We’ve just heard several short parables. In them, Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a mustard seed, yeast, a pearl, and a net: all ordinary things, the basic stuff of life, yet for Jesus, they are hints of the kingdom of God. It’s extraordinary, when you think about it, that we would know who God is and how God relates to us through such mundane things as seeds, or yeast, or a net. But then, Jesus never wanted to separate off God from life; in fact, he didn’t even want to box God into a synagogue or a church. Rather, he wanted us to find and see and feel God working in us, among us, and around us, all the time, whoever we are, wherever we are, and whatever we are doing—whether we’re gardening or working in a field, cooking or fishing, or even sweeping the house.
Of these, my favorite is the parable of the leaven: ‘the kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’” It sounds homey, doesn’t it? The aroma of fresh bread, rising, growing, coming to life. But do you remember how, a couple weeks ago, I shared a definition suggesting that Jesus’ parables are almost always provocative or unsettling? In case you missed it, here it is again. C.H. Dodd, a biblical scholar at Cambridge University, wrote: “At its simplest the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving in mind sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”
So, how does this parable of the leaven fit that definition? It certainly is drawn from common life, being about yeast and flour. But what about it is strange or leaves in doubt its precise application? Well, to understand that, you have to think less like us today, and more like a Jewish person in the first century—in other words you have to think like Jesus and the disciples he was talking to. The first thing to note is the translation. The version we use says the woman “mixed” the yeast in with the flour, which is semi-accurate. But the Greek actually says that she “hid” the yeast in the flour. Meaning, maybe she did it in secret, or even deceptively. That’s intriguing.
Second, usually in Bible when yeast or leaven is mentioned it is negative, like “the leaven of the Pharisees.” Jesus certainly wasn’t talking about yeast that comes in neat packets from the grocery store, but instead little bits of bread that were damp, sticky, slightly mouldy—like sourdough starter. Kind of gross. Rather than a positive, people concerned with purity in their food and in their homes, as Jesus’ hearers would have been, actually believed that leaven contaminated everything. But here Jesus says it was added intentionally. What’s more, it was mixed in 3 “measures” of flour. Not cups, but measures. That’s equivalent to 50 pounds of flour. So imagine: you go bake something and unexpectedly your dough rises and rises out of control because someone hid leaven in it. The perplexing nature of the parable is starting to become clear (or maybe it’s becoming less clear).
Finally, notice that the main character is a woman. Not such a big deal for us today, but 2000 years ago? In essence, Jesus is comparing God to a woman, something in itself, and not only that, but to a woman who does something sneaky, unclean, out of control. That’s who God is, Jesus tells us. In a little parable, just a sentence long, he offers a whole new concept of the kingdom of God: It’s not what you expect. It doesn’t follow the rules. It’s wild. Sneaky. And it’s definitely out of control.
This weekend, Episcopalians across the country are remembering and celebrating some other women, more recent in time, who also were thought to be wild and sneaky and out of control. Forty years ago in Philadelphia, on July 29, 1974, eleven women were ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. Only, the Episcopal Church didn’t yet allow women priests. In fact, twice it had voted down proposals to ordain women—first in 1970, and again in 1973.
Actually, in 1970 the church did vote to allow women deacons. But deacons can’t perform sacramental ministries like celebrating the Eucharist or officiating at weddings and funerals, let alone leading churches, the usual priest stuff. And just as men had for nearly 2000 years, a lot of women and even girls felt that God was calling them to that ministry, too. Only, before 1974, if you were a woman in the Episcopal Church you couldn’t respond to that calling. You were told that the priesthood wasn’t for you, that God couldn’t, or wouldn’t, or didn’t call women to that kind of ministry. Or maybe, you were told to be patient; that things would change in the future. But you had to wait until the men in charge decided that it would be okay to have “girls” or “ladies” join their club.
That is, until those first eleven women, ranging in age from 27 to 79, decided that they had waited long enough. One, in particular, came to the realization that if she believed that God were calling her to this kind of ministry, then it was up to her to claim it for herself, rather than wait for it to be handed to her as a gift, out of the generosity of men’s hearts. Her name was Suzanne Hiatt. Like me, she grew up in Minneapolis. She moved to Massachusetts to attend Radcliffe College, and then in 1961 was one of the first female students at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, long before most Episcopalians thought women should or could be priests. But Sue did.
Sue appeared to be an unlikely revolutionary. I knew her in her last years, when she was one of my seminary professors (she died in 2002, shortly after I graduated), but I understand that she always looked and acted pretty much the same. Her usual wardrobe consisted of cardigan sweater, wool skirt, knee socks and loafers: typical Radcliffe attire, in the 1950s. Sue just never changed. But underneath that conservative exterior was a woman, a Christian, of steely resolve, who believed with every fibre of her being that the Spirit of the Lord was upon her, that God was calling her to be a priest, and that God was calling other women to that ministry as well. I should add that many others agreed—her seminary professors, her rector, and her bishop. They just didn’t know how to make it happen. So, in a soft-spoken but determined way she challenged and stood up to bishops. She refused to back down or take a back seat. Most of all, she refused to believe that women are less able, less equipped, or less human than men. And she was right.
Besides having the heart of priest, Sue was a community organizer. She knew that there is both power and safety in numbers. One person can be sidelined or discounted or shot down. But it’s a lot harder to do that to a group. So, after legislation allowing women priests was voted down in 1970 and again in 1973, she decided it was time for decisive action. Having been ordained a deacon in 1971, one of the first, she contacted other women deacons and liberal bishops to see who would be willing to just go ahead and do it. Although the church had not approved ordaining women, it never said that women couldn’t be ordained. And, Sue noted, people always said that in older English, as in the Prayer Book, when it says “man” or “he” it really means people, without regard to gender. So, that could apply as much to ordination as to anything else.
Well, she found 10 other women deacons willing to go ahead. Finding bishops was harder. Even liberal bishops who believed women should be ordained felt they couldn’t until the church had truly approved, likely afraid that they would be brought to trial for breaking a law—even though there was none—and would lose their jobs and pensions. Eventually, though, three brave retired bishops stepped forward. They had less to lose. And they went ahead and did it. Though, unlike the woman in today’s parable who hides yeast in the flour, the Philadelphia ordinations were not secret. The whole world knew about it. They even bumped Richard Nixon and Watergate from the headlines. Of course people tried to talk them out of it, to be patient that change would come. Others claimed the women were corrupting the church. One protester said the women “could offer up nothing but the sight, sound, and smell of perversion.” But they went ahead, confident that God was calling them to this new thing, confident that the Spirit of the Lord was upon them.
The service, attracting 2,000 people, was held at the massive Church of the Advocate--a largely African-American parish. Although the women being ordained were white, much of their support came from Black Episcopalians active in Civil Rights, who believed that no one is free until all are free. Paul Washington, rector of the parish, was a veteran of the Black Power movement. The preacher was Dr. Charles Willie, Harvard professor and vice president of the House of Deputies, the highest-ranking layman in the church. In his sermon he said, “This shouldn’t be seen as an act of arrogant disobedience. But an act of tender defiance.” Dr. Willie is known to long-time Emmanuel parishioners as the husband of our former organist Mary Sue Willie. The Advocate’s senior warden also had a starring role, leading the procession as the crucifer. Her name is Barbara Harris. Later, of course, she was ordained herself and became our bishop in Massachusetts—the first woman bishop in the world.
I was less than two when the Philadelphia ordinations happened, so I don’t remember all of the excitement. But maybe you do. The event certainly didn’t resolve anything. In fact, the bishops of the Episcopal Church were so angry that they declared the ordinations utterly invalid. But the women wouldn’t accept that ruling, and neither would the 2,000 people who witnessed the event, nor their supporters across the country and the world. So, they acted as priests as often as they could. They celebrated the Eucharist. They preached sermons. People saw them, and more and more became convinced that this new thing was in fact the right thing. It was God’s thing, like the woman in the parable, mixing leaven in the flour so that the whole church could rise.
The next year, in 1975, four more women were ordained in Washington, DC, by another retired bishop, also without permission. When the church’s national convention was held again, in 1976, there were 15 women priests and the threat of more. Fearing further chaos and unrest, and no doubt increasingly convinced that the time was right, the convention finally approved and admitted women to all orders of ministry—as deacons, priests, and as even bishops. Though it would be another 12 years until the smart people of Massachusetts elected Bishop Barbara. Sue Hiatt said that they finally found it harder not to ordain women than to ordain them. She was probably right.
Maybe it all would have happened anyway. Maybe, eventually, the church would have realized that when it comes to gifts, skills, and callings, women are no different from men. Maybe. Then again, if it hadn’t been for visionary and courageous people like those priests in Philadelphia, and the few bishops willing to take a daring risk, maybe we’d still be waiting, just as Christians had waited for the previous 1,974 years. As I said earlier, Sue Hiatt was one of my seminary professors, as were Carter Heyward and Alison Cheek, two of the other priests ordained that day in Philadelphia. I am who I am because of them. And I know that others trained by them feel the same, including priests who have served here: Bailey Whitbeck, Steve Ayres, Kay Evans, Libby Berman. Even our bishop-elect Alan Gates. We've all had our ministries shaped by these prophets and pioneers who changed the church. So in a real way, this anniversary, and these prophetic priests, while part of history, are also part of our life and our ministry—the old and ever new Body of Christ that I, and we, try to live into each and everyday.
I thought I’d close with a reflection by Sue Hiatt, the informal “bishop to the women” on the transformation that she and the Philadelphia Eleven brought to the Episcopal Church. She wrote: “In retrospect, to have been ordained ‘irregularly’ is the only way for women to have done it. Our ordination was on our terms, not the church’s terms. We saw ourselves as deacons proceeding in obedience to the insistence of the Holy Spirit that the step be taken for the integrity of the church. Women were able, through much pain and hard work and witnessing, to bring bishops and clergy and laity to share our vision of a church in which (as the banner hanging on the altar at the Church of the Advocate that morning read) ‘In Christ there is neither male nor female, bond nor free, Jew nor Gentile—We are one’.”
Like the woman in Jesus’ parable, women we know today, lay and ordained, are transforming the church from the inside out—giving it, giving us, life and vibrancy, mixing or even hiding yeast, so that we all are leavened, and grow, out of control, beyond even our wildest imagining. Thanks be to God. Amen.