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It could be said that a subgenre of every other genre of books or movies or shows is the sibling drama. There are the Box Car children, and the Hardy Boys–coming of age, adventure, mystery books with siblings. Of course, one of favorite of many generations is Little Women, four sisters who navigate a world built for men. They struggled, they strove, they grieved, they worked together, and they sought their place in this world. There are many reasons why this story has remained important over the years, has led to a new movie version for every generation.

I think, among the quality of writing and storytelling, one of the reasons might be that we like stories of families, of siblings. Maybe because we can relate to them. Maybe because they are what we hope we would have in siblings. Maybe…

This story of the Daughters of Zel-oph-e-had. It’s a story of sisters: Mah-lah, No-ah, Ho-glah, Mil-cah, Tirz-ah. Their story should be on regular rotation in our Sunday school! Their names should be listed when we think of women in our in faith. We should know by heart their names like we know the names of women we have vilified. And maybe that is why we know the names of Jezebel and Delilah—both of whom I am convinced just did the things they had to do to survive.

These 5 sisters are named, Mah-lah, No-ah, Ho-glah, Mil-cah, Tirz-ah, they did something positive in a time of war, uncertainty, and transition; and then they passed into history. They had courage, strength, knowledge, they were rooted in their scripture and in their tradition, so much so that they were able to challenge the leadership, to question even Moses And be declared right, declared right by God!

These sisters, Mah-lah, No-ah, Ho-glah, Mil-cah, Tirz-ah, stood before the congregation of leaders, before a crowd of thousands and set a precedent for women who were to go after them. And they set a precedent that the law wasn’t complete, there were going to be moments and times and situations when someone was going to need to stand up and name an injustice whether it was built in the law or, like in this case, that the was not going to cover every situation some, like these sisters, were going to need to stand up and say something, to call it out, to name the injustice.

Mah-lah, No-ah, Ho-glah, Mil-cah, Tirz-ah stood together, in an intimidating situation and called on their tradition and secured their future. They secured a place for their father’s clan in the future.

It’s not perfectly modern feminist: they did not inherit the land for themselves. and daughters might inherit if there were no brothers but not along side them. It is a stepping stone, it is carrying on a tradition, it is honoring the family that brought them to this place, it is caring for the ancestors by assuring a future.

When these sisters stood before the council, they honored their past and they changed the future: through the law and the land.

We are telling stories this summer, of folks who have been important to our faith and lives, stories of people who brought us to this place.

So I want to tell you a few.

On the shoulders of these sisters stood Antoinette Brown Blackwell–the first woman ordained in the root churches that became the UCC. She was born in 1825 and told at the age of girls could not be ministers. But she was smart and she was determined.

She finished her schooling basic school, she taught and saved money, she enrolled in university studying literature until she wore them down and they admitted her into the theology department. She was vocal, she was involved in justice movements that cared for the wellbeing of women. She wrote from her knowledge of scripture and tradition and history that Paul’s argument against women speaking in church was really about a context, about excess, not about leadership.

In 1850, when she should have graduated and been given a license to preach, the school withheld both.

She preached anyway.

In 1853, the Congregational Church relented and ordained her. In her first appointment, in her first church, it wasn’t perfect. As it turns out, there were those who were not convinced that women could be pastors! But even as it didn’t last for long, her ministry did not end. She worked with the temperance movement, in slums and prisons in New York, studied mental health and poverty and how they related, she wrote books.

In the decades that followed, leading up to the turn of the century, most protestant denominations had their first ordained women clergy. It wasn’t perfect, and there were going to have to be firsts again in a lot of cases.

Rooted in the past, securing her present, and setting a course for the future. I stand on the shoulders of Antoinette Brown Blackwell.

One hundred and twenty years later, William R. Johnson, Bill, became the first openly LGBT person ordained in the UCC. The Bay Area churches in California did not need convincing of his call nor his place in the church. There were some other churches around the country that did.

Bill, standing on the shoulders of Antoinette Brown, rooted in the history and traditions, standing with his community, and with a vision for the future, he stood with courage in front of the church and all of the country and named that there was an injustice and he lived with the consequences, lived with the struggle, for the future the church.

I stand on Bill Johnson’s shoulders.

By the time I was growing up, it didn’t even occur to me that women couldn’t be pastors, we had women pastors in my church often growing up. That wasn’t the job for me but it was available.

By the time I was in high school, I had thought that maybe I would be interested in working with youth in a church because I had really great adult leaders.

One of them was Ellen.

She didn’t grow up in the church, she had some hard times in her adulthood and relationships, she was a single mom to her 2 kids, and she was discovering her call to ministry. It did start with youth ministry. And as the call in her life grew, changed, evolved, progressed, she answered that call.

Going back to school, going to seminary, and being a United Methodist, going where they sent her to pastor, from the north woods to Brown Deer.

Ellen is a mystic, meaning, she is lead by the Spirit that breathed life into creation and moved in the upper room at Pentecost and moved through the lives of the mystic before her.

When I was in a tough place and needed to set a new course for my life, as happens to all of us from time to time, Ellen invited me to join her on a retreat she had planned. She sat me down with mandalas to color, she prayed with me, she looked at me and said “You’re going to seminary now.”

Being a mystic doesn’t always go over well with the power structure and the ordaining institution. But Ellen was rooted in her tradition, in the history, in the stories of those who had gone before her, and in her call and would not be deterred. She had an eye to the future–that the church she loves would be more welcoming to all and more Spirit-filled. She was ordained, she continues to teach and serve love and be moved by the Spirit.

I learned from her about the call on our lives that changes and grows. I learned from her about tenacity in the mists of struggle. I learned from her about slowing down and listening to the Spirit, she will not let us down.

I stand on the shoulders of Ellen.

And that is what we are doing this summer, that is part of who we are in the church: we are studying our past, honoring our ancestors, thriving in the present, and setting a course for those who will follow.

We are to have a vision for longevity. We are stewards of time–this one, history, and generations from now. We are caretakers of what has been and setting the course of what will be. We stand of the shoulders of Mah-lah, No-ah, Ho-glah, Mil-cah, Tirz-ah, sisters, the daughters of Zel-oph-e-had, and we honor their place in our story of faith as live faithful lives that set a path for generations to follow.