Sermon on UNCSW at Brent House, 3/8/09
I just got back last night from an absolutely incredible week. I spent nine days in New York at the UN Commission on the Status of Women’s annual conference as an Anglican observer. I was completely overwhelmed by the number of people and issues and events and all the work and talking and networking going nonstop. I filled an entire journal and haven’t had time to process any of it. But I think what came out for me as the most important part of the conference was that it was a place where stories were told. A place where stories that are not often spoken aloud could be spoken and, more importantly, heard, and reaffirm each other. So it’s in this mindset that I approached the readings this week. And as I was writing this sermon I also kept hearing Ben’s sermon from two weeks ago saying, you haven’t understood any of this yet, and should probably stay silent.
But I think I’m going to ignore that advice and talk about it anyway. I’m going to start with the gospel, because the first time I read it, I thought it was another obnoxious catch-22. If you try to save your life, you will lose it, but if you give your life to Jesus you will save it – so does that mean that if you try to save your life by giving it over to Jesus that you will in fact lose it? But I don’t think that’s what’s actually going on here. I think these are instructions for how to save your life, for how to make your life come alive, as it were, and be the fullest life if can be. I have a story in mind that might help explain how I’m thinking about this.
This story was told to me by a woman from the Salvation Army who had been stationed in Papua New Guinea as a missionary for two years. While she was there, there was a woman in her mission who drove each week into the most dangerous neighborhood, the places controlled by various rival gangs, to do Bible study. And the first time she drove out to this neighborhood, she got held up by the local gang, who demanded her car. She looked at them and said, “Okay. I’m getting out, I’m going to teach here for three hours. And when I’m finished I want the car back here.” And when she got back, three hours later, there was the car!
This woman drove out to this neighborhood every week for a number of months, and every single time she drove there, she was held for her car. And each time, she told them, “Okay, but I want to find it back here when I’m done.” And every single time her car was returned to her by the time she was finished.
Later, Victoria told us, that community started its own church. And the first person they sent to the Salvation Army seminary to come back and lead them was the leader of that gang who used to hold up the missionary on her way to Bible study.
I had the readings for this week in mind as I listened to Victoria’s story, and it seemed like the perfect explanation of Jesus’s assertion in today’s gospel – “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Only by letting go, by giving up control over the things we think are ours, can they be fully put to use. Only then can they achieve the full potential, often in ways we cannot imagine and therefore cannot bring to fruition on our own.
Now it might seem trite to equate one’s life with one’s car (though there are plenty of teenage boys in my hometown who would think otherwise), but this got me thinking about different substitutes for the word “life” in this story, or alternate meanings for the word, what it might mean to save our lives, what it is that we are saving. I think the answer may lie in Christ’s reaction to Jesus and also in the reading from Genesis, and in the power of telling stories.
Sitting in workshops, presentations, and plenary sessions all week, I heard women giving voice to their stories. I heard story after story about invisible people and the incredible violence done to them. Women beaten by their husbands in their own homes. Sexual violence used as a weapon of war. Lesbian women abused by their families or communities, raped, forcibly impregnated. We watched a video on domestic abuse. You see a couple sitting at a table, having dinner, and you hear screaming and the sounds of a woman being beaten coming through the wall of the other apartment. At one point, the man gets up, walks into another room, and comes back with a baseball bat. He goes out into the hall, and you think, oh good, he’s going to do something to stop this. He knocks on the door of the other apartment and a man opens the door. He hands the man the baseball bat and walks away. The screen goes dark, and then reads, “If you stay silent, you might as well be helping.”
So there is subtler violence as well. There is the violence done by not recognizing issues, by not naming them, not speaking about them. There is violence in culturally relativist arguments that excuse forcing particular groups to take on untenable proportions of labor. There is violence in not recognizing women who have no place in their societies without being under the guardianship of male relatives – father or husbands who effectively own them. I heard stories of a woman forced to remarry after her husband’s death, a woman imprisoned for her activism, women who do not have the right to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS by changing their husbands’ sexual practices, or, closer to home, women who are passed over for job promotions, who draw smaller salaries, and who experience, in myriad subtle and blatant ways, the persistent sexism of gendered expectations and professions.
One important theme in today’s readings is naming things for what they are. We see the importance of this practice in the reading from Genesis when Abram and Sarai are so transformed by their experience of God’s blessing that they are given new names by God. The new names, Abraham and Sarah, mark the great event that has taken place in their lives.
And then in the gospel reading, we have this seemingly abrupt and intense reaction from Jesus towards Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” We might imagine Peter taking Jesus aside and saying, look, you’re embarrassing people, you’re being a little loud, we don’t really want to talk about this…. And Jesus flips out. Peter has committed an offense more grievous than I think most of us would consider being shy or embarrassed to be. But Jesus says, you are thinking of human things, not divine, and if you are embarrassed by me, I will be embarrassed by you also.
Peter is not willing to declare the unpleasant, uncomfortable truth of Jesus’s fate, but unless he does so, his concern for restraint will keep him from being fully part of Jesus’s divine and declamatory mission.
Truth-telling. The ability to call something by its name. The power of naming something for what it is. I saw the power of stories around me all week. Everywhere I saw women, from dozens of countries, all ages, religions, races, coming together to share their stories, to reaffirm for one another, not only that patterns of discrimination and violence exist, but that these have compelled us to take action. It is only in naming the iniquities, by calling out our collective complaints, that we realize and can admit that problems must be solved. We cannot sit on the uneasy squeamishness within ourselves. There is power and life in wrestling aloud and in community with the problems and injustices we perceive, perhaps often in silence. Those who try to save their lives, save face, reputation, moderacy, by remaining silent and in line, in control of their personal histories and the elements of their stories or knowledge that they share with the world, will lose the awesome gift, the potential, of being alive. Such a life is not a life that will bring the glory of God to fruition, will not foster the manifestation of dignity and love for all members of God’s creation, will not help others to become fully alive. Will not send a former gang leader to seminary. No moderate and measured reputation is worth risking that. We cannot offer a ponderously cautious approach in place of our lives, entirely and passionately committed to truth.
So I would urge us to consider; what are the truths we do not tell in our own lives? What joys or concerns do we suppress, what do we not share with others that might, unbeknownst to us, be blessings of clarification and validation for other people’s stories? What are we unable or unwilling to name and how might we begin to name it?