Readings: John 4: 7-9a; 27-29, 39a Mark 14: 3-9
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our rock and our sustainer. Amen
In beginning this sermon, as part of a service focussing on women, I have to admit to not knowing where to start, which line to pursue, what to applaud and how much to get stroppy about.
You see, I have had multiple conversations recently about women in the church, in leadership especially.
I have always been a feminist – but my definition might not be yours and I stopped calling myself that as a defining characteristic years ago.
We are in a year of women finding their voice against inequality and abuse in employment situations and some men being called out for their blatant degradation of women in those contexts.
We have the horror stories of women maimed, abused, de-valued, enslaved across the world – for there are many stories indeed where despicable acts of violence are perpetuated on vulnerable women.
It is easy to understand when the anger takes hold of some people after an eternity of male entitlement and power over women – is that the best way to respond?
But whichever path we go down today we can’t ignore the fact that we have to challenge the continuing inequalities in our societies and the way they deny women and men the full richness of all humankind living in the way of Christ.
For now we concentrate on gender – remembering that there are many other differences that are used as excuses for inequality and injustice.
So what does gender equality actually mean today – in a world where we recognise more than just male and female and where, some of us at least thought we had fought and won the battle for woman’s rights last century? And especially what does it mean in this church that we are all part of and the faith that we live in?
Some of you will know that I have been part of a group gathering research on the role of women in leadership within the PCANZ – the stories that come out of that are mostly very positive – but there are others that are of real concern – of being shut out, treated as second class citizens, of the parenting questions that are not asked of men.
KCML has had two of the last three intakes all males. As were two of the three intakes when I was there. And my intake was eight guys and three women. Why the imbalance?
Currently leadership roles in the church are overwhelmingly men – the last female moderator was in 2009 (five since then) and the current moderators of Presbytery and Synod, out of 10 positions, 2 are women. Is it because women are not putting their names forward – if so why not? I hope that it is not because they are thought still to be less capable or designed only for the home and hearth.
For this is still a prevalent attitude in many parts of the western world – there is that excellent quote from Helen Clark after her UN experience seeking the role of Secretary General: “No-one should get a job because they are a woman. They should get the job because they’re the best person, but being a woman should not count against them.”
So into this minefield let us introduce Jesus. Jesus who counted women and men as his disciples, who recognised the strengths of each, the wholeness that both together brought to ministry, who raised up the value and dignity of women when the world preferred to subjugate them. Our Christ–led church should be the last place to deny the equality of women, don’t you think?
The story of the Samaritan woman at the well is a classic example of Jesus overturning the expected behaviour – his disciples were aghast that he was speaking with a woman of Samaria. And at that point you want to ask – are they more aghast that it was a woman or she was from Samaria? The next words seem to indicate which it was – ‘they were astonished that he was speaking with a woman.’
The fact that this was a woman was the shock factor to the disciples but not, I suggest, the primary focus for Jesus. He saw a person struggling with life and belief and welcomed her into the kingdom and into ministry for his sake.
Yet through this ordinary, wrong gender, somewhat flawed person speaking the truth of Jesus, many in her city came to believe in Jesus. We don’t know if her somewhat sullied reputation or her being a women was more off-putting to those she shared Jesus message with but despite both, she spoke with such passion and belief that she convinced many in the city - perhaps more so because she was an unexpected teller of truths. Jesus had found a new disciple and her proclamation changed a city. You go, girl.
The woman who poured fragrant oil over the feet of Jesus teaches us a different lesson - how important it is to hear all the voices of the disciples, women as well as men, tangata whenua as well as pakeha, pasifika as well as refugee, children alongside our elderly, the marginalised into the established. We hear that everyone in the room with Jesus – we tend to assume it was all men but may well not have been – had grasped an important aspect of Jesus teaching – that of sharing their physical wealth with the poor – but needed to learn from this unexpected visitor that there was another approach to mercy and love – the anointing of Jesus was an extravagant act of welcome and understanding, of peace and healing – for Jesus. Her action, her voice offered a new understanding of living in faith.
The words of James K Baxter from Wednesday night worship come to mind - ‘Truth’ — he said, and — ‘Love’ — he said, But his purest word was — ‘Mercy.’ We need all the voices in the room and beyond for us to grasp the fullness of Jesus mission in this world, not just the women but the culturally different, the dreamers and the systematic theologians, the doers and the healers and the listeners – our voices are all needed to bring about the kingdom of God.
And finally, for today, the way we interpret and use scripture needs to be closely looked at for where it encourages the continuing sidelining of women in our faith. It’s not just about being inclusive in our translations but also about hearing the stories that aren’t told or glossed over. John Bell speaks of the time when he was part of a preaching weekend at a well-known church where the lectionary reading in the morning was from Exodus 1 – where Joseph and his brothers had died and the treatment of his people under the new Pharaoh went from bad to worse. That evening the reading was Exodus 2 beginning at a grown up Moses. John was preaching in the evening and began his sermon by saying something like: ‘I am sorry to tell you that somewhere between this morning’s service and this evening’s service, five middle-eastern women have gone missing in the sanctuary.’
People did apparently start looking around rather anxiously – until he filled them in – they were the part of the Exodus story missing from the set readings. Verses that talked about Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives who defied Pharaoh and let the infant boys live by all sorts of clever ways, the mother of Moses who fashioned a floating cradle for him, his sister Miriam who stayed with him and devised a clever plan to reunite him with his mother when he was found by Pharoah’s daughter, who herself not only chose to let the child live but also raised him as her own. Bell thought about these five audacious women who had saved the life of Moses – so that we could hear the words ‘One day, when Moses had grown up…’ He completely acknowledged that there are plenty of audacious men in scripture and who are great models for our lives – but their stories normally get told – the stories of the women are not so well known. And so he wrote the song we are going to sing in a few minutes
I want to finish with an affirmation of faith that reminds women and men that Jesus taught and lived equality – that through Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of us are one in Christ.
We believe in Jesus Christ the liberator of this world
Who broke the culture of silence and affirmed and advocated for the status of women in society.
Who called us to follow his footsteps
To resist all the exploitative and oppressive systems to build a human community.
We believe in the holy spirit that empowers us to stand firm
Who renews and restores the integrity of the creation
Help all people to grow together towards wholeness of life. Amen.