenten practice I was going to focus on for this week: Practicing Joy. Of course, I celebrate the day differently than most people. I don’t go out for amateur hour bar hops, and green beer really just doesn’t interest me. I treat St. Patrick’s Day like I do any other holiday: I cook and bake and have people over. It sucks I can’t have friends over this year, but I have a terrific menu lined up for The Hubby and me, and we will be celebrating Wednesday.

Joy in the Little Things

The longer the pandemic went on the more and more obvious it became how important the spiritual fruit of joy–and noticing the joy in my own life–was going to be to help live with the depression, anxiety, and obsessing over how long this new way of life was going to last. Just as I found ways to practice kindness and gratitude, I found little things every day that brought me joy: learning a new recipe, writing a haiku, cuddling with my husband, and reading a good book. Like kindness and gratitude, I discovered practicing joy also depended on paying attention to the little things. If I waited for big things like going to church, seeing our families, or traveling, joy was going to be hard to come by.

I noticed my friends also taking joy in the little things. A wonderful friend out in Galena, IL, Cindy, posts her morning walk pictures on her Facebook and Instagram accounts. Her photos always include the sunrise, and honestly, it’s the only way I see the sunrise. Monique found great joy in getting her second Covid-19 vaccination. The weather filled Kate with joy when it actually acted like it was spring in March in Chicago, and she dug out her lawn furniture to enjoy the sun in her yard. My husband finds his joy on Friday Night Pizza Night complete with homemade pizza.

Practicing Joy Chicago-Style

The resilience of Chicagoans being able to find joy always impresses me. Last month when we had over four feet of snow, and the temperatures dropped to single digits, a person was photographed joyfully skiing through Grant Park. The kids didn’t care how cold it was, they were sledding and building armies of snowmen in all the parks. Two incredibly talented people sculpted the Eiffel Tower out of snow in the Logan Square neighborhood. Even Paris took joy in that!

I remember when I was younger, very little brought me joy. As Yoda described Luke Skywalker: “All his life has he looked away… to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing. Hmph. Adventure. Heh. Excitement. Heh.” I was the same in my 20s (aren’t we all?)–always looking for something else somewhere else to make me happy. Rarely noticing what was right in front of me. One of the blessings of being middle-aged is being able to see what is right in front of me and appreciating it. Taking joy in it.

What is right in front of you these days? When you stop looking to the future and notice the here and now, what is giving you joy? How will you practice joy (and celebrate St. Patrick’s Day) this week?

This article is part of an on-going series Keeping Lent in the Pandemic. You can also read about Practicing Kindness and Practicing Gratitude.