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Women of the Bible and Church
March 10, 2019, 12:00 AM

Grace and peace to you from the Triune God. May the words on my lips and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to God.

I wanted to lift up that Friday was International Women's Day, traditionally an opportunity to celebrate women as people and to work for equality and suffrage (or the right to vote). It was first held February 28, 1909 and was organized by the Socialist Party of America. It quickly spread to many countries and in 1911, one million women celebrated the day in Austria, Switzerland, Germany and Denmark. Originally it was celebrated on the last Sunday in February. More recently it is celebrated on March 8, which was the Sunday in 1914 when it was held in Germany. Interestingly, March 8 was the day that women gained the right to vote in Russia in 1917.  Since 1975 it has been adopted as a global celebration by the United Nations and has been expanding ever since. Now with corporate sponsorship some accuse it of promoting only the feel good messages and not the real challenges surrounding issues of equality and justice. The UN theme for International Women's Day 2019 was: 'Think equal, build smart, innovate for change'. The focus of the theme is on innovative ways in which to advance gender equality and the empowerment of women, particularly in the areas of social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure.

I bring this up simply because as the Church we are called to work for justice. This is one of the movements that has tried to do this for women, one of the often marginalized groups in many societies. It is only since the 1970's in the United States for instance that marriage and property laws started to be equalized in a way that allows women to be self supporting and to leave a marriage with what they brought to the marriage and/or some portion of the combined wealth. In our own time we know that the pay rate for equal work is not the same between the two genders. The situation is improving and there is work yet to be done. This is the situation in a well developed, industrial country where the attitudes are relatively favorable toward women but is certainly not the global standard. In fairness, some governments are not following the sentiment of their people but instead leading the way with laws that seek to move the reality and the social understanding of women in their society.

To this end I wanted to first lift up some of the women in the bible who are examples for us to follow. There is the ever popular Esther, who is credited with using her position of privilege and power in a way that could have cost her her own life to save the Israelite people. There is the story of Ruth and Naomi, which shows how they cared for each other and provides a model for good relationships and mutual care but also points out to the reality that is still true in many places, that without a male figure (husband, brother, or son) involved they could not own property or expect to have a stable income. There are of course, also not to be forgotten, Eve the mother of all people, Sara who suffered pregnancy at 100, (well beyond child bearing years I believe it says) there is Rebekah, mother of Esau and Jacob, who subverts the patrilineal system, and we should remember all those who go unnamed like the recipient of the poem known as Song of Solomon.

Moving in to the New Testament we start with Mary and Elizabeth. Elizabeth is the mother of John who would announce the coming Messiah and Mary is the Bearer of God (Theo Tokos) or if you prefer mother of Jesus. Both of these women should be lifted up for their witness to being faithful and fulfilling God's call. There is Mary Magdalene who is the one of the consistent companions of Jesus and the first person to the tomb on Easter morning, a person without whom we might never have heard about the resurrection. In the spirit of the Day and the thoughts of equality it should be noted that she may well have been a “disciple” as she often fulfills many of the same roles as the 12 and certainly is as faithful a companion to Jesus. The times precluded her being given equal status with the male disciples, unfortunately.

That is just a few of the women critical to the gospel but that is not the end of the list as we need to remember the women listed in the other parts of the New Testament, especially since they were some of those who ensured the churches finances and who provided space for worship and meetings. There is Phoebe one of the original deacons of the church and proud supporter of Paul. Then we have Lydia, a dealer in purple (one of the royal colors) who was an example of faith and a supporter of the church from the very earliest of times. It is thought that Paul used her as an official courier for his letters which would have meant also being the person who returned with report from the place it was delivered. This is an important part of the transmission and expansion of the gospel message to new areas. In all there are about 60 different woman mentioned in the New Testament, which is especially significant since that was from a time when women were mostly considered property of the men in the society and were often left without means of support if they were not married.

I would also be remiss if I did not mention some of the faithful women in church since that time, people without whom we would not have grown or thrived and people, some of whom have left us a legacy that guides our faith today. There are those we know from the male leaders they raised to be people of faith like Helen mother of Constantine. There are also those we know for their witness of faith and their writing like Catherine of Ciena, Hildegard von Bingen and Teresa of Avila. I think it not too much to say that without women through the course of history that the church would not be what it is today.

Finally, I want to honor some of the women of more modern times. There are those like my mother, my grandmother and my aunt, blood relatives who helped to raise me in the faith. There are also those like Judy Lee Hay (my childhood pastor), Dorothy Conley (grandmother of my childhood church), Kim Young (who befriended me and took me Christmas shopping), and  Mildred and other activist women (who showed me how faith can empower us to seek justice), to name a few.  There is Catherine Jeffereys Schorie the first female bishop of the Episcopal church. There is Elizabeth Eaton our own presiding bishop for the ELCA. There are the many modern theologians who also happen to be women like Barbara Brown Taylor. And the list could go on for days. Certainly it is also true if we even just look around that the ministries of this church would not have been as good without the women of the church.

At its best the church has been a beacon for justice and equality. One of the places this has been sometimes true (and sometimes very not true) is in giving women a place of equality. There are places like India where it is still largely the only place to go if you wish to escape the entrenched inequalities. I pray that we can continue to use the Church to show the world what is possible if we just give all people the opportunity to be themselves and bring those gifts to the table.