Esther and Vashti — History rolls

Hildegard of Bingen once said, “Secrets make us sick.” For that reason, Vashti, a much over-looked Bible woman, intrigues me.

Her story, found in Chapter 1 of the Book of Esther, goes like this:

Vashti, the first wife of King Ahaserus of Persia, is suddenly outsted from her post as queen for not obeying the king’s orders to “show the peoples and the officials her beauty” during a celebration to commemorate “the great wealth of his kingdom.” Although we don’t know exactly why she objected, here are some good reasons:

  • She was tired of entertaining, as the party was at the end of 187 days of feasting;
  • The king’s eunuchs arrived to “collect” her, probably somewhat undiplomatically;
  • The king was drunk (the Bible says, “merry with wine”) and;
  • Ahasuerus’ order for her to wear her crown apparently  made her wonder if that was all she would be wearing.

Her refusal to answer Ahaserus’ command humiliates the king in front of his subordinates, causing him to send word throughout the country that such behavior will not be tolerated. “Every man should be master in his own house!” he swears. Vashti disappears, never to be heard from again. We don’t know what happened to her.

And that is where Esther comes into the picture. Plucked out of the countryside to join Ahasuerou’s harem, she so “pleased” him that she was named Queen of Persia, eventually saving the Jewish community from annihilation.

It is possible, although not documented, that Vashti was killed. We will never know. But we do know this: she stood up for herself, refusing to parade before dozens, if not hundreds, of drunken men. She had had enough.

Secrets make us sick. And that is why generation after generation of brave women have gone before us in Judeo-Christian history, telling their stories–and often putting themselves in harm’s way as a result.

We cannot control the outcome. But we can, like our spiritual grandmothers in the Bible, work toward the restoration of our souls–and that of our culture–with God’s grace.

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The Witch of Endor: Deep caring, deep fear

Imagine an old woman, in about the year 1007 BCE, living alone in the Jezreel Valley, with only a hillside burrow for a home. Some call her a witch. Others use the world medium; others a necromancer. King Saul has said mediums should be killed, but townspeople still sneak away to see her under the cloak of night. Most jobs are closed to females, but she exercises, illegally, one of the few vocations in biblical times where a woman can earn a few cents.

On a night unlike all others, an old man stumbles to her door, asking her to roust a friend from the afterlife. She refuses, telling him that the king has banned such activity. For all she knows, the man dressed in rags is employed by King Saul to find and arrest lawbreakers like her. And the injunction is no small matter, for Saul is quoting the law of Moses: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” (Exodus 22:18; Leviticus 20:27)

But seeing fear and fatigue in the man’s eyes, she does not slam the door shut.

There will be no punishment,” he says. “Trust me.” For some reason, she does.

“Who is it you wish to speak with?”

“Samuel,” he says. “Samuel.”

Ah, the deceased Samuel: a holy man, judge, and prophet; the son of Hannah and Eliezar; the man who anointed Saul and helped bring him to power.

With a mighty burst of energy, the woman raises the spirit of Samuel. And then as Samuel’s angry spirit fills the space, she screams–for she realizes that the man who knocked on her door is King Saul himself. Suffering from mental illness and on the run from the Philistines, he is desperately searching for his old mentor.

Emotions rage. Samuel is furious that he has been raised from the dead and announces that death will take the king the very next day. On that cheery note, Samuel disappears.

Saul falls to the ground. He is also exhausted, for he has not eaten in over twenty-four hours.

The old woman’s deep compassion continues. She begs the exhausted monarch to stay for a bite of bread so that he might have strength for the morrow. First he refuse, then accepts. Knowing that by her hand will come Saul’s last meal, she prepares a meal that is indeed fit for a king, sacrificing a young calf.

As was foretold, Saul does indeed die the next day on the battlefield. Knowing that his life is to end and not wanting to perish by enemy hands, he falls on his own sword, thus ending the tenure of the first king of Israel.

Consider this:

Ostracized for most of her life, the witch of Endor has finally found a place where she can live in relative safety and practice her vocation. When the knock on her door comes, then, she is justifiably concerned, for she has learned who is trustworthy and who is not.

She could have ignored the knock. She could have sent the trembling old man away. But she did not. She ministered to Saul in a way that only she could: by summoning Samuel. And when his apparition arrived, no wonder she was terrified. Yet she stayed. She stayed with Saul and comforted him, giving him strength and courage for his last few hours on earth. Her healing gifts were both transformative and life-giving.

Like Mary of Bethany washing and anointing Jesus’ feet with priceless oil, (John 12:1-8) the woman offered Saul her most valuable material resource: a fatted calf. Like Mary, who gave Jesus the strength to walk to the cross, the witch gave Saul physical and emotional support during his last hours. Like the Last Supper, she fed his troops, providing the king and his men one last meal together.

What might we learn from the Witch of Endor?

  • Be insistently generous.
  • Sometimes we find the deepest healing in places we least expect it.
  • Consider all gifts to be from God and use them wisely.

For reflection

  1. The Witch of Endor had a range of God-given gifts. What were they?
  2. Why did Saul seek out this woman? Was it a reasonable thing for him to do? Do you think it was bravery on her part to conjure up Samuel or was she afraid for her life? Did God inspire them to come together? If so, why? If not, why not?
  3. The witch had two of the most powerful men in Israel standing with her, even though she had to practice her vocation on the edges of town, in the shadows. In some ways she is like a prostitute, visited by men under the cover of darkness. What does it mean that this witch and several prostitutes have such a strong presence in scripture?
  4. Have you ever agreed to help someone and then been terrified at the result? If so, why?
  5. Where was God in this encounter?

Excerpts from Bible Women, All Their Words and Why They Matter, published by Forward Movement, Scott Gunn photo.

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She showed up. Like women do.

“Jesus died and rose from the dead.” While not exactly a ho-hum expression, we often take it for granted.

Think then, of the resurrection from another angle: What if no one had been there when Jesus walked out of that tomb? Would he have slogged through the streets of Jerusalem, perhaps winding up at Peter’s house? Would he have made his way to Martha’s home in Bethany, two miles away?

“Hey, it’s Jesus. Remember me? I’m, uh, risen from the dead??””

History would have been profoundly different were it not for Mary Magdalene, that once-broken woman had she not followed her heart. Bottom line: She showed up.

When all was at its darkest, when all seemed lost, she was there. And it is for that reason we celebrate her actions tomorrow—July 22—in all major Christian denominations world-wide.

What do we know about her?

This is a question not asked enough over the last two thousand years, as most of what we hear about her—that she was a prostitute—has no scriptural basis. She is named fourteen times in Scripture, and eight of those times, she is listed with other women—but her name comes first on the list. Five times she is named singly, having to do with the death and resurrection of Jesus. Once she is named with Jesus’ mother and aunt, and there she is mentioned last…but we note that she is in particularly strong company.*

This is what the Bible says about Mary Magdalene:

She was healed by Jesus from seven demons (Mark 16:9; Luke 8:1-3).

She traveled on the road with Jesus’ disciples  (Mark 15:40-41; Luke 8:1-3).

She was a leader among women (see paragraph above).

She stood at the foot of the cross; (Matthew 27:56; Mark 15:40; John 19:25).

She was the first to see and talk with Jesus after the resurrection (Matthew 28:9; John 20:14).

She supported Jesus financially (Luke 8.3).

She proclaimed him as the Christ (John 20:14).

What about those demons? If Jesus healed broken people from demons, then demons they were, taking the the form of both emotional and physical maladies. Whatever the illness, whatever the deficiency, whatever the cause, Jesus healed those whose lives were shattered and torn apart by outside and/or inner forces— overpowering the forces that kept people from living whole and integrated lives.

Mary Magdalene was one of those broken people.

Suffering from seven, count ‘em, seven maladies, her distress would have been overpowering, her isolation unbearable. It did not matter if the bars that surrounded her were invisible, for she had indeed known solitary confinement within her soul.

What mattered was that upon meeting Jesus, her long sentence of turmoil-filled heartbreak was ended. With a word and touch, Jesus healed her. Completely. For the first time in many years, she was a free, fully integrated person—with a new group of people to love and a reason to live: Jesus. No wonder she was so loyal to him. For her, over the course of knowing Jesus, two healings took place: the freedom from seven demons and the freedom from total abandonment at the tomb.

So…studying her place in Scripture, and knowing her history and her actions, this much is clear:

She was a bridge-builder among both women and men.

Clearly, she loved Jesus, but she also knew and loved the other women surrounding him. One senses that because of her life experiences, she was able to guide the other women through the tensions of living away from their families, camping outdoors, etc. She may have also acted as a bridge to the men in the group, who may have found it frustrating that women were taking on key roles. Such bridgework was evident when, from the empty tomb, she ran to Peter’s house first.

She stood at the foot of the cross.

She would see her friend through ‘til the end. She may have been scared; she may have been heartbroken; she was no doubt filled with grief—but she was there, risking all.

She was the first to see and talk with Jesus after the resurrection.

There were many reasons why Mary Magdalene might not have gone to the tomb that morning, but one overarching reason why she did: she loved Jesus and would make sure he was properly cared for, even in death. Imagine her surprise and delight upon recognizing him. Imagine her wanting to throw her arms around him. Imagine her heart soaring when he called her by name. Many had disappointed her in life; Jesus had not.

She was the first to proclaim that he was risen; that he had overcome death and the grave. With the simple words, “I have seen the Lord,” history is rocked forever.

Bottom line: Mary Magdalene showed up. And because of that,Jesus depended on her to carry the most important news of all time to the world: that the powers of darkness had been beaten back. The world would never again be the same. Her commitment to show up, despite the darkness around her, serves as a great inspiration to us. 

Photo credit: Scott Gunn. Excerpts from Bible Women: All Their Words and Why They Matter, published by Forward Movement; Author, Lindsay Hardin Freeman.

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Hagar: Precious in God’s Sight

Read Hagar’s story: Genesis 16 and 21:9-20

Hagar comes up in this Sunday’s lectionary, and her story could not be more timely, especially as our faith communities consider the sins of racism and oppression. She was many things: a slave and nemesis to Sarah; the first person in the Bible to name God (she called him El-Roi, “O God of seeing; a mother to Ishmael; the first person in the Bible to cry, and Islam’s spiritual foremother.

Her story is inexorably wrapped around that of Abraham and Sarah. She is described in many ways in various Bibles: slave-girl, handmaid, servant, shifchah (a servant who grew into the heart of the family), maid, maidservant, and later, concubine. One scholar suggests that she was most likely “obtained as a gift from Pharaoh, to her husband as a second wife, a common custom in patriarchal times.”

We hear the start of her story shortly after Abraham and Sarah left their home to follow God’s call to go to a place where they would “have as many descendants as there are stars in the sky.” Pulling up stakes at ages 75 and 65, respectively, they leave, taking family members, slaves, and animals with them. 

After years in the wilderness, Sarah gives up all hope of becoming pregnant and turns to Hagar for help. Under ancient laws, any child born to Hagar would, by rights, officially belong to Sarah and Abraham. Because of her perceived infertility, Sarah sent her husband into Hagar’s tent.

Perhaps it took one visit from Abraham; likely it took more; perhaps it took years. How willing was Hagar to participate? We will never know. Some say that it would have been an honor to bear the child of the tribe’s leader, that it would raise one’s status with the group. What we do know is this: There is no such thing as consensual sex when one is ordered to have intercourse with the most powerful man in the tribe.

Once Hagar conceives, the Book of Genesis says her attitude became condescending toward Sarah. (Genesis 16:4) Sarah became abusive, Hagar fled into the wilderness, and “the angel of the Lord,” found her and told her to “Return to your mistress, and submit yourself under her hands.” (Genesis 16;9) Upon her return, the Abraham-Hagar union produces a son: Ishmael.

Years later, after the birth of Sarah and Abraham’s son, Isaac, the water boils hotter. Sarah becomes so irritated with Hagar that she orders Abraham to send the now-teenage boy and his mother back into the wilderness. Abraham checks with God; God tells him to listen to Sarah, and Hagar is banished—i.e. given a death sentence.  

Like Jesus in the wilderness so many years later, thirst almost takes her life. Excruciatingly more painful for her, however, is the looming death of her beloved son, whom she has hidden under the shade of a bush. Hagar weeps — and God acts, hearing the voice of the boy. (Genesis 21:17)

“Come, lift up your boy,” says God, “and I will make of him a great nation.” Thus was born a key building block of Islam, with God having heard a woman in distress and saving her child. 

Through God’s intervention, Genesis says that Hagar finds Ishmael a wife of Egyptian descent; Ishmael marries and produces twelve tribes (much like Isaac). Author Bruce Feiler says that Josephus first identified those tribes as Arab peoples, but it was not until the eighth century, through the efforts of the prophet Mohammed, that the Abraham-Hagar union became more influential. 

Consider this

Hagar is truly one of the overlooked and under-appreciated women of the Hebrew Bible. She is only one of three women with whom God dialogues. She names God and is the only person in the Hebrew Bible to do so. 

The dialogue between Hagar and God is a story of relationship and action. God finds Hagar when Sarah has banished her; Hagar does what God tells her to do; Hagar recognizes that she is in the presence of the divine and names God, and God who protects both mother and son. (Genesis 21:20-21)

A true survivor, Hagar’s story is a striking example of the line from the hymn Amazing Grace: “I once was lost but now am found.” She flees from abuse, comes to know God, obeys God’s word, gives birth, is banished, yet survives—and passes on her faith to her descendants. 

What might we learn from Hagar?

  • If we are lost, abused or abandoned, God will hear us when we call out. 
  • Sometimes we need to travel through the wilderness to reach home.
  • Ishmael was able to hunt so that he and his mother could survive. How do we prepare our children for a crisis and for self-sufficiency? How do we prepare ourselves?

For reflection

  1. How would it have felt to be Hagar, before, during and after her pregnancy with Ishmael? 
  1. God heard Hagar’s cries and acted, even though Hagar had not mentioned God’s name until that moment. What does that say about the presence of God?
  1. Consider the issue of slavery. What might we learn from Hagar’s story? Where and how does Hagar find redemption?
  1. How does one discern the best time to leave a painful situation? What part do faith and prayer play in that process? What if one is not able to leave the abuser? Where is God?


Much of the text here is adapted from Bible Women: All Their Words and Why They Matter. Author: Lindsay Hardin Freeman. Publisher: Forward Movement

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Give me that living water!

3 Lent, Year C Lindsay Hardin Freeman

Give me that living water!

From the Gospel of John, chapter 4: “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?”

And so says the Samaritan woman — a skeptical, assertive, and bright woman — who argues with Jesus as does no one else in the Bible. Authentic and brutally honest, she is both prosecutor and evangelist — a great attorney general, if you will. Her conversation with Jesus is long and deep and reveals two people that had much in common with each other.

Why does she matter? What might we learn from their conversation? As the world seeks to deal with wide-ranging and scary effects of the corona virus, how might she speak to us? At a time when many churches are shutting their doors, how does this moment in Scripture give us a clue about our next steps?

God has a sense of humor, for both Jesus and the Samaritan woman are models of self-quarantine and social distancing. Clearly they keep their distance from others. So we’ll start there.

She is there by the well outside the town of Sychar because she’s despised by her neighbors for the fact she’s had five husbands — and as Jesus points out, is living with a sixth man who is not her husband. Had she been liked by the girls and women of the town, she would have been at the central town well early in the morning, catching up, laughing, checking in. But we find her by herself, having walked to the well a half a mile outside the city at one of the hottest times of the day.

Why all the husbands? Most likely, she’s married five brothers in hopes of having a child, a common tradition back in those day to insure that once having married into a family, a woman was basically guaranteed the right to bear children. 

We’ll never know for sure, but it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that she is an outcast.

And Jesus? Clearly he’s hot and tired and perhaps sick of being around other people, because his disciples have gone off and left him alone. And he’s thirsty. 

When he sees her, he’s direct, abrupt. “Give me a drink.” 

Her answer is defensive at best.

“How is that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?

Not a normal conversion. Both are breaking rules: Jesus by talking to her, and the woman by challenging him. But they are not total strangers, at least biologically. Both Samaritans and Jews were children of Abraham. Both held Mosaic law in common. Both believed in the Torah, and knew their sacred history. 

Yet enmity abounded on both sides, with rancor and hatred present for centuries. In 720 BCE, when the Assyrians invaded the northern kingdom of Samaria, most of the Hebrew people were carried off to Media as slaves, and never returned to their home — i.e., the lost ten tribes of Israel. The few Hebrew people left behind married those of other races and belief systems. Racial purity was compromised and seen as a betrayal by those who had not married others. The Samaritans were seen as less than… less than Jewish… less than whole… less… less… less… 

And is why the woman challenged Jesus with those first words. “Why is that you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman for water?

The banter begins.

“Forget THAT water,” he says. “I’ll give you living water instead!”

“Sir, you don’t even have a bucket! Where do YOU get that living water? Sure give me some. I’ll never be thirsty again!” You can hear the sarcasm in her voice.

Ah, I love these two. She’s one of my favorite women in the Bible. No apologies for who she is. You can almost hear and see her say: “I am who I am who I am. Don’t give me trouble.” 

Back and forth, they go. Advantage: Samaritan woman. Advantage: Jesus. Deuce. And then advantage Jesus as he says: “Hey, go get your husband. Call him here.”

From her … maybe a little squeaky at that point,

“Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet.”

Hmmm… The veil is lifting. 

“I know that the Messiah is coming,” she finally says.

“I who speak to you am he.”

Game over! And as soon as she realizes it’s not a game, she throws down her water jug and runs to town to share the news, transformed, filled with passion, filled with joy. There’s more to the conversation, do read the whole encounter.


In these troubled days, what can we learn from this conversation?

First, truth matters. This woman wants answers and goes after them. She seeks the truth from Jesus and she does not back down. She is persistent, articulate. Given that this is the longest recorded conversation that anyone has with Jesus, it tells tells us that seeking the truth is not only our inviolable right, but it is an endeavor that God values deeply.

In this time of chaos and uncertainty, ask questions of the medical community, the government, the church. Keep the conversation going. Don’t settle for less than what you know is right. Be the one who does not sit back, who does not settle. This Gospel conversation affirms questioning, believes in truth-seeking.

Second, show up with God as you are, and God will be there. Authentic and cryptic, this woman does not put on airs. She brings who she is to the conversation with Jesus — and Jesus is there, in that space. We too are called to bring the whole of who we our to relationship with God. If we’re hurting or tired or bitter or cynical — that’s where God meets us. No airs, no defenses, no apologies. God wants no less and God will be there.

Third, do not underestimate the power of everyday routines. Jesus finds the woman as she comes to a task she has done hundreds, if not thousands, of times before. And he finds her because she has not given up. She is putting one foot in front of the other, doing the best she can. She’s hasn’t given into chaos or despair or worry, but by living her life and doing what she needs to stay alive, she is found by Jesus. Something about structure rings true here; something about how living into routines and discipline — even added discipline in this time of corona virus can show us the way to Christ.

Fourth, she shares the joy of her newfound faith. When she has that epiphany moment that she has indeed seen the Messiah, she throws down her water jug and runs back to town to share the news. She guesses correctly that the townspeople will not listen to her — in fact they tell her two days later that they don’t need her opinion. But she gets it and she tells why she knows. Verna Dozier once said, “Don’t tell what you know. Tell why you know.” And she did. Having been transformed by joy, having seen the Messiah, the Samaritan woman is on the move, sharing the good news. We too are called to be God’s messengers in this time, however we can. Perhaps it means praying for someone. Perhaps it means giving supplies out of our own kitchens. Perhaps it means staying in touch with homebound neighbors. We do that because of our faith, the joy of our faith.

Jesus was asking for more than a drink from the woman. He gave her a way to rise above the darkness and chaos in her life. He reached out a hand, affirmed her for who she was, and made the point that life is about more than survival. And she drew out the best from him. Without her tough questioning, he would not have proclaimed his identity as the Messiah.

I wish for all of us the joy that the Samaritan woman found, and the authenticity she brought to her encounter with Jesus. And I wish for all of us the knowledge that we are never alone — that we too find will find Jesus at our own wells, and drink of the living water he so faithfully offers. 



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Elizabeth: About time we gave her some credit

Today, June 24, is the day that we celebrate John the Baptist on our church calendar. But what about his mother, Elizabeth? A woman of joy and deep faith, she was instrumental in helping Mary through her fears — and she raised a great son. Time to give Elizabeth her due!

Who was Elizabeth?

  • A descendent of Aaron; daughter of a family of priests
  • Wife of Zechariah who was a member of the priestly order of Abijah
  • Past child bearing age and childless
  • Cousin of Mary, the mother of Jesus
  • Blessed by God in her old age with the birth of her son John the Baptist
  • The first to greet Mary as the mother of the Messiah
  • A woman of great faith

What did Elizabeth say?

“This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”

Luke 1:25

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Luke 1:42-45

But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” Luke 1:60

Elizabeth’s story

An older woman, Elizabeth is married to a priest named Zechariah. Their only regret is that they are childless. In those times, infertility was seen as the fault of the woman—and when there was a divine intervention, it was a clue that a child with a sacred purpose was to be born. 

Both Zechariah and Elizabeth are from the line of Aaron, the traditional order of priests within Israel. By lot, Zechariah is chosen one day for the high honor of burning incense at the altar in the temple at Jerusalem in preparation for the sacrifice of a spotless lamb on behalf of the nation. 

Luke does not say where Elizabeth is when Zechariah disappears into the inner sanctum. She may be in the Court of Women, praying. She might be at home making dinner, sewing vestments, or resting. Little does she, or anyone else, know that her husband is about to have the surprise of his life—for in that smoky space emerges God’s holy messenger, Gabriel.

Imagine the flourish, and Zechariah’s surprise, when Gabriel appeared. He most likely suspects that the form is a heavenly being, but knows no more.

The angel is blunt.

“Your wife will bear a child,” says Gabriel. 

Zechariah stands speechless. Such a thought has been his lifelong dream, but who is creature?

“His name will be John, and he will point his people to the Lord their God. You shall raise him as one set apart by God. He will be a holy man.

The priest does not believe what he is hearing, and had much the same reaction that Abraham did when God’s messengers said that Sarah would bear a child in her old age.

“I am an old man,” he protests, “and my wife is getting on in years!”

“Fine,” says Gabriel. “Don’t believe me. I’m making you mute until after the baby is born because of your unbelief. That way you won’t have any trouble keeping your thoughts to yourself.”

Despite being in God’s penalty zone, Zechariah is able to communicate to Elizabeth the good news: that they will be parents. Elizabeth, God bless her (and this is probably why God chose her), rejoices without question, in full trust.

Several months later, she hears a knock at her door: it is her cousin, young Mary of Nazareth, breathless because of the long trek. Fleeing from her home, she has gone “with haste” to see Elizabeth. Upon hearing Mary’s voice, baby John leaps in Elizabeth’s womb—and instantly Elizabeth understands. 

“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” cries Elizabeth. “And why has this happened, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”

Imagine Mary’s joy. Finally she is with someone who rejoices in her pregnancy and understands her pregnancy not as problematic, but as good, sacred, holy. So content is Mary that she recites the Magnificat, a glorious spoken hymn praising God. And then she stays with Elizabeth for three months, no doubt a time of both rejoicing and sharing for both mothers-to-be: one young, one old.

When John is eight days of age, his parents bring him to the temple for the traditional rite of circumcision. Those gathered round begin to name the child Zechariah, after his father. 

Elizabeth speaks up, saying: “No; he is to be called John.” But her word is not enough; they check with Zechariah, still mute. Grabbing for a tablet, he confirms her statement, writing, “His name is John.”

Later known as John the Baptist, their son would spend his adult life preparing the way for his cousin Jesus: baptizing, teaching and preaching. In his early ‘30s, he was beheaded for criticizing Herod. 

One hopes his mother and father had passed away by then.

Consider this

Imagine the surprise Elizabeth felt when she opened her door to find Mary on her doorstep. Unlike Sarah, who laughed skeptically when she was told she would bear a child in old age, Elizabeth rejoiced in the whole process: hearing the news, anticipating the birth, and sharing in Mary’s joy.

And imagine the thump in her stomach as baby John leaped in her womb upon hearing Mary’s voice. Called to prepare the way of Jesus, his work had already started.

Over thirty years later, Jesus would ask Simon Peter, “…who do you say that I am?” Peter would answer, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:15-16; Luke 9:20). The woman at the well would ask almost the same thing: “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” (John 4:29)

This, then, is the earliest confession in the New Testament—initiated by wee John and spoken by Elizabeth: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb…the mother of my Lord comes to me…!” 

We do not know anything of John’s childhood, other than he was raised a nazarite: one commissioned by God for a sacred role. But we do know this: his mother loved him dearly, and was delighted to be such a key part of God’s unfolding plan.

What might we learn from Elizabeth?

  • Calls to serve God can come at any age.
  • Patience can be rewarding; miracles can happen.
  • Virtues such as faith, joy and bravery can indeed be passed onto a child.
  • Joy is contagious.

For reflection

  1. Elizabeth had been waiting on God for most of her adult life, hoping to have a child. Such attentive waiting was perhaps one reason why God chose her to bear John. What other traits did she have that caused God to  call her, late in life, to the vocation of motherhood?
  1. Elizabeth and Mary were soul mates as well as cousins. Have you known such women in your life? What traits would you use to describe them?
  1. C.S.Lewis titled his autobiography, Surprised by Joy. What joys has God surprised you with in your life?
  1. Consider how you have been able to let go of your children, or other loved ones, into God’s hands when the time is right. What has God done with their lives that you might not have envisioned?

Photo credit: Scott Gunn

Copy from Bible Women: All Their Words and Why They Matter, published by Forward Movement

#Forward Movement, #Elizabeth, #Christian Century, #New Testament Women, #RevGalPalsBlog

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Lydia: A woman of purple

Lydia’s story

Lydia’s biblical story begins near water, where she has gone to pray. A merchant with a flourishing business in purple cloth, she greets women friends on the riverbank outside the little town of Philippi. From there (now modern-day Greece), she keeps up with personal relationships and hears news from travelers near and far.

She is peaceful yet attentive, good traits for a successful merchant, for she has learned to quickly assess potential buyers and suppliers.

In business, one must make quick judgments, synthesizing information. Is this man an honest supplier? Can I trust him? Does this woman have the money to pay me for what she is ordering? Why does that man have shifty eyes? That woman wonders if I need an associate. I do, but is she a hard worker? Wait, look at the stitches in her veil: painstakingly minute. She cares about details; she’ll be fine.

And indeed, Lydia’s instincts are on high alert this morning, for the women are soon approached by a man named Paul and his friends. Genuine and educated both in the ways of Rome and Jerusalem, he tells her how he once persecuted Christians to the death, was transformed by seeing Jesus in a vision, came to know Jesus as the fulfillment of the ancient scriptures, and now works as a missionary, building communities of faith in Jesus’ name. Communities of faith that reach out…that speak of eternal life…of purpose…of God.

Heart and mind tug at Lydia. There is something so real about him, about what he is saying. He speaks the truth. He knows God. I can see it in his face, in his eyes. This Jesus of which he speaks…he loves me? He knows me? He was there when I was made? He was there at creation?

Within hours, Lydia is the first convert to Christianity on European soil. Baptized at the river with her household, (perhaps she went back to get them; perhaps they had walked with her to the river) she invites Paul and his friends to stay with her while they are in Philippi—making her home one of the first faith communities on distant shores.

Her commitment to her new friends would soon be tested—for shortly, Paul and Silas would be arrested, imprisoned, survive an earthquake in jail, maintain their faith by singing and praying, convert the jailer and his family—and happily head back to Lydia’s home, dusty, bruised, starving and exhausted.

Consider this

Lydia seems to be a fairly problem-free kind of woman. No demons, no physical issues, no poverty. She runs a prosperous business, she is able to make quick decisions (she heard Paul preach and was baptized the same day), she is well-respected around the region, and she is quick to open her home and purse for the work of God’s people.

She gives Paul a heart to trust within the faith community at Philippi—the recipient of one of Paul’s most beautiful letters, still read regularly in congregations today. In that letter, he says that the Philippians were the only ones who gave him “financial help when he brought the good news and then traveled on…”

What might we learn from Lydia?

  • Heart, mind, intellect and soul—all are worthy and necessary in a life of faith.
  • Sharing our talents, time and treasure can change the world. 
  • Setting aside time for prayer and spiritual companionship opens doors for the Holy Spirit to find us.

For reflection

  1. What about Lydia was so helpful to the emerging faith community? What happened first with her that made all the difference?
  1. How would you compare your stewardship of time, talent and treasure to hers? Why would it have not been a good idea for her to go on the road? What could she accomplish in Philippi that she couldn’t elsewhere? 
  1. Lydia was responsible for helping God’s mission to be successful in the world. Often times, we think of mission as specific projects to be accomplished in distant places. How did she see it and how do you see it? 
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Vashti, Esther and Dr. Ford

Hildegard of Bingen once said, “Secrets make us sick.” For that reason, I’m glad that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford is speaking publicly. No longer will she hold in what she remembers as a terrifying incident.

This Sunday, Esther’s story will be read aloud in churches across the country (Track #1 in the lectionary). It is an important story, and Esther ranks fourth on the list of most words spoken by women in the Bible. But given this moment in history, it is Vashti, Esther’s predecessor, who intrigues me.

Her story, found in Chapter 1 of the Book of Esther, goes like this:

Vashti, the first wife of King Ahasuerus of Persia, is suddenly outsted from her post as queen for not obeying the king’s orders to “show the peoples and the officials her beauty” during a celebration to commemorate “the great wealth of his kingdom.” Although we don’t know exactly why she objected, here are some good reasons:

  • She was tired of entertaining, as the party was at the end of 187 days of feasting;
  • The king’s eunuchs arrived to “collect” her, probably somewhat undiplomatically;
  • The king was drunk (the Bible says, “merry with wine”) and;
  • Ahasuerus’ order for her to wear her crown apparently  made her wonder if that was all she would be wearing.

Her refusal to answer Ahasuerus’ command humiliates the king in front of his subordinates, causing him to send word throughout the country that such behavior will not be tolerated. Every man, says he, should be master in his own house! Vashti disappears, never to be heard from again. We don’t know what happened to her.

And that is where Esther comes into the picture. Plucked out of the countryside to join Ahasuerus’ harem, she so “pleased” him that she was named Queen of Persia, eventually saving the Jewish community from annihilation.

It is possible, although not documented, that Vashti was killed. We will never know. But we do know this: she stood up for herself, refusing to parade before dozens, if not hundreds, of drunken men. She had had enough.

Similiarly, we do not know all the details of Dr. Ford’s story. For that matter, neither does she. But after keeping her story largely to herself for years, I believe her soul is healthier for the telling of her story–and I pray our collective soul as a people is healthier because of her courage.

Secrets make us sick. And that is why generation after generation of brave women have gone before us in Judeo-Christian history, telling their stories–and often putting themselves in harm’s way as a result.

We cannot control the outcome. But we can, like our spiritual grandmothers in the Bible, must work toward the restoration of our souls–and that of our culture’s soul as well.


Thanks to Dana Wirth Sparks!

#Vashti, #Esther, #Dr. Ford, #Christine Blasey Ford, #Christian Century, #BibleGateway, #ENS, #Forward Movement,

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Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman: Strength from each other

From a sermon preached at St. Nick’s, Richfield September 9, 2018

Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman: Strength from each other

Our Gospel story for today is one of the most controversial in the New Testament. I love this story, because we get to see two things: a determined, outspoken, quick-witted woman, one of only 18 whose words are recorded in the New Testament — and we get to see Jesus in a whole new light.

We don’t know her name. But she’s referred throughout history as the Syrophoenician woman and the Canaanite woman. Specifically, she’s a Phoenician from Syria, thus the word Syrophoenician. The story we hear today is from Mark 7:24-30; it is also described in Matthew 15:21-18. 

As we hear in Mark, Jesus is traveling through Gentile territory—away from familiar Jewish lands where he grew up. For unknown reasons, he goes into a house and “does not want anyone to know he is there.” But a mother, with a daughter whose body housed “an unclean spirit,” hears he is there and immediately finds her way to his side.

Already she has several strikes against her:  

-She’s an outsider, not of the Jewish faith. 

-She has barged into a private home. 

-She’s loud. 

-And she’s a woman without a male escort speaking to a rabbi!

In the eyes of the disciples—and apparently Jesus — she’s trouble — and not wanted.

But “Son of David, have mercy on me!” she cries. “My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” Or as the King James Bible says: “Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou Son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil!” (Nothing like the King James to really paint the picture.)

Today we would most likely understand her to be saying that the girl was suffering from mental illness or some physically visible illness, such as cerebral palsy or multiple daily seizures. Perhaps she was depressed, suicidal. Or bipolar. Or paranoid schizophrenic. Or some combination of those things.

You would think Jesus would want to heal the girl. Sure, no problem. Thanks for your faith. Done. Anything else?

But no.

Jesus is really cranky. In a response that has divided scholars for centuries, he refuses her request and coldly responds: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

Translation: You’re in the wrong camp. My ministry is not to you; only the house of David gets my benefits.

But she is desperate… this is her daughter we’re talking about… and so she begs… “Lord, help me….. I know you can heal her. Help!” 

And then Jesus says one of the strangest phrases of his ministry: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

Really? Dogs?! As a friend of mine said, “I thought Jesus reached out to everyone; that was his deal, wasn’t it?”

Not here apparently. The woman bravely answers him: “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

Dogs. You may remember this phrase that worked itself into our previous Books of Common Prayer: “We are not so worthy as to pick up crumbs under thy table, but your property, Lord, is always to have mercy…”

And Jesus has mercy. “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” She goes home and finds her daughter lying on her bed, free of the demon.

Some say that Jesus was only testing the woman. Others say that the term for dogs was an affectionate term and used widely. 

Here’s my call: Jesus was rude, at least initially. Fully divine and fully human, here we see his rather cranky human side: limited, exhausted, wanting to be left alone. He’s tired, probably from sleeping outside and no doubt grieving the recent death of his friend and cousin, John the Baptist. 

Actually, I like that. He’s divine AND human and we often underrate the human side. How many of us get tired of people sometimes and just want to be left alone?

I believe that the woman lent a hand to Jesus in his spiritual journey — by drawing on his great gifts as a healer, and by giving him an opportunity to draw the world closer to him. 

When Jesus was rude, she did not back down. When he refused her verbally, she did not flee. Like a judo player who uses the energy of his or her opponents to direct the opponent’s flight path, she engaged Jesus, using the words he had already used, specifically the word dog. She could have gotten insulted. But she knew what she wanted and went after it.

Surely this woman bared her heart. But she wasn’t the only one with a bared heart that day. She helped Jesus be more of who he was, and not less. I am willing to bet that he wasn’t as tired after this encounter as he was when he entered that house, not wanting to be seen. She helped him fulfill his ministry by believing in him, by knowing that he could heal, by seeking him out to do what he was called to do. In sharing her greatest desire — that her daughter be healthy — she touched his heart, helping him to be more of who he was, instead of less. 

As a result, his energy level changed. The very next story in the Gospel  is one of quick response: Jesus is presented with a deaf man who has a speech impediment and immediately responds to his desire to be healed — by putting his fingers into the deaf man’s ears and then spitting and touching the man’s tongue.

I believe that the Syrophoenician woman lent a hand to Jesus in his own spiritual journey — by drawing on his great gifts as a healer, and thus helping him to further his ministry and mission.

It’s all too easy in this world to hold back, to reject, to step back from what WE are capable of …from our ministries and mission….  because we are tired, because we are weary, because there is some excuse for us to NOT help some “other…”

There’s a poem by John O’Donohue that captures for me what happened that day…first with the woman, then with Jesus: 

May I have the courage today

To live the life that I would love,

To postpone my dream no longer

But do at last what I came here for

And waste my heart on fear no more.

May we all rise to the occasions God opens for us… and waste our hearts on fear, no more.

God Bless you. Amen

Lindsay Hardin Freeman


Posted in @Bible Gateway, #RallyRevGals, Bible Women Tagged with: ,

Mary Magdalene: Peering into the darkness

Peering into the darkness. Talking about it. It’s what women do. And at this time in history, when women are looking squarely into the darkness of sexual misconduct, rape, and gun violence, we in the religious life delve deep into the story of women who peered into the darkness, found their souls transformed, and changed history.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, saw her son brutalized, tortured and killed, yet kept her faith. Mary of Bethany knew that Jesus would soon be killed, but managed to anoint him and give him strength to walk to the cross. And grief-stricken Mary Magdalene stumbled her way to the tomb, hoping to give some final grace to the torn body of her most cherished friend.

In John’s Gospel, the fullest account of that Easter morning, Mary Magdalene goes with her women friends to the tomb. They find the stone rolled away. Stooping down, she peers into the darkness, enters it, finds Jesus’ body missing, and runs to tell Peter. He and John, Jesus’ closest disciples, run to the tomb, find it empty, and go home, dejected. Weeping, Mary Magdalene stays. Apparently alone at that point, she is the first person to see the resurrected Jesus. “I have seen the Lord!” she reports. “I have seen the Lord!”

In a question central to the Christian faith, but rarely asked: What would have happened if she had given up? Cried and gone home? Who would have been there to meet Jesus, to tell the story of resurrection and love?

Like Eve, the first woman in the Bible, Mary Magdalene was a game changer. And also like Eve, she has faced significant degradation through centuries. Mary Magdalene is often described as a prostitute, although there is no biblical reference to that common portrayal. Rather, she was healed by Jesus of “seven demons.” In biblical terms, such demon possession indicated a physical or emotional disability, probably both. She could have been schizophrenic. She could have had leprosy or epilepsy. At the least, she probably suffered from depression and anxiety.

Jesus was the healer and friend that did not let her down. And after having been healed, she became a leader among the women who followed him. One senses deep authenticity about her, a sturdy presence. No wonder it was Mary Magdalene that stayed at the tomb when the others had melted into the background; she would do what needed to be done. Having lived through darkness herself, she had the courage to show up, to stand in silence, to weep—and then to share what she had seen, calling others to participate as well. Like the women who call for societal change today, she appealed in every instance to the powers that be: and back then, it was the male disciples.

The women who surrounded Jesus in both life and death had the courage and resilience to confront the hard realities of a world who executed their leader. Our world only gets better when we do not run away from hard truths—and that is an integral part of the Easter message for this and every year. Cute bunnies and chocolate Easter eggs are only symbols, never the point. Like Mary Magdalene, transformation comes by looking into the darkness and finding—or more accurately—being found by the light.


The Rev. Lindsay Hardin Freeman is an Episcopal priest and a writer, specializing in matters of faith and women of the Bible. The author of Bible Women: All Their Words and Why They Matter, she serves St. Nicholas Episcopal Church in Richfield.

Artwork: Karen N. Canton from The Scarlet Cord: Conversations with God’s Chosen Women



Posted in @Bible Gateway, #RallyRevGals, ChristianCentury, New Testament Women Tagged with: , , , , ,
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