Half the Sky: Women in Ministry
This may sound weird to start here but I want to start this sermon about Women in Minsitry with the founder of modern day communist China. Chairman Mao or Mao Tse-Tung is quoted as saying that “Women hold up half the sky.” Now he is not someone to necessarily look up to for wisdom and grace on how to deal with people. He did do a lot for the people of China by getting them educated and building up the role of women in society yet there is an estimated 40-70 million people that died because of some social changes too. But I love the image of his quote that women hold up half the sky. Also just a quick plug, there is a book about that for the UMW reading list, I highly recommend it.
Women do hold up half the sky but in the past and in some places in the present they are seen as the weaker sex, oppressed and second class citizens. One of the unfortunate places that this is still held true is in the modern church. There are a few denominations out there that still do not ordain women. But there are far more denominations that do ordain women and the United Methodist church is one of those denominations.
I want to frame my sermon around the Wesleyan quadrilateral. If you are not familiar with what this is, this is how we as United Methodists make decisions about our believes about issues of our day. John Wesley is quoted as saying that when we make a theological decision it should be “revealed in scripture, illuminated by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason.” The four legged stool that the UMC uses to make decisions is by scripture, tradition, experience and reason. I am going to use those four areas to point to our stance for the ordination of women.
So let us start with where we should always start and the primary place for our decisions, scripture. There is one place that many people to state that women should not be ministers. 1 Timothy 2:8-15. [read scripture] That seems really straight forward doesn’t it? I am sure you have heard this passage used once or twice to talk about women in ministry, but here is what we need to realize when we read scripture. This is the living word of God but it also written for specific people in a specific time. You have to learn the context for why the biblical writers were writing to the people they were writing too.
In this case it seems that Paul is writing this letter to Timothy that there were some battles going on in this community. There was turmoil and it sounds like heated debate. So when Paul writes to his most trusted partner in ministry to encourage his works he gives some advice on how people could get along to build up the kingdom. Some commentaries think that the harshness of the language is Paul’s reaction to their social setting. Since Timothy was dealing with a community in a Greco-Roman world, maybe strong women taking a back seat in leadership would help the church grow and be an easier pill for these Gentiles to swallow. Does it make it right or an example that the rest of Christianity should model themselves after? No. In his letter to the Galatians Paul talks about gender equality, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are on in Christ Jesus.” Maybe Timothy’s passage is purely contextual and cultural for that time and place. We have to remember we are reading other people’s mail in these letters.
There is also a German word that my professor at Duke and the teacher that the Solomon’s Porch is learning from about Genesis, would use to describe certain cultural ideas. That word is haustafeln. What is means is the morals or the mores of a certain culture at a certain time. For example, for those of you who were around in the 1950 and went to the old church on Blair Street, was it permitted to wear shorts to church? Did women and men wear hats when they came to church? According to Timothy here women were supposed to cover their heads but why don’t you wear them much now? The reason is that the culture changed. Specific desires and ideas of the cultures existed back then that have changed now. The fact that we have a screen and use a projector in the church was not heard of 30 years ago but now they are common in about every congregation. Our culture changes.
If we only looked at Timothy’s passage we may think women have no part in ministry but if you look throughout the Bible women have been involved and leaders all through the Bible. If we look at scriptures there are lots of places that women are lifted up for their ministry. How many of you know that Jesus is resurrected? We know this because the women who went to the grave found out and told people. The Mary’s that went became the first evangelists and went to tell the men who were too scared to go to Jesus’ grave. In the Old Testament you have two books which are named after women, Ruth and Ester. In Ruth you have a story of a gentile who is accepted in a Jewish family and when she is able to get out of the relationship she stays in it to help her mother-in-law Naomi. Ester was crowned the queen of Persia and then saved her people from death by standing up to the King. You had Deborah who was one of the Judges of the Hebrew people and before then you had Rahab, a prostitute who hid the Israelite spies so that they wouldn’t be killed.
All throughout scripture you have God calling women to do his work in the world. Over and over again you hear the early church lift up women who are working to spread the message of Jesus Christ. At the United Methodist Women’s meeting this past week we learned about Phoebe who Paul sends as a deacon to the church in Rome. He asks the church there to “welcome her in the Lord in a way that is worthy of god’s people, and give her whatever she needs from you, because she herself has been a sponsor of many people, myself included.” In the book of Acts one of the first disciples was named Tabitha or in Greek Dorcas. In Acts it says “her life overflowed with good works and compassionate acts on behalf of those in need.”
We could go on to the way Jesus treated women and picked them up when society was putting them down. He lifted them up and built them up which is considered one of the biggest counter cultural moves Jesus made in his ministry on earth. All the names on the screen are of women in the Bible and all have had an effect on how the Word of God has been passed down to us and affected us.
Beyond scripture there is a heavy tradition of women in the United Methodist Church. Susanna Wesley was the mother of John and Charles Wesley. She taught them to respect women in a time and place that really didn’t. She pushed her sons to see what women could add to society not what they used for. Sarah Crosby was granted a License to preach by John Wesley in 1761. Grace Murray, Sarah Taft, Hannah Bell, Elizabeth Ritchie and Mary Fletcher were also women who were key leaders in the Methodist movement. Mary Fletcher started to preach when she was only 16 years old and at 21 she was kicked out of her house by her parents because of her faith. In a sermon in 1786 John Wesley spoke publically against the way women are treated in that society and time.
As the Methodist movement caught on and the denomination started to spread in the US women were also key leaders. Anne Howard Shaw received her theological degree in 1878 but was denied ordination in the Methodist Episcopal Church. She went to the Methodist Protestant Church and was ordained instead. The Methodist Episcopal Church decided to ordain women in early 1920s but then in the merger of 1939 between the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church South and the Methodist Protestant denominations that right was revoked. Then on May 4,1956 women were given full clergy rights in the Methodist Denomination. How many of you were born after the year 1956? This means you have not known a Methodist Church without full clergy rights for women. Mavid Jenson was the first women to be ordained and Grace Huck was a probationer. She was ordained two years later. When the DS went to her first church and announced she was coming a man yelled out, “No skirts in this pulpit while I’m alive!” Later Grace would say that man became one of her biggest supporters.
Our tradition in the United Methodist Church is steeped in women who have stood out and stood up to proclaim with courage and honor the gospel even when society wasn’t ready to hear it. When we look at the scriptures and see how involved women were and when we look at our tradition and see how it was shaped by women throughout history we start to wonder why we never ordained them in the first place.
But what experience do you have? What has been your personal experience with women and ministry? How many of you when you grew up were taught by a women in Sunday School class? How many of you were dragged to church by your mother or grandmother or aunt? How many of you when you think of this history of Trinity think of women like Mrs. Shell, Mrs. Woods or Mrs. Crotts? Our church and our personal experience has demonstrated that women are vital to our church.
When the Rev. Dr. Mary Miller arrives as your new pastor in about a month she will be the fourth woman in Trinity’s history to lead this congregation. The first woman was Kay Gottula. She was the preacher here from 1991-1994. Then after Chris left you had Kay Fry for a few months and then I replaced Val Rosenquist. A skirt behind this pulpit is nothing new but still I have heard a few quiet grumbles about her being a woman. There are 812 of probationary and ordained clergy in the Western North Carolina Conference. 234 of those are women. That is 29% of ordained clergy.
So let’s talk about reason. With one third of the clergy in WNCC being woman it is not hard to comprehend will have had four women as a minster for this church over the last two decades. But also think, as we read the Bible we see God using people all the time that doesn’t make sense to the haustafeln of the day. If you were going to pick someone to save the spies who went into the holy land the last person you would choose is a prostitute named Rahab. Yet God called her to help and she did. Would you choose to help out the churches of Rome with a women deacon named Phoebe around the year 34? No you would probably have chosen a man since the Roman Empire did not really have a high respect for women, but God called Phoebe.
The UN reports that in the world the world’s population is split down the middle, half women and half men. Out of the 7 billion people on earth, 3.5 billion are women. If God is working to share his love with the world using his children why would God ignore the gifts, talents, graces, and abilities of half of his children? That doesn’t make much sense.
When we deny God’s ability to use anyone in ministry we are telling God that God doesn’t know what God is doing. Would we have picked a murder to lead our people out of Egypt, no but God called Moses. Would we have made a King of our kingdom someone who had knocked up his mistress and then had her husband killed off? No but God called David. Would we have called a woman in a man’s world to proclaim that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, had been resurrected from the dead? No we probably would have picked a high ranking man in that society to do it but God chose Mary and Mary Magdalene.
Who do you think knows better when it comes to how to do things in this world, us or God? During my conversations with Mary I can already seen God working through her and in her ministry. She has done some great work in her congregation and I know she will do great things here. I hope you will look past any past feelings or ideas you have about women in ministry. I hope you will look at Mary as you would a man in ministry, as someone trying to live out her calling to the best of her ability. If not you may lose out on growing closer to God and what God is offering us through her.
Women have always held up half the sky. That is true on every level of living. Sometimes they are asked to hold up even more than half. I have worked with and been inspired by many women in ministry. I have had great professors who were women and taught me ton about God and how to think. In the churches I have been in I have met countless women who are the matriarchs and saints of those communities. The Church would not be here without women who followed their calling that God laid on their hearts to lead, teach, preach, and share the gospel of Jesus Christ with the world. We see it in scripture, in our traditions, in our experience and in our reason. I’m better off because of it and you all are too.
And all God’s people said…Amen.