Homily for the 10th Sunday of Pentecost, July 21, 2013

Jesus and the Liberation of Women

Today’s Gospel is about the response of two women to the Word of God. And these two women, Mary and Martha, both respond to the presence of Jesus in heartfelt ways.

One is a more traditional woman who prepares the home and makes sure a good meal is provided; the other wants to take her place among the disciples, as a fellow learner.

It is an incident that has become a parable meant to teach succeeding generations of Christians. Symbolically, each woman embodies an essential aspect of the Christian life: contemplation and involvement, so the passage speaks to us about the relationship between prayer and action. It also may be intended to reveal the two distinct sides of our personalities: the one obliged to deal with externals and appearances and deadlines; and the other more inward and soulful, usually hidden, not so concerned with how things appear, but eager to explore avenues to deeper meaning and purpose. We are always in something of a dilemma about which is the “real world” – the one that should have the majority of our attention.

One thing it teaches is the fact that women were not relegated to anonymity in the Christian movement as they were in virtually every other culture and religion – in Luke’s Gospel, here is an incident reported in which women are the key figures, and the fact that one of them is challenging the traditional way of being a woman is very significant.

The interesting thing is the way Jesus accepts both of these women for who they are, but obviously he is more encouraging toward Mary, the one yearning to become more learned and informed, the one eager to take her place in a world typically dominated by men, the one who is stepping out of the conventional role for women. It doesn’t say, but I wonder how the disciples responded. Even her sister Martha was disturbed by the way Mary stepped out of her expected place in the kitchen.

Women continue to push beyond those sometimes self-imposed barriers – through the glass ceilings and the not-so-subtle ways in which women have been subjugated, objectified and excluded.

On July 12, a young woman from Pakistan stood in front of the U.N. General Assembly in New York and gave a very inspiring address. She started her address the way any true prophet would, by saying “In the Name of God . . .” and then she began to speak from her own experience, and she said some powerful things about love and gratitude and forgiveness.

She acknowledged the thousands killed and millions injured by terrorists. “So here I stand” she said, as Martin Luther, another courageous prophet and reformer, had said centuries earlier. “Here I stand,” she said, “one girl among many.”

This was not just any young girl (or young woman) – her name is Malala Yousafzai. She just had her 16th birthday recently, but last October, on October 9 2012, Muslim Taliban thugs boarded her school bus and shot her in the head simply for trying to go to school. She was airlifted to the U.K. for emergency surgery to remove the terrorist’s bullet, that had gone into her forehead and passed down through her neck and was lodged against her spine. She has been on a very long journey in the last few months!

This is an amazing young woman! As early as 2009, Malala was writing for the BBC about life under the Taliban. At the time, Taliban militants were taking over her part of the country, with their usual social agenda, much of it directed against women, including banning television and music, forbidding girls’ education, outlawing women from going shopping, or from having jobs and going to work, as well as obliging a medieval way of dressing (for the women only, of course). They threatened any girl who might try to challenge their orders, and they obviously meant it.

The intimidation worked, as fewer and fewer girls showed up for school. By 2009, when Malala first started writing, the Taliban had already blown up more than a 100 girls’ schools and actively bullied and threatened girls and their families if they attempted to go to school. Malala was aware of the danger of standing up to these bullies.

Like any prophet, Malala’s main concern has to do with justice, and the choices we are making about the kind of future we want. In the first reading today, the prophet Amos warns the oppressors: “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring ruin to the poor of the land . . . surely I will never forget any of your deeds” – a reminder that God is on the side of the oppressed, not the oppressor. There are lots of thugs in the world, and sadly many of them are religious thugs, having no idea about God, but unfortunately affiliated with some religion or other. It is so unfortunate when religion becomes a force, or a weapon, against progress, against new possibilities, when it remains clinging to some primitive and outdated vision of life, and will use whatever means necessary to force people to see things their way. Despite being condemned by something like 50 Islamic clergy and scholars, the Taliban in Pakistan still insist they were right to shoot Malala, and have promised they will finish the job, given an opportunity. Some people never learn.

In the realm of medicine, or computer technology, for instance, it seems to me you want someone who is cutting edge, exploring new territory, opening up new possibilities, whose work reflects the latest developments. In the realm of religion, some people are always trying to take us back to the Middle Ages. In her speech at the UN, Malala said “The Taliban think of God as a tiny little conservative being who would send girls to hell just for going to school.”

Contrasting the cowardice of the Taliban with the courage of the many young women fighting for their right to an education, she said: “The extremists are afraid of books and pens. The power of education frightens them; they are afraid of women – the power of the voice of women frightens them; they are afraid of change; they are afraid of equality . . . They thought that the bullets would silence us, but they failed.” Not many of us, I think, would stick to a course of action, if it meant being shot at. Nothing has changed in her life “except this,” she said: “Weakness fear and hopelessness died” and “strength, power and courage was born.”

“Before God all are equal,” Malala says. I certainly agree, to a point, but if you think about it, you might well conclude that women are the superior of the species. Really, in their own right, women seem much more powerful than men, and much more courageous. For men, the default position is almost always brute force, and many resort to that approach, or the threat of it, very quickly. Women are obliged to develop skills in communication, negotiation and cooperation and those women who stand up against oppression in any number of countries – without weapons and without any threat of force – are to my mind vastly more courageous than men. Women may or may not be superior to men, but the way of peace is definitely preferable to the way of threat and terror and violence – that is the way of the coward.

Malala said: “There was a time when women asked men to stand up for womens’ rights. This time we will do it for ourselves.” It’s not that she is asking that men stand down from the cause – she is asking women to stand UP and to fight for the cause.

She spoke of recognizing the importance of light, when surrounded by darkness, the importance of our voice when silence is imposed. The reading from Colossians today speaks to a future in which all are reconciled by God’s grace. I think we have to make the choice to persist in hope for the fulfillment of this vision. But in the meantime, we need the voices of the prophets – those who push back against the oppressors and bullies of the world. As Malala said: “I raise up my voice – not so that I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard.”

Her message is “One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.” Isn’t it interesting how one little girl – one young woman – can make such a huge impact and cause such a stir? As Ban Ki Moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, said: “When the Taliban shot Malala, they showed what they feared most: a girl with a book.”

The good news is that we have a new hero (or heroine if you will), not the typical kind you might see in the movies or in a book of fairy tales, but a real-life hero, one who made a choice to fight for the right of girls to an education even in the face of threats, and who continues that quest now not just on her own behalf but for girls the world over, even after having been shot in the head just months ago.

She called upon women to be brave, to embrace the strength within themselves and realize their full potential. Every time we baptize someone I like to think we are encouraging them, in the name of the One who created them, to become who they are, to be free to discover all that is in them.

I want a future in which the Malala’s of the world have the opportunity to explore and develop their full potential, to respond to the call of the Creator upon their lives, and to offer to the world what they know is within them, rather than having to subject themselves to sectarian, insecure, backward-looking men, who see women either as commodities or threats — to be there for their own convenience and not as persons in their own right.

Malala’s call to the world is “to reject oppression of children and to reject prejudice based on caste, creed, sect, colour, religion or gender.” As we see the response of Jesus to Mary, I think we can safely assume his blessing would be upon Malala and everyone like her. Sophie, in being baptized today, is a sign of hope, not just for girls and women, but for the future – that we might have the kind of future that Jesus envisioned – a world in which everyone is embraced in their fullness, as equals, and no one is forced to hide their light under a barrel.

The Rev. Grant Rodgers+

Revised Common Lectionary readings for this Sunday:

Amos 8:1-12 This is what the Lord GOD showed me–a basket of summer fruit. He said, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A basket of summer fruit.” Then the LORD said to me, The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by. The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day,” says the Lord GOD; “the dead bodies shall be many, cast out in every place. Be silent!” Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.” The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds. Shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who lives in it, and all of it rise like the Nile, and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt? On that day, says the Lord GOD, I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on all loins, and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day. The time is surely coming, says the Lord GOD, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the LORD, but they shall not find it.

Colossians 1:15-28 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers–all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him– provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel. I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. I became its servant according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ.

Luke 10:38-42 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”