HOSTED BY ST. JOHN THE APOSTLE, PORT MOODY
According to the preparatory material, I think the ideal intended for today would be for an Egyptian woman to be the preacher – and it may be obvious to most of you that I am not a woman or an Egyptian! As much as I used to love that song by the Bangles, I can’t even walk like an Egyptian. So I acknowledge right off the bat that I am a poor substitute for the real thing.
Seriously though, I am honoured to be here, and to be given the opportunity to say something that I hope will be helpful on this important day. This is the World Day of Prayer, a day meant to create an awareness that we are part of a worldwide community, a day meant to connect us in spirit, a day meant to get us out beyond our own comfortable places and relationships and into new and creative places and points of contact. Welcome to all guests here today, because just by being here you demonstrate the spirit of World Day of Prayer. Religion is meant to create connections, to build community. Its aspirations are universal, and the fact that many have opted out of faith communities in our generation is reflected in the diminishing life of our communities in general. World Day of Prayer is a day when we proclaim that people are not meant to be a haphazard collection of individuals, all working on their own private agendas, often to the detriment of those around them.
World Day of Prayer is an expression of the feminine dimension of our humanity. It is a tradition that has encouraged and demonstrated the spiritual leadership of women, and although now the service is aimed at anyone who might like to attend, it was initially a service by women and for women. But I’m glad that men are being encouraged to attend, because it’s obvious, this year especially, that we have much to learn.
This year the order of service comes to us from Egypt, a country with a great history. Once one of the great civilizations of the world, it is a country that is now over 80% Muslim; it is a country in considerable turmoil and violence; it is a country in which a small Christian minority attempts to persist in the face of growing Islamic aggression.
A number of years ago people were pointing to Egypt as an example and a sign of hope that there might be progress and a real place for women in the Islamic world. But a recent BBC report (Nov. 2013) indicated that Egypt now rates as the worst of 22 countries in the Arab world, worse than countries like Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen. Based on a poll of gender experts, the study found “sexual harassment, high rates of female genital mutilation and a growth in conservative Islamist groups contributed to the low ranking.” The poll asked the experts to assess factors such as violence against women, reproductive rights, treatment of women within the family and women’s role in politics and the economy.
“Discriminatory laws and a spike in trafficking contributed to Egypt’s place at the bottom of the ranking of 22 Arab states,” the survey said. “There are whole villages on the outskirts of Cairo and elsewhere where the bulk of economic activity is based on trafficking in women and forced marriages,” said Zahra Radwan of the Global Fund for Women.
Sexual harassment was cited as the main factor. A UN report in April said 99.3% of women and girls in Egypt had been subjected to sexual harassment. It has become a socially condoned, chronic form of behavior by men toward women, even girls, and there is virtually no legal recourse for women subjected to this abuse.
The Times of Oman reported that in November last year 14 young women were arrested for protesting against the laws banning public demonstrations and trial of the civilians who took part in the uprising against Hosni Mubarak. After being beaten and abused by the police, they were driven out into the desert and dumped off. They did manage to stagger back, despite almost perishing from the heat and fatigue.
This is the country – these are the women – we are hearing from this year, and so this service becomes for me an expression of appreciation and respect for their courage and faith. The courage of the women who are standing up and speaking out for basic rights and equality (despite the risks to their personal safety) is amazing and inspiring.
I heard on the radio this morning someone droning on about how difficult it’s going to be for us to adjust to the one-hour time change this weekend. As the announcer talked, it confirmed for me that we have become a nation of whiners and complainers, feeling victimized and oppressed when we have no concept of what that really means. Thank God that World Day of Prayer allows us to hear voices from elsewhere in the world! It gives us a sense of perspective on things.
“Streams in the desert” is a favourite theme of the prophet Isaiah and a reminder that our spiritual ancestors, including those of Egypt, were largely desert dwellers – it is most appropriate that one of the symbols of this service should be an empty water jar.
As one flies over much of the United States, it is obvious how much of that country would be considered desert except for the miracle of irrigation. When one flies over most of Egypt, what one sees is mostly desert, period, and people in many places are still using technologies for accessing water that we would consider primitive and unacceptable. Virtually all Egyptian communities border along the Nile River.
The image of water suddenly appearing in the desert – of new life springing up – is a powerful one. This image spoke to the people of Israel when they were under slavery and oppression and exile, and gave them hope that God was able to bring life out of death. May it give us hope today that all the habitual, culturally and religiously sanctioned acts of oppression against women will one day come to an end.
And there are certainly signs of life starting to appear in those cultural and spiritual deserts that exclude and diminish women. On February 14, as part of the One Billion Rising initiative, in various communities in Egypt women gathered to march and even dance in the streets.
As Daily News Egypt puts it: “The One Billion Rising initiative is a global call to women survivors of violence and those who love them to gather safely in community outside places where they are entitled to justice – courthouses, police stations, government offices, school administration buildings, work places, sites of environmental injustice, military courts, embassies, places of worship, homes, or simply public gathering places where women deserve to feel safe but too often do not.”
The Egyptian organizer of the event, Sally Salama, said, “the event was created to raise more awareness about women’s rights. We hope to educate people about women’s rights, help end sexual harassment in Egypt, end violence against women and hopefully one day achieve the ultimate goal of having legal action against sexual harassment and violence in an attempt to end impunity.”
The story from the fourth chapter of the Good News According to John, of Jesus encountering a foreign woman at a country well, may remind us that there is another way – the way revealed by Jesus.
In an era when men did not converse with women as equals, Jesus validated the voice of this woman, who as a Samaritan would have been subject to discrimination from Jews, but who also who seemed to be relegated to being an outsider in her own community. In many places in the Middle East, the same kinds of barriers that separated people like Jesus from people like the Samaritan woman still exist.
But the Gospel suggests that Jesus treated her with respect and not contempt, as he did the woman about to be stoned for adultery, and the Canaanite woman who appealed to him about her afflicted daughter, and no doubt countless other women who were not named.
In every era there are those who, like Jesus, become signs of hope, signs of another way of living, and their witness challenges and encourages people like us to stand up and make a difference. The Egyptian ankh, another of the key symbols of this service, serves as a reminder of the biblical directive to choose life.
Today is the World Day of Prayer, so as we gather primarily to pray, let us contemplate: what is the primary thing we pray for today? I would suggest that it be that God’s kingdom would indeed come and that God’s will would indeed be done – on earth as in heaven – as it is in the kingdom – and that the way Jesus treated people would become the universal standard.
So what we may consider today and pray about is: what would that kingdom look like for people in Egypt and the Middle East? What would it look like for us? “Think globally; act locally.” I urge you to continue to pray and act in a way that makes the Kingdom of God present and real to people here and beyond.
The Venerable Grant Rodgers+