I’d like to thank Dean Hill for inviting me to preach this sermon on this Sunday. It is genuinely humbling and more than a bit intimidating to stand in this pulpit on Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, but I am grateful for the opportunity to bring a word to you this morning. Would you pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
During my senior year of college I landed a pretty great job. It paid well, it was hands on, and I learned something new every day I worked. The Howard Gottlieb Archival Research Center, BU’s archives, holds a large portion of materials from Martin Luther King, Jr., an alumnus of the school, and HGARC had received a grant to reorganize the materials and create a searchable database with better metadata with more information about the contents of the collection to make it better accessible and searchable for researchers. I somehow got to be an assistant with the project, which meant that for several years I spent ten to fifteen hours a week with boxes of materials shared by King with the university. I had worked a summer for the archives already as a general archival assistant, helping unpack and sort materials arriving from incoming collections. It was an exciting and very messy summer of opening boxes, not knowing whether you’d find old shoes or a collection of handwritten original scores. Working with King’s materials, I thought, would be even better. These materials were already archived; so I thought that all the boring stuff would be gone already. As I walked into the small room with neat blue boxes, I thought they must be full to the brim of speech drafts, sermon notes, handwritten correspondence, all coming from the pen of King himself. And, yes, these materials were there, (I did spend a few months with another staff person alphabetizing several thousand letters, mostly sent to King), but they do not comprise the majority of the collection.
No, most of the materials in the archive are mundane, day-to-day materials. I mostly worked on the materials from the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), but I also did some small work on the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The Montgomery Improvement Association, which was formed to oversee the Montgomery Alabama bus boycott in 1955, was formed not by MLK having a revelation sitting in his office at Dexter Avenue one day, but by a group of people, especially Jo-Ann Robinson, president of the Women’s Political Council, and E.D. Nixon, head of the local NAACP. Robinson and Nixon organized the one-day boycott that ended with a meeting, at Holt Street Baptist Church, at which preachers, teachers, and the community decided to transform the one-day protest into an ongoing one. The decision made, they organized, formed the MIA, and set up committees. So many committees. There were carpools to be organized, flyers to be leafletted, funds to be raised and distributed, walkers to escort, lawsuits to be filed, there was a lot of work to do, and a lot of organizing that work required. King was speaking from collective experience when he said in 1968’s “The Other America”: “Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability, it comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. And so we must always help time and realize that the time is always right to do right.”
So these blue-grey archival boxes mostly held not speeches and sermon notes from King, but the minutiae of progress and the detritus of change. Meeting minutes, programs for Monday night church meetings, newsletters, financial documents, typewritten lists of names and phone numbers of persons who had cars and were willing to drive, committee membership rolls. Pamphlets, flyers, yellowed newsclippings, more meeting minutes. In these scraps of paper, I learned how change happens, I learned how movements are made, and I learned that it is the people, and not a personality, who make change. For good and for evil, for good and for evil, it is the people, and not a personality, who make change.
Many of these people were women, women whose names I didn’t know: Jo-Ann Robinson, who led the Women’s Political Council, Johnnie Carr, the youth director and secretary of the Montgomery NAACP and the future president of the MIA, Aurelia Browder, whose protest, arrest, and subsequent lawsuit over Montgomery bus segregation ultimately led to the successful end of the boycott, Irene West, arrested during the boycott, Georgia Gilmore, founder of the Club from Nowhere who fundraised for the boycott, Hazel Gregory, secretary and board member of the MIA, Maude Ballou, King’s secretary, Erna Dungee executive board member of the MIA. Women were members of the MIA executive board, kept its books, got arrested, fundraised, and organized both out front and behind the scenes of the movement. Their names matter, and I wanted to pause to raise their names before us today. Jo-Ann Robinson, Johnnie Carr, Aurelia Browder, Irene West, Georgia Gilmore, Hazel Gregory, Maude Ballou, Erna Dungee.
We’ve also heard some unfamiliar names today in our first reading from Romans 16. Unless you keep up with the daily lectionary, where you will come across it on September 25 and 26th this year, you likely won’t have heard this text from Romans 16:1-7 before. It’s not a part of the Sunday Revised Common Lectionary, because, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, it’s largely a list of names. The prescripts, postscripts, the long lists of names and the greetings which accompany them are often excised from our liturgy, partially out of mercy to the lectors, but really out of a desire to communicate theology in the liturgy. This liturgical bias even led some biblical scholars to excise Romans 16 from the rest of the letter. How could Romans, the height of Pauline theology, especially for Protestants, have such a mundane, overlong list of names? This chapter must be a fragment of some other, more ordinary missive. Thankfully, that argument has largely been overturned. I would argue, though, that these prescripts and postcripts, these names matter to more than just biblical scholars interested in onomastics, text criticism, or the social status of the earliest followers of Christ. These names matter for us as the church. They matter for our theology, they matter for our ecclesiology, they matter for the work they did, the change they brought, and they matter because they are our foremothers and fathers in faith. Their names matter. Phoebe the deacon; Prisca and Aquilla, coworkers with Paul in Christ, the assemblies that meet in their house, Epaenetus, first fruit of Asia in Christ, Mary, the hard-worker, and Andronicus and Junia, kinfolk, fellow-prisoners who are noteworthy among the apostles and who were in Christ before Paul was.
I’d like to focus on Junia for a moment, Junia, that woman who is so prominent among the apostles. Thanks to the work of Bernadette Brooten and then Eldon Epp, we learn that Junia for much of the last century or so of biblical scholarship and translation has been misgendered over disagreements about a Greek accent. Junia, a common name for Roman women, was understood as a woman by all early Christian writers of late antiquity, by scholarly Greek New Testaments from Erasmus in 1516 to Nestle’s edition of 1927, by “all extant early translations of Romans 16:7 (from Greek into Old Latin, Vulgate, Sahidic and Bohairic Coptic, and Syriac versions),” and by almost all English translations from Tyndale in 1526 up until the late 19th century, including the beloved and (for some Christians) inerrant King James Version. In the late 1800’s, though, some biblical scholars decided that these sources were wrong, and that translators and editors from Jerome to Erasmus to Tyndale were mistaken. According to these scholars, Junia wasn’t Junia, she was actually Junias. Which is actually pretty funny, because there are no attestations of the male name Junias anywhere in antiquity. No matter, scholars suggested that perhaps Junias (although unattested) is a shortened form of another name, Junianus, a hypothesis that does not stand up well under scrutiny, and which requires a more complicated reading strategy than just taking the name as a commonly attested feminine accusative form. Some scholars also read certain early manuscripts as supporting a different Greek accent to argue that other early Christians read Junia as Junias, which is again pretty funny, because early manuscripts aren’t accented. Why did these scholars literally make up a man’s name to create a textual critical controversy where one had not been before? The answer becomes clear when you look at the praise for Junia and Andronicus; they followed Christ before Paul did, and they are people worth noting among the apostles, among those sent out to share the gospel. Ah, there’s the rub. The issue, it seems, is that there is a woman named in the canonical New Testament as an apostle.
What leads scholars to overlook their evidence, to see things that aren’t there, and to unsee what is right before them? I don’t think it’s malice or ill-will, but I would argue that it is a lack of theological imagination. It is a lack of imagination to see a name before you and think, this apostle, this fellow-prisoner and kinsperson, must have been a man. It couldn’t have been otherwise, because I know there weren’t any women who were apostles. James Dunn says of this kind of thinking, “The assumption that it must be male is a striking indictment of male presumption regarding the character and structure of earliest Christianity.” But, today, if you read an NIV, or pick up some other translations or Greek text-critical editions, you will still find Junias or an acknowledgment of “controversy” surrounding the translation. A lack of imagination leads not only to poor scholarship but it is poor theology, because it restricts our ability to envision a church different than the one we expect, and it restricts our ability to envision a God who has the breadth and capacity to call and send all persons: men, women, gender non-conforming folk, gay, straight, trans people, black, brown, white people, abled, and disabled people. When we fit God into our brain-sized boxes, visually, intellectually, and theologically, we close off the possibility to be changed by what we discover in scripture, by reason, from tradition, and through experience. But when our theological imagination is open to a bit of surprise, it is also open to grace, because grace is nothing if not surprising. There is the surprise that awaits even before we think to look: prevenient grace. The surprise that changes everything: justifying grace. The surprise that makes us get up and act: sanctifying grace.
So Junia’s name matters. Her work matters. Her status as someone called and sent by God matters. Her name, along with the more than two dozen people greeted in Romans 16, matter. And it is only a lack of theological imagination that thinks that they don’t, that it is only through the genius of a personality like Paul’s that the gospel bears fruit.
The people, not a personality, make change. There is a reason that the earliest Christ followers called themselves ekklēsiae, assemblies, what we translate as churches. They and Paul use the term for the assembly in ancient Athenian democracy, a political system in which free male citizens could vote, choose their leaders, deliberate, and determine their future as a city. So, too, these Christ-following assemblies deliberated about their identity and their future, chose their leaders, and pooled their resources. But citizenship in the Christ assembly was open to all, Jew, Greek, slave, free, male, female, and its decisions did not always follow the epistolary demands of a singular, male leader (i.e. Paul).
Theological imagination requires a reorientation away from the heroization of Paul, towards an interest in the people with and beside Paul, who write with him, carry his letters, who bring his voice to these communities, and who receive his letters and respond to him. This reorientation of course, is something feminist biblical scholars such as Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Elizabeth Clark, Elizabeth Castelli (there are a lot of great Elizabeths!), and many, many others, have been calling attention to for decades. These women asking for a bit more wisdom in the way we read scripture, and asking for a bit more wisdom in our theological imagination.
Feminist and womanist biblical interpreters often find inspiration in the personification of wisdom we find in Proverbs 8, read responsively today. Wisdom, personified as a woman, speaks, in the passage immediately preceding what we read today:
“To you, O people, I call out;
I raise my voice to all humankind..
6 Listen, for I have trustworthy things to say;
I open my lips to speak what is right.
7 My mouth speaks what is true,
for my lips detest wickedness.
8 All the words of my mouth are just;
none of them is crooked or perverse.
9 To the discerning all of them are right;
they are upright to those who have found knowledge.
10 Choose my instruction instead of silver,
knowledge rather than choice gold,
11 for wisdom is more precious than rubies,
and nothing you desire can compare with her.
In Proverbs 8, we also see wisdom present at the beginning, co-creating with God, in an exegesis of Genesis 1. Early Christians, especially the gospel writers, read Proverbs 8 and its account of divine wisdom, present at the beginning and co-creating with God, an exegesis of the creation account in Genesis, with theological imagination. They imagined and wrote about Jesus that way, whether at the beginning of John’s gospel, a midrash on Proverbs 8/Genesis 1, read a few weeks ago, or in the passage we read today from Luke 7. John the Baptist is a prophet and Jesus, well, Luke seems to play with the idea that Jesus is Wisdom herself in the flesh.
“Wisdom is vindicated by her children.” We are all wisdom’s children, and we do not and we cannot rely upon a single, heroic figure to guide or a demonic figure to blame for our speech or actions, or our silence and inaction. Our words and our actions reflect our wisdom or our folly, and we cannot escape the weighty mantle of responsibility that fact entails and the humility that fact requires. Jesus rebukes those who went to the Jordan looking for a personality in John—whether a frail reed or luxury clothes. Instead, Jesus, reorients us away from personality towards wisdom, towards the people. “I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”
I’d like to end with a brief quote and then a charge for you today. First the quote; which comes from another letter, written by Martin Luther King, Jr. I quote the Letter from a Birmingham Jail not as a heroization of King’s personality or unique genius, but because this letter, like Romans, is a letter written in community to community. Its wisdom is not in the personality of King, but in its rootedness in the importance of people beside King, of their action and inaction. I quote from this letter’s prescript to let King to situate himself as a saint in the much greater assembly of saints. I read from the letter’s opening, the height of rhetoric only happens after King situates himself within the community
MY DEAR FELLOW CLERGYMEN:
I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against “outsiders coming in.” I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every Southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We have some eighty-five affiliated organizations across the South, and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Frequently we share staff, educational and financial resources with our affiliates. Several months ago the affiliate here in Birmingham asked us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct-action program if such were deemed necessary. We readily consented, and when the hour came we lived up to our promise. So I, along with several members of my staff, am here because I was invited here. I am here because I have organizational ties here.
…We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.
Remember, even at the heights of human rhetoric, we organize change not as a single personality, but as people.
And now, a charge: find some people. Do something. Go to a march, make a podcast, join a committee, please join a committee, volunteer for something, start something. Or, try writinga letter. When was the last time you wrote a physical letter to somebody? Not a tweet, facebook comment, or even an email, but a physical letter. Write a letter this week: A letter to a family member or friend you haven’t been able to find the right words for, a letter to that person you had to unfollow on Facebook because of all their political posts, a letter to the editor of your local newspaper, a letter to your elected official. It can be important, it can be mundane, it can be simple greetings or soaring rhetoric. You can be grumpy as Galatians, as pushy as Philemon, as poetic as Philippians, as tender as 1 Thessalonians, as caring and concerned as 1 &2 Corinthians, or as rambling as Romans, but write. Your choice, but if you choose to write, two requirements. 1. Value people over personality in the letter. Send greetings to people. Don’t expect the recipient to be able to solve everything or carry all the blame. Share why you care about what you care about. Acknowledge someone other than yourself. And 2. Sign your name to the letter. No anonymous comments on a news article or blog, no hiding behind a twitter handle. In a world with too much commenting and too much commentary, offer your real name. Because your name matters. The people to whom you write, the people with whom you correspond, matter. You matter. Your name matters.
 See Jo-Ann Gibson Robinson, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: the Memoir of Jo-Ann Gibson Robinson (Knoxville: The University of Tenessee Press, 1987).
 See Bernadette Brooten, “Junia…Outstanding among the Apostles (Rom 16:7)” in Women Priests: A Catholic Commentary on the Vatican Declaration, ed. L. and A. Swidler, (New York: Paulist Press, 1977).
 Eldon J. Epp, Junia: The First Woman Apostle. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2005) 23-24.
 See Epp on UBS 4 (1993), 45-46.
 Romans 9-16, WBC 38 (Dallas: Word, 1988), 894.
 See Melanie Johnson-DeBaufre and Laura S. Nasrallah, “Beyond the Heroic Paul: Toward a Feminist and Decolonizing Approach to the Letters of Paul.” In The Colonized Apostle: Paul through Postcolonial Eyes. Edited by Christopher Stanley. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 161-174.
 An annotated version can be found here: https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/annotated-letter-birmingham-jail#fn1.
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