Exodus 1:8-20 Barbara Dixon, Auckland Diocesan President - Association of Anglican Women.
Phil. 4:1-9 Rev. Iritana Hankins, Mother’s Union Provincial President New Zealand and Polynesia.
Luke 18:1-5 Lynnore Pikaahu, Kahui Wahine o Te Tai Tokerau.
Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa. Talofa lava, Malo e lelei, Ni sa bula vinaka, Namaste, Kia orana, Taloha ni, Fakaalofa lahi atu, and warm greetings to you all. Thank you for the invitation to share with you today. It is wonderful to see so many friends and to meet new ones. For those who don’t know me I grew up here in central Auckland. My forebears came to Aotearoa 150 years ago, mostly as economic migrants from Britain, although my DNA says I am also descended from the Irish, the Spanish, the Greeks, and I have a smidge of European Jew in me. I have been ordained for 30 years, and have lived in Mangere for the last 26 years with my husband Peter and our family.
When I was first asked to preach today I wondered how I was going to weave together Aotearoa Sunday, Christ the King Sunday, Women’s ministry, the Hostel of the Holy Name and at one point the farewell for the archbishop! Fortunately the wonderfully organic process that led to today’s liturgy settled on the celebration of women’s ministry on Aotearoa Sunday. As an aside I would encourage those of you who are historians, or who write liturgical resources, to dust your pens off and prepare some resources for Aotearoa Sunday. When I was looking for background material I found out that back in 1980 Kingi Ihaka proposed to General Synod that Aotearoa Sunday be added to the church’s lectionary. It was intended to be a day for the church to pray for and remember the Bishopric of Aotearoa. Aside from a few collects, I could not find any resources for today on that theme. It is important that the whole church can remember the stories of our history, and resources for this Sunday will help that.
I’ve had several opportunities lately to reflect on women’s ministries so today I’d like to offer some thoughts in conjunction with the readings we’ve just heard. What is women’s ministry you might ask, and is it any different from men’s ministry? Why are we singling ministry out on gender lines in the first place? And what is it about the ministry that women specifically might do, or choose to do, or can only do, or is it ministry to and for and with women?
Ministry itself is the task of all of us; it is our way of being in the world; the way we serve others, motivated by love and compassion and justice, and by God’s love for us. We are all, female and male, called into ministry as Christians. It can be easy for us in our church where women can hold the same roles as men, to forget that life for many women is not very rosy. The irony is that when life is not good for women, it is not going to be good for men or children either, regardless of who holds the power.
I’ll share one example of what I mean. For 17 years until last year I worked in the family violence field with men who were abusive towards their loved ones. Abuse is more than physical and includes any attempt to control someone against their will. The most recent term that police use is Family Harm which acknowledges the wide ripples caused by this issue. I won’t spend time on details, but I know that you will know the effect of that. I know, because it is a rare family that is not touched by family violence. I also know that the nature of family violence is that it is usually kept hidden out of shame and fear, by both the
perpetrator and the victim. While doing that work, I often talked about keeping the balance between compassion and accountability. We need to be compassionate towards the perpetrators of violence, because they are in pain. They are usually victims of violence themselves, and they often lack alternative strategies to behave differently. However compassion on its own is dangerous. Compassion on its own excuses bad behaviour, which is why accountability is needed. Regardless of how painful your life is you are never justified in abusing others. You are accountable for your behaviour.
What does this have to do with women’s ministry? Women and children, by a huge majority, are the victims of family violence, both inside and outside the church. It is a key issue stopping people reaching their potential. And based on the crime figures which get reported publically, and the fact that so much goes unreported, we know that there is a huge, submerged iceberg of problems in all of the societies represented here today. It is closely linked with addictions and mental health issues and child abuse. But don’t be fooled into believing the media – it is not a South Auckland only problem – it occurs across society. If our ministry is about sharing good news, and about serving our families and communities with love, what does this look like in practice? What does it mean in our own families and churches and workplaces? What would ministry look like if we factored these issues into our focus in a proactive way?
To help respond to this question let me draw your attention to Shiphrah and Puah. They were the Hebrew midwives from our first reading today. The reading is set in a time when the descendants of Joseph lived in Egypt; however the Egyptians had forgotten the story of how Joseph had helped them, and they were persecuting the Hebrews. The Pharaoh had instructed the midwives to kill any boy babies born to Hebrew women. When he heard that this wasn’t happening, he summoned Shiphrah and Puah and demanded to know why. The midwives told him “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.”
Really? Think about it! How likely is it that the midwives never made it in time for any Hebrew births?! And even if they were always late, which midwives seldom are, they could still have carried out the Pharaoh’s wishes. These women used their power and knowledge to outwit the Pharaoh. They were subversive in literally the most life giving of ways. They knew the Pharaoh’s knowledge of birth and babies would have been slim, and they lied to him to preserve life.
On many levels this story is representative of many women’s lives today. While I don’t think this story sanctions deception in general, it does portray a situation where women were forced to be creative with the facts in order to save lives. This put their own lives in danger; imagine what the Pharaoh would have done to them if he had discovered the truth. They were willing to take that risk to preserve life.
Women as the bearers of life, in most societies are expected to have the primary focus on the wellbeing of children. This has changed dramatically in recent times, for the better, and most men take an active role in caring for their children to the benefit of everyone. This doesn’t take away from the fact that it is women’s bodies that grow and nurture babies. However when violence, addictions and mental health issues are layered on top of family life, it becomes really challenging to care well for children. Add poverty into the mix and we have a toxic soup that means it is very difficult for people to live life to their full potential. It also means that people may be creative with the truth, just as Puah and Shiphrah had to be, in order to survive. Understanding this means we can exercise compassion alongside accountability.
I know some of you are actively involved in the family violence field and I would encourage you to be like the widow in our reading from Luke today and be persistent in keeping this issue on our church and community and family agendas. This is not just something that happens outside the church. The widow continued to lobby the difficult judge for justice. Notice that in the reading the judge describes her as bothersome; and other versions use the word troublesome. This passage is often interpreted as an example for women to persist even if they are described negatively. I think it is on one level a description of how hard women often have to work to have their voices heard. I’d also like to introduce another possibility – that the woman is a metaphor for God. She continued to strive and plead and advocate for justice, in the face of negativity and opposition. Even though the judge clearly gave in to get rid of the widow, her advocacy still achieved the justice she sought. God also continues to call us to justice, even if we refuse to listen. However we choose to understand this passage, there is a clear challenge to us to persist in pursuit of what is right.
While not all of us will have a specific ministry focus on preventing FV, all of us are called to practice compassion and accountability; to care for others where we find them. We need to be aware of the challenges in people’s lives, known and hidden, that prevent them from reaching their potential. We cannot turn a blind eye because it is hard or uncomfortable or scary. We need to be open and safe people for others to turn to. We need to offer personal support and as well as to advocate for change. When women and children are safe in Aotearoa and the Pacific then we may not need to have such a specific focus on women’s safety and women’s ministry. Until then, we need to keep a focus on the gender issues. You may hear people say “but we need to look after men too, or women can also be violent towards men”. Yes both of those statements are true. However we need to primarily focus on those whose lives are most disadvantaged, in order that everyone’s lives will be better.
As a comparison, many of you will have heard of the “Black Lives Matter” movement in the US, which stands in the tradition of social justice movements that campaign against violence and systemic racism toward black people. The statistics are clear in the US that people of colour are seriously disadvantaged by every social and economic indicator. However this makes some people uncomfortable, guilty, or angry and there has been a counter slogan recently of “All Lives Matter”. Of course all lives do matter, but the point of the Black Lives Matter movement is that we need to focus on those who are missing out the most, and address that.
Here in New Zealand we have similar issues although Pakeha New Zealand particularly uses a number of mechanisms to deflect the focus from our terrible indicators of violence, poverty, health, prison population and educational achievement. We have a tendency to blame the victim, and to say directly or imply that if people tried hard enough, spent their money wisely, stayed in school, they would be able to change these statistics. This is where we need our storytellers and our history; where times like Aotearoa Sunday are important opportunities to encourage all tikanga to remember the injustices perpetrated on Maori and Pacific peoples. We – not just Tikanga Maori, or Tikanga Pasefika – but also Tikanga Pakeha need to understand and share the stories of our respective experiences.
Going back to the example of FV, whether we attribute this to colonisation, or neo-liberal economic agendas, or individual choice – all of which I think play a part – we still need to have compassion for those who suffer, as well as expecting accountability – of all of us – for abusive behaviour that is personal and abusive behaviour that is structural.
Women’s ministry is often focussed on women and children, sometimes by intention, and sometimes because that has been the only acceptable place for women to minister and work. Nevertheless, over the generations that has led women to be involved in movements for the vote, for healthcare, childcare, and family violence prevention. Many of you here today have been involved in Mothers’ Union, AAW, Youth groups, trade unions, professional associations, preschool committees, and school committees. All of those are focussed on making the world a better place, and on ensuring fair access to resources for all.
My challenge and encouragement for all of us today, and particularly for the work we do as women, is to keep it real. Listen to and learn our histories so we understand how we got to this place. Sit with the discomfort of stories that may be different from what we have known. Pay attention to what is actually going on in people’s lives. Ask the question “who is missing out here?” Be creative, and subversive, and bothersome with and on behalf of women, because the world will be a better place for everyone when it is a better place for women.
How do we sustain ourselves as we exercise this kind of ministry alongside those who are hurting and disadvantaged and discriminated against? How do we maintain hope in the midst of human pain?
I found some helpful words from Rev. Dr Rebecca Dudley. Rebecca is an International Human Rights expert currently working for the New Zealand Red Cross. She said:
“If you find hope easy, you have not been paying attention. You have not sat with someone long enough. You haven’t listened closely enough. You have not cried hard enough. You have not been angry enough at injustice. If you start with the right question and you face it squarely, you will hear and see some unbearable things. Here what I know for sure: Hope starts by looking steadily at reality. It goes straight through the middle of despair. Then it is pulled into God’s will, for the world God loves so much. Hope is freely available. But it does not come cheap.”
The reading from Philippians rounds this off helpfully for us. In the midst of conflict and worry and distress we are encouraged to be gentle, to rejoice in God, to bring our concerns to God, and to focus on all that is good. No single individual can change the world: that is not our job. We are all called, women and men, to use our gifts wisely and minister where we can best bring God’s love and justice.
And in the last words of the reading from Philippians:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. Amen.