Pentecost 2, Year C
Readings: Proverbs 8:1–4, 22–31; Psalm 8; (Romans 5:1–5); John 16:12–15
“Is that for us, or is it going to church?” Women have put monumental effort into UCW activities across the church for fifty-one years. Other supporters include children who smelled the baking, watched it come out of the oven and somehow restrained themselves because this batch, this pie, this cake was going to church. The mission statement of the UCW says the organization is going to “promote love and respect by living generously and giving joyfully to all God’s people.” I am one of those children of UCW members who wanted to raise their hands and ask why generosity couldn’t begin at home. My brothers and I felt we qualified as some of God’s people, but the chief baker in the house had a wider view of things. And of course, it was only jealousy on our part. There was no shortage of baking in our home.
My mother was a lifelong member of the UCW, and her mother before her. So I feel somewhat qualified to speak at a UCW service, even with a childhood history of slight resentment toward the organization. That’s the thing with living generously and giving joyfully, isn’t it? A group makes a good plan at church, and members are enthused about what they can achieve by acting together in the spirit of Christ. It’s going to take effort, though, and that likely means making a choice about time and cookies–church or family, the wider mission of the UCW or one’s more particular responsibilities in the home this evening, this afternoon, this weekend.
The best UCW activity from the point of view of my brothers and myself was the one that involved the whole family–the candy booth at the fair. My mother was an instigator, I think. She knew how to make fudge, and she knew how to organize. She knew where she could round up a few helpers to design, build and set up the booth at the county fair, and maybe even staff it on a Saturday. Plus–we’re still getting to the best part–there were fudge making sessions in the church kitchen. Mothers and older children working together. Sugar and butter and chocolate chips being turned into fudge, pot after pot. Yes, it was all headed for the booth at the fair, but there were always pots to clean out and spoons to lick.
Wisdom was there in the beginning, according to Proverbs, as the Creator measured and poured, stirred and cooked up good things: waters, earth, heavens. A collaborative effort. And to hear Proverbs tell it, it isn’t just water, it isn’t just dirt. All creation is infused with Wisdom, with Spirit, in the Greek: Sophia. Do UCW pies or cakes taste better than other baking? Are they infused with Wisdom, with Spirit? How do we measure the Spirit, discern her presence? How do we know if our fall sale, or tea, or candy sale are somehow promoting love and respect? Bit by bit I came to see Wisdom, to appreciate the Spirit in what the UCW has been up to all these decades. I didn’t discern it right away because organizing things that benefitted other people was just what they did. They made it look easy, natural. They had disagreements and internal struggles, I’m sure–groups always do–but they stayed together, and kept focused on their mission.
The parts I didn’t see as much had to do with the first part of the mission statement: “to love God, to foster Christian faithfulness, spirituality, commitment and devotion.” That part was taking place at their studies, in Presbyterial, in devotions. That was the part where Wisdom was speaking up, to groups of women with books or bibles on their laps, or their heads down in prayer. People got inspired to take on leadership roles for the first time in their lives, take up causes in the community or the world, serve others in surprising ways.
I only heard stories about the Moms and Tots at Waterford United, for instance, because it took place on Tuesday mornings when I was in school. What is there for young mothers on their own in this small town? How will they learn mothering techniques, nutrition, their rights, or just get time to be with one another as new moms as their children played together safely in the other room? We could do that, said the UCW. And they did. Week after week of providing a snack for the mothers and the children, speakers organized, a warm, welcoming environment created. Quiet, prolonged heroism. No muss, no fuss. The satisfaction of loving God by loving others.
What about the patriarchy? Why wasn’t a women’s organization born just as women’s liberation was getting going in 1962 on the front lines? Signs, pickets, sit-ins, no sex boycotts? Some yelling, some demanding action, some headlines, maybe. It’s too soon to judge what has helped to bring about more equality of the sexes in Canadian society, and perhaps it will never be possible to figure out what brought about change. When the UCW got started, many more mothers stayed home with children, there were almost no women ministers, very few women on Official Boards, Church Councils or Boards of Trustees. No woman had ever been President of Conference or Moderator of the United Church.
Did they help change to happen somehow, with their cakes and devotions, generous living and joyful living while other women took to the streets? Here is where we need to look at the last phrase of the mission statement: “to affirm and strengthen ourselves creatively.” To affirm and strengthen ourselves. Creatively. How many women found sisters sympathetic to them when things were not going well at home? How many quiet counseling sessions took place about the husband who disappeared, or drank, or hit? How many women figured out parliamentary processes at UCW meetings, gotten confidence about agendas, and motions and building consensus, skills that made them ready to step into other roles at church as those opened up?
Wisdom raises her voice. The bible is skimpy on the divine feminine. This passage in Proverbs is one of the rare exceptions. Protestants don’t make much of the figure of Mary and we haven’t had convents offering choices for faithful women to offer leadership over the centuries. Devotion to Mary has provided some male-female balance in Catholic churches. Protestants, traditionally, have had a male God, a male saviour, and the somewhat ambiguous figure of the Holy Spirit. What’s a woman to do? The UCW has been a place for many women to find their voice, and raise it.
Wisdom is still raising her voice, but sometimes it is a cry of despair from a ghetto. Sometimes it is a cry of horror from a concentration camp where thousands of girls and women are being raped as part of a plan, a plan of men, during violent conflict. Sometime Wisdom’s cry comes from a part of the world where girls are not offered any education, and have no choice but to become wives and mothers at a young age, household slaves, in effect, with no outlet for their skills, their intelligence, no chance “to affirm and strengthen themselves creatively.” And over the years, there have been numerous UCW initiatives to reach out to other women, oppressed and marginalized women. The ethos, the spirit of the Women’s Missionary Society lingered on, inspiring acts of solidarity and witness.
What can the rest of us say to the UCW on this special day. It is tempting to say, You go girl!, but that seems cheeky somehow. There is a certain dignity to the UCW that we respect. It’s easy to count the cookies or pies going out the door on the way to church. It is a bit more difficult to somehow weigh all this organization has done for others and its own members over half a century. A bit more difficult? It’s impossible. We know that societies are better when girls are treated equally. Fewer babies die, wealth is shared more equally, people live longer. What about churches that are more equal as a sign of the Spirit at work?
We have had women Moderators now, and women in every leadership role in the church. We have worked hard on language, although we’re still swimming in a sea of religious sexism. What does the Spirit of truth, as John’s gospel calls it, have to say to us in this generation? Can we bear it now, two thousand years later? We believe we have a mission, a crucial, life-giving mission, as a congregation of the United Church, but that our passion for equality, inclusiveness, justice and peace is not known in the community.
After church, we get going on a holy conversation about our passion. It will be good. I hope it’s not too comfortable. Wisdom, the Spirit needs voices in our neighbourhood and world. She has plans for this spinning blue planet, plans that will need all of us, men and women, young and old, every colour, every sexuality to dream separately and dream together. And those plans may pull us out of our comfort zones, out into the streets, into a future we cannot predict. Wisdom is raising her voice here. So listen! Listen hard. Listen well. When younger people, younger women start coming out to church, listen. Find out about their lives. Find out their passion, and what they need in order to be fulfilled as children of the Living God, daughters of Wisdom, sisters of Christ. Chances are it won’t look or sound like what we’re used to. The mission of the UCW, the mission of this congregation are beautiful, and there are many, many ways they can come to life, if we can free ourselves to walk and run and dance with Sophia, Wisdom.
United Church WomenMission Statement
Our Mission is to love God, to foster Christian faithfulness, spirituality, commitment and devotion
and to promote love and respect by living generously
and giving joyfully to all God's people
and to affirm and strengthen ourselves creatively