Sermon May 12  The Early Church Mothers                                    Rev. Betsy Hogan

Have you ever actually sat down and read the Book of Numbers in the Bible?

It's the fourth book of the Bible -- the fourth of the five books of the Jewish Torah, the books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, NUMBERS, Deuteronomy --

And if it's famous for anything, at least for Christians if not for Jews, what it's probably most famous for, the book of Numbers, is for being the book that... whenever anyone has a plan that they're going to read the whole Bible from start to finish?

It's probably when they reach the book of Numbers that the whole plan sort of falls apart. 

We hit those long long lists of "this one begot that one begot the other one" and "this fellow son of that fellow son of the other fellow" -- and where they all came from and who they're all related to, and we can't pronounce any of it --

Until finally that plan to read the whole Bible from start to finish seems like a better idea in theory than in practice, and all we can think is Why.

Why on earth was what amounts to, quite literally, a census -- numbers -- of who-all wandered through the wilderness with Moses and the genealogy of who-all landed eventually in the Promised Land, become one of the sacred books of the Torah? What on earth was meant to be the point?

Or to ask of such passages in Numbers the questions we ought to be able to ask of ANY part of the Bible, and have there be a useful answer...

What do they tell us about God? What do they tell us about Humanity? What do they tell us about what God wants for Humanity? Anything? What's the point?

It probably won't surprise you that I think there IS a point -- though I'd be the first one to admit that as scripture passages go, the point of the long long lists of names is probably not at the top of the list of important points, compared to other passages of the Bible --

But there IS a point, and it's actually pretty straight-forward. What do the lists of names convey to us about God, about humanity, about the relationship between God and humanity? Just, quite simply, that God is now and has always been intimately and specifically and recordably in relationship with this one and that one and the other one, over the long course of history. 

That it's not just "You will be my people and I will be your God" in a sort of nebulous vague kind of eternal way, but instead that THIS fellow was my person and THAT fellow was my person, and the other fellow BEFORE them was my person, all through history, one by one, and each one, in his own time and context in the grand scheme of things, specifically -- each one was my person and I was his God, says God.

At each specific moment in history, God was directly in relationship with each of God's people. That's what's being conveyed in the census-like lists of the book of Numbers. That's what the point is. God's connection to God's people isn't just sort of vaguely eternal -- it's completely grounded in the specific, person by person through recordable history.

Like I said, it may not sound like a hugely important point. But what it does for us now as people of faith is it places us as just the latest layer, if you will, of the foundation on which we stand of all those faithful people who went before. Each of whom, at a particular moment in history, stood on the foundation of those who went before them.

Not just the superstars whose faithfulness was an inspiration, who led vast movements for justice or left behind them a legacy of writings or built institutions of caring, but all those ordinary people who just... lived faithfully within their own spheres.

It's a way of thinking about faithfulness and connection to God that isn't just individual and now, but instead is deeply grounded in and inspired by what's been done by and said by and learned from all the unfolding-through-history people behind us.

Which brings us, at long last I'm sure you're thinking, to the passage from the Apostle Paul's letter to the Apostle Timothy that Beverley read for us earlier.

Because it's a very nice and tidy example of the way in which Paul would often begin or end his letters to colleagues or churches during those first years of spreading the gospel. With greetings:

"Greetings to you, Timothy, my beloved child." It's how Paul often begins his letters -- greetings to you, my dear friends in Christ, I've been thinking about you while I've been away.

And then at the end of his letters, sort of his final words, a similar kind of thing. Only at the end, of course, it's more like "oh, and before I sign off, greetings to so-and-so and greetings to so-and-so also, I've been thinking about them too".

It was a bit like Paul's version of the magic mirror thing on Romper Room: "I send greetings to Asyncritis, Ampliatus, Philologus, Epaenetus, Aristobolus, Phlegon, Tryphaena" -- et cetera.

And I really do mean et cetera. Because that list is taken from the final chapter of his letter to the Romans, and it's actually only about half the list of people Paul sends greetings to. His lists really are sometimes pretty close to those endless lists from the book of Numbers. And they're meaningful in exactly the same way -- God's connection to God's people isn't just sort of vaguely eternal, it's specific. In time: person by person through recordable history.

But Paul's lists of greetings are meaningful in one other important way, in his various letters in the New Testament. Because in that last chapter of Romans, just again as an example, about a third of those greetings from Paul are actually to women. Like Timothy's mother Lois and grandmother Eunice -- leaders, workers, the Early Church Mothers.

Greet Phoebe, he says, a deacon in the church in Cenchreae.
Greet Priscilla, who works with me in Christ Jesus and who risked her neck for my life.
Greet Mary, who has worked very hard among you.
And Junia, who was with Christ before I was and is prominent amongst the apostles.
Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa, 
Greet Rufus and his mother, Nereus and his sister, workers in the Lord;
And Julia, and all the saints who are with her.

If these seemingly irrelevant lists of names, all Paul's greetings in his various letters, like the endless lists of who begat whom in the book of Numbers, are actually meant to be meaningful, in the sense of grounding us in the historical specificity of how the foundation on which we stand as people of faith has been built --

Then I think it's pretty important for us to hear these names of all these women. Whose contribution to the early church communities was obviously, to Paul at least, really significant. Without whom, in fact, some of those early church communities might never have begun and certainly wouldn't have thrived.

It's probably not new information -- it may not be for us surprising information -- but if sometimes we imagine that our willingness now to recognize the valid contribution of ALL God's people to the life of the faith community, as elders, as leaders, as preachers --

If sometimes we imagine that our openness now is something new we've finally gotten our heads around, presumably due to the hard work of the Holy Spirit --

The reality is that in fact that's the way it all started. When Paul toodled around the Mediterranean lands, preaching the good news, and cottoning on to who in each particular town or village could possibly be central to gathering the faithful together to become a living community of faith -- he really didn't care if they were men or women, or in the case of the Ethiopan eunuch baptized into leadership by Philip, neither or both. And as a result, they were all of the above. Just working together, building communities of faithful service.

It was crazy counter-cultural -- that's why it didn't last. It was threateningly counter-cultural -- and that's why it didn't take long to get squashed under a mountain of writing by the gentlemen of the third and fourth centuries who are traditionally called the Early Church Fathers. Origen, Tertullian, Irenaeus, Augustine -- notable theologians all, if also notable for a particular perspective on the value of women to humanity in general and the church in particular.

But at the beginning, when the communities of followers of Jesus' Way were first establishing themselves in fellowship and in service around southern Europe and northern Africa and into Asia, the REAL early church fathers, who laid the foundation on which we stand, did so... with early church mothers. They did it together. Timothy, John, James, Phoebe, Priscilla, Lydia, Mary. 

The community they built together was one in which Paul knew that if Timothy was strong in faith it was because his mother Lois and his grandmother Eunice were strong in faith -- and their example built who he became not just for himself but for others. They were early church mothers not just for Timothy, but for everyone who came after him.

This is the foundation on which we live as people of faith. Real people, counter-cultural, a fully inclusive community. Real people, who -- if we've ever struggled, if we've ever been frustrated or crashed into a wall of aggravation, if we've ever prayed desperately or found we couldn't pray at all --

There's nothing new under the sun. They got through, they made a difference however small, these mothers and fathers before us, and just like them, God has given us not a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of courage.

It’s been handed down, and it matters. This week I heard about the teenaged daughter of one of my colleagues, a minister in Calgary. A quiet girl, quite shy, good student, she’s long been involved with the Air Cadets. And suddenly she’s in trouble at school, and her parents are called in by the administration, and it’s quite a thing.

It turns out that with the recent Alberta legislation governing schools, she was worrying about her friends who are trans and gay and non-binary. So with them, she made basically a gay-straight alliance group, so there’d be support and protection. Now she’s taking a hit from other students, now she’s taking a hit from the school administration.

And it is not fun, and it is not good, and it should not be something that’s required in this day and age, but she’s standing on the shoulders of all those who’ve gone before. A community of faith stretching back two thousand years into counter-culture fully inclusive faithfulness. Eunice and Lois and Timothy.

God has given us not a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of courage. It’s been handed down, and it matters.

Thanks be to God. Amen.