Red Threads and Invisible Women

One of the common things that I hear when people talk to me about women being preachers,  particularly among those new to the idea, is the statement:  “I’ve never seen it.” Sometimes this is a statement meant to express a simple lack of experience, often said with regret. Other times it is meant to make a point – that if women were meant to have such a role, then surely, the argument goes, there would be more examples from history at the ready.

As if not hearing the stories of women means that the stories don’t exist.

As if forgotten voices somehow never spoke at all.

As if we can work with the assumption that history is kind when it comes to remembering women.

As a graduate student studying to prepare for ministry, I wrote a paper about the history of women pastors in my denomination.  For years, I took pride in being able to say that the FIRST woman ordained within our particular baptist family was a woman named Muriel Carder, ordained in 1947.  I knew a lot about this “first” ordained woman.  I had read the minutes of her ordination council!  I knew most of the debate at her ordination council was not about biblical teaching, but about whether she’d be physically able to baptize large men (as well as a heated discussion regarding a comment she’d made about dancing).  I knew that the strength she showed to have her own call validated paved the way for women like me to follow our call.  I knew about our history, or so I thought.

Then last week my husband, who works for our denomination, asked me: “Do you know who the first ordained woman was in our denomination?”

I was offended. “Ah, yeah,” I answered.  “Muriel Carder.”

“I thought so, too,” he said, “but you know what we recently learned? There was a woman named Jennie Johnson who was ordained in 1909 in the United States, and moved to Canada and worked in one of our associations!” Yes, Reverend Carder was the first woman our denomination ordained, but there had been an ordained woman serving decades before her.   

I was thrilled to hear this story, but I was also sad. Where had her story gone?  How had I never found it?  How had it not been shared by now?

And what other stories have we lost?

The sad truth is that women have always been disappearing from history, and that these disappearances happen as much in the Church as anywhere else.  It’s what allows too many to say: “I’ve never seen it,” and to assume that means it never happened. It’s also why we need to tell the stories when we know them – and advent is a wonderful time to do that.  

Advent is the time in the Christian Calendar which leads up to Christmas. It is the time when Christians remember the waiting and the longing of those that yearned for the birth of a Messiah.  As we remember, we often look back at all the pieces of the story that culminated in the birth of Jesus.  And to remember that well, we have to remember the women in the story.   

One of these women was named Rahab.  We meet Rahab when God’s people, who had been wandering in the desert for 40 years, were getting ready to come back to the promised land.  The tricky thing was that there were now other people living in this land.  When they came upon one city, called Jericho, two Israelite spies went inside the town, surrounded by a wall, to assess the situation.  While they were there, they went to the home of, to use the Bible’s terms, a “harlot named Rahab.”  Having heard there were spies in her house, the king sent soldiers to get the spies at Rahab’s home.  But she protected them.  She hid the spies and told the soldiers they had already left.  Why did she do it? She explained to the spies that she believed they followed the true God.  She asked that, in exchange for her protecting them, that they protect her and her family.  They agreed, asking her to hang a scarlet thread in her window so they would know what house to protect when they came back to the city.  When Jericho was later destroyed, Rahab and her family were saved.

There are so many things I like about Rahab I hardly know where to start.  Rahab was clearly a woman who got stuff done.  She hid the men under flax she was drying on her roof, flax that she must have been preparing to sell or use in her home.  She had scarlet thread at hand – likely, many think, she worked making dye as well (most people didn’t have ready access to red thread). This, of course, was besides her work as an innkeeper, and in her, um, other profession.  She was a woman doing what she had to do to care for her loved ones.  Even when asking for protection, she insisted her FAMILY be saved as well. What a woman! 

Rahab had an important role in the story, protecting the spies and God’s people.  And what I really love is that she was never forgotten.  In fact, generations later we read her name again, in the beginning of the story of Jesus which starts with his family line – and says: Salmon was the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.

Jesus, famously was “of the line of David.” That’s right – Rahab was Jesus’ great-great-great, etc. grandma!

I love that in this genealogy Rahab is not skipped, explained away, or hidden behind her husband. I love that in a genealogy in the Bible we see a story: That women matter, that their voices belong, that they count.  That, in the story of God, they are NOT INVISIBLE.  

I preached about Rahab this week, and when we were done, I gave everyone in our church some red thread.  I asked them to write the names of women who were part of their story on a piece of paper attached to those threads and to hang the threads on a branch – because women are in the family tree of Jesus, and they are in the branches of all our stories.  

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As I looked at all those red threads, I felt deeply the need to declare again what I believe to be the work of God: to make visible those who have been made invisible.  To let them stand out like bright red yarn on a brown branch. 

This advent, let’s do it.  Let us be tellers of their stories.

Let us hang the scarlet threads and remember the women woven into our lives.  Let us remember that no woman should be silenced.  Let us acknowledge that women have been speaking even when we haven’t always heard.  Let us allow them to speak.  Let us never say that never having heard a story doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.  Let us keep looking and digging and searching for stories that are lost, and celebrating the stories still being written.

Let us, this advent, remember women in the story, and all the marginalized, forgotten and nameless whose stories we never heard.  And let us, at Christmas, celebrate the miracle of a child born in obscurity – incubated, birthed, and nursed by a woman.

Not forgotten.  Not silenced.  Not invisible. 

Remembered.  Heard. Seen. 

THIS is the word of the Lord – thanks be to God.  

 

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