Today is an important day: not only is it our first Sunday in Lent, but we are also invited by our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, to celebrate this as Episcopal Relief and Development Sunday (or ERD). This global organization of The Episcopal Church began in 1940, originally to assist refugees fleeing Europe during World War II. Since that time it has expanded to address other world crises, such as poverty, disease and disasters; in the 1980’s, it began using an integrated approach to help rebuild and develop communities in crisis; in the early 2000’s, it was renamed from the Presiding Bishop’s Fund to ERD, and gained its own independent non-profit status. Today ERD impacts the lives of over 3 million people each year, in over 40 countries worldwide. In 2019, focus areas are Climate, Children and Women.
Which is why we are also celebrating International Women’s Day, March 8! For the past 100 years, countries around the world (and organizations like ERD) have celebrated the successes and advancements of women globally, and brought awareness to ways we can and must keep moving forward together. For so long, women felt isolated in their struggles, as the brokenness of systems around the world affected them disproportionately. This weekend, and this month, we especially call to mind the value of women’s lives, and how we are linked together.
In Jesus’ encounter with the figure of Satan in the wilderness, we are also called to a heightened awareness about places of brokenness in our own lives, and to remember how each life journey is significant and interconnected. In desert countries, a “wilderness” can be dangerous. For us, a “wilderness” may mean the places where we feel isolated, struggling, listening in vain for the voice of God. When our human need for certain basic needs is denied, we cannot easily look beyond that need. In other situations, simply the fear of need, or even the fear of failing or losing, tempts us to forget our blessings and potential, and we become similarly stuck, by thinking narrowly, only in terms of our own context.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow developed something he called the “hierarchy of needs” pyramid to illustrate this tendency. At the bottom level, the foundation, are our physical needs (food, water, warmth, rest); the next basic level includes our physical and emotional safety. Higher up are the psychological needs of belonging and love, and a sense of accomplishment. Generally, according to Maslow, when these foundational needs are met, we begin to long for a sense of “self actualization”, the feeling that we have become the person God created us to be. It takes tremendous courage and strength to reach up and out of our crises, and faith-based support can help. Organizations like ERD– and even our own little Outreach Office — help individuals and communities to build on the strengths of where they are, and to continue toward where they want to be.
When we are suffering from hunger, fatigue, fear for our safety, and a lack of self esteem, it makes us vulnerable to temptation from evil, unhealthy influences. It helps to know that our Lord understands what that feels like! Jesus is right there with us — turning his gaze, and ours, upward, toward the ways in which God has promised to provide for us. Jesus reminds us that, whoever we are and wherever we are, God lifts us up, provides a refuge and a stronghold.
Jesus also asks us — recalling our own history of liberation — to do the same for others in distress. This is one of the reasons that the writers of Deuteronomy reminded the people of Israel of their time as strangers, oppressed in Egypt– so that they would be compassionate to the “aliens” living among them. When we are tempted to think narrowly, it helps not only to look up, but to look around.
When we think about progress in women’s issues, and look only at our own circumstances, we might be tempted to think, well, we’re not doing so badly. If we heed Jesus’ call to look toward our broader community, we see that this oppression that Jesus himself battled is far from healed. The United Nations estimates that approximately 70% of the 1.3 billion people living in poverty
worldwide are women. Additionally, studies show that worldwide, 35% of women experience physical or sexual violence by a non-partner in their lives, and as many as 70% of women suffer such abuse from their partners. If women are hungry, if they are not safe, how can they reach their God-created potential for themselves and the world?
I like to think that when Jesus was hungry, he felt committed to his ministry to feed the world. Inspired by Jesus’ ministry, ERD works to build up economic stability for women, and thus for the world. When women achieve greater earning and decision-making power, they lift up themselves, their families and their communities. When Jesus was tempted to use his power for his own glory alone, Jesus remembered instead his mission to serve others. ERD uses its resources in partnership with faith communities like us to encourage women’s power in leadership and law making, like angels’ wings for all.
Ever notice how often Satan quotes the scriptures? When women come to our red doors in need, many times we discover some wrong theology they were taught to keep them down and make them accept mistreatment. ERD is committed to ending violence against women; they understand that such violence impacts not only the dignity and health of women, but their families, their community.
Jesus told us in Matthew’s Gospel that “whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me.” This Lenten Season, as we follow his command to worship and serve our Lord, let us resist the temptation to focus only on our own spiritual practices, and instead have the faith to think bigger, wider, building up those whose lives are being pressed down by the denial of their most basic of needs. For to build up one another, to stand in solidarity in the wilderness, is truly the beginning of the Kin-dom of God. And all God’s servants said together AMEN!