In our daily prayers God was every manner of image and metaphor and meaning, and always, "God the Father." We never ever prayed to "God our Mother." What were women in the economy of God? The answer was only too painful: We were invisible. I had given my life to a God who did not see me, did not include me, did not touch my nature with God's own....Joan Chittister, "Called to Question"

Friday, September 25, 2009

Proper 21B

A reflection on Proper 21 Year B, Esther 7-9:22, by The Rev. Margaret Rose

Reflections on Esther and Orphan Theology

My daughter, Miriam, now 21, was an avid Bible reader at an early age. Her favorites texts were the Old Testament family epics. She would read for hours and then come to me with questions which stretched my exegetical knowledge. She was most perplexed that in the midst of the many everyday details about women related to “flow of blood” or cosmetics, eating and drinking, or intricate descriptions of palaces and their d├ęcor that there was a vital missing aspect. “Why don’t they ever talk about bathrooms in the Bible, mommy?” (Actually, she later told me she did find some reference to Saul in this regard…)

While I could not answer her question, with or without a straight face, I was glad her reflections quickly moved to other stories. Often, though, she returned to the book of Esther which includes this Sunday’s text. I dare say she missed the strong feminism of Queen Vashti who refused to strut in front of the King and his feasting friends. And I suspect she enjoyed the beauty treatments that Esther received in order to please the King. But she was also moved by the courage of Esther who defied cultural norms, named herself as a Jew and saved her people. This is the Jewish celebration of Purim which happens in the crossroads of winter to spring in the Jewish calendar’s month of Adar.
The text for this Sunday relates the part of Esther’s story where she calls Haman out for his plan to annihilate the Jews. The king is enraged, Haman is hanged and at least for this day there is no pogrom.

What a strong and strategic woman Esther was. First, in becoming Queen, then in hearing her Uncle Mordecai’s plea, “Do not imagine Esther, that of all the Jews in the kingdom you alone will be safe. If you remain silent at such a time as this, relief and deliverance for the Jews will come from anther quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows whether it is not for such a time as this that you have become Queen.” Esther heeds his call and in defiance of the law, vows to go to the King, even if it costs her life.

Initially, I intended to continue these reflections with a look at how life so often brings us to a time and place for a certain noble purpose. We, like Esther have a choice to risk, if not our lives , much that is important to us. For such a time as this…. we are given the means and the power to make a difference, if only we will choose to do so. For that we need strength and bravery and a large dose of courage.

What we don’t often realize in Esther’s story as we revel in her courage is that she is an orphan, having lost both her parents. It is Mordecai, her uncle, in whose family she has been raised. And because of that I offer another aspect which might be useful in preaching this text.

In the Spring/’Summer edition of the Harvard Divinity School bulletin, Elizabeth Siwo-Okundi, currently a Phd student at Boston University and a Kenyan, relates the story of her field work in Kenya at the Homa Bay Children’s home which works with children orphaned by HIV/Aids. During her intense summer of field education Elizabeth saw the connections between the wisdom encountered among the children there and the Biblical texts studied in her more academic life. She reminds us not only of the Biblical mandates to care for the widowed and orphaned, but also of the small and powerful voice these who are seen as powerless often exert. She notes the power of the small voice in 2 Kings when the widow woman calls on Elisha to help her orphaned children, and later when the voice of the servant girl to the wife of Naaman is the one responsible for the Elisha’s healing.

And it is the small and strategic voice of Esther who saves her people. Elizabeth Siwo-Okundi’s own words say it best:
Although the story of Esther has been romanticized, her life story is fraught with difficulties. When Queen Vashti is banished from the throne, Mordecai, whose intentions are hotly debated by scholars, seems to be looking out for Esther’s best interests by granting her the opportunity to become the king’s new wife. However, the “application process” consists of girls engaging in sexual activity with the king and being judged for their beauty and performance, the price of which is deemed to be small in comparison to the opportunity to become queen. The story suggests that through this avenue Esther can save herself, have a better life and save her people.
In a small voice reading, Esther’s story reminds us that sex for potential salvation is daily presented to or forced upon orphan girls. Just as Esther was subjected to sexual abuse as the way to salvation, it is not uncommon for prostitution and sexual slavery to become the means of income for some orphan-girls in Africa.” (Harvard Divinity School Bulletin Spring/Summer2009)

And I would add many other places. As Siwo-Okundi develops her understanding of Orphan Theology, she invites us to read the texts with a strong hermeneutic of suspicion. What is really going on here? Who is being exploited? She invites us to note the places where rather than become a powerless victim, the small voice of the orphan becomes a powerful word for good.

As I re read the story of Esther, I began to wonder about Purim. And whether there were any discussions of this celebration from a feminist perspective. Indeed, a number. One in particular was an article in the JWeekly, written by the mother of four sons. In it she delves into the power and courage of Vashti who in refusing to come before the King and show her beauty, was banished from the Kingdom, or worse. But that voice is for another Sunday!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Proper 20B

A Reflection on Mark 9.30-37 by The Rev. Sarah Rogers

I have noticed that Jesus often goes away quietly with his disciples to teach them. He focuses on this small, chosen group of followers so that they will be better informed of what he is about and will therefore be able to pass on his teaching to the wider community. The central focus of his teaching is that he will die and rise again and in order to explain this he tells them many things about the Kingdom of God. There are many new things that the disciples need to grasp, and time is short, as Jesus repeatedly has to tell them, he is not going to physically be there for ever, time is short.

The disciples are incredibly reluctant to accept that this young man is going to die. After all he is not only their teacher and they have witnessed him doing great miracles. How can it be that he is going to die. However, Jesus persists in his task to make the rather reluctant disciples understand this new dimension in Jesus’ ministry. This is the second time out of three that Jesus has had predicted his death and resurrection in Mark’s gospel. The disciple’s still don’t get it, but Jesus nurtures his disciples, he is patient with them (at least most of the time).
Jesus’ task is to make the disciples realise that his death is not going to be a tragic accident it is the ultimate goal of his ministry. He does this gradually, the details have yet to be explained, they will become clear in time. Jesus also hints at the fact that his death is not going to be the end, ‘three days after being killed, he will rise again’.

Although the disciples continue to misunderstand what Jesus is telling them about his death, resurrection and the new Kingdom, he patiently puts them right, he nurtures and teaches them.
As the disciples begin to realise that they are about to lose Jesus, they also begin to realise that they need someone to take on the authority, that is why they want to know ‘who is the greatest?’ But, Jesus looks at this question of status rather differently, as far as he is concerned ‘the first will be last’. Jesus firmly tells the disciples that they should not seek greatness, rather, they should seek to be last. Their ministry is to be servants and not to dominate. Jesus turns things upside down. The outcasts of the Jewish society at the time, gentiles, women and children will be first in the kingdom of heaven.

I can’t help thinking that Jesus thought like a woman. How often have women been the unsung heroes, the power behind the throne, the ones doing the cooking and cleaning whilst their men are out doing powerful things. Women understand the role of servant, for some it has been a role they have been forced into, for others a role that they have fallen into and been quite happy with and for others to serve has been their ultimate goal. Servant-hood is certainly not something to be fought against rather, Jesus teaches us that it is desirable.

I am also struck by the way Jesus appears in a nurturing, mothering role in the way he teaches his disciples. He uses the child as a visual example of what he means. Children are not valued in Jewish society, except perhaps by their mothers, they are expected to do as they are told.
What does all this mean? Well, I think it gives us hope that one day the gifts of women will be fully recognised. We must go on nurturing, gently teaching those around us that women have an equal place. Of course, that doesn’t just go for women, the mission of the church has always been to reach out to the deprived of society. This passage not only affirms the role of women within the church, but also gives us courage to continue just being.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Proper 19B

A reflection Proverbs 1:20-33; Psalm 19; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38 by Jacqueline Schmitt

There is so much about Jesus that we now, here, today, take for granted; after all, we know the end of the story. Our culture is filled with worn cliches about Jesus, who is either our cozy buddy or our moralistic judge. So much of what has happened – actually all of the past 2000 years of western civilization – gets in the way of our understanding of who he really is in the pages of the Gospels.

Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They trot out the usual answers, drawn from their experience with religious figures: Elijah, who was an ancient Jewish prophet, John the Baptist, who cried out in the wilderness. That would be the predictable thing, to understand Jesus because he was like someone we already knew about. But then Jesus surprises them – and us – by asking them – and us, the readers of this encounter, “Who do YOU say that I am?”

Peter delivers the surprise line now: You are the Christ. You are the Messiah. You are the leader with royal stature and political power to lead us in a revolution against all that oppresses us. You are the one who will deliver us from the power of the Roman Empire and the corruption of the Jewish authorities. You are the Man.

We can hear a tune playing in the back of Peter’s head: “happy days are here again.” Visions of sugar plums, their side winning, the oppression of the cruel Romans routed out, no more crippling taxes, health care with a public option, leaders with true spiritual and moral integrity restored to the Temple in Jerusalem. These plans sound good. Isn’t this where you’ve been heading all along, Jesus?

Then Jesus delivers the really surprising salvo: “Get behind me Satan.” What you have in mind are merely human expectations; you need to set your mind on what God has planned, and for the short term, it won’t be pretty. God has sent me here to confront all those evil things that you mention: the powers and principalities that work against what God has in mind for humanity. But they will fight back, and I will suffer and die. And to follow me means sharing in that fight, in that suffering, even in that death. This way is difficult, but this is the way to life, to justice, to abundance, to mercy, to love, to community, to life.

No, this is not an easy lesson to preach on. It’s so much easier to preach on the abundance Jesus promises, or the healing he delivers, or many times he fed and taught and touched people in need.

The Epistle is a difficult, harsh reading, but it makes a point: Last week the emphasis was, “Watch your actions! Keep them true to your words – faith without works is dead.” This week it is, “Watch your words!” Perhaps Peter should have followed such advice, for his words in answer to Jesus’ question caused Jesus to erupt in an angry rebuke.

I came across a quote from a theologian reminding me that the parables of Jesus are stories about how God is searching for us, seeking the lost and the least, not the triumphalistic and powerful. He wrote, “The Christian Church does not offer men and women a route map to God. Instead it tells them by what means they might be found by [God].”

So often, when we seek God, the temptation is to look for a reflection of our own needs, to find the key to our own selves. But these two lessons remind us when we get in this business of a relationship with God that God takes the lead – God looks for us – God asks tough questions of us – God directs us to places we never thought we’d go. “Who do YOU say that I am?” Jesus asks us. This is not the final exam, but it is an invitation to follow him and to find out more.

Jacqueline Schmitt

The Adventurous Parson
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Friday, September 4, 2009

Proper 18B

A reflection on Mark 7:24-37 by Janine Goodwin, M.A., M. S. Ed.

“Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

What on earth is Jesus doing, saying a thing like that to anyone? How can these words be coming from the Jesus who has just told members of his own group that observing food laws is not as important as what is within a person? I find myself disliking this passage for two reasons. The first is personal. This is not the Jesus I want to believe in. I want Jesus to be unfailingly kind and loving, always generous, always comforting to those in need. I am a recovering codependent, praying daily for healing from old, distorted teachings, working daily to uncover and recover from my own need to always be the good girl, the teacher, the helper, and never to admit my own needs, anger, bias, or sinfulness, not to mention plain old bad moods. I wonder whether I want Jesus to be the ultimate codependent. Certainly I don’t want to believe he would say something so cruel to a woman who wants healing for her child.

As I begin work on this passage, I want to find an excuse for Jesus, a reason those words aren’t really as cutting as they sound. The second objection takes shape: it is a sense of distance from the culture in which the Gospels take place, combined with the sense that God is alien and unpredictable. I am haunted by a remark from one of my Education for Ministry mentors, a passionate conservative who was doing his internship year in a wildly liberal parish: when we discussed some troubling passage from the Hebrew Scriptures, Gordon would smile and say, “Ah, but that was before God was a liberal.” He always got a laugh from us, and he got us thinking as well. I like to think that God agrees with me. It is easy for me to see that some passages in Scripture are written out of assumptions we no longer share—and it is easy to bear that as long as I am sure mine are an indication of the spiritual growth of the church as a whole, more true to the spirit of the Gospels, more just, more loving, more, well, right. In my indignation and unease at Jesus’ words to the Syro-Phonecian woman, I find a deeper fear: what if I’m wrong? What if Jesus was sexist and prejudiced? What if God is?

I feel again the sense of distance between my culture and the cultures from which Scripture grew. The Jesus whom I take for granted is in many ways a stranger, and his world is not mine, though my faith stance tells me that my world is also his and he is present with me. Still, in the world of this story, I don’t even know why this woman is there, what treatment she has faced for having a child who is seen as demon-possessed, and why Jesus makes such a distinction between their groups that he can call his people children and hers dogs.

Chasing the uncomfortable questions through commentaries and articles, I find that the woman’s act goes outside many rules. She breaks in on Jesus’ privacy by walking into a house where he has gone to be free of the demands of others. In a culture where public life revolved around men and a male relative was expected to do the talking, she addresses Jesus directly as she begs for a healing for her child. She does all this despite the fact that their ethnicities and faiths are different, and that his group regards hers as inferior. She is no coward; having come this far with her request, she is unlikely to shrink back at one rude sentence. Like the woman with a hemorrhage who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment despite the deep taboo against a bleeding woman touching a man, she has gone outside the rules of her time and place. She has the courage of desperation, the determination to get what she needs for her child no matter what stands in her way.

Jesus does not simply react by telling her to go away and leave him alone: he responds by gives her an opening. He tells her the “children” must be fed first, that their food must not be thrown to the “little dogs.” The initial sense of a rude refusal hides an interesting nuance. Has he taken her measure and offered an argument that those around him will expect to hear, trusting a brave woman to press her point? Whether he is surly or setting up an argument for her to knock down, he has not slammed the door.

There is also a hint of a conversation between groups: it is possible that the “little dogs” refers to the Cynics, followers of a Greek philosophy whose adherents frequently went outside social convention and who were scorned as “dogs” as a result by the respectable folk of their time. If Jesus is making a reference to the Cynics, the phrase about dogs has the potential to be both an intellectual joke and a way of engaging the woman as an equal. The audacious female outsider is as worthy of serious conversation as a respected Pharisee. This could, after all, be Jesus crossing boundaries and extending respect to a stranger and an alien.

As a teacher, I know my students often learn best when they teach each other or teach me what they have learned. Jesus, in offering an opening, gives the woman a chance to teach him and those around him, and she does so, using her wit and courage to turn his utterance around with a skill worthy of Jesus himself. The dogs eat the children’s crumbs, she responds, taking the image and turning it back so that there is a reason he should grant her request and give her just a little grace, just one deeply needed healing. There is a compliment to his power hidden in her clever answer. I wonder whether Jesus laughs at that perfect response. Certainly, he respects it, and dismisses her only as he grants her request: “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” The commentators say that she is the only person in this gospel who teaches Jesus something; the woman, the alien, the breaker of rules is a teacher after his own heart. Whether she wins an argument with a Jesus who needs to learn a lesson, or engages in a game of words in which, as Frost says, “the work is play for mortal stakes,” he has, in the end, respected her for qualities and actions that are very like his own.

There is much of which I cannot be sure in this story, but one thing is certain: God is indeed unpredictable. In both of the stories in this Gospel, the healings take place in ways that could not be expected. The woman’s daughter is healed at a distance: the man is healed by intimate contact. Jesus does not turn away someone who breaks the rules: he does command those around him to keep a healing secret, a puzzling theme to find in an account of good news meant to spread to the whole world. God may not always be a liberal or a conservative, and Jesus is not just a creature of his time or of my own. We would do well to keep a sharp but open mind as we ask Jesus for healing, and we must be ready to take it in the way and time that it comes, not as we would expect it.