Last year I returned to my hometown to preach for the very first time. A church working to expand the leadership of women in its congregation had invited me to share about my own calling to ministry, and I was thrilled and nervous to be there all at the same time. I knew the church’s leadership was excited to host me, but I wasn’t exactly sure the rest of the congregation was onboard. In the end, however, it wasn’t the group of people to which I preached that proved challenging, but rather the first thing I saw when I arrived early that day. As I got out of my car, I became paralyzed with emotion as my eyes fell upon a very familiar place. To my right stood the church where I was about to preach, but to my left stood the church I had attended as a little girl.
I drive by this church most every time I visit my family but seeing it that day stopped me dead in my tracks. You see: I love this church. I was baptized there, and I first sensed my calling to ministry within its walls. This community gave me the gift of great friends and amazing mentors who dramatically shaped my life. I appreciate this church’s ministry and respect it’s people more than I could possibly express. However, standing there that morning, I realized something that cut me to the core: as much as I long for this church to be proud of the way they molded and made me into the person I am today, I–as a female pastor–am much more likely to be a source of shame. I had known this in my head for a long time, but that day was the first time I really let in sink into my heart. Overwhelmed with grief, I couldn’t help but stand there motionless in that parking lot for more than a little while. I sobbed and mourned. I prayed for God’s grace and peace. Then, I went inside the church across the street to preach. I shared a message that described my own immense, intense struggle with this sense of call on my life as a young girl who desperately wanted to be faithful to Christ. Below is part of that sermon, in which I share what eventually moved me to say YES to God.
So you might be wondering: what finally shifted my perspective to the point that I serve as a pastor today? It wasn’t just this sense of call I had always had. It wasn’t just the opportunities that it seemed like God was giving me all over the place. It wasn’t just a clearer understanding of the writing of Paul. Rather for me, it was this: Jesus Himself, when I finally grasped how radically He treated women throughout His ministry. I had been hearing and reading the Gospel stories my entire life, but I had always been doing so through the lens of today, in light of my present day reality. However, as I began to understand more about the world that Jesus lived in and the place of women in 1st century Jewish society, suddenly I began to realize that Jesus was seemingly saying “Women, why not?” all over the place.
In first century Jewish culture men were supposed to avoid unnecessary conversation with women, because talking to them might lead a man to folly or unchastity. But Jesus said, “Why not?” And do you know that the longest recorded conversation between Jesus and anyone is the conversation that he had one-on-one with the woman at the well?
In first century Jewish culture, women were encouraged to stay indoors as much as possible and were discouraged from traveling around. The man’s domain was the public, and a woman’s domain was in private in the home. But in the gospel of Luke, he mentions something in passing that if we don’t know this about this culture, we miss just how subversive it is. He says in Luke 8 starting with verse 1: Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him,2 and ALSO SOME WOMEN who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; 3 Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means. This was a big deal! It was a scandalous arrangement. I can’t imagine the gossip this must have generated by people who were watching this unfold. These women were not staying indoors. They were not being confined to their household and their domestic sphere; rather, they had gone public. They were traveling around with this group of men, partnering with them in ministry, because Jesus looked at those women and with his actions said: “Why not?”…”Why not?”
In first century Jewish culture, women were not educated in the same way as men. They might go to the synagogue and learn passively, but daughters were not trained in the Scriptures like sons. They might learn what the Torah had to say about domestic concerns from a family member so they would know how to care for their household, but what they didn’t do was become disciples of Rabbi like many boys. However, once again, Jesus looked at women and said, “Why not?” In Luke 10, we are told the story of Mary and Martha. Often we will take this account and make it into this cute little warning about not being too busy in our lives. However, this story is so much richer than that. When Jesus was visiting these two sisters in their home, Martha was doing what her culture valued in women. She was cooking and cleaning like she was supposed to. She was living out the bits of the Torah that she had been taught, but do you remember where her sister Mary was? She was sitting at Jesus feet. This doesn’t mean she was just sitting there being lazy. Rather, this is a very technical expression that meant a very specific thing. It meant she was being a disciple. It meant that she was actively learning from Jesus, a Rabbi. And when Martha protested about this in Luke 10:40—“Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me.” In other words, tell her to do what she as a woman is supposed to do! Jesus replied, “Martha, Martha…Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away for her.” Do you see how Jesus was pushing the envelope. Do you see how he was challenging the culture of his day? Through his words and actions, he was rejecting the deeply embedded belief that women’s identities were only found in the men they were connected to. Instead, he was looking at them as individuals with their own value, dignity, and worth, and he was saying, “Come, follow me.” He was inviting them to become his disciples, but he didn’t stop there.
In first century Jewish culture, women were not believed to be valid witnesses. A woman’s testimony was considered absolutely worthless in a court of law, because their words were deemed “untrustworthy”–but let’s take a look together at John chapter 20. Starting in verse 1, John tells us that early in the morning on the first day of the week (Sunday), Mary Magdalene had gone to visit Jesus’ tomb, and when she got there, she was in for a big surprise. She discovered that it was empty and ran back to report this to the disciples, telling them in verse 2, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” The disciples ran to check out the situation, and they see what she had said is true. However, they don’t get excited, because they don’t understand yet that Jesus had risen from the dead. The disciples just went back to where they were staying confused, but Mary stayed right there at the tomb. Verse 11 tells us: “Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” She is heartbroken. She is in despair, but… At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize it was Jesus. Did he look different? Maybe, but perhaps her perception was just being clouded by her overwhelming grief. John continues: He asked her, Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” Do you hear how deeply devoted she is? Jesus said to her, “Mary.” He simply speaks her name and, She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (Which means “Teacher.”) This was a more personal address than the more formal “rabbi” and tips us off to the disciple-teacher relationship they seem to have shared. Jesus said, “Do no hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Then he gave her this command, Go instead to my brothers and tell them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Did you catch that? He asks Mary Magdalene to be his witness. He tells her, A WOMAN, to be the one to go and be the very first person proclaim the good news of His resurrection from the dead! And do you know what? She doesn’t argue with Jesus. She doesn’t say, “You know what Jesus, my gender disqualifies me from doing that. I can’t be a witness for you because I am a girl. No! What does she do? She does it, and she becomes the very first person EVER to deliver the Easter message of the Risen Christ. John continues: Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things. Across history, it has been argued that if the writers of the Gospels were making this story up, they would have never done it this way. It’s an argument for why we can trust this account here in Scripture, because if someone were making this up and trying to make it convincing to its original audience, there is no way they would have put a woman in this role…not in that day…not in that time…not in that place…but Jesus looks at her and says, “Why not? “
For as long as I can remember, I have sensed the Risen Christ saying my name, “Laura”…and asking me to be his witness…telling me to GO proclaim the good news that he has brought. And for so many years I wasted time arguing with him, saying, “Why me? Jesus, I’m unqualified for that. Girls aren’t supposed to this. I am supposed to stay quiet and reserved.” But one day I finally realized that Jesus was looking back at me and saying, “Why not?”
And so to everyone here this morning…men and women alike…I don’t know what you sense the Risen Christ is asking you to do for his kingdom when you hear him speaking your name. Maybe you hear him challenging you to care for a neighbor or to show hospitality to strangers who are in need of hope. Maybe you hear him encouraging you to mentor a child in our public schools or to pour your life into the kids downstairs. Maybe you hear him asking you to serve others in an under-resourced part of town or to put your gifts of administration to work for the church. Maybe you hear him calling you to start a new ministry or to step up and lead a current ministry of your church. Maybe you sense him asking you to pastor or preach. I don’t know what Jesus is calling you to, but here is what I do know: because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are living in the age when God has poured out his Holy Spirit on ALL of his people. We are living in the age that the prophet Joel looked forward to and that Peter announced was here on the day of Pentecost…the day in which God said:
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days.
The same Spirit that was in Christ and raised Him from the dead is now at work in and through you and me…whether you are son or daughter…a Joe or Judy…a Mark or Megan…a Stephanie or Steve…and God is calling you to be his witness in a way that only you can, because here’s the thing: there has never been anyone else like you and there never will be. You are a one of a kind original created by the very hands of God, and that means that there is a contribution to building God’s kingdom that you and only you can make. No one will ever have the same mixture of gifts and abilities, experiences and passions, opportunities and spheres of influence that you do. God wants to use the “you” he has made you to be to transform this world into the place that he desires it to be.
And so when you hear Jesus calling you, asking you to be his witness…you might be saying back to him: “God, why me? Don’t you know that I am unqualified because of this or that…because I am too little of this or too much of that…because I have done this or because I haven’t done that.” But I want you to know this morning…and I want this to come through loud and clear: Jesus, who has empowered you with His Holy Spirit, is looking at you and saying: “Why not? Why not?”