Sunday’s sermon: Perfect God, Imperfect Agent

Text used – Genesis 27:1-4, 15-23; 28:10-17

  • I want to tell you a story this morning. [TELL STORY OF ANANSI AND THE MOSS-COVERED ROCK]
    • This is just one of the many tales the feature the troublesome trickster Anansi. → trickster tales told in cultures all around the world
      • West Africa and Caribbean = Anansi
      • China = the Monkey King
      • Eastern Europe = the Fox
      • Norse mythology = Loki (thank you, Marvel Comic Universe)
      • Southern United States = Br’er Rabbit
      • Any number of animal characters in Indigenous tales
        • Coyote
        • Rabbit
        • Raven
        • Bluejay
    • Trickster tales
      • On the whole, trickster characters are smart and use their knowledge to play tricks and try to bend the rules
      • Told to entertain
      • Told to teach lessons about how to behave and how to treat others
    • And our central Biblical character this morning – Jacob – fits perfectly into this trickster ethos.
      • Certainly smart
      • Certainly uses his knowledge to play a trick and bend the rules (to the point of breaking?)
      • Certainly all sorts of lessons wrapped up in his story
  • But before we get into his portion of the story from this morning’s text, let’s remind ourselves about the beginnings of Jacob’s story and how it fits in with the Grand Story of faith that we’ve heard so far.
    • Last week: talked about Abraham and his son, Isaac → After they returned from their strange and sacred experience on the mountain, Isaac grows up, and Abraham and Sarah eventually send a servant back to their homeland to find a wife for Isaac – a wife from their own people.
      • Servant finds Rebekah at the local well → negotiates with Rebekah and her family → Rebekah chooses to return with the servant to marry Isaac
    • Later, Rebekah gives birth to twins
      • Esau born first: ruddy-skinned and hairy
        • Esau literally means “red”
      • Jacob born second: literally hanging onto Esau’s heel
        • Some foreshadowing in Jacob’s name: Jacob means “supplanter” = someone who seizes or circumvents, a usurper → Yes, Jacob came out seizing Esau’s heel … but that’s not where his usurping ends.
    • Tricky family dynamic from the beginning → Now, I’m the first one who will tell you that having twins is never easy! I think there can be an added element of difficulty when it comes to same-gender twins – an added layer of competition that isn’t always present with different-gender twins. And when your twins are so vastly different from one another, things can get even more complicated … believe me! In our house, we’ve always tried to discourage unhealthy sibling competition between our twins. Sure, they compete with all sorts of things, but when it comes to pitting one against the other – “You should be more like your brother in this” or “Why can’t you do this the way your brother does?” … yeah, we’ve pretty fiercely avoided that kind of competition.
      • Putting the boys to bed at night, I couldn’t tell them that they were my favorite boy in the world because they’re both my favorite boys … so I always give them a hug and a kiss good night and say, “You’re my favorite Ian in the whole wide world. You’re my favorite Luke in the whole wide world.”
        • Certainly not a phenomenon exclusive to raising twins – anyone raising children who identify as the same gender run into the same thing → I have a number of friends raising three boys (as did my mother-in-law!), and none of them can say to their kids, “You’re my favorite boy in the whole world” either.
      • Isaac and Rebekah didn’t really have any such qualms, though – Scripture (prior to today’s passage): When the young men grew up, Esau became an outdoorsman who knew how to hunt, and Jacob became a quiet man who stayed at home. Isaac loved Esau because he enjoyed eating game, but Rebekah loved Jacob.[1]
        • Makes it clear that Esau and Jacob, though twins, are very different people
        • Makes it clear that each parent favored one twin
          • Isaac favored Esau because he liked eating the game that Esau hunted and brought home
          • Rebekah loved Jacob because he stayed nearby to help her with things
  • And it’s these parental preferences that truly set the stage for what it to come in today’s passage.
    • Isaac is now old
      • Eyesight is going
      • Knows that he is dying
      • Wants to bless his eldest son … his favorite son: Esau 
    • But Rebekah wants to ensure that her favorite son – Jacob – is not left out of the blessing, so as soon as she hears what Isaac says to Esau and sees Esau go out hunting, she acts.
      • In the in-between bits not in today’s reading. Rebekah goes and finds Jacob, tells him about what his father has said to his brother, and hatches the whole plan
        • Instructs Jacob to go get the young goats for the meal and the Esau-like pelt
        • Cooks the meat the way Isaac like it for Jacob
        • Tells Jacob to put on the goat pelt to fool Isaac
        • Even goes and gets Esau’s “favorite clothes” for Jacob to wear so that he will smell like his brother!
        • In the midst of all this, Jacob voices hesitation, but Rebekah dismisses it. – text: Jacob said to his mother, Rebekah, “My brother Esau is a hairy man, but I have smooth skin. What if my father touches me and thinks I’m making fun of him? I will be cursed instead of blessed.” His mother said to him, “Your curse will be on me, my son. Just listen to me: go and get them for me.”[2] → So Jacob does as Rebekah tells him. The die is cast. The deception is accomplished. The blessing is usurped.
    • Before we go on, let’s talk about this blessing for a minute because this is far more than a simple, spiritual pat-on-the-head-and-off-you-go. → multiple elements and multiple deceptions wrapped up in this blessing
      • Blessing = means of conferring of birthright
        • Involves inheritance
        • Involves family name and family patriarchal power
        • Involves cultural and even legal ramifications following Isaac’s death
        • Lots of times that we see birthright and inheritance and blessing creating a messy situation throughout Scripture
          • First Testament: King David and his sons
          • New Testament: story of the prodigal son/reaction of the older son
      • Complicating the matter = all the pomp and circumstance around this blessing that Isaac is tricked into giving to Jacob → More specifically, there are two elements that are part of this blessing that really cement it as The Blessing (capital T, capital B) – the one that confers the birthright and everything else: a meal and a kiss.
        • (In the other in-between part of today’s Scripture), Isaac first eats the food that Jacob has brought him (the food that Rebekah prepared), then: His father Isaac said to [Jacob], “Come here and kiss me, my son.” So he came close and kissed him. When Isaac smelled the scent of his clothes, he blessed him[3] → And the deed is done. The usurpation is complete.
    • Other part of the story that we miss this morning = Esau’s reaction → As you can imagine, it’s not very good.
      • Just after Jacob and Rebekah have left Isaac’s side, Esau returns with his own hunted game → cooks the delicious food as Isaac requested and brings it to his father → Isaac is confused because he believes he already blessed Esau but quickly figures out what happened → Isaac tells Esau that he has already bestowed the blessing on his brother, Jacob → Esau is distraught and begs Isaac to bless him, too[4] – text makes it clear just how serious this usurpation is: Isaac replied to Esau, “I’ve already made him more powerful than you, and I’ve made all of his brothers his servants. I’ve made him strong with grain and wine. What can I do for you, my son?”[5]
      • And Esau becomes enraged and vows to kill Jacob after the period of mourning Isaac’s death is over. Rebekah learns of Esau’s plan and warns Jacob, so Jacob flees. He runs for his life.
  • Leads us into the third part of our Scripture reading – potentially the strangest part of Jacob’s story but also potentially the most important part: Jacob’s dream
    • Jacob has basically been fleeing all day long → comes to “a certain place” as night falls and decides it’s time to rest → pulls up a rock for a pillow and falls asleep → dreams of a ladder going from earth to heaven with angels – “God’s messengers” – climbing up and down the ladder → And then, in the midst of this dream, God appears!
      • God identifies Godself as the God of Jacob’s forefathers – the God of Abraham and Isaac
      • God promises to give Jacob and his descendants the land on which he is lying and to give Jacob a large and blessed family
      • God promises to be with Jacob → And it’s this last blessing from God that seems to be the most shocking … the most powerful … the most impactful. – text: “I am with you now, I will protect you everywhere you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done everything I have promised you.”[6] → Up to this point, we know that Jacob hasn’t exactly been the picture of perfect behavior. He’s played his trickster role well. He has deceived. He has lied. He has stolen. He has created such a mess back home that he had to flee. I think it’s safe to say that Jacob isn’t perfect. Not by any stretch of the imagination. And yet God remains with him. God protects him. God blesses him. God continues to go with Jacob and guide him. Despite all his mistakes, despite all his wrongdoings, despite all the lines that Jacob has already crossed (and all the lines God knows Jacob will cross in the future), God remains with Jacob. God refuses to forsake him.
        • Because of the grace we receive in Jesus Christ – Jesus, the one who hung out with those on the margins … those who made all the mistakes … those who crossed all the lines … those who had been forsaken by everyone else – Because of the grace we receive in Jesus Christ, God remains with us just as God did with Jacob. Despite all our mistakes, despite all our wrongdoings, despite all the lines that we have already crossed (and all the lines God knows we will cross in the future), God remains with us. God refuses to forsake us. And that, friends, is good, good news. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Gen 25:27-28.

[2] Gen 27:11-13.

[3] Gen 27:26-27a.

[4] Gen 27:30-36.

[5] Gen 27:37.

[6] Gen 28:15.

Sunday’s sermon: “What Do You Want, God?”

“The Sacrifice of Isaac” by Marc Chagall (1966)

Text used – Genesis 21:1-3; 22:1-14

  • Is it just me, or is anyone else feeling some Scriptural whiplash this morning?
    • Last week → started Narr. Lect. Yr. 4 with the beautiful, inspiring account of creation from Gen 1
      • Reminded us of God’s goodness
      • Reminded us that God took the time to call each individual element/phase of creation good and the whole of creation supremely good
      • Reminded us that we are an essential and incomparable part of that creation – text: God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.[1]
    • But then this week, we go from that steadfast, heartwarming passage … to today’s passage – one of the most challenging, uncomfortable, even disturbing passages in the First Testament: a passage that is most commonly referred to as “the binding of Isaac.”
      • Definitely not what I would call beautiful
      • Definitely not what I would call heartwarming
      • As I said, this turn is giving me some Scriptural whiplash! But here’s the thing: We’re following the Narrative Lectionary, the goal of which is to walk us through the Grand Story of our faith from the very beginning (hence Genesis 1 last week) all the way through the establishment of the early church in Acts within the course of a year. And today’s story of Abraham and Isaac – troubling though it may be – is a part of that story.
        • Ignoring the more difficult parts of a story and focusing only on the parts that make us feel good = no way to learn our history → That’s how critical elements and the voices of the marginalized end up getting lost. That’s how they end up getting intentionally silenced – by deciding that their portion of the story is too hard for us to look at, too hard for us to hear. If we’re going to investigate who we are as people of faith, we have to investigate all the stories that make up that history, not just the fun and happy stories.
  • So let’s dig into this passage this morning.
    • Actually begins with just a brief reminder of who Isaac is and the circumstances around his birth – text: The Lord was attentive to Sarah just as he had said, and the Lord carried out just what he had promised her. She became pregnant and gave birth to a son for Abraham when he was old, at the very time God had told him. Abraham named his son – the one Sarah bore him – Isaac.[2] → Okay, so let’s be real for a second. Abraham and Sarah both were more than just “old.” When Isaac was born. They were really old … unfathomably old in terms of childbirth.
      • Medical terminology today: any pregnancy that occurs when the mother is over the age of 35 is deemed “geriatric pregnancy” → Yeah … take that flattering and heartwarming term in for a second, folx! And then remember that, according to Scripture, Sarah was not in her 30s when Isaac was born. She wasn’t in her 40s. She wasn’t in her 50s. She wasn’t even in her 60s. According to Scripture, Sarah was in her 90s when Isaac was born! And Abraham was over 100!
    • So clearly Abraham and Sarah have waited a long time for this child – for Isaac.
      • Isaac is finally born as God promised (back in Gen 18)
      • Sarah is overjoyed by the birth of this child
  • And then we get to the bulk of today’s story – the binding of Isaac … the part of the story in which God convinces Abraham to sacrifice his own child and Abraham goes along with it.
    • Get a couple of clues right at the beginning of the story that the events to follow are going to be really important ones
      • First clue is really obvious – text: After these events, God tested Abraham.[3]Any time that God tests someone in Scripture, whatever follows is never easy … but is always important.
      • Other clue that today’s story is important = also hidden in the Heb. → Abraham’s response to God’s initial call – “I’m here” = particular Heb. word: hinneh
        • Often either goes untranslated (as we’ll see a couple times later in today’s passage) or gets translated as some sort of exclamation: “Lo! Behold! See!” … Or, as one of my Hebrew professor in seminary used to love to say, “Shazaam!”
        • Particular word which has the purpose of drawing the reader’s/listener’s attention → This word was used as a bit of a foreshadowing tool – as a way to say, “What’s coming next is really important, so pay close attention.” That’s the word that Abraham uses to answer God at the very beginning of our story.
    • Lots of indicators throughout the story that clue us in to just how hard and life-changing this journey is going to be for those involved
      • When God tells Abraham to take Isaac and “go” to the land of Moriah: Heb. “go” can mean walking with your feet but it has an added layer of meaning – can also refer to one’s “walk of life” → So clearly, this journey that God is laying before Abraham’s feet is more than just a simple physical trek up the mountain.
      • When text says Abraham “got up early” to set out on this journey with Isaac: Heb. “got up” = “lean your shoulder into a heavy load” → makes it clear that this journey will be no simple, carefree journey for Abraham
      • When text says they “set out” for the “place” that God had described to Abraham: both “set out” and “place” come from the same word – connotations of moving from one state of being to another → makes it clear that whatever is to come will be indeed leave Abraham and Isaac forever changed
        • See this also in the way Abraham speaks with the two servants that they bring with them – text: Abraham said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I will walk up there, worship, and then come back to you.”[4]
          • Heb. “come back” = really interesting word choice → This is the basic word for “return,” but it’s also the word that often gets translated as “repent.” It carries connotations of coming back, yes, but coming back different – connotations of not necessarily returning to exactly where you’ve started from. And I have to wonder about those two servants – those two boys – who heard Abraham utter these words.
            • Words used throughout the text to describe both these servants and Isaac indicate that they were roughly the same age – they were young men, probably somewhere in their adolescence → What did they think when they heard Abraham tell them to stay put? What did they think when they heard him say those words? What did they think as they watched Abraham and Isaac walk away? Could they read the concern in Abraham’s eyes? The hesitancy in his step? Did they pick up on the heaviness, the severity of the moment?
    • Continue to find indicators of both Abraham’s dread and his devotion as we read further into the hardest part of this story
      • Gravity of the situation as well as Abraham’s part in it underlined again – text says Abraham “took the fire and the knife in his hand[5] → “in his hand” phrase that implies taking responsibility for something
      • Major emphasis on the conversation between Abraham and Isaac – text: Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father?” Abraham said, “I’m here, my son.” Isaac said, “Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the entirely burned offering?” Abraham said, “The lamb for the entirely burned offering? God will see to it, my son.”[6]
        • Two instances of hinneh – of that “pay attention” word
          • FIRST = Abraham’s initial response to Isaac: “I’m here, my son.” (same as response to God at the beginning of the text) → indicates that Abraham is well and truly present with his son in that moment – a heartwarming (if fleeting) moment in the midst of probably the hardest part of this text (this conversation in which Abraham knows what’s happening … and we know what’s happening … but Isaac remains clueless and innocent)
          • SECOND = untranslated – comes at the beginning of Isaac’s fateful question: “Where is the lamb?” → draws our attention both to the expectation and the glaring absence of the traditional offering
        • Shining moment of Abraham’s devotion in the midst of this horrible scene – Abraham’s response to Isaac’s question about the lamb: “God will see to it.” → = “God will provide” → Of course, we cannot know what Abraham was thinking or feeling in that moment, but when he chose that word, I have to wonder if he was saying it just to allay Isaac’s curiosity or if he truly believed that, in the end, God would provide the lamb.
      • They arrive → Abraham builds the necessary altar and arranges the wood (Did he just throw the wood in a pile to get the horrible deed over with, or did he spend time meticulously arranging the wood in hopes that he could delay what he knew was coming?) → Abraham ties up Isaac and lays him on top of the wood on the altar – text: Then Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to kill his son as a sacrifice.[7]
        • Again, Heb. makes it clear just how conflicted Abraham must have been – just how much Abraham didn’t want to do what he was doing: Heb. “stretched out his hand” = “send out/away” or “forsake” → We can just see that moment stretching out before Abraham – that tragic, painful, horrific moment that he has been dreading for days. A moment that he does not want. A moment that he cannot fathom. A moment that he truly and viscerally fears. A moment that he would so much rather remove himself from – forsake himself from.
  • And then, at the last minute, God intervenes.
    • God’s messengers call out to Abraham to stay his hand → once again Abraham responds with the 3rd occurrence of “I’m here” (hinneh … “Pay attention, God, I’m in this moment exactly where you called me to be.”) → messengers direct Abraham not to stretch out his hand and harm his son
    • Through these messengers, God testifies to Abraham about the strength and steadfastness of Abraham’s own faith – text: “I now know that you revere God and didn’t hold back your son, your only son, from me.”[8]
      • Heavy reverberations of this in the New Testament → Is anyone else hearing John 3:16 echo in their minds?: God so loved the world that he gave is only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life.[9]
    • Final instance of hinneh in this story – text: Abraham looked up and saw a single ram caught by its horns in the dense underbrush.[10] → hinneh = untranslated just after the word “saw” → draws our attention to the way in which God truly does provide for the offering just as Abraham said God would in his conversation with Isaac
      • Offer the ram as an entirely burned offering
      • Abraham names the place “the Lord sees”
      • (Presumably) Abraham and Isaac head back down the mountain, reunite with the servants, and go back home
  • So what’s the deal with this story anyway?!
    • Many scholars focus on the idea/tradition of the entirely burned offering
      • Offering that was usually a lamb or a cow
      • Offering that was usually consumed by the priests and whoever brought the offering
      • Scholars suggest that this story is a lesson from God in appropriate sacrifice → Many of the pagan religions in the surrounding nations participated in human sacrifice at the time, and, more specifically, in child sacrifice. But this story makes it clear that a child sacrifice is not the sacrifice that God wants.
        • Hear this in the familiar words of the prophet Micah: Should I give my oldest child for my crime; the fruit of my body for the sin of my spirit? He has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, [love kindness], and walk humbly with your God.[11]
    • But on a more modern-day level, it’s a difficult text to wrestle with, not because Abraham finds himself in a morally difficult situation but because it’s a morally difficult situation created by God.
      • Plenty of times that we find ourselves in morally difficult situations – situations in which we are torn between various options
        • Times when we know what to do … but it’s hard
        • Times when it seems like none of the options are the “good” option, the “right” option
      • Spoiler alert, folx: I don’t have all the answers for you this morning. This is certainly a text that I wrestle with as well.
        • Hold it in tandem with what we pray every Sunday morning: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” → The ecumenical version of The Lord’s Prayer says, “Save us from the time of trial, and deliver us from evil.” But the idea is the same. We want to avoid trials … temptations … tests … not be led into them like Abraham was. Not be led into them like Abraham was … by God.
    • As I said, I’m long on questions and short on answers this morning as I wrestle with this text alongside you. – leave you with the reflection from this week’s Spill the Beans resource (“Reflection” from Spill the Beans, iss. 24, p. 18, © 2017):

What was God thinking?
What was Abraham thinking?
What was Isaac thinking?
What was Sarah thinking?

So many hearts breaking at once.
A story of unfathomable pain.
A test greater than any test.
Unimaginable tension.
Life and death held in suspension
Moments apart.

God steps in.
Abraham passes the test.
Isaac lives.
A mother’s heart heals.

What was God doing that day?
A question without an answer, perhaps?
God was in the midst of it all.
In all things God is there.
In our tests and trials
God is there.
Trust in God.

 

[1] Gen 1:27.

[2] Gen 21:1-3.

[3] Gen 22:1a.

[4] Gen 22:5.

[5] Gen 22:6 (emphasis added).

[6] Gen 22:7-8a.

[7] Gen 22:10.

[8] Gen 22:12.

[9] Jn 3:16.

[10] Gen 22:13a.

[11] Mic 6:7b-8 (text slightly altered for familiarity’s sake).

Sunday’s sermon: It Was Supremely Good

Text used – Genesis 1:1-2:4

  • One of the things that Ian and Luke and I have gotten into during this time of COVID has been puzzles.
    • All sorts of puzzles
      • Big and small
      • Easy and hard
      • Regular shaped and oddly shaped
        • One shaped like a pizza
        • One shaped like a rocket
        • Next up: the one shaped like a dinosaur
      • Puppies and doughnuts, dragons and cabin scenes, kitties and Star Wars
      • Even a couple glow in the dark puzzles!
    • One of the best things about puzzles = watching the picture take shape → You start with that box of little pieces – hundreds, sometimes even thousands of little, tiny, individual pieces. Some of them are so easy to place. It’s so easy to see what part of the picture they belong to. But others are so much trickier. It’s not until more of the picture is complete that you can really see where that piece fits in. But no matter what kind of piece you’re currently holding in your hand, the whole puzzle isn’t complete without it.
      • Pizza puzzle actually got sent back → missing not ONE but TWO pieces when we had finished it → And that experience of finishing the whole puzzle but missing pieces was so … ugh.
  • Today, we begin our journey through another year of the Narrative Lectionary – a set of Scripture readings designed to help us take in the whole scope of God’s Grand Story of Faith in a 9-month period. And we begin, of course, at the beginning with God and creation. Creation … God’s crazy-amazing, beautiful, intricate puzzle of a world. → today’s reading makes it clear both how beautiful that puzzle truly is and how important it is that all the pieces come together – no missing pieces
      • Pieces of the puzzle = different days, different things created
        • Day 1: God created light and separated light from darkness, separated day from night
        • Day 2: God separated the waters above the earth from the waters upon the earth, creating sky
        • Day 3: God gathered the waters on the earth into lakes and rivers and seas and brought up the dry land → created plant life
        • Day 4: God created the sun, moon, and stars to light the day and mark the passage of time and seasons
        • Day 5: God created birds and seal life
        • Day 6: God created everything that walks on land → reptiles and mammals, bugs and marsupials, even humans
        • Day 7: God rested!
        • And after each of the descriptions of those days of creation, Scripture says what? “God saw how good it was.” Each piece of the puzzle that God created was good.
          • Heb. = suitable, pleasing, desirable, friendly, in order, lovely → All those warm and fuzzy words that reassure us of the integrity and excellence of something or someone.
            • Important point: it was only after creating each of those things that God declared them “good” → Did God know beforehand that each element of creation would be amazing? Who knows. Clearly, we cannot know what was in the mind of God. But only after seeing each new phase of creation and how it fit together with what came before it did God deem them all “good.”
        • Also important to note that each and every single one of those creations was deemed good by God → God deemed all land and all water good. Equally good. God deemed all plants equally good. God deemed all creatures great and small equally good.
          • Sure, that can be something that we question from time to time → rhyme that Mom used to say: “God, in his wisdom, created the fly, and then forgot to tell us why.”
            • Always felt like it applied more to mosquitos than flies … but that doesn’t rhyme nearly as nicely (“God, in his wisdom, created the mosquito, and then forgot to tell us why.” Nah.)
          • Most important: God deemed all people good. Equally – Scripture: Then God said, “Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.” God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.[1]
            • Heb. is abundantly, clearly broad in its terminology: “humanity” = the most general, inclusive word ancient Hebrews could have used for “people”
                • Genderless
                • Non-specific in every way
                  • Not particularly God’s chosen people
                  • Not particularly “the other” (Gentiles, “the nations” in much of the First Testament)
                • This is literally just people. All people. Every people. People of all kinds – all nations, races, and ethnicity. People of all shapes. People of all ability levels and education levels and income levels. People of all classes and groups and even religions. People of all genders and orientations. People of all dreams and hopes and aspirations. People of all mistakes and misunderstandings and doubts. People of all righteousness and brokenness, all humor and hopelessness, and delight and despair. ALL PEOPLE. No caveats. Just God … and people … and goodness.
    • Each and every single one of those elements that God created – each piece of the grand puzzle of life in the universe – was deemed good in its own right. Each and every piece, beautiful. Each and every piece, worthy. Each and every piece, blessed.
      • Hear that blessedness ringing in the way that James Weldon Johnson[2]
        • Early African American writer, poet, lawyer, civil rights activist
          • Lived around the turn of the 20th
        • Spent time as leader of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People)
        • U.S. consul to Venezuela and Nicaragua under Pres. Theodore Roosevelt
        • First Black professor to be hired by New York University in 1934
        • Wrote the lyrics to “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”
        • One of his most well-known poems: “The Creation”[3] – a loving and evocative retelling of creation that lets the goodness that God felt shine through [READ “The Creation”]
  • Again, we see that God declares all those pieces of the puzzle of creation good. But that’s not where God’s creation story ends. – text: God saw everything [God] had made: it was supremely good.[4] → “God saw everything God had made, and it was supremely good.” Supremely good.
    • Heb. = same word for “good” used throughout the rest of the chapter (suitable, pleasing, desirable, friendly, in order, lovely) plus the word for “abundant, to the highest degree”
    • You see, only when God saw all of creation together – everything, every plant, every creature, every person – all in the same picture did God call everything supremely good. Only when God was able to see the entire puzzle – complete and whole and beautiful – did God call everything supremely good. And I think that’s what we tend to forget when it comes to this passage.
      • Especially important message in this time when climate change is such a real and present threat
        • Deforestation + rampant and unchecked burning of fossil fuels = dramatic and dangerous rise of average global temperatures[5]
          • Causing the melting of the polar ice caps → causing rising sea levels
          • Causing more extreme weather conditions
            • Hurricanes
            • Tornados
            • Wildfires
            • Derecho winds that swept through IA last year (2020) and did so much damage
            • Droughts just like the one so much of the U.S. is suffering right now
        • Number of species that have gone extinct in the last 100 yrs.: nearly 500 species[6]
        • Huge swaths of forest and whole habitats that have been destroyed
        • Coral reefs that have been extensively damaged or even destroyed by human activity
        • Not to mention the physical, spiritual, and emotional damage we continue to do to each other – one human being to another. Friends, we seem to have fallen a long way from recognizing the supreme goodness of God’s creation. We have forgotten how to look at the overall picture. But our text this morning is our reminder – our reminder that every single element of God’s creation is needed to make it supremely good.
          • The parts that we love
            • The people
            • The places
            • The plants
            • The creatures
          • The parts that we find it hard to love
            • The people
            • The places
            • The plants
            • The creatures (even the mosquitos!)
    • God saw everything that God had created, and it was supremely good. Alleluia. Amen.

[1] Gen 1:26-27.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Weldon_Johnson.

[3] https://poets.org/poem/creation.

[4] Gen 1:31a.

[5] https://www.edf.org/climate/why-fighting-climate-change-so-urgent?utm_source=google&utm_campaign=edf_none_upd_dmt&utm_medium=cpc&utm_id=1561743801&gclid=CjwKCAjwyvaJBhBpEiwA8d38vNB8OyrA84IwCJJt8RkPSLlC9MyCWreCbg9-xsOCb4V8lCDze0gM3BoCA7IQAvD_BwE&gclsrc=aw.ds.

[6] https://www.rd.com/list/animals-extinct-last-100-years/.

Sunday’s sermon: Phoebe and the Women of Rome: Women of Hidden Holiness

Text used – Romans 16:1-16

  • When I was in high school, I was pretty heavily involved in theater. But here’s the thing: I hated being on stage.
    • Basically got involved in theater because all of my friends were trying out and getting cast in various parts → only audition I ever did was a disaster to say the least
      • Serious scene that I was supposed to be doing with one of my best friends → he did great … I giggled my way through it (mostly due to nerves)
      • But like I said, all my friends were doing the plays, and I didn’t want to be left out.
    • Pit orchestra for a few musicals → played the violin part on my saxophone … which was wicked hard but also really fun because the violin always gets the best parts!
    • Eventually found my place: stage crew
      • Crewed for one or two plays
      • Quickly ended up as the stage manager → I was in charge! HAHAHA! I was behind the scenes, but I was still an integral part of the production. Plus, I got to chat with a friend of mine up in the light booth over the headsets, and the organizational nature of being a stage manager totally appealed to my type A personality. I loved everything about being on the stage crew and being the stage manager.
        • Got to be involved in the production but I also got to actually watch the play
        • Got to be involved in all the fun play-related things like set painting, pre-performance warm ups, and skipping class for dress rehersals
        • Got to work on a companionable level with the director (one of the high school teachers that I really enjoyed who happens to be a Moravian minister now)
        • Most important part (to me): got to be a part of the production without being on stage → No costumes. No heavy stage makeup. No lines to memorize. No blocking to hit. Absolutely zero acting required. The work that I did was behind-the-scenes work. It wasn’t seen by anyone outside the cast … but it was still crucial work in terms of the success of the production.
  • Throughout the summer, we’ve been exploring the stories of so many women of the Bible. Up to now, they’ve all been women with actual stories – with some sort of narrative, some sort of active and enacted presence within the Grand Story of Faith. A few of those women haven’t even had names (not names that history recorded, anyway), but their stories still took up space within the rest of Scripture. Some of them even took up significant space – whole chapters of text. But today’s women are different. We get no story about them. For a few of them, we don’t even get names, just their relationship to other named characters. But we are told that they are working for the gospel. Their work is behind-the-scenes work … but it is crucial work all the same.
    • Paul makes it abundantly clear that their work is crucial
  • So before we dig into the holy but hidden work of these last women in our summer series, let’s talk about Romans a bit as a book. → purpose of Romans = important to the role of these women
    • Romans = crucial book to the Christian faith – introduction to Romans from the Common English Bible study version: Paul’s letter to the early Christian believers in Rome is surely the most significant letter in the history of Christianity. It’s also quite possibly the most influential letter in all of human history. The impact of the book of Romans on Christian belief, behavior, spirituality, and worship has been profound. It’s also been important for relations among Christians, as well as relations between Christians and Jews. Romans has ignited movements with far-reaching implications for the Christian church, for culture, and even for politics.[1]
    • Romans = definitely written by Paul → Remember that there are a few of the books/letters in the New Testament that, while they’ve been attributed to Paul in the past, scholars are not pretty certain weren’t written by Paul.
      • E.g. – book of Hebrews
      • But Romans was definitely written by Paul.
    • Romans = only book/letter of Paul’s that we have in the New Testament that was written to a group of people Paul hadn’t visited → All of Paul’s other letters were written to congregations that he himself had established – to people that he had met and spent time with, people who had gotten to know Paul and his passion for the gospel up close and personal. But not Romans. – introduction to Romans from the Common English Bible study version: Paul was writing to a community he had neither founded nor visited, though he knew a number of people there. Paul wrote the letter, in part, to introduce himself and his gospel to the house churches in Rome before paying them a visit.[2]
      • Could give us some purpose behind this long list of names that we read this morning → Paul is writing to this group of Christians that he doesn’t know. Surely by this point, his reputation has preceded him among the Christians in these home churches, but as a way to solidify his reputation with them, he includes this long list of other Christians that he knows within their midst. He name-drops, if you will, in order to bolster his credibility among the Roman Christians when he finally does meet them in person.
        • Particularly because this list of names is found at the very end of Paul’s letter → spent the bulk of the letter evangelizing and expounding on theological and ecclesial matters – matters of faith and matters of what it means to be the church – and he includes the long list of names at the end as his way of underlining everything he’s previously said with the reputations of those he has name-dropped, letting their names and people’s relationships with them give weight to his message
  • So let’s take a closer look at this list of names.
    • Rom 16:1-16 includes 29 different individuals (not including the couple of times Paul says “and the brothers and sisters”)
      • 10 of those 29 are women! → This is something that we can easily lose track of because only a couple of those names are still names that are used today. We recognize Phoebe, Mary, and Julia as female names. The rest of them are a little harder to suss out. – other women: Prisca, Junia, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, Persis, Rufus’ mother, Nereus’ sister
        • Both interesting and important to note that Paul names these women in all manner of ways → Some are named only in reference to their relationship to someone else – Rufus’ mother and Nereus’ sister. Some are named in tandem with another (the implication, which is backed up by historical documentation, being that these women are part of a couple) – Prisca, Julia, and Junia. Some of the women are named on their own – Phoebe, Persis, and Mary. Paul even names two women who were slaves – Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Through his connections and his relationships, Paul makes it clear that the good news of the gospel can come from anyone anywhere. All facets of life. All classes. All ways of being a woman in Roman society. Anyone can preach the gospel. Anyone can hear the gospel. Anyone can live the gospel. Anyone can be changed by the gospel.
    • Other element crucial to understanding the role of women in the early church = the way Paul describes their roles/work → Paul uses an abundance of different terms and descriptors for the work that these women were doing for the Church.
      • Calls Phoebe a “servant” and a “sponsor”[3]
        • Gr. “servant” = work for deacon/deaconess → implies that Phoebe held an official role of some sort within the church (which is probably also why Paul mentions Phoebe first)
        • Gr. “sponsor” = protector, patron, benefactor, helper → Like Mary Magdalene and Lydia, whom we’ve talked about in previous weeks, this word indicates that Phoebe is a woman of means and social influence.[4] Once again, we find the work of successful and independent women laying the foundation of the early church.
      • Speaks of a few woman as those who have clearly worked and even suffered alongside Paul → Prisca and Junia
        • Prisca = “coworker”[5] → Gr. = sunergos, root of the word “synergy”
        • Junia = “relative” and “prisoner with me”[6] → is a bit unclear when it comes to “relatives” – could mean literal kinspeople or could simply mean fellow Jews
          • But Paul gives Junia an interesting distinction. He says that she, along with Andronicus, “were in Christ before me,”[7] indicating that Junia has been a follower of Jesus from the very beginning. Not only that, but Paul also calls these two “prominent among the apostles,” which could indicate that they were witnesses of the resurrection, a distinction which would make Junia one of the few female apostles.[8]
      • Also makes it clear that a number of these woman are doing difficult work for the gospel → describes Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis all with the same word
        • Mary and Persis = “worked hard”
        • Tryphaena and Tryphosa = “workers”
        • Gr. = particular work for work that carries connotations of striving, struggling, toiling, even becoming weary
        • So while the Church patriarchy over the past centuries has been peddling the story that the Church was built by men alone, it is abundantly clear by Paul’s own words and designations that there were a number of women – women from all backgrounds and all walks of life – who were doing the hard and dangerous work of spreading the gospel as well.
  • I feel like this passage is the perfect end to our summer of walking alongside the women of the Bible because it highlight so many women as those who were actively working for and living out the good news of the gospel in ways that significantly impacted the life of the early church. For centuries – millennia, even – their stories have been downplayed. Their stories have been ignored. Their stories have been warped and manipulated and misused. But when we look at the text itself – when we dive into some of the grittier, more obscure, more challenging corners of Scripture – we find the stories of these women as shining examples of God working in and through them. So with gratitude, with faith, with hope, and with a new understanding, we conclude with Paul’s own words from today’s passage” to the women of Scripture – the known and the unknown, the named and the unnamed, the weighed down and the lifted up: “All the churches of Christ salute you, remember you, cherish you, and honor you.” Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] Michael J. Gorman. “Romans: Introduction” in The CEB Study Bible, ed. Joel B. Green. (Nashville: Common English Bible, 2013), 275 NT.

[2] Gorman, 275-276 NT.

[3] Rom 16:1, 2.

[4] N.T. Wright. “The Letter to the Romans: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 10. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 762.

[5] Rom 16:3.

[6] Rom 16:7.

[7] Rom 16:7.

[8] Wright, 762.

Sunday’s sermon: Lydia: Woman of Means and Message

Text used – Acts 16:11-15

  • So throughout the summer, we’ve been exploring the stories of various women of the Bible, right?
    • Met women we’d never met before
    • Met women who didn’t even have names
    • Met women in difficult circumstances
    • Met women whose choices weren’t their own
    • Met women whose stories have been misunderstood and/or misrepresented for centuries
    • Met women from both the First Testament and the New Testament
    • Some of them, like Hagar and Tamar, were women who met God unknowingly or even unwillingly in the midst of their circumstances. Some of them, like Bathsheba and Vashti, were women who may not even have been aware that God was even speaking through their actions and their faith. Others, like Shiphrah and Puah and the Syrophoenician woman, like Rahab and Huldah, were women who actively and passionately sought to do God’s will.
    • But last week marked a bit of a turning point for us in that it introduced us to a category of women we hadn’t really encountered yet: women disciples.
      • Last week: Mary Magdalene = first of the women who was a devoted disciples of Jesus Christ
      • This week: continue the trend with Lydia
        • Similar to Mary Magdalene in that she’s a woman of means (which we’ll talk more about later)
        • Different from Mary Magdalene in that she is a Gentile convert
          • Didn’t grow up a Jew (as Mary did)
          • Never actually met Jesus (as Mary did)
  • So let’s dig into the short and somewhat obscure story of Lydia.
    • Context: book of Acts
      • Written by Luke (same as the gospel) as a conversation between himself and a reader (Theophilus)
      • Probably written sometime toward the middle to end of the 1st (70-90 C.E., possibly a little earlier)
      • History book of sorts → version of history of the early church
        • Church growing in numbers
        • Church growing in geography
        • Church growing in theology
        • Scholar: A number of studies have demonstrated that Acts is best read as a genre of ancient historiography, itself quite fluid in form and function. Luke’s narrative is a selective account of what happened – a “history” shaped and signified according to his personal theological beliefs and pastoral purposes. … In the case of Acts, Luke selects and arranges a series of events that he narrates for his reader(s) in order to give meaning to the church’s mission and message as a history that accords with God’s redemptive plans for Israel and the nations.[1]
      • And in the context of this “historiography” of the early church, we meet a lot of people in their midst of their coming-to-faith moments like today’s story with Lydia. → most of them Gentiles
        • Peter stayed near Jerusalem to spread the gospel among the Jews while Paul took Jesus’ good news on the road among the Gentiles → Acts mostly follows the journeys of Paul and his helpers (with a few off-shoot stories mixed in)
          • Get a taste of those journeys in the opening part of our Scripture reading this morning – text: We sailed from Troas straight for Samothrace and came to Neapolis the following day. From there we went to Philippi, a city in Macedonia’s first district and a Roman colony.[2]
            • Troas = port city on the western coast of the Aegean Sea (modern day Turkey)
            • Neapolis = port city on the northern coast of the Aegean Sea (modern day Greece, just 10 mi. south of Philippi)
            • Samothrace = island in the Aegean Sea about halfway between Troas and Neapolis
    • Setting for today’s story
      • City: Philippi in Macedonia (modern day Greece just inland from the north shore of the Aegean Sea)
      • Even more specific: the banks of the river … why?
        • Text: On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the riverbank, where we thought there might be a place for prayer. We sat down and began to talk with the women who had gathered.[3]
          • Scholar gives us even more clarity about this location: In this case the term designates a marginal location outside the city gates and beside a small river on the southern edge of town. … That Paul only supposed this was a place of prayer may well symbolize the insignificance of a Jewish presence within the city.[4] → So in the telling of this story, the author of Acts is making it clear to us that Philippi is a thoroughly Roman city, not a Jewish city like Jerusalem.
        • Before moving on – important line that we cannot ignore in that verse: “We sat down and began to talk with the women who had gathered.” → We cannot ignore this verse because it shows us once again that women were, in fact, included in the life and learning of the early church without objection, without obstruction, without needing to meekly sit and absorb that learning like a silent sponge. Paul and those traveling with him specifically sought out that place on the riverbank and initiated the conversation “with the women who had gathered.”
          • No mention of men by the riverside → in Paul’s eyes: women were just as worthy of hearing and acting on the gospel message as men → So the next time someone tries to tell you that women only have a silent and subservient place in church, you can talk to them about Lydia’s story!
  • Lydia’s introduction = interesting – text: One of those women was Lydia, a Gentile God-worshipper from the city of Thyatira, a dealer in purple cloth. As she listened, the Lord enabled her to embrace Paul’s message.[5] → Let’s break this down a bit because there’s a lot here.
    • Lydia was “a Gentile God-worshipper” → We’re told straight up that Lydia is a Gentile, and her purported home of Thyatira (an ancient Greek city located in modern day western Turkey) reinforces this identity. But there’s also some ambiguity and mystery in this designation. How does the author know Lydia is a God-worshipper? Is there something about her that telegraphs her spiritual leanings? Or is this knowledge that was added after the fact?
      • However it happens, Lydia being a “Gentile God-worshipper” puts her in solid Scriptural company → other Gentile God-worshippers:
        • The Syrophoenician woman (whose story we read 3 wks ago)[6]
        • Cornelius (Gentile who summoned Peter to his home and was converted along with his entire household)[7]
        • In fact, many of the people Jesus encounters and heals throughout the gospels – the ones who first recognize and name him out loud as the Son of God – are all Gentiles.
    • Lydia was “a dealer in purple cloth” → This can be a difficult cultural designation for us to grasp nowadays when we can drive over to JoAnn Fabrics and buy thousands of different kinds of purple cloth. (Literally: quick search on JoAnn’s website for “purple cloth” = 5841 results!) → ancient method for dying cloth purple was vastly different than today (Smithsonian article[8])
      • Purple cloth = “Tyrian purple”
        • Made by boiling thousands of marine snails in giant lead vats
        • Valuable because it was such a difficult color to produce
        • Valuable because it was a color that, unlike many other colors of dye at the time, didn’t fade → stayed bright and vibrant
        • Purple cloth was the color of exceptional wealth and royalty until well into the 19th century, so the fact that Lydia was a “dealer in purple cloth” meant that she had significant means and connections throughout society and probably even throughout the Roman empire.
          • Note: it said “dealer in purple cloth” → means she was more than just one of the women working in the production process → “dealer” indicates ownership which indicates status and power
          • Scholar: Purple clothing was destined for the rich and royal in the Roman world, where it symbolized power and influence. A merchant in purple cloth, then, is someone who rubbed shoulders daily with society’s rich and famous. Luke’s use of Lydia’s personal name in his story may well indicate her social prominence.[9]
    • As Lydia listened to Paul’s teachings, “the Lord enabled her to embrace Paul’s message” → Once again, we see God at work in and through someone before they even realize there is work to be done.
      • Actually prefer NRSV translation of this portion of the text: “The Lord opened [Lydia’s] heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” → better expresses the Gr. here
        • Gr. “opened her heart” = pretty literal → “opened up completely, explained, interpreted” + “heart” → Something about this translation makes it clear just how active God is in Lydia’s conversion experience. It is God who opens Lydia’s heart to interpretation and explanation, to God’s own good news through Paul’s witness. It feel like there is some special work that God has for Lydia to do, so God is making sure that Lydia truly takes in the message of the gospel – that she takes it to heart (literally) and lets it bring about a change in her.
        • Gr. “listen eagerly” = also very active and evocative phrase → “listen, heed, understand, learn” + “turn one’s mind to, pay attention to, cling to” → There’s a level of devotion and wholeheartedness in this phrase that’s hard to fully capture in English. Lydia didn’t just half listen to Paul while she continued to chat with the other women down by the river. She refocused her entire being on what Paul was saying. She probably turned her whole body and face to him, but more importantly, she turned her spirit toward his message, drinking in the joy and promise of the gospel like a stream of living water.
  • Fruits of Lydia’s conversion experience are swift and obvious – text: Once [Lydia] and her household were baptized, she urged, “Now that you have decided that I am a believer in the Lord, come and stay in my house.” And she persuaded us.[10]
    • First fruit = obvious: Lydia and her entire house are baptized, potentially even on the spot right there on that very riverbank → Lydia was so moved in her faith by the message of the gospel that she had to act.
    • Second fruit = Lydia takes Paul and his companions into her own home – home that eventually becomes the spiritual center for the entire city of Philippi, presumably with Lydia as the local spiritual leader once Paul has moved on[11] → This is significant considering the population of ancient Philippi around the time of Paul’s visit was roughly 10,000.
    • Modern day fruit of Lydia’s conversion = powerful reminder for us → Lydia’s story is definitely a reminder of the true role that women played in the development and furtherance of the early church – a role of inclusion, significance, and leadership equal to those of their male counterparts. But more than that, Lydia’s story is a reminder that the message of the gospel reaches past any and all barriers we might try to construct – barriers based on gender, economic status, social status, or anything else. The good news of the gospel – the truth that Christ died for us and rose for us to bring us God’s everlasting love and untarnishable grace – reaches each and every one of us where we are (wherever we are!) and bring us all to the same, level place in God’s eyes: beloved child. Nothing else matters. Amen.

[1] Robert W. Wall. “The Acts of the Apostles: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 10. (Nashville; Abingdon Press, 2002), 12-13.

[2] Acts 16:11-12.

[3] Acts 16:13.

[4] Wall, 231.

[5] Acts 16:14.

[6] Mk 7:24-30

[7] Acts 10.

[8] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/in-ancient-rome-purple-dye-was-made-from-snails-1239931/.

[9] Wall, 232.

[10] Acts 16:15.

[11] Wall, 235.

Sunday’s sermon: Mary Magdalene: Woman of Misrepresented Devotion

Text used – Luke 8:1-3; John 20:11-18

  • When I was a kid, my grandma had a grand total of 3 VHS tapes at her house that we could watch.
    • All Dogs Go to Heaven[1]
    • Dot and the Whale[2]
    • Beauty and the Beast[3] → But it wasn’t Disney’s version of “Beauty and the Beast.” It was some minor production company’s version. It was animated like Disney’s, but it wasn’t embellished with all the musical interludes and anthropomorphized household items. It was short, and it followed more closely to the original version penned by Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve. But that wasn’t all. It also included two or three other, very similar tales that came from other countries.
      • E.g.s[4]
        • ITALY: Zelinda and the Monster = tale in which the beast is depicted as a fire-breathing dragon
        • CHINA: The Fairy Serpent = tale (which probably comes from an originally Indian version) in which the daughter is given in marriage to a snake
        • RUSSIA: The Enchanted Tsarévich = sort of a mash up of all of the above in which the daughter asks for a rose and ends up falling in love with a winged snake monster
      • Now, you have to remember that Disney’s version of “Beauty and the Beast” hit theaters when I was in 2nd grade, and it was (and still is) incredibly popular. So of course, that was (and still is!) the version that people know best. The version that people remember. The version that people retell. BUT …
        • Significant differences between Disney’s version and the original fairy tale that comes out of 17th France
          • Original tale = rich man on a journey stumbles upon a remote castle and picks a rose for his youngest daughter from the beast’s garden → beast catches him and gives him a choice of giving up one of his daughters or giving up his own life → father chooses to give up his daughter
        • (As you can surely imagine) significant differences between Disney’s version and the versions that have been told throughout the centuries in other cultures
        • But still, Disney’s version of Belle’s story is the one that people know and accept as “The Story” (capital T, capital S). It carries vague threads of the “real” story – the original story – but it is also undeniably its own fabrication.
  • And so today we come to the Scripture story of Mary Magdalene – a woman whose “real story” has been all but lost in others’ fabrications; a woman whose story has been tangled and warped and manipulated throughout the centuries; a woman whose story is inextricably interwoven with the story of the early church; a woman whose true significance we cannot ignore.
    • Lots of different versions of Mary Magdalene’s story have emerged throughout the centuries → 2 most prominent ones
      • FIRST: story of Mary Magdalene as a repentant prostitute → Scholars agree that this portrait probably originally stemmed from the proximity of Mary’s introduction – which we read from the beginning of Luke 8 – to the story of the unnamed woman with the alabaster jar who anoints Jesus’ feet at the end of Luke 7.
        • Woman with the alabaster jar: woman described simply as “a sinner” by the text → approaches Jesus as he’s sitting down to dinner → washes Jesus’ feet with her tears, dries them with her hair, anoints them with costly oils → This woman has always been portrayed as a repentant prostitute (though we should note that it doesn’t actually say that anywhere in Scripture either). And directly following her story at the end of chapter 7, we’re introduced to Mary Magdalene at the beginning of chapter 8.
        • Confusion reinforced by Pope Gregory the Great in one of his sermons in 591 C.E. – scholar: Pope Gregory solidified Mary Magdalene’s reputation as a former prostitute in one single paragraph. He also linked together the “sinner” from Luke 7…, Mary of Bethany, and Mary Magdalene. He formed, consequently, what many scholars refer to as the “composite Magdalene.”[5]
          • Finally cleared up by Catholic Church in 1960s → doctrine to separate the persons of the “composite Magdalene”
          • Pope John Paul II attempted further clarification by officially reinstating Mary Magdalene as “the apostle to the apostles” (a title that had originally been given to her by the early church fathers in 2nd century)
        • Still, this portrait of Mary Magdalene remains a misconception that has stood the test of time.
          • False depiction of Mary’s character has been immortalized by countless artists including names as prominent as Titian, Caravaggio, El Greco, and van Dyck
          • False narrative perpetuated by popular culture such as Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s depiction of Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar[6], Martin Scorsese’s depiction of her in The Last Temptation of Christ[7], and Mel Gibson’s depiction of her in The Passion of the Christ [8]
          • This myth even persists in our own language! – English term magdalen = (by definition) a reformed prostitute
        • And yet, according to Scripture and early church accounts, this thread of Mary’s tale is, indeed, a false thread. There is no actual evidence to back up this story. So poor Mary Magdalene has spent centuries maligned with no chance to give voice to her own truth. Hear me today, friends: Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute.
      • SECOND: story of Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ wife → While we cannot solely credit American novelist Dan Brown with this particular storyline, he certainly did his part in its viral distribution with his wildly popular novel The DaVinci Code.
        • Published back in 2003[9]
        • Made into a movie directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks in 2006[10]
        • Dan Brown’s story heavily inspired by book Holy Blood, Holy Grail: The Secret History of Christ and the Shocking Legacy of the Grail written by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln in 1982[11]
        • And while this particular storyline – that Mary Magdalene was actually Jesus Christ’s secret wife who was pregnant at the time of Christ’s crucifixion and was smuggled out of the Holy Land for her own safety and gave birth to Christ’s child somewhere in Europe … while that particular storyline certainly made for a compelling read and a thrilling movie, there is very little actual historical evidence to support any of it.
          • Scholars have found a handful of accounts in early Christian history that speak of Mary Magdalene as one of Jesus’ most devoted disciples who did have some sort of special, intimate relationship with Jesus → But it is quite a leap to go from those references to secret-wife-pregnant-with-the-child-of-the-Son-of-God. Again, poor Mary has no chance to set her own record straight in the face of this inventive fantasy.
  • So then who was Mary Magdalene?
    • Following Mary Magdalene through Scripture can sometimes get confusing → so many Marys!
      • Mary Magdalene ≠ Mary, the mother of Jesus
      • Mary Magdalene ≠ Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus
      • Mary Magdalene ≠ Mary of Bethany (who is the sister of Mary and Lazarus) … You see why it gets confusing!
    • Mary Magdalene = someone who experienced Jesus’ miraculous healing – text (Lk): The Twelve were with [Jesus], along with some women who had been healed of evil spirits and sicknesses. Among them were Mary Magdalene (from whom seven demons had been thrown out)[12]
      • Scholar (some historical clarification): The New Testament describes men and women afflicted with demons as having various diseases and pains, uncontrollable seizures and convulsions, unusual strength, self-inflicted wounds, illness, and blindness; teaching deceitful doctrines; being mute, violent, severely tormented, crippled, insane, naked, or ostracized from society, and yet – after encountering Christ – acknowledging him as the Messiah.[13] → So the general diagnosis of “having demons” basically covered any and every ailment – physical or mental – that wasn’t easily and obviously explainable such as blindness due to some sort of accident or illness due to ingesting something spoiled or inedible. As Scripture gives us no other indications as to Mary Magdalene’s afflictions, we can only speculate, but we do know that she was ill, and Jesus healed her.
    • Mary Magdalene = woman of means – text (continues): Among them were Mary Magdalene (from whom seven demons had been thrown out), Joanna (the wife of Herod’s servant Chuza), Susanna, and many other who provided for them out of their resources.[14] → This piece is arguably both one of the most important signs of Mary’s significance and the one most often overlooked or forgotten.
      • Gr. “provided for them out of their resources” = combination of word “serve, take care of, support” (word = root for our modern-day term deacon) + word “property, possessions” → The wording makes it clear that Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and the unnamed others were providing for Jesus and the rest of his disciples financially. They had means which, in the culture at the time, also undoubtedly meant that had position – a respectability, some sort of societal standing and influence.
    • Mary Magdalene = “the apostle to the apostles” → Our 2nd reading from the gospel of John is truly Mary Magdalene’s shining moment in Scripture.
      • Mary Magdalene = only name mentioned in every single gospel as the first to find the tomb empty (which, by the way, also means she was the first to go and pay her respects … before anyone else, Mary came) → runs to get Peter and “the other disciple” (mysterious unnamed “beloved disciple” present only in John’s gospel) → Peter and the other disciple saw that the tomb was empty, didn’t understand, and “returned to the place where they were staying”[15]
      • But Mary Magdalene stayed. She stayed in the garden. She stayed in that space of unknowing. She stayed in that space of discomfort. She stayed in that space of grief. And in that space, as she wept beside the now-empty tomb, Mary Magdalene was the first person to encounter the risen Christ – her beloved Teacher and friend who knew her and valued her enough to call her by name: “Mary.” And from that space, Mary Magdalene was the first person to deliver the good news of the gospel: “I have seen the Lord.”
        • Reason Mary was and is again called “the apostle to the apostles” → “apostle” = one who is sent → Mary was sent to the disciples to deliver the good news of the resurrection, and from that initial declaration, the disciples sent the good news out into the world.
        • Even evidence that between Mary’s status as one of Jesus’ closest disciples and supporters and her role as the first apostle, Mary had a role in the development of the early church that was so prominent, it rivaled even Peter’s[16]
    • Last paragraph from Karla Zazueta’s essay on Mary Magdalene from Vindicating the Vixens (because she sums it all up so perfectly): We have examined, erased, painted over, and added new brush strokes to the canvas of Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute, nor Jesus’s lover, but a loyal female disciple, patron of finances, participant of prophecy fulfilled, and a necessary passive and active witness of Christ’s ministry, crucifixion, death, and resurrection. She was the first to the grave, the first to see the risen Lord, the first to testify the news of his resurrection, and the only woman to consistently appear in all the lists of women disciples. Let us stand back, observe, and remember this new portrait of Mary Magdalene – a portrait based on biblical fact, not folklore. Her portrait is complete: Mary Magdalene is honored and revered as the first messenger of Christ’s resurrection – the apostle of the apostles – declaring, “I have seen the Lord!” She saw and she proclaimed: He is risen. He is alive! … For Mary Magdalene, we say, “Thanks be to God!” Amen.

[1] All Dogs Go to Heaven, directed by Don Bluth, Gary Goldman, and Dan Kuenster (Goldcrest Films International, 1989).

[2] Dot and the Whale, directed by Yoram Gross (Yoram Gross Films, 1986).

[3] Beauty and the Beast, directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise (Walt Disney Pictures, 1991).

[4] https://www.pookpress.co.uk/7-variants-of-beauty-and-the-beast/.

[5] Karla Zazueta, “Mary Magdalene: Repainting Her Portrait of Misconceptions” in Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible, ed. Sandra Glahn. (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2017), 257.

[6] Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. Jesus Christ Superstar, directed by Norman Jewison. (Universal Pictures, 1973).

[7] The Last Temptation of Christ, directed by Martin Scorsese (Universal Pictures, 1988).

[8] The Passion of Christ, directed by Mel Gibson (Icon Productions, 2004).

[9] Dan Brown. The DaVinci Code. (New York: Anchor Books), 2003.

[10] The DaVinci Code, directed by Ron Howard (Columbia Pictures, 2006).

[11] Michael Baigen, et al. Holy Blood, Holy Grail: The Secret History of Christ and the Shocking Legacy of the Grail. (New York: Delacorte Press), 19892.

[12] Lk 8:1b-2.

[13] Zazueta, 265.

[14] Lk 8:2b-3.

[15] Jn 20:10.

[16] James Carroll. “Who Was Mary Magdalene?” from Smithsonian Magazine, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/who-was-mary-magdalene-119565482/. Posted June 2006, accessed Aug. 17, 2021.

Sunday’s sermon: The Syrophoenician Woman: Woman of Frantic Hope

Text used – Mark 7:24-30

  • The story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman. This is, quite frankly, a challenging and all-around uncomfortable story.
    • A story that portrays Jesus uncomfortably
    • A story that hits uncomfortably close to home in a lot of ways
    • But it’s also a story that’s crucial to the development of Jesus’ ministry.
  • So let’s dive right into this story this morning. I think it’s best if we tackle the uncomfortable aspects of this story before we do anything else so this discomfort doesn’t get in the way of our learning and understanding.
    • Story hits close to home in some uncomfortable ways → ways that have to do with who the woman is – text: The woman was Greek, Syrophoenician by birth.[1] → So “Syrophoenician” is your Jeopardy word for the day, right? Basically, it just means that this woman who approached Jesus was a woman from the Roman city state of Phoenicia in the province of Syria. Geographically, that also means something especially significant to Jesus and his followers: she’s a Canaanite.
      • Actually called a Canaanite woman in a lot of translations of this text (probably because Syrophoenician doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue so easily!) → Now, we’ve spent the summer going through stories of some of the women of the Bible, and up to now, those stories have come from the Old Testament – the First Testament – and many of them have dealt with Israel’s long, difficult, contentious history with the Canaanites.
        • History full of conflict and conquest and bloody back-and-forths between the two nations
          • E.g. – Rahab the prostitute, whose story we read about 6 weeks ago, was a Canaanite → helped Joshua and the rest of the people of Israel ultimately destroy her home city of Jericho as they began their occupation of the Promised Land
      • Amazing thing: woman’s “otherness” doesn’t keep her from approaching Jesus when she learns (despite his best efforts) that he is nearby – text: Jesus left that place and went into the region of Tyre. He didn’t want anyone to know that he had entered a house, but he couldn’t hide. In fact, a woman whose young daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit heard about him right away. She came and fell at his feet. … She begged Jesus to throw the demon out of her daughter.[2]
        • Woman’s “otherness” is uncomfortable (and we’ll explore why a little bit more in a minute) → But I want us to pause for just a second in this moment in the story and sit with the uncomfortableness of this moment, too, because it’s crucial to the story. This woman – this mother – loves her daughter so much and is so desperate for her daughter’s well-being that she seeks out this Jewish teacher and healer and begs him to work his miraculous healing for her daughter. I don’t know about you, but when I read this passage, the scene that plays out in my mind isn’t a calm one. It isn’t a safe one. It isn’t a logical, practical one. It isn’t a tactful, emotionally neutral scene. In my mind, this scene is a scene fraught with high emotion and frenetic energy. This woman is desperate, and she holds none of that desperation back as she beseeches Jesus to heal her little girl. → witness this desperation in the language of this passage
          • Gr. “fell at his feet” (when she first approaches Jesus) = prosepesen = root of the word “prostrate” → So the woman isn’t just kneeling meekly at Jesus’ feet. She has literally thrown herself down flat to the floor with her face and her tears in the dirt to beg for Jesus’ help.
          • Gr. “throw the demon out” = very forceful, evocative word – means drive out, expel with emotional connotations of disdain and rejection → So not only in the woman clear in her abject desperate need by throwing herself down at Jesus’ feet, she’s also abundantly clear in her desperate desire for this affliction to be as far removed from her beloved daughter as possible … and permanently.
          • You see, this woman is so abundantly raw and real in her interaction with Jesus. Her protective, sacrificing, do-anything-for-my-child mother love is on full display as is the frantic nature of her hope. And to be in that moment with her – that moment when she throws herself down and begs for her daughter’s wholeness and healing – is uncomfortable for us because it makes us examine our own lives … our own relationships … our own faith. Would we have the courage to do what she did – to prostrate ourselves at the feet of another? Would we have the capacity for such openness in the face of our own worry and fear? Would we have the faith to believe that Jesus could actually do what we asked?
      • Woman’s identity and circumstance are not where the discomfort in this story stops because after her desperate request, we have Jesus’ wholly unexpected and uncomfortable response – text: [Jesus] responded, “The children have to be fed first. It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”[3] → Yes, friends, you heard that right. Jesus just called this desperate woman – this love-driven mother – a dog. UNCOMFORTABLE.
        • One scholar that I read this week was very succinct, describing Jesus as “caught with his proverbial compassion down”[4]
        • Another scholar clarified the point further for us: [We] need to understand that [Jesus] is being a Jewish man of his time. … Hardly anyone in that house in Tyre would wince or gasp when they hear this Jewish teacher speak in this way to this woman. She is a Gentile. Centuries of bad blood, and probably a social caste or two, lie between this woman and her Jewish neighbors.[5] → This is that history that we mentioned when we talked about this woman being a Canaanite. That’s a history that may have slipped past our 21st century understanding, but it certainly didn’t slip past Jesus’ 1st century understanding.
          • Before you ask: Yes, “dog” is as bad as it sounds → Apparently, in an attempt to soften the uncomfortableness of this passage – and, more specifically, the uncomfortableness of Jesus’ first words for this woman – some scholars have tried to explain away Jesus’ chosen terminology in a wide (and wild!) variety of ways. But the Greek is the Greek, and the word is blunt and undeniable and harsh. It is not ambiguous. It is not endearing. There is no hidden meaning. Jesus’ first words for this woman are a straight-up insult. And that’s uncomfortable for us, right, because Jesus is supposed to be all those wonderful, comforting, compassionate things that we want him to be all the time, right?
            • Declares the love of God for all … right?
            • Proclaims God’s peace and grace for all … right?
            • Opens wide his arms and gives himself even unto his life for all … right?
            • Yes to all of those things because, as Christians, we believe that Jesus was fully God, embodying all the love and grace and forgiveness that God wants to give to us. BUT as Christians, we also believe that Jesus was fully human – that he took on every aspect of humanity in order to redeem humanity’s broken relationship with God. And in this passage, we definitely encounter the more human side of Jesus. So we have to sit in the uncomfortableness of that and ask us why it makes us so uncomfortable.
              • Especially difficult question in light of the way that we have treated women just like the Syrophoenician woman → Throughout the centuries, immigrants – those of undeniable “otherness” in language, in customs, in appearance, in belief – haven’t exactly been welcomed into this country with open and compassionate arms.
                • Admitted, yes, but for work details … for substandard housing and slums … for jobs that don’t pay enough to keep a family fed let alone clothed or housed or medically cared for … for forced separation at the border and filthy and derelict refugee detainment centers and children in cages and years and years of waiting for just a small modicum of safety, security, hope
                • Admitted, yes, but not welcomed … not made a part … not belonging … held always at arm’s length
                • Is that maybe why we find this passage so uncomfortable? Because we recognize Jesus’ initial response all too well?
  • Fortunately, this initial, harsh rejection isn’t the end of the Syrophoenician woman’s story. – text: But she answered [Jesus], “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” “Good answer!” he said. “Go on home. The demon has already left your daughter.” When she returned to her house, she found the child lying on the bed and the demon gone.[6]
    • There is a tenacity in this woman that we cannot help but admire. There is a cleverness that is strengthened by her humility. There is a resolve that, while this Jewish teacher whom she has sought out has deemed her worthless, she knows she still has worth enough.
      • With tenacity and cleverness, she takes that insult that Jesus just laid upon her and turns in around
        • Uses it to describe herself
        • Uses it to teach the Teacher a lesson: “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” → Even those who are on the outside deserve a chance. Even those who are wholly other deserve a glimpse of God’s grace and glory. Even this frantic, desperate, Canaanite mother deserves hope.
          • Important to note: I don’t believe it’s her humility that Jesus is rewarding when he informs her that her daughter has been made well. There are plenty of people throughout the gospels that display some form of humility with our around Jesus without the same result. What spurs Jesus to action is her faith. Even though she is not a Jew … even though he has treated her poorly and insulted her … even though (in other gospel variations of this story) the disciples have tried to physically turn her away, this woman believes enough in Jesus’ divine ability that she persists. Her hope is frantic and her faith is steadfast, and for that, Jesus grants the request of this love-driven mother.
          • Related important note: This could easily devolve into a conversation about whether or not someone’s prayers are “good enough to be healed” or someone’s faith is “strong enough to be healed,” and friends, that is a dangerous and slippery slope. Much damage has been done by the Church when it comes to people’s health – mental and physical – by declaring that if your faith is “right,” any and all of your afflictions can be healed. And while I deeply wish that prayer alone could heal all ills, we know that’s not the case. Illness – mental or physical – is not a punishment from God. Illness – mental or physical – is not a shameful badge that marks your faith as not good enough. The good news of the gospel that we proclaim as Christians is that Jesus came to show us all that God’s love and grace alone make us “good enough.” Period. No exceptions. And if medication … or treatment … or counseling … or any other modern medical intervention is what we need to live into the best, healthiest version of our Good-Enough-In-God selves, there is nothing wrong with that.
    • Scholar gives us another take on a lesson we can learn from the Syrophoenician woman’s encounter with Jesus: Perhaps this woman might act as a reminder of the radical boldness required of those who would petition God. How can our praying, in general, become more daring, more creative, or perhaps even – following those examples in the [First] Testament and this woman – more argumentative?[7] → Clearly this woman’s relationship with Jesus isn’t perfect, but still, she approaches the Savior with boldness. She approaches with hope. She approaches with full belief and trust. And she makes space for us to do the same. Amen.

[1] Mk 7:26a.

[2] Mk 7:24-25, 26b.

[3] Mk 7:27.

[4] Amy C. Howe. “Proper 18 (Sunday between September 4 and September 10 inclusive – Mark 7:24-37 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, vol. 4. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 44.

[5] Karen Pidcock-Lester. “Mark 7:24-30 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: Mark. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 206.

[6] Mk 7:28-30.

[7] J. Barrie Shepherd. “Mark 7:24-30 – Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: Mark. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 211.

Sunday’s sermon: Vashti: Woman of Doomed Dignity

Text used – Esther 1:1-21

  • For 10 yrs., starting in 1947, he wore #42 for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Jackie Robinson – one of the best baseball players to play the game, and the first Black man to play Major League Baseball.[1]
    • Pretty astounding player
      • Key stats for those who know baseball:
        • .311 batting average
        • 137 career homeruns
        • 734 career RBIs
        • General infielder → 1950: led the league in double plays made by a 2nd baseman with 133 double plays in 1 yr.
      • For those of you who aren’t that familiar with baseball, that basically means that Jackie Robinson was incredibly talented both with his bat and his glove.
        • Rookie of the Year: 1947
        • League MVP: 1949
    • And yet despite these stats and accolades and Robinson’s clear talent on the field, he faced an uphill from the minute he put on that blue and white Dodgers’ uniform. As I said, Robinson was the first Black player to play Major League baseball, and being a trailblazer in the public eye in regards to integration and Black/white relations in the 1940s and 1950s was a hard and dangerous path to walk.
      • Robinson was supported by a few key figures, namely Branch Rickey (president of the Brooklyn Dodgers who signed Robinson), Ford Frick (MLB’s National League president), Happy Chandler (baseball commissioner), Leo Durocher (Dodgers’ manager at the time), and a small handful of his Dodgers teammates including Pee Wee Reese (team capt.)
    • But beyond that small group of supporters, Robinson was met with ugliness and racism at every turn – from the teams the Dodgers played as well as the fans of those opposing teams, especially when the Dodgers were playing away games on the road; from the Dodgers own fans; from the press; even from his own Dodgers teammates, some of whom threatened to refuse to play if they had to play with Robinson.
      • Dealt with a disgusting array of heinously racist insults/remarks
      • Dealt with threats of violence to both himself and his family
      • Dealt with violence on the field → pitchers who deliberately threw pitches straight at Robinson’s head and runners who would try to gouge him with their spikes as they rounded bases[2]
      • Dealt with barriers thrown up by segregation → everything from where he could stay to where he could eat to where he could use the restroom when he was on the road with his team
    • But through it all, Robinson maintained his dignity. When he signed on to play Major League baseball, Robinson promised Dodgers’ president Branch Rickey that he would not fight back when confronted with the racism that they both knew he would face.
      • Powerful line from movie “42”[3] (w/Chadwick Boseman as Robinson) – scene where Rickey is talking to Robinson about the obstacles and racism and ugliness that he’ll face, deliberately bating him with fully plausible segregationist scenarios and racial slurs to get at Robinson’s temper, all the while reiterating the fact that Robinson can’t fight back: Robinson finally stand up and says, “You want a player who doesn’t have the guts to fight back?” And Rickey replies, “No. No. I want a player who’s got the guts not to fight back.” → Sure, that’s only a movie, and while I looked, I couldn’t find anything that authenticated that as an actual line in the conversation between the real Branch Rickey and the real Jackie Robinson. But whether it’s a line from real life or a line written just for the movie, the essence of Robinson’s strength and dignity is still there. Despite the adversity and isolation that Robinson faced throughout his career (but especially during his first few seasons), his dignity remained.

  • Dignity = essence of the story for today’s woman of the Bible: Queen Vashti from the beginning of the book of Esther → Now, I have to be honest with y’all, I have been waiting for this day because Vashti is one of my favorite women of the Bible. She’s definitely one of the women that we know the least about. Her appearance in Scripture is both singular and brief, but I love the impact that she makes all the same.
    • Beginning of the text gives us some background and context for the story = height of the Persian Empire
      • Vastness of the Persian Empire is laid out in our text: This is what happened back when Ahasuerus lived, the very Ahasuerus who ruled from India to Cush – one hundred twenty-seven provinces in all.[4] → We need to pause for just a minute to understand how vast a portion of land this is.
        • Cush = region along the Nile River that follows the Blue Nile to the east
        • So these 127 provinces that were under King Ahasuerus’ command covered what is today Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, part of Tajikistan, half of Pakistan, Iran, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, part of Greece, part of Libya, and part of Egypt. That is a massive territory! Imagine the power and might that it would have taken to rule an empire that was that far-reaching. → gives us some insight into King Ahasuerus
    • More insight into who Ahasuerus was = partier!
      • Text speaks of the insane party that Ahasuerus threw “for all his officials and courtiers”[5]
        • Party was 6 months long!
        • Ahasuerus’ motives clear in our text: He showed off the awesome riches of his kingdom and beautiful treasures as mirrors of how very great he was.[6] → So clearly, Ahasuerus doesn’t have any self-esteem problems.
      • But the fun doesn’t stop there! → after the 6-month party, Ahasuerus decides to throw another party just for everyone in the fortified part of his capital city, Susa
        • Party is for everyone – text: Whether they were important people in the town or not, they all met in the walled garden of the royal palace.[7] → goes on to detail the lush and extravagant furnishings for this party
          • Gold and silver
          • Yards upon yards of red/purple cloth (most expensive because they were the hardest dye colors to achieve)
          • Crystal and marble and mother-of-pearl
          • Text: They served drinks in cups made of gold, and each cup was different.[8] → party favor heaven!
        • And for those cups, the wine was flowing! – text: The king made sure there was plenty of royal wine. The rule about the drinks was “No limits!” The king had ordered everyone serving wine in the palace to offer as much as each guest wanted.[9] → So clearly, when Ahasuerus decided to do a thing, he did it the. way. No halfway about it for him.
  • Okay, so this is where Vashti enters the story.
    • Text tells us Queen Vashti had thrown her own party – “a feast for women” – within the palace itself → presumably separate from Ahasuerus crazy drunken free-for-all out in the garden
    • Icky twist in the story – text: On the seventh day, when wine had put the king in high spirits, he gave an order to … the seven eunuchs who served King Ahasuerus personally. They were to bring Queen Vashti before him wearing the royal crown. She was gorgeous, and he wanted to show off her beauty both to the general public and to his important guests.[10] → So this is a loaded verse in more ways than one.
      • FIRST, clearly the king and his guests have literally been drinking for a week, so they aren’t exactly in their right mind → And because Scripture tells us that Vashti was throwing a separate party for the women, we can guess that all the guests at Ahasuerus’ party are men (which is also supported by historical accounts of cultural practices at the time). So you have a garden full of horrifically drunk men calling for a single woman to come to them.
        • Sharifa Stevens (author, speaker, activist) explains: [Ahasuerus] put [Vashti] between a rock and a hard place. As queen, it was likely culturally inappropriate for her to be present for risqué soirees. As a woman, it would have been potentially dangerous for her to be around inebriated, uninhibited men. … That these [eunuchs] were to escort her into a room with hundreds of men engaged in a week-long bender may have been a more terrifying proposition to Vashti than refusing the King of Media and Persia.[11]
      • SECOND, deep dive on Heb. “to show off” (text: “[the king] wanted to show off [Vashti’s] beauty”) = the basic root word for “see” or “be seen” → But with the form that it’s in, it takes on a particular connotation of ostentatiousness, of displaying and gloating over something. And because we’re applying it to a person, it also taken on this unsettling, voyeuristic quality of examining in detail and enjoying looking at. In fact, some scholars have argued that because of the way this word is used, King Ahasuerus was calling for Vashti to appear before them in her royal crown and only her royal crown so he could better prove to all his drunken buddied and subjects that he did, indeed, have the most beautiful wife around.
        • Even creepier when we remember that the text said Ahasuerus wanted to “show off her beauty both to the general public and to his important guests
        • Something very possessive about the way this word is used
        • Something very dehumanizing about the way this word is used
    • So it’s no surprise, really, when we read that Vashti refuses the king’s request. She refuses to go with the eunuchs to the king’s side. She refuses to put herself on display. She refuses to be King Ahasuerus’ arm candy and to be everyone else’s eye candy. (Does anyone else feel like cheering right now? Yeah … me, too.) It’s not surprising … and yet it’s this very action – this very refusal – that seals Vashti’s doom.
      • Text tells us that King Ahasuerus is furious
        • Fury at being denied
        • Fury at being humiliated in front of his guests
        • Fury at Vashti choosing her own guests over him
      • Ahasuerus consults his royal advisors regarding what he should do about Vashti’s actions → And this is where things get even grosser (if that’s possible). – text: Then Memucan spoke up in front of the king and the officials. “Queen Vashti,” he said, “has done something wrong not just to the king himself. She has also done wrong to all the officials and the peoples in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. This is the reason: News of what the queen did will reach all women, making them look down on their husbands. They will say, ‘King Ahasuerus ordered servants to bring Queen Vashti before him, but she refused to come.’ … There will be no end of put-downs and arguments.”[12]Clearly, Memucan thinks that Vashti standing up for herself is going to cause women all across the country to stand up for themselves (God forbid!), and civilization as they know it will basically implode. God forbid the women of the empire have agency over their own bodies. God forbid the women of the empire have agency over their own minds.
        • Not so different from the arguments that have been used against women throughout the ages
          • Arguments against women learning
          • Arguments against women making their own living
          • Arguments against women being in charge of their own lives (as opposed to being the ward of a husband or male relative)
          • Arguments against women in the workplace
          • Arguments against women in the military
          • Arguments against women in the pulpit
  • Do you see now why I love Vashti so much? She embodies the struggle that women have faced from time immemorial. She embodies the “No” that so many women throughout history have not been able to say … or the “No” that they have voiced but has been ignored. This is especially interesting because throughout this whole story, this refusal is the only direct interaction we get with Vashti. It’s the only thing she does. Actually, it’s the only thing that she does throughout all of Scripture which makes it even more Vashti’s only act in the entirety of Scripture is to cling to her dignity and deny her husband’s lascivious, drunken, degrading request.
    • Result: Ahasuerus carries out the plan that Memucan outlines for him → banishes Vashti and begins searching for a new queen → Actually, even this outcome is unsure. There are some scholars who argue that, because of some nuances in the Hebrew and the cultural practices at the time, when it says “Vashti will never again come before King Ahasuerus,” it means he had her executed, not just deposed and banished. Either way, we never hear from or about Vashti again. After her refusal and the king’s declaration, she disappears.
    • But the legacy that Vashti leaves is a critical one. There are all kinds of ways that we are told we are not enough today. There are all kinds of ways that society and those in it try to tear us down for who we are. “Your hair isn’t right. Your body shape isn’t right. Your gender identity isn’t right. Your language isn’t right. Your country of origin isn’t right. Your immigration status isn’t right. Your sexual orientation isn’t right. Your family make-up isn’t right. Your education level isn’t right. Your income level isn’t right.” But Vashti’s story reminds us of the importance of standing up for who you are and maintaining your dignity in the face of adversity. She knew who she was, and she refused to let anyone – even the most powerful person in her world – take that away from her. Each and every one of us has been created by God to be unique, to be different, to be special in our own ways, many of them ways that society deems flaws to fix instead of blessings to celebrate.
      • Sharifa Stevens: Vashti is remembered in the first and second chapters of the book of Esther not for her looks, but for her courage. God’s gaze is never skin-deep; [God] values the heart.[13]
      • Friends, be like Vashti. Amen.

[1] https://www.biography.com/athlete/jackie-robinson.

[2] Christopher Bergland. “The Guts Enough Not to Fight Back: Valuable lessons from Jackie Robinson (No. 42) on mindfulness training” from Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/201304/the-guts-enough-not-fight-back. Posted Apr. 12, 2013, accessed July 18, 2021.

[3] 42, directed by Brian Helgeland, featuring Chadwick Boseman and Harrison Ford (Warner Bros. and Legendary Entertainment), 2013.

[4] Est 1:1.

[5] Est 1:3.

[6] Est 1:4 (emphasis added).

[7] Est 1:5.

[8] Est 1:7 (emphasis added).

[9] Est 1:7b-8.

[10] Est 1:10-11.

[11] Sharifa Stevens. “Vashti: Dishonored for Having Honor” in Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible, ed. Sandra Glahn. (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2017), 243.

[12] Est 1:16-17, 18b.

[13] Stevens, 246.

Sunday’s sermon: Huldah: Woman of Reproach and Redemption

Text used – 2 Kings 22:11-20

The video of our service this week comes from our Facebook Live stream.

 

  • When I was in college at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire, I was a religious studies major.
    • A lot of the time it was really interesting → studying religion from an academic standpoint at a secular, state university as opposed to some private, faith-based institution
      • Degree program was made up a wide variety of requirements:
        • Intro to World Religions at the beginning (basic 100-level course)
        • Capstone course/project at the end
        • In the middle – roughly 30 more credits
          • So many credits of what were then called “Western religions” and “Non-Western religions” (since been reorganized into “Monotheistic religions” and “Asian religions”)[1]
          • So many credits devoted to more specific topics – e.g.s:
            • Religion and Morality
            • The Holocaust
            • Psychology of Religion
            • The Problem of Evil
            • Critiques of God
    • Like I said, it was a really interesting course of study. And most of the time, I picked the courses for my next semester based on the course description and my requirements. But there was one overriding factor that always steered me toward a course: the professor. In particular, I made sure to take any and every course I could from one specific professor: Dr. Charlene Burns.
      • My advisor
      • The only professor I ever went back to visit after I graduated
      • Now a professor emerita (which makes me sort of sad!)
      • When it came to her classes, Charlene was the best. Her classes were always interesting, and the sheer volume of information that Charlene could impart if you were paying attention was staggering! Her knowledge was vast and far-reaching, and the way she presented it also made it feel essential – like everything that she was saying was something I just had to know. (The only time I’ve ever taken notes faster and more furiously was during my doctrine class in seminary!) Charlene’s classes were always the best … but they were not
        • High amount of work, especially when it came to essay exams and final papers
        • High expectations for both the amount of work and the quality of work that she required
        • Every course that Charlene taught was worth every minute and every page. That’s why I signed up for them … all of them. (Seriously … I don’t think I missed a single topic that she taught.) That’s why I loved her classes. But they also took work serious work. And that’s why I also dreaded them just a tiny little bit … because I knew that the amount of effort I was going to need to get through her courses was significant.
    • In this way, Charlene was sort of my Huldah. Her classes were never easy, but they were essential. And in today’s Scripture reading, we meet the prophetess Huldah – a woman who imparts a particular word from God to King Josiah in particular and the people of Israel as a whole.
      • Word that is essential
      • BUT word that is far from easy
  • First, BACKGROUND → In order to truly get into Huldah’s story, we need to understand what led up to it.
    • Last week: King David and Bathsheba → King Solomon (son of David and Bathsheba) → Solomon = known as Israel’s wisest king and one of its most righteous kings → King Solomon ruled a united kingdom of Israel … but he was the last king to rule such a kingdom. → united kingdom of Israel splits into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah directly after Solomon’s death[2]
    • Following this split, both kingdoms of Israel and Judah have issues within their monarchies.
      • Kings who chose to worship foreign gods
      • Kings who did all manner of evil things
      • Kings who made tenuous and unseemly alliances with foreign nations
      • Kings who led the people of Israel away from God in one way after another
      • And because of this inattentiveness and unfaithfulness, northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians around 723 BCE.
    • Nearly a century after the fall of the northern kingdom, we come to Josiah, king of the southern kingdom of Judah.
      • King from 640-609 BCE → ascended to the throne at age 8 when his father, Amon, was killed → But Josiah’s lineage wasn’t exactly squeaky clean either – text: [Amon] did what was evil in the Lord’s eyes, just as his father Manasseh had done. He walked in all the ways his father had walked. He worshipped the same worthless idols his father had worshipped, bowing down to them. He deserted his ancestors’ God, the Lord – he didn’t walk in the Lord’s way. Amon’s officials plotted against him and assassinated the king in his palace. The people of the land then executed all those who had plotted against King Amon and made his son Josiah the next king.[3]
      • Thankfully, Josiah was not like his father or his grandfather. Josiah was a righteous king – a king who did walk in the Lord’s way. → enacted religious reform among the people that included renovating the Temple that Solomon had built generations before
        • As part of those renovations, a scroll was found → Josiah sends his royal secretary, Shaphan, to see the high priest, Hilkiah, about some financial matters → when Shaphan arrives, Hilkiah tells him he’s found a scroll … and not just any scroll. This is what they call the “Instruction scroll.” Scholars believe this to have been a previously long-lost version of the book of Deuteronomy – one of the five Hebrew books of the Law. This is a big deal! → contents of Deuteronomy
          • Mostly instructions given by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai
          • Includes the last days of Moses’ life and a record of his final words
          • Includes historical accounts of the people’s time wandering in the wilderness
          • Also includes some looking forward into the time when the people of Israel will inhabit the land of Canaan
  • So as I said, finding this scroll after centuries was a big deal! And part of the reason it was such a big deal was because the people of Israel had fallen so far away from God’s instructions for right and holy living laid out in these instructions. This is clear in Josiah’s reaction to hearing the words of this scroll read out for the first time – beginning of our reading for this morning: As soon as the king heard what the Instruction scroll said, he ripped his clothes.[4] → Josiah is so distraught by how far his people have strayed that he embodies his distress with the traditional mourning ritual of tearing his clothes. And then he sends the high priest Hilkiah, his secretary Shaphan, and some other advisors for some essential information – text: “Go and ask the Lord on my behalf, and on behalf of the people, and on behalf of all Judah concerning the contents of this scroll that has been found. The Lord must be furious with us because our ancestors failed to obey the words of this scroll and do everything written in it about us.”[5]
    • 2 really powerful things we need to understand about the way that Josiah phrases his request
      • FIRST = devotion in it → Heb. “ask” (very first part of Josiah’s instruction: “Go and ask the Lord”) = seek out, worship → So even with the first words of his instruction, Josiah is already trying to draw the people back into their covenantal, worshipful relationship with God. He’s asking Hilkiah and the others, not to simply go and voice his question, but to take his very seeking, his very worship to God as well.
      • SECOND = the way Josiah’s words are already echoing the sacred instructions of this newly-discovered scroll → Josiah: “The Lord must be furious with us because our ancestors failed to obey the word of this scroll” – Heb. “obey” = also hear, learn, know → So the people of Israel have failed to hear these words. They’ve failed to keep these words.
        • Harkens back to Deut 6: Israel, listen! Our God is the LORD! Only the LORD! Love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength. These words that I am commanding you today must always be on your minds. Recite them to your children. Talk about them when you are sitting around your house and when you are out and about, when you are lying down and when you are getting up. Tie them on your hand as a sign. They should be on your forehead as a symbol. Write them on your house’s doorframes and on your city’s gates.[6] → These are the words Josiah has just heard read for the first time in centuries. These are the words that nearly crumbled to dust, long ago forsaken and forgotten. These are the words that Israel was supposed to be reciting daily to their children and their children’s children … the words that were supposed to adorn their cities, their homes, and their very hearts. These are the words that Josiah is already trying to work back into the life and rhythms of the people.
  • And here is where Huldah comes into the story – Huldah, the prophetess.
    • Really interesting that Hilkiah and the rest decide to come to Huldah for this spiritual inquiry because Huldah had some pretty heavy-hitter prophet contemporaries: Jeremiah and Zephaniah (as in the books of Jeremiah and Zephaniah in the Bible) → And yet, without any apparent indecision or hesitation, Hilkiah and the others go directly to Huldah for God’s word regarding this new-found scroll.
    • Also really interesting because Huldah’s a woman! → Throughout this summer series, as we’ve been exploring the stories of women in Scripture, we haven’t yet encountered a lot of women who maintain any kind of power or authority or agency when it comes to their own lives let alone the power and authority and agency required to be considered a conduit for the word of God. And yet, here we have Huldah!
      • Huldah, who is a renowned, fully respected, and fully functioning prophet for God alongside the likes of Jeremiah and Zephaniah
        • Uses all the same “prophet language” that other prophets do, particularly opening phrase “This is what the Lord, Israel’s God, says” and speaking in the 1st person on God’s behalf
      • Huldah, who holds the ear of the king AND the high priest
      • Huldah, who’s message is not an easy one … but is an essential one
    • Huldah’s words speak of the truth in the words and origins of the text itself → Huldah alone authenticates this new-found scroll as the word of God for the people. Huldah declares it’s real, and she is believed. Immediately and without question. She is believed.
    • Huldah’s words speak of the consequences of the people not following the instructions laid out in this scroll → hard words to hear – text: My anger burns against this place, never to be quenched, because they’ve deserted me and have burned incense to other gods, angering me by everything they have done.[7]
    • And yet, Huldah’s words also speak a redemption of sorts – text (Huldah’s message specifically for Josiah): But also say this to the king of Judah, who sent you to question the Lord: This is what the Lord, Israel’s God, says about the message you’ve just heard: Because your heart was broken and you submitted before the Lord when you heard what I said about this place and its citizens – that they will become a horror and a curse – and because you ripped your clothes and cried before me, I have listened to you, declares the Lord. That’s why I will gather you to your ancestors, and you will go to your grave in peace. You won’t experience the disaster I am about to bring on this place.[8]Even in the midst of her difficult pronouncements about the people’s sin and the consequences that will come from that sin, Huldah speaks words of redemption … words that seem to echo David’s long-ago words of worship:
      • Ps 51: Create a clean heart for me, God; put a new, faithful spirit deep inside me! Please don’t throw me out of your presence; please don’t take your holy spirit away from me. Return the joy of your salvation to me and sustain me with a willing spirit. Then I will teach wrongdoers your ways, and sinners will come back to you. Deliver me from violence, God, God of my salvation, so that my tongue can sing of your righteousness. Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will proclaim your praise. You don’t want sacrifices. If I gave an entirely burned offering, you wouldn’t be pleased. A broken spirit is my sacrifice, God. You won’t despise a heart, God, that is broken and crushed.[9]
    • And, indeed, Huldah’s prophecy does eventually come to pass. → kingdom of Judah falls to Babylonians not long after this but Josiah is killed in battle before he is forced to witness the destruction of his kingdom and the exile of the people of Israel
  • 3 critical lessons that we can take from Huldah’s story
    • FIRST = reminder that God’s word comes to us through a wide variety of people → from Christa L. McKirkland’s essay on Huldah (in Vindicating the Vixens): God is the one in control throughout Israel and Judah’s history and is still the one in control today. And God chooses to dignify people as vessels to serve plans and purposes much higher than our plans and purposes. … Huldah was willing to be a vessel and conduit for the very words of God.[10]
    • SECOND, Huldah’s words remind us of the power of true and genuine repentance → Before even hearing her words of reproach, King Josiah tore his clothes in repentance. He cried out to God with a truth broken and contrite heart and spirit. And in the face of that genuine return to the God who knew him and loved him, God blessed Josiah with redemption.
    • FINALLY = reminder that, even when we are called to speak truth to a difficult situation, we are still called to speak
      • Famous quote from activist and Gray Panthers founder Maggie Kuhn: “Leave safety behind. Put your body on the line. Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind–even if your voice shakes. When you least expect it, someone may actually listen to what you have to say. Well-aimed slingshots can topple giants.” → It couldn’t have been easy to deliver the message God gave Huldah to deliver, especially being a woman in a circle of powerful and authoritative men. But still, she delivered her message with boldness, with clarity, with composure, and with conviction. Maybe her voice shook, but still, she delivered her message. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] https://catalog.uwec.edu/undergraduate/arts-sciences/philosophy-religious-studies/religious-studies-major-ba-bs/.

[2] Siegfried H. Horn. “Judah & Israel: A Divided Monarchy” from My Jewish Learning, https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/judah-israel-a-divided-monarchy/. Accessed July 11, 2021.

[3] 2 Kgs 21:20-24.

[4] 2 Kgs 22:11.

[5] 2 Kgs 22:13.

[6] Deut 6:4-9.

[7] 2 Kgs 22:17.

[8] 2 Kgs 22:18-20.

[9] Ps 51:10-17.

[10] Christa L. McKirkland. “Huldah: Malfunction with the Wardrobe-Keeper’s Wife” in Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible, ed. Sandra Glahn. (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2017), 230.

 

Sunday’s sermon: Bathsheba: Woman of Shameful Subjugation

Text used – 2 Samuel 11

We were having technical trouble with our streaming equipment this week, so I recorded an audio version of the sermon instead:

  • Sometimes, there’s the story that we think we know … and then there’s the real story. → perfect e.g. = Pocahontas – a story that we think we know comes from longstanding and inaccurate accounts in history books and, of course, Disney’s starry-eyed, contorted version
    • Real story = much different[1]
      • Name given at birth = Matoaka
      • Father (Wahunsenaca) later became paramount chief of Powhatan Chiefdom (made up of many tribes)
      • Mother (also named Pocahontas) died at birth → father’s love for her mother caused him to use her mother’s name as an endearing nickname for her (name Pocahontas later chooses for herself when she comes of age)
      • Pocahontas = little girl (9 or 10yo) when John Smith (then 27yo) and the English colonists arrived in 1607 (not a grown woman as Disney portrayed her) → so no budding romance
        • Smith was captured by the chief’s brother BUT never threatened to be put to death and then saved by Pocahontas
      • Kidnapped years later by English Capt. Samuel Argall who later claimed he traded her for a copper pot (lie still told by some history books) → held captive for years in or nearby Jamestown
    • Rest of Pocahontas story goes from bad to worse
      • During captivity, Pocahontas gave birth to her own child (with her husband from her own tribe), was forced to give up her 1st child, was raped, became pregnant again, and her husband killed by colonists
      • Married Englishman John Rolfe (forced?) as a way to solidify Rolfe’s relationship with the tribes so they’d teach him how to grow tobacco → Pocahontas never allowed to see her family, 1st child, or father again
      • Eventually taken to England → became token of the “good” relationship between colonists and Native nations (proof that the colonists weren’t mistreating the Native peoples … yeah, right)
      • Planned to travel back to Virginia in 1617 → died suddenly (poisoned?) before she could make that journey → only 20yo when she died
    • Not exactly the “Colors of the Wind” version splashed across the big screen, is it? And yet if you stopped 10 different people on the street and asked them about Pocahontas’ life story, how many would tell you Disney’s version? Or at least the sanitized Euro-American version? Sometimes, there’s the story that we think we know … and then there’s the real story.
      • Today’s story from Scripture = just such a story → Throughout the summer, we’ve been exploring the stories of women of the Bible, particularly some of the more unknown women of the Bible. I intentionally picked some stories that I was guessing most people weren’t familiar with – the stories of Tamar and Rahab that we’ve already talked about and the story of Huldah next week, for example – but also the stories of a few women that we may think we know … women who’s stories may be significantly different than what history has proclaimed. And, friends, Bathsheba is just such a woman.
  • Historically Bathsheba has been painted with the brush of a temptress and a femme fatale, someone who seduced King David into a mutual affair → But is that the story that we think we know … or the real story?
    • Much of Bathsheba’s besmirched reputation comes from the opening part of our Scripture reading this morning – text: One evening, David got up from his couch and was pacing back and forth on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful.[2]
      • Countless artists throughout the centuries have depicted this scene with a beautiful Bathsheba shooting coy and seductive glances at a captivated David who stands very nearby
      • Reality = probably significantly different
        • Various sources that make use of historical and cultural norms and architecture at the time point out that Bathsheba was probably bathing in the privacy of a high-walled courtyard which would have been shielded from view except from above → take into account traditional layout of cities at the time = central palace/citadel on the high ground with a city that swept outward and downward from that central point → meant that David, standing on the roof of the palace (literally the highest point around) would have a view like no other … a view that Bathsheba wouldn’t even have thought about.
        • Sarah Bowler, author, editor, Ph.D student in Theological Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary (in essay “Bathsheba: Vixen or Victim?”): Many who hold to the viewpoint that Bathsheba acted immorally make their case by claiming she bathed in a seductive or immodest manner near the palace. Yet, this idea overlooks several valid points. For instance, the [Hebrew word] “bathing” does not necessarily mean Bathsheba stood outside completely naked. The Hebrew word used here has a variety of meanings, including everything from washing one’s whole body to washing only one’s hands, feet, or face. So, it is possible that Bathsheba washed only part of herself, and David saw a pretty face that he liked and desired to see more. … The point remains that Scripture does not suggest Bathsheba intentionally bathed in David’s view, and even if she had, the choice to sin still belonged to David.[3]
      • More to the point, the way the story is told makes it pretty clear that Bathsheba does not get any power or agency in her own story here. → clear that Bathsheba’s encounter with King David is wholly the result of David’s desires and actions
        • Text: David sent someone and inquired about the woman. … David sent messengers to get her. When she came to him, he slept with her. … Then she returned home.[4] → here is particularly telling in 2 ways
          • FIRST (related to syntax/the way the sentences are structured): sentences are like dominoes → one action initiates the next action initiates the next action → all stem from David’s initial seeing, wanting, and taking
          • Leads to SECOND (word-choice related): Heb. “get” (“David sent messengers to get her”) = acquire, take, keep → This is a transactional word. Our English translation makes this sound like a pleasant, congenial sort of invitation. But the Hebrew makes it clear that this was much coarser than that. Everything about the Hebrew here makes it pretty clear that this encounter between David and Bathsheba wasn’t consensual. Nothing in the text indicates that Bathsheba was forcibly taken to David, but when the king summoned a woman (a woman who was alone because her husband was away with the Israelite army, no less), what choice did she really have? The reality is Bathsheba was powerless to refuse.
      • Moreover, we have to remember who David was. This was David, the cute and plucky shepherd boy who had the guts to take on a giant. This was David, who had the cunning and wits to serve, learn from, escape from, and finally usurp King Saul as he slowly slipped from Israel’s first anointed king to jealous and paranoid madman. This is David, who rallied the Israelite army and led them to one great victory in battle after another. This is David, the golden boy … the golden boy who had already earned his fair share of tarnish by acquiring the wives of several other men. Reputation, after all, is everything.
      • Interestingly, some indication that those whom David sent to learn of Bathsheba’s identity tried gently to dissuade him from further action – text: David sent someone to inquire about the woman. The report came back: “Isn’t this Eliam’s daughter Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?”[5] → Both of these names should have held meaning for David, meaning enough to deter him from further action with Bathsheba. Should have.
        • Eliam (Bathsheba’s father) was one of David’s best soldiers AND the son of one of David’s key advisors
        • Uriah (Bathsheba’s husband) was one of the men who were part of David’s innermost circle of elite fighters – one of his best warriors
        • So when the messenger identifies David’s potential quarry by both using her familial name and her married name (an abnormality at the time) it is quite possibly a subtle warning. – Sarah Bowler: In modern English it might sound something like this: “Hey, just so you know, Bathsheba is married to Uriah, one of your best soldiers. On, and also, her father is Eliam, another one of your elite warrior. And don’t forget, Eliam’s father Ahithophel is one of your chief advisors.”[6]
    • But David, being full of pride, full of desire, full of hubris, will not be deterred. And after his singular encounter with her, like Pocahontas, Bathsheba’s tale goes from bad to worse.
      • Bathsheba realizes she is pregnant → sends word to David
      • David tries this crazy elaborate scheme to cover up his sin and pass the baby off as Uriah’s own → brings Bathsheba’s husband back from the battle in hopes that he will sleep with Bathsheba and all will be well → But time and again, Uriah refuses to return home to his wife, declaring that while the men he serves with are denied the comforts and pleasures of home and hearth, he will refrain from them as well. In a last-ditch effort, David even gets Uriah drunk in hopes that he will return to his home and his wife, but nothing works. → David eventually sends Uriah back to the battle with secret instructions for his commander, Joab, to put Uriah “at the front of the fiercest battle, and then pull back from him so that he will be struck down and die”[7] → Joab does this → Uriah is killed in battle à And then, finally freed of this pesky husband, King David is free to act the magnanimous king and take the grieving widow into his household as his own wife.
        • Interesting bit: throughout the rest of the telling of this story, we don’t read Bathsheba’s name once → In fact, the only time her name is uttered is at the very beginning of the story when David’s messenger identifies her to him. Throughout the rest of the narrative, she is simply referred to as “the woman” or “Uriah’s wife” or simply “her.” Indeed, Bathsheba is all but erased from the narrative from the moment of her encounter with King David.
    • Bathsheba’s redemption comes much later – bears 4 more of David’s children including Solomon → And when David is on his deathbed, Bathsheba comes to him and maneuvers him into naming not his oldest son but Solomon as the heir to his throne. Solomon becomes the wisest king of the people of Israel and the one to finally build the magnificent Temple for God.
      • Bathsheba’s final appearance in Scripture – 1 Kgs 2: [King Solomon] stood up to meet [Bathsheba] and bowed low to her. Then he returned to his throne and had a throne set up for the queen mother. She sat at his right. She said, “I have just one small request for you. Don’t refuse me.” The king said to her, “Mother, ask me. I won’t refuse you.”[8] → clear that Bathsheba has risen to a position of respect, a position of authority and influence, literally seated at the right hand of the ruler of a united Israel
  • Bathsheba is a difficult character because in order to walk with her through her story, we have to actively try to forget things we’ve heard and been taught about her in the past. For centuries, the Church (dominated by men and a powerful and ruthless patriarchy) has taught that Bathsheba was the cause of David’s sin. They worked hard to shift the blame from the man of power to the woman who was not only powerless but optionless – a story that repeats itself over and over and over again throughout history time after ugly, painful, shameful time. For centuries, Bathsheba has wrongly and shamefully born the brunt of David’s sin. She has born the weight of his desire. She has born the weight of his subjugation and all that came after. She has born the shame that should have been David’s all along. And her story matters today because she is far from alone.
    • Sarah Bowler: How we interpret biblical narratives affects how we interpret events around us today. When we say phrases such as “David had an affair” or “Bathsheba bathed naked on a roof,” we overlook the fact that Bathsheba was an innocent victim. We may also forget the “modern-day Bathshebas” who exist today. I long for the day when believers eradicate the line of thinking in which the victim shares partial blame for a perpetrator’s sin. One step toward that end is sharing the “true” Bathsheba story.[9] → That is part of where the power of Bathsheba’s true story lies: in the way that it (hopefully) opens us up to the stories and experiences of women who have walked in Bathsheba’s shoes – women who deserve to have their stories heard and believed. Nowhere in this story does God speak harshly of Bathsheba or the part she is forced to play. Nowhere in this story does God condemn Bathsheba … so why would we?
      • Other part of where we find power in Bathsheba’s story = ultimate honor and dignity that Bathsheba finds at the end → She is a woman who has been used and discarded, then retrieved and reused while being relegated to an initial place of questionable honor at best: just one of David’s many wives. And yet, God remains with her, and through her own astute actions and the devotion and respect of her son, Solomon, Bathsheba is finally elevated to a place of honor below no one but the king himself. She may not be fully healed from the traumas she has suffered in her life. She may still be grieving. She may still feel the sting of shame. But she is restored. Amen.

[1] Vincent Schilling. “The True Story of Pocahontas: Historical Myths Versus Sad Reality” from Indian Country Today, https://indiancountrytoday.com/archive/true-story-pocahontas-historical-myths-versus-sad-reality. Originally posted Sept. 8, 2017, updated Sept. 13, 2018, accessed July 4, 2021.

[2] 2 Sam 11:2.

[3] Sarah Bowler. “Bathsheba: Vixen or Victim?” in Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible, ed. Sandra Glahn. (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2017), 81, 83.

[4] 2 Sam 11:3, 4.

[5] 2 Sam 11:3.

[6] Bowler, 87.

[7] 2 Sam 11:15.

[8] 1 Kgs 2:19-20.

[9] Bowler, 83.