Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Celebrating ELCA ordination milestones: 50-40-10
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
What a welcome call, invitation, beckoning. Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens. I will give you rest.
We are in the weirdest time of our lives. Looking at the calendar and seeing the last days of June tick by, unfailingly turning to July 1, I realized that I thought we had hit the pause button in March and would hit restart after a while, continuing where we left off. But it ain’t so! We are in the second half of 2020. We just celebrated July 4th yesterday. With a heavier heart than usual for reasons of a mismanaged pandemic and the reality of racial injustice that we now know are both here to stay until we address them properly, all of us together.
Maybe one day we look back and ask with Jesus, “To what will I compare this generation?”
As the clock of time and history ticks, we came across an anniversary this last week. 50 years ago on June 29, 1970 the Lutheran Church in America voted to allow women to be ordained. We also celebrate the 40th anniversary of the ordination of the first woman of color, and the 10th anniversary of the decision to allow congregations to call an LGBTQIA+ pastor if they so wish. So we celebrate combined 50, 40 and 10 years of ordination of people whom the church excluded for way too long.
People who get ordained are people from among the priesthood of all believers to whom Jesus’ invitation “Come to me, all you …” speaks in a different way. People who hear Jesus’ call as a call to the specific ways of ordained ministry as pastors and deacons. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
The stole, this stole, symbolizes the yoke of the ordained ministry. This particular anniversary stole has the names of women in the bible embroidered. We carry on both shoulders the heavy weight of the office, while hoping that one day we might understand what Jesus means when he says, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
By the way, deacons apparently are not considered fully able to take the whole load – they are advised to carry the stole-yoke only on one shoulder. Something strikes me as wrong with this picture.
The motto for the celebration is, We are church, We are called.
It took centuries for the Lutheran church to believe women, and sinfully another almost 10 and 40 years to believe women of color and gay people that they indeed hear Jesus’ invitation to carry the yoke of ministry; but the church kept the doors closed.
“To what will I compare this generation?” Jesus asks.
Last year I sat at a table over lunch at an ecumenical conference. Someone asked the Latvian Lutheran pastor about his church’s decision to take back women’s ordination after granting it first. He gave reasons of tradition and the bishop’s authority. To which I said calmly, smiling, you cannot take away the reality that I am called to proclaim the gospel, administer the sacraments and serve all people. He didn’t have anything to say in reply.
We are church, we are called.
This anniversary is not my personal accomplishment. I am already the second generation, harvesting the fruits of the labor of women who broke the resistance from congregations, from bishops and councils. The first Lutheran woman to be ordained in the US in 1970, Elizabeth Platz, never received a call from a congregation. She served as campus pastor at the University of Maryland for 47 years. The first ordained women of color did not receive calls for years. I celebrate these brave women for not giving up.
Thinking about what exactly it is we celebrate on such an anniversary, my thoughts pretty quickly turn to some nagging questions. Jesus’ question is back on my mind, “To what will I compare this generation?”
To what will I compare this church that throughout the centuries refused to come on board of Jesus’ good news, as if Jesus’ call to all who are willing to serve the life giving gospel of cross and resurrection and bear that yoke, was not really meant for all who hear it.
How shall we celebrate what has to be attributed to age old blindness on the church’s part? The gifts we bring to the church are different but after all we are not so special. We do what we know we are called to do.
An anniversary time like ours is indeed an occasion also for forgiveness and repentance. The tears that flowed freely in last year’s celebrations at the churchwide assembly especially from men’s eyes certainly were expressions of both, – great joy and wondering what took us so long and how was the church so caught for so long in sinful denial. A nodding under tears to Jesus’ question, To what will I compare this generation?
The key issue women faced and still do in our everyday travails, even though our laws have changed to be much more inclusive, come down to the matter of authority.
People, men as well as women, do not believe that women have the same measure of authority as men do. People of color, black and brown, are not regarded as having the same measure of authority as white people have, unless they have spent their lives assimilating to white expectations of behavior, customs, education, and acquisition. LGBTQIA+ people are not regarded as having the same measure of authority as cis-gender, straight people, unless they conform to a way of life that is undistinguishable from the majority of society.
Susan B. Anthony, the suffragist Quaker woman, after she was arrested for illegally voting in the presidential election 1872, said, the only question left to be settled is now, are women persons?
She didn’t live to finally see the answer as far as citizen’s rights were concerned, when the constitution was amended 100 years ago in 1920 finally granting women voting rights. She closed her defense of breaking the law demanding voting rights also for people of color.
In essence that is still the question: are people of color persons? are gay people, transgender people persons? are women persons? I shudder when I say that.
In God’s eyes there has never been a doubt. Yes, of course! All colors, all genders and orientations, nations and cultures, all strengths and weaknesses, all accomplishments and sins, all joys and sadnesses, the full nine yards and more of humankind created in God’s love are persons.
In Jesus’ eyes, of course women are persons. Revealing himself in his prayer as Messiah to the crowd among whom likely were standing the same women, healed lepers, toll collectors, others that didn’t fit, with whom he had festive table fellowship, he calls out to all of them without making distinctions:
All, every single one, – come to me, I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me. Learn my authority, learn my way of leading through cross and resurrection, gentle and humble in heart. Look around you – no distinction, all are here, all partake in the reality that is summed up in my yoke – cross and resurrection, life out of death.
Even Paul who socially is a rather conservative, traditional guy, in his deepest, clearest, mystical moments knows that in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. All those distinctions that determine personhood, lines of authority, the right to live, fall away.
So, we Christians have written in our magna charta decidedly this: to come up with different models than what the world teaches us.
Dear sisters and brothers, our time that is so hard and wearing us down, making us more tired than we already are, is at the same time full of hope.
The milestones of 50 years of women’s ordination, 40 years women of color, and 10 years of LGBTQIA+ persons are great occasions to boost our hope, – not to pat ourselves on the back, but to listen fresh to who it is now that is crying out: We are church, we are called, we are God’s beloved humanity, we are here to claim our dignity and the rights God has endowed us with.
Jesus calls us to join all who are weary and carrying the heavy burden of not having their personhood granted. We need to go out and find them, dear sisters and brothers. Jesus calls us, beckons us to open our eyes in love and see, – just see our neighbor. Kneel with them in prayer, march with them, talk with them, learn from them, listen to them. With our masks on.
“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Will you come along, follow Jesus’ call, “come!”?
Come to the source of life, drink from it, shoulder that yoke that has the water of life on it, share it freely all around, for it is easy and light.