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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Ordinary Sunday 21, Year C
South Sydney Uniting Church
August 22, 2010

Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17

A woman’s liberation’

Last week’s Gospel saw Jesus saying: “I’ve come to bring division.” Today, we hear of drama in the synagogue and conflicting opinion among Jewish worshippers: “… Jesus’ opponents were humiliated; meanwhile everyone else rejoiced at the marvels Jesus was accomplishing.” In other words, division. In fact, the cause of the controversy has to do with Jesus “dividing the word of truth” pertaining to Torah – teaching about the Sabbath in particular. Yesterday – the Sabbath – the country went to the polls. This morning, we too are a people divided. Today’s homily might explore possibilities for good news in the context of division – in the context of a hung parliament. A new kind of politics – something more collaborative, more civil?

Or, we might lament the short-sightedness of what several commentators have called the “small ideas” of the big parties – appeals to self-interest, fear of foreigners and taxes, and so on – the lack of a bold vision and leadership centred nervously on marginal seat polling. It’s true, I think, that very little, during the campaign, was said in respect of Australia as a global citizen – Australia’s global responsibilities – very little in respect of our responsibility as signatory to the United Nation’s Refugee Convention and Protocol – very little in respect of our responsibility as a leading per capita carbon polluter – very little in respect of peace-making, international aid, nuclear non-proliferation treaties, capital punishment. We have endured what one parishioner summarised recently as “a lot of navel gazing and fear-mongering”. Where’s the passion in that?

Today’s Gospel, though, if we allow it, offers a vision beyond self-interest and division. It does so by way of presenting a long-suffering woman who is healed, restored to wholeness and community. The focus of today’s Gospel is a woman’s liberation (hence our front-page artwork by Faith Ringgold).

I spent the afternoon, yesterday, reading a book entitled Half the Sky: Turning oppression into opportunity for women worldwide. It’s written by two Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, and it’s one of the more shocking/shaking (see Hebrews reading) books I’ve (partly) read this year.

In it, the authors argue that the world is in the grip of a massive moral outrage no less egregious than the African slave trade of the 18th and 19th centuries or the genocides of the 20th.

The fodder of this trade in human suffering is women. Which is why they call it “gendercide”. If the supreme moral challenge of the 19th century was slavery, and of the 20th century the fight against totalitarianism, then, they write, “in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality in the developing world”.

WuDunn says: “When you hear that 60 to 100 million females are missing in the current population, we thought that number compares in the scope and size. And then you compare the slave trade at its peak in the 1780s, when there were 80,000 slaves transported from Africa to the New World, and you see there are now 10 times that [number] of women trafficked across international borders, so you start to think you are talking about comparable weight.”

It might be good for us – especially those of us exhausted after a night transfixed by television electoral analysis – to hear a story from somewhere other than Australia. This story comes from Cambodia.

“[Srey] Neth was very pretty ... She looked fourteen or fifteen, but she thought she was older than that; she had no idea of her actual birth date. A woman pimp brought her to [Nick, the author’s] room, and she sat on the bed, quivering with fear. She had been in the brothel only a month, and Nick would have been her first foreign customer …

“Black hair fell over Neth’s shoulders and onto her tight pink T-shirt. Below, she wore equally tight blue jeans, and sandals. Neth had plump cheeks, but the rest of her was thin and fragile; thick makeup caked her face in a way that seemed incongruous …

“… She responded to questions briefly and without interest.

“For the first five minutes, Neth claimed that she was selling her body of her own volition. She insisted that she was free to come and go as she pleased. But when it became clear that this wasn’t some sort of test by her pimp, and that she wouldn’t be beaten for telling the truth, she recounted her story in a dull monotone.

“A female cousin had taken Neth from their village, telling the family that Neth would be selling fruit in Poipet. Once in Poipet, Neth was sold to the brothel and closely guarded. After a check by a doctor confirmed that her hymen was intact, the brothel auctioned her virginity to a Thai casino manager, who locked her up in a hotel room for several days and slept with her three times … Now Neth was confined to the guesthouse and was young enough … to rent for top rates.

“‘Would you want to leave here? If you were set free, what would you do?’

“Neth suddenly looked away from the television, a flash of interest in her eyes.

“‘I’d go back home,’ she said, and she seemed to be gauging whether the question was serious. ‘Back to my family. I’d like to try to open a little shop to make money.’

“‘Do you really want to leave?’ Nick asked. ‘If I were to buy you from the brothel and take you back to your village, are you absolutely sure that you wouldn’t come back to this?’

“Neth’s listlessness abruptly disappeared. She turned completely away from the television, and the glaze slipped away from her eyes. ‘This is a hell,’ she snorted, speaking with passion for the first time. ‘You think I want to do this?’

“So, quietly and carefully, Nick schemed with Neth to buy her from the brothel owners and take her back to her family. After some dickering, Neth’s owner sold her for $150 and gave Nick a receipt.”

The story continues with Neth having set up a new grocery shop in her village, the only store of its kind, and initially a successful business.

“But when other villagers saw Neth’s business flourishing, they opened their own shops. Soon the village had a half-dozen stores. Neth found her sales faltering.

“Worse, Neth’s family continued to regard her as a foolish little girl with no rights. So any man in the family who needed something took it from Neth’s store – sometimes paying, sometimes not.

“… Four months after the shop had opened, her business plan had collapsed.”

“[An American aid worker] arranged for Neth to move to Phnom Penh and study hairdressing at Sapor’s, the best beauty shop in the city …

“‘I’m happy with Srey Neth,’ the owner, Sapor Rendall, said at the time. ‘She studies hard.’

“Over time, Neth mellowed. She had always been very thin and a bit somber, but she put on a bit of weight and became relaxed, sometimes even vivacious and giggly. She was acting the way a teenager should, and boys noticed. They flirted with her …”

“… A young man named Sothea began courting her …

“‘When I fell in love with Srey Neth, she discouraged me,’ Sothea said. ‘She told me: I am poor. I live near Battambang. Don’t love me. But I told her that I still loved her and would love her to the end.’

“Neth found herself falling for him. Soon he asked her to marry him. She agreed …

“… In 2007, Neth gave birth to a son. The baby was strong, healthy, and pudgy. Neth radiated joy as she cuddled him in the courtyard of her home. When our family dropped in on Neth and her husband at the end of 2008, she showed the boy to our children and giggled as he tottered about. She had returned to school for her final classes in hairdressing, and her mother-in-law was planning to buy a small shop where Neth could set up a little business as a beautician and hairdresser. ‘I know what I’m going to call the shop,’ she said. ‘Nick and Bernie’s.’ After so many twists and setbacks, she had put her life together again; the young girl who had quivered in fear in the brothel had been buried forever.”

The authors conclude: “For us, there were three lessons in this story. The first is that rescuing girls from brothels is complicated and uncertain. Indeed, it’s sometimes impossible, and that’s why it is most productive to focus efforts on prevention and putting brothels out of business. The second lesson is to never give up. Helping people is difficult and unpredictable, and our interventions don’t always work, but successes are possible, and these victories are incredibly important.

“The third lesson is that even when a social problem is so vast as to be insoluble in its entirety, it’s still worth mitigating. We may not succeed in educating all the girls in poor countries, or in preventing all women from dying in childbirth, or in saving all the girls who are imprisoned in brothels. But we think of Neth …”

The book’s Index includes an entry on Christianity. I turn to the pages indicated and read of ambiguities – reductive and ineffective abstinence-only programs on the part of conservatives, 25 per cent of AIDS care worldwide provided by church-related groups, Catholic clinics defying the Vatican and advising women about contraception.

And then I read something that returns me to today’s Gospel. It’s a reference to Pentecostalism as a movement for women’s rights around the globe – gaining ground more quickly than any other faith, especially in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where “one person in ten is now a Pentecostal, according to the highest estimates”. And suddenly, I’m the head of the synagogue, indignant that liberation should happen at the hands of practitioners so clearly unorthodox, unauthorised. I maintain indignation at prosperity gospel-ers! And yet: “Pentecostal churches typically encourage all members of the congregation to speak up and preach during the service. So for the first time, many ordinary women find themselves exercising leadership and declaring their positions on moral and religious matters … evangelicals and other conservative Christians have come to focus on issues like AIDS, sex trafficking, and poverty” (143).

Today’s Gospel, if we allow it, offers a vision beyond self-interest and division – beyond doctrinaire rivalry. It does so by way of presenting a long-suffering woman who is healed. The focus of today’s Gospel is a woman’s liberation.

How does the story of a woman’s liberation move you? How does it shift your concerns this morning? Might it offer some kind of release – a Sabbatical vision of wholeness, even restorative rest?

… Amen.