Shawna Atteberry

Writer, Editor, Researcher

The Divine Feminine Version of the New Testament reviewed by Jann Aldredge-Clanton

DFV 2Rev. Jann Aldredge-Clanton has given this gracious review for the Divine Feminine Version of the New Testament:

Congregations who are striving toward more inclusive worship will welcome this new version. Their worship leaders may use inclusive, gender-balanced language in sermons, litanies, and hymns. But they have few options for inclusive scripture readings. The predominantly masculine divine language in these readings then strikes a discord with the rest of the service.

There are two gender-neutral versions of the Bible on the market: The Inclusive Bible, a translation by the Priests for Equality, and The New Testament and Psalms: An Inclusive Version, a modification of the New Revised Standard Version. These versions are better than those that use exclusively masculine references to Deity, but they do not reclaim biblical female divine language to balance the male divine language so prevalent in most faith communities and the wider culture.

Until recently, congregations have had nowhere to turn for gender-balanced scripture readings. Now we can go to the Divine Feminine Version (DFV) of the New Testament. By including female language for the Divine, the DFV affirms the sacred value of females who continue to suffer from violence, abuse, and discrimination throughout the world. The DFV contributes to a theological foundation for gender equality, social justice, and peace.

You can read the rest of Rev. Aldredge-Clanton’s review here. If you would like gender inclusive hymns to sing along with your readings from the DFV check out Jann’s hymnals which include a rich variety of feminine, masculine, and neuter metaphors for God.

You can download the free PDF copy  of the DFV at The Christian Godde Project. You can buy the paperback version here.

Early leaders in the Christian faith: Dorcas, Lydia, & Phoebe

Lydia-st-lydias-261x300A friend on Facebook reminded me that today was the commemoration of Dorcas, Lydia, and Phoebe. Who you  may ask? Let me tell you all about them:


Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, ‘Please come to us without delay.’ So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’ Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the [Christ] (Acts 9:37-42).

You almost miss Dorcas’ story. After all most of Acts 9 is taken up with Saul’s conversion (later to become the apostle Paul) to Christianity after leading the persecution against the early church. So after God literally threw Saul off his ass (sorry I just cannot resist that one), he went blind, was healed and started preaching, the focus of the story quietly changes to Dorcas. By the time we meet her, she has died. This is a great lost to her community because she took such good care of them. And she took very good care of those who were considered the least of these: widows. Woman without a husband had no social standing at this time. They were normally destitute women who were forced to beg or to become prostitutes to support themselves and their children. If a woman did not have family at this time, she was in a very precarious place. Dorcas made sure these women had clothes. Now when the story tells us that Dorcas made the clothes, it means a little bit more than she cut some material and sewed it. First she would have to spin the fiber into thread then weave it on her loom for the tunics and clothing she made. This was truly a labor of love on her part to make sure those in her community were at least dressed. She may have also weaved pieces for local merchants to sell in order to support herself (there is no mention of a husband). As long as a woman had a loom and access to wool or flax, she could make a living. Apparently not all the widows Dorcas knew had their own looms to make their own clothes or clothing to sell. Dorcas made sure they had the clothing they needed to survive.

Her illness and death was a big loss to the community, so they sent messengers to a nearby town because they heard Peter was there. Peter came, and the widows showed him the clothing Dorcas had made them. Peter responded to their grief. After sending everyone outside, he prayed and then said to her, “Tabitha get up.” She rose from the dead and was restored to her community. News spread. More people believed in God.


We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshipper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. [God] opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to [God], come and stay at my home.’ And she prevailed upon us (Acts 16:11-15).

Paul and his traveling companions arrived in Philippi. There was no synagogue for them to worship at, so they decided to go to the river on the Sabbath where there was a place of prayer. Lydia was at the river. She was “a worshiper of God,” and listened to Paul’s teachings. In fact, we are told God “opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” In the next verse she and her household were baptized, and she urged Paul and his travelers to stay in her house. Lydia was the first convert to Christianity in Europe.

Lydia was a businesswoman, “a dealer of purple cloth” from Thyatira. Purple dye was a symbol of power and honor in the ancient world, and it was the most expensive and sought after dye in the Roman world. Thyatira was the capitol of the industry and renowned for its purple dyes. One had to have plenty of capital to deal in purple dye and the making of purple garments for sale. Lydia was a career woman, rich, the head of her household, and Acts 16:40 implies that by the end of Paul’s stay in Philippi a new church was meeting in Lydia’s home. All of this could mean that Lydia was the overseer or pastor of the first church plant in Europe.


I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the [Christ] as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well (Romans 16:1-2).

Paul highly commended and respected Phoebe. He called her a “sister,” “deacon,” and “benefactor” to the church at Cenchreae as well as a sister and benefactor to Paul.

The odd thing about diakonos or “deacon” being used to describe Phoebe is that it is the masculine form of the word used to describe a woman. It is the same word Paul uses when he calls Timothy and Titus “servants” or “deacons” (or pastors) of their respective churches. Another thing that makes this phrase odd is that Phoebe is called the “deacon of the church of Cenchreae.” This is the only place in the New Testament where diakonos is followed by a specific congregation. This is the only place linking a specific person’s ministry with a specific church. This seems to indicate that Phoebe served as a deacon in the church at Cenchreae.

Paul uses another word to describe Phoebe: prostatis. This is the only occurrence of the word in the New Testament. This word is normally translated so that it’s main meaning is not obvious. The normal translation is “helper” or someone who has helped. The basic and most obvious translation of the word from classical Greek is “patron” or “benefactor,” and women in this role, are well attested in the Greco-Roman world. In the Greco-Roman world wealthy women sponsored the arts, philosophers, writers, and politicians. They paid them and gave them the social standing they needed to succeed. Phoebe was a wealthy woman who served the church out of her means as the women in Luke 8 served Jesus out of theirs. For Paul to say that Phoebe was a benefactor to him meant that she had probably helped to support his missionary travels financially. It’s also very likely she was known in Rome, and she has the appropriate social status and clout to introduce Paul to the churches in Rome. Churches Paul had not had any dealings with, nor had he helped plant them.

Phoebe was a woman who had her own means, and served the church in a leadership role. Paul comes very close to commanding churches he had no hand in planting, and Christians, most of whom he had never met, to welcome her and provide anything she needed. She was not only a deacon and a benefactor in the church, but Paul himself had also benefited from her generous leadership.

Prayer: “Filled with your Holy Spirit, gracious God, your earliest disciples served you with the gifts each had been given: Lydia in business and stewardship, Dorcas in a life of charity and Phoebe as a deacon who served many. Inspire us today to build up your Church with our gifts in hospitality, charity and bold witness to the Gospel of Christ; who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen” (from

My guest appearance on the Talk Gnosis podcast

hermaphroditeOn New Year’s Eve I joined one of my best friends, Bishop Lainie Petersen, on the Talk Gnosis podcast, in which we are our usual feminist and irreverent selves. I can’t beat the description that’s already been written up about the show:

We have a very special guest in the Rev. Shawna Atteberry for our After Dark podcast on the Gospel of Thomas’ Saying 22. She helps unpack the mysteries of GoT with Bishops Lainie and Ken and our director Father Tony. You’ve got to check out our free-ranging discussion that goes everywhere from the gender politics of evangelical movement to Broadway’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

That’s right: gnostic theology, gender politics, AND Hedwig and the Angry Inch. You have to listen now, don’t you? You can do that by clicking here: Make the Above Like the Below. Please let me know what you think.

Blogging Advent: Wisdom has built for herself a house

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Luke 1:46b-55 or Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38
Year B, Advent 4

“The Holy Spirit had to come upon [Mary] and the power of the Most High had to overshadow her so that Wisdom might build [herself] a house and the Word might become flesh” (From the Letters of St. Leo the Great).

madonna and childWisdom Has Built for Herself a House

Wisdom has built for herself a house
In the womb of a young girl.
A young girl strong and brave
A young girl who said yes.

Wisdom has built for herself a house
In the song of a young girl:
“The powerful are humbled, the lowly lifted
The hungry fed, the rich emptied.”

Wisdom has built for herself a house
In a manger tucked in a cave
Where animals provide warmth and music,
And shepherds praise her newborn king.

Wisdom has built for herself a house
Under the noses of the powerful:
Herod the power hungry couldn’t thwart her
Caesar the almighty was oblivious to her building.

Wisdom has built for herself a house
In the journey of the Magi.
Traveling by her light, seeking her truth,
Bowing to a child in his humble home.

Wisdom has built for herself a house
Where the hungry are fed
And the lowly are raised.
Will you join them at the table?

Wisdom has built for herself a house:
Will you powerful be humbled?
Will you who are full be emptied?
Will you come in and eat at the table?

(c) 2014 Shawna R. B. Atteberry

Blogging Advent: What do we oppressors do with the Magnificat?

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Luke 1:46b-55; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28
Year B, Advent 3

Magnificat-ImageMy soul praises the Lady,
and my spirit rejoices in Godde my Life-Giver,
because she’s looked favorably at the humble state of her bondservant.
Look, from now on all generations will call me blessed
because the Mighty One has done great things for me!
Holy is her name.
Her mercy extends to those who revere her from generation to generation.
She’s flexed her muscles
and scattered those who imagine they’re something that they’re not.
She’s pulled down rulers from their thrones
and has exalted the humble.
She’s filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty.
She’s helped Israel, her servant, that she might remember mercy,
as she promised our ancestors,
Sarah and Abraham and their offspring forever” (Luke 1:46-55, The Divine Feminine Version of the New Testament).

I love the Magnificat. It has been one of my favorite biblical passages for most of my life. I’ve always loved how Mary saw God doing these incredible things to turn the world on its head through her. Mary’s prophetic words have given countless generations of oppressed people hope that this is not the way God intended the world to be. But as I’ve read and meditated on Mary’s words this week, one thing has hit me: I am not part of the oppressed, I am part of those oppressing. I am not the humble and hungry. I am part of the rulers and rich that lose everything and get sent away.

In fact, if you are a white American, chances are you too are the oppressor, not the oppressed. We are the status quo willing to do anything to keep our power and influence. White America is not part of the persecuted church: we are Rome. We are the Empire. Empires do whatever is necessary to keep their power and affluence in the world. Nothing has shown more clearly that we are Empire as the CIA torture report that was released earlier this week. Our government has and will in the future commit unspeakable atrocities to keep our position at the top of the global food chain (this is nothing new for the USA–we’ve done it since we committed genocide against the Native Americans to steal their land, so we would have more power and wealth).

Mary’s words should not be comforting for white Americans who depend on the Empire of the United States for our safety and livelihood. What does the Magnificat mean for us oppressors? Mary proclaims that God has ” pulled down rulers from their thrones and has exalted the humble. She’s filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” If we are oppressors, Mary’s prophetic words are a call to repentance. A call to see where white privilege and ruling the status quo have gotten us. A call to change our ways and share our power, wealth, and influence with those who really are poor, humble, and hungry. It is a call to change the way we do things, so that everyone has shelter, food, and clothing, and not just the few we deem fit for such blessings.

During this time of Advent (a time normally set aside in the historical church for self-examination and confession), I’ve been asking myself what can I do to start changing the political and socio-economic structures that favor me, as a white person exclusively, to be more inclusive and fair for all people regardless of skin color, economic standing, or religion. Where is God working in exalting the humble and filling the hungry with good things in my world where I can join in? God is working–as Isaiah proclaimed she is always doing new things in our world to bring her love, mercy, and justice to our world. The questions are: where is she working now? And will we join in?

Want to Know More About Your Spiritual Foremothers? DO NOT watch Lifetime's Women of the Bible

Epiphany by Janet McKenzie.

Epiphany by Janet McKenzie.

I recorded Lifetime’s Women of the Bible last night. I thought it would make a fun blog post to correct everything they got wrong about the women in the Bible. I was wrong. It would take a freaking book to correct what was wrong in this two hour special, and it was not fun to watch. Thankfully my Facebook friends were there to help me keep my sanity as I watched this train wreck of a special on some of my favorite women in the Bible. As it would be a Herculean effort to correct the absolute wrongness and inaccuracy of this special I will leave you with my Facebook posts as I live blogged watching the two hour melodramatic claptrap about the women of the Bible. Grab a bottle of wine (you’ll need it) and enjoy.

Recorded Lifetime’s Women of the Bible last night and watching it now. Roma Downey likes her melodrama. And her definition of Biblical “scholars” and mine are drastically different. Oy vey.

Who does Roma Downey think the most pivotal women in Judges are Samson’s mother and Delilah, not Deborah and Jael. Of course Deborah and Jael weren’t immediately connected to a man, so naaahhh they couldn’t be THAT important, now could they? Not sure I can sit through another 1.5 hours of this schlock. Ugg.

Oh and did I mention that Victoria Osteen is one of the so-called “biblical scholars” on the show. *face palm*

Lainie, I think I need to put Lifetime’s Women of the Bible on hold until you can come watch it with me with lots of Josefina Pink Syrah, and we can make fun and tear apart this melodramatic claptrap that Roma Downey has invented about our foremothers of the faith. The woman thinks Samson’s mother and Delilah are the two most important women in Judges! Aaacccchhhh!

And we skipped from Delilah to Mary. I’m terrified to see what Lifetime’s Women of the Bible does to Mother Mary.

Oh. My. God. Gabriel is dressed like a Roman soldier in the Annunciation scene. Need. Booze. Now.

And we have broken out the Josefina Syrah over one of the “biblical scholars” claiming that Mary was the first women to have the responsibility of carrying the Word of God. Of course it has to be the literal Word of God. I guess they’ve never heard of Miriam or Huldah or the Jewish tradition that Huldah was a scribe that first started compiling the Hebrew Scriptures. And they are taking this far too literally. I am becoming absolutely terrified of what they are going to do with Mary of Magdala. I might be drunk by the time this is over.

And the Wise Men just showed up at the stable. Yep that’s some biblical scholarship.

Now Roma Downey has cast herself as Mother Mary for the Crucifixion. I should just bring the bottle of wine into the living room.

Oh and I should mention that the only woman of color to play a Middle Eastern woman in this show about the (Middle Eastern) women of the Bible was Samson’s mother. I think the only reason they did that was so they could cast Samson as an angry black man. Another face palm. Everyone else (except Pharaoh) has been lily pad white, including white boy Jesus–but he does have brown eyes instead of blue….

My favorite woman in the entire Bible has now taken the stage: Mary of Magdala. Get ready for the sarcasm to ratchet up a few more levels.

OK so far so good on the Mary of Magdala front: she was possessed by seven demons (they don’t claim she was a prostitute), and that she was a wealthy woman who supported Jesus’ ministry financially and traveled with Jesus and his entourage (which included more than the 12) (see Luke 8:1-3). They fail significantly when they say she was “essentially” an apostle. She was an apostle. Also the 12 disciples look like a white boy band.

They did cover that Mary was not a prostitute, and that there is no Biblical support for it. But the claim is made that Mary being called a prostitute was a “mistake.” It wasn’t a mistake. It was slander to discredit and minimalize the leadership role she had in the Early Church.

We’re heading for the Crucifixion. Can’t wait to see what heights the melodrama hits now. Why yes, I will have some more wine.

And of course Mother Mary and Mary of Magdala have seats front and center for the slow-mo, over-the-top melodramatic flogging.

And of course Mother Mary is able to run out onto the Via Dolorosa when Jesus fell to comfort him and for Jesus to tell her not to be afraid, this is how it has to be. John cries out: “Let her through. She’s his mother!” [Here’s a theological reflection on the women at the cross to balance out the melodrama of this show: The First Shall Be Last: The women at the cross and tomb.]

Oh. My God. Jesus was being flogged at Golgotha, and as it was happening he crawled to the cross then laid on it. Can we say Predestination taken to the melodramatic nth degree?

Oh the melodramatic substitutionary theory of atonement in all it’s gory detail!

Not just the curtain in the Temple tears in this version of the Crucifixion. Oh no, the entire Temple shakes and things fall over and break! Judaism wrong! Christianity good!

Because Mary of Magdala’s word was not enough, Peter must proclaim that the resurrection happened at the tomb when he entered and suddenly believed without seeing Jesus! That’s right boys and girls in this version of the “gospel” Peter believes without seeing Jesus! Jo, I think you’re right. We need a Bechdel test for women in the Bible.

OK I am quite literally laughing my ass off as a breeze blows Mary of Magdala’s hair off her face while she speaks in tongues in slow motion about the resurrection of Christ. Oh Mary, I’m so sorry for this hokey depiction of your apostleship and leadership in the Early Church. Forgive them for they know not what they do.

In the wrap up one of the biblical “scholars” just said that Jesus “states very clearly for him it’s neither male nor female, Greek nor Jew.” Sigh. That was Paul “biblical scholar” that was Paul.

Thank God it’s over. Thank you Facebook friends for sharing my pain and my horror. I owe all of you a drink of your choice at your favorite watering hole.

Yeah for an NCIS marathon! Leroy Jethro Gibbs save from bad theology and shoddy “biblical scholarship”!

And there you have it dear readers:  Women of the Bible live blogged in excruciating detail, so you don’t have to suffer. You’re welcome.

If you would like to get to know your spiritual foremothers as they actually appear in the pages of the Bible, and with far more historical accuracy, buy my book What You Didn’t Learn in Sunday School: Women Who Didn’t Shut Up & Sit Down. It makes a great gift! (I am a biblical scholar, and I have the degrees to prove it.)

Blogging Advent: Preparing the way for God

Isaiah 40:1-11;  Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8
Year B, Advent 2

Photo by Olga Lednichenko, Flickr

Photo by Olga Lednichenko, Flickr

I chose a very hard time to decide to start blogging again. I thought Advent would be a wonderful time to ease back into writing non-fiction (the last two months have been spent on fiction), and picking up blogging again. When I made this decision two grand juries had not decided that police officers murdering unarmed civilians did not need to be held accountable for their actions. When I made the decision protests against systematic racism and the abuses and injustice that comes out of our refusal to see how white privilege and the systematic structures we white people have built to make sure we stay at the top of the food chain had not started. I was living in my nice, quiet, white, middle-class bubble, and that was where I planned on writing from. And oh how I tried to stay there. Tried to “spiritualize” this Sunday’s lectionary readings for my own private, personal use. Anything to admit that I am not part of the problem.

But I am part of the problem. I am white. I am educated. I am privileged. I live a very privileged life. As an Episcopalian, I am well aware of the social injustices in our world. I hear about them every week at church. We talk about them most weeks at church. Then I go home. And I do nothing. And that’s what this week’s Scriptures are about: what needs to be done to make way for God coming into our world. In Isaiah, our Psalm reading, and according to John the Baptist, God does not just come. We have to make God’s path ready for her to come into our world. We have to flatten mountains and fill in valleys. We have to make the wide road that God will march into our lives on. It’s not enough to sit and wait for God to show up in our lives. We have to do the work of preparing the way for her to show up in our lives.

In her well thought-out and timely reflection on Isaiah, Rachel Held Evans writes:

If paying attention to the prophets aligns our dreams with the dreams of God and drives us to prophetic action, then the cries of Isaiah today are a reminder that sometimes this means getting in the demolition business. Sometimes this means flattening the mountains of privilege and power, clearing away the obstructions of legalism, and leveling the uneven ground of racial, economic, and religious inequity.  After all, the sages have long told us that there is a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to mend and a time to rend, a time to build and a time to tear down.

Maybe this Advent season should be a season of rending and uprooting, of tearing down and leveling the ground. Maybe this year we prepare for Jesus not simply by hanging up wreaths but by pulling down the broken, unjust systems that tend to obscure God’s presence among us by obscuring God’s image in our brothers and sisters. Maybe we prepare for God-with-us by marching with the protestors rather than watching TV, by “shutting it down” rather than lightning it up.

I often hear people lament about where is God in our world. I think we Christians need to remember our gospel reading from two weeks ago, The Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25. God is in our world when we feed the poor, clothe the naked, visit prisoners, and work for justice for everyone and not just people who look and act like us. The church is the body of Christ–God–in our world. If we wonder where God is, then we only need to look to our own lives to see where we are not being Christ to those who need the good news.

In her commentary on this year’s lectionary readings, Theology from Exile: The Year of Mark, Sea Raven gives an alternate translation for our Psalm reading that drives this point home as well. She points out that Priests for Equality in The Inclusive Bible translate Psalm 85:10-13 this way:

Because love and faithfulness have met; just and peace have embraced, fidelity will sprout from the earth and justice will lean down from heaven.  Our God will give us what is good, and our land will yield its harvest. Justice will march before you, Adonai, and peace will prepare the way for your steps.

God comes when we have prepared the way with love, faithfulness, justice, and peace, working for the good of all and not the few.

With the prophet in Isaiah 40 when told to “Cry out!” I also ask: “What shall I cry?” (Isaiah 40:6). Then I ask: What shall I do? I don’t have an answer yet. But I will find one. I will be marching in a peaceful protest with my brother and sister Episcopalians tomorrow, and I’m going to be asking what can I do beyond that? I will be calling my diocese headquarters and seeing where I can, not just pray for peace, but work for peace in my city, in my country, and in my world. Because in the end it’s not enough to cry out. It takes a lot of work to level mountains of hatred, suspicion, privilege, and racism, and it takes even more work to fill in the valleys of poverty and inequality.

This Advent instead of waiting for God to just show up and make your life magically better, ask yourself: what can I do to make a way for God to come into my world? Instead of simply praying “Your will be done on earth as in heaven,” ask yourself how you can help God’s reign be realized in this world right now? God is waiting for us to build that highway. Pick up a shovel and start digging.

The Divine Feminine Version of the New Testament Is Now Complete

DFV 2I am happy to announce that a project I’ve been an associate editor on for the last five years is now complete! The Divine Feminine Version of the New Testament can now be downloaded free as a PDF or you can buy a paperback copy. In addition to translations of the Bible that use masculine and non-gender metaphors for God, there is now a version that uses feminine metaphors for God. I hope The Divine Feminine Version of the New Testament will help expand your vocabulary and experience of the God who created both men and women in her own image.

You can download the free PDF copy at The Christian Godde Project.

You can buy the paperback version here.

The Feast of St. Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard_von_BingenToday is the feast day of one of my personal patron saints: St. Hildgard of Bingen. I first met Hildegard in college when I discovered her and a host of other medieval women theologians who were ignored in academia because they were nuns and mystics and not teachers and theologians like the big-named men were. Matthew Fox correctly observed that if Hildegard had been a man she would be famous and everyone would know who she was just as everyone knows who Thomas Aquinas is. I had been hoping to write my own reflection on Hildegard, but between The Novel and classwork, that is not going to happen. But that is OK because the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church (my presiding bishop) Katharine Jefferts Schori has written an incredible sermon on Hildegard:

Hildegard lived from 1098 to 1179, in what is now Germany. When she was a small child, her parents sent her to be educated in the Benedictine convent, and she stayed and joined the order when she was 15. If she had lived a few centuries later, we would call her a Renaissance woman. Matthew Fox noted that if she had been a man, Hildegard would be one of the most famous figures in history. She was a mystic, poet, theologian, prophet, preacher, scientist, physician, composer, dramatist, abbess, ecclesiastical politician, as well as correspondent and advisor to popes, archbishops, and royalty.

Hildegard helped to expand the church’s vision – as a theologian, woman, mystic, scientist and healer. She reminds us that we may see God intimately in the myriad and seemingly mundane works of creation – the heavens, clouds, and the signs of abundant greenness that surround us. She and her spiritual siblings remind us that God is never bound up in traditional images or names, and that God is known as mother as much as father. Perhaps most importantly, Hildegard and other mystics open a window into the blazing fire of creativity at the heart of God. Their experience is never the fuel of private contemplation, but rather it is given for love of all God’s body, for all seekers of the sacred, and for right relationship among the parts of creation – that each might show forth the goodness of its own creation. Those visions propel their seers into the world with creative wonder, joy, and divine possibility.

You can read Expanding Apostolic Imagination here.

Let us pray: “Creator God, your whole creation, in all its varied and related parts, shows forth your verdant and life-giving power: Grant that we your people, illumined by the visions recorded by your servant Hildegard, may know, and make known, the joy and jubilation of being part of this cycle of creation, and may manifest your glory in all virtuous and godly living; through Jesus Christ whom you sent, and who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen” (Forward Day by Day).

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

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

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

Not Taking No for an Answer

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

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

But he didn’t say a thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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