Worship 12 September

Audio Recording

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.”

And day followed night, bringing forth new forms of life day by day.

24 [On the sixth day] God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.’ And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.  Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…’ And with the specification of humans as animals, day six comes to a close.

God continues musing,“30 to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.’ And 31God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

Since I’m preaching the order of creation backwards, last week was humankind – God’s after lunch creation of day six – accompanied by my confessed unhappiness about being a human, and that the image of God in us seems to have tarnished. I am not alone in this. Just a few chapters later, in Genesis 6:5, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—for I am sorry that I have made them.’ That was last week.

This is animal week and I’m quite a bit happier about it. 

I admit that I have a ‘child of the forest’ relationship to animals, which allows a lot of whimsy and explains why I name and talk to the chipmunks in my back garden and feel that we have a relationship of mutual support. They eat from my hand and let me stroke their soft stripes. I grew up in the woods, not on a farm. Food came from the Save More grocery store, the best Christmas pears from Harry & David sent by my aunt and uncle, and summer vegetables from Altenburg’s farm wagon that came up from central Wisconsin twice a week.  There were no hunters or fishermen in my family. The forest animals I watched and talked to were all alive. And that’s the way I like it.

God likes them to be alive, too.  The Mulligan attempt of re-creation with the flood wasn’t for the sake of humans. I think it is our hubris to assume so. Noah was the best helper God found. Noah was the animal with opposable thumbs that could use hand tools. And, clearly, humans needed to be reminded that they shared day six with cows and chipmunks and hedgehogs and creeping things of every kind. God told Noah, (Genesis 618 )“I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every kind shall come in to you, to keep them alive. Also take with you every kind of food that is eaten, and store it up; and it shall serve as food for you and for them.’ Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him…. And God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark.” 

Eventually, as we know, the flood subsided and dry land appeared.

8:15Then God said to Noah, ‘Go out of the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons’ wives. Bring out with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh—birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth—so that they may abound on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply on the earth.’ And every animal, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves on the earth, went out of the ark by families.” 

I like that line. They went in two by two, and come out as families. Especially the mice and bunnies.

I think this story is told – was told around the nightly fires for generations and generations and placed into the cannon of scripture as a reminder and a corrective – because it is important to remember that we are animals, and that human animals were given gifts of thumbs and pre-frontal cortexes so we could better fulfill our vocation of tending and tilling. That’s it. That’s what we are to do. Tend to the ones without thumbs, tend to the trees, tend the water, till the soil for food, but tend to the habitats of God’s animals and bugs and birds and fish and everything that creeps on the earth or swims its waters or soars above it – “to keep them alive with you” so that they may abound and be fruitful and multiply. The animals were on the ark as equals to Noah and his small family. They ate the same food as each had ability to digest. They were not on the boat for fresh meat for Noah’s BarB. Maybe the humans got some eggs. But we are all of the same creation, all from the same creator.

Day six in my second resource for these weeks of creation, provides this poem by Christopher Smart (1722-1771). It is selections from his longer poem, from Jubilate Agno.

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself…
For having consider’d God and himself he will consider his neighbour.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day’s work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life…
For he purrs in thankfulness, when God tells him he’s a good Cat.
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
For every house is incomplete without him and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.…
For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion…

I like the idea from this poem that God and animals have a language, an understanding between themselves to which we are not privy. I think humans need to be reminded regularly that we are not better than animals, not more deserving of the earth’s resources. We are an invasive species, largely out of place within the natural cycles and sustainable processes of the earth because we have chosen domination over tending. Hubris was the sin that lead to the flood – false pride, arrogance – and as the tower of Babel story proved, hubris survived the waves. Humility is the opposite, and empathy, listening more and making less noise.

Which brings me to dogs and back to the summer edition of Plough. In The Book of the Creatures, Peter Mommsen writes,

“Dogs evolved “expressive eyebrows” to trigger feelings of affection in humans, according to a 2019 study reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers found that in the thirty thousand years since dogs separated from wolves and began consorting with us, their faces have changed so that their eyes “appear larger and more infant-like” and are capable of mimicking human expressions. When they look at us, we feel the same tenderness as when we’re face-to-face with a young child. Put more cynically, dogs have managed to hack into our most primal emotion.” You know that look.

“Is it then instinctive manipulation when my Brittany hound gazes at me with his sad and eager eyes? No doubt, but that’s not the whole story. By analyzing hormone levels, the same study showed that dogs feel a pleasurable rush when their masters show them affection. Their masters feel the same, thanks to the same chemical, oxytocin. Evidently, we have learned to communicate as fellow creatures who genuinely enjoy each other’s company.”

The cattle of the field have the same response.

Cow Cuddling is a thing, and became quite popular during the pandemic when loneliness and longing for physical closeness and touch was so deeply felt. This unique pastime began in rural Dutch provinces more than a decade ago, and is part of a wider Dutch effort to bring people closer to nature and country life. Today, farms in Rotterdam, Switzerland and here in the US are offering cow-hugging sessions and promoting the joy-inducing, stress-reducing experience. The practice is centered on the inherent healing properties of a good human-to-animal snuggle. Cow cuddlers rest against one of the cows for two to three hours. The warmer body temperature, slower heartbeat and mammoth size of the animal makes hugging them an incredibly soothing experience, and giving the animal that backrub, reclining against them is believed to promote positivity and reduce stress by boosting oxytocin in humans, the hormone released in social bonding. The calming effects of curling up with a pet or emotional support animal, it seems, are accentuated when cuddling with larger mammals. The cuddling experience seems to be pleasurable for the cows as well. A 2007 study in the journal, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, states that cows show signs of deep relaxation, stretching out and allowing their ears to fall back when massaged in particular areas of their neck and upper back.

So, why can’t we be one among the many, a co-equal with the other creatures of day six? God said it was all good… what happened? How can evil exist in a good creation?  Peter Mommsen again, “Darwin was hardly the first to notice the existence of natural evil; it’s addressed in the Book of Job, likely the oldest book in the Hebrew Bible. This question has also had a long history of Christian reflection, going back at least to the apostle Paul. In his Letter to the Romans, he wrote that creation is “subjected to futility” and in “bondage to decay,” “groaning in labor pains.” It’s a passage that seems remarkably apt as a description of the realities of natural selection – or indeed, of the Covid pandemic.

The answer to the riddle, for the early Christian authors, lies in the nature of reality itself. All creatures, they believed, are words in the book of nature; but that book’s preeminent Word is the Logos, the Word made flesh. Maximus the Confessor, who died in 662, wrote that when we read the book of nature, what we are really reading is “the words of the Word.”

When we forget how to read the book of nature, we forget how to read ourselves. Mommsen writes, “One great gain arising from our civilization’s crime of global environmental destruction is the growth of ecological consciousness. We’re slowly – far too slowly – realizing what it would mean to lose the natural world from which we arose and to which we belong.

“Environmental activists bolster their cause by citing statistics showing the costs of climate change in habitat loss, economic and social disruption, or perhaps the disappearance of specific species. But underlying these rhetorical tools is a more basic conviction: That nature in all its intricate diversity has an inherent dignity and beauty. That ecosystems and landscapes are goods in themselves that ought not to be destroyed, regardless of any effects on GDP. That blue whales, African elephants, and the Amazon rain forest have a value of their own that we are bound to respect.

“The pandemic has created a new moment of millions of people worldwide re-learning to read the book of nature, even if only partially and imperfectly. Perhaps as we learn to read again, we’ll find that human nature, too, becomes more clearly legible. And perhaps too, as we read more deeply, we’ll again learn to decipher the signs of the Goodness behind nature – the one who is both author and subject of the book of the creatures, and who, in the words of our final hymn, “gave us eyes to see them, and lips that we might tell how great is God Almighty, who has made all things well.”

Dear Lord who rode into Jerusalem on the back of a faithful donkey, bless all of your wonderful animals, give them shiny coats and full udders, swift legs and strong backs, cozy nests and cuddles. Keep us mindful of their rightful place as siblings of a different species, with us in this ark of your earth, to keep them alive with us. Compel us to share the resources of food, fresh water, clean air and safe homes not only with our fellow humans (which is more than we do now) but also with them, who are not lesser creatures nor less deserving. Amen

August 22nd Worship

Today we had a Matins service led by Christy & Jeff Wetzig. Below are the scripture readings as well as their reflection.

Reading 1: Exodus 16

Bread from Heaven

16 The whole congregation of the Israelites set out from Elim; and Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaining against the Lord. For what are we, that you complain against us?” And Moses said, “When the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the Lord has heard the complaining that you utter against him—what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.”

Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’” 10 And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. 11 The Lord spoke to Moses and said, 12 “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’”

13 In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14 When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. 15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat. 16 This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Gather as much of it as each of you needs, an omer to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents.’” 17 The Israelites did so, some gathering more, some less. 18 But when they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed. 19 And Moses said to them, “Let no one leave any of it over until morning.” 20 But they did not listen to Moses; some left part of it until morning, and it bred worms and became foul. And Moses was angry with them. 21 Morning by morning they gathered it, as much as each needed; but when the sun grew hot, it melted.

22 On the sixth day they gathered twice as much food, two omers apiece. When all the leaders of the congregation came and told Moses, 23 he said to them, “This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy sabbath to the Lord; bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil, and all that is left over put aside to be kept until morning.’” 24 So they put it aside until morning, as Moses commanded them; and it did not become foul, and there were no worms in it. 25 Moses said, “Eat it today, for today is a sabbath to the Lord; today you will not find it in the field. 26 Six days you shall gather it; but on the seventh day, which is a sabbath, there will be none.”

27 On the seventh day some of the people went out to gather, and they found none. 28 The Lord said to Moses, “How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and instructions? 29 See! The Lord has given you the sabbath, therefore on the sixth day he gives you food for two days; each of you stay where you are; do not leave your place on the seventh day.” 30 So the people rested on the seventh day.

31 The house of Israel called it manna; it was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey. 32 Moses said, “This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Let an omer of it be kept throughout your generations, in order that they may see the food with which I fed you in the wilderness, when I brought you out of the land of Egypt.’” 33 And Moses said to Aaron, “Take a jar, and put an omer of manna in it, and place it before the Lord, to be kept throughout your generations.” 34 As the Lord commanded Moses, so Aaron placed it before the covenant, for safekeeping. 35 The Israelites ate manna forty years, until they came to a habitable land; they ate manna, until they came to the border of the land of Canaan. 36 An omer is a tenth of an ephah.

Reading 2: John 21: 1-14

Jesus Appears to Seven Disciples

21 After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.


Reflection

A lot of us sitting under this tree have gardens, and this is a time of peak harvest. You might have colanders full of produce waiting for you to deal with when you get home from church. Thanks for coming to church anyway.

Our two passages for today deal with two very different harvests. We heard first about the Israelites, who, wandering in the desert, found themselves without food. Although they usually get a bad rap for complaining a lot, I think we can all understand how they felt. They couldn’t have had gardens, there were no foodtrucks, and any food they could have brought with them from Egypt was long gone by now. Their children were crying with hunger; I think anybody would complain.

And because God is good, and like any loving parent used to hearing their children complain, God provided this stuff for them to fill their bellies, this food that seemed to condense out of the air with the dew every morning. It tasted good plain, but you could boil it into a porridge or bake it into bread; plus, poultry wandered into camp every evening, so it could have been way worse.

The free food came with conditions. The manna was a test of the people’s trust in God. God had told them they would find it outside their tents every morning. Canning, dehydrating, freezing, pickling was unnecessary, because God had promised to provide food every day. If you trusted that promise, you kept nothing for tomorrow; you ate every crumb in the cupboard every day.

It’s not what happened–people squirrelled manna away, as any prudent person would do as a caution against unforeseen events. But even if you pressure canned the stuff, or baked it and set it in the window sill, you woke the next morning to a stink, and to worms all through the stuff. And to a fresh crop of manna, covering the ground outside your door.

Strangely, mysteriously, even if you sent everybody in your family out with bushel baskets, you’d only have enough for your family for that day. But if you were only able to gather a little that day, you’d still have enough for your family. God seemed to be putting a finger on the scales. No matter what you wanted, worked for, deserved, God gave enough. 

Even on the Sabbath, when God rested from sending manna, the people had enough, because a double portion precipitated the previous day, a super generation of manna that didn’t spoil overnight. So on the Sabbath the people could eat and also rest from gathering and cooking, if they had trusted God the day before and did their double work.

They called it manna, which means, “What is it?” The whole 40 years that they ate only manna and quail, they never came up with a better name for it. No scientific name, no cookbook terminology. It remained a mystery, a miracle, and they kept a sample of the stuff for every generation to see, a physical manifestation of trust in a good God, who sends enough, to everybody–every day, enough. 

Here’s another harvest in the Bible. 

Some of Jesus’ disciples had been stewing away, spiralling on about Jesus’ resurrection, his mysterious appearances and disappearances since his death, and finally they just needed to blow off some steam. “Let’s go fishing,” they said, looking for solace in the familiar, the old days, the wide open sky, good work to do with their bodies, and hopefully good fish to fill their bellies when they were done. Although they fished all night, they got skunked.

Until this stranger calls out to them from shore to try it a different way. When they do it his way, they suddenly find themselves hauling in a boatload of fish. Something jogs their memory. Something seems familiar about this. This plenty, this magnitude, they’ve only experienced with one person: Jesus. They had seen him take bits of bread and satisfy a multitude; he had healed crowds of sick people and never run out of potency; he had preached a kind of love that never gives up, and had lived that love and acted out that grace every day of his life, even when it killed him. In their lives, this kind of plenty had always only come from Jesus, and that is what they recognize, not his face or even his voice.

When they get to shore, they find Jesus with a fire already started, and he already has fish on it; he even has bread too. He lets them contribute from their sudden abundance, but he doesn’t need their fish. (How did he get them? they wonder.) Jesus would have fed them breakfast with or without their miraculous catch. Here, maybe, is the real miracle, this food out of nowhere. The bounty that came from the sea only opened their eyes to the real miracle before them, on the shore.

Jesus breaks the bread for them, distributes the fish amongst them, and he eats some himself, just to dispel those rumors that he’s a ghost. They sit around the fire and eat together, there on the beach in the rising sun, their backs casting shadows on those nets full of fish. They have plenty. Their bellies are full and their nets are full and here, sitting beside them, is Plenty itself.

When we started our orchard 8 years ago some of the first plants we put in the ground were hazelnut bushes. We wanted fruit from our orchard, yes, but we also wanted protein, and hazelnuts seemed to be a good answer.

Most of the country’s hazelnuts are grown in the Pacific Northwest, where they grow these giant, beautiful nuts in giant monocultural groves. Maybe you’re not surprised to hear that a disease called hazelnut blight is wiping out the groves in that region.

So it turns out that a big topic of research currently in Minnesota and Wisconsin, where we have small native hazelnuts, is to breed a larger nut to replace the production of the Pacific Northwest monsters.

So we began shopping around the experimental hazelnut nurseries in the region to find the best, most blight resistant, hardy, tasty, large nuts we could buy. We ended up with seedlings grown from the nuts of the best, most blight resistant, hardiest, tastiest, largest nut bushes around. We put them in the ground and waited.

As we mowed around our six expensive little baby hazelnuts, we noticed a curious plant coming up on the edges of the orchard. A wild woody bush with very similar leaves to our little hazelnuts. You guessed it. We had mowed a whole bunch of wild hazelnuts bushes to plant our six expensive, well-bred specimens. 

For the purposes of scientific experimentation, we let the wild plants grow alongside the nursery-bought ones.

Eight years later, our expensive hazelnut bushes are six feet high and the wild ones, because we had mowed them several times by accident, are only 5 feet high, but bushy and thick. This summer, we watched our 6 precious plants with anticipation because most of them were growing those hairy, ruffley, lime green hulls that surround the hazelnuts. A nut here on this branch, a nut cluster over there on that branch. It was a pleasure to watch them grow, like a parent watching a child learn to walk, it filled us with pride. But then, when you turned around to look at the wild hazelnuts on the edge of the orchard, you saw it was covered with clusters of nuts, weighed down with them, bursting with clumps of nuts.

We gathered them all (and by we I mean the chipmunks and us), we gathered both wild and domesticated, and in the interests of science we (not the chipmunks) kept them separated to compare the harvest of each bush. 

Maybe you’ve guessed. There were two champion hazelnut bushes that we had planted, with largeish nuts, also dearly loved by the chipmunks, which means we only harvested a couple from each bush. The other four of our nurtured, cherished hazelnuts produced shrivelled nuts or barren shells or tiny, shrunken nuts with ghastly thick shells. 

The wild bushes made smallish nuts, true, but they were well formed and chubby and outweighed the domesticated varieties with their sheer number.

Sometimes we look for plenty and all we find is enough. Sometimes when we hope for enough we find plenty.

August 15th Worship

Audio Recording

Sermon

Stories of the battle between the forces of good and evil have been around forever.  In a story that circulated at the end of the first century, the antagonist was a fierce dragon named Python, and the protagonist a woman named Leto, who was the mother of the god Apollo. When Leto became pregnant by the god Zeus, the dragon pursued her in order to kill her and her child. The north wind rescued Leto by carrying her away, so that she found refuge on an island in the Aegean sea. There she gave birth to Apollo and Artemis. Four days later, Apollo set off in pursuit of the dragon, slaying the creature to avenge his mother.   Roman emperors used this story by associating themselves with Apollo, whose defeat of the evil dragon was said to have ushered in an age of peace and prosperity: Pax Romana. Caesar Augustus was hailed as a new Apollo. His reign was said to mark the beginning of a new golden age. The Emperor Nero also liked to present himself in the guise of Apollo, his image on coins bears the radiant beams from his head that were Appolo’s trademark.

When, in the book of Revelation, John tells the struggling and at times persecuted churches about a pregnant woman and a dragon, Christians in the seven churches of Asia Minor would have heard echoes of the familiar story of Leto, but they would also find that John’s version reverses the usual expectations. Instead of being the hero, Nero would have found himself as the dragon. He wouldn’t have been pleased.

Chapter 12 of the book of Revelation begins when John sees a great portent in heaven – almost like a constellation coming to life in the evening sky: “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. 3Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. 4He is so large his tail swept a third of the stars from heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. 5And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; 6and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred and sixty days.

7 And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, 8but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 9The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.13 So when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. 14But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to her place where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. 15Then from his mouth the serpent poured water like a river after the woman, to sweep her away with the flood. 16But the earth came to the help of the woman; it opened its mouth and swallowed the river.… 17Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children… 18and the dragon took his stand on the sand of the seashore.”

So, we have come to the last book of the Bible and another unnamed woman. She is Eve and Mary, Mother Nature, Israel, the Church – some combined image of the maternal, spiritual, co-creative essence of the people of God.

The Dragon symbolizes the powers and principalities that stand between humans and the divine presence. He is the reality of evil – complex and concrete, institutionalized, social and personal. Seemingly inescapable. He is apartheid, genocide and war, hunger and poverty, sexual violence and patriarchy. He is the enemy of community and compassion and justice; the destroyer of peace.

There’s a story of a four-year-old who had learned the Christmas story by heart. He was to open the Christmas pageant. Speaking clearly and reverently into the microphone he started strong, but when he got to the part of the shepherds and the angels proclaiming “glory to God in the highest,….” he forgot what came next. Just as his mom was about to coach him, he started again. “And the angels appeared to shepherd’s and said, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down.”    It’s a funny story, but it feels more like the truth than “on earth, peace, goodwill toward all.”  We can feel the dragon breathing down our necks.

What I like about this story in Revelation, what I find so interesting, is that it’s a woman about to give birth who stands face to face with the dragon. I know it’s not a real woman, but that’s not the point. It is the choice of a woman at absolutely her most vulnerable, in excruciating pain, and at her most powerful – pushing new life – a new being – out of her body and into the world.  It’s the same dynamic as the incarnation (almighty God a human baby), as the last being first, of the self-emptying power of Christ that Paul describes in Philippians. It’s the life force of a dandelion cracking cement. (Well, sort of) 

Think of the kind of power that women wield in our lives and that we’ve read about this summer in the Bible. There are warriors like Deborah and Jael, field workers like Ruth, wealthy merchants like Lydia, influencers like Naaman’s slave girl, deceivers like Rahab, the power of compassion like Mary Magdalene – they all exert power that can change the course of history, but birth is different. It is power where power is not expected. This woman, clothed in sun, upheld by the moon, crowned with stars – is swathed in the power of Creator and creation. It’s not a wimpy, sniveling cry she makes – this is not the little woman, the weaker sex. Birth empowers as much as it exhausts. This woman giving birth is a power that befuddles the dragon. He has to wait, and just as he’s about to pounce, the child is snatched away to God and the woman disappears, taken – like the Israelites, like Hagar, like Jesus – into the wilderness to be provided for, comforted, nourished. There is something about the creative life force represented by birth – Isiah’s new thing about to spring forth – brimming with life, possibility, mystery that is greater than evil. We need to be reminded of that. Death and destruction and deception are so powerful, so pervasive.

But so is beauty, so is the community and joy of making music together (Fiddle School took place here this week), so is the ordinariness of friendship, of kindness, of consideration. There is a greening power of growth and life and hope even when it’s hard, like giving birth.  I’ve been waiting for this Dahlia. I’ve never grown a dinner plate variety before and it has taken forever for that little bud to grow and grow finally bloom. The flower stalk has gotten to be a small tree. Other plants in my little garden have come and gone in the time this one has taken. There’s also a new hatching of finches at my feeder this week. The babies land awkwardly having misjudged their intended landing or they hover not seeming to know quite what to do. They perch near on the feeder, in the seeds shivering their wings and screeching until mom feeds them from the seeds they’re standing on. I’ve also discovered a new bug this year. It’s a flying fuzz ball. Some kind of aphid, I read but it’s vey whimsical and makes me smile. I don’t really know where I’m going with these little spots of life and nature and fiddle school, except that they bring joy. They are worth paying attention to. Not many of us can change the world in a noticeable way, we can’t defeat evil – we can’t seem to defeat this virus – but we can influence and we can help within the realm of our own worlds. And we can try to trust that God is still at work.

[The remainder of the sermon is a reading we can’t republish here!]

August 8th Worship

Audio Recording

Sermon

How the past is remembered, how power seeks sanctification, how tradition becomes authority, how fallibility or vulnerability is reckoned with and exploited, how gender is equated (biblically) with morality — all of this shapes the story of a woman who befriended Jesus of Nazareth in the first third of century, 2000 years ago, in Palestine.

I want to devote one Sunday to Mary Magdalene because it all happens with her. All the patriarchy we’ve been seeing, the agendas of the first three centuries after Jesus’ death as a new religion separated from Jesus’ Jewish faith and context to form Christianity, the fascinating/frustrating twists and branding that the male church of early Christianity used to minimize and deny the presence of a women in Jesus’ inner circle – all the gifts of what might have been if Jesus’ and Paul’s treatment of women as equals in life and ministry to God’s word had taken root – all of that can be seen in Mary of Magdala. And also, all that has been lost from recorded history. That interests me, too. Because we can’t know more than what was written down. We’ll circle around to that in a bit.

We begin in Luke, at the end of chapter 7:
36 One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and

took his place at the table. 37And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.’ 40Jesus spoke up and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ ‘Teacher,’ he replied, ‘speak.’ 41‘A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’ 43Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’

44Then turning towards the woman, he said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water to clean my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45You gave me no kiss of peace, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’

48Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ 49But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ 50And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’
Luke 8
Soon afterwards, [Jesus] went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, 2as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

A story of a woman anointing Jesus is told in each of the four gospels.
In Luke, it happens early in Jesus ministry. In the other gospels the anointing takes place in Bethany in the last week of Jesus’ life. In Luke, it was a woman in the city who was a sinner. In Matthew and Mark, an un-named woman showed up at a dinner held at Simon’s house, but Simon was a leper, not a pharisee. One couldn’t be both at the same time. Nothing is said to describe the woman except that she had an alabaster jar of costly, fragrant ointment with which she anointed Jesus’ head, not his feet. The male disciples reproached the woman for the waste – the money could have been given to the poor. In Luke, as we heard, she was sinful and Jesus was added to the reproach – not for failure of stewardship, but for allowing her intimate, inappropriate lavishing of the ointment and her tears and her hair on his feet. In John’ gospel, the anointing is in Bethany, during his final week, but takes place at the home of his close friends, Lazarus (whom Jesus raised from the dead), and his sisters Mary and Martha. While Martha is serving them – the same word as ministering to them, Mary lavishes the nard on his feet and wipes them with her hair. Here again, it is wastefulness and concern for the poor that Judas (this time) aims at Mary.

So, one event (probably), remembered and told in three lightly different ways. The differences are important —- and a bit confusing, and easy to conflate into one story.
The two main differences are anointing his head or his feet (which we don’t really need to go into now), and the woman. Matthew, Mark and Luke don’t give her a name, Luke is the only one to say she was sinful and the only one to whom Jesus offered forgiveness and healing. The other’s all did it for Jesus’ sake, to minister to him. The only name is Mary, specifically identified as Mary of Bethany.

In Luke, the next episode begins with Jesus leaving that place and traveling on, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. His twelve male disciples were with him, as were several women who had been healed of their infirmities and spirits – including Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out. Luke names two others – Susanna and Johanna, and adds “many others, who provided for the men out of their resources.”

We don’t hear about Mary Magdalene again until the passion narrative. The women stand as witnesses to the crucifixion. It is much less dangerous for them to be there (invisible as women were) than it would have been for the male disciples – who had already fled the scene anyway. Each of the four gospels has a slightly different list of women who had followed him from Galilee; Mary Magdalene is the only one common to all and is listed first, indicating her relative importance among them.

She is witness to Jospeh of Arimathea placing Jesus’ body in the tomb, and she is present in each of the gospels in the pre-dawn light approaching the tomb. She is the first to witness the result of resurrection in each gospel – the empty tomb – along with other women or alone. The gospels vary at this point with what they see and what do. John’s gospel has extended the story with a tender meeting between Mary Magdalene and the risen Christ.

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ 14When she had said this, she

turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ 16Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). 17Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

So that’s what the gospels say about Mary Magdalene – not much. She is mentioned fourteen times between them, in eight of the fourteen passages she is named in a collection with other women.
And yet, in 591, Pope Gregory I, also known as St. Gregory the Great, launched a campaign to redefine the legacy of Mary Magdalene. Mary, he said, was the unnamed sinner woman with the alabaster jar who appears at Simon the Pharisee’s house to anoint Jesus’ feet: not only was Mary the sinner woman, but her greatest sin was lust. “It is clear,” he added, “that the woman previously used the ointment to perfume herself for forbidden acts.” In his depiction of her, Pope Gregory I interpreted Mary Magdalene’s seven demons as representing the seven deadly sins. This was around the same time he standardized the list of cardinal sins, so perhaps he thought this would be a good chance to offer a concrete example. Whatever his reasoning, no scripture supported any of Pope Gregory’s assumptions, but that didn’t matter. In two sermons, he laid the foundation for a version of Mary Magdalene that would overshadow everything else. Gregory was not the first man to try to diminish or alter the story of Mary’s relationship with Jesus, but his words sealed her fate for the next 1400 years.

Why?

It starts with the multiplicity of Marys. Mary the Magdalene is not the only one, of course, there is Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary of Bethany – the sister of Martha and Lazarus. There is Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and Mary the wife of Clopas.

The various accounts of anointing didn’t help either: in one place it is the act of a loose-haired weeping sinner, in another of a modest stranger preparing Jesus for the tomb, and in yet another of a beloved friend named Mary.

And the side-by-side mention in Luke’s story of the woman with the bad name, the alabaster jar, the loose hair, the “many sins,” the kissing of feet, over time became associated with Mary Magdalene who appears in the sentences that follow – even though the two women have nothing to do with each other.

Out of these threads a new character was created for Mary Magdalene.

While some early Christians sought to downplay Mary’s influence, others sought to accentuate it. The Gospel of Mary, a text dating from the second century A.D. that surfaced in Egypt in 1896, placed Mary Magdalene above Jesus’s male disciples in knowledge and influence. She also featured prominently in the Gnostic Gospels, a group of texts believed to have been written by early Christians as far back as the second century A.D., but not discovered until 1945, near the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi.

One of these texts, known as the Gospel of Philip, referred to Mary Magdalene as Jesus’s companion and claimed that Jesus loved her more than the other disciples. Most controversially, the text stated that Jesus used to kiss Mary “often on her ____.” Damage to the text left the last word unreadable.

It was not until the fourth century that the list of canonized books we now know as the New Testament was established. This amounted to a milestone on the road toward the church’s definition of itself precisely in opposition to Judaism. At the same time, the church was on the way toward understanding itself in opposition to women. Once the church began to enforce the “orthodoxy” of certain books of Scripture and the official creeds, the rejected texts were destroyed. But there was also a philosophical effort at work, as Christians, like their pagan contemporaries, tried to define the relationship between spirit and matter. Among Christians, that argument would focus on sexuality—and its battleground would be the tension between male and female. I talked about that last week.

Gregory the Great’s overly particular interest in the fallen woman’s past—what that oil had been used for, how that hair had been displayed—brought into the center of church piety an ideal of the virtue based on celibacy.

So, Mary of Magdala, who began as a faithful woman at Jesus’ side, became the model of a loose woman and of repentance. I had a difficult time finding an image that did not include a jar of nard, for example, or a woman scantily clad, shall we say. The artistic imagination – through the ages – completely bought into Gregory’s version, rather than the gospel’s.

So, what do we take away from this?
I began by saying we’d look at the fascinating/frustrating twists and branding that the male church of early Christianity used to minimize and deny the presence of a women in Jesus’ inner circle – and think of the gifts of what might have been if Jesus’ and Paul’s treatment of women as equals in life and ministry to God’s word had taken root. Mary Magdalene was a female disciple. She followed Jesus from the beginning and stayed loyal through the end. She was close to Jesus and then was “disappeared” by the church. We can only imagine what might have been different if her leadership – and that of the women Paul named – had been allowed to stand as equally inspired, valuable accounts of discipleship and service. But, because we can’t know more than what was kept, we have these introductions and the holes or gaps in scripture into which we may let holy imagination play. We can play the “What if, then what” game. How might it be different, and what is keeping us from making it different? If, in Jesus ministry and Paul’s understanding of Jesus’ meaning, all are one, all are equal, no longer divided or ranked or judged by gender or economic status or race… then what? If we take seriously what we read, and let go of the limitations imposed by tradition and culture, what might change? What might improve? How can that open, loving, welcoming, equalizing vision of Christianity

be raised in the often judgmental, toxic Christian image of our culture? In what ways do we each and together live it and share it?

There is a way in which these hints at faithful, powerful women whose stories we weren’t allowed to know are similar to the empty tomb. We are left peering in, wondering, imagining, fearful and joyful – knowing at some point that there’s nothing more to see there. And so we turn around and face the world knowing that emptiness, those gaps and rips in the story are meant to be filled with our lives.

July 25th Worship

Greetings! For today’s service we’ll be using the Matins liturgy from the hymnal. The service is led by Shawn Mai with Barb Kass offering a reflection. The readings for today, along with a recording, are posted below. Check back later for the text of Barb’s reflection.

Audio Recording

Genesis 2: 15-17; 3: 1-13

15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

The First Sin and Its Punishment

3 Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God,[a] knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” 10 He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” 11 He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” 12 The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” 13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”

Mark 11: 12-25

Jesus Curses the Fig Tree

12 On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. 13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14 He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.

Jesus Cleanses the Temple

15 Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; 16 and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17 He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written,

‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’?
    But you have made it a den of robbers.”

18 And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. 19 And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.

The Lesson from the Withered Fig Tree

20 In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. 21 Then Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” 22 Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. 23 Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. 24 So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.

25 “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.”

Reflection

In reading the 2 texts for today, I was hard pressed to connect the two. The Matin’s committee had decided to look at Jesus’ encounters with nature this summer, and then a correlating Old Testament story. The encounter described by Mark is a harsh one. Why should the fig tree become collateral damage for not producing fruit during the off season! After reading a few commentaries on the passage, I realize it was a symbolic action about the temple which then Jesus went on to clear in dramatic fashion. Others said that even in the off season, fig trees would have had something edible on them, and the fact that this one had just foliage, meant that it looked good on the outside, but was not a healthy tree. Again, like the temple it needed to be cleared.  Finally, there is the discussion about the power of prayer. Where was the prayer for the fig tree?

Obviously the Genesis story is familiar and fig trees figure into it: Adam and Eve sewed leaves of fig leaves to cover their nakedness.  If you are looking in a garden for fabric and not fruit, this is your tree. The deeply-lobed leaves can be four to eight inches wide and as long as 10 inches. It’s an interesting fact to know and tell, but not very inspirational.

Again I read both texts, and several commentaries and finally found a thread: Walking! It’s one that Kristin Martin would be the expert to talk about! Walking is simple and profound at the same time!  Maybe I was drawn to this because of a devotional I read the week my mom was dying called May I walk you home. In our neighborhood, we always walked each other home from school, church or the playground. That simple custom offered protection and guidance as well as the opportunity to reflect on our day, our life experience. Extending the same personal companionship to those are on their final journey gives both the caregiver and the person dying comfort, courage and hope.

 In the Genesis story we hear how God is walking in the garden “at the time of the evening breeze”. The beauty of this image of a God who is present with us, walking with us, from the beginning is breath taking! The Old Testament is full of images of this accompanying God in times of great faith and also great faithlessness.

Barbara Brown Taylor has a chapter called ‘The practice of walking on the earth’ in her book: An Altar in the World. The following is the section that talks about Jesus and walking…

[text not included here]

I hope you will find time to walk this week with gratitude and the mindfulness that all around us is holy ground.   

July 18th Worship

Audio Recording

I want to confess to feeling a bit guilty about or uneasy in preaching about biblical women for the summer – as though I should perhaps apologize for a focus on females – as though being a woman preaching about women, I’m somehow taking us out on a limb, or taking the risk of alienating half the congregation, or that we might be wasting time on an irrelevant topic.

And then I wonder, in the history of church, if any male preacher felt guilty about preaching only about men. I’m guessing it never occurred to them. And I’m truly not intending to put men down in saying that. It is the tradition. In four years of seminary class and daily chapel, I never heard a sermon or a lecture about these biblical women we have met this summer. There was not even a glancing reference to female prophets in either of the two prophet classes I took, and yet there are at least seven women prophets named in the Bible.

We’ve all heard about Eve, but in seminary it was an apologetic in which professors stressed that the fall from grace was not Eve’s fault alone – as though refuting the temptress designation is all there is to say about Eve.

Sara, Rebekah, and Hannah are noted because they were barren women whom God blessed with child – for nothing is impossible with God. And I’m a bit suspicious that the reason we hear about their husband’s other wives and children is so that we know it is the woman’s womb and not the husband’s sperm at issue in their failure of issue. Would it be less a miracle if Gabriel fixed old Zechariah and not Elizabeth making John the Baptist possible?

The Hebrew midwives, Puah and Shiphrah, Pharaoh’s daughter and Miriam are part of Moses’ story – so is his wife, Zipporah, but did you know their names? They aren’t talked about in Christian tradition, merely mentioned in relation to Moses, the main attraction, if at all. The Revised Common Lectionary carves out the verses about the midwives acting against Pharoah’s order to save the male newborns. Just skips over it. That is the pattern – making passages about women optional reading, if selecting them at all.  Even Mary’s magnificent Magnificat does not have a Sunday in the lectionary. And on it goes.

My intention in this summer-long series is to educate, elucidate, and acknowledge the content of the Bible and the failures of the lectionary that deny women biblical role models – and all people the gifts of women in the history of salvation. I think this is important. I did not intend it to be the summer’s project, but the more I read, the more reason I find to continue – and so we will. I hope you will come along.

This week I’m going to make it more personal, hoping that in doing so, you, too, will consider the biblical characters given to us by ancient, inspired writers – and look for your own spiritual doppelgängers.

There are a few gospel women who I really like and in whom I see bits of myself reflected. I’ve mentioned the woman with the flow of blood who sneaks up behind Jesus and touches just the hem of his garment. I identify with her shame, if not her condition, and her hidden approach, hoping to be unseen, believing and doubtful in equal measure. She sees her opportunity and takes the chance – it’s impulsive, working her way through the crowd, wanting just a touch. She’s got it in her head that that would be enough. Just to touch the trailing edge of his cloak – maybe even to put her palm in a fresh footprint in the dust. If he’s who she thinks he is, then that will be enough. Earth to earth, dust to dust, God’s creating power of life in the dust. She didn’t want to interrupt the procession. He and the crowd were following Jairus, the leader of the synagog, a good man who is seeking healing for his little daughter who is near death. She doesn’t want to be a spectacle, she doesn’t want to be noticed, or be made a fool of or embarrassed or shamed or ‘outed’ – just simply, invisibly, to be okay, normal, well.     I understand all of that.

When I was a kid we had a family friend who drove a great big, light blue Cadillac. He worked at the Country Club, we lived on Country Club Road, so that car drove past our house at least twice a day. We spent the summers living at a lake home cottage 20 miles out of town. The summer I turned 13 I was allowed to ride my bike into town once in a while to spend some time with a friend. On this particular day, her plans changed, so I had the day to myself and I was walking into town and be a tourist. It was hot and I still had about a mile to go when a great big light blue Cadillac pulled up beside me and the door opened. In that moment it never occurred to me that there could be another car like that. I got in. And then I realized my mistake and the doors locked. He asked where I was going, but instead of turning right, he turned left, away from town and took me down an old logging road. I had no idea what was happening to me; what he was doing. I was barely 13 and had a very sheltered life. But when he finally let me out of the car I ran into the woods and found my way home. I knew that it was shameful. I knew that I was hurt and would have to explain black eyes and bruises and that I could never tell my parents what happened, because I knew it was my fault, and couldn’t face the consequences and my dad’s explosive anger. So I never did tell them. I said I slipped in the gravel and fell off my bike. And I kept that confusing shame and self blame to myself for another 12 years before I told a counselor about it and began the process of forgiving myself for something I knew was not my fault and believed was my fault in equal measure. I didn’t have the trailing edge of Jesus’ cloak to touch, but healing has come over the years through others acting out of their faith and compassion.

On a lighter note, I identify with the Syrophoenician woman in quite another way. She is the one who begs Jesus to heal her daughter and he replies, “Let the children be fed first. It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Dogs being a derogatory term Jews used for Gentiles. She comes right back saying, ”Sir, even the dog under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

I don’t think I have her boldness or her ability to think so quickly on her feet when encountering a holy man face to face. But I know that mother love for her child. I can feel a deep connection to her desperation for her daughter’s life. I think I would go, too, to seek the agent of healing, to look into his eyes, vulnerable, knowing you are nothing to him, but believing he can be everything you need and plead and long for for your child.

And I identify with her in being blond. I don’t think she was blond, but I am. What I mean is the way she takes his “dog” comment and uses it to her advantage. She doesn’t argue with him, she doesn’t shrink back at this insult, she says ‘yes, but’ and disarms him. “Yes, I’m a dog, but even dogs get the children’s crumbs.”

I have learned that “being blond” allows me to be a fool, to ask awkward, honest questions, to be vulnerable, to admit that I don’t have the answer, to come in from underneath people’s defenses. I’ve learned that knocking heads gives us both headaches and doesn’t advance the problem, but being ‘blond’, being a dog, being conciliatory – can appeal to the other’s better nature and lower blood pressure and change the dynamic. I’ve learned how helpful it can be to be a servant to those expecting a fight.  On a good day, I use ‘being blond’ as a way of acknowledging my failures, but hanging in there at the same time, like this Syrophoenician mother who acknowledged her status, but taught Jesus that his mission is broader than he imagined.

The Samaritan woman at the well is a story I’m growing into. I love her story, maybe in part because it’s a long conversation that we overhear – the longest conversation Jesus has with anyone in Scripture – and I like long conversations. Shy people fantasize about conversations that go on and on. The part I’m growing into is imagining what it is she’s drawing up from Jacob’s well, and what that living water Jesus offers is. It’s not water, but it quenches. What in me is thirsting? What is parched and dry like our ground? What would quench the deep thirsts I or you have?

I have too many questions to go much further with her, but she’s one I think about.

The last woman for today is Sara. She’s the one who has gotten me where I am.

God spoke to Abram. God shared a vision of a grand adventure and a promise. And told Abram to pack up and go where God would show him. I have to believe that Sara did the packing. She wasn’t really consulted in the matter, however.

I loved living in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It’s so beautiful. I had friends. I had a job. I had a female doctor who I really liked. Marquette was 20 minutes away and is a wonderful little city. I love Lake Superior. The kids had soccer and ballet and violin lessons. They all had friends. I was settled and happy. And God spoke to Mike and told him it was time to go. I didn’t want to. Moving to Luck was a step down financially for us since the synod pay scale was lower. I wasn’t licensed in Wisconsin so couldn’t work as an OT without getting re-certified and there weren’t jobs here at that time. And there was no Marquette, no Lake Superior with its sandy beaches and crystal water. I asked Mr. Nichols, the school principal we met with, if the music department included strings… and got a blank, confused look. He said they might teach guitar. I didn’t want to come here.

But, being dutiful Sara, I did the packing and followed my Abram.

We arrived in Family Camp. I spent the first three days here learning names of people who left on July 4th. The essential kitchen boxes – being the last ones packed – were the first off the truck and buried the deepest in the garage. But people were kind. And friendly. And we gradually moved in and made it our home.

And somewhere along the line, God spoke to Sara and made her a promise, too. And she laughed. And I went to seminary and was ordained into the ministry of word and sacrament at this communion rail with all the circling saints wondering what a female was doing there. And many in the congregation were wondering that, too, and some maybe laughed, and a few left, but mostly you were kind.

Sarah and Abraham had a bit of a kerfuffle over Hagar and Ishmael, but God looked after Hagar and things worked out. Mike and I had a bit of a kerfuffle, too, about sharing a single call when we had different callings, but it worked out. And we’ve lived here for 21 years and raised our kids, and grew up ourselves, and I’m still learning about this wonderful theology of nature-loving-servant-hearted unpretentious, singing Danes. And I’m happy here. Fortunately, Mike wasn’t asked to sacrifice any of our children. Sarah falls out of the story at about that time. We only hear of her death. Maybe she never spoke to Abraham or God again after that. We don’t know.

What I hold in common with Sarah besides the packing up and moving part is that her story is long and  complicated and God is both surprising and steadfast.

And that it matters who tells the story.

So, when we recognize ourselves in Mary and Martha, or the midwives, or Esther who was called for just such a time, or Ruth caring for her mother-in-law, or mighty Deborah who was wise and a warrior and a prophet, or Vashti who said NO and turned the kingdom upside down, or Naaman’s wife’s servant girl who sent Naaman to Elisha, we begin to live with scripture and it lives in us. The Bible is a living word and not a law book or history book or self-help manual or answer book.

Jesus was the Word. And the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

It is a word that informs and transforms and heals and inspires and goads us forward only when we take it in, only when we incarnate the stories by giving them flesh in our lives. Otherwise it’s literature. There’s nothing wrong with literature – which can also inspire and inform. But there’s a difference. Isn’t there?