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“Empowerment of Women” -- Mark 14: 1-9
Sermon to the House of Bishops


4/10/2008

“Women and children are the canaries in the mine in any conflict.  They are the first to suffer.  If you want to see how just a country is, look at their women and children.”  Words spoken by Ester Mambo, Dean of St. Paul’s Anglican Theological Seminary in Kenya.  She was speaking two weeks ago at a remarkable conference which a friend of mine helped organize, at St. James’ in Richmond VA called ‘Womankind’.

 

At just about the same time, you probably know, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon initiated a global campaign to try to end violence against women, an issue he said “that cannot wait.”

 

So it is timely that we should be discussing together our response as a church to the Third Millennium Development Goal, and in particular the “empowerment of women.”

 

I would say right away that the word “empower” causes me to pause and requires a certain exegesis for Christians.  This word which the UN uses can include secular ideas of force and competition and dominance.  How should we as Christians understand the word “empower”?  In the New Testament, Jesus’ mission of “empowerment” is more to do with restoration to an individual of their full dignity as a beloved child of God – be they a feared leper, or a despised tax collector, or a shunned woman.  St. John in his Prologue tells us that Jesus came to give to all who received him “power [dunamis] to become children of God.”

 

One of the most beautiful stories of empowerment, or restoration, in the Gospels is the one we’ve just read, Mark’s 14th Chapter.  Jesus is sitting at table in Simon the leper’s house in Bethany.  A woman comes into the room carrying a jar of expensive oil of nard.  Such a jar typically had a very long neck –so that the drops could be measured out and calculated.  Jesus’ presence however  evoked in her this extraordinary act of generosity – of total overflowing love and self offering. She smashes the jar and pours the whole lot over Jesus’ head.

 

And of course such amazing generosity mirrors the sheer overflowing prodigality of God’s love for us.  God does not measure out and calculate his love for each one of us; he smashes the whole jar over us!

 

But what was the response of the others in the room, some of whom were not probably Jesus’ disciples?  They were angry.  “Why was the ointment wasted in this way?”  And they scolded her.  In their measured, calculating response, they were blind to the Kingdom of God breaking into their lives – there and then in that room!

 

In scolding and belittling this woman, they were blind to what was happening.  Their attitude to this woman diminished them and deprived them of their full humanity and dignity.

 

Jesus, however, praises her beautiful act and restores her dignity with a marvelous promise:  “Whenever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

 

What I find is powerful in the story, apart from the woman’s extraordinary act of generosity, is the relationship between the woman and the others in the room.  Whether they realize it of not, they see her as “other”, beneath them – but they are wrong.  God will not allow them or us to do this to any of his children without consequences.  Where one is diminished, all are diminished.  When they scolded and belittled the woman, they were belittling themselves by their mean and calculating response.  And they were blinded. They could not see God’s Kingdom in their midst.

 

Is not this the experience that so many testify to?  That we work and pray for justice for the poor, downtrodden, despised not as some sort of calculating act of charity (rather like those men in room in Bethany who complained that the oil could have been sold and the money given to the poor. We used to call this ‘cold charity’).  We work for justice for the poor because we sense that we are intimately related to them. In some mysterious way God’s poor, God’s beloved ‘anawim’ can unlock the kingdom of God for us, that we may see.

 

At the conference in Richmond, there was a fine lecture by Azat Nafisi, the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran.  She described what it was like living in Iran at the time of the Islamic Revolution.  She said that the most painful thing not the deprivation of freedom, nor forcibly being made to wear the veil.  Worst of all was the forced suppression of women’s creativity.  She called this the “greatest crime of tyranny.”  Most specially Iranian women expressed their creativity through telling stores; they shared themselves through telling their stories.  They felt heard, empowered, by being allowed to tell their stories.  They were forbidden from doing so.

 

But the men suffered too.  They could no longer be in the company of women, and they couldn’t hear the stories.  By disempowering the women, they were disempowering themselves.  No less than those at table with Jesus in Bethany who shunned and scorned the woman for her lavish generosity, the offering of her love, and who in doing so diminished themselves.

 

Empowerment, the restoration of full dignity, is not for some and not for others.  Life is not a zero sum game.  God’s love for every single man, woman and child is overflowing and abundant.  It doesn’t need measuring out.  When Jesus died for all on the Cross, God smashes his jar of precious ointment and pours it freely over all of humanity.  He delights in drenching every one of us with the fragrant oil of his love.

 

So when women or children or anyone else is treated with anything less than full dignity as a child of God, not only is it against common justice, but it breaks God’s heart of love.  And we are all diminished by it.

 

During this time of Lent, as we approach Holy Week, it is particularly apposite to ask ourselves, “Where do I still measure out and calculate my love and generosity?  What parts of my unredeemed self still regard certain people, certain groups, certain “types” as “other”, as not quite deserving of God’s love?

 

Most of us, I guess, work every day within the constraints of budgets and limited resources.  We get used to thinking every day in terms of measuring out limited diocesan resources.  It’s very easy to begin to see God like that:  a God who measures out and calculates how much he loves me and wants to bless me.  But that is not true.  That is not our God.  In our prayers, we maybe need to smash such false images – and simply kneel in awe and wonder before our most generous God who has poured upon us such overflowing love and grace.

 

As you come to the altar to receive our Lord in bread and wine, come “taste and see” that our God has given us nothing less than his very self.  May we give nothing less than ourselves to God, in love and gratitude.  Amen.



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