Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany – February 2, 2020
Just to be clear from the outset of this sermon, I did not make a unilateral decision to skip Lent. We are not celebrating Easter in February, although I suppose one could make a compelling argument that we are, since for Christians, each and every Sunday is Easter, since each time we gather on this day of the week, we do so to proclaim the glory of Christ’s resurrection from the dead, and that is good news for the church and for the world.
The bad news is that we are still going to observe Lent. No one is getting out of that.
I am kidding, of course. Lent is also a gift from God to the church, a journey of faithfulness, sacrifice, and grace that we are blessed to travel together.
Today begins a new, three-week sermon series titled “Called: Hearing the Voice of God, wherein we will seek to gain a greater understanding of what it means for us to follow a God who calls, a God who speaks, a God who commands us to listen. Next week, we will hear the story of the call of the boy Samuel to be a mighty prophet of God, and we will conclude the following week by hearing the story of God’s call of Sarah and Abraham.
Today though, we encounter Mary Magdalene, who is called by the risen Christ, the rabbi she has already known for some time, to do something courageous, profound, and crucially important: tell the disciples that Jesus, crucified and buried, is alive.
There was once a man who was they mayor of a city who was walking down the street with his wife. As they walked together, they passed a construction site where carpenters were busy framing a new building. A man shouted from the site, “Connie! Connie! Is that you?”
The woman looked at the man and replied, “Well, hello, Jack! How have you been? It is good to see you!”
After a few pleasantries were exchanged, Connie continued her walk with her husband, the mayor. “Who was that man?” asked her husband.
“That was Jack. We were quite an item back in high school,” Connie replied.
The mayor thought about this for the rest of the day, the reunion of his wife with an old flame. And that evening, as they were getting ready for bed, he said to her, “You know, it’s funny.”
“What’s funny?” said his wife.
“It’s funny how things turn out. I mean, if you had married Jack instead of me, you would be married to a construction worker.”
As she turned out the light, Connie replied to her husband, “No dear, if I had married him, he would be the mayor.
It is not uncommon for me, as I prepare a service of death and resurrection for a woman, especially if she happens to be the true matriarch of the family, for her family to request a particular reading from the thirty-first chapter of the Book of Proverbs, right there at the end of the book. You know it. It begins with the words “A capable wife, who can find? She is far more precious than jewels” and goes on to describe in beautiful poetry the attributes of such a woman, including verse which read “She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands. She is like the ships of the merchant; she brings her food from far away. She rises while it is still night and provides food for her household and tasks for her servant-girls.” It is a beautiful text, full of color and texture and all manner of rich imagery.
There are, of course, limitations to this text. The woman described here is restricted primarily to domestic roles. This is, of course not to say that domestic roles are not important, admirable, and vital. However, it is to say that then, as now, men have felt quite comfortable allowing women only limited space to develop their God-given gifts while men have historically been granted nearly unlimited latitude to grow and dream and develop our God-given gifts.
It is here that the church struggles with the issue of gender equality. We find ourselves faced with the problem of trying to decipher which beliefs of ours are ordained by the God we know in Jesus Christ and which are simply cultural assumptions.
Which brings me to this morning’s very familiar text: a fragment of the story of Easter, as told in the Gospel of John, specifically the section of the story where the risen Christ interacts with Mary Magdalene. Biblical scholars believe that one thing that points to the veracity of the resurrection story is the fact May is a character in it at all. The testimony of a woman was without value in Jesus’ time and place. Therefore, it is likely that the gospel writers only included Jesus’ appearance to Mary because they felt like they had to because it was what actually happened. They would likely have preferred that Jesus first appeared to a man.
Likewise, Jesus could have even chosen to have not appeared to Mary. Jesus could have allowed her to continue to believe he was the gardener. Jesus, had he chosen, could have simply decided to find the frightening, hiding men and called them by name, and shown them his hands and his side. He could have directed Mary differently, saying to her “Woman, go fetch me the men. I have news to share with them.”
But he didn’t.
Jesus calls Mary, specifically, calling her by name. As John’s gospel tells it, “Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.”
Mary. Go. Say. Tell.
I am convinced that there are few, if any coincidences in holy scripture, especially in regard to pivotal texts like the one before us today. As such, I believe Jesus’ call of Mary and his commandment to her to announce his victory over death is one we ignore at our great peril.
Jarena Lee was born in 1783 in Cape May, New Jersey. Although never ordained, she is remembered today as the first female preacher in African Methodism. When she was 24 years old, she approached Richard Allen, a founder and eventual Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, to seek permission to preach. She was refused this request; Allen argued there was no formal precedent for female preachers, but he encouraged her to hold prayers meetings and “exhort,” which she did. Yet, in 1836, she wrote in her autobiography,
“O how careful ought we to be, lest through our by-laws of church government and discipline, we bring into disrepute even the word of life. For as unseemly as it may appear now-a-days for a woman to preach, it should be remembered that nothing is impossible with God…If a man may preach, because the Saviour died for him, why not the woman? Seeing he died for her also. Is he not a whole Saviour, instead of a half one?”
The point is this: the church of Jesus Christ cannot simultaneously claim that the ministry of the Christian is a response to what Christ has done for us while limiting the believer’s ability to respond to those gifts. Men are free to respond to the leading of the Holy Spirit, while women have historically been relegated to a secondary role. Is this the will of the God who made us, male and female, in the image of God? Is this the will of Jesus Christ, who spoke to women with sometimes culture-defying respect, just as he spoke with men? Jesus who blessed women and who was ministered to by women on the cross when so many men had fled or denied him? Is this not the same Christ who commanded Mary at the tomb to “go and tell my brothers?”
Are we to believe that the gifts of women described in holy scripture are purely domestic gifts? Are they not gifts of God? What if we let these gifts “out of the house?” Would our churches look different? Would we be better equipped to minister to the needs of a world that is both male and female? Would be more faithful to a God who calls us into ministry and service to the church of Jesus Christ? Would we be a more faithful witness to the God who seeks to provide a place where the gifts that God has given us can grow and bear fruit and not be mowed down beneath the blade of cultural assumptions?
When I was the senior pastor of a very rural, three-point circuit of congregations, I was gifted to have a woman as my associate pastor. Her name was Beverly and she entered ministry after retiring from a career as the director of training for the United States Army. She had lived a truly remarkable life; she had multiple advanced degrees, she was someone who could, without a trace of pretense, begin sentences by saying things like “One day, I was testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Senator Gore said to me…” She was simply one of the most generous and hard-working people I have ever known.
It was common for members of one of my congregations, in particular, to eat lunch at the same barbecue restaurant on Sundays after worship, and they were often joined by local friends from another denomination who, with regularity, made no bones about telling their United Methodist friends how their church was not following God’s word by allowing a woman to speak from the pulpit. “Think about Paul telling women to be silent in church!” they would say.
And yet, I had a couple join of those congregations, people who months after their joining told me that being a part of a congregation with a woman pastor was an obstacle they had to overcome. That is, until they actually sat in the pew in worship and listened to Bev preach. “Then we knew,” they told me, “that we were hearing the word of God.”
Go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”
The Methodist Church has ordained women since 1956, although we still have a long, long way to go. There is a great imbalance between the number of male and female clergy. There is an alarming attrition rate among female clergy. There are churches that try to refuse female clergy. There are churches that consider women clergy to be something less than a “real” pastor. I know a congregation in Virginia who believed that, when the Bishop sent them a Korean pastor, it was “punishment” for refusing a woman. There are pronounced pay inequities between male and female clergy. There is a very sardonic joke I heard recently that says that no congregation wants a woman to be their pastor until they realize they only need to pay them seventy cents on the dollar.
We have come a long way down this road, and yet there is more highway left to travel.
In Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata, the women of Athens and Sparta, exhausted by their husbands’ incessant warring against one another, make a pact to remain celibate until all the men lay down their weapons. Similarly, I would say to my brothers in the Christian community who believe that women and girls’ place in the church should be silent, docile, subservient, and second-class to imagine a Sunday morning when all of the women in all of the congregations in all the cities, towns, subdivisions, villages, and hamlets of this land call in a general strike, and then imagine how the church could possibly dream of fulfilling Jesus’ Great Commission to evangelize the world.
To be clear, I am not disputing that what Paul writes in his epistles is scripture. What I am saying is that it is always wise to always read scripture contextually and to always read those words through the lens of the life and witness of Jesus Christ, who was and who is God’s word, God’s word made flesh.
This issue should matter for men for more reasons than the fact that we still possess the majority of power in the church. It should matter to us because the church of Jesus Christ is chartered to be a church in ministry to the world. We are called to challenge the assumptions of the world, not to be the tool of them. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once asked, “Why is the church so often a taillight and not a headlight?” It is our responsibility to shine the light of the Gospel on those social structures that seek to subjugate one person beneath another. It is our responsibility to challenge cultural assumptions, even ones we hold within our own hearts, so that the world may be a place where all people are free to grow and mature as God would have us to.
Doing so is not just good for women. It is also good for men. It is good for all people because it allows us all to throw off the heavy chains of prejudice that we might all walk in the footsteps of Christ, that we might all be free to follow his leading, that we might all become all he died for us to be, that we might all be free to respond freely to the divine grace extended to us, that we might all be free to extend that grace to others.
Christ calls you and me, male and female, to transform the world, and that transformation begins when we allow ourselves to be transformed as well. It is then that our gifts can flourish and grow. It is then that the church can be a place where we, as sons and daughters of God, can truly discover and nourish the gifts God has given us. It is then that we might freely serve as Christ calls us to, the Christ in whom Paul writes to the Galatian church “there is no male and female for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Paul, some of whose surprising and counter-cultural gender inclusivity is frequently lost when words are translated from Greek to English.
When Joe E. Pennel, Jr. was the resident bishop of the Virginia Conference, he told a story of a time he met with the Staff-Parish Relations Committee of a congregation where a member pounded the table and shouted, “Don’t you send us a woman! You can send us the most incompetent man you have, but don’t you dare send us a woman!”
Bishop Pennel sent them a woman. A year after her arrival in that pastorate, Bishop Pennel visited that church for worship one Sunday and after the service, that same man sought him out. He took Bishop Pennel’s hands in his own and with tears in his eyes said “Thank you. You have sent us the finest pastor we have ever had.”
The story that is most commonly drawn from the story I told to begin this message is that “behind every successful man, there is a good woman.” I believe that one of the messages of the church is to be that in the light of the Kingdom of God, we will find that beside every successful man, there is a successful woman for it is there that all of Christ’s people can be clothed in the strength and the dignity Christ died that we all might have.
Go and tell my brothers. Christ is alive, and Christ still calls, and Christ still sends-you, me, each of us and all of us together, for the sake of the salvation of the world.
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.