June 12, 2023
• Rev. Mindie Moore
A couple of years ago, I did a funeral for a family that had lots of Catholic family members. At the end, one of the guests came up to me and said, “I didn’t know girls could do what you just did! I have literally never seen that before! What do I call you? Mother? Priest-ette?”
I told him, no, Pastor was fine, and it was pretty funny in the moment. And it might not surprise you that this is not the FIRST conversation like this I have had as a woman in ministry. Sometimes, it takes people by surprise! And sometimes that surprise is delightful… and sometimes it’s awkward. Sometimes it’s not super light. Sometimes those conversations can go to places that can be really uncomfortable and hard.
Some of you have experienced this in your own way. Some of you have experienced conversations and situations where it was very clear that you and your story were not valued or even expected. You’ve been in faith communities where you were told that you couldn’t lead because of your gender or sexuality or family structure or the messiness of your story.
Some of you have really traveled a long road with your faith where you’ve been trying to decide- do I stick with it? Do I walk away from it all? Do I believe the narratives I’m hearing about who I am even if they don’t match up with who I think God is?
There are so many reasons that we can start to believe that we’re not welcome or qualified or have any right to live into the things God is calling us to do. And I have to say, as a pastor, one of the things that breaks my heart the most is that I know that too many times, the Church helps reinforce this narrative. We put up a lot of barriers that hurt people in the name of being holy.
But I don’t think that’s the way it HAS to be. I don’t think that’s what God hopes for us. And I believe that no matter who we are, or what our stories look like (SLIDE)-
We have to move beyond the barriers to live into what God is calling us to do.
And sometimes getting beyond that threshold, beyond those barriers feels like a gentle dismantling. You know, we have coffee with someone or we take a class or we go to a meeting. But I also know that sometimes it feels like we’re trying to break down a door! We show up in places and positions that we never dreamed we’d be in. OR we CREATE a space for someone who hasn’t had a space before. And whether we’re doing it for ourselves or someone else, this is hard and holy work that we get to do.
And in our Scripture today, we see Paul doing this holy work on behalf of a woman named Phoebe. Phoebe was a deacon (like me!)- in fact, the first woman that Paul refers to AS a deacon- in the church of Cenchrae, which was an important port city of Corinth. Now Corinth might be a place that sounds familiar- the biblical books of 1 and 2 Corinthians were letters that Paul wrote to those churches. Corinth was an important area in the world at that time and it was an important place to Paul in his ministry. So Phoebe was in the middle of those important things. And she was a partner to Paul in the ministry that was happening there.
And the reason Phoebe comes up in THIS letter we’re reading today, which is to the church in Rome, is because she’s probably the one who delivered this letter from Paul to this church. So Paul makes a point that the church should welcome her- because he knows- even though he and Phoebe are tight, even though they’ve done ministry together, he knows- this is an unlikely person to do this work. People weren’t necessarily expecting a woman to be one of the insiders of Paul’s ministry, but here she was. She has the letter and she’s ready to share it. Basically, she’s ready to preach!
And it not only mattered to Paul that she was received with respect and safety, but he wanted this church to know- this is someone I trust. I affirm her and her ministry with you all. And I trust her so much that I’m sending her in my place to bring you this message.
And look- I know some of you are thinking, “hold on, hold on- aren’t we talking about PAUL?! This is not the Paul I know! No, the Paul I know has actually been a big problem for me. In fact, lots of well-meaning people have quoted Paul AT me to tell me what is wrong with me and why I don’t belong!”
And that is fair- and I’ll tell you: for a long time, I really struggled with Paul! For someone who absolutely loves to read and teach the Bible, I would get to Paul’s letters- and it’s a lot of the New Testament, by the way- and I would just STRUGGLE with what I was reading. But the thing we have to remember about Paul’s writings is that he was writing letters...and they were not addressed to you OR me! We forget this, but it is SO important! These were letters written to specific churches, in specific contexts, written in real time.
Paul wasn’t writing a collection of theological essays to be collected into the Bible someday. Paul was writing because he knew and loved these communities and just like churches today- they were all different! I mean, think about how many churches you passed today just to get here- or if you’re super close and you walked, think about how many churches you could pass if you just drove down Meridian Street. The point is, there are churches everywhere! And they are all super different. And if there was someone- one person- who was writing letters to encourage and coach these churches today, they would sound as different as the churches they were written to!
And I know that Paul DOES get a bad wrap as being anti-women, anti-gay, anti-a lot of things. I know that when some of us think about Paul, we just think about what he was against- because that’s all we’ve heard. But I want to push us a little bit today and think bigger than that and think about what he was FOR. And it IS complicated, but when I look at the overall picture of what he’s FOR- I see a person, figuring out his own faith, wanting the church to be the BEST place it can be and wanting the people in it to know that they are called and equipped to do ministry wherever they are.
We see this come up over and over again in his writing. Because the affirmation of Phoebe isn’t the only time he builds up and encourages women leading in ministry. Look at Philippians 4:2-3:
I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion,[a] help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel.
He’s writing again to a church and he’s saying- I've worked with these women. We’ve been in ministry together. And even though there might be a conflict here (hello, it’s a church), but even though there’s conflict and even though these women might not be the people who are always looked as the “qualified”- I've got their backs and I want you to as well.
So there’s Phoebe, there’s these two women. And then there’s there more! There’s Lydia in Philippi and Priscilla in Corinth. Women were actually essential to the Church that Paul was creating.
But even with that foundation, there was push back. A lesser known woman in leadership in the early church was a woman named Thecla, who did ministry with Paul in Ephesus. And we know that this caused some controversy because when a cave painting (SLIDE) of Paul and Thecla was discovered above the ancient ruins of Ephesus, we can see that someone has scratched out Thecla’s hands and eyes. Even though whoever did this painting showed them as equals, that wasn’t a universally embraced idea. It was seen as offensive, as something to erase and get rid of.
And so as complicated as Paul’s writings can be, it is a big deal that he pushed through these things and partnered in ministry with women in the way that he did. In a lot of ways, Paul was using his own authority to advocate for the call that God had given these women.
And you know, sometimes we need someone to step up and do that for us. We need someone to say, this person is qualified. God is working in them. And sometimes we need to be that person who is willing to open up the path for someone unexpected to lead. (SLIDE)
Have you ever had someone do that for you? Or have you ever had the privilege of doing that for someone else?
That kind of advocacy is a huge part of my story. I can tell you without a doubt that I wouldn’t be here today talking to you if someone hadn’t crossed over a threshold and said, “you are called and I’m going to help you figure out what that means even if I’ve got to do a lot of theological unpacking to get there.” Because for me, this came from an incredibly unexpected place. I felt my call to ministry when I was in college and my campus minister was definitely NOT affirming of women in ministry. Anytime a woman would give the message on a Sunday, he made a point to call it “teaching or sharing” instead of “preaching.” There was a very clear narrative that men were the head of the church and women were to be second. There was definitely no talk about LGBTQIA inclusion or empowering women leaders or anything resembling that.
So I knew where he stood on that theological issue, and you can imagine my surprise when I shared with him that I felt this call to ministry and he said, “well, we need to get you interning here and start talking about seminary.”
I wasn’t just surprised by his reaction, but I need you to understand- I did not grow up thinking I’d be a pastor. In fact, I had zero interest in that vocational path. When I started to feel this movement in my soul, when I started thinking, “I want to be a pastor” I had no idea WHAT to do with it. Me, go to seminary? It seemed absurd. Most of my family didn’t even go to college! And beyond that, I didn’t KNOW women could do that because of the tradition I grew up in. I had never seen a woman preach outside of youth group or be the leader of a church UNTIL I WENT TO SEMINARY. Like, I knew that pastors had wives! But that was about it.
So I felt completely unqualified, and I am so thankful that someone was brave enough to open the door to the possibility that I might be.
And I’ve got to tell you- this pastor and I have pretty radically different views on most things, but I will NEVER forget that he did that. And BECAUSE he did that, I want to be the kind of pastor who does that for other people. I want YOU to know that this is a safe place. To know that your gifts and your story and your identity not only have a place but that we’re going to help you find those gifts and use them and you won’t have to ask questions about whether you can or should or you’re allowed or you have permission- the answer is yes because you are a child of God created with a purpose for a purpose.
I just think that’s our call as a church. To be that kind of place.
You know, the Bible is full of people who are called to do something, are called to live out their faith, are called to be part of the community- even though it might not have made a lot of sense. So if you’re feeling like that, like “I’ve been an outsider. I want to fit, I want to say yes to what God is calling me to do but I’ve never been sure that I can,” I just need to you to know that you’re in good company.
You’re in the company of someone like Debra from the book of Judges. I mean, she was a woman! Leading an army of men into battle- and they won! That wasn’t really a thing. But she had bravery, and she had gifting, and God told her to do it so she did.
I want you to know you’re in the company of people like Jesus’ disciples- who were just really simple fishermen, with no formal education. And then they show up in the book of Acts and they teach all the highly educated, religious leaders. It doesn’t make sense, it freaks all the powerful people out, but they can’t deny that there’s something about the way the Spirit is moving in these people that is different.
I’d even say you’re in the company of Paul himself. Because even though he wrote all these words, even though we talk about him today, you can’t understand Paul without understanding that his story was a mess. He used to be named Saul and kill Christians! There’s an awful lot of his story that would have disqualified him, even today. And because of his baggage, because of the stuff he had went through, his ministry had so much more power and so much impact because it was only through God that he could have been doing the things that he did.
So I just want you to know- if you feel like you’re not qualified, if you think there’s something about your life that gets in the way, if you’re just not sure…you’re in good company.
And I just wonder- (SLIDE)
Have you ever thought that maybe YOU have a call and story that only you can tell?
Our worship leader, Beck Buchanan-Schwanke has this kind of story. A call and a story that I know has opened up the doors of the church to so many people. So as we get ready to wrap up today, I want you to hear them tell this story of their faith and their call to ministry in this video: