Stepping into Unchartered Space

Stepping into Unchartered Space

June 12, 2023 • Rev. Rob Fuquay

The Indiana Annual Conference just concluded yesterday and what a great one it was. St. Luke’s got a number of shout outs. We were celebrated for the launch of Midtown along with our missional service. Then yesterday morning St. Luke’s member, Becca Baughman, was recognized as a Missions Fellow through the General Board of Global Missions. This is a program for young adults age 20-30 to serve 2 years in missions. Becca will be serving in a Metro-Ministry Homeless Shelter in Tampa starting in September. You can see her being prayed for yesterday by Bishop Trimble and blessed by the whole annual conference.

And the conference ended with the Ordination Service where Mindie Moore was ordained Deacon. (Scroll through pictures of Mindie) Mindie even gave the benediction along with the guest preacher, Bishop Sharma Lewis from Mississippi. Pastor Eric and I had the honor of sharing in Mindie’s ordination. So a big congratulations to Mindie today.

Mindie shared with me this story about her conducting a funeral one time that had a lot of Catholic relatives. After the service this man come up to her and said, “I didn’t know girls could do what you just did! I have never seen that before. What do I call you, Mother? Priest-ette?” Mindie said, “No, you can just call me pastor.” I guess if the Catholics ever start ordaining women priests, they will have priestettes!

“You can just call me pastor.” It sounds so simple, especially at St. Luke’s where we’ve had women pastors for more than 40 years. But in many places its not just an oddity, its forbidden. And it can be so painful to be told that simply because of who God made you to be, that disqualifies you from serving God.

Some of you can perhaps relate to this. You can relate to being rejected by religious people because of your gender, or sexual identity, or physical and mental limitations, or your skin color, or your social status. You’ve been told you can’t, or you’re not allowed, or its never been done. And the idea of crossing some the threshold of some social or cultural barrier feels impossible.

We are in a series called Thresholds. We are considering the two understandings of that word. A threshold is an entry point like a doorway we go through. But threshold also has to do with capacity and ability. In spiritual terms, the thresholds God leads us to cross are ones that increase our spiritual thresholds.

So on a weekend when we celebrate Pastor Mindie being ordained a deacon, we thought it would be fun to consider the first woman deacon in the Bible. Her name is Phoebe. We learn about her in the last chapter of Romans. Paul finished the letter naming more than 25 people he commended to the congregation.

The very first Paul commends is “our sister, Phoebe, a Deacon in the church at Cenchreae.” Cenchreae (sin-cree-A) was the port city near Corinth. Paul says she was a Deacon. That means the church endorsed her as a leader. Historians believe she was the person who carried Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

As well, Paul said “she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.” She was a person of means. She most likely traveled to Rome at her own expense.

Paul also wrote, “I heartily endorse both her and her work.” Paul is earnestly asking the church to accept her and her work. What does that mean? Probably that she not only delivered the letter but then helped interpret it to the people. Today that letter is scripture. And what do we call someone who interprets scripture for congregations? A preacher! So Phoebe was commended as a preacher.

What’s perhaps most surprising about all this, is that PAUL is the one commending Phoebe. A lot of people look at Paul as being anti-women because of what he wrote to the Corinthians: “Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak but should be subordinate.” (1 Corinthians 14:33)

But this is where the way we interpret scripture is so important. Rather than picking one verse and making it a rule for all time and all people, it’s important to take what is said in context. Paul didn’t write opinions for everyone. He wrote to specific churches about specific needs at specific times.

Let me ask you, if you wrote an email to someone giving marital advice, would you write the same advice to anyone? I’m guessing not. You probably gauge what you say according to the receiver. So go back to Paul. He tells Corinthians that women should be silent in church. But look at what he said about a group of women in Philippi: “help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers…” (Philippians 4:3) Clearly that is a different message. In fact the NIV Study Bible has an interesting note on this verse. The NIV tends to be a more conservative version of the Bible, yet look at this note: “Those associated with the apostle in the cause of the Gospel (women as well as men) are his equals, not his subordinates.” (p.1810)

But even more than what Paul said, look at what he did. He welcomed women in leadership like Lydia in Philippi, Priscilla in Corinth, and Phoebe in Cenchreae. Paul helped found a church that elevated the role of women.

But that doesn’t mean such actions were always welcomed.

A woman not mentioned in the Bible, but who must have been a significant leader in the Ephesus church was a person named Thecla. She must have helped Paul lead the church, because a number of years ago a cave was discovered above the ancient ruins of Ephesus. In the cave are paintings. One is a picture of the Apostle Paul and next to Thecla (pic). They are both shown in equal stature, both with hands raised in blessing, clearly depicted as partners. But notice that Thecla’s eyes have been scratched out, and her raised hand of blessing has been erased.

It appears that someone not so approving of a woman appearing in equal stature to Paul defaced the image. At a time when women had no vote or voice, the values of the church were not welcomed everywhere. And this unwelcoming culture had an impact on the church. (remove pic)

John Chrysostom was considered an early church Father, one of the saints of the faith. Yet, look at this quote in which he said women are “a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic peril, a painted ill.” (The Ordination of Women, p6)

The Church started out leading the world when it came to gender equality, but a world not ready for such change ended up leading the church. The Church that is meant to change the conditions of culture, often gets conditioned by the culture.

So imagine being Phoebe. You have been a part of a church that affirmed your gifts, and gave you opportunity to use those gifts, and didn’t limit what you could do because of social custom.

You have served alongside the Apostle Paul in Corinth. You listened to him as he worked on an important correspondence to the Roman Church. He may have even asked your opinion as he wrote certain parts. And then one day he comes to you with the rolled up scroll of the completed letter and puts in your hand and says, “I need you to take this to Rome. I trust you. I don’t want you just to give it to them. I want you to help them understand it so they know my heart. You can do it.”

Imagine Phoebe, knowing the attitudes people had toward women. You go to board a ship to Rome. You get to that threshold of the ship’s deck. You know once you step onto that ship you are entering unchartered territory. How would you feel?

Maybe you have been there. Maybe you know that feeling of wanting to do something, but feeling some fear because you hear voices that say, “You’re just a woman, you’re not capable of this.” Or maybe it’s a different situation. You hear voices that say, “You don’t use the right pronouns. People are going to reject you. You’ll never make it.” Or the voices you’ve heard are different altogether. “You don’t have the right education or credentials. You’re not capable!”

But when you cross that threshold you discover something very powerful: While human rules have their place, God has the power to overrule. People are notorious for coming up with rules, rules that try to define peoples’ places. Rules that try to put people in a place. But God overrules. God is the one who made us. God knows what we can do. God is the one who can qualify us. But the only way we discover that is when we feel God nudging us, we sense God whispering to us to do something, then only when we take that step do we discover how God can use us.

In my last church I was part of a men’s group that studied Mike Yaconelli’s book, Messy Spirituality. Mike started out in youth ministry. And in this book he is just real and honest about the messiness of his life and how God can use messy people. Well, in one chapter he shared about speaking at a pastors’ conference in the Seventh Day Adventist Church. They are Christians who follow certain Jewish practices like worshipping on Saturday as the Sabbath. Because Yaconelli had been asked to speak about youth ministry, but in the course of his talks he confessed some of the challenges of ministry he felt and sensed that many of the pastors in the gather resonated. So he ended up scrapping his notes about youth ministry and just spoke to pastors from his heart.

Now, something Mike admitted was always feeling inferior because he wasn’t ordained. He felt he was never respected by people he respected because of this fact. He wasn’t as educated as other church professionals and it bothered him. Well, at the end of his message, the leader of the conference came up and said, “Mike we have a gift for you. You’ve kept referring to your lack of credentials and saying you aren’t a real minister. Yet you have spoken right to our hearts and God has used you, so we want to ordain you right now.” And the next thing he knew all the pastors present came forward to lay hands on him and ordain him in the Seventh Day Adventist Church. This is how he summed it up:

After the service, none of us knew how to respond or how to explain what just happened. But I knew what happened. Jesus was in the building. I think Jesus was tired of my whining, tired of hearing me question my calling, so he decided to shut me up for good. I could just see him smiling. “Okay, are you happy? Now you are ordained, so shut up already!” Of course, I went back to my church and told them I had good news and bad news. I was now ordained, but we were meeting on Saturdays. (p.94)

Some of the guys in my group talked about how powerful this part of the book was for them. They were successful business people but had never gotten a college degree. They admitted having a nagging feeling of being inferior. And here’s the funny thing, these guys were wildly successful. People with lots of degrees were actually envious of them!

When we can let go of who we wish we were, and accept who God made us to be, we can discover what God can do with us. And this is where the church can be so helpful. When the church operates well, it helps people to hear God’s call. The church affirms God’s gifts in them, and the church gives them room to express those gifts. That’s what the church did for Phoebe. That’s what the church does for us.

For us to be disqualified from God’s service because of the way God made us is a crime against nature! And the church has committed this crime too many times. To say that because of the way God made a person, their gender, identity or skin color, is a reason to be disqualified from serving God is like saying “we know better than God who can serve God.” I don’t think any of us really want to be in that position. It is God who calls and it is God who qualifies, and when the church helps people experience this, then the church is doing its job.

Just listen to one St. Luker’s story about feeling disqualified and then qualified by God…

Beck video…