Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Kirsi Stjerna January 27, 2012 LTSG chapel
Today we have the honor of remembering three powerful women of God: Dorcas, Lydia and Phoebe.
When God raises someone from the dead, God must have pretty big reasons for that. Listen to this story, from the book of Acts: 9-42
“Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, ‘Please come to us without delay.’ So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’ Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.” (Acts 9:37-42)
There was something special about Dorcas, or Tabitha in Greek. Her contribution was particular enough to have her mentioned in our canonical texts, next to Peter. Clearly Dorcas was not just any other person – she was raised from dead! Also, she is a model of particular ministry and Christian calling: service.
Dorcas made dresses for the widows. She served in her ministry to the women in need. God blessed her work. We could remember her as a humble recipient of God’s miracle, an object of a holy work she was unworthy of. The gospel is imbedded in her story also on another level: by raising Dorcas from death, God blessed her work and compassionate contribution that is of no insignificance. Through Dorcas’ hands God could bring life and hope to those in most vulnerable positions.
In that regard, Dorcas is like those many ladies in your church: the one who always joins the quilt projects and prepares care packages to women in need around the world, the one whose vital work is missed when she is no longer there. If only we gave more respect to these ministers of God’s compassion and gave them the credit due while we still can, before they have gone to God.
We can pray, with Dorcas’ memory, that we not only support ministries of service, but also that our own deeds can become such channels for God’s mercy among those God loves more than we do so much that God could, if God wanted, even raise us from the death (not for our sake, but) for the sake of those to whom we can bring the gospel, through acts small and big, mostly small and ordinary.
We don’t know a whole lot of Dorcas, but we know the Word about her: that “many believed in god” because of her.
Many believed in God also because of another woman. Listen to what Acts 16 tell us:
“We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshipper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.’ And she prevailed upon us.” (Acts 16:11-15)
God invests God’s power wisely. Like in Lydia, another woman minister mentioned in the Acts. Opposite to Dorcas, Lydia is, well, loaded. She does not serve people on the streets. She deals fancy purple cloth, expensive fabric for the nobility. She had converted to Christianity, had her whole household baptized. She is the first named Christian in Europe. She was a leader, she was a dealer, she was the main player in town. [She is like Oprah in the Acts!] She told the boys, the disciples, the preachers: come, come stay at my house. And they did, and were happy that they did. They were treated like princes. God poured mundane heavenly tasty graces on the weary travelers, they were fortified with figs and wine, milk and honey at Lydia’s house. Lydia enforced them with fortitude and power, she blessed them with her riches. Paul was no fool – not always anyway - after some prison time, he returned to this woman’s house, to be comforted, counseled, and restored to graces.
Lydia is like the wealthy widow or mrs in your congregation, perhaps the chair of the church council. Perhaps the one with a big colorful purse, well done hair and well-dressed, and definitely the member who is deeply involved in the affairs of the church, with the power to support or not support, a leader in the mix. (A little like the character played by Dolly Parton in the “Joyful Noise”. Wise are those who learn to deal with these Lydias and learn to appropriately cherish their gifts and invite their leadership – not only after decisions have been made so that they can carry them through with their often generous donations, but earlier, much earlier, so that their wisdom and faithfulness have more chances to count. We should know that God speaks and acts through persons of faith regardless of their ordination status or level of theological studies. The Word, the gospel, is pretty radically inclusive in that regard. It would be prudent for us to open our eyes to the many ways through which God actually works in this world of ours. Through people like Lydia, for instance.
Women like Lydia were the foundation for the beginning of the Christian church. Paul was fortunate to minister with women filled with fire, love, courage, compassion, craziness, tenderness, and definite “leadership abilities”, plus some important cash. We know of some powerful ladies who worked with and for Paul, with or, often, without recognition. We pay attention when he actually mentions a woman with a public recognition of her ministry and leadership. Such as Phoebe. Listen to Paul’s words, in his letter to the Romans, chapter 16:
“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.” (Romans 16:1-2)
The New Testament predominantly remembers to highlight the actions of men, as if the women were not there, right next to them, if not a few steps ahead, as they had been from the times of Jesus resurrection and the empty tomb, the few years of Jesus’ crazy ministry, and way before that, in the desert travels of the matriarhcs with their patriarchs. Finally we have here a title or two even to a woman – diakonos, prostatis! Paul introduced Phoebe with such credentials, making it crystal clear to the people receiving Phoebe that this was a woman on God’s mission, duly authorized, ans someone to listen to. Deacon Phoebe. A minister. A proclaimer. Servant of God’s gospel. A benefactor. A leader. A church mother. A pillar of faith.
Phoebe, Lydia, Dorcas. We remember them with gratitude and with curiosity. We wish we knew more. The heck of it is, they were not the only ones. Just some of the few we are fortunate to remember by name. We can be sure that it was controversial in the context of the Roman empire, build on patriarchal structure and values, that a woman had a public teaching role or a leadership position or recognition outside home. It was outrageously radical in the world, and yet was in sync with the gospel and the ministry of Jesus who envisioned a new kingdom where there is no man or a woman. And indeed God seems to have blessed the many different forms of ministry led by women, without favoring one over the other. Dorcas was not less important than Lydia, and Phoebe was no less powerful than Paul, in her place. What is outrageously sinful here is the fact that the contributions and stories of the female servants of god have been nearly hidden, their memories suppressed, and thus an important aspect of the lived gospel thereby became marginalized.
Much water has gone under the bridge since Phoebe’s time. About 50% of our graduates are women. We have even women bishops, again, finally. We live strange times, however. On the one hand it seems that women in ministry is old news, that there are no issues with “women” and “ministry”. Shouldn’t we then get comfortable? We wish. Just when we do that, something happens that reminds us of the work yet needing to be done and of the many devious faces of the sins of sexism. We could tell countless stories of the way women - in the church - become frequently and without a warning scandalized, threatened, belittled, disrespected, ignored, blatantly or implicitly, or who simply become silenced. This happens in many places in the life of the church, even in candidacy meetings, job interviews, work meetings, faculty meetings, varied situations. We could tell countless stories on how in the more public realm women in ministry meet resistance (an understatement). We have today, in 2012, people rallying against women’s right to serve in ordained ministry. There are many factions in Lutheran church globally that do not recognize women’s ordination. We can even talk about a back-flash in this regard. For heavens’ sake, there are people in Finland, one of the most egalitarian countries in the world, lobbying against women even studying theology. We can only imagine the realities in other contexts where women lack even basic civil rights – all that is one way or the other certainly reflected in the life of the church and treatment of women there and in the continued exclusion of women’s experiences and voices in theology and ministry. Grand gestures such as making Hildegard of Bingen the fourth female doctor of the church in Roman Catholic tradition is great, fantastic news, about time to recognize the giant, and yet it is hardly correcting the basic problem about women’s lack of equal rights and opportunity in Christian churches globally and throughout the systems, in praxis or theology.
The face of the original sin in the church shows in the treatment of women, in the church and in the world it serves. There is on some level a connection between the ugly reality of how much violence against women takes place every second around the world, and how the church is still not perfectly safe and welcoming place for all women, including its theology and highest levels of leadership.
I’d like to invite us to hear the law and gospel in the stories of the three powerful ministers Dorcas, Lydia and Phoebe – the word that compels us to recognize the sins against women, the sins of ignoring women, and the sins of tolerating violence towards women AND the word that lifts up the gifts of the many women who have served God and their fellow human beings in their place and with their lives, with all that they have, and then some.
This Sunday, we will have a chance to celebrate to work of one special woman, a leader and a servant of the church, Jill Schumann. She will be recognized in Christ Lutheran church, Gettysburg, this coming Sunday. Let’s all try to be there!
Hymn 813, vs 2 and 4