A Sermon Preached for Pentecost IX
“Wow!,” he said, this friend
of mine, also an Episcopal priest. “You know, sometimes, you can come on really
He’s known me for about two or three years. He said this like it was a newsflash. I mean, most people who’ve known me for 10 minutes know that, especially when it comes to the Gospel – preaching it or living it – I’m pretty passionate.
And, that’s what we were talking about. Preaching the gospel. And, that’s exactly what I said to him, in response.
“We’re talking about the gospel,” said I. “You do understand, of course, the risks some have taken for that gospel? For living it and preaching it? Right?”
Yesterday, the 29th of July being the Feast of Mary and Martha of Bethany, was the 49th Anniversary of the Ordination of the Philadelphia Eleven ,who were eleven women who had been ordained deacons, were ordained priests in God’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic church in the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, PA.
Talk about taking a risk for the Gospel!
It was a monumental occasion in the life of the church. The House of Bishops had, in 1972, voted 74-61 in favor of the principle of the ordination of women as priests, but in 1973 General Convention rejected the change. So, it was, “illegal”.
The Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches in my home town, like many churches around the country, flew the flag at half-mast; others flew them upside down – a universal signal of “dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property”.
The event was covered on the nightly news on all three major television networks and the BBC, made the front page of The New York Times, and the cover stories of Time and Ms. Magazines which made it difficult, if not impossible, for the institutional church to ignore.
Despite the rhetoric to the contrary, the Ordination of Women to the
priesthood was not an event that sprang fully formed from the head of Zeus.
The movement had been building in the Anglican Communion since the ordination of deaconesses in the Anglican Church in London in 1862 and in The Episcopal Church in 1885, but it wasn’t until 1968 - almost 100 years later – that the House of Bishops asked the next Lambeth Conference of Primates and Bishops to consider the matter of women priests.
It is worth noting that it wasn’t until 1967 that a constitutional amendment passed that allowed women elected as deputies to General Convention to be seated with voice and vote. That amendment was ratified in 1970. So, it’s been just 53 years since women have had the right to vote in The Episcopal Church.
A Special General Convention in 1968 allowed women to be lay readers and allowed to minister the chalice – only 55 years ago.
Let that sink in for just a minute. There are women serving as lay readers and ministers of the chalice today who grew up in the church thinking they would never be allowed to function in these capacities.
We ought not to be surprised by this. In the 70s, women were trivialized. Look, a woman in a hard hat! A woman in a police uniform! Bless their hearts, aren’t they special?
In 1975, I – a married woman with two children, gainfully employed as a public health professional – applied for a credit card and was told I needed the signature of either my husband, father or brother.
It's not anything that women had never experienced. In the first scripture lesson, we hear the story of Rachel and Leah, but we hear it from the perspective of Jacob, who, poor dear, was tricked by Laban, his second cousin, to work 14 years for the woman he loved.
However, Jacob had left home and was with Laban because he had tricked his brother Esau out of his birthright. Some might be inclined to say that being tricked by Laban served him right.
But, I'm asking to look at this from another perspective. Imagine Rachel!
Scripture tells us that when Jacob met Rachel he kissed her and “lifted up his voice, and wept” (Genesis 29:11). This was a rare event in ancient scripture. Men “took” women for their wives – indeed, they “took” many women. David lusted after and took Bathsheba, a woman married to one of his generals.
But when Jacob met Rachel, he loved her so much it brought tears to his eyes.
Imagine what it must have
been like for Rachel to have to wait fourteen years, to be obedient to the very
tribal custom that gave to the eldest, the first born male the birthright but to
the first born girl, the right to be first to be married.
Imagine what it was like for Leah, who got what was her birthright but not only got a husband who stole his brother’s birthright, the truth was that he didn’t love her; instead, he really loved and wanted her sister! Enough to work seven more years for her! Imagine what those first seven years of marriage were like for Leah!
St. Paul reminds us that “all things work together for good for those who love God.” (Romans 8:26-39)
Eventually, Jacob’s sons would be the fulfillment of God’s covenant with him. The six sons of Leah, the four sons of Jacob’s concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah, Rachel’s son Joseph, who was Jacob’s favorite, and Joseph’s two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, would become the leaders of the 12 Tribes of Israel. God’s covenant with Jacob would not have been possible without the women in his life.
I have hung onto those words of St. Paul’s – that promise that “all things work together for good for those who love God” – when I knew I certainly loved God but things did not seem to be working together for anything good.
I’ve known I wanted to be a priest since I was six years old. My mother says, long before that, I used to set up the playroom with my dolls and my table and chairs and while other kids were having tea parties, I was having communion with vanilla cookies as wafers and purple Kool-Aid as wine.
I remember one of those times in my Roman Catholic youth when the nun who was leading our class asked us all what we wanted to be when we grew up. It was first grade and the boys all said they wanted to be doctors and lawyers and police and fire men. All the girls said they wanted to be wives and mommies – some said they wanted to be secretaries or teachers first and then get married and have babies.
Not me. When asked, I said, right out loud, “I want to be a priest.” I mean, I went to mass every morning with my grandmother. I loved it. I knew that’s exactly what God wanted me to do. So, I wasn’t prepared for the laughter that ensued. The kids laughed at me but so did the nun.
“No,” she said, “girls can’t be priests. Girls become nuns.”
“No,” I said, “I want to be a
priest, not a nun.” She laughed again,
but this time, it wasn’t so funny.
“No,” she said, her voice tinged with anger, “boys are priests, girls are nuns.”
I considered it. I did. And
then, I shook my head and said softly, to my shoes, perhaps sensing the danger,
“I want to be a priest.”
And then, she slapped me. Hard. Right across my face.
And then she hissed, “Boys are priests. Girls are nuns.”
It would be years until I was
able to give voice to my true sense of vocation.
I was in my late 20s. I had been an Episcopalian for two years. I was vaguely aware that there were women priests in The Episcopal Church but it was 1981 – seven years after Philadelphia and only five years after The Episcopal Church had changed its canons to allow women to be ordained – four since it had actually started ordaining women.
I had not yet seen a woman priest.
Until one Sunday morning,
after church, we came home, fed the kids lunch and I settled in to read the NY
Times. You may remember The Times was like a mini library. The NY Times Sunday
Magazine slipped out from the various sections and advertisements and there, on
the front cover, was a picture of the Rev Martha Blacklock, sitting on the
steps of St. Clements’ Church in the Theater District of NY City, in her jeans
and sandals and – a black clergy shirt and collar.
Suddenly, it all came back to me as sharp as that nun’s slap across my face. I felt my eyes fill up with tears, felt them fall down my cheeks, heard myself say in that same hoarse, fearful whisper of my six-year old voice, looking down at my shoes, “I want to be a priest.”
The next five years were an
amazingly incredible journey. Turns out, that nun’s slap prepared me for the
many challenges I would face in the journey to priesthood, but it turns out St.
Paul was right.
Not only is it true that “all things work together for good for those who love God,” it was never more true that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
That is the Good News of Christ Jesus as proclaimed by Paul that is worth the risk. It’s like a teeny-tiny mustard seed that grows into one of the most magnificent trees in God’s realm.
It’s like measure of leaven that takes the dreams of a young, six year old girl who was told she couldn’t be what she knew God was calling her to be and expanded them beyond anything she could have asked for or imagined.
The Good News of Christ Jesus is like a treasure, hidden in a field and forgotten and then found. Just as Leah and Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah discovered that, that despite the rules of patriarchy that made some legitimate, some more valuable than others, the covenant of God could not have been completed without them.
The Good News of Christ Jesus is like a pearl, precious, precious, that formed as an irritant which the ocean pushed through a crack in the shell. Once inside, a pearl grows from a particle of sand into a beautiful internal luminescence that the shell can no longer contain, so it must be pushed out for the whole world to see and treasure.
The Good News of Christ Jesus
is “like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind;”.
One person who objected to the ordination of women said to me, “If we start to
ordain women, everything will change. Everyone will think they can become
Son of a gun if she wasn’t right!
Those of us who have been excluded are especially passionate about making certain that absolutely everyone feels welcome to be a member of this old church of ours – warts and all.
We are passionate about casting the net wide and catching fish of every kind into the kind of baptismal water that helps each one become the best of who God created them to be. Different. Unique. Called to seek and serve Jesus in the spark of divinity we see in ourselves and each other.
And, when we are allowed to
grow and change, so does the church. Because we are – you and I are – the
church, The Body of Christ, part of the baptismal water where we are challenged
to be the living, growing, being and becoming the unique creature God intends us to be.
And that, my friends, is something to come on strong about, to be passionate about. And, even if it makes some people nervous or uncomfortable, living it is a risk worth taking.
I can’t imagine a pearl of any greater price.
And, I am so very deeply, humbled by and grateful for the gift of the women who are the Philadelphia Eleven who made it possible for me to be the unapologetically feisty, impatient, passionate priest I am today – warts and all.
Sermon begins at 22:50