Sunday, May 26, 2019

Still She Prevailed

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Still She Prevailed
Acts 16.9-15

Here's another important women who played an significant role in the Holy Spirit’s movement in the early church. 

The early church apostles were sharing the good news with new people, and in new lands-- and they were jockeying for power and authority, similar to the current presidential nominees. What seems a well formed political alliance, can change overnight!

At the end of Acts 15 we learn that Paul and Barnabas part ways, though they have been traveling together bringing the good news throughout the lands, they have a disagreement about a certain apostle who would travel with them. Barnabas and Paul had such a sharp disagreement about this and they decide to part ways. Then Paul chooses a new companion, Silas, to journey with him. The scripture says after stopping in Lystra they welcome Timothy to come with them. Now, Paul and Silas and Timothy are planning to go to Asia, but the “Spirit of Jesus” did not allow it, and instead they went to Troas. Then the unexpected occurs. During the night, Paul receives a vision of a man in Macedonia, pleading for help.

This seems like an odd story to chronicle. The apostles are headed one place, and then end up somewhere else. And after Paul woke they made their way to Phillipi, the leading city in a Roman occupied Macedonia, which is the western side of Greece. After a couple of days, on the sabbath, they decide to head outside the city to the River, to find a place to pray. And what they find is definitely unexpected. There are no men mentioned at all beyond Paul, Silas, and Timothy.
Instead they find a collective of women outside the city on the riverbank, and they sit down and talk with them. Of course, there’s not much continuity between the Paul’s vision and this group of women. For one thing his vision was of a man asking for his help. And in this case, Paul happens to stumble upon this community of women. 

And one of these women was Lydia, who is called a “worshipper of God” and also states she was a “seller of purple cloth.” The color purple is something that only the wealthy could purchase, the materials coming from the retrieval of a dye within the shells of crustaceans. Some argue she is a merchant or business woman to the wealthy. The scripture does not give us adequate details about Lydia, though we do find out that she is not from Philippi, she is from Thayatira. Lydia, a merchant of purple clothes, is a far way from home, and we know that in listening to Paul and Silas and Timothy she is overcome by the Holy Spirit, and eager to hear the good news. So much that she and all her household, this collective of women, are baptized. And then Lydia is inspired to welcome Paul and Silas, and Timothy to come stay at her home. 

Anytime the Holy Spirit is present hospitality is practiced and community is formed.

What we see here in scripture is the creation of a tribe of Christian women who take care of one another and challenge the individual to be more and do more than just be a self-concerned individual. 

Tribes can be a powerful instrument for reorienting us towards a more loving, peaceful, and just world. Often, tribes can arise out of shared need and dangers which make the comfort, love, peace, and equity they promise all the more alluring.

Consider the case of women’s communes and intentional communities that developed in greater number not only in the early Christian period of the church but also in 1970’s and 80’s. It is around this time that we saw many women’s festivals, reading groups, book stores, community farms and intentional communities develop around the United States but especially in more rural areas. It is an interest historical trend that when many marginalized populations of men, such as gay men, headed into cities during the 70s and 80s to form the beginnings of LGBT friendly districts and the start of movements that would become pride parades, at the same time many women of all sexualities moved into more rural settings. As I said, the legacy of this female exodus to rural parts of America still exist today in various women’s festivals, intentional communities, as well as many artist and feminist networks.

There were many motivations for the breaking off and forming of these intentional feminist and women’s communities, including lack of safety and respect among many male dominated spaces such as existed in the city. And as this exodus of women occurred, we could certainly see a rise in tribalism. The concept of men being from mars and women from Venus gained steam at this time, even as the book would not be written until the early 90s. We saw Wonder Woman’s background as an Amazon from a land of all women explored in comics. And in various ways, the idea of creating a land exclusive for women developed and a tribal philosophy of women taking care of women grew.

As in the case of the tribalism we discussed earlier, there is a lot of good power and community that can come from this tribalism. There are also dangers. In many of these American women’s communities and women’s festivals, tribalism also deepened certain prejudices while it overcame others. Over the decades, this women’s separatist movements have been critiqued for privileging the concerns of white women over those of women of color, critiqued for not being accessible for women with disabilities, especially in many of these rural settings, and critiqued for being exclusionary of transgender women but also transgender men who were regarded as unwelcome in these exclusive all women’s communities. Likewise with the military we can see how tribalism has helped many while excluding others, including women, people of color, people with disabilities, gay, bisexual, and lesbian people and currently transgender people.
Tribes can help us prevail and persist, revolutionize and resist, but they can also limit our ability to perceive the struggles of others, even those much like us, and to extend love beyond the exclusive limits of our tribe.

Thus my prayer and hope for us is to be like the women of Lydia's community who foster care and comfort and power among our tribes but also to welcome those who are new and different. Lydia and her Christian women’s tribe welcomed in Paul and Silas and Timothy. May we likewise extend welcome, and honor, and love for those who are often not included in our tribes. May we look backwards to memorialize those who sacrificed for our tribes while also looking forward to opening ourselves to those who are not yet included. We persist and prevail, remember and progress. 

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Discipleship: Women Ways

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Discipleship: Women Ways
Luke 9.36-42

Today's post is in honor of the disciple Tabitha, a.k.a. Dorcas. I'm betting there are some future mamas out there thinking "It’s time to bring back Dorcas as a popular baby name." I’ve thought about mentioning this to my wife, “sorry honey we can’t name our next spawn Dante, we have a serious shero from the Bible to name this child after.”

It’s only unfortunate that the name sounds like a well known put down.

Although the author of Luke-Acts is the best of the four gospels at lifting up women, we know that the author was deeply influenced by the mores of greco-Roman culture. Some scholars have argued that the writers of Luke-Acts, to gain the favor of male readers in the Greco-Roman Empire, diminished the role of women apostles in Acts, to focus more on the works of Paul and Peter, often featuring women as glorified groupies. Now, I’d guess that not many of us often picture female disciples among the early church movers and shakers, but the more we dig into scripture the more we find that women were integral to the early church. From the very beginning of the book of Acts we hear that Mary the mother of Jesus was present, along with “certain women.”

Who were these mysterious women? For all we know Tabitha was present.

We find from our scripture later in Acts, Tabitha is given the title “disciple,” and it’s the only place in all of scripture that the feminine form of disciple, mathetria is used.

We learn that Tabitha’s ministry in the community of Joppa, was in service to those in need, sewing garments for those without. And she didn’t do it alone. She worked alongside a community of widows, likely those who had been the recipients of her love in the time of their deepest need, and were inspired by her ministry. Women supporting women.

Tabitha gives us a model of what discipleship looked like in the early church. Devoted to good works and acts of charity, she offered tangible resources to folx in her community at a time of their great need. She fed and clothed, and protected these women, shepherding her flock in the life saving practices of community care and support.

One way we can examine the ways that women and men are treated differently in Acts is with Tabitha. In verse 39, Tabitha is praised for her “acts of charity” to the widows of Joppa, but this is the only place the words “acts of charity” is used in all of Acts. But in Acts 6.4, male disciples offer “Service of care and word” to widows which in the Greek translates to ministry. Why is it that men were charged with service to the widows and orphans and is considered ministry, but Tabitha’s work is considered “acts of charity?”

While Luke offers us a snapshot into the world of women in the early church, it is of scattered references and women who function in the backdrop, as patrons, and philanthropists, rather than key players in the spreading of the Good News. For years I found this imbalance so painful I couldn’t even pick up the Bible. But over time I came back and I tried to read for glimpses of women disciples and it gave me hope. And women are certainly there, if you read carefully. There are many more present than you realize, though often unnamed. The ones who are named, such as Tabitha we can look to for strength and hope.

This gives us a very different picture of Tabitha than the text supports, perhaps her ministry was one of good works and shepherding her own church. Tabitha in her life and ministry literally makes life out of death- the work of creating cloth, and sewing garments and tunics is about taking what is the dried out materials of dead cells, and turning them into the finely woven fabrics.

Now for a brief mother’s day story. My mother’s mother, Lula was a Tabitha of her own kind. Growing up in the Southern Baptist church and in a time when women were limited in vocational aspirations she came into her own calling and ministry once her children were grown. My grandmother ministered to the women who were left behind after their spouses had passed on. Taking them to necessary medical appointments, helping drive them to get groceries. My grandmother became the caretaker and archivist of the widows in her own community. I always wondered why my grandmother’s back porch was so cluttered with furniture that she would keep for the right person who needed it most. This was her ministry, she was the shepherd of so many. The artifacts of widows she had loved to their end were given new life in helping those who had little.

Who are the Tabitha’s in your life? On this Mother’s day, consider: who are the spiritual mothers who helped disciple you?

May this legacy of women and spiritual foremothers inspire us as we live out our own vocations. Amen.

Sunday, May 5, 2019


Acts 9.1-6, 7-20, John 21.1-19

I know how hard change can be. I think we all do in one way or another. Trying out new things can cause a lot of anxiety. Or even doing what we have always done but without the same people or in the same place can leave us feeling confused like the Apostles after Jesus’ death, they are doing what they know best, sitting in their boat fishing. They were fishermen many of them, they knew how to fish, but in the wake of Christ’s death, suddenly alone, they were disoriented. They were now living with their shock, having had brief encounters with the Risen Christ, their thoughts were scattered and work aimless, catching fish should have been easy for them, but it just wasn’t working for them.

It’s at times like this that we need people to call us out of our funks and say, like Jesus does, “Hey! You! Yes you! What’s up? Peter needed to be shaken out of his funk and reminded that Christ’s sheep needed to be fed and led.

Jesus asks us: do you love me? If our answer is yes, then the call is clear: than do it, by loving one another as we have been loved us. But this call isn’t easy is it?

Acts Unpacked

And we see this difficulty play out in our scripture from Acts. It is another story of Jesus calling the least expected to build the kingdom of God.

A couple chapters earlier we were introduced to the Jewish Pharisee Saul, and murderer of Stephen, a follower of the Way, and he is on a mission to hunt down and persecute Jews who follow Jesus. On his way to Damascus a bright light appears and a voice from the heavens speaks “Saul, Saul why do you persecute me?” This moment appears many places in art and stories about the early church.

Many will tell you that it is at this moment that Saul turns into Paul, as though the former life is completely ended and he is created entirely new. Perhaps many of us want change to be like this, a radical transformation, a new start, we want to leave our past behind. Others of us may fear change of this sort. We love something about the past and worry change means a kind of loss. I don’t think change is ever that easy and I don’t think it’s too simple either for Saul, soon to be called Paul.

Jesus confronts Saul in this harrowing moment, “Why do you persecute me?” Saul has been emboldened by folx with power and authority to carry out acts of terror against a marginalized religious community. But the word the translators use, persecute, means more than that. “To follow after” is certainly what Saul is doing. Saul has been following the Apostles. Saul appears in Luke-Acts after Christ has risen and after the Apostles have started their ministry. And because he follows after the Apostles, he is peculiarly placed to learn from them. The man who had been following the Way of the Apostles of Christ suddenly realizes he needs guidance to understand how to follow on different terms.

But Saul is a proud man. He is not the type to freely admit to it when he finds himself traveling and suddenly lost. So God has to force the matter. After being knocked to the ground by the light, Saul gets up. When he rises Saul realizes he cannot see. Many of us might think it strange that God would blind someone. After all, Christ healed the blind didn’t he? Well the decision to blind Saul may be just as strange as God’s decision to make Saul and apostle to begin with. Some might try to explain this by saying that Saul is blind because he is confused. He cannot see the truth of Christ. But we need not reduce blindness, especially given by God, to simply a condition of lack. Rather, it is by this blindness that God begins to help Saul see the world in new ways.

The first thing Saul needs to learn is that he cannot continue down the road alone anymore. Suddenly, in this moment of vulnerability, he begins to be open to the fact that he needs help, maybe even help from the people he persecutes, who he will soon begin to see in a new way through his blindness. This is what happens next, Saul literally is lead by his traveling companions, by the hand to Damascus. The voice from heaven is Jesus, and he gives Saul instructions to go to Damascus where Ananias will come for him. He had his mission. He knew where to go. He had the power of mobility to get there. But he is not able to do it all alone. He needed companions on the way.

Anyone who has even been lead somewhere by the hand, depending on the power dynamics at play and the personality of those involved, the one being led may feel a certain lack of power. We can imagine how insufferable this may have been for Saul, who was so used to being in charge, who perhaps walked through the world with little care for the impact his actions had on marginalized folx.

But without this lesson in interdependency, without the gift of his blindness, Saul may have arrived in Damascus but in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons. This way Saul arrives, open to the help and guidance of others.

As Saul is being brought into Damascus to a place where he can rest from his travels, God is speaking to another person, Ananias. Ananias was deep in prayer at the time, and he is called on by God to go seek out, to follow after Saul. Ananias’ first instinct might have been to persecute Saul when he found him, or perhaps to run away entirely. Flight or Flight. It’s important to keep in mind, Ananias is exactly the kind of guy the Saul was hunting down. He is fearful for his life, knowing Saul’s reputation. Perhaps God was doing some divine matchmaking here.

God calls Ananias to show up for Saul, to heal and not hurt, to guide and not to expel Saul. He is to embrace Saul, lay his hands on him like someone for whom he cares. He is to show compassion on an enemy to turn him into a friend. Despite the pride of Saul and the fear of Ananias, God brings the two together on this night. And though they are both scared, they both learn important lessons.

Scripture says that Ananias found Saul and lays his hands on Saul. We can imagine how uncomfortable this might have been for strangers and potential enemies, people who hold different spiritual and political views. But it is through their willingness to come together that change happens. By Ananias laying hands on him, through God, Saul’s blindness is lifted. Yet we might not say that Saul’s sight is totally restored. It returns but with a difference. In a sense, these are new eyes. At this moment, Saul is not only open to change but sees the Apostles in a new way. He sees God in a new way. As the history of his life and letter bear out, he sees the world in a new way. He will continue to follow the Apostles but now as a brother.

This is the way life seems to have always been. Life is change. And as we see among ourselves and the disciples how hard life can be. In this season of Easter, we are called to consider how the Church moves on after great changes and losses. Whether it is the loss of a leader like Rachel Held Evans or the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are being called to reflect on our own grief and the need to find new ways to move forward on different terms. Whether it is the first Easter season with a new Pastor or the Disciples receiving Paul among them as a new Apostle, once an enemy now a sibling. Change can be difficult and again we will need to find new ways to move forward on different terms.

We began Easter with the sound of golden trumpets and horns, celebrating resurrection and we walked out into the rebirth of Spring. Yet for all this fanfare, the new life we are given is not the exact same as the old life we had. In ways, change calls on us to grieve and let go in order to grow and evolve on different terms. And there is great things awaiting us, beloved church, things we can’t yet imagine. I do believe that the spirit of the resurrection promises us a world transformed and a life glorified. The new life will contain things the old life could not. The new world will show us wonders that the old world could not create. That may be hard to believe, it may be hard to imagine how the new life could be good when we know what we have lost. But we have seen this before. The tree must leave the acorn if it is going to grow flowers and fruit. The caterpillar must leave the chrysalis if it is going to rise a butterfly. The change is real and the grief is real but again and again, each Spring and each Easter we are reminded to turn our eyes towards the way goodness continues to meet us in our lives, on different terms. May God we with us as we navigate these transitions, these transformations and learn to translate and understand our world on different terms.