A Homily for the Sixth Sunday of Easter
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who has sent us faithful witnesses to proclaim the Gospel. Amen.
Question: How many of you attended a church with a woman serving as pastor before you were 18? Show of hands.
If you grew up in the old LCA or ALC, you wouldn’t have seen a female pastors until after 1970. Even in the theologically diverse realm of “General Protestant” military chapels during the 1990s and early 2000s, while I met the occasional female chaplain, they were far and few between. It wasn’t until I got to college that I joined a ministry with women serving as fully ordained pastors. In fact, when I started seminary in 2010, even though some predecessors of the United Methodist Church began ordaining women in the late 19th century, my class was the first at Candler to be majority-women.
And if we look around the world, we see that women in ministry are the exception, not the rule. Given that half of the world’s Christians are Catholics and that a wide variety of Protestant denominations actively bar women from ordained ministry, the reality is that the majority of Christians have never heard a woman preach in the pulpit.
In other circles of the Church, women are not only kept out of the pulpit but kept off of congregational councils and committees, prohibited from teaching men in Sunday school, confined to “women’s ministries” like wedding planning, and relegated to a “second-class” status.
Our reading from Acts, then, is especially surprising. Paul has a dream about a man from Macedonia calling the apostle and his missionary team to plant a new ministry in the province. They set off at once and they meet – a woman. Lydia, a cloth merchant, to be exact.
In Saint Lydia, we see the first time anyone living in Europe converts to Christianity.
As with most of the Church’s early ministry, this seems like a rough start. After all, our cultural views on women aren’t new. Many ancient Greek philosophers, including Plato and Aristotle, taught that women were created inferior to men, less worthy of honor and dignity, incapable of being as virtuous as men. The Hellenistic and Roman societies were structured around this fundamental belief, built around the extended household with the pater familias, the oldest living man, at the top. He had near-absolute authority over the women, children, employees, and the slaves, and had the right to marry off his daughters as he saw fit. A woman’s place in this society was largely dictated by either her father’s or her husband’s station.
In this context, Lydia is something of an outsider. She deals in purple cloth, meaning she is likely wealthy, but as a businesswoman and a female head of household, she is unusual. She is not Jewish, but Saint Luke tells us that she is a “worshiper of God,” a Gentile participating on the fringes of Jewish culture. She is not exactly a powerful ally. If Paul was looking for a Macedonian man, she wasn’t it. If he wanted a rabbi to provide an in to the Jewish community in Philippi, it wasn’t her. If was hoping a pater familias could provide some level of financial and social support, Lydia wasn’t that. And yet she is the reason that Christianity spreads from Asia Minor into Europe, leading her entire household to be baptized. Entering into ministry with Paul, she lead the Church in Philippi, providing shelter and resources.
We entered Easter with the testimony of Mary Magdalene and the faithful women who followed Christ to the cross and went to the tomb early on the first day of the week. These blessed saints became the first to preach the Gospel of the Resurrection, and yet, Saint Luke tells us, the men dismiss their testimony as “an idle tale.” Now, near the end of the Great Fifty Days, we return to where we began: with a women spreading the Gospel. Today we meet Lydia, and in two chapters, Priscilla, a great teacher, is introduced. Saint Luke makes abundantly clear that women have a central role to play in Christ’s Church.
It’s tempting to say here that God is doing a new thing, expanding the Kingdom from the work of men and flowing into the work of women, much the same way that the Church expanded from the Jews to include the Gentiles as well. But no, God’s plan to redeem the world has always included women. Not only were Mary Magdalene and the faithful women the first to proclaim Christ’s Resurrection but it was the Blessed Virgin, the Mother of God, whom gave birth to the Savior. It is God’s revelation to this Mary which brings fulfillment to the covenant. Before Mary, it was Esther, Jael, and Judith who slew Israel’s enemies and saved God’s chosen. It was Huldah the prophet who interprets the Law of Moses and calls the people to repentance. It was Deborah who led Israel before the time of the Kings. And it was Miriam during the Exodus who sang, “Ashira l’adonai, ki ga-oh ga-ah.” “Sing to the Lord, for God is highly exalted.” Miriam’s song at the Red Sea is written in a very old dialect, possibly the first words of the Bible to be recorded. From the very beginning, God’s plan to redeem the entire world has depended on women in ministry.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Good News that our Lord has conquered the grave, is at its core about restoring creation to bring about a new heavens and a new earth, to put all things to right and for us to live as God has always intended. And this means restoring the created order: that from the very beginning the Lord created us, male and female both, in the glorious image of God.
For too long, the Church has followed in the ways of the world, telling women that they are of less worth than men. For too long, we have turned a blind eye to women, silencing their voices, telling them that God had no use for their talent, that they cannot possibly be called by God, that their ministry was restricted to washing altar linens and serving at the potluck. For too long, we have kept women out of the pulpit. And for too long, we have ignored violence against women. (Clergy have been the chief offenders.) Let me be clear: sexual harassment and assault and domestic violence are pernicious and pervasive. The question is not if you know a victim of abuse; rather the question is who do you know. And it is long past time for us to believe women when they share these stories with us and to hold their attackers to account. (This seems an opportune time for me to put this number out there: 1-800-799 -7233; that’s the national domestic violence hotline. If you or someone you know needs help, please use it.) And yet the Church has turned a blind eye on the sexual abuse perpetrated against our sisters, blaming them for the sin of their abusers, blaming them for violent husbands, and condemning them to lives of servitude and fear.
This is not the will of God. Our Lord Jesus Christ came to set the captives free. The Gospel is Good News of liberation – yes, liberation from sin and death, and this necessarily means liberation from abuse. It means liberating women’s voices and hearing their testimony to the majesty of God’s saving work. The Gospel means that silenced voices will be heard – in Scripture, in the pulpit, at the Altar, and when they bear painful witness to the sinful reality of sexual abuse and domestic violence.
We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses not only proclaiming the Gospel with their mouths but putting it into action with their very lives. The Gospel in action looks like this: my friend and colleague, Carrie. She’s a Baptist pastor and chaplain who specializes in providing spiritual care for survivors of abuse and sexual assault. It is women like Carrie who follow in the footsteps of Lydia by taking the Gospel into new places, working to bring hope and healing to those whose stories would leave the rest of us a weeping wreck huddled on the floor. In the face of such demonic and destructive sin, Carrie is the hands and feet of Christ serving the world.
Dear ones, hear the voices of faithful women like Lydia. Listen for their witness in Scripture, revealing the Lord’s will and preaching the Gospel. Hear our sisters cry out for justice. And join with Miriam and Mary in singing the praises of a God who has sent us hope for resurrection and restoration in the face of sin and violence: “Ashira l’adonai, ki ga-oh ga-ah.” Sing to the Lord, for God is highly exalted.