Tough As Nails
Our reading today is from poet Naomi Replansky, titled, Housing Shortage:
I tried to live small.
I took a narrow bed.
I held my elbows to my sides.
I tried to step carefully
And to think softly
And to breathe shallowly
In my portion of air
And to disturb no one.
But see how I spread out and I cannot help it.
I take to myself more and more, and I take nothing
That I do not need, but my needs grow like weeds,
All over and invading; I clutter this place
With all the apparatus of living.
You stumble over it daily.
And then my lungs take their fill.
And then you gasp for air.
Excuse me for living,
But, since I am living,
Given inches, I take yards,
Taking yards, dream of miles
And a landscape, unbounded
And vast in abandon.
The stories always begin the same way. A female minister will have just delivered a sermon she thought knocked it out of the park. She’ll describe the worship service as weaving community – as if she is some sort of existential basket-weaver, reaching vulnerable and meaningful places in the life of the congregation, and spot on.
In addition to the sermon being great, the music was spot on, the prayer was stellar, the readings were relatable, and the pulse of the community was in synch. It was, you could say, a transcendent moment for minister and congregation. These are the moments ministers live for. And while we experience them without everything being perfect, we aim for them above all else.
Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, our first of six identified sources of faith, I can almost guarantee you a minister wrote that. So when a female minister begins her story with much of what I described, I almost always know how it’s going to end.
As the worship service ended and she made her way to the back of the church to stand in the greeting line, not one, but perhaps two or three or more people, walked up to her, thanked her, and proceeded to comment not on the service, but on her shoes. Or her hair. Or the color of her clothing. Or her earring and jewelry choices.
Suddenly that transcendent moment became nothing more than a ministerial runway, with the minister suddenly finding a new item added to her job description: Fashion model. I do not share this very vague story with you to make any of you guilty, I’m not talking about this community, and this is not to say it’s Unitarian Universalists that exclusively do this, female clergy friends across the denominational spectrum have shared such stories.
Even the Episcopalian Priests whose only visible piece of clothing or secular adornment is their glasses or earrings. But there is a truth to this story — women have faced challenges in nearly every sector of work, and ministry is one of these areas. Women in ministry have a familiarity with this that is bone deep.
We are but a few days into what is known as women’s history month. And women are in the headlines: some national, some more local. We very well may end up with a woman as president or vice president, or at least walk away thankful we live in a world where a woman can run for president and be taken seriously. The pay gap between men and women is a campaign point of interest — at least for Democrats — and we find women’s access to healthcare threatened at every turn.
And I hate that I need to even add this caveat, but we’re talking about basic preventative healthcare for women, in 2016. Women have come a long way in a very short amount of time, at least on the grand scheme of things, but patriarchy is stubborn. And women still face challenges.
This is true in Unitarian Universalism as well. Outside of a national culture that comments on a woman’s appearance more than her intellect, women in the ministry make less money, have a higher rate of depression amongst ministers, and are less likely to ever be granted the title Senior Minister or be called to a large congregation. The challenges are real, even with the news that the next president of the Unitarian Universalist Association will be a woman.
But I share these things with all of you today not to dampen your spirits about this faith — or to have you think that we are not exactly the open, affirming, welcoming, and radical religion we say we are. I share these things because where we are right now with women in the ministry is due to dedicated, unyielding women. And the work we have ahead of us is far less than it could have been.
We need to remind ourselves that even now, women having a voice in religion is, sadly, a luxury afforded mostly to mainline and liberal protestants, of which we draw our lineage. The story of women in ministry is one that needs to be told. It needs to be told so that we remember that women in ministry and women in general have faced a fight, just as so many groups of people on this good earth have also fought and continue to fight.
In 1863, the fight of women was starting to begin. Unable to vote, but able to be educated, a young woman came before the ordination council of the Northern Universalist Association of America. She had just finished her coursework as the first female ever admitted to a divinity school. She came before that council with trepidation but clutching within her soul the conviction that she was just as worthy of ordination as anyone else.
And so she asked to be ordained and defended that question. One of the men on the, big surprise, all male panel had just heard her preach the Sunday before she came to them — and he joined in convincing his colleagues that this was the right thing to do. In June of that year, Olympia Brown became the first woman ever to be ordained as a minister.
Olympia Brown was born and raised in Michigan to devoted Universalist parents that taught Olympia and her brothers and sisters the love of God and the absolute rejection of hell. At that time, as you can imagine, and sadly part of this is true today, Michigan was the wildest of wild west, so there was no Universalist church to be found. Like the early apostles, American Universalists would meet in homes, schools, or anywhere where there was space. An open field would do.
The ideas of this faith, many of which are still radical today, would follow Olympia wherever she went. Upon going to Mount Holyoke in South Hadley, Massachusetts for college — and for those of you that are familiar with Mount Holyoke today, this may come as a surprise — Olympia was horrified. There were prayer meetings, altar calls, hellfire and brimstone preaching bursting at the seams of the campus.
It disturbed Olympia so much that she wrote a letter to the Universalist Church of America’s headquarters in Boston. She asked them to please send a Universalist bible study curriculum so that she might bring Universalism to those conservative Mount Holyokers and better inform her own beliefs.
I do not know if she ever received a reply, but she later came to define her Universalism in two basic beliefs that anyone could learn, fundamentalist or not. One, the Fatherhood of God. Two, the Brotherhood of Man. Meaning: God loves every single person who ever was or will be, and we should also love everyone.
Not being satisfied to just see her more conservative friends talk about their good and joyous news, Olympia decided that she too would take this message to all who would hear it. Who said faith needs to be complex: God loves everyone, and we should, too. For may of us in this room it could be further simplified: Love one another.
She applied to multiple schools, and upon applying to The Unitarian School of Meadville, which is the predecessor of my seminary, the response was cold: “the trustees think it would be too great an experiment.” She finally applied to St. Lawrence at the Universalist Divinity School, and was admitted to the school with these words:
We do not think women were called to the ministry. But we leave that between you and the Great Head of the Church.” Upon arriving at the school, she was met with scorn for actually showing up. In Olympia’s own words she tells us, “when I arrived, I was told I had not been expected and that Mr. Fisher (the head of the school) had said I would not come as he had written so discouragingly to me. I had supposed his discouragement was my encouragement.
And she was quite a preacher. She could quieten the angriest of opposition — whether it was someone who believed in hellfire or someone who did not want to listen to a woman — she would quieten them with words of such deep conviction. Upon being ordained in 1863, she jumped into search for a congregation and met opposition again, but pressed on, and finally had the opportunity to preach to a congregation. They hired her on the spot.
The life of Olympia Brown is one of incredible and indelibe strides for women and for Universalism. She accomplished the impossible. She forged the way ahead for women in several denominations to not only speak — because women were not supposed to speak in public, let alone preach —
But for women to receive higher education, be employed without needing a husbands consent, and for women to share their truths. Now, of course, it was not all at once. But she set the foundation. She set the course. She opened up the possibilities for women generations beyond her. And she was not alone in this work.
Her love of Universalism overcame any obstacle before her. I’ve spoken of Universalism from this pulpit quite a lot, but I truly believe that it is a message that needs to be heard and lived — it needs to induce laughter and tears, hope and renewed possibility — because that is what it did for the pioneers of that faith.
Olympia Brown once preached:
Universalists believe in a God of love. They believe in a God who looks with the equal eye upon all [God’s] children; who can never be alienated or estranged from any, and who will ultimately bring every wandering soul home, reconciled and confirmed in the good.
If God so loved us we ought also to love each other…. If, indeed, all are one family…if we have all one Father, and one God hath created us, and if [God] has designed all to dwell with [God] through the endless cycles of eternity, how near we are to one another! How precious does every soul become!
How near we are to one another. How precious does every soul become. For Olympia, this was true of the men that rejected her time and time again, the people that doubted her, the hellfire and brimstone preachers, the women who were fighting alongside her for equality, for the women that did not live to see her day, and for the women that did not even exist.
The message of Universalism, the faith of Olympia Brown, is ultimately one of radical imagination. Olympia Brown knew that she would likely not make it to see greater strides for women, she knew that it would be a long time before women were on equal footing as men, she knew, and still she preached.
The faith she held was also a knowing that the work she was doing would pave the way for women yet to be born. Some might call this an inflated ego, some may look at this and say, “Oh great another suffering servant” — but when the religious faith you would die for preaches salvation for all people, at al times, in this life as well as the next, everything you do in your waking moments is not just for you and your time.
It is for ages and ages beyond you. I cannot help but be reminded of the Great Law of the Iroquois: ”In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.”
Now I know Olympia was not alone in this good work, she was good friends with Susan B. Anthony and other women’s rights advocates. But these are stories we need to tell ourselves. They are stories we need to remember and bow humbly toward.
We need these stories — they are our scripture, stories of lives well lived and faith dearly held. And while we have the luxury of knowing that Olympia’s story ended happily. She lived to vote in a presidential election in 1920 and served many churches with fulfilling and groundbreaking ministries.
Yes, her story ended as it began, with radical change. But we do not know, all of us sitting here, is the ending of our own story — as a congregation, a community, a nation. We do not know where we are being taken. And the work that began with pioneers such as Olympia Brown is not over — we could dream of a world where sexism was eradicated, sadly it is still with us.
But the council we have in the life of Olympia Brown and so many others is that while we ourselves might not live to see the changes we hope for, we need to imagine the world that will be inherited long after we are gone.
Never has such a concept been so important as in this moment, given the political climate of our nation — and I struggled with naming this one, but there comes a time when you have to say to hell with it — the rise of Trumpism, the threat to our entire species by global warming, and the injustices faced by people of color, LGBT persons, the vulnerable, women, and so many others.
It would be easy to imagine a coward, a bully, and a despot winning the presidential election in this country, it would be easy to imagine the world underwater and the atmosphere unable to support life as it once did, it would be easy, yes, easy to despair.
But the challenge that comes to all of us from our Universalist ancestors, such as Olympia Brown, is to imagine the good and the right that is within our grasp and to keep reaching, keep working, keep preaching, keep hoping, though we may never take hold. Being a Universalist is to love so deeply and fully our own selves and our fellow human beings, that all that we do will benefit others long after we are gone.
The life of Olympia Brown is not there to be as a prophet to all of us. To be a reminder that we can be part of a larger story and make a difference — yes, the individual can have an impact. There’s an individual right now running for President have a terrible, terrifying, and tremendous impact. One man.
And even beyond that threat, we still can have an impact, each of us, in our daily lives, with how we are around others. Do you embody that Universalist ethic of loving one another, always and without regard, can you find it within you to have sympathy for the humanity of all people — the woman still struggling to be on the same footing as a man, the gay kid thrown out of his house at 16, the person you know in your life who just keeps walking toward self destruction, and even the narcissist running a campaign.
I know I cannot answer that question without engaging rage and sadness, but I find comfort in the words of Olympia Brown:
Rejoice, she says, that we are worthy to be entrusted with this great message, that you are strong enough to work for a great true principle without counting the cost.
The work of ministry was more than a job for Olympia, it was not just to pay the bills. It was a calling rooted in the love of God, yearning for justice, and this work brought her a deep and resounding joy even in the midst of rage and sadness. May her life remind us of our legacy and our work. May it always be so, Blessed Be. Amen.