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Hoosier Musings on the Road to Emmaus

Thursday, April 29, 2004

More preachin'

This quarter's preaching class is a little different. Instead of being given specific propers to work from, we are encouraged to pick our own scripture and run with it. For our first sermon, we were to preach using one of the figures in Lesser Feasts and Fasts, the collection of saints, martyrs and models that the Episcopal Church recognizes as part of our liturgical calendar.

The following was my effort in that regard.

Mark 10:42-45

"Functioning in a subsidiary or supporting capacity."
"Relating to something that is added but is not essential."
"A spare."

These are some of the definitions I found when I looked up the word “auxiliary” in the dictionary.

I did so because that term, “auxiliary,” is what largely defined the role of Julia Chester Emery, whose life and work we remember today. She was National Secretary of the Women’s Auxiliary to the Board of Missions for the Episcopal Church.

Don’t let that title, “Secretary,” fool you; she was the leader of the Auxiliary. But the title simply indicates that hers was a position under the control of the Board of Missions, and of the men who held the authority there.

She took over the position from her sister Mary, who left to be married. Because she remained single her whole life, she was able to serve as Secretary for 40 years, from 1876 to 1916; and the book of Lesser Feasts and Fasts records her tireless efforts over those years. She traveled extensively, visiting every diocese and missionary district in the United States, as well as missions in "remote parts of the world:" China, Japan, the Phillippines, and Hawaii. Remember, this was in a time well before cars, and planes, and easy travel; this was hard work.

Further, under her auspices, the Auxiliary developed "an emphasis on educational programs, a growing recognition of social issues, and development of leadership among women."

However, the one effort for which she is most known is the establishment, in 1889, of the United Thank Offering. This fund, originally set up to support missionary programs both at home and abroad, is still largely supported by the prayers and loose change dropped into little blue boxes on the windowsills and kitchen counters of women across America.

Does that sound familiar? I grew up in the Episcopal Church, so it is to me. My mother always had a little blue box on her bedroom dresser. My grandmother kept hers by the kitchen sink.

In the last 100+ years, the UTO has grown to be a significant source of funding for the church’s mission and ministry around the world. Last year, over $3 million in UTO grants were awarded. Not a bad legacy, for someone whose role as a woman in the church was defined as "subsidiary" and "not essential."

Now, of course, one can make the case that temporal power and authority is not what we as Christians should be seeking. Certainly, Julia had a tremendous impact in her “supporting” capacity. And today’s Gospel is a very pointed reminder of where our focus, our call lies, as Jesus’ disciples. Not in seeking power, and glory, and authority, and recognition; but in service, and ministry-- what my bishop calls “a heart for the lost,” and “a commitment to one another.”

Still, I can’t help but wonder: what might have been the result, had Julia, and her sisters, been welcomed into the upper echelons of leadership? If they had been encouraged to use her gifts for leadership directly? If societal norms had not limited them?

This morning a friend of mine sent me a poem, a psalm written by a woman in his parish. I'd like to share it with you.

You have called me to be not of this world;
Yet while I’m in this world, I am here to do Your will.
To obey Your commands and to seek you above all else;
To desire Your Word and crave time alone with You.
To bring hope to the hopeless and those in pain;
To show Your love to everyone in everything.
To be so focused on You and Your goodness
That I might give every breath, moment, and thought for Your glory.
While at times I stumble and fall to the ground,
You are always there to pick me up again.
When I cannot see the road ahead
You are the light that shows me the way.
When my thoughts become lost inside my head,
Your voice speaks the words I’m unable to say.
Sustained by the grace that You have shown,
May I be forever Yours and never my own.

This profound gift of faith was written by woman who is not currently permitted to serve as a Eucharistic minister in her parish, because of her age. Emily is 17.

Where else do we still inhibit the service of God’s people, by relegating them to “auxiliary” status?

And why?


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