“What do you need? And what can we send you?” As the Reverend George Rutler tells it, these were the questions that came from a British missionary society to Anglican ministers in Uganda. They were asked during the dictatorship of Idi Amin, as strife and violence were winning the day, and those far from the struggle wanted to know what they could do. “What do you need? And what can we send you?”
“Send us food,” the Ugandan ministers originally wrote back. People were hungry and malnourished.
“Send us medical supplies,” came the word some time later. People were ill, and doctors lacked basic necessities for care.
But then as the violence continued, after the archbishop was murdered and as people were starving and conflict raging, the word came from the Ugandans, “Send us 350 clerical collars.”
“You must understand,” they wrote, “with everything that has happened people must be able to spot their priests . . . they need to know who their ministers are.”
The Gospel of Luke tells us that women came together to the tomb of Jesus with spices only to find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. Long ago the women, the co-laborers of Jesus, those women not wearing collars made their way to the tomb. Because you see, women have long been near the dying and showing up at places of death. Women have long been attentive to the people and places where hope is dim and sorrow is real. Women have long been making their way to tend to the tombs–to tend to those who lay inside them and to those who weep beside them.
Deep in our bones and bodies is the capacity to sit with death and sorrow–the capacity to be present in the midst of pain. Those women following Jesus, they stayed near the cross and all of its anguish, and they returned to the tomb with spices. Wearing collars or not, recognized formally as ministers or not, throughout the centuries faithful women have been showing up in the darkest and most hope-deprived corners of our world. From the beginning women have been present near the tombs and wombs of our world, for we are not among those who shrink back (Hebrews 10:39).
Many of you are familiar with doulas and midwives who accompany mothers through the process of birth. I’ve recently been learning more about a contemporary movement of folks who describe themselves as “death doulas”–or death midwives–which is in many ways a return to the roles of women in burial and death before the rise of the funeral industry. These death doulas assist a person and their family members through the dying process, much like a doula does during the process of birth. And these doublas are not among those who shrink back.
As the number of Baptist women serving as pastors and co-pastors has increased over the years, (Thanks be to God!), we know that women are often called to serve churches that are near death. Pam Durso recently wrote about this in her blog post on “glass cliffs.” Research that shows female executives are more likely to be hired and put in charge of Fortune 500 companies when those companies are in crisis. The same seems to be true of the church. Many of the churches that women are called to serve as pastor are in decline or have significant dysfunction. And their desperation leads them to consider something new to them: calling a woman to lead from the first chair.
But . . . all these years of showing up, being present, sitting with, and walking alongside the tombs and wombs of our world have given us greater capacity in the near death places. We are not among those who shrink back. Faithful women have long been co-laboring with God to bring life into the world and to support, love, give care to those going out of this world.
Before better HIV drugs reduced the need for her care, Ruth Coker Burks cared for hundreds of gay men who had been abandoned by their families in the 1980s. She buried more than three dozen of them herself, after their families refused to claim their remains.
You see, when Ruth was a child, her mother and her uncle had one of those big family blowups. One of the consequences of this unfortunate fracture in their family was that her mother wanted to make sure the uncle’s branch of the family would never lie in the same red dirt hilltop in Arkansas as the rest of the family–so she bought up every available grave space in the cemetery-—all 262 plots.
Ruth and her mother often visited the cemetery when Burks was a child, and her mother would sarcastically remark, “All of this will be yours some day!” Ruth reflected, “I always wondered what I was going to do with a cemetery. But, who knew there would be a time when people didn’t want to bury their children?” Ruth became known as someone who was not afraid of those dying with AIDS and was one of the go-to people in Arkansas for caring for those with the disease. Over a ten-year period, she buried more than forty people in chipped cookie jars in the Files Cemetery.
Ruth couldn’t get a priest or a preacher to come and say even a few words. So digging the holes herself, she’d bury the cremains and have a do-it-yourself funeral. She did not have a clerical collar or a stole, but Ruth Coker Burks did not flee or abandon those at the tomb. She was without a doubt a minister to all those she cared for and buried. She was not among those who shrink back.
From the women gathered at the tomb of Jesus, to women huddled together in bathrooms at Southern Baptist Convention meetings (so I am told!), to women being called to pastor churches (even those near death), we are not among those who shrink back. It has been said that the marginalized are always the first to comprehend death and resurrection. Whether we have been known as ministers or not, wearing robes and stoles or not, Baptist women have long been ministering to and bearing witness to the love and goodness of God even in the face of death, even while it was still dark. For we know and bear witness to the truth that God is always working in the dust and in the tombs to bring new life and light.
Throughout the ages we’ve been midwifing new and holy births and hard and holy deaths. And dear sisters, we are not among those who shrink back! For deep in our bones and formed in the geography of our hearts is the capacity to handle hard and holy things with God’s help. We find ourselves in the long line of women ministers who have not fled at death, but who have remained. We are among those whose holy instincts draw us toward the poor, the sick, those in labor, and the dying, because we know that somehow, somewhere in all of that sorrow, uncertainty, discomfort and grief, new life and resurrection can come. We are called and ordained to this hard and holy work because we know how to sit with pain. And we know how to sit with pain because we’ve been at that for a long time, too. Because we are particularly adept at being present, staying near, not looking away, and walking with folks who are hurting—and waiting long enough for God to do what God always does in the face of death: practice resurrection.
I heard a story of a church near death that could not keep any pastor for more than a year or two. Eight pastors had come and gone in eleven years, all of them after controversy with one of the long-time leaders.
The bishop called a special meeting of lay members and clergy as well as a few members of the congregation. When everyone had had a say, the bishop addressed the whole gathering in her best preacher’s voice, saying, “Brothers and sisters, what are we going to do? Whom shall we send?”
Then the bishop invited everyone to pray silently with her. The silence lasted for a long time and continued even after the bishop concluded the prayer with a resolute “Amen.” At last one of the older pastors spoke out from the back of the room. “I’ll go,” she said.
There was a collective gasp, followed by buzz. Everyone knew that this pastor had been on leave of absence for several years and that she had left her last church in the wake of a scandalous divorce. She was an alcoholic, twice convicted of drunk driving, and had spent six months in prison and a month in a chemical dependency treatment center. Because she was so near retirement and out of consideration of her many years of faithful service and the progress she had made in her rehabilitation program, she had been allowed to keep her credentials. The bishop and other leaders had hoped to place her with some small, quiet, caring congregation where she could serve her remaining years without stress.
“Are you sure, Deborah?” the bishop asked.
This is a congregation in pain,” Deborah said. “I know something about pain. I think I should be the one to go.”
Deborah met with the leaders of the troubled congregation, and they agreed to accept her as their pastor. She told them, “It is my intention to visit with every member of this congregation before I perform any other pastoral duties, including preaching. I will not lead worship or attend any meetings until that task is finished. I’ll let you know when I am ready to preach.”
She went from house to house, apartment to apartment, hospital bed to nursing home bed, introducing herself as the new pastor and asking each one, as she went, to respond to two questions: How did you come to love Jesus, and why have you chosen to serve him in this congregation?
She visited morning, afternoon, and evening for four-and-a-half weeks and was warmly received by every member of the congregation except one. Then she went home, called the lay leader, and told him she would be prepared to preach the following Sunday.
The sanctuary was packed that day. Almost every able member was present. She said, “I want to share two things with you today: How I came to love Jesus, and why I believe God has called me to serve him with you in this congregation.”
At the close, just as Deborah was about to ask them to join with her in prayer, a man stood up in the back of the sanctuary and shouted out at her. It was Harry Wiersem, the man who had refused to see her when she called at his home. He was the long-time leader who had bedeviled so many pastors before her. Some had told Deborah that he had never recovered from the death of his wife many years before.
“Who do you think you are, sister?” he yelled. “We know all about you. You couldn’t keep your husband, and you are a drunk. You’re the last thing we need in this church. We’ve got enough problems as it is!”
Harry stood glaring at her, his face red and his knuckles bulging white as his hands gripped the pew in front of him. Deborah looked back at him with sad eyes. She didn’t speak for several seconds. It was absolutely silent in the sanctuary. No one moved or seemed to breathe.
“I am a broken person, Harry,” Deborah said in a soft, firm voice, still looking into his angry, red face. “A broken person who has been healed. And I’ve come to serve with broken people: broken people who have been healed.”
Then she stepped down from the pulpit and walked up the long center aisle to where Harry was still hanging on to the back of the pew. She put her arm around his shoulder, looked him in the eye and said, “I am sorry about Mildred. She must have been very dear to you.” Harry let go of the pew, fell into her arms and began to sob. When he was finished crying, Deborah bid everyone to gather round. They joined hands, and she led them in prayer. When she said “Amen,” Deborah was aware of something around her that felt like a collective sigh of relief.
Deborah served with them for twelve years, retiring at last at the age of seventy-four. Just before he died, Harry Wiersem told Deborah that she had been an answer to his prayers.
My friends, even when we are tempted to believe that death holds sway, resurrection begins. For even at the wombs and tombs we are not among those who shrink back and flee the grave. No, we are among those who end up being the first witnesses to resurrection–the first evangelists and proclaimers of gospel good news! Again and again and again.
Throughout the centuries and still today, thanks be to God for the women who have always been at the wombs and tombs of our world and who bear witness to resurrection still today! Amen.
Courtney Allen is pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia. She preached this sermon on May 4, 2018 at the Virginia Baptist Women in Ministry’s Thirtieth Anniversary Celebration.