For unnamed women

Following is a sermon I wrote for my “Women’s Ways of Preaching” class in the aural/oral style (hence the line breaks).  The assignment was to write a sermon about a historical woman whose story challenges and/or informs our call to preach.  It was a powerful experience to sit in class, go through the centuries, and have the names of so many women lifted up: the apostle Junia, Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of God, the 10 (ten!) women Paul greets in the first 16 verses of his letter to the Romans, Perpetua, Felicity, the mothers of Constantine and Augustine, Brigid, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard von Bingen, Katharine von Bora…I am forgetting at least a dozen that were named in class!  There are SO many mothers of our faith, women whose theological insights, pastoral vocations, and wisdom just went right ahead and embodied preaching, even when they were forbidden from entering the pulpit themselves.  Katharina Zell, a 16th century Strasbourg reformer, puts it nicely, when in response to a preacher who accused her of “disturbing the peace” when she criticized him for speaking harshly of another reformer:

Do you call this disturbing the peace, that instead of spending my time in frivolous amusements I have visited the plague-infested and carried out the dead? I have visited those in prison and under sentence of death. Often for three days and three nights I have neither eaten nor slept. I have never mounted the pulpit, but I have done more than any minister in visiting those in misery.

These are women whose names can and should be remembered, shouted from the rooftops, even!  But as I set about writing the assignment, I found my mind and heart turning to the women whose names I didn’t know.  This is what I wrote:

I don’t know the names

Of the women who most challenge and inspire me.

No one thought they were important enough to write down.

They are the women who made beautiful tapestries of religious scenes,

Gorgeous art to which they never signed their names.

“Adoration of the Magi,” Hall of Tapestry, Vatican Museum. Artist unknown.

The young domestic servant who found time between chores to write an anonymous poem

Lord of all pots and pans,”

Forging domestic service into spiritual discipline.

“Although I must have Martha’s hands, I have a Mary mind,” she wrote.

How many other women have been like that?

Thousands of unnamed Bible women, missionaries’ wives, nuns, housewives, mothers, sisters, daughters,

Lily Vikner teaching a class of Chinese women c. 1914-1927. Note the bound feet. Photo part of a short ELCA slideshow entitled “It didn’t all begin with ordination.”

All the strong, spiritual, organizing women

Who quietly held the Church together with love and labor

While patriarchs assembled doctrines like Ikea furniture.

I don’t know these women’s names,

But I think of them often

When I read the story of the Church’s life and wonder:

How many women’s names shall I read between the lines of Origen,

Or Augustine, or Popes, or Paul?

For their names lie between the lines of my life, too,

Calling me to speak unspoken stories.

Missionary Gertruth Kettner with Indian Bible women, 1956. Bible women were natives educated by missionaries, without whom the missionaries would not have been able to bring the Word of God to those they came to serve. The names of these women are not known. Photo (c) ELCA archives.

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