On our official PC(USA) year-long calendar, the Celebration of Gifts of Women is to happen the first Sunday in March. However, I think it makes more sense to celebrate the gifts of faithful and courageous women on Mother’s Day and that is exactly what we are doing!
There have been women of faith since during the time of Jesus’ ministry. According to the historian Geoffrey Blainey, women were more influential during the period of Jesus’ brief ministry than they were in the next thousand years of Christianity. Blainey explains: “Whereas neither the Jewish, nor the Roman family would warm the hearts of a modern feminist, the early Christians were sympathetic to women. Paul himself insisted in his early writings that men and women were equal”- “there is no longer male and female,” stated his letter to church in Galatia.
In the Gospels, several women were influenced by and followed Jesus. In the Gospel of John 4:4-26, Jesus has a theological discussion with the non-Jewish woman known as the ‘Samaritan woman at the well.’ He asks her for a cup of water and ends up launching into a theological discussion about his giving of living water which leads to eternal life, and that he is the Messiah for whom those of faith have been waiting. She becomes a witness to Jesus’ message as she hurries back to her village to report on what Jesus has said.
Jesus has another theological discussion with Mary of the sisters Mary and Martha of Bethany. Mary is sitting with Jesus in the posture of a student or a disciple with a Rabbi. When Martha tries to get Jesus to tell Mary to help her with the meal, Jesus proclaims that Mary has chosen the better option, learning from him. At a later time, Martha has a theological discussion with Jesus. Hear this from John, chapter 11: Martha said to Jesus concerning her brother Lazarus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” WOW! That was an amazing declaration of faith.
The same Mary of Bethany who sat at Jesus’ feet to learn also is the one at the center of the story I read to you of Jesus’ anointing. She does something that is unacceptable during ancient times and that is she disturbs Jesus during dinner, she has her hair down and uncovered, and she uses a very costly ointment to pour over Jesus’ feet. This is an act of precognition for it is perceived by Jesus as anointing him for his death to come. Even though others condemn her for this act Jesus declares, “Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”[Mt 26:13] And so it has been!
Our Philippians passage mentions important women in the church in Philippi who followed Paul’s teachings. It appears that Euodia and Syntyche, who have an implied leadership role for the church in Philippi, were quarreling and Paul wanted them to be of one mind in the Lord. They, and other followers, were to be examples of rejoicing in the Lord, much prayer, gentleness toward others and living without anxiety. Paul judged this to be a good way for all believers to live.
There are many more such examples of courageous women of faith in leadership roles throughout the Bible. Moving beyond scripture, I will highlight only a few faithful and courageous women down through the ages. Just as the historian, Geoffrey Blainey, expressed most of my historical examples come after the first 1000 years of the church.
In the 12th c, Hildegard was a theologian and writer. She was a devoted German Benedictine abbess. She was a composer, and a Christian mystic and visionary. She was an abbess of great faith and conviction. Hildegard founded two monasteries, one in 1150 and the other in 1165.
In the 13th c, Waldensian was a Christian movement. The movement originated in the late twelfth century as the Poor Men of Lyons, organized by Peter Waldo of the 12th c, a wealthy merchant who gave away his all his wealth as he preached apostolic poverty as the way to perfection. They had many women preachers.
During the Protestant Reformation from the Roman Catholic Church, in the 15th and 16th centuries, many women were silenced except in Baptist and Quaker churches where they were permitted to have leadership roles.
In the 16th c, Katharine Zell was an incredibly influential Protestant in Germany. She was a mother of more than a dozen children and a midwife. She visited the sick and prisoners, sheltered Protestant refugees and wrote many letters that were circulated among Protestants of the time. How she had the time, I do not know!
In the 17th c, Anne Hutchinson was a preacher in Massachusetts, which her husband avidly supported. She became a spiritual leader in colonial Massachusetts and openly challenged male authority and, indirectly, challenged acceptable gender roles. She preached to both women and men and questioned Puritan teachings about salvation. She strongly believed in the Covenant of Grace- we are saved by God’s grace in Jesus Christ alone and, consequently, spoke against the Puritan belief in Covenant of Works- salvation also by good works. For that she was excommunicated from her Puritan community of Bay Colony, and she and her family moved to Roger Williams’ more liberal community in Rhode Island.
Moving along to the 19th century, Frances Jane Crosby wrote 9000 hymns and she was forced to use other names for her works so that her name would not be the most seen in the hymnals. One such hymn is a favorite of many of us here, “Blessed Assurance.” She was a woman of great faith and most amazingly she was blinded by a doctor when she was only 6 weeks old. Once a well-meaning preacher commented, “I think it is a great pity that the Master did not give you sight when he showered so many other gifts upon you.” To which Fanny, as she was known, replied, “Do you know that if at birth I had been able to make one petition, it would have been that I was born blind? Because when I get to heaven, the first face that shall ever gladden my sight will be that of my Savior.”
Also in the 19th c, Antoinette Brown Blackwell had parents who believed in equal education for both men and women. She attended Oberlin college in 1846 where she got a literary degree, the prescribed degree for women students. She was a prolific writer and charismatic public speaker. Her exegesis- the critical explanation or interpretation of biblical text- on the writings of the Apostle Paul was published in the Oberlin Quarterly Review. She insisted that the Bible and its various pronouncements about women were for a specific span of time and certainly not applicable to the 19th century.
In the 20th c, Eleanor Roosevelt was born into wealth and could have lived a quiet simple life as an upper class woman. Instead, she married her cousin Franklin Roosevelt in 1905 and very soon became involved in politics. She was an instrumental part of her husband’s campaigning and was an outspoken supporter of African-American rights and served on the UN Commission for Human Rights. And, according to Mary Ann Glendon in her article “God and Mrs Roosevelt,” in America’s Most Influential Journal of Religion and Public life, many historians and writers have “overlooked the connection between Eleanor Roosevelt’s achievements and the high-minded Protestant Christianity that was so much a part of her public and private persona.”
One night in December of 1955, Rosa Parks, who was a black seamstress in Alabama “was trying to get home after a long day of work. When white people boarded the bus she was instructed to vacate her seat and move to the back of the bus. When she refused, the police were called and she was arrested. Later, she would always deny that she refused to give up her seat because she was physically tired. ‘The only tired I was,’ she said, ‘was tired of giving in.’ (Rosa) was a devout Christian who took great inspiration from the Bible.”
And in 1956, Margaret Ellen Towner was the first female to be ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church of the Unites States of America. Her ordination took place in Syracuse and Cayuga Presbytery and that same year she was made Assistant Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Syracuse. In 1981, at the 193rd General Assembly of our denomination, Margaret Towner became the Vice Moderator of the General Assembly. One of her responsibilities was to go to South Korea and talk to their Presbyterian Assembly as they were considering ordaining women.
One of the most influential women pastors in my life was at my home church (the church I grew up in), Rev. Pam Maloney and she was one of the first to be ordained in the 1950s I believe in 1957 or 1958. Rev. Pam Maloney and her husband, Rev. Bill, were pastors in western Pennsylvania when I was in college and my twenties. Pam was a big influence on my ultimate decision to go into ministry. She was a very approachable, thoughtful preacher and an accomplished musician as she was Minister of Music at Glenshaw Presbyterian Church, my home church.
According to Wikipedia: “The Christian faith has been history’s most potent force in elevating the position of women in our civilization. (And,) in using their special gifts (for ministry). God has called (numerous) women to the Gospel Ministry and has set (the Lord’s) seal to their ordination.” Women ministers bring many to the fruit of salvation and to the generosity of a prosperous, active and compassionate church.
Elizabeth Bedwell, known as Beth, is another commissioner, like I am, of the Synod of Lincoln Trails. She is now Moderator of the Synod and I have gotten to know her as we are both on the Synod’s Leadership Team. In response to a question I sent out to a few women of faith about what it means to them to be courageous women of faith Beth stated: My faith has offered an aspect (of my life) as I have been asked to do a few things that I would never have sought. I was asked to lead the weekend celebration of my church’s 175 anniversary. I have always seen myself as a tribe member not the chief. As I went through the planning process I realized that God had put me in this position to discover talents of mine and others who stepped in to support and work alongside me. And now, God has called her to a busy role as Moderator of our Synod.
A few responses I got from women of this congregations follow. Camille Foley wrote that working with others such as the Davis family and, now, Franco Sinibaldi is important and encouraged by her faith. She says at times it can also be a courageous act as there may be disagreement about the help offered or how it is offered.
Jane Blair wrote: I try to live with joy in Christ and with thankfulness to God for His saving grace and the peace that comes from a daily relationship with Jesus. I hope that my words and actions reflect my Christian faith and set an example of living as a forgiven woman for my children and grandchildren, as well as for others I encounter in my daily life.
And, finally, Carolyn Brown Hodge wrote: Roger Ruhman used this in a sermon—10 two letter words that will change your life: If it is to be, it is up to me. I think God wants all of us to think that way. Not to wait on the next person to step up or to be afraid if we are the right person—If it is to be, it is up to me. Just 10 two letter words. I say that sums up Carolyn’s faith very well.
All of you women have your own stories of your faith journey and I have heard many stories of past female saints of this congregation. God has given gifts to all people. I hope we continue to use those gifts to further the work of Jesus Christ in this congregation and community, and throughout the world. For as the Men’s Choir sang: Christ means more to me than you’ll ever know, more, more—so much more