Melissa Florer-Bixler
Duke Memorial 7/10/16
Acts 9

The priests I saw were men, all of them. In my head I have a memory as a little child of one woman among them, but then she was gone. Every Sunday, behind the altar, in the pulpit, hands raised above the bread and the wine – all of the priests were men.

In the church I grew up in I almost never saw a female pastor, and never heard a woman preach. It would take 19 years for me to hear the voice of a woman proclaim the Gospel from the pulpit. 19 years.

I have another memory from childhood. I was reading the Bible, 1 Timothy 2. Tears soaked the pages of my NIV Adventure Bible. “I do not permit a woman to teach or assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” The words burned on the page.

For years I would come home from church and reenact the Sunday morning service, singing the words of institution for the gathered church of my stuffed animals. I had neatly arranged them in a semi-circle on my canopy bed, a few pieces of Wonder bread and a paper cup of water, the body and blood of Jesus for my beloved toys.

And those words from Timothy. They hurt. They hurt me. What could it mean for me? What could it mean for a little girl who felt this draw, these words of consecration spilling out into this little bedroom church, a little girl that would later become me, one of the pastors here at Duke Memorial, preaching before you today.

The good news is that my feminist, divinity-school-educated dad found me crying that day reading Timothy. He explained cultural context and local setting. And he hugged me. And he told me I could be anything I wanted to be.

But it was hard to believe. Because it’s hard to be what you can’t see. And that’s why I’m thankful for the window that preserves the memory of Tabitha, always here before us, always in our midst. Today I give thanks that, as I look back, I can see how Tabitha has always been preaching, always been proclaiming the Gospel in the pulpit of the world, even when she was blocked from pulpit of the church.

“Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and to acts of charity.”

A disciple and her name is Tabitha. This is the only time in Scripture when we hear the name of a female disciple. Tabitha, the one who does good works, who gathers a church of widows, a church of the despised and disenfranchised. Tabitha a widow-priest. Tabitha, the disciple who stitches together tunics and robes, hands them out in the street, clothes others, clothes them in dignity and strength.

Widows in the time of Tabitha were blocked from every avenue available to maintain a financially sustainable life. Tabitha finds a way, uses her ingenuity and skill to create a cottage industry of clothing making. She gathers the widows around her, makes a new life possible for them. Tabitha was their pastor, their priest, the one whom God had sent to remind them of God’s love, to bind them together, to make possible the Good News of Jesus Christ among them.

This is what happens when Jesus comes into the world. All the sudden things are turned upside down. All the prophecies, all the promises begin to come life. You see them happening. The Good News of God’s love begins to move out into the world and to move in ways that people did not expect.

And in Tabitha we see this unfolding. Tabitha – a hybrid, both Greek and Jew; a woman; a disciple of Jesus – she is the juncture at which the Gospel begins to move beyond ethnic Judaism and to the Gentiles.

I cannot underscore the strangeness of this for the people in Tabitha’s time. Each morning faithful Jewish men of the second-century offered a morning prayer: Thank you God I was not born a women, a Gentile, or a slave. There was no less likely place for God’s spirit to erupt into the world than through Tabitha, no one less likely than this widow, this woman, this partial Gentile to be called God’s disciple, for her body and her community to empower the movement of the gospel, for her life to be the engine for the good news as it spreads to the gentiles, to the ends of the earth.

Of course, Tabitha is not the first the woman to follow Jesus. Many others came before, and many others would follow, women who stayed at the cross when men would run, women who drew near to the grave when men hid in fear. Junia and Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Mary the mother of Jesus, Susanna and Priscilla, Phoebe and Lydia. Against the sexism of the culture and religious institutions of the day, the Gospel goes into the world, to Gentiles, to the poor, through the lives of women. But something is different for Tabitha. She is a disciple. As the Gospel grows in Acts so too does the power and role of women in the church.

Over time the church has strayed from this founding story. Over time the church forgot that women had fueled transformation with their ministries and miracles. The prophetic word of women, some called to ministry, others cast into it by the circumstances of their lives, by disenfranchisement and the tragedies of their communities – the prophetic word of these women fuels the Gospels movement.

Over time the church began to look more like the world. And in the world the picture for women was bleak.

Worldwide 30% of women have experienced violence at the hands of an intimate partner.

1 in 5 U.S. women will be sexually assaulted on their college campus during their undergraduate years.

In United States white women make 77 cents on the dollar compared to men with equal experience and education. Black women earn 64 cents on the dollar and Latina women 56 cents.

In 2015 102 unarmed black people were killed in police shootings leaving 102 widows and partners to pick up the pieces of family life, to provide financial stability, to grieve spiritual and emotional trauma.

The world is not a place where women thrive.

The church is not supposed to be like the world, but we’ve had trouble living up to the Good News of Jesus lived in the life of the disciple Tabitha.

Female pastors also experience the gender pay gap, earning 85 cents for every dollar earned by our male counterparts with the same experience and education.

While female clergy continue to grow in number throughout mainline churches, only two of the largest one hundred Methodist churches in the United States are led by women. Two out of 100.

Currently only 1/5 of the top leadership roles in U.S. Methodist conferences are held by women.

While women make up 58% of worshipers in the pews, 72% of ordained clergy are men.

This year we celebrate 50 years of women’s ordination in the Methodist church. We celebrate the ways the church was led back to its original vision of women preachers, this original catalyst of the Gospel. We were led by Grace Eloise Huck, Marion Kline, Maude Jensen, and Julie Torres Fernandez, the first women to be ordained as elders in the Methodist church.

Over the past two decades this church has heard the call of Tabitha, has made space and place for those disciples of Jesus who would follow after Huck and Kline. This pulpit, this altar, have been the place of ministry for a cloud of female witnesses–Tabithas who have heard the call of God, who responded to the call of God on their lives through preaching, teaching, and leading. Ellen Metcalf, Ruth Harper Stevens, Lisa Brown Cole, Ginger Thomas, Laura Crosskey, Gair McCullough, Debra Brazzel, Laurie Hayes Coffman, Para Drake, Susanne Sartelle Priddy, Heather Rodrigues, me, Chelsea Johnson.

That’s why Chelsea is with us this summer. Chelsea is a high school student, a young woman who, like me, grew up without seeing women in pastoral ministry. This summer she’s one of our pastoral interns. She saw something different here. She saw week after week women in this pulpit. She saw Gair pastoring in our church. Week after week she heard female voices. And she believed. She believed that God could call her to be a pastor, could call her to the ministry of the church, the Good News, going forth into the world in her.

But we also know that women power the Gospel in the sanctioned space of the pulpit only because there is a long history – the history of Tabitha – of women preaching in unsanctioned space, preaching off the record. Tabitha reminds us that women have always proclaimed the Gospel in the midst of economic and social inequity. Some women sensed a call, were confirmed in that call, took hold of their office. But long before and still today women preachers proclaim the word because they are called through the circumstances of trauma to be both widows and priests, to face terror and there create space for liberation and justice. It is because of the leading of these women, the example of these women, overwhelmingly women of color, that women like me now occupy sanctioned space for preaching and teaching in the church.

We see women, Tabithas, growing in numbers in the pulpits of the street, in the pulpits of the kitchen, the pulpits of the neighborhood community center. These are the widow-priests, those, who like Tabitha, gather communities around them, who minister to neighbors and families quaking after times of grief, after the traumas of gun violence that plague our country. After each of these shootings, after each death, a community is left traumatized. Children without fathers and mother. Friends bereft. Family members in shock. A people ripped apart. Widows, the partners left behind, have become the gatherers of these grieving people, clothing the distressed and broken-hearted with garments of comfort.

They also call to us into the streets, preaching the prophetic word against our nation’s obsession with guns, preaching a prophetic word against our lack of political will. Widow-priests gather us, show us how to make our grief and our politics one, show us how to take everything personally, to refuse to let tragedies be silenced by time. We are called to listen as their cries of sorrow become cries of rage; as they demand an account for our silence.

We do well to heed their voices, to follow after Tabitha, to let her lead us. The partners of Pulse shooting victims. The mothers of Sandy Hook. The wives and mothers of Brent Thomas, Michael Krol, Patrick Zamarippa, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens. The girlfriend of Philando Castile. The wife of Alton Sterling. The upending Gospel, the Gospel of peace is found here in their cries, the widow-priest who holds weeping children at the dinner table, the widow-priest with a megaphone proclaiming that black lives matter, the widow-priest that stave off her fear and despair by gathering others together, refusing to let violence silence love.

Diamond Reynolds found herself a widow-priest this week, a woman who watched her fiancé, Philando Castile shot four times, her child a witness in the back seat of their car. Her voice proclaims these words: “We are innocent. We are innocent. We are innocent people.”

She follows in a long line of strong black women who are Tabithas, priests of the street who hold up a megaphone to the Gospel. Diamond is a priest, in the line of Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, who tell us “I had to turn my sorrow into a strategy, my mourning into a movement.” Carr preaches, “I will walk, speak, rally, whatever it takes until justice is served.”

That saying, you can’t be what you can’t see? Because of widow-priests like Reynolds and Carr, because of Rev. Huck and Rev. Jensen and Rev. Torres Fernandez, because we continue to bring our little girls to see strong black women leading protests in the street, to see women preach in the pulpit – because of this a new generation of little girls will grow up knowing they are the engine of Jesus’ gospel, the turning point where good news for some becomes good news for the world.

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