The television miniseries “Jesus of Nazareth” depicts many scenes from Jesus’ life, as reported in the gospels . . . well embellished somewhat, Hollywood just can’t help itself, but mostly from the gospels – from Jesus’ birth to his resurrection. Among the scenes included is the one Luke 4 and Matthew 13 relate to us, where Jesus reads the Scriptures and preaches at his home synagogue, the church he grew up in, in Nazareth.
And one thing I remember about that scene is how the synagogue was arranged: Jesus was up front, being a worship leader that day; the men of Nazareth were seated on benches in front of him; and then in the back of the synagogue, behind a screen, were the women and children, including his mother, Mary. The one person who knew most, at this point, about who Jesus was and what he meant; and the one who would feel most deeply his joys and sorrows the next years, along with her own; his mother: she could only look on from a distance, and only see dimly, through that screen.
For the practice of religion, in that time and place, was something for only the men to participate in. Women and children observed, from a distance.
In the movie “Yentl,” in which Barbara Streisand played a young woman in a Jewish village, much later, in 1904, there is a similar scene: She is very interested in the Scriptures, in the Bible, thanks to her father’s discussing it with her in the privacy of their home. And she’s very good at understanding them, and applying them. But in public, her father sits on the front benches of the synagogue, with the other men and older boys of the village, discussing, worshiping, praying. While Yentl and the other women and children can only watch, from the back, behind a screen. In fact her father would have gotten in trouble if it had been known he was discussing Scripture with his daughter even at home; they had to close the shutters and converse in secret. The practice of religion, in that time and place, was something for only the men to participate in. Women and children observed, from a distance.
Now, our Christian worship is modelled after the practice of that Jewish synagogue worship – very similar order of worship; prayers, hymns, and so on. After all, the first Christians were Jewish, and carried over those worship traditions to Christianity. So how did we get from the tradition of religion being something for the men to do and others to watch, to our practice of men, women, and children sitting all together, all participating in the same way? How did that happen? Why the change?
How did we get to having women and youth serve as church officers—elders and deacons; women as clergy? Women will be among the candidates for the Moderator of General Assembly again next month, the Presbyterian Church’s highest elected office after two women have served a co-moderator the last two years; many women and teenagers will be part of the discussions and decisions there, and lots of women will be at our Presbytery meeting this week. What would Jesus’ and Yentl’s villages think of all that?
On this Mother’s Day/Gifts of Women/flowers to the women right here in the sanctuary Sunday . . . how did we get from their practice to ours? How do we come to be all together in worship, doing these things?
The answer lies, in great part, in a series of passages in our New Testament. The New Testament, of course, is not something Jesus’ synagogue had. It was not something Yentl’s synagogue would recognize as having any significance. It is not something that some religions today which are still essentially just for the men, like some forms of Islam, would acknowledge. But for us, the New Testament is foundational, key, authoritative. It shapes us. And here are some of the things it says about women, and a couple about children:
John 4:27: “Just then Jesus’ disciples returned. They were astonished to see him speaking with a woman. But no one said ‘What do you want?’ or ‘Why are you speaking with her?’” No one said that because they knew by now that that’s what Jesus did. He included people like that woman, made them part of the conversation. Other rabbis and religious authorities then would not have, but Jesus did.
We heard Luke 8:1-3 a little while ago: Besides the twelve most commonly listed disciples, many women travelled with Jesus. They provided for him out of their resources; they were there as he taught and healed and demonstrated the kingdom of God. From the start, the women were part of it.
In Mark 9, Jesus has harsh words for any who place a barrier between him and someone who wants to be a disciple; he is speaking of children in particular here: “If any of you puts a stumbling block before one of these who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” He wanted an open community of disciples.
After Jesus’ ascension—Acts 1:14—as the disciples wait for what comes next, the eleven disciples are gathered, “constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women” – who are apparently part of the first Pentecost experience as well, the coming of the Holy Spirit.
Then Acts 9:36: “In Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha; she was devoted to good works and acts of charity” –another woman disciple.
And in Acts 16:14: A woman named Lydia was listening to Paul and Silas and Timothy. The Lord opened her heart, she and her household were baptized, and the apostles did as she asked, “judging her to be faithful to the Lord.”
The Romans 16 passage we read mentioned Phoebe, a deacon of the church; and Priscilla—and they are just the first two of nine women in that chapter whom Paul greets as fellow Christians and co-workers for Christ.
And Acts 16:33: A jailer who had been responsible for keeping Paul and Silas in prison becomes a believer in Jesus Christ. “Then he and his entire family were baptized without delay.” Not just the man. No one having to watch, from behind a screen. The whole family baptized, including women and children.
In the letters to the early Christian churches in the New Testament, several passages list spiritual gifts that have been imparted to different members of the Christian community. Romans 12, I Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4 list gifts for ministering like teaching, compassion, generosity, wisdom. In these letters, addressed to the whole community, men and women—the opening greetings mention by name both men and women—there is never any distinction made between men and women, any hint that some gifts are reserved for one sex and others for the other; no, all may receive and use all the gifts.
And in fact Galatians 3 states it positively and plainly: there is among those baptized into Christ no longer a division into male and female—no screen, no hierarchy—any more than there is between Christians of different ethnic backgrounds or economic conditions; “you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Our New Testament, over and over again, is a record of this religion, our religion, being one which welcomes women, and children, and includes them as full participants. That was a radical idea in the time of Jesus and the early church, when religious practice was just for men. It’s even a radical idea in some circles now: “How can you think women and children should have a full share in this? What can they understand about worshiping and following God?”
Well Jesus had quite a few radical ideas—and most of them resulted in more and more people, like us, being invited to a closer relationship with God. From the start, that’s part of what Christianity is all about: women, you come too; children, you come too.
Now unfortunately, in the early centuries of the Christian Church, after the days of the first apostles and the writing of the New Testament, the church didn’t always stay true to its own Scriptures—in several ways. Isabel Rogers, a General Assembly Moderator and seminary professor—one of Laurie’s professors, in fact—notes one of those ways: As we move into the life of the church after the days of Paul and the other writers of Scripture, we find that the church tended to pick up its cues not so much from Jesus the includer of women as from the Greek philosophers, who often pictured reality as hierarchical.
Imagine a ladder, with one type of being on each rung, and no room for more than one type. God was on the top rung, in their construct, and below God men, and below men women, and below women, children, and below children animals, and so on. Each type of being, in this Greek order of things, had to have its own level; they apparently couldn’t conceive of a triangle or pyramid or family tree kind of arrangement, with God on top and all people side-by side one step down. The church got away from Jesus and Scripture, and into this hierarchical kind of thinking.
But as the Christian church gradually realized how much it had accommodated itself to culture, and tried to get back to Jesus and the New Testament, it began to recover the Biblical notion of “there’s no longer male and female, but all one in Christ.”
By the nineteenth century, here in the United States, overtures started petitioning the highest governing body of the Presbyterian Church to recognize our common, equal standing as disciples by ordaining women to church office. And in 1906, 112 years ago this year, the Presbyterian Church ordained its first women Deacons. In 1930, 88 years ago this year, the Presbyterian Church ordained its first women Elders. And in 1956, 62 years ago this year, the Presbyterian Church ordained its first women Ministers of Word and Sacrament.
In our own congregation’s history, some of you will remember the ordination of our first woman Deacon, Margaret—Peg—Hall; our first woman Elder, Ruth Cavins; and our first installed woman Minister—wait a minute, I have her name someplace here—oh yeah, the Rev. Laurie Williams. We also held, on Nov. 22, 2014, the first-ever ordination to ministry service for a woman here, I believe: for Rev. Karol Farris. So happy anniversaries as well, Paris Presbyterian Church.
So today we celebrate “Gifts of Women Sunday.” We honor women with the giving and receiving of flowers. We read again the Scriptures that rightly influence our thinking and our polity. We recognize the anniversaries. And we keep working to remove any obstacles that might stand in the way of our imitating the New Testament church’s including everyone: “let no one put a stumbling block. . . “
They baptized the jailer “and his entire family.” The screen at the back has been removed. Children, you come too; women, you come too. That’s part of who we are, as Christians, according to our Scriptures.
A poem by Alice Kestler expresses her personal thanks to God for women who have shared their gifts with her. As you hear it, perhaps you can substitute the names of women you’ve known who have filled these roles for you:
I celebrate my sisters in ministry
Whose encouragement and support
Have helped me be faithful to my call:
Some are apostles like MaryAnn and Judy
Who lead the leaders with authority and joy,
Using their unique gifts in ways that make us glad
That they are clergy.
Some are prophets like Kathy, Jan, and Dee
Who stand firm for justice
And do not let others silence their passion;
Who help us see God in all creation.
Some are evangelists like Motalalapula
Who let no barriers keep her
From spreading the good news,
Whose testimony is as sweet as the early rains.
Some are teachers like Connie, Freda, and Jane
Who model, teach, and yearn for people
To grow into true Christian community.
Some are leaders in song and dance and the arts
Like Kama, Bonnie, and Sandy,
Who let their creative lights shine,
Who help us soar with the Spirit.
For these and all my sisters in ministry
I give thanks to God,
For the flames of our faith burn brighter
As we work together, each one kindling the other,
Until the world is dazzled by the light.