The Common Good
March 2007

The Shelter of God

by Malinda Elizabeth Berry | March 2007

Reflections on the Revised Lectionary, Cycle C

In the United States, March is dedicated to preserving and raising awareness of women's history—or "herstory." This celebration dates back to the early 20th century, when socialists declared March 8 to be International Women's Day. Connected to labor rights activity throughout the world in its early decades, IWD has become much like Mother's Day in some places and stays closely linked to its activist roots in other contexts.

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But what does this have to do with Lent? Lent is the season in which we are invited to follow Jesus into the wilderness. Taking that path helps us see with clarity what we need to survive and thrive. The weeks of Lenten wandering "are a time for probing consideration of our human condition," Laurence Stookey observes in Calendar: Christ's Time for the Church. The life stories of women have the power to teach us important lessons about the human condition.

In Sacred Journeys: A Woman's Book of Daily Prayer, Jan Richardson brings into focus the stories of biblical and contemporary women. "In this season of reflection and repentance, we remember women whose dreams, hopes, and in many cases, lives were offered by others as unholy sacrifices toward their own ends." She continues, "In these stories we encounter women whom history has dis-membered more often than re-membered." This month gives us the opportunity to "heal our memories" by honoring women's prophetic voices through re-membering. It's like Ezekiel's vision of the dry bones; by retelling our herstory we are giving new life to wise ones who help us understand what it means to follow Jesus in this time and place.

Malinda Elizabeth Berry is a dissertation fellow at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana.

 



March 4
Shelter for All
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35

In the gospel reading, Jesus laments the emotional state of affairs in Jerusalem: "How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!" (Luke 13:34). All too often we resist the utopian vision of unity—it is simply unrealistic to cultivate sustainable common ground amid global diversity. On the other hand, we cannot survive if we ensconce ourselves on our own little islands. The question, then, is how we build community that gives us healthy amounts of space and intimate connections that give us the shelter Jesus describes. As I consider this question in my own life, I think of women who have understood the relationship between public and private spheres, women such as Shirley Chisholm.

There has been a rebirth of interest in Chisholm since her death in January 2005, just before the premier of Shola Lynch's documentary about Chisholm's presidential candidacy: Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed. In 1964, she began her political career as a member of the New York State Assembly. Four years later, she represented New York's 12th district in Congress. Writing in her 1970 autobiography, Chisholm observed, "In the 91st Congress [1969], I am a sponsor of the perennial Equal Rights Amendment, which has been before every Congress for the last 40 years but has never passed the House. It would outlaw any discrimination on the basis of sex. Men and women would be completely equal before the law. But laws will not solve deep-seated problems overnight. Their use is to provide shelter for those who are most abused, and to begin an evolutionary process by compelling the insensitive majority to re-examine its unconscious attitudes."

I am drawn to her vision, which I find echoes Jesus' desire for Jerusalem. Gathering the marginalized, the dispossessed, the rich, the powerful, women, and men as one human family requires legislation and compassion. Chisholm is right—what doesn't need shelter is discrimination and bigotry; what does is the human soul.

 

March 11
Death by Chocolate
Isaiah 55:1-9; Psalm 63:1-8; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9

Food is a theme that links this week's readings, whether it's the bread, wine, and milk of Isaiah, the psalmist's rich feast, or Jesus' parable of the fig tree. Growing, harvesting, preparing, and serving food—it's all here. When we think of feasting, many of us probably remember a particularly fine Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Easter dinner prepared by grandmothers or other female relatives. And yet, professionally speaking, most chefs are men, a fact that women chefs and restaurateurs, among other industry professionals, are trying to change. But let us consider a cinematic female chef during Lent.

Chocolat is a film whose plot centers around Vianne Rocher and her daughter, who live among Christians who prioritize perfection without realizing the blessings their exclusivity causes them to forfeit. The story takes place during Lent, with Vianne opening her tempting chocolaterie just as the Lenten fast begins. As events unfold, Vianne becomes a christological figure, delivering people from hardheartedness, misguided piety, and self-deception into joy and abundance.

In the end, the town priest supports Vianne: "I think we can't go around measuring our goodness by what we don't do—by what we deny ourselves, what we resist, and who we exclude," he declares in his Easter sermon. "I think we've got to measure goodness by what we embrace, what we create, and who we include."

As Christians we strive to bear good fruit and extend hospitality to others. How do we balance abundance with the moderation Paul is calling for?

March 18
Rivalry and Loyalty
Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Jesus' parable in Luke about the two brothers whose father gives them their inheritance early is a tradi-

tional Lenten text. In a seasonal context, this parable is about God's extravagant grace in the face of our extravagant foolishness. But I can't think of the prodigal son without thinking of "Prodigal Daughter," a song by Michelle Shocked.

Shocked's song plays with the meaning and traditional interpretation of Jesus' parable by pointing out that we don't usually wonder what happens when a daughter leaves home. In the lyrics, the daughter is also welcomed home, but that parental welcome is far more complicated than it was for her male counterpart: "When a girl goes home with the oats she's sown /It's draw your shades and your shutters /She's bringing such shame to the family name /The return of the prodigal daughter."

By introducing gender difference into the equation, Shocked's song makes me wonder about the other characters in the parable. The younger brother knows he's made some bad choices, yet the father is willing to overlook those mistakes.

Yes, we celebrate God's forgiveness, but we also struggle with all kinds of relational rivalries. Yes, God's grace is a real place of shelter. But sometimes it takes "tough love" and setting boundaries for community to be healthy. Sometimes it takes unfriendly confrontation to understand the connection between compassion and justice.

Is it a moral failing that the older son resents his father's decision? How does the father satisfy one son's need for forgiveness and one son's need for fairness? What does this parable teach us about grace and personal responsibility?

March 25
Holy Habitation
Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8

In the context of the master narrative of the four Christian gospels, this week's reading from John puts Jesus and the disciples within six days of Passover. Thick with foreshadowing, Mary's intimate gesture and Judas' flaring temper (John 12:3-6) are examples of the way rivalry plays itself out in small communities. It's almost impossible to really know what is at the root of relationship dynamics because dynamics are, by definition, always changing. Moreover, we have little insight about Judas and Mary's relationship—all we know is that he disapproves of her decision to honor Jesus with an extravagant gift.

Mary combines grief and hope with her act of service and friendship. The community has to accept the inevitable, but that does not mean leaving Jesus by himself to suffer alone. Mary is paying attention.

In this way, Mary reminds me of Rachel Carson. As a biologist and environmental activist, Carson spoke prophetically about the ecological crisis that we can no longer deny. In a 1963 radio interview she observed that "we still talk in terms of conquest. We still haven't become mature enough to think of ourselves as only a tiny part of a vast and incredible universe."

I think this is what Jesus was trying to get Judas to realize. There are times when we have to look beyond being right or morally superior in order to really live into our conviction that God is the world's creator.

As we mature and focus our gaze on the whole instead of just our piece, perhaps we will also begin to perceive the new thing that God is doing: transforming our internal and external wildernesses into a holy habitation. But we cannot be passive participants in this project.

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