Women's Ministry: Christ is an Equal Opportunity Employer
(Fred Vergara. St. James Episcopal Church, Elmhurst, New York. June 16, 2013)
Text Luke 7:36-8:3
Let me start with something funny: A young man couldn’t decide which girl to marry. He liked one girl, but he really liked another one named Maria, too. He decided to ask his friend for advice. “How do you make important decisions?” he asked his friend. “Well, I go to church,” replied his friend. “Then I look up and pray and usually the answer just comes to me.” The young man decided to try just that. He went to church for the first time, looked up and asked, “who is the right one for me?” and the answer was written in gold above a stained-glass window--- “AVE MARIA.”
Let me read a portion of the Gospel this morning: “Soon afterwards, he (Jesus) went through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve (apostles) were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Suzanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.” (Luke 8:1-3)
In largely patriarchal and male-dominated societies like Palestine during the time of Jesus, women were looked upon as the weaker sex or as second class citizens and so this company that Jesus took (fishermen and newly-exorcised women) must have created scorn, ridicule and disdain from the scribes and the Pharisees---the teachers of the law and the upper class of the Jewish society.
The genesis of this male chauvinism or prejudice against women was in some way created and reinforced by some biblical stories where women are blamed for men’s mistakes. For instance, Eve was blamed for having been tempted by the devil to eat of the forbidden fruit. She then tempted her husband, Adam, to do the same and for that reason, they were both driven out of paradise.
I have one comment about this mythical version of creation story: As an Asian, I am convinced that paradise or Eden was not in Asia; and Adam and Eve were not Asians because if the apple was given by the snake, Adam would have eaten the apple first and cooked the snake as well. Alright, it’s a corny joke and it’s another story!
The other unpopular woman in Scripture is Delilah in the true story of Samson, one of the judges of ancient Israel. Samson had been given a supernatural strength: he wrestled with a lion and won, he defeated an entire army with just a jawbone of a donkey; and he destroyed a pagan temple with the strength of his bare hands.
The secret of Samson’s strength nobody knew. Theologically his strength came from God but physically it was hidden in the locks of his hair. The longer his hair grew, the stronger Samson became. Samson would have been invincible if not for his weakness for beautiful women, and the Philistines, Israel’s enemies, learned about it. So they used the beautiful Delilah as a pawn to discover the secret of Samson’ strength. In this story, one wonders who really was the weaker sex. Samson, succumbed to the beauty of Delilah that in one moment of romance, worthy of a spy movie, he divulged his secret. It was all about his hairdo! Having known the secret, Delilah called a servant to cut off the hair of Samson while the guy was asleep. The Philistines came and subdued Samson who lost his hair, his strength and his power.
I retell these stories because I find it strange that in some churches women are still looked upon with a sense of ambiguity: if they are strong, they are avoided and if they are weak, they are made invisible. In some largely conservative churches, women are not allowed to minister like men. Despite their spiritual gifts and ministry skills, they are not eligible for ordination. They are not allowed to teach and to preach. Instead, they are expected only to be silent, to “pray, pay and obey” and to do the things that men want them to do, like serving coffee at men’s meetings!
I am glad that our church is not like that. In The Episcopal Church, the Presiding Bishop is a woman, the chair of the House of Deputies of the General Convention is a woman, there are many bishops who are women, many priests who are women, many deacons who are women. In this parish of St. James, the women are not silent. In the 12-member Bishop’s Committee, seven of them are women---and all of them are articulate! In my former parish (St. Michael and All Angels in Seaford, Long Island) the whole leadership was from the women. When I started as Supply priest there, the Vestry were all women that I had to challenge the men to have some sort of” men’s liberation movement.”
Well, my point is “serving the Lord is an equal opportunity ministry!” And that was precisely the message of Jesus to the Simon, the Pharisee who felt offended when Mary Magdalene, the woman of ill-repute was forgiven. The man just talked and talked but this woman served the Lord lavishly and sincerely. Let me read again the words of Jesus to Simon, the Pharisee: “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them up with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in, she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins which were many, have been forgiven.”
I remember a story from former Roman Catholic archbishop of Manila, Jaime Cardinal Sin. We came from the same province in the Philippines, so I know a number of stories about him. When he became cardinal of the Philippines, he was asked to change his name. “Sin" a Chinese name, whose meaning is not sin, but he replied, “Why should I change my name? It is because of sin that Christ came into the world.” So he has this story of sin and forgiveness:
When he was bishop, he served as adviser to the nuns who were having a week-long retreat of prayer and fasting. One of the nuns came to him one afternoon and said, “Bishop, I saw Jesus!” Bishop Sin said, “Sister, how long have you not eaten?” Two days was the answer. “Oh sister, when your stomach is empty, you tend to see some apparitions. Go back there and continue your prayer.” The nun went back to pray but after a few hours, came to Bishop Sin again and said, “Bishop, I saw Jesus.” Bishop Sin said, “Okay, I ask you to break your fast for a moment; take a glass of milk and eat one piece of rice cake and then go back praying. And if you still see Jesus, this is what you should do: ask Jesus if he can remember my sins, from the time I was born, to the time I became a bishop.” So the nun took a glass of milk and ate a piece of rice cake and returned to praying. But after a couple of hours, she came back to Bishop Sin, and this time, she was even more excited. Sin said, “So you must have seen Jesus again!” “O yes, Bishop I really saw him again.” Well, did you ask him about my question? "Yes, Bishop, I told Jesus that my bishop would not believe that I saw you, unless and until you tell me what his sins are from the time he was born until he became a bishop.” Bishop Sin was curious now and even worried about what Jesus might have told the nun. “Okay, Sister, what exactly did Jesus say.” The nun smiled and said, “Bishop, this is what Jesus said: “What I have forgiven, I have forgotten.”
Brothers and sisters: the unbounded forgiveness of God is open to us all; the unconditional love of God is open to us all; the unmerited grace of God is open to us all. In the same manner, the call of God is open to us all, the ministry of God is open to us all, the work of God is open to us all.
Black and yellow, brown and white; male and female, straight and gay, the Lord looks at the heart and gives equal opportunity. Everyone who calls upon the Lord shall be saved, loved, forgiven and called upon to serve. Serving the Lord is an equal opportunity. Let not the Church deny any of God's children the privilege, the joy, and the responsibility of serving the Lord.
Let me end from the words of St. Paul in his Letter to the Galatians (3:26-28): “For you are all children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”Amen.