Sunday 16 January 2022

A tale of two women - Ashling & Mary (A response to the murder of Ashling Murphy)


Text of Sermon

It would be very difficult to stand in any pulpit in this land this Sunday and not mention the horrific murder of Aisling Murphy. We wanted to move on from the monotone of Covid conversations but this event is not what any of us anticipated or imagined – It is just too awful to contemplate! And yet we must – we owe at least that and a lot more to Aisling Murphy.

And while this very specific kind of event is rare the fear felt by women on a daily basis is clearly far greater than many of us imagined and I include myself in that – It has been a sad revelation to hear women talk of how when alone they carry their keys between their fingers to use in self defence (my own wife told me this week that she does this), how they consciously avoid going out in the dark or walking alone because of the possibility that they may be attacked, raped and or killed by a man. And their fear is justified – It rarely happens in plain view but as we are finally acknowledging attacks and assaults by men are the real experience of a very large number of women.

Also very sobering is the realisation that casual sexism and objectification of women is part of the same problem - yes at the lower end of the graph but any behaviour which demeans or mocks women and makes them lesser human beings than their male counterparts does in a subtle way contribute to the mindset that taken to its extreme allows a man to attack, rape or kill a woman.

And of course there is also that characteristic of a Patriarchal society that is inclined to write women out of history and the church has ben especially guilty of that in ignoring the significant role of women in the early church, often glossed over and even hidden. That too is part of the same problem as it takes identity and agency away from women and makes them lesser beings.

Sometimes these failings seem quite innocent but their significance cannot be underestimated in creating a culture where women do not feel safe.

Some years ago I was conducting a wedding (in my previous parish) and it was inter-church and I was assisted by a Roman Catholic priest who was a relative of the grooms family. As is my practice I shared as much of the liturgy with him as possible and among the things I invited him to do was the introductory preface of the service.

You will probably recall the line in the preface which is inspired by today's Gospel story: 'Our Lord Jesus Christ was himself a guest at a wedding feast in Cana' – At this point my ecumenical colleague added with pronounced emphasis these words 'As was his Mother Mary'.

I smiled to myself at what I assumed to be him putting the stamp of his own tradition on the service – I was probably one of the few people who noticed it but on rereading that Gospel story of that event and in the light of the tragic death of Aisling Murphy I realise now that intentionally or not he had done something very important in recalling Mary's presence at that event because she wasn't simply a bystander – she was infact the driving force of the story – without her it wouldn't have happened!

We tend to get fixated on the miracle itself – All the old jokes about inviting Jesus to your party and getting him to turn water into wine are wheeled out.

But the story is not simply about the miracle itself … it is something far more profound and every bit as controversial. In simple human terms, Jesus did what he could to help his neighbours in their hour of need….and it is an example worth following. Of course it is also a sign of who he was. He was a young man from Nazareth but he was much more than this. He was the Messiah, God’s chosen One, sent to advance God’s Kingdom on earth.

But as I said already without Mary's role in this story we not have this revelatory event.

Even before this miracle Mary obviously believed that her son was different, other, special. However it is only after they had seen his power in action that the disciples believed in him.

Not so Mary - With faith in herself and in him it was Mary who challenged the young Jesus to meet the need of the situation in which they found themselves. This was a wedding party and it was going to always be remembered as the party when they ran out of drink unless Jesus could do something to rescue the situation.

Jesus responds in this “the first of his signs” as it is described in the Gospel and in so doing “revealed his Glory”.

But Mary took a big risk – she did not know what Jesus was going to do and yet she recognised in him the gifts of God and encouraged him to use those gifts.

We do not possess the same power as our Lord but we do all possess gifts and very often we go through life without using them. Sometimes this is because we are too lazy or we couldn’t be bothered. Other times and more often though it is because we do not recognise our own gifts. Maybe we are insecure, shy, modest, doubtful of our own giftedness?

This is where we need other people – to see us as we cannot possibly see ourselves and to identify in us the gifts that we have to offer to the community of faith. That is what Mary did and she deserves the prominent role she has in this story. Ironically we often describe the scriptures as patriarchal but in John's Gospel Mary's fundamental role is explicit and undeniable and yet in the preface to the wedding liturgy it is we in the contemporary modern church who by the sin of omission loose the oportunity to proclaim a very important truth in acknoledging her presence and agency.

How much good is left undone because nobody has the vision to see another person’s potential for good and to call it into action?

When someone (such as Mary) does they are helping to fulfill the will of God and helping the other person to live up to their God given potential – to be the best human that they can be.

And the corollary of that is equally true – when we demean or mock the inate giftedness of another human being we are frustrating the will of God and we are damaging the potential of the other.

Aisling Murphy died because some depraved individual did not recognise or acknowledge her full humanity, her giftedness (not just as a talented teacher and musician whose work involved uncovering and enabling the gifts of her students) but as another human being into whom God breathed life and a potential that she had the right to hope to fulfill.

We may never know the who or the why of this profoundly disturbing event but we might ask ourselves – What started her killer down a road that would lead to a hate filled murder? – What shaped his attituide to women that allowed him to cross that line? What part did the casual sexism that too many of us (mostly men and myself included are guilty of) what part did that play in the early days of his journey into misogony and murder? What gave him permission as he saw it to exercise power over a woman to the point of extinguishing her life?

I don't have all the answers and there is a huge job of work to be done by all of us (especially us men) at every level to rid society of endemic sexism and violence against women, but I think in the example of Mary in today's Gospel we have a very helpful starting point. Look for the gifts in each other and draw those gifts out by encouragement – acknowledge the sacred humanity in each other and resist the urge to demean and undermine one another. Sometimes we do this unconsciously and pass it off as a bit of fun.

Most of us will never go further than what we see as fun and banter but we have a responsibility to create a society and a world where women have the right and the expectation to feel safe and secure and so we have to begin at this very basic level. Too much of our human identity is built on knocking each other down – That is not the will of God and as we remember Aisling Murphy before God today let us do all in our power to end this evil which took her life and robbed so many people of her gifts and her love. To do nothing is not an option and gives permission for this to happen again. For her memory and for the sake of our shared humanity let us resolve to be agents of this necessary and long overdue change.