A sermon for Thank Offering Sunday at Mechanicsburg Presbyterian Church November 20, 2016 Psalm 36:5-10; Jeremiah 31:31-34
Let me start by thanking Sharon Chizar and Margie Fealtman, who asked me to be with you today. For any of you who don’t know me, I’m a United Church of Christ pastor, a writer, a clergy coach, and the Executive Director of an ecumenical ministry that develops support and resources for clergywomen. The board of my organization includes some wonderful PCUSA pastors, and we have many Presbyterian members. Some of you know me as the organizer of a women’s Bible Study, Word and Wine, which is the successor to Share and Care, which was also known as Presbyterian Women’s Circle 4.
And probably most of you know me as your pastor’s wife.
It’s no exaggeration to say some of my best friends are Presbyterian women … but it wasn’t until I moved here that I learned about Presbyterian Women with an upper case W. Members of PW meet for study once a month, and in many churches they play roles similar to the ones PW does here. They can be relied upon in times of need. They cook – even better at MPC than some places. They are the strong spine of the church’s life, keeping things together over generations. In some churches, many, they are aging. And in other churches they are a memory. After all, in this enlightened age, when women can do anything, why does a church need women’s groups?
Hang in there, I’m going to tell you why.
Our daughter, Lucy, is a Senior this year at Smith College, founded in 1871 to offer higher education to young women. In the 21st century, people ask, why do we still need women’s colleges? The same question might apply to women’s Bible studies, or even an ecumenical ministry designed to make community for women who have been ordained to Christian ministry.
Kathleen McCartney, President of Smith College, wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times last week,
For our mothers, sexism was explicit. Their war stories would make any Title IX officer today shudder. For our daughters, today’s students, sexism is often implicit. Both men and women internalize stubborn cultural biases about gender that affect our understandings, actions and decisions.
For this reason, female leaders are restricted by far more than ceilings. Glass walls erected by these unconscious biases box women into traditional roles and limit our opportunities.*
K-Mac, as the Smithies call her, closes this way,
The last time someone called me bossy, a term reserved for women alone, I simply replied, “At Smith, we call it leadership.”
There is still a place for women’s colleges and organizations because we’re still living with sexism in our classrooms, our board rooms, our homes, and our churches – yes, even here, even in a church with a female Head of Staff. We still need communities of women, in which we can share our unique perspectives, and make each other stronger and better. Women who work well together do good work together. Women’s work matters.
The women who founded the predecessor organizations to PW knew all this. They organized themselves into women’s service groups dating back to 1800, in all the fore-runners and offshoots and recombinations of Presbyterians in the United States. Women saw work that needed doing in their communities and in the world. They recognized that what one woman might not be able to do because of social limitations, a group of women could get done together.
God is still calling women to that work. Presbyterian W/women (upper and lower case) do it not just because their hearts are in the right place; they do it because their hearts were and are right with God. I suppose that sounds like a subjective measurement. Maybe anything to do with our hearts has to be.
If you are sitting here as a Presbyterian non-woman, wondering if I’m ever going to get around to you, listen up now. Jeremiah was a prophet who engaged with people in his general neighborhood, Jerusalem, but he also wrote letters to the exiled Jews in Babylon. His first missives to the exiles were a little depressing, sort of like the things Jonah wanted to say to those sinners in Nineveh. You caused your own problems, and no wonder God is mad at you, so please do suffer while you’re in that strange place, out of reach of God, who is, have I mentioned it? Out of sorts with you. His words for the crowd left behind under Babylonian occupation were no more cheerful. You never listen to what I tell you. What can you expect but more trouble?
This is a common theme in Hebrew scripture. But wait!
Time went by, and God came around with another message for Jeremiah.
…this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:33-34, NRSV)
God wants to work things out with us. If we grasp nothing else from the totality of scripture, may we hold onto this. We are saved by our relationship with God – not just from slavery in Egypt, or captivity in Babylon, but from isolation and sin, and despair over what the world is coming to! The psalmist tells us who will get that salvation. It’s the people with the upright hearts. It’s the one whose heart is right.
God’s heart is right with us, and God wants us to know it and feel it. God’s ultimate desire is to write the law on our hearts so indelibly that we don’t even need to teach it anymore.
And what is the law of God? We know the basics. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.
We know that Jesus pointed out that our neighbors aren’t people who look like, us who worship like us, who speak and dress and live like us. The work of Presbyterian Women particularly reaches out to the vulnerable, in many cases women who don’t even dream of cracking a glass ceiling. That work includes these projects awarded Creative Ministries grants, made possible *by* your giving to Thank Offering:
- A Bee-Keeping enterprise to train widows in Malawi in work that will support their families, and an initiative to equip rural women in Pakistan with tools and skills for sustainable agriculture
- Prevention of Family Sexual Violence in Guatemala
- Independence on the Move will help the disabled in getting training in Bryan, Texas,
- Harambee Chicago trains low-income youth in skilled trades;
- Stewpot in Dallas teaches English as a Second Language to low income families,
- Backpack Blessings and Antonito PW will address food insecurity in poor neighborhoods in North Carolina and an isolated town in Colorado,
- programs in Kentucky, Virginia, Louisiana, and Indiana offer housing assistance for people who have been incarcerated or for the homeless,
- Women In Need of God’s Shelter (WINGS) provides a safe space for domestic violence survivors
- Family to Family Furniture Bank of Marysville, Ohio, provides furniture to people in emergency situations “so no one sleeps on the floor.”
So no one sleeps on the floor. That’s not a sweet, “heart’s in the right place” idea. That’s a radical, “when your heart is right with God” thing.
Pat Heintzelman, a woman with an impeccably upright heart, once told me,
“Presbyterian Women is that group for women over 60 … and their mothers.”
She said it with a rueful smile and a twinkle in her eye, perhaps thinking that the day for women’s groups had gone by.
But I believe the work of women’s groups is very much needed, for preparing and strengthening women to bring about change. The work of Presbyterian Women is needed; it spreads across our country and the world. In its activities and its supported ministries, PW helps women get out of the glass boxes that society creates, showing them they can take care of their families, or move to safety, or follow God’s call in the world. That is crucial, necessary work, and it is made possible by members of PW from the committee members making the grants to the women who will collect the Thank Offering in this church today.
And I’ll tell you something I noticed. On the most recent list published by PW, there are no projects in Carlisle Presbytery or even in the Synod of the Trinity. I see an opening. There is nothing to stop this church from imagining its own mission project and applying for a Creative Ministries grant to help people here in Mechanicsburg, if our hearts are right. I’ll gladly work alongside you. Where do you see a need? Where can we push on limitations, on behalf of Jesus Christ?
If our hearts are right, upright, with God’s law written on them, we can do anything God sends us out to do.
In the name of the One who keeps working on that relationship with us, Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit. Amen.