Women of the Early Church:  Mary(mother of John) and Rhoda

Adapted from a sermon preached at Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Hallowell, Maine, May 15, 2022.  Scripture:  Acts 12:1-19

For those who attend mainline churches (and the Roman Catholic Church) and count on attendance at Sunday worship to make their way through the Bible, the focus scripture for this message will be unfamiliar.  The twelfth chapter of Acts is not ever read in worship services at churches, like “mainline” Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church, that use the three-year cycle of readings from the Revised Common Lectionary—because it has been completely left out.  

It’s a difficult passage, to be sure, including the execution of one of the twelve disciples/apostles, James, and the imprisonment of another, Peter, who then escapes from prison with the aid of a heavenly being.

You might wonder, then, how this passage fits into a series on women in the early church.  How can an executed apostle and then a jailed one have much of anything to do with women in the early church?  If you went looking at commentaries, you would probably remain confused, since most commentaries seem to focus exclusively on what happened to James and to Peter in the passage.  In fact, commentaries seem to title this section of Acts with headings like, “Persecution of the Church by Herod Agrippa I—the Martyrdom of James and Miraculous Delivery of Peter.”

Such headings leave the impression that there are no women at all in the passage, or certainly, no women worthy of attention.

And, yet.  This story, so conveniently left out of the lectionary, containing the troubling stories of the execution of James and the imprisonment of Peter (and his amazing escape), also manages to convey an important story when it comes to women in the early church.

Let’s begin with a little background and context.

The reality of the early church has very little to do with the church that we know so well, especially in the United States, in the twenty-first century.  Our experience as Christians is dramatically and significantly different than those who were a part of the beginnings of what would become known as the Christian Church.  It’s important to absorb an awareness of how different our experience is as followers in the Church than what it was at the beginning.

Acts 12 offers a little window into just how difficult it could be to be a follower of Christ in the first century, just how precarious it was to live one’s life in the midst of the new faith.  At the same time, though, the remarkable courage and commitment of those very early followers offered a compelling witness for many.  And through that witness, all sorts of people came to join this new group, despite the very serious issues and dangers that were associated with the new faith.

This short passage from Acts 12 reminds us just how violent the authorities could be in trying to derail the new movement, in trying to quell any enthusiasm for this new thing. James was put to death, “by the sword,” the passage reports.  That means that he was most likely beheaded. And, Peter was thrown into prison (but set loose miraculously, presumably by an angel).

What, you may be wondering, does any of this have to do with women and women in the early church?  After the terrible news of what happened to James and then the amazing tale of Peter’s experience, the story continues with remarkable details regarding two specific women in the early church.  What happened when Peter found himself sprung from prison?  Where did he go?

He went someplace he knew he would be safe.  He didn’t head for the closest church building, the building on the street corner with the tall steeple, because there weren’t any of those.  He didn’t head to the nearest large sanctuary, with enormous pillars and a commanding organ.  Such things didn’t exist.

Instead, he headed for the safest close place he could think of:  the home of Mary, the mother of John.  He went to the home of a woman.  Her name was Mary and she was known as the mother of John.

That this home is labeled as a home belonging to a woman is significant.  And, an extra bonus is that there’s not only a maid, but one who is named—Rhoda.

Women were a critical part of the early church, in a variety of ways.  One of those points of significance was the offering of their homes for the gathering of those who were part of the movement.  There were no church buildings, at least not as we know them.  There were homes and part of being in the midst of the network of believers and followers, was knowledge regarding who could be trusted and whose homes were available for those who had come to believe in Christ.

Clearly Mary, mother of John, could be trusted.  Clearly her house and her household were very much a part of the organizing and worshiping of those early believers, including a certain maid who was so completely overwhelmed at the sound of the voice of the man everyone believed to be in prison (and who was very likely next to be executed after James), that she left Peter on the other side of the locked gate, running off to share the news first before letting him in. 

That this detail is included in the story, this moment of so much joy for the maid named Rhoda that she left Peter on the other side of the locked gate in order to announce the unbelievable news that Peter was no longer in prison probably means that this little story was shared often and freely, among those who witnessed the event as well as those who didn’t.

Remember that Acts was written many years after this event occurred.  But, this captivating and enchanting detail remained, suggesting an authenticity to the story.  Can’t you hear it?  “Hey remember that time when Peter miraculously escaped from prison and Rhoda was so overjoyed that she forgot to unlock the gate and let him in?  Remember that?”

Women were important, significant, crucial, critical, for the life of, well-being of, and the flourishing of the early church, especially in the midst of persecution, which, at times, became violent unto death.  Women were there, not simply recipients of the grace of Jesus, but trusted leaders in this new movement.

The challenge for those of us who are part of this movement so many years later is to find ways of sharing the stories of these women of the New Testament.  How will we honor the joy of Rhoda?  How will we endeavor to live with the courage of Mary, mother of John?

How will we not only honor and recognize the lives of these women, but seek be about the same sort of holy work, of sharing love and hope, hospitality and generosity, trusting in and lifting up the leadership of women?

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Would Things Be Different? Women in the Early Church: Tabitha

Based on a sermon preached at Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Hallowell, Maine, May 8, 2022. Scripture:  Acts 9:36-43

On so many levels and for so many reasons, this story from the ninth chapter of Acts is a remarkable one.  It’s a story about the early Church, the gathering of people around a new idea and concept, importantly and significantly without a few things:  no helpful handbook with policies and procedures, like the Top Ten Things that Every Church Should Have or Do; no library of systematic theology, not to mention no books on liberation theology or feminist theology; no “How to Be a Church for Dummies”; no internet and no Google.

How in the world did they do it?  How in the world did they go from that fearful group locked in a room to what eventually became the Church?  It’s mind boggling.  And, here we have this amazing story from the Acts of the Apostles.  It’s not a surprise that the story usually invokes a great deal of curiosity regarding Peter.  What’s going on here?  When did Peter develop the ability to resurrect people?  Why?  How?  What for?  Did he know that he could do this?

There’s certainly plenty here to consider and reflect on.  What is going on with THIS resurrection story?

But, let’s not do that.  Let’s not focus on Peter.

Instead, let’s consider the very first phrase:  “Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha.”

Tabitha, whose other name was Dorcas, was known for her good works and acts of charity.  She was also a disciple.

Disciple.  This isn’t some translational attempt at making her into something maybe she wasn’t.  She is clearly referred to, in the Greek, as a disciple.  She’s the only specific woman in the entire New Testament with this designation.

Tabitha was a disciple.  And she was definitely not a man.  But, there’s not much attention paid to this little tidbit offered by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles—as if she’s just that someone who offers Peter a great opportunity to show some of his new-found abilities.

But, Tabitha was a disciple.  And, she’s right there in the text.  Not hidden away.  Not buried in a long narrative stretch.  She’s right there.  There’s not a lot about her.  She doesn’t even get to speak.  Still, that the word “disciple” is attached to her should get our attention, our full attention.  As a disciple, as someone known for her good works and acts of charity, surely she was one of those who helped form and frame the early church, one who, through her own leadership, contributed to making the Church and drawing people into this new thing, this new faith, this new way of being, of knowing oneself, one’s relationship with others, and one’s connection to the Divine.

I’ve been spending quite a lot of time recently in wondering, letting my mind cast itself off in imagining.

What would it be like if we took Tabitha more seriously?  What if her significance had extended beyond the early Church?  What if the Church Universal held a decided claim on Tabitha, on her as a disciple?  What if the Church through the centuries had a more active and engaged connection to Tabitha, a disciple, and more than that, a disciple so important that Peter felt compelled to resurrect her after her death?

I’m perhaps more attuned to thinking along these lines after Old South’s Lenten theme this year of the Women Around Jesus.  But, I’m also wondering in relationship to recent events, like the leaked Supreme Court decision that signals that the Court will overturn Roe v Wade, with Justice Samuel Alito commenting on the fact that abortion isn’t mentioned in the Constitution.  Well, maybe that’s because there were no women who participated in the writing of that document, and surely at least part of the reason no women were there was the influence of the Church, which had surely gone astray in leaving behind and ignoring the women of the New Testament, women who were profoundly significant to the gathering of, the expansion of, the forming of, and in the leadership of, the early church.  That women were then so neatly and thoroughly cast aside and kept cast aside is a huge and problematic issue for the Church and for its profound influence on culture and society over the centuries. 

I stumbled upon a page online, as I was thinking about all of this, a page that championed the wives of the writers of the Constitution.  The page noted and listed the wives left behind, supporting the Founding Fathers by taking care of their affairs while they were away.

It’s too bad a few of those women didn’t work their way into the process of the writing of the Constitution, demanding to be heard, demanding to speak up for the women.

Would things be different, if the Church recognized not simply the contributions of women, but their leadership, their partnership, in the framing and forming of the Church, from the very beginning?

Would things be different?

The Church has had a huge impact on culture and society in this country.  Would things be different if the Church had kept the leadership of women active throughout the life, practice and development of the Church and its many expressions?

Would the leadership of women ensure that women were treated as full human beings, with a clear understanding of rights over their own bodies?  I’m not sure, but I would hope so.

Would anyone be thinking that women’s reproductive rights be left to the whim of voters, when we don’t act in the same way regarding the reproductive activities of men?

Would things be different if we kept in the forefront of our understanding of relationship with the Divine, and the gathering of the Church meant to continue the life and mission of Christ, if we kept faith with Jesus’s treatment of and relationship with women, and then the early church, and the discipleship not only of men, but of women, women like Tabitha?

Would things be different? How could they not be?

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The Women Around Jesus: In Remembrance of Her, The Anointing

Scripture:  Mark 14:3-9. This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Hallowell, Maine, April 10, 2022 (Palm/Passion Sunday). I apologize that this post, and its theme, is out of order with the rest of the series.

There are not a lot of places in and through which the Gospels of the New Testament line up, offering variations on common stories.  Except for the last week of Jesus’s earthly life—and even there, considerable differences exist—the Gospels of the New Testament offer little in the way of overlap.  Only two of the four contain birth stories and those two stories are quite different, despite our best attempts every Christmas season to smoosh them together. 

Some of the biggest and most well-known of Gospel stories are found in only one Gospel.  The Parable of the Good Samaritan, for instance, appears only in Luke.  Same for the Prodigal Son.  The Sermon on the Mount is only in Matthew.  The Transfiguration story, the story that is featured in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) every year on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, appears three times—Matthew, Mark and Luke—but not in John.

And, speaking of the RCL, it’s worth considering how the stories of the Gospels are utilized in the three-year cycle that is “intended” to take Christians who follow the lectionary through most of the Bible, with 4 readings for every Sunday—usually one from the Hebrew Scriptures, a psalm, a Gospel, and an epistle. 

The Feeding of the 5000, one of the rare stories that appears in all four Gospels is featured in each year of the three-year cycle.  The Transfiguration, which is in three of the Gospels, appears in all three years.  The Good Samaritan appears once and the Sermon on the Mount, given that it’s a very long piece, appears over the course of multiple Sundays in Year A, during the season of Epiphany.

In our focus passage for today, Mark’s version of the Anointing of Jesus by a woman, we have what may be referred to as an “Anointing Story.”  Each Gospel has a story about a woman anointing Jesus, either on the head or the feet.  The stories differ considerably, but each Gospel has one.  Yet, unlike the Feeding of the 5000, most Christians don’t know much at all about the anointing of Jesus by a woman.  That’s no surprise, really, considering how it’s treated by the RCL committee.

Matthew’s version of his Anointing Story does get a lectionary slot, all on its own.  But, Mark’s doesn’t.  Mark’s is part of the long Passion section in Year B of the lectionary.  Luke’s version isn’t in the lectionary ever.  And, John’s version gets a lectionary slot—although John’s version is very different from the others, given that John gives the anointing to Mary of Bethany.  In Matthew, Mark and Luke, the woman is unnamed.

Remember that hermeneutics of suspicion from a few weeks ago?  It’s time to utilize it once again.

Why is it that this story is not treated with the respect that it deserves, given its attention by the Gospel writers?  Now, I know there are difficulties with this story and chief among them is that the story is really different Gospel to Gospel.  Matthew and Mark’s versions are very similar, but they differ from Luke and they all differ from John.  Still, it ought to give us pause that this story is not highlighted in the lectionary, especially given the words that are on Jesus’s lips in our focus scripture for today: “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

And, yet for almost all of Christendom, she has been forgotten.

As we begin the road into Holy Week, into the difficult and treacherous stories of the end of Jesus’s earthly life, we encounter this unnamed woman who, in the midst of these closest of followers of Jesus, who seems to be the only one—besides Jesus himself—who understands what’s happening, who appreciates where the path is going.

We begin this Holy Week with a remarkable example of witness.  It’s not the witness of Peter or James or John or any of the other male disciples.  It’s the witness of an unnamed woman.

For John, the anointing seems to fit neatly into the story that he tells of the sisters, Mary and Martha of Bethany, and their brother, Lazarus.  But, for Matthew, Mark and Luke, the woman has no name and it feels especially poignant that she remain nameless for, in her courageous act of witness, she also stands in for any one of us.  She could be you, or me, or someone we’ve never met or heard of.  She could be anyone whose life has been changed by Jesus, someone whose life has not only been changed, but someone who’s been paying attention and knows where this story is going—even as painful as it is to contemplate.  She must act.

And, so she does.  She could be you.  She could be me. 

“Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

Today, we recognize the significance of this woman, of her life so remarkably and wondrously changed, and we find ourselves with an invitation—an invitation to follow her into this week, knowing full well where this story is going, yet still following, because we know that even in the turmoil, even in the struggle, even in the deep grief and sorrow, that that is the way to experiencing new life.  To follow Jesus is to do our best to actually follow, to let go of our preconceived notions and desires and follow.  We remember her and remember her powerful witness, praying for the grace and courage to live our own lives as witnesses of what Jesus has done for us—each of us and all of us together.

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Easter 2022: Mary Magdalene, Part 2

Adapted from the Easter Sunday sermon at Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. Scripture: John 20:1-18

Many years ago, when I was a young adult, I found myself, for reasons that I don’t remember, home for Easter weekend.  Part of that weekend, of course, involved attending one of the Easter Sunday worship services at the church where I grew Massachusetts. The sanctuary was full of spring flowers and the choir loft full of singers.  Easter was a big deal.

But, I’m sure I was a bit skeptical of what I would experience at that worship service.  For various reasons, I wasn’t a big fan of the minister who was serving the church at that time. 

And, on that particular Easter Sunday morning, he easily fulfilled all of my low expectations for him.

I remember it still.

In his Easter Sunday sermon, the pastor took the opportunity to deride the women who went to the tomb on that first Easter Sunday morning and those who seek to celebrate them.  Sure, maybe some might be tempted to think it a big deal that the women went to the tomb.  But, alas, all of those who seek to champion the women fail to acknowledge that the women went there for the wrong reason.  They were there to care for the body, to clean and anoint it after death.  They were not there in search of an empty tomb, to proclaim resurrection.  So, no need to make any sort of big deal of them.

I probably don’t need to mention that I left that worship service seething with rage.

Now, for that sermon, that minister probably wasn’t using the Easter account found in the Gospel According to John, since John only mentions one woman.  The story of the first Easter includes multiple women in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  One of those passages was probably the scripture for that day so many years ago.

Still, it’s a reminder of how easy it has been to belittle the role of women in the Church.  Generation after generation, male clergy have found all sorts of ways to sideline women—beginning with one of the most important of the women:  Mary of Magdala.

For the writer of the Gospel According to John, Mary Magdalene is a key figure.  And, more than that, she is a sort of cornerstone figure for how we approach, appreciate, consider, and reflect on what that first Easter morning means, and should mean, to the followers of Jesus Christ.

It’s not solely an extravagant, crazy act of God, this resurrection, this remarkable victory over the grave.  It’s even more than that.  And, Mary Magdalene shows us the way.

Let’s be clear, the men, or one of the men, like Peter, could have been in Mary’s place.  But, that’s not what happened.  It is importantly, and purposefully, Mary, Mary Magdalene.

That she has been sidelined, belittled, denigrated, is a witness to the Unfaithfulness of the Church—the big “C” church, the Church universal.

So, what exactly does Mary have to teach us?

  1.  To be a person of faith, to be a follower of Jesus, involves an openness to the unexpected.
  2. To be a person of faith, to be a follower of Jesus, involves attuning our ears to the presence of the Divine.  We may indeed not always be able to understand what we see.  We must also listen.  It is in hearing her name that Mary recognizes Jesus.
  3. It’s also not simply about opening our ears, but appreciating that Jesus calls us by name, if we are open to hearing his voice.
  4. To be a person of faith, to be a follower of Jesus, involves grief and sadness.  Faith does not offer a “get out of grief and heartbreak”’ card.  Instead, Jesus offers himself as a presence with us in our grief.  Through his own experience of some of the worst of what human life can be like, he walks with us with a deep and abiding kinship.
  5. To be a person of faith, to be a follower of Jesus, involves sharing the good news, inviting others to come and see, to come and hear, to come and know for themselves.
  6. To be a person of faith, to be a follower of Jesus, involves some thoughtfulness about the things that we cling to, the things that we hold fast as a sort of security blanket, as tokens of our relationship with God.  What are the things that we cling to—as individuals and as a church—that actually get in the way of our relationship with Christ?  What are the things that we reach for, that we hold onto, those things that feel and seem familiar and constant, yet in truth, are not what feeds our faith?

We should spend a few moments considering this last point, because it is so important to our life together as a community of faith. 

Through Mary, we have the opportunity to understand that clutching onto the familiar, even those things that are deeply meaningful, can get in the way of our relationship with Christ.

Try to grasp this scene, to stand in Mary’s shoes.  So confused at the empty tomb, there in the darkness before the dawn on that Sunday morning.  Then, sharing that news with the men and discovering that, though the men also saw the empty tomb, and seemed to understand—or, more likely, asserted that they understood—they simply left and went home.

But, Mary couldn’t do that.  She may have been confused, but she was also full of grief and heartbreak.  Wouldn’t you be?

And, then crying by the tomb, she sees those otherworldly beings and engages in a bit of conversation with them about the missing body.  And, then this gardener guy shows up, but when he speaks her name, she knows who it is and that it is indeed Jesus.

All she wants to do is to touch him.  Wrap her arms around him.  Assure herself that he is indeed right there in front of her and more than that, that she will experience the comfort of his presence by holding onto him.

Think about it:  you visit, or perhaps just happen to run into, a friend who has experienced a terrible loss.  What do you do?  You probably grasp ahold, offer a caring touch, and a long, meaningful hug.  There are no words to convey the grief at the reality of profound loss.  So,  a good, solid, long hug—much better than words.

Mary, I suspect, felt something similar.  No words could adequately convey what she must have felt.  What words could?

So, reach out to grasp, to hold, to feel, to touch.

But, no.

Jesus tells her that she can’t.  Whatever is going on with this resurrection business, it involves no holding at this stage of the game.  Besides, she has a job to do.  She is to be the first witness, the first evangelist, the Apostle to the apostles.   She must go.  She must tell.

I think there’s something in there that speaks to us, that calls to us. When it comes to faith, when it comes to relationship with Jesus, be careful about the things that you hold fast to.  Be careful about what you cling to.  Be careful about what feels sure, what feels like the most trusted thing that reminds you of God’s presence.  That very thing may actually be getting in the way.  That very thing may actually interfere with your—with our—relationship with the Divine.

On this Easter Sunday morning, take a moment to consider those things that feel most familiar in your faith— and in our communal faith—and then consider that they may be getting in the way of what truly matters in following Christ, who so often calls us to walk unexpected paths.  Even to wondrous new life.

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Lent 2022, The Women Around Jesus: Mary of Bethany

From a sermon given at Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Hallowell, Maine. Scripture: John 12:1-8, Luke 10:38-42 (with reference to John 11 as well)

My name is Mary and I was a friend of Jesus.  I’d like to tell you a little bit about my story.  I was born into a Jewish family.  We followed and lived by Jewish law and tradition in a town called Bethany, near Jerusalem.  After my parents died when I was young, I continued to live in the same household with my sister, Martha, and my brother, Lazarus.  Martha, Lazarus and I were all close friends of Jesus.  I don’t remember when we first met him exactly, but I remember that we were immediately drawn to him, and he was drawn to us.  Do you know when you meet someone and somehow it feels like you’ve known them all of your life?  That’s what it was like.

Martha, Lazarus and I were all good friends with Jesus— the same Jesus who was the son of God, who actually was God in flesh.  The same Jesus who spoke parables, healed people, and had many followers.  The same Jesus who got into lots of trouble with the authorities, both Jewish and Roman.  The same Jesus who was crucified by the Romans, but who was also resurrected.  The same Jesus who is called Christ.

I knew Jesus when he walked on the earth.   He was a friend.

Jesus was also my teacher.  I remember one day when Martha welcomed Jesus into our home.  On that particular day, Martha got especially caught up in what was involved in preparing the meal that we were all going to share (preparing a meal in those days was a lot of work; you have no idea) and she got upset with me for not helping her.  I was so caught up in the things Jesus was saying.  I ended up sitting there, at his feet, completely captivated.  It was so amazing to hear stories about God’s love for all and about what it means to be in a community with love and friendship at its core, what it means to love God and love our neighbors.  I couldn’t disengage myself, even though, in the back of my head, I knew that Martha was working hard in the kitchen.

At some point, Martha came purposefully into the living room.  She was so angry.  She wouldn’t even look at me.  She interrupted Jesus and told him to tell me to help her out. 

Jesus, though, in his calm but strong voice, reminded her that she shouldn’t get so worried and worked up.  He pointed at me and told her that I was doing the better thing.  Although it sounded like Jesus was scolding her, that isn’t quite right.  It was Martha’s role, as the oldest, to take responsibility for the household and she took that job seriously.  But, with that responsibility, Martha sometimes got so caught up in the tasks of the day, that she forgot to take a little time to learn, to pray, to nurture the spiritual part of herself.  Jesus just wanted her to see.  He would enjoy the meal she was cooking, but he didn’t need or want anything lavish.  It was more important to him that we, those of us who were his friends, to take time to care for our spiritual lives.  Martha sometimes forgot about that.  Maybe that’s something that you can understand?

The teaching part of this story ought to be explained as well.  Traditionally, Jewish rabbis would never teach a woman.  Jesus, though, included many women into the circle of people that he taught.  I think that he wanted all people to learn about God.  I tried to listen very carefully to what Jesus taught, which was different from many of the others who often just assumed that they knew what was happening instead of really listening to Jesus’s words or thinking about his actions.

For awhile, we saw Jesus fairly frequently and we were eager to learn more from him.  But, as time went on, Jesus became more and more popular, and we began to see him less and less.  Somewhere along the way, Lazarus, our brother, became very ill.  Martha and I were very concerned, as Lazarus seemed to get worse each day.  We sent word to Jesus because we thought that even his presence would make Lazarus feel better.  But Jesus didn’t come and Lazarus died.  Martha and I were devastated.

After Lazarus had been dead for about four days, we heard that Jesus was on his way to our village.  Martha went out to meet him.  After a short time, Martha came back and pulled me aside.  She told me that Jesus was waiting outside the village and that he had asked to see me.  I went immediately.  Martha, along with all of our friends who had gathered with us when Lazarus died, came with me too.  When we reached the place where Jesus was waiting, I went up to him and knelt by his feet and poured out my grief and heartbreak.  Without even thinking about it, I blurted out, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Jesus put his hand on my face and brushed away the tears that had begun to fall.  He looked at the crowd and said to them, “Where have you laid him?”  They replied, “Lord, come and see.”  I could see that Jesus himself had begun to cry.

In silence, we walked to the cave.  When we got there, we showed Jesus the stone that we had used to cover the opening.  Jesus looked at a few of the stronger ones in the group and said, “Take away the stone.”  You should have seen the look on Martha’s face.  She told Jesus that Lazarus had been dead for four whole days.  Surely, the stone should not be rolled away.

But Jesus looked at Martha and asked her to remember, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”  Martha nodded her head, slowly starting to look a bit more hopeful, anticipating.  So, they moved that stone.  Then Jesus looked up toward the heavens and thanked God.  Jesus called out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!’  With our eyes glued on the cave, we held our breath.  And, as unbelievable as it may sound, Lazarus did come out of that cave, very much alive.  It occurred to me that all who were there had been given a great gift.  As for me, I knew at that moment that my friend was no ordinary man.  I knew that he was indeed the son of God.

After Lazarus came back to us, life didn’t exactly get back to normal.  In fact, life got complicated.  It was great to have Lazarus back, but we began to realize that a few of the others who had witnessed that event at the cave had begun to get suspicious and fearful.  Jesus had gone too far.  Some went to the Pharisees who were alarmed at the news. We began to hear little bits of rumor that the Pharisees were so deeply troubled that they were beginning to think of ways to put to an end what they saw as impending chaos.  Those Pharisees.  It didn’t take a scholar to know that they had difficulty dealing with this man who was increasing his following, and, to be completely honest, splitting the Jews into groups.  I think the Pharisees thought that the Romans would then be able to destroy the Jews as a people and the only way to stop that from happening would be to stop Jesus, even to the point of getting him killed.

But, that plan was not easy at first because Jesus had left town.  Some of his disciples went with him to protect him.  After he left, many began to wonder if he would surface for the upcoming Passover.  We heard that the chief priests and the Pharisees had sent around the message that they wanted to know where Jesus was so that they could have him arrested.  Martha, Lazarus and I began to fear for Jesus’s life.

Then we heard that Jesus was coming to our house to visit; he would arrive six days before the Passover.  We knew that he would bring his disciples, so we also invited some of the villagers whom we knew we could trust.  We were going to have a great party.  We really wanted to show Jesus how important he was in our lives.

Martha, of course, planned the dinner, which was, in those days, more than a regular dinner party.  It was more like a sacred and religious experience—a time for a close group to come together to share stories, a time to share our lives with each other, an opportunity to be together in a special way. 

As for myself, I gathered up all of my money.  I went to the market to purchase the best perfumed ointment that I could find.  Deep-down inside, I knew that I wanted to do something special and something dramatic.  Jesus was my friend.  Jesus was my teacher.  Jesus had raised my brother from the dead.  This was no ordinary man.  In my heart, I knew that he would not be with us much longer.  He was far too dangerous.

But, what could I do to let him know how I felt, to share what I knew?  I could have prepared a speech, but didn’t seem right, and, besides, there would be too many people.  I would never be able to get all the words out.  Martha was good at words.  Not me.

I wanted to do more.  I wanted to make a statement.  It wasn’t that I wanted fame or glory.  I wanted to leave a message.  I was a woman and Jesus loved me.  I was a woman and Jesus taught me.  I was a woman and Jesus respected me.

I bought that ointment, which cost almost a year’s wages, and I put it in safe place and I waited for the party to begin.  The meal did take place six days before the Passover.  I waited until I thought the time was right and then I went over to Jesus and anointed his feet with the ointment.  I undid my hair and I wiped his feet with it.  I wanted to show him that I not only knew who he was but I knew what was going to happen to him; and I wanted to do this in front of this room full of people. 

In the anointing with the perfumed ointment, I wanted to show that I knew that Jesus was going to die soon.  I wanted to share this wonderful, expensive ointment with Jesus while he was still alive, rather than after his death.  The whole house was filled with the scent of the perfume.  Everything got very still and quiet. 

Then, out of the peacefulness, Judas yelled, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”  That Judas, he was always so concerned with the money.  He was one of the Twelve, yet he did not seem to grasp what was really happening.  Didn’t he realize that Jesus had been trying to teach us that caring for the poor did not just mean giving them money?  Jesus responded to him saying, “Leave her alone.  She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.  You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” 

Although I really felt sad after the dinner was over, I also felt really good.  In some ways, I think that I was a comfort to Jesus, who was struggling himself with the implications of the events that were taking place so quickly.  I did what I felt was right.  I found the courage to do something I never thought I could do.  Jesus had given me that courage.  He had given me the respect I needed to assert myself.  Without words, I gave my testimony.  I became a true disciple: I served; I loved; and I shared in Jesus’s death so that I might truly be a part of his life.  I can only hope and pray that my story will be remembered and understood.

My name is Mary and I was a friend of Jesus.

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Lent 2022, The Women Around Jesus: Martha

Adapted from a sermon preached at Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Hallowell, Maine, March 20, 2022. Scripture:  John 11:1-27; Luke 10:38-42

When I was a student at Harvard Divinity School in the early 1990s, I took a course taught by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, one of the Div School’s more notable faculty members.  In line with her scholarly pursuits, the course focused on interpreting New Testament texts through a feminist theological lens.  One of the primary modes of interpretation was a “hermeneutics of suspicion,” utilizing skepticism and questioning as a way of exploring and gaining an understanding of what a verse, a passage, a chapter, or a book is trying to say and why—a sort of “reading between the lines” with a keen awareness of context.

Using a hermeneutics of suspicion propels us to ask important questions.  Why, for instance, are there New Testament passages that seem to subordinate the status of women while there are others that suggest equality between women and men?  How do we understand passages that seem to dismiss the ministry of women when there are stories that indicate that Jesus and even Paul worked closely with women and relied on women to support their ministries, to share the good news and to engage in acts of ministry themselves?

Let’s consider Martha.

For many Christians, Martha is known as the sister of Mary of Bethany, the one in the kitchen preparing a meal for a group of people, including Jesus (Luke 10:38-42).  When she goes out to the living room to ask her sister Mary to help her out, she is gently scolded by Jesus who points out that Mary is the one who had chosen the better path. Generation after generation this is the Martha story we know.  She is the do-er in the kitchen, the worker bee who doesn’t get much respect, not even from Jesus. 

But, there’s another passage, a passage from the Gospel According to John (John 11 and the beginning of John 12) that paints a very different picture of Martha, a picture that offers an image of a very different woman and a very different relationship with Jesus. This story isn’t buried in some noncanonical work that hardly anyone has ever heard of.  It’s in the Gospel of John.  Right there.

And yet I bet most Christians have no knowledge of John’s version of Martha and therefore, no knowledge of Martha’s affirmation of who Jesus was and is—Martha’s confession. 

We should be suspicious about why this is.  Why is it that the dominant story of Martha is the one in which she is told that she hasn’t chosen the right path?  Why, when we have this other story, a story that not only casts a different perspective on Martha, but offers a narrative that gives us intriguing detail and some plot development? 

For the writer of the Gospel of John, the confession that Jesus is the Christ belongs to Martha and only to Martha.  There is no other passage in which this statement finds itself on the lips of Peter.  Peter is the one who offers the confession in Matthew, Mark and Luke and it is that confession that forms part of the foundation upon which the mightiest of disciples (and then apostles) stands.  No one questions the significance of Peter.

And, yet that confession on the lips of Martha has been sidelined and dismissed.  We need to be suspicious.

As Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel has written in the Women Around Jesus, regarding Martha’s confrontation of Jesus, in the wake of the death of her brother Lazarus:  “Martha is not a woman who keeps silence in the community. She does not leave theology to the theologians. She carries on a vigorous debate. She does not cry, she does not cast herself at Jesus feet, she does not give in. She struggles with God as Job did. She charges Jesus with failure. She does not give up.”

“Jesus responds to Martha’s stubborn, passionate faith that he is no ordinary person with the revelation of himself, “I am the resurrection and the life . . . ,” , and Martha responds with a confession of Christ that stands out as a special climax in the New Testament:  “You are Christ, the Son of God, who has come into the world.”

Importantly and significantly, John places the confession of Christ on the lips of his friend, a woman:  Martha.

The author of the Women Around Jesus goes on: “[W]e are discovering that in view of the realities of their experience women can speak of God, of faith, of the fellowship of the Christian life in a different way from the theology and the theologians of many centuries. Women have their own sphere of life and their own experience, in which they come to know God and trace his freedom. God is not just strong, almighty and successful; He is also weak and impotent in the way that women are. Perhaps they are often closer to the reality of the new life, the reality of the resurrection, then men at any rate, the New Testament says clearly that women are at an advantage here: women were the first witnesses to the resurrection: and Martha was the first to experience that Jesus himself is the resurrection.”

Martha has much to teach us.  She has much to teach the Church.   Among the most important of her lessons:  for the Church to be fully about its holy work requires a variety of gifts from a variety of people.  To look first at a person’s gender in order to determine the worthiness of gifts is, quite simply, to be unfaithful to the path that Jesus tried very hard to lay out. 

It is time for the Church, and its leaders, to recognize the harm that has been done for so long in the sidelining of New Testament women.  The harm has been grave indeed—for women and men of faith and for the Church, as it claims to witness to the Good News of Christ.

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Lent 2022, The Women Around Jesus: Mary Magdalene, Part 1

Adapted from a Sermon preached at Old South Church, Hallowell, Maine. Scripture: Luke 8:1-3; Mark 15:33-41

Mary Magdalene.  Mention her name and you might remember that she was present at the empty tomb on Easter morning.  But, it’s also likely, and perhaps even more likely, that you will know Mary Magdalene as the Great Sinner, the prostitute whom—for reasons we cannot comprehend— Jesus befriended and healed.  In art, literature, among preachers, priests and ministers, she is the broken, sinful woman.  Sure, Jesus was friends with her and she was the one to announce the big news of the resurrection, yet for almost all of Christian history she has been relegated to the corner of sexual impropriety, the woman with the demons who needed to be healed, almost as if she is simply “that woman,” who ought only to be considered as a unimportant conduit of news on that first Easter morning, the one who brought the news to those who were the truly significant ones who would gather and compel the Jesus movement.

Mary has her corner, has been put in her place.  And, to really drive home the inconsequential nature of her relationship with Jesus, she has been lumped together with all manner of other women in the Gospel stories.  Is she the one who anointed Jesus—on the head or the feet, maybe, I don’t know?  Is she the one who was caught trying to learn from Jesus, sitting at his feet? 

Who knows?  And, do we need to care?

For so long, Mary Magdalene and other women in the Gospels have been lumped together, and then put aside, as if they don’t really matter, or to the extent that they do, they are all simply great sinners who, for any number of unknown reasons, required healing that only Jesus could offer.

We probably have Pope Gregory the Great to blame for the determined and stubbornly lingering notion that Mary Magdalene, an unnamed woman in Luke and Mary of Bethany are all the same person, as the Pope pronounced them so in a homily he gave in Rome in in the late 500s.

This lumping together may not seem all that big of a deal to at least some of you.  But, just take a moment and think:  what if we lumped all twelve disciples together, as if they all shared the same personality and characteristics?  What if all of Christian history treated Peter and Judas as if they were the same person? 

Of course we wouldn’t.  The women deserve the same treatment.

Mary Magdalene is a clearly distinct and distinctive person.  She is named in the Gospels many times. The only woman named more frequently is Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Mary Magdalene is distinct not only from the other women, but from the other prominent disciples.  She is her own person.  In the Gospels, she is given no designation.  She is not a wife, a sister, or a mother.  She is simply herself, Mary of Magdala.

And, while it’s clear that she experienced some sort of healing in her relationship with Jesus, as we learn from Luke and the “seven demons” having been sent out.  The “seven demons,” we should be clear, is not a euphemism for prostitution.  It is much more likely that Mary suffered from some sort of mental illness and in some way or another, she was healed of that, either completely or in such a way as to make the infirmity manageable.

So, what is it that we should know about Mary of Magdala?

Mary was a leader in the community of followers that Jesus gathered and, as Augustine described her, “The Holy Spirit made Mary Magdalene the apostle of the apostles” as she shared the news of the resurrection on that first Easter morning—something about which all four of the Gospels agree.  She was also a leader in the movement that came together after the crucifixion and the resurrection.

According to the book The Women Around Jesus by Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel, Mary Magdalene was the woman who stood closest to Jesus.  While some would put Mary, Jesus’s mother in that place, that’s simply not the case.  In Mark, Jesus’s mother seems to regard her son as a frivolous character whom she really would like to have taken in hand. [Mark 3:21]  The early church found it a source of great grief that Mary, Jesus’s mother thought so little of the Jesus movement, that it wasn’t until after the crucifixion and resurrection that Jesus’s mother began to understand more fully what Jesus was all about.

The woman who stood by Jesus throughout his earthly ministry, the woman who stood by him through that last horrible week, the woman who offered sensitivity for and understanding of Jesus’s ministry was Mary Magdalene.

We’ll learn still more about Mary Magdalene in a few weeks, when we get to “Part 2.”  For today, I would offer a few questions/thoughts for you to consider and reflect on, wonder about and take into your week:

  1.  What would the Church universal, what would the world, be like if the Church had recognized the significance of Mary Magdalene throughout the history of Christianity?  What would the Church, and the world, be like if Mary then stood as an example of the inclusion of women in the leadership of the Church?  What would that be like?  What would be different?  I doubt the Church would be completely free of scandal, but I can’t help but wonder if some of the most disturbing of the Church’s scandals would have been so horrific if women shared in the leadership.
  2. What sort of culture would we live in if women experienced more equality and inclusion in leadership, beginning with the Church?  Over the past couple of days, I’ve been reading a deeply disturbing true crime story that involves a doctor preying upon the women in a small community, a community in which women, through the teachings of the dominant church in that town, had learned to be submissive and not ever to question the judgment of men.  It’s heartbreaking to listen to the stories of the women, one after another, sometimes women in the same family, talk about not knowing who to talk to, questioning themselves on what they must have done to invite the doctor to take advantage of them during routine medical visits, and some young women thinking at first that this was simply how visits to the doctor went.  This didn’t happen a long, long time.  In happened in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.  The doctor had a long stretch of practicing in this town where the women had been taught that, through God’s will and design, that they were to be silent, that they were in all situations and circumstances to defer to the authority of men.
  3. And, looking at things from a more positive perspective, we have a powerful story of the hope and healing that can come from relationship with Jesus and that through relationship with Jesus, both women and men may serve as disciples, apostles, leaders.  Now, we don’t know all of the details.  We don’t know exactly what happened.  But, we do know that what happened to Mary of Magdala was powerful and life-changing, and not just for her.  Those in that community knew that Mary had experienced a healing that transformed her, and in that transformation, she found a place of significant, strength and blessing in the gathering of those around Jesus and with Jesus himself.  We see Mary as trusted friend and confidante, one that stood by Jesus and with Jesus even to the crucifixion, even when the male disciples hid away, for fear they might be next.

Mary offers a significant model for us for our own relationship with Jesus, and for what that relationship can do.  Mary offers a roadmap of sorts, to women and men, that relationship with Jesus can bring transformative healing. It’s too bad her example hasn’t been taken seriously by the Church, which itself could use healing and transformation.

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Screaming My Way Through Lent

At Old South this Lent, we are focusing on the women around Jesus. We are exploring stories about the women who worked with and were friends with Jesus. We are also considering stories of women, like the Samaritan Woman at the Well (John 4), who shared the good news and invited others to experience the love of God in a new way. Through these stories, we are also asking questions about why most of the world’s Christians gather in churches that continue to deny pastoral leadership to women. And, we are expressing our own grief that as our church shrinks, and others like ours, we wonder about what the Christian church will look like down the road. What will happen to the pastoral leadership of women in the Church?

As we consider woman after woman— from Mary, the mother of Jesus, to Mary Magdalene, Martha, Mary of Bethany, etc.— I find myself wanting to scream. These are not obscure characters, found only in small corners of the Gospels or in the stories that didn’t make the canon. The women around Jesus are a powerful group of women who did remarkable work and ministry. And, they are right there in full view. Except that they have been, somehow, ignored and/or belittled. I just want to scream.

I spend at least part of each Saturday reviewing sermon material, precisely so I won’t spend a major part of my sermon screaming. I can’t scream at the people who come to worship at Old South, especially since they clearly believe that women should be in pastoral leadership. I can’t scream at them. But, I still want to scream.

Take, for example, Martha. During a recent Bible study class, I asked the participants about their view on Martha. What did they know about Martha? What had they learned, over their years of church participation, about who Martha was and her place among the friends that Jesus gathered around himself? The participants in the Bible study either admitted to not really knowing anything about Martha, or they shared the story from Luke where Martha is in the kitchen, cooking for the crowd of people who suddenly showed up in her house. When she goes out to ask for help from her sister, Mary, Jesus gently scolds her and tells her that Mary, by taking her place at his feet to learn and to contemplate, had made the better choice.

No one in Bible study talked about the story from John 11, in which Jesus eventually arrives in Bethany and discovers that his friend Lazarus, Martha’s brother, had died and had been placed in a tomb. While much attention (for obvious reasons) is placed on the dramatic and miraculous raising of Lazarus from the dead, there is in the dialogue between Martha and Jesus, a statement of remarkable consequence: Martha’s “confession”/affirmation that Jesus is the Christ.

In the other Gospels– Matthew, Mark and Luke— the “confession” is on the lips of Peter. It is Peter’s confession that helps to solidify his place of leadership and authority in the early church. So, why not Martha? Why is Peter’s confession so significant, whereas Martha’s appears to hold no special meaning?

It’s not that this hasn’t come up in the past. I’m no newcomer to the problematic treatment of biblical women and then, by extension, the women in the Church as a whole over the Church’s long history. In fact, I’ve preached on many occasions about the dubious ways through which New Testament women have been so casually sidelined and belittled. But, through my decision to place so many Gospel women in this one season of Lent, I’m now constantly reminded of the scandalous nature of the Church’s approach to women. And, I just want to scream about it.

It is maddening, to be sure, but I’ve also found myself considering, once again, the quality of unfaithfulness in the Church universal when it comes to women. While the early Church may have had good reason to sideline women, in its minority and vulnerable status, there is no good reason— and hasn’t been since the Church became the Church of the Empire— to continue to deny pastoral leadership and authority to women.

Jesus trusted Mary Magdalene with the Good News of resurrection, of new life, on that first Easter morning. I’m sure Jesus could have found a way to put that news on the lips of a man, if he wanted to. Jesus also trusted other women to be about his holy work. It’s beyond time for the institution that claims to worship him to follow his example when it comes to the treatment of women in the Church and its leadership.

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A Different Lent

For Christians, Lent is the season in which we remember the forty days Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness while dealing with the temptations of the devil. Some Christians give something up for Lent, something that will require tests of willpower that will bring us a small sense of the experience that Jesus had and through that, perhaps a more meaningful experience of faith. Other Christians will add something to their lives, attempting to live a more faithful life of giving. Many Christians will mark the start of the season by having ashes imposed upon their foreheads, a reminder of their mortality and the need for reconciliation with God. Although Lent is an important season for the Church and its members, there’s a significant dimension of Lent that is personal and focused on an individual’s relationship with God and the journey of faith, especially lifting up the ways through which one has faltered in faith.

This year, I’m taking on a different approach to Lent, and encouraging Old South to join me in reflecting in a more corporate way and to consider one of the particular ways through which the Church universal has stumbled and failed, where it has, in many of its expressions, refused to live up to the lessons of Jesus Christ.

For this Lent, I will be spending time—and bringing Old South with me—reflecting on the treatment of women in the Church.

Every weekend, as Christians gather for worship in churches around the globe, most adherents to the faith gather in church’s that do not allow women to be ordained or to be in pastoral leadership. This is not only a problem. It is wrong. The Gospels contain myriad accounts of the witness and ministry of women— Martha of Bethany and her sister Mary; the Samaritan woman at the well; and Mary, the mother of Jesus. These are just a few examples. And, then there’s Mary Magdalene. Without her, we might not have any Christianity at all, as she was the first to the empty tomb on that first Easter morning. She was the first to share the Good News.

I’ve been thinking quite a lot lately about the women of the Gospels as I’ve been thinking about the status of women in the Church. I’ve been thinking about the churches and the denominations that allow women to pursue ordination and pastoral leadership. These are the churches—for the most part— that are in steady decline. These are among the churches that are struggling and even closing.

It is hard enough to contemplate the decline of the Church, and its churches— and the tradition that has been my spiritual home for my entire life. But, now I wonder about the witness that is eroding, as those churches and denominations that welcome the ministry of women continue to shrink. What happens when the dominant expression of the faith is made up of denominations and churches that deny the full participation of women in pastoral leadership?

At Old South, we will spend our Lent learning more about the women around Jesus. Of course, we have learned about some of these women, in bits and pieces, in occasional passages here and there in the lectionary— where the lectionary committee is willing to highlight biblical passages that include stories of women. For this season, we will leave the Revised Common Lectionary and will consider the women and only the women, and will focus on the relationships that Jesus had with many women. We will center ourselves on the relationships where Jesus trusted, taught, worked with, and enabled women to be about the holy work of ministry. We will learn more about: Mary, the mother of Jesus; Mary of Magdala; the Samaritan woman at the well; Martha; Mary of Bethany; and an unnamed woman or two.

There are others we could consider, for the Gospels contain many accounts of women engaged in important and significant work. But Lent is only so long.

I’ve always been grateful that I was able to pursue my call to ministry, and did so quite a long time ago (back in the last century!). I’m also grateful that I had good women who helped to pave that path before me. The Holy Bible that was presented to me when I was in third grade (in 1972), for instance, was signed by then Minister of Christian Education, the Rev. Jacqueline D. Mills. As a young adult, I encountered several ordained women in the United Church of Christ and the United Methodist Church. Except for the Roman Catholic Church (and who knew what their problem was], it never really occurred to me that women would be excluded from pastoral leadership.

For Lent, those of us who gather at Old South in Hallowell, Maine, will take a bit less time reflecting in a personal way on the personal journey of faith. Instead, we’ll consider the women around Jesus and wonder, perhaps, about the possibility that it is in the failure to include women fully in all expressions of the faith that has landed Christianity in the precarious place in which it finds itself. After all, it isn’t just the old Mainline Protestants that are struggling with decline.

In the 14th chapter of Mark, when Jesus knew that his earthly life was in danger, he gathered with his friends. An unnamed woman came along and anointed his head. The men were indignant. But Jesus told them to leave her alone, for she was showing the way of the events that were unfolding. Then Jesus declared, “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” (Mark 14:9)

So shall we observe this holy season of Lent.

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I Can See You

A very good friend of mine writes fairly regularly for a major newspaper. In a recent column, she included a brief reference to a trip to a museum and made note of an exhibit that she saw with her wife. Not included in the column was the fact that there was a third person there— me. I’m sure there were lots of good reasons not to include me in what was a minor part of a lengthy column, including word count and the needless complication of explaining the weird friend who was also present. Still, it felt odd, and disconcerting, to discover that I had been completely left out— as if I hadn’t been there at all.

I was probably sensitive to this point because I’ve been thinking quite a lot about what it means to be seen, particularly in a church/faith setting. It’s one of the things that small churches are usually able to do well. Since there are not a lot of people, it’s much easier to see everyone, and to pay attention to each one in the group. Yet, this is a component of the life of the small church that is generally not fully appreciated— in the community itself and beyond.

During a conversation with one of our newer members at Old South, she shared a troubling experience at her former church. While Central Maine is not exactly home to anything that can be described a “mega” church, the area has one or two churches that are considerably larger than the others. This newer member had been actively involved in one of these large churches. One Sunday, standing in the lobby of the church, she watched several people walk past her, one after another. Not one of them spoke to her. Not one of them seemed even to notice her, even in a small way. In her move to Old South, one of the most significant aspects of her early visits was that she was seen by others, and acknowledged.

In accounts of the earthly ministry of Jesus, the Gospel writers include many occasions where Jesus saw people. And, he didn’t just notice them casually. He saw them in ways that were meaningful and compelling. Consider the Samaritan woman at the well, the woman who had suffered with hemorrhages for twelve years, and the man who asked about eternal life, In all of these stories (and others), Jesus saw people, and into people, in ways that offered hope and healing, if the person chose to open themselves to Jesus, his teaching and his presence.

Acknowledging individuals and being attentive to each one was something that marked the earthly ministry of Jesus. It must also mark the ministry of communities of faith who claim to follow him.

In a small church— whether we do it in an intentional way or not— we see people. We notice them and, more than that, show our care for them. Sometimes there’s a fine line between being attentive and being nosy, but I think the folks at Old South manage that line well.

This is not simply a nice thing that we do, but a foundational piece of our ministry of presence as we seek to be the Body of Christ, where not even one should feel invisible.

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