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16 Days of Activism – a sermon

(a sermon/reflection prepared for Sophia’s Spring UCA, 26th November 2023)

International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women is held annually on 25 November. The day begins 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence that runs from 25 November to 10 December (UN Human Rights Day), with the 2023 theme “UNITE! Invest to prevent violence against women and girls”.
Break The Silence Sunday is an effort to open up a conversation within the church about rape and sexual assault. Within the context of our faith communities we hope to
(1) acknowledge the reality of rape and sexual violence in our world;
(2) support survivors by creating a place where they can tell their stories, feel loved and supported, and find encouragement on their healing journey;
(3) commit ourselves to the work of changing the world, creating a future where rape is a memory.

Today we stand with survivors and victims of sexual assault and gender-based violence. We witness their pain – and their strength. We ask what they need from us, as individuals and as communities of faith. This service today, and many around the world, is part of breaking the silence of complicity and fear, and through it all trusting in the good news of God’s incredible love for us, and for all the world.

I could talk about the facts – that in Australia sexual assault happens once every 21 minutes on average. I could talk about victim blaming and shaming of survivors of sexual assault. I think you know this already.

I could talk about the silence of the church, often unprepared to talk about such things, even though the biblical narrative has many such stories for us to dwell on, to learn from, about power and patriarchy. Rev Dr Martin Luther King, Jr once said, “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people, but the silence over that by the good people.”

I think you know this already.

I could talk to you about the statistics – 53 women murdered this year[1] by their intimate partners or ex-partners this year. I could talk about the suffering… I think I’d be preaching to the choir.

The reading from Matthew 25 is often entitled The Final Judgement, or The Sheep and the Goats. I want to read this text from two different perspectives.

The first lens is the popular reading of this text that points out a simple truth – that the separation depends on how we treat people in need. When the sheep and the goats are separated, the king commends the sheep, the righteous ones:

I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then those in the group will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The ruler will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it for me.’

Those in the group that the ruler commended were surprised. They had simply got on with the task they saw in front of them and offered acts of kindness and compassion and practical actions for the welfare of others. We might add in our day and age it might include advocacy, raising awareness and multiplying efforts to protect the dignity and worth of those who are most vulnerable.

In this reading, the followers of Jesus are called to continue his work and to live in relationship with others following his example. I offer this to you this morning not so much to entreat you to do good (as if you’re not already), or even to do more, but to encourage you to recognise that those actions you do, small and large, bring healing, and offer compassionate care. Like the parable of the yeast where it quietly and – for all intents and purposes – invisibly goes about its work of transforming the flour. It may be through the gift of simply listening, or making space for survivors’ stories to be heard, held, and cradled. We often underestimate the power of presence, in contrast to the more routine medical, professional model of delivering services and doing things TO people.

The particular acts of compassion Jesus names address basic human needs – food, water, welcome, hospitality, clothing, comfort, shelter and practical care. They are part of the Abrahamic hospitality code, protective hospitality offered to those in need or who are threatened in any way.

The sacred scriptures of all three Abrahamic religions teach philoxenia ‘love of the stranger’ as opposed to xenophobia ‘fear of the stranger.’ For all three traditions, the classic example of hospitality toward the stranger is in Genesis 18 which celebrates how generously Abraham embraces the three strangers who pass by his tent. Abraham doesn’t wait for the strangers to ask for water and bread. Rather, he rushes toward them to invite them to rest and refresh themselves. He gives them not just ‘a morsel of bread’ to see them on their way, but clean water to wash their feet and a generous feast of freshly prepared foods.

For us, the ‘stranger’ may well be someone from another culture or another country or another religious tradition. But that ‘stranger’ may also be a friend, or a family member, or a condition, or a situation.

The second lens for this Matthew reading leads us to a bigger picture, and arguably the point that Jesus was seeking to make with this parable. It comes right at the end of a long block of teaching that Jesus has in private with his followers in Jerusalem, just prior to his arrest, trial and crucifixion. This story is about them, but not cast in the role of the sheep, nor the goats.

Rather, these followers of Jesus are the ones who will continue the work of Jesus in healing, teaching etc and risk being the ones who are hungry and thirsty, the stranger needing hospitality, the one who will need clothes for the journey, the one who will travel to share the good news and thereby risk sickness and need help, and those who may be persecuted and imprisoned and need the comfort of visitors.

The imperative to live as Jesus brought many challenges to the lives of the early disciples, and the sheep in the parable are any who would help and support the disciples in their time of need. Perhaps our contemporary western church has less of these challenges, or perhaps our highly individualised society has changed how we see our place in the community of Christ?

Can we imagine in our contemporary context, that we, as followers of Jesus, might be the ones who need support and care from others – rather than dispensing it or offering it TO others? In this reading from Matthew, discipleship – following the example of Jesus – may place us in situations where we may be the very ones who need practical help, support and compassion.

It makes me wonder whether we offer help and support through power and privilege, or whether we offer help and support to others while also acknowledging the lived experience of our own needs, brokenness, difficulties, and our own vulnerability. From a place of humility. To draw alongside others in their time of need because we know what it is like to be in need ourselves.

In an interview with Francis Weller entitled The Geography of Sorrow, he points out that most of us hold huge wells of unexpressed grief inside us because we live in a culture where grief is unwelcome, something we need to get over quickly. We are ashamed to grieve. He suggests the work of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other. If I carry only grief, I’ll bend towards cynicism and despair. If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine and won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering. Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft, which helps make compassion possible.

You may recall Henri Nouwen’s book, The Wounded Healer, which speaks about our own woundedness as a source of strength and healing when supporting others, to recognize the sufferings that are common to all human persons.

And still, I wonder what that might mean for us as we reflect on how we find our place in the community of Christ. And in turn, how as a community we make space for others whose lives have been broken, damaged, hurt and harmed. When we recognise those times in our own lives, and draw from this deep well of lived experience to offer compassion, kindness, support and love.

Feeling ‘out of our depth’ may be the best starting point to connect with those who have experienced violent relationships as they seek to find safety and healing from their trauma, and rebuild their lives.

One survivor writes: I could have used the support from the church. I needed a church where I could walk in, feeling broken, guilty, and confused about my own identify and be received with open arms telling me that I wasn’t any different in their eyes. I needed this kind of community. You see, when you experience something like rape, it has a lasting impact. It shakes your core, your identity. You feel violated and damaged, dirty and ashamed. It will always be the anniversary of that night. Who am I to have let something like this happen to myself? How do I move on from this? How has this changed me as a person? Where was God when this happened, and why would something like this be allowed to happen? Church doesn’t necessarily feel like a comforting place because I felt like I had to hide what had happened to me because it’s “not appropriate for church”, and that was the part of me that needed support the most.

She asks, Are we creating a worship space that feels safe for survivors to be their true self? Even on their lowest days? Are we trauma-informed and sensitive in our planning? How does our environment and building welcome people who have experienced trauma? We need the voice of the church to break the silence that is around rape and sexual violence. The reality is though that sometimes we need to sit in the discomfort so that we can learn how to make a positive change. We need to normalize the conversation. It’s absolutely okay to talk about rape in the church. Church should be a place people can feel comfortable expressing who they are and where they are in their healing journey. They shouldn’t fear judgement, shocked responses, or even excessive pity. A service like Breaking the Silence Sunday is the first step in that process of acknowledging that no matter who you are or what you’ve been through, you are not only welcome here, but this is a safe place for you.

Reverend Moira Finley, who is a catalyst for Break the Silence Sunday, writes:

“What we need, from those of you who don’t bear the scars of rape, is for you to listen. We need for you to listen to our stories, to not turn away. Yes, it will be uncomfortable and yes, it will break your heart. We need you to deal with all of that, all of your own discomfort, so that you can listen to us, support us, encourage us as we deal with the winding, difficult journey of healing. We need you to listen to our fears, to try to understand our anxieties. We need you to be patient with how we tell our stories, with the stops and starts, with a sudden flood of memories that come and have to be shared or they will overwhelm us. We need to know that we aren’t a burden to you, that you’re in this with us for the long haul, that you’ll stand with us in the good days when we are enjoying life, because we do have them, but also in the dark days of self-doubt, fear, anxiety, and despair, because we have those days as well. We need your voices, the voices of allies in this struggle, to stand with us and help us change the world, to create a future where no more people face the sleepless nights burdened by memories of what someone else inflicted on us”.

Francis Wheeler (The Geography of Sorrow) notes that

“In healthy cultures, one person’s wound is an opportunity for another to bring medicine. But if you are silent about your suffering, then your friends stay spiritually unemployed. In Navajo culture, for example, illness and loss are seen as communal concerns, not as the responsibility of the individual. Healing is a matter of restoring hozho – beauty/harmony in the community. The San people of the Kalahari say, “When one of us is ill, all of us are ill.”

It resonates with Paul’s message to the early church in Rome: ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn’. (Romans 12.15)

Suffering, hardship and trauma are a shared concern for the community and one that calls us all to be ‘spiritually employed’ for the sake of others. It’s what we do together. May it be so. Amen.

A sermon prepared by Rev Sandy Boyce for Sophia’s Spring community, 26th November 2023

[1] Researchers at Destroy the Joint have updated their Counting Dead Women register of known deaths due to violence against women in 2023, which now stands at 53. This is the 47th week of 2023, meaning more than one woman has been killed each week of this year. There are still five weeks of the year remaining. Six women have now been killed across Australia in the last seven days, five allegedly by men’s violence.