Lydia, Dorcas, and Phoebe   Leave a comment

A homily given to the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory on 27 January 2015, the Feast Day of the three saints.

Old Testament: Malachi 3:16-18: 16 Then those who revered the Lord spoke with one another. The Lordtook note and listened, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who revered the Lord and thought on his name. 17They shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, my special possession on the day when I act, and I will spare them as parents spare their children who serve them.18Then once more you shall see the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him.

Epistle: Acts 16:11-1511 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. 14A certain woman named Lydia, a worshipper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.’ And she prevailed upon us.

Gospel: Luke 8:1-3: 1Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, 2as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

When asked “how many women on the Supreme Court would be enough?” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg answered: “Nine.”

To the follow-up question: But that would be all of the justices; how does that represent fairness? She responded: “For most of the country’s history, there were nine men, and nobody thought that was unfair.”

Today we celebrate the feast of Lydia, Dorcas, and Phoebe, three early Christians. “Holy Women, Holy Men” calls these three women “Witnesses to the Faith;” Grace Cathedral has their figures—along with Priscilla (who has a different feast day shared with her husband Aquila)—on an altarpiece in a chapel, where they are known in the community as early Christian leaders.

We’ve just heard the story of Lydia—almost in its entirety: the end of the chapter adds a return visit by Paul & Silas to Lydia’s home, where they find a company meeting there: perhaps the beginnings of a church.

I want to remind you of what we know about Dorcas and Phoebe. First Dorcas, whose brief story is in Acts chapter 9, verses 36-42:

36 Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. 37At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. 38Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, ‘Please come to us without delay.’ 39So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. 40Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’ Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. 41He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. 42This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.

Phoebe doesn’t even get a story, just a shout-out toward the end of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Chapter 16, verses 1 and 2:

16 I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, (sen-cree-ay) 2so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.

The Gospel lesson for this feast day is a brief mention of the presence of Mary Magdalene and some other women—Joanna and Susanna are named—in Jesus’ ministry. The message seems to be merely a note that Jesus welcomed women among his followers and patrons.

You may have noted that the three lessons are very short passages; Lydia’s story is by far the longest, and it’s only 5 verses. When the Church in its wisdom created this feast day, it seems to have struggled to produce a substantial lectionary. It is wonderful that we celebrate these women and their roles in getting the Church on its feet—but it is a shame that there is so little to celebrate.

The size of the texts is no doubt symptomatic of the ancient world’s marginalization of women. Women had very little power in that place and time. Married women had their husbands to look after them, and widows—the women for whom Dorcas wove clothing, and perhaps including Dorcas herself—were entirely disenfranchised (thus the Bible’s frequent exhortations to take care of widows and orphans). Holy Women, Holy Men notes: “As what the Jewish community called a ‘God-fearer’ [Lydia] was undoubtedly accorded respect by the Jewish community, but still would have been marginalized.” Even this wealthy, God-fearing merchant was marginalized because of her gender.

Most stories in the Bible are about men. Sure, the Bible has a number of great female characters. But more often than not, they’re relegated to supporting roles—sometimes even in their own stories: Dorcas, for instance is a distant second to Peter in her own resurrection narrative!

But the size of the texts is also perhaps symbolic of our continued marginalization of women in our world and in the church. If the paucity of female-centric Biblical narratives is a result of the marginalization of women in the ancient world, what story does our contemporary church tell about women?

Four decades after the ordination of women in The Episcopal Church, female priests and deacons still fill far fewer pulpits than their male counterparts, and make far less money in the same positions.

I remember conversations at General Convention last summer about the lack of female candidates for Presiding Bishop. The defense was that almost no female bishops met the detailed job qualifications, such as having been a Diocesan for a certain number of years. But that’s a problem in itself! Why aren’t there more women Diocesans? We’re doing better than the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox, but it’s still not enough—by Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s standard or any other reasonable measure.

Part of our role as religious, I’ve been told many times in the past year and a half, is to stand with those on the margins of our society, to lift them up. To share our privilege—and if nothing else, all of us in this community experience the privilege of gender—to bring them closer to justice and equality. God puts opportunities into our lives every day to speak up for women, and their equality in our world and in our church. We can do this through advocacy, through asking for gender equality in our workplaces, our ministry organizations, and churches. We can step aside to give women and girls an opportunity that we might have otherwise taken to serve or lead. And often, it’s even better to not speak up, but to quietly support women as they speak for themselves.

Perhaps a larger challenge is to think about ways we can ensure that a feminine perspective exists within our all-male community! Easier in days when we shared more time and space with our sister community, no doubt. But the world wants to equate the feminine with weakness, and I know that for many of us personally the feminine has been something to shake off, to abhor. But Jesus calls us to be counter-cultural—which means embracing the feminine and being stronger for it.

All of these things are true not only for women, but for other marginalized people who get even less representation in the Bible: racial and ethnic minorities, gays and lesbians, bisexual and transgender people. We can be intersectional in thinking about the marginalized.

Let’s go back to these three women and their relevance to our own lives: Lydia is a merchant in purple cloth—known historically to be difficult to make, often reserved for royalty, and very expensive. So it’s likely that Lydia was wealthy. She eagerly listens to and receives God’s message through Paul, and her first act as a newly-baptized Christian is to open her home to Paul and his companions. In her generous hospitality, she becomes literally a servant to the servants of God.

There is much scholarly debate about how closely Phoebe’s role may hew to our contemporary definition of “deacon,” but I’ll leave that debate to the scholars and hope that we can at least agree that Paul’s context makes it clear she is a leader of some kind, and that her leadership is of a servanthood nature. “…Help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.” Phoebe is engaged in some work to which Paul wants the Roman church to make available its resources, and he knows that they will receive back in some greater form whatever they give to Phoebe.

Dorcas’ story is my favorite—not because of her resurrection, but because of this line: “All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.” This puts such a wonderful image in my mind, because I don’t get the sense that the widows are showing Peter rough-hewn garments made from scraps. I picture them showing him the intricate weave of the cloth, the fine stitching and embroidery, the beauty of the completed garments. Dorcas is not merely obeying the Biblical instructions to care for widows; she is giving them fine garments worthy of display. Peter brings glory to God in raising Dorcas from the dead; Dorcas has already brought glory to God in her work.

These three women are doing what conventional wisdom might consider “women’s work,” but what is simply the very things we are called to do in our rule, the very things that Jesus calls all of us to do. They each give of their time, talent and treasure; they are caring for and serving those around them. They are dedicated to prayer, and to learning and spreading the Good News of Jesus. They are living witnesses to Christ’s love in the world. Each one is finding her own particular way of following Jesus, of spreading the Jesus Movement as it takes shape in its first century. They could be us; we could seek no better models to emulate.

Society may not have cared much about these women; the Bible may not have much to say about them… But The Lord takes note and listens, and a book of remembrance is written of those who revere The Lord and think on his name. When we remember their names and their stories, we also memorialize the countless women who have helped the church on its way but did not get a mention in the Bible. Women across two millennia who have feed the hungry, clothed the naked, and welcomed the stranger as Christ in their midst. And when we support women in their struggle for equality and justice in the Church and Society today, we are remembering Lydia, Dorcas, and Phoebe. The Lord takes note and listens.

Posted 27 January 2016 by Br. Scott Michael Pomerenk, BSG in Homilies

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