Gracious God, grant me Hannah’s courage, Esther’s boldness and a surrendered heart like Mary’s that I may speak that which You have placed on my heart, to the glory of your great name…Amen.
My sisters and brothers, it is a humbling challenge for me to assume this role and task at this special service, to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of acknowledged ordained service by women, in this Diocese. I am humbled and yet privileged brothers and sisters, because I come to this particular task with the memory of having been a lay delegate, from this Diocese, to the 1994 Provincial Synod, when the historic vote was taken, for the Anglican Church in these parts to accept and embrace what had already been given divine approval and blessing. The vote back then, cleared the path for the many sisters who were actively waiting to hear and receive the Church’s yes to priestly ordination, to enable them to assume roles and responsibilities for which they had already been trained and formed, but for their gender, were not allowed to fully engage.
I come to the task also brothers and sisters, bearing a heavy burden; you see, having served in this Diocese for the greater portion of my adult life – I am now in my 59th year, having begun my sojourn as a licensed church worker at the age of 27…you can do the math – I have been moved in recent times, to contemplate the continued clarity of my vocation to ordained service in God’s church, in the face of many changes and challenges. As a priest, who happens to be female, I have asked myself, whether those words uttered by Mother Mary in Luke 1:38, still constitute the heartbeat of my own vocation, particularly so when living out that call as I perceive it, seems sometimes at odds with the often perplexing modus operandi of institutional systems that govern our being…Church.
I would not presume for one minute, that I am unique in the deep sadness I sometimes experience, on account of the state of the Church and I am here making specific reference to the Diocese of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands. The truth is, brothers and sisters, we live in unprecedented, unpredictable and unnerving times where increasingly, even in Church where we would hitherto experience a certain security and feel…comforted perhaps [?], it is becoming more apparent that the discomfort and dis-ease that many of us are experiencing in this season, are not simply the result of the hard, uncomfortable, cushion-less pews we have to sit upon weekly [the Church of the Good Shepherd is an anomaly. In fact, I daresay that at the heart of our increasing disenchantment, evidenced in the dearth of vocations to ordained service, decreasing volunteerism and an almost joy-less approach to worship, particularly among younger generations, is a systemic problem I suggest, that will not be fixed apart from a serious and honest assessment of our individual and corporate relationships with God and by extension, with each other. I’m making the point brothers and sisters that the current spiritual malaise that is in evidence in our Diocese, is the result of a systemic problem, the heart of which lay in the fact that we have…lost or perhaps misplaced our first love, on account of which, no remedial measure employed to the exercise of mission will result in the fruitfulness we envision, until the necessary corrective task of fixing that core problem, is engaged. Read again for some perspective, the letter to the Church in Ephesus, found in Revelation 2: 1 – 7.
I do not have any empirical data from which to quote this evening but I will be bold enough to say that, even a casual observation of the male/female complement and ratio in our congregations on a Sunday morning, will support the view that we are by and large, a female-supported Church, governed by a male-oriented system of governance and leadership that seemingly takes little account of the unique character and gift to this Diocese, that is the spirituality of women.
This evening’s service then, though celebratory in essence, is not for nice sounding platitudes that offer no challenge beyond the benediction that will be pronounced at its close. I crave your understanding, therefore, as I dispense with political, even homiletical correctness to share a Word with you by the grace of God, that will hopefully, speak truth, especially to those of us who by God’s gracious design, bear the burdensome joy of being woman.
There is a time-honored story in 1 Samuel 1: 1 – 18 that speaks eloquently to the images I have just tried to paint and presents in addition, a challenge to all…women, who in partnership with the triune God, have the awesome privilege and responsibility of being ordained servants in God’s church.
A cursory reading of the story would, perhaps, cause one to miss the deeper message in which cultural and ecclesial peculiarities and prejudices intermingled and conspired to decry, defame and destroy one who was and remains a model of what submission to Almighty God ought to look like and who just happened to be a woman.
Let me pause at this juncture to declare unequivocally, that I am neither feminist nor womanist; I am a sinner saved by grace, who happens to be a woman and therefore, with womanly fervour, I bring to the exercise of ministry as an ordained servant of God, those attributes of being woman for which I will never make an excuse; and that includes my love for our men folk with whom in partnership, I believe with all my heart, God has called me and others like me to work, for the establishment of God’s Kingdom. So, back to the story…
That deeper meaning and I would venture to say the message of this story to us in this Diocese but, in particular, to all women in ordained and non-ordained service, is borne out in its main characters. There is Eli, Elkanah, Peninah and Hannah all of whom, individually and together, provide insights into aspects of being Church that ought not to be…that cannot be overlooked, if this celebration, informed as it is by the theme Empowered by God for Service, is to be more than an occasion to be observed and a check mark placed in the box that says…done; but also if the systemic problem mentioned earlier is to be corrected so that the Diocesan vision of joyful, energetic discipleship becomes more than words on a paper.
Brothers and sisters, the days of liturgical observances that bear no relevance to prevailing realities – both cultural and ecclesial – are long gone. Whether or not we choose to acknowledge it, we live amidst a prevailing culture that is moving further and further away from the values that first called this nation into being and we ignore this reality as a Diocese, to our great peril and failure with respect to the Great Commission. When a nation can scarcely blush at the wanton disregard for the value and worth of its women, evidenced in the increasing incidents of rape, murder and the trafficking of young girls, even by their own relatives…something is radically wrong! But I put it to us this afternoon, that the Church can only address such situational depravity with any moral authority and credibility and declare ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ when it has itself taken radical steps to fix its own broken system. I am saying brothers and sisters that the Church…this Diocese can only address this nation and point our people towards that which is good and right and wholesome, especially in the treatment of our women, by declaring, in a manner akin to that of the apostle Paul look at us…imitate us…as we imitate Christ.
The story in 1 Samuel, therefore, through its various characters, raises issues that must be dealt with, particularly by this Diocese that sees its role in nation building as that of an assertive influence for good and justice, in the wider society. In other words, it must be a Diocese that knows and practices well, how to care for its own and as a consequence, leads by example, daring to declare to that wider society that it includes in its vision…follow me!
The character Eli in the story therefore, is not just the priest who misunderstands and so misinterprets Hannah’s depth of spirituality; his attitude is one of ecclesial leadership that is as myopic as it is lacking in bowels of compassion. It is the kind of authoritarian leadership if you will, that refuses to look beyond the narrow confines of age-old systems and structures and so invariably, it misses the blessing of perceiving both the moment and movement of God…doing a new thing. Eli represents the kind of ministerial leadership brothers and sisters that is incapable of seeing the forest for the trees and would, perhaps, hew down a poorly looking plant because tending and nurturing it, would require a departure from normal husbandry…a risk that is presumed as not worthy of the taking, because it has never been done before and because the poorly looking plant does not necessarily fit the profile of what a normal tree ought to look like, never mind what potential it may hold interiorly.
The challenge, therefore, for anyone called to leadership within the body of Christ and particularly to ordained leadership at every level in this Diocese, is one that enjoins openness of mind, heart and eyes for as hymn writer William Cowper noted…God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform. Ordained service rooted in Godly devotion, issues in compassionate leadership that is able to perceive through the lens of the Spirit, possibilities that are hidden from the natural eye.
But not only are we being challenged by Eli and what he represents; there is a real sense in which Elkanah’s inability to comprehend the eccentricities of an unjust patriarchal system that has heaped scorn upon the woman he professes to love…just because it seems she is incapable of falling in line and producing all she is expected to produce of offspring and whatever else will satisfy the ego of the dominant party…is in a sense pitiful! The fact is Elkanah didn’t get it that Hannah’s deep anguish could not be wished away by food and professions of love; there was a broken system that would always deem her less than, no matter how well fed or talked about she was.
Here’s perhaps a flawed analogy but I’ll use it anyway; the fact that a man doesn’t carry purses doesn’t make it taboo for a woman in a clergy procession to carry such an object, who knows what needed item [like a mint] may be encased therein; or the fact that after a certain age many of us find it difficult to wear too many garments because of the excessive heat…these are not disqualifiers. In fact, they point to the magnanimity of God who calls us into ministerial partnership with God and with you our brothers, not because we are like you, but because of the complimentary nature of our differences – a fact we should each celebrate instead of making snide comments, insinuating that it ought to be enough, that we should be satisfied with having been welcomed into the hallowed halls of ordained service why then should we want to be different. Brothers, it is not enough! It is not enough because while we serve day after day: giving of our time, talent and treasure in ways that I challenge you to deny is beyond the ordinary…you often fail to see the pain in our eyes, the tear we quickly swish away for lack of understanding and support…But God sees and that is why Hannah’s strength, fortitude and reliance upon Almighty God is the lynchpin that pulls this story together, pointing us to the way forward. But before I get to Hannah, let me pause and exhale for there is the character of Peninah with which we must wrestle if we are to honestly and wholesomely repair that which is broken in our system of being Church.
And I want to raise up the image of Peninah in this way…we women can be our own worst enemies and we continue in this way not only to the detriment of sisterly relationships but to the continued fragmentation of the body and the tarnishing of the name of God. There are no scarce benefits for which we are competing my sisters; whatever the position we may hold or aspire to, we need not trip over or place stumbling blocks in the paths of each other to get there…God’s love and affection, God’s economy is large enough, wide enough for each one to find a place without having to jostle. Whatever our gift, calling, title, or none to give ourselves to God and God’s service is the highest good, and we need not flaunt what we have done or achieved in the face of presumed lesser mortals, for as God told Samuel when he went to anoint Saul’s successor…I am not impressed by outward appearances; I am looking at the heart. And so, we come to the character of Hannah therefore, which underscores the moral of the story and helps us understand why in a cultural and ecclesial system that is broken, there is still hope.
Twenty-five years ago, the Church in the Province of the West Indies met and approved the ordination of women to the priesthood but we still operate within a patriarchal ecclesial system that is fractured in many ways and, here in this Diocese, if we are to live out our divine calling as expressed in our vision statement, then we must intentionally engage the work together…of repairing that which is broken.
Yes, we live in a time of unprecedented and unnerving unpredictability and while that reality may paint a rather bleak picture, the fact remains that it is such dire circumstances that we can experience our true calling and find our true selves for as David Benner opines in the Gift of Being Yourself “God is the only context in which our being makes sense.” As men and women called by this gracious God therefore, to partner with each other and with God, our first and core business and function is to ensure that we are always in right relationship with the One who calls us and declares that we are beloved. When therefore, we find that there are elements to our being Church that pit us against each other, causing suspicion to rise up in our hearts with corresponding actions that would seek to deny the image of God and personhood of another…something is wrong with that primary relationship and I would dare to say the first step towards the fixing, is to make ourselves vulnerable to God whose graciousness and compassion mediated by the blessed Holy Spirit is always there to succor and sustain us.
When we can make ourselves vulnerable before God, brothers and sisters, and receive of the love God chooses to lavish upon us, we will begin to perceive and experience each other as male and female, created in God’s image and in the spirit of Sr. Delores Dufner’s hymn bring gifts that differ and in splendid varied ways [not only sing but] live a new Church into being; one in faith and love and praise.
That new Church is and will be one whose mandate is first and foremost from Almighty God, demonstrated in the life of her Saviour Jesus Christ, and empowered to truly and faithfully serve by the Holy Spirit. It is and will be a church therefore, whose leaders male and female, ordained and non-ordained, will not be so authoritarian as to be insensitive, so blinkered as to be unable to perceive God-movements, especially in unconventional places and people…
It is and will be a church therefore, that embodies the compassionate nature of Jesus Christ who understood the deep need and desire of the woman in Matthew 15: 21 – 28 who in the face of biting criticism, still laid her case before Him and heard from Him that it was her great faith, not the scraps from anyone’s table, that had made her whole…
It is and will be a Church, where people live together in unity, where women and men recognizing the others’ uniqueness, learn how celebrate each other in a context that speaks to the vastness of God’s Kingdom, with a place for each one therein…
It is and will be a Church, where the vision, foresight, trust and deep devotion to Almighty God, epitomized by Hannah and climaxing in Mother Mary, reigns supreme, so that criticism notwithstanding, it is and will be a Church that holds fast the rock solid promise of God that nothing, not even the gates of hell shall be able to withstand its power.
Hannah believed God and received the liberating power of being able to give God her all and still experience fullness of joy. The younger generation…male and female, the nation is awaiting that Church.
I close then with a final word especially to you my sisters…I began by sharing with you the fact of my being both privileged and burdened by this assignment, particularly in light of the state of our Diocese; but I want to assure you, with absolute certainty, that my response to Almighty God in this season, for no other reason than because I have tasted and seen how good, kind and gracious God is, remains…
Let it be to me according to your Word. Amen!