You don’t have to live in the city to help fight urban hunger

Sight as a metaphor for faith

Today’s story about Jesus healing a blind man describes an event, but it is also a parable. The blind man regained his sight in two stages. Jesus first spat on his hand and rubbed saliva in the man’s eyes. He saw, but not clearly. In that wonderful phrase, the man said that he could see people but they were like trees walking. Then Jesus laid hands on him a second time and his sight was restored completely. The parabolic explanation is that few people come to faith in a sudden conversion experience. Most of us come to faith gradually. It is more like the gradual dawning of morning than a sudden flash of light.  Or, it is the drip of water eroding a stone rather than smashing the stone with a hammer.

Why must we always look for a sign?

Today’s Gospel begins, “The Pharisees came and began to argue with Jesus, asking him for a sign from heaven, to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, ‘Why does this generation ask for a sign?’” It was a good question. The Pharisees had criticized Jesus ever since he started his ministry. They objected when his disciples plucked ears of grain on the Sabbath, and when Jesus healed on the Sabbath. They complained that his disciples did not wash their hands ritually before eating.

Yet there were plenty signs all around them of who and what Jesus represented. They had presumably heard about the Feeding of the Five Thousand and Jesus’ many healing miracles. Either they couldn’t see these signs or they didn’t want to see them. Jesus simply said, “No, there will not be a sign given to this generation.” In other words, “You don’t need a sign. The signs are all around you. All you have to do is look!”

Mark’s Gospel: the most human Jesus

I like Mark’s Gospel because his portrayal of Jesus seems so ‘real’ – a Jesus who got annoyed when people didn’t understand what he had been teaching them. Like the Pharisees, the disciples had been with Jesus since his ministry began.  They had been present at feeding miracles. Yet here they were, in today’s reading, worrying that no-one had remembered to bring enough lunch. Jesus had to remind them, “Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear?”  Do we?

Urban hunger

To me, the problem of urban hunger is like Jesus’ reactions to the Pharisees and disciples. We do not need to ask for a sign. The signs of hunger are all around us every time we visit a big city – Toronto, Hamilton, Ottawa …

St. George’s supports St. Matthew’s House food bank

Ever since I have been in the parish, we have collected and blessed food for the food bank at St. Matthew’s House.  St. Mathew’s House serves people in one of the poorest areas of Hamilton.  I think that we can give ourselves a little bit of self-congratulation. Our parish has been doing an outstanding job of collecting food. The last two donations to St. Matthew’s House from our tiny parish have generated nearly 900 lbs of food. That’s almost half a ton!!

Maybe you could help us — and St. Matthew’s House

But we could do better.  The shelves at St. Matthew’s House are often nearly empty.  We want to kick our efforts up a notch by recruiting other people who might share our concerns. To use the phrase from today’s Gospel, our parish could progress from the parallel of seeing ‘like trees walking’ to seeing clearly.  These helpers do not have to be present or future Sunday attendees. My dream is that if we can manage to publicize what we are doing already, other people will want to join the effort because it is worthwhile.  You don’t have to stand for public office yourself to help in the upcoming municipal election campaign. It isn’t necessary to be a doctor to volunteer at your local hospital.

“You don’t have to live in the city to help fight urban hunger.”  This isn’t a new project that will rely on other people to make it a success.  We want to build on our outreach program that is already successful, to make it more so. St Matthew’s House helps us make the need more immediate, by letting us know their most urgent current needs. Too often, many of their shelves are empty.  We then advertize their needs on our own social media.

How could you help?

There are several approaches we can take and people we can target to help us. First and most obvious are the people, besides our congregation, who already come to use our building regularly. Those of us who live in apartment or condo buildings might be able to get permission to put collection boxes for food in their lobby or activities room. Some of us might be able to get collection boxes at our places of work. In all such cases the boxes would have to be emptied and the contents brought to St George’s each week to show that this is an ongoing commitment, not a one-time flash in the pan.

You can help by dropping off donations at St. George’s

Through social media and through neighbourhood flyers we can encourage donations literally at our door, during our ‘office hours’ 9 am to 3 pm Wednesdays and Thursdays.

 

What are our harvests?

Today we celebrate the harvest. Every religion has always had a celebration to give thanks for the annual harvest of food. Even those of us who buy all our food from super-markets are aware that we depend on the bounty of nature to put food on our plates. We who have faith add the sense of divine goodness to the idea of ‘bounty of nature’ that our harvests represent.

Harvests of money

Most Canadians do not participate in the physical harvest personally. Instead, we use money to shop for food. Money is the harvest we earn through our labours. For those who are retired, it is the harvest of money we stored in our metaphorical barn while we were working. In essence, we barter our harvests of money for the foodstuffs in our grocery stores and supermarkets. In days gone by, farmers with a successful harvest might barter some of the grain crop for a hog. Today they probably “barter” the crop for money with which to buy other necessities.

When you think about it, our money-based society is little different from the agricultural societies of 100 years ago, and even those that Jesus and his disciples knew.

What if your harvest failed? Drought, flood, fire, disease, insect infestations – any of these calamities might leave your family with too little to get through the winter. That is the plight of the unemployed, the working poor, the refugee. Their harvest of money is often too little to get them to next week, let alone the next season.

In the rural economy, the friends and neighbours of the farming family struck by disaster would normally pitch in and help. Food might ‘magically’ appear when a crop was lost; neighbours would join together in a barn-raising to replace a barn destroyed by fire.  Again, that kind of assistance is no different from offering a helping hand with food to those whose harvest of money are inadequate to feed their families.

Hunger hurts, literally and more

Hunger hurts. But more than that, it leaves children unable to fulfil their potential in school. It leaves adults with too little energy to work productively or care for their children as they would like. Food is such a basic necessity that a wealthy society like Canada should be able to spare enough for everyone.

St George’s has a proud tradition of helping in this way. It is our response to Jesus’ challenge, “Did you feed the hungry?” Because whether you did or didn’t, it is as if we had treated Jesus himself that way. We want to kick our harvest of food donations up a notch by recruiting other people who might share similar concerns to help us expand our effort. Remember, ‘You don’t have to live in the city to help fight urban hunger”!!

Why does God allow evil and misfortune to exist?

Jesus healed people, but why did they have to suffer in the first place?

In today’s two Gospel stories Jesus heals a Syrophoenician woman’s daughter and a deaf-mute man. But these accounts raise the question of why these people needed to be cured in the first place. Why would an almighty and all-loving God require them to suffer?   Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people, or even allow evil to exist at all? Theodicy is the technical word for trying to find an adequate explanation of this dilemma.

The world of ancient Torah – sin and punishment

The world of ancient Israel had a simple response to this problem. Sin had taken place, so God had to punish someone.  It didn’t need to be the sinner him- or herself. In Torah Judaism, God “visits the fathers’ sins on the children to the third and the fourth generation …” The sinner in the first case might have been the Syrophoenician woman herself or her sick daughter. In the second, maybe it was the deaf-mute man or his parents or his siblings.  Or the sin could have taken place further back.  In this explanation, the Law of Moses presents God as judgemental and even vengeful. That view was largely discarded by later Biblical authors.

Jesus illustrated this new perception when he encountered a man born blind [John 9: 2-3].  The disciples asked, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus replied, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” That answer seems to imply that God had deliberately caused the man’s blindness. That allowed Jesus to perform a healing miracle to testify to his divinity. I would be more comfortable with saying that although the healing miracle attested to Jesus’ divinity, the text does not spell out why the man was born blind.

God does not micromanage the world

We have all heard people say, or even said ourselves, things like, “Why did God allow Mary-Lou to get cancer/ have that accident/ lose her job? She was always such a good person.” My explanation, and it may not be a very comforting one, is this. “Mary-Lou’s misfortune was just plain bad luck. God does not micro-manage the world or the people in it.”

Scripture gives us a version of my comment. ‘God sends his rain on the just and the unjust’ [Matthew 5:45]. That is, Jesus comments that rain is beneficent; it falls on the fields of both virtuous and evil farmers.

God does not pick and choose where the rain falls, farm by farm. A humorous verse turns the subject around, referring instead to the misfortune of people stuck in a rainstorm. “God sends his rain upon the just, and also on the unjust fella. But chiefly on the just, because the unjust steals the just’s umbrella.”

Natural and moral evils

Cancer can be described as a natural evil. Mary-Lou’s cancer was the luck of the draw, like whether your house was destroyed or spared in a tornado. Maybe she inherited a defective gene; maybe she was exposed to an environmental pollutant. We will never know. But we human beings try hard to reject bad luck as the reason for our misfortunes. We feel intuitively that there must have been a reason. We could find that reason if we only looked hard enough. But that is exactly the style of thinking that the ancients used when they postulated sin as the cause of misfortune. It is ultimately a losing game; there is no answer.

Other bad luck is the result of human actions like war or murder. These can be called moral evils. Back in June, two little girls were shot and injured while playing in a Toronto park. They were the innocent but unlucky victims of a shooting that missed its intended target. There were eleven children in the park at the time. Why were these two sisters injured? Why them specifically, and not any of the other nine children? Again, it was bad luck. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Theodicy – how can I retain my faith in God in the face of evil and random bad luck?

But if God isn’t an almighty Mr. Fix-it, wouldn’t random bad luck cause us to lose our faith in God? I paid up my insurance policy by going to church and praying regularly. Why didn’t God pay out on the policy? But theodicy does not attempt to defend God against the charge, “Why do you let bad things happen?” It tries to show that it is reasonable to believe in God despite the evidence of both natural and moral evil in the world. Dualistic religions such as gnosticism sweep this problem under the carpet by positing two gods. An evil god operates in this world, opposing the actions of the one true god who operates on a heavenly, spiritual plane.

Even if God allows natural disasters, surely God should step in to avoid moral evils? My near-favourite author Pelagius wrote that even our ability to choose evil is a sign of divine goodness; it shows that God gave us free will. The mythic story of the fall of Adam and Eve [Genesis 3] gives us a remarkably good take on free will, and the Torah’s insistence that sin must be punished (see earlier). God had told the curious and intelligent people he had created that they could eat the fruits of any tree, except for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Could God really have believed that they could resist? Not likely!

Adam and Eve were banished from the immortal and perfect garden because they chose to eat the forbidden fruit. Now that they knew the difference between good and evil, they could no longer live the perfect life in the perfect garden. They and their descendants (us) have to live in our slightly imperfect yet still wonderful world.

In a piece of Scripture that we usually read in Advent, the prophet Isaiah wrote of a glorious new creation. There would be no more weeping or distress, and no untimely death. Everyone would live to a ripe old age [Isaiah 65: 17-20]. It was a nice dream, but it cannot become reality because it is predicated on God micro-managing a perfect world. In reality, we blunder about our slightly imperfect world, using our free will to make choices that are sometimes good and sometimes bad. Indeed, our existence would be completely sterile if we were all forced to conform robotically to what was pre-planned for us, as in Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World.

Faith, works, and trust in God’s unbounded wisdom

The picture is completed by our reading from the Epistle of James, who tells us famously that faith without works is dead. James then put this argument. If someone says ‘You have faith and I have works,’ it follows that my works are explicit evidence of my faith (or lack of faith!).

That is the essence of Jesus’ statement in the Sermon on the Mount, “By their fruits you will know them” [Matthew 7: 20]. Jesus compared a good and a bad tree. James spoke directly about people and their works instead of using the metaphor of trees and their fruits.

The psalms of lament, and especially Psalm 73, illustrate vividly the dilemma that humans face in confronting evil and injustice. At the beginning, the psalmist admitted that [he] had almost lost his spiritual footing. He was grieved because wicked people seemed to get all the good fortune, even though they treated other people unfairly. Why did God let this happen? Yet eventually, he went into God’s house, and considered the fate of the wicked. He realized that any punishment they might deserve had to happen in God’s time, not his own. His role was to trust in God, not to be God, dishing out retribution.

That, to sum up, is also the essence of Psalm 23, The Lord’s my shepherd. God does not offer insurance policies that nothing bad will happen to the faithful. Rather, God walks with us in the good times and comforts us when we must walk through the dark valleys of life.

It’s not a perfect explanation, but it is theodicy – an answer as to why we might trust in God even in the face of evil and unfairness.

You can read more in the book ‘ When bad things happen to good people’ by Rabbi Harold Kushner.  It was first published 1981, but is just as relevant today.

 

Is God’s revelation complete or ongoing?

To me, the showdown between Jesus and the Pharisees in today’s Gospel reading speaks to a very contemporary issue.  Did God’s revelation to humanity finish when the New Testament was completed?

The presenting issue: ritual cleanliness

The Pharisees confronted Jesus because some of his disciples did not carry out the proper ceremonies for ritual cleanliness before eating.  Devout first century Jews such as the Pharisees considered ritual cleanliness as extremely important.  They tried to follow all the Laws of Moses, as written in the first five books of what we call the Old Testament.  This wasn’t because they were stiff-necked killjoys.  They understood God’s laws as a gift to them.  They followed these laws joyfully, out of gratitude that God had given them rules to live by.  That is what they meant by following the traditions of the elders.

It wasn’t about a quick rinse with soap and water before dinner.  It was about an elaborate washing ceremony.  Let’s also be clear that this passage doesn’t give small boys a free pass over washing their hands before meals.  We don’t have to fall for the line, “If Jesus and his disciples didn’t have to, why do we?”

The tradition of the elders – we’ve always done it this way

Jesus claimed that the Pharisees had misunderstood the traditions of the elders.  They had become to fixated on following the proper rituals that they had forgotten the reason behind God’s commandments.  They were in danger of making idols of these human rituals.  The matter is parallel to other issues in Mark’s Gospel concerning Sabbath observance.  In that case, Jesus re-framed the question this way – was the Sabbath made so that people could rest from work, or were we created to fit the Sabbath rules?

It wasn’t really about eating food

So the immediate issue about hand-washing is about more than mere cleanliness.  Maybe this seems rather arcane – of interest to first century Jews, but not to us.  But we see the relevance in how Jesus replied.  He talked about what is really clean and really dirty.  It’s not about food at all.  Food is just food.  You eat it.  The waste products go into the sewer.  In today’s reading, we see that Jesus himself overturned tradition by declaring all foods to be ritually clean.

Jesus re-framed the question in terms of being defiled, meaning polluted or corrupted.  The things that really defile a person are those that come from within – from the heart as he put it.  Cleanliness is really about what you say and do.  It’s all very well to talk about being defiled by outward dirt.  People really dirty themselves by what is in their hearts.  It comes out in what they say and do.  Jesus gave examples of what he meant – vices such as adultery, slander, pride, and envy.

Jesus’ perspective was that the Pharisees were stuck in their understandingof God.  They were intolerant of new ideas about God.  They believed that the Laws of Moses had given their people all the revelation they would ever need.  In contrast, Jesus proclaimed a new understanding of the relationship between God and humanity.  His was based on love and inclusion, with more emphasis on what you should do than what you shouldn’t do.  As Christians, we see Jesus’ teaching as promoting this new revelation.

Did God’s revelation stop at a fixed time or is it ongoing?

Is it realistic to imagine that there has been no further change in how we understand that relationship since Jesus lived on earth?  Did God’s revelation to humanity came to an abrupt stop two thousand years ago?  Yet that is exactly the view of those Christians who quote a verse or two of Scripture and claim that they must be right, “because it’s in the Bible.”  I often wonder how carefully they follow every last detail of Scripture.  Do they avoid polyester and cotton shirts (no cloth must be made from two fabrics)?  Do they resolutely refuse to eat shrimps and bacon (no shellfish and no meat from animals with divided cloven hooves)?

I passionately believe that God’s revelation continues to this day.  Today, most of us in the West take for granted ideas about compassion and inclusion.  If it is really true that God has not said anything new to humanity for the past two thousand years, I ask myself where these ideas came from.  Slavery was an accepted institution in the first century.  Jesus told parables about slaves without suggesting that slavery was wrong.  It remained that way for 1800 years.  Christian people – William Wilberforce in England, Harriet Tubman and others in the United States, fought against it, and eventually won.  In the 20th century civil rights became human rights.  Traditions of the elders were overturned.  Those of a Pharisee-like mind-set disagreed.

Christians have always responded to what they have seen as God’s revelation

Christian people like the Roman Catholic Sisters of Saint Joseph set up hospitals across this country.  Our own Canadian Tommy Douglas fought for universal health care out of his Christian conviction that access to health care should not depend on your income.  The Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke forcefully against the apartheid regime in South Africa.  The Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero proclaimed a liberation theology for his people against a brutal right wing dictatorship in El Salvador.  All of us, he said, rich or poor, are God’s children.  As did Jesus.

These events did not happen two thousand years ago.  Many of them happened within the lifetimes of Christians alive today.  I profoundly believe that all these people, acting out of their convictions, responded to God’s continuing revelation to humanity.  New ideas keep welling up.  In this new century, Canada has legalized same sex marriage and authorized medical aid in dying.  Thoughtful Christians have had much to say on both sides of these arguments.  In the 1960s, Time magazine had the famous cover “God is Dead.”  It strikes me that for one who is dead, God has had a lot to say in recent years.

So, parents, take heart.  Mark did not write today’s Gospel expressly for the pleasure of small children with dirty hands.  One morning in church or Sunday School will not undo years of telling our kids to wash their hands before meals.  And who knows what God’s next amazing revelations will be?  What’s for sure is that they will upset lots of people who want to stick to the traditions of their elders.

Bread – Food for the Body and the Soul

Feeding the 5,000

Jesus said to the disciples, “I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry; whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”  The so-called “Bread of Life” discourse is a lengthy set piece speech in which the Gospel writer John has Jesus consider the spiritual meaning of the miraculous Feeding of the Five Thousand.  We intuitively read and hear Gospel stories about what Jesus said differently from those about what he did.  We look for non-superficial meanings of parables (they are not really about mustard seeds or wicked tenants), but accept the events of Jesus’ life as being more factual.  But if we take the Feeding of the Five Thousand figuratively, we might ask, “Were the people out on the mountain just physically hungry, or were they spiritually hungry for what Jesus had to tell them?  Which did they need – bread for the body, or bread for the soul?  Was it suppertime or a Eucharistic moment?”

Bread as a symbol

Last week, Jan reflected on the possible meanings of the phrase “Eternal Life” so today I would like to focus on the other part of the equation – the Bread of Life.  Bread is a powerful symbol for our physical life’s needs – a metaphor for all food.  Even in concentration camps, in prisons, or in times of famine, people are fed bread when there is nothing else.  Nicolas Madura keeps his hold on Venezuela today in part by subsidizing the price of bread.  ‘Bread’ is even used as a slang expression for money – a metaphor for what you earn to buy actual bread.

One way of thinking about the Bread of Life is that Jesus contrasted the temporary satisfaction of the body that comes from eating ordinary bread at mealtimes with the ongoing satisfaction of the soul that faith can offer.  Indeed, in part of the discourse that we read last week, Jesus referred to an event in the Exodus story – “Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, but this is the bread come down from heaven.”  The manna saved the Israelites from starvation at the time, but they got hungry again, and in the end, they died just like everyone else.

“Take; thank; break; share”

In the feeding miracle, Jesus took the bread, he gave thanks, he broke the bread, and gave it to his disciples to share with the crowd.  “Take; thank; break; share” parallels our weekly Eucharistic prayers that recall the events of the Last Supper.  In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood will have eternal life.”  In the Gospel narrative, the Feeding of the Five Thousand precedes the Last Supper, which occurs at the end of Jesus’ life. Writing long after both events, the Gospel writer John already knew about the Last Supper when he put these words into Jesus’ mouth.

The Jewish leadership was incensed at these words because they – just as we are prone to do – took the words about eating flesh and drinking blood literally rather than metaphorically.  They were aghast at the suggestion.  They did not “get it”.  Seeing how often Scripture gets taken literally, it is hardly surprising that early in the Christian era, many non-Christians thought that Communion was a kind of cannibalistic ritual for Christians.  Even today, our Eucharistic prayers are a barrier to newcomers to accept our Eucharistic liturgies unless they already know and understand the Last Supper story

A Hard Teaching

Later in our Gospel reading, the disciples say, “This teaching is difficult.”  I think most of us can say “Amen to that!” Some disciples found what Jesus was trying to explain so hard that they abandoned him completely.  In college lingo, they dropped the course. Jesus asked whether Twelve wanted to so as well.  Peter replied, “Lord, where shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  You are God’s holy one.”

Meaning of the Eucharist

Today’s Gospel invites us to think about what the Eucharist means for each of us.  There is no one right way to think about the ‘Bread of Life” that we consume at Communion.  At one extreme is the Roman Church’s theology of transubstantiation, in which the prayer of consecration miraculously changes ordinary bread and wine into the actual Body and Blood of Jesus.  The other extreme is that the bread and wine are merely symbols – or memorials – that re-enact Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples.  Perhaps because Anglicans always tend to compromise, the commonest Anglican theology is that of the Real Presence of Christ – that in an unspecified way, Christ truly meets us at the communion table.  This is why the old Prayer Book gives thanks, in the Prayer after Communion, that “thou dost graciously feed us in these holy mysteries with the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ.”  The prayer continues, “and that we are living members of his mystical body, which is the blessed company of all faithful people, and are also heirs, through hope, of thy everlasting kingdom.”  Much as I like our modern Eucharistic Prayers, they do not quite capture for me this sense of the Eucharistic mystery, which as ordinary human beings, we can never quite understand.

Communion Bread

What kind of bread should be used at Communion?  The earliest extant liturgy spoke only of “the many grains that we have gathered into this one bread” which we will say today in the “Breaking of the Bread”.  When Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth, the Lord’s Supper (as he called it), nothing was said about what kind of bread to use.  It was a Eucharistic pot-luck in which everyone brought and shared.  In contrast, the old Anglican Prayer Book demanded “the best and purest wheat bread, either leavened or unleavened” – thus only the best is good enough for Communion.  Our communion wafers have lost a lot in translation!  Martin Luther argued that the Body of Christ should be experienced in the Eucharist by being “pressed with his teeth” – he wanted the Eucharist to be physical, not just symbolic.

What we do with left-over Communion bread reflects how we understand the Eucharist.  In its early days, the Anglican Church allowed the curate of the parish to take the leftover Communion bread home to use in his own household – thus seeming to make the bread of Communion ordinary, and very much of this world.  For those who consider Communion as nothing more than a memorial – or re-enactment – of the Last Supper, the bread is nothing special, and it doesn’t matter whether we take the leftovers home or discard them.  But if we believe that Christ is truly present with us (or believe in transubstantiation), then the left-over bread has a special significance of holiness.  That is why, when we use ordinary bread for Communion at St. George’s, we treat the consecrated bread with reverence, even the crumbs. We make sure that all of it is eaten at or after the service, not just thrown away.  In this context, I notice that in all four Gospel stories of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, the bread left over was clearly understood as special.  It was gathered up in baskets so that it would not be wasted.  Besides, to throw it away violates what Michelle and I think of as the Eleventh Commandment, “Thou shalt not waste food.”

It occurred to me this week that today’s two readings are linked by their sense of the opposite.  Solomon carried out the wishes of his father.  He built a Temple, a solid physical structure made of dressed stone. [This was the First Temple, not the one destroyed by the Romans, whose “wailing wall” remains today.]  Conversely, John presents Jesus in a very other-worldly way, in which he promotes building an unearthly (or spiritual) temple in heaven or in our hearts.  Physical and spiritual are alternative and complementary ways of honouring God.  Just like the various interpretations of the communion bread, they are different yet both are completely acceptable.  My belief is that the Scriptures admonish us to honour God and love our neighbours, without prescribing exactly how each of us should approach these tasks.

St. Mary, the Mother of Jesus

St. Mary in the Bible

Most Anglicans don’t often think about Mary, the mother of Jesus.  We meet her in the Advent story of the Annunciation, but at Christmas-time our focus is on the birth of Jesus.  Mary tends to be rather a bit-player in typical Christmas pageants – the shepherds and the Magi usually get better parts. Mary just gets to walk to the inn with Joseph – often, she doesn’t even get a speaking part, no better than the sheep and the oxen!  Outside the Christmas story, we meet Mary in John’s Gospel at the wedding at Cana (water into wine) and at the foot of the Cross.  In the Synoptics she is part of the family who call for Jesus outside the synagogue (when he says that his disciples are his true family).  She is also named among those who devoted themselves to prayer prior to the Holy Spirit’s arrival at Pentecost (Acts 1: 14).

Do Anglicans pray to St. Mary?

Today, the Feast of Day St Mary, she is the central figure.  Protestants often think that only Roman Catholics have any regard for Mary, but although the Anglican Reformation removed the large number of minor saints from the medieval church calendar, it kept Mary, along with the twelve named Apostles, the four Gospel writers, and St Paul.   But the Protestant Reformation made one incalculably important change – Christians are all worthy to pray directly to God, as Jesus explained when he taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer.  We do not have to use saints such as the Virgin Mary as intermediaries.

Legends about St. Mary

Devotion to Mary existed from the very beginning of Christianity.  Justin Martyr (~100–165) called her the Second Eve.  The early Church furnished Mary with a legendary family; an angel promised her parents Anne and Joachim that they would have a child after years of childlessness.  In return, Anne promised to dedicate Mary to God, parallel to Samuel’s dedication to God by his mother Hannah in the Old Testament.  The doctrine called the Dormition (falling asleep) of the Blessed Virgin Mary is the belief that the Virgin died without suffering, in a state of spiritual peace.  [Our sister Romanian Orthodox Church is named the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary.] In her book Revelations of Divine Love, written in the 14h century, Julian of Norwich wrote that God shows us the essence of what motherhood is all about.  She wrote that since the Blessed Virgin Mary was the mother of our Saviour Jesus, so she must be the spiritual mother of all who believe.

Catholic Doctrines about St. Mary

After the alignment of the western Church with Rome, Church Councils specified several doctrines about Mary required of believers.  These included her virginal conception of Jesus (First Council of Nicaea, 325); her name as the “God-bearer” (Theotokos, Council of Ephesus, 431); and her perpetual virginity (Second Council of Constantinople, 553), despite the clear Gospel evidence that Jesus had brothers and sisters, one of whom, James the brother of Jesus, became the leader of the emerging Church is Jerusalem.  The Roman Church fudged this by claiming that these were actually step brothers of Jesus from an earlier marriage of Joseph – hence Joseph’s portrayal as an old man in Renaissance art.  These doctrines have the effect of portraying Mary as sexless – and therefore no threat to the emerging male hierarchy of the Church.

The doctrines of the Immaculate Conception (that Mary was free of original sin from the moment of her conception), and the Assumption (that upon her death Mary’s body and soul were taken into heavenly glory) were long known in popular piety. Only recently (1854 and 1950 respectively) were they made required Roman Catholic doctrines.  Most Anglicans take these two dogmas as pious beliefs or legends, without Scriptural foundation.  The Assumption contradicts early Christian texts claiming that Mary’s soul was carried to heaven, but her body has been preserved until the ultimate resurrection.

Western art portrays Mary as a distant, aloof figure in a blue dress, a perfect mother, always kind and gentle, a docile role model for keeping women in their place.  Remember the line in the carol Once in Royal David’s city?  “Mary was that mother mild; Jesus Christ her little child.”

St. Mary – a Strong Woman

I imagine Mary as a much stronger personality than this milk-and-water figure.  At the time of the Annunciation, she would have been young, because in those days marriage and family occurred early in life.  She was seriously at risk of being stoned to death in her culture, being pregnant and apparently unmarried.  Yet Luke’s Gospel portrays this young woman as the one who said “Yes” to the angel, despite her initial hesitation.

When Mary went to stay with her cousin Elizabeth, Luke put into her mouth the hymn of praise that we know as the Magnificat.  It follows Mary’s Jewish tradition, that God remembers the promises he made to her ancestors, to Abraham and his descendants.  She includes the eternal dream that when the true reign of God will begin, the hungry will be fed with good things, powerful overlords will be displaced from their thrones, and lowly people will be lifted up by God.  I would like to imagine Mary teaching the young Jesus the values he would carry through life, just as we all learn our values from our parents.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says essentially the same things.  In the Beatitudes: that the hungry will be fed, mourners will find joy, the poor and meek will enter the Kingdom; then, again like Mary, he upholds his Jewish background by saying, “I came not to destroy the Law but to fulfil it.”

Judith, Another Strong Woman

Our first reading was an extract from the Book of Judith, which recounts the story of an unambiguously strong woman.  Judith was a daring and beautiful widow who criticized her Jewish compatriots because they did not trust in God to save them from the Assyrian army. She and her maid went to the camp of the enemy general, Holofernes pretending to spy on the Israelites.  One night, Judith went into Holofernes’ tent as he lay in a drunken stupor.  She took his sword, and cut off his head, which she took back to her countrymen. The Assyrians lost their leader, and Israel was saved.  Her prayer, from which we read today, carries echoes of the Magnificat in praising God’s might and care for the lowly and oppressed.

What can we learn from these Faithful Women?

Judith was a widow, a mature woman, Mary a frightened young girl who could have had no idea of what God’s calling might involve when the Angel Gabriel first said to her, “Greetings, you that are highly favoured”.  No wonder she asked herself what manner of greeting this might be!  We at St. George’s are also called to be holy, to be faithful like Mary to God’s calling.  Like her, we continually have to try to discern what it might mean for our parish to follow God’s calling.  Saint Mary – that is Holy Mary – has always been associated with a special degree of holiness.  She is not venerated for being a good person in the conventional sense like keeping the Ten Commandments, but for her faithfulness in following what she believed to be God’s will.  So also for everyone in our parish.  In a secular world, the people of this congregation are holy not for being nice people (even if you are), but for coming to St. George’s Sunday by Sunday when the world around places little value on matters of faith and spiritual practice.

Mary the mother of Jesus has been loved and venerated by ordinary Christians through the ages.  Like Mary Magdalene, whose feast day we celebrated last month, she is a feminine presence in a Church most of whose images are male – God the Father, male apostles, male human Jesus.  The late Anglican Bishop of Birmingham (UK) said about Mary, “Christians rightly honour and venerate her as one of the great saints [whom] God had signally honoured by choosing her to be the mother of Jesus.” As we celebrate her feast-day, I ask you to recognize her central importance as one who was faithful to God’s call.

An Old Testament #metoo Moment?

Today’s Gospel story was the Feeding of the Five Thousand as presented in John’s Gospel. We will return to this story later this month when we read from Jesus’ so-called Bread of Life discourse – when Jesus calls himself the Bread of Life. For today, I just want to note that the Feeding of the Five Thousand is recorded in all four Gospels. The versions are slightly different, according to the “agenda” of the Gospel writer. Compared with Matthew, Mark, and Luke, John wanted to place special emphasis on the divinity of Jesus. He inserted a conversation in which Jesus asks Philip what they should do, making Philip look theologically a bit dim when all he can think about is the cost of
bread. Then at the end, the people say, “Truly, this is the prophet who has come into the world.” There’s also lots of symbolism around the number twelve – twelve disciples; twelve baskets of leftovers; twelve tribes of Israel.

I want to talk about today’s Old Testament Scripture, which follows on directly from last week when we read about how the beautiful Bathsheba had a #MeToo encounter with King David. It looks like a very contemporary story – just change the names to Harvey Weinstein and a Hollywood actress and it
could have been in a recent newspaper. One day, David saw drop-dead gorgeous Bathsheba bathing on the roof of her home. Filled with lust and a sense of entitlement, he determined to have her, even though he already had a whole harem of wives and concubines. Bathsheba has no choice but to submit
– he’s the King, her husband Uriah is away at war. She had no-one to protect her, so David had his way with her.

Then disaster strikes. Bathsheba gets pregnant. She couldn’t pretend that the child was Uriah’s because he was away with the army. So David fixed the problem. He arranged for Uriah to be put into the fiercest part of the battle, so that he would be killed. To Canadian eyes, it looks as if David arranged to get Uriah killed to avoid a scandal. Actually, the situation was much worse than this. In the Middle East, male members of the family carried out honour killings (and sometimes still do) of women who were accused of having stained the family’s honour. If David wanted Bathsheba, he had to get rid of Uriah,  otherwise Uriah would kill her. That’s why David got Uriah placed in the fiercest
part of the battle, knowing that he would be killed. It is almost as if he had murdered Uriah himself.

We picked up the story today after Bathsheba’s time of mourning for Uriah was over. It seems that David must have actually loved Bathsheba, because he married her. At least Bathsheba was more than just a starlet on the casting couch who was used then thrown away like a used tissue. Despite this, God
was unimpressed by David’s behaviour. He sent the prophet Nathan to have a ‘little talk’ with David. Nathan didn’t confront David directly – David would probably have said that he was the King and he could do whatever he liked. Instead, Nathan shamed David by telling a parable about a rich man who
had plenty of sheep and a poor man who had just one lamb. The rich man refused to slaughter one of his sheep to offer hospitality to a traveller, but took the poor man’s only lamb instead. David was outraged at the injustice of the rich man’s actions, because he showed no pity for the man who was
poor. He said, “That man should die, because he showed no pity.” Nathan pointed out the parallel with David’s conduct (he had many wives and concubines; Uriah just one wife).

Nathan went on to say that God had given David the whole kingdom, yet he had despised God both by taking Uriah’s wife and by having had Uriah killed. David recognized his shameful behaviour. He said, “I have sinned against the Lord.” He acknowledged his sin and showed remorse. If he had loved
today, he might have said, “I made a bad decision.” It sounds a lot better than “I did wrong.” Bad decisions take the focus off the wrongdoer. They seem to float “out there” independently of ourselves. Nathan did not tell David that he made bad decisions when he raped Bathsheba and had Uriah killed. He made it clear that what David did was flat out wrong. David acknowledged that this was so. He said, “I have sinned against the Lord.” He didn’t try to weasel out of it. Nathan said that he, David, would not die because he repented, but the son born to Bathsheba later fell ill and died.

As I thought about whether the story of David and Bathsheba represents a #MeToo moment from 3000 years ago, I concluded that it does not. God had the prophet Nathan confront King David for what he had done, but when we look at the story carefully, we realize that Nathan’s criticism was that David’s
sins were greed and lack of compassion, but it was Uriah that Nathan and David had pity for, not Bathsheba. David repented for having taken Uriah’s only woman when he already had many wives and concubines, but his attitude towards women was little different than that of the Harvey Weinstein’s of
today’s world. I’m a big shot, so I’m entitled to whatever I want. In the culture of the time, neither Nathan nor the writers of the books of Samuel seem to see anything untoward in David’s treatment of women as things to be used. By today’s standards, we criticize David just as much for his despicable treatment of Bathsheba. In the words of the hymn, “Time makes ancient good uncouth,” as 21st century Canadians, we find David’s behaviour to be inexcusable as well as uncouth.

The cynic might say that King David put a different twist on the Biblical injunction to love one’s neighbour, which had been written in the Book of Leviticus, long before the time of Jesus. After all, it seems that Bathsheba lived next door to one of David’s palaces! But David very clearly did not love
that neighbour as he loved himself. The Biblical sense of that commandment is to have self-respect, and to extend that sense of respect to one’s neighbour. David’s behaviour was self-centred and egotistical. He showed neither self-respect, nor respect for either Bathsheba or her husband Uriah who – let’s not forget – was off fighting for king and country i.e., fighting on behalf of David.

One of my seminary professors said that we should always look to find God’s grace in a Biblical story. It isn’t easy to do so with the story of David and Bathsheba. It is a sordid and disgraceful story. David was all powerful, so Bathsheba couldn’t say no to him. This story shows the human failings of one of Israel’s “greats”. But the element of grace is that David repented of his sin. Even though David acted so badly, God was still able to find value in him. For example, Bathsheba later had another son, Solomon, who built the first Temple in Jerusalem. Despite his moral lapse, we still credit David with
writing sublime psalms; he remains the first and greatest King of Israel, a figure of such importance that a thousand years later, the Gospel writers were at pains to emphasize that Jesus was descended from his royal lineage. The good news for us is that if God can make use of a seriously flawed person
like King David, there is hope that God can make use of us too. We just have to hope that God will recognize the good in each of us, and not dwell on the bad.

Who was Mary Magdalene?

Today is the feast day of Mary who came from the town of Magdala. There is an icon of Mary Magdalene at the foot of the chancel steps. The central window of our three lady saints is Mary Magdalene, which were given in memory of Dale Anne Freed, who died on Mary Magdalene’s feast day. All four Gospels cite Mary Magdalene in the Crucifixion and Resurrection stories. She was the first person to recognize the Risen Christ at the Resurrection, and to give that news to the male disciples. That is why she is called the ‘apostle to the apostles’ as we sang in the chant before and after today’s Gospel. However, all that is known of her outside the Crucifixion and Easter events is that she was a wealthy woman who accompanied Jesus and the twelve in their travels, supporting them materially, and that she was cured of seven demons (Luke 8).

Devotion to Mary Magdalene is consistent with the esteem in which the early Church held women – unlike through most of Church history. Acts of the Apostles tells of prominent women who helped Paul and Barnabas in their travels. Paul was clear in his message of inclusion for Christians – in Christ there is neither male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Greek. It was a very radical position for Paul, an ex- Pharisee, because the Yahweh of Judaism is a very male divine figure (the female Canaanite divinities, Asherahs, were highly suspect in Old Testament theology). Putting women equal with men was just as scandalous as equating free-born citizens with slaves, or Jews with Gentiles.

There is a legend that Mary Magdalene travelled to southern France later in her life, where she remained a popular saint. Whether or not this early version of the faith was brought by Mary Magdalene, Christianity had reached that area by the time of Paul’s journeys (though not by Paul himself), long before it became an officially sanctioned religion of the Roman Empire. Writing online, Val Wineyard records a more elaborate and fanciful legend that Mary Magdalene and Jesus himself travelled to the Narbonne area and promoted early Christianity there together.

Mary Magdalene became controversial in early Christianity. My guess is that her name was used as a cypher to promote rival positions in the Church, concerning the relative importance of men and women. Even in the New Testament there are signs of push-back – the letters to Timothy and Titus (wrongly ascribed to Paul) are more patriarchal than Paul’s authentic writings.

The main controversy was over the roles of Mary Magdalene vs. Simon Peter, who was accepted early on as the first Bishop of Rome. This primacy justified the Bishop of Rome as the spiritual leader (Pope) of the Western Church. In reality, these arguments have little to do with the historical Mary Magdalene, about whom we know so little, other than the concept of Mary Magdalene as ‘apostle to the apostles’. Thus in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas Simon Peter says, “Let Mary [Magdalene] go forth from among us, for women are not worthy of the life.” Jesus scolds him by saying, “I shall lead her, that I may make her male, in order that she also may become a living spirit like you males. For every woman who makes herself male shall enter into the kingdom of heaven.” In other words, Jesus says that he will set aside the ancient world’s dogma that women were inferior to men – incomplete men.

Parallel to this, at a time when the nature of God and of Christ were still in discussion, the Gnostics favoured Mary Magdalene as embodying the feminine principle. For that reason, many non-Biblical Christian writings of the 2nd century CE placed Mary Magdalene above Simon Peter as the leader of the apostle group. In most of these exchanges Simon Peter is like a whiny teenager, complaining that Jesus gave Mary special favours. We see this in today’s reading from the Gospel of Mary (Magdalene), which exists only in fragmentary form. Mary tells the other disciples about a vision in which Jesus spoke to her privately. Andrew cannot believe this (“it’s a very strange teaching”), and Peter gets all upset. He can’t believe that Mary would be spoken to privately, because that would mean that Jesus prefers Mary to him as the leader of the apostle group. But Levi (Matthew) tells Peter to “get a grip” and stop behaving like the unbelievers. Don’t be so petty; get on with the work of spreading the Gospel!

Other sources besides the Gospel of Mary suggest conflict over the roles of women and men in early Christianity. In the Pistis Sophia, Jesus calls Mary Magdalene “more blessed than all women on earth”. This causes Peter, who is annoyed at Mary’s contributions to the conversation, to reply, “Master, we cannot endure this woman. She gets in our way and does not let any of us speak; she talks all the time.”

The author of the Gospel of Philip wrote, “There were three who always walked with the Lord – Mary, his mother, and her sister, and Magdalene, who was called his companion. They were all called Mary.” Later, this was expanded. “The companion of the Saviour was Mary Magdalene. Christ loved Mary more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often. The rest of the disciples were offended by it and expressed disapproval. They said to him, ‘Why do you love her more than all of us?’”

The statements about “companion” and “kissing” have been seen in modern times as implying a sexual relationship between Jesus and Mary. The Greek word koinônos can mean both friend and spouse or sexual partner; in Gnostic literature it probably refers to a spiritual partnership. As to kissing, the kiss of peace was the normal way of greeting among early Christians. Nevertheless, modern usage tends to detect a romantic attachment, consistent with the more prurient recent interest in whether Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married, as elaborated in Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code, nearly two decades ago. However, most historians agree that The Da Vinci Code is merely entertaining fiction.

By the 4th century, about 200 years after these documents were written, the Church had become very patriarchal, following Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity. My opinion is that Roman norms made it necessary to downplay the role of Mary Magdalene, since Simon Peter was seen as the first Bishop of Rome and the first Pope. In that culture, it would have been inconceivable for the Pope’s authority to be challenged by groups that considered Mary Magdalene to be his equal, or worse. By the 6th century, Pope Gregory had identified Mary Magdalene as the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet at a Pharisee’s dinner (Luke 7). In the medieval period, the western Church came to associate Mary Magdalene with other “fallen women”, including the unnamed woman taken in adultery (John 8). This very unfair and unwarranted characterization of Mary has no basis in Scripture.

The feast day of Mary Magdalene was restored in Anglican prayer books during the 20th century. In 1969, the Vatican finally disassociated Mary Magdalene from the sinful woman who poured oil on Jesus’ feet; then in 2016, Pope Francis declared July 22 a major feast day for Mary Magdalene, putting her celebration almost equal with those for the male apostles. Sixth century patriarchy denigrated Mary Magdalene; modern sensibilities about the roles of men and women have restored her.

The simple Collect of the New Zealand prayer book recalls both Jesus’ healing of Mary Magdalene (Luke 8) and her witness to the Resurrection: “Merciful God, your Son restored Mary Magdalene to health of body and mind and called her to be a witness of his resurrection; heal us and make us whole that we may serve you in the power of his risen life; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Demons and Mental Illness

There was no such thing as mental illness in ancient times. Instead, people were said to be possessed by demons, meaning that devils had taken over your mind. Even today, people say that people with addictions have to deal with their demons. In our Gospel today, Jesus met a man whose demons were so overpowering that he could not lead any kind of normal life. Maybe he suffered from seizures; the Gospel relates that he often had to be tied down. When he saw Jesus, he shouted at him.

In today’s world, we might meet someone like him on the streets of Toronto or Hamilton, a person with severe mental problems. Most of us would find such a person to be rather terrifying, dressed either in rags or in some outrageously bizarre outfit, shouting unintelligibly and waving his arms about. We would probably be afraid of what he might do next. We might try to avoid him or her, maybe even cross the street so as not to be confronted by them.

Some people have an amazing ability to talk to such a person calmly and eventually “talk them down.” That’s how I imagine Jesus talking to the man in our story – “What’s your name?” he began. “My name is Legion” – meaning, “I have many demons” – or, “I’ve got a whole wasps nest of devils inside me”. Jesus’ quiet approach reminded me of the Old Testament story in which Elijah hid in a cave as God passed by. God was found not in all the hullabaloo of the storm, the earthquake or the fire, but in the “still small voice”, or in another translation, “in sheer silence”. Jesus didn’t escalate the drama; he just spoke in a quiet voice.
As last week, Mark has provided us with a story in two parts. In the first segment, Jesus called the demons out of the man and into a herd of swine – a way of saying that the man had been ritually unclean – that is untouchable – because of his mental illness. So the madness was transferred into something else that was already ritually unclean in that society, namely the pigs. For a first century Jewish audience, this was reasonable. The pigs were unclean, so it was no theological loss that they were drowned. The swineherds were also unclean because they looked after pigs, so I suppose that the fact that they lost their livelihood was also OK. But I don’t think that Jesus could have behaved that way, or that Mark could have told the story that way, if it had happened in 21st century Canada. That’s where we always have to remember that the Scriptures are products of their time and their culture.

That made me think about what a 21st century Jesus might have done, and how the story might be told today. Jesus meets a homeless man in downtown Toronto. The man lives in parks in the summer and over heating grates in the winter. Today he is shouting wildly. People on the street shun him by averting their eyes or crossing the road. When he sees Jesus, he shouts, “What do you want with me?” Jesus asks him quietly, “What is your name?” and he replies, “I hardly know my name, I am so confused. It’s as if I am full of demons.” Jesus takes the man to Emerg at Mount Sinai Hospital (because he’s Jewish!), where the man is given medication. The doctor reassures the man and says, “Take these two tablets. It will be as if your demons just disappear into the tablets.”

Two things happened in the second part of the story. The swineherds ran off and told other people about the cure. We don’t know whether they reported the healing miracle enthusiastically, or whether they complained about how they had just lost their jobs and become destitute. I’m guessing the second. But we do know that what they reported caused such a sensation that other people came to see what had happened. Those people also did not seem very happy. They wanted Jesus to leave town! What had happened was simply too scary.

Just as in last week’s story of how Jesus was rejected in his home town, Jesus didn’t hang around or argue with the crowd. He just got in a boat and went elsewhere. But before he left, he told the man cured of the mental illness to tell what the Lord had done for him.

The people in the Gospel story shunned the man with the demons, because they were afraid of him. He was therefore isolated, just like people today with mental illnesses. Mental illness remains a source of discrimination. Our prisons are disproportionately populated with people with mental illness. Like the man in the Gospel story who lived among the tombs, many mentally ill people are homeless.

To be cured of mental illness is totally different situation from recovery from ordinary illnesses like flu or diarrhea or even cancer. People sympathize that you were ill and accept you completely when you get better. But mental illness often casts a shadow over people even when they are fully recovered, which is why many people don’t want to admit to having a mental illness – the stigma may well follow them forever. An article in the Globe & Mail on July 5 reported on an employment study entitled The Mental Health Experience in Canada’s Workplaces. “[A] key finding for workplaces is that the majority of respondents (72 per cent) felt that their mental health problem had or would hurt their careers.” Because of this expectation, many employees choose to keep their mental illness hidden from their employers and their coworkers.

The stigma attached to mental illness can make it very difficult for people who have had an episode of mental illness to be accepted as “normal” again – today, just as much as in ancient times. I wonder how difficult it was for the man with the demons – and other people shunned because they were ritually unclean – to shake off their stigma, back in Jesus’ day? Was he forever the crazy guy who used to live in the tombs? In another story Jesus told lepers to “show themselves to the priest” to be declared clean of leprosy. But I wonder whether they ever truly reintegrated into society afterwards.

Mark’s portrayal of Jesus is the most “human” of the four Gospels. I wonder whether the decision to reach out to that scary man with demons – and to others who were ritually unclean – was as difficult for the human Jesus as for us today. We might find the man in the street in Toronto just as unclean or untouchable as the man in the Gospel story. The Gospels repeatedly show Jesus reaching out to people who were “other” – I think of the Samaritan woman by the well, a sinful woman who gate-crashed a dinner at an upstanding Pharisee’s house so as to meet Jesus, and (today) a person possessed by mental demons. If we are honest, we recognize how difficult it is to embrace people who are “other” – whether because of physical or mental handicap, or because of language, nationality, race, or sexual orientation. It is easier to cross the street and avoid someone shouting and waving their arms about. We can’t pretend that we don’t have prejudices, but the Gospel calls us to set them aside and be open to everyone, not just people like ourselves. We will not always succeed in overcoming our prejudices and fears, but if we truly want to be the face of Christ in today’s world, we have to try our best.

If at first you don’t succeed, try again.

Our first Scripture reading today was the piece from Isaiah, Chapter 43 that is very appropriate for a baptism. The prophet tells the people of Israel that they are loved by God and precious in God’s sight. This message was important for them to hear; at that time, their leaders were in prison in Babylon after a disastrous military defeat. They needed to hear that God had not forgotten them.

I see this passage as a parable for the love that surrounds Grady from his parents, relatives, and friends here today, as well as the love that God has for Grady and for all of us. Grady is loved by his parents and friends and is precious to them. As an expression of that love, in a few minutes we will ask Grady’s parents and sponsors to make baptismal promises on his behalf. These six promises are to bring Grady up in the Christian faith, to teach him by word and example to treat other people with dignity and respect, and similarly to care for all of God’s Creation (which means more than just putting recyclables in the blue box!). These promises are difficult to keep. In order to love our neighbours as ourselves, as Jesus told us, we have to set aside our prejudice. This is more than just the Golden Rule, “do to others as you would be done by them.” To love others as yourself means that you must first love yourself – not egotistically or selfishly, but having self-respect, being comfortable in your own skin. We will not always succeed, but the promises have two caveats. First, when we fail in some respect, that we will return to our best intentions. Second, that when we say “we will” to the promises, that we ask for divine help in achieving what we have promised. So our promises include teaching Grady how to love and respect himself so that he can love and respect other people.

Today’s Gospel reading began with Jesus’ rejection by the people of Nazareth. His home-town folks didn’t believe that he could perform miraculous deeds. “Who does this guy think he is? He’s just the carpenter’s son, and those people are just his brothers and sisters?” This isn’t just a Bible story; it’s everyday life. People always look for the outside saviour, and often overlook the solid candidate that they have known all along. They have unrealistic expectations about the outsider. They have heard about the person’s good qualities, but they don’t yet know them well enough to have seen their flaws. Business corporations do this: the business section of the Globe & Mail often reports stories of CEOs who were recruited with high hopes and then dumped a couple of years later when they did not measure up to impossible expectations. Parishes do the same thing – the new Rector will increase the congregation and fix the budget problems. Until, that is, he or she actually arrives and the parish discovers that the new Rector does not have a magic wand.

Speaking of impossible expectations, I have told the story before about a magazine article in which a woman in her 40’s despaired that she had not found a husband, although she had dated many men. She eventually realized that in her never-ending search for Mr. Perfect, she had overlooked many Mr. Good-Enoughs. Probably corporations and parishes pass over many candidates who were not spectacular, but were good enough. Today, we baptize Grady Potts; I’m sure that Jess and Kevin hope that they will be perfect parents and that Grady and Everett will turn out to be perfect sons. It probably won’t happen; what is realistic and achievable is that Kevin and Jess will be Good-Enough parents, and that Everett and Grady will be Good Enough to grow up into decent young men.

In respect of placing unreasonable expectations on young people, years ago, we used to say, ”You should try to be the very best you can be.” Somewhere along the line it changed into, “You can do anything that you dream of doing.” The second statement is patently false, and can end up being very cruel. I saw this at the University of Guelph, with students devastated because their dream – or, worse, their parents’ dream for them – to be accepted into the veterinary program had been dashed because they did not get good marks in their chemistry course. No matter how much I might have dreamed about playing for the Blue Jays (or growing up in England, playing for the England cricket team!), it wasn’t going to happen. I am useless at connecting bat to ball.

In the second part of the Gospel story, Jesus sent the disciples out in pairs to preach and undertake a healing ministry. The disciples were told to travel without extras – no money, no change of clothes, no food. They had to depend on the hospitality of the people they met. And if the residents of a particular village were unfriendly, they were not to bother further, but to shake the dust off their sandals, as a way of saying that this village was a lost cause for their ministry. Jesus had already done just that when he got a negative reception to his own ministry in his home town. When the people rejected him, he left Nazareth and – in the sentence that links the two stories – “He went about among the villages teaching.” Jesus shook the dust of Nazareth off his feet and went elsewhere – there were plenty of other villages to evangelize. It is similar to what happened in the recent provincial election. Like most of our street, we had a Green Party Mike Schreiner sign on our lawn, so no Conservative or Liberal or NDP candidates came knocking on our door – there was no point in bothering with our house. Those other candidates figuratively shook the dust of our house from their feet. There were plenty of other people in Guelph to go and canvass/evangelize.

I have already said that Jesus’ rejection in his home town is connected to the story of the disciples’ ‘mission trip’ to the outlying villages. The disciples had cast out many demons, and cured many sick people, so the overall result of the mission trip had been positive. Although I’m sure that the disciples had encountered some unfriendly villages, they seem to have returned in good spirits.

But there is also a link between these stories and today’s baptismal promises. We plan to keep our promises – with God’s help – but we know that we will not always succeed. However, if we think about it, we realize that the advice Jesus gave the disciples is the parallel to all sorts of ordinary proverbs. “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” “Hope for the best but prepare for the worst.” “You can’t always get what you want.” Most relevant of all – “If at first you don’t succeed, try again.” Jesus acted on this sort of ordinary advice and told his disciples to do the same.

There is no deep theology in today’s Gospel reading. It is simply a pair of stories that contain pearls of ordinary wisdom for ordinary people like ourselves. These homespun adages are time-tested advice for how to face life’s challenges. They relate to the baptismal promises that we are making on behalf of Grady today. When we mess up or things don’t go the way we hoped, we could dress this up in the theological language of our second baptismal promise, namely, “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” Or we could imagine God saying to us in ordinary language, “If at first you don’t succeed, you just have to try again.”

How do we pick our readings?

In today’s Gospel, Mark tells two of Jesus’ healing miracles, one nested within the other. The bookends, as it were, concern a synagogue leader Jairus, whose daughter was deathly ill; the meat in the sandwich is the healing of a woman who had suffered from bleeding of many years. Both stories bring out the question of faith as part of healing. The woman was so convinced that Jesus can cure her that she did not even need to speak to Jesus or have him lay hands on her personally; just to touch his clothing was enough. There’s no doubt that having a positive outcome can be helpful towards recovery from an illness or injury. People who give up hope do not seem to last long. Something that struck me when I read the passage this week was that the woman must have kept her illness secret, because bleeding would have made her ritually unclean. If people in the crowd had known about her illness, she would have been shunned and excluded from the group listening to Jesus.

I have spoken on this passage before at St. George’s, and do not have much to say that is new. So I am going to use the opportunity to talk about a question that has been asked of me many times at St. George’s. “Where do the readings come from that we use on Sundays, and why do we use them?” The short answer is that they come from the Revised Common Lectionary, which is the ongoing work of an international committee that began after the Roman Catholic Vatican II. Almost all Anglican, United, Lutheran, and Presbyterian churches in Canada also follow the RCL, as do the corresponding denominations in many other countries, so you would have heard today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel in any of the above-mentioned churches, and even in some less liturgical churches.

The Revised Common Lectionary is based on a three-year cycle, Years A, B, and C, in the course of which we read through the majority of the most important Bible stories. Every week, the following are appointed: an Old Testament reading, a psalm, a non-Gospel New Testament reading (most often from Paul’s letters), and a Gospel. The Gospel in Year A is mostly Matthew, Year B (this year) is Mark, and Year C is Luke. John’s Gospel is interspersed among the three years; this year we get a lot of John because Mark’s Gospel is shorter than Matthew or Luke.

Many churches (e.g., Grace Church Milton) use all three Bible readings and the psalm every week. At. St. George’s, we use only two plus the psalm. Between the Old Testament and the Epistle, I try to choose the more interesting one, especially because many Epistle readings do not stand well alone. Paul’s arguments were often complex, and snippets taken out of context can be very hard to understand.

There are two versions of the Old Testament readings. One tries to pick passages that complement the day’s Gospel; the Anglican Church of Canada uses the ‘semi-continuous’ version. At the moment, in Year B, we are reading from the books of Samuel, from which we hear some of the most significant stories about King David. The Epistle passages at the moment are a semi-continuous reading of Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth.

I see two arguments in favour of using the RCL. First, as implied already, regular churchgoers get a good overview of the Bible in each three-year cycle. The second argument is even more important. If the preacher chooses his or her own Scripture, the congregation will get a rehash of the preacher’s favourite texts and themes. For example, ‘Hell and Damnation’ preachers use a lot of Exodus, Leviticus, and Revelation as texts. The RCL forces me to preach on passages that I find difficult, so I have to spend time deciding how to present them. Some of them I don’t even like or agree with, but I am forced to come to grips with them. As has been said, the lectionary protects the congregation from their pastor!

The RCL is not perfect, however, especially for Sunday-only congregations, small parishes like this one. That’s because some of the readings are appointed for specific days in the church calendar that do not necessarily fall on Sundays. For example, Matthew’s account of the slaughter of the baby boys by King Herod after the Wise Men tricked him is appointed for January 11, so it only read in a parish like ours if January 11 in Year A happens to fall on a Sunday (on average, every 21 years!). You may recall that last year, I obtained permission from Bishop Michael to change the whole Gospel series of the Epiphany readings to accommodate that reading, among others.
The international committee that looks after the lectionary considers changes from time to time. At the clergy conference this year, I spoke with Peter Wall, the Dean of our Cathedral, who is involved with a local group called Liturgy Canada. One reason for using today’s homily to talk to you on this subject is that Peter encouraged me to write down my concerns, which he will forward to the English language section of the committee that prepares the RCL.

My main concern with the details (not the concept) of the RCL is that it is often unhelpful to understanding the overall “story of Jesus” presented in the Gospels. Broadly speaking, the lectionary year falls into two parts. Advent to Pentecost is a quick overview of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ parables, miracles, and teaching are studied in more detail in the period between Pentecost and the Reign of Christ at the end of November.

Most of the problems arise in the first part of the year, Advent to Pentecost. Only Luke recorded events that lead up to Christmas. Matthew and Mark have no appropriate material, and we continue with the ‘end of the age’ passages that look forward, not to Jesus’ birth, but to a Second Coming and a final Judgement Day. Worse, they are completely misleading in having John’s prediction of the coming Messiah appear in Advent: John and Jesus were contemporaries, so this prediction is 30 years too early.

Another problem arises after Christmas. Epiphany is always January 6, twelve days after Christmas, and the Baptism of Our Lord is fixed as the Sunday after Epiphany. The leaves no time for reading about either the Holy Innocents and the escape to Egypt (Matthew), or about the Presentation of Jesus to Simeon in the Temple(Luke). Worse, the Temptation of Jesus in the wilderness is deferred to the first Sunday of Lent. This makes nonsense of the story: Jesus retired to the wilderness after his baptism as a sort of post baptism retreat, not to prepare himself for his journey to Jerusalem and ultimate crucifixion.

A more minor problem comes up in August this year, when the Feeding of the Five Thousand is followed by John’s Bread of Life discourse for four straight weeks. I can’t imagine what I could say for four weeks running on the same subject! I admit it; I am going to cheat. These five weeks will begin with a passage from Mark that we would otherwise omit, then the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Luckily the Feast day of St. Mary the Virgin falls in August (though not on Sunday this year). That leaves two Sundays for the Bread of Life; I will preach one and Jan will preach the other.

In short, the RCL is an excellent system, despite my quibbles and complaints about parts of it. I am still working on my complete list of ideas to make it more congregation-friendly. Your ideas are welcome!