Thank God!

Passage: II Kings 2:1-15; Mark 2:2-9
Date: February 26, 2006
Preacher: Dr Jim Moiso
Guest Preacher:

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Sermon

Today's two strange, haunting, symbol-filled lectionary readings point to several facets of our life, several dimensions of our faith. Hebrew people and early Christians hearing the would have perceived far more than we. Yet, much is available to us. For one thing, they underline that our faith is first one of revelation, not intellectual invention. That is, what we believe, what they believed is that God desires to be known. Yes, God is hidden, but also self-revealing. God's intention is for relationship with human creatures, in all of its messiness and wonder. For another thing, God intends constant movement into the future. Change becomes part of God's nature. So, in the first reading, Elijah has about completed his monumental work as one of Israel's important early prophets. In God's name, he had confronted Queen Jezebel and her foreign gods and had won. At God's direction, he has chosen Elisha as his successor. It was God's time for a change, for passing the mantle. Would things be the same? Never. They could not, would not. God was doing a new thing. In the Mark reading, God reveals to three disciples something new, a new holy mantle, particular, unique, that is placed on Jesus. So, pay attention, God says. Status quo is not part of God's nature, these scriptures warn. For a third thing, God's mystery is beyond our comprehension, or dissection, our rationalizing. How surprising is that, if we are talking about God? Hardly. Rather, God's mystery is to be experienced, welcomed with awe, not examined and explained. Like how amazed I was at the birth of each of my children-I had seen the pictures, taken the classes, watched the movies. But, to be part of that emerging creation of a human being was an overwhelming mystery to be embraced. So is an incredible sunset. Its wondrous beauty is destroyed when we begin to talk about the red being caused by certain pollutants in the air, and all of that. No, it is to let that beauty, that mystery wash over us as a gift. So too looking at an intricately faceted snowflake that gently lands on a jacket sleeve. Wow. This day I invite us to listen with more than our hearing and thinking senses. Listen for this self-revealing God, this God who initiates change, this God of mystery. (Read scriptures)

As a young seminary student in 1965, I spent the summer coordinating 20 senior high groups which came to north western California to do flood relief work. That previous December, the region had experienced massive deluge and damage. The Presbyterian Church chose to be in ministry with many who suffered loss. That June, I met her for the first time. She seemed older to me, probably 50 or 55. Soft spoken, plainly dressed, she just took me in-giving me guidance, reassurance, a meal now and then. Marie was the first female Presbyterian clergyperson I had ever met. Strong, she was the pastor of a congregation in a small lumbering town north of Arcata, on the coast. I do not recall how many years she had been a Presbyterian minister. It could not have been very long, because our denomination approved ordaining women only nine years before, in 1956.

When did you have your first experience with a Presbyterian minister who happened to be female? Was it twenty years ago next Wednesday, March 1, 1986? That was when Westminster called its first female clergyperson, the Rev. Cheryl Nutting. The search committee's decision had been relatively easy. Cheryl brought great warmth and compassion, strength and grace, attractiveness and strong pastoral skills. But, for some people in the congregation, the choice proved difficult. In succeeding years, upon learning that Cheryl would be preaching, some members choose not to be present. A few others remained in worship until she stood to preach, and then left. The temptation at this point is for some of us to click our tongues and shake our heads in judgmentalism. Let us not go there. Changing two thousand years of tradition and theology is not easy, even if we believe God is behind this change, and I do. Besides, it was 30 years after the General Assembly gave us permission that Westminster was able to call its first female pastor. I wonder how much we all miss of God because we are not open to hear.

As a denomination, we celebrate monumental to us anniversaries this year, 2006. Not only was the first woman ordained to the ministry of word and sacrament a half-century ago. By the way, it was in Cayuga-Syracuse Presbytery in New York that Margaret Towner was ordained. But, we also celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ordination of female deacons in the Presbyterian Church, 1906. And, we remember that last year, we gave thanks for the 75th anniversary of the ordination of women as elders, back in 1930. Now, if you are wondering how Westminster did with female deacons and elders, here is our history. Remember, this is the centennial year for female deacons in our denomination. Westminster's first was ordained in 1966, sixty years after it became possible. Among our pioneering woman deacons were Rosemary Cartozian, Dorothy Repp, Laura Jean Jory, Kay Tousley and Vivian Cook. Westminster's first female elder was ordained in 1960, thirty years after the denomination recognized God's presence in women elders. Among those early ones who were given Christ's mantle to serve in what had been a male domain were Marygolde Hanson, Doris Hamilton, Jane Bryson, Lois Rust, and Louise Scott.

Perhaps now would be a good time to pause for confession. First, if our readings today tell us anything, they say unequivocally that God has no interest in the status quo whatsoever. Why? Because the status quo always favors those in power, to the detriment of those without. Confession: one of the reasons why we have taken our time to include women in leadership positions as Presbyterian Christians is because those who make the decisions benefit from keeping it the same. This is in the face of our God, who in the risen Christ is constantly leading us into the new, into greater, more abundant life together, into more just relationships. Anne Lamont recently wrote: "We make changes barely, poorly, slowly. And still, [Jesus] raises his fist in triumph [whenever we do]. (Context, 2/06, part B, p. 3) Thank God for the encouragement, for the celebration with us as we are open to holy leading, even poorly, slowly. Confession two: when I look carefully, I recognize that I am a recovering male chauvinist. I live in a chauvinistic society. It is in the air we breathe and television we watch. The Presbyterian Church continues to be male-friendly, at least on the clergy side. Salaries for comparable pastorates show that females receive significantly less than males. The glass ceiling continues for women. Yes, progress is being made. Our former Associate, Christine Chakoian, is the new head of staff at Lake Forest Presbyterian, an affluent congregation of more than 2000 members. Susan Andrews, a recent General Assembly Moderator, is a pastor in Washington, DC. The President of McCormick Theological Seminary is female. But these are exceptions. So, as I thank God for this change, I confess that I, we have far to go. Recently I read that in more conservative Presbyterian circles, among those considering leaving the denomination, commitment to women's ordination is lukewarm at best. That saddens me. At the same time, I am very grateful for ordained women who have stretched my mind, who have taught me faith from another perspective, who have deepened my heart and my connection with Christ. I am grateful for women, some of them pretty pushy, some gently graceful, who have been honest with me, convincing me that I should never be patient with prejudice at the expense of its victim.

In this context, I rejoice in lines from our denomination's most recent Confession of Faith:
In sovereign love God created the world good
and makes everyone equally in God's image,
male and female, of every race and people,
to live as one community.

And further on, in a section on the Holy Spirit,
The same Spirit
who inspired the prophets and apostles
rules our faith and life in Christ through Scripture,
engages us through the Word proclaimed,
claims us in the waters of baptism,
feeds us with the bread of life and the cup of salvation,
and calls women and men to all ministries of the Church.

The mantle is shared by men and women alike. I believe that. I believe this is God's intention for the people of Christ. Just because we believe this, though, ours is not to think of ourselves as better than, superior to other Christian groups in this respect. Rather, ours is to live into the light of God as we perceive it, seeking to be open to this mystery we call holy. Ours is to live with gratitude for what we understand that Christ is up to among us and through us. So this anniversary day, this day of the Transfiguration of our Lord, I thank God. I thank God for all sorts of colleagues in ministry: elders, deacons, clergy, and everybody else. Mercy, how rich and wondrous is this gift, in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.