The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

HEROINES OF THE FAITH

Delivered 3/12/06
Text: Acts 16:11-15
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Remember the ad campaign of how-many-years-ago now that said, "You've come a long way, Baby?" As I recall it was for some brand of cigarettes that was being marketed primarily to women. I am certain they did not think of the advances of women in society in terms of them now having come far enough to enjoy equally with men the opportunities to smell terrible, get emphysema and die of lung cancer, but that would surely have been a side benefit anyway. The truth is that you HAVE come a long way, Baby, and as Martha Stewart would say, "That is a good thing."

As you may be aware the 8th of March this year and every year is designated International Women's Day. The date is commemorated at the United Nations, is designated in many countries as a national holiday, and is rooted in the centuries-old struggle of women to participate in society on an equal footing with men.

Last year I was intrigued with an article in Newsweek that called attention to a little-reported but apparently quickly growing trend.(1) It noted that on November 8, Liberians elected the Harvard-educated Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to be their next leader. This is newsworthy by itself because she is Africa's first female president. But it is an even bigger story because, on the world stage, it is not an isolated event. The rise of women in public life has been remarkable.

Look at what has happened elsewhere. Angela Merkel has become the first female chancellor of Germany. Michelle Bachelet has just been elected president of Chile, the first woman to lead a major Latin American country. Since the 1990s, more than 30 women have become heads of government. In the 1950s there was just one. (Suhbaataryn Yanjmaa, president of Mongolia.)

Not just heads of state either. In Iraq women will fill at least 25 percent of seats in the new Parliament because the new Iraqi Constitution has a quota requiring it. Overall, 50 countries have quotas for female representation in their legislatures. In many countries, like Sweden, political parties have adopted rules that force them to field a set number of women candidates. The world record for female representation is held by Rwanda, with women making up 49% of its lower house. No surprise, the lowest representation by region is in the Arab world, with women making up only 8% of legislatures. And where do we in the US rank? As it turns out, 67th, with only 15 percent of the House of Representatives being female.

Does all this gender shift make any real difference? Many voters seem to think so. A Gallup poll in Latin America found that 62% of people believed that women would do better than men at fighting poverty, 72% favored women for improving education and 53% thought women would make better diplomats. There is growing evidence that, at the very least, where women make up a significant percentage of government, they tend to hold priorities that are different from men's. The World Economic Forum found, in a study of just three countries, that women wanted more money for health care, education and social welfare, and less for the military. Across the globe, women are perceived as less corrupt. Interesting stuff.

This is consistent with growing evidence at a grassroots level that women are better recipients of aid than men. Around the world, if you give cash to a mother, she tends to use it to invest in children's health and education. (A man, on the other hand, will often take it and head to the local watering hole.) "Studies from Brazil show that survival possibilities of a child increase by 20 percent if the income is in the hands of the mother rather than the father." So says the World Bank.

There is another perceived difference between men and women. Eight years ago, an article appeared in Foreign Affairs in which it was argued that "aggression, violence, war, and intense competition for dominance... are more closely associated with men than women." The conclusion was that "a world run by women would follow different rules." That may be open to question considering that Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, and Indira Gandhi, to name just a few, did not hesitate to lead their nations in war.

It is much too soon to be able to tell how different the world would be if women were equal partners in government. But it is a trend that is coming soon to a country near you (maybe even eventually right here), so keep watching.

In the church, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) this year will celebrate the golden anniversary of the ordination of women to the ministry in our denomination. In 1930 the Assembly passed Resolution B voting to ordain women as elders and the next year, 1931, five women were commissioners to General Assembly. Some men feared women would take over the church. Some women wondered why the men would think the women wanted it. Another 25 years would go by before the first woman was ordained to the Presbyterian ministry. In 1956 Margaret Towner became the first woman ordained to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament in the United Presbyterian Church.

Margaret left a career as a medical photographer at the Mayo Clinic to study education at Syracuse University prior to accepting the job as Director of Christian Education at the East Genesee (NY) Church. She then pursued the three-year Bachelor of Divinity Degree at Union Theological Seminary in New York believing that such training would be helpful in her work in Christian Education. She moved to First Church, Allentown (PA) and she flourished. It was suggested that she pursue ordination to the ministry, and, sho' 'nuff, she became the first in our denomination.

Towner's ordination did not bring her equality with males. There was and, sadly, still is a "stained-glass ceiling" in the church that denies full equality. Perhaps typical was a remark at the presbytery meeting following Margaret's official entrance into ministry: one man asked, "What do we do now, address everyone as brethren and sistern?"(2) Why not? As of 2004 (the last year for which statistics are available), there were 4,430 women ordained as Ministers of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA) - just over 20% of the total - and currently, more than half of the candidates for ordination in our denomination are women.(3)

As our lesson from Acts reminds us, the first Christian group in Europe was a Ladies Aid Society. Lydia and her household and friends gave the first aid to the planting of Christianity in Europe. Not much of a surprise, really, considering the long and glorious history of women in the church. It started with Mary. Women were the first witnesses to the resurrection. Quite frankly, from the first day to THIS day, if it were not for the women, there would be no church. It is that simple.

Think of some of them. Think of Anne Hutchinson, a heroine for her insistence on religious freedom in America.(4) Anne emigrated from England with her family in 1634 as part of the Puritan movement that was dissatisfied with the Church of England. They were searching for religious freedom in the new world, but the freedom on these shores was not as free as some might have hoped. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was organized as a rigid theocracy that demanded strict adherence to a code of conduct and did not tolerate dissent of any kind, and certainly not from a woman, because it was widely believed that women did not have the native capacity for spiritual discernment (they should keep themselves only to be wives and mothers).

Anne Hutchinson must have been a remarkable individual because she attracted other women from the colony to her home-based religious discussions and Bible studies. Governor John Winthrop in his diary called her an "American Jezebel." Women should not be behaving like this. Anne and her family were banished from Massachusetts for her boldness and settled in what is now Rhode Island, then moved to Long Island. Anne Hutchinson, a woman of courage who surely qualifies as a heroine of the faith.

Another woman of great courage was Sojourner Truth. Born a slave named Isabella around 1797, she became a crusader for emancipation for the slaves and new rights for women. She was converted in a dramatic fashion when she says the Spirit of Jesus came to her to express his love and say to her, "I know you! I know you!" When given her freedom in New York in 1827, Isabella went to New York City where she worked cooking, cleaning, and caring for the sick. Then God gave her a new name, Sojourner Truth, and she traveled throughout the country speaking against the sin of slavery.

Often clergymen challenged her right to speak to men--women were to keep silent. Once confronted by some males in the audience, she replied:
"Some say woman can't have as much rights as a man cause Christ wasn't a woman. Where did Christ come from? From God and a woman. Men had nothing to do with Him. If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, all women together ought to be able to turn it back and get it right side up again and now that they are asking to do it, men better let' em."(5)
You go, girl! There are other heroines. There was Amy Carmichael, the missionary to India near the end of the 19th century who founded the Dohnavur Fellowship which became a haven for homeless children, especially those girls who had escaped from temple prostitution.(6) She was even given "temple babies," infants that were born of the temple prostitutes, to raise in her "home." Amy Carmichael was an inspiration and heroine to, not only those girls she rescued in India, but who knows how many others through her extensive writings.

There is Donaldina Cameron in San Francisco.(7) In 1882, Congress passed the first of three Chinese exclusion acts which prevented all but a few privileged classes of Chinese men from sending for their families in China. Single men could not send for Chinese wives, nor did the law permit them to marry non-Chinese wives. The small ratio of Chinese women to men bred a rampant prostitution market. To meet the demand, Chinese girls and young women, mostly from Canton, were bought, kidnapped, or coerced into coming to America. Once in the country, these girls were sold for one of two purposes - those in their teens were pressed into prostitution; little ones were sold for household servants called Mui Tsai's. As they got older, they were frequently sold into prostitution as well. It was the rescue of these Mui Tsai's and prostitutes that was Donaldina Cameron's mission. She is credited with breaking the back of the Chinese slave trade in the US and the rescue and education of nearly 3,000 girls. Amazing woman.

In our own day we have been blessed by the presence of another incredible heroine of the faith. She was called Agnes by her Albanian parents but the world came to know her as Mother Teresa, a name she chose as she became a nun in honor of St. Teresa of Lisieux, patron saint of foreign missionaries.(8) From what has been called a "life-changing encounter with the Living Presence of the Will of God" on a train journey in September, 1946 came a unique ministry to the poorest of the poor in India.

"There is a terrible hunger for love," she wrote. "We all experience that in our lives - the pain, the loneliness. We must have the courage to recognize it. The poor you may have right in your own family. Find them. Love them. Put your love for them in living action. For in loving them, you are loving God."

The work of Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity received much international notice and acclaim, the most prestigious, of course, the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. The comment was made when she received it that "her labor made her so worthy that, in reality, she gave honor to the prize, rather than the other way around!" Amen! Truly, a heroine of the faith.

An old story. Three guys are out having a relaxing day fishing. Out of the blue, they catch a mermaid who begs to be set free in return for granting each of them a wish. Now one of the guys just doesn't believe it, and says, "OK, if you can really grant wishes, then double my IQ."

The mermaid says, "Done." Suddenly, the guy starts reciting Shakespeare flawlessly and analyzing it with extreme insight.

The second guy is so amazed he says to the mermaid, "Triple my IQ."

The mermaid says, "Done." The guy starts to spout out all the mathematical solutions to problems that have been stumping all the scientists of varying fields - physics, chemistry, etc.

The last guy is so enthralled with the changes in his friends, that he says to the mermaid, "Quintuple my IQ."

The mermaid looks at him and says, "You know, I normally don't try to change people's minds when they make a wish, but I really wish you would reconsider."

The guy says, "Nope, I want you to increase my IQ times five, and if you don't do it, I won't set you free."

"Please," says the mermaid, "You don't know what you're asking...it will change your entire view on the universe...won't you ask for something else...a million dollars, anything?" But no matter what the mermaid said, the guy insisted on having his IQ increased by five times its usual power. So the mermaid sighed and said, "Done."

And he became a woman.

We love you, ladies. God bless you for all that you do.

Amen!

1. Fareed Zakaria, "First Ladies, in The Truest Sense," 11/28/05

2. James H. Smylie, "Women Ministers (1955-1966) and Margaret Towner," Presbyterian Heritage article reprinted in The Presbyterian Outlook, 2/6/06

3. 761 of 1,427. See http://pcusa.org/research/compstats/tables_pdf/2004table7.pdf

4. http://www.historyswomen.com/womenoffaith/AnneHutchinson.htm

5. Bill J. Leonard, Word of God Across the Ages, (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1981), p.71

6. http://www.historyswomen.com/womenoffaith/amy.html

7. http://www.sfhistoryencyclopedia.com/articles/c/cameronDonaldina.html

8. http://www.historyswomen.com/womenoffaith/MotherTeresa_000.htm

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