One summer day this past July, I got an email from Thankam George, Carmel’s tireless Sevika Sangham secretary. ‘Vinu George’s’ email ID shows up in our in-boxes at least once a week, sometimes more.
But this time was different, the subject line was left blank, and it was addressed only to me.
Thankam wanted to know if I’d be willing to give the Church Calendar’s Annual Sevika Sangham Day message, in September of this year.
24 hours later, I accepted it.
Given two whole months to ponder and prepare, and pray incessantly, below is what I delivered, to an unexpectedly generous and warm audience.
A few came just to support, and here’s where my heart thanks all.
Thankam had allotted 25 minutes, 5 for the history of the ‘Sangham’ and 20 for the message. I took 20 total.
After you stop laughing at the ‘what’s a girl like that doing in a place like this’ (not a joke) line, taken from a 1970’s commercial, and get past it, (warning: it is long!) and any meaning touches you, or if any part speaks to you in any special way, I welcome feedback and critique.
Meant every word.
Key admission: Some of the thoughts were ‘lifted’ from our previous Achens’ and Thirumenis’ sermons and Bible studies, and many more of them my own, one seriously from my very own Dad.
Thank you, Papaji. hope i made you proud.
matters not, all God’s Words. Source of infinite comfort.
As always, a good evening…
halleluiah, padi-dum jnan,
jeeva kalam, aradhikum, unnathane
athama-vilum, sathya-thilum, nithya kalam —- 1994 Maramon
Good Sunday morning, everyone!,
If any of you is wondering what a person like that is doing in a place like this, believe me, I understand, I’m wondering the same.
Just the same, I’m requesting for your earnest prayers radiating my way, for the next 20 minutes.
On this, the eve of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Suvishesha Sevika Sankham of the MarThoma Church, I feel uniquely privileged to stand here, and speak to you briefly from the Word Of God as IT speaks to me.
The Malankara MarThoma Syrian Church is known in the Indian subcontinent, for being extraordinarily innovative, on a range of persuasive matters that pertain to the issues of the society at large, none more poignant than the idea of empowering women in their own world, and the world outside of it.
Out of this progressive vision of the founders of the church, was born an organization set up explicitly for women, to provide them with a chance to go out of their limited spaces of mostly mundane household duties and chores, and make no mistake – they were mostly chores, and enable them to realize their full and God-given potential, to perform service to the larger community, as well as to their nuclear and extended families, with whatever individual skills they possessed.
Thus started the Sevika sangham.
What is most important to note on this Platinum Jubilee occasion is, this was singularly the brainchild of one Kandamma Varghese, who lived from 1876-1964.
Known as the Traveling Secretary, she hailed from a CMS family in Kollakadavu, near Mavelikara, was a studious student at CMS school, before marrying at age 20, one Varughese Vadhyar, from a MarThoma family in Thumpamon.
A woman of immense faith, she saw this major setback, as God’s Calling and followed it as such.
Sevika Sangham was a product of her tireless efforts and evangelistic fervor, which were then confluenced by the nurturing of a saintly and benevolent Metropolitan, Abraham MarThoma, who shared in equal measure, Kandama’s passion for evangelization.
The organization was inaugurated in February of 1919, literally at the Maramon Convention Pandal.
We owe the both of them an enormous debt of gratitude.
Under the Sevika Sangham banner were also established, the Vanitha Mandiram, a refuge for single older women, Shalem Agathi Mandiram, both of Thiruvalla, the Vanitha Bodhini a print publication, counseling and job training for the needy, and Deppy Pirive, a one-of-a-kind, home-based offertory, these among some of the most notable ones. Many of these initiatives were significantly ahead of their time. Women-centric Bible studies took on great importance, as well.
A Suvishesha Sevika is one who spreads the Good News, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, by serving others.
And even in a patriarchal society such as arguably ours, folks would have a hard time resisting a church-mandated ordinance, especially if the promotion was coming from the vicar and the church hierarchy.
This mile marker date is particularly remarkable, because it took place exactly one year before the 19th amendment was ratified and added to the United States Constitution, giving, for the first time, American women The Right To Vote.
And that’s not all, it came nine years at the heels of The Church dedicating a school, just for girls, under the charge of 2 British Protestant missionaries, Mrs Nicholson and Miss Maccabin.
Nicholson Syrian Girls’ High School in Thiruvalla, founded on February 2 of 1910, was devoted to educating young women, with the highest academic standards, in an explicitly Christian, and distinctly MarThoma setting.
A reading of Kandama Varghese’s biography shows, that she was influenced and inspired greatly by the missionary zeal and revivalist style church preaching of these two women.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, women generally didn’t take part in mission activities, nor did they preach in churches. Kandama did both.
I’m a proud graduate of this institution, as are my mother and my sister.
Needless to say, this training, in part, led me to today.
– The Almighty for affording me this once-in-a-lifetime honour,
–The Church for facilitating it, through Thankam George, who placed her confidence in me, and entrusted me with this task on this date,
-Jeslin Achen for his gentle, spiritual guidance along the way,
-Most profusely and unequivocally my supremely engaged parents, both of them really, who set me on a path of firm persuasion that, our Scripture, from beginning to end is the inspired Word Of God, all Connected and Eternal. The Alpha and the Omega. This is for you!,
-Three girls named Nisha, Yamini, Mekhala, who live on the Continent’s two coasts and in the middle, who resolutely remain the front and center of God’s Plan for me,
-and lastly, and with my heart and forever, my husband, who always keeps my back.
Let us pray….
Dear Heavenly Father, give us the wisdom to discern Your Word and Your Will for us, so that we may use them for the purpose of advancing Your Kingdom on earth.
This, we ask in the name of Your Son, our Redeemer. Amen.
The church has designated four passages as this Sunday’s lectionary.
We’re focusing on just two of them today, one from the Old Testament, and one from the New.
They’re both linked by a recurring theme. I’ll condense them into five parts.
1. Following God’s Plan, and What Happens When We Do.Exodus 1: 15-22 (Sheena)
The midwives were a huge and essential part of the ancient child bearing experience, when death during childbirth, of the mother orthe baby, was an unfortunate and frequent outcome.
A midwife’s job was to protect the life of the mother and that of the baby with the tools available to her, when not too many of them existed.
Their task was not to see to it that the government’s directive was fulfilled.
As a separate thread, this reading could play into certain national debates on ‘Right To Life’ and such, however that’s not the awareness I’d like to underscore here.
This passage is also not about government, versus, private citizens.
It is about God’s plan in human life, versus, human plans at odds with God’s plan.
And this particular verse goes on to claim that, as a result of the midwives’ moral decisiveness, God multiplied the Hebrew nation.
It further tells us, that the women feared God, which provided them with the vital courage needed to stand down a brutal Head of State, and they were given, by God, families of their own. Not just children, but families.
This theme of God blessing a whole people because of the actions of a few is displayed throughout the Bible.
Our individual actions can be a source of blessing for a community, but also may have harsh consequences.
Moses, who gave the world the Ten Commandments, the bedrock of human civilization, a blueprint for how to create a lawful and prosperous society, one principally centered on worshiping God, was an infant thus spared from the malevolent decree of a monarch, by the sheer disobeying of it by 2 women, in this case the mother and sister of the said child.
We now move on to 1500 years later in Biblical chronology, but God’s Words still resonate with the same theme. Which brings us to the next point.
2. The women followed Him around. Mark 15:38-41 (Mareen)
Here we see women in a different role, but the message that remains, is of them doing the right thing, often at great risk to themselves.
The women were the last ones at the Foot Of The Cross. And they were the first ones at the Empty Tomb.
By calculation, this led to the shortest duration of mourning period ever known.
This is in precise contrast to the men who had been handpicked by Jesus, who perhaps spent even more time with Him, and who nonetheless had abandoned Him in His hour of aloneness and agony.
If the women had left the scene in a distraught state, or if their debilitating sorrow had prevented them from going to the tomb in the early morning hours when most would be sleeping, they would have had to mourn for longer. Their pain would have extended needlessly.
The women’s desire to be in close proximity to the Lord, and to be of service to Him, undoubtedly diminished the magnitude of that pain.
In our grief, we often tend to leave the unbearable and retreat away from the Lord.
but these women’s steadfast love for Jesus is what enabled them to follow Him all over Judea and Galilee, and subsequently stick around and be present for the Ultimate Visit and be part of The Great Commission.
According to Hebrews 11, “vishwasam enne-tho ashikunna-thinte urappum, kanatha karyangal-ude nishchaya-vum akunnu” …
It is faith that brought them to the grave. They must have convinced themselves, ‘maybe He didn’t die, may be He’ll come back the way He said He would. He did insinuate at times He’d return after three days, didn’t He?’
But they also demonstrated that faith without love is futile. And they loved the Lord.
There is a circumspect opinion in theological circles that the Hebrews Epistle was written by Priscilla, one of the leaders of the Early Church.
By most accounts, it was not one written by Paul.
Point 3: The women served the Lord’s needs by serving His people.
Not only did the women not want to leave a suffering Jesus, they were there to comfort a bereaving Mary, a mother who lost her firstborn.
Matthew and Mark’s Gospels say that they had followed him through Galilee, and cared for His needs.
And Luke says, they had used their own funds to help Jesus and His disciples. They had been through so much with Him and His mother, even taking care of their material needs when possible, now was not the time to bolt.
Any time we’re called to tangibly serve people in church or community with our funds, or food, or presence, we’re serving the Lord.
The women did all this without expecting to sit at Jesus’ right hand, or to be given any positions of authority. Either would’ve been unthinkable for the tenor of the time. Then, as now, societal norms were dictated by existing traditions.
And they were not defeated because their expectation was never about Jesus becoming the King of Judah and Israel.
They were just grieving the loss of a beloved man who had healed them in body and in spirit, comforted them with non-judgmental love, and had given them hope that something beyond what was visible in front of them was just around the corner.
Point 4: Church As A Caring Unit, and Not As An Institution.
The women were physically close enough to the Cross according to John’s Gospel, to hear a weakened Jesus whisper, to Mary and then to John (John being the only male disciple who stayed through to the end), ‘He is your son. She is your mother’. Jesus entrusted their physical care to each other.
Here was the founding of the Church. A caring and care-taking church.
Even as Jesus chose Pathrose as the one on whom the foundation of His Church would be laid, just before He cried out in His final hour, ‘It Is Finished’, before He announced his Earthly Mission completed, He turned it into an entity, where people who are not blood-related would take care of each other as though they’re family.
And let’s not lose sight of the fact that, in the end, it was two women, and not the petrified male guards at the tomb (Matthew 28:4), who were commissioned to spread the announcement to the world, of what they had heard directly from the Angel.
‘Indeed, He’s Not Here, For He Is Risen’, the proclamation on which stands Christendom.
The cost of Eve’s transgression has now been paid in full. and Sarah’s. and Rebecca’s. and Leah’s.
Final point: Equal Access
The curtain was torn from the top to bottom. Not from bottom to the top. The mandate was from Heaven.
The God of the Old Testament, who instructed Aharon, the first high priest of Israel, to set apart the Holy of Holies, where only priests from the Levi tribe were allowed to enter, away from other worshipers, gave way to a New Law and a New High Priest who just opened it up wide, so that each of us believers, is endowed with priesthood of a different kind.
And now, Levites and lepers, Jews and Gentiles, the Saved and the Lost, recent converts and AD 52 Christians, the Chosen and the Marginalized, Travancore Suriyanis and Native Americans, those from the East of the Big Blue Sea and those to the West of it, all have equal access to the Kingdom. And women have equal partnership in this invitation.
In fact, women were the first two invitees to this New Covenant of Grace.
Thank you all for praying with me, for me, and for listening to me.