The Old Testament scripture for this morning’s worship comes from the book of Ruth, Chapter 1, beginning with verse 7.
So Naomi set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother's house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the LORD has turned against me." Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. So she said, "See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law." But Ruth said, "Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her. So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem.
We love this story don’t we? Ruth is a very important woman in the Old Testament. She would become the mother of Obed, the grandmother of Jesse and the great-grandmother to David. Ruth is very present in the lineage of Joseph—that very lineage that would send Joseph and Mary one day to Bethlehem.
This lovely story of the devotion between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. This devotion across generations. Two women from different communities sticking together. The gift they bring of companionship, trust, faith and mutual support.
Oh, yes, Ruth and Naomi could easily receive honorary life memberships from Presbyterian Women! They are what we’re all about—community and support. Just like our Presbyterian foremothers who worked together.
Presbyterian Women, much like Ruth and Naomi, had very humble beginnings. Depending on which stream of the denomination you follow, Presbyterian Women had its beginnings as missionary, tract, Bible, ladies’ aid or cent societies.
The first known organized mission society was in 1803 in Newark, New Jersey. The formation of the organization was in response in part to the church’s admonition that women were forbidden to “speak, or pray in promiscuous (i.e., male and female) assemblies.” But Presbyterian women had heard a call to serve and were determined to find a way to do so. Our foremothers knew that they could make a difference. And like Ruth and Naomi, they made that difference with faith and trust in each other. Like Ruth and Naomi, PW was founded out of a sense of mutual support. Sharing gifts of leadership in mission and becoming voices for the voiceless. Our foremothers who are key to the lineage of women serving in the Presbyterian Church.
But let’s be clear, just as there are so many gifted women present today and in this community, the Bible is full of these women as well—some named and some unnamed. And I consider all of them to be foremothers of Presbyterian Women.
What about Lydia? Not much is actually known about her, and she utters exactly 17 words in Acts 16. We do know that as Paul, Silas and Timothy are traveling, they stop in Macedonia, on what is now part of the European continent. Lydia becomes the first convert. She is the first European convert to Christianity. And quickly her whole household is baptized as well. But what is of greater importance is Lydia’s gift of generosity upon her conversion. Lydia immediately offers her home to the evangelists.
In her time, she would not be offered a role of leadership or even voice, but this faithful woman becomes a benefactor.
Ah, yes! Another early Presbyterian woman. Just like our foremothers in their cent societies, early Presbyterian women groups would always financially support the work of the church, even while being silenced and denied leadership.
From early Presbyterian church histories, we know that pastors, who of course were male, suggested that the president of a women’s group should have a loud voice and the secretary should have good handwriting. In many groups, a male minister or elder was present to open the meeting with prayer since “no one knew what they would pray for if left alone.” The women in their groups very quickly became valued—if not for their voices, at least for the sacrificial giving that they pledged to fund their mission work.
Our Presbyterian foremothers supported hospitals and schools, missionaries and evangelists through their cent societies. Records show that it was due solely to second-mile contributions from women that the mission work of the UPCNA remained solvent. In fact, women’s giving has been a constant throughout the denomination’s history—supporting the work of the denomination and women’s projects even during the Great Depression.
In 2009, representatives from Yodogawa Christian Hospital in Osaka, Japan, came to church headquarters in Louisville to present a $208,577 gift to PC(USA)’s Asian mission. Yodogawa was choosing to pay forward the same amount that had been given to them from Presbyterian Women’s Birthday Offering grant in 1956 to establish an initial 76-bed hospital in Japan. That 76-bed hospital has become the largest medical center in the region.
Lydia’s gift of generosity to the early church is seen over and over again with the continued second-mile giving of Presbyterian Women in support of the church.
And then there are the gifts from women who did not seek recognition or earn the inclusion of their name but remain unnamed. We have to look no further than the gospels of Mark and Matthew and the unnamed gentile woman. Do you recall the story of the woman who pesters Jesus and the disciples? The one who so wants Jesus to heal her daughter, said to be possessed by demons. She is an outsider who dares to shout out: “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!” She’s rebuked harshly by Jesus: “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs!”
But then this unnamed woman does something remarkable—and this is what I think makes her an honorary Presbyterian woman. She finds her voice and challenges Jesus: “Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table”
Jesus—you have to imagine a fairly stunned Jesus. After all, even his male disciples weren’t prone to questioning him so outrageously—responds, “What great faith you have. Let it be done for you as you wish.”
Oh, yes, I like this woman. She is so much like our Presbyterian foremothers. The ones who had voices for the voiceless. The women who fought for voice and leadership in the church. The abolitionists and suffragists. The women who added prophetic voices to the denomination by advocating against child labor, on behalf of immigrants and Native Americans. The Presbyterian women who were early voices on behalf of domestic violence victims. The women who overtured the denomination in 1974 to make hunger a priority for mission, forming the Hunger Program of this very denomination.
In 1962, Robert Kennedy held a summit for national leaders in the East Room of the White House. At that meeting, he would unveil what would become the Civil Rights Act. Can you guess who was one of the invited leaders? The president of United Presbyterian Women!
The unnamed women in our churches who continue to provide a voice for the voiceless. The named and unnamed women in our midst who, like the gentile woman, challenge the norms and make us uncomfortable. The women who persist in seeking justice. And just like the gentile woman, they don’t offer their gifts for recognition for themselves but in glory to God.
Finally, we have the Marys—Mary, the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the sister of Lazarus and Martha. We know they were truly Presbyterian women. The strength and faithfulness of the so very young mother who does not challenge what has happened, but instead embraces the role and obligation that has been thrust on her. Isn’t she much like so many of the women in our communities and in our past who have answered their own calls to serve?
Consider Donaldina Cameron, a Presbyterian foremother. In 1895, Donaldina Cameron went to San Francisco to donate her time as a teacher at the Occidental Mission House for Girls. It was a safe haven established to help young Asian women escape the threat of trafficking into prostitution and servitude. That was, unfortunately, very prevalent in the community. Donaldina went intending to stay a year. She stayed for 40. With her leadership and the support of her Presbyterian women sisters, Donaldina grew the mission house into a multiservice agency serving Asian immigrants. It is now known as Cameron House.
And then there’s Mary, the sister to Martha. It’s really easy to see how Martha would be an honorary life member of Presbyterian Women. After all, she’s in the kitchen, working away while Mary, much to Martha’s dismay, choses to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen, nurturing her faith and, you can imagine, the faith of her family and community by listening and learning. This foremother of Presbyterian women would certainly be a circle leader today.
And Mary Magdalene. Biblical scholars will always debate her background. What was her profession before she met Jesus? Does it matter? There’s a story (and I hope it’s true) about a biblical scholar who offered as rationale for keeping women voiceless in church, “Women were the last created and the first to sin.” To which someone is said to have replied, “Yet women were also the last at the cross and the first at the tomb.” That is the gift of Mary Magdalene. Her faithfulness to her Lord. Is not that something that we recognize as present in all the gifts from women in this community?
And so finally, back to Ruth and Naomi on the road to Bethlehem. I think there’s another Presbyterian woman present on that road—Orpah. Not much is known about Orpah or what becomes of her.
Let’s consider Orpah. She’s the daughter-in-law who initially accompanies Naomi, just as Ruth does, but when the time comes—and I imagine them at a fork in the road—Orpah chooses to return to her family. She chooses another path.
And so, this is why I lift up Orpah, especially as we celebrate the gifts of women. Orpah chooses another path, and Ruth and Naomi do not shame her. Nor does she beg Ruth to accompany her and choose her path. In fact, Orpah is doing exactly as Naomi has asked. These three women traveling together come to a fork in the road, and separately they make decisions about where they will go next. As a community of women, the gift they offer each other is the freedom to make those choices, to answer their individual calls.
These past three years as your moderator have provided me opportunities to recognize and be a recipient of so many of the gifts of Presbyterian women today. I would offer you that the gifts of support in each of our choices, the freedom to be in community but not the same, to be different in our structure, our priorities and even how we choose to express our faith, is the greatest gift that we as Presbyterian women offer each other. As the organization matures, adapts and hopefully grows with the denomination, the gifts that women have been always brought—our earthly gifts, our prophetic voices, our faithfulness and service—we bring to each other and our communities the same gifts seen on that road to Bethlehem among those three women—trust, faith and freedom.
I want to thank you for the opportunity to have served as your moderator. And I challenge you today and always to embrace and share the gifts that you have received as you welcome the gifts of those around you.