OT: Ladies in Waiting

I mentioned a while back that my church had recently found a new pastor…he’s started with us on November 1st.  He is from Kansas, and since it was in the middle of the school term, his wife and children have remained there to complete the fall semester.  It came as no surprise to hear that he intended to travel back to Kansas to celebrate Thanksgiving with his family.  What did come as a surprise is that he asked me if I’d like to lead the service the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend.  Me?  Are you sure?  I wondered to myself (you may have gathered that I am not necessarily the most reverent of people…)  I am, however, a veteran public speaker, and I do frequently address theological topics when I teach ancient history, and I have been itching to give a particular talk for a while, so despite my increasingly oppressive schedule, I jumped at the chance.  What follows is my “sermon” along with the images I used to illustrate it on the jumbo screen:

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Today is the first Sunday of Advent.  Advent is the season of the church year leading up to the arrival of Christmas.  It is a time when Christians wait expectantly for the celebration of the Messiah’s birth.  Waiting can be a difficult game, and for centuries, a large number of Christians spent much longer than the Advent seasons playing it.

Queen Elizabeth II and her ladies

Queen Elizabeth II and her ladies

Ladies in waiting…the phrase calls to mind the daughters of the nobility who wait on a queen.  This is not exactly the image that I had in mind though.  We need to travel back in time a bit further to find the ladies I’m referring to.

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Contrary to the practices of his day, the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth was extremely inclusive of women.  In a culture that routinely pushed women to the sidelines, Jesus repeatedly and deliberately drew women into active roles in his ministry.

Mary and Martha...and some  guy named Jesus

Mary and Martha…and some guy named Jesus

The Gospels tell the stories of women like Johanna and Susanna who offered financial support to Jesus’s ministry, of women like Mary and Martha who sheltered and cared for Jesus and became important early believers in his message.  Then there are the famous Gospel stories of Jesus’ mother Mary and Mary Magdalene – women who stood by him to the bitter end, past the point when all his disciples had fled in fear.  In fact, it was Mary and Mary Magdalene who were the first testifiers to his resurrection.   Clearly, Jesus wholly embraced the membership and service of women in his ministry. 

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We just heard a scripture reading from Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth.  Paul was writing in the native language of Corinth – Greek.   In this passage, he repeatedly refers to the Corinthian church as YOU.  The Greek is clear – he is saying YOU ALL…not “you men” or “you women”…but YOU ALL. 

Dorcas and Phoebe

Dorcas and Phoebe

There is no doubt that among the YOU ALL of the Epistles there were thousands of faithful women.  Some of their names are very familiar to us in this congregation.  There were women like DORCAS (name of our mission ministry group), a disciple who was “full of good works and kind deeds,” or like PHOEBE (name of our “kindness” circle), a “deaconess” of the Christian church at Cenchrea in Greece.  It was most likely Phoebe who carried Paul’s letter…the one we now call the Book of Romans, to the Christian community in Rome.

 There were others, less well known, like the missionary Priscilla or  Junia, a woman who Paul identified as an apostle, who played a role.  There were many more, their names and stories have been lost, whose lives and faith contributed to the early church.

 Women clearly played an important role as believers, teachers, missionaries and supporters in the formative years of the Christian faith.  They worked and prayed equally alongside male counterparts as Christianity grew and spread throughout the Mediterranean world, but that would not always be the case.

Constantine at Niceaea

Constantine at Niceea

Despite their influential role in the development and spread of the Christian faith, women were increasingly marginalized from any formal authority as Christianity became more and more connected to the traditions of the Roman Empire.  When the Christian Church entered into a formal partnership with Rome at Nicaea in 325, the days of women having an official role in church decisions were short in number. 

Lutheran Ladies Aid Society ca 1912

And so it went for centuries.  Ladies waited.  In medieval times, convents emerged and the abbess was influential inside those walls, but any official influence only extended as far as the nearest male cleric. 

Lutheran Ladies Aid Society ca 1912

Lutheran Ladies Aid Society ca 1912

So ladies continued to wait….and wait.  The Christian Church continued to evolve and spread to the far corners of the world in a variety of different denominations but ladies still waited.  While they waited, they developed things like Ladies Aid and Women’s Guild groups to carry out suitably female functions, but their influence was limited and they were still barred from participation in the wider decision making of the church.

 The long, long wait of ladies began to change  dramatically in the second half of the 20th century, and continues to do so in the 21st.

 In fact, the days of waiting ladies are long since passed here.  Women have emerged as an important element in the leadership of the United Church of Christ, and here in this congregation especially…don’t believe me? 

 Let’s try a little demonstration:

  • Could the members of the Church Council stand
    • (by Constitutional guidelines, the Church Council has an even split along gender lines regardless of proportionate membership numbers)
  • Committee/team conveners please stand
  • Committee members please stand

 (At this point, at least 2/3 of the people standing are women)

Now I’ll grant you…women outnumber men at Immanuel, but regardless of the relative proportion in our congregation, it is pretty hard to refute that the ladies of Immanuel are no longer waiting…we are doing.

 In many congregations and in many denominations, the ladies in waiting have been rewarded with the Advent of re-inclusion into the workings of the Church at all levels.

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But, as we enter into this Advent season, a time of eager anticipation of Christ’s birth, I would urge us all to remember all of those who are STILL waiting, not only for Christmas,  but to be fully included in a Christian community….waiting because of gender or sexual orientation.  Waiting because of politics or poverty. 

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It is my great hope that their wait will not be a long one – that each of us, in whatever way we are able will work to ensure that.

Amen

So there it is.  No one got up and walked out or gave me the stink eye.  Comments were very positive.  In fact, people who I never would have expected it from (OK – reverse gender discrimination admission follows) one of the 80 year old male set approached me to say, “The pastor better look out or you’ll have his job!”  I don’t think there is any danger of that, but I was extremely pleased to hear it.  I was also extremely pleased to be done…I was surprised by how nervous I was, given that I stand up in front of people and speak for a living, to speak for the “hometown crowd.”  I’m also pleased to have gotten a few laughs even though I had to edit out some of my best material given the venue  🙂