Honoring our Foremothers

Phyllis Anderson—March 10, 2010
PLTS Chapel of the Cross

Luke 13:18–21; Psalm 13

In the summer of 1976, I was a seminarian fulfilling my Clinical Pastoral Education requirement at a state hospital in Philadelphia. I wasn’t the only woman in our small, intense reflection group. The other woman was Southern Baptist. We had only been ordaining women for six years in the Lutheran churches in this country. The Southern Baptists not at all. The role of women in the church was always an issue simmering just beneath the surface. I don’t remember a lot of conversations from that summer. But I do remember a Lutheran student in the group—a young man—saying to me once: “I don’t care if you want to be a pastor. That’s up to you. But I don’t see why any woman would want to. Don’t you know that you will always be the last dog in the litter?

It was a great privilege to be present in January at the ordination of our presider for this service, Pastor Lori Eichmann. We celebrated her extraordinary gifts. We celebrated how the church has been blessed and how it will be blessed by her ministry. I was also privileged to see Lori Eichmann graduate in this chapel in the spring of 2005—nearly five years ago. She waited five long years for a call. Along the way she must have felt more than once like the last dog in the litter.

We have gay and lesbian graduates too, waiting too long to be called. Too many leaders of color in our church are without a call at any time. Too many last dogs.

Today is a day of celebration—a day to HONOR our foremothers. But it is also a time of lament. It is a time to weep with the psalmist: “How long, O Lord? How long shall I have perplexity in my mind, and grief in my heart, day after day? How long shall my enemy triumph over me?” It is a time not only to celebrate the leaders chosen for today—Fran…and Chris…and Marty…and Marge—but also a time to acknowledge how hard their paths have been and to remember those who dropped out along the way because it was just too tough. We cannot forget the ones who were crushed.

We invited a fifth woman to be honored today: Elizabeth Bettenhausen. Dr. Bettenhausen was a lay leader at the very highest levels in the Lutheran Church in America. She was a theologian—someone who was very important to many of us because of her brilliance and her audacity to challenge the system and help us imagine God in new ways. She held a faculty position at Boston University, a Methodist school. Her academic career ended abruptly. She never got another position. She tried to make it as a free-lance lecturer and writer, with help from her friends and supporters. She knew what it means to be the last dog in the litter.

We invited Elizabeth to be among those honored today. We prevailed upon her to come. She gave it serious thought, graciously thanked us, and finally declined. It was all too painful. Too long ago. She’s done her ministry outside of the church for decades now. She didn’t need to put herself through all that again by coming into this “churchy” place. I promised her that her story would be told. “Ok,” she said, “but briefly.”

As we follow Jesus during this Lenten season, he appears to all the world as the least likely to succeed. Stable-born. Refugee. Of uncertain paternity. Hounded by the Pharisees. Rejected by the priests. Betrayed by his followers. Stripped and flogged. Crowned with thorns. Nailed to a cross. Jesus is the last dog in the litter.

This fragile man is the one God chose. God chose Jesus—this Jesus—to usher in God’s rule on earth. God took something as small and fragile as a human being—even a male human being—to bear in his finite body God’s purpose for all humankind, for the whole creation.

The ultimate truth and about God and God’s rule is revealed through the deeds of this Jesus: embracing, healing, feeding, washing their feet, suffering, dying.

The ultimate truth about God and God’s rule is proclaimed through the words of this Jesus.

The Realm of God is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.

A seed: So small. So common. So fragile. A seed has to go underground, into the dark, cold earth, and die—before it will sprout. The mystery unfolds out of sight, below the surface. Time passes. A tiny green shoot pokes through the soil. So fragile, so small. But it grows and becomes a great tree, a big, safe place where birds can build their nests.

The realm of God is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.

Yeast: So small. So common. So fragile. So risky. Like seeds, yeast doesn’t always work. Trust me. Sometimes your hot cross buns don’t rise. I wonder how many of those mustard seeds never do sprout. A lot, I think. But it is in the very nature of seeds to grow into plants. It is in the very nature of yeast to rise. When all the conditions are right, yeast leavens the whole lump and increases the mass two, three, four fold. What was a small ball of dough in the bottom of the bowl fills the whole bowl and lifts the lid right off.

God uses what is small to make something very, very big. God’s pure rule begins with one man, Jesus. It grows and spreads organically, mysteriously, in hidden ways until its ultimate, inevitable triumph, until God rules all in all. In that realm, everything that was fragile becomes strong. Everything that was despised is glorified. Everything that was excluded is drawn into the center. In that realm, there are no runts.

These women, as you have heard, are accomplishing great things—not only for the church but beyond the church. They challenge the church and expand God’s rule on earth.

The place of God’s rule grows every time Marty breaks through to students who feels alienated and helps them claim their vocation and shine in their own special way; every time she inspires her readers to practice the faith at a deeper, truer level; every time she tells the story of her great loss in a way that helps others live with theirs.

The place of God’s rule grows every time Chris finds a way to fund a new school for girls or makes space for women who are homeless or addicted or imprisoned to make a fresh start or inspires people to dream bigger by the sheer power of her personality.

The place of God’s rule grows every time Fran welcomes the marginalized, every time she practices radical hospitality to those who are different, and every time she confronts injustice and violence throughout the world.

The place of God’s rule grows every time Marge touches a neighbor at Walnut Village with her uncommon wisdom and grace.

The place of God’s rule grows as Elizabeth cares for her aged mother and tutors school children—beyond the church.

Today we celebrate how God has used the ministry of women to advance God’s subversive, mysterious, expanding rule on earth. It starts with something small—at least as this world measures things. It begins with the least likely to succeed, the last dog in the litter by some accounts. It is full of risks and pain and apparent failure. And mysteriously it exceeds all expectations.

Until all hierarchies are overturned
Until the last dog becomes the lead dog
Until Christ’s way of compassion becomes the rule
Until life conquers death and war is no more
Until the whole creation is transformed,
remade in God’s own image,
the image we see most clearly in the death and resurrection
of Jesus the Christ.