WOMEN WHO MAKE A DIFFERENCE
During the seasons of Advent and Christmas there is a constant interplay between light and dark, good and evil, old and new; between the way of John the Baptist and the way of Jesus; between the way of the world and the way of faith; between the ways of human beings and the ways of God.
And there is also an interplay between male and female. Last week we had the very powerful masculine voice and presence of John the Baptist – a warrior of the Spirit. Today we focus on Mary’s story, and the two main characters are women: Mary and her cousin Elizabeth.
As I had my little nose procedure on Thursday at the very skillful hands of a woman doctor, I was given a very effective reminder of the way in which women have come to the fore in our time. 100 years ago, in 1912, Mabel French had just became the first woman lawyer in British Columbia, but women still could not vote. In today’s Gospel, Mary and Elizabeth are portrayed in a way that makes them prominent, which was not a typical approach in that era, and it says something about the way Jesus called the marginalized to the fore, and gave them equality and opportunity to share their gifts.
One of the themes today with many young people is: The world is so complicated and screwed up. We’re nobodies – we’re not rich — What can we do? It is one of the themes in scripture today as well. But in response to that tendency toward defeatism, the prophet Micah suggests that the little, almost irrelevant clan of Bethlehem was about to play a major part in the developing history of Israel. He makes an obscure reference to a woman who would give birth, and one who to be born who would be great, whose influence would extend to the end of the earth, a man of peace. Of course, this scripture was understood to be in reference to Jesus. But the important role of the woman is hard to miss.
It’s easy enough to make a difference when you come from wealth and power and privilege, when you are familiar with certain social circles and ways of getting things done, when you have had nothing but affirmation and encouragement and success around you. Really, with those privileges and resources, you have an obligation to do something for others. One might think of Eleanor Roosevelt or Betty Ford, who accomplished amazing things, but whose lives seem a bit unreal because they came from the elite in the first place. But there are many examples of women who came from nothing – from obscurity or from poverty — or had to triumph over personal hardship and suffering, who have made a great impact on our society, and they are the ones whose stories resonate in the light of today’s readings, who I believe are closer to the spirit of the God who raises up the lowly.
Let me mention three.
First, Oprah. Few people get so famous that they are known just by their first name. But Oprah Winfrey didn’t start out as a big shot – there was no silver spoon in her mouth! Oprah was born to a teenaged unmarried mother, who worked as a housemaid, and who continued to flounder in life. Reports vary as to the degree of poverty she experienced, but she was definitely “under-privileged.” Oprah describes being mocked by other kids at school because she was dressed so poorly. She says she experienced sexual abuse from several family members, and ran away from home at age 13. She may or may not have spent some time as a prostitute. Born in 1954, by 1986 she had the number one daytime talk show in the United States. Oprah’s efforts to make a difference for good are already legendary, and she chose to zero in on spirituality and important social issues like homosexuality. She has made numerous authors, including Eckhart Tolle (who lives in BC) very famous, and gave a forum to newer forms of spirituality, to the point that some began to call her show the Church of Oprah. Vanity Fair wrote about her: “Oprah Winfrey arguably has more influence on the culture than any university president, politician, or religious leader, except perhaps the Pope.” She is in the top 50 of most generous Americans, having given away more than $400 million. Oprah says: “What God intended for you goes far beyond anything you can imagine.” I hear in that an echo of the Magnificat.
Shania Twain – another woman who is often known by her first name – is a huge star now. Like Mary the mother of Jesus, she is a singer. Shania came from a poverty stricken and violent background in Northern Ontario. She started singing in bars at the age of 8 in order to try to supplement the family’s income. She lost her parents in a car accident when she was 22, at which time she shelved her own career to go home and look after her siblings. Her song “God Bless the Child,” contains the lines: “Some are born addicted and some are just thrown away/Some have daddies who make them play games they don’t want to play … When a child’s spirit’s broken/And feels all hope is gone/
God help them find the strength to carry on . . . God bless the child who suffers, God bless the young without mothers, Hallelujah.” That is the voice of someone who knows what it means to suffer. One of her early mentors, after hearing her sing at the age of 19, was astounded at her maturity and depth – she said Shania was like a person who had lived 60 years, not 19. But Shania rose to prominence despite her humble beginnings. She has sold 85 million albums worldwide and made millions of people happy with her music – not bad for a poor girl from backwoods Ontario.
Temple Grandin is another person who comes to mind – they made a movie about her. Suffering from autism, considered to be brain damaged, her parents rejected advice to institutionalize her. Temple spoke of “groping her way from the far side of darkness.” She was bullied, called “retard,” and picked on constantly, but she struggled her way through school to the doctorate level, and is now well known in the agricultural industry for developing humane ways of dealing with livestock. Mocked and marginalized as a child, she was able to take her painful experience and apply it to stock animals, sympathizing with their anxiety and confusion. Half of all the feed animals in the United States and Canada are processed using her facility designs. She was able to get the industry to begin to see animals less as things and more as sentient beings, and made great strides in ethical treatment of animals. “We owe the animal respect,” she said. She also has a lot to help people with autism and parents of autistic children to understand the syndrome much better. Dr Tony Attwood, an expert on autism, said “Temple is my hero. She has my vote for the person who has provided the greatest advance in our understanding of autism this century.” She is currently a professor at Colorado State University.
Had any of these women caved in to the negativity and criticism which confronted them, the odds against success, we would never have heard of them. Are they perfect – No. Are they saints – No. But they offer examples of transformation; of persistence and faith; of indomitable hope; and the reward of hard work. This is why we tell the stories of the saints in the first place, and this is why it is important to share the stories of those you know who have overcome obstacles and embodied those values and qualities.
The song, The Little Drummer Boy has a line: “I am a poor boy too.” We identify with Mary the mother of Jesus in good part because she overcame much adversity, because she was very much an ordinary woman who by faith accomplished extraordinary things. The song attributed to Mary goes like this: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” It is a song that acknowledges and accepts her own relative insignificance and points to the way God is able to accomplish great things through the most obscure people, if only they will trust.
We celebrate today two women who were bearing the future in their own bodies, who chose to be faithful and courageous despite outward appearances, and as we celebrate Mary and Elizabeth, let us celebrate the many women who have overcome adversity and made the world a better place. And, whether we are male or female, let us all choose to do the same.
The Rev. Grant Rodgers+
Micah 5:2-5a But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace.
Luke 1:46b-55 “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Psalm 80:1-7 Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock! You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh. Stir up your might, and come to save us! Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.
O LORD God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers? You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure. You make us the scorn of our neighbors; our enemies laugh among themselves. Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.
Hebrews 10:5-10 Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God’ (in the scroll of the book it is written of me).” When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then he added, “See, I have come to do your will.” He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
Luke 1:39-45, (46-55) In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”