Oh frabjous Day! This is the day after, the week after, the life after The Day. The earth is still spinning, and the sun came up and the rain came down, and it still pleased God very much that it did so. Just like it has been doing for ages. What’s more frabjous about this day than any other? It’s the day /week/month/life after the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America installed Bishop Elizabeth Eaton as presiding bishop. Elizabeth, you might recognize, is a girl’s name. And the world continued. And the rain came down in buckets on the good and the wicked alike (at least where I live.)
It’s what didn’t happen.
But let’s start with what we thought would happen. I quote Pastor and Deaconess Norma Cook Everist, one of the very first women ordained in Lutherandom, who was asked to give the historical perspective for our denominational press this week:
The American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America had begun ordaining women in 1970 and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches would follow a few years later. Women kept responding to God’s call, even when churches through the ages said, “Can’t you wait a few more years, decades, centuries?”
There were all kinds of fears and barriers in the 1970s in reaction to women being ordained as pastors in Lutheran and other church bodies: “Jesus was a man; women cannot represent Jesus.” “If we ordain women, all the men will leave the church.” “What will happen to your children?” (They turned out fine, thank you.) “These women are Communists.”
Of course there were fears, but they were unfounded. Women did not want to take over the church or push out men. Women’s goal was inclusion and partnership, not hierarchical power….
Many years ago I remember hearing my elders saying it would come to this. First you give women the vote, then they are going to want to be congregational Presidents and elders, and then they’re going to want to be pastors, and then someday…. Have you ever read Laura Numeroff’s books that begin like “If you give a mouse a cookie…” ? The domino effect is rarely about anything good about to happen. Saturday afternoon at Rockefeller Chapel in Chicago it finally came to this. And today….life continued, and the rain still came down in buckets on the good and wicked alike. And the ELCA now has a presiding bishop named Elizabeth.
This week’s reading from 2 Timothy, 2:8-9
Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendent of David–that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained.
The word of God is not and cannot be chained. From the glorious 55th chapter of Isaiah:
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall the word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
We do seem to hold the Word of God in captivity sometimes. We like to tell God what is and is not possible, what is and is not meet, right and salutary. I wonder that God does not grow weary of us preaching to God about what God’s Word can and cannot do! But the promise in both Timothy and Isaiah is that God’s Word will not be chained and will not fail to bring life, even out of the worst we can do. So why has it not happened in 2000 years that a _________________ (fill in the blank) has not been allowed to _______________________? Can it be that in 2000 years we have attempted to chain the Word, and refusing to be chained, that women or __________________ have continued to live in that Word, serve that Word, proclaim that Word anyway? I’m thinking about the babushkas in the Soviet who quietly taught (and often baptized) their grandchildren in secret. I’m thinking of Ladies Aid societies, altar guilds, soup kitchens, the Catholic Worker movement, convents, deaconesses, that great hymn writer Anonymous, Catherine Winkworth, Fanny Cosby, any mother who has ever come to a frightened child in the night with the comforting proclamation that everything will be all right. Even if God’s Word were bottled up like a jinn, it still leaked out in every way possible to accomplish its purposes…because God’s Word will not return empty. In God’s economy, nothing is wasted. Not even oppression, repression and suffering.
The Holy Spirit being summoned upon the life and work of a woman who now enters the world stage of leaders in the church is not the first time the Holy Spirit has been summoned upon the life and work of a woman, and every time is was remarkable. Sarah, Rachel, Miriam, Ruth, Rahab, the list just goes on and on. And then there was one who received the Holy Spirit and said, “let it be done to me according to your will.” She also suggested the world was going to be experiencing some rather major upheavals because of what that Holy Spirit was about to accomplish in her. A very different kind of domino effect. Good news for some, bad news for others. You get to choose which you get. This domino effect for Mary ends at the foot of a cross and the door of an empty tomb. The only thing empty in Mary’s song are thrones, overfed bellies, the jails, and ultimately, this tomb.
I pass along to my daughter a very different world than the world I inherited. The world where only men appeared in the altar area in any function is bizarre and strange to her. The world where races used separate bathrooms, drinking fountains, schools, even eating utensils, might as well be another planet to her. For these things, I am most sincerely glad. Her world has different confines, different chains. What I want to tell her, for her to remember, is that tyrants come and go but the word of God will not remain chained. Even when the good seems very far away and impossible…God is working already and speaking today.
Do you know the experience standing at the beginning of ventures of which you cannot see the ending? I don’t know about you, but I try to bubble wrap myself, provision myself for every likely possibility, including (gasp) boredom, and I know it’s not enough. All my efforts to live safely are going to fail because I tend to want to keep God’s Word securely chained and not wildly loose doing whatever it wants in my life. I might lower my expectations, resign myself, hide, retreat. I might feel overcome with inadequacy, fatigue, and the power of the Adversary. But the power of the Advocate will not be overcome, not even when Mary’s liberating vision of the power of God magnified in the fruit of her womb still seems a long time coming.
This picture is of a sculpture outside the downtown Presbyterian church in Minneapolis. When I first encountered it, I was suffering in the midst of an episode of depression and very uncertain about myself and my future. It stopped me in my tracks. I visited it daily on my walk from the hotel to the conference I was attending. Years later I found it again while attending another conference. I cannot tell you how deeply this sculpture did it’s work in me. It’s the sum of all my meager words here. This Word of God is continually doing its work in and among us.
But what about this meantime? This Mean Time? How do we tolerate the very real chains and very real captivity to sin and death that confines us for now? There, the text from Jeremiah is strange good news. While in captivity, he says, seek the good of the city and of your captors. Have babies. Build houses. Not what we expected. This isn’t passive. It’s active. Do the Word, even in unlikely places and circumstances. Trust that it is not chained and will not return empty. Your hope is certain because it is hope in God, and God will empty our graves.
In the meantime, In This Mean Time, we are Holy Saturday people. People in waiting. Death and cruelty may seem to have had its day. But we are here the day after, and the week after, and the life after, and it is a fraptious day. We are like pregnant women, waiting for the first fruits of the grave to emerge. Something has definitely happened here, but it’s not all that’s going to happen. Let the dominoes topple. I can hardly wait to see what happens next.
“And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’
He chortled in his joy.
from Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”