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women to whom we are greatly indebted

retreat address 3: Priscilla and Phoebe, Paul's Church Ladies


Growing up, I always thought of the church ladies in my Dad’s churches like the Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey—Maggie Smith at her accomplished, pinched, disapproving best.
After a while, I began to pay more attention; I came to know that they were sweet and caring and committed to the Church. They were the ones crawling around on their knees with brown paper and an iron to get the wax out of the carpet. They were the ones bringing casseroles when someone was sick. They were the ones praying hard every night for me and the other teenagers and for all I know the power of their prayers is why nothing really bad happened to us. They were the ones holding the fragile, conglomeration of broken people we called the church together.
We so often think of the early church as the domain of the 12 male apostles and of Paul. They’re the ones named in the Gospels, they’re the ones asking the often dumb questions, they’re the ones present at the resurrection on the beach or in the upper room. But at the very least, who cooked for them? You know as well as I that Mary Magdalene and others were around Jesus and the 12 constantly. Mary Magdalene is the only one in all four Gospels to consistently be present at the empty tomb. Of course there were women in the early church, we say to ourselves, but what does that mean? Were they getting wax out of folks’ robes or were any of them actively spreading the Gospel like Peter and Paul?

Once upon a time, there were two women named Priscilla and Phoebe. They didn’t meet and probably didn’t even know of each other’s existence. They were two of many women working for the Kingdom of God and loving their neighbors. Priscilla and Phoebe stand in for Junia, Julia, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Mary, Persis, Chloe, Euodia and Synthyche and many others. Priscilla and Phoebe are the Eunices and Carols and Nancyes who I once thought of as terrifying and who hold us together.

Priscilla was married to Aquila and this rhyming couplet traveled with St. Paul around bits of the Mediterranean. They made tents with Paul and shared the Good News of Jesus with the folks they met. We don’t know much more than that about Priscilla and Aquila but I like to imagine them arguing theology with Jews and Gentiles alike right alongside Paul. “Of course we are justified by grace alone,” Priscilla would say, “look at my husband Aquila. He’s a good man, but every time he doesn’t put his dishes in the dishwasher is a point against him. There’s no way to recover from that.” Or arguing with Paul the way I wish I could. “Brother Paul,” she might have said, “What’s this about it being shameful for a woman to speak in church?”

But there are no heroic deeds attributed to Priscilla, no transcendent appearances of God in the desert. She went about her life, praying and cooking, speaking and tentmaking.

Now Phoebe was Paul’s patron—one of those women whose names are written in huge typeface on the banners at fundraising galas. You know, “Angel Donors: Dr. and Mrs. Charles Smitherington” or similar. She and others provided food and lodging to these fascinating, difficult, spiritual men. They found ways to be near them, to hear their parables and arguments. Phoebe used what she had to support these traveling preachers and, by extension, support the men and women who came to hear them.

Phoebe was Paul’s benefactor and, it turns out, was a deacon herself. She held the same office that one of Paul’s closest lieutenants Timothy did—diakonos or servant. The same thing even that Paul called himself. These three were servants of God, servants of the people they preached to, servants in both action and title. Phoebe, it turns out, is the only woman in scripture to bear that title, though I doubt very much that she was the only woman. When Paul wrote to Timothy, he spilled a lot of ink describing the conduct of deacons—their honesty, generosity, sobriety and all—and wrote specifically that women in that role ought follow the same conduct.
Phoebe was one of this company of faithful leaders. She sat with other women and heard their joys and sorrows. She heard their confessions. At their baptisms, Phoebe was there to anoint them with the cross of Christ. Deacon Phoebe had only a brief mention in scripture but was remembered long after her death. Three hundred years later, her name was invoked on another woman deacon’s grave stone.

But there are no heroic deeds attributed to Phoebe, no transcendent appearances of God in the desert. She went about her life, praying and benefacting, speaking and listening.
And maybe there are no heroic deeds attributed to you or me. We go about our lives—taking kids or grandkids to music lessons, doing the laundry, taking out the trash, going to work or ironing the linens at church. We don’t often have burning-bush moments, but maybe that’s not because they don’t happen but because we’re not really present to see them.

Kathleen Norris writes that one of her first experiences in an Episcopal church made her giggle with recognition. She watched as everyone filed up to receive communion and then as the priest took water and washed the dishes in front of everyone. Perhaps this is not a tradition at Prince of Peace—the priest drinks the remaining wine, pours water onto the plate and into the cup and then drinks that as well. It’s not a real dishwashing, of course, but is symbolic. And Kathleen Norris was delighted—that in the midst of something as holy and centering as communion, there was the boring, everydayness.

One of the places I find the most spiritual focus is in hanging laundry out to dry on my clothesline. I have one of those umbrella-dryers that spins in the wind. I take a couple of loads out and stand in the sunlight hanging diapers and shirts and thinking about God. It’s the most prosaic thing in the world and yet the most transcendent.

Priscilla and Phoebe may not have looked like burning bushes, but their hearts and lives were aflame with the Spirit.
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Questions for conversation:
·      What stood out for you in Priscilla and Phoebe’s stories?
Share a story about a woman who has given you much, to whom you are greatly indebted.