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Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Wednesday: Preaching a Sermon on How I Have No Business Preaching Sermons

Today's post is by Katherine E Willis Pershey (you may know her as Kewp), a long time ring member and recently-published author of Any Day a Beautiful ChangeThe book was reviewed on this blog last week.     

Katherine says:  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?


  1. I have often felt that in the appointment in which I had my children, that they indeed saved me. Somehow I was more capable or skilled to be a pastor because I had children. Thanks for opening my eyes in a new way this morning.

  2. Hi Megan! Thanks for your kind words. I think that parenting can make you a better pastor, but it's not the parenting that does it, per se, but the reflecting thoughtfully about the circumstances of your life. I think it is problematic to make a blanket statement that makes it seem like those who do not have children are somehow lesser pastors. I have experienced incredible personal and spiritual growth through parenting that has informed my pastoral work, but I affirm that there are many, many ways to engage in such growth.

  3. Alison-in-FranceJune 7, 2012 at 3:28 AM

    I'm thinking that the key is be sure that such statements are in the first person - both in the way we say them out loud, but also in the way we inform our thinking. Saying "Becoming a mom is one of the things that has helped _me_ to become a better pastor" isn't the same as saying "moms make better pastors" or "only moms are good pastors". (I identify with the feeling because, though I'm not a pastor, becoming a mom has definately been an important par of _my own_ growth as a human being. If I hadn't become a mom, God would presumably have used other things to help me grow.)

    I also wanted to say thanks to Katherine for raising this issue. I'm a laypreacher in a baptist congregation and recently got "hit over the head" at the end of a service with this very text (plus 1 Corinthians 14 of course). It was unpleasant and upsetting, and although I'm increasingly sure of my call to preach, and I although I have the 100% backing of our church's leadership, I realise that I still have a little voice somewhere in my head saying "what if they're right". I suspect that the solution will ultimately be to preach this text, as good news, for men and women - but before I do that, I need to get to a place where I can genuinely do so without it sounding like "special pleading"

  4. You know, Alison-in-France, it dawns on me that one of the big reasons I felt comfortable preaching this text was because my congregation overwhelmingly - even unanimously - supported women in ministry.

  5. Alison-in-FranceJune 7, 2012 at 8:51 AM

    Where I am we're in a situation where "received-wisdom" until very recently has been that women are banned from preaching. (Although there have been women baptist preachers for as long as there have been baptists, its not a very well know fact, and our denomination only started ordaining women as pastors about 5 years ago.) Today most people are OK with it, but I suspect that most people still have a bit of a guilty feeling about 1 Tim 2 - there is an instinctive feeling that reading it as an outright ban causes more problems than it solves, but folk are still uneasy.

    A couple of years back, we did a series of 5 or 6 evening studies around the whole issue. That clarified things for most of those who attended (apart from those who weren't interested in changing their minds), but of course not everyone attends that sort of meeting. So as well as downright criticism, I still get the odd comment along the lines of "I really like the way you preach, I just don't understand why the Bible doesn't allow it". I think we're going to have to tackle it from the pulpit at some point - but I suspect this sort of "policy sermon" might be best left to the pastor. (Certainly, I wouldn't do it without upfront discussion.)


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