On the 50th anniversary of the ordination of women in the ELCA.
Revel in Restoration
Luke 4:18-19: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (NRSV)
Greetings to you and peace from our God-who-sees, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Abiding Holy Spirit.
One of the highlights of my ministry has been getting to meet the Rev. Elizabeth Platz, the first Lutheran woman ordained in North America. I had been ordained for only seven months when I headed off to Maryland to attend my first gathering of Lutheran campus ministers. I was so excited to get dedicated time with my colleagues, the other people doing what I was endeavoring to do. And we were gathering in the place that had held Rev. Platz’s call her entire career - the University of Maryland-College Park.
At that gathering, in addition to learning the hows and whys of campus ministry across the decades, the forms, the acronyms, the binders that were this thick, I was being welcomed into a legacy of change-makers and vision casters. I learned that campus ministry raises up leaders both lay and ordained. That campus ministry is positioned at the leading edge of ministry and innovation in our church body, often alerting congregations to changing tides. It was pointed out, not at this conference, but a later one, that Martin Luther himself was a campus pastor.
On the last evening of our conference, at our final worship together, Rev. Platz presided over the Lord’s Supper. As I listened to her speak the words of liturgy and watched her carefully navigate the chancel, I was surprised how moved I was to simply watch her and hear her and be served by her. I realized that she was a member of my cloud of witnesses, of my lineage of faith. I was standing there because she had stood there for 46 years before me.
I knew I’d regret it if I did not get a picture with her and shake her hand. So after worship I went up to Rev. Platz, asked for a picture, and when that was done, I said “It’s so exciting that you spent your career in campus ministry.”
And she kind of chuckled and smirked and said, “Well, they were the only ones who would take me.”
I don’t think I said much by way of reply. The next person moved into position while I fell back. I was dumbstruck by her comment. All week I had been told about how valued and valuable our work is as campus ministers. I thought not only was Rev. Platz ordained, but the church called her to the heart of innovation and leadership development. But she alerted me to another reality: that campus ministry becomes home to our ministers that the church doesn’t necessarily know what to do with. It is a ministry at the fringes. At the fringes you are a bit “out of sight, out of mind.” It is a ministry positioned outward and not inward. As one of my campus ministry colleagues put it, “Begrudgingly, the church made room for a female pastor at the farthest margins of the church.”
It is here that I would like to pick up our text for today. It describes Jesus’ first public act of ministry in the Gospel of Luke. He reads a piece of scripture describing the practice of Jubilee given to the ancient Israelites. As God’s chosen people, every 50 years they were to set captives free, forgive debts, let fields rest, return land that had been sold or leased out in hard times. Basically, every 50 years the Israelites were to rest and reset so no act of injustice could persist and multiply and no stroke of bad luck could permanently impair.
Now, I think the impulse when going through this reading of Jubilee, of God’s liberating promises, is to read them simply as a list of lottery prizes. Like God shows up every 50 years as a part of the Publishers Clearing House Prize Patrol with giant checks of good news for the poor, freedom for captives, and relief for the oppressed. Random giants checks fix things, am I right?
But working through this list, I keep getting tangled up in verse 18 where it says “recovery of sight to the blind,” which is right in the middle of Jesus’ reading. Here’s the thing, yeah, sometimes restoring sight to the blind is just that, healing someone with an injury or ailment, but there are other times in scripture when blindness is used to describe a lack of understanding or perception or faith.
It is that promise, to restore sight, that centers this reading. In restoring sight, understanding, God is restoring everyone to each other. So Jubilee is not only about releasing captives. Jubilee is also about a collective restoration of sight. It is about seeing anew. Seeing captives as artists and healers and builders and growers, not as captives. Not as spoils, but as neighbors. Jubilee is not only freedom for the oppressed, but also a collective acknowledgement of whose burdens the oppressed have been weighed down with. So that each can see the other as companion for the journey. As community.
Restoration of sight makes me think that we are not celebrating when women won the ordination lottery.
Restoration of sight makes me think about the studies that have been done to show that women actually speak a lot less in mixed gender public gatherings. And when they do speak, if they even come close to speaking as much as a man does, they are seen as having spoken more than the man did. Or the studies that show that women are interrupted more often. Or the studies that show that women are just as capable but people don’t really believe it.
And yet, 50 years ago, this church body decided to recognize the calls that God had placed on women and ordain them. They were ordained and they headed into settings where they might be the only voice that people hear for a whole hour. Uninterrupted. In public. They committed to learn about and worship our-God-Who-Sees as seen through women’s eyes.
Restoration of sight makes me think about the ad that aired during the Superbowl a few years back called #likeagirl. It asked young girls to show the director what it means to run like a girl, throw like a girl, fight like a girl, and then you saw young girls running with all their might, throwing with good follow through. You saw young girls being fierce and determined with no hint of irony or defiance. The director also asked older girls, boys, and even a man to demonstrate what it means to run like a girl or throw like a girl. I think we can all imagine what that looked like. We all carry that with us.
And yet, 50 years ago, this church body decided to recognize the calls that God had placed on women and ordain them. Those women went out to #dreamlikeagirl, #leadlikeagirl, #preachlikeagirl, #blesslikeagirl.
And restoration of sight makes me think about Rev. Platz on the fringes of our church, out of sight. And all the women who followed her and found themselves in different fringes. In shrinking rural churches. In struggling urban congregations. In toxic churches. In suffocating associate positions. In brutal mission developments or redevelopments. Certainly away from centers of influence. It makes me wonder - did the church really know what they were committing to when they stepped into this Jubilee moment 50 years ago? Or did they think they were the Publishers Clearing House Prize Patrol where they passed out checks and then got to go back to their normal lives?
It is here that I would like to turn back to our text. Today’s reading is Jesus’ first act of ministry in the Gospel of Luke. First acts set the tone for each of our gospel stories. In both Matthew and Mark, Jesus proclaims some version of “Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near.” In John, Jesus famously, infamously, turns water into wine. Here, in Luke, Jesus announces himself as the keeper, the instigator, the crowned king of Jubilee. He tells his community that he has been anointed by the Holy Spirit to bear good news, freedom, restoration, and healing. It brings to my mind an image of Aslan from Prince Caspian when he bends down and invites the queens Susan and Lucy, “Ride on my back.” And then they leave on a grand, raucous, celebratory, and liberating romp. A Narnian Jubilee. Luke’s Jesus leans down and invites us to revel in restoration.
We are celebrating when Jesus reaffirmed his reign in our midst and urged this church body, however begrudging it was and would be and continues to be, to recognize the calls that God has placed on women and ordain them. We are celebrating the moment when this church body saw a fierce, golden lion staring at them through the window of ordinary life and called “Now, Dear Heart.” We joined the revelry.
And we are celebrating the thousands of moments that have flowed out of that one moment. The thousands of moments when people have walked into our churches and experienced worship led by a woman and left filled with wonderment or unease or awe. The thousand of times that women have walked into meetings tense, filled with dread or hope or both. The thousands of clumsy comments that show that change is happening, still happening. We are celebrating the thousands of moments that we have stood on the same side of a doorway, committed and learning to see anew.
Most importantly, we are celebrating the instigator, the king of Jubilee, Jesus, the God-who-sees, a lion who invites riders, who comes and stares into our lives and knows who we are and asks us to stay in this wild, joyful, frightening procession of healing.