June 6, 2012

How I came to preach a sermon about how I have no business preaching sermons

When I learned that Rachel Held Evans would be hosting One In Christ: A Week of Mutuality to promote conversations about egalitarianism in the church, I knew exactly what I wanted to share - an excerpt from "Saved by the Childbearing," a chapter in Any Day a Beautiful Change. (Readers who have been around awhile might remember the precipitating event.)


I always answered the phone in the manner I had learned was most efficient: “South Bay Christian Church—this is Pastor Katherine.”

The man on the other end of this call apparently missed the verbal cue. “May I please speak to your pastor?”

I pleasantly reiterated that I was the pastor of the church; I asked what I could do for him. He clearly wasn’t calling to sell me something; perhaps he was contacting me for help with paying for a hotel room or a tank of gas, or maybe even for information about joining the church.

“I’m confused,” he said, the sarcasm so thick I could recognize it even in the voice of a total stranger. “You’re the pastor?”

As it turned out, I was speaking to someone who had spotted me in the "Ask the Pastor" column in our local newspaper and was so passionate about his conviction that I should not be a pastor (and that all my opinions were hogwash) that he tracked me down to tell me so.

I noted that Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (3:28). He reminded me that Paul also wrote in his first letter to Timothy, “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent” (2:12).

Then I argued that Mary Magdalene was the first person called to preach on Easter Sunday, that Jesus himself ordained her to go and tell the other disciples that he would meet them in Galilee. Not that the men listened to her, but she did her part by proclaiming the astounding news that Jesus Christ is risen. He quoted 1 Corinthians 14:34–-35, where Paul commands, “Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”

At that point I changed tactics and reminded him that slavery—of all things, slavery—is affirmed as an acceptable practice in the New Testament. Perhaps this business of relegating women to second--class citizens is another sign of the historical context out of which these sacred scriptures emerged.

And it went on and on, back and forth, and we succeeded in ripping the Holy Bible to shreds—-these are my verses, those are yours, and we are anything but one in Christ Jesus. I tried to engage the caller in a mature discussion about biblical interpretation and historical context, but when it became clear that the last thing he wanted was a rational conversation, I got off the phone as quickly and politely as I could. And then I cried.

I did a quick inventory. One of my childhood pastors was female. As a teenager, some of my best mentors were female pastors. I went to seminary for three years (where many of my professors were ordained female clergywomen) and earned a Master of Divinity degree. My home church as well as the regional committee on ministry discerned that I have a call to ordained ministry. The General Minister and President of my denomination is a woman. My first church unanimously called me to be their first female solo pastor. I have a phenomenal support network of clergy friends, many of whom are women.

When I called upon that circle for a little encouragement, they lovingly echoed the voice of the Holy Spirit, confirming in a hundred different ways that God calls women into ministry and that God had called this woman into ministry.

I know that, of course. Though it came as a surprise to me (and probably the vast majority of people I knew in my youth), I’m clearly supposed to be doing what I do. I’m not the best, though I’m better than I thought I’d be. When I’m rattled by a tough pastoral visit, I dream about ensconcing myself in some ivory tower as a literature professor. When our bank account plateaus just south of comfort, I wonder just what it is lawyers do, anyway, and could I do it if it paid well enough? But my sense that this is the life to which God has called me is so strong it’s enough to make me read the book of Jonah literally. There’s no escaping pastoral ministry, and I really wouldn’t want to if I could. And while it wasn’t a primary reason I kept working after Juliette was born, it matters that my daughter witnesses me responding faithfully to my vocation.

And it is her watchful eyes that make me that much more indignant about— and that much more sensitive to— arbitrary nonsense about what girls can and can’t do. I’m not the type to teach my daughter she can do anything she wants to do if she tries hard enough. It’s an appealing sentiment, but it’s not exactly true (for instance, if she inherits my math skills, her chances at becoming a mechanical engineer are totally shot). Neither does that line allow for the very real stirrings of the Spirit. Perhaps I’ll tell her she can do anything God has in mind for her if she tries hard enough. What I can’t abide by is anyone else telling her she can’t do what God calls her to do. Or, for that matter, anyone telling me I can’t do what God has called me to do.

I just couldn’t quite shake the conversation. It haunted me for weeks. At first I heard the voice of the man, snide and condescending, rattling around in my head. But before long his voice was replaced by the voice of scripture, the sacred shared book that he had used against me. In particular, the verses from the first letter to Timothy lodged themselves in my mind:
Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty. (1 Tim. 2:11–15) 
The passage alternately angered and fascinated me; I couldn’t imagine how I’d been a Christian—-a pastor—-for so long without having ever seriously considered these words. My previous tack had been to simply ignore them, to write them off as culturally irrelevant drivel and as a sign that while the Bible may be inspired, it is far from inerrant. But when a passage gets stuck in my head, there’s usually only one way to get it out: to proclaim it from the pulpit.

And that is how I came to preach a sermon about how I have no business preaching sermons. Naturally, that isn’t exactly how it went down. I recounted the phone call (with many an incensed murmur from the pews), confessed my frustration with scriptures like these, and acknowledged the matter of cultural context. And then I focused on the strangest part of the scripture: its left-field emphasis on childbearing. When did Jesus ever teach that having babies saves women or that becoming a mother is tantamount to eternal salvation? What about our fundamental confession that Jesus saves? The punch line of the sermon was supplied by my favorite biblical commentary, which noted that in the original Greek, the scripture reads “women are saved through the childbearing”—-which is supposed to be a pun for the birth of Jesus. Of course women are saved by the One born fully human and fully divine. So are men.

It was a happy ending to the sermon, a means of celebrating the presence of good news in a challenging and unpopular scripture. I think everyone left happy. But as I went home to my husband and my kid, I realized that I might have been a little too cavalier about throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Though it seems an affront to my feminism and my faith, it’s true: I am one woman who has been saved— at least in part— by childbearing. Not just the childbearing that Mary undertook to bring the newborn Christ into the world, but the childbearing I did to bring the newborn Juliette into the world. Her birth opened something in me, and while that opening is a magnet for fear— and oh, what a risk it is to love so completely— it is also an invitation to greater faith, love, and holiness. But salvation will never cause me to be silent, not the redemption of my soul by Jesus or the rescuing of my spirit by Juliette.

I will preach this good news and sing in praise of all that saves. How could I not?

13 comments:

  1. Bless you for tackling a tough passage like that. You and your church will benefit from that in the future for sure!

    I have since learned that the women in ministry debates are best avoided in most situations. You lose either way with some folks. When I refuse to engage in them, I'm the bad guy. When I put up a fight, I'm the bad guy. It never fails. At least if I opt out I don't end up with all of the residual aggravation. I only discuss my egalitarian views with the curious. If I don't detect curiosity, I run.

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    1. I have learned to pass on such conversations, too. Though really, situations like this, where someone actively questions the validity of my call, are blessedly few and far between.

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  2. "And it is her watchful eyes that make me that much more indignant about— and that much more sensitive to— arbitrary nonsense about what girls can and can’t do." Exactly. I loved discovering your blog today. Keep up the good work, pastor!

    Jessica

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  3. katherine, this is wonderful. it breaks my heart that a stranger would feel the need to attack you and your calling down in such a cold and graceless manner.

    i read somewhere (i think it was rob bell?) that that saved-in-childbearing passage was a reference to the fertility goddess artemis and high maternal mortality rates. artemis was impotent but God could save women physically and literally during dangerous birthing. i would love to study that passage more sometime (and pick your brain about NT pauline authorship.)

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    1. Oooh, I haven't heard about that but it sounds fascinating. Thanks!

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  4. "What I can’t abide by is anyone else telling her she can’t do what God calls her to do." Love this. I stopped telling my kids they could do anything they wanted, too. It's been 'what are your talents and gifts, and how can you use them?'. That would have been a very stressful conversation - what a great way to tackle it head on! I've never heard 'through the childbearing'...which makes way more sense.

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    1. It was a stressful conversation, but it was so good to know that the people in my life - and in my church - are 100% supportive.

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  5. "What I can’t abide by is anyone else telling her she can’t do what God calls her to do." This is my favorite part.

    Also, good job directly addressing that weird passage from Timothy instead of ignoring it. ^_^

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    1. There are still some passages that I subconsciously (and consciously!) ignore, but I'm trying to reverently wrestle with them. :)

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  6. Oh, I have had those conversations, defending myself and my calling. How brave of you to tackle this from the pulpit. I noticed how much more important this became for me when I had my daughter. I don't want anyone telling her that she cannot go where God is calling simply because of her gender. Thank you for sharing this. It is so thoughtful and honest.

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    1. I've decided that Ed is right - it's rarely fruitful to engage with someone who is more interested in attacking and/or proving they are right. But it's hard to walk away sometimes.

      Thanks for your kind words.

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  7. You might enjoy reading "Man and Woman, One in Christ" by Philip Payne. It's a fairly scholarly egalitarian work that tackles pretty much all of the female-restrictive passages.

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