A Sermon Preached at Christ Episcopal Church, Hackensack, NJ - September 23, 2001
Let us pray (sung):
In this world there's a whole lot of trouble, baby, in this world there's a
whole lot of pain.
In this world there's a whole lot of trouble but a whole lot of ground to gain.
Why take when you could be giving? Why watch as the world goes by?
It's a hard enough life to be living, why walk when you can fly?
+In the name of God. Amen.
As I sat down to write this sermon, the first thought that came to me was this: "Well, girl, you must REALLY love Bill Parnell." It's true. I do love your rector with all my heart. But, even so! What was I thinking to have agreed to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the passage of the canon to ordain women in the Episcopal Church less than two weeks after the greatest disaster in this country since the bombing of Pearl Harbor?
I guess the truth is that I wasn't thinking. There are some things you simply don't have to think about. It's a matter of living what you say you believe. Walking the walk, not just talking the talk. Knowing that you've come this far by faith.
We say - all the time, or at least once a year at Easter - that we are a "Resurrection People." We believe in the resurrection. We say that every Sunday in the Creed. And, in the final analysis, the specifics of that belief really don't matter much. We believe that death will not overcome us. We believe in hope. We believe in possibility. We believe that "all things are being brought to their perfection," "the old is being made new," "that which has been caste down is being raised up," even if right now "we see through a glass darkly."
But, these are hard times to be a "resurrection people" - to celebrate, I mean REALLY celebrate the significant pieces of our history when our present is filled with anxiety and uncertainty and our past as well as our future seems to lie buried under 500,000 tons of rubble in a hole at the thin end of the island of Manhattan.
Last Saturday and Sunday, it was my privilege to have spent 14 hours volunteering with the rescue workers at the Seamen's Church Institute, a ministry of the Episcopal Church on Water Street, in the heart of NYC's financial district and on the waterfront of the South Port of NY.
Of the many tasks I was pressed into that night, I found myself in a truck delivering supplies at the makeshift emergency relief center at St. Paul's Chapel - a ministry of Trinity, Wall Street. In the truck with me were two women who were neighbors and had been volunteering at SCI since Tuesday afternoon. It was the first time they had been this close to "ground zero."
The looks on their faces matched the devastation all around us. One woman got on her cell phone, "Yes. I'm here. No, that building is gone. Completely gone. Oh, look! I can see your building. Yes! It's still standing. Yes, I can see it. Honest. Yes, it is still standing." She begins to cry. "Why would I lie to you? I'm right here and I can see it. I know it's unbelievable. Of course, it doesn't make sense. You must believe me. I don't know why it's here and others are not. I can't answer that. I can only tell you what I see, and even though I can't believe it either, you have to believe me."
I thought of another, ancient time when another woman, having seen the empty tomb with her own eyes, made an unbelievable call of her own and was not believed.
Believe it or not, women are part of the reason we were attacked. There are three major reasons, we are told, that the Islamic countries hate us enough to dance in the streets after learning of the disaster at the WTC. The first is because we are understood to be a Christian nation and they believe that the religion of Muslim ought to be the religion of the world. Another is our alliance with and support of the nation of Israel. Finally, the United States is seen as Evil because we are seen as morally depraved - and, a significant indicator of that moral depravity is the status of equality that we assign to women.
Before we jump to the conclusion that these are ignorant barbarians who ought to be, as one Seattle journalist said, "bombed back to the Stone Age," let us first consider the log in our own eye before we criticize the speck that we believe blurs the vision of our Muslim brothers and sisters. I don't say this to "blame the victim" but to put this in some context.
Christian triumphalism has been the energy that has marred our missionary efforts around the globe and in all ages. Consider what we have done to the Native Americans in this country - from the time of Columbus to the time of the great Western Migration. Consider the missionary efforts in South and Central America -- or on the Continent of Africa. Just read Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible to get a sense of the effects of Christian triumphalism.
If you are sitting there thinking, "Well, that was then and this is now," let me point out to you that it was just last Wednesday that the two major spokesmen of Christianity in this country (other than the Pope), had something to say about that. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson said that the tragedy of the WTC was God's punishment for ". . . the feminists, the women who have had abortions . . ." along with their favorite targets of LGBT people.
I hear you. Some of you are saying, "Yes, but those are extremists - the same kind of people who are the extremists in the Muslim faith. Episcopalians are hardly extremists. We are not only 'mainline Protestants' - we drew the line down the middle of the religious map and practically defined the mainline."
Let me remind you that we are here today because it was only 25 years ago that this church approved the canon, the church law, which "allowed" the ordination of women in our church as "regular" and "legal." And, let me remind you that there are still three bishops - Iker, Schofield, Ackerman - in three dioceses - Ft. Worth, San Joaquin, and Quincy - who still refuse to ordain women - despite the fact that it has been canon law for twenty five years.
Oh, they'll tell you that it has nothing to do with the fact that they like women. They love women! Jack Iker of Ft. Worth, Texas will tell you that he even married one. Has dinner with her every night that he's home (which she cooks for him.) Isn't he cute?
These men are not 'extremists.' They are not 'fundamentalist.' They consider themselves 'orthodox.' So do most of the people who practice the Muslim faith. I want to be very, very clear: the 19 men who bombed the WTC on September 11 were extremists of the Muslim religion. But, whether extremist or fundamentalist or orthodox - Muslim, Jewish or Christian - women bear the burden of a significant role in the theology and the morality - as well as the pathology - of how religion and spirituality are given expression.
Consider: I'm told that the day after the ordination of Eleven women at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania a seminary professor gathered his students in a class room at General Theological Seminary in New York and said, "Gentlemen (and, they were all, of course, gentlemen), the Age of Certainty has ended."
You know, of all of the quotes I have heard about that earth-moving day in August of 1974, that one comes closest to expressing why it is that the ordination of women is still resisted in many parts of the Episcopal Church. And, make no mistake: while we all nod our heads and pat our selves on the back for our progressive stance, there is still enormous resistance to the ordination of women. We see it over and over again in the deployment process, and the quality of the positions that are available to women.
Why? What are we so afraid of? Here's the Gospel truth: Women change everything. We do! Do you really think that it was a coincidence that, shortly after the ordination of women, there came a major resurgence in the ancient order of the deaconate? Or, what can only be described as a 'renewal movement' in the understanding of the ministry of the laity?
Oh, certainly, there were those who were opposed to the ordination of women who capitalized on these movements in an attempt to keep women "in their place" - but, who do you think started these movements in the first place? Do you think it mere coincidence that, shortly after the ordination of women, we started talking about 'inclusive language' in earnest? Or, began to 'walk that talk' but actively including others who had been excluded: African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and every other member of the great diversity of God's creation?
Women change everything. That's a warning and a great, great blessing. We got a glimpse of that warning in today's gospel. The woman with the alabaster jar of expensive ointment (I'm really annoyed by her anonymity. Let's name her, shall we? Let's call her . . . Stella.) - So, according to St. Matthew (26:6-13), Stella comes in where she's not even invited and begins to pour expensive ointment on the head of Jesus.
St. Luke reports the same story (7:36-50), but says that Stella - who, he says, was known as a 'sinner' - crashed the dinner party of an important Pharisee where Jesus was guest. Luke's version of Stella's story is a bit more dramatic, as she weeps and washes his feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. The effect of her actions, however, is the same. The men are outraged! In Matthew's story, the disciples ask, "Why this waste? For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor."
But, Jesus speaks not of the common elements of stewardship but of the other divine currency of stewardship - the currency that is of the Realm of God. He speaks of resurrection . . . and forgiveness . . . and remembrance. Stella, a good disciple of Jesus, knows, perhaps only intuitively, that Jesus has come here to change everything. To turn everything upside down and back 'round right again. Stella knew even before St. Paul could write the words in a letter to the ancient church in Galatia, that in Christ there would no longer be slave or free, Jew or Greek, male or female. Stella, a good disciple of Jesus, may well have been the Mary Chapin Carpenter of her day, whose actions begged the question, Why Walk When You Can Fly?
I began this sermon with the first verse of a wonderful song by Mary Chapin Carpenter. I think it is a fitting tribute to those brave women of 25 years ago. Women who knew and understood their call to ministry as grounded solidly in the priesthood of all believers that we have come to know as the laity. Women who knew and understood their ministry as solidly grounded in the ancient order of deacons. Women who knew and understood their ministry as solidly grounded in the ancient order of priests. And, women who were yet to understand and know their ministry as being solidly grounded in the ancient order of bishops - the episcopai - the pontifical bridge builders of one age to another, one culture to another, one people to another, one language to another.
Let us now praise those women who knew and understood that the ordination of women, the allowance of women into the corridors of power in the institutional church would change everything, and so were willing to risk everything in order to accomplish that which God had inspired them to do. And, they did. And so, based on the outrageous actions of an unknown woman (whom we today call Stella), the world began to change. And, it is changing, still. Many hate us for it. Those who do not want the "natural order" as they understand it revealed to them in sacred scripture, to be disturbed. They do not want to share the power that has been guaranteed to them in that particular ordering of nature.
But, the world is changing. The world has changed and is transformed and will never again be the same. Because, in part, women are taking their rightful, "natural" role as co-creators with God in a creation that has been evolving since the dawn of creation.
Because, women have been living out the joy that is at the center of all creation despite centuries of oppression. Because women have been inviting themselves into places where they have not been welcomed. Asking the question that no one wants to hear. Indeed, we have been singing a new song in a strange land for centuries. And, our voices will neither be stilled nor silenced.
In the midst of the disaster and tragedy that have been our constant companions for nearly two weeks, I think it is right that women lead us into a remembrance of the sacredness - and the sin - of our story as a people of God. In the midst of the grief and the sorrow that seem almost too much to bear, I think it is right that a woman's song lead us out of the ashes and into the new day of hope. In the midst of the hatred of our diversity, it is right that a woman's song begin to build bridges across centuries and cultures and people.
If Stella (don't' you just LOVE that name) sang a song as she danced and poured expensive ointment on the head of Jesus, I'd be willing to bet that she sang a song of which Mary Chapin Carpenter's song is but a modern echo. If any song could capture the spirit of those brave women who paved the way for the reality of our lives, so beautifully captured in that poem we read as psalm, "Cell phones and paychecks," it is this one. If I had but one song to sing to pour ointment on our broken hearts and heal our wounded spirits, it would be this. You may think me outrageous to sing a song in these dark days. I offer no apology. It's what women do. Because we know that our belief is that we are a Resurrection People. Because we believe that death will not overcome us. Because we believe in hope. And possibility. And new life.
With apologies to Mary Chapin Carpenter, I'll call this, Stella's Song: And in this world there's a whole lot of golden. In this world there's a whole lot of plain. In this world you've a soul for a compass, and a heart for a pair of wings. There's a star on the far horizon, rising bright in an azure sky. For the rest of the time that you're given, why walk when you can fly?
In the name of the One God, who is known to some as Allah, who is known to others as Jehovah, who is followed by others as Buddha, and who is revealed to us in Jesus the Christ. Amen.
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