09 August 2020

Sermon: 10th Sunday after Pentecost (National Women's Day - South Africa)

Sermon: 10th Sunday after Pentecost

9 August 2020 – Archdeacon Mark Long

1 Kings 19:9-18, Psalm 85:8-13, and Matthew 14:22-33; NRSV

Greetings once again as we continue to traverse the challenges of Lockdown and life. As I have reflected in previous sermons, this new context continues to stretch us on every level, and each day brings a variety of emotional responses to our situation. Not only do we continue to mourn what the pandemic and lockdown have taken from us, but as lockdown increasingly shows up the cracks in our social and political scenery – and as we experience the economic consequences of lockdown – we lament the raw realities of the brokenness of our Nation and our world. What are we learning on this journey? As I reflect a little on my own learnings I am cognisant of the question Denise Ackermann asked us three weeks ago, “Am I, are we, is the church, hearing what God is saying to us in these extraordinary times?”

The first verse of today’s Psalm echo’s a response, “Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, …”[1], “I will listen to what you are saying, …”[2]. Hopefully we have taken time to reflect on Denise’s question, and are beginning to hear an answer? As I reflected in my sermon two weeks ago, I hear a pressing need for us as people of Faith to embrace a marked change in the form and nature of our relationships in such a manner that our relational space is truly one of safety and welcome, fairness and impartiality;[3] and to live this out in such a manner that it impacts meaningfully and significantly on our socio-economic and political landscape. The reading from 1 Kings 19 today highlights the fact that our obedience to God’s call impacts the wider issues of our times as Elijah is sent to anoint new kings of Aram and Israel, along with a new prophet in his own position (a somewhat provocative act as all three positions are still filled, one by Elijah himself).[4]

Today and tomorrow we join all South Africans in celebrating National Women’s Day, thankful for the example of women of all cultural backgrounds who in 1956 protested the proposed amendments to the Urban Areas Act of 1950, commonly referred to as the "pass laws"[5]. However, this celebration also highlights how women continue to struggle, and remain victims of patriarchy in both church and society. Gender-based violence remains a key social ill, with domestic violence, sexual harassment in the workplace, and unequal pay among the many symptoms of this scourge; and the Church in Southern Africa remains on the back-foot in this and many other areas of discrimination despite the leadership we were able to give in the run-up to the birth of a new South Africa[6] in 1994. It is easy to be overwhelmed by these and other urgent issues of our time. It may be helpful to remember that Elijah, when we come across him entering the cave in today’s reading, is depressed and overwhelmed despite his recent victories against the forces of evil in his day. In his brokenness and aloneness he finds renewed strength as he rediscovers God in the silence beyond the noise and chaos.[7] We, too, need to find that silent space that we may hear.

In our more resourced communities it is all too easy to let remembrances like today’s Women’s Day be just an opportunity for time out, or time off. As important as a long weekend may be for recreation and family re-engagement, these Public Holidays are also a time for reflection. Today provides an opportunity to reflect on the role of women in the church, in the context of faith, and perhaps in partial answer to Denise’s question. A key figure in Christianity’s early formation is Mary, and Protestantism has been enormously uncomfortable with assigning her a prominent role, remaining thoroughly suspicious of the eminence she is accorded in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. The fact that we often refer to the Ladies Chapel, rather than the Lady Chapel (opposite the organ) in our beautiful St Andrew's Church building suggests that at St Andrew’s we may share in this Protestant suspicion? My moment of conversion to Mary came about during a Diocesan Advent Retreat in 2007 lead by an Anglican Nun, Sister Erika, OHP, on Iconography. It was her reflection on the icon Mother of God of the Sign[8], a 16th century Russian writing (icons are written, not painted), that awoke me to a whole new world, specifically Sister Erika’s comment that, “Since very early on, Christians had imagined the Church as a woman; and the … woman praying with hands extended and head covered, stood for the Church …”.[9] It is difficult to find words to convey the impact these simple words had on me, but combined with an understanding that the early Church faced so much persecution the image presented by this icon of the Sign – Jesus – held in Mary’s womb, not as an unborn baby but as the Christ, helped something to shift within me, helping me discover the importance of Mary, symbolic of the feminine nature of God, symbol of the Church, nurturing and protecting all that the Spirit of God is up to in our world. Praying the Rosary and the Angelus became deeply comforting as a result.

Another nun, this time Roman Catholic Benedictine, Joan Chittister, in her commentary on the Apostles Creed[10], also conscientised me to the importance of Mary. In her words, “We remember the Annunciation but we forget its central truth: Mary was not used. Mary was not made a pawn in the birth of Christ. Mary was asked a question to which she had the right to say no. Mary was made a participant in the initiatives of God. God did not impose on Mary. … Mary did not have life forced upon her.  She was made an equal partner in the process.” Joan, in her usual exacting way, goes on to say, “God asked a woman a question, something that happened only rarely thereafter. … Mary, in a culture given to the total control of women, makes a personal decision and replies to the angel, takes responsibility for the act, and bears the consequences.” Joan importantly highlights the respect with which God treats Mary; a respect for women that the Church has rarely imitated in our long history. In highlighting Mary’s ability to act independently and make her own free choices, Joan also succeeds in affirming women’s agency. As Church we pat ourselves on the back for eventually allowing women to be ordained, but as the Anglican Church of Southern Africa celebrates the 25th anniversary of this decision, the lack of women clergy in senior positions questions the Church’s commitment to fairness and impartiality when it comes to women, and rather demonstrates a reactive response to wider social changes than any proactive leadership in this regard. In a world where women are too often subjected to sexual violence and harassment, Joan Chittister makes the point that, “The [Apostles] Creed does not make sex contemptuous; it makes it natural.  It puts sex in the service of the soul. … It shows us women [who are] loving, giving, holy, in communion with God, and filled with the spirit of Jesus.” Joan’s perspective here is certainly at odds with a Church that has glorified sexual abstinence, regulated sexual activity to a very narrow definition of relational commitment, and been all too silent about sexual abuse within its own structures.

To be conscientised to the realities of life is often overwhelming and exhausting. Recognising and accepting that the Church – as institution rather than as a community of Faith – is fallible can be breaking. The new context brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic is proving an intense conscientizing tool, and is jolting us out of every comfort, and our Faith is not immune. Like Elijah, we are experiencing a storm, and it is easy to mistake the wind, the earthquake, the fire for God’s voice. Undoubtable we need to note the wind, earthquake, and fire, but we need to reach beyond these phenomena in search of the sheer silence that will allow us to hear the voice of God. Beyond all that presently overwhelms and exhausts us is an opportunity for a heart-to-heart with our Creator. Rumi[11] puts it well, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I'll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about.”

This new context presents us with a God-given opportunity to see our reality afresh, to determine our actions in the light of what we see, and to act decisively and transformatively. We need to take courage from today’s Psalm, that God does indeed act decisively in the present and salvation is at hand if we choose to grasp it. There can be no doubt that even prior to the pandemic our world was in trouble, and in need of rebirth; and in Joan Chittister’s words, “… “Birthing” is about bringing the Divine to life in us, however that needs to be done.”[12]

I again close with a prayer from Pádraig Ó Tuama[13]. Let us pray,

God of promises, 
Sometimes we wait generations
for the dawn from on high;
sometimes only years.
We wait for justice and hope and
light and kindness
to mingle in the tangle of our days.
And we age while we hope.
So may we age and hope
with tenderness and truth.
Because you are tender and true
even though we sometimes wonder.

[1] Psalm 85:8a NRSV
[2] Psalm 85:8a Order of Saint Helena
[3] Transformation, equity, belonging
[4] 1 Kings 19:15-16
[5] https://www.sahistory.org.za/article/1956-womens-march-pretoria-9-august
[6] The dawn of democracy in South Africa
[7] 1 Kings 19:9-10, 12-13
[8] https://iconreader.wordpress.com/2010/12/10/the-theotokos-of-the-sign-icon/
[9] The Orans figure
[10] Chittister, Joan 1990. In Search of Belief; Liguori/Triumph, USA; page 98-99
[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rumi
[12] Chittister, Joan 1990. In Search of Belief; Liguori/Triumph, USA; page 100
[13] Pádraig Ó Tuama, Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community

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