Shawna Atteberry

Writer, Editor, Researcher

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.

Sermon: The Bent and Burdened Woman

The Bent and Burdened Women
Luke 13:10-17

Luke is one of my favorite books and my favorite Gospel. So it was a given for me that this is what I was going to preach on. Luke is full of stories of underdogs. Luke tells the stories of the poor, sick, and women. I come from a poor, working class, blue collar family, and Luke is our Gospel. Probably one of the reasons I like it so much as well as Luke has a lot of stories about women. Luke focuses on the marginalized and poor, which includes widows, lepers, tax collectors and others society has outcast. The outcasts take center stage in Luke. Sinners and misfits—that’s who Luke’s Gospel is about and for. At this point in Luke Jesus has already encountered several outcasts: for starters the disciples are a motley crew consisting of fishermen, tax collectors, and zealots. Then there are the lepers, more tax collectors, paralytics, and sinful women. In Luke we have the stories where Samaritan is a good guy, and a rebellious son who is forgiven and restored. The religious leaders accused of Jesus being a friend to the worst kinds of sinners. And they were right. He was and still is.

Today we meet another one of those misfits: a woman whose back is so bent that she’s literally bent over. All she sees is the ground. She can’t straighten up and she can’t look up. She talks to people’s feet, and they answer her stooped and bent back. But today her life is going to change. And today Jesus is going to get into another controversy with a Jewish leader. Because this day is the Sabbath, and Jesus is going to choose to “work” today. Back in chapter 6 of Luke, Jesus had run-ins with the religious authorities over what could and couldn’t be done on the Sabbath.

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Stories of Redemption: Because God Really Does Keep Doing New Things

anointInstead of preaching a sermon, I dramatically told these stories based on the lectionary readings for the 5th Sunday in Lent, 2010. It’s still one of my favorite storytelling sermons.

Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8

Props

  • Jewish prayer shawl or yamika
  • Bible (I used my Hebrew Bible)
  • If you’re a women a shawl, scarf or pashima that can used as a head covering. If you’re a man a clay jar or other container.

Returning from Exile

(Put on the prayer shawl or yamika.)

May by the prophets really are nuts. We all know the stories: Isaiah running around Jerusalem naked. Not that anyone remembers what his point was–he was running around Jerusalem naked. Hosea marrying a whore to prove Judah’s idolatry was harlotry, and Ezekiel. Now there was a loon. Ezekiel came with the first group of exiles shipped to Babylon. He laid bound up one side for months then rolled over and laid bound up on the other side for months. Something about how long we’d be in exile. Did you know that man didn’t even mourn when his wife died? Said God told him not to because God wouldn’t mourn for the destruction of Jerusalem or the Temple. We Jews are used to our prophets being a little…unbalanced.

I think being in exile so long has unhinged this new group of prophets. Running around saying that some uncircumcised, pagan, Gentile is God’s anointed. Anointed by God like King David. Oh I know Cyrus and his Persian army are making trouble for Babylon, but to call him God’s anointed, and say God is going to use him to send us back to Israel. Like that is ever going to happen. But these prophets keep yammering on about God doing new things—things that will amaze us and dazzle us. They keep talking about rivers springing up in the desert, and God turning the wilderness into an oasis. Talk that’s all it is. We’ve been here for 80 years. Jerusalem was razed to the ground and the Temple with it. We aren’t going anywhere.

I ate every single one of those words. Those loony prophets were right! God did it! God did something totally new! Who ever heard of an emperor letting captives go back to their native land? But Cyrus did! He sent us home! And he returned all of the things that were in the Temple plus what we would need to rebuild the city and the Temple! And it’s a good thing too. Because we’re going to need every penny. The Babylonians literally did flatten Jerusalem. We have a lot of work to do, both building and farming. We have to have enough food to eat. But we are here. God really is sovereign over every ruler on earth. God did not forsake us. God brought us back. And we will rebuild this city and this country. Not just for us. We will rebuild for our children and for all the generations that will come after them.

Paul

(Pick up the Bible.)

People think I’m a little over the top. They say I only see black and white or good and evil. They say I like to rant, and that I’m not all the eloquent. Well what do they expect? Jewish prophets have always been melodramatic. Our people have always known how to get your attention and make our point. Of course, it probably doesn’t help that I’m a zealot. Whatever I do, I go all the way. When I was studying to be a Pharisee, I was always at the top of my class. So you know, I have the equivalent of five or six Ph. Ds in this: The Hebrew Scriptures. I studied with the best teachers, and I kept the Law. I did everything I could to climb the ecclesiastical ladder as fast as I could. When a cult started by this upstart carpenter, who had gotten himself crucified, started taking over the Temple and declaring the Law to be a thing of the past, I was more than happy to help put them away. I wanted to keep the Jewish faith pure. I hunted those people down and threw them into prison. I helped execute them.

Then this crucified carpenter, this Jesus, got hold of me, and I became as zealous for him as I had been for the Law. A lot has happened in the last 30 years, since I found myself blind by the side of the road to Damascus. Christianity has spread across the Empire, and I’m here in Rome. Not the way I wanted to be, awaiting a trial before Caesar. But I am here, and I still preach the Gospel. That one thing has never changed. To whoever listens I tell them about the all-encompassing love of Christ. When I tell the Philippines that I would give up everything to know Christ, they know I’m not exaggerating. I’ve already given up so much: my career, my reputation, my family. I have suffered. What I dealt out to Christians those many years ago, I have now experienced. I’ve been in prison, been beaten, and ran for my life. I haven’t been executed, yet.

I’ve done all of this for one reason: to know Christ. Knowing Christ is worth everything I gave up, everything I loss when I chose to follow him. Christ suffered before he was resurrected. As he said no student is above the teacher. I know all of my suffering has not been in vain. I have come to Christ through my sufferings, and one day my hope is that I will know his resurrection as well. And fully know him as he knows me.

I’m always in awe of how Jesus came back to Jerusalem knowing the suffering and death that awaited him. And Mary, dear Mary who like the prophets before her, performed an outrageous act to prepare him for that final journey to Jerusalem.

Mary of Bethany

(Take off prayer shawl/yamika and put on the head covering, or pick up the clay jar.)

Bethany is not that far from Jerusalem. I hear all of the talk, all of the gossip. I know the Jewish leaders want to kill Jesus. I’m sure they’re even more determined now that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus. I can’t believe my brother is sitting there, talking and laughing with Jesus and all of our friends. We’re having a big feast to celebrate. People have been in and out of the house all day to see Lazarus alive. There’s whispers and talk all around about revolution; how Jesus will march into Rome and overthrow the pagan overloads. Even the 12 are talking of revolution. It makes me wonder if they’ve been listening to the same teachings I’ve heard at his feet. Do they just tune him out when he says he’s going to die? They don’t want to hear it. They want a king, and the power that comes from being in the king’s inner circle. They are not listening. Either to Jesus or the rumblings of Jerusalem’s ruling elite who will do whatever they have to to hold onto their power. This Messiah will not be going to Jerusalem to be crowned. He is going to Jerusalem to die.

I come out of my revery and realize that I need to go see if Martha needs any help. Then I see it—the jar of nard. Very expensive nard. We had bought it for Lazarus’ burial. It hadn’t been used. I knew what I needed to do. I peeked into the room and everyone was settling around the table. I waited. I waited until they were settled and started eating.

I took the perfume and walked to where Jesus was reclining. I wasn’t going to anoint his head—kings had their heads anointed. I wasn’t going to do anything to feed their illusions. I knelt at this feet. The last pair of feet I had anointed has been Lazarus’ for his burial. I felt the stares. I broke open the jar and poured the nard over Jesus’ feet—all of it. I heard the gasps as people smelled the expensive perfumed mixture. I gently rubbed it into his feet—those roughened feet that soon would be making their last journey. I reached for a towel to wipe off the excess when it hit me I hadn’t grabbed a towel. I always forget something. An idea flickered in my mind. I took out the pins that held my hair. As my hair tumbled around me, another round of gasps echoed around the room. A respectable woman wouldn’t do that! I didn’t care. With my hair, I wiped the oil from his feet. I looked up and Jesus’ eyes met mine. His eyes echoed my thoughts. We both knew. It was a holy moment.

Until an indignant voice broke the holy moment. “Why was this perfume not sold for 300 denarii and the money given to the poor?”

Judas. Of course, it was Judas. Like he had any concern for the poor. He just wanted to line his own pockets.

I took a breath to say as much when Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me with you.”

The room was silent. No one wanted to admit what Jesus said was true. He wasn’t here to reorder one nation according to their standards. He was here to turn the world, as we knew it, on it’s head and bring the kingdom of God—the reign of God—to this very world. But for that to happen first he had to face his destiny in Jerusalem.

Sermons: Tables of Love

I preached this sermon on Thanksgiving 2007.

Tables of Love

Scripture Readings: Psalm 100; Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Philippians 4:4-9; John 6:25-35

When I think of tables, I think of eating with friends and family. Through the years these tables have taken different shapes and forms. Sometimes it’s just me and another person and at other times there could be 15-20 of us gathered around. Sometimes it’s quiet conversation and other times a cacophany of chatter, dishes, and someone yelling down the table to get someone else’s attention. I’m Irish-Italian; we tend to be a loud bunch. Of course that didn’t change when I headed off to seminary, and all of my friends were religion geeks like me. There was still a lot of talking over one another, around one another, and yelling at someone in order to get a word in edgewise. I felt right at home.

The table I normally think of is our family table growing up. Mom, Dad, my sister and me every night for supper. We didn’t have very many family rules set in stone, but eating supper together was one of them. When friends were over, they ate with us. Same thing if family visited: eating supper together never changed except when we slept over at a friend’s or had a school function. Some nights there was a lot of chatter, some nights we played Jeopardy more than we talked, and other nights we ate in relative silence because we were tired. The ebb and flow of activity may have changed but supper itself did not. We ate one meal as a family at the table everyday. Period.

One of the hardest things to get used to when I moved out and started living on my own was eating alone. It seemed odd, wrong. And not just because of family dinner. Before college I had always eaten breakfast with my sister, lunch with friends, and dinner with the family. In college I always ate with friends or a the family that adopted me at church. Eating by myself bothered me more than living by myself. In the movie Under the Tuscan Sunher neighbor invites Francis over for supper saying, “It’s not healthy to eat alone.” I absolutely agree with him.

In fact the Mediterranean people know how to do supper. I lived in Barcelona for a year as a Nazarene in Volunteer Service or NIVS for short. I loved their attitude about food. Food was something to be enjoyed, not scarfed down. I am a slow eater. I always have been and I will stubbornly remain so. I get teased because I refuse to scarf my food down in order to “do” something more important. What’s more important than nourishing yourself? And I don’t believe you can nourish yourself if you inhale your food. I fit right in in Spain and with the Mediterranean mindset: food is to be enjoyed and preferably enjoyed with family and bunch of friends. They take supper seriously. There it is a three hour affair with three or four courses and a lot of conversation. Talking, joking, sharing the day, getting caught up. It’s relaxed. Everyone is enjoying themselves. Everyone is enjoying the food. I fit right in. I found out the Italian genes I got from my full-blooded Italian great-grandmother ran true in my blood. They somehow skipped the rest of family.

How the Mediterraneans view supper is very much how people in both the Old and New Testaments viewed supper. Breakfast was some bread, probably left over from the night before. Lunch was at work and normally a piece of dried fish and what ever fruit or vegetables that were in season. But supper–supper was different. You were paid for your work at the end of the day. You went shopping then came home, and the whole family–and you have to remember in the Bible this would be three generations who lived close to each other–all of them would get together and eat supper. It was a relaxed, joyous time for the family. They had food, they had each other. They enjoyed their day’s labor at the end of the day. And they took their time. This meal was not to be rushed. It was to be savored and enjoyed. It was the only time the entire family ate together.

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Sermon: Everyone Has a Story, Judges 4

This weeks Old Testament reading (Proper 28A/Ordinary 33A/Pentecost +22) is Judges 4:1-7. Unfortunately, the reading stops before the story really gets going and gets good. You really should read the entire chapter, verses 1-24. I wrote this sermon eight or nine years ago, and it is still one of my favorites. Probably because it has some of my favorite people in the Bible.

Everyone Has a Story

Judges 4-5

One of my absolutely favorite news segments was “Everybody Has a Story.” Journalist Steve Hartman had this absolutely cockamamie idea that a person didn’t need to be rich, or famous, or even a celebrity to have a story. He believed that ordinary people, living ordinary lives, in ordinary places had stories that the rest of us would want to hear and might even help us live our own little, ordinary lives. Even Steve admitted he wasn’t sure his idea would work. But for years Steve Hartman proved that everybody has a story. One of things I loved about this news segment is that Steve found some of the most unlikely people, in the most unlikely places, who have lived through and done some of the most unlikely things.

His stories reminded me a lot of the stories I read in the Bible. Ordinary people, doing ordinary things, living ordinary lives. But instead of a pesky reporter dropping in, a pesky God decides to show up and change those ordinary lives forever. That’s what happened in Judges 4.

An Unlikely Couple

The first three verses of this chapter are typical for the book of Judges. In the book of Judges Israel is caught in a very destructive cycle. They decide to worship the gods around them instead of Yahweh–the God who brought them out of Egypt. God then gives them over to an enemy who oppresses them for a while–in this case 20 years. Then the people come to their senses and cry out to God who then raises a judge to deliver them from their oppressors. There is much rejoicing and the people obey God during the life of that judge and then the cycle starts all over again. This is called a downward spiral because not only does the same cycle keep happening, but each time it gets worse.

When we come to verse 4 we read: “At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel.” Now we come to the first twist in this story–the judge is not a man–it’s a woman. We have an unlikely judge–she’s a wife and probably a mother. And why is she the judge and not her husband? Because God called her and not him. Yes, it’s as simple as that. And what about Lappidoth? I always wonder about this man. He’s only mentioned once in the Bible, but he intrigues me. Since Deborah is judging Israel at the palm of Deborah and fulfilling her calling as a prophet, I’m assuming he’s okay with the arrangement. And yes, in our day and age, we go, “Well duh, yes, she can work if she wants to.” Back then, in that day and age, Deborah should have been home being a wife and mother–cooking, cleaning, taking care of the kids. The place she should not have been was out in public, resolving disputes among the people. That was man’s work. That should have been what Lappidoth was doing. But this unlikely couple obeyed God’s rather strange calling on their lives–God called Deborah to be a prophet and judge, and both she and Lappidoth obeyed God’s calling.

So, not only Deborah, but Deborah and Lappidoth are the first unlikely people we meet in this story. Now we will meet our next unlikely person.

An Unlikely General

Barak enters our story next. H’s a general, commander of the army of Israel. Deborah tells him that God has spoken and wants Barak to take an army and move against Israel’s oppressor: Sisera. Up to this point the men God called to judge Israel’s enemies have been gung-ho about going and wreaking a little havoc. God told them to go and destroy Israel’s enemies, and they went and destroyed Israel’s enemies in some very creative ways with no cajoling or prodding. So when Deborah calls Barak and tells him God’s ready to move against Sisera, we expect Barak to yell, “Yippee, it’s about time!” and go. But that’s not what he does. Barak puts a condition on his obedience: Deborah must go with him. The general wants a woman to accompany him in battle. And this woman, this married women who probably had children, says, yes. If that’s what it takes to do God’s will then she will go, so that the enemy can be defeated.

But Barak’s condition costs him: he will not be the one to kill Sisera. In another irony of this story, a woman will kill Sisera. Of course, at this point, we think the woman will be Deborah.

Again Lappidoth impresses me. No, he’s not mentioned in these verses. But his wife is going into war with Barak, and he doesn’t forbid her. In all likelihood, he is probably one of the 10,000 who go into battle. Again this unlikely couple obey God, at what could be great cost to them.

Although Barak wanted assurance of God’s presence, and it did cost him the full glory of the battle, I don’t think we should be too hard on him. Remember Deborah was a prophet–she was God’s representative on earth, speaking the words God gave her. I think if I was Barak, I might want her to come along too; I might want that assurance of God’s presence that Deborah, not only gave to Barak, but gave to the soldiers as well.

So we have an unlikely couple and an unlikely general that God is using to accomplish her plans. Now we are coming to the most unlikely person in the whole story.

An Unlikely Ally

Word reaches Sisera that Barak and his troops are on the move, and Sisera rallies his army to meet them, thinking that he has pretty much won this battle. But God had other plans. Deborah gives the command for the troops to march and Barak leads the way. As they are moving toward each other, God throws Sisera’s army into a panic. I like the account of the battle given in Judges 5:20-21: “The stars fought from heaven, from their courses they fought against Sisera. The torrent Kishon swept them away, the onrushing torrent, the torrent Kishon. March on, my soul, with might!” God once again fought for her people and delivered them from their enemies. In the middle of the fight Sisera sees that things are not going his way, and I’m thinking that what he does isn’t something generals of armies should do: he runs. And this chicken is about to run into a fox.

Back in verse Judges 4:11 we have a verse that appears out of nowhere about a man living in the area. It seems like an odd verse to insert between Deborah’s command to Barak and the preparations to march to war. In this verse we learn about Heber, a man descended from Moses’ father-in-law, who lives in the area. Now in verse 17 we find out why that piece of information appeared out of nowhere. Sisera runs to the place where Heber and his wife, Jael, are staying. At this point in the story it appears that Sisera is home free. There was peace between Heber and King Jabin–Sisera’s boss. For all appearances he should be safe. And Jael plays the perfect hostess…for a while. She invites him in, gives him milk to drink when he asked for water. Then she tucked him in with a rug for a nice nap. But instead of standing guard at the tent as Sisera ordered her, Jael has other plans. Deborah will not be the woman who defeats Sisera–Jael is. And she is a more unlikely person for the job than Deborah. Jael is not only a woman. She is a Gentile woman. She is not from one of the tribes of Israel. God will use this Gentile woman to deliver Israel from their oppressor. Instead of standing guard and deflecting Israel’s soldiers when they come looking for Sisera, Jael sneaks to where he’s sleeping and kills him. Jael is waiting at the entrance to the tent when Barak comes, and she leads him inside the tent, and shows him his enemy, dead. All that Deborah had spoken happened. Israel defeated the army of Sisera, and Sisera had been killed by a woman. After the victory song of chapter 5, we read that Israel had rest for 40 years.

Using a very unlikely combination of people: a wife and mother, a hesitant general, and a Gentile woman, God delivered Israel from their enemies. When God came these people were living their normal, everyday lives. They didn’t think anything was going to change, and they sure didn’t think God would use them to make those changes. But God did.

An Unlikely People

And I’m not sure which should surprise us more: that God uses ordinary people to do His will, or that God gets mixed up with us unpredictable, insecure, hesitant humans at all. Even with Barak’s hesitation and insistence on Deborah coming to battle with him, God still gets mixed up in the lives of these ordinary people, with foibles and quirks, and uses them to accomplish her plans for her people.

I bet Steve Hartman would give his eyeteeth to be able to tell this story on the evening news. You see what Steve doesn’t know is that there is a reason why everyone has a story. It’s because God made everyone. We all have stories because we are made in God’s image. But it gets better than that. God comes to us and wants be a part of our stories. The God who is Creator and Ruler of all wants to take part in our ordinary, mundane, messy lives. Then she wants to use our lives and our stories to build her kingdom and accomplish her plans, not only for the Church, but for the world. But don’t freak out–God doesn’t send us out alone, just like Barak didn’t go out alone. God goes with us, so that everyone we encounter can be a part of her story–just like we are.

So as you live your ordinary life this week, remember all those ordinary people you see have stories. And God wants to be a part of those stories.

Sermon: Finding Balance between Martha and Mary

Martha and Mary by Denis Maurice

If you like to garden or plant flowerbeds, there is a lot to do in the spring. There is getting the soil ready and planting, fertilizing, mulching, and all the watering. For awhile there is a flurry of activity then it all settles down. Aside from some weeding and watering, there is not a lot to do until it’s time to harvest. But if the watering and weeding aren’t done then there will be no harvest. It can be tedious and mundane, but the tedious and mundane must be done in order for all the work in the spring to pay off. The church year is set up the same way. We have just come out of the flurry of activity that began on the first Sunday of Advent. We have been through Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and now Pentecost. We celebrated the events of Jesus’ life and the birth of the church–all the high holy days have come and gone. And this Sunday begins what the church year calls Ordinary Time. This time of the year is called Ordinary Time because the order of services in liturgical churches does not vary from the regular schedule. From the Sunday after Pentecost to the Sunday before Advent, this is the watering and weeding time of the church year. There are’t any high holy days to celebrate and a lot of activity to be involved in, but just as in our gardening, what we do this time of the year will determine how well we worship and celebrate during the high activity times in the church.

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Sermon: Sinful Women and Pharisees

Sinful Women and Pharisees
Luke 7:36-8:3

We all know that you just can’t make some people happy. In the previous story Jesus commented on the fact that you just can’t make some people happy–notably the Pharisees. Luke 7:33-34 tells us that John didn’t drink wine and fasted all the time, and he was accused of being demon possessed. Jesus came eating and drinking, and the Pharisees said he was a glutton, drunkard, and a friend to the worst kinds of sinners. In this story we see how Jesus is a friend to the worst kind of sinners.

Simon, a Pharisee is throwing a big, fancy dinner party, and he invites Jesus. I’m not sure that was a good move on his part, but he did it anyway. Normally when a big party like this was thrown the house was left open, and those who hadn’t been invited to the dinner itself could wander in through the courtyard and listen to the discussion going on. After the party the left-over food was given to those in the courtyard, so the poor were fed, the host didn’t have a lot of food spoiling, and everyone was happy. This is why the woman–this sinful woman–could get in. All of this lively dinnertime discussion is going on when, this woman comes in, (I imagine a dead silence coming over the room at this point) this sinful woman walks up to Jesus and kneels at his feet. Crying, she anoints his feet and wipes them with her hair. We’re never told what sins this woman committed that brand her as a sinful woman. I like that. It leaves it open-ended for us, and any kind of sin that we need to ask forgiveness for. May be that’s why Luke didn’t elaborate–that way his readers could fill in the blank with their sin and know that Jesus forgave them just as he forgave this woman.

Simon is not happy that his party has been crashed by this sinful woman. He’s even more appalled that Jesus is not rebuking her. Now we find out why he invited Jesus in the first place: he thought Jesus might be a prophet. Now he thinks differently: if Jesus were a prophet, he would know this woman is sinner, and that by touching her, Jesus has made himself ritually unclean. Of course, Jesus proves him wrong by reading his mind. He tells Simon a little parable about two debtors: one owed a creditor 2 years worth of wages, and the second owed 2 months worth of wages. The creditor forgives both debts–neither has to pay what they owe. Then Jesus asks “Which of the two will love this creditor more?” At this time I imagine that Simon has that sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach because he knows Jesus is about to nail him. But to give the guy credit–he did give the right answer: The one who had been forgiven the bigger debt.

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Company Girl Coffee 9/18/09

Company Girl logo

This week I realized how important and vital self-care is. So Important! I did not realize this until Wednesday. After last month’s bout of depression, My Fantabulous Hubby decided I needed some pampering. So he bought me a spa day. Oh. My Goodness. I have never felt so relaxed or in body ever. And I feel so much better even two days later. I’m still relaxed and at peace. My mind is not racing like it normally does. I really have to prioritize taking care of myself. It makes such a huge difference.

My major epiphany is that I HAVE to take care better care of myself. Self-care has to be a priority, a top priority, and not something I do if I have time. Major, major revelations on how badly I treat my body, and that has to change.

I love how my friend Hiro put this on another friend, Havi’s, blog:

When the care and cultivation of your life is your first priority, your kingdom flourishes, far from the clash and clamor of marching bands, armies or shoes hurled in any direction. Flourishing kingdoms nourish the world around them, the way a river nourishes the land through which it flows–and are nourished by it in turn.

(If you’re wondering “Sovereignty? What the heck is she talking about?” Havi had two marvelous posts up on handling people who throw shoes at us, Destuckifying When the Shoes Are Flying and Sovereignty Casserole. And More About Shoes. If you’re not following both of these wonderful women, you really should be.

I’m preaching Sunday, and the sermon is going well. I’ve really enjoyed researching the Proverbs 31 Woman, and now I need to make some decisions and write the sermon. I’m not totally freaking out, which is the normal Friday procedure. So that’s good. Some of my musings on the Proverbs 31 Woman can be find here and here. After coffee hour Sunday, two psychologists in our church are going to be talking about spirituality and mental health (this is Mental Health Awareness month). I’m really looking forward to it.

I also said no to something I could have went to tomorrow, and I wanted to go to, but it was just going to crunch things up too much. So I said no, so I wouldn’t be freaking out about the sermon and how much I’m behind. Very glad I did that.

I started Charles de Lint’s new book last night, The Mystery of Grace. Charles is one of my favorite writers, and I am so happy for a new book. The man can weave worlds and characters like no one else.

I had a really good week, and I am thankful for it. How was your week?

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Proverbs 31: A "Capable" Wife, Huh?

Yesterday in Sermon Meanderings: The Proverbs 31 Woman, I told you that I discovered something about this woman earlier this week, I had never known. While doing research for my sermon this Sunday, I was looking at The New Interpreter’s Bible, and I discovered that there is a ton of military imagery in the poem! I’m not talking about a reference or two here. I mean there is military imagery used throughout this poem to describe this woman. I grew up hearing that this woman was two things: obedient and submissive (two traits that are not even in these verses). But all of the military images through this passage shows that she was a strong and decisive woman.

The first military image is the the first word used to describe her, “capable”: “A capable wife, who can find?” The Hebrew word, hayil, is used to describe men as “strong,” “mighty,” and “with competence and vigor,” especially in warfare. At it’s very root it means power; a power that is able to acquire strength through gaining money and/or raising an army. Right off the bat, we are told this is a strong woman who knows how to get things done.

The second military image is found in verse 11: “[her husband] will lack no gain.” The literal meaning of gain is spoils from war or booty. In the NIB, Raymond C. Van Leeuwen notes that using this word in this passage is strange: it “suggests the woman is like a warrior bringing home booty from her victories.” She goes out and fights for what her family needs. She makes sure her family has everything they need to survive.

The next martial image is in verse 16: “She considers a field and buys it.” The word “buy” may not be such a good translation of the Hebrew word. Literally, she “takes” the field, and this word is normally used of an army taking a city or a region. The verb 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 is rocky, and all of the rocks have to be removed, then the land terraced, and the rocks built into a wall, so that the vineyard doesn’t wash down the hillside at the first good rain. It also had to be terraced to make sure that enough water stayed on the land so the vines could grow. Like a general she surveys her battlefield and plans her attack. Anyone who has ever gardened knows this is not an over-exaggeration.

In the very next verse our Valiant Woman “girds herself with strength, and makes her arms strong” or in the good old King James Version, she “girded up her loins” (one of my all time favorite KJVisms). Men normally gird up their loins in the Bible for a heroic deed, normally a deed that involves fighting. Having a strong arm is another Biblical metaphor for being battle ready. Van Leeuwen has this to say: “‘She puts her hands to’ is an idiom that has military connotations of mastery, thus reinforcing the heroic character of the woman’s activities.”

The end of the poem comes back to where we began with the word hayil. Here it describes the woman’s actions when her husband compares her to other women: “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.” Here hayil is translated as “done excellently.” The Valiant Woman has done deeds of strength and power that again refer to warfare and gaining wealth. “Surpass them all” is another “idiom that often refers to military activity.”

Van Leeuwen concludes that this a heroic hymn that cast this woman in her daily life as a warrior who fights and brings the best to her family. He wraps up the Reflections part of this passage with this observation:

The use of masculine images in praise of a woman (vv. 17, 25) must be considered in the light of the poem’s masculine audience. If ancient Israel admired the man of war (even Yahweh in Exodus 15:1-3) who defended God’s people from their enemies, and if Israelite males, like men throughout history, were sinfully prone to demean women as the “the weaker sex,” the praise of woman here is designed to alter errant male perceptions of women. The heroic terms of strength usually applied to men are here given to a woman so her splendor and wisdom may be seen by all.

Again we see in looking at the women of the Bible that gender roles just were not that set in stone as some people want them to be. Very masculine imagery is used to describe the woman’s life as a wife and a mother. And being a wife and mother is not contained to the home. The woman goes out and gets a plot of land in shape to plant a vineyard. She plants the vineyard with “the fruit of her own hand,” her own money. She also goes out and sells what she and her serving girls make to the local merchants, bringing in income for the family. She is a wife, mother, entrepeneur and business woman. And all of these roles are described with masculine and military imagery. I guess it just goes to show what I’ve been saying for the last few years: feminine and masculine gender roles are just not set in stone for all time in the Bible. We cannot go back to “biblical” manhood and womanhood because there is no such thing.

Related Post
Sermon Meanderings: The Proverbs 31 Woman

Sermon: Dame Wisdom in Action
Poem: In the Beginning Was

This post is based on “Proverbs” by Raymond C. Leeuwen in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 5, pp. 260-4.

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