The Fourth Sunday of Easter – Mother’s Day — May 8, 2022

Let think about women on this Mother’s Day.

Because we are a church, we turn to our Bibles and the stories and roles of women. But because the Bible was written primarily, perhaps exclusively, by men in a male dominated culture, we have to work a little harder to read between the lines to allow the women’s stories to come to the fore. A few weeks ago we heard about Mary of Bethany who anointed Jesus just before he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles tells us about Tabitha. The first thing that Luke says about her is that she was a disciple. But there’s no back story here. How did she become a disciple?

She was living in Joppa which is today part of Tel Aviv, a coastal city on the Mediterranean Sea, just a hop, skip, and a jump from Jerusalem some 40 miles away. It’s not out of the question that Tabitha was one of the many female followers and disciples of Jesus. We also see glimpses of other women who actually led churches in some of the cities visited by Paul.

But back to Tabitha. We’re told that “She was devoted to good works and acts of charity.” But that’s just an aside. She has no role in this story . . . other than to be raised from the dead by Peter. She doesn’t say anything, doesn’t interact with anyone. In this story she’s dead, and after Peter prays she sits up, and he gives her a hand to help her stand up. That’s it. She’s just a prop for Peter, and Peter’s fame spreading throughout the region. Tabitha’s story is subservient to the male disciple’s story.

And so it has been throughout the centuries of Christian history which is populated by men. O, there’s a Monica, and a Theresa of Avila, a Catherine of Sienna, and few royal women here and there, but men dominate. Within the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and most Baptist groups women aren’t equal to men. (They cannot be ordained to serve as priests, bishops, or pastors) despite the teaching in Galatians 3:28 that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Lest we’re tempted to pat ourselves on the back, it was only in the 1960’s that women won the right to serve on Vestries in the Episcopal Church. And it wasn’t until 1970 that they could be delegates to General Convention.

It was 1970 when female deaconesses were recognized as Deacons serving the same roles as male deacons. In 1974—eleven women deacons were irregularly ordained priests in Philadelphia by three retired bishops. In 1976—General Convention authorized the regular ordination of women priests beginning January 1, 1977.

This coming Saturday I will preach at the funeral of the first woman ordained a priest here in the Diocese of Southern Ohio, The Rev. Doris Mote. I attended that service. It was the 29th of January, 1977, when the service was held at Christ Church, Dayton. As it turned out, the heating system was on the blink, and the inside temperature was in the 50’s. The Rt. Rev. John Krumm, Bishop of Southern Ohio, who had been a champion for women’s ordination in the House of Bishops, declared that many of the opponents of women in priesthood had claimed that “It would be a cold day in hell when that came to pass. Well, that day is here,” he said.

It was another twelve years, February 1989, until Barbara Harris was consecrated the first woman Bishop in the entire worldwide Anglican Communion. She served as the Suffragan Bishop of Massachusetts.

Revisiting history. 1972 was when it took a Supreme Court decision to allow women to legally get prescriptions for birth control in all states. And it wasn’t until 1973 that a married woman could get a credit card without her husband’s permission. The same year that Roe vs. Wade was decided, based on a woman’s right to privacy.

I walk through these dates and hallmarks in order to highlight the struggle of women to achieve equality—rights that men, especially white property-owning men, have had right along.

For the longest time women could not vote, own property, engage in certain financial transactions, participate in many or most professions. Much has changed, but one significant area that has not changed is that of human rights. We still do not have a Equal Rights amendment for women in the United States. And this very week, a leaked draft of a Supreme Court document suggests that women are about to lose their right to choice, again.

What does the Episcopal Church teach about that?  The Rev. Peter Homeyer has written:

The Episcopal Church holds positions on issues related to women’s access to birth control and abortion. These positions are now decades in the making. They have sought to balance a pastoral approach to those facing pregnancy, childbirth, adoption, family planning and infertility with a clear expectation that governments must ensure that women will have control over their own medical care while remaining free to make decisions based on their own consciences and that these cannot be intruded upon by outsiders. To quote excerpts from two resolutions passed by the Church in General Convention:

  1. “…we emphatically oppose abortion as a means of birth control, family planning, sex selection, or any reason of mere convenience…”
  2. since 1967 The Episcopal Church has maintained its “unequivocal opposition to any legislation on the part of the national or state governments which would abridge or deny the right of individuals to reach informed decisions about the termination of pregnancy and to act upon them.”

Even as we think about Motherhood today, and as we give thanks for our mothers who loved, nurtured and cared for us, let us acknowledge that for much of human history, women didn’t have much choice in the matter. Too often, the role of mothering and housekeeping was chosen for them by law, religion, and/or social convention. I know that that was the case with my mother and most others in her generation.

So as we celebrate all mothers, let’s also reaffirm our commitment to the right of all women to choose motherhood as one among many choices—and not to just be a prop for someone else’s story.