Wednesday, 30 March 2011

International Women's Day Talk

A few week's back I was invited to preach a sermon at the end of Monmouth's Women's Literature Festival - as  a kind of closing event. I've decided -  as a result of some interesting responses from the 100 odd people who witnessed it - to make it available here. Hope it has some value. Apologies for length and you should bear in mind that this is a guide text - I departed from it in several places as thoughts/ideas struck me. Enjoy!

I’m sure we’ve all come across Lewis Carroll’s infamous Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland. She of ‘Off with their heads’ fame. As a role model for women she may be of limited appeal; how about the White Queen? She appears in Through the Looking Glass and is notable for living her life backwards through time; she offers Alice ‘Jam tomorrow and Jam yesterday, but never jam today’. She is rather dotty and perhaps quite mad. Surely no more a role model for women than the Queen of Hearts? Yet even as a comedic character she says something which resonates closer to many women’s experience more than might be comfortable: for she tells Alice that when she was younger she practised believing impossible things for half an hour a day and that sometimes she believed six impossible things before breakfast.
As someone who regularly feels caught up in impossible things, surely she must at some point in her career have been a priest and feminist theologian.
And leaving aside the oft made joke that modern western women – women like ourselves -  are skilled at multi-tasking to the extent that we are juggling if not impossible, then certainly difficult ideas and tasks every day of our lives, consider the reality for the vast majority of women and girls in our world. And I am not underestimating the pain of men or boys, but it is those with xx chromosomes who bear the brunt of the world’s depredations.
We’d like to imagine that trafficking in women and girls would be illegal throughout the world and yet there is sex trafficking on a major scale in many countries and in over 1 third of countries there is a legal grey area which makes it de facto legal. In over half of the countries of the world women are legally de facto second class citizens – that is even where legislation exist to protect women they are systematically treated as of less value than men in personal, social and employment matters. In half of the world’s nations women are educated to a level at least 15% lower than men and in many cases it is much worse. And in 90% of countries, women’s physical security cannot be taken for granted. Our world is full of people living impossible lives and still struggling to believe in what can appear to be those most impossible things of all: hope for the future, faith in self, others and the faithfulness of God, and in love not shattered by abuse, dark compromise and exploitation. And so very many of them are women.

And Jesus says, ‘All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted’.
It is a striking statement. For those of us on a Lenten journey with Christ towards Jerusalem it reminds us – along with that shattering parable of the Pharisee and the Publican to which it has become attached – of the real significance of our presumed self-importance to God. That God is truly interested in our need, our vulnerability and hunger for wholeness and forgiveness rather than the way we may inclined to pump ourselves up with pride and self-value about our achievements, possessions and activities.

What would you say if I told you that among feminist theologians – that is, for people like me – there’s a huge question mark about the extent to which Jesus’ statement about humility is a helpful thing for women to hear? Indeed, what if I told you that what Jesus says is exactly the opposite of what women – as bearers of the image of God – need to hear? Maybe if you’re a fully paid up feminist this won’t come as a surprise; for many my suggestion may come as yet more confirmation of just how subversive feminists actually are...how dare we suggest Jesus may be wrong.

Well let’s see if I can give some account of myself before you throw me out of the church.
Now we all will have met many self-confident – perhaps over-confident women. And truth is that in our society women and girls have come a long way. But the truth is – I sense – that for all the changes in women’s prospects we are still inclined to be judged by how we look and by the extent to which we conform to a stereotype based on pleasing men.
Well if that’s too high-faluting then let me say this. In my ministry I have come across so many women and girls who are caught in situations which frankly would not be put up with by the vast majority of men – either in work situations where they are paid less, in home situations where they are working yet doing the vast majority of the work, or in relationships which are shattering in their abusiveness and lack of hope.
And part of the deep reasons for the acceptance of these situations lies in our social conditioning which tells us to accept things, seek the peace, try to accommodate, make things work. Which says ‘put others first’; which says ‘do not put yourself forward’; which suggests a particular kind of modesty and humility.
Women in our society are taking on increasingly demanding roles and yet so many of us hold corrosive self images. And if that is the case here how much more in so many places?

So what if pride – which is of course one of the classical deadly sins – isn’t a sin for women but a great virtue? A Christian virtue?
For that woman who has spent her whole life in the church doing the jobs no one else wants to do and doing it without complaint...
For the powerful creative woman who suffers the insults of both men and women for daring to speak up for change ...
For the woman who suffers neglect and violence in her relationships and yet still hungers for the slightest show of affection because her upbringing has told her to look for it...
For the girl who thinks she is only what she can look like or what she wears...
For the countless millions of women and girls around the world who are undervalued and treated as sex objects or are abandoned...

But...Jesus says ‘All who exalt themselves will be humbled and all humble themselves will be exalted.’
Perhaps the reward for women’s patience, for our willingness to be humble, will be our exaltation in the kingdom of heaven...
But how long will we wait? For how long will that line be used to control and limit expectations?

What if though we all need to reach deeper? One of the things about feminism that is often ignored is that it seeks to free up both men and women. That’s it’s not about women being on top. And it is perhaps in this regard that we as Lenten pilgrims need to reflect again on the call to humility...to go deeper than the shallow account we often give of it...

What is the call to humility really? Is it the call to put ourselves down as so many women have through the centuries? Surely not...for Christ is not calling us to crawl like second rate beings but to stand up to our full height...

The call to humility is the call to be our full and true selves...to not only appreciate that we are all, male and female, bearers of the image of Christ, but also invited to grow into the Likeness of Christ.

Surely we’ve all come across countless examples of false humility – of folk who’ve perhaps are saying things like ‘Oh well it was nothing’, ‘I’m not really that good at this’ but are really communicating a very strong sense of pride; and I accept that some people are genuinely just being modest, but often there are other human agendas going on...
And where this becomes extremely toxic is where folk – often but not exclusively women -  end up selling themselves short...in other words actually being much less than God is calling them to be...

Think of Christ...if he is our model of humility, what does he reveal as a model for women and men? Well, he certainly is no shrinking violet – warm, humane, generous, but also direct; able to deal with power and authority when required...to meet people as himself and as their selves...

We might say, but he was Christ, the Son of God...he was a man in hte 1st century without the extra [problems of being a woman, and of course one of the lessons of Lent for us all is how far each of us and the church community as a whole has to travel in order to fully grow into the Likeness of Christ. But that is our calling and we are called, individually and corporately, to grow; to start here and now, to begin again and again.

And at the heart of this humility is seeing ourselves right. You know, one of the key issue with the Pharisee in the story – a much respected movement it should be said – was not his religious commitment but his human inability to see himself aright; and the publican isn’t humble because he’s crawling on the floor, scraping the knee, but because he sees where he is and what he has come to and comes to God with his need, as RS Thomas puts it, as green as a leaf.

Our vision in this life is always limited – now we see through the glass darkly, then we shall see face to face, but Lent perhaps provides an opportunity to strip away some of the layers of deception and see our true selves.
To take hold of the God-given power and energy that lies within us and not pretend that we are less than we are...not to be arrogant about but honest and real...
And also to see our failings for what they are...rarely the crushing beasts we are inclined to make them, but opportunities for change and for commitment...
There is a world of pain and exclusion and exploitation out there and it is affected women and girls particularly...but we in all humility are not necessarily the helpless, but the powerful – the ones who can affect change as much as our sisters and brothers have done before us. And if this seems the counsel of madness to you, then so be it...it has taken women labelled mad from time immemorial to change the world...believing impossible things until the impossible has become lived truth.