Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Light Bulb in the Manger

A Sermon on Luke 2:1-20

Like the congregation I currently serve, my childhood church presented a Christmas pageant during an Advent worship service every year. But in stark contrast to my current church's Christmas pageant, the Christmas pageant my childhood church presented every year was emphatically NOT FOR CHILDREN. The shepherds were adults, the wise men were adults, Joseph and Mary were adults, and the narrator was an adult. The script had been the same every year since about 1901, passed down on type-written yellow pages. Each set of characters silently acted out their parts as the narrator provided a voiceover, and then each group made their way to the nativity tableau, which seemed to glow with a heavenly light. There were roles for four children: two pre-teen girls were selected to be angels, and the two best-behaved seven-year-olds would be chosen to represent the modern Christians who were still devoted to the Christ-child. They would don their Christmas finery, climb the tall, tall steps to the nativity tableau, and lay wrapped presents for charity in front of the manger, posing there with the shepherds and angels while the congregation came forward with their own toys to donate to needy children. I yearned to be in the Christmas pageant – I just remember feeling so drawn to that nativity scene, glowing there in the darkened sanctuary. And the year I was seven, my prayers were answered and I was selected.

That chilly Sunday morning, I climbed the tall, tall steps in my forest green velvet Christmas dress and knelt in front of the manger, trying not to wiggle. But I couldn’t resist – emanating from the manger was this heavenly golden glow, and I just had to look in. I edged forward, as surreptitiously as possible, still kneeling, until I could peer over the edge of the manger. In I looked, holding my breath. And what to my wondering eyes did appear, but a 100-watt light bulb wrapped in orange cellophane.

A light bulb wrapped in plastic. That's what they were using to represent Jesus. Because, of course, no one was going to be able to see it, and they didn't want to bother with a doll or, God forbid, a real baby, a real baby who might fuss or cry, babble or wiggle.

That says something to me about how we as a society have come to think about Christmas. Of course, we get all up in arms about the commercialism and materialism of our contemporary Christmas celebrations. Of course, we worry that our secular festival of gift-giving and cookie-eating has distracted us from the Gospel stories of Christmas. Of course, some people oppose the trends of multiculturalism and religious tolerance, claiming that there’s a “war on Christmas” because public schools and retail establishments don’t assume everyone is Christian – which I actually think is a wonderful way to respect our brothers and sisters of other faiths. But that's not what I'm talking about today. I think that sometimes, when we reflect on Christmas, we imagine a night of pristine holiness, perfect order and peace. Our images of Christmas are often so simple and lovely and quiet and glowing that we have a hard time imagining that there might have been an actual baby – a noisy, drooly, sometimes smelly baby – in that manger.

But as I studied the Gospel lesson for today, I was struck by its absolute insistence that the first Christmas was every bit as messy and difficult and disorganized and REAL as our real lives, right here, right now, two thousand years later.

The Christmas story, like many of our stories, starts with some bureaucratic red tape. Our real, everyday lives can get thrown out of whack by all kinds of things: a canceled flight, some problem with the bank, a summons for jury duty. And so, too, with Mary and Joseph in the Christmas story: "A decree went out from the Emperor Augustus that all the world was to be registered." An interruption, an inconvenience, that just seems to come at the worst possible time, taking no account of our lengthy to-do lists and packed schedules, or the aching back and swollen feet of a pregnant girl. There's nothing to be done about it, and so Mary and Joseph set off to Bethlehem, where the time comes for Mary to give birth.

“She gave birth to her firstborn son,” we read in the gospel, “and she wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” After five Christmases in this city, those words have taken on new meaning for me. Luke tells us of a Bethlehem filled with transient people, weary travelers “making do,” crowding into inns and stables alike for the census… and it reminds me of New York, with all the people coming and going to do their shopping, see the sights, and visit family, and all the people who are just passing through on their way from one place to another. Sometimes, it reminds me of our living room. At this time of year, calls pour in from family and friends. “I missed my greyhound bus,” says a weary friend, “The next one isn’t until tomorrow.” “The couch is already taken,” we reply, “But if we move the dinner table we can put a sleeping bag on the floor.” There is usually a bit of room at our little Manhattan apartment inn, but when the travelers are hungry and the groceries are scarce, sometimes we find ourselves out in the streets of lower Manhattan, wandering from door to door because there is just no room at the diner.

"In that region," the gospel writer continues, "there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night." The story of Christmas does not happen to people who are attentively watching and hoping, silent and prepared, waiting for Christmas. During Advent, we do try to prepare our hearts and minds, but the Gospel insists that Christmas comes bursting in, ready or not, on people who are busy, working, trundling along with their everyday lives. It comes to us, too, when we have other things to do, family crises and work projects; flocks to watch and papers to write. And it comes to all kinds of people. Despite all of our romantic mental images of beautiful green fields and soft white sheep, shepherding was not a particularly respected job in the ancient Near East. But Christmas comes to us all, the Gospel reminds us, not just to well-behaved, neat-and-tidy, church-going people. It is, the angels proclaim, good news for all people.

When I look back on the Christmas pageants of my youth, where the shepherds were artfully smudged with little streaks of brown makeup to represent just a tiny bit of dirt, and the baby Jesus was represented by a glowing light bulb in the manger, I know that we had forgotten something. Christmas is not about getting all of your ducks in a row – logistically, or theologically. It is not about constructing the perfect nativity tableau, it is not about Martha Stewart crafts and perfect pie crusts, it is not about making everything “just so.” No, because Christmas, at its heart, is about Christ coming into the world. And that world is messy, and busy, and difficult, often beautiful but never perfect or pristine. Christmas is about immanuel – God With Us. Us, real people with all of our flaws and imperfections, our mismatched socks and broken relationships. The Good News of Christmas is that in Christ, God comes to messy, busy people in a messy, busy world. Or, as the Christmas song I Wonder as I Wander puts it, Christ comes “for poor, ornery people like you and like I.” And so it is, every year, with Christmas. Christmas comes to the world as it is, not the world as we would prefer to imagine it. That is what we forget when our Christmas pageants are perfectly choreographed and synchronized, with perfect shepherds and perfect wise men and a perfectly behaved light bulb wrapped in cellophane.

But there was something real and true about the light bulb in that manger, as well. There are two different Gospel readings for the day of Christmas; one is the Christmas story I’ve been talking about. But the other one is from the Gospel according to John, and we read it together at the beginning of worship today. It speaks of the mystery of the incarnation: it declares that Jesus is the Word made flesh, the light of the world. "In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."

Today we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Word made flesh, who came to show us God's love and God’s grace. Decades later, Jesus would tell us that whenever we give a hungry person a sandwich or a thirsty person a drink of water, we do it for Jesus. Jesus teaches us to see Christ in the faces of our neighbors, to love one another as Christ loves us, and to see ourselves and one another as beloved children of God.

The light bulb in the manger didn’t look much like the baby Jesus. But light bulbs are not for gazing at; we aren’t supposed to stare at them. We are supposed to look at what they illuminate. In that light, the faces of shepherds and wise men, Mary and Joseph, glowed. They were everyday people, like the people in the Christmas story; they were accountants and janitors, school teachers and postal workers. They juggled work and church and home. They shoveled the church sidewalks and raised foster children and coordinated food drives and edited the church newsletter. The light from that manger, the light of Christ, shone on their faces that day, and maybe they looked a little like they look to God: created, beloved, holy, everyday people, people whose lives have been changed forever by what happened that day in Bethlehem. We stood around the manger, and we were illuminated by the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.
Thanks be to God.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Women's Ordination: My Conclusions; OR: What I Say When Some Jerk on the Bus Wants to Start With Me

This is the third part of my "utrum" paper, rebutting the arguments against women's ordination. Please note that any theological discourse undertaken with Jerks on the Bus is more likely to lead to a headache than a change of heart.

Responsio: I answer that it is theologically sound to ordain women.

Ergo: The strongest case against women’s ordination is the one based on teachings in the Pauline epistles [presented in The Case Against Women’s Ordination]. It is certainly dangerous to claim that the Christian church can simply disregard inconvenient scripture. However, there are ample grounds for valuing women’s calls to ministry over this interpretation of these particular scriptural passages.

Much of Paul’s other writing on gender is disregarded as clearly outdated, meant for people and problems of his own time and not for ours. For instance, immediately before the passage from First Timothy which is used against women’s ordination, the writer says, “women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God” (1 Tim. 2:9-10). Of course, this passage may still have something to say to our time, but few Christians take the admonition against hair-plaiting literally.

Moreover, First Corinthians has an extended argument about head-coverings for men and women, including this:
…any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil. . . . Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. (1 Cor.11:4-6, 13-15)
This passage, which includes a lengthy argument about creation and gender, stretches a full twelve verses, yet the wider church has judged hair length and head covering to be of little importance for our time. In this case, a lengthy and emphatic discourse on gender has been judged, and rightly so in my opinion, to be a product of and for Paul’s time, rather than an instruction for all time on the appropriate behavior of women.

If we consider this teaching about head coverings to be part of our tradition but not part of our task as Christians, why should we regard the words about women in the church any differently? Paul is no less emphatic here; these words are no more specific to Paul’s social context. In short, his teachings on women and authority need not limit the church’s ability to recognize God’s call of women to ordained ministry in our time any more than any other passages demand that contemporary Christian women wear veils.

The question of catholicity – faithfulness to the traditions of the church worldwide and through the ages – and women’s ordination is a complex one. On one hand, most churches throughout time and many around the world have declared that the ordination of women is not theologically sound; in recent years this has changed, but we must ask whether this change has to do with the guidance of God, or with the pressures of contemporary feminism.

Church history provides some parallel instances which may clarify this question: as we move further away from the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement, for example, it is clear that the churches which advocated abolition and racial equality, both in society and in the church, while this was still unpopular, were influenced not by the whims of the world, but by God’s will for the church.

It is important that the church move in response to God’s will rather than secular trends. Given the testimony of women called to ministry, the witness of scripture, and the history of the church, the ordination of women is theologically sound.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

In Favor of Women's Ordination

Below is the second part of my "utrum" paper on the issue of women's ordination. This part of the paper attempts to lay out the case for women's ordination, stating the case thoroughly and fairly but without counter-argument. Strangely, it was harder to write than the case against women's ordination, although the process probably involved much lower risk of aneurysm. Tomorrow, I'll post the third and final part, my conclusion on whether it is theologically sound to ordain women to ministry.

Sed Contra: On the other hand, the ordination of women must be considered theologically valid.

Many women feel specifically called to ordination and are uniquely gifted for pastoral ministry. When a woman has carefully discerned the will of God, in some cases experiencing a dramatic call to the pulpit and the parish in a voice or a vision, how can the church claim that God’s will is for her to ignore that call?

Ordination of women is a matter of respecting divine vocatio. In Not Every Spirit, Christopher Morse writes that “Christian faith refuses to believe that God calls anyone to reject the particular gifts that God gives uniquely to each human life to make it whole” (267). God would not give women the aptitude for ministry and a sense of call to ordination, only to ask them to ignore this call. Neither, then, should the church ignore this call.

Furthermore, ordination for women is consistent with biblical witness. In the midst of a patriarchal society, Jesus defied societal norms by treating women with dignity and respect, maintaining friendships with women including Mary and Martha, and including women in his ministry. Jesus’ ministry included healing many women (Luke 13:10-17; Mark 5:25-34; Matthew 8:14-15); parables such as the unjust judge and the lost coin place marginalized women at the center (Luke 18:1-8; Luke 15:8-10) In the Gospel of John, we read of the woman at the well, with whom Jesus had a long conversation even though his disciples “were astonished that he was speaking with a woman” (4:27). Jesus’ disregard for social mores around gender calls into question the assertion that women must necessarily be proscribed from certain roles in God’s ecclesia.

Women in the Gospels take on pastoral and ministerial roles. The woman at the well is arguably the first person to preach the good news, announcing to her town, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” (4:29). All of the Gospels agree that women were the first to find out that Christ had been resurrected from the dead. Furthermore, in Matthew, Mark, and John these women are explicitly bidden to spread the good news, and in Matthew, Luke, and John, the women are the first to the disciples of the resurrection. In light of these clear scriptural instances of women being sent to spread the news of what has happened with Jesus, it seems that there is biblical support for the ordination of women.

The shift toward women’s ordination in the last two hundred year reflects the ongoing guidance of the Holy Spirit, leading the church to grow in faithfulness to the will of God. The first woman to be ordained in America was a Congregationalist in 1853. Since that time, many Christian traditions have embraced the ordination of women, including mainline Protestant groups, Evangelical traditions, and many parts of the Anglican Communion. These widespread changes in policy, undertaken in prayerful discernment, demonstrate that many Christian communities around the world are discerning that the ordination of women to ministry is the will of God.

The church’s shift towards women’s ordination coincides with the secular movement for women’s rights and equality. On its own, feminism in the secular world is a poor reason to change church standards of ordination. However, if the church arbitrarily resists gender equality in the name of preserving tradition, it risks being seen as archaic and irrelevant. When our growing societal awareness of gender equality is combined with the testimony of women’s experiences of call, the witness of scripture, and discernment that God is leading the church to ordain women, it is clear that women’s ordination is theologically valid.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Case Against Women's Ordination

For one of my seminary theology courses, I wrote an "utrum" paper, an analysis of a theological issue in a style first used by Thomas Aquinas. The task is to lay out two opposing positions as thoroughly and fairly as possible, before offering one's own conclusion. The issue I chose was the ordination of women to Christian ministry. The work I did in preparing this paper really served me well; it equipped me for conversation with people who doubt my call to ministry, and the faithfulness of denominations that ordain women. I'll be posting the paper here in three parts. What follows is my understanding of the case against ordaining women.

: Whether it is theologically sound to ordain women to Christian ministry.

Videtur: It would seem that it is not theologically sound to ordain women to Christian ministry. There are two significant places in scripture that seem to forbid women from leadership roles in the church. In First Timothy, the author instructs: “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” (2:11-14). Here, the writer, who in deference to tradition will be referred to as Paul, asserts that women are forbidden from having authority over men because of the Genesis story of the Creation and the Fall. Paul employs the Genesis 2 story of creation in which Eve is formed from Adam’s rib in order that Adam might have a companion, interpreting it to mean that women are secondary. Furthermore, the inheritance of sin can be traced to Eve’s gullibility; thus the descendants of Eve, women, are forbidden from teaching and from positions of authority.

A second instance of biblical witness against women’s ordination occurs in First Corinthians: “As in all the churches of the saints, 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” (14:33b-35). If women are to be subordinate in the church, as Paul writes here, that certainly precludes granting them leadership roles within the church. Furthermore, a final element of scriptural witness against the ordination of women can be inferred by considering the religious leaders of the New Testament. While it is sometimes asserted that Jesus’ maleness is not significant, it is nonetheless important to note that the major leaders of the church identified in scripture are men: Jesus, the twelve disciples, and Paul. In the New Testament, the most significant leaders of the ecclesia in the New Testament are all men.

The ordination of women is also judged to be theologically unsound by catholicity -- continuity with the church around the world and throughout the ages. Women’s ordination began to be granted by some denominations in the nineteenth century; up until that point it was widely unknown. Furthermore, many significant Christian traditions hold the ordination of women to be unacceptable up to this day, including the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions, some provinces of the Anglican Communion, and several Protestant denominations including the Southern Baptist Convention, Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod), and Presbyterian Church of America. These traditions justify their decision not to ordain women based not only on scriptural witness, but also on continuity with apostolic tradition.

Finally, it is important in considering this question not to be swayed by the tendencies of contemporary society. The past two hundred years in the United States have seen great advances in women's rights. However, it is important to remember that the church is not necessarily beholden to the ethical norms of the world. We as Christians must decide questions about the rites and sacraments of the church based not on contemporary identity politics but on scriptural witness and faithful theological discernment.