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Church – Shawna R. B. Atteberry
May 112016
 

Paul and Macedonian ManWhen God Says No
(Acts 16:6-15, Easter 5C)

[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 (NRSV).

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! So it doesn’t make me happy when I see the lectionary has cherry picked a couple of verses out our Acts reading from two weeks ago to make it seem like everything was smooth sailing for Paul because he was obeying God.

We heard the story of how Paul came to Philippi on the fifth Sunday after Easter. But our reading picked up when Paul was at Troas waiting for God’s leading. It 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 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 shaky to begin with: our superhero missionary duo splits 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 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 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. 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 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 personal relationships with God, but what’s also best for those we meet and their personal 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.

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 Posted by at 1:01 pm
Feb 012016
 

St. Brigid icon by Katherin Burleson

February 1 is the feast day of St. Brigid of Kildare. Brigid is one of my favorite saints. The primary reason she is one of my favorites is because we can’t separate history from legend when it comes to her story. She’s part woman, part saint, and part goddess. Throw in a few miracles and Brigid time traveling to be Mary’s midwife and the foster-mother of Christ, himself, and you just have one good story (and I love a good story).

Here is what we do know about Brigid: she created the first monastic community that grew into the most renowned monastic city in Ireland, Kildare. Brigid was the abbess of the convent and church and the leader of the town that grew up around Kildare. She was known for her piety, her hard work, and her hospitality. She worked side by side with her nuns tending sheep and milking cows, along with weaving and cooking. Gifts given to the monastery by the rich were given to the poor or sold for food. No one was turned away from her convent, and she provided for all. One of the legends say that Brigid could speak to a cow and get her to give milk three times a day when she needed it for visitors. Here is a table grace attributed to Brigid:

I should like a great lake of finest ale
For the King of kings.
I should like a table of the choicest food
For the family of heaven.
Let the ale be made from the fruits of faith,
And the food be forgiving love.

I should welcome the poor to my feast,
For they are God’s children.
I should welcome the sick to my feast,
For they are God’s joy.
Let the poor sit with Jesus at the highest place,
And the sick dance with the angels.

God bless the poor,
God bless the sick,
And bless our human race.
God bless our food,
God bless our drink,
All homes, O God embrace.

Kildare grew so big that Brigid could no longer run it alone. A local bishop, Cloneth came to the monastery to help her and he brought monks with him. The monks were master silver and bronze smiths who created beautiful silver and metal ornaments to go with the nuns’ woven and embroidered tapestries throughout the monastery and church. One of her biographers, a monk who lived at Kildare during Brigid’s life, said this about the monastery and town:

But who could convey in words the supreme beauty of her church and the countless wonders of her city, of which we speak? “City” is the right word for it: that so many people are living there justifies the title. It is a great metropolis, within whose outskirts–which Saint Brigid marked out with a clearly defined boundary–no earthly adversary feared, nor any incursion of enemies. For the city is the safest place of refuge among all towns of the whole land of the Irish, with all their fugitives. It is a place where the treasures of kings are looked after, and it is reckoned to be supreme in good order.

Cogitosus also hinted in his biography that Brigid functioned as a bishop preaching, hearing confession, and ordaining priests. The lines between laity and clergy, and the roles between men and women, were not as fixed in Ireland as they were in other places in Europe. It is possible that abbesses as powerful and influential as Brigid did function as bishops (this would quickly change once the Roman Catholic church gained a foothold in Ireland).

Roses Kildare Ireland by hugh.carlow/Flickr

Now it’s time for the fun stuff. As I mentioned before, the Celtic tradition honors Brigid as Mary’s midwife, Jesus’ wet nurse, and his foster-mother. “Time” was not a fixed, linear progression for the Celtic people. The material world and spiritual world intertwined in and out of each other. There were thin places were one could cross from one world to another with time running differently. This is why the legend of Brigid at the birth of Jesus was entirely believable for the Celts. The material and spiritual were not separate worlds in their thought. I also like this legend because, being the post-modern that I am, I like the idea of putting yourself into the story. Where am I in the grand story of God’s people? How is this story, my story? How is my story now becoming a part of the whole story? Brigid went on to become the spiritual mid-wife to Celtic women giving birth, and the midwife called Brigid into the house to assist in the birth.

Back before the stories of Brigid helping Mary and hanging her cloak on a sunbeam to dry out, Brigid was a goddess in the Celtic pantheon. She was the goddess of poets, blacksmiths, and healers. She was a triple goddess revealing herself as maiden, mother, and crone. The fair maiden to poets, the mother creating new life to blacksmiths, and the old wise woman who knows how to heal. She has long been the symbol of spring coming to the land and the arrival of more light during this time of the year. February 1 is her day, and she was called on to protect the sheep who at this time would be carrying lambs. In the Christian tradition she is remembered for being able to coax cows into milking, and for being able to churn butter for everyone who needed it.

Milking cows and churning butter brings us back into the everyday realm. There is a strong domestic atmosphere in the stories of St. Brigid. Brigid’s life revolves around the home: giving away food to the poor, churning butter to feed all those who lived in the area, sweeping the floor, sewing, and herding both cattle and sheep. She kept her monastery in good order for visitors. Her love for domesticity naturally led to her generous hospitality. There was always food, clothing, and a bed in her house for those who needed it. Like so many women, Brigid wanted a well-run house where her family (her nuns) would have a nice home, and those who visited would find refuge. I am surprised at how domestic I’ve become in the last few years. I’ve realized I’m becoming more like Brigid. I want a clean, orderly house that can be a home and refuge for my husband and I. I also want to extend hospitality to our friends and give them a place to come eat, drink, and be merry. I want them to find a refuge for awhile, rest and have fun while they are under our roof.

As the light comes back this spring, let us remember Brigid: a woman committed to her God, to helping the poor, and to taking care of all who came to her. She established a community that became a light to all who wanted to come pray, learn, work, or needed shelter and food. She believed that everyone was part of the realm of God, and for that reason alone should be treated with respect and cared for. Everyone should have a home they can come to. There is room at the table for all. There is enough food to go around. And if not, Brigid will be seen whispering in the ears of her milk cows.

A Collect for the Feast of St. Brigid:

Everliving God, we rejoice today in the witness of your servant Brigid of Kildare, who served as courageous leader and mentor, faithfully shepherding both men and women in her monastery and guiding them into holiness of life: Inspire us with life and light, and give us perseverance to serve you in our own day. This we ask in the name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen. (From The Saint Helena Breviary, Personal Edition, 281).

Here are two other wonderful posts about Brigid:

A Habit of Wildest Bounty: Feast of St. Brigid at Jan Richardson’s The Painted Prayerbook.
Celtic Prayer: Brigid, Comrade-Woman by Elizabeth Cunningham at The Virtual Abbey.

Originally posted February 1, 2010.

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 Posted by at 11:00 am
Feb 012016
 

Epiphany: Finding the Way Home
Matthew 2:1-13

Epiphany by Janet McKenzie.

Epiphany by Janet McKenzie.

“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.”

(Click here to read “Bessing 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.

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Jan 272015
 

Lydia-st-lydias-261x300A friend on Facebook reminded me that today was the commemoration of Dorcas, Lydia, and Phoebe. Who you  may ask? Let me tell you all about them:

Dorcas

Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, ‘Please come to us without delay.’ So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’ Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the [Christ] (Acts 9:37-42).

You almost miss Dorcas’ story. After all most of Acts 9 is taken up with Saul’s conversion (later to become the apostle Paul) to Christianity after leading the persecution against the early church. So after God literally threw Saul off his ass (sorry I just cannot resist that one), he went blind, was healed and started preaching, the focus of the story quietly changes to Dorcas. By the time we meet her, she has died. This is a great lost to her community because she took such good care of them. And she took very good care of those who were considered the least of these: widows. Woman without a husband had no social standing at this time. They were normally destitute women who were forced to beg or to become prostitutes to support themselves and their children. If a woman did not have family at this time, she was in a very precarious place. Dorcas made sure these women had clothes. Now when the story tells us that Dorcas made the clothes, it means a little bit more than she cut some material and sewed it. First she would have to spin the fiber into thread then weave it on her loom for the tunics and clothing she made. This was truly a labor of love on her part to make sure those in her community were at least dressed. She may have also weaved pieces for local merchants to sell in order to support herself (there is no mention of a husband). As long as a woman had a loom and access to wool or flax, she could make a living. Apparently not all the widows Dorcas knew had their own looms to make their own clothes or clothing to sell. Dorcas made sure they had the clothing they needed to survive.

Her illness and death was a big loss to the community, so they sent messengers to a nearby town because they heard Peter was there. Peter came, and the widows showed him the clothing Dorcas had made them. Peter responded to their grief. After sending everyone outside, he prayed and then said to her, “Tabitha get up.” She rose from the dead and was restored to her community. News spread. More people believed in God.

Lydia

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 worshipper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. [God] 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 [God], come and stay at my home.’ And she prevailed upon us (Acts 16:11-15).

Paul and his traveling companions arrived in Philippi. There was no synagogue for them to worship at, so they decided to go to the river on the Sabbath where there was a place of prayer. Lydia was at the river. She was “a worshiper of God,” and listened to Paul’s teachings. In fact, we are told God “opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” In the next verse she and her household were baptized, and she urged Paul and his travelers to stay in her house. Lydia was the first convert to Christianity in Europe.

Lydia was a businesswoman, “a dealer of purple cloth” from Thyatira. Purple dye was a symbol of power and honor in the ancient world, and it was the most expensive and sought after dye in the Roman world. Thyatira was the capitol of the industry and renowned for its purple dyes. One had to have plenty of capital to deal in purple dye and the making of purple garments for sale. Lydia was a career woman, rich, the head of her household, and Acts 16:40 implies that by the end of Paul’s stay in Philippi a new church was meeting in Lydia’s home. All of this could mean that Lydia was the overseer or pastor of the first church plant in Europe.

Phoebe

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the [Christ] as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well (Romans 16:1-2).

Paul highly commended and respected Phoebe. He called her a “sister,” “deacon,” and “benefactor” to the church at Cenchreae as well as a sister and benefactor to Paul.

The odd thing about diakonos or “deacon” being used to describe Phoebe is that it is the masculine form of the word used to describe a woman. It is the same word Paul uses when he calls Timothy and Titus “servants” or “deacons” (or pastors) of their respective churches. Another thing that makes this phrase odd is that Phoebe is called the “deacon of the church of Cenchreae.” This is the only place in the New Testament where diakonos is followed by a specific congregation. This is the only place linking a specific person’s ministry with a specific church. This seems to indicate that Phoebe served as a deacon in the church at Cenchreae.

Paul uses another word to describe Phoebe: prostatis. This is the only occurrence of the word in the New Testament. This word is normally translated so that it’s main meaning is not obvious. The normal translation is “helper” or someone who has helped. The basic and most obvious translation of the word from classical Greek is “patron” or “benefactor,” and women in this role, are well attested in the Greco-Roman world. In the Greco-Roman world wealthy women sponsored the arts, philosophers, writers, and politicians. They paid them and gave them the social standing they needed to succeed. Phoebe was a wealthy woman who served the church out of her means as the women in Luke 8 served Jesus out of theirs. For Paul to say that Phoebe was a benefactor to him meant that she had probably helped to support his missionary travels financially. It’s also very likely she was known in Rome, and she has the appropriate social status and clout to introduce Paul to the churches in Rome. Churches Paul had not had any dealings with, nor had he helped plant them.

Phoebe was a woman who had her own means, and served the church in a leadership role. Paul comes very close to commanding churches he had no hand in planting, and Christians, most of whom he had never met, to welcome her and provide anything she needed. She was not only a deacon and a benefactor in the church, but Paul himself had also benefited from her generous leadership.

Prayer: “Filled with your Holy Spirit, gracious God, your earliest disciples served you with the gifts each had been given: Lydia in business and stewardship, Dorcas in a life of charity and Phoebe as a deacon who served many. Inspire us today to build up your Church with our gifts in hospitality, charity and bold witness to the Gospel of Christ; who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen” (from Satucket.com).

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Aug 212014
 

I preached on the story of Jesus and the Canaanite Woman twice this summer. Once for a conference and the second time at my church. With the two different audiences I needed two different applications. Here is how I took the same Scripture passages and interpretations, but came up with two different applications specific to each audience.

This sermon was preached at my home church, Chicago Grace Episcopal Church on August 17, 2014.

Not Taking No for an Answer

Matthew 15:21-28 (Mark 7:24-30)
Year A, Proper 15 (Year B, Proper 18)

Jesus left that place and withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman came out. “Have mercy on me, Lord, son of Bathsheba and David!” she cried. “My daughter is severely oppressed by a demon!”

But he didn’t say a thing.

His disciples came and begged him. “Send her away,” they said, “because she bothers us.”

He answered, “I wasn’t sent to anyone but the lost sheep of Israel.”

But she approached and bowed to him. “Lord, help me,” she said.

“It is not right to throw the children’s bread to the dogs,” he answered.

“Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

Then Jesus answered, “Woman, your trust is great! What you want will be done for you.” Her daughter Was healed that very hour (Matthew 15:21-28, New Testament: Divine Feminine Version).

4.2.7We read about two women in the Gospels who talked back to Jesus: Martha, the sister of Mary and Lazarus, and the Canaanite or Syro-Phoenician Woman in this passage. That these two women stood up to Jesus and talked back to him is usually explained away, if it’s even acknowledged. In one scene, Martha was tired from cooking; in the other, her brother had just died: of course she’s snippy, and Jesus is patient. In this scene, the Gentile woman knows that Jesus is just teasing her, and she plays along. Martha and this woman’s backbones are covered up, their nerve shoved into a corner. Neither of these women thought silence and submission was the way to go.

We have two very different stories about this women in the Gospels. We heard Matthew’s version, now let’s look at Mark’s:

Jesus left that place and went to the region of Tyre. He went into a house and didn’t want anyone to know it, but he couldn’t escape notice. A woman whose little daughter had a corrupting spirit heard about him and immediately came and fell down at his feet. She was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. Jesus said to her, “Let the children eat first, because it’s not right to throw the children’s bread to the dogs.”

“Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

He said, “For saying that, you may go. The demon has left your daughter.”

She went home and found the child lying on the bed. The demon was gone (Mark 7:24-30, NT: DFV).

What is the biggest difference you see between these two accounts? Matthew adds the disciples. They don’t appear in Mark’s account. After seeing the way Jesus comes off in Mark’s account of this story it’s not hard to see why Matthew added the disciples and made them the bad guys. After all when you trying to convince a Gentile audience that Jesus in the Savior of the world, it doesn’t look good for that Savior to ignore a Gentile in such great need.

In Mark’s account Jesus had been healing and teaching. He fed the multitude of 5,000. He had been debating (fighting) with the religious leaders. He came to a totally pagan, Gentile area to get away from everything. He was here for a break. He was not here to teach, to heal, or to fight. No one knew him here. He could sneak in, get some rest, and sneak out again. Or so he thought. Since Jesus was trying to stay incognito, we don’t know how the woman knew he was in the neighborhood. I grew up in a small town where everyone knew everyone else’s business, so my guess is she heard it through the local grapevine. She found out a great healer was in town, and she decided to act. She went to the house where Jesus was keeping a low profile, and there she fell at his feet begging him to heal her daughter, who was demon-possessed.

Based on everything we’ve previously read about Jesus in the Mark, we expect Jesus to act immediately. We expect him to get up and go with this woman to her daughter, like he did with Jairus in the previous chapter. We also know from chapter 5 Jesus had no qualms about healing Gentiles in Gentile territory: he healed the Gentile demoniac in the country of the Gerasenes. His first healing in Mark was healing a man with leprosy by touching him. But what we expect does not happen in this story.

Instead he told the woman, “It’s not right to throw the children’s bread to the dogs.” At this point (if we are honest with ourselves) our jaws drop, and we wonder “What happened to Jesus?”

A dog. Jesus called her a dog, a term of derision for Gentiles. But this woman is quick-witted, and she’s not going to take no for an answer. She let the insult slide over her with this incisive retort: “Yes, but even the dogs get to lick up the crumbs on the floor.”

Because this woman did not take no for an answer, because this woman did not submit–even to the Son of God–because she stood her ground, Jesus changed his mind. He had not come here to heal. He didn’t want to heal this woman’s daughter. But in the end he did heal the daughter. He did because of the woman’s retort. This woman’s daughter was healed because she talked back to Jesus, and didn’t assume her place was one of quiet submission. She didn’t take no for an answer, not even from the Son of God himself.

In Matthew’s version of the story, Jesus is passive, but he’s not the only one who is telling her no. The disciples—the representatives of the church are. And thanks to a man I met a few years ago who grew up in the Middle East, we have a different way to interpret this passage where Jesus uses the woman to help teach his disciples, his church, a few lessons.

Reverend Nadim Nassar, an Anglican priest, grew up in Syria and went to school in Lebanon. He now lives in London. There is a very cultural thing he grew up with that explains perfectly what is going on in Matthew if we know Middle Eastern culture. In the Middle East when the eldest son marries, he still lives at home with his parents, and his wife comes to live with the family. This is because as the main heir, the eldest son is expected to take care of his parents in their old age.

When the mother-in-law doesn’t like something the daughter-in-law is doing, or doesn’t think the daughter-in-law is treating her with enough respect, the mother-in-law does not tell the daughter-in-law. She complains about it to a neighbor in the daughter’s-in-law hearing.

“Miriam, do you know how my daughter-in-law treats me? I tell her every night, dry the dishes with a towel, don’t air dry them! But does she listen to me?”

“Abraham, have I told you how my daughter-in-law doesn’t respect me? I told her to water the garden this morning. Bah! Just look at my poor tomatoes withering away in this harsh sunlight!”

You get the idea. Now take this idea and apply it to the story. Jesus is the mother-in-law. The disciples are the daughters-in-law. The Canaanite woman is the neighbor. So what does that mean Jesus is doing in this story? In Mark’s story Jesus is the one who’s being exclusive, showing the members of Mark’s community that even Jesus was corrected when he thought the gospel was just for the Jews. In Matthew, the disciples want Jesus to send the woman away, and he takes a minute to teach the disciples (Matthew’s community) the gospel was not just for the Jews.

Jesus: “Look at my daughters-in-law thinking God is just for them. You called me ‘Son of Bathsheba and David.’ You know I can’t take the kids’ food and feed it to the dogs who come wandering in.”

Woman: “Oh you poor thing. Such disrespect. But you know even the dogs get the crumbs the children leave behind.”

Even in this context I think the woman surprises Jesus with her retort. Jesus: “Woman you have great faith. Go. Your daughter is healed.”

(Exegesis and interpretation is taken from my book What You Didn’t Learn in Sunday School: Women Who Didn’t Shut Up and Sit Down, ch. 3.)

I like this interpretation because it uses women’s roles and experiences to interpret Scripture. How often does that happen? Even about women in the Scripture? I always wondered what Matthew’s female listeners felt when they realized their life experiences were being used to proclaim the gospel.

But in the end two things remain constant in these two stories: Exclusivity is the first. Jesus, the disciples, and people in Matthew and Mark’s communities thought that God’s grace was limited, that it wasn’t for everyone. The other constant in this story is this woman telling Jesus, the disciples, and the Christian community NO—grace is always inclusive, and God’s healing power is for everyone. This woman does not take no for an answer when that no marginalizes her and limits God’s grace. In Mark she doesn’t take no for an answer from Jesus. In Matthew she doesn’t take no for an answer from the church. We have a lot to learn from this woman and her spiritual children.

Sometimes those who see where the church is failing in loving inclusively are those who are outside our doors. Those we fail to love. And my challenge to us is this: that we listen to them. That we listen to the children of this brave Canaanite woman who looked the Son of God in the eye then looked at the church standing behind him and said, “No, you will not exclude me and my daughter from God’s love and grace.”

It’s a hard thing to do. To listen to where we are failing our neighbors, confess, repent, and then do what must be done to love our neighbors—all of our neighbors—as ourselves. But Jesus did it. He realized he was wrong. In the end he listened to this woman, and he healed her daughter. This woman taught Jesus that salvation was not for the Jews alone.

I have a hard challenge for us. The next time we hear someone outside of our faith criticize the church, we listen. We don’t jump to defend our beliefs. We don’t start formulating responses while they are still talking. But we listen. And we ask ourselves: is what they are saying true? Are we failing in this area to show God’s inclusive love just at The Canaanite Woman showed Jesus were he was failing to show God’s inclusive love? Is the person complaining her spiritual child calling us to a deeper understanding of God’s mercy and grace? I don’t know how the conversation will go from there, but it can’t help but go in a better direction when we can honestly tell someone you’re right: we’ve screwed up there. How can we do better? Then listen to the answer.

And if you have one of these conversations, please tell the rest of us about it. Bring it back to the church, so that we, as the body of Christ in the South Loop of Chicago, can learn to be more loving, more grace-filled, more merciful, just like our Mother in heaven.

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 Posted by at 10:36 am
Jul 302014
 

Earlier this month I was a guest on the vlog Talk Gnosis with my good friend Bishop Lainie Petersen (Independent Gnostic Church). We talked about why women are leaving churches and other organized religion for groups like the Gnostics as well as Pagan and Wiccan spirituality.

 

We followed that up in the one hour After Dark Podcast you can find here.

What about you?

Are you still in church? Or have you found another home for your spirituality where you don’t feel like a second-class citizen at best and a glorified slave at worse?

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 Posted by at 4:21 pm
May 202014
 

My article “Family Redefined” was published in the June edition of Gather, a monthly magazine for women in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. In it I talk about my decision not to have children, my trepidation over coming out of the childfree closet, and why I think the church’s definition of family is too narrow and small. The article is available in the print edition. Please buy the magazine and support your ECLA sisters.

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 Posted by at 10:47 am