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 late 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, even as they have become much more fluid.
Gender norms played out in the early church and in the current church; they played out in Jesus time and they play out in our time. As you heard from me last week, 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. Listen to stories of women in leadership in the early church. The first one is from Romans 16:
16 I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. 2 I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me. Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus. 4 They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them. 5 Greet also the church that meets at their house. Greet my dear friend Epenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in the province of Asia. 6 Greet Mary, who worked very hard for you. 7 Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among[d] the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.
Phoebe, Priscilla, Mary, and Junia. 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:
11 From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day we went on to Neapolis. 12 From there we traveled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district[a] of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days. 13 On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there.
14 One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. 15 When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us.
Lindsay Hardin Freeman, in her book Bible Women, gives Lydia the following characteristics: enterprising, compelling, faithful, hospitable, generous, evangelistic.
Lydia, a businesswoman 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, I named just a few earlier: Phoebe, Priscilla, Mary, and Junia.
In Brooklyn, NY, there is a church that was formed in 2008 and it’s called St. Lydia’s.
It’s a Dinner Church, they come together on Sunday evenings, prepare a simple meal together, worship around tables, with sermon, singing and prayers. They discuss the sermon and then clean up together. They also have Waffle Church one Sunday a month as well as a couple of others, less centred on food. Doesn’t that sound wonderful?
Two of my favourite things: church and cooking! St. Lydia’s 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. http://www.stlydias.org/
The Executive and Transition Team were talking about the possibility of launching a Dinner Church… and then Covid hit! So maybe that is something to explore with your new minister.
Here’s another story about women in leadership, and how it is both lifted up and repressed. I met a RC sister at Tatamagouche Centre a few years ago; she and I were both studying to become Spiritual Directors. 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. When I got to know her a bit better, I asked 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. But at the same time, while she hosted a weekly Sunday evening meal for students at a nearby university, she was not allowed to celebrate the eucharist/communion. If they wanted to have that, they had to invite a priest.
So, what does all of that have to do with us today? We all 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, anyone who has attended Stairs over the past 20 years, 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. Did you know that there is an entire lectionary that is devoted to lifting up the stories of women in the Bible? And we all, young, old, boys, girls, women, men, manner of folx need to hear those stories. As a woman, I am accustomed to trying to locate myself in a story even when it doesn’t contain someone of like me. And while that can be challenging, it’s a skill that most of us who identify as women learned from a very early age. Because the church and the world need women leaders. Not because we all think alike; if you’ve ever been in a church meeting, you know there is going to be a wide variety of opinions expressed by the women present.
The church and the world need women leaders because without them, perspective is not complete. 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
May 8, 2022 – SMUC
© Catherine MacDonald