Shawna Atteberry

Writer, Editor, Researcher

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

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.

Keeping Lent in the Pandemic: Practicing Gratitude

Practicing Gratitude

Practicing gratitude is this week’s theme? I can already see you roll your eyes. Yes, I know this is a cliched buzzword, which probably explains why I had only one friend respond to my inquiry on how are you practicing gratitude these days.

In Chicago, we’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of the governor’s shelter-in-place order. This coming Sunday my church will observe the anniversary of shutting our doors and going online at our bishop’s command. On Friday my husband and I will celebrate sheltering-in-place for a year in a 970 square foot condo. Guess what? We still like each other! We still get along! We aren’t in marriage counseling, and we are not heading toward divorce. If you would’ve told me that incredible man could be locked up with me for a year and still want to be my husband, I wouldn’t have believed you. And that’s why gratitude is so important. It reminds us of how important the little things are. If we will only stop and see them.

James Reho notes that the New Age “attitude of gratitude” is “associated with a surface-level, Pollyanna type of spirituality that avoids the hard facts and sets us up on a pink cloud. The attitude of gratitude often presents as nothing more than a platitude.” That is why I’ve rolled my eyes in the past, and you are now rolling your eyes over this week’s Lenten practice. But The Rev. Reho goes on to say: “…deep strands in Christian spirituality and other spiritual traditions—highlight gratitude and thanksgiving as an integral part of spiritual maturity. St. Paul links giving thanks to joy in life: ‘Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thess 5:16-18).'”

Practicing Gratitude in Action

Last year I decided when I prayed Compline* my personal prayers would be thanksgivings and gratitudes. We just started sheltering-in-place, and I knew my cynical, sarcastic self needed limits on how much grousing I did. I spent my time in Morning Prayer and through the day asking God for what I wanted (and telling God what I thought she ought to be doing). I decided before bed I would thank God for what I have and what she’s done.

Soon, I started noticing how this practice made me more mindful of my day. I realized many of the things I was grateful for were little things. The sun shining through the window after a few cloudy, gray days. The smell of bread baking. My husband’s smile. Hearing my mom’s voice. Seeing my family on a Christmas Zoom call. I thought it would be difficult for me to come up with three things I was grateful for each night, but it was a rare night I only had three things to be grateful for.

Miracles of Ordinary Life

This is why gratitude leads us into spiritual maturity: it makes us see what is right in front of us, name it, and thank God for opening our eyes to the multitude of miracles that happen to us every day. In “Thankful for Being Here” The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire writes:

Miracles surround us, but we miss them most of the time. We make it harder on ourselves to see the abundance of miracles that crowd around us because we too often look for the dazzling, the shockingly out of place.

Today, of all days, may we give thanks for the quotidian miracles of each day, each breath, each worthwhile task that fill sour days with purpose, each lesson we’ve taken away when something didn’t go as we planned. Perhaps this is the thanks that we should be giving.

I like my practice of gratitude because it makes me aware of the little movements of the Holy Spirit in my life. It is all too easy to be cynical. Buying into the negativity that drives our national life and culture is far too easy. It is a discipline–a spiritual discipline–to practice gratitude. But when we do, we notice the many ways God is moving in our lives. We notice a multitude of things right in front of us. We can be truly thankful to a God who meets us in the little, ordinary places in our lives.

*Compline is the Night Prayer Service in The Book of Common Prayer that is prayed before bedtime.

This is part of a series on Keeping Lent in the Pandemic. You can read the first article on practicing kindness here.

It Came to Pass: Rolling with Life Changes

Life changes
Life changes, so I bake.

How life changes never ceases to amaze me. In my most recent post on Lenten practices, I tagged a post I had written in 2008. First, how can 2008 be 13 years ago? Then I stumbled onto this little gem from that time that I had totally forgotten about:

I am a night owl, and I’ve always done my best and most creative work in the wee hours. It’s after midnight. It’s quiet and dark. I can hear myself think and for some reason, in the wee hours, I don’t mind hearing those thoughts.

Last month I started staying up working until 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. I get up around 10:00 a.m., pray morning prayers and practice contemplative prayer then I start working between 1:00 and 2:00 p.m. and go until around 5:00. Now it’s time to practice yoga, make supper, and spend time with The Hubby. Then sometime between 10:00 and 11:00 p.m., I get back to work (usually closer to 10:30 p.m. because I have to have my Jon Stewart fix).

Changing Routines

After I got over laughing at myself because this schedule did not last for long, it amazed me how much both my schedule and life itself had changed. The largest change has come in managing my clinical depression. I’ve been off the anti-depressants for a few years now, and I manage it with spiritual practices (yes, I still pray the Morning Office), exercise, and eating better. An incredible support network and a wonderful psychiatrist also does wonders for one’s mental health.

I no longer have problems with maintaining mundane, daily activities like taking showers and keeping up with my home because I have created routines to help me with all of this so that I don’t actively have to think about it. Like today, after I co-taught a Citizenship Class, I exercised, took a shower, wiped down the bathroom, and made the bed because that is the Tuesday and Thursday routine. The morning routine is cleaning out the dishwasher while I wait for coffee, so that way the dirty dishes have a place to go throughout the day and don’t pile up (I cannot tell you how much this one routine has changed my kitchen). Talk about life changes.

I also hope I’m not that whiny and navel-gazing anymore. To be honest, I aggravated myself a bit reading that. Talk about first-world problems. Don’t get me wrong: they’re problems, but not near the problems I once thought they were. Perspective is a marvelous thing (as well as good friends telling you to stop taking yourself so seriously).

It Came to Pass

This is one of the reasons I like writing–especially journaling: the memory grows fuzzy, and I forget. I remember when I was in the throes of the deep, deep depression in 2008-2009, I thought it would never end, but it did. Not only did it end, but now I have trouble remembering how deep that pit was. I think that’s another thing for us to remember as we go through this Lent and continue through this pandemic. One day it will be over. In a few years, the memories will start to grow fuzzy around the edges. As we used to joke in one of the churches I once attended: It came to pass.

What does that mean? It’s a phrase that’s all over the King James Version of the Bible: “And it came to pass.” Most of you will know the passage from the Birth of Jesus: “And it came to pass in those days Mary gave birth….” Why did we use to joke about this phrase? To remind ourselves things literally came to pass. Feeling sad over how long it’s been since you hugged your friends at church? Don’t worry: it came to pass. Sheltering in place have you depressed? Don’t worry: it came to pass.

Of course, this goes for the good stuff too. Your internal hermit overjoyed because you have an excuse not to go anywhere? Enjoy it: it came to pass. Are you ecstatic over all of the baking you’ve gotten to do because the pandemic pretty much halted your job search? Why yes, I am enjoying it because it came to pass.

Life Changes

Change is inevitable, even when we wonder if we’ll ever be comfortable going without a mask indoors again. It will pass. Life changes, always.

What has come to pass in your life? Did you think something would never end, and now you now have fuzzy memories about it? What advice would you give someone who was waiting for the “it came to pass” moment?

Keeping Lent In the Pandemic: Practicing Kindness

Practicing Kindness

Last year when we began to social distance and shelter in place, we said it was “the lentiest Lent we ever lented.” Little did we know Lent was going to last for a year (at least). As we now walk through our second Lent during this pandemic, many of us entered this season thinking: Oh hell no. I’m not giving up anything else. (Yes, I was one of those people.) Friends reminded me Lent was not just about giving things up, but also adding practices, like practicing kindness, that bring us closer to God.

They reminded me of this after I joked that I wasn’t giving up baking. Baking is how I’ve survived this pandemic. So I didn’t give it up. I found a way to add to baking when I discovered Give Us This Day: Lenten Reflections on Baking Bread and Discipleship.

As a result, I decided to be kind to myself and find God in what I was already doing. That got me thinking that maybe what we need to do this Lent is this: discover ways to find God in the wilderness we’ve been in for the last year, and this includes practicing kindness–both self-kindness and kindness to others.

As this world crisis continues, I need to make space for all of my feelings and be kind to myself. This does not come naturally for me. I am a slightly obsessive-complusive perfectionist with clinical depression. After four months of sheltering in place, I realized I was going to have to cut myself some slack. I needed to learn self-compassion if I was going to make it through this (not to mention if my husband was going to make it through this).

Practicing self-kindness

How am I kind to myself? I tell myself:

I wanted to see what others were saying about self-kindness and discovered The Mayo Clinic has a good, short article with several ideas on how to be kind to yourself. They recommend you choose one idea to practice this week. If you want a more in-depth read, head to The Kindness Blog (yes–there is an entire blog on kindness!), to read about 40 ways to be kind to yourself. Here are the ones I thought of off the top of my head:

  • Deep breathing to offset stress.
  • Have one person you can call or text anytime and be honest with.
  • Create a support network: spread all of the kindness you can!
  • Indulge in your hobbies.
  • Permit yourself to binge on the streaming service of your choice.
  • Remember: naps are a good thing.
  • Just because Shakespeare wrote whatever play during The Plague doesn’t mean you have to create a masterpiece. (That meme got old real fast: this is NOT practicing kindness.)

These are extraordinary times

I also asked friends what they were doing to be nice to themselves. They echoed some things I had thought of and other things I hadn’t. Chris told me unapologetically that she had taken a long nap that afternoon and didn’t care! Melissa wrote, she’s “giving myself permission to eat what I want, making myself go on longer walks with the dog, and being honest with friends when I’m feeling shitty.” And Kate said “I’m trying to get all the sunshine I can. I get outside a little at lunch and sometimes move my computer to the back window, which gets full sun in the mornings.” Of course, her cats have a different idea about who should get the sunny window.

Criselda went on to say it’s OK to go to “Sonic nearly every day for a drink or cup of ice so that I also have some safe interaction with someone.” (Likewise, my mother-in-law goes through the McDonald’s drive-thru for her Diet Coke for a safe way to get out of the house for a while.) Meagan is reading more intentionally to deepen her relationship with God, and Beatrice is forgiving herself. She says, “Right now is HARD, and I can’t make things better for my kids. I can’t fix it. We just have to get through, and if that means we play video games for three days, then we play video games for three days. It doesn’t make me a bad parent, these are extraordinary times.”

As Beatrice said: “These are extraordinary times.” Yes, they are. So what about you? Are you walking through this Lenten season differently this year? What are you telling yourself? And most importantly: how are you being kind to yourself?

Sermon: Let Love Be Genuine

Exodus 3:1-15; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28 (Year A, Proper 17)

I wonder if Moses ever thought: “I should’ve just walked right by that bush and acted like it was a mirage.” When Moses was a mere shepherd watching his father’s-in-law sheep, he had no idea what obeying God’s command to go set his people free from Pharaoh would entail. He thought the hard part was going to be convincing Pharaoh to let the people go. He had no idea that that was going to be the easy part. Forming a new community is not for the faint of heart. And Moses found that out wondering through the wilderness for 40 years with a group of people who would rather complain and gripe then pray and sing. Community is hard. After God’s new community is formed in Exodus, the next three books of the Bible are about this new community trying to figure out how to be a community.

Paul knew community was hard too. In seminary we used to joke that’s why he planted churches then left. But Paul really never left his churches. He kept an eye on those churches and he wrote letters. In fact, he wrote 8 letters that we know of to help these new communities figure out how to be a community together. I have a feeling there are a whole lot more letters we don’t know about. Paul wasn’t exactly the type to keep his thoughts to himself, and he planted far more churches than those in these six cities we do know he wrote to.

And there’s a reason why community is so hard for both Moses and Paul and everyone else in the Bible. And no, it not the other human beings they have to put up with—although that’s part of it. There’s another character that appears in all three of our readings today, and this character is God. And this God has some pretty crazy ideas of how community should be put together and what that community should do in the world.

Moses should have known he was in trouble when he asked God: “What is your name?” And God’s coy response is: “I am what I am.” In case you didn’t catch it when Exodus was read: God didn’t really give an answer. Biblical translations can capitalize these letters all they want, but it doesn’t change the fact that the reason the God of the Bible is unnameable is because God never gave Moses a name! What God gave Moses was a verb: am or is or will be—we’re not sure. That’s the answer Moses gets, and as the story of Exodus continues we’ll find out why: the only way to know this particular God is by what this God does. God is telling Moses that both he and the people she’s sending Moses to will know who God is by what she’s going to do. This is the God who hears slaves crying out. This is the God who goes down to see what the hubbub is about. This is the God who has seen their misery and shared their sufferings, and she’s done with what Pharaoh and his empire are doing to this particular set of people. The time to act has come, and Moses is eventually persuaded to come along.

In Romans we find out exactly what kind of community God wants her people to be. And it’s a tall order. There are reasons for this. The empire is still around. Although this time we’re dealing with Caesar and his empire instead of Pharaoh. But empires do what empires do: a few people at the top have most of the toys, and there are entire systems of oppression in place to make sure that stays the same. The small churches in Rome know the power of empire: they live in the heart of it. A decade before Paul writes to the churches in Rome the current Caesar, Claudius, expelled the Jews from the city. In Acts we find out that Priscilla and Aquila are two of those Jews, who had already accepted Jesus as the Messiah, when they met Paul. While the Jews were expelled from Rome that meant the only Christians in Rome were Gentiles. Claudius died a few years before the letter to the Romans, and the new Caesar, Nero, had let Claudius’ edict lapse. The Jews were returning to Rome, including the Jewish Christians.

When the Jewish Christians left, they had been the ones in charge, and were probably just bringing Gentile converts into the fold. By now the Gentile Christians had been on their own for a few years. Needless to say, there was some friction as these two groups had to work out how to be God’s community in Rome. With the question at the top of the list being: Who’s really in charge here? Over the last several weeks our readings in Romans have been laying down the theology that is the foundation to answer this question. That’s right: Paul wrote ELEVEN chapters of theology to answer this one question. And over the next few weeks we’re going to see how Paul answers that question. Paul’s answer started last week when we heard the first part of Romans 12. This entire chapter is about the kind of community the churches should be striving for. Why? Because the kind of community we want is going to determine the kind of leadership we need. And Paul’s vision of the Beloved Community of God doesn’t look anything like Caesar’s idea of what community or empire should look like.

I made the note earlier that in Exodus God’s name is a verb because we will come to know this God as she acts in the world. So it shouldn’t surprise you that Paul thinks the community of Christ will show the world who we are through what we do. We are called to be Christ to our world. Which is why our passage from Romans today is filled with verbs and commands. Or I should say command. The one command in these verses is: Let love be genuine. The rest of the passage shows us what that looks like in real life.

This is one of the reasons Paul is my favorite old curmudgeon in the Bible. He dealt with life as it was for both him and the churches he was writing to. He knew what was happening on the ground, and as we all know, he didn’t mince words. Paul knew about the tensions between the Gentile and Jewish Christians. He knew about their struggles to have a united community, and all of the arguments and skirmishes going on about who was really in charge. He knew the dangers of living in the heart of the empire. So he tells them this what genuine love looks like: love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. He sets the two groups up to serve each other to show the other that they are doing this love thing right. And he continues it for the rest of the letter. So keep an eye out for that in the coming weeks. But he doesn’t stop with how the church should be treating its own members, but also how the church should be living in the larger community around them.

This is where most of us tune out. Do we really want to bless those who persecute us? Do we really want to feed them or give them something to drink? I sure wasn’t blessing the people who set my building on fire at the end of May. And this is where the rubber meets the road as Peter discovered in our Gospel reading today.

After being praised by Jesus last week, I’m sure the last thing Peter expected was for Jesus to turn around the next minute and call him Satan, but that’s what happens. Jesus is going to Jerusalem to confront both the religious empire of the Jewish leaders and the political empire of Rome. He knows what happens when prophets take on empires. It normally doesn’t end well for the prophet. Peter doesn’t want to hear this. Peter has glorious dreams of conquest and ruling. But the kingdom that Jesus has come to set up looks vastly different from Pharaoh, Caesar, and their empires.

Jesus tells the disciples and all of us who follow after them what the cost of building this kingdom in a world of empires will look like: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?” (Matthew 16:24-26).

Church, we do not have an easy call, even in the best of times. And we are not living in the best of times. All of us know what it’s like to live in the heart of an empire. All of us know the insidious ways this empire slithers into our lives and tries to make us take the easy way, just as Peter wanted Jesus do. “You don’t have to love everyone.” “You don’t have to forgive her.” “Why pray for him when he’s so mean to you?”

Then there are the not so insidious ways of empire which are on full display right now: our own Pharaoh who thinks that just because he says something, then it has to be true. Racism is on full display across our cities and states. Unarmed civilians are murdered by agents of the state and vigilantes. And of course the oligarchs who sit at the top of the heap are hoarding more of the money and resources now then they ever did in a time of pandemic, horrific job losses, and an economic downturn for huge sectors of the businesses that keep our economy going.

And we as the church are called to do the hardest thing there is to do: to show there is a different way to live. To show that the ways of the empire are not how God ordered this world. Paul’s words to the Romans are some of his most inspired writing. They cast a vision of the community and world God wants to bring into existence, and they are the hardest thing we will ever do, but fear not: we’re not alone. We’re in this together, and God is with us. So listen up Grace!

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:9-21).

Sermon: Are You The One or should we look for someone else?

Are You The One

Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11 (Year A, Advent 3)

As a cynical and sarcastic pessimist, I have a soft spot in my heart for what I call The Old Curmudgeons of the Bible. Many of you have heard me refer to The Apostle Paul as That Old Curmudgeon, and in today’s gospel reading, we continue the story of my second favorite curmudgeon in the Bible: John the Baptist. The Old Curmudgeons of the Bible don’t mince words. They don’t have time for trigger warnings. And they don’t take anyone’s crap. They don’t take crap from the reigning religious authorities like the Sadducees or Pharisees or even Jesus’ own brother after he makes his way to top the hierarchy in Jerusalem. They don’t take crap from any of the Herods or even from the churches one of them planted in Corinth. They have work to do and truth to tell, and they don’t let anything get in the way of that. And in today’s gospel reading we discover that John isn’t taking any crap from Jesus either.

In fact from last week’s Gospel reading to this week’s reading, we’re at something of a loss. Last week John is in the wilderness preaching truth to power and baptizing people in the Jordan. He’s not taking any crap from those Pharisees and Sadducees when they show up to find out why everyone is running to the middle of nowhere. He’s telling the people who flock to him about the One who is coming after him who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. This Coming One is going to do some major house cleaning when he shows up. If we continued through the rest of Matthew 3, we would’ve read of John hesitating to baptize Jesus, saying Jesus needed to baptize him.

Then we hit this week’s reading in Matthew: “While John was in prison, he heard about the works the Messiah was performing, and sent a message by way of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you ‘The One who is to come’ or do we look for another?” And all of us go: “Huh? What happened?” How did John wind up in prison? Why is he sending his disciples with this question? What happened?

The funny thing is we don’t find out why John is in prison for a few more chapters in Matthew. We have to make it to chapter 14 before we discover why John is no longer preaching by the Jordan. There we discover that John took on Herod Antipas, who happens to be the son of Herod the Great, the king responsible for slaughtering the Holy Innocents in Bethlehem to make sure he stayed on the throne. The son isn’t much better. Herod Antipas continuously raised taxes on the people to live a more lavish lifestyle and further consolidate his own power against his brothers.

One of the ways he consolidated his power against his brother Philip was by marrying Philip’s ex-wife, Herodias after their divorce. According to the family laws in Leviticus, this was incest and not to be done. Matthew 14 tells us Herod arrested John and threw him in prison because John had been telling him: “It is against the Law for you to have her.” The Jewish historian Josephus reported that Herod Antipas arrested John because he was afraid “John might stir the people to insurrection” (Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, p. 388), which means John might have also been telling Herod Antipas that he shouldn’t be exploiting the people to make himself richer.

So now we know why John is in prison. Now comes the bigger question: why is John now questioning who Jesus is? “Are you ‘The One who is to come’ or do we look for another?” When you’re doing research to preach on this passage, it’s quite entertaining to read how some scholars try to explain this away. They don’t want to admit that even John the Baptist had his doubts. Instead it was John’s disciples who had the doubts, and that is why John sent them—for their own good. I don’t think it’s that hard to believe that John was having his doubts, given the circumstances.

John’s been arrested and he’s in prison for preaching the coming reign of God and holding Judah’s leaders accountable. He had been telling everyone that when The Chosen One came “That One will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire, whose winnowing-fan will clear the threshing floor. The grain will be gathered into the barn, but the chaff will be burned in unquenchable fire.” Some major housecleaning was supposed to be happening: Judah’s enemies were supposed to be overthrown, God’s kingdom was to be established, and peace would reign. Jerusalem would be the center of the world, and people from everywhere would come and worship God.

But none of this was happening. Jesus is spending most of his time wandering around Galilee, healing people and teaching in synagogues, hilltops, and by the sea. He doesn’t seem too interested in taking on the Herod family or Rome, for that matter. So John asks, “Are you ‘The One who is to come’ or do we look for another?”

I like that John’s question doesn’t seem to phase Jesus. Of course, Jesus knew he wasn’t acting like the Messiah that John and many of the people had been expecting. He hadn’t made himself king, he wasn’t raising an army, and he had not once talked of driving the Romans out. The only time he had talked about Rome to this point was to tell the people when a Roman soldier commanded them to go a mile carrying their packs, the people were to go two. Jesus was not the Messiah, the Son of Bathsheba and David, John and others were expecting.

Jesus pointed John in a different direction. He wanted John to know that his definition of what The Chosen One looked like wasn’t the only description of the Messiah in the Hebrew Scriptures. Our reading from Isaiah this morning states: “Say to those who are faint of heart: ‘Take courage! Do not be afraid! Look, YHWH is coming, vindication is coming, the recompense of God—God is coming to save you!” And when God comes, she will open the eyes of the blind and unseal the ears of the deaf. The lame will leap like a deer, and those who cannot speak will shout and sing! On hearing John’s question, Jesus’ response was to point to what he was doing: “Those who are blind recover their sight; those who cannot walk are able to walk; those with leprosy are cured; those who are deaf hear; the dead are raised to life; and the anawim—the ‘have-nots’–have the Good News preached to them.” Look at my works Jesus said. It was almost as if Jesus said, “Stop focusing on just the one thing you want and see everything I’m doing.”

Then Jesus turns to the crowd and asks them: What did you go out to the boondocks to see? Why did you traipse out to the middle of nowhere? Was it to watch the reeds blowing in the wind? Was it to see men like Herod dressed in their finery? No, they went to see the man Herod had thrown in prison. They went to see John who spoke truth to power, even when it cost him his freedom. They went to see John who didn’t mince words with anyone—not even the religious leaders. They went to see John who didn’t take anyone’s crap—including Jesus. When Jesus didn’t live up to ideal, he wanted to know what was going on, and if he should move on. In his own way, Jesus told him to stay and stick it out. Then Jesus went on to praise John—doubts and all: “So what did you go out to see—a prophet? Yes, a prophet—and more than a prophet!” John was the promised Elijah who would make the way for God to break into our world in a new and joyous way: he proclaimed that God had come among us and would set things right. And because of his ministry nothing would be the same.

I hate that the lectionary does not finish this story. Jesus goes on to challenge the crowd he just praised John in front of: “What comparison can I make with this generation? They are like children shouting to others as they sit in the marketplace, ‘We piped you a tune, but you wouldn’t dance. We sang you a dirge, but your wouldn’t mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He is possessed.’ The Chosen One comes eating and drinking, and they say, “This one is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ Wisdom will be vindicated by her own actions.”

There’s a warning there for us this Advent season as we once again wait for Christ. What are we waiting for? When Christ comes will it be as we expected? Or will we be disappointed like John because Jesus didn’t come the way we wanted him to? Or will we be like the crowds who can’t decide what they want. They run out into the wilderness to see John, but his tough, ascetic lifestyle and his warnings of the coming judgment of God don’t sit well with them, and they return to their homes. Then Jesus comes inviting all to the banquet of God and bringing God’s love to everyone: insiders and outsiders, and that kind of inclusivity makes them run home too. We don’t really want everyone to get in, do we?

But that is the vision of both Jesus and Isaiah: everyone has a place in God’s kingdom, and when God comes everything changes. Deserts bloom. Wildernesses burst into gardens. Wastelands bubble up into pools of water. We help each other as we “strengthen all weary hands, steady all trembling knees.” We assure the faint of heart: “Don’t be afraid. God is coming.” And when God comes the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame dance with joy, and the mute sing. Isaiah’s vision is of a joyful community making sure everyone gets on the Sacred Path that not even those of us with no sense of direction can get lost on. We can’t get lost because we’re going together, and we’re taking care of each other on the way. And when that happens, God comes.