BELIEVING THE WOMEN
Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church, Middletown
Texts: Psalm 116; Luke 24:1-12
Aunt Rosa was always talking and she seemed to be talking to some body, but the rest of the family just discounted her saying that she was very old and little “touched.” Born during the Civil War, Aunt Rosa had experienced the terrible deprivation that many young children experience after wars are ostensibly over and had barely survived. Her family went from owning a plantation with slaves working the land to eking out a living on the depleted soil of southern Alabama.
The family spinster, she had an uncanny sense of the weather and would warn the family about im-pending storms. The menfolk thought she was crazy, of course. Idle tales, they said, until the thunder-storms came.
Mukhtar Mai faced a different kind of incred-ulity. Gang raped in 2002, Mai was expected to com-mit suicide in accordance with Pakistani tradition; instead of doing that, however, she pursued a three-year legal battle to have the perpetrators arrested and punished. As a result of her efforts, the system of honor suicides has been cracked and now Mai is the head of a foundation that teaches young girls how to stand up for their rights. Her mission has been to make the legal system respond to their stories.
The legal system and the social structure that underlies it can no longer accept the treatment of women as idle tales but has to take them seriously because of Mukhtar’s courage.
And then there’s the story of Nusrat Jahan Rafi, the Bangladeshi teenager who was literally burned to death for reporting sexual harassment. Two weeks after she reported her male teacher, two male students organized a protest and she ended up being doused with kerosene and set on fire. Like our own Southern Baptists being called out for such behavior, this was a religious school. They just could not believe the fact that she would not only file a complaint but refused to back down. They obviously believed too much. These were no idle tales.
The outpouring of support at her funeral led to arrests but the question remains what happens next. And it is not just in Bangladesh or Pakistan that women are not believed – or worse – denigrated because they are willing to tell more than idle tales. Take your pick of countries where when women are willing to tell their stories, file complaints, or bring accusations.
Well before Harvey Weinstein was brought down, it was a joke in Hollywood and other places that he obviously engaged in what may be politely called pressure. When the few spoke up, they were considered to be outliers, destroyers of reputations, purveyors of idle tales.
Idle tales. In a world dominated by male power, women were not going to be believed, espec-ially when they told such an outlandish story even in a culture that acted on some of the more outlandish stories of men. Little wonder that when the women came back to the apostles they were not believed. They could only report that they had seen two men in dazzling robes who reminded them of Jesus’ words that his crucifixion would not be the end of this man from Galilee.
The men were still so frightened that they would be the next to be arrested and killed that they could not bring themselves to believe anything but what they had seen with their own eyes: a horrible, ignominious, and excruciatingly painful death.
The British poet Ralph Hodgson once wrote that some things have to be believed to be seen. We in our modern world rely on what we call science to provide us with the basis of “belief.” But science has nothing to do with belief. Science has to do with de-veloping hypotheses, securing the evidence through experiment or observation, and then coming up with conclusions. Belief is something different; faith is something different.
Contrary to what the some may say, faith is not anti-knowledge nor is it anti-science. It is another dimension of our existence. Although a belief can be based on what we’ve been taught and assent to, usually without much argument, such as the fact that the earth is more or less round, belief in the realm of faith is something else. Sometimes we confuse faith with belief. They are related, to be sure, but they are more like siblings than identical twins.
The apostles didn’t believe the women not only because they were “just” women but also be-cause they had not fully trusted their experience of the living Jesus enough to allow themselves to trans-form that into an experience of the living Christ, the one who is with us in our lives and our deaths.
Luke’s Gospel also tells us that Peter ran to the tomb and stooping to enter, saw only the linen cloths. Returning home, Peter was amazed at what he had seen. Isn’t that how we often respond to what we would call the unbelievable? We want to check it out, make sure that whatever it is we are told actually happened.
Investigation makes sense. In our modern world we are besieged by so many stories that sometimes we don’t know who or what to believe. So we investigate. It’s so easy to jump to con-clusions.
Over the years I have been with several of our church family as they came close to death. What I have seen are persons who faced the end of their earthly lives with equanimity because each of them had both belief and faith. Their belief in God came through their daily experiences of living faithfully and having their lives enriched by God’s presence. Now, what does that mean?
It means more than mere piety, more than being able to spout a creed or repeat a statement of faith. It means living faithfully and being open to the surprise of God’s presence in our lives. How is it possible to experience God’s presence if we’re not open to it? God enters, no, God breaks into our lives in so many ways that it takes a good deal of persist-ence to ignore it when it happens. And we are really good at doing just that.
As one theologian noted, salvation is not merely the declaration to sinners that all is forgiven. Rather, “it is the living out of forgiveness in the presence of sin.”
We want to ignore God in our lives because the Resurrection story demands too much of us. It demands that we do not go on living as we would like to do. It demands that we get up and do something about the world where we live. Resurrection demands that we live our faith rather than giving it only lip service. Resurrection demands that children do not live in poverty, that we treat everyone with respect and dignity, and that we continue the work of Jesus in this world. That’s why it’s so easy for us to give Resurrection an easy assent, one that doesn’t demand much of us.
Resurrection is an experience of living in faith and living faithfully. Resurrection is sharing the Gospel, that is, God’s good news to the world that things do not have to be as they are. Resurrection is our promise from God that through living faithfully we can create a realm of justice and mercy, a realm where peace and reconciliation between all can reign.
The naysayers will tell us that we are full of idle tales, that like the women our vision of a possible future is a figment of our imagination. But our imagination is a gift from God and is no illusion. It shows the possibilities that are open to us if we only believe the women and live the meaning of Resurrection.
Let us pray: God who seeks us out and who tries to break into our lives, we pray that we may be open to you always as was Jesus of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Lord. Amen.