August 10, 2008
Scripture: Matthew 14:22-33
Sermon Title: "Silent Voices"
It’s been 4 years since I graduated from seminary. I learned a lot while I was there. I also forgot a lot. But there some things I easily remember. One of those things is a test I took for Church History taught by Professor John Riggs, son of infamous tennis player Bobby Riggs.
It was question #3 and it went like this " The earliest Christian church that archeologists have found...is dated around 232 CE. There are 8 wall painting in the house church, among them: the scene of Peter sinking in the sea as he tried to walk to Jesus (Mt. 14:22-33); Jesus the Good Shepherd (Jn. 10:11-18); and Jesus encountering Mary Magdalene in the garden (Jn. 20:1-18).
What information might you bring from your background in early church history to help someone understand the theological perspective of those who gathered in the house church...."
It was a mystery we were given. The mystery of what were the pictures trying to tell us about the community that gathered there to worship Christ. Whose voices we were meant to hear and were these voices that still speak today or have they been silenced?
That is the mystery I place before you today. But before we go about solving the mystery, let me tell you a story that comes courtesy from the TV show "Designing Women."
In this particular episode Julia and Charlene attend a Religious Convention. Julia is dumbstruck when she is selected to sing the solo for "How Great Thou Art". Charlene is dumbstruck when the church leaders vote to ban women from being preachers. She’s even more upset that it’s her pastor, Rev. Nunn, who is leads the debate against ordaining women.
Charlene invites Rev. Nunn over for dinner to discus his view. Bernice, a friend of Charlene’s joins them. As the daughter of a preacher, once the conversation of Biblical authority comes up, Bernice jumps right in.
Charlene asks Rev. Nunn why women can’t be preachers. He quotes 1 Corinthians that tells the women of the church to be silent. To which Bernice quotes from Galatians 3:28 that says in Christ there is no male or female, Jew or Greek, slave or free.
Rev. Nunn quotes that women should ask their husbands religious questions and stay silent in worship. Bernice quotes that the Spirit will come down and both men and women shall prophecy.
When Julia says she doesn’t buy that women are supposed to be silent in church, Rev. Nunn says "Well, then you don’t buy the Bible."
To which Bernice admonishes the reverend to remember the historical contexts of when specific scriptures were written. She then points to the King James Bible and how it interpreted certain Greek words to keep women in their place.
For example, she states, in the book of Romans Phoebe is refereed to as a Deacon, but when the writers of King James translated it into English, her status was changed to a servant, meaning that instead of being seen as an active worker of the church, she was seen as someone’s slave.
The next day Charlene pays Rev. Nunn a visit. She explains that she can not belong to c church that does not believe she is fit to preach the Word of God. She explains that as a young girl she dreamt of traveling the world, preaching the gospel.
"I had that dream because no one told me I couldn’t," she tells him. "What about all those little girls who want to do that but can’t because a group of men got together and decided that’s not what God wanted. Why wouldn’t God want that?" Charlene drops her membership to her church and walks out of his office.
It is now the convention’s closing ceremony. Julia has decided not to sing the solo, claiming its too hard to hit the high notes.
Charlene breaks down into tears and tells Julia she has left her church.
Julia asks if there is anything she can do. To which Charlene says "I need to be proud of women tonight. I want to hear you hit the high note. Do it for all the girls of the world."
The episode ends with Julia singing "How Great Thou Art" hitting every note, Charlene beaming with pride.
Through Julia’s singing, Charlene has found the voice her pastor and her church had tried to take away.
For far too long, and in far too many denominations, women have not been allowed to have a voice or a say.
But what if I was to tell you, that it hadn’t always been that way. What if I was to tell you that although it wasn’t always easy sailing, women once had a voice and were active leaders of the church.
Allow me to share with you some basic Church history, a history that you can’t always find in the books or in schools. But a history that is starting to be rediscovered.
In the very beginning of Christianity, it was a movement, one that was always on the go, meeting people were they were, and involved celebrating Communion in people’s homes during an actual meal.
Jesus was understood as God’s wisdom made real. Ministry was shared by all. Everyone were equals which meant everyone, male and female, preached, prayed, baptized, served communion, read scripture.
And women, especially Mary Magdalene, were viewed as key disciples of Jesus and most likely had the first resurrection experiences.
As modern scholars begin to reread scripture in its original language, they take note of how woman are referred to.
For instance: the Samaritan women who meets Jesus at the well displayed what we would now call missionary behavior, carrying the message of Jesus to her town.
When Acts and the original letters of Paul are reread, there is an abundance of references to women doing various church activities.
Paul calls Priscila a co-worker, Apphia a sister, Junia an apostle. And Phoebe, well Phoebe is called a deacon which meant she most likely served communion and preached sermons.
Far from being someone’s maid.
Women traveled in pairs with men and other women, spreading the Good News of Christ. When these women weren’t traveling, they were running and overseeing the house churches that often began in their very homes.
And it was here, in their homes that the earliest churches took place, where people gathered and literally drew lots to see who would preach, read the world and serve communion that day.
It was truly a ministry of equals, not only in terms of social standing, but of economic wealth and sexual equality.
During this time, the church continued to grow, thrive and find its place in the world. And soon there were at least two branches of Christianity. One branch followed Peter, another followed Mary Magdalene.
The strain of Christianity that followed Mary Magdalene developed the tradition of prophetic leadership, embracing the active presence of the Spirit. Women had leadership positions. One women, named Maximilla spoke in the spirit and called the church to follow strong moral codes.
It was thought that each person has the spark of life in them that Christ sets free, so anyone could become a disciple; you did not need the teaching or authority of a bishop. They believed in equality and pointed to the resurrection stories as proof that it was to Mary Magdalene that Christ first appeared.
During this time the other strain of Christianity looked towards Peter as their leader. They pointed to the Gospel stories in which it is said Jesus gave his Spirit to the disciples and they were the ones appointed to carry the Spirit to the rest of the world.
Those who followed Peter looked to scripture and said the first missionary activity to the gentiles was OK’D by Peter.
Churches that only allowed male leaders claimed they could trace their lineage back to Peter and the disciples, and if they can trace their lineage, then they can also trace which doctrines were correct and which were not.
And over time, more and more of the voice of Peter’s church silenced the voice of Mary Magdalene’s church.
This happened because as Christianity became more mainstream, the house churches tried to confirm to popular society, and popular society said it was the man, not the woman who ruled the home.
Popular society also said it was the old not the young who are the leaders. So it soon came to be that house churches became more and more lead by older men who had been formerly trained.
With so many new people joining the church, the only way the church good exist was to remove any stumbling blocks, that would be seen as too radical. And for many women being in roles of power was too radical and was too distressing to be appealing for all.
Finally, with Peter’s branch getting the loudest voice, they were able to claim that movements like Maximilla’s that spoke in prophecy and tongues was heretical and false. Their writings were destroyed, and Gospels that placed an emphasis on Mary Magdalene was kept shushed or stashed away.
Eventually, Peter’s church prevailed, silencing the voices of women, forbidding them from writing any documents, or holding church leadership. The peter church claimed only true apostolic succession came from the men, even though, at one time, Phoebe was a deacon and Jesus had met Mary Magdalene in the garden.
I wonder what the church would have looked like if the branch that claimed Mary Magdalene to be a disciple had survived.
How many more female preachers would there have been? How many more female scholars would have been writing books? Would ancient manuscripts like the Gospel of Mary Magdalene been included in what we now call the Bible.
And how would it have influenced the world. Would we have had by now a female president? Would children and not war be given the priority?
The truth is is that if Christianity did not conform to the patriarchal ways of doing things, it probably would have been snuffed out, just as hundred of others religions were.
The sad fact is that by silencing those voices, Christ voice was still able to be heard, although his message was changed.
But an interesting thing has happened. You see, truth is something that can not be hidden for too long. And God’s voice, no matter how hard we try to suppress it, is a voice that breaks through the silence, and to breaks down the conventions that we think are dear.
And how exciting it is to be part of God Speaking. As members of the UCC we get to reclaim those voices.
It began centuries ago when Martin Luther found the courage to speak out against what he saw as abuses of the church.
It continued with the Pilgrims who found the courage to leave their homeland to settle in America and worship God they way they felt called too.
It continued when Antoinette Brown became the first woman ordained by a denomination.
It continues with scholars like Elisabeth Fiorenza and John Riggs who research history and scripture and rediscover lost voices.
It continues with denominations like the UCC and the Methodists who ordain women, invite them into leadership and vote them into bishop positions.
It continues with seminaries like Eden Theological that train men and women, old and young, gay and straight to become leaders and scholars of the church.
It continues right here in our own congregation where women serve as ushers, head committees, serve communion, preach from the pulpit, raise money for various ministries, and go to school for their bachelors, their masters, and as Barb is doing, go to become certified Lay Leaders and eventually certified pastors.
What this means, is that as Christians, we, like the disciples, are all in that boat. And when we see Jesus coming towards us, we all have the opportunity to say "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you."
And when Jesus speaks to us, and reaches out his hand, and says "Come", we are all invited to take our chance, and to step out on that water with Jesus, and to be with him.
We do not have to feel like Charlene, held back and restrained by what a group of oppressors believe. But instead we are free to seek and answer Christ’s call.
Regardless of who we are, and where we are on life’s journey, we are all given that chance to step out of the boat and follow Christ.
No one has to be silent anymore.
Finally, in conclusion, I began the sermon with a mystery about an ancient church with paintings on its walls. We were asked to figure out what the paintings were trying to say, and by now I pray the answer has become clear.
The pictures were of Peter sinking into the sea. Mary Magdalene with Jesus in the garden. And Christ as the Good Shepherd.
Chances are this meant that the earliest found church was a church of equality, in which both men and women lead, and Mary Magdalene was acknowledge to be one of Christ’s disciples.
It meant that within those walls both women and men preached sermons, served communion and read the scriptures.
It meant that in that church all were welcome, equality was celebrated and concern was not given to how the rest of the world lived, but to how God was calling them, as sisters and brothers, to live.
Let us give thanks that although it did not last, and try as we might, we may never get it right, we as a unified church are making attempts to reclaim the original vision of church and the way things Christ intended it to be.
Let us give thanks that voices are not as hushed as they once were. That history has a way of revealing its true self and that in Christ we all have a voice, and the right to lift it up and sing.
Let us give thanks to God the parent who cares for us all, to Christ who call us all and to the Spirit that falls down upon us all.
How Great Thou Art. How Great Thou Art indeed.