Bound by a Sisterhood of Suffering

Opening Eucharist for the UN Commission on the Status of Women
March 21, 2016
The Rev. Margaret Rose

How wonderful to gather with you today as the 60th [session of the] UNCSW begins. Voices of faith have long been heard alongside member states working together for the empowerment of women and children and men. The history for some of us in this room began with Beijing and even more in earnest with Ecumenical Women 2000.  Anglicans were first an official delegation in 2002 when there were 4 (ask Elizabeth Loweth or Alice Medcof or Phoebe Griswold or Marge Christie or Tai and they could tell us for sure). The next year there were 11 from around the world. And in 2004 there were representatives from all the 38 provinces of the Anglican Communion. But that is only the number of delegates. Countless volunteers over the years as part of AWE [Anglican Women’s Empowerment] and other groups offered hospitality, side events, welcome, resources, and so much more!! Today girls and men have become an integral part of UNCSW.    During these two weeks there will be moments sharing the story, this history-- to remember and to plan for the future. I offer this brief synopsis today, however, not as a history lesson but as a JESUS lesson - and perhaps as an Elisha lesson.  AND most of all as an invitation to claim the witness and power of the women in our biblical texts today - which were AMAZINGLY  appointed for the 5th  week of Lent. 

Each is about healing and resurrection: Elisha who heals the Shunammite Woman’s son and Jesus who brings Lazarus to life.  But it is the women who brought these healers where they needed to be.  The women who were the messengers, the women who refused to give up when others were paralyzed by mourning, the women who proclaimed the possibility of new life and redemption, the women who named Jesus as Messiah. And it was the women whose suffering transformed Elisha and Jesus and brought them into the circle of their pain and grief. The healing power of Jesus and Elisha was evoked by the suffering of others. 

We who gather here today for this 60th [session of the] UNCSW know something about suffering. We come to the UN, not just to attend meetings, write statements, or to network, important as that is. We come because we too, like the women in today’s texts, like Mary and Martha and the Shunammite woman, are bound by a sisterhood of suffering; compelled by our faith in Jesus and the Gospel to speak and to act on behalf of a world which is so in need of resurrection and new life; to bring healing power to bear. 

Now, Sisterhood of Suffering is not my phrase. It is yours. Many of you may remember. Back in 2007, our beloved Anglican Communion was in conflict - not unlike that of today. And as the women gathered for the 51st UNCSW, we did not want those conflicts to blind us to the needs of our sisters and brothers around the world: for food, for education, for clothing, freedom from violence, from war or rape. The Anglican Communion statement to the UN and a similar statement sent to the Primates signed by over 80 Anglican women proclaimed:  “Our sisterhood of suffering is at the heart of our theology and our commitment to transforming the whole world through peace and justice.  Rebuilding and reconciling the world is central to our faith.” We at the 60th UNCSW are here these two weeks to continue that work and to gain strength for the Gospel journey of rebuilding and reconciling the world. 

It is the witness of these Biblical women who taught us this so well. Read their story carefully again and notice that  Mary and Martha and the Shunammite woman compelled the men around them to engage in the healing that they were able to offer from God. These and many more  who give us the courage to speak and act here at the UN, in the market place, in the public square; to move out from the bubble of buildings or churches or even our families –out into the world on behalf of ourselves and others who are suffering.  We claim that the power to be so BOLD, to speak, even when some, citing scripture, would challenge women to be silent, comes from Jesus himself. We, like those biblical women, will not be deterred.

Recognizing Elisha as a man of God, when her son falls ill unto death the Shunammite goes to find Elisha. Her husband and family tried to dissuade her. “It is too late,” they may have said. Elisha’s servant, Gehazie, wants to push her away.  She does not go.  Elisha himself tries to send his servant instead but the woman will have nothing of it.  Finally, Elisha, seeing her bitter distress joins her in the sisterhood of suffering. Seeing her bitter distress, he goes to her home where the son is revived.  And she praises God. 

The same determination comes from Mary and Martha in the story of the raising of Lazarus.   When her brother dies, it is Martha who is the messenger for Jesus begging him to come.  The sisters, claiming their bold relationship with Jesus, chide:  “If you’d been here this wouldn’t have happened. But even so, You can still make it right.” And it was Martha who proclaimed Jesus’s identity:  “You are the Messiah, the Son of God”—even as the disciples remained confused and wandering.   

Here too --- it is the suffering that brings Jesus to the women and to Lazarus….He weeps as he joins the sisters in their own pain. In the presence of this pain, Jesus calls Lazarus from the grave:  “Lazarus! Come out! Unbind him and let him go!”

Mary and Martha and the Shunammite woman were bold women, unbound and free in their love and discipleship. Uppity perhaps we might call them today, but uppity in the care of others. Uppity because they were empowered by some deeper sense of themselves not of their own making, empowered to act, to draw those whom they needed (Elisha and Jesus to name but two) into their own sisterhood. 

These three and so many others are our witnesses as we work together in these next weeks and beyond.  We are bound to this biblical witness and to each other by the wounds of God’s broken and hurting world so much in need of healing. We are bound, not by one political party or another, not by one denomination or another, not by one country or church or even by one faith or another, but by this sisterhood of suffering and Jesus who knows suffering well and gives us hope and power to address it.   

Today’s world needs that sisterhood more than ever. It is a sisterhood of suffering, not bound by burial cloths, but by a God who redeems us, claims us, and sends us into this very public square; undeterred, boldly proclaiming the possibility of wholeness – our own and that of God’s creation. 

Preached on Monday, March 14, 2016 at the Chapel of Christ the Lord at the Episcopal Church Center in New York, NY. Texts: 2 Kings 4:18-37 and John 11:17-34