Sunday, May 8, 2016

Faith Mothers and Lady Preachers (2 Timothy 1:1-5, Acts 2:16-17)

From Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by God’s will, to promote the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus.

To Timothy, my dear child.

Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.

I’m grateful to God, whom I serve with a good conscience as my ancestors did. I constantly remember you in my prayers day and night. When I remember your tears, I long to see you so that I can be filled with happiness. I’m reminded of your authentic faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice. I’m sure that this faith is also inside you.

This is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
    Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
    Your young will see visions.
    Your elders will dream dreams.

Mother's Day is a tricky day for the church to navigate. While it’s a day of celebrating for many, it is not a picture-perfect Hallmark for many others.  For a wide variety of reasons, Mother’s Day can be a painful and difficult day.  Every year, I make an intentional decision that we will not recognize today in a way that adds insult to injury to those for whom today is hard.

In worship, we celebrate who God is, what God is up to in the world, and the various ways God invites us to participate in that good work.  And so today, we glorify God by lifting up the leadership women have given our Faith since the time of Jesus.  I’m grateful for Faith Mothers and Lady Preachers, for God’s Spirit poured upon both our sons and our daughters, and to be part of a faith tradition that celebrates this reality.  May we pray. 

Anybody have an idea how many women are mentioned in the Bible?  188 women are mentioned by name through the Old and New Testaments, and the stories of countless other women whose names we don’t know are also told.

The first woman mentioned, of course, is Eve, in the creation story that includes Adam and Eve.  God creates humankind in God’s own image – male and female, God created us, and we see that God’s intent for the relationship between men and women was one of partnership and equality.  How do we know?  The story tells us that God created the woman from the man’s rib.  That’s important.  If God had intended the man to rule over the woman, then he would have created the woman out of the man’s feet, so he would trample over her.  If God had intended the woman to rule over the man, he would have created the woman out of the man’s head.  But God created the woman from the man’s rib, right at his side, and made us as equal co-stewards over the earth – it wasn’t until after the fall that Eve’s equal role was diminished.

The Bible shows us women operating in somewhat expected roles: nurturing roles, hospitality roles, mothering roles.  But, the Bible also gives us stories of women leading armies into battle, and women serving as judges over the people.  I love the story of Jael – who led the Israelites to victory over the Canaanites after killing their captain in his tent.  While he was sleeping, she drove a tent peg through the side of his head.  I love the Bible!  You can’t make this stuff up!

Over the centuries, women were subjugated more and more, and by the time of Jesus, were treated as little more than property.  And so Jesus did something quite radical for his day, he treated women like people rather than property.  In a time when they were intentionally uneducated, Jesus taught women about the kingdom of God.  When only men studied with a rabbi, Jesus invited women to be his disciples, and Jesus commissioned a woman to preach the most important sermon of all time: on Easter Sunday morning, Mary Magdelene proclaimed, “He is risen,” and her message continues to be central to our faith.

Women were leaders in the early church.  St. Paul, the prolific writer of much of the New Testament, included greetings to women as leaders in his letters to the churches.  He supports women praying and prophesying in the public service of the church (Acts 21:9, 1 Corinthians 11:5).  Phoebe is greeted as a pastor, Junia’s name is listed as an apostle, and Paul continually gives thanks for women he considers “co-laborers in the Gospel.”  Co-laborers, not subordinates. Equal.

It happens, sometimes, that someone from another faith tradition wants to take issue with me on that.  They advance a theological view called “complementarianism,” basically meaning men and women have different roles that complement one another, which is just an institutional and theological way to enshrine a male-dominated patriarchy.  This person will typically quote 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 at me, which says:

34 The women should be quiet during the meeting. They are not allowed to talk. Instead, they need to get under control, just as the Law says. 35 If they want to learn something, they should ask their husbands at home. It is disgraceful for a woman to talk during the meeting.

Then, they quickly turn to 1 Timothy 2:11-12: “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. I do not permit a woman to teach, nor to have authority over the man, but to be in silence.”

These Scriptures are pulled out as “clobber passages,” because they function as a sort of blunt tool to beat down an opposing view.  The person usually becomes very confused when I start to explain that the way they are reading the Bible is called proof texting.  A proof text is when you isolate a verse or two from its context, and lift it out to prove a point.  When people do this, usually the only thing they’ve proved to me is their own ignorance, and I don’t usually argue with them, because while you can always tell a fundamentalist, you can’t tell them much.

But I know, even in churches that teach “women ought to be silent in the church” don’t actually practice it.  You mean to tell me women don’t teach Sunday School or Bible study or sing in the choir or talk in the foyer?  At my last church, Clara Hedberg talked through the sermon every week; I would have LOVED for that woman to keep silent in the church!  I didn’t have a problem with women, generally, speaking in church, I had a problem with one particular woman whose mouth ran constantly, yet to whom no had ever turned around and said, “Shhhhh.”

That’s what Paul was getting at.  In one church, a particular group of women were wailing and carrying on to the point of distracting the rest of the worshipers, others who were interrupting the teaching of the apostles with Q and A while they were trying to teach, and to these specific women, Paul said, “Be quiet in the church.”

Reading the letters that comprise the majority of the New Testament are like reading someone else’s mail.  These are very specific instructions to a specific group of women in a specific church.  “The problem with taking these texts as commands for all churches for all time is that they don’t harmonize with the hundreds of other biblical examples of women prophesying and leading the church. In the majority of cases, women had positions of prominence. Lydia was a church leader in Philipi, Priscilla led three churches in Rome, Corinth and Ephesus as well as discipling Apollos.” (James Watkins)

Friends, we can’t build an entire ethic around a few proof texts.  Dr. David Thompson of Asbury Seminary asks, “Do we read the entire Bible in light of these two problematic texts, or do we read these two texts in light of the rest of the Bible?”

Women continued to hold leadership positions in the early church for several centuries.  It wasn’t until the year 494 A.D. that Pope Gelasius declared that women could no longer serve as priests in the church.  That means they had been serving as priests up until then.  For nearly the first 500 years of Christianity, women had been in leadership in the church.  That church leadership became a boys’ club and stayed that way for over a thousand years had more to with Roman cultural norms than with anything in the teachings of Jesus or the experience of the Holy Spirit in the early church.

Susannah Wesley
During the 1700s, John Wesley relied on the gifts of women in the early days of the Methodist movement, in large part, because of the strong, faithful women in his own life, including his own mother, Susannah, and his older sisters.  We got away from that for awhile, but thank God, there was an important anniversary celebrated this week among the people called Methodists.  This past Wednesday, May 4, we celebrated the 60th anniversary of granting full clergy rights to women in the Methodist Church.  I am grateful to be part of a faith tradition that celebrates and affirms God’s call upon the lives of both men and women into the ordained ministry.

The Scriptures witness, and our experience confirms the reality that God’s Spirit is poured upon all people – old and young, men and women.  God’s Spirit is poured out, and God’s people prophesy – they lead, they teach, they preach, they use their Spirit-given gifts for God’s glory in the world.

The Bible only lists one sin as unforgiveable, and that’s blaspheming or grieving the Holy Spirit.  If God’s Spirit has been poured out on someone, be they a son or a daughter, and we reject that person using what God has given them, that’s called denying, blaspheming, grieving the Holy Spirit.

I continue to grieve with and for friends who are not welcomed into their ministry settings simply because they are women.  Three years ago, our friend, Dana, was appointed to Bethel United Methodist Church in Oak Ridge, and on her first Sunday, was invited to sit in with one of the adult Sunday School classes, who demanded to know why she, as a woman, was qualified to be a pastor.  She stayed one year.

Last year, another friend, Katie, was appointed to a church where she was told, “You’re the second Lady Preacher we’ve had in a row; you just don’t understand how difficult that is for us to have two back-to-back.”  Never mind that under the leadership of the previous pastor, this church had 31 professions-of-faith out in the middle of nowhere.  31 people who did not previously know Jesus came to know him, the church grew, they paid off debt, heaven forbid they have to go through something like that again!  Katie stayed one year.

It's one of the concerns we had before Ashley arrived at Stokesdale - every move brings a series of unknowns, and one of the things we wondered about was whether or not people would give her problems simply because she was a woman.  As you can see from the previous examples, it still happens today.  Thankfully, they had no issue.  They didn't balk at her being a woman, or part of a clergy couple, or young.  They called her "Pastor" from the moment she arrived, and there are now 50 or so men the age of our fathers or grandfathers who love her dearly and will follow her leadership anywhere.  With those guys around, God help anyone who ever tries to give her trouble!

Our bishop tells us every year that he receives letters and phone calls from local churches who say, “We’re just not ready for a woman pastor, yet.”  To those who would say that to me, I’d say, “You’ve had 60 years to get ready.  It’s time.”  Or, in my more diplomatic moments, I’d invite them to enroll in my bridge-building course, in which I teach participants how to build a bridge so they can get the hell over it.

Or, sometimes, I’ll simply ask, “Then why do you continue to attend a United Methodist Church?  We recognize, as the prophet Joel foresaw, that the Holy Spirit would be poured out on all people – young and old, men and women, and as such, they would prophesy, teach and lead.  We’re into that here, and if you’re not, this may not be the church for you."

The problem is not strong and gifted and Spirit-filled women in the church.  Rather, the problem is weak men who are threatened by strong women, and have tried various means, even dubious biblical interpretation, to keep them from exercising their gifts. (Ben Witherington)

I'm proud to part of a church that celebrates and lifts up the leadership of both men and women.  Especially for your daughters or granddaughters, it's important to me that they grow up in a church where they can do and be anything God calls them to.

Friends, may we never deny or reject what God is doing, simply because of who God is doing it through.  May we not grieve the Holy Spirit by denying the gifts of those upon whom the Spirit is poured, be they sons, or be they daughters.

Today, I’m grateful for Faith Mothers and Lady Preachers.

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