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Vocation – Shawna R. B. Atteberry
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
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:


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.


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.


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 the Christian Feminism Today’s biannual conference The Gathering 2014 on June 29, 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. My sisters in Christ, we have a lot to learn from this woman.

Intelligent daughters of God. Strong daughters of God. Inspired daughters of God. How often do you take no for an answer?

Loving daughters of God? Presevering daughters of God? Gifted daughters of God. How often do you take no for an answer?

Can I make a confession? I take no for an answer far too often. In my ministry. In my writing. In my life. After all we have been brainwashed into believing that’s what, we as women, should do. Basically anything beyond marriage and children: we are told no. And all too often we accept that answer and adjust our lives accordingly.

I’m ashamed to say I do this everyday.

Yes, we have a lot to learn from our Canaanite sister. We have a lot to learn from this incredible spiritual foremother who stood her ground, looked the son of God in the eye, looked at the church standing behind him, and said, “No” back.

“No. I am not a dog.”

“No, I am not worthless because I’m a Gentile.”

“No, you cannot ignore me because I’m a woman.”

“No, you will not walk away. You will heal my daughter.”


There are two things we as women are taught about the word no. The first is we should take it as an answer. The second is that we should never say it. It’s amazing how one little two letter word can rob us of our agency. Our autonomy. Our sovereignty.

My challenge for us as we leave this holy place and journey back to our daily lives is that we will take the Canaanite Woman with us, and we will let her teach us two very important lessons: How not to take no for an answer. And how to say no in response to those who would limit us.

Where do you need to stop taking no for an answer? Where do you need to start saying no to those who would limit your choices? Your career? Who you are?

As we get ready to return to our normal, everyday lives, I challenge us, yes me included—I challenge us to let this incredible woman walk with us and teach us how to stand up for ourselves and stand up to those who would limit us. I pray she will teach every, single one of us how to stop taking no for an answer.

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 Posted by at 10:29 am
Jun 072012

This post is for the Week of Mutuality, the incredible brain child of Rachel Held Evans.

Eight little verses. Eight verses out of 31,103 verses in the entire Bible have been used to screw women over for 2,000 years. Eight little verses. These eight little verses somehow negate all of the verses we have that tell of women leaders in the Bible. This minority witness of two groups of early Christians somehow trumps the majority witness of the Bible that Godde uses women to be judges, prophets, deacons, evangelists, and apostles. Many of these women appear in the New Testament. Phoebe is a deacon and patron of the church. Lydia is the first convert to Christianity in Europe, and her home hosts the first Euporean church. Junia is an apostle. But it seems as Christianity grew there were communities of Christians who started to limit women’s leadership in order to blend in with their Greco-Roman culture.

The early Church did not have one set of beliefs or practice that all the groups scattered across the Roman Empire agreed on. There were many different groups:

  • The Ebonites who believed Gentiles had to become Jewish in order to follow Jesus, the Jewish Messiah (this is the group Paul railed against in Galatians). There is historical evidence that the leader of this group was James, the brother of Jesus, so this group was headquartered in Jerusalem.
  • Then there were the churches Paul founded who believed that to become a Christian one had to believe and confess Jesus as the Messiah and Godde’s only Son who had come to save the world from its sins. Obeying the Torah and being circumcised were not required: only faith in Christ.
  • The early gnostic churches believed that Jesus did not become human, but only appeared to be human because Godde, who was pure spirit, could not take on material flesh, which they viewed as sinful. Therefore, Jesus could not have been fully human and fully Godde.

We see from these three examples that there were various beliefs in the early Church before Constantine legalized Christianity in the mid 4th century and required there to be one central doctrine and belief that governed all churches. For the first three centuries of the church what Christianity looked and how Christianity was practiced was different from one region of the Roman empire to the next. As we discover in 1 and 2 Corinthians different churches in the same city couldn’t agree on their beliefs and practice.

As I said before as churches began to grow and catch the interest of those in power in cities and regions, some churches opted to enforce cultural Greco-Roman household codes in the churches (which met in homes). They wanted to appear as good citizens, and they could not do that with women leaders within the church. Therefore, we get the eight little verses from a group of churches who thought it best to put women in their “proper” place of submissive servitude under their husbands.

Here are the eight verses:

As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.– 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35, NRSV

Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.– 1 Timothy 2:11-15

But one group of Christians had a problem with this. The Johannine churches who traced their origin back to John the Apostle. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza has a fascinating argument that the Gospel of John was written to refute those communities that were trying to limit women in leadership positions (see In Memory of Her, pp. 323-333). John’s community did not agree with the churches who were trying to silence women and keep them from leading local churches, so they collected early stories of Jesus and the women Jesus surrounded himself with, and produced the Gospel of John: 879 verses to refute the eight little verses.

Here are the strong women leaders Jesus’ own life and ministry:

Mary of Nazareth aka Jesus’ mother

In John 2 Mary goaded Jesus into his first miracle. There’s no other way to put it. Mary noted the wine at the wedding is running out. Jesus replied: “That has nothing to do with me. My time has not come.” Probably right in front of Jesus, Mary told the servants to do whatever Jesus told them to do. Then she waited. Jesus did what she wanted: he provided wine for the rest of the wedding feast.

Mary not only appears at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in John, she is also at the end at the foot of the cross. This implies that she was with Jesus through his whole ministry. On the cross Jesus told the beloved disciple (who represents the Johannine community) that Mary was now his mother. John’s community is saying that Mary, Jesus’ mother, was part of their community, which gives significant weight to this community’s story and their witness of women leaders in their tradition.

The Samaritan Women at the Well

In John 4 Jesus met a Samaritan woman coming for water. What started as a request for water turned into a theological discussion with Jesus about the pressing issues of her time. When Jesus told her he knew she’s had five husbands, and the man she lives with now is not her husband, her response was that Jesus was a prophet. Jesus told her he was the Messiah. Something he didn’t tell Nicodemus in John 3. A woman was the first person Jesus told he was the Messiah, the one she and her people had been waiting for. When she left to tell her people about Jesus, it wasn’t because Jesus commanded her and sent her to bear witness. This woman went to her people on her own. She convinced her entire town to come and meet Jesus. The first evangelist in the Gospel of John is the Samaritan Woman. (For more on The Samaritan Woman see Meeting God at Wells.)


In John we meet Martha in chapter 11, 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 where Martha lived. Martha met Jesus on the road and accused him of letting Lazarus die. But in her anger and grief, she still believed that Godde would do what Jesus asked. When Jesus asked her if she believed that Jesus 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 Godde, not Peter. In John Martha’s confession is the rock the church is built on. So my question is this: Pope Martha anyone? (For more on Martha see The New Testament Church: Built by homemakers like Martha.)

Mary of Bethany

After Jesus raised Lazarus, there was a feast at Simon the Leper’s house where Martha was busy serving, and Jesus and Lazarus were reclining at the table. Mary knelt at Jesus’ feet broke open a jar of ointment and anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. When Judas began to berate her for the waste Jesus defended her saying, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” (John 12:7).

Mary listened when Jesus said he was going to Jerusalem to die, and she prepared Jesus for his burial. Her act also foreshadowed Jesus washing the disciples’ feet in John 14. This was a prophetic act of compassion and service. Mary was a prophet of the new community who would serve each other out of love and not lord it over each other as the pagans did. (For more on Mary’s prophetic act see Stories of Redemption: God Really Does Keep Doing New Things, scroll down to last third of sermon.)

Mary Magdala

In the Gospel of John we meet Mary Magdala at the cross with Mary of Nazareth and the Beloved Disciple. She watched Jesus die, and she saw where Jesus was buried. She went to the tomb before dawn to complete Jesus’ burial. On finding his body gone, she ran to Peter and the Beloved Disciple and told them what happened. The two disciples went to the tomb, but didn’t stay long. Mary remained. Her grief was so great two angels didn’t phase her. When she saw Jesus she thought he was the gardener. She recognized Jesus when he called her name, showing she was a true disciple (My sheep know my voice, John 10).

I think it’s interesting that Jesus did not appear while Peter was there. Jesus waited until Mary was alone. Then Jesus commissioned Mary to go tell his disciples he had risen.

This makes Mary the first apostle.

The eleven do not become apostles until they’ve seen the risen Christ. That’s one of the requirements to be an apostle: to see the risen Lord. Mary Magdala was not the Apostle to the Apostles. Mary Magdala was the first apostle. (For more on Mary Magdala see Career Women of the Bible Sneak Peak: Mary Magdalene.)


In response to those eight little verses that attempt to limit women’s leadership within Christian communities the Gospel of John replies that’s impossible because:

  • Jesus’ mother was responsible for his first miracle.
  • The first evangelist was a woman.
  • The confessor of faith was a woman.
  • A woman prophet prepared Jesus for his burial.
  • A woman was the first apostle.

According to John’s community women have always been active and strong leaders in the Jesus movement from the very beginning. May be it’s time for Christians to take the 879 verses of John as seriously as they take those eight little verses that are obviously a minority opinion in the early Christian church.

This is a summary of my workshop, Women in the Gospel of John: The Johannine Community’s response to other Christian Communities’ limiting women leaders. If you would like me to speak at your church, retreat, or women’s group, please email me.

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 Posted by at 12:39 pm
Jun 062012

This post is in response to Rachel Held Evans’ “ One In Christ: A Week of Mutuality, dedicated to discussing an egalitarian view of gender—including relevant biblical texts and practical applications.  The goal is to show how scripture, tradition, reason, and experience all support a posture of equality toward women, one that favors mutuality rather than hierarchy, in the home, Church, and society. Morning posts will generally focus on biblical texts. Afternoon posts will generally focus on practical application.”

Growing up in an evangelical church, I heard some about the women of the Bible. Not much. Just enough to tell me that Godde’s will for me was to grow up, get married, and have kids. That’s what Christian women did. That’s what the women in the Bible did. And sure enough, whenever I heard about the women in the Bible, they were wives and mothers, taking care of their families.

But submission of wives to husbands was not the only thing I learned growing up evangelical. I also learned how important it was to read the Bible and know what the Bible says. As far as I’m concerned, the “knowing your Bible” emphasis backfired on the movement with me. Because I started noticing something. I started noticing women weren’t only wives and mothers. I learned women didn’t always submit to their husbands. I learned there were single women in the Bible who never married or had children.

The women in the Bible I came to know through my own study were totally different women than I grew up with in Sunday Schools and sermons. These were tough women, strong women, and intelligent women. I found out women were judges, prophets, worship leaders, and business women. I found out a man would not go to war without a certain woman by his side. I found out women were evangelists, preachers, and patrons of the church. I found out these women had been set to the side and put in the shadows. They had been marginalized and ignored because they weren’t simply wives and mothers. They showed women could be more, much more.

Thanks to women coming into Biblical studies and theology, these women’s stories are being told. But we have a long way to go. So how do we go about bringing these women to center stage? How do we bring them out of the shadows?

How do we go about bringing the women of the Bible out of hiding?

The most important thing you can do is ask two questions: What does the story say? What doesn’t the story say? We come to the Bible with layer on layer on layer of interpretations and tradition. We come to the Bible with layer upon layer of assumptions and other cultural norms being imposed on the story. We come with our own assumptions and cultural baggage. Reading and re-reading and reading again the story and seeing what’s there and what isn’t there is the most important thing we can do. In the process of reading and re-reading the story and asking “what does this story say,” “what doesn’t this story say,” we begin to peel away the layers of interpretations and traditions and assumptions. We begin to see the cultural baggage of our own time and past times that have been hung on the story.

This is particularly important when reading the stories of biblical women. A lot of cultural baggage regarding what women are supposed to be like gets attached to these women. We’ve seen this again and again with the women we have studied in this book.


Deborah and Barak lead Israel's army into battle

Deborah gets buried under a lot of baggage (Judges 4). The part of Christianity that believes women were made to be helpers to their husbands, that women are to be submissive wives and mothers, do not like Deborah. They do one of two things to her: 1) they ignore her or 2) they explain away her leadership roles. If they have to admit Godde does call women to lead in both religious and civil settings (including leading men), they have to admit their interpretation of the Bible is wrong. Instead they marginalize the women leaders in the Bible, like Deborah. Here’s how they diminish Deborah’s role: 1) the only reason Deborah is a judge is because no man would step up to the plate. Deborah is Godde’s last resort. 2) Deborah and Barak were married, so Barak was the leader and Deborah was his helpmate. 3) Deborah’s husband Lappidoth was a commander with Barak, so Deborah is under her husband’s authority.

This is why it’s so important to read and re-read the story and see what is really there. And just importantly, to see what’s not there. A lot of what we believe about biblical women and how Christian women should behave and act simply is not in the Bible. It’s all been added on. Or the stories that back up the presuppositions are the ones we hear about while the rest are changed or ignored.

The second thing we need to realize is the Bible is all about action. The Bible is not all that interested in motives. In the Bible, you show who you are and what your motives are by what you do. Actions always take precedence over motive. When we look at the stories of the Biblical women, one of the first things we ask is what does this woman do? What are her actions? Then we ask, what do these actions say about the woman? And what do the woman’s actions say about Godde?

After we ask what does the story say? What doesn’t it say? And what do the actions in this story say? We look at the history and culture these women lived in, which changes throughout the Bible.

Women’s and men’s roles change from culture to culture and from one era to the next. During the time of the Hebrew Scriptures, it was the women’s job to not only make the tents, but to put them up and then take them down again. So when we read in Judges 4 that tent pegs and a hammer are in Jael’s tent in easy reach for her, this rings true. Of course the pegs and hammer would be in her tent; she assembled the tent and broke it down when it was time to move on. When the Israelites started settling down in houses, the men built them. But it was the woman’s job to repair them by replacing bricks and fixing the roof. It may be considered man’s work today, but 4,000 years ago, it was women’s work. Gender roles do change from culture to culture and over time. They are not static.

Another thing we need to know is that the more the government is centralized, the less of a role a woman has in the public sphere. We saw this with Deborah: during the time of the tribes—a decentralized government—a woman could be a military leader. That will change with the monarchy. During the monarchy when power is centralized to the king, the priests, and the ruling elite, women leaders disappear. The only two woman leaders who really appear at this time are Jezebel and Huldah. Jezebel had power and knew how to use it, which is why I think she gets cast as “evil,” idolatry and all (1 Kings 16:29—22:40; 2 Kings 9:30-37). At the end of the monarchy in Jerusalem Huldah appears, but she is a safe woman leader (2 Kings 22 and 2 Chronicles 34). She is married to the keeper of the wardrobe for the palace, so she is upper class. And she is a prophet, which was still a safe role for women. You would not find a Deborah during this time.

The last thing to remember about the Bible is that obedience is more important than cultural norms. Read that again: obedience is more important than cultural norms. The cultural norm in Egypt at the time Moses was born was to throw baby boys into the Nile (Exodus 1–2). Jochebed obeyed God by breaking both the law of the land and what was culturally expected of her. She was a slave; she was expected to obey her human rulers, period. She didn’t. She obeyed Godde. In Genesis the cultural norm said it was the patriarch who decided who would be the next clan leader and the heir of the covenant with Godde. Issac was going to bless Esau and pass leadership on to him. But the matriarch, Rebekah, knew Jacob was the child of promise and the heir. So Rebekah became a trickster (a role that ran rampant in her family) and manipulated the situation so Jacob received the blessing (Genesis 27).

The three historical and cultural things to remember when reading these women’s stories are: gender roles change, the more decentralized a government the more power women have in the public sphere, and in the Bible obedience is always more important than cultural norms. How do these three things change how you read the stories of the women in the Bible?

This passage is an excerpt from What You Didn’t Learn in Sunday School: Women Who Didn’t Shut Up and Sit Down.

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 Posted by at 11:01 am
Mar 092012

Today is the feast day of one of the few married woman saints: Frances of Rome. I found it highly ironic and funny that this was today’s Epistle reading in The Book of Common Prayer:

Now about what you wrote: “It’s good for people not to touch each other.” But because of promiscuity, everyone should have their own spouse. Spouses should fulfill their duty to each other. Committed people don’t have authority over their own bodies, but their spouses do. Don’t deprive each other, except by mutual consent for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to [fasting and] prayer, and then come together again so the Satan won’t tempt you because of your lack of self-control. But I say this as a concession, not as a precept. I actually wish that all people were like me. But everyone has their own gift from Godde; one has this and another has that.

I say to the single and widowed, it’s good for them if they remain like me. But if they don’t have self-control, they should marry, because it’s better to marry than to burn with passion. (1 Corinthians 7:1-9, DFV)

Aah Paul, you old curmudgeon. The thing I hate the most about his allowance to marriage is that  he doesn’t even use his own Jewish tradition to defend marriage. He says, “Well, OK, if you’re going to screw anything with two legs then get married, but you really should be a curmudgeonly celibate single like me.” (Disclaimer: I was single for 36 years and loved it–thought for awhile I might not marry–now I am married. I LOVE being married. I’ve been happy on both sides of the fence.)

Here is what Paul’s defense of marriage should have looked like:

Aquila and Priscilla

Remember why our Godde created marriage in the first place. In the beginning…

Sophia-Yahweh said, “It is not good for the human to be alone. I will make it a power equal to it.”

Sophia-Yahweh caused the human to fall into a deep sleep. As the human slept, Godde took one of its ribs, and closed up the flesh in its place. Sophia-Yahweh made a woman from the rib which was taken from the man, and brought her to the man. The man said, “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh. She will be called ‘woman,’ because she was taken out of man.” Therefore a man will leave his father and his mother, and will join with his wife, and they will be one flesh (Genesis 2:18, 21-24, adapted from the World English Bible).

So you see dear sisters and brothers in Corinth, it is fine if you want to stay single, but marriage is Godde-ordained as well. Godde made marriage because it was not good for the human to be alone. Now the communion does not have to be marriage–that’s why Jesus had disciples. It is not good for us to be alone, which is why we need both marriage and community. We can’t make it though this life alone. Both marriage and celibacy have their place in the world and in the community. Some will stay single like me. Most will marry like Peter and his wife (1 Corinthians 9:5), Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:2), and Andronicus and Junia (Romans 16:7). Both celibates and couples can serve Godde and bring Godde’s kingdom into the here and now by loving each other, loving the stranger, and showing the world around us that life can be different.

That’s what Paul should’ve said to the Corinthians.

Saint Frances is the perfect example of this vision of the Christian life and marriage. She lived what Paul should have said.

Saint Frances of Rome

Saint Frances ministering in her house and church

I am used to seeing medieval women saints as nuns. Either they are single or a widow. I was delighted a few years ago when I discovered a married woman saint who lived during the 14th century. March 9 is the feast day of St. Frances of Rome who was a Benedictine oblate. She was also married. An oblate is a lay person who is connected to a Benedictine community and observes The Rule of St. Benedict in their daily life at home and work. St. Frances founded a lay congregation of women called the Oblates of Mary; they were attached to the church of Santa Maria Nova in Rome. The order she founded is now known as the Oblates of Saint Frances of Rome. In this period of Christianity there were nuns who chose God’s highest calling and wives who settled for marriage. Rarely have I read of a woman who was both a contemplative and wife. Not to mention a saint. And she didn’t settle. She obeyed Godde’s calling for her life right where she was in her marriage and home.

After her marriage, [Frances] continued an intense spiritual life of reading, prayer and visiting churches . . . she built a chapel in their palace, visited the sick, gave alms to the poor, and nursed patients in the hospital of Santo Spiritu. The tension she experienced in trying to combine intense devotions with the life of a wealthy Roman matron resulted in a breakdown. After a year of suffering, she was miraculously healed by a vision of St. Alexis.

From this crisis, Frances learned how to offer the three always interwoven threads of her life to God: first her family life, including her children, household duties, and role as wife. Second her civic life of healer, spiritual director, organizer of almsgiving and charity for the poor of Rome. Finally, her spiritual life with its liturgical and mystical experiences. Interweaving these three threads is characteristic of Benedictine spirituality: just as the Rule counsels the monk to take his brothers into account in every aspect of his life in the monastery, so Frances continuously responded to her family and her city. Like a monk who finds in the enclosure of the monastery not a prison, but a home, she created a sphere of inner freedom within the confines of this dense community.

. . . [After the death of her mother-in-law], the family unanimously chose Frances to run the household. . . She was seventeen. . . She was thus in charge of a large, wealthy Roman estate, supervising servants and overseeing kitchens, food purchases and harvests. Because of their political sympathies, the family figured prominently as a center for papal support in Rome, and she was in charge of the entertaining associated with their role in the drama of the divided papacy…

Frances longed attracted the attention of women who wanted to give their time, wealth, and energy to the sick and the poor. Now they approached her asking her to give institutional expression to their way of life. They were attracted to the Benedictine order. . . Characteristic of their freedom, the oblates could live either in community or in their homes. . . .The women who followed this path did so freely, unlike the medieval children entrusted as oblates who were unable to choose for themselves. However, like the child oblates, they brought with them monetary funds to build up the common good. (From Benedict in the World, Portraits of Monastic Oblates quoted in Benedictine Daily Prayer.)

You can find out more about from St. Frances at Catholic.org and Wikipedia.

Lord God, in Saint Frances you have given us a rare model of both married and religious life. Teach us to serve you with constancy so that we may be able to see and follow you in all circumstances of our daily existence. Amen.


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 Posted by at 5:20 pm
Mar 052012

Dr. Jann Aldredge-Clanton interviewed me for her Changing Church series. You can read the interview here. Jann’s Changing Church series highlights women in ministry, and how we are working to change how the church sees Godde and women. The blog series is a continuation of her recent book: Changing Church: Stories of Liberating Ministers. Jann has also done a lot of writing on the Divine Feminine, and I love the question on her website: “If God can include 3 persons, can’t God include 2 genders and more?” I highly recommend her books In Whose Image? God and Gender and In Search of the Christ-Sophia: An Inclusive Christology for Liberating Christians. You can find more information about her books here (she’s written several).

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 Posted by at 10:29 am