Junia

Most of you have heard me say this before. It is not enough to say that we are open and affirming… we have to actually be open and affirming… we have to act as allies and accomplices to all of those people who are listed in our open and affirming covenant.

So, a couple of weeks ago, on a Tuesday evening, right before I left the office, I did just about the least that I could do. I hung a banner in front of the church… a rainbow banner with the words A Just World For All across the yellow stripe and the United Church of Christ logo in the corner.

And I planned to leave it up for Pride Month… as a sign for all of those people who might not believe that they would be welcome in a church… and as a witness to our embrace of Christ’s extravagant welcome.

And by the next morning… it was gone.

Someone cut the little bungee cords that attached the banner to the banner stand… and took it.

And I know it sounds petty—and having to buy more little bungee cords is one of the world’s mildest inconveniences—but cutting those little bungee cords took more time and more effort than just undoing them.

And that makes me think that whoever took our banner was so disgusted by the idea that a church might welcome and affirm those people… that they had to use a knife… and they had to make sure that we couldn’t just hang another banner up right away.

Whoever took our banner wanted to erase our welcome.

Today is the first Sunday of… well… let’s call it ‘liturgical summer’.

You all know that we follow the Narrative Lectionary: a little calendar of scripture readings that runs from the Sunday after Labor Day through Pentecost… and that leaves the summers free for congregations to choose their own scriptures… to run their own sermon series… to do their own thing.

And for the last couple of years, we have used a banner as the basis for our summer sermon series. We have talked about being a blessing. We have talked about being the church.

But this summer, we’re doing something a little different. This summer, we’re focusing on stories about women. And we’re starting with a story about Junia… kind of.

We don’t really know much about Junia. The only place where she is mentioned is this… list… in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. There’s no story. There’s no adventure. There’s no lesson. There’s just Paul asking the reader to say ‘hello’ to some people…

“Say hello to Andronicus and Junia for me. They are also Israelites like me. And they were in prison with me. And they were Christian before me. And they are prominent among the apostles.”

And that last little line is impressive. One of the early church fathers—John Chysostom—read that line and wrote,

To be an apostle is something great. But to be outstanding among the apostles… just think what a wonderful song of praise that is! [Andronicus and Junia] were outstanding on the basis of their works and virtuous actions. Indeed, how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was even deemed worthy of the title of apostle.

How great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was called an apostle! How wonderful a song of praise that she was called ‘outstanding among the apostles’!

But…

More than a thousand years after Paul asked the church in Rome to say ‘hello’ to Junia for him… some people started getting suspicious about the idea that a woman could be an apostle.

Some of those people decided that Junia wasn’t a woman. They decided that she was a man, and that her name was Junias, and that was okay.

Some of those people decided that Junia wasn’t an apostle. They decided that she was a good Christian woman, and that she was well-known to the apostles, and that was okay.

But either way, they erased Junia. Either way, they erased this woman who was prominent among the apostles. And who the early church had recognized as a woman and an apostle.

About five years ago—not too long before you called me as your pastor—we celebrated our one-hundred-and-seventy-fifth year as a congregation. And there was an article in the Observer that proclaimed that this congregation had one of the first woman ministers when Alice Mabel Mannington became your pastor in 1918.

And that is true… kind of.

Pastor Mabel was one of the first women to be ordained as a pastor to a congregation in the modern church… sixty-six years after Antoinette Brown was the first woman to be ordained as a pastor to a congregation in the modern church… and almost two thousand years after Junia was prominent among the apostles.

But women have been ministers the whole time.

It was Mary, the mother of Jesus, who declared that God was bringing the powerful down from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. And it was at her urging that Jesus revealed his glory at Cana.

It was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Susanna and other women who took care of Jesus and the twelve—and who funded the work of this little group—as they travelled through the towns and villages of Galilee.

And it was Mary Magdalene and Mary-the-mother-of-James and Salome who mixed the spices… and went to the tomb… and discovered that God was not done with us yet.

It was women who first proclaimed the good news. It is women who have passed that good news down through families and congregations. It is women who have embodied that good news for the sick and the dying and the grieving. And it is women who have shown up… again and again.

And men have done those things, too, of course. It’s just that…

This congregation is an open and affirming, radically hospitable, extravagantly welcoming congregation that called it’s first woman pastor more than one hundred years ago…

…and over one-hundred-and-eighty-years… and thirty-nine settled pastors… there have been two women who have served this congregation as settled pastors… and a less than a handful more who have served this congregation as interim pastors.

Two.

And there are still so many congregations where that number is zero. There are still so many congregations that will not ordain women. There are still so many congregations—so many denominations—that will accept women’s ministry, and recognize women’s ministry, and celebrate women’s ministry… but that will not call a woman a pastor… let alone an apostle… let alone prominent among the apostles.

And it’s not just the church. Despite all of the progress that women have made—and despite all of the work that women do—there is still a long way to go.

Most of you have heard me say this before. It is not enough to say that we are open and affirming… we have to actually be open and affirming… we have to act as allies and accomplices to all of those people who are listed in our open and affirming covenant.

And that includes women: gender identity is listed right there, tucked neatly between sexual orientation and marital status.

And someone might have taken our banner, but they did not erase our welcome. And we certainly will not erase a person from our history.

Being an ally… being an accomplice… starts with listening to the stories. So this summer, we’re going to listen to the stories of biblical women. Some of them are stories that we don’t hear very often, like the stories of Deborah and Jael. Some of them are stories that we know, but that we can always hear again, like the story of Ruth. And some of them are stories that deeply ingrained in our memories, and that could use a reframing, like the story where Eve gets all the blame.

And our first story isn’t really a story at all. It’s just the acknowledgement of a truth that cannot be erased: that there was a woman named Junia… and she was an apostle… and she was not just an apostle, but she was prominent among the apostles.

And what a wonderful song of praise that is!

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