Archive for October, 2008

Remembering Chalmers

Sunday, October 26th, 2008

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Matthew 22: 34-36

Preface: Chalmers

I am holding a worn black and white Kodak photograph, 1954, in which a black suited man with a great shock of white hair is holding a baby boy. The white hair is that of Allan Knight Chalmers.

You may wonder where sermons come from. Surely they arise out of careful interpretation of the Scripture. Certainly they are born in the struggle and uncertainty of prayerful life, especially in a time like ours. Necessarily they emerge from the manifold dialogues and discussions which are the marrow of community life. Occasionally they burst forth from the abject need of a person or a public situation. Sometimes, all of these are catalyzed, together by a single remark. Today’s sermon was lit by the match of a friend’s single sentence.

Where do illumination, imagination, inspiration come from? Why did I use the adjective ‘erstwhile’ in conversation last week? How did he find a way to solve a scientific problem by turning it upside down? Where did her inclination, accurate inclination, to doubt what she was hearing dwell before it came to live in her mind?

My friend stopped to talk. We talked. As in all real conversation, there was a mixture of memory and imagination. She said: ‘it is so sad when people lack access to their own best past’. It is. It is so sad when someone lacks access to his or he own best past. It is tragically sad when a country, or a people, or a denomination lacks access to its own best past. Her sentence arranged, as a host arranges a dinner table, today’s sermon. Her comment placed the Scripture in the right light, caught the temper of prayerful struggle today, dipped into the theme of this weekend’s remembrance, burst out of her own pathos, and, thereby, caught fire. Here is one definition of hell: losing access to your own best past. Here is one description of heaven: finding access to your own best past.

Over thirty years of pastoral ministry, we have seen women, men and groups lose their way, lacking access to their own best past. They can be cut-off from such blessing through accident, change, job-loss, migration, divorce, or other endings in relationships. Over thirty years of pastoral ministry, we have seen women, men and groups find their way home, gaining access to their own best past in memory, dream, reconnection, reading, prayer. This is what Sunday morning is all about!

Isn’t this what happened to Martin Luther, blocked from his best past in the dark loneliness of his monk’s cell, blocked by fear and anguish and dread? He found the Psalms, and understood them. He found the letters of Paul, and interpreted them. He found Augustine, and learned from him. He burst out—sola fide!, sola gratia!, sola Scriptura. (I might have left off the sola!) He found freedom and grace by gaining access to his own best past.

I want to offer you the gift of memory as a help for imagination. I want today to offer access to your own best past, in the specific memory of a forgotten person, whose legacy is our best past and our desired future. Allan Knight Chalmers expressed and embodied preaching, change, and wholeness—kerygma, metanoia, oikoumene.

Here is a sketch of Chalmers’ life from the King Center:

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1897, Chalmers received his B.A. (1917) from Johns Hopkins University and his B.D. (1922) from Yale University. He joined the faculty at Boston University in 1948 after serving as minister of New York’s Broadway Tabernacle Congregational Church for eighteen years. During his career, he was chair of the Scottsboro Defense Committee during the 1930s, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, treasurer of the NAACP, and active in the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Religion and Labor Foundation. Chalmers retired from Boston University’s faculty in 1962.

Chalmers was a personal and professional supporter of King and the movement. In early 1956, as treasurer of the NAACP, he wrote to King promising to support the Montgomery bus boycott: “We will back you at the national level without any question” (Papers 3:173). In December 1960 he organized a meeting of leaders from various civil rights organizations, such as FOR, the American Friends Service Committee, the National Council of Churches, CORE, and SNCC, to discuss how they could cooperate to move desegregation forward in the South. Chalmers remained active in the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and in other peace, religious, and political groups until his death.

1. Kerygma: Chalmers’ Preaching Voice

We remember Chalmers on a good day to do so. Our lessons today, particularly the reading from St. Matthew, connect closely to the project of his life. We shall lift out simply one sense in which this is so. Today’s reading offers a wonderfully broad gospel, for those with eyes to see it and ears to hear it. One of the dangers of interpretation, compounded by years of study, can be the inability to see forest for trees. The reading today, seen whole, is universal, broad, magnanimous, liberal, inclusive, free, gracious, embracing, and itself whole, and so, holy. How shall we summarize religious teaching? Love God, love your neighbor. Granted the long histories of rabbinic debate about the law and its summary, granted the further Messianic dispute underneath the argument about David, granted the particular changes Matthew makes of his inheritance from Mark here, granted the various other fine points that we would lift out on another day and in other sermon, still, the main point holds. In Christ there is no east or west, in Him no south or north, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth. The river of love will ever surmount the banks of law. The river of love will ever surmount the banks of religion. The river of love will ever surmount, and ever overtake the endless banks of boundaries we seek to set. I suggest we think about that a bit, in late October of 2008. Such breadth is at the heart of Allan Knight Chalmers.

Here is a taste of his pulpit voice. Chalmers preached:

You will in many cases
fail to understand with absolute correctness the
meaning of words, since words are symbols of
thought and are not accurate; but you will come
closer to the truth if you give the benefit of a deep
desire to reveal a truth and not to hurt, to any
set of words you hear or see. ( A Candle in the Wind, 29)

They are lost who lack access to their own best past. One is lost who lacks access to his own best past. You are lost who lack access to your own best past.

Chalmers told his students that a B was required to pass the preaching class. A lower grade meant taking the class again. Chalmers encouraged his students to ‘read a book a day’. He meant the habit to continue through a lifetime. Chalmers believed in preaching without notes. Still, if the student wanted to become a manuscript preaching Chalmers would aim to make him a strong manuscript preacher.

His classes met three times a week, an hour at a time. He required weekly ‘interstitials’, which were two or three paragraph reflections on a moment, experience, event, theme, or idea. Mrs. Chalmers attended the Edith Buell Club (for seminary wives).

My Dad remembers hearing Chalmers in the spring of 1950. Pacing the platform of the Oneida Methodist Church (where in 1968, at age 13, I was confirmed), Chalmers held a packed sanctuary enthralled in the retelling of the Scottsboro Boys story. Chalmers lead t
hat early civil rights crusade to free 9 unjustly convicted black teenagers, a successful crusade that over a decade freed them all. He whispered. He shouted. He stepped off the exact measurement of the prison cells in which the lads had been held. He kicked the pulpit (I have no idea what that gesture aided). He placed before that gathering of 500 young adults the cause of justice in their time. My parents heard, and chose Boston over Drew (always a wise choice).

2. Metanoia: Chalmers Social Gospel

The other day I feasted in the stacks of the Gottlieb Archives. Ryan brought me pencils, paper, white gloves and three long folders of original Chalmers writings. One contained letters from and to Martin Luther King. Another contained writings related to the NAACP and the civil rights movement, and correspondence with Thurgood Marshall (there is a photo of Chalmers, Fosdick and Marshall). A third contained two reflective essays, Chalmers remembering, not Chalmers remembered. The first of these was written at the behest of Harrison Salisbury and the New York Times. One handwritten short letter is from a ten year old boy, offering the NAACP a gift of 22 dollars (my mother is writing you this check in her name because I don’t have a checking account—I’m only ten years old)..

Writing to King, his student, colleague and friend, Chalmers strongly propounded time to think: A man gets thin if he does not read, becomes inaccurate if he does not write, but most of all loses profoundness if he does not think; or if he is deep he may only be in a rut because he has not had time to think anew as time and circumstances have gone on. (AKC-MLK, 3/6/60).

Writing to donors, raising money for Freedom Riders’ legal defense, Chalmers urges action: Each of them faces four months imprisonment, $200 fine, and a permanent record of criminal conviction that can mar his future. Their only offense was: they had faith in the rule of law in our country (AKC, 11/20/61, NAACPLDEF REPORT).

Writing to the Times editor, now in the 1970’s and commenting on that troubled time, Chalmers offers an exemplary rendering of responsible Christian liberalism: the silent generation slogged; the violent generation slugs. Too many did not think back historically or ahead creatively…Separate is not equal…(This generation) has not yet produced leaders, both intelligent and selfless…We are in a phase where the icons and the iconoclasts are in control. Where are the bulldozers who know that what they do is part of a building plan? Time will have to tell.

Chalmers had a supporter in Paul Tillich.

“Social institutions as well as personal habits have an almost irresistible tendency to perpetuate themselves in disregard of the demands of creative justice in a new situation or under unique conditions both in the communal and in the individual life.” (Tillich, 56)

“What kind of knowledge can create moral action? It cannot be the detached knowledge of pre-scientific or scientific inquiry, nor can it be the knowledge of the day to day handling of things and people, even if such knowledge is elevated to the level of technical expertise or psychological skill, for any of this can be used for the most anti-moral actions. (Our most flagrant example of this is the Nazi system).” (ibid)

Chalmers had a kindred spirit in the poet Hayden Carruth, who died in Munnsville, New York a few weeks ago.

Hayden Carruth: “Regret, acknowledged or not, is the inevitable and in some sense necessary context—the bedrock—of all human thought and activity. Intellectually speaking, it is the ground we stand on”.

Chalmers would admonish us to remember, as Colin Powell did last week: 30% of all American teenagers do not graduate from high school. For African Americans, the number is 50%.

One of my favorite quotes of Daniel L. Marsh is cited in his book, The Charm of the Chapel, where he states: “We hope that the procession of immortal youth passing through the halls of Boston University for the next thousand years will be vouchsafed a vision of greatness, and that that vision of greatness will become habitual, and result in moral progress.”

3. Oikoumene: Remembering Chalmers Today

I looked this week at Chalmer’s books: Candles in the Wind, As He Passed By, A Constant Fire, and others. The rhetoric is dated but the passion is timeless. Chalmers believed that this world could change for the better. People, individuals and groups, could turn around, think again, change their mind, think twice. Change happens. Real change is real hard, but this world can become a better place. After many years of division and discord, I hear a remembrance of Chalmers and others like him. This summer and this fall, across multiple perspectives, there has been a lifted a set of voices like his.

This country is beginning to remember Chalmers. We remember Chalmers best by remembering today’s Gospel best. We are beginning to remember…

To remember that our differences are not our definition. To remember that real leaders are plow horses not show horses. To remember that, in the balance of liberty and justice, those who have much should not have too much and those who have little should not have too little. To remember that warfare that is preemptive, unilateral, imperial, unforeseeable, reckless, and immoral stands outside of Judeo-Christian just war theory, let alone outside of Chalmers’ pacifism. To remember that a passion for justice comes in more than one shade, more than hue, more than one color. To remember that no one person and no one tribe have a corner on the market of the true, the good, and the beautiful. To remember that people, all people, belong to one another. To remember that God loved the world, the cosmos, the oikoumene. To remember that you only have what you give away. To remember that you are your brother’s keeper. To remember that love of God and love of neighbor are love together. To remember that Scripture is errant, tradition affirms equality, reason accepts evolution, and experience counts. (You folks, if you give me enough time, I will make you Methodists yet!) To remember that the measure of success is found the treatment of the least, last and lost, those at the dawn, twilight and shadows of life. To remember that real liberation means the possibility of salvation for all, not some. To remember that you whose commonwealth is heaven are citizens of the globe, the oikoumene.

Coda: Crawford

After about twenty years of preaching, and with much reluctance, I finally enrolled in a continuing education program. I had come to the edge of these waters other times, sometimes even showing up for opening events, only to turn around and head home, disappointed at what I could see coming. In the winter of 1999, somehow, I went down to Princeton for a preaching week. One evening, a man whose name I vaguely knew stood in that chaste chapel to preach. An African American, the venerable dean of a venerable university chapel, the man’s stealth and subtlety drew me. He preached on the Psalms, and as he preached, the other failed educational moments of other years and of the days preceding began to fall away. He turned his slight frame, twisting in an elliptical pose. He darted and wove and scampered and paused. Then, unexpectedly, he stopped and said, a propos of what I know not: ‘No one here will remember Allan Knight Chalmers. But let me tell you who he was.’ On that cold Princeton night in 1999 Edgar Evans Crawford told the story of my name, and of my life. It was a strange, wonderful, true moment—kerygma, metanoia, oikomene—as strange a moment as I can recall. When you gain access to your own best past, then you are set free. When you gain access to your own best past, then you are given grace.

I am holding a worn black and white Kodak photograph, 1954, in whi
ch a black suited man with a great shock of white hair is holding a baby boy. The white hair is that of Allan Knight Chalmers…for whom I was named, by whom I am held. Still.

Preaching, change, common hope. Kerygma, metanoia, oikoumene.

You see, as all sermons, this one is very personal. I was named, Robert ALLAN Hill, named for Chalmers. I am holding a worn black and white Kodak photograph, 1954, in which a black suited man with a great shock of white hair is holding a baby boy. The white hair is that of Allan Knight Chalmers, for whom I was named, by whom I am held.

He holds me still.

- The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

A Knock at the Door

Sunday, October 19th, 2008

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Revelation 3:20

At this time in the year, at Boston University, we meet with parents and students who are on the cusp of coming and going, sending and being sent. It is a bone jarring moment. It is reality, the reality of time and eternity, change and love. Most of our words to parents and students are meant to convey our sincere commitment to excellence, our attention to detail, our trustworthiness, if you will, as an institution and as individuals. The message is sincere and true, important and timely. This is a good place, and your sons and daughters will be here among good people. So we say, week by week. We mean it and it is the truth.

But another reality of Parents Weekend, for parent and student, is not about us at all, but is about them, about feelings, feelings wrought by coming and going. We also should speak of and to them.

I see parents with their freshman children and I overhear feelings.

There is a feeling of gratitude, so thick you can see it in the air. I do not mean only the word of thanks that one more teenager is leaving home, one less bell to answer, one less egg to fry, though I suppose that is there, too. I mean the feeling that comes with a gasp in the throat, ‘thank you’. I mean the feeling of seeing, my goodness, 18 years have gone by, and here, look, look at that young woman, that young man, my son, my daughter. These parents have seen Fiddler on the Roof thirty years ago on Broadway, but they only understand it this summer. It is a feeling of thanksgiving, for life, for youth, for children, for family, for affection. Every now and then, you catch a smile on a dad’s face, a lightness in a mom’s eyes, and you know gratitude, a real feeling.

There is a feeling of loss, too. In fact, loss is next door neighbor to gratitude, funny as that is. I don’t mean only the loss you feel with the first tuition check sent, though that is truly a real feeling. In these summer meetings, I see sometimes a parent turn away, with eyes brimming, a private moment that even as a pastor I feel unworthy to engage. I know that feeling. We took all three of our children from Rochester to Columbus, to drop them off at a small Methodist college for small Methodists. We dropped them off at Ohio Wesleyan and then drove home. All three times I thought the tears would stop by Cleveland, but they didn’t, or the time we got to Erie, but they didn’t, or at least in Buffalo, but they didn’t. In some ways, they haven’t stopped yet. You feel a prayer on the lips, when you say, and you must say it and mean it, ‘goodbye’.

There is a feeling of hope as well. You cannot be around many hundred eighteen year olds and turn a cold heart to the future. That much energy brings its own promise and these parents feel it. At matriculation in two months we will sit in front of 4000 young hearts, 8000 young eyes and ears and hands, 4000 souls. When they cheer together there is a tingle, a mixture of awe and fear and wonder, like the feeling of a ten foot wave breaking right in front of you. ‘Bless you’ we say and pray, and so do our parents. There is a new day upon us and it brings a sense of promise.

Now our parents have other things to think about and bigger fish to fry than to connect their feeling (far more than sentiment or emotion by the way) with the birth of Boston University. Yet these three feelings of gratitude and loss and promise created this school in 1839. Oh, John Dempster and the other 19th century founders would have used other, more religious, more technically theological terms, but the feelings were exactly theirs too, as they served as midwives at the birth of Boston University. In place of gratitude, they would have spoken of grace, prevenient grace at that. In place of loss, they would have spoken of itinerancy, the spiritual journey that is the heart of life. In place of promise, they would have invoked the gospel word of freedom, in the name of the God who is loving us into love and freeing us into freedom. But the feelings—that is, the realities—are the very same.

With such feelings we meet the beginnings of Paul’s teaching in 1 Thessalonians and the beginnings of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. The authority of Jesus’ ministry is today transferred to disciples, ancient and modern. Both passages ask us about vocation.

To follow Jesus means to take up where he and his earliest companions left off.

‘Do you love Jesus? Then you must do something for him.’

Jesus has taught, preached and healed. This ministry he has bequeathed to his disciples, his apostles. We have been seized by the confession of the Church; we are Christians. Now his ministry, this ministry, is ours. Which part of this ministry draws you?

Where does your passion meet the world’s need?

What are you ready to risk doing, to plan for the worst, hope for the best, then do your most, and leave all the rest?

What are you going to give yourself to, to offer your ability, affability, and availability?

Who calls you, who called you, to your own real life, your vocation? We began this spring to gather people here at the University to ask them this. Who gave you your sense of direction, vocation in life? Robert Pinsky revitalized poetry by asking communities to gather and read their favorites. We are trying to revitalize vocation by asking communities to gather and remember their mentors. What about you? Here are three examples.

Schweitzer

Maybe we need to remember Albert Schweitzer.

A child organ prodigy, a youthful New Testament scholar, a young principal in his Alsatian theological seminary, a man whose books and articles I used with profit in my own dissertation a few years ago, Schweitzer’s life changed on the reading of a Paris Mission Society Magazine.

As a scholar, he wrote: He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word, ‘Follow me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.’ (QHJ, 389).

What he wrote of Jesus became his life. He left organ and desk, studied medicine, and practiced in Africa for 35 years, calling his philosophy, ‘a reverence for life’.

Vocation leads to God. A decision about vocation leads to nearness to the divine.

Addams

Maybe we need to remember the young woman from Rockford Illinois, Jane Addams. She grew up 130 years ago, in a time and place unfriendly, even hostile, to the leadership that women might provide. But somehow she discovered her mission in life. And with determination she traveled to the windy city and set up Hull House, the most far reaching experiment in social reform that American cities had ever seen. Hull House was born out of a social vision, and nurtured through the generosity of one determined woman. Addams believed fervently that we are responsible for what happens in the world. So Hull House, a place of feminine community and exciting spiritual energy, was born. Addams organized female labor unions. She lobbied for a state office to inspect factories for safety. She built public playgrounds and staged concerts and cared for immigrants. She became politically active and gained a national following on t
he lecture circuit. She is perhaps the most passionate and most effective advocate for the poor that our country has ever seen.

Addams wrote: “The blessings which we associate with a life of refinement and cultivation must be made universal if they are to be permanent…The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain, is floating in midair, until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.”

Yet it was a Rochesterian who, for me, explained once the puzzle of Jane Addams’ fruitful generosity. This was the historian Christopher Lasch. Several times in the 1980’s I thought of driving over here to visit him. But I never took the time, and as you know, he died seven years ago. Lasch said of Addams, “Like so many reformers before her, she had discovered some part of herself which, released, freed the rest.”

Is there a part of your soul ready today to be released, that then will free the rest of you?

Vocation leads to God.

Thurman

Maybe we need to remember Howard Thurman. The first page of his autobiography announces today’s gospel, that Jesus empowers his disciples, whose vocations lead to God:

At the end of my first year at the Rochester Theological Seminary, I became assistant to the minister of the First Baptist Church of Roanoke, Virginia. I was to assume the duties as pastor during the month that the minister and his family were away on vacation. I would be on my own. On my first night alone in the parsonage I was awakened by the telephone. The head nurse of the local Negro hospital asked, ‘May I speak with Dr. James?’. I told her he was away. ‘Dr. James is the hospital chaplain’, she explained. ‘There is a patient here who is dying. He is asking for a minister. Are you a minister?’

In one kaleidoscopic moment I was back again at an old crossroad. A decision of vocation was to be made here, and I felt again the ambivalence of my life and my calling. Finally, I answered. ‘Yes, I am a minister’.

‘Please hurry’, she said, ‘or you’ll be too late’.

In a few minutes I was on my way, but in my excitement and confusion I forgot to take my Bible. At the hospital, the nurse took me immediately into a large ward. The dread curtain was around the bed. She pulled it aside and directed me to stand opposite her. The sick man’s eyes were half closed, his mouth open, his breathing labored. The nurse leaned over and, calling him by name, said, ‘The minister is here’.

Slowly he sought to focus his eyes first on her, and then on me. In a barely audible voice he said, ‘Do you have something to say to a man who is dying? If you have, please say it, and say it in a hurry.’

I bowed my head, closed my eyes. There were no words. I poured out the anguish of my desperation in one vast effort. I felt physically I was straining to reach God. At last, I whispered my Amen.

We opened our eyes simultaneously as he breathed, ‘Thank you. I understand.’ He died with his hand in mine.

Vocation leads to God.

The kingdom of heaven is at hand when your passion meets another’s need. Jesus empowers his disciples. Vocation leads to God.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

A Diaconal Mystique

Sunday, October 12th, 2008

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Philippians 4: 1-9

“Have no anxiety about anything but in all things in prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your needs be known to God, for our commonwealth is in heaven.” (Phil. 3:20, 4:6)

In the resurrection of Christ Jesus, anxiety is eclipsed by joy, fear is overcome in thanksgiving.

If there is somewhere a lovelier avenue than Commonwealth Avenue on which to stroll, lollygag, walk, saunter and promenade, I know it not, and we know it not. Our commonwealth is in heaven, and Commonwealth is heavenly.

Boston, you have carefully placed statues, on the Commonwealth commons, not a statue to an unknown god, but statues to under known goddesses, the women who gave voice to women in this land. Abigail Adams, Lucy Stone, and Phylis Wheatley adorn the mall at Fairfield street.

Jan and I share your interest, and your perspective. Our most recent pulpit but one, in Rochester, NY, was located along the Genesee River, well within earshot of the work for women’s suffrage 100 years ago. Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton have set their ghosts free to patrol the waters of Lake Ontario still, even as Abigail and Lucy and Phylis, by spirt, keep us honest here. Susan and Elizabeth and their ghostly spirits inhabit the long, deep fresh waters of the Finger Lakes still. Abigail and Lucy and Phylis hover over the head of the Charles, and look out onto the salt sea still. They live in memories, hearts, minds, yearnings, souls and hopes.

This Chapel does what it can to freshen the memory, conscience and soul of a great city and a great university, whose heritage includes full inclusion of women from the get-go. The Methodism which created Boston University, and whose clergy gave continuous Presidential leadership to the school until just two Presidents ago, vigorously advanced the rights of women. Boston University graduated the first woman to become ordained to the ministry in the Methodist Episcopal Church, Anna Howard Shaw, and over many decades has been a beacon of encouragement and support for women in orders. Euodia and Syntche have many contemporary daughters. The current assembly of faculty in the School of Theology, wherein several of the senior and leading faculty are women, female scholars of national and global standing, is living, personified testimony to an older and earlier covenant with freedom. Living statues all!

Today, broadly speaking, 60% of our seminarians in United Methodist schools of theology are women. The ordination classes in my home conference included 8 women out of 8 ordained two years ago, and 7 out of 8 ordained this year. In my most recent staff but one, 3 out of 3 of my clergy colleagues were female. One church nearby, now served continuously by various women for more than 25 years, invited a male guest to preach last summer. A friend’s child said to her parents, “Oh, so men can be ministers too?”
We are not yet, to be clear, arrived at the gender kingdom of heaven. Inequities continue and abound. A dramatic percentage of women entering ministry leave within 5 years. The number of women leading large churches, arguably both the most difficult and most influential positions remaining in cataclysmically declining denominations, is still miminal (2 of 44 at one recent gathering of large church pastors). The number of daughters of women in ministry who themselves are drawn to ministry is exceedingly small, an indication of the kind of perception and experience in ministry as it currently exists. Furthermore, the actual working partnerships of women clergy and women laity across the churches are of mixed strength, as are, to a greater degree, the actual working partnerships of women clergy and male laity. I would estimate that a woman in ministry has a job 20% harder than her otherwise equally gifted male colleague. You can still hear these voices: “we have never had a woman…I just can’t hear her voice, it’s too soft…My fiancé really wants a man to perform the ceremony…I just feel more confident having a man in the senior position…she will be too preoccupied with her family…I doubt she will understand the finances of the church…there’s something about it I just don’t like”. To which we say: build a bridge and get over it. And, hither and yon, believe it or not, there are still some Christian groups that do not ordain women, or who chafe at their ordination when it does occur, and some of these are churches with large populations around the globe.

So we press on, we do not lose heart, we persevere. “Stand firm thus in the Lord my beloved.” Paul will help us.

Paul, you say? Yes, Paul.

On the journey, on the way toward the commonwealth of heaven, it may be of some mild and surprising encouragement, for you, to discover Paul, the feminist.

I recognize that raised eyebrow, that quizzical look, that unspoken question, that muttered retort. Paul? Feminist? Paul of Tarsus?

You may not yet have discovered the feminine side of Paul. Allow me to be your guide.

We will begin with today’s lectionary epistle.

Toward the end of Philippians Paul mentions by name two women, Euodia and Syntyche. The strong, leadership roles of these women in this earliest of churches should stand out strongly for us, listening in twenty centuries later. Paul commends them, commends them heartily and warmly and strongly. They are fellow workers. They have labored intimately with Paul, side by side. They have labored in the gospel. They have worked alongside Clement. Their names are written in the book of life.

Furthermore, the thematic flow of the letter reaches something like a climax in this pastoral, practical moment. Paul encourages the two women to be ‘same-minded’, (the Greek means something like ‘live in harmony of mind’) and, in a marvelously tantalizing aside, enlists a mystery guest, a true supporter, to help them. The levels of intimacy proven in Paul’s communication with the two, with the yokefellow, and thus with the church, are heart filling and heart warming to this very day. But the functional, crucial role the women are playing is also shown, and clearly. Paul relied on the leadership of women in Philippi, as he did regularly in his churches. (W. Meeks best described this some years ago in his great book, The First Urban Christians). Let me repeat that: Paul relied on the leadership of women in Philippi, as he did regularly in his churches.

Philippians is Paul’s happiest letter. The fourth chapter is the happiest chapter in the letter. And the communication to Euodaia and Syntche, begins the happiest of Paul’s paragraphs, preceded and succeeded as it is by joy. Make no mistake: at the pinnacle of his pastoral engagement, Paul turns, happily, to women.

This should not really surprise us.

When Paul announces the apocalypse of Christ, what is, not what should be, what Christ has wrought, not what we might do, he unmistakably honors the full humanity of women. He writes to the Galatians: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is ‘no male and female’’ (Gal.3:28).

When Paul wants best to describe his relationship with the Thessalonians, his pastoral embrace of them, he reaches out beyond the bounds of any expected metaphor to name himself a nurse, ‘gentle as a nurse’ (1 Thess. 2: 7). The Greek word here does not mean medical assistant. It means breast feeding wet nurse, a woman with a child suckling at the breast. Of all the overlooked verses in the Pauline corpus, this transgendered self-description, 1 Thess. 2:7, may be the most potent.

When Paul furiousl
y hunts for a way to characterize the present age, for a way of speaking that will carry the force of his thought into the hearts as well as minds of others, he speaks of child birth. The creation, he tells the Romans, is like a woman in the throes of giving birth. “The whole creation is groaning in travail” (Romans 8:22).

When Paul wants to describe spiritual nourishment to the otherwise inclined Corinthians, he compares meat and milk, and commends the use of milk for those who need it (1 Cor. 3:2). This milk is not pasteurized or homogenized.

When Paul speaks of the impending crisis, the coming of Lord, in the face of which he generally counsels stasis (1 Cor 7:25), he nonetheless affirms (to our ears an oddly unnecessary assertion) that marriage is not sinful, and that those who marry, who take wives, though Paul himself does not and wishes everyone were graciously celibate as is he, are not committing sin.

When Paul grounds his teaching in the experience of his churches, the single central word to which he returns, time and again, is ‘koinonia’. Fellowship, partnership, sharing, commonality. (Phil 1:5).

Paul’s way of thinking rests, as stated, on a number of metaphors and images drawn from the feminine side of life. Given the status and role of women in his ministry, his utter reliance on Euodia and Syntche and others, we should not be that surprised.

What a friend we have in Paul, the feminist!

This is 2008. We may now at long last be at a point in history when we can observe the full range of women’s gifts in ministry. The women in Paul’s ministry, and their influence in his mission, have not been fully appreciated, at least in the popular mind, where Paul is largely known for trying to keep women quiet and covered in church (1 Cor. 11:2). The full range of women and women’s voices across the centuries has yet to receive ample appreciation. In our time, we shall do our part to fill up here what is lacking. For instance, to conclude, I take an unlikely, perhaps unexpected example of women in ministry.

Our granddaughter, Ellie Elizabeth Cady, notice that proud feminine and feminist name, stands in a long, proud line of women in ministry. Not ordained women, but women nonetheless and very much the more in ministry.

Women who served the church, with little or no pay. Women who willingly or grudgingly moved at the direction of Bishops and spirits. Women who lived in houses decorated by other women, houses overseen by committees, houses, parsonages or manses, funded by uncertain sources. Women who served dinner in parsonage dining rooms decorated by Aunt Tillie’s ancient moose head. Women who organized groups, lead Bible studies, raised money, taught children, listened endlessly to groans and hurts. Women who, without a paycheck, without a ceremonial robe, without a formal title, without a professional office, without a regular routine of recognition, served the Lord and his church with gladness. Women who carried and cast a diaconal mystique. (There is no decisive, divine ministry of any kind or order without a diaconal mystique). Women who chose, chose to marry men whose projected incomes would make their parents shudder as they sent their daughters to the altar. Women who must have married for love because they sure were not going to get anything else. Women who would find the patience and wisdom to cajole, encourage, correct, admonish, chasten, and challenge the pastor of the church when no one else would, could or should. “You call that an Easter sermon?” “If you’re so smart, how come you aren’t rich.” “Now, just wait a minute, my dear love, and think about that.” (These last sentences are words actually uttered and heard in human life). Women who raised children on subsistence wages, clothed and shod them with pride and without resource, and sent them off themselves to serve the Lord with gladness. Women who suffered various daily indignities—a line of credit at the market, a clergy discount at the shoe store, a donated box of vegetables in the fall, a kindly castoff dress for Easter, a longing, perhaps buried and unspoken, and largely unfulfilled, for some forms of finery, never uttered so never to discourage their beloved. Women who, for the laity, and when things worked, showed with their husbands, in daily tandem and daily yoking, just what partnership, real partnership, the partnership of the gospel, could mean, and could be. Women who, with and for the laity, when things worked, showed with their husbands, in daily tandem and yoking, just what radiance could come from a diaconal mystique. Women who silently heard the confessions of waywardness from other women unwilling or unable to go to the pastor. Women who somehow found, lacking much of any remainder of optimism in their own hearts, the giving courage to encourage a drained husband to make one more call, preach one more sermon, accept one more appointment, convene one more parsonage committee meeting. Longer ago, women who planted gardens in the spring, before annual conference, and then left them for others to harvest, as they itinerated elsewhere, in the summer. Women who watched other women in the community—sometimes, could it be, let us imagine, less generous women, less intelligent women, less gracious women, less giving women, less thoughtful women, less mature women—enjoy things they would never have. Women who even found the time to support others in their own roles, with letters, with calls, with luncheons, with friendship. Women, in short, who received all of the various difficulties of ministry, and none of its few rewards.

Do you sense I have some feeling about these women? I should. One gave me birth. One I married. One gave my wife birth. One gave her father birth. One, born to us, gave us the first real experience of real joy, as only a daughter can do, and the second real experience of real joy, as only a granddaughter can do.

It has been politically impossible for thirty years to celebrate the heroism of these other women in ministry, these with others who have radiated a diaconal mystique. While it may still be politically incorrect, it is not, I judge, or at least I hope, altogether politically impossible any longer, and I am happy to do so today, in rendering a contemporary meaning to the reading about Euodia and Syntche.

Ellie’s mother is a minister’s wife. Ellie’s grandmother is a minister’s wife. Ellie’s great-grandmother is a minister’s wife. Ellie’s other great-grandmother is a minister’s wife. And Ellie’s great, great grandmother was a minister’s wife.

Let me show some real women, really in ministry. Emily, Jan, Marcia, Elizabeth and Anstress—and thousands like them—are women in ministry, truly and effectively in ministry. They, and so many like them, have given us a diaconal mystique!

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill