Shawna Atteberry

Writer, Editor, Researcher

Sermon: Meeting God at Wells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(more…)

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

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

Christ in the House of Mary and Martha by Vincenzo Campi

Christ in the House of Mary and Martha by Vincenzo Campi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon: When God Says No

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

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

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

As I’m sure you can guess: I did not jump onto that particular bandwagon. But this idea has persisted for some time in Christianity: that if we are in a relationship with God then everything will turn out just fine, and we’ll basically get whatever we want because: God’s will! So it doesn’t make me happy when I see the lectionary has cherry picked a couple of verses out our Acts reading from two weeks ago to make it seem like everything was smooth sailing for Paul because he was obeying God.

We heard the story of how Paul came to Philippi on the fifth Sunday after Easter. But our reading picked up when Paul was at Troas waiting for God’s leading. It cut off the verses where the Holy Spirit kept blocking Paul’s path. It also leaves out that this trip, which is called Paul’s second missionary journey, didn’t have such a wonderful start.

Before Paul sets off he and Barnabas have a disagreement over who take with them on this journey. On the first missionary journey they embarked on, Barnabas’ cousin John Mark had went with them, but half way through the trip he returned home. Barnabas wanted to bring him again, but Paul didn’t want John Mark on this trip, since he didn’t finish the last trip with them. The two parted ways. Barnabas and Mark went to Cyprus, and Paul took Silas with him and heading out to check on the churches he and Barnabas had planted on their first trip.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Circling back to the beginning of this sermon with the Universe wants to give you whatever you want wishful thinking. That may be true of the universe, but it’s not true for God. God tells us no. The Holy Spirit sometimes even physically, emotionally or mentally blocks our way and herds us in the direction she wants us to go. Because God doesn’t necessarily want we what think is best for us. Or even what God knows is best for us. God is also thinking about what is best for everyone. The Holy Spirit is not only thinking of what is best for our own personal lives but also what is best for the people we are going to meet on any given day. The Holy Spirit’s purpose is to bring all of creation back into relationship with God, and this is why we as Christians cannot buy into the wishful thinking that doors are simply going to open for us because we want them to. They won’t. In fact, the Spirit may slam some of those doors in our face because she knows it’s not what best for us or for the world we live in. She’s going to direct us down those paths that not only do what is best for us in our personal relationships with God, but what’s also best for those we meet and their personal relationships with God.

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

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

Maundy Thursday Sermon Podcast: Anointing the King

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

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

 

Anointing The King
Mark 14:1-11

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

(Place container on the altar or pulpit)

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

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

(Look at container)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Pick up the container)

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

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

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

(Return container to altar or pulpit.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Related Posts
Sermon Meanderings: The Proverbs 31 Woman
Proverbs 31: A “Capable” Wife, Huh?
Poem: In the Beginning Was

Sermon: Not Taking No for an Answer (Part 2)

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

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

Not Taking No for an Answer

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

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

But he didn’t say a thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon: Not Taking No For an Answer (Part 1)

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.”

No.

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.

Pentecost: Blowing Where She Wills

Pentecost over Nature by Farid De La Ossa

This sermon was originally published on June 1, 2009.

She has been here from the beginning, stirring, creating, bringing form to chaos, and life to dust. In the beginning she brooded over the watery chaos waiting for God to give the word. In the fire, thunder, and smoke of Sinai she guarded the holiness of God and showed that approaching this god should not be taken lightly. When Elijah looked for God in fire, earthquake, and a storm, she came in sheer silence to show that she didn’t always appear with the flash and panache that human beings expect.

She gave birth to the church and is the One who gives us our unity, giftings, and words. But we don’t talk about her that much. In fact, the Church has never talked about the Holy Spirit much at all. She gets brushed to the side. She’s the runt of the Trinity no one wants to claim. And there’s a reason for this. The Holy Spirit scares us. We can’t control her. We can’t put restraints on her. We have our nice neat boxes for the other two members of the Trinity. God the Father and Mother is categorized with all of the attributes of God and put in the appropriate box. God the Son is neatly categorized by word and deed and placed in his box. For centuries theologians, scholars, teachers, and preachers have tried to do the same thing with the Spirit. But how do you put wind into a box?

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Sermon: The God of the Dead

The God of the Dead
The Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A
Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:1-42

The rocking chair was old, but it had been well made, and it’s structure was solid. It had been handmade, and made well. Unfortunately subsequent owners didn’t know what to do with wood. The layers upon layers of paint testified to that. Why did people paint over perfectly good wood? Hadn’t they any sense? It was her summer project. She set it out on her screened in back porch. It was going to take a lot of paint remover to get the layers upon layers of paint off, and she’d need plenty of ventilation. She was also going to need plenty of Q-tips to get the paint out of the grooves, the ridges, and the hand chiseled design on the back. But that was okay. She was a patient woman, and she had the perfect place in her living room for the rocking chair. Day after day she smoothed the paint remover on and wiped it off, humming quietly to herself. She patiently removed the paint in the grooves, ridges and carvings with Q-tips. The wood–the real wood–was beginning to show through. It was a beautiful mahogany, it’s red undertones still vibrant. Who in their right mind would paint over this? she continually thought. Finally, it was done. All the paint was off. The wood was dull and looked lifeless, but not for long. She carefully sanded it. She had to go to three different hardware stores, but she finally found varnish that matched the tone of the wood perfectly. She put on two coats of varnish, letting it dry in between. Then she waxed it to a shine. It looked new. It was no longer the old beat-up, glumly painted rocker that she had nearly stolen for $15 at a garage sale. It looked liked the handcrafted antique that it was. No telling, what she could get for it if she wanted to sell it. But that she wouldn’t do. She was now going to enjoy the fruits of her labor. She picked up the rocking chair, eased it through the back door and placed it in the living room next to her big picture window. It would be a wonderful place to read, to crochet, or just to watch TV in the evening. Everyone who came over oohed and ahhed over it. Including the woman she bought it from. The woman she bought it from never believed that the red mahogany rocker was the same battered up rocker she had just wanted to get rid of.

Some people have the ability to see something beyond what it is to what it could be. There are also people who have the ability to see beyond what a person is to what he or she could be. Jesus was one of these people. He saw beyond tax collectors, sinners, and prostitutes to people God loved and God could transform. He saw beyond reputations–good in Nicodemus’ case, not-so-good in the Samaritan woman’s case–to the heart and offered to them what they really needed. Like God, Jesus never gave up on anyone: even the dead.

But let’s begin with God who didn’t give up on Israel, even after their idolatry and trampling on each other put them into slavery. In fact, the people thought they were dead and in their graves. But God doesn’t give up on them. At the beginning of Ezekiel’s ministry God called him to call the people to repentance, so that they would not go into exile. But the people did not listen and Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed. In the second half of his ministry, God called Ezekiel to reassure the people that God was still their God and still with them. Our passage today is one of the strongest statements God makes to the Jews in exile, and one of the most mind blowing promises in Scripture.

In a vision Ezekiel sees a field of dried, strewn out bones. It looks as if they died in battle, no one buried them. This was an ancient way of making sure people didn’t move onto the next world after death. This is how the Jews saw themselves. They were in captivity, and their land was gone. They had no hope. But God gives Ezekiel a vision, an incredible vision. These bones that have been lying in this valley for so long they are now dried up are commanded to life. And God doesn’t just do it. God tells Ezekiel to prophesy and tell these bones to come together, for flesh to form and muscles to develop. God worked through the prophet God had called instead of just doing it. When God renews life, restores life, resurrects life, God wants to work with us.

After the bones have bodies, they are still not living. So God commands Ezekiel to command the wind–God’s Spirit–to come and breathe life into the bodies. This would remind Ezekiel’s audience of the creation story in Genesis when God made the human out of clay and breathed life into the body. Now through a prophet’s word God’s Spirit comes and breathes life into the bodies that have raised from “dem dry bones.” Then Ezekiel is to tell the exiles just as God raised a living army from these dry bones, so God will restore the people to their land. They will once again be a nation, in their land. They are not without hope. They are not dead in their graves. God still loves them and restores them to their original covenant with God.

Whereas God restored and resurrected a nation that had been destroyed, in our New Testament reading, Jesus will resurrect a friend and restore him to his family. John tells us that Jesus loves Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. They have a close friendship. So it is surprising when Jesus does not go when Martha and Mary send news that Lazarus is sick. Jesus waits two days and then travels to Bethany. When he gets there, Lazarus has been dead and buried for four days. Martha meets Jesus before he gets to the house and tells him that she knows her brother would not have died if Jesus had been there. She goes on to tell Jesus that even now she knows God will grant whatever Jesus asks. Martha and Jesus go on to have this conversation:

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

Whereas Peter has the ultimate confession of Jesus being the Messiah in the other three Gospels, in John, it is Martha who gives the ultimate confession of faith. She is the one who proclaims Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son that God has sent into the world. She also makes this confession before Jesus raises Lazarus. In John this is the faith that is true, the faith that Jesus is looking for. Faith that believes that Jesus is the Son of God apart from the miracles and signs.

After this Martha goes to Mary and tells her that Jesus wants to see her. Mary goes to Jesus and tells him the same thing Martha said: Lazarus would not be dead if Jesus had been there to heal him. Then they go to the tomb. At the tomb Jesus is greatly troubled and angry. He is angry because God hates the things that destroy us. Jesus came to make sure that sin and death no longer had the last word. In fact, this is the last event in his public ministry. After this Jesus prepares for his “hour,” his death, and tries to prepare the disciples as well. Jesus decides that death will not have the last word with Lazarus and his sisters. Jesus orders the stone to be removed from the front of the tomb. The always practical Martha reminds Jesus that Lazarus has been in the grave for four days–there will be a stench. Jesus reminds her of what he told her when she met him on the road to her house. If she believes she will see the glory of God.

The stone is removed, and Jesus calls out “Lazarus, come forth!” Do you ever wonder how many people in the crowd fainted when Lazarus actually stumbled out of the tomb? Once again God’s people are told to help: they unbind Lazarus from the burial clothes he is wrapped in.

In both stories something or someone is given new life: Israel in Ezekiel and Lazarus in John. In both stories we see that God does not like the things that destroy God’s people: sin, death, and destruction. We also see that God chooses to work through God’s people: through Ezekiel, through those who rolled back the stone, and through those that removed Lazarus’ bindings. God also uses us to restore and bring new life into our worlds. These stories remind us that God has never stopped creating and re-creating. God still restores and gives new life. These stories tell us that God alone is life, and that God hates death and destruction. And God uses God’s people, God uses us, to continue to re-create, restore, and give new life to the world God created. Earlier in John Jesus said that God never stops working. God never stops working in the world, and God never stops working in us and through us to make us the people God wants us to be and to continue building God’s kingdom in this world.