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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Why So Serious? The Women of Exodus and Chutzpah
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 16, Year A)
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.
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.
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.
“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:
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.
“We three kings of Orient are;
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.”
We hear a lot about the Magi’s journey to Bethlehem. We hear about their side trip to Jerusalem and Herod’s palace. We hear how the scribes were consulted and the Magi sent on their way to Bethlehem. We hear about Herod’s lie.
And if we hear a lot about that part of the story, it’s nothing compared to what happens next. The Magi finally make it to the king of the Jews: a toddler in his parent’s house with his mother in a small town far enough away from Jerusalem to be considered rural. Once there they bow down and worship him, lavish the child with frankincense, gold and myrrh, then start on their long journey home. Only to be warned in a dream not to return to Herod, but to find another way home.
Yes, you heard me correctly. I did say the Magi found Jesus at home in Bethlehem and not in a stable. That’s because in Matthew there is no stable, there’s also no manger or shepherds. We’ve become used to the two very different nativity stories in Matthew and Luke being scrunched together and made to play nice with each other. We are used to Luke’s account of the events: Mary and Joseph start out in Nazareth, travel to Bethlehem for a census, where Jesus is born in a stable because there’s no room in the inn. An angelic host proclaim his birth to shepherds who then come into Bethlehem to see the sight for themselves. In our modern nativity story the Magi then are tacked on to the ending of Luke’s story in the stable. But that’s not how Jesus’ birth happens in Matthew or where the Magi show up in his story.
In Matthew Mary and Joseph live in Bethlehem. In Matthew’s telling the angel appears to Joseph and not Mary because Joseph has decided to quietly divorce her after discovering she is pregnant. The angel reassures Joseph that Mary is pregnant by the Holy Spirit, this is God’s will, and Joseph is to name the baby Jesus. Joseph listens to God, marries Mary, and Jesus is born at home. Then some time within the next two years three strangers from the East show up in Jerusalem wanting to know where to find the King of the Jews who had been born within the last two years when the Magi saw his star in the sky.
Herod freaks out and of course Jerusalem freaks out with him, because this is Herod. He’s killed a lot of people including his “favorite” wife and their two sons to safeguard his throne. So he plans on sending the Magi on their way then have them report back to him so he can take care of this new threat to his throne.
The Magi once again set out and follow the star to Bethlehem. Matthew tells us that “on entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.” I’m assuming the reason Joseph isn’t here is because he was working. Poor guy. After all of his obedience, he missed out on the three strangers showing up from a country far to the east and showering his toddler with gifts. And these weren’t the typical baby shower presents either. No, they bring gold, frankincense and myrrh—gifts fit for kings and priests.
There are times I hate what biblical stories leave out. What did they talk about? What did these astrologers and scholars talk about with Mary? Given Middle Eastern hospitality rules, what did Mary give them to eat and drink before they started back on their way to Jerusalem? Wouldn’t you like to be a fly on the wall for that meal and its conversation? What did the neighbors think of Mary entertaining these strangers while Joseph was out building something? We’ll never know.
After all of the gift giving, homage paying, and refreshment the Magi prepare to head back to Jerusalem to report to Herod then start for their home. But before they leave Bethlehem the next morning, an angel comes to them and tells them not to return to Herod, but to find a different way home.
And once again the biblical account leaves us in the dark. I’ve always wondered what happened to the Magi after they left. What happened after they received the message to return to their country by another road? How did they feel once the star rose back into the night sky and angelic visions disappeared from their dreams? How did they feel about the long journey home without the beacon they had followed for perhaps months, if not years? What did they do once they got home. Jan Richardson deals with some of these questions in her poem, “Blessing of the Magi.”
Where the Magi found themselves is where all of us find ourselves eventually, including Mary and Joseph. After the Magi leave Joseph once again dreams of an angel who tells him about Herod’s plan to murder Jesus. He, Mary and Jesus leave for Egypt. A few years later angelic dreams will lead them back to Judea then onto Nazareth in Galilee. Once in Nazareth, visits from angels and strangers from afar will cease. And Mary and Joseph will settle into ordinary village life and raise their family.
This is the question I pose for this Epiphany: what do we do when the miraculous has gone? We’ve lived the Christmas story: angels have come, stars have shined, and treasures have been given. What do we do now when the dreams and the visions cease? What do we do once angels move onto other assignments? Where do we decide to travel when the star disappears?
Like the Magi on their way home “we will set out in fear/we will set out in dream/but we will set out.” But we don’t set out alone. In the coming weeks our Scripture Readings will be signposts for our journey. We will remember our own baptismal vows as we remember Christ’s baptism this Sunday. The wedding at Cana will remind us that celebrating is important on the way. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians we will be reminded that all of us have spiritual gifts to use to build up each other and to build God’s kingdom in our world. And Jesus will remind us of what the heart of his ministry, and therefore our ministry, is: “to bring good news to the poor…to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of God’s favour.’”
And I am using the pronoun “we” very intentionally. We also don’t set out alone because we set out together. Together we will walk into the new year with our Scriptural sign posts as we continue figuring out how to be a spiritual outpost in the South Loop. Yes, the light of the star is gone, but, like the Magi of Jan’s poem, we too will be surprised to see that the light we left behind is now “spilling from our empty hands,/shimmering beneath our homeward feet,/illuminating the road/with every step/we take.” Yes the star is gone, and now instead of following a light, we become the light ourselves to shine into our world and show others the way home.