Shawna Atteberry

Writer, Editor, Researcher

Company Girl Coffee 9/18/09

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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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Sermon Meanderings: The Proverbs 31 Woman

I’m preaching this Sunday at church. I specifically asked my pastor if I could preach because of the text from The Hebrew Scriptures: Proverbs 31:10-31. I used to hate this woman. If you come from a conservative or fundamentalist Christian background, you know what I’m talking about. Every single, freaking 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 and takes care of her home and family. She keeps her house clean, obeys her husband and submits to him, 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, still single, not sure I wanted to get married, and was pretty sure I didn’t want the whole kids thing, I stopped going to church on Mother’s Day. If there was one Saturday to conveniently forget to set my alarm clock and not make it to church on Sunday, without feeling guilty about it, it was Mother’s Day. If there is one thing I love about liturgical churches that follow the lectionary, it is this: I do not have to put up with Mother’s Day motherdolotry every single year.

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 really 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 was not all of the story. That this woman was not restricted to her home and family. I got to know an entirely different woman when I read her story for myself and saw what was there and what wasn’t there (a lot of time what isn’t there is more important than what is. It takes a lot of reading and questioning to peel away all the traditions and interpretations we grew up with, regardless of our tradition.)

Now It’s Your Turn

I am going to post Proverbs 31:10-31, and I want you to answer these questions:

  • What does the passage say?
  • What doesn’t the passage say?
  • Does what is there match up with what I’ve heard about this woman?

I want to know what you discover and find, so please leave a comment because you will see things I don’t see. All of us will see something different, and all of our views will develop a more complete picture of the Proverbs 31 woman.

Proverbs 31:10-31

10A capable wife who can find?

She is far more precious than jewels.

11The heart of her husband trusts in her,

and he will have no lack of gain.

12She does him good, and not harm,

all the days of her life.

13She seeks wool and flax,

and works with willing hands.

14She is like the ships of the merchant,

she brings her food from far away.

15She rises while it is still night

and provides food for her household

and tasks for her servant-girls.

16She considers a field and buys it;

with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.

17She girds herself with strength,

and makes her arms strong.

18She perceives that her merchandise is profitable.

Her lamp does not go out at night.

19She puts her hands to the distaff,

and her hands hold the spindle.

20She opens her hand to the poor,

and reaches out her hands to the needy.

21She is not afraid for her household when it snows,

for all her household are clothed in crimson.

22She makes herself coverings;

her clothing is fine linen and purple.

23Her husband is known in the city gates,

taking his seat among the elders of the land.

24She makes linen garments and sells them;

she supplies the merchant with sashes.

25Strength and dignity are her clothing,

and she laughs at the time to come.

26She opens her mouth with wisdom,

and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.

27She looks well to the ways of her household,

and does not eat the bread of idleness.

28Her children rise up and call her happy;

her husband too, and he praises her:

29“Many women have done excellently,

but you surpass them all.”

30Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,

but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.

31Give her a share in the fruit of her hands,

and let her works praise her in the city gates.

Monday I found out something about the Proverbs 31 woman I never knew before. I’ll share it tomorrow. But first I want to know: What do you see? Who is this woman? What are the misinterpretations you’ve heard about her? What do her actions say about her? How does her story help you live your own story?

Related Post
Proverbs 31: A “Capable” Wife, Huh?

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

Pentecost Sermon Meanderings

I’m preaching this Sunday. It’s the first time in a year I’ve preached and will be the first time at Grace Episcopal. Plus this will be the first time I’ve preached twice in one day: the 8:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m. services. Me getting out of bed at 6:00 a.m. Sunday morning is going to be a sight to see. 🙂

I’ve been thinking about wind. Both the Greek and Hebrew words for spirit also mean wind and breath. I’ve been playing with the wind being a metaphor for the Spirit. I’m from Oklahoma, and I have lived in some part of the Midwest for 26 years. In other words wind is a part of my life. I really like the wind as a metaphor for the Spirit.

Wind is unpredictable. You don’t know what it’s going to do. It can give you a wonderful cool breeze on a hot summer day. It can also destroy large swaths of land and city. As Jesus told Nicodemus you can’t see either the wind or the Spirit but you can feel them. You don’t where either comes from or where they are going. Wind is not something anyone can control. It decides when it blows and how. It can choose to be still and silent or roaring hundreds of miles per hour. No one tells the wind where to blow, but it will blow you a few blocks up the street on certain days. It’s wonderful when it acts like we think it should, and it’s disasterous  when it does what it want to do with no regard to humanity.

I think this is why we don’t here to much about the Holy Spirit. We can’t control her. Godde the Father-Mother gets put in a nice, neat little box with all of her attributes. Godde the Son gets put in his own little box with his works and attributes. But what do we do with Godde the Holy Spirit? What do we do with this wonky member of the Trinity who doesn’t fit into all of our nice, net little boxes with the nice neat little attributes afixed to her box? The Spirit does what she wants and blows where she wants. When she gives a nice breeze of inspiration during private prayer, we love her. When she blows us out of our comfort zones to serve the poor and oppressed, we not to sure about her and her methods.

Just like the wind, fire cannot be controlled either. We love the illusion we control fire in the pits and fireplaces of life, but then a bush fire starts and devastates thousands of square miles, burning everything it comes across, blown by the unpredictable wind. We like to think the Spirit enriches our lives. We don’t like to think about the devastation that same Spirit can cause. Like the wind and the fire we cannot control Godde’s Spirit. She blows where she wills, convicts where she wills, redeems where she wills, and blows us kicking and screaming into obeying the Beatitudes instead of just giving them lip service.

She is the part of Godde that theologians, preachers, and writers have never been able to pin down, examine, and define. So we ignore her.

How do you think of the Spirit? What metaphors do you like for the Spirit? (C’mon! help a preacher gal out here.)

The next biblical woman to be written about (drumroll)

Is Jael. She had the most votes. Esther and Abigail tied for second, and I will be writing them about them later. A post will be appearing on Jael a little later today. (I really need to eat something.) I have done some writing on the other women you suggested. The articles are scholarly; the sermons not so much. If you have any suggestions to make the scholarly articles more readable, please let me know.

Articles:

Career Women of the Bible:The 12th Century B. C. E. Career Woman (Deborah)

Career Women of the Bible: Standing Between Life and Death (Zipporah and Huldah)

Career Women of the Bible: Teachers, Elder, and Co-Workers (Priscilla)

Sermons:

Everyone Has a Story (Deborah and Jael)

God Uses Harem Girls (Esther)

April 13: Faith and Food

Faith and Food
Acts 2:42-47

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 college, 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 the family that adopted me at church. Eating by myself bothered me more than living by myself. In the movie Under the Tuscan Sun her 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.

(more…)

April 6: Peace and Wounds

Peace and Wounds
John 20:19-31

The nurses at NIH thought it was horrible that we had to spend Easter there and couldn’t go home. But it was sunny and up in the 50s in D.C. Chicago had a white Easter from what I hear. In fact, when the nurses apologized about us having to stay there over the holiday, my response was, “It’s snowing in Chicago. The weather is much better here.” And for the the first time I saw what Craig Kocher talked about in last week’s Blogging toward Sunday: “Peace and wounds dine together on Easter.” Peace and wounds dine together on Easter. I didn’t have the words for it Easter Sunday, but that is what happened. For the Easter service at the NIH chapel, there were some very sick people. Two of them wore masks to protect them. They were probably in one of the cancer programs, and had little to no immune systems from their treatments. The young boy was also in a wheel chair, and you could tell by his eyes, he was so happy to be there. Sitting among people who were so sick, and yet so filled hope, this was an Easter where the resurrection, its power and hope were center stage, believed and proclaimed in full faith. Peace and wounds dined together.We normally don’t think about wounds on Easter Sunday. That’s what we did on Good Friday. The resurrection has happened. Now it’s time to get on to the “hallelujahs,” pretty dresses, hats, and Easter egg hunts. We are quick to move from the nails and spear of Good Friday, forgetting that Jesus still carried those wounds on the first Easter. It was when the disciples saw Jesus’ wounds that they knew it was him and began to rejoice. It wasn’t the glory of heaven that tipped them off: it was the nail and spear wounds that still showed, even after the resurrection.

Peace be unto you.” These are the first words Jesus says to his disciples after his resurrection. He appeared to Mary early that morning, but for some reason, he does not come to the disciples until that night. They’re huddled up in a room with the doors locked still scared of the authorities. Apparently they have not believed Mary’s story or her testimony, “I have seen the Lord.” They are sitting, locked in a room, trying to figure out what in the world has happened the last couple of days. Then out of nowhere, Jesus is there. There was no knock on the door. They didn’t hear a footstep. Jesus didn’t wait to be invited in. He was just there. In the midst of them. Giving them peace–his peace. The peace he promised them on the night before he died. Before his death, Jesus told the disciples: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” Jesus gives peace that isn’t dependent on what’s going on in the world or who is in charge. This peace flows from Jesus’ resurrection, not his political takeover. This peace flows from God’s power, not ours, not the government’s, or even the power of religious authorities. This peace comes from God, is given by God and sustained by God.

After Jesus gives them his peace, he shows them his hands and side. It is only then that the disciples believe that this is Jesus–raised from the dead–and they begin to rejoice. Jesus once again gives them God’s peace, and then commissions them: “As the Father sent me, so send I you.” In John the disciples do not have to wait until after the Ascension onto Pentecost for the Holy Spirit. The giving of the Holy Spirit is also less spectacular in John and much more intimate.

Craig Kocher notes that you have to get close to someone to breathe on them. You have to invade their personal space. Sharing breath is something couples and families share. It’s a familial intimacy; an act shared by lovers. It’s normally not how we pass the peace in the church. There are social graces to keep after all. Jesus did not think so. He comes close to the disciples. The same ones who abandoned him two days ago are now receiving the Holy Spirit through Jesus’ breath. The Spirit Jesus promised them would give them the words to say, would teach them all things, and always be with them was now fulfilled. They were equipped to go into the world as Jesus had and share the peace of Christ with that hurting and broken world.

But one of the disciples is missing on the night of the Resurrection: Thomas. Poor Thomas. I think he is one of the most maligned people in the Bible, and really for no reason. He’s nicknamed “doubting.” But which of the disciples believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead without first seeing him? None of them. The eleven didn’t believe Mary when she told them she had seen Jesus that morning. And Thomas didn’t believe those who told him they had seen Jesus earlier that night. Thomas wanted to see and touch the same thing the others had. They hadn’t believed until they saw Jesus’ wounds. Thomas is no different than the others. No more or less doubting. No more or less unbelieving. He’s just the same.

And Jesus gives him what he wants. Eight days later the situation hasn’t changed much. The disciples are still shut away in a room. Doors locked. Once again Jesus appears to them. Once again he doesn’t use the door or knock. He just comes. He once again blesses the disciples with peace. Then he turns to Thomas and says, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” There is no scolding or berating. There is no disappointment. Jesus simply gives Thomas what he needs to believe. He comes, and he shows his wounds. Seeing is apparently enough for Thomas, and he calls Jesus his Lord and God.

In our self made hells in our fears in the corners we get ourselves backed into, Jesus comes. Jesus comes and he shows us his love–see his hands, his side. He comes into fear and trepidation, and he says: “Peace.” Peace. Through the locked doors, the fears, the “what ifs” whispered behind hands. Into this fear-filled, cowardly crowd, Jesus comes. Jesus appears to them. There is no chiding. There is no “why didn’t you believe Mary?” Or “why didn’t you believe the others?” No, Jesus comes to the depressed and frightened disciples–he just appears. Locked doors no more. He appears in our midst and says one thing: Peace. He came to the men who did not believe the woman and said peace. He came to Thomas who did not believe the men and said peace.

He comes to us and says peace. He comes to our little worlds, to our locked rooms, he finds us walking and fishing, and he says peace. Jesus comes and gives us peace–his peace. But he doesn’t give us his peace to hoard and keep for ourselves. Like the disciples, with his peace, Jesus also gives his Spirit to go out in the world and share that peace. Easter is a triumphant celebration, but it is not always pretty. It is not all Easter lilies and bonnets. It comes with wounds. Not only the wounds of Christ, but the wounds of the world. We are sent with the peace of Christ to share that peace with a broken, wounded, and dying world.

I skipped over verse 23 the first time Jesus visited the disciples. After Jesus breathes the Spirit on them, he says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Of course Protestants, particularly Evangelicals have a big problem with this. Like the Pharisees, when Jesus healed the man lowered through the roof by his friends, we say “Who forgives sin but God alone?” Listen to how Eugene Peterson paraphrases this verse: “If you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good. If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?” When a person repents of sin, the sin is forgiven, and we are to recognize that. Parker Palmer wrote that “the mission of the church is not to enlarge its membership, not to bring outsiders to accept its terms, but simply to love the world in every possible way–to love the world as God did and does.” Of this verse Gail O’Day says, “The faith community’s mission is not to be the arbiter of right and wrong, but to bear unceasing witness to the love of God in Jesus”

Our job is to live the love, peace, and forgiveness of Jesus in our world. It’s not always easy, and it’s not always pretty, but that is what we are called to do. This wounded world will only be healed through and by the wounds of Christ.

The picture is from the He Qi Gallery.

February 17: A Visit in the Night

A Visit in the Night

John 3:1-17

 

 

 

The night is good for all sorts of things: staying up until three in the morning reading a good book, writing, or watching infomercials. For students the wee hours are normally filled with finishing up required reading, writing papers and preparing presentations for the class in a few hours. Unfortunately the night is also the time when our worries, doubts, and fears can take on monster size proportions and keep us tossing and turning into the wee hours. Normally that’s when watching infomercials begin. But one particular night a man decided to seek out Jesus.

 

 

Nicodemus had heard about Jesus and may have even seen some of his miracles and heard Jesus’ teachings himself. Nicodemus wanted to know more about this itinerant rabbi who disrupted the buying and selling at the temple and was turning the religion that he knew on its ear. Nicodemus came at night. One reason was probably that he didn’t want his colleagues to know. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a teacher of the Law, and one of the religious leaders of the people. The last thing he should be doing was going to an itinerant no-name rabbi from Galilee. But Nicodemus was also up. Scribes, Pharisees, and teachers of the Law normally studied the Torah at night in preparation for the teaching and debates of the next day. So it was also convenient for Nicodemus to come to Jesus at night. All his duties of the day were over, and he was left on his own to study the Torah into the wee hours. We’ll probably never know exactly why Nicodemus came at night, but it was probably a combination of those two things.

 

 

So Nicodemus has come to Jesus and he says that he and other people know that Jesus is a teacher from God. He knows the miracles of Jesus cannot be done apart from God’s presence. Then Jesus throws him for a loop. Jesus starts talking about being born from above to enter the kingdom of God. As far as Nicodemus is concerned, he is part of the kingdom of God. He is a Jew, descended from Abraham. He was born into God’s covenant people. Why would he need to be reborn to enter the kingdom of God? How could he be reborn?

 

 

But Jesus did not tell Nicodemus that he had to be reborn. He didn’t need another physical birth. Jesus said he needed to be born from above, by the Spirit. Born of God. John opened his gospel saying, “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” Nicodemus had been born a Jew by the blood, but that no did not guarantee that he would see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus needed to acknowledge that Jesus was more than just a teacher sent by God. He needed to see and believe that Jesus is God’s Son. He needed to be born of the Spirit. Like the wind blows and no one knows where it is from or where it is going, so it is with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit works as she will birthing and giving new life to those who believe, not only Jesus’ miracles, but that Jesus is the Son of God sent by God to save the world. In fact, according to John believing the miracles is not enough–there must also be faith in the One that God sent.

 

 

The last we hear of Nicodemus in this passage is his question: “How can this be?” Although Jesus chides him for not understanding, he goes on to further explain to Nicodemus that he has been sent by God into the world. He has descended from heaven, and if Nicodemus will believe this, he will have eternal life. In John, eternal life is not something that begins after death: it begins when we believe that Jesus is God’s Son, and it is through his crucifixion and resurrection that we come into God’s kingdom. Even this early in his ministry, Jesus talks of his death on the cross. Eternal life is not always an easy road. Jesus also lets Nicodemus know that he is not being condemned. God did not send him to condemn the world but to save it. God sent Christ because of God’s love for the world, for those made in God’s image. God’s love has compelled the Incarnation, and it is God’s love that Jesus lives out.

 

 

We don’t know what Nicodemus’ decision was. John never tells us. Nicodemus’ last spoken words are “How can this be?” But it is not the last we see of him in John. He appears twice more. In John 7:50 he defends Jesus to the Sanhedrin and asks them to hear him out. We last see him at the foot of the cross in John 19 when he and Joseph of Arimathea took Jesus’ body from the cross and prepared it for burial. Nicodemus might have asked questions and had doubts, but he was not given up on. He appears at the beginning of John’s gospel and hears one of Jesus’ first prophecies of his death and resurrection. At the end of the Gospel he at the cross and tomb. Did he become a disciple? Only God knows. The same God who loved him enough to take the time to explain being born from above and eternal life to him.

 

 

It doesn’t matter why or when Nicodemus came to Jesus. What matters is that he came. He came to Jesus and listened to Jesus. He may not have understood at first, and he asked questions, but Jesus answered his questions and explained what was necessary for Nicodemus to become part of the kingdom of God and have eternal life. It is the same for us. It doesn’t matter why we come to Jesus or when. The important thing is that we have come and continue to come. We can have our doubts and ask questions just as Nicodemus did. Jesus still gives answers and elaborates. We can even come to Jesus for the wrong reasons: because we want signs or an easier life, money, or health. Jesus will correct us just as he did Nicodemus.

 

 

Jesus will not give up on us just as he did not give up on Nicodemus. Although Nicodemus did not seem to get what Jesus was telling him in this chapter, he stands at the cross in chapter 19 and helps lay Jesus to rest. He heard Jesus’ prediction of being raised up for salvation and eternal life. He saw how far God would go to show God’s love for all humanity. He saw first hand God’s great love for the world. In the same way God continues to show us God’s love. Jesus continues to point to the cross and say this is how much God loves you. This is how much I love you. We are never given up on.

 

 

Jesus continues to beckon us to come and believe. Not to believe that he will make our lives peachy and nothing bad will ever happen to us again. But to believe that he is the Son of God, the one God sent into the world, so that we can have a relationship with God. We can have eternal life as God’s sons and daughters in God’s kingdom. People will always want signs and miracles and sometimes we do too. And sometimes we get them. But they can never be the basis of our belief. The foundation of our belief must be the Incarnation: that God has become flesh and lived among us. I love how Eugene Peterson translates John 1:14 in The Message: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” God became fully human and moved into our neighborhood. This is the foundation of our faith. The miracles and signs are nice when they come, but we must remember the one sign Jesus gave to believe in him. In John 2 he tells those who ask him what authority he has to disrupt buying and selling in the temple that “destroy this temple, and in three days it will be raised up again.” He was speaking of his death and resurrection. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, he says the only sign given will be the sign of Jonah. Just as Jonah was in the belly of the big fish for three days and nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth. The only sign our faith rests upon is the death and resurrection of Christ. The Incarnation and Resurrection are the signs our faith rests upon–not the miracles of healing, exorcism, or food.

 

 

But when we get hung up on those miracles Jesus does not give up on us, just as he did not give up Nicodemus. Remember Nicodemus first came because of the signs and miracles Jesus was doing. That’s how he knew Jesus was sent from God. That’s where Jesus started and lead him to see that wasn’t enough. Nicodemus had to see that Jesus was God. Just as we need to see that Jesus is God.

 

 

Although Jesus is a little hard on Nicodemus, he tells Nicodemus God’s motive for sending the Son and for the toughness that tries to change his focus from Jesus being a teacher to Jesus being the Messiah: God’s love. This is what we need to remember too as Jesus continually turns our gaze away from lesser things to remind us of what is really important. Jesus continues to redirect our focus because of God’s love. It is God’s love that compels us to change and become more Christlike. Just as it was God’s love that led us to confess Jesus as our Savior in the first place. Although condemnation and “hellfire and brimstone” are popular ways for some in Christianity to try to get people to come to Jesus, that is not what God did. In fact, John 3:17 makes it very clear that Jesus did not come to condemn anyone in the world, but to show the love God had for the world and give us a way into eternal life with God.

 

 

As we walk through Lent, examining our lives, and repenting of the places we have not given to God or walked away from God, we need to remember why God is leading us through this time: because God loves us. God wants to have a more intimate relationship with us. God want us to be more Christlike. God wants us to live in the abundant life and eternal life that we can have in Christ. Walking through Lent can be long and dark, but the God who loves us walks with us, telling us what we need to do, just as Jesus told Nicodemus what he needed to do to have eternal life with God. God’s discipline and judgments are always to lead us deeper into eternal life and closer to God.

The picture is from the St. John’s Bible.

Transfiguration Sunday: A Glimpse of God

Jesus: A Glimpse of God

Matthew 17:1-9

 

I am not ready for Lent. And I did not want to leave Epiphany this year. In fact, as far as I’m concerned Lent is coming far too early this year. So I found myself dragging my feet writing this sermon. Fleming Rutledge said that on this Sunday “the church turns away from the light of Epiphany into the shadows of the Cross.” I find myself like Peter: wanting to build and stay where the light is. But Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem–not to overthrow the Roman rulers and rule an independent Israel. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to die. In Matthew 16 right after Peter’s confession of faith and right before today’s passage, Jesus predicted his suffering, death and resurrection. The Transfiguration is the first step toward the Cross. Even with Jesus’ prophecies and warnings, the disciples weren’t ready for the trip to Jerusalem. And most of the time, no matter how much we prepare, we are not ready for the long shadows of Lent. Which is the reason for the Transfiguration. This really is a pivotal Sunday. This is the last Sunday of Epiphany, but we are already looking to Ash Wednesday, just as the glorified Jesus is already looking toward Jerusalem.

 

But before we begin the long journey to Jerusalem, we get a glimpse of who it is who is calling us to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow him. Jesus leads the disciples up to the top of the mountain. To a place where humans and gods met. It doesn’t matter where you go in the world, mountain tops are places to encounter the divine. The Celts called these thin places: places where this world and the spiritual world intertwine, and it is easy to step from one world into the other. Jesus takes the disciples to this thin place. And there his divinity is revealed: “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” God’s glory, the same glory that filled the tabernacle in the wilderness and then Solomon’s temple, emanates from Jesus. Then two other men who met God on mountain tops appear: Moses and Elijah. We read of one of Moses’ mountain top encounters with God in today’s reading from Hebrew Scripture. Light and clouds shroud Mt. Sinai as Moses goes up to receive God’s commands. Elijah met God in sheer silence on a mountain. Now time is put aside as the lawgiver and the prophet of prophets meet with the Son of God on another mountain. It’s a scene we can’t quite imagine or get our minds around. We’re not supposed to, just as the disciples did not. As usual it is Peter who opens his big mouth before he’s really thought about what he’s saying. He wants to build booths for all three and stay on the mountain for awhile. We all do. None of us likes to move on from the glory of God when faith is easy and God’s presence is so evident in our lives. But move on they have to do as do we.

 

As clouds envelope the mountain top God once again approves of what Jesus is doing: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” The same voice that approved of his baptism now approves of his obedience to go to Jerusalem. God tells the three disciples to listen to him. In the powerful presence of God in light, clouds, and hearing his voice, the disciples fall to the ground. In her sermon on the Transfiguration, Madeline L’Engle said:

 

The story of the Mount of Transfiguration is also strong stuff, not to be understood in the language of provable fact. Jesus, like Elijah, stands “upon the mount before the Lord.” He took with him Peter and James and John, and extraordinary, incomprehensible things came to pass. Jesus’ clothing became shining, and Elijah himself appeared to Jesus in the brilliance, and Moses came, too, and they talked together, the three of them, breaking ordinary chronology into a million fragments. And then a cloud overshadowed them, as it overshadowed Moses on the mount, and the voice of God shouted out of the cloud.

 

Strong stuff. Mythic stuff. That stuff which makes life worth living, which lies on the other side of provable fact. How can we be Christians without understanding this? The incarnation itself bursts out of the bounds of reason. That the power which created all of the galaxies, all of the stars in all of their courses, should willingly limit that power in order to be one of us, and all for love of us, cannot be understood in terms of laboratory proof, but only of love. And it is that love which calls us to move beyond the limited world of fact and into the glorious world of love itself. Of Jesus standing with Moses and Elijah, both of whom had themselves stood on the mount and been illuminated by God’s glory. When Moses went down from the mountain his face was so brilliant that people could not bear to look on him, and he had to cover his face in order not to blind them.

 

The brilliance of God is indeed blinding, and we need myth, story, to help us bear the light.

 

At the Transfiguration we see the incarnation through divine eyes. This is what God sees. We can only catch a glimpse because of the brightness. At the same time the Transfiguration is full of revelation and shrouded in mystery. But it is this mysterious light and glory that will see us through the long days of Lent as we travel in the shadow of the cross. In her sermon, Madeline continues on why we have a hard time understanding Jesus:

 

Jesus was not a westerner and He did not have a western mind, which is perhaps why He is so frequently misunderstood by the western mind today. His first miracle was a lavish turning of a large quantity of water into very fine wine at a wedding feast where the guests had already had a lot to drink. He was not interested in the righteous and morally upright people whom He saw to be hard of heart and judgmental, but in those who knew they were sinners and who came to Him for healing. His birth was heralded by angels, visited by adoring shepherds, and resulted in the slaughter of all Jewish infants under the age of two.

 

If Jesus was a threat to Herod two thousand years ago, He is still a threat today because He demands that we see ourselves as we really are, that we drop our self-protective devices, that we become willing to live the abundant life He calls us to live. We retaliate by trying to turn Him into a wimp who has come to protect us from an angry father who wants us punished, and the retaliation hasn’t worked, and we’re left even more frightened and even more grasping and even more judgmental.

 

And that is what Lent is about: seeing who we really are and letting Christ lead us into that abundant life that is full of the love of God. It is a season of repentance and self-examination. One thing the Transfiguration makes clear is that we are not God. But as we walk the days of Lent, seeing our humanness good and bad, we have the light of the Transfiguration to remind us of who our God is. And it helps us make it to Easter when not even death can hold onto the light that has come into the world.

 

But we have three more days before Lent begins, and during this time we can dwell and meditate on the mysterious light of God in our lives and world. This is the light that will sustain us through Lent until Easter.

 

The picture is from the St. John’s Bible.

Jan 20 Sermon: Salvation to the Ends of the Earth

Jesus: Salvation to the Ends of the Earth

Isaiah 49:1-7; John 1:29-42

 

 

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Is. 49:6) This is what God says to God’s servant in Isaiah 49. It is too light a thing for you only to raise up and restore Israel. That just isn’t enough for my servant: you are going to be a light to the nations: the very nations that destroyed you and now hold you in exile. Yeah to those nations. You’re going to bring my salvation to the ends of the earth–that’s right the ends of the Persian Empire you are a part of, and no it’s not small. It’s not enough that just Israel is restored: you are going to show to the world the kind of God I am, and they will see my light and salvation. Wow, what a job description. And this is after the servant sighs, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” May be he should have stopped there, but no, he goes on, “yet surely my cause is with the LORD, and my reward with my God.”

 

 

This phrase has been going through my mind all week: It is too little of a thing for you just to save your own people, or one people, or just those who are like you and you agree with. That is too little of a thing for the servant of God. In the context of Isaiah, God is telling this to the Jews. The Jews that are in exile. The Jews that are enslaved and indentured by other countries. They’re not at all sure about this whole return to Jerusalem thing anyway. They know what they’re going to find: rubble. They know what they’re going to have to do: rebuild. That’s why the servant thinks they have labored in vain. But oh no, that’s not all God has in store for the Jews. God has a much bigger plan, a much broader agenda. Much bigger than the Jews wanted. And let’s face it, most of the time bigger than we want.

 

 

As we discussed last week, the servant of God began as Israel, then Jesus fulfilled these passages, and as the Body of Christ, we are now the servant. And what does God tell us? It’s too light of a thing to reach out just to our neighbors, just to our friends, just to those who look like us and agree with us. As God expected Jesus, and as God expected Israel, God expects us to bring God’s light to the nations and God’s salvation to the ends of the earth. Admittedly in Chicago, this is a little more palatable since the nations have come to us. But still it is a monstrous call, to say the least. It’s enough to make a pastor freak out. It’s enough to make most churches freak out. What are we going to do with this call?

 

 

Let’s take a look at how Jesus started. This week our Gospel is from John. Right after Jesus’ baptism in John’s Gospel, John is pointing him out to his disciples and yelling everywhere he goes: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” John’s disciples start paying attention, but two actually do something about John’s testimony. Two of them started following Jesus. When Jesus ask them what they are seeking, they answer that they want to know where he is staying or abiding. Jesus tells them to come and see, and the two abide with Jesus for the afternoon. The next day the two bring two more to Jesus. Andrew brings his brother, Simon, whom Jesus renames upon meeting, and Phillip brings a sarcastic Nathaniel. In all the gospels Jesus starts the same way, with two to four people. He starts small–he does start with the Jews, and it is only later after his resurrection that his light goes to the nations of the world. And then it takes some doing on God’s part to get the Jewish Christians out of Jerusalem and taking the Gospel to the ends of the Roman Empire.

 

 

God’s call is to take God’s light and salvation everywhere. We do begin in our homes, buildings, and neighborhoods. That is what we are supposed to do. But we are always to keep in mind that is not where we stop. God’s call is still for God’s love, compassion, and salvation to go to the ends of the earth. God’s call is still for us to show God’s light to people that are not like us, to people who don’t agree with us, with people who could be our enemies. Yes, we are small, but so was Jesus and the first disciples. The mission to be light to the ends of the earth always starts small. It grows as we give faithful witness to Jesus and live how he commanded us to live. As more and more of us live this way, people will start asking questions, and then we can say to them “Come and see.” Come and see what this Jesus person is about. Come and see why he makes such a difference in our lives. Come and see why we believe he is the Son of God and Savior of the world. Come and see the light to the nations and the salvation to the ends of the earth. And like John the Baptist that’s what we have to remember. We are not the light. We are only witnesses to the light. And as we live as faithful witnesses to the light of Christ, people will see his light, his love, and his compassion in our lives.