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Longer Tables, Shorter Walls: Every Gender Belongs

Rev. Riana Shaw Robinson

Riana Shaw Robinson is a pastor, preacher, antiracist facilitator, and community builder in Oakland, California.

Delivered to San Francisco City Church, July 17, 2022.

Come, Ye Thankful People, Come, acrylic and ink on wood, Jennifer Bunge

Acts 16:13–19

About two years ago, I got ordained. My ordination service happened in the height of
COVID. Everything was on Zoom. It was all women. When I say all women, I mean like, only women. Women were the elders. Women were the musicians. We had somebody who was dancing as a part of it. The leader and preacher were women. I gathered all of the women from the classis as ministers of Word and Sacrament. I knew that as I was stepping into this new thing—stepping into this new vocation—I needed midwives, and I needed mamas to be the ones who would help me take this step.

It was doulas, midwives, teachers, and sisters who supported me on the long and isolating journey to becoming a pastor.

Women that knew the awkward glances when you walk into a room of men who are bold enough to ask if you’re lost or if you can grab them a cup of coffee. Women familiar with questions about whether you are the pastor’s wife. Women who had practiced timing a sermon so there would be time to nurse a baby between services. Women who told the truth but learned how to soften the blows for those that weren’t ready to hear it. Women who knew the joy of being a role model to all of our daughters and the weight of our existence being prophetic witnesses to those that questioned our calls.

I tell you what, it felt like it was spectacular. It was so beautiful and affirming and liberating to be surrounded by my sisters and my mothers and my daughters. I needed the strength of these women knowing that the spaces that I would step into as a pastor would not always be so affirming and welcoming.

Like my ordination, this passage shows us that God uses multiple expressions of womanhood and femininity to embody the good news of liberation. Paul is blessed by women in this passage. Without the women, Paul and his boy gang would not have been able to fulfill their call to preach in Macedonia. Without women, ministries cannot thrive.

Worshiping women blessed Paul with WELCOME. Faithful women gave him the opportunity to share in the space they had carved out for themselves. Let’s start at the beginning of the first way that Paul was blessed in this passage. Paul and his disciples make their way into the city and say, “We’re pretty sure that there’s a community of people worshiping by the water. Let’s go there.”

I will offer grace to Paul and believe that he showed up in a space full of women and said, “First, let me hear you before I tell you how it’s done, or what it shouldn’t be, or what you didn’t know you already knew.” So, we’re going to pretend that Paul listened first. When he listened, he heard the stories of these women. He learned from them what it meant to create a space when you were not welcomed in other spaces. Paul learned what community looked like from these women who gathered and cared for each other, loved each other, preached the gospel, and worshiped.

I really hope that he brought some food to share or offered to clean up after. If Paul listened well, I know the women would tell him about the ins and outs of the city, who to talk to and who to be cautious of. These women would tell Paul all the ways that God was already at work in the city.

I don’t know if Paul fully grasped the gift of these women. But these worshiping women had deep wisdom about how to survive in a hostile world and worship anyhow. I really hope Paul, Timothy, and Silas listened to the worshiping women.

Lydia blessed Paul with RECIPROCITY. Like any woman that is explicitly named in Scripture, folks have a lot to say about Lydia. Lydia was a boss. Not even a girl boss. She was just a boss. She was a businesswoman. She was in charge of her household. She ticked that box on her taxes. She was also an immigrant. Lydia was a woman from a different city who had somehow come into a new city and made her space. She held her own and became a leader in a worshiping community. Many say that she was the first European convert. Lydia was a boss and amazing in so many ways. And you know what she offered Paul? She blessed him with reciprocity.

Some people hated Paul. Some people fawned over Paul. Lydia invited Paul to see her as someone, as a woman, who could bless him. First, she invites Paul to recognize and name her faithfulness. Then, Lydia invites Paul to be blessed by her hospitality. Lydia helped Paul to see that she had something to offer to the ministry. Paul wouldn’t have survived without the women. I hope while he was staying in her home, Paul was still listening to Lydia.

A commitment to reciprocity challenges our savior complexes. Do we put on our ally shirt but refuse to acknowledge the work that has already been done? Do we show up in places poised to give and save? Are we willing to be blessed by those who, not too long ago, ignored, dismissed, or straight-up oppressed?

Let me tell you about a time when reciprocity knocked me on my holy rear end. I was going out in East Oakland for a night walk to engage with women who are victims of human trafficking. The walks are done with an amazing group called Love Never Fails. We just walked. We said hello. We asked people’s names. We offered water and hand sanitizer. I’m not going to lie, I was afraid and unsure. We had our first encounter. There were two young women, probably about the age of my daughter who was in her twenties, and they were climbing out of a van in outfits that were not conducive to the cold weather.

I went to the women and said, “I want to let you know God loves you so much.” And you know what she said to me? She goes, “Oh, I know.” She asks, “Can I sing a song for you?” This woman belts out at the top of her lungs “Oh, how he loves me. He is jealous for me.” She is singing so loud the people on the other side of the block were listening. We were weeping and we were crying because we thought we were going to tell her something about God. And in that moment, God said with her song, “Oh, you didn’t realize you were coming to be blessed by her.”

The unnamed slave girl blessed Paul with TRUTH. I had a visceral reaction when I got to this part of the text. We go from these powerful moments of Paul listening and receiving the wisdom and hospitality of women, to Paul silencing a young girl. A girl who was already marginalized in so many ways. A girl who was speaking the truth. “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.”

The text says that Paul was annoyed.

In Matthew 16, when Peter declares that Jesus is the Christ, Jesus acknowledges that certain truths only come from the Lord.

The unnamed slave girl spoke the truth. But she was too loud. Too poor. Too female. Too annoying. So Paul silenced her. Some commentaries suggest that Paul liberated the unnamed female slave from demonic possession. That has been a convenient narrative to dismiss, ignore, and silence faithful women who are too loud.

The text doesn’t say that Paul liberated her from the people who owned her. Paul “liberated” the unnamed slave girl from the little bit of agency and power that she had, but he was not committed to her freedom.

I’m sure that no one in this room would say that women shouldn’t preach or lead. We all believe that women’s voices are necessary. Some of us might even have a shirt that says feminist. But are we willing to acknowledge that we still carry baggage around who is the right type of woman? Can we pause for a moment as we may pat ourselves on the backs? Can we be honest that we are still looking for the right type of woman? We want the Lydias. We want the women who have it all together. We want the women who can make a significant contribution to the ministry. We want the women who are available when things go bad. Can we listen to the slave girl? Can we listen to the woman who’s too loud and too poor and too anything else?

That question took me to a famous speech by the formerly enslaved abolitionist Sojourner Truth. There’s an entire speech in which she asked over and over and over, “Ain’t I a woman?” In response to a man who said women should be helped into carriages and over mud puddles, she was saying, “What about me?” In response to a man who said women should be fertile, she was saying, “What about me and my children?” In response to a man who said women should be strong, she was like, “Let me show you that I can be strong.” She worked as hard as a man and bore thirteen children, and yet she had to ask over and over and over, “Ain’t I a woman who should be protected, should be listened to, should be cared for, and honored?”

Her final words in that speech speaks to the power of women.

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it; the men better let them.

Are we seeking out the women who have built communities of faith on the margins? Or, do we ask them to clean up before coming to our churches and volunteering with the children’s ministry? Are we acknowledging the holy wisdom of the women who clean our hotel rooms or take care of our children? Are we able to hear the truth from our family who were assigned female at birth but don’t fit into certain molds of femininity? Are we listening to our trans sisters when they tell us that they are afraid? Are we screaming their names when the news would seek to forget them?

We may have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.

God shows us in this passage and throughout Scripture that all women are the right type of women. I’m gonna say that again. God says that all women are the right type of women. The very old women who people have dismissed as being barren. Those are the right type of women to make way for the Lord. The little girls, the young women with no agency. That’s the one that God chose to bring Jesus into this world. The hard-core warrior women who are willing to do the dirty work that other people are afraid to do. The women who are willing to lead. The women who bless the babies at the temple. The women who showed up in resistance to Pharaoh and said I will not kill these babies. Throughout Scripture, God tells us over and over that every woman is the right woman to speak God’s words of liberation, grace, and love.

My prayer for us is that we will believe God, and we will believe women, not just the right ones. Not only will we believe them and welcome them because we’re good at welcoming, but we will create the spaces where women can really belong. And bless the world. And bless the church.

Pray with me.

God, you are good. You are a good mother who lays us down when we’re tired. You are a mother who journeys with us when we are afraid and scared. You are the mother that sets the table and sits us down and feeds us. You are the mother who anoints our head and reminds us of who we were created to be. Would you help us to see you more clearly in the women, the nonbinary fam, and everybody who is expressing and embodying your divine femininity? Amen.

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