A Diaconal Mystique

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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

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