Phoebe, Bethan and Margaret
Readings: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Romans 16:1-2, 25-27
Happy New Year’s Eve all! Some of you might well be thinking that Phil has finally lost the plot whilst others we have realized that I’m referring to the Church Year which officially starts next Sunday when we’ll be reaffirming our commitment to God’s kingdom of justice and peace in our Amnesty Service. And if next Sunday marks the beginning of advent, the beginning of the new church year, then that makes this Sunday our New Year’s Eve, traditionally a time to pause and reflect on all the events of the past 12 months. Whilst in this community, there would be much to celebrate that’s happened over the previous year – baptisms and weddings, the welcoming of friends from Glyncoch, Porth, even Syria, the peace exhibition and an Abba-solutely amazing Christian Aid fundraiser – but 2016 won’t be remembered as a year replete with good news in the international arena. “I’m calling it early,” one TV presenter said this week, “2016 has been the…worst,” and with that, he blew it up!
In the context of ongoing conflicts, refugee crises and growing political turmoil our lighting of the black candle and it’s reminder that God is with us in the darkness, that dark and light are one with God, seems particularly apposite.
Yet as we acknowledge the St David’s Uniting tradition of Black Candle Sunday, for many of our sisters and brothers around the world, the last Sunday of the Church year is associated with other celebrations. Many Anglicans know today as ‘Stir Up Sunday’ – the term coming from the collect of the day – “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people”; whilst many other churches will be celebrating Christ the King Sunday, when the radical reign and contrary kingdom of Christ is preached. Then there’s our friends in the Lutheran Church of Sweden who today celebrate Domssoendagen – the wonderfully nicknamed ‘Sunday of Doom’ as they reflect on the last judgment at Christ’s second coming.
So black candles and kings, stirring up and dooming down, all on a day when we are celebrating the ordination of Bethan and Margaret as elders of this church! I must confess that when we arranged to ordain Bethan and Margaret today, it was more to do with gaps in diaries than with an eye to wider church celebrations and I certainly hope that when looking back on the day of your ordination as elder that you won’t always refer to it as ‘that Sunday of Doom’!
Although, some might say that today is a fitting day to be ordained as elder for black candles and kings and doom all carry rather severe, rather gloomy, rather male connotations and for a lot of people ‘gloomy, severe and male’ would be words they might associate with the eldership!
I’m told that this picture, taken from the classic ‘How Green Was My Valley’, in which the elders are portrayed as old men with white hair, fierce tongues and judging eyes, might well have been true to the experience of many. So what on Earth are we doing ordaining two women…one of whom is young enough to be the granddaughter of many of us?
Well, in a month in which America failed to elect its first female President but in which Wales did welcome its first female Bishop, I thought it would be appropriate for us to turn to one of our foremothers for guidance – a woman who enjoys a non-speaking cameo in one of Paul’s letters but in whose brief description we might glean some light on the nature of eldership; a woman named Phoebe:
“I commend to you our sister Phoebe,” Paul declares at the end of his letter to the Romans and with these seven words, we are reminded of the radical nature of the gospel. You see, Paul may not always be read as the most obvious example of an equal rights advocate but here we see him call Phoebe his sister, an acknowledgement of their equality and shared identity as beloved children of God. And Paul didn’t simply honour Phoebe with his words but in his actions too as his commendation of Phoebe in this way suggests that she was the letter-carrier to the Roman church. It was Phoebe who was entrusted with the dangerous task of taking the good news of Jesus Christ to the Romans. And the letter-bearer would normally be the one to read the letter to the recipients and explain its content. So Paul is essentially saying to his friends in Rome, ‘Welcome this extraordinary woman who is going to read and interpret scripture for you and if you have any questions – ask Phoebe!’
Today, perhaps, the scandalous nature of this might be somewhat obscured for we freely celebrate the female elders and Moderators in our midst and yet, even now, millions of women and girls around the world are being told that they are not of equal worth to men – as our Masai sister Helen reminded us just a month ago when she shared her tales of girls being sold for cows in her homeland. Well today, we joyfully ordain Bethan and Margaret, not in spite of who they are but because of it! Because God has created them, called them and delights in them as sisters of Christ and women of God.
The good news of God’s love for all creation isn’t to be guarded by guys or judged by genitals – it is for all – male and female, Jew and Greek, slave, free, black, white, straight, gay, old, young, Welsh, Japanese, even English! For in Jesus, God’s love was shown to noisy children, tree-climbing tax-collectors and foreign soldiers; it was shown in temples and taverns, at baptisms and weddings and funerals; it was witnessed in the breaking of bread with those who would betray, deny or abandon him, in the offering of hope to a criminal on a cross, in a display of risen glory to a woman in a garden. This was the good news that Phoebe carried to Rome. This is the good news that we commend you, Bethan and Margaret, to carry, speak and share wherever your path will take you.
Paul continues; “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae…” And with the word servant, Paul opens a theological can of worms for the word translated as servant here comes from the Greek word diakonos which, in other contexts, is translated as deacon or even minister. It’s a word whose meaning was vehemently fought over down the centuries as the Church spent far too much time debating whether women could be ministers. We’ll save such discussions and our justification of and joy in female ministers for another day as for now, it’s sufficient to note that Phoebe was recognized as a servant of the church and this too, is what our elders are called to be. Far from being the austere looking individuals whose main function seemed to be to sit at the front, viewing the minister with disdain and ready to call out unruly members, the elders today serve and bless our community through giving their time, energy and gifts to the church. It’s not just, of course, elders who do this but in our election and ordination of elders we are giving a public and prayerful affirmation of their call to be servant-leaders of this community, overseeing our worship and encouraging our witness. And I’m sure Margaret and Bethan will be pleased to be reminded that they don’t do this alone, as we return to Paul…
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for God’s people, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a great support to many and to me as well.
Wow! For Paul to admit that he needs some support is perhaps a minor miracle in itself for he was not known for his humility…and yet there stands Phoebe – a supporter of many including of him. The same can most definitely be said of Margaret and Bethan. Through Margaret’s kindness, warmth and faithful work with our premises users and home group she has been a great support to many, including to me; through Bethan’s creativity, enthusiasm and inspired work with kids’ club, she has been a great support to many, including to me and they will continue to be supportive…you will be continue to supportive, right?!..they will continue to be supportive but they too will need your support. They will need you love, encouragement and prayers.
‘Help Phoebe in whatever she may require from you,’ Paul told the Roman church. Well, ‘help our soon to be ordained elders, Margaret and Bethan, in whatever they may require from you’, I ask you, for elders do not serve in isolation but through community. Paul, for all his foibles, was well aware of this. In our reading today we hear him commend Phoebe but by the end of the chapter, he’s mentioned thirty two other Christians by name whose faith he commends and whose greeting he gives. Whether you’re here for the first time or have been an elder for decades, you are a welcomed sister or brother, called to be a servant of the church and supporter of many, created by God, enlivened by the Spirit and transformed through Christ.
Today then, as promises are said, prayers are prayed and hands are laid, we remember the example of Phoebe a sister, a servant, a supporter to many and, finally, one whose very name might be an encouragement for us for Phoebe means ‘bright and shining’ or ‘radiant as the moon’. [click] Just this week, as photographs of the so-called supermoon were splashed across television screens and newspaper pages, we were reminded of the wonder and luminescence of the moon – of a radiance that makes the most difference and is all the more beautiful and illuminating the darker the sky around it. I wonder, then, if Phoebe shone with a light that the darkness could not overcome. I wonder, once again, if on a day of black candles and doom, in a year of bad news and gloom, we might all need to shine brighter with the light of Christ in our serving, our supporting, our loving of sister and brother.
Today then, we ordain Margaret and Bethan to be elders of the church, envoys of good news and bearers of the light and so, Moderators, members and friends, let me commend to you our sisters Margaret and Bethan, servants of the church at Pontypridd, 2 so that you may welcome them in the Lord as is fitting for God’s people, and help them in whatever they may require from you, for they have been a great support to many and to me as well. Thanks be to God. Amen.