Give Thanks

 

Meditation on Philippians 4:1-9

Nov. 17, 2019

The Presbyterian Church of Coshocton, OH

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.  5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

***

It was a different world in November 1956 when Margaret Towner was the first woman to be ordained in the northern branch of our denomination. “It was a watershed moment for women’s equality,” says Presbyterian Outlook in its Oct 7 issue, “for dismantling gender power structures within the church and for ordained ministry in the Presbyterian Church.” Thirty-six years had passed since the first overture to ordain women as elders and as ministers went before the General Assembly in 1920, the same year women were granted the right to vote in the United States.

Margaret’s ordination to serve God through First Presbyterian Church of Allentown was not, alas, a call to preach. That would come later, when she served other churches. Her first call was to be a minister of Christian education, overseeing the work of 60 teachers, with 910 students. The charge at her ordination has never been forgotten. “Be the shepherd of the flock and not their pet lamb.”

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Margaret’s ordination was covered by Life Magazine with a 5-page spread. The article, “A First Lady Minister in Robes of a New Role,” contains photos that play up her femininity. One features 31-year-old Margaret standing with arms outstretched in a borrowed black clergy robe as two ladies hem and shorten her sleeves to fit her 5-foot-2-inch frame. Another shows her kneeling before 7 men of the presbytery, clad in long black robes and white clerical ties with preaching bands. Another shows her smiling as she sticks her head in the door of a nursery, a small child peering back. Still another depicts Margaret laughing and the caption explaining that an old friend from college, where she had studied pre-med, reminded her that she had once said, “The one thing I will never do is go into church work.”

To the objection that the ordination of women “will be just another excuse for men to get out of the church,” Margaret told Life Magazine, “In my mind there is no ground for men’s fears that women will move in and take over their jobs. There is too much work to be done to allow any jealousy.” Her main worry is not being kept out of the pulpit, she says, for her ministry is with the children and teachers. What bothers her is that the church has a baseball team, “and it’s all men and they won’t let me play,” she says. “But they will call on me when they are in a tough spot in the league!”

Margaret would later choose not to marry, “acknowledging that her temperament wouldn’t allow her to serve both the church and a family.” I suspect that she realized she wouldn’t be able to do it all in an era in which women were expected –not only by men, but by other women—to do everything at home for her husband and children.

While church leadership has been open to women in the Presbyterian Church for more than 6 decades, gender discrimination persists, says the Oct. 7 issue of Presbyterian Outlook. Female ministers have encountered sexism in a variety of forms, including snide remarks and inappropriate evaluations of their bodies, their hair, and the pitch of their voices. It’s no secret that women have a more difficult time finding jobs in ministry and more often work in part time or temporary positions. The gender pay gap among ministers is wider than the national average for all jobs. It wasn’t until Margaret’s last call –decades after she was ordained—that she would receive equal pay with her male counterparts.

Margaret, now 94, in last month’s Presbyterian Outlook, recalls opposition from both men and women in the church. She did receive letters from minister’s wives who worried that women would take jobs away from their husbands and would be willing to be paid less. She also received letters from men who called her to repent and be saved. She chose not to answer those letters or “get into a dialogue with others about their opinions,” she says. “I felt that an example of women in ministry would help break down barriers rather than debate.” When things got tough, she says, her supporters “had her back. Successes and affirmations kept her going.”

“And I felt called,” she says. “Ordained ministry was my life’s work.”

***

In our Philippians reading today, we note that the apostle Paul is supportive of women in ministry. And, in spite of his situation of being imprisoned for the gospel, he says in 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, Rejoice.” Later in chapter 4, he will go on to tell how he has heard of their concern for him and assure them that, “In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

Paul is concerned for unity and peace in the Philippian church. He does something that is unusual for him, in Philippians 4:2-3, and that is to name two women, leaders in the church, whom he has heard are not in agreement. This stirs him to urge Euodia (a Greek name meaning Success) and Syntyche (Greek for Lucky), “to be of the same mind in the Lord.” He doesn’t condemn any specific actions. And he doesn’t take sides! And, also unusual for Paul, he expresses a desire for a loyal companion of his—possibly Luke—to help them be reconciled. He claims them as colleagues in ministry who “struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers,” he says, and that their “names are in the book of life.” This is the only time Paul mentions the heavenly “book of life,” in his letters, though it is a common belief from his Jewish heritage and will be mentioned numerous times in the NT book of Revelation. These two women, in Paul’s view, haven’t ceased to be among God’s faithful.

Women have been in leadership in the Philippian church in Macedonia from its beginnings, when Paul shared about Christ with some Gentile women–God-fearers—who met by the river on the Jewish Sabbath for prayer. In Acts 16, the Lord opens the heart of one of the God-fearers named Lydia, a dealer in purple, to listen eagerly as Paul shares about the Risen Christ. She and her household are baptized, and Paul, Silas and Timothy accept her hospitality and stay in her home a while.

The command to rejoice in the Lord follows Paul’s urging Euodia and Syntyche to have the same mind. In chapter 2, he had urged the church to be careful of their witness and “do all things without murmuring or arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world.” Here in chapter 4, he encourages the church again to remember to live so that they reveal their faith and to whom they belong. “Let your gentleness be known to everyone,” he says. “The Lord is near.”

Paul urges us all, then, to turn our worries into prayer and, with thanksgiving, bring our requests to God. We remain in the mind of Christ when we reject negative thoughts and think on what is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, excellent, commendable—anything worthy of praise.

And the promise for those who keep on doing what we have learned, received and heard and seen? “The God of peace will be with you.”

***

We rejoice as we welcome five new members in The Presbyterian Church of Coshocton today. We give God thanks and praise for you! We embrace you as you are. We hope that you feel God’s love here.

I am grateful for Margaret Towner and all the women in ministry, going back to Biblical times, whose stories inspire us to be open to the Spirit bringing change to our church and society. While it hasn’t been as much as Margaret, I have experienced some opposition to my ministry over the years. None of that is worth talking or even thinking about, as Paul says; it’s not honorable, excellent, pure, or praiseworthy. I, too, haven’t felt that entering into debate about women in ministry is helpful—not when there’s work to be done! The best thing is to be who we are meant to be and not be ashamed of who we are. I, too, have been strengthened by the support of family and friends, and the certainty that God has called me to this work.

I would add to Margaret’s list of things that keep her going a sense of gratitude to God for this call. Gratitude is a powerful thing! I give thanks to God for what he has done in my life and is doing in our church. One more thing I would add to the list is joy. The joy of the Lord is OUR strength. No one can take our joy away!

Let us make our requests known to the God who loves us and has a plan for us. And remember that in Christ’s Body, we are made one, in spite of our differences. Remember that your gentleness is part of your witness to the world.

Now, keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen. Give thanks! And may the God of peace be with you!

Let us pray.

Thank you, Lord, for your love for us and for sending your Son to give His life for our sins—making a way to be reconciled with you and one another when there was no way. We were lost! Thank you for calling us all now by name to love and serve you and your people and for giving us joy for this journey, YOUR joy that no one can ever take away. Thank you for all the godly men and women, like Margaret Towner, who have heard your voice and accepted the call to serve as ministers, despite the opposition she faced. Grant us the mind of Christ so that we may all live in peace with one another, forgiving each other as we seek to do the work of your Church and reach out with your love to our community. Help us to think on things that are honorable, excellent, pure, and praiseworthy and to be a faithful witness through kindness and gentleness, shining like stars in a dark world. Amen.

 

 

 

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