Shawna Atteberry

Writer, Editor, Researcher

Keeping Lent in the Pandemic: Practicing Contentment

Contentment

Last year in February I started planning my birthday. It was my 50th, and I planned a bash. We rented out our building’s Party Room, planned the menu with my good friend Kim Callis (an excellent personal chef), sent out invitations, and The Hubby and I were shopping for party favors and decorations. A week and a half before Shawna’s 50th Birthday Bash, we canceled–the state of Illinois was shutting down and sheltering-in-place for two months (hah!). I thought I could reschedule for June. Then a friend with a yard talked about having a cook-out for those of us who had pandemic birthdays at the end of the summer. Now I’m looking at my second pandemic birthday still sheltering-in-place. Needless to say, I haven’t done much planning this year. I did see a cool cake recipe on Nadia Bakes that I am going to make for myself Friday.

As you know I was determined to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and practiced joy that week. I feel pretty ambivalent about my birthday. But practicing ambivalence doesn’t sound like a practice I should intentionally do.

It’s the Little Things

So I’m practicing contentment. Am I going out for my birthday this year? No. Will I see my friends? No. That’s OK. I am content. My husband and I are healthy and so are our families. Our moms and older family members have all been vaccinated. We are having gorgeous spring weather in Chicago (I have windows open as I write this). We are financially sound and have a comfortable home that is more sanctuary and less prison to us even after a year of this. I have plenty in my life to be happy about and feel content about. So maybe a party next year.

Like gratitude and joy, you have to be paying attention and be mindful to practice contentment. Once again it is normally the small things that bring the most contentment: a hug, a smile, sunlight through the window, a cup of coffee before anyone else is up, enjoying the quiet.

Contentment and Consumerism

I think this is an important practice to cultivate in our consumer culture. We are constantly told we aren’t enough, and we don’t have enough, or what we have isn’t good enough. But this company’s product will solve all of our problems! I think one of the most counter-cultural actions American Christians can practice is to be content–being content with who we are and with what we have. Not to say we shouldn’t have ambitions and plans, but those ambitions and plans should be about more than getting another tech toy or car or another diet to lose 15 pounds.

I am content with my quiet birthday at home this year. I’m also content with another virtual Holy Week and Easter. I am looking forward to being vaccinated and finally seeing and hugging (there will be a lot of hugging) my friends and finally returning to our church building and worshiping in Grace’s sanctuary. I am also looking forward to not being anxious when there are too many people around. But until I can do that safely for all of the people I love, I am content to shelter-in-place and celebrate (hopefully my last) pandemic birthday.

What about you? What are feeling content about? Where do you find contentment in your life?

Keeping Lent in the Pandemic: Practicing Joy

practicing joy

When a few different friends told me they weren’t sure if they were going to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day this year, I knew what Lenten practice I was going to focus on for this week: Practicing Joy. Of course, I celebrate the day differently than most people. I don’t go out for amateur hour bar hops, and green beer really just doesn’t interest me. I treat St. Patrick’s Day like I do any other holiday: I cook and bake and have people over. It sucks I can’t have friends over this year, but I have a terrific menu lined up for The Hubby and me, and we will be celebrating Wednesday.

Joy in the Little Things

The longer the pandemic went on the more and more obvious it became how important the spiritual fruit of joy–and noticing the joy in my own life–was going to be to help live with the depression, anxiety, and obsessing over how long this new way of life was going to last. Just as I found ways to practice kindness and gratitude, I found little things every day that brought me joy: learning a new recipe, writing a haiku, cuddling with my husband, and reading a good book. Like kindness and gratitude, I discovered practicing joy also depended on paying attention to the little things. If I waited for big things like going to church, seeing our families, or traveling, joy was going to be hard to come by.

I noticed my friends also taking joy in the little things. A wonderful friend out in Galena, IL, Cindy, posts her morning walk pictures on her Facebook and Instagram accounts. Her photos always include the sunrise, and honestly, it’s the only way I see the sunrise. Monique found great joy in getting her second Covid-19 vaccination. The weather filled Kate with joy when it actually acted like it was spring in March in Chicago, and she dug out her lawn furniture to enjoy the sun in her yard. My husband finds his joy on Friday Night Pizza Night complete with homemade pizza.

Practicing Joy Chicago-Style

The resilience of Chicagoans being able to find joy always impresses me. Last month when we had over four feet of snow, and the temperatures dropped to single digits, a person was photographed joyfully skiing through Grant Park. The kids didn’t care how cold it was, they were sledding and building armies of snowmen in all the parks. Two incredibly talented people sculpted the Eiffel Tower out of snow in the Logan Square neighborhood. Even Paris took joy in that!

I remember when I was younger, very little brought me joy. As Yoda described Luke Skywalker: “All his life has he looked away… to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing. Hmph. Adventure. Heh. Excitement. Heh.” I was the same in my 20s (aren’t we all?)–always looking for something else somewhere else to make me happy. Rarely noticing what was right in front of me. One of the blessings of being middle-aged is being able to see what is right in front of me and appreciating it. Taking joy in it.

What is right in front of you these days? When you stop looking to the future and notice the here and now, what is giving you joy? How will you practice joy (and celebrate St. Patrick’s Day) this week?

This article is part of an on-going series Keeping Lent in the Pandemic. You can also read about Practicing Kindness and Practicing Gratitude.

Keeping Lent in the Pandemic: Practicing Gratitude

Practicing Gratitude

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

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

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

Practicing Gratitude in Action

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

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

Miracles of Ordinary Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping Lent In the Pandemic: Practicing Kindness

Practicing Kindness

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

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

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

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

Practicing self-kindness

How am I kind to myself? I tell myself:

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

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

These are extraordinary times

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

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

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

Sermon: Let Love Be Genuine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon: When God Says No

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon: Into the Wilderness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Epiphany Sermon: Finding the Way Home

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.

The Proverbs 31 Woman: Dame Wisdom in Action

The Proverbs 31 Woman: Dame Wisdom in Action
Proverbs 31:10-31

Ah, the Proverbs 31 woman, let me count the ways I hate thee. I grew up hearing about this woman every Mother’s Day. How she was a good and submissive wife who obeyed her husband and took care of her kids and was happy with her life in the home. If you come from a conservative or fundamentalist Christian background like I did, you know what I’m talking about. Every single Mother’s Day the male pastor brushes off this passage and preaches how a good Christian woman ought to act. She’s the best wife, mother, and homekeeper of them all. She eschews the public sector to take care of her home and family. She keeps her house clean, obeys her husband and submits to him. She is a wonderful mother, and gets the meals on the table on time. She’s SuperWifeMom.

By the time I hit my teens I was groaning and tuning the pastor out. By the time I hit my early 30s, I was single, not too sure if I wanted to get married, and I knew I didn’t want do the whole kids thing. I stopped going to church on Mother’s Day. If there was one Saturday I conveniently forgot to set my alarm clock and not make it to church, without feeling guilty about it, it was Mother’s Day.

Unfortunately for the conservative evangelical background I grew up with, it was beat into my head that every good Christian reads the Bible for herself. She sees what is there, so she won’t fall into error. This backfired where I am concerned. I did read my Bible. I wanted to know what it said, and how I should act. And I noticed something. I noticed that what I heard all those years about the Proverbs 31 woman was not all of the story. In fact most of what I heard wasn’t even in the story! This woman was not restricted to her home and family. I got to know an entirely different women when I read her story for myself.

This woman is a household manager, industrious, produces and sells textiles, brings in income for the family, oversees planting of a vineyard and uses her own money to set it up. She has servants she oversees, she gives to the poor, and her household is a small business that provides for her family, and her husband is praised for it. This is not the picture of the stay-at-home mother that is normally depicted in sermons. She works both inside and outside of her home.

I learned there is a big difference when the Bible talks about a wife and how we talk about a wife, particularly a housewife. Carole Fontaine said this about that difference:

In the Bible, the term wife encodes a set of productive and managerial tasks that, along with a woman’s reproductive role, were essential to the existence of the Israelite household. There is no equivalent understanding of “wife” as a social category in the modern West, where women’s household work does not usually contribute to the family economy and tends to be ignored, trivialized, minimized, or otherwise degraded. The often insulting idea of “just a wife and mother” would have had no meaning in the biblical world.

Or as Rabbi Rosenfeld said at the beginning of his lecture on Proverbs 31: “First of all, let’s get one thing straight. Women have ALWAYS worked outside the home, and EVERY mother is a ‘working mother!” Women’s work was necessary for the survival of the family, and she generated income for the family. Textiles—the spinning, weaving, and making of fabric goods–drove the ancient economy for 20,000 years. Women’s work was the backbone of the ancient economy and the ancient household. And I will love Deirdre McCloskey forever for pointing that out to me. So this woman was much more than the imaginary 50s housewife some segments of Christianity hold up as the good Christian wife. I’m not hating her as much.

Then I discovered something about her this week that I never knew, and I may just be darn close to falling in love with her. While reading up on this passage one of the writers pointed out that this poem is filled with military imagery. In fact the word translated as capable in “a capable wife who can find?” is hayil. When it’s used for a man it’s translated as “strong” or “mighty,” and it’s normally used in the context of war. It also means the power that is able to acquire strength through gaining money and raising an army. Right off the bat, we are told this is a strong woman who knows how to get things done.

Then verse 11 says: “[her husband] will lack no gain” or spoils or booty. The writer, Raymond Van Leeuwen notes that using this word here is strange because it “suggests the woman is like a warrior bringing home booty from her victories.”

In verse 16 she “considers a field and buys it.” Here the word “buy” may not the best translation of the Hebrew. Literally, she “takes” the field, and this word is normally used of an army taking a city or a region. It means to conquer and subdue a territory. This verse shows the woman looking at a wild field and figuring out how to tame it and subdue it into a vineyard. In the Judean highlands turning a plot of land into a vineyard took a massive amount of work. The soil was rocky, and all of the rocks had to be removed, then the land terraced, and the rocks built into a wall, so that the vineyard didn’t wash down the hillside at the first good rain. It also had to be terraced to make sure that enough water stayed in the vineyard so the vines could grow. Like a general this woman surveys her battlefield and plans her attack. Anyone who has ever gardened knows this is not an over-exaggeration.

Verse 17 has the most obvious military language: “she girds herself with strength, and makes her arms strong” or in the good old King James Version, she “girded up her loins.” Men normally girded up their loins in the Bible for a heroic deed; a deed that involved fighting. Having a strong arm is another Biblical metaphor for being battle ready.

The end of the poem comes back to where we began with the word hayil. In verse 29 the woman’s husband tells her: “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.” Here hayil is translated as “done excellently.” The woman has done deeds of strength and power that again refer to warfare and gaining wealth. “Surpass them all” is another idiom for military activity–as in the army met the enemy and bested them.

So we see that this woman is not only pictured as a manager, entrepreneur, and merchant, she is also pictured as a military leader. There is nothing submissive or docile about this woman. She makes textiles, buys, sells, and fights for her family’s survival and good. And yes, she still sounds like SuperWoman. But there is a reason for that. Just as this woman is not the fictional housewife of the 50s, she is also not just a woman either.

I’ve always wondered why Proverbs 31 ended with this poem about this woman. So have others. It seems odd. And after all the focus on wisdom and gaining it, why does this book end with a woman going about her mundane daily activities? Part of the answer to this is how the Jewish sages defined wisdom. Wisdom was not just knowledge gained for knowledge’s sake. Wisdom was knowledge that was to be applied to everyday life. In the Bible God created the world and set boundaries and laws to govern what she created. Wisdom sought to define those boundaries and apply those laws to their daily lives. This woman is living wisdom.

But there is another reason why this book ends with a woman. It began with one. At the end of Proverbs 1 we are introduced to Dame Wisdom. We find out that Wisdom was with God when God created the heavens and earth. In fact, She was the master designer and architect of creation. She watched God bring order out of chaos. She rejoiced in creation, and calls out in the public square and city gates for men and women to follow her. She wants us to learn Her ways, so that She can give us good lives. She builds a house, prepares a feast, then goes out again to call everyone to come into Her house, eat Her feast, and learn Her ways. She continues to create and bring order to the world. After the tabernacle and temple are finished in the Hebrew Scriptures, there are huge feasts for all the people to celebrate. Wisdom does the same. She builds Her house then invites everyone over to celebrate. The last thing we hear about in Proverbs 9 is Dame Wisdom.

And the last thing we hear about in the book of Proverbs is the Wise Woman in the 31st chapter. The reason Proverbs ends with this woman is that it is showing us Dame Wisdom in action. This woman does everything Wisdom does in earlier chapters: she creates, brings order to chaos, feeds and clothes her family, and takes care of the poor. She doesn’t just live wisely, she is Wisdom Incarnate. These verses do not describe what the typical woman of that day is like. They are showing us Wisdom hard at work in the everyday world.

She shows us what we are called to do. Just like Dame Wisdom and the Wise Woman of Proverbs 31 we are called to live wisely in our everyday, mundane lives. We are called to learn what God wants, where our boundaries are and live by that everyday. For ancient Israel the boundary was there is only one God, YHWH, and YHWH alone will you worship and obey. For us as Christians our boundary is to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind and to love our neighbor as ourselves. That is our boundary. Day by day we have to figure out how to live that love at home, at work, in the store, on the sidewalk, and at church. Within the boundary of that love, we are called to create, to order the chaos around us, to build God’s realm and to celebrate God’s reign here on earth. Or as Elizabeth Barrett Browning put it:

And truly, I reiterate, . . nothing’s small!
No lily-muffled hum of a summer-bee,
But finds some coupling with the spinning stars;
No pebble at your foot, but proves a sphere;
No chaffinch, but implies the cherubim:
And,–glancing on my own thin, veined wrist,–
In such a little tremour of the blood
The whole strong clamour of a vehement soul
Doth utter itself distinct. Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware
More and more, from the first similitude.

Our call is to see God in our world and then live what we see. When we follow Wisdom and listen to Her, our eyes will be opened, and we will see the holy in everything. When we see the holy all around us then we will know how to live our own lives and show that holiness, God’s love, to others.

Originally posted on September 22, 2009.

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