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A woman’s place

A sermon originally preached at Village Presbyterian Church on January 11, 2015.
1 Timothy 2:8-12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35

“Do you accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ and God’s Word to you?”

I permit no woman to teach.
Women are to be subordinate.
It is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

Do I accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be God’s word to me?

I know — we started with that question last week, too. Tom (senior pastor at Village Presbyterian Church) talked with us about how Scripture can be true without being infallible. And walking us through the story of epiphany, the story of the wise men following a star as it moved through the night sky, he reminded us that faith doesn’t call us to deny our minds.

Neither does faith call us to deny our souls.

Faith does sometimes call us to deny our selves. To give up on our plans, our sense of right and wrong or fair and unfair, to give up our possessions, our money, our desires. Faith calls us to give up an awful lot, but never does faith call us to give up anything about the very core of our created selves. Because “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female, God created them. And God blessed them” (Genesis 1:27-28). And everything that God created, God called good.

Never does faith call us to deny or regret or belittle the pieces of us that are wholly and only from God.

It would be possible for us to think that this question — this question of women speaking in church — is not one that concerns us anymore. After all, I’m standing here in this pulpit. Our denomination has been ordaining women since 1956.

But if you happened to read the Kansas City Star this weekend, and if you happened to turn to the Faith pages, you saw that the leading story is about Cardinal Raymond Burke, a Catholic priest from St. Louis now serving in Rome, declaring that the majority of issues facing the Catholic church have come about because girls have been permitted to be altar servers. “It requires a certain manly discipline to serve at the side of a priest,” he said. He said that the inclusion of women in this and other areas of church life indicates “a complete collapse” of faithful teaching, and that because of this, the church has lost its reputation for “rigor, precision, and excellence.”

I was baptized and raised Catholic. I have dear friends and family members who are faithful, practicing Catholics. So I understand that this cardinal’s opinion is not the opinion of his entire church. But I deeply grieve how this story is the representation of “church” to many in Kansas City (and beyond) this weekend.

And we Presbyterians ought not get too high and mighty. There was a time not that long ago — not here, but not that long ago — when I could count on receiving at least two phone calls a month during which someone on the other end of the phone would say, “You are so good at what you do. What a shame that we cannot support you as a pastor of this church. You know what the Bible says about women — how can you completely ignore that?”

Let me assure you that no woman who has ever stood in any pulpit anywhere has managed to completely ignore these passages. But their question is still a valid one.

Before we go any further, though, there is something else that needs to be said. And that is to acknowledge that the inclusion of these words in the Bible has resulted in damage. Damage has been done to no shortage of women because it is possible, within the pages of our sacred Scripture, to read not only that women are to be silent, but that they are to submit; that men are to have a place of authority over them, always. It does not take much imagination to see how these words could lead to violence. It does not take much imagination to see how these words could lead to shaken confidence, deep sadness or spiritual laryngitis. And if that has been your experience of “church” or “Bible” or “life,” please hear me clearly when I say this: I’m sorry.

I’m sorry because you are worthy of much better than that, and I’m sorry because the Bible is worthy of much better than that, too.

If you’ve been to my house, you’ve probably heard me warn you to close the bathroom door “with intention.” That’s my attempt at finding a nice way of saying, “Slam the door.” The door has a habit of popping open again if it’s not latched just right. I’m sure if I check my mortgage paperwork, I probably paid extra for this little feature; I’m sure it was considered “character.” Now, if I have warned you about my character-filled door, you’re all right. But if I forgot to say it, or if you didn’t hear it, chances are good that while you are in there doing whatever you’re doing, the door is going to swing open and we’re all going to end up embarrassed.

Sometimes I think these Scripture passages are like my bathroom door: not entirely without merit, but certainly in need of a cautionary word.

These passages require us to work hard, to use every tool of biblical interpretation available to us,

to have enough charity toward the task at hand to prevent us from simply throwing in the towel and throwing out the text, to poke and prod until we find some way that it points us toward life. Because the Bible itself is a living Word, and living things instinctively understand that we need air to breathe. The Word of God is not the Word of God if it threatens to suffocate and silence anyone.

After college I taught outdoor education in California to a different group of sixth graders every week. One of my favorite classes was called “outdoor survival.” The first thing the syllabus called for was a long hike, during which we pretended to get very, very lost. And once the students were convinced we were very, very lost, we would teach them how to find their bearings. How to find their way home. The first instructions were always to stop moving and look around. Those are good instructions for Scripture, too, for those times when the Word of our God makes us feel lost or confused or afraid.

If we stop moving and focus carefully on what’s right in front of us, we might notice something. Women should be silent, these letters say. It is not appropriate that women speak in church, they say.

When my brother and I were younger, we loved to play tag. For reasons that defy common sense, we preferred to play indoors. My poor mother. “No running in the house,” she must have hollered at us five times a day. But you know what? She never once yelled that when we were sitting quietly, reading books. She only yelled “no running in the house” when we were running in the house.

“You don’t tell women to shut up, unless they are [already] talking,” (notes Deborah Krause in her commentary on 1 Timothy.)

That certainly doesn’t solve all the problems of these texts, but I find comfort in knowing our foremothers in the faith weren’t afraid to speak up.

And then, if we keep following instructions, if we look around, really look around, at the whole Bible, not just these select passages, we seek quite quickly that these texts are not the only ones that have something to say about women’s participation in the church. Just moments before Paul tells women to be quiet in 1 Corinthians 14, there he is in 1 Corinthians 11 telling women how they should style their hair for the times when they will be speaking words of prophesy in church (1 Corinthians 11:2-16).

Look around a little more and find Paul’s beautiful words to the church in Galatia: “In Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:8).

Look around a little more and find Paul singing the praises of Phoebe and Prisca, Junia and Euodia and Syntyche and more, all women, all mentioned by name as full partners in ministry.

Look around and find Acts, where on Pentecost the prophetic vision of Joel is fulfilled, with God’s spirit being poured out on both men and women (Acts 2:16-21).

Look around and find Jesus, engaging in a long, theological discussion with the woman at the well; asking questions of a hemorrhaging woman who comes to him for healing; changing his plans when a little girl is sick and dying; changing his mind when a Canaanite woman insists that she deserves his help.

Look around and find Mary of Nazareth, a young woman chosen by God to birth Jesus into this world.

Look around and find Mary Magdalene, the first to visit Jesus’ grave, the first preacher of the resurrection, a woman preacher commissioned by the risen Christ himself. “Go and tell them,” he said to her. “Go and tell them what is happening.”

Look all around you, and eventually, you’ll find your bearings. Eventually, you’ll find your way home.

And when I do that, when I lift my eyes and look around even more, I find countless other women who have done exactly what Jesus instructed, who have preached resurrection into my life.

I find Jennifer Kreft, who first taught me to love the church.

I find Kathy Ling, my high school math teacher who went to seminary at the same time I did. She has the same theology degree as I do, but, as a practicing Catholic, serves as a priest’s assistant. She won’t leave the Catholic church, she says, because it is the place where she learned how much she was loved by God, and she’ll never turn her back on that.

I look around and I find Frances Taylor Gench, my seminary professor who taught me that loving the Bible means holding it the highest standard, sometimes fighting with it, always demanding that blessing come from it.

I find Carla Pratt Keyes, who spoke as bold and prophetic a word as I’ve ever received, insisting, when I contemplated walking away from congregational ministry, that I was making a terrible mistake.

I find Sarah Wiles, who sends me text messages at 3 am when she is up feeding a baby and wondering about the Greek translation of certain words and how that matters in her congregation’s life.

I find Cheryl Couch-Thomas, who loves and teaches our children, Mich Phillips who mentors and guides our youth, Diane Quaintance, who nurtures and challenges our adults, and Elisa Bickers who, I swear to you, makes dry bones dance.

I look around and I find Judy Wiseman, who heads up our trustees, and Dee Couch, who coordinates communion. I find Alice Carrott, who listens like a champion, and Kim Higgins, who understands the redemptive power of a good walk.

Perhaps this seek-and-find exercise leads to the deep truth of these hard texts and others like them. Because “if you are looking for Bible verses to oppress women, you will find them. If you are looking for verses to liberate and honor women, you will find them. If you are looking for verses to support slavery, you will find them. If you are looking for verses to abolish slavery, you will find them. If you are looking for reasons to wage war, you will find them. If you are looking for reasons to promote peace, you will find them. If you are looking for an outdated and irrelevant ancient text, you will find it. If you are looking for truth, believe me, you will find it … If you want to do violence in this world, you will always find the weapons. But if you want to heal, you will always find the balm” (Adapted from Rachel Held Evans.)

Do you accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ and God’s Word to you?

It is because of the women in my life — women in the Bible and women who read the Bible, women who have helped me find my place in this great gospel story— that I can say: I do. With all my heart, with all my soul, with all my mind, and with all my strength: I do.