Shawna Atteberry

Writer, Editor, Researcher

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.

Sermon: When God Says No

When God Says No
(Acts 16:6-15, Easter 6C)

A few years ago before the real estate bubble burst a growing trend got on every last one of my nerves. It was The Secret and all of that positivity claptrap that came from it. You could only think good, positive thoughts so the Universe, God, or the Force would give you what you wanted. You just had to think the right thoughts and send out all the good juju you could muster for everything to work out the way you thought it should.

As I’m sure you can guess: I did not jump onto that particular bandwagon. But this idea has persisted for some time in Christianity: that if we are in a relationship with God then everything will turn out just fine, and we’ll basically get whatever we want because: God’s will! This kind of thinking has led to one of the greatest modern heresies of the church: the prosperity gospel. This insidious heresy says that if we are truly in God’s will we’ll get everything we want: wealth, health, and all the toys that money can buy. So it doesn’t make me happy when I see the lectionary has cherry picked a couple of verses out our Acts reading for this Sunday to make it seem like everything was smooth sailing for Paul because he was obeying God.

We heard the abbreviated story of how Paul came to Philippi in the first reading. But our reading picked up when Paul was at Troas waiting for God’s leading, so I want to back up and read the whole story as it is told in Acts:

[Paul, Silas, and Timothy] went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.

Did you notice the verses that conveniently were left out of our reading? They were “forbidden by the Holy Spirit,” and “The Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.” The lectionary cut off the verses where the Holy Spirit kept blocking Paul’s path. It also leaves out that this trip, which is called Paul’s second missionary journey, didn’t have such a wonderful start. Before Paul sets off he and Barnabas have a disagreement over who to take with them on this journey. On the first missionary journey they embarked on, Barnabas’ cousin John Mark had went with them, but half way through the trip he returned home. Barnabas wanted to bring him again, but Paul didn’t want John Mark on this trip, since he didn’t finish the last trip with them. The two parted ways. Barnabas and Mark went to Cyprus, and Paul took Silas with him and heading out to check on the churches he and Barnabas had planted on their first trip.

So this trip starts out on shaky ground to begin with our superhero missionary duo splitting up over personnel issues. Paul and Silas begin their trip and visit churches in the cities of Derbe and Lystra where they pick up Timothy. Then Paul wants to head further west into the heart of what is now modern Turkey to continue preaching the gospel and planting churches. But they were “forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.” So Paul directed his attention to the northwest part of that great peninsula, but “the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.”

Paul was not allowed to go where he planned to go. At this point, it is clear that Paul had no plans to cross to Europe. He was planning on staying east of the Aegean Sea in familiar territory where he knew there would be plenty of cities with large populations of Jews and synagogues to begin his mission work in. But the Holy Spirit had other plans which she did not let Paul in on at the time. After being blocked from heading into the center of Asia Minor then being blocked from going north, Paul and his company went in the only direction left to them at that point: northwest to the city of Troas, which was a port city on the Aegean Sea, where he could only sit and wait until the Spirit let him in on what she was up to.

Honestly, we don’t know how long that took. As usual the author of Acts makes it all sound like it happened immediately and instantaneously. But did it? How long did it take to travel from the central northern part of Turkey to Troas? How many days or weeks were between the Holy Spirit barring Paul’s way and the dream of the Macedonian? How many days or weeks did Paul wonder what was going on and what the Holy Spirit’s agenda was? We don’t know. And I doubt it was as easy or smooth sailing as Acts makes it sound. We’ve all read enough of Paul’s letters to know he wasn’t always the most patient person.

But Paul did reign in his impatience and waited in Troas until the Holy Spirit revealed where she wanted him to go. To Paul’s credit, it didn’t matter that going to Europe hadn’t been on his radar earlier. Once the Spirit put it on his radar he found a boat, hopped on board and headed to Europe. When Paul gets to Europe guess what he doesn’t find at Philippi? A large population of Jews and a synagogue. After spending a few days in the city on the Sabbath Paul, Silas and Timothy head to the river, hoping they will find a group meeting in prayer there so they can begin their mission work in the city.

As we know they did find a group of women praying by the river, including a successful business woman named Lydia. God opened Lydia’s heart and after she and her household were baptized, she compelled Paul and his team to stay at her house. I actually love William Barnstone’s translation: “She made us go.” This was only the beginning of Paul’s adventures in Philippi.

One day while they were walking through the city Paul cast a spirit of divination out of a slave girl who had been following them around yelling “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” But her masters weren’t happy when they saw their money maker could no longer work her magic, and they had Paul and Silas beaten and thrown in prison.

So let’s take a minute and recap. The Holy Spirit leads Paul to Philippi by blocking him from going anywhere else. Then when he gets to Philippi, he doesn’t find any Jews just a group of female Gentile proselytes praying by the river. Then he winds up being beaten and thrown into prison, although he’s a Roman citizen and citizens aren’t supposed to be beaten or flogged, or imprisoned without a trial. He’s probably once again thinking what is up with the Holy Spirit? She led him to Europe for this?

Don’t worry: the Spirit doesn’t leave Paul and Silas in prison. That night while the duo are praying and singing hymns she sends an earthquake that opens the jail cells and makes the shackles fall off everyone’s feet. The jailer is about to kill himself because he thinks everyone escaped when Paul tells him to stop. All of the prisoners are still in their cells. Apparently the jailer had been listening to Paul and Silas’ prayers and hymns because he wants to know how to be saved. Paul tells him to “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.” The jailer is saved then proceeds that night to have Paul and Silas baptize not only him, but also his household.

By the end of Paul’s stay in Philippi two households have been converted, and we find out that “after leaving the prison they went to Lydia’s home: and when they had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters there, they departed.” Lydia’s home hosted the first church in Europe. Yes, I have to point out that the first pastor or head of a church in Europe was a woman.

Although Philippi’s beginnings are small, they do not stay that way. We find out from the letter to the Philippians that the church grows and flourishes there. The churches in Philippi become patrons of Paul and help moneterily and with gifts in his missionary work. The churches in Philippi were one of the few churches Paul accepted resources from, and I always wonder if he had a soft spot in his heart for the first church in Europe. (Not to mention Lydia probably made him take all the help the church could muster anyway.)

None of this would have happened if Paul had been left to his own devices. Paul would have safely stayed on his side of the Aegean going to familiar people and familiar places if the Holy Spirit hadn’t told him no.

Circling back to the beginning of this sermon with the Universe wants to give you whatever you want wishful thinking. That may be true of the universe, but it’s not true for God. God tells us no (a little truth that the prosperity gospel conveniently forgets). The Holy Spirit sometimes even physically, emotionally or mentally blocks our way and herds us in the direction she wants us to go. Because God doesn’t necessarily want we what think is best for us. Or even what God knows is best for us. God is also thinking about what is best for everyone.

The Holy Spirit is not only thinking of what is best for our own personal lives but also what is best for the people we are going to meet on any given day. The Holy Spirit’s purpose is to bring all of creation back into relationship with God, and this is why we as Christians cannot buy into the wishful thinking that doors are simply going to open for us because we want them to. They won’t. In fact, the Spirit may slam some of those doors in our face because she knows it’s not what’s best for us or for the world we live in. She’s going to direct us down those paths that not only do what is best for us in our relationships with God, but what’s also best for those we meet and their relationships with God.

This means things may not always go our way. We may not always get what we want. And we may have to spend a lot of time in Troas waiting for her to tell us where she wants us to go and what she wants us to do. That is why the lectionary has no business cutting those two verses out of this particular reading.

Doors will close. Roads will be blocked. God will tell us no. Like Paul we may be herded to a place where we have to sit and wait until the time is right for us to act on God’s behalf in our world, trusting the Spirit to lead us to those people and places that need her healing and reconciling love the most.

Sermon: Into the Wilderness

Into the Wilderness
Numbers 21:4-9 (Lent B, Week 4)

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.’Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live (Numbers 22:4-9, NRSV).

Where in the world did this reading from the Hebrew Scriptures come from? For the most part we can blame Jesus. In today’s Gospel reading he refers to this story when he says, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” At first it appears that the lectionary is proof-texting: they threw this story in this week because of what was said in the New Testament. Of course the assumption is that whoever is preaching is going to shy away from the crazy, whacked out Old Testament reading and go straight to the Gospel reading where Jesus is talking about God’s love. But we all know me better than that. I think there is more going on with this reading than just being chosen because of the allusion Jesus made in John’s gospel.

This reading also looks out of left field when compared to the other readings from the Hebrew Scriptures for this season of Lent. The readings for this Lent are devoted to covenant. We began with God’s covenant with Noah then moved onto God’s covenant with Sarah and Abraham. Last week we looked at the 10 commandments which were the beginning of God’s covenant with Israel. Next week we will be reading from the prophet Jeremiah about the new covenant God will institute after the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile to Babylon. But this week we have this passage from Numbers about God sending fiery serpents among a complaining and whining people, and we wonder what in the world this has to do with covenant. Quite a lot actually once we consider what the book of Numbers is about and where the people are in their covenant with God at this point.

If you open to the book in the Bible you understand why it is called Numbers: we begin with a riveting census of the number of men above the age of 20 who can go to war followed by another riveting census of the Levite men who will take care of the tabernacle and other holy objects in the wilderness. In the wilderness is the Hebrew name for this book, which I think much more accurately reflects the theology of Numbers.

In the wilderness is where the Israelites will spend this entire book. They begin at Sinai after the covenant has been established. The first few chapters establish how the Israelite camp will be set up, and how they will order themselves when God commands them to move. Other instructions are given then we are told that Israel obeys all God has commended and they pack up and head out for the Promised Land. It seems like a pretty good start. It doesn’t last for long.

The people immediately start complaining and different judgments from God start happening in response. This will be a theme through Numbers: the people rebel and complain and God disciplines and punishes. Another theme through Numbers is who should be the rightful leaders of Israel? Not everyone thought it should be Moses, not even Moses’ own sister and brother: Miriam and Aaron. 70 elders do help Moses govern the people, but the question becomes should Moses be the one at the top. To be fair there are times when even Moses doesn’t think he should be the one in charge. But God thinks otherwise. There are three leadership rebellions in Numbers beginning with Miriam and Aaron’s challenge, and in all three stories God makes it clear that Moses’ is her chosen leader.

In between these episodes of complaining and rebellion are chapters 13-14. The entire book of Numbers swings around these two chapters and the people’s greatest rebellion and failure in the book. This rebellion isn’t against Moses: it’s against God.

The people have come to the borders of the Promised Land and spies were sent to scope out the land before the conquest began. The find everything as God promised: it is a land flowing with milk and honey. But the people of the land are great warriors, even a couple of tribes of warrior giants remain in the land. Of the 12 spies sent only two encourage the people to obey God, to trust God and go up and take the land: Caleb and Joshua. The other 10 spies give a bad report and tell the people if they go up they will die. The people listen to the 10, and they refuse to obey God and enter the land promised to them.

God does not take the rebellion well and turns the people’s own words into their punishment. The people say they will die fighting to take the land. No, God says, they will die in the wilderness because no one in the first generation to leave Egypt will enter the land. They say their children will be taken as booty and be slaves to the people who are currently occupying the land. No, God says, their children will be the ones to enter the land and live on its abundance. The spies spied out the land for 40 days, so Israel’s punishment will be to wander in the wilderness for 40 years while the older generation dies out and the younger generation, which will be listed in a new census in Numbers 26, become adults.

Needless to say, the people are immediately grief stricken and repent over their lack of faith and rebellion. They decide that no they will obey God and take the land. But it is too little too late. Moses warns them that he, the Ark of the Covenant and God will not go with the people, but once again they do not listen. The go up and are immediately repelled and defeated by the land’s occupants. They wander in the wilderness for the next 40 years where more rebellions and complaining happen and that is where our story picks up.

This story is one of the last complaining stories in Numbers. It has been 40 years. The last of the old generation is dying off, and few more of them die off in this story, and the next generation is getting ready to take their place. In the previous chapter both Miriam and Aaron die. Even Moses disobeyed God and will not be allowed to enter the land with the people. His second in command Joshua will lead the next generation into the land promised by God.

And here’s where covenant comes in. The covenant was made on Sinai 40 years ago to a generation that is almost dead. The new generation has grown up in the wilderness hearing about the covenant God made with her people. But they are not there yet. It’s been 40 years, the promises have not been fulfilled, and they are still eating manna: “this miserable food” that after 40 years they’ve grown to detest. When will it change? When will they get there? When will the covenant and the promises be fulfilled?

To date we’ve just looked at the high points of covenant: the promises made to Noah and to Sarah and Abraham. The giving of the 10 commandments after God delivered the people out of Egypt parting the Red Sea. But covenant isn’t just about the high points. Covenant is also about the daily slog. It’s also about staying faithful to this God when there isn’t much of a reason to be faithful. The book of Numbers is the daily grind of what it means to be in covenant with this particular God. It’s not easy. The one thing the Bible makes abundantly clear is that life with God is not easy. My favorite C. S. Lewis quote is on this topic. From God in the Dock Lewis says: “As you perhaps know, I haven’t always been a Christian. I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”

This is what Israel is discovering in the Book of Numbers. Life with God will not be easy. Yes, God did deliver them from bondage in Egypt but God demands obedience and absolute fidelity in return. And as all of us know that is easier said than done.

This is a very relevant reading for this time in Lent. Week 4. I’m sure I’m not the only one thinking, “Good God will Lent never end” at this point. But this is life with this God. We get a microcosm of this life every year during this season as we consciously remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return, and we remember that no one is without sin, and we need not only to repent but also reconcile with those who have been hurt by our sinful actions. It’s part of our daily life with this God who calls us to be a holy people, obedient to her alone.

Fiery serpents probably aren’t going to erupt out of the ground when we sin, but there is a very timely reminder for us in this story regarding sin. God didn’t take away the snakes. The snakes were the consequences of the people’s sin, and God did not deliver them from those consequences. God did give the people a way to live with them. That is another part of our Lenten journey. Yes, sin is forgiven, but we still have to deal with consequences of our own sinful actions; they don’t just disappear. There are apologies and reconciliations. There are changes—sometimes painful changes that have to be made.

We may need the help of others to repent and change: 12 step programs or a good psychiatrist. Part of life with this God is dealing with the consequences of sin, but God doesn’t leave us alone as we deal with those consequences just as she didn’t leave the Israelites alone. Strength and courage we didn’t know we have springs from our guts. Friends call and say, “Have you thought about this?” A line from a sermon or a hymn gives renewed energy to take that extra step toward the healing and forgiveness we need.

At the end of the day I like this reminder from Numbers that this journey with God is a long one. It’s a long obedience. It might have something to do with being raised in evangelical churches that put more emphasis on dramatic conversion stories that ignore those like me who have lived and walked with God most of our lives and don’t have these stories. I have no dramatic conversion story. I’ve always known God was there. I’ve always walked with God, and it hasn’t been easy. It’s been a long haul as it was for the Israelites in the wilderness, and I’m sure it will continue to be that way. The testimony of Numbers is that this life, this long obedience, is normal. It takes a long time to get life with God right, and that’s OK because God never gives up on us.

Even in the midst of the rebellions and complaining in Numbers there are these passages of how the people will live in the land once they get there. It’s a little confusing when you’re reading through Numbers to see the action come to an abrupt stop as all of these laws pertaining to priests, Levites and purity codes—such as how to become ritually pure after you touch a dead body—are described in exacting detail. But these are reassurances to these people who are trying to figure out how to walk with this God and getting it more wrong than they get it right. God never gives up on them. Most of these passages begin with the words: “When you come into the land.” WHEN you come into the land, not if. The people might have trouble being faithful to God, but God never has trouble being faithful to the people she has called.

We may have problems being faithful to this God who has called us, but this God has no trouble being faithful to us. And for all of our long hauls—our long obedience—that is good news.

Sermon: Why So Serious? The Women of Exodus and Chutzpah

Why So Serious? The Women of Exodus and Chutzpah
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 16, Year A)
Exodus 1:8–2:10

 

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. A new king arose who did not know, who did not remember. And we know from the opening sentence that trouble is coming. The new king did not know Joseph had saved Egypt from starvation and was that Pharaoh’s right hand man. The new king did not remember the Hebrews were descended from Joseph and his family and had one time been welcomed in the land with open arms as their savior’s family. This new king did not know.

So of course that means the king started acting stupid, even if he thinks he’s dealing shrewdly with Joseph’s descendents who have grown so numerous he fearful they rebel and join Egypt’s enemies. His first course of action is to conscript the Hebrews into a slave labor force to build two new cities. But that doesn’t work. The more the Hebrews work the more they multiply. So Pharaoh gives them more work to do. Of course they multiply even more.

Then Pharaoh who thinks he’s dealing shrewdly comes up with a new plan. He calls in two midwives who are named: Shiphrah and Puah (notice the almighty ruler, who is supposed to be the son of the sun god Ra, is not named), and Pharaoh commands the midwives to kill every boy they deliver. The midwives, who are considered wise women in their culture because they oversee the rites of birth and new life, do the unthinkable to the king who thinks he holds life and death in his hand: they disobey. They not only disobey, but when Pharaoh demands to know why they aren’t murdering the boys, they look him in the eye and lie. How can they kill the boys when the babies are delivered before they even get there?

For the first time God is mentioned in the book of Exodus: because of their obedience God deals well with the midwives and gives them their own households.

Pharaoh, thwarted in his attempts to reign in the growth of the Hebrew people decides it’s time to call his people into his enterprise: he commands the Egyptians to throw every Hebrew son into the Nile River. He’s done with acting “shrewdly” and with subterfuge.

How do the oppressed people react to Pharaoh’s decree? A man and woman get married and they start a family. They have a son and the woman hides him in their home for three months. When they can no longer hide him, the mother obeys Pharaoh. She makes a water-proof basket and throws her son into the Nile, leaving his big sister to watch over him. Big sister watches over him as he floats down the Nile and right into Pharaoh’s own daughter.

Now you’d think of all of the women we’ve met in this passage, the one who would obey Pharaoh’s orders would be his own daughter. No such luck. She finds the baby the mother has obediently thrown into the Nile, recognizes he’s a Hebrew baby, and she decides to adopt him. So the Pharaoh, the absolute ruler of Egypt and son of Ra, can’t even get his daughter to obey his commands.

The women—slave and royal—continue in their conspiracy. The sister approaches the Princess (and you have to wonder how a little slave girl got that close to the princess), and she arranges for their mother to nurse the baby. Pharaoh’s daughter even pays the boy’s mother for her services, further subverting her father’s genocidal policy.

Our story is tied with a neat little bow with the princess formally adopting the baby and naming him Moses.

I’ve always loved this story. It’s been one of my favorites since I was a kid. I loved how all of these women snuck behind the God-King’s back and got the job done. Pharaoh was so concerned with killing off all the boys, he never saw the real threat that was right under his nose: the girls. That threat included his own daughter. And the irony, sarcasm and humor in the story are simply divine. I love how the editors of Exodus decided to start this foundational story of how Israel became a people and nation–with chutzpah. The entire saga begins with a satire that is chockfull of irony, and at times you stop and wonder if Monty Python had a hand in writing it.

Yes, I’m going somewhere with this. Like the Hebrew people we’re living in tough times with a ruler we’d like to throw in the Potomac. And in these tough times action is needed just as the midwives and the other women of this story took action. Many of us are taking action, and we are resisting state sponsored oppression everyday. But according to our story in Exodus, that’s not enough. In the midst of our resisting, our protesting, our letter writing, our hard work, something else is needed: humor, sarcasm, irony. This is a long tradition the starts out in the Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament and continues on through Jesus and Paul and for the church kind of gets lost after that. Fortunately for us, our Jewish brothers and sisters have kept this tradition of facing oppression and evil with humor, irony, and a healthy dose of chutzpah alive and well. And it continues to this day.

This was one of the reasons I loved to watch the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and one of my favorite moments on that show happened when Jim Wallis was a guest and told Jon Stewart this: “The Hebrew prophets often use humor, satire, and truth-telling to get their message across, and I feel you do a combination of all three. I think you are a little like a Hebrew prophet after all.” Of course, Jon Stewart is never going to admit that he is a part of that long standing tradition of humor, satire and snark in Hebrew and Jewish prophecy, but he is. And so are we.

We have a lot of work to do in the upcoming years with our own Pharaoh firmly entrenched in Washington. I’m not denying that. I’m not trying to downplay that. But it’s going to be a marathon and not a sprint. And we are going to need something to keep us going. To keep us running, marching, letter writing, and not giving up. I say we look to our Jewish forebears and remember to laugh. Remember to make jokes. Write some awesome satire. Preach some snark and chutzpah. It’s kept the Jewish people going for a few millennia and several disasters. I think it will keep us going too.

As many of you know I have a tendency to take myself far too seriously. One of the big reasons I’m here week after week is y’all make me laugh. It doesn’t sound like a big thing. But to a person living with clinical depression, I cannot tell you what a huge gift it has been to come here and laugh and know that somehow this God who works through deceitful midwives, sly mothers and disobedient daughters is working in my life and our world too. As we do our hard work of building God’s kingdom we need to remember that part of that work is laughter. Part of that work is bringing joy—abundant joy–to our world. That’s why we have the humor, the satire, and the wonderful ironies of this story. To remind us that all of these are instrumental in our life with God. They are not add-ons, but are at the very core of our tradition.

My challenge to us today is that in a little while when Deacon Garth commissions us to go out into the world to love and serve God, we resolve to love and serve God with some laughter, some satire and some chutzpah this week to give us the strength to keep doing the hard work of resisting those who would oppress anyone who is not like them and to continue to bring God’s kingdom to our world.

Sermon: Meeting God at Wells

In honor of Vice President Mike Pence not eating alone with a woman who isn’t his wife, I decided to repost this sermon about when Jesus hung out all by himself with the Samaritan Woman at Jacob’s Well. I originally preached this sermon in Lent, 2008.

Meeting God at Wells
3rd Sunday in Lent (Year A)
John 4:4-30, 39-42

Water. Life is dependent on it. In biblical times this meant wells and springs were life. And life was dependent on them. Women were the ones who drew water. They were at wells…a lot. Women not only drew water for their households. They also herded animals mostly sheep, to the wells to water them. Jan Richardson notes this about women and wells:

In God’s lexicon of water, wells have a particularly interesting place. Women at wells: more intriguing still. See a woman near a well, something momentous is bound to happen. It usually involves a person of the male persuasion, and it augurs a major change in the woman’s life. Genesis gives us a rich trinity of woman-at-the-well stories. In Genesis 21, God provides a well to a desperate Hagar and her son Ishmael, who lies near death in a waterless wilderness. Genesis 24 tells of a servant who finds Rebekah, Isaac’s bride-to-be, at a well. Another well serves as a signal of matrimony in Genesis 29, when Jacob meets Rachel at the well where she waters her father’s sheep. The matrimonial symbolism of wells finds a striking resonance in the Song of Songs….Particularly given the intimate, fertile link between women, wells, marriage, and motherhood, one might rightly wonder what the heck Jesus is doing, hanging out by a well with a lone woman, as he does in this week’s Gospel lection, John 4.1-42. I’s a curious thing for a single rabbi to strike up a conversation with a woman he finds at a well. But Jesus is a curious sort of rabbi, and so he wades into an exchange with a Samaritan woman who has come to draw her water at noonday.

Although wells have matrimonial links, two women did not meet husbands at wells: they met God. Richardson notes one of those times in Genesis 21. But Genesis 21 isn’t the first time Hagar had a rendezvous with God at a well or spring, our reading from Genesis 16 is.

Hagar was the first woman to meet God at a well. She was Sarah’s Egyptian slave. She had no say over what happened in her life or her own body. Sarah, desperate for a child, gave Hagar to Abraham as his concubine. After she became pregnant, Hagar may have thought Abraham would make her his second wife. After all, she was the one who would give him his long awaited heir, not Sarah. Hagar apparently started looking down on Sarah. Sarah complained to Abraham that Hagar looked at her with contempt. Abraham said Hagar was her slave, and she could do whatever she wanted to rein Hagar in. Sarah started treating Hagar harshly. Hagar ran away from Abraham and Sarah and ran into God.

God simply wants to know why Hagar is at the spring, and she tells God: she is running away from Sarah. God instructs her to go back and promises her that she will multiply Hagar’s offspring, so that they cannot be counted. God also instructs her to name her son Ishmael, for God has heard her affliction. God extends the covenant promise to Hagar and her son. Hagar is the first woman, and the first person, in the Bible to name God. She calls God, the One who sees. God has seen her pain and affliction, and she has seen God. Hagar goes back and bears Ishmael. She remains in slavery to Sarah until 14 years later, after Isaac is born and weaned. Sarah wants no competition for her son and has Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away. In the desert with no food and water, Hagar once again sees God, who reveals a well to her. God reassures her of the promise before Ishmael was born: he will grow into a great nation.

(more…)

Housecleaning

This site is now back up and running. It was hacked last fall, and as it is more or less an archive of my religious writing, fixing it wasn’t high up on the priority list. But my wonderful webmaster husband took yesterday to get it back up and running. He’s not sure if everything came through. I went through and approved comments that had been left since last September. So first my apologies for taking so long to get your comments moderated. Until yesterday I was locked out of my own site. Second if you notice your comment didn’t get approved, please let me know. It might have got lost in the wipe and restore The Hubby had to do to get the site back up and running.

Thank you to those of you who stop by and leave comments. As I said this is more of an archive than an active site, and I really do appreciate you who stumble on it, read something and let me know what you think.

I hope everyone is having a blessed Lent and that your anticipation and joy is building as we draw closer to Holy Week and the Season of Easter.

Book Review: Sex Difference in Christian Theology

Last year I wrote a review of Megan Defranza‘s Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God, sent it to the editor of the Englewood Review of Books then promptly forgot about it. When I was hunting through my bookshelves over the weekend, I came across the book and wondered if the review had been published. It had: in January. I’m a little behind the curve on this one, but here it is.

Sex Difference in Christain Theology is a much needed theological reflection on what it means to be made in the image of God, and that male and female do not have to be the binary straightjacket of what it means to be fully human. There are gray areas of sex, gender, and sexuality in our world, and our theology needs to reflect those areas to be faithful to how all of us are created in the image of God and image God in this world. DeFranza has provided a good biblical and theological foundation for this work.

Click here to read the rest of the review.

Sermon: Leave Martha Alone: Women like her insured the Early Church’s survival

Year C, Proper 11: Luke 10:38-42

Christ in the House of Mary and Martha by Vincenzo Campi

Christ in the House of Mary and Martha by Vincenzo Campi

(This sermon is dedicated to the Marthas of Chicago Grace Episcopal Church: Doreen Baker and Kim Callis.)

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42).

I will never forgive Luke for not recording Martha’s response to what Jesus said. I’m sure she had one. And I’m just as sure that her response wasn’t submissive, subservient, or even polite. In fact, I imagine her saying “Fine, Mary can stay put. You can help me feed all of these men you’ve dragged into my house,” and dragging Jesus off to the kitchen.

I also don’t like the way Luke marginalized women like Martha in this story. Martha usually takes a lot of slack for her homemaking skills, but the truth is this: Martha’s skills in the home were instrumental in the establishment of the church and giving the church a foothold in the wider Greco-Roman society.

Martha was not the only busy homemaker in the The New Testament. In fact the New Testament names many busy women who hosted churches in their home. Here are a few:

  • Mary, the mother of John Mark (Acts 12:12-17)
  • Lydia (Acts 16:11-15)
  • Priscilla (Romans 16:3, 1 Corinthians 16:19, 2 Timothy 4:19)
  • Chloe (1 Corinthians 1:11)
  • Nympha (Colossians 4:15)
  • The Elect Lady that the Second Letter of John is addressed to.

During its infancy years the church met in members’ homes. In order for there to be enough room for the church to meet, the home had to be a decent size, which meant the owners of these homes had money. They were rich. We see this with Lydia: she was a merchant, and had her own household with slaves. She was a rich businesswoman. In Luke 10 Martha is preparing a meal for Jesus and his 12 disciples, minimum. Remember normally more than just the 12 were traveling with Jesus. In order to accommodate this many people Martha, Mary, and Lazarus had to be rich. Martha was used to running a large house.

What did a rich woman running her household look like? What did she do? What were her duties? Socrates gives us a glimpse of what duties Roman matrons, like Martha, performed in their home in his book Economics: “Supervision of all comings and goings in the house, protection and distribution of supplies, supervision of weaving and food production, care of sick slaves, instruction [of] slaves in household skills, rewarding and punishing slaves, in short independent management of an entire household (7.36-43). She is to be the guardian of its laws, like a military commander, a city councilor, or a queen…” (A Woman’s Place, 146).

Matrons like Martha were powerful women. She was not only responsible for everything that went on in her home and estate, she also set an example by working with her servants and slaves. Matrons spun wool and flax, wove, and prepared food. In Greek and Roman literature writers and poets pictured the ideal Roman matron as one who wove cloth and clothed her family with her own hands.

According to the literature of the time the matron of the household operated independently of her husband, and the husband liked it that way. The matron was the queen of her domain.

In their book A Woman’s Place: House Churches in Earliest Chrisitianity, Carolyn Osiek and Margaret MacDonald write: “It is surprising how much responsibility is expected of wives: total management of household resources, personnel, and production–quite a different picture from the passive image of the wife in the New Testament household codes. This literature gives us insight into how wives and hence widows were perfectly used to being independent household managers and how men expected them be just that” (p. 152).

The household was a woman’s place. So what does that mean for the early church that met in these women’s spaces where women were expected to be the leaders and managers?

It means the members of the churches that met during the time of the New Testament would not have thought twice about women being leaders in their services. Osiek and MacDonald also point out that it would not be unusual for a woman to preside over the love feast and communion during this time because meals fell under the domain of the woman in the house. It would not be unusual for the matron of the house to preside over the meal.

There are also women like Mary, Nympha, Lydia, and Chloe who are not linked with husbands, which meant they hosted the love feasts in their homes and presided over communion. According to Osiek and MacDonald “Women were expected to independently manage their households, with or without a husband. Therefore, to step into a Christian house church was to step into women’s world” (p. 163).

A typical Roman meal also included discussions on philosophy, along with teaching. Most of the teaching and preaching that happened in the early church probably happened around the table while everyone was eating, and the matron of the household presided over it all making sure everything ran smoothly.

So what does any of this have to do with Martha?

In the Christian tradition Martha started it. Martha hosted the first church in her home. Jesus and however many disciples were following him at that time found shelter and food in Martha’s home. Jesus taught in her home, and he ate in her home. Martha was the first hostess of the church.

There is one more thing about Martha that gets overlooked. For that we have to jump over to John 11. In John we again meet Martha, and she is not happy. She had sent a message to Jesus that her brother Lazarus was sick, and asked him to come and heal him. Jesus waited until Lazarus was dead before he set off for Bethany. Martha met Jesus on the road and accused him of letting Lazarus die. But in her anger and grief, she still believed that God would do what Jesus asked. When Jesus asked her if she believed that he was the resurrection and life her answer was: “Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (John 11:27).

In John Martha made the confession that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, not Peter. In John, Martha’s confession is the rock the church is built on. So my question is this: Pope Martha anyone? In John God revealed to Martha what flesh and blood had not, and she is indeed blessed for proclaiming the faith that is the rock on which the church is built. Not only did Martha make that confession of faith, but her home became a meeting place for the early church. Not all apostles and “popes” traveled to proclaim Christ crucified and risen, some of them stayed put and offered the hospitality and protection of their homes for the beginning Christian movement.

The early church depended on matrons, like Martha, to provide an organized, well-run home for them to meet in. It was the matron who made sure the meal was ready and presided over the meal and all that happened during it. Jesus may have discounted Martha’s worries over the meal. May be Martha did allow herself to be distracted by too many things. But the early church gives a different testimony about Martha, her duties, and her worries. Without women like Martha efficiently running large, rich households there would be no church.

Maundy Thursday Sermon Podcast: Anointing the King

I preached this sermon Maundy Thursday, 2012 at Grace Episcopal Church.

(Click  the link “Anointing the King” to hear or download the MP3.)

 

Anointing The King
Mark 14:1-11

(This sermon is told from the view of the woman who anointed Jesus’ head in Mark. Props: head covering, white jar or container.)

(Place container on the altar or pulpit)

By that night I had been following him for a long time. I started following him in Galilee. I saw all of his miracles, heard his teaching. I knew who Jesus was. And God had been telling me to do something. Something I knew women didn’t do—or just any man for that matter. This was a job for prophets and priests. But not common people and definitely not a woman. I told God this. I reminded him of his own actions in the past. And then passages from Isaiah came streaming through my mind: “Behold I am doing a new thing—things you could not even dream of—I will make ways where there are no ways. What I’m doing is new. No one has ever seen it before.”

On our way to Jerusalem at a little market in one of the little towns we passed through, I bought the oil, and I hid it among my things.

(Look at container)

Who’d think that such a little container could weigh so much. And how it weighed on me.

At some point Jesus started talking about what would happen in Jerusalem. How he would be betrayed and handed over to the religious authorities. How he would be crucified, and die. Then somehow how three days later rise.

At this point the Twelve’s bickering ratcheted up. “But he said he was the Messiah! The Messiah doesn’t die!”

“We have to be going to Jerusalem for him to finally make his move.”

“This dying and rising stuff must be more of his riddles. People will die, so we can raise him up to power. To be our King!”

“But is he really the Messiah? He hasn’t even started raising an army. Is he hoping the people in Jerusalem will get behind him?”

“But he says we should love our enemies—that’s the Romans, you know? What if he really does get himself killed in Jerusalem? What then?”

“What about us? Three years of our lives and for what?”

And it went on and on and on. Be glad those who wrote your gospels cut so much of their bickering and fighting out. Oy Vey they could go on forever. [PAUSE] But then the gospellers were good at editing their stories to suit their communities and what they thought was proper.

That’s what they did to me. My deed will always be remembered. But not my name. And the reason for my action was changed to suit what a woman could do. Not what I did.

Now I understand my story has come down to you in several stories and is confusing. Different women. Different times in the story. Different reasons. Luke even watered my act down to a penitent sinner thanking Jesus for forgiving her many sins. He removed it entirely from the Passover and Passion all together. At least John put it a week before Jesus’ death and resurrection, but then he had Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus’ feet for a whole other reason.

But, you see, I didn’t anoint Jesus’ feet. I didn’t do the womanly thing—anoint him for his burial. That was women’s work back then—anointing a body for burial. Anyone who touched a corpse was considered unclean. We women were unclean for a whole week during our periods, so what’s a few more unclean days to us?

It was the night before the Passover, two days before the Crucifixion. Tensions were running high all around Jerusalem as they always did during Passover. There were Roman soldiers everywhere to squelch any uprisings or rebellions that might start. We already drawn their attention with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. There had been crowds of people cheering Jesus as he rode into the city. They called him the King of the Jews and Messiah. Then there was the fracas in the temple. Jesus’ prophecies of Jerusalem and the Temple being destroyed didn’t sit very well with anyone either. The religious leaders were trying to catch him in his words, trying to find a way to arrest him without making the crowds go crazier than they already were. The Twelve were bickering about who was the greatest, who would sit at his right and left hands when Jesus ruled.

It wasn’t hard to see where all of this was leading. And I knew. I knew when Jesus said he was here to die, he meant it. I knew it in my bones. But I also knew what God commanded me to do. Jesus was the Messiah, the King of the Jews. And a king must be anointed.

That night, the night before we celebrated the Passover in the Upper Room, God’s command came. We were at the house of Simon the Leper. I quietly left the feast and went to my things.

(Pick up the container)

I retrieved the alabaster jar that had weighed so heavily on me the last few weeks. I returned to the banquet and walked to where Jesus reclined. I stood behind him, raised the bottle, broke its seal and let the oil pour over Jesus’ head.

(Take off the top of the container and act like your are pouring all of the contents out.)

It ran through his hair, down his face, and it rolled through his beard. His shoulders were drenched from the nard. The smell filled the room. He was anointed: Jesus: The King! Jesus: The Messiah!

(Return container to altar or pulpit.)

For a moment there was dead silence in the room. Then all hell broke loose. “Who are to anoint the king!” yelled Peter.

“We’re his inner circle!,” thundered James. “One of us should’ve anointed him!”

No!” Judas jumped into the fray. “The anointing means nothing if a prophet or priest has not done it! We have to take Jerusalem first. Then Caiaphas will have to anoint Jesus as King of the Jews! It is time to fight!” Judas yelled, pulling out his dagger and raising it in the air.

“Enough,” said Jesus. His authoritative voice rising above all of their yelling. “Leave her alone! Why are you troubling her? She has proclaimed the truth! She has done a good deed for me. Wherever the Good News is preached in the whole world, what she had done will be told in memory of her.

“Judas put that thing away. Whoever lives by the sword dies by the sword. Have I not taught you to love your enemies and pray for them? Have you learned nothing in these last three years, any of you?”

Silence reigned in the room once again. The Twelve were horrified Jesus allowed a woman to anoint him King after his triumphant entry into Jerusalem and the cleansing of the Temple. Judas was seething. I could see him grinding his teeth to keep from saying anything. People began to pick at their food, no one quite looking at another.

None of them saw that there would be no triumphant overthrow or Messianic reign. None of them saw Jesus’ way, his way of reigning, was going to lead to very different places than what they were imagining. All they could do was fight about who should have anointed Jesus king.

I think Judas was beginning to see Jesus would not be the king he wanted. I saw him slip away from Simon’s house later that night.

I’m not sure when changes were made to my story. Changes like me anointing his feet as well as his head then just his feet. I don’t know when the anointing became just about his burial and not his kingship. I don’t know when or why the anointing story got moved first a week before the Passover then a few days before that. I don’t know when Mary of Bethany became the anointer. I don’t know when the argument became about the waste of money and not that a woman anointed Jesus as King of the Jews. Although I’m sure that’s the first part of the story that was changed. Then there’s Luke. Luke moved it entirely out of the Passion narrative and Jerusalem. His anointing takes place it in Galilee. There the woman who anointed Jesus was a sinner, nudge nudge, wink wink, a whore, and the anointing of the King was lost entirely. For the record: I was never a whore.

I was one of those women of means like Mary Magdalene and Joanna who followed Jesus in Galilee and then onto Jerusalem. I was one of Jesus’ disciples. I heard his teaching. I saw his miracles. And I saw things the Twelve didn’t see because they ran away. I saw his trial. I saw Jesus crucified. I watched him take his final breath. I stood vigil with his mother and Mary Magdalene and Salome, as we watched Joseph and Nicodemus lay him in the tomb. We held that vigil for hours until the Roman soldiers made us leave.

“Where ever the Good News is preached—in all the world—this story will be told in remembrance of her.” In memory of me. I know it’s a bit ironic my name was forgotten. But does it matter? No, it doesn’t. Because all of us are anointers. All of us in our daily lives anoint Jesus as king. When we help someone, when say kind words, when we love our neighbor we anoint Jesus as king. In a small act of giving change to a homeless man or a large act like marching through our city holding vigil against the violence in our city, we anoint Jesus as king. All of us by our lives, our words, and our acts of love anoint Jesus as King and Messiah. This story is told in memory of us.