As a young woman and mother I was careful to raise my son to be both nurturing and adventurous. He got dolls as well as trucks. He wore the rainbow of colours, not just ‘boys’ colours. His father shared equally in household chores and childcare. This was the mid-seventies; the woman’s movement had inspired me to dream of equality between the sexes.
Then came his first day of school… I waited in the schoolyard till the bell rang and the teacher came outside… the teacher who called out, “Okay primary children, line up in two lines, boys over here… girls over here…” With her first sentence, she demonstrated that gender norms and expectations were going to play a role in her classroom. Don’t misunderstand me, she was a great teacher, Mathew loved her, and of course gender norms and expectations play a role in all of our lives. Just as they did in Jesus’ time, in the early church and in the current church.
Gender norms and expectations prevented me from recognizing a call from God into ministry. I had never seen a woman minister, and while I had never been told that women couldn’t be ministers, by never seeing one, and I lived in a multitude of communities growing up, I had absorbed the idea that it was not possible. Now of course, in the United Church, we have just about as many women in ministry than men and women may even be in the majority in the coming years.
Today we heard stories of women in leadership in the early church. Phoebe, Junia, Prisca, Mary, Aquila and Lydia. Phoebe is a deacon in one of the early church. A house church… as church was in the first few centuries. She is recommended by Paul. He is writing to the church in Rome, recommending her and commending her for her service to the church.
And in Acts we hear a story of Paul’s encounter with Lydia. Lindsay Hardin Freeman, in her book Bible Women, gives Lydia the following characteristics: enterprising, compelling, faithful, hospitable, generous, evangelistic. Lydia, a business woman in her own right… who is the first convert in her town… and upon hearing Paul’s testimony, brings her entire family to be baptized. And part of the story that we didn’t read today is Paul being imprisoned and Lydia welcoming him back into her home after that.
Brave, compassionate, generous. You’d think a woman like that would have any number of churches named after her. But very few United Churches are named after women. There are lots of women that could be named.
In Brooklyn, NY, there is a church that was formed a couple of years ago and it’s called St. Lydia’s. It’s a Dinner Church, they come together on Sunday evening, prepare a simple meal together, worship around tables, with sermon, singing and prayers. They discuss the sermon and then clean up together. They have just launched Waffle Church on Sunday mornings as well as a couple of others, less centred on food. Doesn’t that sound wonderful? Two of my favourite things: church and cooking! They started out as a house church… but have since moved into storefront space that doubles as workshare space during the day. Workshare is where people who need a quiet place to work can come, connect to the internet, get coffee, use the photocopier, etc. They pay a fee for the day. St. Lydia’s is not a fringe church, they are connected with the Lutheran church. Living out hospitality, generosity and compassion.
Here is another story about women’s leadership in the church…
This time a story about three Roman Catholic women who are ordained. Their stories of call into ministry resonated with my story. They have each been ordained by someone who has since been excommunicated for ordaining them. Even those priests in the RC church who are supportive of women’s ordination are leery of expressing that support because of sanctions against them. I can’t imagine not being allowed to respond to God’s call on my life… I can’t imagine not being a minister… All of these women have been excommunicated. They are excluded from worship with Catholics in good standing. It’s a punishment so extreme that it was deemed too harsh for the dozens of Minnesota priests who have been credibly accused by their own archdiocese of sexually abusing children. It’s also deemed too harsh of a punishment for murderers. They can no longer go to confession, receive the eucharist or be buried in sacred ground. When pressed about why they didn’t leave the Catholic Church and become Anglican priests, the women have a matter-of-fact answer: Why didn’t Rosa Parks just take a cab instead of going to jail for refusing to move to the back of the bus? Why didn’t the four students leave the Woolworth’s lunch counter in 1960, when surely there was a more welcoming lunch counter nearby? You grow where you’re planted. Why should I be pushed out because of the sin of sexism?”
I met a RC sister at Tatamagouche Centre a couple of when I started the program in Spiritual Direction that I am just about finished. She and I clicked immediately as you sometimes to with certain people… she was unlike any concept of a nun I ever had. Blew ALL of my misconceptions right out of the water. Perhaps somewhat the way I blow misconceptions of women in ministry out of the water to those who have never encountered a woman minister. At the end of the week, I had to ask her why she stayed in the RC church. She said that she wanted to work from the inside for change… that she wasn’t going to allow herself to be pushed out of her denomination.
So, what does all of that have to do with us today? Our children and grandchildren absorb messages about the right place for girls and women from all sorts of places. From home, from school, from the media, from friends… and of course, from church. And don’t’ forget, it’s not just girls that absorb these messages, but boys as well. Obviously, if they have attended St. Paul’s over the last 7 years, they will know that a woman minister is quite normal. All of us, boys, girls, women, men need to hear biblical stories of women who are leaders. If we honor the God given gifts of all of God’s people, we need to ensure that we don’t limit people’s imaginations of what is possible. If we want our children, and grandchildren and the children down the street to flourish and grow, we must not place limits on their participation in the world based on their gender. And if we want our children to follow God’s call on their lives, we must continually be alert to those things that would inhibit that.
Thanks be to God for the challenge and the opportunity, amen.
Romans 16: 1-7
July 12, 2015
St. Paul’s Spryfield
© Catherine MacDonald 2015